Hav

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
Bookshop.org 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.

DALEKS

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.

Vagabonds

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
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Machine

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
Bookshop.org 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
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org 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
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Futuricon

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.

Octocon

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

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
Bookshop.org 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?

Piranesi

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

Flyaway

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
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

FutureCon

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

Shadow in the Empire of Light

Declaration of interest here: Jane Routley is a dear friend from my days living in Melbourne. I reviewed several of her books in Emerald City. She rather fell off the radar for a while, but she’s recently signed up with top British agent, John Jarrold, and she has a new book out from Solaris.

Shadow in the Empire of Light will, I guess, be characterised as fantasy comedy Regency romance, but it is actually quite a bit more than that. The world in which it is set does seem to have some connection to Regency England, but the existence of magic has made a significant difference to society. Inheritance of magical talent is genetic, which helps the nobility keep control. But not every child will be a mage, so noble families are very much split between those who have the talent and those who do not. Also magic is much stronger in women than in men, so the society of the Empire of Light is a matriarchy.

Our heroine, Shine, is a minor member of the Imperial Family. She has no magical talent, but she is quite smart and does a good job running her family estates while her magically talented relations are off in the capital conspiring against each other. She is good at managing the peasantry (mainly because she respects rather than despises them). And she also has to worry about her poor Aunt Effulgentia.

Explaining that issue requires delving a bit more into Empire society. Yes, it is a matriarchy, which is good for women. One of the advantages that brings is that women are allowed to enjoy sex, and pick and choose their partners. This provides for some fun, though if you happen to be allergic to sex scenes you might want to avoid this book. However, matriarchy, coupled with the genetic nature of magical talent, brings with it a focus on reproduction. And that means that Empire society is horribly homophobic.

Aunt Effulgentia’s problem is that her only son, Bright, is in disgrace due to being gay. He’s supposedly banished to some frontier military outpost, but we are coming up to Blessing, the main religious festival of the Empire year, and he has risked a visit home. He knows he’ll get a welcome from cousin Shine, and he figures he can be away again long before the rest of the family arrives from the capital.

One of the reasons that Bright is making a visit is that he has a fugitive with him: a ghost. Ghosts are people from the cold lands to the south (Routley is Australian, remember). They are called ghosts because they have pale skin and hair, quite unlike the healthy brown skin of the people of the Empire. This chap is called Shadow, so although Shine is our heroine, this book is about him.

Why is Bright brining this fugitive foreigner into potential danger? Well you will have to read the book to find out, but it does set us up for a fair amount of comedy with people hiding in cupboards and under beds. Also ghosts are very prudish about sex. Silly people.

Of course the ghosts speak a different language. Shadow is quite competent at the language of the Empire, but he’s useless when it comes to colloquialisms. That leads him to say things like, “My excrement was almost scared out of me.”

The other main comedy element is Shine’s pet, whom she has given the imaginative name of Katti. Like felines everywhere, Katti is fierce when need be, but otherwise entirely out for herself.

Why do you speak with her when I am here? Thought Katti, purring imperiously and nudging the back of my head again. I require food.

Yes, Shine is in telepathic contact with Katti. And yet she has no magical talent. This is not explained.

Inevitably Shine gets herself into all sorts of trouble. Most of her relatives seem to be utterly awful people. Along the way we learn much more about her world, and there is plenty left unexplained for sequels. Hopefully there are some on the way.

I should note that the Empire is not intended to represent any real-world civilisation. Rather it is poking fun at British attitudes to race by making the arrogant nobility non-white. In a similar fashion, a society that we might expect to be very prudish is shown to be anything but. Routley neatly deconstructs Regency romance in all sorts of ways.

I very much enjoyed this book. Hopefully some of you will too.

book cover
Title: Shadow in the Empire of Light
By: Jane Routley
Publisher: Solaris
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Drowned Country

When I read Silver in the Wood I was a bit thrown by an apparent change in the book. It started off as a serious and spooky woodland-based fantasy, and then morphed into a gay romance set against a background of a Victorian-era monster hunter story. With The Drowned Country I knew exactly what to expect, and enjoyed the book a lot more as a result.

If you haven’t read Silver in the Wood, you might want to look away now, as it is hard to talk about the sequel without dropping clues to what happened in the first book.

Having become the Guardian of Greenhollow Wood, Henry Silver has settled into a life of indolence. What else is there to do with his seemingly endless life? Also he is sulking, because Tobias Finch has gone off with Henry’s monster-hunting mother to help her rid the world of evil. How desperately dull, right?

Oh dear, Henry. Fortunately salvation is at hand, in the form of a visit from his mother. Adela Silver has a particularly complex case. A young woman has been abducted by a vampire. She and Tobias need help. Would Henry kindly agree to provide it?

Things don’t go entirely as planned. Indeed, it would be fair to say that they don’t go at all as planned. Unless, of course, Mrs. Silver had some cunning scheme of her own to get Henry back on his feet.

Mostly, I think, Tesh is just having fun. That’s fine. However, she did an interesting interview for Breaking the Glass Slipper in which she talked a bit about how Henry and Tobias differed in their approach to acquiring magical power. The two novellas are as much a character study as anything else.

Personally I’d quite like a book about Adela Silver, Monster Hunter. But then again I’d also like to see Tesh do something that uses her Classicist background, because she certainly understands Greek goddesses.

book cover
Title: The Drowned Country
By: Emily Tesh
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Flash Gordon at 40

With the dominance of Marvel, and to a lesser extent DC, in modern cinema, it is easy to forget that these are by no means the only comic book characters to have made it to the big screen. Johnny Weissmuller is by far the most famous actor to portray Tarzan, but he was only the 6th man to do so. However, in terms of entertainment for kids, Universal’s serialised adventures of Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe, were by far the biggest superhero stories of their day. And because this was before we had a TV in every home, kids would go to the cinema to watch them.

After WWII, Flash Gordon disappeared from our screens, but he was not forgotten. A young man called George Lucas was keen to make a Flash Gordon movie, but he couldn’t afford the rights so he made his own space adventure instead. It did quite well.

Meanwhile, hot-shot producer, Dino De Laurentiis, decided that he would make a Flash Gordon film. De Laurentiis has made a large number of very successful movies, some of them widely acclaimed. But he also made Barbarella, which might have given people a clue as to what his Flash Gordon would be like.

It might not have happened that way. De Laurentiis had originally hired Nick Roeg, fresh from his triumph with The Man Who Fell to Earth, to helm the film. Quite a bit of work was done on Roeg’s version of the film. But the producer and director had a falling out, and responsibility for direction was passed to Mike Hodges, previously famous of making thrillers with Michael Caine.

Forty years on, it is hard to imagine how anything quite so bonkers as Flash Gordon might have been made. In these days of CGI, it is possible to create space opera that doesn’t rely on camp to cover up the paucity of the special effects. Of course the Wachowski sisters tried to have their cake and eat it. When I first saw Jupiter Ascending I was struck by how Caine’s final scenes when he has his wings back reminded me of Pygar the Angel from Barbarella. But the wedding scene in Jupiter Ascending was probably intended to hark back to the climax of Flash Gordon. The Wachowskis know their movie history well.

I picked up the 40th Anniversary edition of Flash Gordon because I wanted to watch the extras. Much of what I said above was informed by them. They also include a couple of episodes of a Flash cartoon series. (Flash and Dale have a pet baby dragon called Gremlin, who knew?) But I think they will be most of interest if you happen to be a Brian Blessed fan. He even gets to do a commentary track for the film. Naturally he is rather more interested in the character of Prince Vultan than in Flash.

One of the things I was surprised to discover was quite how much of the film was improvised by the cast. That American Football based fight scene in Ming’s palace, for example. Blessed also claims credit for improvising various iconic moments, and advising other actors on theirs. Of course that might just be Vultan talking.

Having re-watched the film a couple of times, I have to admit that my favourite characters are Klytus and Kala. Ming just a sad old man who happens to be Ruler of the Galaxy. Klytus and Kala have to work hard at being evil. Though it is great to see Timothy Dalton channelling Errol Flynn.

Oh, and there’s the music. The film would probably have become a cult classic anyway, but that iconic Queen soundtrack sealed the deal.

Editorial – September 2020

We are a bit thin this month. There are a couple of novels that I wanted to include here, but did not manage to finish in time. Next month, promise.

Part of the problem is that I have been reading for work. One of the things about running a publishing company is that people send you books. If you like them you can’t review them, but you can get to publish them, which is even better. Interesting things may be forthcoming from Wizard’s Tower in 2021.

The other thing that has been eating my time is that work is picking up. I have even done an in-person (socially distanced) training course, but most of the demand is for online and that has required a lot of learning and some radical re-structuring of the material.

October promises to be full of conventions. We have Eurocon, Octocon, FIYAHcon and World Fantasy, though I expect the October issue to come out before the latter. Hopefully I will get to see some of you at at least one of them.

Issue #22

Issue #22This is the August 2020 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


  • Cover: Black Panther: The cover for issue #22 features Cheryl's favorite superhero

  • Unconquerable Sun: A review of the first book of Kate Elliott's new space opera, Unconquerable Sun

  • Harrow the Ninth: A review of book 2 in Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb Trilogy, Harrow the Ninth.

  • Lovecraft Country: As Lovecraft Country takes over our screens, Cheryl looks back on the original novel.

  • Worldcon – Wellington: It was the first virtual Worldcon. What does that mean for the future of the convention?

  • NASFiC – Columbus: There was an unexpected virtual NASFiC. What did they learn from Worldcon?

  • The Space Between Worlds: A review of The Space Between Worlds, a very promising science fiction debut by Micaiah Johnson

  • Selkie Summer: A review of Ken MacLeod's contemporary fantasy novella, Selkie Summer

  • Supergirl Season 5: In the latest season, Supergirl has a whole bunch of enemies to overcome, and a very real threat beats her.

  • Editorial – August 2020: Cheryl reflects on the loss of Chadwick Boseman and the significance of the character, Black Panther.

Cover: Black Panther

Cover: Black PantherFor this issue’s cover I wanted to pay tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman. That meant searching the internet for re-usable pictures of Black Panther. The image I settled on is by Omar Al Farooq Pn. You can find the original here. Omar also has a page on ArtStation. He’s a professional graphic designer living in India.



Here’s the full image:

Black Panther

Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable SunSo, a book that is basically a gender-swapped Alexander the Great Space Opera. Do you think that might appeal to someone who writes Amazons in Space stories? If you do then you would be entirely correct. To quote KJ Charles’ legendary comment about The Green Man’s Heir, it is so far up my street that it could be my house.

The danger with such a thing, of course, is that it might not be what I expect. I did wonder whether I would sit there taking notes about bits of historical nonsense that threw me out of the story. I need not have worried. Kate Elliott knows what she is doing. Unconquerable Sun is far enough (by several millennia and innumerable light years) from the source material for such things not to matter. The book is inspired by Alexander, but does not pretend to be a re-run of history.

Let’s see what it does take from history first. The Republic of Chaonia is a small interstellar state which, despite its name is ruled over by a Queen-Marshal. It is bordered by two much larger states, the Phene Empire and the Yele League. All of these states are fragments of what was a much larger galactic empire which fractured after the collapse of parts of the beacon network, the wormhole system that permits rapid interstellar travel. Although the inhabitants of these systems are apparently descended from humans, a great deal of genetic engineering has been done by the Phene and, for reasons best known to themselves, they now have four arms.

The Phene, then, are the Persians. They are fabulously rich and scientifically advanced. They love art. But they are perhaps too slow moving to cope with their smaller, more agile rivals. The Yele are the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city states cobbled together by the Athenians to keep the Persians at bay after the invasion by Xerxes had been decisively repulsed. As if to reinforce the point, a Chaonian character is at one point given to exclaim, “Never trust a Yele bearing gifts.”

But it isn’t that simple. The Phene have a religion reminiscent of Byzantium, including churches called Basilica. And they speak Latin, or at least some of them do. At one point a minor Phene character exclaims, “Alea iacta est.” I look forward to the unconquerable Sun pitting her military brains against a Phene general called Belisarius.

As for the Chaonians, their historical analogue occupied a part of Greece known as Epirus. It is in the north-west of the country, just south of modern Albania. I suspect that Elliott may have chosen it in order to avoid the troublesome name, Macedonia. The Chaonians don’t have a great military history, but their near neighbours in Epirus, the Molossians, once waged war on the Roman Republic. They were led by a chap called King Pyrrhus, who gave his name to the concept of a military victory so costly for your own side that it was perhaps not worth winning. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, was the daughter of a Molossian king.

In any case this is all moot because we are in a space opera. The founding queen-marshal of Chaonia was called Inanna and she adopted an eight-pointed star as her badge. Did I punch the air when I read that? Of course I did.

The story opens with Sun still a young woman. She is the only heir of queen-marshal Eirene. However, her father, Prince João, comes from a small and mysterious people known as Gatoi who are genetically engineered to be superior warriors. João is a Portuguese name, and gato means cat in both Spanish and Portuguese. Because Sun is not pure-blood Chaonian, the various noble houses keep plotting to supplant her with one of their own, and this forms the backdrop to much of the plot.

Like Alexander, Sun has a group of loyal Companions whom she has known through her childhood. Unlike Alexander, these are not all warriors. And they all have cee-cees – companion’s companions – who also have useful abilities. James is an expert hacker, and his cee-cee, Isis, owns a pet pteranodon that she has trained as a scout. The Handsome Alika is what D&D players will immediately recognise as a Bard, and whose job on the team is to mastermind Sun’s social media presence, particularly though a popular talent show called Idol Faire. His cee-cee, Candace, is a pilot and also an expert with war fans (the Japanese practice of tessenjutsu, as made famous in Avatar: the Last Airbender).

Because conflict is the seed of story, much of the plot also revolves around the introduction of a new Companion. Persephone Lee is the daughter of the powerful House Lee, which runs the Chaonian secret service. Perse’s elder sister, Ereshkigal, is a celebrated war hero who gave her life for the Republic. Her aunt, Moira, is a skilled political operator and a former Companion of the queen-marshal. Perse is referred to in chapter heading as “the Wily Persephone”, but it soon becomes clear that this reflects her self-image more than her actual capacity for cunning. She makes a charming foil for the ridiculously competent Sun.

Naturally, because of the setting, space battles also play a major part in the narrative. This is military science fiction, thought I doubt that any of the dudebros who love such things would accept it as such given the prevalence of women in the narrative.

There’s also a lot of court politics, and a certain amount of teenage angst, especially from Persephone. The world-building is mainly political and military, but every so often we get something charming.

The landscape beyond is grass and scrub. A herd of styracosaurus graze in the distance, mixed with a herd of dwarf diplodocus and several handsome nodosaur of the kind ridden by bold knights in the days of the Celestial Empire.

Yep, that original human galactic empire? Probably run by the Chinese. Everyone seems to eat Asian food. But fear not, white bros, the classic tunes that Alika plays are written by British and American artists.

Because this is space opera, we expect something off the wall as well. We get that in the form of a group of Phene agents called Riders. They are Phene who are born with two personalities, one of whom has a secondary face on the back of the head. All of these secondary personalities are in constant telepathic contact with each other, which is very useful in a military context where combat can be spread across multiple star systems. Also decidedly creepy.

There is an awful lot to this book, in fact a lot more than I have let on, and it is very much part 1 of a series. Sun isn’t even queen-marshal by the end of it. I have no complaints on that score. This is a 500+ page book that I devoured in a day and a half because I couldn’t put it down.

Next book now please? Also Bagoas.

book cover
Title: Unconquerable Sun
By: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Tor
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the NinthIt appears that the Emperor’s plan has worked. Of the eight necromancers who came to Canaan House, two have succeeded in ascending to Lyctorhood. They are Ianthe Tridentarius, and of course Harrowhark Nonagesimus, who is the central character of this book. Now the two young Lyctors are ready to join their remaining elder colleagues in the great war that the Emperor is waging against, well, something. They have a lot to learn before being plunged into battle.

Unfortunately something has gone wrong. In Harrow’s case the Lyctor process appears to have been incomplete. Part of her is missing. What’s more, we see regular flashbacks to her time in training at Canaan House. Having read Gideon the Ninth, we know those flashbacks are false memories. The people who die, and the way in which they die, are very different. And someone very important is missing.

The mystery of what has gone wrong with Harrow’s mind, and why, is one of the central themes of the book. Another is the worldbuilding. In Gideon, save for some inter-planetary travel and a few shuttles, we saw little of the outside world. It was easy to pretend that these books were fantasies about necromancers and swordsmen. In Harrow the Ninth we leave the Solar System and get to see more of the audacious universe that Tamsyn Muir has created. Simply put, these books are a space opera in which the primary technology is necromancy.

How does that work, exactly? Well we have already seen Harrow in action, creating servants from fragments of bone. But that’s all very fantasy. What about space travel? Well, there has to be a means of faster-than-light travel, and in Muir’s universe that is achieved by dropping your craft into The River, that vast stream of nothing in which dead souls go to wander. Naturally you are at extreme danger of attack by angry ghosts, so you need good necromantic protection, but once there you can travel very quickly indeed.

Mad? Yes, of course it is. The whole series is mad. Harrow is mad, which is unsurprising given the awful upbringing that she had. And a few other people might well be mad as well.

I mentioned earlier that Harrow and Ianthe get to join the remaining members of the Lyctor corps. Several of them are dead, but three remain and like, the Emperor, Necrolord Prime, King of the Nine Renewals, Giver of Resurrection, His Celestial Kindness, King Undying, God and so on and so forth (also known as John), they have been alive for ten thousand years.

Imagine, if you will, a superhero team. Say, the Avengers. They have come together to fight evil, or at least an extra-terrestrial threat. They have been doing this for some time, and over the years their relationships with each other have undergone changes. They have fallen out, fought against each other, had affairs, got married, broken up, left the team in a huff and so on.

The Avengers, however have only been going for around 50 years (subjective time, far less in comic time). Imagine what sort of conflicts might arise in a superhero team that has been around for ten thousand years, whose members cannot die, and all of whom owe their undyingness to their leader. What grudges might they hold against each other? What patient and convoluted plans for revenge might they be hatching?

You may not be surprised that many of the chapters of this book are dated in the form, “X Months before the Emperor is Murdered.” You may need reminding that if God dies, so does the Sun, and all nine planets that orbit it.

Oh, and there is the small matter of the war. There are monsters in the darkness of space. Some of them are capable of laying waste to planets, eating planets if you will. They have servants, which are known as Heralds. Of course they are. They don’t have surfboards, though.

I think that mostly covers it, though there are things I have left out because you need to discover them for yourselves. By the end of the book you will know a lot more about the deep history of Muir’s universe, and the more recent history of one Gideon Nav. There is one more book to come, and it will be very different again. It will probably be even more space opera-like than this one, but there will also be lots of bones.

Which leaves us, of course, with the elephant in the room. One the one hand, Gideon the Ninth was a sort of lesbian love story. On the other, the relationship between Gideon and Harrow was so horribly dysfunctional that it would take an entire legion of therapists to sort out. Instead Muir has dumped poor Harrow in the company of a small bunch of people who might be even less sane than she is. And threatened her with imminent, hideous death.

The point is that just about everyone in this book is a deeply damaged person. They are going to do awful things to each other. Presumably we are to hope for redemption and resolution by the end of book 3. That won’t be easy to achieve. But there is one small ray of hope on the horizon. If I might be permitted one small spoiler, my favourite character from book 1, Camilla Hect, is still alive and looks like playing a major role in book 3.

book cover
Title: Harrow the Ninth
By: Tamsyn Muir
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft CountryAs I write this issue, the TV series is only two episodes old. It seems to be going down very well, despite the obvious drawback that trying to depict Unspeakable Horror on a TV screen is going to end up looking silly. But inevitably few of the people commenting on it (including some writing reviews in paying venues) have any idea that it is based on a novel.

Matt Ruff’s book of the same name came out in 2016 and was on my Hugo ballot for that year. From what I have seen on Twitter, Ruff has done the sensible thing and turned his creation over the Misha Green to do with what she will. She appears to have changed some names (and I regret the loss of the Dorothy Dandridge reference), and dropped Caleb entirely, but book to screen always involves changes. Green and Ruff seem to be on good terms, which is good to know.

I suspect that there might be a bit of surprise in some quarters when people discover that the original book was written by a white guy. White people have certainly tried to cash in on parts of the story. The movie Green Book has come in for a fair amount of criticism from Black Americans. Lovecraft Country did it first, and did it better.

However, the original credit should not go to Misha Green, or to Matt Ruff. At NASFiC I was on a panel with Eileen Gunn who edited one of the first online fiction magazines, The Infinite Matrix. At some point (I’m not sure if we were live at the time) Gunn commented that Ruff got the idea for Lovecraft Country from an essay in The Infinite Matrix. It was called “Shame”, and it was written by a Black woman called Pam Noles. It doesn’t mention Lovecraft, but it is absolutely about the relationship of Black people with the whiteness of science fiction. You can read it here.

Ruff gets a credit on the TV series. Noles, of course, does not. But both of their contributions are in danger of being forgotten.

History lesson over. Here is my original review of Matt’s book. I note that it was written 4 years ago when life for Black people in the USA was quite a bit safer than it is now.


There are some books that sound like an accident waiting to happen. A Cthulhu Mythos book told from the point of view of a black family from Chicago, written by a white man, seems very much in that vein. And yet it was written by Matt Ruff, who has made a career of tackling very difficult subjects. His 9/11 book, The Mirage, for example, is seen mostly from a Muslim point of view. Lavie Tidhar’s Osama might have been a somewhat better book — it certainly won more awards — but I can’t fault Matt for bravery and for trying. At a time when Lionel Shriver is making an idiot of herself whining about having to worry about cultural appropriation, Matt shows just what a good job you can do if you put your mind to it.

Well, at least I think he does. I too am, after all, a white person from a nominally Christian country. My knowledge of Islamic culture, and of African-American culture, is doubtless far more limited than Matt’s because he has done the research here and I haven’t. My research has been limited to trying to find out what actual African-Americans think of Lovecraft Country. Tor.com very sensibly asked one to write their review, and she loved the book. Charlie Jane Anders has also praised the book, and she has much more day-to-day contact with African-Americans than I do (and I expect her to have asked them, because she’s good like that). Besides, the book has been out for a while, and if it was problematic I am pretty sure that the Internet would have fallen on Matt’s head by now.

But enough of the skirting around the subject, what is the book actually about?

Well, Lovecraft Country is a tale of the Turner family who live in Chicago in the 1950s. We first meet Atticus, recently demobbed from service in Korea. Later we encounter his father, Montrose; his uncle George who runs a travel business catering to middle class black people who want to be able to travel the USA in safety; Aunt Hippolyta who wanted to be an astronomer; and cousin Horace who is a budding comics creator. We also meet two very resourceful sisters, Letitia and Ruby Dandridge. Janelle Monáe fans will know where that last name comes from.

Back in time, Atticus’s grandmother was a slave owned by the Braithwhite family of Massachusetts. Mr. Braithwhite had an interest in the eldritch arts. Because slave owners do what slave owners do with female slaves, the young lady ended up pregnant. But because wannabe sorcerers do what wannabe sorcerers do, Mr. Braithwhite came to sticky end and our heroine was able to escape to freedom.

Blood, however, is important stuff in magic. Just as one drop of black blood can mark someone out as a lesser being in the eyes of racist Americans, so the considerably more than one drop of Braithwhite blood that the Turners possess marks them out as persons of importance, and even power. As far as Braithwhite’s white descendants are concerned, there is only one thing to do:

Montrose nodded: “He’s going to summon up one of the Elder Klansmen. A host of shiggoths too, probably. And you’re the sacrifice.”

“I’m glad you are feeling good enough to joke about it, Pop.”

Without giving too much away, Atticus manages to escape the horrible fate that Samuel Braithwhite had planned for him. However, Braithwhite’s son, Caleb, proves a much more wily and resourceful adversary. The book proceeds through a succession of short narratives in which various members of the Turner clan have encounters with various cultists and eldritch horrors. The whole thing comes over as a re-telling of a Call of Cthulhu campaign in which the Turners and their friends are the player characters.

In a review in the LA Review of Books Justin Bortnick complains that Lovecraft Country has none of the feel of eldritch horror that a true Cthulhu Mythos tale should have. But Bortnick has completely missed the point. Firstly, this being a Call of Cthulhu campaign, the Turners and Dandridges are able to bring their science fiction fan knowledge to bear on the problems that they face. And they are science fiction fans. Atticus and Montrose are voracious readers. Hippolyta wants to be an astronomer. And Horace is writing a comic series about a kick ass space heroine called Orithyia Blue. One of the things you learn when playing Call of Cthulhu is that the whole set-up is inherently ridiculous.

Much more importantly, however, there is very much a sense of horror that pervades the book. That horror is provided, not by tentacled beings from beyond the stars, but by the very real racism that our heroes face. Those of us who are decent, empathetic people are already horrified enough by the victimization that black people face in America today. Without any disrespect to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is extremely important, it is an eye opener to discover just how much worse things were back then.

Here Matt’s research skills come to the fore (or possibly those of his wife, Lisa, who is a Queen of the Internet). Lovecraft Country is laced through with example after example of the horrors faced by black families in 1950s America. It is mindboggling. I have some idea of what they had to go through because as a trans person I have experienced a world in which people can fire you from jobs, refuse you access to hotels, shops, housing and hospitals, and so on, just because of who you are. But I certainly haven’t had to face the daily threat of (police-sanctioned) violence that the heroes of Lovecaft Country have to put up with.

Talking of trans issues, there’s a section of the book in which Caleb Braithwhite attempts to recruit Ruby Dandridge to his cause by providing her with a magic potion that turns her into a white woman. Ruby calls herself Hillary while so disguised. Here’s a brief extract in which other white people have been talking to Hillary about their disdain for black people.

It was nothing Ruby hadn’t heard, or overheard, a million times before. But there was a difference between having people talk about you, or at you, and having them talk to you, believing you were one of them and expecting you to think as they did. It took a significant effort on Hillary’s part not to give herself away, and to extricate herself from the conversation without telling the one sort of lie Ruby considered unpardonable—silence, in the face of some things, being damning enough.

This is very much what it is like being a trans woman prior to transition. Some men say the most appalling things about women when they think we are not listening, and they expect all other men to agree with them (and suspect you of being gay if you don’t). Well done Matt on thinking of highlighting that.

There are other ways in which Matt throws research into the book without ever seeming to infodump. For example, the Braithwhites live in a part of Massachusetts called Devon County. The original settlers came from a small town in North Devon called Bideford. Matt never explains that this is the town that the Roanoke colonists came from. He just assumes that if we know we’ll smile knowingly, which of course I did.

Then there are lovely exchanges like this one between Caleb and Ruby:

“You want to be the Al Capone of warlocks.”

“More like the Frank Costello, if we’re going with a Mafia analogy,” Braithwhite said.

“Abbot or Costello, I don’t care,” said Ruby.

Caleb Braithwhite is, in some ways, the most fascinating character in the book. Unlike his father, and most of the other occultists in the book, he’s not an out-and-out racist. He doesn’t want a return to slavery. He thinks that black people can be quite useful as employees. Provided, of course, that they know their place and are capable of taking orders from their betters. He probably thinks of himself as a good ally.

Yes, Caleb Braithwhite is the character that Matt has put in there for white people to identify with if they can’t stomach the thought of identifying with a black person. His ultimate fate is therefore quite important to how successful the book is. No spoilers, and anyway it isn’t my place to judge. But, like I said, the Internet has not yet fallen on Matt’s head, so I think he’s got it right.

book cover
Title: Lovecraft Country
By: Matt Ruff
Publisher: Picador
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Worldcon – Wellington

Worldcon - WellingtonIt all seems so very long ago now. That’s one of the disadvantages of having a monthly publication. If you hit the wrong point in the cycle, everyone else has had their say before you. Of course I did have my say on my blog. You can find my thoughts on the Hugo Award Ceremony fiasco here, and some more general thoughts on why such things happen here. And if you are a serious drama junkie then Cora Buhlert has an enormous round-up of reactions to the Hugo Ceremony here.

Mostly the whole affair has convinced me that WSFS has to change, and change quickly (well, as quickly as it can), because it simply cannot go on being run by volunteers who are expected to behave as if they are full-time professional staff. Every Worldcon has drama behind the scenes. Every Worldcon has staff who mess things up, sometimes by accident, sometimes though being overloaded, sometimes through ignorance, and sometimes through malice. But it is always WSFS and Worldcon that gets blamed when things go wrong because it is assumed that there must be a “Them” who are in charge, are probably making a fortune from being in charge, and who ought to have done better.

One thing that struck me this year is the claim that WSFS is an oligarchy. The assumption was that because you have to pay to be a member and to vote in the Hugos and Site Selection, then rich people were in charge. But that’s not how it works at all. WSFS is an oligarchy, but where the money comes in is being able to travel to Worldcon every year, paying a fortune in air fares and hotel bills, so that you can participate in running the event and sit in the damned Business Meeting for hours on end. Also, to get to run a Worldcon, you have to win a bid. To my knowledge, no one has ever won a bid by throwing money at Site Selection, buying memberships for people who will vote the way you want. But in order to win a bid you have to spend an absolute fortune on travel to other conventions to promote the bid. And that is how people who have money end up in charge.

So WSFS needs to change. It needs to stop being a game for those people who can afford to go to Worldcon every year. But change may also happen in other ways, because the current situation with international politics and the pandemic is making in-person events less feasible, and virtual ones more popular. So I’m going to spend the rest of this report talking about how CoNZealand managed the virtual side of the convention.

The thing that became immediately obvious from attending CoNZealand was that it was using a whole bunch of software systems cobbled together. That wasn’t their fault. A good software platform for an event the size of Worldcon simply doesn’t exist. We haven’t needed it up until now. I’m sure that a whole bunch of companies are working hard on developing new features for their platforms, but right now we are stuck with jerry-built systems.

Most obviously, CoNZealand was using Grenadine for scheduling programming, as Worldcons have been doing for many years now. It was using Zoom to deliver the actual programme items. It was using Discord for the social side of the convention. It had to integrate with The Fantasy Network for streaming and archiving the programme. I understand that Jitsi was being used to provide the chat functions for the Dealers’ Room. There may have been other systems involved as well. Any experienced software developer will tell you that this is a nightmare waiting to happen, especially if you want seamless, one-time log-in across all platforms.

One of the interesting things about the convention was numbers. It became clear that the number of people with attending memberships was greater than the number of people who registered online as attending, and that in turn was greater than the number of people who registered for Discord. This was being held up as an example of how the convention had “failed”. The truth turned out to be much more complicated.

I asked on Twitter for people who had memberships and did not log in to various parts of the con why they had done so. The responses can be found here:

There’s rather a lot, so here are some of the key points.

A number of people had bought memberships but do not find virtual cons appealing, or were put off by time zone differences, or got overwhelmed by work, but did not seek refunds. There were also quite a few people living in multi-member households who only needed one login as they were only watching programme (and indeed may have only have one device with which to participate).

Of those who did register for the convention, some simply (I think mainly writers) did their panels and that was it. Quite a few had trouble logging in, and I suspect a lot of that was due to the quality of the instructions which I felt were woeful. Even Kevin and I had trouble understanding them at times. But other people, having seen complaints from other people about the log-in process on social media, decided not to bother.

Some people simply don’t like Discord. I can see why. It is like having the opportunity to talk to everyone at the convention at once. The amount of chat can be overwhelming, and if discussion about a panel gets going the flow of messages can ramp up very quickly indeed. (This was more obvious at WisCon which has far less programming.) Because the Dealers’ Room used a different chat system, some Dealers didn’t bother with Discord.

To some extent this parallels in-person events. There are people who attend Worldcon who never go to programming, who never go to parties, who have to spend almost the entire con in the Dealers’ Room, and so on. We didn’t see this before because we had little means of measuring it. Now we can measure it easily, so as well as thinking about how we can make better use of platforms we should take the opportunity to better understand the various ways in which people like to (or have to) experience the convention.

This being Worldcon, which is volunteer run, it is important to understand the staffing requirements of virtual conventions. Each programme item needs someone on hand to manage the chat and audience questions. The moderator can’t do that as well as run the panel. Each programme item probably also needs a tech person on hand to deal with any issues that might arise. And these people can’t be expected to be on duty all day. That’s a lot of staff you need to find. At an in-person convention one programme-ops person can generally manage several rooms at once.

Discord also needs a lot of staff. It needs people to set up and manage the tech and user-experience side of it. But more importantly it needs people to answer questions and to moderate the chat. Just like with any other form of social media, rows can blow up very quickly. With a large convention you need several people constantly prowling the Discord channels making sure that nothing terrible is going on. Moderating social media is a difficult and stressful job, so finding these people will be hard.

Capacity is also a major issue for online events. CoNZealand was fine most of the time, but the major events had serious capacity issues which resulted in several different streams being made available for the Hugo Award Ceremony so that if one was running slow you could always try a different one.

It may not be obvious, but Discord also has capacity issues. There is a limit on the number of channels. It would have been great if each programme item could have had its own channel, but CoNZealand chose to allocate one channel per user support ticket for internal use, and that restricted their ability to provide more channels.

With any software system, people will have objections of various sorts. In my experience, Zoom is the best meeting/webinar platform. I’ve had works meetings via Microsoft Teams and Google Meetups, and I prefer Zoom to either of them. WisCon used Jitsi for political reasons – it is an open-source, community-owned system and that suited their ethos better than any commercial product. Sadly its performance was very poor.

Zoom has also been subject to a number of complaints about security and privacy. This was partly their own fault, and partly a result of bigger software companies leveraging their contacts in the media to amplify scare stories. However, one of the effects of this is that many organisations have outlawed the use of Zoom. This is why Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon were unable to participate in Zoom sessions. Larry’s job didn’t allow him to have in his home.

Which brings us to another issue. Virtual conventions are critically dependent on the IT skills and equipment that programme participants have. Some people can’t manage the tech, but more importantly many people still don’t have a good enough internet connection to participate in online video. In some cases that is a permanent situation, and in others it may be temporary. Your connection might be fine most of the time, but if you partner gets called into an urgent work meeting when you are supposed to be in a panel, suddenly you may have problems.

Virtual conventions, then, are not easy, but some parts of the convention experience translate to online better than others. What works, and what doesn’t?

Panels seem to be fine. It is a bit weird being on one in that you can’t see the audience, but they can see you, and they can interact with you. There are a whole bunch of questions as to how best to manage that interaction, but the audience generally seems happy.

Dealers’ Rooms, on the other hand, don’t seem to work at all. The good thing for dealers is that they don’t have to pay a fortune to attend the con and ship their wares. But do the sell anything? I suspect not. I certainly haven’t bought anything at any of the online events I have attended, or even felt inspired to browse tables. I’ll have more to report after Eurocon where I will have a table.

Art shows are also a bit lack-lustre. Flat art looks OK, but anything 3D is at a disadvantage. I generally don’t buy at convention art shows. I have no wall space left. I’d be interested to know how people who do buy feel about the online version.

I’m generally even less interested in exhibit spaces. CoNZealand appear to have tried hard to make theirs interesting, including having a sort of VR space which allowed you to walk around the exhibits, dealers and at show, but it seemed very clunky. Maybe we need to wait for the technology to catch up.

The Masquerade at CoNZealand was very sparse. I gather that was in part because they were very late getting the regulations out, and making a good video takes time. But I suspect that a lot of costumers would be unhappy at the thought that their work was only judged on what it looked like on screen. The approach of the entries varied a lot. Some were short and dull, some where long and cringe-worthy. Amanda Arthur-Struss tried to do something creative with video, and Kat Clay chose to try to show off the workmanship. Little Annabel Pryor as Captain Janeway was delightful. The rest were a bit meh for various reasons.

Hall costumes were, of course, non-existent. And despite some creative ideas by the Discord team, badges also didn’t work well.

Parties were handled through Zoom and were OK. They are much cheaper to run when you don’t have to provide food and drink. I ran one for Wizard’s Tower and was very pleased. Special thanks are due to Kristin Seibert, the Party Maven, who was unfailingly helpful and enthusiastic throughout.

Other aspects of socialising did not work as well. You don’t meet people in corridors in Discord. You can’t go off for a quiet chat because everyone can see what you are saying and anyone can butt in. You can’t go out for dinner.

One big disadvantage that CoNZealand had was that it is on the far side of the globe from Europe, which mean that most of the programming was in the middle of the night for European fans. In theory a virtual convention could run 24/7, but you’d need staff around the world to do that. So a group of European fans got together to provide something in our time zone. The result was CoNZealand Fringe.

I got involved with this, mainly because the people doing it had a lot of experience of streaming. I wanted to learn how they did it. As it turned out, the system they used, StreamYard, seemed to provide a better solution than what CoNZeland was using. I liked the way it handled comments, and it seemed to stream seamlessly to YouTube. There was one instance where a panel was attacked by right-wing trolls and it took longer to get things back under control than it should, but that was because people were unfamiliar with the tools available, not because those tools did not exist. If I do any streaming in future, I will definitely use StreamYard to do it.

I was very pleased with the panel on Sensitivity Reading that I put together for Fringe. Other panels seemed to have been well received as well. And they are all still available to watch.

For some reason Mike Glyer has got his knickers in a twist about the existence of Fringe. I can’t understand it myself. If the CoNZealand senior management, or the WSFS Mark Protection Committee, had been concerned about what it was doing, I’m sure I would have been told. Sadly these days fandom seems obsessed with the idea of throwing law suits around. Perhaps people enjoy watching the drama. But there’s no point in suing people if there’s no real damage, and doing so is ridiculously expensive.

So where do we go from here? Virtual conventions do seem to be something of a success. They certainly allow a whole lot of people who, for a variety of reasons, would be unable to attend in person, to take part in the con. This surely has to be a good thing. I count myself in the group of people who can only attend virtually, as the next three Worldcons are likely to be in the USA, a country I am not allowed to enter.

Clearly there are technical issues, but we are learning all the time. I’ll be trying to an eye on the various issues in the coming months. The more we can pool experiences the better. My review of this year’s NASFiC includes comments on what I think they did better.

Of course no one has any idea whether COVID-19 will still be a problem come next August. And there is a non-negligible possibility that the USA will be in the middle of a civil war by then. Consequently both DisCon III and ChiCon 8 are at least considering the need to run a hybrid event, if not a full-blown virtual one. That’s good to know.

What they are not doing, as far as I can see, is considering the effect of this on membership. A hybrid convention has to offer an online-only membership, and people who have such memberships should be able to offer to be part of the online programming. Hopefully they will work that out over the coming months.

NASFiC – Columbus

NASFiC - ColumbusLockdown happened in sufficient time for this year’s NASFiC to be cancelled. However, perhaps as a result of the success of CoNZealand’s virtual programming, the committee decided at the last minute to try something virtual. It was all a bit of a rush, but it worked fairly well.

To me one of the most interesting things about the NASFiC was the different atmosphere. In theory a NASFiC is an official WSFS event. However, despite being thrown together in a hurry on a shoestring, it didn’t attract any of the opprobrium directed at CoNZealand. Of course it helped that it was free to attend, so no one felt that they’d been sold something substandard. But there was no suggestion that They should have done better.

I was on three programme items at NASFiC. One on how experience of more than one culture affects your writing; one on running SF&F organisations; and one on the effect of the pandemic on publishing. I moderated the first and third. They all went very well, so thanks to my fellow panellists for that.

The recordings of all the panels will eventually be available on the convention’s YouTube channel. However, editing video takes time and only a few are currently available. In the meantime the raw streams are available here.

There were several significant innovations that NASFiC made compared to Worldcon. Firstly each programme room had two separate hosting streams. Panellists were invited to get online half an hour before the panel was due to start. This gave plenty of time to sort out any technical issues, and gave the same experience of having the pre-panel discussion in the Green Room. I thought it worked very well.

Somewhat less effective was a system called Titan which allows embedding of a Discord channel in a website. In theory this allowed the audience to watch the panel and the associated Discord chat, and to comment directly in Discord. Each panel had a moderator on hand whose job it was to spot interesting comments from Discord and paste them into the Zoom chat, which was invisible to the audience. That replicated some of the good features of StreamYard (which has both public and private chat windows). Sadly the embedding system wasn’t very robust, but I’m sure it will get better.

Another innovation that NASFiC made was on show in the Friday night party. I missed it because it started at midnight my time. Kevin was present says he liked it, but that other people did not. It used a system called Gather Town which is a simulated mixing space. It looks like an old-fashioned video game, but you can customise the gather space, and you can only interact with people that you are physically close to in that space. This makes it feel much more like a real party.

The downside for NASFiC is that Gather Town is expensive for large numbers. You can have a free event with up to 50 people, but beyond that it gets expensive quickly. Consequently they only used it once early on. However, it occurs to me that for future conventions individual party hosts could arrange for their own Gather Town spaces and make those available to the con. A limit of 50 on an individual party doesn’t seem too bad (and some publishers may be willing to pay for more).

Finally kudos again is due to Kristin Seibert who, for NASFiC, organised a scavenger hunt on Discord. A number of kitten icons were spread about the various channels. If you spotted on and clicked on it that would open up the channel for that kitten, and each on had a task for you to complete. I didn’t have the time to complete the game, but quite a few people seemed to have done so, and lots of people enjoyed playing it. It does require a bunch of Discord channels to run, but it looks like a thing that other conventions could do, provided that they can find someone as creative and enthusiastic as Kristin to run it.

The Space Between Worlds

The Space Between WorldsThis one was not on my radar at all, but I noticed a few people enthusing about it on social media and decided to give it a try. I’m very glad that I did.

The Space Between Worlds is a debut science fiction story by a Californian writer called Micaiah Johnson. It could, at a pinch, be described as being part of the current wave of lesbian time travel stories. It certainly features a dysfunctional lesbian relationship. However, the travel is not through time, but between worlds in the multiverse. Strictly speaking, it is much more in conversation with the Ted Chiang novella, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”.

The story is set in a fairly near future Earth on which Adam Bosch of the Eldridge Institute has discovered a way to travel between worlds in the multiverse. You can only move between worlds that are fairly closely related (so no going to a world where Rome never fell, or dinosaurs still exist), but there is a snag. You can only travel to worlds in which you do not exist. If you arrive in a world in which another version of yourself is alive, you will die.

Our heroine, Cara, is a “traverser”, one of the people employed by Eldridge to travel between worlds to study them, and occasionally steal from them. She has the job because few of the 382 accessible worlds contain a local Cara. While Eldridge has its offices in a wealthy futuristic city called Wiley, Cara comes from a slum settlement called Ashtown that exists in the desert outside Wiley City. Her mother is a sex worker and drug addict. On most Earths she hasn’t lived to adulthood. As she notes, this makes her a rare resource that Eldridge finds valuable.

The book is in part a meditation on nature and nurture. While many of the characters have versions of themselves in multiple worlds, they are by no means identical. Someone who is a ruthless gang leader in one world can be a thoughtful politician in another. Someone who is a lesbian in one world can be violently homophobic in another. Much of how someone turns out is dependent on choices made in youth, accidents of fate, and upbringing.

Where biology comes in is that each version of you in every world looks pretty much the same. I’ll leave you to put two and two together here.

The other main theme of the book is privilege. Cara knows that coming from Ashtown she will never be seen as an equal by the Wiley City folks, no matter how much of a well-paid job she has. In many ways she’s right, but her knowing this also makes her very prickly and difficult to get on with, which doesn’t help. It is a position I can sympathise with. The stark contrast between the wealth (and social safety net) in Wiley City, and the poverty and violence of Ashtown, plays out in many other ways in the book.

I note also that the madam of the brothel where Cara’s mother worked, who is an important political figure in Ashtown, is a genderqueer person called Exlee. They are a fairly minor character, but very welcome nonetheless.

I think by the end I didn’t care enough about Cara to be invested in the outcome, but other people clearly love the book, and I can’t help but admire the ingenuity of it all. It is great to see such an interesting debut science fiction novel. I will look forward to seeing what Johnson does next.

book cover
Title: The Space Between Worlds
By: Micaiah Johnson
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Selkie Summer

Selkie SummerThis is another one of the novellas being published by Ian Whates’ NewCon Press. It is something of a departure for Ken MacLeod. He’s mostly known for writing highly political science fiction. What is he doing writing a love story about selkies?

We can start with the biography. MacLeod was born on Stornoway in the Western Isles. He’s very familiar with island life, and the small town atmosphere that such a closed and isolated environment engenders. Having spent quite a bit of time on Scilly, I recognise much of what he’s writing about.

Next, this is an environment story. On the face of it, the world of Selkie Summer is something like that of Juliet McKenna’s Green Man books. The existence of supernatural beings such as selkies and kelpies is a matter of fact. Except for McKenna it is a little-known secret, whereas for MacLeod it is public knowledge. These non-human creatures don’t only exist, they can talk to us, and sometimes vent their feelings.

For example, the kelpies have put paid to the idea of hydroelectric power messing up their beloved rivers. They weren’t going to stand for it. And this the electricity company that in our world is know as “The Hydro” is known to the cast of Selkie Summer as “The Nuclear”. (MacLeod as a thing about nuclear power being a solution to environmental issues, as readers of The Sky Road will remember.)

As for the selkies, well, they live in the sea, and that means that just like whales they get upset about the sound pollution produced by human shipping. In the case of those living off the west coast of Scotland, that includes the activities of the British nuclear submarine fleet based at Faslane down near Glasgow. They also get upset about bridges, which is why the Skye road bridge doesn’t exist in the world of the story and anyone wishing to visit the island has to do so the traditional way by ferry.

All this, however, is background. The main plot concerns young Siobhan Ross, a student from Glasgow University who takes a summer job as a cleaner in a guest house on Skye. Her workplace has an entertaining gang of supporting characters. There is Mairi the waitress who is into Death Metal, Gordon the chef who is the only gay on the island, and Mrs McIntyre the owner who is a formidable if apparently somewhat superstitious old dear. I rather wish that story had been longer and that Mairi and Gordon had been given more to do.

While on Skye, Siobhan meets and falls in love with a handsome selkie called Cal who works on the ferry. All of the islanders know he’s a selkie, and most of them warn her off him (though Mairi and Gordon are both mildly jealous). Siobhan, however, seems to have an affinity for selkies, which draws her deeper into their society, and ends up getting her in rather a lot of trouble.

Along the way, MacLeod can’t resist the opportunity to turn the story into a bit of a political thriller. It wouldn’t be a proper Ken MacLeod story otherwise.

However, the thing that kept poking at my consciousness while I was reading Selkie Summer is the connection to another story of an isolated coastal community that has contacts with an aquatic race of beings.

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HP Lovecraft writes about how Robert Olmstead travels to a decrepit New England town that is close to the home of the bug-eyed fishmen known as Deep Ones. Like Siobhan Ross, Olmstead discovers that he has a particular affinity for sea-dwelling creatures. Everything else about the two stories goes in very different directions. I would therefore suggest that, though there is absolutely no mention of Cthulhu and his tentacled pals in Selkie Summer, the story is nevertheless part of the current wave of repurposing Lovecraftian ideas for the greater good.

All this in one little novella? Yes.

book cover
Title: Selkie Summer
By: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: NewCon Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Supergirl Season 5

Supergirl Season 5This was not one of Supergirl’s best years. Following the intensely political season 4 was always going to be hard, and the season had other major problems to cope with, so I’m actually very relieved that it has been renewed for a 6th season.

One of the problems I had with the season is the way in which it upended a lot of fixtures at the end of season 4. This seems to be becoming a habit on the show. It would be nice to have a bit more continuity. Also I thought that Leviathan was a fairly weak major villain. They are a super villain group so supposedly powerful that you can’t quite work out why they don’t win easily.

I wasn’t convinced about the addition of Andrea Rojas to the show. We already have one very rich, morally compromised, genius businesswoman in the shape of Lena Luthor. We don’t need another one. I also thought that William Dey was a rather limp excuse of a love interest. Kara certainly doesn’t have the same chemistry with him as she does with Mon-El, though there are good reasons for that which I will get to.

On the upside, Dreamer is still a regular feature on the show. What’s more, half of one episode (“Reality Bytes”) was devoted to her hunting down a villain who is beating up trans women. Social media hatemongering was a feature of the episode. I was pleased to note that, in this universe at least, the L is still very much with the T. That episode will be on my Hugo ballot next year (though I don’t expect it has any chance of being a finalist).

Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor is so delightfully self-centred and devious that the character actually makes sense to me for once. I’d never really understood Lex before. Now I do.

One of the biggest issues that the series had to deal with is having Crisis right in the middle of it. It must be really hard to craft a story arc when the whole multiverse is remade half way through. And where Lex’s public persona has changed from master criminal to a beloved philanthropist and hero overnight.

One episode is devoted entirely to explaining just how cunningly Lex has been manipulating things behind the scenes since Crisis finished. Because Kara has very little presence in that, Melissa Benoist took the opportunity to make her directorial debut. I thought she did pretty well.

The final villain that the show was unable to overcome was the pandemic. The season ends on a massive cliff-hanger, but only because filming got cut short by Lockdown. Some of the team were stuck at home in LA, others were stranded in Vancouver. It can’t have been much fun waiting to see if the show was going to be renewed, and the final episode(s) shot.

As it is, one of the crew has made the best of the hiatus. The start of season 6 will be delayed a little because Benoist is on maternity leave. I understand that the father is Chris Wood who plays Mon-El, which explains the whole romantic chemistry thing.

I gather that season 6 will begin some time in the middle of 2021, though when we will get it in the UK is another matter. I shall wait patiently.

Editorial – August 2020

I was fully intending to use the art from Juliet McKenna’s The Green Man’s Silence for this issue’s cover. Then the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death broke and there was a last minute change of plans. I’ve been a fan of T’Challa since I was a teenager, a time when being a Black Panther meant something far more important than being a fictional superhero. In those days the character was written by a white guy called Don McGregor. He also created the character of Eric Killmonger, and was responsible for the first inter-racial kiss in mainstream comics. Having said that, Ryan Coogler’s movie makes T’Challa seem so much more like a real African superhero. That Boseman will not be available to reprise the role in the sequel is a tragedy.

The movie business will, of course, grind on. Kevin Feige & co. are doubtless still weighing their options. Like so much of their casting, the choice of Boseman to play T’Challa seemed perfect. I have no idea where they will go from here, but I have a lot of faith in their judgement.

I’d like to finish up with two things. Firstly the end credits scene from Black Panther in which T’Challa makes a speech at the UN which includes a very obvious dig and certain politicians: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” And second a reminder that the very term, Black Panther, is a protest.


Black Panthers protest at the 1968 Olympics

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