Thursday, January 20, 2022

'The Silent Sea' is a cautionary parable about infinite greed

This space survival thriller about a mysteriously deserted lunar station hides an effective thought experiment about economics

Conservation of mass is the fundamental principle of chemistry. Evolution by natural selection is the fundamental principle of biology. That each thing is identical to itself is the fundamental principle of logic. If such basic facts are not taken into account, everything else stops making sense.

Likewise, in economics the fundamental principle is scarcity. It means that resources are not infinite. Even our access to sunlight is limited by our technological capabilities, the position of Earth, and the amount of fuel in the Sun. Every resource has a limit. No matter your political persuasion, your ethical guidelines, your partisan agenda or your pet cause, every single theory of economics has to deal with the solid fact that there just isn't enough to satisfy all desires. This is why all economic problems have to do with choice: resources are not infinite, so we have to choose. How we choose and who does the choosing is where economic schools differ, but the underlying principle remains; it's almost like it's written in the laws of nature.

So what would happen if there actually were an infinite resource?

Now that would be a violation of the laws of nature.

It would be an aberration. Something monstrous.

Countless works of utopian science fiction have imagined a post-scarcity society, where production is not constrained by availability of raw materials and our basic physical needs are permanently covered—in a sense, all post-scarcity theories are in themselves science fiction. We can imagine, as in Star Trek, a society that has moved beyond such preoccupations.

Or we can, as in the new Korean Netflix miniseries The Silent Sea, ask the hard questions about what such a state of affairs would actually entail.

The Silent Sea tells the story of a government-led mission to retrieve a suspiciously unexplained piece of laboratory equipment from an abandoned lunar station. The astronauts recruited for the trip come from a future Earth where water has become so precious that access to it has become the criterion of social stratification. The once blue planet now looks deserted from space, and the seas have become as dry as those on the Moon.

What our heroes find on the Moon, however, could change everything: there's an impossible new form of water that reproduces upon contact with living tissue. If brought to Earth, it would solve the climate crisis and the political volatility forever. It would effectively provide infinite amounts of water. What's not to love?

Well, there's only so much water the human body can take. Infinite water will kill you. If you bring that to Earth, you're going to kill everyone.

The gruesome image of sick bodies bending over and vomiting gallons upon gallons of water brings to mind the curses of dark fairy tales, which makes sense, because this is a fairy tale, of the sort that were spun in antiquity to teach universal moral principles, for example, that greed can hurt and you should be responsible with what you have. Think King Midas, and multiply it by everyone who has ever wanted something.

The inconceivable scale of the monstrosity is subtly explored at a more personal level early in the series. One of the astronauts, Dr. Song Ji-an, has received government compensation for her sister's death. She's now a gold-class citizen, meaning she has the legal right to infinite water. She's been taken out of the queue, out of the rules of allocation. By every school of economics, she's an aberration.

The series treats her undeserved new status with the appropriate disgust. People are on the brink of rioting over the unfairness of water distribution, and here she's being given the royal treatment. The incongruity of the situation is not lost on her: she has the thing everyone on the planet wants the most, but it doesn't satisfy her. It's futile as compensation for the loss of her sister. There's no compensating for human life. The value of human life does not lend itself to that kind of calculation. Now that's something truly infinite.

Economic inequality and the myriad wrong ways to deal with it appear to have become a staple of Korean drama. We've had, in quick succession, Parasite, Space Sweepers, Squid Game, and now The Silent Sea. It's doubtlessly an everyday concern for Koreans, who are now becoming painfully familiar with the American paradox of immense national wealth and heartbreaking individual poverty. What The Silent Sea has to say about that topic is that illusions of abundance are not the solution to the crisis of inequality, and even if we could have everything, it would solve nothing.

Who could even live with infinite water? Well, this dark fairy tale comes with its own angry spirit: Luna, the unnatural child, the only survivor of an assembly line of clones expended in the hope of controlling infinite water. Those clones are the embodiment of the sacrifice of entire generations for the dream of ever-increasing resources. Even if you found a way to reliably obtain ever-increasing wealth, producing it would require you to defile nature and defile humanity. Luna's tortured life is what results from following that imperative. So no, that's not the solution either.

Because the series ends with Luna nowhere to be found, humanity will not be transformed into her, and the self-replicating water from the Moon will not save Earth. This is fitting with the theme of the story: Luna is an impossible creature. We'd all need to become impossible creatures in order to both create infinite wealth and make any use of it. Having everything is equivalent to needing nothing: once we reached that hypothetical state, we might as well throw away our physical protections and walk, like Luna, in the vacuum of space. That's not going to happen.

So let's recap: you can't satisfy every single desire, and if you did, the human cost would be unacceptable, and if you paid it, you'd have to make everyone pay it, and if everyone did, we'd no longer have a world.

The lesson is the same as in the tales of old. Greed can hurt. You need to be responsible. We need to abandon the illusion that we're going to solve inequality by finding a magical source of endless riches. The only way is to distribute better.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for great visual effects.

Penalties: −1 because the dialogue overexplains the plot, −1 for some flat characterizations.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

In 'Station Eleven,' you don't give up just because the world has ended

You'd think lethal virus stories are in bad taste these days, but Station Eleven is the triumphant cathartic release we didn't know we needed

Station Eleven, the miniseries adaptation of the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, follows the lives of a handful of survivors of a global pandemic that ended civilization. That sounds exactly like the last thing we'd want to see on TV during a real global pandemic that might, perhaps, really end civilization. But what this story has to offer is completely different from your standard post-apocalyptic drama. Except for news reports in the background of a scene, we don't see the masses out of control, fighting over scraps and forming unstable factions, or the desperate horror of watching passersby drop like flies. The incalculable toll of death is implied.

What this story is interested in showing is how life persists after so much death. Showrunner Patrick Somerville famously pitched the series as “a postapocalyptic show about joy.” We follow Kirsten, a young actress randomly paired with a stranger who shelters her during the first weeks of the pandemic, and whose sudden brush with tragedy makes her so hypervigilant that she casually carries a knife with her at all times. We follow Clark, a gentle but bitter middle-aged man who ends up leading a community of survivors permanently stranded at an airport, and whose unlikely ascent to power eventually changes him from conservator to conservative. We follow Tyler, a neglected child of self-absorbed parents, whose repeated experiences of rejection and mistreatment mold him into an emotionally stunted manchild with a vendetta against the past. What connects their journeys is how they were touched by the death of narcissist womanizer and movie star Arthur, as well as the graphic novel Station Eleven, self-published by Arthur's ex-wife Miranda. In particular, the twin trajectories of Kirsten and Tyler will be shaped by their drastically differing readings of the same text.

You don't need the backdrop of a lethal pandemic to tell a story about the power of stories. In fact, Mandel's original intention wasn't even to write a novel about the end of the world; she just liked the image of wandering actors bringing joy to village after village. You may as well remove the whole pandemic plot from Station Eleven and see it for what lies at its core: the double-edged power of performance. Both Kirsten and Tyler have been deeply moved by a story, and both will reenact it at key moments of their lives. However, Kirsten uses performance as a balm (at one point a spectator remarks that the troupe of actors brought "new life" to their town), while Tyler uses performance as a weapon. As for Clark, his fear of things decaying makes him keep them stuck in place, where he continues to tell stories about them but doesn't let the story around them move forward.

To explore this theme it doesn't really matter that the plot happens in a setting where almost everyone is dead, because those who are left alive still face the same old question of how to live. What should we do about the things that time takes from us? Make beauty from them, like Kirsten? Lock them inside a display case, like Clark? Or burn them, like Tyler? This is not a story about finding meaning after the apocalypse; it's a story about finding meaning, period. The trappings of world-ending catastrophe are only there to enhance the emotional content, to make the implicit explicit.

This is why it doesn't feel distracting when the plot of Station Eleven jumps between time periods. The path of things from A to B can find more useful routes than a straight line. It doesn't feel like a different world when we see the scenes before the mass death. It's all the same story. It's always the same story. That the world has ended does not change the fundamental questions of life.

However, the path of things from novel to TV series did meet with some bumps. The character of Tyler is made much more ambiguous in the adaptation, but without the benefit of added nuance. Whereas he was unmistakably a monster in the novel, here he is given a tentative chance of redemption. This defuses the tension that sustained the story before it's given a proper answer. Once Kirsten and Tyler realize that their lives have been shaped by their love for the same book, the main conflict of the series becomes about which relationship to art (and which relationship to the dear deceased Art) will prevail. Kirsten takes a page from Hamlet and orchestrates a session of psychodrama where Tyler's moment of growth is to achieve the basic human decency of not slitting Clark's throat. In a way, this fits with their characterizations: once again, Kirsten gets to use performance to heal things, Tyler uses it to break things, while Clark stands still and describes the way things were. That works; that's who they are. However, in proportion to the significance of the conflict, it's rather anticlimactic. We spent plenty of time following Miranda's determination to preserve her artistic integrity and create her masterpiece, the only part of her that survives the death of all things, and the way in which the rival interpretations of her work are left not-quite-resolved leaves a deflated feel.

The actual resolution comes later, when Kirsten reunites with her old friend and rescuer Jeevan, and he says he's happy that his family will get to meet her in person, because for years all they've known of her are his stories, and this time they'll see the real her.

In this beautifully shot, movingly acted, sharply written, captivatingly edited, epically scored version of Station Eleven, that is the final victory over oblivion: the moment when a story comes alive.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Dan Romer's soundtrack, +1 for the power duo of Hiro Murai and Christian Sprenger, who together bring a flawless sense for shot composition.

Penalties: −3 for watering down Tyler's villainy.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Nanoreviews: Grievers, A Master of Djinn

Grievers by adrienne maree brown [AK Press, 2021]

Grievers is a short novel (or long novella?), kicking off a new fiction line from publisher AK Press - whose non fiction I always find super engaging (and I'm always here for a fellow adri!) And it's a tough, slow heartbreak of a book that demands a lot from its reader: the ability to watch a young woman go through tragedy and loss over and over again, the need to respect her decisions, and above all the ability to engage with the novel's perspective on Detroit, in all its complex facets. It is also a pandemic novel, and although the dynamics of its pandemic are pretty different to our present reality (it's unexplained and invariably fatal), the way in which the disease disproportionately hits marginalised communities - in the novel's case, specifically Black people - is very familiar.

The pandemic in Grievers is grief, or something that looks like it: an illness with no known contagion mechanisms, that only affects Black people in Detroit, which sends them without warning, in the middle of ordinary activity, into a catatonic, pain-stricken state. Dune, a queer mixed-race Black woman, has to live through her mother becoming patient zero of this new disease, and without health insurance she is forced to discharge her mother from the hospital early and try to take care of her at home - eventually burning her in a backyard cremation ceremony. From that initial loss, we follow Dune through an increasingly desperate existence as the illness takes over Detroit, and everyone with the means to do so leaves the city. Taking up the activism of her mother and grandparents, Dune begins to chronicle and map out some of the pandemic's effects, while caring for her very ill grandmother and facing the realities of survival. The trauma is relentless, but it doesn't feel voyeuristic or exaggerated; this is a bleak book, but it knows exactly what its doing. Similarly, Dune's decision to stay in Detroit despite the crushing loneliness and threat of illness feels natural to her character, even as we might not understand it as readers. There aren't any answers here - the closing scene is a barely flickering candle against the darkness of the book's premise - but this is a novel with a lot to say regardless, and definitely one to engage with for those looking for outstanding political speculative fiction. I'm going to be watching AK Press' fiction with great interest.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark [Tor Books (US)/Orbit (UK), 2021]

I was expecting a delight going into this novel and Clark's first full-length foray into the "Dead Djinn" universe does not disappoint. Set in an alternate steampunk-y Cairo where djinn and other magic was unleashed in the human world a few decades ago (turning the tide of colonialism and catapulting Egypt into a powerful independent nation in the process), we follow Special Investigator Fatma of The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities as she and her new partner - and some returning friends and Fatma's awesome, mysteriously powerful girlfriend Siti - try to unravel the mysterious murder of a group of British cultists, and the rise of an individual claiming to be Al-Jahiz, the sorcerer who unleashed magic in the first place.

Regular genre readers will know Fatma from the story "A Dead Djinn in Cairo", and A Master of Djinn is very much a direct sequel to that story, to the point where several character beats and items will feel very two-dimensional to readers who haven't experienced that story (it's short and free, and I don't understand why Tor didn't include it in at least the US edition of the book!) Taken as a sequel rather than a series starter in its own right, A Master of Djinn blends its police procedural elements, its magical worldbuilding, and its character work in very satisfying ways, deepening the relationship between Fatma and Siti, giving Fatma a new foil in Hadia, her butt-kicking hijabi partner who gets to call her out on a whole lot of internalised sexist "I work alone" nonsense, and really exploring how the shadow of Western imperialism still looms over this version of Egypt even as the balance of power has shifted away from Europe. Figuring out the mystery a couple of chapters before Fatma was satisfying, but didn't dampen the fun of the climactic chapters. Excellent stuff. 

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

Monday, January 17, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Light Years From Home by Mike Chen

A novel that miraculously bridges people even when they feel light years away.

In these times of 2022, it almost feels like contentment was never something that was available. Any memories of such an opportunity feels stretched back to such a bygone era that when I think of it, it’s distant and scrambled. In Light Years From Home, a family is brought something that seemed unattainable for over a decade: the arrival of a long missing family member. The memories of getting to that point aren’t clear in some characters’ cases, but despite how scrambled it is, it’s miraculous. The story showcases the family coming together in a way that feels messy through difficult circumstances but absolutely clean in its heartfelt humanity. Memories can be scrambled, emotions can peak and sink from the unreliability of human actions, but what makes Light Years From Home such a powerful book is that the mundane yet miraculous instance of finding hope after an expanse of hopelessness is always in the cards, no matter how much time has passed to make it seem like an unattainable wisp.

15 years ago, Jakob was abducted by aliens. His two sisters have different approaches to dealing with the disappearance. Kass dismisses the prospect and assumes he wasn’t abducted but just left as the unreliable person he was. Evie thinks otherwise, devoting her time to studying extraterrestrial life, trying to solve the mystery of her missing brother. Meanwhile, the parents are left in mental shambles. There doesn’t seem to be any developments concerning it for a while until at the start of the novel, Jakob arrives on Earth with a special mission. That mission embroils his sisters in it through incisive developments. 

The characterization is where the story really shines. Whether it’s Evie’s ardent hope that what she’s dedicated her life to is a reality, Kassie’s fed-upness of her family, or the portrayal of Jakob who’s portrayed as making so much growth even though some of him is initially under a veil of mystery. It all works so well. Character arcs move at a pace that makes it so no one feels stuck in a rut. Just about everything feels like their choices align with their personality, making the plot move organically.

One thing to note is that as organic as the developments are, Light Years From Home definitely favors the exploration of familial bonds and human emotions over a rollicking plot. There are seeds for an explosive story here, but Mike Chen holds back, and it mostly worked for this reviewer. Although, there were some times when the vibrancy of the characters wasn’t enough to buoy some slower sections scattered throughout. Despite holding my engagement for the vast majority of the plot, I think it’s worth mentioning that this could very likely be lacking in speculative and action-packed elements to those in search of it.

Despite having a short supply of speculative elements, Light Years From Home is still imaginative through the way it’s able to carry its proceedings through an original voice and some brilliant plot points. It’s a novel full of love with a tenderness that might seem light years from our home. But the more I read about the familiar and cutting specificity of the characters, the more I realized that such a tenderness is still here–it just seems scrambled and distorted. Jakob goes on an interstellar journey, through many light years, surprising you with its direction but ultimately landing at a place that seems new until you realize it’s home.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For its top-notch emotional intelligence.

Negatives: -1 For some slower and less imaginative chapters scattered sparingly.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Chen, Mike. Light Years From Home [MIRA, 2022].

Friday, January 14, 2022

Microreview [book]: Chaos Vector by Megan O'Keefe

A space opera universe of mysteries and intrigue in a backwater solar system.

Megan O Keefe’s Velocity Weapon introduced Sanda and Biran Greeve. While Biran Greeve launched himself, a little unwillingly into solar system politics, seeking to become a Keeper, one of the mysterious power group controlling the interstellar gates, Sanda was the militaristic one, a high flying sergeant on a gunship. Velocity Weapon tells a twisty story where Sanda is lied to and tricked by an AI on an enemy warship, and Biran desperately seeks political power for, primarily, finding out what has happened to his sister. The novel was particularly potent for a "Wham! moment" where Sanda’s understanding of what was happening to her, and why, turned out to be far far different than she knew.

Now, with a solar system seething with potential conflict, Sanda free of her captivity, and Biran in a position of power within the Keepers, Chaos Vector continues the story of these two siblings as revelations and conflicts from the first novel start to well as new mysteries, and yes, new wham moments!

I am being deliberately oblique to the nature of the wham moment in Velocity Weapon, but want to talk about it in a general sense as a concept, because it so colors the book. I was waiting, as I read Chaos Vector, to see if there was going to be a similar rug pull. In retrospect, there were hints leading up to that twist: the author plays fair with what she told the reader, what she “let slip” and so when things came to light, and how the pieces fell into place. 

This novel doesn’t have the single moment that Velocity Weapon has, showing that the author doesn’t want to or need to rely on one large “twist” or revelation in order to make her novels work. There are a number of smaller revelations that make the reader reconsider what has gone before, and rethink more than one character in the narrative. That is what I consider an effective wham moment. Unlike, say, the end of the Mark Wahlberg Planet of the Apes movie which ends in a non-sensical twist, compared to its predecessort at the end of the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes movie. See the difference? Velocity Weapon’s "wham" is in the Heston mode, as are the smaller ones in Chaos Vector.

This novel is far more wide ranging than the first, which had a tight feel with Sanda on a warship as a quasi-prisoner, and Biran mostly planet-bound and seeking paths to power within the Keepers, the trans-solar system group who control the interstellar gates. This novel has Sanda ranging across the solar system on her quest to deal with the chip implanted in her head, and the mysterious location the information is contained on it. And of course, she is on the outs, if not a fugitive, over the escape of that AI starship from the first novel. Sanda gives us a grand tour of the Cronus system, and we get an even clearer and more nuanced look at a solar system divided between an authoritarian government (Prime) on the primary planet, and a number of settlements with varying levels of fealty - or who are outright trying to maintain their independence, like Icarion. Add to that the power of the interstellar Keepers who control the gates and wield power of their own, and O’Keefe provides a complicated and interesting solar system, with surprises and differences and interesting touches throughout.  

Biran, too, gets out of his relative bubble more in this novel. Now that he has a position of power in the Keepers, he has more responsibility, and more adversaries and opponents to his agenda and goals. That means gets to get out and about, although he does feel more cocooned and bound than Sanda is, a reversal of the first novel.  I did also particularly like the small but significant bits of interaction between the siblings. The author enables their interactions across interplanetary distances, a distinct difference from their being firewalled off from each other in the first novel, and the very different but equally ambitious siblings have an intense familial relationship.

The novel is a very contemporary space opera, too, in terms of its characters. Sanda uses a prosthetic leg. One of the new viewpoint characters is non-binary. There are a lot of female characters in positions of authority, and also in conflict with the main character. All of these characters, including the antagonists - in a way, especially the antagonists - are complicated, nuanced and have agendas, goals and drives that make sense and make for multidimensional characters. This is a very well peopled universe, and as fascinating as the solar system is, it's the people who inhabit it who really bring it to life. Whereas Velocity Weapon kept Sanda mostly talking to one character, this is a novel where O’Keefe opens the floodgates on characters. One of Sanda and Biran’s fathers, Graham, gets a lot of play in this novel, and we find out a lot about HIS deal. I kept imagining him in my mind as being played by someone like the actor Tom Wilkinson: someone aging, who has seen a lot, done some things for some very shady people when he was younger, who thought he was “out”, but gets back into his old life to help his children. 

Like the first novel, there is also a small additional point of view, a flash back to the founder of the Keepers, and the entire interstellar society, Alexandra Halston. We got to see a few back in time looks at her life in Velocity Weapon, and here we get more.  It is probably not a spoiler to say here that one of the multiple smaller moments in this novel that makes you reconsider everything occurs during one of her points of view. Even more than the first novel, this, as well as the other revelations, show that O’Keefe continually wants to make us question the base assumptions, revealing an even more complicated, and fraught, universe and setup than what the reader might have thought. This novel, then, even more than the first, is a matter of curtain pulling, and having the reader reassess events and especially characters in a new light. This novel, too, makes some of the details of events in the first novel come to be seen in a new light.

That is, if one can really call it such, the only weakness of the novel. This is a novel that really rewards having recently read or re-read Velocity Weapon. It makes for a tightly bound pair of novels (and I fully expect Catalyst Gate, the third novel, to follow this line) and so starting here in this novel, jumping in mid-series, really means missing a lot. This is a series to read closely, to get the full effect of the revelations and plot twists.  Nevertheless, this is a very successful followup to Velocity Weapon and continuing to solidify O’Keefe’s turn from fantasy into space opera. Readers who are interested in the space opera of today really should be checking out what O’Keefe is doing--but not to start here, but rather to launch into her verse with Velocity Weapon.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for crackerjack plotting and Wham! Moments that keep the reader engaged

+1 for a diverse and interestingly peopled and complex universe

Penalties: -1  Readers who have not read the first book, or not read it recently, may miss some of the power and careful structure of revelations and plot. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


Reference: O'Keefe, Megan. Chaos Vector (Orbit, 2021)

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

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: It Takes Two by Hazelight Studios

A Co-op Delight; Honey We Shrunk Ourselves meets [Insert any RomCom Here]

The Game Awards Game of the Year winner, It Takes Two, asks two players to come together to repair an ailing marriage. In many relationships, poor communication causes the initial bond between partners to break down. Therein lies the crux of the conflict with It Takes Two. Cody and May, fed-up with their relationship, cause their daughter Rose much distress. Rose consults Dr. Hakim’s Book of Love to help bring them back together. With her tears, she binds her parent’s souls into two wooden dolls. Now it’s up to the players to help the protagonists get out of this mess and back to their bodies.

It Takes Two is a mandatory co-op game. Hazelight Studios created a free downloadable pass so that a player who hasn’t purchased the game could still play with a friend who purchased a copy, a genius move. Through clever yet simple quest and level design, Josef Fares’ vision of returning to the couch co-op days of old has paid off. My girlfriend, who was my partner throughout this adventure, hasn’t played many modern games, and she took on the controls with relative ease. Except for a few glitches, there was nothing we couldn’t solve with some solid communication.

Though the aesthetic of each level feels like they were created for the sake of variety, they present varied gameplay that keeps the game from stagnating. The levels flow sequentially in a comprehensive manner and are beautifully detailed. In one level we found ourselves in a toolshed, retrieving parts for a damaged hammer, and in another, we’re off in space fighting Moon Baboon. Most of the gameplay segments last just long enough that they don’t overstay their welcome. It Takes Two covers all kinds of genres over its runtime; platformer, hack and slash, third-person shooter, and even a rhythm segment are included.

In addition to a consistent flow of different video game genres, Hazelight Studios did a wonderful job in ensuring that the gameplay maintained asynchronous tasks for each character. This guarantees two things. The first is that each player has to consider the abilities of not only their character, but of their partner's as well when attempting to solve a puzzle or overcome an enemy, and the second is that it keeps a second run feel fresh in a game with otherwise low replay value (which in this humble reviewer’s mind doesn’t carry much weight, but is nice to have regardless).

Both characters have the same basic controls; jumping, walking, and running are identical for Cody and May. I don’t know who decided to give Cody such a ridiculous running animation, but I thank them for it. Where the characters’ controls differ is in level-specific gear. For instance, one of the earlier segments sees Cody receive some nails that can be thrown and retrieved (think the Leviathan Axe in God of War) while May gets a hammerhead. Cody can throw the nails into specific surfaces that May can then use as platforms to swing from with her hammerhead. Most co-op segments hit the mark well and make both players feel accomplished when a puzzle has been solved.

May and Cody’s animations serve the characters well in representing their out-of-body avatars. When in human form, however, not so much. The uncanny valley effect is especially present in their daughter, Rose, who, for some reason, seems like a weird robotic child. It felt as though the developers had never been around a human child, making me feel less sympathy for Rose’s plight. Cody, May, and Dr. Hakim provide great foils for each character and their banter plays well, but Rose seems like a dead fish that sometimes kills the mood when she becomes the focus of a scene.

Many times throughout the game, Dr. Hakim reiterates that cooperation is the key to getting Cody and May back to their bodies. The gameplay heavily represents this mantra and stands as one of the two pillars for the narrative, the other, as relayed through the cutscenes and dialogue, is about reigniting their romantic spark. As May and Cody repeatedly fumble their chance at freedom, the narrative’s pace moves along steadily, even if the end comes sooner than I expected.

For those players that enjoy a little competition in their co-op games, It Takes Two has that covered as well. Many two-player mini-games sprinkled throughout each level see May and Cody play against each other for a fun little distraction from the main campaign, from chess to shooting galleries, the variety keeps the side content engaging.

It Takes Two has serviceable mechanics that usually do what you want them to. The platforming works well, though it’s no Mario. Once in a while, we would encounter a glitch with the mechanics; a missed rope swing, or a missed grind connection that caused a death. One time my girlfriend got caught under the floor during a boss sequence and I had to finish it off by myself. It was so distracting that I can’t quite remember who or what the boss was, just that I was looking at both screens trying to figure out a way to get her back into the fight. These weren’t game-breaking by any means, as It Takes Two respawns players quickly (even quicker if you can tap the Triangle/Y button quickly) after a death, user error, or not.

Small animation issues and infrequent bugs aside, most of It Takes Two delivers an enjoyable experience for both players involved. I haven’t enjoyed a co-op adventure this much since Portal 2. Though the ending seems inevitable, the journey is more than worth the time invested. From fighting corrupt flowers in lush gardens to combatting talking war-hardened squirrels, the simple premise of making love work through fun and cooperation is embodied in every facet of It Takes Two. The game delivers memorable cooperative fun, so grab a friend or partner, a controller, and one copy of the game. You’re in for a good time.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 9/10

Bonus: +1 for creating clever puzzles and conflicts that consistently keep the game fresh, +1 for free pass to play with a friend.

Penalties: -1 for technical issues, -1 for incredibly predicatble story, -1 for sometimes faulty mechanics.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Microreview [book]: Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

Dark Rise brings some shades of grey to a classic tale of Light vs Dark.

Cover art by Magdalena Pagowska, @lenyan_art

In 1821 London, a teenage boy called Will is on the run from the nobleman who killed his mother. When he is finally captured, he discovers a magical dimension to the world he never knew: a world which, as the last of his bloodline, he may be destined to save from the return of the Dark King.

If this sounds familiar to you, it's not surprising; Dark Rise is a book that proudly shows its influences. The title itself harks back to The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and the story plays with many of the same elements. However, while Pacat very clearly intends Dark Rise as a homage, this is also not an uncomplicated tale of Light vs Dark. Some clever changes have been made to introduce some shades of grey and also to appeal to a more modern audience.

Starting with the protagonist Will. At first glance, he seems very similar to Cooper's version: of humble background, he's the sole descendant of the forces of Light that at great cost (mostly) defeated the Dark in an age long passed. Ignorant of his heritage, he meets with the last remnant of those forces of Light who reveal to him the true magic of the world.

But that is largely where the similarities end. In keeping with a darker, more mature tone, he has been aged up from eleven to seventeen. Instead of the cliched farm boy, Will has had to fend for himself on the streets of London after the death of his mother and has wound up as a dockworker. And while he experiences some intuitive flashes of knowledge, for much of the novel he struggles to access his power, let alone master it. Nevertheless, he continues to present much as one expects of a scion of light: a hard worker with a strong sense of justice and a deep loyalty to his friends.

Which brings us to the second of the main characters. Violet is the bastard daughter of an Englishman, who returned home to his family from India with her in tow. While she and her father's wife barely tolerate each other, Violet looks up to her half-brother. However, Violet remains somewhat naive and at first she doesn't fully understand the character of the nobleman her brother serves. She soon finds out when the ship they're on board is attacked at the docks. At her brother's behest, Violet goes into the hold to defend the ship's cargo, only to discover that cargo is Will.

If you're looking for a kickass female character, Violet's your girl. Not only is she unusually fast and strong, but she is a stalwart friend and stands up for what is right, even when it costs her dearly. The friendship between her and Will was one of the story's strong points for me, particularly since it remained platonic (although both of them have romantic interests of varying degrees elsewhere).

The influences Dark Rise draws upon have by-and-large been predominantly white and heteronormative, things in which Pacat's work has never particularly been interested. Dark Rise is no exception on that front, leading with a diverse cast; Will is bisexual and Violet is far from the only character of colour.

Speaking of white, heteronormative influences, fans will also note some strong Lord of the Rings overtones in some of the set pieces. There is even an equivalent to the One Ring, complete with its Gollum-like keeper.

Perhaps the problem with being a homage to such iconic works of fantasy is that it leaves things feeling a bit generic. Although it's nominally a historic fantasy, any sense of it being set in a distinct time period fades very quickly after the opening.

Pacat's debut novel, Captive Prince, was relatively ground-breaking when it was first released (Australian mainstream publishers putting out previously self-published serial works is still relatively uncommon; explicit m/m romance combined with magic-free fantasy is just about unheard of). But despite the fervour of Pacat's fans, Dark Rise does not hit the same bar for significance. It's a work more in line with Pacat's more recent project. The graphic novel series Fence squeezes in as many sports anime tropes as it can, weaving them into an entertaining, familiar story. Like Fence, Dark Rise is an exploration of core genre tropes.

Even the twist, when it comes, ends up feeling relatively predictable to readers familiar with modern, darker works of YA speculative fiction. Being most familiar with the Australian YA (and YA-adjacent) scene, I found myself particularly thinking of  the work of Jay Kristoff (who, I note, was thanked in the acknowledgements). It remains to be seen whether Dark Rise's twist is merely for the sake of edginess, as it so often feels in Kristoff's work. However, given the careful thought Pacat put into subverting other tropes along the way, I'm optimistic that this is building towards something meaningful.

Its predictability doesn't make for an unengaging read, however. The characters are sympathetic and the plot, while perhaps a touch slow in the middle, feels suitably epic. The twist was carefully foreshadowed and is the sort of thing that will reward rereading. While I can see some flaws, I enjoyed the book immensely.

The Math

Baseline score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the nods to classic fantasy, +1 for the carefully foreshadowed twist.

Penalties:  -1 for its generic predictability.

Nerd coefficient:  8/10

References: Pacat, C.S. Dark Rise (Allen & Unwin, 2021)

Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising (Macmillan, 1973)

Pacat, C.S. Captive Prince (Penguin Random House, 2015)

Pacat, C.S. & the Mad, Joanna. Fence, Vol. 1 (Boom! Box, 2018)

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring (Allen and Unwin, 1954)

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Nerds of a Feather 2022 Awards Eligibility

It feels weird to call 2021 a "successful" year by any metric, but through all the ups and downs of pandemic year two, we're really proud of the work that Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together has put out in the world, from a team of dedicated, thoughtful contributors.

While we're recusing from the Hugo Award's Best Fanzine category this year, all of our flock are individually eligible for Best Fan Writer for their work here, and some of us also write elsewhere. If you're filling out your ballot, we hope you'll take some time to check out what our writers have done, and we particularly want to highlight 2021 output from Arturo Serrano and Sean Dowie as worthy of your consideration. Our two time Best Fan Writer nominee Paul Weimer has also had another excellent year, and we wish him the best of luck for a nomination hat trick!
- Adri, Joe, The G and Vance

Best Related Work
As always, all of our columns and features are eligible for Best Related Work around their 2021 output. We don't normally highlight individual posts beyond our annual projects, but this year there's one piece that we think deserves particular attention:

I'm Colombian. Here's what Encanto Means to Me, by Arturo Serrano

Arturo  review of Disney's Encanto provides a detailed, thorough and nuanced take, from the perspective of a Colombian viewer. We love that Best Related Work is a category that can celebrate genre critique and fan engagement at all lengths and mediums, and this review is one of the best things we've had the honour to publish.

(We also want to shout out Arturo's in-depth deconstruction of WandaVision, which is also an outstanding individual piece of fan writing.)

Best Fan Writer: Here are some of the highlights from our active authors in 2021

Adri Joy (editor)
Note: Adri is pre-emptively recusing from Best Fan Writer, and asks that you consider the work of marginalised creators, especially writers of colour, for your ballot instead. But you can still check out her favourite stuff of 2021:

(Adri also published two reviews at Strange Horizons in 2021: Jade War and The Unbroken)

Andrea Johnson

Dean E.S. Richard
The Godzilla vs Kong Roundtable: A Monsterously Good Time (With G, Joe, Vance)
Two Ships in the Night

Elisabeth Moore
Short Fiction Round Up: June 2021
Summer Reading List

Elizabeth Fitzgerald
Full eligibility post here

Joe DelFranco

Michael Newhouse-Bailey
Check out all of the Thursday Morning Superhero column, especially:

The G (editor)

Monday, January 10, 2022

This is Not a Review of The Book of Boba Fett


Unlike the other properties which I have written non-reviews of, I actually watched this one. That's just the journalistic integrity you get at an Award Winning Fanzine(tm). I also am eschewing my usual weekly post about shows I love, because, well.... The Book of Boba Fett isn't very good. There, I said it. That's your review.

But this isn't a review, because, for very different reasons than Joker, it doesn't need one. This show, I think, was made for me, because if you take a bad-ass killing machine and put it in some sweet armor, you are like 75% of the way there already. It's not good, but am I going to watch every episode on release day? Absolutely. So I am also unqualified to review it.

The problem with TBoBF (aside from that title, dear lord, careful not to cut yourself on your edge, Star Wars), is that it attempts to cruise on Boba Fett's cool factor.

I actually touched on this early on in my Mondays on Mandalore series, but it bears repeating here: Does Boba Fett work without the mask? Just like the Joker, part of that cool factor comes from mystery, and that is exceptionally true of villains and morally grey characters. Boba Fett became the legend that he is (in real life), because he was mysterious and you could imagine any amount of fantastical back story for him. Then we got his back story, and it was dumb.

***Tangent alert***

There has been a lot of chatter lately about how George Lucas would have done the sequels better, which, ok yeah, they weren't great (more on that in a second), but seriously y'all? Did you watch the prequels? Is that what you want? Trade federations and board meetings? Stop it. 

***End of tangent alert***

I guess that's where I sit with TBoBF - it's watchable, I guess. I actually enjoyed the sequels while I was watching them - there are some great scenes and good characters, it's just edited about as well as Suicide Squad. Two episodes in, and I am hoping for more - although I am pretty sure everything right now is just getting us caught up with where Boba is at, and there will be some big twist shortly.

To me, it's a question of intent vs execution - and what it's standing up against. We have had a run of really great Star Wars shows - the conclusion of the Clone Wars, the Bad Batch, and obviously, The Mandolorian. All of those had deep themes and strong emotional cores. Again, maybe it's coming, and this is all preamble, but so far we have a crime lord who hasn't committed any crimes, and is in the middle of Dances with Tusken Raiders. 

It's not unwatchable, but it took off his helmet, put him in pajamas, and tried to sell us on it being the same Boba Fett. Hopefully they get back to him being cool, and fast.

Sorry for all the Futurama gifs

Dean is the author of the 
3024AD series of science fiction stories. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

Microreview [book]: Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire

The latest entry in a series that has ripped and stabbed and warmed my heart all in equal measure.

When I wrote about Every Heart a Doorway six years ago, I wrote about how reading that story is like coming home and that it was very much a novel of my heart. With very limited exceptions, I have loved the five subsequent novellas with most of my heart though nothing has quite captured to the level of that first discovery of the doorways and what they mean. Seanan McGuire’s treatment of portal fantasy and child heroes and requests to “Be Sure” have ripped and stabbed and warmed my heart all in equal measures.

These are stories of children finding their way to doors to magical worlds where they could be heroes and where they might fit in better than they do in their “real” lives and their “real” families. Those magical worlds are seldom actually kind, but the children find spaces where they can be heroes. Not all the children actually come home, but the ones that do find it difficult to adjust and their families seldom understand at all. That’s where schools like Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children come in because Eleanor West knows the doors are real and knows these kids need an opportunity to be truly understood and hope that their doors might still open for them again.

Eleanor West’s is not the only such school, and that’s where Where the Drowned Girls Go comes in. We first met Cora in Beneath the Sugar Sky after she returned to the real world from “The Trenches”, a world where she had been a mermaid and a hero, “bright and brave and beloved”. Beneath the Sugar Sky was an adventure story hopping across multiple worlds and Cora’s story continued as part of a larger story in Come Tumbling Down. Where the Drowned Girls Go deals with the consequences of Cora being a hero.

When Cora helped set the stories of Jack and Jill right in Come Tumbling Down, she met the drowned gods in The Moors and those gods met Cora and they want her back even though she was never theirs to begin with. Even after returning to Eleanor West’s, Cora can still hear their call and she really, really needs to not. Where the Drowned Girls Go is a story of trauma recovery and friendship and more.

Most of it takes place at the Whitethorn Institution, a sister school to Eleanor West’s, a school where they “help” the children forget. It is, in many ways, a mirror to Eleanor West’s and it is very much not a welcoming school but Cora thinks that a change is what she needs to help silence those gods in her head. But Cora is still a hero and things are perhaps not right at the Whitethorn Institution.

Where the Drowned Girls is a remarkable novella. It simultaneously continues specific storylines begun in several of the previous books (including, surprisingly, Across the Green Grass Fields), tells a very specific story for Cora, introduces a whole new school, and quite possibly (and likely) sets up future paths for the Wayward Children to go in future novellas. If I’ve learned nothing else from reading and re-reading Seanan McGuire it is that she doesn’t capriciously introduce things into her stories and something as big and significant as The Whitethorn Institution is absolutely going to come into play again in significant ways. Trust me on that.

I would need to go back and read all of the Wayward Children novellas to be sure (something I might do anyway), but Where the Drowned Girls Go may well be one of my favorite stories of the series, second only to Every Heart a Doorway, though that could be a bit of recency bias. It’s not that any of the Wayward Children novellas are especially soft or kind to their characters, but Where the Drowned Girls Go is even less so. The Whitethorn Institution is especially harsh, even before you look underneath the surface. But, even so - this story of consequence and discovery is exceptional. It is the perfect encapsulation of the series thus far and sets up the future quite deftly.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for McGuire's wit and wisdom

Penalties: No

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10, "very high quality/standout in its category" See more about our scoring system here.

Reference: McGuire, Seanan. Where the Drowned Girls Go [ Publishing, 2021]

Other Reviews
Every Heart a Doorway
Down Among the Sticks and Bones
Beneath the Sugar Sky
In An Absent Dream
Come Tumbling Down
Across the Green Grass Fields

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

Friday, January 7, 2022

Microreview [book]: Sounding Dark by Jo Graham

A diverse set of heroes fighting against an interstellar tyranny combine with inventive and richly mythic worldbuilding

Steel Captain Adelita Massacre has a problem. As one of the captains in the small fleet of the half-pirate, half-freeport world of Eresh, it is her duty to protect her people against the looming Calpurnian threat that might roll like a tide over them at any time. Eresh is a small world, with a tiny fleet, and their freedom is precarious. And so when the Captain investigates the remnants of an attack on the Eresh fleet, she is certain this is the opening gambit in a full scale attack on her world and those she has been charged to protect.

Bister also has a problem. She is the sole survivor after that space battle: but a survivor who lasted far beyond the capacity of her emergency space suit. Even weirder, she is not a Calpurnian or from the Eresh forces at all, but a former Eresh prisoner on board one of the Calpurnian ships, the only one the Eresh  managed to destroy in the conflict. Her inexplicable survival may be tied to her devotion to The Lady of the Void. The Lady of the Void is not commonly revered these days, even on Eresh. But if the Lady had saved Bister...why? And what does she want?

The fate of Adelita, Bister, and the inhabitants of Eresh and beyond may lie in finding and harnessing a legendary ghost ship to help fight the Calpurnians: the titular Sounding Dark.

Sounding Dark starts off first and foremost with an interesting set of characters. Bister, the plot driver for many of the novel's events, is a character who thinks she knows herself, but the unexpected survival puts her on a path that she is winningly both confident and forthright about... and still, humanly vulnerable and unsure what her position and her role really are, or should be. She is also the “well connected” character who forges bonds and connections across the spectrum of Eresh society and gives the reader hooks to understand those she interacts with. She is undoubtedly the heart of the novel and the primary point of view.

Captain Adelita Massacre, as the face of the expedition by Eresh, is the bold and strong starship captain that you wish, even two decades after Captain Janeway, was more common in space opera. I particularly liked her connection to her fellow Captain Tal Robber, who winds up going through some troubles of his own as the Calpurnians move in. As the novel progresses. Tal’s role in the narrative shrinks a bit, and I think that is a bit of a missed opportunity on the part of the novel, but what we see gives a good contrast to the events going on during the search for Sounding Dark. 

And even within the names of those characters, Graham unfolds rich and inventive worldbuilding. Eresh last names relate back to the crimes that got their ancestors deported from Calpurnia in the first place, helping to give Eresh a bit of an Australian feel... if Australia had managed to break away from the British Empire and was under threat of reconquest at any time, but in the meantime Australia was making a living as a trading entrepot. Then there is nearby planet Inanna, where the population has been deemed ‘Tainted’ by the Calpurnians and in theory, are not only restricted in their technology and development, but not allowed to leave (although Bister proves that people can and do escape). My mental attempts as I read the book to pigeonhole it in terms of other works constantly brought up imperfect fits. Sure you could make the Calpurnians into Lois McMaster Bujold’s overpowerful and overweening Cetagandans, but Eresh and Inanna don’t match to Barrayar in any meaningful way. Is Eresh resonant with, say, C.J Cherryh’s Downbelow Station? I think that might be firmer ground, but the political frames don’t quite match--this ‘Downbelow Station’ is *already* free, however precariously. But I do think that readers who like Cherryh’s work will find favor with Graham’s. 

But the major worldbuilding talking point in this book is a spiritual one. What is our relation to the numinous? How do cultures engage with the ineffable? These are questions that human societies have faced since there were human societies. Graham leverages this connection to the numinous to make it a central part of the interstellar civilizations in her novel in a way that much space opera and science fiction in general has struggled to try and deal with. For a long time, and in a large swath of science fiction, a relatively secular future has been the default, if not outright rejection of religion as a force in people’s lives. And even in those SFF worlds where religion and a connection to the numinous was acknowledged, there was often an awkwardness in talking about it and engaging with it as an everyday thing, a natural part of people’s lives. 

Not so in the world of Sounding Dark. There are multiple paths to the numinous within Sounding Dark, and it is a now underexplored one - reverence to the Lady of the Void - that is a key thread of character growth as well as the flow of the plot itself. The glossary at the back fleshes out and illuminates some of how and why this interstellar civilization developed in the way it did. Although I do appreciate it being here at all, and it answered questions I had while reading the novel, I do wish it was a little more enfolded in the narrative itself, because it is such a crucial factor in understanding and seeing how the plot unfolds and how it affects the characters, particularly Bister.

In sum, Jo Graham’s space opera is a richly imagined narrative with a spectrum of relatable heroes who face overwhelming odds with drive, determination, grit, and most powerfully of all, hope. Sounding Dark uses these heroes to buttress a story on multiple levels: a fight against an interstellar tyranny, a search for the meaning of an unexpected survival against all reason, and the story of a lost, ancient connection to a Mystery reforged. With its inventive use of Sumerian motifs in its intriguing worldbuilding, Sounding Dark soars to reach a liminal place on the boundaries of science fiction and myth.

I understand that Graham intends more novels, not with these characters, but elsewhere within the “Nine Worlds”. I am intrigued to see further stories set in this universe.

The Math

Baseline Assessment:7/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong and inventive use of the numinous in the worldbuilding and the makeup of the characters, a real highlight of the novel.

Penalties: -1 Some real roughness with the plotting of a couple of narrative threads

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 

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

Reference: Graham, Jo. Sounding Dark [Candlemark and Gleam, 2021]

Thursday, January 6, 2022

'The Wheel of Time' is an interesting exercise in adaptation

TV networks are searching for "the next Game of Thrones," but The Wheel of Time is playing a different game

After the colossally successful era of Game of Thrones (and its just as colosally divisive final season), it was to be expected that producers would scramble for something to keep feeding an audience still hungry for Medieval shenanigans. An earlier attempt by MTV to make The Shannara Chronicles the next hit resulted in failure (a big part of which can be blamed on the less than stellar source material), while Netflix seems to have struck gold with The Witcher, now on its eagerly awaited second season. In a strange turn inward, both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings have spawned prequel shows, a sign of risk aversion that runs contrary to the adventuring spirit of high fantasy. We can wish them well, for the sake of all artists involved, but the risk of Westeros and Middle Earth burnout cannot be left unmentioned.

Robert Jordan wrote the series of books that comprise The Wheel of Time more or less at the same time as George R. R. Martin started writing A Song of Ice and Fire,  but they are radically different responses to Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's theme of power as a corrupting influence is taken by Martin to ghastly extremes, with hardly any character in Westeros being fully free of the poison of ambition, whereas Jordan did something arguably more interesting: in his world, it's not that power per se is bad; rather, power has been corrupted, and it needs to be saved.

Jordan worked with this metaphor by dividing magic into masculine and feminine halves, and adding a backstory that resulted in masculine magic being tainted and incontrollable. This runs into an essentialist can of worms, on which enough has been commented, but the TV adaptation by Amazon Studios is doing a laudable job of lifting the female characters out of their simplistic archetypes. On another day, we could have a longer discussion on what it means for power to be so rigidly aligned with gender, but since this is already the source material Amazon is working with, we need to ask a different type of questions: what insight on power does a high fantasy show have to convey to current audiences that hasn't been explored by Game of Thrones in gory detail, and what deep truth about humanity can be expressed in a fictional world where masculine power is inherently harmful and deserving of suspicion?

The status quo we find in The Wheel of Time is one where women have been at work trying to repair the world while keeping masculine power in check. This feels like an unstable state of affairs, one imposed temporarily to give the world a chance to heal while people figure out what to do about men. In-universe, this period has lasted for thousands of years, but people are not satisfied with the way things have turned out. It's as if we envisioned a hypothetical future where patriarchy has been dethroned, but things are very much in flux, because a new, lasting structure for social organization has not yet been reached. As much harm as patriarchy is capable of causing, a world where an entire half of the population are viewed as dangerous is not a viable model of society. The journey of restoration that takes place across The Wheel of Time is about finding a way to reintegrate masculine power without throwing the world into darkness. This is a break from recent treatments of related themes. Where Game of Thrones consistently punishes characters for not being cruel and manipulative enough, and The Witcher repeats all the time that humans are the real monsters, The Wheel of Time trusts humans. It's not certain that the world can be fixed, but if anyone's going to do it, it's us.

To properly explore this theme in the 2020s, the first season needed to shed many elements from the original novel The Eye of the World that are no longer as well received as they were in the 1990s. There is less emphasis on traditional gender roles, less hyperfocus on a single protagonist, and less dependence on fate to propel the narrative. In the TV version, the key choice by which our hero Rand saves the world hinges on respecting female autonomy. That is an apt test of character for a male hero in the world of The Wheel of Time, and a smart move by the screenwriters, because, according to the rules set in the novels, masculine magic requires asserting one's will to dominate the flow of power. A quiet family life may be what Rand wants the most, so his true moment of heroism, at the easily suggestible time when he's just learned to wield masculine magic, is the realization that he doesn't want that life if it means superimposing his will over his beloved Egwene's aspirations.

In other words, the story trusts a male character to be responsible and considerate in his use of power. That's a level of humanization that was too often missing in the exhaustingly bleak Game of Thrones. This is not the horrible Dung Ages of impassive tyrants and cutthroat cunning; this is a more enlightened world that is actively in search of healing. The Wheel of Time is gritty, but not grim; and even when it deals with darkness, it does not revel in it. This is a world that used to have advanced technology and peaceful governments, so it is known for a fact that a less cruel life is possible.

However, the path to restoration is anything but easy. The subsequent novels in the series deal with intense scheming and backstabbing within the Aes Sedai sisterhood of witches, as well as the standard amount of palace intrigue between ruling houses. In the first season we get but the briefest glimpse of the entanglements of power play in this world, but so far it doesn't have the normalized dog-eat-dog mentality that made life so dreadful in Westeros.

The Wheel of Time is consciously setting some distance from the show that defined fantasy TV for the last decade, and that's for the better. It is a more hopeful, more empathetic look at the weaknesses of humanity. It benefits from a beautiful choice of shooting locations and a believable cast of heroes whose struggles and frictions are handled with the due maturity. This season is a very good start, and a very good promise for future seasons.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +2 for the brilliant casting of Rosamund Pike, who delivers a precious mix of compassion and toughness, of mystery and vulnerability; +1 for making a sincere effort to update 1990s gender politics to today's sensibilities; +1 for the ethereal feel of Lorne Balfe's soundtrack.

Penalties: −3 for building up to a huge final confrontation that turned out to be inexplicably anticlimactic.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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