Issue #53

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

Art: Ion Trails

This issue’s cover reproduces the art that Frank Wu made for the cover of Ion Trails, the in-flight magazine of the starship WSFS Armadillo. If you have no idea what that is all about, read the article on the Glasgow Worldcon site that appears in this issue.

The unadulterated art is below.

Some Desperate Glory

The two novellas that Emily Tesh has out are fantasy. Her debut novel is space opera. Of course, depending on your view of such things, that might class as fantasy too, but it is certainly a very different thing. I was intrigued.

In some ways Some Desperate Glory reminds me of Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast, because we start our tale in a patriarchal enclave that sees itself very much under siege. However, Gaea Station does not exist past the end of the world, only the end of Earth.

Let me unpack that. Holdfast is set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world. While other worlds and other civilisations doubtless exist, no one on Earth knows or cares about that. Some Desperate Glory is set after a galactic war which ended with the destruction of Earth. Those few humans who are left have dedicated themselves to building up their military capability so that they can get revenge.

Except it soon becomes obvious that these are Not Nice People. Indeed, the central character, Kyr (shorty for Valkyr), is particularly obnoxious. She’s what passes for nobility on Gaea. She’s top of her cohort in everything military-related, and quite probably better than all of the boys except for her brother, Magnus. They are the pride of Gaea’s eugenics breeding program. And Kyr has swallowed the Gaea philosophy hook, line and sinker. It is no wonder that the other girls in her cohort hate her.

Meanwhile it is also becoming obvious that the enemy is not as bad as the folks on Gaea make out. They seem to be some sort of galactic technocracy ruled over by a benevolent AI called Wisdom who just wants all living beings to have happy and fulfilling lives. You start to wonder why they destroyed the Earth, and if they had been left with no choice.

And then, about half way through the book, Tesh pulls the rug out from under the expected narrative and goes off in a completely different direction. I love it when authors do that.

I can’t tell you much about the rest of the book because that would be way too spoilery. I can say that there is some interesting character development, and quite a bit of gay stuff. Also the abilities of Wisdom are such that this will tip the book over into fantasy for some readers. But hey, who cares about genre boundaries?

The usual suspects are not going to like this book much. In addition to the gay stuff, one of the major characters is black, and a lot of major characters are women. The main alien character doesn’t have gender. More than all of this, however, the book has definite Brexit vibes, except rather than being about British exceptionalism it is about human exceptionalism. The desire to stay out of a progressive civilization to preserve Patriarchy is the same. To her credit, Tesh has the galactic civilization have problems too.

I want to end with a slightly extended quote because it is a good example of the sort of character growth that Kyr goes through in the book. The other character is Cleo, the black girl who is the only one of Kyr’s cohort who comes close to matching her, and is actually a better shot.

Then she thought of something else. “But you shot at me,” she said. “When I was running away, in the Victrix hanger. You shot at me and missed.”

Cleo folded her arms and gave her a pointed look.

“…Oh,” Kyr said. “Right. Thank you.”

“You want to know something? You are the first person to ask me that question,” Cleo said. “They sat me down and interrogated me after you’d gone. Every single decision I made. They did not want to lose you and they wanted someone to blame. But you know what? No one said, Hey, Cleopatra, how come you missed that shot. I thought they would. They had my training scores and range records any time they wanted to check. But not once did it occur to those sons of bitches that I was better than that.”

Feminist fist bump!

book cover
Title: Some Desperate Glory
By: Emily Tesh
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


Why yes, of course Barbie belongs here. It is about someone who travels from an imaginary world to the real world. How much more fantasy can you get?

So yes, in Greta Gerwig’s film, Barbie, a doll, ably assisted (or not) by her loyal boyfriend, Ken, travels to the real world to try to solve a problem that is making Barbieland less than perfect. Barbieland is, of course, that ideal world of the imagination in which all Barbie dolls (and Kens) exist. No one has to climb stairs, because a little girl can just pick you up and put you where you need to be. No one eats or drinks, though their homes are full of boxes, bottles and crockery. And, most importantly, no one has any genitals.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the primary source of discontent seems to be that a girl in the real world is having sad thoughts playing with her Barbie. This is bad, because it is Barbie’s job to make little girls happy. And because of this, things are starting to go wrong in Barbieland. Our heroine has discovered that her feet have gone flat, and therefore no longer fit perfectly and painlessly into high heels. Worse, her pristine plastic skin has started to develop blemishes that look suspiciously like cellulite!

Also, though this will only become an issue later, Ken is sad. Barbie is a doll for girls. In Barbieland, every night is Girls’ Night. While Ken sees himself as a fine figure of a man who might stand a chance with a girl as perfect as Barbie, she only sees him as a pleasant accessory. Ken is starting to grow up, and Barbie is still a girl.

At this point I should note that Barbieland is full of Barbies. Our heroine, played by Margot Robbie, is Stereotypical Barbie, but she has many friends. There’s President Barbie, Physicist Barbie, Famous Author Barbie, Doctor Barbie (played by Hari Ness) and many others. All of them are perfect, and they run Barbieland. There are many Kens too. They have nothing to do except admire the Barbies.

When things start to go wrong, Stereotypical Barbie is sent to see the great sage, Weird Barbie, beautifully embodied by Kate McKinnon. Weird Barbie is not perfect, but she does know a thing or two about getting to the real world. She sends Stereotypical Barbie on her way. Ken (Stereotypical Ken, that is), desperate to get the girl to notice him, tags along. And things go downhill from there.

There are a bunch of additional fine performances. I should have already mentioned the wonderfully sarcastic narration provided by Helen Mirren. Will Ferrell does a fine job as the CEO of Mattel. Simu Liu (previously famous as Shang Chi) out-dazzles Ryan Gosling as a rival Ken. Ncuti Gatwa has a Ken role as well, and as he’s now Doctor Who the possibilities for fanfic are endless. I was particularly pleased to see a staring role for America Ferrera that does not require her to be ugly. Indeed, as she (Gloria) and her daughter (Sasha) get to travel to Barbieland, they get to spend part of the film being impossibly gorgeous, because every woman in Barbieland is impossibly gorgeous (except Weird Barbie).

The film is very funny, or at least it is if you are female. Many of the jokes are at the expense of men and their obsessions. The Zack Snyder joke, in particular, will never cease to be hilarious to me.

Saying any more about the film would require serious spoilers and feminist critique. That will come, but before I need to scare away those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, I have one small complaint.

At the start of the film there is this brilliant 2001 pastiche in which we are told that, from the dawn of time, all dolls were babies intended to teach little girls the joys of motherhood. This supposedly changed when Barbie arrived. Reader, this is so not true.

The first known doll-like figures are neolithic and we don’t know a lot about them as they were mostly organic and don’t survive well. There are doll-like figures from ancient Egypt, but they are basically just a shaped piece of wood with hair attached and it is hard to know what they were for. By the time of Classical Greece, however, little girls absolutely had articulated, humanoid female figures to play with. And reader, they were not babies. Let me introduce you to Warrior Princess Barbie.

Photo credit: Adrienne Mayor; the doll is from the 5th Century BCE and is currently in the Louvre.

Yes, girls from Classical Athens got to play with Amazon Warrior dolls. How wonderful is that? The whole baby thing didn’t start until around the middle of the 19th Century. It wasn’t actually the Victorians who were responsible, but rather their cousins in Germany and France. But of course the idea that little girls should play with toys that would equip them with the skills to become little wives quicky became popular in Britain and America too. Thank goodness we have mostly escaped from that.

And now…

********************************SPOILER ALERT!!!**************************************

I really recommend that you see this film unspoiled, but if you have seen it, or are unlikely to see it, read on.

When she arrives in the real world, Barbie discovers that the lot of women there is far from the perfection of Barbieland. Ken, meanwhile, discovers a concept called Patriarchy, and he rushes back to Barbieland to implement it there. Barbie has a lot of running away from Mattel goons to do. When she is finally rescued by Gloria and Sasha, and makes her way home, it is too late. Barbieland has become Kendom, and most of the Barbies have become simpering, brainless tarts who exist only to serve and adore their Kens. It is all very Joanna Russ.

Naturally there has to be a revolution. Weird Barbie is a key part of it as she’s not the sort of Barbie any Ken would want. Gloria is also able to help by explaining to the Barbies what life is like for women in the real world. But there is another character who is part of the revolution: Allan.

In Barbie mythology, Allan is Ken’s best friend. However (Grease allegory coming up), while Barbie and Ken are the perpetual Sandy and Danny of Barbieland, Allan is more like the guy Danny tried to pretend to be after seeing what Sandy was like in school. This isn’t in the film, but in Barbie history Allan married Barbie’s friend Midge, and they have a son in addition to Midge’s pregnant bump. Ken sees himself as an alpha male, whereas Allan is way down the pecking order. So far down that he succumbs to the dangers of matrimony. Russ would have had him as one of the Half-Changed.

In the film, Allan is played for laughs. I think this is sad, because Allan is basically an actual nice guy. He sees the Barbies as people. He respects them. And he knows full well that Patriarchy will be as much of a disaster for him as for them.

As I hinted earlier, much of the problem of Barbieland is that Ken sees himself as a man whereas Barbie still sees herself as a girl, albeit a woman-shaped one. Part of the message of the film seems to be that Barbie needs to grow up. I think that’s valid. It is all very well little girls being given positive role models, but unless they learn to cope with the real world (and the Patriarchy that infests it) they are not going to realise their dreams. Inevitably, learning to cope with it means learning to manage relationships with men.

And I do mean with men here, because Barbie is a very straight film. There is no Lesbian Barbie, and the perpetual Girls’ Night is just a slumber party. (There was once an Abby Wambach Barbie, but you couldn’t buy her.) The Kens might all look like refugees from the Village People, but they have only one thing on their minds, and that is Barbies. (They can’t think about their dicks because they don’t have any.)

However, while Barbie is very straight, it is not at all cis. One of the most talked about parts of the film is the end sequence where Barbie, having become human, visits a gynecologist, presumably to get herself a vagina. There are, of course, other explanations for this. When she became human I don’t see why her anatomy shouldn’t have followed suit. It is entirely possible that her visit to the doctor is about a pregnancy. But, given the jokes about her lack of genitals, her need to get a vagina seems a highly likely explanation. It also makes the ending one of pure transfeminine joy, seeing someone who desperately wants female genitals finally being on the brink of getting them.

The anti-trans lobby, of course, is also keen to see the trans-related ending, because it gives them an excuse to be outraged. They live for outrage.

The montage of (female) human life that Barbie sees before making the decision to become human is much more gender-essentialist, being basically all about family and raising children. It shouldn’t need to be pointed out that this is not the inevitable lot of human females, and that no one should be forced into it. However, our Barbie is a sovereign individual, and if that’s what attracts her to life as a human we shouldn’t criticize her for it. It is one of the things that is least available to her in Barbieland, after all. (There can be only one Pregnant Barbie, and Midge has that role.)

To my mind, however, the most trans part of the film occurs much earlier when Gloria is making her big speech about the lot of women. Towards the end she says this:

“And it turns out, in fact, that not only are you doing everything WRONG, but also, everything that happens is YOUR FAULT.”

I’d been nodding along with her throughout, because you can’t live as a woman in this world for 26 years (which I have) without getting a very good idea of the lot of womankind. That final line really hit home, because it is absolutely the lot of trans women. Everything we do we are told is wrong, and apparently all of the bad things in the world, specifically the bad things that are done by cis men, are our fault.

This, I think, explains a lot of the attraction of the anti-trans movement to a certain type of cis woman. They get to treat trans women the way that cis men treat them. It is a classic bullying victim reaction: if you can’t stand up to the bully, then you find someone even less fortunate than yourself and bully them in turn. And this is why it is pointless to use reason with transphobes. They know the things they are accusing us of aren’t true. They know that what they are doing causes hurt and distress. That’s the whole point. You don’t stop someone being a bully by telling them that being a bully is cruel, because being cruel is precisely what they want to do.

Barbie, thankfully, sees being cruel as bad. She’s as much on the side of trans girls as she is on the side of cis girls. Good for her. And you know, Barbie has come to the real world without Ken. He didn’t want to be human, and she decided that she didn’t need him. Maybe we’ve finally got a Lesbian Barbie after all.

The Coral Bones

This is a book that has been getting a lot of good press in the UK of late, not least because it was a finalist for this year’s Clarke Award. It didn’t win, but it was highly fancied and I can see why.

The Coral Bones is a tale of three women from different times in Earth’s history, each of whom has a special relationship with the Great Barrier Reef. Judith is the daughter of a 19th Century English sea captain and is desperate to study the natural world, just like the famous Mr. Darwin. Hana is a Japanese-Australia scientist from the present day, studying the dying reef. And Telma is a descendant of refugees in a near future Australia where most forms of animal life except humans are functionally extinct.

I don’t know what E J Swift’s personal connection with Australia is, but speaking as someone who lived there for two years and who has swum on the reef a couple of times, she seems to know her stuff. Reading the book certainly made me homesick for Melbourne, and Cairns though I’ve barely spent more than a week there.

Adam Roberts’ cover blurb says that the book is “Beautifully written,” and I most definitely agree. Quite why this book ended up with the now sadly defunct Unsung Stories rather than with a mainstream publisher is a mystery to me. I’m particular in awe of how Swift managed the voice of Judith, because 19th Century folks do write very differently from us. She even had the little list of topics at the start of each chapter.

Judith was my favourite character for other reasons too. Hers is a very feminist narrative, and manages to be so despite the fact that she’s very privileged and treats her maid very badly. Judith loves Australia and its wildlife, whereas most of the British see it as a primitive backwater there to be exploited. She persuades her father to let her accompany him on a scientific expedition to the Reef. Poor Belinda gets dragged along as a chaperone. Judith gets to do actual science, despite the best efforts of a bunch of not very bright men.

Hana’s story is something of a murder mystery, in that it begins with a body being discovered with an environmentalist slogan daubed on it. However, if you want that to be the focus of the story you will be disappointed. Hana is in way to much of a depressive funk, partly because the reef that she loves is dying, and partly because she’s just split up with her wife. Parts of the narrative come in the form of a letter Hana is writing to Tess, but this doubles as info dump about their life together and the reasons for their breakup, much of which Tess will actually know. It comes over as quite creepy and obsessive.

Finally we have Telma whose job involves investigating environmental crimes, mostly raising extinct creatures from stored DNA and selling them to wealthy collectors in other countries. Her bosses get wind that a leafy sea dragon (an absolutely wonderful creature) has been spotted in the wild, and she is dispatched to Queensland to investigate. As is a requirement for books of this type, all three narratives will eventually be brought together in some way, and the sea dragon quest is a key part of that. However, Telma’s narrative is as much, if not more, about her inability to come to terms with the death of one of her daughters, who was a firefighter, and her withdrawal from the world as a result.

The quality of the writing and the obvious love of the Reef were the high points for me in this book. Unfortunately there were also a couple of those “you’ve got that wrong” things that tend to throw you out of any science fiction novel. And frankly this book is not intended for the likes of me. It is written to appeal to a literary fiction audience.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Heaven knows, the more people who get to worry about the state of the climate the better. And if writing a book that is mostly about three flawed characters and the bad things that they do will get that message to a wider audience then I’m all for it. I, however, already have the message, and what presumably sugar-coats it for other people did pretty much the opposite for me.

book cover
Title: The Coral Bones
By: E J Swift
Publisher: Unsung Stories
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Visiting Spaceport Glasgow

We are now just under a year away from the next Glasgow Worldcon. A lot of excitement is building up on this side of the Atlantic. However, as is usual for a Worldcon, lots of people are keen to know more about the location. Obviously we had a Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005, but a lot can change in 18 years, and some of our 2024 members would not have been born then. As I had been asked to give a talk at the University of Glasgow this month, I took the opportunity to scout out the site and take a few pictures.

The first thing to note is that you may be able to save money by staying away from what is now called the SEC (Scottish Event Campus). In 1995 I stayed in student accommodation on the other side of the city. It was possible to get to the convention and back fairly easily, though I did have a car. If you are somewhere in the city centre, you will probably want to travel by train.

The University put me up in the ABode, which is about 10 minutes walk from Glasgow Central. Queen Street is closer, it Central is where you catch the train to the SEC. The hotel isn’t hugely accessible, but if you have accessibility issues you’ll probably want to be on the campus anyway. It is a lot cheaper than the big hotel chains, though if you are collecting points there’s a Hampton Inn right next door.

A feature of the ABode is this splendid cage elevator. The building itself is lovely too.

There are loads of restaurants in the vicinity, and the hotel does a fine Scottish Breakfast. The smoked salmon and scrambled egg on sourdough toast is very good too.

The hotel serves milk in these cute little milk churns.

Glasgow Central is huge, and finding the train to the SEC can be challenging. As you look at the platforms, you want to head as far to the right as possible, and look for the stairs/escalators down to platforms 16 and 17. Trains are cheap and very regular, and it is only two stops. Despite just missing one train, I still made it from the hotel to Exhibition Centre station in half an hour.

Scot Rail has signage in both English and Scottish Gaelic. Sadly there are no signs in Scots, the English-like language mostly spoken in Lowland Scotland. If they had them, visitors would find it much easier to understand the locals. The Scots for Glasgow is Glesgae.

The station is about a 5 minute walk from the station to the SEC. It is mostly covered, but just to make sure you get the full Scottish rain experience it stops just short of both station and exhibition halls. You can see the end of the covered walkway to the right of the picture below.

The bulk of the convention will take place in the main SEC halls. However, in 2005 the Events Division were given the Armadillo in which to play. This is a large, purpose-built auditorium which is exactly the sort of space that things like the Hugo Ceremony and Masquerade need. In 2024 I believe that all programming will take place in either the SEC or the Crowne Plaza hotel, but Kevin and I ran Events for 2005 and I couldn’t resist going to see the old place.

In keeping with the convention’s theme of Spaceport Glasgow, we made the Armadillo an interstellar cruise liner operated by White Star Federated Spacelines (WSFS) with Kevin as the captain and me doing my best Susan Ivanova impression as First Officer. This is why you will sometimes see Kevin wearing a ship’s captain uniform at conventions. The header image for this article is a part of the painting of the spaceport that Jim Burns did for the convention, shpwing the Armadillo taking off. It was great fun. We even put together an in-flight magazine for the ship, and this issue’s cover is the art Frank Wu did for that.

This year there is a new ship in the spaceport: the OVO Hydro. Outer Void Operations is an adventure holiday company that promises to take you where no sentient lifeform has been before. Thanks to its somewhat risky flight plans, the Hydro often has to hire private security. Earlier this year they were using the notorious space pirate, Simon Le Bon, and his Wild Boys gang. However, they seem to have moved on. There is no word as yet as to who you might find aboard the Hydo next August.

Across the car park from the SEC and Armadillo there is a bevy of hotels, and also the giant crane that Iain J Clark has made famous in his art for the convention. Here you can see the Hilton Garden Inn, the Radisson Red, and the Campanile.

Here’s another view with the Radisson, Campanile and the Courtyard by Marriott.

Across the river there is a Premier Inn. Thanks to the footbridge, it is closer to the Crowne Plaza than the hotels above. Of course it may be full of BBC Scotland people.

The Crowne Plaza is tucked away behind the Armadillo.

There are plenty of tourism opportunities, starting with the Glasgow Science Centre which is next to the BBC Scotland building. The odd-coloured lump between them is an IMAX cinema.

Loch Lomond is apparently 20 minutes miles from the Crowne Plaza by bicycle.

Not so far away, and walkable for most people, is the Riverside Museum and a lovely Tall Ship.

But the most exciting new development is this building. You can see the rear of the Armadillo in the background, so you can see how close it is.

And what is that building? It is the Clydeside Whisky Distillery!

Guardians of the Galaxy – Volume 3

There’s a theme going around social media these days that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finished. There are, I think, legitimate reasons for thinking this: major stars wanting out, Jonathan Majors turning out to be an awful human being. But it doesn’t follow that all of the new content will be rubbish. Guardians of the Galaxy 3 has had some pretty terrible reviews. I don’t understand why.

Obviously there is the whole StarLord-Gamora thing. Gamora was murdered by Thanos in the Infinity War sequence, but then came back after the Blip with no memory of what had gone on during that period. Peter Quill is a pain at the best of times, but a lovesick Peter Quill is not a pretty sight.

That apart, the film has a legitimate message. The main villain is the High Evolutionary, who is basically a Marvel version of Doctor Moreau with the identifying marks filed off. That is, he’s a eugenicist. He wants to use the power of evolution to create perfect people to inhabit a perfect world. So he happens to start with species other than humans: so what? It is the same idiot idea.

We find all this out because early on in the story Rocket is seriously injured and the team can’t cure him because of a mysterious device implanted in his body preventing the use of modern surgical techniques. So they have to find the person who uplifted him. Guess who?

The plot revolves around the idea that, far in the past, Rocket was the High Evolutionary’s only success. He’s not just intelligent, he’s super-smart (though he hides that from the team most of the time). Of course, being an arrogant human male, the High Evolutionary didn’t welcome Rocket as a potential colleague. Instead he wanted to take Rocket’s brain apart to see what made him such a good experimental subject.

By the time our heroes get involved, the High Evolutionary has begun experimenting on human children. Naturally they want to rescue the kids. Rocket has to make the point that all of the other species that the High Evolutionary has held captive are victims too, and are just as deserving as rescue. So there’s your moral arc. It might be hedged around with super hero silliness (and the Guardians films are more comedic than most of the MCU), but it is a valid argument and I expect to see academic papers written about it for conferences on animal rights.

This being the third film in the series, things will now change. Jim Gunn has gone off to helm the DC movie universe. Quill has decided to try to grow up (though apparently we will get a whole film of him doing so – sigh). And Mantis, having finally shown how amazingly powerful she is, is also going off to find herself. Drax (obviously) and Nebula (!) decide to look after the rescued children. And we get a new Guardians team led by Rocket.

The team has a number of new members. Kraglin finally manages to master the use of Yondu’s whistle-arrow during the film, so is now much more useful to the team, and with him comes Cosmo the Space Dog. One of the children turns out to be Phyla (Quasar?), though probably not the Phyla-Vell of the comics as she’s not obviously Kree and the Mar-Vell of the film doesn’t appear to have had children. And finally we have Adam Warlock.

As you may recall, Adam was created by the Sovereign as a weapon against the Guardians, but he was hatched out of his cocoon early and is still basically a child, albeit one with enough power to give Carol Danvers a run for her money. This film sees him do a lot of growing up. Despite being 2.5 hours long, it didn’t really have time to do that story justice, which is a shame. So I hope we get to see the new Guardians again at some point so that the character can be explored in more detail.

I did enjoy the bit at the end where the new Guardians were discussing their favourite Earth music. Being a fan of Adrian Belew is so very Adam. If there is an Adam Warlock solo movie it should have an entirely prog rock soundtrack.

There is one further thing to look forward to. Much as I would like to avoid any further mention of Peter Quill, he does, in the comics, for some utterly inexplicable reason, end up in a relationship with Kitty Pride. That brings in the X-Men at last. And possibly even Lockheed.

Even Though I Knew The End

Somewhat later than usual, it is Hugo reading time. As is generally the case these days, the novella category is the hardest to judge. Normally voting for Nghi Vo would be easy, but the Adrian Tchaikovsky story is great too, and the Alix Harrow is a lot of fun. I have three to read, and this one was first on the list.

I guess a genre definition of Even Though I Knew the End would be something like Gumshoe Lesbian Vampire Hunters meets Good Omens. Helen Brandt is a detective, a sorcerer, and a former member of the Freemasons, er, sorry, Brotherhood of the Compass. She got thrown out of the order because she sold her soul to the Devil in order to save her brother’s life. Such debts are payable in 10 years, and Helen has only a few days left to live. But one of the advantages of being known in Hell is that you attract interesting clientele. Someone in Chicago committing terrible magical crimes, and Helen’s wealthy patron, Marlowe, wants them caught. The payment, if successful, will be the return Helen’s soul.

This will be very timely. Helen hasn’t told her devoutly Catholic girlfriend, Edith, that she has only a few days to live. Edith has just landed a plush job in San Francisco and is making plans for the pair of them to move out West together. So the serial killer known as the White City Vampire has to be caught.

It gets more complicated from there.

This is a fine little story, and one that I am very pleased to see as a Hugo finalist. In addition to the above, C L Polk throws in some of the sort of Christian mythology you used to find in Storm Constantine stories. I can’t say too much more about that without creating dreadful spoilers, but it is nicely done.

What I can say is that possession features in the story, and that this can break the mind of the victim leading to incarceration in a mental hospital. This gives Polk the opportunity to go on an extended rant about the terrible way mental health diagnoses are used as a form of social control, about the awfulness of aversion therapy, and about the contempt that male psychiatrists have for women (especially queer women). This wasn’t strictly necessary to the plot, but I could have stood up and applauded at that point.

I have two more novellas to read, both by hugely popular writers. Goodness only knows how I am going to decide on my votes.

book cover
Title: Even Though I Knew the End
By: C L Polk
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


You are probably all at least vaguely familiar with the story of Gilgamesh. This, however, it not a review of the epic itself, but rather of one particular translation.

I should note at the start that Sophus Helle is a friend. He’s been very helpful to my own research on trans lives in ancient Mesopotamia. However, once I explain the value of this translation, I think you’ll understand why I love it.

In the past, translations of Gilgamesh have fallen into two groups. The first are academic works by Assyriologists that tend to be a bit dry and which focus on accurate translation of the original texts. At the opposite extreme we have versions by professional writers who seek to make the text glow, but who know little or nothing about the sources. They work solely from the academic translations.

For example, I have a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s well received 2004 translation. In it, he says:

I don’t read cuneiform and have no knowledge of Akkadian: for the meaning of the text, I have depended on literal translations by seven scholars.

Mitchell is a professional poet, and his bringing his own skills to the job. His version reads very well. But it misses so much about the text.

Helle comes to Gilgamesh via Assyriology. He can read cuneiform. But he’s not disconnected from the literary world either. He cut his teeth on the epic when he produced a version of the text in his native Danish. For that he worked in collaboration with his father, Morten Sødergaard, who is a poet. Helle’s command of English is excellent (rather better than many native-speaking academics), so he is able to render a translation that reads well.

However, in addition he brings to the job an in-depth knowledge of the history of the epic, of the various cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, and in particular of their religions. This is all invaluable. So while the text is good, the really interesting parts of this book are the introduction and the series of essays that follow the main text.

Why is this important? Well to start with, the history of the Epic of Gilgamesh is not simple. We are reasonably sure of the basic text of the Iliad. We believe that it was put in its present form around 300 BCE in Alexandria. The Greek scholars who did that work produced written versions which have been copied down the ages. We have hundreds of complete copies, and while there are differences due to copying errors and idiosyncrasies of individual copyists, the text is broadly the same in all of them.

Contrast Gilgamesh: although it is a story about a Sumerian king, there is no extant Sumerian version. We are not even sure that there was a Sumerian version of the whole epic. Our best guess is that the epic, in its current form, was put together in Babylon a few hundred years after Sargon of Akkad conquered Sumer, possibly assembled from a collection of Sumerian poems about the legendary king. That version would have been written in Old Babylonian. The most complete version we have is written in Standard Babylonian, but that copy was found in the Library of Ashurbanipal and may have been made a few hundred years after the original. There are also versions in Middle Babylonian (found in the Syrian city of Ugarit) and Assyrian. Bits of several versions were found in the Hittite capital of Hattusa, including one translated into the Hittite language. Given that the real Trojans seem to have been a Hittite client kingdom, it is entirely likely that King Priam (if he existed) owned a copy.

None of these copies is complete. Indeed, we still don’t have the entire text. So creating a modern version of Gilgamesh is a bit like trying to piece together the Iliad if all you have to go on are fragments of a version from Rennaisance Italy, Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Raoul Schott’s version in German poetry, and the script of Brad Pitt’s movie, Troy.

Knowledge of cuneiform also allows Helle to understand the beauty of the puns, alliteration and so on that can be found in the original(s). This is a work that has been refined over centuries by scribes who would have obsessed over it the way we obsess over Shakespeare. They were smart people, and they did amazing things with the text that an English translation can only approximate.

Understanding of Mesopotamian culture is key to the epic as well. What exactly was the role of a king in Sumer? How much did he have to rely on the good will of the people. What were the social roles of characters such as Shamhat, the priestess, or Shiduri, the tavernkeeper? What does it mean when the text says that Gilgamesh obtained knowledge of “the deep” (the Apsû)? These are all questions that Helle is well-equipped to answer. And because of this, his version of the epic is way more interesting than any literary translation.

book cover
Title: Gilgamesh
By: Sophus Helle
Publisher: Yale University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Strange New Worlds – Season 2

Two seasons in, and Strange New Worlds continues to be the most Trek-like of the Trek spin-offs. Once again it has a huge variety of episodes, while somehow managing to maintain a more-or-less coherent whole.

There’s a courtroom drama episode, a time travel episode, a weird alien planet episode, a Vulcans are crazy episode, a brutal flashback to the Klingon war episode, a musical episode, and even a cross-over with Lower Decks. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

A major theme of this season is relationships. Pike’s romance with Captain Marie Batel is rocky throughout and is one of the things left hanging in the balance in the end-of-season cliff-hanger. La’an gets an affair with Kirk (Jim, not Sam, obviously), but it is in a time travel episode and is made not real, at least for him. The Spock-Chapel relationship is on then off again. The amount of emotional angst deployed in considerable.

Also notable is the cautious working towards The Original Series. Uhura is getting opportunities to grow into the character we know and love. And the final episode of this season introduces us to a very young Montgomery Scott. He’s surprisingly cute, in a loveable teenage super-nerd sort of way.

Like most people, I was very much looking forward to the Lower Decks cross-over. Obviously that has to involve time travel too, and the sight of Boimler trying to avoid altering the timeline while getting to meet a group of people that he has hero-worshipped all his life was obvious comedy gold. Both Boimler and Mariner were played by the actors who voice them in the cartoon, and that seemed to work very well, though Jack Quaid is Very Tall.

I was a little disappointed in the court martial of Number One for being an Illyrian. It seemed to get wrapped up too quickly, easily and neatly. However, there’s a moment in the Lower Decks cross-over that makes it all worthwhile.

My favourite moment of the series is at the end of episode 6. The main story is an opportunity for Uhura to demonstrate her intelligence, but at the end she also gets to introduce Jim Kirk (who is shadowing Number One prior to taking up his First Officer post on the Farragut) to Spock. There’s a definite poetic brilliance to having Uhura being the person who introduces them, but the moment is made by the setting. They are in the Enterprise bar and a jazz band is playing an old 20th Century classic song called “’Till there was you”. You may know it as it was later covered by a pop group called The Beatles. The lyrics are here. It is perfect.

The one thing I’m a bit unhappy with is Carol Kane as Pelia. She’s clearly a great character, but I have hearing difficulty these days and I can’t understand a word she says most of the time. I’m sure there must be some way to get subtitles, but I haven’t managed to figure it out yet.

There will be a third season. Or at least there had better be because episode 10 ends on a massive cliff-hanger. I am a little worried that Erica Ortegas is going to die, as the script contained a couple of hints in that direction. I hope not. I like her, and there’s time yet to swap the bridge crew for the TOS people.

Begin Transmission

You are probably all aware of the idea that parts of the Matrix films are a trans allegory; the most famous example being that the red pill actually represents Premarin, a common form of estrogen medication back in the 20th Century. Just how much else there is in the films is open to question, but the thesis of Begin Transmission: The trans allegories of The Matrix by Tilly Bridges is that the entire film cycle (including the animated shorts and the fourth film) form one massive and intricately crafted allegory of trans life.

Back in Emerald City days I found myself fascinated by books that claimed to reveal all of the clues hidden in Gene Wolfe’s massive New/Long/Short sun books. There’s no way I could verify that they were right, if only because I would have to become as obsessive as the books’ authors in order to check everything. But reading them was sure fun. Begin Transmission is a book in a similar vein. It is chatty rather than claiming academic rigour, but the issues are the same. I have not gone back and watched the films again, stopping them at each time mark to verify what Bridges says about them. But I did enjoy going down the rabbit hole.

The central thesis of the book is that Neo is a trans woman. The Matrix represents the false world that she’s forced to live in, and by taking the red pill (estrogen) she can enter the real world as her true self. But the path of transition is never smooth, and there are friends and enemies along the way. Trinity represents Neo’s post-transition self. Moebius (dream) represents her unconscious, the Oracle her heart and so on. Smith, with his constant misgendering (Mister Anderson) represents the forces of transphobia.

Other members of the cast represent various types of trans person. In particular The Merovingian is a trans woman who is afraid to transition and supresses her desires.

But wait, there’s more. Bridges suggests that the choices of colour in the film have meaning. Red represents truth, blue doubt, and yellow fear. By looking at how scenes and characters are lit, you can tell how Neo is feeling at the time.

The four films represent different aspects of the trans experience. The first one is about the initial decision to transition. Reloaded is about the post-transition experience. Revolutions is about dealing with the forces of transphobia in the world. And Resurrections picks up Neo’s story after she has had a crisis of confidence and decided to detransition.

Oh, and there are a whole lot of other visual cues as well, many of which are visible only if you are the sort of obsessive who keeps stopping the film to see exactly what’s on screen. My favourite example is that the length of Neo’s jacket in Resurrections keeps changing. The shorter it is, the more she is backsliding into detransition. The longer it is, the more it moves like a dress.

Oh, and there’s the whole ‘denial beard’ thing. Trans women often grow a beard in an attempt to masculinise themselves and avoid the pain of transition. (I couldn’t even manage a moustache, and hated facial hair, but that’s another story.) In Resurrections, the detransitioned Neo sports a denial beard. Once she has made the decision to retransition, the beard goes away.

Do I believe all of this? I certainly believe that the Wachowskis are smart enough to have done it. I’m not going to sit down and check every claim that Bridges makes. And I don’t think I have to. What I will say is that Bridges has provided a fascinating, in-depth reading of the films. What she says about them is absolutely a valid interpretation.

However, I would be very wary of saying that Bridges has uncovered “The Truth” about the films. First up, I think that the Wachowskis are smart enough to have layered other meanings into their work as well. Second, I believe that any work of art is a collaboration between the creator and the consumer. If a film has a particular meaning for you, that is a valid meaning. I do not subscribe to the idea that a work of art has one, and only one, correct interpretation, which is that which the creator intended for it. Indeed, the foremost champion of that type of literary criticism is one K*thleen St*ck, who also has some very extreme views about people having only one correct interpretation. No trans person should want to find themselves on her side in an argument.

Having said that, Begin Transmission is an amazing piece of work, and a great example of the sort of film criticism that can be done if you put your mind to it. It also has a Trans Mission. Bridges clearly hopes that her book will be read by many cis people, and has carefully explained a whole lot of key points about trans people and trans politics along the way. Quite how many cisgender readers she will get, I don’t know. Trans people are doubtless snapping up the book, but we are few in number. Whether it finds a wider audience is another matter. But I am reviewing it here because I think you should give it a try. If nothing else it will tell you a lot about how clever some filmmakers are.

book cover
Title: Begin Transmission
By: Tilly Bridges
Publisher: BearManor Media
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


Back in issue #50 I ran a review of a small book called Celtic Wales, written by two very eminent historians who are experts on the country during the Iron Age. I found that book by chance in the local history section of Swansea Waterstones. As I happened to be back in the shop recently I had another look in that section to see if they had anything else. I was immediately rewarded.

Silures: Resistance, Resilience, Revival, is a solo effort by Professor Ray Howell, and he’s probably the world expert on that particular group of ancient Welsh people. That’s Silures, not Silurians. The Silurians are lizard people named after the Silurian geologic period, which was in turn named after rocks first identified in the part of Wales that the Silures inhabited.

So who were the Silures? According to the Romans, they were a tribal grouping that occupied south-east Wales prior to the invasion. In modern terms their territory was Glamorgan and Gwent. My home is at the eastern end of the territory of a different tribal group, the Demetae.

Following the Claudian invasion, the British war leader, Caractacus (I’m using the Roman version of name for ease of look-up) found sanctuary among the Silures. After a defeat in a close-fought battle he fled north where we was betrayed by Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes (sorry Nicola, Yorkshire women were a bit sus in those days). The Silures, however, kept on fighting. It took 25 years of warfare for the Romans to finally subdue them, and even then peace was only achieved by offering the Silures a degree of self-rule. They became a civitas, with their own senedd at Venta Silurum (Caerwent).

While Celtic Wales is very much a contribution to an academic debate, Silures is much more of a popular history book. Professor Howell doesn’t even use his academic title, and his style is very conversational. He reminisces about his occasional appearances on Time Team, and openly speculates in ways that he could never do in an academic volume. His style is very engaging and I found myself wishing that I’d had him as a lecturer.

The purpose of the book is to shine more of a light on this fascinating group of ancient Welsh people who thoroughly terrified the Romans. Tacitus wrote that neither atrocity nor clemency had any effect on them, they were resolutely opposed to Rome. But, being Welsh, they are very little studied by the archaeological establishment in the UK. Howell notes that, of over 50 known Silurian hill forts in Gwent alone, only 3 have been professionally excavated since WWII.

So what do we know about them? We know that they were very warlike. We know that they loved horses (well, Welsh ponies) and would have used chariots. And we know that they lived in roundhouses and built an impressive number of hillforts. Howell notes that these formed a social network: each hillfort was in line of sight view of at least one other. Of course the term “hillfort” is a bit of misnomer as they probably served as much as a civic hub as a defensive position. They were not, like Norman castles, intended to dominate the local population, but rather provided it with various services and a sense of identity.

Howell, being from south Wales himself, likens the hillfort network to the fact that every village has its own rugby club. And our fiercest rivalries are probably with the people from the next valley over, unless those red-crested soldiers (or red roses on white uniforms) are spotted, in which case we immediately unite against the common enemy.

Of course, over a few hundred years, the enemy does not always stay the enemy. One of the best stories in the book concerns a high status Roman burial from around the end of the second century CE that Howell was called in to investigate after a builder’s digger cut through the coffin. Isotope analysis of the teeth showed that this man was a local, born and raised in Silurian territory. But he was clearly very wealthy and presumably well thought of in Roman society. A facial reconstruction was commissioned, and a photo appears in the book. Even before I read the accompanying text, I had immediately jumped to the same conclusion: this was a face I have seen in a rugby shirt.

book cover
Title: Silures
By: Ray Howell
Publisher: The History Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Secret Invasion

While I was happy to defend Guardians 3, I am much less enamoured of Marvel’s latest TV production. I’d been looking forward to something involving Nick Fury and the Skrulls. Sadly, what we got was a below par effort that tried to follow in the footsteps of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and had some very obvious problems.

I guess I should not have been too surprised. Anything that Marvel does with a title beginning “Secret” is likely to be a mess. (Ditto anything DC does labeled “Crisis”). But it is a shame because Secret Invasion does try to make a valid point.

The set-up of the series is that, back before the Infinity War, Nickl Fury and Carol Danvers promised to find the Skrulls a new home after their own world had been conquered by the Kree. In the meantime a large group of Skrulls, led by Talos, has been hiding out on Earth, using their shape-shifting powers to remain undetected.

However, Fury and Danvers have been unable to deliver on their promise. Part of this is due to the Blip, which meant Fury was dead for 5 years, but at one point in the series he says that it became obvious early on that finding the Skrulls a new home would be impossible. Given the size of the galaxy, that seems a little strange.

In the meantime, the Skrulls left on Earth have become more and more disaffected. Talos’s leadership has been questioned, and they have turned more to a young radical called Gravik who advocates taking over Earth. Somehow, Skrulls have managed to replace Rhodey (who is now a senior security advisor to the US President), the UN Secretary General, the British Prime Minister and various other world leaders.

At the start of the series, Gravik takes on Fury’s shape to murder Maria Hill. This is a fairly clumsy piece of fridging, and I suspect it was done mainly because Cobie Smulders wanted out of the MCU.

On the other hand, we get the introduction of Olivia Colman as Sonya Falsworth, a ruthless and somewhat bloodthirsty MI6 operative. As you might expect from Colman, she totally steals the show.

The point of the series is that Fury, despite his sympathy for the Skrulls, and his many super-powered friends, is helpless in the face of a refugee crisis. I’m guessing that the showrunners wanted to make a point about how badly the real world is dealing with such things right now, and that racism is a major component of this. However, the way that the story unfolds rather suggests that desperate refugees will turn to violence, and then they will need to be dealt with severely. That’s not a very convincing moral arc.

Worse still, the show has some gaping plot holes. By far the worst is the question of how you prove that someone is a Skrull in disguise. Towards the end of the series, Fury is unable to prove to President Ritson that Rhodey is a Skrull, because, it was claimed, he would have to kill him to do so. However, soon after, Sonya demonstrates that a Skrull has infiltrated MI6 by wounding him. These scenes are a few minutes apart. It doesn’t take a PhD in narrative studies to spot the flaw. Goodness only knows what went on in the writers’ room.

Talking of writers, I should note that the series got off to a really bad start when it was revealed that the opening titles were AI-generated. So maybe there weren’t any writers either. It sometimes felt like it.

Editorial – August 2023

Well that was a surprise. Not only did I have enough material for an issue in August, I had more than enough and am leaving a couple of reviews for next month. Of course traveling to Glasgow and back by train was a big help. Though I did also read the new Green Man book on that journey. Obviously I’m not going to review that. I’m waiting patiently for Ben to finish the cover so I can start doing publicity.

This month I have a couple of Kickstarter campaigns that I’d like to recommend. The first is Filling your worlds with words, a book about using language in worldbuilding. I’m really looking forward to this. If you want to get some idea of the flavour of the book, check out C D Covington’s column at Now imagine that but in much more depth. The campaign is already funded, so you can just buy the book at the cheapest price.

The second is Embroidered Worlds: Ukrainian Fantastic Fiction, from the lovely people at Atthis Arts. As the title suggests, it is an anthology of fantastical stories written by Ukrainian writers and members of the Ukrainian diaspora. This one launches on Friday. There will be more information about it up then.

For UK folks, I will be at FantasyCon in September, but I won’t have a dealer table. I still don’t have a car that I would trust to get me all the way to Birmingham.

Looking further ahead, I may be at Octocon virtually, but we are holding a writing workshop in Llandybie that weekend too. If you are interested in spending a weekend in the wilds of Wales with Roz and Jo for tutors, let me know. (Their web presence is on Farcebook so I can’t point you at it.)

Issue #52

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

  • Cover: Sailing Over Glasgow: This issue's cover is another of the pieces of art created for the Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon by Iain J Clark..

  • Menewood: Nicola Griffith's sequel to Hild has been long-awaited, but it will be here soon. Cheryl has had an ARC.

  • Dragonfall: L R Lam returns with a triumphant new fantasy trilogy.

  • Good Omens – Season 2: Crowley and Aziraphael are back, more cute and loveable than ever. Gabriel, meanwhile, appears to be having a mid-eternity crisis.

  • Nimona: It is turning into a fine year for animated movies. This one is the latest offering from Nate Stevenson of She-Ra fame.

  • Promises Stronger Than Darkness: Charlie Jane Anders concludes her YA space opera series in fine form.

  • Pemmi-Con: With Worldcon being in Chengdu, there was a NASFiC this year. Unusually, it was in Canada, which meant that Cheryl could attend.

  • The Pemmi-Con Masquerade: Small, but full of quality. Not quite the bee's knees, but definitely the chicken's legs.

  • Black Adam: The latest DC movie offering tries to do something interesting, but gets very confused.

  • The Western Kingdom: The kingdom of Cornwall, or Dumnonia as it was known in ancient times, has a long and fascinating history.

  • Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: The Dungeons & Dragons franchise gets a spin-off movie. Is it a pub full of happy hobbits, or just a big, sad gelatinous cube?

  • Editorial – July 2023: In which Cheryl and Air Canada have a falling out

Cover: Sailing Over Glasgow

This issue sees the second in my series of covers donated by Iain J Clark from the collection of images he has created for the Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon. This one is called “Sailing over Glasgow” and presumably celebrates the shipbuilding industry of the Clyde.

The building in the foreground is the Tolbooth Steeple, which is all that remains of a notorious building from Glasgow’s history that had, at various times, been a council chamber, a pub and a site of public executions.

As usual, you can find a larger, unadorned version of the art below.

The Glasgow committee noted:

Glasgow 2024 has been incredibly privileged to have been supported by the donated artwork of Iain J. Clark. He was a Hugo nominee in the ‘Best Fan Artist’ category for three consecutive years and he won the BFSA award for best artwork in 2020 with ‘Ship Building Over the Clyde’ and in 2021 with the ‘Glasgow Green Woman’ which are available along with his other beautiful work at

If you want to know more about the Glasgow Worldcon, their website is:


Nicola Griffith’s foray into historical fiction, Hild, has been hugely successful. The book won a Lammy and was a finalist for a bunch of other major awards, including the Nebula, Otherwise and Campbell. (Yes, that Campbell which is an award for science fiction novels). Given that the book only covered the early years of the life of Hild of Whitby, a sequel was pretty much inevitable. Of course, with the amount of research that Griffith puts into these books, it wasn’t going to come quickly. However, Menewood is officially due on October 3rd. Griffith kindly sent me an ARC to look at.

This is history, so some things about Hild’s life are way beyond the statue of limitations for spoilers. When we left her, she was riding high as a valued advisor to her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria. Also she had just got married to her childhood friend, Cian, and the two of them had their own estates to run in Elmet (the area around modern day Leeds). However, anyone with access to Wikipedia will know that Edwin’s reign was cut short thanks to an attack by King Penda of Mercia, backed up by the vicious Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Hild must have survived, and Menewood sets out to tell the story of those turbulent years.

Just like Hild, Menewood is real. These days it is a suburb of Leeds, just to the east of Headingly, where Griffith grew up. (The modern name is spelled Meanwood, which is far less glamorous.) One of the things that shines through in the book is the sense of place. You get the impression that Griffith has walked the many locations featured in the novel, or at least surveyed them on Google Earth, and taken as keen an interest in their geography as her hero does.

The thing you have to do when your country is laid waste by foreign invaders is rebuild, pretty much from scratch. In early mediaeval England that means skills in farming and a whole bunch of associated crafts such as housebuilding, metalworking and brewing. Hild can’t do all of these things (she’s not a Heinlein hero), but Griffith gives her good people management skills. Building a village is much like building a company. You want the right people in the right jobs. In order to write this, Griffith has had to find out how all these things were done in Hild’s time. That’s a whole lot of research, which I’m sure will delight her readers. Nevertheless, the book never feels infodumpy.

Having rebuilt, the next step is to secure peace, by making sure that the enemy will never be able to invade you again. Penda, it seems, is not much of a problem. His strategy seems to be one of patience and caution. He keeps Mercia safe, not by conquering neighboring kingdoms, which might cause him to overstretch, but by attacking and destabilizing them, then moving on. Having done for Edwin, he’s turning his sights on the Angles, amongst whom Hild’s sister, Hereswith, is likely to become queen. That, I suspect, will be the focus of the next book in the series. (Edwin was an ally of Rædwald, the most likely occupant of the grave at Sutton Hoo.)

Cadwallon is another matter. He’s not interested in being a king. He’d much prefer to be a terrifying warlord who takes his men where he wants, kills who he wants, and takes their gold. Bede tells us that he was an awful person, and someone who Bede says is bad, even for the British, must be very bad indeed.

I used the word, ‘British’, there because many of the inhabitants of the ex-Roman province of Britannia still regard themselves as citizens of the country they called Prydain before the Romans arrived. They speak a language that is recognizably a precursor of modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Hild’s people call them Wealh (Welsh) – foreigners. The newcomers are from many parts of the Germanic world and do not yet call themselves Saxons, but the British call them Saes (Saesneg, Sassenach), which also means foreigners.

Hild is at pains to make her people tolerant of ethnic differences. She tells them that they are Elmetsæte first, regardless of what god they worship or language they speak. This sems entirely fitting, both for her later career as a diplomat, and for the fact that the author is a Yorkshire lass with the fine Welsh name of Gruffydd.

Having laid waste to modern Yorkshire, Cadwallon heads north to the Roman wall and beyond, murdering and plundering as he goes. Bede tells us that he met a sticky end in the north at the hands of one Oswald, a cousin of Hild whose family fell foul of Edwin and ended up hiding out in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riada in the West of Scotland. How this came to pass is a mystery, and one that Griffith sets out to explain.

A word of advice. If you are into wargaming, do not take on Griffith. She has an excellent eye for strategy and tactics, and will beat you hollow.

The final element of the book is Hild’s personal journey. She is not yet at the point of embracing Christianity and becoming a saint, and that part of her life may make a fascinating fourth volume. Currently she’s still happy to embrace any faith, be it worship of Woden, or any of the varieties of Christian worship vying for dominance, as long as it works for her. But she still has a lot to learn. To rebuild her community she needs to become a woman of the people, which is hard for someone raised as royalty. I’m pleased to see that she ends up treating her former body slave, Gwaldus, much better than she did in the first book.

By the way, Gwladus is a British woman from Somerset, so I have a soft spot for her. Griffith gives her own pronunciation guide in the book, but I’m here to tell you that Gladys is not a bad modern Welsh version of the name.

I should note that the book takes an entirely realistic attitude to early mediaeval sexuality. Many characters are enthusiastically bisexual, and no one fetishizes virginity. The small number of fanatical Christians probably disapprove, but no one pays them any mind. That will change, and I look forward to seeing how Hild reacts to it.

Hild also knows that she can’t be king. In a warrior society like hers, strong men always end up in charge, and a woman on the throne simply marks your kingdom out as a target for neighbouring kings. Besides, being king is an awful job. You have to keep killing people in order to stay on the throne, and Hild doesn’t want to do that. There are a number of characters who use more traditionally feminine paths to power, most notably Langwredd, the British princess whose lands lie north of the wall. Griffith, being who she is, has Hild do things very differently, and it is fascinating to observe.

Talking of powerful women those of you who follow the resurrected Time Team may know that they recently excavated an early mediaeval graveyard in East Anglia, and in particular the grave of a high status Christian woman. They don’t know who she is, or why she was buried there, but the dates would work for it being Hereswith. Some of the grave goods are from Frankia (the land of the Franks in modern-day France). Bede says that she entered a monastery there to live out her days, but the Abbey he says she went to wasn’t founded until after her death, and anyway he doesn’t explicitly say she died there. She may have come home when her son, Ealdwulf, became king of the Angles. I should note that the woman in the grave is very short and petite, which is very unlike the tall, imposing Hild, but Hild’s stature is a Griffith invention.

The book is long – over 700 pages in PDF – but very much worth your time, especially if you have any interest in early mediaeval Britain. I expect it to be hugely popular with historical fiction readers, and with a bunch of my historian friends. I note that Dr. Griffith was a guest speaker at the prestigious International Mediaeval Congress this year (which just happened to be in Leeds this year).

Menewood is not fantasy. It does include a brief appearance from someone who might have inspired a famous legend, but that’s hardly a key part of the story. It is much more important to note that Hild’s people, and her enemies, are all convinced that she can do magic because she is very smart and notices things that most people would miss. Griffith doesn’t write the book as magic realism, but she could easily have done so. Don’t let the lack of magic put you off reading it. It is a far better evocation of that period of British history than most fantasy novels I’ve read.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you this. In a few months time the mainstream media will be full of praise for Menewood. I’ll just pick up a hardcover to put next to my copy of Hild and wait patiently for book 3.

book cover
Title: Menewood
By: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


Following an author’s career can tell you quite a bit about them as a person. Some writers who have achieved success seem content to keep pumping out what works each time, for less and less effort. Others are determined to stretch themselves with each new book and get better at their craft. L R Lam is definitely in the latter category.

Dragonfall is the first book in a fantasy trilogy that was snapped up by Hodder & Stoughton at auction in a six-figure deal, so the publishing industry clearly has faith in the series. Even though this wasn’t exactly my sort of book, I am inclined to agree that their confidence is well-placed.

To explain that, while the book is a fantasy story about dragons and wizards, in form it is mainly a heist caper and an enemies-to-lovers queer romance. Neither of those are exactly my favourite things, but when they are done well, and there is an interesting world unfolding at the same time, I’m happy.

The underlying plot of the book is that humans and dragons used to live in harmony, but a few hundred years ago humans managed to banish the dragons to another universe that is unpleasant and hostile to life. The longer-lived dragons have been plotting revenge ever since, whereas the humans have largely forgotten their history. Dragons are now worshipped as gods, and are therefore not actually real.

Our lead character is Everen, who is important to dragonkind because males are very rare. Prophecies suggest that only a male dragon can succeed in leading his people back to their home. Naturally Everen is weighed down by responsibility, and his overbearing mother, the dragon Queen, doesn’t help. But, at the start of the book, he succeeds in penetrating the veil between worlds where he adopts human form.

There he meets Arcady, a young wizard whose grandfather, a famous and talented court magician, was unjustly accused of causing a great plague. At least that’s how Arcady’s family tells the story. As a descendant of the infamous Plaguebringer, there is no way that Arcady can practice magic openly, so they have turned thief in order to earn enough money to enroll in the university under an assumed name. They hope to eventually learn enough to clear their grandfather’s name.

Inevitably, Everen and Arcady must bond in the manner of dragon and rider from ages past, but Arcady trusts no one, even someone as handsome as Everen. Worse still, Everen’s archivist sister, Cassia, tells him that the only way to fully open the veil is to bond with Arcady and then kill him. He’s only a human, after all.

So far so good. Where things get interesting is the additional background. While most humans don’t believe that dragons exist except as gods, there is a thriving black market trade in dragon relics. The most eager buyers are merchants from the far-off land of Jask. There is a clandestine group of human monks who seek to prevent this trade and secure all dragon relics for the church. Our third major character, Sorin, is an orphan assassin whose job is to track down and punish those involved in the trade.

All of this comes together when Arcady learns that a dragon claw is to be put up for auction. Stealing it, and then selling it to one of the rich bidders, would be the heist of a lifetime.

You may have noticed that I used ‘they’ for Arcady’s pronoun when introducing them, but ‘he’ when talking about them from Cassia’s point of view. That was deliberate. The book is told from Everen’s point of view, and he always uses ‘you’ when referring to Arcady. That’s Lam being very clever about structure. But it is pretty clear from descriptions of Arcady that they are quite effeminate. Also they indulge in occasional rants about how the people of Jask are terrible gender essentialists.

Dragons, because of the rarity of male births, are also rather gender-essentialist.

My expectation is that, over the course of the next two books, this is going to come to matter. And the love that Everen and Arcady have for each other is going to be key to resolving the plot.

Right now, this being a romance, they are back to hating each other again. But it won’t last, and we know that because the book has a prologue which promises a happy ever after. I’m not sure why Lam decided to do that, and maybe this narrative will be upended before the end. We shall see. But in the meantime I am looking forward to the next volume.

book cover
Title: Dragonfall
By: L R Lam
Publisher: Hodderscape
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Good Omens – Season 2

As you probably all know, Gaiman and Pratchett had plans for a follow-up to Good Omens, but their careers took off so fast that neither of them had the time to make it happen. When the TV series was a success, Gaiman used those plans as the basis for a second series. Exactly what was in those plans is unknown, and doubtless fans will argue endlessly over it, but the important question is whether the resulting series lived up to the standards set by the first. Well reader, I was delighted with it.

Of course, the chemistry between David Tennant and Michael Sheen is so good that things could hardly go wrong. They continue to be absolutely amazing. But there is a plot. The set-up is that the Archangel Gabriel turns up at Aziraphale’s shop one day, stark naked, and carrying a cardboard box. It appears that the Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Host has lost his memory, and his powers.

In Heaven, Gabriel’s absence is a problem to be urgently solved. Michael and Uriel are on the case, though they are also vying with each other for the role of Supreme Commander. Word of problems in Heaven also reaches Hell, and Beelzebub is keen to know what’s up. Inevitably suspicion falls on Aziraphale and Crowley.

This process introduces two new characters. Miranda Richardson has an absolute whale of a time playing the ambitious demon, Shax, who has taken over Crowley’s role on Earth now that he’s in disgrace. Heaven sends a very junior and naïve angel called Muriel, beautifully played by Quelin Sepulveda.

Maggie Service and Nina Sosanya, who played chattering nuns in the first series, get new roles as shopkeepers in Whickber Street. Maggie runs a record shop that is kept afloat by Aziraphale because no one else buys vinyl (this, I suspect, is a survival from the original Gaiman/Pratchett plan, because that’s a ludicrous idea these days). Nina runs a busy coffee shop and is plagued by a controlling girlfriend. Part of the plot requires Crowley and Aziraphale to get them to fall in love. This is an opportunity for farce.

The early episodes involve our heroes trying to find out what has happened to Gabriel. Some of this involves flashbacks to past times when they have worked together. These are the serious bits of plot, which are used to illustrate the complexity of moral judgement (and the cavalier attitude of Heaven towards humans). There’s a definite Sandman feel to them.

Things start to come a head in episode 5, in which Aziraphale turns a street shopkeepers’ association meeting into a Jane Austen style ball as a ruse to get Maggie and Nina to fall in love, while Shax is given permission to recruit an army of demons to storm the bookshop and seize Gabriel.

Then comes episode 6, in which revelations follow each other at rollercoaster pace. You really do not want to be spoilered for this, because Gaiman heads off in totally unexpected directions. I sat there in front of the TV with my jaw on the floor. You will probably do the same. Enjoy!

And yes, it looks like there will be a series 3. Or rather, there had bloody better be.


When I said that I did not expect to see a better film than Across the Spider-Verse this year, I really was not expecting to see another brilliant animated film just a couple of weeks later.

Nate Stevenson is, of course, already responsible for the brilliant She-Ra and the Princesses of Power TV series. Nimona is based on his critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name. I understand that the film deviates from the original in some significant ways, but I’ve not read the latter and I didn’t notice anything amiss so the translation to screen clearly worked.

The setting of Nimona is a fantasy kingdom that, hundreds of years ago, walled itself off from the world to keep itself safe from monsters. Nowadays knights carry laser swords and ride flying bikes dressed up as horses, but the culture remains. Inside the wall is safe, outside is scary.

The corps of knights was formed in honour of Gloreh, the warrior who slew the first Monster and helped create the wall. Up until now, knighthood had been the preserve of the upper classes, but the current Queen is determined to democratise the kingdom and Ballister Boldheart is about to become the first low-born lad to be knighted. Sadly, things will go disastrously wrong, and Ballister will end up in hiding, hunted by his fellow knights, including his lover, Ambrosius Goldenloin.

Into Ballister’s life comes Nimona, a red-haired teenage girl with attitude. She offers to help him, and it soon becomes clear that she has an agenda of her own, one that strikes at the very heart of the culture of the kingdom.

Much of the talk around the film is about it being a trans allegory, and it sort of it. Nimona is a Monster because she’s a shape-changer. Also Stevenson is a trans guy, and he has filled his cast with queer folks, including Indya Moore and RuPaul. However, I think it is more accurate to say that the film is a critique of White Feminism. The idea that (white) women have an urgent and overwhelming need to “feel safe” from the imagined threat of trans people is a core of the current anti-trans movement, but that tactic has also been wielded against other queer folks, and against people of colour. The fact that Stevenson has chosen a male lead actor, Riz Ahmed, who is known as a Muslim rights activist is, I think, a testament to his commitment to intersectionality.

Nimona herself is played by Chloë Grace Moretz who I’m now familiar with from The Peripheral. She’s brilliant in this too, and probably had a lot of fun doing it.

We are somewhat lucky to have the film at all. It was originally commissioned by a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox. When Disney bought that company they canned Nimona due to the queer content. Stevenson had to hustle hard to get it picked up by someone else. So thanks are due to Annapurna Pictures, and to Netflix for providing distribution. I’m now very much hoping for a Blu Ray release before the film disappears from streaming.

Promises Stronger Than Darkness

Let us recap. The Unstoppable series by Charlie Jane Anders is space opera, but it is not your father’s space opera. Iain Banks would never have called a starship, Undisputed Training Bra Disaster. Nor, after successfully blowing an enemy starship to atoms, would a group of Culture heroes engage in a lengthy debate as to whether their actions were morally justified, and who should be held responsible for this war crime. Queer YA space opera is, in some ways, a very different beast.

In others it is the same. Tina Mains and her gang of teenage misfits are on a mission to save the galaxy from an evil mechanism called The Bereavement which is in the process of eating every star, thereby ending all life.

Elza, the Brazilian Travesti who is Tina’s girlfriend, has finally achieved her ambition to become a Princess, only to see the evil Marrant depose the Queen and banish Elza from the Princess Corps. Marrant seems to become more and more like Elon Musk with every appearance. He’s horribly sulky, and doesn’t care what happens to the rest of the galaxy as long as he stays in charge of the remains, and he gets to carry out his racist pogrom of all non-humanoid people.

Oh, and Tina is dead. That is, her body has been taken over by the spirit of Thaoh Argentian, the Makvarian starship captain of whom she is a clone. Of course this is space opera, so telling you that Tina is only temporarily dead is no spoiler.

With Tina thus inconvenienced, it will fall to the introverted artist, Rachel Townsend, to provide leadership, and to help Elza over her imposter syndrome. Delightfully, Rachel creates a Tactical Ballgown for Elza, which is kind of like an Iron Man suit but pink and for a Princess.

Thanks to Marrant’s obsession with racial purity, our Earth-born heroes are going to have to spend this book leaning to become good allies to non-humanoid races. Anders does a good job of this, giving a staring role to the beetle-like Wyndgonk. There’s also a major plot point that revolves around the complexity of translation.

Eventually everything has to come to a climax. Promises Stronger than Darkness is, after all, the final volume of the Unstoppable trilogy. Anders orchestrates this magnificently. I suspect that if I were to map it all out on a gaming table the timelines would not work, but that doesn’t matter in a book. The ending also has something of the air of a Star Trek episode in which Scotty tells Kirk that they only have 5 minutes before the engines blow, but Jim and Spock spend 15 minutes of screen time fixing them. This is space opera, it is the way it should be.

Also, this being queer YA space opera, the denouement is partly dependent on an army of musical monkey robots.

The large ensemble cast is a little difficult to control. In particular I felt that Damini, the Indian ace pilot, had lapsed into a trope. But that’s a very mild complaint. I will miss this charming if dysfunctional found family. Happily, Anders has left a thread from which to build a new series. I live in hope.

book cover
Title: Promises Stronger than Darkness
By: Charlie Jane Abders
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


NASFics are strange beasts. It is sometimes said that running a NASFiC is rather like trying to run a Worldcon with half the money and half the attendees. I might also add half the volunteers to that. And, in the case of Pemmi-Con, “half” is probably a massive exaggeration on all counts.

In theory the NASFiC is a big convention that Americans can go to when Worldcon is not in North America. For a whole variety of reasons, very few people from the West are going to Chengdu. But Pemmi-Con is in Canada, that strange country that is technically part of North America but which fills Americans with almost as much existential dread as Europe. Add that to the fact that the dates of Pemmi-Con conflicted with the San Diego Comic-Con, and many SF&F writers are also in the comics business these days, and you get very low attendance.

Also Pemmi-Con was in Winnipeg, which meant a flight and hotel bill for the majority of Canadian fans.

The Sunday newsletter gave the warm body count as 509, with a further 340 supporting members. The convention was trying very hard to be hybrid but, as we should all know by now, hybrid is ferociously expensive in both money and people points.

Winnipeg turned out to be lovely. It does look like a bit of a concrete wasteland downtown, but that’s what happens when your winter temperatures regularly hit -35 C. Life happens inside, not outside. I would have loved to have more time to explore the city, but as it was all I had time for was a trip to Canada’s Human Right’s Museum.

The convention took place in the same venue that was used for the 1994 Worldcon. The Delta hotel has an air bridge attaching it to the convention center so it is all very convenient. Of course ConAdian had a membership of over 3500. The much smaller NASFiC felt like a child in adult clothing.

Talking of ConAdian, its chair, John Mansfield, was selected as the Fan Guest of Honour for Pemmi-Con. Sadly John died early this year, and missed having the honour in person, but he did get to know it would happen. His wife, Linda, was a co-chair of Pemmi-Con.

As I noted earlier, Pemmi-Con was seriously short on both money and volunteers. That made things rather challenging. We only got our program assignments about a week before the con started, and those were not final. I only discovered that I had a third program item when I was given my printed schedule on the Friday. (The con began on Wednesday night.)

Two of my assignments were standard panels which presented few challenges. The third was to give my Prehistory of Robotics talk, which required a room with a laptop, screen and projector. It was obvious on Thursday that the room I had been assigned did not have these things, so I had to pester program ops. That led to my being moved to a different room and time, though still the same day.

So far so good. I went to see the new room. It did have a screen and projector. The laptop was a Mac which did not have PowerPoint. Could I use my own laptop? Yes, but I’d need to log into Zoom using the email that I should have been sent but did not yet have.

Thankfully the Zoom links for Friday programming did get sent out at around 1:00pm. So we did manage to do hybrid. There were a bunch of tech issues, and I gather that the sound for people online was never good. But kudos to Richard the tech guy for trying his best. He’d only got the job a few days ago, and having to get a different laptop set up for hybrid in a 15 minute turnaround time between sessions was seriously stressful. The Eastercon system of allowing half an hour between panels when doing hybrid is seeming more and more sensible.

My Thursday panel had been about diversity in SF&F in “the past”, featuring GoH Nisi Shawl, and TAFF delegate Sandra Bond. I’d been quite keen on this because I’ve met so many young fans who are convinced that there was no diversity at all in SF&F before they got involved in the genre. However, the audience was at least as old as the panel, if not older. For that matter, I suspect I was in the lower 50% of attendees, age-wise, at the convention as a whole. The topic was rather wasted.

My other panel was on Sunday and was about AI. On the panel with me were Helen Umberger, who works for a company that tests AI systems and lobbies for their regulation, plus Shayla Elizabeth, local indigenous writer. I thought AI was bad when we started the panel, but listening to Helen gave me a whole new appreciation of its awfulness. No one really knows whether AI systems work properly, and even if they do when released there’s a strong likelihood that their performance will degrade with time.

All that would be bad enough, but AIs also consume significant amounts of computing resources. That means energy consumption, and a rising demand for resources which, as Shalya pointed out, are often stolen from indigenous people.

One of the good things about Winnipeg is that you do get to meet indigenous folk. And I learned something new. I was familiar with First Nations people and the Inuit. I was not aware of Métis culture, which is important in Manitoba. There’s an explainer here.

I don’t normally attend opening and closing ceremonies because they can be quite dull. I did so here because Kevin had a role in them, and I’m glad I did because they featured an amazing First Nations woman who sang and performed on a tympanum-like drum. She was very good.

The Dealers’ Room was quite small and half fan tables. There was no major book dealer, just a bunch of Canadian small presses. The art show, in contrast, was quite good, though there was no point in my buying anything to try to take home.

I didn’t see a lot of the rest of the con. There seemed to be a lot of readings and kaffeklatches as compared to panels, which I guess makes creating the program easier. However, I did do to the masquerade as it was being run by my friend, Sandy Manning, who I had not seen in years. I’ll do a separate report on that.

Overall I was happy with Pemmi-Con. Then again, I wasn’t expecting a lot except to see a bunch of old friends, and make some new ones. Plus I finally got to see Winnipeg, a place that Kevin is very fond of. I do worry that the attendees seemed so old. I know people have been talking about the “greying of fandom” for decades, but I’m starting to really feel it.

Of course that wasn’t helped by one of the attendees dying at the con. Bill Laubenheimer is a well-known Bay Area fan. He had a heart attack while out to dinner on the Wednesday night, and passed away later in hospital. His wife, Carole Parker, was left dealing with the awful bureaucracy surrounding having to repatriate a dead body. Thankfully she had a lot of good friends at the con. Here’s hoping you are getting on top of it all now, Carole.

On a lighter note, the con raised around CA$1000 for the local pet rescue shelter.

The Pemmi-Con Masquerade

Getting a quality masquerade from a convention with only just over 500 attendees is a challenging task, but somehow Sandy Manning managed it. There were a bunch of top quality costumers who came up from the USA and provided some master-level entries and judges, but it was particularly pleasing to have 4 young entrants, none of whom had ever been on stage before. Congratulations in particular to Turaga Vakama who used 3D printing to create what I assume was an anime costume.

It always helps to be topical. Derwin Mak dusted off a “Tour Guide Barbie” costume that last saw competition in 1999. Amazingly, it still fit. Here it is.

Pierre and Sandy Pettinger always go above and beyond the call of duty. Their entry was titled, “Beneath the bay of Innsmouth” and included this jellyfish prop that lit up when on stage.

You couldn’t see it from the audience, but the costumes the Pettingers wore were beautifully decorated with fish. They both had amazing headgear, which Sandy shows in the picture below. The lamprey teeth are apparently actual bits of shell that Pierre bought one day in case they might be useful.

It’s not often that you see the Pettingers upstaged, but the Best Master award went to Janine Wardale for “Exile”. It is a beautiful costume. Here are photos of the front and back.

However, the undisputed star of the show, winning Best in Show for both workmanship and presentation, was Snail Scott with this amazing rendition of the hut of Baba Yaga. The important thing to remember about this costume is that chicken legs bend backwards, not forwards (because the main leg joint that we see is the ankle, not the knee). That means that Snail had to do everything backwards, and in a large hut. A good masquerade team has a bunch of strong persons stationed at the edge of the stage just in case someone with poor vision is at risk of falling off, and in this case they did their job to perfection.

Here’s Snail without the hut on.

A good masquerade needs a half time show to keep the audience entertained while the judges do their work. Pemmi-Con provided a top quality filk group. One of the guitarists was, at best, partially sighted. Playing a guitar well is hard enough with good sight. I can’t imagine having to do it when you can’t see well, but he was superb.

The con newsletter didn’t have room for the full results, so I asked Sandy to send them to me. Here they are. Youo’ll note that the judges worked hard to something nice to say about each entry.

Hat Kid – Young – Ian Tilley

  • Performance – Our hats off to you
  • Workmanship – Best recreation and use of corrugated cardboard.

Miss Frizzle Time Lord – Novice -Josee

  • Performance – Honorable Mention – School bus time lord
  • Workmanship – Best crochet – amazing stitches

Beneath the bay of Innsmouth – Master – Pettingers

  • Performance – Cthulu Jell
  • Workmanship – Best Use of Alternative materials

Irradiate Space – Novice – Turaga Vakama

  • Performance – Judge’s choice in Novice Class
  • Workmanship – Best Use of Modern Technology – 3D print, electronics, applique

Hut of Baba Yaga – Master – Snail Scott

  • Performance – Best in show
  • Workmanship – Best in Show

Mrs Aching – Novice – Marlys Schneider

  • Performance – Honorable Mention – Searching the Disc World
  • Workmanship – Honorable Mention – Historical Hat Recreation

Tour Guide Barbie – Journeyman – Derwin Mak

  • Performance – Throwback Barbie Award
  • Workmanship – Honorable mention – Historical Recreation

Tangible Artifact – Novice – Sue Burke

  • Performance – Honorable mention – Stage Memory
  • Workmanship – Most Tangible Artifact

Exile – Master Janine Wardale

  • Performance – Best Master
  • Workmanship – Best Use of Stash and recycle

Manticore Navy – Exhibition

Black Adam

This is another film that I watched on the plane on my way to Toronto. It being mostly superhero fight scenes, it doesn’t really warrant watching on a big screen, but it does have a lot more to the script than the Dungeons & Dragons film.

I should start by introducing the characters, because those of you who don’t follow comics closely may wonder who they are. The Justice Society of America are a DC superhero team from the 1940s and 50s. They were eventually superseded by the more familiar Justice League. Then they got brought back as a team from a different part of the multiverse. Then DC collapsed their multiverse and brought everyone back together and it is all very confusing.

Anyway, Hawkman and Doctor Fate are original JSA members. In the new timeline, they are recruiting new, young members such as Atom Smasher (ridiculous name) and Cyclone. Quite what has happened to Hawkman’s wife (still known as Hawkgirl despite presumably being a similar age to her husband) is unclear. Presumably someone at Warner Bros. decided that there were too many women in the film.

Now to the plot. The Middle Eastern, not-Egypt, country of Khandaq is currently ruled by an international criminal organisation called Intergang (an other ridiculous name). However, in the deep past, an evil king of Khandaq, Akh-Ton, created a powerful magical artefact called the Crown of Sabbac. To prevent him from gaining absolute power, a Council of Wizards created a superhero to fight him. Now an archaeologist, Adrianna Tomaz, is seeking to resurrect that hero to free her country. Inevitably, doing so also brings the Crown of Sabbac into play again.

When Adrianna resurrects her country’s champion, who will become known as Black Adam, the US government becomes aware of him, and sends the Justice Society to take him down. Can’t have foreign countries having their own superheroes, now, can we?

Arriving on site, the Justice Society find themselves conflicted. Clearly the Intergang are much worse people than Black Adam. Adrianna rightfully argues that her country has suffered under their rule for years, and no superhero ever came to rescue her people. Only now that the people of Khandaq are able to free themselves do the Americans take an interest.

Fair point, except that it turns out that Black Adam is not exactly a hero. He’s a man resurrected from thousands of years in the past and he has no qualms about killing his enemies. At which point the argument of the film appears to become that Middle Eastern countries shouldn’t free themselves from oppression because they’ll only end up ruled by a brutal dictator instead.

Of course, this being a superhero film, and Dwayne Johnson being in the starring role, Black Adam gets an opportunity to redeem himself. Now the message of the film becomes very confused. Should Khandaq have superheroes or not? And why are the Justice League not held responsible for the massive damage that they do to not-Cairo? It is all very murky.

Contrast this to the glorious moment at the end of the Moon Knight TV series in which the people of Cairo discover that they have an actual Egyptian superhero and are allowed to celebrate this fact.

Maybe I need to watch it again, but my overall impression is that Black Adam is a film that tried to say something interesting about American imperialism, but failed because the message got muddied in development. Sad.

The Western Kingdom

It might look like it from the cover, but this is not a fantasy novel. As the subtitle explains, The Western Kingdom is a history of the birth of the Kingdom of Cornwall, probably the oldest kingdom in the UK.


Yes, it is true. England, Wales, Ulster and Scotland did not become unified kingdoms until part way through the early Mediaeval period. Cornwall, on the other hand, appears to have been a unified and politically distinct entity from the withdrawal of the Romans onwards.

This should not be surprising. Cornwall was a wealthy, tin-exporting polity before the Romans arrived. Having been busily trading with the Romans for some time, the Cornish didn’t worry too much about the invasion. They just kept on selling the Romans what they wanted. And the Romans were grateful not to have to bother conquering them. When the Romans left, Cornwall just carried on as before.

Of course it wasn’t called Cornwall back then. The post-Roman Cornwall was the Kingdom of Dumnonia, which stretched all the way up to the west bank of the River Parrett in Somerset. This is interesting to me, because it means that technically I’m Dumnonian by birth. However, Dunmonia was not entirely a united political unit. The folks living east of the River Tamar appear to have viewed themselves as distinct in some way, and with time Dumnonia shrank back to its modern boundary and became Kernow, or Cornwall.

The problem for Cornwall was their new neighbour, an aggressively expansionist Saxon kingdom called Wessex. While we are more familiar with Alfred the Great, and with Athelstan, whose diplomatic skills enabled him to unite all England under his rule, John Fletcher thinks we should also pay attention to Ecgberht. He grew up at the Frankish court, in exile while Offa of Mercia ruled Wessex though a puppet king. There he learned the political and military skills that allowed him to take Somerset and Devon from Dunmonia, and establish the strong kingdom that his grandson, Alfred, would inherit.

Mention of Alfred brings us to the Vikings. They don’t seen to have troubled the Cornish much. That’s partly because their favourite strategy was to sail up rivers to strike at wealthy, inland towns. Cornwall does not lend itself to that sort of thing. In addition, by the time the Vikings began settling in England in earnest, they had been trading with the Cornish for some time. This, of course, meant trading in slaves, because Dublin (a Viking city) was one of the biggest slave-trading ports in Europe at the time.

Back with the Saxons, it is worth noting that they did not refer to Dumnonia by it’s name. They called it West Wales, because the people there spoke more or less the same language as the people in the area we now call Wales. It is also worth noting that the Cornish were very much a sea-faring people (they have to be, have you ever tried to drive around the place?). We know that they had very close relations with the Bretons (whose language is also very similar to Welsh). It seems reasonable they would also have travelled back and fore across the Severn Estuary.

After the Vikings came William. Again this did not worry the Cornish too much as their Breton cousins had been dealing with the Normans for some time. Also the Cornish hated Harold Godwinson who had raided the south-west in his younger days when he was living in exile in Ireland.

By this time Cornwall had been more or less absorbed into England, having Norman nobles and bishops ruling over them. But in 1201 King John was persuaded to allow the creation of the Stannary Parliament, which was officially only for the tin industry but effectively made laws for Cornwall. It sat on and off until 1753.

I found this a fascinating book. Despite growing up in Dunmonia, I was taught almost none of this history. Alfred was the only local figure we knew of. Much of this is due to the perception that the early Mediaeval period was a ‘Dark Age’ when civilization was lost and little of note happened. The existence of Cornwall as a wealthy and independent kingdom for several hundred years after the departure of the Romans was ignored. I’m grateful to John Fletcher for shedding some light on the period.

I would imagine that Lucy Hounsom wishes she’d had this book when she was writing SisterSong. I also think it is time for someone to do for Dumnonia what Nicola Griffith has done for Northumbria.

book cover
Title: The Western Kingdom
By: John Fletcher
Publisher: The History Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I watched this film on the flight from Zurich to Toronto. Airline entertainment systems are in no way a good choice for viewing movies (other than being free and you are trapped in your seat), but I don’t think that matters here because this movie has no pretensions.

As the title suggests, Honor Among Thieves is a spin-off from the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. The various characters are all easily identifiable as D&D character types, as are many of the monsters. The storyline is intended to have something of the feel of a D&D game, including a visit to a monster-filled underground location to retrieve a magical artefact. Much of the time the script is played for laughs, and there’s no attempt at making a serious point beyond the ideas that loving your children is good, and sacrificing huge numbers of people to gain magical power is bad.

In terms of cast, Chris Pine, as Edgin the Bard, is far better used than he was as Jim Kirk or as Steve Trevor. Regé-Jean Page is superb as the snooty and annoying paladin, Xenk. And Hugh Grant steals the show as the slimy and villainous con-man, Forge (even if he is channeling Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok).

I don’t have a lot to say about this film because there isn’t a lot to it. But if you are looking for a couple of hours of fun, mostly harmless and vacuous entertainment, this delivers very well.

As to whether this will do the job of selling copies of D&D for Hasbro is another matter, but clearly the creation movies like this is something that Hasbro can do, but Wizards of the Coast could probably never aspire to as an independent company.

Editorial – July 2023

Well that was a month. I made it to Canada, but only just. My flight from London to Toronto was diverted to start from Zurich, and I was up at 2:30am, London time, to get to Heathrow for a flight out to Switzerland. My flight from Toronto to Winnipeg was heavily delayed, meaning that I didn’t get to my hotel until almost midnight. Thankfully I had a night in Toronto along the way, otherwise I would have been travelling for almost 28 hours.

The flights back worked better, but it was clear from what was going on in airports that Air Canada is seriously overstretched for both equipment at manpower. It reminded me of the time that Kevin and I booked to go to the Colorado Springs SMOFCon on Reno Air. We got there and back, but didn’t use any Reno Air aircraft in the process. The airline went bust shortly afterwards. I don’t suppose that the Canadian government will let Air Canada go bust, but something has to give. I may have to fly BA next time I go to Canada.

It didn’t help my mood that I caught a bad cold on the way back. That was presumably either at Pearson or Heathrow, both of which were absolutely rammed with people. I tested negative for both COVID and flu, which was a relief, but I lost a couple of days to feeling awful and I’m still not 100%.

Talking of awful, my Twitter presence is likely to be very minimal from now on. I am on BlueSky, but the iPad app is so bad that I don’t use it very much. I’m on Mastodon, and Wizard’s Tower has an account there as well. I tend to treat Zuck with as much suspicion as I treat Musk, so you won’t find me on Threads.

Later this month I will be heading to Glasgow to give a talk at the university. I hope to have time to visit the Worldcon site and take a few pictures, in which case I will report back next issue.

August is supposed to be one of my off-months in the schedule because of Worldcon. Of course there is no Worldcon in August this year, so I’m not sure what will happen. You may get another bonus issue.

Issue #51

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

  • Cover: Fantasy Forest: This issue's cover is by Karen Nadine. Does it show a priestess of Freyja? That would be very appropriate.

  • Furious Heaven: Volume two of Kate Elliott's gender-swapped Alexander the Great space opera has landed. It does not disappoint.

  • Translation State: Did you think that the Presger were scary, reader? Pah, that's nothing, you should try being a baby Presger. Ann Leckie returns to the world of the Imperial Radch.

  • Salt on the Midnight Fire: Liz Williams produces a triumphant final volume to the Fallow Sisters series.

  • Across the Spider-Verse: The animated Spider-Man movie gets a sequel, and an awful lot more Spider-People. Cheryl is entranced, and not just by the hints the Gwen Stacy is trans.

  • Witch King: Martha Wells returns to fantasy in a fascinating new setting.

  • The Unraveling: How will family life change when people live for hundreds of years, and can have multiple bodies? Much will change, but family drama remains the same, in this fascinated book by Ben Rosenbaum.

  • Hild: With Menewood close to publication, Cheryl looks back on the first part of Nicola Griffith's historical fiction series

  • Eurocon 2023: This year's Eurocon was in Sweden. Cheryl went along and had a great time.

  • Vikings at Uppsala: When in Sweden, do some research on Viking archaeology. Cheryl is off down a research rabbit hole.

  • Heilung – LIFA: Where there are Vikings, there must be songs invoking Odin and the rest of the gods? Is that Freyja's voice that I hear above the drums?

  • Editorial – June 2023: There is so much good stuff, both written and on film, coming out these days. How does one keep up?

Furious Heaven

You can tell when I am fascinated by a book (or series), because, in addition to buying them in hardcover, I buy the ebooks because they are searchable, which makes it easier to check up on the various clever things the author has done.

As you probably know, the Sun Chronicles are a gender-swapped space opera version of the life of Alexander the Great. I am, inevitably, suckered. Having now read two books, I think I have a handle on the shape of the series. Unconquerable Sun introduced us to Sun, her world and the people around her. This book, Furious Heaven, tells of her conquest of the book-world version of the Persian Empire. Book three will presumably tell of her death. More of that later.

If you know anything about Alexander then you will know that, sooner or later, Sun’s mother, Queen-Marshall Eirene, will be assassinated. Once that happens, all hell breaks loose, because Alexander’s attack on the Persians is the original Blitzkrieg.

In addition to the assassination, Furious Heaven gives us the Battle of Issus, where Alexander captures Darius’s family. There’s a sort of equivalent to the sieges of Tyre and Gaza in that Sun conquers a mercantile empire, and then we are on to Egypt where Alexander gets proclaimed Pharaoh and goes into the wilderness to learn ancient wisdom. Finally we get the Battle of Gaugamela where Darius is once more routed, leaving Alexander free to take Babylon.

Of course all of these things have to be adapted for the book world. I was particularly interested by the mercantile empire which is based on Argosies – giant space ships with hyperspace bubble drives that are able to tow chains of smaller ships behind them. An argosy, as the term is used in Shakespeare, is a fleet of merchant ships all sailing under the same flag.

Another interesting deviation is that the book world version of the Persians, the Phene, do not have a king. They are ruled by a Council of Riders who are strange beings able to communicate with each other over vast distances, and who have a second face and personality on the backs of their heads. The Riders give the Phene a significant military advantage thanks to their communication ability. This they signally fail to use, because like the Persians they spend way too much time arguing amongst themselves, and arrogantly assume that an upstart like Sun doesn’t stand a chance against them.

While I admire the way that Kate Elliott has translated Alexander’s story to space opera, I’m actually more interested in the deviations because that leaves her room to change things. As I noted above, book three should end with Sun dying, but it doesn’t have to. There are things in the books that were very much not relevant to Alexander or his times.

Most significantly, the world of the books is somehow descended from the Celestial Empire, which was originally based on Earth. At some point in the very distant past, humankind fled into space in giant arks. There was a planet called Landfall. And then more settlement. There were the kunnu drives, used by the Argosies. Then the more modern beacon drives (wormhole gateways). And then a civilizational collapse in which many of the beacons were destroyed and the secrets of their manufacture lost.

One of the plot lines driving the series is the desire of Sun, and more specifically Persephone, to rediscover the secrets of the beacons. That sounds like something that can’t happen if Sun dies and her Companions wage civil war against each other, as ought to happen if we are following history.

Talking of beacons, I have also been intrigued by the way that Elliott manages war in space. It is way better than the silliness we get in Star Trek where fleets of ships face off against each other as if they were armies of Napoleonic infantry firing volleys at each other. It is perhaps a little off on the tactical side because it is too much like Second World War naval engagements. Space battles happen way faster, and at vastly greater distances. But the strategic side of only being able to go where beacons (or kunnu drives) let you go, is spot on.

One of the effects of this is that battles take much longer. You have to move between beacons under torch drives (impulse engines). In Alexander’s time battles were over in a day, but the greater time in the book gives Elliott plenty of opportunity to develop the plot while the battle is raging.

The other major element that isn’t drawn from history is the existence of Riders. That plot too will need to be resolved, and if you have been paying attention you’ll know that it is all bound up with Persephone and the beacons. There’s a reason why Elliott has named Perse after a goddess of the underworld.

I said in my review of Unconquerable Sun that I was keen to see the book equivalent of Bagoas. That role appears to have been given to Jin-Na, the dancer from Idol Faire. She does have a girlfriend, but she’s not exactly an iconically queer character. On the other hand, we have Bartholomew, whom I confidently predict will marry Sun early in the next book.

For the next book, I want to know what happens to Petal.

I think I have been rambling, because there is just way too much to think about in these books. I love them.

book cover
Title: Furious Heaven
By: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Translation State

A return to the world of the Imperial Radch has been warmly welcomed by Ann Leckie fans everywhere. Personally I am particularly pleased that the new book, Translation State, focuses on the Presger, who are delightfully alien aliens.

The Presger are so violent and dangerous that direct communication with other intelligent species is beyond them. They don’t believe in talking when they can be eating instead. But, in order to avoid galactic war (which they would probably win, though at great cost), they have created a type of being called a Translator. These are humanoid, made with some human DNA, but evolved from Presger. In Translation State we get to see how Translators are raised and trained. Reader, it is not pretty. Life for young Presger is eat or be eaten.

Why do we get to know this? Well reader, there is a story, stretching back a couple of generations to before the Radchaai civil war. At this time, a Translator in Saeniss Polity, a non-Radchaai territory, escaped Presger supervision and vanished. Up until now, this renegade Translator was merely missing, presumed dead. But now, thanks to the civil war, there is a conclave going on to decide whether AIs such as Breq should be granted recognition as Significant Species and become signatories to the treaty with the Presger. Any small issue might be leveraged for diplomatic benefit, and therefore the Saeniss Office of Diplomacy has to make a show of trying to resolve the open case of the missing Translator.

Not that anyone expects the matter to be resolved, especially after so much time. The job is given to a young person called Enae Athtur, primarily because hir wealthy legal guardian wants sie out of the way. As it turns out, Enae is smart, and has a deep sense of responsibility when it comes to getting the job done. Sie is also very calm in a crisis, especially when faced by unreasonable behavior from powerful individuals, which is just what you need where Radchaai and Presger diplomats are involved.

It turns out (and this is hardly a spoiler as it becomes obvious very quickly) that the missing Translator managed to reproduce itself before dying, and that young being ended up ruling over a small ethnic group called the Hikipi. They have since been conquered by the Phen. The Translator reproduced again. The resulting child escaped the Phenish conquest and ended up being adopted and raised as a member of the Zeosen people. This person, known to us as Reet Hluid, will be our second main character.

Meanwhile among the Presger, a young potential Translator called Qven is on their way to adulthood. Among the Presger, that means merging with an existing adult. Whereas Anaander Miannaai, the Radchaai Emperor, has cloned herself to achieve longer life, the Presger Translators do something similar by merging with juveniles. Translators can thus have multiple bodies, each of which is a different person, but all of which have the same identity and share mental functions. Thanks to a childhood trauma, Qven has a deep-seated horror of merging.

Unfortunately, because of the way that Presger biology works, if a juvenile does not merge, it will die. You can probably see where this is going.

There is, therefore, a whole complicated diplomatic thing going on in which the Presger Translators want everything resolved quietly and conservatively, because if the actual Presger take notice all hell could break lose. Meanwhile the Radchaai don’t want their starships being granted personhood, and every other species is keen to see the Radchaai taken down a peg.

This is not what the book is about. It is just the plot. What the book is actually about is family. Enae has been rejected by hir family, who are deeply horrible people. Reet has loving and supportive foster parents, but he’s not remotely the same species as them. Family as such doesn’t really exist for the Presger, but they raise young all the same and are even more cruel to them than human families. There was a major trap here for Leckie, in that for a long time it seemed possible that the plot would deprive Reet and Qven of any choice as to their futures. I’m pleased to say that she managed to avoid this.

Where Leckie may run into trouble is her portrayal of the Hikipi. There are very few of them left, and many of those that remain are deeply nationalist to the point of enacting terrorist violence. The Phen react to this in a way that would make Cruella Braverman very proud. But the Hikipi don’t come out of this well either. They are caught up in a conspiracy theory which holds that the Presger don’t exist, but have been invented by the Phen as an excuse for colonialist tyranny. The irony being that the Hikipi were actually ruled over by a descendant of a Presger Translator. I think this is supposed to be poking fun at other people prone to conspiracy theories, but the determination of the Hikipi to hold on to their culture is going to cause people from marginalized groups to identify with them, and read into the narrative things that Leckie probably didn’t intend.

Fans of Leckie’s previous work may be disappointed that Breq does not appear in this book. However, there is a supporting cast role for Sphene, the ship that Breq found behind the Ghost Gate in Ancillary Mercy.

There is a fair amount about gender in the book. The Presger Translators do not have gender, but Reet thinks he’s a human male. The Radchaai continue to use she/her pronouns for everyone, whether they are Radchaai or not. This leads to some characters keeping trying to correct them, which is quite amusing.

The other fun part of the book is that Reet is addicted to a video drama called Pirate Exiles of the Death Moons. This seems to be a friendly nod to the Murderbot books. I didn’t get a chance to ask Martha Wells about it when I was in Sweden, but I suspect she’s amused.

I very much enjoyed this book, and the insights it provides to Presger society. I also note that it develops the plot lines left hanging at the end of Ancillary Mercy. Thanks to Reet, Sphene and her cousins may end up being officially recognized as a Significant Species. This would have disastrous consequences for the Imperial Radch, so there must be more stories to be told.

book cover
Title: Translation State
By: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Salt on the Midnight Fire

This is the fourth and final book in the Fallow Sisters series by Liz Williams. At one time Williams was muttering about there possibly being five books, but she has managed to wrap the series up in four and I think most fans will be pleased.

The main plot of Salt on the Midnight Fire is of a dispute amongst otherworldy beings. The Wild Hunt, currently led by Aiken Drum, hunts human souls. But they are not the only people who do this. Out at sea is a pirate ship that does the same. It is captained by a chap called the Morlader, and he has ambitions. Currently he is reliant on smugglers and wreckers to bring him souls. He wants the right to hunt on land. That requires him to challenge Drum for the leadership of the Wild Hunt. As part of that, both opponents will need a champion.

Regular readers of the series will remember that the sisters’ mother, Alys Fallow, has taken to riding with Aiken Drum, and appears to be one of his senior lieutenants.

Very cleverly, Ian Whates arranged for this book to be published on the Summer Solstice (at least for us Northern Hemisphere folks). The book starts in the run-up to the Solstice. Luna’s baby is due, and Serena’s partner, Ward Garner, is due to star in a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will have a special preview performance in Glastonbury on Midsummer’s Day. It is all very nicely timed.

However, the majority of the action has to take place in Cornwall because that is the Morlader’s stronghold. ‘Morlader’ is simply the Cornish word for a pirate. The name literally means ‘sea thief’. Some of you may wonder about the setting, but Williams has clearly made up some of the geography.

The only largish town west of Penzance is St Buryan. You don’t need to go through Mousehole to get there. I have a sneaking suspicion that the large house on the coast that the Fallow Sisters rent for their vacation is based on the one owned by John le Carré (and where Nick Harkaway grew up).

Mount St. Michael plays a starring role in the story and the lady of the castle, Azenor, is straight out of Cornish folklore. She’s the Mermaid of Zennor, and the town is supposed to be named after her. Originally she was a Breton princess who was falsely accused of adultery by her husband and set adrift in a barrel, whereby she found her way to Cornwall. She is also known as Saint Senara.

I was slightly surprised that there was no mention of the Minack Theatre because I’m sure Ward would love it, but you can’t have everything. As far as I know, there is no Coastival festival in Cornwall (there is one in Scarborough), but if it is an invention it is entirely appropriate.

The other major thread of the book involves one Elizabeth Tudor, sometime Queen of England. The books already have a connection to her. Mooncote, the Fallow family home in Somerset, dates back to Elizabethan times, and Bee’s partner, Ned Dark, is the ghost of a man who sailed with Drake. Stella met Elizabeth briefly in a previous volume. To find out what role she has in the story, you will need to read the book. Suffice it to say that everything gets tied up remarkably neatly in the space of a very few pages. That sort of thing takes skill.

I should note that there are parts of this book that might class as horror. Certainly they would if they were filmed. I find books considerably less scary.

Oh, and I’m perversely happy to have Aiken Drum feature in another fantasy series. In Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles he’s a lot of fun. And the book named after him, The Nonborn King, is the one in which Felice Landry opens the Straits of Gibraltar and creates the Mediterranean, which is an amazing scene.

Anyway, I’m delighted that Williams, and NewCon Press, have had such success with these books. It just goes to show that a good writer can stay a good writer for life, despite what mainstream publishing might think.

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

Across the Spider-Verse

I very much enjoyed the first Miles Morales Spider-Man film, and was keen the see the new one in a cinema because I was expecting top notch animation. I was not disappointed. I don’t expect to see a better film this year.

There are two basic themes to the Spider-Verse films. The first is that they are set in a multiverse in which multiple different versions of Spider-Man exist, each in their own world. The other is that the films are animated, which allows them to be much more comic-like.

Obviously we’ve had many animated versions of comic book stories before, but I can’t think of many like the Spider-Verse films. These films have more in common with Looney Tunes cartoons, because anything can happen in them. Strange things can happen with colour and perspective. Text boxes can pop up at random. Anything you can draw, you can animate. Realism be damned.

The main villain from Across the Spider-Verse, Spot, is perfect for this type of movie. His super power is that he can make holes in reality and move through them. All sorts of visual jokes are possible, and the film uses many of them.

In the previous film we were introduced to characters such as Spider-Ham (a pig Spider-Man) and Spider-Man Noir from a black and white universe. In this one we get Pavitr Prabhakar, an Indian Spider-Man, and Spider-Punk, a Black British Spider-Man. We also get a brief guest appearance from the Peter Parker of the Lego universe (complete with Lego J Jonah Jameson). Not content with that, there is a whole cross-multiverse organization of Spider-People headed up by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), a.k.a. Spider-Man 2099.

Fun as it may be (and I laughed a lot), this film also has a serious edge. To start with, it is a film about teenagers with family issues. Both Miles and Gwen Stacy have difficulty keeping their spider-identities secret from their families. In Gwen’s universe her father, a police officer, believes that Spider-Woman is responsible for the murder of Gwen’s best friend, Peter Parker.

Layered onto this is the whole question of Miles’ right to be Spider-Man. In the film this is represented by the fact that the spider who bit him was an interloper from another universe. However, it is clear that the real issue here is that dudebro fans don’t believe that a Black kid has the right to be Spider-Man. A major plot point in the film is that there are specific events in the life of each Spider-Man that must take place, or their world will unravel. These are called ‘Canon Events’.

Who cares about the Canon, right?

And on that subject, the film introduces one more element that is bound to enrage the dudebros. It suggests that Gwen Stacy is a trans girl. Clearly she is at least an ally, because a trans flag bearing the slogan, “protect trans kids”, is seen in her bedroom. But there is an argument that she could be trans herself. For more detail, see here.

Now you may wonder how a trans girl with a gruff, authoritarian police captain for a father could possibly have transitioned. But this is the multiverse. There’s no reason why universes cannot exist in which trans kids are treated with love and respect by their families, even if many bad things also happen there.

Somewhere out in the multiverse, there is a universe in which Peter Parker is a trans boy. Somewhere out there is a universe in which the Green Goblin is furious about the lack of rights that trans folks have. Somewhere out there is a universe in which I was assigned female at birth, discovered that I had mutant telepathy powers, and was invited to enroll in Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

Go you, Spider-Gwen. I wish you had existed when I was a kid.

There will be a third film. Given the complexity of the animation, it will be a few years away. I can wait. It will be worth it.

Witch King

A new novel from Martha Wells is always interesting. A new novel in an entirely new setting is very exciting, because Wells creates such interesting worlds.

The world of Witch King is not as off-the-wall as that of the Raksura, but it does have a lot to offer the fantasy connoisseur. It is set on a continent that has recently suffered an invasion by a foreign power. The Hierarchs arrived with large armies, and with very superior (magical) technology, and swept all before them. However, thanks to a small group of heroes, and people being willing to follow them, the Hierarchs were finally defeated and sent packing.

At some point the dudebros are going to notice that all of the heroes have brown skin, whereas the Hierarchs and their soldiers are pale-skinned. When they do there will be much snowflake melting on Twitter. But Wells has the Hierarchs come from the South which will doubtless confuse a lot of the shouty ones.

First amongst our heroes is Bashasa Calis, Prince-heir of the city of Benais-arik. His primary superpower is as a politician. When he talks, people listen, and agree to follow him. Being mortal, he is long-since dead in the primary timeline.

Then there is Tahren Stargard, a member of a small but very powerful group of magical warriors called the Immortal Blessed. They chose to ally themselves with the Hierarchs, all save Tahren who is known as The Fallen as a consequence.

Next up there is Ziede Daiyahan, a Witch, known as a great teacher amongst her people, but in wartime better known for her command of air elementals. Tahren is now her wife.

And finally. Kaiistereon, Prince of the Fourth House of the Underearth, a demon, known as the Witch King, and as Kai to his friends. Kai’s real body is in the demon realm, but demons have the power to possess the bodies of mortals and thereby play a part in mortal affairs.

Our story begins thoroughly in media res. Kai wakes up in the body of a young human. Nearby are a terrified girl, a sorcerer, and the sorcerer’s minions. Also nearby is a coffin containing Kai’s previous body. A demon’s one weakness is water. It appears that someone managed to knock Kai unconscious, put his body in a coffin, and submerge that coffin in water. Luckily for Kai, an idiot sorcerer decided he could enslave the weakened demon and drained the water. Said sorcerer and his minions are quickly dispatched, but now Kai wants to know what happened to him, and why.

It turns out that Ziede is imprisoned nearby. Kai frees her, but Tahren is nowhere to be found. Another mystery, and one that Ziede is anxious to resolve. Someone must have betrayed them, and that someone presumably has Tahren as a prisoner.

For our heroes, that is enough, but we readers know nothing. The book therefore has a secondary plotline which takes place some 60 or so years before and tells of the arrival of the Hierarchs, and how they were defeated. This information is essential to understanding the political machinations that have resulted in the current predicament for our heroes.

So much for the epic fantasy angle, but the book also has more general themes. The first is the nature of magic. Ziede’s Witch magic is essentially a negotiation with spirits, but Hierarch magic is based on death. They can do all sorts of spells, but the power that makes those spells work comes from human life force. The more people they kill, the more powerful they become. Kai has learned to use this magic, and can kill his enemies with ease. But he refuses to go around with a baggage train of prisoners to sacrifice when he needs them. He has discovered that he can use his own pain to power spells.

There is also a found family aspect to the story. As noted, Ziede and Tahren are a couple in the present day, though that was not always the case. Kai, despite being a demon, is someone that they love and trust, having been through the fires of war at his side. Our heroes are from very different backgrounds and cultures, and all three are alone for different reasons, but find strength in each other.

A third theme is gender. Kai can inhabit any human body, and spends most of the backstory as a young woman. In the backstory he has not been living among mortals for long and has a lot to learn about their ways. Here he is examining a group of soldiers from a group of Bashasa’s people who have been forced to serve the Hierarchs as soldiers:

All those Kai could see were dressed as men in tied split skirts. Kai had figured out by now that Arike soldiers were traditionally women, and Arike women wore pants; had the Hierarchs killed the whole garrison and conscripted men to replace them, or made the captured soldiers change their gender? Another reason they didn’t took happy to be here.

I was on a train when I read that, so I couldn’t laugh as loudly as I wanted to.

Anyway, I very much enjoyed this book, and there is plenty in the world that hasn’t yet been explored. I am hopeful for sequels. If I had the time (which I don’t), I’d be thinking about a role-playing setting inspired by some of the ideas in the book.

The Unraveling

I started this book a while back but put it down because it is rather slow to start. I got back into it because I was on a panel about the future of the family at Eurocon, and this is a book that definitely has thoughts in that direction.

The world of The Unraveling is set far in the future when resources are relatively plentiful, life expectancy is far longer than today, and biological adaptation is readily available. If you want working reproductive anatomy (of any sex) you can have it. Being allowed to have children is another matter.

The thing about living for hundreds of years is that you have to worry about population control, otherwise you’d run out of space for all of the new people you kept breeding. The society of The Unraveling gets around this by a) having far more than 2 parents in a family; b) extending adolescence by decades; and c) being very strict about which families are allowed to breed.

Our lead character, Fift, has been born to a family whose case for being allowed a child was marginal. Zir parents are very concerned about doing a good job. But this is a world in which pretty much everything is under constant public surveillance. The slightest mistake can lead to outrage on social media and the local equivalent of Social Services being called in to take the child away and break up the family.

Unfortunately Fift has a few problems with somatic integration. This is a world in which most people have at least three bodies. The extras are added soon after birth, and a psychic link established between them. If the child cannot successfully integrate the bodies into a single self, they may ‘unravel’, which would definitely be seen as a result of bad parenting.

That, however, is not the only meaning of the title. A society with strict social controls, which this one very much has, is always vulnerable to the vagaries of human nature. While a majority might be willing to fit in, there will always be those who chafe against the rules and want to live differently. There will also be malcontents, those who have been found wanting by society, and who resent the punishment this brings with it. If enough discontent builds up, society itself can being to unravel, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Fift, inevitably, will get caught up in just this sort of social collapse.

You may be wondering, with body modification easily available, who gets to be a mother and who a father. The answer is that anyone who births a child becomes a mother, and everyone else is a father. However, this has nothing to do with gender. The world of The Unraveling has two genders. Gender is assigned at birth by a powerful political group called The Midwives, and is rigidly enforced.

First we have Vails. They are loud, excitable, emotional, and very much outgoing. They favour bright colours and outrageous fashions. In contrast, Staids are quiet, contemplative, logical, and prone to staying at home for years on end. Staids only ever wear simple white clothes. Families will generally be made up of a mixture of Vails and Staids. Once your gender has been assigned, it is rigidly enforced. Any deviation will reflect badly upon your parents.

As you can see, The Unraveling is very much a book about social structures. Strict social norms of various sorts are being critiqued. I should note at this point that Ben Rosenbaum is Jewish, and there are probably things in the book that are derived from Jewish culture of which I am entirely ignorant. But I think people from all cultures can relate to oppressive social expectations.

This is a very complex book, and Rosenbaum is one of the smartest people I know. It is, I think, more in the mould of a thought experiment than an adventure or a character study. However, it is a very important thought experiment. It was published in 2021, which means that Rosenbaum would have written it before the pandemic, and before the collapse we have seen in social media. But he clearly saw something coming. Some of the malcontents in the book are very reminiscent of incels and neo-Nazis. We are much further into our own unraveling now.

I’m less convinced about the multi-body thing. I think the story could have been told without it. But it does add a very powerful additional tool to SF storytelling.

book cover
Title: The Unraveling
By: Benjamin Rosenbaum
Publisher: Erewhon
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


I can’t believe that I haven’t reviewed this book. I’ve certainly talked about it enough. I’ve even interviewed Nicola Griffith about it for an LGBT+ History Month event. But there’s no actual review. I haven’t had time to re-read the book, but with Menewood due very soon now, here are some thoughts on its precursor.

Hild is based on the life of St. Hild of Whitby. She was a real historical person, and is best known to us for having played a major role in the Synod of Whitby, at which the Christian church in Britain decided to ally itself with the church in Rome, and to eschew the teachings of the Celtic Church. This is a hugely important turning point in the history of these islands, and also of Christian belief.

None of this features in the original novel. That tells of Hild’s life from precocious teenager to young woman. The religious conflict in the book is between Paulinus, a Christian bishop and also a real person, and Coifi, a priest of Woden. It isn’t a major plot point, but it is there. Paulinus, having triumphed over the pagans, will doubtless continue to feature.

Not that this has much effect on the common people of Hild’s world. She becomes widely believed to have magic powers, primarily because she is smarter than the average Saxon. Hild, as portrayed by Griffith, is a keen observer of both human nature and the natural world. She understand the cycle of the seasons, she’s familiar with the behaviour of animals, and that of kings. Because of this she becomes invaluable to her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, who rules over a substantial part of what we now call Northern England (and bits of Southern Scotland).

One of the most impressive things about the book is the amount of research that Griffith has poured into it. Not only is she drawing on the very latest research about Early Mediaeval life in Britain, she also has to research all of the things about the world that Hild knows, and uses to her advantage.

The book also portrays Hild as unashamedly bisexual. If you study history, rather than get your knowledge from far-right rabble-rousers on social media, you will know that this is entirely reasonable.

Of course there is also Griffith’s luscious prose. This is a writer who has moved seamlessly from science fiction to detective novels to autobiography and now to historical fiction, and has won awards in all of these categories. Hild is not overtly fantastical, but Griffith’s most recent work, Spear, engages fully with the mythic, Arthurian version of the Early Mediaeval, and that has won awards too. However, Hild is fantasy in a Magic Realism sense, because pretty much everyone in the book (except maybe Hild herself) believes that magic is real. The book feels like fantasy, and the quality of the worldbuilding is outstanding.

So yes, this is an amazing book, and far more people than me have been eagerly awaiting the sequel. There isn’t long to wait now.

book cover
Title: Hild
By: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Blackfriars
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Eurocon 2023

This year’s Eurocon took place in Uppsala, a small city in Sweden just north of Stockholm. Arlanda airport is roughly equidistant between the two cities so Uppsala is an easy destination for international travelers. This year there was a problem with the train service between Arlanda and Uppsala, but there is an express bus service that does the job almost as well and is much cheaper.

The convention recommended we use the Clarion Gillet Hotel, which seemed a bit odd because there were no convention functions scheduled in it and it was about 10 minutes walk from the venue. I later found out that SweCon often takes place in that hotel, which explains why the ConCom wanted to keep them happy. Anyway, it was a nice enough hotel, with an excellent breakfast.

The venue was Uppsala University, a venerable institution founded in 1477 and possessing a gorgeous main building. There were no obvious places to put a dealers’ room or art show, but the passageways were so generous that we could use those instead. All of the meeting rooms were well equipped with sound systems. My only real complaint was that the main hall was so huge and echoey that it made it hard for me to hear anything. I suspect other hearing aid users will have had similar issues. It was a splendid hall, though. You could have staged an opera in there and it would not have looked out of place.

I was scheduled for four panels, all of which went well. I also attended quite a few, which speaks well for the choice of program items. I gather that some panels went a bit off the rails, but none I saw did. I’d particularly like to commend Johan Anglemark who did a heroic job with a panel on “How do young people get into RPGs these days?”, for which he had been given a panel of three, two of which were older than him. As it turned out, they both started role-playing around the time I stopped, but we are still taking late 1980s.

As far as I was concerned, the most interesting event was the Guest of Honour talk by Merja Polvinen. She’s a lecturer in narratology at the University of Helsinki and the work she does on speculative fiction is fascinating. I will probably butcher the theory, but here’s a quick attempt at explaining what she does.

Many of you will be familiar with Samuel Delany’s idea that science fiction literalises metaphor. The best known example of this is, “then her world exploded”. That’s unlikely to happen in a story set in our world, but if you happen to be Princess Leia it takes on a whole new meaning. What Merja has been doing is taking that one step further and looking at how science fiction literalises narrative techniques.

What does that mean? Well, consider the concept of the novel with multiple point of view characters. If you are reading A Song of Ice and Fire you have one chapter telling you what Tyrion knows of the current political situation, and then a following chapter from Cersi’s point of view. Neither will have the full picture, but you, the reader, can see what both of them see. Now consider characters such as Breq or Anaander Miannaai from Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. Both of them have multiple bodies that are in contact with each other. So both of them are literally multiple viewpoint characters in a single person.

If you are wondering why anyone would study this, one reason is that examination of narrative techniques is a very respectable part of academic literary studies, and this is a good way to get the older and stuffier academics to sit up and take notice.

Another highlight of the programme was the trip to the old Viking settlement of Old Uppsala. I’ll do a separate report on that.

Food is a key part of any convention for me, and Uppsala provided magnificently. One evening I went out with Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and Vincent Docherty to a place called Domtrappkällaren. I had one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. I want to make particular mention of the pureed parsnips. There are things you expect to taste amazing. Parsnips are not generally high on the list. I have no idea how they got such concentrated flavour out of them.

Merja, who spent some time living in Uppsala just before the pandemic, recommended Hamberg’s Fisk. During the day they operate a pub-like restaurant in the garden of an old house that once belonged the a vice chancellor of the university. It is all fish, of course. I sat in the sun eating salmon salad and drinking white wine. It was lovely.

ESFS business duly happened. Awards were given out. I’m particularly pleased for my friends, Sara Bergmark Elfgren and John-Henri Holmberg. Sara won Best Written Fiction for her novel, Grim, which will be available in English by the time this issue hits the interwebs. John-Henri got the Grand Master award, which was entirely appropriate.

The 2024 Eurocon is already seated. It will take place in Rotterdam the weekend after the Glasgow Worldcon. That’s convenient for people travelling from far away, but these days there is a definite COVID risk. I’m not sure about booking to attend as I don’t want to have to cancel at the last minute. Jasper Fforde is the headline GoH.

There was only one bidder for the 2025 Eurocon, because no one was daft enough to bid against Archipaleacon 2. It will be wonderful. The GoHs are Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, Mats Strandberg and Emmi Itäranta. Mats, as well as being half of the most famous gay couple in Sweden, writes mostly horror. He has written a novel set on a ferry in the Baltic. I do not recommend reading it before you travel to Archipelacon. Wait until you are safely home.

Getting home was a nightmare of delayed aircraft and delayed trains, but I made it. I am once again very grateful to John & Judith Clute for their hospitality.

Vikings at Uppsala

The Eurocon programming included a number of guided tours of the city and its environs. The one I immediately signed up for was to Gamla Uppsala, the site of the original Viking-era settlement which is about 5 km from the modern city. I’m very glad that I did.

Prior to the Viking age (and for some time during it), the Scandinavian nations were not the single countries we know today. Much like in Britain, the social structure was a patchwork of local kingships. The two most powerful kingdoms, as far as I’m aware, were based at Birka and Uppsala. The folks at Birka did particularly well for themselves, as they became a centre for the lucrative Baltic trade that extended down through the lands of the Rus to Constantinople and Baghdad. But Uppsala was also a very wealthy and important place.

The pagan Vikings wrote very little down, and the runestones that survive are largely memorials for people who had died on overseas adventures. Our written evidence for the site comes from Christian era writers such as Snorri Sturluson, Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus. Jonathan Olsson, our tour guide, told us that there is also a record from an Islamic traveler who visited a Danish city (and was deeply unimpressed).

What we do know is that there are many circular burial mounds, some of them impressively large. Snorri said that they included the graves of Odin, Thor and Freyr, but excavations have shown that they are burials for high status human individuals, including at least one woman. Archaeology has also turned up an impressively large hall, and what is probably a ceremonial centre. Our ancient sources claim that Odin, Thor and Freyr were worshipped there.

In the UK and USA our view of Norse religion comes primarily from Britain’s interaction with the Norwegians and Danes, whose allegiance seems to have been primarily to the Aesir. The Swedes, whose raiding activities focused on the east, seem to have paid more attention to the Vanir. In particular, Freyr is said to be the ancestor of the Swedes.

Much to my surprise, Jonathan told us that Thor’s hammer jewelry was associated almost exclusively with burials of women. Men favoured Odin and Freyr instead. Clearly Chris Hemsworth had a fan club even in those days.

The whole Aesir/Vanir thing is very confusing, and absent written sources we’ll probably never be able to make sense of it. However, one plausible explanation is that two rather different groups of gods belonging to different tribal groups have been melded together over time.

I am interested in this, primarily because Freyja is Vanir, and she’s a fertility goddess who goes around in a chariot drawn by cats. The parallels with Cybele should be obvious.

Saxo Grammaticus tells us that the priests of Freyr at Uppsala were effeminate. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were like the galli and that Freyr is an equivalent of Attis. Freyr was a war god, and he is described as Freyja’s brother, not her consort. But there is clearly something interesting going on and it would be nice to have some more evidence to back up Saxo’s assertion.

We do know that effeminate men associated with the Vanir existed. Olaf Tryggvason, one of the first Norse kings to convert to Christianity, is said to have been attacked by a group of sorcerers, whom he defeated and put to death. The word “sorcerer” is here an English translation. The original text describes them as men who practiced “seidr”, a form of women’s magic specifically associated with Freyja.

One of the other clues we have about gender fluidity in ancient Norse religion comes from Tacitus. In his Germania he tells of a particularly sacred grove in what is now modern Poland which was attended by a cross-dressed priest and was dedicated to Castor & Pollux. While the pagan Germans clearly had a similar pantheon to the Norse, I knew of no parallel to this in Norse religion. Until I visited Uppsala, and there it was.

The museum at Uppsala contained a reference to images of twin gods dancing with weapons. One was found at the site (see the photo above), and one nearby. The description compares them to Castor and Pollux, and says that they were companions of Odin. The weapon dance reflects the Corybantes of the Cybele cult. There is a suggestion that one of the images on the helmet at Sutton Hoo also represents these twin gods (see below). And that in turn would suggest that there might have been an ergi priest at the court of King Raedwald, the probable occupant of the Sutton Hoo burial.

Cheryl, meet rabbit hole. There’s a lot of research to be done here. Hopefully it will turn up more evidence.

Heilung – LIFA

So there I was chatting away with a friend online while watching Glastonbury. We were watching different stages, and I happened to mention that The Pretenders were playing “Hymn to Her”, because how can you not when you have a song like that and are at Glastonbury. Then Katie says, “Have you heard of Heilung?”

No, reader, I had not, because I am hopelessly out of the loop as regards modern music. I have become Old. But I do know how to Google, so I had a look on YouTube, and there was this bunch of people dressed as Nordic shamen playing instruments that looked like they had been dug up from an Iron Age village. Oh my. Folk music has come on a bit since Fairport Convention.

Heilung’s music is rooted in Germanic/Nordic mythology and the lyrics often consist of nothing but wailing, grunting and chanting the names of the gods. It is wonderfully atmospheric. Whether it has anything in common with music that was actually played by and ancient Norse and Germanic people is another matter, but it sounds like it ought to have. It is no surprise that some of their music was used in the Vikings TV series.

The album I’m reviewing here – Lifa – was recorded live on Lughnasadh at Castlefest in the Netherlands, which is apparently a popular venue for Neo-Mediaeval bands. If you are interested, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. I think you’ll agree that they look the part.

In case you are worrying, ‘heilung’ means ‘healing’. The band has been featured in The Guardian, and I don’t think that would happen if they were Nazis, unless of course they also started going on about how they were only asking reasonable questions about women’s safety.

In addition to the Nordic stuff, the band has some songs inspired by Mesopotamian religion. I’m hoping that they will get together with my friend, Sophus Helle, and put the poems of Enheduanna to music. It seems an obvious thing to do.

Which reminds me, I have a copy of Sophus’s new book of translations of those poems, which I must review for you at some point.

Anyway, Heilung are interesting in part because of their dedication to exploring the sounds of the deep past, and partly because they create some really interesting soundscapes. There’s nothing electronic about Heilung’s work, but some of it is definitely a sort of trance music. Other songs are more reminiscent of a Māori Haka. If you fancy a bit of weird, neo-pagan music, you should check them out. I recommend headphones.

Editorial – June 2023

I got a fair amount of reading done this month thanks to the travel to Eurocon. Hopefully I’ll be similarly productive this month as I will be off to Canada for the NASFiC.

Next issue should be a good one as I have some great stuff lined up for review. Most importantly, Nicola Griffith has kindly sent me an eARC of Menewood. In addition I have a whole 9 hours of audiobook to listen to. Normally I don’t do such things, but this is Vergil! A Mythological Musical, written by Maria Dahvana Headley and with an all-star cast including Will Young.

The TV is getting busy as well. I have started watching Secret Invasion and the new series of Strange New Worlds. Netflix has informed me that Titans season 4 and The Witcher season 3 are now available. And Good Omens 2 should begin soon. I need to retire so that I can read and watch stuff.

But I can’t. In case you missed it, Wizard’s Tower will be publishing a lesbian space opera trilogy from the wonderful Lyda Morehouse. The press release is here. That’s work I shall be delighted to do.

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