October 25, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek Discovery Season 3 Ep 2, "Far From Home"


In this second episode of the season, the focus shifts from Michael Burnham to the rest of the crew. This is a well-written and well-acted episode, and raises my hopes that now that the show is free of the "prequel" straightjacket, they can create their own path and do some good work. As an aside, it's a bit odd that this episode isn't titled "That Hope is You, Part II," although given the trajectory of the story, that really wouldn't apply. Maybe the title is being saved for the finale? 

At any rate, we open on the Discovery's bridge, where the crew has been knocked out by their passage through the wormhole. Saru comes to and rouses everyone back to their stations, and they burst out of the wormhole and hurtle towards a planet. Most of navigation and power is down, and Kayla Detmer (one of the neglected bridge crew I hope we find out more about) does some fancy piloting to crash-land the ship in a glacier on the planet. There is considerable damage to Discovery, and in one of the first bonding/crew-rousing scenes Doug Jones pulls off, Saru effortlessly takes charge and reassures and encourages his crew, and repairs are begun.

(And in another aside, may I say what an awesome character Saru has become? He has come such a long way from the sometimes-jerky, overly cautious and fearful Kelpian of Discovery's early episodes. Of course, this was chiefly due to the [to be very generous] inconsistent early writing of the character. Now he seems to have come into his element: firm but compassionate, observant and perceptive, standing up for Starfleet ideals and as we will see in this episode, a no-nonsense leader capable of facing down the Emperor Georgiou herself. Doug Jones is doing an outstanding job with his character, even more so when you consider he's emoting through about twenty-five pounds of prosthetics. I sure as hell hope when Burnham reunites with Discovery, she insists that Saru be made the actual captain instead of the acting one.)

As Saru tours the ship to assess the damage, Tilly reports this planet is definitely not Terralysium, the planet they were originally aiming for. But it does have life, even if it's in odd pockets, and there is a small settlement a short walk away. This comes into play when it is discovered that a certain transtator doohickey has to be rebuilt, and it requires an unobtanium element the settlement seems to have. (While discussing this, Georgiou barges in and demands to know what is being done to repair the ship so they can get back in touch with Michael. Tilly notices some red gore on her boots. Apparently, in a very Mirror Universe Emperor move, Georgiou stomped what was left of Leland/Control into bloody muck to make sure he was dead.) After this, Saru, Tilly, Security Chief Nhan--who seems to be a regular now; at least the actor's name is mentioned in the opening credits--meet to determine what to do. Saru declares he and Tilly will visit the settlement with their broken doohickey and try to negotiate with the natives to repair it. This is also the first scene where he stands up to Georgiou, who wants to go to in with guns blazing and take the needed element by force. Saru puts Nhan in charge of the repairs and orders Georgiou to help (which we all know is going to go over like a lead balloon, heh heh). 

Saru and Tilly walk to the settlement, in another nice scene where Tilly is babbling because she's scared, and Saru just listens. They follow a native and are transported into what looks like a 32nd-century Western bar, complete with natives--miners--who point guns at them until Tilly mentions they have dilithium to trade. One of the miners, Kal, gets to work on the doohickey with his "programmable matter." (Which begs the question: Why can't this matter be "programmed" into dilithium? Is this a plot hole?) Kal has been saying all along that Starfleet would come and help the colony, despite the others telling him the planet has been abandoned. The repairs have just been completed when one of the others reports someone named Zareh is coming in--Zareh, the planet's courier and the tyrant everyone is afraid of. 

Meanwhile, back on Discovery, the injured Stamets is woken up early by Culber because they need his biobed. Culber puts Stamets in the regen machine for a cycle (he actually needs five cycles to get rid of the scar, Culber says) which Stamets promptly leaves once the cycle is over. His fellow engineer Jett Reno (yay, Tig Notaro!), injured back and all, is down in engineering (where some poor sod named Gene has been tasked with shoveling up Leland's bloody muck) starting on the repairs. Stamets, half-healed injury notwithstanding, comes down there to help and starts butting heads with Reno in some truly delightful banter. They have to get cracking on the repairs, because as Security Chief Nhan has discovered (in another nice scene with Georgiou, where Nhan admits that she stayed on Discovery because of the late lamented Airiam's sacrifice), the ship is sitting in the middle of something called "parasitic ice," which will come alive after the sun sets and crush the hull. The ship starts to groan and creak as the ice begins closing in, which lends a wonderful ticking-clock effect to the episode. Stamets climbs into the Jeffries tube to do the repair and starts bleeding, and Reno and Culber (who proclaims to his partner that "I have to get you out of this alive so I can kill you") talk him through it. 

This is skillfully intercut with the increasingly intense scene at the settlement bar, where Zareh reveals that he saw Discovery come down, knows it's a Federation ship, knows that there was a burst of gamma rays and other phenomena when it arrived, and after getting a look at the ancient doohickey the crew couldn't repair themselves, figures out pretty quickly that they are time travelers. Kal objects, and Zareh shoots him down. Saru tries to negotiate, and they agree on the amount of dilithium Discovery will hand over. Zareh is about to force Tilly to walk back to the ship to fetch it (if she survives, as it's almost dark) when one of his henchmen shows up dragging along Emperor Georgiou. Of course the Emperor ignored Saru's orders and has come to--well, maybe not save the day, as she's not a hero, but definitely to kick some future Wild West ass. 

Which she very ably proceeds to do. Zareh tries to shoot her down as he did poor Kal, but fails because the Emperor is made of sterner stuff (and also Zareh only gives her short bursts with his weapon instead of the long barrage that killed Kal, because he wants to torture her slowly). Saru makes Tilly hide behind the bar and joins in the fight, and in the second scene of him standing up to Georgiou, Saru orders her to stand down after she shoots/breaks all the henchmen's necks. Georgiou points her captured weapon at him, but Saru doesn't back down a shaved inch, and she flips it up and hands it over (and I think that earned him some reluctant respect from our ruthless Emperor). The other miners, recognizing these strangers from a past, vanished Starfleet are worth putting their trust in after all, give Saru one of their personal transporters to get them back to their ship. 

Back on Discovery, the repairs are made and the ship is coming back to life--but the parasitic ice is also, as it's now after dark and the ship is almost completely buried. Full power is poured into the thrusters as they try to break free, but it doesn't seem like they can--until another ship appears overhead and pulls them out with a tractor beam. They are now free, and shields and weapons are back online. They can attack the strange ship if they want, and the crew asks Saru what to do. It's decision time in a strange future facing an unknown enemy, and everything stops as Saru makes his decision: he's going to talk. He tells the crew to open a channel. 

And who appears on the screen but Michael Burnham, in a new long cornrowed hairstyle, saying she's been searching for Discovery for a year.

This was a really good episode, with tight writing and heartwarming character moments. (One thing that occurred to me as I was writing this up is that I think Georgiou is going to be trouble further down the line. [Well, even more than usual.] This is because with the collapse of the Federation--and though other powers, such as the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, etc., have yet to be mentioned, one must assume they are in the same dire straits--there is a massive power vacuum. A power vacuum a ruthless Mirror Universe Emperor would be quite capable of stepping up and filling. She recognizes this already, and right now Michael would be the only thing holding her back. I'll be very interested to see what is made of this further in the season.) I kind of wish Burnham and Discovery had been apart a little longer, but I suppose they didn't feel they should draw that out. At any rate, the gang is now back together, and we'll see where they go from here. I'm very much looking forward to it. 

October 24, 2020

Review: The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset The Tindalos Asset by Caitlín R. Kiernan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the third book in what the author calls the Tinfoil Dossier sequence. The first is Black Helicopters (which I haven't read) and the second is Agents of Dreamland, which I gave a 5-star rating. The latter was good enough that I approached this with high anticipation, and unfortunately it didn't measure up.

The structure is similar, with the non-linear narrative and some shared characters, but this book didn't flow as easily as the previous one did. That's possibly because the time jumps were broader in this story--in the previous one they were days, which didn't seem to affect the overall storyline much. These time shifts just felt abrupt and clunky. The narrative in this book also wasn't as coherent, and the it could have used a great deal more of Ellison Nicodemo than we actually received. Also, Chapter 5 is one....long....paragraph, which drove me nuts. That could have been chopped out and I wouldn't have missed it.

This book does boast the author's usual dense, layered writing, and it does start and end strong. It's the stuff in between that isn't so great. If you want to reread a book in this series, go for Agents of Dreamland. That won't disappoint.

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October 20, 2020

Review: Ring Shout

Ring Shout Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his day job, P. Djeli Clark is a historian. I've read somewhere that a history degree is a SFF writer's secret weapon, and the author certainly proves that here. He weaves a richly imagined stew of post-World-War-I history, Gullah-Geechee culture (including the fascinating, titular ring shouts), Lovecraftian monsters hiding in human suits, the early 20th-century rise of the Klan--fueled by the movie The Birth of a Nation--the folktales of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, and the inspired notion of the architects of the Confederacy (Nathan Bedford Forrest, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee) being dark sorcerers and conjurers. Put this together with a heroine named Maryse Boudreaux who hunts said monsters with a magical sword, and you have a wonderful story, potent and timely. As William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."

I very much appreciated the characters in this story, particularly our protagonist Maryse. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, she has several things to overcome here, and the book's climax hinges on her character growth and the choices she makes. This is just a fantastic story all the way around. I thought the author's previous novella, The Black God's Drums, was good, but this is better.

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October 18, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek Discovery Season 3 Ep 1, "That Hope Is You, Part 1"


I had fairly high hopes for this show coming into this season, because the third season basically amounts to a reboot. This show was straitjacketed from the start by its original conceit, taking place ten years before the events of the original series, and the upheavals due to showrunners being fired didn't help. I think I liked the first season better than some (mainly due to Jason Isaacs and Michelle Yeoh, the latter of whom is clearly having too much fun for words), but I will readily admit this show has had more than its share of growing pains. The second season was a definite improvement on the first, despite their having to clean up the glorious mess of the first season. The main plotline for the second half of the season was yet another maniacal artificial intelligence threatening to destroy humans and all sentient life in the galaxy (seriously, that well is more than drained and dry, it's collapsing in on itself), and the only solution was to send Discovery nearly a thousand years into the future to save the galaxy. (Except that in the last few minutes of the final episode, Michelle Yeoh, with her mad martial arts skills, destroyed the AI Control, so Discovery didn't really have to go, but they went anyway....) Most of the people I know who like the show approved of this move, as it freed the show from the constraints of canon and enabled it to chart its own path. (And for those who still want a TOS-era show, we're going to get Strange New Worlds, with Pike! and Number One! and Young Spock! which I am jumping up and down for.)

Now we've arrived nine hundred and thirty years in the future, and it's time to see what has been wrought. 

This is the new character introduced in this episode, Cleveland "Book" Booker (and his cat, Grudge). After a brief but intriguing opening scene showing a man in a space station (with alternating red and blue holographic alarm clock parrots) getting up day after day and sitting at a desk searching for....something, we're thrust into the middle of a madcap space battle. Book is trying to leave the planet below, attempting to outrun someone named "Cosmo." (When I saw this Cosmo person, I thought, "Is this an example of a future Klingon?" Because I swear, the makeup looked like leftover first-season Klingon prosthetics.) They are interrupted by Michael Burnham screaming out of her wormhole in her tritanium time-travel suit, colliding with Book's ship and catapulting both of them to the planet below. She manages to reboot just before she lands and thus doesn't become a red smear on the side of a volcanic cone (I read the exteriors for this episode were filmed in Iceland, and it's gorgeous). After she determines that there is, in fact, life on this planet and Control didn't destroy it all--meaning she and Discovery succeeded--she sends the suit back through the collapsing wormhole to give Spock the final signal and self-destruct. Then, with only her emergency pack, she limps off to the place where Book's ship crash-landed. 

Their initial meet-cute is first a fight and then a wary standoff. Book is convinced Michael has come to take his cargo, and she in turn is trying to convince him she isn't going to do that, but just needs to contact her ship. Book takes her on board his ship (I don't think I heard a name) where, after showing off his huge cat, he explains to her just what damage their collision did. He has to go to this planet's capital city to trade for more dilithium. Burnham says she will give him her "antique" tricorder if he takes her to a place with comms, so off they go. 

On the way the first major plot reveal of the new season is dropped: the Federation is no more, collapsing more than a century ago due to nearly all the dilithium in starships suddenly going kablooie, an event called "the Burn." Book doesn't know why. Needless to say, Michael is stunned by this news. This is a very well acted scene, with Sonequa Martin-Green just killing it with her facial expressions: from shock to despair to acceptance to determination, all in a few seconds. Her performance throughout this episode is good, but this scene stood out. 

When they reach the planet's capital city, Requiem, they barter at a grungy-looking place run by Andorians and Orions. Book betrays Burnham (he's a bit of a rogue at the beginning of the episode, though he softens up later) and she is interrogated by the head Andorian and Orion shooting her with babble gas. This is another good scene, and Martin-Green obviously had a blast doing it. She pelts her captors with run-on sentences and unbelievable (to them) facts, and finally reveals that Book has something time- and temperature-sensitive on board his ship, although Burnham calls it "ice cream." The two mob bosses go after Book, who in the meantime has been collared by Cosmo. Burnham and Book team up to fight their way out of this mess (Burnham seizing several small chunks of dilithium crystal along the way), and there follows a rip-roaring, inventive chase sequence utilizing the new technology of personal transporters (which take 30 seconds to recharge after each jump) across the lovely Icelandian landscape. The two finally fall off a cliff into a lake below, which delays their pursuers for a while. 

The episode slows down at this point, to reveal some of Book's backstory. He has some kind of mental or empathic connection with plant and animal life, as demonstrated when they're sitting by the lake and he goes into a meditative state and pulls a water plant to the surface, squeezing a substance from it to put on Burnham's wound to prevent infection. He lets Burnham use his personal comm to try to contact Discovery with no answer. Also, by this time he has guessed that she is a time traveler, and she confirms it. 

Finally reaching Book's cloaked ship, the two are caught. The Andorian demands the decloaking code, and we get to see just what is aboard Book's ship--a 30-foot-long monster called a "trance worm," which hunts its prey by staring it in the eye and immobilizing it. (Book helpfully tells Burnham to close her eyes as the beast charges.) The trance worm roars and chows down on everyone there. It also swallows Burnham, but Book quickly speaks to it in that alien language of his, persuading it to vomit her back out--which the beast does, although she's covered head to toe with what must be the digested remnants of the worm's previous victims. (Gah. That was a bit yucky.) 

Come to find out, Book is not a smuggler, but couriers endangered species to safe planets where they can be released and thrive (since the Federation is no longer around to protect them). He takes the trance worm to a sanctuary planet and releases it. When Burnham says she has to search for her ship but she doesn't know where to start, Book says he knows someone who can help--and takes her to an old, decaying Federation relay station, where the man we saw in the first scene has been holding court for 40 years, waiting for someone to come. 

The long-range sensors have failed, and the man at the relay station does not know what, or if, anything remains of the Federation. He asks Burnham to give him a commission, and she does, appointing him her "acting communications chief." He also pulls out the Federation flag that his family has held for generations, and they hang it on the wall. The episode ends there, with the promise of Burnham and Book searching for Discovery, and then striving to rebuild the Federation. 

This strikes me as a very good template upon which to build the season. This episode has been generally well received, according to the other reviews I've skimmed. One thing I do hope is that Burnham and Discovery remain separated for at least a few episodes (which is what I suspect is going to happen, seeing that in the episode-ending season preview her hair is a lot longer, which would imply several months of elapsed time). This would open up an opportunity to explore the other characters, in particular the woefully neglected bridge crew. 

With a stable showrunning crew and this new, virtually unlimited canvas to play with, hopefully Star Trek Discovery will finally live up to its potential. Its great strength has always been its cast and characters, and I'm crossing my fingers that we'll get some stories to match. 

October 17, 2020

Magazine Roundup: Clarkesworld Issue 164, May 2020


This cover's not as good as some previous ones, but the stories make up for it. 

"What Happens in Solarium Square 21," Ashleigh Shears

This is a funny/tragic story about bots trying to hide their owner's death by showing off the decomposing body (who died of natural causes, not machine murder) to keep from being evicted and shut down. Definitely macabre humor, if you're into that sort of thing.

Grade: B

"Albedo Season," Ray Nayler

An interesting hard SF story about a colony teetering on the edge of extinction, and how the protagonist tracks down the cause and comes up with a solution. Nice exploration of the scientific method.

Grade: B+

"A Stick of Clay, In the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential," JY Neon Yang

This novelette is the star of this issue. It features interstellar kaiju--"holy mechs"--on a holy war, hunting down apostates, and the pilots who eventually come to question their beliefs and everything they've been taught. As a side note, this story tackles some of the issues of the "Attack Helicopter" story (see here) and does it a helluva lot better. 

Grade: A

"Quantum Fish," Bo Balder

This story, a planetary mystery involving extraterrestrial fish, a semi-estranged daughter's return home, and marauding quantum aliens, suffers from a way-too-abrupt ending.

Grade: C

"The Language Sheath," Regina Kanyu Wang, translated by Emily Jin and Regina Kanyu Wang

I didn't like this story much the first time I read it, and looking it over a second time, I pinned down the reason why: the stereotype of the obsessed, manipulative mother, seeking to control her son into adulthood and through the titular "language sheath" many other people as well. Really? Come on, we can do better than that.

Grade: F

"The Translator, at Low Tide," Vajra Chandrasekera

A post-climate-change snippet of everyday life that gradually evolves into horror. This story is creepy as all get-out. 

Grade: B

October 16, 2020

Review: War Girls

War Girls War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read by this author, and I think this author is not for me. I liked the first one (marginally), but this book just left me feeling meh. It's basically a retelling of the Nigerian Civil War 150 years in the future, after a nuclear exchange that takes out most of North America and Europe but leaves much of Africa and Asia intact. There is a worthy exploration of child soldiers and the terrible toll that takes, but I couldn't really connect to the characters. Also, I'm usually not bothered by descriptions of body horror, but the tech used here--artificial eyes and limbs, nanobots in the blood, and plugs in the back of people's necks that emit cords to allow for direct uploading/downloading--got to me after a while. The cover illustration is gorgeous, though.

Ah well. Onward.

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October 14, 2020

Review: The Hollow Places

The Hollow Places The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon, has started a trend of basing her horror novels on obscure 19th century stories. She did it with her first book, The Twisted Ones, based on Arthur Machen's "The White People," and she does it again with this book. This story was inspired by Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," and she quotes: "the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows."

In so doing, she has written two books that to varying degrees have scared the beejeezus out of me. The Twisted Ones was bigger in its concept and scares. This book is a little quieter, more sneaky--but when the author pulls back the curtain to show you what her protagonist is fighting, you want to scream and crawl under the bed.

One of the great strengths of these books is their characterizations. In this book, our protagonist is Kara, a 34-year-old woman recovering from a divorce who comes to live with her uncle Earl in Hog Chapel, North Carolina. Uncle Earl owns and runs the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy. Kara is down-to-earth, practical, and devoted to her uncle, so much so that she refuses to leave when things start ramping up and most of us would run for the hills. But she will not abandon him to what is happening, and it's that relationship, and the kindness her uncle has always shown--both to her and other people--that saves her in the end.

I really enjoyed Kara and her friend, Simon, who ends up being dragged along with her on her "adventures" (put in quotes because what happens to Kara and Simon is not your typical fun, glorious adventure, not in the least). They both come across as real people, maybe your small-town next-door-neighbors, with believable quirks and personality flaws. I think it's important to have good characterizations in a story like this, as it serves to ground the reader in the midst of all the creepiness and horror Vernon portrays so well. Another strength is the dialogue--Simon in particular has such a droll sense of humor, even in the midst of all the terrifying things they encounter.

The museum setting is a major part of the novel--in fact, it's almost an equal protagonist in its own right, and Vernon does a marvelous job of portraying it for us. I've seen similar little museums and antique shops, full of silly, bizarre, ticky-tacky, way-out-there stuff that you can't imagine anyone would ever try to manufacture, much less attempt to sell. She draws us into the museum on the very first page.

Most of it is complete junk, of course. There are things in the cases that undoubtedly have MADE IN CHINA stamped on the underside. I threw out the shrunken heads when I was fifteen and found identical ones for sale at the Halloween store. But the wall of Thimbles of the World is real or, at least, contains real thimbles, and all the Barong masks are really from Bali, and if the Clovis points were chipped out in the seventies instead of thousands of years ago, they were at least still made by a human with a rock. The jar of MYSTERY PODS?! on the counter are the cones of a Banksia plant, but they're a mystery to most people, so I guess that counts.

And the taxidermy is real, inasmuch as it is genuine taxidermy. That part of the museum has eleven stuffed deer heads, six stuffed boar heads, one giraffe skull, forty-six stuffed birds of various species, three stuffed albino raccoons, a Genuine Feejee Mermaid--which I keep trying to get him to rename because I think it's probably racist, or at least he could put a sign up explaining the context--two jackalopes, an entire case of dried scorpions, a moth-eaten grizzly bear, five stuffed prairie dogs, two fur-bearing trout, one truly amazing Amazonian river otter, and a pickled cobra in a bottle.

(And right there, in those two paragraphs, some things are named which come into play in the book's terrifying climax. Y'all will just have to read the book to find out which ones.)

This is the tale of two people accidentally wandering into a sort of hub between the universes and what they find there. There are willow trees that move about on their own in the night, and people who have come to this in-between place from an alternate Earth to explore and conquer it, and died there--or didn't die, which is even more horrifying. There are entities from alternate dimensions drawn there by the willows, who prey on the unfortunates trapped there. One of the soldiers from another world writes a sort of diary in the margins of a Bible, which cleverly plays into the climax, as the creatures are so described:

They looked like nothing I understood, like an Old Testament angel, all wings and wheels and eyes. The sky billowed nauseatingly and the hole grew larger, edged with jittery migraine colors. What made the hole was a beak or a drill or a spike, pushing through the back of the sky. The sort of thing that might make a funnel-shaped hole in the water or reality or someone's body.

I read elsewhere about someone calling this book and its monsters "Lovecraftian," and that wasn't the case, at least for me. This is straight out of the book of Ezekiel. There really isn't any slime or tentacles to be found here. (There is, for anyone sensitive to such, one instance of body horror that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Be warned.)

(On the lighter side, the last book featured a lovable dimwitted dog, and to balance things out, this book has a huge fluffy attack cat. Neither animal dies. Maybe the next book will include a horse?)

The author writes in several different genres: webcomics, fantasy, children's/middle-grade, young adult, and now horror. She has had a very good year so far, with this book and the terrific young-adult tale A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, published earlier this year. She is firing on all cylinders, and is pretty much an auto-buy for me.

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October 11, 2020

Review: Riot Baby

Riot Baby Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure if I'm the right person to review this book. I liked it, but at the same time I'm not the target audience. So I'll just say that it's half an actual story, and half a non-fiction summation on the realities of being black in America.

The story part is two viewpoint characters, Ella and her younger brother Kevin, who was born in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (He's twenty-eight at story's end, which places the narrative precisely in our time, despite some decidedly non-2020 technology. I suppose that means this could be called alternate history, with 1992 the branch point.) Ella has what she calls a "Thing," that is, psychic powers that become ever more powerful as the book progresses. At first she's afraid of what she can do--with good reason, as she nearly kills her mother more than once--but as the years go on and the assaults and deaths of African-Americans pile up (and the author drops some names we've all heard in the news), she comes closer and closer to letting go. At the end, she's ready to burn it all down and destroy white supremacy.

Kevin, her brother, the titular "riot baby," ends up in prison at Rikers Island. (The timeline is a bit jumbled, and the viewpoints switch between Ella's third person and Kevin's [usually] first person.) After his release, he is sent to Los Angeles, where he has a job making...something...in a welding shop. At the very end of the book, Ella comes to see him and shows him exactly what he's making.

And that's when she shows me the metal Miguel and Royce and Marlon and Mero and I have been working on, have been bending, building. Shows me that it doesn't just go to damaged workers in the factory but that it's being put on cops outside to increase their reflexes, to upgrade them. That those misshapen pieces of metal we're forming makes shields on their bones, beneath their skin, so that no bullet can kill them. We're building the turrets mounted on our street corners. We're working to make the police invincible.

Ella has come to tell her brother that she's going to start the revolution, and through her Thing he sees the outcome.

From the hilltop, the town is nothing but a mouth with just a few broken teeth left. They'll feel us in every corner of this country.

Then and only then will be clear those forty acres of poison, pull the radiation out of the air. Use our Thing. Jettison it into space, make the land ready for our people.

"What do you see?" she says.

There's so much. It's a jumble in my head, but Ella and I are in the scorched middle of it.

"Freedom," I tell her. "I see freedom."

This is some raw, powerful, righteously angry writing. I would have preferred more of a story, I think, but I can't deny what the author has done here. (In the afterword, Onyebuchi speaks of the murdered black men that were the genesis for this book.) I was disturbed by reading this, and I as a white person needed to be. The only reason I haven't rated it higher is because of the confusing timeline that often made the narrative difficult to follow. This problem might be solved by expanding the story into novel length (it's a novella at 173 pages) but at the same time, that would rob the book of its visceral power.

If you think you have the spoons for this, give it a try.

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October 8, 2020

Review: A Deadly Education

A Deadly Education A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started this book, I wasn't sure about it. It opens with a fifteen-page infodump, and while there's some fascinating worldbuilding revealed there--even more interesting once I got further into the book and realized how it fit in--I thought, "Whaaaaaa?" But I've read plenty of good Naomi Novik novels, more than enough for me to give her the benefit of the doubt. 

My faith paid off. The more I read, the more this book reeled me in. This is a different style of writing than I've seen from Novik before, but it's perfect for this character and this world. The obvious takeaway to this book is that it's in conversation with J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, and that's certainly true. Novik takes the now-cliched setting of the "magic school" and turns it inside-out, making it complex and scary and grim and bloody. (I don't think it's overwhelmingly so, but this is nothing like Hogwarts.) If this was a Hollywood pitch, it could be summed up as, "the protagonist of this book is a dark, angry and immensely powerful Hermione." But there's also a callback to J.R.R. Tolkien, in that the protagonist is named Galadriel. Which may sound cheesy, but it too is about subverting the obvious--what if Tolkien's Galadriel was also a furious, bullied outcast, balancing on the edge of becoming a villain? 

This book hits both of my sweet spots, worldbuilding and characterization, and does it with style. This means that there's not a lot of action (except at the end) and the plot is more measured and deliberate, but the first two elements more than make up for it, at least for me. The worldbuilding is complex: the Scholomance, a magic school parked in another dimension, is a dangerous place (the book is called A Deadly Education for a good reason), and the only place deadlier is outside of it, where otherworldy demons called malefica can and most likely will eat anyone who can store and manipulate magical energy. (The "good" magical energy being mana, and the "bad" being mal. This is the central conflict of Galadriel's character, that at five years old she was prophesied to become a monstrous "mal," and she knows she can do it--she single-handedly kills a horrific creature called a maw-mouth, and she shouldn't have been able to. She spends the entire book fighting her darker impulses, with no guarantee that she won't give in to them in the very next chapter. This keeps the tension high.) The Scholomance is a crappy place, a self-contained, semi-sentient magical construct where fledgling wizard children are basically trapped to keep them sort of safe (but not very, as there are big and little malefica constantly creeping in, and every day, even just going down to the cafeteria to grab lunch, you have to be on constant watch for all sorts of things that can cut, poison, stab, eviscerate, drain, and kill you in a hundred different ways). To keep themselves alive, the students are making and breaking alliances, and translating, creating, casting and swapping spells. 

This is a pretty grim world, and so there has to be something to balance it out. This is found in the characters. Galadriel, or "El," is angry, snarky, caustic, and rude, but damned if she doesn't have the sort of wry sarcastic humor that startled a few laughs out of me. Her growing friendship with Aadhya, and later other classmates, is a highlight of the book. These friendships are relationships that happen almost in spite of themselves, as Galadriel slowly and grudgingly begins to change and open up. And then, of course, there is Orion Lake. He is the Harry Potter/Gandalf analogue of this world, a powerful white-knight sort who lives to eliminate the mals and spends all of his time throwing combat spells in every direction, killing all sorts of critters and rescuing everyone around him, including Galadriel, multiple times. Naturally, this leads everyone to regard him as their own personal shield to use, cajole and manipulate, never looking at him as an actual person. Which is why he ends up being attracted to our rude, cranky heroine, who yells at him and insults him and treats him no differently than all the other people she shouts at.

(She doesn't do this all the way through. That would not only get tiresome, it would quickly become abuse. It's a sign of her growth that she calms down and begins to treat Orion more fairly. It's also a sign of the thought the author has put into her story, knowing she would have to have realistic characters--or as realistic as possible, given the circumstances--to balance out the complexity of the worldbuilding.)

This book took a while to grab me, but by the end I was thoroughly hooked. (So much so I've already pre-ordered the sequel.) The final sentence of the book, given everything that has gone before, is the sort of holy shit ending that makes me want to give the author forty lashes with a wet noodle--how dare you leave us dangling like this? But Naomi Novik knows what she's doing, and you should give this book a shot. 

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October 4, 2020

Thoughts on The 100 Series Finale


I wasn't going to write about this, but last night I finally realized what bugged me so much about how this show ended. So I'm going to rant for a bit. 

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of this show for nearly all of its run. One hundred years after World War III, with the remnants of humanity (only about 2000 people) orbiting above the planet in an expanded International Space Station, one hundred juvenile delinquents are sent to Earth to see if it is survivable. (Why they just can't take pictures and/or scans of inhabitable areas, as the ISS and Google satellites now do, is a question left up to the viewer.) Said one hundred teenagers discover that not only is the planet livable, there are descendants of survivors from the original war, the Grounders, who have developed their own post-apocalyptic culture and language. 

This sets up the basic conflict, and for the next five seasons, Clarke Griffin, Bellamy Blake and the people from the space station clash with the Grounders. Of course this is vastly oversimplifying; the show delighted not only in killing off main characters but setting up impossible, grimdark choices for Clarke and co., choices which inevitably ended with Clarke, Bellamy or someone else pulling the lever or the trigger to save "their people," and causing a lot of death to the other side. In fact, the show's extreme tribalism was a prominent theme, always pitting "us" against "them" with very few taking the broader view of "this is all that's left of the human race, and there is no us/them." Diplomacy and/or negotiation were concepts that rarely came up, and each season seemed to be a race as to how many of the dwindling number of remaining humans could be killed off. 

Season 4 ended with another radiation-induced "death wave" (an extremely handwavey notion of automated nuclear power plants from the previous war finally giving up the ghost and melting down--just go with it) sweeping the planet, sparing only one green valley, which everyone proceeds to fight over in Season 5. Season 5 features the return of the Eligius, a mining ship sent out decades earlier to search for oil on extrasolar planets, a ship carrying four hundred inmates in cryosleep. At the end of Season 5, one of the Eligius' factions sets off a bomb that destroys the last livable space on the planet, and our characters enter cryosleep to wait for Earth's return. 

Only Earth doesn't come back--it's finally down for the count (or so it seems) dead and uninhabitable. Aboard the Eligius, two characters who did not go into cryo decode the ship's secret logs, and find the existence of another habitable planet, Sanctum, which was discovered by another mining/colony ship sent out at about the same time. The Eligius is set on automatic pilot and sent to this planet, and seventy-five years later, Clarke and Bellamy are awakened to see themselves in orbit around their new home. 

I had said this would be a fine point for the series to end, and it arguably still is. However, after thinking about it, the setup on Sanctum for the last two seasons (except for the one awful plot twist, which I will get to) is not that bad. Sanctum has its own factions and its nasty secrets, the nastiest being the Primes, who use cybernetic technology to implant themselves in the bodies of their young descendants (thereby wiping away the people they inhabit) to live and rule the planet forever. This was a rather clever twist using the series' established worldbuilding. Naturally, there are rebels fighting against this (with the cry, "Death to Primes!") and Clarke and co. land in the middle of this mess with their own problems, namely all the prisoners still onboard the Eligius. 

Season 6 was preoccupied with this, and Season 7 should have been as well. Unfortunately, the show began to go off the rails with the introduction of the Anomaly, a giant green spinning something-or-other on Sanctum that sucks up two characters and a few minutes later spits one of them back out...and a few minutes after that, the grown daughter of the other vanished and also pregnant character (Diyoza, who deserved far better than the end she received). These are, as we come to find out in Season 7, artificial time-bending wormholes linking several other inhabitable planets, generated by huge alien-manufactured Anomaly Stones, which sport symbols you have to press in a specific order to travel to a specified planet. The center of this space- and time-jumping network, Bardo, is inhabited by a cult of survivors from the show's first Apocalypse. This new bunch used the Anomaly Stone discovered on Earth to travel to the home planet of the extinct alien race who created the network, where they want to meet up with another alien race for a so-called "Last War," after which the remnants of humanity will "transcend."

If this sounds like convoluted mystical bullshit, you are absolutely right. It's similar to what happened to the final season of the late lamented (at least by me) reboot of Battlestar Galactica, only I will venture to say that The 100's bullshit smells even worse. And it's all so unnecessary. The Season 7 storyline is split between the Anomaly/Bardo and the Sanctum crises, and the latter is far more compelling (led by Richard Harmon's John Murphy, who shines this season). You don't even have to get rid of the "Last War" concept, if you don't want to. All the elements needed for a Last War are right there on Sanctum, with the Sanctumites, led by Sheidheda, one of the resurrected previous Grounder Commanders, the Eligius' reawakened prisoners, and our core characters and their followers. You want your Last War? There it is! Earth is gone and Sanctum is it, and y'all have to finally face and stamp out the idiotic tribalism that has been the defining flaw of all the characters for the entire series. Hell, Octavia can even give virtually the same stirring Game of Thrones-like speech, and convince everybody to lay down their arms! 

But no! We can't be logical, or consistent, and end the show this way, can we? Instead, we suddenly have two (or more than two, according to The 100 wiki) alien races where no aliens have gone before, and Clarke facing a "Judge" from one of them to decide whether humanity "transcends" or dies. If this sounds like more convoluted bullshit, you are again correct. In fact, this morning I realized this actually wasn't a "choice" at all, and showrunner Jason Rothenberg, whether he knew it or not, pulled this concept from another franchise with the far more sinister tag "Resistance Is Futile." 

Yeah, that's right. As far as I can see, the remnants of humanity on The 100 were forced to join a higher-plane hive mind, as seemingly all other intelligent space-faring races in the galaxy have been forced to do. They were not "transcended" but Borg-ified, taken to Alien Heaven--and at least for the non-Bardo-ites, taken against their will--where they can all bond and live happy, trippy-dippy, free-floating bodiless lives for eternity.

(Which would have been okay, I suppose, if the characters had ever talked about wanting to go to Heaven, alien or otherwise. They didn't. The 100 has always been a grittier show than that, and the characters always fought, both for survival and each other. That's why it would have been a more powerful statement for them to finally lay down their weapons in the final episode, with no alien machinations behind it.)

This is absolute nonsense, and refutes the entire story and worldbuilding we spent six (and a half, I guess) good-to-excellent seasons on. The whole point of this show was humanity fighting each other and its own nature, and the potential for humans to move past this tribal instinct and learn to live with one another. Instead, we get this cheap mystical copout...and an even cheaper coda, if that's possible, in the last few scenes of the finale.

After the transcen...oh hell, let's just call it Alien Rapture, that's easier to spell--Clarke uses the network to travel back to Earth (where, gee whiz, we have a few hundred years of old-growth forest springing back in only decades!), where she is going to live out her days. She meets up with the Judge once again, who reveals that, in a final infuriating deus ex machina, staying transcended is a choice...at least for some. At that point Clarke comes across the twelve core characters (minus Bellamy, who died for a similarly nonsensical Anomaly/Bardo no damn good reason), who refused to stay in the Alien Rapture Hive Mind and were allowed to leave to live the rest of their natural lives with her on the inexplicably rejuvenated Earth. (They must have raised holy hell, and now that I think about it, they were probably expelled to keep their heresy from spreading. And as a bonus fuck-you-for-turning-us-down insult, they will have no children, and once they die the human race will be erased.)

This final scene was supposed to be so touching and poignant, with U2 playing in the background and everything...and I just cringed. All of this was unneeded and unwanted, contradictory to the show's original themes, and clumsily ret-conned to boot. As far as I am concerned, it completely trashed the show's final season. 

So, to sum up: Come on, people. Please don't dip into mystical religious and/or alien transcendental nonsense unless you've set it up from the beginning. I'm sure some people liked this, but it damn well left a sour taste in my mouth.