Review of “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

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This story is science fiction and was published in 2017 by Note: review may contain spoilers.

The Earth is dying and the Martian colonies have been abandoned. Financed by the wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez, architect Susannah Li-Langford is building a monument on Mars, using remote machines to clothe a spire in sparkling, white tiles. In a surprising development, the machines notify her they’ve received a signal. Could there be life still on Mars after all?

This is a pretty dystopian setting. With the Earth devastated by climate change and biological warfare, its people have lost their dream to move out to the stars. Instead, they are slowly dying in place. Li-Langford is nearing the end of her life but keeps plodding away at her monument, hoping to leave something lasting behind.

Good points: First, this is science fiction, somewhat on the hard side, but not technical enough to put anyone off. Next, the message is hope. Even with all that’s gone wrong, Li-Langford is willing to abandon her dreams to give someone else a ray of hope.

Not so good points: This reminded me very strongly of Weir’s The Martian, so I didn’t take it as highly original. I thought the characters were flat and not well developed; plus, there was a lot of exposition—I really didn’t end up feeling the devastation on Earth. I didn’t really feel Li-Langford’s dream, either. Why waste all the time and money on a monument when it seems like Earth needs it instead? Then she abandons it without a second thought and dismantles way more than seems necessary for the situation. And how are a few tiles going to help castaways? The plot didn’t quite hold water for me.

Two and a half stars because of the believability issues.


See Spot on File 770


My kitty Spot is guesting on File 770 today in the “Cat Sleeps on SFF” series. See Spot’s photo below with a vintage Ace copy of The Son of Tarzan, cover by Frank Frazetta. The novel was the 4th in Burroughs’ Tarzan series, first published as a serial in 1915. I bought this paperback new and I think it cost maybe 35 or 40 cents.

You can also travel to File 770 to check out Spot’s appearance there, of course. Many thanks to Mike Glyer for hosting the photo.

Spot Sleeps on Burroughs

Review of The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro


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.

Discrimination in the SFF community?


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?

Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi


I’m running a little late on reviewing this film, but feel the urge to comment regardless. Note: there may be lots of spoilers below. This was written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The story picks up just after events of the Force Awakens. The Republic is dead and the fascist First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke, is now on a mission to take control of the galaxy. The Resistance is struggling against this new threat. Rey searches out Luke Skywalker, hoping he’ll be able to answer her questions and teach her to be a Jedi. Meanwhile, the Resistance ships prepare to face the overwhelming forces of the First Order. Can Rey convince Luke to leave his secluded island and rejoin the fight? Can Princess Leia, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, Rose and the other Resistance fighters hold off the First Order and escape with their lives?

Well, this isn’t as bad as I expected from some of the reviews out there. There’s action and a reasonable (if thin) plot. It’s billed as humorous, but I didn’t really see that—the jokes were pretty feeble against the grand scheme of the production. What I mostly took away from this was clear messages to the traditional fans that change has come to the series.

Most of this comes from the conversations between Rey and Luke on his isolated island, where it becomes clear Luke has withdrawn from the Force and considers the Jedi “religion” outdated and empty. He advises her to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while he stubbornly refuses to help her. Eventually she gives it up and goes to try to turn Kylo Ren, whom she feels connected to in some way. That turns out to be a trap engineered by Supreme Leader Snoke. Lots of folks die at the end, and the Jedi history is wiped out.

So, that’s all fine. But what are they going to replace it with?

The original Star Wars set up is a classic archetype, the same kind of hero tale that’s passed down from generation to generation around a village campfire. There’s a hero, a sidekick, a princess, an aspiring youngster and a couple of wise old wizards, all fighting for light against the forces of dark. Lucas’ understanding of this, plus some really creative imagination, is what made the series so successful. But now they’re going to kill off the old characters, tear this structure down and give us something else.

I agree that the Resistance is pretty tired at this point, but I’m not seeing this spark they’re expecting will emerge to fire it all up again. We’re left in a universe of kids where both Ren and Rey are strong in the Force, but (without history and education) have no idea what they’re doing. There’s no discipline or consequences here—personal grandstanding is the big thing, and insubordination and mutiny among the Resistance fighters are laughed off by indulgent leaders as no big deal. Ren wants to rule the galaxy, and he tells Rey that she can come from nothing and rise to success. Still, it’s clear life isn’t working out for him. He’s weak and sniveling as a tool of the darkness, at this point totally unable to carry the role with any conviction. Actually, none of these characters are very strong. They’re just cogs in a feel-good commercial machine.

Three stars.

Review of Third Flatiron Best of 2017 (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 21)

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This is a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew, including her choice of the best stories from the Third Flatiron Anthologies published in 2017. These stories range from SF to fantasy to horror, and right now it looks it’s only offered as an ebook.

Third Flatiron Anthologies has proved to be a pretty reliable series for lightweight, entertaining fiction, mostly without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in short stories just lately. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious.

The stories include John Sunseri’s take on a different racetrack, James Beamon’s humorous tale of programmed troops, Konstantine Paradias’ projection of CRISPR in the kitchen, Brian Trent’s vision of Dorian Gray after the fall, Jean Graham’s spooky comeuppance for murder, Ville Nummenpaa’s contest for the most boring speaker, Wulf Moon’s Beast of the Month Club, Rati Mehrotra’s vision of the afterlife, Keyan Bowes’ integrated pre-school, Vaughan Stanger’s burdensome message, and Jill Hand’s projection of what your dog might say to you if it could talk. There were a couple of stand-outs. I especially liked J.L. Forrest’s witchy tale of rescue and Premee Mohamed’s vision of self-sacrifice.

Three and a half stars.

Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System


Recently I’ve been blogging about virtue signaling, which is publicly stating your opinions on moral issues in order to show your support. Social pressure to conform leads to “MeToo” reactions, and something worse called “groupthink.” In groupthink, no one really thinks critically about issues, but instead responds to the social pressures with knee-jerk, mindless reactions.

This makes virtue signaling a powerful tool in the political arena. In fact, the dependability of the reaction it provokes makes it easily weaponized. All you have to do right now to take someone down is to call them a racist or a sexual harasser. This trend has gotten so obvious in broader US politics that I can almost see powerful and manipulative Puppetmasters pulling the strings—a war back and forth—with attacks taking down Hollywood political donors, artists, senators, members of the press, anybody who influential and on the wrong side of issues. I’m sure these Puppetmasters are laughing all the while, as mindless groupthink lemmings attack one another, doing their work for them. Anybody who questions the process gets a dose of the same.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were early casualties, and conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that Weinstein was payback. It’s pretty easy to dig up questionable actions over a man’s lifetime, but women are harder. Taylor Swift was attacked as a racist by someone claiming her songs contain white supremacist lyrics. Meryl Streep is currently under attack by anonymous posters that have appeared in Los Angeles, accusing her of knowing and keeping quiet about Weinstein—complicity, in other words. Morning-after remorse has produced calls for Al Franken to unresign, and led Tavis Smiley and Joe Scarborough to wonder publicly what’s behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration deftly avoided accusations by taking down attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bringing the focus back to the SFF community, I think these same hazards have been working in the heavy polarization of relations. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely important to call out people who are actually sexually abusive and racist, but because of the weaponizing, it’s gotten to be important to look critically at the accuracy of the claims and question what might be behind them.

The most obvious example is Vox Day, of course. Articles and comments consistently claim he’s anti-diversity, while a look at his publications and award nominations show clearly that he likes Chinese SF and promotes minorities. Another recent attack, of course, has been on Rocket Stack Rank as racist and sexist because of their dislike of non-standard pronouns. Wasn’t it at one time questionable to attack reviewers? Another example is last year’s attack on horror writer David Riley for holding conservative political views. Still another is the attack on editor Sunil Patel (see also here) for apparently being a jerk, while accusers couldn’t come up with anything more than vague claims about sexual harassment.

There may be questionable issues at work in all these cases, of course. Anyone has the right to feel affronted and to complain, but shouldn’t we be looking at things a little more rationally?

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