Thursday, December 30, 2021

We hear you, 'Don't Look Up.' We're tired of the end of the world too

Not even this dark comedy about the stress of disaster prevention could match the absurd incompetence of our real world leaders

Every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored. It's less common for a disaster movie to continue and end with the scientist still being ignored, but that's the kind of world we live in now.

Don't Look Up, the latest film by writer and director Adam McKay, narrates the quest of two astronomers to warn the world about an imminent danger: a comet is on a direct course to hit our planet, it can kill everything that lives, and we're running out of time. In terrifyingly believable fashion, the government and the media are more concerned about how the end of the world affects their stock value and poll numbers than, you know, the end of the world. The film was originally conceived as a satire of inaction against global warming, but at the end of the second year of a devastating pandemic, it hits even harder.

Don't Look Up takes delight in mocking the vulgar banality of rating culture. Every character in a position of power has their priorities backwards, but this movie doesn't lose sight of the way our choices as consumers and as voters have been feeding those twisted priorities. The plot is science fiction, but a news cycle where celebrity breakups get more attention than human survival, a political system where disaster prevention is perversely timed for electoral advantage, a billionaire class willing to burn the world for more profit, and an internet where life-saving science is ridiculed by charlatans are not fictional at all.

In the film, as in our world, basic standards of scientific rigor are ignored for the sake of appearances, politicians turn matters of life and death into catchy slogans to ramp up partisan support, media strategists distort the facts because it doesn't look good to scare the public, and the only experts who can help solve the crisis are reduced to frantic rants on television as viewers yawn and click away.

Drowned as we are in alternative facts, it's exhausting to stand on the side of reality. Yes, global warming is happening, and yes, it's our fault, and yes, we should replace individual cars with mass public transportation. That's a fact. Yes, the coronavirus can kill you, and yes, you should still be wearing a mask, and yes, you need to get vaccinated. That's a fact. We're sick of talking to a void of smug, willful ignorance. (A few reviewers have had the outrageous nerve to say that no, this movie is the smug one.) Experts have tried all conceivable ways to get the message across, and yet reactionary pundits get to shout louder, because reptilian overlords and poisonous chemtrails get more online engagement. We'd be on our way out of the pandemic by now if our own governments hadn't contributed to making it worse time and time and time and time and time and time again.

There's no happy ending in Don't Look Up, because of course there isn't, because the people in charge are so selfish and callous that they deserve to blow up in a shower of raging lava. As for us here in reality, we don't know what other methods to use to get the world to take existential threats seriously. That's a point that critics of this movie have missed: of course it's crass, and unsubtle, and moralizing, and aggressive, because scientists have already tried civilized patience without success, and it's not a movie's job to give them the solution. Sometimes, the catharsis of watching the end finally come is a respite from the stagnation we're in. In such irrational times as these, the rational choice may be to yell in desperation.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the eerie prescience with which this movie coincided with the real world's disastrous indifference for the COVID crisis.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

In 'Resurrections,' the toxic legacy of 'The Matrix' is the new villain to defeat

The Matrix Resurrections knows you came for the cool kung fu, but the big reveal of this sequel is that The Matrix was never about the cool kung fu

Lana Wachowski is very much aware of how dangerous it was to ask for another Matrix movie.

In the first scene of The Matrix Resurrections, a self-professed fan of Neo watches a deliberately inaccurate remake of The Matrix, one where the female lead loses. Then this fan intrudes into the narrative, rescues one of her heroes, and exits a movie theater, running for her life.

The title of the movie she's desperately fleeing? The Root of All Evil.

What, pray tell, is the root of all evil? The love of money.

That's the horror Resurrections is trying to avoid, and despite its corporately mandated existence, it manages to not lose itself.

The movie keeps a close eye on this danger. One level upward, the original creator of The Matrix detects this invasion of the narrative. One of his characters is missing, but before he can deal with that, he's summoned by his boss, who tells him he's going to have to produce another entry in his videogame franchise. The boss drops a few commonplace lines about the nature of storytelling and authorship, but as soon as he mentions marketing, the scene turns surreal and monstrous. His lips dissolve and blend together, recalling the interrogation scene in The Matrix. In the original movie, this represents that Neo doesn't really have a voice of his own as long as he remains within the system. It happens just after he says he's going to call for help. This time, it happens just after the boss mentions the company's marketing department. Wachowski is making a very conscious choice by reusing this visual marker for the loss of voice right at the moment in the scene where the moneymaking potential of the new Matrix sequel is being discussed. It is unsubtle, because it needs to be, so unsubtle that the Analyst spells it out in the next scene: if Wachowski cared about the marketing, she'd lose her storyteller voice.

One shot in that scene with the Analyst shows us a window in his office with a bonsai positioned between him and Neo. The bonsai is an appropriate symbol for what he's done to Neo: a creature who could be much bigger, deliberately warped and mutilated and limited to an unnaturally small container. The purpose of growing a bonsai is to imitate the shape of the real tree, but within a controlled space. As the boss casually remarked a moment earlier, "We're still telling the same stories we've always told, just with different names, different faces."

The cheapened approach to storytelling involved in WB's demand for a new Matrix is reproduced with gleeful spite in the movie itself. Neo's coworkers hold a strategic meeting to plan the new videogame sequel, dropping "originality" and "fresh" as keywords, failing to grasp that turning them into keywords negates their meaning. The montage that follows has supposed creatives repeating the same trite explanations of the charm of the original Matrix, having the exact same conversations day after day. Neo, the story's creator, is clearly sick of hearing it. But the best part is the contrarian fan who says, "I didn't love the first one, like some of you. And, frankly, I've got zero tolerance for anything that requires a syllabus and a highlighter. I like my games big, loud, and dumb." Another developer continues that thought with "We need guns. Lots of guns." That's a very popular quote from the original Matrix, and the fact that it became a very popular quote is an example of how fans chose the wrong bits to fixate on. Naturally, it's a woman who counters this testosterone-poisoned brainstorming with "Mindless action is not on brand," but as soon as she says that, her point is cynically twisted into "Ideas are the new sexy." It's a disturbing montage to watch, because the notion itself is disturbing. You can't focus group your way to art, and it's futile to try to make The Matrix great again. The result would be a grotesque deformation of the real thing, like the bonsai in the Analyst's office.

So that's what Wachowski proceeds to give us. "Yet here we are" is something of a motif in Resurrections, uttered twice by characters intrigued by their incongruous presence in the story. You wanted one more Matrix movie, with the same heroes you loved as a kid? You realize that would mean dragging Neo and Trinity back from their corpses and enslaving them again? Come and see what that actually entails. You want a callback to Morpheus pausing dramatically to say "At last!"? That would be ridiculous. If you must have it, there, have it. But it can never hope to be more than off-color mockery, so it's a mockery that openly accepts it's a mockery. You want a repeat of Agent Smith ominously screaming "Mr. Anderson!"? That would be ridiculous. If you must have it, there, have it. But it can't be more than a half-remembered nightmare, so it's a nightmare that openly accepts it's a nightmare. It's not that Wachowski is trying and failing to remake a Matrix movie; she's still a master-level director. But she knows that The Matrix is unique and that WB's insistence upon its recreation must produce a confusing parody, a chaos of bullets and gore. So she embraces the parody. This is the opposite of what we saw in Space Jam: A New Legacy. If this first act of Resurrections feels like bad fanfiction of The Matrix, it's entirely intentional. After Neo and Trinity earned their victory at the end of Revolutions, it would be a vile desecration of these characters to make another Matrix, and to make another Matrix. That's exactly the point. The scene where Morpheus and Smith start destroying Neo's workplace is so outlandish that the Analyst has to step in and undo it. Scratch that. It doesn't work.

Wachowski's brilliance is to then proceed to show us what kind of story does work, given this mandatory ridiculous premise. You wanted exquisitely choreographed gunfights? Too bad, you're not getting that. You wanted a fearless hacker dude with a great haircut and a wicked trenchcoat? Nope, not that either. You wanted the stylized dance of dead bodies dropping? Nah. That was never the point of The Matrix anyway. And we've already seen what happens when people mistake aesthetic for substance, when the meaning is so coated in layers that it can be smuggled into serving the enemy. Wachowski is determined to not let anyone distort her creation this time. Yes, Resurrections is woke as hell. That's the whole point; The Matrix was always woke. But people were too distracted by the shiny sunglasses and vinyl jackets to get it. Even the Analyst is recruited to deliver the message: "it becomes a problem when fantasies endanger us or other people."

Wachowski has been taking notes on the colossal effect her creation has had on mass culture. In the simulated world, coworker Jude proclaims his love for The Matrix, but Neo couldn't care less. It's this annoying fan, coded as a lowkey predatory gamer bro, who literally drags him to reunite with Trinity. In a later scene, once Neo has escaped back into the real world, he meets another fervent fan in Berg, coded and written as unmistakably queer, and this time the encounter feels genuine. Wachowski is telling us exactly which fans she's talking to. She has no time to lose with red pill charlatans.

The conflict between the machines and the humans appears to have been translated in Resurrections into a conflict between neofascists who parasitize the message of The Matrix and the rest of us. The surviving humans in Resurrections have developed a sort of fan culture around the epic story of Zion's salvation. Crew member Lexy joined the rebellion because she felt inspired by Trinity. Captain Bugs was set on the path to freedom when she glimpsed Neo's true self.

It's worthwhile to discuss Bugs, because what she perhaps represents is more significant than the Alice in Wonderland reference. Bugs Bunny is the visible incarnation of WB, or at least the benevolent face of it. If we read the character of Bugs as the good side of WB, we get a more complete sense of what Wachowski is trying to say about her relationship to this media megacorporation. By writing a story where Neo is oppressed by WB marketing, but rescued by Bugs Bunny, she's choosing to focus on however much joy she can get out of an impossible situation. If Matrix 4 was going to happen regardless of her input, the choice still open to her was to have fun and be true to herself while doing it.

The next time Bugs reenters the original film, it's through a tear in the image, as if to say: Clearly reenactment didn't work, so let's try ripping a hole in The Matrix and see if something new can fit. Once again she's in a movie theater, but this time she's not running from a mediocre copy, but breaking her own path back into the true thing. The scenes of The Matrix projected onto a broken canvas are matched to playful dialogue by the new Morpheus, who doesn't bother trying to replicate the majesty of the original scene. You already know this scene. You don't need to watch it done the same way again. You don't need a remake of The Matrix. You've been here before.

Indeed, the new Matrix doesn't look like The Matrix. Faces are still lit with just the right intensity of shadow and contrast that you recognize as Wachowski house style, but the use of camera motions, color correction, and scene cuts has a warmer, gentler air to them. When operators talk to the human rebels, or when Neo talks to the Analyst through a mirror, Wachowski employs the same visual language of telepresence she perfected in Sense8. The emphasis is no longer on cool poses and slow motion acrobatics; instead, she casts a more intimate, more affectionate eye on these characters. There are fights, sure, but they're meticulously designed to not give you what you learned to expect from a Matrix fight. The new combat scenes look messy, ugly, disorienting, because violence is messy, ugly, disorienting. Resurrections isn't here to feed your inner kid's power fantasy of looking awesome shooting guns, because there really isn't anything awesome about shooting guns. You're supposed to get uncomfortable with violence.

And yet, here we are. The numerous comparisons to The Last Jedi are fully earned: our hero has grown weary of war and learned the folly of viewing the conflict that defined his life as a rigid binary opposition. The meaning of "our side" has become more fluid. This was, in a clever way, foreshadowed all the way back in Neo's first visit to the Oracle, when Morpheus advised him, "Try not to think of it in terms of right and wrong." And even when Neo is forced back into combat, his style of martial arts has become far less aggressive, not meant to fight what he hates, but to save what he loves. He's become a protector. Niobe even compares the dulling effect of war to the illusion of the Matrix: it distracts you from what matters. Wachowski did not revive Neo to have him fight a war; she brought him back to explore his vulnerability and his tenderness. If this is not the Neo you used to root for, too bad. This is the part of Neo that matters. And Wachowski does a fascinating dissection of what it is that makes the character of Neo special.

In the simulation, Trinity's fictional husband is a walking joke. He's not only called Chad, but played by the original stunt double for Keanu Reeves in the original Matrix. So this Chad is literally the part of Neo that kicked ass, the stoic macho, the action movie star. But now he exists separated from the core essence of Neo, which is not his kung fu moves, but his humanity. To incel radicals, this ought to be the ideal state: all of Neo's awesomeness, none of his feelings. And that's precisely what Wachowski treats as horrific. For who knows how many years, Trinity has been stuck with the Chad, and she can't wait to run away from him and what he represents. At one point she complains about the role the system has given her: "I remember wanting family, but was that because that's what women are supposed to want?" This is the equivalent of screaming the message in the viewer's face, because people evidently didn't get it twenty years ago: No, the oppressive system you need to wake up from is not feminism. The oppresive system you need to wake up from is patriarchy. Memo to the manosphere: Chad, the quintessential incarnation of toxic masculinity, is the enemy here. Get it? Trinity's moment of liberation is to kick the crap out of Chad. Get it? Are we being clear and unambiguous enough now? Or are you going to search for some way to pervert this franchise's message to justify rubbish incel theories again?

Wachowski knows all the complaints the manosphere will throw at this new Matrix. And she puts them in the mouth of the blabbering buffoon: the Merovingian, who sputters nonsensical protestations like "We had grace! We had style!" about the previous state of the Matrix. The movie's response: Go home, old man. No one cares about your nostalgia. At the end, the Analyst points out, speaking about the general public, "They don't want this sentimentality." The movie's response: Two lovers, hand in hand, flying in the sunshine.

Love is the perennial theme across all of Lana Wachowski's art. The Sense8 finale was appropriately titled Amor Vincit Omnia. As the Analyst properly explains, recapturing the magic of Neo is impossible without Trinity, not because of them as themselves, but because of what is created between them. And that's the secret at the core of the entire Matrix franchise: the power of the One was never about a fearless hacker dude with a great haircut and a wicked trenchcoat. The One was never an individual. The One is made from the link between human beings. It came into existence in the original Matrix when Trinity's love saved Neo's life; then it saved her life at the end of Reloaded; and it kept them going until the end of Revolutions. The answer was always love.

Let's go back to the Architect's speech in Reloaded: "Your five predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication, a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One." For the machines, love is incomprehensible, but nonetheless exploitable. The weaponization of our empathy in order to wield its power against ourselves reaches its perverse culmination in the new Matrix, which mirrors the way neofascists have weaponized the liberation symbolized by the red pill in order to promote more oppression. As Bugs reveals, "They took your story, something that meant so much to people like me, and turned it into something trivial." Or, as the Analyst gloats, "Kind of ironic, using the power that defined you to control you."

And still, the solution, again, is love. The correct choice, every time, is love. The Oracle herself said it at the end of the previous saga: "the real test for any choice is having to make the same choice again." And she said it at the beginning: "Being the One is just like being in love." She wasn't speaking in metaphors. The power of the One is literally the power of heartfelt human connection, the only thing that can truly destroy fascism.

Now keep in mind that, in the videogame The Matrix Online, the Kid forms a faction called E Pluribus Neo. It's the same idea: the One is created by the ties between us. The Analyst's evil consists in intentionally frustrating that connection, splitting their unity into a binary he can feed off of. That's what keeps preventing a better future, the one the Oracle referred to in Reloaded when she said, "the only way to get there is together." Since the original Matrix, there were strong hints that even those in charge of enforcing the tyrannical system felt oppressed by it. Resurrections brings that theme to completion, with former oppressors working together with the rebels to bring the tyranny down.

The new backstory we learn about in Resurrections, meant to have occurred after Revolutions, is in line with several pieces of official canon established years ago in the videogame The Matrix Online: the failure of Zion, Niobe's rise through the ranks of leadership, the loss of the Oracle, and the emergence of rival factions within the machines. Although we're meeting a completely new enemy, Resurrections doesn't fall into the common late sequel trap of erasing the original sequels (see: Terminator Dark Fate), but also avoids the equally clumsy trap of having the new enemy make the original heroes' fight seem pointless in retrospect (see: Terminator Dark Fate). The reinvention of Smith is in concordance with the times: the face of fascism is no longer the angry law enforcement agent, but the approachable tech bro in business casual. This is a much more insidious version of Smith, because Jonathan Groff's image, even when crumpled in a grimace of pure hatred, is undeniably seductive. Where Hugo Weaving filled the screen with loud, incontrollable rage, Groff delivers the alluring kiss of death.

This Smith is more consciously in tune with his deep connection to Neo. There's an obvious erotic current to his pursuit of him. We're no longer at the point in Resurrections where we were surprised to hear a machine speak of love, but let's remember what was said at that time: love is just a word, and "what matters is the connection the word implies." If you lose yourself, you find your way back by means of love. Even after the Oracle had to adopt a new face, the way she could tell she was still herself was by her love of candy. That you know yourself by what you love is the key to the "know thyself" motto she kept on her kitchen.

There's a curious focus on domestic spaces in Resurrections. Many scenes are set in bathrooms, the battleground of this era's culture wars. Wachowski is answering to a popular consciousness partly shaped by her own work, and it's interesting that The Matrix is transformed from a movie into a videogame in the fictional world of Resurrections. On one level, this calls back to The Matrix Online, which had a vibrant fanbase. But on another, it refers to the nature of the Matrix itself as a digital simulation of reality. Every time Neo plugs into the Matrix, it must feel like entering a videogame with administrator privileges. So it makes complete sense that that's how Neo remembers his earlier life. To him, it wasn't a movie.

This gives Wachowski a prime opportunity to comment on the degradation of digital culture. There's no need to recruit Agents when anonymous masses can be deputized as bots. The final chase scene, where Neo pushes wave after wave of bots away from Trinity's motorcycle until they miraculously survive a series of explosions, almost reads like a Twitter user desperately hitting the block button against the bots and barely making it past the ensuing flame war. It's like Wachowski knew her work of love was going to be review-bombed, so she cast the bombs as literal suicide bots dropping onto our heroes.

In the end, she doesn't have to care about them. She can be fearlessly sentimental. She can be as woke as she wants. She can tell her stories in her own voice, from her unique artistic vision. She can be open about the message of love present in all her creations. She has come into full mastery of her craft. She's ready to paint the sky with rainbows.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Monday, December 27, 2021

Six Books with Sara A Mueller

 A consummate seamstress and horsewoman, Sara A Mueller writes speculative fiction. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family, numerous recipe books, and a forest of fountain pens. In a nomadic youth, she trod the earth of every state but Alaska and lived in six of them. She’s an amateur historical costumer, gamer and cook. The Bone Orchard is her debut novel from Tor.

Today she tells us about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It has all the best halllmarks of gothic novels - remote, spooky house, weird insular family, horrible and ancient paterfamilias, crazed wife kept confined. Fog, nightmares, a once-powerful family rotting in the seat of their abusive power... and all of it is set in a culture that's inherently of the place. The ugly parts ring horribly true. The nightmares stick under your skin and make it crawl. Everything about this book is enthralling me.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Jade Legacy, by Fonda Lee. I loved the first two books in this series, and I am pretty well panting for the third one. The world is richly developed to the point that you can almost taste the air. The characters are complex, imperfect, wholly human, and wonderful. Even the ones I could throttle. Fonda's writing is gloriously evocative and silky smooth. Her combat scenes are chef's-kiss perfect... I. Can Hardly. Wait!

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

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. Alternate history is terrifyingly easy to screw up. It takes a single misstep to break the illusion of the world. Michael Chabon has done a spectacular job. The mystery works on the level of a police story, the alternate history is heartbreakingly believable, the characters are real people beset with problems large and small, and the challenges of an entire culture being uprooted. I also recommend the audiobook of this one. Peter Riegart does an amazing job as narrator. 

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

Growing up, I read a whole bunch of problematic books that to my eyes now range from 'disgusted sigh' right on up to 'Holy YIKES'. Most of them are from periods when I simply hadn't found better books - the series of small libraries I had access to had AMAZING librarians, but they didn't have massive sff sections. Heinlein, Asimov, Piers Anthony... the list is long and won't come as a shock to anybody who grew up reading sff in the 80's. And that's not to say I didn't enjoy all those books at the time; but as my reading material expanded, and my critical reading skills sharpened, I saw a broader view of the things I was reading. 

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

The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber. My father read it to me in my childhood, and I've read it to more or less everyone I can get to sit still and listen to it. It gave me my first love of beautiful language. The prose has almost-meter. The way Thurber used precision language to elevate the reader's experience is a thing that never fails to leave me wanting to do better with my own work. 

This book should be read aloud for maximum effect, and I recommend borrowing a child if you don't happen to have one handy - or read it to your pet. It is a wonder, and a delight. It has a wicked Duke, a cursed Princess, a minstrel who isn't, and a Golux. There's a Todal that might be sent to punish evil-doers for not doing as much evil as they ought. There are spies and secret doors and clocks that don't go because Time froze to death. Neil Gaiman called it "probably the best book in the world". If you don't believe me, hopefully you'll believe him!

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

The Bone Orchard is my debut, coming out March 22, 2022. Charm is a bone witch taken in the conquest of her homeland. Orchard House, her gentleman's club, has been a comfortable cage. All of Boren's politically ambitious come to... play... at Orchard House. But Charm has been the Emperor's mistress, mindlocked, for longer than most of his subjects have been alive; and they don't know her nearly as well as she knows them. As he lies dying, the Emperor tasks her to kill whomever poisoned him and to kill any of his sons who try to sit his throne. If Charm can survive, she will have her freedom. And her revenge.

Thank you, Sara!

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

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Questing in Shorts, December 2021: Winterval Edition

So, uh, where were we? My notes tell me I managed four half-sentences of reviewing for a November column before getting distracted, and that I haven't tried to review anything else since then, and this tracks with the very large reading-shaped hole in my memory (and the correspondingly large "replaying Breath of the Wild and doing a lot of other nonsense" entries). But today happens to be a significant milestone in my personal progress through time (i.e. it's my birthday, go say nice things to me), and in keeping with tradition in some parts of the world, I am here to offer you a gift. By which I mean, here's a short fiction column! It's a bit small this month, but it still contains good things! Welcome.

This being the end of December, I'd like to be able to offer some form of reading statistics or a year in review or something. Unfortunately, the choice is between not worrying about those things and doing this column regardless; or worrying about them, not doing them, not doing anything else, and not writing. If you're reading this, you know I stuck to choice 1, and the world is richer for it. Statistics are for nerds, anyway.

From the Bookshelf:

Let's kick off with anthologies! Tis the season I finally got around to reading Sunspot Jungle Volume 2, the second half of Rosarium Press' excellent, wide-ranging survey of genre. Editor Bill Campbell has picked out a set of stories from a whole host of the best current speculative fiction authors: Rebecca Roanhorse's award-winning Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience is in here, as are stories by Ken Liu, Sheree Renée Thomas, Bogi Takács, Nalo Hopkinson, and far, far too many other exciting names to list here. It's a really good collection, and I'm not going to go into picking favourites, but I will pick out two fun reading experiences. First, I enjoyed rediscovering The Language of Knives by Haralambi Markov, a story I loved enough the first time around that it went on the first Hugo ballot I ever submitted (2016, what a year!). Markov's story of grief and ritual combines powerful emotions with an intentional, razor sharp use of body horror and taboo, and the result is something that has stayed with me very strongly. Second, I got to find out that T.L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead had a short story in the world first!  I really like the premise of this world and its Ghostalkers, and it's always fun to find out that there's more in a world that you haven't experienced.

I also read Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite, a YA vampire anthology! This is not a particularly common reading area for me, but there's always interesting potential in vampire stories, and as I had picked up the anthology to read SCKA finalist "In Kind" by Kayla Whaley, I wanted to check out the rest of it as well. There's some really strong stuff here, all digging into that intersection of power and sexuality and rules that do or don't keep us safe that is well served by both vampire literature and YA more generally. In Kind is a particularly great piece of writing, about Grace, a disabled girl left for dead by a caregiver father who then turns her death into a national campaign in which he is the victim because caring for her was difficult. This being a vampire anthology, Grace gets to become a vampire rather than die as a victim of caregiver violence, and with the help of her sire, Seanan, returns to take control of her own narrative from her father. We should totally also talk about "Mirrors, Windows and Selfies" by Mark Oshiro, a story in blog form about a teen vampire raised in isolation by controlling parents who insist there is nobody else like him, and that they'll be killed for revealing his existence, and "Vampires Never Say Die", by anthology editors Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker, which is a wildly enjoyable story about a teenage Instagram influencer who strikes up an online friendship with New York's president of vampires (right?), and throws her a very ill-advised birthday party. Because vampires need pocket friends too, you know?

Apparition Lit, Issue 16

A new-to-the-column publication! Apparition is a quarterly speculative fiction magazine that came highly recommended over the course of my conversations with a fellow British Fantasy Award juror. I'm always happy to make space in my already bursting-at-the-seams magazine folder (cries) for another publication, and I was pretty impressed with Apparition's offering of fiction, poetry and non fiction.

There's some very cool weird stuff in here, notably "Cocoon" by Atreyee Gupta: a story about a woman's slow, strange transformation into rock while exploring a cave, her thoughts about impending death combining with reflections on caving, her former partner and their divorce. It's creepy and bleak, and probably one to avoid for anyone with a strong aversion to horror that plays on claustrophobia or being buried alive - but a really impressive story. Lavender, Juniper, Gunpowder, Smoke by Alyson Grauer is a painful but, in its way, very cute story about Marie, a high school witch being bullied who ends up summoning her first magic in the form of a candle wax dragon that comes to school with her and causes gradually more problems throughout the day. It's a pretty straightforward story about handling emotions and becoming resilient in the face of other peoples' opinions, and I appreciated its focus on Marie's journey and her excitement for her own potential in a way that isn't really relevant to her bullies, even as I might have liked to see some real comeuppance on that side of things.

Finally, I have a soft spot for secondary world god stories, and Apparition had me covered with A Home For the Hungry Tide by Alexandra Singer: in which Tailwind, a minor god, is tasked to drive a ghoul away from a nearby town, only to be drawn into a conversation with her as she challenges him on her right to survival, and even more importantly to ensuring the survival of her baby. It's a story that goes in unexpected directions, and the character voices at the heart of it -  pompous, heroic Tailwind and the no-nonsense ghoul - are entertaining and brilliantly written. Excellent stuff.

Questing Elsewhere

I had high expectations for Martin Cahill's The Fifth Horseman, in Fireside's October 2021 issue, after seeing Twitter recommendations for it, and wow, this story does not disappoint. Its the story of the youngest sister of War, Pestilence, Famine and Death, who comes after her siblings and visits the few things remaining in an apocalyptic world after their devastation has been through. It's packed with grief, and the bitterness of endings, and the ways that we can be kind in those spaces anyway, and it's wonderful and heartbreaking to see the combination of the fifth horseman's work itself and her musings about always being behind her siblings, her loneliness and wish to be known. You have to read the story to learn what Cahill calls this fifth horseman: all I'll say about that is it really, really works.

"Traces" by A.E. Decker, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 328, deals with a man who appears to have been captured in a fae realm by a "master" who buys memories from humans and keeps Chaser's in a box inside his coat. When he is called on to track a woman whose husband has sold the time he "owns" with her, Chaser instead becomes invested in breaking his master's hold and helping her to escape, but that escape plan also involves regaining his own memories and leaving his current identity behind, a result which he becomes more and more apprehensive of as the story progresses. The story does a great job of making Chaser's character compelling, and despite the horrors of his memory-less situation, making his choices to remain as who he is now and not return to a previous version of himself sympathetic and believable.

Finally, let's talk about Uncanny Issue 38, which contains the highly entertaining "Femme and Sundance" by Christopher Caldwell (a gay Black man and his new lover commit magic crimes and then go on the run from the magic police), the highly creepy "Tyrannosaurus Hex" by Sam J. Miller (at a fancy parents' brunch, an older kid checks in on what their younger friend is watching on his VR implants and discovers a very unpleasant procedurally generated world that his parents have no idea he's immersed himself in), and the highly feels-inducing "A House Full of Voices is Never Empty" by Miyuki Jane Pinckard. Pinckard's story is about two second generation immigrant sisters, one of whom still lives in a house packed with hoarded possessions that she hears speaking to her and that keep her company even as her family leave, and its a powerful take on heritage and what we hold on to through grief and change, with a much happier resolution than I dared hope for. It's rare I am disappointed when sitting down for an issue of Uncanny, and this one certainly delivers the goods.

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 22, 2021

Review: The Sinopticon Anthology

Thirteen short stories by Chinese writers, available in English for the first time

These days it may feel like Chinese science fiction has suddenly exploded onto the scene, but the truth is that Chinese writers have been working with science fiction for a long time; we just didn't have access to the texts from here. Editor and translator Xueting Christine Ni has endeavored to help remedy our ignorance with the stories she chose for this collection.

One can sympathize with the foreword by Xia Jia, who confesses, "I cannot help but be moved by the thought of those who had read bad translations, and were compelled to doing the job better themselves." In that spirit, Sinopticon (what a great title!) is a meticulously curated selection of old and new stories made available here to introduce English-reading audiences to the wealth of literature that has been and continues to be produced in this genre.

The Last Save by Gu Shi, about a subscription service that lets people reload their lives from a previous save point every time they don't like a turn of events, chooses a domestic incident to focus on, but allows a terrifying glimpse into the anxiety of infinite choice, the pressure of expectations of achievement, and the loneliness of those left behind in each timeline when someone opts out.

He would always have to choose, again and again—correcting his
mistakes, correcting all contradictions—to attain a perfect life.

Tombs of the Universe by Han Song is made of two first-person narratives: one by a man fascinated with visiting astronaut cemeteries on deserted planets, and another by a veteran gravemaker reflecting on his trade and the cultural effect of burial customs in the space age. The two stories are only indirectly connected, but they both speak to humanity's complicated relationship with memory, legacy, and our inescapable finiteness.

Perhaps we no longer think the past is important. Has
it become something we don't have time to remember?

Qiankun and Alex by Hao Jingfang, about a world-spanning AI tasked with learning to choose its own goals from observing children, is a curiously small version of an event we're used to seeing develop on a much larger scale in Western science fiction. In this story, the AI learns by watching how a child learns. Perhaps an analogous process is meant to take place: we may learn from this story to think differently about real AIs by reading about how this fictional one learns.

He knows all there is to know, better than anyone else, but
has never considered acquiring data he doesn't already have.

Cat's Chance in Hell by Nian Yu, about a wounded soldier trying to make it back home from his final mission across robot territory, suggests a cautionary scenario of the creative ways war can find to persist in its inhumanity.

Haven't things always been like this? Which soldier isn't a pawn
in a bigger game? Not to mention those who are less than pawns...

The Return of Adam by Wang Jinkang, about a society transformed by electronic enhancement of the human brain, comes from an earlier era of science fiction, and it shows: it employs the technique of the traveler who arrives in the far future and has to sit for helpful explanations of how the world works. It also suffers from too much gratuitous nudity and an uncomfortable stance on eugenics.

"You could say that machines have borrowed human bodies, and
with the aid of the human brain, have occupied Earth; and we are
like idiotic moths, incubating their larvae with our own bodies."

Rendezvous: 1937 by Zhao Haihong, about a time traveler sent to find evidence of local resistance during the Nanjing Massacre, but also about the clash between a character and her author, is a metafictional confession of the difficulty of writing about the horrors of history.

My stomach clenches, my eyes screw shut, but I
force them open
—I must see and bear witness.

The Heart of the Museum by Tang Fei, about a child's bodyguard who secretly belongs to an alien species able to experience the past and the future, is not only an enthralling meditation on the limits of human perception and our need for physical markers of our presence in the world, but also a precious example of the narrative possibilities opened by the timeless grammar of Chinese.

Rather than a short straight line, my life can better
be described as an eternal point in the chaos of
time and space. My future will never disappear.

The Great Migration by Ma Boyong, about the chaotic process to get spaceship tickets from Mars to Earth during the biennial close approach, is at times hilarious in its sense of hopeless absurdity and at times tiresome to read. That's probably the point: to convey the protagonist's sense of irritation at comically worsening events that don't move fast enough. However, the story is hindered by the repeated objectification of its female characters.

It was in these doldrums that the Great Migration
bared its sinister sharp teeth. Its knives were now
dulled, roughly sawing at our flesh and blood.

Meisje met de Parel by Anna Wu, about a temporal paradox related to the origin of a portrait, is an exquisitely written love letter to the link between science and art, and a bittersweet reminder of the hard reality of temporal existence.

I was troubled to think that the girl in the painting
was me, but a strong curiosity compelled me to
wade through the mist of time and find you.

Flower of the Other Shore by A Que, about a zombie's journey to take his former girlfriend, a human, to safety, presents an unexpected reversal of the zombie story: this time, we have access to his inner thoughts, his hopes, his attempts to remember, and even his self-aware sense of humor. It's always noteworthy when a story dares (and manages) to make us feel empathy for those we're used to calling mindless monsters, but this entry is also important in that it merges zombie lore with Chinese myth.

"Might be a good thing. No brain, no worries."

The Absolution Experiment by Bao Shu is so fantastically stunning that I won't give away any details. Suffice it to say that it has a Twilight Zone vibe in how the protagonist's assumptions are perversely turned on their head. Instead of ruining the reveal, I'll quote from the translator's note:

Creating a protagonist so far beyond sympathy
and a punishment so far beyond acceptability
makes you consider the very nature of retribution.

The Tide of Moon City by Regina Kanyu Wang, about a binary planet system where an academic exchange turns romantic and then political, connects in surprising and heartbreaking ways an ancient Chinese legend of forbidden love with the international tensions that sometimes beset scientific cooperation between China and the West.

Every dusk, every dawn, he would stand somewhere facing Lunar
Side on He'lin, looking up at the sky, listening to the tide hitting
the shores, and imagine Dianne looking towards him from He'lin.

Starship: Library by Jiang Bo, a series of connected episodes about a robot librarian determined to preserve her collection of knowledge despite humankind's indifference, is a fitting choice to end the anthology with. If we are to make it until the end of the universe, books will be our salvation.

Ehuang turned her head, and saw the entire heavens
inundated with stars. Her mind was made up.

After reading this collection, the only regret that remains in the reader's mind is that it did not contain more stories. Sinopticon is a small but bright window into a fertile tradition that demands and deserves to be better known outside of China. We can only hope that more books like this will come.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +2 for Ni's introduction, which provides a brief yet quite informative overview of the current state of science fiction in China. She also adds little notes at the end of each story, where she adds relevant cultural clues that enrich the reader's comprehension.

Penalties: −1 for several scattered typos.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Reference: Ni, Xueting Christine [translator]. Sinopticon, a Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction [Solaris, 2021].

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

6 Books with Brendan P. Bellecourt

Brendan P Bellecourt is an open pseudonym for epic fantasy author Bradley Beaulieu. As Brendan, he is expanding his writing reach from epic fantasy into historical fantasy. Today he tells us about his Six Books.

 1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m reading The Last House on Needless Street, a deliciously creepy novel from Catriona Ward. It’s the story of a serial killer. A stolen child. Revenge. Death. And an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street.

It’s a book that forces you to guess what’s going on, then keep on guessing, because you’re always wrong. Or so I’m told. I’m still in the early going but find it engrossing so far.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I’m cheating a bit here since it just came out, but I’m really intrigued by Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race.

The story is about “a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.” Sounds like straight-up sci-fi, right? Except it also involves “a demon terrorizing the land” and “an Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as people have lived there.”

I’ve always enjoyed science fantasies, and I’m really curious to get Adrian’s take on one.

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

Every so often I re-read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy, a book that never fails to tickle my funny bone. Come to think of it, I has been a few years... Maybe it’s time to pick it up again.

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

I adore Sarah Pinborough’s writing in general, but she really outdid herself with Behind Her Eyes, a mystery about a woman who gets involved with a married couple, only to discover they have a disturbing and troubled past.

It earned all of its considerable praise for its twist ending, but the entire story had me gripped from start to finish. I couldn’t get enough of it.

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

One of the trilogies that really struck me when I first read it was C.J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun trilogy. It was my first exposure to a spec-fictional world based on our own Arabic cultures, and I loved it. I devoured these books, a science fictional tale that spoke to cultural identity, individuality, and sacrificing for the common good. It’s one of the tales that spurred me, many years later, to tackle Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, a story set in a vast desert with a massive city at its center.

Another series I’ll mention is Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. I was really struck by the serious and somewhat somber tone of Donaldson’s writing. It’s something that stuck with me all the way through to my early works.

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

I’ll start with the blurb: Absynthe is Inception meets Metropolis, by way of The Great Gatsby, in a deco-punk tale of unchecked technology and the unforeseen costs of utopia.

The story follows reclusive war vet Liam Mulcahey, whose memories of the Great War (fought on American soil) were lost to an injury sustained in the conflict’s last major battle. Ten years later, a foiled terrorist attack forces Liam into a debriefing with his former commanding officer, Leland De Pere, now the President of the United States. That meeting mysteriously jogs some of Liam’s memories loose.

Soon after, Liam’s best friend, Morgan, is abducted by a nefarious government group known as the Cabal. As Liam’s memories continue to unfold, he realizes his time in the war, and his squad’s participation in a project to link one another telepathically, is directly linked to Morgan’s abduction.

Now in a race against time, Liam must not only find and free Morgan, he must unlock his own memories and discover why the Cabal and the president himself wanted Morgan so badly before the Cabal’s sinister plans for the country are unleashed.

I love Absynthe for its Roaring 20’s, retro-futuristic mashup. I love it for the patchwork of friends and family that forms around Liam as the story progresses. I love it for the way it delves into the meaning of self as defined by our past and our collective experiences. But most of all, I love it for the slow-burn mystery that turns the story on its head near the end of the book.

I sincerely hope readers enjoy Absynthe as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thank you!

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

Monday, December 20, 2021

Nerds of a Feather is a 2021 Hugo Award Winner!


Well, wow.

In our fifth year of being finalists, Nerds of a Feather has won the Hugo award for best fanzine at Discon III. We're all about the words here, but words fail to express how honoured and overjoyed we are to receive this recognition from our fellow fans. Thank you so much.

This award belongs to our whole flock, without whom this site simply couldn't function. Our active  writers in 2020 were Paul Weimer, Andrea Johnson, Sean Dowie, Michael Newhouse Bailey, Phoebe Wagner, Aidan Moher, Dean E.S. Richard and Spacefaring Kitten, and a more amazing team you could not find. Huge shout out also to all our contributors emeritus and to our 2021 team members Arturo, Elisabeth, Joe D, Roseanna and Elizabeth F, who all have a hand in making this site the Hugo-worthy trove of analysis and opinion (and occasional nonsense) that it is. We love you all!

Editor Joe Sherry was in Washington D.C. this weekend to accept our award live, and we've reprinted his speech below. We've also added a few lines from our other editors Adri (hello!), The G and Vance.

Joe (speech at Discon III, 18 December 2021):

Hoooooo. Okay, this really actually happened. Holy crap. Thank you. 

I’m flying solo tonight because the rest of the editorial team of Nerds of a Feather are not able to be here in person for a bunch of really good reasons. Adri, Vance, The G. This whole thing would not have been nearly as much fun or as satisfying as it’s been if I haven’t been working with the three of you. 

I’d like to thank and acknowledge the various writers at Nerds of a Feather, both past and present. Our names are on the trophy, but it is your writing day in and day out that makes this possible. You’ve been the best team of writers we could have ever asked to have and you’ve carried us along. You earned this. Thank you. 

Aidan Moher is one of the biggest reasons I’m still an active part of fandom. You may know him from his time running A Dribble of Ink and his really great Hugo acceptance speech. I know him as a blogging colleague and friend for the last fifteen years or so. If Aidan didn’t put my name in the ear of The G a number of years ago, right when I was about to shutter my own book blog, I wouldn’t be standing on this stage right now. 

I’d also like to acknowledge my wife, Kate, who often asks me if I’m working on blog stuff when I’m sitting on the couch grumbling at my laptop. I love you. Thank you for the support and since we left the kids at home with the grandparents we should totally celebrate with an adult beverage tonight!

And finally - to all of the writers and artists and fans out there putting in the work, giving us a genre to love and a community to share it with. This is an absolute dream. Thank you. Thank you so much. 


For the second year running, I watched my Hugo category be announced in the small hours of the morning, UK time. So, first, thank you to literally everyone who made that a better experience in 2021 than it was in 2020. I got to bed even later this year, but I did so with a smile on my face!

When I joined NoaF back in 2018, I was still basically a bright eyed fandom newbie, getting to grips with what I wanted to do in this community. I'm so grateful that Joe, the G and Vance saw my potential first as a writer, and then as a co-editor: I literally could not have asked for a better home in fandom than this fanzine, and I can't wait to see what the future holds.

Thank you also to my fandom friends and communities, and especially Sparkle Rocket, the Fantasy Inn Discord and the Subjective Chaos crew, who kept me going during the "adventures" of 2020. I don't know what I would have done without you guys: you inspire me to be a better critic and a more thoughtful person and you also enable my elder millennial obsession with talking about and posting pictures of my dog, which I greatly appreciate.

Huge hat tip to everyone else in this category with us: Quick Sip Reviews, Lady Business, The Full Lid, Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog and Journey Planet. It is an honour to share a category with you.

Finally, thank YOU, dear reader. Here's to many more entertaining evenings in front of the screen together.

The G:

Joe gave a lovely and heartfelt acceptance speech on the floor, and I’d like to echo his words, but also add some of my own. First off, I’d like to thank my co-founder and good friend Vance for starting this thing with me, and always being a thoughtful, kind and enthusiastic partner in this adventure. I’m so glad you’ve been traveling with me on this journey.  

Next, I’d like to thank my co-editors Joe and Adri, who came on later in the story but have each been instrumental in getting us here. Joe and Adri, I’m so glad you us talk you into joining us. You are both incisive writers and incredible people to work with. It is impossible to imagine us getting here without your vision, hard work and dedication. 

Next up, our wonderful group of writers - current and emeritus. Like Joe said, you are the ones who make our platform great. I am honored to work/ have worked with you, and am excited to see what you do in 2022. I’d like to give a special shout out to current writer Paul and former writer Charles, both of whom were separately nominated for Hugos this year. 

And I’d also like to thanks 2 people who have done more to spread the word about NOAF than anyone: Aidan Moher and Renay. I am proud to call you both friend. I look up to both of you and am humbled by your support and mentorship. 

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who has read, shared or discussed our content since we launched in 2012. You make this labor of love a joy, and I feel blessed that you have decided to spend your time, even if just a little, connecting with our site. Thank you, thank you all.


Fifth time's a charm?

I'm so thrilled Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together has just been honored with a Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. Each of these last five years, I've designed and assembled the Voter's Packet, and each year, it has reminded me what astonishing work our writers do. I couldn't be more proud of this group of thoughtful, funny, and engaged contributors. I've written some things over the years that I'm quite proud of, and I am grateful to have a supportive outlet where those things can see the light of day... but come on -- this team puts me to shame, has done so consistently for lo these many years, and I couldn't be happier about it. By far, this ever-expanding group of writers and friends have been the best part of this journey, with or without a rocketship on the mantelpiece.

But, you know, I'm pretty happy about the rocketship on the mantelpiece, too. I'm grateful to G for inviting me to help take this ship out of the dock back in 2012, and to Joe and Adri for climbing into the cockpit while mid-flight.

Additionally, I have to mention that this year's class of winners is truly remarkable, and it is an honor that we get to be included in such an amazing group.

'Spider-Man: No Way Home' is a well-oiled nostalgia machine, and little else

The conclusion of the MCU Spider-Man trilogy delivers five retroactive happy endings at the cost of losing its own thread

As self-congratulatory sequels go, Spider-Man: No Way Home is adequately acceptable. Hell knows this year has seen much, much worse instances; at least this one has some respect for its audience and follows believable emotional arcs, even if it blatantly feeds on the goodwill earned by other productions and ends with a massive reset button. It's not terrible, and it's not terrific. It's OK.

This movie makes a curious choice of conflict. After illusionist villain Mysterio divulged Spider-Man's identity at the end of Far from Home, Peter Parker's life has become a mess of unwanted celebrity, constant public scrutiny, loss of privacy, and unpleasant consequences for everyone in his sphere. So Peter asks his friend Doctor Strange to remove that bit of information from everyone's head. What he needs to defeat this time is not an enemy, but a vulnerability that invites enemies. He doesn't have the infinite money that helped Tony Stark maintain a comfortably protected life after revealing his identity.

Oddly, even without infinite money, the rest of the Avengers have had no issue with being publicly known. The MCU, as a rule, has avoided superhero secret identities, a choice that has been both praised and criticized. So it's a detour for the MCU to devote an entire movie to have a hero struggle with being known to everyone. It would have been very interesting to see Peter deal with the legal aftermath of his exposure (since they were going to have a certain lawyer drop in anyway), or to see him try to adapt to life under the public eye (a fun meta story to watch for a character who's literally dating Zendaya). However, an entire movie devoted to Peter's mundane problems would have had fewer explosions. After the rather perfunctory procession through the plot beats we already knew from the trailers, including Peter going through the motions of legal trouble and then breaking Doctor Strange's concentration during a mindwiping ritual, No Way Home only really starts when Doctor Strange invents a shiny MacGuffin to banish Spider-Man's enemies that have magically appeared from other movies. The justification for the transdimensional shenanigans is that the spell was targeted at everyone who knew Peter's secret.

This is a way to bring your cake from another universe and eat it too. The MCU version of Spider-Man has run into a peculiar villain problem in that our hero was left to clean the messes left by Iron Man instead of fighting his own villains. Spider-Man has an iconic gallery of enemies; however, the two previous franchises had already used the best of them, and done so in ways that are hard to compete with. How can you bring Doctor Octopus and the Lizard and the Sandman into the MCU without inviting comparison with the performances that defined an era of superhero cinema?

Easy: rinse and repeat.

So, after they're made their respective entrances, and Doctor Strange has resolved to kick them back to their own movies, Peter's crucial choice is to steal the MacGuffin and try to save his enemies instead of sending them back to the deaths that await them. Essentially, Peter's mission is to rewrite the endings of five other movies. From this point on, No Way Home slows down its second act to milk every available joke and memeable moment out of its multiversal baddiepalooza, because it knows we won't have another chance to spend time with this Green Goblin or this Electro. This "now or never" spirit, mixed with the dangerous "go back and fix it" attitude in the third act, makes No Way Home share many of the problems with nostalgic sequels. This is not only a team-up movie; it's a team-up between separate iterations of the character going back to 2002, which explains why actor Tom Holland describes it as a bigger crossover than Avengers: Endgame. It's an understandable sentiment, but also a bold one to make when Into the Spider-Verse already exists.

No Way Home not only pays tribute to two decades of Spider-Man movies, but to the entire slate of productions associated with Marvel Comics: its choice of final battlefield is the Statue of Liberty, memorably used in the original X-Men, the movie that paved the way for the entire superhero craze we're still living through. However, there's fan service, and then there's fan servitude. No Way Home is full of small moments that feel like ticking off boxes in fan wishlists, although it at least knows how to use its cheap nostalgia effectively. You'll recall that the shot of MJ falling in the trailer brought up comparisons to Gwen's fall in the Andrew Garfield movies. The way MJ's fall is resolved here is transparently manipulative (even if it punches you right in the feels).

Tom Holland is 25 years old, but he's still playing a high school senior about to enter college. Accordingly, the MCU has continued to treat Peter as a kid, even going to the length of freezing his age for five years in-universe. Keeping Peter from growing up diminishes the emotional depth his movies are equipped to handle. Asking a wizard friend to fix everything by inchanting "Returnus to Normalus!" is a facepalmably childish choice, one that No Way Home at first condemns, but ends up vindicating.

This is less its own movie than a step in the integration of multiverse characters into the MCU. This is a pattern that has plagued Phase 4. WandaVision forgot about its own themes because it needed to set up The Marvels; Black Widow only existed to explain a minor character's presence in Hawkeye; Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a skippable prologue to Captain America 4. By not letting each movie be its own thing, Marvel has forgotten how to create complete stories. No Way Home is not here to explore how Peter Parker deals with crisis, or to follow him in a journey toward maturity, or to give us a full emotional experience, but to provide backstory for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (coming soon! only in theaters!). It's a very mechanical method of storytelling that robs stories of their meaning.

A possible reading of this movie is that Sony is afraid of losing the cash cow it's found in Tom Holland, and it deals with that anxiety by leaning on its two previous attempts. Spider-Man has been reset two times already; it's like Sony wants to preempt that risk by doing its own reset of Peter's story (and, in an incongruous move that negates the emotional growth of the previous movies, a perfect reset of every villain to their pre-villain status). This is a failure to understand the nature of storytelling, which is also noticeable in how No Way Home is obsessed with erasing ambiguity. The already canceled Spider-Man franchises are momentarily brought back from cancelation, and No Way Home refuses to let go of them until it's done reassuring us that their respective universes have happy endings now. Don't wonder any longer what happened afterwards: here, let us tell you exactly how it ended.

This is the problem at the core of Spider-Man: No Way Home: it sacrifices its own story because its actual function is to prepare the upcoming ones and forbid any ill talk of the earlier ones. We should have taken a lesson from MJ: expect to be disappointed, and you won't have to be.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for organically integrating the nostalgic string-pulling into the plot, +1 for visually dazzling fight scenes (except for the last one, which is a confusing mess).

Penalties: −1 for jokes that go on for too long, −1 for wasting five major villains in a movie that is not really about any of them, −1 for not having any solid theme to explore regarding Peter's character growth (and no, the "great power" line is a catchphrase, not a theme).

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

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

Friday, December 17, 2021

Microreview [book]: Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod

The start of a new series by Ken MacLeod, in a future where aliens, secret FTL travel, and time travel may all shake the future of humanity.

Lakshmi Nayak has a problem. She lives as a student in 2067 London, part of the Alliance, one of the two major world powers. And she has just received an envelope with equations on it. Equations that don’t just imply, but baldly state that faster than light travel is possible.  And the equations, oddly enough are in her own handwriting.  But aliens don’t exist, except for things like microbes in the atmosphere of Venus. What Lakshmi doesn’t realize is that a secret program of FTL travel has existed for decades. And Aliens? Well, they exist too. Lakshmi’s equations may yet destroy a delicate balance of power, and help awaken contact with aliens who have been around a very long time indeed...

Lakshmi’s story is the main thread in Ken MacLeod’s Beyond the Hallowed Sky, first in his projected Lightspeed Trilogy.

Faster than Light Travel, for those SFF readers who haven’t thought about it, and it takes a knowledge of relativity to really grasp it, points directly to the potential for time travel and causality violation. There are NO privileged frames in reference in Einstein’s relativity, and one can arrange a situation where a FTL spaceship can see the arrival of a signal going at lightspeed before it was ever sent...and even stop the signal they saw being sent from actually ever being sent! Whoops. 

So you can see why Lakshmi is a little shaken to have received a message from her future self, providing equations for a faster than light drive. Worse, its not a prank, not a hoax, and the equations are right. This revelation leads Lakshmi to defect to a power smaller than the UK-US alliance, or the Co-Ord of Russia and China, a power that could very well use a FTL drive to play catch up--the Union, as embodied and lead by the Republic of Scotland.

MacLeod is hardly content with casualty violation in a novel, readers of his previous works will be expecting lots more to stir this pot, and so he delivers. FTL is not new in fact, and in fact the two major powers have secretly had it for decades (and once Lakshmi publishes her paper, that secret is perished). The Union has a station in the atmosphere of Venus (which now that the Alliance and Co-Ord have revealed FTL travel, feels like a sideshow--but, really will turn out to be anything but).  And then there is the exoplanet of Apis, which delightfully puns on several levels for reasons I will let the reader discover. Apis has evidence of alien materials...aliens fittingly (a la the Fermi Paradox) called Fermis.  It is in fact a shakeup of the humans on Apis’ relationship to the Fermis that provides, along with Lakshmi’s plot, that provides the impetus for the plot.

And it is a rich future, 50 years hence, that MacLeod offers us. In many ways, it is a relatively optimistic future--not a pollyannaish, mind, this world has had scars of the last 50 years, and yes, climate change is definitely a thing, but it is a world that has gone through a lot. With just a line, such as “America is a democracy again”, MacLeod lets the reader a bit into the future that has happened, and lets us as a reader fill in the gaps where it is not plot-relevant. The tripartite “”Cold Revolution” (more of a Pournellean Co-Dominium) of thie late 21st century gets much more fleshing out, and while we do not see anything from the Co-Ord point of view, we definitely get to see what life in 2080 is like for those in the Alliance, one of the two major powers, and in the Union, as seen in Scotland, seeing what a second rung power is trying to do in competing with its larger brethren. And then there is MacLeod’s depiction of the hellish Venus (and the station hanging in its atmosphere) and even more to the point, the alien planet of Apis. If anything, the politics and setup of Apis were, for me, just a little bit underwritten--I wanted even more before things start going sideways and we are off and running.

In general, Beyond the Hallowed Sky reminded me, oddly enough, of some of the work of Ian Sales’, particularly The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself   which also features secret FTL travel, and extrasolar exploration, and the anthology he edited, Aphrodite Terra: Stories About Venus. Sales is a very different, and even more spare writer in some ways, but I kept thinking of Sales’ work as the stories on Apis and on Venus continued to unfold. 

To bring this story to life, Macleod provides a large cast across Scotland, Venus and Apis. Lakshmi, the aforementioned genius who apparently has violated causality. John Grant, who takes a picture of an Alliance submarine that vanishes into Cherekov light, and gets tied into a project to turn Lakshmi’s equations into reality... Francesca Milloy has ambitions regarding her equipment’s ability to walk around the deadly surface of Venus for extended periods. And Dr Hazledine, stumbling into alien contact on Apis that will upset many applecarts.

Interestingly, for me, anyway, the two most intriguing characters among the cast that MacLeod presents here are not human at all. One is Marcus Owen, who is a robot. Marcus’ arrival on the Venus station sets off a whole cascade of consequences. Marcus is officially a diplomatic attache, but everyone knows that he is a spy. But what are his goals? What Marcus winds up doing and the path he winds up going down is one of the more delightful subplots in the novel, and robot or not, Marcus is often a surprising character. The other character may not be technically a character, per se, and that is Iskander, the Union’s AI. In addition to providing information to various characters, Iskander also definitely has a personality all of its own, and clearly an agenda, too. The love-hate relationship that some of the characters have with Iskander feels like a descendant version of how some people consider search engines and allied tools, today. And given how things play out in the novel, I look forward to how Iskander evolves in the next book in the series.

And that does bring me to the last point. Yes, this is the first book in a trilogy. It does nicely stand alone as that first book, providing enough of an offramp that readers will be satisfied, I believe, with how the novel ends. The plotlines of this book resolved satisfactorily and people who just want to read one Ken MacLeod novel, perhaps, this would be a good place to start. For those intrigued by the world and questions the novel raises, like me, I look forward to seeing how MacLeod continues to develop this world and setup.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a very intriguing setup.

+1 for making this accessible as the first book in a series you can stop, if you wish, here.

Penalties: -1  Some of the worldbuilding, given that setup, could have been fleshed out a bit more.

 Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 Reference: MacLeod, Ken. Beyond the Hallowed Sky (Orbit UK, 2021)

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

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Microreview: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

 Melissa Caruso’s The Obsidian Tower starts a new series set in her fascinating world, changing the focus from the Serene Empire to the Witch Lords of Vaskandar, introducing a new and interesting protagonist.

Ryxander, or Ryx, has a problem. She’s the granddaughter of one of the Witch Lords of Vaskandar, and that’s a lot to live up to. She has also been named the Warden of Gloamingard Castle, which is the home base of her grandmother, so the young Ryx, barely in her twenties, has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. And of course the Lady of Owls is watching her always. Even beyond this, she is from a long line of Mages, even beyond her mother, and a family (except her Ravarran mother) quite skilled in Magic. But this is where Ryx stands apart and is quite literally alone.

For, you see, Ryx has flawed magic. And in fact, if you cannot magically brace yourself, to touch Ryx is quite literally to court death. She has none of the magical heritage of her family, and given her place as a Warden, all of the responsibility. Now, hosting a peace conference, a sudden death, and a secret of the family that can no longer be kept, Ryx is going to have to learn to use her flawed magic to protect those she loves, and perhaps far beyond the Castle as well.

This is the world and setup of Melissa Caruso’s The Obsidian Tower.

Having enjoyed The Tethered Mage and it’s sequels, I was lax in getting into her new series, and I will say right up front, upon starting the audiobook of this new book, first in a new series, that this is a case where I regret waiting so long before picking this one up. I devoured this audiobook driving across Western states, and the book was a fit companion for long driving days. The narration by Senn Annis is top notch.

Caruso’s strengths as a worldbuilder, plotter and writer are open secrets, given her enthusiasm for talking about the craft in social media, cons, and the like. Those strengths, which started strongly in the Tethered Mage series, really come into her own here. This is a cliche to be sure, but it feels like in tackling Ryx’s story, and the story of Gloamingard Castle and its dread secret, Caruso has leveled up as a writer. The dialogue is even sharper and better drawn, the descriptions and vividness of the settings really come through. And the plot and techniques the writer uses are both traditional as well as very modern indeed. 

In terms of that traditional approach, in some ways this is a fantasy that follows some well worn paths and story beats. A young person thrust into power and authority, and very unsure of themselves. Put under a pressure cooker and a threat that could threaten not only what they hold dear, but perhaps even the entire world. Secrets and Lies and revelations of a family past not quite as golden as one thinks. Someone who seemingly doesn’t have power or useful power but is, in fact, if not a “chosen one”, at least far more important than they first appear. High Magic, political intrigues, vivid worldbuilding. Be it fantasy from the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, the main lines are familiar. This is a novel in conversation particularly, I think, with the early work of Robin Hobb. 

In other ways, this is a very modern and fresh and 21st century fantasy on the cutting edge of what the genre is doing today. The novel is strong in its diversity along a number of axes, giving women roles and power and authority figures every bit as much as the men get. The society also uses bisexuality as a default, the relatively new and refreshing trend of building societies in fantasy where bisexuality is the cultural default. There is also one major character who uses they/them pronouns as well. While I can hear old traditionalists decry these in fantasy as being “woke” (this year’s SJW apparently), fantasy worlds are not our world, and building a world where women are not relegated to narrow lanes, where attraction and personalities and people are of a wider range than even a decade ago, is completely in bounds and I appreciate this in my fantasy fiction as of late. 

There’s more.  Some of the best creative works, be it a photograph, or a piece of music, or a novel, knows where to put the boundaries and guard rails in order to intensify the result. And to use techniques from other genres to enforce those guard rails. In The Obsidian Tower, for all of it being a fantasy novel, an epic fantasy novel, nearly all of the action takes place within the aforementioned Gloamingard Castle. This gives the character interactions and story a limitation and an intensity that really allows the plotting and character beats to shine through. The limitation of keeping Ryx in Gloamingard Castle is partly due to her flawed magic, and also partly because much of the novel, revolves around mysteries...including an eventual murder mystery. The use of the tropes of mystery novels helps enhance the plot and structure of The Obsidian Tower immensely, and it overall gives the novel a different feel than other comparable works, including the previous series. 

Finally, and importantly for readers of Caruso’s previous series, this gives us a sympathetic ground level from the start of the Vaskandrans. The antagonists of the Tethered Mage series, here here they are the protagonists of the story, and Caruso further ties to the previous series by making Ryx half-Ravarran, providing a continuity to those readers who avidly followed the stories of Amalia and Zaira. The mysterious and dangerous Vaskandrans are still mysterious and dangerous in the personages of the Witch Lords (two of which come on screen, including the Lady of Owls), but they are humanized from the ground up, through the eyes of a protagonist whose position in that society is very much an outsider. This technique of using a pseudo-outsider in order to explain Vasandrian society, magic and customs  is an effective one, and it makes the large amount of worldbuilding go down more easily. 

And such worldbuilding. We get to find out about customs, history, magic, politics and much more from the Vaskandran side. The idea of the Rookery, a neutral group of magical troubleshooters, is a brilliant idea, and one that, in addition to the overall main plot, that this new series is hanging its head on. The characters we meet of the Rookery are very different than people Ryx are used to, and seeing them within the Castle gives yet perspective for us.

Gloamingard Castle itself is a wonder of a setting, a palimpsest of a Castle, new sections being built up over centuries, and all of those sections described in interesting and sometimes intimate detail. The titular Obsidian Tower is at the heart of the Castle, and it is a rather discomforting place but it is uniquely drawn and described as are the other parts of the Castle are. Since we spend so much time in the Castle, it is well that it is such a rich place for us the readers to inhabit. And given Ryx’s issue with her touch, there are considerations made so that the Warden of the Castle will not accidentally kill the staff.

And that finally goes to Ryx herself. She is a very tightly wound and bound character, who lacks physical intimacy with nearly everyone, and so her emotions, her demeanor, her outlook are all similarly bound and corseted. The tension between her wanting to be free to do what she wants, with who she wants, tied with her sense of her duty to her people, and her family, leads to interesting character dynamics, and eventually growth for Ryx.  She is our one and only viewpoint character, and so everything gets filtered through her. That sort of intimate single point of view in an epic fantasy is a difficult trick to pull off, but Caruso manages it quite well.

In all, I don’t think that you need to have read the Tethered Mage series to enjoy The Obsidian Tower, and if you want to read one of the strong new voices in secondary world fantasy, this is a great novel to pick up in print, or, as I found, especially in audio.


Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for an interestingly flawed and complex central viewpoint character

+1 for rich and immersive local worldbuilding

Penalties : -1 Multiple point of views might have smoothed out a bit of the plot beats.

Nerd Coefficient :8/10: 

Reference: Caruso, Melissa The Obsidian Tower  [Orbit, 2020]

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