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Adrienne Martini reviews Ben H. Winters

It’s two weeks until the end of the world and detective Hank Palace is still looking for his sister Nico. Maia, the asteroid that Winters introduced us to in The Last Policeman which will destroy life on this planet, is almost here and civilization has completely come apart. But Palace investigates on, doggedly pursuing the sister who had disappeared in a haze of pseudo-scientific conspiracy in the second title in the trilogy, Countdown City.

The pre-apocalyptic detective story is magnetic in Winters’s hands. The ways he has the world come culturally apart before the impact feels true. His isn’t the scorched Earth nihilism of Mad Max. Instead there are pockets of nearly every human condition you can imagine. Some towns keep calm and carry on; some give way to armed anarchy. And with the introduction of the Amish Atlee Miller and his family, Winters adds a new pocket to this unraveling world, one that is as sweet as it is terrible.

The main story isn’t about how the world will come undone. It’s about Hank finding his sister. He’s left the safe – for reasonable values of ‘‘safe’’ given the circumstances – haven he found at the end of Countdown and is wander­ing across Ohio with snide criminal Cortez and a mutt. They find a body in the woods and a bunker underground. Questions, as one would hope, begin to be answered.

This last installment, however, is really about Maia. The end is really fucking nigh, to quote that zombie movie, and while we hope that Hank can find a way out, we’re equally sure he can’t. There’s a crushing sense of inevitability. As Palace says, ‘‘Nothing we ever did mattered one way or another. This event has always been in the cards for man’s planet, for the whole scope of our history, coming regardless of what we did or didn’t do.’’

Despite that, Palace never gives up – and that is what makes all of the difference. While World of Trouble is bleak, it is also beautiful in its own way, and redemptive. And unlike other episodic stories about the end of the world, this one pays off by the time the apocalypse arrives.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Tolkienator, or, Thorin Hacks Again: A Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

by Gary Westfahl

A functional review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies could be brief and blunt: if you would enjoy spending two-and-a-half hours of your life mostly watching various imaginary beings (and occasional humans) being slaughtered, with increasing frequency and viciousness, then you should definitely go see this film. If you find this prospect appalling, you might avert your eyes during the film’s endless battles and appreciate its occasional moments of evocative dialogue, breathtaking scenery, and subdued beauty, all executed with meticulous professionalism. In sum, just as the original Total Recall (1990) can be described as an interesting 20-minute adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) padded out with 90 minutes of Arnold Schwarzenegger killing people, one might characterize this film as a charming 30-minute rendering of the last six chapters of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) padded out with two hours of repetitive slashing, stabbing, bludgeoning, and beheading. Tolkien, one imagines, would not be pleased.

Granted, director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro faced a daunting challenge: to expand a story that could be effectively presented as a single two-hour film into an eight-and-a-half-hour, three-film epic to match its distinguished predecessor, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003). Indeed, it is ironic that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies enthusiastically foregrounds Tolkien’s message about the evils of greed, described in the first film as a “sickness of the mind,” even as its creators are working overtime to pointlessly lengthen a simple children’s tale to make three films – solely as a way to make more money.

To achieve their larcenous ambitions, the filmmakers have employed three basic strategies. First, they omitted almost nothing: it is hard to recall any significant character or event in Tolkien’s novel that has not found its way into this film or its precursors, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (Howard Waldrop and Lawrence Person’s review here) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). (For purposes of this review, I recently watched all three films in succession at my local theatre’s “Hobbit marathon.”) The few aspects of the novel that were left out, as will be discussed, seem absent for compelling reasons related to strengthening the film’s general appeal.

As their second strategy, the filmmakers added their own embellishments and inventions: thus, the orc Azog (Manu Bennett), who briefly figures as the Great Goblin in Tolkien’s novel, is elevated here to the status of a major character and the personal adversary of the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage); the sinister Sauron (voice Benedict Cumberbatch), only mentioned as the Necromancer in The Hobbit, is introduced by name as the hidden instigator of the orc uprising to provide the wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) with something to occupy their time; another character from The Lord of the Rings, the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), is shoehorned into the story as he comes to the aid of the dwarves; the Master of the lake-side city of Esgaroth (Stephen Fry), a minor character in the book, is more fully developed as a greedy scoundrel, and his invented assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) kills some time with his comical duplicity and cowardice in the second and third films; and another brand new character, the female elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), is devised in order to add some variety to the violence (and now for something completely different: a woman butchering some orcs!) and to add twenty minutes to the films by means of an inchoate romantic triangle involving Tauriel, Legolas, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).

Third, director Jackson extended every scene for as long as possible: in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the egregious example was the encounter between Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dragon Smaug (voice Benedict Cumberbatch), wherein Smaug, instead of immediately eliminating his unwelcome guest with a blast of his fiery breath, implausibly engages him in an extended conversation as he laboriously swirls around in his lair again and again, and again and again. (Granted, the same conversation is in the novel, but this is precisely the sort of material that a film adaptation should radically condense.) In this film, the major ordeal is a concluding battle between Thorin and Azog that seems to take forever, as if Jackson kept returning drafts of its script to the other writers and insisting, “Add five more minutes.” More broadly, the entire third film can be epitomized as the massive expansion of a battle that is only briefly described in the original novel (in the paperback edition, it occupies four pages). And it’s easy to keep extending a battle scene: bring on another battalion of orcs! Give yet another character a sword and thrust him into the fray!

It goes without saying that, at some point in the proceedings, the spirit of Tolkien’s story becomes utterly lost. In reviewing I, Robot (2004) (review here), I commented that the film “moved precisely 180 degrees away from [Isaac] Asimov’s vision” when Dr. Susan Calvin picked up a machine gun and starting blasting away at the robots. This film’s similar moment of repudiating its source material comes when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) plunges into the Battle of the Five Armies, wielding a sword to slaughter his quota of orcs. (In the novel, more characteristically, Bilbo meekly puts on his ring to watch the battle, protected by his invisibility, until a falling stone knocks him unconscious.) Now, Tolkien was not blind to the reality of evil, or the occasional necessity of battling villainous foes like Smaug or the orcs. But The Hobbit in particular was also a novel about the other, more pleasurable aspects of everyday life: walking through the countryside, swimming in a river, conversing with friends, eating good food, drinking mead, and telling stories – the sorts of activities that the characters in these films have very little time for, due to the proclivities of contemporary filmmaking that I have elsewhere decried: in every struggle, the fate of the entire world must be at stake; opponents cannot merely be bad, but must be exaggerated embodiments of pure, absolute evil; and with such implacable foes, heroes can allow themselves no opportunities for rest or relaxation, as yet another lethal assault is always about to occur.

It is telling, then, that there is precisely one major element in The Hobbit that these films have almost entirely eliminated: its songs. In Tolkien’s novel, Bilbo, the dwarves, elves, and goblins are constantly bursting into song, but in the films, there are only two snippets of singing during the dwarves’ first visit to Bilbo’s house in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Given his desperate need to lengthen his films in every manner possible, one might imagine that Jackson would hire someone to write music for Tolkien’s many songs, feature every one of them, and perhaps have additional songs of a similar nature written and included as well. But as one of the axioms of modern filmmaking, characters must be constantly imperiled, pausing solely to plot their next moves or to provide female viewers with touches of romance, and if they started singing, it would weaken the unrelenting atmosphere of portentous doom purportedly required to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

The shift in mood from the general lightheartedness of The Hobbit to the sobriety of these films has another unfortunate effect: the diminution of the title character. Tolkien’s novel is all about Bilbo Baggins and how he changes as a result of his experiences; his key role in advancing the dwarves’ quest is regularly emphasized; and the Battle of the Five Armies is cursorily summarized precisely because Bilbo was not involved. But these films are about an entire civilization of dwarves, elves, and men that are facing an ominous threat, and its attention regularly turns away from Bilbo to focus on other characters who are participating in this global confrontation. Thus, the first film begins with a flashback featuring a youthful Thorin, who at times appears to be functioning as the trilogy’s true protagonist (I suspect that his total time onscreen exceeds Bilbo’s); in scenes that do not involve Bilbo, the elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) repeatedly intervenes to save the day; in the second and third films, the human Bard (Luke Evans) is given an expanded role as a major hero in assisting the beleaguered residents of Esgaroth and fighting off the orcs; and the effective archery and swordplay of Legolas and Tauriel are frequently featured as well. Indeed, if Bilbo had not been inaptly recast as a warrior, he would have had very little screen time in the third film, almost entirely devoted to violent combat.

Rereading The Hobbit, and contemplating this film adaptation, one fears that it is now becoming impossible for Hollywood to produce the sorts of gentle, leisurely fantasy films that were cherished in the past. Imagine what would happen if the thought process that led to the Hobbit films was applied to a remake of The Wizard of Oz (1939), so that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion would engage in one bloody battle after another against the Wicked Witch’s minions as they fight their way across the Land of Oz. Or ponder a new version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): the army besieges Elliott’s home town and sends battalions of soldiers into the streets, firing machine guns to kill any alien invaders; E.T. employs the trinkets and gadgets in Elliott’s home to build homemade rifles and rocket launchers so he and his human allies can fend off each assault; and as they stand on a battlefield strewn with corpses, Elliott and his friends wave goodbye to E.T. as he flies off into space. But hey, that’s what you’d have to do to earn that all-important PG-13 rating and attract more viewers.

Even as the makers of the Hobbit films were clearly focused on providing the melodrama and violence perceived as essential in contemporary films, they can be criticized for their inattentiveness to another modern priority in filmmaking: the need for racial and ethnic diversity. This is a general problem in fantasy films, since most fantasies, like Tolkien’s novels, implicitly take place in magical versions of medieval Europe and hence seem designed for all-white casts. Some filmmakers have hearteningly defied expectations in this respect; thus, one of the few things to admire about the otherwise undistinguished Oz the Great and Powerful (review here) was its decision to reinvent Oz as a homeland for people of diverse races. In adapting Tolkien’s story, Jackson and his colleagues imposed an odd compromise: the hobbits, elves, and dwarves are uniformly Caucasian, but the humans of Esgaroth are modestly diverse, as one glimpses an occasional African or Asian face. But rather insensitively, I think, the two chief orcs, Azog and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), are both played by darker-skinned actors of Maori descent (incidentally, the only major actors in the films born in New Zealand, where they were filmed). Even though these men and other orcs are made to appear pale white, then, the film is still contriving to suggest that all people who lack the light pink skin of true Caucasians are villains.

If the film is arguably a bit racist, one can say that it is “speciesist” as well, since the dwarves are menaced by giant spiders and the wolf-like Wargs, and the only talking animal in the films, Smaug, is a sinister murderer. But in the novel, the friendly eagles speak as well, and they twice intervene to assist Bilbo and his companions; the “skin-changer” Beorn, in the form of a bear, contributes to the final victory of the dwarves, elves, and men over the orcs and Wargs; and a thrush learns how to kill Smaug and flies off to inform Bard, who uses the information to shoot down the dragon. In the film, however, these animal allies are minimized: the eagle do appear briefly but they are not presented as intelligent colleagues; Beorn assists the dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey but is not observed during the final battle; and the intelligent thrush was omitted, as the film’s Bard already knows about Smaug’s weakness, inasmuch as it was a wound inflicted by a courageous ancestor. All of these changes presumably reflect a desire to place more emphasis on the valor and actions of the characters who look like human beings, even though, as other filmmakers have demonstrated, it is possible to craft likable animal characters in fantasy films, even if it requires a little more effort.

An additional area where modern filmmakers must be careful is in depictions of smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages, vices that are ubiquitous in Tolkien’s Middle-earth but are less acceptable in twenty-first-century Earth. Seeking to respect both Tolkien’s vision and contemporary sensibilities, the Hobbit films again chose to compromise: the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), visibly elderly and presumably set in his ways, is permitted to regularly smoke his pipe, and he is also observed imbibing a tiny glass of wine; the other characters, however, rarely if ever indulge in these vices. Furthermore, needless to say, the film’s adventurers, unlike those in the novel, do not remove their clothing for a bath in a river. Such are the peculiar standards now observed in films: a sympathetic character cannot smoke, drink, or skinny-dip, but an on-screen beheading is perfectly acceptable, even heroic.

Of course, a balanced review of these films should not focus solely on their flaws and foibles, since there is much about them to praise as well. The cast is uniformly excellent; along with the major characters, one might single out for special attention Ken Stott’s avuncular Balin, the only dwarf beside Thorin who emerges as a true personality; one suspects that his role was expanded due to the actor’s talents. The landscapes and forests of New Zealand are capably exploited as backgrounds, particularly in several scenes emulating John Ford’s proclivity for displaying tiny figures in vast panoramas. One hardly notices the superb special effects, since these are nowadays deployed in all films, but the films’ renderings of the dragon Smaug and his immense trove of golden treasures are particularly noteworthy. The major problem with the films, as almost every commentator has observed, is that there is simply too much film: the first two films are filled with comic relief that isn’t funny, subplots that contribute nothing to the main narrative, and sequences that last far longer than is necessary; and the third film in particular, as noted, is overburdened with excessive, gratuitous violence.

Therefore, one looks forward to the DVD release of the Hobbit trilogy for an unusual reason. Typically, admirers of a film eagerly anticipate seeing an expanded “director’s cut” that includes a number of scenes that were deleted from the original release. In the case of these films, however, there surely is little if any material that was left on the cutting room floor. The unique assignment that Peter Jackson should undertake for a DVD would be to edit his eight-and-a-half hours of released footage into a single, two-to-three hour film, eliminating all of the tedium to tell Tolkien’s story in a brisk and economical manner. I am quite sure it would prove a magnificent film, far more enjoyable than the three-part version that holiday viewers have been obliged to endure.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available in early 2015.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Catherine Asaro

Inaugurated in 1995 with Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire now approaches its twentieth anniversary, and its twentieth installment. The current volume, Undercity, is actually number nineteen, counting shorter standalone works in the series, as detailed on a fairly massive Wikipedia page devoted to the mythos. In this way, Asaro plants herself firmly into that grand SF tradition of future history franchises favored by luminaries like Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Anderson, Dickson, Niven, Cherryh, and Baxter. It really seems to me that any future mention of this stefnal lineage must include her name as a worthy exemplar.

I myself reviewed the first book way back in the October 1995 issue of Asimov’s, and since then have dipped in here and there, but can hardly call myself utterly conversant with every facet of her universe. I’ve enjoyed my forays into the Skolian Empire, and found that each time I can get up to speed pretty easily, given Asaro’s generous welcoming tactics. This time around, all barriers are down, as Asaro kicks off a new and independent series within the parameters of the larger enterprise.

Our heroine is one Major Bhaajan, a smart, ultra-capable and deadly woman, augmented with various implanted devices—including the feisty Evolving Intelligence named Max—and formerly of the Skolian military, but now a freelance private investigator on the pleasant, mild, civilized world of Parthonia. In a swift opening scene, Bhaaj, to employ her familiar cognomen, is invited offplanet by a mysterious rich client. Her destination happens to be the city and planet of her birth—the City of Cries on Raylicon—and her client turns out to be the secretive Matriarch of Majda, one of the nigh-omnipotent royalty of the galaxy. The Matriarch’s nephew, naïve and unschooled Prince Dayjarind, has fled his golden cage—the men of the Matriarchate lead a seraglio existence—and must be found, before he comes to harm in the rough-and-tumble precincts of the Undercity.

Bhaaj’s return to her ancestral stomping grounds brings confrontations with things and people she wishes both to avoid and to reacquaint herself with, such as her old lover, Jak, owner of the undercity gambling palace known as the Black Mark, producing torn loyalties. Her familiarity with the vast labyrinth of the undercity, where she spent her youth as a “dust rat,” is invaluable in tracking down the Prince, and she soon brings that case to a rousing conclusion—but with our tale only a third over. That’s deliberate, since Asaro intends to ramp up the action. Finding the Prince has disclosed an arms-smuggling ring, and now Bhaaj is tasked with bringing them down. But the remainder of the plot soon swerves again, or is complexified, into a battle between the forces of wealth and the status quo and the forces of the long stomped-upon underclass. Suffice it to say that after much ingenious haggling and no small amount of personal danger, Major Bhaajan averts a war and negotiates a new accommodation that benefits everyone.

Producing a hybrid mystery-SF novel, Asaro joins such contemporaries as Robert Sawyer, with his Red Planet Blues, and Jack McDevitt with his Alex Benedict series. But whereas Sawyer emulates the hardboiled school, and McDevitt’s hero reminds me a bit of Nero Wolfe, Asaro goes in for neither wise-cracking nor scholarly modes of detection. Bhaaj’s military career is paramount in having shaped her, and she approaches everything from a point of view of strategy and tactics. (Of course, we can’t omit her genuine emotional empathy. This shows up especially towards her former Undercity compatriots, but extends also to the royalty, most notably the abused Prince Dayj.) Once in a while, Bhaaj reminds me of Robert Downey’s Holmes in those fight scenes where he calculates everything out beforehand in a flash, then implements his vision. Of course, in this regard Bhaaj is aided by her augmentation.

And mention of the speculative tech allows me to say that Asaro is very good about updating the process of detection to reflect the new gadgets. Just as the existence of the cellphone shattered a thousand old tropes, so too such innovations as drone surveillance and GPS tracking means new considerations for the PI. And so Bhaaj has two little pocket drones who help her, and she can take herself off the grid in stealth mode.

Asaro’s inversion of gender roles is fun and illuminating, while never being heavy-handed. Likewise, her “one percent versus the ninety-nine percent” theme does not seem forced or polemical. Of course, the real tyrants are the Eubians, where one thousand rulers hold a whole interstellar empire in slavery—but they are offstage this time.

In the end, perhaps, what I enjoyed most about this installment was its Leigh Bracket/Planet Stories feel, a deliberate choice on Asaro’s part, I’m certain. The five-thousand-year-old Undercity and its environs shout Brackett from the git-go.

“In eons past the Vanished Sea had rolled its waves on the world Raylicon. Now only a desert remained where those great breakers had once crashed on the shore. The empty sea basin stretched out in a mottled red and blue expanse to the horizon. The City of Cries stood on the shore of that long-vanished ocean…the pitted ruins of ancient starships hulked on the shore of the Vanished Sea, their hulls dulled over the millennia…”

They don’t write ‘em like that anymore! Except Asaro does, with no false nostalgia, but rather an up-to-the-minute savvy!

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Cixin Liu

The difficulty in getting English-language readers to pay attention to fiction not written in English is underlined every time the No­bel Prize goes to another author you’ve never heard of, and the problem is no different with SF – which seems to be a good reason to look at some translated books this month. For ev­ery Lem or Murakami, there are dozens of writers who never make it onto our radar, no matter how substantial their reputations may be elsewhere. This is one reason to read Ken Liu’s excellent translation of The Three-Body Problem, the first volume of Cixin Liu’s tril­ogy of SF novels collectively known in China as Three Body (although the official title, ap­parently, is Remembrance of Earth’s Past). It doesn’t really matter whether Tor is accurate in claiming that this is the first Chinese SF novel translated into English – it doesn’t take much digging to find a translation of a Chan Koonchung novel a couple of years ago, and a translation of Lao She’s Cat Country goes all the way back to 1970 – but it might be reason­able to argue that The Three-Body Problem is the first case of a hard SF novel in the mod­ern sense – informed by genuinely specula­tive physics and by a shrewd engagement with some of the major tropes of the genre, and not mounted in an overfamiliar dystopian or allegorical frame. Cixin Liu knows his way around Western SF, apparently, but this isn’t quite a Western-style SF novel, and it’s no imi­tation.

The main reason The Three-Body Problem is noteworthy is that it’s for the most part a compelling piece of work, brilliantly translated by Ken Liu, whose astonishing con­trol of tone lets us experience the novel as a speculative thriller without losing the sense of Chinese language and culture that makes it uniquely different from the familiar rhythms of Western SF. Although Tor is being a bit coy about letting us know that this is the first volume of a trilogy (it’s mentioned nowhere in the promotional letter or on the advance copy), and even though the novel completes a reason­able narrative arc on its own, it seems pretty likely that anyone reading this will be anx­iously awaiting the next two volumes, espe­cially given some rather strong clues toward the end that prom­ise to vault the narrative into far more adventurous territory.

The novel begins as a politi­cal horror story, set during the more shocking excesses of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Ye Wenjie, a young astrophysi­cist, witnesses her father beat­en to death by youthful Red Guards, simply for insisting on a standard model of quantum mechanics, which they view as ‘‘reactionary idealism.’’ Though this brutal opening chapter is short, it sets up not only an impor­tant aspect of Wenjie’s character for the rest of the novel – including an action she takes which may imperil the world – but also much of the novel’s ideational structure, which returns again and again to the question of science as a reliable model of reality. For US readers, the anti-intellectualism of the Red Guards may come as something of a shock – but it’s not as though we haven’t seen impassioned denials of science for political and ideological reasons here at home. Wenjie herself survives, but is exiled to a remote logging camp, where she is betrayed by a colleague and given a choice between prison and participating in a secret research project located near the camp, which we soon realize has something to do with a SETI effort on the part of the Chinese govern­ment.

Decades later, an aging and reclusive Wenjie is sought out by a young nanotech researcher seeking clues to a series of suicides among physicists, the most recent of whom is Wenjie’s daughter Yang Dong, who left behind a cryp­tic message that ‘‘Physics has never existed, and will never exist.’’ A line like that is cat­nip for just about any hard SF reader, and The Three-Body Problem delivers on the promise in ways that are at times stunningly inventive and at times contrived. Physics experiments, even under the most controlled conditions, are beginning to yield apparently random re­sults, and the researcher, Wang Miao, begins to wonder if there might be a connection be­tween these events, Wenjie’s earlier activities at that SETI installation, and even an addic­tive online game called ‘‘Three Body,’’ set in a world that alternates between random peri­ods of chaos and limited times of stability – caused by the three suns that give the novel its title, and that reflect the three-body problem of classical physics and the difficulty in predict­ing the orbital mechanics of such a system.

Suddenly the novel begins to open up from its violent beginnings and more ruminative middle sections. We learn that those ancient SETI signals had been intercepted by an im­periled alien civilization in just such a three-body system, the Trisolarans, who now see the colonization of Earth as their best chance at survival. (If this sounds like a dreaded spoiler, it’s already there in the book’s jacket copy.) We find ourselves in the middle of an alien invasion narrative, albeit an invasion that may not arrive for centuries, given the distance. This pretty clearly sets up a problem for the second novel in Liu’s trilogy, while a dramatic point-of-view shift late in the novel seems to set us up for a third, which promises to be radically more science fictional than this one. In fact, Liu has been prepping us for this sling­shot as far back as the opening chapters, where he says of Wenjie’s betrayal by her colleague that ‘‘historians would all agree that this event in 1969 was a turning point in humankind’s history.’’ That’s the sort of pulpish narrative hook that makes you want to dare the author to deliver, but Cixin Liu does, causing us to not only to wonder whether physics might ac­tually be ‘‘destroyed,’’ but what those Triso­larans are actually up to. If Tor (or someone) doesn’t follow up with the next two volumes in this series, it will be a crime against trilogies (a line I never thought I would write).

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Jennifer Marie Brissett

If Carol Emshwiller—oblique and delicate—had collaborated with Samuel Delany—straightforward and blunt—then the result might resemble Jennifer Brissett’s impressive debut novel, Elysium, a kind of fantasia on identity and character, what is superficial and what is central to both. Of course, the same result might obtain if a counterfactual Carl Emshwiller—transparent and shocking—had collaborated with Samantha Delany—mysterious and convoluted.

I think you’ll excuse my changing the genders of Delany and Emshwiller, and swapping around their perceived writerly qualities, when you learn the nature of Brissett’s tale. And after all, aren’t my initial assignments of style misleading or incomplete, not totally elucidating of the core identity of each writer? For if Emshwiller can be oblique and delicate in her work, so can Delany be inarguably seen as exhibiting those traits. And likewise, if Delany is sometimes straightforward and blunt, so is Emshwiller. Each famous author is not reducible to a subset of their whole selves. And that is rather what Elysium is all about: figuring out what is essential under pressure.

We open in what appears to be a current-day setting. A woman named Adrianne maneuvers through her lovingly elucidated city (Brissett exhibits great affection for the external world, and limns it splendidly). She misses a lunch date with a friend named Helen, then returns to her home and her partner, a man named Antoine. We see that there is an emotional strain between the two. End of chapter. Oh, yes, the events have been interspersed by computer diagnostics from some unknown AI-like entity.

Now cut to Chapter 2. Suddenly, Adrianne is Adrian, male lover of a (terminally?) ill man named Antoine. Chapter 3 finds the return of Adrianne, with “Antoinette” dead, and Helen showing up to console. The spastic computer monologue continues to erupt at intervals. In Chapter 4, the weirdness begins to really blossom: we are inhabiting a North America colonized by the Roman Empire, technologically advanced. Adrianne is now a Vestal Virgin. Throughout all these iterations and transfigurations, certain talismans remain: a head injury, the intimate connection between Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinette. And narrative progress occurs, in spiraling, convoluted steps, drawing us deeper into this shattered universe, until we reach what seems to be the foundational stratum.

Not to spoil Brissett’s secrets, but we eventually discover that Earth has undergone a cataclysm, and that Adrian played a central role in fighting off the apocalypse. As a result of the measures taken, he has been trapped in this whirlwind of identity changes. Is there a possible end, or must he cycle continuously?

Brissett handles this not uncommon SF trope as if it were freshly minted. Her subtle morphings of identity and circumstance among her deeply felt characters serve to make us ponder, as I said earlier, what make up the core constituents of self and personality, and what is superficial. Her crabwise plotting is a bold and successful counterpoint to more linear narratives. And while her treatment of the theme is clear-eyed and personal, she also harks to many ancestors. I get whiffs of the film Dark City, John Crowley’s Engine Summer, and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Although Brissett’s AI is not malevolent—her global computer is instantiated in a manner reminiscent of the planetary mind in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus—the same sense of entrapment in secondary realities obtains. I also sense a small homage in Brissett’s concept of a bodily transformative mist to a similar device employed by the Inhumans in the Marvel Comics universe. And a pair of metal wings with killer blades also brings to mind the occasional transformation of the X-Man Angel into such a lethally equipped being.

Brissett’s vision of a blasted future for humanity—with scared and scarred survivors living forever immured underground, and where the tainted surface world, inhabited by cruel aliens, is ironically dubbed Elysium—is not a vision conducive to jolly vibes. But her counterbalancing assertions that love is stronger than death, and that something essential at the heart of every person will survive the kaleidoscopic whirl of the Great Wheel of avatars, both induce hope and pride at the capacities of our species.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early December

Good issues from Clarkesworld and F&SF this time.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, December 2014

CW goes out for the year on a pretty strong note. Four stories here, three quite short and one long, that I like best.

“Now Dress Me in My Finest Suit and Lay Me in My Casket” by M Bennardo

Patty, facing possible death as crew of a spacecraft, remembers an early encounter with it, when she helped her grandfather dress for the night in his casket and screwed down the lid. This, the old man claimed, would help him become accustomed to the inevitable, to “gentle, friendly death”, when it came. It didn’t work, then.

I thought of the morning I found my grandfather’s dead body. I unscrewed the casket and lifted the lid, uncovering that horrible expression on his face, his twisted mouth and bruised forehead, his wide popping eyes, the blood under his fingernails and the scratches along his face.

This is a story of people helping each other face death, and perhaps easing their way to it. It’s also a story, although it doesn’t use the word, of heroism, of people who face death, not as inevitable but out of duty, in the face of their fear. The author has evoked these characters with deft efficiency, even those we never see.

I do wonder why her grandfather insisted on having the coffin lid screwed down.

“No Vera There” by Dominica Phetteplace

Our narrator Vera is an incomplete download of the original Vera, who seems to be lost or dead. She has fallen into the hands of hackers who are trying to get her to reveal a password belonging to the original by plying her with nonsensical quizzes formulated in 2014 terms with which she is unfamiliar.

What type of Sudoku puzzle are you?
You are a black belt puzzle. You are practically unsolvable.

What type of heart do you have?
A red hot heart. It tastes like cinnamon.

Vera is finally rescued by a company of other Vera downloads, who consider her the most incomplete and deficient of them. She is renamed #201. Her only ability is inventing quizzes.

This is a sort of list story, presenting several dozen of these quizzes that readers are apparently supposed to regard as meaningful in some way, or even imbued with a profundity that may not be apparent to readers, as it isn’t to me, but seems to have a feelgood effect, which seems to be the main point.

“Fatima’s Wound” by Kali Wallace

Sometimes I encounter a story that defeats me; this seems to be one of them. It’s a two-centered story, the one superimposed symbolically over the other. Fatima is a woman who has lived a long, long life, several times more than the normal human span, at least in today’s terms. As a child, she fought for existence in the mining tunnels dug into the moon of a rich, decadent world, becoming fixated by the fatal wound in the chest of a boy who fell attempting to climb to freedom. In her turn, she escaped.

Even then she had a bloody black wound hidden where her heart should be, and with every day it grew larger, and colder, and heavier, spreading through her veins until she was nothing but a vessel of darkness.

This suggests that Fatima is a creature of evil, yet in other aspects she appears saintly. She claims that in her life she has done two things of note: one an act of destruction, the other of creation. Which implies two distinct acts, but there only seems to be evidence of one, the act that destroyed the moon on which she was born and brought to life the phenomenon, perhaps a black hole, in space that she calls a wound: “Object, anomaly, portal. All those and more. Explosion. Gateway.” Except that she also says the object was created by the decadent civilization on the planet that remains, lifeless in ruins, which she perhaps destroyed, perhaps in a revolution, although she claims they destroyed themselves. How – we don’t know.

Fatima now lives on a space station/prison somewhere in the system of this planet, for a long, long time a member of an order of counselors there, now the head of the order. She has, for a long time, been sending prisoners in pods into the anomaly, where they may or may not die. She has called for the worst of humanity to be sent to her there, and she has sent a long line of murderers and genocides on this journey. How she has the power to do this – we don’t know. But at one point, a point that seems relatively recent, something began to emerge from the anomaly, something sinister and menacing. Now, everyone on the station has left, joining the line of pods headed for destruction in the wound, rather than confront whatever is coming for them from it. Only Fatima remains, waiting.

To say that this piece is enigmatic is understatement. I don’t believe we can know what happened, I don’t believe we can know what is happening. The force involved is an enigma. The minds of the characters are enigmas. The universe in which this all takes place is an enigma. I can’t say whether it does or doesn’t make sense, as to determine this, it would first be necessary to see what’s been going on. It might make a perfect sense, just one that isn’t revealed to readers; I certainly can’t find much sense in it. There is imagery here that readers might well appreciate, but it’s too full of obscurity to give real satisfaction.

“The Magician and LaPlace’s Demon” by Tom Crosshill

Let’s start with the demon. The French philosopher postulated this as a theoretical explanation for a universe of perfect physical determinism.

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

In LaPlace’s Leibnizian worldview, this omniscient entity would be God, but here it is an artificial intelligence, the story’s narrator. The AI doesn’t only accumulate data and analysis it, it acts; it makes changes; it deliberately creates the best of all possible worlds, according to its own programmed directives. And here is the contradiction at the story’s heart: in the AI’s deterministic universe, it is the entity the most unfree.

The problem begins when the AI discovers the existence of magic, while investigating certain events that didn’t go as it had planned. Magic here is a unique and fascinating concept. It operates in some ways like a quantum effect on the macro level, in that its operations can’t be observed. Thus its existence remains unprovable; an improbable series of coin flips might actually be a coincidence. Says the magician who is the AI’s foe, “Natural law can only be violated when no one’s watching closely enough to prove it’s being violated.”

There is no factor internal to our universe which determines the flip of the coin, the magician wrote. There is no mechanism internal to the universe for generating true randomness, because there is no such thing as true randomness. There is only choice. And we magicians are the choosers.

The AI, at first, it doesn’t believe the magician. But if the magician is correct, if the existence of magic makes the universe indeterminate, it’s a situation totally contrary to the AI’s programming. Thus begins a duel that lasts millennia, until two near-omnipotent entities meet in a final face-off to determine the nature of the universe. Because not only is the AI incapable of enduring the existence of magic, the magic can’t function in the world of perfect surveillance and observation that the AI requires. But the AI’s ambition is the greater because it seems that the amount of magic in the world is finite; the destruction of one magician empowers another. If it could manage to destroy all the magicians, it might, conceivably, capture all the magic for itself.

This is the sort of speculative fiction I really like, based not only on the notions of physics but philosophy. The author has carefully balanced his dilemma, pitting his forces against each other, two entities playing a very, very long game. I like the small things, such as the term “sleeve” used for the bodies of humans the AI has coopted; I like the large things, particularly the nature of magic. And I especially like the insights into the issue of freedom and determinism. I only wish the author had resisted the temptation to pound in one last, redundant nail with the last line.

–RECOMMENDED



F&SF, January/February 2015

This zine continues to sound the same familiar note coming into the new year, with most of the wordage coming from the regular regulars. Fortunately, these have largely produced good stuff this time, so that the familiar note is a pleasing one. Unreviewed is another installment in Kritzer’s “Seastead” serial.

“Prisoner of Pandarius” by Matthew Hughes

A Raffalon story. Hughes protagonists tend to be either competents or fools, but Raffalon the thief, while quite competent in his profession, tends to make the occasional foolish mistake from the consequences of which he must attempt to extricate himself. Also, he’s prone to bad luck. So he finds himself in the position in which the story opens, having lost a contractual dispute being adjudicated by the masters of The Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors – i.e. the thieves and their fences. As Raffalon notes, these two sides of the profession do not always have their interests in common, but this time something really fishy seems to be going on. The fix was in.

The five masters consulted each other in whispers. Raffalon strained to hear, but could only deduce that the panel had split, two to three, and that the minority disagreed vehemently. Finally, the senior member called an end to the deliberations and delivered judgment, saying, “Circumstances above and beyond the defendant’s control interposed themselves between the agreement of terms and the delivery. We therefore find for Bodlemeyer.”

A sometime collaborator, Cascor the sorcerer, suggests to Raffalon that the usual presiding master may have been called away on false pretenses, to be replaced by one on the side of the defendant. In exchange for information on this point, Raffalon agrees, against his usual practice, to purloin an item for the sorcerer, which leads to further enlightenment. Unfortunately, Raffalon then has one of his foolish moments.

As usual, entertaining stuff from Hughes. In addition to the distinctive narrative voice and the intricate plotting, each of these stories tends to offer some new insight into the working of this world – in this case, Raffalon’s guild, but also the existence of other, related institutions, like The Tenacious and Terrible Guild of Vindicators.

“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” by Dale Bailey

The recording of the famous gasoline hijacker’s fatal crash has become the stuff of legend.

But this time things had gone wrong. They’d taken out the driver and cut the tanker free of the convoy all right, but as the eighteen-wheeler swerved across the lanes, it clipped Lola Bridger’s Spyder. She went spinning back into traffic where a tanker crushed her like a bug and jackknifed in the middle of the highway. The next fish in line slammed it side-on, igniting an explosion so big that it must have singed God’s beard. A heartbeat later, the swingman rolled his own rig, reducing Joe Hauser’s Gilead to a greasy stain on the pavement. Lightning Jack dropped the hammer, and that Dragon leapt forward like a rabid Doberman fixing to break its chain. Four and a half minutes later, it struck the crash barrier on I-20. That fire burned hot and clean.

Gus, however, knows the real story. As a mechanic, he had known Jack from his early days on the waning NASCAR circuit. Then, as Gus’s audience certainly doesn’t need to be told, came succession, insurrection, and civil war, when petroleum became so scarce and valuable the New Feds started to escort the tanker convoys. When Jack saw his opportunity.

The story establishes Jack as a celebrity outlaw in the mode of the James gang or Bonnie and Clyde. Even to his gang, he was a figure set apart. Jack’s motive was simple – he wanted to drive, hard and fast. The description of the action here is exciting, but the story glosses over the moral dimension. How many people had to die so Jack could get his thrills? Like their outlaw predecessors, Jack’s gang were killers, murderers, and Gus’s remorse over this seems perfunctory. His real regret seems to have been his ultimate disloyalty to the gang, to Jack and his lover Lola. I can’t really feel sorry for him.

“Portrait of a Witch” by Albert E Cowdrey

The Obligatory Cowdrey this time is one of the good ones, horror in the sort of setting where the occult flourishes – this time an obscure Caribbean island with salutary weather and tax laws. Albert’s profession is estate manager for the rich and crooked, in which capacity he has been entrapped by an FBI agent who likes to keep him on a string. Thus he finds himself in the employ of Lord Pye, a wealthy Brit whom the locals regard as a benevolent landlord and employer. Not so his wife Lady Faye, a notorious termagant and talented photographer. She it is whom the FBI has in its sights, because she has left a trail of unexplained deaths behind her. On the island, Albert begins to realize a connection between certain of her photographic portraits of individuals who often turned up inexplicably dead.

The keynote of every image was desperation. One labeled The Black Flower showed a young woman whose outthrust lips seemed to be uttering the word Non! as she saw some dreadful but unavoidable fate approaching. Another showed a laborer on the Port Royal docks, his face shimmering with beads of pearly sweat, his white eyes glaring at the onlooker with the dumb agony of a dying bull.

The problem is: there is no real evidence linking portraits and deaths. Also the influence of Lord Pye over the press and constabulary.

This is a mystery where the author has played it straight, eschewing humor. The horror is genuine, revealed in the photographed faces of the victims, as well as in the presence of a trio of Komodo Dragons which readers know, like the legendary gun on the wall, will be deployed at some point in the story.

“Farewell Blues” by Bud Webster

Jazzmen in the Jazz Age. Our narrator Juney must be pretty old by now, because he remembers the events that occurred in Bayou Cane, when he, Jake, and a couple of other musicians played a gig at LeBlanc’s roadhouse. Jake was the kind of musician, as people say, who can play to wake the dead, but in this case, the saying is literal. It’s not that the dead themselves caused too much trouble.

“Now, I won’t say this never happened before, but not in my life, and old folks just won’t talk about it. Not from fear of the dead, no; them folks are their family. But, well, it’s an omen, and maybe folks are a tad uncomfortable about they great-aunt walking ’round after she been buried forty year. Dead folks should rest themself, and they never come back wit’out a reason.”

And the reason was Jake, who didn’t really belong in this world but in the Dream Place, where he was more than a musician; he was music itself, and it needs him back. But more than that, his presence was causing other things to stir in the waking world, and they were what woke the dead and sent them back to defend the living.

The dark fantasy is enriched by its Cajun country setting, and further by a couple of characters a lot older than they should be, one who takes Jake by the ear and gives it a good twist for not keeping a civil tongue in his head when speaking to his elders and betters. It’s never really clear why Jake likes it so well on this side of the dream; he says they won’t understand, and we never do. Nor is it every really clear what’s with Juney and his horn that makes him able to see what other mortals can’t. It’s still a good tale.

“Telling Stories to the Sky” by Eleanor Arnason

In a city “long since gone and forgotten”, a beggar girl loved to listen to the storytellers and make up tales of her own, but storytelling was a profession reserved to men, so she decided to tell her stories to the sky.

Because the plateau was windy, kite flying was a favorite sport. Swallow wrote her best story on a kite and flew it in the fields outside the city. Up and up it went, until the string broke and the kite soared free.

Maybe it would land somewhere, and people would read the story, Swallow thought. Maybe they would marvel at its excellence.

In fact the kite reached the court of the North Wind, who liked her story and wanted to hear more from her. Swallow’s life then took an interesting turn.

One name I always look forward to is Arnason’s. Her narrative voice is unique and brings new life and perspective to even the simplest tales, as it does here.

–RECOMMENDED

“Out of the Jar” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Says the narrator: “We are God’s ants, shaken in a jar.” This sounds ominous. God, it turns out, is a bored teenaged boy, and the world is an illegal simulation on his computer. Creative absurdity here. And theodicy.

“History’s Best Places to Kiss” by Nik Houser

A couple go back in time to forestall their marriage and save themselves from their current acrimonious divorce proceedings. Absurdity predictably happens.

“The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner” by Alex Baxter

Pirate horror. Every since his lover’s death at the hands of the Royal Navy, Captain Reeve has lived first for vengeance, second for gold. But everything changes when a beggar draws some strange symbols in the blood of a man Reeve has killed. His cabin boy, our narrator Daniel, refuses to look upon it. The symbols “curdle his brain.”

Reeve stared a moment more at the parchment, then folded it away inside his jacket. “I think this is the kind of thing that should not be looked upon too long under the mantle of night, eh, Daniel?”

“I would rather not look upon it at all, sir, even under a blazing sun,” I said.

But Reeve is already trapped. He comes to the belief that the symbols, drawn by the vagrant on paper, form a map, and he is determined to follow it to whatever dark place it leads to.

This is old-fashioned, classic horror, driven by madness and obsession. Daniel is our Ishmael, escaped alone to tell the tale, but not unscathed.

“The Man from X” by Gregor Hartmann

As Franden enters the customs line on the planet Zephyr, readers are already well aware that he is up to some kind of scam. Unfortunately, the interrogator is wise to his scheme of passing off dead authors’ work as his own in order to qualify for an Artist visa, immune to taxation and entrance fees. Broadly conceived, this is a writer story, good-hearted but not the most clever.

“The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life” by Francis Marion Soty

A tale from the Arabian Nights. Or rather, a fragment of such a tale, broken off at a moment frustrating to readers. Retold tales are of course a staple in the genre, but this author seems unclear on the handling of the material. In the Scheherazade tales, the lack of closure was precisely the point; the stories ended on cliffhangers to keep the king’s interest and earn the teller another night of life.

Here the author has stripped away two layers of framing and conflated them, so all we have is the merchant with his evil wife, a witch transformed for her sins to a gazelle, who has to tell his story save his life from a jinni he has angered. This focuses reader interest on the merchant. Like the jinni, we want to know how his wife was turned into a gazelle and what happens to her; we want this to make sense. This begins by wondering why the merchant has travelled so far with the gazelle into the forest to kill her, as is his stated intent. In the original tale, we know why the man with the gazelle is there – because that’s where the story is. But that won’t do here, absent the frame. We also want to know, perhaps more urgently, what happens after the jinni absolves the merchant. Does he kill the gazelle or not? If not, what happens to her?

The story, after all, is titled after the gazelle, which does not, despite the title, beg for her life. The spell on her prevents speech or gestures; all she can do is look pitiful with her large gazelle eyes. Is this enough to sway the merchant to spare her, given that he has described her killing as a sacred duty, to which the jinni has agreed? In the original tale we don’t hear these questions because the teller has intrigued the listener with hints of another story, but that excuse doesn’t apply here. This tale comes to an end, and it ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the outcome unknown. That won’t do.



Lightspeed, December 2014

This zine goes out on not such a strong note. The pieces tend to place more emphasis on narrative style than story.

“A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take” by Damien Angelica Walters

This piece opens with the claim that it isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a meta fairy tale. The narrator, who seems to be an adult woman, finds herself trapped in a pastry house by a man who feeds her nothing but confectionary. Occasionally, she notices that he has big, sharp teeth. But rather than fattening, the more she eats, the more she wastes away, until she finally asserts herself instead of counting on a man. The message is pretty obvious.

The narrative is written in the second person, addressing the man, and full of sugar metaphors and arch expressions. I find it tediously unvarying.

The first lie is pretty and spirals from your mouth like candyfloss; sweet, so sweet, and I’m melting under your tongue. Baby, baby, baby, you say, and I gobble it up, unaware that every word you say comes with a candy thermometer and you’ve made me your latest caramel bonbon.

“The Drawstring Detective” by Nik Houser

Char, hoping to find her missing ring, comes home from the antique store with an old-fashioned tin detective figure who speaks when you pull his drawstring. The detective’s paint job is flaking and his attitudes outdated [Barbie scandalizes him] but he’s discerning enough to know that her man Brad is a loser and a scumbag. I find some charm in the narrative but this revelation is obvious.

“As you are too old to play with figures of action such as myself as a means of simple diversion, I can only assume that you’ve purchased me to help you find something. I see by the band of pale flesh on your finger that you have lost your wedding ring.”

“Pay Phobetor” by Shale Nelson

The perils of malware, updated.

Please do not be alarmed. I am here to help. I will restore full access to your MindPlant and all associated files and apps as soon as you deliver a ransom of 300 bitcoins. Think “Phobetor Virus” and “pay now” to access payment options.

The more things change, these stories don’t change much.

“Wake-Rider” by Vandana Singh

Having read this one immediately after the previous, I wasn’t at first sure it wasn’t another parody, but it’s not, being instead a kind of after-the-fact account of an incident in the protagonist’s past, whereby readers are aware from the beginning that she later achieved some sort of fame and thus didn’t die during the events underway but was instead successful. This tends to undercut any plot tension. Leli is on her first mission for the revolution against the Euphoria Corporocracy, which afflicts planetary populations with a nanoplague that leaves them docile producers and consumers [and suggests the possibility of parody to readers]. Her task is salvage of a derelict revolutionary ship to retrieve remains that might hold a key to defeating the nanoplague, but corporate salvagers are on a competing mission.

Remarkably unoriginal stuff.



Apex Magazine, December 2014

The issue opens on a silent note, with no editorial; indeed I see no editor named. Is this a transitional issue, anticipating new management for the upcoming year? I can only hope for improvement in the zine’s direction.

“Anthracite Weddings” by John Zaharick

This is a Message story, an expression of the author’s feelings about the plutocrats who run coal mines and otherwise exploit workers. Katherine’s family is loyal to the owners and doesn’t join in the strikes. Her father tells her she might be lucky enough to be chosen as a servant to the owner’s daughter. This is because there are evil spirits lurking around, and the narrator happens to resemble the daughter enough to be chosen as a bridesmaid, which is to say a decoy, in hopes of diverting the evil spirits away from the bride. The night before the wedding, the bride elopes with an unsuitable boy, but the mother insists on blaming the bridesmaids for failing to divert the spirits away from her daughter. In fact, Katherine has attracted the spirits, who haunt her incessantly, but no one believes her.

The main purpose of the piece seems to be exposing the mother of the bride as a vile and selfish person, based on her position in the ownership class. The ending is vengeful, including even innocent persons, but of course they are guilty as a class. Yet it’s the strikers who kill Katherine’s father, whom they see as a collaborator. The entire situation makes little sense. The piece is an example of the general rule that when writers attempt to employ fiction in the service of their favorite causes, it often works out badly.

“Keep Talking” by Marie Vibbert

Gerald has spent much of his life as a hostage to his autistic daughter Sarah, who spends her life in front of the computer, crunching data feeds from SETI. Now he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to Japan and do meaningful work, but Sarah refuses to move her computer screen from one dark room to another, and Gerald believes, with justification, that she can’t live on her own.

This is a tragic situation, despite all the characters getting what they most desire. As Gerald says, “There is no path that didn’t end in good-bye.” Of course, good-bye isn’t always and necessarily a bad thing; people grow, they take their own paths. The problem is that Gerald is probably right in believing that Sarah, while insisting on her own path, isn’t capable of taking it alone. Unfortunately, I can’t like her; she’s self-centered, hostile, and I have a strong impulse to give her a kick in the ass.

I suspect, however, that I don’t know enough about Sarah to judge her. As readers, we can only know Sarah through what the author tells us. But this isn’t Sarah’s story, it’s Gerald’s, and that’s why this is a tragedy. Despite Sarah’s behavior, whether or not I like it, Gerald loves her. And when we have children and love them, sacrifices are inevitable. Even when we don’t love them, when it’s a matter more of responsibility than love.

“Griefbunny” by Brooke Juliet Wonders

The title sums this one up. When Lola’s stepmother, mother to her little brother Theodore, takes off and leaves them alone, Theodore adopts the scraggly jackrabbit that enters their trailer and starts following him around. Which tells us this is no normal wild animal, even without the fact that it starts to grow at a very abnormal rate. While Lola is grateful to the rabbit for comforting her brother, who calls it a jackalope, she can’t help thinking there’s something wrong about it.

The nightmare had been too real. I’d grown antlers, was part girl, part mule deer. Running, running through the desert, with something terrible right behind me: a darkness wreathed in fire. When I glanced over my shoulder, I could see the darkness had Teddy between its flame–drenched teeth. It was shaking him like a dead pet. The antlers were so heavy they weighed me down; I ran slower and slower until the darkness consumed me.

The material here is out of a Tall Tale, but this isn’t one, rather a story of coping with loss. The ending is positive, as Lola’s fears and misgivings turn out to be unfounded, but I’m not sure they were very well founded in the first place, except for being unable to keep the giant rabbit fed.

“Henrietta’s Garden” by Rebecca Kaplan

This one is in large part the same story as the previous, with a more stylish narrative. Henrietta’s father dies, and she starts weeping flower petals at the funeral. She can’t stop. While she fears the flowers are symptoms of a physical disease, they are clearly manifestations of grief and, more generally, depression. It seems to be a story of depression acceptance, pictured as a happy ending, but I’m not won over.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, Late November

With one foot in the old year and another in the new, I redeem the Good Story award from the pawnshop to bestow on “Where the Trains Turn” from Tor.com.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #160-161, November 2014

There are no obvious thematic links between the stories in either of these issues. The Lindell might equally well be considered SF as fantasy.

#160

“A Guest of the Cockroach Club” by M Bennardo

At the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, tempers in the US Senate were heated, and the anti-slavery Senator Warren spoke intemperately about a former territorial governor of Missouri. The man’s son, who happens to be a crack shot, has now challenged Warren to a duel, and the senator sees no other way to save himself but submitting to the demands of the Cockroach Club, run by a seeming man known only as Roach, for his “uncanny ability to survive and thrive in dark corners of the government.” In fact, Roach might as well be the government, so great is his corrupt power.

Warren clenched his fists as a blur of memories flooded his mind—former colleagues suddenly ousted from their seats. Or worse—suddenly gone spineless and simpering! At least when a monarch stretched the neck of an uncooperative vassal, the murdered man became conspicuous in his sudden disappearance. But when an elected man stood on principle and got himself turned out of his job, all evidence of corruption could be buried under the seal of a secret ballot.

Satire doesn’t have to be satirical, and here is a case in point. The prose is played straight and avoids language unsuitable to the period, but the atmosphere of horror, the glimpses of Roach’s true nature and that of his minions, creatures that scuttle in the dark, all effectively make it clear that the author is describing the fundamental state of corruption that has always prevailed in the nation’s government, and does to this day. The only false note is struck at the end of the piece, in which the newborn state of Missouri is held up as a potential center of clean government.

“The Streetking” by Peter Hickman

Dustrabbit is a streetman, which is to say a thief and a thug, who has a strange encounter.

The sun scaring the last of us streetmen away, when I near knocked her over. Defiant child, shivering and spitting at me, awkward in the morning. Me, a man thrice the width and twice the height. I were blade shining ready for a teaching when those flashing green eyes caught mine.

The child, it turns out, is likewise a thief, pilfering first from her parents, then her parents’ friends. She and Dustrabbit eventually begin to deal regularly with each other, until she is threatened with the worst of fates: marriage. So she makes another, life-changing deal, but it changes Dustrabbit’s life as well. He is without ambition of his own, but his new partner is not, and she’s smart enough to spot the advantage and the trap.

A sort of Thieves Guild story with its own distinctive voice. In a way, it’s a love story, although by no means a sexual one; the relationship between the two is loyalty, not lust.

#161

“Sweet Death” by Margaret Ronald

Another in the author’s police-procedural series set in a world where a war has recently concluded, filling the streets of the City with nonhuman refugees. Thus when a bearlike envoy to the City is found dead in the street where the kobolds live, his head bashed in by a honey crock, a diplomatic incident ensues, which Inspector Swift and his kobold sidekick Mieni must avert by solving the crime.

This one is less than convincing. The crime scene is set up to be more difficult than it should be, with the witness/suspect refusing to talk for reasons I don’t find credible. The villain reveals himself by being too villainy. And the overall point is underwhelming.

“We Were Once of the Sky” by Yosef Lindell

Some time around the thirteenth century, or so it seems, a group of humanoidish aliens crash-landed on Earth, where they weren’t particularly welcomed by the xenophobic population of Europe. The Beta, as they come to be called, retain some relics that they claim to be remnants of their spaceship, also a story that they once came from the stars, but over the generations they have forgotten most of their origins. When Kev notices that his father can’t consistently point to the star he claims as their home, he abandons the traditional belief and turns to human science, insisting on learning to read, a skill that the Beta don’t need, having other means. But now bubonic plague is advancing on their settlement, and the Beta know that humans will blame them for it. One Beta has the notion that their people could serve as physicians and earn human gratitude, but as usual, this doesn’t work out.

What I find most interesting here is the irony in the way Kev is so certain of the truth of human science, as summarized in Ptolemy’s Almagest, lecturing his parents on their superstitious beliefs, when in fact human science was about to discover that the stars don’t actually revolve around the Earth. On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that the Beta, of extraterrestrial origin, could have been susceptible to the plague. And the “Bureau for the Societal and Literary Advancement of the Beta” is definitely anachronistic terminology. As I mentioned above, this story is closer to historical SF than fantasy.



Tor.com, November 2014

A theme of horror in the stories of this month, a strong one beginning with a vampire from October 29. The best piece is by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinin, a new author from whom I want to see more.

“A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone

To begin with, readers have to accept that Vlad Tepes* is not the person he actually was but a superhuman too much like a figure of contemporary romantic fiction – not usually a Good Thing. Vlad has fallen in love, married, and fathered a son. He and his wife have agreed that the boy should have a normal life, so Vlad has concealed his fangs with blunt false teeth and studied the art of moving slowly, sometimes clumsily. He plays catch with Paul in the park.

They throw and catch the ball in this empty not-empty field. Vlad throws slow, and Paul catches, slower, humoring his dad. Vlad sees himself through his son’s eyes: sluggish and overly skinny, a man walks and runs and throws and catches as if first rehearsing the movements in his mind.

Paul is having trouble in school, and his wife asks him to speak with the teacher, an experience that threatens to awake what Vlad has spent so much trouble suppressing.

A vampire story is a very, very hard sell for me these days, but Gladstone has pulled it off. Vlad clearly loves his wife, loves his son, so much that he makes substantial sacrifices for them. He struggles with the pace of human life, struggles with temptation. Temptation grows. The tension here is very strong, and Vlad’s struggle is intense. Is this false-human life worth it? The resolution comes in a moment of joy as intense as the struggle. I believe in it utterly.

[*] The story uses a different name, but I must think this a pseudonym. He could hardly use the other.

“Where the Lost Things Are” by Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson

A medical advance has freed the geezers from their nursing homes, but Bert and Jack find nothing to do with their unexpectedly extended lives until Jack drops one of his pills and it disappears.

“Looking for it makes things worse,” said Jack. “Elementary quantum mechanics. The observer effect. An electron doesn’t have a position until it’s observed. A dropped pill isn’t fully lost until you look for it. And then its wave function sidles away. Across the dimensions.”

Specifically, into the parallel alsoverse. With nothing better to do, they decide, along with their friends Amara and Darly, to shrink themselves, go there and look for their lost stuff. Nonsensical fun ensues.

I have to love a story where one of the characters has taught part-time for fifty years at Knowledge College in Next Exit, IN, retiring as Adjunct Emeritus.

“The Walk” by Dennis Etchison

A Hollywood story. The writer and the director, and their respective spouses Amber and Chanel, are visiting a potential location for their new schlock movie, a place owned by the writer and designed as an all-purpose set. Amber is meant to be the female lead, but all final decisions are made by Freddie, who remains unseen. During their excursion, the director is dismissive towards Amber and speaks to Chanel as if she were part of the production. Finally, the writer gets it. He takes steps to secure his position.

This is lite, nonsupernatural horror. Why I don’t get here is why the director is so insistent that his wife remain behind alone on the set. What does he mean that she has to “walk the walk”? Unless, perhaps, she is supposed to kill Amber to take her role – which I doubt. The first half of the story primarily takes the writer’s point of view, but when it switches to the director’s, enlightenment doesn’t happen. While the horrific events happen offstage, revealed only through the audio of cellphones, I wish the author had left them a bit less specifically described and more darkly ambiguous.

“Where the Trains Turn” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinin, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho

Emma, who has never been attracted to men, once had a fleeting heterosexual encounter that resulted in the birth of her son Rupert. Eventually, we learn the reason for this, but early in the story we only know that Gunnar proves to be a responsible father who comes regularly to take the boy on excursions, usually to observe trains, with which young Rupert is developing a keen interest. This comes to an abrupt end on the day they return home with Rupert claiming hysterically that the train jumped off its tracks and tried to kill them. Only a few hours later, Gunnar’s car is struck by a train at a crossing. Following this traumatic incident, Rupert becomes increasingly unstable emotionally; Emma discovers he is skiing off in the night to find a place in the woods where, he claims, the rogue trains come. Instead of taking him to a therapist, she decides the problem is the boy’s overactive imagination, which she cures by forbidding anything fantastic and fictitious [Donald Duck comics] and involving him in fact-based activities. This seems for a while to work; Rupert grows up to become a promising young lawyer. Until a payment becomes due.

Our source for all this, our narrator, is Emma, and readers will soon become uneasy with Emma, sensing that something about her is off. Her rigid empiricism, her absolute rejection of the fictional is extreme. She’s hiding a secret, from herself first of all. The author gives a brief prefatory hint at the opening of the piece, but for the most part, the horror remains in the background, biding its time, with only a casual remark here and there, such as the mention of prior train accidents in Houndbury, including one that Emma really ought to recall but dismisses as inconsequential. “But of all memories, the childhood memories are always the most confused and subjective, so I couldn’t be sure about it. Actually I didn’t even manage to think about the matter, the present was too much for me.”

The situation is portentous, but the author doesn’t rush the story. In this long novella, the details are presented meticulously, building characters and atmosphere layer on layer. Gunnar, for example, leaves the story very early on, yet we already have a precise picture of him, which is reflected in our later image of his adult son. All the time that Emma rejoices in the fulfillment of her motherhood, as she relaxes, takes a lover, when everything seems most promising, we know that the train’s time will come and Emma will have to face her past. Because we’ve known from the beginning that Rupert was right, and all Emma’s denial would be in vain.

“That kind has been taken out of service ages ago,” Rupert continued somewhere out of sight. “Over twenty years ago already. Consequently it’s here sometime before it was taken off. And now and then some come here to turn which haven’t even been made yet. That’s why I couldn’t find the picture of one of them in any books. That’s why watches don’t work here: this place is outside the timetables. They wake up on the rails and they break out of their own timetables and find a suitable blind track and come here, where ever or whenever they are.”

There is something demonic in the mythology of trains. Perhaps it’s the memory of the hellish smoke and cinders, or the sound of the old steam whistles, like the cries of damned souls pulled down to the infernal regions. For Emma, in her determined denial of the inexplicable, the unacceptable, the confrontation comes as a profound shock, releasing her long-suppressed memory. This is recognition:

The smoke crept on the ground to me, and when it touched my bare feet I shuddered with loathing—I felt that in its shelter the many-faced emperor Death himself was hiding; with his bony hand he was stroking my living flesh that fascinated him so much. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, it whispered gently among the engine’s hiss, let’s bear no grudge, dear girl, let’s meet again sometime!

At which point, the meaning of the story’s opening lines is fully revealed, and we know that Emma failed to be sufficiently careful in what she wished for, and now, in both versions of her life, she has lost her son, only in different ways. I think we can have no doubt that, given the impossible chance to go back, to have the moment over again, she would have chosen differently. But even in that event, she still wouldn’t have regained what she lost. And that is the tragedy: that what she loved most was only given to be taken from her.

–RECOMMENDED



Analog, January/February 2015

A double issue starts the year with a series novella by Richard A Lovett. In the shorter fiction, there is a theme of aliens.

“Defender of Worms” by Richard A Lovett

Another in the author’s series [or perhaps serial] about Brittney the self-willed AI implant, who used to reside in an outsystem miner named Floyd. Brittney is now on Earth and implanted into a socialite teenager whose politician mother wants to make sure she doesn’t embarrass her [although why a woman so rich and powerful would resort to a 2nd-hand implant is questionable]. They are now on the run, riding the rails in a boxcar [boxcar?], Memphis to escape her mother and Brittney to evade a group of rogue AIs who want to assimilate her, whether she likes it or not.

What I liked about the first stories in this series was the exogeology, the sparkling wonders of the far and lonely spaces where Floyd liked to prospect. Brittney herself, or the Floyd/Britney team, were of less interest. So finding her trapped on Earth is pretty much a letdown, as the author doesn’t really play up the desert landscape where the fugitives are hiding, and I doubt if it could generate the sensawunda of the earlier pieces. In fact, their adventures there are pretty much a letdown, and, worse, they’re punctuated with excessive reminiscences from Brittney about the wonderful Floyd, whom she misses and wishes she’d never decided to leave.

The thing is, Floyd is old news. The stories in which he and Brittney were a team date from 2007 and 2008. By now, unlike Brittney, I’ve mostly forgotten Floyd and don’t particularly care to remember him. Readers unfamiliar with these earlier pieces are even less likely to care about some old guy out on Neptune. There’s just not enough in these Brittney-on-Earth stories to be enthusiastic about. Even the AI’s defense of the worms [I,e,, lowly humans] doesn’t generate enough in the way of excitement and adventure here, certainly not in comparison with the first episodes.

“Malnutrition” by J T Sharrah

Diplomatic complications. Kadija is an Umabari who has come to the human station Haven on business that we never learn, as he and his translator are shot in a terrorist attack as soon as they arrive. Hardesty, the station’s mayor, is determined to solve the crime, which holds out the threat of deadly retribution from Kadija’s powerful father. The actual shooter turns out to be human, but Hardesty correctly believes that he was only someone’s hired gun. Following the money, however, leads to a more promising suspect, the smuggler Leopold Yunix, who happens to know a great deal more than Hardesty about Umbari ways.

“Did I or did I not accurately predict how Kadija would react? Some of the other space gypsies could advise you, but none of them are in port at the moment and none of them have been dealing with the Umabari as long as I have. Like it or not, I’m your local expert on the Umabari. Maybe you should ask me—for any insights I can offer, for any recommendations I can make, for any guidance I can give.”

A twisty plot that forces the reader to follow from one dead end and red herring to the next, from one character’s point of view to another’s, into a maze of conspiracy, until the mystery is finally sorted out in a satisfactory way. There’s a great deal of complication from alien customs, including the Umabari sense of honor and their revulsion at the process of public consumption. The name Kadija gives me a moment of cognitive dissonance, as it’s very close to that of the prophet Mohammed’s first wife.

“Just Browsing” by Stephen Lombard

Aliens from Epsilon Cygni have landed on Earth in the course of a quest for information. US authorities are eager to extend their stay, to get knowledge in return, but the aliens insist they have to leave after a final visit to a small town library. This happens to be where Kelly and Angie lived together in wedlock until Angie went off to D C to become a minor cheese at the Dept of Homeland Security. Her bosses want her to meet with the aliens at the library, but Angie is afraid of them and volunteers Kelly, instead.

This one employs another of the standard overused story devices: Kelly and Angie’s failed marriage, which the encounter with the aliens fortuitously mends. The problem is, I don’t like Angie and I don’t think she deserves Kelly, whom she’s treated like shit. I don’t find it satisfactory that he rolls over for her. The aliens, on the other hand, are pretty well done without being explicable. I like aliens to keep their mysteries.

“The Great Leap of Shin” by Harry Lien

A Tall Tale from a fantasy China. Imperial engineers of Shin have calculated that a “five thousand year” earthquake is due to strike. In an attempt to prevent vast loss of life, they have calculated that the quake can be artificially induced, thus saving many lives forewarned of the disaster. To accomplish this, they have formed two hundred million men into a Great Wall, ready to jump in unison on the orders of the Eunuch Mu Hai-Chen, in charge of the project.

“The Earthquake of Five Thousand Years
“Is due and coming any day!
“But Men of Shin need not to fear!
“The Earth our orders shall obey!”

But the emissaries of Pearl object to the plan, for they know that their island will be completely inundated by the flood released by the quake. These ambassadors, however, are actually assassins on knife-edged skates, intending to take the eunuch hostage until he orders the project disbanded. What follows is a battle of wills between the eunuch and the leader of the Pearl delegation.

The author has previously employed this conceit of an island built entirely of artificial pearl, on which the inhabitants skate and where the overriding ambition is to become part of the skating opera. Thus the tallness of the tale, which resembles in some ways a wuxia drama based in a fictitious, fantastic history. But the outsized story of the Great Wall of Men, despite absurdity, does reflect real aspects of the actual history in its megalomaniac scope, whereas the Pearl aspect is simply absurd. The two halves of the narrative don’t fit together well.

“Usher” by Jay Werkheiser

First contact. Dave was a chemist until Usher Syndrome began to cause the loss of his sight and hearing, at which he switched to psychology. Now he has been called in on the off chance that he might be able to communicate with a group of aliens who have inexplicably landed in Canada and don’t seem to operate on the usual level of human senses. The aliens take an interest in the emissions from Dave’s cochlear implant, from which he devises a communications system based on magnetics.

A squawking hiss sounded sharply in his implant. “Briz.”

Dave held the tablet in front of his eyes and scanned the snowfield until he found a squat gray disk with too many legs. BLACKBODY CURVE 240 K.

There’s some Hard SF in this premise, but the author, to provide plot tension, introduces the usual governmental and military fatheads to cause trouble and come between Dave and communication with the aliens they want to communicate with.

“Ulenge Prime” by Chuck Rothman

Ulenge is a megalomaniac dictator of a future Namibia who decides to build a space station as a monument to his glory.

[His wife Ifana] had heard the words whispered in the years since then. The deaths. The corruption. The conquest. The madness of the emperor to create a second moon in the sky, with his visage smiling down on Earth.

As often happens when dictators overreach, Ulenge is overthrown by a revolution and makes his escape, taking Ifana. On the way, they discuss his motives, and hers, for staying with him.

The story, such as it is, belongs to Ifana, her experience of living with a self-admitted monster. But it’s the monster who is the potentially more interesting character, and we seem to be expected to take his word at face value when he discusses his motivations, because we never really come to know the character in any way. As for the setting, it’s not Namibia-specific; any generic place, any generic dictator would do.

“Long Way Gone” by David L Clements

Mark decided to have himself copied and beamed into a nano-built body in a nano-built colony on an alien world. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until he got there and found that Anne hadn’t followed him there. Mark proceeds to mope and cut himself, making scars to differentiate himself from his original self on Earth. Then he meets another woman who holds out the promise of a new life on this new world.

Mark is a weak, self-pitying character for whom I have no sympathy, and his move into the forest is a facile solution to his problems. Aside from which, the premise is quite unoriginal.

Orion, Rising” by Arlan Andrews, Sr

A bunch of olde phartes gather at a bar to watch the latest moon landing and gripe about how much better things were done in their day. A twist at the end of this short-short doesn’t make it much less dull.

“The Yoni Sutra” by Priya Chand

Life in the new feminist Delhi, where women now have implanted chips that zap any unrelated man who dares touch them. This seems largely like wishful thinking, a social solution to a prevailing misogynist rape culture, but the author suggests there may be some drawbacks. Shalini and Nilam’s marriage was arranged, and both are ignorant about the facts of sex, ignorant both about contraception and their own true desires. When readers see her remark that of course no woman needs to worry about unwanted touches from men in her own family, we know that this is dangerously naïve.

“Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg” by Jerry Oltion

Tony is leaving an overheated Earth and moving up to the space habitat.

Calling it a refuge was too close to the truth. Too close to admitting that the Earth was doomed, largely through the actions of the very people who were now taking up residence over the heads of the unfortunate billions left on the ground to die.

Unlike the rich and entitled on the shuttle with him, however, Tony is there to work, and he soon learns the size of the gulf separating the staff from the residents they call “piggies” for their conspicuous consumption. He also learns that not everyone is willing to settle for the status quo.

This is a piece about wealth inequality as well as a call to revolution, in a vulnerable environment where the targets are accessibly concentrated. I must say, however, that that author is exaggerating the circumstances past the point of credibility, and whatever the revolutionaries do, there will still be plenty of piggies on Earth, and their actions will neither save the planet nor the people on it. Their main satisfaction will have to be vengeance.

I must also add that despite the story’s title, it wasn’t class disparity that caused the Titanic to hit the iceberg, but it contributed to the high loss of life.

“Fool’s Errand” by Judith Tarr

One of the stasis tanks on the cargo ship is defective, so cargo officer Marina finds herself with a live horse on her hands, which isn’t likely to survive unsecured during transition through jumpspace. Fortunately, Marina is one of those horse-crazy people, and determined to save the animal. I have to think that the fool isn’t the person who ships live horses in stasis tanks designed expressly for that purpose, but the person who accepts the shipment in a tank known to be defective. If I were Nasir, I’d be seriously pissed and talking lawsuit.

“Samsara and Ice” by Andy Dudak

An interesting combination of military SF and myth. A far-future war has trapped two soldiers in a static eternal duel. Omni is bound by disciplinary conditioning; his opponent is trapped in an eternal cycle of reincarnation. Omni has lived objective centuries in stasis sleep, awakening only in time for the enemy to rematerialize; for the enemy, it has only been twenty-nine seconds. But there is no in end sight for either.

Two minutes left. He runs a finger along the stock, counting the notches. Three hundred and fifty one—that is how many times he’s killed the Dying God. He pans up and zeroes in on a neighboring ridge, on a table of melted, blackened rock: the altar.

For the diminutive inhabitants of the world where they carry on this duel, it has taken on the sense of a divine sacrifice: every three years, in their terms, the Sleeping God awakes and sacrifices the Dying God in a burst of godly power. Then it all changes when the Dying God puts down his weapon and asks to surrender.

A fascinatingly Sisyphean scenario, two once-ordinary men caught in a cycle of damnation from which there is no escape. Yet they are not entirely unfree to act, within the limits set for them.

–RECOMMENDED

“Markduk’s Folly” by Sean Vivier

An alien astronomer has a brilliant insight about the formation of a solar system that he and his colleagues are examining, but in doing so he trespasses against social norms. The author gives us clear hints that the system in question is our own, but no real information to tell us where Marduk and his fellow astronomers are, and what their mission is. Wherever it is, the gravity is crushingly strong; perhaps they are looking for a new world to settle, a place where they could live more easily. Perhaps their intentions or friendly, or perhaps they are bent on conquest. At any event, the consequences of Marduk’s discovery remain unknown at the end of this very short piece. But the lesson is clear: it doesn’t take the threat of the stake to suppress a Galileo.

“Unmother” by Alex Wilson

Here we have microscopic aliens who have invaded an Earthly host’s brain, an organism with which they are not sufficiently familiar. They are benevolent parasites, but their unfamiliarity causes them to make errors potentially harmful to their host. Thus they aren’t sure how to deal with a native parasite who has entered the brain. Our narrator is an organism damaged in such a way that makes her more autonomous than her sisters but excluded from communication with the mother, from whom all instructions originate – an “unmother”. Mother rejects her information. But if nothing is done, their host will die.

Careful to disturb neither host nor parasite, I hover close to a contact point where translucent tendril meets defenseless neuron. Our Brother is muscular and mature. Indeed, his tendril tip has not grown so much as swollen since last I studied this particular appendage.

The invented organisms here are interesting, based generally on social insects but with original features. I do wonder how they have the term “brother” in their language, as they seem to reproduce asexually. The terrestrial parasite is probably identifiable from the clues left by the author, but I admit I haven’t explored these sufficiently. Unfortunately, the copyediting failures here are extreme: “brother” and “sister” capitalized randomly, and “larvae” used in the singular. Someone isn’t paying attention.



Asimov’s, January 2015

Featuring another installment in Allen M Steele’s Arkwright serial. Of the shorter pieces, I like the Rucker/Laidlaw and the Rowe, but the rest are pretty inconsequential.

“Watergirl” by Rudy Rucker and Marc Laidlaw

Fun with the stoner/surfer dudes Del and Zep, and their quantum surfboards. The boys have washed ashore in Hawaii, where they eke out a rough existence while waiting for the waves. Until Zep meets a millionaire inventor whose device controls the waves – although not as well as the boys’ boards.

“Bromelian’s into real-world science now. He designed that new Wave Tamer water park in Honolulu—where goobs slide on slosh all day long? And now Joe’s kicking his act to an awesomer notch. Waves with minds, dude. Bromelian’s learned how to talk to them. And how to goad them into transcendence. Thanks to quantum aether.” A tsunami of manic Zep enthusiasm was building.

Zep is also building a plot against Bromelian’s chainsaw-toting, herbicide-spraying gardener, whom he suspects in the recent death of his girlfriend.

If this were less crazy fun, readers might consider it horror, but it’s too hard to take seriously for scare value. We might also start to think that Del and Zep are really getting too old for this scene. Del is the narrator but Zep is the character who gets the women and drives the action, as his buddy largely watches on. The real attraction, though, is the lively language that keeps the story sliding on a wave of effervescence.

“The Unveiling” by Christopher Rowe

On the world Castellon, where the term “pollution” is prohibited, Tayne is supervisor of a work crew tasked to scrub the atmospheric sludge from the statues of former rulers and soldiers, in preparation for a ceremony unveiling of a new figure. Once, he had hopes for change, but by now they have died, leaving nothing but toil.

“It’s overtime, anyway,” he told each of his crew members in turn when he reached them. For one or two, this meant a call over the vox to the same sort of communal hall phone that word had come to him by. For most of them, though, it meant rousting them out in person from the bunkhouses along the river, enduring the curses of a dozen or a hundred others housed in the warehouse-like barracks. Tayne made it a point to learn the favored bunks of all his workers for days just like this, when he had to pick his way through the dark and dank to find them and tell them of a change in the schedule.

Well-done image of a political dystopia and a portrait of a revolutionary hero who knows when the moment of opportunity has unexpectedly come.

“Ninety-five Percent Safe” by Caroline M Yoachim

On a dystopian, overcrowded Earth, Nicole’s family is one of the lucky ones, able to afford private housing, even if they are constantly reassigned to smaller quarters. Nicole wants to move to the new colony, just as her friend Grant’s family has done, but her mother refuses to consider the possibility because there is a five percent chance of being lost in the wormhole. Nicole finally takes matters into her own hands.

An unusually tragic ending for a YA, the usual lesson learned at too great a cost. I like the term “defaults” for the unprivileged class.

“Candy from Strangers” by Jay O’Connell

A creepy love story. Morgan, himself a failed suicide, now preys on the desperate, people poised to jump in front of a train. He offers them a quicker way out, counting that they won’t take it. But his most recent target, a woman named Ariel, is different.

Morgan’s scam is awfully lucrative, given the scope of his resources. Not sure I buy it.

“Butterflies” by Peter Wood

Mad scientists tinkering with radiation to produce monster insects. Full of clichés. And I don’t believe that any entomologist would call butterflies “bugs”.

“Songs in the Key of You” by Sarah Pinsker

A high school story. The current fad is a wrist speaker that broadcasts peoples’ individual musical themes whenever they enter a room. Aisha is a talented songwriter, but also the only person who can’t afford the bracelet, making her the mockery of the Mean Girls. As is usual, virtue wins out. It’s pretty off-putting when the Mean Girls broadcast a recording of their assault on Aisha and suffer no consequences; clearly, anti-bullying hasn’t taken on in this otherwise standard future.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Russell Letson reviews Ann Leckie

Sometimes I wonder whether there are hidden clockworks in the SF metagenre, governing the recirculation and regeneration of various tropes, traditions, memes, and subtypes. Or maybe it’s just a chaotic system that every so often kicks up a clump of mutually resonating stories. Whatever the mechanism, I have noticed a relatively recent burst of novels that remix the components of the future-soldier story in compelling and sometimes unexpected ways, from the likes of James S.A. Corey, Linda Nagata, and Ann Leckie. Or maybe such books are always around and I’m just selecting the ones that catch my attention and get added to my perhaps-idiosyncratic list of personal-favorite producers of ‘‘military’’ (scare quotes deliberate) SF: Walter Jon Williams, Karen Traviss, Scott Westerfeld, and Eleanor Arnason, right back to Joe Haldeman and Old Man Heinlein himself.

Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, created instant buzz in the field and then took a thoroughly deserved fistful of big awards, so I picked up its sequel with a mixture of hope and anxiety: please let this second act not disappoint. To my delight, Ancillary Sword is an even stronger book, though it takes an interestingly different path than the one that made Justice a bit of a magical mystery tour de force. The first novel seemed determined to press ahead on all fronts of alienness and alienation: gender identity, distributed (or artificial) personhood, exotic cultures, ancient-future-history, and a deep and complicated backstory. Ancillary Sword slows things down considerably, as though, having established six impossibly defamiliarizing things before breakfast, Leckie could kick back and unfold some of the implications of her densely-imagined world.

For the handful of readers who have not yet read Ancillary Justice, a brief orientation. (The rest of you just text among yourselves or check your e-mail.) The setting is a now-ancient human interstellar polity dominated by the relentlessly, violently expansionist civilization of the Radchaai. The protagonist and narrator is the only surviving unit of what was once an entire company of ancillaries, brain-burned soldiers animated by the AI mind that also operated a military starship. Reduced to a single body and nervous system, with memories of what it felt like to be a warship and a small army, the individual calling herself Breq sets off to confront the party responsible for her near-destruction: Anaander Mianaai, the many-bodied, single-personality’d absolute ruler of the Radch.

The most striking differences between the books are setting and scale. Instead of sending Breq off across multiple planetscapes and alternating present-action scenes with decades (and eventually centuries) of back-story, Ancillary Sword limits itself mostly to a single orbital station and one patch of the planet it governs. The focus is on smaller-scale social and interpersonal dynamics that, along the way, also allow consideration of what it means to be a Roman-style empire and an eater of cultures. As in Justice, several genres converge in the story: space opera, palace intrigue, and a bit of murder-mystery (including a library scene and confrontation with the perpetrator), but the dominant atmosphere is of the military-flavored social novel, with relationships cautiously established, authority and responsibility tactfully enforced, and social routines and rules meticulously followed or deliberately violated. The ‘‘intrigue of manners’’ mode that terminated the previous book dominates the whole of this one. This is the milieu of Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire sequence, C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords, and parts of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic-navy novels, and, as in them, the civilized interplay of custom and tradition and decorum dances over the constant possibility of violence and destruction.

Following the open break between contending factions of Anaander Mianaai’s distributed self, Breq has been made a fleet captain – roughly a commodore – and been dispatched to ensure the safety of the Athoek system and its attendant orbital station, where understanding of the seriousness of the intrapersonal civil war has not yet reached. And as serious as security issues are, Breq finds more than the Athoeki to worry about. Lieutenant Seivarden, the time-stranded officer she rescued and rehabilitated in Justice, has become an able second-in-command, but now there is another damaged subordinate to look after: the 17-year-old ‘‘baby lieutenant’’ Tisarwat, who is not what she appears to be and who needs reconstruction as badly as Seivarden did. Nor is she the only stray, orphan, bully, or victim, that Breq will encounter. There is a reeducated former plantation worker whose conditioning prevents her from expressing her anger directly; the spoiled, sadistic daughter of a very influential tea-grower; the bereaved sister of an officer from Breq’s previous life; and a bitterly furious indentured worker and her vulnerable younger sibling. Then there are problems and puzzles with local governance and culture; tensions within the station’s multicultural population; questions of the loyalties of military and civil authorities; possible corruption and abuses in the local economy and tea-plantation system; and eventually an attempt on Breq’s life.

Breq’s implant-enabled mental connections to her Ship, the Station AI, and some of her implant-equipped human (not ancillary) soldiers give her an edge as an investigator – she is able to eavesdrop on subordinates and observe their unconscious reactions, monitor the progress of Tisarwat, and consult with the Ship and Station AIs. They also allow her first-person viewpoint to roam in ways useful to a narrative – no need to report off-stage events when Breq can see many of them in real time. Perhaps most important, her unique version of personhood (even ancient, many-bodied Anaander was never an AI starship) makes for an unusual kind and degree of understanding and empathy. Breq acknowledges that she is not human, but neither is she incapable of feeling anger, pain, loss, loneliness, and love: her understanding encompasses so much, and her own emotional life echoes so much of what is fully and merely human that she represents a more-than-human superset.

Surrounding Breq’s close-up interactions are the more purely science-fictional attractions of this universe. Radchaai notions of gender identity and gender markers remain a thematic concern, though now proper (Radchaai) language is less foregrounded – all pronouns are feminine, all parents are mothers, and all children are daughters, with little comment or explanation. Now the Radchaai take on gender gets shown from another angle, associated with their cultural arrogance. The Atheoki Genetalia Festival (which involves festooning walls with imitation ‘‘tiny penises’’ in bright colors) is explained by a conventional officer as part of the locals’ not-very-civilized (for Radchaai values of ‘‘civilized’’) practice of ‘‘mak[ing] a division between people with penises and people without’’:

When we first arrived in the system they surrendered right away. Their ruler lost her mind. She thought Radchaai didn’t have penises, and since everyone would have to become Radchaai, she ordered all the people in the system with penises to cut them off. But the Athoeki had no intention of cutting anything off, so they made models instead and piled them up in front of the ruler to keep her happy until she could be arrested and given help. So now, on the anniversary, sir, all the children dedicate their [store-bought pretend] penises to their god.

Then there is the strange, fraught relationship to the extremely potent, alien Presger, which are to humankind ‘‘not enemies so much as predators.’’ We are reminded of their near-magical technology (the unstoppable, undetectable gun that Breq possesses) and get a glimpse of their strangeness in the form of one of their human translators, apparently bred and/or adapted for the job. Her appearance and comportment are distinctly non-Radchaai, and though her perceptions are uncannily quick and sharp, her conversation suggests that her mentality is not human by the standards of any human society:

And they didn’t say anything about this. You’d think they might have, they said lots of other things. Sit up straight, Dlique. Don’t dismember your sister, Dlique, it isn’t nice. Internal organs belong inside your body, Dlique.’’ She scowled a moment, as though that last one particularly rankled.

When Breq asks if she ate many people when growing up, she replies, ‘‘No one I wasn’t supposed to!’’ One hopes to encounter Dlique’s colleagues in later volumes, though her employers might be too scary to contemplate.
The climax, of course, involves interactions that are anything but intimate or polite, and it reveals the corruption that Breq has suspected all along, and a larger possible complication in the empire-wide crisis. It also resolves some of the smaller-scale matters concerning subordinates and social and ethical conflicts in ways that make this book feel self-contained and complete, and not just a mid-series pause. As much as I enjoy space operatics, mind-blowing special effects, and extended unwind-the-conspiracy stories, what I am enjoying most here are the textures of this world and the exploration of social relationships that remain recognizable even in an exotic, imaginary environment. These are the strengths of the novel, which are distinct from those of the tale, the romance, the epic, or the thrill-ride, and it is a great pleasure to see all of them bundled into one package.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Mike and Rachel Grinti

Husband-and-wife writing teams are pretty darn rare, but not unknown. The most famous in our genre is, of course, that of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, who were a true creative dyad. A famous anecdote related how one would step away from the typewriter in mid-sentence, and the other would sit down in the seat and take over seamlessly. I am unsure whether Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett ever worked together on a story. Catherine and Sprague de Camp brought out some fiction under a joint byline, as did Poul and Karen Anderson. And recently Mike Carey might have performed an unprecedented feat by putting out The Steel Seraglio, co-written with wife Linda Carey and daughter Louise Carey!

Today’s book presents another such dynamic dictionary-wielding duo, Rachel and Mike Grinti. I’m pleased to report that their yoked voices are truly harmonious and organic. They have produced a very amiable, engaging, small-scale fantasy, praiseworthy both for its entertaining qualities and its “done in one” remit. Although not technically a YA, the book has an overall texture and tone akin to the best of Andre Norton, a writer whom many adult readers certainly and justifiably esteem. Toss in a smidgen of Le Guin and a dash of Robert E. Howard, and you have a unique and flavorful combination.

The book’s setting is refreshingly different, an archipelago nation known as the Five-and-One Islands. Our baseline Polynesia of historical familiarity has been underutilized as a template in fantasy fiction, and this world the Grintis conjure—of beaches and sarongs, hot sun and magical ships built of living coral—is a nice change from the quasi-European frigid forests of so many Tolkienesque sagas.

The young, unblooded and somewhat hesitant King Azi is making a mandated circuit of his realm looking for a bride. He chances to fall for Jala, a feisty gal his own age and of the Bardo tribe. (There are five contentious tribes that work reluctantly together to make up the small empire.) After a swift but vivid courtship, they are married, and Jala—whose viewpoint channels the action, save for brief and generally graceful jumps to Azi’s consciousness, when needed—is off to the royal court. There, she encounters ancient lines of rivalry, but proves herself somewhat Machiavellian and take-charge as well.

But the intra-island disputes quickly recede into the background, as the mainland empire of the Hashon declare magical war on the nesiotes. The Five-and-One crowd keep their economy robust by raiding the mainland, and on a recent trip they inadvertently came into illicit possession of the most sacred book of the Hashons, the Anka. (Ironically so, for the islanders do not even know how to read it, or even possess their own literacy, relying instead on an oral transmission of their culture.) Now the Hashons will stop at nothing to regain their religious icon. And it seems that only Jala can end the war, by immense sacrifice.

The Grintis have a way of dividing their story up into segments that transition to something different just when the reader is convinced he has sussed out the direction of the book. The first fifty pages or so, devoted to affairs of the heart, make the book seem initially like a fantasy romance. Then when the scene shifts to the court, we expect to get a tale exclusively of royal intrigue. But then war breaks out, and we are in the zone of martial prowess and contending polities. Finally, when Jala embarks on a mission to the mainland—to Constant City, a harsh domain of weird living Masks that form a quasi-technology—we get a tale of culture clash and demiurgic dominance. Then, to top it all off, the Grintis successfully knot all four threads together by the end.

The characterization here is bright and solid. Jala, of course, achieves the most roundedness and depth. But Azi is close behind. The subsidiary cast is all sharp-edged and believable, from Jala’s over-ambitious father, to Azi’s suspicious advisor, Lord Inas, to a self-serving wizard named Askel. Particularly resonant is the portrait of Jala’s best friend, Marjani, who loves Jala along certain vectors that can never be satisfied, and along others that are stronger and nobler than mere lust.

Mike and Rachel Grinti construct a colorful and believable culture twice over, once for the islanders (whose legendary backstory is well fleshed out also) and once for the Hashon, the latter of whom are truly creepy and alien. All the dialogue is nicely wrought and to the point, useful for plot advancement, revelatory of character, and indicative of various contrasting worldviews. Their prose is unobtrusively rock-solid, though perhaps with a little less poetry and awesomeness and heart-sickness than some of the more magical and emotional moments might benefit from. Judged overall, this jointly composed novel reveals a crackerjack team at work, gifting us with a surprising and riveting vest-pocket fantasy that does not need sprawl and excess to succeed.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

“The Revolution Will Be Televised”:
A Review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

by Gary Westfahl

Most people watch films because they want to be entertained, and they read reviews in order to learn whether a new movie is entertaining. In the case of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, one can quickly address those individuals’ concerns: yes, it is a bit slow-moving at times, as the screenwriters are contriving to stretch the plot of one popular novel to generate two popular films, but the film otherwise qualifies as a well-crafted, involving adventure that will seem well worth the price of admission. Yet a few unfortunate individuals feel compelled to watch films in order to determine what makes them interesting, and with no strong desire to be diverted by the spectacle of attractive, likable young people triumphing over despicable adversaries, I have been studying the films of the unfolding Hunger Games saga as a revealingly successful effort to reflect the attitudes and opinions of the teenagers and young adults in their target audience. And, in a manner that is both fascinating and annoying, this new film offers additional insights into the minds of America’s future leaders.

To summarize the lessons so far learned: The Hunger Games (2012) (review here) suggested that today’s young people see themselves as the victimized residents of a competitive, impoverished world governed by cruel and privileged adults. Its sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (review here) further indicated that they are counting on a few enlightened adults to come to their rescue while they passively wait for their lives to be improved. Yet the second film makes another point which comes to the forefront in this third film: the young people still have an important role to play, since only they can inspire those adults to take action. In other words, the young are important figures in their society not because of anything they have done, or might do, but simply because of what they are, which is absolutely wonderful.

Thus, the central question in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is this: as a growing army of rebels struggles to overthrow the corrupt, evil government of Panem, they will succeed if and only if the virtuous Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), rescued from the second Hunger Games and relocated to the rebel stronghold in District Thirteen, steps forward to serve as their spokesperson; they will fail if the government’s young advocate, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), proves to be more persuasive. To realize how bizarre this scenario is, imagine an alternate history of the 2012 presidential campaign in which Barack Obama is confident of victory because he is broadcasting daily messages of support from Justin Bieber; as his countermove, Mitt Romney is relying upon the daily eloquence of Selena Gomez; and political commentators are focusing all of their attention on the competing statements from these charismatic teenagers, sure that they will prove to be the decisive factors in determining which candidate succeeds. But in the real world, as the film does not wish to acknowledge, adults usually are best persuaded by other adults and have no particular respect for, or interest in, the opinions of their children.

Now, it is true that, at times, very young people can emerge, due to their unusual experiences, as inspirational figures in fighting for important causes; one might mention, for example, Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakastani woman who was almost killed because of her strong desire to receive an education and later became an advocate for women’s rights in her country. Katniss might be regarded as her fictional counterpart, a young woman who triumphed over adversity and thus earned the admiration and attention of her fellow citizens. Yet people are not continuing to fight for human rights in south Asia solely because of the continuing efforts of Malala Yousafzai, and they are not going to forever abandon their efforts if she ever decides to withdraw from public view. Malala Yousafzai, in other words, did not become the most important person in her country; yet in this film, this is precisely what Katniss Everdeen has become.

All right, one might say, the film indicates that contemporary youth have an exaggerated sense of their own importance to accompany an exaggerated perception that they are being oppressed by adults , themes which also emerged in another recent film, The Maze Runner (review here). Yet in one significant respect, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 diverges from the novel to make life easier for its young protagonists, mitigating Collins’s general emphasis on unsympathetic adults. In the novel, District Thirteen has a government that, in some respects, seems as dictatorial and controlling as Panem’s Capitol: every citizen must adhere to a strict daily schedule and innumerable rules; Katniss faces potential punishment because she disobeyed orders when she shot down a hovercraft; the rebel leader, President Alma Coin, seems heartless and distant; people receive only limited amounts of food and regularly remain hungry; and the team members that helped Cinna prepare Katniss’s appearance for the Hunger Games, brought to District Thirteen to handle the same task for rebel broadcasts, are cruelly tortured for stealing trivial amounts of food. The film, however, offers a different picture of District Thirteen: people’s lives do not appear to be overly regimented, and strict rules are only mentioned in passing; Katniss’s attack provokes no complaints or concerns; Julianne Moore’s President Coin, while forbidding at first, gradually seems more warm and likable; a glimpse at Katniss’s plate at one meal indicates that residents are getting reasonably generous portions; and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who takes on the role of Cinna’s team in the film, faces no punishment, is told she is free to leave at any time, and must be gently persuaded by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to assist Katniss. In the novels, then, Katniss keeps moving from one set of dictatorial adult overseers to another, while the film’s Katniss, it appears, has finally found a group of nice adults to provide guidance, as exemplified by Hoffman’s relentlessly pleasant Plutarch and other authority figures who are always polite and respectful to Katniss.

It is easy to explain why these changes were made: as noted elsewhere, Hollywood filmmakers despise ambiguity and hence would recoil from a drama involving a character forced to choose between a severely oppressive government and more mildly oppressive rebels; rather, they would prefer to offer a sharp contrast between a thoroughly evil government and thoroughly admirable rebels. This would also suggest, provocatively, that the final film in the series is not going to employ the surprise conclusion of Collins’s novel, on the grounds that it would be far too disturbing for a mass audience. And while that conclusion was perfectly in keeping with Collins’s general theme that adults are not to be trusted, the filmmakers may wish to be less emphatic in conveying that message because, hey, adults buy tickets too.

Filmmakers also resist the notion that audiences can have emotional responses to groups of people, another issue I have raised before, so this film seeks to recast the novel’s story of a mass uprising against a totalitarian government as a personal conflict between the good Katniss and the evil President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). This is best illustrated by the film’s revised version of how Peeta was rescued from the Capitol. In the novel, Katniss had nothing to do with the rescue mission, which involved Gale Hawthorne and other rebels sneaking into the Capitol and overcoming some anonymous guards. In the film, as the Capitol seems poised to cut off communication between District Thirteen and Gale (Liam Helmsworth) and the other rescuers, an observing Katniss suggests that they could disrupt the effort if she broadcast a personal message to Snow; the two then engage in a politely combative conversation. A contrived and meaningless confrontation between Katniss and Snow is thus overlaid upon the now-secondary drama of the heroic rescue attempt. (Other scenes have been added showing Snow reacting to events and displaying his sinister personality, but these also may have been inserted merely to kill some time, as the filmmakers faced the challenge of transforming one hour of plot into two hours of film.) The only novelty in the film’s melodramatic structure is that, building upon the name Snow, white is the film’s color of evil – exemplified by Snow’s white beard, his symbolic use of white roses, the white marble covering his palace walls, and the white uniforms of Panem’s vicious Peacekeepers – while the good guys wear black – Katniss’s stylish black outfit and the dark uniforms of District Thirteen’s residents.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 has other messages to convey about both young people and older adults. Certainly, one of its themes is the overwhelming importance of television as a means of not only influencing public opinion but actually winning a war; in addition to the coup of enlisting Katniss as their figurehead, the rebels are newly optimistic because the brilliant Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) has figured out how to broadcast television messages to Panem’s other districts and, at times, to the Capitol itself. But only a certain sort of television, it emerges, will prove persuasive. Initially, the media expert Plutarch decides to cast Katniss in a scripted commercial (termed a propaganda film or “propo”), having her pose on a simulated battlefield and shout inspiring slogans. But Katniss is not a talented actress, and her former mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), watching the ineffectual message, comments, “that is how a revolution dies.” Instead, Haymitch suggests, the rebels need to film Katniss while she is involved in real situations, as only her authentic actions and reactions will prove persuasive. Accordingly, Coin reluctantly agrees to send her into the battlefield, where she can be filmed shooting down an enemy hovercraft with an explosive arrow and responding angrily to the bombing of a hospital. To put it another way, the rebels’ most effective weapon is not scripted television, but reality television.

So it is that the first episode of the rebels’ new reality show, Keeping Up with Katniss, proves a rousing success, as her spontaneous message to Snow – “If we burn, you burn with us!” – provides the edited footage with a rousing conclusion. But an effort to film another episode doesn’t work out as well because of one problem with reality television: the reality one wishes to show may not match the reality on display. Thus, after the rebels survive a government attack, Coin asks Katniss to broadcast a defiant celebration of their survival, and under ordinary circumstances, she would have been in the mood to do so. But she is so worried about Peeta’s survival that she can talk about nothing else, forcing her director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) to turn off the camera. More broadly, though she occasionally offers a strong performance, Katniss generally does not seem comfortable in front of the camera, and this arouses interest, since one generally imagines the young people in her audience, having grown up starring in their friends’ smartphone videos, would have no qualms about constantly being filmed. Yet like those pioneers of reality television, the Osbournes, some individuals may simply grow tired of being followed around by cameras, forcing producers to keep searching for new reality stars. Indeed, in the film, Cressida does recruit a replacement – another popular veteran of the Hunger Games, Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) – to deliver the message that Katniss could not.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 also has a point to make about the nature of contemporary war. Wars were traditionally fought primarily by soldiers, who wielded guns and other weapons to kill enemy soldiers; today, in many cases, wars primarily involve pilots dropping devastating bombs on enemy territory. True, in the film, there are brief scenes of Peacekeepers firing machine guns at rebels, and rebels tackling Peacekeepers, but the major way that Panem deals with unruly citizens is carpet-bombing their homes, as both District Twelve and the surface of District Thirteen are reduced to mounds of gray rubble. And hand-held bombs are the rebels’ most effective weapon, as these are used to kill some Peacekeepers and to destroy the dam that supplies the Capitol with electric power. Guns – and in Katniss’s case, explosive arrows – are most usefully employed to shoot down the hovercraft that drop bombs, though we are told that District Thirteen has anti-aircraft missiles as well. With all of this bombing going on, it is odd that the film fails to follow the novel in reporting that both Panem and the rebels have long possessed nuclear weapons that, like the United States and Russia, they have never deployed for fear of starting a nuclear war that would devastate both sides. Yet, as both real events and the film’s events illustrate, atomic bombs may no longer be necessary, as today’s conventional bombs can obliterate entire cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki just as efficiently as Fat Man and Little Boy.

As a longtime cat owner, I cannot resist noting that this film incorporates a five-minute celebration of cats: revisiting her family home in District Twelve, Katniss is inspired to pick up Buttercup, the cat belonging to her sister Prim (Willow Shields), and bring her back to District Thirteen; knowing that Prim loves the animal, Katniss successfully demands that she be allowed to keep her; during Panem’s attack, Prim endangers her own life by rushing back to retrieve Buttercup because, she says, she “couldn’t live with myself” if she didn’t; and Katniss gains a new understanding of her enemy’s tactics by watching Buttercup haplessly chase after the light cast by a moving flashlight. One can further speculate that Prim resolves to become a doctor because her sense of altruism was bolstered by cat ownership (since cats demand affection even if they do not always provide it). In contrast, the perpetually unhappy and unfulfilled Katniss seems suited only for a career as a hunter or soldier; perhaps Katniss’s real problem is that she is catless. (True, Katniss arguably shows that she is learning to love animals when, while hunting with Gale, she declines to kill a placid deer which has developed no fear of hunters; but this apparent change of heart could also be attributed to political correctness, as filmmakers did not want to offend the growing numbers of people who oppose all forms of hunting by depicting their heroine as a hunter.)

Finally, one does not need to speculate about whether this film will generate a sequel, since its sequel has already been completed and scheduled for release on November 20, 2015 to deprive me of two more days of leisure. The open questions are whether Collins will decide to write another Katniss novel, or sanction another film featuring the character, and whether Jennifer Lawrence will ever want to play this character again. Frankly, I would advise Lawrence to abandon her morose-victim persona and seek more diverse roles, while Collins should devise some imaginative new vehicle to demonstrate that adults are awful and teenagers are terrific. Or, they both might simply relax on their piles of money and let other creative talents profit from this perpetually popular message.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available in early 2015.


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