Thursday, December 7, 2023

Review: Silent Night

John Woo shows that silence is golden

So the old saying goes, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” John Woo was quite eager to point out that the aforementioned proverb does not preclude brutally murdering the people about whom you can say nothing nice, all the while saying absolutely nothing. That is what he shows off to you in his 2023 action movie Silent Night, released December 1st, written by Robert Archer Lynn, and starring Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi, Harold Torres, and Catalina Sandino Moreno.

The movie begins in medias res, as Brian Godlock (Kinnaman) pursues criminals through the streets of Las Palomas, New Mexico. He fights them, to a point, blood covering his sweater with a reindeer on it, for it is Christmas Eve. But then he is shot in his neck, and hastily hauled to the hospital. He survives, but his vocal cords are destroyed.

You then realize that, earlier on that seemingly bucolic Christmas Eve, he and his wife Saya (Sandino Moreno) are playing with their little son in their yard. Father and son tussle, making memories for a lifetime. However, at that same moment two criminal gangs are having a gunfight-cum-car chase through the streets of Las Palomas, bullets flying every which way—and into Brian’s son, felling him right there. This is what prompts the chase, and the injury that would render Brian mute.

Then you come to understand the central gimmick: this is an action film with none of the dialogue, none of the wit, none of the jokes that other films of this genre would. There is only sweat, tears, grunts, bullets, blood, and death. It is an interpretation of the genre that takes its tendency towards grit, already nigh-canonical, and strips it down to the bone. There are no belles-lettres to dignify any violence, no heroic speeches to justify it, no loving words exchanged to soften its perpetrators. That renders the experience very, very raw.

There are some words spoken, but never by a named character. You hear radios with pundits pontificating about interest rates or police officers during a firefight, mourning their dead. There are also written words, mostly text messages, and it is in those that so much of the pathos comes from; you see Saya trying to comfort Brian, that sort of frantic texting that happens when you’re stressed and perhaps can’t think straight.

Brian’s rage festers through the coming year, the passage of time marked by a calendar, particularly emphasizing each holiday. You get the impression that the very idea of a ‘holiday’ is now stained in this family. Months after that fateful Christmas, you can still see the tree they had put up, gifts wrapped in gaudy colors in their living room. It’s a potent metaphor for their grief, as they almost approach something resembling normalcy after this crime, only to be reminded that some days are supposed to be special, yet that specialness has forever been marred by bloodshed for them.

Of course, this being an action movie, Brian seeks to take revenge in an appropriately violent way. He trains by himself in his garage, learning firearms and martial arts from instructors, and everything else from the internet. That last bit stands out to me; I haven’t seen many action movies taking advantage of the digital world like that, but it’s very believable, in our world of 3D-printed guns and terror manifestos spread through nasty internet fora.

Woo and company show Brian’s descent into hell, into more bloodshed, into rage, with heightened realism. His wife leaves him to live with her family, overwhelmed by his monomaniacal pursuit of revenge. This feeds Brian's vicious cycle: his obsession alienates her, she stays away, this makes him angrier, and he commits more to the course of action that she rejected. He is later seen in his car, watching her painting in the apartment building where she apparently now lives. It’s more than a little stalkerish and uncomfortable, but very believable as Brian descends further into his abyss and you wonder if the abyss itself is a little perturbed by the experience.

As you may expect from the absence of dialogue, much of this movie conveys emotions through body language. You have to recalibrate your senses for this experience, for Woo makes you lurch ever closer to muteness, giving you what must (of course) be only an approximation of never being able to speak yourself. You become focused on expressions, on gestures, on the way people move, to a degree most movies never really give you reason to, for words are far more direct. Here gesture does not ornament dialogue; it is dialogue. I’m impressed by the entire cast being able to do this; I’m also impressed by how the characters who are not directly hurt by this evil act also never speak, and it never feels forced. This would be gimmicky had a lesser director tried it (and inevitably failed), but Woo and company pull it off. I’m reminded of Aneesh Chaganty's 2018 film Searching, which also has a gimmick, but doesn’t let it feel like one.

The violence, then, is not prettified by the doublespeak sometimes used to make murder sound acceptable. It is bullets flying, oil burning, people dying in sprees. It is a wild, animalistic violence, the sort of carnage you would expect our prehistoric ancestors dealt on a regular basis, long before humanity fashioned its grunts into tongues. Even as cars ram into each other and machine guns are fired on full automatic, the movie is primal, refreshingly and enjoyably so.

The portrayal of the villains is interesting; they are street criminals, gangsters of the type that occur in many American cities. It is through opulence that they are characterized, especially their boss, with his glitzy suite adorned by something resembling a massive chandelier dominating the space. He gets a scene where he dances with his lover, a woman who herself gets in on the action in a spectacular sequence involving a stairwell. There’s tenderness here, of the sort that is evidence of a finely honed skill of dissociation, of trying to separate the nice things he can afford from the considerably less nice work that allows such luxury.

I do wonder, though, about the casting a bit. As in many action movies, the hero is white, while the goons who killed his child and whom he then hunts down are of many races. On the other hand, his wife is portrayed by a Colombian actress, and the good police officer is Black. I don’t know how good this is, but something about the whole thing irked me a bit. Not enough to ruin the movie, and I don’t think it was anything intentional (although I could certainly buy an executive demanding a white male lead for it to go through), but it felt unfortunate, on well-trod ground that need not be trod again.

All things considered, Silent Night was an invigorating experience. This is action cinema without the flourishes, without the frippery, with only the animalistic instinct that leads to taking each other’s lives senselessly and without reason. This is a film that is, on some level, honest, even if there are undoubtedly layers of Hollywood-ese in it, as Hollywood does. It’s the most unique action movie I’ve seen in a long time, and I recommend it for anyone interested in this genre.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

Highlights: one particular action scene involving cars.

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

Remember Wish? Yes, that happened this year

The worst possible way to celebrate Disney's 100th anniversary was to release a movie as unimaginative as this

From a studio that is so starved of new ideas that it's decided to recycle all its back catalogue, now comes an even more cynical distillation of that formula: take all the typical Disney tropes and glue them together into the Disney-est movie possible. The ne plus Disney of cinema. The ur-Disney. Put all the princesses of this franchise in a blender, strain the mush through a colander, add half a pound of evil sorcerer and half a pound of wish-granting stars, whip it vigorously with the yolks of sixteen dozen hundred Easter eggs, mix thoroughly for the duration of a generic power ballad, sprinkle with every talking animal in every fantasy movie ever, apply an unhealthily viscous layer of treacle, and you'll get the unpalatable, half-baked nothingburger that is Wish.

Once upon a time, Disney fantasy movies used to be an Event. Such timeless achievements as Snow White and Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and Frozen incontestably defined their respective generations. But the magic has run out. It's been barely weeks since the release of Wish in theaters, and it has failed to leave any lasting impression. It's hard to imagine today's kids beginning a habit of rewatching Wish for the next several decades of their lives, the way their parents grew up endlessly rewatching their Disney classic of choice. Wish is not only a disappointing movie, but a mediocre way of celebrating the studio's centennary. After a long legacy of highs and lows that nonetheless survived and came up with new tricks to reinvent itself and often led the way for the entire tradition of animated cinema, Disney seems to have once again fallen into a crisis of creativity. We're living through one of those recurring tragic periods during which Disney productions can't possibly become classics.

It's a pity, because there are a few good qualities to highlight in Wish. The hand-drawn appearance of the backgrounds is stunningly gorgeous, evocative of old fantasy book illustrations. Unfortunately, the art style used for the characters is too simplistic, a cast of basic 3D models indistinguishable from the same basic 3D models you get from less über-wealthy studios. The result is that the viewer's attention is continuously attracted more to the background of a scene than to the characters doing the action, which is the opposite of the effect you want to create in an animated movie. It costs extra mental load to try to follow what the heroine is doing when the viewer is too distracted by how much better drawn the wall behind her looks.

In terms of plot, the forced familiarity crosses the line of bothersome and falls right into insulting territory. Wish tries to replicate the Pixar Theory by inventing painfully shoehorned backstories for several recognizable elements of earlier Disney movies, but none of those moments contributes to the actual telling of the story. And when considered on its own, apart from the innumerable links to what we'll apparently have to start calling the Disney Cinematic Universe, the plot of Wish is filled with absurdity. We have a magocracy where the king forbids anyone but himself from practicing magic, but he only uses his magic to capriciously grant one inconsequential wish every month. The price for the kingdom's protection is that everyone must forget what their wish was. Why the founder of this transparently dystopian regime wasn't guillotined before he completed even one year on the throne is never explained.

The collective uselessness of a populace is the necessary subtext of every savior story, but Wish doesn't bother trying to hide it. The evil of the king's hoarding of magical gifts and tampering with the people's memories is so bleedingly obvious that our heroine figures it out within minutes of talking to him, but the viewer is supposed to believe that in decades of unopposed rule she's been the first to raise any objection. By adopting a Great (Wo)Man Theory of History, Wish squanders the abundant symbolic potential of a setting where citizens effectively delegate their will to a head of government who is then charged with executing the will entrusted to him. The movie's inexplicably underutilized metaphor for representative democracy could have been further developed into a plot with urgent relevance to its historic moment. We are in the middle of an existential crisis for democratic systems, instigated by unaccountable strongmen with brazenfaced authoritarian aspirations. With a more consistent script, Wish could have had the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the principle of the consent of the governed, which wouldn't really be an unprecedented move for Disney if you remember how Zootopia and Elemental talked about racial prejudice and Tangled and Encanto talked about family abuse.

Instead of relying on human effort, our heroine depends on a magical star whose influence makes animals talk and sing. In other words, Wish is arguing that the way out of this dystopia is the Disneyfication of the world. That's a bleak position, especially coming from a movie that dedicates two whole songs to the "we are all made of the same stardust" ethos, but it's fully consistent with Disney's goals of total cultural phagocytosis. Much in the vein of other nostalgitic embarrassments like Space Jam: A New Legacy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Jurassic World: Dominion, Wish is not a movie that tells a story. It's a self-congratulatory pat in the back by a studio that is too afraid to venture outside the tried and true. If all that Disney has to show for itself as the culmination of a century of artistic evolution is a timid rehash of past glories, the studio's going to need to pray to a star if it intends to keep making history for another century.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

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

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Interview: Monalisa Foster

Alex Wallace sits down with Monalisa Foster, author of Threading the Needle

What made you start writing?

Some sort of mind virus, I think. I caught it some time back from a Heinlein juvenile, I'm not sure which one. I'm somewhat kidding, but not really. I think all of us get exposed to it at some point, and given how many people are out there writing "The Great American Novel," it's apparently quite contagious. I think it comes from getting hooked on the little hits of dopamine and serotonin we get while reading and then figuring it's time to level up and become our own dealers. So we sit down and give it a try because we're looking for a particular hit and just not getting it.

That's a roundabout way of saying that I wanted to read certain kinds of books written in certain ways and that, since I wasn't finding them or finding enough of them, it was time to write my own. My first exposure to this "need" was in high school. I think what cured me then is that I produced this awful thing I'm glad no one ever saw. Then I got re-contaminated in college, and between summers I wrote another novel, and I remember that one never saw the light of day because I couldn't afford the postage on the self-addressed, stamped return boxes we used in the late 80s. Then I got too busy with a career, marriage, and family, and they were an immunizing force until about 2015 or so when I realized that the virus had only gone dormant and was lying in wait to catch me unawares, which it did.

It was activated again on a trip to the library for my kids where I ran across a book called The Samurai by [Stephen] Turnbull. I was already reading a book on genetic engineering for work and had recently revisited some of the old science books I'd held onto from college. The idea for my other space opera series, Ravages of Honor, which is a far-future one with feuding noble Houses and genetically engineered samurai that does NOT fade to black, was born out of that trip. I started dabbling (that means writing when the muse struck) and realized very quickly that the mind virus was back and this time it was particularly virulent and refused to be displaced. Fortunately, since my kids were older, my life had gotten to the point where I could indulge it.

So I started to write books like the ones I wanted to read, and here we are.

What books/other media have been the most influential on your writing?

Heinlein's books in particular were very influential. I started out with his juveniles, using them to teach myself English. I did this by sitting down with them and a dictionary and copying down the words and their meanings, writing them out ten times to learn the spelling, and then translating them back. I would fill up an entire notebook and then erase it and start over. Besides the language itself, I learned about individualism in a way I had never been exposed to before, as well as about a future I could never have imagined. After exhausting Heinlein's juveniles, I moved on to his grown-up books.

There were others as well (Lester Del Rey comes to mind), but it's Heinlein that really stayed with me, that was the most memorable.

And then there was Lois McMaster Bujold. I remember discovering her debut novel, Shards of Honor, with a science fiction book club subscription, and I was hooked. I got hooked very hard. I had gone through a rather long period where I didn't have time to read any fiction of any kind, but Bujold got me reading it again. As she added to her Vorkosigan Saga, I would read through it every year. I've destroyed several physical copies of Barrayar.

Series like Babylon 5 were also very influential. I loved the characters, the storyline, the way it violated physics less than other shows, the way it made telling a good, character-driven story a priority. I loved Firefly for the same reason—characters, characters, and oh yes, characters.

I also don't limit myself to scifi. I read historical fiction, women's fiction, romance, thrillers, and literary works as well, taking from each what I find works best for my craft. And I continue to read as much, if not more, non-fiction as well (probably why my scifi tends to be crunchy).

What gave you the inspiration for Threading the Needle?

I grew up with pirate and cowboy films, mostly bad dubs in Hungarian or Romanian, black and white and very grainy, and often very censored. So I knew Errol Flynn and John Wayne as characters from the start, even though I wouldn't learn their actual names for years to come. Same with Yul Brynner, Maureen O'Hara, and Olivia de Havilland.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the John Wayne classic El Dorado. Leigh Brackett—whom I knew from her writing credits for The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars movie IMHO—had also written that screenplay and I became fascinated with it, particularly the idea of two friends who were war veterans coming together after many years apart to fight on the same side, both of them reluctantly, both of them with ghosts from their pasts, both of them determined to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing, rather than the easy and popular thing, is one of those recurring themes that drive me to write.

So I started thinking about what Brackett had done, going from Westerns to scifi and how space opera itself was initially a derisive term for "horse operas in space" (i.e. Westerns in space). So it seemed only natural to do the same thing, take a concept like the settlement of a new frontier, and play with it. I didn't want a mindless retelling of El Dorado, but something that paid homage to its spirit instead, while making it my own, making it unique via characters, setting, and conflict.

One of the most striking things about your novel is Talia’s prosthetic arm. Unlike in, say, Star Wars, it is integrated into the plot and into her characterization in a more than cursory sense. What inspired this element of the story?

I'm so thrilled to hear you say that. Thank you. I was hoping it would hit some people that way.

Remember me saying that we all write, to an extent, because we can't get enough of something we want to see? That plays into this.

In a lot of movies we see things like people getting skewered through the shoulder and then just moving on as if nothing was wrong a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days later. Verhoeven's Starship Troopers comes to mind, for example. People bounce back from losing limbs as if it was nothing, as if their physical reality is not actually a part of their identity. I get why it's done that way, but it's always bothered me a bit, or a lot, depending on the film/book.

A notable exception was Battleship, where they cast Col. Gregory D. Gadson in the role of Mick Canales, an amputee who was still dealing with the loss of his limbs. Here was a pulp film with lots of action and high entertainment value, a movie based on a kids' game of all things, and it was dealing wonderfully with something that is often neglected. I love this movie, as silly as some of its premises are (good thing I know zip all about fighting a battleship). It was just pure fun, yet balanced with "soul" for lack of a better term. Unlike Verhoeven's "walk it all off because we're badasses" characterizations, it had soul. It was science fiction with heart, which is how I describe my work. For me, characterization is what makes or breaks a story, and I was determined to write, first and foremost, characters who had depth, who were so much like real people that you'd want to go back again and again to spend time with them.

Talia especially had to have depth. She wasn't worth writing in any other way, so I put myself not just in her head, but in her heart, so I could see her soul. And she had the soul of a fighter and a survivor who knew that what she was was not all that she was. So, while she may have been a sniper, a veteran, a survivor, she was also someone with scars and wounds and a past and someone with incredible strength of will. In other words, she was not someone born on the first page of Threading the Needle. She is more like Leigh Brackett's heroes in that she's deeply aware of her own moral transgressions, which everyone forgives her for except herself (to quote Michael Moorcock).

Losing the very hand that allows one to do her job would have been quite impactful to a sniper. And it was a job that she did because it allowed her to save lives. This was a very important part of who she was, of her identity. I couldn't see her walk it off and pretend it was nothing like she was in some Verhoeven movie.

Which is why her phantom, which is the mind-space that is occupied by her phantom limb (i.e. she can still feel the presence of flesh that is no longer there) became, in a way, its own thing, something that is both integral and separate from her. Then I asked myself, what would it be like to have a brain-implant put in to control the prosthesis, and having it occupy that same mind-space? Once I put myself in her head, in her body, in her heart, the prosthesis and the phantom became what they are in the book.

Unlike many space opera stories, this one is confined to a single planet. What made you go with that choice?

I'm not sure it was entirely conscious, to be honest. I knew that I had to keep this space opera on the lighter side, no more than 120k words or so. So, in order to do that, I did two things: I made it single-viewpoint, something I've never done in a novel before; and I limited its scope, partly via the setting.

Planets have multiple environments. A habitable planet that is just an ice planet or a dessert planet may be a trope in space opera, but a planet that was already very much like Earth, i.e. Gōruden, would have to share the diverse climes of Earth. So I didn't see a particular need to have this story span across multiple planets. And once I settled on the terraforming aspect of it, particularly in regards to the dispute, there was no story reason to have it span across multiple planets.

Focusing on one world that already had several biomes and corresponding climates allowed me to flesh out the island of Tatarka, the town of Tsurui, the city of Sakura, in a way that, I hope, gives them a very real, very lived-in (and crunchy) feel.

How did you explore the Western setting of the novel? Is there any particular historical situation that influenced the plot?

If you mean based on any real historical situation, no. What I did was borrow from the "myth" of the samurai in a cowboy world. I'm sure I'm not the first to note the similarity between cowboy and samurai movies, and both of these types of movies have been an influence. I would even count the Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe movie The Last Samurai as an influence, even though it was more of a cowboy in a samurai world, and highly inaccurate historically, which is one of the reasons I loved it. If I wanted actual history, I'd go read a history book or watch a documentary. We also see this myth at work in other mixed-genre works like Westworld and Firefly/Serenity.

You can also see the "myth" aspect (rather than any historical one) via the terraforming component and the genetic engineering aspect that dwells in the background in Threading the Needle.

It is not history yet, but I suspect it might be (this is the extrapolation aspect of this science fiction), that there will be people not just willing, but eager to return to or maintain a lower level of technology in exchange for freedom and self-determination. If someone were to attribute self-determination and a yearning for freedom solely to the genre of Westerns set in the Old West (or even during the Meiji Restoration), then I guess they might see it as having a "historical" influence, but I don't. I find both the desire for self-determination and the yearning for freedom to be far more widespread both in time and place.

What was the trickiest part of writing this novel?

Keeping my desire to vomit everything about genetic engineering and terraforming onto the page. I work really hard at keeping myself off the page, while also writing both tight and deep perspectives. Keeping author-narrator voice out and making everything come from the character herself, all while having just one viewpoint, was definitely the hardest part of this. It required a lot of discipline, and there were several moments when I was really tempted to make it multiple viewpoint and just make it easy for myself.

I struggled with the crunchiness of the science because I didn't necessarily want a men-with-screwdrivers story. The men-with-screwdrivers component had to be there so it wouldn't be just a cowboy/samurai story with a thin scifi veneer, so I had to be careful to balance it and not have it overwhelm the story.

I really wanted it to appeal to several audiences, including the adventure seekers, those looking for a fun story with interesting characters. I wanted to keep a sense of wonder and discovery that would appeal to anyone that enjoyed space opera as well as Westerns or samurai movies.

And most importantly, it had to make sense, it had to work without asking the reader to completely shut off the logical part of their brain. So, while I'm sure it will make geneticists cringe, it shouldn't make the average sci-fi, space-opera, or mil-sf reader cringe at all.

The main character is an immigrant to this planet, and in your introduction you talk about being an immigrant from Romania. Did this feed into Talia’s characterization?

Maybe a little. As I said, I really try to remove myself from the story. While there are always aspects of ourselves we bring into a story, we are not our characters. As a reader I am particularly critical of writers who use their characters as mere mouthpieces. I work quite specifically at NOT doing that. This is why I said that removing author-narrator voice, the need to intrude and tell you how much research I did or how hard I worked at overcoming any and all objections, the need to explain things to the reader beyond the scope of what the character herself would know or be able to explain, or would say, is so very hard.

Since Gōruden is a planet of colonists, pretty much everyone is an immigrant from Earth. The first colonization effort failed, and those original settlers were wiped out, so while there are people on Gōruden who were born there, like Logan, Maeve, and the younger characters, it is a planet of immigrants, first and foremost.

There are story reasons for this, rather than personal ones, i.e. I did not set about to write a story about what it's like to be an immigrant. For one, there was no language barrier for Talia to overcome, and not much of a cultural one either. There were some class divisions, of course, in that Talia is not part of a ruling class. Being an outsider, whether one is an immigrant or not, did, however, inform the writing, just like the lived experience of being a cop would inform a story about cops written by a cop. Or a firefighter or a soldier or whatever. And I think we all identify as outsiders to some degree or other at some point in our lives.

Some of the war stories I overheard from the men in my family, the ones they told as we huddled around our illegal radio in the cellar, did make it into Talia's flashbacks, so if anything, she is a composite character based on their lived experiences rather than my own.

There’s a lot of humor in this book. Was there any difficulty balancing that with the rest of the plot?

I can't tell you how happy I am that you found humor in this book. Thank you.

Balancing the light and the darkness in my stories has always been a challenge. My idea of dark is somewhat different than most, I have come to find out, so this is another aspect of that idea of taking myself out of the story.

What was interesting about writing Threading the Needle was the snark. I don't tend to write snarky characters or sarcasm in huge degrees. I don't go for "silliness" as a matter of course. But all those things somehow made their way into this book.

My other work tends to focus on heavier, weightier subjects, and I think that has a tendency toward darkness. I ask big questions that have no easy answer, no easy solutions.

Threading the Needle is simpler (not simplistic) and lighter in mood and tone, and I think that's reflected in the characters, especially with the robotic dogs and the supporting cast.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on the fourth book in my Ravages of Honor series, asking big questions with no easy answer or easy solutions, and I'm researching a potential hard-sf novel set on the Moon while trying to figure out what happens next on Gōruden. I wrote a short story called Relics (available gratis on the Baen Books website) in the same universe as Threading the Needle, and a number of plot squirrels sprouted from that, and I've been trying to stay on target with things I've already started, which is much harder than it should be. If readers want to stay up to date with what I’m doing, I hope they will subscribe to my newsletter via my website.

Thank you, Monalisa!

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

The Wheel of Time Reread: A Crown of Swords

Welcome back, dear readers, to The Wheel of Time Reread. Today we’re going to talk about A Crown of Swords, the seventh book in the series.

We’ve been on a *journey* thus far, but we’re here at the midpoint of the series (not counting New Spring as part of the main series, though we may well include it in the Re-read, either at the end or in publication order after Crossroads of Twilight) and it’s been a wonderful journey. My memory of A Crown of Swords is that this novel is square up in the midst of the “not much happens” part of the series (beginning with the previous novel, Lord of Chaos) - though this re-read will tell me if that’s actually the case.

In order to figure that out, though, I need to actually start the conversation and work my way through the book. Along the way there will be spoilers. It’s all spoilers at this point. For everything. .

One thing I’ve noticed reading A Crown of Swords is that Robert Jordan’s prologues are basically the “Cold Opens” from television shows. Some of the earliest prologues would give a significant scene from a part of that story that we would not typically get as part of the narrative, but now it’s “let’s just spend more time in Elaida’s head” - which is effective and obviously comparing anything to the “Dragonmount” or even the one with Bors in The Great Hunt is a loser’s game, but it does lessen the “specialness” of the prologue, for lack of a better term.

A Crown of Swords offers the fallout from Dumai’s Wells, which is happily not nearly as long as the upcoming novel length fallout of the climactic event of Winter’s Heart - which needed to happen, but there is certainly a bit of lessened impact because we’ve already seen Dumai’s Wells and now we’re recapping it from the perspectives of other characters. The end result, though, is Aes Sedai are prisoners and others have sworn loyalty to Rand and are furious and confused about it because they certainly didn’t plan to do so but were ta’verened into the whole thing (not to mention Mazrim Taim’s iconic “Kneel and swear to the Lord Dragon, or you will be knelt” - which is from the end of Lord of Chaos but plays out here).

The real fallout from Lord of Chaos and Dumai’s Wells is that Rand is so intensely focused on the need to be “harder” and unbending to face what’s coming and to never trust again. It’s about as pleasant to read as it sounds, which is why I also really appreciate every time the novel steps away from Rand. It’s kind of fascinating how a series can be so successful for me when everything I like about it is NOT the protagonist. That owes a lot to the story structure because there really isn’t a single main character. This is all ultimately about Rand and being the Dragon and facing the Dark One and the Last Battle and Using Capital Letters but the only way any of that occurs is because of everyone else. It really takes a village to save the world. Thank you, Emond’s Field.

But, to return to Rand’s quest to become an unbending stone, let’s talk about Cadsuane.

Cadsuane! I’m fairly certain that I really didn’t like this character when she was first introduced, but now all I can do is fantasy-cast Shohreh Aghdashloo as Cadsuane because she would be absolutely fantastic if the show gets deep enough to introduce Cadsuane. That’s how I read the character now and my brain rejects any interpretation to the contrary. To the book character, though, we have one of the most powerful Aes Sedai who will not settle down into strictly political power because she believes in the work she’s doing out in the world. She’s a bit of an analogue to Moiraine without the interpersonal baggage that Moiraine has with Rand, and that might have been another issue I had with the character back in 1996 when this was first published.

Now - I dig how she swoops in with very little build and bullies herself into such a prominent role. To compare to the show one last time, the show has at least introduced her name multiple times so that if she appears they’ve been seeding her for a future appearance. This obviously has nothing to do with the book, where we’re blindsided by Cadsuane’s appearance / introduction.

She’s brash (but not brassy) and is absolutely in control of any moment she places herself in. I almost said “any moment she finds herself in”, but Cadsuane doesn’t find herself in particular moments, she commands and controls those moments. She is a legend of an Aes Sedai, long rumored to be retired, if not dead, longer lived than most Aes Sedai, and up until the time of the series the most powerful channeler in perhaps a thousand years.

Cadsuane straight up forces herself into Rand’s orbit with a stated goal to teach him to remember laughter and tears. She knows what’s up and what is needed and even though she’s a terrible bully she doesn’t have time for anyone’s shit.

To further that, there is Min’s vision:
It's Cadsuane. She is going to teach you something, you and the Asha'man. All the Asha'man, I mean. It's something you have to learn, but I don't know what it is, except that none of you will like learning it from her. You aren't going to like it at all.
The funny thing is that Cadsuane is not as large of a part of A Crown of Swords as the time I have spent on the character would suggest. She looms large.

In things that have nothing to do with Cadsuane, the Mat and Tylin “relationship” begins, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s played for humor (and I think I enjoyed it when I was younger) but that’s fully gender based. If this was flipped and Mat (or some king) was pushing his attention on a younger woman it would correctly be viewed as assault. Especially since we mostly see these scenes from Mat’s perspective and he’s uncomfortable with what’s happening.

I really enjoy Elayne coming more into her own as an Aes Sedai - this is different from Egwene’s journey because Elayne was trained into leadership and raised with an expectation of authority, but learning authority is different than using it and being accepted into it. So when Elayne finally uses her command voice and talks down the Aes Sedai in Ebou Dar and controls the expedition - it plays really well - which while leading directly towards The Bowl of Winds, it’s the gathering of the Kin, cast out and never made it wilders and those not permitted to train as Aes Sedai - with dwindled numbers, there are as many Kin as there are full Aes Sedai out in the world.

Reading The Wheel of Time is an experience of encountering fantastic moments, and it’s always a question of how much you enjoy the journey. Elayne being accepted as an Aes Sedai and bringing the Kin into the fold of the White Tower (albeit the rebel White Tower with the assumption that Egwene and Salidar will prevail) is a journey that I absolutely enjoy. Also, the way that Elayne and Nynaeve discover the Kin when it’s been an otherwise open secret for The White Tower is significant - and it’s probably as significant of a future change for the Aes Sedai as anything that happens in this series (I mean, besides actually winning The Last Battle).

A Crown of Swords is also the book where Nynaeve finally breaks her block that prevented her from channeling unless she was angry and it’s given sufficient time to breathe. Nynaeve is almost killed, and how she was about to drown is what settled her to enough peace that she could just focus and get to work on channeling and then Lan is there - finally - and she can freely channel now and has no chill and pretty much married him on the spot and it’s all a whirlwind but the sequence is what the character needed.

I do also appreciate the moments of Forsaken plotting amongst themselves, though it’s always frustrating when a character leans in to tell someone else their grand plot, and Robert Jordan cuts away from that revelation. The most we get is something like “let the Lord of Chaos rule”. Thanks, Mr. Jordan. Thanks.

It’s all incredibly vague, but those glimpses are still appreciated. Plus, we have the path and punishment of Moghedien after her escape from Salidar (with help of Halima / Aran’gar). Additional chances are given by the Dark, but there is a significant cost and consequence for those failures.

I’ve also ignored, to this point, the arc of Egwene working to solidify her authority as Amyrlin. I have thoughts about how this might be introduced as a concept in the show, but really what’s happening is a mirroring of Rand’s plotline with individual Aes Sedai swearing an oath of loyalty to her as Amyrlin.

On this re-read, some ten years after I last read any Wheel of Time, I’m enjoying the experience - especially on the stretches when it corresponds with watching the tv show. The combination of reading the books while watching the show really has me fired up about Wheel of Time.

Next up, The Path of Daggers, in which things happen (probably). Plus: Tedious kidnappings, reclaiming a throne, weather magic, armies clash, betrayals, oaths are given.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Ignyte Award Finalist. Minnesotan. He / Him

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Review: All the Hidden Paths by Foz Meadows

Treading similar political and emotional ground to the first story, and defying narrative conventions to remind us that people are fundamentally people, and that change is an incremental thing.

The sequel to A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, where nobleman Vel is sent to marry across the border, but on the eve of the move is discovered in flagrante with his - male - lover, and so goes to marry the brother of the intended betrothed (and political shenanigans ensue), All the Hidden Paths sees the same protagonists (and a bonus third) head deeper into Tithena, and its politics, as they are called to the capital. There, they must discover who's been trying to attack them and why, as well as hope their fledgling relationship can stand up to these new stresses, as well as the lingering hurts of the first book.

I've seen a number of reviews discuss this book, and highlight specifically what they consider a flaw - that the story "artificially" recreates some of the parameters of the first book so we can essentially redo the same plot and the same character dynamics over again, rather than have to take things in a new direction. However, I disagree.

At the end of the first book, our protagonists are married and have feelings for each other, but have known each other only a handful of weeks. There is camaraderie, lust, fellowship and romance, yes... but there's not a longstanding relationship and trust and reliance. They care for each other, they want each other and they want to work together for the good of their marriage and their situation. But they don't know each other, not fully. And this is much of the crux of the second book, and of the issues many reviews I've seen have had with it. Because this lack of knowledge that Foz Meadows takes such pains to remind us of, leads them to doubt. Not the good intentions of their husband, no, but the strength of their still-new relationship. Of course they have doubts! One of the two protagonists, Vel, is brilliantly portrayed in the first book as having pretty severe anxiety. Of course he's worried his husband is going to find him annoying, or care about other things ahead of him. Of course he's worried that his lack of grasp of the politics of the country he's only just moved to is going to hinder them. It's who we've consistently been told he is, and honestly, they're perfectly reasonable doubts to have in the circumstances. Yes, they leave us with a reiteration of the dynamic of "oh god am I annoying Cae? He's going to get sick of my bullshit isn't he?". But to me, this is a strength. Just because they won in the end of the first story and are married and fancy the heck out of each other doesn't magically solve trauma and anxiety and self-esteem issues and the longstanding habits of existing in a culture where gayness is extremely taboo and so any relationships are fleeting and secret and dangerous and desperately fragile things. One hot guy from a culture that's a bit more open is not a panacaea, nor should it be, and it is, in my opinion, a great strength of the book that Meadows has not caved to the narrative inertia to make it so.

The other great part of this is giving us a new character from Vel's home country, and another gay, aristocratic man at that. In Asrien, we have someone whom we might assume, from his identical context, would approach things in a similar way to Vel - would have the same fasciation with Tithenai culture, the same disdain for their shared Ralian mores and homeland. But he doesn't. Despite all that his country does and thinks about people like him, Asrien cares about it. He prefers the food. He disparages Tithena and its way of doing things in moments he thinks he can do so. He hates what it has done to him, but doesn't hate it, and has not quite left it behind, in sharp contrast to Vel's wholehearted embrace of his new home.

Because we have Vel and a Tithenai man as our primary viewpoint characters, this attitude isn't taken well, but when you fit it into the broader context of the story, and of Asrien's behaviour and backstory, it's really well done, and a source of great sympathy for his character from the reader. Much like his approach to trauma and anxiety, Meadows has done a really great job of giving us the multifaceted nuance and complexity of how someone oppressed by their culture can feel all sorts of ways about it, no matter how inconsistent or illogical they may seem to someone on the outside. He gets that feelings are feelings and people are people, and consistently shows us that in all its variety.

With these two points, there's a lot of strength to the book to compare to the first - people, personalities and interpersonal relationships are always beautifully crafted and nuanced. Beyond that, Meadows has a fantastic way with descriptions, especially of food (I have some intensely clear ideas of what Tithenai food is like and I want to eat all of it) and of fashion. We always know what Vel, Asrien and Cae are wearing, its colour and texture and cut and not only does it make the novel deeply visual, but it adds to the characterisation. Vel particularly clearly thinks about fashion, and when we have his viewpoint telling us about it, it shows us more of him, more of how he looks at the world around him and presents himself in it, and more of how the culture of the world presents itself. It's unusual for a story to have such a neat grasp of fashion as social language, and there's a really great moment - only a snippet really - where Vel wonders what to wear to a foreign court he's never been to, how he makes the impression they need to make, and in that tiny bit of discussion we get a whole swathe of... not even context, but just the acknowledgement that the context exists, even if our characters don't even know it themselves. And I love it. I love subtle, thoughtful worldbuilding like this, and it's been an absolute strength in both books.

And, building on that in something not quite so present in the first - in All the Hidden Paths we do get some critique of Tithena, that felt, by that point, much needed. Cae loves his country and Vel has thrown himself into his adopted homeland in exile (understandably), and so in both of their views, it's been very easy to see it as a perfect, equalitarian utopia. But nothing is ever so perfect, and people are always people, and in showing us the internal politics of the court of the capital, Meadows has done some great work undercutting that perfection without completely bursting the bubble. We still understand why Vel likes it, why Cae cares about his home, but we begin to see the odd crack appearing, and revealing it to be just as realistic-feeling a country as the far more flawed Ralia.

Alas, not everything can be perfect though. While the world-building and culture-crafting is impeccable, the politics leave something to be desired. There's a lot going on in the last third of the book - and a lot of players we've never met before - and there's simply not enough time to get to know everyone and everything necessary to feel emotionally connected to it all. The shenanigans make sense on a logical level, the solution is comprehensible, but they don't have the gutpunch that the ending of the first book did, simply because we've not had enough time getting to know all the players to really care about them, outside of our viewpoints characters.

Some of this is simply a pacing issue - a huge early chunk of the book is spent on the road with not a great deal happening (beyond some perfectly decent character work for Vel and Cae and some dangerous occurrences), and so when we flip to court politics, there's a big tone shift and pace shift, and there's just not enough book to accommodate everything we need at the speed we might need it. But beyond that, the court politics is just much less close to our main characters - geographically and emotionally. It's not their home town, their family, their closest people anymore, and we feel that as the reader in how the characters approach the problems... and we feel the lack. We're just not invested in the same way. There's a lot of potential in what's there, but without the feeling to go with it, it just rings a little hollow by the ending. If we could have just spent a little bit longer, and known the people involved a little bit better, it could have been really wonderful.

There are also a few small but niggling unresolved threads throughout, things that were hinted at and then never picked up on. A character is remarked upon as strange several times, another character tells us that if we don't know they're not going to say it aloud... and then... nothing. Don't leave us hanging like this Foz! Another character is looked for, has their absence noted, is sought for by some, but never turns up and their absence again feels just a little odd. Is there going to be a sequel? Are these things we'll learn more about then? I don't know! I don't mind hints that stretch across books, but they have to feel like things that might get resolved, rather than just forgotten threads never quite tied off, and at the moment, all the ones I noticed felt like the latter.

That said, while there are flaws, they don't ultimately get in the way of what is, at its core, a story very truly about people in the best way possible. It's not quite as impactful or as bittersweet as A Strange and Stubborn Endurance but nonetheless All the Hidden Paths is also a story about healing and personal change in the wake of both acute tragedy and the long term harms of a stifling, oppressive culture. Its strength lies in how authentically Meadows portrays this, and how humanly - it's so easy to feel deeply for both protagonists, and even more so than its predecessor for Cae, who now has his own hurts from the events of that story. If you loved the characters in the first book and want to see them continue to struggle and grow together, the sequel is fulfilling and worthwhile, and I harbour a hope that there will be a third book to tie off all the loose ends, and give a fully satisfying series the close it deserves.


The Math

Highlights: authentic approach to mental health and personal growth, two main characters who are both absolute numpties in the best possible way, some really beautifully described fantasy fashion

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Foz Meadows, All the Hidden Paths [Tor, 2023]

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

Review — The Digital Aesthete: Human Musings on the Intersection of Art and AI

This compilation of stories examining the intersection of art, creativity, and AI is eye-opening, entertaining, and thought-provoking

The reason that ChatGPT is so popular right now is that, as a large language model, it's fantastic at creating sentences that remind us of what already exists. That's because it's scouring the internet and its millions of terabytes of text, and has learned, for example, that ice cream is described 99% of the time as "sweet" or "cold." AI is kind of like that old saying that a million monkeys at a million typewriters would someday produce Shakespeare, out of sheer probability—it's called the infinite monkey theorem.

But generally speaking, it's never going to default to something truly personal and come up with an idea uniquely brilliant and human, like "the ice cream reminded me of Grandma Betty's pale yellow kitchen, the one she painted while listening to Johnny Mathis after Grandpa left her."

In The Digital Aesthete, we get stories from writers and thinkers across the globe that tackle the thought experiment of how AI like this will affect art, including stories from heavy hitters like Ken Liu, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ray Nayler. Whether you use AI in your daily life (like me) or just are intrigued by the news stories you hear more and more about, these pieces pose questions about how AI will change what art really means—and whether we even will want to consume it.

All the stories are worth reading, and they range in tone from sincere to funny to mysterious to heart-wrenching. Here are the top 5 stories that I haven't stopped thinking about since reading them:

Forged by Jane Espenson

I have fallen in love with the main character in this short story—and it's a drone. It's an art forger, and it zooms over land where naive art still exists: art that's been made a human who lives without machine influence. The drone grows rich from his art dealing, takes to smoking cigars (it always has to clean out its parts afterwards, from all the smoke) and takes to hanging fancy tuxedos and ball gowns off its mechanical limbs. The line between art forger and art creator begins to get blurry. What does it mean for an AI to want to maximize human happiness, and how far is too far to ensure art is enjoyed?

Stage Show and Schnauzers by Tina Connolly

A queer detective story set in a theatre that's essentially a locked-room mystery? You had me at hello. Our detective is assisted by her partner, an AI named Gabriel that's housed in an old iPhone. When we think of art, we usually think of dance, painting, sculpting. Is detective-ing an art? Only if we expand the definition to include outside-the-box creative thinking, and then I think a case could definitely be made for it! This story is cozy and cute and definitely made me chuckle a few times. It's also a love letter to drama and the world of the theatre, one of the oldest human arts out there.

Good Stories by Ken Liu

The conceit for this story is simple but fascinating: AI-generated content has been deemed uncopyrightable, but courts have decided that manually edited AI-text can be copyrighted if it shows a minimal amount of human-sourced creativity. Clara, an employee at Good Stories, Inc., is a lowly text smith who changes the occasional verb or two for huge artificial texts. She eventually grows resentful, but learns what people are actually doing with this vast amount of wordsoup. Using a variety of AI tools—not just text for scripts but also AI video and special effects tools—people can create their own interactive movies:

"The AI has a database of tens of thousands of licensed performance profiles of movie stars, cinematographers, composers, auteurs. Feed it a Good Story... and you can turn a 300,000 word epic into an exciting 2-hour film with a plot in the shape of The Hero's Search for Meaning starting Tatiana Samoilova and Kinuyo Tanaka as the leads, with a supporting cast of Idris Elba and Marion Cotillard, shot in the style of Wes Anderson..."

This sounds incredible, but what of the real-life artists? That's the common theme throughout this collection.

A Beautiful War by Fang Zeyu, trans. by Nathan Faries

Some humans were born to be artists, thinking in abstract shapes and colors and the desire to share their vision with the world. These same folks, naturally, don't tend to make the best soldiers. But what if an AI device could make an artist believe he was making art when in reality he was making war? This story explores what happens when you use art as a cover for not creation but destruction.

The Laugh Machine by Auston Habershaw

In a near future, comedians have been replaced by joke bots. It may not seem like it (especially when a comedian is crass or racist), but telling a joke is most definitely a form of art. It's writing with the intent to make someone laugh and appreciate something about the human existence. In The Laugh Machine, we meet a self-aware joke bot that's programmed with antics and comic stylings of 6,573 comedians. He's not great at what he does, but he is thoughtful. His boss is mean to him, shouting, "Listen, robot. People don't like you. You freak them out." Why, then, does he keep using the joke bot? Money, would be my guess. People will do nearly anything to avoid paying artists for their time.

One day, the joke bot notices that a woman keeps returning night after night to listen to his set. He knows this because his friends, search engines, like to gossip and literally cannot resist answering questions. I won't spoil the end, but the woman and the joke bot share a connection that makes you think about the collateral damage of AI-powered writing.

Final thoughts

In one of the stories, a character opines, "People don't like the idea of consuming art made by a machine." I think this is both simultaneously true and false, and the different perspectives in the book help illustrate both points. True, there is something magical about a human's experience giving meaning to the world through art and creation. But at the same time, people today rave about Dall-E-generated art and Midjourney like there's never been anything cooler.  This book made me think about the power of soul-crushing capitalism writ large over countless artistic fields, and how profoundly sad it could end up for the humans who used to be the sole owners of such exertions.

But no matter your take on AI—whether you're a plugged-in believer of its many possibilities or a luddite who thinks it should be banned from all forms of creative expression—there's no denying that it's here to stay. It's up to us how we incorporate it into what we make, and how many boundaries we put around it. As Ken Liu states in his story in The Digital Aesthete, "The world is only bearable because we make up stories about it."

It will all just depend on who or what exactly will be doing the making-up in the future.

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's also a professional copywriter who thinks Chat GPT is fun but always missing a certain something tone-wise that can never be replicated by an AI.

Monday, December 4, 2023

[Microreview]: Island of Time by Davis Bunn

Urban fantasy on the shores of Lake Geneva

Urban fantasy so often confines itself to very sleek, modern American cities that clash aesthetically with traditional urban fantasy; that disconnect drives the interest, I feel. You also get London a good fair bit, but other European cities don’t get as many stories like this. I suspect, although I can’t confirm in any way, that Americans, at least, see old European cities as being too close to the fantasy they love to elicit the sense of wonder (as odd as that sounds, we Americans find cobblestone streets exotic, and I was once stunned by a restaurant owner in Britain saying the building he owned was ‘only’ two hundred years old). Today, we’re discussing an urban fantasy novel set in a European city—I can only remember a few works of genre fiction even being set in the country!

That country is Switzerland, that city is Geneva, and that book is Island of Time by Davis Bunn. This is the first I have read by him; I found this book, as I have so many books that I have loved, just browsing the stacks at the library in my neighborhood (and I am infinitely blessed to have that library within walking distance, no matter how many times it gets used as a political football during county budget negotiations). It is a slim volume, just under two hundred pages, and I blasted through it.

Bunn has chosen a unique sort of agency around which his work revolves. His protagonists are mostly law enforcement officers, as is common in this sort of fiction, but they work for INTERPOL, who has an office dealing with magic in Geneva. It’s not something I’ve seen in much fiction, period, and it pleasantly surprised me (although I admit a slight annoyance that he forgets that the INTERPOL headquarters is in Lyon, not Brussels—the liaison office to the European Union is in Brussels, analogous to the office in New York that liaises with the United Nations, but the worldwide headquarters is in Lyon—something all the more frustrating, albeit still mildly so, because Lyon works geographically for some key events in the plot! I’m a pedant, I know).

The plot begins with what appears to be a murder in a mansion overlooking the city of Geneva, but it is rapidly found to be something both involving the occult and definitively within the remit of INTERPOL. This involves the talents of multiple INTERPOL officers, as well as a suspicious man with no eyes and with a vast arcane knowledge and connections to the underground world of magic. This is made more complicated by the fact that Switzerland has banned the use of magic for its entire existence as a sovereign nation.

The international politics in this book is interesting, as it is such a clear way of showing off the world while never feeling shoehorned into the plot; people are shunted back and forth between different INTERPOL offices because of mundane organizational disputes. Different jurisdictions have different rules about magic, and different agencies have different legal and technical abilities to deal with magic (I wonder if Bunn has had any dealings with this sort of thing; he has worked in finance, which has myriad permutations of law, as the infamous Swiss banks can attest to). This complexity increases with the magical underground, with seven different Institutes, as Bunn calls them, governing magic users (akin more to secret fraternities than anything else). It is here where the worldbuilding starts to muddle a bit: you get the impression that a degree of magical knowledge is accessible to the general public, but the bounds of that are never quite made clear.

The actual magic is filled with pyrotechnics and some interesting and delightfully weird concepts. The central mystery of the novel is something that has been done before, but here it's done in a convincing and clever way, resembling ever so slightly Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The rest of the magic, though, does feel somewhat underdeveloped, and there’s a role that precognition plays in the story that feels a little too convenient at times, perhaps used when a mundane way of figuring out a problem would be more narratively compelling. Even so, Bunn succeeds in wowing you, with a few moments that are stunning by virtue of how well the scenes are constructed.

The INTERPOL office in Geneva, if this book is to be any indication, is filled with troubled, indeed broken, people. The main character lost his wife in an accident, another is an immigrant who feels somewhat lost, and another has run the gamut of magical experience before turning coat to the authorities. Different characters come from different organizations, and the friction comes to the fore here; the best bits are the mundane Swiss police having to deal with something their government has formally banned. They are thrust into a world of memos written only for a few top brass, never put in the regular archives; and it is all under lock and key. Part of me thinks that having the dead wife of the male main character is a tad cliché and has some unfortunate implications, but it is used well, and fits the broader constellation of the story in a way that is more justified than in most similar stories. Likewise, I had some reservations about the use of sexual assault in the backstory of a female protagonist, but again, it has enough connections to the broader story that it works better than most; both of these issues feel justified, rational, not shoed in for added tension. Not everyone will like it, I feel, but I could accept them.

Island of Time is a successful, brief urban fantasy novel that largely succeeds at what it wants to do. It reminded me of Alex Shvartsman’s Conradverse series, and in the most complimentary way. It’s good fun, pure and simple, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in urban fantasy.

Highlights: the weird magic

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Bunn, Davis. Island of Time [Severn House, 2022].

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