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“This Is Going to Be a Lot of Fun”: A Review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

by Gary Westfahl

For the most part, I found Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to be an enjoyable space adventure, deploying consistently dazzling visuals in support of an involving story that never becomes entirely predictable. And while serious issues are intermittently raised, the film is refreshingly unpretentious, in contrast to other recent films, as the director’s primary aim was clearly to entertain audiences, not to enlighten or inspire them with portentous bromides. Its aim, then, is well conveyed by Valerian’s statement upon reaching space station Alpha, “This is going to be a lot of fun.” Appealingly childlike – though not childish – the film invites comparison to other colorful classics like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the film that it most visibly seeks to emulate, the original Star Wars (1977).

In one interesting respect, however, Besson defies the pattern set by George Lucas, since the first line of his space epic – “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” – defiantly refuses to connect its story’s events to any aspects of Earth’s history. Yet this film’s opening sequence painstakingly establishes its setting as an outgrowth of humanity’s past and anticipated future achievements in space travel: we first observe actual footage of the 1975 meeting of American and Soviet astronauts during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, followed by a series of future meetings on Earth-orbiting space stations, first involving several groups of people from different nations (in 2020 and 2031), then involving humans, exotic aliens, and robots (in 2150). At this point, we are told that the now-enormous Alpha has become a menace to Earth, so it is dispatched on a long interstellar journey to the “Magellan Current” and becomes, 400 years later, the bustling home of innumerable alien species inhabiting four separate environments. Besson insists, in other words, that his extravagant vision actually represents one possible future for the human race – and also explains some seemingly anachronistic features of his world, like the “Ivy League education” of Valerian’s partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) and use of the familiar three-pronged symbol to warn of radioactivity. Of course, no “Magellan Current” exists; we are told that the length of the station’s journey was “700 million miles,” which would leave it within the solar system, though it is obviously supposed to be many light years from Earth; and one struggles to imagine how to propel a city-sized object so that it would reach such a distance in 400 years. But like other science fiction filmmakers, Besson employed no scientific advisors to address these practical issues, and while they have no impact on the overall quality of the film, these lapses do undermine an apparently sincere effort to make his story seem scientifically plausible.

Knowingly or not, Besson is also joining a long tradition of science fiction stories about space stations, which I have explored in two books. The name of his station, Alpha, has been employed in numerous science fiction stories (most prominently in Ben Bova’s Kinsman series), and there are also several stories about transforming space stations into traveling spaceships (though the usual motive is escaping the monotony of endlessly orbiting Earth, not saving the planet from an impending catastrophe). But Besson most aligns himself with earlier science fiction because of his realization, as I said in Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (1996), that “A space station would be an ideal place for humans and aliens to meet – neutral ground, as it were,” and an environment “where traditional enemies can meet without animosity or hostility” – concepts most prominently aired in the television series Babylon 5 (1994-1999). Given that both people and posited aliens are deeply tied to the places where they live, and will always have an advantage in their home environment, a space station might indeed represent the only place where disparate individuals could interact as equals, as already observed in the cooperative efforts of many nations to construct and staff the International Space Station. And Besson repeatedly emphasizes that tremendous progress has occurred because the disparate species inhabiting Alpha have been able to share their knowledge and ideas. Despite its fanciful story, then, Valerian has embedded in it the real-world argument that we need to maintain and eventually replace the ISS as a mechanism for improving international relations and achieving scientific advances.

To underline these points, Besson has assembled a reasonably diverse cast, and no one seems to dislike, or discriminate against, the various odd-looking aliens that are constantly in view; prejudice is displayed solely by one alien race that excludes other beings from their enclave with guards and a sign reading “No Forigners Allowed” (the spelling error suggesting that bigots aren’t too bright). If one ethnic group is slightly favored, it is the Chinese, reflecting how important they have become to a film’s financial success. Thus, the first fictional group of greeted space visitors is Chinese; one briefly glimpses a Chinese flag in space station Alpha; one assistant to General Okto-Bar (Sam Spruell), an unnamed female sergeant, is portrayed by a French-British actress of Asian descent, Claire Tran; and a noted Chinese singer who has had several hits, Kris Wu, is cast as Sergeant Neva, Okto-Bar’s chief aide. (Could this film’s “Exo-Space” be a reference to Wu’s old band, EXO?) And Neva, who originally functions as a spear carrier, actually emerges as a major hero in the final scenes, inasmuch as his actions, not Valerian’s, ultimately save the day.

Since my familiarity with Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’s graphic novel series “Valerian and Laureline” is limited to the four stories included in the recently published Valerian: The Complete Collection Volume 1 (2016), it is possible that space station Alpha, and other aspects of Besson’s story, first appeared in one of their stories; and Besson does include one of the series’ recurring aliens, three greedy but informative Shingouz. I suspect, though, that this film’s plot is largely original, though vaguely inspired by the similarly titled “The Empire of a Thousand Planets” (1971). Both stories begin with Valerian and Laureline assigned to surreptitiously visit a planet with a large marketplace, though their mission here is not to investigate the planet, but rather to obtain a valuable object. And the appearance of Christin and Mézières’s planet Syrte – crowded streets filled with variegated and sometimes suspicious aliens – probably influenced Besson’s “Big Market” on the planet Kyrian and Alpha’s urban centers.

There are also several films that had an impact on Besson’s story. One idea is lifted from the Star Trek universe, as its most prominent aliens share the Vulcan ability to transfer one’s consciousness to another person’s brain at the time of death. When Valerian ventures into Alpha’s “Paradise Alley,” filled with garish illuminated signs and aggressive prostitutes, some might recall the dark, seedy streets of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) – perhaps referenced by Besson’s use of one of its stars, Rutger Hauer, who briefly appears as the President of the World State Federation; there are also resonances with the urban landscapes of Besson’s own The Fifth Element (1995). But viewers will be most aware of the film’s references to the Star Wars films, including a villain who looks suspiciously like Jabba the Hutt, a scene wherein Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline escape by falling into a chamber filled with garbage, and Laureline’s comment, “I have a bad feeling about this idea.”

Most disheartening, though, are Besson’s overt borrowings from James Cameron’s Avatar (2009 – review here). The tall, thin aliens of the planet Mül, termed Pearls, with their light blue skins and loincloths, visibly resemble Cameron’s Na’vi, and they are also described as peaceful people who “lived in harmony with the planet.” Like the Na’vi, they are also oppressed by human soldiers with a crazed, fanatical leader – Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) – who is determined to “Annihilate” the “savages” who are interfering with his plans. Yet Besson improves upon Cameron in several respects. For one thing, this apparently simplistic melodrama is only one major thread in a complex plot featuring other humans and aliens who are harder to classify as heroes or villains, and the story itself is more nuanced, as Filitt articulates a rational motive for his actions – a desire to save humanity from financial ruin – and he is ultimately opposed by his calm, compassionate subordinate Okto-Bar, contradicting the stereotype of the evil, genocidal soldier. The Pearls are developed more creatively than Cameron’s blue-skinned Native Americans: their faces are illuminated by colored dots to show emotions, they employ their planet’s actual pearls to obtain energy, and these and other gems can be endlessly duplicated by their cute reptilian pets, the Converters. They also respond to changed circumstances by embracing advanced technology, teaching themselves “mathematics, chemistry, physics, and philosophy” to survive, and invent and use energy weapons in an attempt to reacquire one of their Converters – so the story does not devolve into a trite fable about virtuous nature corrupted by sinister science.

I am not sure why I initially compared this film to The Wizard of Oz, since there are no obvious connections or references to the earlier film; probably, I simply regarded them both as charming stories about young people traveling through marvelous lands. Yet there are a few similarities to pursue. Both are stories focused on returning home: Valerian regularly expresses a strong desire to finish his mission, go on “vacation,” and marry Laureline to achieve some domesticity in his life, while the Pearls fervently hope to re-create and re-inhabit their lost idyllic world. The travelers here, like Dorothy, are sometimes accompanied and assisted by strange companions – the Converter, the Shingouz, the shapeshifting Bubble (Rihanna), and the eccentric submariner Bob (Alain Chabat). And both protagonists discover that nothing in the exotic realms they enter is as it seems: the commander Valerian and Laureline are assigned to assist turns out to be a villain, and the dangerous “radioactive zone” they are instructed to avoid is harmless.

Most significantly, the films can be linked because both sets of filmmakers were manifestly determined to fill their films with bright colors and amazing special effects, so that even if audiences aren’t closely following the plot, the screen is always offering something to entertain them. And Besson and his associates are profligate in providing a constant stream of wonders, so much so that one cannot possibly absorb them all in a single viewing. During Valerian’s visit to the Big Market, for example, one observes a floating Eiffel Tower, a jellyfish-like creature hovering in a street, and an alien resembling a turkey – but each is only visible for a second, and there were several dozen other structures and beings that I barely noticed at all. Further, there are definite signs of intelligence in some of the films’ visual effects. Consider, for example, one recurring cliché in the increasingly common, Blade Runner-like “retrofuture” I discussed while reviewing Ghost in the Shell (2017 – review here): crowded city streets with advertising holograms. These are usually placed above or to the side of the streets, and they make no sounds, so that pedestrians can easily ignore them. The holograms in this film materialize directly in front of Valerian and talk to him, virtually requiring him to pay attention; so, when one asks, “Hey, you need a lawyer?” Valerian replies no, he’s a government agent. And that’s the sort of holographic advertising that marketers would logically prefer.

While Valerian is thus a visual feast, it is not a film that one would want to listen to. There is nothing really memorable about Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, and the film’s song choices are uninspired. With so many songs about astronauts available, it is disappointing that Besson, for what seems like the thousandth time, turns to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969); when using a more memorable song, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Jamming” (1977), Besson should play more than a snippet of it; and one fervently hopes that people in the twenty-sixth century will find better music to dance to than Wyclef Jean’s 1997 rap version of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” (1977). Interestingly, when a female tourist (Irene Palko) purchases a French horn at the Big Market, her husband (Sam Douglas) comments that she doesn’t even know what it’s for – perhaps suggesting that people in the future have no taste in music.

But the film’s major musical sin involves two of its stars, pop singer Rihanna and jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock. With such talents available, Besson should have sent them to the studio to work up some great music to perform in the film and improve its soundtrack. (Perhaps singer Wu could also have been invited to join the jam session.) Yet Rihanna never sings, and Hancock, playing the future’s Defense Minister, is limited to terse, televised messages. More broadly, Rihanna’s scenes represent a major weakness of the film. The dance she performs for Valerian, instantly changing her costume again and again, contributes nothing to the story, goes on much too long, and, considering the film’s other stunning visuals, isn’t particularly impressive; but when someone casts a star, I suppose, they must give her a star turn. In addition, unlike all of the other characters, Rihanna’s Bubbles keeps dispensing trite advice and empty platitudes: “show some weakness – it will make her feel important”; “take good care of her – love her without measure”; “where I come from, life is more painful than death”; “life’s a drag when you don’t have an identity to call your own.” Finally, she is written out of the story abruptly and unpersuasively, as if Besson recognized her character was an intrusive embarrassment that needed to be excised as quickly as possible.

Although I have read no other reviews of Valerian, glances at links indicate that a lot of critics didn’t like this film, and I’m struggling to figure out why. Perhaps the real problem is that, as I have been intimating, Valerian is at its heart a children’s film, based on some old comic books that entranced a young Luc Besson, and it should be evaluated within that context. And while the 31-year-old DeHaan and the 25-year-old Delevingne are fine in their roles, Besson might have been better advised to skip a generation, cast teenagers as his leads, and recast his story as Valerian’s very first adventure – to convey and underline the youthful spirit that animates his story. So, if you want some adult entertainment this weekend, go see Dunkirk, but I don’t regret that I chose to watch this film instead.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); 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. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press; ; his forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke and a collection of essays from the Eaton Conferences on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature.

Paula Guran reviews Short Fiction: May 2017

Fiyah Winter 2017
Gamut 2/17, 3/17
Apex Magazine 2/17
The Dark 4/17 3/8/17, 3/9/17
Uncanny 3-4/17

Fiyah is a new literary magazine dedicated to Black speculative fiction, a spiritual successor to the experimental FIRE!!, an African-American magazine of the Harlem Renaissance that managed only one issue in 1926. (The magazine’s offices burned to the ground shortly after it was published.) The theme of the first issue is, appropriately ‘‘rebirth.’’ Of the six stories in Fiyah #1, four are dark enough to cover here and all are strong.

‘‘Revival’’ by Wendi Dunlap is set about a thousand years into the future. A band of humans have found a home on a planet they have named Revival. Serene is imprisoned and awaiting execution. Her crime is pregnancy: her fellow settlers fear she will give birth to something non-human. Although short, it packs a punch, raising questions about individual freedom, the sanctity of life, choice, and – perhaps – evolution.

Truly original, ‘‘The Shade Caller’’ by DaVaun Sanders is a complex, rich tale of an outsider whose flesh is literally devoured by the sun, and strives to be accepted by the village that has taken him in. He is to be the first of his kind allowed to participate in rites that will make him Seen rather than Unseen, but on the eve of the ritual he is accused of theft. His chance to be Seen is imperiled. He sets out to prove his innocence and discovers, among other things, that: ‘‘It is a choice to acknowledge that hearing an Unseen voice does not mean one is mad.’’ This is a story of oppression and accepting not only who you are, but coming to understand there is great power in what you are.

In the disturbing ‘‘Sisi Je Kuisha (We Have Ended)’’ by V.H. Galloway, the protagonist’s father is cruelly killed, and he becomes the last of the Eloko – predatory troll-like creatures with snouts and vicious teeth who grow grass in place of hair. The introduction of guns has given humans the advantage over them. A chief’s son befriends him and saves his life. The outcome is, twice over, probably not at all what you expect.

‘‘Chesirah’’ by L.D. Lewis is less dense and outright enjoyable. Chesirah is a fenox – a being that (yes, like a phoenix) periodically burns itself to ash and is then reborn. As a safe place to burn and keep their ashes safe until they reconstitute, fenox are kept (and abused) by the eccentric rich. Chesirah wants her freedom and is not afraid to kill a master or two to gain it. Set in a spacefaring fantasy universe, the fenox’s latest bid for liberty is dependent on getting off the planet. She quickly encounters both nefarious villains who wish to thwart her and a band of potential allies. Although a complete story, one can easily see where this could be expanded into an adventurous novel.


Gamut is a new online magazine of ‘‘neo-noir speculative fiction with a literary bent’’ that debuted January 1. Halfway through Gamut #3, the March issue, we have ‘‘The Arrow of Time’’ by Kate Dollarhyde. In this evocative tale, the North Pole has ‘‘turned to slurry,’’ and ‘‘California shriveled under skies washed red with wildfire haze’’ more than three decades before. The nameless narrator’s scientist mother yearns for the verdant hills, blue skies, and beautiful ocean vistas of her youth, so much so that successfully she builds a time machine to go back to it. Now returned to her own era, the mother is dying of cancer. The daughter, who accepts the ‘‘hot, dry world’’ as humanity’s new home, contemplates her mother’s choices. Surreal, but grounded, the story offers the hope of adaptability amid the darkness of the changed world.

Amber Sparks’s ‘‘We Destroy the Moon’’ brims with elegant description. Sparks uses language like a surgeon’s double-edged lance, slicing and infecting at the same time. Society has broken down and in ‘‘this dry and poisoned time.’’ The narrator is an artist who creates, while her scam-artist lover makes himself into a god. ‘‘They called you a madman. They seethed, but understood – how false words were part of the new darkness. They understood how easy to become a prophet, #endtimesscamartist, how easy to sow hope among the hopeless.’’ Sparks is a unique voice whose reputation seems, so far, to have been better established in the literary world than genre.


Stories from Gamut #2 (February) include ‘‘Forestborn’’ by Sylvia Heike. A girl with a wild bird’s nest for hair warns the narrator that she is ‘‘forestborn’’ and cannot live in houses. It’s charming if inevitable story.

‘‘When I was fourteen, I ate a cooked piece of thigh meat off my girlfriend Sherry Wilkes.’’ One might wish to avoid a story with an opening line like that, but this is Stephen Graham Jones, so a rewarding read is guaranteed. In ‘‘Love Is A Cavity I Can’t Stop Touching’’, he indelibly examines love: not the love of a lifetime, but the all-consuming youthful passion that flashes hot and burns out quickly, and then ends with a twist creepy enough to make you shudder.

All five of these stories from Gamut are written in first person; ‘‘Figure 8’’ by Elise Tobler is told in second person. A clone – ‘‘created to kill, built… as a weapon none would suspect’’ – is ‘‘perfection’’ after seven imperfect versions who came before her. She sets out to destroy the faulty prototypes, who, despite their deficiencies, are functioning in various societal roles. The ending can be guessed early on, but the situations and deaths of the other clones are varied and interesting.


Apex Magazine for February offers a trio of scary stories. ‘‘Queen of Dirt’’ by Nisi Shawl features Brit, a teenager with paranormal powers, teaching children martial arts at a summer camp for city kids. Brit’s aware of some bad ‘‘entities’’ resident in the campgrounds. Despite trying to avoid them, she encounters and overcomes them. The supernatural plot parallels Brit’s feelings about her family and the conclusion ties the two elements together. There are a couple of ‘‘holes’’ in this story I wish had been better filled, but Brit’s horrific supernatural experience – her body possessed and controlled by the ‘‘other’’ – is absolutely bone chilling, and her complex teenage heroine (who previously appeared in an earlier tale) deserves more adventures. Extra points for the use of apiology both symbolically and supernaturally.

In ‘‘The Bells’’ by Lyndsie Manusos, Mary is a living doll who was once human. Owned by woodcarver Bishop, she can be ‘‘restrained and confined, played with as anyone pleased’’ and is almost emotionless except for fear, ‘‘an emotion that connects every living thing.’’ How Bishop performed a reverse Pygmalion and turned her into a doll is a mystery. The only ‘‘why’’ supplied is that she ‘‘sold her soul and lost a bet.’’ There are a couple of niggling details that distract from the excellent atmospherics Manusos provides. These flaws are not fatal, but they leave ‘‘The Bells’’ as average when it has the potential to be more.

In Rich Larson’s ‘‘You Too Shall Be Psyche’’, clan girl Reva, angry that Brete, her less-beautiful sister, has been chosen to be the bride of the God in the Pit, decides to replace her. The god turns out to be something unexpected. In fact, the whole world turns out to be something unexpected. Reva is shallow, vain, and rather stupid, so her ultimate altruistic choice seems outside her character. There are elements of old-school Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison here, with a Twilight Zone ending, which can be good or less so, depending on your taste


‘‘The Name, Blurry and Incomplete in His Mind’’ by Erica Mosley is one of two originals in The Dark (April). Ten-year-old Jentri – ‘‘born into a skeleton of a house and a ruin of a marriage, and learned to crawl in half-finished rooms, leaving a trail through drywall dust’’ – and her father are practically strangers, despite his weekly 90-minute visits. About the only thing they share is a ‘‘game’’ of searching the partially renovated old house for the name ‘‘Susie.’’ Scratched or written by some long-gone little girl, the ‘‘Susies’’ evolve into stories the father tells. It’s harmless – until Jentri starts seeing and feeling Susie herself. Her mother calls a halt to the game, but Susie continues to haunt. Then Jentri finds a ‘‘secret passage’’ in the house. Unfortunately, after doing an excellent job drawing the reader in and stirring up a palpable atmosphere of dread, the story turns so oblique it is difficult to interpret the conclusion.

Kristi DeMeester handles surreal spookiness very well in ‘‘The Language of Endings’’, the issue’s other original. The ghost of a 16-year-old girl – exploited, ruined, and murdered by the man who marries her – haunts and hides in his house. ‘‘He is waiting for a haunting I won’t give to him because I remember everything he hopes I’ve forgotten.’’ It’s rare that one can not only root for a wronged ghost, but enjoy her justifiable revenge. DeMeester lets us do so.

*’s ‘‘Come See the Living Dryad’’ by Theodora Goss is a well-told tale of a modern academic researching the murder of her great-greatgrandmother who became famous as ‘‘Daphne, the Living Dryad.’’ Displayed in freak-show fashion, the woman actually suffered from the rare Lewandowsky- Lutz dysplasia. The story is fascinating and vividly told, but as Goss pretty much reveals who the real murderer is from early on, there’s little tension or mystery.

On International Women’s Day, published a collection of flash fiction featuring ‘‘unique visions of women inventing, playing, loving, surviving, and – of course – dreaming of themselves beyond their circumstances’’ with the theme of ‘‘Nevertheless, she persisted.’’ All are worth reading, but three of the darkest are also among the best. Both Amal El-Mohtar’s ‘‘Anabasis’’ – a story of cruel borders – and ‘‘The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor’’ by Catherynne M. Valente – set in a kingdom where the words true and false have been banned – are heart-breaking, frightening, poetic metaphors for the very real. Seanan McGuire’s portrayal of an oppressive near-future, ‘‘Persephone’’, is more direct and perhaps even more chilling for it.


Most of the stories in Uncanny #15 don’t fall into my ordained territory here, but one dark fantasy should be mentioned. Beth Cato’s ‘‘With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips’’ has the charm of a fairy tale: shadowy, but not completely stygian. Lady Magdalena, who uses magic to safely silence and bind ghosts so they will not interfere with the living, acquires an eager young apprentice in Vera. Times are tough and Vera, who also has the ability to speak to animals, both needs and likes the work – until an expensive accident brings Magdalena’s wrath. Vera, in an effort to make amends with Magdalena, uncovers – with the help of some animals – a mystery that could endanger her mentor. One can easily see these characters carried on in other situations.

Spring has come, bringing more light and fewer chills… but darkness lingers.

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

Liz Bourke reviews Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire ( Publishing 978-0765392039, $17.99, 192pp, hc). June 2017.

I had mixed feelings about Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway, the first work of McGuire’s Wayward Children series. It made me feel uncomfortably as though I were being asked to agree with a protagonist who, subject to conditioning and what seems like child abuse from multiple directions, chooses to return to a world where she had come to enjoy self-denial, stillness, and starvation, and agree that this was a good option. Despite the vivid characterisation, quirky world building, and excellent pacing in Every Heart A Doorway, my reading of its un­derlying thematic arguments disturbed my ability to view it with any great charity.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel of sorts, a standalone short novel which essentially presents the origin story of the twins Jack and Jill – Jacqueline and Jillian – who played such a large role in Every Heart A Doorway. This is the story of their childhood, born to con­trolling parents who had fixed ideas of what they were supposed to be, and of their discovery of the doorway to another world, the Moors, where they are offered a choice between the guardianship of a vampire and that of a mad scientist, in a dangerous world full of magic and blood.

Jillian was raised to be a tomboy, to play sports and not be afraid of getting dirty: everyone in­sisted that she was brave and smart. Jacqueline was raised to be the perfect princess, to wear frilly dresses and sit quietly. No one expected her to be brave, or to be intelligent. Until they were five, their grandmother provided them with the care and affection and belief in their own possi­bilities that their parents did not – but when they were five, their parents sent their grandmother away. She was gone when they woke up, and they learned that adults were fundamentally not to be trusted.

At age 12, they discover a door to a secret country, a magic land. In the Moors, Jack chooses to become apprentice to a mad scientist over remaining in the castle of the vampire who rules the neighbouring village. Jill, on the other hand, chooses the vampire.

Their paths separate, Jill in remote and arrogant loneliness, choosing the path of monstrousness, becoming the princess that her vampire-guardian is raising her to be; Jack learning the mad science trade, but also having friends and relationships in the village, and falling in love with a village girl. Neither of them wish to return to their previous lives, but neither can be sure of staying in the Moors for good until after the age of 18 (be­cause that is how the magic works). When Jill, consumed by selfishness and jealousy and want­ing her sister to choose her, commits an act that causes her to forfeit the protection of her vampire lord and also causes the villagers to want her dead, Jack chooses to save her – and chooses to return both of them to their original world, at least for a time, rather than let her sister die.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones has the voice and rhythm of a fairy tale, appropriately enough. It is vividly characterised, as so much of Seanan McGuire’s work is, and has the kind of prose that carries you along to find out what happens next. Its thematic concerns – in family, in autonomy, in choices, and in the nature of monsters – are interesting, although I’m not at all convinced that they come together in a coher­ent argument.

It’s an entertaining book. I’m not so sure I enjoyed it as a narrative, but I definitely enjoyed its characters.

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

The Apes of Wrath: A Review of War for the Planet of the Apes

by Gary Westfahl

To my knowledge, there are no announced plans for a fourth film in the recent Planet of the Apes prequel series, and everything about Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes thankfully suggests a desire to bring its series to an end as a trilogy. True, much of the film simply carries on the apes-versus-humans saga unveiled in the second film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014 – review here), but eventually all of the major story lines are concluded in a satisfying manner that precisely lays the groundwork for the transformed world observed in the original Planet of the Apes (1968). Thus, the fear expressed in my review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – that filmmakers were preparing for an endless series of iterative Apes films – was unfounded, as that film’s failure to significantly advance its plot can instead be attributed to the familiar problem encountered by anyone writing the second work in a trilogy: the need to keep the characters in motion while postponing all significant developments for the final installment. The sense that these three films constitute a trilogy is enhanced by what seems to be their deliberate shifts in perspective: the first film almost entirely foregrounds contemporary human society; the second film alternates between the activities of beleaguered humans and the activities of Caesar’s apes; and the third film almost entirely focuses on the apes. One cumulatively observes, then, a gradual transition from a world dominated by humans to a world dominated by apes.

The problem with endeavoring to craft a prequel to the original five films, of course, is that they account for a society of intelligent apes and servile, speechless people in two different and contradictory fashions: the first film and its immediate sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), indicate clearly that future humans destroyed themselves in a global nuclear war, initiating a process of evolution that allowed apes to advance while humans devolved. Yet the final three films confusingly suggest that intelligent apes first thrived within human society, and growing conflict between apes and humans soon led to the downfall of civilization, though there are hints that time travel has triggered an alternate history with an uncertain outcome. These prequel films partially emulate the second scenario, although their intelligent apes came about as a result of ill-advised scientific research, not time-traveling apes. As I indicated while reviewing the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011 – review here), these disparate explanations reflect changing concerns about the greatest dangers facing humanity, as we now worry less about a nuclear holocaust or racial and ethnic strife and worry more about scientific experiments getting out of control. This film adds the further idea that our unwise scientific initiatives are one aspect of a reckless impulse to “bend nature to our will,” as Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) explains, so that by means of advanced apes, “nature has been punishing us for our arrogance.” But the theme of nature versus civilization has always been implicit in these films, as virtuous apes like Caesar (Andy Serkis) prefer to live in the forest while evil humans huddle within cities and military compounds. As if to underline the point that we should preserve and value the natural world, Caesar once manages to save his life by literally hugging a tree.

This film introduces another interesting variation in the original story’s future history. Charlton Heston’s Planet of the Apes clearly conveys that it took many, many generations for humanity to degenerate into savagery and for apes to develop speech and intelligence. Yet here, it only takes about fifteen years for humanity to descend to the point of complete collapse, and we even encounter two children – Caesar’s young son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) and a human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) – who are destined to become Heston’s adult friend and companion when he and the other astronauts of the Icarus, referenced in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, presumably return to Earth after a few decades, not a few millennia. One might imagine that as our species develops more and more wondrous new technologies and ways to improve our lives, we would grow more and more confident in our ability to sustain civilization through adverse conditions for long periods of time; instead, it seems, we now view our civilization as amazingly fragile, likely to quickly fall apart as a result of a single crisis. One could also cite as evidence the novel and film The 5th Wave (2016 – review here), wherein it requires very little time for invading aliens to bring humanity to its knees.

A lack of confidence in humanity’s ongoing progress is also reflected in another trend I have commented on, recurrent visions of what I term a “Grapes of Wrath future” wherein people have reverted to the technology and lifestyles of the Great Depression. And in its own way, War for the Planet of the Apes falls into this pattern, as only its future’s weaponry is truly advanced, which could be viewed as an expedient conceit that enables filmmakers to provide their mandated quota of violence and explosions. Otherwise, the apes eschew all machines, and the humans all seem to be living in ramshackle structures with dusty kitchens filled with antiquated devices. Instead of using a microwave oven, McCullough heats his food with a crude, improvised burner; a man is seen gathering firewood to keep his house warm; computers are never observed, and while one can assume that the internet is no longer functioning in this devastated world, computers would undoubtedly be useful in other ways to someone trying to manage an army and a prison camp.

While I have pondered other reasons for this proclivity for a future that resembles the past, this film inspires a practical explanation: filmmakers depicting the future frequently borrow from film genres set in the past, and hence naturally tend to fill their films with accoutrements from the past. Certainly, the film’s opening battles, like the conflicts in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009 – review here), recall the Vietnam War, as sinister Caucasian soldiers armed with high-tech weapons advance into a forest to attack innocent indigenous residents, and this film explicitly references America’s conflict with the Viet Cong with a message posted at McCullough’s headquarters, “The only good Kong is a dead Kong.” The crazed McCullough’s shaved head makes him seem a homage to Marlon Brando’s crazed Kurtz in the classic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now (1979), as also suggested by another item of observed graffiti, “Ape-pocalypse Now,” and a final scene of attacking helicopters that cries out to be accompanied by the “Ride of the Valkyries.” Further, as the story begins to focus on the apes’ efforts to escape from a prison camp by means of a tunnel, one is reminded of another war film, The Great Escape (1963). It is telling, then, that the film’s credits list a “military advisor,” but not a scientific advisor (though they did employ the Dian Fossey Institute for “ape vocal research”).

In addition, recurring images of individuals on horseback carrying shotguns recall countless westerns; indeed, one chase scene, where one individual on horseback fires a shotgun back at the three individuals on horseback who are pursuing him, could be spliced into an old western film, as long as no one notices that the individuals on horseback are apes. The humans also brand their servant apes, like cattle, with the symbols for alpha and omega that McCullough uses to represent his movement (and his fears of humanity’s demise), and the whole scenario of brutal men oppressing peaceful indigenous people recalls revisionist westerns like Cheyenne Autumn (1964) that describe America’s nineteenth-century mistreatment of Native Americans. The sense that this film is replicating war movies and westerns is heightened when McCullough likens himself and Caesar to three other pairs of opposing leaders: Ulysses G. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte, and George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull; the final pairing foreshadows the film’s inevitable conclusion, as McCullough is destined to play Custer to Caesar’s Sitting Bull.

A reference to another film – Ronald Reagan’s Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), a slogan on one soldier’s helmet – might seem a meaningless bit of humor, as nothing about this film seems to resemble that gentle comedy. Yet strangely there is a connection to pursue, because Reagan’s professor adopts that chimpanzee in order to prove that someone’s upbringing, not their genes, determines their character, and this movie makes the same point. Caesar is initially kindly because he was treated kindly by scientist Will Rodman, but he is so warped by the tragedy of his son’s murder that he is becomes obsessed with killing McCullough, even while recognizing that his feelings are wrongheaded. McCullough becomes unhinged because, fearing that his son might spread a dangerous plague, he is driven to kill his own son. Throughout the film, for these and other reasons, both Caesar and McCullough constantly seem to be angry, which at times grows tiresome; as I noted while reviewing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the earlier films were improved by their lighter moments, yet there is absolutely no comic relief in this film.

One might also ask: why is it that the fates of their sons are so crucial in influencing their thoughts and behavior? After all, McCullough also killed Caesar’s wife, but that clearly is less important to the ape; Caesar always displays the greatest amount of emotion when he encounters or loses contact with his other son Cornelius; when the apes’ original plans are thwarted, he devises an alternate way to rescue their children; and he finally seems to achieve some peace of mind when he is assured that Cornelius has survived their ordeal in the prison camp. To have a son, McCullough must have also had a wife or girlfriend, who presumably became one of the innumerable victims of the plague, but he never mentions her and apparently does not even have a picture of her. But at the moment in the film when he seems most depressed, he has been looking at a picture of his dead son. McCullough also conveys the special importance of sons when he explains that he killed his son to more broadly ensure that humanity would survive: “if we lose,” he concludes, “it will be the end of our kind. We will become a planet of apes, with humans as cattle.” Similarly, Caesar’s son and the other ape children represent the only way to perpetuate their new race of intelligent apes.

When people fear imminent annihilation, they often turn to religion as a mechanism for perhaps avoiding their fate through prayer and reformation or at least consoling themselves with visions of an afterlife; yet none of this film’s characters evidence much interest in this option. Among the humans, one notes only that McCullough wears a cross and describes the battle between humans and apes as a “holy war”; his assistant is called Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria); and the tunnel used by plague victims escaping from confinement is labeled, “This way out of Hell.” But no one prays or crosses themselves or says a word about God. (For that matter, the only religious people I can recall in any of the Planet of the Apes films are the atomic-bomb-worshipping mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.) As for the apes, they appear to be developing a society that lacks any religion at all, unless one counts their fervent devotion to Caesar, who is sometimes likened to Jesus Christ (McCullough exclaims to him, “Jesus Christ, you are impressive,” and later crucifies him) and sometimes likened to Moses (destined to lead his people to the Promised Land without ever entering it). To develop the argument that the apes are establishing a secular utopia, one would note these as its characteristics: as noted, except for weaponry, they eschew technology and religious beliefs; they do not wear clothes, even while trekking through the snow (though the ape known as Bad Ape [Steve Kahn] does wear a jacket when he is cold, perhaps to anticipate the clothed apes observed in the original films); except for Caesar’s informal leadership, which is clearly not absolute, they lack a system of government; and there is no formal education, as children learn by hanging around and observing adults.

An unusual aspect of their eventually utopian existence emerges from pondering a subject that I always find peculiarly interesting: trying to nail down precisely where the events in the film are purportedly taking place. We know from previous films that the apes’ forest home is near San Francisco; two ape scouts travel east and report that if one crosses mountains and a desert, a remote and paradisiacal environment awaits them; when most of the apes are captured by McCullough, they are taken to his headquarters, which we eventually learn is a detention facility on the border between California and Oregon; other apes seeking McCullough travel north, experiencing snowstorms and encountering Bad Ape, who once lived in the “Sierra Zoo” (presumably the Sierra Safari Zoo in nearby Reno, Nevada); and their final home will be a verdant valley with a lake that one guesses is in Colorado. In other words, this film’s apes are constantly striving to get out of California, either by traveling north or east, and they finally achieve happiness after they have permanently escaped from California. Their perambulatory aversion to California is unexpected, given that their tree-hugging philosophy would seem to perfectly accord with the beliefs of California’s Governor Jerry Brown and most of his constituents, but one must also recall that the San Francisco area has now been enshrined as the world’s capital for evil or misguided scientific research, as observed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Transcendence (2014 – review here),The Lazarus Effect (2015 – review here), and other films. In contrast, to my knowledge, no lethal plagues or murderous monsters have ever originated in Colorado.

The apes’ quest for utopia can also be related to a rejection of all-American values, presumably conducive to the sorts of violence and racism that Planet of the Apes films always oppose. This is conveyed by the film’s noted resonances with the Vietnam War, and one also notes that when McCullough’s soldiers begin rounding up the apes to engage in their daily forced labor, they do so to the accompaniment of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Most significantly, their camp is adorned with a huge American flag that, during a final attack, is set on fire – that form of anti-American protest famously sanctioned by the Supreme Court – and when Caesar attempts to cling to the burning flag to break his fall, it proves to be of no assistance. Understandably, however, the film’s criticisms of America are muted and sporadic, since even in a globalized market, some revenue from American theatres remains essential to success.

And I suspect that this film, which I liked more than I anticipated, will earn a lot of money both here and abroad, and that will create some pressure to produce a sequel that I believe nobody involved in this film really wants. The only logical continuation of this film would be a remake of the original Planet of the Apes, yet given this film’s accelerated pace, there would be no time to bury the Statue of Liberty, and I have no ideas for other sequels except for those presented in earlier reviews. The ideal solution, of course, would be to reassemble the creative team behind this film and assign them to come up with something entirely new and different; but alas, we do not live in a utopia.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); 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. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press; ; his forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke and a collection of essays from the Eaton Conferences on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Susan Casper

Up the Rainbow: The Complete Short Fiction of Susan Casper, edited by Gardner Dozois (Fantastic Books 978-1-5154-1028-7, $19.99, 452pp, trade paperback) July 18, 2017

Nowadays we feel, with lots of justification and pride in modern medical achievements, that seventy years old is too young to die. Yet that Biblical three-score-and-ten still looms as a numinous, even semi-uncanny milestone in anyone’s existence, a respectable span in which much can be accomplished, given luck and good circumstances, will and talent, health and ambition.

In February of this year, after several long illnesses, we lost Susan Casper at that very age. Wife to Gardner Dozois, she was on her own merits so much more, including a talented fiction writer. It is a testament to the high regard in which she was held that this commemorative volume was so quickly assembled and issued. If, for instance, we take a case like that of R. A. Lafferty, also much beloved, who died in 2002, and who was able to receive some deserved posthumous tributes only about fifteen years later, we can see that it takes more than sheer literary worth to inspire such an outpouring so quickly.

Much of this extra-literary ambiance is evoked in a foreword by Michael Swanwick and an afterword by Andy Duncan. Both of them also offer insightful critical assessments of her work. Then come two dozen stories in chronological order of publication, with the final one seeing print here for the first time anyplace. An appendix of Casper’s non-fiction travel writings bulks out the book nicely.

I can’t go deeply into all twenty-four stories in this limited space, but will speak about some standouts in a way that I hope conveys the strengths and pleasures of Casper’s writing.

The opening three stories–her first sale was in 1983–serve almost as a mini-trilogy of horror or the Weird, showing Casper’s interest in eruptions of the uncanny into everyday life. Exemplars like Robert Bloch and Lisa Tuttle come to mind. We sense at the outset that her chosen venues will not be intergalactic space or Tolkienesque subcreations. In “Spring-Fingered Jack,” a serial killer blurs the distinctions between virtual and physical reality. “Shadowman” charts the depredations of another murderer whose undoing stems from his angering certain uncanny forces. And “Mama” reveals the supernatural lengths that a domineering matriarch will go to, in order to run (or is that “ruin?”) her daughter’s life.

Co-authored with Jack Dann and Dozois, “The Clowns” is prime Stephen King material, enlivened by sharp domestic details. A nervous young boy is the only one able to see murderous costumed jesters. Suspense is maintained at a maximum, and his fate is never certain until the very last sentence. Two entries show Casper’s dry humor, which finally surfaces, career-wise, after she has established her ability to scare. “Send No Money” concerns a supernatural, Rumplestiltskin-style bargain–delivered by a piece of talkative junk mail!–which a woman manages to turn to her advantage, while “Under Her Skin” is a short jape about a vampire with oddball tastes.

“Covenant With a Dragon” blends the quotidian albeit unsettled life of a Vietnam vet with visions from Asia that resonate with his past and motivate him to extend his compassion. The equal weight given to both spheres is typical of Casper’s self-appointed remit.

A Thorne-Smith-style body swap fills the plot of “Nine-Tenths of the Law,” while “Coming of Age” strikes a Bradburyian note in its portrait of a young girl trapped in an eerie, restrictive realm. The opening of the latter tale shows Casper’s deft hand at evoking mood and place:

The grass was still thin and brown from the heat of the summer, and the girl’s feet had left a bald patch of earth, tracing a path as she played a solitary game of ball. A few steps east—toss, catch; toss, clap, catch—and she reached the edge of the woods. A few steps west—toss, slap shoulders, catch; toss, whirl hands, catch—and she was up against the wire fence that marked the border of a neighboring farm. Her head buzzed with the chant she sang silently: A mimsy, a clapsy, I whirl my hands to bapsy… She was careful to see that her lips did not move; careful to give no outward sign.

From deep inside the shadow of the porch, Margaret could feel the eyes of the old woman upon her like a leash, pulling her back every time she neared the boundaries. Eyes that never left her, not even to check the deft needlework upon which the gnarled hands were at work. She was used to the eyes. They had been on her for thirteen years, come October. Touch my knee, touch my heel, touch my toe… As she threw the ball up into the air, the heel of her shoe caught in the stiff cotton fabric of her dress, and she fell to the ground. The ball came down on her shoulder, and bounced away. Cautiously, careful not to rip the dress, she scrambled to her feet and started chasing after the ball, then pulled up short. It had come to rest in the dead leaf-mulch just inside the edge of the forest.

A lone extraplanetary tale, “Windows of the Soul” conflates mystery and SF in good Asimovian manner, and proves that Casper could have written solid SF if she had chosen. The title story is, I believe, the longest, and has a good PJ-Farmeresque romping time while transporting Gale, the granddaughter of Dorothy of Oz, into the Emerald City, where she installs many modern notions.

And at the end, the hitherto-unseen “The Blessed Damosel” is a low-key Victorian ghost tale more concerned with evoking the contours of a woman’s lonely thwarted life than in any steampunk adventuring. There’s a feel of Le Guin to this venture.

Finally, the trip reports–a longstanding fannish tradition–reveal Casper’s zest for life, a keen observer’s eye, and a flair for journalistic concision. These travelogues show a whimsical acceptance of the world’s pleasures, with no itchy unease or greed for more than some simple relaxations in novel settings can provide.

As Swanwick has observed, Casper’s career was relatively compact: from 1983 to 2003. At that endpoint, for unexplained and perhaps ultimately inexplicable reasons, with many potential tales still at her fingertips, she ceased writing, although during her final fourteen years she still had many opportunities to do so. If one can hazard a guess as to why, based on the contents of this book, I’d say that Casper felt she had plumbed most of the rewards that writing fiction at a journeyman level could provide, and then made the decision that ramping up to master class was just not an effort she was willing to make. It’s a decision that others before her have chosen, and one that requires self-knowledge, sternness of character, and a willingness to let go of unrealistic daydreams. All qualities which the stories she did give us reveal she possessed to repletion.

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.

Russell Letson reviews C.J. Cherryh

Convergence, C.J. Cherryh (DAW 978-0756409111, $26.00, 324 pp, hc) April 2017. Cover by Todd Lockwood.

By happy accident, as I was working on this column I was also paging through Jo Walton’s excellent collection of retrospec­tive review essays, What Makes This Book So Great, and noted her chapter on ‘‘Re-reading long series,’’ in which she points out not only the pleasures of taking extended rambles through invented worlds, but the structural virtue of de­veloping a narrative space in which ‘‘the books illuminate each other and the longer story… as the series progresses.’’

The occasion for Walton’s remarks was C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Universe series, which from the publication of its initial volume in 1994 has been chronicling the increasingly complicated in­teraction of a population of lost-in-space humans and their not-as-human-as-they-appear hosts, the atevi. The 17 previous volumes (arranged in three-book story-arcs) have dealt with alien encounter, interspecies diplomacy, political and bureaucratic maneuvering, palace intrigue, interstellar explora­tion, revolution and counter-revolution, and multi-species family drama, all punctuated by chases and escapes and shootouts. Up to now, each title ended in ‘‘-er’’ or ‘‘-or’’ (Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor, Precursor, Defender), placing the protagonist’s actions or role at the center, but the 18th book changes that, and naming it Convergence may suggest something about where the series is headed.

Where has the series been for 17 volumes? Readers familiar with the story-so-far can skip this paragraph – though further suggestions and instructions await newcomers on the far side of this necessary expository lump. So. The starship Phoenix gets lost in subspace and emerges near a living world, the planet of the steam-tech-level atevi, who, after a period of lethal misunderstand­ing, arrange for a human enclave on the large island of Mospheira. The solution to the problems created by incompatible psychologies and cul­tures takes the form of a single point of contact: the human translator-bureaucrat called the paidhi. After a couple of centuries of slow technology transfer and minimal mutual understanding, a new crisis leads to a difficult but fruitful collaboration between the progressive atevi leader Tabini and the young paidhi Bren Cameron, which in turn leads to great changes in the way the species will share the planet.

Standard advice for those who have not read the earlier books is to go forth and binge-read them in order. They offer pleasures similar to those of the work of, say, Ursula K. Le Guin, Eleanor Arnason, Gwyneth Jones, or Karen Traviss: com­binations of adventure in exotic environments, encounters with fascinating Others, and precise observation of social interactions both familiar and novel. And, to echo Walton, like Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin roman fleuve, the series follows the career and continu­ing relationships of its protagonist (and eventually other characters) through so many books that it can offer a variety and range of events and developments not available in a single novel or even a fat trilogy. In fact, since some of those de­velopments are at the heart of the current volume, readers sensitive to the Spoiler Effect should probably go book-hunting now and allow me to address the faithful here assembled.

The title signals not a single agent (a something-er, a doer) but a process – and our understanding of that process is evenly divided between the viewpoints of Bren Cameron and the very young atevi heir-apparent Cajeiri. At the opening, each has a mission that re-immerses him in his own species environment: Cajeiri to continue his acculturation as a future atevi leader, and Bren to encourage a reorientation of humans’ awareness of their position, not only on the Earth of the atevi (now always just called ‘‘Earth’’) but in a stellar neighborhood that includes a powerful spacego­ing species, the kyo.

Cajeiri is dispatched to the estate of his cul­turally conservative but (now) human-tolerant uncle Tatiseigi for a public-relations visit where he will be seen to be engaging in appropriately heir-apparent activities while his father and Tati­seigi manage some inter-clan political business. The trip also will be the occasion for the boy and his young staff to engage with much more senior elements of the Assassin’s Guild that provides se­curity for the aristocracy (and is a potent political force in its own right). Bren returns to Mospheira with a mixed PR-political mission of his own: to get the conservative, self-involved, or merely uninformed factions of the human government to buy into the changes that will be necessary to survive in a suddenly expanded and realigned multi-species environment.

Bren’s half of the story is all political-bureaucratic-procedural and lacking in the kind of strenuous adventure-stuff that usually has him ducking gunfire. Cajeiri, however, does encounter some moderate melodrama when the clan-political issue that was supposed to remain in the background inserts itself into his visit, and he gets close-up involved in the kind of tensions that only atevi social-familial-political arrange­ments can generate. The generation-spanning secret intrigues that led to the coup and counter-coup that enlivened his father’s administration have left some unexploded ordinance behind, and the boy gets a view into the pathologies and strengths of his people’s management of power. Where Bren’s half of the novel is a demonstration of his competence as a diplomat and a political animal, Cajeiri’s is another chapter in an atevi bildungsroman.

On second thought, even newcomers might find Convergence an engaging (if occasionally puzzling) read – it will not resonate for them as it will for those who remember how uncertain and vulnerable Bren was at the beginning of his career, or how human-hostile Uncle Tatiseigi was before he met human youngsters, or how thoughtless the younger Cajeiri could be when he got restless and went looking for excitement – but the parallel depictions of the two protagonists navigating the complexities of their respective societies, each conditioned by a necessarily partial but passionate understanding of the Other, can stand on its own. (But really, go find the rest of the story. You won’t regret it. If it weren’t for deadlines, I’d follow Jo Walton’s example and re-read the whole cycle from the start.)

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 Christopher Brown

Tropic of Kansas, by Christopher Brown (Harper Voyager 978-0-06-256381-1, $15.99, 480pp, trade paperback) July 2017

This debut novel from Chris Brown–many of whose earlier short stories appeared under the byline “Chris Nakashima-Brown”–has been long awaited by those who have keenly enjoyed his short fiction and essays since roughly 2004. (“The Launch Pad” appeared in the beautiful but short-lived reboot of Argosy in that year.) The wait proves worth it, since Tropic is a knockout first novel, paradoxically solemn yet exuberant, restrained yet inventive, as attested to by well-deserved encomiums from William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow.

The first thing to mention is that the book falls squarely into the “America Disunited” subgenre which I surveyed a few months ago for The Barnes & Noble Review. Although I could wish I had had this novel available then, I would have been forced to deal with it at shorter length, so allotting it full and separate, albeit later coverage turns out to be best!

We start our story by vividly and sensually riding the shoulders of an on-the-run teenager named Sig. Sig has been living wild for years in the boonies and urban fringes of Canada until he’s caught by the RCMP and deported back to his native USA, a place he originally fled after much bad interaction with the authorities. Gradually Brown shows us Sig’s nature, his backstory and the sociopolitical context. Sig is inhabiting a future America that is falling apart at the seams, full of violence, dissent, rebellion, internal spying and law enforcement harshness. Central to the mess is a hole in the middle of the nation.

Back east they called it the “Tropic of Kansas.” It wasn’t a specific place you could draw on a map, and Kansas wasn’t really even a part of it, but you knew when you were in it and you knew just what they meant. Which wasn’t a compliment. The parts of the Midwest that had somehow turned third world. They tried to return the Louisiana Purchase to the French, the joke went, but it was too damaged.

They were still arguing about what caused it. Entire political movements had grown around different theories, but the truth was no one really knew.

What they did know was that big swaths of the corn belt had turned sick, from bad splices, failed economics, burnt climate, broken politics, or divine retribution.

Once back in this hellhole, Sig is locked up, escapes, and for the rest of the novel is continuously on the run, hounded and assaulted like the wild animals with whom he relates, touching down with various other outlaw comrades for short moments of warmth, safety and recuperation. It’s a harrowing journey akin to that of the child in Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. This peripatetic existence permits Brown to show us numerous slices of the country, and allows him also to present a vast range of fully fleshed-out characters, each of whom embodies a different portion of the ruination of the land.

Parallel to Sig’s tale is that of his step-sister Tania. Unlike Sig, she was rescued from her lower-class roots due to her intelligence and other gifts and groomed to be part of the Establishment. Working for the government in a bombed-out DC, she never thinks anymore of her long-departed step-brother –until she is recruited against her will to track him down. Thus begins Tania’s odyssey through many of the same venues that Sig is experiencing, plus other social and political strata he can never know. Together, their separate paths define all the options and parameters of the country, as they ride the waves of change that eventually culminate in a big bloody paradigm shift.

Brown has chosen to deliver this adventure in nearly 120 short chapters of cinematic punchiness whose rapid flickering–especially notable and accelerating when we get into Part Eight of the book–mimics the harried, hectic future itself. He does something else very clever–I don’t think this is much of a spoiler–by defying the conventional impulse to converge his two threads. Tania and Sig never do hook up, except at the very end. This lack of familial connection, however bitter or tenuous it might have been, exactly echoes the fragmentation of the country.

Now, this all might have hewed closer to a standard dystopia, well-done but not quite as innovative, except for Brown’s master stroke, the kind of maneuver Matt Ruff pulled with The Mirage. We learn before too long that this timeline is not ours. Things went pear-shaped in the 1980s, when President Reagan was killed and we ended up with President Haig, and a cascade of other changes. This revelation, far from diluting the forcefulness of the book’s message or making us care less, highlights Brown’s theme that so much of our destiny is precarious and contingent, and that the massed, communal decisions of every citizen are of the ultimate consequence in securing either salvation or damnation.

Brown has a kind of cyberpunk attitude and language down pat, as you can see from this quote:

The crowd of ruggedized network administrators and Kevlar-suited middle managers were too busy staggering through the Mardi Gras before the end of the world to notice. Tania almost stepped on one guy sacrificing the contents of his stomach to a dead president stenciled on the painted cinder-block wall.

The revelers did not look like pirates. They had great teeth, dressed in tactical variations on business casual, and brought their lawyers with them. The military merchant companies always lawyered up on deployment, to make sure they didn’t violate the heavily negotiated terms of engagement chartered by Washington and end up blowing their corporate liability shield. Depending on who your direct report was, that could be worse than getting fragged by the local insurgents.

But there’s actually more of an old-school New Wave feel to this book, in my eyes. Ballard is referenced a couple of times: President Mack’s fireside chats are titled “Hello America.” And the overall sensibility of the tale hews, I think, to a kind of John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar), Norman Spinrad (Bug Jack Barron) esthetic and anger. And Sig, far from being noble or smart, and actually quite reprehensible in parts, might have stepped out of Disch’s 334.

Full of gravitas, wry compassion and ornery Midwestern gumption and stubbornness, Tropic of Kansas, while ripped from current headlines, also speaks to the eternal battle to weld a nation of fifty states and five thousand ideologies into an organic whole.

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.

Liz Bourke reviews Cassandra Khaw

Food of the Gods, Cassandra Khaw (Abaddon 978-1781085196, $15.00, 320pp, tp) May 2017.

Food of the Gods is a mosaic novel, of sorts. It collects three linked novellas by Cassandra Khaw that, together, form a whole arc. At least two of these novellas have already been published as standalone e-books. The first of these is called ‘‘Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef’’, and if I tell you it really does live up to the title, you’ve got some idea of the flavour of the novel as a whole.

Only some idea, though, because Food of the Gods is more energetic, more vibrant, more appealing, and more downright weird that even ‘‘cannibal chef’’ might imply.

Some of that weirdness, I’ll admit, is purely due to my unfamiliarity with the myths and folklore that Khaw is using. ‘‘Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef’’ is set in Malaysia – in Kuala Lumpur, to be precise – and the second novella, ‘‘Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth’’ opens there as well. With pantheons and supernatural beings I’d never really encountered before, Food of the Gods demanded that I pay attention just to keep up, but it rewarded that attention: while Food of the Gods might hold the appeal, in part, of novelty, its individual parts are tight, tense, well-constructed examples of urban fantasy.

Rupert Wong works for ghouls in Kuala Lumpur, thanks to some deals he made to lower the amount of time he’ll spend in Hell. He’s a chef. The food he prepares is, naturally, made from humans: if you have a dodgy stomach, this is not the book for you, because Khaw delights in the gruesome throughout. The entertainingly gruesome… but still, preparing human meat for consumption is a taboo that Khaw doesn’t just play with: she cuts it open, pulls out its entrails, and rolls around in them.

In the course of ‘‘Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef’’, Rupert gets involved in the affairs of dragons – a family affair, involving a murder, and also involving the Furies, visitors to Malaysia from abroad. This complicated political landscape enmeshes Rupert in intrigues, and in consequences: flippant, irreverent Rupert is no one’s idea of a canny diplomat. His attempts, in the course of these supernatural politics, to protect (and bargain for the salvation of) the nolonger- exactly-a-woman he loves earn him enmity from several interested parties.

In ‘‘Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth,’’ the consequences of Rupert’s earlier actions catch up with him. He has to go to London – to Croyden, to be exact – where his ghoulish bosses have loaned him out to the Greek gods who’ve made London their new home. There, Rupert finds more supernatural politics. And gruesome shit. And in the third part of this linked narrative, ‘‘Meat, Bone, Tea’’, the new gods of chaos offer Rupert – still stuck in London, far from home – a deal.

Khaw writes with vivid energy. Rupert’s cynical and irreverent voice as a narrator is immensely appealing, and Rupert himself is a fairly compelling character: aware that his residual morals sometimes make him a hypocrite, and more wearily resigned than shocked at every new horror that intrudes into his life. He is perpetually on the lookout for his own advantage and survival – which is compelling and amusing once you realise that Rupert is just a bit cleverer than he lets on.

How does Food of the Gods work as a whole? It’s episodic, since the first two parts – the independently- published novellas – can stand alone, but thematically and in mood, it stands very well as a unity.

Its major unifying theme is that gods and demons, regardless of pantheon, are assholes. (No, really, they’re assholes.) And across its parts, Food of the Gods has a deep concern with domestic violence, especially violence against women, and how many obstacles stand between women and any escape from the violence they are subjected to – much less justice. Food of the Gods is also concerned with the lengths women will go to in order to achieve an end to the violence to which they are subject – or justice, or revenge.

This is also an urban fantasy with very modern concerns. Food of the Gods is intensely interested not in colonialism alone, but in the realities of a post-colonial world, both in supernatural and in human terms. Seen through Rupert’s eyes, London and Croyden become strange: a familiar setting become exotic (I hate that word, but it works), seen through unfamiliar eyes. It reverses the exoticisation of non-European (and non-North-American) places and peoples that’s very nearly standard in fantasy, and does it with an offhandedly challenging grin.

Food of the Gods is well-paced, with at times stomach-curdling tension. Its energetic prose leaps off the page. I enjoyed Khaw’s novella Hammers on Bone – but Food of the Gods demonstrates that she has range. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

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

Russell Letson reviews Ian McDonald

Luna: Wolf Moon, by Ian McDonald (Tor 978-0-7653-7553-7, $27.99, 400pp, hardcover) March 2017

Twenty-seven years ago this month [May], Charles Brown took me on as a reviewer – specifically, he said, to cover the hard-SF end of the field. Of course, Locus neither draws nor enforces sharp boundaries among and between reviewers’ beats, so I have spent the decades following my nose all over the genre(s) rather than pursuing the grail of One True SF. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Judith Merril, that pesky question of ‘‘what do you mean, hard? SF?’’ lingers, and the titles at hand this month have me poking at that wasp-nest yet again.

And I do mean wasp-nest. Theological debates have nothing on arguments over the relative hardness of various sciences or how many physicists it takes to screw up a starship design. Most of these arguments generate more heat than light, but if pushed up against the alley wall, I might finally admit that one of the things that makes for ‘‘hard’’ SF is a sense of constraints – they might originate in physics and orbital mechanics, but they can also extend to a recognition that social, political, economic, and even psychological systems are not infinitely elastic, that they all impose limits on our actions. (This applies to fantasy as well – dreams of unlimited magical powers are not for grownups.) This month’s books deploy speculative technologies that range from the almost-within-our-grasp to the near-magical, but they both qualify as hard SF in their acceptance of the role of limits and their acknowledgment of what happens when we smack into them nose-first.

Ian McDonald’s Luna: Wolf Moon (the second-act volume in the sequence that opened last year with Luna: New Moon) is instantly recognizably as hard SF: it’s set only a century from now, in a future developed from current conditions and built on technologies that we can imagine evolving from today’s cutting-edge efforts in AI, medicine, and engineering. It is a world of wonders: cities on (under, actually) the Moon, giant automated industrial projects, miraculous medical facilities, exotic social systems and psychological adaptations, and plentiful luxuries (for the rich and powerful, anyway). But wonders are not free, and the physical environment and human nature refuse to stand aside to permit unfettered happily-ever-afters. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There are other genres layered onto this familiarly science-fictional setup, categories as powerful as any speculative world-building. The jacket blurbs fasten on the dynastic rivalries of Game of Thrones (or Dallas or the Godfather movies), to which I would add (and have already done, in reviewing the first book) Jacobean drama: the books’ generation-spanning blood feuds, revenges, betrayals, intrigues, and its oligarchs and innocents and malcontents, would do a revenge tragedy proud.

And there’s plenty to avenge. Luna: New Moon ended with the downfall of one of the moon’s Five Dragon clans, the Cortas, at the hands of rival Mackenzie Metals, in a strike meant to wipe out the family and appropriate their helium-mining business. Wolf Moon begins with a terrible Corta retribution and then follows a handful of Corta survivors and several Mackenzies as powers rebalance and further vengeance is planned and set in motion. Lucas Corta escapes to Earth, where he seeks allies to support a return. His son, the teenage playboy Lucasihno, and his nine-year-old niece Luna have been spared the slaughter but are powerless and vulnerable. Matrimonial lawyer Ariel is paralyzed and paupered and sidelined. Her Earthborn assistant and bodyguard, Marina Calzaghe, remains loyal even as she faces her Moonday, when she must decide whether to leave the moon or remain forever physiologically bound to it.

Plenty of other cast members get their own viewpoint sections, allowing us to follow the plotting and maneuvers of the factions within as well as between the families and other power blocs. Of particular interest are Wagner Corta, a ‘‘wolf,’’ and Alexia Corta, head of a branch of the family left behind on Earth two generations earlier. Both are fierce personalities even in a drama filled with scarily intense characters. Wagner’s werewolf identity is rooted in bipolar disorder, but ‘‘push[ed] in another direction altogether’’ by medications and ‘‘a social frame… a culture that accepts and supports it.’’ His divided self shifts between light and dark phases as the Earth waxes and wanes in the lunar sky, and he feels closer to his pack than to his family, at least until he takes responsibility for his 13-year-old nephew Robson, who is, thanks to a dynastic marriage, both a Corta and a Mackenzie. Alexia, whose drive and enterprise (and don’t-mess-with-me-and-mine attitude) have made a secure place for her in the hardscrabble parts of Rio de Janeiro, seizes the opportunity when Lucas comes down to build alliances against the lunar powers and makes herself his Iron Fist.

Not that the rest of the dramatis personae are pussycats, and various of them are responsible for betrayal, murder, kidnapping, blackmail, massacre, sabotage, putsch, and, finally, dire warfare. They are monsters – and also marvels of loyalty, courage, and resilience, as in Wagner’s devotion to Robson or in Lucasinho and Luna’s heroic trek through all the hazards the moon and warfare can offer. As Lucas observed back in New Moon, people are ‘‘your worst enemy and your best hope.’’

Wolf Moon is also filled with the poetry of fact – of precise observation, of understanding processes, of concreteness and accuracy of depiction. The main narrative opens with Robson Corta surviving a three-kilometer plummet from the top level of a lunar city in the course of a traceur run (the moon’s version of parkour). ‘‘There are,’’ he knows, ‘‘rules of falling,’’ and a four-page sequence enumerates them and details Robson’s execution of the appropriate measures

This passage is echoed during Lucas Corta’s trip to the Earth, where the quantitative and the sensory combine in a description of the tether-transfer system that flings an automated passenger capsule from a constantly-circulating craft to a catcher-shuttle and down to the planet. Lucas knows ‘‘how it all worked. It was controlled falling.’’ He feels ‘‘bangs [and] lurches’’ and vibrations and shaking and ‘‘savage’’ bodydistorting decelerations, and he understands that the process is governed by numbers: the number of gravities of deceleration to be endured, orbital altitude, the duration of re-entry, the temperature reached by the capsule’s hull, the speed at touchdown, and finally ‘‘Zero. The number of crew who could take the controls if anything went wrong.’’

Similar passages remind the characters (and us) of the envelope within which lunar social and economic life must fit, the unforgiving nature of the lunar environment and the fragility of what humans have built there: the constant threats of vacuum and radiation and dust, the need for airlock seals and escape pods and safety protocols.

Of course, it’s not all backstabbing and blowouts. The lunar social world offers an array of experiments in political, economic, personal, and interpersonal arrangements. Practically (or even impractically) every imaginable variety of sexual identity and expression is available, and domestic/amatory relationships are matters of free-association and contract. These personal choices signal the nature of this polity, so it is probably appropriate that marriage lawyer Ariel provides the clearest articulation of the libertarian-contractual vision of lunar political thinking:

It’s individualistic and it’s atomising and it’s harsh but it is understood. And the limits are clear…. There are individuals, there are families, there are corporations…. We are unsophisticated grudge-bearing barbarians. I rather like it.

Even here there are limits, though, imposed by the human rather than the physical environment. It’s not just the usual stew of competitiveness and greed, of family loyalty and corresponding rivalries and blood-feud, but, from far down in the psyches of the moon’s inhabitants, where run deep currents of the supra-rational, the myth-soaked, and the near-mystical: religions and quasi-religious associations and the nearly-superstitious sense of more-than-human forces at work (the Luna that kills).

Whether it is in descriptions of moonscapes or industrial processes or assassinations or robotic warfare or family reunions (with or without assassinations), McDonald’s language can and does rise to the occasion, as it must if it is to drive a story so ambitious in its portrayal of humankind at the limits of its power to create and destroy.

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 K.J. Parker and James Morrow

Mightier Than the Sword, by K. J. Parker (Subterranean 978-1-59606-817-9, $40, 136pp, hardcover) June 2017

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, by James Morrow (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-265-4, $14.95, 184pp, trade paperback) June 2017

It seems pretty nigh inarguable that novellas are hot right now. Long esteemed as the perfect mode for fantastika–since they allow for plentiful world-building, depth of characterization and density of plot, while still being a relatively quick snack rather than the outsized banquet of a bug-crusher or a trilogy—novellas have found favor with publishers as well as readers. Part of their ascendency is also due to extra-literary reasons: congenial ebook and marketplace parameters.

Whatever has given this format its moment in the spotlight, we readers must rejoice. Especially with two fine examples such as the ones under discussion here.

Having been revealed as Tom Holt, “K. J. Parker” continues to produce his own distinctive style of story, much like Kit Reed or Joyce Carol Oates or John Banville with their alternate identities. This time around, Parker has delivered a spry, cynical, whimsical tale that combines the Howardian savageries he is known for with the breezier stylings of Holt’s comedies. A certain Wodehousian flavor is evident right from the start when we realize we are about to hear the account of a somewhat idle, somewhat foppish, but surprisingly lucky and smart nephew who is acting at the behest of a domineering aunt.

The aunt happens to be the sovereign of the Empire of the Robur (great use of that Vernean proper name, as well as all other cognomens), and her nephew is the heir apparent, our narrator. (We never learn their exact appellations, rendering these personages rather symbolic, atop their colorful individuation.) She commissions the young fellow to track down the barbarian raiders who are despoiling the various monastery communities, all of which center on their libraries. This conceit makes this book one of those somewhat rare bibliocentric fantasies, of which I’ll name just Vernor Vinge’s Tatja Grimm’s World.

And so off our boy goes, embarking on an exotic odyssey of chicanery, realpolitik, warfare, and eventual marriage to his favorite beloved prostitute. Combining Tom Jones-style picaresque with a genuine mystery McGuffin–who is behind these raids, and what do they want?–the tale offers surprises, laughter, shocks and epigrammatic flair. Parker substantiates his subcreation with a vivid backstory that covers more than a thousand years, and the bookish aspect of the tale remains central without being domineering or mawkish.

Our hero’s self-assessment will ring true to most of Parker’s audience. “Anyone who reads the right book has an ally, an advisor who’s far more clever than he is and can tell him what to do. I have a box of books that goes with me everywhere… Accordingly, I’m damned if I’m going to let the accumulated wisdom of the past perish from the face of the earth…”

Certainly this delightful frolic, composed of dark and light segments in equal measure, is a prime candidate for anyone’s box of literary treasures.

Having done such a delightful job with his previous short novel, The Madonna and the Starship (reviewed in this very venue) James Morrow continues his foray into compactified fables with a book that riffs on a very famous film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Thus, like Parker’s book, it finds inspiration for a new tale in contemplation of the glories of an extant tradition.

Also like the Parker book, this tale derives power from the idiosyncratic first-person narration. Our hero in this case is one Francis Wyndham, a fair-to-middling young artist without much of a career. The year is 1914, just before the outbreak of WWI, and Wyndham sets off to Europe to seek painterly fame and fortune. But he gets nowhere, and, down to his last franc, he takes a job as therapeutic artist-in-residence at the Träumenchen sanitarium run by one Alessandro Caligari. Once ensconced there (and told he may not leave the grounds till his employment is terminated, one way or another), Wyndham is quickly introduced to the unorthodox methodologies of the Doctor; his eccentric staff; and the bizarre patients. One of these latter, Ilona, who fancies herself the “Spider Queen of Ogygia,” will become Wyndham’s lover and co-conspirator in their quest to foil Dr. Caligari and his scheme to turn out super-soldiers for all factions willing to pay, through the use of a mystical canvas.

And so up and down the corridors of the sanitarium, then onto the battlefields of the war itself, our heroes plot and sneak and labor magically, until an ending which removes the book from mortal realms of socio-political realities into a kind of numinous epiphany.

Morrow’s solid, colorful evocation of the era is matched only by his portraiture of the zany cast. Even Wyndham, ostensibly mundane and anchored, soon partakes of the madness-that-is-truth. I was particularly enamored of Ilona’s constant stream of spoonerisms and Carrollian wordplay, but she is not alone in turning out a neat phrase. Some of the dialogue assumes a Ballardian flavor of slightly askew non-sequiturs, gnomically issued. The conceit of the psychically potent artwork fashioned by Caligari brings to mind, of course, Monty Python’s famous “Funniest Joke in the World” skit. But Morrow deftly layers in even more allusiveness. Of course, any madhouse-centric novel in this era has to tip the hat to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But I also detect some kinship with John Barth’s The End of the Road, as well as to some of the Gothic tales of E. T. A. Hoffman. But any such nods are discreet and counterbalanced by Morrow’s own unique conceptions and delivery. The Asylum of Dr. Caligari succeeds in being at once a brilliant rendering of an antique spooky passion play and a timeless lesson about megalomaniacs, art, science and love.

Both these novellas, I would maintain, offer as much pleasure as books three times their size. Snap them up!

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.

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