Wonder Woman 1984

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.

Editorial – May 2021

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.

Issue #29

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


  • Cover: Three Twins at the Crater School: Another fabulous Ben Baldwin cover, this one for Craz Brenchley's Three Twins at the Crater School

  • A Desolation Called Peace: A review of A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine's follow up to last year''s Hugo-winning novel, A Memory Called Empire

  • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Cheryl's massively spoilerific review of Marvel's latest TV series, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

  • Victories Greater Than Death: A review of the new YA novel from Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater than Death

  • A Winter Worldcon: This year's Worldcon will be held in December rather than August. What does this mean, especially for those of us who can't attend? Also, Site Selection Controversy!

  • Advanced Triggernometry: A review of the latest fantasy Western novella from Stark Holborn, Advanced Triggernometry

  • Your 2021 Hugo Award Finalists: Cheryl takes a look through the finalists for this year's Hugo Awards

  • Rev: A review of the third and final volume in Madeline Ashby's Machine Dynasty series, Rev

  • Shadow of a Dead God: A review of Shadow of a Dead God, a fantasy novel by Patrick Samphire

  • Soul: A review of Pixar's Oscar-winning and Hugo Finalist animated film, Soul

  • Editorial – April 2021: Cheryl is a Hugo Finalist again

A Desolation Called Peace

A Desolation Called PeaceHow 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.

book cover
Title: A Desolation Called Peace
By: Arkady Martine
Publisher: Tor
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

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.

Victories Greater Than Death

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 travesti 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.

book cover
Title: Victories Greater than Death
By: Charlie Jane Anders
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

A Winter Worldcon

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.

Advanced Triggernometry

Advanced TriggernometryYes, there is a sequel. Can we all say, “Yee ha!”

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”.

book cover
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

Your 2021 Hugo Award Finalists

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?

Rev

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.

book cover
Title: Rev
By: Madeline Ashby
Publisher:
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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Shadow of a Dead God

Reading lots of books isn’t always easy. Sometimes you need something to help you along. So instead of going for something heavy and intense, you look for something that will be fun. Tim Pratt’s books tend to do that for me, but I didn’t have anything of his to hand this month so I turned to Patrick Samphire, hoping he would do the trick.

On the face of it, Shadow of a Dead God is fairly classic fantasy. It features a freelance mage in a crime-ridden city fighting against a powerful supernatural threat. But this is not one of those Ye Olde Magick books. The language in which it is written is very modern, and the style is that of a noir detective novel.

Our hero, Mennik Thorn, Nik to his friends, was born in a poor district in the city of Agatos. A small win in the genetic lottery means that he has a mattering of magical ability — nowhere near enough to become a powerful mage, but just enough to not need to look for a more menial job. Nik’s best friend from childhood, Benyon Field (Benny) is in the business of relieving wealthy people of their possessions. It isn’t the best job in the world, but it is the only one that Benny has any talent for.

As the story opens, Benny has just inveigled Nik into helping with a burglary, because he needed help to disarm a magical trap. At precisely the same time as that goes badly wrong, the chief factotum of the Rich and Powerful Mage whose house Nik and Benny are robbing is brutally murdered. Our heroes are arrested on suspicion of doing the dastardly deed.

For Benny this means time as a guest of the City Watch, and a trial. Even if he’s not guilty of the murder, and frankly he couldn’t possibly have done it, he’s still likely to have his hands chopped off for thievery.

For Nik things are much worse. The murder was very clearly a work of magic, so he finds himself in the custody of the fearsome Ash Guard, and elite group of coppers who specialise in sorcerous crimes. Luckily for Nik, he’s clearly not powerful enough to have committed the crime, so he’s let go and has a few days to find out who done it, and to spring Benny from jail.

At this point it becomes obvious that Nik is in over his head. Something very serious is going on in the city, and powerful people do not want him poking his nose into their affairs. Therefore, in the manner of Dashiell Hammett gumshoes everywhere, he keeps getting beaten up and threatened with worse.

There’s a dame. There has to be a dame. In Nik’s case she turns out to be Meroi Gale, the Captain of the Ash Guard. She’s more than capable of looking after herself, and thinks that Nik might be useful, but he can’t trust her very far because she’s a copper and he and Benny are not exactly on the right side of the law.

There are other interesting elements to the story. To start with there is the fact that Benny is the single parent of an 11-year-old girl called Sereh whom Nik is now responsible for, who is the mostly stealthy person he knows, and who has a penchant for very pointy metal things. Plus Nik has a connection to the rich and powerful people of Agatos, which I won’t reveal here because spoilers. Finally there is a pair of errant ghosts that Samphire puts clearly on display early in the story so that, like Chekov’s Gun, they can become vital to the plot when the time comes.

It is all fairly light-hearted, with Nik being a charming combination of rather clever and socially clueless. Nevertheless, the plot gathers pace as the book goes on, and I finished it very quickly. There will be a sequel out later this year, and I’ll be buying it because this first book was just the sort of entertainment I needed.

book cover
Title: Shadow of a Dead God
By: Patrick Samphire
Publisher:
Purchase links:
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Amazon US
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Soul

Here’s the first of my looks at this year’s Dramatic Presentation: Long Form Finalists. Soul comes well recommended. It has won Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score; and was a Finalist in Best Sound. It has also won BAFTAs and Golden Globes. In fact, it has won so many awards that Wikipedia has created a separate page to list them all.

Ah, but is it good science fiction? Is it science fiction (or fantasy) at all? Well…

Yes, of course it is. It is an animation, and animators, bless then, generally can’t resist the opportunity to do something that breaks the bounds of reality.

What Soul isn’t, is about soul. It is about jazz. That’s a bit confusing, but I ran with it.

Joe Gardner is an aspiring jazz musician, but breaking into the big time is tough in New York and for now he has to content himself with teaching music at a local high school. It is about as unrewarding as you can guess. Then, one day, a former pupil calls to tell him that the legendary band leader, Dorothea Williams, is looking for a new pianist. Curley is her drummer these days, and he thinks his old teacher would be just what the band needs. Joe auditions, and gets the job. He’s so happy that he pays little attention while walking home. He falls down an open manhole, and dies.

Or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen. Joe finds himself on a conveyor belt heading for the Great Beyond, but his desire to make it as a jazz musician is so strong that he manages to leap free. He finds himself in the Great Before, the place where young souls go to learn about Earth before being incarnated. It is a bit like a kindergarten and the staff, who are all called Jerry, mistake Joe for a dead soul who has been sent down to mentor their little charges.

Joe thinks he has found a way back. All he has to do is mentor a young soul and, when the kid is ready to be born, steal their Earth Pass and get back into his body. Unfortunately he is paired with Soul 22 who has been in the Great Before for centuries because she has absolutely zero interest in living.

This, then, is our story. We have an aspiring musician, played by Jamie Foxx, who will do anything to get his life back, and a stroppy kid, played by Tina Fey, who will do anything to avoid having to live. There ought to be a solution there, but it takes a movie to get us there, and in the end the solution is not what either Joe or 22 expected.

While Tina Fey is her usual amusing self, the star of the show is Rachel House. You may remember her as the grandmother in Moana. In Soul she plays Terry, an obsessive accountant from the Great Beyond who knows that there is a missing soul somewhere; and won’t stop until the books are balanced. Angela Bassett, as the legendary Dorothea Williams, is also very good.

Soul delivers exactly what you would expect. Pixar produces superb animation. Disney provides a script that tugs at the heartstrings. And the Oscar-winning score is written by a couple of lads called Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It sounds nothing like a Nine Inch Nails album, which is probably just as well. Reznor and Ross also wrote the score for the Watchmen TV series. It won’t be long now before “kids these days” have no idea that these Hollywood grandees were once in a rock band.

So yes, I really enjoyed watching it, and I’m pleased that Black people’s stories are getting told. I’m a bit stunned that this is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American protagonist. Why would you not make movies about jazz? As to the Hugos, I’m reserving my judgement. I’m hoping that there will be a film that is more than just very enjoyable.

Editorial – April 2021

Well there’s a surprise. I wasn’t expecting to be a Hugo Finalist again quite so soon. And certainly not for Related Work. Enormous thanks are due to my colleagues on the CoNZealand Fringe project, and of course all of you for voting for us.

Meanwhile I have a fanzine to produce, and there are some fabulous books coming out right now. I’m really enjoying getting to read them. Next issue should see a review of the new Murderbot novel.

Finally, while I am here, throughout May I will be walking 125 miles to raise money for a fabulous Bristol-based charity, One25. I’ve written a bit about why I am doing it here, and you can pledge to support me here.

Issue #28

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


  • Cover: Arrival: This month's cover has a science fiction theme

  • Ten Low: If it is Stark Holborn and science fiction that must mean Westerns In Spaaaaaace!!!!

  • WandaVision: It's the TV sensation of the year so far, but what does Cheryl make of WandaVision

  • In Veritas: Cheryl looks at one of the finalists for this year's Crawford Award, In Veritas by CJ Lavigne

  • Fireheart Tiger: The latest piece of short fiction from Aliette de Bodard is much to Cheryl's taste.

  • Is WSFS Fit for Purpose?: Another year, more Worldcon drama. How much more can the convention take?

  • Gendering Time, Timing Gender: A review of an academic book about gender changes and time travel

  • The Last Days of Pompeii: The need to write an academic paper led Cheryl to read a very famous Victorian novel. Is Bulwer Lytton as bad a writer as his reputation suggests?

  • The Fall of Koli: Cheryl looks back on her involvement in Mike Carey's Rampart Trilogy

  • SisterSong: SisterSong, by Lucy Holland, is another book that Cheryl was asked to act as a consultant on

  • Editorial – March 2021: Cheryl is back from a month of being an historian rather than an SF critic

Cover: Arrival

This issue’s cover is once again from PixaBay. The artist account for this one is deactivated so I’m not sure who created it. Anyway, it was suitably science fictional.

Once again, this is only part of a much bigger image. The full thing is shown below, and you can see it in all its glory here.


Ten Low

Ten LowRemember that thing about The Mandalorian being a Western in space? Now imagine what it would be like if an actual writer of Westerns were to do science fiction. That writer is, of course, Stark Holborn. Ten Low is her first foray into science fiction.

The story is set on the moon of Factus. It is small, poor, irrelevant in political terms. There has been a war. There have been atrocities on both sides. The Accord has fought off the rebellion by the Free Limits. But on Factus such considerations are unimportant compared to the daily struggle to stay alive.

Ten Low is a doctor. She travels across the deserts of Factus on a mule, though this being science fiction a “mule” is a single-person utility vehicle. Genuine doctors are in considerable demand, because people do get sick and most people can’t tell real medicine from snake oil. Well, perhaps not actual snake oil, because snakes are among the few animals hardy enough to farm on Factus so actual snake oil would probably be expensive. You get the idea.

I swallow, the noise is loud in my ears. Beyond the tiny fire there’s nothing. Just the wind. Some folk say the wind is alive, that it coils between the stars like a snake. Who am I to say they are wrong?

Into Ten’s life falls The General, and I mean falls quite literally. A spacecraft crashes in the desert. The General is the only survivor. She’s a teenager, but a deadly one. Gabriella Ortiz is a senior officer in the Minority Force, the elite group of heavily augmented child soldiers that were a key part of The Accord’s war effort. Gabi is about as privileged that you can get in Accord society, and very used to command, but she is going to discover that the war is over, and elite supersoldiers are not needed in peace time.

That’s the basic set-up, but the plot is basically a series of escalating encounters in which Ten and Gabi get into worse and worse scrapes with more and more dangerous inhabitants of Factus. There’s a certain lack of agency here, but the story drags you along at such a lick that you don’t notice it. Along the way we get to learn a lot more about Ten, including why she has a number for a name, and what she did in the war. We also learn a lot more about the Ifs, the mysterious aliens who seem to be native to Factus.

There are some great characters in the book besides Ten and Gabi. For example, there’s Malady Falco, the one-eyed “businesswoman” who runs a Benzenery in one of the larger towns and specialises in the movement of goods outside of official channels. There’s also Ma Esterházy who runs a saloon and brothel in the remote town of Angel Share, but was once the most notorious smuggler on Factus. Oh, and there’s Marshall Joliffe who sees his job as ridding Factus of perverts and degenerates.

Ten Low is the sort of story that The Mandalorian could have been, were it not tied to the Star Wars universe and happy to deliver fan service rather than work on the script.

Stark sent me a review copy of this book. It isn’t out until June, but you can pre-order it now. Alternatively, you can look for Advanced Triggernometry, which is available on April 8th. I know I want a copy.

book cover
Title: Ten Low
By: Stark Holborn
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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WandaVision

WandaVisionSo many thoughts. So many complicated thoughts.

Let’s start at the beginning. When I saw the first trailers and it looked like the show was going to be a Bewitched spoof I was delighted. I’d grown up on Samantha Stephens and her goofy family. It sounded great.

Then it slowly dawned on me which Marvel story the series was being based on. This was going to be a story about a grief-stricken woman suffering a nervous breakdown, and using her powers in abominable ways in the process.

While my childhood TV might have comprised shows like Betwitched and Batman, my childhood reading was full of Marvel comics. The (Original) X-Men were my friends. Jean Grey was my big sister, and we all knew that Wanda was a good kid at heart, even when she was a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. And on behalf of both Jean and Wanda, I would like to say that we are heartily sick of the trope of powerful women being unable to control their powers or their emotions and being a threat to the universe as a result. Enough is enough.

Unfortunately, the story is kind of necessary to the MCU. Because without it we don’t get Tommy and Billy. And without them Billy can’t fall in love with his Skrull Prince, Teddy, and become part of the cutest gay couple in the universe. You see my problem?

As a result, I headed into WandaVision with some trepidation, and was immediately enthralled by the audacity of the concept and the excellence of its execution. For those who haven’t seen the show (and are presumably sufficiently spoiler averse to read in-depth reviews), each episode plays tribute to the US sit-coms of a different decade.

The first show is set in the 1950s and is based around The Dick Van Dyke Show. It is shot in black and white. The main set mimics the set of the original show. Feige and co. even got Van Dyke himself to come and talk to them about how his show was made. They got a live audience in for the sit-com elements of the show so that the actors could get the feel of how the original worked. The entire crew were in 1950s costume for that. They even made spoof adverts.

The 1960s is, of course, Bewitched. The head of special effects on the show had actually started his career working with the team that had made Bewitched, and all of the special effects were done in the same way as the original. From there we move through the 70s, 80s and so on. The costume department had an absolute ball recreating some of the more outlandish fashions of each period (though I am still lusting after the pink and grey batwing sweater than Wanda wears in the 1980s episode). The theme tune changes for each episode to match the time period.

Wait a minute! Didn’t Marvel pull exactly this stunt for the final season of Agents of SHIELD? Yes, they did. But far fewer people saw that show. It deserves a bit of credit for pioneering the ideas.

The challenge for us viewers was to try to work out what the hell was going on. Wanda and Vision are in this mysterious sit-com world where time seems to leap ahead by a decade with each new episode. Meanwhile, outside the sleepy little New Jersey town of Westview, a team from the government agency known as SWORD is trying to work out what is going on inside, and why the town won’t let them in. Jimmy Woo, fresh in from the West Coast, is there on behalf of the FBI. And an all grown up Darcy Lewis is the resident scientific genius, a role that she learned from Jane Foster in the first two Thor movies.

For those of us familiar with the comics, the basic idea is fairly obvious. We know that this is Wanda’s doing, because she can’t accept that Vision is dead. We can also easily recognise that Agnes the Nosy Neighbour is actually the witch, Agatha Harkness. And can I say that the absolute genius of the MCU casting has been at work once again here. Kathryn Hahn is just perfect in the role (and has a far better wicked witch cackle than I have ever been able to manage). We can roll with it, waiting on the fine detail.

For those not familiar with the comics, the task was probably more difficult, because they will have been trying to work it all out, and they will have expected it to all make sense in the send. I don’t think that it quite managed that.

To start with there was the whole subplot of Monica Rambeau. I’ve been looking forward to her appearance ever since she appeared as a young girl in Captain Marvel. WandaVision promises an important role for her in the story, but what it delivers instead is her origin story. We see her get her powers, and we see that she will be heading off into space to join Nick Fury and the Skrull (and presumably Carol). She’s only a bit-player in the WandaVision story.

In addition the series gets a little too cute in places. A classic example of this is when Pietro turns up. We all know he’s dead, and even Wanda seems surprised to see him. But then Darcy, watching the show from the SWORD base, exclaims, “She recast Pietro!” That makes no sense, unless Darcy, who is a character in the MCU, also knows that the MCU is fiction, and possibly that Evan Peters, who plays Pietro in WandaVision, also played Pietro in the non-MCU X-Men films. It is a joke for the fans, but it also totally breaks the fourth wall.

There is plenty of fan service in the show. One of the funniest episodes is the one set at Hallowe’en when Wanda and Vision dress up in (home made versions of) their original costumes from the comics. They both look utterly ridiculous, but at the same time very familiar. And then the show doubles down in the final episode by giving Wanda an actual costume for the first time, and making it a fabulous MCU version of the original Scarlet Witch get-up. There is so much love for the comics in the show.

I ended up really enjoying it. The decision to mix a heart-rending tragedy with a tribute to TV sit-coms and high-powered superhero battle was a brave one and I think the show mostly pulled it off. Or at least it did for people who are not allergic to superheroes as a concept, and who didn’t expect the show to be complete in itself and make perfect sense. I suspect that it will be taught in film school for decades to come.

And now, we wait, because as usual there were scenes after the credits. We know that Wanda’s boys are somehow still alive. If the MCU follows the comics they’ll be prisoners of Mephisto, who doubtless covets Wanda’s chaos magic. There may be a second series planned, or just possibly this will all be resolved in the second Doctor Strange movie. Either way, I am looking forward to it, because I can’t wait to meet teenage Billy and hear him refer to Wanda as “the Scarlet Mom”.

I also want more of Agatha, because Kathryn Hahn is brilliant in the role.

In Veritas

In VeritasThis year’s short list for the Crawford Award (for debut fantasy books) included a number of interesting books that I didn’t read. The Crawford doesn’t have a jury as such, it has a recommendation team who are not obliged to read everything that is eligible, but try to cover it all between them. Unfortunately for me, many of the recommendations tend to come in during January and February when I have little time to read due to LGBT History Month, and time is short because the Award has to be presented at ICFA. However, anything that turns up on the short list tends to be interesting, so I’m trying to get to the rest of it now.

In Veritas, by CJ Lavigne, is a book that I would not normally know anything about because it was published by a small press based in Edmonton, Canada. But it was brought to the attention of the Crawford Award, and I’m delighted that it was. I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist a book that introduces its main character as follows:

Verity is the drab sort of bleached that comes only with fading and time. She is wiry but solid. Her eyes are a grey like sunlit fog, simultaneously bright and opaque, but she seldom meets anyone’s gaze. She has a habit of twitching at nothing, and her lips move as she walks. Though she is lean and nondescript—her black coat well made, her white sneakers unmarred—people sometimes give her spare change.

Verity, it turns out, is aptly named because she can sense truth. That’s because she perceives the world with a peculiar sort of synaesthesia that involves taste as well as colour. If someone says something untrue, she can tell by the taste of the words. Navigating the world with this sort of ability is not easy, but it is possible. Fortunately for Verity, she lives with Jacob, who is independently wealthy (this will be explained) but who has no idea what to do with his life. They try different jobs each day, and fail at most of them.

Their quiet, if somewhat bizarre, existence is destabilised when Verity meets a street magician whom she can tell performs actual magic. He has a dog, who is also a snake, who is also a shadow that might properly belong to the man. This leads her to meet a whole lot of other unusual people, including an angel with black wings, an unkillable sorceress, and a man who can control snowstorms. She also discovers a rock band called The Between whose albums are legendary, if unobtainable, and whose gigs are always cancelled.

Slowly but surely, the narrative, while never quite relinquishing its weird, liminal affect, resolves into an X-Men story. There are the good mutants, led by Colin, the angel; and there are the evil mutants, led by Privya, the sorceress. Verity is powerful, newly discovered mutant who must chose which side to support.

Except of course it isn’t that simple. The mutants, or rather magic wielders, are not hated and feared by ordinary people, they are under direct assault. The mundanes, if one most call them that, (Lavigne calls them “outsiders” for reasons you’ll need to read the book to find out) do not believe in magic. And we all know what happens to Tinkerbell when no one believes in magic.

These people—their way of knowing the world is more powerful than ours. There’s no room left for us to exist, the moment anyone notices us trying.

So yes, like the original X-Men, In Veritas is something of a queer allegory.

But it is worse, because the electrical devices in the outsider world actually cause magical people pain. For Verity’s people, the world is becoming uninhabitable. They must find a way to escape, or to tip the state of the world back in their favour.

One might suggest that they need to immanentize the eschaton through a massive act of human sacrifice coordinated via a rock concert, but Lavigne is probably too young to have read Illuminatus!

I totally understand that many people are bemused, if not annoyed, by the proliferation of awards in the speculative fiction world. But if an award can bring attention to books like this then it is doing a useful thing. Also, hooray for small presses.

book cover
Title: In Veritas
By: CJ Lavigne
Publisher: Newest Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Fireheart Tiger

Fireheart TigerDid I mention that Aliette de Bodard keeps getting better with each new book? I’m pretty sure I said that in my review of Seven of Infinities. And now we have Fireheart Tiger. Guess what?

This is a short book, but beautifully formed. The basic plot is very simple. Thanh is a princess of Bìn Hải, a small country that is under the influence of a much more powerful country called Ephteria. She has spent some time at that country’s court (as a hostage) but is now back home and failing dismally to live up to her mother’s expectations of her. Now a trade delegation from Ephteria has arrived. Thanh is expected to help with the negotiations. But there is a problem. The Ephterian delegation includes the Princess Eldris, with whom Thanh had an affair while she was a hostage.

Oh, and there is the small matter that things keep spontaneously catching fire when Thanh is around.

That, basically, is all there is to it. Everything else is woven from the relationships between the characters. Thanh desperately wants to impress her mother, but doesn’t know how. The Empress of Bìn Hải despairs of her youngest daughter ever becoming proper princess material. The Ephterian trade delegation is annoyed that their demands are not being immediately met, with profuse apologies for them ever having had to make them in the first place. They are also annoyed that their future Queen has seen fit to tag along on a mission that she clearly has no interest in. Eldris expects the entire world to be arranged according to her whims, as it always has been, and always will be.

And the fire? The fire just wants to burn. It is what it does, with passion.

Primarily the story is a meditation on colonialism, though it could also be said that the Empress treats her daughter in much the same way that Ephteria treats Bìn Hải. The story also contains a certain amount of girls kissing (I wave at El Lam here, they will know why). There is only one man in the story, and he is a eunuch. All of these things are likely to irritate a certain type of reader. Which makes me even happier that this story is so beautifully written.

book cover
Title: Fireheart Tiger
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Is WSFS Fit for Purpose?

Those of us who have been involved with Worldcon for many years are used to the constant drama that surrounds the convention. There is always some sort of meltdown that is going on. But recently it seems to me that the meltdowns are threatening the very future of the convention. Afterall, lockdown has shown us that things can be done differently. New international conventions such as FIYAHCon and FutureCon can and have been started. There is no need to stick with the old ways if they are no longer providing what fandom wants. Worldcon is no longer the only game in town, and the way that it is run seems to be what is holding it back.

The reasons for this are many and various, but the most obvious one is that Worldcon is strongly resistant to change. The maxim of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has a lot of value. But what if it is broke? “If it is broke it can’t be fixed, so we have to keep on the way things are,” is a lot less attractive.

Worldcon was founded primarily by Americans, and it derived many of its organising principles from US political theory. Chief amongst those was the idea that too much government is bad. The USA was born in revolution against an autocratic monarchy, at a time when such things were the fashion in other countries too. No one wanted a new King, so procedures were put in place to ensure that no one could declare himself one. And that even an elected government was seriously restricted in what it could do. Those principles have been tested to the limit in the past year, and will probably be tested again before President Biden’s first term is over. But do the same considerations apply to fandom?

Fans have always been rightly suspicious of anyone who looks like they want to make a commercial empire out of our hobby. Thankfully that’s a ridiculously difficult proposition, so very few people have tried it, and most of those who have came badly unstuck. Nevertheless, the threat of “WSFS Inc” is still enough to stir many older fans into action to defend fandom from would be autocrats.

The problem is that WSFS suffers from what we in the Diversity & Inclusion business called “Status Quo Bias”. When the existing system happens to favour one particular segment of a population over others, that system will be seen as grossly unfair. There will be pressure for change. And if change is impossible within the system, the aggrieved parties will look to leave that system for an alternative, or to destroy it.

The accepted wisdom is that if you want to change WSFS then you have to do so through the Business Meeting. But the way that works, with the time commitment and necessity of understanding Parliamentary Procedure, is itself a form of Status Quo Bias. Kevin can help people who want to create a new Hugo Award category, but I suspect that no amount of help will be enough for people who want to recraft the entire governance process of the Society.

Furthermore, mollifying upset fans is not the only reason why this should be done. We live in an increasingly corporate world. WSFS is not a corporate animal, and other corporations simply don’t know how to deal with it. Relatively simple things such as selling advertising in the souvenir book, or soliciting sponsorship, become much more complicated than they need to be because WSFS itself has no corporate existence, and external organisations have to deal with a different company each year. Being proudly unincorporated is all very well, but it makes it hard to do business.

As a side note, the vast majority of the genuine inquiries that come into the WSFS websites are questions from people who assume that of course WSFS is an organisation with full time staff, from whom it is possible to buy Worldcon memberships, and with whom it is possible to strike a business deal. Many of them are gobsmacked when they learn the truth.

Worldcon having a corporate existence would also make it easier for the convention to move around the world. There are numerous convention centres out there that are keen for business. We tend to get one or two inquiries a year from people in other counties who would like us to hold our convention in their facilities. But we can’t, because WSFS does not have a core team that runs the event from year to year. Instead it is required to wait for individual countries to grow a fandom capable of doing the job for itself.

Needless to say, this results in continual reinvention of the wheel.

However, the main reasons that I am concerned for the future of Worldcon is that I fear the system no longer serves the interests of the people who want to run the event. That’s partly because the event has become too big, in this viciously commercial world, to be run by a bunch of willing amateurs. You are not just risking a loss of reputation from foolish decisions that upset fandom. Things can go belly-up in much more serious ways.

The 2018 Worldcon is still mired in a lawsuit brought against it by an unhappy member. I can’t talk about that as I’m a director of that convention’s parent organisation, but you can read about the latest developments here and there is plenty of talk on File 770. This year’s Worldcon is lawyering up because one of its main hotels has declared bankruptcy, creating all sorts of problems for the event.

Quite frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want to run a Worldcon these days. At the last SMOFcon there was a CoNZealand retrospective panel in which both of the co-chairs of that event admitted to having to take time out for mental health reasons after the event. I’m pretty sure that Bill Lawhorn will need something similar this year. There’s a long-running Worldcon community joke that friends don’t let friends run Worldcon. That’s not funny anymore.

I don’t pretend that I have any easy answers to this. But I am looking with some envy at how SFWA has turned the Nebula Conference into a slick, professional event that has made exactly the sort of adjustments that fandom has been asking for from Worldcon. Of course SFWA is a US-based organisation, so it doesn’t have to cope with the international dimension, but seeing how well they have coped with everything else I’m pretty sure that they could.

The sad thing is that even if I had a bunch of ideas for fixing things, I don’t think I’d have any chance of implementing them, because WSFS is so resistant to change.

Gendering Time, Timing Gender

Gendering Time, Timing GenderOne of the things I greatly admire about Francesca and the crew at Luna Press Publishing is their commitment to non-fiction. Obviously I benefit from that in terms of being published in their Academia Lunare series, but they also do serious academic work.

The good thing about that is that young academics can get work published is a format that doesn’t require readers to sell a kidney or two in order to purchase the book. The downside is that academic writing isn’t always very readable. A problem with a lot of Humanities work is that academics are expected to work within theoretical frameworks laid down by their illustrious predecessors. Literary theories like to think that they are like scientific theories, but they are not, they are just a lens through which works can be viewed, and with which arguments can be made.

A potentially serious issue with such theories is that they often rely on invented terms, the meaning of which may not be clear to a casual reader. Or worse, they redefine familiar terms in completely unfamiliar ways. It is possible to develop literary theories in a way that is easily understandable by the casual reader. Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy is an excellent example, and I have seen it used a lot by reviewers. Not all such theories are so accessible.

All of this preamble is there to say that we shouldn’t hold it against young academics if their work sounds a bit like gobbledigook at times. They may well have wanted to have written something more accessible, but in order to have their work accepted by their supervisors they need to write in a way that is approved by the academic establishment.

The thing that kept tripping me up reading Gendering Time, Timing Gender, by PM Biswas, was the question of what it meant by “time”. I felt that the book was constantly confusing physical time, in which the past is followed by the present is followed by the future, and stereotypical linear narratives, in which stories are expected to unfold in a certain way.

This isn’t Biswas’s fault. I think she got the idea from Jack Halberstam’s concept of Queer Time. Halberstam talks about how in Straight Time a child’s life story is deemed to be set at birth, and is critically dependent on the gender that was assigned to them, and on assumptions of cisheteronoramtivity, whereas in Queer Time life stories can be very different. Nevertheless, in both Straight and Queer Time, time itself continues inexorably forward. This doesn’t matter when you are talking about people’s lives, but it becomes much more important when you are discussing the science fictional concept of time travel.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the book starts with a consideration of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In the story, Orlando does travel through time in a sense, in that they undergo periods of extended sleep while time continues past them. But they never go backwards in time. The other two subjects, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” and Everett Maroon’s The Unintentional Time Traveler, do involve backwards time travel. Both of them therefore queer physical time’s arrow as well as the linear narrative of the characters’ lives.

Once I got this all straight in my head I enjoyed the book much more. It does have interesting things to say about all three books. I was also particularly struck by this comment in the introduction:

There is a need for more scholarly engagement with this trope, because there are now enough works of speculative fiction exploring gender through time travel that it has become an identifiable subgenre of its own.

I can remember when there were so few science fiction books about trans people that it was possible to know and have read them all. I’m delighted that this is no longer the case.

Biswas has some very interesting things to say about Orlando. It’s a book that I have not paid much attention to, partly because Orlando’s transformation is magical rather than medical, and partly because I find Woolf’s prose unreadable. Biswas, however, has found some elements which show Woolf had some understanding of the trans condition:

While Orlando is always quintessentially Orlando, there are certain new behavioural and functional traits that are associated with the gender performance of her newly acquired womanhood. These traits are slowly accrued by Orlando through an automatic, unselfconscious social mimesis, but they are acquired habits and are by no means innate.

One of the axioms of the so-called “Gender Critical” movement is that gender socialisation is acquired from the moment that gender is assigned, and cannot then be altered. Therefore anyone assigned male at birth will always behave as a man, and will always be a danger to women. Woolf calls bullshit on this idea.

Heinlein, on the other hand, makes the same mistake that John Varley makes in Steel Beach. He assumes that gendered behaviour is intimately connected to gendered biology and will change immediately on the occurrence of biological changes:

…the newly minted male version of Jane finds himself ‘staring down nurses’ necklines’

Everett Maroon’s book is unfamiliar to me, but it sounds very interesting from what Biswas has to say about it. I suspect that, like Torrey Peters’ Detransition Baby, it will be easily misrepresented by anti-trans extremists, especially those who happen to hold a philosophical belief that allows them to claim that they, and they only, know the True Meaning of each book that they read. (And you can see how this might appeal to an author who hates fans reading things she doesn’t like into her books.) But books which explore the trans experience through fiction are important and necessary. I guess I should get myself a copy of Maroon’s book.

Which brings me back to Biswas’s book. Any academic text that leads me to want to read the works that it discusses has clearly done its job.

book cover
Title: Gendering Time, Timing Gender
By: PM Biswas
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Last Days of Pompeii

The Last Days of PompeiiSometimes I am hoist by my own petard. When Farah Mendlesohn suggested a theme of “Catastrophe” for this year’s Historical Fictions Research Network conference, I immediately wondered what novels there were about Pompeii. When I remembered that Edward Bulwer-Lytton had written a very famous one, I knew I had a perfect topic for a paper. Unfortunately, that meant that I had to read the book.

In my defence, I have read another one of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels. I reviewed The Coming Race in Emerald City back in 2005. It wasn’t that bad. However, it was a science fiction novel with a contemporary setting (well, contemporary for when it was written). The Last Days of Pompeii is a very different beast. It is an historical novel with a Guy Gavriel Kay-like mere hint of fantasy. By Pollux, Bulwer-Lytton takes every opportunity to play up Ye Olde Worlde setting! Your average Roman, it seems, can barely utter a sentence without prefacing it with an oath to some god or other. Pollux gets 15 mentions, compared to a mere 3 for his more boringly-named twin.

At one point, one of the characters exclaims, “Thou liest, base slave!” Reader, I confess that I actually laughed out loud.

The awfulness of the prose, however, is not the worst thing about The Last Days of Pompeii. It was written at a time when racist and sexist stereotypes were widely believed to be scientific fact, and assumptions based on these ideas pepper the narrative. Bulwer-Lytton even uses the term, “physiognomy”, at one point. The hero is noble, blonde, Athenian. The Romans are decadent, greedy and selfish. The villain is Egyptian, so that he can have swarthy skin. Fortunately, Bulwer-Lytton doesn’t seem to have known much about the Queendom of Kush.

The plot isn’t much better, being a melodramatic love polygon involving all of the major characters. Glaucus (the hero) and Arbaces (the villain) are both in love with Ione (who is Greek). Ione, Julia (a rich Roman girl) and Nydia (a blind slave) are all in love with Glaucus. There is a murder, and a love potion, and Glaucus is wrongly condemned to death in the arena. He is saved from this awful fate by an Act of God.

No, dear reader, not Hephaestus, whom one might assume would be responsible for the unfortunate goings on with Vesuvius. The Last Days of Pompeii is, at its core, a book about the dawn of Christianity. Arbaces is a priest of Isis, and a worker of magics, which compounds his villainy. Glaucus and Ione, though sceptical at first, are converted by the end of the book.

All of this is a bit of a shame, because most of Bulwer-Lytton’s research is spot on, or at least as spot-on as it was possible to be in 1834. He had clearly consulted the latest research on the relatively recently re-discovered city. No less a person than Mary Beard was unable to find much wrong with his portrayal of a site she knows well. Even Mary Shelley, while visiting Pompeii for herself, wrote in her diary of how impressed she was with the way that Bulwer-Lytton had brought the ancient city to life. There is actually much to admire in the book.

There is even a little bit of science fiction. Bulwer-Lytton seems to be aware that animals are more sensitive to volcanic activity that humans. When the lion is loosed into the arena to eat Glaucus and one of the Christians, it immediately senses that something is wrong, and with a whimper heads back into its cage. To the watching Romans, this is obviously A Sign, but we, and the author, know that God moves in mysterious ways.

And then the volcano erupts, and chaos ensues, in a fabulously melodramatic fashion.

So perhaps we should cut Bulwer-Lytton a bit of slack. As a writer of thrilling adventure stories, he clearly knew what he was doing. The ancient world was a very fashionable subject at the time, with Britain seeing itself as an empire to rival Rome itself. Bulwer-Lytton picked the name of his villain from Byron’s play, Sardanapalus, which was being staged for the first time in 1934. He picked the character of the Witch of the Volcano from another play of that title that was hugely popular in London in the early 1930s. Even the references to early Christianity where a direct response to Edward Gibbon’s legendary The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Gibbon, bless him, suggested that the religious intolerance of the Christians might have damaged to happy multi-cultural nature of Rome, an idea that was anathema to a British MP such as Bulwer-Lytton). It worked too. The book has sold over a million copies and has been adapted into 9 movies, 2 TV serials and a musical.

Anyway, the paper went down well, and know you know most of what was in it. I honestly can’t recommend reading the book unless you are into Victorian melodrama, but I feel it important to know that it exists, and to have learned a bit about how Victorians saw the ancient world.

The Fall of Koli

The Fall of KoliWe have reached the third and final volume of Mike Carey’s Rampart Trilogy. It is a long time since I read this book, but it is very memorable.

From my point of view, The Trials of Koli was the key book in the sequence. That was the one in which Ursala and Cup needed to come to an agreement regarding Cup’s medical gender transition, so that was the book where I was providing Mike with a lot of background data. The Fall of Koli was the book when all of that set-up got put into action. I just got to sit back and watch Mike in action.

I don’t know about you folks, but my jaw hit the ground when I found out what was going on aboard the Sword of Albion. There’s a lot of British politics going on in this bit of the story. I hope that readers in other countries got some idea of what Mike was talking about.

Of course there was also Spinner’s character arc to resolve. While the three books are all named after Koli, Spinner’s character arc is in many ways the more interesting and important one. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that from the first book, but that’s the skill of the author hiding things in plain sight.

I must admit that the scene where Spinner and Cup finally meet each other is one of my favourite parts in the whole series. The bit where Elaine gives Spinner tips on breastfeeding is pretty spectacular too. (Elaine is the uploaded mind of a long-dead woman soldier.)

Of course, as this is the final book, there have to be endings. Some of them are happier than others. Some are more obvious than others. I was pleased that Veso got a resolution as well.

Looking back on the series, my main feeling is that it was an absolute honour to have had a small part in its creation. Watching Mike in action was fascinating, and I should note that he always took my suggestions with respect and interest, even if not all of them were useful.

There’s a blog tour going on at the moment. Most of the reviews I have seen have studiously avoided mentioning the trans elements of the books. That’s OK. What’s important to me is that people have been reading a series of excellent books which happen to feature two young trans people whose stories are about much more than simply being trans. Thank you, Mike, that is a fine thing that you have done there.

book cover
Title: The Fall of Koli
By: Mike Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

SisterSong

SisterSongHere’s another book that I had a very small part in creating. Lucy Holland is better known as Lucy Hounsom, one of the co-hosts of the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. She has a fantasy trilogy out under her own name, but the silliness of modern publishing is such that she has to adopt a new name for this new venture, even though most people know exactly what is going on.

Whereas the Starborn series is epic fantasy, SisterSong is historical fantasy with strong roots in folk tales. The central conceit of the book is based around “The Twa Sisters”, one of the Scottish folk ballads collected by Francis Child. It is a story of sibling jealousy in which the elder sister causes the death of the younger sister, and the younger sister’s bones are made into a harp so that she can sing her story and obtain justice.

I got interested in the book when I saw Lucy say that she was basing it in the ancient cultures of Devon and Cornwall, what these days we call Celtic peoples. Then I got email from Lucy saying that she wanted to include some gender diversity in the story and, with my knowledge of trans history, could I help?

If you’ve been following my work during LGBT History Month this year you will know that finding evidence of trans people in Celtic society is not easy. I wrote about it here. What you can say is that tribal societies around the world have typically found space for gender variant people, and that such people were often involved in shamanic roles. Lucy knew that, hence her genderfluid version of Merlin. All that I needed to do was help her situate that character within the context of post-Roman Britain.

What people tend to forget about the Roman empire is that it stretched from Wales in the west to Pakistan in the east, and that it traded with civilisations in Africa, Russia and India. People could travel the length and breadth of the empire, and soak up influences from all of the cultures they encountered. It is therefore entirely reasonable for Merlin to have knowledge of people half a world away.

So that was my bit. The other thing, which I am not going to talk about because you need to read the book and get the experience of feeling it for yourself, the other thing was very much Lucy, and I am so very impressed.

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

Editorial – March 2021

Having a month off for LGBT History Month proved to be an excellent idea. I got very little read in February, save for history books. Of course if you would like me to review history books here then I’d be happy to do so. This is, after all, a fanzine. I can put whatever I want in it. Let me know.

Now we are in spring, and with unusual synchronicity two books that I had a small hand in creating are becoming available. Mike Carey’s The Fall of Koli is already on the shelves, and Lucy Holland’s SisterSong will be on April 1st. Obvously I can’t review either of them objectvely, but I have included a few comments about them because I think they are both well worth your time.

Easter is traditionally the start of the convention season, but there probably won’t be much in the way of con reports next issue because I have been selected for jury service, starting this week. One of the things about being self-employed is that you can’t just stop. So I’ll probably be spending the Easter weekend doing things I ought to have been doing during the week.

On the other hand, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I will be paying a brief visit to Brazil. I will be on a panel for Relampeio. It was so kind of them to invite me that I had to make it work somehow.

I guess that the Hugo finalists will be announced sometime soon as well. That will be something else to talk about next issue.

Issue #27

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


Cover: Flying Unicorn

This issue’s cover is once again by Steffan Keller, so clearly I have an attraction to his work. The image I have chosen caught my eye as I was browsing Pixabay because I have been researching Medusa for something I’m doing with Dan Vo next week. I can’t say anything much about that yet, but doubtless it will all appear in due course.

If you are into Greek mythology, you will know that Pegasus was born from Medusa after she was killed by Perseus. Quite why fantasy artists keep insisting on giving him a unicorn horn, I don’t know, but I’ll live with it.

As is generally the case when I get cover material from Pixabay, this is only part of a much bigger image. The full thing is shown below, and you can see it in all its glory here.


Legendborn

LegendbornArthuriana is something of a Vegemite subgenre. I know lots of people who absolutely loathe it. I, however, have Welsh parents, and was born just a few miles from Glastonbury. Arthur is in my blood, and I am a total sucker for new attempts to reinvent the genre.

Legendborn had the potential to be a complete disaster. It is an American college kids story, with a Black lead. Given how badly Americans often do British history, I was nervous. I might not have tried it at all had it not been for an enthusiastic recommendation from Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz on Our Opinions are Correct. Charlie Jane and Annalee are pretty good judges of fiction, and I am here to tell you that they were not wrong.

The story begins with two high school girls, Brianna and Alice, applying for something called Early College, which apparently means going to university early. I don’t know much about American high schools, apart from the fact that they are supposed to be the worst days of your life, and that if you go to one you are liable to eaten by zombies, or werewolves, or vampires, or cannibal serial killers. I can see why people want to get out of going to them. Early College may be something that Tracy Deonn made up, and I’m not quite sure why it was necessary to the plot for Bree and Alice to go to college younger than everyone else, but there we are.

By way of introduction, Alice is Asian-American and has the sort of parents who get you up at 6:00am on Sunday morning and put you through hours of extra homework because you are going to succeed in life or die trying. Bree is naturally clever and hasn’t had to study for an exam in her life. Also her mom went to the same college, which counts for a lot just as it would in the UK. They both get in easily.

While Alice’s parents are intensely proud of their daughter, Bree’s mom is furious. And then, before mother and daughter can make up, mom gets fridged. To be precise, Bree’s mother dies in a car accident. Bree and her father come to pay their respects at the hospital, and Bree becomes convinced that the police officer who tells them about the accident has somehow messed with her mind to cover something up.

There is a lot of mom-fridging in this book. Deonn explains why in an afterword. I totally understand. Legendborn is, in many ways, a book about grief and how one deals with it.

I don’t know much about American universities either, except that some people get paid absurd sums of money for playing sport, and everyone else joins secret societies with silly names and bizarre, humiliating initiation rituals. And yes, Legendborn did remind me a bit of Waking the Moon, which got it off to an excellent start.

In their first week in college, Bree and Alice get involved with some fairly wild kids and attend an illegal party in a local park. They get caught and put on report. Alice immediately buries herself in her work, but Bree, ever the rebel, does her best to avoid the older student that she has been assigned as a mentor. When he finally catches up with her, she discovers that he’s a tall, handsome and really rather cool white boy. Maybe being on report won’t be so bad after all.

Except that this Nick Davis is a member of a secret society called The Round Table, and they have some very odd rituals indeed. They even claim that their traditions date all the way back to 6th Century Wales, with bloodlines to match.

And that they fight demons.

All of this happens in the first couple of chapters, so the first thing you should know about Legendborn is that it is incredibly fast-paced. I really didn’t want to put it down, and tore through the book in a very small number of days.

From now on the main question is how well Deonn will adapt the Arthur mythos to modern day America. There are plenty of potential pitfalls. I’m pleased to say that she very clearly loves the source material (and blames Susan Cooper for this). Deonn does far better with the Matter of Prydain than any number of red-haired, white American women who parade their “Celtic” heritage.

The Charybdis to this Scylla is the risk of betraying her own people. The Arthurian legends are, after all, the property of the colonisers. To have Bree simply embrace them would be to ignore much of what has happened in world politics in the 15 centuries or so since Arthur’s supposed reign.

Deonn gets around this by rooting her story firmly in modern American politics. The young students who join the Round Table are mostly typical of their generation. Several are gay and lesbian, one is non-binary, and a couple are passing white. They don’t see why Nick hooking up with a young Black girl should be a problem. Their parents, on the other hand, and bearing in mind that the story is set in North Carolina, have probably voted Rethuglican with pride all their lives, including in the most recent election, and would happily pledge their swords to King Donald. The generational divide gives Bree a means of embracing the myth, without embracing the legacy.

There is, of course, also the question of how Bree fits into a very ancestry-driven society. Deonn finds a brilliant solution to this.

I have two other things that I’d like to mention that I particularly enjoyed. The first is that Deonn took the time to understand the Welsh language, including how it is pronounced. The other is that her characters are charming: they seem like a great bunch of kids that I’d love to hang out with were I not old enough to be their grandmother.

As is the way of things, in Arthuriana more than most, there will be sequels. It looks like there will be a properly Arthurian love triangle. I’m certainly looking forward to more books. But please don’t let the partial nature of the story stop you from putting this book on your Lodestar ballot. It is very much worth it. (Well, unless you hate Arthuriana, of course, in which case broadswords at dawn.)

book cover
Title: Legendborn
By: Tracy Deonn
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Purchase links:
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The Four Profound Weaves

The Four Profound WeavesI’m always a little nervous approaching books centring trans characters that everyone else raves about. Of course I shouldn’t have been worried about RB Lemberg. They know what they are doing. But I was pleasantly surprised that there was so much more to The Four Profound Weaves than the trans elements.

One of the first things that strikes you about the book is that the two main protagonists, as well as both being trans, are both in their sixties. This in itself is rare enough but, as Gary Wolfe notes in his review for Locus, these are not the elderly but sprightly wizards who populate much of fantasy fiction, they are people who feel their age. Indeed, one of them, Uiziya, is ready to die.

More on that later, but first we need to understand a little of the world that Lemberg calls the Birdverse.

The action begins among the Surun’ people who live in a great desert. For the Surun’, changing gender is a routine business. They are also very comfortable with people being what they call “in-betweens”, and we would term “non-binary”. The Surun’ are also master weavers, and they practice the titular four profound weaves. The first of these, the weave of wind, is also the weave of change. Gender transition is accomplished with the aid of a magic carpet created using the wind weave.

The next weave in the sequence is the weave of sand, which is the weave of wanderlust. Uiziya has mastered this weave and created a flying carpet, a useful thing to have for elderly adventurers. Beyond that is the weave of song, which is the weave of hope. Uiziya seems to have missed that, because as the story starts she is sitting alone in her tent, hoping for the return of her aunt, Benesret, who can teach her the secret of the fourth weave, the weave of bones, the weave of death. Benesret has mastered this weave, and has been banished by the tribe for their safety. There seems to be no hope that Uiziya will gain what she seeks.

In the same tent village lives a man who will have multiple names, but I shall call him nen-sasaïr as that is the name he has for most of the book. He is of the Khana people who live in a ghetto in the city of Iyar. Iyar society is structed along gender lines, transition is frowned upon, and women are not allowed to practice magic. The Khana are worse. Their society is full segregated, and the men live in a walled compound inside the ghetto, forbidden to interact with the outside world. Khana women have more freedom to travel, and this eventually allowed nen-sasaïr to live among the Surun’ and become the man he is now.

Uiziya, as is the Surun’ custom, transitioned in childhood and has mostly forgotten what it was like to live as a boy. Nen-sasaïr, on the other hand, is wracked with doubt and guilt, feeling himself an outsider everywhere. Later in the story he finally returns to Iyar and an elderly woman called Sulikhah gives him a chance to enter the Khana male compound, but to do so would mean he had to abandon Uiziya, who is wounded.

I snatched my hand away from the lock.
“The lock recognized you as a man, I saw. But you could not solve it?” asked Sulikhah.
“No, no, it was easy. I solved it. I just did not turn it all the way.” I took a breath. “But I need to go back. I cannot leave my companion, for she is sick and helpless.”
Sulikhah looked at me, her eyes shrouded. “And this is the nature of women. Always given too much to those in our care.”
“I am not a woman.”
She shrugged. “You were brought up to be one. These things are hard to erase, much as you change otherwise.”
This is not the nature of women, but rather the nature of all people who care. Uiziya had told me this once. “You can choose to care or not, and that is what people do.”

As I said, Lemberg understands the trans condition very well.

However, I get ahead of myself. There is another character that we must meet, our antagonist. The Ruler of Iyar, also known as The Collector, is a tyrannical despot whose goals in life include collecting powerful magical artefacts. Forty years ago he tricked nen-sasaïr into brining him Benesret’s finest work, her carpet of hope. Naturally that has not satisfied him. But he has reason for all this collecting. He sees himself as a protector of the world.

“Change is the world’s greatest danger. Around the world you and others, old woman, chafe at my rule, forever desiring a change, yet change destroys all. If not for that power of change, we would not need to die. But you people do not understand. You rebel, you wander from place to place, you chafe at my rule, thinking that something else, somewhere else, would be better. It isn’t. But I save you.”

At this point I remind you that the first of the four profound weaves is the weave of wind, which means change, and the Surun’ use that weave very specifically for gender transition. There is a reason why conservatives of all stripes hate trans people, because the change that we effect strikes deep at their ideas of the way the world should be, and they cannot countenance that.

I should note also that Lemberg is first and foremost a poet. They are, Wolfe thinks, the only person to be on the Crawford Award shortlist with a book of poetry. Now poetry isn’t really my thing, but prose written by people who are poets very much is. The Four Profound Weaves is a wonderfully lyrical book. It also has some marvellous fantasy imagery. I particularly loved the Ruler’s birdcage throne, and the Torturer’s iron rod.

On the subject of change, some of you may remember that argument from elsewhere:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
is Change.

Earthseed: The Books of the Living

That’s from Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which makes very similar points. Lemberg adds the fact that without hope there cannot be change.

“Hope will never be silent” – Harvey Milk

“The dawn is never far away” – RB Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves

As for the weave of death, that too has a role to play. Uiziya explains:

To weave from death, you had to listen to the dead. To know them deeply, to attend to what had been silenced, to care enough to help the dead speak again through every thread that made up the great work.

Which is why I spend so much time working on queer history.

The quality of the novellas published in 2020 is amazing. This book is right up there with the best of them.

book cover
Title: The Four Profound Weaves
By: RB Lemberg
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
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Queen of the Conquered

Among many remarkable things that happened in 2020, the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel was won by a YA book written by a non-binary person. That book was Queen of the Conquered, by Kacen Callender. It is a book I have been meaning to get to for some time, and it is indeed excellent. Callender looks like they will have a fine career ahead of them. I’d like you to take that as a given, dear reader, because I’m going to be slightly critical and I don’t want you to think that I didn’t like the book.

First up, I do sometimes despair of the publishing industry. Queen of the Conquered is marketed as YA. In the prologue there is a brutal massacre of a wealthy family and their servants, not to mention guests at a party they are throwing. The only survivors are a young girl who grows up to be our central character, Sigourney Rose, and her maid, Marieke. In the first chapter Sigourney, now a young woman with her own domain to rule, thinks about how much fun it is to have sex with her bodyguard. There’s little coming of age tale here, and most of what there is happens in backstory.

Sometimes I think that the only thing that distinguishes YA from the rest of the market is that YA editors are allowed much more free rein in the nature of the books that they commission. The suits and bean counters don’t care what gets published as YA because it is “for children”.

The setting for Queen of the Conquered is a fantasy version of the Caribbean which appears to have been colonised by something like the Danish or Dutch. Each island is ruled by a noble family, and each has an agricultural economy dependent on slavery. For complex historical reasons, one island is ruled by a Black family, the Roses. This, of course, is the reason for the massacre. But now Sigourney is back. She has already manipulated her way into being adopted as heir by one of the other white families, and has become fiancée to the heir of another. Now her ambition is to persuade the childless King to make her his heir.

How can she do this? Well, there is magic. Not many people have it, but Sigourney happens to have a very useful power. She can read and manipulate the minds of others. That’s how she has got where she is this far. The royalty thing will be a bit harder.

Every year the King invites the other families to stay with him on his island during Storm Season. This year he has promised to name an heir. Each of the nobles has a magical power of some sort, and many of them want the crown. So the book in effect becomes a country house murder mystery in which Sigourney has to find a way to defeat the powers of her rivals, and work out who is killing them off, in order to achieve her objective.

However, Queen of the Conquered is much more than that. It is a deep meditation on questions of privilege. Sigourney might be Black, but she also owns slaves. She has no hesitation in condemning them to death if they misbehave. She likes to think that she wants to become Queen in order to free her people, but they have no faith in her willingness to do so.

Without getting too spoilery, Callender has an excellent solution to this dilemma, but they don’t quite carry it off. For a country house murder mystery with a twist ending to work, the reader has to believe that at least one of the obvious suspects must be the murderer. This is where Queen of the Conquered falls down for me. It isn’t a serious fault, and if I hadn’t read as many novels as I have then I might not even have noticed it. Thankfully Callender looks to have a long and very successful career ahead of them. I’m sure they’ll get better at their craft. And I’m looking forward to the sequel to this book.

book cover
Title: Queen of the Conquered
By: Kacen Callender
Publisher: Orbit
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Seven of Infinities

Seven of InfinitiesOne of the things I enjoy most about reviewing books is seeing writers grow and blossom as their career develops. I have always enjoyed Aliette de Bodard’s work, but I have also seen her craft improve, year by year. As far as I’m concerned, Seven of Infinities is her best work to date.

I must admit that I had expected – perhaps even wanted – this novella to be a sequel to The Tea Master and the Detective, which I had very much enjoyed. It is not. Instead it is de Bodard revisiting the idea, and making an even better job of it. So once again we have a detective team involving a starship and a human woman. In this case our starship is Wild Orchid in the Sunless Woods, a mindship with a shady past who is finding retirement a little too boring for her tastes. Her plucky human companion is Vân, a poor scholar just about surviving as a teacher to the children of reach folks thanks to an artificial ancestor implant that she created when a student.

An artificial what? Here I must explain that this story is set in de Bodard’s Xuya universe, which is essentially Vietnamese empire in space. De Bodard has gone to a great deal of effort to make this a real Vietnamese culture, albeit one subtly adapted for a space opera setting. For Western readers, that makes aspects of the worldbuilding seem quite alien. And anyone who is upset by that has a very odd idea of what science fiction is all about.

Anyway, Vietnamese culture means reverence for one’s ancestors, and what better way to revere them than to upload their minds into silicon so that they can keep on advising you after their death? It sounds pretty horrific to me, but then I didn’t grow up in Vietnamese culture. The point is, however, that this has to be a real ancestor, not some AI cobbled together by an incredibly brilliant and desperately poor student. Faking an ancestor would be something like faking that you were descended from a Norman baron with a hereditary title, or for Australians faking that you had an ancestor who was transported from England for some minor crime.

So, the plot. One day Vân’s student receives a mysterious visitor. Uyên, the student, goes to make a pot of tea, and when she returns the visitor is dead. In another room, Vân is chatting with her friend, Sunless Woods, whom she knows through a poetry club. The pair answer Uyên’s cry for help, and the investigation begins. Through her underworld contacts, Sunless Woods soon realises that the dead woman was a criminal on a hunt for a missing treasure, but she doesn’t want her cute and innocent human friend caught up in all this nefarious activity. Meanwhile Vân is terrified of any publicity and involvement with the authorities that might expose her scandalous secret. When the criminals turn out to have a connection to some of Vân’s friends from her student days, things get very awkward indeed.

There are two things I love about this book. The first is the characters. Works of fiction often rely heavily on characters doing stupid things, and not talking to each other. Often when reading such works you end up shaking your head at how daft everyone has been. In Seven of Infinites de Bodard crafts her two principle characters so beautifully that there is never any doubt that they would do the daft things that they do. It is absolutely in their nature to do them.

The other thing is that the entire plot is deeply rooted in the nature of the Xuya universe. The twist ending, which is quite brilliant, would not work in a Western setting. In fact it would probably be laughable. But in Xuya it makes perfect sense and is exactly the right thing to have happened. That de Bodard has presented her world in such a way that we foreign interlopers understand that, and accept it, is a magnificent achievement.

book cover
Title: Seven of Infinities
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Subterranean Press
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Remote Control

Lagoon is my favourite book by Nnedi Okorafor, so I was excited to find that her latest work is also set in Africa. Remote Control isn’t nearly as funny, but it is fascinating all the same.

The story concerns a young Muslim girl called Fatima who lives in a small town in Ghana. One day she witnesses a meteor storm, and soon after she finds a box containing a seed hidden beneath a tree. The tree appears to give the box to her. Previously Fatima had been a sickly child, but the box appears to do wonders for her health. Then one day a wealthy politician, a man with golden shoes, comes to visit her family. Fatima’s father sells him the box and he takes it away. Soon after, Fatima is almost run down in a traffic accident. Terrified, she lashes out with her mind. When she wakes up, everyone in the town is dead.

Distraught, Fatima takes to wandering the countryside, avoiding people as she learns to control the abilities her panic has unleashed. She takes the name of Sankofa, which is clearly significant. It is a word in the language of the Akan people of Ghana and literally it means “go back and get it”. More significantly it is associated with a proverb that goes something like, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The English version of that is, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sankofa, at least as much as I can learn from the internet, is a concept popular amongst the Ghanaian diaspora which encourages learning about their history. There’s a lot to learn. The Akan people were responsible for two of the great empires of Africa. The Ghana Empire dominated much of central west Africa for several hundred years in the first millennium CE. The Ashanti Empire controlled what is now modern Ghana from the 18th Century onwards and was only finally subdued by the British, after five wars, in 1902.

It isn’t entirely clear to me why Okorafor has chosen this piece of symbolism for the story, because the Sankofa of the story is very much a science fiction presence. There are fantasy-like elements to the story. She has a fox companion called Movenpick who follows her around and seems impervious to her powers. If you are wondering why he’s named after a Swiss brand of luxury ice cream, it is apparently because the ice cream company was bought up by Accor Hotels, and they have used the name for a luxury hotel chain, which is where Sankofa gets the name. But mostly this is a science fiction story.

The setting is the near future. We can tell that from the fact that Sankofa arrives in a place called Robotown that has a giant, AI-controlled robot as its police force. There Sankofa is befriended by a woman called Alhaja who has a business selling “jelli tellis” – TV sets that come in the form of a transparent film.

So Remote Control is about the past of Africa, but also about its future, and the deeply divided society that results from vast wealth pouring into the country from overseas. The text seems particularly dismissive of people who have acquired wealth and qualifications in America and have come home to lord it over those who have never left.

None of this tells us why the book is called Remote Control. That I will have to leave you to find out for yourselves and Okorafor slowly unravels the mystery of what happened to Fatima as a child. There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I’m not sure that I have understood it all yet, but that’s the mark of an excellent book.

book cover
Title: Remote Control
By: Nnedi Okorfor
Publisher: Tor.com
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SHIELD – Season Seven

SHIELD – Season SevenIt was announced in advance that this would be the last season of Agents of SHIELD. Maybe the creative team wanted to try new things. Maybe there are so many new Marvel TV series lined up that they needed to re-deploy staff. Or maybe they had run out of ideas for bringing Phil Coulson back from the dead.

Anyway, this season revolves around a plot by the Chromicoms to take over Earth, their own world having been destroyed in Season Six. Knowing that SHIELD is a formidable enemy, they elect to go back in time to prevent the organisation from ever being formed. Fitz and Simmons, with the help of Enoch the Chronicom, devise a counter strategy. But Sibyl, the Chronicom leader, is able to read the timestream, so their plan has to be heavily disguised. This involves Fitz being hidden away from Sibyl’s gaze, and Simmons having parts of her memory excised.

The bulk of the series involves the team chasing the Chronicoms through time. They start in 1931 and gradually move forward, stopping off at key moments in SHIELD and Earth history. That’s a brilliant idea for a farewell season, because it provides opportunities for vast amounts of nostalgia.

The creative team has run with the idea, in that the opening credits for each episode are designed to fit in with a spy thriller from the period in question. And the wardrobe department gets to go to town on silly, 20th Century fashions.

So yes, it is fan service. But unlike, say, The Mandalorian, there is a real TV series underpinning everything. With six seasons behind them, all of the characters have their own story arcs, and these get built on during the season. I’ve already covered Fitz and Simmons. Mac and Yoyo have their relationship to rebuild. May suffers consequences from her sort-of-death at the end of season six, and Yoyo also has to recover from injuries received. Daisy has more family drama, and Deke is trying to find a role for himself far in his past.

Then there is Coulson. It wouldn’t be SHIELD without him. Given the bad guys in the season, they bring him back in a Chronicom body. That means he’s an un-aging android with super strength. He even understands science. Not bad for an old guy. Of course being in silicon can be a problem when you are back in pre-internet days. I loved the episode where Coulson spent the entire time as [REDACTED].

The bit where Simmons gets to cosplay Peggy Carter, and Dan Sousa says her accent is terrible, is also brilliant.

The season gets to revisit a number of key events from previous seasons as the team travels through time. Eventually, however, they must confront the Chronicoms. The final episode seemed a little rushed. Much of the detail of the plan is explained very quickly. It was almost as if someone had decided the plot bit had to be cut short in order to make room for a soppy “what happened next” segment to round everything off. But it was worth it, because after seven years you do care about the characters and want them to have a chance at happiness.

Thank you, Agents of SHIELD. That was a wild ride and times, but you did a great job.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season Three

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season OneI think that Discovery may have found its feet at last. I have enjoyed the previous two seasons, but the idea of setting it prior to The Original Series was wildly risky and the Young Spock thing didn’t work as well as they had hoped it would. As part of Star Trek, the series didn’t make much sense. Sending Burnham and the crew into the 32nd Century gives them freedom to tell new stories without being too much beholden to What Has Gone Before.

Of course, there were still lose ends to tidy up. It became clear that the scriptwriters did not know how to make good use of Empress Georgiou, so they had to concoct a means of shuffling her offstage without causing too much upset to fans. Much as I love Michelle Yeoh, and Captain Killy, I hope that’s the last we shall see of the Mirror Universe. Georgiou will apparently be a major feature of the forthcoming Section 31 series, and that will be a much better use of the character. But if that series wants to be taken seriously as Star Trek Noir it will need to be less silly and more morally grey than a Mirror Universe story.

A new recurring character for this series is Cleveland Booker, an “independent trader” who befriends Burnham when she arrives in the 32nd Century some months ahead of Discovery. Book, as he’s known, provides the essential service of being a native guide to the new world in which the Discovery crew find themselves. He also provides a new love interest for Burnham, is an environmental activist on the side, and has a beautiful pet cat, Grudge. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s played by David Ajala (swoon). That’s a win all around.

That leaves us with the overarching theme of the current series: The Burn. This was a galaxy-wide event that caused the dilithium cores of starships everywhere to explode with massive loss of life and a significant reduction in interstellar travel. The Federation is a desperate fraction of its former self, trying to hang on to shreds of authority in a galaxy increasingly given over to every-planet-for-itself. The Discovery, with its unique spore drive, is clearly a significant asset.

The main thrusts of the plot have therefore been to re-integrate Discovery into the Federation, and to find out what caused The Burn. The former is complicated by Michael Burnham’s conviction that she always knows better than her superior officers, and by the presence of Book who is very much not a Starfleet officer. Inevitably, because this is a Star Trek tradition, we have an admiral as a potential adversary. I was never quite convinced by Charles Vance as he seemed to have a somewhat different character in each episode, but we got there in the end. I particularly liked his explanation to the main series villain, Osyraa, that you can’t forge a peace unless evil actions have consequences. That was remarkably perceptive of the scriptwriters.

The three-part season finale also provided an explanation for The Burn, and while it depended on more Star Trek hand-wavy physics, it was a remarkably imaginative move. It looks like it also paves the way for retirement for Captain Saru. The finale showed how hard it is for actors to express emotion in all that Kelpien make-up, and I suspect that Doug Jones may have asked for the opportunity to appear as Saru without it for his swansong.

Like in His Dark Materials, the setting for that season finale owed a lot to Piranesi. I’m pleased to see that so many people in the TV business are reading Suzanna Clarke (because I don’t think they discovered an obscure Italian artist by accident).

All of which leaves series 4 clear to go back to simple stories of space exploration and the Federation acting as the kindly galactic police. That’s very traditional Star Trek.

The other thing I need to mention is the queer core of the cast. The gay couple of Stamets and Culber have been joined by the lesbian engineer, Jett Reno, and by Adira Tal, a human Trill host who is non-binary, and their transmasculine lover and predecessor as host, Gray, who is not quite as dead as a former host ought to be. This group forms a charming queer community in engineering and medical. In addition, the actors playing Adira and Gray are themselves non-binary and transmasculine. This is a huge leap forward for trans representation in television. I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of using Trill to introduce trans characters, because it provides a non-human excuse for them being trans rather than it being a simple fact. However, thus far the series has managed to not make any awful missteps. The way that Stamets and Culber have adopted Adira and Gray is really quite charming.

As I understand it, one of Gene Roddenberry’s objectives for Star Trek was that it would provide a beacon of hope for a better future, one in which all of mankind would work together to explore the galaxy. Season #3 of Discovery looks to have put the show in exactly the position that it needs to be able to fulfil that role for a modern audience.

His Dark Materials – Season Two

His Dark Materials – Season #2I saved the second season of His Dark Materials to watch over the holiday period and am glad I did. I would have got very itchy having to wait a week for each new episode. I’m pleased to say that it continues to hold my attention.

As with the first season, some of the casting is superb. Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda continue to do great jobs, and Simone Kirby makes a great addition as Mary Malone. I also loved the set dressing for Cittàgazze. There is a definite air of Piranesi influence about those staircases.

Plot-wise, on the other hand, it is very much a middle book of the series. There is a great deal of wandering around aimlessly in the mountains near Cittàgazze in the final couple of episodes and you get the impression that time runs differently for different groups of characters. The only really important development is that Will finds the Knife and learns how to use it.

When I wrote my review of season #1 I wondered how audiences would react when the books descend into theological ranting, which they inevitably must. This season is mostly free of this, but the final couple of episodes set things up for the war between Lord Asriel and The Authority. Lyra is revealed to be the new Eve, and Mrs Coulter vows to avert The Fall. It is all Deeply Ominous.

Possibly the most interesting scene in the entire season is the one in which the angels start talking to Mary through her computers. She asks them why they have been helping humans evolve, and their answer is, “Revenge!” Given that Mary is an ex-nun, that must come as a bit of a shock, but she never revisits the question, and happily accepts a commission from the angels later in the series.

Mary uses the I Ching to communicate with Dust, but watching her walk wide-eyed through the world of Cittàgazze, protected from the spectres by angels, though she doesn’t know that, I can’t help thinking of the Fool card from the Tarot. I should probably look to see if there is a full deck of Major Arcana in the cast list.

There was also a scene from episode 5 that stuck with me. Carlo Boreal has brought Mrs Coulter to Will’s Oxford (i.e. our world) and is explaining to her how this new world works. He notes that the government there is even more corrupt than the Magisterium. I can’t remember if he says that in the books, but it works magnificently well for the UK right now.

Thankfully season #3 has been greenlit, so we should get to see the end of the story. I hope that the TV scriptwriters manage to do as well as Pullman did with the book and make it a powerful piece of fiction. Otherwise we’ll be left with another old man from Oxford lecturing us about religion.

Star Trek: Lower Decks – Season One

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season OneThose of you in the USA will already have had plenty of time to enjoy this animated Star Trek spinoff. For us in the UK it has only just arrived, being available on Amazon Prime. Having heard a lot of hype about the series, I binged on it immediately.

Lower Decks is set after the Next Generation era, because Will Ryker has his own ship. But he and Deanna Troi only turn up in the final episode. The series is mainly about the USS Cerritos, “one of Starfleet’s least important ships”. She is named after a small town in the Los Angeles area, and the captain’s office has a California flag on the wall. Someone was having a bit of regional rebellion there.

The Cerritos is commanded by Captain Carol Freeman, who is very competent but seems to be suffering from the strain of being the first Black woman to captain a starship in a TV series. (Michael Burnham is now captain of the Discovery, but she wasn’t when Lower Decks first aired.)

The ship has the usual complement of quirky bridge characters. The first officer, Jack Ransom, is a bit of a Kirk wannabe, only happy when he’s chatting up girls (badly) or punching aliens. Shaxs, the Bajoran head of Security, is always keen to start a fight, and the ship’s doctor is a grumpy lady feline called T’Ana.

The bridge crew, however, are not the stars of the show. That honour goes to a team of ensigns, the sort of people who have to do the grunt work to make the bridge crew look good. Chief among them is Beckett Mariner. She graduated top of her class from Starfleet Academy and was expected to be a high flyer, but she has a strong anti-authoritarian streak that has made her persona non grata on most ships. The only reason that she is on the Cerritos is that Captain Freeman is her mother. But for obvious reasons that has to be kept top secret.

Presumably all this is supposed to be playing off the characters of Michael Burham and Philippa Georgiou. Though there’s no way that Georgiou would have put up with Mariner’s nonsense.

Mariner’s best friend is Ensign Brad Boimler, a nerdy white boy with an obsessive devotion to Starfleet regulations and a deep and pathetic desire for promotion. Naturally he and Mariner are at odds most of the time. They are joined by two other ensigns: Sam Rutherford, an engineer with a new and sometimes malfunctioning cyborg implant; and D’Vana Tendi, an Orion medic who can’t stop going SQUEEEE! at the mere thought of having made it into Starfleet.

The basic plot of each episode is that the Cerritos gets into trouble in some typically Star Trek way, but is rescued thanks to Mariner’s extreme competence and the enthusiastic bumbling of her friends. Credit for their work tends to go to members of the bridge crew. Sooner or later, however, the simmering conflict between Mariner and her mother must come to a head. And secrets cannot be kept forever.

Most of the point of the series is to poke fun at standard Star Trek tropes. It does this very well. We can all have a wry smile when someone says, “if this was an important mission they would have sent the Enterprise.” The quality of their technobabble is superb. But it has also created a fun bunch of dysfunctional but likeable characters in Mariner and her friends. I really enjoyed the series. And it seems like there will be a second season. I hope us UK viewers don’t have to wait so long for that one.

Editorial – January 2021

Welcome to the New Year, same as the old year but with an added attempted right wing coup in the USA. We are living in interesting times, alright.

Not that I have too much time to worry. February is LGBT History Month in the UK and I have a whole heap of speaking engagements lined up. This is a good time to remind you that there will be no issue of Salon Futura in February because I will be way too busy. We’ll be back in March.

I note also that Hugo Nominations are now open. I very much hope that we get more interest in the fanzine category this year. You don’t have to vote for Salon Futura, there are plenty of other great candidates being profiled in Cora Buhlert’s Fanzine Spotlight project.

I was thinking of commenting on the utter mess that DisCon III made of trying to do something about the sheer volume of finalists, but I don’t have time and they seem to have fixed the problem. While it is great that Nicholas Whyte, Kevin and a bunch of other old-timers have come to the rescue, it is a tragedy that a bunch of young fans who wanted to get involved in running WSFS functions were forced out before the convention got a grip on things. The less said about Colette Fozzard’s “It’s all about poor, pitiful me” flounce in File 770 the better.

Issue #26

This is the December 2020 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


Cover: Crow in Winter

Crow in WinterGiven that this issue covers the winter holiday period in the Northern Hemisphere, I figured I should have something suitably wintry and fantastical for the cover. This is another image from pixabay and is by Stefan Keller. It doesn’t seem to have a proper title. I just wanted the crow, but there is a lot more to the picture than that.


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