There’s nothing like success to prompt Hollywood into doing more of the same. Therefore, off the back of Noelle Stevenson’s brilliant reboot of She-Ra, we have not one, but two new reboots of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Both are available on Netflix, but they are very different.
First up is Masters of the Universe: Revelation. This is created by Kevin Smith, and it is rather more aimed at adults than at children. The story begins with Skeletor finally managing to kill He-Man, whose secret identity is thereby revealed. The forces of good immediately fall to squabbling, with Prince Adam’s parents blaming He-Man’s companions for their son’s death, and Teela absolutely furious that everyone seemed to know who He-Man was except her.
Years later, Teela finds herself teaming up with Evil-Lyn to solve the mystery of what happened in the final battle. That is not the sort of thing that a kid’s show would do.
You can also tell the adult focus because the show spends a lot of time trying to explain aspects of the He-Man universe that are frankly silly, such as why the good guys’ castle is in the shape of a giant skull, and whether Evil-Lyn’s parents actually named her Evil-Lyn.
The best thing about this series is the cast. Mark Hamill has a whale of a time playing Skeletor, and Lena Heady (Cersei Lannister) has equal fun as Evil-Lyn. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Teela, who is the focal character for most of Season 1.
However, whereas Stevenson’s She-Ra could be equally enjoyed by both adults and children, I suspect that this incarnation of He-Man will mostly go over the heads of any young kids who watch it. For us adults, it is very watchable.
The other series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe 2021, is created by Rob David, previously best known for writing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. This series is very much for kids, with themes of teenagers rebelling against stupid adults being a major part of the plot.
Another major difference between the two series is the style of the animation. Kevin Smith has gone for a look that very much evokes the original series. Rob David, on the other hand, has gone for a manga-inspired look. The characters have giant eyes, and all of the heroes have transformation sequences. He-Man also has a power use sequence that gets into most episodes. There is much posing of the characters in ways that are probably exact copies of the action figures made for the show.
I hadn’t quite realised before looking at these two series just how many versions of He-Man were out there. The Kevin Smith series appears to be based mostly on the original stories, whereas Rob David has mined the He-Man comics for a storyline in which Skeletor is actually Prince Adam’s evil uncle.
I guess that if you are some sort of He-Man purist all these variant storylines will be infuriating. Personally I found the fact that the two series were so different to be refreshing and interesting. If they had both tried to do the same thing one would have inevitably eclipsed the other. As it is, we have two new series that we can enjoy for what each is trying to do, with little in the way of competition.
Of course neither series holds a candle to She-Ra, but I did enjoy watching them and will pick up season 2 of both when they arrive.
You would have thought that with a month off I would have a bumper issue for you. No such luck. Life, as they say, has happened. I’ve talked a bit about the sort of issues I’m dealing with on my blog. It is not fun, and it takes time away from important stuff such as making books.
Having said that, I have been to my first in-person convention in what seems like forever. There’s a report on FantasyCon in this issue. We launched The Green Man’s Challenge there, and the book is already well on the way to 1000 copies sold, which I never would have believed if you had told me about it back when I started Wizard’s Tower. I’m also delighted that we will be bringing back Chaz Brenchley’s Outremer series over the next couple of years.
There’s a fair amount of book-related activity in my near future as well, starting with Octocon this weekend, at which I am doing two panels and experimenting with their virtual dealers’ room.
On Tuesday Oct. 19th you can see an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson about The Ministry for the Future. That’s part of the Bristol Ideas Festival of the Future City. I had the honour of introducing Stan and, having heard the interview be recorded, I can warmly recommend it.
Following that will be BristolCon on Saturday Oct. 30th. Again that’s an in-person event, and I will have a dealer table. A few days after that I will be jetting off to Montréal for World Fantasy, and I will be getting to see Kevin in person for the first time since the Dublin Worldcon. Hopefully I will have some more books read and made before then.
This issue’s cover should be instantly recognisable. Yes, that is “The Ancient of Days” by William Blake. Blake did several versions of this image, including the last work he made before his death. This is apparently a version from 33 years earlier. A lot of Blake’s work is under copyright, but I found this one thanks to the very useful CC Search.
Do not read this if you haven’t seen the series, or have seen it and don’t want things that go on in it explained.
Thank you for sticking with me. What I’m going to do here is look at the series and its connection to the Marvel Comics Universe. As you will see, the Cinematic Universe team have not followed the comics slavishly (not should they, the comics continuity is a mess). Nevertheless, it is interesting to see what has been done.
Let’s start with the Time Variance Authority. Somewhat to my surprise (because I have never followed Thor much), they are not new. They first appeared in Thor #372 in 1986. However, this incarnation of the TVA was a homage to an earlier version of a timeline monitoring organisation originally used in the Alan Moore and Alan Davis run on Captain Britain in the early 1980s. It is perhaps not surprising that a couple of British writers came up with something quite so close to a Doctor Who plot, and in fact the stories first began publication in Doctor Who Monthly. This particular storyline also features one of my favourite superhero groups, The Special Executive.
The original TVA was created by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema and was also an homage to their friend and colleague, Mark Gruenwald, who was Marvel’s continuity expert. He literally was the Guardian of Marvel’s Sacred Timeline, and all the TVA staff, including Mobius, were drawn as Gruenwald clones.
Where the TV series begins to deviate from the comics original is in the character of Ravonna Renslayer. That’s a name that is well known to Avengers fans. Originally she was the love interest, and single weakness, of one of the Avengers’ greatest foes, Kang the Conqueror. Introducing her to the TV series was a clear indication that Kang would be the primary villain, though how they manage that relationship has clearly been put back to Season 2. The original Ravonna was a princess of a world that Kang had conquered, not a teacher from Earth, so there are definitely changes in store.
So “He Who Remains” is Kang, right? Yes, obviously, if only because it had already been trailed that Kang would be the villain in the next Wasp (and Ant Man) movie, and that he would be played by Jonathan Majors. QED.
However, Kang has come a long way since his first appearance in Avengers #8 in 1964. As a time-traveling megalomaniac (and possibly a descendant of Victor von Doom), he has had many lives. The whole story about a war in the multiverse between rival versions of Kang was taken from the comics. It is likely that He Who Remains is only one version of Kang that Majors will get to play. Personally I want to see him as Rama-Tut.
Alioth too is a character from the comics, and closely associated with the Kang/Ravonna storyline.
Which just leaves us with Sylvie. She’s a Loki variant, right? Well, not exactly.
You will remember that Sylvie keeps talking about enchanting things. It is what she does. Well, back in the day, Thor had a lot of trouble with an Asgardian magician called Amora and known as The Enchantress. She and another Asgardian villain, The Executioner, became part of Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil, and were therefore regular Avengers enemies. In the comics she’s still up to her tricks, but if she existed in the MCU then she presumably died in Ragnarök.
Meanwhile, a teenager on Earth got given Amora’s powers by Loki. She is called Sylvie Lushton, and she later becomes a member of the Young Avengers alongside characters such as Wiccan & Speed – Billy & Tommy Maximoff (whom we met in Wanda/Vision), Patriot – Elijah Bradly (whom we met in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier); Hulkling – Teddy Altman (a skrull whom I expect us to meet in the Nick Fury & the Skrulls movie) and the new Hawkeye – Kate Bishop, who we will meet in the forthcoming Hawkeye TV series. The team also includes Kid Loki, who featured in the multi-Loki cast at the end of time. As you can see, there’s a lot of forward planning being done.
Incidentally, Sylvie Lushton was created by Paul Cornell, who has written Doctor Who TV episodes, so there’s another nod to the Time Lord in the Loki series.
Not knowing all of this is not going to spoil your enjoyment of the Loki TV series. Indeed, I have been fascinated by the way in which people who are obviously entirely unfamiliar with Avengers lore have approached the series and enjoyed it. Then again, not knowing that the reason Kang is eating an apple in the season finale is because he claims to have knowledge of everything, and is tempting Loki and Sylvie with that knowledge, won’t spoil your enjoyment either. But you can be sure that it wasn’t an accident.
I don’t get many review copies these days, but every so often Jo Fletcher sends me something that she thinks might be of interest. A Strange and Brilliant Light is one such book. It is a debut novel by Eli Lee, and Jo was quite right to think I would find it interesting.
Probably the most important thing to say about the book is that the author (in her Twitter feed) describes it as “speculative literary fiction”. What that means is that it is a book about characters rather than a more traditional, plot-based science fiction novel. However, the speculative element is still very much there.
The narrative centres on three women: Lal, Janetta and Rose. They happen to be living at a time when an AI revolution is taking place and robot workers called “auts” are taking everyone’s jobs. Lal has subscribed to the idea that hard work is everything and, if only she devotes her entire life to her employer, then happiness will ensue. Her sister, Janetta, does not need to work hard because she’s a genius. Her PhD on AI programming is sure to land her a top job somewhere. But Janetta is much less good at life, and girlfriend trouble is messing with her ability to complete her studies. Rose is Lal’s best friend from school. They start off working together at a franchise café, but while Lal wants to climb the corporate ladder, Rose, whose father was a famous trade unionist, can see how they are being exploited, and will soon be replaced.
The main speculative element is the usual one of robot revolution. Here one of the characters sets out the dilemma:
We both know that sooner or later, somehow or other, AI is going to become conscious. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? And when it does, unless it is programmed to be docile, obedient, essentially not alive, it’s going to rise up and kill us.
Ah yes, the robot version of Great Replacement Theory. We must keep the immigrants from the colonies in their place, or they will rise up and do to us what we have done to them.
Lal thinks that is this all good for corporate profits. Janetta thinks that if she can somehow program the right sort of emotions into the AIs they will be better people than us. Rose knows that the auts will take her job, and those of all her friends and family, unless someone stops them.
So much, so traditional. Where the book gets interesting is that Rose gets involved in a political organisation advocating for something called “source gain”, which is essentially a made-up name for Universal Basic Income. Lee is asking, if the robots take all our jobs, what will that mean for us? Will we have huge amounts of leisure, and a guaranteed income from the government, or will we starve?
I should note, by the way, that the characters live in a made-up world. That is, the world of the book feels like Earth, but the action takes place in a country that does not exist. There are times when the great city of Mejira, where Lal goes to work, reminds me of Singapore. There is also a section where Janetta goes on vacation to somewhere that might be Nepal. But these are only suggestions, and the book should not be taken as being set in those places. It is an interesting approach by Lee, which allows her to set the book in what is presumably a non-white community, while not having to worry about correctly representing the culture.
This being a book by a woman, about three women, there is inevitably a little feminism in there too. I was especially pleased to see Lee skewer left wing men who fancy themselves as intellectuals, because that is one serious real-world trope.
As someone with several decades of IT experience, I have to say that the resolution of the plot is pure Handwavium. Then again, so is the ending of many cyberpunk movies, and Independence Day, so we can hardly complain. This is not a book about programming AI, it is a book about the social issues that will result if AI becomes more all-pervasive than it is already. That’s certainly one of the sorts of science fiction book that needs to be written right now. Not that I think AI will become conscious, but “AI” that is not conscious, or remotely intelligent, but has a heap of in-built biases, is actually taking our jobs and affecting our lives.
Why, exactly, is Cheryl reviewing a book about William Blake in a magazine about science fiction and fantasy? Well, because alongside Tolkien, Blake is Britain’s greatest mythographer. One could make a case for Geoffrey of Monmouth as well, but it seems likely that he stitched together his history of Britain from folk tales already extant at the time, whereas Blake and Tolkien were both engaged in substantial creative activities.
Blake himself probably wouldn’t have seen it that way. He is more likely to have said that he was just explaining the world the way that it was, and that everyone else’s understanding of Christianity and the Bible was wrong. He was idiosyncratic and stubborn like that. But one of the interesting claims made in John Higgs’ book, William Blake vs The World, is that Blake benefited from a something similar the synaesthesia, and actually did see the visions that he claimed he saw, without any aid from mushrooms and the like.
Of course, my own interest in the book was also historical. Having had to do a deep dive into 18th Century ideas about gender for a talk on Charlotte de Beaumont, I was hoping that a book about Blake might further enlighten me. Sadly Higgs is not overly interested in Blake’s ideas about gender. He does indicate that is aware of the issue, noting:
Blake appears to have been cisgendered and heterosexual, but there may have been a transgender aspect to his sense of self when it was let free in his imagination.
So Higgs is familiar with the terminology of trans issues. Also he later lumps Mumsnet in with 4chan and the Mail Online as examples of places people who want to live in Hell might choose to frequent. However, he doesn’t really follow up on Blake’s interest in androgyny. Higgs has also left me wanting to know a lot more about an 18th Century Christian sect known as the Moravians, of which he writes:
The Moravians preached that union with Christ could be achieved through both marital and extramarital sex and gender transgression. Each individual Christian was considered to be the bride of Christ, and therefore female in terms of spiritual sexuality. They practiced visualisation exercises, which focused on the wound in Jesus’s side, in order to better understand the spiritual nature of being penetrated by the male Christ.
Apparently modern-day Moravians have deviated sharply from these teachings.
Of course Higgs’s book isn’t really a history book, it is a book about Blake. Fortunately for him, it is not his job to explain the 18th Century to us. Explaining Blake is quite a big enough job for anyone. When he does get into history he’s liable to mess up, such as here:
Many early Christian thinkers saw the material body as the prison of the immaterial soul, and henceforth something to be despised. The practice of self-flagellation which runs throughout Christian history is a product of ideas such as this, although thankfully few took it to the lengths of the third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, who is said to have castrated himself for God.
Higgs seems unaware that, while there is no proof that Origen was castrated, becoming a eunuch to demonstrate one’s piety was very popular in the Byzantine empire and hundreds, if not thousands of Christian monks did so.
But let’s get back to mythography. The world that Blake created was very different from Tolkien’s in many ways, because Blake was trying to understand the real world as he saw it, whereas Tolkien was very clear that he was practicing subcreation. Nevertheless, comparisons can be drawn and Higgs does not shirk from the challenge. He writes:
If we were to compare his writings to that of the later English mythmaker J.R.R. Tolkien, then Songs of Innocence and of Experience was Blake’s Hobbit, the Bible of Hell was his Lord of the Rings, and his nineteenth-century works were his Silmarilion.
I am not sufficiently well versed in either the works of Blake or of Tolkien to comment on the veracity of that comparison, but it is interesting that it has been made.
The other obvious connection between Tolkien and Blake is that both make use of the name “orc” for a violent adversary. In Tolkien orcs are a species of violent creatures bred by Melkor in mockery of the elves. In Blake Orc is a spirit of violence and destruction and an enemy of Urizen, the embodiment of authority.
The connection between the two orcs is somewhat nebulous. For example, here Matthew David Surridge is adamant that Tolkien’s orcs have no etymological connection to Blake. The accepted wisdom is that Tolkien took “orc” from the word “orcneas” which comes from a line in Beowulf listing “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas” as various enemies of God. Tolkien says as much in a letter to Naomi Mitchison. But he also says that he chose the word for its sound as much anything else.
As a professor of English at Oxford, Tolkien must have been aware of Blake. He was probably also aware that Blake created the character of Orc as a spirit of violent revolution, not in response to events in France, which were then still in his future, but following his witnessing of the Gordon Riots in London. In these riots, an anti-Catholic mob stormed the city’s prisons, ostensibly to free their colleagues held within. Catholic churches and the homes of Catholic notables were also attacked and looted. Over the space of a week, 850 people were killed in the rioting. Tolkien, being a devout Catholic, may have taken note of this.
Incidentally, the Gordon Riots were named after a populist politician whose intemperate ranting had inspired them. Higgs notes:
George Gordon was sent away as a child and bullied at Eton, then entered the Navy where he was considered ‘a damned nuisance wholly unsuitable for promotion.’ A seat in parliament was subsequently bought for him, where he was considered something of a joke. Privileged, narcissistic and generally mediocre, personalities like Gordon are sadly familiar in this history of populist violence.
Like Higgs, I will leave it to the reader to discern which contemporary politician might be being referenced here.
The key element of Blake’s mythmaking, and something that sharply distinguishes him from the many Tolkien imitators in epic fantasy, if not entirely from Tolkien himself, is his belief in the inappropriateness of demarcation. Blake lived at a time when a rush of new discoveries in science was encouraging intellectuals to sort the world into boxes. Categorisation was the fashion. And with it came a passion for abandoning nuance and concentrating on difference. We are still living with the effects of that today.
This application of reason to sort everything into its place was seen by Blake as the triumph of Urizen, the authoritarian god of rationality, whom Blake characterised in ways very similar to the god of the Old Testament (most famously in the artwork on this issue’s cover). But Urizen was only one of four related deities, the “four zoas”. The others – Urthona (creativity), Luvah (emotion) and Tharmas (physical senses) – were, in Blake’s view, lessened by the triumph of Urizen, and the world was poorer for their being side-lined.
Blake lived to see and be horrified by the Napoleonic Wars, which touched much of the known world at the time. He would have seen Urizen very much at work in the Nazi focus on eliminating people they deemed inferior but would probably have despaired at the need for the likes of Churchill and Stalin to lead the resistance against Hitler. If he were alive today, he would probably be railing against the far right and its quest to set everyone against everyone else.
The greatest irony of Blake’s legacy is that a hymn he wrote calling for the tearing down of the establishment, and poking fun at places such as Eton, is now seen as the embodiment of the myth of English superiority. If anyone out there is writing epic fantasy, what the world needs now, and England needs in particular, is a little more William Blake in its mythology, and a little less focus on Good v Evil.
It is a good job that Worldcon is later in the year this year, because I have only just made a start on my Hugo reading. Then again, three of the Novella finalists are works I had nominated (and I have read five of the Novels), so I’m in a pretty good position.
I hadn’t read Riot Baby before I got to fill in my ballot, but had I done so it may well have made its way onto my list. It is an incredibly powerful book. The baby of the title is Kevin, who is born at the same time as Los Angeles is being torn apart by riots following the death of Rodney King in 1991. The supernatural element comes from Kev’s elder sister, Ella, who has “a Thing”; that is, supernatural powers.
Following the riots, Kev and Ella’s mother decides to leave LA and move to New York. It is an understandable reaction, but makes no difference. Institutional racism pervades all the USA. As a young Black boy, Kev’s future is predictable. He might be very smart, with a hard-working and respected nurse for a mother, but he’s caught between the gangs who want to recruit him, and the police who want to put him jail. The police win. Kev ends up in Rikers Island.
Riot Baby is a very angry book. In this interview for Salon, Tochi Onyebuchi makes it clear that the book is not for white people. He wrote it for his fellow Black people, who have every right to be as angry as he is. Mostly the book is about the prison-industrial complex in the USA. There is a conveyor belt which takes young black men off the street, on the slightest pretence, into prison, where everything conspires to keep them there for the rest of their lives. They are slaves in all but name.
Interestingly, parts of the book are set a few years into the future. Here Onyebuchi looks at how technology will change policing. With the Internet able to keep tabs on people at all times, and algorithms used by the criminal justice system packed with anti-Black bias, the results seem inevitable. You don’t need a crystal ball to make these predictions.
The other aspect of the book is the supernatural one. Ella has powers. It is not always clear exactly what she can do. She can see the future, she can travel out-of-body, and she can cause damage. Is she able to burn down Rikers and take Kevin to freedom? Perhaps. And what would be the consequences if she did? Could she liberate all Black people? And what would be the consequences if she did.
As Onyebuchi suggests in the Salon interview, if Ella uses her powers to help anyone, she will always be Magneto, never Black Panther. Does that mean that her powers are useless? Or does she have to go full on Killmonger to have any chance of success?
In the interview, Onyebuchi is asked why any white person would read Riot Baby. Isn’t that just self-flagellation? Well perhaps. But clearly there are still many white people out there who don’t know how America really works when you are Black. Or if they know it doesn’t seem important to them. And then they wonder why all those Black people are suddenly so angry. Elsewhere people like Lewis Hamilton are trying their best to remain calm, educate people, and change the world. That’s great, more power to them. But racism is a bit like climate change. If we ignore it for too long, one day it will be too late.
This is less of a review and more of an advertorial, because I have an essay in this book. Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction (to give it its full title) is the latest volume in the Academia Lunare series from Luna Press Publishing, edited by Francesca T Barbini. My essay is titled, “Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender”, and it full of good ideas for making your aliens queer. That’s enough of that. What else is in the book?
Of immediate interest is the essay by Claire Burgess on the work of William Blake. As I have said elsewhere in this issue, I don’t think Blake would have seen himself as doing worldbuilding. He was just explaining the real world as he saw it, to people who lacked his insight. But to the rest of us Blake is very clearly practicing mythography and I’m pleased to see him in a collection such as this.
Tangentially related to this issue is an essay by my Finnish friend, Jyrki Korpua. He has taken a sabbatical from writing about Tolkien, and is instead explaining the Nordic roots of Disney’s Frozen franchise. We probably all know that the original film was based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, but Disney’s team has put a lot of work into reflecting aspects of Nordic culture in the films.
There is, of course, an article about Tolkien in the book. There’s also one about Le Guin, and delightfully one about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Those all join the Blake in focussing on a particular author. Other essays, such as mine, focus on general techniques. I was particularly interested in “No Elf is an Island” by Ricardo Victoria-Uribe and Martha Elba González-Alcaraz. This uses something called System Theory to examine the practice of worldbuilding – what works and what doesn’t – by examining a number of well known fantasy worlds. Along the way the authors note:
However, when the author adds details upon details without reason, or to justify post facto things that were left out or are inconsequential to the larger plot, they feel like add-ons, patches to the story, in detriment to its organic growth, as had happened to the Wizarding World by JK Rowling in recent years.
The essay that I was particularly keen to read was, “Town Planning in Viriconium: M John Harrison and Worldbuilding,” by Peter Garrett. As Garrett well knows, Harrison is allergic to the very idea of worldbuilding. The Viriconium project is, at least in part, an exercise in undermining the concept. I was particularly interested to see Garrett invoke reader-response theory, because part of the nature of Viriconium is that everyone who discovers it perceives it in a different way. I don’t have time to re-read the books, and then go back and re-read Garrett’s essay, but I have a feeling that this could be the start of a much larger conversation.
There are several other essays in the book that I haven’t had time to look at yet, but the bottom line is that I really appreciate what Barbini is doing with this series. Occasionally I wish she would encourage contributors to tone down the academic stiltedness of their contributions, but overall I am delighted that someone is publishing a regular series of interesting discussions of our genre(s).
Well, that was very Disney. Then again, what should I expect?
For those who haven’t seen it, Raya and the Last Dragon is a sort of Disney Princess fairy tale animation. It is set in a county that is presumably somewhere in South-East Asia, and it features water dragons, which I am now fairly familiar with from Aliette de Bodard’s writing. The basic plot is about how humans have warred among themselves, which causes all sorts of evil to happen, and we have to learn to be friends with each other again. All of which is seen through the eyes of a young princess who befriends the only dragon left alive. It is exactly as soppy as you would expect.
I try to remember that these things are intended mostly for kids, and we should not expect any realpolitik in them.
The film is beautifully animated and a lot of fun along the way. I don’t expect anything less from Disney. But I have reservations.
Firstly the core dynamic of the plot is the rivalry between Raya and Princess Namaari of the Claw Tribe (who ride giant cats). Namaari has been brought up to believe that her people have been kept in poverty by the Heart Tribe, Raya’s people. It is the young Namaari who tricks Raya into betraying Heart secrets and causes the disaster at the start of the film, which Raya must put right. Before that can happen, Namaari must repent, and Raya must learn to trust her. All well and good, except that Namaari is given a very obvious lesbian haircut and is portrayed in a very Amazon warrior way, and this is entirely queer-baiting because it is a film for kids and nothing is going to happen between her and Raya. I am assuming that a lot of fan fic is getting written, but it would be nice if Disney did more than just hint.
My other concern is with the cast. It is headed by Kelly Marie Tran, which is wonderful. If ever there was an actress who deserves a starring role in a successful movie, she’s it. All of the rest of the cast are people of colour too. But they are also all American, and this is a cartoon. So although all of the characters that we see are non-white, they mostly have American accents. On the one hand, this is a great piece of representation by Disney. Asian Americans in particular will doubtless be pleased by that. But I found myself wondering whether people outside the USA (and maybe Canada) would see it as representation, or whether they’d assume that the actors were all white people. Because I did until I looked them up.
Obviously I’m not in a position to judge here. I’d welcome feedback from Asian friends.
OK, so this issue is a day late (it is now August) and a little thin on the book reviews. Sorry about that, folks, life happens. Sometimes I need to read a lot of things that are not reviewable. And sometimes I need to sort out things in my life.
The good news is that August is one of the two months per year that I plan to take off. Ostensibly this is because I’m busy with Worldcon, but of course this year I am not. I hope to use the extra month to read lots and get ahead of the game for the rest of the year.
Talking of Worldcon, things have moved on quite a bit from last month. My very best wishes to Mary Robinette for taking on the crazy task of chairing the convention. We now seem to be getting actual progress. There was a Zoom meeting for potential programme participants a couple of weeks ago, which I got an invitation to on the strength of being a Hugo Finalist. The head of programming assured me that she wanted to make use of the hybrid nature of the event to bring in programme participants from all around the world, and on the strength of that I have signed up as a Virtual Member.
Finally for this month you may remember me muttering back in June about Google retiring Feedburner. A small number of you were subscribed to this site by email through feedburner. You should continue to get emails through a service called Follow.It. If you think you should have been getting emails and did not get one this month, please let me know.
And don’t forget, there will be no new issue in August. See you all in September, by which time I may have actually attended FantasyCon.
Shards of Earth: A look at the new Adrian Tchaikovsky novel, Shards of Earth
The Album of Dr. Moreau: Hey, hey, we're a Monkee! Well, chimp actually, plus an elephant, an ocelot, an armadillo and a bat. With help from Daryl Gregory, the world's latest hot boy band has produced The Album of Dr Moreau
QualityLand: In the near future, Germany will be the Best of All Possible Countries: QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling
Worldcon Drama Again: What? It's only a couple of months since the last Worldcon fiasco. Of course we were due another one.
Blackheart Knights: Laure Eve's debut urban fantasy, Blackheart Knights, re-invents King Arthur in a near-future London
Birds of Prey: Cheryl explains why the Birds of Prey movie does not appeal to leopards
Red Dust: From Yoss, a star of Cuban science fiction, comes Red Dust, a mystery featuring a robot detective who is a fan of noir fiction
I have been meaning to catch up with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work for some time. He’s clearly on the cutting edge of modern SF, and I’ve really enjoyed the readings I have heard him do. All I needed was a suitable entry point; a new series that I could make a start on. Shards of Earth fits the bill nicely.
I should note at this point that the new series does not (as yet) involve any giant spiders. There is a species that looks a bit like giant crabs, and another that looks very much like giant clams. There is also a very nasty species that looks like moon-sized sea urchins. But nothing arachnoid. Yet.
Moon-sized sea urchins? Yes, you heard right the first time. They are called Architects, though they don’t seem to actually build anything. More typically they will take existing things and re-shape them according to their rather eccentric artistic whims. This usually involves shredding things into bizarre shapes and putting things that were on the inside onto the outside. Items of space real estate likely to be re-shaped in this manner include spacecraft, orbitals and planets.
(As an aside, I have this odd feeling that the idea for the book might have come, in part, from Season 5 of Agents of SHIELD with its startling images of Earth after its destruction by Quake.)
Given that the Architects proved invulnerable, implacable, and entirely uninterested in communicating with the subjects of their artistic endeavours, this constituted a major crisis in which all intelligent life joined together as one to oppose them. Or at least to provide evacuation fleets and new homes for the refugees.
Still the Architects would have won easily, had humankind not accidently discovered how to talk to them, or at least get their attention. The Intermediary Program involved the identification and training of humans with a rare biological aptitude for interfacing with the fabric of the universe and thereby being able to make a loud enough noise on the right communication channels for the Architects to notice them.
Most Intermediaries died in the training program, but a few survived long enough to be sent into combat. They made contact. The Architects went back to wherever it was they had come from. The galaxy heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Fifty years later we have a book. Yes, this is an After the War novel. Idris Telemmier, the hero of the Battle of Berlenhof, the man who made the Architects go away, is in retirement. Well, more accurately he is in hiding. The Council of Human Interests, colloquially known as “Hugh”) would love to have him back in their service, which is why he is hiding out as the pilot of an elderly salvage vessel with a rag-tag, dysfunctional-but-lovable crew. Intermediaries, it turns out, make superb hyperspace pilots, so he earns his keep.
The crew of the Vulture God fits neatly into a standard SF trope that is quite popular right now and probably owes a lot to Firefly. There are several of them, but I want to highlight two. Firstly there is Kris, who is a disgraced elite lawyer. Her job is to make sure that the contracts the crew enters into are watertight, and to keep Idris out of the clutches of Hugh. Secondly there is Olli. In our time she would doubtless be described as having “birth defects”, but she turns out to be an absolute genius at interfacing with waldos of all sorts, which is really useful in space.
Is there a plot here, Cheryl? Yes, of course. Remember that we are 50 years after the war. What happens when memories of shared peril fade? Correct, former allies start fighting among themselves. In particular there is growing antagonism between Hugh and The Parthenon.
Is this something to do with Athena? Well yes, because Athena was born without a mother, hence the term “parthenogenesis”, which should be familiar to readers of feminist SF and my essays on interesting biology. The Parthenon is a community of genetically engineered, vat-grown women warriors. They are an elite fighting force, physically perfect, and trained from birth for that purpose. They see themselves as guardians of the galaxy. Everyone else sees them as a dangerous military dictatorship. Most importantly for our purposes, The Parthenon does not possess the knowledge of how to make Intermediaries. And Hugh is terrified of what they will be capable of if they acquire that technology.
So, a plan. Myrmidon Solace has been kept in cryo-sleep for most of the past 50 years, just in case her experience might be needed again. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, Solace ended up as the personal bodyguard of Idris Telemmier at the Battle of Berlenhof, and continued in that role for the remainder of the war. Any two young persons thrown together in circumstances of mortal peril are bound to develop some sort of bond. The Parthenon’s High Command thinks that Solace might be able to persuade Idris to defect.
That’s mostly your set-up. Solace wants to persuade Idris to help her people. Idris just wants to disappear. The crew of the Vulture God mostly just want to get on with their next contract in peace, except for Olli who wants to get rid of the vile, eugenicist Parthenon woman as quickly as possible, and with extreme prejudice. And don’t forget the giant clams – sorry, the Essiel – because they do have an empire, and they do want the rest of the galaxy to submit to their rule, because everyone will be so much better off being taken care of by superior beings.
It is a common nostrum that science fiction books are not about the future, they are about the now of when they are written. That is absolutely true of Shards of Earth. A key element of the story is the inability of human politicians to unite against an existential threat until it is way too late. The Essiel have clearly been taking a leaf out of the Vladimir Putin playbook, fostering the growth of populist, far-right movements in Hugh territory to distract and weaken human government. On a personal level, Solace struggles with being seen as an agent of an Evil Empire when all her recent memories are of saving the galaxy from destruction, while Olli’s understandable distrust of eugenics, and therefore hatred of Solace, causes fractures among the crew of the Vulture God. It is all very spot on.
Finally, we have that core feature of space opera, the mysterious ancient civilisation. Who were the Architects? Where did they come from? Why did they leave so suddenly? And most importantly, will they be back. You know the answer to the last of those. The other questions are what will keep you reading eagerly to the end of the trilogy.
What if the creatures from The Island of Dr Moreau escaped, moved to the USA, and started a boy band?
No, I’m serious, that is exactly the premise of Daryl Gregory’s latest book, which I think is a novella (the Kindle app says it has 141 pages, but does not give a word count even though it very easily could). Of course that’s not all there is to the story. It is also a murder mystery, a meditation on the phenomenon of boy bands and the awful music industry practices that allow them to be created and exploited. There’s also stuff about eugenics, and the USA’s obsession with immigration, and a whole lot more stuff. Stick with me here, it will be worth it.
The WyldBoyZ have just played a hugely successful gig in Las Vegas. However, the following morning their manager, Maurice Bendix, known as Dr M, is found brutally murdered. Bobby O, who is part ocelot and very well endowed in the claw department, swears that he didn’t do it, even though he woke up next to Bendix’s eviscerated body and was covered in the dead man’s blood.
This is clearly case for Detective Lucia Delgado, primarily because she has a good track record in dealing with celebrity crime. She used to be a stage magician, so she has some understanding of the show biz mindset. Luce has only two problems. The first is that her teenage daughter, Melanie, is the WyldBoyZ’s biggest fan. And the second is her partner, Mickey Banks, who has a penchant for truly terrible puns.
Oh, and there’s finding out who actually killed Dr M, so I guess that’s three problems.
It’s not like there is any shortage of suspects. Dr M is an amalgam of everything bad about pop industry impresarios. He’s very clearly cheating on his charges, right down to giving himself writing and production credits on all of the songs even though he has no part in creating them. All of the band have good reasons to hate him. Well, all except Bobby, but that’s only because Bobby is so sweet that he couldn’t hate anyone for more than a few seconds. Then there’s Mrs M, who also hates her husband and is having an affair with Devin, the chimp member of the band.
Naturally, solving the murder also requires digging into the mystery of the WyldBoyZ’s origins in a secret maritime research lab, how they came to escape, and how Maurice Bendix found and enslaved them.
For 141 pages, there is one heck of a lot packed into this book. I was very impressed. I figured out some of how the murder was done before the end, but that was only because Detective Delgado is very good and occasionally has Banks do things do check out her suspicions. I did not see the big reveal coming, but I will note that The Album of Dr Moreau is also a science fiction story, as it should be given its ancestry. It is also obvious that Gregory knows a lot about music, from how pop songs are actually put together to the history of boy bands from the Beatles to BTS.
Oh, and the whole thing is packaged as a concept album, with each chapter being a distinct track. Of course it is. Doubtless available on Island Records.
In the near future, Germany, or possibly the EU, has taken the sensible step of declaring itself to be the Best Possible Country. Welcome to QualityLand, where life has never been better, and everyone has exactly what they want.
That is the premise of a novel by Marc-Uwe Kling, which was apparently a huge hit in Germany, and is now available in English translation. If I were doing an elevator pitch for it, I would describe it as the love child of Cory Doctorow and Douglas Adams. Kling has all of Doctrow’s fascination with the effect of the internet on society, but approaches it with the surreal, acerbic comedy of Adams.
The first thing that you will notice about QualityLand is that a new naming convention has been adopted. Boys are given a family name according to their fathers’ occupations; girls are given a family name according to their mothers’ occupations. Thus, of course, we have names like Henryk Engineer, and Hans Lorry Driver, coupled with names like Hannah Hairdresser and Melissa Sex Worker. If you have started to see a problem, I can add that Tony Party Leader is in fact the leader of the Progress Party, just as his father was.
Doctorow, when he was younger and less cynical, once wrote a novel extolling the virtues of a social ranking system called wuffie. Kling knows exactly how this will turn out. Every citizen has a Level rating, and the higher your level the more social privileges you have.
Of course everyone is happy, because they are sold everything they want by TheShop, a monopoly online retailer. You don’t even have to browse. TheShop knows exactly what products to send you, based on your Level, your interactions on the Everybody social network, and its infallible algorithms. QualityPartner will recommend romantic interests for you in the same way.
Our hero is a chap called Peter Jobless. He’s not actually jobless because he has inherited a scrap metal business from his grandfather. Peter actually wanted to be an AI psychologist, but it turned out that helping AI’s with mental problems is classed as a form of repair, and repairing anything has been made illegal as it is a threat to TheShop’s business model.
So people give Peter dysfunctional machines to dispose of. But he’s a soft-hearted chap, and once he’s been given something to destroy he becomes its owner. He can’t bear to actually put a thinking machine in a scrap metal press, so he keeps them all. Thus he shares his home with a LawBot who has developed a conscience, a CombatBot with PTSD, a tablet that has read too much Marx and Lenin and wants a robot revolution, a male SexBot who has fallen madly in love with a client and can’t get it up for anyone else, and an AuthorBot who wants to write science fiction. It is all very reminiscent of Doom Patrol.
All of this would be fairly irrelevant to life in QualityLand, were it not for the fact that Peter is sent a product from TheShop that he does not want: a pink, dolphin-shaped vibrator. His attempts to return it gradually escalate until they become a matter of national significance.
Meanwhile there is an election going on. The President for Life is dying, and a new one has to be elected. (It is a woman president, doubtless this has specific meaning for German readers.) The far-right QualityParty is putting up a loud-mouthed TV chef turned politician, Conrad Cook. Cook’s face is on the wrapping of half the food sold in TheShop so he has plenty of voter recognition. In desperation Tony and his colleagues decide to take the unusual step of putting up a candidate who is an android.
So politics jokes, Amazon jokes, sex jokes, and some serious discussion of where modern society is going. It is a heady mix. There is a definite male gaze to the text which some female readers may find tiresome, but the female characters do get a fair amount of agency and some of them come out on top, so I’m prepared to forgive Kling. It isn’t often that I enjoy a comedy novel, but this one had me laughing out loud in places.
QualityLand is translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle, who does a fine job of keeping just enough German references to keep the sense of setting while making the text eminently readable.
Another month, another meltdown on the Worldcon/Hugos front. Can’t we be better than this? Apparently not.
Early this year there was a huge fuss when DisCon 3 released policies suggesting that they would effectively be limiting the number of people who could be part of a finalist group to 4. Naturally a bunch of people were upset by this, and it ended up with most of the WSFS Division people resigning, and then with one of the co-chairs resigning. There were promises that things would be done better.
Then the list of Hugo Finalists was announced, and there was more drama, mostly because DC3 had failed to explain conversations that had taken place with Strange Horizons regarding their listing of some 87 or so people. This misinformation resulting from that is still being widely spread. You can see an explanation of the situation here.
This month an email was sent to Finalists explaining that, contrary to promises made in January, only 4 people from each Finalist group (and their +1s) would be allowed at the pre-ceremony reception. It wasn’t entirely clear why, but space and budget seemed likely explanations. There was also a strange comment about only 38 people being allowed on stage at any one time, which I can only interpret as a dig at Strange Horizons. No one had bothered to check how many people from each Finalist were actually planning to be at the ceremony.
Shortly thereafter most of the Hugo Admin team, and the head of WSFS Division, resigned. Apparently they had been unhappy, not only with the email they had been told to send out, but also with other aspects of how DC3 was planning to treat the Hugos.
As I am a finalist this year, I got to hear rather more about this than most people. In particular we got invited to a meeting (organised by the ever-resourceful Mary Robinette Kowal – thanks MR!) with a couple of representatives of the convention. One of those was Gadi Evron, the head of Events, and therefore the man in charge of putting on the Hugo ceremony. He assured us that there were no problems with space or budget.
All of which means that the email sent to finalists contained information that neither the Hugo Admin team, nor the people involved in running the ceremony, agreed with. I took a look at the organisation chart of the convention, and it was clear that there was only one person with the actual authority to overrule two separate divisions in that way.
Shortly thereafter, the one remaining con chair resigned.
There is, by the way, a potential issue with regard to time. I understand that there has been a lot of pressure on Gadi and his team to keep the ceremony time down below two hours. That’s understandable given last year’s embarrassing blow-out. However, the more categories we have, and the more people who are part of winning teams, the harder that becomes. Also if you are doing a hybrid ceremony to bring in winners who can’t attend, that is likely to add to the time. There’s a real conflict that Gadi has to deal with here, and maybe he can’t make everyone happy. My own view is that as long as the show is good, people won’t mind how long it runs. They only complain about the time the ceremony takes when they are bored stupid by it.
That is where we are at the moment. We do have a new head of the WSFS Division (commiserations, Linda Deneroff). We don’t yet have a new Hugo Admin team, but that will doubtless appear soon. And the con currently has no chair. Thankfully Worldcon is a dinosaur and is perfectly capable of running around for a few weeks without its head.
Naturally there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lots of people are asking why this keeps happening, and what we can do to stop it happening again. Over at File 770 the retired colonels of fandom are harrumphing away about kids these days. Apparently this is all the fault of Strange Horizons, middle-class British people, and Archive of Our Own. I don’t think they have blamed woke liberals and the Black Lives Matter campaign yet, but I’m sure it is coming.
But what can we do? Not much. There is one administrative fix that I will get out of the way first, but a proper solution will be much harder to make happen.
In traditional Worldcon organisation charts, WSFS Division exists to manage the three things that every Worldcon is mandated to do: run the Hugo voting, Site Selection and the Business Meeting. But this doesn’t make a lot of organisational sense. The Hugo ceremony is normally run by Events (and the post-ceremony party by someone other than the Worldcon). The Business Meeting is a program item. And Site Selection is done at a table in the Exhibits Hall. It might make more sense to split the WSFS functions between those three divisions, because they have nothing to do with each other save for all being mandated by the WSFS Constitution. At Glasgow in 2005 Kevin and I had the whole of WSFS as part of Events, and that seemed to work OK.
That might help, but it is only a small fix. It doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem, which is that each Worldcon is a law unto itself, and all too often it ends up re-inventing the wheel. Lots of people are asking for more institutional knowledge to be passed on from one year to the next, but we’ve been asking for that for decades now and it doesn’t work. Nicholas Whyte, the recently departed head of WSFS Division, has oodles of experience of running the Hugos. He seems to have quit because he felt that he wasn’t being listened to. Gadi Evron was Deputy Division Head of Events in New Zealand, so he has masses of experience of what not to do, and certainly sounds like he learned a lot from it.
The problem is not individuals, the problem is the system. It is the bidding system, which encourages committees to become emotionally attached to the idea that they need to show they can put on the Best Worldcon Ever. It is the one-year nature of the event, which means that individual Worldcons have no incentive to consider the long-term good of the event, the Hugos and WSFS. And it is the total lack of meaningful sanctions for any Worldcon committee that messes up.
Various people have been calling for the Hugos to be separated from Worldcon, and a permanent (possibly professional) organisation to be set up to run them. The trouble is that most of the people calling for this have no idea how to make it happen, and that means that it won’t. It is possible, but it requires people to do some actual work. And yes, it means that significant numbers of people have to attend the Business Meeting.
In fact the first thing that you will need to do is destroy the Business Meeting, because if you don’t the people who go there every year will just reverse your changes the minute you stop paying attention. I know that a lot of people, Kevin included, enjoy the BM, but ultimately it is a means to an end. Participatory democracy is wonderful in theory, but once you get above a few hundred people in your community it becomes unworkable. It wouldn’t even have worked in Athens if they had given women, slaves and foreign-born residents a vote. (This may surprise you, but Kevin agrees with me on this.)
So you need to change the WSFS Constitution to make it into a membership-based organisation that has some sort of elected management. And you need to put that management in charge of running the Hugos. There’s a lot else that you could do as well, but that’s the absolute minimum and when it comes to getting things through the Business Meeting the less that you have to debate the better. One you have got rid of the BM it will be a lot easier to make other changes.
If people want to do this, I’m sure that Kevin would be happy to help draft the necessary legislation. I can’t bring it forward myself as I am barred from entering the USA, but I’d be happy to help drum up support.
Oh, and then you will need to make sure that you are a WSFS member and that you help to ensure that sensible people get elected to the management group. The reason that fandom has always been so heavily opposed to having such a thing is that if the wrong people get elected to such a thing, then you are totally and utterly screwed. Us middle class Brits can attest to that fact, because we (as a nation) voted in a far-right government with a massive majority.
Arthuriana is clearly in the air at the moment. We have had the massively different takes of Legendborn and SisterSong, both of which I loved. We have Spear due from Nicola Griffith coming very soon. And we also have Blackheart Knights from Laure Eve. It has a woman in armour on a motorbike on the cover. How could I possibly resist?
Blackheart Knights is set in a future version of London that still has a veneer of technology but has reverted to a mediaeval society. Duelling by highly trained and presumably neutral gladiators (knights) is an acceptable way of settling legal disputes. Money is in the form of batteries, known as “tricks” because they contain electricity. There’s some very interesting worldbuilding going on here.
The story is told in two threads that will meet in the present day. One is told over a single year and features a young woman called Red who has a burning desire to become a knight. The other is told over nineteen years and tells how Art Dracones, bastard son of King Uther, wins the crown for himself and sets out to build a better society.
There’s not a huge amount more than I can tell you here, because you all know Arthur’s story and anything I say could easily become a spoiler. There are things that shouldn’t be spoiled. What I can tell you is that magic is a key part of the story. There are people whom Eve calls “godchildren” and whom I shall call “mutants” because that fits the near future setting much better. As with the mutants that we know and love, there are various groups of powers, but each individual is unique. Naturally they are viewed with deep suspicion by ordinary humans.
I loved much about this book. The worldbuilding is fabulous: just enough detail to be unique and fascinating, not too much to overwhelm the story. There are some great characters, with some nice innovation on the standard Arthurian cast. Gawain (sorry, Garad) in non-binary. Where I think it falls down is that it ends too quickly. Possibly it has to be constrained to a single volume for the story to work as conceived, though that’s sad because there is so much Arthuriana to play with. But the sudden rush to a climax in the last few chapters feels too pat and a bit forced.
Nevertheless, if you are into Arthuriana, or even just things like Shadowrun, I’d recommend this book. There’s a wealth of imagination on show here. I can see people setting role-playing campaigns in this world. As with the original Arthur cycle (and Pendragon which is based on it), everyone will know how the story ends, but there is 19 years of history to play out in order to get there. I think it would work very well.
OK, before I start I have to explain something. Leopards and hyenas are natural enemies. Firstly, the lazy bastards keep stealing our prey by ganging up on us in huge numbers. And secondly, unlike leopards who are creatures of impeccable taste, hyenas are exactly the sort of vile creatures who would eat people’s faces. It was probably them who started that horrible meme in the first place.
So when I discovered that Harley Quinn had a pet hyena, I’m afraid I was somewhat poorly disposed towards this movie. OK, hyenas to have a certain amount of feminist badassery, albeit thanks to some highly dubious childbirth techniques, and calling him Bruce is funny. I bet he does do that. But even so; hyena. Strike one.
Having got that out of the way, Birds of Prey is a fairly entertaining movie. It is not in the least bit realistic. It is also about comic book characters so it doesn’t have to be. Plus it is film about a bunch of highly capable women, some of whom do their best to be decent human beings, one of whom is a badly behaved kid, and one of whom is an utterly terrible person by her own admission. And she is a psychiatrist so she should know.
The plot basically consists of a long sequence of men proving what hopeless, misogynistic assholes they are, and our heroines getting excuses to beat the crap out of them in various elegant and entertaining ways. There is something about a diamond that is the key to the riches of a mafia family, but that’s easily forgotten.
It is funny, and frankly I’m not sure what else you can do with Gotham City. Adam West and co figured this out decades ago, and Frank Miller’s attempts to make Bruce Wayne into square-jawed macho action hero have only succeeded in making him more laughable. Comedy is the way to go, and Birds of Prey is pretty good in that department despite the utter awfulness of much that goes on. Margot Robbie is clearly having an absolute whale of a time. There is perhaps a limit to the number of times you can fairly laugh at some thug getting kicked in the nuts, but if that limit exists the film did not manage to find it.
As for the Hugos, I’m still thinking. I’ve watched three of the films thus far and I still think that Soul is probably the best. The three I haven’t seen all look to be various shades of awful. If I’m feeling rebellious when I fill in my ballot I might yet vote for Harley.
Yoss, I am told, is a legend of Cuban science fiction. I am ashamed to say that this book is the first I had heard of him. If you haven’t either, there’s an interview with him on his publisher’s website which reveals that he also fronts a heavy metal band. Interesting chap.
Red Dust is a mystery novella staring a robot detective. Raymond lives and works on a giant space trading station called the William S Burroughs. It was constructed by the Galactic Trade Confederation when they discovered the Earthlings. It is parked out near Saturn and acts as a gateway between the humans and the rest of the galaxy. Quite rightly, the alien races who run the Confederation, don’t entirely trust these unpredictable new creatures.
If you are expecting a galactic Confederation with almost-friendly aliens such as Vulcans and Ferengi, think again. There are three alien races in Red Dust. There are the xenocidal insectoid Grodo, the huge, reptilian Colossaurs, and the Cetians who look exactly like humans but very much aren’t. All three races are entirely out for their own interests. We shouldn’t be surprised that a Cuban writer has a much darker view of galactic society than those of us who live in countries with a seat on the UN Security Council.
Raymond is actually a security droid, a Positronic Police Force officer or “pozzie”. His real identifier is MSX-3482-GZ, but he happens to have a passion for 20th Century English-language literature, in particular noir detective stories, hence his name. Some of his colleagues have different passions. They have adopted names like Zorro and Achilles. There are, of course, no dingy bars on the Burroughs. Nor are there beautiful dames who might lead an unwary gumshoe into danger. There aren’t even any murders. The security is too good. So when one does happen everyone is caught by surprise.
Naturally the authorities panic, and Raymond, having been very close to the incident and far too curious for his own good, gets put in charge of the investigation.
From there things escalate rapidly. I got the impression that Yoss had made his antagonist a bit too powerful, and consequently poor Raymond was robbed of much of his agency, but the ending worked well enough for me to be happy with the book. There are a fair few robot jokes along the way, which helped.
The one thing that concerned me about the book is the inclusion of a bunch of characters who are from a Roma community. They seemed to be a bit of a cultural stereotype. Not being Roma myself, I’m not going to pass judgement, but I would like to know what actual Roma think about the book.
Of course one of the issues with translation is that anglophone culture is not universal. So what I think, and what an anglophone Roma person might think, doesn’t necessarily translate to what a Cuban Roma person might think.
Talking of translation, David Fyre appears to have worked on a number of Yoss’s books. That’s always a good sign because author and translator will have had time to build up a good working relationship. Fyre has done a fine job here.
The book is only a novella, so it is a short read. I enjoyed it. Why not try a bit of Cuban science fiction for a change?
Here I am again for another month. There’s a lot going on in my life, but most of it is not stuff you would want to read about here. I will leave ranting about British politics to my personal blog.
Of course there is Worldcon drama too, and that I can rant about here, so I have done.
Mostly, however, I’m just tired. There’s a ‘zine, it is more interesting than me.
Before I go, though, one quick tech point. Google is withdrawing FeedBurner. It will be dead by the next issue. I will be porting the functionality to another service, but if you rely on Feedburner to tell you about new posts here you may want to look for the July issue manually, just in case.
This is a book I have been wanting for some time. Pretty much since I finished reading The Haunting of Tram Car 015 to be precise. I didn’t know then that a novel was in the works, but I am very pleased that it was.
A Master of Djinn is, of course, set in P. Djèlí Clark’s steampunk Cairo where the djinn have returned to Earth thanks to the Sufi mystic, Al-Jahiz. It once again features Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the star agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Hamed and Onsi also feature in the novel, but only in supporting roles.
Previous stories in this setting have featured magical threats, but this book starts with something much more mundane: the murder of a human. However, not just any human. The victim is Lord Alistair Worthington, also known as The English Basha, a British nobleman who has developed a fondness for Egypt and lives there full time. If the death of one of the richest men in Cairo isn’t enough of a worry, Lord Alistair was also a diplomat. When he died he was in the middle of brokering a peace conference in Cairo at which he hoped the feuding European powers could settle their differences and avoid a war.
Remember, this is a world in which the First World War did not happen, but that doesn’t mean that the tensions that caused it have gone away. Indeed, as we shall see, the advent of magic has given the Europeans a whole new arms race in which to compete.
While this is clearly a major political event, you may be wondering why the Ministry is involved. Well, Lord Alistair was also the head of a secret magical society dedicated to uncovering the mystical lore of Egypt. Nor did he die alone. His entire coven died with him, including a couple of Egyptian members who were associated with the traditional religious movement – that is, the worship of ancient Egyptian gods.
Fortunately the identity of the murderer is fairly obvious. A man in black robes and a golden mask was seen fleeing Lord Alistair’s mansion. He sounds suspiciously like the rabble-rouser stirring up the poor people of Cairo with fiery, anti-government speeches, and by claiming to be a reincarnation of the great Al-Jahiz himself. And who very obviously has magical powers.
This, then, is an obvious case for our favourite suit-and-bowler-hat-wearing lesbian detective. However, things aren’t easy for Fatma. To start with the Ministry has saddled her with an assistant. Hadia is a nice enough young woman, but she’s an orthodox Muslim, albeit prone to scandalously coloured hijabs, whereas Fatma is as unorthodox as they come and is carrying on a passionate affair with a priestess of Sekhmet.
Ah yes, Siti. When I mentioned traditional religion you probably guessed that she’d be involved somewhere along the line. This time she has a stake in the game as she knew two of the victims. One of those victims had a husband, a man call Ahmad who prefers to be addressed as Lord Sobek because he is high priest of the crocodile god. Naturally Ahmad wants revenge but, being a reptilian sort of person, he goes about it in a very crocodile manner. This does not make Fatma’s job any easier, though Ahmad does keep apologising for being creepy.
Then we have the Europeans. Lord Alistair’s family, being British, are insufferably arrogant and useless. The foreign dignitaries arriving for the peace conference are not much better, and some come with friends. Kaiser Wilheim, it turns out, has brokered a deal with the Goblin Court and has brought one of their representatives with him. Raymond Poincaré, the President of France, is rumoured to have been in discussions with the Fae. The Russians too are rumoured to have supernatural allies.
The British, obviously, are too arrogant to have sought magical help.
As you can see, there is a heck of a lot going on. And that’s before the djinn get involved, as they inevitably will. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. That is in part because Clark is an historian and therefore peppers his narrative with all sorts of entertaining titbits drawn both from Egyptian history and folklore. There is, for example, a mention of the infamous Massacre of the Mameluks. And Fatma has to do research in a book called the Thousand and One Nights which, as Clark well knows, comes in multiple versions with different mixtures of stories.
Basically this is all very entertaining but, as anyone who has read Ring Shout will expect, it is also peppered with pointed political references. As to the plot, I saw the reveal coming a mile off, but then I probably have an unfair advantage in this particular case. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. And I’m looking forward to sequels. Those goblins are not going to keep quiet for long.
What can you say about a new Murderbot book? Surely you all know the set-up by now? Martha Wells doesn’t have to do much beyond roll her beloved creation on stage and let readers watch him in action. How long can she keep this up for? Well, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon has at least 397 episodes. Surely Murderbot will want to last at least as long as its favourite soap opera.
To keep things going, Wells has to introduce new plot elements, and new characters. Murderbot is now living on Preservation Station with Dr Mensah and her friends. They are still very much at risk from the vengeful Gray Cris Corporation, but at least they are on home territory.
Unfortunately, the security services on the Station are not keen on the idea of having a rogue SecUnit on their territory. Who knows when it might suddenly murder a whole bunch of people? It is a Murder-bot, after all. Murderbot would much rather sit quietly and watch media, but it does have to keep Dr Mensah safe, so it needs to find a way of getting along with this desperately incompetent bunch of humans trying to do a job it is so much better suited for.
Then they find a dead body.
Fugitive Telemetry is a murder mystery. Technically, I suppose, it is a locked station mystery, because the first thing that happens after the discovery of the body is that Preservation Station is put into lockdown so that the perp can’t get away. Station Security suspects Murderbot. It is, after all, a professional killer. Murderbot is worried because the perp seems to have abilities well beyond those of the usual human thug, which suggests that corporate agents are involved.
It is a short book, and you’ll race through it because Wells is very good at what she does. You might, like me, spot a rather obvious suspect very early on, but knowing who doesn’t mean that you know why or how.
To some extent Fugitive Telemetry feels like the middle book of a trilogy. It seems like Wells is introducing us to a setting and some characters, and that something more dramatic will happen using those elements in the near future. Unfortunately “near future” probably means another year to wait before the next Murderbot book. Why can’t we get a new one every week like a proper soap opera?
Welcome back to the wild and whacky world of LitenVärld. Yes, the world needs more silly stories about weird Scandinavian megastores selling flatpack furniture, and Nino Cipri is just the person to provide them.
Cipri says in their acknowledgements that they had no intention of writing a sequel to FINNA. However, as often happens with writers, a character got inside their head and refused to shut up until their story was told. Thus Defekt happened.
The character in question is the person we know as “Fucking Derek”. The reason that Amy from FINNA called Derek “Fucking Derek” is because Derek is an ideal employee. He is flawless in dealing with customers, his store uniform is always immaculate, and he is regularly named employee of the month. Derek even lives in a converted shipping container parked at the edge of the store carpark. He has no life outside of LitenVärld. And yet the plot of FINNA hinges on Fucking Derek taking a sick day.
Why? What possible reason could there be for this most devoted of company employees taking a sick day? It is allowed, if you dig deep enough into the Company Handbook, but it is highly unusual. Derek is the last person that Tricia the Manager would expect to take a sick day. This was a mystery that required a new book to solve.
As you may recall from FINNA, one of the more unusual things about LitenVärld stores is that they are prone to opening up wormholes to parallel universes. Mostly this is simply an inconvenience. It doesn’t do to have customers get lost in the twisty and confusing layouts of the store, cunningly designed to prevent anyone from leaving until they have bought something, and fall through a wormhole into another world. The plot of FINNA is rescue mission for one such unfortunate customer.
But LitenVärld would not be LitenVärld if senior management had not wondered whether this peculiar feature of their stores could not, perhaps, be exploited to increase profits. As it turned out, it could.
Most of LitenVärld’s products are made in China to keep costs down. However, shipping large quantities of flat-pack furniture from China to the USA is expensive and time-consuming. LitenVärld has discovered that some worlds in parallel universes are able to manufacture products just as cheaply as the Chinese, and the shipping costs though the wormholes are practically zero. Profit!
The downside of this strategy is that the build quality of products from these other worlds sometimes leaves a little to be desired. Some products are a little defective. Some of those look distinctly sentient. And some of those are downright homicidal.
If it turns out that a LitenVärld becomes home to a sentient chest in the shape of a pig designed for a child’s bedroom, or a sentient luxury toilet, something has to be done. That something is a Special Inventory, carried out by the Corporate Inventory Team. These are people specially trained in the techniques necessary to hunt down and eliminate Defekts. After the events of FINNA, Derek’s store is badly in need of a Special Inventory.
However, each LitenVärld store is unique, so it is useful for the Inventory Team to have a local guide who knows the layout well. Derek would seem to be an obvious choice. Besides, Reagan from Corporate Resource Management has reason to think that he’d fit right in. Thus it is that Fucking Derek gets to spend his own version of A Night at the Museum. In the process he learns far more about himself that he would ever have imaging possible.
Yes, it is very silly. It is also resolutely anti-capitalist. And it is a novella so you find yourself racing through it in no time. When you find yourself with bits of faux-wood spread all around you, and you have no idea what they one odd screw is supposed to go, this is just the book that you need.
Simon Jimenez is one of the finalists for this year’s Astounding Award. I had been unaware of his debut novel until recently. It is now in the top ten list for Debut Novel in this year’s Locus Awards. And the other day Roz Kaveney phoned me up to rave about it. I can take a hint.
The cover on my edition is a little weird. There’s a spacecraft scene, so we should be expecting a space opera, and then there is this very odd quote from Stephen Baxter that reads, “An astonishing debut. Ursula K Le Guin… Kim Stanley Robinson… Simon Jimenez.” Presumably Baxter was comparing Jimenez to those other SF luminaries, and the PR people at Titan had to butcher his second sentence to get it to fit on the cover.
From there things get a little more confusing, because The Vanished Birds does not follow any accepted ideas of how to open a novel.
Chapter 1 is all about a young farmer called Kaeda who develops an obsession with a woman from the space fleet that comes to his planet every fifteen years to buy their produce. Thanks to relativity, Nia barely ages from one Shipment Day to another, while Kaeda becomes a man, then a leader of his people, then old. The only other piece of plot is that Kaeda rescues a strange young boy from a crashed spacecraft. As the boy is an outworlder, Kaeda gives him to Nia to take care of.
Chapter 2 takes place aboard the starship Debby. Nia, it turns out, is the captain. Her crew are not overly enamoured of the strange boy who cannot speak, but appears obsessed with music. Fortunately their journey is not that long, and eventually they find themselves once again approaching Pelican Station.
Chapter 3 takes us back to the dying Earth, where a young woman engineer called Fumiko Nakajima is about to make a name for herself by designing the magnificent space stations that Umbai Corporation would one day build as homes for those people rich enough to flee their wreck of a planet and make a new home among the stars. The project, developed in deepest secrecy by Umbai, costs Fumiko the love of her life, because loyalty to the company comes before all else. Fumiko names the stations, and designs their looks, after her favourite species of birds that she loved as a child, when there were birds.
We are now, according to my Kindle, 27% of the way through the book, and we have no idea what is going on. Fortunately Chapter 4 sees Nia on Pelican Station meeting up with its designer who, thanks to a variety of technologies, is now 1000 years old. Now, at last, we start to understand what a strange, traumatised boy who walked away from a seemingly deadly spaceship crash might mean for the rest of humanity, and the roles that Nia and Fumiko will have in shaping his future.
Of course, this is not what the book is about. Yes, there is a story about Nia, Fumiko and the boy. But The Vanished Birds is a meditation on something very different: colonialism. Jimenez is using his space-bound civilisation as a metaphor for the Earth-bound world of the 16th to 18th Centuries when superior technology and command of the seas enabled countries like Britain to build up world-wide empires based on commercial exploitation of the rest of the world.
Jimenez’s story does not have slavery in the same way as we did, but it is clear that most people in his world are controlled by corporations in some way. Kaeda and his people must continue to grow crops, and are dependent on the company ships that will come and buy every 15 years. Nia and her crew are locked into a cycle of trading, barely making enough each time around to live off, and to make repairs to their ship. Fumiko has signed her life over to Umbai. Everything that she does becomes theirs.
As the story develops, we start to see the consequences of corporate greed for other parts of human-inhabited space, and the likely effect, on those planets not yet firmly under corporate control, of the technological secrets that power the plot. The whole thing is expertly done, and I can see exactly why Stephen Baxter chose Le Guin and Robinson as comparable writers to Jimenez. He might not be as good as them yet, but the themes he is working with are also themes those two writers have made much of.
Plus, Jimenez is brave. Now many people would have created a book that takes so long to get into, which spends much time developing characters only to discard them as the plot moves on, and to be quite so political in a debut novel.
For a number of years now, women have dominated the Best Novel category of the Hugo Awards. It is about time that we had a new male writer to get excited about. Simon Jimenez might be just that person.
Having enjoyed Scarlet Odyssey, I was very pleased when Julie Crisp offered me book 2 in the series, Requiem Moon. This is what I’m assuming is book 2 of a trilogy, so CT Rwizi has his work cut out making it more than just moving the plot along. Mostly, I think, he succeeds, because he provides a story to anchor this book. This review will contain spoilers for book 1.
The entire book is set in Yonte Saire. Salo and his colleagues have just arrived in the city following the dramatic events of the previous book. Most of the Saire ruling family has been murdered, and the Crocodile clan is poised to seize power. Meanwhile Princess Isa has been declared King, and is hiding out in the Red Temple. To buy time she has agreed to marry Kola Saai, the chief of the Crocodiles, but she desperately needs allies.
Wait, did I say “King”? Yes, the ruler of Yonte Saire is a King, regardless of their gender. It is an Egyptian thing. A nice touch.
Salo spends most of the book finding out about his powers, which turn out to be much more impressive that you might have suspected from Scarlet Odyssey. We also find out a lot more about the world of the books, and it becomes very obvious that this is a “science so far beyond ours that it looks like magic” setting. I like that sort of thing.
Rwizi also uses this book to let Salo’s companions have a little more of the limelight. Ilapara is my favourite, because she’s basically Dora Milaje, but Tuksaad is much more interesting. He is our link to the wider world outside of the Redlands, where there are powerful sorcerers capable of making artificial beings like him. Alinata, the Yerezi sorceress, doesn’t get quite as much action, but then she is there to spy on Salo on behalf of their queen. Salo provides his friends with a few magical toys that Q would be proud of, and towards the end of the book the team gets sent out on a job that feels right out of Mission Impossible.
Inevitably, Salo gets drawn into Isa’s schemes, and that provides him with further opportunities to explore the nature of his world. There is drama, plans come to fruition, and plots within plots are revealed. Rwizi has certainly set things up nicely for book 3. These big fantasy books take a lot of reading, but this one zips along nicely enough, and if you get to the end of Requiem Moon I can guarantee that you will want to know what happens next.
Like many people I was initially very excited by the trailers promising Charlize Theron as an immortal Amazon warrior in the present day. But the initial reactions were underwhelming so I put The Old Guard on my “watch later” list. It wasn’t until the film got to be a Hugo finalist that I got my act together and watched it.
It is, as people said at the time, a bit meh. More of that later, but what I wasn’t aware of until recently is that the film is based on a graphic novel (which is a collection of a comic mini-series), and this is where things get interesting.
It is almost axiomatic in the literary fan community that the film of the book is worse than the book. A film of a short story might be OK, but only because it has to cut out less. Hollywood people just don’t get it. However, the script for the movie of The Old Guard was written by Greg Rucka, who also scripted the original comics. And people, I am about to commit sacrilege.
The film of The Old Guard is much better than the original comics.
There are a number of reasons for that. One is the art. I’m sure that there are people who like that sort of style, but I don’t. Another is the casting. The people in the film look more like the characters that Rucka has written than the images in the comic. The film cast is more diverse too. But mainly it is the plot.
To start with, there is actually more of it. This is an unusual thing to say about a movie, especially one that is quite so full of artfully choreographed scenes of extreme violence, but we actually get more character development and a more coherent plot in the movie than in the comic.
Quite why this is so is unclear. The first volume of the graphic novel, on which the film is based, came out in 2017. Volume #2 came out in 2020, so Rucka was presumably working on volume #2 of the comics at the same time as writing the film script. He may have had a change of heart in the process, or he might have been bouncing ideas off the movie crew. It is impossible to say.
One thing that is very obvious is that the whole Quynh story is absent from volume #1 of the comics. It is in volume #2, but she’s Japanese and called Noriko. The thing with Andy (those of you who have seen the movie will know what I mean) is also absent from the comics. There’s also a whole lot of stuff about Copley in the movie that doesn’t appear until volume #2 of the comics.
So work has been done, and that work has been good. On the basis of that, I’m now feeling a lot more charitable towards the movie than I was initially. I’m not sure that I will be placing it above Soul, though. There is one obvious reason for that.
What is it with Hollywood and history? Go back a few decades, as in Wanda/Vision or Wonder Woman 1984, and they fall over themselves to get the period stuff right. Go back into the 19th Century or beyond and suddenly it is, “who cares, just put people in some silly costumes, no one will know the difference.” The Olde Englande sequence in The Old Guard that gave us Quynh’s backstory was an embarrassment, which is very sad.
Anyway, now you know that volume #2 of the comics exists. It also ends on a trailer for volume #3. So there is more material, and thus future movies are possible. I now want a sequel, just to see how Rucka & co have changed the story for it.
I’ve been avoiding Wonder Woman 1984 for some time because it seemed like no one had a good word for it. But some things have to be done. You never know, the extras might be good. For the first film they were absolutely superb.
Much of the problem, I suspect, is the look of the thing. The garish cover, the awful menu screen. I suspect that it was deliberately designed to look like a 1980s film on VHS, but that just makes it look cheap and ugly.
I can see the idea, and it is a decent one. Cheetah is a great character and a fabulous foil for Diana. The idea of Maxwell Lord being the oil baron who has everything, and can grant your deepest wish as well, is very 1980s. This was the decade of Dallas, after all. It was also the decade in which women were supposed to be able to have it all, and indeed be it all. We were supposed to be Princess Diana one minute, Jane Fonda the next, and Shirley Conran the next; all without getting a crease in our shoulder pads. It could have worked. It didn’t.
I should note, before diving into the faults, that Pedro Pascal is absolutely brilliant as Max Lord. He has a whale of a time, and is actually allowed to act, which he can’t do while stuck under that Mandalorian helmet.
But… but. Kristen Wiig is an interesting choice for Cheetah. She’s absolutely perfect for Barbara Minvera, but during the film she has to grow into being Cheetah, and it all seems a bit formulaic. Also she doesn’t do cat very well. Some of us remember Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt showing how to be a cat woman. Wiig obviously doesn’t.
Steve Trevor gets brought back as Diana’s wish, which she has to renounce to save the world (spoiler, but I figured you’d want to know that he isn’t back for good). Chris Pine does a pretty good job of playing little boy in a sweetshop when he sees the sort of flying machines that exist this far in his future. But again the emotional side is all paint by numbers.
I think there’s also a problem with how Patty Jenkins understands superhero movies. Obviously the heroes have to save the world, and there has to be some sort of moral message buried in the script. What the film should not be is straight up allegory. Possibly Jenkins is trying too hard to reproduce the moralistic feel of the original William Moulton Marston comics, but that shouldn’t be the objective. Comics history is there to provide inspiration, not to constrain the plot.
Thankfully there is some good stuff. As with the original film, this one opens on Themiscyra. Those first few minutes with the Amazons in their own world are again the best bit of the movie. It all goes downhill from there. On the extras there is an interview with some of the women who play the elite Amazon warriors in those scenes. They are an amazing bunch of women. One is from Bath, and Black, and a mother of three. One was Lucy Lawless’s stunt double for Xena. And one is Finnish, and Black. It is a thoroughly joyous interview.
By far the best thing on the disk, however, is the feature on Lilly Aspell. She’s the Scottish kid who played 8-year-old Diana in the first movie, and is back playing 10-year-old Diana in this one. There are no 10-year-old girl stunt doubles. Lilly does all of her own stunts. Given that the film has her competing against adult women in the Amazon Games, that means that she has to do all the same things that the elite athletes playing those warriors do. The kid is phenomenal.
There is one other really lovely thing about the film. It is a credits scene. I won’t spoil it for you. If you know, you know. If you love Wonder Woman, it is worth buying the movie for.
May has been mostly about walking, due to the charity thing I have been doing, but I did get some reading done too. Any month in which there are new books from Martha Wells and P. Djèlí Clark has got to be a good month.
Summer has arrived here in the UK, which means we should get sun for two or three days before the rain returns. As COVID infection rates are currently quite low it also means that people are looking at holding literary events in person. Juliet McKenna and I will be at the Clevedon Literary Festival in a couple of weeks time.
Talking of Juliet, we have some news about the availablity of the new Green Man book. The plan is to do a launch event at FantasyCon in September, assuming that we aren’t back in Lockdown by then.
How do you follow up on a stunning debut novel that won a Hugo Award? Well, more of the same sounds like a good idea. With A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine delivers exactly what fans will have been hoping for.
At the end of A Memory Called Empire (what do you mean, you haven’t read it?) Mahit Dzmare, with no little help from what remains of Yskandr Aghavn, and the delightful yet deceptively cunning Three Seagrass, have has engineered a safe transition of power in the Teixcalaan Empire. Nineteen Adze is now Emperor, but she’s only keeping the seat warm for young Eight Antidote, the 90% clone of former Emperor, Six Direction. Meanwhile the Teixcalaanlitzlim have been made aware of the mysterious alien presence beyond the Anhamemat Gate, and hopefully this will keep their military focused on external threats, rather than needed to cook up internal “peace keeping” activities to keep them occupied.
At least, that was the plan. It is what Darj Tarats, Councilor for the Miners on Lsel Station, wanted to happen. What Tarats doesn’t seem to have considered is that a galactic war being fought out near Stationer Space will mean large numbers of warships going to and fro. Also there is always the possibility that the Teixcalaanlitzlim might lose.
Mahit, mission accomplished, and with too many complicated relationships resulting from it, has returned home to Lsel. Unfortunately her homecoming has not been as simple and welcoming as she had hoped. Several of the Councilors are still keen to use her to do whatever they can to keep Lsel free from Teixcalaanli control, but all of them have their own agendas and different ideas as to how to go about this project. In particular Aknel Amnardbat, the Councilor for Heritage, wants to know what happened with the sabotaged imago machine that she had placed in Mahit, and of course she wants to make sure that no one else ever finds out that imago machines can be sabotaged, let alone that someone has committed such sacrilege.
Following the failed coup led by One Lightning, Her Brilliance the Emperor gave the job of yaotlek of the fleet to a promising starship captain called Nine Hibiscus. However, fighting an alien civilization is proving a very different prospect to restoring order in rebellious provinces. Nine Hibiscus quickly discovers that her foe has technologies that are unfamiliar and give the aliens a significant advantage. What’s more, she can’t negotiate with them, because their only audible communication takes the form of seemingly random screaming noises that cause her crews to vomit if they listen to them for too long. In desperation, she calls on the Ministry of Information for help. They might be mainly spies and propagandists, but communication is their job. They should be good at it.
Enter Three Seagrass, who is in a deep funk having lost her best friend, Twelve Azalea, during the failed coup, and because she is pining for the mysterious Stationer Ambassador, with whom she has to admit she has fallen deeply in love. A mission with the fleet with bother get her away from her desk, and give her an excuse to requestion the assistance of Mahit, who is after all a brilliant linguist, and whose home is conveniently on the way to the front. All she has to do then is work out how to communicate with a race of homicidal aliens who are currently whipping the arses of the Empire’s finest fleet. Easy, right?
Three Seagrass is one of my favourite characters in recent science fiction. She is such a glorious mess.
Meanwhile, back on the Jewel of the World, Eight Antidote has decided that it is time he learned a bit about the job of being Emperor. After all, he is fourteen now, almost an adult. It doesn’t occur to him that he’s been kept closeted in the Imperial Place for all of his life, and in practical terms his understanding of the world, and even the city, is much younger. Naturally various power factions within the Empire are seeking to befriend the young heir; and draw him into their influence. The war, and its fallout, will be useful tools in such campaigns.
There’s so much wonderfully sophisticated politics in these books. I am so pleased that the first book did so well, and I’m sure this one will be equally well received. (The UK edition has a cover sticker claiming that the book is a Clarke Award finalist, but I’ll be surprised if that’s true yet because the long list hasn’t been announced, so they are probably referring to Memory rather than revealing inside knowledge. It is also typical of UK publishers that they would rather celebrate being a losing finalist for the Clarke than being a Hugo winner.)
Finding a way through the puzzle that she has created is inevitably challenging, but Martine copes admirably. That she chooses to pick up one of my favourite ideas for an SF novel in order to do so, and implement it splendidly, is an extra bonus.
Sadly this series was always planned as a duology, so it is by no means clear what Martine will do next. She may produce more stories in the same world, but featuring different characters. Or she might do something completely different. Either way I will buy the next book, because the first two have been superb.
Well that was something. I suspect that if you are not as deeply immersed in the Marvel Comics Universe as I am, this series will have come over as rather odd. I’ve also noticed some dissatisfaction among what I might call Left Twitter. But, when you consider the constraints on the series, I think it did rather well. Explaining why will have to take us deep into spoiler territory.
Let’s start with the set-up. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, and therefore after the Blip. During the Blip, half of the world’s population vanished. This left wealthy countries with a serious lack of manpower for their industries. They eagerly welcomed immigrants from less-wealthy countries. Now that Thanos has been defeated, the Disappeared have returned, and in many cases have found foreign immigrants living in their homes. Understandably, this has led to a lot of political tension. The UN has set up an organisation called the Global Repatriation Council to help migrants return home, but many do not wish to do so.
The upshot of all this is the rise of a global migrants’ rights organisation called the Flag Smashers. They want to return to the world that they knew during the Blip, when national boundaries meant far less. Sam and Bucky get involved when they learn that one of the more militant Flag Smashers has superpowers, which turn out to be the result of someone having made a new batch of Super Soldier Serum.
Although Steve Rogers gifted Sam his shield when he retired, Sam has decided not to take on the role of Captain America, at least in part because he’s concerned at how a Black Cap would go down at home. He donates the shield to a museum display in Steve’s honour. But the US government sees an opening, retrieves the shield, and appoints an ex-sports-star and ex-soldier called John Walker to be the new Cap.
The Left Twitter criticism of the series appears to be that Sam and Bucky should have joined up with the Flag Smashers, blown up the UN Building, and vowed to destroy Capitalism. That was never going to happen. You might possibly get away with something like that in an X-Men show, because the X-Men are already seen as terrorists by the government, but absolutely not in a Captain America show.
In the Captain America universe, stories like this always end up reinforcing the status quo. If the supposed terrorists that our heroes end up fighting appear to have a good cause, then they will be portrayed as turning to violence and having to be stopped. Either their leader will turn out to be an agent of a foreign government, or she will turn evil for some reason. In this case they chose the latter resolution. It left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, but the script gave us sufficient alternative moral grey areas that we can think that maybe Sam and Bucky have made a mistake.
A more cogent complaint is that the series had far too much going on for a six-episode story. That also was partly inevitable, because Marvel seems to have decided that the role of the TV series will be to move the plot on, and introduce new characters, in advance of new movies. To some extent that’s a good thing. So much went on off-camera in the Avengers movies, that I’m surprised people not familiar with the characters managed to keep up. But it does mean that the series don’t work well in and of themselves.
Let’s take a look at the work The Falcon and The Winter Soldier had to do in addition to the Flag Smashers plot. It had to handle Sam’s transition to the new Captain America and introduce the new Falcon. It had to handle Bucky’s recovery from the trauma of his role as The Winter Soldier and transition him to his new role as White Wolf. It told the story of John Walker’s disastrous stint as Captain America and his transition to the role of US Agent under the control of Madame Hydra. It told the story of Isaiah Bradley, a Black man who was part of the US Super Soldier project after WWII, and introduced his grandson, Eli, who will one day join the Young Avengers alongside Billy Maximoff. It re-introduced us to Baron Zemo from Civil War, who is so much more interesting in the MCU than he ever was in the comics. And it provided some very interesting revelations about Sharon Carter. Phew!
Oh, and it appears to have killed off Batroc Ze Leaper, though I rather hope that he crawled away and survived somehow.
Was it necessary to cram all of this into one series? I don’t know, but clearly Marvel wanted all of these bits of narrative advanced. What is necessary to limit the story to a mere six episodes? Well, that will have been a budgetary decision, and frankly the production team probably had to do a lot of work behind the scenes to be allowed to tell this story the way that they wanted. Maybe six episodes was all that they could get permission to make.
Much of the show was about race. Sam’s reluctance to take on the mantle of Captain America, Isaiah’s disgraceful treatment by the US government, and the struggles of Sam’s sister, Sarah, to keep her business afloat all play into this. The use of Zemo also gave the scriptwriters an excuse to involve the Dora Milaje, because it was Zemo who led the terrorist attack that killed King T’Chaka. I’ve not seen any People of Colour up in arms about the way this was done, so hopefully there were not too many faux pas.
I’ve seen a few Asian people complain about the lack of Asian people in Madripoor, which is actually in South-East Asia. That criticism seems well made.
However, the show was also very explicitly about White Privilege, in two specific ways. The first was the narrative arc of John Walker. He’s a typical, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American hero. He was quarterback of his college football team. He fought in Afghanistan. He has a chest full of medals. It is no wonder that he was chosen as the new Captain America. If you were to ask Walker if he got where he did through privilege he would probably be appalled. He’d tell you that he was really good at what he did, and that he even had a Black Best Friend (who got fridged to give him motivation, because that’s what Black Best Friends do, right?).
Nevertheless, Walker’s path through life was easy in a way that Sam Wilson’s never could have been. And the story of Isaiah Bradley shows us exactly what the US government thought of the prospect of a Black Super Soldier. Also, his privilege is the reason why Walker is such a failure as Cap. Steve Rogers had been a failure at everything in life prior to being chosen as a test subject for the Super Solider programme. Walker, in contrast, had succeeded spectacularly at everything he did prior to becoming Cap. He didn’t know how to fail, or what to do when he did, except react with anger like a child whose toys had been taken away.
And then there’s Sharon. She’s blonde, blue-eyed, a relative of the legendary Peggy Carter, and a kick-ass heroine. She’s the absolute embodiment of what a white woman should be in a superhero universe. And The Falcon and The Winter Soldier showed her to be a criminal mastermind. The official story is that after the events of Civil War the US government abandoned Sharon because of her support for Steve, and she had to go into hiding. But she doesn’t reveal how she survived to Sam and Bucky, and now that we know the extent of the criminal empire she has at her command I find it hard to believe that she vanished in the Blip as she claims.
In the show, Sharon completely fools Sam and Bucky with her sob story. Thanks to Sam’s help, she gets her old job back in the US secret service, and she immediately sets about planning how to use that to her advantage. White women are fucking dangerous, because no one ever suspects them.
How far back does Sharon’s treachery go? I haven’t had time to look into it in detail, but other people have. If you are interested in digging deeper in the MCU I recommend the Twitter feed of @fangirlJeanne. She recently pointed her followers at this speculative video from back in 2016, when Civil War has just come out. I have to say that it makes a lot of sense to me.
The one aspect of the show that did not work for me was Bucky’s arc. I didn’t really understand why it worked, both for him and for the people that The Winter Soldier had wronged. Also the therapist he was assigned to, while very funny, was a very bad therapist. They can’t event complain that this is the sort of person the US military would assign to Bucky, because Sam worked as a therapist in the Veterans’ Administration before becoming Falcon. He should have been appalled at the way Bucky was being treated.
While I’m here, I’d like to compliment the quality of some of the acting on the series. Wyatt Russell does a great job of portraying Walker as simultaneously a stuck-up white boy, someone who wants to do good but doesn’t know how, and a victim of the US military machine. Daniel Brühl is once again superb as Baron Zemo, and I shall be buying the series on disc when it comes out in the hope that the extras will contain the full version of Zemo dancing from the party in episode #3. I’m pretty sure that we haven’t seen the last of Helmut Zemo, and if you want to know why you might want to Google a comic called Thunderbolts.
Finally, on the acting, although she only got two short scenes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus completely stole the show as Madame Hydra. I can see her being as popular as Loki.
If you are thinking of individual episodes to nominate for the Hugos, my vote goes to #5, officially titled “Truth” but which I referrer to as “Sam and Bucky Repair a Boat”. The finale, “One World, One People”, is OK, but has too many obvious set-pieces (I loved the Sam-as-angel shot, but boy was it hackneyed). It also has the most unbelievable thing in the entire series, which is saying a lot for a superhero show. I am referring, of course, to the fact that the politicians took Sam’s speech on board and changed their behaviour as a result, rather than fobbing him off with platitudes and carrying on being as brutal and uncaring as before.
Which brings us, at last, to Sam’s speech. I suppose it is inevitable that someone taking on the mantle of Captain America has to make a speech, and there is a fine tradition of speech-making in the MCU. Sam’s speech isn’t as on point as the one that T’Challa makes at the end of Black Panther, but it is good, and it contains one very memorable line.
“The only power that I have, is that I believe that we can do better.” – Sam Wilson
Unlike Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and now John Walker, Sam Wilson does not have any superpowers. His is supremely fit, but most of his advantage has come from his wings, from his robot pal Redwing, and now from a Vibranium shield. Nevertheless, he has earned his role as Captain America, and as a member of the Avengers. What’s more, the power that he refers to above is one that we all have. Every single one of us knows that our politicians can, and should, do better. Like Sam, we should tell them to do so.
This book marks Charlie Jane Anders’ first foray into YA. I have no idea what actual teenagers will make of it, because it is several centuries since I was last a teenager and tastes have doubtless moved on. What I will say is that to an ancient person like myself, Victories Greater than Death certainly sounds like modern teenagers.
To put it another way, this is what Star Trek would be like if Sylvia Tilly were captain of the Discovery and all the crew were like the team in engineering. It is very much different from the Star Trek I grew up on; but getting away from Kirk’s macho nonsense is probably a good thing.
Anyway, to the book. Tina Mains is an ordinary American teenager, with the usual problems that arise from attending an American high school (minus the vampires, werewolves and serial killers). The only weird thing about her life is that her mom insists that Tina has no father. Instead, Tina is a reincarnated semi-clone of a legendary alien space captain called Thaoh Argentian, and one day her people will come to claim her so that she can once again lead them against the forces of evil.
Holy Chosen One Narrative, Batman!
Also shades of Star-Lord, but we’ll ignore that because Peter Quill is an arse.
Obviously this ridiculous story is absolutely true, and after a couple of chapters the aliens do arrive. Tina and her best friend, Rachel Townsend, find themselves on a spaceship being hunted by evil aliens who are determined to conquer the galaxy. Only Captain Argentian stands in their way.
Hey, this is space opera. Stick with me, OK?
Major Plot Point 1 is that the process of saving and resurrecting Captain Argentian’s soul has not gone according to plan. While Tina now has an encyclopaedic memory of the galactic civilisation, she has none of her predecessor’s memories and is still very much Tina Mains, Earth girl.
Major Plot Point 2 is that this is not a story of good race of aliens v bad race of aliens. The galactic civilisation is strongly multicultural, and the bad guys are rebels against the Queen and her Royal Fleet who call themselves the Compassion. The leader of the rebels, Marrant, was once Captain Argentian’s best friend.
Much of the book is about Tina finding her feet in galactic politics; and getting her head around what Marrant and his people are up to. Along the way we find that the Royal Fleet’s self-appointed role as galactic police is about as effective as America’s self-appointed role as guardian of democracy.
To help make the point. Tina and Rachel have suggested that their new colleagues recruit some of the best and brightest teenagers from Earth to help in the fight. None of the resulting recruits are white. Our supporting cast is as follows.
Damini is girl from Mumbai whose parents are top scientists and who never met a dangerous adventure that she didn’t want to rush head-first into, especially if it involved flying.
Yiwei is Chinese boy who is a brilliant musician and also a keen roboticist.
Keziah is a black, gay boy from England who already has a physics PhD from Cambridge.
Elza is a travesty girl from Brazil and also a genius computer programmer.
Goddess, the retired colonels of fandom are going to hate this.
Anyway, this being YA, there will be a certain amount of romance. I should add that Captain Argentian’s species has three genders.
The aliens have definite air of Galaxy Quest about them. They have silly names such as Yatto the Monntha (who, by the way, is a retired movie heartthrob), and have whacky exclamations such as Cursed Hexapod-Eaters of Jubilation Mountain, or Singing Volcano Fish of Kthorok VII.
Anders is clearly not trying to be serious here, and yet she is, because Major Plot Point 3 is that the book will eventually turn into a mission to discover the truth about the mysterious founders of galactic civilisation, a species known as the Shapers. They, it turns out, were massive racists, and were determined to impose their view of correct sentient life form behaviour on every species that they discovered. And in this case “correct” also meant having two arms, two legs and lateral symmetry. Every other species had to be wiped out.
I wonder of they had a queen called Victoria.
So yeah, much message, but also much sweetness and comedy to sweeten the pill. And, most importantly, the book is eminently readable. I raced through it very quickly, including half an hour after breakfast one day because I was not going to stop until I got to the end.
I should note that the book will have sequels, and that one of the reasons this is a good thing is that some of the team are a little under-used. Yiwei and Keziah in particular don’t get a huge amount of screen time, and Rachel only comes into her own right at the end. But they are a fun bunch, and I definitely want to learn more about them.
So, Worldcon in December it is. What are we supposed to make of this?
The first thing to note is that DisCon III has done what people said they wanted. They ran a survey that anyone was welcome to respond to, and 64% of respondents said they would prefer an in-person event in December, as compared to 31% who would prefer a virtual event in August. Obviously I voted for virtual, as I can’t attend events in the USA, but not enough people who can’t attend, for whatever reason, cared enough to vote, so Worldcon is once again being arranged primarily for people who can attend in person.
However, DisCon III has committed to having some remote content. They have even launched a Virtual Membership class. The trouble is, it is not at all clear what that means. Here’s what they say in their FAQ on the date move.
A Virtual Membership is part of our commitment to providing online content for those who either cannot, or choose not to, attend in-person. We also will maintain our commitment to have three streaming tracks of program items during the convention.
That suggests that there will be some online content in addition to the three streaming tracks of programming. Their Membership page says:
Virtual members, like Supporting members, are not able to attend the convention, but Virtual membership does confer both the rights of Supporting membership and also allows access to our online programming that will occur during the convention in December. We will have three separate online tracks of programming for Virtual members and will give more information as we get closer to December on the specifics regarding how Virtual members will interact with the convention.
So again three tracks of streamed programming, but nothing else specific yet.
This leaves me wondering what I would get for my extra $55, if I were to upgrade from Supporting to Virtual. Clearly there will be three tracks of programming, but they may well be restricted to Washington time. A 5-hour time shift isn’t too bad, but I have no idea what will be in those tracks. My guess is that Programming will look at stream the material it thinks will be most popular. Generally, the programming I go to at Worldcons tends to be focused on minority interests.
What else will we get? Will there be a convention Discord server? Or some other social platform? Will there be online programming in addition to the streamed tracks, and if so will any of it be outside of the usual convention times? I ask this as someone who is a) a Hugo Finalist, and b) someone who very specifically is a Hugo Finalist for providing online programming out of hours for last year’s Worldcon. Please do not tell me that it cannot be done, because I have done it.
Obviously DisCon III hasn’t had much time yet to put its virtual offering together. But I hope that they come out with some more information soon. The past year has shown that running virtual conventions is perfectly possible, and one of the great things about such events is that your programme participants can be drawn from a much wider pool of people than just those who can afford to got to an event in person.
There will, of course, be people who say that hybrid conventions are too difficult, and that cons should either be in person or virtual. But those people generally also argue that a virtual component of a hybrid convention must fully reproduce the experience of being at the event in person, so they have started with an almost impossible target. Virtual conventions, and the virtual components of a hybrid convention, have to be their own thing, delivering their own value in their own way.
Worldcon can, of course, chose to remain a convention that is primarily for people who can attend in person. But if it does so then it will inevitably turn back into an event that almost always happens in the USA, and whose attendees are mostly American. Meanwhile other conventions will be much more international, and much more successful as a result.
Talking of where Worldcon is held, there is a potential crisis brewing over site selection. Prior to the change of dates, only two bids had filed in the contest to hold the 2023 Worldcon: Memphis (USA) and Chengdu (China). When the date change was announced, DisCon III said that it had closed submissions for site selection, and would not be re-opening them. However, the WSFS Constitution says:
4.6.3: For a bid to be allowed on the printed ballot, the bidding committee must file the documents specified above no later than 180 days prior to the official opening of the administering convention.
That’s all. As long as you file no later than 180 days prior to the official opening of the administering convention then you are entitled to be on the ballot. Many people who know the WSFS Constitution far better than I do have already argued that DisCon III is required to accept any new bids up until 180 days before their official opening (which will presumably now be December 15th).
Of course none of this would matter if there were no other bids. However, just this week a new bid appeared. It is for Winnipeg in Canada, which has the appeal to me of being in a country I am able to visit.
So the question arising from that was, would DisCon III accept this new bid (and any others that might come in before the deadline)? Or will they stick to their guns and accept only the Memphis and Chengdu bids?
As of just a few hours ago, DisCon III announced that they would accept Winnipeg’s filing. However, they did so in such a way as to imply that doing so was entirely at their discretion, which further implies that they don’t think that they have to abide by the WSFS Constitution in any way. This is really quite disturbing, because if they get away with it then subsequent Worldcons will do so as well, and each deviation from the rules is likely to be more serious.
I think you know what to expect. In Advanced Triggernometry Stark Holborn gives us more wonderful Western pastiche, more terrible maths puns, and more genuine pathos.
Following their successful train robbery, Malago Browne and Pierre de Fermat have fled across the border where they can live in peace. But their past will catch up with them sooner or later. There are still many mathematicians living in fear and outlawry, and the government that has persecuted them will eventually need to find new people to prey upon.
The plot of Advanced Triggernometry takes inspiration from the plot of The Magnificent Seven (and thus from Seven Samurai). In this case, however, the bad guys are out-of-control lawmen rather than bandits, and the heroes are armed with set squares and rulers as well as guns.
We get to meet a number of new mathematicians. Charles Reason is, very appropriately, running a small town newspaper which doubles as a secret message system for mathematicians. René Descartes is a bit of an arse, but gets a great last line. My favourite is the old guy who speaks only in Greek and has a thing about baths.
What more is there to say, except that if y’all haven’t read Triggernometry then you really should, and if you have then you will almost certainly want the sequel because it provides more of the same.
I have no idea how Holborn manages to come up with this stuff, but if I did I would bottle it, buy a wagon, and go around country fairs selling people “writers’ ideas, guaranteed to help you produce a best seller”.
Title: Advanced Triggernometry By:Stark Holborn Publisher: Rattleback Books Purchase links: Amazon UK Amazon US See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura
Another year, another slate of Hugo Finalists. We won’t find out who has won until December, but let’s make a start on checking out the field.
I have read work by four of the Astounding Finalists: Johnson, Larkwood, Lyons and Tesh. Of those I’d give the award to Lyons, but if the Jimenez novel is as good as people keep telling me then he’ll be a runaway winner. More on this next month.
In contrast I have only read one of the Lodestar Finalists. I do love Legendborn, but I am very disappointed that Anna-Marie McLemore did not make the ballot. Come on, queer family, get your act together. Given the squee I have seen on social media, I expect Kingfisher to win.
I know nothing about the video games, save that I’ve seen people raving about several of them on social media. I’m glad that DisCon II was able to make the category work.
I’m mostly out of touch with the fan categories, but I’m pleased to note that Fanzine has dragged itself back to being a slightly more competitive category. You only needed 10 votes to be a Finalist in Fan Artist, and 28 in Fancast. Fanzine needed 38. I shall refrain from asking why 38 of you did not nominate Salon Futura, though you should all promise to do better next year.
Semiprozine is always a bit of a troublesome category. I note that Uncanny has won for five years on the trot now. It is a great magazine, but the voters should share the love a little, I think. One magazine that clearly deserves the award at last is Strange Horizons, but instead this year it has attracted the ire of the retired colonels of fandom with a very long list of contributors. Questions have been asked. Is this is political statement related to Colette Fozard’s ill-judged and disastrous attempt to limit the number of names on the ballot? Are these people all Hugo Finalists? Will they need an extra-large base for all those names? Will they expecting 90+ trophies if they win? Well, no.
I had a long chat to Ness a couple of weeks back, and it seems to me that Strange Horizons has a consistent and potentially useful position on this. Firstly this is not new. They’ve been listing large numbers of people for some time now; and have wanted bigger lists. Discon III has given them that list, but sadly without explanation. Their reason for asking for so many names is a) to make clear just how many hard-working volunteers it requires to keep a magazine of that quality going on volunteer labour; and b) because they are a non-hierarchical organisation and do not want particular individuals separated out as more important than the others. That seems a very fannish attitude to me.
As far as they are concerned, the Hugo Finalist is Strange Horizons magazine. The name on the base, should they win, will be Strange Horizons. They have asked for two trophies, which is a lot less than many other finalists. I’m disappointed that DisCon III did not makes this clear, and instead allowed people to jump to incorrect conclusions.
People have been moaning about trophy inflation for a long time now, and with some cause. What Strange Horizons is doing here may show a possible way forward. Its not as if we haven’t been de facto doing something similar with the Dramatic Presentation categories for some time now. There are many categories where the winner very clearly is a work that may have large numbers of people involved in its creation. Having the Finalists be the works, with a limited number of trophies (possibly with extras if people are prepared to pay for them, which movie people often do), and crediting a large group of people, is an option that we should consider.
If nothing else, Strange Horizons has done wonders for the international recognition and diversity of people involved in the Hugo Award process. Their team is scattered about the globe, and encompasses wide variety of identities. That, in my view, is a good thing, and I’d like to see more of it.
I am absolutely delighted that my Italian friend, Maurizio Manzieri, has made it onto ballot, presumably on the strength of the covers he has been doing for Aliette de Bodard. I gather that he got a big write-up in La Republica as a result. More international recognition.
I’m a bit out of the loop with editors these days, but as I recall at least two of the Long Form finalists lost their jobs last year, which probably says something about the state of the publishing industry.
Obviously She-Ra deserves to win Dramatic Presentation: Short. The finale of The Mandalorian will probably win, even though it was pretty terrible, because the one thing it did well was provide fan service.
I had not seen any of the Long Form Finalists when the ballot came out. I have now seen one, and will be watching the others in the coming months. There may be a lot of muttering about hyenas.
I’m also way out of the loop on graphic stories, but I know Kireon Gillen is very good and I’m a sucker for Arthuriana so I do have an idea for a favourite.
Ah, related work. I think I know which one I’m going to vote for. Certain other people would kill me if I didn’t. But I don’t expect us to win, despite our being on Mike Glyer’s Enemies of Fandom list. FIYAHCON was amazing. Beowulf is a brilliant book. And Natalie Luhrs has the advantage of being even more hated by the dwellers in File 770 than we are. It is a very tough category.
Series has some pretty heavyweight competition. Scalzi, Kowal and McGuire are all hugely popular. Murderbot can do no wrong. Personally I am very pleased to see a couple of fantasy series based in non-Western cultures on the ballot, but I suspect they’ll be overwhelmed.
I will pass on Novelette and Short Story until I have had time to read the Finalists.
Three of the Novella Finalists were on my ballot, and the other three all look very strong. I think that The Empress of Salt and Fortune was one of the best books of last year of any length and type, but I have no idea who will win this one.
I had a long list for Novel. Five of them have made the ballot. If I had to pick a winner I would say Jemisin because Nora has such a great track record, but it is a fabulous field. And all the Finalists are by women. Gosh, I wonder how that happened?
This review is a little late in coming, but then Madeline Ashby took quite a while to produce the third book in the Machine Dynasty series, so I hope she’ll forgive me. As is fairly inevitable, a review of a third book is a series is going to be a bit spoiler-full, so if you haven’t read vN or iD you may want to look away now.
To recap, Pastor Jonah LeMarque, the CEO of the New Eden Ministries, raised substantial sums of money from his followers to build android beings, ostensibly so that those members of mankind unfortunate enough to be left behind after the Rapture have someone to look after them. In fine Asimov tradition they have a programmed Failsafe mechanism that requires them to come to the aid of any human who is being hurt, thus they can never harm a human. These androids are known as vN (short for von Neumann).
The vN come in various types, or “clades”, each designed for a specific job. The nursing clade needs special programming to allow them to do things like administer injections or re-set a broken bone. A vN called Portia works out how to subvert this programming to allow her to harm human.
vN can reproduce. They need to eat for energy, and if they eat too much they become pregnant and produce a clone baby. This is called “iteration”.
Book 1, vN, is all about Amy, who is Portia’s granddaughter. Amy has been raised by her mother and a human husband, who want her to have a proper childhood and live happily among humans. Portia has other ideas.
Book 2, iD, is mostly about Javier, a vN from a clade designed for forestry work, who becomes Amy’s partner as they seek a life away from humans, and to thwart Portia’s various evil plans.
Book 3 is called Rev, which might be short for revision, but could also stand for revolution and revenge. Or indeed reverend.
As the book opens, Amy, Javier and their children are living on the island of Mecha in Nagasaki harbour. This is supposedly a safe haven for vN and humans to live side-by-side. Portia has transcended her body and is now a distributed intelligence living in the Internet, which enables her to kill more humans more easily. Amy has worked out how to patch other vN to disable their Failsafes, and has begun to distribute it so that more of her people can be free from human slavery. But what is a slave to do, when they become free?
The book opens with a chapter set in Hammerberg, a theme park for lovers of that sort of horror story set in mysterious castles in small, mountainous Eastern European kingdoms. Young women who have read too much Twilight can go there and have amazing sex with vN who pose as vampires and werewolves. But there are other entertainments on offer as well. Vampires can be staked, or have their heads cut off. Women from the village can be burned as witches. All of these things involve vN being killed. There is much need for rapid iteration. Can you guess what these vN do when their Failsafes are disabled?
So human governments are desperately looking for a solution to the vN problem. Individually they are far stronger than humans. They can also think and communicate faster. Portia is everywhere. Their only hope is Project Aelph, a secret plan that LeMarque supposedly created to dispose of his creations if they became troublesome. LeMarque, having been exposed as a vicious paedophile, is in prison and well aware of the sudden strength of his bargaining position.
Amy, being Amy, wants to find a peaceful solution to the problem. Portia wants to kill all of the humans before it is too late.
That, then, is the corner that Ashby has written herself into. Now she needs to write her way out of it. That’s a tall order, at least in part because it is hard to escape the conviction that Portia is right. However, Amy has a plan. All she needs to do it manage to implement it before the war between the humans and Portia becomes inescapable.
I will have to leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide whether she succeeds or not. It is a difficult task that she has set herself, and given what she says in the acknowledgements it sounds like she tried several possible solutions before settling on this one. I have a few reservations about it, but I must admit that she came up with a wonderful spanner to throw into the works.
Having said that, the value of this series is primarily in the questions it poses, rather than in the solution it adopts. It is foolish to think that there is a solution to human-vN relationships, any more than there is a solution to human-human relationships. One size does not fit all. What the Machine Dynasty series should do is get us humans to stop and think about how we treat other species, and indeed other members of our own species.