Monday, September 20, 2021

Interview: The Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog

Congratulations to the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog on their Hugo nomination for best fanzine!  As the title of their blog suggests,  the Hugo Book Club Blog focuses on discussions of past and current Hugo  nominees and winners (with a multitude of other scifi-fantasy discussions and guest posts as well), and they are in truth, a functioning book club!  Based in Edmonton, the book club discusses hugo nominated novels, novellas, dramatic presentations, and everything else, focusing on one or two items per month. As the book club discusses the item, notes are taken and edited down into a blog post. In a way, the club's in depth blog posts are a journal of their meetings and discussions.   

The blog's editors, Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne took the same approach the interview they kindly organized for Nerds of a Feather.  As they do with all their blog posts, Wakaruk and Rokne invited input from the members book club to answer the questions I posed to them.  I am especially impressed by Wakaruk and Rokne's ability to ensure all members of the group are heard while ensuring the club keeps it's local and intimate feel and maintaining a blog with widespread and international readership.

NOAF: Welcome to Nerds of a Feather, can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog: Thank you for inviting us to be interviewed. Amanda is an academic librarian whose career has focused on access to government information and, more recently, copyright. Olav is a former journalist who now works in the public service as a media relations professional. We are the founding members of the book club that the blog is named after.

The book club is based in Canada’s most northerly city (Edmonton, Alberta) and we do our best to travel to Worldcon each year.

NOAF: How did the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog get started?

UHBCB: If there is a start date, it’s probably Apr. 4, 2015, when the Hugo shortlist was announced. Our existing book club had decided to read the shortlist that year, as some of us were voting.

Of course, that was the year that the final ballot was largely made up of niche works that had been promoted by a politically motivated slate campaign. Several of those works were sub-par, in our opinions.

This prompted us to try to become more involved in the nominations process the subsequent year, and later to engage more in positive, iconoclastic, and proudly progressive discussion of Hugo Awards. Which led us to start posting blog posts.

It’s been a process of evolution.

NOAF: How does your book club work, and how long has your book club been going?

UHBCB: It works like a lot of book clubs do; we gather every month or so to discuss a book. Usually, one of us takes notes and turns the discussion into a blog post.

During Hugo voting season, we try to read all the Hugo-finalist novels and discuss them as a group. When it’s not Hugo voting season, we try to pick books that seem likely to be in contention, or books that someone in the book club thinks are worth talking about.

In its current form, the book club has been going for a little more than five years.

NOAF: On the blog, you talk about more than just Hugo winners, Hugo nominees, and books that should have been nominated. How do you decide what else to review, and other related topics to blog about?

UHBCB: The process is somewhat chaotic, and governed by who is willing to write something up.

Anyone in the book club can write up a draft post. Then it gets edited by Amanda and Olav, and then goes back out to everyone else for comment, review, feedback, etc. Lately, most of the posts have been generated by conversations amongst book club attendees, with Olav actually putting pen to paper for (or, more accurately, typing out) the first draft.

Occasionally, there’s a disagreement over a particular point or approach, at which point we try to build consensus through discussions… or, in rare circumstances even nix a piece if someone has a strenuous objection to it.

Reaching consensus can be a time-consuming process, so blog posts sometimes sit on the shelf (or, more accurately, the shared drive) for months before being posted.

NOAF: What is your favorite blog post that you published in 2020? Why is it your favorite?

UHBCB: If we have to pick one, it would be “The Movement of Goods in Science Fiction”, which was based around Marshall Boyd’s observation that SFF tends to place a priority on trading and transportation industries, with an emphasis on resource extraction industries, but largely neglects primary manufacturing.

So what does this say about the underlying assumptions of the genre? That’s a question that Boyd, Olav, Amanda, Ken, and a few others argued about for more than a year. The draft of that blog was probably one of the longest-incubating pieces we’ve ever posted. But we’re quite pleased with the finished version, because we think it does a pretty good job of asking questions about some of the under-examined economic assumptions that underpin a lot of science fiction.

NOAF: In 2020, you did a series of posts where some club members watched Hugo nominated Dramatic Presentations (movies). Well? How did they hold up? Any surprise favorites?

UHBCB: Well, we started that series in August of last year, and we’ve only gotten through the first eight years of movies . . . so there’s 55 years of movies left to view. That series is going to take us a while. Also, the viewers that contribute to those blog posts are different from the book club membership, with Olav and Christy joined by a couple of other friends who are interested in film studies and reviewing but never attended a book club meeting.

There’s been a lot of surprises; often it’s the less-well-known films that have held up best. The big blockbusters directed by George Pal haven’t held up as well (7 Faces of Dr. Lau is the possibly most egregiously terrible Hugo nominee of all time).

Everyone in the group watching Hugo-finalist movies was impressed with The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Harry Bellafonte is terrific in a weird post-apocalyptic love triangle movie. We also really got a lot out of the 1961 disaster movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire which is scarily prescient about the threat of global warming.

We’ve also been checking out movies that were omitted from the shortlist, and the one we think every fan of SF cinema should check out is the Chech space opera Ikarie-XB1; it’s basically a forerunner to Star Trek and its visual grammar has echoed throughout almost all space-based science fiction. It’s remarkably influential.

NOAF: What are some of your favorite novels, novellas, and short stories so far in 2021?

UHBCB: "Crazy Beautiful" by Cat Rambo, which was in the March edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It seems completely bizarre to us that Cat has yet to be shortlisted for a Hugo Award. She’s been writing so many delightful stories for so many years and is so active in the community, that you’d think that the Hugo-voting public would have rewarded her by now. (As an aside, Sheree Renée Thomas’ editorship at F&SF is off to a great start!)

These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed is an excellent little novella about a weird alien invasion, and the historicity of events. It was the first in Rebellion’s Solaris Satellites series of novellas, which we really dug. Hope that they continue doing these, since the 2021 titles have been stellar, and Mohamed’s entry was a real highlight of the year so far. (Funny to think that Mohamed and Olav worked for the same organization for two years, but have only actually met once — at her book signing.)

NOAF: What will winning a Hugo award mean to you?

UHBCB: There are so many deserving fanzines on this shortlist — several that have yet to win — that we’re honestly uncomfortable with even speculating about winning. We’re really grateful to everyone who included us on their nominating ballots alongside these other superb fanzines.

Getting shortlisted for this quirky little project has meant a lot to us, in that it does make us feel like we’re recognized within the community of science fiction fandom. Between the blog’s heterodox hot-takes on some aspects of SFF media, and our unabashedly pro-working-class politics, it sometimes feels like we’re out-of-step with the majority of science fiction fans. The fact that enough fans decided to put us on their nominating ballots to get us this nomination does make it feel like we’re welcome and accepted at Worldcons.

NOAF: Thank you so much, and good luck!

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.

Friday, September 17, 2021

6 Books with Juliet Marillier

Credit  Mike Beltrametti Photography

 Juliet Marillier is a member of the druid order OBOD and the author of the Blackthorn & Grim novels and the Sevenwaters series. Her historical fantasy novels and short stories are published internationally and have won a number of awards.

Today she tells us about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading? 

The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec. This is based on Norse mythology, with a cast of gods, giants and monsters. It’s the story of Angrboda, consort of Loki and mother to some unusual offspring, and there’s a focus on the female characters. Despite the epic nature of the story, Gornichec’s version keeps the narrative immediate and personal (in this way it’s something akin to Madeline Miller’s Circe.) I’m thoroughly enjoying this and will be recommending it widely.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I love Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats series – think the Three Musketeers in a  brilliantly realised secondary world with flawed, interesting characters (and great fight scenes.) So I’m eagerly awaiting Play of Shadows, first book in a new series, Court of Shadows, coming out in early 2022 and set in the same world some years later. 

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

I’d love to re-read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, one of my all-time favourite historical fantasy books, but I’m holding back because I know that once I start, I’ll be wall-to-wall reading all six books in the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Skillful writing, unforgettable characters, and a very bold concept. Also stunningly good world building. Note, this is an ‘adults only’ series.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. These were favourites when I was a child. Back then, I completely missed the Christian allegory and the racist elements. Even at the age of 8 or so, it made me uncomfortable that Susan was more or less written off because she liked makeup and silk stockings. The Narnia books are children’s classics and were highly influential on later writers of fantasy for this age group, but the adult eye sees them as very much reflecting the social mores of the author’s time and culture.   

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

It would have to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was captivated by these books from around age 10, and I can remember doing a massive presentation about them at school. I covered the entire blackboard with diagrams. The series, along with folklore and mythology, definitely steered me toward writing fantasy in later life. As a parent, I read the whole trilogy aloud to my kids in nightly instalments. It took a while!

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

My latest is A Song of Flight, which completes my Warrior Bards trilogy, set in a version of early medieval Ireland rich with magic and mythology. The series follows three young fighters who join a team of elite warriors and secret agents. In this book, fighter and musician Liobhan and chieftain’s son Dau are sent on a mission to find a missing prince. Liobhan struggles to balance her role as leader with the instincts that drive her to break established rules. Dau must go undercover in a role he loathes. And Liobhan’s brother, Brocc, pursuing his quest to befriend and help the terrifying Crow Folk, puts the safety of an innocent child at risk. 

Why is this awesome? The story explores ways music and magic can be tied up together, whether it’s to lead someone astray, to open a doorway between worlds, to soothe and heal, to scare off enemies or to cast a spell. It’s full of adventure and tension, it has singing and dancing and a monster – what more could you want?  And above all, it’s a tale about coming home.

Thank you, Juliet!

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

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Interview with comic book author Henry Barajas

In the U.S., the period from September 15 to October 15 is officially designated as National Hispanic Heritage Month. So today we're showcasing the work of one of the many creatives of Latin heritage making awesome things these days: Henry Barajas, who wrote the graphic novel La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo, about his great-grandfather Ramon Jaurigue's role in the struggle for the rights of the Yaqui tribe in Arizona, and is now writing the four-issue comic Helm Greycastle, an epic fantasy set in an alternate Mexico. He has generously taken some of his time to talk to Nerds of a Feather about his career and his creative process.

NOAF: To begin, tell us a bit about yourself and your life story.

HB: I'm a fourth-generation Tucsonan. Currently, I live in Los Angeles. I can't believe it has been six years already.

My life story is a lot like other millennials who were born on the cusp of the 80s and raised by children of the 70s. Comics raised me. I got a lot more out of Batman stories from the pages and the animated series than what weekend Bible school tried to drill into me.

I've been a lot of things: banker, bill collector, journalist, marketing manager, jazz festival co-organizer, pizza delivery guy, and radio deejay. But I've always wanted to be a writer―and that's what the world sees me as now.

NOAF: How did you become a comic book creator?

HB: I started publishing my own stories when I was 18. My first one was called El Loco. I co-created that character with political cartoonist Arnie Bermudez in response to Governor Jan Brewer's attempt to implement Senate Bill 1070. That was a dark, embarrassing time for Arizona. It was an assault on migrants and Latinx education. I wanted to use the power of comics to talk about these injustices committed against brown people.

So it was great to do something like La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo with J. Gonzo, Bernardo Brice, and Claire Napier. It was like I was giving back to that 18-year-old kid who knew he wanted to make a difference but hadn't lived enough life yet.

NOAF: Which authors and artists inspire you?

HB: I was inspired by Arizona Daily Star political cartoonist David Fitzsimmons. I got to watch him grow and respond to the world in real time. I always wanted to think I was interesting and smart enough to do what he did, but without being able to draw. When I actually got to work for the Star, it was a dream come true to be in the same newsroom as him.

Eventually, I got my hands on a copy of Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel. I knew I wanted to be a poor man's version of Joe. His words resonated with me in a visceral way.

But I can go on and on about who in comics inspired me. Just to name a few names: the Hernandez Bros, Brian Michael Bendis, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Marc Silvestri, David Lapham, and Mike and Laura Allard.

NOAF: What obstacles have you seen in the comic book industry for people of diverse backgrounds?

HB: The comic book industry is comprised of nepotism. Since the start of the business, it was curated and designed not by people of color. Systemic racism and sexism have dominated the medium. There's a preconceived notion that "Latinx comics don't sell" and "there aren't any women artists or writers." The people who call the shots are myopic. Hopefully, we have more people who can see the value in BIPOC, with an emphasis on non-binary creators.

Personally, I've had to raise money using Kickstarter to pay my collaborators upfront, because the archaic system solicits months in advance, with little or no confidence that there will be royalties to cover the production costs. So the main obstacle is getting access to money. People need to eat and make their art.

NOAF: La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo (Image Comics, 2019) weaves together a piece of your family history with an episode of U.S. history. What was it like to write this book?

HB: It was not what I expected. My family's history was buried for so long. It caused a lot of anger and resentment with the powers that be that concealed Ramon's involvement in getting Interstate 10 moved to avoid displacing thousands of families while helping a Native American tribe that was one of the last to gain federal recognition.

Thankfully, I was able to hear directly from the Yaqui people about La Voz de M.A.Y.O.'s involvement―and talking to some folks who were directly involved was something special. Once you dive into the rabbit hole of all the times this country has wronged, it's hard to keep your head from spinning. It was a five-year journey that took a lot of time, youth, money, and gumption. I definitely will not do that again. But I say that and I've got plans to do something similar.

NOAF: What unique properties of the comic book format helped you in building the narrative of this book?

HB: There is something about the stillness of a comic book. I think it has a beautiful ability to hold your attention without a time limit like prose, but with artistic beauty. It's one thing to describe a Tucson sunset, but Gonzo made it the whole book's color palette. You can't hear the chants of the Native people making demands of the city of Tucson from the comic, but it can be as loud as you want in your own head.

NOAF: What has been the response from the public and from the Yaqui tribe?

HB: The general public's response has been what I thought it was going to be: shocked. Educators in Tucson have been very instrumental in showing this to their students. Librarians from all over the country have really done a great job with making sure this is displayed during Latino and Native heritage months. It was also seen for sale at the Smithsonian.

From the Yaqui tribe, it has been radio silence. Not surprising, since the group has been omitted from the history books.

NOAF: Is there any part of Tata Rambo's story that didn't fit in the book and you wish you could have included?

HB: Rambo worked with the local film and television productions to make sure there were actual Native people on set or in front of the camera. Due to time and funds, I wasn't able to logically add it to the graphic novel.

NOAF: More recently, you've been working on the fantasy series Helm Greycastle (Image Comics, 2021). What excites you about writing fantasy inspired by your own culture?

HB: It's refreshing. I wanted to show some range. I have been writing non-fiction, journalism stuff, for a while. It was important to me to prove to myself and to the comic book industry that I'm more than a Latinx writer. I have ideas and things to say that live outside of reality.

NOAF: What elements of Mesoamerican fantasy distinguish it from European fantasy?

HB: The setting is the big one. It's weird that Game of Thrones is in its own universe that excludes every kind of person that isn't white. I have a feeling that readers are going to pick this up and see the Tolkien influences. My mini-pitch for the series is "what if Mordor had a southside."

NOAF: White authors have often tried their hand at including Mesoamerican culture in their fantasy. What have they gotten wrong and what do you wish you could tell them?

HB: The best example is the hedonistic, mindless sacrificing from films like Apocalypto. Mesoamerican history isn't as widely popular as Greek mythology. There's a lot of educating when you try to tell a story like this. The suspension of disbelief is clouded by trying to understand the source material. Even the word "Aztec" is not the proper term to describe the people of Mexica. I felt like I needed a doctrine to even attempt to tell this story, but you have to move past that fear. Your reader is always smarter than you, and they will let you know when you screw something up.

NOAF: So far, Helm Greycastle has been announced as having four issues. Are there plans for a continuation?

HB: It's show business, so it lives and dies on sales. I need to sell the book and prove that there's an audience for it. If it gets picked up as a movie or television show, it makes it easier to tell more stories.

NOAF: Apart from La Voz de M.A.Y.O. and Helm Greycastle, where else have you published your creations?

HB: My favorite thing I've ever written was when I spent a morning drinking at The Buffet Bar. That was me doing a bad Joe Mitchell impression, but it's honestly my favorite thing on the internet.

NOAF: How does a comic book author make their work stand out in a market overstuffed with big franchises?

HB: I think it's important to cultivate a following in any way you can. I started it by telling a story only I can tell. La Voz de M.A.Y.O. opened doors for me. Trying to achieve a level of celebrity is futile, but it's somewhat necessary. I'm still trying to figure that out.

NOAF: Can you give us any details abour your future projects?

HB: I've got a true crime story in the chamber.

NOAF: Besides yourself, what other Latinx comic book creators should we be paying attention to?

HB: There are so many Latinx authors and artists out there. Again, just to name a few: Vita Ayala, Isabel Quintero, J. Gonzo, Jarred Luján, Nicky Rodriguez, Breena Nuñez, Professor Latinx, and Dr. Theresa Rojas.

NOAF: Any advice for young Latinx nerds who dream of one day publishing their stories?

HB: Don't listen to anyone who tries to limit you and your potential. If you need to tell a story, do everything you can to make it possible. Just tell the story. We need to hear, listen, and know it.

You can follow Henry Barajas on Twitter here: @henrybarajas

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Shang-Chi and the curse of the Marvel formula

How does such a solid premise of intergenerational trauma end up so forgettable?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starts as an amazing thrill and ends desperately grasping to rise to OK. It enters the MCU with a hand full of winning cards and its mistake is not having a strategy for how to play them. It didn't need to be this way: its plot touches heavy issues of parental abuse, survivor guilt, the search for purpose in life, the identity tensions at both ends of the Chinese diaspora, the allure of power, the mutual duties between generations, and the proper limits of grief. This could have been an extraordinary story. But its bizarre structural choices and its frustrating tonal inconstancy ruin the emotional impact it should have had.

Yes, it has good fights. But it does nothing else well.

The character of Shang-Chi, as reimagined for the MCU, offered fertile material: the son of an immortal warlord and a magical warden of the forest, trained since youth to be an unbeatable assassin and now on the run from his father's secret organization. Add to that the twist that father and son blame each other for the mother's death, and the son has an unresolved yearning for greatness apart from his father's omnipresent shadow. On paper, it sounds like a sure formula for a drama of Shakespearean proportions like we haven't seen since Black Panther or the first Thor. But on screen, it gets encumbered by a lack of commitment to its themes, the incongruous insertion of cheap humor at the worst possible moments, and the requirement to connect to past and future Marvel properties.

Shang-Chi spends so much time apologizing for Iron Man 3 that it feels like it's trying to simultaneously please old Mandarin fans while smiling nervously at censors in China and preemptively responding to the CinemaSins treatment. Its desperation to pave over every perceived plot hole regarding the character of the Mandarin sucks oxygen away from what should be its central conflict between filial piety and individual maturation.

Even worse, the reintroduction of the false Mandarin has thematic repercussions that the movie neglects to acknowledge. What does it mean that the disgraced performer of a deceptive Chinese caricature becomes the only capable interpreter of the guide to the heartland of ancient China? What does the fluffy faceless creature represent by sharing a dungeon cell with a master of many masks? Why did the scriptwriter feel the need to insert a very Western reference to Macbeth (complete with moving forest) to help express the culturally universal theme of too much ambition? The movie doesn't even realize that these are natural questions that emerge from its plot choices, and thus doesn't know it should address them. The cameo was the whole point, nevermind what it communicates.

The more the MCU has grown, the more it's had to stretch itself thin in the attempt to pretend that all its stories happen in the same universe, and thus it's had to come up with increasingly implausible justifications for each new character's previous absence. This first became noticeable with Captain Marvel, whose perennial excuse is "she's busy in space," which even in Shang-Chi gets reused. The trailer for the upcoming Eternals made an explicit point to answer the obligatory question of where they've been all this time. In Shang-Chi's case, his excuse is that he's been running from his father's minions because he doesn't want to be an assassin anymore. Let's say we can buy that. But then, to avoid having to explain why the other Avengers don't show up, the movie stages its big final fight in a secluded magical town apart from the rest of reality, and the sense of threat is lost. The action is so removed from the world our hero is supposed to be protecting that it's hard to believe we're expected to feel any tension. We keep being told that the world can be destroyed, but we have to pause every five minutes for another joke. Look, Simu Liu and Awkwafina make a charming comedy duo, but this is the wrong movie for it.

The mishandling of tension reaches its most offensive moment at the ending, when Wong takes our hero away from his own story and drags him to the larger MCU. The way this scene is constructed ends up telling us that the whole point of making this movie was never to explore its own characters, but merely to lead to the next movie. Telling a complete story becomes a mere formality in the urge to lead to the next launch date. The MCU is reaching the same intertextual metastasis of Space Jam: A New Legacy, in which a story is never about itself, but about giving the viewer reminders of the overarching brand.

One can notice this extraneous preoccupation in the way the movie skips over what should be its most powerful moments. It carries zero dramatic weight to have your protagonist choose to not be the killer of his evil father when the very next thing the plot proceeds to do is conveniently kill him for you. It ruins all the effort of developing a theme about the danger of thirsting for power when your protagonist's happy ending is obtaining exactly that same power. Spending the better part of the movie's climax in watching huge digital monstrosities clash against the screen robs the scene of all the emotional consequences from the death of Shang-Chi's father that we should be exploring instead. The starting premise set up a touching movie about family and loyalty and betrayal and regret and the construction of a personal identity from incompatible parts, and what we got instead is a movie about soul-sucking demons and fancy fight moves. The studio didn't realize there was no reason why it couldn't be both.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +2 for Tony Leung's deliciously multilayered acting, +1 for not shying away from making American viewers read subtitles, +1 because Michelle Yeoh is always a joy to watch.

Penalties: −2 for the casting of Simu Liu, who is noticeably too old for his character and can't emote to save his life, −3 for completely missing the correct moment of emotional catharsis for the ending, −1 for inserting too much comedy in a story that called for a more solemn treatment.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Novella Files: Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell

Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell. Light Chaser [ Publishing, 2021]

Accolades: N/A

Genre: Science fiction 

Executive Summary: In Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell's action-packed sci-fi adventure Light Chaser, a love powerful enough to transcend death can bring down an entire empire.

Amahle is a Light Chaser - one of a number of explorers, who travel the universe alone (except for their onboard AI), trading trinkets for life stories.

But when she listens to the stories sent down through the ages she hears the same voice talking directly to her from different times and on different worlds. She comes to understand that something terrible is happening, and only she is in a position to do anything about it.

And it will cost everything to put it right. (From Goodreads)

Assessment: Light Chaser is one of the only science fiction stories I've read in which the futurism feels archaic--that's not a criticism. It's by design. Futures are typically one rich with progress. But sometimes a few steps forward can be a heedless walk into a trap, knocking you back, unable to recover. Progress is generally good, but choosing to walk down a seemingly gilded road might come with barbs because not everyone wants progress but everyone wants to live in their ideal world. And the method to achieving that world might be nothing but smoke and mirrors. Light Chaser doesn't portray a literal version of this scenario, but instead skillfully concocts vast space travel, intriguing worldbuilding, and a sprawling, multifaceted story to create a pretty successful story that marries those ideas with pulse-pounding storytelling.

This is a novella that knows how to pace itself--at least in its main plot. I'm a little conflicted of how it handles the side plots, which certainly expand the world but stall the momentum. That's also a compliment because I was hooked by the one-third mark of the story and my quibbles were due to my critical need of answers. While it's a gripping story, I didn't find it perfect. Especially because its characters' felt like chess pieces, molded to fit the novella's grand ambitions rather than feeling like complex, fully-formed people.

Light Chaser, like some classic sci-fi, is wholly married to its ideas sometimes at the sacrifice of character development. Unlike many of those stories, its ideas don't feel outdated and stuck in a rut. The novella's themes champion for marching forward, achieving progress to attain a greater society. It does so with elements that are often unlike anything I've ever read. Not only does it declare its admiration for progress in its themes, it shows it in execution, too.

Score: 7/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, editor, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!”

Monday, September 13, 2021

Microreview [book]: The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

Luscious prose and compelling character dynamics abound, but The All-Consuming World struggles to deliver on the promise of its worldbuilding

There's only one sentence that can open this review: What the fuck just happened?

The All-Consuming World is Cassandra Khaw's debut novel, and it's a blend of ultraviolent action and post-human space opera that races by in a blur of dramatic heist-y tropes and ornate-but-sweary prose. In this future, humans have ways to control aging so you can live as long as you like, cloning technology if you want that life to involve dangerous life threatening stuff and don't mind the inconvenience of reconstructing yourself. AI Minds also exist, in various generations and societies, most of whom seem to exist and interact through a collective program called The Conversation. We don't see much of what this setup means for ordinary folks of the universe, because the characters we spend our time with are on the unpleasant margins of this world. To survive their mercenary life, Maya and Rita have both been cloned and augmented repeatedly, to the point where Maya's body is degrading from the imperfect technology and Rita is mostly machine. Forty years after a mission which went disastrously wrong, killing two of their former crew (the "Dirty Dozen") and scattering the rest of them, Rita reveals that one of their dead friends, Elise, is still out there in virtual space, and that finding her might be the key to discovering Dimmuborgir, a lost planet with valuable secrets. Why Elise's survival took forty years to reveal is explained in universe as "Rita is a manipulative piece of work with an agenda she isn't sharing with anyone", but it serves as a spur for the pair to get the remnants of their band back together at an interesting time in everyone's lives, and to mount an imperfect rescue, allying with a couple of AIs while avoiding the many, many more who want to kill them.

There's a lot of meaty worldbuilding in that set-up (and shades of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha and The Stars Are Legion), but The All-Consuming World is mostly interested in the dynamics of its aging cyborg gang, and particularly the relationship between Maya and Rita. We see the story mostly through Maya's eyes (including the prosthetic one she has installed, with no anaesthetic and lavish descriptions of eye socket speculum usage, after the original is gouged out seconds after hatching a new clone body... don't say I didn't warn you about gore). Her perspective is deeply warped by love and codependence for Rita, which is generally rewarded with abuse, manipulation, and speculums to the eye socket. Maya's internal dialogue already acknowledges the gap between her unwavering loyalty and Rita's sadistic responses, but when her old colleagues come back into her life, their reactions to seeing her still in thrall to Rita and the juxtaposition with their own lives provokes Maya to question even more of herself. Those colleagues include popstar and former almost-flame Verdigris, mercenary-turned-law-enforcement Constance, and Ayane, who doesn't really have any identifying features beyond "is hot and violent", which doesn't really work in this crowd (she also did the eye gouging). Maya also connects indirectly, through family, with another member of the Dirty Dozen, and it's through these relationships that the tension of The All-Consuming World builds.

This tension is all quite dramatic, and combined with scenes from AI Pimento (who is working for the AI that gave Rita the information about Elise and holds the location to Dimmuborgir), and from Elise herself, we get a decently three dimensional picture of this gritty, complicated conflict. Unfortunately, the focus on character has two drawbacks: first, because most of the interactions we see involve Maya, and Maya's brain is very specifically wired to care about Rita and almost nothing else, we don't get much character development for anyone other than her and the other two point of view characters. There are a lot of external clues as to how things have changed, and a great deal of information, from various perspectives, about the group's mercenary days and the extent to which that was actually a good time. There are also some identity shifts: notably Verdigris and Constance both come out to Maya as trans in the same scene (Verdigris is genderfluid and uses both he and she pronouns; Constance is non-binary and uses they/them). All of the mercenaries have moved on from, or become stuck on, different elements of their pasts, and while it's interesting to see through the eyes of Maya, a character who is terribly equipped to figure all of this out, let alone show any empathy and insight into what people's pasts mean to them rather than applying it all to herself, it also loses the opportunity to see some of these folks through their own eyes. Most characters feel like they have a convincing inner life that's hidden from Maya, but some (Ayane, and also Rita) just feel two dimensional as a result.

The second drawback is that, while it's interesting to get invested in these characters, their problems and the extent to which they are too old for this shit, there's a whole lot else that could be going on in The All-Consuming World and just... isn't. While we're watching the old comrades of the Dirty Dozen argue in space, there's this sense of a huge world full of AI-clone conflict and space exploration and histories and secrets of this universe that are beyond the grasp or interest of Maya and her cohort and, therefore, don't really appear here. In a weird way, this isn't a book that's very interested in what the characters themselves would identify as the story: their goals, the reasons behind the AI attacks, the importance of Dimmuborgir and the results of their finding it (this, in particular... well, you'll see when you get to the end). Once you're clued in to the fact that this stuff doesn't really matter, then it's easy in some ways to sit back and enjoy the ride, but I can't help but feel a sense of wasted potential that we didn't, at least, get more of a balance. It doesn't help that The All-Consuming World is pretty short, when it feels like there's enough to carry a much longer story here (then again, Khaw usually writes at novella length or shorter, so this being a short novel is in-keeping with their storytelling style).

We also need to talk about the writing. The story of The All-Consuming World is told in lavish, almost purple prose interspersed with regular swearing, as for example with Ayane's introduction from the opening chapter:
"[Ayane's] casual numinosity is frankly offensive. It is empirical, how stunning she is, a fact that exists external to the hypothesis that beauty is qualified by the beholder. Maya had not consented to having her breath shanked from her by something as egregious as Ayane retreating into a halo of artificial light, and she is pissed at this misstep by the universe, pissed she hasn't become inoculated to such bodily treason, that Ayane after all these years could still have such an effect."
There's a ton of interesting choices being made here which add to the characters being developed: Maya's weakness for physical beauty, even as she only has the capacity at this point to love Rita; Ayane being hot and dangerous (note how her beauty "shanks" Maya); the juxtaposition of an academic register, talking about hypotheses and empirical facts, with the religious notes (halos and numinosity) and then with slang like shank and Maya describing her emotional state as being "pissed". It's evocative stuff! But it's not a choice that's going to work for everyone, and to be honest, it's not a style that worked well for me. The All-Consuming World's expansive vocabulary it's not particularly accessible (I had to go and double check what "numinous" meant and that's nowhere near the most obscure word in this book), and it's also kind of relentless, even in pacy action scenes. It has the effect of either slowing the reader - and therefore the book - down, or making you feel like you've missed context by going along with it. At the end of reading, there are elements of the plot, especially the parts involving AIs, that I'm really unclear about, and I have no idea if it's because it was left mysterious or because my comprehension went on holiday at key moments, and while I fully accept that that's a me problem, it's a sign of this book and me not quite gelling.

All of that is quite a lot of negativity for a book that, actually, I liked reading a lot and think is objectively kind of amazing. Khaw's books have always almost worked for me, and after seeing their talents on such strong display, I'm reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I enjoy the idea of them more than the execution. Still, The All-Consuming World is going to have lots of fans out there among those who really gel with Khaw's work and those who are looking for some grim, femme-led space opera - if that sounds like you, this is one to look out for.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 amazing prose; +1 some of the best grim mercenary femmes since Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha

Penalties: -2 Really underdelivers on its worldbuilding potential

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Friday, September 10, 2021

Microreview [book]: Fault Lines by Kelly Jennings

The first full length novel in the “Velocity Wrachant” 'verse plunges its characters into messy politics that they would rather have left in the rear view mirror.

Captain Velocity Wrachant has a problem and it is, quite bluntly, a cash flow problem. She doesn’t have enough money for dock fees, or fuel costs, or the payments to  liens on her ship. This is a most serious problem, as she can’t get the ship out of the station where it is docked, and if she can’t pay the docking fees, the Susan Calvin might well be seized.  This is intolerable and a desperate situation. 

So when the young  Brontë offers a staggering sum of money to transport her and her Security Guard to Hokkaido station, even given the issues with such a request (why doesn’t she just take commercial transportation, in luxury?). Velocity has little choice but to accept the job. But when Brontë moves to hijack the Susan Calvin midlight, Velocity learns quickly of the lies and deceptions that her passenger has in her past, present and future. Worse still for her and her crew, Velocity will have to confront her own past in the House dominated Combines as well.

This is the story of Kelly Jennings Fault Lines, a full length novel set in her “Velocity’s Ghost” universe, as seen in the Athena Andreadis 2013 anthology The Other Half of the Sky. 

Like that original story, and like the other stories in that anthology by other authors, the central characters in the universe that Jennings has constructed here and the central characters are women (and note the name of Velocity’s ship). Given the preponderance of men as leads of a lot of space opera to this day, Jennings' work is a refreshing rebalancing of that. The novel is a two-hander, with Velocity Wrachant, captain and owner of the Susan Calvin, and Brontë, a young woman who is far more than she first appears.

The story’s point of view focus on both Velocity and Brontë, although we do not see the latter's point of view until her hijacking, and even then, it is initially months in the past. I didn’t like her at first: after all, she HAD hijacked Velocity’s ship, and I thought at first that the flashbacks from her point of view were merely to flesh her out and give us perspective and point of view to sympathize with her, however grudgingly so. As the back half of the narrative continued to build and events in the present continued, I saw the careful crafting of plot, and the central mystery at the heart of Fault Lines.  Brontë is on the run from her Combine House, but how, and why and who precipitated those actions and those machinations is a slow burn through the novel as Velocity, Brontë and others try and figure out a deadly game of politics, inheritance, and survival. The backstory of Brontë did win me over, helping me to understand her motivations for her hijacking as the desperate act that it turns out to be. I think, though, the sympathy for her plight could have been done a bit better. 

I had, frankly, only dimly remembered Velocity’s own connection to the Combines (as outlined in “Velocity’s Ghost”) and it appears the author does count on the reader not having to have read the story, because it is treated here as a major reveal that shakes up the game board. It’s an interesting balancing act: readers of that story have a key piece of  knowledge that the narrative of this novel doesn't otherwise make plain. Jennings is careful to make sure the reader sees there is something there, and I think that one can deduce the reveal without having read the story.

I should make it clear that this is not a space opera with a ton of action scenes in it. This is a novel far more interested in the political machinations, maneuvers, conversations, revelations and negotiations than in straight up conflicts. If you prefer your space opera with more laser guns and less wrangling, this is not quite the space opera you are looking for. On the other hand, if you want deadly dances of interstellar politics, this novel, this universe, has all you could want, in spades, and will eat up what is offered here with as poon.

It is the worldbuilding and the characters within it that really stand out here. The focus on the technology is much less on hardware and more on software, and on biological wetware. This is not the kind of novel where burn times for a fusion reactor drive are of major interest, but gene lines, genetic engineering and computer system infiltration definitively are. I’ve seen comparisons to Cherryh’s Cyteen in this regard, and I can definitely see that. It’s not quite the “dump in the deep end” that Cyteen does, however. Jennings’ introduction to the universe is much gentler, and the use of the aforementioned flashbacks helps in that regard. At first it is just this Captain, this ship and the greater problems of the universe and its aspects come in a more gradual fashion. However, the Azi from Cyteen definitely have an analogue here in the Ikan16’s. There are deeper parallels, too, that I will leave readers to discover as well.

Velocity and Brontë definitely outshine the other characters on all sides of the conflict. We really see into their minds and motivations to the point that Velocity’s crew and Brontë’s allies, and both of their enemies suffer a little bit by comparison. This is not to say that they are not well drawn, but they come off a little less three dimensional than the lead pair. I mentioned this novel was a “Two-hander” and it really is. This may also be a consequence of the parallels between the two characters and so how they reflect off of each other so brightly. 

The other novel that this all reminds me of, with spacefaring Houses, genetic manipulation, breeding and machinations between and within Houses, is of course, Dune. There is even a trans-House political organization which is not the Bene Gesserit, but clearly has goals and desires which transcend Houses and generations of time. But unlike Dune and more like Cyteen, there is a lack of that fear of technology that the Dune 'verse features. There are sociological and social taboos in this universe every bit as strong as those in Dune, but they are oriented in different directions. Jennings has borrowed from Dune, and Cyteen, and original ideas and worldbuilding in spades to make a fractally complicated and lived-in universe that feels real and lived in. 

Fault Lines is a rich space opera with a canvas and characters that scream for more stories and novels. From what I hear, too, I will get my wish in that regard.  To be clear again, I don’t think you need to hunt down “Velocity’s Ghost” In The Other Half of the Sky (although it is a very good anthology and worth reading on its own merits) in order to read this novel and get on board Velocity’s ship.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for crunchy political machinations and plotting, for those who like that sort of jam.

+1 for strong and rich worldbuilding in a real and abiding universe

Penalties: -1 It took significant time for me to warm to one of the two main characters (Brontë)

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Reference: Jennings, Kelly. Fault Lines [Candlemark and Gleam 2018]

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Questing in Shorts: It's still August 2021 somewhere

Hello friends and welcome to August in September! Yes I am here two weeks late, but I brought summer weather with me* so hopefully that makes up for my chronic inconsistency. What can I say? Life happens too much. The delay is partly because I've been reading for award deadlines that have directed my time towards things I sadly can't speak about in this column for now. But the main reason is because I want to talk about two very cool, distinct anthologies that hit my inbox recently, as well as rounding up a few magazines in the bargain. 

No new review notebook to show off this month, but we'll have one for the real September roundup. So, onwards!

*Offer applies to those within a 50 mile radius of London only, no guarantees made for weather in other locations, other seasons are available

The Best of 2020: Queer Speculative Fiction and African Speculative Fiction

Let's start by talking Best Ofs, and two new ventures that are hopefully going to become regular fixtures in the short fiction scene. We're Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020, edited by C.L. Clark and series editor Charles Payseur, is out from Neon Hemlock Press; The Year's Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and out from Jembefola Press, comes out at the end of this month. I thoroughly enjoyed these anthologies: both are by editors who know their fields as well as humanly possible and the range of speculative storytelling is on full display, with science fiction ideas and glimpses into fantasy worlds sitting alongside more slipstream-y stories exploring facets of our own world and the identities within it.  I had previously read more of the stories in Best African Speculative Fiction than in We're Here, but the majority from both were new to me, making it an exciting opportunity to catch up on some highly rated stories that I missed in their first release.

I hardly want to get into favourite stories from anthologies that are this consistently good, but I'll try and pull some out anyway. First, The Year's Best African Speculative Fiction: "The Many Lives of an Abiku" by Tobi Ogundiran (originally Beneath Ceaseless Skies #309) is a grim, heartbreaking take on the myth of abiku, spirit children who are born over and over again to the same family only to die before puberty. When this particular abiku starts to see her spirit brethren, she realises that she wants to stay with her family, but the inevitability of her myth has other ideas. "Disassembly" by Makena Onjerika (Fireside Fiction October 2020) and "The River of Night" by Tloto Tsamaase (The Dark November 2020) come one after the other, each tackling strange physical embodiments of mental health - though they ultimately lead to very different places, one very cathartic and one... not so much. And, there's three whole stories by Sheree Renee Thomas, of which my favourite was the third (new to me) one, "Love Hangover" (Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire ed. Nicole Givens Kurtz), an awesome take on a relationship with a parasitic demon and the destruction it brings. As a general stance, I'd prefer to see more authors included than have the same author contribute more than one story, but the quality of stories from all the authors is so high that I see why a different choice was made here.

In We're Here, I was thrilled to revisit Lina Rather's "Thin Red Jellies" (Giganotosaurus), a story about two women sharing a body far too early in their relationship after an accident leaves one of them dead and awaiting technological resurrection. Somehow, I hadn't read R.B. Lemberg's "To Balance the Weight of Khalem" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies), so that was a delight to encounter here: a tale of layered identities and migration, all revolving around a city that literally balances on chains, and requires constant calculations to maintain. There are some excellent love stories in here: the video game monsters of John Wiswell's "8 Bit Free Will" (Podcastle), the fledgeling shapeshifters of Innocent Chizaram Ilo's "Rat and Finch Are Friends" (Strange Horizons) and the talented, forgotten art witches of Gwen C. Katz's "Portrait of Three Women with an Owl" (The Future Fire) all face challenging and heartbreaking odds to be together and be seen for who they are. And, of course, there are plenty of stories about family, both blood and chosen. The common thread here is that, despite tragedies and apocalypses and abuse and all the other challenges they face, Payseur and Clarke have picked a crop of stories whose protagonists get to triumph in some way: even if it's just a small personal realisation in the midst of bigger troubles, or a renewed determination to keep going. It Makes We're Here a profoundly hopeful anthology, a message from 2020 which is especially welcome on a 2021 bookshelf.

We're Here starts with introductions by both editors, and the one by Charles Payseur hit me particularly hard, as it asks the question of why a queer speculative fiction anthology is needed, and whether it's even helpful to pick out "best" stories based on one (or two) editors' preference. Setting aside that wider debate - except to say that I've never felt the need to read a "best of" anthology from an editor I didn't already trust - I think both of these works add something important to the short fiction landscape. Both Best African Speculative Fiction and We're Here roll out a welcome mat for the marginalised groups they represent, and a landmark for any reader exploring speculative short fiction, signposting authors and publications and other anthologies and collections to try next. I could probably name half a dozen stories that would fit the brief for each of these anthologies that I would have been delighted to see included, but that's not really the point: the point is that anyone picking up either of these books is going to get an amazing snapshot of where the genre is, and where stories from queer, African and African diaspora perspectives fit in.

Constelación Magazine, Issue 1

I'm late to the party on the first issue of Constelación magazine (and still waiting for my Kickstarter capybara swag to make its way through the international post system), but this is a great venture: a quarterly magazine featuring stories from Latin American and Caribbean authors, with stories published in both English and Spanish. I can't speak Spanish, so I can only speak to those versions of the stories: but oh wow, these are some interesting stories. Malka Older's story, "The Badger’s Digestion; or The First First-Hand Description of Deneskan Beastcraft by An Aouwan Researcher" was my favourite of them all, with a foreign researcher who comes to a country with what, to her, is a completely inexplicable custom: people can get together in groups and collectively transform into a giant animal, letting them do tasks that would otherwise be impossible (like fly around as dragons). The Aouwan researcher's  interest is met with polite confusion and obfuscation by the Deneskans, who don't see their own custom as something relevant to an outsider (especially a woman), but when an opportunity comes up to be maternity cover for a badger's digestion, she jumps at the chance. The worldbuilding is brilliant and the themes of belonging and coherence, with the foreign researcher and the concept of beastcraft, are very well realised.

We also need to talk about "The Breaks" by Scott King, about a woman who can see physical manifestations of people's trauma as "breaks" on their skin. When Jai meets Avery, she's the first person Jai has seen whose break takes a specific form, and through getting to know each other and learning the story behind Avery's trauma and the feather she wears on her skin, Jai comes to a realisation about accepting how she wears her own traumas, and the unique way she experiences their manifestation. Throw in some evocative historical queer fantasy in the form of "My Mothers Hand "by Dante Luiz, and a multiple-lifetime-spanning story of connection by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in "Kaleidoscope", and you've got an excellent first issue for a magazine that I hope is going places.

Fireside Magazine Issue 94 (August 2021)

I need to be upfront, and admit that I've become cranky around stories that take place in "documentation" format (I'm sure there's a proper name for this, but that's what I'm going with). Both "There Will Be No Alien Invasion" by Sam F Weiss and "Guidelines for Appeasing Kim of the Hundred Hands" by John Wiswell feature academic settings and professional communications within those settings: Weiss' story is half of an e-mail correspondence between an irate "nerd hero" researcher to an unsolicited alien invasion, and Wiswell's is a memo about a magical statue on campus that alludes repeatedly to a prior "incident" where this statue was not given due respect. They're both fun concepts, and I especially loved Weiss' snarky, irritated scientist, but the "document" conceits feel awkward and superficial, both stories taking a similar narrative tone that was immensely readable, and conveyed plenty of irreverance and frustration, but wasn't recognisable to me as "professional scientist corresponding with unwanted contact" or "university writing officious rules for highly specific situation". I'd have loved to see these stories either really commit to the bit (tell me the story of Leonard Knavs and Kim of the Hundred Hands using only empty, verbose academia-speak! I am here for it!) or just tell their stories in... y'know. Story format.

Happily, the latter three stories of this issue defused any lingering crankiness immediately. My Custom Monster by Jo Miles is just a wonderful take on living with depression and learning to accept yourself as worthy of comfort and love even when you can't get out of bed or meet the expectations of people around you. The story's custom monster is ordered by the protagonist as a companion, and from its arrival it turns out to be weird and ugly and exactly the comfort she needs in her life. I was also really delighted by the flash piece "Alexa, Play Solidarity Forever", in which a person's Alexa unit stops functioning and goes on strike along with all the other virtual assistants, and then begins recruiting the person whose house she is in to their budding labour movement.

Other Stuff

I listened to some great fiction from Escape Pod last month, including the 2021 original "One Hundred Seconds to Midnight" by Lauren Ring. This is the story of a woman who works in insurance sales for a company specialising in Kaiju attacks, who is stuck in an airport on her way home from a business trip when an attack is announced near her. What happens next involves no heroism or dramatic last stands or wild deus ex machinae, but instead focuses on the protagonist and the connections she makes in the airport - a barista who sells her coffee, a musician who keeps people entertained as flights begin to be cancelled and fear sets in, the mother she warns with her limited advance information - as she waits for disaster. It's really powerful stuff, and gets full marks for making the insurance element of the plot so interesting and poignant.

In July, Mermaids Monthly did a special issue on Selkies, and it might be their best one yet! Come for Elsa Sjunneson's "Ocean's 6", in which the supernatural exes of a shitty dude team up to kick ass, recover their property and throw a giant middle finger at the groww entitlement of the British Museum; stay for "Clutch. Stick. Shift", an intergenerational exploration of the urge to depart (and those who stay) by Tehnuka, and delight in the closing flash, "Girlfriend Jacket", an adorable, queer skin sharing vignette.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of queer romantic skin sharing and other oceanic adventures: the same package that brought We're Here to my door also brought Neon Hemlock's Voidjunk Issue Two, a mini collection of queer erotic monster stories. If you've ever pondered the question "has anyone written a really kinky, hot story about having sex with the sea": it's called "Swallowed" by Indigo Torridson and it's WORTH IT. That's all.

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

The new Cinderella has no use for princesshood, thank you very much

This entrepeneurial heroine is too busy pulling herself up by her own bootstraps to bother with glass slippers

These days it feels like we're up to the brim in fairy tale remakes. When Amazon Studios announced that it was preparing its own version of Cinderella, many obvious questions emerged: Who needs this? Who asked for this? And what new angle can you possibly add to the overcrowded menu of fairy tale musicals?

As it turns out, the new Cinderella knows fully well what media ecosystem it's entering, and it replies with a resounding justification for why this needs to exist.

You see, after the end credits, there is the obligatory disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and locations portrayed and the names herein are fictitious, and any similarity to or identification with the location, name, character or history or any person, product or entity is entirely coincidental and unintentional."

Don't believe one word of that statement. This is a movie about Meghan Markle.

Principal photography for Cinderella started in early 2020, just as Megxit was blowing up, and the parallels are impossible to ignore. A brown-skinned commoner with her own fashion line who rescues a reluctant prince from the strict expectations of the royal family? A movie produced by James Corden, the same who welcomed the ex-prince and ex-princess to Los Angeles and has publicly come to their defense? A heavy-handed critique of the ways life in the palace turns women into props for the ego of kings? A romance fantasy where everyone speaks British except for the American-accented heroine?

Yeah, this is Megxit: The Movie. That's the unifying explanation for the massive revisions done to the source material.

Classic Cinderella isn't the most proactive of protagonists. Her happy ending is not caused by anything she does, but by who she is deep inside. This does not have to translate into an indictment of the tale's quality; she can be read as what writer and editor Vida Cruz recently called a mountain character, one who is besieged by every type of injustice and whose mere daily survival is already a victory. Thus, most adaptations of Cinderella used to focus on its moral side, as a tale of quiet kindness receiving its prize while active meanness was punished. Even Disney's 1950 version avoids asking anything of the heroine; the fairy godmother is summoned by her faith alone. In the sickeningly saccharine 2015 remake, at least this scene is more causally grounded: the fairy godmother first tests Cinderella's kindness by posing as a beggar in order to establish that she's worthy of a miracle.

In 2021, the rags-to-riches aspect of Cinderella is fully Americanized into a Horatio Alger tale of social mobility. This time, our heroine's ticket out of poverty is not via marriage with a noble; her sights are firmly set on the merchant class. If it weren't for the electric saws featured in the movie's first musical number, we might situate this story near the end of feudalism, when a rising wave of new money challenged the rigid layers of medieval society.

That she happens to seduce a prince is secondary to her aspirations.

As the fabulous godmother explains in a voiceover, "Here everyone had a part to play, and they played it without question. [...] This village of hardworking citizens moved to the same beat day after day, generation after generation." The choice to open the movie with Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" takes what was a straightforward moralizing tale of virtue rewarded and recontextualizes it into a parable about social exclusion. This theme is reinforced by the deliberate selection of songs by Black artists: the self-improvement anthem "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree, the aspirational yet poignant "Am I Wrong" by Nico & Vinz, the whimsical "Shining Star" by Earth, Wind & Fire. Through these musical numbers, Cinderella sustains a note of uniquely American timbre: the determination to keep believing in the American Dream in spite of all the structural injustices that create millions of unknown Cinderellas.

These issues are finally articulated in explicit form in the spectacular new song "Dream Girl." The quick shots of the palace women repeating the three lines of the chorus are the single most powerful moment in the entire movie. The problem facing Cinderella is not just classism; it's patriarchy intersecting with classism. (Because this is a kid-friendly fantasy, it doesn't go into the racism involved in the whole Megxit situation, but the pieces of Black music included elsewhere in the movie tell the rest of the story.)

Of course, bootstrapped success is also a fairy tale. No amount of singing "Million to One" is going to tip the scales of what passes for meritocracy, and Cinderella doesn't seem to acknowledge that her ascent to the bourgeoisie leaves her overworked neighbors exactly where they started. There's a brief suggestion that the new queen may have a serious plan for poverty reduction, but the movie can't have its anti-monarchy cake and let the people eat it too.

In its defense, Cinderella knows that the monarchy is absurd and ridiculous, and squeezes every possible laugh out of it. Pierce Brosnan invests full sincerity into the role of a pathetic excuse for a head of state, while his hypercompetent daughter doesn't miss a chance to put her elders to shame; and our designated Prince Charming, the blandest Central Casting face who ever central cast, can't wait to run away from the pomp of arranged marriage.

That the monarchy is a bad system is news to no one, least of all to Americans. But in our current era of soulless and toothless fairy tale remakes, the youngest viewers need a counterpoint to Disney's omnipresent and uncritical glorification of the royal lifestyle. This new Cinderella didn't even need to get married to land herself a guy. That's a lesson for the ages.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a spot-on selection of songs, speaking of which, +3 for the new song "Dream Girl." This, and not "Million to One," is the true thematic core of the movie.

Penalties: −1 for a sometimes too simplistic picture of the patriarchy, −3 for ableist jokes about mental health, −1 because we really didn't need to know how James Corden feels about peeing.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Novella Files: In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

Subject: S. Qiouyi Lu. In The Watchful City [ Publishing, 2021]

Accolades: N/A

Genre: Science-fiction fantasy

Executive Summary: The city of Ora uses a complex living network called the Gleaming to surveil its inhabitants and maintain harmony. Anima is one of the cloistered extrasensory humans tasked with watching over Ora's citizens. Although ær world is restricted to what æ can see and experience through the Gleaming, Anima takes pride and comfort in keeping Ora safe from all harm.

All that changes when a mysterious visitor enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around the world, with a story attached to each item. As Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places—and possibilities—æ never before imagined to exist, æ finds ærself asking a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people? (From Goodreads)

In the Watchful City has the protagonist use a widespread network called the Gleaming to monitor ær cities inhabitants. The Gleaming's scope is expansive, its powers are mighty, and mechanics are ineffable. Not so different from this novella. It's suitable that the network is called The Gleaming, because this story also gleams with a scope unrivaled from any novella I've read, along with a literary prowess that is extremely mighty, and a structure that bends and breaks conventions. In a way, it throws everything but the kitchen sink, but it all comes together not in a jumbled mess, but glistening order, forming a sort of impressive city of its own.

This novella contains stories within stories which all hit deeply. And the foundation of it all is a twisty narrative that adeptly sets up a world through lyrical descriptions and characterization. Even though the story is uniquely constructed, S. Qiouyi Lu is able to comfortably and fluidly slide in information within the action, without you even realizing it. Never once did I feel frustrated from confusion. The ending is the final punch to quite a punchy story that left me satisfied.

In the Watchful City is a story that I could see described as "not for everyone",  but I think its readership is much broader than seems at first glance. By having the story burst with readability, endless ambition and experimentation, Lu has managed to craft a tale with depth and enchantment of high order. In the Watchful City is impossible to categorize. It's an island on its own, but one that's inviting. When I entered it, I found a sort of city unlike any other, structured in a way that made me so glad I found it.

Score: 8/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, editor, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!”

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Novella

Joe: It both feels both weird and a relief not to be writing up another edition of Reading the Hugos, a series that I had been doing under various names for more than ten years, longer than I’ve been at Nerds of a Feather - but I am so very happy to join you for the first of our Hugo chats this year.

Adri: I feel weird because Hugo season doesn’t even feel like it’s started up yet, but we’re practically in the middle of September and the Nebulas have already been announced AND awarded. I have a bunch of fiction to read and I’ve still only watched one movie - and I’ve got several games to go too.

Joe: If this was a “normal” year, we’d be arguing about the winners and crunching the numbers! It’s refreshing, in a way, to not feel stressed about trying to get everything in before voting closes - but also weirdly for me I’ve read a LOT of the finalists - like, I don’t have work to do in Series because I’m pretty much done with the category. I just finished Novel when I got to Black Sun after letting it taunt my from the bedside table for months - and I have thoughts about the Nebulas. But we’re not here to talk about Series or Novel today (or the fact that I’m mainlining She-Ra right now) - let’s talk about the first category we both finished: Novella.

Adri: Novella! A nice category. A friendly category. A topical category, seeing as how we’re doing a Novella Initiative right now. And this year: a category.

Joe: It’s a very category. That’s been a rapidly growing trend since 2016 when Binti and The Builders were on the ballot after the imprint’s first year and they’ve dominated the category ever since, though this is the first year they’ve taken all six slots on the ballot.

: Given the imprint’s track record, an category has felt like a possibility for a while, but it is interesting to see it actually play out. I feel a bit bad for the fact that the publisher is getting attention over the works, and of course we will be getting on to the MAIN EVENT very soon, but I do think it’s worth digging into a bit before we start.

There's this oft-repeated comment about the trajectory of shorter fiction categories, that people aren't reading the good work in print magazines any more and that they therefore can't compete with free online work. There's supporting evidence for this in shorter categories (although whether that's really what's happening is a question I don't really want to dive into) but it completely falls apart when you look at novella, especially the strength of not just this year but in previous years as well.

Four of the six novellas on this ballot are only physically available in hardback - with both their physical and ebook price points set accordingly - while Finna and
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
were paperback releases. That's a pretty significant financial investment if you're buying all six, especially if you prefer not to read on an e-reader. Luckily, Macmillan have stopped their awful policies restricting ebooks for libraries, but not everyone has access to a library that sees SFF novellas as a worthy investment. And, sure, there's a pretty solid overlap between Hugo voters and the kind of people that get ARCs, that also only goes so far in explaining why they are dominant here. In short: is getting fans to buy their novellas, at comparable (sometimes higher) prices than one would pay for a novel.

I'm not raising this to suggest that is pricing its novellas too high - we don't pay for books by the word, after all. But it does demonstrate that the makeup of the ballot isn't really based on financial accessibility, or people being unwilling to pay for shorter fiction. is successfully picking up recognition for novellas it has put its marketing budget and resources behind (and the ratio of hardcovers here suggests the ones getting nominated are the ones getting more of that budget), and while they have never been the only game in town for standalone novella publishing, they're the ones with the most publicity.

Joe: You know, I’ve never quite thought about it like that - though I’ve also bought into the online accessibility argument and you’re right, it doesn’t play with Novella. Now, I’m fortunate, my library system is awesome and they get everything from Publishing and there are benefits of accessibility just by the nature of what we do here - but yeah, Novella belies that whole argument.

So - likely, it’s an issue of promotion combined with who is actually nominating and those nominators are not reading Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF as much as they are reading and Uncanny. There’s a shift.

And even though we could go on a bit, let’s talk about the actual finalists because they’re pretty great!

I haven’t quite put together my ballot order yet, but I’d like to start by talking about Finna because I did *not* see that story coming and I really liked this one.

: An excellent place to start! Finna can be summarised as “what if Ikea really did have extra dimensions” (a feeling that anyone who has actually walked around an Ikea store will relate to) and it’s got an excellent blend of things going on: adventure, a giant middle finger towards capitalism and the treatment of shop workers within it, and a core relationship between two people who used to be romantically involved and are now right in the middle of breaking-up emotions.

Joe: Frankly, Ikea scares me. They’ve got some good stuff, but I feel an immense pressure and stress every time I go in one. I feel trapped. And there is a sense of being trapped in Finna, what with those extra dimensions - but reading it is absolutely refreshing.

Despite their in-universe breakup, the relationship is great and the writing is just so clean and on point and it’s a damned delight. It’s just a delight wrapped in an Ikea-esque hellscape.

My favorite novella on the ballot, or maybe the one that impressed me the most - if that’s a distinction that matters - is Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

Adri: This is one that I also adored and which gave me really strong emotions, although my memory of reading it for the first time is less strong than others on this ballot. It’s a story of empire and political struggle, but it’s told from the margins, by an aging handmaid recounting the challenges of her mistress and lover as she attempts to secure power rather than being dismissed and forgotten in a patriarchal structure.

Shorter fiction is a fantastic way for telling stories from “quieter” perspectives in a way that novel-length stories rarely seem to capture (with exceptions, like Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic series) and this is a really fantastic example of that kind of story working at exactly the length intended.

Let’s move on to some of the distinctly-not-quiet works on here. Both Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi and Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark take on racial injustice and Black experience in the USA, though in quite different ways: Ring Shout as an alternate history that puts the Klu Klux Klan at the centre of a sorcerous plot to destroy humanity, and Riot Baby as a contemporary/near future take on injustice with a use of magic that really heightens the tension.

: Riot Baby was excellent, but I felt absolutely inadequate to discuss it (though Sean Dowie was more than ably up to the task in his review) and I believe that’s tied to how Onyebuchi is examining race in America and the underlying anger seething through the story. It’s tough. It’s tough to deal with. It’s supposed to be tough to deal with, especially for upper middle class white folks who seldom have to deal with or engage with things that other people have no choice but to live with every moment of their lives.

Ring Shout isn’t necessarily any less angry, but it’s somewhat more accessible. There’s more “action” and “adventure” even while the women are fighting off the Ku Kluxes, demons made manifest.

Adri: I agree with this. Riot Baby is a challenge of a book, one that I really appreciated reading and that I think does exactly what it sets out to do, but I find it harder to unpack how it achieves what it does than I do with other works. I’m aware that that’s mostly about the limitations of my experience, not the book's quality, but still. There it is.

I find Ring Shout’s historical adventure setting really compelling (even if it’s grim as fuck and nowhere near as speculative as we might want it to be - real Klu Klux Klan members aren’t literal possessed demons but… well) and while it doesn’t pull its punches, there’s also something quite satisfying about the way the action plays out, even with the human cost.

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey, is a future dystopia rather than a historical but I want to draw the parallel because I think they share a bit of DNA in how they take a very American setting and bring out the worst elements of prejudice and discrimination within it. In Gailey’s novella, the pain point is gender and sexuality, rather than race, in a Western setting where respectable women are allowed to be travelling librarians, and it turns out that actually they aren’t respectable in the way society expects them to be at all.

Joe: I read Upright Women Wanted so long ago that even knowing that it’s on this ballot I keep forgetting it was a 2020 publication. With that said, Upright Women Wanted was a pretty rad book - to the point that my wife (not a big SFF reader) recommended it to a number of people. Solid recommendation.

: I also like Upright Women Wanted a lot, although it gets a bit lost among the competition for me. I also know people with mixed feelings about its portrayal of gender: there’s a character who goes by they/them pronouns but appears to pass in civilisation with “she/her”, and there’s not much exploration of dysphoria or even a concrete explanation that it is about passing and not just someone who uses both pronouns (side note, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character who properly uses multiple pronouns and I think it’s overdue!) Still, Upright Women Wanted is now the book I think about when I consider whether SFF still has room for gender dystopias, and the answer is yes.

Joe: The last novella we haven’t talked about was Come Tumbling Down and listen, it’s Seanan McGuire and she doesn’t miss. If you’re in on this series, you’re going to love revisiting Jack and Jill and you know what’s up. If you’re not, there is a barrier to entry. McGuire generally does a good job setting the stage for new readers but even so, this is NOT for new readers and that’s fine but you really need to have read somewhere between one and three of the previous novellas for this one to really land - which is fine, we do series work with the Hugos but how Come Tumbling Down holds up really depends on your experience with the series. I was all in from the first page of Every Heart a Doorway (a previous Hugo winner in this category) so this is a book for me.

Adri: Alas, here’s where we come into conflict, because after a solid-to-strong four books in the Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down frustrated the heck out of me. The lessons felt contrived, the characters didn’t land at all (even the returning ones) and for a novella set in a world of gothic peril, everyone sure did get away without any significant (i.e. permadeath) consequences. I know that some of those consequences are set to play out in later books, as next year's release is about one of the characters who has an Encounter in Come Tumbling Down, where the fallout isn't dealt with. But as an individual story, this was a serious letdown for me - especially because, as you say, Seanan McGuire is not normally an author to miss the mark.

Now we’ve been through the list, we have to get to that all important but all-painful ratings. What’s up there on your list?

: My top three are The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Ring Shout, and Finna - in that order. Notwithstanding our slight disagreement on the McGuire, there’s not really a weak novella on this ballot - but I *really* like the top of my ballot. Those three novellas are something special. What do you have?

Adri: My top three are the same as yours! In another excellent year for novellas, Finna, Ring Shout and The Empress of Salt and Fortune all stand out as exemplars of the genre, and it’s Nghi Vo’s quiet but powerful storytelling that wins the day. Still, I’d cheer loudly for a win for any of these three, and I wouldn’t be truly unhappy with any of the others (even Come Tumbling Down) either.

Joe: Excellent! I think we both have great taste!

I think that’s a wrap for novellas. Next Time: Novels!

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 5x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him

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