A MicroSFF Collection from O.Westin

I formulated a rule a while back that I’d only review what I was encountering organically. I review a lot of things but I don’t want to be a reviewer as such. Mainly, this is to avoid the blog feeling like work or writing to feel like an assignment. I have whatever the opposite of a work ethic is.

But I decided to make an exception for an eARC that I got from the O.Westin, the mercurial mind behind MicroSFF. It’s a collection of over 300 of their tiny tweeted tales. I’ve been reading these stories in my Twitter feed for years now but their very nature makes them difficult to review. So a collection is kind of nice to have.

If you haven’t read any of them before, they are exactly what they sound like. A very short story with science fictional or fantasy elements. As you might expect from short stories in general, the stories are typically a set-up followed by a twist. The length restrictions of a tweet mean that they often follow the structure of a joke with a sudden shift of perspective or breaking of expectation at the end. However, while some are intentionally funny, with many the shift in perspective provides emotional insight into a character or social commentary or a disturbing reveal (or all of those).

The brevity invites readers to imagine the world and setting around the story. For example this Black Mirror-like story:

Other times the set up is overtly science fictional and the twist is an insight into character:

Others deftly throw an idea in from left field creating weird, funny and disturbing situations:

Some stories evoke little more than a wry smile and others provoke an urge to write. Some are just funny 🙂

DC Closes Vertigo

I don’t buy the quantity of comics I used to in the 1990s — age partly, but the time I spent shifting continents* broke my comic habit because I just didn’t have a regular comic shop. Even so, I’m sad to hear that DC is closing down the Vertigo imprint.

“DC has announced that, starting in January 2020, it will close the DC Vertigo, DC Zoom and DC Ink imprints in favor of a new publishing strategy to release all published content under the DC brand. At the same time, a new age-specific labeling system will be introduced for DC content, identifying content aimed at pre-teen readers, general audiences and material aimed at readers 17 and older.”

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/dc-closing-down-vertigo-imprints-1220225

‘Age’ really misses the point. It’s true that Vertigo books were pitched at the ‘mature’ audience but distinction wasn’t that Vertigo comics might have sex or violence in them but that they would attempt smarter and more thoughtful stories.

The headlines focus on the famous titles, Gaiman’s Sandman obviously (which technically predated Vertigo) but also later series like Fables and Y-The Last Man. What I’m nostalgic about though was the numerous shorter run comics Vertigo published in the 1990s, most of which I can’t even remember but which were just there. You could pick up something weird with an odd story line that would go off into strange place for a few months and then be done.

I remember being unwell one weekend decades ago now and my friends heading off into the city and when they came back they had popped into a comic shop and just bought the first Vertigo comic they didn’t recognise for me. That’s top notch friendship.

I guess rationalising your range of imprints makes sense but I’m glad Vertigo existed when it did. I didn’t really buy or read any other kind of DC comics at that time, I got my superhero fix for Marvel, but Vertigo was different. Under Karen Berger’s guidance, it was a cultural phenomenon that had an influence far beyond the scope of its sales.

*[I mean I shifted between continents. I wasn’t manually moving continents around like I’m the person who was in charge of continental drift for a few years.]

Just a little bit of Puppy history

Well this looks like a well deserved announcement:

“Tom Doherty Associates is pleased to announce (and, you know, Tor.com is not unbiased here!) that effective immediately, Irene Gallo is promoted to Vice President, Publisher of Tor.com! In this newly created role, Irene will be fully dedicated to the Tor.com website and imprint.”

https://www.tor.com/2019/06/20/irene-gallo-promoted-to-vice-president-publisher-of-tor-com/

Good for her and well deserved given the range and quality of Tor.com output over the past few years.

Of course, the announcement can’t help but echo here because of one of the uglier parts of the 2015 Sad Puppy campaign which included an attempt by several people connected with that campaign to attack Irene Gallo by launching a boycott of Tor books. (see https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/what-about-that-tor-boycott-thing/ and more recently https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/02/17/back-to-the-revised-history-of-a-debarkle/)

As I said more than once, the whole thing had a dramatic entrance but lacked any kind of distinct end. I guess Puppy-related people still aren’t buying Tor books and I guess nobody cares. Here’s a graph from Google Trends that shows the rapid rise and fall in interest in the topic:

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2014-01-01%202019-06-21&q=%22Tor%20boycott%22

Hugo 2019 – I’m not doing Best Series

The past two times I’ve found Best Series intractable but this year I was more hopeful I’d engage constructively with it. I’ve read some of all of each of the nominees, although only a small amount of two of them. Laundry Files, Centenal Cycle, Machineries of Empire and Wayfarers are each series that I’ve read all the novels and some of the shorter texts for. So I’ve done enough reading already to engage with two-thirds of the finalists.

So what’s the hold up? Of the four I can put Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers to one side. I get what people like about it but it’s just not for me. That gets me to three series that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Hoorah! But what’s next? It’s not just that they are each quite different, that is true of most Hugo finalists in most years. It’s that I really can’t find a way in to talk about them.

My gut suggests that the intended purpose of the category was too reward books that collectively do something that wouldn’t be recognised by the Hugo Awards when looked at as individual works. That would suggest to me that The Laundry Files is the obvious choice and to some extent Machineries of Empire is missing the point of the category as a finalist.

On the other side, the books of Machineries of Empire have been strong contenders for Best Novel. It seems absurd to say that a set of books that has won or been finalists for major awards, isn’t collectively Best Series.

And having said all that, I think the Centenal Cycle is much stronger as a set of stories than any one of the individual books. It set me thinking about so many issues and it’s one of those stories that just grows in my estimation the longer I think about it. No one of the novels had quite the mind-blowing impact of something like Ninefox Gambit but collectively this is a powerful series.

Final rankings are hard for any category but here it is more that I’d rank them differently depending on how I think about Best Series. I was even wondering if being a finalist for Best Novel should even be a disqualification for Best Series (i.e. subtracted from the word count) to make the award more distinct from Best Novel…and then I thought that was mean and unfair…and then I rethought that thought because otherwise series of books that had been past finalists will always have an advantage because Hugo voters are more likely to have read at least some of the series, turning Best Series into a consolation prize rather than a thing in its own right. Then Timothy slapped me, not because I was spiralling out of control but just because he’s a violent apex predator in a tiny body.

Centenal Laundry Gambit it is then.

Ramifications & SF v F

There was a recent discussion at File770 on the distinction between science-fiction and fantasy. It was interesting and inconclusive as always and I only had silly things to contribute. However, there was something that I wanted to say but couldn’t formulate. Interestingly Hampus brought the idea back into focus in a recent comment here about blowing up the Death Star.

Star Wars has clones. It has a whole film with “clones” in the title. Huge numbers of people seen on screen in the 10 canonical Star Wars movies are supposed to be clones. Yet, there’s almost zero ramification in Star Wars aside from the one plot point that the Republic built an army from clones of Jango Fett. Clones are a fantastical/speculative element that is very tightly limited in its impact on the wider world-building.

In the Harry Potter books and films there was a similar issue with Hermione Granger having access to a ‘time turner’: a magical device that offered some limited but still powerful control over time. The device serves a limited plot purpose but goes no further. It could hardly be otherwise because time-travel notoriously disrupts narrative fiction and is not something you can integrate into wider world building without turning your whole story into time-travel fiction.

Likewise, we can take a step back from Star Wars and see that cloning technology only appears because “clone wars” was a cool bit of science dialogue thrown into A New Hope that only later needed an explanation. The actual Star Wars universe is not a set of narratives about clones & cloning any more than Harry Potter is a time-travel narrative.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are similar and different in multiple ways: settings, language, styles of story arcs, tropes and book covers. However one similarity/distinction we can make is to point at speculative/fantastical elements in the setting. The presence of such things as faster than light drives or magical swords mark out SFF from other genres even though they can appear in other genres (such as in high-tech spy thrillers or horror).

The argument about what is SF versus F can often rest on the ambiguity of those elements. Is ESP speculative or magical? How about superpowers? It’s a fun debate but not where I’m going right now.

I’m more interested in the difference between where that speculative/fantastical element has broad ramifications and where it has tightly circumscribed ramifications. For example the orogene’s powers in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy are bake deep into everything. The societal impact of those powers is explored throughout the books. The power of invisibility in The Lord of the Rings has very limited ramifications. Sure, the one ring itself and its whole history is a big deal but the actual power of being invisible is fairly limited. We can’t say The Lord of the Rings as a set of books explores what a world would be like where some people could be invisible but we can say it is a set of books where the question of the corrupting nature of massive power is explored.

The ramifications of speculative/fantastical elements is another aspect of the genres that needs to be considered. There isn’t a helpful dividing line here between the two, notable works of both SF and F have some elements with broad ramifications and some elements which are more circumscribed. What I would suggest though, is that when a science fiction story introduces an element that should have broad ramifications but then doesn’t, it is more harmful to the story than with fantasy.

Why? Well quite simply it is easier to believe that a magical element may be local and arbitrary than a science or technological element. Further, drawing on existing traditions from folklore and mythology, there is an expectation of magic and the fantastical as an intrusion into a more mundane world and hence being essentially limited in its broader impact.

One of the things I liked about the two Avatar cartoons (Ang’s and Korra’s) was the way the magical elements have that social ramification aspect. In the Legend of Korra it is taken further, showing the elemental powers as shaping historical trends and technological development. I’m not saying that these aren’t examples of fantasy but I see that broad ramification aspect as being more of a science fictional sensibility. Specifically, where the ramifications go beyond the base world building established and begin to show social, political or technological change and/or show how that change occurred in the past.

But wait…Star Trek really doesn’t show any social or historical change at all. Sure stuff happens and there are technological advances between different iterations but it is basically a static society we are presented with. All true if we take the perspective of characters within the show but it is also explicitly presented as a society that is within our (the viewers) future. The promise is that technological change in our world will bring a better future and even when that technology is purely fanciful the promise is still that a better world is there if only we can invent it.

Conversely Babylon 5 often dealt in fantasy elements or tropes (telepathy, quasi-magical beings, rangers!) but was quite deeply committed to such elements creating broader changes. That following through of consequences in terms of things other than characters and character choices again is closer to science fiction than what we often see in fantasy. I’d argue that when fantasy stories attempt to explore these ramifications further they begin to feel more science-fictional (yes, even Harry Potter).

Review: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S A Corey (Expanse Book 8)

[Some spoilers for Book 7]

The minds behind James Corey are the masters at the obvious-in-retrospect plot twist. Each of the Expanse books never quite goes the way you expect it might but there is a common sense to the events. It is a feeling of realism rather than any deep commitment to realistic science fiction. The background setting has evolved from a gritty tale of social conflict among asteroid miners to interstellar travel, aspiring galactic empires and not one but two sets of enigmatic aliens.

There’s never been many fundamentally new ideas in the Expanse series but rather it has pieced together familiar science fiction elements to tell a serial epic story of politics and protomolecules. Which of the two themes dominate in a story varies but the implications of more science fictional events always ripples out politically. Likewise, the factional manoeuvrers of the political stories gang aft a-gley as ancient alien legacies do their own thing.

Tiamat’s Wrath is the direct sequel to Persepolis Rising, in which the serial jumps forwards several years to first show a new normal for the solar system and humanity’s colony planets only to be disrupted by the return of a breakaway faction of the former Martian Navy. Dubbed the Laconians, they have formed a militaristic society under the leadership of “High Consul” Duarte (a background presence in earlier books). Armed with technology derived from the protomolecule, the Laconians stomp all over everything. By the end of the book, the protagonist crew of the Rocinante are scattered and their captain, Jim Holden, has been captured by the Laconians.

The end of the last book marked out what to expect from the next one: a tale of dogged resistance against the fascist Laconians as Bobby, Alex, Naomi and Amos each find ways to fight back against the growing tyrrant. Put another way, it looks like we were going to get a more political rather than protomolecule book. When there is expectation to zig, Corey inevitably zags. Life and the universe is fickle and Duarte’s plans for galactic domination face threats more complex and incomprehensible than a resurgent Belter resistance.

As always, there’s a mix of point-of-view characters. Of the establish cast, Alex, Bobby and Naomi take centre stage. The character-returning-from-a-previous-book-that-you-had-forgotten-about is Elvi, the scientist from Cibola Burn who is now working for the Laconians investigating the remains of the alien civilisation that built the hyperspace gateways. The newer pov character is Teresa, the daughter of the High Consul.

There are plots, schemes and intrigue aplenty as Naomi attempts to coordinate a scattered resistance and Alex & Bobby try to work out how best to use their stolen Laconian warship. Holden is a secondary character, kept as an open prisoner on Laconia but running schemes of his own as best he can. Meanwhile, the lingering mystery of ships that disappear as they pass through the gates comes to the fore, setting off catastrophic consequences for everybody.

By the end, there have been multiple epic space battles and at least one person reanimated from the dead by alien technology and everything has changed again. Disruption as the only normal is the recurring theme of the Expanse books, the authors notably skipping a few years between book 6 and 7 when they needed a period of relative calm to have existed.

I gobbled up this book in two days. Bring on the finale.