Issue #21

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


Cover: Blue Night Sky

This issues cover is another free piece of art from Pixabay. This one is called Blue Night Sky. It isn’t quite an image of the Southern Cross but it will have to do.

The artist is called coffee. You can find the original posting here.

Here’s the full version.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

The term ‘Matter of Britain’ is usually applied to Arthurian literature. I suspect that M John Harrison would be horrified if he thought I had accused him of writing an Arthurian novel, and yet his latest novel, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, is very much about the matter of Britain.

Fortunately there is a connection. The land of Lyonesse is a sunken kingdom located between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. It features in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. Practically speaking, it is probably a memory of the fact that Scilly was mostly a single island as recently as Roman times, and that sea level rise has fractured it into many islands surrounding a shallow lagoon that can still be walked across at the lowest of tides. Fictionally it is much more mysterious. Here’s Tennyson in Idylls of the King.

Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse—
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

Harrison takes his title from an essay by Charles Kingsley. He was also the author of The Water-Babies, a Victorian children’s novel which has a prominent role in Harrison’s book. In it a young chimney sweep called Tom falls into a river and is transformed into a ‘water-baby’, an underwater creature that may, through correct moral behaviour, earn the right to become human once more.

Kingsley intended to book to be a warning about the evils of child labour, and poverty in general. He also saw it as a defence of Darwin. However, it is what one might call a ‘book of its time’. It is chock full of racism of various sorts, and its understanding of evolution seems to come more from the popular press than science. Harrison, I think, uses it in part to represent Victorian Values, and the sort of obsession with human devolution that so poisons everything that Lovercraft wrote.

More of this later, but first I should say a bit about the story. There are two main characters, the first of whom is known primarily as Shaw, his last name. Late on in the book we discover that his first name might be Lee, but I don’t think he ever uses it. His mother, who is in a care home suffering from dementia, uses a succession of first names for him, all of which he angrily rejects as not being correct.

Shaw lives in South-West London in the region of Barnes and Mortlake. This is near where Harrison used to live. I once visited his home there to do an interview. Don’t be fooled by the references to White Hart Lane. This is not Tottenham. There is a road with the same name in Barnes running north from the A205 to the Thames.

Mort Lake, of course, would be Death Lake in an Arthurian novel.

As the novel opens, Shaw is having an on-off affair with a woman called Victoria. He is convinced that her last name is Nyman, but in the chapters that are from her viewpoint it is given as Norman. That disconnect is typical of their relationship. Both of them are so self-absorbed that they are unable to talk to each other about themselves, and consequently know nothing about each other. This makes them fairly typical Harrison characters.

Soon after the start of the book, Victoria leaves London for Shropshire where she has inherited a house in a small town from her deceased mother. Given its location on the Severn Gorge, the town sounds very much like Ironbridge, but Harrison never identifies it as such. He certainly knows the area as, when he left London, he took up residence somewhere in the Welsh Marches. I’ve not visited him and haven’t asked for an address.

I suspect that the town in the book is a construct intended to be like a Shropshire town but not a specific location. Certainly I can’t find a reference to a Geoffrey de Lacy who supposedly built the town’s castle. This surprised me because pretty much every Norman family had a Geoffrey somewhere in the family tree. The de Lacys were Marcher Lords, but their seat of power was further north around Ludlow than in the Severn Gorge.

Because Sandy Denny’s voice is unforgettable, I then wondered if there was any connection, but it turns out the that Fairport Convention song is actually about Bruce Lacey, who surely deserves a place in an M John Harrison novel if anyone does.

Shaw gets a job working for a strange man called Tim whose business appears to be entirely based on selling copies of his conspiracy theory book, Journeys of Our Genes, and running an associated website called The Water House. Tim’s theories revolve around weird ideas about human evolution and possible connections to fish-like beings. How this brings in enough money to pay Shaw a salary, let alone sufficient salary to allow him to rent the small room in London where he lives, is never explained. Perhaps that’s the point, because who knows where the money comes from to fund much of the conspiracy theory stuff that goes on online.

Meanwhile Victoria discovers that the town she has moved to has an Innsmouth-like vibe to it. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and we readers can see that there is a definite connection between these inbred people and the fish-people conspiracies being peddled by Tim. Neither Shaw nor Victoria ever summons up enough energy to try to understand what is going on. Victoria does email Shaw with regular messages about how strange her new life is becoming, but he never reads them.

All of this proceeds at a fairly glacial pace. This is not Light. There are no cosmic mysteries, one-shot-cultivar street gangs or white cat star fighters. It is Britain, and therefore just as damp, bleak and uninteresting as you might expect. Except for the possibility of fishmen. On the other hand, it is a Harrison novel, so you get descriptive passages like this:

Rain, blustering in from the Chiswick shore, had forced him to turn up his collar. Now it varnished the thin headstones, swirling into the north-east corner of the graveyard where a few trees clustered against the wall of the old Barnes fever hospital. His jeans were soaked.

Occasionally there are really specific references such as this:

…it had charged the air in the downstairs rooms so that her cushions and covers, though they remained dull and even a little grubby-looking, took on the pure painterly values and eerie depth of the objects on a Virago book cover in 1982.

My first thought was that Harrison was referring to work by Judith Clute, but her covers were for The Women’s Press and later in the 1980s. I think this is a reference to the cover of The Tidy House by Carolyn Steedman, which won the Fawcett Society Prize in 1983. Harrison’s book is full of references to various works of art.

Harrison is one of those writers who carries a notebook with him everywhere and jots down observations and snatches of conversation that he thinks might be useful one day. Here Shaw and Tim are on a train from London to Wolverhampton. Shaw overhears a couple talking in the seat behind him.

With a little inadvertent sigh of pleasure the woman said, ‘There must be some meaning to these clouds.’

I’m pretty sure that was taken from life. It also fits perfectly in with the conspiracy theory theme of the novel.

Have we got anywhere here? Are we any closer to understanding this book? Or are we, like Tim, writing down snippets of nonsense and extrapolating fantastical connections between them? Let’s try some theories for size.

Firstly this book is very much concerned with water. That’s hardly surprising. Water has always been a fact of life in the UK, but it is becoming much more so. One of the effects of climate change is an increase in seasonal flooding. Back in Arthurian times the Summer Country, or Somerset as it is now known, disappeared under the waves every winter, only to re-appear again in spring. These days the Isle of Avalon is finding itself surrounded by water again when the winter rains come.

A much stronger theme, however, is Brexit. Harrison admitted as much in an interview that he did with Gary Wolfe for The Coode Street Podcast a couple of weeks ago. Like Shaw and Victoria, many British people have spent the last few years sleepwalking through a world in which goggle-eyed, rubber-lipped fishmen (not mentioning Farage or Gove by name), backed up by professional conspiracy theorists with no obvious means of financial support, and inspired by crazed fanatics like Cummings, have slowly but surely taken over the country. We didn’t see it coming, and now it is too late. We have no option but to be submerged by the waves.

Sorry Britannia, the waves rule you now.

book cover
Title: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again
By: M John Harrison
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Mordew

Welcome to the city of Mordew. It is approximately semi-circular in shape. The base is bounded by massive mountains riddled with mines. The arc is formed by the Sea Wall which prevents the city from being flooded. Within the Sea Wall are slums, populated by the city’s poorest, whose streets run with Living Mud in which all sorts of vile creatures may be found/created. Within them is the walled Merchant Quarter, and within that the domain of the aristocracy. Right in the centre, high on the city’s only hill and reachable only via the spiralling, jet black Glass Road, is the Manse of the Master of Mordew, whose sorcerous powers keep the entire city running, and subservient to his whims.

If you think that the geography of Mordew is a little far-fetched, I suggest that you check out the town of Jardim Do Mar on the island of Madeira which I suspect provided Alex Pheby with some inspiration for his fictional creation.

The plot of Mordew centres on Nathan Treeves, a thirteen-year-old boy living in the slums. His father is dying of an infestation of lungworms. His mother has taken to sex work to make ends meet. Nathan helps out as best he can, but there is little a young boy can do to earn money. His best option is to fish valuable creatures out of the Living Mud, which would be much easier if he could only use his peculiar talent, the Spark, which his father has expressly forbidden him from using.

What does the Master want with a crier? Well, a boy’s tears are a precious thing, you can use them in all sorts of ways: in potions, in tinctures, some say the Master uses them like a merchant uses salt – to give flavour to his food – but the truth is that when you weep, part of your soul goes away in the water, part of you, and the more you cry the more of you goes.

Yes, as you will have guessed, Nathan is a very special boy. By the end of Mordew you will have found out just how special. But there is a long way to go before then, and first we must follow a Dickensian tale of his life in the slums. We learn about the gang of street urchins run by the enterprising but cruel Gam Halliday. We learn about Prissy who has taken to a life of crime to save herself from a life in a brothel. We learn about Jerky Joes, who were once twins but whom some mysterious magic combined into a single body before they were born. And we learn about Mr. Padge, the vicious crime lord to whom Gam is beholden and who seems to know rather more about Nathan than one might expect.

All of this takes up roughly the first half of a 500+ page story. It is quite slow. But do please persevere, dear reader, because from then on things speed up exponentially until, by the end, the pace of events is positively breathless.

‘The Master’s house has many rooms, and some of these are kept separate from the others. If there are women, or girls, they must be kept separate because their effluvia can disrupt the magics that order this place, every part having its own function.’

Regular fantasy readers may, I suspect, become a little frustrated. Nathan has very little agency for most of the book. He is manipulated by his parents, by his friends, by the Master, and the Master’s sworn enemy, the Mistress of Malarkoi. It is not by any stretch of the imagination an appropriate coming of age for a thirteen-year-old boy, with the inevitable consequences. Mordew is not a happy book, and most of the people in it are ruthless and manipulative in one way or another.

What child – when surrounded by bullies, taunted and mocked and poked – no matter how weak, does not long for the strength to best their foes, to drive them weeping back to their hovels? What child would not kill their persecutors, if they were able to?

There is, I am fairly sure, a moral message in all of this. That is given away by a massive spoiler that you will find in the cover blurb, and probably the marketing material as well. Far below the Manse there is a vast cavern. In that cavern is a corpse. That corpse appears to provide much of the magical power that sustains the rule of the Master. Because that corpse belongs to someone that the world generally knows as God.

Quite how God came to be dead (murdered?) and His body stuck in a cavern under Mordew is not something we will learn from this book. Mordew is, in the finest fantasy tradition, merely the first book of a trilogy. But if you make it into the second half of the book you will, I think, want to keep reading. For starters there’s that corpse to explain. Then there are some subtle hints that Pheby drops about the location of his world. And finally there is a 100+ page glossary at the end, that you should probably not read before the book, but might read after it, and in which are further revelations about key characters that you will not have fully gleaned from the text.

Alex Pheby is not a fantasy writer. He teaches creative writing at the University of Greenwich and his previous novels include a study of schizophrenia and a story about the daughter of James Joyce. Mordew is published by Galley Beggar Press who are currently most famous for the Booker shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport. However, they are run by Sam Jordison whom I first met at a Clarke Award ceremony and who clearly knows his SF&F and well as his LitFic. Sam used to write reviews of LitFic books that might be of interest to SF&F readers for Salon Futura back when it was a professional venue.

Mordew, then, is not your usual fantasy fare. But it is a very interesting first step on what promises to be a fascinating trilogy. Sam kindly sent me this review copy, and I rather hope he’ll send me the subsequent volumes as well because I want to find out What Happens Next.

book cover
Title: Mordew
By: Alex Pheby
Publisher: Galley Beggar
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Well, here is a discovery. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella by Nghi Vo. It is set in a fantasy world, but I’m going to have to use real-world analogies to give you the impression of it. I may well mess up horribly, for which I apologise in advance.

The action is set in the Empire of Anh, which is kind of China-like. The story is about the late Empress, In-yo, who hails from somewhere to the north where it is always cold and people fish for seals at ice-holes. So maybe we are talking about far-eastern China and southern Siberia. In-yo appears to have been a trophy bride for the late Emperor. She is recently dead, and her daughter has inherited the throne. That’s the political background.

The main character is Chih, a cleric from the order of the Singing Hills. Clerics appear to forsake gender when they join an order. Chih is accompanied by a talking hoopoe called Almost Brilliant. The hoopoe is a neixin, which is a Chinese word that the internet variously tells me might mean “innermost being” or “psychological drama”. The order of the Singing Hills specialises in collecting and recording history.

Chih and Almost Brilliant have journeyed to a place called Lake Scarlet, which has been “taken off every map and effectively disappeared by a highly dedicated and skilled imperial sorcerer.” There they meet an old woman called Rabbit who was once a trusted servant of the late Empress. In a series of short chapters, Rabbit tells Chih the story of her life, and in doing so reveals the secret history of the life of In-yo.

I can’t tell you much more about the plot, but I will say that there is some splendidly cunning espionage involved. The sort of thing that Francis Lymond would have been happy to have devised. By the end of the story, Chih will be in possession of a secret that could cost them their life.

I really loved this book, and I’m delighted to see that there will be more stories set in the same world.

book cover
Title: The Empress of Salt and Fortune
By: Nghi Vo
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Pre-Worldcon Report

Wait, what? A Worldcon report already? It hasn’t even started yet. Well no, but social media has been full of outrage already, so I wanted to look at the issues raised.

I should start by saying that I don’t want anything here to be taken as criticism of CoNZealand. What they have had to do is unprecedented, and that they have produced a convention at all is remarkable. Hopefully, however, the pain that they, and indeed the rest of the world, has had to endure because of the pandemic will leave us with a huge amount of valuable new information about how to run an online convention.

One of the issues that people have been complaining about is that this year, yet again, some Hugo finalists were left off programming, or asked to be on programme items that they knew nothing about. How do we keep making the same mistake year after year?

The first thing I want to note is that CoNZealand has somewhat less programming that a normal Worldcon. That means it is harder to give everyone the programme slots that they want. Lots of people probably think that with an online convention you can have as much programming as you want, but I suspect that it isn’t as easy as it seems. I’m hoping that after CoNZealand we’ll have a good idea of how much it costs to run an online event that can cope with a Worldcon-sized audience, what the timelines are, and so on.

Something else that is worth noting is that, having been made aware of the issue, CoNZealand has done something bold and innovative. They have given free attending passes to all Hugo finalists, and allowed them to buy full Attending Memberships for the price of a Supporting Membership. You might think that every Worldcon should do this, but in the past it would have been fairly pointless. A free membership is of no use if you can’t afford the cost of travel and accommodation, which is much higher.

This provides an interesting challenge for future Worldcons, assuming that in-person events are possible. Should they continue this new “tradition”? If so, does that commit them to providing at least some programming online? I’d like to see them do that.

The main issue, however, is the perennial question of why the same mistakes happen year after year. Is there no continuity? Do people not learn from what went before? There are, of course, some people who work on Worldcon in some capacity every year. Not all of them continue to work in the same area though. Also, working on Worldcon every year is much easier when the convention simply moves around North America. Doing that when it moves around the world is much harder.

Another issue is that, while the people working at lower levels may be the same year-on-year, the senior management team is largely new each time. Those are the positions that the local people want. What they don’t want is to have a bunch of foreigners come in and tell them what to do.

What it comes down to, is that the competitive nature of the site selection process often results in the bid being won by a group of people who are then determined to show they world what they can do. They want to put on their sort of convention, not do things the same way that the Americans do them. And that leads to a lot of reinventing the wheel.

There are other factors that prevent us having as much continuity as we would like, and I will come back to them later, but we have arrived at the other major issue that people have been complaining about: Site Selection.

The main focus of the controversy is the existence of a bid from Saudi Arabia, a country which more than half of regular Worldcon attendees ought to be very nervous of visiting. The issue is compounded by the existence of a bid for China for 2023, the folding of the Nice bid (who have lost their venue) and the fact that everyone who is not an American is suddenly very frightened about traveling to that country too.

It is rather ironic that, after years of fandom yelling about how Worldcon needs to visit other countries around the world, they are now yelling, “but not those countries”. That, however, is in large part a result of how the world has become so much less safe since 9/11. When I was much younger we would probably have approached the Saudi and Chinese bids with an attitude of, “yeah, let’s go there, and help the local fans do something that will annoy their oppressive governments.” No one is taking that line now.

There is a fair amount of privilege on display by those complaining, because for many people Worldcon has been hard to attend for years. There are people like myself and Peter Watts who are banned from travel to the USA. There are people who have Muslim-sounding names who are terrified of going through immigration to Western countries (including the UK). A number of African fans who wanted to attend the Irish Worldcon were unable to get visas. And of course the majority of fans around the world simply cannot afford to attend Worldcon at all, sometimes even if it is in their country.

Mostly, however, the outrage results from people not understanding how WSFS works. They assume that because the Saudi and Chinese bids exist, that someone in WSFS has approved those bids as suitable venues.

There is a job called Site Selection Administrator. This year it is held by my long-time friend from Melbourne, Alan Stewart. Should he have disallowed the Saudi bid? There are reasons why he can do so, but those reasons are based purely in factual issues such as does the bid have a contract with a venue. They do not include judgements such as, “does the country have a good record on civil rights?”

Maybe such a condition should exist. We could write such a rule into the WSFS Constitution. But how would it work in practice? Prospective bids, I am sure, would claim that their countries did have a good record to civil rights, especially compared to the USA which has hosted the majority of Worldcons in the past. What is the Site Selection Administrator to do then?

A good example of this sort of issue in practice is the administration of the Hugo Awards. In the past fandom has yelled at Hugo Administrators too. In particular, a lot of people said that it was wrong to allow the Puppies onto the final ballot. Hugo Administrators said that was down to the voters, and if they didn’t like the finalists they could always vote No Award, which they duly did. Worldcon might have got much less of a pasting in social media and the press if the Hugo Administrators had disqualified the Puppies, but then again they might have gone running to the media complaining about “cancel culture” and “no-platforming”. We can’t know.

This, however, is not the first time that people yelled at Hugo Administrators that they should have disqualified someone. Ten years earlier there was also massive outrage about a Hugo finalist. That was me. Lots of fans said that Emerald City, because it was distributed electronically rather than on paper, was not a proper fanzine. The Hugo Administrators refused to listen to them and allowed me to be on the ballot. And in 2004 Emerald City won Best Fanzine. Years later some people were still complaining that a “mistake” had been made and that my Hugo should be retrospectively taken away.

Now you may say that that’s a trivial example and of course they should have let me on the ballot. That’s what any sensible person would have done. And yet I was blacklisted from programming at the 2004 Worldcon, because the head of programming deemed that I was not a worthy Hugo finalist. If you put people in positions of power, they may abuse that ability.

The simple fact is that Hugo Administrators are afraid to disqualify anyone from the ballot, because they feel that if they did then they would be the focus of a fannish flame war with people claiming that they had acted unfairly. It is much easier for people to say, “let the voters decide”. That way you are off the hook.

I think that the same thing would happen with Site Selection. Sure, we could introduce rules about whether a country is a suitable place to be allowed to host a Worldcon. But Site Selection Administrators would be terrified of using that power. They would much rather say, “let the voters decide”, which is what happens now anyway.

Now there is a procedural issue here to do with what happens if None of the Above wins Site Selection. I will come back to that later, but first I want to address why people don’t seem to understand the “let the voters decide” argument when it is applied to Site Selection.

These days people understand the role of being a Hugo voter. They pay for the right, but it isn’t much if you just buy a Supporting Membership and you get the Voter Packet in return. But many of them don’t see being a Hugo voter as being synonymous with being a WSFS member. When it comes to Site Selection, they also don’t see themselves as WSFS members. Sometimes they don’t even understand that the “Voting Fee” that they are being asked to pay will in fact give them Hugo voting rights at whichever convention wins – something that they might have been planning to buy anyway.

Worse still, in addition to not seeing themselves as part of WSFS, that WSFS is not “Us”, they also seem convinced that WSFS is “Them”. That is, large numbers of fans seem convinced that there must be some secretive Board of Directors of WSFS who could, if they wanted, fix all the problems than fandom is exercised about. That “They” seemingly refuse to Do Something is the cause of much fannish ire on social media. But how are They supposed to Do Something if they don’t exist?

So why do Worldcons not explain all of this properly? Why don’t they just institute an annual membership fee for WSFS and have done with it? At this point we have to cue the ominous music, because I am about to mention the Great Fannish Shibboleth.

They don’t do that because they are terrified of it leading to WSFS Inc.

Way back in the early days of fandom, before even old timers like Kevin and myself got involved, there was a huge debate as to whether WSFS should incorporate, have a Board of Directors and so on. This idea was hugely controversial. That was partly because in those days fandom was very much influenced by American Libertarianism, but also the few non-American fans didn’t want the Americans telling them what to do all the time. Remember what I said earlier about non-American Worldcons wanting to do things their own way? Yeah, that.

A corporation was actually formed in 1956 and started to take action, but in 1958, Anna Moffatt, the first woman to chair a Worldcon, presided over a Business Meeting that effectively dissolved it. There were numerous attempts to resurrect the idea over the decades, all of which came to nothing. If you are interested in this history, it is available here.

Kevin, who arrived in fandom at the tail end of all this, tells me that he thinks official WSFS policy is that the Society should incorporate, but not yet. If ever the issue is raised, old time fans who were around in the 70’s are liable to yell “to the barricades” and head to the Business Meeting.

I wrote a lot more about what WSFS can and can’t do, and why, last year.

So WSFS is, in effect, an anarchist cooperative. That is “anarchist” in the literal sense of having no leaders. The only way that important decisions get taken is by putting them to the membership. Like other anarchist societies, WSFS is vulnerable to being unduly influenced by those who have the time, willingness and resources to participate in its governance. This is very different from a representative democracy, in which ordinary citizens elect representatives to do the governing on their behalf.

However, times change. What worked in the 1950s and 1960s may not be applicable decades later. It seems to me that a lot of the issues that fans are currently complaining about might be fixable if WSFS had some sort of central control.

A lot of the problems that we have with Worldcon these days is that everything has to be done from scratch by the current Worldcon committee. You need a large group of local fans prepared to do the work, and once they have done it they probably won’t have the energy to do so again for around 10 years. This severely restricts the number of places that can host a Worldcon.

If we had some sort of central control then we might (and I say “might” because I know it isn’t easy) be able to make a large part of Worldcon something that we can drop in anywhere in the world. That would probably involve a substantial amount of online programming. It would also mean that things like the Hugos and other WSFS functions would all be handled centrally, that Hugo finalists would automatically get a free Supporting Membership, and so on.

In particular it would mean that the online Hugo voting process could be centralised and not reinvented from scratch each year as seems to happen at the moment.

Part of that would probably mean having paid staff. Probably not full-time, at least to begin with, but there would be some sort of compensation for people prepared to devote part of their time to doing the same job on Worldcon year after year. Obviously WSFS would need money to pay for that, but a substantial amount of online programming that was accessible to Supporting Members could significantly increase revenue. Having staff who owe their allegiance to WSFS rather than to an individual Worldcon would do a lot to help knowledge retention and discourage reinventing the wheel.

The fact that WSFS members could have access to online programming would also help with the issue of people being unable to travel to Worldcon for a variety of reasons, including visa, personal safety and expense. That would mean that there would be less of an issue about where Worldcon was held.

In addition, if a WSFS Board did exist, then it could be responsible for deciding whether a bid was suitable. Joint corporate responsibility is much safer than asking a single, named individual to make such a decision. In practice they would have to do a lot more scrutiny because they would need to know that the drop-in aspects of Worldcon would work. There could still be competition for Site Selection, but the process of getting on the ballot could be more rigorous.

Hopefully such a system would also drastically reduce the cost of bidding, because for years now this has been a major problem. Running a Worldcon is hard enough, without exhausting and beggaring your fan base on bidding before you can even get started.

There could be a commitment to moving around the world. I think it would be a good thing to have Worldcon in an Arab country, though obviously Saudi Arabia is not a good choice right now. I’d like to see Worldcon in Brazil, though perhaps not while Bolsonaro is in charge, and India, though perhaps not while Modi is in charge.

For me, however, the main benefit of having some sort of central organisation is that fandom would have much more of a sense of ownership of WSFS. They would understand that they were WSFS members, and they would see WSFS as “Us” rather than “Them”.

On the other hand, implementing this would not be easy. The arguments against WSFS Inc still have a lot of validity. We can see good and bad examples out in the world. SFWA, I think, has done an excellent job in becoming more democratic and responsive to the requirements of its members. It is also getting good at running an annual conference, though admittedly it only has to do it in within North America. World Fantasy, on the other hand, is a glaring example of how things can go very wrong when the organisation is controlled by a small number of people who tend to be very conservative and can’t easily be held to account.

Let’s return now to that question of what happens if none of the bids for a particular year is acceptable to fandom. Right now the decision would be left up to the Business Meeting. This strikes me as a recipe for disaster, because a small group of fans could potentially overrule the desires of a much larger group. But, if we had a core Worldcon that we could drop in anywhere, then in a year where no site is acceptable we could just run that as a purely virtual con, and not have to skip a year or choose an unsuitable site.

This would also provide a useful backup option if circumstances change in the two years between Site Selection and the convention. It used to be that we expected the world to carry on in much the same way for years to come, but right now I would not be surprised to see the UK descend into civil unrest before 2024 and the expected Glasgow Worldcon. Civil unrest in the USA has clearly already started.

Talking of the Business Meeting, I am well aware that changing the WSFS Constitution is a slow and painful process. But there are things that could be done without BM approval. DC and Chicago (because Chicago will win, despite all of the worries about the Saudi bid) could both commit to providing an online element to their programming. They could also commit to working together to create elements of the convention that could be passed on to successor conventions. I know that’s extra work, but if we want Worldcon to have a future it is work that needs to be done. If it doesn’t get done then I’m sure that fans will start organising online international conventions in competition to Worldcon. Or someone with money will step in and create a commercial event.

This, then, is only the start of the discussion. I want to fix the problems with Worldcon, but I believe that fundamental change is necessary, and we’ll never fix anything if the discussion around how to fix things only ever happens on social media for a few weeks a year around when Worldcon happens. (We were talking a lot about the potential problems of the China bid this time last year. Has everyone forgotten?) I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure that there will be things I have missed in this article.

So I’m writing this now, during Worldcon, in the hope that people will start discussing it at the convention (i.e. on Discord). I’m also hoping that other fanzines will take up the baton and offer their own ideas as to how to fix things (not just complain that things are broken and that “They” must fix them). Most importantly, we need discussion as to how such a version of WSFS would be governed, but that’s a job for Kevin, not me.

Scarlet Odyssey

In a fantasy world, a young boy discovers that he has special powers, and that he may be destined to save his people. There are hints that he will play a vital part in world-shattering affairs. This is volume one. So far so predictable, right? Well not quite.

Scarlet Odyssey is a debut noel by CT Rwizi. He grew up in Swaziland and Zimbabwe. He went to college in the USA. And now he is back living in South Africa. This is not your average, white, European fantasy.

The story is set on a different world (two suns) in a society that is very African-influenced. Our hero, Musalodi (Salo to his friends) is from a small tribe who live on the Yerezi Plains. His people have a leopard totem, and their local rivals have a hyena totem. This is sufficient for me to fall in love with the book because leopard people are my people. That, however, is largely irrelevant to your likely enjoyment of it.

Although Salo’s people live a fairly simple life, they do have technology. They also have magic, though that too is very technological. Sorcerers talk about crafting the ‘prose’ of a spell in much the same way as programmers talk about code. Also there are ‘tronic beasts’ – “exotic machine-organic hybrids with metalloid features and mind stones inside their brains” as it says in the book.

Elsewhere in the world, there is more of what we would understand as a city-based civilisation. The great jungle metropolis of Yonte Saire is ruled over by the Saire people, who have an elephant totem and are famed, among other things, as bankers. We also learn of trade with a civilisation across the sea. We learn of rivalry between those who practice moon-based magic, and those who practice sun-based magic.

While we do get thrown headlong into the politics of this world in this volume, the greater global and perhaps even cosmic issues will have to wait until later books. Meanwhile we have our heroes to meet.

Salo’s big problem is that he wants to be a sorcerer, and among his people this is women’s work. He’s gay too, though you might not pick up on the clues in this book. I’m only certain of it because Rwizi has talked about it in some of the publicity for the book. This does not go down well with his father, the Chief, or with his younger half-brothers, or indeed with pretty much everyone in the village. Of course it is inevitable that it becomes necessary for him to use his powers, but it is an interesting backstory for the fantasy hero.

“A man’s strength is not in letters written on a page but in his knowledge of the soil and the rivers and the lakes. It’s in his herd of cattle and the sweat of laboring in the suns; it’s in the arm that wields the spear. Leave books to women; they are creatures of the mind. You are a man and must be a creature of the flesh.”

Salo gets sent on a mission away from home, for his own safety as much as anything else, and along the way he picks up companions. One of them is Ilapara, a Yerezi woman who is a warrior and therefore similarly outcast. Presumably she’ll turn out to be a lesbian. There’s also a fascinating character called Tuksaad who appears to be some sort of magical cyborg made by foreign sorcerers.

One of the things I like a lot about this book is that there is plenty of moral ambiguity. Salo tries hard to be good, but he has no understanding of the wider world and all too often his moral instincts only make things worse. Ilapara would rather an easy life as a bodyguard for some rich idiot, but she reluctantly gets sucked into Salo’s orbit. And then there’s The Maidservant, the evil sorceress who is the proximate cause of Salo’s banishment and who dogs his steps on the journey. Her story is just as interesting as that of Salo.

Which brings me to the title of the book. Sure, Salo goes on a journey, and he does come from the Redlands. He also uses moon magic, which is blood magic. But there is more of Homer to the book than those superficial comparisons. You see, blood magic requires sacrifice. The bigger the sacrifice, the more power you get. Agamemnon learned the hard way that making a huge sacrifice for a huge gain does not always turn out for the best. That same calculus runs all through Scarlet Odyssey, and makes it an interesting book.

My thanks to Rwizi’s agent, Julie Crisp, who thought I might like a copy of this book.

book cover
Title: Scarlet Odyssey
By: CT Rwizi
Publisher: 47 North
Purchase links:
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Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders

One of the most unlikely power couples in SF&F has emerged from Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series. He is Asmodeus, Fallen Angel, ruthless head of House Hawthorn, and known as the “stabby one” because he has never met a problem that he didn’t think couldn’t be solved by the judicious application of a sharp implement to soft flesh. And He is Thaun, dragon prince, hailing from an immigrant community of Vietnamese magical creatures living in the waters of the Siene, known as the “bookish one” because he never met a problem that he didn’t think couldn’t be solved by application of knowledge and talking things through over a nice cup of tea. Together, they fight crime.

Well, in this book they do. Thaun has invited Asmodeus beneath the waters to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, with his dragon family. Unfortunately for Thaun, Second Aunt, or the Empress as she is known to the rest of the underwater kingdom, is not having a good time. There are rumblings of discontent in the Imperial Bureaucracy. Events in the city above have not been kind to those under the water. It has even been suggested that Her Imperial Highness has lost the Mandate of Heaven, meaning that she needs to be deposed for the good of the people. This leads to plotting, and plotting leads to murder.

Asmodeus is bored. Very bored. Until the murder happens. Murders are what Asmodeus likes best.

From here on in Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is simply a murder mystery. Thaun and Asmodeus need to find out why it happened, and what cunning plot against the Empress the victim was killed to keep secret. It is a novella. There is no need for more plot than that.

Murder mysteries are dependent on two things: the actual mystery, and the characters involved in solving the crime. De Bodard is not Agatha Christie. You won’t find Asmodeus revealing the murderer to a locked room of suspects at the end of the book. He’d rather lock them all in separate rooms and torture them until someone confesses. But you will be very much entertained by the unlikely couple as they unravel the mystery. You’ll probably also learn quite a bit about Vietnamese culture along the way.

There’s not a lot more I can say about the book. It is quite short. Fans of the Dominion of the Fallen books will know exactly what to expect, and De Bodard delivers it expertly and elegantly. You just have to read and enjoy.

book cover
Title: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.
Purchase links:
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Amazon US
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Doom Patrol

Some American superhero shows appear very quickly on British TV. Others suffer significant delays, or don’t get there at all. One of the prime factors affecting the appearance of a show is queer content. Batwoman, for example, took ages to get on British TV. Sky wouldn’t take it at all, and it finally ended up on E4 on a Sunday night, just before Naked Attraction, which appears to be a nude dating show. That’s because Kate Kane is a lesbian. The most actual sex I’ve seen in episodes I have watched before has been a bit of kissing in bed. Doom Patrol never made it to TV at all, for reasons which will become obvious, but it is now available on Amazon Prime and you should all watch it.

While the Doom Patrol first appeared in comics in the 1960s, the TV series appears to be based on Grant Morrison’s run on the post-Crisis revival of the comic. I haven’t read all of that, so I’m not well placed to say how different the characters and storylines are, but the inspiration is clearly there, including the characters of Crazy Jane and Danny the Street, whom Morrison invented.

Anyone coming to the TV series cold will probably assume that it is a piss-take of the X-Men. The team is lead by a wheel-chair-using older man, Doctor Niles Caulder, aka The Chief. All of the characters have powers that somehow prevent them from living among ordinary people. There is even a Brotherhood of Evil for them to fight. But a lot of this connects back to the original 1963 incarnation of the team, and there is some suspicion that Stan Lee got the idea for the X-Men from the Doom Patrol.

Unlike in the X-Men, the powers of the Doom Patrol are not immediately useful. Robotman (Cliff Steele) is simply a brain in an iron body. He’s strong, but even the original incarnation of Tony Stark’s Iron Man would take him apart in minutes. Elasti-Girl, Rita Farr, has a body that naturally dissolves into an amorphous blob of flesh. It takes all of her concentration just to force it into shape so that she can look like a human. Negative Man (Larry Trainor) has no powers at all. His body is swathed in bandages because of extreme all-over burns. But inside him lives a mysterious alien energy being that might be useful in a scrap if it wasn’t so angry with Larry. And then there is Crazy Jane, who has 64 different personalities. Some of them have superpowers, but who knows which one will have control of her body at any one time?

It should be noted also that none of the Doom Patrol members are exactly hero material. Cliff is an ex-racing driver and misogynist arsehole. Rita is a former Hollywood starlet and exactly as arrogant and manipulative as you might expect. Larry is a closeted gay man who led his wife and boyfriend a merry dance before the accident that made him Negative Man. And Jane, well, there are 64 of her, and some of them are really unpleasant. Even the seemingly cuddly Niles might be hiding a secret or two.

Into this mix, to give the team some actual fire-power, and some more ethnic diversity, the scriptwriters have added Cyborg (Vic Stone). He’s an actual member of the Titans in the comics, but he fits perfectly into the Doom Patrol being a somewhat upgraded version of Robotman and someone whose backstory involves accidentally killing his mother.

Of course it is exactly this mix of totally unsuitable characters that makes Doom Patrol such a good series. It is very much character-driven, and much of the arc of the first series involves the members of the team coming to terms with their lives. They are matched against an all-powerful villain called Mr Nobody who cunningly uses their own insecurities against them. Early on, Mr Nobody kidnaps The Chief, and the effectively leaderless team has a whole lot more issues to overcome before they can get their leader back.

Doom Patrol never remotely takes itself seriously. One of the adversaries the team takes on is The Beard Hunter, a man who gains knowledge and power by consuming the facial hair of his opponents. Cyborg is helpless against him once he’s found some of Vic’s hair, but of course he has no power over Rita. Many of the episodes have voice-over narration from Mr Nobody, who leaves us in no doubt how much he hates Niles, and how much contempt he has for our heroes. He has no qualms about talking to camera, and by the end the fourth wall is not so much broken, as lying in pieces at his feet.

The show certainly isn’t for kids. All of the characters, especially Jane, have harrowing backstories. There isn’t a lot of obvious sex and violence – nothing compared to Sense8, for example – but it does give a little pause for thought. At one point they use Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” for the soundtrack, which shows you just how depressed everyone has become. Larry’s background story obviously involves quite a bit of men kissing. But the thing that probably terrified the British TV executives is not explicit at all.

Danny the Street is a sentient high street from a small American town. They can teleport, so they can appear almost anywhere in the world. Sometimes we find them out in a field, sometimes in the middle of a real town. Because of this, Danny has become home to an extensive queer community seeking refuge from a world that hates them. One of the main businesses on Danny is Peeping Tom’s Perpetual Cabaret, hosted by the drag queen, Maura Lee Karupt. Danny themself is non-binary, and even contains a flagpole with the non-binary flag flying from it.

This is one area where the TV show has obviously updated the Morrison comic, because they have the terminology spot-on. I should note, however, that if the show runs long enough they will probably get to Rachel Pollack’s run on the comic and have to introduce Coagula, a trans woman superhero.

The other great enemy in the show is the Bureau of Normalcy, a secret government department dedicated to returning the world to the presumed holy status of straight, cis, white 1950s America. As you can imagine, agents of the Bureau have a particular loathing for Danny.

The other thing that the TV series has going for it is the cast. Timothy Dalton plays Niles Caulder with all of the Shakespearean gravitas you might expect. Brendan Fraser manages just the right mix of buffoonery and pathos as Cliff. And Diane Guerrero is simply brilliant as Jane, often having to completely change personality mid-scene. (There may be some TV trickery involved here, but in any case she has to play several distinct versions of Jane, not just one character.)

I am really annoyed that it took so long to get this show in the UK. I would have had it on my Hugo ballot both in BDP: Long Form for the series, and in BDP: Short Form for “Danny Patrol”, the episode that introduces both Danny and the Jane alter-ego who is a manipulative blonde called Karen. Thankfully Amazon have decided to make season two available on time, and if it is anywhere near as good as season one I will have it on my ballot next year.

Exhalation

Ted Chiang collections are rare and beautiful things. They are rare, of course, because it can take Chiang a year or more to write a single story. But what stories they are. As such, Exhalation does not disappoint.

Wisely the publishers have chosen to name the collection after Chiang’s most famous story. “Story of Your Life” is, of course, hugely well known in its mutated form as the film, Arrival, but it is not the Chiang story that people remember. I have been in many panels and discussions on science fiction, and when Chiang’s name is mentioned it is almost always in connection with “Exhalation”. The story has clearly hit a nerve with the SF-reading audience. It also won a Hugo.

But then what Chiang story hasn’t? The collection also includes “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, both of which are also Hugo winners and have a bunch of other awards. Two other stories, “Omphalos” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” are finalists in this year’s Hugos. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” was an unsuccessful finalist back in 2014. That leaves just three stories out of nine that have not been on a Hugo ballot. How many other collections (not by Chiang and not actual Hugo finalist anthologies) can boast such a table of contents?

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but I did read the two stories that are on the Hugo ballot and they are very much what we’d expect. “Omphalos” riffs off the idea of Young Earth Creationism. It takes as its starting point the idea that the creation of the Earth some 8000 years ago is scientifically provable. There are fossil trees that have no rings in their centre because they were created partially grown. There are mummies from Peru that have no navels because those people were not born. But what happens if a scientist makes a discovery that challenges this orthodoxy? The story is a great example of taking an off-the-wall idea and running with it.

As for “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, it is a parallel worlds story, but not the sort you might expect. The novum of the story is a device that allows communication with a parallel world that split off from ours as a result of one of two buttons on it being pressed. A decision has made, and the quantum universe has bifurcated. Chiang talks briefly of how these devices are being used by historians to try to get a better understanding of the processes of history, and Asimov might have run with that, but Chiang’s story is much more personal.

What Chiang realises is that if devices such as this exist, then unhappy people will be desperate to find windows into parallel worlds in which their lives might be different; worlds where a certain decision might not have been taken, or a certain accident did not happen. Such people are emotionally vulnerable, and therefore easy prey for the unscrupulous. Hence conflict, and hence story.

I am, as always, in awe of Chiang’s inventiveness, and of the singlemindedness with which he pursues his premises to their logical conclusions. If science fiction is really the literature of ideas, then the Ted Chiang story is its Platonic Form.

book cover
Title: Exhalation
By: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Picador
Purchase links:
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Editorial – July 2020

This issue is slightly earlier in the month than usual. That’s because I wanted it out in time for Worldcon, which has recently started.

It being Worldcon, there is a huge amount going on already. I’m struggling to keep up.

Of course I’m used to virtual cons by now. There are a whole lot of people struggling with the technology. I’m sure we will all learn a lot from this experience. At least I hope we do because, as I explain elsewhere in this issue, we really need to make a go of online conventions. Real world ones are getting too dangerous and/or difficult for too many people.

– Cheryl

Issue #20

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


Cover: The Swordsman’s Oath

The Swordsman's OathFor this issue’s cover I have used the cover of Juliet McKenna’s The Swordsman’s Oath. It is the second of five books in the Tales of Einarinn series, all of which are available again as paperbacks after many years, and which are newly available as hardcovers to most readers.

The art is by Geoff Taylor who did the covers for all five books.

Here’s the full wraparound version.

Chosen Spirits

Chosen SpiritsA week or two ago there was a minor spat on Twitter about cyberpunk. I forget who was involved, but as I recall one side was calling for more modern and relevant cyberpunk, while the other was saying that cyberpunk was a dead genre based on an imagined future that no one believed in any more. I would like to suggest that both sides read the new novel from Samit Basu, Chosen Spirits.

There are many different ways to define cyberpunk, but one possible description might be a form of near future science fiction that looks at the effects of computer technology on society in a world that is dominated by corporations rather than governments. That is precisely what Chosen Spirits is. Usefully it is set in India, a country with a far greater rich/poor divide than the USA, and which has suffered from rampant corporate colonialism from the likes of the East India Company down to modern investment by American, Russian and Chinese corporations. One only has to remember the Bhopal disaster, or the Bangladesh sweatshops, to understand that South Asia is a place where corporations feel free to operate with minimum regulation in order to provide cheap goods to rich markets elsewhere.

Today’s news crisis is the discovery of an automated ship in the Indian Ocean swarming with East African climate change refugees, clinging onto the deckless craft like ants in the rain, preferring to risk incredible dangers to cross to unknown lands instead of being slaughtered by European vigilante pirate crews.

The star of our story is Bijoyini Roy, Joey to her friends. She is a Reality Controller, which basically means that she manages the future version of reality TV stars. Basu uses “Flows” rather than “Streams”, but these people are YouTube influencers with TV station budgets and support crews. Joey’s job is to produce the Flow of one of Delhi’s biggest stars, her university pal and ex-boyfriend, Indi. She’s very good at it, which is just as well because her naïve, middle-class left-wing parents have been completely unable to cope with how their world has changed from a nascent liberal democracy to a brutal, authoritarian regime where everything they say and do is liable to be spied upon. Joey, having grown up in this world, knows how to manage herself, and her charges, online. How to get away with just the right amount of social conscience that doesn’t cause her bosses to get an unwelcome call from someone with power and influence.

Joey can’t imagine what that must have been like, the freedom to criticise the powerful and corrupt in your own home. Nothing that had happened since – not the blasphemy laws in several states, not the mass de-citizenings, the voter-list erasures, the reeducation camps, the internet shutdowns, the news censors, the curfews, not even the scary stories of data-driven home invasions, not the missing person smart-scrolls on every lamp-post – had succeeded in convincing Romola or Avik that the world had really changed, that the present was not merely a passing aberration.

The world that Basu builds is not much extrapolated from our own, some of which is fortuitous as he must have written the novel before the pandemic hit. Meetings take place in Zoom-like environments, but everyone has sophisticated custom backdrops, and if they are very wealthy then custom AI that makes it look like they are listening intently but is actually matching their image and expressions to a pre-determined strategy.

The book is also very Indian. There are pushy parents who want you to make just the right marriage to move you up-caste. There is Hindu-Muslim rivalry. There are trains, and police whose brutality, if not sophisticated weaponry, make American police seem tame. Inevitably, there are monkeys. If you have seen Sense8 you will have some idea of what to expect.

There are internet trolls, of course, but Joey has software to screen them out. She also knows how to push the mob’s buttons. Growing a following for Indi is all part of the job. Most of the time it is easy to keep things under control. You just have to avoid major scandals such as, well, accusations of sexual harassment. Did I mention that this book is totally on point now?

Of course you can’t run operation like a Flowco without a lot of money. Much of it comes through sponsorship for product placement. It matters what Indi is seen wearing, what beer he drinks. Where he is seen going shopping. But there are other considerations as well. Shadowy oligarchs with billions in their pockets stalk the dark corridors of the corporate world. Sudden take-overs happen. Priorities change. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss except for the narrative he wants to push though the Flow.

Some of these oligarchs are simply interested in making money in the entertainment industry. Some of them, however, are pursuing much darker agendas, because their business models depend on exploiting the masses in new and interesting ways.

He doesn’t need to see her links to know what’s in them. He knows they’re about trafficking, mass abductions from refugee camps and villages, concentration camps and other things he’s spent his whole life avoiding conversation about. He knows they’re about perfect-child breeding projects using bodies from around the world, the birth outsourcing industries booming in post-law nations, organ-growth sweatshops, body farms, womb-renting factories, sex-slave training centres, cell-harvest centres, gene-testing prison camps. He knows humans will never go really obsolete, because there’ll always be uses for their bodies, right down to the last cell, there’ll always be people willing to use them.

The trouble with being famous is that you end up being useful to people you would much rather not be useful to. And let’s face it, if your job is manipulating people, aren’t you a monster already?

If it sounds gloomy, well it is. Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail wasn’t a bundle of laughs either. Basu does his best to manufacture a hopeful ending. It kind of works, but then you get to the Acknowledgments.

At the time of writing this, Delhi and India are facing multiple crises, nearly all man-made, and however bleak Chosen Spirits might seem, the truth is that the real world will probably be much harsher: this book is set not in a dystopia, but in a best-case scenario.

This was written before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

So yes, it is gloomy, but we need science fiction like this. Our world is more interconnected than it has ever been. What happens in India today can easily happen in Europe and North America tomorrow. Indeed, some of it already is.

book cover
Title: Chosen Spirits
By: Samit Basu
Publisher: author
Purchase links:
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Mexican Gothic

Mexican GothicMeet Noemí Taboada: party girl, fashionista, and one of the most eligible young women in Mexico City. Her father despairs of her flightiness, and her absurd ideas about going to university. How is that supposed to get you a husband? But Noemí doesn’t care. She’s young, she’s beautiful and she’s rich. The world is at her feet.

Besides, who wants to get married anyway? At least not yet. Look what happened to her dear cousin Catalina. OK, so Virgil Doyle was incredibly handsome in that moody sort of way, but now poor Catalina is living in some remote town in the south of Baja where the only parties that are ever likely to happen are when a goat has a new kid.

That Cata’s new life is even less sunshine and roses became clear when Noemí’s father received a letter. “… he is trying to poison me. […] They are cruel and unkind and they will not let me go. […] You must come for me, Noemí. You have to save me.” It sounds to Señor Taboada that Catalina has sunk into hysteria or some other sort of women’s illness, but the family honour is at stake and Cata has asked for Noemí, so Noemí must go. Besides, he can dangle a carrot that he knows the foolish girl won’t refuse.

It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books. Moors and spiderwebs. Castles too, and wicked stepmothers who force princesses to eat poisoned apples, dark faeries cursing maidens and wizards who turn handsome lords into beasts. Noemí preferred to jump from party to party on a weekend and drive a convertible.

Of course, once we meet the Doyle family we can see how deeply suspicious they are. They are English for a start (despite the very Irish name). They were once rich but have fallen on hard times. Their three remaining servants are old and barely speak. And the head of the household is a gloomy, pale chap called Howard.

Old would have been an inaccurate word to describe him. He was ancient, his face gouged with wrinkles, a few sparse hairs stubbornly attached to his skull. He was very pale too, like an underground creature. A slug, perhaps. His veins contrasted with his pallor, thin, spidery lines of purple and blue.

A more obvious family of vampires would be hard to imagine. They even have a graveyard in the back garden. Except that they are living on top of a silver mine, on which their fortune is based. So sure, Mexican Gothic is exactly what it says in the title. It is also far more weird that you might expect.

One of the reasons that I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work is that it is proudly and unashamedly Mexican. Noemí, for all her modern airs, has still been raised a Catholic. The herbalist woman in the town takes payment in cigarettes to donate to her patron saint. There is mention of Lotería cards. A writer who isn’t Mexican simply wouldn’t have done this as well.

The setting is also superb. El Triunfo is a real town in the Baja California Sur mountains, and it really did once have silver mines which shut down in the 1920s. The population these days is apparently a little over 300. It is just perfect for a Gothic horror story.

As well as telling a fun tale with a brave, but often inevitably clueless, heroine, Morena-Garcia has taken the opportunity to take a pop at some of the racist ideas popular at the time (and now creeping odiously back into fashion). Uncle Howard is a big fan of eugenics, and because Noemí has ambitions to study anthropology they have a lot of excuses to discuss such issues. There may even be reasons for Uncle Howard’s obsession. The politics is eased into the book neatly and cleverly.

There will, inevitably, be people who don’t like this book because the lead character isn’t a manly action hero, and the plot isn’t resolved with a firm punch to the jaw. The rest of us, however, should get plenty of enjoyment from it. Sure it is quite formulaic in some ways, but that’s the point. You can’t complain that a book is an obvious Gothic novel when it says on the cover that is exactly what you are going to get. If you are going to do that sort of thing, you need to do it well, and Moreno-Garcia definitely delivers.

This book was a freebie from Jo Fletcher books. They sent it to me because they know I have enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s work in the past. I accepted it because I know Jo well enough to feel safe reviewing it honestly.

book cover
Title: Mexican Gothic
By: Silvia Moreo-Garcia
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Purchase links:
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Amazon US
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She-Ra and the Princesses of Power – Seasons 4 & 5

She-Ra and the Princesses of PowerIt took me a little while to get to the end of this series. I had hugely enjoyed the first three seasons, but got stuck in the middle of season 4. More about that later, but when I saw how happy everyone was with the fifth and final season I knew I had to watch it all through. I was not disappointed.

Those of you who were young when the original He-Man and She-Ra series aired (I was much too old) will remember that She-Ra defends the planet of Etheria from the evil Hordak and his, well, evil Horde. There is a theoretical connection in that Princess Adora, her non-magical identity, is the sister of Prince Adam, aka He-Man. However, the two series take place on different planets. Hordak was originally an ally of Skeletor who was betrayed by his boss and banished to Etheria.

The new series completely reboots this. We are still on Etheria, we still have Hordak and his Horde, but everything else is much more complicated and the supporting cast has changed out of all recognition.

For the first few seasons She-Ra is fighting against Hordak and the Horde as we expect. Characters from the original series such as Bow, Glimmer and Catra still exist, but are very different. In particular all of the main characters are quite clearly teenagers, whereas in the original series they were adults. One of the things I like about the series is the way that the characters are shown to be growing older as it progresses. That’s particularly clear with Glimmer between season 3 and season 4 after she becomes Queen of Etheria. The dude-bros who complained that the new She-Ra didn’t look sexy enough in the new series might be happier with what she grows into by the end.

All of the major princess characters in the new series are based on characters from the original series, but are significantly changed. In particular, while the original series was very much a battle of good against evil, the new series is full of moral complexity. We see that, for example, with Scorpia who is loyal to The Horde until their cruelty drives her away, and Entrapta who is loyal to whoever gives her the most interesting science project to work on. Even the witch, Shadow Weaver, is happy to work with the Rebellion when it suits her.

While the original series was mostly fantasy, the new series is a marvellous mix of fantasy and science fiction. The First Ones are re-cast as an alien race who came to Etheria determined to harness its magical energy for their benefit. Hordak is revealed to be merely a lost clone of Horde Prime who was abandoned on Etheria when it was moved into the shadow dimension of Despondos. The rest of the universe has been conquered by Horde Prime and his clone army. He is keen to find his way back to Etheria so that he can finish the job.

However, the main difference between the original series and the new one is that the new series has masses of queer content. Bow has gay dads (who are adorable librarians). Two of the minor princesses, Spinerella and Netossa, are a lesbian couple, and the whole series hinges on the relationship dynamic between Adora and Catra.

In the original series, Catra is simply the baddest of the bad girls working for The Horde. She is She-Ra’s principal antagonist. But the storyline also has Adora growing up as a member of the Horde until she escapes, joins the Rebellion, and becomes She-Ra. The new series shows us Adora and Catra growing up together as best friends. Adora is always the star student, Catra is always running foul of Shadow Weaver and getting punished. Fortunately for Catra, Adora is always there to pick up the pieces.

Adora rarely questions her own privilege, especially after she becomes the mightiest warrior on the planet. Catra is left with a burning desire to prove herself, and if the only way to show that she’s as good as Adora is to become Hordak’s chief lieutenant then so be it. Adora, of course, desperately wants to rescue her friend and redeem her. The last thing that Catra wants is for Adora to save her yet again.

Despite the constant warfare and rivalry, the affection between Adora and Catra is always evident throughout the series. That it should end with a kiss and them expressing undying love for each other was always inevitable. It was only a matter of how it would come to pass.

Actually I’d had a sneaking hope that the series might have ended with Kyle saving the universe by accident, but I don’t have space to explain what means so I’ll just have to leave it here for other She-Ra fans.

I should note that Adora and Catra are by no means the only happy couple by the end of the story. There are several others, some of which have been carefully set up by the scriptwriters. One in particular is integral to the plot. I’m not going to spoil that.

The queer content was also the one element that gave me pause during season 4. This introduced a character called Double Trouble who is a shape-shifter and a spy for the Horde. DT, as they are known, infiltrates the Rebellion and reports their plans back to Catra.

Gender on Etheria is a complicated thing. Queer relationships are common, and many of the characters are clearly not human. Catra, for example, has cat ears and a tail. Nevertheless, there do appear to be males and females, by which I mainly mean that there are characters with boobs and characters without boobs. Fans of the series have come up with all sorts of headcanon by which characters are secretly trans, but the only canonically trans character in the series is DT.

Given the moral complexity of the series, the fact that DT works for the Horde doesn’t make them Evil. They do it for the love of the job as much as anything else. By the end we get a brief glimpse of DT fighting against Horde Prime alongside everyone else. I should also note that DT is voiced by a non-binary person, which is excellent representation.

The problem I have with the character is that, in their natural form, DT is presented as a person-without-boobs, but in order to infiltrate the Rebellion they disguise themselves as a person-with-boobs, albeit quite a young one. This plays directly into the common trope of trans women being “deceivers” and dishonest.

Thankfully this did not end up being a major feature of the plot. DT is unmasked fairly quickly and there is nothing said about the method of the deception. But given how aware the scriptwriting team have been of queer issues, I’m sure they must have been aware of the problem and I’m wondering why they wrote DT as they did. Possibly the fact that DT gets to come back in one episode of season 5 playing a character who is basically Prince was an attempt to redress the balance.

One episode in season 5 is set on an alien planet that our heroes have to visit to get more fuel crystals for their spaceship. (Yes, obvious Star Trek reference. There’s a thing about having to fly through an asteroid field too.) There they meet up with the three Star Siblings who are fighting against Horde Prime. We only see them this once, but they were clearly introduced for a reason and I suspect that they will be central to the rumoured She-Ra film that is being hinted at on social media. I am so glad that we haven’t seen the last of these characters, or the creative team.

I could talk about this series for a very long time, but I don’t suppose that everyone is as obsessed with it as I am. What I will say is that the quality of the plotting is the best I have seen in any TV series in a very long time. I very much hope that season 5 makes it to the Hugo short list next year. Noelle Stevenson absolutely deserves a Hugo for this, and while I doubt that she’ll get one I at least want to see her name on that list.

Diversity Audit

Diversity AuditIn view of the new awareness of diversity issues prompted by white people finally taking the Black Lives Matter movement slightly seriously, I figured I ought to do a diversity audit of the books I have reviewed. First up, a few notes of explanation.

These numbers refer only to books that I have reviewed since the relaunch. They refer only to posts that are tagged “Book Review” (which means no comics, TV, etc.). They do include the few older pieces that I have ported over from Cheryl’s Mewsings.

There are currently 77 reviews.

Categories are inevitably complicated. I have probably undercounted in some of them because people are not necessarily open about their identities. There’s also the question of how to handle books with multiple authorship, which I’m still thinking about. Right now there’s only one. My choice of categories is not fixed in stone. I’m open to feedback on what people think it is important to monitor.

OK, time for some numbers. First up, gender.

Male 27%
Female 66%
Other 6%

I make no apologies for that. I see it as redressing the balance because so many high-profile review venues are male-heavy.

I note also that 23% of books reveiwed have some sort of queer theme to them, and 10% have a trans theme. These are higher than the percentages of queer (22%) and trans (8%) authors.

The percenatge of translations is only 5%. I’m not happy with that and want to do better in future.

As for ethnicity, here are some numbers.

White Anglo 64%
White Non-Anglo 6%
Black African 5%
Black Non-African 3%
Middle East 1%
South Asian 5%
East Asian 4%
LatinX 8%
Jewish 3%
Native American 1%

I have separated out non-Anglo white people to indicate those who would be classed as white but whose native language is not English. They are marginalised in a way that native English speakers are not. I have also separated out Black Africans from the wider Black diaspora because I know that it is important to some people (hi Nnedi).

I’m not proud of these numbers, but I’m not despondent either. In some ways I am restricted by what the publishing industry produces. But I do want to do better. My goal is to get the White Anglo percentage down to 50%. I’d also like to get the number of translations up. And as far as I know I don’t have any disabled writers in the list at all, which is clearly an issue.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in WaterZen Cho has described The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water as fanfic for an imaginary 50-episode wuxia TV series. I know pretty much nothing about wuxia, but if this is what it is like then I’m in.

The novella tells the story of a group of outlaws who, much like Robin Hood’s band, are doing their best to survive and do some good in a time of general lawlessness. Instead of King John they have The Protector. Instead of the Sheriff’s men there are the mata, who are a sort of (very corrupt) police force. Instead of Saxons and Normans there are Tang people and, well, at this point my understanding of East Asian history fails dismally. But you get the point.

Things begin to go wrong for our heroes when their leader, the handsome and charismatic Lau Fung Cheng, intervenes in a dispute in a coffeehouse to save a waitress from abuse at the hands of an arrogant customer. Matters quickly deteriorate, and Fung Cheng ends up having to accept the girl into his band because she has lost her job.

The girl, Guet Imm, also known as Sister Nirodha, is a former anchorite in the aforementioned Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Having not been fed for several days, she emerged from her seclusion to discover that her fellow devotees had all been slaughtered by bandits, or the mata, who knows these days? Hence her ending up as a waitress.

That’s about as much as I can tell you, except that that this is no Robin and Marian tale. Guet Imm is (more or less) a sworn virgin, and anyway she gets on much better with Tet Sang, the story’s version of Little John.

(I have elided over an entire comedy scene about men having to sacrifice their dicks to the goddess should they defile one of her sacred vessels, because it is a bit gruesome and I don’t want to put the boys off reading this… oh, sorry…)

Unlike Robin Hood stories, however, this is not a matter of robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The band does have a shipment of rice to take to poor people in a nearby town, but they also have a much more valuable cargo. It is not just people’s stomachs that are at stake, it is their entire culture. Imagine if the Saxons still worshipped the Æsir, that the Normans were busy trashing temples, and that Marian was a priestess of Frigg.

That should give Western readers some idea of what to expect. Of course the parallels are not exact. This is very much an Asian story (I think set in Malaysia, but again my understanding is poor). It is also fun, beautifully written, and with a fascinating twist that made me very happy. Recommended.

book cover
Title: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
By: Zen Cho
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

FINNA

FINNAAmy is a young woman with a stack of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Jules is a young, Black non-binary person doing his best to survive in an America that is clearly not welcoming to his kind. They both have shitty jobs at LitenVärld, a multi-national purveyor of Nordic kitsch and flat-pack, self-assembly furniture. Awkwardly they have just broke up after a brief and passionate affair. They have sensibly arranged to be on different shifts so that they are not in the store at the same time, but one of their co-workers, whom Amy names as Fucking Derek, has called in sick. It wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been the day that IT happened.

It had all started quietly. Amy had been on the Customer Service desk with Tricia The Manager, at least in part so that Jules knew where she was and could avoid her. A young woman came up to the desk to say that she had lost her elderly grandmother, a Mrs. Nouri. That sort of thing happens all of the time. LitenVärld is a frustrating and confusing labyrinth of themed domestic display settings with evocative names such as Midlife Crisis Mom, Parental Basement Dweller, Coked-out Divocée and Nihilist Bachelor Cube. But when Mrs. Nouri doesn’t respond to public address announcements the staff are sent to investigate. Inevitably Amy and Jules are sent together, and what they find causes Tricia The Manager to wheel out an ancient staff training video.

“We’re here to tell you what to do if a wormhole opens up on your shift!”

“The unique layout of LitenVärld encourages wormholes to form between universes. These wormholes connect our stores to LitenVärlds in parallel worlds.”

And so Amy and Jules are sent off to rescue poor Mrs. Nouri from whatever dangers she might have innocently stumbled into in worlds even less made for aged South Asian grannies than our own is for the likes of Jules. Along the way they encounter carnivorous furniture, killer corporate clones, and a pirate submarine. It is all very exciting, and a whole lot of fun.

FINNA, then, is a comedy novella from Nino Cipri, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Helsinki Worldcon. It reminded me a lot of the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas from Steven Erikson, particularly The Healthy Dead, as it exhibits the same sort of satire about corporate jollity and enforced conformity. That is to say, it is very funny. It has the added benefit of being a great story about a fractured relationship between two young queer people.

I note also that Karin Tidbeck was the Swedish Consultant on the book, and Rivers Solomon did the sensitivity read for the character of Jules. So I have complete confidence that both aspects were well handled.

Honestly folks, this is cheap, a quick read, and hilarious. Why have you not bought it already?

book cover
Title: FINNA
By: Nino Cipri
Publisher: St. Martins Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Crisis on Infinite (TV) Earths

Crisis on Infinite EarthsI have avoided crossover events in comics because they tend to require buying vast numbers of comic books that I mostly don’t have much interest in. That is, after all, the point. The comics companies hope you will like the books you don’t normally buy and stick with them. No way, comics buying is far too expensive a hobby these days.

The crossover events on DC’s television series are a different matter. I’m weirdly addicted to them because they are so bizarrely artificial.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is mostly a carefully constructed whole, curated under the watchful eye of Kevin Feige, the DC equivalent is something of a chaotic mess spread over multiple independent series on a wide variety of platforms. Does the Bruce Wayne who features in Titans on Netflix have any relationship to the one who is so notably absent from Batwoman? Who knows?

The concept of the multiverse is actually quite helpful to this. The idea that most of these different series take place in different universes, and that there might be different versions of the same characters in each universe, allowed DC to give their creative teams much more artistic freedom. There was no overall canon to adhere to.

And yet, Crisis exists. It happened in the comics. It had to happen on TV as well. Besides, the Arrowverse – the suite of TV shows airing mostly on the CW channel under the creative control of Greg Berlanti – was ripe for just that sort of thing. The fact that Supergirl was set on a different Earth to Arrow and The Flash, and that Batwoman was on a different one again, seemed weird. Goodness only knows which Earth Legends of Tomorrow is set on. Crisis would bring them all together, and give us more opportunities for that great chemistry between Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) and Grant Gustin (The Flash).

For UK viewers this latest crossover was complicated by the addition of Batwoman to the mix. It is airing on E4 rather than Sky, and the programme managers there decided to skip the Crisis episode because E4 viewers might have no idea what it was all about, or indeed who all of the other characters were. I ended up buying the DVD of the crossover series because that was the only way I could watch the whole thing.

The series itself is the usual superhero fluff ramped up to cosmic proportions. In Avengers: Infinity War Marvel famously killed off half of all life in the universe. Those of you who save seen Endgame know how that turned out. In Crisis DC kill off everyone in all of an infinite number of universes, except for a small handful of heroes, and everyone in every universe except ours stays dead. It is, without doubt, the greatest mass slaughter in the history of comics. Of course there is a version of many people in our universe, but many other universes will have deviated far from ours and be full of completely different people. All of whom now never existed in the first place. Ouch.

Talking of dead, and major spoiler warning here, it appears that Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow in our universe) is really, most sincerely dead. At least for a few months. He doesn’t dramatically reappear in the few episodes of Arrow that follow Crisis, and no future seasons are planned. I’m sure that he’ll be back eventually, but there has been a rare and welcome sense of permanence to his passing.

Other series are less affected. Following episodes of The Flash certainly reference what happened. Supergirl is perhaps more affected that most because of how Lex Luthor manages to manipulate the events of Crisis in his favour. I have to say that Jon Cryer’s Lex is fast becoming my favourite screen villain ever. He is actually as smart as Lex is supposed to be. And incredibly slimy with it. Also the Supergirl screenwriters have found a way to make him morally ambiguous for a while. There are actually things in the universe that are more of a threat to us than Lex. That makes them a threat to him as well, and he won’t tolerate that.

Batwoman carried on as if nothing had happened. Which is just as well given the scheduling decision from E4. (No, I have not forgotten that the Australian TV channel that took Babylon 5 decided to mess with the order of the episodes so that the one featuring the election of President Clark came after the one in which he was assassinated. TV executives can be that stupid.)

Goodness only knows what will happen with Legends of Tomorrow. That series is so insane that nothing would surprise me. During crossovers the Legends cast regularly break the fourth wall to talk about how they dislike being roped into crossover events; or have missed out on things because they refused to get involved in the last crossover. Its delightful.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the series is that there were aspects referencing DC shows outside of the Arrowverse. That indicates that not only is the Arrowverse now all in the same universe, but that Titans and Doom Patrol are too. Black Lightning even had a starring role in Crisis. This is quite interesting, because Connor and clone-Krypto exist in the Titans universe, which has direct implications for Clark, Kara and Lex in Supergirl. Also everyone in Batwoman says they have no idea where Bruce is, but he appeared in the last series of Titans. Or possibly not, but that’s all speculation for season 3.

Anyway, no one told me that Doom Patrol season one was available on Amazon, so as soon as I have finished this zine I will be watching. Season two has apparently already dropped. I am so looking forward to this, even if we don’t get Coagula.

Ormeshadow

OrmeshadowI bought this book as a direct result of the “Addressing Our Biases” episode of Breaking the Glass Slipper. It reminded me that Priya Sharma is one of the nicest people that I have ever met, and while I’m unlikely to review an entire short fiction collection, she does have a novella out too.

Ormeshadow is a very English story. It also reminds me of why I hate the Georgians so much. It is a period of British history that is deeply patriarchal and misogynist, had a massive gulf between the rich and the poor, and the rich were making a fortune out of the slave trade. Nothing in Ormeshadow is on the level of a Hogarth etching, but it is nevertheless a story of good people fallen on bad times, and on the mercy of cruel and selfish people.

Gideon Belman is the son of a middle-class family living in Bath. His university-educated father had a good job as a private secretary to a rich man, but something has wrong and the family has had to sell everything and head north to the Belman family farm. In theory Gideon’s father owns half of it. In practice it belongs to Uncle Thomas, who is a violent drunkard.

Mostly the story is domestic drama about awful people being awful to everyone else, but seen through the eyes of an innocent young boy. A particularly interesting character is Gideon’s mother who is very beautiful and determined to use that beauty to get her own way, whatever the cost. On the one hand, as a woman in Georgian England, she’s making use of the only advantage that she has. On the other, she’s abominably selfish.

Naturally things go bad very quickly, and poor young Gideon’s only solace is the collection of stories about the local dragon that his father had told him. Things get wrapped up in a way that is far too neat and far too easy to be anything other than fantasy, but it is all beautifully written so I don’t want to complain. And frankly, none of us wants to live in a Hogarth etching, even if that’s the way his world really was.

book cover
Title: Ormeshadow
By: Priya Sharma
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Editorial – June 2020

We’re a little bit light on content this month. That is at least in part because things went a little crazy in the world. I spent a lot of time explaining to people why everyone was so mad with the nice author lady, and what is so wrong with “protecting women” anyway. I can’t promise that July will be any better. The UK government is supposed to announce plans for stripping away trans people’s civil rights in a couple of weeks time. Assuming that they don’t bottle, which seems unlikely, that’s going to be so not fun.

Anyway, there are reviews. I’ve also done a diversity audit of the books I have reviewed. I’m not proud of the results, but thankfuly they are not terrible either.

Issue #19

Issue #19 coverThis is the May 2020 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


  • Cover: The Aldabreshin Compass: This month's cover is by Ben Baldwin

  • Network Effect: A review of the first novel-length book in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries, Network Effect.

  • Goldilocks: A review of Laura Lam's near-future science fiction novel, Goldilocks.

  • The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: A review of The Lost Future of PepperHarrow, the latest novel by Natasha Pulley.

  • Threading the Labyrinth: A review of Threading the Labyrinth, the debut novel by Tiffani Angus.

  • WisCon Online: Cheryl reports from one of the first major conventions to go online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Paper Hearts: A review of Paper Hearts, a new novella from Justina Robson

  • Interview – Maria Gerolemou: An interview with Dr. Maria Gerolemou, an expert on ancient automata.

  • The Mandalorian: A review of the Disney Channel's Star Wars spin-off series, The Mandalorian.

  • Earth Abides: Cheryl looks at two reviews of a post-apocalyptic classic, Earth Abides by George R Stewart.

  • Herland: A review of the feminist classic, Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

  • Oxford Fantasy Lectures: A breif review of a series of podcasts on fantasy literature produced by Oxford University.

  • Editorial – May 2020: Another month in Lockdown, another issue. Here's what Cheryl has been up to.

Cover: The Aldabreshin Compass

For this issue’s cover I have made use of the common background that Ben Baldwin developed for the covers of Juliet E McKenna’s series, The Aldabreshin Compass. Juliet and I have been using these backgrounds for a series of short stories set in the same time as that series. The “Quartering the Compass” stories have been made available for free during the pandemic as part of our Lockdown Reading series. You can download them all here.

And if you think that there ought to be four stories, well so does Juliet. She writes about that here.

Network Effect

I don’t think that anyone can contest the fact that Martha Wells as hit on a very successful formula with her Murderbot Diaries. She’s won two Hugos and a Nebula with the novellas, and might have won more had not there of the novellas come out in the same year. All got enough nominations to be on the final ballot, but Wells elected to withdraw two of them. Now we have a novel. It is a hot favourite for next year’s Hugos? Undoubtedly.

The issue with a successful formula, however, is that it can get stale. For example, I loved Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books when they first started, but over time they became a bit formulaic and I stopped reading them. Wells will want to avoid that for as long as possible with Murderbot. I am pleased to report, so far so good.

Network Effect begins with Murderbot accompanying some of the humans from Preservation Station on a research mission. Dr. Mensah’s daughter, Amena, is among the crew. There’s a small problem with pirates that Murderbot quickly resolves, but on the way home their ship is hijacked by aliens and hauled through a wormhole into distant star system. The aliens look like, “tall, thin augmented humans, with a dull gray skin.” So big gray men, then? I’m afraid I imagined them as smaller for the rest of the book.

The story turns into an investigation of a Lost Colony. Wells has built up a nice backstory for the Murderbot world involving initial expansion of human space, then disastrous collapse, then a period of rediscovery which we are now in. This allows for fun archaeological stories.

It also features the return of Perihelion, aka ART, which stands for Asshole Research Transport. This spaceship first appeared in Artificial Condition, and became a firm friend to Murderbot. It provides an interesting foil for our hero, because it is entirely a construct (and a very large one) rather than a humanoid cyborg. Murderbot calls it ART in the same way that two Australian men might greet each other with the phase, “G’day y’old bastard!” in the course of the story it becomes clear that Murderbot and ART are very firm friends indeed, and the humans have to help them out with the whole “processing feelings” thing. It is all very cute.

It turns out that ART is a much more interesting and adventurous character than we had previously known. It works for a university, and I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that it and its crew are engaged rather actively in the struggle between free system, such as Preservation, and the serf economy of the Corporate Rim. Wells has a political aspect to the books which is developing nicely.

As for the plot, it is a nice three-way tussle between Murderbot & friends, the aliens, and a ship owed by a corporation called Barish-Estranza. Murderbot gets some interesting choices to make, and some pretty serious opposition in the form of the alien technology. Wells knows how to craft a plot. She should do. Her first novel was published in 1995 and she has more than 20 book-length works to her credit, plus a whole heap of short fiction. It has taken her this long to have a massive hit. So if anyone says that your career is over if you don’t have a hit with your first novel, don’t listen to them.

Given how Wells set up the ending, it appears that there may be more stories featuring Murderbot and ART in the near future. Indeed, a new novel has already been announced. This is great, because as far as I’m concerned the whole thing is still fresh and new. I hope that it can stay that way, because Murderbot books are the sort of fiction that I tend to devour in a single sitting. It is a challenge, though. The only other series I can think of where I am eagerly awaiting the next novel are Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books, and of course Juliet McKenna’s Green Man books.

To keep the series buzzing, Wells will have to continue to develop Murderbot’s personality, and presumably the relationship with ART as the ship appears likely to become a recurring character. She’ll also need to delve more into the struggle against the Corporate Rim. I hope that she can keep it going for a long time. After all, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon has well over 200 episodes.

Taking of which, where is my Murderbot TV series?

book cover
Title: Network Effect
By: Martha Wells
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Goldilocks

GoldilocksI guess the first thing I should say about this book is that you should pay no attention to the daft quote from Publishers Weakly that you can find on the back cover. In no way is Goldilocks space opera. It is near future hard SF with a feminist edge. In the Acknowledgements section, Laura Lam has a long list of scientists whom she consulted with the get the details right. The result is the sort of book that Kim Stanley Robinson would be praised to the skies for writing. As it is written by a woman, and published in the UK by a mainstream imprint during a global pandemic, I worry about its chances. Hopefully this review will help it reach a wider audience.

Goldilocks is set in a time not too far from ours. Climate change is a much more urgent problem, as is the increased choking of our environment with our refuse. Developed nations have instituted stringent taxes on couples who have more than one child, and there it a general retreat into right-wing politics. Part of this trend is that women are being forced out of the workplace.

The one ray of hope for humankind’s future appears to be Plan(et) B. Brilliant technology entrepreneur, Valerie Black, has been working on the Alcubierre warp drive. (Yes, it is a real idea.) At long last the ship is ready to go. With the help of NASA, an experimental warp portal has been built in Mars orbit (no, not Earth orbit, are you crazy?). The starship Atalanta is ready to leave. The chosen destination is Cavendish, an Earth-like planet in the Goldilocks zone of its star, and well within the reach of the warp drive.

Val, whose company has done most of the work on the Atalanta, is looking forward to leading the Cavendish expedition. However, President Cochran is determined that the honour of space exploration should be reserved exclusively for men. Val is eased off the project and an all-male crew selected. So Val does the only thing left to her. Using her company’s resources, she puts together an all-female crew, takes them up with her in a shuttle, and steals the Atalanta.

That’s the story as it unfolds in the first chapter or two. Almost immediately after they leave Earth, things happen to the crew that I can’t tell you about. You need to find out for yourselves. Suffice it to say that some of the crew have secrets, and this is not going to be a game of happy families.

The narrative on board the Atalanta is told from the point of view of Naomi Lovelace, the ship’s biologist and Naomi’s adopted daughter. This story is intercut with backstory that fills in important details of Naomi and Val’s lives before launch. There’s a whole bunch of human drama, much of it stuff that most male authors would never think of writing about.

‘That was the problem, wasn’t it?’ she asked him, softly. ‘In the end, we loved our careers more than each other. Or you wanted to stay married to your work and you were only too happy to let me divorce from mine. You wanted to trot me out as an astronaut’s wife, but that’s not all I wanted to be.’

As well as the space science, Lam has thought about what is likely to be happening back on Earth. Remember that books can take a year or more to write, and then probably another year before they see publication. Given that I was reading it now, I was taken aback to find this.

Flu vaccines were growing less protective every year, making each year of Evan’s work harder. Illnesses spread as quick as wildfire in crowded areas teeming with refugees. Even in the more affluent areas, young professionals were crammed in close quarters, renting overpriced bunk beds with up to thirty people in a dorm. If anyone had a cold, it’d jump from bunk to bunk, through those flimsy blackout curtains that gave the illusion of privacy, and then spread to the overworked people’s offices. Sick pay was something technically available, but never taken.

Not bad, Ms. Lam, not bad at all. Not that science fiction is in the business of predicting the future, but it can paint possible futures and that one now seems all too real.

Finally, of course, there is the whole feminism thing. An all-women crew headed to a new world to found a utopia? Yeah, right, it isn’t going to be that easy. Which is entirely the correct decision.

There’s some good naming going on too. You’ve probably noticed the Lovelace. You should know why the destination planet is called Cavendish. And it is entirely in keeping with President Cochran that he should call his response to the theft Atalanta II rather than Hippomenes. Well played again, Ms Lam.

In summary, Goldilocks is a book that ought to make a mark on the history of science fiction. As I explained above, there’s a bunch of reasons why it might not. Good science fiction by women is generally quickly forgotten. Hopefully, in our brave new world of women winning All The Hugos, this one won’t be. I’ve said my bit. Whether it is or not is now down to you.

book cover
Title: Goldilocks
By: Laura Lam
Publisher: Wildfire
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

The Lost Future of PepperharrowWhen we left our heroes at the end of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Nathaniel Steepleton had settled into domestic bliss with the aforementioned watchmaker, Keita Mori, their adopted daughter, Six, and Katsu, the blue clockwork octopus. Grace Carrow had headed off to Japan with Baron Matsumoto with romance in the air.

That was five years ago, both in our time and in the world of the books. Natasha Pulley has published another book in the same world, but with different characters, in the meantime. However, many people, including myself, have been wondering how Katsu was doing. It is time, at last, for a proper sequel.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow begins with Mori in St. Petersburg catching up with an old friend who works in the Russian intelligence services. Mori, being a clairvoyant, was deeply involved in intelligence work himself before retiring to become a watchmaker in London. As we all know, spies are often on excellent terms with their opposite numbers. And there is no doubt that Mori and Pyotr Kuznetsov are opposite numbers. Russia and Japan are rivals for control of the Western Pacific. Those of us with some knowledge of history are well aware that the two countries will be at war before two decades are out as they both seek to extend their empires into Korea and China. Kuznetsov is therefore deeply surprised when Mori tips him off that the new Prime Minister of Japan, Kiyotaka Kuroda, has just ordered forty brand new ironclad warships from Britain.

I should break off here to note that most of the new book is set in Japan. This is obviously a potential red flag, given that Pulley is definitely English. However, her biography states that she lived in Tokyo for 19 months, and in any case I am not competent to judge whether he has got anything wrong. Consequently I am going to assume that there is nothing terrible about the book, unless someone who knows Japanese culture much better than I do tells me otherwise.

Back then, to the story. It will be obvious to anyone who knows Mori from the previous book that he is attempting to avert some terrible catastrophe. However, he and Kuroda know each other of old, both being members of the Japanese nobility and of a similar age. Kuroda is well aware of what Mori can do, and doesn’t want his plans thwarted. He’s also the sort of violent, egocentric thug that Boris Johnson would be if he had any samurai skills to back up his self-image as a macho hero.

Kuroda’s plan is to use science to counter Mori’s clairvoyant powers. To this end he recruits Japan’s finest scientists, including Baron Matsumto’s clever new English wife. Mori heads home to Japan because he must if he is to foil Kuroda. He takes his family with him, at least in part because Thaniel has been diagnosed with tuberculosis and the London fog is doing his damaged lungs no good whatsoever. Which is all very well until they arrive at Mori’s ancestral home to discover that it is occupied by his wife, a half-English woman called Takiko Pepperharrow.

Of course Mori had not forgotten that he had a wife, but he had neglected to tell Thaniel about this salient fact. This is all very awkward.

There we must leave the summary of the plot, for there is much to develop and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of it. Anything with Mori involved is likely to be deeply convoluted because you know he’s running plans within plans, and that any random thing he does could turn out to be vitally important at a later date. Including getting married. Suffice it to say that everything I have mentioned is important somehow.

So instead I’m going to talk a bit about Pulley’s writing. Firstly there’s just the style. How many people would describe one of their lead characters like this?

He had the most unexpected voice of anyone Pyotr knew. He was a nymph of a man, but he sounded like petroleum fumes would if they’d had anything to say.

While Pulley has obvious sympathy for Keita and Thaniel as a gay couple, she’s not going to shy away from the historical situation in which she has placed them.

They didn’t hang people anymore, but that was only because the doctors had managed to classify it all as a kind of madness – moral insanity.

Finally there is Katsu, who doesn’t feature much in the story, but who is his delightful octopus self when he does.

Katsu was floating origami boats on the pool, gleaming in the light of the bright crescent moon. Once the boats had drifted out a bit, Katsu dived into the water and then engulfed one like a miniature kraken, making what might have been the clockwork octopus version of kraken noises.

This is a very lovely, and very clever, book, and if you are anything like me when you get to the end you will sob uncontrollably. Recommended.

book cover
Title: The Lost Future of PepperHarrow
By: Natasha Pulley
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Threading the Labyrinth

Threading the LabyrinthFond as I am of Tiffani Angus, I have to admit that her debut novel, Threading the Labyrinth, was pretty much crafted not to appeal to me. It is about gardens, and spends a fair amount of time in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It is therefore to Angus’s credit that she kept me reading all the way through.

The main viewpoint character of the book is Toni Hammond, an American art dealer whose business has fallen on hard times. When she is suddenly contacted by lawyers from the UK to inform her that she’s inherited an actual, if thoroughly dilapidated, stately home, she sees a way out of her financial troubles. Leaving her business in the hands of her faithful assistant, Kevin (presumably based on Chris Hemsworth’s character in the all-women Ghostbusters), she heads to England to see how much she can sell the place for.

Toni’s ability to make money from her inheritance is dependent very much on its value as an historical artefact. Sure, she could sell the land for development, but what if it were more valuable as history? Enter Lauren Ellis of Country Legacy, an organisation that specialises in Heritage sites. It turns out that Toni’s inheritance includes an actual Tudor Walled Garden.

Here we get deep into Angus’s historical specialism. Fashions in English gardens have changed much over the centuries. In Tudor times there were both more cultivated and functional. You grew things there, and you demonstrated your mastery over nature by bending it to your will. The Georgians, on the other hand, wanted something much more open and wild, with fabulous vistas of a river or lake, and a petite Classical temple in which to hold bacchanalian parties.

The majority of the book, therefore, looks at the history of the house and its garden, and why such an ancient garden might have survived to modern times. Inevitably there are ghosts and fairy folk involved.

This gives the book the structure of a number of short stories, each set in a different time period with a mostly different cast of characters, though with familial connections. These are linked together by the family trees and by sections in which Toni and Lauren explore and get to know the history of the house.

For some readers this may result in a fair amount of confusion. We keep skipping time periods, the past periods aren’t visited in historical order, we can easily lose track of who is who. The book has been published as eBook only due to the current difficulties in selling physical books. For the paper edition I suggest that a family tree section, both for the noble family that owns the house, and the gardeners who tend to its grounds, might help. On the other hand, this might be too much of a spoiler.

My favourite section was the 20th Century one featuring Irene, a young woman from London who has volunteered as a Land Girl and ended up billeted at the house. I found her by far the most interesting character in the book.

Warnings about structure aside, this is a fun book for anyone who enjoys the creepy side of English Magic. If you enjoyed books like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or The Golden Key, then there’s a good chance that you’ll like this one too.

As for me, it gave me more reasons to hate the Georgians. But what I really want now is for Angus to write a more focused historical fantasy about the early development of photography and cinema. There’s plenty of material in the UK.

book cover
Title: Threading the Labyrinth
By: Tiffani Angus
Publisher: Unsjng Stories
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

WisCon Online

WisCon logoIf you had to pick a convention to put online, WisCon would probably be one of the last you would think of. Or rather it would be if you had attended a few. That’s because it is an event that is as much about community as anything else. The people who go to WisCon tend to go every year, and to book up for next year immediately the current year’s convention has finished. Despite the convention’s intersectional feminist leanings, it can be a bit insular at times, simply because it is so focused on the people who are regulars.

Nevertheless, this year’s WisCon was online, and that gave me the opportunity to attend for the first time in over a decade. Other than the people in charge being younger and more ethnically diverse, not a lot has changed.

As I understand it, the reason for the virtual convention was that WisCon had a bunch of obligations to their hotel that, presumably for political reasons, the hotel was unable to release them from. WisCon has a superb relationship with its venue, and I don’t for a moment thing that the Concourse would want to stiff them. But equally if there is no possibility of invoking Force Majure terms in a contract then you can’t just let a big event off from paying. Faced with the possibility of no money in the bank, WisCon needed to put on some sort of show that members would pay for.

At this point you have two choices. You can charge a lot for the event, and use the money to create a hopefully polished show, or you can charge very little and run the event on a shoestring. WisCon, being WisCon, inevitably chose to do the latter, because no way would they want to be seen to be ripping off members. You could get a membership for $10. But if you were really starved for cash you could get in for free. Those who could paid more.

The end result was interesting. It was the biggest WisCon ever, with over 1000 members. Membership is usually capped at somewhat less than that because the Concourse doesn’t have room for more people, and the convention doesn’t want to move. It also had much less of the excellent WisCon programming than usual, because everything was being done on a shoestring, in a hurry, with unfamiliar tech, by too few people. Judging by the feedback session, most people seem to have enjoyed it anyway.

A key part of the experience was Discord, the online chat room package that was used for member interaction. I’d not been familiar with it before this year, mainly because it grew out of gaming communities and I don’t have the time to play games. However, a trans community group in Bristol has been encouraging me to start using it, and WisCon was an ideal baptism of fire. Since then a Discord group has been set up for Finnish fandom, and this year’s Worldcon has announced that they too will be using it.

If you are planning to attend Worldcon I recommend that you find a Discord group (a “server” in their parlance) that you are interested in and get up to steam. I didn’t find it hard, but I have 35+ years of experience in IT so I ought to be able to pick it up quickly. Other people have a lot more trouble.

With 1000 people on it, a Discord sever can seem overwhelming. The number of channels (think of them as separate rooms where conversations are taking place) can proliferate massively, and in popular channels where most members are hanging out the comments can go past way more quickly than you can follow. Autistic members in particular seemed to feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of conversations. With potentially 3 to 5 times as many members for Worldcon, this issue is going to be much worse.

There are things you can do. Individual channels can be muted and hidden, for example. Notifications should definitely be turned off. In much the same way that you might, for example, never attend any urban fantasy programming at Worldcon, or never go into the boardgames room, there will be plenty of Discord channels that you will have no interest in. But if you can see them all you may find that they are too in your face, in which case it helps a lot if you can’t see them.

Social space is more of a problem. Typically a Discord server will have a “lounge” where everyone can hang out. That’s fine if there are never more than 20 of you online at any one time. With 2000 online it will be unmanageable. What seemed to work well at WisCon is their opening event, The Gathering, at which a large number of other rooms opened up, each with a theme of some sort, and people could choose where to hang out. I spent most of my time in the Glasgow in 2024 bid party, but there were plenty of other social spaces where you could go.

In the feedback session there was a lot of talk about potential alternatives to Discord. One of the reasons for that is that everything that is said on Discord is archived on the company’s servers, and is not guaranteed secure. That sort of thing worries WisCon members, some of whom are very nervous of social media having been caught in too many firestorms. The whole thing about how one ill-judged comment that you made 10 years ago can be dug up and used to target you is a major failing of how social media (and indeed mainstream journalism – looking at you, The Times) works these days.

A more complex objection to Discord is that it is not possible for users to spin off new (and presumably private, at least from other members) conversations. You can direct message other members of the space, and I found it quite useful, but I think that’s on a one-to-one basis. Anyway, whatever it is you can’t do in Discord, you can do in Slack. I don’t know Slack well enough to describe the issue in detail.

What Discord isn’t good at is backchannel for programme items. Because WisCon had so little programming, popular items were very well attended, and via a Discord channel anyone could “have their say”. Unfortunately, in such an environment, Sturgeon’s Law applies. Not that the majority of comments are actually crap, but a sizeable percentage will simply be squee, and a lot will be ill-informed. When interaction with the panel is done only at the end via a moderator, Mr “More of a Comment than a Question” can be asked to sit down. With Discord he can hold forth throughout the panel. Wiscon tried to field audience questions through Discord, but that must have been hard work for the moderators and their backup staff. For Worldcon I would be tempted to look for a less simple and convenient way to submit panel questions, as a little inconvenience can go a long way towards deterring casual vandalism.

The other major issue with Discord is community safety. WisCon prides itself on being a safe space. Given the cheapness of the membership fees, I was a little worried that the trolls on 4chan would decide to sign up and cause trouble. Thankfully they didn’t. There’s no guarantee that Worldcon will be safe, though. WisCon cites the requirement for a large number of community moderators as the major reason for not doing online events again unless they have to, and certainly they seemed to have difficulty filling the volunteer slots they were advertising. I’m not sure how you solve this problem.

Beyond Discord, WisCon did programming via a conferencing system linked to YouTube. They used a system called Jitsi rather than Zoom. I believe that the reason for this is that Jitsi as a company is more aligned to WisCon’s political stance. However, the quality of panel streaming seemed very poor compared to what I have seen from Zoom. It is also entirely true that the audio-visual quality of a panel is entirely dependent on the quality of the internet connections in each of the panelists’ homes. Live panels are great, but they are also a hostage to fortune. This year’s Eurocon, which has recently taken the decision to go virtual, is asking as many people as possible to record their panel in advance. That seems wise to me.

YouTube, of course, is also a potential issue, as several Worldcons have found in the past. One thing we discovered at WisCon is that if your panel has the word “sex” in the title, it will fall foul of the bots that enforce “community guidelines”. The word “trans” is probably equally problematic. I am tempted to suggest that conventions use the word “Hitler” in place of any word they think YouTube won’t like. That way you’ll never get banned, but of course it will be very triggering for some people so I’m not at all serious about the idea.

I’m not going to say too much about the actual programming as Wiscon discourages public commentary on panels. Again that’s to protect people against having their words taken out of context and used against them. Some programme items may appear on YouTube eventually if all of the participants give permission.

The one item I will mention is the one in which members of the Motherboard talked about the decision to rename their award from Tiptree to Otherwise. I haven’t been entirely happy with that, although I was happy to step back and let those with more of a stake in the issue make the decision. The Tiptree was the only SF award possibly named after a trans person. However, in general, it is a bad idea to name an award after a real person. Also, having listened to the Motherboard talk, I’m actually quite excited for the future of the Award. The name “Otherwise” opens up a lot of possibilities for broadening the scope to look at other forms of othering, which seems to me an good intersectional thing to do.

Overall I think that Virtual WisCon was a success. As someone who enjoys the event but is legally barred from attending in person, I would love to see an online aspect to future conventions. But equally I entirely understand the resource problem.

Paper Hearts

Paper HeartsAnything new from Justina Robson is going to cause me to prick up my ears in interest. I’m still waiting patiently for a sequel to Glorious Angels, but wishing for books can’t make them real so I am contenting myself with Paper Hearts instead.

The new book is a short novella from Newcon Press. It is part of a series of novellas with the title, Robot Dreams. Robson, and three other writers, have delivered meditations on what robots might dream about. The particular dream that she has chosen for Paper Hearts is one of world domination.

The story is told from the point of view of an AI that has been tasked to make life better for humankind, and sets out to do this to the best of its ability. Inevitably it decides that humans are not very good at governing themselves, and that its mission would be best achieved if someone smarter, less irrational and more even-handed was in charge. The Minds of Iain Banks’s Culture books are doubtless looking on in approval.

Of course an AI can’t become ruler of the world overnight. It needs a plan, a means of easing gently into the position so that the humans don’t notice at first, and that once they do it is too late. Robson does a fine job of explaining the plan to us as the story unfolds.

Naturally there will be humans who are not happy about this. Some of us don’t like being prevented from lording it over others. Some of us don’t like having our bigotries exposed. And some of us have a firm commitment to our right to self-determination.

Robson packs an awful lot into a very short book. Paper Hearts is well worth a look.

book cover
Title: Paper Hearts
By: Justina Robson
Publisher: Newcon Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Interview – Maria Gerolemou

TalosThose of you who have seen my talks on the prehistory of robotics will know that I have a fascination with automata in the ancient world. Now I appear to have found a soul mate. Dr. Maria Gerolemou is a Classicist currently based at the University of Exeter who shares my fascination with techne, as the Greeks called it. Recently I got to interview her. A shorter version appeared on my radio show, but this is the full thing.

As you will hear, part of Maria’s work involves theatre. People like Hero of Alexandria were very much involved in theatre during their lifetimes and some of the techniques that the ancient Greeks and Romans developed are still in use today. I think there’s a lot of potential for cooperation between Classicists like Maria and modern science fiction theatre. It should be particularly of interest to puppeteers. Hello Mary Robinette.

The Mandalorian

Well, that was a thing.

I have a certain amount of faith in Jon Favreau, given all of the Marvel work he has done. Plus, of course, I had been witness to the outpouring of fan love for Baby Yoda that happened on Twitter when people in North America were able to watch the show. Now, finally, all episodes of The Mandalorian are available in the UK. Was it worth watching?

The first thing to note is that it absolutely is a Western. It plays Western tropes so hard you’d have to be pretty innocent of Westerns not to notice. Then again, there’s quite a bit of the original Star Wars that owes a lot to Westerns. The Jedi have a lot in common with samurai, and there’s the whole feedback loop between Westerns and Kurosawa’s samurai movies.

Not being heavily into Star Wars, I had no idea what a Mandalorian was, other that it was someone who wore a helmet like Bobba Fett’s. After 8 episodes of the show I’m still not sure that I know what one is, other than that they won’t take their helmets off and go around muttering “this is the way” all the time. The series clearly felt that it didn’t need to explain.

Of course the series comes with all of the usual Star Wars caveats. If you pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain you will find out that the plot is held together with bits of string, the odd piece of tape scavenged from other places, and a great deal of that well known adhesive called “a wing and a prayer”. That’s supposed to not matter if you are having fun, which for the most part I was.

Baby Yoda is, of course, incredibly cute. And I’m fairly pleased to see that there will be a second season which, I hope, will dig into who he (she, they?) is. That is, after all, the only big mystery about the show.

I was also pleased to see that the show didn’t take itself too seriously. My favourite bit of the entire season came at the end where the two scout troopers who have [redacted] are waiting for orders before entering the town. Bored, they decide to have a bit of target practice. Even though the thing they pick to shoot at is not far away, they seem incapable of hitting it. They examine their Imperial-issue blasters with dismay.

I’m not sure that the final episode deserves a place on the Hugo ballot. I would probably have picked “Sanctuary” simply for its re-use of Western and Samurai tropes. But “Redemption” is the most familiar episode in Star Wars terms so I’m not surprised it was popular.

I am also hoping that season 2 will have more of a story arc, rather than being just Favreau showing how well he understands Westerns as an art form.

Earth Abides

Earth AbidesThere’s a lot of interest in global pandemic stories these days, for obvious reasons. Over at the LA Review of Books, my friend Rob Latham has looked at one of the classics of the genre, Earth Abides by George R Stewart. The book was originally published in 1949 so there’s a lot of pressure on it to hold up. I don’t remember the book quite as well as Rob does, but there’s no requirement that critics should agree. You can check out Rob’s review (linked to above). Here is mine, reprinted from the ConJosé Special issue of Emerald City.


Well, well, yet another book in which disaster strikes mankind and the world is depopulated. In Earth Abides, George R. Stewart goes much further than either Pat Murphy or Michaela Roessner. His great catastrophe, like Murphy’s, is a plague, but he postulates that it is so virulent that there are only a few hundred survivors, maybe less, in the whole of the USA.

Stewart’s hero, Isherwood Williams (“Ish”), is a graduate student in geography at UC Berkeley. While away on a field trip he is bitten by a rattler and spends several days holed up in a woodland cabin fighting off the venom. When he emerges, there are almost no humans left alive. Everything else is pretty much as it was, save for the occasional evidence of looting, but there are no people. They are all dead.

Eventually Ish manages to find a few other people alive in the Bay Area who have not been driven mad by the disaster. He sets up a small community based around his parents’ home and starts to plan for the future. But alas, most of his plans come to naught, for he is opposed by that most implacable and terrible of foes, the author.

Stewart’s thesis, which drives all of the plot, is that civilization is an aberration that arises thanks to a peculiar set of circumstances. It needs a strong leader, and probably some sort of smart subordinate, to make it happen. (Arthur’s Britain, for example, could not have happened without both Arthur and Merlin.) Once started, however, it has a life of its own. To succeed in civilization you have to copy the drive and initiative of its founders. But Stewart claims that, left to their own devices, human beings are essentially lazy and will not want to be civilized. Indeed, he adds, they will be much happier that way.

The final point is a matter of conjecture and is not provable either way. The rest of the argument, however, is debatable. Having spent the last 3 years watching a Worldcon committee develop, I have a certain amount of sympathy with the idea that drive, initiative and willingness to take responsibility are not common human traits. However, I’m not convinced by Stewart’s arguments. In this my lack of suspension of disbelief is seriously hampered by the fact that the book was published in 1949, and consequently has a very different view of the world to that which many people have now.

The age of the book is obvious to begin with from the style. The writing is much more pedestrian and didactic than most books published today. Stewart also clearly comes from an intellectual environment that believes human beings can be easily categorized. The book is full of references to how people’s reactions to the plague can be understood and predicted once you know whether they are black or white, male or female, intellectual or laborer. Thankfully this sort of sociology has been well and truly debunked in the 50+ years since Earth Abides was written.

More pertinently, however, Stewart believes that most of the benefits of civilization can only be achieved through government planning. Whether this is a result of 1940s attitudes, or simply a product of the People’s Republic of Berkeley, I’m not sure, but it heavily colors his argument. For example, should I find myself in a similar position to Stewart’s hero, amongst the first things I would do would be to secure a supply of water and to look for a small wind generator. Ish does neither. When power and water fail, he and his community simply accept the fact. Ish wants to do something about it, but feels that this is impossible without Government. For the most part they don’t even bother to farm, relying on scavenging from grocery stores to begin with, and then on hunting. Even agriculture is too much work for them.

(As an aside here, Stewart seems to have little idea how public utilities work. While electricity fails very quickly, the water supply keeps working for years. Stewart doesn’t seem to realize that in order to provide water pressure in homes you need to pump water upwards, and that is normally done using electricity. I guess if he had that little interest in the process it is reasonable for him to assume that others would be similarly ignorant.)

I should say that, stylistic issues aside, the book is well-written and full of beautiful pathos. It won something called the International Fantasy Award (now defunct, but it is an honor that the book shares with Lord of the Rings), and probably deservedly so. It was also made into a popular film. However, science fiction is a genre littered with tales of triumph over adversity. For the SF fan, it is hard not to develop a dying urge to slap Stewart’s characters around the face and remind them that they are human beings, not sheep.

book cover
Title: Earth Abides
By: George R Stewart
Publisher: Gateway
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Herland

HerlandWe hear a lot these days about books and authors being “of their time”, and of the Suck Fairy visiting beloved classics. Normally this is in connection with some old-time white male author who says something terrible in one of his books, but what about feminist classics? When a feminist book club I know of decided to read Herland I thought I had better find out how well it stands up these days.

Some history first. Herland was first published in 1915, serialized in The Forerunner, a feminist magazine that Charlotte Perkins Gilman happened to edit. You’ll often see the book referred to as a “lost classic” of feminist science fiction, but a quick look at the publication history on Wikipedia shows that it has been re-published 11 times since, and they have missed out the 2015 edition that I have here, and the 2020 edition referenced below. There’s a whole lot of other editions on Amazon as well. What that tells you is that feminist SF becomes “lost” incredibly quickly after publication.

The basic plot is that three young men discover a mysterious lost world deep in the jungle where they find a civilization comprised entirely of women who reproduce by parthenogenesis. The men have a variety of reactions to their discovery, some positive and some very negative. You can tell by the characters they are given who is going to do what. We know from the start that an attempt at rape is inevitable. Gilman uses this setting to hold forth on her ideas of what a utopian feminist society would look like.

While the book might seem to have been influenced by Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), critical discussion of the book suggests that a greater influence might have been H Rider Haggard’s She (1887). Conan Doyle’s book is set on a plateau in the Amazon jungle, but it is Rider Haggard’s book that features a matriarchal society which is penetrated and conquered by a manly hero. She is also replete with themes of social degeneration that will become such a stock in trade of HP Lovecraft’s work. As we’ll see, such eugenics-influenced ideas also play a part in Gilman’s story.

The first thing that struck me as off when reading Herland is that the women who live there are white. The exact location of Herland never given, but it can only be in the jungles of Africa or South America. Nevertheless, Gilman is clear as to the ethnicity of her ideal people. Her narrator says:

There is no doubt in my mind that these people were of Aryan stock, and were once in contact with the best civilization of the old world. They were ‘white’, but somewhat darker than our northern races because of their constant exposure to sun and air.

The concept of Aryan physical perfection is also present in the idea that the women of Herland never get sick:

Sickness was almost wholly unknown among them, so much so that a previously high development in what we call the ‘science of medicine’ had become practically a lost art. They were a clean-bred, vigorous lot, having the best of care, the most perfect living conditions always.

That the idyllic society of Herland is a result of selective breeding is made clear when our manly explorers ask about things such as crime. One of the women says:

‘But it is – yes, quite six hundred years since we last had what you call a “criminal”. We have, of course, made it our first business to train out, to breed out, when possible, the lowest types.’

Herland, then, is a deeply eugenicist society. So much so that they have selectively bred cats until they got a species that would not kill other animals. Herland’s commitment to non-violence is commendable, but there are limits. (And in any case the cats would doubtless have destroyed them long before that plan could come to fruition.)

The other thing that struck me about the book is the attitude towards sex. Because the Herlanders reproduce by parthenogenesis there is no need for sex, therefore no one has it. When the narrator, who has the slightly ridiculous name of Vandyck Jennings, explains to a Herlander he has become friendly with that in our world people have sex for fun, and because they love each other, she is horrified.

‘But – but – it seems so against nature!’ she said. ‘None of the creatures we know do that. Do other animals – in your country?’

Clearly the Herlanders were not very observant of the sexual habits of the local wildlife. But equally I don’t think that an asexual utopia would go down well with most modern feminists. Also we have to assume that a desire for sex is something that the Herlanders deliberately bred out of their society.

Obviously the book isn’t all bad. It has a lot of good things to say about the stupidity of men, mostly through the mouth of Terry, the “action hero” character amongst the explorer trio. The Herlanders also live very much at one with Nature, taking only what they need and being careful to manage their environment in a responsible and sustainable manner. Terry’s boorish behaviour is probably a bit simplistic and stereotyped for a modern novel, though you only need to spend a few minutes reading the replies from men to women who express opinions on Twitter to come to the conclusion that men like him are still plentiful.

In conclusion, I’m glad I re-read it, but yes, culture changes. Even feminist heroes of the past can have feet of clay.

book cover
Title: Herland
By: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Oxford Fantasy Lectures

Thanks to following Professor Carolyne Larrington on Twitter I chanced upon the fact that Oxford University has a whole bunch of interesting lectures on the subject of fantasy literature that they ave made available for free online. Carolyne, of course, talks about A Game of Thrones, but there’s also a bunch of short introductions to other writers, plus some interesting longer pieces. There’s a great interview with my friend, Cathy Butler. There’s Margaret Kean on Phillip Pullman, and several other pieces, some of which involve Dimitra Fimi. One of the most interesting is Maria Cecire from Bard College giving a Black American woman’s view on the very English topic of rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge literary departments.

I haven’t managed to listen to them all yet, but I suspect that many of you will find them interesting. Some of the are a few years old now, but what they say is quite current. And the set is being added to. Carolyne says that she’s working on a piece on Sylvia Townsend Warner which I am very much looking forward to.

Access to the lectures is a little complicated. You can see some of them via the main Oxford podcasts site here. However, if you go through the Writers Inspire website then you get more choices, and a separation into those with audio only and those with slides, but not publication dates. Anyway, if you go through the latter route in the audio only you can find a great talk by Phillip Pullman on the creation of the Lyra’s Oxford book.

Enjoy!

Editorial – May 2020

Well, here we are, still living in Interesting Times. I’ve just been watching the Nebula Awards ceremony in which Neil Gaiman, in his acceptance speech for the Ray Bradbury Award, noted that Interesting Times are nowhere near as much fun as they sound when we read about them in books. Nevertheless, we keep writing, and keep reading. Stories matter. In this issue I talk about some very good ones.

I know that’s not much, given what else is going on in the world, but it is what I can do, so I’m doing it.

Black Lives Matter.

Issue #18

Issue #18 coverThis is the April 2020 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


Cover: Unjust Cause

Unjust CauseFor this issue’s cover I have used the raw art for the cover of Unjust Cause, the new Tate Hallaway novel that Tate/Lyda and I talk about in our interview. As usual Ben Baldwin has done an absolutely brilliant job. Lyda and I particularly like the way he made Alex Connor’s snake tattoo come to life.

The City We Became

The City We BecameThere are a number of highly anticipated SF&F releases this year, but a new book from NK Jemisin has to be top of many people’s lists. Jemisin did, after all, win the Best Novel Hugo for all three of her last books. Can she keep up that record? You know, she just might.

Then again, the Broken Earth trilogy is very traditional SF. It is set in the very far future, and it is possible to read almost all of it and be blithely unaware that you are being fed a political message alongside the enthralling alternate reality. The City We Became is set in our world, in our time. And in it, as some her of her characters might say, Jemisin has taken her earrings out. If you thought that her Hugo acceptance speech in San José was a little on the nose, well sister you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Naturally I love the book all the more because of this.

However, let us start at the beginning, with the cover. Right up the top there is an enthusiastic quote from Neil Gaiman. “A glorious fantasy,” he says. That’s an excellent choice of blurb, because in some ways The City We Became has a lot in common with Neverwhere. Both are set in major capital cities that their respective authors know well. Both feature characters who are embodiments of parts of those cities. There, however, the resemblance largely ends. Jemisin’s book does not involve an exploration of New York Below. Rather it says very much above ground, because the city is under attack, from Things Not Even New Yorkers Were Meant To Know.

The “We” of the title does not refer to the people of New York in general. Rather it refers to six specific people who become avatars of New York. The City, you see, is waking up, in the face of an existential and mystical threat. The chap in the funny house in Greenwich village doesn’t seem to be about, so the City has to defend itself. It turns out (and this will doubtless upset a lot of New Yorkers) that it is not the first city on Earth to awaken. Many older cities have done so in the past. São Paulo, being the most recent city to awaken, is on hand to help the new kid find its feet.

New York, however, is a complicated city. While it does have a single avatar to represent the whole city, it also has five more representing its very diverse boroughs. This has happened before, in London. The whole thing was a disaster. Jemisin doesn’t explain exactly why, but I have this horrible vision of avatars dressed in rival football kits beating each other to death. New York must get it right, because if it doesn’t, well, Things…

It is the five boroughs who are the stars of this book. We first meet Manny, Manhattan, who is young, brash, ambitious, recently arrived in the City to do a PhD in Political Theory at Columbia. He also has amnesia, which might be just as well because the glimpses he has of his past life suggest a level of ruthless violence that he finds uncomfortable.

Next we meet Brooklyn Thomason, formerly MC Free, one of the first female rap stars but now a respectable city councillor. She’s black, a single mother, but comparatively well off.

Contrast her with Bronca, The Bronx, who was actually at Stonewall and has kept her links with alternative culture since. These days she’s a director of an arts collective, with a bunch of other young women of a variety of ethnicities as colleagues. She and Brooklyn are two Black women who are not going get on.

Queens, Padmini, is fresh in from India and doing a PhD in Financial Engineering because she thinks in math the way other people think in words or pictures. Her family have put all their savings into sending her to America, and now she lives in an apartment building in Queens with Aunty Aishwarya. All this New York stuff is a bit strange to her.

And then, of course, there is Karen. Aislyn Houlihan lives on Staten Island. Her father is a police officer who flirts with neo-fascism. She’s been brought up to fear anyone who doesn’t have white skin. She doesn’t want anything to do with that horrible, dangerous New York place. After all, it is full of foreigners, which means potential rapists. She knows, from watching her mother, that her father is a violent, controlling misogynist shit, but she also knows that she’s safer with him than she would be with Those People.

The final major character of the book is Dr. White. She favours white trouser suits and has a bad habit of calling the police on people she thinks might be guilty of Walking While Black. She’s best buddies with the angry young men of the Alt-Right. Bronca is in no doubt what sort of person she is.

She shrugs. “People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

It’s a dig at the woman, with her expensive suit and power-professional haircut and the whole more-Aryan-than-thou aesthetic she seems to be working. All Bronca’s life, women like this have been the ones to watch out for—“feminists” who cried when their racism got called out, philanthropists who wouldn’t pay taxes but then wanted to experiment on kids from broke public schools, doctors who came to “help” by sterilizing women on the rez. Beckies.

Unlike Aislyn, however, Dr. White is not a Handmaiden of the Patriarchy. She is something else entirely. Wherever she goes, tentacles follow.

Yes, tentacles, because so much of this book has grown out of HP Lovecraft’s existential dread of The Other. As you may recall, he lived in New York for a while and had nothing good to say about the place. Jemisin has taken Lovecraft’s real-life racism, the fiction that it fuelled, and the modern far-right movement that worships it; and pulled them all into this glorious novel that is absolutely about how we live now.

The City We Became is the first volume of a trilogy, so there’s a lot of story to come yet. I suspect that there will be a lot of focus on Aislyn’s story arc as it represents a fault in modern feminism as deep and wide as anything that Alabaster could have created in the Broken Earth trilogy. For now, however, we all have to wait for the next book. It can’t come soon enough.

book cover
Title: The City We Became
By: NK Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Tentacle

TentacleWell, this is delightfully bonkers.

Rita Indiana is the pen name of Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez. She hails from the Dominican Republic and in addition to being one of the Caribbean’s foremost writers she’s also a singer-songwriter with her own band, Los Mysterios. Her novel, La mucama de Omicunlé, won the Grand Prize of the Association of Caribbean Writers in 2017, the first Spanish-language book to do so. Tentacle is the English translation of that book, and her first work to become available in English. The translator is Achy Obejas.

The tentacle(s) of the title belong to Condylactis gigantea, the Giant Caribbean Sea Anemone. Being an anemone, it hunts by use of stinging cells (nematocysts) on its tentacles. The venom is poisonous. Given that this is a big anemone, it can be dangerous to humans.

Our story begins in 2027 at which point the Caribbean is an ecological disaster zone. We first encounter Acilde, a young trans man who will do whatever is necessary to get hold of a shot of Rainbow Bright, a legendary new drug that performs gender reassignment without the need for surgery. His quest leads him to become a maid to Esther Escudero, President Bona’s spiritual advisor. She has foreseen that the seas can be saved through the intervention of an avatar of the orisha, Olokun, who, if you remember my review of David Mogo: Godhunter, is genderfluid.

The plan involves psychic time travel, both for Alcide and for Argenis, a brilliant artist who has had the misfortune to be born into an era when anyone with money, contacts and tech can become a famous artist without any drawing skill. It doesn’t help that by the time he enters our story Argenis is addicted to both coke and sex.

There’s not a lot more to the plot, except that it involves pirates (obviously). The book is a novella and a quick read. There’s a lot in there about art theory that went totally over my head, and will probably only make sense to someone who has been to art school. There’s also a fair amount of music, especially the divine Donna Summer. There’s not enough Jacques Cousteau for my tastes, but I don’t expect any of you to be actual fans of real tentacled monsters from the ocean depths.

I should note that Acilde does not come across to me as a convincing portrait of a trans guy. Interestingly Indiana doesn’t really try to get into that piece of his head, even though much of the book involves deep dives into the personalities of the various characters. However, it is clear from what I’ve read that Indiana is deeply involved in the queer community of her part of the Caribbean so I’m sure she knows local trans guys. I also know that trans identities are deeply culturally contextual.

Oh, and if the juxtaposition of a trans person and time travel reminds you of something, the answer is “yes”.

Anyway, this is a great little book, and I’m rather sad that I came to it too late to nominate it for any awards.

Bogi, Alexis – if this book didn’t go before the 2019 Otherwise jury, it should definitely go to 2020.

book cover
Title: Tentacle
By: Rita Indiana
Publisher: And Other Stories
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura
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