August 7, 2022

Review: A Half-Built Garden

A Half-Built Garden A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a first contact novel unlike any I've read in ages, possibly ever. It has humans meeting aliens, but the meat of the story is the competing ideas and worldviews of the two, and the struggles of both to come to a solution. The aliens do not try to kill humans or take over the world. Far from it--they are here to save us, by their lights, and the central conflict is the protagonist and her friends standing up to say, "We appreciate your offered gift, but you must trust us when we say we don't want to be saved."

The story takes place sixty years in the future, on the far side of climate change when the efforts of decades to heal the planet finally seem to be coming to fruition. This results in a society radically different than the one we see today: a post-capitalism society, when the influence and rule of corporations (particularly the fossil-fuel industry) has been broken--indeed, the corporations and their followers have been exiled to their own floating islands--and the power of nation-states has been greatly reduced. The "dandelion networks" occupy environmentally sensitive or damaged areas and work to heal them, using the power of cooperation, consensus, and shared expertise through crowdsourcing. (In fact, in this future, the idea of private property rights must also be out of fashion, as the members of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network don't actually say they own the area--they just live there and manage it.) Our protagonist, Judy Wallach-Stevens, is awakened one night by a sensor alarm in the bay, and she takes her wife and baby Dori with her to check it out. Within the first four pages Judy sees the spaceship that has landed on Bear Island in the bay, and the first chapter tells of the meeting between humans and Ringers, as they're named.

The Ringers have traveled a hundred and sixty light years (via an artificial wormhole device) to rescue humanity; the two species aboard the ship, the plains-folk and the tree-folk, left their own planets behind long ago. They insist that any civilization past a certain level of technology must leave their birth worlds behind and live in space. In their own system, they live in artificial habitats and are in the midst of a thousand-year project to construct a Dyson sphere around their star. They are here to help, and for a goodly part of the book they don't really care if humanity wants their help or not.

This clash of values and worldviews forms the essential conflict of the book, as humans and Ringers struggle to understand each other and reach a compromise. This is complicated by the intrusion and manipulation of the remnants of the exiled corporations, who are only too eager to accept the Ringers' offer and spread throughout the stars (and try to make as much profit as possible while doing so). But Judy, negotiating on behalf of the watersheds, insist that many humans don't want to leave Earth behind, especially when they are finally learning from their mistakes and beginning to heal their world.

The author's afterward calls this (half-facetiously, I think) "diaperpunk," as the Ringers place a high value on parents in their society and single out Judy as humanity's representative primarily because she came to them first with a baby. I'm not too fond of the trend of "punk"-ifying everything, but if we're going to stick such a label on this book, for my money it would be "philosophypunk." There are many meaty and substantive philosophical discussions in this book, as the various factions of humans and Ringers thrash out their differences, overcome their fears and prejudices, and at the end decide to form a new cross-species family to help both humans and Ringers.

This is not a beach read to rip through in a couple of days. It's a deep, thoughtful first contact story, emphasizing the values of cooperation and sharing over dominance and conquering. If you like your science fiction to be the SF of ideas, give this a try.

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July 31, 2022

Review: What Moves the Dead

What Moves the Dead What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

T. Kingfisher, aka Ursula Vernon, writes in several different genres: fantasy, children's, middle grade, graphic novel and horror. Her horror novels, so far, have taken classic horror stories of the past and reimagined them with her own unique twist. This novella follows that formula very successfully, as it is a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"...with additional sentient fungi.

This being very much a gothic, with a ramshackle decaying moldy house set on the edge of a creepy lake (with greenish lights sparkling in its depths), it takes a few chapters to set up. You have to get the characters, landscape and atmosphere just right. Our protagonist, Alex Easton, is responding to a letter from Madeline Usher, a childhood friend. Kan (Easton is nonbinary) arrives to find both Madeline and her brother Roderick, with whom Easton served in an unnamed war, looking like they are near death. Another person is staying with them, an American doctor, James Denton. The book begins with an unsettling description of the mushrooms that grow around the lake (also known as the "tarn") near the house of Usher:

The mushroom's gills were the deep red color of severed muscle, the almost-violet shade that contrasts so dreadfully with the pale pink of viscera. I had seen it any number of times in dead deer and dying soldiers, but it startled me to see it here.

Perhaps it would not have been so unsettling if the mushrooms had not looked so much like flesh. The caps were clammy, swollen beige, puffed up against the dark-red gills. They grew out of the gaps in the stones of the tarn like tumors growing from diseased skin. I had a strong urge to step back from them, and an even stronger urge to poke them with a stick.

These two paragraphs, though you don't know it until later, set up the entire story. This book is not drenched in blood and gore like many horror novels, but when it gets might never want to eat a mushroom again.

Another of the author's strengths is her characters. They are relatable, down to earth, practical people. Alex Easton is an old retired soldier with tinnitus, and another delightful character, Eugenia Potter the mycologist and fictional aunt of Beatrix, is the one who gives out all the relevant information about fungi, and comes up with the way to destroy the tarn at the end.

I have several books by this author, but I think this is one of her strongest. There is not a wasted word or scene, and the terror of what is happening in that house to Alex's friends is a visceral gut punch. If you can handle horror, go out and get this right now.

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July 28, 2022

Review: Aspects

Aspects Aspects by John M. Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a hard book to review because of the fact that the author has been dead for sixteen years (he passed in 2006). The book was unfinished at the time of his death, and has been published in its incomplete form due to the almost singlehanded efforts of a magazine writer, as told here. (And do stop and read that article. It's an amazing, touching detective story.)

I'm glad the book finally saw print, but reading it is a bittersweet experience, especially as you draw near to the end and realize that even after 471 pages this story is nowhere near finished....and there will be no more. This tale, a magical alt-version of Victorian England, is slow and leisurely and a bit meandering, with gorgeous prose, lush descriptions of clothing, rooms and landscapes, and long-drawn-out conversations. It's not a conventional plot at all: there is no Big Bad and no one has to save this world. The main character, to the extent that Varic is the main character, is mainly concerned with politics and the machinations of his country's Parliament and drawing up a new constitution. This narrative style suits the slightly steampunk-ish-with-magic worldbuilding perfectly, and in any case Ford's writing is so exquisite that is carries you right along (or it did me). One of the most amazing things about the book is that Ford was just as good a poet and lyric writer as he was a prose stylist: the in-story song lyrics and sonnets that begin the book and hint where it might have been going at the end are not to be missed.

It's very much worth reading as far as I'm concerned, even if you close the back cover with an ache for what might have been. And if it causes you to hunt down his other finished works and cry a little for the genius who left us too much the better.

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July 22, 2022

At the Movies: Thor: Love and Thunder


Thor is the first MCU character (so far) to have a fourth solo movie, a development that can be attributed to director Taika Waititi's reinvention of the character last time out in Thor: Ragnarok. (A post-credits card promises "Thor will return," but I can't imagine they'd do it unless Waititi was at the helm.) This movie carries on the freewheeling, metal-edged snarkiness of its predecessor (to a well-chosen and edited soundtrack of Guns n' Roses instead of Led Zeppelin), with a villain (Christian Bale's Gorr the God Butcher) who is set up with a fairly solid motivation for what he's doing and a surprisingly emotional payoff at the end. And, of course, Natalie Portman returns as Jane Foster, in a "Mighty Thor" storyline that's a direct lift from the highly regarded comics run.  

While I was watching this, something occurred to me that I should have realized one or two movies back, or maybe from the start. As a character (at least once he gets over the hubris and arrogance of his first movie and the depression engendered by the events of the Avengers films), Thor is a decent and kindhearted person....who isn't terribly bright? He really needs the counterpoint of a smart and diabolical bastard like Loki to keep him on his toes. (Since Thor now has a huge "RIP Loki" tattoo on his back, we know he has no idea that alt-Loki is tangling with the Time Variance Authority and rampaging through the multiverse.) Korg, the rock monster played by director Waititi, tries to fill that role for him but comes up short. Tessa Thompson's Valkryie, now King of New Asgard, is smart and acerbic enough (and not diabolical, at least not yet) to be a good foil for Thor, but she has her own problems in ruling over the Asgardian survivors. 

Jane Foster could have taken over that spot, but (and this is not a spoiler, or shouldn't be, as again it comes from the comics) she has Stage 4 cancer which is kept in abeyance only by her proving to be worthy and taking up Thor's busted hammer Mjolnir, and even Mjolnir isn't enough in the end. So yes, Jane dies (and in the last post-credits scene, is welcomed by Heimdall into Valhalla), but she is definitely not fridged, as she makes the choice to become the Mighty Thor one last time and help Thor stop the God Butcher. I imagine this complete character arc is part of what lured Portman back to the role. This Jane is shown to have moved on and lived a fulfilling life post-Thor (even as he knew exactly how long he'd been apart from her, down to the month and day), and she speaks about how much it meant for her to be able to wield that hammer, even if she initially sought it out to save her life (or at least postpone her death). 

We get the requisite Marvel CGI-heavy third act fight scene, of course, but Taika Waititi succeeds in turning this on its head as well. I'll try to be vague here, but let's just say that the stakes set up with Gorr's opening scene and the renewed Thor/Jane romance pay off with an ending built around emotion rather than pew-pew fighting. It's definitely one of the best endings of a Marvel movie, now that I think about it. It also provides Thor with a new sidekick going forward (played by an adorable India Rose Hemsworth, Chris Hemsworth's own daughter). If there will indeed be a fifth Thor movie, presumably she will be involved. 

(Also, even if Valkyrie doesn't yet find her queen, Korg gets his Korg-ian husband at the end. And Heimdall's kid names himself Axel, after Guns n' Roses' lead singer.)

This movie has a tight, lean two-hour runtime, and even if I don't think it quite scales the heights of Thor: Ragnarok, it's the best Marvel film I've seen so far this year. (It's certainly better than Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which twists Wanda Maximoff's character abominably. The director, Sam Raimi, either didn't watch WandaVision, didn't understand it, or didn't give a shit.) My rating:  Four mini-Mjolnirs. 

July 17, 2022

Review: Eyes of the Void

Eyes of the Void Eyes of the Void by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This second book of the Final Architecture series continues the wild ride of the first. There's a little more emphasis on plot this time around, with some wonderfully written battle scenes. Along the way, we get some questions answered about the Architects and the nature of unspace....which only lead to more questions. The biggest unanswered question is just what the Presence is in unspace, and why it is sending the Architects to attack inhabited planets. Although we're given a huge hint in that direction due to our protagonist Idris discovering that the thoughts of sentient beings affect unspace.

I must also render a huge THANK YOU to whoever added "The Story So Far" pages to the book before the narrative proper starts. I think this should be done with all series, especially ones as big and complex as this one. Not everybody starts reading a series with the first book, y'all! In my case I did, but this served as a nice refresher before I dove into this book.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors, and this series is a big reason why. It's a space opera as broad as the universe itself, and as intimate as a protagonist who is fed up with being a pawn in the war against the Architects. The author has leveled up his characterization, worldbuilding and storytelling with this series, and you should not miss it.

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July 9, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 10, "A Quality of Mercy"


A few posts back, I said episode 4 of this show, "Memento Mori," was "the direct descendant of the original series' 'Balance of Terror.' " That sentiment was accurate at the time--but this episode stepped up and said, "Hold my beer." 

This episode is a retelling of "Balance of Terror" in an alternate timeline, where Christopher Pike is the captain that fateful day the Romulans attacked Federation outposts bordering the Neutral Zone instead of James T. Kirk. Pike is shown this alternate future from his own future-Admiral self (dressed in the red admiral's outfit from The Wrath of Khan) to prevent past-Pike from taking a step that will wreck the timelines as we know them: to attempt to save one of the cadets who dies in the accident that disables Pike seven years in the future. Admiral Pike plunks Captain Pike in the alternate scenario and forces him to see it play out, and he (and we) see what the consequences of him attempting to evade his fate are. 

Parts of this are very fan-servicey (including a voiceover in the alt-timeline from an unseen Scottish engineer who protests, when Spock growls at him, "I'm an engineer, not a miracle worker") but most of it holds together well, mainly due to Anson Mount's performance. He really has been the MVP of this entire first season. He approaches the crisis true to the character we have been shown all along--a cautious captain who always tries diplomacy first, and falls back to violence as a last result. This is who he is, and it's not really his fault that his nature is so ill-suited to this situation. But unfortunately it is, and we see the grim results of that--when it's Spock who's catastrophically injured during the Romulan attack, not Pike, and that removal of Spock from all the things we know he will subsequently do results in the horrific future that Admiral Pike has been sent back to prevent. 

And, of course, we get a surprise visit from a young alternate James T. Kirk, who took a different route to the captain's chair in command of the Farragut, which came to assist Enterprise during the crisis. The Farragut is destroyed and the survivors beamed aboard Enterprise, and Kirk comes up with a magnificent bluff that nearly saves the day, were it not for the Romulans deciding the Federation is weak and declaring war on them. In thinking over this appearance by the new Kirk, Paul Wesley, I am....underwhelmed, shall we say. The actor didn't try to imitate William Shatner, which is a good and necessary thing, but his interpretation of the character didn't make much of an impression on me either. He certainly didn't do as fine a job with a legacy character as Ethan Peck and Celia Rose Gooding are doing with Spock and Uhura respectively. Still, since Kirk is supposed to be in Strange New Worlds' second season, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to see if he can develop further. 

(And the new actor hired to play the Romulan commander paled before the magnificence of Mark Lenard's portrayal. I almost wish they could've done some Uncanny Valley stuff and CGI'd Lenard into those scenes, since they were line-for-line recreations of the original.)

The season also ends on a cliffhanger, as Una Chin-Riley is arrested for hiding the fact that she is Illyrian. This is hinted at by the alternate La'an (who was aboard Farragut) when Pike asks if she's talked to Una and is told "she's not allowed visitors." In the middle of the crisis, Pike doesn't have time to unravel what's going on, but we can see from the look on his face as Una is taken away that he's going to raise all sorts of hell over this. 

Altogether, I think this was a successful first season, if a bit uneven. It's certainly been better than most Star Trek series are right out of the gate--The Next Generation's first season was famously crappy, Patrick Stewart notwithstanding (we shall not talk about the second season of Picard, which I dislike so much I haven't been able to write about its finale). Hopefully if what happened with Una is what starts off the second season, we will a) be able to explore her character more, which was shamefully lacking this season; and b) move in a bit more of an original direction. 

July 5, 2022

Review: Locklands

Locklands Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This final book in the Founders Trilogy is an epic thrill ride of sky-high stakes (the fate of reality itself), incredible battles, and a re-imagining of the Big Bad from book 2. But despite the twists and turns of the plot, the author does not skimp on the characters...and the fate of our two protagonists, Berenice and Sancia, made things get very dusty in the room as the book reached its climax.

This is an epic fantasy, but it also deals with classic science fiction concepts: reality as a computer simulation that can be manipulated with the right codes, a transhuman future, and gestalt consciousness--one being spread across many bodies. (This last point, vital to the plot, remains as creepy as all get-out to me, even though the author depicts the concept about as benevolently as I think can be done. But I want only my thoughts in my own freaking head, damn it.) The magical system shown here, called "scriving," has undercurrents of physics and quantum mechanics that gives the story a hard-science edge, at least to me. It's definitely in my sweet-spot blend of genres.

The story takes place eight years after the events of the second book, Shorefall, with our increasingly desperate protagonists fighting a losing battle against the unholy villain from the second volume. The author's continued and favorite theme of events from hundreds or thousands of years past reverbating down to the present continues here, as we finally get the complete story of what happened to Clef and what he did. This book, like the previous two, is more than 500 pages, but it held me riveted from start to finish.

I've looked back on previous books of this author I've read, and I've given almost every one of them five stars. This series is incredible, and you should not miss it.

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July 3, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 9, "All Those Who Wander"


Following the last two lighter episodes, I thought the remaining episodes of the season would be heavier and darker.....and wow, was I ever right with this one. It's the darkest episode of the season. But it's also one of the best. 

The Gorn have been the running antagonist of the season, and in this episode we got to see them in their computer-generated glory. Of course, this being CGI and not the cheesy bipedal 60's suit, they were a lot more menacing. The head design was pretty similar to the adult Gorn seen in the original series' "Arena," but the babies are apparently more quadripedal, at least in the early stages of their development. They also grow terrifyingly fast, which is why they attack and eat anything around them, including each other. This and other facts about Gorn hatchlings are used by La'an to save as many of the crew as she can.

Obviously this scenario owes a lot to Alien, including the hatchlings bursting out of the body of a hapless blue-skinned guest star. In fact, I suppose this episode could be construed as Star Trek's version of Alien, albeit without the greedy murderous corporation. So I guess La'an would be....the Ripley analogue? If so, Christina Chong does a good job of it, including her cathartic shriek when she smashes the frozen hatchling at the end. 

The setup is simple: Enterprise is on the way to deliver vital time-sensitive supplies to Deep Space Station K-7 (which hasn't gone all tribble-ley yet), when another priority one mission comes in: the Peregrine, exploring beyond Federation space, send out a distress call and makes an emergency landing aboard a Class L (icy) planet. Since Enterprise cannot divert from her primary mission, Pike tell Una to complete that and he will take a landing party to see what happened to Peregrine. He words this as "taking the kids [meaning the cadets, including Uhura, who have come to the end of their rotations] on the station wagon for one last road trip." (Which is fine for the viewer, but made me wonder how anyone born and living in the 23rd century would even know what a "station wagon" is. This scene was delightful, however, as Pike holds his briefings in his quarters over breakfast or some other meal, and in this one even made Spock do the dishes.)

On the planet where Peregrine set down, they find the ship intact and the crew dead, and killed in a messy, brutal fashion. There are two survivors, a human girl, Oriana, and the aforementioned blue-skinned alien the magical universal translator apparently can't talk to (which leads to one of the few humorous moments in the episode, as La'an says, "Uhura, do something," and Uhura blurts out, "That's not how linguistics works!"). But the logs from the dead captain tell the tale: the Peregrine picked up three castaways on a Class M Planet, these two and an Orion...and the Orion was infected with Gorn eggs. Oriana says "the monsters are all gone," but we soon find out that's not true. The blue-skinned alien starts wheezing and gasping in Sickbay, and four hatchlings bust out of him. 

From then on it's a race to kill the hatchings before they pick off the landing party. The landing party works together to use the awakening ship and the Gorn's hatred of cold to their advantage: they lower the temperature in sections of the ship at a time, and use a fast-running Uhura and La'an to lure the hatchlings to one particular section. Much of this is shot from the viewpoint of the Gorn, their eyes seeing a greenish background and a running white bipedal form. The remaining hatchling is lured into the cargo bay (which is open to the planet's surface), and both Hemmer and La'an hide in the hexagonal storage units we've seen in the Enterprise's corridors before, with the hatching shrieking and slobbering its green mouth-ooze on the hatch. Hemmer sprays the hatchling with liquid nitrogen, and once it's immobilized La'an climbs out of the hexagon and smashes it to bits.

That's not the final shoe to drop, however. We've already had our two sacrificial "redshirts," two cadets, set up in the opening scene, where one is made Lieutenant and another is commended on her graduation. And since we know that the several series regulars in this episode aren't going to die just yet, we think everyone else is safe. Only they aren't. When one of the hatchlings came upon Hemmer and Uhura in engineering, it sprayed him across the face with its acid....but as La'an knew and Hemmer realized, that acid also included eggs. And so Hemmer, after dispensing some final words of wisdom to a weeping Uhura, walks out the back of the open cargo bay and plummets to his death. 

Please don't say, "Hemmer, we hardly knew ye," because we did, and it hurt. He was only in, what? Four, five episodes and a handful of scenes? But the writers did such a good job with him, showing first his egotism and arrogance and later his vulnerability through his interactions with Uhura and M'Benga, that this was very much not a "redshirt" death. And even in his final scenes, he continued to gently advise Uhura, telling her that she shouldn't turn away from her gift for creating bonds: "Of course the people you care about are going to cause you pain. It will hurt, but the love it yields will far outweigh the sorrow." And since the last shot is of Uhura going to the bridge and looking and the communications station, we are left with the strong inference that this is what will cause her to decide to stay in Starfleet. 

There are a couple of other important emotional moments in this episode: to lure the hatchling to the trap prepared for it, Spock has to unleash his Vulcan rage, which he does to the point he can't control it afterwards. At Hemmer's funeral, he abruptly leaves and Christine Chapel follows him to see him smashing his fist into the bulkhead. Facing a Vulcan's fury could be a scary thing, but Chapel doesn't flinch: she tells him his anger and pain doesn't make him weak, it makes him human, and hugs him. There will be repercussions from this, or at least I hope so, as it seems too important a character moment to be dropped, even for a more episodic series like this one. La'an also comes to a turning point, as she discovers some hints as to where Oriana's family might be and asks Pike for permission to take extended leave to pursue them. 

With only one episode left, this first season of Strange New Worlds has been, in my opinion, a rip-roaring success. We just need more Una Chin-Riley going forward, as out of all the regulars, she has been the least served. 

June 29, 2022

Review: Flamefall

Flamefall Flamefall by Rosaria Munda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Aurelian Cycle trilogy, a young adult fantasy dealing with politics, revolution and a repressive regime (with dragons). In this book, the stakes are heightened and a nasty and compelling antagonist comes into play. I did think the plot was more convoluted in this book, but the author's concentrating on the characters made that bearable for the most part. The two main protagonists, Lee and Annie, are not sure where their allegiances should be and run through quite the gamut of emotions, rage and guilt being the most prominent. A new viewpoint character, Griff, is introduced, which provides a nice counterpart to the main characters. One bonus is that we get more dragon fights, which are exciting and well-written. This book mostly avoids the problems inherent in a middle book and sets things up nicely for the finale.

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June 25, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 8, "The Elysium Kingdom"


I don't know if the intention was for this show to separate its first batch of episodes into various shades of heavy drama and lighter character-based comedies, but that is more or less what has happened. The first four episodes were straightforward drama, and then we had the body-swap goofiness of "Spock Amok" and the "YARRRRR PIRATES" satire of "The Serene Squall." ("Please stop," begged Una.) (Of course, in between was the downer of "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach," with the ghost of Ursula K. Le Guin looking on and raising her eyebrows.) This episode is a combination of kids' fantasy fluff, Anson Mount's pitch-perfect portrayal of a cowardly obsequious snake, and the real heart of a father who, for his daughter's sake, has to let her go. 

It's also Dr. M'Benga's episode, wrapping up the subplot of his terminally ill daughter whom he has been keeping in the emergency medical transporter buffer as he searches for a cure for her condition. This was always going to be a delicate balancing act, as he has to take her out of the buffer at regular intervals for a minimum amount of time (never pinned down, but I got the impression that it had to be at least once every twenty-four hours) to prevent her pattern degrading. This forced exodus from the transporter lets her disease progress despite M'Benga's best efforts, and in this episode he admits she doesn't have much time left. 

The Enterprise is surveying a nebula, and when they're done with the survey and try to leave they can't. On the bridge, Ortegas is thrown to the floor, and Pike summons M'Benga to the bridge. When he gets there the door whoosh open on a transformed bridge, festooned with greenery (I imagine the plant budget for this episode nearly busted the bank--vines, ferns and ivy was everywhere), and the bridge crew were wearing costumes that looked like they were lifted wholesale from a Rennaissance Faire. M'Benga is also wearing a costume and bearing a crown, and the others call him "King Ridley." He realizes that what he is seeing and hearing, and the character he is apparently playing, have been lifted from the book he has been reading to his daughter Rukiya over the months, "The Elysian Kingdom" (written by none other than Deep Space Nine's Benny Russell). The bridge crew members have been drafted into role-playing the characters from the book: Pike is the craven, foppish chamberlain Sir Rauth, La'an is the Princess Thalia, Uhura is the enemy Queen Neve, Spock is the wizard Caster (and Ethan Peck looks damn good in his outfit, wizard staff, and long wig), Ortegas is the swordsperson Sir Adya, Una is Zymera the Huntress, and chief engineer Hemmer (a very welcome return, especially with his line "THE MAGIC OF SCIENCE!") is another wizard, Pollux. 

M'Benga has to see the story through to the end, with the help of Hemmer. The resolution takes an unexpected turn when it's revealed that the entity behind this is one of Star Trek's go-to tropes, the godlike energy being: in this case a Boltzmann brain, a spontaneously generated intelligence in the nebula that sensed Rukiya in the transporter buffer and reached out to her. The entity is also managing to hold Rukiya's illness at bay, at least as long as the ship remains where it is. If the entity releases the ship and the Enterprise leaves the area, the illness will return. Which leads to M'Benga's unexpected, poignant choice: he lets Rukiya go with the entity to give her a chance to live. She returns seconds later as a grown woman (the entity, who she has named Debra after her [presumably dead] mother, can apparently bend time as well), to thank M'Benga for letting her go and to tell him she is happy. 

Well. That was an emotional turn, and uplifted the entire episode, though I'm a little surprised Rukiya's predicament got solved in the first season. But though this episode was generally enjoyable (particularly Anson Mount's brown-nosing snarkiness), I think the comedy well has pretty much run dry. However, since there are only two episodes left, I imagine we'll return to the heavier drama next time.