The Expanse: “The Weeping Somnambulist” has some great scenes but also some dead weight (**cough**Holden**cough**)

“The Weeping Somnambulist” is only a middling episode of a great show, but it covers a good amount of storytelling ground and marks the very welcome return of Chrisjen Avasarala after several episodes in which she had minimal presence. The scenes on Earth are excellent, there’s some surprisingly good character work for Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), and the Rocinante is off on a new mission which wasn’t that interesting this week but seems likely to improve in the next episode or so. After a couple weeks of main characters mostly reacting to events that have happened to or around them, this episode feels much more proactive and forward-moving, even if it’s not always riveting stuff.

**Spoilers below!**

The episode opens with an irritating fake-out. A Ganymede relief ship called The Weeping Somnambulist is boarded by a couple of gun-wielding men wearing the livery of the Martian navy, but it turns out it’s just Holden and Amos in disguise. Apparently the Rocinante is too recognizable to take to Ganymede, so they’re going to commandeer the Somnambulist to get them the rest of the way there. The husband and wife team flying the Somnambulist don’t get any characterization aside from “pissed off at Holden,” so the eventual tragedy they experience isn’t particularly impactful. It doesn’t even work as something that should deeply affect the Roci crew, since they can’t reasonably be held responsible for the Ganymede dock workers’ initial attack on the Somnambulist and it’s similarly unfair to blame them for escalating a situation that had already escalated to guns to heads. Sure, Holden and company might feel guilty for having failed to rescue the couple, but it’s an unreasonable guilt and therefore hard to take seriously. I mean, okay, Holden and company had to get to Ganymede somehow, but it was truly, deeply unnecessary to spend so much time on this boring and trivial plot when there was so much more interesting stuff going on elsewhere in the episode. It dragged the whole episode down into mediocrity, and that’s a shame because the rest of the hour was very good.

On the bright side, Bobbie made it to Earth this week, and the brilliance of execution in this storyline almost makes up for the Roci crew stuff being so dull. When we first see Bobbie this week, Martens is helping her prepare for Earth with necessary drugs and supplements to minimize her discomfort on the planet’s surface. It’s a smart bit of worldbuilding exposition that also works nicely as a character beat, showing us more of Bobbie’s feelings about Earth. These early Bobbie scenes also work as a really wonderfully composed and acted bit of speculative fiction, even out of context, offering the viewer some insight into what it might be like for a human to be setting foot on Earth for the first time ever. Frankie Adams perfectly conveys Bobbie’s complicated feelings of curiosity, awe, pride in her own planet, resentment towards Earth and something a little like nostalgia, and Bobbie’s reactions to her first glimpses of Earth are truly moving stuff.

The peace conference at the UN is predictably unpleasant for pretty much all involved, though it’s highly entertaining for the viewer. The petty one-up-manship is passive aggression hovers somewhere between hilarious and too real as the delegations from both Earth and Mars take calculated swipes at each other before getting down to business. Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen is always delightful to watch, but it’s again Frankie Adams who steals the show in these scenes. Her frustration and anger at being asked to throw her fellow marine under the bus is palpable, and Chrisjen easily picks up on the lies Mars is telling to try and smooth things over. Even though things are being smoothed over in a way that heavily favors Earth (and at the Martians’ considerable expense), Chrisjen’s priority is ferreting out the truth about what happened on Ganymede. Her second interview with Bobbie is illuminating, but I can’t wait to see these two characters alone together.

The third storyline of the episode concerns Colonel Janus, Dr. Iturbi and their journey to Venus to see firsthand what has happened to Eros. I wasn’t expecting this material, which is either invented for the show or is drawn from the books in the series that I haven’t read yet, but it’s good stuff. The personality conflict between these guys is engaging, though perhaps a little on the nose with their sniping at each other about which one has the corner on Real Science™. As much as I liked these scenes, the only truly important one comes near the end of the episode when they finally get a look at the crater left by Eros and see that there’s some kind of biological material floating around the hole. Iturbi streams the information to Avasarala back on Earth. Learning what Chrisjen will make of this, seeing how she’s already making a connection between Eros and Ganymede and the rest of the generally strange events that have been happening in the solar system, is the other thing I can’t wait for next week.

“The Weeping Somnambulist” is a frustrating episode to watch without another one to follow it with, and this is mostly owing to its very abrupt and, frankly, anticlimactic ending. Bobbie’s emotional distress felt real and her clamming up under orders was a nicely final ending to the peace conference, and the revelation of the Eros crater information felt significant and game-changing, but the ending of the Roci storyline was too slight to compare and not consequential enough to qualify as a cliffhanger. Still, though this whole episode felt somewhat disjointed, inconveniently punctuated as it was by all the boring stuff Holden was doing, I expect the next couple of episodes to have some big narrative payoffs, exciting moments and the thematic coherence that this one lacked.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I was happy that Doris wasn’t completely forgotten, even if Prax didn’t get to actually send his message of condolences to her family on Mars. It’s still a pretty textbook fridging, though.
  • While the Roci and Somnambulist stuff was boring, Amos and Alex both managed to have individually compelling moments.
  • That necklace that Avasarala wears is a gorgeous piece.
  • I already miss Fred Johnson and Drummer, and there’s no telling when we’ll get to see them again.

The Expanse: “Pyre” isn’t that hot, but it gets the job done

After the major climax of Eros crashing on Venus (ending the Leviathan Wakes part of the show) and the last couple weeks of gear-shifting as we move completely into Caliban’s War territory, “Pyre” is a somewhat strange episode. Last week’s “The Seventh Man” is probably my favorite episode of the show to date, but “Pyre” is possibly the worst episode of season two so far. Appearing in just a single short scene in “The Seventh Man,” Avasarala is completely absent from “Pyre,” as is Bobbie, who is presumably en route to Earth. “Pyre” introduces a new character, Praxidike Meng (Terry Chen), and then spends most of the episode working to connect him to the Rocinante crew. Meanwhile, Fred Johnson faces a major challenge to his authority that threatens to undo his work for the Belt and jeopardizes the safety of Tycho Station itself. At times, The Expanse has done well with these sorts of more focused episodes, but this one just doesn’t quite work the way it ought. It accomplishes what it needs to do, but without the show’s characteristic deftness and panache and not without some frankly awkward moments.

**Spoilers below!**

The episode starts with a flashback/dream sequence that introduces Praxidike Meng and his daughter, Mei, and this is the first weird moment of the hour. First, we see Prax (as yet unnamed) doing something with plants. Then we see overhead shots of the greenhouses on Ganymede, which is a cool (if belated) way of finally giving the viewers an idea of how Ganymede works. Finally, we see Mei as the figure waving her arms at the marines outside on the surface of Ganymede (as seen very briefly and indistinctly in “Paradigm Shift”) just before the orbiting mirror shatters and comes crashing down through the glass roof.

Cut to Prax waking up on a freight ship that has been commandeered for moving refugees from Ganymede to other stations. He’s found there by his friend, Doris, who breaks the news of his daughter’s death—although it, confusingly, turns out that Mei wasn’t in the greenhouse dome with Prax, but at a doctor’s appointment—and offers to take him with her to Mars, where she still has family and suggests they’ll be able to find work in the terraforming project. The grieving Prax rebuffs her but then changes his mind as the Belter crew of the ship prepare, supposedly, to shift any refugees from Earth and Mars to another ship to be taken back to their planets of origin. As the Inners are being herded to an airlock, Prax isn’t allowed on, because obviously the Inners are going to be spaced, which is exactly what happens. Seriously, this is so heavily telegraphed from the moment Doris first says “Mars” that it’s almost comical. It’s also a significant change from the source material, as nothing like this happens in the books (at least in the first two that I’ve read). More importantly, it’s upsetting and problematic on several levels.

First, it’s a monstrous act of hatred on the part of the ship’s Belter crew. Yes, the man who actually does it tells Prax that “Inners wrecked Ganymede,” but that’s a very thin excuse for capriciously and incredibly cruelly murdering an airlock full of people who not only had nothing to do with the destruction of Ganymede but were themselves displaced victims of the attack. This demonizing of Belters has been something of a theme this season, but this is definitely the worst example of the trend so far and it’s not helped by the other events of this episode. It’s genuinely starting to feel like the show’s writers hate Belters as they depict them over and over again committing increasingly senseless acts of destruction and violence. Anderson Dawes and Fred Johnson’s nuanced rivalry makes sense and is deeply compelling, but most of the rest of the Belters we see aren’t complex, just wantonly, cartoonishly evil and stupid.

Second, the way this event is shown on screen is not far short of sadistic. Because it’s so heavily telegraphed, the viewer knows what is coming early on—if not when Doris first mentions Mars than certainly by the time all the Earthers and Martians are being removed from the main group—and yet we’re still forced to watch it happen in excruciating real time as they’re marched to the airlock, shift to zero-g, Prax and Doris touch fingers through the glass, and then the airlock opens. Even after this bit of lovingly crafted torture, we’re not done yet because there’s still time for a long and unnecessarily gruesome shot of poor Doris gasping for breath in space as she slowly asphyxiates and freezes at the same time. It’s deeply unpleasant to watch and only serves to highlight how terrible the practice of “spacing” really is while pointing to the apparent hypocrisy of Belters who fear that fate themselves but are willing to inflict it on others.

Finally, it’s a pretty textbook fridging of a newly introduced female character in service of Prax’s storyline. Or it would be if Doris’s death was treated as truly impactful and important. Instead, while Prax does try to report the crime when he arrives at Tycho, he doesn’t know the name of the ship he was on or the names of the perpetrators, and although he was on a ship full of other refugees I guess none of them are willing to corroborate his story. When the station doctor on Tycho says she can’t help him, this is the last we hear of it, as the show seems to be pivoting straight into the rest of Prax’s Caliban’s War story instead of dealing appropriately with the tragedy that they invented to fill some time in the episode while other things are happening on Tycho before Prax gets there.

On Tycho, we kick off the episode with Alex and Naomi returning on the Rocinante with Diogo in tow. They’re met at the dock by Holden and Fred Johnson, but when Diogo refuses to tell them anything about where Anderson Dawes has taken Cortazar he’s shuffled off quickly to Tycho station jail and not seen or heard from again from the rest of the episode. This is slightly anti-climactic because it happens so quickly, but we quickly move on to Fred, Drummer, Holden, and Naomi working to figure out how Dawes could get away from them without help (he couldn’t, obv). Fortunately, they don’t have long to wait before Dawes calls them up to officially break up with Fred. Dawes accuses Fred of withholding secrets from the rest of the Belt, which is accurate, and confirms that he has Cortazar. This is also when it comes out that Cortazar wasn’t just puttering around in his cell aimlessly; he’d found evidence of more protomolecule, and it was chattering like it had on Eros. There’s more of this stuff out there, but they aren’t sure yet where it is.

Naomi and Drummer head out to physically go to the antenna Cortazar was using for data collection to find out what he’d learned. I suppose there’s some unspoken concern that Cortazar could have been in contact with the sample that Naomi keeps failing to fire off into the sun, but it rather predictably turns out not to be that. Instead, there’s protomolecule on Ganymede. This sends Holden and Naomi to definitely-not-just-space-google former Protogen employees who may have been working on Ganymede at the time of the attack. In about thirty seconds, they discover Dr. Strickland, a suspiciously overqualified pediatrician who has conveniently been recently photographed with Praxidike Meng who is conveniently on Tycho right this instant. It’s the most egregious example of plot convenience theatre I’ve seen in ages, and I literally laughed out loud when Holden was like, “It can’t really be this easy.” No shit, it can’t, but it is, because this is what the show’s writers decided to go with instead of any number of more organic and less profoundly silly ways of getting Prax onto the Rocinante and all of them on the quest to find Mei.

The other major plot this week isn’t much less absurd than this, and it continues the aforementioned trend of mass Belter character assassination. After it’s pretty well confirmed that Drummer is not the traitor on Fred Johnson’s team, we learn that it’s been one of the other people working on the Tycho control room all along, a man named Edin, who has an unspecified technical job that gives him access to a lot of controls on the station. He’s in league with the OPA faction leader, Staz, and they’ve got a genius plan to take over the station, steal all Fred Johnson’s nukes, and fire them at Earth because what could possibly go wrong? They manage to take over the station’s control room, kill a couple of hostages, and shoot Drummer while trying to get the launch codes for the nukes, but they’re easily defeated when Holden finds out and sends Amos outside the station to cut off the air supply to the control room. Once everyone has passed out, Holden, Naomi and Alex show up and rescue Fred and Drummer.

None of this would be even remotely acceptable—because it’s a hilariously badly conceived plot from start to finish—if it wasn’t for a couple of saving graces. First, I love that when Staz shoots the first hostage Fred basically just shrugs and is like “I’ve seen plenty of death in my time.” Fred Johnson is a consistently well-drawn character, and this coolness under pressure is exactly what I’d expect from him. Second, after the rescue, when Alex is trying to help Drummer stand so she can go get medical attention, she grab’s Alex’s gun and puts bullets in the heads of both Edin and Staz before she limps off on her own. After an episode full of Belter’s being wantonly evil and/or stupid, it’s nice to see a Belter get the chance to do the sensible (albeit brutal) thing, and it further proves that Drummer is a badass.

The episode ends with the Rocinante crew leaving Tycho to investigate Ganymede and search for the protomolecule and Mei Meng, but not without one last fraught exchange between Holden and Fred. In the book it was much more clear that Fred Johnson wanted the Roci crew to stay in his exclusive employ to protect and advance his interests in the Belt, but here the reason for this little break-up is somewhat muddled. Fred and Holden had seemed to be of one mind on most issues over the last couple of episodes, and this week they worked well together and seemed as friendly as they’ve ever been, so Holden’s antipathy towards Fred feels sudden and unearned. On a second, closer, viewing of the episode, this feeling wasn’t as pronounced, but their dynamic still doesn’t quite make sense either.

In the end, I’m not sure it really matters, though. This episode felt oddly cobbled together from disparate parts, as if the writers were working with a checklist of things that needed to happen rather than telling a harmoniously balanced and truly well-conceived story. At the same time, much of the episode felt like filler used to flesh out material that is much less meaty on screen than it seemed in the novel. It’s probably the farthest from the source material the show has ever strayed, and though it remains mostly true to it in spirit, it’s still not an encouraging example of what happens when the writers have to solve adaptational problems. Here, my guess is that they didn’t want the Bobbie and Avasarala plots to get ahead of this one, or perhaps they thought the episode might be overstuffed if they tried to give each plot some time. Either way, coming up with some nonsensical melodrama to fill space and time was the wrong answer and speaks to an unfortunate laziness that I hope we don’t see more of in the future.

On the bright side, next week Bobbie and Chrisjen are back and hopefully in a major way. Thank goodness.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Love Mei’s backpack. It’s a nice touch with the hologram characters, though I’m now wildly curious about the economics of that kind of disposable consumer good being sent to someplace as far as Ganymede.
  • Holden accusing Drummer of being a traitor made me want to punch him right in the throat more than I usually want to punch Holden in the throat. Peak asshole Holden, for sure.
  • I’m still not loving this Amos subplot, though I felt this week like I had a better idea of where the show is going with it (something something tragic backstory, probably). The whole thing feels almost like an afterthought and understanding what the point of it is requires a pretty significant attention to detail.

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: March 12, 2017

This week hasn’t been as productive as I’d have liked (no week ever is anymore), but it’s been reasonably good. It’s been sunshine-y (albeit chilly), and the check engine light in my car has remained off. While I didn’t write as much as I hoped to, what I did write was (I think) good, and I’ve read a good amount.  I’ve even managed to spend a minimal amount of time this week dealing with politics-induced rage (although there are more reasons than ever to be furious). It’s not been bad, even if my hardcover of The Stars Are Legion STILL hasn’t shown up yet (grrr).

In the coming week, I’ll be covering The Expanse as usual, writing about a couple of recent reads that I loved and maybe talking some about the Hugo Awards since nomination ballots are due by Friday. Other than that, I’ll probably spend the week wrapped up in a blanket with a book because it’s forecast to be probably the longest stretch of cold(-ish) weather we’ve had in Cincinnati all winter.

If you’re looking for March releases (for reading purposes or for feeling-sad-about-not-having-time-to-read-them-all purposes), Tor.com has most of them listed, in fantasy and science fiction.

This week saw the release of Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders, and she wrote an interesting piece over at the Tor/Forge blog where speculates on what the future will call our current era.

Also out this week is Alex Wells’ excellent Hunger Makes the Wolf. Wells is interviewed over at Shimmer Magazine.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote a good piece at Book Riot on the women in science we don’t write about.

Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin have an anthology, The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories, coming out on Tuesday, so they (and some of the authors in the book) popped in at Terrible Minds to share some writing advice.

At Ars Technica, Annalee Newitz is spreading the good news of Fireside Fiction’s existence. You can (and should) support Fireside on Patreon.

If you’re a lover of short fiction, be sure to take advantage of Lightspeed’s current offer of a free three-month subscription to try out the magazine.

At the Wertzone, Adam Whitehead’s first proper entry in his Cities of Fantasy was all about Sigil, which reminded me that it’s been far too long since I played Planescape: Torment.

Mari Ness continued her blog series on fairy tales with a breakdown of how “King Thrushbeard” is all about gaslighting.

nerds of a feather, flock together continued their Dystopian Visions series with posts on Brave New World and The Player of Games, along with an excellent guest post by Paul Kincaid on the history of utopias and dystopias.

With Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation just a few weeks away, Margaret Atwood has started making the rounds to promote the project and talk about her novel. She did an AMA on Reddit, from which Lit Hub collected the highlights. She also wrote a piece of her own at the New York Times, where she talked about her writing process and how she hopes the book is read.

Probably the most exciting thing of the week, however, was Tor.com’s Nevertheless, She Persisted story collection, which featured short fiction by several of my favorite authors:

It’s not as great as all these stories by awesome women, but these photos of the cars from Mad Max: Fury Road all clean and shiny are pretty gorgeous.

 

The Expanse: “The Seventh Man” is a perfect balance of personal and political

This week, The Expanse shifted gears again in “The Seventh Man.” After last week’s fast-paced mix of exposition and set-up, capped off with a decided feeling of consequence by the Ganymede incident, this episode takes the time to do a couple of hugely important things. On a Martian ship, Bobbie Draper is recovering from her injuries and trying to make sense of her jumbled memories, while on Tycho station there’s a struggle for control as Anderson Dawes and Fred Johnson compete with each other for the opportunity to determine the future of the Belt. It’s an episode that’s light on action but heavy on talking and politics and full of some of the show’s best writing to date.

Spoilers ahead!

There’s only one scene on Earth this week, but it’s a good one. When the news comes in about Ganymede, Avasarala and Errinwright are watching with the Secretary-General and they have to make a quick decision about what to do about it. Errinwright pushes for attacking a Martian target, but Chrisjen advises caution and calls for a peace conference on Earth, where she argues that Earth would have the advantage. The Secretary-General is convinced, so that’s happening, probably next week. It’s interesting to see how the balance of power has shifted in Chrisjen’s favor since Eros, but it’s also obvious that she’s still wary of Errinwright, with whom she’s increasingly at odds.

At Tycho Station, refugees from Ganymede are flowing in, and the Rocinante crew is helping to get people settled on the station. Meanwhile, Anderson Dawes has also arrived on the station, where he’s inviting refugees to Ceres as well as rallying Belters on Tycho. We soon find out why: Having wrangled Ceres, Dawes is on Tycho to make a decisive play to wrest control from Fred Johnson. We get to see Dawes publicly debate Johnson over what the OPA’s next steps should be, and it’s riveting stuff. The real ideological differences that have previously been implied or inferred are made explicit when the two men have to stand in front of a parliament-esque gathering of OPA faction leaders and make their cases. Later, as Dawes schmoozes his way around the station trying to ingratiate himself with Holden and Naomi, then Drummer, then Diogo, pumping them for information, we get a real sense both of how deep the divisions go and how different Dawes and Johnson’s tactics are.

The Tycho sequences are (except for a weird Amos segment) by far the strongest parts of “The Seventh Man,” and they’ve got several things going for them. The dialogue is smartly written. The speeches are entertaining to watch and effectively communicate complex arguments. The increasing tension between Holden and Naomi is well-conveyed as their relationship frays at the edges. Dawes’s connection with Drummer is clearly depicted, with enough on-screen information to intrigue the viewer but without telling us the whole story all at once. Dawes’s encounter with Diogo is pitch perfect and a great/chilling example of the ease with which young people can be manipulated by those they admire. The final short action sequence as Dawes abducts Cortazar is a much-needed break from talking scenes and gives Fred Johnson a clear goal going into the next few episodes. In short, it’s a balanced, cleverly plotted, and well-thought-out storyline that admirably holds up its half of the episode.

If there’s any major criticism I have of the Tycho story this week it’s that Holden’s “character development” doesn’t feel particularly earned. The foreshadowing of having Dawes compare Holden directly to Miller didn’t quite work because there’s not any actual evidence before this episode that Holden has evolved into anything at all, much less into a new Miller. To be fair, I suppose Holden has become more circumspect this season about shouting sensitive and inflammatory information to the whole solar system willy-nilly, but he’s still pretty much the same old frustratingly naïve and self-righteous Holden we’ve come to barely tolerate over a season and a half of the show. His late-night attempted attempt on Cortazar’s life was genuinely unexpected, and not in a good way. That said, his decision to shout over Belters to support Fred Johnson (and his dipshit defense of his actions to Naomi) was exactly what I would expect of him.

The part of the episode I was most excited to see was the Bobbie Draper stuff, which was both just what I predicted it would be and much better than I thought it would be, primarily due to Frankie Adams’ strong acting as she works through Bobbie’s trauma and confusion after the Ganymede incident. After being rescued from her damaged exo suit, Bobbie is taken to the Scirocco for treatment for her injuries and multiple rounds of questioning about what happened on Ganymede. It’s during this questioning that we get some of the blanks from last week filled in, which is pretty much how I suspected things were going to go. I thought we’d see more flashes of the seventh “man” that gives the episode its title, but the Ganymede monster is kept deliberately mysterious and Bobbie is told to not speak of it when she finds out at the end of the episode that she’ll be going to Earth to testify at the UN.

“The Seventh Man” (and The Expanse in general, if we’re honest) is, ultimately, a story about storytelling, but it’s also a story about the personal nature of politics. Powerful people vie to shape narratives to their own purposes, both selfishly and not. Avasarala has an almost preternatural ability to read situations and come up with creatively constructive sources of action to prevent all-out war. We see that she has counterparts among the Martians as well, people with cooler heads than the common soldiery who are working hard to keep the peace as well, even if that means making up a plausible story to cover up an implausible event. Fred Johnson and Anderson Dawes both have stories to tell this week, and both of them are true in their ways—humanity is stronger if they can live peacefully together, and the Belt and Outer Planets need to be self-governing and united against those who don’t have their best interests at heart.

Identity figures largely into all these storylines this week. Avasarala is still working to assert herself in her stronger position following the destruction of Eros; she sees herself as an iconoclastic champion of Earth, and perhaps her greatest pressures come from her own expectations of what she should be achieving. Bobbie Draper has lost her unit in a tragedy that she doesn’t yet understand, which has left her unmoored, and now she’s being sent to Earth, but not as a conqueror or even as a warrior; her navigation of this unfamiliar territory is going to be fascinating in weeks to come. Anderson Dawes sees himself as the true leader capable of uniting the OPA under his control, and his work for the Belt and Outer Planets is confirmed to be real and sincere. However, he also seems burdened with something like self-hatred—a sort of archetypal man-willing-to-do-bad-things-for-good-reasons who knows how to fight, but not how to achieve and maintain peace. Fred Johnson, on the other hand, dreams of real and lasting peace, but his history and status as an Earther makes him an eternal outsider in the Belt. They may respect and appreciate him, but they won’t follow him like they’ll follow Anderson Dawes.

All these various takes on identity are at work with Naomi and Holden. We saw last week that Naomi is identifying more and more strongly with her Belter roots, and this episode continues that trend. She is fully invested in the suffering of those she sees as her people, and she’s deeply admiring of and moved by Anderson Dawes. She’s definitely struggling with some feelings of guilt over deceiving Holden about the hidden protomolecule sample, but her feelings of resentment towards him for his lack of understanding of her are even stronger than guilt. In some ways, Holden’s motivations mirror Fred Johnson’s—he wants to do what he can to help people in the Belt, but he also wants peace in the solar system—but Holden has heroic aspirations as well and is (we learn) at least open to the idea of modelling himself more after his friend Miller. Holden’s arc here isn’t as well-defined as Naomi’s, and it’s certainly not as relatable or likeable, but it does fit within the general thematic neighborhood of what’s going on with everyone else.

The Expanse is always good, but this episode and last week’s “Paradigm Shift” have been truly superb. The show’s characteristically high production values, powerful writing, excellent casting choices and solid acting have worked together to create a deeply affecting new direction for things now that we’re past the relatively weak Leviathan Wakes source material. The deeper we delve into Caliban’s War territory, the better things are getting, and that’s an awesome achievement for a show that was already the best thing on television.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • The blood snowflakes in the opening scene were beautifully gruesome and make for a great image, but that is not how blood works.
  • I didn’t really “get” the Amos stuff. This wasn’t quite a flashback, there wasn’t enough information given about Amos’s past to make sense of his actions, and things are left basically unresolved after he has the conversation with Cortazar about the “procedure.”
  • Jared Harris is perfectly cast as Anderson Dawes. Absolutely magnetic and probably my favorite character to watch aside from Shohreh Aghdashloo as Avasarala.
  • Not enough Alex this week, and I did not like how he talked to Naomi.
  • I feel like Naomi and Holden’s relationship is quickly headed for Greek tragedy territory, but they were still going strong at the end of Caliban’s War, so I’m very interested to see how that shapes up over the rest of this season.

Book Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning was one of my favorite novels of 2016, and it was certainly among the year’s most unusual and ambitiously daring pieces of speculative fiction. Nevertheless, it felt a little unfinished, and anyone who loved it has no doubt been waiting with bated breath for the sequel that seemed necessary to complete what Too Like the Lightning started. Seven Surrenders is everything I thought/hoped it would be, with a vivid setting, intricate plot, high level philosophical and political ponderings and fascinating cast of characters, a truly worthy sequel to its brilliant predecessor and a powerfully compelling introduction to the conflict to come in the next book in the series.

The future that Palmer envisions is still utopian-seeming, though some of the shine was certainly worn off by the end of Too Like the Lightning. In Seven Surrenders, we get even more details of the organization of society, government and families in this imagined future, and many of the questions that Lightning left us with are answered. The relationships and interplay between the various Hives are more interesting the more one learns of them, and the ‘bash family unit is more fully explained in this volume as well. In short, everything makes more and more sense the more you read of this series. I love that Palmer doesn’t spend a ton of time on tedious exposition on these matters, which would amount to hand-holding, but a glossary, appendix or wiki could be highly useful.

That said, I read Lightning as an ebook but Surrenders in hardcover and I found it of great convenience to more easily be able to flip back and forward in the book to check information and reread sections to make sure I understood it. This is definitely a title that benefits from being read on dead trees instead of a screen, which I suppose is, incidentally, appropriate given the deliberately old-timey style of Mycroft Canner’s narration. Though I’ve largely transitioned to reading books digitally over the last few years, every now and then a title comes along that gives me a renewed appreciation for books as useful objects, enjoyable tactile experiences and beautiful artifacts. This is one of those books. If you can, get the hardcover. You won’t regret it, and it will look great on your shelf when you’re done.

Mycroft Canner continues to be one of the most challenging characters in the genre. After the revelations about his past crimes in Lightning, he begins Surrenders in something of confessional mood. Though many of the ugly details of Mycroft’s crimes have already been revealed, Surrenders gives us a much deeper understanding of why he did it. We also learn more about nearly all the book’s other characters as their murder conspiracy, which keeps the whole world at peace, is unraveled and falls apart. Mycroft’s relationships to the structures of power in this world are explained. Other characters’ secret identities and motives are revealed. There are plots on plots on plots that are uncovered over the course of four hundred pages that detail just a few days of events and a couple of legit miracles. It’s heady stuff. I suggest taking notes.

The big draw to this series, for me, is still the philosophy and the politics. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly plausible future society, though that may simply be because I have a very difficult time imagining how we might evolve from here to there, but it’s a marvelous idea for how to organize a peaceful society. The political dynamics are complex and nuanced, and the Saneer-Weeksbooth conspiracy adds a great dystopian element to be explored. Palmer’s ideas about gender are somewhat less well-developed, although significant time is spent on gender in this volume. Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns is inconsistent and the explanation given for Madame’s plot to reintroduce gender roles into society is less than convincing; frankly, I feel as if there is some huge complicated idea trying to be communicated that I’m just not quite getting. My hope is that this theme will carry on to the next books in the series, which promise to be about war.

Listen. There’s not a ton to write about this series without giving the whole story away, and it’s hard to discuss the ideas in it without it turning into a lengthy thinkpiece, and I can’t even guarantee that you’ll get the concept. But there’s nothing else like this series being published right now. Too Like the Lightning was a revelation, and Seven Surrenders shines even brighter than its predecessor. The stage is set for the next pair of books to explore what a war might looks like in a world that hasn’t warred in centuries, and you can’t possibly want to miss that. I know that this isn’t a series for everybody, but I still can’t help suggesting that everyone read it as soon as possible. It’s a work of rare and special genius.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an early copy for review. 

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: March 5, 2017

Well, it’s been another slow week for me, mostly because I spent half of it back and forth to the auto shop having my car worked on, which took up a ton of time and energy. I think I’ve finally got the problem with the car sorted, however, and I’m hoping to have a few weeks before I have to take it back again (there’s still a couple other tiny issues that I’d like to get cleared up as well). In the meantime, I’m trying to just not stress out about it, with mixed success, because it is pretty stressful and I’m prone to anxiety even without good reason.

In other news, I’ve been slightly better this week at ignoring the noisy collapse of American democracy. I read several books (Agents of DreamlandFinal Girls, and Hunger Makes the Wolf), which leaves me with just four titles left on my planned reading list for the month of March. I’m kind of excited because I’m hoping that this will let me work in Borderline and Infomocracy this month before I want to get a head start on some April releases I have ARCs of. I also saw a couple of movies (Get Out and Operator, both excellent) that I have some thoughts on and might write proper reviews of if I have the time and inclination this week, but with weather turning positively springlike (I’ve never seen my town so green this early in the year) I may spend a lot of time outdoors enjoying it since I didn’t have the chance this past week because of the above-mentioned car troubles. We’ll see.

Also, I unlocked some new druid catform skins in WoW, and that was probably the highlight of my week.

newcat2
Why, yes, I HAVE been dreaming for months of lime-green tiger cat form, thank-you-very-much.

Links are a bit light this week. I feel like I read a ton, what with spending so much time stuck at home sans transportation, but not much that caught my interest. Probably the most exciting things of the week have all been news items rather than opinion or analysis pieces.

FIYAH posted the cover and table of contents of their second issue, Spilling Tea, out April 1, and it looks great.

Aliette de Bodard shared an updated bibliography of her Xuya universe.

The BBC is making a show based on the life of lesbian landowner Anne Lister and her search for a wife in the 1830s.

Neil Gaiman unveiled a trailer for a documentary about the genesis of American Gods.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia published a multi-author interview on the experiences of POC in SFF publishing.

I enjoyed this Fantasy Faction piece on winter in fantasy.

The Verge has a great list of March new releases in sci-fi and fantasy if you’re looking for something new to read this month.

nerds of a feather, flock together kicked off a new blog series on dystopian fiction that will be running for the next couple months.

At the Wertzone, Adam Whitehead introduced a new blog series on cities in fantasy that looks like it’s going to be fascinating.

The Expanse: “Paradigm Shift” is great start to a new chapter in the show’s story

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but season two of The Expanse is goddamned fantastic. After last week’s wrap-up of the last of the Leviathan Wakes storyline, I expected this week’s episode to be something of a bridge between two distinct parts of the season. “Paradigm Shift” is that, to some degree, but it feels even more like a whole new season premiere in structure and tone, with some humor (welcome, after a largely serious couple of weeks), some thematically relevant exposition, some set-up for future plots, great character work and a flashy (if slightly confusing) cliffhanger to leave us wanting more. In a season already full of great episodes, this one might be my favorite yet.

Spoilers below, natch.

There’s no pre-credits scene this week, and the first scene of the episode starts with a look at Mars from space that segues into a flashback to the Mars of 137 years ago, where we meet Solomon Epstein (guest star Sam Huntington), inventor of the Epstein drives that power the ships used in the solar system of The Expanse. Apparently, Epstein was simply trying to get a minor increase to fuel efficiency when he accidentally built the drive that was fast enough and fuel efficiency enough to change the course of human history in the solar system. The Epstein drive is the technology that allowed Mars to gain independence from Earth and enabled the colonization of the Belt and the Outer Planets, but this has also led to the complicated political and military situation between Earth, Mars, and the OPA that fuels the show. It’s an interesting bit of worldbuilding exposition that is spooled out in short pieces over the course of the episode, but it also serves as a thesis statement for the episode and, perhaps, for the rest of this season: the benefits of technological advancement never come without costs. If the protomolecule is, as Colonel Janus tells Avasarala in the U.N. situation room, “the greatest technological leap since the Epstein drive,” what will it mean for humanity?

Things on Earth are relatively quiet this week starting with the abovementioned situation room scene, which primarily works to establish that the Earth government doesn’t know what’s going on yet. They don’t know what happened on Eros, they’re no longer in contact with James Holden or Fred Johnson, and they’re missing some thirty nuclear missiles. They are going to mount a mission to Venus, however, to find out what they can about Eros. Because what could possibly go wrong? Avasarala is even going to send her ex-boyfriend, one Dr. Michael Iturbi (played by the very handsome Ted Whittall), to be her eyes and ears on Venus.

The standout Earth scene of the episode, however, doesn’t come until late in the episode when Chrisjen approaches Errinwright to talk about Jules-Pierre Mao. In short, Avasarala advises Errinwright to use whatever influence he has with the Mao family to get Jules-Pierre to turn himself in, and she gives a compelling speech about what the consequences will be if he doesn’t. Chrisjen Avasarala has been an iconic character since day one, but her rage-filled speech to Errinwright here is certainly her most iconic moment yet. Shohreh Aghdashloo is always glorious in this role, but she’s in rare form throughout the scene, full of arch looks and knowing smirks that shift to barely restrained fury as she makes clear to Errinwright both that she knows about him and Mao and that she has the power and will to destroy them both. Her small hair toss as she walks out the door at the end is a nice little visual punctuation for what just happened.

The Rocinante makes it back to Tycho Station, where they’re greeted as heroes, something that they aren’t all comfortable with. Amos and Alex head off into the station, while Holden and Naomi head straight to Fred Johnson to make their report, where they find out that Fred Johnson has the missing missiles from Earth. Holden is self-righteously pissed off about this, because of course he is, but not everyone on the Roci agrees with him. There’s a pretty obviously impending break between Holden and Fred Johnson, but we also see the seeds of a significant potential break between Holden and Naomi as well. While Holden might believe there shouldn’t be any “sides” he doesn’t seem to be at all aware of the ways in which his own indecision and lack of conviction are pushing Naomi to choose one on her own.

Identity is at the core of the dynamic between the members of the Roci crew. Holden imagines them as a family, and he might think that they’re above the factions and infighting in the solar system, but he is also still very much shaped by his birth and upbringing on Earth. Alex, even as a Martian expat, still retains some of the Martian nationalism that he was raised with, which we see when he suggests that they turn their hidden protomolecule specimen over to Martian scientists. Amos is practical and has a tendency to be a bit of a follower, and it seems that he’s at least partly transferred his loyalties to Holden, leaving Naomi as the only Belter on the Rocinante now that Miller’s gone. Her Belter identity is important to her, as evidenced by her easy connection and bonding with other Belter characters, and we can already see her chafing at being outvoted by the others on the Roci. She craves the company and camaraderie that comes from shared experience, especially when faced with a situation where she disagrees with Holden so profoundly, and it’s easy to see why she pursues a friendship with Samara and aligns herself with the OPA. What’s less easy to see is how this is going to work out; the current state of affairs is definitely not sustainable for either Holden and Naomi’s relationship or for the Roci crew as a whole. Something’s got to give.

The episode ends on Ganymede, where Bobbie Draper and her unit of Martian marines are stationed and complaining loudly of being stuck guarding farms. Things get interesting pretty quickly, though, when they’re attacked by unknown forces that destroy the Martian ship in the sky and leave Bobbie seemingly the only survivor on the ground. The problem is, it’s difficult to understand exactly what’s happening in the final few shots of the episode. The battle in the sky is visible to the marines down on the surface of Ganymede, and we know that the Martian ship is destroyed and Sutton is killed, but it’s not clear who’s firing on who in the air (though I think we’re meant to understand that it’s Mao’s stealth ships doing most of the shooting). Down on the ground, we see more of what Bobbie sees, so we can see that the U.N. soldiers that she thinks are charging her group are in fact being chased by a seventh figure behind them. It’s also clear enough at the end that the other three members of Bobbie’s team are dead, with their suits slashed open and helmets smashed. The final shot of the episode as well is clear enough, as Bobbie looks up to see a glowing protomolecule blue figure looming over her.

However, while it’s easy enough to understand what has happened if you think about it—or if you just rewatch it several times like I did—I think they could have shown a bit more of the actual action without giving it away entirely. Having read Caliban’s War, I expect that more of this stuff is going to be metered out through flashbacks in future episodes as Bobbie tries to get to the bottom of what happened, but I think that without that outside knowledge I might have been totally lost as to what I’d just watched. Not to mention even more frustrated than I already am at having to wait another full week for resolution to the cliffhanger ending.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I loved the Epstein scenes, but I didn’t love the choice to have him narrate it himself if he dies like that. That said, I don’t know how else the show could have communicated the information we get from Epstein’s narration, there’s no other character who would have been an appropriate narrator, and what we see on screen wouldn’t have made a lick of sense without narration. So. I guess they kind of had to do it like this.
  • That said, I expect the Epstein scenes are going to be divisive among show watchers. I really liked them and felt they were a smart way of giving us some history of the world while working up to an explicit statement of a thematic thesis. My partner, however, hated the Epstein stuff with a passion and found it unnecessary and jarring. I’m sure he isn’t the only one with that opinion, even if it is totally incorrect.
  • Avasarala’s costumes this week were stunning, as usual, but I loved that soft, flowy black gown she wore to talk with Errinwright best. It’s perfectly, artfully chosen to be restrained and unthreatening, very comfortable-looking and with relatively plain make-up and no jewels. It’s about as laid-back as we’ve ever seen Chrisjen looking, and then she pounces.
  • Holden’s message home was cute, but I think Naomi shouldn’t have to work so hard at managing Holden’s feelings. Yeah, he’s the captain of the ship, but why if he doesn’t want to be and there are at least a couple more people on the Roci who are almost certainly more capable?
  • The martyrdom of Miller and his elevation as a folk hero is predictable, as is Diogo’s almost religious fervor about spreading the news. I like this small detail, though, and it will be interesting to see how that movement develops over the next few weeks.
  • I ship Naomi and Samara so hard.
  • I wish that Bobbie’s exo suit was bigger and tougher looking, but I love the heads up display on it, which was used really smartly in this episode.

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