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Paul Di Filippo reviews David D. Levine

Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (Tor 978-0-7653-8281-8, $25.99, 352pp, hardcover) July 2016

This seems to be a “steam engine time” kind of period in publishing, when writers who have focused exclusively on short fiction for many years now step forth with their long-anticipated debut novels. (There are always plenty of debut novels, of course, in any given year, but not many of their authors nowadays have a decade or more of short-story production behind them, having instead vaulted straight to long form.) Ken Liu brought us The Grace of Kings. Yoon Ha Lee issued Ninefox Gambit. And now comes David Levine’s Arabella of Mars, ushering him into hardcovers some twenty years after his first story appeared (“The Worldcon that Wasn’t”) and a longish time after his 2005 Hugo win for “Tk’tk’tk.”

Arabella proves to be well worth the wait. It is a straight-up tale of incredible yet believable adventures fit to have flowed from the quill of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is old-school Planet Stories SF without snark, smarm or apologies. At the same time it is utterly state-of-the-art, 21st-century in its sensibilities and technics. It’s an intriguing counterfactual slightly reminiscent of Novik’s Temeraire series. It’s nuts-and-bolts gadgetry SF that John Campbell would have proudly adopted. It has gravitas and humor, romance and battle, sacrifice and victory in large measures. In short, I can’t see this book—and its intended successors, since it’s labeled Volume 1—as being anything but a huge triumph.

Here’s the conceptual background. The duration of our narrative is a mere several months spanning the years 1812 and 1813, but on a continuum divergent from ours to a large degree. In this universe, a breathable aether or atmosphere, with winds, permeates the interplanetary distances, enabling unpressurized ships to sail from planet to planet, once they launch themselves from terra firma. (And who was the first man to make the voyage from Earth to the Red Planet? None other than Captain Kidd!) Mars and Venus are both habitable by humans, and are basically the kinds of world described in those recent anthologies by Dozois and Martin, Old Mars and Old Venus. Mars boasts natives—carapaced, craboidal bipeds—and we can assume Venus has her aliens as well, though that planet is outside this installment’s purview. Mars is dry and sandy, Venus swampy.

The Ashby plantation on Mars is a rich estate providing a special kind of tree used for ship-building, where our heroine dwells with her older brother Michael and two younger sisters. Born on Mars, seventeen-year-old Arabella loves the place. Her mother, however, does not, and succeeds in relocating herself and the reluctant girls back to Earth, leaving the menfolk behind.

Arabella is miserable on the strange “homeworld.” And when her adult cousin Simon conceives of a plan to voyage to Mars to wrest the plantation deceitfully away from brother Michael, Arabella’s only course is clear. She must follow Simon and prevent the usurpation. This strategy involves disguising herself as male; enlisting on a commercial vessel under the redoubtable Captain Singh and his cybernetic (and sentient?) navigator, Aadim; and facing hardships galore, including manning the motivating pedals of the ship; dealing with surly rival crew members, pirates, and mutineers; and laboring for days of emergency charcoal-burning on a remote forested asteroid.

But if the journey as a sailor to Mars is difficult and taxing, what follows upon landing is pure heartbreak and savagery. I shall not spoil your thrills by detailing the events in advance of your reading.

Levine’s breakdown of his story into various organically interflowing sections is capably designed to maximize the engagement of the reader and the maturation of Arabella. First comes the brief opener on Mars, which tells us a lot about the planet, this peculiar universe and the Ashby family. The few chapters on Earth set the MacGuffin of Arabella chasing Simon in motion, the whole engine of the plot. The huge majority of the book is Arabella’s service on Captain Singh’s ship during the Earth-Mars transit, which shows us the intricate mechanics of celestial travel, all vividly described; Arabella’s trial by fire and the refinement of her natural strengths; and her growing emotional attachment to Singh, along with many scary and amusing interactions among the crew. Finally, the climactic section on Mars reveals Arabella’s new capacities, ties up the family matters, and positions a springboard to future installments.

Arabella is onstage on every page, and a charming creation she is. No superwoman nor suffragette, she nevertheless by simple competence, bravery, talent and spunk proves herself equal to any of the male characters and superior to several. Her trepidations, fears and mistakes are given fair weight as well, rendering her sympathetically fallible. The rest of the cast achieves a nice roundedness as well. Singh reminded me of another Asian captain from fantastika—Verne’s Nemo, though less dour and doomed.

What is really miraculous about this book is the way Levine balances between deep cognitive estrangement and pure surface storytelling. Here’s what I mean. Suppose this same story had been told by, say, Ian MacLeod or John Crowley. The balance would have tipped, I think, towards a density of effects and interiority, producing a book similar to The Light Ages or Engine Summer—both wonderful, excellent books, but involuted. Now suppose Edgar Rice Burroughs—an obvious influence and ancestor here—had written Arabella of Mars. Well, you know how that volume would have read, all breathless action but somewhat shallow and pulpy. But instead of either of those two extremes, Levine has produced a book that combines the best of both modes.

Part of this derives from his very deft and poetically calculated language. He has found a graceful style of prose that achieves a certain gravitas without being Henry Fielding. It is not full-bore 1812 syntax and rhetoric, but neither is it anachronistically 21st-century speak. Arabella’s attitudes and language artfully reflect the mindset and education of a girl of the Napoleonic era. The voice of the omniscient narrator continues in this semi-formal, semi-familiar vein, conducive to easy, yet challenging reading. The reader is quickly absorbed into the new world, her senses sharpened for the twisty bits while relishing the homey parts.

Feisty young ladies from Mars used to be represented by ERB’s Dejah Thoris and Heinlein’s Podkayne (and to a lesser degree by Al Sarrantonio’s criminally neglected Haydn of Mars). Now to this illustrious roster we can add Arabella, who, if her later adventures adhere to this high standard, might outshine them all.

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.

Steady As She Goes: A Review of Star Trek Beyond

by Gary Westfahl

To a remarkable extent, Star Trek Beyond is a film designed to appeal to aging fans of the original series; certain moments – the repeated references to the late Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the elderly Ambassador Spock, a photograph of the original cast, the sound of the first series’ fanfare, and the concluding recital of the iconic Star Trek oath (“Space …. the final frontier ….”) by all seven of the new cast members – might even bring tears to the eyes of individuals who watched the first episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) fifty years ago. Certainly, they never could have imagined that fifty years later, after four additional series, twelve films, and innumerable novels, comic books, video games, and amateur productions, they would now be watching the thirteenth major film derived from Gene Roddenberry’s modest dream of creating a television series that would last five years.

Of course, “aging fans” are not the demographic that contemporary filmmakers covet, and one can rest assured that Star Trek Beyond also includes ample doses of the explosions, fistfights, and chaotic chases that are said to most entertain young filmgoers, though these scenes invariably bore and confuse this no-longer-young reviewer. It is thus a film that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, albeit for different reasons.

For example, to some viewers, the courageously leisurely opening sequence crafted by screenwriters Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, and their uncredited collaborators might seem tedious; but it is a part of the film that I especially enjoyed. There is a bit of comic violence that recalls “The Trouble with Tribbles” (1967) more than your standard space epic, as Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew fend off the attacks of diminutive aliens; Kirk muses at length about the ups and downs of everyday life on a starship; and the Enterprise docks at an immense space habitat called Yorktown for routine maintenance, providing the crew with a period of rest and relaxation before the inevitable crisis ensues. We are reminded that, even if there aren’t any loathsome aliens around poised to destroy the galaxy (the menace eventually unveiled in this film), there can be something interesting about the singular experience of living on board a starship, finding ways to fill the time and dealing with minor conflicts and problems. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) was especially inclined to intriguingly explore such quiet moments on the Enterprise, and one can imagine an entire film of a similar nature. Unfortunately, Hollywood executives would not be amused if Pegg and Jung, pitching concepts for a future Star Trek film, announced, “Hey, here’s a wild idea …. How about a Star Trek film in which nothing really happens? You know, just a few typical days in the lives of Captain Kirk and his crew ….”

In another respect, Star Trek Beyond is truer to the spirit of the original series than one might expect, and it relates to a key difference between the Star Wars franchise and the Star Trek franchise. As I noted while reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) (review here), the world of Star Wars is relentlessly melodramatic: some characters are entirely good, and other characters are entirely evil; the drama always involves the entirely good people successfully defeating the entirely evil people; and the only possible transformations are that an entirely good person might suddenly become entirely evil, or an entirely evil person might suddenly become entirely good. In contrast, Star Trek consistently insists that situations are never as simple as that: apparently evil people might have perfectly reasonable motives for their actions; at times, they might be right, and the benign Federation of Planets might be wrong; instead of rushing into battle with them, one should instead make an effort to understand, and reach agreements with, all of their foes.

What makes the character of Krall (Idris Elba) fascinating is that he is simultaneously a spokesperson for the attitude of Star Wars and a refutation of it. Because the Federation is always seeking to avoid conflict and achieve peace, Krall argues that its people have lost their spirit and become weak; to rediscover their true greatness, they must return to warfare, to be reinvigorated by constant struggles against their enemies. And, as if to illustrate the virtues of this philosophy, Krall emulates the typical Star Wars villain by doing one despicable thing after another, guaranteeing that, following the dictates of Hollywood morality, he ultimately must be defeated and destroyed.

And yet, even as they gasp in horror at his latest atrocity, characters like Uhura (Zoë Saldana) are trying to figure out precisely why he wants to do all of these terrible things; unlike people in Star Wars, they refuse to assume that he’s simply No Darn Good. And by the end of the film, our heroes have learned these things: Krall was originally an admirable man; he has a perfectly good reason for hating the Federation; he sincerely believes that his seemingly harmful actions will benefit the Federation; and even as they watch him die, they are inclined to feel sorry for him, not despise him. Kirk’s summary judgment is not “The bastard got what he deserved,” but rather, “He lost his way.” In this respect, Krall represents a perfect illustration of the Star Trek philosophy, which was shared by Robert A. Heinlein, who repeatedly said that he didn’t believe in villains; people were not inherently evil, they simply had different ideas about what is good. And this also makes Star Trek Beyond an appropriate successor to Star Trek into Darkness (2013) – which, as I suggested in my review (here), was the story of Star Trek characters who found themselves being forced into a Star Wars plot, and not liking that at all. Here, those characters confront another Star Wars plot and, despite necessary concessions to Hollywood’s insistence upon colorful conflict, they effectively transform it into a Star Trek plot.

All this is not to say, by the way, that characters in Star Trek are hopelessly naïve, refusing to accept the fact that, in some cases at least, someone they encounter actually might be No Darn Good. Indeed, there is one character in the film that the Enterprise crew initially trusts but turns out to be genuinely evil. But Kirk figures this out soon enough to avoid lasting harm, and the film affirms the value of assuming strangers are trustworthy when Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) quickly forges an alliance with a new acquaintance, the alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and her assistance proves essential to the crew’s final victory.

To sustain the Star Trek franchise, I believe, future films will always have to hearken back to the charitable beliefs that Roddenberry incorporated into his television series; but it will also be necessary to continue developing and strengthening his characters, now in the hands of a new generation of actors. Star Trek Beyond does this reasonably well, but only in some cases.

On the positive side, aided by close physical resemblances, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, have mastered the art of perfectly replicating the performances of Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, and it is delightful to watch them at work. Lacking close physical resemblances, Chris Pine as Kirk, and Pegg as Scott, have crafted somewhat different, but equally satisfying, personalities for their characters. There are a few novelties to report in this film. First, while one expects scenes foregrounding the relationship of Kirk and Spock, and Kirk and McCoy, Star Trek Beyond surprisingly emphasizes the relationship between Spock and McCoy, suggesting that theirs might be the strongest friendship on the Enterprise, despite their constant, good-natured bickering. (Then again, perhaps the characters are bonding because they are the ones that most resemble their original counterparts, in contrast to the others.) Second, Pine’s Kirk has finally been allowed to mature beyond the bad-boy image he nurtured in the first two films, and he now can complete a mission without being demoted or disciplined. Finally, as one might expect in a screenplay co-authored by the actor who plays the role, Scott has a more prominent role in the film, virtually establishing himself as the film’s fourth protagonist, and while his interactions with the alien engineer Keenser (Deep Roy) are fewer, there are hints of a budding romance between Scott and Jaylah.

The problems involve the other regular cast members – Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov – and what seems to be happening to them recalls what happened to the original characters. Star Trek planned to give each of its regulars recurring moments in the spotlight, and early episodes displayed their special abilities: Uhura sings! Sulu is an expert swordsman! But writers gradually gave up trying to bring these characters to life, instead focusing on the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on alien planets while Scott captained the Enterprise. Similarly, the first two films worked hard to create new and more distinctive personalities for Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov; but this film more or less abandons them. Saldana has a number of scenes, none of them really important, and at times she seems lost, as if she is losing her grip on the character; Cho is virtually invisible (though it is fleetingly indicated that he is gay); and Yelchin stands out only in a closing scene when he clumsily emulates the original Chekov’s purportedly humorous but actually annoying habit of asserting that everything was originally invented in Russia.

The case of Yelchin is particularly unfortunate: because of his recent death, one would like to report that he enlivened this film by providing a remarkable final performance. In fact, his Chekov had virtually nothing to do, and he didn’t do it particularly well. When producer J. J. Abrams announced that Yelchin’s character would not be recast, he suggested that he was doing so as a tribute to Yelchin’s talents; but it might be more cynically theorized that he was taking advantage of a tragedy to eliminate a character that simply wasn’t working. As it happens, the film introduces a promising character who might be recruited to take Chekov’s place on the Enterprise: the alien Jaylah, who will be entering Starfleet Academy in order to qualify as a crew member. Her strong point is that unlike McCoy, whose reflexive cantankerousness never conceals his genuine kindness and thoughtfulness, Jaylah can be sincerely irritable, and thus she might serve as a refreshing tonic for a crew that sometimes seems to get along a bit too well.

Speaking of tonics: showing a prissy concern for modeling good behavior to younger viewers, Roddenberry eliminated all of the drinking that distinguished the original series in Star Trek: The Next Generation; this film brings it back with a vengeance, as Kirk, McCoy, and Jaylah are all observed enthusiastically imbibing. (Oddly, the one Star Trek character who was most likely to get rip-roaring drunk, Montgomery Scott, only briefly holds a glass for a toast.) As another gesture to tradition, the leader of the Yorktown space habitat, Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo), is surely supposed to be an ancestor – the grandmother? – of Tom Paris, a crew member in Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Less admirably, the film also repeats an unsuccessful joke from the worst Star Trek film, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989): in that film, Scott is saying that “I know the Enterprise like the back of my hand” just as he hits his head on an overhead beam; here, Kirk says that he has “a good nose for danger” just as he steps into a trap. Another reference to that film comes when McCoy says, “at least I won’t die alone,” recalling Kirk’s statement, “I’ve always known I’ll die alone.”

Star Trek Beyond offers one striking addition to the Star Trek universe – the unusual space habitat Yorktown, which is completely unlike the space stations seen in earlier series and films. Within a gigantic translucent sphere, metal filaments extend in various directions, with numerous structures and environments (including a lake) attached to their sides where residents live and work, held in place by Star Trek’s ubiquitous artificial gravity. The logic behind such an enormous undertaking can certainly be questioned: when McCoy wonders why they bothered to build it, Spock replies that a neutral site was necessary, since placing the settlement on a planet would have shown favoritism to one side or another. But an isolated, uninhabited planet would seemingly have worked just as well. Perhaps the production designers were simply trying to outdo the elaborate space habitat depicted in Elysium (2013) (review here). Perhaps it represents a subtle dig at Star Wars: after all, the characteristic Star Wars plot involves the heroes’ efforts to destroy a huge evil sphere; here, the heroes are striving to protect a huge friendly sphere.

Yorktown’s apparent impracticality may reflect the fact that the film’s voluminous credits, while incongruously acknowledging an “international political advisor,” do not include a “science advisor,” and there are other scientific aspects of the film that seem implausible. The Enterprise’s mission is to rescue stranded space travelers within a “nebula” consisting of huge chunks of rock almost next to each other; the materials in actual nebulae are widely separated. When the Enterprise is attacked and destroyed, both its intact saucer, and any number of escape pods, crash into the surface of a nearby, extremely mountainous planet; yet even though these vehicles smash into several peaks along the way, the crew is still able to activate systems on the Enterprise, and none of the pods are damaged (though Spock sustains an injury). Later, when they escape from their alien adversaries and get another starship in working order, their takeoff again involves hitting several mountain peaks without harming the ship or its occupants. And the “bioweapon” that Krall wants to use against the Federation is never really explained; to me, it looked more like nanotechnology.

Finally, I am disinclined to discuss the themes that the film incessantly foregrounds – the need to strive for “impossible” goals, the importance of finding one’s true self, the value of achieving “unity,” and so on – because they all seem so forced, so inorganic to the film. When Spock says, for example, that the crew of the Enterprise “will find hope in the impossible,” that is manifestly the voice of the screenwriters, not the voice of Spock. But Hollywood’s tried-and-true formula for box-office success, obviously, includes “lots of uplifting platitudes” as one element, and they fortunately pass by quickly enough so as to not become a major annoyance. As indicated, the valuable message of Star Trek Beyond is embedded within its story, not its dialogue, and it is a message that one would like to hear more often in contemporary films.

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), 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. 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.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Jeffrey Ford

A Natural History of Hell, by Jeffrey Ford ((Small Beer Press 978-1-61873-118-0, $16, 256pp, trade paperback) July 2016

Some fifteen years ago, on this very website, noted critic and editor Nick Gevers offered a list titled The Best SF and Fantasy Short Story Writers: A Contemporary Top Ten. His choices were a catalogue of top-notch fantasists—Shepard, Wolfe, et al—and I found myself astonished, humbled and flattered to be included. I like to imagine that perhaps my subsequent work continued to justify such an honor.

But we are not here today, of course, to talk about me. We are here to ponder what names might be on such a list newly composed in 2016. (Your suggestions in the comments most welcome.)

I would like to nominate Jeff Ford for a slot. I think it’s undeniable that his unique voice and sensibilities demonstrate the best of what our genre can do. Any new collection from him, surfacing at slow, deliberate, but not too leisurely intervals, is always an occasion for joy, and an ongoing demonstration of his prowess and the possibilities inherent in fantastika.

Let’s take a look at his newest volume, and see if we can discern what makes his work so wonderful and exemplary.

“The Blameless” is the only story original to this assemblage. It starts out all domestic quotidianness, like something out of The New Yorker, then, just a bit further down the first page, swerves into the uncanny. It appears that suburban families are now hosting exorcism parties for their wayward children. Our husband and wife viewpoint characters, a kind of lovingly squabbling Nick and Nora, attend one such party with dramatic and unforeseen results. Here we see Ford’s salient black humor at play, as well as his ability to blend mimesis and the supernatural in seamless fashion. George Saunders would have been proud to write this one.

According to all the academic technics of “good storytelling,” “Word Doll” really shouldn’t work, since it’s all second-hand recounting of some weird Golden Bough-style folklore. But thanks to the empathetic viewpoint character (who happens to be a writer named “Jeff Ford”) and the fascinating invented rituals, as well as a good portrayal of the guardian of this lore who is telling the story, the whole tale becomes mesmerizing and highly satisfactory. I think it illuminates how Ford has learned from older narrative forms, such as Lovecraftian “histories,” and is willing to experiment with “tell, don’t show” as an alternative to current narrative orthodoxies.

If both of these first two tales walked a borderline between fantasy and horror, “The Angel Seems” plunges fully over that border into pure horror. A small village is beset by the depredations of the aforementioned supernatural being named “Seems.” Ford’s fecund imagination provides a vast array of archetypical, Mignola-level terrors, body-related and otherwise, and the ending is suspenseful, heroic and unpredictable.

Fans of the oddball family dynamics in Ford’s fabulous novel, The Shadow Year, will find some of the same allure in “Mount Chary Galore,” along with a Manly Wade Wellman rustic-eeriness vibe. Three kids become involved with the totemic witchy figure of Mrs. Oftshaw, purveyor of the fabled healing goop referenced in the title, and they find her grasp extending into their own domestic affairs.

Channeling Haruki Murakami and maybe some 1960s Japanese social-realist cinema, “A Natural History of Autumn” finds a man and woman, newly acquainted, at a strange country cottage where otherworldly beings reign. Their escape scene from the lair is protractedly pulse-pounding.

Black satire, but never bludgeoningly obvious, dominates “Blood Drive,” about a day not far from our present—perhaps along lateral dimensions—where packing firepower is the birthright of every citizen from age twelve upward, and high-school life is, as you might expect, rather more fraught with danger and anxiety than we currently experience.

Emily Dickinson, deeply limned, undergoes some uncharacteristic adventures outside the confines of her Amherst home in “A Terror,” which find her serving as a nanny and employing her verses as talismanic weapons. Ford captures the rhythms and attitudes of her Victorian times in a manner that is simultaneously vintage and eternal.

“Rocket Ship to Hell” reads like a collaboration among Barry Malzberg, William Barton and Howard Waldrop. Taking a break from the rigors of the World SF Convention in Philly, our author hero has a bar-room encounter with an older writer who shares with him a long anecdote about the strange intersection between SF and a quartet of eccentric, space-travel-loving millionaire fans.

Ford’s wild-eyed version of steampunk, “The Fairy Enterprise,” is like no other, involving a crude, megalomaniacal entrepreneur named Bennett and his desire to create a fairy factory, along the following lines:

The libban are gathered up at the top of the silo and then pushed through a tube into a chamber where they are blasted with the powdered dirt of the earth. This mix of spirit and dust is then spewed out across the fruiting vats of the factory, wherein will grow large, globe-headed mushrooms. When they succeed to a certain plumpness, these fungi will burst and fairies will be born.

Bennett’s greed and unethical ways receive a fitting comeuppance.

“The Last Triangle” might have flowed from the pens of Tim Powers or James Blaylock, while yet being unmistakably Fordian. Our junkie narrator, wholly convincing in his self-deprecating trough of despair, is adopted out of sheer compassion by an elderly woman who thereupon turns out to be involved in mystical shenanigans. The relationship between the pair is positively Sturgeonesque, and the mysteries of the rituals are startling and fresh.

A kind of swashbuckling tale that reminded me in a way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, despite lack of any obvious Asian themes, “Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart” is a kind of sophisticated hybrid of Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard. Our daring swordsman hero, possessed of a magical blade, finds himself going up against an implacable foe of equal power. The hidden forces behind the assault prove shockingly intimate.

Surely “The Thyme Fiend” will enter the annals of essential, classic ghost stories. Rich with the hot, dusty evocations of a simpler, yet no less demanding era—small-town USA circa 1915, quasi-Bradburian—the tale involves the titular lad, subject to painful visions that only ingestion of the herb thyme can alleviate, and the ghost of “Jimmy Tooth,” who seeks vengeance for his murder.

Finally, we encounter this startling injunction: “I want you to go forth in the world, find the Devil, and paint his portrait.” Such is “The Prelate’s Commission,” given to the artist Talejui. The task proves infinitely recondite, and does not end well for any of the parties.

Having surveyed and relished the contents of A Natural History of Hell, what can we adduce as Ford’s distinctions? A highly controlled mutable style and love of language, which can accommodate the first-person narration of a modern-day drug addict as easily as it contours to the omniscient attention given to a youth of the early twentieth century. Then there’s the originality and startling novelty of his conceits, no rehashed tropes or clichés, but new ideas and symbols which nonetheless tap into primordial wells of human feeling and thought. Ford possesses both a sense of ethics and outrage at the affronts of existence and also a fount of cosmic humor, each of which balances the other perfectly. Finally, the reader feels that this writer is fully invested in each tale, inhabiting his varied subcreations as a demiurge inhabits his children of clay, animating his characters with his own lifeforce, not slighting or only half-believing in them, but rather endorsing the reality of all their actions, even while from a larger perspective they might be doing wrong.

These traits, combined with sheer native talent, are what make a truly outstanding writer, a level at which Jeff Ford comfortably and indubitably perches.

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.

Faren Miller reviews Andrea Hairston

Will Do Magic For Small Change, Andrea Hairston (Aqueduct 978-1-61976-101-8, $21.00, 472pp, tp) June 2016. Cover by Nic Ularu. [Order from Aqueduct Press, PO Box 95787, Seattle WA 98145-2787; www.aqueductpress.com.]

The glossary at the back of Andrea Hairston’s Will Do Magic For Small Change includes words and phrases from African and Native American tribes, plus a smattering of European (mostly German). Hairston deftly weaves all this and more into two powerful linked tales: the primary one, set in Pittsburgh PA, combines mainstream sen­sibilities with elements of the fantastic, while the other – officially known as The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer – is the SFnal/mythic diary of a shapeshifting entity from another dimension who takes human form in West Africa in 1892.

Since the Pittsburgh plotline follows a black girl from 1984 to 1987, younger readers may also view it as ‘‘historic,’’ but teens aren’t Hairston’s prime audience. Though Cinnamon Jones is almost 13 when we first see her as a new Guardian for the diary (in a family where few have held that special trust) and she later bonds with quirky young friends from various cultural backgrounds (who can feel its force), the novel swiftly moves beyond YA fantasy to become a powerful, multi-generational, magical family drama where the Wanderer could play a crucial role in determining a lost sibling’s heritage and an ailing father’s fate.

It starts with a wake at Johnson’s Funeral Home, as the contentious family gathers to eat fried food and mourn Sekou: Cinnamon’s gay male, half-brother, in his late teens when he quarreled with his lover, died of an overdose, and left her with the leather-bound Chronicles. Already hefty and much taller than her mother Opal (a bus driver), Cinnamon may not look heroic, but she defends the book even after Opal says Sekou found it in a dumpster and ‘‘drag­ging trash around with you everywhere won’t turn it into magic.’’ While mom talks like a hardened cynic, her daughter sees the pain she tries to hide. Sekou’s just part of it, for second husband Raven (Cinnamon’s father, an artist with spirit magic in his work) has spent the last few years in near-comatose state, since taking a bullet while trying to stop a murder.

Cinnamon dreams of finding some way to revive him. The answer might lie in the Chron­icles. Though the setting could be our world, its characters and action mix the heightened spirit of myth and the melodrama of ancestral legend with something more like surreal science fic­tion. The Wanderer first manifests in a cavern where a ‘‘king’s wife, warrior woman’’ flees to escape punishment for devotion to another: a twin brother who shares a soul with her. After she’s forced to mercy-kill that twin, the strange visitor adopts his form and name. The diary will follow them (along with an equally iconic woman and child) through colonial Africa to France, and then America – where an initial sense of New World promise turns to disaster in Chicago.

Back at the wake in Pittsburgh, other po­tential sources of aid arrive late: grandmother Redwood, Irish/Seminole hoodoo man grand­father Aidan, and Great-Aunt Iris. Each has a special power. When Redwood gets angry (go­ing into ‘‘storm mode’’), ‘‘electricity snapped up people’s backs and flashed in their eyes. Icy fog surged through the window.’’

Hairston combines all this, giving every type of magic, hoodoo, and weirdness its own flavor and tone, yet grounding them in our gritty world, where even the Wanderer and fellow refugees must deal with the blunt, non-mystical facts of daily life. It’s a remarkable achievement – all the more so as plotlines come together in a finale that avoids grandeur, ending before miracle but capturing the true joy of hope.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Douglas Lain’s Deserts of Fire

Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War, edited by Douglas Lain (Skyhorse/Night Shade Books 978-1-59780-852-1, $15.99, 372pp, trade paperback) July 2016

For the USA, the Vietnam War ended in April of 1975. Some twelve years later appeared In the Field of Fire, an anthology edited by Jack Dann and Jeanne van Buren Dann, applying the toolkit of speculative fiction to an attempt to understand that particular realworld conflict and analogous future military exploits.

Operation Desert Storm, or the First Gulf War, ended in 1991. Other linked conflicts, of course, are still in progress. But if we take 1991 as the start of the period when we would begin to try to parse what had happened, using that same SF armamentarium, then Doug Lain’s new project, Deserts of Fire—“a war-inspired anthology for the new millennium…the recent wars in the deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East”— arrives some twenty-five years after its initial precipitating event.

Does this relative lag indicate that SF has slowed down and lost its fondness for topicality, its desire to perform autopsies on current events and use them as narrative springboards? To some significant degree, I think so. SF today seems politically engaged, perhaps more so than ever, even to the frequent detriment of storytelling. But the range of topics which such engagé works seem willing to address is incredibly limited and often narrow and almost solipsistically personal in scope. Where is the modern equivalent of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron today? Maybe some offerings from Kim Stanley Robinson or Ian McDonald come closest. But they are basically going it alone.

On the other hand, the aforementioned fact that these 21st-century wars against nebulous enemies are still underway might also have precluded the desire to address something whose lineaments are not yet fixed in history. I suspect the reason it took twenty-five years after Desert Storm for this book to appear is a combination of all those factors.

But whatever the case, Lain’s thought-provoking, brilliantly curated book—which features mostly reprints, with three original stories—is a welcome addition to the landscape that SF used to frequently visit. Perhaps this book—along with Hystopia, by David Means—signals a renewal of the willingness of SF to deal with such themes.

(Of course, in between Vietnam and Desert Storm came several Latin America adventures, which found their SF voice in the inimitable and irreplaceable Lucius Shepard, most notably in his Life During Wartime, a seminal work which must be slotted into this continuum for total accuracy.)

Lain’s main introduction and his introductions to each segment of the collection contain much wisdom about the relationship between art and war. They could easily be collated together as a valuable essay on the topic. And in fact he addresses my question about how 21st-century wars are different from 20th-century ones and thus alter their own fictional responses. One valuable insight Lain gives is the different role of media coverage nowadays, which presents a kind of filmic entertainment version of any ongoing war with which prose fiction has a hard time competing.

Although I will single out just a story or two from each section, I can attest that every entry is meritorious and well-wrought.

The first segment of the anthology is “Vietnam Syndrome” and uses that era’s war as a valuable launchpad for the new explorations. Two finer writers than Norman Spinrad and Kate Wilhelm could not have been found, and their vintage tales illustrate what SF was once prone to tackle.

Next comes “Terrorism.” Here we address that aspect uniquely at the heart of modern conflicts, the individual acts of violence and the responses they engender. Michael Canfield’s “The Language of Monsters” takes place in a prison setting where humanity is broken down, and the narrator, alien at the core, shows the only real empathy.

“Weapons of Mass Destruction” deals with the new phenomenon that “the apocalypse could be stretched out, like an eternal present rather than a future end.” Here I most enjoyed Jeff Ford’s astonishing “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General,” which reads like a fusion of Roger Zelazny and David Bunch.

Next up is “Shock, Awe, and Combat,” where we get right down in the trenches. Audrey Carroll’s tale, “The People We Kill,” is one of the previously unpublished items. A kind of Twilight Zone bardo phantasia, it opens with a great line: “Mike and Paulie died on Tuesday and woke up on Thursday.” Its surreal doings dig into the meat of combat almost better than most mimesis.

“Mission Accomplished” takes its name of course from the famous GW Bush-era photo-op, and focuses on the nature of victory nowadays. Here I encountered my absolute favorite story of the book, another one that is special to this volume, Rob McCleary’s “Winnebago Brave.” A counterfactual gonzo search-and-destroy mission, it’s juicy language and off-kilter action merit comparison to Thomas Pynchon and Hunter Thompson.

“The Sun Inside” by David J. Schwartz is a highlight from “Life After Wartime?” If you can imagine conflating war on Earth with war inside Earth—specifically, ERB’s Pellucidar—you will only begin to grasp the glory of this tale.

Finally we come to “War is Over (Do We Want It?)” which examines the possibility of decoupling from society’s madness. Here I’d nominate Lain’s own “Noam Chomsky and the Time Box” as the one to watch. A pocket time machine proves much less satisfactory than one might imagine.

Violating my opening observation that SF writers had become slow out of the gate, the story that concludes the volume, James Morrow’s “Arms and the Woman,” was first published in 1991, right as Desert Storm was winding down, and in its continuing relevance and artistry proves that so long as we have even just one or two writers with their antennae out for the tides of war, SF can offer valuable understanding and palliatives to this seemingly eternal condition.

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.

Adrienne Martini reviews Hugh Howey

Beacon 23: The Complete Novel, Hugh Howey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 978-0-544-83963-2, $14.95, 256pp, pb) February 2016.

Hugh Howey’s Beacon 23 started as a novel-in-installments, with each of the mostly freestanding parts released individually. Only after you’d completed the set could you see the full story of a space-age lighthouse keeper who came back from the interstellar war deeply damaged. Now those parts have been collected between two covers. The novel-in-parts DNA is evident, given that each section works all of the backstory into the first dozen paragraphs, but it feels like one rich, intercon­nected unit by the last page.

It’s quite a story, although it’s hard to say if it is the story itself that makes Beacon 23 so compelling. Our narrator, whose name only gets revealed three-quarters of the way through, is a beacon keeper in the middle of an asteroid field. His beacon lets ship captains wink through this chunk of the galaxy without harm. While much of the work is automated, a single human is still a required redundancy. Hence our hero, who calls himself, ‘‘the meaty center of this rusted metal popsicle out here on the edge of space.’’

We see Howey’s created world through the meaty center’s sardonic eyes right when things in the beacon start to go horribly wrong. It’s his voice that sucks you in as he grapples with pirates, bounty hunters, survivor’s guilt, and PTSD. What could be a preachy anti-war story turns into a raw exploration of what it means to really be a human and why that matters.

All of that heady touchy-feely stuff aside, the narrator’s voice is what would happen if The Martian’s Mark Watney retained his black humor and mad science skills but also had something resembling a backstory that kept re-emerging at the least convenient time. Rather than Mars trying to kill our solo hero in Beacon 23, it’s the inside of his own head, during those long bouts of time when there is no immediate crisis, that keeps trying to do him in.

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John Langan reviews Gemma Files

Experimental Film, Gemma Files (ChiZine 978-1771-48349-0, $16.99, 305pp, tp) Decem­ber 2015.

There’s a cache of lost films at the center of Experimental Film, the fine, compel­ling novel by Gemma Files. The movies were made in the early years of the 20th century by a woman who herself went missing during what should have been a routine train journey to Toronto. Shot on highly unstable silver nitrate stock, the short films are variations on the same subject: a mysterious, veiled woman, her dress ornamented with beads or mirrors that make her flash and shimmer. She moves through a stylized farm landscape, bending to speak to a child laborer, when it becomes apparent that she is holding a sword in one hand.

Lois Cairns, the narrator-protagonist of the novel, first becomes aware of Iris Dunlopp Whit­comb’s work at a screening of new independent Canadian films she is covering for a film publica­tion. One of the filmmakers includes an excerpt from one of the lost movies in his Untitled 13. The result affects Lois profoundly, viscerally, leading her to interview Wrob Barney about the footage he’s sampled. That conversation sets Lois on the path of investigating Iris Whitcomb’s life and art. A film historian as well as critic, Lois immediately understands the earthshaking implications of the lost movies for the history of women in film, especially women who produced and directed their own work. She contacts a former student of hers, Safie Hewsen, now a bud­ding filmmaker, and enlists her in documenting the search for Iris Whitcomb’s films.

It isn’t very long, however, before a series of escalatingly strange and unnerving events connected to her inquiry cause Lois to realize that there might be more to the missing movies than she anticipated. Her research reveals that the subject of Iris Whitcomb’s films is a minor deity from Wendish mythology, Lady Midday, who interrogates farm laborers to learn if they are performing their work well and whole-heartedly. Gradually, Lois understands that what she at first took for dramatizations of a somewhat esoteric folk tale are in fact recreating encounters with an actual supernatural entity. What’s more, Lady Midday has become entangled with Iris Whit­comb’s work – especially the last piece she shot – to the extent that it can provide her a means to return in force to a world whose steady forgetting of her has reduced the deity to a fraction of her former strength.

The story of the forbidden text is, of course, a mainstay of horror fiction, from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon to Barron’s Black Guide. The number of works that have made movies their sinister texts is more select, but includes Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images and Marissa Pessl’s Night Film, as well as “each thing i show you is a piece of my death”, the story Files co-wrote with her husband, Stephen Barringer, and which served as something of a dry run for Experimental Film. Where this novel succeeds is in its understanding of film, from the process by which it is made to those by which it is disseminated and discussed; from its history to its culture. Lois Cairns is steeped in movies, and she incorporates her understanding into her narrative, pausing to deliver relevant information when necessary. Lois is a self-conscious narrator, always aware of how she’s framing the story she’s recounting, and including the reader in her strategizing. The result is an experimental novel about her quest for a set of films whose experimental qualities extend far beyond her expectations.

All of this would be impressive enough, but Files gives the story additional weight through her description of Lois’s experience as the mother of an autistic child. From the early pages of the novel, Files shows the challenges Lois confronts in her son, Clark, whose autism causes him to speak mostly in quotations from popular media, and who cannot communicate with Lois and Simon, her husband and Clark’s father, as fully as any of them would like. Lois is unsparing about the trials of raising her son, but she leavens her bluntness with enough wit and warmth to bring her love for her son to complicated life. Clark’s occasional distance from Lois, her remove from her idea of a stereotypical mother, expand the novel’s concern with the lost, with what is missing, and give it an added poignancy.

At the same time, the novel’s evocation of Toronto and the community of its filmmakers and critics results in a vivid sense of place. Details about the city’s geography combine with anecdotes about the men and women who populate its film culture to create a setting that is an integral part of the narrative. Experimental Film could not happen in any other place and be the same novel; this is very much a Canadian book, concerned with the history and current state of Canadian filmmaking.

The recent republication of Gemma Files’s first two collections of short fiction, Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, was a reminder of how long and how well she has been writing. The last several years have seen a welcome uptick in her output, from the cosmic horror horse opera of the Hexslinger series to the story cycle that comprises We Will All Go Down Together, not to mention, her stories in any number of anthologies. Experimental Film represents the next, significant contribution to what is emerging as one of the most interesting and exciting bodies of work currently being produced in the horror field. Every film, Lois Cairns writes, is an experiment. The same might be said of every novel. This one succeeds, wildly.

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Gardner Dozois reviews Short Fiction, June 2016

Asimov’s 4-5/16

Tor.com 1/6/16 – 4/13/16

Lightspeed 4/16

Slate 4/26/16

The April/May Double Issue of Asimov’s is a substantial one, full of good stories, almost all of them core SF. Probably few if any will make awards ballots next year, but taken together in entertainment value they make the issue more than worth the money it takes to buy it. The best story here is also the most ambitious one: ‘‘Flight from the Ages’’ by Derek Künsken, a story taking place over a timespan of billions of years (ultimately all the way back to the beginning of the universe), in which a banking IA operating a customs and tariff spaceship tries to deal with the inadvertent release of unimaginably powerful forces from an ancient alien weapon of war that threatens to destroy not only our galaxy but all of spacetime. There’s some great and very original conceptualization here, although as there are no human protagonists and a number of chewy scientific infodumps to get through, some readers may find it a bit abstract or aus­tere. Stick with it and your persistence will be rewarded by a pure dose of that Sense of Wonder stuff that science fiction is supposed to deliver. Also good in April/May is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘‘Matilda’’, which deals with the dysfunctional relationship between a human pilot and another, AI-operated sentient space­ship, and how they have to learn to function with each other in order to survive a dangerous mission in enemy territory. Another spaceship pilot (although the ships here function more like tugboats than what we usually think of as space­ships) is at the heart of new writer Suzanne Palmer’s long novella ‘‘Lazy Dog Out’’. She is a tough, formerly homeless woman whose job it is to shepherd bigger spaceships in and out of a planet’s huge docking facility, a city in its own right, who finds herself embroiled in a sinister conspiracy that threatens not only the station’s impoverished homeless population (with whom she’s maintained some contact) but her own life and the existence of everything she holds dear. This is a rare example in science fiction of a story that features someone in what is more-or-less a blue collar job. Most SF centers around the upper classes: professional people, rich people, executives, scientists, celebrities, politicians, if not the actual aristocracy them­selves – not necessarily royals, but whoever the aristocracy of that society may be. The story is well told and suspenseful, although I did find it odd that the docking facility was planet-bound, where you have to push the big ships up out of a gravity well with your ‘‘tugboats,’’ rather than a station in space. Robert Reed’s ‘‘The Days of Hamelin’’ is the melancholy story of an unknown plague that starts killing children, and how the surviving children are affected emotionally and psychologically by having been passed over. T.R. Napper’s ‘‘Flame Trees’’ is a grueling story about an emotionally scarred veteran of a future war trying to hang on to the memories of the horrors he’s seen in the face of well-meaning governmental attempts to take them from him, in spite of the fact that the PTSD they generate makes it impossible for him to truly function in society.

Also in April/May, C.W. Johnson rational­izes the old fantasy tale about a whale so big that it has the shipwrecked sailors it’s swal­lowed living in its belly as SF, with mixed results in ‘‘Of the Beast in the Belly’’. I must admit that I was longing for the characters to get out of the alien ‘‘whale’s’’ belly long before they actually did, as those scenes dragged a bit for me. In ‘‘The Return of Black Murray’’, Alexander Jablokov brings us along for the reunion in a now abandoned amusement park of old high-school friends whose lives were changed forever by one traumatic event that took place there one hot summer night many years before. This probably would have worked better as a mainstream story, with some more mundane reason for the tragic breakup of the classmates’s friendship, than it does with the rather trumped-up and unconvincing fantastic element that appears toward the end of the story. ‘‘Three Paintings’’ by James Van Pelt deals with an artist coming to the slow realization that he’s unintentionally involved in a elaborate art scam, somewhat reduced in impact for me by the fact that I find it hard to believe that he’d agree to put himself in the situation he’s in in the first place, one where he kills himself for the sake of increased creativity. The issue’s only fantasy, Esther M. Friesner’s ‘‘Woman in the Reeds’’, is not one of Friesner’s more familiar comic fantasy tales, but rather a rather grim story about a mother struggling to save her baby from a malign supernatural Entity.

Since they started posting new stories on January 6, the first nine stories to appear on Tor.com were fantasy stories of one sort or another, listed as fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and epic fantasy. Some of these were good stories, such as ‘‘The Glass Galago’’ by A.M. Dellamonica, ‘‘Two’s Company’’ by Joe Abercrombie, ‘‘The Maiden Thief’’ by Melissa Marr, and ‘‘Breaking Water’’ by Indrapramit Das, but the lack of science fic­tion stories was beginning to worry me, as SF had been somewhat light on the ground at Tor.com in 2015 as well, and I didn’t want to see it disappear from the site for good. Other than a pleasant steampunk Sherlock Holmes pastiche, ‘‘The Great Detective’’ by Delia Sherman, the first stories on Tor.com that could reasonably be called core science fiction didn’t begin to show up until toward the end of March – but at least they were good ones when they did appear. An argument could be made that ‘‘Listen’’ by Karin Tidbeck, a sequel to her previous story ‘‘Sing’’, is science fantasy rather than science fiction per se; as with the previous story, it’s expertly crafted and features psychologically complex characters, but I find the science here – a moon that emits ‘‘radiations’’ that in some unexplained way cause human beings to lose the ability to speak when it’s in the sky – dubious at best, more a poetic conceit than something that would actually be able to happen in the real world. There’s no doubt about the classification of ‘‘That Game We Played During the War’’ by Carrie Vaughn, though – it’s undoubtedly SF, and a good example of the form, taking us to a planet where a debilitating war between two races, one telepathic and the other not, has just ended, and the playing of a simple game of chess becomes a bridge, strengthening the still-uneasy peace, as it’s played by two individuals who had once been prisoners of war, each held captive by the other’s people. Even stronger is ‘‘Terminal’’ by Lavie Tidhar, a touching portrait of the ordinary people (some of whom have terminal illnesses, some who do not) who accept the government’s offer of a one-way trip to Mars. This is beautifully written and beautifully felt, deeply emotional, and certainly one of the best stories of the year to date.

Carrie Vaughn, in a less serious mode, also provides the best story in the April Lightspeed, ‘‘Origin Story’’, concerning a woman who discovers that her old high-school boyfriend has become a bank-robbing supervillain, in a comic book-inspired world where superheroes and super villains, and the epic battles between them, are common; it’s good fun. Also in April, Patricia Strand does a good job in ‘‘The Birth Will Take Place on a Mutually Acceptable Research Vessel’’, in working out the implications, complica­tions, and unexpected political consequences of the birth of a child with a human mother and an alien father – but she never deals with the issue of how such a pregnancy could be possible in the first place, a subject that’s never even raised in the course of the story.

An example of a first-rate SF story popping up unexpectedly in an unusual place is ‘‘Mika Model’’ by Paolo Bacigalupi, which appeared in the April 26 issue of Slate, which doesn’t usually run fiction. This is a gripping story about an AI-run sex robot that kills ‘‘her’’ owner; is it murder, or is it just product malfunction? This territory has been covered before, notably in Elizabeth Bear’s ‘‘Dolly’’ from 2011, but Bacigalupi does an excel­lent job of exploring the issue of machine sentience and its implications for the relationships between humans and robots/AIs – something that may not remain the province of science fiction for long, as we continue to hurtle (sometimes, it seems, with accelerating speed) into the unknown territory of the 21st century.

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John Langan reviews Stephen Graham Jones

Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones (William Morrow 978-0-06-241269-0, $24.99, 320pp, hc) May 2016.

For some time, now, Stephen Graham Jones has been writing fiction that boldly engages familiar horror tropes, from demonic posses­sion, to the serial killer, to the zombie, in the process compiling one of the more impressive and interesting bibliographies in recent memo­ry. Now, in Mongrels, his excellent, exuberant new novel, he turns his attention to the were­wolf. In love with storytelling, the book focuses on the werewolves who comprise the family of the book’s narrator. The werewolf’s existence, Jones tells us, tends to the temporary, the itiner­ant, their activities while in wolf form making it difficult for them to remain in one place for any length of time. As a consequence, their for­mal schooling is a haphazard, patchwork affair, conducted as much via the answers to the ques­tions on TV game shows as by time spent in the classroom. The learning that matters most to them – the nature of their biology, the his­tory of their family, the traditions of their spe­cies – is transmitted through stories passed on by family. In this case, that means first the nar­rator’s grandfather, and then his uncle and aunt, siblings of the mother who died giving birth to him, with occasional information coming from a miscellany of secondary characters along the way. Since Darren and Libby, the uncle and aunt, respectively, underwent their first trans­formations at the age of ten, there is an urgency to the narrator’s early education, as a means of preparing him for what lies ahead. By the time he reaches 12, however, he has not transformed from human to wolf, and this gives a different kind of urgency to the stories he learns and in some cases participates in, as he fears they may be the closest he will come to the experience of his uncle and aunt.

As the novel portrays it, the human portion of that experience is less than romantic. Indeed, the circumstances of their daylit lives are dia­metrically opposed to the aristocratic trappings traditionally associated with supernatural crea­tures (i.e., the vampire). Instead of immortal­ity, these werewolves live shortened lives, their years consumed by the toll of their transfor­mations, which happen much more frequently than every full moon, driven by the needs of their furious metabolisms. Rather than inhabit­ing castles high in the Alps, they stay in rented trailers, motel rooms, and sometimes cars, plac­es that are cheap and easy to move in and out of. Forever on the verge of discovery, they are regularly on the move, keeping to the states of the Deep South and southwest, locations where there is rarely snow that would facilitate their tracking. Because they have difficulty holding down jobs of any sort, they are not possessed of much in the way of material goods, let alone, ancestral treasure.

Many of the most notable horror narratives have shown a concern, even obsession, with place, which has been made manifest in the creation of such locales as Lovecraft’s Arkham and Stephen King’s Castle Rock. In contrast, Mongrels is a novel of the road. The narrator and his family’s cross-country treks echo what the book presents as one of the principal pleasures of the werewolf, namely, movement: running through the woods on all fours, aware of and alive to the surrounding nature with all the fullness of a wolf’s heightened senses. As the novel roams geographically, so it roams through werewolf lore, organizing each chapter around a different facet of their existence, which it illustrates with examples from the lives of the narrator’s family. The chap­ters satisfy the narrator’s (and reader’s) curiosity about (say) what exactly the transformation from human to wolf is like, but they also reveal a thread of melancholy winding through the novel. It’s a consequence of the werewolves’ unique state, and in the case of the narrator, is made more acute by both the absence of his mother and his ongoing worries about his failure to transform, all of which gives the book an added emotional heft.

It’s no surprise to find a novel about shape-changing creatures displaying a concern for no­tions of identity, and Mongrels does this in a vari­ety of ways, beginning with character and moving outward from there. The very title of the book evokes the idea of the hybrid, which is how it con­ceptualizes the werewolf, as a creature known by its transformation, by its status as both human and wolf. Its narrative construction demonstrates this same hybridity, alternating chapters told from the narrator’s first-person point of view with shorter, third-person chapters in which he is described in terms of a succession of identities: vampire, re­porter, criminal, biologist, etc. At the same time, the novel romps happily through American popu­lar culture, alluding to classics of science fiction, western heroes and villains, favorite rock and roll songs, inviting the reader to draw connections between each of them and itself. There’s a play­ful nod to Robert McCammon’s 1989 novel of a Nazi-fighting werewolf, The Wolf’s Hour, done in such a way as to claim it as this narrative’s an­cestor, and a more general sense in which Mongrels is a kind of response to McCammon’s 1991 Boy’s Life – if that boy were part of a family of werewolves.

The novel’s surprises continue to the very end, when it opens outward in unexpected and startling ways. One of the books of the year, Mongrels doesn’t linger in the mind: it races through it, eyes bright with the moon, breath hot in its mouth, paws thudding over the forest floor.

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The Fogeys of July: A Review of Independence Day: Resurgence

by Gary Westfahl

Since I was recently complimented at a conference for writing “honest” film reviews, I feel obliged to begin this one by conveying my honest reaction to Independence Day: Resurgence: although I was bored and appalled by the original Independence Day (1996), and utterly baffled by its tremendous popularity, I somehow found its belated sequel to be surprisingly engaging, even moving, despite some obvious issues in its logic and plausibility. Perhaps this indicates that I am finally becoming senile, unable to distinguish between worthwhile entertainment and reprehensible trash; perhaps this is a sign of the times, so that a film modeled on a film that stood out in 1996 for its risible inanity and clumsy manipulativeness now seems, amidst scores of similar films, merely typical, or even a bit superior to its lamentable competitors. Perhaps, though, it is simply a better film than its precursor, the theory that merits some extended exploration.

Before any discussion of how this film differs from its precursor, though, one should begin by acknowledging its key similarities. Twenty years after their first invasion, the evil aliens have launched another assault on planet Earth, arriving in ships that are “bigger than the last one” (a point made at least twice). Though we see more of them, and learn more about their culture, the aliens remain implacable enemies, determined to annihilate humanity, with the ultimate goal of draining the Earth’s molten core to obtain needed energy and render the planet uninhabitable. Despite their amazingly advanced technology, it is again determined that they have one key weakness, and by means of a desperate maneuver that scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) accurately describes as a “Hail Mary,” and the heroic efforts of several disparate characters, the human race is ultimately able to prevail. All of this, of course, mostly represents what everybody in the audience already knows before the film starts.

Still, the first film’s battle against the aliens was largely an all-American affair, and there were inept attempts to appeal to the audience’s patriotic fervor by absurdly likening resistance to the aliens to the United States’ struggle for independence, as commemorated by the titular holiday. Yet this film has a distinctly international spirit: new President Lanford (Sela Ward) emphasizes in a speech that the invasion brought the nations of the world together, resulting in twenty years without any significant conflicts – humanity “rose from the ashes as one people, one world”; former president Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) similarly observes that the world is “unified like never before,” a condition that is “sacred” and thus worth preserving; a team of space pilots from different nations is identified as the International Legacy Squadron; before deciding upon one attack, President Lanford first consults with a “Security Council” that includes the leaders of France, Britain, and Russia; Levinson travels to central Africa as part of a United Nations Research Mission; and in a radio message, General Adams (Wiliam Fichtner) explicitly addresses all the world’s people, stating that “no matter our differences, we are all one people.” The cast also has an international flavor: a journalist notes that China made especially important contributions to developments in space, and two major characters are Chinese – pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy) and her uncle Jiang (Chin Han), commander of the moon base; they even speak a few lines of Chinese. And although one might dismiss this as pandering to an increasingly valued international market, it is less easy to attribute cynical motives to the prominent roles played by a courageous African warlord, Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), and a French psychiatrist, Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who studies individuals who have interacted with aliens. The trend toward cross-cultural cooperation may even extend to the stars; for while the attacking aliens are irredeemably evil, so “there can be no peace” with them as Lanford notes, there are growing intimations of another, more benign alien race that might become humanity’s allies.

Second, Independence Day seemed downright silly in imagining that the human science of 1996 could somehow overcome the vastly superior technology of the alien invaders; but in this film, humanity has employed knowledge garnered from the aliens to forge a viable space program, with bases on the Moon and a Saturnian moon, fast spaceships powered by “fusion drives,” and formidable new weapons like “cold fusion bombs.” All of this makes a possible victory over the aliens seem a little more believable, and it provides the film with an unusually distinctive setting, an alternate world of 2016 wherein an alien invasion has triggered tremendous advances in some areas but not in others. So, one sees a fusion-powered “space tug” landing next to gasoline-fueled cars and school buses that look exactly like the ones now on the roads.

Third, even though the film industry increasingly strives to appeal to the young, Independence Day: Resurgence is an extended celebration of old people – which might explain why this old reviewer was unexpectedly fond of it. One might attribute this to the fact that director Roland Emmerich and his returning collaborator, writer Dean Devlin, manifestly loved their earlier film and were determined to reference it as much as possible by bringing back, or at least mentioning, every single one of its major characters, all of them now senior citizens. Only two surviving characters do not reappear: Captain Steven Hiller (since Will Smith declined to participate), and Levinson’s ex-wife Constance Spano (who would have complicated Levinson’s budding romance with Marceaux). But Levinson, ex-president Whitmore, Levinson’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch), Hiller’s wife Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox), General Grey (Robert Loggia), eccentric scientist Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner), and his friend Dr. Isaacs (John Storey) all reappear, while characters who could not return are remembered in other ways – Hiller in both a portrait and a photograph, and Whitmore’s deceased wife in the name of the Marilyn Whitmore Hospital where a comatose Okun has been residing.

However, whenever there is a lengthy interval between the production of a film and its sequel, the typical tendency is to relegate the elderly returning characters to minor roles and focus most of the attention on new, younger protagonists; thus, it is not surprising to learn that Dubrow is quickly written out of the film and Grey is only briefly observed, sitting in a wheelchair and saluting the current and former presidents. Yet Emmerich makes Goldblum’s Levinson the true star of his sequel, even though Liam Hemsworth (playing pilot Jake Morrison) officially gets top billing; tellingly, while both men play a role in humanity’s inevitable victory, it is Levinson, not Morrison, who is told, “Well done!” Furthermore, Whitmore, Julius Levinson, Okun, and Storey are just as prominent, or even more prominent, than they were in the first film. And while Goldblum, long one of my favorite actors, is excellent as always, the other returning actors, who essentially phoned in their parts in the first film, provide stronger performances here, as if recognizing that it might represent their last chance to be in the limelight. And this might serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood executives: for if a director ever suggested out of the blue that she wanted to make a major film starring Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, and Brent Spiner, she would be laughed at derisively: you can’t make a successful film with those decrepit has-beens – you need hot young talent! Yet this film works very well with its fogeys at the forefront, and Goldblum, Pullman, Hirsch, and Spiner are only a few of the many aging, out-of-work actors who might shine again if given the opportunity.

Yet it is not only their visibility, but their importance to the plot, that makes this film’s older performers so distinctive; for they represent the film’s brain trust. Levinson and Okun in particular are the ones who figure things out and enable humanity to mount a successful defense, and Whitmore deduces one key fact about the aliens before anyone else. (A subtle but telling sign of his intelligence: when we first see him, he is reading a history of the Luftwaffe; in other words, he is studying the aerial tactics of a defeated foe who made a stunning counterattack, precisely what he is anticipating.) Even Julius Levinson, who was mainly an irritant in the first film, emerges as an insightful hero in assisting some children and recognizing that taking over an abandoned school bus represented their best way to reach safety. And the film did not have to entirely rely upon its geezers to do all the thinking: responding to the obvious need for fresh new characters, the screenwriters might have provided Levinson and Okun with bright young assistants to help with their research and perhaps contribute a few ideas. Instead, the only new scientist is the forty-something Marceaux, while the film’s younger characters – Morrison, his friend Charlie (Travis Tope), Hiller’s son Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), Lao, and Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) – are merely pilots, whose basic role is to do whatever the geezers tell them to do (though Patricia is first working as a presidential speechwriter before she returns to the cockpit). To illustrate their insignificance, one could easily edit all of them out of the film and create an entertaining, 70-minute film starring Goldblum, Pullman, and Spiner; but it is impossible to imagine a film without those elderly characters.

In sum, I may have especially appreciated this film because it atypically allowed its older performers to dominate the proceedings; but in another respect, Independence Day: Resurgence is an all-too-typical Hollywood film in insisting upon this bedrock principle: people are inspired to be heroic only by the perils of their friends and relatives. The film gets off to a slow start primarily because it must painstakingly establish the emotional relationships between characters that will later explain their actions; the pilots at times seem more interested in saving each other’s lives than in killing aliens; to motivate a group of people to attack the aliens, one character announces, “we all lost someone we love – so let’s do it for them! Make them pay!”; Umbutu says to himself that he is driven to kill aliens as a way to avenge his deceased brother; Julius Levinson seemingly grows attached to some orphaned children because they represent the longed-for grandchildren that his son David never provided; and to explain to his daughter why he is embarking upon a suicide mission, Whitmore tells her, “I’m not saving the world, I’m saving you.” One incident in particular seems an illustration of these characters’ misguided priorities: though undoubtedly needed elsewhere, Dylan at one point ignores his orders and flies off to a hospital – to rescue his mother.

In the real world, however, society depends upon soldiers, police officers, and firefighters who are willing to work long hours and risk their lives to benefit complete strangers; one reason they are so effusively praised is the genuine selflessness of their actions. We would live in a sad, dysfunctional world if soldiers only fought to save their friends and relatives, police officers only investigated crimes that affected their friends and relatives, and firefighters only put out fires that were threatening the homes of their friends and relatives. Yet screenplays must always be carefully written to provide characters with some intensely personal motive for everything they do, even when their actions would never be sanctioned under ordinary circumstances. Consider this: suppose a huge wildfire is raging, threatening to destroy an entire community, and every firefighter is urgently needed to keep it under control; yet one firefighter has abandoned his post in order to rush home and make sure that his mommy is okay. That firefighter would be universally condemned; yet in this film, when Dylan Hiller does the same thing, we are supposed to admire him.

Indeed, Goldblum’s Levinson is so appealing, in large part, because he is the one character in the film who seems entirely focused on what he should be focused on, namely, saving the entire human race, not saving someone who is near and dear to him. At no time in the film does he exclaim, “Oh my gosh! Where’s my dad? I gotta go save my dad!”; he finally encounters his father solely as a result of the most improbable of the film’s many improbable coincidences. In sharp contrast, the film’s other protagonist, Hemsworth’s Morrison, proves harder to like because, throughout an invasion that may exterminate humanity, he is primarily worried about protecting his best buddy Charlie, ensuring the safety of his fiancée Patricia, and rebuilding a relationship with his estranged former friend Dylan.

Another reason to be unenthusiastic about this film is its aforementioned “logic and plausibility.” The credits conspicuously fail to include a “Science Advisor,” and while one Nick Herman is listed as a “Researcher,” connected to the Art Department, it remains unclear precisely what he was researching, or why he was qualified to conduct this research. Certainly, his work did not involve space travel: as in the Star Wars films, characters routinely board spaceships without a protective spacesuit in sight – they are only observed when Levinson and Marceaux are walking on the lunar surface; space travelers never experience zero gravity; and no effort is made to depict the Moon’s lower gravity. (If Dylan had actually punched Morrison on the Moon, he would have been flung across the room instead of falling to the floor.) The film also completely ignores the economics of space, as it seems extremely unlikely that the governments of Earth could have afforded to build all of these spaceships, satellites, and planetary bases while simultaneously funding the complete reconstruction of the innumerable buildings and structures destroyed during the first invasion, a project apparently completed in twenty years.

More serious questions arise regarding the physiology and behavior of the aliens. First, since everybody hates insects, and everybody routinely kills unwanted insects, it makes sense for filmmakers to fashion their hostile aliens to resemble insects (as in the Starship Troopers films and Edge of Tomorrow [2014 – review here]). Further, since insects like ants and bees entirely rely upon a single queen, that would provide insect-like aliens with a convenient vulnerability, which this film ruthlessly exploits. Yet it seems improbable that an advanced technological civilization could evolve within, and retain, such a social structure, and if it did, its queens would surely be intelligent enough to recognize this as a potential problem and equip all of their invasion forces with two queens – or five queens. It is also a remarkable coincidence that these outré creatures are able to thrive in the gravity and atmosphere of Earth, as their energetic hostilities demonstrate. As for the notion of obtaining energy by drilling into large inhabited planets and extracting their molten cores: surely, a truly advanced culture could find an easier and more efficient way to get all the energy they need, especially since this one has already mastered controlled fusion, fueled by the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen.

A final complaint: though they waited a respectable twenty years before producing a sequel to the first Independence Day, it is disheartening to hear that Emmerich and Devlin are already working on Independence Day 3; independent verification of this fact is hardly necessary when a film concludes by explicitly whetting the audience’s appetite for an even bigger and better battle royal: “we are going to kick some serious alien ass!” Yet such plans seem premature when it is by no means assured that the second film will equal the success of its predecessor. (After all, I hated the first film, but everybody else liked it; perhaps, because I liked the second film, everybody else will hate it.) Further, in contrast to the well-thought-out universes of Star Trek and Star Wars, the underpinnings of this franchise seem far too shaky to sustain an extended series of films. If Emmerich is actually interested in venturing beyond his comfort zone (as suggested by the uncharacteristic Stonewall [2014]), I would suggest, as an alternative, making a sequel to another science fiction starring Jeff Goldblum, the surprisingly entertaining Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), with Goldblum appearing as the older and wiser mentor to a new generation of amorous alien teenagers. Such alien visitors, arguably, are just as plausible as the relentless horrors of the Independence Day films, and more charming as well.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including 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. 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, now available from Wildside Press.


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