Blackthorn Winter

Comet Weather is one of my absolute favourite books of 2020, so when I discovered that NewCon Press was making the sequel available early I jumped at the opportunity to get hold of a copy. Officially the book isn’t out until next spring, but as it is set around the Christmas / New Year period, and he had copies available, Ian Whates decided to put it on sale.

Blackthorn Winter once again features the four Fallow sisters: Bee, Serena, Stella and Luna. Serena, you may remember, is a successful fashion designer. She’s also the toast of the tabloids, having just dumped rock star Ben Amberley for top Shakespearean actor, Ward Garner. As the story opens, someone breaks into Serena’s London home and trashes all the clothes she had made for her latest collection. That someone probably isn’t human.

As a popular DJ, Stella is always busy over New Year. This time she’s been booked for a mysterious gig, the location of which is being kept secret. She assumes it is some sort of rave. Then she gets a warning from a talking magpie.

Meanwhile Bee is back at the family home in Somerset. She’s hoping that the family will all get together for Christmas. She’s fairly confident about her sisters, but their mother has gone off who knows where again with only a vague promise to be home for the holidays. Then Bee finds a teenage girl sheltering in the local church yard. She’s probably a run-away, but she doesn’t speak English, and her skin is green.

Luna is still pregnant, so she and Sam are not planning to go very far. Unfortunately the world has other ideas. If she’s not traveling physically, well she’ll just get pushed off to some other world, or other time. On one of these trips she narrowly escapes something that looks rather like the Wild Hunt. And one of the hunters appears to be her mother.

As you can see, there is plenty of plot. And I haven’t even mentioned that Ben has gone missing, or that a hot-shot financier wants to invest in Serena’s business, or that Stella makes a new friend with a passion for feeding stray cats.

Suffice it to say that Blackthorn Winter does not disappoint. There are some lovely real-world touches in it too. The church of All Hallows by the Tower is a real place and does have Roman remains in the crypt. The story of the Green Children of Woolpit is a real folk tale. And there’s other stuff too, which I can’t talk about. The ancient history bits I could see coming a mile off, because I am that sort of person. The more recent historical elements blindsided me completely, but would not have done so if I had read Williams’ history of paganism first.

I understand that there will be two more books in the series. I am very much looking forward to them. I’m also hoping to see Williams getting some proper recognition at last. Gary Wolfe reviewed Comet Weather, which should help, but the award-voting public is very fickle.

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Title: Blackthorn Winter
By: Liz Williams
Publisher: NewCon Press
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The Once and Future Witches

This one shouldn’t need any introduction. Alix Harrow’s follow-up to The Ten Thousand Doors of January has already been praised to the skies by many other critics. I can see why too. The Once and Future Witches is an engaging tale that mixes feminism, fairy tales and American history in an imaginative way. I expect to see this book on some award shortlists next year.

The book centres on the three Eastwood sisters: Bella, Agnes and June. They have survived an abusive father, though this has cost them their trust in each other. Part of the plot of the book revolves around how they learn to be sisters again.

The girls live in an alternate version of our world in which many famous figures from the past are gender-flipped, and in which magic works. Witches are greatly feared, at least by men. The city of Old Salem was burned to the ground because of its witchery. The Eastwood girls live in New Salem, the City Without Sin, that has risen to replace the old. But “without sin” seems to mean “women do what they are told by men”. Even some of the most law-abiding Christian ladies don’t see how being without sin means that they should be deprived of the vote. Thus women have become unhappy with their lot. Some, inevitably, will turn to witchcraft, and this in turn brings out the White Feminist tendency.

“I’m afraid you have entirely misunderstood our position. The Association has battled for decades to afford women the same respect and legal rights enjoyed by men. It is a battle we are losing; the American public still sees women as housewives at best and witches at worst. We may be either beloved or burned, but never trusted with any degree of power. […] I don’t know who was responsible for the abnormality at St. George’s, but I would turn her in myself before I let such activities destroy everything we’ve worked for.”

Bella is the oldest of the three. She’s a librarian by profession, unmarried and seemingly unmarriable. She appears old before her time. Agnes has work in a mill, which pays badly and is dangerous but is better than being on the street. She is pregnant, from a failed love affair, and considering abortion, which is of course illegal. June is the youngest. She’s new in town, freshly escaped from their father, thanks to his untimely death. She’s wild and passionate, though about feminism, not about men. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Researching fairy tales in the library (she loves the work of the Sisters Grimm), Bella chances upon what appears to be a fragment of a spell to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon, the witching tradition for which Old Salem was burned. Avalon. Once and Future. It is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll forgive Harrow.

Meanwhile, all is not well in New Salem. A weaselly councilman called Gideon Hill is making a run for mayor. The basis of his campaign is that the city is in danger of falling into sin. I mean, suffragism, whatever next? Mr Hill, however, is not what he seems. There is something odd about his shadow.

While the core of the book is its feminist message, it makes a decent attempt to be intersectional. Bella strikes up a friendship with Miss Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist from the newspaper that caters to the city’s Black population. Agnes becomes friendly with Mr. August Lee, a champion of workers’ rights and a former comrade of the legendary Eugene Debs.

I have a sneaking suspicion that some Black critics may be less enthusiastic about the book. Cleo Quinn quickly becomes the calm, sensible heart of the narrative. The Eastwood girls all have their own personal demons to deal with before they can confront the real threat. They are also hopelessly naïve. Cleo and her community have had decades of experience of fighting white supremacy and are much better at the job. And yet Cleo is not the hero of the narrative. That honour goes to the white girls.

I’m also a little uneasy about some of the engine of the plot. In a truly great novel, plot twists seem inevitable as the narrative unfolds. In this book they seemed mostly sprung on us out of the blue in order to keep the narrative moving forward. I don’t think it detracts too much from the book, but if you have read as much as I have then it is something you tend to notice.

From my point of view, however, the main problem I had with the novel, which is not a bad thing, is that it was too personal. It is a story of a group of women struggling against seemingly overwhelming odds. The political system is stacked against them. Potential allies turn on them for fear of losing respectability, while others simply refuse to believe that a system that works fairly for them might not work fairly for others. Eventually a populist politician welds all of this into a mob, determined to seek and out and destroy those that he deems Other.

And of course I have no tradition of magic to fall back on.

“This fight.” […] “To just—live, to be—is one that I was signed up for before I was even born. I don’t get to walk away.”

Thanks Alix. I can’t offer bow or axe, or indeed spells, but you have my pen.

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Title: The Once and Future Witches
By: Alix E Harrow
Publisher: Orbit
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When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

I loved The Empress of Salt and Fortune so much that on finishing it I immediately put Nghi Vo’s next book on pre-order. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is another book about the monk Chih from the Singing Hills monastery. It takes a very different approach to the first book, but is no less loveable.

As you may recall, Chih and their colleagues are experts in collecting oral histories and folktales. The Empress of Salt and Fortune was a complex tale of political intrigue, told by someone who witnessed the events first-hand. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a more simple folk tale, presumably based on real events, but whose details are disputed depending on who is telling the tale. The new book also sees Chih without their faithful companion, the talking hoopoe, Almost Brilliant. She’s busy with a clutch of eggs and is unable to accompany Chih on this trip. I miss her snark, but it is just as well that she’s not there because her mouth would have got her eaten.

Chih is traveling in a mountainous region to the south of Anh, so think the Himalayas. Because travel is difficult, they have teamed up with a young woman who is part of the mammoth-riding corps. Piluk is only a small mammoth, nothing like the huge war beasts of the imperial army, but she’s more than useful in snowy, mountainous terrain, and perfect for Si-yu and Chih.

Or at least she would be in normal circumstances. Approaching the way station where they expect to spend the night, Piluk and her passengers are ambushed by three tigers. Tigers, of course, do not hunt in packs. Therefore these must be were tigers. Piluk gets the party to safety, but the tigers lay siege to them and Chih realises that their only hope is to try to charm the tigers with a story.

Thus we learn of the story of Ho Thi Thao, mighty queen of were tigers, and her love for the human scholar, Dieu. Chih is well versed in the version of the tale told among humans, but they correctly guess that among were tigers the story is told very differently.

Something that this book has in common with its predecessor is the beauty of language. Here Vo is describing Dieu’s childhood:

So in the end, there was only Dieu left, living in a tiny house in Hue County, being raised by a series of diligent tutors and compassionate maids. There was a hawthorn tree in the front, a tiny garden in the back, and a wind from the north that seemed to blow as much good as bad. The house was rented, so she truly possessed only a few treasured books, a face that was long and oval like a grain of rice, a mouth that smiled rather too little, and a little jade chip that guaranteed the bearer entry to the imperial examinations.

What’s new is, of course, the tigers. They are delightfully cat-like: at times sleepy, at times playful, always deadly.

The main question for me is, which of these two novellas I should put on my Hugo ballot? Or should I just do both of them?

I don’t think any more Singing Hills books are immediately forthcoming, but Vo has sold a couple of novels to The first one, The Chosen and the Beautiful, will be out next year. It is set in 1920s America, and is described as a decolonisation of The Great Gatsby. That sounds really interesting.

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Title: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
By: Nghi Vo
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The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

I first reviewed Garth Nix back in 1996 after Sabriel won the Aurealis award for Best Fantasy Novel in both the Children and Adult categories. It quickly became clear that Nix did not really need me, and I would be better off reviewing those Aussie writers who had not yet broken out to an international audience. Also he was writing a lot of books in the same world, and that makes it hard to keep up. However, he has remained a friend and I try to catch up with him when he’s in the UK. When I saw that he’d produced a new book in an entirely different world, with a rather intriguing title, I decided to give it a go.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London features a sort of magical secret service whose job it is to protect the realm from supernatural enemies. Their cover is that they run bookshops. Well, the HQ of UNCLE was under a barber’s shop, so why not? The booksellers of the left-handed persuasion tend to be the action-hero types. Those of the right-handed persuasion are more intellectually inclined.

Nix has chosen to set the book in the 1980s. Partly that’s because he spent some time in the UK during that period, but of course it also means he doesn’t have to worry about things like mobile phones. But this is not our 1980s. Following the election of Clementina Atlee’s government in 1945, Britain has become a world-leader in gender equality. This doesn’t have much impact on the book, but it does allow Nix to have a lot more women characters than he might have had. It also makes space for jokes such as a gender-swapped version of The Professionals. I’m assuming that it starred Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley.

I note in passing that one of the things I praised Sabriel for (and I had forgotten this because it is a long time since I read the book) is that it contains mention of childbirth and menstruation. That’s way ahead of its time.

However, back with the book, you’ll be wanting to know about the plot. The main character is Susan Arkshaw who has come up to London from the West Country (not Darkest Somerset, somewhere between Bath and Chippenham, so Corsham or Box I guess) to study at art school. While she’s in the big city she hopes to track down clues to the identity of her father, whom her mother Never Talks About.

Susan’s first point of contact, Frank Thingley, an old man whom she knows only from regular Christmas cards, turns out to be involved in organised crime. But then he gets murdered by a young man called Merlin who appears to be able to do magic.

Merlin is an interesting character. He is left-handed, but he’s no Jane Bond, or even Josephine Solo. He’s elegant, fashion-conscious, and prone to wearing dresses, which causes him to be mistaken for a woman on a regular basis. So more like Jason King without the ridiculous moustache. Paired with Susan’s resolutely dyke-ish dress sense, the two make an interesting couple. I’m not sure that Nix really knows what to do with this, and if there are sequels (of which hints have been dropped) I’d like to see him make more of Merlin’s non-binary nature.

Where was I? Oh yes, the plot. It soon turns out that powerful magical forces are stirring. Some of them have strong connections to the criminal underworld. There are bent coppers. (Of course there are, this is the 1980s.) And Susan’s having just passed her 18th birthday turns out to be intimately connected to all of this.

I have to say that if you want a fantasy story that is intimately rooted in the landscape and magical traditions of the British Isles then you should be reading Liz Williams, not Garth Nix. That’s not to say that the Nix book is bad, it is just that Williams knows the subject intimately whereas Nix has to work at it. But that aside, and Nix’s strange antipathy to stargazy pie and David Essex, this is a fun book written by someone with two and a half decades of experience of writing best selling fantasy. You can’t go far wrong with that.

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Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
By: Garth Nix
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
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The Doors of Sleep

Angry Robot sent me an eARC of this one because I loved Tim Pratt’s Axiom series so much. I guess I should start by saying that The Doors of Sleep is nothing like the Axiom series. It is, however, fascinating. Let me explain.

Our main protagonist is Zaxony Dyad Euphony Delatree — Zax to his friends — and he’s a pretty ordinary bloke. On his home world he’s a social worker; his job is conflict mediation. So basically he gets paid for persuading people to be nice to each other. Then one day he gains a mysterious power. Each time he goes to sleep he wakes up on a different world, possibly in a different universe.

When we first meet Zax he has already been travelling the multiverse for several years. He has visited hundreds of worlds. He’s had a lot of narrow escapes, but thanks to his having acquired something called a ‘linguistic virus’ he’s able to survive on most of the worlds he visits without having to flee in panic. Sleeping pills are an important part of his travel kit.

I’d like to pause a moment to think about practical issues of novel writing here. First of all, there is worldbuilding to be done. In the course of the novel Zax visits over 100 different worlds, all of which have to be different and described in some way. Some of them only get a paragraph each. A few only get a sentence. But they all need to be imagined. That’s a tall order.

Then there is the question of plot. How can you build a coherent narrative when your hero only gets to spend a day in each world before moving on?

The answer appears to be to look to another fiction hero who has similar issues. I’m talking, of course, about Doctor Who. The Doctor does get a few episodes in each setting, but then she gets to move on to an entirely different one. Narrative coherency is provided in a number of ways.

Firstly there are companions. Zax has them too. He has discovered that if he falls asleep holding someone, that person travels with him. The only caveat is that they must be asleep too. Anyone who travels awake goes insane thanks to having seen Things That Man Was Never Meant To Know. By the time we meet Zax he has had several companions and is just about to say goodbye to one and pick up someone new.

The difference between Zax and The Doctor is that The Doctor is superbly competent, whereas Zax’s only skill is conflict mediation. The Doctor’s companions are often much less competent. Some have spent much of their time on the show screaming in fear. Zax is fortunate enough to pick up some very competent friends.

The first, the one he is about to meet, is called Minna, and she’s absolutely fascinating. Zax finds her on a farm world. She’s employed to tend crops by mysterious masters who make your average Victorian factory owner seem amazingly benevolent by comparison. Minna has been genetically engineered to make her better at her job, which gives her all sorts of plant-based superpowers. She’s basically a walking pharmacopoeia. Pratt does a wonderful job finding new ways for her to use her powers to get Zax out of sticky situations.

The other main companion doesn’t join the team until later. Victory-Three — Vicki to their friends — is a military AI from a world on which living beings seem to have exterminated each other. Being miraculous far-future tech, Vicki is able to travel in a crystal set in a ring. Why does Zax need a military AI? Well, that would be a spoiler.

The other thing that Doctor Who teaches us is that Zax needs a recurring antagonist, a version of The Master. So he has one. The Lector started out as a companion, but he’s a ruthless and fiendishly intelligent scientist who is determined to figure out the secrets of Zax’s multiverse hopping power and use that power to his advantage.

It took me a while to get into this book, because each chapter seemed to be a different story. But around half-way through we get the full backstory of Zax’s time with The Lector, and from them on I couldn’t put it down. Literally, I finished it in an evening, unable to go to sleep until I had got to the end.

I’m really impressed with what Tim Pratt has done here. He’s taken a totally off-the-wall concept that makes for all sorts of narrative problems and has made it work beautifully. The book doesn’t have the entertaining supporting cast of the Axiom books, and there’s nothing much in the way of relationship drama except between Zax and The Lector. But I think most of you will warm to Minna the way I did, and The Doors of Sleep is a very enjoyable book.

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Title: The Doors of Sleep
By: Tim Pratt
Publisher: Angry Robot
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Last Stand in Lychford

One of the few silver linings to the whole dreadful drift of the UK into a far-right dystopia has been the attempts by creative people to try to understand how it happened. Mike Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is one such attempt, but another that has received rather less critical attention is Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford novellas.

Of course with one instalment coming out each year, just before Christmas, seeing the series as a whole is somewhat challenging, but it very much deserves to be seen as a single work (and I’m wondering if there is enough of it to qualify for the Best Series Hugo). Last Stand in Lychford is the final volume in the series. It follows on from the traumatic events of The Lights Go Out in Lychford, and sees the return of a villain from the first book in the series, the smarmy demon who calls himself D. Cummings.

David, that is. And he’s much better dressed that the other Cummings fellow. No self-respecting servant of Lucifer would ever be seen looking so slovenly.

If you have been following the series, you will know that Lizzie and Autumn will be pretty much on their own here. However, Cornell does introduce a new character. Entirely in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the series, Zoya Boyko is a single mother and a recent immigrant from the Ukraine. She’s someone who will not find life easy in a small English town. Net curtains will twitch. But she’s hard working and determined to do the best she can for her young daughter. If only it were possible to earn a decent living.

Very soon, however, earning a living will be the very last thing on the minds of the people of Lychford. Thanks to the thing with the rain in the previous book, most of them are now well aware that magic exists, which is just as well because someone is coming to town, and he’s not Santa Claus.

At the end of the previous book, Finn, the Prince of Faerie, exploded all over Lizzie’s kitchen. Neither she nor Autumn has any idea how to put him back together again. But clearly something is very wrong in the magical realms. There is a power grab in process, and Lychford is where it will all go down.

While the series does take a very hard look at England, in a very vicar-like “you need to think about your behaviour” sort of way, it is also notable for the way that Cornell allows perfectly ordinary people to be heroes. OK, so Judith and Autumn can actually do a small amount of magic, but Lizzie mainly has her faith to draw on, and none of them are what you might call athletic. That doesn’t matter. They get to save the world because they care about it, not because they can punch out the bad guys. Given that Cornell is most famous for writing comics, this is particularly pleasing.

I’m very fond of this series, and I am delighted to report that Cornell has done a fine job with the ending. The final few paragraphs brought a broad smile to my face. I had totally missed all the hints that Cornell had dropped through the book.

If you have been putting off trying these books until the whole story arc was available, now is a good time to buy. There is an omnibus edition available on Kindle for only £7. I very much hope that will follow up with a paper edition sometime soon.

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Title: Last Stand in Lychford
By: Paul Cornell
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Miracles of Our Own Making

Having read Blackthorn Winter and been completely blindsided by bits of occult history I was unaware of, I figured that it was time to finally get on with reading Liz Williams’ history of British paganism. Miracles of Our Own Making is an ambitious project, tracing the history of pagan belief in these isles from pre-Roman times to the present day. Fortunately Williams has plenty of good previous research to draw on, in particular the excellent work of Ronald Hutton.

I have a few minor quibbles with the first chapter, but they don’t affect the subject of the book at all and I don’t expect many readers to know as much about Roman Britain as I do. Carolyne Larrington has blurbed the book, so I’m assuming that the second chapter, on Saxons and Vikings, is fine. From there we go quickly through the Middle Ages, where witch panics and sorcery don’t seem to have obsessed people much, and arrive in the Early Modern.

It is no accident, I suspect, that the rise of belief in things like alchemy and sorcery have paralleled the rise of science. These are all attempts to control the world through experiment. Some of it worked and has come down to us as True Knowledge; and some of it did not. At the time, those making the experiments gave equal weight to all unproven theories, and would undoubtedly deem electricity and wi-fi to be forms of magic. Heck, as late as Victorian times many people believed that Spiritualism was a valid science.

Alongside the practice of magic by the upper classes, we have the burgeoning belief in witchcraft, which Williams sensibly explains as being as much a social phenomenon as actual survival of ancient beliefs. In particular it is worth noting that in some parts of the world the majority of people executed for witchcraft were men.

Where the book really comes into its own is in the discussion of modern pagan practices. Williams’ survey of the field is peppered with comments such as, “I attended a ceremony of this type…”. Also, living in Glastonbury, she has easy access to a whole heap of pagan history, both written and oral.

The focus on Britain is probably necessary to constrain the scope, though I can’t be the only British person who read Margot Adler’s superb Drawing Down the Moon when it was first published. There is brief mention of the Illuminatus trilogy in the section on chaos magic, but a little more discussion of the links between the UK and USA might have been interesting. I was also slightly surprised not to see any mention of Colin Wilson’s The Occult, which was practically required reading in certain circles when I was a student.

Overall, however, Miracles of Our Own Making is a fascinating overview of pagan beliefs and practices in Britain, and would, I think be a useful starting reference work for anyone wishing to write historical fantasy set in this country.

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Title: Miracles of Our Own Making
By: Liz Williams
Publisher: Reaktion Books
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Merry Happy Valkyrie

As I have two Christmas-related books in this issue already, I figured that I could go the whole hog and add a third. This isn’t a new book. It is two years old, and my apologies to Tansy Rayner Roberts for taking so long to get round to it. My excuse is that you can only read it at Christmas.

As most of you will know. Tansy Rayner Roberts is Australian. But she does live in Hobart, the most southerly city in the country. Tasmanian weather is a law unto itself, and that provided the inspiration for this book.

Christmas in Australia is a strange event. One the one hand you have Santa and his reindeer in shop windows, and Northern Hemisphere Christmas movies on TV. There is fake snow everywhere. But outside it is blisteringly hot and everyone in their right minds is off down the beach with a slab of tinnies.

Except, dear reader, for the small, isolated town of Matilda in the mountains of central Tasmania. Here, regular as clockwork, it snows every Christmas. As Tasmanian weather goes, this is actually weird. No one quite understands it.

Lief Fraser is the weather anchor for Hobart Mornings, the local breakfast TV show. She has tried to keep the fact that she’s from Matilda secret, but now her bosses have found out and they are determined to have her broadcast from the snowbound town on Christmas morning. So Lief has set off for home, accompanied only by her trusty car, War Horse, and her camera girl. Piper is the sort of young woman who bounces everywhere, dresses in candy pink, and says O.M.G. out loud, but that OK because it means Lief can handle her. She’d better, because protecting the town of Matilda is literally her job.

Unfortunately, when Lief and Piper arrive, they find another film crew rolling into town. Audrey Astor has made a successful business out of Australian Christmas movies. Whereas Hallmark produces cheesy tales of snowbound American small towns, Merry Happy, Audrey’s company, does Christmas on the Beach stories. Audrey has long been obsessed with Matilda, and she’s finally got permission to film there.

Of course there is a reason why it always snows in Matilda at Christmas, and it has nothing to do with Tasmanian weather. Lief has to make sure that Audrey never finds out the truth, because if she does then the nosey movie producer and her crew could end up very dead.

With a title like Merry Happy Valkyrie, you could be forgiven for assuming that this book contains a lot of Norse mythology. You would be sort of right. But the Norse mythology here has moved a long way from the original. There are Valkyries, yes, but much is different. Not so different, however, that I didn’t recognise the saga of Thrym’s Wedding underlying the whole thing, which makes me very happy.

The book is marketed as a romance, so you should have a good idea of what to expect. Indeed, if you are unsure, Audrey kindly explains the principle for you:

“A good romance is about figuring out exactly what the audience wants, and feeding it to them by the tasty, tasty spoonful.”

So yeah, there will be a happy ending, as there should be. It is how you get there that is important, and this is certainly a different and interesting way of doing that.

Oh, and there is good trans representation too. All in all, a fine little book.

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Title: Merry Happy Valkyrie
By: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Purchase links:
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The Mandalorian – Season #2

Well, that was a thing. On the one hand it was enjoyable mind candy. It clearly made an awful lot of Star Wars fans very happy. But as science fiction TV? Meh.

This will contain spoilers, but then Twitter was full of them on the day the final episode dropped, long before I got a chance to watch it. Besides, if you couldn’t predict the ending, I have a large conical hat with a D on it that I’d like you to wear.

There are many things to admire in The Mandalorian. They’ve done some great scenery and monsters. The giant sandworm episode was particularly impressive. Also Baby Yoda has been a great hit with viewers. If you are a serious Star Wars fan you will probably have been in ecstasy much of the time given the number of familiar names that turn up. This is all good, as fan candy goes. It is a product; it fills a market niche.

From a TV series, however, I expect better. The plots have been very thin; and bulked out by action sequences. The characterisation is also fairly thin. Even Mando himself is pretty one-dimensional. There’s an argument that the show is basically a Western in space, and Westerns themselves are fairy predictable, but I’m sure that John Ford or Sergio Leone would have done better than this.

There were occasional hints of what might have made a much better series. The show is set mainly on backwater planets. Ruling the galaxy is hard, which is how Imperial holdouts still exist and Moff Gideon can get away with having a star cruiser and a small army of stormtroopers. I would have liked to have seen more of the idea that for many people it doesn’t matter who is in charge. I would also have liked to see more about why people still support the Empire, despite them being clownish villains.

Unfortunately, this is Star Wars. The goodies are Good, even when they behave appallingly (which sometimes they do). The baddies are Bad, and also incompetent. Imperial stormtroopers can’t hit a target with their blasters when it is stood in front of them, and their armour might as well be made of papier-mâché for all the good it does them. Also Imperial computer security is woeful. The occasional bad guy will be good with weapons, but that’s about the most threat they pose.

This season also gave us the Dark Trooper battle droids. They at least gave our heroes a run for their money. Then Luke turns up and goes through an entire platoon of them like a hot knife through butter.

Seriously, if you weren’t expecting Luke from the moment that little Grogu makes contact with The Force and is then immediately kidnapped by Dark Troopers then I worry about you.

Maybe that was the point, though. Perhaps it is supposed to be safe and predictable. Goddess knows, people need that sort of thing these days. But I want better. And Star Wars can do better because it produced Rogue One. It can do it again, if the will is there. Sadly I am reminded of this quote from Ursula K Le Guin’s foreword to her 2001 collection, Tales from Earthsea.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.


SMOFcon 37¼

Like everything else this year, SMOFcon got hit by COVID-19 and went virtual. And because SMOFcon is very much about getting people together, it had to re-invent itself somewhat. The result was a cut down version known as SMOFcon 37¼ to its friends, and 37.25 to Microsoft Windows.

I had to miss most of the convention as I was scheduled to speak at an LGBT History event in London (virtually, obviously) on the same day, but I did get there in time for the final two panels and the post-con party.

The stuff I missed was all Fannish Inquisition type material. In particular people are likely to be interested in the questions for seated Worldcons, which you can find here.

The first session I saw was a retrospective on CoNZealand featuring the co-chairs, Kelly Buehler and Norm Cates. Obviously this year was even more traumatic than usual, but being a Worldcon chair is hard. There’s a reason why the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Run Worldcon” badge exists. There are lots of things that a Worldcon chair can do to help ensure a successful event, but when the thing is actually happening there are only two main things that the chair can do. One is authorising the spending of money to solve problems, because you will have budgeted carefully and will you finally have some idea of how much surplus you are likely to have. The other is to stand up and take it on the chin when things go wrong and angry fans are looking for someone to blame. One of these things is far more fun than the other.

Anyway, if you have any interest in what it is like being a Worldcon chair, I do encourage you to listen to what Kelly and Norm have to say. I’d also like to thank Kelly for the kind words, especially about Fringe. I hope you were listening, Mike Glyer.

The final session was also a retrospective and featured the chairs of several other conventions that also had to go virtual. The idea here, I assume, was to help people in similar situations. However, this being SMOFcon, much of the discussion was about staff and PR issues, not about the actual tech. It is still worth a listen as there are things going on in the tech sphere that I wasn’t familiar with, and which bode well for the future, but I was disappointed that it was so backward looking, and that there was no representation from the new, virtual-only events such as FIYAHCON and FutureCon. Apparently those two cons were approached so SMOFcon did try.

SMOFcon is, for the most part, a gathering for people who run Worldcons, and like any community that group of people has internal disagreements. One way you can subdivide Worldcon fandom is between those who see the event as a global celebration of science fiction, and those who see it as their annual holiday with friends they have known for decades. The former group is, I think, largely pleased with the extra reach that virtual conventions have given us. The latter group tends to complain about how virtual conventions are not the same, and hybrid conventions are impossible, and how we need to get back to in-person-only events as soon as possible.

One of the things that SMOFdom does when faced by radical change is to come up with a worst-case scenario and use that as an excuse as to why the change can’t be allowed to happen. So the argument about hybrid conventions is generally that it is impossible to have both in-person attendees and virtual attendees participating on an equal footing in every part of the convention, and that therefore we should not have hybrid conventions.

But in fact we have had hybrid conventions for some years now, because we have webcast the Hugo Award ceremony. The question we should be asking is not how to make in-person and virtual experiences the same, but what additional parts of the convention can be opened up to virtual attendees, and how much they should have to pay for that. These are questions we are looking at for the Tonopah Westercon.

SMOFcon failed to address those issues, but they will have to be answered at some point. My fear is that the answer will be, “none, we don’t want them, Worldcon is an in-person event.” And that will eventually kill Worldcon.

Editorial – December 2020

Last issue was a bit thin, but hopefully I have made up for it this time. There’s nothing quite like an extended holiday for getting some reading done.

This is the last issue of 2020, and obviously we are all looking forward to better times in the New Year. As far as the UK goes, I’m not very confident. We still have a malevolent, incompetent government, and we have the effects of Brexit to cope with too. Hopefully there will be plenty of good books to keep me distracted.

A new year also means a new awards season, so I should remind you that Salon Futura is eligible in the Best Fanzine category of the Hugo Awards. If you don’t think we are good enough, please nominate something else. Fanzines have been the lifeblood of fandom for a very long time, and it would be a shame to see the category disappear because no one reads them anymore.

And on the subject of awards, if you haven’t seen the announcement, there is a new set of translation awards in town. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Rosetta Awards are being run by the Future Affairs Administration folks in China. There will be awards for long form, short form, and for services to translation. Someone to my surprise, I have been asked to chair the jury for the long form award, so that’s more reading that I need to do and can’t review. Oops.

Issue #25

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

  • Cover: As the Distant Bells Toll: This issue's cover, As the Distant Bells Toll by Ben Baldwin

  • Black Sun: A review of the start of a new epic fantasy series from Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun

  • Freshwater: A review of Akwaeke Emezi's Otherwise Award winning debut novel, Freshwater

  • Hav: A reprint of Cheryl's review of the brilliant Jan Morris novel, Hav, from Emerald City #133

  • World Fantasy 2020: A report on this year's (virtual) World Fantasy Convention in Salt Lake City

  • DALEKS: In which Cheryl remembers loving the Daleks as a kid, and how a new generation has an opportunity to have the same thrill.

  • FIYAHcon Revisited: Cheryl takes a second look at FIYAHCON now that they have published details of how the online convention was run

  • SHIELD – Season Six: A review of season 6 of the Agents of SHIELD TV series

  • Editorial – November 2020: In which Cheryl talks about her plans for the future schedule

Black Sun

It is epic fantasy, Jim, but not as we know it.

I have been looking forward to this book for some time. I really enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World books, and was looking forward to seeing what she could do with a more traditional fantasy form. I say “form” and not “setting”, because while Black Sun is absolutely epic fantasy, it has nothing to do with mediaeval Europe. Instead is makes use of the history of North and Central America. Unlike Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series, there is no attempt to reproduce an actual historical setting. Rather the book is more like CT Rwizi’s Scarlet Odyssey in that it creates a fantasy world from non-European inspiration.

The book is centred on the city of Tova which is ruled over by four competing clans: Golden Eagle, Carrion Crow, Winged Serpent and Water Strider. Supposedly holding everything together is a Temple of the Sun and its priestly orders. However, a couple of generations ago the Temple launched an attack on the Crow clan, known as the Night of Knives. Large numbers of Crow people were killed.

The current High Priestess of the Sun, Naranpa, firmly believes that her duty is to keep peace in Tova, and to heal the wounds caused by this massacre. However, she rose to her position due to being a genius astronomer rather than because of her social class, and this causes many people in the Temple whose expectations of privilege have been thwarted to resent her.

Meanwhile, the devotees of the Carrion Crow have not forgotten the massacre. One extreme sect has concocted a plan for revenge by forging a weapon, an avatar of the Crow God. When we first meet him, Serapio is a young boy suffering an incredibly abusive childhood, but his mother’s mad plan succeeds and in the main narrative of the book he is everything she hoped for.

To protect him, Serapio was hidden away in the Obregi Mountains far to the south. He must take ship from the merchant city of Cuecola and reach Tova in time for a major eclipse, at which point the power of the Sun Priests will be at its lowest ebb. Because he is running late, he ends up taking passage on a ship captained by Xiala, a wild and enthusiastically bisexual woman of the Teek people, who live far out in the Crescent Sea.

That gives you the three main characters of the narrative. There are a few others. There’s Abah, the young Golden Eagle noblewoman who constantly schemes against Narapan. There’s Iktan, the High Priest of Knives, who is non-binary and the closest thing Narapan has to an ally. And there’s Okoa, the warrior son of the head of the Crow Clan, who rides a giant battle crow. It is all solid epic fantasy stuff.

Roanhorse knows exactly what she is doing with the form, though if her Acknowledgements are to be believed she had to learn a lot of it from her editor, Joe Monti. Fantasy fans should lap it up, and be clamouring for book two. It does, of course, end on something of a cliffhanger, and there’s plenty of the world left to explore, so I’m looking forward to subsequent books. As is the way of such things, being merely a part of a much longer story will hamper Black Sun come awards season, but shouldn’t hold it back sales-wise. I’m delighted to see that a UK edition will finally appear in January (and despair at the fact that Simon and Schuster initially thought that UK readers would not be interested in it).

Of course with such things readers will be interested in the inspiration for the fantasy world. Black Sun is set in the lands surrounding the Crescent Sea, or the Gulf of Mexico as we know it. The Obregi Mountains are the uplands of central Mexico, and Cuecola is Chichen Itza. The Teek live far out in the Caribbean, though they have some Polynesian influences. The most audacious adaption is Tova itself, which is based on Cahokia, a large city on the Mississippi near St. Louis which, in the 11th Century, boasted a population of up to 30,000 people. I think that’s bigger than any European city of the time, and bigger than Timbuktu at the height of the Mali Empire. Constantinople was much bigger, of course. There’s an article about Cahokia and the people who built it, written by Annalee Newitz, here. The city will also feature in Newitz’s non-fiction book, Four Lost Cities, forthcoming in March next year.

Back with Black Sun, however, it is a fine piece of epic fantasy, with a stunning John Picacio cover. It is already getting rave reviews, so my voice isn’t going to add much, but I did love it, and I hope you will too.

book cover
Title: Black Sun
By: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Solaris
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


Let’s get the headlines out of the way first. Freshwater was the winner of the Otherwise (formerly Tiptree) Award this year. It was also longlisted for a couple of UK-based literary awards: the Wellcome Book Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The latter may have been rescinded now that the people running that prize have gone full-on transphobic. So this is a book that is accepted by both genre and literary communities, and is being praised by both.

For almost half the book I was somewhat surprised by this, in that despite the use of fantastical themes the book appeared to be that tiresome trope of literary fiction: awful people doing awful things to other awful people for no reason other than it is all awful. But the fantastical background itself was interesting, and eventually the book became so as well.

The central character of the book is Ada, a young Nigerian woman who, from birth, has been plagued by ọgbanje. These are spirits from Igbo religion who are believed to get into a child at birth and cause bad behaviour and misfortune for the family. The Wikipedia entry for ọgbanje draws a parallel to the Celtic concept of a faerie changeling. That’s obviously not accurate because a changeling is an entirely different being, whereas ọgbanje simply inhabit the original child, but the effect on the family is presumably similar.

There are, I am sure, many litfic readers who see this book simply as a clever metaphor for mental illness, in particular for multiple personalities. And to be fair Akwaeke Emezi gives plenty of excuse for that reading via the descriptions of Ada’s dysfunctional and occasionally abusive family. However, Freshwater is much more than that. If you want a book about multiple personalities, Matt Ruff’s Set This House in Order (also an Otherwise, then Tiptree, winner) fits the bill very well.

In the Acknowledgements, Emezi mentions a friend describing Freshwater as “the spiritual book”. Odiani is a living religion, and Emezi has as much right to believe in ọgbanje as Christians have to believe in angels and demons.

There’s more. As this essay makes clear, Freshwater is very much a book about Emezi’s personal journey. They are non-binary, and the book is heavily informed by personal experiences. The second half of the book, when Ada is an adult, features two specific ọgbanje called Ashụgara and Saint Vincent. The former might best be described to Westerners as a succubus, while the latter is defiantly, if not aggressively, masculine.

It is clear from the book and the essay that Emezi uses the concept of ọgbanje as a way to come to terms with their non-binary nature. It is fashionable these days, at least in the UK, for trans people to decry the idea of being “trapped in the wrong body”, claiming that it is a narrative that was created for us by cisgender medics. In part, of course, that’s true. Certainly by no means all trans people feel extreme body dysphoria. But it is also necessary because the phrase has been weaponised by the anti-trans lobby who claim that it obviously can’t be true, and that it is proof that trans people are mentally ill.

Nevertheless, if you are a spiritual sort of person, the idea that your soul is a different gender to your body is a very persuasive explanation as to why you might be trans. I’d not seen such a clear spiritual explanation of gender fluidity before Emezi’s book, but it makes sense in exactly the same way.

I’m sure that here in the Land of Transphobia there are people jumping up and down with glee at Freshwater because they see it as an excuse to have all trans people put in straightjackets and solitary confinement. Equally there will be trans people who are uneasy about the book because they can see that coming. Personally I believe that trans people need to find their own truth in whatever way works for them, and provided that they do not misuse that truth, by insisting that it must apply to every other trans person as well, then I’m happy to let them have it.

I should add as well that Freshwater is beautifully written, albeit deeply painful at times. I am not in the least bit surprised that it gained so much recognition. There are also a bunch of themes in the book dealing with issues of mixed-ethnicity families, migration, and conflict between Christianity and traditional religion. Those are things that I am much less competent to talk about, but which add even greater depth to the book. It is a very impressive achievement.

book cover
Title: Freshwater
By: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


This review was originally published in issue #133 of Emerald City, dated September 2006. It is reprinted here to mark the death earlier this month of Jan Morris, at the magnificent age of 94.

At Worldcon I found myself on a panel about Cities in Science Fiction. We had a very successful discussion — it was one of the easiest moderating jobs I have ever had — but one thing I never quite got the panel round to talking about was just how you bring a city to life. Science fiction writers, in general, are good at talking about technology. Some of them are good with characters. But when they do sense of place they tend to do it more on the dramatic scale. Fantasy writers tend to be rather better with cities. Indeed, my first thought on being allocated the panel was that it should have been called Cities in Fantasy. And indeed we did talk about places such as New Crobuzon and Ambergris. Suppose, however, that you want to write about a city, but don’t quite know how. Sure, you can study Miéville and VanderMeer. But you might be better off reading a top class travel writer.

Jan Morris’ new book, Hav, was reviewed in The Guardian by Ursula Le Guin. I suspect that Morris’ publisher, Faber, would have been horrified. Morris, I hope, would have been flattered. But the book is about an imaginary place, so it does class as SF of a sort. Besides, someone at Waterstones obviously saw the review. I can think of no other explanation for the book turning up in the massive 3 for 2 sale of SF books that Waterstones have been running over the summer. And because it was in that sale I ended up buying it.

There can be few people now who do not know the whereabouts of Hav

Morris is, of course, being coy when she starts her preface with an assertion that most people know the location of a place that she made up. It is fairly obvious that Hav is somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it isn’t until you are well into the book that Morris pins it down as being somewhere in Anatolia. (The early comment that Schliemann once considered it to be the site of Troy is a massive clue.) On the other hand, Morris did first write about Hav in 1985, in the book Last Letters from Hav, so perhaps she expects we have all read of it there. The new book, Hav, combines the earlier book with a newly written segment, Hav of the Myrmidons, which relates what happened to Hav after the coup that ended Morris’s earlier study of the city. If you already have Last Letters from Hav then the new book will be a poor bargain, because the new material is much the shorter part, but for new readers such as me the whole is a very satisfying read.

Hav, then, is a peninsula on the coast of Anatolia. Separated from Turkey by a massive escarpment, it has managed to maintain a modicum of political separation from the Ottoman Empire and its successor state. It has, however, been occupied by various colonial powers down the ages. The most recent occupiers were the Russians, whose nobility delighted in having a seaside resort on the Mediterranean. Hav was to Tsarist Russia what Monaco now is to Western Europe. Admiral Kolchak was supposedly the final governor of the city. Last Letters from Hav, therefore, is a delightful meditation on the decline of colonialism in post-WWII Europe. It is easy to imagine Jon Courtenay Grimwood setting a Raf novel in a future version of Hav where the Russians still hold sway.

The reason that Last Letters from Hav works so well is that Morris is a very fine travel writer. True to her genre, Morris frames the novel as a travel book that she herself has written following a professional visit to the city. She talks about arriving on the railroad that the Russians built, including a massive tunnel through the escarpment, about the local bureaucracy that a visitor must negotiate, about bars in which foreign visitors are made welcome. She tells us of the Kretevs, the tribal people who live in the escarpment and about the snow raspberry, the hugely expensive local delicacy that grows only in those mountains. There is the local custom of a dawn trumpet call dating back to the eviction of the Crusaders from the city by Saladin. And of course there is the Iron Dog, the giant bronze statue guarding the entrance to Hav’s harbor that was supposedly erected by the Spartans when they controlled the city.

Like any good travel writer, Morris talks about the local characters that she has met. Armand Sauvignon arrived as a young diplomat with the French administration in 1928 but has since built a successful career as a novelist. Mario Biancheri is the head chef of the Chinese-owned casino located in a small cove up the coast from the main city. Anna Novochka is an aged Russian aristocrat with tales of the glory days of Tsarist Hav. Perhaps the most famous resident is Nadik Abdulhamid, the 125th Caliph, heir to the Ottoman Sultanate and religious leader of the Sunni Muslims, a man who lives in perpetual fear of assassination.

Nor should we forget local customs. In Hav the foremost is the legendary roof race. This strenuous and often deadly contest involves the young men of the city racing across the roofs of the city, supposedly echoing a tradition dating back to a populist uprising against the Ottoman occupation of the city.

New Hav, the political entity that succeeded the Russian occupation, was a creation of the League of Nations. Somehow it survived the coming of the Nazis, though one Hav resident is, according to local rumor, still hunted by Mossad. However, Morris occasionally hears rumors of political unrest. Some of the local people are plotting revolution, and their secret society may date all the way back to the time of the Crusades. Morris finds herself ushered out of the city in secret, just in time to see warplanes flash across the city.

In the new book, Hav of the Myrmidons, Morris returns to Hav twenty years after her initial visit. The new political entity is an entirely different sort of beast. Hav is now a thoroughly modern tourist resort. Most visitors never leave the artificial island resort, now managed by Mario Biancheri, built in the center of the old harbor. The city has a new “history”, supposedly discovered in the ruins created during the coup. Hav, it transpires, was founded by the Myrmidon host after the death of Achilles at Troy. The city has a new logo of a Myrmidonic helmet, and a giant M dominates the city (a symbol that many claim actually stands for Monsanto whose genetically modified snow raspberries are the city’s major export).

Once again Morris is making comment on the political changes she has seen in the world during her travels. The post-colonial world of New Hav is long gone. Hav of the Myrmidons is thoroughly modern, thoroughly commercial, as artificial as Disneyland, and 100% guaranteed safe for nervous Western tourists. The latter part of the book is a lament for a real world vanishing under a flood of tourist destinations.

I think Hav will appeal most to lovers of alternate history. Morris mines the millennia of European tradition in order to sculpt her world. Everyone from Marco Polo to Sigmund Freud appears to have visited Hav at one time or another. But the book also provides a magnificent sense of place and would, I think, provide useful inspiration for anyone who needs to create a small city.

book cover
Title: Hav
By: Jan Morris
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

World Fantasy 2020

I ended up doing three programme items at this year’s World Fantasy. That’s quite an exceptional thing for a convention that normally has a one-panel-per-person rule, but this year was unusual. The need to go virtual had led to both more panels and fewer potential panellists. I was happy to help out.

The panels I did were a “Queers in Fantasy” one, a “Women in Fantasy” one, and a “Small Presses” one. Those were not their actual titles, but it is what they were. World Fantasy programming has always tended to be unimaginative and generic in this way, and I’m used to checking who the panellists are before going because the quality will be very much down to who is in the show and how good they are at taking the topic and running with it. In all three cases I think we did a decent job.

This year, as you may recall, there was major controversy about the panel descriptions, which were mostly uninspired and in at least one case insulting. Two of the panels I was on had their descriptions re-written before the start of the con. I’m not sure that made much difference to the event, because we had good people on the panels and we’d have managed to be interesting anyway, but hopefully this will shake up the World Fantasy Board a little and get them to pay more attention to the quality of what gets put out.

More importantly, I hope they put some effort into diversifying their operation. The current way in which Board members get appointed is pretty much guaranteed to select for old, white and predominantly male. The need to think about being more relevant to the current state of the industry. SFWA has done very well at that. Locus has been diversifying its reviewing staff. If World Fantasy doesn’t do the same then it risks becoming irrelevant to young writers and editors.

Worldcon needs to change as well, of course, but changing Worldcon is like turning a supertanker; it takes forever. World Fantasy has a Board than can make quick decisions. The big question is whether it wants to.

One of the things that was interesting about this year’s World Fantasy is that going virtual meant big changes to attendance. Lots of people all over the world who could never afford to attend the event unless it was in their home city (and remember that it hardly ever leaves the USA) could suddenly try it out. And a lot of the regulars, being rather old, or being the sort of people who only ever go to hang out with their friends, decided to pass on a virtual convention. Some of these new people seemed to very much enjoy the event, or at least the panels I was in. I hope that the Board took notice of that.

Something else that I noticed since the last WFC I attended is that the content was very much science fiction and fantasy, rather than the HORROR! (and a little dark fantasy) that I’d been used to. I find this a good thing.

While I did enjoy being on programme, I have to admit that for me World Fantasy has mostly been about hanging out with friends. Kevin prefers Worldcon because he gets to hang out with other con runners. I prefer World Fantasy because I get to hang out with authors, editors and critics. The social side of this year’s event did not work well for me. There was no Discord, and with con time being 6 ours behind me I was often in bed before social stuff happened.

The technical side of programming was pretty good. They didn’t use raw Zoom, and they had both a tech person and a comment wrangler on hand to assist with the panels. These things are all expensive in both money and staff numbers, but they make for a much better virtual event.

I watched some of the other programme items, and my main take-away was how old people were. Bear in mind that I’m no spring chicken these days, and yet a lot of the programme seemed to be about people who were much older than me. That can’t be good for the longevity of the event. Of course they were interesting old people, but it gave the convention a very backward-looking feel.

Finally a quick word about the Awards. Possibly because they are juried rather than voted, the World Fantasy Awards were well ahead of other awards in recognising trans writers. Rachel Pollack winning Best Novel with Godmother Night in 1996 is a stand-out moment. This year, however, Best Novel was won by Kacen Callender, a non-binary person of colour. I’m absolutely delighted that I lived to see such a moment. I have Queen of the Conquered on my Kindle and will get around to reading it soon (especially as the sequel is due out any day now).

The other win in the Awards that made me very happy was in Special Award – Non-Professional, which went to Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. As I understand it, this is the first time the award has ever gone to an academic journal. The fact that Fafnir is open source doubtless helped a lot. That the award should go to a journal based in Finland, on whose advisory board I happen to serve, and in whose current issue I have an essay, is a matter of particular joy. Huge congratulations are due to the current editorial team: Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Laura E. Goodin & Esko Suoranta. Congratulations are also due to my dear friends, Merja Polvinen and Irma Hirsjärvi, who have both played a major part in the founding and success of the journal.

Next year World Fantasy will be in Montréal. As far as I know, I’m still allowed to travel to Canada, so I’m very much hoping that this one will take place in person.


Many years ago, when the Doctor was an old man with a granddaughter rather than a handsome young buck, or a sassy woman, the Daleks were, well, Daleks. Us children loved them. We’d wander around the school playground with our arms stuck out stiffly yelling “EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!!!” for all our little lungs were worth. This did not go unnoticed by people whose job it was to tell stories for money.

In those times there was a comic called TV Century 21 (TV21 for short). It was primarily a vehicle for comic adaptations of the Gerry & Sylvia Anderson “Supermarionation” series such as Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. However, all science fiction TV was fair game, and thus they started a strip featuring everyone’s favourite psychopathic pepperpots.

The idea of Daleks as heroes is obviously a bit difficult to comprehend, but the strip worked well enough, and also featured in numerous Dalek Annuals such as the one pictured with this review. The Daleks could fight other, equally evil creatures. They could fight each other. But mostly they got to demonstrate their utterly implacable lust for destruction. Really, what small child could resist?

In order to write about the Daleks as characters you needed to have actual Dalek characters. They couldn’t all be uniformly, obediently, mindlessly murderous. Thus we were introduced to the Dalek Emperor with his (all Daleks are male, right?) impressive golden casing and large, orb-like head. As I recall he was shorter than the regular Daleks, and I have a sneaking suspicion he was supposed to recall Napoléon.

Anyway, the BBC has belated realised that stories about the Daleks and their wars with other non-human creatures are popular with the kiddies, and they have created DALEKS: The Animated Series. This is rooted pretty squarely in those ancient comics. It has the Emperor Dalek; it brings back the malicious Mechanoids, who were the greatest foes of the Daleks back in the day; and it is delightfully silly.

We are currently three episodes in, and thanks to their insatiable desire for destruction the Daleks have got themselves into all sorts of trouble. Presumably they will emerge victorious by the end of the series. In the meantime there will be plenty more ruthless extermination. Also it is free to watch on YouTube. If you have kids, they will probably love it.

FIYAHcon Revisited

Shortly after the last issue went live, LD Lewis posted a fascinating blog about the origins and internal workings of the convention. I thought it was worth revisiting my con report because there’s a lot of good stuff in there.

On the origins side, I was absolutely delighted that they made my friend Yasser Bahjatt a Guest of Honour. He’s had a tough year, and deserves a little recognition for what he’s doing for Arabic SF&F.

I’m also very pleased at the constructive attitude that the FIYAHCON committee took towards the idea of an out-of-time-zone Fringe event. All of my interactions with the CoNZealand committee regarding Fringe were also very positive, but the reaction of SMOFdom at large was fairly childish.

More importantly, however, Lewis’s post breaks down what it cost to put on FIYAHCON. That included what software they used, and how much it cost them. This sort of information should be invaluable to other people considering a virtual convention. Many people out there in fandom will assume that all virtual conventions should be free to attend, and you can put one on very cheaply (as FutureCon proved). However, other things cost money.

Live captions, for example, cost almost $5000. That’s a fair chunk of cash, but if you are serious about accessibility it is something you need to do, and something that will naturally constrain the quantity of programming that you can offer.

Providing a broadcast system to wrap your Zoom panels also costs money, as does Zoom itself. FIYAHCON opted for Business level accounts on Zoom, which gives a maximum audience of 300 rather than 100 at the Professional level. It doesn’t cost a huge amount more, so that was probably wise. However, I once did a Worldcon event in a room that seated 900 people and was packed out (I was interviewing Neil Gaiman). Of course with that size you’d go to webinar format rather than meeting, and having a broadcast wrapping will give you a much bigger audience capacity, but this shows that the problem of sizing programme items doesn’t go away in the virtual world.

For their workshops they used Whereby, a video conferencing system that I’d never even heard of before. It is entirely browser-based, which has advantages of accessibility for technology-impaired attendees. I’m not sure what else it gives you, but I’m interested to find out because we surely need better software solutions.

I’d like to thank FIYAHCON for being so transparent about what was involved on putting on the event. I note that there will be a panel on virtual conventions at SMOFcon this year. If I were running it, I would have invited FIYAHCON to participate.

SHIELD – Season Six

While catching up on The Mandalorian I noticed that season six of Agents of SHIELD was available on Disney, and season seven has now started. It can be a silly show, but after five seasons I had some affection for the characters so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

This review will include spoilers for season five. If you haven’t seen it yet, look away now.

OK, so when last we saw our heroes they had travelled into the Future to save Earth from some villainous Kree, and from Daisy who was apparently destined to quake the planet to pieces. Which was fine except that found that she’d already done that by the time they got there. Much wibbly-wobby, timely-wimey stuff ensued before everyone got back home to our time.

Well, almost everyone. For reasons that I can’t remember now, Fitz did not go into the future with them, so he had himself cryogenically frozen so he could wake up in the future and join them. Of course that meant that he couldn’t go home either. And then he went and died. At the start of season six, everyone else is back home, and Fitz is somewhere out in space being a frozen popsicle. Simmons and Daisy are off in space looking for him, along with Agents Piper and Davies.

The rest of the team is back on Earth and getting used to the fact that Project Tahiti has caught up with Phil Coulson and he is dead again. Long-time Marvel watchers will remember that Coulson was killed by Loki in the first Avengers movie, and has been sort of semi-dead for the entire run of SHIELD. Mack is now the Director of SHIELD, and this is messing up his relationship with Yo-Yo.

Of course SHIELD without Coulson is unthinkable, so the showrunners have decided to run with the whole idea of bringing him back in more and more outlandish ways. In this season a new threat arrives on Earth, and with it a team of ruthless mercenaries who claim to be hunting it. This team is led by a chap called Sarge, who happens to be genetically identical to Phil Coulson, much to the distress of Melinda May.

Meanwhile, out in space, we discover that a race of androids called Chronicoms have had their planet destroyed and obviously they want to take this out on Earth because that’s how these things work.

Oh, and the team did bring one person back from the future. That would be Deke Shaw who is the grandson of Fitz and Simmons in the timeline in which Daisy destroyed the Earth. He’s a bit of a dork (which the script uses to poke fun at tech entrepreneurs), but given his ancestry he’s ferociously smart.

There’s a heck of a lot going on in this, and I haven’t even mentioned the weird stuff involving lost temples in Central America, or the gay black scientist that May recruits to bolster the team in the absence of Fitz and Simmons. A lot of it is very silly and doesn’t stand up to much examination, but this is a comic book series we are talking about. While the science in drowning in handwavium, the character arcs are complex and cleverly intertwined. I like this series because a lot of effort has been put into writing it.

Season seven will apparently be the last. I shall watch it. Maybe by the end Phil Coulson will be really, most sincerely dead. But I shall be rather disappointed if that is the case.

Editorial – November 2020

This issue is a bit thin on the book reviews. There are a variety of reasons for that. I’m still reading books for Wizard’s Tower purposes, and obviously can’t review those. I have been somewhat distracted by the US election and by Trans Day of Remembrance. And Freshwater was not an easy read for me.

Mostly, though, I think I need a holiday. I’ve been in more-or-less isolation for 9 months now. I have plenty of work, which is good, and having three different jobs does create variety. But, after 9 months of mostly not leaving home for more than an hour a week, I appear to be getting a bit of cabin fever. Sitting at home reading doesn’t hold the sort of attraction you might think.

So for this issue I have read only two books. I did read Yoon Ha Lee’s “Beyond the Dragon’s Gate” as well, but that turned out to be a short story and not easily reviewable. I have cheated a little by reprinting my review of Hav by Jan Morris as a tribute following her death, at the fine old age of 94, earlier this month. You will be hard-pressed to find a better piece of speculative fiction anywhere, so I make no apology.

I also spent a bit of time thinking about the schedule. I could have skipped this month, but it didn’t seem fair to do that without any warning. More to the point, there are better months to skip if I need a break. So as of next year I am going to do 10 issues a year. There will be nothing in February, because I am usually run ragged by LGBT History Month and the Historical Fiction Research Network conference. And conveniently 6 months later I will skip August, because I expect Worldcon to continue to be a major influence on my life even if I can’t normally attend in person.

This does mean that I have committed myself to December and January issues, so I’d better get this issue posted and some more books read.

Issue #24

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

  • Cover: The Divine She-Wolf: This issue's cover is "The Divine She-Wolf" by Aleksandar Žiljak

  • Vagabonds: A review of Hao Jingfang's debut novel, Vagabonds

  • Machine: A review of Elizabeth Bear's latest White Space novel, Machine

  • Lovecraft Country: A review of the TV series based on Matt Ruff's novel, Lovecraft Country

  • Ring Shout: A review of P Djèlí Clark's novella, Ring Shout

  • The First Sister: A Review of Linden A Lewis's debut novel, The First Sister

  • Futuricon: A report on Futuricon, the 2020 Eurocon held in Rijeka, Croatia

  • Octocon: A report on the 30th anniversary of Ireland's annual convention, Octocon.

  • FIYAHcon: A report on FIYAHcon, and event run by and for fans of colour

  • Seven Devils: A review of Seven Devils, a space opera novel by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam

  • Editorial – October 2020: A new month, a new look. Also, Woooooooo! -- Hallowe'en

Cover: The Divine She-Wolf

I was going to use the cover of As The Distant Bells Toll for this issue, but when I came to put the issue together I noticed that I didn’t have the raw art, only the versions with text. Rather than bother Ben, I made a cover myself using some of the interior art that Aleksandar Žiljak created for the book. This one is for the story, “The Divine She-Wolf”, which is one of my favourites from the book.


VagabondsThis is a remarkable book. I was hoping to have it in the last issue, but it took me a lot longer to read that I expected. There are two main reasons for that. But before I get to them, a quick introduction.

Hao Jingfang is one of the rising stars of Chinese science fiction. Her novelette, “Folding Beijing”, made her the fist Chinese woman to win a Hugo Award. Also she has a PhD in macroeconomics, so she has a good understanding of how modern societies are constructed. The book is masterfully translated by Ken Liu.

I found the book a very slow read. It reminded me a lot of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem, which I didn’t finish. In part both books felt very Asimov-like, and maybe Chinese SF is still working its way out of the need to write in that sort of explanatory, giving-you-a-science-lesson style. However, I think there is more to it than that. What I found myself missing was a sense of foreshadowing.

By that I don’t mean the obvious stuff, where a character has a thought and the author adds, “but she would soon find out how wrong she was.” I mean that I didn’t have any sense of where the story was going, or what I should look forward to by way of a climax. I got a vague idea at the beginning, and that turned out to be right in the end, but in the meantime the book was all over the place. I am now wondering if this is a feature of Chinese fiction.

An analogy might help. Typically Western fiction is like a portrait. There are one or more central characters (or themes) and you know you should be focusing on them. Vagabonds felt more like a landscape with no obvious focal point. You are supposed to look at all of it, because there are lots of interesting things to see, but no one thing is central.

I may be totally off base here, of course. Ken, Regina, if you happen to read this, please tell me if I am talking nonsense.

The other reason that the book took me so long to read is that there is a whole lot to think about. Here is the basic set up.

We are in a new-future world and there is a colony on Mars. Some years ago the colony rebelled against Earth control and declared independence. There was a war, which the Martians won primarily because it was too expensive for Earth to fight so far from home. Now that the heroes of that war are old men, it is time for the two planets to try to come together again.

As part of the diplomatic effort, a group of young Martians, chosen from the brightest of their age group, are sent to Earth to study. In a nod to times past, they are called the Mercury Group. Now they are on their way home, and they are having to face re-integrating back into Martian society after several years on a very different planet.

The Earth of the novel is very much our world writ large. It is given over entirely to rapacious capitalism. Everything is driven by marketing. Everyone is an individual, free to do whatever they like, provided that they have the money to do so, and can make more money by doing it.

Mars is very different. The atmosphere is not breathable, so everyone lives in a single, large city, made mostly from glass because sand is one resource that Mars has in abundance. Many things are communally owned. Everyone has a place in society, and is trained to take up that place as soon as they have shown what social need they are best capable of fulfilling.

If you haven’t seen it yet, let me explain. Vagabonds is in direct conversation with The Dispossessed, widely touted as one of the best science fiction novels ever written. That is a staggeringly ambitious thing to do for a debut, but Hao makes a very creditable stab at it.

There is more to it as well. Le Guin was mostly writing about conversations between two opposing political philosophies within America. With Vagabonds it is hard not to see the book as being about the USA and China. It isn’t, of course, because China is not vulnerable and resource-constrained in the way that Mars is. However, Hao has the advantage of having lived in a planned economy, and has the academic skills to back up what she is doing. I can see lots of academic papers being written about this book.

The problem for our heroes is that they have now tasted the freedom of Earth. Mars, on their return, suddenly feels horribly repressive. Being students, their thoughts turn to revolution. This is complicated by the fact that our main viewpoint character, Luoying, is the granddaughter of Hans Sloan, the man who has been First Consul since the War of Independence, and is known on Earth as the Dictator of Mars.

She looked up at him, her eyes glistening. “The problem isn’t whether things are good here but that you can’t think it’s not good here.”

There’s just so much to think about in this book. I have a whole pile of quotes bookmarked and not enough space in a simple review to talk around them all. It isn’t always easy to understand the points that Hao is making either. I got the impression as I went through the book that I would not understand it properly without some grounding in Confucianism and Buddhism, which have very different modes of philosophical thought to what we are used to from Classical Athens.

There’s one final point that I want to make. Hao uses the Mercury group in her novel because they are people who have experienced both Terran and Martian society. Almost uniquely they are able to compare and contrast the two. But this puts them in a very difficult situation.

Luoying and her friends were fated never to return home. The ship they were on was forever vacillating on the Lagrangian point between the two worlds. To vacillate was also never to belong. It was their fate to be cosmic vagabonds.

That’s a metaphorical ship, of course. What Hao means is that having seen both societies, Luoying and her friends no longer feel at home in either. The only “home” they have is each other, people who share the same life experience.

This brings me to a new series of online talks being put on by the folks who produced FutureCon. They will, I think, be monthly, and the first one focused on pan-American SF beyond the USA. One of the panellists was Alejandra Decurgez from Argentina. She’s a psychologist in her day job, and she said a lot of interesting things. At one point she started talking about how our sense of community is very different in these days of global pandemic. Our group of friends is no longer the people we see daily in our local geographic spaces, or at work, but the group of individuals that we interact with regularly online. Typically we choose these friends because they share similar values to us, and those values may be very different from those of the nation states in which we live. In a very real way, we are all becoming Hao’s vagabonds.

book cover
Title: Vagabonds
By: Hao Jingfang
Translator: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


MachineSomewhat to my surprise, Machine is Elizabeth Bear’s thirty-second novel. It shows. This is a second book in her White Space series of space opera books, and it is very assured. There is some possibility that the White Space series is named, in part, for the Sector General books of the legendary James White, and this book introduces us to Bear’s future hospital.

Machine, then, is not a direct sequel to Ancestral Night. There’s no Haime Dz, and Singer, the spaceship from the first book, only makes a guest appearance. Machine centres on Dr Brookllyn Jens and the crew of I Race to Seek the Living (aka Sally). They are a search and rescue crew, whose job it is to answer distress signals from spaceships with medical emergencies. Dr Jens is the crew member who gets to board stricken spaceships to determine if they are safe, and possibly haul the injured out of something that is about the explode.

For their latest mission, Jens and her colleagues have been sent to investigate an ancient generation ship called Big Rock Candy Mountain. It has recently been discovered by a ship crewed by alien methane breathers. On arrival Jens finds the two ships docked, and the aliens comatose. The crew of the generation ship are all in cryo tanks, save for a fembot who gives her name as Helen Alloy, and who seems to have some serious psychological issues after so long alone. Oh, and if this is indeed a ship from Earth there’s no way it should be where it is, traveling at the speed it is.

Long-time SF readers will, of course, note the reference to Lester Del Rey’s famous story, “Helen O’Loy”.

It being their job, our heroic medics take both ships in tow and haul them back to Core General, the main hospital at the centre of the galaxy. Saving lives comes first, figuring out the mystery of what happened is a job for someone else. Sometimes heroic medics can be spectacularly foolish.

Most of the action is set in Core General, and this does reunite us with one character from Ancestral Night, Constable Cheeirilaq, the mantis-like alien who is what passes for law enforcement in the White Space world. Complicating matters is the fact that the hospital’s expert in cryonics, Dr Rilriltok, is a male of the same species.

Rashaqin reproduction is harrowing. Their entire social order is built to keep adults well-separated, with lots of private space, so they don’t accidentally eat one another. The spawn are aquatic and generally not considered to be sentient until they pass through the nymph stage and emerge on land in their penultimate instar as miniature adults. At this point, they are taken into crèches and educated by carefully organised, regimented communities of adults.

This is probably for the best, as the spawn are both numerous and cannibalistic. On Rashaq, they’re left to themselves until they moult out into that educable stage.

At times it seems like Bear might have been listening to one of my lectures on worldbuilding with sex and gender, except that I know that Bear is smart enough to have done all of the research herself without any of my help.

There is some exploration of human behaviour as well. Cheeirilaq doesn’t understand why humans mostly subscribe to binary gender when someone like Jens is a lesbian and quite masculine in gender presentation.

I laughed. It was charming, for a creature entirely out of nightmare. Comparing it to the almost embarrassingly adorable Rilriltok, I could see what it meant about my species’s lack of dimorphism. “I don’t think of myself as very strongly gendered. And I could elect a genderless identity, or a mixed-gender identity, if I preferred.”

Wouldn’t that be less work?

“Oh probably,” I admitted. “Sure. But I choose to inhabit this conceptual space. To stretch it to accommodate me, rather than allowing it to contract. Because once a conceptual space starts to shrink by squeezing people out of it, it has a tendency to accelerate, and shrink and shrink and shrink until it squeezes out more and more people.”

And your conceptual space is woman.

“For now. Identities can be fluid over lifetimes, after all.”

The observant among you will have noticed that, despite their high degree of sexual dimorphism, the Rashaqin use “it” as their pronoun. Somehow I want to get that exchange into my trans awareness courses.

All of the above, however, is a bit of a side-track. The main thrust of the plot is about a virus, which is fortuitous considering that Bear must have written most, if not all, of this book before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It is also about socialised medicine, which is a very hot topic in both the USA and UK right now.

To sum up, an excellent science fiction novel by a very assured writer who is just as at home referencing the history of the field as she is diving into contemporary politics. Thirty-two novels in a 15-year career, and achieving this level of quality, is an impressive achievement.

book cover
Title: Machine
By: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Lovecraft Country

Well, that was interesting. Normally I don’t watch horror on TV. Lovecraft Country was very clearly filmed as horror, but mostly seemed more silly than scary. That, of course, is in no small part due to the fact that trying to represent the unspeakably horrible on screen is always doomed to failure. When we throw in the fact that this is Lovecraft we are talking about, and what he was terrified of was particularly weird, well you have no chance.

There was a lot of movie blood spurting everywhere. Hopefully it was easier to clean up than real blood.

There was also a lot of sex. Possibly this is prudish of me, but I tend to think that watching other people have sex is incredibly boring compared to actually doing it yourself. However, I was able to console myself that Lovecraft himself would be absolutely mortified to think that a TV series based on his life’s work was filled with so much groaning and humping.

It is a long time since I read Matt Ruff’s book. I definitely recognised parts of the story, but I’m in no position to know how closely Misha Green stuck to the original. More to the point, I don’t think it matters. I’m sure that one of Ruff’s objectives in handing the book over to a bunch of Black creatives to play with, would have been to allow actual Black people to put their stamp on things.

I hope, in turn, that the series worked well for Black viewers. There was a panel on the series at FIYAHcon, and it was clear that there were a number of reservations, especially from some of the audience. There’s always an issue, when a marginalised group gets a chance in the spotlight, that you have to be perfect or it will reflect badly on the entire group. That’s true for Black people, and it is true for Queer people. Lovecraft Country featured a number of Queer Black people, and that’s more than double jeopardy.

The problem is that many of the characters in Lovecraft Country are not very nice people. And I don’t just mean the whites. Personally I’m pleased that Misha Green and her team elected to roll with it. Being able to have bad people who are Black and Queer is an important part of liberation, because if people are not allowed to be bad then they are not free.

There is an honourable exception to the cast. I’m very fond of Hippolyta. The episode that she stars in will be on my Hugo ballot next year.

The final question to ask about any TV series is whether the ending worked. Given that this is cosmic horror, the finale was always going to be a lot silly. Nevertheless, I thought the show did very well. I particularly loved the final scene. In some ways, that final episode might be the scariest thing about the show. Of course it is only potentially scary for white people, but if we are scared by it, we very much deserve it.

Ring Shout

Ring ShoutIt is entirely true that Phenderson Djèlí Clark is one of my favourite writers right now. I have loved everything he has done to date, and Ring Shout does not disappoint.

As the cover suggests, this is a story about the Ku Klux Klan, but it is not quite the Klan as we know it. Thanks to some of the leading members of the organisation dabbling in evil magic, strange creatures have found their way through to our world from a parallel universe, and they are posing as Klan members in order to stir up more of that delicious hatred on which they feed. If you happen to be an actual demon, running around in long white robes and a big, pointy white hood is a very useful disguise.

Ranged against them is a group mainly formed of black women. Our narrator is Maryse Boudreaux, who has a magic sword. Her best friends are Sadie, who is a bit of a firebrand and a dab hand with a rifle, and Chef, who dressed as a man to fight in WWI and is useful with explosives. They form a very effective monster-hunting team. Their boss is an old witch woman called Nana Jean, and back at HQ (and old farm) they have backup such a Molly Hogan, a scientist of sorts, and Emma Krauss, a German woman with a penchant for revolutionary Communism.

Most importantly, Nana Jean has a group of people who can perform Ring Shouts. These are religious rituals supposedly first practiced in slave communities in the Americas, but which I suspect owe a lot to similar ceremonies held back in Africa.

Clark has a lot of fun introducing various unsavoury aspects of 1920s America, including Prohibition and the odious DW Griffith who not only produced the hugely racist film, Birth of a Nation, but was also the first person to use a transphobic joke in a movie.

The book is a novella, so there’s not a lot of depth to the plot, but there’s plenty of character work. Maryse, in particular, has a string narrative arc. I particularly liked the fact that her boyfriend gets captured by the bad guys and she has to rescue him. I was a little nervous about Clark writing a story about three rambunctious women with active sex lives, but I think he has done a decent job of that side of it.

And in the middle of all that, there’s a little nod to Falcon from the Marvel movies.

So yeah, Ring Shout is a lot of fun, and I cannot wait for Clark’s debut novel next year.

book cover
Title: Ring Shout
By: P Djèlí Clark
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The First Sister

The First SisterThis one is a science fiction debut. It is solar system based, but sufficiently far removed from our time to feel more like space opera than The Quiet War or The Expanse.

There are two major civilisations. Let’s start with the Icarii, who control Mercury and Venus. Their society is essentially capitalist, with a strong arts and science interest. Wealthy Icarii are extensively engineered in the womb to look beautiful. They have made all sorts of technological advances. The top military agents are “duellists” — pairs of elegant warriors with programmable blades, telepathically linked via devices implanted in their skulls.

Our viewpoint character is Lito sol Lucius. He’s a kid from the lower reaches of Cytherea, the main city on Venus, who by strength of will and talent has made it into the duellist corps. Up until recently, he was partnered with Hiro val Akira, but following the conquest of Ceres by the enemy the pair have been separated. Hiro is the black sheep of the immensely wealthy Akira family who control much of Venusian industry. They are non-binary, and show little interest in becoming a cog in the family machine. This does not please Akira’s autocratic father one bit.

As for the enemy, that would be the Geans, who control Mars and Earth (though the latter seems not to be in a fit state for much inhabitation). They have a much more authoritarian society, controlled by two major organisations, the military and the church. However, this is not a church we would recognise. It worships a mother goddess, and its priestesses are seconded to the military as spiritual counsellors, confessors, and providers of sexual services.

Our other main character is the titular First Sister. She has no name, nor a voice. Both were taken from her when she entered the priesthood. As First Sister of the battleship Juno, she has been the exclusive companion of Captain Deluca. He is due to retire from service, and has promised to take her with him. But something goes wrong and the First Sister finds herself stuck on the Juno with a new Captain, Saito Ren. Captain Ren is a former Ironskin pilot (think clunky Iron Man suits in space) and the hero of the conquest of Ceres, but she was badly wounded in the battle, losing and arm and a leg. Gean bioscience is well behind that of the Icarii so she has fairly crude prosthetics.

There is one other important aspect to this future world, the Asters. They are an offshoot of humanity, evolved to live in the asteroid belt, and deemed subhuman by both Icarii and Geans. They form an underclass for both civilisations, not quite slaves, but with no hope of social advancement.

There are the Synthetics too, but they have gone off to live beyond Jupiter and promised faithfully to destroy any humans who trespass on their territory. I presume we’ll meet them in a future novel.

That’s the world that Linden A Lewis has created for The First Sister. The plot is essentially one of espionage. Both main characters are agents of their governments. Lito is given a new partner and sent back to Ceres with a mission to assassinate The Mother, the head of the Gean church. The First Sister is asked to spy on Captain Ren because in a society like the Gaens you can bet that the two organs of state are always plotting against each other. One of the beauties of the book is the way in which Lewis has both protagonists trapped by their superiors into doing things they strongly dislike because the costs of disobedience are even more horrific.

Having noted that one of the lead characters was in enforced sexual slavery, I was a little worried that the book would contain a lot of sexual violence. I’m happy to say that’s not the case. Obviously the priestesses are exploited, but they perform other functions as well as they are shown learning skills to navigate the situation rather than just being painted as victims.

I have found that the secret of smiling even if you don’t feel like it is to focus on something else instead of where you’re looking. I imagine my harboured daydreams of living on solid, gravity-controlled land with a house and a little garden of my own, grown for the glory of the Goddess in peaceful quietude. That always makes me smile trues, so when Jones looks at me, he sees love and thinks it’s for him.

Something else I liked about the book is the occasional attention to architectural detail.

The building’s stocky construction favors the Gean Modernist style. The bottom floors curve with the elegance of florals, punctuated by jutting spurs reminiscent of bones. The walls shimmer with ceramic scales as iridescent as an insect’s wings in soft pinks and blues. The double door handles taper in the middle from the swelled knots on the ends like a human femur. On the second floor, balconies protrude with the sharpness of a jawbone. The windows are bare ports, no two the same, and split as natural rock would be. Each opening is filled with grasping green plants that climb upward or dangle to the floor below.

I suspect that Gean Modernist architecture owes a certain amount to the influence of Gaudi.

That’s about as much as I can tell you without going into detail on the plot. I should note that I fairly raced through the book because I was keen to find out what the heck was going on. I should also note that there are some pretty spectacular plot twists. I’m not entirely sure that it all hangs together, but it was good enough to make for an entertaining story that ends a fairly satisfying way while setting us up for a sequel (a trilogy is promised). As a debut it was very impressive. I hope this book does well, because I’m sure that Lewis will get even better with time, and I don’t want to see them dumped because early sales aren’t good enough for the publishers to put any effort behind the rest of the series.

book cover
Title: The First Sister
By: Linden A Lewis
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


This year’s Eurocon was due to be in Croatia. I was very much looking forward to it, not the least because I was planning to have two Croatian books available at the event. As it turned out, of course, most of us were not able to go, and I only had one book available. Pandemics suck.

Nevertheless, the Croatians decided to put on a virtual convention for us, and many of them turned up in person at the planned convention site to help run it. They have much better virus management in Croatia than we do in the UK. This made it something of a hybrid convention, though the in-person element was quite small.

It seemed to be that the con was a little bit run on a shoestring. The tech always seemed just on the edge of collapsing. I’m not going to complain about that. I’m hugely impressed that anyone manages to put on virtual conventions at the moment, given how little practice we’ve had. But I will note, for future reference, that if you are thinking of doing such a thing you should not plan on using Jitsi, even if it is cheap, because it seems way too unreliable.

I had two programme items. One was a chat with Aleksandar Žiljak and Mihaela Perković about Croatian fiction, and in particular Aleksandar’s new book. The other was my funny animals talk, aka “Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender”. The talk did get recorded, but as of yet there’s no sign of the recordings being made available. However, an essay based on the talk will be in a book forthcoming from Luna Press Publishing next year.

There were lots of other fun panels, and the chat in Discord was good because the numbers were relatively small. As usual Sylvia Spruck Wrigley was one of the stars. Her talk, “To Oldly Go”, about elderly people in Star Trek, was one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

The ESFS Awards were duly given out. Ireland swept up quite a lot of them (full list of winners here). I do love the Irish, but I can’t help feel that they have something of an advantage, because they write mostly in English, and that means that many people from other European countries can read their work.

Which brings me to the final point about Eurocon. By US/UK standards it is not a very diverse event. There was one person in the Discord who seemed determined to find an excuse to bring social media down on the convention’s head because of this. But Eurocon is diverse in other ways. Most of the attendees do not speak English as their first language. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the UK is turning its back on Europe, and UK fandom has always mostly turned its back on Eurocon, English is the common tongue of the convention.

Alongside the language issue, Eurocon continues to struggle with the problem of vastly different cultures. Hungary and Poland are now very scary countries. Romania, Bulgaria and other small Eastern countries continue to be very poor in comparison to the West. Eurocon is very much part of the European Project, and thus an important institution in these times of escalating international tensions. As such it is an important institution that needs our backing.


For those not familiar with European conventions, Octocon is an annual event held in Dublin. This year it is celebrating its 30th anniversary, which is an impressive achievement. It is a great shame that it was no able to do so in person.

I first went to Octocon in 1999, and things were a little chaotic. Two decades later the convention is very smooth. Communication was good. The branding was good. Technically they had it all together. Programme items were streamed through Twitch for very much the same reasons as we ran CoNZealand Fringe through StreamYard. It gives you much better control over the live event than using raw Zoom. Twitch itself is a bit of a nightmare, being a centre for the streaming of all sorts of things, but thankfully you don’t need to pay much attention to it.

Of particular significance to me was the fact that the convention’s Fan Guests of Honour were a trans woman and her wife. Congratulations, Philippa and Helen, you very much deserve it.

I had just the one panel, titled “Better with Age – Older Characters in SFF”. I guess I’m being stereotyped again. But it was great fun, and I was honoured to be on panel with Ian McDonald, Gillian Polack and Marguerite Smith. I also had to be on hand for Juliet McKenna’s reading.

There were parties too and, because the convention was free to attend, anyone could drop in. I nudged Kevin and he was able to join us for the Glasgow in 2024 party and the Dead Dog.

There was a Discord, and as the convention was fairly lightly attended it worked very well.

Thanks to being on top of the tech, Octocon has been able to put all of the content up for viewing already. You can find links to all of the panels here.

Good job, Irish pals. But hopefully I will be able to come to Dublin again soon. I miss your lovely city.


FIYAHcon was not for me. I went along anyway to see how they did, and to listen and learn.

It seemed to go very smoothly. I don’t think that they used a wrapper for Zoom, but the panels ran OK. Some of the moderation was a little dodgy, but that was true of FutureCon and Futuricon as well. Practice makes perfect, and Tempest Bradford did a fine job with the Lovecraft Country panel.

The thing that struck me most about FIYAHcon was the sheer excitement and enthusiasm so many of the attendees showed. Here was a large group of fans who happened to be people of colour, and who for years had felt nervous in the mostly-white spaces of traditional conventions. Now at last they had a convention created by them, for them, and they were loving the freedom that they felt to express themselves. It was absolutely delightful.

The con was very well attended as well, despite having a non-trivial membership fee. I think there were around 1000 people online. That’s great, but it also seems to be the point at which using Discord for panel discussion seems to break down. As with at WisCon, we got to the situation where comments were flying by so quickly that it is was impossible to have a conversation. Much of the content was squee, and I totally understand why that was happening, but it is something for the ConCom to think about for future iterations.

There will, of course, be future iterations. As with FutureCon, I expect FIYAHcon to be a regular feature of the convention scene for years to come. This will be a challenge for established conventions such as Worldcon and World Fantasy. I saw a comment on Twitter, I think from Jared Shurin, that one of the good things about FIYAHcon was that the committee cared more about the convention than their own egos. This is spot on. One of the biggest problems that Worldcon faces is that, having won the right to hold the convention, each year’s ConCom is then heavily invested in proving that their Worldcon is the best ever, rather than doing Worldcon well.

FIYAHcon (and FutureCon) will have the benefit of having an established team running the event year after year. That brings with it a different raft of problems. There will be burnout. There will be rivalries within the ConCom. There will be a tendency to not want to change because change is scary. But these are still a way off. I very much look forward to seeing what they do next time.

Much of the FIYAHcon content is now available to re-watch, but you do have to have to have been a convention member to access it. As it was only a week ago, I haven’t had time to check it out yet, but there’s quite a bit that I want to catch up on, including several of the Fringe items which happened when I was asleep.

Seven Devils

Seven DevilsI wish I liked this book more than I do, because parts of it are a lot of fun. Parts of it, however, have me rolling my eyes.

One of the causes of this is the fact that the book is very much written to wind up the sort of people who complain about having too much “politics” in their science fiction, when what they actually have is a diverse cast of characters. The little group of plucky rebels fighting against an evil galactic empire that star in this book tick just about every diversity box going, except that there are no men. It is a fun joke, but perhaps too obviously a wind-up.

Another issue is that the book seems to be scripted as if it was a TV series. The plot really doesn’t hang together very well, the villains are cartoonish, and it is full of obvious cliché action sequences: trapped in an elevator shaft, dodging a security laser field, flying through an asteroid belt and so on.

However, Seven Devils has a lot of good points too. And I suspect that Elizabeth May and Laura Lam had a lot of fun writing it. Possibly quite a bit of whisky too. Or cocktails; whatever floats their boat, but they are based in Scotland. Here’s some stuff I liked.

Rhea, the reformed Courtesan, is not just a tart-with-a-heart. May and Lam have thought about how to make her useful to the team. Ariadne, the autistic software wizard who was raised by the Evil Empire’s AI also has a really interesting backstory.

There’s the occasional reminder that we are in a space opera:

Nyx made her way around the bridge. “All out like newgrowns still wet from the vat,” she confirmed.

And the evil Prince Damocles is a beautiful portrait of toxic masculinity in action.

Plus, why can’t women have a bit of rollicking space adventure action for themselves for once? Men have had plenty of corny nonsense to enjoy for decades. It is about time we had some of our own.

Finally, at some point in one of the sequels there will be probably be an opportunity for lots of people to shout, “Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia!” Which for some of us of a certain age will be a delightful moment.

book cover
Title: Seven Devils
By: Elizabeth May & Laura Lam
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Editorial – October 2020

Woooooo! Welcome the the Hallowe’en edition of Salon Futura. Not that I particularly planned that. I never quite know when I will get the issue online. The only horror content is the Lovercaft Country review. But a very happy Sahmain to you all anyway.

You might notice a new look to the website with this issue. I wasn’t too happy with the old theme anyway, and then the people who made it issued an update that broke my child theme. Running a WordPress site with out of date versions of software is potentially dangerous, so I needed to switch. There may be one or two weird things for a while. If you see anything odd, let me know and I’ll fix it.

There are three convention reports in this issue, and I am attending World Fantasy this weekend. That’s four conventions in one month, which is a bit much even for me. I am hoping for a quieter time in November. The World Fantasy report will be in the next issue.

I’m still thinking about how many issues I should do in a year. Emerald City only had 10, giving a more relaxed schedule. However, in these days of being trapped in our homes by malicious microbes, I can’t really claim to be taking a holiday, and work is likely to slow down over the holiday season. I’d love to have a couple of weeks by the sea to catch up on reading, but I can’t see that happening any time soon.

Issue #23

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

  • Cover: The Green Man’s Silence: This month's cover is The Green Man's Silence by Ben Baldwin

  • Piranesi: A review of Piranesi, the long-awaited new novel from Susanna Clarke

  • Settling the World: A review of Settling the World, the new collection celebrating 50 years of M John Harrison's short fiction.

  • Flyaway: A review of Flyaway, the stunning fantasy debut novella from Katheen Jennings

  • FutureCon: A report on a new online convention run largely out of Brazil, FutureCon.

  • Reclaim, Restore, Return: A review of Reclaim, Restore, Return, a free anthology of Caribbean science fiction produced for this year's Bocas Lit Fest

  • Shadow in the Empire of Light: A review of Shadow in the Empire of Light, a Regency romance with magic from Australian writer, Jane Routley

  • The Drowned Country: A review of the new novella from Emily Tesh, The Drowned Country

  • Flash Gordon at 40: A look back at one of the most bonkers pieces of movie space opera, which is now 40 years old

  • Editorial – September 2020: Oh look, Cheryl has been too busy again. However did you guess?


In the beginning was the world, and the world was the House: vast, halls without end, and on three levels. The lower level was the domain of the sea, prone to violent tides that could flood the upper levels, but also full of fish, the only source of food. The upper level was the domain of birds and clouds, the source of rain, reachable only by dangerous climbs. In the middle level there lived a man. We shall call him Piranesi, though he is sure that isn’t really his name, it is just the name that The Other calls him.

There are, in total, fifteen inhabitants of the house. There may be more, but Piranesi has not travelled far enough to find them. Thirteen of them are dead. Piranesi has found their remains and cared for them, placing their bones where the tides cannot, under normal circumstances, reach them. Two are alive. One is the person we know as Piranesi, and one is the person he calls The Other, though that is probably not his real name.

The Other is a mystery. He only appears two days a week. He wears different clothes each time. He brings Piranesi gifts such as fishing nets, matches to light fires with which to cook fish soup, plastic bowls in which to catch rainwater to drink. Piranesi does not question this. He is in awe of The Other, who is searching for Great and Secret Knowledge that he believes can be found in the House. But we, dear reader, we are made of more suspicious stuff. We suspect that Piranesi’s world might not be as all-encompassing as he thinks it is.

Of course if we happen to know who Giovanni Battista Piranesi was, and what he is famous for, then we might have some idea of what is going on here, but if we don’t want any spoilers we should probably resist the temptation to rush to Google before finishing the book.

It has taken many years for Susanna Clarke to write a second novel. She hasn’t been well, and I for one am delighted that she is finally feeling creative again. As you can see, Piranesi is not a sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and yet it is of a sort, because it continues the story of English Magic.

Jonathan Strange is, in a way, a man of the new world. He is modern and adventurous and business-like, much to the distress of the more staid and secretive Norrell. But both of them dabble in Magic that is of the old world, of the Fay and the Raven King. Around them, a new magic has been growing, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi was, in a way, one of its first practitioners. This is the magic of the Enlightenment, based not in Celtic or Saxon myth, but in the Classical world of Greece and Rome.

Piranesi is set in the second half of the 20th Century. The great wars are over, and the Age of Aquarius has dawned. Magic once again seems possible if you consume enough interesting substances. But to perform it you have to understand the past. You have to have read Robert Graves, Sir James George Frazer, Aldous Huxley and Colin Wilson. If Piranesi reminds me of anything, it is of John Fowles’ The Magus.

It should also have reminded me of something else, but it is a very long time since I read any Narnia books. I shall therefore simply recommend that you read Elizabeth Hopkinson’s review, which is very enlightening.

All of which is to say that Susanna Clarke’s new book is exactly as erudite as we might have expected. It is also fascinating, and gorgeously written. I expect to see it on a lot of award shortlists next year.

By the way, if you are interested in learning more about Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and how his work has influenced people and things as varied as Escher, Poe, Dumas, Fritz Lang, Peter Jackson, Dungeons & Dragons and Judge Dredd’s Megacity One, check this out.

book cover
Title: Piranesi
By: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Settling the World

In her forward to this new collection by M. John Harrison, Jennifer Hodgson says, “Harrison is always telling us the same story.” It is an odd thing to say when you are trying to persuade people to read a book, but in a way it is true. In part that’s because Harrison, like many writers, uses short fiction as a test bed for longer works. It is a bit like how an artist will do character sketches before committing to a massive piece on canvas. But also Harrison has particular interests.

Actually I think that there are two archetypical Harrison stories. In one the central character is vaguely aware that some other world exists just out of reach. They spend much of the story longing to find it, but never do. The second type sees the other world invade ours in some way. Humans desperately try to understand it, but fail dismally.

Those stories can be told in a wide variety of different ways, but they are recognisable. Perhaps the most famous example of the first type is, “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, which features in this collection, but you see it elsewhere too. “Cicisbeo”, also in the book, features a man who becomes obsessed with digging a tunnel into another world through the loft of his house.

The title story of the book, “Settling the World”, tells of how God, who happens to be a giant beetle, has returned to Earth. One of the things he has done is build a massive, 20-lane motorway which emerges from the sea at Southend and runs north. By day nothing can be seen on it, but at night giant road trains roll north towards the factories of Mordor Birmingham. Oxlade, a British secret service operative, is sent to investigate, and meets his old Communist opposite number in Southend on a similar mission.

So why, exactly, is there a new M. John Harrison collection? If you want a best of, then you might prefer to get Things that Never Happen, which I reviewed for Emerald City. That has more stories, and a small amount of overlap with Settling the World. However, Harrison has written a lot more in the intervening years. Also, 2020 marks 50 years of continuous publication for Harrison. The earliest story in this book was first published in 1971, and there is a 2020 story to bookend it. That is an anniversary that is definitely worth marking.

Contrary to possible expectation, the stories in Settling the World are not arranged in chronological order. Quite what obtuse theories inform the sequence of the stories is not obvious, but I understand that if you make a word cloud from the book you will see patterns in those clouds. Assembled in the correct way, they will form a route from our world into somewhere else. Viriconium! Getting there is not easy, but if you want it enough then one day you will walk through. Government men in unmarked vans will come and clear your house. Your neighbours will not be able to remember whether you died, or just moved away. Or your name.

Update: Small presses need your support, so please consider buying direct from Comma Press.

book cover
Title: Settling the World
By: M John Harrison
Publisher: Comma Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


I’ve been familiar with Kathleen Jennings’ art for some time, but only vaguely aware that she writes as well. That’s all changed now. I think she’s done some short fiction, but Flyaway is her first book-length publication, and it is incredibly assured.

If I had to categorise the book, I’d say that it was Australian rural fantasy. It is set in a small, country town, and while strange things do happen, they happen in a way that is very Australian. I didn’t see much of the country while I lived out there, but I can certainly recognise what Jennings is doing here.

The central character is Bettina Scott. Some years ago her father and brothers disappeared. But that’s what men do, right? They are wastrels. They are liable to just up and leave one day. Bettina has devoted herself to supporting her mother, who has pretensions to being Quality. That has rather cut her off from the rest of the community. After all, Mother wouldn’t want her mixing with riff-raff. Bettina is expected to be a proper lady and not do anything disgraceful.

Then, one day, Bettina finds a note in her letterbox. It is addressed simply to “Tink”, her childhood nickname. It sounds like one of her brothers is trying to get in touch with her. Mother would not approve, but Bettina’s curiosity gets the better of her. She ends up teaming up with two childhood friends, Gary and Trish, and going in search of whoever left that note. In the process she finds out more about her town, and about herself, than she probably wanted to know.

That’s it. That’s the plot. But it is beautifully told, with the revelations doled out carefully over the course of the tale. And it is so very Australian. Also it is a novella, so there wasn’t going to be a lot of plot.

The cover is, of course, by the author.

I will certainly be looking out for whatever Jennings does next.

book cover
Title: Flyaway
By: Kathleen Jennings
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


There have been lots of online conventions since the pandemic happened, but in my opinion the most interesting of them has been FutureCon.

To start with, this is a convention organised largely outside of the traditional con circuit. Francesco Verso was involved, and he’s part of the team putting on Eurocon in Italy next year. However, the majority of the team is from Brazil. You may be familiar with Fábio Fernandes, and if you follow my work closely you might have heard of Cristina Jurado from Spain, but this may well be your introduction to Ana Rüsche, Renan Bernardo & Jana Bianchi. They all did a fine job.

One of the objectives of the convention was to make it truly international. I think they had speakers from 26 different countries in all. Many of them were people who might not be able to attend a US or European convention in person. I was particularly delighted to see Mexico’s Pepe Rojo was involved. I adored his story in Cosmos Latinos.

In order to emphasise the international nature of the event (and de-fang the awful reality of having to hold the convention in English so we could all understand each other), panellists were invited to submit bios in their local language. I wrote mine in Welsh. I hope I did an OK job of it.

By the way, there is such a thing as Welsh language science fiction. I talked a bit about it on the translation panel. Hopefully there will be more news of that next year.

Because this was a brand new convention, there were no expectations from the audience. Sensibly the ConCom restrained their ambitions and had only 16 program items spread of 4 days. That allowed them to run the event with a very small crew. And they were 90-minute slots so that was 6 hours of programming per day, which should keep most people happy.

Many of the program items were 101 type stuff, introducing you to science fiction in various parts of the world: Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, China and so on. But there were also some meaty discussions. My attendance got derailed by a work emergency, but I have watched and enjoyed the panels on AI, solarpunk and decolonising the future. I also watched the Eastern Europe panel because Aleksandar was on it. All of the panels are still available online for free. You can find them here.

The con was an interesting experience for me. I try hard to be a good ally by promoting, and publishing, translated fiction, but I can totally understand the desire of many of the participants to sidestep the entire problem of the US publishing industry by reading in their local languages, and by translating between them. It is a big old world out there, and by the time you have got the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and Russians together, there are a lot more of them than Americans and Brits. They don’t need us.

I very much hope that FutureCon becomes an annual tradition. I love how they feel free to experiment with the form of conventions, and of course the truly international nature of the event. FutureCon represents what Worldcon could be, if it wasn’t weighed down by decades of tradition and Anglo-centric assumptions.

Reclaim, Restore, Return

One of the events that I would love to go to, but probably never will, is the Bocas Lit Fest. It is the Caribbean’s premier literary event, taking place each year in Port of Spain, Trinidad. This year it was virtual, but I didn’t find out until too late and anyway I suspect there would have been time zone issues. There is a recording available on YouTube, but it is 10.5-hours long so it will take a bit of effort to find the panels of interest.

Panels of interest, you ask? Why yes, there are two on science fiction, kicking off their Future Friday programme. See here. Because this is a proper literary festival, it doesn’t turn its nose up at the likes of Nalo Hopkinson and Karen Lord just because of what they write.

That, however, is not what I want to talk about. Because this year Bocas did more than showcase science fiction, it published an anthology. Reclaim, Restore, Return was produced in collaboration with the Caribbean Futures Institute, and you can download the ebook for free here.

The book is edited by Karen Lord and Tobias Buckell, and it features the usual big names in Caribbean SF, plus some new folks I was not aware of. There are six stories altogether, plus a poem and an introduction by Lord. The general theme of the book is a positive future for the Caribbean, and that’s a challenging thing to do given the threats posed by sea level rise, an increase in hurricanes, the loss of tourist revenue due to COVID-19 and so on. Nevertheless, the team does a fine job.

I was particularly struck by how many of the stories featured queer characters of various sorts. Hopkinson’s story, “Repatriation”, features a mindboggling scientific idea for rebuilding reefs. But I think my favourite was the Lord/Buckell collaboration, “The Mighty Slinger”. It uses near-future settlement of the solar system as a metaphor, so that the wrecked homeland the characters long for is planet Earth. It centres on a Calypso band with a political message, with echoes of both Bob Marley and Jean Michel Jarre. On the literary side there are nods to The Forever War and Al Reynolds’ Chasm City. I will definitely include it next time I get to do a Music in Science Fiction panel at a convention.

Did I mention that the book is free? Go ye forth and download.

book cover
Title: Reclaim, Restore, Return
By: Karen Lord & Tobias Buckell
Publisher: Caribbean Futures Institute
Purchase links:
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura
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