Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Interview: Alex Shvartsman

Alex Wallace sits down with Alex Shvartsman, author of Kakistocracy.

What made you start writing?

I’ve been a voracious reader from an early age, and my escapist drug of choice was science fiction. Growing up in the USSR I read everything I could find in translation. I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up, as well as to write stories of my own. However, my family immigrated to the United States and I spoke no English, so I gave up on that dream.

For decades I never thought my English would be good enough to write publishable fiction (I suspect there are still a few acquisitions editors out there today who believe this to be the case), and this caused me to begin my writing journey much later in life than I would have otherwise – in my thirties. I’m very glad I overcame the fear and self-doubt to finally get started on something I’ve wanted to do for almost my entire life.

What books have been most influential on your writing?

There are so many! Off the top of my head I’d name The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Birthright by Mike Resnick, and the collected short fiction of Fredric Brown, but if you ask me this question every day for a year I will probably come up with a slightly different list every time.

What inspired the Conradverse?

I wrote my first Conrad Brent story well over a decade ago and it was one of my first pro sales. The initial idea behind it was inspired by Simon R. Green’s Nightside novels where an arcane version of London was practically a major character. “What would a story look like where Brooklyn plays as important a role as London does in Green’s books? What sort of stories would I tell in such a setting?” Then came the idea of Conrad as a magical Batman—someone who could use various artifacts and interact with magic but had none of his own.

I ended up writing only two Conradverse short stories. In his true trickster fashion, Conrad hoodwinked me into writing novels about him instead.

One of the best moments in my writing journey was getting a blurb from Simon R. Green on the first book in a series, bringing the initial inspiration for it full circle!

Did the choice of a real city as the setting pose any challenges? Was writing the sections in New York different from those in other realms?

I don’t think it’s ever been an impediment for me. On the contrary, New York has so much arcane lore and larger-than-life personalities to inspire storylines, it only made my job easier! I love the city and have lived here for nearly 25 years now, so I could draw from personal experiences, too.

What was the trickiest part of writing Kakistocracy?

There are a lot of different challenges that Conrad is facing in this book. This was by design. So often the characters of a story are laser-focused on the Big Bad at the expense of everything else, but real life rarely works that way. All the issues and troubles facing a person don’t go away just because there’s an even bigger bit of trouble looming. So I wanted to force Conrad to be working on many different things concurrently.

The tricky part was to make all of it feel organic and seamless. The problems needed to intertwine and play off each other just enough, but without it feeling convenient and contrived. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide whether I succeeded, but I certainly put in the elbow grease!

What was the experience of writing a sequel like, compared to writing a standalone?

The second book is often the weak point of the series, and I really wanted to avoid that. You’ve got the setting explained and the pieces set up on the board, but now you have to deliver a solid story while keeping things from getting stale. If the voice of the first book felt original or the setting did, you don’t get as many points for repeating any of that. You have to keep earning the reader’s attention over and over, and that means finding the proper balance between what made them come back to the series in the first place and serving up something fresh.

Shifting gears, you are also known as a translator of stories from Russian. What made you start translating science fiction?

Initially I simply wanted to geek out about the really awesome stories I could read that most of my SF/F-loving friends couldn’t. So I translated a few short stories on a lark (with authors’ permission, of course) and was blown away by the response. Top SF/F short fiction markets wanted them! Readers and reviewers paid attention! There is quite a bit of an appetite for stories from outside the Anglosphere. So I kept at it, until eventually the “real” translation jobs found me—I’ve worked with TV and movie studios, publishing houses, video game companies, etc. But I still love finding short story gems and sharing them with new audiences.

Does translating science fiction specifically pose any challenges?

In many ways, translating speculative fiction is actually easier than translating other genres. You don’t have to work as hard or to dumb things down; the speculative reader is already trained to accept unfamiliar settings and cultures. If they can accept all the background lore of The Lord of the Rings they can surely cope with an occasional new-to-them custom or real-world setting they encounter in a translated story!

I’ve found crime and historical fiction both to be more challenging as they require extensive knowledge of slang and copious amounts of research respectively.

In your experience, does Russian-language science fiction differ from English-language science fiction?

Some of it does, and some of it is a carbon copy of American and British stories (usually from 20+ years earlier.) The trick is to find stories that are unique and are in some way informed by the language and culture of their authors. What would be the point in translating a story that feels and reads just like it was written by an American? There are already plenty of those available. So I try to find the ones that stand out. And since only a tiny fraction of Russian language literature has been translated, almost everything I find worthwhile I can usually get permission to translate.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m in the process of writing a standalone novel that is a space opera retelling of Voltaire’s Candide in the vein of Douglas Adams and Futurama. I’m having a ton of fun with this and if all goes well I should be able to finish this book in early 2024. Then it’s on to the third Conradverse novel!

I also have an anthology I spent much of 2023 editing coming out in November. The Digital Aesthete is a collection of stories about the intersection of AI and art, which is a subject that’s been much discussed in our community. The book mixes stories by headliners like Ken Liu, Jane Espenson, and Adrian Tchaikovsky with many translated works from across the globe (including several from Ukraine!)

There are exciting news on the translation front and short story sales as well that I hope to be able to announce in coming weeks.


POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

Star Wars Subjectivities: The Empire Strikes Back

A film that breaks your heart and teaches you the meaning of a plot twist

The original Star Wars (Star Wars: A New Hope) was a gamechanger for me. Back in 1977, science fiction and fantasy movies and television shows existed, and many of them were very well done. But most required some imagination or a willing suspension of disbelief to fill the gaps between the intended story and the reality of the visual effects.Star Wars was revolutionary in terms of having both fully immersive special effects and an engaging story. Later generations take this for granted. But, back then, Star Wars was an astonishing achievement of narrative, visuals, sound, and music. And the story even had a very satisfying ending. It was hard to imagine a sequel that would live up to that. Then, in 1980, we got The Empire Strikes Back.

As a child, I remember seeing cars backed up on the highway exits, filled with people trying to get to theaters to watch the sequel. We were all looking forward to the new adventures of our Star Wars heroes. However, The Empire Strikes Back represented a profound shift in the tone of the narrative. As the title implies, the characters get an epic beating, including dismemberment, physical and emotional torture, abduction, deathlike freezing, and astonishing heartbreak. The story changes from upbeat to tragic, from adventure to introspection, from trust to betrayal. And when the credits roll, there is no happy ending. We should hate this movie, especially after the energy and optimism of the first film. Instead, The Empire Strikes Back is considered by many to be the best film of the franchise.

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, here is a quick synopsis: After destroying the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance moves its secret base to the ice planet Hoth. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo are fresh from their victory against Darth Vader and the Empire. While Luke is out on patrol, Han tells Leia he has to abandon the rebellion because there’s a bounty on his head. They argue about his leaving and Han teases that Leia is upset because she is in love with him. Meanwhile, Luke is violently attacked by a snow creature. He escapes by using his lightsaber but soon finds himself stranded and freezing to death. Obi Wan appears to him and tells him to find the Jedi master, Yoda. Han finds Luke in the snowstorm and brings him back, reminding Luke that this is the second time he’s saved his life. When the Empire attacks the base, the friends become separated in the ensuing battle. Luke goes to find Yoda on a swamp-like planet. Han and Leia end up in the cloud city of Bespin. Luke trains to become a Jedi but has a vision of his friends being tortured in a city in the clouds. Luke defies Yoda’s warning and abandons his training to try to save them.

Meanwhile, Han and Leia and the others meet up with Han’s rival Lando Calrissian, who is the leader of Bespin. Although friendly at first, Lando betrays Han and delivers them to Darth Vader who tortures them in a successful attempt to lure Luke to him. Han is frozen and given to a bounty hunter. Lando has a change of heart and helps Leia and the others escape, but they are too late to save Han. Luke confronts Vader, who overpowers him and cuts off his hand. Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father and pleads with him to join forces to defeat the emperor. Luke is devastated by the news but refuses to submit to Vader and instead chooses to fall into a chasm rather than stay under his intensifying psychological influence. Leia hears Luke’s voice through the Force and rescues him with the help of Lando and the others. But Han is gone.

The Empire Strikes Back stands out in all of the ways it is different from A New Hope. It ends on a cliffhanger and doesn't follow the traditional story beats normally seen in epic adventures. It's a Shakespearean tragedy complete with heroic fights, family drama, betrayals, and a plot twist that has influenced decades of future films.

We have two new major characters introduced in the film: Yoda and Lando. Yoda is amazing visually and spiritually. He is funny and terrifying, wise and deceitful, small, alien, familiar, strange, powerful, universal. Even the way he speaks—using reverse sentence structure—is hypnotic.

Lando is cynical, pragmatic, the scoundrel with a kind heart. Billy Dee Williams brought energy, irreverence, and charisma to the role. It meant a lot for me to see a person of color on the screen, especially in a role that wasn’t demeaning or tragic. Across the landscape of science fiction films, there are still very few such roles. It saddens me to think how slow the progress has been, even decades later. Even in Star Wars. Several years ago, I took my kids to see Billy Dee Williams at a very crowded Dragon Con in Atlanta. I’m not one for long lines, but we waited to meet him and get his autograph. It was important to me. Like Nichelle Nichols’s gift of Uhura, I just wanted to say thank you—thank you for saying yes to the role, even if it was imperfect.

Another character who appears briefly in the film is Boba Fett. I mention him only because he later takes on a larger role in the expanded Star Wars universe. But in Empire, he is primarily there to show the cold, business-like pragmatism that goes with trading in the lives of people.

Besides the shift in tone and the new characters, Empire is special because of the ‘big’ scenes. Han Solo is tortured by Vader, then frozen in carbonite to be given to a bounty hunter. Just before he is lowered into the freezing chamber, he kisses Leia. As he is pulled away from her, she confesses something: I love you. Given their very contentious relationship, this is a big confession. Han looks back at her and gives her his last words: I know. After watching this iconic scene hundreds of times, I have realized it is more than a romantic exchange. Leia is saying I’m going to save you. And Han is saying I trust you.

But The Empire Strikes Back is best known for the climactic fight scene between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker—the violent, dismembering lightsaber duel where Luke Skywalker gets some really bad news about who he really is. I remember watching this scene in the theater, on a giant screen, as a child: the flash of the lightsabers, the darkness and smoke, the pounding of Darth Vader’s Theme as Vader crushes Luke with flying objects, and then finally severs Luke’s hand leaving him battered and virtually defenseless. Their epic lightsaber duel is my favorite part of the film. Luke is strong and clever, but Vader is a master. The battle takes on a poignancy when we realize Vader doesn’t want to kill him. Conversely, Luke finally gets the chance to take revenge on the monster who killed his father only to find out that his father is the monster—one who is very much alive and murdering people across the galaxy. It is the ultimate plot twist. When I watched Vader say the words “No, I am your father,” my heart raced, my jaw dropped. The revelation is not just stunning on its own; the larger implications are profound. Luke’s father has been mourned and referenced in the prior film but he’s actually alive and he’s the villain. This means that Luke’s allies, Ben and Yoda, have been deliberately lying to him and manipulating him. Everything we thought we knew from the first film has been upended. Decades later, it’s still such a great scene.

Although the big scenes define the film, the quiet moments also deliver a huge emotional payoff:

  • Leia makes the choice to close the shield doors, knowing she is stranding Han and Luke outside in the lethal cold. The camera slowly zooms in on her face as she watches the heavy metal doors closing.

  • As they prepare for the battle of Hoth, Han notices Luke and asks if he is okay. Luke quietly says “yeah” then looks at Han and starts to say something but he stops and remains silent. Han gives him a knowing look. The wordless communication quietly shows their deepening friendship.

  • When Luke gets frustrated with his training, Yoda tells Luke the story of the Force and the way it binds all things together. It is a beautiful soliloquy in the dreamlike swamp setting with the haunting musical score in the background. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

  • Leia and a recovered Luke stand together watching the stars. Luke puts his arm around Leia. It’s meant to seem cliché and optimistic but, in fact, it shows the two heroes looking small, vulnerable, and childlike. Two siblings holding a space for their grief.

  • Every scene with James Earl Jones as Darth Vader is delivered with grim calmness and control. Vader Force-chokes multiple characters in the film, but never lets his emotions rise above irritation. He is cold, quiet perfection in every violent encounter.

The Empire Strikes Back is too sad to be my favorite Star Wars film. That honor goes to The Return of the Jedi (despite the annoying Ewoks) because it has closure. The Empire Strikes Back is not perfect. After four decades, some of the visual effects (even with the CGI updates) and acting seem dated. However, The Empire Strikes Back remains anchored in my psyche as a defining film and a defining moment in my childhood. The story is a reminder that life isn't always fair, the good guys don't always win, friends will betray you, and sorrow and change are a painful but necessary part of growth. The scenery of Hoth, Dagobah, and Bespin are gorgeous. The new characters of Yoda, Lando, and Boba Fett are engaging. The revelations are deep and iconic: two very opposite people love each other; Jedi are not trustworthy; and Luke has very deep father issues. All of this makes The Empire Strikes Back a film for the ages and one of my all-time favorites.

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris - Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie and OG Star Wars fan, who still has the original Star Wars trading cards she bought in grade school.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Alternate Universe 2023 Best Fanzine Hugo Acceptance Speech

The 2023 Hugo Awards were presented on Saturday October 21. The winner for Best Fanzine was Zero Gravity Newsletter and we could not be more excited to see that zine join in the tradition of Hugo Award winners. If we had a glass in our hands right now, we would raise it to RiverFlow, Ling Shizhen, and all of the contributors to Zero Gravity Newsletter.

There is an alternate universe, however, where Nerds of a Feather might have been awarded our second Hugo for Fanzine. Our editor Arturo Serrano was fortunate enough to attend this year's Worldcon in Chengdu, and had the category gone another way, this is the acceptance speech he would have given.

We would like to share it with you as Arturo would have given the speech in his original Spanish. The English translation follows. It represents our overall appreciation through the lens of Arturo's personal perspective.

Team Nerds of a Feather

Buenas noches.

De parte de mis colegas editores y de los fundadores de nuestra página de reseñas, quiero extenderles a los votantes de este premio nuestro más humilde y conmovido agradecimiento, y quiero también renovarles nuestra promesa permanente de compartir nuestro cariño por la imaginación con una voz honesta y una perspectiva informada.

Somos conscientes de que pertenecemos a una comunidad de lectores cada vez más variada y global, y nos tomamos muy en serio la responsabilidad de contribuir al enriquecimiento de esa comunidad.

Recibimos este premio en calidad de aficionados, una categoría que el resto del año parece importar muy poco. Bajo las reglas de votación de los premios Hugo, los aficionados hemos estado cerca de no merecer siquiera asistir a la misma celebración con el resto de autores nominados. Pero resulta que quienes deciden los ganadores de los Hugo no son un comité de jurados prestigiosos: somos todos nosotros. Quienes escribimos desde la posición de aficionados y nos dirigimos a un público hecho de aficionados no debemos sentirnos menos dignos de unirnos a la fiesta. A pesar de que después de esta ceremonia la prensa especializada va a volver a dirigir la mirada a los autores famosos, no se nos puede olvidar que quienes los elevaron hasta esa posición fuimos nosotros; quienes decidieron premiarlos fuimos nosotros.

Los aficionados hacemos los Hugo. Los aficionados somos los Hugo.

Estoy delante de ustedes no solo como miembro de un grupo de reseñistas; estoy delante de ustedes como ciudadano del Tercer Mundo, como espectador de utopías que no se hicieron para nosotros, como comprador de visiones del futuro donde no aparecemos. Pero esta noche, cuando tenemos la mayor variedad de autores nominados en la historia de los premios Hugo, siento que por fin puedo imaginar un futuro en que cualquier niño que juega con muñecos de superhéroes rotos, como lo fui yo, pueda llegar a un escenario como este a hablarles de las historias que lo apasionan, un futuro en que nadie tenga por qué extrañarse de que ese niño venga a hablarles con su voz, con sus palabras, con su ser entero.

Cuando yo escribo mis reseñas, tengo que disfrazar mi voz con el idioma inglés. Pero al menos por esta noche quiero tomarme el derecho a llamarme miembro de esta comunidad hablándoles como yo mismo. Amo las mismas historias que el resto de los presentes, los mismos universos, los mismos héroes. Aunque no sepan qué les estoy diciendo, soy uno más de ustedes.

Y aun así, en un día normal, al momento de tratar de interactuar como iguales, un aficionado como yo (un tercermundista como yo) se puede sentir como una criatura de los clásicos de este género. Nos sentimos como críptidos, como marcianos, como fantasmas que intentan comunicarse con gente que no sospecha que existimos.

Eso no debe volver a pasar. El camino que me condujo a mí a tener un Hugo en las manos es un camino que afortunadamente existe, pero sigue siendo demasiado estrecho. De manera que voy a aprovechar esta rarísima oportunidad, en que mi voz se oye en toda la Tierra, para decirles a los entusiastas de la imaginación que no pudieron entrar a las universidad distinguidas que crean redes de contactos, ni a los talleres de escritores que lo sacan a uno del anonimato, que aquí, tras las candilejas de la fama, hay muchos que compartimos ese mismo origen y que queremos trabajar para hacer más anchas las puertas que nos acogieron.

Quiero que cualquier aficionado del mundo que comparta mi origen, y que haya conocido la frustración de sentirse sin voz, me vea aquí, convertido en uno de los protagonistas de esta fiesta, y se sienta menos desanimado. La belleza de la imaginación está en que todos la tienen, y eso significa que de cualquier rincón ignorado puede surgir la próxima idea maravillosa.

Nuevamente agradezco a los votantes de este premio, agradezco la hospitalidad de esta ciudad y la generosidad del comité organizador de este evento, y por último, agradezco la paciencia de todos los presentes.

Good evening.

On behalf of my fellow editors and the founders of our review website, I want to extend to the voters of this award our humblest and most heartfelt thanks, as well as to reiterate our ever-standing promise to share our passion for imagination with an honest voice and an informed perspective.

We are aware that we belong to an increasingly varied and global community of readers, and our responsibility to contribute to enriching that community is one we take very seriously.

We receive this award as fans, a category that seems to matter very little for the rest of the year. Under the Hugo voting rules, we the fans have been close to not even deserving to attend the same celebration with the rest of nominated authors. But, as it turns out, the ones who decide the Hugo winners are not a committee of prestigious judges: it's all of us. Those of us who write from the position of fans, for an audience composed of fans, should not feel less worthy of joining the party. Even though after this ceremony the specialized press will turn their eyes back at the famous authors, we should not forget that they were lifted to that position by us; they were awarded by our choice.

We the fans make the Hugos. We the fans are the Hugos.

I stand before you not only as a member of a team of reviewers; I stand before you as a citizen of the Third World, as a spectator of utopias that weren't made for us, as a buyer of visions of the future where we don't make an appearance. But tonight, when we have the greatest diversity of nominated authors in the history of the Hugo Awards, I feel like I can finally imagine a future in which any kid who plays with broken superhero dolls, as was my case, can enter a stage such as this one and talk to you about the stories that he's passionate about, a future in which no one should find it strange if that kid comes talking in his voice, with his words, with his entire being.

When I write my reviews, I have to disguise my voice with the English language. But at least for tonight I want to claim the right to call myself a member of this community while talking to you as myself. I love the same stories as everyone present, the same universes, the same heroes. Even if you don't know what I'm telling you, I'm one of you.

And yet, on a normal day, when we try to interact as equals, a fan like me —a Third Worlder like me— can feel like a creature from one of the classics of the genre. We feel like cryptids, like Martians, like ghosts attempting to communicate with people who don't suspect our existence.

That must not happen again. The path that led me to holding a Hugo in my hands is one that fortunately exists, but is still too narrow. So I'm going to take this rarest of opportunities, when my voice is heard across the Earth, to address the enthusiasts of imagination who couldn't enter the distinguished universities that create networks of contacts, or the writing workshops where one is pulled out of anonymity, and tell them that here, under the limelight of fame, many of us share that same origin and want to work to widen the doors that welcomed us.

I want any fan in the world who shares my origin, who has known the frustration of feeling deprived of a voice, to see me here, turned into one of the protagonists of this party, and feel less disheartened. The beauty of imagination lies in the fact that everyone has it, and that means that the next wonderful idea can come from any ignored place.

Once again I thank the voters of this award, I thank the hospitality of this city and the generosity of the organizing committee, and lastly, I thank everyone present for their patience.

Star Wars Subjectivities: A New Hope


Most fans of the Original Trilogy will tell you that The Empire Strikes Back is their favorite entry in the series, and it's not hard to see why. Empire is dark, moody, emotionally wrenching and features several stunning set pieces. Few series have managed to use the requisite "get to Mordor" episode as effectively as Lucas and Kasdan did with Empire. But I'm not here to tell you how great Empire is. I'm here to tell you that its predecessor, Star Wars: A New Hope is in fact the best entry in the series. It is, in every way possible, the perfect blockbuster film.

Some history: George Lucas came from the storied "Movie Brats" generation of filmmakers, which also included Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and Brian De Palma. These directors were as strongly influenced by European New Wave cinema as they were by Hollywood classics. Lucas was perceived by many as the least commercial of the bunch. 1971's THX1138 is dystopian science fiction as visual tone poem. 1973's American Graffiti is melancholic naturalism. Both were well received by critics; neither could boast the box office returns or cultural impact of Jaws or The Godfather.

Star Wars was something different altogether—and, as such, faced serious headwinds in pre-production. Science fiction was out of fashion and the magnitude of the story was difficult for Lucas to communicate in an elevator pitch. Lucas ended up hiring artist Ralph McQuarrie to help storyboard the script. McQuarrie's illustrations brought Lucas' script to life—from Darth Vader to the Millennium Falcon, most of the iconic images we associate with Star Wars emerged from McQuarrie's collaboration with Lucas.

More importantly, McQuarrie helped Lucas build his "world." This was a galaxy ruled by a despotic, militaristic Empire, but hardly totalitarian—rather, Lucas and McQuarrie envisioned an outer rim where Imperial power stretched unevenly; a run-down Wild West populated by farmers, scavengers, smugglers and pirates. This is where the Hero's Journey begins.

Star Wars was in no way, shape or form the first major film to adopt the Hero's Journey narrative structure. But it did inspire decades of retreads that ultimately coalesced in Save the Cat, a beat sheet for film pitches that has arguably made Hollywood blockbusters overly predictable and tedious. It isn't just that Star Wars did it first. Star Wars in many ways contrasts with the typical Save the Cat blockbuster, particularly in the notable lack of exposition.

(Really, if you want to find the prototypical Hero's Journey in popular media, it's The Fellowship of the Ring. Nearly all first films in blockbuster series ape the structure and pace of Tolkien's book—and more recently, Peter Jackon's cinematic interpretation of the book).

Part of what makes Star Wars special is that lack of exposition. As the yellow text scrolls up the screen, we learn this is Episode IV in a longer story. Very little is revealed during the film about the events leading up to Episode IV, aside from this:

  • There was a Galactic Republic ruled by a Senate; an Emperor recently dissolved the Senate and placed administrative authority with regional governors; there is a rebellion against the Empire; its partisans are called The Rebel Alliance.
  • The father of Luke Skywalker fought in something called The Clone Wars and was killed by Darth Vader; Darth Vader and Luke's father were both students of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Master; Jedi —and Darth Vader— can tap into something called the Force to grant extrasensory powers.
  • The Empire has built a new space station called the Death Star; agents of the Rebel Alliance, though, have stolen the schematic blueprints for the Death Star; the Emperor has tasked his henchman Darth Vader with retrieving those plans; Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan is involved with smuggling the plans.

That's it. We don't learn anything about the Galactic Republic. We don't learn anything about the Clone Wars. We don't see or learn anything about the Emperor, other than the fact that he exists. We don't learn what the Force is or why only some people can access it. We don't get any insight into who Darth Vader is aside from his connection to Obi-Wan. Instead, we see these events more or less how someone inside the story would see them—with incomplete information and a lot of priors.

Contrast that with the typical Save the Cat superhero film, which spends 1/3 of its 3 hour run time giving us lengthy origin stories for both hero and villain. Star Wars, by contrast, is briskly paced; the gaps create mystery that ponderous exposition leaves no space for.

Despite taking place right in the middle of a broader story, Star Wars is also a complete film. Lucas didn't know if he would get a chance to make the sequel, so Star Wars has a clear ending. It leaves room for a sequel, but it doesn't per se need one. The Death Star is gone; Darth Vader has been defeated; the Rebel Alliance has saved the Galaxy from a planet-destroying monster.

One of the key drivers for Star Wars' success —and its enduring legacy— are the film's aesthetics. This goes back to McQuarrie and his genius for character and industrial design. Everything from costumes to ship design to electronics to the hallways of the Death Star are absolutely perfect. The Outer Rim is suitably junky; aliens are convincingly nonhuman; Imperial spaces are perfectly crisp and sterile.

The film was made before CGI, so everything is costume and practical effects. Anything is possible with CGI, which unfortunately means designers are free to make things as overly complicated and stupid as they like. Not so Star Wars! Objects (mostly) obey realistic physics; beings move naturally, as if they are real; and industrials designs are mercifully pragmatic.

John Williams's superlative score plays another key role in establishing the mood, setting and overall vibe of Star Wars. I've seen the film so many times, and listened to the soundtrack on its own so many times, that I can basically replay the entire film by humming the score from start to finish. Every theme, every bit of incidental music, fits the narrative perfectly. Or rather, helps shape the narrative perfectly.

Speaking of which, Star Wars is perfectly paced—with just enough high-octane set pieces, pensive interludes and tension-building moments. But the real genius of Star Wars are the characters. Has there ever been an original film that established this many iconic characters in one fell swoop? Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader. I rest my case.

Only there's one more thing...no film in history has been so magical to so many people in such a paradigm-shattering way. This is it, friends. This is the perfect film.


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

Friday, October 27, 2023

Microreview: The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport by Samit Basu

A retelling of a very famous story in a fascinating, far future, slowly decaying city.

Tell me if you've heard this before. A down at the heels "street-rat" and their monkey live in a beautiful, if corrupt city, where the wealthy do well and other people do not. They are contracted by Antim, a high official in the city's administration to find a powerful artifact, an artifact that has an entity that will provide the owner with whatever they desire. But when they get a hold of the artifact themselves, the equation changes completely. And then there is the attractive noble in the palace and their father, both of whom are overawed by that powerful corrupt official...

Except, this is the far future, the monkey is actually a bot and is her brother, and the mysterious narrator of this entire tale is of uncertain provenance themself.

This is the story of Samit Basu's The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport.

I am going to begin at the ending for a change. In the acknowledgements and notes, Samit Basu makes it absolutely clear that this is an interpretation of the story of Aladdin. He makes it absolutely clear when, after setting up our protagonists, he introduces the Jinn, who first manifests and is described in a way that anyone who has seen the Disney cartoon will recognize. And the novel itself eventually invokes Aladdin in other ways as well for the reader to discover. 

But this is no straightforward retelling of Aladdin in the far future. Lina is our Aladdin, but rather than just being a straight up "street-rat", she is the daughter of failed revolutionaries. She is still living hand-to-mouth and has to constantly avoid the authorities who keep tabs on her.  Her brother is a constructed bot in the shape of a monkey. Bador (formerly Danil) has a lot of hopes and plans. Much more than Abu from that cartoon does. Even in a world where bots are common members of society, he does not have what he desperately craves, and that is respect. Oh, and also complete and free rights for bots like himself. He is more than he appears, however, as early on he gets mixed up in a tournament fight between two large Pacific Rim-style bots and is not the hopeless combatant you might expect. Not by a long way.

And of course the Jinn. This is a novel where a lot of technology is indistinguishable from magic, but even so, the Jinn works by means that are mysterious to everyone. It's a powerful AI, and an alien one at at. It has strict and familiar rules (3 "wishes") that can be potentially abused by clever wording. It's not so much a character as a nearly literal deus ex machina.

But if unlike the movie the Jinn is not a character, there is an additional one, and one right in front of the reader. The narrator of this story. One of the themes I've explored in my reviews, learned intently from the 4th Street Fantasy convention, is that point of view solves everything. The choice of POV is important, crucial, and tells as much about the story as anything else. That simple choice (or choices if you go multiple) in who you have to tell your story shapes your novel in intriguing and important ways.

So who is the narrator of this story? It's not Lina or her brother, or even their mother who has big plans for the Jinn and its power. It's not the Jinn, the Jinn is not a character here as it is in the aforementioned movie. The Not-Prince, (our Princess Jasmine analogue) is not the narrator, either. Instead, the narrator is an entity of some kind found at the beginning by Lina and her brother. This entity says it's a "story-bot" but it doesn't truly explain at first what that means (and so we the reader have to figure it out.

The Story-Bot, Moku,  as point of view means we get externality on both the siblings and the action in general and provides us with a "two-shot" sort of look at Shantiport and its denizens, and life.

However, this is an entity that they don't understand, and as things progress and secrets are revealed, Moku themselves aren't quite what they appear, or even think that they are. 

The setting is rich and interesting. Right from the first chapter, we get a view of a complex and complicated far future city that is literally crumbling and sinking, but is in the end, still home. It's a city of power and poverty, of oppression and opportunity. A city where crime lords control swaths of the city and put on fighting tournaments, where tourists from afar come to marvel at the ruins and history of a city that has lasted thousands of years and cycles of history, and where there are ancient secrets and technologies buried in the muck. Basu's writing is immersive, evocative, sensory and it put me as a reader right into Shanti-port. It's a place I would love to visit and photograph...but make no mistake, I'd always have to watch my back.

Even beyond the main characters, Basu peoples this world with a fascinating gallery of characters large and small. While character development and arcs are limited to the main characters, even small roles, like the bot General Nagpoe. Oh, and Tanai. Tanai is a mystery character, a space hero who is powerful, dangerous and has an agenda of his own. Struggles over directing him, neutralizing him, or getting him on side are an important side plot in the novel.

But even more than the interesting characters and setting is the prevailing theme of the novel, a theme that overawed in my mind the other strong virtue And that theme is power.

So, what can one do with "wishes" when dealing with a powerful alien techno-djinn at one's command? There is a lot of debate between the characters as to what to do with such power, and how to keep such power out of the hands of those who would abuse it. There is a lot of matter thinking about the consequences of "Wishes" and the limits of unbridled and sudden change. Shantiport is a tower slowly decaying and sinking, and even an alien techno-djinn cannot solve all of its problems without what might be very harsh consequences for a lot of people. And then there are the questions of what to use the "wishes" for--personal or social reasons. 

As Lina says:

"People really show you who they are when they think you serve them, and they have power over you."

These questions of power, above and beyond the plot and action beats, are what really drive the novel. The core of this story at the end is, for me, about power: What do you do to get it, keep it and what do you do with it? Basu gives us no easy answers and while the main protagonists go well by the experience, there is in the end no "happily ever after". The world, and what they do and what happens is very much a work in progress.

The contemporary novel that The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport reminds me of, on a couple of axes, is The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon.  Again, far future setting in a city that has seen much better days. Again, the technology as nearly magic. Again, artificial intelligences, and their rights, powers, prerequisites, and goals as strong actors in the narrative. Again, dangerous quests mixed with a street-level concern for the citizens of the city-state. The other work both works are in dialogue with is Saad Houssain's The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, which again has AIs, magic, technology and a far future setting. Both Archive and this novel have huge bots thundering around the landscape. The Kathmandu of The Gurkha and Shant-port are very much panopticons by the authorities and trying to avoid that notice is plot-relevant and important.  And all three have a mythic resonance. Archive has AIs as Gods. Gurkha has a Djinn King. This novel has mysterious alien Techno-djinn, a story structure based on the Arabian Nights and like the other two, puts that blend of science and magic (or indistinguishable from magic science) on high and comes up with a very spicy and tangy result. 


The Math

Highlights: Strong retelling of Aladdin, techno magic worldbuilding melds wonderfully with setting,  excellent ponderings of the costs of power and change

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Basu, Samit, The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport, [Tordotcom, 2023]

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

Thursday, October 26, 2023

6 Books with Freya Marske

Photo by Kris Arnold

Freya Marske is the author of A Power Unbound, A Restless Truth, and A Marvellous Light, which was an international bestseller and won the Romantic Novel Award for Fantasy. Her work has appeared in Analog and has been shortlisted for three Aurealis Awards. She is also a Hugo-nominated podcaster, and won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. She lives in Australia.

Today she tells us about her Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

Some time in the last year I've become a horror reader, after assuming for a long time that I wouldn't be because I was far too much of a wuss to watch horror films. Turns out I was wrong! So now I'm having a wonderful time working out my tastes in a brand new genre. Right now, I'm almost done with my third book by Catriona Ward: her latest, Looking Glass Sound. This is a twisty, atmospheric, metafictional book that's sort of about a tragedy that takes place during a boy's holiday at the Maine seaside, and sort of about the fight over who gets to own and manipulate and publish that narrative several decades later. Every one of Ward's books is a unique and amazing creation which bends my mind around a few corners, and this is no exception.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I've been watching my mail impatiently for a promised ARC of Not Here To Make Friends, the third book in Jodi McAlister's 'Marry Me, Juliet' series. This is a really fun and tropetastic series of contemporary Australian romances, all set during the filming of a Bachelor-like dating reality TV show. I've loved the first two books in the series, and they've put me into a fever of anticipation for this third one: the story of the series villain and a long-suffering producer with whom she has a secret history. McAlister knows exactly what she's doing when it comes to constructing a good romance, and it's always a wonderful feeling to get to read something set in Australia given how US&UK-centric the genre usually is.

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

Many years ago, Shelley Parker-Chan kindly sent me a very-very-advance copy of a manuscript entitled She Who Became The Sun, for which the publication deal hadn't even been announced yet. I remember blasting through it in a single weekend, utterly enraptured by the story's propulsive craft, and knowing that it was going to be big. Now that the sequel, He Who Drowned The World, has been released, I'm looking forward to revisiting the first book before I dive into completing the duology. Shelly has an absolutely masterful way of simply telling a good story, and is far more willing than I am to put their characters (and readers) through agony along the way. I'm already donning my emotional armour in readiness to be deliciously destroyed.

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

It took me a long time to come around on the genre of romance. Not because I didn't enjoy love stories – I kept circling back to SFF books which had strong romantic plots, without questioning what it was about them that I found so appealing – but because I still had a mental block of misconceptions about Romance being a silly genre for silly girls. The authors that helped change my mind on romance were Courtney Milan, KJ Charles and Georgette Heyer. The experience of reading my first Heyer, Cotillion, was like sinking slowly into a warm bath full of bubbles. I couldn't believe I'd been denying myself such a straightforward pleasure, and the books of such an incredibly talented humorist, for so long.

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

I can't tell you how many times I read and reread The Little White Horse, a historical fantasy novel by Elizabeth Goudge. In many ways it's a kind-hearted Gothic – a young girl arrives at a grand house and starts uncovering its secrets – and I loved the depiction of a small English town full of interesting people, and a historical cycle of heartbreak and magic that the heroine is determined to break. I can definitely see the echo of it in my own writing. (It also has some absolutely wonderful lengthy descriptions of the food and drink served at parties and picnics, which I firmly believe are always a great addition to a book.)

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

My latest book is coming out in November! A Power Unbound is the final book in the Last Binding trilogy, which is a series of queer romances cunningly disguised as a historical fantasy series set in Edwardian England. This third book pulls together all the main characters from the first two, and plunges them headfirst into heists and courtroom dramas and magical houses and bloody rituals. And it also contains the most turbulent and passionate (and kinky) of the three romances so far: the push-and-pull between Lord Hawthorn, posh sarcastic asshole who Would Like To Be Excluded From This Narrative, and Alanzo Rossi, working-class journalist and official enemy of the aristocracy. It's a bittersweet feeling to be leaving the series behind, but I'm wildly proud of this one!

Thank you Freya!

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea

Review: A Power Unbound by Freya Marske

Building on what comes before, a heady blend of adventure, politics and personal growth... with not a little flirting and sex thrown in for good measure.

A Marvellous Light, the first in Freya Marske's trilogy of queer Edwardian fantasy romances, was also my first ever review on Nerds of a Feather, lo those whole two years ago. It really doesn't feel that long at all, especially with regard to this series - three books across those two years is not to be sneezed at. And now we get to see the trilogy as a thing whole and complete, as well as go "ooh another book" and devour it whole (as I may or may not have done).

But I'll start with A Power Unbound simply as itself, rather than as the culmination of the series. As was teased relatively heavily before the book came out, it follows two characters we already knew - Lord Hawthorn, who has featured in both previous book, and Alan(zo) Ross(i) whom we met in the second installment - who had me tipping my head to one side and pulling a face when I found out. Because it is an... interesting pairing, to say the least. They have very different backgrounds, aims, pursuits, contexts, and, most critically, classes and they very much did not get on when last we met them. How... exactly is that going to work?

Well, the answer lies in a criticism I had of A Restless Truth, in fact. Where there, Marske dabbled briefly into examining the politics of the players in her world - peers and posh nearly all, bar one - but stopped short of actually interrogating it, here she's actually taken a full step into that thorny bush of problems. For all that romantasy in the style she's writing is relatively recently in vogue, she's also playing with tropes and settings that abound in non-magical romance stories, and one of those is, as she begins with, a set of characters who all come from the very upper echelons of society. Peerages everywhere. Can't walk through a room without stepping on a lord. And there's a lot to be said (and has been said by people who engage far more thoroughly with romance as a genre than I do) about what that means, when we fill our stories with only the tiniest percentage of the people in the world we're talking about. We get to play in beautiful settings - country manors with fashionable wallpaper and lovingly landscaped gardens - and gad about the country without needing to think of the cost, or the jobs our characters ought to be attending. But... it's a fiction, on top of the fiction we're already consuming. It hides behind it all the pain and suffering and struggle atop which those peers sit. And Marske does, in bits, pick up on this in her second book, without ever being fully willing to grasp the nettle.

But once you cast one of your two love interests as someone outside of that tiny circle of privilege, you do just have to go for it. And she does. And so she solves - to an extent (I'll come back to this) - her personality problem by making it explicitly somewhat political. Jack and Alan's relationship is entirely built on their respective places in the social hierarchy. It starts and ends with Alan being willing to tell Jack to his face that he's a rich bastard, and the reader having to sit with that, fully ponder it, as we get spelled out throughout the book what that truly means in a romantic relationship. What someone in Jack's position might take away from someone, the harm they could do. And what someone in Alan's might have to be willing to tolerate for the sake of simple survival.

And she lets it get incredibly messy.

Because these are two people for whom politics, sex, romance and conflict are all bundled together in a chaotic heap, with both of their coping mechanisms gearing towards bickering and sexual interests that intersect very very heavily with their contexts in life. And so, by focusing us on the politics upon which so much of this rests, she manages to create a very tight atmosphere and a palpable sexual tension that rockets you through the story... unless you pause to really think about it, that is.

Which is my "to an extent". For the duration of the book, especially if you read it in two hurried sittings, you can totally buy into what she's doing. You can enjoy the sniping and the sarcasm and the building heat of their interactions. It absolutely works. It ties in beautifully with a lot of what's happening in the world. But... when you come away from it after finishing the book, when you let it settle in your mind for a bit, you can't help but be convinced it won't last. That they don't really work together, at least not in the secure way the previous couples have. They're both, in and of themselves, really great characters, and their relationship developing is fascinating, but there's something not quite right about it, that feels like there's no chance it'll stand the test of time. Not so much happily ever after as happily for now.

But they are both great characters, individually, and for all that doubt, if you can focus purely on what happens in the book as it happens, it's an awful lot of fun. Their dynamic being such a confrontational one means there's a huge opportunity for banter and snark, and Marske does this exceptionally, while critically managing to stay on the right side of the line so neither of them says anything truly unforgiveable for the reader. They're assholes, but they're only assholes, not actually awful. This is particularly true for Hawthorn, who has been a sarcastic bastard throughout the series, and now gets to undermine that a little with his inner monologue, while continuing to be the same jackass we've known and loved throughout. For him, it was always going to be tricky trying to humanise him without overdoing it - yes, he's had some bad shit happen to him throughout his life, but if we push too hard into "actually he's all mushy on the inside", it ruins the fun. But she manages to tread the careful line both for the sake of his personality, and for allowing him to have genuine, traumatic life events while still having the narrative hold him somewhat accountable for his enormous privilege.

Alan though... Alan is just fascinating. There's a whole essay you could write about Alan and attraction and sex. The man has a lot going on. But in a story that is so wholly dominated by rich people and rich people problems, where he has to carry the entire weight of "so hey, remember the majority of the population isn't like this", he manages to do so while still being such a delight to read.

One of the ways in which his character - and his relationship with Jack - is resolved though is through the lens of sex, and this is where we start to see things veering off a little from the previous two... because there's a lot more sex, and a lot sooner, for the POV characters in this than previously. It makes sense in context - they're different people who are just much less het up about sex being the end point of a pre-existing romantic dynamic than other characters have been - but it gives the book a whole different pacing and vibe than what you might have expected going in. The sex is also rather less... vanilla. Which isn't to say it's a full kinkfest (it's really really not), but things have definitely kicked up a notch, even while looping back to some content we saw right from the beginning in book 1.

For me personally, this was a bit of a downside. Not because I don't think it ought to have been there - I think as a lens onto the characters it's incredibly useful and realistic, this is the relationship they would absolutely have - but simply because I am, in general, a massive sucker for pining. And neither of the two characters falling for one another here are capable of pining in any meaningful way. It's not in their nature. So if you love them, if you love how they relate, then it's a plus, because it is such an accurate, well-drawn reflection of them. But for me... it held the place of other things I'd have wanted to see more, even as I knew they made no sense. Preferences like this don't have to be logical.

But it is also emblematic a little of the series - where the first two are somewhat in lockstep in how they approach many things, the third takes a bit of a turn. It's more political, it's sexier, and it's more willing to look outside the bounds of the relationship that's happening and instead focus on a lot wider ramifications. Some of this was inevitable for the conclusion of a trilogy - we need that resolution to all the threads that have been teased out beforehand - but some of it does feel like it represents a true shift. It feels as though, in this book, Marske is interested in different things, different characters, different parts of her world, and while neither approach is better than the other, it's that change that feels a little... odd. Not bad, just unexpected.

That being said, there were some things that felt a little wedged in at the end that possibly could have done with a bit more work to make them fit. We gain a new character about two thirds of the way into the book, who changes an awful lot, who has an awful lot of information, and there simply isn't time to process most of it because we've got the crescendo of all the events of the series to deal with. Likewise, by getting to that crescendo, by getting all the information from various places that has to lock together to get us there, we get this sudden rush of all sorts of stuff that just never gets bedded down. The "other types of magic" that have been teased from book one, the things Flora Sutton was good at and that Edwin was so fascinated by, really needed fleshing out a bit more by the end of things. Not necessarily giving us answers, but defining the scope of the questions, would have been enough.

But this is often the way with trilogies, it's just disappointing when another one doesn't quite manage to land the ending. And it's most of the way there, it has most of the parts, we just have had so much time being able to acclimatise to new information through all the previous content that when we're deprived of that here, it feels all the worse for it. I'm hard-pressed to hold it against it too much though. I just had so much fun for so much of it, and for so much of the series, and the characters are so fun, and there's so much promise... I'm willing to forgive a little chaotic mess at the ending. It's not perfect, but it's still a great time, and without going into too much detail on exactly how it all goes down, I very much like the spirit of the choices made, even if not always the execution.

What I do think though, is that for all the changes in this entry into the series felt like a shift from what came before, maybe jarringly so, they're all good changes, they're things it's so worth exploring in stories like these, and I hope they speak to how future Marske books will go. Because the more I think about it, the more I would have loved this more thoughtful approach throughout the series - it's something so many fantasy/historical novels are sorely lacking, and there's so much more she could do with it, with time and maybe a new series or perspective character to play with. A whole series from someone like Alan Ross? Amazing. And so I keep my fingers crossed for more books from her, with more of this right from the start, so we can see how far she can run with it.


The Math

Highlights: Genuine engagement with the politics and inequalities of the time period, Jack Alston - snarkiest bastard in England, return to some very enjoyable background characters from book one

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: A Power Unbound, Freya Marske [Pan Macmillan, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Microreview [Video Game]: Alan Wake Remastered by Remedy Entertainment

Just wait for Alan Wake 2.

Alan Wake
was one of those games I never got around to on my Xbox 360. After three Red Rings of Death, I decided to give up on the console and, by extension, any exclusive games I had yet to play on it. Within the past few months, the recently released (2021) remaster of Alan Wake was offered up on PlayStation Plus, so I figured I’d give it a shot with the next game releasing on my birthday. I must say, despite all the curiosity I’ve built up over the years, I was rather disappointed.

Alan Wake
begins with the titular character arriving at the Twin Peaks-esque Bright Falls in search of an escape from his ridiculously long two-year writing block. Visually, the game looks fine. It’s an updated version of the 2010 game so I wasn’t expecting an overhaul. To be clear, this is a remaster, not a remake. Some of the animations range from decent to awful, and the same can be said for the rest of the game. The game doesn’t hold up particularly well in this regard, but it isn’t atrocious. The best visual moments I experienced were when I was surrounded by darkness, but then again, flaws are easily concealed with deep shadows. Though I want to give the game a pass due to age, it came out in the same year as Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, and Mass Effect 2. Not to mention a few years after the likes of Uncharted, Bioshock, and Gears of War. Alan Wake was aged when it was originally released, and it carries over into the remaster here.

And all of this would be fine and dandy were everything else top tier, but that isn’t the case. The gameplay is two-pronged; the gun combat can be enjoyable, but the traversal is irritating. Eliminating a group of enemies by shining a light on them until they’re weakened is a unique mechanic that takes a bit of strategy to manage (particularly when there are more enemies on screen). Shining a light on an enemy not only briefly stops/slows an enemy, but eventually allows Alan to eliminate them. Using a flashlight, flash-bang grenades, flares, and flare guns to cast out the darkness can be exhilarating. In some instances, however, it can be frustrating. Whenever the game decided to spawn enemies behind me without a visual or audio cue, I wasn’t frightened, only annoyed. Nothing like getting hit by an axe out of nowhere. This happens frequently throughout the adventure but isn’t as egregious as the poltergeist props in the game. Oh boy. At some point in the story, random things fly at and attack Alan. It wasn’t a fun mechanic to navigate and I hope to never see it in another game again.

Many of the irritating gameplay elements would have been tolerable were it not for the traversal input. Alan feels fine when aiming and shooting (for the most part). When he needs to run, you will constantly find him running out of breath and slowing down. This is, in my opinion, the most irritating aspect of the game. Stamina meters make sense for some games, they can force a balance between a player’s skill and a character’s power (in Souls games, for instance). In this game, it’s just a hindrance. It doesn’t build tension, and it doesn’t keep Alan’s power in check. It makes him an annoying weakling, and the sound of his panting became grating over time. And let me not forget about the unreliable dodging mechanics. I’d still get hit with an axe while trying to dodge. Fun.

Once again, this would all be fine if the story was captivating to the point that I couldn't put the game down. And, once again, this is not the case. Alan Wake is a jerk to most people, and in some cases is completely insufferable. Some of the other characters, like Barry, are given significantly bigger roles than they should have. I didn't laugh when the game attempted humor, I wasn’t shocked or upset when someone got hurt. The pacing wasn’t great and I found myself uninvested. This was one of those stories where I wasn’t sure if what was happening was real or imagined. Unfortunately, that’s my least favorite type of storytelling, and I was no wiser by the end. The final scene of the game ends with an ambiguous line that does nothing to pull it all together.

Though much of this review comes across as negative, I will say this; the game works. It can be frustrating at times, and I did run into a few areas where I needed to reload the last checkpoint due to getting stuck in the geometry, but overall, it does what it needs to do. The soundtrack is decent with a few standout songs, my favorite being “The Poet and the Muse”. While Alan Wake’s basic premise revolves around the age-old “save a helpless woman” trope, its story becomes a bit of a convoluted mess that Alan couldn't write himself out of. I understand what Remedy was going for here, but they couldn’t stick the landing. When I completed the game, I decided I didn’t even want to bother with the downloadable content. I just looked it up instead. I’ve heard great praise for Control, so I’m eager to see if the studio has evolved since Alan Wake, which may prod me to eventually try Alan Wake 2. But as it is, I wouldn’t recommend this game to anyone who has no nostalgic attachment to the title. If you reminisce frequently about Alan and Barry, then this is the best way to play a game that hasn’t aged too well.


The Math

Objective Assessment: 5/10

Bonus: +1 for flashlight/gun gameplay. +1 for some catchy soundtrack songs.

Penalties: - 2 for everything else.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10

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.

Star Wars Subjectivities: Revenge of the Sith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people don't love the Star Wars prequels.

The exception to this, of course, is Revenge of the Sith.

Or so the common discourse runs. I actually disagree with it — all of the prequels are absolutely beloved, especially by the younger millennials who were raised with them. These movies are their Star Wars, not unlike how the sequel trilogy is the Star Wars for people born in the early 2000s. 

But yes, Revenge of the Sith is exceptionally good. And in this essay, I'll try to convince you of it too, based on my love for it.

I saw ROTS when I was 21 and in my last year of college. I took my girlfriend at the time who had never seen a single Star War. And while I remember her being essentially confused and bemused the entire time, she overall enjoyed it. I loved it, though it would take a few years before it would cement as one of my Star Wars favorites.

I’ve chosen for this essay not to go back and rewatch it, instead will parse my memory for the things that are hardwired in there. As a caveat, I’ve seen it probably 50 times — far less than the number of rewatches of the original trilogy, but still insanely more many times than the average human. 

A Love Reignited by a Subreddit

And honestly what sparked my love of the prequels is the r/PrequelMemes subreddit. I had seen the movies on opening day, as any loyal Star Wars fan is contractually obligated to do, and occasionally rewatched them on cable when they popped up on TV while I was in law school. 

Following and engaging with the subreddit (which as of September 2023 has 2.6+ million members!) taught me to appreciate the subtleties of the prequels, and to mold and re-mold jokes and observations using the raw text of Star Wars. Who among us (in America, at least) hasn’t quoted “So this is liberty dies — to thunderous applause” when watching election night results?

After laughing and participating in the absurd r/PrequelMemes, I found myself wanting to go back and rewatch the movies — a desire to sort of mine for primary sources, to find more fodder for silly Star Wars memes. Is the dialogue wooden? Yes, of course it is. Is the CGI ridiculous? Obviously. 

Truth in Memes

But somewhere along the way, I fell in love. Because I love lists, I’d like to frame why I love Revenge of the Sith in 5 memes — but they’ll be absolutely earnest.

1. Have you ever heard of Darth Plagueis the Wise?

I have spent the better part of 2 decades trying to understand all of the prequels’ plot minutiae. I mostly have it down pat. Shiv Palpatine is a Sith lord who masterminds a clone war rise to power as Emperor. I get that, but I have more questions. He discovers Anakin as a boy and eventually grooms him to become his dark apprentice over the course of a decade.

Was that part of the plan or just a happy accident? How could he have known how attached he’d grow to Padme? Etc. Etc. 

Someone more well-versed in the lore may know those answers, but at the end of the day, they’re not terribly important.

What is important is that Anakin is expertly manipulated by Palpatine and this scene, which takes place at a space ballet called Squid Lake, is what seals the deal for Anakin’s fate. He states his obsessive and all-consuming fear of losing Padme, and good old Shiv feeds him the line he needs to hear — I can teach you to transcend death, all you have to do is turn to the dark side. 

Watching Anakin fall is an important part of the entire Star Wars story because it gives context to the monster he becomes. In the original trilogy, Darth Vader is a baddie, full stop. When you watch A New Hope, you’re not even sure he’s a man — he may be a robot! 

Instead, we watch a 22-year-old man with complex trauma sell his soul to an abuser for the promise of helping save his wife’s life. Poor Anakin.

2. This is where the fun begins

In A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells Luke his father was the greatest pilot in the galaxy. In the opening scene of ROTS, which is among one of the coolest depictions of a space battle in the entire series, we see Anakin in his element. 

It’s maybe the last time we see him happy in the movie — hell, even in the two other prequels he doesn’t get a ton of positive moments. He’s good at his job, he works with his best friend, and Anakin is just plain having fun. 

I like how this opening scene shows the life Anakin could have lived had everything not happened. A Jedi out gallivanting and saving lives, secretly in love with a hot senator, and just vibing. 

3. Hello there

Ewan McGregor’s performance as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of the strongest through-currents running through all of the prequels, but his performance in Revenge of the Sith is absolutely divine. 

The movie is about Anakin, that is undeniable. But how Obi-Wan reacts in slow-motion to Anakin’s downfall is what sells it. 

The “Hello there!” scene is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of comic relief — a wink to Alec Guinness “Hello there” to Luke in A New Hope.

Watching him put on his best Alec Guinness impersonation for three movies is an utter delight, but by ROTS McGregor has crafted Obi-Wan into his own thing, and it’s handsome and charming and kind and haughty all rolled into one. 

4. I am the Senate

One of the cool things about ROTS is how you cannot divorce it from the tenor of the times in which it was filmed. In 2005, at the height of the Iraq War on G.W. Bush’s tenure as president in the U.S., George Lucas had some thoughts, it’s pretty clear, and you can read so much into this movie. Unwanted wars, abuses of power, the jingoistic nationalism, the distrust of intellectualism — it’s all laid out against the backdrop of a failing space democracy. 

5. Nooooooooo

Is this a silly scene? Absolutely. 

Do I think it’s crucial to the story of Darth Vader? Also yes. 

Over the course of ROTS, We witness all of the horrible things that Anakin does that destroy his soul — the slaughter, the betrayal, the blind rage. 

But one of the ways we know that he’s never truly 100% gone is in this deeply funny scene in which he shouts into the ether fresh off the slab like Frankenstein's monster.

How do we know that he's not entirely gone?

Because his NOOOOOO shows he hasn’t gone willingly to his fate. A truly evil person would take their rage and distill it, discarding all aspects of their former life and dreams and eager to do Palp's dirty work.

Instead, we still see Anakin for a brief moment, only now trapped in a cloak of iron and bidden to the will of Palpatine. We saw this in his dejected kneeling after he finished murdering Jedi — ”Just help me save Padme's life.” 

He hates it. He can see it's wrong. But he knows he has ruined everything, killed everyone. And there’s nothing left. 

Over the next 20 years, I believe Darth Vader runs of 98% utter dejection, 1% rage, and 1% pure Anakin at heart, which is how he ultimately gets redeemed.  

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning 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.