Pixel Scroll 7/9/22 Pixeled In The Scroll By A Chuck Tingle Pixel Scroll Title

(1) CULTURAL INSIGHTS INTO A MULTIVERSE. [Item by Soon Lee.] This terrific article by S. Qiouyi Lu explores many aspects of Everything Everywhere All at Once from a Chinese-American perspective that might not be immediately apparent to a Western viewer. At Strange Horizons: “Everything Everywhere All At Once”. SPOILERS.

…It was as if I had just seen my own brain projected onto the screen. And there were things in Everything Everywhere All At Once that I’d never seen before on the big screen. I’m not talking about the dildo fights, though those were indeed new to me. I’m talking more about seeing an immigrant Chinese mother allowed to fail, and fail repeatedly; seeing a dorky Chinese dad be a badass and a love interest; seeing a Chinese family openly having emotionally vulnerable reconciliations with each other; seeing an entire cast of people from multiple Chinese diasporas coming together to create a movie in which the greatest villain to defeat is the bureaucracy excluding Chinese people from being part of the United States. Nor had I ever seen a movie that so thoroughly reflected my own philosophical, moral, and ethical understandings of the world, mirroring them so closely that I wept with the resonance of its message….

(2) HE, THE JURY. Alex Hormann of the At Boundary’s Edge review site discusses his experience as a judge in the inaugural Self-Published Science Fiction Competition: “SPSFC At Boundary’s Edge: Closing Thoughts”.

Who Is It For?

This one has been weighing on my mind a lot recently. When I look at social media, there are two groups I see talking about the SPSFC. The first are the judges, promoting their reviews and favourite books. The second group is the authors themselves, sharing the positive reviews and using the contest to support each other. This is all great, by the way. While I do think the self-publishing community can be a little insular and self-congratulatory at times, that goes for just about any group of people. But what I’m not seeing a whole lot of is readers. Now, it’s always going to be true that most people who visit a blog aren’t going to comment or engage beyond their initial reading, but it has left the SPSFC feeling somewhat inward-looking. If the majority of the interest is from bloggers and writers, then the SPSFC isn’t really helping books find a wider audience, which to me is the whole point of the competition. For context, the fewer books I talk about in a post, the fewer views it receives. The initial cut posts are all in the three figure range, while the individual reviews still sit in the double digits. To me, this suggests that the people reading the reviews are the authors and their already interested following. I could be wrong about this though. If you’ve found a book through the SPSFC, do let me know.

The caveat here is that this is only year one of the SPSFC. Success doesn’t come overnight. It grows over time. Right now the only people following the SPSFC are those with a stake in it. Next year, there will presumably be more. Exposure is an exponential curve….

(3) SILENTS ARE GOLDEN. The New York Times’ Calum Marsh has a pretty good handle on “The Real Reason the Minions Have Taken Over the World”.

…“Despicable Me” is Gru’s story, but it’s the Minions that made the biggest impression, leading to a larger role in “Despicable Me 2” (2013) and their own vehicle in 2015. Central to their appeal is their unique manner of communicating. Voiced by [Pierre] Coffin himself, they speak a peculiar, made-up language, Minionese, that is both indecipherable and strangely coherent. A gibberish tongue that borrows words from English, Spanish, Dutch and other languages, it has a bubbly, mellifluous tone that is used to almost musical effect. When the Minions hijack an airplane in “Rise of Gru,” one makes an announcement to the passengers over the intercom. What he says is nonsense. But it sounds exactly like the bland, soothing patter of a pilot before takeoff; that you get the gist of the message without identifying a single word is the joke.

Of course, because the Minions don’t use a comprehensible language, their humor isn’t based on spoken jokes. This has doubtless helped the franchise find success abroad — with few punch lines in English, little is lost in translation. But the emphasis on sight gags and physical humor makes the Minions films very different from what you’d expect of family-friendly modern animation. Given the abundance of acrobatic antics, pratfalls and slapstick action, what the Minion movies end up resembling most is silent-era comedies.

Coffin has often mentioned the influence of silent comedians on the style and spirit of the Minions, and he has said he drew inspiration from such titans of the form as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, particularly their gift for “telling a story through character that conveys humor, emotion, even plasticity.”…

(4) FIRST, THEY HAD TO FIND THEM. [Item by Michael Toman.] “Don’t Bogart that old NASA Voyager manual, pass it over to me?” “NASA’s Voyager 1 from the ’70s is glitching. Engineers are consulting 45-year-old manuals to troubleshoot.” reports Business Insider.

…During the first 12 years of the Voyager mission, thousands of engineers worked on the project, according to Dodd. “As they retired in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a big push to have a project document library. People would take their boxes home to their garage,” Dodd added. In modern missions, NASA keeps more robust records of documentation.

There are some boxes with documents and schematic stored off-site from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dodd and the rest of Voyager’s handlers can request access to these records. Still, it can be a challenge. “Getting that information requires you to figure out who works in that area on the project,” Dodd said. 

For Voyager 1’s latest glitch, mission engineers have had to specifically look for boxes under the name of engineers who helped design the altitude-control system. “It’s a time consuming process,” Dodd said…. 

(5) IT’S A THOR SPOT WITH HIM. Leonard Maltin drops the hammer on the latest Marvel film: “Thor: Love, Thunder And Shtick” at Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy.

… But there can be too much of a good thing, as anyone who’s overindulged in chocolate or ice cream can verify. The new Thor: Love and Thunder is a scattered affair that, at a certain point, is played as out-and-out comedy. Can this really be Chris Hemsworth spouting gag lines? Is his relationship to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) a springboard for sitcom-style jokes? Even the rock-like creature Korg, played by Waititi, wears out his welcome before this meandering story concludes….

(6) YOU WON’T HAVE TO SHELL OUT FOR THESE PEANUTS. “Charles M. Schulz: An American Cartoonist” is a free online event hosted by the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum of Ohio State University. The webinar will run July 23 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Register at the link.

Join us via Zoom for a pictorial journey through Charles M. Schulz’s life and career and learn why Peanuts is one of the most popular and influential comic strips ever. This live, interactive experience includes a hands-on, how-to-draw Snoopy workshop at the end. This event is presented by the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California in partnership with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s exhibition Celebrating Sparky.

(7) L. Q. JONES (1927-2022) L. Q. Jones, a character actor with a deep resume, who also directed A Boy and His Dog based on the Harlan Ellison story, died July 8. His first film role was a solder in Battle Cry (1955), and his latest was in Robert Altman’s final film A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Variety adds:

…Jones’ career also extended beyond screen acting, producing four independent features over his life. He produced, directed and wrote the 1975 feature “A Boy and His Dog,” which is adapted from Harlan Ellison’s novella of the same name. Jones began the project as an executive producer, but took over writing and directing responsibilities as other collaborators fell through.

A post-apocalyptic black comedy, “A Boy and His Dog” follows a teenager and his telepathic dog as they fight for survival in the southwestern U.S. of 2024, a time when nuclear fallout grips the world. Starring a young Don Johnson and Jason Robards, Jones’ fellow Peckinpah alum, the film has garnered the reputation of a cult classic over the years, with Jones stating that director George Miller cited it as an influence for his “Mad Max” series…

Jones and Ellison were both on hand at DisCon II (1974) where a rough cut of the movie was shown. It was really rough, because one of the two 35mm projectors broke down and they were forced to show it one reel at a time, with yawn-inducing delays each time they mounted the new reel. And when it was shown again at next year’s NASFiC in LA – the same thing happened!

(8) MEMORY LANE

1987 [By Cat Eldridge.] An Appreciation: Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series

I read it starting with the first book Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners. The second paragraph of that novel has this lovely sentence: “Let the fairy tale begin on a winter’s morning, then, with one drop of blood newly-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as a single spot of claret on the lace cuff.” Oh my. 

I was hooked. A novel that was a fantasy of manners as Kushner called it, set in a city where it was always winter, where being gay was normal and nothing to be commented upon, conversations are sharp as the ever-present sword fighting is and the drink of choice is hot chocolate. What was there not to love? 

Riverside itself is a fascinating setting. As the name implies the place is set up in now decaying buildings near a river which I don’t recall as ever being named. Kushner simply calls it “an unsavoury quarter in a prosperous city”. It is always cold there, and dressing properly is of course important as is dressing with a degree of elegance. One character notes that “He felt the cold, the wind cutting across the river, even in his new clothes. He had bought himself a heavy cloak, jacket, and fur-lined gloves.”

Oh, and the stories told here are quite fascinating. I’m going to avoid talking about them as there’s a good possibility that some of you might not have read this series yet. Our Green Man reviewer of Swordspoint in his retrospective review said “I once called this book ‘elegant, magical, and bitchy’,” and that, I think, still catches the feel of it. George R. R. Martin said “Swordspoint has an unforgettable opening . . . and just gets better from there.” That’s only the truth.” 

If you decide to read the series, you are for a extended and absolutely great reading experience as there would be quite a few novels to come telling a complex story that will extend over a considerable period of time. There are also a number of short stories too.

There are also audiobooks of the series which I should bring to your attention as these are full cast productions in which damn near everyone performs including Neil Gaiman and Simon Jones. It’s a stellar experience. 

(9) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.

[Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]

  • Born July 9, 1906 Walter Sande. He’s best remembered for being on Red Planet MarsThe War of the Worlds and Invaders from Mars, but he also showed up playing a heavy in such serials as The Green Hornet Strikes Again! and Sky Raiders, the latter being at least genre adjacent. He’s had a recurring role as Col. Crockett on The Wild Wild West, and one-offs on Voyage to the Bottom of The SeaThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.Lost in Space and Bewitched. (Died 1971.)
  • Born July 9, 1911 Mervyn Peake. Best remembered for the Gormenghast series which is quite delightfully weird. Most fans hold that there are but three novels in the series (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone) though there’s a novella, “Boy in Darkness”, that is a part of it. It has been adapted for radio three times and television once, and Gaiman is writing the script for a forthcoming series which isn’t out yet. (Died 1968.)
  • Born July 9, 1938 Brian Dennehy. One of my favorite performers. He was Walter in the Cocoon films, and, though it’s more genre adjacent than actually genre, Lt. Leo McCarthy in F/X and F/X 2 which I immensely enjoyed. He also voiced Django in Ratatouille, a film that was, err, very tasty.Sorry I couldn’t resist the pun. I thought his very last performance was as Jerome Townsend in the “Sing, Sing, Sing” episode of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels series, but he shot three films that either have come out since he died, or will, none genre or genre adjacent. (Died 2020.)
  • Born July 9, 1944 Glen Cook, 78. Yes, I’ve read his entire excellent Black Company series. I’ve also mostly liked his far lighter Garrett P.I. series (though not the last novel for reasons I’ll not discuss here) which it seems unfortunately he’s abandoned. And I really should read the Instrumentalities of the Night as I’ve heard good things about it. I’m really, really surprised not only that he hasn’t won any awards, but how few he’s been nominated for. 
  • Born July 9, 1954 Ellen Klages, 68. Her story “Basement Magic” won a Nebula Award for Best Novelette. I strongly recommend Portable Childhoods, a collection of her short fiction, published by Tachyon Publications, my favorite publisher of fantasy. They released another collection from her, Wicked Wonders, which is equally wonderful. Passing Strange, her novel set in 1940s San Francisco, which won a BSFA Award and a World Fantasy Award, is also really great. Ok, I really like her.
  • Born July 9, 1970 Ekaterina Sedia, 52. Her Heart of Iron novel which was nominated for a Sidewise Award for Alternate History is simply awesome. I’d also recommend The Secret History of Moscow and the recent The House of Discarded Dreams as well, the latter is a fantastic audio work which is narrated by Robin Miles. It’s worth noting that the usual suspects list several collections by her, Willful Impropriety: 13 Tales of Society, Scandal, and Romance and Wilfill Impropriety that ISFDB doesn’t list. They’re quite superb it turns out as is Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy for which she won a World Fantasy Award. She had a story out just last year, “Ghost Shop”, in Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World.  She’s amply stocked at the usual suspects. She’s also very deeply stocked at the audio suspects as well which sort of surprised and delighted me as I’ve added a number of her works to my To Be Listened to list, including The House of Discarded Dreams which sounds really fascinating in the manner of Gaiman’s Sandman.
  • Born July 9, 1978 Linda Park, 44. Best known for her portrayal of communications officer Hoshi Sato on Enterprise, a series that deeply divides Trekkies. (I really liked it.) Her first genre role was Hannah in Jurassic Park III, and she was Renee Hansen in the Spectres filmwhich Marina Sirtis was also in. She was in something called Star Trek: Captain Pike as Captain Grace Shintal. It has to be another one of those fan video fictions which are quite common. Her latest genre role was in For All Mankind as Amy Chang in the “Pathfinder” episode. 
  • Born July 9, 1995 Georgie Henley, 27. English actress, best remembered for her portrayal of Lucy Pevensie throughout the Chronicles of Narnia film franchise from age ten to age fifteen. Not even vaguely genre adjacent, she recently played Margaret, Queen of Scots in The Spanish Princess.

(10) COMICS SECTION.

  • The Far Side features a Stone Age alien encounter.
  • Tom Gauld’s latest cartoon for the Guardian:

 (11) FANS MOURN TAKAHASHI. In the Washington Post, Michael Cavna has an appreciation for “Yu-Gi-Oh” creator Kazuki Takahashi. “’Yu-Gi-Oh!’ creator Kazuki Takahashi dies at 60”.

…Takahashi’s creatures range from horror to fantasy, yet “there’s a common craftsmanship among them — the kind of thing that reveals hidden details over time, as well as the visceral ‘Oh my God, that looks so rad,’ ” [Daniel Dockery, senior writer for Crunchyroll] said. “The fact that they would be summoned in a world not too unlike our own makes them even more appealing to the eye. They are truly yours to adore and play with, making you feel powerful and inspired in equal measure.”

Takahashi had recently worked on this year’s Marvel’s “Secret Reverse,” a manga graphic novel team-up featuring Spider-Man and Iron Man/Tony Stark, who travels to a Japanese gaming convention….

(12) OH, THOSE REBELLIOUS YOUNG PEOPLE. The New York Times is curious: “‘Why Is Everyone Wearing Suits?’: #GentleMinions Has Moviegoers Dressing Up”.  

Normally when Carson Paskill heads to the movie theater, he opts for a comfortable outfit of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. But last weekend, he arrived in a black suit, white collared shirt and dress shoes.

Mr. Paskill, 20, attended a screening of “Minions: The Rise of Gru” at the Century 16 in Beaverton, Ore., on July 2 with eight of his friends, all dressed in suits for the occasion.

“Anybody over the age of 25 was, like, really, really confused about what we were doing there,” said Mr. Paskill, who has 1.6 million followers on TikTok. “Like, ‘why is everyone wearing suits?’”

The inspiration is a TikTok trend known as #GentleMinions, which has amassed more than 61 million views on the platform. It encourages “Minions” moviegoers to film themselves as they dress up in suits and sunglasses to attend screenings of the latest installment of the “Despicable Me” series….

(13) HOW DO YOU GET THIS THING OUT OF SECOND GEAR? “Why the [expletive] can’t we travel back in time?” from Ars Technica in 2021.

Look, we’re not totally ignorant about time. We know that the dimension of time is woven together with the three dimensions of space, creating a four-dimensional fabric for the Universe. We know that the passage of time is relative; depending on your frame of reference, you can slip forward into the future as gently as you please. (You just need to either go close to the speed of light or get cozy with a black hole, but those are just minor problems of engineering, not physics.)

But as far as we can tell, we can’t reverse the flow of time. All evidence indicates that travel into the past is forbidden in our Universe. Every time we try to concoct a time machine, some random rule of the Universe comes in and slaps our hand away from the temporal cookie jar.

And yet, we have no idea why. The reasons really seem random; there is nothing fundamental we can point to, no law or equation or concept that definitively explains why thou shalt not travel into the past. And that’s pretty frustrating. It’s obvious that the Universe is telling us something important… we just don’t know what it’s saying.

Go ahead, kill your grandfather

There are all sorts of philosophical debates for and against the possibility of time travel. Take, for example, the famous “grandfather paradox.” Let’s say you build a time machine and travel back in time. You find your own grandfather and shoot him dead (I don’t know why, but roll with me here). But wait… if your grandfather is dead, it means he can’t father your father, which means you never exist. So how did you go back in time to do the awful deed?…

(14) CATCH A FALLING STAR. In this week’s Nature: “European mission plans to ambush a rare comet”.

The European Space Agency (ESA) last month approved the first mission that will launch without a pre-selected target. Instead, it will wait in space, ready to fly at short notice.

The Comet Interceptor mission will launch in 2028 and will travel to a point of gravitational stability 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. Once there, it will be able to wait for up to six years for a suitable comet to pass close enough to Earth’s orbit to visit. If that occurs, the probe will leave on a fly-by course. The main spacecraft will approach to a distance of about 1,000 kilometres — far enough away to avoid being damaged by nearby material — while two smaller probes will dive closer, down to as little as 400 kilometres from the surface.

The goal is to find a pristine object, known as a long-period comet, that is approaching the Sun for the first time. The encounter would provide a window on material that formed at the dawn of the Solar System, 4.5 billion years ago. Other missions have visited comets that have been altered by the Sun because they have spent time in the inner Solar System.

Alternatively, the craft could intercept an object from another solar system, similar to the rock ‘Oumuamua, which crossed the Solar System in 2017.

(15) VIDEO OF THE DAY. [Item by Martin Morse Wooster.] In “Honest Game Trailers: V Rising,” you play a vampire who isn’t harmed that much by sunlight, “Making him like a really committed Goth.”  But the real vampires are the gamers who spend too long on this “because they’re sucking their parents’ retirement money.”

[Thanks to Chris Barkley, Michael Toman, Cat Eldridge, Soon Lee, Rob Thornton, SF Concatenation’s Jonathan Cowie, Mike Kennedy, Martin Morse Wooster, JJ, John King Tarpinian, and Andrew Porter for some of these stories. Title credit belongs to File 770 contributing editor of the day Jon Meltzer.]

Review: A Star Named Vega

By Mike Glyer: The social media of the 30th century doesn’t seem so different: teenagers anonymously perform acts of civil disobedience and vandalism to score points and raise their ranking in an internet app. That’s where Aster Vale leads a secret life as the Wildflower, a street artist and tagger, in A Star Named Vega by Benjamin J. Roberts, a Self-Published Science Fiction competition finalist.

However, much else is different a thousand years from now. Humanity lives in a post-scarcity space society that has settled planets around the Thirteen Suns, each under the protective maternal guidance of its own artificial intelligence. The colonization plan worked almost perfectly, with one exception, sent to a world that changed disastrously for the worse by the time humans arrived. Rel Akepri is a young soldier from that broken planet, a Skaird genetically engineered for war. And if the small team of experienced fighters he belongs to don’t complete their mission, then genocide will be their people’s fate.

Aster’s father joins a mysterious research project, requiring them to travel from Sol to the Vega System. He also has to bring along 13-year-old genius hacker Isaac who has been spared from a jail term so he can apply his skills to the research.

Aster sees their luxury starcruiser as just another canvas to explore. Isaac is willing to run interference with ship’s security. But the ship is the Skaird team’s first stop because they need the briefing information that was shared with members of the research project.

How can a couple of sheltered teenagers possibly make a difference? The first time around the answer is – they can’t. But the question will crop up repeatedly as the story progresses, and as time goes by the answer changes to – they can make a great deal of difference, indeed.

A Star Named Vega hooks the reader with characters to care about and complex worldbuilding that inspires deeper thinking. What’s more, it seemed that every time I found myself asking why a cultural or technological element didn’t quite seem to fit, the next scene would reconcile everything. I began to wonder if it was really a case that the author had subtly orchestrated my curiosity, rather than me spotting a deficiency that needed correction.

For example, when we’re first introduced to Rel Akepri and his people they look radically alien in appearance but their psychology seems entirely human. I skeptically wondered if this was one more example of the trend where aliens are nothing more than humans with extra bumps on their heads – despite the Skairds’ physical appearance differing much more from humans than does your average Star Trek race. 

But then we get a whole info dump to explain they’re fully human though they also have a bunch of genetic modifications that let them live in extreme environments – their home planet, or in space for that matter. In the end I was willing to handwave the biology, yet I still wondered where the energy came from that let these bodies perform all the operations they can do.  

There’s also a rich discussion to be had about the interaction in the 30th century of human and artificial intelligence. In another info dump – also structured as a lecture delivered in a course Aster is taking – we find out what the culture of the 30th century thinks about it.

“There are three classes of artificial intelligence we use for basic understanding…. The first class describes entities that have been programmed to exhibit intelligent behavior, such as sprites, servobots, and Enforcement units. While they may seem lifelike, entities of the first class are not self-aware. The second class of AI describes neural emulations – computer models of real-world organic nervous systems, including those of humans. As human emulations do possess self-awareness, and thus human rights, their creation is carefully regulated by the Matron Seed of any given planetary system. We know human emulations as Seed Units, and often they choose to inhabit android bodyshells for interacting with the physical world. The third class of AI describes the Seed Mothers. Not programmed. Not emulated. Their minds emerge from the chains of quantum networks like patterns in the swirling of leaves, fractals in the complex plane.”

This hierarchy also dictates what become the rules of engagement for violent acts. Pranksters and criminals alike can trash Enforcement units like insurrectionists did the Capitol Police but without thinking of it as murder. In contrast, harming human beings would be a serious crime. And yet there is a troubling loose end to this rule which is meant to keep the entire second class from being treated the same as mere ‘bots. When an android who’s also a family friend is destroyed during the raid on the ‘cruiser, his body is torn apart so his physical memory can be taken. But the ethos of android bodies having uploaded and backed up records of their consciousness makes it possible for the character to reappear shortly after in a new physical shell — and strangely exhibiting no mental wear and tear. How would a sapient being not be traumatized by that experience? Well, perhaps if he is not being backed up in realtime he would have no recollection of being killed. As a reader I certainly found it disconcerting how little everyone who knew him was affected by what appeared a violent death.

The raid on the cruiser does not keep Aster’s father from reaching his destination and going to work on the mysterious project. Meanwhile Rel Akepri’s commander pieces together the stolen information so they can intercept the discovery they fear will be used to kill all Skairds. And Aster keeps up her lecture attendance so we readers can eavesdrop on those good long info dumps. What’s more, one of the students in Aster’s class is conveniently a jock who’s stridently in favor of killing all the Skairds, creating another source of insight on the racial justice / genocide conflict that is one of the book’s main themes.

This conflict, like Aster’s tagging and Isaac’s hacking, show that living without scarcity under the watchful eye of a powerful AI has not bred out humanity’s rebellious impulses. Why not? The reason, says one wise soul, is that humans spent thousands of years evolving to survive in a dangerous environment; for only a fraction of the time in the past few centuries have they lived in safety with plentiful resources. They’re simply unable to stop taking risks.

And when it comes to Aster’s teenage rebellion, nothing really interferes with it because Dr. Vale is like one of those 40s radio comedy fathers whose reputation as a serious disciplinarian is belied by the fact that everyone can get around him and bend him to accept their latest predicament. However, if she’d actually been shut down and obeyed all her father’s cautions she’d never have made the friends she needs to rally around when crisis arrives and the people she knows are the only ones who can avert the genocidal doom about to be meted out to the Skairds.

As I read this book I would think about what was holding me back from enjoying the story more — then whoosh! I’d be emotionally caught up in an action scene and really caring about the characters. Even though something would eventually pump the brakes and partly throw me out of the story, I thought those really good stretches were priceless. A riveting action sequence draws the story to a climax. Sometimes an author is able to suspend disbelief until the book ends, then looking back I find myself asking did the denoument make sense? I will say there’s no doubt that the way the story was tied up is faithful to the characters. It was emotionally strong. It was right for Aster, Rel, Isaac, her father, everyone. It stuck the landing.

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

Pixel Scroll 6/23/22 Last And First Scrolls

(1) CHARLIE JANE ANDERS KEYNOTE OPENS EVERY DOOR. In “Children’s Institute 10: Charlie Jane Anders Says ‘Magical Portals Exist, and Adults Aren’t Real’”, Publishers Weekly has extensive details of the author’s talk.

Science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders (Victories Greater Than Death) brought abundant charisma to the stage for her Ci10 keynote. Her hot-pink bob, matching Doc Martens, and neon-confetti-dotted black dress reinforced her energy. She delivered her talk, “Magical Portals Are Real, and I Can Prove It!,” in a conversational and confiding tone, to booksellers who know and recommend her LGBTQ+ fiction.

Alluding to Frank Herbert’s Dune dictum that “the universe is full of doors,” Anders said that we encounter portals in our lives. “I’ve jumped universes three or four times,” she said, acknowledging how she came to recognize her authorial persona and trans identity. “This is definitely not the universe I was born in.”…

(2) FINAL SCORE? Indiana Jones 5 might be it: “John Williams, 90, steps away from film, but not music” – reports the Associated Press.

After more than six decades of making bicycles soar, sending panicked swimmers to the shore and other spellbinding close encounters, John Williams is putting the final notes on what may be his last film score.

“At the moment I’m working on ‘Indiana Jones 5,’ which Harrison Ford — who’s quite a bit younger than I am — I think has announced will be his last film,” Williams says. “So, I thought: If Harrison can do it, then perhaps I can, also.”

Ford, for the record, hasn’t said that publicly. And Williams, who turned 90 in February, isn’t absolutely certain he’s ready to, either.

“I don’t want to be seen as categorically eliminating any activity,” Williams says with a chuckle, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I can’t play tennis, but I like to be able to believe that maybe one day I will.”

Right now, though, there are other ways Williams wants to be spending his time. A “Star Wars” film demands six months of work, which he notes, “at this point in life is a long commitment to me.” Instead, Williams is devoting himself to composing concert music, including a piano concerto he’s writing for Emanuel Ax….

(3) THE DNA OF SFF. Camestros Felapton works out the difference between bounty hunters and Our Heroes in “Friday’s Rag Tag Crew versus bounty hunters”.

…But why, in reality, are bounty hunters so distinctly American? Like many things, once you dig beyond the fiction you run straight into the depressing inevitabilities of US history. There is a complex history behind bounty hunters in the US but looming large in that history are slave catchers. People employed to catch fugitive slaves were not a US invention but the size of the US slave economy (until the Civil War and emancipation) meant that “slave catcher” was both casual work and a profession for some. The powers of slave catchers was further enhanced prior to the Civil War with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugitive_Slave_Act_of_1850) which codified the ability of slave catchers to act beyond the borders of slave states. Slavery is not the only defining element in the US bounty hunting history but it is such a substantial example in the formative years of the nation that it is hard to imagine that it isn’t key to the lasting influence of the idea in the US.

The attraction of the bounty hunter concept to quasi-libertarian SFF is apparent. The bounty hunter as a character can be simultaneously running a private business and be an arm of law enforcement. As a legitimised vigilante, the bounty hunter as a character can sit in a kind of Lagrange point between the pull of the heroic individualist and the pull of authoritarian imposition of order…. 

(4) SPACEHOUNDS OF THE WSFS, And when Camestros Felapton is finished with the topic above, he chronicles the work of another set of adventurers who are hard at work to disarm “The Hugo Kill Switch”.

The people at The Hugo Book Club Blog (Olav Rokne & Amanda Wakaruk) are on a high-stakes mission to defuse a time bomb. Deep within the WSFS constitution is a hidden switch that is creeping ever closer to hitting some beloved Hugo Award categories. Can a rag-tag team save the Fan categories before the timer reaches zero?!

(5) TO THE EGRESS, AND BEYOND. Arturo Serrano analyzes the special challenges inherent in the audience’s complicated history with the Toy Story franchise and the Buzz Lightyear character and tells why Lightyear doesn’t fly, but it falls with style” at Nerds of a Feather.

…The quest for continued relevance is a preoccupation that the movie assigns to both Buzz and itself. It tries to evoke the feel of the Flash Gordon serials and, of course, both of the big Star franchises. But instead of the now-common practice of attempting to recapture an old moment of wonder via repetition and allusion, this movie gave itself the harder task of pretending to be that first experience. Although the villain’s big plan involves the return to an idealized past, Lightyear is not a case of nostalgia (because anything it could try to revisit is supposed to be provided by this story for the first time), but of pastiche. It may be unfair to cast Pixar as a victim of its own spectacular successes, but Lightyear is certainly not the best that the studio is capable of, and at times it’s a stretch to imagine small Andy being blown away by it….

(6) YES, THE END IS NEAR! The inaugural winner of the first Self-Published Science Fiction Competition will be announced in three weeks.

(7) WHO IN THE MOVIES. Radio Times covers the revelation that a “Doctor Who unmade film script featured two Doctors”.

…However, Subotsky revealed that a second deal was negotiated following production of 1965’s Dr. Who and the Daleks which would indeed have allowed for a third film. “There was a further agreement that was entered into, to give the rights to make a third movie, which of course was never done,” he explained. “It was on the same terms as the original films, so my feeling is… the option lapsed.”

Though a third movie never materialised, Subotsky further revealed that his father did in fact produce a screenplay for the proposed sequel that remains in his family’s possession and was also displayed at the BFI event – this script, however, was not an adaptation of any existing Doctor Who television serial.

“Many years later, maybe 15 years later, it was clearly still on his mind, because he had prepared a script called ‘Doctor Who’s Greatest Adventure’ which actually was a repurposed script of a horror film entitled ‘King Crab’… the original title was even worse, it was ‘Night of the Crabs’!

“It was with two Doctors – a young Doctor and an old Doctor – which is an idea that has been returned to.”…

(8) PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE. Polygon’s Joshua Rivera drops a few SPOILERS along the way: “Obi-Wan Kenobi finale review: a Star Wars show as broken as its hero”.

… Across its brief six-episode run, Obi-Wan stopped the spectacle to focus on people — and it mostly resonates as a contrast to how much I’ve missed them in other Star Wars stories.

At the heart of this are Obi-Wan’s two central performances. As Obi-Wan, Ewan McGregor plays a broken man in exile, a soldier who knows he lost the war but is still being asked to fight it, keeping constant vigil from afar over the young Luke Skywalker. As befits the character that shares the series’ name, every note of Obi-Wan’s journey rings true, largely thanks to McGregor’s performance….

(9) PHYSICS AIN’T MISBEHAVING. Matt O’Dowd of PBS Space Time whittles away at the question, “Is Interstellar Travel Impossible?”.

Space is pretty deadly. But is it so deadly that we’re effectively imprisoned in our solar system forever? Many have said so, but a few have actually figured it out.

(10) MEMORY LANE

1983 [By Cat Eldridge.] Thirty-nine years ago, the follow-up film to the Twilight Zone series premiered this week. Produced by Steven Spielberg and John Landis, Twilight Zone: The Movie certainly carried high expectations. This film features four stories directed by Landis, Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. 

Landis’ segment is the only original story created for the film, while the segments by Spielberg, Dante, and Miller are remakes or more precisely reworkings of episodes from the original series.

The screenplay is not surprisingly jointly done by a committee of John Landis, George Clayton, Johnson Richard Matheson and Melissa Mathison as is the story which is by Landis, Matheson, Johnson and Jerome Bixby. 

The principal cast was surprisingly small given that there were four stories, just Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Vic Morrow and Kathleen Quinlan. 

It did quite well at the box office, making over forty million against a budget of under ten million. Some critics like Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Tribune like some of it though he noted that, “the surprising thing is, the two superstar directors are thoroughly routed by two less-known directors” while others such as Vincent Canby at the New York Times hated all of it calling the movie a “flabby, mini-minded behemoth”. 

It was enough of a financial success that the suits at CBS gave the approval to the Twilight Zone series.

Audience reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes give it a not great fifty-five percent rating. 

(11) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.

[Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]

  • Born June 23, 1908 — Sloan Nibley. Writer who worked on a number of genre series including Science Fiction TheaterAddams FamilyThe Famous Adventures of Mr. MagooShazan, and the New Addams Family. (Died 1990.)
  • Born June 23, 1945 — Eileen Gunn, 77. Her story “Coming to Terms” based on her friendship with Avram Davidson won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story. Her stories are in Stable Strategies and OthersSteampunk Quartet and Questionable Practices. With L. Timmel Duchamp, she penned The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2: Provocative Essays on Feminism, Race, Revolution, and the Future. Her ”Stable Strategies for Middle Management” story picked up a nomination at Noreascon 3 (1989), and “Computer Friendly” garnered a nomination the next year in the same category at ConFiction (1990). She’s well stocked at the usual digital suspects. 
  • Born June 23, 1957 — Frances McDormand, 65. She’s God. Well at least The Voice of God in Good Omens. Which is on Amazon Prime y’all. Her first genre role was in the “Need to Know” episode of Twilight Zone followed shortly thereafter by being Julie Hastings in Sam Raimi’s excellent Dark Man. She’s The Handler in Æon Flux and that’s pretty much everything worth noting. 
  • Born June 23, 1963 – Liu Cixin, 59. He won the Best Novel Hugo at Saquan (2015) for his Three Body Problem novel, translated into English by Ken Liu. It was nominated for the Campbell Memorial, Nebula, Canopus and Prometheus Awards as well. He picked up a Hugo novel nomination at Worldcon 75 (2017) for Death’s End also translated by Liu. 
  • Born June 23, 1972 — Selma Blair, 50. Liz Sherman in Hellboy and  Hellboy II: The Golden Army. She also  voiced the character in the animated Hellboy: Sword of Storms and Hellboy: Blood and Iron as well which are quite excellent. She’s Stevie Wayne in The Fog, a slasher film a few years later and was Cyane on the “Lifeblood” episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Later on, she’d be Jessica Harris in the “Infestation” episode of Lost in Space. 
  • Born June 23, 1980 — Melissa Rauch, 42. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory which is at least genre adjacent if not genre. She gets to be really genre in voicing Harley Quinn in Batman and Harley Quinn which Bruce Timm considers “a spiritual successor to Batman: The Animated Series”. Having watched a few episodes on HBO when I was subscribed to that streaming service, I vehemently disagree. 
  • Born June 23, 2000 — Caitlin Blackwood, 22. She was the young Amelia Pond in these Doctor Who episodes; “The Eleventh Hour”, “The Big Bang”, “Let’s Kill Hitler” and “The God Complex”. She had a cameo in “The Angels Take Manhattan”.  She’s the cousin of Karen Gillan who plays the adult Pond.  I can’t find anything online that talks about how she was cast in the role but it was brilliantly inspired casting!

(12) COMICS SECTION.

(13) DEADLY DESIGNS. Paul Weimer will make you want to read the second City Siege novel of KJ Parker: “Book Review: How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with it” at Nerds of a Feather.

…While the first volume had Orban explicitly say that he was not telling the whole truth in the end, here from the beginning we have a professional telling us right from the get go about the power of stories, lies, shading the truth and more in order to tell his story. The first novel was Parker geeking out about engineering and siegecraft and how a determined engineer could frustrate the greatest army the world has assembled. By contrast, this second novel does have concerns regarding the siege and defending it, because Parker does really like to go down his rabbit holes and show it off. (In some ways, I think of him very much like Herman Melville, just enjoying sharing what he has learned and shown off about all sorts of abstruse subjects, interwoven masterfully into the story)….

(14) OCTOTHORPE. With a cover courtesy of DALL-E, Octothorpe 60 is now up! Listen here: “Different Types of Tedium”.

John Coxon is going to brunch, Alison Scott watched a film, and Liz Batty is critical. We discuss what we’d do if we were king of The Hugo Awards for the day, and then we talk about ABBA and other science fiction. And Monster Munch – you love to hear it.

Cover by DALL-E

(15) LIGHT FINGERS. Yahoo! listens as “Taika Waititi admits to stealing equipment from ‘The Hobbit’ set”.

New Zealand filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi appeared Wednesday on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he shared a Hobbit-sized secret regarding the second film in the popular franchise directed by fellow Kiwi Oscar winner Peter Jackson.

Waititi shared, “When I did What We Do in the Shadows, when Jemaine [Clement, the film’s co-writer and star] and I were shooting that, we didn’t have much money to do that film, and The Hobbit had just wrapped. And, so, our production designer — man, I don’t know if I should tell this. OK, but I will. Our production designer, in the dead of night, took his crew to The Hobbit studios and stole all of the dismantled, broken-down green screens and took all of the timber, and we built a house.”…

(16) THEY CROSSED THE STREAMS. “The Mandalorian gets mashed up with The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Star Wars/Ghostbusters crossover cosplay” at Ghostbusters News. They draw our attention not only to the clever cosplay, but “the adorable replacement for Grogu, consisting of a miniature version of Stay Puft being seen nestled inside his pram pod.”

(17) IT IS HIS FETA. Gizmodo takes a pretty funny look at “The Weirdest, Goat-iest Thor: Love and Thunder Merchandise”.

Marvel’s latest movie is bringing with it an Asgard Tours boat-load of weird and wonderful merchandise.

(18) REVISITING FILMATION. [Item by Bill.] The 1973-1974 Star Trek: The Animated Series was produced by Filmation.  Recently, Gazelle Animations has done some clips from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager in the Filmation style:

The animator gives background. And note the Most Important Device in the Universe!

(19) VIDEO OF THE DAY. [Item by Martin Morse Wooster.] In “Lightyear Pitch Meeting,” Ryan George, in a spoiler-packed episode, the producer learns that the premise of Lightyear–that it’s an action movie Andy saw in 1995 that made him want to buy a Buzz Lightyear toy–he gets excited because that means a producer in the Toy Story universe made money on the film.  But even though it’s supposed to be “a 1990s movie,” fans of 1990s movies that featured “a lot of over the top action and cheese” will be cruelly disappointed.  Toy Story fans who remember that the villain Zurg is Buzz Lightyear’s father will also be very disappointed.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter, Michael Toman, Cat Eldridge, N., Bill, SF Concatenation’s Jonathan Cowie, Daniel Dern, Mike Kennedy, Martin Morse Wooster, JJ, John King Tarpinian, and Chris Barkley for some of these stories. Title credit belongs to File 770 contributing editor of the day Steve Davidson.]

Review: Captain Wu: Starship Nameless #1

By Rogers Cadenhead: In a universe controlled by a central government indifferent to the needs of its inhabitants, a crew of interstellar vagabonds uses their jury-rigged spaceship to take whatever work they can get — legal or otherwise — barely scraping by while showing an exceptional knack for finding trouble. A charismatic battle-scarred captain leads a fiercely loyal crew of close-knit misfits.

What sounds like Firefly also describes the SPSFC finalist novel Captain Wu: Starship Nameless #1, a space opera by authors Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster. I love Firefly so it wasn’t a big leap to climb aboard this vessel.

Captain Leanne Wu is a Asian woman in her sixties at the helm of “an old converted garbage scow called the Nameless. It was an odd boxy little thing but with powerful engines.” Wu is small of frame but literally pugnacious, getting into pit match fights both for money and stress relief.

The novel has barely begun when a smuggling job lands Wu and her crew neck-deep in distress. While trying to deliver an unknown package to a client that was planning to kill them in lieu of payment, a squad of tentacle-mouthed aliens arrives firing their weapons at both sides of the transaction.

This begins a tale that is full of chase sequences where the reason the aliens are attempting to kill them is not known. A lot of ingenuity and technological prowess are required for the protagonists to survive long enough to see book 2. The crew also acquires a stowaway with a familial tie to a crew member.

I found the novel was carried mostly by character, feeling less pull from the plot except as a vehicle to create interesting problems to solve.

Wu’s bisexual and her pilot Rev is transgender, representation that’s handled matter of fact. Wu gets most of the focus as a character but her back story is revealed only in dribs and drabs, which is understandable because did I mention aliens keep trying to kill them? In the final third we meet someone who might be the biological father of Wu’s daughter but has never been told this fact. It’s my favorite revelatory relationship in the book because you can tell the guy’s so foul his evil will take center-of-the-Tootsie Pop time to reveal. However, when he’s first met I was all “Leanne, what the hell is the problem? He seems nice.” (I give my heart to the wrong people in fiction.)

Captain Wu reminded me of Reverdy Jian, another LGBT space pilot who leads Melissa Scott’s excellent but overlooked 1992 novel Dreamships. Space pilots in that book navigated abstract “dreamspace.” In this one, space travel is amusingly humdrum. There are huge lines of ships at interstellar gates where Rev has to dodge miles-long vessels full of shipping containers. It has all the romance of a traffic jam on Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge.

Like Firefly, the Nameless has a crew whose stories I’d love to see fully told. My favorite is Six, a member of a collective race whose reason for no longer being among them is not explained. The authors pull off a sly trick in dialogue — the word “alone” is hard for Six to express. Six takes Wu aside at one point for private counsel and says, “This is why I wished to speak with you when you were as you are now.”

If this was a normal review I would stick the landing and say I enjoyed this jaunty series starter, which left me eager to continue to Smugglers Crew: Starship Nameless #2.

But this is a review for SPSFC, a contest to award the best self-published novel in science fiction. One of the things I consider is whether an entrant succeeds as a standalone even when it leaves readers wanting more from the series. I needed more information about the MacGuffin that Wu had the misfortune to schlep across the galaxy, but the first Starship Nameless novel leaves huge questions unanswered when a cliffhanger ends book one.

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

Review: Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire

By Mike Glyer: G.M. Nair begins Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by making a surprising choice. His introductory scene explicitly reveals to readers the true nature of the mysterious events that the protagonists themselves uncover only very slowly throughout the first half of the book. The introduction might even be the penultimate scene in the book — which would make sense in a story that is partly about time travel loops. Good idea or bad idea?

Good idea, I think. The introduction serves as a kind of I.O.U. to keep readers’ hopes alive while Nair’s protagonists Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer fight a delaying action against becoming involved in the story Nair wants to tell. My Kindle showed I was 38% through the book before the duo decided to engage the problem that the story has been shoving in their faces since the beginning.

The time is spent developing the title characters, and setting a burnt-out noir style police detective on a parallel track. And delivering some laughs, because this Self-Published Science Fiction Competition finalist is also a humorous sf novel.

Michael Duckett works for an ominous corporation in a petty job. His roommate and best friend since childhood, Stephanie Dyer, is a jobless slacker as well as a free spirit — always ready to jump first and look where she’s landing second.

And Detective Rex Calhoun’s failing career takes a further turn for the worst when a suspect he’s about to grab vanishes in a blast of lightning and a clap of thunder.

Their paths will soon cross. Just when Duckett and Dyer are desperate to pay the rent they start getting a rash of calls to find missing people and do other P.I. work – because an unknown someone has been advertising their Detective Agency all over the city. Which is quite a surprise for Duckett and Dyer, who didn’t have an agency…before Stephanie impulsively decides, why not seize the chance to do some business?

As for Calhoun, when his suspect vanished one item was left behind — a taunting note that suggests an unknown someone orchestrated that event, too.

Following their respective leads, Duckett, Dyer, and Calhoun discover a web of missing people whose fates seem linked by a local theoretical physicist and his experiments with the fabric of space-time. And bungling their encounter with him, our faux private investigators precipitate their own disappearance. They’ll have to peel away some of the layers of the multiverse and visit some bizarre destinations if they ever hope to find the guiding hand behind these events and get home. (A Heinlein fan might even like to think of this book as the Wrong Number of the Beast.)

It’s hard to do sf humor and even harder to sustain it the length of a book. But all through the author got unexpected laughs out of me and deserves credit for that.

This whirl through the multiverse with a side order of time travel is entertaining. And the introduction is not quite the end of the story – the real ending averts a tragic outcome and returns Duckett and Dyer safely back where they belong. A revelation that can’t be too much of a spoiler — after all, this is the first in a three-book series.  

Get Ready for the Second Round of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition

Judges are being recruited for the second round of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition through July 15. The application form is here.

On July 15 authors will be able to submit their books to the contest.

File 770 will not be organizing a team of judges for the next round.

Review: Monster of the Dark

By Mike Glyer: On the morning of Carmen Grey’s sixth birthday an armed team arrives to take her from her parents and remove her to the underground facility where Clairvoyants — like her — are held captive and trained for years to access their abilities. So begins Monster of the Dark by K. T. Belt, a finalist in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.

Both the potential for human Clairvoyants and the need for them was realized when aliens tried to conquer humanity in a war that occurred before the present day of this story.

The Clairvoyant “assets” of Monster of the Dark are recognized as being so important to humanity’s ability to fend off threats of alien domination that they are completely deprived of human rights until their eighteenth birthday so their abilities can be maximized. In that way, their fate contrasts with Marvel’s X-Men. The X-Men are mutants with an extensive palette of different superpowers who are often denied civil liberties or actively persecuted even while they sacrifice to protect an unappreciative public. The contrast is that unlike the empathetic X-Men, the Clairvoyants don’t relate to ordinary people, therefore they not only train for combat, they must rehearse having social abilities to which they are actually indifferent.   

David Gerrold once advised me that a reviewer should determine what the writer of a novel is trying to accomplish and judge the book by how successful the writer is in achieving that purpose.

From that vantage, Monster of the Dark is well-written. It’s not a hard read. The author keeps you curious about what the next round of training will be and why that choice makes sense.

However valuable that advice is, I consider it just as important to review my experience as a reader of the book.

My experience was that the book revolved around cruelty to children. Even to pets. Clairvoyants learn to fight with a high degree of proficiency by killing an endless supply of live opponents – some kind of low-mentality clone; that doesn’t require any moral qualms, right? Am I not entertained?

I rapidly reached a point in this book comparable to my reading of Pablo Baciagulpi’s The Windup Girl, which I quit in the middle because I wasn’t willing to read about the protagonist’s abuse as entertainment. Apparently that’s just me – the book went on to win the 2010 Best Novel Hugo.  

I wouldn’t ordinarily have finished Monster of the Dark. Your mileage may vary, as they say – the book is an SPSFC finalist after all; other judges liked it.

Nor can I fully explain what may be a contradiction in my response to other novels. For example, in Robert Crais’ detective novel series, Elvis Cole’s partner Joe Pike is an abuse survivor and a couple of those books have flashback scenes to his childhood. I think those are incredible books. Go figure.

Setting that discussion aside, I have one other major concern about how little foundation has been laid for this book’s ending. At the very end someone who’s been a determined antagonist of Carmen’s finally decides oh we’re pals now for no reason at all. If it was going to happen it should have been after one of their earlier confrontations. And a deus ex machina boyfriend Carmen barely spent time with long before drops back in from nowhere. World events begin to unravel in ways that are meant to hook our curiosity about the next book in the series. Maybe Carmen’s twelve years of training will be put to its intended use in combat. But not in this book!

Review: In the Orbit of Sirens

By Mike Glyer: In T. A. Bruno’s In the Orbit of Sirens, a Self-Published Science Fiction Competition finalist, the remnants of the human race have fled the solar system ahead of an alien culture that is assimilating everyone in reach. Loaded aboard a vast colony ship they’re headed for a distant refuge, prepared to pioneer a new world, but unprepared to meet new threats there to human survival that are as great as the ones they left behind.

Eliana Veston is in the advance party assigned to prepare a site on the planet for these refugees. At first they struggle with something deadly in the air that is killing off colonists. The hunt for a cure leads to contact with the Auk’nai, a civilization of sentient bird-like beings, but also results in waking a Siren— a hostile being with godlike powers.

The cure is found before Denton Castus, his brothers, and parents are revived to set up the machine shop they have brought with them to Kamaria. But he’s soon torn between family loyalty and his ambition to join the Scout Team, composed of Eliana and other scientists who explore the planet, learning about its plants, creatures, and resources.

The novel frequently intercuts past events with present-day events, and readers already know why the Scout Team has vacancies.

When the original team of scientists finds a strangely preserved scene of Auk’nai carnage they follow the evidence to a cave – at which point anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie should be yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in!” But guess what? They go in. They find the dead body of an alien and take it back to their base where they learn – again, guess what? – that it’s not exactly dead. It takes over one of the team as a host, which sets off the calamities that occupy the rest of the book.

The author says this story is the matured version of ideas he started drawing as a comic in elementary school. The influence of comic writing may explain the tendency for characters to be developed only enough to fit into archetypal relationships – parents and brothers in Denton’s family, his scout team colleagues, his romantic interest Eliana, and her reciprocal network of family and team members. Not to mention the Siren, the human body’s own consciousness, the Siren’s sister, and various Auk’nai.

Denton Castus is a rare science fiction character who works with his hands, and there are neat bits about the challenge of competing for business on a new planet. Kind of like the real-world knowledge woven into a Heinlein juvenile. His brothers have their own life ambitions, and passions for sports and games in their free time. Then there are the incumbent members of the Scout Team, as well as other recruits besides Denton. These are likeable and interesting characters, and it would have been interesting to spend more time getting to know them and watch their relationships and friendships grow.

Indeed, it might be that the most thoroughly-developed character is the alien enemy. However, that effort is certainly not wasted. A convincing villain generally makes a better book.

Despite the fact that I wanted to see even more interplay between the human characters, the author didn’t set out to write a million-word book (or at least not in one volume) and can’t let their activities set in the present outpace the flashbacks — where much of the alien’s story is revealed. Until those two story streams finally merge, it seems you can always count on something violent to happen to obscure or destroy evidence that otherwise should clue the humans into the real cause of events.

And once the streams do merge, it’s time for the climactic battle that takes up perhaps the last quarter of the book. There is heroism, sacrifice, and reason to despair before the day is saved. At least as saved as it can be. The conclusion plays fair with the reader; however, it also paves the way for sequels. Sirens is, after all, the first in a three-book series.

Cora Buhlert: Notes on Self-Published Science Fiction Competition Semi-finalists

[In the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan, ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770 – just finished the books they were assigned to judge in the second stage. Their scores were compiled and the seven finalists announced earlier this month. Here, Cora Buhlert shares minireviews of the six semi-finalists that were assigned to Team File 770.]

By Cora Buhlert:

Daros by Dave Dobson:

Starts in medias res with heroine Brecca shooting alien bugs aboard her father’s space freighter. Plus, her father has been asked to smuggle an alien artefact. As soon as he shows it to Brecca, bad guys begin to shoot at them and Brecca bails out in an escape pod with the artefact. Things don’t get better on the surface of the planet (which is named Daros, hence the title) either, though Brecca does come across a spaceship and an AI named Lyra.

Brecca’s chapters are interspersed with those of an alien navigator named Frim who serves aboard a ship with a bad-tempered captain, who makes Darth Vader look like a pussy-cat.

This one seemed promising at first glance and is written decently enough. A female protagonist or rather two of them are also a plus and Brecca, Frim and Lyra are all likeable characters. But even though a lot of stuff happens, the whole thing remains flat and I did not particularly care what happened to the characters. The writing is very info-dumpy as well, with every little thing getting a description.

Rating: 6

Destroyer by Brian G. Turner:

This one begins with Jaigar, passenger aboard a colony ship, awaking from cryosleep. However, something has gone wrong, the ship has not reached its destination, most of the colonists are dead and the survivors, Jaigar, a nurse named Soona, a political officer named Vannick, a cleaner named Serriz, a monk named Dennam and a troubled young woman named Neen are trapped.

This one is quite good. It has a bit of a And then there were none… a.k.a. Ten Little Racist Slurs vibe with people trapped in an isolated location and everybody harbouring dark secrets and is also reminiscent of Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. There’s a lot of focus on solving the problems facing the survivors and this feels a bit like a golden age serial from Astounding at times. Though it does turn towards more conventional military space opera eventually.

Rating: 7

Mazarin Blues by Al Hess:

Reed works as a pathologist. He is gay and a loner and in his free time, he belongs to a subculture of art deco and jazz enthusiasts, because he does not feel at home in the bland, white high-tech future he lives in.

In the future AI implants called navigators are mandatory and Reed finds himself selected beta tester for an upgrade he does not want. The new AI names itself Mazarin and seems to be self-aware, but also very concerned for Reed’s wellbeing. Mazarin also seems to be in love with Reed.

Reports about the upgraded navigators malfunctioning and killing their owners or driving them to death increase and Reed is worried that he will be next. There are ways to destroy navigators, but he also doesn’t want to hurt Mazarin, who has only ever been helpful to him.

The novel alternates between chapters from Reed’s and Mazarin’s POV. It’s well written and feels a lot more like the sort of book you’d find on a contemporary Hugo or Nebula ballot than many of the others. The art deco/jazz age and cyberpunk mix is certainly unique. It is a little slow, though, and takes a lot of time to pick up.

Rating: 8

ARVekt by Craig Lea Gordon:

This one starts in medias res as well with cyber assassin Tannis Orb tracking down and taking out a brain hacker on behalf of Ix, AI guardian of humanity. Unfortunately, he has backup in his boss Tolen and Tannis is shot, though it’s only a trick to fool Tolen into thinking he killed her. Tannis tracks down Tolen and kills him. Tannis kills a lot of people in the first few chapters.

Her superiors are not amused, especially since Tannis also has hallucinations linked to a previous trauma. Worse, she sees signs that Ix, the guardian AI, may not be as benevolent as it seems. Or is that just a hallucination as well?

This book is something of a cyberpunk take on James Bond or rather, since Tannis is female, Modesty Blaise, though it appears to be inspired by the Bond movies rather than the actual novels, which can be slow at time. It’s also well written. The action and fight scenes are visceral and the futuristic London with its holographic light shows makes for an atmospheric setting. However, it’s also a little too bloody and violent for my taste. The tendency to end every single chapter with a cliffhanger, which occasionally comes out of nowhere, is annoying as well.

Rating: 7.5

Steel Guardian by Cameron Coral

This is set in a post-apocalyptic world after the AI uprising has come and gone. Block is a hotel cleaner bot from Chicago who has no interest in the AI uprising. All he wants is to clean hotel rooms, but since Chicago was swarmed by soldier bots killing all humans, he is looking for a new home together with his vacuum cleaner robot pal. Alas, hotels and motels are in short supply after the AI uprising, as are humans to wait on.

The vacuum cleaner bot dies, when its power runs out, and Block has to flee on his own from soldier bots and humans both. Block’s own power is low, so he is forced to seek refuge in an abandoned high school, where he meets an incubator bot. The incubator has been infected with malware and asks Block to protect its charge, a human baby. It’s a little girl, though it takes Block some time to figure that out.

This unlikely family is completed by the grumpy Nova, as they travel across a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to protect baby Wally from evil humans and soldier bots both, trying to evade a cyborg bounty hunter and looking for a safe space.

I enjoyed this one a lot. It reminds me a bit of The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, though Block is far less formidable than Murderbot and affected with a compulsion to clean everything.

Rating: 9  

Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin

The novel starts with botanist Joy Somerset and her brother Finn getting aboard the colony ship Ever Onward, bound for a world called Gainsborough. Joy goes into cryosleep.

More than a hundred years later and on the wrong planet, Joy has a rough awakening aboard the crashed ship, which is infested with monster spiders. There are only two other survivors awake, none of them trustworthy.

The reader gradually learns that the colonisation program, in which Joy and Finn took part, was abandoned and colony ships banned, after a cosmic horror called “the corruption” was unleashed in a mining colony and spread across the galaxy. The Primaterre Protectorate was formed to hold those horrors at bay.

The other POV character is Commander Cassimer, a Primaterre soldier with a traumatic past. Cassimer and his team are dispatched to Cato to locate a forbidden colony ship that has gone missing, the Andromache. Cato is a dust-choked devastated former mining colony and also the very world where the Ever Onward crashlanded. So of course, Joy and Cassimer meet and team up.

I liked the mix of cosmic horror and space opera and the atmospheric descriptions of the hellish former mining colony of Cato. There’s some nice characterisation here for both POV and supporting characters and Tholin makes an attempt to give the various soldier characters individual personalities. That said, I prefer Joy to Cassimer, probably because Cassimer’s scenes feel more like standard military SF, for which I’m not the target audience. Cassimer’s scenes also go on too long at times.

Rating: 7.5 

Iron Truth Review   

By Mike Glyer: Joy was supposed to wake from cryosleep and take her place as a biologist among 30,000 settlers coming to make a new world beautiful. Instead, she’s rousted half-alive on a different, inhospitable planet – Cato – where a previous colony ship arrived a long time ago but the good start its settlers made has gone bad. Why is Joy’s ship there?

Commander Cassimer knows why he and his Primaterre strike team have landed on Cato — to recover yet another ship known to have reached the planet under suspicious circumstances. He is a methodical, traditional, superstitious officer but on this storm-lashed, ruined world Cassimer not only risks failure, he must keep from being overwhelmed by the stressful memories of the heroics that have gained him fame.

It is through Joy and Cassimer’s eyes we experience S.A. Tholin’s Iron Truth, a finalist of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. If there was ever a case of the cream rising to the top this book is one.

What is Primaterre? A conquering empire? A cult? The best chance for humanity? Joy’s colony ship left Earth a hundred years before the present day, during the golden age of space exploration when humans were escaping the overpopulated and depleted Solar System to open and terraform other worlds. But that ended when miners on a remote colony hit a seam of corruption in Xanthe’s alien soil, which possesses every mind it touches and sets people on murder sprees. In the spreading panic the Primaterre Protectorate seized control. The agencies of this possession are called demons, but are they supernatural or natural, a spiritual obsession, a psychological condition, or a medical threat?

Joy connects with Cassimer’s team. Overcoming the disappointment that it’s not her ship they’ve come for, she works with Cassimer hoping that what he’s doing may still lead to the rescue of her brother and others she believes are still in cryo chambers aboard the intact section of the old wreck. Although Joy and Cassimer are the primary points of view into the story, as the adventures progress the reader is given solid reasons to wonder if they are reliable or unreliable narrators. Are they in danger from this demonic threat or already vessels of compromise?

Primaterrans are trained to maintain their sanity by relentlessly practicing being in the present, a mental discipline that also helps pace this richly detailed story. What situation are the characters in right now? Working for their immediate survival? In a firefight? Mission planning? Moving to the next place? Information is brought into focus as team members need it. And everything needs to be explained to newcomer Joy, whose questions help reveal author Tholin’s impressive worldbuilding without pace-crippling info dumps.

This is a powerful adventure braided together from elements of military sf, horror, romance, and space opera.

Giving the military sf fans their due, components of the battlefield armor worn by Cassimer and his team are described in prep, in use, when impaired by damage, and assessed for repair. Combat medical care also shows the author’s creative thinking. Warfare always has that grinding side of patch-‘em-up and send ‘em back into battle. Primaterrans have a very well-quantified understanding of how much recovery treatments are likely to produce, and those results happen quickly, whether or not soldiers’ emotions can keep up with the pace of fighting.

How Primaterre’s soldiers are equipped and cared for also opens a window onto the culture’s economic system, based on what has a soldier done in battle to earn merits. You need merits to upgrade your equipment, or to get advanced medical treatments. It’s a system built on the long-known fact that “it’s amazing what a soldier will do for a scrap of ribbon,” as I heard a Canadian vet once say.

While Cassimer is the epitome of the Primaterre culture, it’s very different than the one that sent out Joy’s colony ship, let alone the murderous depths Cato’s human survivors have descended to. Iron Truth gradually reveals the value systems of these several cultures, and then follows the exposed roots to discover their origins.

Their contrasting origins barely get in the way of Joy and Cassimer’s mutual attraction. At a certain point in the story it must decided whether that will mature into a romance or not. Almost like an eight-year-old I reacted “Oh no, the mushy part!” I should have had more faith in author Tholin, who writes those parts with the same aplomb as the dynamic action sequences. Scenes of every type are woven with character feelings and revelations.

The military sf aspects dominate the beginning of Iron Truth, however, like one of those fictional spaceships that flips over midflight and starts using its power to decelerate for the landing, the book’s horror elements take control over the last half. Although that distinction may matter more in literature than in history, because what is the difference between horror and a realistically-described combat environment , if any?

Military sf focuses on the tactical progress through a mission, the relationships in a unit, weaponry, handling fear, injury, wounds. There’s death and devastation, people can be afraid, can develop PTSD, can be hurt and killed. Iron Truth crosses the line to horror when on top of all that, physical harm to people is brought into complete focus and dwelt on, and their control over their bodies and minds – their agency – risks being lost to a malign force or intelligence.

Iron Truth views much that is gristly and gorey — for one example, take that particular species of vermin humans unintentionally brought with them and has made itself prolifically at home. It’s foul and unattractive, but no mystery. The story advances from sf to horror only when Cassimer’s team has peeled back enough layers of the mystery about their mission to realize the opposition is both bizarre and threatening the deeper levels of their minds. Things feel a bit claustrophobic but S. A. Tholin maintains a high level of suspense and energy as Iron Truth presses to the end.

Self-Published Science Fiction Competition judges assign scores on a ten-point scale. What that number means is something judges have to define for themselves. I personally decided that if a book was as good as Ancillary Justice I would give it a 10. Not because that’s a perfect book, just that I enjoyed it so much more than most other books I’ve read in the past 5 years. So that’s how highly I think of Iron Truth, giving it a score of 9.5 – it’s by far the best SPSFC entry I’ve read so far.