Review of “An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. It is alternate history/fantasy and was published in the collection An Agent of Utopia, released by Small Beer Press. Duncan won a Nebula in 2012 for the novelette “Close Encounters.” Full disclosure: Duncan is a member of the Board of Directors of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Thomas More has been arrested for treason against King Henry VIII and imprisoned. Aliquo, an agent of Utopia, arrives in the city of London and arranges with the gaoler to meet with More, offers him assistance in escaping the king’s anger. More, who is intent on self-flagellation, refuses. He is tried, sentenced and executed. Afterward, his head is displayed on a pike on London Bridge. Aliquo is then approached by More’s daughter Margaret to steal the head away so she can bury it respectfully. Can Aliquo accomplish this task for her?

This starts off with a lot of potential. More is a historical figure and the story follows the history faithfully, including the part where More’s daughter Margaret is thought responsible for the theft of More’s head from London Bridge. Aliquo is a great addition to the plot, a romantic figure out of More’s best-known and most controversial literary work. The character seems quite taken by Margaret, and either possesses supernatural powers or else is the resident James Bond, ready to accomplish prison breaks and master thefts at will. The narrative is written in the language of the day, and there is some very nice imagery in the description of the city and the characters.

On the not so great side, this seems to lose its way as we get further along, as if Duncan lost confidence in his plot and his characters. He never follows up on the interesting connection to Utopia, sticking with events in London instead. The plot drifts off toward horror, as Aliquo becomes haunted by More’s voice. Why? Then there’s a postscript where Aliquo turns out to be a woman in disguise and writes a denunciation of abuses in her homeland. I guess this is supposed to be a twist ending, but it just looks like a different story to me, that got pasted on here by accident. Is the diatribe to make it more politically correct?

Two and a half stars for failure to make good sense.

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Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in April of 2015, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, DeKnight Productions and Goddard Textiles. Steven S. DeKnight served as the showrunner. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

Matt Murdock is the blind, orphan son of a dead boxer in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, and Foggy Nelson is the son of a local butcher. Matt and Foggy graduate from law school together, form a partnership and set up a law practice on their old home turf. One of their first cases is defending a woman named Karen Page from murder charges, as she has been found in her apartment covered with blood, leaning over a dead co-worker. They are later approached by a man named Wesley to defend another questionable client, and with info from this case and from Karen about bookkeeping at the company Union Allied, they start to make connections about local organized crime. They hire Page as an office manager/legal assistant and begin investigating. Matt was blinded by a toxic waste spill in a car accident when he was a child, and after his father was killed by organized crime, the orphanage staff brought in an old martial arts expert, also blind, to help him cope. Matt learned how to compensate with unusually sharp senses, and unknown to Foggy and Karen, starts to work as a vigilante at night to take care of problems the law can’t reach. Local residents begin calling him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. When Foggy finds out about the extralegal activity, the two have a huge fight that endangers the practice, but they manage to bring down crime boss Fisk regardless.

The strongest of Marvel’s superheroes are that way because of how Marvel creators connect with the murky symbolism of the ID. That’s one of the things that makes Daredevil hard to carry off, but also makes it resonate. Matt’s blindness and his search for a moral compass in a complex world where good and evil intertwine is the heart of this show. He channels his rage at the world’s injustice into his nightly endeavors, while seeking the counsel of his local priest by day.

This show looks expensive because it is—the creators have been given artistic license. It spends huge amounts of time in character development and suspense, as we watch Fisk linger over his morning omelet and follow Matt’s difficult childhood. There is also a constant stream of imagery featuring blood, fire, hell and the devil. The award-winning opening sequence paints blind justice, the city and Daredevil’s mask all with red. Matt is constantly scarred and bloodied by his encounters with the world’s realities; the yakuza call him “fire demon,” and he sees the world in burning flames instead of black. His priest Father Lantom provides us with philosophical discussions about the nature of Satan and how good and evil reside within all of us—trying to help Matt sort it out.

The show isn’t for the faint of heart because of the violence, and it may seem to move slowly for the action-oriented because of the time spent in suspense and character development. Matt wore black for most of his nightly activities in this season. The Daredevil costume debuted toward the end of it and was criticized as pretty ugly. The first season made the show 7th most popular on TV, and it was nominated for a slew of awards. Cox was honored for his portrayal of the blind Matt Murdock at the American Foundation for the Blind’s 19th Annual Helen Keller Achievement Awards. He deserved the honor.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Comparison of All the Birds in the Sky and Ninefox Gambit

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Generally the contenders for the Nebula Award are fairly easy to identify on the Nebula Reading List at the SFWA Website. The way this list works is that authors/editors/publishers/agents can provide copies or links to works for the SFWA membership to read and recommend. Often the recommenders leave their names, which is interesting because you can see who likes what. Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky was an early favorite. The page is down now, but this novel ended up with 18 recommendations, which I think put it at the top of the list. Lee’s Ninefox Gambit fell much lower, with 7 recommendations as far as I can tell through the Wayback Machine. Jemisin’s novel put in a strong showing, too, but since she won last year, voters might have discounted this year’s follow-up as more of the same. That leaves Ninefox Gambit as the outstanding contender.

If you look back through my reviews, you’ll see that I thought Anders’ novel was just average—I gave it three stars. I rated Lee’s Ninefox Gambit at four and half, which means I thought it was above average. Both these authors are strongly diverse, and this was the first novel for both. So why was Anders’ book such a strong favorite? Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the novels again.

Anders’ novel starts off very strong with a presentation of how talented children are bullied and persecuted. In Part II, it abandons this theme to present an apocalyptic situation where nature and science are at odds and the humans end up impotent. The ending is predictable. The writing is interestingly quirky and absurdist, but the novel sags badly in the middle and never recovers. What it ends up saying is murky, maybe that we are at odds with nature and on a path to destruction.

Lee’s novel starts off with a space battle clearly based on an alien system of reality. The protagonist works her way through an understanding of the politics related to who will establish the reigning system, and ends up finding herself attached to a highly talented, dead subversive. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this work also has excellent characterization, imagery and artistic effects. The question it asks is about the nature of reality. It has a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality that detracts, which is all that kept me from giving it 5 stars.

In my humble opinion, Lee’s novel is the more entertaining. It has a great plot and a strong action line. The underlying philosophical questions and the world-building are first rate. It’s highly professional as a first effort, and should hold up much better in the coming years. So why was it passed over? Does Anders’ work look to be more important?

Review of “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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This is a novella, published by Tor.com and sold through Macmillan. It runs about 160 pages, and it currently has 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Charles Thomas Tester is an African American who lives New York City in the 1920s. He’s comfortable in the multiracial, immigrant background of the city and makes his living, not quite as a con man, but through brokering magical dealings. He’s young, and his father warns him about the dangers of what he’s doing, but Tester thinks he can handle it. While pretending to be a jazz musician, he’s hired by rich eccentric Robert Suydam to play for a party. The man turns out to be pursuing an occult power. When Tester’s father is killed by police, Charles Thomas turns to the dark side, following Suydam into a scheme to overthrow civilization as we know it.

This novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s “Horror at Red Hook.” The story is generally considered to be strongly racist, as it expresses Lovecraft’s revulsion of the mixed immigrant population he found when he moved to New York City. Tester gives us the African American perspective from the 1920s as he hides out under various personas, pretending to be subservient and to know his place, while actually being very successful at what he does. His father’s murder by the police injects a contemporary note, and Tester reacts with rage. At this point, the narrative shifts to the perspective of Detective Malone, who investigates the events at Suydam’s mansion. I thought this weakened the narrative, as I was very invested in Tester as a character at this point, and I didn’t connect with Malone at all. How this all worked out for him was afterthought.

So, the story is one thing, but the message is another. This is about racism, about how African Americans were treated in the 1920s and how they’re treated today. And, of course, it also suggests how some individuals with the weight and talent might be tempted to invoke Cthulhu to get their revenge.

Good imagery, strong characters, brings the 1920s to life. Four stars.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

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It takes 10 nominations to make a story a Nebula finalist, so these five stories I’ve just reviewed look to be the ones with the best likelihood to make it.

Since I’m reading down the list, there are a few trends sticking out. As far as I know, only SFWA members can make recommendations. Because the listing has been recommended by professionals in the genre, I’d expect to get good quality on the list. These stories I’ve just reviewed have recommendations in the double digits, but I’m just not finding a lot of what I’d call substance in the content. I’m thinking all those people are clicking the “recommend” button because they want to affirm the message. If I’m looking for quality stories to nominate, does that mean I can put any confidence in the number of recommendations the stories have gotten at all? Hm. Maybe not. Does this mean the trend to sentimental stories has shifted and this year message fiction is the in thing? Hm. Maybe so. Hopefully there’s more substance further down the list.

Next, I’m seeing a lot of repetition in the names. Caroline Yoachim, for example, has 5 stories on the list; A. Merc Rustad has three; José Pablo Iriarte has three, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that these people must be very consistently high quality writers.

Third, I don’t see any real, serious hard SF in the top five. I commented on this trend a couple of years back after the awards cycle, the fact that hard SF is in trouble, being replaced (this year) with somewhat humorous message fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of SF or fantasy. I have to agree that the stories are entertaining and fun and that the messages are progressive, but there are no fully developed short stories in this group of five with, for example, strong character development, great world building, vivid imagery, thoughtful themes and universal questions about the human condition. What’s happened? Is this the influence of “Cat Pictures Please,” last year’s Hugo winner? Or has pressure from the Puppies encouraged the SFWA to promote progressive political messages at the expense of well-developed, serious science fiction and fantasy stories?

One last observation is that just a few magazines seem to be dominating the list. For example, Lightspeed has 20 entries in the current list, Daily Science Fiction has 12, Clarkesworld has 10, F&SF has 10 and Strange Horizons has 10. Glancing at the titles, I don’t think hard SF is the reigning paradigm. This isn’t a new trend, either. Analog did make a better showing this year than it sometimes does, with 5 entries. Where should I look for stronger substance? Is Asimov’s still the indicator there?

Review of The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman Malik

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FeatherPenClipArtThis novella was published by Tor.com. It’s fantasy.

Salman and his family live in a trailer park in Florida. His grandfather tells him a story about his own childhood in Lahore, where a pauper princess had a tea shop under a eucalyptus tree that she said held a jinn that protected her family. Years later, Salman is working as a college professor when his grandfather dies. He flies to Florida for the funeral. Helping his parents clean out Gramps’ room, he finds learned textbooks and finally a journal. His grandfather has been researching theories of creation and has left a strange story in the journal. Infected by a need to understand, Salman flies to Lahore to search for his grandfather’s past.

I started off complaining about this one being another of the sentimental stories that gets by on the emotion they generate, but I can’t pick this one apart. Not only are we absorbed by the characters, but we get to meet the jinn and have a look at earth, water, wind and fire. Malik is an excellent writer. The prose flows well, full of imagery that lets us get to know Gramps, smell the rain and see the flashing colors of the Lahore marketplace. Drawbacks: Slight loss of purpose and clarity at the end. High diversity. I’ll give it a 4.5. Recommended.

So what is hard and soft SF anyway?

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FeatherPenClipArtBesides proposing a hardness scale for SF, the TVTropes article made some interesting comments on the science fiction genre as a whole. First, it discussed the term “soft SF.”

On one hand, a distinction pretty much falls out from use of the term “hard SF.” Once we’ve identified “hard SF”, this suggests everything else must be soft, particularly works that use only a science fictional setting to discuss something else. Soft SF is generally expected to encompass literary SF stories that concentrate more on qualities like message, characterization, symbolism, imagery, theme and story structure, rather than the actual science of the situation.

On the other hand, there are “hard” and “soft” sciences, based on perceived methodological rigor and objectivity of the research and application. Hard sciences are considered to be disciplines like physics, chemistry and engineering that use mathematical calculations to apply natural laws. Soft sciences are generally considered to be social science disciplines like psychology, political science, sociology, geography, history, medical science and economics that have to use statistics to identify and predict population trends in order to form theories and models to predict results.

The existence of these different classifications is one thing that confuses our expectations of what hard vs soft SF really is. As Stanley Schmidt commented, the reigning definition for hard SF in the public mind seems to be about engineering (i.e. clanking hardware), and possibly about extensive and boring discussions of quantum mechanics. However, if you include the “soft” sciences in your definition of what science really is, then you’ve got a much broader base for what’s actually real, science-based science fiction. It doesn’t have to be all about clanking hardware.

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