Friday, May 17, 2024

Book Review: Warped State by Jo Miles

A space opera that puts a burgeoning queer interspecies relationship front and center.

Jasper Wilder has a number of problems, but he has an interesting job as a result of them. He suffers from the pollution on his marginal homeworld, Brennex, by a rapacious corporation, and as a result he has a minor psychic gift. He’s lucky that his gift to see the relationships between people is not in a more debilitating form like some of his family, who cannot stand crowds and large groups of people as a result. Jasper works for an organization, the Cooperative, that opposes the exploitation of planets by companies like Ravel. When there is word that a different planet, Artesia, is possibly being used to manufacture chemicals that might be similar to the ones that poisoned Brennex, Jasper swings into action.

Meanwhile, Sowing of Small Havoc, a reptilian-like humanoid Kovar, works for the very same corporation that spoiled Jasper’s world, and on the very same planet that Jasper is being sent to. Sowing of Small Havoc thinks that things could be better for workers and the corporation alike if people work together. He’s tried to “work within the system” to better himself and others in the company, only to be stonewalled, dismissed and slapped down time and again. He may have a hard head, but beating his head against the wall is getting him nowhere. But his efforts, even if he doesn’t quite realize what he is reaching for, have not been unnoticed.

Until of course, Jasper arrives on the scene and introduces Sowing to a whole new galaxy, and a whole new perspective. But opposing a corporation and its plans will not be easy. And so a meeting, and a story is told, in Jo Miles’ Warped State.

Let's talk about the world for a moment. NeoFeudalistic Corporations dominating planets in a space opera setting, complete with intrigue and plans that just exemplify late-stage capitalism. Queer friendly characters (in point of fact, the world feels like it’s queernorm, period). The novel doesn’t focus on the technology (just how space drive or FTL communications work are a bit handwavy. This isn’t a book that is terribly interested in the nuts and bolts of its world and how they work.

What this book is interested in, much more, are the social aspects of Miles’ universe. I am not just talking about the relationship that emerges between Sower and Jasper, although that’s a part of it. This is a socially-oriented book in the same ways and reasons that, say, Alex Acks’ Hunger Makes the Wolf is. It’s interested in the relationship between corporations and people, and what happens when that relationship turns exploitative and rapacious. What is justified? What is right and necessary as a response? In a Leninist mode: what is to be done?

Our other major point of view gives us a window into that. Besides Jasper and Sower, the other point of view in this book, Grist. Grist is a special operative for Ravel, and is being sent to Artesia because of Sower’s efforts. While Sower isn’t aware, until Jasper arrives, that he is laying the groundwork for labor power, Ravel is not going to take chances. Grist is there, in a fashion similar to around the beginning of the 20th century to stop this in the bud. He is the union-buster, sent in by the company to help out the company town and stamp out any organization efforts.

Grist is portrayed without any sympathy whatsoever, we are introduced to him being a jerk to his own autonomous ship, and his portrayal and depiction gathers no nuance whatsoever. While Sower and Jasper are shown to have nuance, struggle and complexity in their emotions, moods and thinking, Grist is a force of nature, a weapon employed by Ravel. Sure, he has little tolerance and low opinion of other people in Ravel, but there is a lack of any breadth of character here. He is simply there as an opponent, rather than a point of view to consider at all. Would Grist have approved of what Rockefeller did in Ludlow in 1914? Undoubtedly.

A late 19th century labor struggle fight is a good model and lens to look through the events of this novel, even if it takes place on an alien planet, far away. As I said before, the tech doesn’t matter so much, and the chemicals that Ravel may be making are very much a MacGuffin. This is a story of a factory town and the struggles its workers suffer under. One could be extremely reductionist and see Sower and the Kovar through a lens of Critical Race Theory, since it seems certain that the Kovar are being deliberately kept to lower ranks within the company. The higher ranks of workers, to say nothing of the executives, are all human. But Miles makes it clear that it is not just the Kovar, but all the workers without stock options that are ultimately harmed by Ravel’s rapaciousness. It’s a class and race (species) lens to look at what corporations do to people, and places, in the pursuit of profit.

What drives this book is the Jasper-Sower relationship, how it begins, how it faces challenges, how they are driven apart and how they come together. These beats and structure seem, to me, to be borrowed to some degree from romance novels, but I wouldn’t personally call it a romance, per se. It’s a space opera that leans in that direction and takes cues and notes from romance, but in the end, it is a secondary adjunct, not the main thrust of the story and the world. Judging from the series title, and the focus of the world and plot, this really is, as mentioned before, a story about the power of labor and corporations, and the consequences of unfettered power by corporations, with a huge side dish of a fraught relationship slowly being developed. Although beyond the remit of this review, looking at the plot summaries of the subsequent two books in this series seems to bear out that the struggle against corporate power is the through line to take here. That doesn’t minimize those looking for a queer relationship and queer representation, mind you.

One neat little bit of worldbuilding that we do get that feels really relevant in this age of AI in search results is how our antagonist manipulates the information available to Sowing. As Sowing, in his small and baby-steps way, tries to learn more about community organizing and organization, Grist is right there to skew the results to only show him the negative results and consequences of collective bargaining, unionization and allied ideas. Sower has no idea that what he thinks is free and fair information is, in fact, being put through a harshly negative perspective and bias.

Finally, there is definitely an optimism to the book. This is a book where the struggle and difficulties are real, and large, but they are not insurmountable. Tyranny, oppression and terrible policies and actions by large entities can be opposed and countered and defeated. In some ways as a reader, I may be more cynical than the book’s world about the chances Sower and Jasper have to effect change and how their actions drive change, but the optimism of this book is, if not infectious for me, personally, certainly appreciated as a refreshing alternative.

Miles, to me, is clearly taking cues and inspiration (and is mentioned as such in the acknowledgement) from Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. There is also a secret character that emerges in the narrative whom I do not want to discuss, and instead will let the reader discover for themselves. But that character, too, is definitely part and parcel of a Martha Wells-like universe. I don’t know if the author has read any Stina Leicht, her novels may be too new to be an influence on the work, but Leicht’s space opera also takes a drink from the same waters as Wells does (and so here, Miles) but goes in a very different direction with them. That is part of the joy of this novel, above and beyond its own virtues. It shows an enthusiasm for a new class of space opera and science fiction. The genre conversation continues to evolve in very good ways.

I am delighted that we are getting new crops of SF novels that are taking cues from recent and more diverse winners and acclaimed works, and accelerating and amplifying their diversity with their own spins, takes and evolutions on their predecessors. For a long time in the genre, the classics being held up as models has led to a lot “more of the same”, but those old defaults and old paradigms are shifting. This is a good thing.


The Math

  • Queernorm, positivist, optimistic space opera
  • Strong focus on labor, unions, labor power and the perils of corporate malfeasance
  • A hallmark of a new crop of SF novels taking cues from newer models.

Reference: Miles, Jo, Warped State, [Self Published, 2023]

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

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Introducing the First Contact Project

What's it like to experience a classic for the first time?

As a very wise person once said, there's no science fiction canon. There's no mandatory reading list, no admission test to join the community of geekdom, and most fortunately, no enforcing authority in charge of declaring who is authorized to speak about works. Someone who has never seen a movie can simply decide one day to try Godzilla and then say how they felt. That's all you need.

That said, some experience with previous works will enrich the repertoire of the things you can say, and the quality of the arguments you can produce. Interstellar is a great movie, but you enjoy it more if you're familiar with 2001. Any discussion of The Matrix will be very limited without considering the ideas introduced in Blade Runner, Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell (at the very minimum). If you haven't seen Ratatouille, a subplot in Everything Everywhere All at Once is almost incomprehensible. And you may be impressed with Ready Player One if you aren't aware of how it misunderstands and betrays The Iron Giant.

So, while knowledge of the classics isn't required (unless you're an academic), it's definitely useful. This puts fans who want to discuss genre works in a curious position. Every time I write an opinion on this blog, I need to remember that I'm entering a conversation that started before me and whose terms are already established. At the same time, contributing my personal perspective depends on maintaining a degree of freshness. I guess someone could write a good dissection of the flaws of monarchy as shown in The Lion King while ignorant that its plot mirrors Hamlet. You can read Don Quixote with no previous contact with the medieval adventure novels it's parodying. But how much of value can one say about the hyper-stylized violence of Kill Bill without bringing up the context of Bruce Lee's career? Is there even any point in analyzing Madoka Magica without taking into account how its mere existence is a reaction to Sailor Moon?

First exculpatory argument: We don't know what we don't know. In Pinky and the Brain, there are jokes, and some entire episodes, that only make sense to devoted fans of black-and-white cinema. I was last month years old when I learned that A Bug's Life tells essentially the same story as Seven Samurai, which means I'll never know whether that bit of trivia would have altered my impression of A Bug's Life. I was eager to watch the first Chicken Run because it was made by the people who made Wallace and Gromit; I would have felt less excited if all I'd known was that it retold The Great Escape. And this brings me to my second exculpatory argument: One viewer's classic is another viewer's meh. I have friends who adore The Mandalorian because it does visual homages to old Westerns, and that bit of trivia makes me even less interested in watching The Mandalorian. Reading that Joker referenced Taxi Driver didn't make me want to check out Taxi Driver, and I doubt anything in it would improve my subterranean opinion of Joker.

In a less snobbish world, we should be free to choose our classics the same way we choose our current obsessions, but sometimes there's no escaping the need to learn the language one is trying to use. I detested every second of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I must admit that having added that crayon to my coloring box makes my picture of Nope more complete. An independent taste is important to have, but one must not let it mutate into incuriosity.

With all this in mind, I've summoned the nerds of our flock to try first contact with classic works with which they haven't had a chance to get acquainted, for whatever reason, until now. Over the next few weeks, we'll be reporting our raw, first impressions of stories that you may have reread or rewatched a hundred times, that have remade in their image the shape of their genres or perhaps even invented those genres.

We embark upon this experiment aware that it cannot replicate the way it felt for those original first viewers. To be a moviegoer in the 1930s and watch the premiere of a Flash Gordon serial was only possible in those specific historical circumstances. Those of us who exist on this shore of time already carry the cultural baggage of everything that was influenced by Flash Gordon and everything that happened in real life since then, which prevents the story from having the same effect and meaning for us that it had upon release. That's my third exculpatory argument: What we can expect to get from art is inescapably tied to the context of reception.

So maybe we'll discover a new passion. Maybe we'll more deeply understand a tradition we had trouble connecting with. Maybe we'll find reasons to reappraise an artist we had underestimated. At the absolute least, we'll become better informed critics, which is what you should never be shy to demand of us.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Book Review: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

A YA, Jamaican-inspired, dragon-filled fantasy dealing with friendship, family, and cultural clashes. 

The premise of Kamilah Cole’s YA fantasy So Let Them Burn had my attention as soon as I read the description: Jamaican-inspired; dragons; sisters. As a Jamaican-born, old school nerd who devoured Anne McCaffery as a teen, this story seemed tailor made for me. But I have been disappointed by seemingly perfect stories before. Fortunately, So Let Them Burn is an enjoyable page-turner filled with likeable characters and engaging Jamaican references.

The island nation of San Irie had been struggling under the suffocating and violent colonialist rule of the oppressive Langlish Empire. So Let Them Burn opens five years after San Irie’s defeat of the Langlish. The island is now free but still reeling from the devastation of war and wary of the nearby Langlish Empire which still seeks to re-conquer them. The Langlish forces are made up of fearsome dragons and their psychically bonded human dragon riders. The people of San Irie (Iryans) have powerful weapons of their own. They can summon the spirits of their ancestors to help them fight and their military forces use drakes—semi-sentient airships which can defeat dragons. But the biggest weapon is the protagonist Faron, the Childe Empyrean, a teenaged girl who has been granted the power to summon the three Iryan gods: Irie, Mala, and Obie. The novel focuses on Faron, the rebellious, sharp-tongued, reluctant hero who would prefer to footrace and play rather than walk around in her Empyrean robes.

There is a lot of backstory in the set up for the novel but it’s neatly woven into the adventure so it doesn’t slow the rapid pace of the book. During the great war, the Langlish forces killed and maimed thousands while trying to destroy the temples and cities in a quest for something mysterious. Ironically, their defeat was partly brought about by the military commander’s son, Reeve, who became a traitor to aid the Iryan fighters. By stealing his father’s military secrets, he gave the Iryans the boost they need to fully defeat the Langlish. But Reeve’s betrayal comes at a high price for him. He must now live in exile, hated by the people he helped save (because he represents the murderous race who attacked the island) and despised by his home country who views him as a traitor. His only allies are Faron’s strong but kind sister Elara; Aveline, the young queen of the island; and a few of the locals who take him into their household as a foster child.  

All of this happens before the book begins. At times, it feels like we are joining the adventure midway because of the complicated but fascinating set up. The history is so interesting that I wish we had some of that backstory on the page, even if just in a prologue. The passing references to Faron becoming the nation’s savior at age twelve or Reeve betraying his parents to help the Iryans, are worth more than a footnote. When the novel begins, those twelve year-old heroes are now seventeen, looking back on their past choices with more tiredness than pride.

The main plot of the book starts with the Iryan queen’s peace summit on San Irie attended by various nations including the enemy Langlish. In violation of the intent of the summit, the Langlish bring dragons, who are parked on a nearby isle. When one of the dragons gets loose, Faron’s sister Elara unexpectedly bonds with it and with the dragon’s lead rider, Signey. Faron is able to draw on an unknown astral power to control the chaos. However, the dragon’s psychic bonding with Elara is irreversible, so the Langlish commander proposes that Elara move to Langley to learn dragon riding. No Iryan has ever bonded with a dragon and the turn of events means Elara must leave her home country and live with the enemy. Knowing the situation is probably a scheme by the Langlish, the young queen Aveline decides to use Elara as a spy, which Elara readily accepts. However, Faron is furious about her sister’s departure and reluctantly decides to work with Reeve (who she dislikes) to find a way to free Elara from the bond. While Reeve wears himself out in research, Faron secretly connects with a sinister force to get what she needs. Meanwhile Elara gradually builds a friendship with her dragon, her fellow riders, and particularly her co-rider Signey to whom she grows attracted.

So Let Them Burn delves unexpectedly into toxic love.  Reeve’s cruel parents go to terrible extremes to save the son who ultimately turns against them. Faron’s love for her sister is unrelentingly intense. Both Elara and Reeve are victims of oppressive acts of love that have been forced on them with devastating results.

The ensuing adventure is a page-turner that’s hard to put down, especially with the appealing references to elements of Jamaican culture including patois, dancehall music, and food like breadfruit, saltfish, and guinep. However, I miss the days when a YA fantasy novel would tell a complete story and leave just enough room for a sequel. So Let Them Burn is the opening act of a larger story. But the addictive pace, likeable characters, and appealing references to nuances of Jamaican culture ultimately make this journey worthwhile.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10


  • Jamaican-inspired references
  • Toxic family relationships
  • Page turning, dragon-riding fun

Reference: Kamilah Cole, So Let Them Burn [Little Brown Book Group, 2024]

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.  


Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2024 Hugo Award Finalists (finally!)

Joe: We’ve had a few weeks to sit on the announcement and start the always exciting process of trying to read and watch all the things and fully engage with the Hugo Awards. The finalists were announced on March 29 and let’s not bury the lede here.

Nerds of a Feather is a finalist for Best Fanzine (thank you again, everyone), which is forever a thrill even with this being the seventh time we’ve been on the ballot. Before we move on because we’re not here to talk about ourselves, I do want to say that I’m thrilled to share a category with Black Nerd Problems, The Full Lid, Idea, Journey Planet, and the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog. It’s super cool to be able to share this experience with such wonderful finalists.

Adri: Yes, congratulations to everyone! It never gets less exciting to be here, especially not in fine company. And since Glasgow is as close to a local Worldcon as London is likely to get (shit here is expensive), I’m already looking forward to going in person

Joe: I think I’d like to start with Novel both because I think in novels and also because this an interesting category for me this year - and I’m not saying that because I only predicted 4/6 of the finalists.

I struggled a bit with my reading last year, especially in regards to trying to stay up to date with what was published and what was hot. Back in October I messaged you and Roseanna to recommend things to me because the only negative of stepping away from social media is that I’m not seeing as much of the chatter of what books are interesting and what books are part of a conversation that I should consider to know what’s going on in the genre. It helped, but Roseanna recommended multiple 900 page books to me and somehow I had it in my mind that The Saint of Bright Doors was one of those mammoth tomes so I held off reading it and it turns out it is a perfectly reasonable sized 300ish page novel and is perhaps the most notable book of last year.

I follow author Vajra Chandrasekera on Bluesky (as should everyone reading this, he’s great!) and in March he had something like five announcements for different accolades that The Saint of Bright Doors has been nominated for, or won. So this book is really making the rounds and it deserves all of the praise it gets! I’m unusually underprepared for Best Novel, having only read this and Translation State (which I had some personal sticking points with, though I know it’s been very beloved otherwise!), and Saint of Bright Doors is for sure my novel to beat. It’s weird and subversive and unpredictable, which are not things Hugo voters are the best at, but I really hope this one gets a million trophies.

My predictions were worse than yours at only 3/6. I know the Hugo buzz for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi passed us both by, although it probably shouldn’t since S.A. Chakraborty has been previously nominated in Best Series. I also hadn’t realised that Witch King had got the traction it clearly had, although once the Nebula nominations came out it became clear we wouldn’t be seeing any Murderbot on a major awards ballot (side note: good for Martha Wells for deciding this - it’s a tricky decision to recuse, and being able to say “no, that’s enough for one series” is a very classy move). Some Desperate Glory was on my predictions and it’s the first Hugo book I’ve picked up for my 2024 reading: I’m loving it so far, so this is a good start.

I don’t think I will love Starter Villain, and I wish the Hugo voters had cycled out their token boilerplate white guy novelist this year (there are several to choose from in the British SFF scene!), since I’ve heard nothing but “meh” about the book and I don’t even like the Scalzi that everyone else raves about. But inertia is going to do its thing, I guess.

Witch King and The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi were my two prediction misses. Witch King because I hadn’t read it AND because I wasn’t confident that Hugo voters were going to go with Wells outside of the Murderbot series, even granting the Nebula nomination for Witch King. Maybe Witch King feels like a fantasy Murderbot, I don’t know. Or maybe readers are fully on the Martha Wells train and it’s not just Murderbot. That’s cool, if so.

The Chakraborty I did read last year, very much enjoyed it, but it gets to a conversation we’ve had over the years - except for Daevabad in Best Series (well deserved), Chakraborty hasn’t been in the Hugo conversation and it’s hard for me to predict a writer who hasn’t made it on the ballot in the past for Best Novel to make it onto the ballot in the future for Best Novel. It’s hell on my prediction stats. If there was Hugo chatter on her behalf, I missed it, but I missed a lot of things last year so that’s not a big surprise.

I’ve variations on the same feelings you have for Translation State, but my highlight (of the nominated novels) is Some Desperate Glory. That one was fantastic and thrilling and it hit all the notes I was looking for. I’m so thrilled that it made the ballot. Along with The Water Outlaws (sadly not a finalist), Some Desperate Glory was one of my favorites of the novels I read last year.

The Scalzi - I enjoyed it. It’s John Scalzi doing John Scalzi things. My wife enjoyed it, possibly more than me. But compared to the other novels on this ballot (that I’ve read) it feels slight, and I’m saying that having nominated The Kaiju Preservation Society the previous year. But hey, we don’t have Bookshops and Bonedust on the ballot. Did you read that one? I remember you were reasonably offended by Legends and Lattes picking up the Hugo nod the year prior.

Adri: I did not read Bookshops and Bonedust. I think Travis Baldree has earned a reprieve from me dunking on his work and all it represents, and frankly so have our readers.

It was never a likely Hugo finalist, but my beloved “outsider” for 2024 was Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. It’s a challenging read because of the brutality of the subject matter - it’s about a future where the US has turned its prison system into a gladiatorial entertainment spectacle where people fight to the death for the slim hope of freedom - but that book is so full of radical empathy for the people whose lives are destroyed by the “justice system”, regardless of what they did that brought them into contact with it (and some of its characters have done terrible things) that it left me thinking for a long, long time.

Joe: Chain Gang All-Stars was on my ballot. It’s an incredible, powerful novel. And, I agree, it was never going to be a real Hugo contender.

: The interesting thing about this novel ballot, also, is that it compensates for the shift away from Tor dot com dominance in novella by having three Tor dot com published novels instead. On that note, I’m excited about the novella category despite also having read very little of it (I had a very backlist heavy year last year, OK?), not least because two of the novellas are Chinese works in translation, from the same UK small press anthology no less! Both are relatively old in original publication (1995 and 2002 respectively), but I've been nominating Jin Yong's Legend of the Condor Heroes translation to best series every year it's been eligible, so I can't complain about it not being the most up to date of Chinese SFF.

Joe: The two Chinese novellas are a fun addition to the category, especially stepping away from the Tordotcom of it all. I’m looking forward to reading them - fairly soon, actually, since I bought the Adventures in Space anthology.

I’ve only read half of the novella finalists, but Nghi Vo’s Mammoths at the Gate is a particular highlight. Vo is a previous novella winner and a semi perennial finalist, but Mammoths at the Gate is straight up one of my favorite stories of the year. Also of note is Arkady Martine’s Rose / House, a story completely unlike her Hugo Award winning novels. Not to mention T. Kingfisher’s Thornhedge. It shouldn’t be a surprise that each of Kingfisher’s stories are superb.

: All things I'm enthusiastic to read! And then there's Malka Older’s The Mimicking of Known Successes, which I absolutely loved last year, so there’s a high bar to clear for me, and I’m excited to see what if anything clears it.

Joe: I’m always happy for more Malka Older.

To bounce around a little bit from prose fiction, and to a category I’m not sure you’re going to read much of if I remember previous years correctly - Graphic Story is really interesting this year.

We’ve got the return of Saga which unfortunately isn’t landing for me since its return from hiatus like the first nine volumes did, but Bea Wolf is a very creative retelling of Beowulf if Beowulf and all of the thanes were children and Grendel was that one adult neighbor who doesn’t even tolerate the presence of kids. It has the formality of an epic poem, but in comic form.

Shubeik Lubeik was originally written and published in Arabic in Egypt in 2017 and I am delighted by the opportunity to read this story of the buying and selling of wishes. I never would have encountered this before and it’s really good and I’m so glad it’s on the ballot.

I’m likewise excited to read Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Wonder Woman Historia and Paul Cornell’s The Witches of World War II. Before I watched the Netflix adaptation of The Three-Body Problem I’d have said I wasn’t into the idea of any adaptations of that novel / series (I didn’t appreciate the novel despite the accolades) but the Netflix show was fantastic and now I’m curious what a Chinese translation in comic form might look like. Of course, I’ve no idea if it’s been translated and what availability might look like in the states, but that’s a problem for future-Joe.

Adri: I didn’t manage the graphic novel category last year, but this feels like a year with great potential to come back to it. Made easier by the fact that I’ve been keeping up with Saga, so being eleven volumes in isn’t a problem - and everything else here is either a standalone or a first in series! Aside from Wonder Woman Historia, which looks BIG, it’s a much less daunting category than it has been in the past. Which fits well with my energy levels, frankly.

Joe: Shubeik Lubeik is a fairly large volume, for what it is worth. Excellent, but it’s not a slim 4 issue collection.

: To go from one visual category to another, this is the first year of Best Video Game or Interactive Work, and it’s a great ballot. While we’re sadly lacking any non-video games to give the second part of that category description a precedent to start from, there’s a really intriguing mix of indie and bigger titles here. Chants of Sennaar and Dredge are on the smaller end of that and both have really interesting storytelling - Dredge is about being a fisherman catching increasingly eldritch critters for increasingly worrying ends, and Chants of Sennaar is about climbing a tower of different cultures and trying to piece together new languages and the history of the location and its divisions. I love a language puzzle game so Chants of Sennaar in particular was a hit for me, and I even found it fun on a replay despite already knowing what the puzzles were expecting of me. I’d love to see this game take the award home!

That said, its going up against Baldur’s Gate 3, which is about as Sensation as a Video Game Sensation gets, and for good reason. I LOVED my time in this D&D-adjacent video game and I think it does many, many awesome things that you could spend literally thousands of hours exploring. The one thing I don’t like is the game’s original ending, which felt quite limited in how it sent off the characters you’ve spent so long getting to love - and yes, there’s a content patch that helps a lot with that, and it was also released in 2023 so is part of the “Hugo-judgeable-package”, but it affected my original feelings after my playthrough and I haven’t quite got over it yet.

Tears of the Kingdom is also here, and it’s well deserved. This game got me through a rough part of 2023, and before that it’s the game I was playing when we got to hang out in person last year!

There are two games I haven’t played: Jedi: Survivor is the only Star Wars on the ballot this year, which feels kinda notable in this oversaturated Star Wars era. I have friends who love it specifically for the type of male protagonist it has, and that might also end up being me. Alan Wake isn’t the kind of thing I’d usually go for, and I guess I need to play the first game before the second? So that might be the one I don’t get to, but I’m gonna be doing my best.

Joe: I’m so thrilled about the inaugural Video Game category as a permanent thing and as a person who plays a fair amount of video games I also now see a challenge with the category because I’m just not going to get to Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s a huge game, I’ve been waffling about when to buy it but because I didn’t jump on it right away I’m kind of behind the game here. I’m in the middle of God of War Ragnarok, which is its own bit of epicness that I keep putting down because I can’t focus and just want to power wash things on Power Wash Simulator. I can’t believe I’ve put in 30 hours into that so far.

Adri: Power Wash Simulator is a gem and I’ve replayed more of it than I care to admit.

Joe: I don’t think I’m going to revisit any levels, especially fiddly ones, but it’s peacefully occupying more of my gaming time than I’d like to admit. But for actual finalists, I’m partway through Dredge and am really enjoying the mix of peaceful fishing game and absolute terror when I’m staying out on my boat too late and what the hell are these red lights and things in the dark chasing me and where did that rock come from it wasn’t there two hours ago?

Tears of the Kingdom was absolutely fantastic and I mostly enjoyed playing it more than I did Breath of the Wild (ascend for the win) - though as with most things, I completely ignored building stuff and because it’s an extension of that game Tears of the Kingdom didn’t have the same sense of wonder and discovery that Breath of the Wild did. But everything is relative because the highs of Tears of the Kingdom are so very high.

I have the same issue with Alan Wake 2 and Jedi: Survivor that you do. I haven’t played them, and I haven’t played the first game and I think I want to because I’m less likely to go backwards on either game (especially since I have Jedi: Fallen Order on PS+).

I will play Chants of Sennaar, though. Once I beat one of the three main Playstation games I’m in the middle of, as previously mentioned, I plan to add Chants to my rotation (ignoring the fact that I also started Tchia). You really sold Chants in a way that I’m very intrigued for a game I would have otherwise skipped over.

Best Series is a category that I love as a thing but have somewhat mixed feelings on this year. We have our recurring Seanan McGuire and I really hope this is the year October Daye brings home a Hugo. It really is the sort of thing that isn’t going to be recognized anywhere else on the ballot unless one of McGuire’s short stories breaks through again and to my mind it’s exactly the sort of thing that *should* be recognized by the Best Series Hugo. Also, and correct me if I’m wrong - it doesn’t look like we’re getting a new October Daye novel this year for the first time since she started publishing novels with Rosemary and Rue.

Adri: That seems to be correct, because of the publisher shift from DAW books to Tor. Aren’t you wishing you saved one of last year’s double to tide you over this year?

Joe: Is that what happened? I somehow missed October Daye switching publishers. But since I’m deep in my re-read all this means is that if Tor keeps the traditional September publication date I’ll have plenty of time to almost catch up. At this point I’m never not reading October Daye.

: I like this ballot, on the whole, although I’ve read as much Charles Stross as I ever intend to so I’m a bit bemused to see the Laundry Files back. Xuya is a fantastic nominee in this category though, as is The Last Binding, and while Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Final Architecture trilogy isn’t quite as amazing as Children of Time, it’s still an excellent space opera and Adrian deserves an untainted Hugo.

Joe: I’m really hit and miss on Stross, but I’m not at all surprised to see The Laundry Files on the ballot. Hometown kid and all. I read the first two or three plus a few stories, generally enjoyed them but fell off and never came back for no particular reason. I keep waffling on whether to jump back in either from where I left off or from when Tor picked up the series. Not sure if that makes a ton of sense given that everything seems to build off each other but therein lies the peril of series.

Likewise, I’m not all that excited about the Xuya Universe, though I do agree it is a fantastic nominee. I’ve read several novellas and short stories and I think my only issue with it is that Xuya is a bit more diffuse than other series in this category. I’m behind on the two novels, though, and that might make a difference. I’m not at all familiar with Freya Marske or her work, so that’ll be one of my discoveries for this category.

I’m so behind on reading Adrian Tchaikovsky because he is so incredibly prolific (though I’ve read one of his Shadows of the Apt novels on each of my last two trips and expect to read the third on my Scotland adventure), but I’m excited to jump into Final Architecture. It’s on request at the library and maybe will pop up in the voter packet but if I need to prioritize anything on this year’s ballot it’s going to be more Tchaikovsky. You’ve been singing his praises for years now and I should really pay attention.

: Tchaikovsky has had a patchy publication history in the USA as well, which doesn’t help.

Anything else you’re excited for on the rest of the ballot? I’m really happy that Maureen Kincaid Speller’s collection, A Traveller in Time, is represented in Best Related Work, though I very much wish that Maureen was with us to enjoy (or at least have enjoyment-adjacent feelings about) that recognition. And I’m delighted that Ai Jiang is in both novelette and Astounding - she’s really burst onto the short fiction scene in the last couple of years and she’s really, really good. I keep a little list in my head of amazing new short fiction writers that should have been Astounding finalists but were robbed and it’s nice not to make the list longer.

Relatedly -- and this is the only bit of process-related griping I’m going to do --  I’m happy that Xiran Jay Zhao has been given extended eligibility, but I wish Dell had declared that there should be seven finalists rather than six, rather than indirectly kicking a non-extendedly-eligible writer off the ballot. Because Zhao’s extended eligibility wasn’t announced in advance, I doubt they received enough votes to reach the ballot organically, and that means that whoever placed sixth among this years nominators has had an opportunity taken away from them in order to rectify a wrong done to one of last year’s finalists. That doesn’t feel good.

Then again, voters vote for ineligible things all the time, so hopefully my assumption that Zhao didn’t receive votes is wrong, people put them on their ballot in protest, and this situation is not as bad as all that. But there could have been space for seven in the circumstances.

Joe: There is a non-zero chance that Zhang received enough votes to make the ballot, but I agree that an announcement would have allowed fans to nominate with intention regarding Xiran Jay Zhao. I’m cautiously optimistic that Dell told the Hugo Committee that if Zhao receives enough votes to include them on the final ballot, but am likewise concerned that Dell added them to the ballot by fiat - in which case, yes, it is unfair that because a wrong was done last year than a wrong was done this year to make amends. On the other other hand - had that announcement been made in advance, I have no doubt that Zhao would have received sufficient votes and we’d have ended up in the same place - but I can definitely see a path to where the first one off the ballot when stats are announced doesn’t feel good about this.

Also, you missed the bad joke of saying that it doesn’t feel astounding.

(Adri could have written a response here, but she didn't because it was a bad joke).  

Joe: For the rest of the ballot, I’m always happy to see a story from Sarah Pinsker up for a Hugo. Dramatic Presentation Long Form is a fun mix of movies while Short Form feels like a category from twenty years ago - though I haven’t seen most of what’s nominated. I’ll probably get to all but The Last of Us, assuming I can muster up enough interest to push into the second season of Loki after being bored by the first.

My hope is that this is the year either Strange Horizons or GigaNotoSaurus can break through in Semiprozine, though I’d certainly be happy about FIYAH picking up their second Hugo. I’d really like to see Alasdair Stuart take home a Hugo for *something* this year - whether it is his fan writing (not that I’m rooting against Paul, maybe they can tie), Escape Pod, or if Nerds of a Feather doesn’t win I’m pulling for The Full Lid this year. Actually, that’s something Mary Robinette Kowal told me in DC a few years back when I was a bit extra stressed out - think about who you would like to win that isn’t you and root for them so that you have someone to cheer for if it doesn’t go your way. Regardless, Stuart is now an 11 time finalist. He’s such a force for good in the genre community and consistently puts out such good fan work that he absolutely deserves to be recognized - and what better time than in a UK based convention for a UK based fan?

I think that’s also a grand place to wrap this up. This is a fantastic lineup of Hugo finalists and given how excessively open Glasgow has been thus far I am very confident there will be absolutely no shenanigans. I’m excited to attend the ceremony in person and see you and Roseanna and Paul and everyone else who will be there!

Adri: Absolutely - so far from a finalist perspective we’ve seen the Glasgow team putting their absolute best foot forward and I really appreciate the level of communication, transparency and thoughtfulness that’s been evident so far. It doesn’t undo the damage of 2023, but it’s a good place to move forward from, and I’m really glad for it.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Does civilization have to mean subjugation?

In the long chain of ancestors that span the millennia before the rise of humans, the earliest apes we count as members of the genus Homo are those belonging to the species Homo habilis, thus named because they could make tools. It's quite revealing that we ended up focusing on tools as the attribute that demarcates the human from the nonhuman. Although tool use is known to exist in other animals, including apes prior to the genus Homo, there seems to be a particular quality to the way we use tools. We didn't only work with hand-sized objects; we intentionally reshaped entire landscapes, turning land and water into our tools. We learned to manipulate the reproduction of food plants and animals, turning other lifeforms into our tools. We even invented social rules to enslave our fellow humans, which is equivalent to turning people into tools. For most of our history, our way of relating to the nonhuman has been to try to control it—and then we've turned the same techniques against ourselves. Only humans dehumanize.

The prevalence of this tragic practice raises a series of increasingly uncomfortable questions: Is oppression innate to Homo sapiens? Or would it emerge in any sufficiently complex society, regardless of species? If another species acquires human-level intelligence, are they destined to repeat our mistakes?

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is plotted as the most basic "bandits raided my village" story. However, by the mere fact that its characters aren't human, the political parallels with human history become more salient (such is the magic of cognitive estrangement). After the previous Planet of the Apes entry left us with the leader chimpanzee Caesar following a Moses template, guiding his people to a promised land but dying before he could settle in it, Kingdom shows us an ape society that has rediscovered one of the most dangerous of human inventions: mythologization. Over the centuries, Caesar's teachings have been inevitably misremembered, which makes them useful as an excuse for political dominance. The pattern feels all too human; one just needs to look at the Spanish Empire, which pillaged and murdered in the name of Jesus, who preached fraternal love and forgiveness; or the ultranationalist factions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which engage in ethnic cleansing in the name of Buddha, who preached peace and universal compassion. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar's doctrine of strength through unity has been similarly twisted into one of totalitarian submission.

Curiously, the theme of domination makes twin appearances in the two groups in conflict. In this corner: our protagonist, young chimpanzee Noa, who comes from a tribe that captures eagle eggs for domestication, but takes care to not overharvest. In this other corner: self-proclaimed king Proximus, whose regime captures apes for slavery with unmeasured greed. When Noa's community is destroyed, its leader's first impulse is to free all the eagles. When Proximus's kingdom is destroyed, his first impulse is to violently reassert his power. It's a simplistic contrast, but it makes its point: in the end, the freed eagles are the ones to bring about the tyrant's downfall. Let it not be said that this movie is subtle.

What complicates matters is the presence of a human, Mae, who takes advantage of Noa's expectations to gain his trust. Mae believes in the right of humans to reclaim their lost supremacy, but her actions in the story end up confirming the apes' every suspicion against humans. She uses the apes for her own agenda, because she's not ready to deal with apes as equals, and the movie seems to take the stance that such crucial step can never happen. In the world of Planet of the Apes, humans can't outgrow the mindset that human-nonhuman relations must proceed by a dynamic of control, which means that humans won't agree to share the top position.

This question of who will prevail bears a strong imprint of dramatic irony in the choice of antagonist. Proximus, like Koba in the preceding movies, isn't a chimpanzee, but a bonobo. In our real world, bonobos are a notably nonviolent species, with a social organization built on webs of mother-to-mother alliances as opposed to the brutal pyramidal patriarchy of chimpanzees. Bonobo society displays many of the virtues we thought were exclusive to us: empathy, cooperation, de-escalation, openness, negotiation, tolerance. To cast precisely bonobos in evil roles (a murderer embittered by resentment, in the case of Koba; a despot obsessed with accumulating more power, in the case of Proximus) is, indirectly, another jab at humans: both of these villains had their worldviews corrupted by human influence.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes buries all this rich symbolic subtext underneath a lamentably boilerplate script. Our hero goes in search of his kidnapped community, meets an erudite yet eccentric elder, gets captured by the enemy, plans his escape, saves his people, the end. At several moments it feels like the writers are tempted to explore a more daring side of the story, but each time, it holds back. There are valuable questions sparked by the reveal of the survival of talking humans, or the differing traditions that claim to follow Caesar, or whatever discovery drew Proximus to start hoarding history books, or the apparent subservience of gorillas to smaller apes. The last few minutes allude to a much bigger confrontation that steals the spotlight from the main events of the movie. All along, the viewer has been led to believe that the core conflict was between opposite models of ape society, but the ending sweeps all that under the rug and restates the entire plot in terms of the possibility of human-ape coexistence.

As the only human character for most of the runtime, Mae's arc reflects a pessimistic view of human-ape relations. She lies, pretends, misleads, and is ready to betray or kill whenever she sees the need. Most of the apes she interacts with have never met another human, and based solely on her conduct, one could forgive them for persisting in the belief that humans are fundamentally untrustworthy. She doesn't seek coexistence; she seeks a return to the old times (that is, our times), with humans in possession of the technological means to subjugate all other species. She doesn't see a livable future where humans are brought down to the same level as the rest of animals.

There's at least one school of thought that agrees with her. Early 20th century biologists developed what is known as Gause's law, which says that coexistence cannot maintain stability where two species require the same resources. Over time, the species with the fitness advantage will displace the other. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, Mae's unstated fear is that, without advanced technology, humans are in a situation of clear competitive disadvantage. Proximus doesn't know Mae's plans, but he shares her worldview: he wants to acquire human technology for the exact same reason. The good news, both for the fictional future apes and for us, is that Gause's law has not been confirmed. Population dynamics obeys many more factors than access to resources; the mathematical modeling required to test such scenarios is still too complex for clear predictions; and real-life cases abound of species with overlapping niches. Some form of coexistence is possible. The tricky part is figuring out which form.

It's interesting to see how much Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes plays with deep themes while being apparently unaware that it's doing so. Too many key questions are left intentionally open, and the plot is decidedly conservative in both structure (resolution via return to status quo) and message (human technology is too dangerous to let either faction have it). It has been noted by other critics that this is the first Apes produced since Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which, if you put on your cynical eyeglasses, may explain the movie's restrained politics, just-serviceable action, relative lack of blood, and itch for sequel teasing. It would be a pity to see this rebooted franchise fall to the same vices of the rest of the Disney machine. I almost wish I had chimpanzee feet, just so I could cross more fingers.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Book Review: Inverted Frontier by Linda Nagata

The latest (and possibly penultimate) volume in the Inverted Frontier series has the explorers on Dragon and Griffin have a true first contact, and possibly an enemy within.

The Inverted Frontier series (Edges, Silver, Needle), as successor to her far future novels such as Deception Well have told the story of a far future group of humans, some of the last survivors of humanitry known, slowly make their way back to Earth, exploring the “Hollowed Vasties” of the realm around the home star long since devastated by a variety of internal and external problems. Along the way, they’ve come across revolutionary nanotech (“Silver”) capable of making worlds, minds of an alien species intent on destroying biological life, and other wonders besides.

But on a long journey between star systems (there is no FTL in this verse), there are questions that arise regarding the nature and state of mind of those controlling the secondary ship Griffin. And then there are intimations that their next system on their tour might hold actual alien life that is not the xenophobically murderous Chenzeme automated vehicles (think Fred Saberhagen style Berserkers) . And then there are the ambitious of the crew of Dragon, too, to truly make their mark on the universe.

This and much more is in the story of Blade, the fourth in the series.

The story of Blade revolves, ultimately, around the use of the titular Blade. The Blade, a piece of worldmaking power powered by the strange and poorly understood nanotech known as Silver, has been a literal Chekhov's gun since the second book in the series, Silver, and nearly lead to disaster in the previous novel, Needle. Now in the fourth novel, in the making of first contact, Urban has another chance, a unique opportunity to do something he has sought to do since Silver: unleash the power of the Blade, use the nanotech Silver, and help create an entire world. He’s seen two results of what can be done with such power, and now, he seeks to unlock the last door in that knowledge and do it himself.

And in fact, to go right to the heart and theme of this novel this knowledge is all about knowledge and the power of knowledge. Knowledge is a blade. Knowledge is the knife that can carve a chicken in a kitchen, or cut against an enemy real or perceived. Knowledge withheld, shunted off, or changed, or faked can lead people to be manipulated, act against their own interests, and cause great harm. And the thirst for knowledge can cause all sorts of chaos and bad decisions in its wake.

Throughout this book again and again, knowledge of various sorts, and the fears and power of knowledge is what propels the plot. Urban, given the information he has, the knowledge at his disposal, is afraid that the alternate mind of his ex lover Clementine on board the secondary ship Griffin has developed divergent ideas of her own, and possibly is aligned with the rather dangerous alien substrate deep in the spacecraft. This leads to tragedy, possibly the extinguishing of intelligent life (a subtheme in this novel). The knowledge exchanges and negotiations between Dragon and the aliens they encounter (and the one human with them) also are fraught affairs. And then there is the very human AI lurking in the alien colonized system, and their agenda in information control leads to catastrophic results on several sides.

And then there is the titular Blade itself. The phrase “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is not meant as a slam on knowing anything. It’s meant as a cautionary tale on knowing some, but not enough, to think that you understand something extremely complicated and dangerous, to take shortcuts when you absolutely should not. And then the tragic results come out of it. And in the end, this novel, fourth in the series, turns out to be a Tragedy of Knowledge. I will leave the actual details for you to discover.

Nagata does leaven the tragedy of the Blade with a wham moment at the end of the novel, when Urban, Clementine and the rest of the explorers discover that (keeping in theme) a key piece of knowledge they thought that they had is wrong. And fitting that this knowledge, mistaken and now to be corrected, in this penultimate book in the series, is about the destination they have had since the first book: Earth.

That last bit helps highlight something I don’t want to get lost in discussing a book four of a series that itself sits on top of other books. This book definitely requires, to fully appreciate it, knowledge of a complicated half dozen science fiction novels. That’s a high wire act on the same level as keeping a very complicated epic fantasy series on course and making things comprehensible to its fans (Nagata has also written, to much less widespread knowledge alas, fantasy, so she knows of what she is doing). It’s extremely difficult to do what Nagata has been doing, building up this SF series and keeping it together, and providing a bigger, wider tapestry with every subsequent book.

To present new wonders, new ideas and new vistas in a wide ranging, big SF series is no mean feat. I’ve said in earlier reviews that the folks updating Stellaris should start paying attention to Nagata’s work, because there is such a richness of idea and invention here to explore and immersive oneself in. There are science fiction vistas and concepts that few SF authors are willing to go big screen canvas on, but Nagata gives this all, in of all things, a non FTL universe. And she makes it all work, but it does mean that the pace of the novel and the voyage of the Dragon and Griffin is years of quiet followed by high peaks of excitement (it is no wonder that many of the crew are not in active mode for the long years between systems). This novel, though, does have a significant amount of character conflict occur on the voyage itself.

But in general, character characterization isn’t quite as strong, there really are only several really strong characters in the fleet but Nagata uses characterization and character development (especially with the run up to the use of the Blade) strategically and energetically. And so when characters are, in fact, lost (difficult but possible even in a world of digital backups of people), it does leave a mark, as Nagata intended. She successfully shows that even in a world where I could go down to a dangerous planetoid because I have a backup handy with my memories in the software of the ship, there are still real stakes involved.

And that is where I am going to tie this book up. In the end, the stakes of the voyagers returning into the center of realms long lost, to find out what happened ultimately to Earth and its colonies in the wake of technological evolution, war, and alien berserkers ultimately is something Nagata makes me care about. I do want to know what they find in the 5th and subsequent volume of Earth and see how she finishes the series.


  • High Tech Space Opera winningly depicted and written
  • Important theme of Knowledge, Good, Bad and Ill, an essential tentpole of the book.

Reference: Nagata, Linda, Inverted Frontier, Blade, [Mythic Island Press, 2024]

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

Book Review: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

Another beautifully written entry into the Singing Hills cycle, but departing from the previous books' structural devices... or does it?

The Brides of High Hill is the fifth installment in Nghi Vo's Singing Hills cycle - of which we here at Nerds have reviewed books one, two and four - that follows Cleric Chih in their wanderings, collecting stories for the Singing Hills Abbey and discovering strange things, and stranger people in the process.

Each of the previous novels has had something of a twist to it, structurally speaking. The Empress of Salt and Fortune, for instance, tells its tale through objects being discovered in an old house, and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain through a story within a story, drawn from two traditions of the same narrative. One of the delights of continuing to read the series is the anticipation, the wait to find out what the gimmick (in the entirely complimentary use of the word) is going to be this time. Mammoths at the Gates, the fourth volume, kept the reader waiting a fair way into the book to find that out, and against the backdrop of an abbey at siege in all but the most scrupulous definitions, this gave a pleasing sense of tension. The Brides of High Hill likewise lets the wonderment linger on, pushing it even further than its predecessor. But is it too long of a wait this time? Perhaps. 

On the one hand, it still does the job. The bit, the device, the gimmick, whatever you want to call it, still leaves the reader with a little something more than just a typical narrative would. It's still a good story well told, with the same vivid description, the same loving lingering over food, the same palpable atmosphere of all of Nghi's work. But when I come to talk about this series as a series, the selling point is always the device. It's what distinguishes this from other works. If I didn't have the rest of the series to contextualise this entry, however, I might not be inclined to think of it that way at all - instead, I might describe it as a twist ending, which is something else entirely.

Or... well, is it? At what point does something shift from a device, an interesting upending of the usual narrative, and become a twist ending? Where's the line? Wherever it is, The Brides of High Hill feels like it is actively flirting with it. And that leaves me with two parallel experiences of it as a story.

Purely on its own merits, with nothing to compare it to, I really enjoyed it. Vo is great at pared down worldbuilding, giving us in novella space all we need to thoroughly envision the world of her books, because she knows exactly what to focus on, which bits matter to make the reading experience a rich one, without compromising on atmosphere or flavour. There's nothing beyond what is needed, but absolutely everything you need, and that balance is exquisitely handled, here just as much as her other stories. I have a very clear visual impression of several rooms and scenes in the story, a tactile memory of the mouldy library and the book the cleric finds there, moments of light and sound and colour when the story zooms in on critical scenes. It is by no means sparse - those scenes are fully built up, especially with clothing and with food, which is always a strong part of Vo's storytelling for me - but every single piece feels critical and purposeful, and so the story fits and flows in its small space.

The growing strangeness of Chih's situation is also well handled, intruding at first only subtly round the edges, never going in feet first. You feel embedded in their view of the situation, and so you get to follow them through their own experiences and realisations, and I at least had the wonderfully joyous experience of discovering the twist along with them (which is a rare delight for a chronic predictor of endings to mysteries). It's a good twist, too. It does exactly what you want out of one - forcing you to look back at the whole of the rest of the story before it and exclaim "ohhhHHHHhhhhh" as you realise just how much it was built in all along, if only you had noticed.

And Chih just remains a lovely character to spend time with. Their gentle pragmatism about their vegetarianism, their enjoyment of the world, their willingness to just let fortune steer them and see what comes, all make them a pleasant narrative perspective. I keep coming back to food here, as I have in previous reviews of the Singing Hills books, but it is one of the series' great strengths - Chih enjoys food, and describes it so vividly, it's very easy and comforting to enjoy it along with them. I love books that bed the reader into the sensory experience of the world, and food is such an emotive part of the sensory experience that when it's done right, it latches right onto my soul and has me hooked.

If it has a weakness, it's that the secondary characters are less compelling than they could be. The creepy son is indeed creepy, and the weirdly upbeat young bride is indeed slightly weird and upbeat... but neither of them latched onto my heart the way it felt like they might have, or could have. There was just something a little flat about them. But truly, and especially in such a short novella, this is not the greatest crime in the world.

And so on the whole, purely as itself, it was a good, well-written story with a mystery and a twist, all of which I enjoyed reading and simply could not put down.

And then... you compare it to the rest of the series. And that's where it gets sticky. Because instead of something throughout the story, you have a twist ending. But where those structural devices in the other stories were something of a USP, well, everyone's done a twist ending. It's just fundamentally less exciting. But maybe the twist forcing you to reassess the story that comes before it count as being pervasive through the whole narrative? Or does leaving you in suspense waiting for the device change the experience of the book as a whole? Is this actually a long con on Nghi Vo's part, toying with our expectations now that the rest of the series has set a pattern? I honestly don't know.

If it is though, it didn't entirely work for me. There's a lot of foreshadowing for the twist ending that does mean you recontextualise a lot of story once you have that knowledge. And that certainly makes it a good twist. But I yearn for the extra tasty structure of the previous stories, the way Vo plays with craft, with form, and I do think this one is weaker for the contrast with its forebears. I cannot turn off the part of my mind that brings with it the expectations Vo has set for us, I just can't. And if those expectations are being played with, alas, I am not so subtle nor so smart a reader as to have fully got that, so it exists in an awkward limbo of shoulda woulda coulda for me. If it is something smarter, then I think I needed that to be made more plain on the page for me to spot. And if it's not... then it falls a little flat when compared to its rather more fancily dressed older siblings.

It's still a good story, even despite this. It's still a 7/10, still enjoyable, readable and utterly devourable. I still love Cleric Chih. I still love the world. I still love Vo's lingering descriptions of place and food and texture and architecture. I still love the way the stories turn out, never quite how I expect them to. But this one is missing that little bit of something that truly makes the Singing Hills cycle magical, and I hope, if we continue to get more in this series, the magic is returned.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful descriptions, a well-managed twist ending, Cleric Chih remains a delight

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Nghi Vo, The Brides of High Hill, [Tordotcom, 2024]

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

Friday, May 10, 2024

Roundtable Interview: Broken Olive Branches

Broken Olive Branches is a charity anthology; over 30 authors in the horror community donated stories to help the civilians of Palestine

Among the stories are:

  • codependent necromancers
  • a spy discovers a supernatural weapon that might turn the tide of the war
  • a Girl Scout troop camping trip goes horribly wrong when dinosaurs show up
  • a child's drawings of their family are not quite what they seem
  • a group of men fighting a forest fire are about to have a Very Bad Day
  • a man is constantly followed by a terrifying shadow figure he calls the Other
  • a young woman's new job at the mall isn't nearly as mundane as she anticipated

Proceeds from the anthology go to ANERA and the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.

Today, Roseanna will be talking to the editor and some of the authors involved in the project:

Stephanie Rabig has been an avid reader all her life, and connected with horror at a young age. She’s the author of On Stolen Land, Playing Possum, the Cryptids & Cauldrons series, and a collection of short stories called Collapsed Veins.

Aysha U. Farah is a video game developer and science fiction author. She works as a lead writer at Deck Nine Games and in the past has done work for Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. You can find her short stories in Uncanny Magazine, Foreshadow Anthology, and the upcoming Amplitudes Anthology.

Rachel Roth graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in English and a Certificate in Creative Writing. She’s the author of the horror novel The Undead Redhead and the short story collection Dead Flies.

Alex Wallace reviews for Nerds of a Feather and has appeared on various blogs and podcasts to talk alternate history. This anthology marks his sixth published story.

It's a pleasure to have them all here to discuss their work, so without further ado, let's see what they have to say about the anthology:

Roseanna: Normally for this type of interview we would open with a question on how the anthology came about, but that feels a little unnecessary here—we all know what’s happening in Palestine currently, and a charity anthology to raise funds for Palestine Children's Relief Fund and ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid) is a very clear response to that.

So instead, I want to start with thisfor Stephanie, what made you decide to start pulling this anthology together? And for the authors, what made you answer the call for submissions, and write/submit the stories you wrote?

Alex Wallace: For me, it was a combination of raw human empathy and the knowledge I have of the situation in the Holy Land. Back in 2021 I did a deep dive into the history of the region and so I learned the contours of Palestinian history (the result of all that was an essay I wrote for the Sea Lion Press blog).

But there was also the urgency I felt when I saw how the region was heating up in October; it was the same urgency I felt when Ukraine was invaded in 2022 (which I raised funds for here and here). Part of it is doubtlessly the stories I was told by my mother of how members of my Filipino family fared under the Japanese invasion. It’s the gut feeling of “people are suffering, and I must help them.”

Rachel Roth: I wanted to contribute to this anthology the moment I saw the submission call because of its connection to Gaza. To not only contribute to a collection that promised to help and support Gaza, but to pour a little of my anger out into a piece of fiction. I also loved the idea that it was a collection of not just stories, but people who supported the people of Palestine. Since this war began, I’ve been in a state of worry because of my friend who lives in Gaza. Zainab and I have been friends for about eight years now and I’ve always been concerned for her safety. Throughout the years, she’d message me, usually in the early hours of the morning, about a bomb that struck the building next door to her or of a colleague that died from an airstrike. It wasn’t just her neighbors, but her family too. Her older brother was killed by an Israeli bullet years ago, and her older sister died at a young age from heart disease. The fact that the Palestinian people get basically no healthcare and have to ask Israel’s permission to cross the border to even get to better doctors likely contributed to that.

Her building was the first one Israel destroyed in the response attack. I still remember the message I woke up to. “Hey Rachel, they bombed our building. We managed to get out in our bed clothes. I’m staying at a friend’s.” There were days when I wouldn’t hear from her, weeks in silence and I’d think the worst. Then Gaza went dark, the internet was cut off, and I went into a panic. The only thing that made me feel somewhat sane during that time was writing a couple of shorts. Basically, rage and pain fueled wish fulfillment. The story I wrote, “Our Land, Our Cave, Our Home,” is all about that, rage. It’s the spiritual beings of the land who have woken up from the screams and shakes of the earth, and they’re angry, they’re upset, they’re in pain at seeing their home and the people suffering.

I was looking for ways to help outside of what I was already doing, such as boycotting and speaking out. I joined a few protests, donated to a couple of charities, and tried to spread information as best I could, but being a writer, I was naturally thrilled at finding a way to help within that subject. This anthology is such a good way for writers specifically to band together and show their solidarity while hopefully spreading some awareness.

Stephanie Rabig: I’d honestly known very little about the entire conflict over PalestineI remembered the Rachel Corrie case, but at the time I sadly listened to the media drums of “it’s just Like That there; the conflict has been going on for all our lifetimes and will never stop.” Then, as things got worse and worse last year, and after seeing footage and hearing stories from people who are actually there… I realized how ignorant I’d been, and I wanted to help; and writing is the way I know to do that. I’ve always loved charity anthologies, and thought if there was a time to try my hand at setting one up, it was definitely now.

Aysha: At the time I saw this anthology call, there’d basically been radio silence in the publishing world re: Gaza and Palestine. Every publication that purported to align its mission with diversity, inclusion, and the project of decolonization were just… silent. Since then, some mags have made statements or proposed special anthologies of their own, but more have not.

My friend linked me to the call for this anthology (since I’d bounced off Twitter sometime late last year) and, even though my genre generally isn’t horror, I felt compelled to submit.

Roseanna: Can you tell me more about where the anthology title came from, and what resonances it has for each of you?

Rachel Roth: When I hear the words Broken Olive Branches, I think of all the olive trees in the West Bank that get vandalized or, more often than not, burned year by year by Israeli settlers. I remember thinking the title was appropriate upon its announcement because right before that was a news story about the massive amount of fig and olive trees that were getting destroyed in the West Bank. It felt like an answer to that specifically. The title creates an image that touches on many levels, the fact that the olive tree is sacred in Islam, that its native to the land, that it’s a source of income and tradition to the Palestinian farmers who grow them. The broken branches are all these things, the land being destroyed, the Muslims facing religious hate, and the Palestinian people that are forced to endure so much loss.

Stephanie Rabig: I chose the title after seeing a heartbreaking picture of a woman hugging what remained of one of her olive trees after a settler attack. The human cost in Palestine is unimaginable, and the state of the trees represents that to mepeople put so much love and care into these plants, years of their lives, and then they’re gone in an instant.

Alex Wallace: The olive tree is such a consistent symbol of Palestine in the literature of the Palestinian people. It is a symbol of this nation, and the title is an allegory of how the Israeli state is trying to destroy it.

Aysha: It’s a horrific image, isn’t it? The breaking of something significant, the trampling of it underfoot. I can’t think of a better title.

Roseanna: Why did you go for the format of a short story anthology—what draws you to them, and to write short fiction?

Rachel Roth: I’m not necessarily drawn to any format, whether it be short, novella, or novel. I’ve written types of all three, but it’s rarely planned. Almost all my shorts just started from me writing and they ended when I felt it needed to end. There’s been a few times where I’ve aimed at writing a short or a novel, but it ends up becoming something else. I've only ever contributed to one other anthology because it moved me, because its purpose was to spread awareness. It was a LGBTQA-themed poetry collection, Smitten, and it really does create a sense of purpose within you to be included in such a creation. Though this is of course on a much larger scale.

Stephanie Rabig: One of my main goals in getting the anthology out was to do it quickly so it could start earning money right away, and I also wanted to represent a bunch of different voices who all had the same goal. Short stories were the perfect way to do that: the project had a short turnaround time, and I know from experience that a lot of authors have an “I love this story but haven’t found a place for it yet” folder, and fortunately so many amazing writers were willing to see if that piece of theirs would fit here.

Alex Wallace: I think there’s something very moving in the anthology format for a fundraiser; it showcases a variety of people, often from many walks of life in many countries, who have come together to benefit a singular cause. It’s my empathy getting in the way, again, and as soon as I saw the call, I knew I had to submit something. It came from the same horror, the same helplessness, that I felt when I read about what happened on the 7th, on the following pulverization of Gaza, that I felt as I stayed up far too late following the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. On a raw psychological level, participating in these anthologies lets me do something, not just in the anthology itself, but in the promotion.

Aysha: I tend to have a lot of ideas that revolve around a single thing. An image, an idea, a moment, a line of dialogue. Short stories are usually the easiest way to develop something like that.

Roseanna: What draws you to writing stories with horror/fantastical elements? And how do you think those link into this anthology, its purpose, and its themes?

Rachel Roth: Horror is my comfort zone. I live for anything creepy, being surrounded in the macabre and sitting in the mind of terrifying individuals. I’ve always loved horror, my mom loves horror movies, and we’d watch them together as a kid. It wasn’t the only genre, but it was the one I connected to the most. The idea that horror loves to hold up a mirror to society, to people, and ends up showing them their ugliest sides. As for writing it, again, horror is just my go-to genre and the only one I have any real interest in writing. I like to imagine Lovecraftian critters hiding out of our line of sight, the idea that the natural and the unnatural live side by side but is veiled either by being hidden or by ignorance of the one looking at it.

Horrific things live all around us, though maybe not the way it appears in fiction. War, violence, government corruption, famine, death, people trapped in a city illuminated only by the fire of the burning buildings around them, that’s horror. You can take any piece of horror fiction and turn the subject into a very real and relatable one, and even though most war literature and films are never formatted like horror, it very much is so. Most depictions of war are from a soldier’s perspective, or it’s a backdrop to something else. Zainab talked about the ground invasion of North Gaza, about the tanks she could hear rolling through the streets, “They’re a block away.” That’s a terrifying image. That’s horror.

Stephanie Rabig: Rachel is absolutely right; things that I’ve seen happen in Palestinians’ videos would be sneered at as “too graphic” or “gratuitous” if we put them in a book. The scope of some things is so huge to consider that we have to make sense of them through our stories. Many stories in the anthology weren’t written directly in response to the situation in Gaza, but every one struck a similar… vibe, I guess? for me. There’s an uneasiness to them, and though some are more absurd and some are flat-out heartbreaking, I selected the ones that had an underlying This Should Not Be Happening tone, a feeling of someone absolutely overwhelmed by something they can’t control.

Alex Wallace: I’m not actually a horror writer, mainly—I do mostly alternate history with or without fantastical elements. My story is an alternate history short story I wrote for a competition on the Sea Lion Press forum.

But more broadly, a lot of my stories are about terrible things in human history. It’s a lot like what Rachel said, applied to the historical realm. The world we see has whole vaults of skeletons locked away in the closet, and in Palestine, as in other places, we are seeing that closet stuffed full.

Aysha: Like Alex, I’m not really a horror writer either, although I’m a huge fan of horror podcasts and video games, and recently I’ve really gotten into Lovecraftian horror. When I say ‘Lovecraftian,’ I mean remixes or retellings of Lovecraft’s concepts or mythology, or just cosmic horror in general. My dude himself was racist as hell. The stuff I’m into would give him a stroke.

I’m drawn to cosmic horror because the thought of an indifferent, terrifying power that doesn’t care if I live or die has been particularly resonant to me recently.

Roseanna: What are those unifying themes for this anthology, and how do they speak to you/how do you draw them out in your own work?

Stephanie Rabig: I wanted there to be some hope in the anthologyhowever horrifying most of the stories coming out of Gaza are, I see teachers in refugee camps trying to provide some normalcy for the kids; children sketching in the dust, someone planting a garden in a tiny patch of the rubble that remains of their home. Most of the stories in the anthology are weird horror; the “I have NO idea what’s going to happen next but I bet it’s not going to be good” tone worked for most of it (Rick Selars’ story Abyssal is flat-out Lovecraftian!) but I chose the final story (Tower Creepers) for its hope.

Alex Wallace: I think science fiction in particular has a lot to say regarding the situation in Gaza. Let me quote a piece by Kim Stanley Robinson:

“Science fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time.”

This was about the pandemic, but it works just as well for how human beings work tirelessly to develop exciting new ways of massacring other human beings. The traditional consensus of the science fiction community has had a Whiggish view of technological development, a feeling that it would only ever be used for good. It’s a white-centric viewpoint, from an era when the United States bestrode the world like a colossus, its inhabitants caring not a whit for the millions of lives destroyed by its guns and its bombs and those in the hands of its proxies.

In our world, fancy new technology has been used for great evil. The airplane was almost an adult the day it was used to drop bombs to destroy Black Wall Street in Tulsa. The airplane’s youth was spent razing villages in Europe’s colonies; Arthur Harris, the RAF officer who ordered the firebombing of Dresden, was in awe of how bombs dropped from the skies could level a village in what is now Iraq in forty-five minutes. More recently, facial recognition technology is a cornerstone of the modern colonial police state in Uyghurstan, and has seen increased use in Western police departments (themselves descended, all too often, from colonial occupation forces).

Much has been made of the use of artificial intelligence in more recent wars, such as the ‘Uber for artillery guns’ used by the Ukrainian army. That is technology used for good, in the service of an anti-colonial war of national liberation. In Gaza, however, the IDF has used artificial intelligence in the service of mass murder. Read this article, revelatory in its coldness.

This is a prime example of the saying ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ Much as facial recognition technology can amplify racial profiling, the Lavender system employed by the IDF amplifies the wanton disregard the Israeli state has for Palestinian life. It has given the Israelis the ability to reenact Deir Yassin, Kafr Qasim, and Sabra and Shatila at the push of a button, to provide a coldly concrete realization of the phrase ‘one death is a tragedy, and a million a statistic.’

This system is the stuff of science fiction, albeit one that few people in the community ever wanted to come true. It is the proverbial Torment Nexus brought to life, although capable of destroying far more life than said nexus ever could. This is human ingenuity, human creativity, human imagination at work in the service of an utterly evil goal. The IDF uses this artificial intelligence as something akin to a pesticide, and the Palestinians are seen as vermin (the Israeli politicians overseeing this genocide make all-too-common comparisons to the biblical Amalekites, who God commands the Israelites to utterly destroy, after which they shall receive the Land of Israelor Palestine, by another name).

This is something that I hope science fiction fans pay attention to. We have seen the likes of Elon Musk horribly and perhaps willfully misunderstand science fiction to further their unbridled greed, but now it is in the service of a colonial war of extermination with the full backing of the Western military-industrial complexes, a coalition of the willing to depopulate Gaza. To science fiction writers: your dreams can be twisted to serve evil ends. All too often, science fiction serves to put guided missiles in the hands of misguided men. And I am certain there are still more horrors being tested in laboratories in the deserts of the American West or the Siberian tundra. To quote the rather pulpy game Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 (most famous for the meme of Tim Curry yelling about space), “Who knows what nightmares we have created?”

Rachel Roth: I agree with Stephanie about the way that many of the stories in the anthology have an “I don't know what's happening here” sense in their narratives, but I also thought that a great deal of them had a feeling of intrusion to them. People whose safe places are invaded by someone or something, a person who goes somewhere they're not familiar and maybe shouldn't be. Just a general sense of unwanted presence within many of the conflicts taking place, which are feelings that can be taken straight out of the turmoil brought on by something like a violent occupation.

Roseanna: Do you have a favourite story from the anthology (other than your own stories, which are of course all excellent)? Can you tell me why it works so well for you?

Stephanie Rabig: The language in two of the stories really struck me: the poetic quality of What the Ghouleh Said on Thursday of the Dead brings beauty to a terrifying story, and the capitalization differences in Promotion made me feel like I was reading A. A. Milne for the first time. The Brides of Drume would make an amazing short film. The ending of Tower Creepers always makes me tear up… I just love all these stories so much and am so grateful to everyone who contributed.

Rachel Roth: I really enjoyed Magic 8 Ball by Pedro Iniguez. It had qualities of cosmic horror, a regular person who encounters a force beyond their comprehension and ends without explanation. I love all that, especially unexplained endings. Love when things are kept in the open; more real that way, has more of an impact, instead of explaining things just for the sake of resolution.

Alex Wallace: I was a big fan of The Brides of Drume by Derek Hutchins. It’s adjacent to alternate history and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

Roseanna: This is one way people can help support Palestine. Are there any other ways —charities or action— you would suggest to people looking to do more?

Stephanie Rabig: Wearing a keffiyeh or pro-Palestine pin, something that lets people know where you stand, is so important to let people know they have allies, that they’re not alone in this. Despite what it might look like in the news, other people are worried, too; they’re thinking of the people over there and trying to help. In terms of donation, this is an incredible document listing tons of GoFundMes and other ways to help people who are in immediate danger.

Alex Wallace: Donate directly to the PCRF and ANERA, and other aid groups. Learn the history of the Palestinian people, and defiantly let others know that they are people with a history. Donate directly to families fleeing Gaza—here is one active as of writing, and here is another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another. Do not let the world ignore this. Do not let the world forget this.

Thank you all so much for your time and words.

If you want to read Broken Olive Branches, it is out now and available to buy.