Review: Shadow Captain (Revenger #2) by Alastair Reynolds

There is an image that crops up over and over on old sci-fi book covers and in more contemporary TV shows that I think evokes a particular strand within science fiction. The image is of a skull inside a space helmet or a skeleton within a space suit. It implies death and horror and age but in the context of space and the future. It also highlights a paradox of how we symbolise time.

The paradox is one I have mentioned before with dinosaurs. We use dinosaurs to symbolise what is old an ancient because they are from the past even though that makes them literally younger than us. Likewise the future, symbolised by space traveller, stands in for the new even though the future is necessarily old. A skull in a spacesuit splits the difference, indicating decay and death with the trappings of the future.

The idea of an old future runs through Alastair Reynold’s Shadow Captain. A sequel to 2016’s Revenger, the story continues the piratical adventures of the Ness sisters in a solar system that has a past deeply layered like geological strata. Fragmented and scattered, humanity lives on either mini-planets that use ‘swallowers’ (mini black holes) for gravity or crumbling space habitats. All the major planets have gone and between the remaining micro-worlds solar-sail equipped ships trade and fight.

Shadow Captain flips the narrative from Arafura Ness (the younger sister aka Fura) to Adrana who is still suffering from the attempt by the now dead pirate captain Bosa Sennen. Stuck with an under crewed ship of dread appearance and fearsome reputation, the sisters are struggling with the personal consequences of the previous book. Fura is infected with ‘the glowy’ leading to paranoia and personality changes, while Adrana still feels the after effects of Bosa Sennen’s psychological conditioning.

Events take them to Wheel Strizzardy, a backwater space habitat, where the sisters are drawn into the machinations of a local crime lord as they try to escape the legacy of Bosa Sennen’s murderous reputation.

This is a darker and slower novel that Revenger. The nature of the setting is clearer and the gothic decay of the solar system matches the pirate aesthetics of the plot. Everything is recycled parts and forgotten technology amid betrayals and secrets.

Only in the final part of the novel do we return to the broader arc of the series. What is the nature of the ‘quoins’ that fuel trade between worlds and what accounts for the rise and fall of civilisations on the myriad of tiny worlds?

Dark and twisty. It is a more space-faring take on the idea of an ancient future than, say, The Book of the New Sun but there is a similar sense of antiquity and loss.

I found a way to make the Dragon Awards marginally more interesting

Meanwhile in other news, the Dragon Awards website is still exactly the same.

Yes, nominations have been open since at least November 19 2019 (see http://file770.com/nominations-open-for-2020-dragon-awards/ ) but the website still says:

I see you are all looking at me sceptically thinking “what is marginally more interesting about that?” Aha! Well, here is a competition for you all! Make a prediction now as to when you think the front page of the website will change to say that nominations are actually open!*

Rules:

  1. Only a maximum of twelve hundred guesses per email address.
  2. Promise not to cheat.
  3. I’ll decide the winner any way.
  4. You can be as vague or precise as you like because see rule 3.

[*NOTE: not when nominations are actually open because that already happened but when the websites says they are open]

An inquiry

I had an email the other day asking if I could summarise the role of Vox Day in the SFWA and the Hugo Awards for somebody not familiar with the background. So here is what I wrote. Corrections and adjustments welcome, of course.

Vox wants to be a writer and wants legitimate respect as a writer. In the 2000s he’d published enough to qualify to join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America aka SFWA. This wasn’t a stunt or an alt-right entryism tactic, I think he genuinely wants to be seen as a legit SF-writer. He even ends up on Nebula Awards jury. The Nebula Awards are the SFWA’s major writing awards – not as notable as the Hugo Awards but still big. At the time I think Vox is still writing his column for World Net Daily, the paleo-conservative ‘news’ site that I think his dad invested in. Of course, people notice that the Nebula jury has this guy on it who has pretty extreme views – particularly about women and Jewish people.

[2005] This all ends up as a big argument on the blog of Patrick Nielsen Hayden http://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite/archives/006122.html Among the many people who wade into the discussion is John Scalzi – who at the time was making a name for themselves as a sci-fi author and as a blogger. Scalzi is actually sort of defending Vox’s role on the jury. Other notable writers such as Charlie Stross join and eventually Vox Day joins in as well and things get worse from there. Yes, it’s just a big forum argument but from that point on Vox Day deeply hates Patrick Nielsen Hayden and the sci-fi publisher he works for Tor Books. It also starts the deep enmity Vox has for John Scalzi.

By 2010 John Scalzi is President of the SFWA and it’s also a time of social change. Lots of new guard versus old guard sort of fights as well as conflicts about diversity and inclusion. Vox is in the midst of all this and he is friends with conservative old-guard writers such as Jerry Pournelle. 2013, Vox runs for President of the SFWA (again, as a serious campaign i.e. not just trolling) and loses badly. It’s a peak time for internal controversies in the SFWA [can’t summarise all of it but see https://www.dailydot.com/irl/sfwa-bulletin-jean-rabe-resigned-sexism/ ] Author NK Jemisin in a speech at a sci-fi con refers to Vox as ‘a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavours of asshole’ which kicks off attacks on Jemisin by Vox. Vox uses an official SFWA twitter account to attack Jemisin, which becomes grounds by the SFWA to expel Vox from the organisation. Vox claims the expulsion is illegitimate and that the rules weren’t followed properly and that therefore he wasn’t actually expelled and that anyway he will sue the SFWA etc. He never does actually sue the SFWA and yes, he was very much expelled.

Many conservative and libertarian people in sci-fi are dismayed by this. They know Vox has more extreme views (but they downplay how extreme) but regard Vox’s expulsion as left-wing persecution of conservatives. That’s 2013 and at that point we need to put the SFWA aside and got to a totally different organisation.

The SFWA is a *writers* organisation. The World Science Fiction Society is a *fan* organisation. It is most famous for its annual Worldcon, a relatively small but very influential science fiction convention, and for the Hugo Awards which are the biggest science fiction awards. Anybody can join the WSFS (because its for fans) but there is an overlap with the SFWA because writers are fans too. The biggest name connected with the WSFS is George RR Martin, who has been active in Worldcons for decades, long before he was famous for Game of Thrones.

Moderately conservative-leaning publisher Baen has several writers who were unhappy at the time that Baen was getting no love at the Hugo Awards and that rival publisher Tor was getting lots of awards – in particular for Best Editor. New guy Larry Correia (a libertarian-lite, Mormon 2nd amendment advocate) does manage to get nominated for a best newcomer award but dislikes the experience. He’s published by Baen and decides to help boost the votes of his own books and the books he likes by trying to mobilise a voting campaign. This ends up being called “Sad Puppies” and initially its sort of a joke. It’s not political per-se but sort of anti-PC. Anyway, this is also in 2013 and many of the same people pissed off at the SFWA stuff are also supporting Larry Correia. Naturally, many of the same people pissed off at Vox Day aren’t very happy with the Sad Puppies idea.

2014 Larry decides to cross the streams. Sad Puppies 2 nominates Vox Day for a Hugo Award in a short fiction category. The arguments about the SFWA are spilling over into Worldcon and the Hugo Awards even though the two organisations are separate. The level of bad feeling just gets higher. Vox is feeding all this with his usual stuff about SJWs supposedly infiltrating stuff and shadowy conspiracies etc. He’s just rehashing his usual antisemitism but swapping out terms but he’s playing the more moderate conservatives like a fiddle. Because people like John Scalzi, Patrick Nielsen Hayden (see above) and NK Jemisin are also part of the Worldcon scene, he can get at them by attacking the Hugo Awards. Sadly for Vox, he gets utterly humiliated in the final voting for the 2014 Hugo Awards.

2015. Round three for the Sad Puppies, this time run by Larry Correia’s friend and fellow Mormon Brad Torgersen (also published by Baen). Brad’s not the sharpest tool in the shed but he also hate John Scalzi because Brad used to comment at Scalzi’s blog but kept making a fool of himself. Brad puts together a slate of nominees. Vox decides to run his own campaign for the Hugo’s called “Rabid Puppies”. He takes Brad’s slates, adds a few extra works from his own Castalia House and tell’s his followers to buy memberships for Worldcon so they can nominate for the Hugo Awards.
April comes along and the Sad/Rabid Puppies have swept the board i.e. there are whole categories were the only nominees are works from the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates. What that means is that no matter how people vote, the only choices in some categories have been picked by Vox. Checkmate, says Vox.

…except…

People can vote for ‘No Award’ if they don’t like any of the nominees. Huge numbers of people join up for Worldcon 2015 to vote in the final stage of voting. Nobody knows who has the most new votes. Final votes come in and the Rabid Puppies get smashed. Vox still declares victory, saying that was his plan all along.

2016 Vox tries again. Doesn’t do as well in the nominations and gets smashed in the final votes. To add salt into his wounds Best Novel (the big premiere award) goes to N.K. Jemisin (see above).

2017 Vox tries again. Does very badly in the nominations and gets very smashed in the final votes. N.K. Jemisin wins her SECOND Hugo Award for best novel.

By 2018 he’s given up but declares victory claiming it was his plan anyway to destroy the Hugo Awards by making people vote for left wing works.

[ETA It is always worth noting for people who haven’t read it, N.K.Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season is absolutely genuinely brilliant and IMHO one of the best novels to win a Hugo Award ever. That it winning would also have pissed off Vox is secondary to the actual nature of the win.]

Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon

So many thinks to spoil but let’s launch into the episode a little way and then move into the realm of surprises.

Promotions of this season of Doctor Who had touted the return of the Judoon as characters even while filming was still going on. They aren’t a particularly loved species but they do have the advantage as antagonists of not being a big-bad. They are obnoxious space-cops and bring with them all the complications of obnoxious space-cops.

Given the title, it was clear from the first five minutes of the episode that we were going to get a story about an alien hiding from the law on Earth in a small (if scenic) town in England. The set-up was very nicely done. We got a convincing introduction to Ruth, the central character who was clearly going to get mixed up in Judoon-based law enforcement gone wrong, and her slightly shifty husband Lee. The latter, of course, looking like the most likely person to be secretly an alien on the run from the law. What I liked (on first viewing) was, while it was obvious were this was all going, it was all being done with a confident humanity.

Vinjay Patel who wrote this episode had also written last seasons Demons of the Punjab, which had also a strong emotional centring of the story on the ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. What I really liked was that Ruth was being sketched out very swiftly as a person in their own right, which was going to be important if the episode was going to focus on brutal policing.

A strong set-up for a predictable episode. Not that predictable is bad — following a well worn path can allow for more character development and personal drama. Chris Chibnall’s biggest TV success has been with detectives solving a murder mystery in a small British town, as predictable a genre as you can get on British TV but one that creates space for human drama.

So predictable was what I was expecting. I’m told there was some social media hype brewing around the episode but I missed that. So, I was genuinely surprised when Graham disappeared while looking at some cup-cakes.

And that was only the first surprise. This was going to be Doctor Who in the mode I like best, like their TARDIS, spinning wildly out of control and crashing into everything in the way…

Continue reading “Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon”

I’ll review Doctor Who tomorrow…

I want to rewatch the episode with a different perspective but my over all impression was that I enjoyed it immensely. I was initially pleased with how what appeared to be a fairly bog-standard episode was going (seemed predictable but nicely done) and then it spiralled out of control…in a good way. I’m seeing some varied reactions but I’m mindful of timezones and spoilers, so I’ll save fan-theories until tomorrow.

Australian Honours System is Very Broken

Today is a public holiday in Australia as Sunday was Australia Day aka Invasion Day. Yesterday was also when honours are announced following an Australian version of the British honours system. Notable among them was Bettina Arndt, a right-wing ‘men’s right’ advocate:

“An Australia Day honour for controversial writer and sex therapist Bettina Arndt has been condemned by advocates of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.  Arndt was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to the community as a social commentator and to gender equity through advocacy for men.”

In 2018, Arndt interviewed convicted paedophile Nicolaas Bester and posted it online with the title “Feminists persecute disgraced teacher”. The former Tasmanian teacher was jailed in 2011 for grooming and repeatedly raping a 15-year-old student.”

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/sexual-assault-survivor-advocates-outraged-over-bettina-arndt-s-australia-day-honour

Nor is this a one off occurrence. Last year in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list was Professor Adrian Cheok, a candidate for a far-right political party and sex-robot advocate:

“In 2017, organisers of the Foundation of Digital Games conference in the US state of Massachusetts were forced to issue a formal apology after Prof Cheok made personal attacks on Twitter against academics who raised moral concerns about his research.
Professor Cheok’s use of “aggressive, belittling, or otherwise intimidating language” was “a serious violation of the norms and values” of the conference, the apology said.”

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/governor-general-to-face-formal-request-to-cancel-adrian-cheok-s-queen-s-birthday-honour

In the past two honours list there have been two notable far-right people with extreme views adjacent to the Men’s Rights Activist movement. Ardnt is also part of Jordan Peterson’s Thinkspot project, while Cheok has connections with Brietbart’s Steve Bannon. In both cases, neither person appeared to independently meet the level of notability or professional contribution that would merit their awards i.e. neither was a case of people who had made some other major contribution to Australia but coincidentally had extreme political views.

Watching Star Trek Nemesis so you didn’t have to

There is no need to watch the final pre-reboot Star Trek movies to enjoy or make sense of the new Star Trek: Picard series, I can say this with some confidence having now watched both Picard and Nemesis in reverse order. However, it is also true that at least the one episode that is available of Picard, follow on from Nemesis. The focus on Data and on the Romulnan directly echo the plot of Nemesis.

As a Star Trek film Nemesis has a bad reputation. There had been an intention to make one further Star Trek film with the same core cast, wrapping up the The Next Generation era of films but poor box-office and poor reviews for Nemesis led to the final film’s cancellation.

Yet, there is a lot of positives that could be said about the film. Unfortunately, there is one substantial negative that makes the film both unlikeable and hard to recommend. That point is yet another case of ‘psychic rape’ of Deanna Troi, the empathic ship’s Counselor. I’m not going to get into the details but it is particularly unpleasant and gratuitous. There is a very thin plot relevance (later Troi’s psychic connection is used to locate a cloaked ship) and the lurid scene makes little sense for any of the characters involved.

The broader theme of the film is twins. Picking up from the twee connection of the Romulans to Rome’s legendary twins, Romulus and Remus, we get two sets of twins. Firstly, Data encounters a prototype version of himself called B4. The introduction of B4 gives Brent Spiner even more scope for humour throughout.

The second ‘twin’, is Shinzon. A clone of Picard made by the Romulans originally as part of a plan to infiltrate the Federation but later abandoned on the slave planet Remus due to leadership changes. Played very adeptly by a young Tom Hardy, Shinzon is naturally not very like Picard at all. A point everyone tries to explain to Shinzon who is convinced that he is how Picard would be if Picard had lived his life: a point that is trivially true in one sense but otherwise vacuous.

From there, the film is a decent but unremarkable Star Trek story. There are shades of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country with the story leading to prospects of peace between the Romulans and the Federation. A closer comparison can be made with Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek film that was so good that it cast an awkward shadow on subsequent films. As the title suggests, Shinzon is set-up as a nemesis for Picard of a standing that Kahn is for Kirk. We also get a space ship battle within a nebula and cunning tactical moves by Picard to outwit Shinzon.

Like Wrath of Kahn we also get the departure of a signature cast member. In the final confrontation Commander Data sacrifices himself to destroy Shinzon’s doomsday weapon. Of course, the film leaves open a way for Data to return (B4) but unlike Spock, Data’s death proved to be more final with the cancellation of the film series.

Data’s death makes for a melancholy end to the TNG era. The start of the film had already established that Commander Riker and Counselor Troi were moving on from the Enterprise, so the film genuinely has a sense of it being an end. Inadvertently, this gives the film an odd, unintended depth to it. Rather, than a final encore for this Enterprise crew, their story ends with a messy final mission and people going their seperate ways after a tragic death. T

The film doesn’t tease a sequel except for B4 haltingly remembering the words to Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’. Data sings the song early in the film at Troi & Riker’s wedding and it’s minor-key optimism works nicely as a kind of lietmotif for Data. Nicely, this is picked up again early in the first episode of Picard.

Not every story ends well and Nemesis encapsulates that both in its own themes and as a box-office flop for a venerable film series.