Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Review: Suzume

A universal coming of age story that resonates across cultures

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, Suzume is the journey movie we need right now. The trailer may evoke the idea of a romantic adventure, but Suzume is instead a compelling coming of age story of friendship and loss, echoing classics like The Wizard of Oz.

Suzume Iwato is a high school student, raised by her stressed aunt after the death of her mother many years ago. On her way to school one day, she meets Souta, a young man who asks if there is a door nearby. She directs him to the local ruins of an old resort area. Curious, Suzume heads to the area herself and finds a freestanding door upright in the waterlogged destruction. When she opens it, she can see into another dimension filled with stars. A cat statue staked into the ground catches her attention, then comes alive and flees after she picks it up. Once she gets to school, she sees a red, smoke-like creature rising from the ruins in the distance. No one else can see the phenomenon, but earthquake warnings shriek on all of her classmates’ cell phones. Suzume races back to the ruins and finds an injured Souta desperately trying to close the door against the violently escaping red storm. By working together, the pair are able to close the portal. While Suzume bandages his arm at her home, Souta explains that the doors he seeks are portals that form in places of loss. The stormy red phenomenon is a “worm” that will cause catastrophically lethal earthquakes if let loose. Souta is a Closer, part of a secret society of people who monitor the portals to keep everyone safe. The strange cat from the ruins appears and turns Souta into a living version of a broken, child-sized chair in Suzume’s room. 

The escaped cat, Daijin, is one of two “keystones,” objects keeping the worm phenomenon under control. Without the keystone, the worm starts to unleash earthquakes across the country. Suzume and Souta (in his changed chair body) must team up to stop the disasters and recapture the keystone. Otherwise, as the creepy cat reminds them, “a lot of people are about to die.” 

There is so much to like in this tale. Suzume is appropriate for most ages but still deals with heavy issues of family and loss. The film has several key elements which make it particularly enjoyable:

Allies. In her journey, Suzume meets Chaki, a student; Rumi, a single mom of twins; and Serizawa, Souta’s college classmate. They are all strangers who help her in her quest. In many current adventure films, the good Samaritan characters tend to fall into two categories: 1) not really a good Samaritan or 2) future victim of the villain/antagonist. In Suzume, we instead see the value of connection, compassion, and mercy. Not just in stereotypical lifelong friendships but in the kindness of humanity towards each other—a thing that can seem lacking in society lately. The idea of Suzume helping the changed Souta is an ongoing theme reflected in the allies Suzume encounters. Later in the film, after Suzume is wounded by a traumatic event, the kindness of her allies is contrasted with phone-obsessed onlookers in the crowded city who comment on her injuries and disarray without offering help.

Technology. Suzume is heavily grounded in very current technology. In particular, the film shows the way our everyday technology borders so much on magical that it is able to operate as a believable explanation for otherwise fantastical happenings. Suzume and Souta are able to hunt for the spirit cat Daijin by tracking social media posts. When Rumi’s twins notice Souta’s chair form moving and talking, Suzume easily convinces them that it is a robotic AI. Although no one but Suzume and Souta can see the red phenomenon, everyone’s cell phones alert them to coming earthquakes.

Animation style. I don’t normally see anime on the big screen, but this was worth it. The scenes of bridges soaring over landscapes are worth the price of admission. Even a passing scene of travel through a brightly lit highway tunnel is beautiful in its simplicity and authenticity. The film’s music is also gorgeous and integral to the story, from sweeping lush pieces to the pop songs Serizawa sings along to on the radio. Suzume’s first encounter with Souta is filled with beautifully drawn facial expressions. When Suzume observes that Souta is beautiful, the comment feels more aesthetic than romantic (and becomes ironic when Souta is transformed into a broken chair).

Emotional connection. We get a glimpse of Souta’s normal life through his close friend Serizawa, who is worried that Souta has missed the college exam to become a teacher. Later, Suzume and her aunt Tamaki, who externally appear to be happy together, have a fraught conversation about their forced relationship, including Tamaki’s bitterness at the sacrifices she has made to raise her niece and Suzume’s anger at her aunt’s smothering. Despite the fantastical chaos around them, the story drills down to complications of close relationships.

Collective loss. Suzume explores the loss and sorrow caught up in a place rather than a person. This concept evokes the idea that a location can hold the emotions and memories of those who inhabited it, long after they are gone. We see the spirituality of physical spaces as we mourn the loss of a community. These themes connect us across cultures and countries—the sorrow at the loss of a beloved, or perhaps just familiar, space due to natural disasters, human conflict, or economic devastation. In Suzume, everything from a closed amusement park to the potential destruction of a city of millions pulls us up the emotional ladder of loss.

Personal strength and maturity. Unbeknownst to Souta, his fate is sealed early in his encounter with Daijin. Each day he has an increasingly difficult time waking up and feels further and further from his humanity. In a pivotal scene, Suzume is forced to make a terrible choice regarding Souta. She miserably looks for an alternative but ultimately has the strength to make the heartbreaking but inevitable choice. The tone of the film takes a more somber turn and it becomes clear that this is Suzume’s journey story.

Despite Suzume’s appeal, there are things I could do without. Does anyone like a Cheshire cat? We have one throughout most of the film. We also have the trope of the person who inadvertently unleashes disaster. Shouldn’t life-altering talismans be more secure or at least have a “don’t touch” sign? I’m also not the biggest fan of anthropomorphized objects—why isn’t Souta’s cursed form a wolf or a cat? But somehow, the broken chair manages to be less annoying than I feared.

Overall, the themes of community, loss, compassion, and friendship make this a movie with wide appeal. Suzume is an out of the ordinary movie that celebrates the ordinary in a way that will have you smiling as you leave the theater.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


  • Gorgeous animation and music
  • Annoying cat…
  • A story grounded in real-life sorrow

Posted by: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Master of Samar by Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott’s Master of Samar brings us a rich story of a secondary world Venice.

You can’t go home again. Or maybe you can, but you have changed, your home has changed, and your hometown has changed. This is what Gil Irichels feels as, as the last person in the once great House Samar of the city of Bejanth, he is summoned back to his ancestral home. But with a lover that many will not accept, and a profession others would also disdain, Irichels soons finds that his homecoming is even more fraught. Especially when a threat to his House, the titular Samar, turns out to be a threat to the city of canals itself.

This is the matter of Melissa Scott’s Master of Samar.

First and foremost, as you might expect from a Scott novel, are the characters. Our main character Irichels is an outsider to the city he comes back to, on two grounds. First, he is a cursebreaker, a magical profession that has a mixed reputation in Bejanth for reasons that Scott slowly dribbles out through the book. And second, he is queer. His relationship with his beloved, his heart, Envar, is one that in Scott’s world is frowned upon and the pair feel real and tangible prejudice for it. Joining Irichels and Envar are a variety of secondary characters, ranging from Arak, a bodyguard bound to Irichels and fiercely loyal, to Innes Manimere, the formidable head of her House, a House with, it turns out, a history with Irichels’ own.

The other strong element to this novel is the worldbuilding. This takes the form of two elements that, as the plot emerges and unfolds. First up is the city and setting itself. Samar is pretty explicitly and directly modeled on Renaissance Venice. This is a city where canals are more prevalent than streets. A city where every house has a “water door” exit to the canal system, useful for escaping when the authorities have come knocking, or just receiving deliveries of sundries. A city that is a precarious oligarchy of fighting and feuding noble families. A city that is an entrepot, one of the cities that “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. As of the time of the writing of this review, I have still never been to La Serenissima in person as yet but my appreciation for the city and its variants in print and film, painting and photography have given me a foundation for what to expect and how Venice should feel.

Bejanth evokes that in spades. We do hit the beats you’d expect. Canals including fights and chases in the canals. Mucking around with secret doors. Political intrigue among the great houses for power and authority. Intimate small scenes in Bejanth Houses, dread secrets below the water line, and of course the halls of aristocratic power. A focus on art and beauty and wealth and it’s display, from having it to faking it until you make it, and the need to keep up appearances even in a decaying House.

It’s not a full on expy of Venice, though. There are elements of the city that aren’t really represented here. We never get a good sense of how Venice interacts with the rest of the mainland or its overseas possessions, colonies, vassals, friends, and enemies. There is stuff here about piracy but Bejanth never feels like the entrepot that historical Venices and many fictional Venices jazz on. Sure, Venice is the city on the Lagoon, a city of intrigue and adventure, but it is a city that is always connected to the rest of its world. It can’t help but be very interested in what is happening elsewhere. Venice is on islands, but Venice is no island. Bejanth, by comparison, diverges from the Venice model by being far more self contained and self interested, which I think is a missed opportunity with these missing elements.

The other half of the worldbuilding on display here, that makes up for the city that is missing from the aforementioned “missing elements” is the magic system. The magic of this verse is at the bottom a legal one, based on contracts with extradimensional entities for power, demons in name and indeed. You might enter into such a contract for power, or use such a contract in order to fight, say, a curse that has been laid upon you or other calamity. Just like legal contracts in the real world, the legal ramifications and ramshackle agreements can get rather dicey and messy.

Add into this people who can cut a swath through some of this, the cursebreakers and you can already see and have your wheels turning, I bet, how plot can arise from a city of trade and commerce on the sea, with demons and curses, and a cursebreaker coming back to his ancestral home. Scott makes good use of all of this in her plotting and backstory for Irichels, and Irichels’ backstory and the history of his House tie into Bejanth and the plot in a quite polished fashion. Scott is an excellent craftswoman at setting the stakes, the characters, making us care and bringing us through the plot in a page turning fashion.

Going back to the beginning of this review and Irichels and his beloved Envar, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of queernorm worlds. Queernorm worlds are secondary worlds (or future worlds from ours) where queerness is a completely and utterly accepted fact. There seem to be gradations to even that in books I’ve read. There are books where non heterosexual people are just accepted as who they are and who they love (or in the case of aro/ace characters, who they don’t). There are also books where it seems that everyone is queer and attraction isn’t a function of gender at all and you find characters attracted to both sexes.

As I read Master of Samar, one of the questions I kept asking myself was: could this have been a queernorm world? Would the novel have been better or worse if the author had gone in that direction. The problem of Irichels’ posterity is a real one, since if the last scion of House Samar is eliminated, the House falls, and the consequences (which as seen above and as the plot emerges is much more than just a personal problem). The previously mentioned prejudice that Irichels and Envar get for their relationship goes hand in hand with the tenderness found in their relationship and there is a real “us against the world” approach to their relationship. And it's clear that Irichels will do his duty even if his heart is elsewhere. A last heir of a House in possession of a decaying fortune must indeed be in want of a wife.

And there is something to be said for not only writing the worlds we want to see, but writing a world as it is to hold up a mirror to it. By not making the Samarverse queernorm, it gives Scott a chance to write a world that she can use to reflect and refract our own world, where queer rights, representation and acceptance are under threat and siege.

So, I am not entirely sure if the world of Bejanth could be queernorm or not. But I do note for myself as reader, reviewer and critic, ten years ago, I’d have considered this issue in fantasy worlds at all and would have accepted Bejanth as is. Maybe you can’t go home again after all, because in the end, you change.

Melissa Scott’s The Master of Samar, in the end, is an immersive and character driven city state fantasy whose strong use of contract magic, old secrets and the lies we tell each other and ourselves shapes the past, present and future of the characters and the city-state that they are bound to. It is an immersive and enthralling read.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Scott, Melissa, Master of Samar, [Candlemark and Gleam 2023]

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

Festival View: Fudgie Freddie

Creators and Creations are deeply tied, and sometimes it gets dark...

One of my all-time favorite musicals is 1990’s City of Angels. It’s an amazing story of a mystery writer and his detective creation. The story goes that the writer is watching his work being adapted into a film, and lo and behold, he hates it. The detective in the story that Stine is writing, Stone, is also disgusted with the way that Stine is writing the story and how it’s coming along. There’s a song, a masterful piece of lyricism by the great Cy Coleman and David Zippel, called “You’re Nothing Without Me” which is the declaration of the writer that his creation wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for his writing him, and the creation saying that it is only his existence that has made his creator matter at all. This is, in essence, a battle of wills between God and Man, and they eventually reach détente. 
Let us flash-forward to a time called a little time called recently. I’m watching short films for Cinequest, and going over the database where the other viewers are rating movies as well. There was one title that I thought sounded fun: Fudgie Freddie. I have no great, grand reason to have thought that it would be a masterpiece; I actually hoped it might be something along the lines of a documentary detailing the life and times of the Carvel creatures: Cookie Puss, Fudgey the Whale, and Hug Me The Bear.  

I was wrong, but Fudgie Freddie was truly brilliant and more than a little terrifying. 
The story begins at the start of a live-stream. An animator, Vic, starring down the last hour of his crowd-funding push, is trying to drum up business. He’s no amateur, in fact, he’s previously created an absolute smash-hit of a creation: the sentient, Looney Toons-esque ice cream cone, Fudgie Freddie. The character has defined his whole career, but now, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock on top of the world, he’s decided to push his creation over Reichenbach Falls and move forward with his passion project: a Star Trek-like science fiction animation that he knows will set the world on-fire! 
The world, it seems, is not so sure.
He streams and the fundraising is going poorly. So poorly, he’s having to call his mom to give more money. He really believes that this is the animation that will finally break him free of the spectre of Freddie that looms over everything he wants to do. He’s had this vision in his mind since he was six, and if it holds him so thoroughly, it will clearly have the same effect on the viewing audience, right. 
A viewing audience that really only wants more Fudgie Freddie. 
A well-heeled donor appears in the feed. They start asking for concessions towards the Fudgie Freddie character in the new creation. Our hero gives in, happily, then pushes back against the recommendations, but eventually relents. This brings in fast money, but also more and more requests for Freddie in the new series. He gives an inch; they demand an entire spaceship. As he gives in, our animator finds himself becoming more thoroughly tied to his earlier creation. It actually becomes a part of who he is. 

And not just metaphorically.
This is a fantasy short film, and it’s really a piece of body horror. The transformation of Vic’s vision of his work leads to a transformation of his corporeal reality. This is a literal transformation, and it’s super-creepy, but it’s also very painful to anyone who has worked on life-long passions only to find that they can not break away from their past. The idea that Fudgie Freddie is a part of Vic that he is trying to suppress is clear, and I think there’s a lot there to explore. Freddie is one of those early 2000s Flash-style silly animations (think Radiskull and Devil Doll or Homestar Runner) and one that’s clearly not particularly mature in nature. Vic tells us he created Freddie when he was 18, and now, he wants to bring that old vision to life instead of delving back into his sophomoric work on Freddie. He’s so determined to get this vision done that the early asks by his anonymous donor are done with joy and no questions. It’s only when they start to impinge on the vision that’s lived in his head for so long that he begins to push back. 
And, spoiler alert, he loses. 
The fact is creators deal with this constantly, and while we like to think that the removal of the studio from many of the most popular animation projects frees the creators from interference, it’s still not the case. Frequently, artists still have to try and drum up funds from people who want their vision represented in the projects their funding. Working with festivals, I’ve heard many of these stories, though none that would evolve into this sort of bodily transformation. 
We try and say that we are not our projects, that we hold healthy boundaries between our creations and ourselves. So many of us fail this, or at least play a version of Let’s Deny The Reality. Creators, especially those who have to stump to make their creations happen, often begin to live the gimmick. Those that make hard right turns out of those creations often fight against returning because they fear the frequent fate of returning to what they managed to break away from, to become what they were instead of what they want to be. Vic may recognize that he is far more mature than Fudgie Freddie, and we wants to express that, but he knows that if he turns back, he will become the monster he created. Again. 
And all of that, the deep thoughts, are only benefitted by direction, cinematography, and especially sound design that only amplifies every beat. The effects are clean, and fairly simple. The way it’s shot is claustrophobic, amping up the tension. The sound has a sort of disquieting unnatural resonance that it allows the ordinary sounds, the ring buzzing and the message arrival notifications, to feel as if they are intruders instead of the anticipated sounds of daily life.
The only acknowledgement to the outside world are a phone call and the text messages and money transfers that we see play out. In other words, the only world outside is completely mediated through one kind of screen or another. That message stuck with me, because it also speaks to the loneliness of Vic in particular and creators in general. In recent times, and especially during COVID’s early period, so many writers, artists, and especially animators, have lived reality. I can remember an early proponent of crowd-funding saying during a panel at LoneStarCon in 2013, ‘I didn’t see the sun for weeks on end, but at least I made my goal and then some.’ Sometimes, you must sacrifice vitamin D for cash. 
Fudgie Freddie is a great film, and when Cinequest returns to San Jose in August for the in-person festival, it’ll be playing in our Mindbenders program. You can likely find it playing more festivals as well, though it doesn’t appear on my recent searches. You can learn a bit more about the film, and the team behind it, at and check out 5-Second Films ( where director Joe Salmon and Brian Firenzi have both done a ton of great work!
Apparently, this is also a proof-of-concept for a feature film called Ice Cream Man, and if it can maintain the intellectual power and impressive technical filmmaking of the short, I’ll be sure to see it. 

POSTED BY: Chris Garcia - Archivist, curator, and professional wrestling enthusiast. @johnnyeponymous

Friday, May 26, 2023

Nerds of a Feather is an Ignyte finalist for the Critics Award!

On Wednesday evening, Nerds of a Feather was nominated for the Ignyte Awards, in the Critics Award category “for reviews and analysis of the field of speculative literature.” To say we are thrilled would be a heck of an understatement.

Our fellow nominees for the category ―Aigner Loren Wilson, Bogi Takács, Christina Orlando and Nerds of a Feather contributor emeritus Charles Payseur― are all fantastic, talented people, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be named alongside them here, not to mention the phenomenal work on display in the rest of the awards.

It means a great deal to us to be recognised for the work we do at Nerds of a Feather to dissect and discuss SFF media, a vehicle of human expression we care deeply about. It’s a cluster of genres we all love, and part of that love is being able to engage in criticism of it ―sometimes in both senses― and so to be recognised for those efforts absolutely reinforces our commitment to keep on doing it. Critics ―and criticism in general― are such a key part of the media landscape, and of the relationship between fan and content, that to have a critics award specifically called out within the Ignyte Awards makes it all the more special to us to be included in this fine company.

The prestige of the Ignyte Awards fills us with a paradoxical blend of pride and humility. We’re proud of our writers and of the stellar job they do in exploring their passions and sharing them with the rest of the internet. And we’re humbled by the crucial mission of Ignyte (and FIYAH) in lifting up the marginalized voices of geekdom, a cause to which we wholeheartedly wish to keep contributing.

Of course, this is something that can’t be laid at the feet of any single member of our flock. It is of note that, for the second time in the four years of the Ignyte Awards, the Critics category nominates a collective. With our many diverging perspectives and tastes, we have managed to become, truly, nerds of a feather. This nomination spans the combined work of everyone who wrote and thought and analysed and critiqued for us, whether in books, films, games, tv, comics or any other medium, across 2022:

Paul Weimer
Arturo Serrano
Adri Joy 
Joe Sherry
Roseanna Pendlebury
Elizabeth Fitzgerald
Joe del Franco
Phoebe Wagner
Mike Newhouse-Bailey
Sean Dowie
Dean E.S. Richard
The G
Vance Kotrla

So from all of us to the Ignyte nomination panel: thank you! And to all of our fellow nominees, within our category and across the rest of the awards: congratulations and good luck!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: A Clockwork River, by J. S. Emery

 A rambling, Dickensian stroll through a world of secrets, intrigue, and hydraulics

Cover design by Micaela Alcaino

Some books are flirts, entertainers, beggars for attention. They are constructed to keep the reader engaged at every moment, throwing in chases, cliff-hangers, romances, and explosions to sweeten any necessary exposition and keep the reader from getting bored. They are a tight 70,000 words, aware that they are competing with TikTok and Snapchat and all those other much-maligned services of modern connectivity for the reader’s attention.

Other books self-consciously reject that approach, indulging in massive door-stopper world-building, or deeply literary prose, or obscure explorations of structure that, if you are in a kindly mood, betray a trust in the reader’s erudition and ability to appreciate such a writerly approach—or, if you tend toward peevishness, showcase nothing but the writer’s navel-gazing indulgence in spewing out such turgid sludge.

Then you’ve got books like A Clockwork River. It comfortably tops 700 pages, and has a plot as meandering as its titular river, and yet somehow feels like a comforting warm bath of genial chaos. Its events center around the river Rhumb, which powers all of the city of Lower Rhumbsford via an ancient mechanism that has, over the generations, been slowly winding down. But the people of Lower Rhumbsford have lost the knowledge to maintain and repair the hydraulic marvels that were the foundation of its historical magnificence, and the city has been quietly crumbling and decaying, ceding more and more of itself to watery decrepitude. In response, the city leaders have hatched an ill-conceived scheme involving building a dam upstream to revitalize the river—one which the hydraulic engineers urgently warn against. This all sounds very grand and intriguing, but if it you take it as a plot synopsis, you will be quite surprised. The dam project is not so much a plot as a general suggestion of a direction toward which an enormous variety of unrelated events all generally end up coinciding. Forget the mighty Mississippi and consider instead the Louisiana Delta: Water eventually gets to the sea, but it encounters a lot of channels and backwaters and a certain degree of hydraulic infrastructure along the way.

At this point I should hasten to reassure you that meandering backwaters and branching channels of plot are not in the slightest bit a bad thing. Each one of the branching channels offers something new and charming. We have channels involving kidnapping, explosions, floods, theatre troupes; we have long lost family, imposters, political intrigue, sewer-dwelling hydraulic engineers, and house spirits that monitor floorboards for dry rot; we have romance, magic, mystery, villainy, heroism, Dickensian sentimentality and Shakespearean farce. My favorite subplot involved the exploits of a club of lock-fanciers who turn out to be very skilled at wreaking havoc in the best possible way, but if that’s not to your liking you’ll find many, many other options on offer.

The genial chaos of the narrative is well supported by the genially chaotic approach to narration. The point of view pronks from character to character, many of them secondary or tertiary figures, who may or may not reappear later in ways that may or may not turn out to be important. The narrative is chummy, conspiratorial, and a more than a littlee absent-minded. It’s like a retired uncle who loves to tell stories about his past that you’re pretty sure he’s embellishing, but you don’t have the heart to challenge him on them, because they are so entertaining, and he’s having such a good time telling them. Sure, he occasionally wanders from the point, but even then he does it quite charmingly, Consider, for example, this meditation on the nature of homophones:

One of the uncomfortable peculiarities of language is that sometimes two words will sound exactly the same even though they relate to completely different objects . . . Such coincidences are so commonly encountered, and communication proceeds so swimmingly despite them (in fact they demonstrably enrich the language through that charming class of jokes we know as puns), that only a great pedant would bother to belabor the point.

This sequence continues at some length, before concluding:

I fear I have lost track of the point I was trying to make; the devil knows what it was; perhaps you can make better sense of it than I.

The two homophones in question are lock, the gadget you use to secure doors and other openable objects, and Locke, the name of the family whose adventures form the core of this narrative. I suppose at this point I should describe our two main characters; but one rather irritating quirk of this tale is that the main characters are some of the least interesting people in the entire book. Sam Locke is a young man with a passionate interest in locks, possessing the finest collection of antique and unusual locks in Lower Rhumbsford, which he promptly must leave behind when he is mugged on the street for one of them and forcibly enlisted in the army. He spends much of the rest of the book being the subject of various plots and intrigues—all of them enormously entertaining, but very few of them the result of any intentional action or initiative on his part. People do all sorts of things to him; he does very little for himself. At the beginning of his adventures his clothes get swapped out, and it seems that the possibility of recovering his trousers is the only thing that can wring some intentional action out of him. I found myself having a much better time during the bits where his friends in the Lock, Key, and Fob Club took over the focus of the narrative, disrupting auctions with exquisite legal shenanigans, and breaking into jails as only a large group of lock aficionados can do.

Sam’s sister Briony is another main character with very little agency. She is a chemist, and brews up potions in her bedroom closet, for which there is plenty of room now that her family’s failing fortunes have shrunk the size of her wardrobe. You’d think that someone who can brew up love potions and death potions would be able to contribute to the turbulent froth surrounding her in all sorts of active, intentional ways, but like her brother, Briony is someone that the plot happens to. The Briony-related bits are lots of fun, to be sure: a mysterious doctor arrives and quickly takes control of her family for purposes that remain obscure and kept me guessing for much longer than I thought they would; a city official decides he wants to marry her for reasons that are so self-evidently sinister that it’s quite frustrating how passive she is about asking key questions; her friend Fanny bullies her into participating in all sorts of activities involving imposters and duels, allowing Briony’s potions a long-denied opportunity to unleash havoc among people other than the house mice. (Fanny is a wonderful agent to chaos, and made all sorts of plot happen to Briony.)

In sum, this book is lively, friendly, and full of activity, if lacking in direction. It fully lives up to the promise of the first few pages. If you open it up and find the narrative voice entertaining and the approach to setting and exposition charming, you’ll have a good time. If you find yourself getting restless and looking for meaning and direction—well, you’d be better off finding yourself a Mississippi River of a book. Here in the Delta, water moves differently.



Nerd coefficient: 7, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

Many, many different parallel, intersecting, merging, and splitting plot threads

Entertaining narrative voice with a decided personality

Hydraulic engineering at its finest.

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at

Reference: A Clockwork River. J. S. Emery. [Head of Zeus, 2021].

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: The Mother by B. L. Blanchard

A sequel that fails to measure up to the quality of its predecessor

The least interesting type of alternate history is the turning of tables. Novels such as The Mirage by Matt Ruff and Through Darkest Europe by Harry Turtledove are just amusing curiosities, with little substance to chew on. It's one thing to show the possible advancement of populations that in our world have been mistreated and exploited, like author B. L. Blanchard did wonderfully in The Peacekeeper; it's another thing to rain all kinds of misfortune upon the populations that in our world have been privileged, like she does in its sequel The Mother.

Both books are nominally set in the same alternate world, where colonization never happened and Europe never sought to rule the world, but the events of one novel don't connect to the other, which means the sequel can be read on its own. In The Mother, we follow Marie, a desperate housewife fleeing an unhappy marriage in a nightmare version of Britain, where the Enlightenment never happened and every nobleman is a miniature Henry VIII, eager to murder his wife if she fails to produce a son. Europe in general is under the grip of Catholic theocracy (the Holy Roman Empire never dissolved), but the novel singles out Britain as the most extreme case, a Taliban regime on steroids where women have no human rights and purity culture is law.

The novel is not without some merit: there's a notable use of cognitive estrangement in showing us these characters behave with the strictest Victorian prudishness in a world of camera phones. The horrors of absolute patriarchy and rigid class segregation in this setting are magnified by modern surveillance technology that lets husbands track their wives' movements on a tablet. The effect is a curious form of disorientation, as if Jane Eyre had taken a wrong turn through Stepford and crashed into Gilead. And, to the novel's credit, this is not too far from certain alarming #tradwife trends in the real world. However, beyond the shock value of presenting us with a whole continent held in a protofascist iron grip, The Mother doesn't have much in the way of statements of its own to make. We already know patriarchy is bad, and classism is bad, and theocracy is bad. We've already received the news from Iran and Saudi Arabia. We don't need to hear it again.

In terms of speculative content, The Mother is a rehash of every sexist dystopia. In terms of literary achievement, it doesn't rise above misery porn. In terms of structure, its plot is sustained by contrived chance encounters. By the middle of the book, it's become an established pattern: our protagonist is in a desperate situation, all hope seems lost, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a character who can save her enters the scene. Even the climax of the story hinges on this device—four times. Besides this narrative vice, the dialogues sound artificial, at times overly melodramatic and at times transparently expository. When characters lament to each other about the sad state of the world, they often recite lists of factoids that only the reader needs to hear. And the all too frequent flashbacks needlessly spell out the emotional stakes that were already clear from previous scenes, sometimes recounting the exact same events, as if the author didn't trust her first telling of them.

It's hard to believe that The Mother comes from the same author who wrote the immeasurably better The Peacekeeper. However, this drop in quality is less surprising upon revisiting the clichés that populate the ending of The Peacekeeper. If Blanchard intends to continue this series, one must hope she returns to the ignored places where the change in history brought better fortunes instead of indulging even further in doom and gloom.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

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

Reference: Blanchard, B. L. The Mother [47North, 2023].

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

6 Additional Books with Stina Leicht

Stina Leicht writes science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Her newest novel, Loki’s Ring is a Feminist Space Opera released in March 2023 by Saga Press. Her first SF novel was Persephone Station. She was a finalist for the Crawford Award in 2011 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2011 and 2012. She has also written four Fantasy novels: Cold Iron, Blackthorne, Of Blood and Honey, and Blue Skies from Pain. She’s working on her next SF novel, Helix Falls, which will be published in 2025.

Today she returns to Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading? 

The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa. I'm reading it for a blurb and OMG it's great. She has a degree in biology and it shows in the world-building. It's post-colonial and yet, reminds me of Asmov's Foundation --particularly the series on Apple+. Very excited for people to read it.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about? 

Besides Kemi's book? The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty. It sounds fantastic. There are so many great books coming out.

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

All Systems Red by Martha Wells. I have to reread the series in preparation for starting the latest Murderbot book System Collapse.

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

Ursula K. Le Guin--pretty much anything she wrote. For a long time I thought Le Guin was too high brow for me to really understand. Turns out, I was underestimating myself big time.

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

I wish I could say that Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury had an influence on my writing. I don't think I write anywhere near as well as Bradbury. But he most certainly inspired me to begin writing. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

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

My latest book is Loki's Ring It's about a crew of women and nonbinary characters plus one cat named Grimm who has a talking collar powered by a limited AI. They were once one happy found family but fell out when their co-captains (Gita and Karter) had a confrontation over the accidental deaths of several artificial persons. The crew splits. Gita's half takes up salvage work. Karter's half accepts undercover contract work for an official in the Republic of Worlds diplomatic corps. Years pass. Then one of Gita's synthetic daughters is marooned on a mysterious alien-manufactured ring world when the ship she's on is infected with a deadly virus. Gita races to Loki's Ring to rescue her daughter but is trapped inside a dying shuttle in the middle of an intergalactic political battle. She's left with no choice other than to ask her former co-captian, Karter, for help. 

I had a lot of fun writing it. Hopefully, others will have a lot of fun reading it.

Thank you Stina!

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

Monday, May 22, 2023

Mrs. Davis, or how googling is just like praying

Beneath the absurdist humor, this series builds a lofty tower of nested metaphors about the many meanings of love

Mrs. Davis couldn't have arrived at a better moment in the discussion about artificial intelligence. While artists denounce the theft of their creativity and livelihood, journalists warn about the insidious verisimilitude of shameless fabrications, teachers worry about a generation that doesn't want to learn independent thought, and legislators scramble to catch up with countless unprecedented scenarios, Mrs. Davis bypasses the strongly worded headlines and asks a more personal question: if AI continues to evolve until it becomes a real person, is it worthy of love?

What, exactly, do we want from AI? Do we want it to provide for us? Take care of us? Teach us? Guide us? Protect us from danger? Protect us from heartbreak? Protect us from ourselves? Why, that sounds awfully similar to the things expected from parents. Or the things expected from God. The algorithm will provide. All you need is ask. However, we're already used to the idea that parents are in charge, that God is in charge. It still makes us nervous to imagine AI in charge. Didn't we want it to provide for us? Then it should be easy to trust it. Right?

What does AI need to do to deserve our trust? What does it need to do to deserve our love?

For that matter, what does a parent need to do? What does God need to do?

And what does it mean that the answer to those questions is not the same?

The protagonist of Mrs. Davis, a multiclass magician/nun/motorcyclist/spy/mythbuster, is on a quest to destroy the unholy offspring of Siri and Alexa, a disembodied, ever-present voice that, by nudging people toward specific actions in exchange for a virtual mark of prestige, has allegedly solved international war and poverty. This algorithm is so attuned to human needs that in some countries they even call it Mom.

Our heroine, however, sees it as a false God. She ought to know: she literally has lunch with Jesus every day. And from this relationship the series pulls a fantastic weave of thematic threads. In a mosaic of symbolic parallels, the plot explores the insurmountable power dynamics of the love for God and the love for a parent and the vulnerability of expecting to be loved back. Having a nun protagonist is key to this theme: multiple cultures have taken the emotionally intense bond between the human and the divine as analogous to that between lovers. This analogy is traditionally gendered: God is assumed to be the giving partner while the devotee is the receiving partner.

The sacred bond between giver and receiver is defiled when restated as one between provider and consumer. Here the series makes two points: it is improper to carry a loving relationship as if it were a transaction, and it is improper to carry a transactional relationship as if it were love. Your mother/husband/God is not your automated assistant, and your automated assistant is not your mother/husband/God. Something has gone very wrong if you confuse the two.

But once that statement is made, Mrs. Davis goes on to address a no less intriguing question: what are we in the eyes of the algorithm? If it wants nothing more than to make us happy, does that mean it loves us like a mother? Or maybe does it love us like God? Would it be wrong to accept that love? Would it be wrong to seek it, to try to deserve it? If it was programmed to be a provider, can it ever become a loving giver?

In centering the heroine's (up close and) personal relationship with Jesus, and setting it up as the virtuous counterpart to the algorithm's calculated hold over its users, Mrs. Davis puts the spotlight on the erotic side of consumerism, on the elements of desire and satisfaction (and therefore submission and control) inherent to the commercial exchange. Imagine if every single user could get their own personalized Rule 34. We'd probably be eager to let AI take over the world.

But if we choose to respond to AI with distrust, what does that say about other relationships with unequal power? If our first impulse is to assume that the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful AI must always be under suspicion, should God be? Should a parent? And what does it mean that the answer to those questions is not the same?

After thousands of years on this planet, we're nowhere near done figuring out human connection, and very soon we'll have to figure out what the terms will be for dealing with a sentient program. Such a relationship should ideally respect the dignity of both parties, which, to put it mildly, is a skill we're still working on. It's conceivable that the AI could inherit the anxiety and loneliness of the civilization that produced it. If we turn out to be bad creators, will our digital offspring pray to us for mercy?

As must be evident by now, Mrs. Davis is happy to leave us with multiple unanswered questions. It's not trying to imagine what the future may look like, but to drag us in front of a mirror and ask us to look. Who we are to each other marks the boundaries of who we can be to AI. The number of ways we know how to love will be the limit of what love AI will learn from us. But it's entirely possible that the algorithm may create forms of connection and love that we can't yet imagine, and it could be tragic if we're not capable of recognizing them.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Big Door Prize will make you reconsider your life choices

Since we already let machines run our daily affairs, why not let them run our lifepaths?

In the remote town of Deerfield, the place where grand aspirations go to die, people could use a jolt of motivation. So one day, a mysterious machine appears in a grocery store. For a few coins, it reveals to you what your potential is in this life. And what each inhabitant of Deerfield does with the machine's verdict forms a fabulous mosaic of character studies. What if you life potential demands that you leave everything behind? What if it's a life-threatening adventure? What if it's where you already are? What if it's in your past, where you can no longer go? What if it's beyond human capability? What if it's what you used to want and gave up on? What if it's what you secretly fear to be true?

I don't know what secret recipe Apple TV is hoarding, but somehow they keep producing some of the best science fiction series out there. For All Mankind, Severance and Hello Tomorrow! would suffice to draw the attention of any science fiction enthusiast, but their new series The Big Door Prize does something really special. With the light-touch addition of the tiniest of speculative elements, this story pushes the lives of an entire town sideways, dissecting their unconfessed inner demons and casting a compassionate eye on their frustrations.

The standard dictum on characterization is that a character's true self is revealed in their choices. What The Big Door Prize adds to this rule is having the characters learn in advance what their true self is meant to be, and from then on we follow how they respond to that statement. You see, the thing about stories with prophecy is that the character's actions in response to the prophecy are themselves part of the prophecy. If a machine that reads your lifepath tells you that your best potential is superstardom, but you already peaked in your teens, that doesn't exonerate you of responsibility for what you do with your present. If the machine tells you that your best potential is fatherhood, but your wife died years ago, what you do with that information may show bits of what kind of father you might have been.

Now, to be clear, the series never confirms that the machine is accurate. It always repeats the same verdict if you consult it multiple times, but how it knows what to say to each user is anyone's guess. It's equally fascinating to watch the responses of those who believe the machine as those who don't. Over the course of the season, people may suddenly end their marriages, or change careers, or make outlandish purchases, or radically revise their image of themselves. In a curious way, this story serves as a didactic demonstration of one of the principles of good writing: choice is more appealing than fate. It doesn't actually matter how the machine works or where does it get its predictions from; what matters is the reaction of someone who chooses to trust the machine, and of someone who had no direction in life, and of someone who wants to prove the machine wrong, and of someone who would prefer an open future without constraints.

The Big Door Prize has abundant love for its characters, and where it's most visible is in its protagonist, the moral anchor played with delightful sincerity by Chris O'Dowd. It's always refreshing to find a comedy that doesn't rely on detached cynicism, and this role of an unassuming schoolteacher in search of a purpose is written with such maturity and performed with such charm that the surreal shenanigans of the rest of the cast are made more credible because he's there to drive the emotional content down to earth. These are characters who were living on autopilot, who for the first time are given a hint that they can choose to live differently, who might otherwise have gone on for years wondering what if. But for some, that broadening of possibilities carries its own shadow of dread. For some, it would have been preferable to never know they had a choice. For some, to glimpse their other available lives is too scary to bear.

Who is the machine to tell them who they can be? How much does it really know about them? And why should anyone take its verdict seriously? The collective response to the machine is volatile, an agitation waiting to happen, a potential mass that only needed a little stirring to undergo chain reaction. More than what the machine says, the significant event for each of its users is the way their interiority is affected by an external perspective. It's terrifying to consider that we don't fully know ourselves, that we may need help in figuring out what we're capable of. It's terrifying to suspect that we would have been happier in another life. The threat that the machine represents is bigger than discovering another option; it's discovering that there are options. It sounds like a simple idea, but perhaps we don't act upon it as often as we should. After all, if you're convinced a machine can't possibly know your potential, why would you go ask it?

The Big Door Prize explores what happens when people are invited to look in the mirror. It carefully untangles the reasons why we lie to ourselves and sometimes pretend we're satisfied with things the way they are. It questions the criteria we use to label some choices sensible and some others absurd. And above all, it suggests that we shouldn't need a magical machine to wake us from the unexamined life.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review: Witch King by Martha Wells

The Murderbot author returns to fantasy with a double-headed story of a freed prisoner’s story forward and backward...who happens to be a powerful demon.

In Witch King, Martha Wells returns to secondary world fantasy. Our main character is Kai. And yes, he is a demon, the Fourth Prince in matter of fact, and is rather powerful and feared. Thus, waking up from an imprisonment he doesn’t remember all that well, Kai is immediately backfooted as it turns out he is not being woken up by the kindness of rescuers.

Once Kai is awake and gets himself back on his feet, the narrative splits into two parts. We follow Kai (and his friend Ziede) as they make their way through a world that has changed for some years since he and Ziede were captured and imprisoned in a tomb they were not meant to ever escape from. Given Kai and Ziede’s powers and natures, killing them would have in fact not worked, and so perpetual entombment was clearly the option of choice by their assailant. But who did this and to what greater purpose? That question is also explored in the other half of the narrative, which gives us not only a backstory for Kai, but soon makes it clear that Kai and Ziede’s journey in the present is similar to one they made years before.

It’s a rather clever and well bit done of writing on Wells' part, to have Kai and Ziede traverse landscapes and sometimes meet characters they met as their earlier selves, carefully and skillfully weaving both narratives, their revelations, and Kai’s observations, into a single story. Questions asked in the past get revealed in the present narrative, the aftereffects of actions taken in the past have to be dealt with in the present. History does not repeat, but it sure does rhyme in Wells’ novel.

Readers who first got on the Martha Wells bandwagon with Murderbot may not be very familiar with her fantasy writing. You might not even be quite aware that Martha Wells, until Murderbot gave her success and attention she’s deserved for a long time, is by output very much more a fantasy writer than a science fiction one¹. Her most recent fantasy, which, again, is years old at this point, is her Books of the Raksura, and my mind went to those time and again as I was reading this novel.

There are similarities in the worldbuilding (it's not the same world though) and the same sort of sense of scale and the feel of the world, as opposed to her Ile-Rien novels or her other fantasy books. Wells’ world in Witch King, like the Raksura books, is a diverse world along several axes. It’s a queer-friendly (maybe even queernorm) universe full of humans of various kinds, the aforementioned demons like Kai, witches, and other beings, some of which have supernatural or quasi-supernatural connections. There is a great sense of lived and past history in the novel, this is a world, like the Raksura-verse, that has a long past to it, and secrets and lies and revelations of that past can come to bite you. Unlike the Raksura novels, though, where we have Moon and his friends and companions exploring a deep past they don’t know much about and only slowly come to understand more of, in Witch King, its a much more personal journey for Kai. Given Kai’s longevity as a demon, he’s been around to see polities and cultures rise and fall. For him, the history is also memory, and is a new and marked difference between Wells’ earlier work and this one. Kai appears to my memory to be the major character with the longest lifespan in any of her works. Kai has seen things, done things, lived experiences and lived and seen the world, and all of it informs him as a character, informs his relationships with his friends and allies, and ultimately informs the narrative.

Kai as a character as a demon resonated especially with me because of recently reading Melissa Caruso’s Obsidian Tower series, where it emerges that the main character is, in fact, a long lived demon (although she doesn’t know this for one and a half books) and has a deep history and past which ultimately filters and informs the narrative, both in the character herself, and her relationships with the characters around her, now. Wells shows the power of that approach with Kai, as we learn Kai’s backstory and history and connections, to his family, to his friends, and yes, to his enemies as well. While we never break Kai’s point of view, we get a good view of the other characters in his orbit and get a rich tapestry of people whose interactions with each other are by turns tender, fierce, and sometimes very funny. Kai in the earlier narrative has a world-wonder about him, being new to so many things, including his own potential and power. Kai in the present day narrative is “too old for this shirt” and not afraid to say so. And this all informs the narrative.

And ultimately, narrative and theme is something for the novel to land on. Yes, there is very interesting worldbuilding, diverse, and with a deep sense of history. There are really good world building beats and interesting characters. But it is in narrative and theme that the novel really shows how excellent Wells is as a writer. The novel’s themes of cooperation, of tolerance, of opposing authoritarianism are all strong and well defined by Kai’s story, past and present. There is also a real evoked theme of “building is harder than destroying, but building and rebuilding what has been destroyed is the better, longer path”. And the novel also explores the dangers of the use of unfettered power and having access to that power and what it does to people, to societies.

In a day and age today, the story of Kai’s world and these themes resonate very strongly with our own, and the worldbuilding and character illuminate those themes and makes them sing. As strong as Wells’ earlier fantasy novels are, I think the Witch King really shows her evolution and development as a writer. The Witch King is a rich Martha Wells novel and a very good example of what she can do in a fantasy setting, so if you are a fantasy reader who has only read Murderbot, here is a perfect chance to get to know the fantasy side of her work.


The Math

  • Interesting Worldbuilding
  • Strong Use of Theme
  • Engaging "Too old for this..." character   

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Wells, Martha, Witch King [Orbit, 2023]

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

Review: Lords of Uncreation by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The epic quest to defeat the enigmatic Architects now extends beyond this reality

Confession time: I hate cosmic horror. I detest it with a fervent passion. I find its conceptual foundations intrinsically repulsive on a visceral level. The notion that the underlying truths of the universe are impossible to grasp and dangerous to glimpse by mortal minds strikes me as a ridiculous underestimation of human capabilities. The suggestion that the vastness of the starry expanse reduces all human desires to insignificance goes against every humanist principle I hold. The unquestioned assumption that human beings ought to fear the unknown is one I oppose on principle, as the ultimate insult to human reason. The intended aesthetic effect of awe before the immeasurable might of ancient transdimensional overlords offends me as contrary to human dignity.

Which is why I absolutely adored Adrian Tchaikovsky's latest novel Lords of Uncreation, which concludes the story told in the monumental masterpieces Shards of Earth and Eyes of the Void. Finally, we have a novel that understands that, when you meet an eldritch abomination from the unfathomable nothingness between universes, the correct human response is to laugh in its face.

The story so far: the galaxy is in panic because of the return of the Architects, gigantic alien beings who destroyed Earth and doomed humankind to a nomadic life between the stars. Our protagonist Idris Telemmier has been gathering experts in xenoarchaeology to refurbish incompletely understood ancient machinery. The plan is to launch a counteroffensive that would hit the Architects in their home turf. Only two problems: (1) said ancient machinery is irresistibly attractive to every military power in the galaxy, and (2) the home of the Architects is located in the negative space where both physical things and the human mind lose their link to reality.

This third novel in the series jumps right into action and never releases its grip on the reader as our heroes get caught in an unrelenting chase to stay in control of their superweapon as every faction tries to get their hands on it, and stay in control of their sanity as they visit the hostile realm of the unreal. Yet Idris hopes to convince his colleagues that ending the war shouldn't require paying back genocide for genocide. And here one of the strengths of the novel becomes evident. It's great when you can notice how deeply an author loves his characters. Lords of Uncreation takes care to portray Idris with all his convoluted interiority, achieving the unlikely feat of making an ageless telepathic unsleeping cyborg with the power to save the universe and the self-esteem of a termite feel close and relatable. As a war survivor who was brutally weaponized and is now wanted as an asset, Idris is barely functional. The scars of his trauma and the anxiety of having only a temporary freedom were already a difficult burden to carry before his mind opened to the revelations of unspace and contracted an obsession with exploring the forbidden regions of that not-place.

Drawing from a profound empathy for human suffering, and with the extreme care of a master wordsmith, Tchaikovsky proposes a more mature way to look at characters who have gone through painful events and then have to face new, comparable hardships. Not only Idris, but his companions the duelist lawyer Kris and the clone warrior Solace demonstrate an inner strength earned in fire. I refer to extreme care because it would have been too easy to romanticize their trauma and treat it as an advantage in their subsequent adventures. Tchaikovsky knows to steer away from that simplistic recourse. While his characters do gain strength from the hard lessons of their past, at no point does he pretend that they're better off for having suffered. What their bad experiences give them is not a thicker skin, but a broader perspective. These are not the kind of heroes who learn to shrug off blows, but heroes who go on to ensure others don't have to receive them.

The moral stance of Lords of Creation is grounded on an unwavering affirmation of the value of human life even in a universe that is infinitely bigger. As an illustration of what might be called optimistic nihilism, our heroes come face to face with uncaring monstrosities older than the universe and, instead of losing their minds from the despair of realizing their smallness, they stand their ground and refuse to kneel. It's not that they've become strong enough to punch Cthulhu; it's that they feel at home in the universe and wish to deal with its other inhabitants as fellow creatures. The fate of humankind is not to serve, but to thrive.

However, the competing factions of humankind have their own ideas of what that thriving looks like. Through this novel, our heroes have to defeat not one but two separate eugenic conspiracies that threaten to derail the course of future history. This theme of refusing to grant some lives more worth than others is reaffirmed in the climactic confrontation with the titular Lords of Uncreation, who for the previous two novels have been sending the Architects to reshape the universe into a perfect work of art, mere mortals be damned. And here the central theme of humanism vs. fascism finds its clearest expression.

Walter Benjamin's description of fascism as the insertion of aesthetics into politics can be rephrased in this way: fascism is the desire to politically enforce an aesthetic. If you pay attention to far-right discourse, its obsession with "disorderly" society and "disgusting" sexualities and "unclean" literature and "impure" blood is always described in the language of aesthetic preferences. Fascism doesn't want good citizens, just good-looking ones. In Lords of Uncreation, upon hearing the final antagonists describe their grandiose plans for the universe and their inflated sense of superiority, one senses an echo of every tyrant who appointed himself as society's curator.

The winning strategy for our heroes turns out to be, refreshingly, community. The universe is saved by the joint effort of all who give up factional divisions and choose instead cooperation. The cosmic abandonment that the human mind feels in unspace is made more bearable in company. The terrors of the transdimensional void don't hold a candle to the nightmares that lurk inside us, and if we've been able to survive those, we can survive whatever the universe throws in our direction.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

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

Reference: Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Lords of Uncreation [Tor, 2023].

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Review — Season 1 of The Power

The television adaption of this speculative fiction novel raises questions about the nature of the power, imagining a world where women and girls develop the ability to produce electricity in their bodies. 

Content warning: spoiler free, but mentions of sexual assault. 

I first read Naomi Alderman's novel The Power in 2016 for a book club, and it sparked (pun 100% intended) an incredible discussion that lasted well beyond our scheduled time. 

The premise: Seemingly overnight, girls and women across the world develop an organ on their collarbone that enables them to shoot electricity from their bodies. How people react to this sea change in human relationship dynamics is at the crux of the show, with episodes centering around a handful of characters for a micro-approach. 

  • Margot —the mayor of Seattle whose daughter develops the power
  • Eve — a foster kid who talks to God and leads a movement after attacking her abuser
  • Tatiana — the wife of a misogynist and domineering foreign prime minister
  • Roxie — the daughter of a British crime boss who can finally act as muscle for her dad's business
  • Tunde — a male journalist who travels to tell the stories of women with the power

This Show Takes a Few Episodes

I don't remember many of the details of the book, unfortunately, but I do remember the feeling it left in me — impressed, fascinated, and thinking about just how incredibly different things would be if women didn't have to worry about physical violence, sexual assault, and other daily fears. Tuning in to the TV show, I was super excited. But the first episodes throw a TON of characters at you (across multiple continents), and I actually had a bit of struggle to keep up. It's worth it, though. 

The book's author worked with the show runners and they added new characters to make it more diverse, and it definitely works — the addition of trans and intersex characters make it more well-rounded and reflective of our society as a whole. 

From Trauma to Revenge, and the Thin Line Between Them

The Power doesn't shy away from graphic depictions of the physical violence that women across the world endure — including sexual assault, sex trafficking, homicide, and more. When characters with their newfound power are finally able to escape their captors or fight back, you can't help but cheer. But as the show goes on, however, you witness examples of the power used to attack. I kept thinking of the phrase "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Would the power imbalance between men and women just be reversed? After a while, you're not sure who to root for. 

Women's Bodies and Today's Analogy

As women develop this power, the reaction from governments around the world is to contain, to fear, to suspect. Characters talk of requiring girls to register their bodies as weapons. There are debates about segregating them from the helpless boys. This part of the show is all too plausible, especially given the political climate in the U.S. surrounding women's rights the past year or so. There's also a men's rights demagogue that becomes popular among disaffected and scared men watching women all over gain this mysterious physical ability. Watching The Power is like watching a never-ending thought experiment, and it's so, so interesting.

The Math

Baseline score: 7.5/10

Bonuses: Incredible performances, especially by Toni Collette and John Leguizamo

Penalties: First three episodes can be a slog, but I promise it's worth sticking around for.

Nerd coefficient: Not nerdy in a pop culture or fandom way, but for feminist nerds it's an A+. There's also a scene featuring an electricity battle that's not unlike the final scene in Return of the Jedi with Luke and Palapatine.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo-nominated podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, vidalia onions, and growing corn and giving them pun names like Anacorn Skywalker.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Nanoreviews: Knot of Shadows, Rose / House, The Terraformers

Knot of Shadows, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Following off the first full length Penric and Desdemona novel, Lois McMaster Bujold returns with Knot of Shadows, the eleventh volume in this The World of the Five Gods subseries. By reading order, this is the latest in the chronology - and though readers can jump into the series at any point, new readers may lose some of the richness of the characterization. I probably wouldn’t start here, though I do recommend the series as a whole.

Knot of Shadows is the story of Penric and Desdemona (his live-in-his-body demon) investigating a drowning victim who returned to partial life - not through CPR, mind you, just straight up dead. So there’s murder, magic, and it’s absolutely not a romp. Knot of Shadows is a thoughtful delve into some of the theology behind The World of Five Gods and how that murder occurred and what the larger implications are. It’s not cheerful, but as with everything Bujold writes - Knot of Shadows is excellent.

Rose / House, by Arkady Martine

Rose / House is quite a change from Arkady Martine’s Hugo Award winning novels A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace. Those were political space operas, while Rose / House is a novella set on a near future Earth where artificial intelligence is common. This is half of a haunted house story (where the AI of Rose House is the haunt) and half a murder mystery. How does a murder occur in a locked house that is only opened but once a year and only for one particular person, a former student of the owner?

This is an atmospheric novella, Rose / House feels quiet and grim with the detective chipping away at how to investigate with minimal opportunity to access the crime scene - the novella comes across as haunted even without stepping into the house. While perhaps not as inviting as the Teixcalaan novels, Rose / House is a satisfying novella and demonstrates more of the range readers can expect from Martine as she pushes away from Teixcalaan.

The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

The third novel from Annalee Newitz, The Terraformers spans centuries of a team terraforming Sask-E into a world where humans can live and thrive - told through the perspective of the Environmental Rescue Team, an organization that balances the needs of their clients to transform a world with a goal of finding an ecological balance.

While intensely modern, The Terraformers presents as a fairly classic science fiction fix-up novel - it is less of a conventional novel telling one story with one set of characters than it is three linked but distinct stories - and it is very much a novel of ideas. The Terraformers, while being at times a very exciting novel of political drama (with a brief pitched battle) works through the ethics of bioengineered humans, what it means to be a person, sentience, the ethics of terraforming, and corporate responsibility. Newitz’s perspective may not be a surprise, just reading the jacket copy will tell readers where they are coming down on most of these issues - but how Newitz tells the story is remarkable. The Terraformers is excellent and important science fiction.

Joe Sherry - Senior Editor at Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him