Review: The Black Tides of Heaven (Novella) J.Y.Yang

My Hugo reading has been somewhat disrupted by a brief overseas trip and a short shift of location. JY Yang’s novella unfortunately got particularly disrupted by that. I had started reading it, got distracted (it didn’t really grab me initially) and I returned to it a couple of weeks later feeling guilty.

The novella had got a lot better in the intervening time, a stories somehow manage to do even though they are just sitting there waiting for their reader to pick them up again. There is no easy way to distinguish “this book isn’t engaging me” from “I’m distracted”, so either the second half of the novella is better than the first or I became sufficiently focused to appreciate it. But every review can’t be a review of the reader, although in truth every review is of an event that exists between the story and the reader.

The Protector of the Kingdom is a powerful despot of a kingdom – a fantasy land with a Chinese aspect, as well as influences from South Asian and Middle-Eastern mythology. To her surprise the Protector gives birth to twins, causing a minor change in her many and complex plans. Cynical and manipulative, the twins are just chess pieces in the Protector’s many machinations but the story follows them as two people as they grow from infants to adults.

The scope of the novella is huge, and it covers a lot of ground in a short time. We learn about the magic system, aspects of the religious orders, ethnic minority groups, internal conflicts, fantastic beasts, and a broad picture of richly imagined fantasy world. It is probably too much for a novella that also has to encompass the childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of two central characters. Even so, that the novella doesn’t collapse under its own weight is a testament to the efficiency with which all this background is introduced.

As I said above, I found the second half easier to engage with than the first. It focuses more on Akeha, the surpising “spare” half of the twins, who in post-adolesence decides to be confirmed as a male (gender is assigned post-childhood in this world). Fate, prophercy, control and inevitability (whether magical or political) play out as important themes but, again, I think their impact as ideas get lost amid the scale of the story.

The Black Tides of Heaven is the first in a sequence of novellas set in the same world. I haven’t read the sequel The Red Threads of Fortune, which apparently follows the other twin Mokoya after the events of this story. I feel though I would have enjoyed this as a longer novel with a less fragmented sense of time. There were parts were I would have been happier to linger longer with the characters as they were.

Interesting in scope, and definitely Hugo worthy, it felt to me as edited highlights of a deeper story that I’d like to immerse myself in. I’ll definitely read the sequel.

Review: Binti: Home (novella)

Nnedi Okorafor’s young protagonist gets another adventure in her journey. Suffering from the aftermath of the first novella, Binti carries the trauma of a massacre, acquired alien DNA and a degree of celebrity she isn’t prepared for. She takes the only step she can to put her life back in balance and decides to (temporarily) leave the Oomza Uni and travel back to Earth and home. She decides as well to bring Okwu, her friend, with her but Okwu is also a member of the aggressive Meduse…

It’s not a flaw for the central character to be somewhat annoying in this kind of story. Binti is a multitalented young woman who has both natural talents and who has been caught up in extraordinary events. Growing as a person requires flaws and Binti’s are those that follow somebody who achieves academic success and fame early – including a degree of both arrogance and self-doubt. Even so, I found Binti generally less likeable in this instalment.

But maybe that’s just the nature of this particular step in her journey. This is very much a transitionary story. It starts in the aftermath of the previous novella and ends on a cliffhanger. While Binti learns some things about her family, her people and the hidden history of her land, she doesn’t change much as a person (yet). I think this will work better as part of the whole story sandwhiched between the first and third novella but as a story in itself it didn’t really gel for me.

Review: And Then There Were (N-One) Sarah Pinsker (Novella)

The Hugo finalists for Best Novella are an embarresment of riches: droll murderbots, hippo riding cowboys, some sequels to previous favourites and some exciting surprises. Pinsker’s quirky murder mystery (available here ) starts off in a style that I’d call ‘philosophical fiction’ i.e. it feels like the set-up for exploring the philosophical implications of a topic by using a speculative fiction frame. Partly this is because Sarah Pinsker¹ is the main character. Indeed, as we rapidly discover, Sarah Pinsker° is ALL the characters…

“Playful” is the obvious word for the novella but maybe that does it a diservice. Rather than being an exploration of what it would mean to meet your other selves from different timelines, Pinsker uses the frame of a classic Agatha Christie style murder mystery. A hotel full of people attending an unusual convention on an island cut off from the mainland by a storm. Sarah Pinsker¹ is an insurance investigator who is coopted to investigate the murder of Sarah Pinskerº by presumably one or more Sarah Pinskers³. It’s another clever choice that allows Pinskerª discuss her own life and choices against a backdrop of infinity possibilities. (Pinskerª, as in the actual author, is apparently in attendance but doesn’t make an appearance – although the murder weapon is notable.)

The story is complete and satisfying and I think the author made a wise choice in letting the story follow its own path rather than exploring all the possibilities of the premise. Having said that, it is such a gloriously wonderful idea (an invitation to a convention full of alternate-realitiy versions of yourself) that this story only scratches the surface. I’d love to read an anthology in which other authors found themselves invited and the twists of genre that would create.

Great stuff and an excellent read. This whole category will be a hard one to rate.

Hugo Ballot 2018: Short Story

It doesn’t feel that long ago that the talk was whether the SF short story was dead or close to death. The impact of Sad Puppy campaigns and Rabid Puppy vandalism hit the short story category hard. And what an emblematic category it had been for the Hugo Awards and science fiction! American style science fiction had grown out of the short story style and some of the greats of SF were intimately connected with shorter form fiction. Ray Bradbury especially but also Issac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy being one of many SF classics that grew from connected shorts.

The Hugo finalists this year are a set of entertaining and varied reads. There’s not one theme or style and there are elements of fantasy and science-fiction as well as some classic twists.

It is too early in the process to rank them I think and a couple I only read recently. I’d like to gestate on them a bit longer but I’m also mindful that if I don’t put my thoughts down now then I will have to do a whole bunch of things in a rush. So, some mini-reviews and thoughts but no rankings. I do have an unsurprising favourite but I may shift rankings later. Overall though I enjoyed them all.

Reminder: you don’t need to wait for the packet to read the Hugo Short Stories as they are all available free online. JJ collected the relevant links here and I repeat them below.

Best Short Story

▪ “Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

The story works both in terms of its own world building (with a few unanswered questions) and also as a metaphor about life, parenthood, chronic illness, and death. The setting is a world that might be a house or a bedroom in which small clockwork people live. Each one is wound each night but their mechanisms can only be wound up so much (and some people’s more than others). Eventually they fall prey to entropy as their mainspring becomes unwindable.

The story follows the life of one character from late childhood to bringing up a child and her relationship with an absent mother who lives in a carnival on (or carried by) a train.

Poignant and wistful, the story does a lot of work in a short period introducing a world but also creating deep emotional engagement with a set of characters. It could have easily become overly twee and sentimental but I think it avoids becoming either.

▪ “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

The least conventionally story like of the set. A guided tour through a museum (or is it?) of curiosities. Disturbing images and ideas – the curiosities are the voyeuristic medical views of people as ‘freaks’ of body or behaviour. The story attempts to reverse the gaze of the curious and the dehumanising. A story best read rather than described that uses setting rather than narrative to create an effective horror story.

▪ “Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

Elsewhere Murderbot is doling its best to mix genre consumption with themes about Artificial Intelligence but here we have a different style of robot interact with genre fiction.

Computron lives a dull life as an aging exhibit in a museum of robot history. Clunky and classically unemotional, Computron has little to do other than a short performance for visitors. By chance the robot begins to take an interest in a TV show which also features a rather boxy robot as a main character. This in turn leads Computron into the world of fan fiction and a new life.

Nice and engaging but I did feel it more faded out at the end rather than deliver a distinct conclusion.

▪ “The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (, July 19, 2017)

The world has gone to shit and humanity’s attempt to colonise other parts of the solar system has failed. With little hope for a better future an architect controls machines remotely from Earth to build a quixotic monument to humanity on Mars. But is everybody really dead on the Red Planet?

More whistful than depressing but not a jolly story to put sunshine in your step. Even so there’s a stronger theme of hope in the story and the importance of doing what is right over grandiose self-indulgence.

▪ “Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)

There is gardening (well, farming) and there is a cranky old woman (briefly) as signatures for an Ursula Vernon story but this is a different style than Jackalope Wives.

Allpa receives a magic sword from his grandmother who had been a famous warrior in her youth. Trapped in the sword are three spirits of legendary fighters: Sun, Moon and Dust. Unfortunately for each of them Allpa’s main concern is his potatoes.

It’s a simple story that subverts the reluctant hero trope. Allpa genuinely would rather farm his land than seek out a hidden destiny as a warrior. The story follows this idea but in a way that feels like you are reading a familiar folk tale of some antiquity.

I was a fan of Ursula Vernon’s writing before I started this blog and this story only reinforces my high estimation of her writing. The story looks simple and effortless but of the six people mentioned (one only very briefly) you are left with a sense of fully formed characters of depth. I guess that is an illusion given we don’t know really know very much about any of them but it is rather like an artist who uses a single brush stroke to imply the more complex features of a face. There is also a sense of a bigger wider world as well as brief details that give Allpa’s world more sense of place.

The story doesn’t have a twist as such, indeed in one sense it has the opposite. The ending feels obvious and natural when you reach it, even though it sits exactly opposite to the initial premise of the story (a young man is given a magic sword). Calling it a subversion is misleading – it just goes where it wants to go rather than where genre conventions demand that it should.

It is masterful in the sense of showing mastery of the form. I really liked it.

▪ “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

What is it like to be somebody else? A neat question and one of those philosophical queries that science fiction can explore through imagined technology. Here a use of mind immersive virtual technology allows people to experience the lives of others.

Told (sensibly and appropriately) in the second person “you” are a Native American who works for a company that provides people with “authentic” immersive experiences. In your case these experiences are corny vision quests in which eager tourists keen to connect with their spiritual side engage with a fantasy of Native American culture. That fantasy contrast with the realities of life and work and relationships.

But one day an encounter goes off track and…well spoilers follow.

This is both original in scope but also a classic style of twisty story in the tradition of the Twilight Zone. Mixing questions of personal identity in the setting of virtual reality with wider questions of cultural identity and personal connections. As with the other finalists, I am amazed at how Rebecca Roanhorse packs in so much into a short text.

Currently Sun, Moon and Dust and Carnival Nine are my favourites and probably Fandom for Robots is my least favourite but it’s a tough choice and I quite like Fandom for Robots!

Hugo Ballot 2018: BDP – Long Form

If BDP-Short was tough because all the choices seemed a bit flawed, BDP-Long is a meaty, populist, movie marathon full of treats and still a tough set of choices.

Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form [full list]

  • Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Alcon Entertainment / Bud Yorkin Productions / Torridon Films / Columbia Pictures)
  • Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele (Blumhouse Productions / Monkeypaw Productions / QC Entertainment)
  • The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro (TSG Entertainment / Double Dare You / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm, Ltd.)
  • Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi (Marvel Studios)
  • Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins (DC Films / Warner Brothers)

Reverse order here:

6. Blade Runner 2049 – I’ve watched it but I note that I didn’t review it. When I don’t review things it is either I meant to and events got in the way and then I forgot OR I didn’t have anything to say good or bad. Bad films can be fun to review, even mediocre films can be fun to review. I don’t know with Blade Runner 2049. I didn’t hate it. It did not actually feel superfluous as a sequel. Baby Gooseman was very good and the Harrison Ford cameo was not gratuitous. It, of course, was visually excellent.

But…it just didn’t really engage me. A carefully crafted tribute to an aesthetic.

5. Wonder WomanMy views haven’t changed much on this. It had some good qualities but it was overlong for the story it was trying to tell. Gal Gadot remains the most valuable actor in the DC Universe and is the point from which they should build outwards.

4. Star Wars: The Last JediIf you are going to make sequels and keep franchises continually going then at least do something both new and in keeping with the franchise. Rian Johnson took the palette of Star Wars films and assembled them into something both new and familiar. It was what I wanted out of a new Star Wars film even though I didn’t know that beforehand. Good stuff and a strong contender.

3. Thor: RagnarokI loved this on first viewing and loved it even more on second viewing. Mainly just a fun, disco-coloured romp which underneath has themes about colonisation and the retreat from Empire.

2. The Shape of Water – An excellent film, whose storyline is quite simple (almost overdone) but with a depth of character and compassion that really lifts it. Not a comedy exactly but there is a comedic eye to things that makes it feel lighter than it is.

1. Get Out – Not the most science-fictional of the choices but the most tightly crafted of the set of films. So much packed into this film and I’m still processing elements of it.

Those top four choices are so close that I may well swap the order of them more than once before the ballot closes. I wouldn’t take bets on a likely winner – I can see all six possibly taking the lead (although Blade Runner 2049 is the least likely to win I think).

Hugo Ballot 2018: BDP – Short

I have read all of the novel finalists and I’ve watched all the Best Dramatic Presentation finalists. I’m waiting for the Hugo Packet to complete some other categories but in the meantime, I need to start somewhere.

The finalists are:

Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form

  • Black Mirror: “USS Callister,” written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker, directed by Toby Haynes (House of Tomorrow)
  • “The Deep” [song], by Clipping (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes)
  • Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time,” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay (BBC Cymru Wales)
  • The Good Place: “Michael’s Gambit,” written and directed by Michael Schur (Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television)
  • The Good Place: “The Trolley Problem,” written by Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan, directed by Dean Holland (Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television)
  • Star Trek: Discovery: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” written by Aron Eli Coleite & Jesse Alexander, directed by David M. Barrett (CBS Television Studios)

And overall, it’s a bit lacklustre. The clear favourite is Black Mirror’s Star Trek riff USS Callister but I had issues with it. Doctor Who traditionally gets a slot here but I found that episode overly sentimental. One of my least favourite episodes of Star Trek: Discovery got nominated. There’s just not enough of Clipping’s The Deep and two episodes of The Good Place just seems odd.

Oddly, The Good Place is my favourite show on that list and the only one I haven’t reviewed. Here is my first cut at a personal ranking:

  1. The Good Place: I would have prefered Dance, Dance Resolution (Season 2 Episode 2) but these are two good episodes. Michael’s Gambit (Final episode of season 1) is hard to discuss without a huge spoiler as its key story point is a revelation that reshapes the series. That revelation was a masterful piece of writing that was set up from the first episode and was always apparent but disguised as casual plot holes in the story. The Trolley Problem is the most overtly philosophical of the episodes – playing on Phillipa Foote’s famous thought experiment as a way of placing characters not just in moral dilemma’s but also creating great comedy.
  2. Doctor Who. A bit gimmicky and overly sentimental. There have been stronger Christmas Episodes but it was nice to farewell Peter Capaldi and also greet Jodie Whittaker (if briefly) as the new Doctor.
  3. Black Mirror. The longer I think on it the more I dislike this episode. Yes, it was very, very well done but it rests on a cliche of equating social incompetence with dangerous.
  4. Star Trek: Discovery. Everybody loves a time loop but this episode was undermined by its ending which was ethically bad and by plot holes. Episode 3 was better and some of the mirror universe episodes, while lacking a strong Star Trek aesthetic, made for great over-the-top space opera.
  5. Clipping. Really not enough substance there to rate this highly. I’m putting it above No Award but only just. Fine for what it is but in the end as a dramatic presentation there just isn’t enough there.

Next time: BDP-Long!

Review: Get Out (Movie 2017)

Through various circumstances, I failed to see Jordan Peele’s directorial debut movie twice at the movies. In the meantime, the critical and cultural conversation around the film could not be ignored. To some extent, several aspects of the film had been technically ‘spoiled’ (e.g. I’d read a discussion about alternate endings for the film and so knew which one was used).

Of course, you can’t entirely spoil a horror story, Psycho still works regardless if you know the twists – some of the immediate shocks may be lost but the tensions and atmosphere remain. Get Out didn’t feel spoiled for me at all but I’ll avoid spoilers if you haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that it is a horror film whose premise is an African-American man Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) visits the home of his girlfriend’s very middle-class white parents.

Despite a brief, violent start, the film mainly uses a ratchet of tension to upset and unnerve the viewer. It begins grounded in the basic anxiety of people in a newish relationship meeting one half’s parent’s for the first time. Coupled with this is Chris’s concern about how he will be received as a black man dating a white woman in modern America. That tension morphs into the uncomfortable cringe of the overly friendly parents, the unpleasant brother which is amplified by the odd behaviour of the family’s two black servants.

I don’t think I have much to add to the conversation on the themes of the film and how Peele masterfully pulls those themes together into a seamless film. This review at The Atlantic I think captures one of my main thoughts about eyes, sight and cameras are used to drive the story and also frame the themes (contains many spoilers  ).

In short, it works both as a horror film and as a film that explores the black experience of America. Which shouldn’t be a surprise? Horror has always had a strange capacity to deal with far more than its supposed subject matter. As a profitable but marginalised genre it resembles children’s television in having a odd degree of licence that more mainstream genres have – which is an excuse to site Doctor Who as series that crosses both spaces (co-incidentally Daniel Kaluuya is a Doctor Who alumni, having appeared in the David Tennant special ‘Planet of the Dead’).

Peele picked a perfect genre in which to use a satirical lens and that capacity for satire is also what allows horror to move so neatly into comedic spaces or in this case vice-versa. If anything Get Out is not particularly humour heavy considering Peele’s comedic talents but it uses humour effectively to knowingly contrast some of the absurdity of the premise with the inescapable horror of Chris’s circumstance.

But onto another issue – Get Out is also a nominee for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form Hugo Award. I think it is undoubtedly a worthy candidate. Is it science-fictional enough? Well, as discussed last year Best Dramatic Presentation is a looser category in terms of science fiction and fantasy. Having said that, yes Get Out is stylistically a horror film and makes more use of horror-movie tropes (and situation comedy tropes) than science-fictional ones. However, there is some substantial speculative content (that I’ll discuss in more depth in another post as it ties in with some recent reading) and the premise of an apparently benign environment that is actually a seductive trap is one that has substantial history in both science-fiction and horror (e.g. see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 as variety of that trope). At some point, the mask will slip and the benevolent host will be revealed to be a…well a something and it wants the hapless hero for something else other than one evening’s dinner conversation. The title itself ‘get out’ captures not only a line from the film but also the key point in the wider family of such storylines – the emotional beat that the viewer has been wanting to warn the central character of all along.

In short, I’m not remotely worried about the SFnalness of Get Out and I doubt many others will be either.