Thursday, December 31, 2020

Questing in Shorts: December 2020

I'm back - on a scheduled Thursday no less - with the last Questing in Shorts of the year, and possibly the last column in this format, at least for a while. It's been 2 years since I started my quest to explore short fiction reading and reviewing more seriously, and while I absolutely love the new fiction and perspectives it's brought my way and have no intention of slowing down, the last few months have shown me that this particular monthly roundup format doesn't really play to my strengths, and too often (for example, at the time of writing) leads to last minute sprints to pin down reactions that never feel like they're as fresh as they should be. I'm going to take a bit of time to figure out how I can work my reviewing around my reading more organically, and what that means for a potential schedule. For now, though, let's round up what short fiction I've been reading in the last month:

Sunspot Jungle Volume 1 (Rosarium Publishing, 2018)

The first of Rosarium Publishing's two volume "mix tape" of science fiction and fantasy from around the world, is a 500 page chonker filled with fifty one stories, curated to an extremely impressive standard. If you've been paying attention to the current SFF scene, you're bound to find some of your favourites in here: the first story is "Walking Awake", a chilling alien colonisation story from N.K. Jemisin (one of the few stories in the collection I'd read before); the last is "The Day It All Ended" by Charlie Jane Anders; and the likes of Sarah Pinsker, Mame Bougouma Diene, Amal El-Mohtar, Malka Older, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and R.B. Lemberg are also in here among lots of others, including plenty of names that were new to me. It all comes together, as per the introduction, to form a celebration of the potential of genre right now, and particularly the multitude of voices accessible to English speaking readers. If you only have one short fiction anthology on your shelves, Sunspot Jungle would be an outstanding choice for that spot.

Reviewing 50 short stories in 300 words is not a task I care to take on, and the quality here is so high that it's hard to even highlight favourites (OK, if you must know it's "A Good Home" by Karin Lowachee, a quiet, moving story of personhood and rehabilitation between an engineered soldier and a disabled veteran). As you'd expect from an anthology which sets out to be as inclusive within the genre as possible, there's quite a range of literary weird and slipstream fiction alongside the spaceships and robots and glimpses of secondary worlds, and there are plenty of stories that feel like they end abruptly, before the narrative has had a chance to close. This is not my favourite form of short story telling but when the stories are good, I can hardly complain. It adds up to a book that is best savoured: left on a bedside table or read, a couple of stories at a time, on a train commute (remember those?) - a trusted source of quality fiction for as long as you need it.

Consolation Songs ed. Iona Datt Sharma (2020)

This anthology contains a dozen stories about hope in times of crisis, and its subtitle is explicit about its purpose: this is "optimistic speculative fiction for a time of pandemic", and the stories here absolutely deliver on that promise (plus, all proceeds are being donated to the UCLH charity, supporting COVID-19 work by the University College London Hospitals NHS trust). Some are more overtly optimistic than others: Aliette de Bodard's "A Hundred and Seventy Storms" is a Xuya universe tale about a mindship set to work in harsh conditions on a backwater planet, trying to survive the latest storm that threatens to tear her apart with the help of her Cousin Lua.  The Snow Like a Dancer has little to look forward to beyond further decay and desperate survival, but de Bodard's story makes that feel, for a moment, like it just might be enough in the circumstances. Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Low Energy Economy" also takes a person in an almost impossible situation - Tobler, one of a generation of miners sent out into space in individual capsules that, decades later, are slowly failing around them as they keep up their lonely work - and only at the very end twists it into something that makes that survival worthwhile. These are not stories that justify the decisions that caused their protagonists to be in their awful circumstances to start with, but which offer weight to the resolve to simply keep on going: to fix the red alert lights we can fix, file a maintenance request for the rest, and move forward with whatever we have.

Most of the other stories are more lighthearted than this, running from lighthearted whimsy (like Stephanie Burgis' "Love, Your Flatmate", about a human and a fae stuck together during lockdown who eventually start to learn they might have things in common beyond a predisposition for passive aggressive note passing) to gentle wistfulness. Characters make quiet decisions, like whether to move into assisted living on Mars in "Seaview on Mars" by Katie Rathfelder, or to pursue a new queer romantic relationship at 50 while also caring for sufferers of a mystery coma-inducing disease in the middle of a major climate shift and the appearance of mysterious travellers from another world (as you do) in "St Anselm-by-the-Riverside" by Iona Datt Sharma. The star of the show, however, is "This Is New Gehesran Calling": by Rebecca Fraimow the ever shifting tale of a pirate radio show, put on by refugees from an invaded planet, and the fellow citizens who discover it and try to build their schedules around these snatches of entertainment from their former home. The snatches of worldbuilding from multiple angles and the way it builds up little pieces of the lives of its refugees and the struggles they face make for a perfect, deeply human tale, and its eventual ending caught me, as they say, right in the feels.

Reconstruction by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Small Beer Press, 2020)

I'm very uncertain why Reconstruction has been on all my lists as a 2021 release when, in fact, it seems to have come out last month, but here we are! Alaya Dawn Johnson's debut collection spans work from the breadth of her career, from 2005 to this year, and there's some impressive gems within it. "A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i", a 2015 Nebula Award winner, is definitely one of them (and it's a story which feels familiar, though I'm fairly certain I've not read it before): the story of Key, a human worker at a feeding centre for vampires, after vampires have taken over and herded the remaining humans into their camps. Key is nearing the end of her usefulness as a worker and is desperate to find escape, but when she's reassigned to a high-grade facility to look after a group of teenagers whose relative privilege doesn't make up for their situation, she is forced to examine her own decisions about collaboration and the option to potentially become a vampire herself, while trying however imperfectly to make life bearable for her young, grieving charges. Its a great novelette with a gut-punch of an ending, and it's a great way to start off the collection.

Through whatever accident of curation, my other two favourite stories also happened to be right at the start of this collection: "They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Grass" is about survival in a future Chesapeake where humans survive alongside strange, alien "glassmen", present in their lives through robot drones that are prone to dropping bombs and abducting people for strange and nebulous reasons. When Tris becomes pregnant, she and her sister make a desperate journey to find somewhere that can offer a safe (though illegal) abortion, kicking off an entertaining, action packed tale that packs in a lot of worldbuilding and a very satisfying strand of resilience in adversity. Then there's "Their Changing Bodies", a bizarre but wonderful YA-esque summer camp story where a trio of girls find themselves on the menu for a group of sleazy boy vampires. The fourteen-year-old sexual awkwardness jumps off the page in this one and it won't be for everyone (especially as, incompetent as they are, the boys' intentions are fundamentally about sexual assault) but if you're up for exploring some of the kind of gross body stuff that only early teenhood can provide, the take on vampirism here - very different to the first story! - is absolutely perfect. All in all, although it fell off for me a little towards the end, this is a really solid collection from a great author.

Augur Magazine Issue 3.2

A themed issue of Augur this time, based around "A Multiplicity of Futures": science fiction stories which explicitly focus on the paths our world might take. This being Augur, a lot of those directions are strange and sad, as in "The Truth at the Bottom of the Ocean". Maria Dong's story blends the experiences of a seafaring community displaced onto the open ocean by climate change with the love of a mother for a son who has grown up with that displacement and found ways to survive that alienate him from her, and the reality of a capitalist future dominated by climate change with fantasy coping mechanisms: a boy sprouts wings, while a woman's skin becomes made of stone, letting her dive into the depths of the ocean without consequence. "Are We Ourselves" by Michelle Mellon feels almost old-fashioned in the detached, matter of fact tone with which its protagonist tells us about the world she inhabits, and the historical events which have led to a future where Black bodies are co-opted (in a manner which directly relies on the legacy of slavery) to house the consciousnesses of white people who would otherwise die of a climate-change related illness. Make no mistake, though, this is no detached golden age story of scientific progress, and by the end, the protagonist's lived experience, and the individual horrors she has gone through are inescapable. Her ending invocation directly drawing attention to the importance of her human experience, her individual story, when weighing up the moral harm of what has been done to her, and generations of her people before her.

And so the losses of our possible futures mount up, from unsurvivable shipwrecks to worlds where food itself is processed to be poisonous without the right tech installations. As the loss builds up, though, so too do the moments of quiet calm and discovery: "Moon Gazing", by Michelle Theodore, is a very welcome visual rest stop, a comic about a child and their Dad talking about their respective dreams of travelling to the moon. I also loved the poem "When I Could Draw a Sun in the Sky", by Manahil Bandukwala, which offers a very personal spin on the experience of playing the video game Okami, and "X.O. Tempo," in which a woman finds her own deeply cool spacefaring alter ego through a process of quantum entanglement, and gets to shake up her own life a little while she's at it. Once again, Augur demonstrates it is not a publication to be ignored.

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Microreview [book]: Found Audio by NJ Campbell

A mystery within a mystery

I discovered Found Audio serendipitously, as part of a bulk purchase to help save New York's Strand Bookstore. But it is, by far, the best book I read in 2020. This led to another bulk purchase, this time from the Ohio-based small press that released the novel: 2 Dollar Radio. More reviews from them to come. 

Found Audio is a work of literary metafiction but which you could also classify as speculative or imaginative fiction. This is probably my favorite niche genre, a category that also includes works by David Mitchell, Roberto Bolaño, Joan Didion and Marcel Theroux. It may also bring Inception to mind. 

The plot is a bit hard to describe, but more or less goes like this: Amrapali Anna Singh, an academic expert in forensic audio analysis, receives a visit from a mysterious foreigner, who asks her to authenticate and analyze two cassettes. He isn't concerned about the content, but wants to know any details that can be gleaned about where it was recorded, when and so forth. This is Singh's peculiar and almost alchemical area of expertise, so she agrees. 

On the cassettes an American speaker describes his globetrotting search for a mythical City of Dreams. Very little about the recordings makes sense - the interrogators speak with accents that combine traits from far-flung locales, and background noises suggest locations that can't all be true at once. And then there is the American's story itself, which I will not spoil for you. 

Despite being explicitly instructed not to, Singh transcribes the cassettes, contacts the library from which the tapes supposedly originates and sends preliminary findings to her publisher. After a short preamble, written as a letter from Singh to her publisher, the transcriptions are presented with notes from Singh.

Found Audio is highly engaging, and despite the complex and obscure plot device, is a very brisk read. This is what I appreciated most of all: Found Audio manages to be high-brow without being a slog. I found it very hard to put down, and when it was done, I wished there was more to consume. It is also very well written, with artful, highly evocative prose. Highly recommended. 

The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 this is the book I've been looking for but didn't know it

Penalties: -1 for it's over too quickly 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category"

POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Reference: Campbell, NJ. Found Audio [2 Dollar Radio, 2017]

Nanoreviews: The Scapegracers, Fortuna, The Impossible Contract

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke [Erewhon Books, 2020]

CW: Sexual assault, magical consent violations

Eloise "Sideways" Pike is an out lesbian, and a practising witch, in a high school where both of those things put her at the bottom of the social heap. That is, until Jing, Yates and Daisy - the coolest girls in school - invite her to perform a magic ritual at one of their parties. What starts out as a one-off party trick almost immediately gets transformed into a friendship, with Sideways and her new friends discovering they all have magical affinity - and that there are plenty of people out there who would happily take that from them, and mould it into a form that they can control. Balancing the sudden change in her social circle, the pressures of sudden covenhood and the challenges of trying to pick up the hot queer girl, Madeleine, who she also met at the party.

The Scapegracers is an odd book in some ways, throwing its audience right into dead deer, kidnappings and magical book heists and only then deigning to sprinkle a bit of high school note-passing and generic teenage drama into the mix. Its external threats are present, and the first half of the book had me pretty concerned for Sideways' safety during one sequence in particular, but the second half of the book almost puts them on hold to instead escalate the tension on the teenage cliques side of things instead, before bringing back the supernatural threats at the very last moment. This feels particularly odd as a tension structure because of something I otherwise enjoyed very much: Sideways' relationship with Jing, Yates and Daisy, while full of quirks and development, is not really a source of conflict as much as it is a challenge of emotional growth for a girl who has been totally used to only looking out for herself. Sure, there's plenty to remind us that the trio aren't objectively wonderful people who deserve power and status more than other kids, but Clarke kicks any potential mean girls tropes to the curb. Instead, he offers up a group of girls who are on top because they're willing to fight for each other, and the friendship they offer to Sideways is genuine. That's underpinned by several other positive relationships, and while there is one significant betrayal, there's a lot more characters with whom Sideways and her crew end on solid (and very queer) ground.

Structural quirks aside (and perhaps for people closer to high school, there's far more tension in these scenes than I originally picked up!), if you're on board for a soap opera-esque ride with a messy but interesting and very backable group of young women, The Scapegracers is well worth sticking with. It does end with things up in the air for a sequel, and I'm very intrigued to see where the next one goes.

Rating: 8/10

Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth [Orbit, 2019]

Fortuna is an interplanetary action adventure set in a system whose five habitable planets have all stopped cooperating with each other, introducing strict restrictions and xenophobic policies that make travel between them all but impossible. That's a problem if you want to be a successful smuggling family like the Kaisers, and particularly if, like Scorpia Kaiser, you were born between planets and have no citizenship anywhere. Scorpia and her family - all, thanks to the machinations of her scheming mother, born on different planets with the free movement rights that arrangement confers - run the Fortuna, a largely illegal smuggling operation which Scorpia is desperate to inherit, notwithstanding her problems with alcohol and general reliability and the claim of her older brother Corvus, who has been enlisted into a war on his own home planet for the last three years. Unfortunately, the moment she picks to make her move is the moment the system starts sliding into all-out war, and the Kaisers end up in the crossfire of something much bigger than any one of them.

Fortuna has lots of fun space tropes: a motley crew of smugglers whose hearts eventually end up in the right place, planets that are all a single unique biosphere with different global governments and cultures, a smattering of mysterious alien tech that nobody knows anything about, gun battles, space battles, breakneck runs back to the ship as the ramp lifts, a thief with a heart of gold falling for a princess, and all the mysterious cargo crates you could possibly ask for. It's not afraid to show that the stakes are high for the Kaisers, with a high bodycount and plenty of peril for the main team. There's nothing especially deep here, and Scorpia in particular is too self-destructive to be a particularly endearing protagonist, although when we start to see her from a third person perspective I found my view of her at least became more nuanced. Corvus is far from the relevant action for much of the book, but when he does dock into the main plot, things really start kicking off.  Despite this, Fortuna is a fun, tropey read that kept me entertained throughout and promises some interesting further adventures in its world.

Rating: 7/10

The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore

The second in the Chronicles of Ghalid trilogy, set around a desert city where water is a precious, rationed currency and a family guild of assassins help to keep the peace by removing morally inconvenient folks from the equation, picks up soon after the first book leaves off, although it could easily stand alone if you don't mind endstate spoilers for the previous book, The Perfect Assassin. It follows a new protagonist, Thana, as she takes on a contract to kill a man who has come from the powerful empire across the desert, claiming that said empire now has jurisdiction over the city. Working for an expansionist foreign power is bad enough, but Heru also appears to be in control of some very dodgy dark magic, and he's also very rude to serving staff; unfortunately, when Thana's first attempt to kill him goes wrong, she ends up having to travel with him and with a very lovely healer called Mo back to the Empire's heart, where she becomes integral in unravelling the mystery of a rival dark mage who might be out to kill them all.

Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me given the previous volume in the series, but The Impossible Contract relies on its reader accepting the morality of its assassin characters: that there might be something valuable to society in having a secret group of people who can accept contracts to kill, and that society as a whole is capable of regulating how that mechanism is used for something other than political gain of the wealthy. The narrative doesn't present this as entirely unproblematic (for example, Thana tries to keep this a secret from her love interest Mo, because a healer probably wouldn't approve of killing, you know?) but it's never explicitly challenged either, and Thana never has any doubts about whether killing Heru would be the right thing to do until the circumstances of her contract change rather radically in the third act. On the other hand, Thana is perfectly willing to judge Heru for his use of magic to reanimate the dead or bind people to his will by controlling their jaan (spirit), and without giving too much away there are plenty of deaths that are certainly not seen as necessary for societal order. The result is a book whose premise itches, like a contact lens with a grain of dust underneath it, and I couldn't help but read everything with constant calculations in the back of my mind about how I was supposed to feel about all of this, because what was happening and the presentation of the book just weren't lining up. It's a shame, because it's a fun world and queer fantasy is always worth looking out for. The Impossible Contract might have a lot to offer the right reader but I couldn't get it to work out for me.

Rating: 4/10

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Movie Magic: On Appreciating Speculative Film

In this final essay installment, I turn to speculative films and the struggle of defining them, appreciating them, and their cinema legacy. 

 Movie Magic: On Appreciating Speculative Film

Even the earliest cinema was fascinated with portraying the speculative. Indeed, speculative films have developed and pushed film beyond its ability in the desire to imagine new worlds—even if the movie was too ambitious for the screen, such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. Some of the greatest directors working right now focus on speculative films, such as Taika Waititi, Denis Villeneuve, Ava DuVernay, Guillermo del Toro, and Ryan Coogler to name a few. The same can be said for some of the greatest actors working on screen, whether classically-trained like Lupita Nyong’o and Patrick Stewart or careers enhanced by speculative films like Hugh Jackman and Tessa Thompson—the overall impact on the US entertainment industry cannot be underestimated. The speculative film canon has impacted the film industry from talent to special effects to pushing the art form forward, regardless of the recognition such films have received. These films are woven tightly into the tapestry of American cinema and should be recognized as an ideal form for making movie magic.

I use the term speculative because as Vivian Carol Sobchack points out, it is difficult to define what should be included in the science fiction film canon. To even limit the discussion to science fiction draws a questionable line in the sand—are Black Panther (2018) or Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) science fiction or fantasy or science fantasy? So, I turn to the catchall term for literature, speculative. Using the term speculative also includes fantasy films in the discussion, even though they receive less recognition than science fiction, particularly between 1960 to 1990. Fantasy films should not be disregarded form this discussion, whether it’s for the special effects or career building ability of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) or the renewed interest in “monster” movies such as The Shape of Water (2017). Even when using a catch-all term such as “speculative film,” the boundaries of the canon are hard to define. Sobchack asks what makes a science fiction film and struggles to answer that question. Unlike the western film, visual aspects of a science fiction film are not consistent across movies: “One could create a list of such SF ‘objects’ as the spaceship which do indeed evoke the genre, but which are—specifically and physically—not essential to it: the New Planet, the Robot, the Laboratory, Radioactive Isotopes, and Atomic Devices” (65-66). Indeed, what constitutes a speculative film (if trying to separate speculative film from the American film canon, as is often done with speculative fiction and literary fiction) becomes increasingly difficult.

Interstellar movie poster featuring characters on an alien planet
For instance, Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), both directed by Christopher Nolan, are speculative films, but contain no similarities in terms of content or genre signifiers. Their connection is merely that the films cannot be and never have been replicated in the viewer’s reality. Yet, the American cinema’s obsession with World War I and II movies complicates this idea as that is yet another fantasy of a kind, whether it’s white washing who fought in the wars or reveling in the wholesale slaughter of Nazis, US critics love a good war movie. Indeed, film has always been about escape, as Marshall McLuhan describes: “The business of the writer or the film-maker is to transfer the reader or the viewer from one world, his own, to another, the world created by typography and film” (285). If this transfer from reality is so foundational to the film medium, then the type of film the viewer transfers to shouldn’t matter. Film automatically creates another world for the viewer, an escape from the viewer’s reality. 

One reason for undervaluing speculative films seems to be the status as “blockbusters,” films made on a hefty budget and meant to make a large profit. This budget means a large distribution and potentially more viewers for the film versus “smaller” movies that are often nominated for awards that might not be available to a wider audience and thus cannot make the same amount of profit regardless of their reception. This idea is a false dichotomy as independent or less well-known directors (to US audiences, at least) make speculative films every year, such as Bong Joon-ho directing Parasite (2019) and Snowpiercer (2013). Additionally, blockbusters are more easily dismissed as entertainment rather than art, thus separating movies that have important messages versus the latest superhero movies. Again, this undervaluing makes little sense as Black Panther (2018) had more to say about race in the US than Green Book (2018) could. Rather than dismissing a movie as entertainment because the actors wear spandex, the film should be understood for quality rather than a marketing tag.   

To that end, speculative films are important to American cinema’s canon and must be included in order to understand their impact on production, distribution, aesthetics, or consumption. From the beginning, early films were able to depict the impossible, such as in Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) directed by Georges Méliès. Indeed, depicting the impossible continues to motivate filmmakers, such as Christopher Nolan working with physicists to as accurately as possible visualize a black hole in Interstellar. This deep desire to actually create the impossible for the screen is one of the lasting influences of speculative film and can be seen in historical dramas, such as Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), or 1917 (2019). Indeed, just as Méliès depicts visiting the moon, so Stanley Kubrik depicts a journey through space complete with artificial gravity and spaceship hostesses. 

Movie poster for 2001 featuring characters on the moon
Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is not only a film canonical to American cinema in general but also to speculative film. Just as the monolith changes the perception of those who engage with it, so Kubrik’s film attempts to shift the perception of the audience through a depiction of the impossible. Sobchack summarizes the shift in perception: “Whether or not one finally accepts the mysticism of 2001’s planets, moons, and monoliths, one has to agree that we do leap forward visually into the unknown by the transformation of our perception. There, before us, in the same frames, we can see all the sun and the moon and the Earth, or all of Jupiter and its moons” (101). Indeed, Kubrik’s film revels in moments of profound alienation from previous knowledge through the use of cinematography and aesthetics. When early man becomes capable of using tools for murder, the world shifts. Similarly, when the robot HAL experiences the singularity and kills humans, another shift occurs, ultimately leading to Kubrik’s perception of the next stage of evolution, a sort of star child, or to become the unknown. While Kubrik is considered a canonical filmmaker to American cinema in general, to understand his importance to speculative film, it is perhaps easiest to analyze Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as a response to 2001. Indeed, every major plot point responds to Kubrik’s view of humanity presented in 2001. 

Whereas Kubrik opens the film with humanity’s beginning on planet Earth, Interstellar begins with humanity’s last days on planet Earth as human-caused climate change has made the planet nearly uninhabitable. The protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was once an excellent pilot but lost his job due to the need for farmers as much of humanity has died from starvation. Even so, Cooper believes humanity should be exploring space instead of remaining on Earth: “Well, we used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt” (Interstellar 00:16:40-8). Cooper gets his wish when his daughter Murphy discovers a gravitational anomaly inside their house which provides coordinates for NASA’s secret headquarters. Cooper’s old professor runs an exploration program intent on finding a new home for the human race. Cooper agrees to join the mission, but there’s a cost—due to crossing through a wormhole, they are unsure if they will be able to return or how long it could take them due to the relativity of time. As this summary suggests, the film is much more idealistic than Kubrik’s 2001, but it purposefully contrasts with 2001’s nihilism. 

For example, Cooper’s motivation to save humanity stems from his desire to save his family. Kubrik’s astronauts Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Bowman (Keir Dullea) are passive and emotionless on their mission. Indeed, Nolan references the scenes where Poole and Bowman receive communication from home by including a similar visual set-up where family members can convey video messages. Whereas Poole and Bowman receive their family’s messages with no emotional response, the video messages from Cooper’s family evoke a strong emotional response, particularly after a black hole’s gravitational pull causes Cooper to “lose” over twenty years and he receives a backlog of messages, which include his son’s decision to stop sending communications. Cooper is reduced to sobs as the video messages show his son aging, the death of his first grandchild, and the birth of his second grandchild. These scenes are in stark contrast to the expressionless responses of Bowman and Poole, who seem to have more interesting relationships with the robot HAL than their families. Whereas Kubrik’s film seems to suggest that technology has replaced familial relationships, Nolan depicts the opposite: technology as a tool to help a father save his family.       

One of the most memorable characters in Kubrik’s film is HAL, who operates the spaceship “Discovery.” Indeed, Sobchack contrasts the memorable HAL to the astronauts: “In comparison to the astronauts, creating the context which emphasizes the lackluster and mechanical quality of human speech spoken by the humans, HAL—in the first part of the flight—can almost be regarded as a chatterbox, a gossip, emotional” (177). Nolan’s robots look much different than HAL but exhibit more personality than some of the astronauts. Indeed, TARS jokes about becoming robot overlords of the humans, and Cooper asks TARS for information about another astronaut’s love life. The robots are certainly memorable but unlike HAL, they do not experience the singularity and exhibit self-awareness. Rather, TARS sacrifices himself at Cooper’s order, even prompting another astronaut to say, “‘Cooper, you can’t ask TARS to do this for us,’” to which TARS responds: “‘It’s what we intended, Dr. Brand. It’s our only chance to save the people on Earth’” (Interstellar 2:14:27-43). Indeed, the role of technology ultimately supports and provides for the survival of humanity, unlike in Kubrik’s film where Sobchack argues that “although the film does not in any way deny the aesthetics of technology, it gives us in [the spaceship] ‘Discovery’ a mechanism which barely tolerates and finally rejects human existence” (70). As demonstrated by TARS dialogue, Nolan rejects the idea that the technological singularity and the self-awareness of artificial intelligence is the next stage of human evolution. Rather, robots remain tools to save humanity.    

Perhaps the strongest response to 2001 comes at the end of Interstellar. While Bowman enters the obelisk, so Cooper enters a blackhole. Bowman had no purpose in entering the obelisk, but Cooper hopes that he might be able to send information back about what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole in order to help solve the problem of gravity and space travel. Both Bowman and Cooper have psychedelic experiences while entering their respective black spaces. Both end up trapped in strange duplications of human spaces. Bowman is stuck in some sort of bizarre living space while Cooper falls into repeated depictions of his daughter’s room. Here, the similarities end. Bowman becomes obsessed with himself as he finds different versions of himself growing older whereas Cooper becomes a “ghost” for his daughter, the true hero of the movie. 

Cooper does not meet the next phase of human evolution, but they provide the information his daughter needs in order to save the rest of humanity. Cooper’s love for his daughter is how he is able to communicate with her across time and space with the aid of evolved humanity, who is no longer bound by time: “‘Love, TARS, love. It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!’” (Interstellar 02:30:35-42). While Nolan ends on the idea of love between a parent and child as the ultimate savior of humanity, Kubrik’s Bowman seems to evolve into a childlike form of some sort, but as the star child takes no action, the viewer is unable to guess the role of this evolution. While there are many visual comparisons between 2001 and Interstellar, Nolan rejects Kubrik’s nihilistic and emotionless depictions of humanity and instead depicts a future where familial love is as strong as gravity.

Speculative films have been part of the cinema tradition since some of the first moving pictures. Indeed, many major directors have contributed to the traditional American cinema canon and the speculative canon, such as Kubrik and Nolan. While it’s been well-documented how speculative films have pushed forward the speculative effects industry through franchises like Star Wars, Kubrik and Nolan also demonstrate how their inclusions of science was recognized for accuracy in film. The undervaluing of speculative film seems to rely more on the whims of Hollywood in American cinema than on quality. While a large blockbuster is often rejected as simply “entertainment” regardless of the quality or themes of the work, plenty of small speculative films are also disregarded, such as Prospect (2018) or Fast Color (2018). Indeed, small and large speculative films are often fascinating to watch for how they transform our reality through the magic of cinema. Perhaps more than any other genre, speculative films engage with movie magic to a degree that much of the canon cannot attain. Due to its historical precedent as a foundational part of American cinema to the development of special effects and filmmaking techniques, speculative cinema deserves to be recognized and greater appreciated as a canonical part of American film.    

Works Cited

2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrik. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968.

Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan, Paramount Pictures, 2014.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press, 1999.

Sobchack, Vivian Carol. The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film 1950-75. A. S. Barnes and Co, 1980.

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 or on Twitter @pheebs_w.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (c. 1940 novel)

: Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита)

Location: Soviet Union

Package Type: Novel

Itinerary: Once upon a time, there was a weird weird world in the East where you had to be constantly on the lookout for foreign saboteurs, where people could disappear in dark cars during the night without a trace and where writers could not publish their work if they weren't members in an association of proletarian writers. And even then, there were things that were just utterly unpublishable -- such books as Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Bulgakov, known at the time mainly as a playwright (whose plays were often forbidden), wrote and rewrote the satirical fantasy novel (and burned several drafts of it) for the last twelve years of his life which the Soviet authorities had made increasingly difficult. The novel didn't saw publication until 1966, more than 25 years after Bulgakov's death when it quickly became a cult classic. In addition to the official censored version, a more complete samizdat edition started circling the literary underground and was later smuggled out of the country to be published and cherished.

In the novel, an enigmatic foreign professor Woland who specializes in black magic arrives in Moscow. He first interrupts a discussion between an aspiring poet Ivan and an "editor of a highbrow literary magazine and chairman of the management committee of one of the biggest Moscow literary clubs" about the existence of Jesus. He tells the baffled men a lengthy story of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judaea who ends up having to order the execution of a curious prophet even if he does not want to. Woland also predicts that the management committee of the literary club will soon lose their chairman because the head of the man he is speaking with will be cut off. Shortly, that indeed happens in a freak tramcar accident.

The quirky death sets in motion a series of uncanny events as Woland and his demonic entourage trick and deceive bureaucrats, officials and ordinary Muscovites. First, they manage to get the control of the dead gentleman's apartment (a notable feat during the severe housing shortage). Then they go on to con the managers of the Variety Theatre in which Woland gives a performance of black magic, creating further comic chaos and confusion. Especially the malevolent pig-sized talking cat Behemoth, by far the most memorable character of the novel, is eager to wreak havoc in entertaining ways.

Amidst all the mayhem, the titular master and his broken-hearted lover Margarita are introduced to the reader. The master is a failed writer whose novel on Pontius Pilate will never see the light of day and whose reputation has been demolished by malignant critics. He is locked away in a lunatic asylum next door from Ivan, but Margarita (who only knows that her lover disappeared) is willing to try to get him back by helping Woland organize something of a satanic ball. In the novel, all of it sort of makes sense.

Travel Log: Reading The Master and Margarita 80 years after its completion is a disconcerting experience. You have to not only travel to Moscow but to the Moscow at the height of Stalinism in the 1930s, a place as alien as Mars to most of us. At the time, the novel would have been a death sentence for Bulgakov and his family, but for someone not immersed in the historical context it is not easy to pinpoint why exactly. The redactions of the first official publication (often printed in italics in western editions) are quite baffling as well. Was the fact that Margarita was naked when she turned into an invisible witch and flew with a broom really so subversive in the 1966? I guess it was. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, though, science fiction writers were writing stories like Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.

Bulgakov knew that the work could not be published, but he kept working on it and rewrote it after destroying it several times. The novel within the novel that the master is working on is obviously a reflection on the work that contains it. One of the most oft-cited lines from the novel -- "Manuscripts don't burn" -- comments on this and became the motto of the samizdat underground. Master's novel about Pontius Pilate is burnt as well, but the satanic Woland saves it, and its narrative refuses to stay inside the manuscript. Rather, a big chunk of it is told by Woland in the beginning of the novel, and another segment becomes the dream of Ivan as when he sleeps next to the master in the asylum.

Other elements of the narrative are autobiographical as well. Bulgakov, too, had to suffer unreasonable attacks by the Soviet press and it is easy to consider the militant reviewers who tear the master to shreds as literary payback. His fiercest critics called for an attack on "Bulgakovism" in the same way as the hostile reviewer Lavrovich is propagating for striking hard at "Pilatism" of the master's novel. Most of his plays were forbidden when he was alive and he was able to find work only through the personal intervention by Stalin who reportedly liked some of his plays.

However, the rabbithole of learning more about Bulgakov's life and experiences has so much gravity that it quickly starts to collapse on itself. Master and Margarita is a light, funny and sarcastic book that can be deciphered in a myriad of ways, and even the specialists have not found a consensus on how it should be read. Some have suggested that the character of the master is a reference to Nikolai Gogol who famously burned the second part of Dead Souls while others think he is Maksim Gorky. The devilish Woland can be seen as a stand-in for Stalin, Lenin, Jesus or God, but the most entertaining aspect is that the meanings are shifting and unstable.

Compare it to George Orwell's masterpiece Animal Farm which Orwell wrote not long after Bulgakov had finished Master and Margarita. Both are hallmarks of political fantasy, but whereas Animal Farm offers neat meanings and unambigous anti-Stalinist polemics, Bulgakov's anti-Stalinism is as ambigous as it gets. For example: A bureaucrat has stepped out of his suit and left it sitting on his desk in his stead, going through the papers and making decisions.

Funny as hell, if you can bring yourself to enjoy absurd, nihilistic slapstick. If you can't, the novel is notable for hundreds of pieces of amazing cover art, most featuring cats.


The Adventure: 5/5
The Scenery: 5/5
NerdTrip Rating: 10/10

POSTED BY: Spacefaring Kitten, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Dragon Waiting by John M Ford

Reissued in a new edition for the first time in decades, this World Fantasy Award winning novel remains a classic of alternate fantasy historical fiction.

In a 15th century world that is not our world, a world where magic exists, where Christianity did not overwhelm the pagan gods of Greece, Rome, the Middle East and Northern Europe. A world where the Eastern Roman Empire remains strong, and grasping. A world where travelers meeting at an Inn might yet change the fate of a corner of the world--and come to support a man who, with their help, might become Richard III.

This is John M Ford’s novel The Dragon Waiting, now back in print.

The Dragon Waiting is a pinnacle of Ford’s work, perhaps the richest of all his many talented and varied oeuvre, the most Fordian of all of his writings, and yet, it is the novel that, if I were to be asked to hand one of his works (in print or out) to a person, I would unquestioningly hand to them first. It is the novel where I entered Ford’s oeuvre, and it is no coincidence, I think, that it is the first novel of his out of print to be brought back into light for modern readers.

What is the novel about, then? What’s the big deal? What’s going on?  It’s an alternate 15th century. A lot of southern Europe is swallowed by the ever-strong Byzantine Empire, and its always looking for advantage. And meanwhile, in England, the Wars of the Roses are leading a man named Richard of Gloucester on a path toward a crown. Such a man, such a King might be counterbalance, as Byzantium schemes and maneuvers to grasp for additional power in Italy, in France, and elsewhere. And so a group of characters whom we meet across Europe, find themselves in a snowbound Inn in the Alps, come together, and decide to work together against the power of Byzantium. All of them have their reasons to do so, all of them have secrets, lies, hidden agendas of mind and heart, all of them very different people, brought together to, if not change a world, give it a good push in a direction.

And such a quartet of characters. The novel introduces them all in turn, and brings them together in that Inn to meet, form common cause and sally forth together. The whole “You meet in a tavern” cliche in fantasy? This is the definitive example of that, but Ford was a clever writer, and we care and are invested in each of the characters separately before we get them to team up . Hywel, a Welsh worker of magic, although when we meet him, the opening of the book and set some time before the main run of the novel, he doesn’t know he has the Talent. Dimitrios, a swordsman son of a Byzanine governor in partitioned Gaul (divided into two, not three parts, sorry Julius), trained in the sword, having to leave his life and world after the murder of his father. Cynthia Ricci, a doctor (a female doctor, a rara avis!) at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, also sent on the run after Byzantine intrigues in Florence make her position untenable. And finally Gregory, a Duke of Germany, with sanguinary needs. They contrast and clash with each other, form strong bonds and relationships, and center and drive the plotting once they come together. 

The world and milieu that the author places these characters, and their revels in, is a fascinating one. We only see what we can see, infer much else, and the rest is a hazy illusion that invites the reader to imagine, and wonder. Even given the survival and strength of the Byzantine Empire, with Gaul divided between it and England, this is a late 15th century world much like ours, with many familiar historical personages taking the stage, with a history that has rhymed as much as it has diverged a bit from our own. I think of Mary Gentle’s Ash a Secret History as an example of how a later writer followed in these footsteps. To be clear, this is not a Turtledovian rigorously mapped out point of divergence and changes, although in the after mater, Ford does mention a few of the changes. Those really are rationalizations for the world he presents more than anything. So those who want a rigorous AH are going to be sorely disappointed, that was and is not Ford’s goal here. It FEELS like an authentic alternate medieval world where Christianity never came to dominance,. And being a poet at heart(and he wrote SUCH poetry), Ford is trying to make you feel with his language and worldbuilding.

And such language! The language, the verve, the execution, the “Mike you clever bastard!” moments that you will discover again and again is where the novel shines. The late Gene Wolfe is his rival for the subtle cleverness and “pay attention!” necessity of reading the text, and if you, friend, are a reader who loves Wolfe for the narrative and poetically high literary density and high-wire act of his words, then Ford is your cup of tea and you will, I confidently predict, fall into his work. Wolfe was far more engaged with unusual words than Ford was and is, but if you think about how careful it takes to read Wolfe’s work to really get a full sense of what is going on, that is the same sort of techniques you need to tackle The Dragon Waiting. It had been a decade since I read it, and while I had remembered the broad outlines of the story, and some key passages, there was much rediscovery for me in this read. The book is not, then a breezy read, its a book that for all of its relative shortness (less than 400 pages) feels and weighs much more on the mind, the soul and the heart. This is a novel to immerse in, but to realize that you might be in there for a while, and best get comfy. This is, if you will forgive me, a novel to read while in a snowbound inn in the alps. (life goals of mine include for this very event to occur, and now maybe, with my digital version, I could). 

There are no sequels or followups, even if this is a world that cries, cried, for many more novels. It’s an alternate magical history with such potential, but that potential is unrealized. The talent that was Mike Ford meant that he wrote broadly, in a number of SFF subgenres. Proto cyberpunk (Web of Angels). Urban Fantasy (The Last Hot Time). Star Trek Novels (How Much for Just the Planet and The Final Reflection) . Space Opera (Princes of the Air), and more. Not enough, as it so happens, not nearly enough. And much of it is far far out of print. But now with The Dragon Waiting (and, hopefully, more to come), the work of a author who has, even if you did not know it, influenced many of the authors you read today (see the introduction to this book by Scott Lynch), is coming into print. Start here, and envelop yourself in the worlds of John M Ford. Here is your chance, your key, to unlock the door into his words and work. Go read The Dragon Waiting.

The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 For the best “You meet in a tavern” scene in all of Fantasy

+1 for the joyous clever inventive anad *full* language, style and cleverness.

Penalties: -1 First time readers may be put off by a book that truly requires careful, Wolfean reading to get and grok all of it. 

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10  mind-blowing/life-changing/ 

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

Reference: Ford, John M  The Dragon Waiting [Tor, 2020] 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Nanoreviews: The Bone Shard Daughter, Queen of the Conquered, Weave the Lightning

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (Orbit, 2020)

Paul's review
highlights The Bone Shard Daughter as one of the most interesting debuts of 2020, and I can't help but agree: in a year with more big-name queer necromancy adventures than one might expect, Andrea Stewart's book stands out for its interesting character arcs and for being sheer good fun. Set in an archipelago empire where order is maintained against mysterious supernatural threat through the harvesting and use of "bone shards", a sliver of skull taken from citizens and called upon to power constructs when needed, The Bone Shard Daughter opens, in true epic fantasy fashion, at a point where things are on the precipice of change. Entire islands are sinking, the emperor seems to be increasingly reliant on complex constructs and intricate schemes, and both the bone shard system (which kills a small number of youths at the point their shards are taken, and also leads to anyone whose shard is used in a magical way to become chronically ill and eventually die) and the overall social organisation of the empire are being questioned by forces of rebellion.

The Bone Shard Daughter sets up a deep, intriguing world and sets it in motion with a compelling, cast of characters, including an emperor's daughter trying to prove herself worthy of becoming an heir, a smuggler with a heart of gold who ends up becoming a folk hero after saving a child from a sinking island, and the complacent heir to a governorship who is drawn into the heart of a rebellion. Though some of these viewpoints move faster than others - I spent a long time waiting for Lin, the Emperor's daughter, to pick up the pace a bit in her sections, which revolve around her uncovering her father's secrets and prove her worth while trying to undermine his rule - but by the midpoint, The Bone Shard Daughter had me hooked on all of its twists and turns, even as some ended up more predictable than others. It can only help that many of these mysteries revolve around Mephi, a character who turns out to quite definitely not be a kitten but also to be an extremely cute furry addition to an already stacked cast.

There's a lot to be explored in further books: some central mysteries remain largely unsolved, and there's also deeper ethical questions about this world, and particularly the nature and sentience of constructs, which doesn't really get delved into here but have a lot of implications future volumes. As it is, though, The Bond Shard Daughter has shot very near the top of my best of 2020 list with its blend of adventure and smart characterisation and worldbuilding, and this is a series I will definitely be pressing into peoples' hands when it comes to awards voting in 2021.

Rating: 9/10

Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender (Orbit, 2019)

Sigourney is a member of the kongelig, elite governors of a colonised island chain called Hans Lollik. She lives a life of relative luxury, built on the backs of islander slave labour and defined by alliances and scheming with the rest of the kongelig as they vie to take over from the current regent and rule over the islands. Unlike the rest of the kongelig, though, Sigourney is herself an islander, the last member of a family who generations before had manage to scrape their way into freedom and go into business with a Fjern coloniser. Sigourney's status has never been accepted, and when the rest of her family were massacred under mysterious circumstances, she pledged herself to exact revenge and take her place at the head of the islands herself. She's helped along her way by her magical "kraft" (a set of innate abilities which the kongelig are allowed to have, and which islanders are usually executed for displaying), which lets her read the thoughts and access the memories of people around her, letting her see exactly what both the Fjern and her own people think of her.

Make no mistake here: Sigourney is a really challenging protagonist to follow around. She's an unrepentant slave owner, convinced of her own righteousness and her entitlement to use the people around her to get what she wants: a goal which she assumes she is the only one amongst the islanders qualified to achieve. While there's a strain of pity involved in following such an isolated protagonist, the narrative never lets us forget that she has internalised a great deal of the ethics of the elites around her, and it's particularly obvious in her interactions with Mareike, the woman who raised her after her family were killed, and with Loren, the mixed race half-brother of Signorney's Fjern husband, who insinuates himself by her side despite originally being sent to kill her. Because she can read memories, and the text often introduces her discoveries in an almost impassive, omniscient third-person style, it's easy to feel, like Sigourney herself, that she has all of the answers to the political questions surrounding her. But as she attempts to make her move against the regent while the rest of the kongelig are being murdered around her, Sigourney's blind spots and prejudices become clear, and the ending offers a really satisfying resolution to the ethical questions surrounding Sigourney. Not all readers will find following a morally questionable character like Sigourney a pleasant or worthwhile experience, but I really appreciated Queen of the Conquered for what it brought to the table: a fantasy which calls into question tropes around chosen ones and princesses who suddenly discover their righteous moral compass, set against an exploration of colonial power structures and the damage they do to those living under them. Well worth a look.

Rating: 8/10

Weave the Lightning by Corry L. Lee 

In Weave the Lightning, magical energy comes from periodic storms - which can sometimes disappear for well over a century before coming back for a few decades - and those who wield it can also access a magical space parallel to reality which they can, to some extent, shape to their wishes and use to influence the world. For Gerrit, an elite cadet within the Storm Guard of Bourshkanya, wielding magic means proving himself and gaining the skills needed to protect his squad. For Celka, daughter of dissidents now living in secret with her aunt and uncle as part of their highwire act, the storms are a risk, threatening her self-control at the worst possible times and forcing her to consider alternative means of spending her time. Both Gerrit and Celka have opinions about the harsh regime they live under, with commonplace rationing and an increasingly brutal internal guard, but its not until Gerrit is forced to confront his superiors' lack of interest in his team's safety that he makes his move, hiding out in the circus where he's immediately discovered by Celka, and beginning a secret exchange between the two of them.

While the setting and the interests of its characters seem permeated with urgency, Weave the Lightning is happy to take things slowly, manoeuvring Gerrit and Celka together and then leaving Gerrit in his secret spot, passing judgement on Celka's various schemes even as he helps out (and, of course, eventually falls in love, because what else is there to do when you're shut in a circus truck with a bunch of snakes and the occasional visit from a cute acrobat? Celka gets more to do - and it helps that her secrets are less artificial than Gerrit's - as she starts taking greater risks and using her abilities to support the rebellion, making calls to bring their family into more dangerous schemes. I could have done without the sudden appearance of a mysterious, handsome knife-throwing second love interest, who adds very little beyond occasionally being good at carrying things, and also having a secretive aura about him, but it's pretty obvious where Celka's heart is at over the whole thing as well, and the connection between Celka and Garrit really helps carry the book.

The other delight here is the magic system, which reads like nothing else I've ever experienced. As well as the storms - which provide energy that allow mages to imbue particular objects with power, even as the mage risks losing themself to harness it - there's also a space called Sousednia, which those with magical talents can enter and move around and manipulate like a constant collective shared dream. Being able to affect the real world from Sousednia is another key part of the magic here, and while it can get confusing, especially if you're not the type of reader who really internalises descriptions and can hold two slightly different places in your head at once, it's also used to interesting effect as Gerrit and Celka develop their respective powers. (There is a primer from the author, if the opening chapters really make your head spin ). All in all, this is a fun series opener that promises plenty more intrigue down the line - though I might be double checking the prominence of the love triangle before I dive into further volumes.

Rating: 6/10

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Final Frontier: A Haunting

 Hi all, this is the third out of four essay installments for you at the end of the year. The idea of the frontier is so prominent in much of speculative literature that I wanted to get some thoughts down on it, though I'm limited in my perspective as a settler currently on the stolen land of the Paiute, the Shoshone and the Washoe tribes.

The Final Frontier: A Haunting

screen cap of the title for Star Trek featuring "Final Frontier"

Speculative fiction is the ideal providence for continuing and supporting American frontier mythology as the map never ends—there’s always another frontier to explore, whether that’s a new planet, a land across a fantastical ocean, a portal, or cyberspace. While classic speculative texts have recast the frontier and its progenitors the cowboy and the adventurer on various planets and fantastical lands, very little about the frontier has changed—including its racist, genocidal nature. From Star Trek’s “final frontier” to newly imagined gold rushes of alien ores, capitalizing off the frontier remains a US fantasy perfectly suited to colonizing the galaxy. Yet, particularly in contemporary speculative fiction, frontier mythos and acts of colonialism are not only being questioned but actively written against. This shift aligns with a shift in who writes speculative fiction. The genre’s recent past is dominated by white men who actively kept other people out of the genre (and continue to attempt to do so as suggested by Robert Silverberg’s yearly comments on the Hugo Awards or the occasional attempt at resurgence of the Sad Puppies). Even so, speculative fiction is taking a turn from this foundational past “discovering” new lands and dominating them to troubling these ideas on the page and thus, in the real world.

Some of the earliest speculative texts utilized the travelogue format or involved the hero leaving the real/known world to adventure to the fantasy/unknown world. This fascination with the frontier in speculative fiction can be traced to Darko Suvin’s initial explanation of the genre: “However, at the beginnings of a literature, the concern with a domestication of the amazing is very strong. Early tale-tellers relate amazing voyages into the next valley, where they found dog-headed people, also good rock salt which could be stolen or at worst bartered for. Their stories are a syncretic travelogue and voyage imaginaire, daydream and intelligence report. This implies a curiosity about the unknown beyond the next mountain range” (5). While a curiosity of the unknown doesn’t have to be a bad intuition, often these texts came with troubling depictions of the Indigenous people and the hero’s perceived right to rule and dominate these people, such as in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1912). The travelogue format provides an easy—even lazy—way to engage with what Suvin considers to be a foundational aspect of speculative literature, the novum (a variation of Ernest Bloch’s Novum). While Suvin refers to science fiction specifically, I would argue that the novum is also necessary to fantasy and other subgenres of speculative literature, as can be seen from his definitions of the novum. He writes: “SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic” (63). As suggested by this definition, the novum can be achieved by introducing the presence of an “other.” Thus, the alien frontier story or travelogue becomes an ideal narrative format to present the novum. Even Suvin acknowledge this tendency: “The essential tension of SF is one between the readers, representing a certain number of types of Man of our times, and the encompassing and at least equipollent Unknown or Other introduced by the novum” (64). Yet, even in these early days, authors troubled these ideas of the frontier and the “other” that Suvin recognizes as a distinguishing factor of the genre, such as Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self (1902) by Pauline Hopkins or Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 

In Herland, Gilman sets up the traditional adventure story with three male characters intent on entirely dominating whatever civilization they find on the other side of an unnamed mountain range, especially after they learn it is “Woman Country” (Gilman 7). The narrator, Van, writes: “There was something attractive to a bunch of unattached young men in finding an undiscovered country of strictly Amazonian nature” (Gilman 7). Yet, the civilization they find on the other side is verging on utopia, and it is the three men that must change or leave. Indeed, each time the men try to express how civilized their American life is, the women undermine their ideas of progress and modernity. Van writes: “I had always been proud of my country, of course. Everyone is. Compared with the other lands and other races I knew, the United States of America had always seemed to me, speaking modestly, as good as the best of them. […] These women, without the slightest appearance of malice or satire, continually [brought] up points of discussion which we spent our best efforts in evading” (Gilman 63). For example, at first, the men are proud that the American response to poverty is “the best in the world,” but the women don’t know what poverty is because their civilization does not experience poverty as it does not grow beyond their means (Gilman 64). As the three men attempt to explain, their description of poverty and its impacts sound more and more horrible: “Jeff […] solemnly replied that, on the contrary, the poorer [American women] were, the more children they had” (Gilman 64). Throughout the novel, the women question foundational ideas such as poverty, government, religion, and relationships. While Van and Jeff are able to adjust and have equal relationships with their partners, Terry ultimately has them banished when he attempts to rape his partner after she refuses to have sex with him. He is thwarted as, just like in most other ways, the women are superior physically and through their communal bond, and they easily overpower him. Yet, Terry’s inability to live in partnership with the women and his desire to dominate them ultimately creates the tension for this utopian novel while repeatedly troubling ideas of US superiority. 

During the mid-1900s, the travelogue developed into fully imagined worlds in need of exploration, sometimes for resources or a new home for humanity. This development created dependence on colonial tropes and reinscribed frontier mythology. For example, in many speculative fiction stories of that era, colonies are assumed. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? (1968), humans are emigrating to Mars. Similarly, in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), humans are living on, mining, or exploring other planets. While one could argue that the robots present in both books present commentary on colonialism, the fact they are not awarded the status of human (even by the end of these stories), sets a worrisome precedent. Even in socially aware texts, colonies on other planets are not questioned or scrutinized, such as in The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin. The reader is very aware that her main character is a colonist on a moon, but if anything, his life as a colonizer is dismissed since the moon has few resources or living beings. Indeed, Helen Young identifies this pattern in her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (2018): “Fantasy creates worlds structured by imperialist nostalgia. For much of its history, the Fantasy genre has avoided engaging with imperialism and colonialism¬ in any critical way, as has most Western popular culture” (12). While she is speaking of fantasy, this critique can be applied to much of speculative literature. So many of the foundational speculative tropes are rooted in racism and colonialism that more than awareness is needed. Rather, we must rethink fundamental aspects of the genre. 

This issue of “imperialist nostalgia” is evident even in novels aware of the imperial project, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).  This novel mixes colonial expansion and monarchy with the common “gone native” plot, as Paul Atreides must hide among the Indigenous Fremen in order to survive the assassination of his royal line. The Atreides acquired the planet Dune for a natural resource called Spice, which can be turned into a drug. The drug is required for faster-than-light travel and is taken by the upper echelons of political influence. Even before the reader has met the Fremen, they are immediately fetishized, and Paul is positioned as a white savior through each chapter’s epigraphs: “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. […] To begin your study of the life of the Maud’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time. […] Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place” (Herbert 3). While Paul’s Fremen name is used, textual clues suggest that Maud’Dib is the boy Paul, named in the first chapter’s opening line. Interestingly, Dune is often mentioned as an example of environmentally-aware speculative fiction, but without environmental justice and decolonial justice, how can this novel truly engage in environmental discourse? Helen Young writes: “Western societies fetishize and commodify indigenous cultures, but histories of invasion, dehumanization of native peoples and genocide are largely buried in modern popular culture” (114). Indeed, in Dune, Paul remains squarely at the center of the story as he is adopted by the Fremen and begins to fulfill their prophecies as he learns to live in the hostile environment. Rather than explore the history of colonization for a natural resource, Herbert instead focuses on how a teenaged boy becomes the leader of an Indigenous people, sending them on an intergalactic “jihad” (Herbert 476). Indeed, at the end of the novel, Paul says: “‘The Fremen are mine. […] What they receive shall be dispensed by Maud’Dib. It’ll begin with Stilgar [a Fremen leader] as Governor on [Dune], but that can wait” (Herbert 482). Indeed, he fulfills his role as a white savior by giving back the planet but only in ways that suit him—by making the nomadic Fremen conform to a Western-esque system of government even as he leads them into a war. Ultimately, Herbert remains hegemonic in his fetishization of the Indigenous Fremen and usage of the white savior plot. 

Cover of Trail of Lightning featuring Maggie standing on a truck with a knife
Even though the past of speculative fiction is founded in the frontier mythos and colonial tropes, contemporary speculative literature is actively troubling and questioning this past. Indeed, as the previous generation of largely white, male writers are becoming less active in the community, the trajectory of the speculative genre is shifting toward imagining more equitable futures. While there is much work still to be done, Helen Young acknowledges: “Fantasy—despite, or even perhaps because of, its long reception as a genre designed to ‘serve rather than subvert the dominant ideology’—has considerable power to dig up long-buried histories of colonisation and imperialism and to challenge the assumptions on which their power structures rely by offering new perspectives. This is so despite the ongoing legacy of colonialist ideology which permeates the genre” (114). Indeed, a cohort of authors have been actively publishing books that subvert such tropes: David Anthony Durham, N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Tananarive Due, China Miéville, Nalo Hopkinson, Stephen Graham Jones, Rebecca Roanhorse, Kai Ashante Wilson, Darcie Little Badger, Charlie Jane Anders, R. F. Kuang, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Daniel José Older, and more. When thinking particularly about troubling the frontier and colonialism, Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut Trail of Lightning (2018) presents an interesting and fun example. While often cited as an urban fantasy, I’d argue that it’s more of a weird western—except Roanhorse banishes the figure of the white cowboy. Early on, she invokes the western genre: “Tse Bonito is still more Wild West frontier town than anything else. Bunch of cowboys and Indians, although everyone’s pretty much Diné. Last time I came through here looking for a Bad Man, I ended up in a shootout that felt more like OK Corral than a monster hunt” (Roanhorse 24). While invoking the western, Roanhorse reminds the reader that not all cowboys are white. In fact, in a slick worldbuilding move, Roanhorse easily disposes of the question of white colonists all together. 

Early in the novel, the main character, Maggie, reminisces about the recent history of the land. As the climate crisis worsened, a climate event flooded much of the US, an event the Diné called “Big Water.” This climate event prompted more resource grabs and the Energy Wars, so the Diné built a wall around their lands: “The head of the [Indian] Council, his name was Deschene, wrote some article for the Navajo Times that put the fear in people, especially after the Slaughter on the Plains. Navajo people weren’t safe anymore, he said. He invoked the specter of conquest, manifest destiny. And he wasn’t wrong. The Slaughter had ushered in a heyday of energy grabs” (23). While not everyone agrees with the Wall, Maggie later narrates: “I had forgotten that the Diné had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth. […] And the Wall took on a life of its own. When the workmen came back the next morning, it was already fifty feet high. In the east, it grew as white shell. In the south, turquoise” (23). While much of the novel is fast-paced action sequences and monster hunting, the worldbuilding is rooted in anti-colonial discourse. 

I chose Roanhorse for this brief analysis not because her novel offers the best example of undermining colonialism and the frontier mythos but because her novel is not about that, at least, not entirely. Roanhorse’s novel is first and foremost an adventure and a fast-paced read. It’s not about Indigenous pain. Indeed, because of it being a speculative fiction novel rather than literary fiction, Roanhorse can remove white people to behind a wall. Just as earlier texts so easily dismissed Indigenous people, so Roanhorse imagines away white people. In other texts, Roanhorse has more directly engaged with the legacy of colonialism,  but I argue that part of moving forward is making sure that not every text that engages with colonialism does so through pain and suffering. While frontier mythos and colonialism are linked to speculative literature’s earliest texts and still haunts the genre today, contemporary writers are demonstrating that there is more to the genre than otherizing the unknown.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland and Selected Stories. Signet Classic, 1992.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Clinton Book Company, 1965.

Roanhorse, Rebecca. Trail of Lightning. Saga Press, 2018.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Routledge, 2018.

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 or on Twitter @pheebs_w.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Nerds on Tour: The Route of Ice and Salt (1996 Novella)

Dossier: The Route of Ice and Salt (La Ruta del Hielo y la Sal) by José Luis Zárate, tr. David Bowles (1996/2020)

Location: Mexico

Package Type: Novella

ItineraryThe Route of Ice and Salt fills in a piece of the narrative of the original Dracula novel, by Bram Stoker, springing out of the journey that Dracula takes from Istanbul to England by sea. As vampires are notable for not being particularly good sea-travellers, this voyage involves a lot of large crates full of earth, and the crew of the Demeter all meet mysterious fates, ending with the captain, who is found lashed to the wheel, his log telling the story of how he had tried to keep the ship and its monstrous passenger from landing. The novella expands on the voice of the Demeter's captain during the voyage, imagining the character as a repressed, traumatised and lonely gay man attempting to maintain his position amongst his crew, while grappling with erotic fantasies about the other men around him.

Once the vampire comes on board, these fantasies - and the Captain's dreams - become progressively more disturbing, but it's not until the crew members start disappearing that the Captain, and his dwindling circle, begin to investigate their otherworldly cargo and the curse it's brought upon them, that the scope of what they are up against becomes clear. The monster on board - whose identity is known to us, but not to the crew, and presented here in a way which fits with the original mythos while leaning even more on psychological manipulation abilities which, in the Captain, find a very easy mark for most of the book. However, While we know the Captain's ultimate fate from the outset, however, The Route of Ice and Salt does justice to his fight against the monster and his eventual act of sacrifice, providing him with an arc that offers him a renewed understanding of himself and his desires, and the ability to harness them against the much greater evil he faces.

Travel Log
The Route of Ice and Salt was published in translation for the first time this year by Silvia Moreno-Garcia at Innsmouth Free Press, who has noted its cult status in Mexico and its importance particularly as a queer horror novella at a time when Mexican culture was conservative and hostile to queer people. While it's impossible, as an English language reader in 2020, to fully appreciate the context in which this story was originally published, the themes it tackles and the fact that it riffs off a text that is very well known and very accessible to English speaking audiences makes it an important book on multiple levels, one that I'm very glad has been made available. Indeed, The Route of Ice and Salt literally lifts the log of the Demeter, as presented in the text of Dracula, and while it's definitely possible to read the entire novella without getting that reference (I read Dracula long enough ago that I don't remember its detail super well) I think it adds a layer of enjoyment just to know that this is a novella in conversation with a significantly older and more culturally entrenched piece of media.

Vampires, of course, come with a long history of exploring taboo sexualities and societal transgressions, and that very much includes queer desire. In The Route of Ice and Salt, male homoerotic desire is front and centre of the narrative, with early chapters almost entirely taken up by the Captain's fantasies about his crew's bodies, their presence around the ship and what he'd like to be doing with them. He also fantasises about a prior lost love, one who apparently met a terrible end. Even as the Transylvanian soil gets loaded up and we start to worry about what's coming down the line for the Demeter's crew, it's already clear that the Captain's life is one of trapped horror, the combination of homophobia and trauma from his past making his narrative painful from the outset. These parallels only get more overt as we learn more about his past, and particularly the fate of his lover, who as a queer man faced violence of the sort that, in a less thought-provoking vampire story, would only be levelled at monsters. Zárate uses the Captain's acute awareness of his forbidden sexuality to push these parallels, especially the parallel of hunger and appetite (as when the Captain fantasises about licking salt of his crew members' skin) and the question of what we become when we give into fantasy, especially those involving people we hold power over.

The language of this translation of The Route and Ice and Salt is consistently poetic and evocative, conveying the sense of desperate fantasy transmuted into psychological horror extremely well. While the Demeter's eventual end is a fixed point, there's a lot of suspense here as well, particularly once the crew start being picked off. There's also some business with rats which is very convincingly squicky, and I don't normally say that about small fuzzy mammals no matter their reputation. While it's the Captain's fight - first against his own desires, and then against the vampire - which takes up centre stage, there's a sense of a convincing dynamic on the Demeter, and the fact that the crew only really start becoming more than objects of desire once the threat is already on board makes the impact of their disappearances much more felt.

But really, what I want to say about this book - the reason you should pick it up - basically boils down to this: it's interesting. It's an interesting book, with an interesting premise, with a really interesting context surrounding it, and it held my attention from start to finish. The depiction of homophobia and the painfully unfulfilled erotic opening scenes will mean this isn't for everyone, but if those aren't a problem and you're interested in picking up some horror this winter, this is not a book you will regret. Highly recommended, for sure.


The Adventure: 4/5

The Scenery: 5/5

NerdTrip Rating: 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