Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: The Gods Awoke by Marie Vibbert

A fantasy world where, much to the surprise of the characters, the gods they have long worshipped become manifest. Oh, and the gods too, are rather surprised...

Illoehenderen has a problem. Illoe is a bonded servant to a high priest but Illoe’s contract is nearly up and Illoe’s future is uncertain. There are many, including a powerful and rich scion, who think that Illoe is just kept around for their looks, and it is unseemly for the high priest to keep someone like that as an assistant. Is the high priest sleeping with Illoe or just keeping them around as eye candy? And when the gods that both Illoe and the high priest pay lip service to as part of their jobs actually start manifesting for real, Illoe has even more problems.

But, you see, I’ve been somewhat deceptive and perhaps played on your expectations. For, you see, Illoe is a man, the high priest is a woman, the gods are all women, and this society is a matriarchy.

This is the story of Marie Vibbert’s The Gods Awoke.

Since I playfully went with confusing expectations in the first paragraph, the first aspect I want to discuss in the book is the social and gender dynamics of the novel. Although the book came out in 2022, the book’s world feels like a fantasy genderflipped version of the politics of sex and gender we saw through the 1990s in America. Some men have some roles in political and social life, but the implication that the men who do have positions of any power have gotten there by sleeping their way to the top. Or that an attractive man in any position under a woman is clearly there for ogling and perhaps more.

But it is not exact. In some ways this society is more restrictive. Illoe’s contract, for example, his indentured servitude , complete with stipulations regarding finding him a wife, come off as even more regressive than Clinton-era social dynamics. But the idea that men could be more than ornaments or house providers, a sense of them trying to break boundaries and stereotypes, is definitely of the water of the time.

And the language is deliberate. Hitra, the aforementioned priest that Illoe works for, is called a high priest, not a high priestess. The gods themselves, although they are all female in aspect, call themselves gods and not goddesses. By deliberately using language in this way, it feels like the author is calling out the social and political use of language in her fantasy world in an exacting way. Although Hitra never says the phrase when accused of sleeping with Illoe, I kept thinking of a version of the famous Bill Clinton line “I did not have sex with that man”. In point of fact, Hitra is a fascinating character, a very put upon high priest with a lot on her plate. Illoe not so cheerfully runs and organizes her life in a way that definitely is meant to invoke the stereotype of the powerful executive who can't function without his gorgeous secretary.

The novel does feel like it is definitely trying to resonate with that era and its social politics in another respect, and that is in how it handles queerness. To be blunt and frank, there is nearly no queerness at all in the book, and the revelation that a secondary character with little screentime IS queer is treated as a shocking reveal that causes much consternation and debate. But again, this feels much like it is capturing the politics and mores of the time and transplanting them into this fantasy world.

The rest of the worldbuilding shows interest and some clever filips, some of which become very plot relevant. The technology level feels pre-industrial in most respects, there are no hints of railroads or steam power, here. In this fantasy world, however, the technological innovation has focused on the major piece of consistent magic harnessed by this society and that is telepathic communication. Not everyone can communicate telepathically, and in general, given this matriarchal society, women are seen, even when there is evidence to the contrary, to be better at such arts than men. But telepathy has its limits on distance and effectiveness, and so people are set up as living routers to extend the range and effectiveness of telepathic calls. It seems to be a low ranked job meant for men rather than women, but it does allow for people to communicate across the city in a more effective manner than by sending messages. It may be my own background, but I was reminded of my late mother’s job as a switchboard operator at a hospital. Not a glamorous job and not one that most people would think highly of, or think highly of the people doing such work. But of course, a city wide network of routers for telepathy, where communication is taken for granted, can be turned on its head and turned to plot when that reliability for a character is put into question.

But let’s talk about the gods, since The Gods Awoke is, in fact, the name of this book and while the social and sexual politics of the book are interesting, the sociological dynamics of a world where the gods, paid lip service to by some and devoutly worshipped by others (and still others are outright atheists) suddenly appear is an interesting core thread. For all that this story is about Illoe and his major social problem of his contract being up, the main thrust of the story, is Senne. Senne is one of the titular Gods that awoke. And in fact, Senne is our point of view character, which drops us in a somewhat unusual position of having a non omniscient god point of view to Illoe, Hitra and the other characters of the book. Even as we do that, Senne (and the other gods) , having spontaneously manifested, are themselves rather alarmed, confused and unsure of what they are and what they can do. Senne’s attempts to get a hold of herself fills the book, and sometimes, Senne’s powers and control cause problems for the hapless mortals she is trying to connect with.

And of course there is the big question, one that the gods do ponder but don’t really have a good answer for: Why? Why did the gods awaken, and how, and what does it mean? The book doesn’t spend much on this, Senne is much more interested in what she can do, and trying to do things, but there is definitely a strand of “Well, how did I get here?”. But “what they are” is a more pressing concern and problem.

I want to pick up the “what they are” and extend that to “who they are” as well. Senne, Wenne (Queen of the Gods) and the others are a rich and interesting pantheon, and the book makes clear there is much lore, history, mythology and theology regards the gods, their stories, backgrounds, depictions,art and more. So what happens when these gods actually, well, awoke? The gods themselves aren’t quite sure what to make of the situation. They “know” the stories that have been told about them, but having been conjured up, somehow, they don’t *feel* them quite as much as memories. And that’s true of all of their personalities, and it leads to some interesting perceptional shifts. Wenne is supposed to be the Queen of the Gods and so tries to take charge. Our POV, Senne, is supposed to be a villain, even as she is the second most powerful god, but she doesn’t feel like a villain. Self interested and directed, yes, absolutely. On the first page of the book, Senne falls for Illoe and his plight, and that drives a lot of the book. But a villain? Is that who Senne herself thinks she is? And what happens when her actions turn out to be unintentionally harmful?

In the bottom line however, The Gods Awoke, for all of its crunchy theology, for all of its gender flipping politics and exploration, is a fun story about a young man trying desperately to carve a place in the world, and getting unexpected hindrance and help from a god, gods, that are suddenly real.


The Math

  • Interesting theological and teleological setup.
  • Genderflipped Clintonian Political setup

Reference: Vibbert, Marie, The Gods Awoke [Journey Press, 2022]

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

Thursday, December 28, 2023

On the bittersweet sincerity of Carol & the End of the World

Yes, yes, we know, the world is ending, but do you really need that bucket list?

In the world where Carol Kohl lives, the days of humankind are numbered. A rogue planet will crash against Earth in just a few months, and there's no way to avoid it. Governments have collapsed; money has lost all meaning; shops and streets have become lawless playgrounds; and everyone is frantically squeezing all the excitement they can get out of their precious last months.

Everyone except mild-mannered, gentle Carol. If you ask her what she wants to do with the quickly shortening rest of her life, she'll have a hard time deciding what to say. While her parents are out on a cruise ship with their new lover, her school friends are going on spiritual self-discovery adventures, and her sister paraglides across the world, Carol would rather just sit at a cafeteria and have a relaxed evening. She has no stomach for wild parties or car races or last-second impulse tattoos. That whole "seize the day" ethos ends up seizing too much of you. Yes, life is short and we only get one, but what's the rush? You may call Carol depressed, but isn't it a sign of a deeper malaise to be constantly in a state of pursuing the next exhilarating, unforgettable thrill?

However, even Carol eventually finds her bliss, and it's hidden in what is apparently the only company still in operation. Every morning, she puts on her business suit, drives through the noise of improvised concerts and public orgies, under the ever-growing silhouette of the approaching planet that will put an end to everything, and sits at a desk to look at a computer screen and type numbers. What does the company sell? It doesn't matter. It's not the result that motivates her to get out of bed. It's the safety of the familiar. It's the distraction from the imminence of death.

Carol & the End of the World weaves the most caustic nihilism with a deep compassion in an unlikely mix of emotional punches that hit hard, but never low. If, as the scriptwriting manuals say, true character is manifested at times of crisis, this animated limited series pushes its characters to the ultimate stress point and forces them to disclose their sincerest selves. But Carol doesn't even need to be at the top of the world to show us who she is. We hear all the time of people who go windsurfing and mountaineering and backpacking in search of awesome, but what of those who are satisfied with nice? What right does the adrenaline junkie have to pity the tranquil?

The treatment of characters in Carol & the End of the World is a difficult needle to thread: the script is funny enough to let us see them at their limit, but aware enough to not fall into mockery. We're meant to laugh at the absurdity of mortality, but not at these characters who are doing their best to keep their head in one piece while civilization falls irreversibly apart. It's as if the plot of Don't Look Up happened to the cast of Please Like Me. It's simultaneously hilarious and painful and ridiculous and poignant and impossible and true. It's beautiful.

Of the works of science fiction that delve into social commentary, the best are those that describe the real, everyday world at just the right distance to expose the strange bits we haven't noticed. Yes, this life is indeed very weird. We're not all that different from the inhabitants of Carol's world; the only change is that their memento mori is plain to see, a huge ball of rock hanging in the sky. So the question that this show is asking us to consider is not "What if we had a permanent reminder of our mortality?" No, that's already the world we live in. We already know our time is finite, and we're bombarded with exhortations to make the most of it.

Nor is the question "If we know for a fact that we're going to die, why hasn't our society blown up like this?" No, it's not that, because, again, that's already the society we have. We're awash in the cultural messages that warn against regret and urge us to collect souvenirs of what this world has to offer. Every bookstore has its version of "1001 dishes/museums/singers/beaches/cocktails you have to try before you die." But do we have to, if we're being honest? Why treat life as a scavenger hunt game where you're counted as a loser until you've done it all? What's so wrong with wanting little?

Despite Carol's quiet contentment at finding a thing to do with her final days, the office atmosphere can still use some improvement. And here is where Carol shines: what she brings to work is a dose of much-needed human connection. Keeping your mind distracted from the ever-present horror of death won't do the trick; you need others to endure it with.

Which is basically what life in this world of ours feels like. It doesn't matter if you suspect everyone else is having more fun than you. It doesn't even matter if they truly are. Sometimes sitting on a park bench and having a soda with a stranger is enough. Sometimes late night TV is enough. It's all going to vanish in the end anyway. Faced with the approaching shadow of eternal oblivion, the fact that there's a you at all is enough.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Baldur's Gate 3

A game with heart, soul and um... well definitely some other body parts too. It may be horny but there's plenty of good story underneath all the outrageous flirting.

Unless you've been living under a rock (in the metaphorical online sense), you've probably heard of Baldur's Gate 3 by now. It has been everywhere online. Inescapable. Especially if you're trying to avoid spoilers for it. It's won a plethora of awards, induced obsession in a mighty contingent of fans and got its studio banned on TikTok for a rather surprising romance scene with a shapeshifting druid. No, really.

Like many other internet goblins, I am absolutely feral for it, and so I'm going to use this review to tell you why that is. I could talk about gameplay (mostly fun, occasional blips), interface (don't talk to me about radials or inventory management), art (beautiful, consistent, thoughtful) or worldbuilding (necessarily shackled to D&D 5e IP, for good and for ill), but by the time I got to the end of working through every part of all that worth talking about, both you and I would have lost the will to live, and you'd be no closer to knowing if it's a game you might want to play, because you'd have been bored out of the ability to have opinions anymore. But I'll spare you that fate (I'm very kind), and instead focus down onto the core part of what makes this game sing for me, and why I think that might have worked for so many other people, especially people who are SFF readers generally, even if only casual gamers.

But before we get to that, a brief overview of what it is, for those who may not be in the know.

Effectively a D&D 5e simulator, the game has you either play through some predefined origin characters' story, or create your own character, and follow them as they wake up trapped on a mind-flayer ship (brain-eating floaty squid people), being infected with a parasite, and have to fight their way free and figure out what has happened to them and the others they find on the ship or in the crashsite who suffered the same fate, all while the threat of being turned into a mindflayer themselves hangs over the group. This of course leads to exploring various locations, meeting a bunch of people who give you information on what's going on, or just about themselves, offer you quests to follow or just decide to fight you. 

It fills that lovely niche of RPG that sits in between your full railroaded story, with a single pre-existing character you follow through a very set series of events, and the total open world chaos of something like Skyrim. Yes, there's a storyline to follow, and some points along the way are non-negotiable, but how you get there and how you handle those plot waypoints come with a fair degree of freedom of choice. You can be good, or evil, or somewhere in between, and there are paths available to you to get the job done in all ways (if the dice are kind).

This is... an almost distressingly underfilled niche, in my opinion. There are plenty of the more open-world style, freedom of play ones, that clearly appeal to many, but do not offer the same level of over-achieving school kid gold star and merit badge endorphins for doing the plot well that a more story-focussed game provides... but without feeling like you're just turning the pages of a slightly interactive novel. There needs to be some element of choice, some way to put your personal stamp on how events unfold, and variance in the endings that might come out of your choices, on both the macro and the personal scale. It's something that Bioware, for instance, has always done well, but isn't as common amongst the big hitter games as I would like it to be, so I'm very glad that Larian is here and doing us all a massive, Game Awards-winning favour. 

So, what is it that makes this one sing then? Why does it have its grubby little fingers hooked right into my brain holes?

It's the characters. Of course it's the characters.

Getting this bit out of the way first lest anyone think I'm burying the lede - yes, you can romance them, yes some of them are quite hot, yes there are spicy scenes... it's exactly that kind of RPG. And that's great! Romance is a really useful tool for character building, in my opinion, and one that is used to excellent effect here. But it's only subservient to the greater whole of the character building, progression and depth that the story offers you. Because the whole game is one big character thesis, when you look at it on the macro scale - how do people cope when someone or something in whom they put their faith, who had great power over them, chooses to misuse that faith of that power? It is, at its core, a story about a group of different people who have all lost some part of themselves to a cruel world, and are fighting to get it back, to avenge themselves and their lost self against the unfairness of it all, or simply make sure it never happens to another person in the same situation.

But because we have a wide range of characters from different backgrounds, with different skillsets and personalities, the way those different stories resolve can go in very different directions... and that's before the player comes in and starts tinkering with things.

You as the player character can have a huge amount of influence on these people who surround you, if you make the decisions that lead them to trust you, to value your opinion and your advice. And so you sit and the crux of all these stories, shifting them here and there to try to find the best possible outcome for everyone involved. What's "best"? Well, you have to decide that. And some of those decisions are deliciously difficult, weighted with consequences on both sides and unknown futures. The game has been very well created to be full of truly meaningful choices, where you only have partial information and have to go on hope and good faith, or be determined you'll make a game state where your good intentions bear fruit.

And, pleasingly, the game lets you deliver that, for the most part. If you promise your companion you will find a way to save them, the game will let you do that. There just may be a cost to it you hadn't forseen - for them, for you, or for those around you.

Which is all very well and good - who doesn't like playing god like that - but does the game do the work to make you care? To make you want to invest that time to give them all the resolutions they desperately need? You know I'm going to say "yes", but a thousand times yes. The characters are instantly... if not always likeable, relatable or sympathetic, then graspable. There's an imminent quality to all of them, something that leaps out of the screen and grabs you. Of course, this means some of them are annoying - what I love in a character does not appeal to the next man - but there are enough of them, and all well enough done, that there's someone for every taste there to be glommed onto. And, travelling through, the process of learning more about the characters you don't like reveals enough about them, their backgrounds, their reasons for being who and how they are, that it becomes increasingly difficult not to sympathise with them, just a little.

Some of this is down to the frankly gorgeous voice acting. BG3 cleared up at the Game Awards, but one of its most deserved wins was Neil Newbon, voice actor for the companion Astarion, getting Best Performance. The character has been the darling of the budding online fandom since early access, and it's hard not to see why, even if it's not a character type you tend to enjoy (a category I count myself very much in). But he's instantly characterful on screen, from the moment you meet him, a sassy, snarky, slightly power hungry and definitely amoral pointy bastard... easy to love or to hate... and then you start to get his backstory develop, little morsels and tidbits slowly doled out whether in conversation or passive dialogue or moments of revelation as you uncover information throughout the game, and you are steadily devastated by what you begin to see under the surface. There are some moments of powerful rawness in his dialogue as the game progresses, and so however annoying he is, at times (often deliberately), the damned actor makes him impossible to actually dislike over the long term. It's incredibly rude.

Much the same can be said for the majority of the companions, with hilarious, heart-warming, and horrifying performances also available from a host of villains, NPCs and minor characters you meet throughout the game. Because there are so! many! good! ones! There's Dammon, a tiefling weaponsmith currently having to make do without a forge but who really wants to help your friend with her infernal engine problem (he's a sweetie and I love him). There's Devella, a rather harried investigator in the city who would really like to just be allowed to solve the damn crimes. There's that mysterious ox who- wait... did he just say "moo"? There's a juvenile crime gang who would be very happy to have your investment. There's a cat who wonders if you have time to hear about our lord and saviour Sharess. At every point in the game there are characters given a genuine and thoughtful presence and strong voice work, and they make the game feel truly and utterly peopled in a meaningful way.

Because it is, fundamentally, a game about people. It is not one single narrative, but a woven set of them, flowing in and out of each other and the vast many surrounding ones, that the player controls and shapes to make, hopefully, the finished tapestry they want at the end. If you care about people, about characters, then this may well be a game for you.

And I think this is exactly why it has had such instant and thorough appeal, especially in the SFF space more broadly - that appeal to character rather than the focus on gameplay makes it instantly accessible even outside of a gaming-specific sphere. And with D&D many years into a popular resurgence, and in a space full of D&D adjacent media, it's a very easy setting to be willing to get sucked into for the sake of those character stories. Add to that the turn-based combat that, while not easy (and indeed at some points incredibly tricky and tactical), takes out some of the anxiety-inducing learning curve horror out of picking up the game when it might not be something you'd normally take to, and I think it's clear why this has been such a wide-reaching hit.

And don't get me wrong, if you're more of a gamer there's plenty here to love too. One of the highlights of the gameplay for me were a few specific scenarios with their own amended rules - save people from a burning building before it collapses, for instance, or defend a portal against all comers long enough for your ally to go in and return - that mixed up the rules you're used to and give you something new to chew on. There are some well-constructed puzzles, some truly challenging boss fights and some fun ways to solve problems in interesting ways (the number of videos online of people blowing everything up with barrels of smokepowder is a testament to the ingenuity and patience of players, if not always their good sense).

The broader storyline, too, is pretty compelling, and manages a very very well-paced progression through its three acts, with nary a lagging section of grinding to be found, and a very satisfying ending, at least since patch 5 gave us the epilogue we really deserved.

This is not an inventory, this is a MESS
There are problems with it, I am forced to admit. It isn't a perfect game. Inventory management, especially on console, is a chore and worse, and by the time you get to the higher levels, scrolling through all of your available actions, spells and things you might want to throw at someone in combat takes a heck of a time. There are also some issues in terms of whose stories get told, and how much - if we could all stop making games where the black character gets less screen time than the others that would be grand please and thank - as well as issues with the 5e IP behind it all - goblins and drow, need I say more? I am not saying it will be a perfect experience for every player, with no moments of unwarranted frustration or irritation, because that would be a lie. And, if you play a paladin, be prepared to save scum like you've never save scummed before because you will break your oath and you will have absolutely no bloody clue how you managed it half the time.

So if all you want is sheer technical perfection, then it may not be for you, but this game has heart, soul and er... some other body parts too. But if you're prepared to buy into those character arcs, and if you want to spend time with a raggedy bunch of misfits who will absolutely steal your heart along with your wallet? Then those niggles may well be worth the cost. They certainly were for me, no matter how many bad words were uttered throughout the course of trying to figure out where that one scroll I absolutely knew I had was, or having to reload several hours of play time back because of that bloody oath and not having quicksaved like it was going out of fashion. Because I did love the characters. I loved them all, by the end. And when I finished, I immediately fired up the character creator again, because I wanted nothing more than to go back, and find all the myriad little bits of game I inevitably missed in this rich, chaotic web of glorious nonsense I had found myself in.

It's a hard one to put numbers on, but since it's how we roll here, I shall do my best to oblige. I can see the problems that do exist in it, and I recognise them, making it an 8/10 with the head... but a 10/10 with the heart, enamoured as she is of sad fuck-wizards, warlocks with daddy issues, cinnamon-roll barbarians, angry lizard-women and bitchy amnesiac goth-girls. So it gets a 9/10 in the compromise, and a definite endorsement to give it a go if you've been wondering what all the fuss is about.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Rebel Moon is the most Snyder that Snyder has ever been

Lucasfilm dodged a glowing, blurry, vaguely yellowish, excessively slowed-down bullet

One could summarize Rebel Moon as "the Zack Snyder of Star Wars," which would sound mean-spirited if it weren't its literal description. Conceived originally as Snyder's pitch for Lucasfilm and eventually rescued by Netflix, Rebel Moon files off the Star Wars serial numbers just enough to prevent lawsuits from the Mouse. As you would expect, it tells the story of a loosely assembled team of impromptu freedom fighters who rise up against a brutal interstellar empire. A tale as old as time, and one that Lucasfilm has kept profitable for nine movies and I forget how many TV shows. But Snyder's version of this formula, stripped of its identifiable markers for legal reasons, becomes a nameless, featureless collection of plot beats and cool poses. If there was ever a time when the infamous itch for canceling everything at Netflix could be used for good, it's now. There's no need for a Rebel Moon Part 2, or for all the multimedia spinoffs Snyder is reportedly preparing. This is not the galaxy you're looking for.

As I've written here before, I'm a fan of neither Star Wars nor Zack Snyder. Their missteps are plain to see to me. But even I was unprepared for the combination of the more generic, people-pleasing bits of the former with the more self-indulgent excesses of the latter. To put it in perspective: the production of the Barbie movie caused a brief scarcity of pink paint. Now that Rebel Moon is available on Netflix, has anyone checked on the world's supply of sepia pixels?

In theory, it should have been fascinating to watch a director's rendition of Star Wars without its distinctive visual identity. It would be a look behind the curtain, a dissection of the inner machinery that makes Star Wars go. Such a unique opportunity would help prove the case that a great portion of the transgenerational appeal of Star Wars has relied more on its art design than on its plotting. What is Star Wars without the double sunsets, the Stormtrooper armors, the outlandish hairstyles, the lightsabers? What is that story actually saying? You won't get that from Snyder's version. Instead of revealing the interior of a story without all the style getting in the way, Rebel Moon is nothing but style. Even worse, being only the first half of a planned duology, it hyperfocuses on character introductions. Far too many introductions, in fact. In a manner that brings to mind the first Suicide Squad movie, each of these heroes gets exactly one scene to look awesome and then dutifully retreats into the background, because this may be an ensemble cast, but the script only really cares for two characters.

Our protagonist, a Mysterious Lady of Mystery trying to keep a low profile in a remote rural planet but unable to keep in check her resting side-eye face, is, of course, more closely connected to the evil empire than she's let on. When a warship pays a visit to demand grain and the soldiers start getting dirty ideas about the local women, she is forced to blow her cover and singlehandedly wallops an entire squad while looking fabulous doing it. Then she runs away with her Designated Romantic Interest, but only because he knows the right people who know the right people who can help them amass forces for when the empire strikes back retaliates. This is the point when the plot turns into a succession of recruitment quests that go on for too long, don't serve to reveal their characters, and don't advance the story. We do get a handful of poster-worthy shots, which is what Snyder actually cares about. Instead of dramatizing the deep human questions that form the substance of the great epics, Rebel Moon is content with just looking epic.

Because filming 300 somehow didn't give Snyder his fill of rock-hard abs in desaturated slow motion, the fight scenes in Rebel Moon double down on all his filmmaking vices. You know how it goes: gory carnage filmed as if it were ballet, smoke and flying debris covering each shot you're trying to watch, and primal screams galore. The scenes that are not fights don't let the viewer have much of a breather, given Snyder's signature obsession with characters musing on a worthy way to die.

A story that consciously inserts itself in the tradition of Star Wars is expected to have something to say about empires. Episodes 4-6 showed how empires are less invincible than they make themselves appear in propaganda; episodes 1-3 showed how dangerously easy it is for a free society to degenerate into an empire; and episodes 7-9 showed how the shadow of the imperial impulse must be fought again in each generation. What say you, Episode Snyder? Empire bad. Empire go pew pew. Goodie need bigger pew pew.

Rebel Moon doesn't have time for its overcrowded cast to explore the themes of domination and exploitation in the context of the 21st century. It resorts to the most elemental trick of shining applause lights on your screen and expecting you to cheer, except these applause lights are full of dynamite. All the characterization that should make you care about these heroes is said to have been reserved for the extended cut, which says enough about Snyder's storytelling priorities. Just thinking of the fact that there is an extended cut makes me shudder with terror. I felt dead inside after spending two hours with this troupe of one-note permascowls, and I can't think of a good reason to add another full hour (and a sequel, and an extended cut of the sequel) to that ordeal.

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10.

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

Friday, December 22, 2023

Microreview: Noumenon Ultra by Marina J Lostetter

An ambitious epic space opera series comes to a conclusion in its third and final volume.

It's been quite an adventure across the first two volumes of the Noumenon saga. The discovery of subdimensions allowing space travel capable of reaching the stars has led humanity to great and sometimes tragic discoveries. The convoys have found alien megastructures, incomplete and waiting to be finished, as well as accidents of time and space sending members of convoys into the distant future, discovering the descendants of Homo Sapiens.

In Noumenon Ultra, the third and final book of the trilogy, Marina Lostetter works toward an overall capstone to the saga that started in Noumenon and continued in Noumenon Infinity,

I mentioned in my review of Noumenon Infinity that one of the criticisms I had in trying to present this large space opera trilogy, for me anyway as a reader, is persistent main characters. The connective tissue between this book and the second, and the books in general, I see now, rely very much less on characters than the grand scope of her ideas.

Don't mistake, there is connective tissue in the form of C (or ICC), the sentient computer that has been present in all of the books and has acted as a sort of facilitator and guide for a number of characters and even entire convoys across the books. There is a real accidentally to ICC and their existence and persistence which seems to populate this book. This book, this series,  has a lot of messy "for want of a nail" events that mirror real history. The cloning of Jamal Braeden, for example, successfully, does tie back to the original novel and does give us a tie to the first novel, and yet the people responsible for cloning him could not predict that one of the clones would eventually decide to break free of the dogma and ritual and structure that has been accreted around him. 

And then there is Vanhi Kapoor. I slept on her and her story a bit in the second volume, but here, in the third volume, I can see that she is one of the keystone characters. She is one of the soi-disant "immortals", one of a select few in the book, but her case is different than the clone lines, or ICC or anyone else because of her being a bit unstuck in time and skipping ahead thanks to her tangled relationship with a particular subdimension. Lostetter reveals in this volume that Vahni's relationship with the subdimension, is in fact, a slowly but surely degenerating one and that Vanhi, cannot, in fact, continue to fly toward the future forever. This does help drive her to participate in, and work with the main thrust and plot of the novel.

So once you have had a novel where convoys find alien megastructures and try and deal with their legacy and history, and also have a convoy that winds up going to the far future and discovering the descendants of humanity, where does go with the capstone of a series with such big and broad ideas like this? Lostetter decides to reach for a Stapledonian, or in a more modern guise and mode, a Baxterian solution. The purpose and the ultimate aims of the megastructures (since by this point there are several in various states of completion and activation) is revealed. There is life, sentience, beings in other universes, in the subdimensions, as opposed to the relative paucity of intelligent life in our own cosmos. The Noumenon project, then, is ultimately revealed to be a eons long project from the Pentatheem (the species that began the megastructures) to create the capability to not only have beings from these subdimensions visit our own, but most crucially, have the ability to visit them.

The devil of course is in the details. Lostetter draws together everyone, more or less, at the created planet Noumenon in an effort to understand each other, and what is going on, and to solve the enormous problems and challenges of the projects. We get threats to the fabric of space time itself, several first contacts, the revelation that the Pentatheem are not quite as extinct as first thought. Even after billions of years, they have, in a vastly different form, managed to survive. And then there is the very weird "wheeled form" of the species that in a scant few tens of thousands of years of ICC sleep, managed to evolve to sentience on the newly formed planet. To say nothing of the three kinds of humanity, the original and its two descendant branches. 

All of these species, and characters from each, eventually come together during the long and epic journey of the book. From infiltration escapades and escapes, to soaring above the landscape of the planet, the novel does try to reinterpret, reiterate and bring the themes of the first two novels to a conclusion. The nature of humanity (the conflicts and concerns between the original homo sapiens and the Lhung really emphasize that). Sentience. The potentials and dangers of large amounts of power, temporal and physical. The sometimes chaotic nature of history and the "founder effect" leading to very strange results down the line. And much more.

And the novel ends on a grace note for Vanhi, which, given all that she has been through since the first novel, I did appreciate. Too often such details get lost in the walls of words of a large epic like this. Lostetter has done an admirable and worthy job in trying to keep it all tied up, all together. 

I admit, as a reviewer, and as a reader, I want to ponder the relative lack of attention that the Noumenon series has received as opposed to some of the more usual suspects. It is true that really big widescreen space opera epics of this scope are not the fashion and trend these days. These days, what I like to call "Solar System Space Opera" - Expanse type stuff (even if it doesn't take place in Earth's own solar system) is far more common and always has been. The Gregory Benford, the Stephen Baxter, the Olaf Stapledonian sort of space opera and widescreen epic across the entire galaxy and enormous spans of time is pretty rare and pretty niche. And yet Baxter, and Benford, and Banks, and Bear are well known within the SF genre.

But for Marina Lostetter's Noumenon, I've seen far less coverage, play and interest. This might be as simple as the problem of women writing SF, especially hard SF, getting coverage, interest and readers eyeballs. There is a commitment, learning curve and opportunity cost to deciding to not buy the latest Stephen Baxter and instead picking up Noumenon and giving Lostetter and her brand of big epic SF a try. For reviewers in my stratum, it's often less a matter of the cost of the book and just the time and effort to try and engage with it, rather than falling on more familiar and established (read: male) authors, especially when the Noumenon books are each 500 pages or more. I get that.  And this can also apply to Essa Hansen's Nophek Gloss series. Wildly ambitious big screen (multiverse!) space opera that hits different notes than this one, but again, it's a commitment to try Hansen, just like it is a commitment just to try Lostetter.

And so I am here to tell you that if you want the big widescreen space opera on the grandest of scales, with long timeframes, lots of characters, big ideas, strong reflections on lots of weighty topics, and wild ambition that the novels do not always utterly achieve (because at these scales, no write quite ever can) but hit pretty well, then this (as well as Hansen's work) are the series you want.  I see that Lostetter has subsequently moved onto fantasy, but I do hope that she will return to SFF one day. I can kind of see how and why she might not want to for a while, given this series. This is the kind of series where you can "say everything" you want, just given the breadth of the work and the many things that are going on. I didn't even touch on the topics of motherhood, cloning, immigration and acceptance of others, xenophobia, and many others. 

So. The next time you are tempted to reach for the biggest of widescreen space operas, I urge you to give Marina Lostetter's Noumenon series a try. I think you will be glad you did. 



  • The widest of big screen space opera settings temporally and physically
  • Closes out some long running plots of the series with verve
  • The grace note at the very end brought a tear to my eye.

Reference: Lostetter, Marina, Noumenon Ultra, [Harper Voyager, 2020]

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

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Microreview: The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle, by T. L. Huchu

A slightly lackluster mystery in a brilliantly realized Scotland, narrated by one of the best voices in modern fantasy.

The third of T. L. Huchu's Edinburgh Nights series (see Adri’s review of the first here), The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle is set at an actual castle on the west side of the Isle of Skye. Instead of an alternate-history Scottish urban mystery set in the gritty streets of magical Edinburgh, T. L. Huchu instead presents us with his version of a country house mystery.

The Society of Skeptical Inquirers (Scotland’s professional magicians’ association) is having their annual conference at Dunvegan Castle, and things are tense. Rivalries between Scottish magic schools, between Highland clans, and between Glaswegian and Edinburghian librarians simmer with varying degrees of intensity, ready to erupt at the worst possible moment. The worstness of possible moments is further intensified by the arrival of representative of the English crown, who shows a distressing interest in revoking Scotland’s devolved powers of magical governance.

Against this backdrop of cultural magico-political tension arrives the conference’s guest of honour. The Grand Debtera of Ethiopia has come to cement a ground-breaking alliance between Scottish and Ethiopian magic by loaning a valuable scroll to the Society of Skeptical Inquirers, which contains information on magical theory previously considered impossible. Naturally, things go very badly: the scroll is stolen, a librarian is murdered, and the head of the Society of Skeptical Inquirers casts an impenetrable shield around Dunvegan Castle to prevent anyone from entering or exiting. The culprit is among the conference attendees! Whodunnit? And why?

Our narrator, Ropa Moyo, is a teenage intern working (unpaid) for the head of the Society of Skeptical Inquirers. As her boss is occupied by the rigours of keeping the impenetrable shield up, she is tasked with finding the scroll and solving the murder.

As far as mysteries go, this book is a little frustrating. The decision to put  a fifteen-year-old unpaid intern in charge of pursuing the mystery is forced and unconvincing. In previous books, Ropa had her own reasons to investigate weird shenanigans, which she pursued independently. Here for the first time she is given official sanction and support, which seems a bridge too far for any fifteen year-old. The bridge gets even ricketier in light of the unveiled contempt in which most of the other conference attendees hold her. What’s more, no matter how diligently she investigates, there is very little sense of progress. Ropa pursues lead after lead, but they rarely seem fruitful, and as pressure mounts on her to report her progress, she keeps asserting that she’ll have everything wrapped up in a day or two, not to worry, she’s got it all under control. To the reader, her lack of progress is so striking that it's pretty clear she must be lying to everyone. Now, Ropa’s history as an opportunistic gig worker who is not above petty (and not so petty) thieving to keep herself and her family afloat means that it’s entirely within character for her to be lying through her teeth about her progress. But keeping secrets is for the snotty obnoxious upper-crust magicians sneering down at her speech and education and behaviour; it’s not for us. On every page Ropa invites us into her head, tells us her thoughts and feelings and worries and hopes and goals. So when she turns out to be keeping secrets from the reader, too, it feels like a kick in the teeth.

Yet for all that the plot is a bit weak, this book is more than its plot, and everything else that it is is charming and delightful. Ropa’s irreverant narrative voice is wonderfully drawn; and her eclectic independent learning means that she has odd bits of knowledge drawn from all sorts of sources, equipping her with a broad foundation of useful bits and bobs. She’s alert to the sunk cost fallacy because she heard about it in a podcast the other day, and in this book she’s been making friends with Machiavelli’s The Prince, whose influence colours all her interactions. After an outburst at a formal dinner in which she pushes back against the snobbery levied against her, she considers, “Maybe I should re-evaluate how I’m reading Machiavelli. Normally I’m cruising by on Eastern martial texts which emphasize subtlety. But my pal Nicco’s more of a bull in a China shop kind of guy when it comes to political theory. Let me stick with it though, ‘cause I heard he delivers a mean pizza when it comes to landing an argument.” (Chapter VII). I would read a book about Ropa picking at her toenails if its her voice describing the state of her cuticles.

Another strength of this book is its deeply embedded Scottishness. This goes well beyond the dialogue (which, I hasten to add, avoids all of the ear-rattling tweeness of forced ‘och aye, I didnae see the wee puir lassie’ Scottish ‘brogue’). The nature of the unnamed Catastrophe that has devastated Scotland, deepening class divides and savaging the economy, feel like a pretty dead-on evocation of the general opinion of Brexit north of the border. An offhand remark about how Glasgwegians aren’t averse to bit of sectarianism now and again invokes a very real social issue in actual Glasgow, in which rival football teams—The Celtics and the Rangers—have come to serve as proxies for Catholic-Protestant rivalries. It is actually illegal in Glasgow to sing certain songs, because of their association with extreme sectarian violence. ( Indeed, for half a century actual Glasgow has been perceived as the dirty, crime-riddled working class city, a foil to Edinburgh, which holds government, art, education, and all the higher and better elements of culture. In this context, a conflict in Huchu’s world between the Glasgow library of magical books and its Edinburgh counterpart takes on a deeper meaning. After the Clydeside Blitz in WWII, the most valuable magical books held in Glasgow were removed to the Calton Hill Library in Edinburgh (the titular Library of the Dead in the first book of this series) for safekeeping. They have never since been returned. The Calton Hill Library instead reinforced its own magical status on the strength of the newly expanded collection, and have been refusing all subsequent requests to return them, claiming that the books were given as a ‘permanent loan’.

This bibliographic colonialism is a smaller version of a theme recuring at all scales throughout the book. What Edinburgh did to Glasgow, England wants to do to Scotland. The political situation in Huchu’s world faithfully reflects the state of the real UK: Scotland is subordinate to England, but nevertheless retains certain devolved powers, such as education (especially magical education). The people that want to unify with England stand in uneasy tension with the people agitating for more complete Scottish independence.

And, of course, at another level upwards, we have the history of European colonialism in Africa coloring Ethiopian magic’s relationship with Britain. There’s a reason the Grand Debtera chose to loan the scroll to Scottish magicians rather than English ones, and it’s not an accident that the nature of the Ethiopian-Scottish agreement—the loan of an irreplaceable magical text--resonates with the Glasgow-Edinburgh librarians’ conflict. These are all exponents of the same colonial phenomenon.

So, in sum, although the actual plot of this house-party mystery was a bit mediocre, the narrative, the setting, and the way it inhabits a fully recognizable Scotland within this alternative magical world Huchu has created, are unparalleled. I will take great pleasure in reading the next installment in the Edinburgh Nights series.



Nerd coefficient: 7/10: An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws


  • Effective translation of Scottish politics into an alternate world
  • Delightful narrative voice
  • Slightly meh mystery plot


Huchu, T. L. The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle [Tor Publishing Group, 2023].


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

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The first Chicken Run set the bar so high that even a subpar sequel is still enjoyable

It's just... OK. It's fine. It tastes like chicken.

Twenty-four years after the incomparably funny Chicken Run, the stars finally aligned for us to get a sequel. There was a brief moment of worry that the award-winning studio Aardman Animations might not be able to keep creating, but all signs indicate it was a false alarm. However, this new entry in the saga of your favorite plasticine chickens with teeth and opposable thumbs doesn't rise to the level of the first. The now free flock have settled on a lake island and founded a prosperous little community, but their leader Ginger's young pullet, Molly, is curious about the outside world, and when she inevitably goes out to explore on her own, the adult chickens must mount a rescue operation, in the middle of which they discover that their old enemy Mrs. Tweedy has returned to the poultry business, this time with all the lethally efficient innovations of industrial farming. Can Ginger save her daughter before she's turned into fast food?

The core conflict in Dawn of the Nugget is basically the same as in the original, and the sensation of sameyness isn't mitigated by the addition of a daughter for the previous protagonist to save, as that particular trope has been done to death. The moment that was supposed to be the most exciting in the movie, the reappearance of Mrs. Tweedy, was unwisely spoiled in the trailer, and the charm of clay animation is lost under the immaculate detail of digital filming. In the "making of" short that accompanies it on the Netflix website, the filmmaking team explain that some digital polishing is always used to remove the lines and spots that naturally occur when reshaping clay hundreds of times in succession, but the finished product suggests that the artists may have gone a bit overboard with the cleanup. Viewers may be forgiven for believing that the whole movie was done in CGI.

The first Chicken Run had numerous scenes set during nighttime or in secluded spaces, which allowed the director to make impressive use of strategically placed shadows that heightened the tension. The persistent threat the hens lived under was portrayed with expressionist skies painted to stark dramatic effect.

The sequel doesn't take advantage of those tools and goes for a more natural look, with clear, open skies and realistic vegetation. The image is almost always too bright, even in spaces that are supposed to be poorly lit. Thus the emotional valence of the movie ends up being consistently cheerful, even when it shouldn't, missing the lingering danger that could be felt throughout the original.

This is not to say that Dawn of the Nugget was badly animated. Far from that: Aardman Animations has decades of impeccable experience with stop-motion techniques, and this movie boasts the same top-tier standard we know to expect from the studio. Camera movements are bolder this time and span large, complicated sets, putting to stringent test the puppeteers' ability to keep the magic hidden outside of the frame. Perhaps the presence of more light forced the post-production team to be more aggressive in hiding the imperfections in the clay, which would explain the sometimes unreal smoothness of the characters.

Unfortunately, the most expertly executed animation cannot make up for an uninspired script. The dialogues, especially between Ginger and her nuclear family, lack the wit and spark of the first movie. Ginger loses big portions of her previous characterization: the tired clichés drawn from every comedy about overprotective parents have her routinely lie to her daughter with the same nonchalance she used to condemn in the rooster Rocky. Dramatic irony is employed in exactly the most predictable manner by turning Ginger into the limiting force she spent most of her life resisting.

The opportunity to continue the Holocaust metaphor is also wasted here. As a descendant of the generation that successfully battled against a regime of prison camps, Molly could have been written as a more interesting kind of teenage rebel. The specific time period when the Chicken Run movies are supposed to happen is hard to pinpoint, but Molly is clearly the token Baby Boomer of the story. (Here I must nitpick for a second: the last scene of Chicken Run showed the freed community raising dozens of newly hatched chicks; it's inexplicable how the sequel seems to imply that Molly is the only young bird on the island.) If you squint, a kind of continuity of theme can be identified in the subtler mechanisms of control that Mrs. Tweedy has implemented in her modernized farm, but the movie is uninterested in the potential for social commentary.

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget has very few surprises and no memorable lines, and too many overused jokes that will especially disappoint viewers who remember the more biting style of humor of its predecessor. But it's full of eye-catching slapstick and the impossibly convoluted machinery that has become usual in the productions of Aardman Animations. It's every bit as zany and wild as you need claymation to be, and by that sole measure, it excels.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Interview with Malka Older

The Astounding-nominated author spoke with Nerds of a Feather about her writing process, her preferred readings, and our civilizational moment

Arturo Serrano: First of all, congratulations on the enthusiastic reception for The Mimicking of Known Successes. I must confess that the book's title biased me before I started reading, because romance stories don't typically have such a technical-sounding title. I suppose fans of hard SF don't mind, but did you worry at any moment that the title could scare away romance readers?

Malka Older: I honestly didn't think about it. I finished the book before without a title (the working title was "Rings and Rails," because that initial, vague, how would people live on a gas giant planet predated almost everything else in the book, except the mauzooleum, by literal years), and when I was reading through looking for one, that phrase jumped out at me. I was also in the mood for a slightly complex, enigmatic title, so it worked for me.

AS: In the creation of Mimicking, did you start by building the Victorian atmosphere and then come up with the planetary migration backstory, or did you first have the planetary migration in mind and then gave it the Victorian atmosphere? Or something else entirely?

MO: So as I said above, I had an idea many years ago about a gas giant encircled by rails to make it possible for people to live there, and that some of that space would be used as a kind of zoo. But it was really no more than that, a few sentences in a document. The other part of the book came when I was doing a lot of comfort reading during the early pandemic and thinking about how important that was for me and trying to analyze the elements of comfort reading for me and why I found them so appealing. "Sherlock Holmes retelling" is definitely one of those elements, and when I connected the two ideas it merged so well, and I went on developing from there.

AS: A core theme in Mimicking is the futility of trying to recreate an idealized prior state of affairs, and the consequent need for constant adaptation. What prompted your interest in exploring that idea?

MO: I find our relationship to the past fascinating—also our relationship to the future. When I was a kid, I once wrote a story called "If Memory Serves" about the way a hated despot was transformed into a revered leader over three generations of idealization. But this became particularly urgent to me, as a problematic, during those early days of the pandemic when I was thinking about and eventually writing this story. "Back to normal" was this almost talismanic thing, and it's a very understandable feeling in the midst of uncertainty and chaos and loss and suffering, to want to go back to what is known; but at the same time the "normal" was what allowed all that to happen in the first place, and those moments of disruption are also opportunities for improvement. It's a pretty common dynamic in disaster response, often coming from a place of authority: they'll give people money to rebuild but only to exactly what they had before—even if that leaves them open again to the same sort of damage the next time there's a flood or an earthquake, or leaves them in the same uncomfortable situation as before when it could have been improved. So I wanted to explore that in the book, hopefully in a complicated and nuanced way.

AS: You have frequently spoken of "narrative disorder" as a widespread condition of our century. Have you seen it evolve into different forms, compared to when you first proposed it?

MO: I don't think the disorder itself has evolved much—it's pretty broad and also it hasn't been that long since I defined it (probably most clearly in this essay). But of course the tropes and story patterns and so on have been evolving, almost continuously, if not necessarily in drastic ways (very sorry to see from summaries of recent movies the fridging trope for justifying extreme violence and transferring personal vulnerability to others arrrhhghahghghh). I'm sure, for example, that there is a whole set of conventions to various types of TikTok videos/reels, with expected beats that can be embraced or subverted for effect.

AS: Another frequent descriptor in your writings is "comemierdería." For the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, could you please explain its definition?

MO: "Comemierda" is an epithet that I heard a lot growing up, usually when my mom was driving. Literally it means "shit-eater" (derogatory), but like most such words there's a lot of connotation and shades of meaning. In Cuban, or at least my family's Cuban, "comemierda" is said with a tone of disgust and/or dismissiveness: it's someone who's careless, obstructive, or potentially actually evil and in a really annoying way, who does things that they really should know better than to do, who deserves scorn as well as irritation and anger. It has a very broad application, from minor irritation (cuts you off intentionally while driving) to major wrongdoing (using violence, oppression, and cronyism to maintain control over a country for decades, for example). Comemierdería, then, is the sort of stuff that comemierdas do. Like the appositive, it has a wide range; one of my uncles (qdep) once pronounced "La comemierdería es relativa"), it's relative, meaning that there's really bad comemierdería and less bad, and that might make the less bad seem better but it's still comemierdería. It's bullshit, it's bureaucracy designed to perpetrate evil, stupid rules and the people who use them, and lies and capitalism and communism and petty cruelty by those with power.

So it's a very useful word, but there's another reason that I employ it so much: it's pretty hard to find a personal epithet that doesn't rely on insulting a particular gender, sexual orientation, someone's parents or parentage, entirely blameless animal, or part of the body.

AS: On a related note: what's your position on writers from outside the Anglosphere using untranslated terms from their own cultures in books published in English?

MO: As my books probably attest, I'm totally in favor, both when reading and writing. As a reader, I love learning new words. I love learning them by context, which is probably how I got most of my vocabulary in various languages, and I don't mind looking them up if I have to. As a writer, I have a lot of languages floating around in my head, especially the words that stick and present themselves because they don't have adequate equivalents in other languages, and I want to make use of the best word in each situation, always while keeping the overall text comprehensible.

AS: In the Acknowledgments section of your novel Infomocracy, you describe it as "a global book." Beyond the simple fact that the novel has a protagonist who travels everywhere, and that it was written by an author who also travels everywhere, what do you think makes a global book?

MO: Oof, this question is making me feel like maybe it was too grandiose a claim. After all, there's a lot of globe out there, and a lot of variations within it. But for that book in particular, I was attempting to imagine a global system, something to supplant the fragmentation of our current geopolitics, our current attempts to solve problems that affect everyone on the planet, and so I was trying to present a wide variety of locations and societies to give at least a sense for that. Of course, it was also a way for me to enjoy the memories of some of the places I've been.

AS: Do you see yourself as a global writer, whatever that means?

MO: No, I definitely can't claim that. Like everyone, I come from a certain perspective, and while I've been lucky to have opportunities to expand it somewhat, all of that is still very specific—this influence at that point in my life, this place at that time in history, etc. And as tempting as it is to want something global—and I do think there's value in at least trying to look outside one's perspective of origin—at the same time I'm not sure that it's what we should necessarily be aiming for. When people say some piece of art is "universal," it always worries me a bit, because how can that be? How can any of us possibly speak to everyone, or represent everyone? I usually value specificity, rather than generality.

AS: The idea of centenals in Infomocracy and its sequels relies on a dissolution of the entire concept of nation states. What experiences shaped your skepticism toward nation states?

MO: Both the theory and the practice. When you read about the history of nation-states, and how it played into colonialism, and how, before external colonialism, it played into the sort of "local" colonialism of obscuring minority identities within the imperial nation (e.g., Welsh, Basque, Catalán, Calabrian, etc.), and look at the ways it has driven conflict throughout the last few centuries, it's very ugly. And in my own lived experience, I have worked in, lived in, or visited many countries with active separatist movements based on feeling like it was impossible to fit into the "nation" supposedly aligned with the "state" they had little choice but to belong to. And that's not surprising because it's hard to find a country that doesn't have a separatist movement (although granted some are more active than others).

To be clear, the concept of nation-states is not just countries as we know them today (although those are certainly problematic in a lot of ways on their own). It's the idea, which still underpins countries, that there is a "nation" of people, unified in some way, that belongs within the geographic boundaries and under the political aegis of a given state. This is, obviously, ridiculous in most if not all cases. There is no innate quality that makes all legal US citizens somehow "Americans," nothing that makes them in any way distinguishable from "Canadians" or "Botswanans" or "Bahrainians." It gets even more ridiculous when you factor in the statisticity of the concept: the idea that populations aren't constantly shifting, moving, changing, making families across borders, reimagining themselves.

AS: Do you wish Infomocracy's centenal system were implemented in real life, or do you have objections to the way it functions in your novels?

MO: I definitely want more innovation and experimentation in how governmental jurisdictions work. I would like everyone to have more flexibility in choosing what kind of government they live under; and I would like immigration to be freer, on principle and also because the international system recognizes that population is more important than territorial size and acts accordingly; and I would like the system to reflect that citizens are more fundamentally important to countries than countries are to people. And I would like lots of other things, like the responsibility to protect (R2P), and a less power-hierarchy-driven international organization, and generally humans being more important to everyone with power, and so on. I definitely do not think that the centenal system is the only way to get there, or even that it would guarantee all these things. I wrote it more as a way to point out that the way we organize government jurisdictions and citizenship is, if not exactly arbitrary (rather, path-dependent), certainly not inevitable.

AS: For your own reading, do you prefer science fiction that warns "let's not do this" or that offers "here's what we could do"?

MO: I tend to like inventive visions of what we could be doing, but that's me—absolutely no shade on anyone who likes to read, or write, other things! We need all sorts of approaches and moods and visions!

AS: What are you reading these days?

MO: I just finished Paladin's Faith, the latest in T. Kingfisher's incredible Paladin series (and actually reread the Clockwork Boys duology immediately afterwards, very worth it), and now I'm reading The Shamshine Blind by Paz Pardo, which is (so far at least) a very fun alt-history noir. Lately I've also really enjoyed Lavender House—another noir, although not alt-history—; a reread of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong, which held up rather better than I expected; Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall; Grave Expectations by Alice Bell; and Starter Villain by John Scalzi, all of which were very fun.

Thank you, Malka, for taking the time for this interview.

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

Review: Paladin's Faith by T. Kingfisher

Come for the plot drama, stay for the intriguing developments in fantasy world theology.

I am, unapologetically, a slightly over the top fan of Ursula Vernon (whether as herself or under her T. Kingfisher pen name), and this series particularly. So believe me when I say that I am coming from a place of love and fondness here... but this one isn't quite up to standard, compared to the rest of the series.

Or... well. That's not quite true. But it all depends exactly what you're reading the series for.

The Saint of Steel is a series of novels following the paladins of a god who died - suddenly, inexplicably - and left them without a holy hand on the wheel of their berserker abilities. Each novel follows one of the seven paladins in trying to pick up the pieces of their life, identity and faith in the wake of this catastrophe, and find how to move on with things. Generally through the medium of finding a romantic partner. Because they are very much romantasy books.

And, for the first three, the romance has been GREAT. They've often gone in different direction - the mutual safety and recovery from trauma in Stephen and Grace's story, or the finding of someone who just Gets how to be the world the same as you like Istvhan and Clara, or just the very intense feelings of Galen and Piper. But if she's anything, Ursula Vernon is a master of writing people being people, and that is exactly what you need to craft these relatable, hopeful and enthralling romantic partnerships.

When we get to Paladin's Faith however... it just isn't quite working out. Our protagonist, Shane, is the most upright, the most po-faced, the most earnestly good boy of the paladins we've met so far (which is saying something), and his love interest is Marguerite, who we know from previous stories to be a spy operating under a false name, gregarious, charming and mysterious... and prone to disappear when her cover seems like it might be blown. This is the setup for an opposites-attract style situation, something which can, and often does, work really well. You can get some fun tension, some great chemistry, some banter, and everyone can have a great time. Here... ehhhhh not so much. And I don't think it's a problem inherent to the characters themselves. There are plenty of moments of potentially wonderful setup for the exact story you expect to see, of Shane surprising Marguerite by solving problems precisely by being a stick in the mud, and for Marguerite to turn out to have a total heart of gold and win him over not just with her confident charm but inherent goodness. It's all right there.

But... but. There's the critical stage that in previous novels Vernon has mastered so well, of the characters really getting to know each other and going from "oh he's pretty" to "oh damn I have actual feelings", and it's a stage that covers a tonne of character work on both sides. It was glorious with Stephen and Grace, full of mutual pining and idiocy and shenanigans, and it made me love them both. And it's been the same - albeit in different circumstances and with different styles of romance/characterisation - in the other two. But here... we get the beginnings of it. We get all the hints, the setup, the "wow he's pretty" and "I should maybe not stare at her" and the beginning glimmers of them each beginning to appreciate the other as a whole person... and then boom, sex, suddenly high stakes and now we're in love apparently? We skipped about five steps in the normal process, and it leaves the romance feeling hollow and weak. And when that's between two very different characters, it means you end the story thinking "well, maybe this won't be happily ever after, maybe just happily for now". Which is really sad, when you know how great the others were, and when you had such hopes for what this might be.

I do wonder slightly if the problem might be that we looped back to an existing character for the love interest, rather than introduce someone new. We already know Marguerite - she was a reasonably prominent character in the first book - and so we don't need to do the same groundwork for her that we did for Grace or for Clara. And while Piper in book 3 was also a repeat, his page time in the previous stories was almost negligible. Whereas Marguerite was a friend, someone with real page time and presence. And so you either have to retread that groundwork and leave the reader going "yes yes I know all this" or move on assuming they do know all that... and risk that it leaves things a bit patchy. There's a balance to strike between the two, and I just don't think it's quite been managed here. She needs more depth than she's given, and clearly has that depth, she's a really strong character concept... but she just doesn't quite bring it all to the page emotionally in the way that the other love interests have. It possibly doesn't help that her spy background means a lot of secrets that aren't and can't be shared with the protagonist, and so there's a tricky thing of trying to work in an honest perspective on her interiority without having too much of an information mismatch between her perspective chapters and Shane's.

But, for me, we end up too much on the side of "no information", and a lot of who she is, where she's come from, is obscured from us. And however understandable the reasons are for this, it makes her just less approachable, less comprehensible as a character. When it's a two person, two perspective romance all the way through, you really need both parties to be pulling their weight and being fully realised vehicles for that romance. And ultimately, I think Marguerite is falling short simply because we cannot fully know her.

Maybe we just needed more time with her, more time for her to share more about herself, even in her thoughts, if not in dialogue. Because we didn't, and her arc, her romance with Shane really did end up feeling less substantial, and far more rushed than the previous three.

But... (and this loops us back to me "not quite" point earlier) there is a reason for all this. Not so much in-plot, but in the meta sense, there is something taking up all that space and time where romance setup might be, something which made me cackle, scream, angrily message friends and make sad noises at my cat in turn. And where the romance may be disappointing... this... this wasn't.

We got some honest to goodness, sexy sexy (in the very metaphorical sense) plot, with a side-helping of some totally A grade world-building. My thoughts about the entire theology of this world have been upended! Shane got a character arc and then some! The bittersweetness of it all! The irony! The joy! The terrible decisions and inevitable consequences and incredibly satisfying deus ex machina! It had everything.

Now before you get excited, at least on her Patreon, Vernon confirmed when this book was released that, no, very sorry, but we're not going to find out more about the Saint of Steel's death in this one. So it's not that. But it is sort of adjacent... or related, I suppose. And more critically, it feels like it's setting up something that may become the series end game. So it is big, big stuff. And it is incredibly well-handled, being at turns both sad and joyful, and really digging into some character themes for Shane specifically and the paladins as we know them in general that ends up being deeply rewarding. In some ways, I'd argue that this part of the story is the best the series has got so far (though in that is has to tangle with the somewhat creepy murder plot that stretches over from the first book into the second and third, which is also really solid). 

And so it comes down to what the reader is reading it for.

If you're reading this series purely for the romance? Well, I can't say it's bad, because it's not. But it won't quite reach the level the others took you to, however well it seems to be setting things up. You may come out disappointed.

But if you have any interest in the wider plot, or the characters of the paladins themselves, and their ongoing healing and growth arcs? Even if the romance is disappointing, the rest of the story may well make up for it and more than. And the ending will have you sending messages to friends that are just a string of exclamation and question marks... at least in my experience.

The only other thing I have to say against it is that the rest of the entries into the series could, theoretically, work as standalones. This one absolutely could not. There's too much digging into the overarching plot, there'd be too many implications missed. But when the rest of the series is as good as this one is, that doesn't feel like awfully much of a downside.

So while it's not the 10/10 some of the other Saint of Steel books have been, there's more than enough substance, drama and foreshadowing here to be going on with, and character development for Shane (and a couple of the others) in absolute spades. Once again, I finish a new installment in the series and find myself desperately waiting for the next one, mere days after release. Ursula Vernon remains the master of this exquisite torture, and I thank her for it.


The Math

Highlights: worldbuilding that will make you do a yell then think about fantasy theology for the next three hours (positive), laugh out loud character moments, the shocking and much bemoaned absence of a hundred gallons of horse piss

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Paladin's Faith, T. Kingfisher, [2023, Red Wombat Studio]

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

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Life and Times of the Fourteenth Doctor

The 60th anniversary episodes celebrate the show's history, but also change all the rules

Russell T Davies is back at the head of Doctor Who. When his return was first announced, in mid-2021, practically no one had seen it coming. He'd been responsible for resurrecting the show from oblivion in 2005 and turning it into a worldwide phenomenon by 2009, and after two successors at the helm, the prevailing view was that he had more than rendered his services. He had already built a lasting name for himself as the rescuer and reinventor of a pillar of science fiction TV. It would have seemed out of the question to ask more of him. And yet, that's what happened. Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall's guidance was in crisis. For all the progress and diversity he introduced to the show, Chibnall did severe damage to it with his bad writing habits. He demonstrated he has no sense of tension, or ensemble dynamics, or narrative pacing, or moral stakes. Someone in the BBC must have feared that cancellation was imminent, which explains the nuclear option of asking Davies to come to the rescue one more time.

Also back is David Tennant, and Catherine Tate, and the inelegantly unresolved plot thread of the ticking bomb in the DoctorDonna's brain. This is a big bet from Davies: The Star Beast, the first episode he wrote for the once-again-10th-but-somehow-also-14th Doctor is about going back and fixing a rather questionable choice the character made all the way back in a 2008 episode. The Star Beast takes its time to explain the situation to new viewers, but the full emotional impact of its resolution requires that you have previously watched, and still remember, the 2008 season finale Journey's End. In summary: the 10th Doctor's companion Donna Noble absorbes regeneration energy from a newborn clone of the Doctor, giving her all the knowledge of a Time Lord. However, that awesome mental power is too much for a human brain, so the Doctor uses his telepathic talents to erase Donna's memory and save her life. For years, that moment has been loudly criticized by the fans—and by the show itself, as seen in the 2015 season finale Hell Bent, written by Steven Moffat, where the 12th Doctor's companion Clara Oswald protests that he doesn't have the right to choose what she will and won't remember. Fast-forward to this year's The Star Beast, with the newly regenerated 14th Doctor coincidentally stumbling into the one thing he knows he must not do: cross paths with Donna and risk her remembering her adventures with him. Why revisit this plot point? Why now?

Bringing Tennant back was a potentially dangerous choice. In these times of chronic nostalgitis, it could easily have sent the wrong message to switch from the most diverse era of the show to the cherished glory days of early New Who. Fortunately, Tennant returned for just three episodes before ceding the stage to Ncuti Gatwa's 15th Doctor. Unfortunately, the manner in which Davies handled this particular regeneration is a bit too reverent to the older Doctor and a bit too disputable about the newer one. The same trolls who dismissed the first non-male Doctor now have an easy excuse to dismiss the first non-white Doctor because Tennant's incarnation is still around. Perhaps anticipating that response, the now more artistically mature Davies has gone out of his way to firmly position queerness at the center of The Star Beast. What ultimately saves the day is the fact that Donna had a child (thus sharing the burden of Time Lord knowledge), that that child turned out to be nonbinary (thus symbolically transcending the incompatibility between human and Gallifreyan biology) and that neither of them is afflicted by the traditionally male attachment for power (thus being able to willingly renounce the regeneration energy). The cherry on top of this cake is the unabashed unsubtlety of this episode's villain, a genocidal tyrant who pretends to be persecuted for his white skin. Just in case it wasn't clear what problem Davies is writing about.

Watching The Star Beast reveals an important theme that, in hindsight, was always present in the first Davies era: an obsession with duality and the dangers of rigidly opposed categories. This is related to the better-known theme that it's a terrible burden to be the Doctor, but it's even worse for someone else to take his place. In those years one could easily appreciate the mastery that Davies has over the art of season-long foreshadowing. The 2005 season builds up quickly escalating threats to companion Rose Tyler until the 9th Doctor has to sacrifice his life to save her from having absorbed too much power from the Time Vortex. The 2006 season is full of stories about loneliness and grief, culminating in the 10th Doctor's prophesied separation from Rose. The 2007 season redefines the Master as an equal to the Doctor, the only being in the universe who can understand him, and accordingly frames the death of this mastermind villain as a tragedy. Finally, the 2008 season turns Donna into an imperfect copy of the Doctor, one that cannot be allowed to exist. The unifying thread in the first Davies era is the Doctor's curse of uniqueness. There's an unbreakable wall between the Doctor and everyone else. That is the fatal binary that The Star Beast shatters joyfully.

Curiously, the following episode, the delightfully horrifying Wild Blue Yonder, reaffirms the idea that there are untold dangers in producing a copy of the Doctor. Davies had already hinted at this problem in the fantastic 2008 episode Midnight, and here again we have a shapeless alien entity from beyond the rules of reality attempting to steal the Doctor's identity. The same familiar idea is emphasized here: as hard as it is to be the Doctor, it's worse for someone else to try to become him. Which leads us to the grand finale in The Giggle, where the 14th Doctor's death results in a "bi-generation" that leaves us with two living Doctors. This is an old trick from Davies: the only other regeneration story he wrote, from 9th to 10th, also includes convoluted circumstances that lead to the creation of a clone of the Doctor. And, just like in Journey's End, the remedy to the Doctor's curse, the only way to dissolve the division between him and everyone else, is to divide the Doctor himself and let one member of the resulting pair settle down and embrace domestic bliss. It's a bad idea for someone else to become the Doctor, so the solution is for the Doctor to become someone else.

There's more symbolism, though, to read in The Giggle. Binary oppositions can also be understood as enmities, which makes it fitting that the villain of this episode is the embodiment of competition. The problems inherent to any system of mutually exclusive winners and losers give Davies an opportunity to flex his social critique muscles. To write a villain whose big plan is to turn the medium of television into a vehicle to unleash the worst traits of humanity is perhaps too on the nose, but it's also brilliant. As if borrowing a page from Kantian ethics, the episode demonstrates the undesirability of viewing the world in terms of winners and losers by showing what happens when everyone adopts that mindset. After such a profound statement, the Doctors' victory over the Toymaker in a simple game of catch may look too simple, even anticlimactic, but what matters in that scene is the symbolic content: competition is defeated by cooperation. Of course, as you must have noticed just now, that victory is in itself a binary event. The Doctors win; the Toymaker loses. But did the Toymaker really lose? As long as someone is a winner, the insidious influence of play still lingers.

So the show must go on: the 14th Doctor, still fresh from the unprocessed trauma of the Flux, is taking some time to reflect and heal, while the 15th flies off to keep saving the universe. It's no longer either/or. Regeneration doesn't have to be a binary event. Although we still don't know how many seasons will feature Gatwa in the role, for now Doctor Who is very much back in form.

Nerd Coefficient:

The Star Beast: 7/10.

Wild Blue Yonder: 8/10.

The Giggle: 8/10.

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