Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Film Review: Longlegs

The scariest movie of the year so far delivers a tense and creepy 1990s-set serial killer procedural that plays out like a long episode of the X-files. (spoiler free)


I saw Longlegs last Tuesday and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it – it's that good. 

As a caveat, I'm a big horror fan, and nearly nothing scares me. The only movies I tend to avoid are over-the-top generational trauma A24 movies like Hereditary. But reviewing (and even recommending!) genre films can be hard because non-fans tend to criticize the very things that tend to be hallmarks of the genre — things like excessive gore, overall feelings of unease, and the common plot tropes (haunted houses, supernatural killers).

But even among people who love horror, one person's yuck is another's yum. Some folks in particular think jump scares are cheap. When overdone, yes, but when they're perfectly timed with a scene and the backing track, they can be incredibly effective. (One of my favorite jump scares of all time is in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House in episode 8. I still think about it to this day).

Longlegs was for me incredibly effective as a horror movie, though it's less straight-up horror and more of a psychological thriller. The comparisons in the lead-up marketing were correct in that it's like a modern-day Silence of the Lambs. Granted, Silence of the Lambs is a better movie, but if you've been searching for a contemporary vibe-equivalent, it hits the spot. Its darkness and supernatural elements reminded me of my love for the X-Files in the best possible way, especially in some of the more intense, murder-y monster-of-the-week episodes. 

The plot

Lee Harker (played by scream quieen Maika Monro) is a young FBI agent in Oregon in the 1990s, and she's blessed with a psychic ability that allows her preternatural insight into serial killer cases. Lee is weird, isolated, and not quiet right. She gets picked by her boss (played by Blair Underwood) to work on the Longlegs cold case that's suddenly hot again. Over the past 20 years, fathers out of the blue have been murdering their wife and children out of nowhere, and left behind at the grisly scenes are cryptic notes signed simply "LONGLEGS."

Lee goes all True Detective on the case and eventually figures out who Longlegs is, and along the way evil dolls, satanism, family ties, and an ex-glam rocker also get involved. The ending gets wrapped a little too nicely, in my opinion, but not enough to seriously affect my enjoyment of the overall story. There's a twist that's predictable but still extremely spooky and somehow gets even more spooky the more you think about it. 

The vibe

Oz Perkins, the director of Longlegs, is also the son of tortured Psycho star Anthony Perkins. With this movie, he has created an instant classic when it comes to dark, foreboding, and uncomfortable vibes. The film stock is muted and gray, and there's tons of claustrophobic and dark, wood-paneled '90s walls. The sound design — which alternates between complete silence and writhing, atonal, and building synth shrieks — is EXTREMELY effective in enhancing the mood and jump scares. Some of the scariest moments are simple shots that remind of the best moments in Insidious and The Conjuring, which is something I've been searching for now for years. 

Let's talk about Nic Cage

I managed to stay away from most of the wild promotional and marketing material before entering the theatre, so I barely know that Nic Cage was set to be the titular villain. I was a tad worried I'd ONLY be able to see crazy ol' Nic and nothing else, but I'm happy to report that's not the case. Nic becomes Longlegs in a way that's fairly unsettling. 

Longlegs is set to become an iconic villian in the horror cannon. He looks like a cross between Robert Smith from the Cure, Jennifer Coolidge, and Danny DeVito's Penguin in Batman Returns. Rather than wearing all black, he's always wearing dingy white clothes. His face is clearly the victim of botched strip-mall plastic surgery. I read an interview that said Longlegs is so in love with the devil that he's tried to carve his face into something beautiful, and it hasn't worked out well. 

Most of the time, I forgot I was watching Nic Cage, which is a testament to his craft. Occasionally in one of his extra-long villain monologues I'd see him, and in these situations I actually laughed (along with most of the audience). Longlegs is VERY over the top while also still terrifying. 

The Babadookification of Horror Villains

Remember when Netflix's algorhithm made a mistake and accidentally classified The Babadook as an LGBTQ pride film? The internet took the streets and made him into a meme, one that I very quickly loved and appreciated. 

Longlegs himself is going through something similar on TikTok right now for people with very weird For You Pages like myself. There's one part of the movie where Longlegs sings a VERY weird yet catchy song asking to be let in to a family's house, and people on TikTok are adding it humorously to videos of cats asking to be let in and diners waiting outside restaurants before they open. 

I love the intersection of horror and humor, and while Longlegs is a very scary movie, I did find myself laughing out loud multiple times during it. I think that's the sign of an enjoyable horror experience. Laughing at absurdity lets off steam if it's done right (I'm not talking about crap like Scary Movie, obviously). With Longlegs, there's more than enough tense, spooky moments to make up for the occasional scene where you remember "Oh yeah! Nic Cage is doing his thing, huh?"

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The Math

Baseline Score: 9

Bonuses: Absolutely unbeatable spooky vibes; Nic Cage excels as an ex-glam rocker satanist; there are actually even scary parts for seasoned horror fans.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Film Review: Kinds of Kindness

b̷̞̝͓̬͇̲̤̫͂̾͌̾e̵̡̳̲̖̫͚̩̓h̸̜͕̝̪͗̀͆̽̅͋̒͊̄̈̐̐͠͝ò̶͎̩͔͎̝̩̣̙͇͇̞̔̂ļ̶̭̻̪̇̔̃̍̇̐́͘̕̕d̸̺̝̬̬̰̈́͝,̶̛͔̬̭͔̱͆͋̋̋͝ ̶̢̝̦̣̱̖͔͙͚̪͇̼͕̤̬̆̈́̍̈́̓͠h̷̢͎̹͇̯̆̐̏̓͗̅͆̆̎̐̕̕͝ŭ̶̧̺̙̠̤͙̞̥̠̲͇̈́̕͘͜͝͝ḿ̷̫͇̜̥̯̥̗̰͔͚̅̊̓̔̎̈́͘͜͝a̷̜̻̝͓̪̺͕̤̱̐͆͊̀͜ͅň̷̢̫̻͚̥̙̤̙̘̤s̸̢̐̉̐̽̔̂̎͗̿͛͊̕̕̕,̵̡̖̠̠̙̪͉̭̜̳̗̩̮͐͗͋̇ ̴̨̟͉̰̞̞͇̮͂̐̄̋̅̄́̐̓̎͊̏͜t̶͙̮̓̆͛̈́̊ẖ̶̝̀̂̒̂̂͐̌̕ȩ̷̧̟̫̤̲͊͋̏̅̚͝ ̶̢͈̹̜̣̭̲̤̖̼͇͂̀̀̇̀̾̌̚ͅͅF̸̥̟̜̗͙̺͎̩̲͂̎́̈́͊Ǐ̶̻̭̯̦̗͍͍̣͖̜̳͈̤̤̝͂̎́̊̊͊͋͒̏͘͠Ļ̵̛̛͖̫̤̭̌͗̏̉̈͗̎ͅM̸̮͚͇̝͔̩͉̲̠̮̣͙̝͋̏̀͋̽̂̆̉̍̐̅




I for one enjoyed Poor Things (reviewed on this blog by my esteemed colleague Arturo Serrano). It was deeply odd, yes, and I can certainly understand critiques of its gender politics (as a man I feel like it really isn’t my place to jut in on that subject either way, although it did seem to me that the film was portraying some of the happenings as morally dubious), but it was fascinating in its way. The film before that by director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite, I likewise enjoyed. His most recent project, the subject of this review, is his new film Kinds of Kindness, released on June 2024 in the United States, written by Lanthrimos and Efthimis Filippou, and distributed by Searchlight Pictures.

Kinds of Kindness is a very odd film even in its format. It is not one single narrative, so common as to be assumed by the culture at large as being what a film naturally is, but rather an anthology film of three different segments that share actors but nothing else - no characters, no plot elements, nothing, beyond thematic connections. You could even argue that there is no single genre between them; the first segment has no noticeable supernatural element, the second quite clearly does (although the nature of it is left unstated, and you could stretch it to be solely mundane, but I don’t think that works as well), and the third is such a tossup I’m not entirely sure how to categorize it. I will say something unequivocal right now: this film is fucking weird.

I commented about this film on a forum that I frequent and the response I got called The Favourite and Poor Things as his relatively mainstream films, and that this film marked his return to his deeply odd indie film origins. That comment made me reflect upon just how flexible, how broad, that term ‘mainstream’ is. Those two films had coherent, comprehensible plots that posited a chain of events with comprehensible, if strange, reasons for the courses they take. The three segments in this film, on the other hand, only do so much of that. The end result is a deeply odd, disorienting experience. It brought to mind a friend’s description of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room: “imagine if you described the idea of a movie to aliens, and what life on Earth is like to said aliens, and then giving them the equipment to make a movie, but never actually letting them actually see for themselves what movies are like, or what life on Earth is like.” Wiseau blundered his way into the narrative uncanny valley, whereas Lanthimos has done it very deliberately; both films, via different paths to it, feel like they are bizarre approximations of movies, ersatz movies even, and you wonder if you are even ‘watching’ them so to speak.

The first segment is about a boss and employee at a corporation that has become something of an unhealthy sadomasochistic relationship; the boss has designed his employee’s life for him, choosing a house and a spouse for him, all the way to dictating his daily schedule. The second involves a couple: a marine biologist who goes missing on an expedition, upon whose return her police officer husband becomes convinced she is not really her. The third involves a cult that wants to raise the dead, and is willing to go through a rather bizarre process to find someone who can do it.

As stated previously, these stories are not directly related to one another. They do share certain thematic elements; all take fairly normal classes of relationships and twist them in discomforting ways, so that they are still recognizably what they are, and yet distorted to extreme degrees. They are all about intrusions into the normal by things that are deeply unhealthy, indeed dangerous, for their health and their wellbeing. In two out of three cases, that unhealthy thing has already subsumed their lives; in the remaining one, it jolts into existence with a bang.

There’s a certain emphasis on the unpleasant parts of the human psyche, be it cruelty or lust or the urge to find belonging even in the most unpleasant, dysfunctional places. There is a fair amount of sexual content, nudity a few times, group sex once, and sexual assault once, as well as some occasions of dubious power dynamics (one of these lets you see a naked Willem Dafoe, which is something I never thought I’d see). This is a focus that reminds me of the oeuvre of the Coen Brothers, in their focus on how nobody can ever live up to the loftiest ideals, that we are still creatures of blood and sweat and tears and hormones (lots of hormones). There are all sorts of personalities here, basically all of them dysfunctional in some way. As the Eurythmics put it:


Some of them want to use you

Some of them want to get used by you

Some of them want to abuse you



This film is a filmmaker’s film, and perhaps most of all an actor’s film. Willem Dafoe is deeply unsettling as an abusive boss and as a sex cult leader (that’s why you see him naked). Jesse Plemons perhaps gets to steal the whole show, with prominent roles in all three segments, sometimes meekly submissive and unsure what to do, and at other times losing his mind as he tries to establish control over his circumstances. And, for fans of Poor Things, Emma Stone returns with a raft of more weird, unsettling performances. I have seen comments on Bluesky saying that Stone represents progress in women’s roles in cinema by virtue of letting women play creepy little weirdos; Hollywood should let her do more of that because she’s very good at it.

I’m honestly not entirely sure if the concepts exist in any earthly language to properly describe Kinds of Kindness. It is a film that feels deliberately alienating, as if it employs Bertolt Brecht’s distancing effect, although leaving what social structure it wants to draw attention completely unindicated. I’m not sure there is a genre that this film fits into, or what audience he was going for. I’m not entirely sure I enjoyed this film, but I certainly don’t regret it. It is, however, a hard sell to basically everyone on planet Earth.

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The Math

Nerd Coefficient: i/0

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award 2024: A Shortlist Discussion

Awards Season is well upon us - we’ve had the results of the Nebulas, the Locus Awards and the BSFA, Hugo voting has just closed, we got an Ignyte shortlist just yesterday, and many other awards are in progress besides. But we’re not interested in those right now! Today, we’re focussing on the Clarke Award.

To partially quote some of their website’s own blurb, the annual Arthur C. Clarke Award is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. It’s one of the most prestigious UK based SFF awards, though not quite so well known internationally, and so not hitting the same level of impact as your Hugos, your Nebulas and so on. It’s a juried award whose judges are drawn from members of the various groups who support it, currently the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation and the Sci-Fi-London film festival. Jury members vary year on year, but over the years, the Clarkes have developed a distinctive flavour of SF that tends to make their awards, and oftentimes means a rather different slate of novels than other SF awards covering the same year, and a very interesting one.

This year, the shortlist is as follows:

Chain-Gang All-Stars - Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
The Ten Percent Thief - Lavanya Lakshminarayan
In Ascension - Martin Macinnes
The Mountain in the Sea - Ray Nayler (this was published in the US in 2022, but in the UK in 2023)
Some Desperate Glory - Emily Tesh
Corey Fah Does Social Mobility - Isabel Waidner

Clara and Roseanna decided that this year, they would get stuck into the shortlist and come back with their opinions on the novels, the shortlist as a whole, and what the Clarke is covering that other awards may be missing, as well as their thoughts on who should win.

Roseanna: Before we get into the actual novels, to start us off what is a Clarke Award vibe? What makes the Clarkes different from other awards? Why are we interested?

For me, while I’ve never set out to read the shortlist before, my partner has been reading them every year for the last few, and so we’ve chatted about them, and I feel like I’ve got a rough sense of what they tend to be like. From what I can tell, it tends to be less just the big splashy things that make all the awards, and more slightly off the beaten path, interesting, possibly more difficult or challenging ones that can do well in a juried award but not so much in a popular vote. Take Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles for instance (2022 winner). That was a collection of poetry in the Orkney dialect of Scots with facing translation done interestingly, where the poems all slowly revealed a story about people on a deep space station. Not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Clarke gave it a chance to shine. Last year, I think it was very clifi heavy, but drew from a pool that mostly didn’t overlap with the mainstream, including I believe a French nominee. There tends to be one book every year that fills a more mainstream or accessible slot, but that’s the general sense I get of them.

And that “drawing from a different pool” is what made me interested. The Hugos, Nebulas and Locus often overlap heavily, so I’m always keen to look at awards that make me aware of other things - the Ignytes are great for that, and a shameless plug here for the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, for whom both Adri and I are jury this year, but whom I previously enjoyed shortlists of again for showing me something new and different. That’s what I was hoping for when I decided to read along for this Clarke shortlist.

And I think we are seeing that - we’ll get to discussing Corey Fah Does Social Mobility in a bit, but it’s the sort of book I struggle to imagine on one of the more mainstream, popular voted SFF awards. It’s just too weird.

Other than “Roseanna asked for volunteers”, what made you interested in joining me on this readalong?

Clara: I’ve struggled with Clarke himself, but many other books on Clarke shortlists were exactly the sort of imaginative works that make SFF such a perfect medium to explore big ideas. Not always successfully, to be sure: when I look at the Clarke awards, I see a lot of books that do very thoughtful things, but which I don’t always enjoy very much–as seen in this very discussion! Meanwhile, when I look at lists of Hugo and Nebula nominees, I see a lot of books that I consider pleasant, enjoyable SFF–engaging, fun, entertaining–but not necessarily thoughtful. (For what it’s worth, the books that make it to both lists–e.g., Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books, Sue Burke’s Semiosis, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time–tend to be ones that I thought were superb.)

Roseanna: I think I would agree to some degree with that assessment (though of course sweeping generalisations always prompt “well… except…”). I definitely think this is a particularly thoughtful (and thought-provoking) shortlist as well. It’s certainly a lot of what I was hoping for in reading the Clarkes - so I think for me it’s got that essence pretty well captured.

Clara: Two books that struck me as extremely characteristic of what I expect from the Clarke Awards are Chain-Gang All-Stars and The Ten Percent Thief. Both were primarily interested in using the medium of SF to point at a problem in modern society (criminal justice in Chain-Gang All-Stars, capitalism-fueled inequality in The Ten Percent Thief), and both did it in ways that made some interesting structural choices. In The Ten Percent Thief, every single chapter is told from a different character perspective. Some of those stories are pretty self-contained, but others circle around the main events of the plot–such as it is. The oppressed rise up, yada yada yada. You don’t read this book for a plot. You read it for a deep dive into the dystopia of a purely capitalistic society, obsessed with productivity, in its most extreme form. Some of it worked very well–the indoctrination of school children, the fate of the elderly, the decision to reproduce. Other bits, such as an extremely silly plot point about emojis, were less convincing.

Chain Gang All-Stars was less playful, and went so far as to have footnotes, which provided details about the studies or court cases underlying the events in a particular scene–a decision that has never actually worked for me. And the brutal violence that is the core of this book is. . . effective in making its point, but so disagreeable that I felt myself backing away from the story. I was not strong enough to have the conversation that the author wanted to have with me. 

Reading fiction requires a certain degree of openness and immersion, a willingness to go on a journey with the characters. But the brutality in this book is not something I can be open to in this way. I had to back away to protect myself. I can read about it in non-fiction just fine–which is interesting. It’s as if I can put up barriers between myself and the real world more effectively than between myself and fictional characters, whose inner thoughts and wishes are presented more intimately. That’s one reason why fiction can be such an effective medium to make a point about the real world. But when taken to extremes, as in Chain Gang All-Stars, it becomes so distressing that I shut down and disengage. I would not have finished this book if I hadn’t started reading it for this discussion.

Roseanna: Chain-Gang All-Stars was the last of the shortlist I finished, and it’s the one that took me the longest - I had to keep pausing to stare into space and think about industrial prison complexes and systemic oppression, which is apparently my method of coping with such a raw, unfilteredly truthful book. And you’re right, it absolutely takes it to the extreme. But for me? I think it really worked. It’s completely, brutally honest about something that is unutterably awful. Yes, it’s using the SFF, near-future elements to really turn the dial up, but I think a lot of its effectiveness for me is how not-distant it really felt. It’s horrifying in its proximity. But equally I can see how that’s going to hit so differently person to person, especially if it’s something that is closer to the reader’s life than it is to mine. I imagine a lot of people do DNF it for precisely that reason, and I wouldn’t hold it against them.

Clara: Me neither. But even if the DNF rate is higher than normal, that shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of the book. Chain-Gang All-Stars was not trying to be an easy book, and I think it was incredibly effective at accomplishing what it set out to do. The fact that I do not care for that type of thing takes nothing away from the author’s success at conveying a vision–footnote quibbles notwithstanding!

Roseanna: I think the footnotes though did actually work pretty well for me (though I am generally mixed in my appreciation of them - I found them often quite patronising in Babel, for instance). Partly because some of the time they gave me information I simply did not have. But even when it was something I already knew, they kept dragging the narrative back to the real world, back to the facts of the here and the now, so you can never escape how relevant this story is to reality. This is not escapism, and it’s not going to let you pretend otherwise - honestly, I think one of the best uses of footnotes I’ve seen in a long while.

But again, you have to be in a position where being dragged back in that way is tenable to the reader.

Going back to The Ten Percent Thief, I think this is a really interesting one to hold in contrast to Chain-Gang All-Stars, because you’re right, they both are very bluntly using a future SF story to point at a now-problem, without the distance of allegory, metaphor or other tools that let the reader distance themself from the problems at hand. But at the same time, I think they approach the use of the SF elements entirely differently.

I’d characterise Chain-Gang as barely SF, in a lot of ways. The technology is the barest minimum it needs to ram home its point about the current system, and at no point does it feel like the story is interested in the tech for its own sake - we dwell on the pain-administering torture system for what it does to people, but it could very much be a stand-in for any kind of torture (and indeed that connection is made explicit in the footnotes). It doesn’t, for the most part, let any of the shiny stuff distract from the core themes/message.

Whereas I think on the flip-side, Ten Percent Thief really leans in on the tech, the future dystopia, the details - we learn a lot more about what it looks and feels like to live with all of this stuff, and without it. And it’s not extraneous, because a lot of the plot is about hammering home the contrast between those who have and those who do not, but it made it feel to me a lot more obviously science fictional. From the moment you step in, you are very clearly in a world of the not-now, even if it’s commenting on the now.

I do think this is one of the weaker ones on the shortlist. Not weak, because tbh it’s a pretty strong selection for me, but a little less effective in how it does its messaging than the others, and I think the focus on the tech, on constantly drawing these very detailed and realised pictures of a world absolutely swimming in technology, is part of that. The other part I think is a structural issue - the mosaic novel keeps you circling around, dotting between perspectives, and doesn’t really let you bed into the story in the way that a smaller number of perspectives might. Obviously on the flip side, that means more viewpoints, a more bird’s eye appreciation of the broader landscape the story exists in, which can be useful (and is here) but I think it comes at a price, and that price is the emotional immediacy.

Clara: Yes, exactly. That structural decision to keep shifting perspectives was a calculated risk, and I think, unlike the decision to lean into the brutality of Chain-Gang, it didn’t quite support Lakshminarayan’s vision as effectively as a different structure might have. The benefits of the breadth of setting were not enough to offset the disconnection that comes from never getting to be inside a character’s head for more than a few pages. (And, of course, one could perhaps have a meta-conversation about the disconnection from the book reifying the disconnection of the society being portrayed here, but the fact remains that the efficacy of your work does depend on making your readers care enough to pick the book up again after setting it down to make a sandwich).

Roseanna: Let’s move on then to The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, a novel that touches on some things I know we’re both interested in, and that you at least are particularly knowledgeable about.

I liked this one but didn’t love it, I have to admit. It did a lot of things I find cool and interesting - it was very strong on the ideas side of things - but it just didn’t quite have the spark I needed to really grab me. I think some of that may have been the characters? I was interested in them a lot more than I cared about them, and some of them felt really quite distant from the narrative emotionally, for a number of reasons. But they also just never felt like what the book really wanted to focus on, which was cool octopus linguistics. And I get it! Cool octopus linguistics is a great thing to focus on… but it just never quite for me made the step up into “amazing novel” instead of “great idea, now let’s add in a story as well”.

Clara: With this book, I was also most interested in the octopus linguistics, since I’m a linguist in my day job. In many ways, that fell short—but in kind of interesting ways. For example, there’s a great amount of ink devoted to describing how octopuses express themselves with skin images. Since octopus skin patterns can read differently depending on lighting conditions, and since skin also expresses emotion and is responsible for camouflage and sensory input, octopuses have to balance this wildly complex combination of tasks assigned to one organ. This is presented as something that makes octopus speech uniquely difficult and different from human speech–except it’s not, actually. At least, not for this reason. Human vocal tracts are also responsible for breathing and eating, so there’s also overlapping tasks assigned to one organ. And speakers of sign language are relying on organs that are also responsible almost every way in which humans interact with the world. Spoken speech can also be obscured by ambient noise and distorted by someone speaking with their mouth full or speaking while laughing, just as skin colour will look different in different light conditions, so we need to be able to disentangle signal and noise. So, really, there’s nothing too special there about octopuses.

What does make octopus language persuasively different to human speech is the treatment of conceptual metaphor. In human speech, it’s based on human physical interactions with the world. Since octopuses interact with the world very differently from humans, their conceptual metaphors are going to be fundamentally different, which means that a lot of really basic core assumptions (‘up is good’) won’t apply. This was great! Deeply alien modes of thinking is great! Except for the bit where our main scientist sees an arrangement of physical objects, interprets it as an altar, and from there leaps to wild conclusions about octopus mythology and cultural attitudes towards humans. 

Roseanna: I knew you’d have a lot of thoughts about this one. 

As someone with a background in a field that includes archaeology/ancient history, the altar scene did scream “aha! Ritual purposes!” at me in a depressingly familiar way, I will admit. 

Clara: Ah, but that’s only because you’re assuming in your humanocentric way that altar-looking things must actually have ritual purposes. But with octopuses you can assume nothing! They’re too different! Incomprehensibly alien to our embodied way of viewing the world! We’ve just spent 200 pages being told this!

(Except, yeah, it was ritual purposes.)

Roseanna: That said, there were a lot of things about it I really did like - the AI was, I think, pretty well done, both as a concept and as a character (which I think some stories fail at by doing one but not the other). I tend also not to be a huge fan of the sort of dystopian near-future stories that this was doing, for a number of reasons, but I think Nayler managed that part of it actually pretty well. Yes, it was depressing, because it was meant to be, but it felt like the way it was presenting that bleak future was actually serving purposes in the story, not just being bleak for the sake of it, or for an aesthetic.

And on the language side, I really appreciated that “this takes time and effort and isn’t an easy thing” was made pretty clear as part of the process. I have a personal bugbear of books where two people learn each other’s language super quickly - Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir sticks particularly in mind for it - and I was glad Nayler acknowledged that there would be difficulties and the process would take a long time, to the point where the lady scientist protagonist at one point references this as being something that would take years and generations after her to solve. I know it’s not fun and sexy to leave problems unsolved in stories, but “learning mutually unintelligible languages without any aid in a few days” is even more unsexy to me, so I like to see books that acknowledge that reality.

Clara: The idea of what it takes to learn a new language was actually a domain in which the AI-based storyline and the octopus-based storyline could have interwoven in some beautiful, linguistically-informed ways, but in the end didn’t. One very lively debate in linguistics is the idea of symbolic combinatorics–decomposing meaning or ideas into abstract symbols (e.g., words or phrases) that can be combined in novel ways. One of the foundational principles of Chomskyan generative linguistics is that all of language can be understood in this way: you just need to find the right abstract symbols and the right rules of combinations–e.g., a sentence has a subject and a predicate; a transitive verb phrase contains a verb and a direct object; a noun phrase contains an article plus a noun. Nayler invokes this perspective quite explicitly for the octopuses.

However, this symbolic combinatorial approach breaks in a lot of ways. For example, idioms have meanings that are not derived from the component parts (e.g., ‘cut the cheese’ doesn’t just mean ‘prepare a charcuterie board’, but can also mean ‘pass gas’). And irregularities of syntax and morphology show up everywhere: ‘I talk/I talked’ does not follow the same pattern of ‘I go/I went’ or ‘I eat/I ate’. So a big split in linguistics is the divide between so-called ‘generativists’, who want to use the symbolic approach for everything, and ‘usage-based’ linguists, who think everything is more related to statistical co-occurrences, and learned patterns.

And this is how the whole octopus linguistics storyline could have connected really deeply to the storyline about the personhood of the AI. Because in this era of ChatGPT, we all know that LLMs are able to generate incredibly human-sounding language from learning statistical cooccurences in words. But the AI in this book doesn’t do that: it explicitly denies similarities to LLMs (although rather late and kind of weakly, which makes me wonder whether that was a quick 2023-era edit after ChatGPT was released). So conceivably this AI is not based on learning statistical co-occurrences, like all our modern enshittifying stochastic parrots, but is instead somehow realizing the dreams of the Chomskyan linguists. It is using language in a symbolic combinatorial way, the same way that the octopuses are claimed to be doing (and in a completely different way from what usage-based linguists claim humans are doing). There could have been this beautiful synthesis of themes here! But that didn’t happen. 

I did rather enjoy the repeated motif of distributed consciousness, though–the way the split in agency between an octopuses central brain and its arm-brains was mirrored in other human domains: corporations not knowing what their subsidiary companies are doing; or drone control mechanisms with semi-autonomous decision-making capacities. That was very elegantly done. 

Roseanna: Elegant is a great word for it - I keep circling back to "neat", myself. 

On the whole, I had a good time with this one, and I can see why it’s on the shortlist - it’s doing some cool ideas, it’s definitely very timely and there’s a clear hook to explain why it’s different from everything else around at the moment. 

Clara: A book whose position on the shortlist I can’t really understand is In Ascension. Well, no, that’s not fair. A book whose position on the shortlist I resent is In Ascension. Not so much because it’s bad, but because it seems to be doing the fluid-genre thing that got a lot of attention when Ian McEwan wrote a book about sentient AI and then denied that it was SF. At the time, a lot of the discourse in the SFFisphere was outrage, that McEwan didn’t actually understand the genre that he was refusing to be lumped into, that SFF was more sophisticated and thoughtful than ‘travelling 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots,’ without ‘actually looking at the human dilemmas’. But somehow, I almost feel like he had a point, because In Ascension, for all that it’s about using billions-year-old archaea discovered in mysterious ocean vents to explore space, really was focused on human dilemmas–so much so that it does not feel like an SF book. It feels like a book that uses the trappings of SF (space ships, aliens, time travel) to help the main characters come to terms with their relationships with their mothers and their history of abuse as a child. And I got increasingly grumpy as this shape of the narrative emerged: fewer and fewer pages remained to address the aliens, and still each new page brought yet another goddamn meditation on childhood and mothers. I was promised space aliens and time travel, and instead got navel gazing and interiority. Also, the ending was just Battlestar Galactica presented as if it were a novel and ingenious idea.

This shortlist seems characterized by SF books that want to have conversations about society and culture: fascism, inequality, philosophy of language, sentience, justice, etc. I know that, traditionally, the Clarke Awards have leaned literary*, but even the most litfic-y ones have usually incorporated the speculative elements to form a core part of the book. But this book is essentially a very prosaic character journey, which fully skimps out on SF concepts to the point that the character journey is closed off while the aliens and time travel are left completely unexplained. They were a gimmicky device, rather than core part of the narrative, and that feels rude.

Roseanna: Ok I find this really interesting, because on the one hand, I also really did not like In Ascension, but on the other, I think I totally disagree? I didn’t find its engagement with SFF tropes particularly gimmicky, and in fact some of what I disliked about it was actually that it reminded me of a certain type of SF book that I already don’t like.

Time for a shameful admission here: I don’t really care about space travel. Which I know is a terrible crime and a black mark against me as a person. But I don’t, and never really have. Space is a perfectly fine medium for telling other stories, and a wonderful metaphor for the unknown, for isolation or for distance or danger, but the nuts and bolts of space travel itself, the facts of it? Bore me to tears. And I found in this - a book in which a lot of page time is devoted to the mechanics of food production and consumption in space, and of preparation for existence on a long mission in space - really really not my thing in exactly the same way the type of older school, take-the-world-as-it-is-but-change-just-one-thing SF stories are. And so it felt incredibly SFF-y to me. Just… not in a good way.

Clara: Ah, I love that stuff! It’s why I enjoy Andy Weir so much. But it does lead one to expect a pay-off, like some way in which all the details of genetically engineering algae foodstuffs will turn out to engage with the SFy bits of the tale–y’know, with the aliens and time travel and so on. But instead I got a deep dive into feelings, which is not what the book implicitly promised. 

Roseanna: I have read precisely one Andy Weir book and it made me very cross, so I suspect we are coming into this with some veeeeryyyy different preferences.

Anyway, on the flip side, I found a lot of the lit-fic-ness of it very effective and affecting (they just weren’t themes I particularly tend to seek out in stories). The main character is both incredibly nostalgic and maudlin, dwelling on her past, her life, her existence in the world, while also extremely cold and detached from it all. And I found the thoughtfulness of that perspective, the horrible inevitability of the choices we watch her make, the sheer humanity of her, the way she shields herself from her own feelings, really evocative. I just also disliked her and found her quite frustrating to read about.

It’s also a very open-ended story. The way I interpreted the significant thing that happens to the main character and her crew mates right at the end is definitely not the only way that scene can be interpreted, and I have mixed feelings in general about unresolved endings or ambiguity, but here I really felt it worked. I put the book down and immediately felt the need to discuss it with someone, to find out if they interpreted it as I did, if they took the same things from it as I did. And that is ultimately what I think it does well - it’s a discussional book. I think it would be perfect for a book club.

But what it’s discussing just isn’t my thing. I have a moderate to high fear of the deep sea - oh no there’s a massive terrifying deep sea sinkhole. I don’t like the mechanics of space travel - we spend the majority of the book at a station where people are working towards space travel. And so on and so on. It cherry picked a bunch of my least favourite SF-y things and then made me appreciate how interestingly it lingered over them. Which I thought was pretty neat.

And then in a total contrast, we have Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh. It’s also very much in space, and yet I really loved this one, I have to admit. I read and reviewed it waaaay back last year as an arc, adored it, and have steadily become a more and more annoying hype-merchant for it as more people have read it. That being said… it doesn’t feel an entirely Clarkey book (where In Ascension feels extremely one) to me? It’s by far the more conventional end of SF, which I have absolutely no objections to, but feels slightly out of step with some previous years’ shortlists, as I scan through them. But who am I to judge that?

Possibly its point of difference that merits its inclusion - and it’s definitely somewhat divisive from what I’ve seen of reviews across the year since it came out - is how it drops us in from the off with a deeply unlikeable character who is, frankly, a horrible person, and then only builds up the sympathy for her over a fairly long span. It’s doing the work to really dig into the tropes of the sort of SF that is the legacy of stories like Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game, and that requires going in hard at the start. I’ve seen a number of people DNF the book because they hate Kyr, or because they didn’t think she got enough of a “redemption arc”, which for me I think misses the point of the book. She’s not redeemed, but she does learn, and it’s a book about that learning, and about shifting the point of view of someone raised in a fascist space cult.

But it’s not a book, I think, that is gunning for that sort of easy like anyway. There’s a bit of a scourge in SFF literature at the moment of characters being discussed in terms of how “relatable” they are, and this, as a story, just thoroughly refutes that. Nearly everyone is terrible! Even the “good” characters are kind of awful! Does that invalidate their position in the narrative? Absolutely not (which brings us back to Chain-Gang All-Stars too). Even right at the start, even despite how immediately vile some of her opinions are, I feel for Kyr when she’s given the bad news about what her role in the fascist cult space base is going to be (human incubator and sex object). She does not have to be relatable or particularly sympathetic for her situation to be appalling, and I think this is something Tesh explores throughout the story.

Clara: Yes,  the character work here was really strong–as was the plot! This was my favourite of the shortlist–and if it’s not characteristic of the Clarkey vibe, then possibly that reflects my opinion of Clarkeyness as a genre. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I get impatient with Arthur C Clarke’s desire to focus on ideas over story and character, and the other books on this shortlist have definitely mirrored that focus. But Some Desperate Glory was absolutely focused on taking me for a ride first, and that different balance of story and message meant I was more open to have the conversation about indoctrination into fascism and the role of upbringing and experience in building our worldviews. 

And that was such a deftly handled topic! Without getting too much into developments that for me were a complete surprise (there’s something to be said for going into a book without having read reviews!), I loved seeing how different versions of Kyr can vary wildly in some areas, while still maintaining core personality traits, such as kneejerk respect for authority. I loved Kyr’s reflections on how the different versions of herself perceive and react to events. I loved how Avi was a complete wildcard, no matter the circumstances. Even the technomagical macguffin worked well, integrated into the plot in very key ways that made me believe it was important. It used its SF apparatus effectively in exactly the way that In Ascension didn’t. Overall, A+ book, would book again.

Roseanna: I too went into this completely cold (woo early arc way back when) and absolutely, it made the experience so much better. I’m not usually a big one for fussing about spoilers, because they do not usually affect my reading experiences but this one… yeah this one I think it makes a difference.

And then on yet another flip side, we come to our last book on the shortlist, and one I think would in many ways be impossible to spoil because it’s so… it’s an experience, not a story. And that’s Corey Fah Does Social Mobility by Isabel Waidner.

Clara: Corey Fah Does Social Mobility is a book that I think I’m not smart enough to understand. With the other books on this list, it was clear which element of society was being discussed. Sometimes so overtly explicitly that I felt like I was getting a rather tiresome lesson rather than a story. But with this, my reaction throughout and after I was done was . . . wut?

There were whisps of interpretation in places that I could (maybe) understand: This dream sequence is a commentary on how capitalism forces the workers to be the product, chewing them up and spitting them out. That sequence is a commentary on the elitism of cultural prestige and how–even when it explicitly attempts to bring in marginalised groups–it remains exclusionary. And the fawn-spider hybrid is actually a manifestation of our narrator’s own history . . .? … ???? But I was mostly baffled and confused. 

Roseanna: Possibly some useful context (or maybe not, I’m not the boss of you) - Waidner wrote this after having won the Goldsmiths literary prize for their previous novel, Sterling Karat Gold. For those who haven’t read it, the story in Corey Fah begins with an author who has won a big literary prize going to collect their trophy, at which point things go absolutely pear shaped, and they face an amount of bureaucracy and strangeness in the ensuing attempts to fix the mess-up. I couldn’t help but assume there was something in there about Waidner’s own experience, but possibly I’m being too literal.

Clara: I think I agree with you on that. When I finished the book and tried to make sense of what had just happened to me, I looked up who Waidner was, and saw the list of award nominations and the Goldsmiths win, so inferring a commentary on that seems reasonable. But even if we’re confident that this is correct, I’m not sure it really helps. Being able to accurately count the legs on a fawn-spider hybrid does not make me a zoologist.

Roseanna: Very true (and the eldritch horror Bambi is really one of the parts of the story that has stuck with me the most, for good or for ill). In any case, for me, this is fighting for my top spot. I totally agree with you that it is baffling, but I loved that. I loved just sitting with it for this surreal, wormholey, ungodly creaturey, genre-bending ride. It was a book I just chose to sit back and experience rather than really trying to pick apart, which it definitely benefitted from - I’d have driven myself to distraction trying to find definitive, unambiguous meaning in it.

But it is also absolutely impossible to explain. It’s a vibes book. It’s an experience book. I can say it’s got some sort of terrifying insectile-deer in it that possibly at one point works in a dead end fast food job, and neon beige and wormholes that may or may not exist in an ambiguously but somehow definitely concrete-ful urban landscape. None of that really gives a reader a sense of what it is as a book though. And I think it’s kind of impossible to. It’s the sort of experience you just have to have, or not, and there’s not really an in between. But I tend to love those.

So, on that slightly unhelpful note… final thoughts. Who’s your winner, if you were suddenly given the power to award it yourself?

Clara: Some Desperate Glory, hands down. I’m pretty sure it won’t win, just because the rest of the shortlist makes it clear that the Clarke Award panel are more interested in much less traditional SF stories. But my reading taste is not that spicy, it seems.

Roseanna: I think for me it would be Chain-Gang All-Stars. It’s just too… I’m waving my hands here desperately searching for a good word that encompasses what it is. Whatever that adjective is, it’s too much that a book to go unrecognised. Powerful, I suppose, is the closest I can come. And sharp. It’s perfectly clear about the message it has and how to tell it, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, at least in my view, has managed it so precisely, so flawlessly.

But honestly, I think this was just a really strong shortlist as a whole. I don’t think I’d be upset to see any of them win, even though I have my favourites, and above all, it feels interesting, which was what I was craving most, and what my previous awareness of the Clarke Award shortlist has led me to expect/hope for, so I was really glad to see it deliver.

Thank you Clara for doing this discussion with me!

The winner for 2024 will be declared in the evening (UK time) of Wednesday the 24th of July, so we'll soon find out how right (or wrong) our picks were.

--


References:

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Chain-Gang All-Stars, [Harvill Secker, 2023]
Lavanya Lakshminarayan, The Ten Percent Thief, [Rebellion, 2023]
Martin MacInnes, In Ascension, [Atlantic Books, 2023]
Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea, [W&N, 2023]
Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory, [Orbit, 2023]
Isabel Waidner, Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, [Hamish Hamilton, 2023]

Footnotes:

* Except for Retribution Falls, in 2010, which is quite popcorn, but also fabulous and I encourage everyone to read Chris Wooding’s delightful Tales of the Ketty Jay series (reviewed here by me!) right now.

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroformtea.bsky.social

Monday, July 22, 2024

The Acolyte: the polemical side of the Force

Canon exists to be reshuffled every once in a while

From the Star Wars prequels we learned that the so idolized Jedi were too drunk on their own importance to notice the falling dominoes until it was late. However, the self-inflicted decline of the Jedi developed over a long time; Anakin Skywalker was born in a galaxy that was already headed for chaos. The Disney+ series The Acolyte takes advantage of this narrative opportunity and shows us the widening cracks in the Jedi Order a century before the prequel trilogy. Predictably, it was a bad idea to try to maintain a monopoly on the Force and treat alternative doctrines with suspicion, although it would take many years, until the time of the sequel trilogy, for a Jedi to learn that lesson. In the manner of classical tragedy, The Acolyte illustrates the lamentable consequences of sticking to a rigid view of who should have the right to wield power. And just like happens in tragedies, the characters who are unable to evolve and adjust their views end up dead, but not before leaving behind a trail of ruined lives and numerous regrets.

While yet another story about the mistakes of the Jedi shouldn't have surprised anyone, The Acolyte has ideas of its own to propose. First, the use of twin protagonists who take opposite paths challenges the narrative of fate that has so often prevailed through the Star Wars timeline. Osha and Mae, born of the Force in probably the same manner Anakin would a century later, lead parallel lives that almost feel like diverging timelines. This is reinforced with the reveal that, at some obscure metaphysical level, they're actually one person. The same girl could as easily have gone the way of good or evil. If there are Chosen Ones, it's each of us who does the choosing.

The flat opposition of good vs. evil is another of the Star Wars staples that The Acolyte dares to challenge. Back when the Jedi where the only authorized enForcers in the galaxy, back when there was no big baddie to rebel against, it was dangerously easy for the Jedi to accumulate bad habits and lack the perspective to correct them. It's no wonder that the series inserts a couple of scenes where there's friction between the Jedi Order and the Galactic Senate; as a rule, things get nasty when spiritual power and military power are in the same hands. As a crude analogy, let's remember when the Catholic Church was the sole authorized (indeed, self-authorized) provider of salvation in Europe, and then Luther's dissent gave rise to competing institutions. The Catholic Church's insistence in removing all other spiritual practices led to millions of deaths.

At the time of The Acolyte, the Jedi Order is taking the first steps on the road to a similar catastrophe. Much like the medieval Church, it's adamant about not answering to secular power and in preserving its exclusive position as arbiters and teachers of spiritual matters. When four Jedi arrive in the planet Brendok to investigate a possible miracle and end up finding a secret sect of independent Force users, their unquestionable belief in the wrongness of dissent is what sets the tragedy in motion.

The doomed hero is Jedi Master Sol, who until the moment of his death remains convinced that Osha and Mae needed to be protected from whatever tradition their mothers wanted to teach them. In a display of arrogance resembling the real-life kidnapping of the boy Edgardo Montara, Sol decides that he knows what's best for these girls who are growing up in a culture he never bothers to try to understand. At some level he must be aware that he acted wrong, because he's taken pains to hide the truth of what happened, but he's too good at lying to himself.

The Acolyte follows the example of The Last Jedi in deconstructing the myth of the Jedi Order and the dichotomy of the Force. However, unlike The Last Jedi, it's limited in how much it can deviate, because The Acolyte is a prequel and events need to lead to the status quo we met in The Phantom Menace. What is nevertheless gained by placing The Acolyte so far back in the past is an unspoken denunciation: the fall of Anakin is not an isolated event. Sooner of later, the institutional power of the Jedi was going to be demolished by one of their own. But this was not destiny—The Acolyte doesn't subscribe to such a simplistic view of history. The hard truth is that the end of the Jedi is the result of a chain of avoidable choices.

What is lost by the choice of temporal setting is what has always been lost in the Disney era of Star Wars. Disney is way too cautious about rocking the boat, and The Rise of Skywalker demonstrated how far the company is willing to walk back to please everyone. Even if the Jedi are sincerely sworn to the goals of peace and harmony, their discipline does deep harm to the children they remove from their families. It shouldn't be shocking to lay bare the self-destructive tendencies that the Jedi have been cultivating for the centuries they've spent dominating the galaxy. Yes, it's true that the enemies of the Jedi turn out to be space nazis (there's only so far you can buy into a "power through emotion" creed before you fall into irreversible fanaticism), but that doesn't automatically turn the Jedi into saints. Treating the Force as a dichotomy is part of the problem. The Jedi antagonized Osha for mourning her family, the same way they'd later fail to see Anakin's emotional needs.

Everyone has flaws. What dooms the Jedi is that their method for overcoming personal flaws doesn't comport with psychological reality, the one type of reality we should ask of a story about space wizards. Admitting this does not negate the evil of the likes of Palpatine. Rather, it helps understand why the Jedi, with all their lofty ideals, were so unprepared against the formation of the Galactic Empire. The Acolyte, despite its uneven pacing and its tangible fear of its own ambition, adds to the picture of an institution that did more than any enemy to undermine its own cause.


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Book Review: Dark City Rising by C. L. Jarvis

 A promising vision, thwarted by an attempt to maintain strict historical accuracy


Dark City Rising is a story that piles up all my catnip features high and deep: Dark Academia, 18th century Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment, hidden magical libraries, secret societies, and plucky medical professors fight back by reading minds and shooting fire from their hands.

It sounds absolutely amazing, right? It should have been! All the pieces were there. But alas, it was not—and I think it struggled in large part because of the earnest, rigorous research into the historical underpinnings of the characters and philosophies that scaffolded the story.

The plot is as follows: William Cullen, a professor at Glasgow University, is secretly exploring a new field of study: the use of phlogiston to manipulate matter. He takes under his wing young Joseph Black, a medical student, and together they start making substantial advances in their joint studies. However, Cullen is a bit of an iconoclast: He is an atheist, and he rejects the teachings of Herman Boerhaave, the ‘father of physiology’, under whom all the best medical men (except Cullen) have done their training. So Cullen is locked out of the very best positions, at the University of Edinburgh, and young Joseph Black eventually succumbs to family pressure and transfers to Edinburgh to finish his training.

At Edinburgh, Black discovers that the university is largely governed by a secret society, called the Dark Chymists, who employ sigil-based magic and wield vast powers in the city. Yet those powers aren’t quite enough to allow them to win their ongoing a power struggle with the Edinburgh town council to determine control of the college of medicine at the University of Edinburgh. They are very anti-Cullen, and engage in some recreational murder whenever anyone starts suggesting that Cullen might be a good addition to Edinburgh’s faculty. Young Joseph Black, as Cullen’s student, has to balance his loyalty to his old mentor with the need to keep the Dark Chymists happy if he wants to progress in his career at Edinburgh, but things get tricky as the body count mounts.

Given this set-up, it seems like the shape of an excellent plot might be in order. Glasgow vs. Edinburgh, phlogisten vs. sigils, town vs. gown, Cullen vs Dark Chymists, religion vs. science---so many dichotomous tensions are put into play in ways that echo each other very promisingly.

Unfortunately, none of this promise is realized effectively. First, there’s the order of in which information is presented to the reader, which withholds critical details early, and only provides them long after a confused reader has stumblingly inferred the shape of things from context. For example, the exact status of the Dark Chymists, and their power play with the town council, needed to be laid out much earlier. They are the primary antagonist to Cullen’s ambitions, they have their fingers in every decision taken by Edinburgh University. Vast amounts of academic intrigue and politicking are informed by their agenda. But throughout the first half of the book, they lurk with a vague kind of menace, which, while atmospheric, is not enough to justify their role. In Chapter 28 I was writing peevish marginal notes complaining about the lack of detail; in Chapter 32 the notes got even more peevish, and by the time we learn about the shape of the power struggle between the chymists and the town council, in Chapter 45, when a very short bit of exposition reveals all, my notes are fuming about how this was a couple of hundred pages too late to be useful. Even now, after having finished the book, I can’t figure out why the Dark Chymists are so anti-Cullen to begin with, since he keeps his phlogiston studies secret for most of the book.

The role of women in the book is also irritatingly tokenistic in a way that I would not have expected from such a modern book. Cullen’s wife is one of two female characters with any role to play. That role is to help Cullen investigate a mysterious assassin by cultivating a relationship with the assassin’s wife. The fact that I can’t even describe these women’s importance to the plot without situating them in terms of their husbands is the first problem; and the second is that none of this subplot ends up being relevant to anything. It feels infuriatingly as if Jarvis was aware of the lack of women as her book took shape, and tried to shoehorn some in, without having any idea how to integrate them properly into the main plot. The result is so unsatisfactory that it draws attention to the pointlessness of this feeble gesture, to worse effect than if the women had been absent entirely.

Of course, the reason this story was so hard to integrate women into is that it is based entirely on real people, and records of the power struggles between professors in the medical colleges of Glasgow and Edinburgh university lean pretty dude-heavy. William Cullen was a real man; Joseph Black was a real man (indeed, there is a building at the University of Glasgow named for him); various characters in Edinburgh—Rutherford, Monro, and others—they were all real people. And becaues they were all real people, Jarvis took excruciating care to fit the events of the book into the historical shape of their real careers. But people’s careers do not follow neat paths.  Black and Cullen and Rutherford and Monro did not have Jarvis’s plot needs in place when they applied for a position in chemistry or decided to change institutions. They were just living their lives, criss-crossing up and down the Central Belt of Scotland: Cullen starts at Glasgow, where he teaches Joseph Black, who then moves to Edinburgh, where he gets his first job, before moving back to Glasgow, crossing paths with Cullen, who is making a move to Edinburgh for himself now. By forcing the book's plot to reflect these decisions, we end up with a kind of sprawling, awkward game of musical chairs, in which decisions and motivations don’t make much sense. At one point there was a historical gap of about 10 years between two events that Jarvis uses in the plot, and so for the space of those 10 years the Dark Chymists just . . . go away. I have never before seen a better argument supporting the tendency of authors of historical fiction to fiddle around with timelines of events than this book, in which Jarvis didn’t.

So, in sum, we’re left with an unsatisfying realization of a brilliant, imaginative vision. I would love to read the book that Jarvis’s ideas could have produced. But this book is not that.

--

The Math

Highlights:

• Excessive faithfulness to historical timelines
• Unrealized promise of a brilliant Dark Academia premise
• Infuriatingly tokenistic women

Nerd coefficient: 5/10 problematic, but has redeeming qualities

Reference: Jarvis, C. L. Dark City Rising [Pewter Lynx Press, 2024].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative

Friday, July 19, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episode 8 — The Acolyte

The last episode of the season puts in overtime to wrap up the loose threads, and we get a couple of A-list cameos and more stellar lightsaber choreography

Remember last week when Osha put Qimir's helmet on? It's got some serious power, and it enabled her to see the future. She sees Mae kill Sol—and she knows she's gotta stop her. As we know in the Star Wars universe, though, always in motion, the future is. Qimir asks her if she'd ever consider training with him, and she gives a final no. (Also a note: I've referred to Qimir as the Master, and he's sometimes called the Stranger. I'm using Qimir for convenience sake.)

As they depart, an evil-looking alien figure watches their ship leave the atmosphere. Who is this guy!?! The internet seems to be fairly sure that this is Darth Plagueis the Wise! There have to be two Sith, obviously, but this was a fun surprise. Is this where he learns how to create and save life? Or was it he that instructed the witches that created the twins?

Meanwhile, Sol and the kidnapped Mae are above Brendok, and he wants to contact Master Vernestra to inform her that the vergence on the planet that created the twins is in fact real. As they're talking, though, Mae escapes and jets off the Jedi ship in a fighter, and we get treated to a pretty awesome chase sequence through the fine particles of a planetary ring. She crashlands and Sol sets off after her.

Back on Coruscant, Vernestra speaks with Senator Rayencourt, a politician who's heard there's a murder investigation concerning several Jedi. He reads the Jedi to filth, and calls the Order a "massive system of unchecked power posing as a religion." He questions their rejection of emotionless calm, as it's only a matter of time before someone snaps. Of course, he's right.

He admits that he's reported the Order's lack of transparency to the Chancellor, and Vernestra realizes they're in some deep bantha fodder. She summons her aide to collect as many Jedi as possible without causing suspicions—they've just received Sol's emergency beacon and are headed to Brendok.

Qimir and Mae are approaching Brendok as well, so it appears the showdown in this finale will happen where it all began. Qimir approaches Sol and they begin dueling in some more of the most awesome lightsaber choreography we've seen in years.

We also learn why Osha left the Order: she failed because she could never quell her negative emotions over the loss of her mother. Mae counters that it's Sol that failed, as he's the one who killed their mother. This angers Osha, and she's driven to attack Mae. Mae, on the other hand, is mad that her sister believes that the Jedi are in any way good people.

Mae intercedes in Qimir and Sol's duel, and Qimir instructs her to strike him down to finish her training. Like a certain Skywalker in the future, she refuses. Instead, she wants Sol to face the Council, the Senate, and the Republic to answer for what she believes are his crimes from 16 years ago.

It's then that we get the bombshell that Osha and Mae aren't twins—they're the same person, created somehow by the vergence on Brendok. Mother Aniseya used the Force to create life. (Sidenote: I like the idea that there may be multiple vergences throughout galactic history. Perhaps that's how Shmi Skywalker gave virgin birth to Anakin?)

Sol confesses to killing Aniseya (though the circumstances were clearly not murder), and Osha is in disbelief. He admits that he didn't tell her (or anyone else) because they would have taken her out of Jedi training. Overcome with anger, betrayal, and sadness, she begins to Force choke him, and ends up killing him. Is this a Dark Side act? Or is it simply human vengeance? Where is the line drawn for individuals in this universe?

Qimir hands her Sol's lightsaber and it turns red—she's bled the crystal! A bit on the nose, of course, but it shows what's she now capable of. Mae convinces her to escape as the Jedi begin storming the fortress.

These poor girls had their lives upended years ago by a tragic and unfortunate misunderstanding, and they've been manipulated for years by both light and dark Force users. They need to get out there in the universe on their own. They reconcile, and it's about damn time. It doesn't last long, however.

Qimir finds them, and Osha has to make a choice. She agrees to train with him if he lets Mae go. He agrees, and says he'll attempt to erase Mae's memory of both Osha and him so the Jedi can't use her to find them. They leave, and the Jedi arrive to arrest Mae.

On Coruscant, Mae has lost her memory, indeed. Vernestra reveals the truth to the Council about Sol's actions, and the Council wants to start the external investigation. Rather than frame as it as proof that the Jedi need some work when it comes to oversight, she states that it's just the actions of one bad man.

Mae's memory is so wiped that she doesn't even know she has a sister. Vernestra says that she needs help finding someone—a pupil of hers before he turned to the Dark Side. So that's who Qimir is! We get a final shot of Osha and Qimir on a distant planet, master and acolyte.

The season ends with Vernestra walking up to none other than Yoda as she asks for advice. And that's it!

I don't know why I didn't think about the fact that Yoda was alive during the High Republic—of course he was! He's nearly a millennium old by the the time we meet him in the prequels. But what this means is that the Sith hadn't actually been extinct in the Old Republic era. But, as we're learning more and more, the Jedi aren't perfect.

That, it seems, is one of the themes of The Acolyte. I know a lot of folks have taken issue with the dethroning of Jedi (first with Luke in The Last Jedi, and now this), but I think it makes sense. They're just people; they're bound to be imperfect. And especially with this show, it helps build up the explanation of what happens to Anakin Skywalker and Darth Sidious.


The Math

Baseline Score: 8

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Six Books with Gareth Powell

Gareth L. Powell is the author of 20 published books. He is best known for The Embers of War trilogy, The Continuance Series, the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, Light Chaser (written with Peter F. Hamilton), and About Writing, his guide for aspiring authors. He has twice won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (previous winners include J. G. Ballard and Arthur C. Clarke) and has become one of the most shortlisted authors in the award’s 50-year history. He has also been a finalist for the Locus Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Seiun Award, and the Canopus Award.


Today he tells about his Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka (translated by Sam Malissa). Five killers find themselves on the same train from Tokyo to Morioka. Why are they all on the same train, and which of them will survive the journey? The book was recently adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt, so I’m curious to understand that process by reading the original story and seeing what was changed and what wasn’t.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

My wife Jendia Gammon and I both have several forthcoming books we’re really excited about, including ones we’ve written ourselves and an anthology of work by other authors that we’re publishing through our own imprint. But if I’m not allowed to choose one of those, I’ll go for The Mercy of Gods by James S. A. Corey. I enjoyed The Expanse and am looking forward to seeing how they tackle a far future space opera setting.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

I read Dune as a teenager. I think I bounced off it a couple of times before I really got into it, but I remember enjoying it. Now, having seen the recent movie adaptation, I’d like to re-read it so that I can go on to read Dune Messiah, but it’s such a hefty brick of a book, I’m not sure I can commit the time and attention it requires, as there are so many great books out there I haven’t read yet.

4. A book that you love and wish you yourself had written?

I have re-read Excession by Iain M. Banks at least half a dozen times. Inspiring, fearless science fiction that’s so inventive and so much fun, you sometimes have to take a step back to realise just how creative and skillful it all is. Excession follows an “Outside Context Problem” from the perspective of the Culture’s hyper-intelligent ship Minds. As all the ships have long and witty names, it can be hard to keep track of which ship is which, but the gradual uncovering of a vast conspiracy drives the plot unstoppably forwards.

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

I found this book in the school library at the age of eleven. It was the first adult science fiction I’d ever come across. Up until that point, I’d been reading books aimed at children, such as Brian Earnshaw’s Dragonfall 5 series for younger readers, which used their otherworldly settings as backdrops for rollicking adventures. The stories in Of Time and Stars were different. A lot of people talk about science fiction having a “sense of wonder”. The stories in Of Time and Stars blew into my brain like a whirlwind. To this day, I can still remember the awe I felt as I read “The Nine Billion Names of God”, “If I Forget Thee O Earth”, “All the Time in the World”, and “The Sentinel”. Sitting there in my school uniform, clutching the paperback, I felt my mind expand and the scope of my imagination widen. Suddenly, I knew that it was possible to articulate strange philosophical questions; that ideas could be communicated through fiction; and that the world was larger and more outlandish than I could possibly have hoped. I only read the book once, but it was an important turning point for me; it was my own personal Damascus moment, and it set me firmly on the path that would eventually lead to me writing my own science fiction. It opened the door of my imagination and showed me wonders, and I was never quite the same after that.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome?

I have two books coming out from Titan next year. There’s a new standalone space opera called Future’s Edge, that comes out in February, and in September, a short story collection called Who Will You Save? I’m very excited about both these books and can't wait for people to be able to read them. However, if you can’t wait that long, my most recent release is Descendant Machine, also from Titan. It’s set in the same universe as my earlier novel Stars and Bones but is a standalone story. You don’t have to have read the first one in order to read this one (but obviously, I hope you do!). In Descendant Machine, humanity has been banished from the Earth and set adrift to roam the universe in a fleet of a thousand sentient arks. When Nicola Mafalda’s scout ship, the Frontier Chic, comes under attack, she’s left deeply traumatised by the drastic actions the Chic takes to save her. Months later, when an old flame comes to her for help, she realises she has to find a way to forgive both of them in order to stop a giant machine from destroying history.


Thank you, Gareth!


POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.