Team File 770’s 30 Books for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest

The inaugural Self Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) judging teams have now been assigned their books — here are the titles, authors and covers of the works that will be judged in the first round by Team File 770 – Cora Buhlert, Rogers Cadenhead, Sarah Duck-Mayr, and Mike Glyer:

SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga – Review by James Bacon

Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga — Titan Books $29.99 

By James Bacon: This 176-page book is surprisingly nice and informative, given the incredible amount of literature available on Star Wars.

Each film gets an impressive double page photo spread, the bulk of the book are three columns of quotes, some quality film images, and loads of behind the scenes photos. Sometimes there is a bit of contextualization to these quotes, but there have been some seriously clever and judicious choices. While Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are much quoted, and I did yearn for more Alec Guinness, the actors speak considerably, we also get people involved in the production, we get Brian Muir who sculpted the Darth Vader costume,  Ralph McQuarrie who was a concept artist, Joe Johnston who was effects illustration and design and Peter Hirsch the editor of Star Wars. Added with images of cast that were cut from the film, it really adds up to a surprisingly enjoyable book, with quite a bit to interest most fans. 

There is a system, each film has around 18 pages, as well as an introductory double page spread, there is an image of a film poster and a page of trivia. The paper is very high quality and it is nicely packaged with what I think is an enhanced collage of images as the cover. 

This is the perfect book for someone who does not have much literature on the films, but who wants more insight, especially into the production and views of the actors, but who is not ready for the likes of J.W. Rinzler ‘Making of books’ at 360 pages each or Craig Miller’s wonderful Star Wars Memories: My Time In The (Death Star) Trenches with its 400 pages of sharp insight and unique perspective.  

An interest in the making of the film is definitely being cultivated here, without being inundated with information, and the quotes are fun, the editors have found some quirky pieces, none are ever too long and it feels very well matched to the imagery.  I suspect some of it may have appeared in the lifetime of the Star Wars Insider magazine, but I’m not checking 200 magazines, so it’s a suspicion. 

It’s for the newer fan to Star Wars who wants something relevant, but also something that can be dipped in and out of quite easily. 

Without doubt I think the behind the scenes images, cut scenes  and some of the more interesting quotes, really make this book, and I did love seeing Declan Mulholland as Jabba the Hutt and the guys at Torsche station that we never saw, and Lupita Nyong’o in motion capture suit who we saw as Maz Kanata. 

With so many books on Star Wars, it is vital to know the reader who a book best suits, and it make me think of some newer fans, with the Lego, who have seen the films, but not many books on the shelves, sharing details and maybe piquing interest in the art and work that goes into making a film. 

[Titan Comics says this can be ordered from Amazon: Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga The Official Collector’s Edition Book Hardcover]

Sample page spreads follow the jump. Click for larger image.

Continue reading

Iphinome Reviews Novik’s
A Deadly Education

By Iphinome:

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, Book 1) by Naomi Novik. YA, contemporary fantasy.

El (Galadriel) is pissed off. Her classmate Orion just rescued her for the second time –needlessly. She’s capable, more than capable, El’s powerful – El, power, get it? Get it? The YA tradition of unsubtle names is well represented–people need to know she’s powerful. Her future outside of school depends on building a reputation good enough for acceptance into one of the world’s magical enclaves. She won’t last out there alone.

She won’t even last in school alone.

Malficaria, creatures that survive by taking mana from other beings (if humans do it they’re called maleficers) see the young with their growing magic and low defenses as tasty snacks, in the outside world magical children have a low survival rate. The Scholomance built in a pocket dimension with only tiny connections to the outside world was designed to keep malficaria out so the kids – teens, in this case, it’s a high school – have a chance.

Bit of a failure, that. The place is infested. Students have to travel in groups, watch each other’s backs and always check over their shoulders because the place is infested. Only four out of five make it to graduation of which half of those make it past the maleficaria waiting in the graduation hall for their yearly feast.

The 40% chance of living to 18 and making it out the door alive is still considered better odds than being a magical kid on the outside. Good times.

This brings us back to El, she wants to live. In the teacherless, libertarian, capitalist, world of the Sholomance, where every bit of material even pencils must be bartered for or life risked to obtain, she has to show people she’d make a good ally. With her affinity for destruction and death magic that should be easy. It takes a lot of juice though and unlike most, El can’t just flirt with a dark side a little bit, sacrifice a bunny for a little malia, and juice a flashy spell — if she goes bad it’ll be the full Sauron. She hoarded mana the hard way, waited for a chance to show her stuff, and got rescued like a helpless waif.

Orion doesn’t have El’s problems. Filling the rich kid/star athlete role he has a much easier time at the Scholomance. His mother is a politically powerful member of the large New York magical enclave, he arrived with people who’ve known him since he was a toddler all prepared to help him out. He has access to a store of mana and magical artifacts that have been passed down inside the school for years, generations. There’s still danger but he has the resources to face it. And that’s all he does, half-assing his classes Orion gets to white knight around the school hunting down maleficaria.

Orion, hunter. Maybe in the meta world of YA, the characters are like cats and some magic forces them to take after their names.

After convincing Orion that she doesn’t need saving – like so soon it should be funny – El’s ambushed by one of the students who’s gone full murdery maleficer. So now she does need saving.

Or she could go bad, rip out the guy’s magic and live on.

El doesn’t do it, she passes the test, she will diminish and remain Galadriel – not my joke, the text hits hard on the love me and despair line. Orion swoops in to save the day then spends the night in El’s room guarding her.

And is seen leaving in the morning.

Now he’s sitting with her at meals. People see her as Orion’s girlfriend even though she’s totally NOT. And the rise from outcast to having the rich, popular guy follow her around leads to dangers on a different level, cliques, jealousy, rivalries, maybe – for the first time –friendships.

The YA tropes are well represented, from the politics of who can sit where in the library and lunchroom to more than a few Hunger Games parallels. Some students come in with allies, the less privileged need to find them, oftentimes by taking on personal risk in exchange for favor from the haves. El, like Katness, resents the enclave kids yet even she has to offer what she can do for what they have.

Which leads us to the theme of balance. Magic requires it. El’s mother is a hippie healer living in a commune so El is a potential dark lord navigating a world where everything from notebooks to keeping watch for maleficaria while someone else showers is a negotiated exchange for advantage. Orion with his Targaryen-silver hair is liked and even held in awe while ambiguous brown El is unpopular and suspect. Until Orion’s hunting leaves the malfaceria starved of low-hanging fruit and to balance it out, the privileged and powerful have to suffer attacks. For all that it’s heavy-handed – YA remember? – it all pulls together rather well.

Your own enjoyment is going to depend on a tolerance for the many YA stereotypes and for an angry-snarky-unpleasant at times teenage protagonist. I like El, I like her arrogance and paranoia and surprise when not everyone’s as bad as she thinks they are. A potential evil overlord should have a chip on her shoulder. It makes doing the right thing harder and it makes it more rewarding when she does. I’m eager for the sequel.

I’d rate A Deadly Education slightly lower than Spinning Silver and slightly higher than Uprooted both of which got four stars from me so this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Fou…

Did you think I wasn’t going to mention it?

Controversy: An early edition of the book contains a racially insensitive passage about the danger of wearing hair in locs (dreadlocks), I didn’t notice it in my read-through and couldn’t find it with a text search which makes it difficult to comment on. There is an apology posted on Naomi Novik’s website. https://www.naominovik.com/apology/

The second controversy: Midway through the book I came across this passage:

Predictably, an Arabic worksheet appeared on my desk the instant I sat down that morning. There wasn’t a single word of English on it; the school didn’t even give me a dictionary. And judging by the cheery cartoonish illustrations next to the lines—most notably a man in a car about to mow down a couple of hapless pedestrians—I had the strong suspicion that it was modern Arabic, too.

Predictably, I grabbed my notebook and added this eloquent line, “51% Man mowing down pedestrians, WTF?”

Mowing down pedestrians has in recent years become a fixture of the American extreme right-wing. From driving over Standing Rock protesters to the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer while protesting the Unite the Right rally and now several Republican-controlled states introducing laws that specifically make it legal to drive over protesters, it’s completely unfair to treat native Arabic speakers as sharing the same murderous impulse that Republicans have regarding people on foot.

More seriously, what the hell? A comment about hairstyles gets an apology and an edit, a line that implies Arabic speakers are violent stays in the book? Even if El’s other language worksheets imply violence–which would make sense for El though it goes unmentioned–singling out Arabic specifically strikes me as a Bad Idea. She does later follow this scene having El hang out in the library near a bunch of Arabic speakers who show no particular propensity for vehicular homicide but still. It is–as the kids say–messed up, yo.

And I hope it was a one-off because I really did like the rest of the book.

Four stars.

Four Reviews by Iphinome

By Iphinome: Reading. That’s what I do, I read and I snark things.

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries) By Martha Wells. Space Opera

This story takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect.

It all starts with a body of a human–the dead kind–dumped in a hallway. This doesn’t happen often on Preservation station, station security is used to dealing with intoxicated humans not conducting murder investigations. Because they have the same sort of media infused-preconceptions about SecUnits as most other humans and augmented humans, they see Muderbot as, well, a murder bot, a possible suspect. This leaves them less than enthused about accepting help from a dangerous weapon that, even if innocent, presents a far greater danger than any single human or augmented human murderer.

What’s one murderer compared to the threat presented by a murderbot?

Murderbot could leave this one alone, it knows it didn’t kill the human, but not knowing who the killer or the identity-obscured victim is means not knowing if GrayCris is involved or if Dr. Mensah is in more danger. Gotta get that risk assessment down.

Fugitive Telemetry is a classic whodunit wherein Murderbot must work with the humans, augmented humans–even a few “free bots”–collect evidence and eliminate suspects (not that way!) alongside humans who know exactly what a SecUnit is. Humans who wonder if Murderbot did the murder.

Don’t worry, Murderbot still finds time to shoot things with the energy weapons in its arms, attempt a daring rescue, and watch Sanctuary Moon.

All the stuff we know and love is in there.

Let’s look at my notes.

16% Security insists that Murderbot can’t be stealth, it has to be out loud and proud in its feed identifier so people don’t get fooled. Two cycles later, not being satisfied with outing Murderbot as a SecUnit to any passers-by, a photo is published in the planetary newsstream.

Won’t that be fun when the next rogue SecUnit comes through and gets instantly read?

21% Ooooo is this the bot on the cover?

36% Someone else can hack Preservations crappy surveillance

40% Oh, maybe this is the cover bot. So many bots.

70% Time to shine baby. This is a job for Murderbot.

The inclusion of a heroic SecUnit really made this story work, more writers should do it.

I liked it. I always like Murderbot and feel a bit bad about not rating it higher but while Murderbot experiences a bit of personal growth we’ve already seen the results of in Network Effect. There’s a disadvantage in having this released non-chronologically.

Three stars plus a half because Murderbot. Recommended.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. Space opera.

This story takes place at the truck stop in Little America Wyoming where a group of travelers are trapped by a blizzard. No, wait. I’m being told that this book takes place under a small habitat dome at the Five-Hop One-Stop on the planet Gora, an airless rock that serves as a convenient anchor for five interstellar tunnels. My bad.

The proprietor is Ouloo a Laru, (a quadrupedal mammalian species with long necks and long fur) helped by her adolescent child Tupo. Three ships are scheduled to arrive for short shopping trips. Her deal is to keep the customers happy and coming back. She’s a sort of suburban business owner.

Tupo, Ouloo’s adolescent child. Xe has created a small natural history museum (on a lifeless planet) and otherwise helps out around the One-Stop in a sometimes sulky and sometimes excited way. Xe’s the moody teenager archetype.

Gapei Tem Seri, an Aeluon (fine scales, no natural hearing). Pei’s still dating Ashby from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, still, despite declarations to the contrary, apprehensive about the potential social stigma her people assign to those in interspecies relationships. She’s just gotten a bit of free time and is en route to Wayfarer for a little waterball. Wink wink nudge nudge.

In some ways, Pei represents the partially closeted homosexual. She’s not quite hiding her relationship as much as controlling who does and doesn’t know but she still fears the very real consequences that come with openness. Some Aeolins might be open and comfortable with interspecies sexuality but staying in the closet keeps her employed. In other respects, she’s just a woman making hard choices in the work/relationship/friends balance. Straight people have to figure it all out too.

Roveg, a Quelin (They have shells and lots of legs) exiled from his people. He makes his living as an artist who designs sims. In video game parlance we’d call his genre walking simulators. No plot, just lots of pretty stuff to walk through and look at. He’s on his way to an important and very time sensitive appointment.

For Pei Roveg represents a cautionary tale. He knowingly violated the taboos of his people, now he’s paying the price far from home, a pariah to other Quelin. To Tupo he’s the wise and understanding adult, to Speaker he’s someone who can empathise and to Ouloo he’s low maintenance.

For himself, he’s apprehensive about his looming appointment and while usually possessed of a healthy outlook regarding his status and some of the opportunities it allows him there’s some melancholy there. You can make the best but can’t always have all the things you want.

Speaker an Akarak. The species made an appearance in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as the raiders in mech suits who infiltrated Wayfarer and injured Ashby. The Mech suits are necessary to survive in an oxygen atmosphere and thematically exist to create an outsider status, physical separation for a member of a lesser-known and distrusted species.

A life of mistrust and misunderstanding along with an uncountable number of microaggressions leave Speaker’s feather easily ruffled, er, so to speak, but she’s practiced at not showing it. She’s a very kindhearted person and her main concern is getting off Gora and back to her ailing sister who remained in orbit while Speaker made a supply run.

Kyra described this as The most Becky Chambers plot of all time. Soooooooooooo apt.

While our three travelers are making scheduled stops between wormhole tranists an accident happens. The planet’s orbital infrastructure undergoes catastrophic failure, the linkings are down and space is full of junk. It’s not safe to leave, and anyone who tries is going to get so many points on their license that they’ll be walking between planets for the rest of their lives.

Our characters are stranded in Ouloo’s habitat dome with strangers around them and their own problems weighing. Imagine the modder colony visit in Angry Planet but as a whole book. They begin in the overly polite and guarded way as one does when in close confines with strangers. They talk, they hold different opinions, they gain understanding, they bond.

And yeah. There’s a complete lack of humans which makes things a bit more interesting. The characters do a far better job of drawing you in than anyone in Spaceborn Few which seriously dragged. All the themes of the previous books are there. As a worldbuilding bonus, we get some backstory on why the Quelin were such dicks to Corbin in the first book.

It didn’t have the same charm as the first book and didn’t have the same power as the second. On the bright side, it wasn’t as mind numbingly boring as the third and it managed to do what it intended. I cared about these people. It was pretty good.

Recommended if you like Becky Chambers, not recommended if you’re looking for action.

  • Liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. 4 stars.
  • Loved, love, will always love A Closed and Common Orbit. 5 stars.
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few bored me, not enough to deduct a star though. 3 stars
  • The Galaxy and the Ground Within. It didn’t bore me, also didn’t quite meet the threshold for a fourth star. 3 stars.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht. Space opera.

Our protagonist, Angel–introduced in chapter 3–leads a mercenary squad of former corpse soldiers. Their job was to go on suicide missions and then get revived later. They keep doing that till the cumulative physical and psychological damage makes them unfit for military service. Good times. Now she and her team work for Rosie, a local crime boss. Their current assignment is an assassination which goes according to plan until a second team pulls off another assassination–the planet’s corporate owners’ local head honcho–at the same party. Angel’s group along with a woman from the party named Kennedy Liu make their escape.

Knocking off someone for Rosie is something Angel can get away with. Criminal knocks off rival is an old story, but this second death means that not only does Angel have to explain the situation to Rose but being blamed for assassinating a corporate VIP buys a whole load of trouble.

Rosie owns a bar that they use as a base for extra-legal dealings. Don’t get your hopes up, this isn’t space Casablanca. Then again, space Casablanca would be like Barb Wire and that sucks so maybe do raise your hopes a little bit.

Angel makes her way there and Rosie is quite forgiving, she even has a new job that will get Angel and company out of town. Protect a very secret town of Persephone’s native sentients–so secret that Rosie and the Serrao-Orlove corporation plus any number of smugglers know all about it–from an impending invasion by corporate mercs.

It’s another suicide mission and this time no revivification boxes.

The B-plot centers on Kennedy Liu, she’s an AI in a highly illegal human appearing body. People in these stories always get it wrong. Things not to give AIs: Nukes. Things that it’s okay to give AIs: Bodies that appear human, cat pics. She comes to Persephone after receiving a call for help and gets drawn into the Angel/Rosie versus Serrao-Orlove struggle.

Chapter one: This is a prologue, it doesn’t call itself a prologue even though the epilogue calls itself an epilogue. It concerns a people called the Emissaries, a species with some shapeshifting abilities attempting to negotiate with the planet Persephone’s owners, the Serrao-Orlove corporation, and in particular one corporate representative Vissia Corsini who has betrayed the Emissaries in the past. It goes badly for the Emissaries and Vissa commits a war crime.

And it’s completely skippable. Our protagonist learns about the Emissaries and Vissia’s cruel nature as the story progresses.

Chapter two: It’s a couple pages long and mostly serves as a second prologue. Rosie, a local tavern owner (and crime boss) finds a corpse dropped on their doorstep. They know who the person is and after offering a quick prayer for the dead Rosie continues with their day.

Skippable. The death and the identity of the deceased are revealed to Angel in short order.

Chapter 3: Start here because this is where our protagonist steps on stage.

10% Things started flowing and I was afraid to let myself relax into the story. My notes say this book is like a mechanical bull that keeps trying to toss me out.

That was a lie. My actual written note says “10% now it’s going. Mechanical Bull Book!”

Sophisticated and erudite I’m not.

39% Welcome to Emissarytown. No, that’s emISSARy, not emBASsy. China Mieville’s not here.

We’re not human but we have all the human stuff right down to a standard pre-fab landing bay. Shhh, no one knows we exist and if you need anything we’ll order it for the next regularly scheduled smuggling run.

We know you have a choice when it comes to suicide missions, thank you for choosing Emissaries.

43% “Four women, one man, and two non-binary people approached”

I have so many questions the worldbuilding didn’t address. At no point does the narrative explain how a non-binary person might declare themselves such without stating it. There’s very little information about gender presentation or stereotypes. Rosie is non-binary and wears makeup and skirts. Is it color-coded? How the eff were you able to tell at a glance?

Ah well, not today mechanical bull, not today. Gonna press on.

Retroactive bonus point to Winter’s Orbit which did explain the culture-specific gender signifiers.

76% I’m a leaf on the wind.

It took eight days to get through this book, more than once I had a feeling of dread when reaching for the kindle, would I get bounced again? Not so much, it tried once or twice but if not for the bad taste left by the first two chapters then I wouldn’t have spent the rest of the book with a lingering fear about it all going wrong.

The story was fine. The characters are fine. My complaints are–to my everlasting shame–the complaints of a backseat editor. Some worldbuilding lapses some poor authorial choices in the opening chapters.

Leave that aside and you have an average sci-fi adventure story of the mercenaries decide to stand for something variety.

I could drop half a star for the beginning but I round up anyway so what the hell, three stars.

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno. Media tie-in, space opera.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

It is a period of civil war. Separatist systems, led by the Sith Lord Count Dooku, use battle droids to fight The Grand Army of the Republic in a never-ending struggle to control the border worlds. After one battle, Republic operators managed to obtain plans for the separatist ultimate weapon, a battle station the size of a small moon. The side that completes the battle station first will have the power to win the war.

Republic engineer Orson Krennic searches for Galen Erso, the researcher who can complete the weapon, save the Republic, and restore peace and security to the galaxy.

Dah dah dah daaaa daaaa dun dun dunt duhhhh duhhh.

Since this is a media tie-in, readers are expected to be familiar with the first six Star Wars films.

Galen Erso–because of course there’s a Galen, as the length of a genre series increases, the probability of there being a Galen approached one–is a deep thinker. He’s the kind of scientist who stops speaking and ignores people to start scribbling. He’s the kind of scientist who forgets to comb his hair because he’s thinking thank you very much. He’s also the kind of scientist who doesn’t want his work used to create weapons despite his specialty being crystals and power generation–exactly what you need to make laser weapons in Star Wars–that’s why he and his wife left Coruscant for the Vallt system where he can sit out the Clone Wars working in the private sector.

The war comes to him in the form of a coup switching the planet to the Separatist cause and the arrest of Erso on fabricated charges with the understanding that if he just transfers his loyalties, he’ll go free. At this point, Galen switches from absent-minded professor to expert in psychology and influence techniques–which totally isn’t going to last–allowing him to hold firm even when his wife Lyra gives birth to their daughter Jyn while he’s in captivity.

Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic, Republic Corps of Engineers, and ambitious member of the Special Weapons Project sees getting his old school chum Galen involved as the key to his eventual rise. With a combination of money, threats, and plausibly deniable sabotage, smuggler Has Obitt is convinced to work as Krennic’s agent. They rescue Erso who, while thankful to see his old buddy and get a ride out of prison, doesn’t want to work for the government.

Krennic arranges for Erso to both be under suspicion for his time spent with Separatists and thankful for the only crappy non-military job available to him and he finishes out the war-making communication devices.

Despite the Jedi and Dooku being gone, the Galactic Empire still doesn’t know peace. Pockets of resistance remain along with anarchists and criminals, the battle station still needs completion and Krennic finally has the leverage he needs over his old friend. Kyber crystals, hoarded and hidden by the Jedi, now available for research. Perfectly above-board civilian research.

Project Celestial Power, the Emperor’s dream Galen’s told. Renewable energy, unimaginable amounts for developing worlds using Kyber crystals. Will Erso lead the project? He will.

Catalyst was released ahead of Rogue One as a way of building hype and giving bookish fans easter eggs to search for. It’s a tough situation, being unable to spoil the future, being very limited even in how much you can telegraph when the movie’s where the money comes in and the author’s job is to combine storytelling with ad copy. I’m not sure it was a great idea but only the Disney accountants know for sure.

Early chapters might fool the reader into thinking Galen Erso is the protagonist. It’s Krennic. Story events focus on his lies, power grabs, struggles against Tarken,, and the bodies of anyone who stops being useful. His I’m your friend approach to Galen Erso echos Palpatine with Anakin and his trail of bodies echoes Vader with anyone who disappoints him. But the Sith lords embrace evil. Orson Krennic’s actions come off more creep than mustache-twirling.

Call it the banality of darksideism.

A few notes.

My spell-check already knew the word Coruscant. That tells you all you need to know about Star Wars and popular culture.

Dropping a beast of a word like somnambulantly into the middle of a sentence is a good way to bounce a reader out of the text, at least momentarily.

There’s an odd spate of excess scenery detail for a couple chapters around 70% of the way through. There hadn’t been as much earlier in the book so it came out of nowhere.

Tarkin makes a dad joke, Tarkin should not make dad jokes. My brain hurts.

Catalyst ends at 87% on my kindle. Any readers keeping track of how much story is left be aware that the last 10% is the preview for another Star Wars book.

As a stand-alone novel, I’d give it two stars, much is left unexplained. As a media tie-in where you’re expected to know and judging by the standards of other media tie-ins, three stars.

Another Well-Titled Book

By John Hertz: In one of Forry Ackerman’s more inspired puns, he called us the Imagi-Nation.

We make things up.

Of course all art does.  Maybe all life does.

I knew people with a bookshop that had two names, “Bookfellows” and “Mystery and Imagination”.  I told them I liked “Bookfellows” better because all books were mystery and imagination.

SF is particularly hard.  If it’s just like what we already know, it’s only mainstream.  If it’s too unlike what we know, how are we going to engage with it?

I’ve mentioned C.S. Lewis’ advice I call the One Strange rule: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Ambitious SF authors may try both.

Glorious, the Greg Benford – Larry Niven novel appearing last year, is one of the more ambitious SF stories.  It’s third in a series.  I didn’t re-read the first two before reading it.  I don’t think you’ll have to.

It’s an interstellar-travel book. To manage that, some authors make up a way to go faster than light.  So far as present-day science knows, it can’t be done (yes, I’ve heard of the Alcubierre drive; even if it’s possible we can’t build it now).  There’s no faster-than-light drive in Glorious.  There are no generation ships.  There’s suspended animation – “cold sleep”.  The authors don’t suppose that will be easy or simple.  There’s a lot of high-power computing machinery – artificial intelligence.

I don’t know if AI, cold sleep, or FTL will prove achievable.  A century or a millennium from now any might have been demonstrated to be fantasy.  Meanwhile a story treating any well is science fiction.

Some of Glorious might contradict some people’s religious faith. That faith might be right and Glorious wrong.  But faith – I have some – isn’t science.  It isn’t less valid – or so I believe – just different.  Science is based on things that can be detected and measured in certain ways.  Faith doesn’t have those limitations – so it has other limitations.  I happen to believe some of Glorious is wrong.  But I don’t read books to be agreed with.

Colonists in Glorious think they’re high-tech.  They’ve left Earth, and found what looks like a suitable place far enough away.  It would be only a short hop in an E.E. Smith book, or a Larry Niven Known Space book, but this isn’t one of those.

Colonists try to prepare for surprises. History shows and SF tells they’re surprised anyway.

People in Glorious get downloaded – if I were writing a few decades ago I’d have had to explain that – into bodies and even machines.  That’s almost trivial – I did say almost – compared to what these colonists have to face.

They also have to find how to perceive what they’re facing.

We’ve had stories like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with protagonists on the high-tech side.  Oh, look at those benighted creatures over there.  In Glorious the sucker is on another tentacle.

There’s some reason to believe the Glorious protagonists are being played for suckers.

Benford is known for imagining physics.  Niven is known for imagining aliens.  Plenty of both in Glorious.  There’s poetic writing too.  It isn’t quite like either of them.  This is a collaboration.

The landing team arrives.  We’re a quarter of the way into the book.

The long meadow before them lay quiet and placid.

No greeting party.

No sign of any reception at all.

Not what any of them had planned.

…. a forest that seemed a writhing mass of wide, hollow limbs.  Every living thing seemed endowed with light, airy mechanics. Translucent spiked leaves wove in an easy breeze, and diaphanous flowers of a shiny blue and golden yellow…. Beth knew that this plain was underpinned by struts, and so was clinging to a silvery tether trellis [p. 119].

Things will get more beautiful and more strange.

In another ambitious feature of this book, it has illustrations.  The graphic artists are Don Davis and Brenda Cox Giguere.  That hasn’t been an ordinary part of novels for adults in quite a while.  The pictures are monochrome.  They aren’t captioned.  Like the words, they result from and invite imagination.  I thought this had better not go without saying.  Getting there took me a while.

Much farther along an alien being says,

“You have encountered our transmitter, which distorts space-time.  You correctly deduce that we use this channel to speak with distant minds that carry out large, powerful experiments.”

“Look,” Viviane said, “we came here to communicate and colonize, if you will be so kind.  Not about physics and such, at least not right away.”

Redwing whispered to her… “Let Twisto go on.  It wants something from us [p. 354].”

If the space – land-space – or something – isn’t unoccupied, and if the people (“Science fiction is about people.  Some of the people are aliens”) are higher-tech than our protagonists, how can colonization be possible – if they will be so kind?  Must our protagonists, or anyone, be careless, arrogant, or worse?

There’s glory for you.

James Bacon Reviews
“The Seeds”

The Seeds by Ann Nocenti and David Aja from Berger Books 

Review By James Bacon: This comic started at the end of Summer in 2019, with the second issue being somewhat delayed, and then the third and fourth issues being completed and published in a collected edition at Christmas 2020. 

Without doubt, it is a story that is worth waiting for, and in the times of a global pandemic, where comics have experienced a difficult time getting to the readers, it was brilliant to publish this very odd and in many ways, prescient comic, but the creators were keen to point out this was an idea that was in the long time germinating, and was not reflective of events of 2019 and 2020; even so it makes a great connection about difference and media. 

A catastrophe has occurred, and now the world is in a post-apocalyptic state, poisoned, dying but life continuing,  faced with weaponized toxicity, gas masks and acid snow. 

With little escape from the dreadful bleakness, some have disowned technology to live separately, blaming the tech for the downfall, taken space of their own in the Zone. These luddites who want to escape are given dreadful land, separated by armed ‘Safe’ officers and a wall which people can go through, once their tech is confiscated.  

Meanwhile some Aliens have discreetly arrived, who wish to capture the seeds of a dying planet and set up shop in the Zone. 

Into this we see press photographer Astra, who has an idea that something needs to be done about reporting on the Wall, which for her, is the great story, but her editor Gabrielee, is not as interested — she wants clicks, she wants sensation, she wants to give people a story that is both entertainment and addictive, and the Aliens may be this. Lola’s boyfriend Race, one of the aliens, is kindly, thoughtful and does not possess the cliched crazedness of his cold hearted, difficult colleagues who are harvesting earth, and humanity. We see Lola and Astra going into the zone, and the story progresses brilliantly. 

David Aja’s art complements the grimness of this comic, he has a level of accuracy and clean line about the characters, while the backgrounds are black and white, the overall shading is a pale olive grey, adding a tonal grittiness throughout, yet his illustrative skill and line is always brilliant. I especially loved a series on ongoing scenes in Space, which seemed to be added because Aja likes space suits yet it is woven in and just adds to the overall beauty of the work. 

 There is a design that permeates the work, this is something that Aja brings, be it repetitiveness of image, or the nine panel pages, but the story itself has a level of depth I took my time enjoying this comic, looking and finding inspired moments, reflections and metaphors. This is a very thoughtful, unusual and strange work, but it tells an amazing story, speculative when conceived, it feels prescient and reflective of so many elements of the now, which is a frighteningly brilliant skill and makes for a fabulous read.  


  • Ann Nocenti is an American writer and filmmaker. Her comics include Daredevil for Marvel and Ruby Falls for Berger Books/Dark Horse.
  • David Aja is a Spanish comic book creator and illustrator, best known for his work on The Immortal Iron Fist and Hawkeye for Marvel comics. He has won Eisner, Eagle, and Harvey Awards.

2020 Novellapalooza

stack of books ©canstockphoto / olegd

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ:

TL;DR: Here’s what I thought of the 2020 Novellas. What did you think?

I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last few years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story Synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading:

  • 31 of the novellas published in 2015,
  • 35 of the novellas published in 2016,
  • 50 of the novellas published in 2017,
  • 38 of the novellas published in 2018,
  • 57 of the 2019 novellas,
  • and this year I was waiting for access to a few novellas from my library, so I was reading others, and thus my final total crept up to 59!

The result of these reading sprees were

I really felt as though this enabled me to do Hugo nominations for the Novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I’m doing it again this year.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book which sounds as though it will be up my alley and to discover that, actually, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low.

Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). What’s more, I apparently had a defective childhood, and I do not share a lot of peoples’ appreciation for fairytale retellings and portal fantasies. My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

Novellas are listed in two sections below. The first section, those with cover art, are the ones I have read, and they include mini-reviews by me. These are in approximate order from most-favorite to least-favorite (but bear in mind that after around the first dozen listed, there was not a large degree of difference in preference among most of the remainder, with the exception of a handful at the bottom). The second section is those novellas I haven’t read, in alphabetical order by title.

I’ve included plot summaries, and where I could find them, links to either excerpts or the full stories which can be read online for free. Some short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included, and in a couple of cases, novelettes which were long enough to be in the Hugo Novella tolerance were also included.

Please feel free to post comments about 2020 novellas which you’ve read, as well. And if I’ve missed your File 770 comment about a novella, or an excerpt for a novella, please point me to it!

If you see something that looks like gibberish, it is text that has been ROT-13’ed to avoid spoilers. (Please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

(fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)
Continue reading

At the Height of His –

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1433)  Tim Powers is at his best in Forced Perspectives.  He managed to bring us this book last March, four years after Alternate Routes, a short time for him.  He writes well – that’s one of my understatements, folks – but not, as he’s told us, fast.

I didn’t re-read Alternate Routes first.  I don’t think you’ll have to.

He is, as we expect, imaginative, poetic, rooted in the world we know and branching away, realistic and strange.

C.S. Lewis advised what I call the One-Strange Rule: either an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, or an extraordinary person in ordinary circumstances.  Rules get exceptions – does that have exceptions? never mind for now – but, or and, Powers does both.

I’ve advised The greater the reality, the better the fantasy.  I didn’t have to advise Powers, he’s masterly at it.

As I said of another Powers book, and Samuel Johnson said of Shakespeare (it may take a genius to write about a genius; I’m doing my best), we’ve never met these people, and if as Powers says himself he is writing fantasy, we can’t meet them; but we believe that if we did, they’d be as he portrays.  Such is the art of fiction.

Some years ago Bob Dylan sang “Nothing is revealed.” That was his art; not Powers’.  If we see a man walking on stilts, with springs under his shoes – another Powers book – or a car painted all over with clown faces, we’ll learn why.

When one of Shakespeare’s characters says “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” he’s answered “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?”  Of course that’s iambic pentameter.  Powers has different fish to fry.  His recipe isn’t particularly to sow doubt about the claim (nor is it always Shakespeare’s).  In a Powers story they may well arrive.  His recipe is Then what?

Another part of realism is Where did that come from?  In a Powers story if a man has to swim a long distance under water, or shoot a handgun suddenly and well under great stress, we know how he can do that, and what it cost. 

I’m reminded of a different careful fantasy author who made a modern man wield a centuries-earlier sword.  The man was strong enough; nor did the foes he happened to be against call on him for much skill.  He beat them.  But he blistered his hand.

Not for nothing does SF have visitor stories, growing-up stories, investigation stories.  Readers must somehow learn things the imagined world takes for granted.  Forced Perspectives is an investigation story.  The two protagonists, Sebastian Vickery – not his real name, as the old joke relishes – and Ingrid Castine, try to learn what’s going on. They’ve seen some of this before. They thought they were out of it. They weren’t.

Powers often writes what some call secret histories. Who, really, was Kim Philby (1912-1988; another Powers book)?  How, really, did the sets for Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923) get buried afterward in the sand and sea (this book)?  Powers imagines the answer and tells us the true – according to his fantasy – story.

Another part of his realism – or, more technically, verisimilitude, the appearance of truth – is that he doesn’t invent everything.  For this book he didn’t invent the notion of an egregore.  He didn’t invent the Egyptian gods (or forces of nature? or demons?) Ba and Nu. You can look them up and see they’re what his characters say.  Of course those sources you found might not have known – or told you – the real truth, aha.

There’s comedy in a Powers story.  That’s hard to do, maybe harder in fantasy than in science fiction, which is already hard.

I’m not going to fall into the pit of trying to tell you what comedy is.  I’ll suggest it has something to do with our recognizing That couldn’t be true.  If I said to you What do you think, I can work magic?? you’d smile.  But in fantasy the character who said that might be able to.

Anyway, two of my favorite moments in this book are “Isn’t either” (ch. 7) and “You have behaved in a regrettably high-handed manner all along” (ch. 17).  Also you might recognize “Tension apprehension and dissension have begun” (ch. 15).  I liked them.  Maybe you will.

Once when Powers was being interviewed at an SF convention someone asked “Do you actually believe in this stuff?”  He said “No.  But my characters do.”  As Gordon Bennett wrote, and Frank Sinatra sang, “This is all I ask, this is all I need.”

The Tangled Skein: Call Me Joe

By Paul Weimer: Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson strongly starts off a NESFA Press series of volumes covering the work of one of the key 20th century writers of Science Fiction, Poul Anderson

In the introduction, the editor, Rick Katze, states “This is the first in a multi-volume collection of Poul Anderson stories. The stories are not in any discernible pattern”. The pieces of fiction are an eclectic mix of early works in his oeuvre, mixed with poetry and verse that range across his entire career.

The contents include:

  • Call Me Joe
  • Prayer in War
  • Tomorrow’s Children
  • Kinnison’s Band
  • The Helping Hand
  • Wildcat
  • Clausius’ Chaos
  • Journey’s End
  • Heinlein’s Stories
  • Logic
  • Time Patrol
  • The First Love
  • The Double-Dyed Villains
  • To a Tavern Wench
  • The Immortal Game
  • Upon the Occasion of Being Asked to Argue That Love and Marriage are Incompatible
  • Backwardness
  • Haiku
  • Genius
  • There Will Be Other Times
  • The Live Coward
  • Ballade of an Artificial Satellite
  • Time Lag
  • The Man Who Came Early
  • Autumn
  • Turning Point
  • Honesty
  • The Alien Enemy
  • Eventide
  • Enough Rope
  • The Sharing of Flesh
  • Barbarous Allen
  • Welcome
  • Flight to Forever
  • Sea Burial
  • Barnacle Bull
  • To Jack Williamson
  • Time Heals
  • MacCannon
  • The Martian Crown Jewels
  • Then Death Will Come
  • Prophecy
  • Einstein’s Distress
  • Kings Who Die
  • Ochlan
  • Starfog

The introduction is not quite correct, in that the reader can find resonances between stories, sometimes in stories back-to-back. There are plenty of threads, and a fan of Anderson and his Nordic viewpoint might call it a skein, a tangled skein of fictional ideas, themes, ideas and characters. The same introduction notes that a lot of the furniture of science fiction can be found in early forms here, as Anderson being one of those authors who have made them what they were for successive writers. In many cases, then, it is not the freshness of the ideas that one reads these stories for, but the deep writing, themes, characters and language that put Anderson in a class of his own.

The titular story, for example, “Call Me Joe,” leads off the volume. It is a story of virtual reality in one of its earliest forms, about Man trying to reach and be part of a world he cannot otherwise interact with. Watchers of the movie Avatar will be immediately struck by the story and how much that movie relies on this story’s core assumptions and ideas. But the story is much more than the ideas. It’s about the poetry of Anderson’s writing. His main character, Anglesey, is physically challenged (sound familiar). But as a pseudojovian, he doesn’t have to be and he can experience a world unlike any on Earth:

Anglesey’s tone grew remote, as if he spoke to himself. “Imagine walking under a glowing violet sky, where great flashing clouds sweep the earth with shadow and rain strides beneath them. Imagine walking on the slopes of a mountain like polished metal, with a clean red flame exploding above you and thunder laughing in the ground. Imagine a cool wild stream, and low trees with dark coppery flowers, and a waterfall—methanefall, whatever you like—leaping off a cliff, and the strong live wind shakes its mane full of rainbows! Imagine a whole forest, dark and breathing, and here and there you glimpse a pale-red wavering will-o’-the-wisp, which is the life radiation of some fleet, shy animal, and…and…”

Anglesey croaked into silence. He stared down at his clenched fists then he closed his eyes tight and tears ran out between the lids, “Imagine being strong!”

Reader, I was moved.

That’s only part of the genius of Anderson’s work shown here. Anderson has many strings in his harp and this volume plays many of those chords.

There is the strong, dark tragedy of “The Man Who Came Early” which is in genre conversation with L Sprague De Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall” and shows an American solider, circa 1943, thrown back to 11th century Iceland and, pace Martin Padway, doing rather badly in the Dark Ages. Poul Anderson is much better known for his future history that runs from the Polesotechnic League on through the Galactic Empire of Dominic Flandry, but this volume has three stories of his OTHER future galactic civilization, where Wing Alak manages a much looser and less restrictive galactic polity, dealing with bellicose problems by rather clever and indirect means.

And then there are his time travel tales. “Time Patrol” introduces us to the entire Time Patrol cycle and Manse Everard’s first mission. I’ve read plenty of his stories over the years, but this first outing had escaped me, so it was a real delight to see “where it all began”. “Wildcat” has oil drillers in the Cretaceous and a slowly unfolding mystery that leads to a sting in the tail about the fragility of their society.  And then there is one of my favorite Poul Anderson stories, period, the poetic and tragic and moving “Flight to Forever”, with a one-way trip to the future, with highs, lows, tragedies, loss and a sweeping look at man’s future. It still moves me.

And space. Of course we go to space.  From the relativistic invasion of “Time-Lag” to the far future of “Starfog” and “The Sharing of Flesh,” Anderson was laying down his ideas on space opera and space adventure here in these early stories that still hold up today. “Time-Lag’s” slow burn of a captive who works to save her planet through cycles of invasion and attack, through the ultimate tragedy of “Starfog” as lost explorers from a far flung colony seek their home, to the “Sharing of Flesh,” which makes a strong point about assumptions in local cultures, and provides an anthropological mystery in the bargain. “Kings Who Die” is an interesting bit of cat and mouse with a lot of double-dealing espionage with a prisoner aboard a spacecraft.

Finally, I had known that Anderson was strongly into verse and poetry for years, but really had never encountered it in situ. This volume corrects that gap in my reading, with a variety of verse that is at turns, moving, poetic, and sometimes extremely funny. The placing of these bits of verse between the prose stories makes for excellent palette cleansers to not only show the range of Anderson’s work, but also clear the decks for the next story.

The last thing I should make clear for readers who might be wondering if this volume truly is for them to is to go back to the beginning of this piece. This volume, and its subsequent volumes, are not a single or even multivolume “best of Poul Anderson”. This is a book, first in a series, that is meant to be a comprehensive collection of Poul Anderson. This is not the book or even a series to pick up if you just want the best of the best of a seminal writer of 20th century science fiction. This volume (and I strongly suspect the subsequent ones) is the volume you want if you want to start a deep dive into his works in all their myriad and many forms. There is a fair amount from the end of the Pulp Era here, and for me it was not all of the same quality. I think all of the stories are worthy but some show they are early in his career, and his craft does and will improve from this point.  While for me stories like the titular “Call Me Joe”, “Flight to Forever”, “The Man Who Came Early”, and the devastating “Prophecy” are among my favorite Poul Anderson stories, the very best of Poul Anderson is yet to come.

Review: Fleet Elements by Walter Jon Williams

By Mike Glyer: Walter Jon Williams’ Fleet Elements – out today — is set in the same universe as his Dread Empire’s Fall series, where the demise of the ruling Shaa created a power vacuum which their subject species – including the human race – are struggling to survive. Fans reading the series’ seventh book will find out whether the biggest threat to the beloved characters they’ve met in the course of the series is the war to reunite the empire — or the actual reunion of protagonists Captain Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula.

In the series’ opening trilogy the Naxids, an insectoid species ruled by the Shaa, made a failed bid to to take their place. In this continuation, humans have been blamed for the postwar financial collapses and are threatened with destruction by the remaining powers of the empire. Martinez and his allies move first to take control of a Praxis fleet and bring on a decisive battle in hopes of saving humanity. And while the Shaa are still dead in Fleet Elements, a discovery sheds new light on them and turns their history into a mystery that might be important to solve.

Fleet Elements, like every book in the series, plunges ahead with a forward momentum that would make Miles Vorkosigan gasp. Along the way the inexhaustibly inventive Williams continually fills you in about flowers to be seen, the ecology, the art and lavish architecture, all the beauty surrounding his characters whether planetside or in space, yet the story never slows; he doesn’t feel a need to stop and admire the things he’s thought up – he’s already on to the next one.

In the universe of the Praxis wormholes facilitate interstellar travel – but voyages to and from them are at sublight speeds, raising navigation and ballistics issues worthy of Heinlein juveniles and setting up fleet battles between clouds of ships in the Lensman tradition. Characters face external challenges to their careers and physical survival, complemented by internal struggles to discover who they are, what they believe in, and to overcome adversity and setbacks

We are now in the second book of the current Praxis story arc, and our hero Gareth Martinez has been maturing into a family man despite his starcrossed attraction to Lady Caroline Sula, each playing the candle to the other’s moth. But SPOILER ALERT! Have I mentioned how much I don’t want to read about broken marriages and fathers alienated from their children?

On the other hand, Walter Jon Williams has been weaving the tragic derivoo musical tradition through Lady Sula’s whole biography. No matter how much we may be pulling for her we can hardly expect things to end well. However, they haven’t ended yet.

Lady Caroline Sula’s origin story flows from her youth around crime gangs, and a murder. As a reader I questioned why was I rooting for her criminal success? Was it because that’s so obviously the gate through which I must pass to get to the story I want to read? I asked myself the same question about Colleen McCullough’s version of Sulla, the future dictator, in The First Man in Rome series, who had to murder a woman to afford to start his career.

Lady Sula’s background reemerges, often to great advantage, like when she makes the gangsters she knows the backbone of the Secret Army that resists the first alien coup attempt. But the ones who are still alive in Fleet Elements are a complication for someone like Sula, ambitious to climb to the top.

Before the demise of the Shaa, the event that kicks off the series, the various sentient races of the Empire enjoyed a kind of equality in their subordination to the rulers. When the Naxids tried to move into the power vacuum, humans were still aligned with the other nonhumans in resisting them. But in the latest arc humans are mostly isolated and on their own. Many space operas set up genocidal conflicts between humans and aliens, however, Walter Jon Williams wasn’t telling that story before now. I look forward to the next novel to learn the fates of Martinez and Sula, and if the end game will somehow weave all the Empire’s species together again.