Monday, April 22, 2024

Review: Civil War

An absolutely brutal depiction of photojournalism in the midst of an underexplored conflict


I met up with some friends to see Alex Garland's Civil War in IMAX on the Thursday evening before its wide release in the U.S. As a fan of Annihilation, The Beach, and Ex Machina, I thought I was in for a timely tale of American democracy gone wrong. Seeing Nick Offerman in the previews as a Trumpian presidential figure only piqued my interest even more—as a devout lover of all things dystopian, I was ready.

What I got, however, was not what I expected. This isn't to say that the film is lacking; it's just 100% focusing on things other than the reasons behind our country's fictional split.

It focuses on a team of war correspondents inching their way through to Washington D.C. in what may perhaps? be the closing days of said civil war. We never find out how long the civil war has been going on, nor who are the good guys.

Kirsten Dunst portrays a seasoned war photojournalist who is depressed, burnt out, and a war-battered shell of herself. She's joined by a young aspiring photographer who wants desperately in on this life, despite the absolutely traumatic nature of the job. Also along for the ride is the always excellent Stephen McKinley Henderson, most recently known for his role as House Atreides mentat Thufir Hawat.

They travel hundreds of miles through a ravaged American landscape—something that is in itself shocking as there hasn't been a full-scale war on mainland American soil in scores of years. At each stop they shadow armed combatants and bravely capture gut-wrenching photos of corpses, men writhing in pain, and other hideous atrocities.

The conceit of the film is summed up when Kirsten Dunst is asked a question about how photographers like her can document all this horror without taking sides or asking questions—she responds simply with "We record so other people ask."

By not giving the audience any insight into which is the right side of history (if there even is such a thing, in some conflicts) and following in the literal footsteps of these photographers, the film provides you with the full experience—you're not there to fight; you're there to record what is happening every step of the way.

If you judge the film by that metric, it succeeds. And maybe it would have by any other metric, had the film marketed itself as an Oscar-baity War Journalism Think Piece. But I was expecting a deep dive into cultural differences in America that led to a division and a war, which isn't terribly farfetched as I could rattle off three or four such catalysts right now that the U.S. is currently experiencing. Instead, we find out nothing of any substance. The scene with Jesse Plemons interrogating the journalists as to "What kind of American are you?" is as close to world-building as Alex Garland gets, though throughout the scene we have no idea which side Plemons pledges allegiance to.

I didn't realize until I got to the theatre that Civil War is an A24 production, and then things started to click. My experience with A24 movies is that they're nearly always about the horrors of trauma and what they do to humans. This film is no different, and you're brutally pummeled left and right through its relatively short runtime with ear-splitting assault weapon deaths, unspeakable violence, mass graves of U.S. citizens, and characters having literal (and multiple) on-screen panic attacks.

Among the reviews I've read, there seems to be a split. There are those who feel like I do, that it seemed like the previews made it out to be something else entirely, and that by refusing to take a stance about a political civil war, Garland didn't accomplish anything.

Then there are those who think it genius, and a much-needed depiction of the horrors of war and how no side is ever really right. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, like most things.

I'm glad I saw Civil War, and it definitely made me think—but I'll never watch it again. 

--

The Math


Baseline Score: 7/10


Bonuses: Kirsten Dunst's performance is fantastic; there are moments of cinematic artistry scattered throughout; if you've ever wanted to learn about the cold, hard reality of war photojournalism, you're in for a treat.

Penalties: No real worldbuilding; extremely traumatic and violent; some viewers may feel as if they were bait-and-switched when they learn nearly nothing about the war.


POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Interview: Into the Sauútiverse

The Sauútiverse, a shared science-fantasy world inspired by African folklore (of which the first anthology, Mothersound, is already out) is a fascinating collaborative writing project born from the creative space Syllble. (Full disclosure: I'm currently involved with the development of another Syllble project.) I spoke with Ghanaian author Cheryl Ntumy, one of the founding members of the Sauútiverse, about the conception of this fictional world and the ideas behind it. In befitting Sauúti fashion, the answers came from the writing collective as a whole:

Who came up with the idea for the Sauútiverse?

The universe itself (the name Sauútiverse, the planets, etc.) was created by all the members of the Collective, over the course of several brainstorming sessions. We have prepared insightful FAQs that can answer some of your questions.

Was the project originally conceived within Syllble or brought into it from a previous idea?

The project was conceived when Fabrice Guerrier, founder of Syllble, Wole Talabi and Ainehi Edoro of Brittlepaper first met to discuss the possibilities for an African collaborative writing project. While Wole Talabi spearheaded Sauúti as an African-focused shared world, aligned to the Syllble mandate, Syllble was already hosting other shared world projects. Sauúti sprang out from that source, using a lot of the Syllble base framework even as we adapted and expanded it.

How long did the project take from first idea to first publication? What stages were involved?

We had our first meeting in March 2022, and saw our first published Sauúti story, "The Alphabet of Pinaa: An AI Reinvents Zerself On An Inhabited Moon," set on our invented planet Pinaa, released in July 2023 by Interzone Digital. Mothersound, the first Sauútiverse anthology, edited by Wole Talabi, was published in November 2023.

First we had a lot of brainstorming sessions, not just for the fictional world we were creating but also for the communal ownership model we would use as the Collective. We used the existing Syllble framework for collaborative worldbuilding. We spent a lot of time worldbuilding, then we each developed story pitches and shared them with the group. We started writing our stories and many of us ended up writing more than one because we were so inspired! As we wrote, we also developed a story bible to keep track of the world and to help new contributors easily understand the Sauútiverse.

Next, we invited other writers to contribute to the anthology. They submitted pitches, followed by stories. While the process of refining and editing stories was ongoing, we were also looking for a publisher. We found a home with Android Press. During the whole process, we took the opportunity to promote the project at book festivals and conventions, including the Ake Arts and Book Festival, The Nebula Conference and the Africa Writes literature festival.

What elements about the worldbuilding of Sauúti can be traced to real-life cultures?

Many elements of the Sauútiverse come from real African cultures. We all drew heavily from the cultures that we grew up in, as well as other African cultures. The word Sauúti comes from "sauti", which means "voice" in Swahili. Most of the words and names we use come from real-life languages. We also drew from real-life cultural practices, rituals, beliefs, etc., though we tweaked them to fit in with our inclusive, futuristic vision. The primary resource in the shared world is sound, and there is no written language in the Sauútiverse; that element is representative of the importance of oral history in real African cultures. The Sauútiverse Creation Myth reflects this pan-African inspiration, as indicated in Wole Talabi’s introduction to the Creation Myth “Our Mother, Creator” in Mothersound:

“...we took inspiration from North African communities who center themselves around a matriarch and goddess. From the Ijaw people and their creator goddess Woyengi. From the Egyptian mythological Nut. Nana Buluku of the Fon who gave birth to the moon spirit Mawu, the sun spirit Lisa. From so many more.”

How was the process of recruiting the various writers who contributed to the project?

Wole recruited the rest of us to the Collective. This is the email he sent out, seeking writers: The History of Sauúti.

How are decisions made regarding what locations and events are official in the shared continuity?

We meet fortnightly, and make all decisions as a Collective. Once a location or event appears in a published story, it is considered "official" and key points from it are added to the story bible, where relevant. In terms of events, anything that affects the wider universe needs to be discussed and agreed on by the Collective.

Does anyone supervise that one writer's additions don't contradict another writer's?

We are switched on as a collective. Pitches and reviews are key to helping us avoid contradictions. We submit pitches before writing new stories so that the rest of the Collective can give feedback, take note of any conflicting or contradictory ideas and find ways to resolve any story challenges. We also review the finished stories to check and give feedback as well. It's just also a great way to support each other's work.

Where did the concept for the magic system come from?

Once we settled on the power of sound as the focus of our world, having sound as the basis of the techno-magic system made sense. It happened pretty organically—one idea led to the next. Sound is already linked to the supernatural in terms of spells, chants, prayers, etc., so it felt right.

In a culture organized around the magical study and manipulation of sound waves, what is the social status of people born without the ability to speak and/or hear?

Inclusion is an important part of the world we're creating, and those without certain abilities have the same status as anyone else. We view sound in this world as something rich and complex—it includes all kinds of vibrations and mechanical waves, infrasonic, ultrasonic, all varieties of sound. So people can manipulate sound in more ways than speaking and understand each other without hearing. They can play musical instruments and tools, use signs, use technology, etc. We are open to every interpretation of sound in the Sauútiverse.

We have stories that feature Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing (HOH) and non-verbal characters, some of whom are incredibly powerful. Sign language is used widely across the Sauútiverse and has the same status as spoken language (in some cases it's even required or preferred). The story "Lost in the Echoes'' by Xan van Rooyen features a Deaf/non-verbal DJ with extraordinary magic. Xan had a Deaf friend provide a sensitivity read for their story, to make sure the representation was accurate and didn't play into any negative stereotypes.

It’s also important to note that the founding Sauúti Collective includes queer and neurodivergent people and the Sauútiverse is queer-normative, so LGBT+ characters are fully accepted in society (i.e. queerphobia would be the exception and not the norm). Similarly, neurodiversity is represented in Sauútiverse stories.

If it's not top secret, can you mention other authors who will add more material to the Sauútiverse in the near future?

If we tell you, we’ll have to kill you... but I guess we can take the risk with you! I’m co-editing our next anthology, Sauúti Terrors, with members of my Sauúti family Eugen Bacon and Stephen Embleton, and we're stoked to see that contributing members of Mothersound —Tobias Buckell, Somto Ihezue and T. L. Huchu— are interested in sending us stories, and we're starting to receive exciting pitches! We also have newcomers like Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga, Ivor Hartmann, Kofi Nyameye, Nerine Dorman and Tobi Ogundiran on track in this new project. It's an anthology by invitation, and we're also accepting poetry. We're thrilled to confirm that we have signed agreements with five-time Bram Stoker Award winner and recipient of the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award Linda D. Addison, Grand Master Akua Lezli Hope, and other prominent speculative fiction poets, including Miguel Mitchell and Jamal Hodge.

Members of the collective have also written and sold Sauútiverse stories to other venues outside of our own anthologies, so you can look out for them soon.

The plan for the Sauútiverse was always to have it expand beyond the original collective and keep growing—for it to be a sandbox of imagination for Africans and those of the African diaspora to tell new, complex and fascinating stories together and we are so glad that it seems to be right on track.


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

Thursday, April 18, 2024

6 Books with Eliza Chan


Eliza Chan is a Scottish-born speculative fiction author.  Her short fiction has been published in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy. Her debut novel Fathomfolk —inspired by mythology, ESEAN cities and diaspora feels— was published by Orbit in February 2024.

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading Hannah Kaner's Godkiller, an absolutely gripping, explosive epic fantasy that is unlike anything I've read before. It's giving me American Gods meet The Witcher vibes at the moment but I'm early on.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Suyi Davies Okungbowa's new novella Lost Ark Dreaming is on my radar. It has a similar premise to my book, with post-climate change semi-flooded towers, but Okungbowa's is based in West Africa and has comps to Snowpiercer. It sounds like exactly my jam.

3. Is there a book that you're currently itching to reread?

Having recently watched Dune Part Two, I'm itching to reread the whole Dune series to see if it stands up to the test of time. The desert setting and the science fantasy aspects are still fairly rare even though the genre has developed a lot since then.

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

The Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books had a massive impact on me as a teen, with their strong female leads and, more importantly, dragons. The romance in them has not aged well at all, though. There's quite a lot of dubious consent (read that as severe lack of consent) as well as unhealthy power dynamics in the main relationships. I'm not sure I can recommend or reread them in good conscience apart from Dragonsong and Dragonsinger because they thankfully have no romance in them at all.

5. What's one book that has had a lasting impact on your writing style?

Cheating a bit, but it would be Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie and other stories, short story collection. Liu has a way of taking a concept, a part of history or mythology, and asking a series of questions around it to make the reader think. For example, The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary examines our obsession with seeing things before we believe them in this internet age, whilst Good Hunting is about nine-tailed foxes but also colonisation. His writing gave me permission to layer multiple meanings in a narrative, to strive for writing that asks difficult questions, even if there is no easy answer.

6. What's your latest book, and why is it awesome?

My debut adult fantasy novel Fathomfolk is what if the Little Mermaid was a pissed-off immigrant in a semi-flooded East- and Southeast-Asian-inspired cityscape, and it was never about the love of a man; it was for love of her home. It looks at prejudice, discrimination, class and the cost of change, through the lens of a myriad of disparate sea folk including kappas, kelpies, water dragons and mermaids. It's my love letter to multicultural cities and all their problems, but in a fantastical setting. It's out now from Orbit.






Thank you, Eliza!

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

Review: Someone You Can Build a Nest In by John Wiswell

A "who is the real monster?" story that dodges the complexity of its own premise


(Note: there is a fairly significant (though not plot-revealing) spoiler in this review - read on at your own risk!)

Opening confession: before reading Someone You Can Build a Nest In, I didn't rate John Wiswell's work very much. Clearly, his writing is doing a lot of things right for a lot of people, since you don't get to be Hugo and Nebula nominated without folks thinking you're great at what you do. But beyond the cute ideas, I don't find a lot in Wiswell stories to sink my teeth into. On a technical level, the prose tends towards the same basic voice regardless of the type of story being told, and on a thematic level, there's a lot of narrative "flattening" to make stories about dark, monstrous themes resolve with a relatively small number of people carving out a safe space and calling it a happy ending. Short fiction might not have much space for complex characters or worldbuilding, but it provides plenty of space for moral complexity, and I find it weird to set up complex premises only to ignore their complexity. Maybe there's something radically cosy in that that I'm just too curmudgeonly to appreciate, or maybe I'm just not picking up on complexity that everyone else sees. Who knows.

Despite not loving the author's prior work and also having a finite amount of precious reading time, I read Someone You Can Build a Nest In for two reasons. First, Hugo and Nebula nominated short fiction authors have a very non-zero chance of landing on a Best Novel ballot, and I like to read things for award purposes. Second, I really wanted this book to give me the experience that it gives people who love Wiswell's writing, because if something different is going to happen for me, it's probably going to happen at a different length, right?

Alas, it didn't happen.

Someone You Can Build a Nest In is the story of Shesheshen, an amorphous shapeshifting monster who eats people and repurposes their organs in order to survive. Shesheshen is content in her isolated, people-eating lifestyle, although she misses her mother - also a people eating shapeshifter, tragically killed by a monster hunter - and reminisces fondly about the father who she and her siblings ate from the inside out after he gestated them, as part of the people eating shapeshifter life cycle. She's also not much of a talker, and the whole book is told in her "voice": which means plenty of simple, unpolished prose. So I guess I'm not having my expectations of the author challenged on that front!

Anyway, when Shesheshen is rudely awoken from hibernation by some monster hunters (led by a posh asshole, so you know you're supposed to root for the people eating monster and not the hunters trying to put an end to all the people eating), it puts her out of her regular people eating schedule and she has no choice but to go into town to find some people to eat immediately (target: another posh and kinda sleazy asshole, also fine to root against). When that doesn't work, she falls off a cliff and is tended to a kind, fat, practical young woman called Homily, who is hunting monsters in the ravine. Shesheshen is delayed from eating Homily for long enough to fall in love with her, Homily is selectively dense enough not to realise the person who survived a fall off a cliff and has no recognisable human organ structures might actually be a monster, and thus begins a beautiful relationship.

Complicating factor number one in Homily and Shesheshen's relationship: for Shesheshen, "falling in love" coincides with getting a strong urge to lay eggs in Homily and have them eat her from the inside out. For me, this aspect of the story actually delivered what I wanted from it to a large extent, albeit without a huge emphasis on the actual wanting to build a nest in her girlfriend bit (you'd have thought... but no). I'd really like to read more stories where "alien" biological urges are things that sentient creatures can exert control and choice over, and while things work out rather conveniently in terms of Shesheshen eradicating those urges, she goes through an interesting process to re-examine what she assumed being in love with someone would look like versus what she actually wants with, and from, Homily. That she has to do this without guidance from a parental figure is both thematically relevant and also kind of interesting, and it makes Shesheshen's convenient discoveries about herself less annoying - maybe she's not the first people eating shapeshifter to do certain things, but she's never had any fellow shapeshifters to learn from. It's heavily implied, though not literally stated, that Homily is asexual ("enby" is a word in people's vocabulary in this queernorm setting, so it's perhaps a bit odd that "ace" isn't, but I digress) so Shesheshen doesn't have any human sexual preferences to figure out how she fits with, aside from an easily discovered mutual enjoyment of cuddling. Good for them, and a win for alien monster protagonist portrayal.

Complicating factor number two is, unfortunately, where things go off the rails. See, Homily isn't just some random monster hunter hunting some random offscreen monster: she's the daughter of the land's war hero leader, and her mother and siblings (one of whom was the posh asshole from earlier! Who already got eaten, oops) are back from the exile which Shesheshen's mother imposed on them by "cursing" the family if they stayed. Homily's family are abusive towards her, and Homily has adapted to this abuse by trying to make herself as "useful" as possible in any given situation, even when it hurts her to do so. Now that Shesheshen has avoided detection as a people eating shapeshifter, she gets roped into the expedition to hunt herself, and to try and help Homily with a toxic family reunion, while also throwing the monster hunting off her own scent.

To fully contextualise why I hated this plot, I have to give that one significant spoiler mentioned above: none of Homily's immediate family survive this book. That means her mother, her adult younger sister Epithet, and her child sister Ode (and her posh asshole brother, but he's gone and we've already mostly forgotten about him, except when Shesheshen uses his teeth to smile at her girlfriend) all meet their ends in ways that are apparently intended to provide context or even catharsis about the familial abuse. This is some morally grey shit right here, especially since one sister was a child eight years younger than Homily while most of her part in the abuse was taking place, and the other is still an actual child. That's not to say that children can't cause real physical and emotional damage to their siblings, even much older ones, but it's surely an open question to what extent the culpability lies with the child and not with the adults who had a duty of care to both siblings? Someone You Can Build A Nest In doesn't seem to care about that question. Instead, we get "straightforward" lessons, in 21st century therapist vocabulary, about how terrible abuse is, and therefore aren't abusers the real monsters here? If the text is nudging us towards answers more sophisticated than "yes", it's laying down clues too subtle for my reading skills, so I'm left assuming that "yes" is the desired answer, and I don't like it.

Ode's death is particularly egregious: having been a bratty bit of comic relief in the narrative, her death is mourned on page by nobody except her mother, whose grief is called out as toxic and wrong. Meanwhile, Homily learns the valuable life lesson that she didn't have to risk her own life trying to save her sister, she's still a good person and nobody should judge her for not trying a bit harder to rescue a child from a grim death. I'm glad we got that lesson sorted out and now you don't have to have any complicated feelings about your role in that situation, Homily! While the other family deaths are treated with a bit more weight, the whole familial comeuppance sits poorly, particularly because it was an authorial choice to make two of Homily's most prominent abusive family members children, set up what should have been a complicated moral situation, and then just... sidestep that complexity, because the story you want to tell is about how abusers are the real monsters, and not the people eating girlfriend. Also relevant: Shesheshen has conveniently gone the whole story without eating anyone who hadn't broken the law or been a posh asshole first, because having to grapple with the ethics of eating people to live is apparently also beyond this story's interests. Textual moral greyness averted again!

So no, I do not get anything cathartic or heartwarming out of Shesheshen and Homily's story. To find those things would require me to narrow down my curiosity and my empathy to the tiny number of characters that the story wants me to believe are worthy of it, and it did not succeed in convincing me of its judgements (was it the people eating? maybe...). In different hands, the messiness inherent in this story could have been kind of amazing. While reading, I drew comparisons to The Book Eaters, which also features obligate people eating and is fully aware of how bleak and antithetical to a heartwarming familial ending that diet is, even as it tries to bring that ending about. I also thought about Light From Uncommon Stars, which portrays an escape from abuse and into the loving orbit of an objectively fucked up person who needs to be convinced not to sacrifice the protagonist to the devil, and which tells that story in a way which acknowledges both the love and the irredeemable mess. But unless I'm missing something huge, that's not the story Wiswell wanted to tell, so I'm left with another question: is there a version of this kind of story, where all we are meant to care about is the comfort of the main characters regardless of what they do to others, that is uncomplicatedly cosy and heartwarming? I don't know, but I'm going to go back to seeking out the messy, fucked up monster stories, and the radical empathy they often demand, rather than putting myself through this sort of book too often.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Review: The Diviners Quartet by Libba Bray

A lively, flapperish adventure through 1920s America in all its diversity, plus ghosts


There’s something terribly satisfying about finding a long, engaging series. Not silly-long, like Wheel of Time, but long enough that things can get really gnarly. Kate Elliott knows what I’m talking about, as does Robin Hobb. On these very pages I’ve praised Chris Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay, and now I’m pleased to be back again to tell you about Libba Bray’s Diviners quartet.

Do you like flappers? Do you like ghosts? Do you like thoughtful meditations on 1920s America, balancing gracefully on the knife edge between admiration for the optimistic spirit of a young nation and clear-sighted acknowledgment of the dark past on which that nation was founded, and continues to perpetuate as it looks towards the future? Sure you do, or else you wouldn't have got past the tagline at the top!

This quartet opens with 17-year-old girl, Evie O’Neill, a good Christian white girl raised in the heartland of Zenith, Ohio—the only surviving child of a respectable family who never really got over the death of their golden boy in World War I. Evie has a knack—a party trick, really—by which she can read objects, and uncover secrets from them. When she uncovers an awkward secret at a party, her family ships her off to live with her uncle, who runs a museum of the occult in New York. The plan is to keep her tucked out of sight just until things blow over in Zenith, but Evie, a party girl through and through, is thrilled at this opportunity to live a glamorous big-city life. In short order she is having a grand old time, cultivating friendships with philosophy-reading museum assistants, muckraking reporters, Harlem poets, showgirls, street thieves and union agitators alike. When the cops come to her uncle’s museum to consult with him on an occult-flavoured murder, she even manages to get herself invited to come along to the scene of the murder, and just like that our flapperish ghostly whodunnit is off to the races in Book 1, The Diviners.

The second book, Lair of Dreams, also opens with mysterious deaths, but in this case they are not obviously murders, but instead are related to a mysterious sleeping sickness. People go to sleep, and are enticed by some entity to dream something that starts out sweetly and turns into horrors. They do not wake up.

Although both The Diviners and Lair of Dreams tell self-contained stories, they are united by two threads: one occult and one mundane. The first is a repeated image a man in a stovepipe hat, lurking in the background of these deadly occurrences, who seems to be connected with the release of these supernatural horrors upon the mundane world. Yet the mundane world is itself up to no good, because a government agency, Project Buffalo, seems to be also involved in everything: from the death of Evie’s brother during the war, to mysterious disappearances in immigrant communities; to, oddly, other knacks that her friends turn out to possess. Some have the ability to walk in dreams, or to turn unnoticeable, or to heal, to see the future. These knacks are what define the titual Diviners of this series, in fact—so actually the occult and the mundane are intertwined in sinister ways. These twisty interweavings define the structure of the last two books of the series—Before the Devil Breaks You and The King of Crows.

What makes this series work so well is the way Bray never loses track of the larger plot structure even as each book-sized story plays out. Thus, we get hints of Project Buffalo and the man in the stovepipe hat from the very beginning, and we meet side characters that in the early stages seem to have no other role in the main storyline than to round out a rather sprawling dramatis personnae.  In some cases those appearances are only the briefest flash on the page before they come into their own in later books. For example, Ling Chan, a half-Irish half-Chinese girl who can walk in dreams, appears only momentarily in The Diviners, but becomes a central character in Lair of Dreams, where the mystery of the sleeping sickness makes dream-walking a valuable skill. Bill Johnson appears only as a blind beggar with a gambling problem at the start, but his character arc in later books is rich and important.

In other cases, the characters are fully introduced in The Diviners, but their contributions to the first book’s plot are secondary. In this way, we meet Memphis Campbell, a black poet in Harlem, and his little brother Isaiah. Theta Knight is a dancer with the Zigfield follies, living with her dearest friend Henry DuBois in the same building as Evie and her uncle. Downstairs from them is Mabel Rose, the daughter of a society lady and a Jewish progressive agitator. (I suppose I should mention  Jericho Jones, the mightily forgettable Jericho Jones, who is so dull that Bray literally drops him in a hole in the ground for the climax of The Diviners to get him out of the way. He’s very strong and broody and is kind of a cyborg.) All of their stories have a chance to shine because this series uses its ensemble cast so effectively across the entire stretch of narrative. Nothing feels rushed. Everyone gets their moment in the sun, even if that moment doesn’t come until Book 4.

In addition to the long-form pacing, this series excels at characterization and effortless diversity. We’ve got white people, Black people (both big-city northern and rural southern), Chinese immigrants (both newly arrived and nth-generation), Russian immigrants, native Americans, Irish, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, gay, straight, lesbian, ace. You name it, it’s there, unforced and natural because America in the 1920s was a diverse place, no matter what conservative critics might try to claim in their evocations of artificial nostalgia. And beyond diversity of people, we have a dizzying diversity of settings too, again taking advantage of every flavour of 1920s America. Not just the wealthy white flappers in New York, but the Harlem Renaissance, Chinatown, queer nightlife, glitzy showgirls, eugenics movements, Vaudeville. Outside New York, too, we have Midwestern small towns, the Deep South, hell, we even get a travelling jazz band and a circus. There are acrobats! Lions!

This book is a cornucopia of peoples and places and cultures and attitudes, richly researched, skillfully plotted and paced, sensitively told, and full of wit and humor and a joyful revelry of 1920s slang. Sure, at times the prose can get a bit purple; at times the sweeping meditations on ~*America!*~ can be a bit overblown; and as I’ve mentioned before Jericho Jones is a bit of a snore. But I can’t hold that against these books. They have so much to offer, and work so well, on so many levels, that the occasional clunker is a mere drop in an ocean of otherwise chewy, deep, captivating period fantasy.

(Oh, and I can’t end without mentioning that January LaVoy does a fabulous job on the audiobook narration.)

--

Highlights

Flappers and ghosts Thoughtful meditations on the cultural foundations of America, both good and bad
Balanced ensemble cast A slightly purplish tinge in some meditative bits

Nerd coefficient: 8, well worth your time and attention

References

Bray, Libba. The Diviners. [Little, Brown, and Company, 2012]
Bray, Libba. Lair of Dreams. [Little, Brown, and Company, 2015]
Bray, Libba. Before the Devil Breaks you. [Atom, 2017]
Bray, Libba. The King of Crows. [Atom, 2020] 

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 wandering.shop/@ergative

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: Machine Vendetta by Alastair Reynolds

Gimme the straight dope, see


Machine Vendetta is the 3rd installment in Reynolds' Prefect Dreyfus series. It takes place in the broader Revelation Space universe, which Reynolds has been developing for more than twenty years. The basic conceit is that humanity has spread out across the galaxy. Unlike other space operatic settings, in this case humans are still constrained by the basic laws of physics - most notably, the speed of light. This means that each human-settled system grows and develops in unique ways; they are only connected to each other by "light-huggers," large interstellar vessels that take years to reach each destination (and so have developed cultures of their own). 

The Prefect Dreyfus series in't a trilogy in the usual sense - where you have three books in sequence, released within a short timeframe, that all tell chapters of a single story. Rather, these are more like novels in a crime series: individual stories that don't really need to be read in sequence but contain some added value for those who choose to do so. The same goes for the series writ large: you don't need to have read Revelation Space or any of the others, but having done so will make things a bit easier, as the world building is pretty complex. That said, the Prefect Dreyfus books are a solid entry point into the Revelation Space universe, so don't be put off on starting here. 

The series takes place in the Glitter Band, a series of orbital habitats that ring the planet Yellowstone (location of Reynolds' standalone novel, Chasm City). Prefects are the Marshalls keeping order across this expanse of semi-autonomous space stations. Their organization is called Panoply, and the events of the first two books in the series (Aurora Rising and Elysium Fire) involve the challenges faced by Panoply as it tries to handle two rival - and malignant - artificial intelligences. 

The Prefect Dreyfus books are hybrid space opera and police procedurals, in that the setting is space operatic but the narrative follows an investigation. This is a form of genre mashup that I've always enjoyed - ever since I read Asimov's Caves of Steel as a teenager. But it's also a tough one to pull off - I've read plenty of books in this vein where one half the equation (the procedural or the science fictional) is half-baked and riddled with worn-out tropes. But Reynolds does it masterfully in this series, leaning heavily toward the science fictional and creating detective characters that feel appropriate to that setting, rather than 1940s tough guys in space. 

The third book, Machine Vendetta, takes place in the aftermath of an apparent terrorist attack by hyperpigs (uplifted pigs) on lemurs (uplifted lemurs). The hyperpig in question is also a prefect, which is obviously bad for Panoply. Not long after, a second prefect, Ingvar Tench, arrives and goes missing on a war-torn habitat. Are the two events connected? Senior Prefect Tom Dreyfus and his protege, Thalia Ng, are sent to investigate. 

I won't get too deep into what happens, as one of the book's great pleasures is seeing how the the investigation unfolds. But I will say this: it isn't often that the plot of a procedural - including, very much, those set in our world - surprises me in a way that feels both intuitive and parsimonious. There are no moments where the detective reveals the surprise conclusion based on information unavailable to the reader; no cliched "a-ha" moments where it turns out some rando we met setting up deck chairs in chapter 2 turns out to be the villain; nor, worst of all, a convoluted conspiracy that goes "all the way to the top." There is, of course, a conspiracy - but it actually makes sense. 

The book is also quite topical, in the sense that it extrapolates many of our fears and anxieties over artificial intelligence into a far-future setting. Overall the issue is treated well, though I would have preferred for the AI to be a bit less, well, human. 

My other quibble is that the characters are all extremely uptight, which is a reflection of Panoply's organizational culture (and the fact that they select candidates based in part on cultural fit). But it gets a little tiresome when every single one is the kind of person who would agonize over the misplacement of a salad fork, then submit themselves for punishment for this grave breach of ethics. Even the rebellious characters are like this. 

This isn't the first Reynolds book I've read, nor the first I've reviewed for this site - but it is my favorite. The prose is clean and efficient, the characters interesting, the plot moves along at a brisk pace and the world-building is rich without relying on tedious exposition. It's the kind of book that begs for a second go - and has certainly reinvigorated by interest in the Revelation Space universe. Machine Vendetta is, simply put, a thoroughly enjoyable book - one I would not hesitate to recommended for adventurous readers.  

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Highlights

  • Crisp prose
  • Brisk plotting
  • Complex world-building that's nicely backgrounded and doesn't rely on tedious exposition
  • Could use a bit more diversity in terms of character personalities 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention." 

Reference: Reynolds, Alastair, Machine Vendetta [Orbit Books, 2023]

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

Monday, April 15, 2024

Review [Video Game]: Children of Morta by Dead Mage

Full of heart, but could use a bit more soul.


As the Corruption spreads across the land, infecting animals and terrain alike, it is up to a single family to push back the darkness; the Bergsons. They are tasked with bringing light to fight the shadows that have consumed Mount Morta, and in the process, discover the truth behind the corruption. While seeking the truth, each family member finds that they have something to contribute to the cause and raises their sword (or hammer/daggers/staff) in support.

Children of Morta
’s story mode sports hack-and-slash dungeon crawler gameplay with rogue-like elements. Through the course of the game, the player uses different Bergson family members to navigate the beautiful modern pixelated levels. While the levels are procedurally generated, the boss battles for each sector stay the same. The main connection to the rogue-lite genre lies in the game’s random level generator and having to restart an entire area upon death. That said, meta progression is strong and you won't find yourself caught up for too long. For more of a challenge, players can either A) increase the difficulty, or B) play the game’s rogue-lite-specific mode (which cuts most meta progression and is more demanding).

Upon booting up the game, I could see the care and attention that went into the beautifully realized world of Children of Morta. The modernized pixel art is vibrant and elegant. The detail is evident, and the shadow and lighting play is top-notch. Each character's design is distinct, despite their simplicity. And the Bergson's home, which was crafted to exude warmth and comfort, does so with ease. Playing this game puts the player back at the Bergson estate quite frequently between runs (either from death or from completing a dungeon), so it’s nice to feel comforted when I was welcomed home.

The story is narrated much in the same way as a story book, or popular indie darlings like Bastion. Ed Kelly lends his smooth voice to the narrator role and injects just the right amount of balance of emotional investment. He seems to care for this family of heroes, and it helped get me invested, even when I found the writing trite. The attempt to create a gripping tale involving this unique family shows a lot of heart, care, and attention. The writing sometimes does this a disservice, as the narrator’s lines sound like they could be plucked right out of a book titled “Generic Fantasy Mumbo Jumbo 101”. This isn't to say it’s all bad, far from it.


Sometimes when one of the Bergsons comes back from a dungeon, I was greeted with a cutscene. Unfortunately, they never added a pause button during cutscenes, so if someone needed to ask me something in the real world, I would have to ask them if they could wait a few moments. A rather odd oversight. While I generally enjoyed the cutscenes, as they expanded the world and lore, they didn't always feel properly paced. When you first start a dungeon, every time you die or complete a floor, you'll get new cutscenes. Then they dry up for a while, leaving an opening until you get to your next dungeon. Some cutscenes are very short and feel randomly placed. For most of the game, however, they are quite welcome.

The beauty of Children of Morta’s gameplay is in the character variety. Instead of simply having new weapons to unlock over multiple runs, you unlock new characters, each with their own unique abilities and skill trees. My favorite part about these skill trees is that leveling up one Bergson helps all Bergsons. For instance, if you reach a certain level with Lucy, all characters will spawn with a gemstone when they start a run, level her up further and she’ll create a distraction for another character when they’re in a tight spot! This helped me to level up characters that I wasn't initially as fond of (Mark and Kevin) and learn how to use them with less consequence. Mark and Kevin were initially a bit too squishy and needed to be close to damage enemies, so it took a while for me to adapt to them, but in the end, I enjoyed all of the characters. I appreciated that the game gives characters fatigue (which you can clear with a rare egg). This makes it difficult to do too many consecutive runs with a character because their initial health will be reduced (more and more each time). Giving them a break means trying another character. Thankfully they're all enjoyable (though Lucy was always my favorite). The only issue I had with having so many characters was the effect it had on cutscenes. The narrator would always say “the Bergson” (i.e. “The Bergson looked upon the corpse in horror.”) instead of the character’s name, which I understand from a financial and development point of view. But it was at times immersive breaking, especially when playing with the add-on character who wasn't a Bergson.

The game provides a good amount of diversity between its three main levels (which are divided into sub-levels) but doesn't offer much challenge later in the game. For instance, I beat the final boss with almost no effort. While far from being a reason to dislike the game, it did make the end feel less rewarding than it should have been. The enemy and boss battle variety is solid, especially considering the length of the game. I always enjoyed running into a red or yellow-outlined enemy for a higher challenge. The enemies are quite different depending on the biome, and it’s fun to figure out how enemies react to different characters' moves and devise a strategy.

I did experience a few mishaps throughout the game where my character froze or the game froze on the loading screen. When my character froze the few times I died and collected my earnings (though it was annoying because it also added fatigue to a character I wanted to continue using). In the case of the loading screen, I had to reset my system, which meant I lost all progress running through the level. It didn’t happen many times thankfully, but still irritating.


Dead Mage has concocted a neat little title that blends traditional dungeon crawling with a few rogue-lite elements in a beautifully wrapped package. Though Children of Morta's story didn't always grip me due to some generic fantasy writing, it still managed to keep my interest enough with its interesting setting and charm. Even if I found that the writing could sometimes come off as cheesy, it was still a pleasure to hear Ed Kelly narrate it. While by no means the best rogue-lite-inspired game, Children of Morta is still a game worth exploring for its visual beauty and fun gameplay variety. If you've never played the rogue-lite genre, this may be a great entry point. Oh, and it drop in has co-op.

--

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7.5/10

Bonus: +1 for beautifully realized art, world, and lore. +1 for fun character selection.

Penalties: -1 for some trite writing. -1 for occasional bugs.

Nerd Coefficient: 7.5/10

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

Friday, April 12, 2024

Review: A Flame in the North by Lilith Saintcrow


I never really thought about it until I listened to Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology, but there is something rather inescapable about the corpus of Norse mythology. And that is, compared to the Greek, or Egyptian canons of mythology by comparison, we don't have a lot of it. The Greek sources are stuffed full of characters, legends, variations on the tale (something I really appreciated when I listened to Stephen Fry's trilogy on Greek mythology). But Norse mythology is definitely impoverished. In fact, the basic stories you've seen even alluded to in Marvel movies and comics are a substantial fraction of the entire whole.

So we come to the matter of Lilith Saintcrow's A Flame in the North, the real subject of this piece. This book does reflect a Norse world but more, as I will get to in a bit. It's a Midgard that is, based on the evidence and hints throughout the text especially in the early going, a lot like Dark Ages¹ Scandinavia before the Viking raids. There are lots of small polities scattered across the landscape, some of them in occasional squabbling with each other. There is trade, commerce, civilization in the south. There are stories down south of black-robed monks and a "nailed God" whose worship is being preached, very different from the pantheon these folks worship and give prayer to.

But this is no historical fiction.

Meet Solveig, daughter of the local lord. She has a rare and special power, the power to command and wield the elements. But on the longest night, when she must use her power to light a bonfire, the first light to break the endless darkness, the death of a guest at the hands of her brother will send her off for a year and a day to strangers in the far north. Strangers with secrets and plans of their own.

And thus a tale is made.

Given that paucity of Norse mythology, Saintcrow infuses as much as she is able into the thoughts, minds and culture of the world Solveig inhabits. We get to see the more relatively lax South, and then see how that differs as the group she is bound to travel with heads further north. The north is less settled. One might even say it is wild.  Even with the elemental magic at her command, it all feels like Saintcrow is using what Norse mythology we have with the greater corpus of cultural knowledge of Dark Ages¹ Scandinavia to create a world where travel is dangerous, where there are secrets aplenty and settlements few, but it is a story set in an expy of our world.

Or so a reader might think. At first. But Solveig and her shieldmaiden companion Arneior soon notice that one of the travelers has pointed ears, and in due course, we, as well as Solveig, start to realize we are not quite in the story that we thought we were in. More fantastical creatures and situations start to shift the perspective. The group continues to travel north, as if literally leaving the safer and more stable south for a wilder and darker world in the north. 

This continues on, until the signs of other major influence on this story besides Norse mythology start to appear. A mention of a dreadful, defeated enemy in the north comes right away; even Solveig has heard that tale. But that enemy locked beyond the mountains of the north is not so defeated and is pressing forward on all fronts. Reference is made to humans as Secondborn to the Elder, a pointed-eared race. The Enemy (and that is exactly how they are referred to) has a variety of servants, but none more dreaded than the undead Nathlas, who number Seven, great captain in the Enemy's service. The Great Smith made a race called the dverger, Dwarves, against the will of the creator. Oh, and the Enemy has rebelled against the natural world (created by song) and mars what might have otherwise been a fine creation.

Yes, if you haven't bought the vowel now, I will state it here. It's clear that the other major influence on Saintcrow's fantasy world is, in fact, Tolkien's Silmarillion.  The world that Saintcrow has made is definitely not the Arda or the West of Tolkien's world lifted wholesale, but the resonances and inspiration are clear.

But where Saintcrow is definitely breaking new ground, and showing what one can do with these raw materials and inspirations (and using Norse mythology to make it her own world, too) is where she tells new stories for new readers with modern sensibilities. Consider the utter paucity of active female protagonists in Lord of the Rings, and the fact that The Hobbit has no female characters at all. Even the aforementioned Silmarillion does have some women of note and power, but they only stand out the more for being so few as compared to the parade of male characters.²

Instead, in A Flame in the North, by centering the action right on Solveig, an elementalist, yes, but a human, and on Arneior, Saintcrow helps move away from that male-dominated focus and instead allow her female characters to shine and show agency. Even if you look at Tolkien's Galadriel and Luthien², two of the most powerful and great characters in the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, they are still very much suffering from the "Smurfette Principle."  And, even given the Lord of the Rings TV show, they really aren't the center of their own stories. Sol and Arn, by contrast, firmly counter that narrative and provide that women can be the center and central characters in a story that borrows from Norse mythology and Tolkien alike.  It is a reclamation of some very heavy male-dominated fiction and story, and uses it to create something for a wider swath of readers.

The novel does echo with the voice and feel of a Norse edda, or epic. It's not quite as mannered as that, but the cadence and asides from Sol show that she knows quickly that she is not just on a journey to some northern holding, but she is in fact helping to make a legend, a myth, a saga, a story. The novel is entirely from her point of view. Arn is her loyal and unwavering companion, she is relatively straightforward and pugnacious, always ready for battle. Solveig on the other hand is the contemplative one, the thinking one, giving us the opportunity to reflect on what is happening, why it is happening, and the mythic nature of it all. 

The novel ends at a stopping point that really isn't much of an off-ramp. Solveig and her shieldmaiden are now at a hidden city (clearly inspired by THE hidden city of which all others are but shadows in Tolkien fiction). Said city, and now Sol and Arn, are in opposition to the Enemy, but her full role in events and what is to come is not entirely clear. We do have hints though, from some of the chapter openings (that, again, contextualize that Sol's story does indeed live on as a saga), and from Sol herself, that there is not going to be a happy ending to this story. But, especially given the powerful material Saintcrow is being inspired by and making her own, I am very well interested in where Sol's story takes her.

Highlights:

  • A love letter to Norse mythology and Tolkien in one epic package
  • Reclaims and claims the above both with strong female characters
  • Lyrically and on a line level exciting and enthralling to read
Reference: Saintcrow, Lilith, A Flame in the North (Black Land's Bane, 1), Orbit, 2024

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

¹ Whether or not the Dark Ages were dark at all, is a whole other kettle of fish. C.f. David Perry and Matt Gabriele's The Bright Ages.

² There does appear to be a Luthien analogue in this verse, Luthielle, and like Luthien, she has a very good dog, named Bjornwulf here.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Review [TV]: The Regime

Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what your country can do to you

Every tyranny encounters opposition. But there are also, under every tyranny, a number from among the population who mold themselves to match what the tyrant demands of them. That raises a valuable question: what type of citizen does authoritarianism want? The typology of dictators has been catalogued extensively in political philosophy, but what about those on the receiving end of absolute power? If we could envision a nightmare scenario, where the common human being gladly consented to being controlled, what would be the traits of such an aberrant political subject?

The HBO Max series The Regime shows the mutual cycle of enablement and abuse that would emerge if the archetypal wielder of total domination crossed paths with the archetypal wielder of total submission. We know what happens when an oppressive ruler meets resistance, but The Regime suggests that the reaction can be equally explosive when the oppressive half of the equation is paired to an obedient follower who understands that they're living under tyranny and willingly accepts it.

In The Regime we meet Elena, the head of state of a fictional Central European country. She is a psychopathic narcissist who barely cares to perform empathy before the public eye. She never leaves the obscenely luxurious government palace, detests meeting in person with citizens, holds in the highest reverence the embalmed corpse of her father, routinely borrows a child to be seen with at public events, and fosters a cult of personality where she plays the role of loving partner to everyone. To fill the smoking crater where accountability and rule of law should be, she love-bombs her people in florid speeches calculated to simultaneously seduce and infantilize. She weaponizes her sex appeal like a gender-swapped Vladimir Putin while pummeling dissidents with an iron fist clothed in raunchy lace. Adept at terrorizing the nation with a gentle, motherly smile, she's an Isabel Perón convinced that she's really Evita.

And then we meet Herbert, a soldier hated across the nation for his brutal role in suppressing a protest. The depths of his self-loathing make him a danger to himself and to everyone around him. He follows obsessive rituals of self-punishment that worsen after he's hired in a minor position at the government palace, accidentally finds himself at the right place and the right time to save Elena's life. She promptly starts giving him bigger and bigger roles in her administration until he ends up being her personal enforcer, bodyguard, advisor, confidant, propagandist, policymaker, medic, and dietitian, despite his dangerously multidisciplinary ignorance. He's happy to serve as a pawn to his queen in all but name, but the dynamic of their relationship is too volatile to remain one-sided. His encroaching influence over her turns him into a hulky Rasputin in jackboots and a high-and-tight cut. But he's no crafty schemer: he's a cauldron of bubbling emotions desperate to be told in which direction to let them boil over. An incurious simpleton, fluent only in violence both given and received, he's the perfect match for Elena, the burning, furious yang to her cold, dark yin. He's someone who yearns to become just something. He's what remains of a human being once all self-respect has been extirpated with a bear trap. He's the ideal citizen of totalitarianism.

It's with morbid fascination that one watches Elena and Herbert bolster each other and injure each other and inspire each other and destroy each other. Their damaging codependence becomes indissoluble in the way that addicts feel compelled to seek more poison. And here the relationship between oppressor and oppressed grows a few symbolic layers with disturbing significance. Ever since modern democracies emerged within the still prevailing economic system, politicians have known that campaigning is advertising is persuading is seducing is cajoling is beguiling is captivating is enchanting is exploiting is controlling is conquering is possessing. The emotional tropes that apply between lover and beloved can also apply between ruler and ruled. There's an unmissable erotic dimension to the act of delegating power onto a representative, a dynamic of submission and trust that requires vulnerability and expects exclusiveness. Elena and Herbert jump into bed with the mutual sadism of one who unabashedly seizes and one who dejectedly gives up, both aware of their alternating roles as user and used.

The result of this mix is necessarily misery for everyone else. A tyrant alone can still cause harm by reiterated acts of combustion; a tyrant with a follower is a harmoniously rolling engine of predatory impetus.

And yet, the final episode of The Regime reveals that the components of this self-sustaining despotic machine are three: alongside the head of state and the common citizen, you also need the businessman. You need the complicity of private power in order to return to a semblance of stability each time a crisis blows up. It has been said that money is the mechanism that allows two parties that dislike each other to deal peacefully instead of bringing about mutual annihilation. However, the businessman is no less a giver and receiver of violence than the other members of the triumvirate of dystopia. The Regime seems to be saying that, even if one of the three gets eliminated, the system can still function with few mishaps until the next cycle of abuse and enablement can get going. Tyranny is a monster that feeds on itself, incapable of telling apart appreciation and absorption. The warped eroticism of complete control doesn't cease to be, even then, a force of creation.


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Review [TV]: Constellation

How do you keep living when you no longer recognize the world?

It was inevitable that the coronavirus quarantine would leave its mark on the Zeitgeist. After the first year of enforced isolation, none of us felt we were the same people anymore. We've had to learn to live with a peculiar form of always-on anxiety for which the earlier generation couldn't possibly have prepared us. One way to describe what this cultural shift feels like would be to say that, when we finally walked out of our houses and back into the world, the world looked new again, but not particularly inviting. Look in every continent, and things are going seriously wrong. The planet is cooking us alive, the drums of war are in deafening crescendo, and the economy seems obsessed with eliminating human workers altogether. This is not the world we signed up for. We'd like to file a complaint with management. Where's the exit button?

That's the kind of anxiety portrayed in the show Constellation.

Continuing the impressive trend in Apple TV+ for high-concept science fiction with deep questions and great quality of production, Constellation presents us with Jo Ericsson, a member of a research team at the International Space Station who survives a catastrophic collision with orbital debris but manages to make it to Earth in one piece, only to discover that the life she'd been hoping to return to isn't quite the way she remembers it. Her husband's personality feels off, her boss alludes to conversations she's sure she never had, her house has other furniture, one of her friends claims to have a different name, her car is the wrong color... something clearly isn't right. Spending a year in space can't have messed with her memories, can it? And her acquaintances likewise remark that she's not entirely the Jo they knew. From their perspective, it is they who live in the real world and Jo the one who's become unrecognizable.

The trope of the astronaut who returns to Earth as a changed person isn't new, of course, but the unique spin Constellation gives it is to bring us into that scenario through the astronaut's perspective. In this type of plot, usually told in the style of a conspiracy thriller, we're accustomed to following, for example, the astronaut's spouse during the process of first suspecting and then confirming that the person who came back to their home isn't the same person who left. In Constellation, it is Jo we're invited to empathize with as she struggles to decipher why what she thinks she knows about her daily life doesn't match the reality in front of her eyes.

This premise draws from two contemporary fads popular in online culture: the "Mandela effect," where very confused people, instead of admitting that their recollection of some simple historical fact was mistaken, prefer to convince themselves that they've somehow accidentally jumped into a minimally different universe; and "reality shifting," where people who are even more confused convince themselves that through vigorous meditation they can emigrate to a better universe where, for example, they can date Draco Malfoy (seriously). But it's hard to blame them. If you just look out the window, such desperate yearning to leave this universe is understandable, and has in fact been studied for a while. In ye olden times, when the first Avatar movie was released, numerous media outlets reported that viewers were suffering depression and even suicidal thoughts when they reflected upon the hard fact that this old, boring world could never live up to the impossibly beautiful forests of Pandora. This "Avatar syndrome" resurfaced recently with the release of the second Avatar movie. The common thread in these extreme (even pathological) forms of escapism is the socially accepted assessment that the real world is just... wrong.

Though unstated, this shared understanding lies at the foundation of the sense of unease and estrangement that pervades throughout the eight episodes of Constellation. Jo's nagging certainty that after a year in space she has landed in the wrong Earth leads to escalating confrontations with her family, her boss, her therapist, all the way up to government institutions. And here the plot begins to more closely resemble our post-quarantine malaise: Jo has difficulty reconnecting with her social circle, she doesn't know whether she can trust the medical advice she's hearing, communication with her daughter essentially has to restart from square one, and government authorities seem at a loss as to what to make of her situation. Every support system that should be there for her is incapable of helping. The void beyond our atmosphere can be a lonely place, but trying to have an ordinary life in a world that was fundamentally changed when you weren't looking is no less alienating.

One way Constellation expresses the growing instability in Jo's inner state is to place characters next to their reflection in mirrors, or their own shadows, or empty space. Some shots are arranged in such a way that an object in the set divides the frame exactly in half. Characters are frequently confronted with their alternate selves, with the road not taken, with the many ways the grass could be greener.

The plot spends just the right amount of runtime in exploring the technobabble behind the jumps between universes, but the point of the story isn't the quantum wavefunctions. As a story produced in the post-quarantine era, Constellation understands the one-of-a-kind worldwide trauma that has made us feel irreparably lost in our own homes. It's about the difficulty of resuming something that can resemble normality after an extended disconnect from each other. It's about the self-doubt that can sneak up on you when you're surrounded by radical disagreements about reality. And ultimately, it's about the possibility that opens when you're willing to maintain your bond with the people who matter to you even if they suddenly feel like strangers.


Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Six RPGs with Alan Bahr

Alan Bahr is an award-winning and best-selling roleplaying game designer, known for his company Gallant Knight Games, as well as his work at Osprey Games, Steamforged Games and many other companies.

With the Kickstarter of Siege Perilous now live, today he tells us about Six RPG games that have influenced him.

          

1 & 2. King Arthur Pendragon / Prince Valiant—Perhaps combining these is cheating a bit, but separating them would feel wrong. Both by Greg Stafford (my polestar in game design), these games both showcase Greg's talent for finding the soul of a genre or mythos and bringing it right to the forefront of a game. I often refer to Greg as "the game designer's designer," for his breadth of talent (as showcased in both these games the strongest) is one that you will appreciate the further you go into game design theory and thought. They have long cast a shadow over Arthurian tabletop gaming.

3. Keltia—A very personal love, Keltia is a French RPG translated to English (and now sadly out of print). Keltia deals with the Arthurian mythos through a more mythstorical lens, rather than one derived from fantastical mythology. The evocative art sells the idea of this setting being dark, with bright lights shining through as the world changes and you are at the forefront of it.

4. Dungeons & Dragons (3.0/3.5)—The game that got me into roleplaying. The pictures, ideas, and hooks throughout that first Player's Handbook fired my young imagination and kept me charging forward. I still go back to my collection of 3.x books and thumb through them, my appreciation growing deeper as the years go on. A perfectly imperfect game, in all the best ways.

5. Aaron Allston's Strike Force—Perhaps the greatest hidden and underappreciated treasure inside gaming, Aaron Allston's Strike Force is revolutionary in putting to paper common (but misunderstood or miscommunicated) game-running practices and campaign structure ideas. While it is deeply tied to superheroic roleplaying, the lessons in the book apply widely across games and campaigns and helped make me a better designer and facilitator.

6. The Quiet Year—Avery Alder's card-mapping game is hugely influential in how I changed my opinion on the physical act of presence in tabletop roleplaying. The careful card-tography (an ill-advised portmanteau of card-based cartography I just invented) creates a uniquely physical act of exploration and storytelling that subtly supports the game through physical interaction and action.

And tell us about your own game:

Siege Perilous is my own entry into my body of game design canon, a game I've been carefully crafting for a long time.

Siege Perilous is a solo and troupe (group) roleplaying game about Arthurian knights questing across England. You will travel through the life of your knight, encountering characters, enemies and NPCs. You will undertake quests, both for your own advancement and that of those you serve alongside and for.

Siege Perilous is about getting older and moving past old scars that still pull at you. It's about loss, discovery, pursuing perfection and failing. It is about romance, battle, conflict, duty, loyalty, love, faith, and death.


Thank you, Alan!

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