Review of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s billed as “vintage alternate reality” and was published by Tor. Presumably this is going to be an ongoing series, as it’s described as book 1 in the Amberlough Dossier. Book 2, Armistice, is due on May 15, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Cyril DePaul is from a wealthy family and works as a spy for the government of Amberlough. Since a mission gone wrong, he’s been working a desk at headquarters in Amberlough City and enjoying a torrid affair with cabaret performer and smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Cyril’s boss pulls him off the desk to take over an emergency assignment, and his cover is blown before he even gets started. He’s forced to make a deal with fascists agents planning to take over the government. Returning home, he breaks off his affair with Aristide and takes up with Cordelia, a stripper at the cabaret, trying to carry off a plan. Is there any way to stop the fascists and preserve Amberlough City? Can Cyril save himself, Cordelia and his lover Aristide? Can he even protect himself?

This book feels like the 1930s or 40s, and it’s notable for its detail and sensuality. We get to feel the early spring breeze, smell cologne and sweat mingled at the club, walk in a carpet of cherry petals in the park and even catch the butcher-shop scent when the dead bodies start to pile up. The story gets increasingly more gripping as the fascist’s plot advances and the main characters end up fighting for life and liberty. They’re pretty much down and out by the end of the book, but it’s clear that Cordelia, at least, is going to be real trouble for the bad guys.

Not so good points: I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy either one in this book. Also, if it’s an alternate reality, I don’t see what it’s alternate to. It’s a great intrigue set in in imaginary place, but not really SFF at all. Also, I think the sensuality is a little overdone so that it interferes with readability and obscures thin world building. I ended up with a really clear idea of who was sleeping with whom and what cologne they use, but not much about foreign politics and how this impacts Cyril’s decisions. There’s a logical issue here that makes his actions seem really questionable.

Four and a half stars (but not SFF).

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Review of The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro

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I know, I know. I’m late again with the film review. I hadn’t really noticed this one as it went by, but since there’s a big Oscar buzz, I figured I needed to get out there and see what the fuss was about. The film was written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It has 13 Oscar nominations, another 84 award wins and 244 other award nominations.

Elisa Esposito is a cleaning woman at a secret Baltimore government facility in the early 1960s. She was a foundling with damaged vocal chords and is mute, plain and devastatingly lonely. Her only two friends are her neighbor Giles, an aging gay man, and Zelda, who looks after her at work. Colonel Richard Strickland brings a specimen to the lab—an amphibious humanoid creature captured in South America. He keeps the creature chained and uses a cattle prod to control it, leading to a violent encounter where he loses fingers. Called to clean up the mess, Elisa and Zelda find out about the creature. Elisa leaves food and makes friends with it, and when she hears the plan is vivisection, she enlists Giles and Zelda to help her free the captive. They successfully get it to Elisa’s apartment, and she plans to set it free when the canal gates open later in the month. While the creature is there, the two of them develop a closer relationship, including sex. Will Elisa be able to set the creature free? Will Strickland catch up to them?

I can see why this is in line for an Oscar. It’s a play on Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s a beautifully made film, and the Academy seems to really like tributes to Hollywood’s past. Old film footage plays on the TV. There is a song and dance sequence where Elisa imagines herself a star. There’s sex. It has something of the feel of old fifties scifi where alien creatures wreak mayhem. There are Russian spies sneaking around. It’s also very inclusive, with disabled, gay, Hispanic and black characters.

Still, I don’t think this translates well. The script seems forced, and I can’t pull any meaning out of it that feels important. Elisa and Hoffstetler, the Russian spy, are sensitively played, and Del Toro makes an effort to develop Giles and Zelda as characters, but others are cardboard. Plus, it just doesn’t work for me. If Elisa can run away with her love, what kind of life would she have?

One thing the film does do successfully is display the attitude that “might makes right” in a glaring light. This used to be widely accepted, but is less so now, for good reason (think Nazi medical experiments). There is a lot of violence and abuse here. There is no appreciation from the military that the creature is intelligent. Everyone is caught in a cultural trap with no hope of salvation.

I don’t know what to think about this. Is it supposed to be postmodern? Kitsch?

Two stars for the logical failures. I almost left half way.

Are Conservatism and Progressivism inborn?

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Following up on my comments about Jon Del Arroz being discriminated against for his conservative politics (regardless that he’s a marginalized minority), here’s some interesting research about political views. Wait for it—these may be inborn. That means discrimination on the basis of political views may eventually be classified the same way as discriminating against individuals for other inborn traits like sexual orientation or skin color.

In recent years, researchers have started looking at what personality and emotional responses have to do with politics. In one study Kevin Smith et al. looked for emotional responses that they could use to identify conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, on the one hand, turned out to be more easily grossed out by pictures and tended to get emotional over people they disliked. Liberals, on the other hand, were less grossed out and tended to get more emotional over people they liked. Next, James Fowler et al. identified DRD4-7R, a variant of the gene that linked to novelty-seeking behavior as being linked to liberal views when combined with early socialization. Fowler made the point that political views can’t be tied to just one gene, but it does suggest how inborn personality can affect political viewpoints. Michele Vecchione et al. conducted a study in Italy that looked at people who voted conservative or liberal and classified them according to the “big five” personality traits. The results showed that people who rated high in the “openness” trait tended to vote liberal, while those so rated high in the “conscientiousness” trait tended to vote conservative. Another study of twins by John Alford et al. found that genetics clearly had a more significant influence on politics than socialization. Because people tend to marry spouses with similar political views, the researchers surmised, these traits tend to run very strongly in families.

Another interesting support for this viewpoint is the interpretation of personality tests. The DISC system, for example, breaks personalities down into four types: dominant, inspiring, supportive and cautious. People who lean to dominant and inspiring personality traits tend to be movers and shapers of change, while the supportive and cautious people, on the other hand, tend to be conservative, valuing security and stability. Besides this, the Myers Briggs test identifies 16 personality types, some of which actually include the descriptors “conservative” and “novelty seeking.” These personality types tend to be remarkably stable over time. They’re identifiable as early as kindergarten, and don’t change much after young-adulthood.

Enjoy classifying yourself through these links. As I recall, I tested out as a dominant and an INTJ.

Discrimination in the SFF community?

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A while back I made the comment that the major SFF awards seem to be discriminating against Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. In the past few years, it’s been easy to run down the list of nominees and see a good representation of African American, Asian and LGBTQ authors, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc. However, there’s been a consistent shortage of Hispanic/LatinX/Native American names in the nominations and in the Locus reviews and other reading lists that feed into the awards. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanics are the largest US minority, and combined with Native Americans, come in at about 1/3 of the population. Comments on the blog suggested that the issue was that the people who vote for the awards just don’t like the type of fiction those people write.

The lack of representation is no surprise. Despite the large numbers of Hispanics/Native Americans in the US population, they’re still highly marginalized and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, immigration and lots of other areas. There’s really no shortage of accomplished writers within this group, so it makes you wonder what’s been going on in the publishing and awards systems to keep the Hispanic/LatinX/Native America authors so unrecognized. Now, we have a clear case of discrimination within the SFF community that suggests what might be going on.

Jon Del Arroz is Latino and, as such, falls clearly into the marginalized minority brown author-of-color category. Like many Hispanics, he apparently also falls on the moderate to conservative side of the political spectrum. His current publisher is Superversive Press, known for pulp type fiction, but also a publisher of fairly right leaning works.

Del Arroz posted a blog here about his experiences back in the spring. According to Del Arroz, he was initially promoted at local Bay area cons as a minority author, but found himself placed in panel discussions that were political and left-leaning, rather than about SFF or promoting books. Once his politics became known, says Del Arroz, then the discrimination started, based more on his ideas than his race.

In the late summer, Del Arroz was lumped with those “middle aged white dudes” after his nomination for the Dragon Awards. This was followed by a campaign in December 2017 to try to get the SFWA management to reject his application for membership. He’s also been banned from WorldCon.

So, are Hispanics/LatinX/Native Americans being excluded from the SFF community mainly because of their political views? Clearly Del Arroz thinks politics is currently trumping his marginalized minority status as a Latino. How does a socially conscious community reconcile this kind of behavior?

Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

Follow-up on “Little Widow,” et al.

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Since I’ve been discussing David Gerrold’s take on the requirement for virtue signaling that indicates your affiliation in the SFF community, it occurs to me that the recent spate of stories with a social/political bent are a form of virtue signaling. The writers use them to signal their political stance, and the publishers signal their own virtue by supporting the views through publication. This means that the current marketplace is heavily politicized, with no sign of the extremism letting up.

Writers seeking publication would do well to take a look at the political stances of the magazines and anthologies currently in the market and pick those that match their own philosophy and steer clear of those that don’t. From what Gerrold says, this will seriously impact both writer and publisher’s reputations, and it will be difficult to stay neutral in the culture war. For one thing, neutral stores don’t advance the publisher’s agenda, and according to Gerrold’s analysis, remaining silent on the issues just gets you lumped with the opposing side. Plus, unpublished.

Is there any room here for real freedom of expression?

Review of DAS STEINGESCHÖPF by G.V. Anderson

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This is the short fiction winner of the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Strange Horizons.

In 1928 Herr Hertzel has recently been made journeyman, and the Schöpfers’ Guild has given him his first commission. Frau Leitner has written from Bavaria to request a small restoration. Hertzel makes the journey and finds Frau Leitner in a small village. She is an older woman with a bad cough, and she takes him to the piece that needs work, a Steingeschöpf housed in her attic. The piece’s name is Ambroise, and he was carved in Queckstein by the French Master De Loynes during the seventeenth century. Ambroise’s eyes are so deteriorated that he can hardly see to paint, and he shows other signs of decomposition, as well. Hertzel feels inadequate to restore a piece of this history, and he tries to refuse the job, but Frau Leitner talks him into it. There are dangers. The Queckstein dust can destroy the lungs and working it absorbs life and memory. Is Hertzel up to the task?

For anyone wondering, Steingeschöpf roughly translates as “stone creature” or “stone golem.” The imagery and characterizations here are first rate. You can smell the snow, and feel it crackle underfoot. Hertzel is a Jew in the years between the World Wars, and working the Queckstein reveals his story of love and loss. The tale also reveals the love between Ambroise and Frau Leitner, and how little time they have left. It’s a very touching story, without a lot of plot, but filled with subtle, understated emotional content. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

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