Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Adri and Sean join the 2021 Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards! Intro and Nominees

Greetings, nerds! Adri here, and I'm delighted to be back with the team at the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards (SCKA) for another year of blogger award judging! This year, we've assembled a fine jury of bloggers, booktubers and masters of squee, and I've also brought our Sean along for the adventure!

The SCKA are awards (well, kind of awards - there's no ceremony or speeches, but the trophy is a very attractive rock) given out by a group of bloggers each year for works of SFF that catch our attention, especially those that might otherwise fly under the radar of awards consideration. The "chaos" is because we are prone to changing our own rules, even when the awards are going on, not to mention 

This year, we've expanded our jury significantly, as well as adding a new category: Best Debut. The 2021 jurors are:

And, of course, Adri and Sean.

For Round 1, we've divided up the categories among the jurors and come up with a shortlist of 5-7 titles for each. Without further ado, let's unveil our selections:

Best Debut
  • A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
  • Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
  • The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke
  • Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
  • Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
  • The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
Adri's thoughts: This is our new category, and its full of books I'm excited to dig into. Raybearer and Legendborn in particular have both been sitting on my TBR for a few months, so that's where I'll start with the new-to-me titles on here.

Best Fantasy
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
  • The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk
  • Comet Weather by Liz Williams
  • The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso
  • Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune
Sean's Thoughts: A mix of heavy hitters and books that have flown a little under the radar. A mix of cozy reads and harrowing ones. Despite the contrast of tones, they all seem like stories with similar high-quality craft.

Best Science Fiction
  • Deal With the Devil by Kit Rocha
  • Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  • The Vanished Birds by Simon Jiminez
  • Goldilocks by Laura Lam
  • The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  • Repo Virtual by Corey J. White
Adri's Thoughts: This is a super intriguing shortlist which crosses multiple subgenres within science fiction, from space opera to cyberpunk to post apocalyptic thriller. The Space Between Worlds is an early favourite for me, but I'm ready to dive into those I haven't read yet.

Best Blurred Boundaries
  • The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
  • The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
  • Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Sean's Thoughts: Probably the list of nominees that most jump out to me. I love when novels take risks and push the boundaries of genre fiction, and from the books on here I’ve read thus far, and the authors I’m familiar with, this is a slam dunk. Picking a winner is going to be tough.

Best Series
  • DOMINION OF THE FALLEN by Aliette de Bodard
  • ISLANDS OF BLOOD AND STORM by Kacen Callender
  • SWEET BLACK WAVES by Kristina Perez
  • THE POPPY WAR by R. F. Kuang
  • DAEVABAD by S. A. Chakraborty
  • WITCHES OF LYCHFORD by Paul Cornell
Adri's Thoughts: Ah, series, my dear sweet nemesis category. Judging series last year almost defeated me, but I love getting to grips with the longer arcs represented here, so of course I'm back for more. At least this year, it's full of series that I'm mostly familiar with, although I'm going to have plenty of incentive to finish off some of these trilogies that I haven't got to the end of yet.

Best Novella
  • Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
  • The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
  • Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
  • Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
  • Sweet Harmony by Claire North
  • Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark
Sean's Thoughts: Novellas are terrific because it allows a writer to potentially tell a story as expansive as a novel, but devoid of fluff. These novellas do just that. Some on this list have a grand scope of worldbuilding. Some dig enormously deep into their characters’ psyche. Either way, it’s a fast but potent gut-punch.

Best Short Fiction

"Tiger Lawyer Gets it Right" by Sarah Gailey (Escape Pod: the Science Fiction Anthology)
"A Convergence in Chorus Architecture" by Dare Segun Falowo (Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora)
"In Kind" by Kayla Whaley (Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite)
"Volumes" by Laura Duerr (Cast of Wonders 435)
"You Perfect, Broken Thing" by C. L. Clark (Uncanny Magazine 32)
"Yellow and the Perception of Reality" by Maureen F. McHugh (tor.com)
"Juice Like Wounds" by Seanan McGuire (tor.com)

Adri's Thoughts: No words. Just great stuff. Can't wait!

And that's the list! Check back in June for the results of our first round of judging, where we whittle down our shortlists to two finalists and start reading for the final decision...

Monday, March 1, 2021

Microreview [book]: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

 A worthy follow-up that demands and rewards the reader's attention

A Memory Called Empire was a highlight of 2019: a politically intricate, engaging space opera set in an empire which considers itself the heart of civilisation, exploring the concept of cultural hegemony and concepts of belonging from the perspective of an outsider, Mahit Dzmare, who has spent her entire life wishing to assimilate but finds herself ill prepared for the reality. There's also the small matter of Mahit's predecessor - the former ambassador to Teixcalaan - dying in super mysterious circumstances, and the resulting combination of upheaval and culture clash makes for an outstanding novel, which you should really go and read for yourself if you haven't already (seriously, go do that before reading this sequel review, otherwise I will not be held responsible for what happens next).

A Desolation Called Peace deals in large part with the biggest outstanding plot point from its predecessor: the arrival of an unknown alien fleet on the outskirts of Teixcalaanli space, close to Mahit's home of Lsel station. In doing so, it shifts the focus of action away from The Jewel of the World, Teixcalaan's ostentatiously named capital, and onto the fleet of ships tasked with uncovering the nature of the threat and neutralising it, finding out what happened to the Texcalaanli colonies which went dark in these areas as they go. (Readers of the genre may surmise that whatever happened to those colonies wasn't good, and it's not a spoiler to say you'd be right!) The commander - or yaotlek - of that small fleet is Nine Hibiscus, who is dealing with a vastly underpowered delegation for the size of the mission she has been sent on, as well as open dissent from 50% of the ships under her command due to political infighting between her own Ministry and the Ministry of Information back on Teixcalaan. Trying to understand an enemy which appears to be able to attack without warning, and with intense coordination, and whose only language is some sort of nausea-inducing theremin screech, she calls for diplomatic backup, only to be provided with Three Seagrass - Mahit's former cultural liaison and love interest - and, breaking all reasonable protocol, Mahit herself.

Through the book's prelude and early interludes, the reader gets a sense of the alien's concept of the world, and of their ideas about what does and does not constitute a conscious, fully matured person, far earlier than the characters do. A Desolation Called Peace's opening paragraph begins by laying out a concept of thought and communication that is at direct odds with the use of language: "to think as a person, and not as a wantful voice, not as a blank-eyed hungering beast, not as a child thinks, with only its own self and the cries of its mouth for company." Through these opening pages, we get a semi-comprehensible picture of what the contact between the humans and this alien group looked like from their perspective, as well as an immediate understanding of a consciousness that seems in every way at odds with Teixcalaan: a culture which places linguistic traditions at the absolute centre of what it means to be a civlised Teixcalaanlim, where laws are written in poetic forms, and where mind-altering technology (like the imagos of Lsel station, which pass down technical knowledge and fragments of personality from one generation to the next) is taboo except in a few rare circumstances.

Despite having a good grasp on what the humans are going to discover about their counterparts, it's still fun to watch this first contact play out, especially because its surrounded by so much of the fallout from the first book. Mahit begins her journey back on Lsel Station, struggling with a malfunctioning imago with the personality of her ambassadorial predecessor and trying to figure out where she fits in between the competing factions of Lsel and the continued draw of Teixcalaan, despite the heartbreak and trauma of her prior visit. Three Seagrass - whose perspective we now see firsthand, rather than the tight focus on Mahit in the previous book - has also been deeply affected by Mahit's departure, and when she is sent to the front, her decision to collect a disgraced "barbarian" ambassador along the way is clearly driven by something other than practical need. Having Three Seagrass' point of view keeps her on the right side of sympathetic even as we see her work through her immense prejudices against Mahit's background (in one pivotal scene, she offhandedly asks Mahit to hand over her jacket so that she can clean vomit off the floor with it, assuming that her Stationer clothes would be better for the task than a Teixcalaanli uniform). It takes Three Seagrass and Mahit the better part of half a book to reunite and make their way over to the centre of the action, but it's a moment that's well worth waiting for, as the dynamics between them and the wrench that Mahit's presence throws into the workings of the fleet get things moving very nicely.

There are other characters - both returning and new - who also contribute to the tapestry that is A Desolation Called Peace's central plot. Eight Antidote, the 11-year-old 90% clone of the former emperor who is now the assumed heir to the current holder of the title, provides a fourth point of view which initially felt rather forced, especially as Eight Antidote is a very precocious eleven-year-old and having him narrate things from the perspective of his eleven-year-old baby-emperor ego makes it hard to connect with him. As the politics of the fleet and the hub coincide, though, and Eight Antidote goes beyond figuring out the puzzle of what's happening around him for its own sake and begins genuinely grappling with the moral questions behind it, his actions become far more interesting and integral to the plot. Also of note is Nine Hibiscus' adjutant, Twenty Cicada, a high ranking fleet member described, normally in the same sentence, as both the perfect Teixcalaanlim and as a cultural oddity. Twenty Cicada grew up on a colonised planet which still maintains a cultural belief in homeostasis, and characters constantly pick up on small elements of his appearance and behaviour - up to and including his name, which shouldn't have an animal in it to be a "real" Teixcalaanli name - which mark him as different. His differences start out as a neat reminder that the empire is not the homogenous thing we saw through Mahit's eyes in A Memory Called Empire, and becomes something rather more important as events in the fleet unfold, making him an intriguing character who, by the end, might have even surmounted the book's disaster lesbians to become my favourite.

Like its predecessor, A Desolation Called Peace isn't an easy read, especially for its first half. Perspectives change, regularly, mid-chapter, schemes and counter-schemes are described and enacted in intricate detail, and while the prose itself has lovely moments (particularly the prelude and interludes), it doesn't attempt to directly replicate the specific charms and poetic turns of Teixcalaanli, which are rendered in a way which, while still poetic in meaning, makes it clear that the English text is a translation of something that scans and sounds very different in the original. It adds up to something which keeps its audience at a slight distance, even as the characters exude their own charms and progress through plot points which are, at turns, horrifying, hilarious and engaging. If you can spend the time with it, though, A Desolation Called Peace promises the same engaging, thoughtful science fiction as its predecessor, in a context new enough to make it fresh while building on the commentary set up in A Memory Called Empire. Thoroughly worthwhile.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 a sequel which builds out from its predecessor in a perfect way; +1 excellent characters both returning and new

Penalties: -1 Holds its reader at arms length from the cultures and languages involved

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Reference: Martine, Arkady. A Desolation Called Peace [Tor, 2021]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Nanoreviews: Battle Ground, The Very Best of Kate Elliott, Calculated Risks

Butcher, Jim. Battle Ground [Ace]

For a seventeenth novel in a long running series expected to conclude somewhere around book twenty three or twenty four, most of Battle Ground (right up until the very last chapters) sure felt like a series ending book. Battle Ground is, functionally, a 400 page battle. Peace Talks, published a few months earlier, marked Jim Butcher's return after six years and that novel was a set up to an apocalyptic final battle. This book is that battle.

Battle Ground rewards long time readers of the series with connections and reconnections a plenty as everyone shows up for the fight. Granted, moreso than with other novels I would question why someone who wasn't a long time reader of the series would jump in here. Heck, I've only read the first five Dresden Files novels and then books fifteen and sixteen before this, so I'm sure I missed all sorts of context and tips of the hat - but with at least *some* knowledge of the series and, more importantly, the more recent novels - Battle Ground works.

Your mileage may vary, of course, to your interest level in one very long and increasingly escalatingly dire fight with the occasional pause to breath, plot, quip, and raise the personal stakes. It's impact is truly tied to your investment in the series. If you've been riding with Harry Dresden and friends (and foes), this is a necessary novel - though again, it's a whole LOT of battle. If you've read this deep into the series, you're going to read this.
Score: 7/10

Elliott, Kate. The Very Best of Kate Elliott [Tachyon]

Kate Elliott is best known for her long form epic fantasy, novels stretching upwards towards a thousand pages (each) of worldbuilding and top notch storytelling. Without being familiar with the full breadth of her career, the idea of Kate Elliott writing short fiction is surprising. Though she has written far more novels than stories, Elliott's short fiction stretches almost as far back to her first novels.

As with any collection, which stories hit with a given reader can vary. For me, two of my favorites are "On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New" and "The Gates of Jorian", both stories where I wanted to know far more about the rest of the world and where the stories went after the last page. Granted, the former is part of the Crossroads world (Spirit Gate, Black Wolves, etc) - but the larger point is that with the best of her stories Elliott's worldbuilding is suggestive of the work she normally does over hundreds of pages.
Score: 7/10

McGuire, Seanan. Calculated Risks [DAW]

Calculated Risks is just about as experimental as a tenth novel in a series can be. After an absolutely wild ending to Imaginary Numbers, Sarah Zellaby is on another world with Antimony Price, cousin Artie, and a couple of others. If that wasn't bad enough (and it is), Antimony and co. don't recognize Sarah as family, they recognize her as the predator her species is. That's a problem. 

This is a novel taken just about as far away as can be from everything familiar with the Incryptid series, except for Sarah and Antimony. Calculated Risks is told with the wit and heart as readers have come to expect and love from Seanan McGuire, but the usual cryptids and the threat from the Covenant are not part of this book. Calculated Risks is about survival on an alien land and getting back home no matter the cost.

It's a bold move on McGuire's part and as she does so many times, she pulls it off perfectly. Though - while Seanan McGuire often presents multiple entry points into her long running series and ease readers in who might not remember what came before, Calculated Risks is not that entry point. Readers need to be already invested in the story being told to be able and willing to jump in. At the bare minimum, this is truly the second half of the Sarah Zellaby story began in Imaginary Numbers. Long time fans will find much to love here.
Score: 8/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Microreview [book]: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Full of fun, YA tropes, The Gilded Ones explores a violent world where friendship is a matter of survival. 

A picture of the protagonist Deka with gold on her skin

Content Warning: Rape, Torture, Religious Trauma 

One aspect of what makes The Gilded Ones a fun read is Namina Forna's control YA tropes. The novel opens with a common beginning: the protagonist Deka must go through a ceremony to find her place in the town. Of course, Deka isn't normal, and Forna drags the reader into the horrors of what happens when a young woman's body is not considered her own. While I would hesitate to call this book grimdark, it's definitely not shying away from the realities of a violent, patriarchal system. 

Because Deka does not bleed red, but rather gold, she is outcast from her town and collected to be part of the king's army to fight deathshrieks--large, hulking monsters that can kill with the sound of their screams. Girls who bleed gold have heightened senses, strength, and are very hard to kill, which was why until recently, the king had ordered them put to death rather than utilized in his army. Now, they train with young men their age, jatu, in order to campaign against a massive deathshriek army gathering at the edge of the emperor's land.

Enter Keita, a young lord turned jatu warrior who is partnered with Deka. While the other girls are friendly with their jatu partners, Keita and Deka connect more deeply over their shared horrors: Deka, being tortured by her family and elders for bleeding gold, and Keita for the massacre of his family by deathshrieks. Once again, Forna demonstrates her control of the warrior-lover trope that so often appears in YA, but I appreciated that Keita was not just shown to be a great warrior--since all the characters are--but rather it's his ability to empathize with Deka and the other girls that forms their bond. Of course, there is more to Deka and the deathshrieks than we are first led to believe...

Much of the emotional heart of this book is Deka and her friends coming into their strength as women warriors. As Deka says: "Our whole lives, we've been taught to make ourselves smaller, weaker than men. That's what the Infinite Wisdoms teach--that being a girl means perpetual submission (149). Ultimately, this is a feminist novel. It takes particular issue with faith-based patriarchies. 

Even though Deka can save lives with her powers, she's considered a demon and learns to take pride in that. "Are we girls, or are we demons?" (150). As a rallying cry, I related to this a lot, even as reader beyond the age group. I know I would have loved this novel as a sixteen-year-old trying to escape a misogynistic religious community. That said, the imagery of golden blood and bleeding together enforces the gender binary present throughout the book (other than one brief mention of a lesbian character). While it's obvious that the US (and other countries) has yet to escape a patriarchal and misogynistic past, I'm not sure that creating a world that is so binary is entirely useful, either. That being said, this is a series, and I have a feeling that since so much of this book was about shaking off male oppression that the binary might be broken in book two. 

Ultimately, this book takes some favorite YA tropes and turns smashing the patriarchy into a rich, fantasy adventure. Even though this book is fun, there's a lot of pain and the realities of what it means when a young girl has no choice over her body. This violence is made clear on the page. While being reminded of the current horrors of patriarchy that many of us still experience isn't for every reader, I do think Forna's realism demonstrates the difficulty and necessity of smashing the patriarchy. 


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 realistic depictions of patriarchy's violence; +1 great reinterpretation of YA tropes  

Penalties: -1 a little too limited in terms of worldbuilding 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 Well worth your time and attention

 POSTED BY: Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.

Reference: Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones [Delacorte Press 2020]

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

6 Books with Aliya Whiteley

 Aliya Whiteley writes across many different genres and lengths. Her first published full-length novels, Three Things About Me and Light Reading, were comic crime adventures. Her 2014 SF-horror novella The Beauty was shortlisted for the James Tiptree and Shirley Jackson awards. The following historical-SF novella, The Arrival of Missives, was a finalist for the Campbell Memorial Award, and her noir novel The Loosening Skin was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

She has written over one hundred published short stories that have appeared in Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, Strange Horizons, The Dark, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Guardian, as well as in anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ 2084 and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction.

She also writes a regular non-fiction column for Interzone.

Today she tells us about her Six Books!

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m nearing the end of Emmanuel Carrère’s biography of Philip K. Dick. It’s called I Am Alive and You Are Dead, and at times it’s really playful with style, throwing in questions and puzzles, breaking up sections at odd points to ruminate on inspiration and religion. The author often sinks himself into what he imagines Dick would have felt as he wrote his novels, which makes me feel both intrigued and uncomfortable. How could you possibly have come up with that? I find myself asking of both the biographer and the subject – and: Who’s in control here? Both of which strike me as very pertinent questions to be asking when it comes to the life of Philip K. Dick.
2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

I’m keen to read Kylie Whitehead’s Absorbed. It will be published in May by the imprint New Ruins, which is a collaboration between Dead Ink and Influx Press exploring the places where genre and literary fiction meet. Absorbed is described as a ‘darkly comic story of female insecurity, body horror and modern relationships.’ Sounds exactly like my kind of thing.
3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?

I have a very vague order to my bookshelf, and that includes a few shelves set aside for my absolute favourites. Some strange books sit next to each other there, and I always enjoy that jumble of genres: the real-life crime next to the fantasy epic, the SF graphic novel next to the travelogue. What I’ll do to answer this question is run upstairs, take a look at those shelves, and come back and report on which book is calling to me right now. Here goes –
Right, I’m back. 

The winner was Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier. Here’s what I remember about it: I first read it as part of a book club, and a lot of the members were lukewarm about it, or didn’t finish it. I know I really loved it. From what I recall, it has a darkness to it, and an honesty. It’s about a shell-shocked Captain returning from the trenches of World War I to be nursed back to health by his female relatives. And that’s pretty much all I remember, along with the fact that parts of it were an influence on my own post WWI novella (The Arrival of Missives), so now I need to give it a re-read and remind myself of why it gets a place on those shelves. 

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

Your question has made me realise that it’s really rare for me to change my opinion on a book! I tend to stick to my first impression. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I can’t overcome that impression, no matter how unfair it might be. Some part of the initial emotion always sticks with me. But I have learned to appreciate some books, even though I really didn’t enjoy them on first reading, usually for a reason that’s entirely my own fault. For instance, I was given the complete works of Jane Austen when I was far too young to be interested in it (a pre-teenager, maybe?) and I tried reading Emma and hated it. Hated the language, hated the heroine. I didn’t approach Austen again for decades. Then I watched a film adaptation and it came to me – this is so much more than I found in it. So I re-read the novel, and I re-evaluated it and now I know why so many people love Emma, but I still see the shadow of pre-teen me on the page. I can’t get over my initial response, which is a shame.

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

I think a lot about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, and the feelings of it – of being trapped, of being freed, of searching for truth and reality – are things that come up a lot for me when I write. It’s one of the few books that I finished on first reading, turned from the last page to the first, and started again.  
6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome? 

It’s The Loosening Skin, which is getting published in the US at the end of February 2021. It’s been available in the UK for a few years now, but the US version has some bonus material and a very cool cover, thanks to Titan Books. It’s set in a version of our world in which human beings have always moulted. They lose their skins every seven years, and with that they lose the deepest emotions, such as love, so no relationship ever lasts. Nothing is forever, and that’s accepted. 
The book starts at the shedding of the skin of a bodyguard called Rose Allington. With that painful loss comes the end of her relationship with her client and lover. And the first half of the book deals with how she moves on from that only to get dragged back into his orbit when a horrible crime is committed. The second half of the book goes off in a different direction entirely, because, hey, in this world nothing lasts forever. Not even a crime/SF crossover plot.

It’s awesome because I got to explore some huge ideas, and to tie the shape of the book into those ideas too. That’s something I’m really interested in. I hope it finds some new readers, and thanks for giving me an opportunity to mention it today.

Thanks Aliya!


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

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Interview: Francesca Forrest, author of Lagoonfire

I was first introduced to Francesca Forrest's work back in 2014 when I read her novel Pen Pal.  The imagery in the novel, and the fragile safety the characters experienced, it stuck with me.  When Forrest's novella The Inconvenient God came out in 2018, I gobbled it up. You can only imagine my joy when I learned last year, that she was publishing a new short novel, Lagoonfire. For months, I had to try to figure out "what in heck is lagoonfire, and what could it possibly have to do with The Inconvenient God??". Lagoonfire comes out on March 3 from Annorlunda Books, and trust me, it's all connected!

Lagoonfire tells the story of dying gods, rewritten histories, a government official who prefers to stay nameless, and the childhood she wishes she could forget.  Forrest presents an epic story that is concisely told through kindness and compassion as the characters walk through a world that insists on crushing their history.  Nearly everyone in this book is so kind and helpful, it's easy to forget that it's a story about forced assimilation and the destruction of cultures.  If you're interested in how a story becomes a legend becomes mythology becomes a paragraph in a children's history book becomes forgotten, Forrest's Polity stories are for you.

Beyond her novels and novellas, Forrest's short fiction has appeared in Fireside Fiction, Strange Horizons, Not One of Us, and various print and online anthologies.  You can learn more about her work by following her on twitter at @morinotsuma or reading her blog, asakiyume.dreamwidth.org.   She was kind enough to put up with my fan-girling and answer my endless questions about Lagoonfire.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: Lagoonfire is the sequel to your 2018 novella The Inconvenient God. When did you decide that The Inconvenient God needed a sequel, and do you have more plans to write in this world?

Francesca Forrest: I always knew there was more I wanted to share—in fact, when I wrote The Inconvenient God, I had to force myself to focus on the one story at hand because my mind kept on jumping to all the other things that were popping into my head about the Polity, the Ministry of Divinities, the gods themselves, and Sweeting and her story. And yes, I do intend to write more! I’m working on something now that—if I can keep all the balls in the air—continues with a lot of the threads brought up in Lagoonfire. And then I have some ideas even for a story beyond that, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself.

NOAF: What were some of your inspirations for Lagoonfire? What were you thinking about while you were writing it?

FF: In The Inconvenient God, Sweeting makes a remark to the god she’s trying to decommission about how many gods enjoy their retirement as mortals, and that got me thinking that I wanted to see some of those gods in retirement—so that was the first inspiration. And also in The Inconvenient God, I’d set up that Sweeting grew up in the Sweet Harbor district of the capital, and I felt like I wanted to explore that. But in addition, I’d been reading a lot for my day job about how the Chinese government exerts control over local officials—and I was working with Chinese academics in Hong Kong—so issues of control and repression were on my mind. And not just overseas: I was thinking about those things here, too. Also I had a six-month job teaching in a jail that gave me really visceral personal experience of being in a jail, so that played into it too.

NOAF: An overarching concept in this world is that the governing body, The Polity, has given specific agents the power to decommission deities – to un-deify them and make them mortal. These humans have more power than the gods they are sent to decommission. The more I think about this, the larger and heavier and scarier this idea becomes, that humans have the power to stop a god from being a god. Where did you come up with this idea?

FF: That’s a big question! The most basic answer is that it comes down to power—the power behind the decommissioning force has to be greater than the power behind the deity. The Ministry of Divinities can vest a decommissioner with the power of the whole Polity—though there’s only so much power a single individual can channel, which is why some jobs take more than one decommissioner. The Ministry doesn’t have the power to brute-force decommission a god that has a healthy worship base (though it could, for instance, brute-force decommission a god with only a tiny following). When it’s working as it should, the Ministry only decommissions gods and goddesses who have already fallen out of human favor and who aren’t very active. But what bureaucracies operate only as they should? Establishing Abstractions has all sorts of troubling implications, though it has benefits for some. That’s something that I’m going to get into in the next story.

All of this is to say that the deities of the Polity are small-g gods and goddesses (and nonbinary divinities), with an interdependent relationship with human beings. They get their spark of divinity from human beings. Obviously this isn’t the only way to conceive of gods, and even in faith systems where gods operate like this, larger (divine) forces that aren’t subject human control are also often posited. That’s something I haven’t touched on yet, but it’s something in my mind. The Polity is only one state in this world. There are other states and cultures, some of which have very different conceptions of divinity, and those may feature in future stories.

NOAF: And what do the people who live in this world think of this? That one day, their local god who their family has prayed to for centuries. . . might not be a god anymore?

FF: Exactly as we would! Depending on our place in society, we’re more or less likely to feel like we’ll be screwed by our government, and that’s how they feel too. People who feel well supported by the state trust it to do the right thing and don’t fear that it would get rid of their beloved deities. Those in more marginal positions have more doubts.

NOAF: I don't want you to give any spoilers about Decommissioner Thirty-Seven's childhood, or who her family is, but can you tell us about your writing process, for how you came up with her character and her background?

I knew from the last book that she had been brought up by her grandparents, but I didn’t know why. I also knew she was super buttoned down and into self-control. Why? Why were her parents out of the picture? Why is she so dedicated to her work and so withdrawn from ordinary life? The answer came to me pretty quickly, but what was wild was how it ended up weaving into the story of the retired gods—I hadn’t planned that, but as I was writing I suddenly saw it.

NOAF: What is your writing process like? You cram so much story into so few pages, how do you do it? How do you choose what world-building paragraphs and exposition stays, and what gets edited out?

FF: My writing process is so, so slow. I spend an awful lot of time daydreaming, playing with details, chasing up research questions, wool gathering. And even when I actually have fingers on the keyboard, I hesitate endlessly over word choices, etc. Some people are able to write vigorously, fast—and then (I presume) they go back and edit and tidy it all up. I’m editing word by word, it feels like … I don’t think it’s a great system, but it’s the one I’m stuck with, apparently. As for what stays and what goes, I try to keep the focus on the main story but provide enough sense of place and context that the world feels deep and wide and like you know there are a thousand other interesting stories in there that could be told. (… Like our real world.)

NOAF: Who are some of your favorite writers? How has their work inspired you, if at all?

FF: My childhood faves were some of the usual suspects—C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle. Zilpha Keatley Snyder was also big for me. Present-day writers, wow, there are just so many. Like most of the SFF world, I’ve been enjoying Martha Wells’s Murderbot books. I adored Claire Cooney’s The Twice-Drowned Saint. That story has a truly wonderful portrayal of a god coming into being. I really liked Ann Leckie’s conception of gods in The Raven Tower, too. Moving from gods to ancestors, I really loved how ancestors were present for the protagonist in the novelette The Epic of Sakina, by Shari Paul (it ran in FIYAH magazine). That story had amazing worldbuilding, too.

For character development and also for meaty discussions—and for humor—I enjoy Aster Glenn Gray’s books—Briarley and Honeytrap are her best known. Sherwood Smith is another writer whose character development I admire to pieces.

These writers and others inspire me by showing me what’s possible. I’m inspired when I see a writer or a work that take risks—with language, with structure, with ideas. Like what Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone did with This Is How You Lose The Time War did. Everything ventured, everything gained!

NOAF: Thank you so much!  I can't wait for the world to get to read Lagoonfire!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.  

Monday, February 22, 2021

Space Sweepers looks gorgeous... and that's about it

Impeccable visual effects don't suffice to hold up a paper-thin drama

This movie lost me before I was five minutes in. Our protagonist, Kim Tae-ho, has boarded the space elevator to his job as an orbital debris retriever, and when the trip takes him out of Earth's atmosphere, we see a floating pen. It's just... there, for no reason.

"Did you see that? Get it? GET IT?" the movie seems to scream in your face. Yes, we saw 2001. Yes, we recognize the cultural significance of the floating pen. But in 2001, the floating pen was used to illustrate a key theme of the story. In Space Sweepers, it's a gesture devoid of context, a cheap tug at the strings of nostalgia. And it's a physical impossibility in a vehicle undergoing acceleration. There is zero reason for that scene to contain a floating pen other than to wink at the audience, and that little instant breaks any trust we could have in the movie's sincerity.

And that's before it starts throwing Wall-E, Firefly, Elysium, Cowboy Bebop and Gattaca into a blender.

The plot takes a while to start, but eventually we follow Tae-ho in his quest to hide a thermonuclear bomb, which he and his crewmates found by chance, until they can sell it to a terrorist group because they wouldn't make any money by giving it to the authorities. His money problems are made very clear to the audience, multiple times, to the point of melodrama, and we know he can't just report the bomb because this government's untrustworthiness is on the comical side of Kafka.

Also, the bomb is a sentient robot in the shape of an adorable little girl that his crewmates are growing fond of.

With these elements, a movie could very well work. But we have to wait until almost the end of the first hour before we get any idea of who these characters are, and then it's given to us in a heavy montage of exposition. Suddenly, we're in a different movie. From a breakneck comedy of errors we're yanked into an intimate drama that wants to be social commentary. It turns out that Tae-ho had an adopted daughter, and he feels guilty for her death, and of course the robot girl reminds him of her, and just in case we've forgotten, the government is evil. But the emotional beats are too calculated, the manipulation of the audience too obvious. Once the sad flashback has done its job, we immediately return to the slapstick, and it's impossible to take this movie seriously anymore.

On the antagonist's side, the sloppy writing is even more painful. James Sullivan ("doctor, physicist, aerospace engineer, historian," "wealthiest man in the world" and, seriously, "savior of humanity") is a walking pile of evil CEO clichés taken to the cartoonish extreme. His scenes are bloated with exposition that alludes to more interesting events in the background than the ones we're watching, and the only enjoyable part about them is the actor's sincere effort to sell the nonsense he's saying (in mandatory evil British accent). In one scene, he monologues about how people's DNA reveals their moral character (which, for the record, is completely false), and he manages to deliver the whole of it with a straight face. That's being a professional.

For a movie that tries so hard to look realistic, this sort of bad science is everywhere. At the end of that early scene with the floating pen, the space elevator turns on its "artificial gravity," which, OK, we might pretend is a thing that exists in the future, except that the vehicle was already accelerating and thus should have its own gravity. Later, a search expedition for a victim in an orbiting debris zone, which normally takes days to prepare, is shortened to a five-minute launch when a larger payment is made, which is simply not how scarcity works, or logistics, or bureaucracy, or anything. But the worst instance of the movie failing to understand basic facts is the following line:

"Krypton waves have the ability to defuse nanobots..."

No point trying to decipher what this character is saying.

"... and are only emitted during the detonation of a hydrogen bomb."

 Now he's just making sounds.

"All of that is irrelevant to our presentation."

But it needed to be said anyway, because it will matter later, so to make sure we'll remember it, the movie puts it at the most incongruous moment.

A more meticulous direction could have repaired some of the missteps in the script. What we got instead is a beautiful-looking tonal mess where the wrong choice of execution was made every time. When the movie aims for serious, it's corny; when it aims for funny, it's ridiculous; when it aims for relevant, it's insufferably preachy.

But let's be charitable. Is there a meaning to this story? It seems like it's attempting to make a metaphor about how inequality forces people to treat each other as fungible assets, how desperation can twist human beings into accepting a price for the parts of life that should be invaluable. The robot girl is, after all, an intelligent lifeform, yet our protagonists have no problem with the plan to sell her, because they're so desperately broke that she's their only chance to make ends meet. But the circumstances that push them into such a choice are transparently contrived. Despite the fully integrated character of this pluriethnic society, there's a legal structure with separate civil rights for citizens versus non-citizens that is left unexplained. We're told the villain wants to enforce genetic segregation, but he does it by looking at moral choices, which he, as a doctor, should know are not genetic, and which he forces on his victims anyway. As a piece of criticism of technocracy, this doesn't work. Viewers hungry for a nuanced working-class perspective on near-space garbage retrieval are advised to watch the infinitely better Planetes.

Even without searching for a theme, it's hard to find any element in this movie's plot that makes sense. The action in the first half is driven by a sequence of misunderstandings and near-misses that is only possible because the heroes and the nameless minions alternate randomly between omnicompetent and hopelessly incapable. And there's a supposedly surprising revelation about the robot girl that should be obvious to anyone who saw her sneeze in the trailer. It's soon followed by still another revelation about her, but it's made of more bad science.

From that point on, the plot turns into a standard movie pursuit: good guys run, bad guy wants something good guys have. Then comes the reversal: bad guy seems to win, good guys fight to recover what's theirs from bad guy. As third-act movie chases go, this one is well done, filled with excitement, if sometimes over the top (the ending has the most shameless copy of the Death Star I've seen since Austin Powers), but its causal logic is tied to a secret evil plan so absurdly out of proportion with the antagonist's motivation (and so unnecessary given his resources) that the viewer has no option but to stop thinking and, I don't know, gape at how pretty space looks.

That's where Space Sweepers excels: in the art department. The shots that show us the nearly uninhabitable Earth are a gut punch, while every scene with the robot Bubs is a delight to watch. The rich bad guy's office has an appropriately menacing design, and the areas where the common people work and live feel genuinely crowded, chaotic, alive. Outer space is vast without being confusing, and spaceships wear all their scratches. The final battle is visually flawless. This oppresive version of the future appears believable on the screen, right until the moment someone speaks a line.

This movie is a world-class spectacle, impressive on a technical level, but it lacks something to say. It just looks cool for the sake of looking cool. There's certainly an audience for that content, but even some of them may get bored. We know South Korean science fiction has good writers; match them with a production budget of this size, and the results will be fantastic. Space Sweepers doesn't rise above OK.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10 still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore.

Bonuses: +2 for the quality of visual effects, +1 for building a seamlessly multilingual future, +1 for a touching portrayal of the experience of gender transition.

Penalties: −2 because the lines in Spanish are so badly mispronounced that they ruin the world's believability, −1 because the technobabble doesn't even pretend to make sense, −1 for an utterly laughable villain, speaking of whom, −2 for the harmful trope of Evil Disfigurement.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 not very good.

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