All posts by SF Bluestocking

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.

Assorted thoughts on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

In 1991, I turned nine, and I was just starting to change from being a little girl who loved books about horses to being a little girl who loved books about dragons and wizards and spaceships. I fancied myself something of a tomboy still in 1991, but this was well before “princess culture” became ubiquitous enough for liking a Disney princess movie to be mutually exclusive with tomboyishness. Before Beauty and the Beast, my favorite Disney movies were Sleeping Beauty (because it had a great horse and a badass dragon) and Robin Hood (because I had a raging crush on that cartoon fox, natch). Beauty and the Beast had a horse and a Beast (which isn’t that much different from a fox, right?) and it had Belle, who was nothing like any of the princesses before her. I mean, she was white and conventionally pretty, obviously, but she didn’t spend any portion of her movie asleep, and she didn’t have to give up her voice just to have a chance at a dude who couldn’t even remember what she looked like, and this is what passed for progressive in 1991. Most importantly to nine-year-old me, Belle liked books, and she liked them so much that she was gifted a whole enormous library from her Beast, and it was glorious: the grand romantic gesture that first taught me to appreciate grand romantic gestures, and gifts of books are to this day the easiest way for people to buy my affection.

So, let’s just say that there’s a certain degree of uncritical love that I have for Beauty and the Beast, both the Disney movie and basically every iteration of it I’ve gotten my hands on in the years since, from Rose Daughter to Uprooted. When I saw the first trailer for the new live action version, I said right off that it was aggressively ugly but also that I was definitely going to see it. It turns out that it’s every bit as aggressively ugly as I thought it was going to be, but it’s also a surprisingly decent, if still very problematic, update to a beloved childhood classic. Here are my thoughts on it, in no particular order.

Spoilers, obviously.

18th Century fancy French menswear is sexy.

This isn’t important, really. Just a general observation. And a reminder that I need to make time to watch season two of Outlander sometime soon.

This adaptation tried to explain why the whole castle was cursed, and it only somewhat worked.

I was somewhat surprised that this was a thing at all, but it wasn’t a terrible idea. As in the animated film, there’s a short prologue that shows how the Beast gets himself and his whole castle cursed, and special attention is paid to make sure that the audience sees his court and servants as complicit in the prince’s cruelty. They stare and laugh at the disguised sorceress as the prince turns her away, and none of them do anything to stop it. Later in the film, Mrs. Potts weirdly both supports and undermines this when she tells Belle that, after the death of the Beast’s mother, Mrs. Potts and the other servants did nothing to prevent his abusive father from raising the Beast to be the nasty piece of work he was. Unfortunately, the only time we see the Beast’s father is in a flashback to his wife’s deathbed in which he not unkindly steers his grieving son out of the room, an image of relative gentleness that is at odds with what we’ve been told about his treatment of his son.

It makes sense that in this new film Disney would want to address the seeming injustice of a whole household of kind, loving servants being cursed for their master’s bad behavior; it’s just a weird case of a more or less good idea taken both too far and not far enough. The initial scene of the characters at the prince’s ball standing silent and then laughing as he mocks the sorceress is not quite enough to really justify everyone being cursed forever—especially when it’s revealed that they’re also erased from the memories of everyone they knew outside the palace. Disproportionate as the punishment is, this might have been fine if the film had decided to just stick to fairy tale logic. However, piling on that the servants somehow failed in a responsibility to protect the Beast from his father—without ever showing how the father was so bad—only really serves to muddle the message. It would have been much smarter to just stick with “the whole court was decadent and wicked in the moment when it mattered” without trying to also treat the curse as a sort of cosmic justice for a much more nebulous moral failing.

I legit cried at “Belle” and the opening village scene.

Emma Watson isn’t a great vocalist, but this song was nicely done, the village is genuinely lovely, and it’s the one time in the movie that I really felt like it was the animated version brought to life. For me, it was a little bit like first seeing Hobbiton in The Fellowship of the Ring or when Grant and Ellie first see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, both scenes that still make me tear up. Your mileage may vary, but I totally loved this sequence.

Belle is kind of an asshole.

Listen. Belle has always been the ultimate Not Like Other Girls heroine, and her desire to get out of her small, provincial town figured largely in the animated film as well. This movie, however, makes Belle’s absolute disdain for the literally illiterate townspeople extremely clear. It’s not just the boorish, sexist Gaston that she dislikes. She’s at best condescendingly indulgent of her neighbors’ foibles and more often openly scornful toward them for, apparently, no other reason than their rural lifestyle and lack of sophistication. The town is pretty and clean, and its people seem to be mostly happy and decent in spite of their lack of privilege—remember this is supposed to be a rural village in 18th century France that has previously been ruled over by cruel and selfish nobility who exploited the people and land for their own gain. It makes sense that a young, relatively privileged girl with an education that is out of reach of most her peers might chafe at the restrictions of rural society and dream of adventure, but Belle’s sheer unbridled hatred of this town and its people doesn’t reflect well on her at all.

On a similar note, the girl hate is even stronger in this film than in 1991.

Just like in the animated version, this film has a trio of nearly identical women whose only character traits are wanting to marry Gaston and not being Belle. It was a sexist, damaging trope the first time around, and I’m disappointed to report that it’s actually worse in this move than it was in the original. Whereas in the animated film, these three women were identically beautiful blondes who seemed vapid but ultimately good-natured, here they’re presented as a group of garishly made-up (in pointed contrast to the natural beauty of the heroine) mean girls with an unexplained antipathy towards Belle in addition to their desire for Gaston. And this film no longer stops at portraying them as silly girls swooning over a man who barely notices they exist. Instead, it makes a point of having Gaston explicitly reject them with a dose of implied slut-shaming and the added humiliation of having Gaston’s horse kick mud on them. It’s a particularly hideous instance of misogyny that also isn’t helped by having Le Fou gleefully reinforce Gaston’s point with a snide “Not gonna happen, girls.”

Le Fou is awful in pretty much every way.

The animated Le Fou was a clownish, craven crony to the toxically hypermasculine Gaston, a cartoon fictional dynamic that rarely occurs to quite such an extreme degree in reality. In the live-action version, Disney has chosen to address this by casting Josh Gad in the role, giving him an unrequited crush on Gaston, and unsuccessfully playing it for laughs. It’s not funny. Josh Gad is not funny in this role, which mostly consists of Le Fou being a stereotype of a catty, faintly effeminate gay man and being mildly misogynistic in ways that validate and complement Gaston’s own misogyny. The “exclusively gay moment” that has been so bragged about is literally about a second and half shot at the end of the movie of Le Fou dancing with another man—an unnamed character who, incidentally, is “outed” as gay in the story when the magic wardrobe dresses him in women’s clothing during the climactic battle and he grins like it’s Christmas, which seems senselessly offhandedly transphobic and further suggests that gay men are simply effeminate dudes.

Literally nothing about this portrayal of Le Fou was at any point a good idea, the execution is horrendous, and Disney’s public crowing about how progressive they are for having a gay dude in this movie is hilariously offensive when you actually see how bad it is.

Luke Evans is a perfect Gaston.

Seriously. He’s delightful, and he plays Gaston with amazing gusto and a surprising amount of charm. This is one of the only roles in this movie that I’d say is perfectly cast, along with Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe and Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza.

Audra McDonald should sing everything, forever.

She is an actual perfect angel, and though Emma Thompson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” was fine, it’s a straight up crime that the song wasn’t given to McDonald.

There were too many new songs, and every one of them was too long.

The worst offender is a song the Beast sings after Belle leaves to rescue her father. It’s entirely superfluous and puts the brakes on the story for a full three minutes of the Beast verbalizing feelings that could easily have been conveyed in about a ten second shot of him just looking sad. It might have been fine if “Evermore” was a truly good and memorable song, but it’s completely unremarkable and Dan Stevens is only an okay singer.

The animated objects are straight up nightmare fuel.

Dead-eyed little Chip might be the worst, but all the CGI objects are somewhere between mildly unsettling and absolutely terrifying.

The Beast looks much better than I expected.

He looked awful in production stills and trailers, but he works on the big screen and honestly possesses more sex appeal than Dan Stevens does in real life.

This movie is fine, overall.

It’s at least as good as the live action Cinderella was, and if you liked the animated version you’ll probably like this one, too. I don’t know if it’s a movie I’ll want to watch over and over again, but it was worth seeing for nostalgia reasons, even if it did also prove that Disney still has a lot of work to do when it comes to crafting progressive feminist narratives.

Into the Badlands: “Tiger Pushes Mountain” is a beautiful, bloody start to the season

I loved Into the Badlands when the first six-episode season aired back in late 2015, and I was thrilled when confirmation of its second season finally came. It has a unique concept with a distinctive and striking visual style, a diverse cast, and excellent fight choreography, and it even has a decidedly progressive sensibility so I was genuinely confused and disappointed when it seemed that no one I knew was watching it. The good news is that season one of the show is now on Netflix, everyone is watching it (finally, belatedly), and season two has begun and is off to a great start.

“Tiger Pushes Mountain” picks up six months after the end of the first season’s finale, which had several cliffhanger-ish endings, and it serves both as a where-are-they-now episode for those of us who watched the first season and a sort of soft reboot of the series that is mostly accessible to new viewers (though I still highly recommend checking out the first season on Netflix). It’s an episode that shows exactly what kind of show this is, and it sets a tone for the new season that is already proving to be slightly darker, definitely faster paced, and a good deal bloodier than season one was.

**Spoilers below**

Sunny (Daniel Wu) ended season one being betrayed by the River King, and season two opens with Sunny arriving in shackles at the Bordo Mines, which gives us our first action scene of the season before the opening credits even roll. The troll-like overseer of the mine (Stephen Walters, credited as “The Engineer” and bringing a delightful touch of madness to the role) orders the murder of one of the other new arrivals, and Sunny chooses this time to take a stand. He kills several of the Engineer’s henchmen and at least temporarily prevents the murder before being recaptured knocked unconscious.

Sunny wakes up to find himself chained to Bajie (Nick Frost), a disreputable sort of grifter character who immediately assesses Sunny as someone who “looks like trouble.” Nick Frost brings a garrulous energy and louche charm to the role of Bajie that makes him great fun to watch in scenes with Sunny, who has always been a quieter character and spends much of this episode silently trying to think his way out of his current predicament. It’s only about halfway through the episode when Sunny approaches Bajie for help, but Sunny makes a mistake when he lets on to Bajie that he’s planning to escape alone. Bajie’s betrayal of Sunny to the Engineer is expected, but Nick Frost is so likable in the role that I can’t help but hope these crazy kids work things out enough to go on a bigger adventure together.

At the end of season one, M.K. (Aramis Knight) was kidnapped by mystery monks who seemed to share his magical powers, and here we find him several months into his training at a secluded monastery. His mentor at the start is a young woman named Ava (Eve Connelly), but M.K. is anxious to meet the Master. There’s an interesting scene with M.K. and a Nomad boy that he’s sharing a room with in which we learn that the stigma M.K. has faced regarding his powers isn’t the norm everywhere. Among the Nomads, the other boy was treated almost like a god and granted special privileges, so he’s skeptical of the training the Master offers to/forces on them. It’s a smart way of recontextualizing M.K.’s role—he’s not unique, and his understanding of his own powers isn’t the only way of understanding them—and helping the viewer to understand the way in which magic fits into the world of Into the Badlands.

When M.K. finally meets the Master (Chipo Chung, who some will recognize from a couple of memorable turns on Doctor Who), we again get a different perspective on and deeper understanding of M.K.’s gift. M.K., however, just wants to finish his training as soon as possible so he can get back to the Badlands and his friends there. There’s not a ton of forward movement on this storyline this week, and the episode ends with M.K. still firmly stuck at the monastery, but the Master is going to personally take over his training from now on. I expect things are going to get interesting for M.K. next week.

Meanwhile, Ryder (Oliver Stark) and Jade (Sarah Bolger) have abandoned the plantation house and are ruling their three territories from Jacoby’s mansion. Unfortunately, this information is delivered in clumsy exposition in a scene right back at the supposedly abandoned plantation house, which is weirdly overgrown and dusty for just a few months’ absence, especially since all the furniture and stuff is covered and they supposedly left on purpose. Apparently, this is where Ryder hangs out when he’s feeling pensive or just needs a retreat from the responsibility of being the Baron of three territories, even though it seems pretty obvious in this episode that Jade is the one doing the heavy lifting of actually leading and managing things in their new situation. Still, this isn’t the worst way of working in some necessary exposition, and the scene is mercifully short as Ryder is shortly called away to deal with a problem at an oil refinery and Jade joins him.

It turns out that the Widow (Emily Beecham), after the late revelation of her revolutionary ideals last season, has spent the last several months building up her forces and planning to take back the territory she lost. This episode finds her making her first major move, and she and her daughter/Regent, Tilda (Ally Ioannides), meet Jade and Ryder at the refinery. When Tilda explodes a vehicle piled with oil barrels, the Widow chases Jade through the refinery killing every man in her way in a gloriously fun-to-watch fight sequence that culminates in an encounter between Jade and the Widow that I’m certain launched a thousand ships. Seriously. I’m not sure how to read Jade’s expressions as she watches the Widow as anything other than intrigued arousal.

It’s also a fight sequence that works interestingly to lead the viewer to contrast the Widow and Sunny. Both characters ended season one rather down on their luck—Sunny betrayed and captured, the Widow at least momentarily beaten and robbed of her territories and prestige—and their arcs towards regaining what they’ve lost and achieving their goals (which are broadly similar) are rife with parallels and points of obvious comparison. Daniel Wu has said that they wanted to make the action scenes more in service to character and story this season, and they’re successful so far. Though Sunny’s and the Widow’s respective sequences don’t appear exactly at opposite ends of the full episode, they still work to neatly and symmetrically bookend the what-are-they-up-to-now portion of the hour before the show moves on to actual moving-along-the-plot and introducing-the-rest-of-the-season’s-conflicts stuff.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I was certain the mines were going to be coal mines or, possible, precious metals or gems, but they aren’t. They’re digging for relics from the pre-apocalyptic past, which is a neat idea executed nicely. The dark, filthy mines and the violent overseers with their dilapidated gas masks are downright creepy.
  • Jade’s blue dress is stunning. Best costume of the episode, for sure, though I appreciate the grime on every single inch of the Bordo Mines scenes.
  • Tilda and her sisters killing those rapists was a great scene—I’m always happy to see rapists die—but it also introduces a smidgen of doubt about Tilda’s loyalty to her mother. They clearly don’t agree on every single particular of how they should remake their world, and there’s a potential mother-daughter conflict in the making here that could make for great television.
  • Odds on whether Quinn is really still alive or if this is some kind of nightmare Veil is having after just giving birth? I might have yelled “WHAT THE FUCK?!” out loud when that happened.

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: March 19, 2017

Well, it’s been another week of being less productive than I’d like. It turns out that life is one of those things that just keeps happening. Last Sunday, my daughter came home and was sick, so she stayed home from school on Monday and Tuesday. Then the check engine light came on in my car on Thursday, and in a good news/bad news situation it’s not the same problem I already had it at the shop for like five times, but it is some other problem (a transmission code that I’m having fully diagnosed this coming week) that almost certainly isn’t under warranty. So, that’s fun. Add to that the ongoing saga of President Trump and the GOP’s maliciously cruel plans for the US and the realization that we’re still only a couple months in to this shit show, and I’m still, frankly, in a constant state of “on the edge of a major depressive episode.”

There was good stuff this week as well, though. I found out that the local Girl Scout troop selling cookies at my grocery store take credit cards, which is revolutionary. It’s also why I bought five boxes of Savannah Smiles on Friday. The Expanse got renewed for a third season. I read some good things, and my WoW raid group is making progress in Heroic Nighthold. There’s new episodes of Masterchef Junior to catch up on, and tonight is the start of season two of Into the Badlands, which everyone ought to be watching.

I don’t have a ton of links this week because I really have been trying to spend less time glued to the internet and more time doing productive stuff, but here’s what I read this week.

Fiyah published a report on their 2016 Black SFF Writer Survey.

nerds of a feather, flock together continued their Dystopian Visions series with Half-Life 2The Road, and The Dog Stars.

The Book Smugglers published a good round table discussion about short fiction with Kij Johnson, Elizabeth Bear, and Karen Tidbeck.

Mari Ness continued her series on fairy tales with a look at Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentameron.

Ada Palmer wrote about the world building in her Terra Ignota series at Tor.com and at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

This collection of thirty years’ worth of covers for The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty neat.

It’s Hugo Ballot Time!

Today is the last day to nominate works for this year’s Hugo Awards to be presented at Worldcon in Helsinki in August.

With the E Pluribus Hugo system in place and after a couple years of being highly mocked public failures (I mean, yikes! How embarrassing!) the Sad Puppies seem to have finally given up this time around. Almost-Nazi and actual garbage monster Vox Day has got a Rabid Puppies list that is exactly the mix of laughably poor taste, feeble attempts at trolling and self-serving picks that I’ve come to expect from him. The Rabids always were more successful than the Sads in affecting the Hugo finalist list, but in light of the rules change–which makes it slightly mathematically advantageous to nominate fewer titles/people–their list this year focuses on just one or two slots per category with the goal of having a “seat at the table.”

Whatever. That doesn’t seem nearly as fun as participating in lively discussions with other fans about what they liked this past year and then nominating a ballot full of work they genuinely enjoyed, but different strokes. Some people just really like paying $50+ to participate in a groupthink exercise they think is gonna piss off liberals, I guess.

In the interest of lively discussion, here’s what I’m nominating:

John W. Campbell Award (Not a Hugo)

Ada Palmer
Too Like the Lightning is an incredible book, unlike almost anything else being written right now to the degree that I’m honestly kind of amazed that it got published by a major publisher (thanks, Tor!). It’s a book that I know, rationally, isn’t for everybody; almost no one seems to love it as well as I did, but it’s something really special.

Cae Hawksmoor
I discovered Cae Hawksmoor’s stuff when I did that huge read-through of fiction by all of last year’s Campbell-eligible writers, and they’ve quickly become one of my favorite writers of long-ish short fiction. Check out their stories “Y Brenin” and “The Stone Garden” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Sarah Gailey
Sarah Gailey is awesome in every way, and her Tor.com novella about feral hippos in America is one of my most-anticipated new releases this year. Before that, however, she also wrote the excellently funny “Bargain” and “Haunted.” This is her last year of eligibility for the Campbell, but I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Best Series

This is a new Hugo category being tested this year, and I’m not totally on board with it, to be honest. It seems likely to end up awarding series work that wouldn’t normally be considered Hugo-worthy, and I’d much rather see a new category for anthologies and story collections instead. We’ll see how this goes, though.

Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
This has been confirmed by the author to be eligible for nomination, which is great because this is the part of De Bodard’s work I’ve always liked best. You can find an introduction to and full bibliography for the series on the author’s website if you haven’t heard of it before.

Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente
This series was actually my first exposure to Valente’s work years ago when I picked up The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making to read to my daughter at bedtimes. Unfortunately, Sylvia finally quit letting me read aloud to her a couple of years ago, but I basically credit with Catherynne Valente with getting story time to last until Sylvia was 11. The most recent and final installment of the series is last year’s The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, and if it’s not as wonderful as the first book it’s still a perfect ending to the series.

Best Fan Artist

Sadly, I just don’t follow enough art anymore to have strong opinions about who to nominate, but I’m looking forward to seeing who shows up on the final ballot this year.

Best Fan Writer

Sarah Gailey
It turns out I just really like Sarah Gailey, okay? Check out “In Defense of Villainesses” and “Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF” at Tor.com. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, also don’t miss her series on the Women of Harry Potter.

Bogi Takács
Bogi reviews books and writes about diversity and other stuff at Bogi Reads the World.

Foz Meadows
Foz blogs at Shattersnipe: Malcontents & Rainbows.

Best Fancast

I’m not a huge listener of podcasts, but when I do it’s one of these.

Fangirl Happy Hour

Cabbages & Kings

Midnight in Karachi

Best Fanzine

Lady Business

nerds of a feather, flock together

Black Girl Nerds

The Fandomentals

Best Semiprozine

This category is packed with amazing publications, but here’s what I’ve been mostly reading in the last year. All of these publications offer at least some free content on their websites, and they are all great in their own way. Whether they are on your ballot or not, I can’t recommend each of these enough.

Uncanny Magazine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Fireside Fiction

The Book Smugglers

Shimmer

Best Professional Artist

Richard Anderson
While he doesn’t always do covers for my favorite books, Richard Anderson’s cover art is always gorgeous.

Tommy Arnold
Did the covers for A Taste of Honey and Cloudbound last year. Amazing work.

Best Professional Editor, Long Form

Navah Wolfe at Saga Press
Edited Borderline, which is an amazing find, and A Criminal Magic, another excellent pick. Plus, she co-edited The Starlit Wood, which is a really superb anthology that there isn’t a category for.

Best Professional Editor, Short Form

Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
This husband and wife team is consistently finding and publishing some of the freshest new sci-fi and fantasy around at Uncanny.  Their commitment to literary excellence, diversity in the genre, and progressive ideals is evident in every issue they publish, and several of my favorite stories of the year first appeared in Uncanny.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Black Mirror “San Junipero” – Netflix
I finally watched Black Mirror in 2016 when the new season came out on Netflix, and this is hands down the show’s best episode. In fact, this story of two women finding love with the aid of a technological marvel in the near future is the finest episode of anything I watched in 2016.

The X-Files “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” – Fox
The best episode of an otherwise mediocre season of one of my favorite shows ever, this one is funny and smart in the mode of some of my most-loved episodes from the original run of the show.

iZombie “Salivation Army” – The CW
iZombie is a pretty solidly written show in general, and the season two finale was fantastic.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Hidden Figures
Not technically science fiction, but if Apollo 13 can be nominated, then this much more worthy and well-written story ought to be, too. It’s a great movie about a part of history that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This may be my all-time favorite Star Wars movie despite its flaws.

Arrival
Based on a story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a memorable first contact story.

Lucifer – Season 1
Without having any particular standout episodes that I wanted to nominate for short form, Lucifer was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me in television. It’s a very loose adaptation of the Lucifer comics, re-imagined as something like a police procedural with cosmic familial drama, and it’s a concept that doesn’t sound all that appealing. However, it’s for the most part smartly written and genuinely funny with a great cast. Tom Ellis, in particular, is a perfect fit for the titular role, with his good looks and charm making up for the show’s few stumbles in the first season. It’s by far the most fun thing I regularly watch.

The Expanse – Season 1
This is the best sci-fi show since Battlestar Galactica. It’s well-written, based on a popular book series, and has a great cast and excellent production values.

Best Graphic Story

Faith, Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine
I’m not usually into superhero comics, but I loved this one.

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening
Monstress is the most beautiful comic I’ve read in years. Brutal and poignant.

ODY-C, Volume 2: Sons of the Wolf
I don’t know anyone else who likes this book as much as I do, but I adore it.

Best Related Work

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
Obviously.

#BlackSpecFic
Fireside’s report on the state of black authors in SF is a must-read.

For the Love of Spock
I miss Leonard Nimoy.

Best Short Story

“The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest” by Charlie Jane Anders
I guarantee this is a very long shot, but this retelling of “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage” might be my personal favorite story of 2016. Honestly, I just love knowing that it exists at all. You can read it in The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar
First published in The Starlit Wood and reprinted in Uncanny, this is a wonderful fairy tale romance.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander
This story has been pretty universally acclaimed, and it fully deserves all the hype. Also, I get a kick out of how much they hated it over at Rocket Stack Rank. LOL.

“Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin
People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy was an issue full of superb fiction, and this story was the best of the lot. I literally wept through the ending, and it’s a story that’s stuck with me ever since.

“Black, Their Regalia” by Darcie Little Badger
Also from People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy, this one is about a group of Native youth surviving in the midst of an apocalyptic plague.

Best Novelette

“Coral Bones” by Foz Meadows
Part of a series of novelettes and novellas based on the works of Shakespeare, “Coral Bones” is about Miranda from The Tempest.

“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik
Novik rehabilitates the story of Rumplestiltskin, re-centering the old vaguely anti-Semitic story around a clever and interesting Jewish heroine.

Best Novella

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
I’m not totally loving the current trend of endless Lovecraftian retellings in mainstream publishing, but I loved this title. “The Horror at Red Hook” is one of Lovecraft’s more famously racist stories (spoiler: the “horror” is black and brown people and immigrants), and LaValle has responded by basically retelling the story from the point of view of one of the othered people that Lovecraft had such a pathological fear of. It’s a great story in its own right that has plenty to say in conversation with the work of a such a well-known and vile racist.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
Gorgeously imagined story from start to finish.

The Convergence of Fairy Tales by Octavia Cade
The first novella published by The Book Smugglers, and they and Cade hit one out of the park. It’s a rage-filled and viscerally disturbing examination of the roles of women in several classic fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty, the Snow Queen, Snow White, the Frog Prince, and Rapunzel) by weaving the stories together as the tale of a single woman who is raped, impregnated, and abandoned to survive on her own.

Runtime by S.B. Divya
A tightly plotted and fast-paced story of a young woman participating in a harrowing cyborgs-only race in the hope of securing her future and that of her family.

Lustlocked by Matt Wallace
Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour novellas are always a joy, and this one is nearly perfect. The Sin du Jour crew is catering a goblin wedding when things go hilariously and disastrously awry. It’s heavily implied that David Bowie is actual goblin royalty, which sounds legit. I read this book the day I found out about David Bowie’s death, and it has a special place in my heart because of that association, but it’s also a great book in its own right.

Best Novel

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
This isn’t the book I had the most fun reading in 2016, but it’s the 2016 book that makes me most excited for the future of the genre. It’s bold and fresh and full of challenging ideas.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
All the Birds in the Sky was one of the first books I read last year, and I said at the time that I didn’t think anything else would top it before the end of the year. While this didn’t quite turn out to be the case–frankly, you just can’t predict a debut novel like Too Like the Lightning–it’s still easily among my favorite reads of the year.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate is at least as good as its predecessor, The Fifth Season, which I’ve said many times ought to, if there’s any justice in the world, achieve Tolkienesque levels of influence on the fantasy genre. On the one hand, N.K. Jemisin seems intent on earning a rocket or two every year from now on, and I can’t say she doesn’t deserve every one. On the other hand, I like to see these types of awards spread the love around a little. Plus, I think The Stone Sky is going to be a masterpiece when in comes out later this year, so I fully expect Jemisin to be at the top of my nomination list this time next year.

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
This novel was a pleasant surprise, the rare second installment in a series that is unequivocally a far better book than the first in its series. I liked The Grace of Kings quite a lot, but The Wall of Storms is next level amazing. Whereas the former had a unique and interesting setting, this second foray into it is compelling and unconventional in ways that its predecessor was not.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
I fell in love with Yoon Ha Lee’s work several years ago when I read his short story collection, Conservation of Shadows, and “The Battle of Candle Arc” was one of that book’s most memorable stories. I was thrilled when I heard that Lee was revisiting that setting and the character Shuos Jedao in novel length, and Ninefox Gambit was everything I hoped it would be.

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.

Book Review: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough is a brilliantly inventive and gorgeously accomplished first novel for Lara Elena Donnelly, who manages to both test the limits of the fantasy genre and craft a whip smart and timely political thriller at the same time. Comparisons to Cabaret and Le Carré are accurate enough (and certainly intriguing enough for marketing reasons), though I always think we do a disservice to fresh, original work by using such comparisons to shape reader expectations. Amberlough is a fine novel on its own merits, full of bold world building, great characters, big ideas and a thoughtfully bittersweet ending.

For a fantasy world, this one is remarkably devoid of magic. Amberlough City, where the majority of the novel’s action takes place, is the capital of one of several nation states arranged in a loose confederacy called Gedda. Technologically, culturally and aesthetically, things feel somewhere in the neighborhood of the real world’s 1920s to early 1940s—there are cars and telephones and electric lights and cabarets—which is highly appropriate for a story of the rise of a fascist political party. It’s an interesting decision to write this story as a fantasy novel, and I kept half-expecting there to be some magical or supernatural twist or deus ex machina, but none ever comes. The fantastical element here is only the secondary world itself, and Donnelly does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. It’s a setting that feels familiar without the opportunity of being dryly historical—indeed, the choice to build a secondary world setting frees Donnelly from any demands for historicity—and has a pleasantly lived-in quality that makes Amberlough feel plausible and compelling as any historical fiction would be.

Like the world in which they exist, Amberlough’s characters are also multi-dimensional, well-drawn and with a good level of complexity. The three main characters—Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia—each have distinctive personalities, motivations and journeys, and the secondary and tertiary cast also has enough depth to not be completely overshadowed by the main characters. That said, Cyril is the king of terrible and stupidly self-and-otherwise-destructive decisions, and Aristide is slightly underutilized for most of the book, so it’s Cordelia who is the real stand-out character. Which is okay. Because I adore her. She’s exactly the sort of difficult woman that I love best to read about, and she undergoes a thorough transformation over the course of the book. Cyril is a self-deprecating fuck-up; Aristide is a charismatic survivor; but Cordelia has a political awakening, and it turns out that Stories About Women Having Powerful and Profound Political Awakenings is my favorite genre of 2017.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Amberlough is how serious a book it is. It’s not a hopeless novel, but Donnelly doesn’t sugarcoat anything, either. The historical inspirations for the book are fairly obvious, and parallels to the Weimar Republic are easy to discern. It would be easy for this story to be simply a facile and thinly veiled parable about how fascism is bad, but Amberlough is much more than that. Cordelia’s character arc of political awakening is my favorite aspect of the book, probably because it’s, in a weird way, the part of the story that I found most hopeful and encouraging. Cordelia’s story makes me want to (and feel like I could) go punch a thousand Nazis in real life, but the Cyril and Aristide threads are important as well, with much to say about political and personal compromise. Cyril tries to walk a line that he thinks is far wider than it actually is between double agent and straight up collaborator, and it might destroy him and everyone he cares about. Aristide has to deal with his own changing status under the new Ospy regime and find a way to survive when things start to get really scary.

Some readers may not appreciate the ambiguous-at-best-and-quite-probably-devastating ending of Amberlough, but I loved it. Too many writers contort the denouement of their stories in order to please their readers or to just wrap things up tidily, but Donnelly chooses to eschew a happy ending here, opting instead for an impactful and haunting one. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to read this book if Hillary Clinton were President. It’s true that antifascist narratives never really go out of style, but in light of our current terrifying political situation in the US, Amberlough has a timely relevance that I can’t imagine was completely intended. This may also be why some of the marketing for the novel seems to undersell it and indicate a much slighter story than it actually is, but either way it’s something of a failure to manage reader expectations. Amberlough isn’t a fun thriller-romance like the cover copy suggests; it’s a powerfully written look at how people exist in the birth of a fascist regime. The message isn’t one of hope; it’s a call for resistance.