Issue #43

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


A Half-Built Garden

I bought this book because of an enthusiastic recommendation from Cory Doctorow on Twitter. I’ve been meaning to read Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series for some time because the books sound really interesting, but you know what my To Read pile is like. Then here was Cory and it is only one book. I had no idea…

The thing that Cory was interested in was the political set-up in the book. A Half-Built Garden is a near-future science fiction novel set in a world in which environmental campaigners have fought back against multi-national corporations and won. The corporates have retreated to a bunch of artificial islands where they continue to develop products they hope they can sell to the rest of the world. Nation states still exist, but they seem to have stepped back from the process of government. The task of healing the planet has been inherited by quasi-political organisations called Watersheds. There is one for each of the world’s major river basins.

Exactly how this works is not clear, but Judy Wallach-Stevens works as an environmental chemist monitoring water quality in the Chesapeake watershed in Virginia. One night she gets an emergency notification of some strange substances being released into the water. She and her wife, Carol, head out to investigate. There being no babysitting options available, they take baby Dori with them. That turns out to have been a momentous choice. When they reach the site of the contamination they discover that the cause is an alien spacecraft.

So yes, this is a First Contact novel. It is also an environmental SF novel because the aliens have come to rescue mankind from Earth. Their view is that planets are too small and too difficult to manage. Proper, civilized intelligent species spread out into the cosmos and live on habitats they have built by taking apart unwanted planets. Judy and Carol, on the other hand, love planetary habitats and want a chance to rebuild theirs. The resent the idea that they should be “rescued” for their own good.

So yes, this is a novel about Colonialism. The aliens view the people of Earth as, at best, part civilized, and likely to destroy themselves at any moment. This isn’t an idle view. Earth is the first planet with intelligent life that they have managed to find and get to before disaster overtakes it and the inhabitants are wiped out. Humanity, inevitably, is deeply divided about what to do. The Corporates are keen to get out there and exploit galactic markets. NASA cannot wait to get hold of the aliens’ space flight technology. And the Watersheds want a chance to prove that planets are worth saving.

Back now to politics. We know how nation states and corporations work. The Watersheds have a novel means of governance. They have created their own internet, free of government and corporate control. On it they conduct political discussion by way of what are essentially bulletin boards with sophisticated algorithms that help communities reach consensus decisions about important issues such as what to do about the aliens.

This, I suspect, is what Cory was excited about. I note also that Malka Older gets a big shout out in the acknowledgements. The intention is clearly to offer up a serious political proposition. As always with these things, I am deeply suspicious. Consensus politics sounds great in theory, but in practice provided a convenient exploit for far-left groups to take over organisations. Also any system that relies solely on mass voting on issues runs the risk of succumbing to the Tyranny of the Majority. Far right politicians in the UK are already saying that LGBT+ people should not be allowed to have civil rights if the majority of the population don’t want them to. There isn’t room in the novel for Emrys to explore these questions, but she does highlight the risk of algorithms being hacked.

This being a novel, she’s talking actual software, but we all know that the algorithms that social media companies use to police anti-social behaviour are riddled with simple exploits that far-right groups use to get their opponents banned. As I originally wrote this, Harry Turtledove had been banned from Twitter for the crime of saying “fuck off” to a troll who accused him of being anti-Semitic (Turtledove is Jewish). Harry is back now, but the incompetence of the Twitter algorithms is plain to see. There’s also the whole thing about Russian troll farms poisoning discourse on social media to destabilize Western governments.

So yes, this is a novel about modern political problems.

Where was I?

Oh yes, First Contact, aliens. It turns out that they are indeed alien. There are two separate species. Those called “plains-folk” are a sort of pangolin-centipede hybrid. In contrast the “tree-folk” are like large, ten-legged spiders. Both species think that humans have a suspicious lack of legs. The two species do have different attitudes, and that will become key later in the novel. The aliens too have internal politics to deal with.

Remember that I mentioned baby Dori back at the beginning? Well it turns out that the aliens see brining your children to a political negotiation as a sure sign of civilization and decency. After all, if you are prepared to put your kids at risk, you can hardly be planning a bloody double-cross (George Martin novels notwithstanding).

But, and it is a big but, the plains folks, one of whom commands the alien ship, are really quite obsessed with children, to the point of being rather biological-essentialist about life. This is a major problem for our heroes. Judy and Carol are part of a queer, polygamous household. Carol, the more feminine of the two, whom the alien captain assumes is Dori’s biological mother, is a trans woman.

So yes, this is a novel about gender, and not only in the way that you might think. The Watershed folks are very much a 21st Century queer community. For them, gender is all about how you feel inside. Your presentation, the role you play in society and so on are all open. Pronoun badges are a thing. So far so usual.

You might expect the Corporates to be very gender binary, but they are the absolute opposite. For them, gender is all about performance. No one except partners need ever know what your true gender is; indeed it is rude to ask. Gender changes depending on social circumstances, and on political games that you are playing within the corporation. Pronouns change with it. Everyone is expected to be able to tell what pronouns you are currently using from your presentation.

Given that the corporates are the closest that the book has to bad guys, I expect that some non-binary people will be very angry about this and will claim that the book is transphobic. I don’t see it that way. Everyone in the book has flaws, and I don’t think that Emrys is trying to make out that the way the Watersheds do gender is the only right way to do it.

As you can see, there is an awful lot in this book. It is about politics, the environment, gender, First Contact and families. I haven’t even mentioned how Judy & Carol’s religious faith becomes key to the unfolding of the plot. A Half-Built Garden is a book that is packed with ideas. It doesn’t really have space to explore them all in detail, but it will certainly leave you thinking. This is what science fiction is supposed to do.

book cover
Title: A Half-Built Garden
By: Ruthana Emrys
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Bruising of Qilwa

There has been much fun had, and even more hot air wasted, on Twitter of late about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. It all started with a speech given by Ted Chiang, in which he somewhat foolishly ventured into that territory. Ted, bless him, is one of the last people who should be making pronouncements like that. The same view of the world that allows him to obsessively craft plot-perfect short stories can also make him prone to pronouncements that lack nuance because the real world is way more horribly messy than he would like.

Anyway, Ted’s words were mangled and regurgitated in ridiculous form by Joyce Carol Oates, who is apparently a respected novelist but these days seems to spend most of her time crafting troll bait on social media. Poor Ted quickly found that the internet had fallen on his head. Or at least he would have done if he used social media, which I very much doubt that he does.

Fan and author Twitter quickly followed up to pour scorn on Oates and provide amusing takes on the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The truth of the matter, though, is that your answer to that question depends very much on your starting point. The world does no fit neatly into analytical boxes.

Naturally the discussion mentioned the fact that by some definitions Star Wars is clearly science fiction (space battles, robots), and by others fantasy (Campbellian hero’s journey, The Force). It is usually held up as an example of something that looks like science fiction but is “really” (whatever that means) fantasy. The usual example of the opposite of this (looks like fantasy but is really SF) is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. But from now on (and you were wondering where I was going with this, weren’t you?) I will be quoting The Bruising of Qilwa instead.

The Bruising of Qilwa is a novella by Naseem Jamnia. It centers on they-Firuz, a refugee from the kingdom of Dilmun who has sought sanctuary in the free city-state of Qilwa. Firuz is a member of the Sassanian minority ethnic group in Dilmun who are currently facing persecution because some of their number are believed to practice blood magic. Of course, magical talent is something you are born with, not something that you choose, and Firuz has that talent.

There are three main schools of magic in the world of the book. Environmental magic works by balancing humours in a way that would be familiar to a Roman doctor. Structuralist magic uses a sophisticated system of runes that might have appealed to John Dee. But blood magic works by forging a connection between the mage and the subject, through the subject’s blood. As you can imagine, it can be put to terrible purposes, hence the pogrom, but it is also a very powerful tool for healing.

It so happens that Qilwa is currently suffering from a plague. Firuz has taken their family to the free city in the hope that they can get a job as a healer. They have studied Structuralism as a cover so that they look to be doing less controversial magic. It is a good plan. Firuz quickly gets a job with a clinic run by an irascible doctor called Kofi, and together they work on combatting the plague. Firuz becomes a trusted member of society, and the plague is slowly overcome.

However, Firuz begins to notice a new type of sickness afflicting the city. It is a sickness that appears to be being caused by an incompetent, untrained practitioner of blood magic. This could cause serious trouble for Firuz and their family.

This is where the science fiction comes in. As a doctor, Firuz has to spend quite a lot of effort studying this new disease. It is connected to the victim’s blood, perhaps spread by it. It involves extreme fatigue and the mysterious bruising of the title. Eventually Firuz works out that it is a disease of the body’s own defences. What we call the auto-immune system. To put it simply, the people of Qilwa are contracting AIDS.

The explanation might be “blood magic”, but the way in which Firuz tracks down the nature of the illness is pure science fiction. There are references to “physicking science” scattered through the book and at one point we get:

“But Firuz did believe in the science that was magic, and that would have to be enough.”

It is beautifully done. Even the explanation for the origin of the sickness works well as science fiction. And yet I guarantee that the book will be seen as fantasy.

Along the way, the prose is lovely, and there is some great gender content that I haven’t remarked upon because it is seamlessly worked into the worldbuilding as something entirely normal. Talking of the worldbuilding, there is enough in this book to fuel an entire trilogy of novels. I do hope we get more stories set in this world. Or indeed anything by Naseem Jamnia who is clearly a new talent to watch.

book cover
Title: The Bruising of Qilwa
By: Naseem Jamnia
Publisher: Tachyon
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

Sometimes when you read a book you have a very good idea what it will be about. How can there not be spoilers for a book called The Daughter of Doctor Moreau? Especially if you have read Theodora Goss’s wonderful Athena Club books. And this is a novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, so there’s a good chance it will be set in Mexico. The cover suggests that. What more do you need to know? And, perhaps just as importantly, what is there for the author to do?

In Moreno-Garcia’s version of the Moreau story, he does not live on an island in the Pacific. Instead he lives on a remote hacienda on the Yucatán Peninsula. The Spanish colonists are trying hard to extract every last peso from their land, and that means working the native Maya hard on plantations. Slavery has been abolished, but there are many ways in which a wealthy man can bind the poor to his service. Even an educated European such as Moreau is at risk.

Having been disowned by his family because of his experiments, Moreau has fled to Mexico and fallen in with a landowner called Hernando Lizalde. In order to finance his work, Moreau has convinced Lizalde that his human-animal hybrids will provide a better workforce than the Maya. They will have the strength and stamina of animals and, not being human, can be enslaved with impunity. Lizalde has given him Yaxatkun at which to work.

Things are not going according to plan. The hybrids are not as healthy as Moreau had promised. Lizalde is getting impatient. Maya insurrectionists are hiding in the forests and raiding the haciendas, probably with the support of the detestable English who are always poking their noses in where they are not wanted.

But the English too can fall on hard times. Moreau is in need of a new mayordomo for the hacienda. Montgomery Laughton is down on his luck, having first fled England to get away from his family, and then fled marriage to a beautiful wife whose demands for luxury far outstripped his ability to deliver. He has found refuge in the jungle, and in the bottle. Moreau needs someone who will not ask awkward questions about the strange inhabitants of Yaxaktun.

This, then, is our happy family: Dr. Moreau, a mad genius; Montgomery Laughton, an English alcoholic; sundry strange creatures neither human nor animal; and Carlota.

Oh yes, the Daughter of the title. She is, by all accounts, a beauty, and very nearly of an age to be introduced to Society. Apparently she was a sickly child, but thanks to Moreau’s medical skill she is now blooming. All she needs is a regular concoction made from the blood of the jaguar, for which Laughton is employed as a hunter.

Time passes, and a party arrives at Yaxaktun. It is led by Lizalde’s son, Eduardo, and his cousin, Isidro. The former is handsome, reckless, arrogant, and very much a man for the ladies. The latter has the mind of a priest, though his family has forbidden him to take the cloth. They have come against Hernando’s express wishes, intrigued by the mystery hacienda in the jungle. We know how this will turn out.

Moreno-Garcia is good at this. Her books, though undeniably strange, attract a mainstream audience. Which is just as well, because at this point all mystery has evaporated. As science fiction readers we know exactly what to expect. I rather whizzed through part 2 of the book because everything was so well set up that I could have written it myself, albeit with far less panache.

The question then becomes one of what will befall Carlota and the hybrids now that all has been revealed. That, I am pleased to say, Moreno-Garcia handles very well. She hasn’t set out to re-write the HG Wells book. Instead she has used the story as a vehicle to make points about how young women were treated in the 19th Century, and what was going on in Mexico at the time. In particular the book is an excellent reminder of the evils of Patriarchy, in its pure sense of the father being lord of all he surveys, and the heir expecting to come into that power.

Also, jaguar. Four paws up.

book cover
Title: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Chicon 8 – The 80th Worldcon

I was, of course, unable to attend this year’s Worldcon in person. I am still barred from entering the USA, and that is likely to continue unless I have a big enough lottery win to buy my way in. I did have a virtual attending membership, and was planning to make good use of that. However, as it turned out, I saw very little of the convention.

Part of that was down to Airmeet, the chosen virtual conference platform of Chicon 8. It seems a little ropey in places. In particular it seems very poor at dealing with background noise. I found that a major issue with both the streamed and virtual panels that I tried to watch. Sadly the program participants didn’t always help. If you are going to be on panel you really should log in from a desktop computer with a good internet connection and A/V set-up. I appreciate that in some countries good internet isn’t easy to get hold of, but we still had plenty of people apparently joining from the USA who had their faces pressed up against their phones in a location with loads of background noise. I’m told that one person was on a road trip during the con and tried to join a panel by phone from a gas station.

We also had panelists complaining that they didn’t know how to use the technology. I appreciate that with something as large at Worldcon it is difficult to make sure that all panelists are up to speed. We have to rely on professional behavior by panelists, and we are not getting it.

Similar issues affect streamed panels. One I tried to watch had the panelists making no attempt to use the microphones. As long as the in-person audience could hear they, they didn’t care.

When you get issues like this at a virtual convention, the temptation to do something else instead is very strong. I had books I could be reading, TV I could be watching, and so on. Consequently I saw very little program.

We still haven’t solved the problem of how to do a virtual dealers’ room. We know how to do a virtual art show, but Chicon did not do it.

Airmeet did provide a social space with tables that people could stop by at to chat. The Glasgow bid seemed to make good use of theirs. But it seemed like only a small fraction of the people logged in to Airmeet were using the lounge.

Some kaffeklatsches were also run through Airmeet. I ended up having a long chat to Lyda Morehouse at one. It was just the two of us. Other people had booked up to be there, but didn’t turn up. That may have been down to Airmeet which was supposed to be sending out links and does not seem to have done so.

I did get up in the middle of the night to watch the Hugo ceremony, mainly because Kevin wasn’t going to be able to update the official Hugo Awards website immediately after the ceremony. We have given up doing the text-based coverage because the streaming is generally very good, and that means that none of us is online at the ceremony.

The event seemed to go off fairly well, albeit with a couple of unfortunate mix-ups. Not reading out Marguerite Kenner’s name was a genuine mistake for which Charlie Jane and Annalee have, I believe, apologised. The thing with Strange Horizons was a mess. As I understand it, Charlie Jane and Annalee spoke to Strange Horizons beforehand and were given permission to not read all of the names. However, this doesn’t seem to have been communicated to everyone whose name was listed. Nor does it excuse the audience laughing.

As to the reading of finalists, I spotted several clues that suggested what was written on the envelopes was not the same as what was being displayed on the screens. That’s down to the ceremony director to get right.

People won Hugos. Yay! Not everyone I wanted to win did, but I’m broadly very happy with the results.

That brings us to the Business Meeting. There were a lot of new motions about the Hugos. Most of them seemed very poorly conceived, and got thrown out. The Games Hugo one got through, as did the one abolishing the 25% rule. Both go on to Chengdu for ratification. For those not up with the discourse, the 25% rule means that No Award applies to any category that, in the final ballot, is voted on by less than 25% of the total number of voters. With the Hugos becoming more popular, and having greater diversity of categories, that doesn’t work. I doubt that I’ll ever vote in the Games category as I don’t play video games, but I don’t want my non-participation to put the category at risk.

The E Pluribus Hugo anti-slate system was made permanent. I still don’t like it, and there is some suggestion that it unreasonably favours the celebrity outsider finalist in fan categories. When you get someone like that (hi Seanan) the fan category in question suddenly gets a lot of extra votes from people who don’t know anyone else in the category and only vote for the celebrity in question, which makes everyone else look like they are slate-voting. More on this shortly, but as far as EPH goes I fear we are stuck with it, at least until all memory of the Puppy War has faded.

Meanwhile, back with Seanan. One of the Hugo-related motions that got slung out was a hardline one that tried to ban anyone who made money from the field from the fan categories. That really doesn’t work. It would have eliminated the concept of the semiprozine. It would also have banned me from the fan categories because I own a publishing company, even though it barely makes a profit and I don’t take a salary.

Ironically that idea suddenly became very popular after the Hugo ceremony. I still maintain that there is no simple and fair way to exclude professionals and their influence from the fan categories. This year was a good example. Even if you think Small Gods should have been excluded from Fanzine, do you also think that Lee Moyer should have been excluded from Fan Artist? If not, what is the difference, and if so, where does such a rule stop? The folks at The Hugo Book Club have written a longer post about the history of the fan/pro controversy. Like them, I believe the only solution is to rely on the good behavior of celebrities. There will always be one or two who decide to try to get a Hugo that way, but as long as they go away after getting one the categories will survive.

Another major piece of controversy erupting from this year’s Business Meeting involves the separation of WSFS Membership from Attending Membership. This is part of the necessary move to make it clear that people are joining WSFS when they join a Worldcon, and that this has data privacy implications beyond that one convention.

The move is unpopular with two groups within fandom. The “No WSFS Inc” crowd hates it because it gives WSFS more visibility as an organization. And the people whose hobby is running Worldcons also hate it because they want to remove WSFS from Worldcon altogether. I am already seeing people complaining that they are being ripped off because they are forced to join WSFS when they only want to attend Worldcon, and that is absolutely a result of the way the change is being explained to fans by Worldcons. That’s a very hard Paddington Stare for you, Glasgow.

Personally I don’t see why anyone attending Worldcon should have to buy a WSFS membership. I know that’s anathema to the, “it’s a membership, not a ticket” crowd, but that fight has been long since lost. With an event as large as Worldcon, the majority of attendees do see it only as a ticketed event.

There is a downside to this. In some countries (hello Canada) a conference of members is treated very differently for tax purposes than a ticketed entertainment event. We certainly need to bear that in mind and work around it. However, I see no reason why Worldcon attendees should be required to be WSFS members, and indeed Chengdu appears to be following exactly that policy. Here are some benefits of it.

Firstly, only WSFS members should be allowed to vote in the Hugos and in Site Selection. People who don’t care about either can opt out by not joining WSFS. So there should be no more complaining about having to pay for something you don’t want. Also we’d get away from the nonsense about there being 6000 people eligible to vote in the Hugos but only 1500 did and isn’t that terrible!!! We’d get a much better turnout of eligible voters if WSFS membership was optional.

Only WSFS members need have their personal data passed on to subsequent Worldcons. This would allow Worldcons to sell attendance tickets to people without all of the GDPR complications.

I would restrict program participation largely to WSFS members. Worldcons could invite guests as well, but if you want to be part of the show you ought to join the club.

I’d give WSFS members priority in booking into kaffeklatches, workshops and so on. That can easily be controlled through the website pre-con.

Giving members priority for at-con stuff would be harder, because you’d have to police access. But Worldcons have long complained about the need to have a venue big enough for the Hugos and giving priority access to WSFS members could help with that.

Of course the big access issue would be the Business Meeting. Inevitably someone would try to fake WSFS membership to get in and vote, and then crow about how all of the votes taken were invalid. But having to deal with such issues would encourage people to think seriously about doing away with the Town Hall Meeting model for WSFS governance and moving towards something that works better for a big organization in the modern world.

On that subject, Kevin has a post on File 770 talking about possible future systems of governance for WSFS. Naturally SMOFdom is convinced that any change will be a disaster, but they will come around eventually. Remember Cheryl’s Second Law of Fandom:

One data point indicates a dangerous trend that must be resisted; two data points indicate a sacred and holy tradition that must be preserved.

If you want complete run down of what happened at the BM, Kevin has written one.

And the good news is that we’ll have a NASFiC in Winnipeg in 2023, and a Worldcon in Glasgow in 2024, so that’s two conventions I should be able to attend.

Chicon’s COVID tracking service reported 60 cases out of a total of 3574 people on site. That’s not bad. Certainly a lot better than Eastercon.

There were other threats to life at the convention. Two attendees – Patrick Tomlinson and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki – were the target of actual death threats sent to the convention. Tomlinson has long been a target of right wing trolls, while Ekpeki is the first African-resident writer to gain prominence in the Hugos.

While these threats were probably fake, they are something that the convention needs to take seriously. Potentially more annoying from the point of view of wasting resources is the new fashion for sending spoofed emails purportedly from the targets of the trolls. Convention staff receive emails which appear to be from convention members which are abusive, or contain violent threats, but which are actually from trolls trying to discredit the supposed sender of the emails.

The point about this sort of attack is that it is very cheap. Once you know how to spoof an email, you can easily cause a lot of trouble for your target. Worldcon, being very high profile, is liable to be an increasing target of such attacks, but other conventions could easily be targeted and staff need to know that this is a possibility. Given that police forces continually fall for SWATing attacks, especially when the target is a person from a minority group, it would not surprise me to see a convention fall for one of these sometime soon.

At times I am amazed that anyone wants to run cons these days, let alone run a Worldcon.

Queering SF

This is a new publication from Aqueduct Press. The author, Ritch Calvin, is a lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University in New York. The book is a collection of short essays on various works of queer SF. There are 36 essays in all, covering a range of works from the 1930s to fairly recent material such as Dirty Computer and FINNA. They may be lecture notes, though 36 is a lot of lectures to have in one course.

The good thing about Queering SF is that it provides a great overview of several decades of queer SF. It makes it clear that the likes of Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Tanith Lee and Raphael Carter were producing interesting works in times when, if Twitter is to be believed, no queer SF was allowed to be published.

The downside of any such project is that it is impossible to treat any of the works covered in any depth. The paperback is 218 pages, so by the time we have allowed space for an introduction, contents, bibliography and so on we have little more than 5 pages per essay. Given the level of nuance necessary in much queer SF, that’s a problem.

When I get a book like this, the first thing that I do is zero in on the sections about works I am familiar with. If they are good, I know I can have confidence in the rest of the content. First up was the section on The Female Man, where Calvin seems unaware of the burgeoning new movement of anti-trans feminism that was growing when the book came out, and which uses some of the same themes as the book. Calvin also cites me, but doesn’t seem to understand the points I was making.

The section on Sense8, which Calvin seems to have strongly disliked, is unaware of the metaphor about trans heathcare that is built into the plot. The section on Dirty Computer is unaware of Janelle Monáe’s use of imagery from Monica Sjöö’s art in the video for “Pynk”. On the other hand, the section on FINNA taught me a bit about how the Swedish language was used in the book.

I wondered initially whether Calvin simply didn’t know much about trans issues, but his treatment of FINNA is fine and his essay on Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” is caring and insightful. Calvin notes at the end, “[Trans people] do not have the luxury to write whatever they like without its reflecting upon the entire community.” This is very true.

So I think the verdict on Queering SF is that a project like this takes an enormous amount of effort to do as well as I would like, and that level of effort is probably more than any sane working academic is likely to put in. As an introduction to the field, however, it is excellent. There are lots of essays about books that I did not know about. As for its use in lectures, there is a lot for students to think about, and if you were to use these essays as a starting point there would be a lot for them to follow up on.

book cover
Title: Queering SF
By: Ritch Calvin
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Night’s Master

This is a very old book. It was first published in 1978. Tanith Lee is someone whom lots of people have told me I should read (most insistently, Liz Williams), but you know the saying: so many books, so little time.

However, I am currently writing an essay about queer gods in fantasy for the next Academia Lunare book. I put out a request to the hive mind on Twitter for recommendations. There was enthusiastic backing for Night’s Master by Tanith Lee, so I bought a copy.

I have known for some time that, if you ask the Internet for recommendations for good trans representation in books, you will get a whole bunch of cis people recommending books that are dubious at best, and often examples of really bad trans rep. Apparently the same applies to requests for good queer representation. Because straight people often think that being queer is bad, they will recommend books in which the only queer characters are terrible people.

Sigh.

That isn’t entirely fair to Night’s Master, because like most things it is complicated. The book, which was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, is a linked collection of tales about a character called Azhrarn who is Prince of Demons, Lord of Darkness, and all round chief of the forces of evil. Being a demon, he is bisexual. He is not entirely a bad person. Sometimes he is the bringer of justice to some really awful people. But sometimes he capriciously kills off someone whose only crime was foolishly asking him for a small boon when he’s in a bad mood. He does enjoy causing suffering, and he is especially cruel to anyone he thinks has slighted him.

It is also worth noting that there are no gods in the world of the book. There is no Good to balance the Evil of the demons, who are simply part of the natural world. Demons are as demons do, and it is by no means clear that Lee intended us to see Azhrarn as a villain. However, as queer rep goes, we can, and should, do better.

Mention of the world of the book brings me to something else notable about Night’s Master. It is book one in a series called Tales from the Flat Earth. Long before the world was a disc carried on the back of four elephants and a giant turtle, there was Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth. Above the plane lives mankind, and below it live the various species of demons. I have no idea where Terry Pratchett got the idea from, but I suspect that he was aware of Tanith Lee’s work.

The most important thing about Night’s Master, however, is that the prose is glorious. Lee has got the style of traditional fantasy down pat. The way the stories are structured and told, they could almost be part of the Arabian Nights. Each new story follows on in some way from the previous one, and inevitably the final story wraps back to the start. I was impressed. I should have been reading Tanith Lee, and so should you.

book cover
Title: Night's Master
By: Tanith Lee
Publisher: DAW
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Sandman – Season 1

It is entirely impossible for me to be in any way objective about this series. There is a variety of reasons for this, including, of course, that there is no such thing as an objective review.

To start with, Neil Gaiman and I have been friends for almost four decades. That’s a big chunk out of anyone’s life. We did briefly lose touch when he went to America to write comics and I went to Australia to become me. But it was a story in Sandman that gave me the confidence to make contact again when Neil was due to be a Guest of Honour at Swancon in Perth one year. A Game of You comes in for a lot of flak these days (of which more later), but it was obvious to me reading it that Neil understood the problems that trans people face in life, and was on our side.

That, however, is not all. The staff writers on the show include on Catherine S. McMullen. She was also the lead writer on episode #11, which collected “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “Calliope”. Catherine’s father is the Australian author, Sean McMullen. He and I have been friends for around 25 years and I will be publishing one of his books later this year. I have known Catherine since she was 9 years old, and it was obvious even then that she was destined for stardom in one field or another. It was only a matter of which mountain she decided to conquer. As it turned out, she has become a successful screenwriter with an International Emmy to her name. I am so very proud of her.

So The Sandman is, to me, very personal. And that is despite the fact that I am not a big fan of horror.

Having said all that, I am very pleased with the way things have turned out. Some of the casting has been brilliant. I particularly enjoyed Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death, Mason Alexander Park as Desire, Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Stephen Fry as Fiddler’s Green, all of whom seemed born to the roles. Lots of other people have done great jobs too.

More importantly, I am impressed with what has been done with the scripts. The Sandman comics were never going to be easy to adapt to the screen, because of the very nature of comics. When Neil first started writing them he had to earn the trust of his editors at DC, and one way to do that was to link the series into the existing DC universe. The TV version has no trace of characters such as John Jonzz who made guest appearances in early issues of the comic (though I would not have been averse to seeing David Harewood in the role, especially if the rest of the Supergirl crew came along too).

Another issue with comics is that the schedule is punishing, for both author and artist. Consequently we have filler issues which have been prepared in advance to keep the schedule going if one or the other can’t deliver on time. “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is one such filler, but it is also many people’s favourite Sandman story. A lot of people assumed that we would not see it on screen because it was a filler, not part of the main story arc.

When thinking about Hollywood scripts my mind always goes back to the scene in The Matrix Resurrections where the script committee is working on the new version of the game. Lana Wachowski was having a very pointed dig at (amongst other things) the way that creativity gets sidelined in favour of demands from marketing to cater to various different segments of the audience. You can tell when a film or TV series has been written by a committee (hello Rings of Power). The Sandman still feels like it has a creative vision. Achieving that will not have been easy, and it required Neil to have a lot of control over the final product.

Had the TV series been done by anyone else, the script team would have thrown away most of the comics and written a new story, featuring the main characters, that had a simple and consistent story arc. Neil chose not to do that, but instead to re-worked the comic scripts to make a simpler story, and to put out some of the filler issues as a bonus episode (hence #11). It was a brave thing to do, and some reviews have complained that the narrative is a bit of a mess as a result, but it has kept faith with the original fans of the series.

The other thing Neil has done is take the opportunity to update parts of the story for a modern audience. A lot has changed since 1988 when the first issue was published (with a cover date of January 1989). Much hot air has been generated over the gender swaps and people of colour used in the cast, but at least as much hot air, possibly a lot more, would have been generated had Neil stuck to the original characters. Just as importantly, I’m sure he is pleased with what has been done, because people grow and learn with time.

Not that this has prevented people from complaining that the TV series is bi-phobic and racist, but that’s the Internet for you.

Talking of which, Morpheus has a story arc. He is a bit of a bastard when he first escapes from captivity, but he grows and learns too. I’m a bit disappointed with the people who expected him to be a hero from the get go.

Constantine is a bastard too. The constant tussle between being utterly selfish and having a good heart is the charm of the character.

All of which brings us to the question of A Game of You. As of now, we do not know if Netflix will be renewing the series for a second season. Season 1 has been a huge success in comparison to almost everything else Netflix has done, but it was also very expensive, and the company accountants were expecting a lot of revenue to balance that. Personally I think it would be foolish of them to cancel such a much-loved series, but I’m not a bean counter at heart.

Assuming we do get a second season, there is the question of what will be in it. Season 1 is mostly taken from Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, plus the first half of Dream Country. We can therefore reasonably expect Season 2 to include the rest of Dream Country, Season of Mists, and A Game of You. We have already met Will Shakespeare, who features in Dream Country; Nada, who has a major role in Season of Mists; plus Barbie and Martin Tenbones from A Game of You.

Given how material in Season 1 was updated for a modern audience, I am expecting Neil to make some changes to A Game of You to make his support for the trans community more clear. One of the things that annoyed him about the original comic was that the artist who first drew Wanda (Shawn McManus) portrayed her as very mannish, as opposed to the more glamourous character that Neil had requested. As is the way of things, Neil got the blame for this.

For the audio version of the stories, Neil gave the role of Wanda to Reece Lyons who is a well-known trans actress. It is possible that she’ll get the TV job, but I suspect that Jamie Clayton and Nicole Maines would both love to get it too. Or we could end up with someone new. Regardless, I am looking forward to seeing what is done with the story, and hopefully that will put an end to Roz Kaveney and I having to constantly defend Neil against accusations of transphobia.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To French Science-Fiction

[This is a guest article by French author, Jean-Claude Dunyach. It is a revision of an aritcle he first wrote in 2004. The formatting has been as submitted as French styling is somewhat different to Anglo-American. – Cheryl]

French SF has a glorious past (remember Jules Verne?) and, hopefully, a bright future. But the present situation is a little more complicated and difficult to decode. Especially when you try to evaluate it on the same scale than US SF — or Anglo-American SF. The definition of the word SF is not exactly the same on both sides of the Atlantic. It is often confused with Sci-Fi in the US (‘Star Trek’ juvenile, lite fantasy series or shared universes to name a few commercial examples) while most French authors claim that it is ‘literature at its best’. Disney versus ‘The Louvre’ if you catch my meaning. Of course, both formulations are too narrow to be entirely true but they’re not entirely false, either. Let’s see why.

1) The Cultural Background

First, one has to understand that France — and most of Europe, in fact — has a distinct cultural background and that SF does not play the same role as in the English-speaking world. French TV, for example, is not really interested in SF. French mini-series are often based on novels from the 18th or 19th century (not as boring as you might think but rather short on special effects and light sabres — and Depardieu often plays one of the main parts). Famous TV series like ‘Star Trek’, ‘Babylon 5’, ‘Millenium’ or ‘Doctor Who’ are almost ignored in France, except by the usual nerd fanbase (I’m one of them). ‘The X-Files’ was a huge success although we are one year behind the US, which means that several details from ‘The X-Files – The Movie’ were not comprehensible to most of us at the time.

Neither do we have the equivalent of comics books. No Batman, X-Men or Spider-Man. No shared universes where Judge Dredd meets the Punisher to fight against the villains. No Marvel Universe, even if French Superheroes existed before World War II… No equivalent of Sandman — which is bad. But we have tons of SF ‘bandes dessinées’, with plenty of famous artists from Druillet, Moebius to Caza, Bilal, Bourgeon or Mézières (who worked with Besson and who inspired many US series like ‘Babylon 5’) and lots of brilliant newcomers. Scenarios are often elaborate and quite complex and they are considered as acceptable cultural objects. But an album of ‘bandes dessinées’ is often priced over $20 US. Parents can buy it. Not kids.

Japanese Mangas, however, changed the situation since they were affordable and fun. So, there is a real manga subculture here – and of course the various Marvel/DC films are very popular among millennials. So did Star Wars in my youth. But, if you’re a famous French filmmaker who wants to shoot a SF movie (Luc Besson, for example, or Jeunet), you’re almost forced to work with Hollywood. It seems that there’s no money available for SF projects in the French cinema, even if the situation may change in the near future.

So, what we call SF in France is mainly ‘written SF’ with a distinct flavour of graphic covers. The cultural gap between French SF books and the visual equivalent coming from the other side of the Atlantic is quite large.

2) A Brief Journey in History

French Science-Fiction was almost killed by the 1st World War. It did not emerge as a movement until the late fifties. A few Anticipation books were published in the meantime but without any SF label on it — take for example ‘The Imprudent Traveller’ (1943) by René Barjavel.

During the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, several important authors from the USA or Great Britain began being published regularly in France. Many different imprints – from deluxe hardcovers to paperbacks – were mostly devoted to foreign SF. In parallel, a popular imprint entitled Fleuve Noir Anticipation specialized in short novels – the French equivalent of pulps – from local authors. At that time, the public regarded French authors as only pale copies of their Anglo-American competitors. And SF as a whole was labelled as “sub-par literature”. However, in 1961, the novel ‘Sylva’ by Vercors (Jean Marcel Bruller) became the only non-English-language novel ever to be a finalist for the Hugo.

This situation improved a little in the mid-seventies when a few French authors – Michel Jeury, Philippe Curval, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Pierre Pelot – were published by famous imprints like ‘Ailleurs & Demain’ (‘Elsewhere & Tomorrow’). These books were not only excellent in the traditional Anglo-Saxon SF sense, they were different. Inspired by literary experiments like the ‘Nouveau Roman’, they could be regarded as the French equivalent of the British ‘New Wave’.

In the meantime, a younger generation of angry young men was using Science-Fiction as a means of questioning French society as they perceived it. They wished to use SF as a political medium. One of the imprints created at that time was called ‘Ici & Maintenant’ (‘Here & Now’), in answer to the well-established ‘Ailleurs & Demain’. It is interesting to note that good authors like Jeury, Andrevon or Curval were published by both imprints.

Unfortunately, even though the messages expressed by this ‘French political SF’ were interesting, too many books – or short stories – from that period were considered by the public as poorly written. In reaction, a brief but intense neo-formalist movement called ‘Limite’ emerged in the beginning of the eighties, featuring new authors like Emmanuel Jouanne, Francis Berthelot and Antoine Volodine. They considered Science-Fiction as a medium for literary experimentation and adopted a post-modern attitude. Several novels and short stories were published independently by the authors but their first common anthology was also the last…

It has to be noted that French Science-Fiction was not really interested in space even if a few ‘westerns in space’ were published regularly. The ‘space opera’ genre was mostly something associated with Anglo-Saxon SF.

At that time – the mid-eighties – many new authors appeared and French SF boasted more than forty professional writers. An old monthly magazine – ‘Fiction’, launched in 1953 – published one or more short stories by French authors in every issue, with eight to ten ‘new authors’ every year discovered by its editor Alain Dorémieux. Regular anthologies were open to French stories and a special one-shot anthology entitled ‘Futurs au Présent’ was entirely devoted to new, not-yet-professional, authors. ‘Futurs au Présent’ introduced Serge Brussolo and Jean-Marc Ligny – two major French SF authors – and was followed by ‘Superfuturs’, a few years later. In the meantime, the Editions Fleuve Noir was publishing nearly sixty French books each year. Young authors were slowly replacing their elders.

But, unhappily, the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties were characterized by a major editorial crisis.

At that time, ‘Fiction’, our monthly professional1 magazine, disappeared, along with the annual anthology ‘Univers’. Many SF publishers cut back their activities and most of them stopped publishing new French authors. The only major exception was Fleuve Noir Anticipation – but they only put out thirty French SF books a year while making several unsuccessful attempts at publishing ‘Star Trek’ novels or lite fantasy series. Fleuve Noir introduced almost all the new authors of the early nineties like Ayerdhal and Serge Lehman – not to mention the Belgian Alain le Bussy, the Swiss Wildy Petoud and the Canadian Jean-Louis Trudel. The only exception was Pierre Bordage, a brilliant novelist who was discovered by a regional press and climbed his way to fame in a year or so!

The situation remained more or less the same until 1995, when three SF magazines were launched almost simultaneously. The first one was ‘CyberDreams’, which wanted to be the French equivalent of ‘Interzone’. It played a major role in revealing the new generation of British authors and in publishing several French stories.

CyberDreams was soon followed by ‘Bifrost’ and ‘Galaxies’, which came out the same month and opened some space to new authors. Each magazine (except CyberDreams which folded after a handful of issues) published more than 80 issues or so, as of today.

In the meantime, two French short story anthologies edited by famous French authors were released: ‘Genèses’, in 1996, edited by Ayerdhal, with the major French Publisher J’ai lu, and ‘Escales sur l’Horizon’ edited by Serge Lehman in 1998 (it was followed by ‘Escales 2000’, which I was in charge of, and ‘Escales 2001’ has been released in 2001. Another collection edited by Serge Lehman “Retour sous l’Horizon” was issued in 2009).

‘Escales sur l’Horizon’ was a huge book made up of 16 short stories and novellas from sixteen French and Canadian authors. It also contained a very important preface by Serge Lehman, which might be considered as the ‘French SF Manifesto’ for the end of the century. These two collections were well received by the public – both won prizes – and the press referred to us as the new ‘French SF wonderboys’. Don’t laugh!

In fact, even if the situation was growing better at the time – each major French publisher was creating or revamping its own Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Gothic line and the public seemed to be interested in what the future would look like2 – the only way for French SF to survive was to cross the borders and to find readers outside Europe.

And then, we went back to space — where it all started.

A good example of authors in that trend is Laurent Genefort. He is one of our wunderkind (at that time he was thirty with almost as many books behind him) and he is famous for his creation of alien environments and strange planets. He wrote a series of independent novels that take place in the galaxy, but a galaxy that has been once populated by a very ancient race called the ‘Vangk’. The Vangk disappeared but left behind a fantastic collection of artefacts — from doors that allows to travel between distant stars to an entire territory, Omale, shaped like a Dyson sphere where humans as well as other creatures have been transferred en masse for some kind of experiment (there are four books and a handful of short stories set in Omale). This is something that you can find also in books from other Europeans — Alastair Reynolds with ‘Revelation space’ come to mind or Juan Miguel Aguilera.

But, even if many French authors are well aware of the cultural icons and trends of Anglo-American Science Fiction, our books have a distinct flavour. You should try our wine, too…

3) Typical French Themes: Art, Flesh and Irony.

It is somewhat difficult to point out the specificity of French SF – assuming that it is specific, which I believe. Surrealism was probably a major influence in the eighties, as well as the ‘Nouveau Roman’ and other literary experiments, but this concerns mainly the way we write our stories, not their subjects. And, here in Europe, Surrealism is so ‘air du temps’ — part of the background — that it is hard not to be influenced by it.

I think that the two main specific themes in French SF from the end of the seventies until the end of the nineties were artists and museums of the future – one of the latest collections of young French authors at the end of the century also explored that theme – and the relationship with the body – flesh considered as an experimental territory.

Art in the future was a central theme in the eighties and it is making a serious comeback. It is interesting to note that the so-called art defined in the future is either a terrorist way to change society – art as a means to move the masses and to control them – or the ultimate expression of freedom versus totalitarian states. In the collection ‘Musées, Des Mondes Énigmatiques” (‘Museums, Enigmatic Worlds’), most stories describe fugitives from the outside world seeking refuge in a museum. Some of them are trapped and destroyed, some find help from other refugees. Almost no character is interested in art for art’s sake. As a possible metaphor of actual French SF, this is quite frightening.

As for the ‘experimental territory of the flesh’, the theme is probably linked to Surrealism – Dali, for one, is famous for his statue of the Venus de Milo with drawers. Since Science-Fiction is often considered as a literature of metamorphosis, toying with the idea of artistically rebuilding your body is a natural trend! One must notice that this body-rebuilding is quite often done for artistic reasons and without the use of biotechnologies or scientific gizmos.

I must add that most French SF writers are usually neither scientists – I’m one of the few exceptions – nor particularly interested by science (at least hard science). However, French SF often has a sociological dimension. Many books published since the last twenty years are focused on new ways to build a society, or rebellion again the “old world” ways of doing things. In that respect, one of the most successful writers of today is Alain Damasio, who only published half a dozen of books in fifteen years but each of them was a major success.

And, just for the fun, I would like to mention a recent French SF anthology (2014) whose subject was “Describe a society in 2074 where luxury plays a major role”. The corresponding eBook in various languages – including English – can be downloaded freely from the major eBook stores (including the one starting with an A).

4) A few personal trajectories

With the exception of the well-identified literary movements mentioned above, whose impact was limited, French SF is composed mainly of individualists whose trajectories are quite different.

Serge Brussolo appeared in the early eighties and started producing four to five novels every year in a very surrealistic style. He became quite popular and diversified to historical novels and thrillers, using various pseudonyms. In his books, you find albinos cats sold with a set of washable colours so you can paint them the way you want, oceans replaced by hundreds of millions of dwarves that live in the mud, hands up and carry boats in exchange for food. Of course, every now and then, they reproduce and you get a tidal wave of dwarves who want to conquer new territories. But the coast guards have machine guns…

As for the nineties, let’s mention:

Ayerdhal – a pseudonym – is most famous for his political space operas with complex intrigues and interesting feminine characters – his death in 2015 was a shock. Serge Lehman, a stylist with a remarkable sense of wonder, started his epic ‘History of The Future’ in the early nineties and has become one of the most important writers of essays on the genre. Pierre Bordage is our sweeping sagas specialist and a best-seller since his first trilogy – he is really a must-read. Richard Canal, who lives in Africa, was trying to merge mainstream and SF in a future dominated by African-like societies (he is a precursor of Afrofuturism and he is making a comeback after nearly fifteen years of silence). Roland C. Wagner, who appeared early in the eighties, find his inspiration in rock’n roll and humorous descriptions of extra-terrestrial societies – he won most of the French SF Prizes in 1999 and again in 2011. His latest huge book – a uchrony settled during an alternative Algerian independence war, in the sixties, is a masterpiece. He died unexpectedly in a car accident in 2012 and his loss is deeply regretted by all.

And a new generation of authors merging SF, Fantasy, Steampunk is now firmly installed: Sabrina Calvo – whose books are somewhere between Peter Pan and the lunatic fringe –, Fabrice Colin, Laurent Kloetzer, Xavier Mauméjean, Catherine Dufour (who won in 2006 all the major French SF Prizes for her novel “Le Goût de l’Immortalité” – “The Taste of Immortality”) and many, many others. In 2008, a serious novelist, Norbert Merjagnan, came out of nowhere with a first novel widely acclaimed (“Les Tours de Samarante”). In 2013, the editions l’Atalante published a very large novel in three sections (“Le Melkine”, from Olivier Paquet), one of the most remarkable space operas I’ve read in years. There’s hope for the future, I would say.

An important trend to notice is the massive emergence of female authors. Until the end of the 90’s, French SF authors were mostly male, even if Joelle Wintrebert, Sylvie Denis and Sylvie Lainé (the best short-stories writer of the genre in my opinion) were crucial contributors to the genre. But since more than 10 years, the best YA books are equally shared between both genders and many new female authors are taking over the genre. Emilie Querbalec, Estelle Faye, Claire Duvivier or Floriane Soulas, to name a few, were nominated or won many of the recent major French SF literary prizes.

5) Judge us by our covers…

I mentioned earlier the crucial importance of illustrations and art in our work – surrealism was of course a major trend but one can also insists on the influence of “fantastic hyperrealism” (Wojtek Siudmak being the central figure of this movement) and of “Bande Dessinée”. Many famous artists did both (Moebius, Caza, Mézière, Druillet, Forest or Manchu to name a few) and they contributed to give a distinct flavour to our genre. While mainstream books were generally not illustrated, ours where flashy, trendy, and easily recognizable. Since the seventies, the osmosis with graphic illustrators and painters was crucial for our evolution!

6) Newcomers From Mainstream: Osmosis and Mimicry

A final trend: it seems that Science-Fiction is slowly becoming socially acceptable, at least for some members of the mainstream fiction community. During the last five years, a handful of SF-related novels have been released by major publishers and some of them ranked highly on the best-seller list! Today, most of the French editing companies have a line dedicated to science-fiction or are publishing SF books with no particular label.

Two examples come to mind: ‘L’Anomalie’ (the Anomaly) by Hervé Le Tellier that won the “Prix Goncourt” in 2020 and, before that, in 1998, ‘Les Particules Élémentaires’ (‘Elementary Particles’) a novel from Michel Houellebecq that was a huge success (“Prix Goncourt” too) and an equally huge scandal, partly due to explicit sexual scenes. But most of the journalists who interviewed him were unable to understand that its book was Science-Fiction and he had to explain SF to them. In detail.

I’m glad he wasn’t forced to do the same for the sexual scenes!


1 Professional means of course that they were published professionally but very few of them were earning enough money to make a living. The French market was just too small and French books were rarely translated for publication elsewhere.

2 Probably an effect of the millennium change

Tech to the Future

At Cannes this year audiences saw the preview of a short documentary film called Tech to the Future. It is the brainchild of Hollywood insider, Sandro Monetti, and entrepreneur, Francis Hellyer who also presents the show. It is a classic example of the wide-eyed optimism about technology that you very rarely see at science fiction conventions these days.

The film was showing in London this week, and I was offered a ticket. However, as I am out of the country I had to decline. The people showing it kindly sent me a link to an online version, so I took a look. Thank you, London Flair.

I’m not a great expert on movie-making, but it seemed beautifully put together. I am, however, a journalist of sorts, and what interests me about this film is what technology is coming down the pipeline, and what it means for us.

I should note to start with that science fiction has always been becoming science fact. From submarines and tanks to video phones, robots and computer viruses, much of what SF writers talked about has come to pass. On the other hand, time travel, invaders from Mars, logging in to the internet through direct brain implants and many other things have not. Technology marches on regardless. It is nice when some of the results are cool.

But, much like William Gibson’s future, those results are unevenly distributed. We’ve been talking about flying cars being a reality for some time now. I commissioned an article about such things for Clarkesworld back in 2009. The latest contender in the field was the star of Tech to the Future. The cars built by Aeromobil look absolutely beautiful. They also transform in around 3 minutes, which is very impressive. Sadly they don’t have a giant robot mode as well as the car and plane options, but maybe if they sell well the company will add one. The main point, however, is that the retail price will be in the millions of dollars. They will be way out of reach of the average car owner.

The products being developed by DeepCake are intended for Hollywood studios. That means that the whole world will get to benefit from them, because they’ll be used in movies. The technology seems very impressive. You do need a body double for your actor, but the DeepCake software can make that person look very much like the original. Bruce Willis is the only actor to have sold his likeness to the company thus far, but they can now make new Bruce Willis films without him going anywhere near a movie set.

There is presumably a downside here for young actors who will now forever be competing against past generations. The technology might also make the notoriously risk averse Hollywood moguls even less willing to invest in anything new. In 50 years time we might still be getting a new Die Hard movie every year. Still, at least it will be better than the zombie Luke we were treated to in season 2 of The Mandalorian.

The real problem with this technology, however, is acknowledged in the company name. Deep Cakes might be all very well, but Deep Fakes are potentially very dangerous. Social media already has a massive problem with misinformation. Deep fake software is already available for personal computers. In the future, political parties will run attack ads that feature faked images of their opponents saying and doing embarrassing, if not downright illegal, things. Fox News will show video “proof” of pedophile rings amongst Democratic politicians. That’s not the fault of DeepCake, whose tools may well transform movie making, but it is an inevitable result of this sort of technology being invented.

The third invention from the film that I want to highlight comes from a medical technology company called Cytovale. They make automated analysis machines that will allow hospitals to run routine tests for various conditions very quickly. The company is currently targeting diagnosis of sepsis, which is the cause of millions of deaths worldwide every year. Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment. If hospitals are able to test for it quickly and cheaply, then huge numbers of lives could be saved. That’s the sort of technology we should be really excited about.

Overall, Tech to the Future is a fun little film. It is good that people are out there reporting on what the current crop of tech geniuses are up to. But it would be good to see a little more critical analysis of what those developments might mean for humankind.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 1

I am finding myself fascinated by the way in which the Star Trek franchise is developing. There have been several attempts to do a “past times” series. I haven’t seen Enterprise, but by most reports it seems to have been a bit of a disaster. Discovery also tried to fit into that pre-Kirk slot, and very nearly blew the whole thing up. Thankfully the series has now successfully re-invented itself as far-future Star Trek.

Strange New Worlds, then, is a third attempt to fit into that past-Trek slot, and I think this time they have got it right. As you probably know, the series focuses on the life of the Enterprise in the years before Jim Kirk took the helm. Christopher Pike is the captain. He does feature briefly in The Original Series, and we know that he and Spock were good friends. There is material to work with here.

What the show-runners have done with Strange New Worlds is to make it feel as much like original Trek as possible. That means that there isn’t much of an overall story arc, and individual episodes can feel very different. There’s one that shows the script-writers are fans of Le Guin. There’s one that’s a screwball comedy involving Spock and his girlfriend accidentally swapping bodies. There’s one that is an Alien-type horror story. There’s an awesome space pirate (played by trans actor, Jesse James Keitel) whom I hope will be a recurring antagonist. And there is a totally off-the-wall episode in which the crew gets to play out roles in a children’s fairy story (and in which Erica Ortegas sets a thousand lesbian hearts a-flutter).

Another way in which the series reflects TOS is that the key roles mostly hark back to people we are familiar with. Discovery doesn’t do that so much. Major supporting characters are people like Book, Admiral Vance and President Rillak, who are not members of the crew. Neither Saru nor Philippa Georgiou has a clear analog in TOS. Sick Bay and Engineering are all about queer family in a way that McCoy and Scott could never have been. But in Strange New Worlds the stories are all about the crew. We have Erica Oregas doing a lot of recognisable Chekov and Sulu things. We have Dr. M’Benga channeling McCoy. It feels familiar.

Of course some of the characters are the same as those in TOS. Ethan Peck has so successfully inhabited the character of Spock that I now get a bit of a shock seeing Leonard Nimoy in the role. Celia Rose Gooding is a very expressive young Uhura. I’m wondering what happened to her between now and Kirk taking command that caused her to become so adult and restrained. And then there is Jess Bush, who is not much like the original Christine Chapel but is such a delight that I don’t care.

All of this comes to a head in the series finale, where the scriptwriters try their hand at the delicate task of melding together the two timelines. In the story, Captain Pike, who knows what a horrible fate lies in store for him, gets to go forward in time to learn why he must not try to change the future. The episode is essentially a re-run of the TOS story, “Balance of Terror”. Many of the scenes, and even lines, echo the original story. Pike plays the situation very differently from Kirk, and a disastrous war with the Romulans ensues.

There is certainly a debate to be had about that, because Kirk’s actions in the original story are against Star Fleet orders and can be seen as unreasonably violent. Certainly Pike thinks so. But that’s a question for another day. What concerns me is that something that could have been a complete disaster actually works quite well. I did go back and watch the original episode to check.

The downside of that episode is that Paul Wesley as Kirk is unconvincing. Maybe he’ll grow into the role.

To wrap up I want to go back to episode 3 in which Una Chin-Riley, “Number 1” and Pike’s second in command, is revealed to be an Illyrian. I had to go and look up some wikis to find out what that was all about. They are a race of aliens who major in biology rather than physics, and they make extensive use of genetic engineering. Because of this (though the arguments are not laid out) they are barred from joining the Federation. Some of them, like Una, have used their science to make themselves look human, and live in Federation space. If caught, they can be imprisoned for impersonation.

Obviously this is playing into the same “they walk among us” trope that gets deployed against trans people. I am very interested to see where Strange New Worlds takes this.

FantasyCon 2022

This year’s FantasyCon has had a difficult life. The event was originally planned to be run by a group headed by Lee Harris. However, back in July, facing a substantial shortfall in expected revenue, Harris decided to pull out. Given the ongoing issues with COVID, and the expected major financial crisis in the UK over the winter, it is perhaps not surprising that far fewer people were prepared to attend the con than had been hoped.

Initially the con was cancelled, but the British Fantasy Society scrambled to get a replacement in place. The new event, chaired by Shona Kinsella, would use the same venue, but would be much reduced in scope. There would be no dealers’ room or art show; just panels, readings and the awards banquet.

In the circumstances, Shona and her team did an amazing job. There were multiple tracks of programming, and some really excellent panels. I was particularly impressed with how Shona put together a variety of voices for each panel. For example, I was surprised to be on a panel about collaborative writing. I was there to talk about sensitivity reading. Farah Mendlesohn talked about co-writing academic books, mostly with her husband, Edward James. El Lam and Gary Couzens talked about novels and short fiction respectively.

Another panel I was on was about editing. I mainly edit non-fiction. Other panelists did proof reading and more involved fiction editing, and there was a self-published author who talked about hiring editorial services. You can do panels like this in smaller conventions where the programming team knows a lot of the potential panelists. It is harder in something like Worldcon where you have far more programme to fill, and many more panelists. But I thought Shona did a great job.

The downside of programming was timekeeping. On several occasions I saw panels still running when the next one was due to start. In one case a moderator asked the audience for more questions when time had more than run out. There were reasons why this happened. The con did not have enough staff to put programme ops people in every room, and some of the rooms had doors that could not be opened from the outside. But moderators should know that they have a duty to stop and clear out in sufficient time for the next panel to move in.

I had a number of interests in the British Fantasy Awards. Wizard’s Tower Press was up for Best Independent Press. Worlds Apart, the worldbuilding book that I contributed to from Luna Press Publishing, was up for Best non-Fiction. And Lucy Holland’s SisterSong, for which I did a sensitivity read, was up for Best Novel. None of them won. I didn’t expect to win the publisher award, given that we were up against Luna Press Publishing who very deservedly won. I’m relaxed about the non-fiction award given that we won the BSFA Award for the book at Eastercon. With all due respect to Shelley Parker-Chan, whose book I very much enjoyed, Lucy was robbed. A full list of winners is available at Locus.

Having scouted out the location at Eastercon, which was held in the same hotel, I opted to stay in the Ibis just across the road from the con venue. It was cheaper, and it was next door to a petrol station that sold sandwiches and the like. Many con attendees had complaints about the Radisson Red. The issues with the new booking/checkin software that plagued Eastercon have not yet been sorted (they lost the booking of the Guest of Honour, Liz Williams), and food service was much more limited than it had been at Eastercon.

That hotel has been used for a number of conventions over the years (kudos to Flis for wearing her Ytterbium Eastercon t-shirt from 2019 when the hotel was a Park Inn). I think it will be a while before it gets used again. Though I should note that the banquet food was edible, which is not always the case for such things.

Overall, this was a great little convention, with the added bonus that I did not have to spend the entire weekend behind a dealer table. It was especially impressive given the short time that the ConCom had to put it together.

Next year FantasyCon is going back to the Jury’s Inn in Birmingham. Hopefully the roadworks will be finished by then. Early bird memberships are available here.

Editorial – September 2022

Hello from Toronto, where I am currently on a business trip. I’m having to get this one out a little early as I will be busy with clients for the next few days.

Talking of busy, I will probably put the next issue out just before BristolCon because the con is right at the end of the month. I hope to see a few of you there. I will have paper copies of the new Juliet McKenna book, The Green Man’s Gift, available. If you want one, let me know in advance so I can make sure I have enough stock.

In this issue I’m deighted to have a guest article about the SF scene in France by Jean-Claude Dunyach in this issue. Promoting international science fiction is something that has been important to me for some time.

In a similar vein, for Ocotocon I recently interviewed Julia Meitov Hersey, the translator of the Ukrainian writers, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. You can watch that here.

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Maureen Kincaid Speller who was a fine critic and whom many of you will have known. There’s an obituary at Locus. My best wishes to Paul.

Issue #42

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


Embertide

A new Fallow Sisters novel from Liz Williams is pretty much guaranteed to have me drop everything and read it. I’m heavily invested in the series and I want to know how things will end up. Having said that, Embertide does have the feel of something that is moving the story along rather than being a thing of its own right. It is a sort of “middle book of a trilogy” thing.

The book, then, develops the stories of the sisters that haven’t had much of a starring role before. Whereas Blackthorn Winter was primarily about Serena and her fashion business, Embertide is primarily about Stella, the DJ. The next book, I suspect, will be more about Luna, the youngest, as her pregnancy is now well advanced. Williams has been talking online about there being a fifth book, and my guess is that it will finally resolve the issue of the sisters’ mother, Alys, and her on-off presence in their lives.

All of the books are heavily rooted in British folklore and occultism. I was interested to see that this one made use of a couple of folk songs. The first is the Scottish nonsense song, “Aiken Drum”. The official history is that the song is Jacobite in origin, but I’ve long been of the view that there might be more to it than that. I figure that Julian May must have had a reason for making Drum one of the main characters in the Saga of the Exiles. Having Williams make him a powerful faerie being with a connection to the Wild Hunt has merely deepened that suspicion.

The other featured tune is “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!”, which is a call and response song that may in part be used to teach counting. The traditional interpretation suggests that the various lines are all Christian in origin, and a few of them quite clearly are. On the other hand, the seven stars are obviously the Pleiades, and some of the others are not at all obvious. Williams makes use of line two, the ‘lily white boys all dressed up in green, oh’. For her they are also somewhat malevolent hunting spirits.

All this talk of the hunt raises the question of who is being hunted. The sisters are all shape-shifters so any of them are possible, but inevitably the main target is a white hind. Stella spends most of her time in London and Williams has her meet Diana the Huntress at Saint Paul’s (a church which, legend has it, was built on the site of Londinium’s Temple of Diana).

The Romans, however, don’t get to own this story. Williams connects Diana to a more ancient Celtic goddess called Noualen or Nehalennia. She gives her name to the town of Newlyn in Cornwall, but is also closely associated with London. Chasing her down lead me to a book called The Secret Lore of London (which I promptly bought as it is cheap on Kindle). In that book Harold Bayley suggests that the name Lon-dun (Lon’s hill fort) might originally have been Noualen’s Dun.

Of course Bayley also says that Noualen’s animal is the greyhound, but Embertide is fiction and Williams is under no obligation to stick to anyone’s theory.

Along the way, Embertide also brings in odd goings on at a posh birthday party in Windsor Great Park, and similarly strange stuff at Cheltenham races. We also get to meet a fabulous rat-person whose family are guardians of London. The villainous Miranda Dean makes a return appearance. If you enjoyed the previous two books, you will love Embertide too. But I strongly suggest that you start with Comet Weather as there is a distinct story arc and you’ll want to get to know the characters.

book cover
Title: Embertide
By: Liz Williams
Publisher: NewCon Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Infomocracy

Every so often you read a book that has been out for ages and you think to yourself, “why haven’t I been a fan of this writer for ages?” Of course the Centenal Cycle was up for the Best Series Hugo in 2019, but that just highlights the major flaw with the category – hardly anyone has the time to read that many novels.

However, Malka Older was the international Guest of Honour for Finncon 2022, so I made time to read Infomocracy. Hoo boy! That was so up my street.

A little introduction is in order. Older’s PhD (from the Institut d’Études Politques de Paris) is about “multi-level governance and disaster response”. She now works at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. She also has more than a decade of experience in running humanitarian aid programs. This is someone with serious experience of working with and for government bodies. She also writes very well. Her keynote speech was about the use of predictive fiction in a political context. See what I mean?

The Centenal Cycle of which Infomocracy is the first volume, is set in a near-future world where most of the planet is ruled by a world democracy where constituencies are based on local groups of 100,000 people each. This is microdemocracy in action. The party that controls a centenal is allowed to set local laws. Those of you who remember Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction will remember Norlonto, which does a similar thing, on a much smaller scale.

Interestingly there is freedom of movement, much like the EU. People are able to move to a centenal that usually returns the sort of government they like. I’d like to see more exploration of this. I’m disappointed that there was no mention of explicitly queer-friendly centenals, for example.

In addition, a party that has a supermajority of centenals is allowed to form a global government. It isn’t clear what percentage of centenals is required for a supermajority, nor what voting system is used, but there is a plethora of political parties. Some, like 1China, are ethnically based. SavePlanet is an environmentalist party. The current governing party, Heritage, appears to be a sort of “safe hands conservatives” group. Another major party, Liberty, are more of a far-right group majoring on individual liberty above all else.

One of the main characters, Mishima, works for Information. This is a UN-type organization whose responsibility is running elections, and for promoting transparency and correct information. A well-informed electorate is a good electorate, right? Ha! We know better now, but even when Older was writing this book she would have seen George W Bush pilot the idea of “truthiness”, whereby politicians could tell blatant lies and still claim that they were in some sense “true” because they were what people wanted to believe. Older is well aware of this:

That creep at the Liberty meeting was right about one thing: despite all the Information available, people tend to look at what they want to see.

She also fairly accurately predicts the current state of politics in the USA and UK:

…democracy is of limited usefulness when there are no good choices, or when the good choices become bad as soon as you’ve chosen them, or when all the Information access in the world can’t make people use it.

Nevertheless, the major parties take elections very seriously. The other major candidate is Ken, a campaign worker for Policy1st, a technocrat party that claims to eschew personalities in favour of policies. Ken spends election season going round the world gauging the political temperature of key centenals, and spying on the messages that rival parties are pushing.

Of course not everyone in the world likes having a world government. A few parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia, refuse to take part and continue to rule themselves. There are also people who want to tear the whole system down. A minor character, Domaine, works for an anti-election group and spends election season trying to discredit the whole process.

Because this is a novel, not real life, there is something of a love triangle between Mishima, Ken and Domaine.

Naturally the plot revolves around skullduggery during an election. This gives Mishima an opportunity to demonstrate her Trinity-like skills in addition to her spreadsheet-wrangling ability.

As this is a three-volume series I’m not going to comment much more sat this stage, except to say that I will be reading the other two books because I am very interested in the arguments that Older is going to make.

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

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I was still fairly nervous of movie theatres when this film came out, so I didn’t go to see it. Now that it is available on disc I have taken a look. As it has been out for some time, I’m assuming that some mild spoilers are OK.I gather that the film has been widely panned, but it didn’t seem that bad to me. Obviously I know nothing about movie editing, but that’s not all there is to a film.

As you probably know, the film follows on directly from the events of WandaVision, in which Wanda has gone mad from grief and does some awful things. Marvel did a good job of hiding it in the trailers, but in The Multiverse of Madness Wanda is even more insane, and even more evil. She’s the main villain of the movie.

The film also follows on directly from the What If? series where there is a story about an alternate universe version of Doctor Strange. In that universe, Christine Palmer is in the car with Strange when he has is accident and is killed. Strange goes mad trying to bring her back, and ends up destroying his universe. That evil Strange also features in the movie.

So we have a film in which the two greatest sorcerers in the MCU have both gone mad and become villains. Except Wanda is a villain in our world and has to be defeated, whereas Stephen is a hero in our world and has to defeat his alternate self. It doesn’t seem fair. And Wanda is allowed to make exactly that sort of point during the film. Nevertheless, she is still a dangerous madwoman, and Stephen is still a hero.

While I am still annoyed about Marvel’s habit of making powerful female characters go mad and become villains (Jean Grey, anyone?), I am holding on to the fact that somehow the MCU has to bring Billy and Tommy Maximoff into our world. I am holding out for a Wanda solo movie. Elizabeth Olsen surely deserves one for her performance in this film.

On the brighter side, this film introduces America Chavez. That’s a smart choice because one of her powers is busting a hole in reality to allow travel into other universes. Xochitl Gomez is another triumph for the Marvel casting department. Presumably she will also have a role in bringing Billy and Tommy into our world. They are all part of the Young Avengers, after all.

From Marvel’s point of view, the main thing about the multiverse is that it allows them to kill off much-loved characters without penalty. The Multiverse of Madness introduces us to alternate universe versions of many well known characters. I won’t spoil the lot, but I will note that one of them is Reed Richards. An MCU Fantastic Four movie has now been announced. There have been some terrible F4 movies in the past. Hopefully Kevin Feige and crew can make it work.

The other notable aspect of this film is that Marvel is experimenting with horror. Doctor Strange is an ideal vehicle for this, given that he deals with magic and demons. One of the early fight sequences is against a one-eyed, tentacled monstrosity called Gargantos. In the original comics this creature was known as Shuma-Gorath, but as it originally came from a Robert E Howard story (“The Curse of the Golden Skull”) they could not use that name in the MCU.

More importantly, the movie is directed by Sam Raimi. I know nothing about zombie movies, but I understand from the extras on the disc that there are whole lot of Evil Dead easter eggs in this film. It also means that we get Zombie Doctor Strange as a character, which I’m sure everyone had a lot of fun with. The film isn’t particularly scary. If it didn’t frighten me then it won’t frighten you.

For me, the best part of the film was the post-credit scene which, at long last, introduced us to Clea. She is the daughter of Umar, and niece of Dormammu, two of the most iconic villains in the Doctor Strange comics. When first introduced in the comics, Clea was a bit of a princess-in-need-of-rescue, but she quickly evolved into a sorceress on a par with Strange himself. They eventually become lovers and marry. As Strange is (presumably temporarily) dead in the comics, Clea is the current Sorcerer Supreme.

As far as teenage me was concerned, Clea was up there with Jean Grey and Janet van Dyne as one of my favourite characters. She was also the most kick-ass of the three. Jean spent much of her time mooning over Scott, and Janet had to babysit Hank Pym, but Clea was an equal to Stephen. To have her portrayed by Charlize Theron is a dream come true. Well done, Marvel casting department.

There’s one more thing. There are several themes in this movie. One if the hero moving on from having lost the love of his life. Another is about the safety of some children. Now move on to Thor: Love and Thunder.

Thor: Love and Thunder

While movie theatres might still be a bit scary, no way was I going to miss this one. I managed to find a screening with only a dozen or so other people attending and settled down to enjoy some nonsense.

Taika Waititi delivered perfectly.

The film introduces a new villain, Gorr the God Butcher, brilliantly played by Christian Bale. For very good reasons, Gorr has declared war on all gods. Fortunately for him, he is in possession of something called an necrosword, which is capable of killing gods. He embarks on a campaign of deicide, and Asgard is soon in his sights. (Hela created the necroswords, so it is their own fault, sort of.)

So Thor bids a fond farewell to the Guardians of the Galaxy and heads home to help out Valkyrie. There he discovers that Mjölnir has got itself back together and taken up with Jane Foster, who is now The Mighty Thor. This is rather too much for Thor’s admittedly small brain. To make matters worse, his excitement at seeing Mjölnir re-forged upsets his new ace, Stormbreaker. So he has a whole weapon jealously issue to contend with.

Meanwhile Jane and Valkyrie are doing their best to sort out the problem and point Thor in the direction of Things That Need Hitting. Gorr pulls a dirty trick by kidnapping a bunch of Asgardian children, including Heimdall’s son. The lad has adapted to life on Earth and has taken the name Axl after his favorite rock star.

It is not an accident that the theme song to this film is “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. This is a film that is very much about children.

Thanks to Axl having inherited some of his father’s powers, our heroes are able to keep tabs on Gorr. They discover that he plans to murder the being known as Eternity, and thus destroy the entire universe (or maybe multiverse, who knows?).

The Asgardians decide that their best bet is to seek help from other gods. So they head off to a place called Omnipotence City, where all other Earthly gods except themselves live. It is ruled over by Zeus, played by a rather podgy Russell Crowe with a terrible faux Mediterranean accent. Things do not go well, and our heroes end up having to confront Gorr by themselves.

That’s enough spoilers. I will simply note that the film manages to be both very funny, and be a great superhero action movie, and a great love story, all in the same two and a bit hours. I was well impressed. And while I know very little about making movies, I did think that the scenes shot mainly in black and white worked really well.

Along the way there is plenty of queer content, though Valkyrie still doesn’t have a girlfriend. The Olympians are particularly queer, and the film introduces Hercules who is canonically gay in the comics.

I note, by the way, that Valkyrie is King of Asgard. Not queen, king. Because King is a title, not a gendered word for ruler. In this Marvel are following good ancient traditions. I don’t know much about the Norse, but certainly among the Egyptians the ruler was King, and later Pharoah, regardless of what gender they were.

We also get to meet Thor’s goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. They don’t get to pull his chariot, but they do get to pull his longship, which is probably even better.

The next movie in this sequence will be Thor v Hercules. I’m looking forward to it already.

But yes, like the Doctor Strange film, this was a film where the safety of children is a major plot theme. That’s an interesting development, given that the two films will have been made largely in isolation. And, like the Doctor Strange, Thor has to deal with issues involving his first love. In the early comics Jane disappears from the scene and Thor takes up with Sif. That’s not going to happen in the MCU, and presumably it has all changed in the comics now as well. Natalie Portman seems to have a whale of a time playing Thor. I hope we get to see her again.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

As with Embertide, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy feels very much like a middle book. Indeed, it may well be the middle book of a trilogy. There’s not a lot of left to learn about the world of the Monk and Robot books, and we know at some point Dex has to take Mosscap to the City to meet Important People. But for now Becky Chambers is content to develop the relationship between her two main characters.

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built it was Sibling Dex who had a lot to learn. He’d never seen an actual robot before, and knew nothing of the wild lands where he encountered Mosscap. In this book, Mosscap has to do the learning. He’s never encountered humans in large numbers before, and knows nothing about human society. It is, understandably, an overwhelming experience.

The one piece of worldbuilding that Chambers does here is teaching Mosscap about the human economic system. It is essentially money, though it is not called that, and it doesn’t need banks and interest rates. I was a little suspicious at first, until I was reminded that the human world has a sophisticated internet system that can keep track of translations and lead to easy price discovery.

Mosscap also gets to meet Sibling Dex’s family, which is a whole other new experience. That includes discovering that humans can be quite dishonest with other humans that they claim to care deeply about.

Mostly, however, the book is about Dex and Mosscap procrastinating about doing something they know they need to do. They may feel that they have different reasons for doing so, but the real reason is that they have come to value each other’s company. Once they get to the City, their journey is over, and they may have to part. We won’t find out until the next book. Which Chambers is procrastinating about writing. I rather hope that the two of them just head off into the wilds together and live happily.

book cover
Title: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy
By: Becky Chambers
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Virtual Westercon 74

There’s not much I can say about this convention, partly because Kevin chaired it, and partly because I didn’t attend in person. However, there are a few things worth talking about.

The first is that travelling conventions are not doing well. In the UK, FantasyCon was cancelled because the original organisers were looking at a £24,000 loss. Then it was relaunched as a 2-day event with no dealers’ room (and possibly no art show). Hopefully it will go OK, but there’s a real sense that, despite all of the “great to be back to normal” sentiment we saw at Eastercon, people are still nervous of going to conventions.

Westercon is a convention that travels up and down the west coast of the USA. It has been on hiatus due to the pandemic, and this was the first year back. Due, in part, to a lack of quality bidders from major cities, this year’s event was to take place in Tonopah, Nevada. The town is interesting, being a former silver mining centre, and therefore having a wild west feel to it. The con ran with that theme, billing itself as a “Wild, Wild Westercon”. Also the convention center is small, friendly and entirely non-rapacious in its pricing, which is highly unusual for convention locations.

On the downside, Tonopah is 200 miles from the nearest airports (Reno and Las Vegas). And the USA is very much in the throes of an aggressive wave of infections. A whole lot of Westercon regulars apparently decided that because this wasn’t a traditional event the convention should be cancelled forever. And BayCon, the Bay Area’s annual convention, appears to have decided that Westercon is already dead, and have moved their traditional dates from Memorial Day weekend to 4th July weekend, therefore competing with Westercon.

As it turns out, people have come forward to offer to run Westercon for the next two years. The next one will be in Anaheim, which is very much a major venue. So maybe it isn’t dead after all. But I got the impression that the attendance at Tonopah had a very high average age. I hope next year’s committee manages to appeal to a younger crowd.

(It is also possible, knowing Bay Area fan politics, that BayCon will move back to Memorial Day next year because the Westercon is being run by other people.)

Knowing that it would be difficult to attract people to Tonopah, Kevin and I decided from the get-go that we needed to do some online programming. The programming team that Kevin recruited (led by Arlene Busby and Michelle Weisblat-Dane) was on board and wanted to do hybrid as well. So I got the job of putting together a small stream of virtual programming featuring guests from outside North America.

We didn’t get a huge number of online attendees, but I think we did a decent job. I’m particularly pleased that we had a bunch of non-white, non-Anglo programme participants. One of the highlights was a panel on Arabic SF&F featuring speakers from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Palestine. I know that Michelle recorded the panels, and hopefully some of them will be available online soon.

Of course we were not immune from last-minute panics. I’d like to give special thanks to the following:

  • To J Dianne Dotson for being an Emergency Holographic Gareth Powell when Gareth went down with COVID at the start of the con;
  • To Gareth for turning up and doing a panel two days later despite being still very sick;
  • To Lauren Beukes for finding me a stand-in when she had to drop out at the last minute; and
  • To Wole Talabi for being absolutely brilliant in that stand-in role.

The point is that adding a virtual track to an existing convention is not hard. There aren’t a lot of resources required. And having one means that even a fairly small event can have high profile programme participants (we had Mike Carey and Ken MacLeod) and a much more diverse selection of panelists than would otherwise be the case.

We gave all of our supporting members access to the virtual programme. For any convention that has supporting members, this is a great way to add value to that membership type.

And, of course, virtual programming makes the convention accessible to people who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to travel.

Every convention should be doing it.

Ms Marvel

Well that was absolutely delightful.

Of course a whole lot of people are going to be complaining that Marvel has “gone woke”, but actually much about Ms Marvel is very traditional. I shall try to explain.

The obvious thing is that Kamala Khan is neither white nor male. She is a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager from New Jersey. Like many teenagers in the MCU, she is obsessed with superheroes (see also Kate Bishop), and in particular she is obsessed with Carol Danvers. Naturally her parents don’t approve, but this being the 21st Century they are not the sort of parents that teenage superheroes had when I was a teenager. Kamala’s mother, Muneeba, is still a massive Bon Jovi fan, and one of my favourite parts of the series was seeing a photo of Muneeba as a teenager in the 1980s. Very reminiscent of Allanah Currie.

So this is a show about Muslim life in America. Kamala and her family attend the local mosque. The Iman gets one of the best lines in the show: “Good is not something you are, Kamala, it is something you do.” Kamala’s best friend, Nakia, wears a hijab and runs for the mosque council to stand up for women’s rights. It is also about Pakistan. Several episodes take place in Karachi, and the Partition of India is central to the plot.

But it is also a very Marvel show about a high school superhero. In addition to Kamala and Nakia we have Bruno, a geeky boy who has a crush on Kamala. We have Zoe, the most popular girl in school who is a well known social media star. So it is updated for today, but in some ways reminds us very much of another teenage superhero.

Like Spiderman, Ms Marvel has to learn to use her powers. And like Spiderman she is heavily embedded in her local community. They just happen to be a mostly Muslim community. A key moment in the series shows the community stand up for her against government agents. It was somewhat weird that the NYPD stood with the local community, rather than shooting them, but there are limits to how rebellious Marvel scriptwriters can be.

Ms Marvel is, of course, a heavily female-driven show. Kamala’s relationships with her mother, her grandmother, the Aunties in the local community, and with Nakia and Zoe, are all key to the story. There is a love triangle of sorts, but it is a show about teenagers so that’s fairly inevitable.

What really makes the show, however, is Iman Vellani. She’s bubbling with personality and does a superb job in the role. I’d say she’s only 20, but then Xochitl Gomez is only 16 and does a similarly impressive job as America Chavez. The Young Avengers team is going to be seriously impressive.

Anyway, I love it. I very much want to see more. Apparently I’ll have to wait for next year and the new Carol Danvers movie. Thankfully there’s a whole lot more Marvel content to come before then.

A Mirror Mended

Alix Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered was one of the stand-out novellas of last year. The new book follows the same lead character, Zinna Gray, and tries to wring something else out of the idea. There are, after all, issues to be addressed. Key amongst them is the problem of “happy ever after”. As Zinnia herself points out at the start of the book, this is actually a contraction. The original traditional ending of fairy stories was that everyone was “happy in the ever after”, i.e. in Heaven. Real happy ever after doesn’t happen in the mortal world, because life happens.

The other major issue concerns fairy tale villains. In a fairy tale you can’t have a damsel in distress without a wicked witch or stepmother (probably both in the same person) causing that distress. Why is it that young, pretty girls are the heroines, and older women are the villains? Why is it so rare for the wicked older woman to even have a name, let alone a backstory explaining why she is the way she is?

These, then, are the questions that Harrow addresses in A Mirror Mended. For the most part I thing she succeeds, but it also feels a bit like an academic exercise.

This can sometimes be a problem with speculative fiction. A great idea can carry a book. But once you have worked through the idea, trying to set more stories in the same world can be hard. A wise writer aiming at writing a series will not reveal everything in the first book. You keep some mysteries back for the later volumes. I don’t know whether Harrow planned to write this book, but get the sense that it is more of an afterthought.

This doesn’t make A Mirror Mended a bad book. I very much enjoyed reading it. But it doesn’t have the wow factor of A Spindle Splintered. I’m finding myself struggling to find anything to say about it. That, of course, is the difference between adventure stories and real life.

Towards the end, Zinnia has this thought:

Maybe because it never occurred me to that it could be enough to just live, as happily as you can, for as long as you have.

Which, from the perspective of my sixty-plus years on this planet, I can see is very wise advice. But it isn’t the way younger people tend to think. When we are young we want to be the heroes of our own stories. In practice, few of us ever get to be heroes. Those that do often find that celebrity turns to dust in their mouths.

So yeah, maybe us older women are the villains in adventure stories because we know that few people ever get to change the world, but also that living happily does not depend on getting the perfect life that you dream about. If that makes me a wicked witch, well, so be it. Harrow, I think, would agree.

book cover
Title: A Mirror Mended
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

Finncon 2022

It has been a long time in coming, but Finncon is back in person again. The last in-person event was 2019 in Jyväskylä (where I was a Guest of Honour). We’ve all missed it. So how is the convention shaping up to the post-lockdown era?

The most notable thing about Finncon 2022 is that it had a new venue. Previously Finncon has rotated between the major cities of Helsinki, Tampere, Turku and Jyväskylä. This year it was in Espoo. ‘Where is Espoo?’ I hear you ask. Well it is right next door to Helsinki. Espoo is to Helsinki kind of like Reading is to London, or San José is to San Francisco. That is, it is a large city, next door to a much more famous one, and noted for being a technological powerhouse. Espoo is home to Nokia, to Fortum, the Finnish national energy company, and to Rovio, the Angry Birds people.

In addition, Espoo is home to Aalto University. They too are proud of their leadership in technology. The campus is home to the Technical Research Centre of Finland and to various start-ups. Unlike the University of Helsinki, whose campus is embedded in the city much like London’s colleges, Aalto has a brand new campus and excellent public transit connections. There is a Metro station at the campus, and a brand new light rail line is being built to connect there too.

(Note to rail geeks, especially those whose have been to Helsinki. I used the term “light rail” deliberately. This is not an extension to the Helsinki tram system, it is a new system with longer and heavier vehicles.)

University campuses work well for Finncon because they are available at a reasonable price and all of their rooms have good tech. So a well-connected and affordable site with well-equipped rooms should be a good choice. The con was run by some of the same people who usually run Helsinki Finncons and I suspect that the Espoo location works better for them. Mostly it did work.

The layout was a little confusing, but the signage was good and I soon found my way around. The building they were using had plenty of open space in addition to the lecture rooms, and this was usefully filled with many dealer tables. One of the main rooms had a tech failure part way through the con, but we hadn’t booked them all and we were able to switch to a different, similarly-sized, room.

If I have a complaint, it was about the acoustics. Although everyone got a microphone, if people didn’t use it properly (i.e. almost eating it) then people at the back of the lecture theatres could not hear well. I ended up sitting right down the front. This is odd, because the university is named after, and the campus designed by, Alvar Aalto, Finland’s most famous architect. He is also responsible for the Finlandia concert hall in Helsinki, so he ought to know about acoustics. Then again, that building is once again under renovation because the white marble that Aalto insisted on using to face it cannot stand up to the Finnish winter.

This being a university campus, there is plenty of cheap food nearby. That includes an instance of a chain of all-you-can-eat sushi buffet restaurants. I would have quite happily have eaten there every day. There is also a very good place called Fat Lizard which does burgers and pizzas, and has excellent beer, much of which they make themselves. Sadly they were way too busy, and we ended up eating at a place called Old Jerusalem, a restaurant specialising in Levantine cuisines, and which also does great pizza.

When I say “we” I primarily mean Otto, Paula and Irma, though for the sushi place we were joined by a whole bunch of other people, including Regina Wang who has finally managed to escape lockdown in Shanghai and is now back at university in Oslo where she’s doing a PhD.

The overseas guest this year was Malka Older, whom I’ll talk about more in my review of Infomocracy. She’s a very interesting person and I really enjoyed the panels she did. I was on two panels. One was about the “Kill your gays” trope in fiction, and what is happing with queer SF&F today. It was very well attended, and seemed to go well. My thanks to Sara Norja, Xan van Rooyen who are always great to work with. The other was “Should I travel abroad to conventions?” where I was joined by Marianna Leikomaa, Tero Ykspetäjä and Carolina Gomez Lagerlöf. I think you can guess how this went. In particular we recommended next year’s Eurocon in Uppsala, Sweden, and the 2024 Worldcon which everyone expects will be in Glasgow.

Talking of Uppsala, it is really easy to get to, and one of the Guests of Honour is Martha Wells of Murderbot fame. Gotta be worth looking into, right? I’ll be there.

Another of the GoH choices for Uppsala is Merja Polvinen who has done a fantastic job steering the Finfar academic network. There was also an excellent academic track at Finncon. I didn’t get to see much of it because I was busy elsewhere, but I did catch a few panels. I’m keen to get hold of a copy of the anthology of stories by Chinese women writers that Regina has edited (it is called The Way Spring Arrives). I was also pleased to catch up with Paul Graham Raven who is currently working at a university in Sweden.

Still with GoHs, the Fan Guest of Honour at Finncon this year was Marianna ‘Kisu’ Leikomaa. Given the amount of work she has done for Finncon over the years, this was very well deserved. One of many things she does is help run masquerades, and I was happy to be asked to help judge again this year. Kisu is also usually responsible for writing the filks in honour of the GoHs that traditionally get performed at the Saturday night party. Clearly she couldn’t do that this year. I gather that at least three people wrote something just in case it was needed. Sadly we only got to hear one.

Finncon 2023 will be in Tampere. There are no dates or GoHs as yet, but that will doubtless follow once the Finns are all back from their summer break. I plan to be there.

And I have one final comment about Espoo. In keeping with the city’s image as the tech capital of Finland, it is home to a company that provides robot pizza deliverators. Well not quite, Hiro Protagonist isn’t out of a job yet, because Starship Technologies doesn’t trust their robots to deliver cooked meals on time. The poor little things are very nervous around traffic. But they do deliver groceries and they are very cute. The company is apparently Estonian. Good luck to them.

This Year’s Hugo Nonsense

A provisional agenda for this year’s WSFS Business Meeting has been released. You can find it here. There are a lot of new Hugo-related proposals, many of them coming from something called The Hugo Awards Study Committee.

There has already been much outrage on social media, and the inevitable suspicion that this committee is part of the They who run WSFS. I’m not going to go into all of it, but I do want to try to explain what is going on.

When it comes to Hugo disputes, the sides can often be characterized as follows. One side is made up of people who think that Hugos are wonderful things, and that therefore as many people as possible should get one. This group contains a lot of people who are creatives and who might hope to one day win a Hugo. The other side is made up of people who think that Hugos are wonderful things, and that therefore as few people as possible should be allowed to win one, otherwise they will cease to be special. This group is made up mainly of people who are unlikely to ever win a Hugo.

The problem is that the “give as many Hugos as possible” group mainly have lives and are busy being creative. They don’t have time to serve on WSFS committees. The “give as few Hugos as possible” group is made up mostly of people for whom Fandom is a Way of Life. Therefore, when the Business Meeting asks for people to sit on a committee, it is mainly people from the “give as few Hugos as possible” group who volunteer, and it is their views that then dominate the resulting report.

The ”give as few Hugos as possible” crowd also tend to be the sort of people who are wedded to the idea that anyone who makes even one measly cent from their activity in the field is a “filthy pro” who must forever be excluded from fan categories. This never ends well, if only because the voters want to vote for their favourite creators regardless, so to enforce such a rule would require Hugo Administrators to be much more active in excluding people than they like to be.

From a political point of view, the problem is that WSFS committees are not democratically elected, and are not responsible to anyone other than themselves. Their members doubtless all think that they are doing their best for WSFS, but ultimately they will end up pushing their own views of how WSFS should be run. This is not a good way to decide on award rules.

The Business Meeting isn’t a good way to decide award rules either, but at least it gives more people a chance to have a say.

I certainly can’t have a stay, because attendance at the Business Meeting is reserved for in-person attendees only. There are very good reasons for that, but again this is not a good way to run an international organization. And until we come up withy a better one we will keep on having these embarrassing crises, year after year.

Editorial – July 2022

Summer is a busy time for conventions. I have three con reports in this issue, though two of those are for the same convention. Big thanks are due to John Hertz for covering Westercon 74, which I could not attend in person.

There’s also a lot of Marvel content. I know, I’m a hopeless fangirl.

There will be no issue in August as I’ll be busy with Worldcon. Hopefully that will give me a chance to read some of the big novels I have on my TBR pile. I have some programme assignments for Worldcon, though things are not set in stone yet so that might change.

The other thing I’ll be busy with in August is the next Green Man book from Juliet McKenna. With FantasyCon not having a dealers’ room, we are discussing what to do about a launch. We’ll make an announcement on social media in due course.

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Nichelle Nichols who died on the day it went live. We owe her so much. We haven’t reached the end of Strange New Worlds in the UK yet, but I am very much enjoying it. Review next issue.

Issue #41

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


All the Seas of the World

There are not many authors for whom I can say, “anything they write I will buy and read immediately.” Some authors that I am a huge fan of don’t always produce the sort of books I want to read. That’s because they have a fairly wide range of authorly interests. Other authors are much more predictable. That’s definitely the case with Guy Gavriel Kay. I know what sort of book I will get from him, and I know I will love it.

If you are a Kay fan, you too will know what to expect. If you are new to his writing, then you should probably start with Children of Earth and Sky as this book is the third in a loose series, or perhaps even with one of Kay’s earlier books such as Tigana. I’ll spend the rest of this review talking about plot rather than style. For simplicity I will mostly stick with Kay-world names for things and people rather than try to explain how they map onto our world.

Interestingly, Kay has chosen to set this book after A Brightness Long Ago, but mostly before the events of Children of Earth and Sky. There is a fair amount of overlap of cast between the books, though as far as main characters go it is only the inimitable Folco Cino d’Acorsi who is key to both books. That is, of course, exactly how things should be. The one-eyed condottiero was a star of the previous book and I’m delighted to have him back.

The book also includes a supporting role for Guidanio Cerra, the narrator of A Brightness Long Ago. While most of the new book is written in the third person, Kay allows Danio to narrate some of this book too. We also get to meet Lenia Serrana, the sister of Carlo Serrana, the champion jockey from the legendary horse race at Bischio which is so pivotal to the previous book.

Lenia is one of the two lead characters of the book. The other is Rafel Ben Natan, a Kindath merchant. Between them, Rafel and Lenia own the Silver Wake, a ship which mostly carries trade goods but, because this is the Mediterranean in Renaissance times, is occasionally hired for more clandestine purposes.

Thus the opening of the book, in which Rafel and Lenia are hired to smuggle an assassin into the city of Abaneven. That city is on the south coast of the sea, and therefore under Asharite control. The target of the assassin is the Khalif of the city, but he has been hired, not by the Jaddites, but by rival Asharite warlords. Specifically, the ibn Tiphon brothers who are lords of the city of Tarouz, and also notorious corsairs.

A quick break into our world here. This is a book about the Barbary Corsairs. The ibn Tiphon brothers are based on the Reis brothers, the most famous of whom, Oruç, was nicknamed Baba Oruç (Father Oruç), which Europeans mutated into Barbarossa. Ben Natan is loosely based on Samuel Pallache, a Jewish merchant and sometime pirate.

In typical Kay fashion, the assassination is only the first domino in a trail of events that will topple as history unfolds. Rafel and Lenia will be deeply involved, as will Folco. The importance of the events are magnified by the fact that Gurçu the Destroyer has conquered the great Jaddite city of Sarantium and brought it into the Asharite world. The current High Patriarch, Scarsone Sardi, knows that he doesn’t have much chance of organizing a Crusade as happened in days of old, but he is none the less desperate for some sort of impressive public victory over the Asharites.

In great affairs of state such as this, people like Rafel and Lenia are of little import. He is Kindath, she is a woman, but they have a friend and protector in Folco. They are also rather good at what they do.

Fans of traditional fantasy narratives will doubtless be frustrated by the fact that the lead characters have relatively little agency and don’t really drive the plot, except at pivotal moments. They will probably wonder why the book isn’t about Folco. But this is what Kay does. His central characters are ordinary people mixed up in world-shattering affairs, not fantasy heroes. I continue to be impressed at Kay’s ability to plot his novels so that his characters are in just the right place to quietly tip the scales of history.

I should note that the book contains a number of same-sex relationships. The characters involved on the male side don’t come out of thigs very well. The female side of things is rather happier. Kay is not producing a queer-centered novel here, he is noting that queer relationships were common in the past, but that the lives queer people lived were often difficult and dangerous. One of the most obviously heterosexual characters doesn’t come out of things well either.

If you love Kay’s writing, which I do, then you will love this book. If you are new to Kay then this probably isn’t the best place to start. But I do hope that more people will start reading him, because he is so good at what he does.

book cover
Title: All the Seas of the World
By: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Wrath Goddess Sing

There are some writers who are so good at what they do that I would give an awful lot to be able to write like them. (Guy Kay is one of them. Cat Valente, obviously, is another.) But I wouldn’t necessarily write the sort of books that they write. Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane is the sort of book that I wish I could have written, and would have written if I had been good enough and brave enough.

Fairly obviously, if you are familiar with my fiction, it is a mythology re-telling. Specifically it is Homeric fanfic. You will see a lot of upset people around the Internet complaining that Deane has “got it wrong”. Reader, she has not. The trouble is that Homeric fanfic is not a new thing. Euripides wrote a lot of Homeric fanfic. So did Vergil. As far as the ancients were concerned, the tale of the Trojan War and its aftermath were ripe for reinterpretation, and the whole thing was out of copyright.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Western European writers tried to make sense of the resulting mess. They wanted to define a canon. Reader, the Iliad contradicts itself in places. It has less in the way of stable canon than Doctor Who. In particular, there is no mention of the wooden horse in the Iliad. There is brief mention of it in the Odyssey, but the version we know comes mainly from the Aeneid. Also Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia is not in the Iliad. Neither is Iphigenia. There is a girl called Iphianassa who might be the same person, but she’s alive through the whole thing.

So when you see people complaining that Deane has her Iliad wrong, you have my permission to laugh.

Of course she does change things deliberately, but that’s largely for the better. To start with she makes a determined effort to situate the entire story in the Bronze Age. That means that Troy must be a Hittite city, or at least would have been part of the Hittite Empire. The city at Hissarlik, which Heinrich Schliemann identified as Troy, was once allied to the great Hittite King, Suppiluliuma I, who was a contemporary of Akhenaten. It was known as Wilusa (Ilusa, Ilium), and at one point it had a famous king called Alaksandu. In the Iliad, Paris is sometimes named Alexandros.

Oh, and the Achaean warriors wear proper, Bronze Age armour, including boar tusk helmets. They do not wear the sort of hoplite armour that you see in pictures of Classical era Greeks. There is also discussion of the relative merits of the 3-man Hittite heavy chariot as opposed to the lighter and more maneuverable 2-man, Egyptian style chariots favoured by the Achaeans.

The Bronze Age was a period of substantial international trade. Egypt, obviously, was key to that. The main political rivalry was between the Hittites and the Egyptians. This came to a head at the battle of Kadesh between an Egyptian army under Ramses II, and a Hittite army under Muwatalli II. We have a copy of a treaty between Muwatalli and Alaksandu of Wilusa. It seems likely that Wilusan soldiers formed part of the Hittite army at Kadesh. Deane has Myrmidon mercenaries under Patroclus fight for the Egyptians, and uses this as an excuse to give Patroclus an Egyptian wife.

Why was Patroclus leading the Myrmidons? Because of something else that is not in the Iliad, but which Deane chooses to use. The story is that Achilles’ mother, Thetis, knowing that her boy is fated to die young, raises him as a girl and sends her to live on the island of Skyros. There she is known as Pyrrha, the red-haired girl. The usual story is that Achilles has a strong male gender identity, and is keen to run off to war as soon as Agamemnon and Odysseus offer the possibility. Many years ago I wrote some fanfic about this incident.

Deane chooses to reimagine Achilles as a trans girl who has run away to Skyros where she can live in a community of people similar to the galli of ancient Rome. We know that such people existed in Classical Greece, and there is good reason to believe that such traditions stretched all the way back to Sumer. This Achilles is not keen on going to war, but Athena offers her an irresistible choice: fight for me, and I will make you a cisgender woman.

Naturally, this changes everything. In particular Deanne re-writes the whole Agamemnon and Briseis story and makes it make much more sense.

I should mention the gods as well. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a habit amongst Classicists to propose an evolution of middle-eastern religion down the centuries, ending with the perfection of the Graeco-Roman world. This narrative has long since been abandoned, and in reaction to it academics have tended to decry any parallels drawn between the gods of different cultures in the ancient world. That’s something of an over-reaction.

Clearly ancient cultures did influence each other. They also grew and changed during their periods of dominance. The religion of the Bronze Age Greeks was probably significantly different from that of the Greek people when the works attributed to Homer were written. That again was different from the religion of Classical Greeks. The Romans collected gods from all over their Empire and worshipped the lot of them, muddling them together with gay abandon.

In Wrath Goddess Sing the gods are predators, and mortals are their prey. Demigods such as Achilles can easily fall into the same sort of behaviour. Guess who else is a demigod? Helen. (She was born from an egg after Zeus had sex with Leda while in the form of a swan.)

There is a wonderful contrast in the novel between Achilles, the epitome of military skill, and Helen, the epitome of female sexuality.

Me,” Helen whispered. “Everyone wants me. So let the strongest have me. The world will be my dowry.”

Those of you who have read Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series may see some parallels in the way in which Deane constructs wars between gods, but it is absolutely not the same thing. Deane does many of her own things, some of which are absolutely outrageous. I am now very much looking forward to the next book, which I understand will be set in Ahkenaten’s Egypt.

I should note that Achilles is not a nice person. How can she be? She is a warrior demigod destined to slaughter most of the Trojan’s best fighters. Another reason that you may dislike the book is that it is dripping in scholarship, from linguistics to mythology to history. I’m probably way too close to the erudition on display here to know whether this is a bad thing for others, but I love it.

Balanced again this is my favourite character from the book, Meryapi. She’s the Egyptian princess that Patroclus has married, and she is absolutely delightful. She’s a linguistics nerd and a wannabe sorceress. She also represents ordinary womanhood, in contrast to the demigod archetypes of Achilles and Helen.

My other favourite character is Odysseus, obviously. Deane somehow made me fall in love with the old rogue all over again, even though I know what a terrible person he is.

“Next time,” Odysseus said mildly, “remember me. I’m good at idiotic plans; you’re good at killing things. Together we could work much mischief.”

Of course one of the joys of fanfic is that you get to read new stories about beloved characters all over again.

Oh, and remember, nothing good ever came of learning the language of dolphins. They are terrible, terrible people.

book cover
Title: Wrath Goddess Sing
By: Maya Deane
Publisher: William Morrow
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances

I was talking elsewhere about authors whose books I buy and read as soon as they came out. Aliette de Bodard has made her way into those ranks. With a full time job, and raising two kids on her own, she’s mostly producing short fiction these days, but it is glorious stuff.

Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances is one of her follow-up stories set in the world of the Dominion of the Fallen series. It is a companion to Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders in that is features literatures most unlikely gay couple: Asmodeus and Thuan. He is a powerful fallen angel who never met anything he didn’t want to stab, if only briefly. And he is a dragon prince from a community of shape-shifters who live under the Seine and who is never happier then when he has a book in his hand.

As with the previous book, this is a murder mystery. Thuan is asked to babysit some children from his dragon family, and needs to find something for them to do before Asmodeus teaches them to hide knives in their clothing and stab people by surprise. They head out into the kelp forest, and find an ancient shrine. There they find a ghost of a child, and the recently dead body of an imperial bureaucrat. It seems like the ghost may know something about the murder. But it is clear that the murderer does not want to be found out, even if that means killing Prince Thuan and his dangerous foreign husband, not to mention two small children. The process of finding out who the murderer is involves seeking help from one of Thaun’s ex-girlfriends, which is rather awkward for him.

The thing I love about these books is that both Asmodeus and Thuan are such intense, vibrant characters. Here is a typical Asmodeus moment.

Asmodeus hated poison. He thought it was too unpredictable, cowardly, and pointless – what was the point of not seeing one’s enemies get stabbed? But that also meant that he’d extensively studied how not to get poisoned.

And here is Thuan.

Thuan tried not to worry. Unfortunately, ‘worry’ was his default state of being.

Everyone else is aware of this, especially Thuan’s family.

“You know we’d never harm children. Or allow them to be harmed.”

“I do,” Hong Chi said. “I’m worried about what you’ll do to people who try to harm them.”

That was… not inaccurate. Asmodeus had very strong ideas about protecting the people in his charge, and he applied these double or triple to children. Thuan was less stab-happy, but no way was he going to let someone hurt children on his watch. “We didn’t kill anyone.”

He could see the “yet” forming on Hong Chi’s lips.

So yes, this is a charming story, and of course also infused with East Asian mythologies. Great entertainment.

book cover
Title: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

On Reviewing and Taxonomies

Back in February, Paul Kincaid published an essay on his blog. It is titled, “A Taxonomy of Reviewing”. The central issue he is addressing is laid out in the opening paragraph:

“… we have no clear language with which to talk about reviewing. What’s the difference between a review and criticism? Where do you draw the line between review, review essay, and critical essay? Is criticism, by definition, negative? Is a bad review the same as a negative review? We have no generally agreed upon way of answering any of these questions, and any general writing about reviewing is liable to get hijacked by trying to define terms.”

The essay was very well received, including by me. Paul is a smart guy with many years of experience of writing reviews and literary criticism. In the essay he provides an exhaustive list of types of writing about writing, and he provides definitions for each one. The idea, which we know from the use of the term ‘taxonomy’ in the title, is to classify each of these types of writing and show how they are different from each other. That way, when we encounter a new piece of writing, we know which box to put it in.

However, impressed as I was by Paul’s erudition, something was nagging at my brain.

Taxonomies are classic tools of science, particularly in biology. At school we are all taught that living things are divided into plants and animals, and that these groups are further subdivided into smaller groups. So mammals are a group within animals; primates are a group within mammals; simia (monkeys and apes) are a group within mammals; and so on. This is known as the Linnaean system, after Carl Linnaeus who came up with the idea in 1735.

Taxonomies have been hugely useful in helping us understand the world around us, primarily because they give us a framework for discussion. As Paul says at the end of the essay, “…if we can’t be precise in our language, if we can’t disentangle words so that their meaning is clear to a lay audience, is it possible to write about criticism at all?” And yet, Linnaeus’s elegant system, though very long-lived, is not perfect.

When creating a taxonomy it is necessary to find a way to distinguish between the various groups. For example, does an animal lay eggs, or incubate its young? Does it have fur, scales or feathers? Unfortunately these tests aren’t perfect, because sooner or later you are going to run across a platypus. Or you discover that the hyrax, which looks and behaves a bit like a groundhog, is actually very closely related to the elephant and not a rodent. Or that evolution has invented the crab entirely separately on several separate occasions.

It was thinking about this sort of thing that led me to think that perhaps Paul was barking up the wrong (evolutionary) tree.

In computer science we have, to a large extent, given up on taxonomies. Having a single classification field for an object, which defines where it fits within a taxonomy, simply doesn’t work in many applications. A common alternative is to use a tag system, whereby we define a number of features, and an individual object can be associated with one or many features. For example, our platypus can be tagged as having fur (like mammals), laying eggs (like birds and reptiles) and having a beak (like birds and squid).

An even more radical approach is necessary in the trans awareness training that I do. The people in the classes are often very keen to get precise definitions of what various labels trans people use when talking about themselves mean. How is genderqueer different from gender fluid and from non-binary. Are non-binary people trans or not? There are no right answers to these questions.

Indeed, the whole idea that people must fit precisely into gendered boxes, and never leave them, is central to the philosophy of the anti-trans lobby. That’s why they keep demanding that people define what they mean by “woman”. There are many different ways of doing that. You can categorise people by their chromosomes, or by their reproductive organs, or by their secondary sex characteristics, or several other methods. None of these definitions result in Venn diagrams that perfectly overlap, and all of them will result in excluding some people who believe that they are women.

And yet people keep insisting on a taxonomy, and if you can wean them off a strict binary they tend to immediately fall back on the idea of a spectrum. Which means that everyone has to fall somewhere between the binary poles. There are two problems with this. The first is that there are many different ways in which gender can be defined, and in each case someone’s position on a spectrum might be different. Also, the idea of a spectrum requires that in order to be more masculine you have to be less feminine, and vice versa. That very much restricts the ways in which people can express gender, and as people don’t like being restricted the system breaks down.

What we suggest as an alternative is a system of axes. We can thinks of each axis as a tag. Examples might be your internal sense of femininity, your feminine gender expression, and your attraction towards masculine-coded people. Each axis also has a value denoting how far along you are on it. So for example you might see yourself as very feminine, be a bit meh about fashion, and not be attracted to men at all. Note that attraction to female-coded people would be a separate tag, and that could be at zero too. Or both could be quite high.

I haven’t had time to go through Paul’s elegant taxonomy and construct a new system using one of these classification techniques, but I do think that avoiding trying to stick things in boxes is a good approach to life. (That includes cats – just leave them alone and they will happily get into boxes all by themselves.) All binaries are false, all classifications are imperfect, and if we insist on trying to fit everything we see into boxes we will either end up chasing our tails in a vain attempt to make the system work, or we will end up chopping bits off our subjects until they fit. Neither of these outcomes is desirable.

The Matrix Resurrections

The fourth Matrix film was apparently a disaster at the box office, and received a thorough panning from many critics. As a result it took me a while to get around to watching it, but I’m glad I did because there’s a lot to think about.

To start with there’s the question of Lana Wachowski’s motive for making the film. Her official position is that she changed her mind after her parents died. The Matrix Resurrections is a love story about two somewhat elderly people, so I think we have to take her at her word there.

Also it is true that Warner Bros. were keen to get a sequel, and indeed had hired someone else to write a screenplay. So Lana took it upon herself to give them one, and in way they probably didn’t want.

Those of you who have seen it will know that the first half of the film is an extended meta joke about the fact that the film is a Matrix sequel. Neo and Trinity are back in the Matrix. Neo is once again Thomas Anderson, who is now a successful game developer. His top-selling trilogy of Matrix video games has made a lot of money for him and his company, Deus Machina (the god machine, a.k.a. The Matrix, obviously). His business partner, and CEO of the company, is Agent Smith. This kind of makes them Woz and Jobs, which is a very Bay Area joke.

The plot gets underway when Smith reveals to Anderson that their parent company, Warner Bros., has demanded that they make a fourth Matrix game. This is followed by a whole lot of poking fun at the corporate art production process. Christina Ricci provides an absolutely brilliant cameo as a corporate marketing executive. Lana also has the creative team debate what the original trilogy was “really” about, because of course nothing she does is only about one thing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, many decades have passed. Zion is no more, but a new enclave called Io, ruled over by the elderly Niobe, has arisen. Many of the inhabitants are fans of Neo and Trinity. One particular group of them, led by Bugs (another white rabbit reference) discovers clues in The Matrix that lead them to Anderson, and they decide to mount a rescue. Jessica Henwick is brilliant as Bugs, and it is lovely to see Brian J Smith and Max Riemelt playing characters from Io.

Most of the rest of the movie is the sort of relentless action you expect from a Matrix movie, with plenty of kung fu and associated fighting styles. Once Neo is rescued they need to rescue Trinity too, and then everyone can live happily ever after.

I’m not in the least bit surprised that the dudebros who wanted another Matrix movie are not happy with something that essentially makes fun of people who wanted another Matrix movie. I don’t suppose that Warner Bros. are happy either, but maybe they will have learned their lesson. I think it is also inevitable that the new movie is not as revolutionary in its look and special effects as the first one. But this is a Matrix movie, just not the one people thought they were getting.

To start with there are plenty of callbacks to the original trilogy. Wachowski and her writing team (which includes David Mitchell) have clearly thought about how the world of the movies would have developed. One particular thing I really liked is that Tiffany’s husband in The Matrix is played by the guy who was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the original trilogy. So he is, in a sense, a fake Neo.

Other things are different, most importantly an emphasis on deconstructing binaries. Machines and humans live alongside each other in Io. Software constructs such as Morpheus have a means of manifesting in the real world. Anderson is working on a new computer game called Binary, which he seems unable to finish. Agent Smith and Neo are allies at times. All of this is trans-related, because the acceptance of non-binary people is the one thing that has changed dramatically since the original trilogy.

Another significant change is the main bad guy. In the original trilogy we had the Architect who built the Matrix. The new Matrix is built by someone called The Analyst (brilliantly played by Neil Patrick Harris). Obviously an analyst is a term for someone who works in software, but we first meet The Analyst in his role as Anderson’s therapist. He is a psychoanalyst. And the new Matrix he has built is based around programming human emotions.

In particular, the new Matrix works by filling the inhabitants with a sense of wanting things they can’t get. The key to this is that Neo and Trinity are in pods very close to each other, but they can never be together. This is the emotional core of the Matrix, and of the film. When Neo and Trinity are re-united in the real world, the Analyst’s Matrix falls apart. The way to destroy The Matrix is for us to care about each other and get together.

This is fairly obviously a comment on consumer society, which works by continually encouraging people to want things they do not have. Including, of course, a new Matrix movie. It may also be about politics, which these days is very much about crafting emotional narratives rather than about explaining policy.

The other major change in the films between this trilogy and this one is the way it is made, which you will only know if you have watched the extras on the disc. When they did the original trilogy, Lana and Lily were control freaks. Everything was planned down to the smallest detail. Almost nothing was shot outside of the studio, because you could never know what the sun was likely to do.

Lana’s approach to the new movie was very much seat-of-the-pants. There was no storyboarding, no pre-vis. Lana would direct as she went along, often looking over the cameraman’s shoulder to tell him what to do. The cast, if disc extras can be believed, enjoyed this, because the continual cut and re-do in search of a shot that perfectly reproduces what was planned is annoying and tiring. Also many key shots make glorious use of the sun, which is lovely.

That the film achieved the final, climactic sequences in this way is really quite remarkable. There were actual helicopter gunships flying through San Francisco, and actual cars blowing up in the streets below, all being shot in a single take. The final shot of Neo and Trinity jumping off a 43-storey sky scraper is exactly that. There’s no green screen, no stunt people, just Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss jumping off a stupidly high building. In a harness, obviously, but still real.

There could be many reasons why Lana Wachowski’s film-making style has changed so radically. Maybe she is just massively more experienced. Maybe she’s just older and richer and doesn’t have to care about what others say. But I also wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that she and Lily made the original series while they were still closeted, and now they are free to be themselves. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I used to be a massive control freak prior to transition, and I’m much more relaxed about life now.

To wrap up I want to talk briefly about Trinity’s role in the movie. Mostly it looks like she’s there to be rescued. But specifically she’s being rescued from life as a traditional wife and mother. Also Neo says that he never believed that he was The One. He succeeded in what he did because Trinity believed in him. And now it is his turn to believe in her.

When the pair of the them jump of the sky scraper, it is Trinity who first gains the ability to fly. She has the last word in the film. Perhaps now she is The One. Or maybe we all are. All we need to gain power over The Matrix is to be loved.

Doctor Who Redacted

I’m not a big fan of audio drama. I tend to have difficulty in following what is going on. I’m also not a huge fan of Doctor Who. In particular I found the Moffat era unwatchable. But my Twitter feed has been full of excitement over a Doctor Who audio drama with a lot of queer content, so I figured I should give it is a try. Folks, it is very good. It is also guaranteed to get up the noses of the Dudebros. This is excellent.

Doctor Who: Redacted is a an official BBC production (and therefore presumably canon, whatever that means as far as the show is concerned these days considering that much of it has been ripped up of late). The lead writer is Juno Dawson (a trans woman), and the star is Charlie Craggs (a trans woman) who plays Cleo Proctor (a trans woman). The director and main supporting cast are all queer women. If I had to design a show that would be the queerest thing ever, I don’t think I could do much better than this.

The show comes as ten episodes of varying lengths from 20 to 30 minutes, making up a full story arc, with suitably cliff hanger endings. There are guest appearances by well known Doctor Who characters, including The Doctor herself, Kate Stewart, Petronella Osgood, Rani Chandra and, of course, Madame Vastra, plus a few minor characters from the specific shows the series riffs off. Not all of these characters are played by the same people that played them in the TV series, but Jodie Whittaker does play The Doctor.

I can’t say too much about the plot because that would spoil the mystery of it, but I can say that it centers around a podcast. Cleo and her young friends, Abby McPhail and Shawna Thompson, host a series called The Blue Box Files. Their show focuses on conspiracy theories associated with the mysterious appearance (and disappearance) of an old-fashioned blue police call box and a person known as The Doctor. As a result of their researches, the three girls probably know more about The Doctor than anyone outside of UNIT.

Meanwhile, something strange is happening on Earth. Anything and anyone associated with The Doctor is disappearing. Computer files get corrupted. Artefacts go missing. People lose their memories of events. Sometimes actual people vanish, and no one can remember them.

Alongside the adventure plot we have personal issues. Cleo’s mother has been unable to come to terms with her gender transition and threw her out after Cleo’s father disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Cleo now lives with her brother, Jordan. Shawna is madly in love with Abby, but won’t admit to it, though she does spend a lot of time being rude about Abby’s boyfriend, Craig. Mostly Craig deserves it.

That’s plenty of plot to drive a 10-episode series. Slowly but surely the girls will discover that the Blue Box is real, that some scary military people are also interested in it, and that aliens are more real and more scary than they ever thought possible. The key to the mystery, and to saving the Earth, will lie in something Juno Dawson has picked up on in an old TV episode, and maybe also because The Doctor and Cleo can bond over their gender history.

Across the Green Grass Fields

Another piece of Hugo reading done. This is the one novella from this year’s ballot that I hadn’t read. It is, of course, another book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. This one is not set in Eleanor West’s school, and it works pretty well as a stand-alone.

Across the Green Grass Fields features a horse-mad girl called Regan Lewis who runs away from home and ends up in a place called The Hooflands. I was a little nervous at first because the thing that causes Regan to flee is discovering that she is intersex, and foolishly blurting that fact out at school. However, this is not a book about being intersex. It has very different concerns.

The Hooflands are inhabited by all manner of hoofed beasts from mythology. There are unicorns, of course, but also centaurs, fauns, kelpies, kirin, hippogriffs and perytons. The latter are winged stags, which had me confused for a while. Apparently they were invented by Borges for his Book of Imaginary Beings. Good choice, Seanan!

Regan falls in with a small herd of centaurs who herd unicorns. Some hoofed beings, it seems, are intelligent, while others are just animals. She makes friends with the only foal in the centaur family, a girl called Chicory. This gives her the opportunity to grow up free of school bullies and foolish parents. However, it is clear from the start that she has a Destiny.

Humans are not a natural part of the Hooflands. How could they be, they have no hooves? But every so often one appears. When one does, this is a signal that the land is in great danger. The human will be a hero and save everyone, and then disappear back to their own world.

Well, that’s the theory. The reality is a little more complicated than that. This is where we discover that the book is actually about what it means to be a hero and a saviour. I suspect that most white readers, especially white women readers, will miss the point, but it is there nevertheless.

For those who are oblivious to the politics, this is a fun and easy read. It also has some beautiful Rovina Cai illustrations. Probably not a winner, though.

book cover
Title: Across the Green Grass Fields
By: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Mab

Most of you will probably have heard of The Mabinogion. For those who haven’t, it is a compilation of mythological tales written in Middle Welsh. Some of the stories feature King Arthur. Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series is loosely based on some of the tales in The Mabinogion.

So what is The Mab? To start with, it is a version of The Mabinogion for children. There’s no age recommendation on the book, but I’m guessing Middle Grade or younger. This means that the stories featured have been shortened, have had certain things omitted, and have had jokes added.

For example, the book opens with a re-telling of the First Branch, the tale of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. While it does tell the story of how Pwyll meets Rhiannon and they get married, it does not mention that she is fleeing an arranged marriage. It also has an ongoing joke about trousers which is not in the original.

For a kids’ book, this is all good stuff. The editors, Matt Brown and Eloise Williams, know what they are doing with children’s literature. Indeed, Williams was the first ever Welsh Children’s Laureate. I’m assuming that the other writers have good track records too. And the book contains some beautiful illustrations from Max Low.

So if you have kids and would like an introduction to Welsh mythology for them, The Mab is a good start. But it is more than that, because all of the stories are presented in two versions: one in English, and one translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas. Modern Welsh, not Middle Welsh, which is considerably less understandable. This makes the book perfect for schools in Wales, but also for anyone learning Welsh. Because the stories are short and use simple language, they are relatively easy reading for learners.

The book was crowdfunded on Unbound, and you will find my name in the Supporters list at the back.

Oh, and there is an introduction by Michael Sheen, which you are allowed to imagine being read to you by Aziraphale, because why wouldn’t you?

book cover
Title: The Mab
By: Matt Brown (ed) & Eloise Williams (ed)
Translator: Bethan Gwanas
Publisher: Unbound
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Moon Knight

I was hoping to have some expert Egyptological input before writing this, but I can’t wait too long or I will have forgotten what I saw, so here goes with the weird guy in mummy bandages.

Moon Knight is an attempt by Marvel to colonize Egyptian mythology in addition to Norse and Greek. However, rather than have gods as main characters, they have opted for something more complex. Kudos to Doug Moench who came up with the original comic character, I guess.

The first thing know about Moon Knight is that he is more than one person. The superhero is Marc Spector, an American mercenary soldier. But Marc shares a body with Steven Grant, a mild-mannered museum worker and ancient history geek from London. These appear to be multiple personalities rather than separate souls in one body, and the show hints at a third personality. I’m not going to get into spoiler territory by discussing this, but it is very weird.

The other thing about Moon Knight is that he is an avatar of the god, Khonsu (or Khonshu as it is spelled in the comics.) Given thousands of years of history, there’s not a lot of consistency in Egyptian religion. He is definitely a moon god, but his role in disciplining sinners is less well attested and seems to have come mainly from the Pyramid Texts. He does have a falcon head though. Yes, just like Horus. Egyptian religion is confusing.

The basic plot is that of a war between Khonsu and the crocodile-headed Ammit. She is most definitely a nasty piece of work. She is the demon to whom souls were fed if they failed the judgement of the dead when their heart was weighed against the feather of Maat. The story is that Ammit has decided that almost all humans are guilty and should be killed immediately. Khonsu wants us to still have a chance to be judged.

This war takes place in our world as a conflict between Moon Knight and the avatar of Ammit, a cult leader known as Arthur Harrow (superbly played by Ethan Hawke). Except that Steven Grant keeps taking over the body from Marc Spector at inopportune moments.

I’m assuming that Oscar Isaac was attracted to the role by the opportunity to play two very different characters. Mostly he does a fine job, but his attempts at London slang are embarrassing. No one in London says “laters gators”, even in a joking comment to a crocodile goddess. Isaac has apparently said he got help from British members of the film crew. I think they were winding him up.

Inexplicably, the show also mixes up its London geography. Steven’s place of work is pretty obviously the British Museum. Nowhere else would have that sort of collection of ancient artefacts. But the exterior shots are all of the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar Square, which contains only paintings in the like. In one scene Steven’s boss has a National Gallery logo on his sweater. I guess the museum also has multiple personalities.

Much to my relief, the show does much better with the episodes set in Egypt. It doubtless helps a lot that four of the eight episodes were direct by Mohamed Diab, who is Egyptian. Earlier this month I attended an Assyriology conference in Helsinki and got to meet a young Arab scholar who had grown up in Egypt, though she now lives in France. She assured me that the show had gone down very well in Egypt.

It probably helped a lot that the show was actually shot in Cairo, not in a studio lot in Atlanta, or a town in Queensland pretending to be Cairo. Diab also got a lot of Egyptian and Arab music used in the show. Apparently this included some controversial Egyptian rap music. More on that here.

Finally we have the female lead on the show. Marc’s Egyptian wife is played by May Calamawy who was born in Bahrain of Egyptian and Palestinian parents. Towards the end of the season she gets to become the avatar of the hippo goddess, Taweret, as the superhero, Scarlet Scarab.

As is so often the case with the MCU, this is a choice with deep comics history, as this article explains. The original Scarlet Scarab appeared in Roy Thomas’s Invaders comic in 1977. This series revived characters from WWII. The Scarlet Scarab fights Nazis alongside Prince Namor and the original Human Torch.

Layla El-Faouly in Moon Knight is the third member of the family to inhabit the Scarab costume. The connection to Taweret is new, however. The scene in which she takes part in a fight in a Cairo street and a bystander asks if she is an Egyptian superhero is genius, and I was pleased to be told that it meant as much to people in Egypt as I had hoped.

Wonderful though Layla is in her Scarlet Scarab costume, the star of the series is undoubtedly Antonia Salib as the hippo-headed Taweret. In mythology Taweret is mainly a goddess of fertility and a protector of women in childbirth, but the Book of the Dead also mentions that she guards the path to the mountains of the west that leads to the underworld. It is this role that she plays in Moon Knight. It is hard not to be memorable when you are a giant, hippo-headed god, but Taweret is also a fabulous character and I will watch future Moon Knight series just for her.

Editorial – June 2022

This issue seems to have something of a trans theme. We’ve got a book by a trans woman about a trans warrior warrior. We’ve got a movie directed by one of the world’s most famous trans women. And we have a Doctor Who audio drama that involves several trans people. Well it is Pride Month after all.

I’ve not been rushing around the world much this month, but I will be back in Finland soon for this year’s Finncon. Before that I’ll be online to Tonopah, Nevada for this year’s Westercon. Currently I have no convention plans for August, but that’s only because Worldcon is in early September this year.

Meanwhile things are happening at Wizard’s Tower. There will be a new Chaz Brenchley Outremer novel available soon, Juliet is working hard on the next Green Man book, and there will be an annoucement soon about a new signing.

– Cheryl

Issue #40

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Editorial – May 2022: Live from Helsinki!

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