Posted by Tor.com

Last week, The Verge revealed the cover for Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition, the second book in the Murderbot Diaries series. Murderbot, a human-like android, has bucked its restrictive programming and would rather be left alone, away from humanity and small talk. Unfortunately for Murderbot, it keeps getting sucked back into adventure after adventure—and we couldn’t wait to reveal book three, Rogue Protocol. Check out the full cover by artist Jaime Jones below!

Rogue Protocol is scheduled for August 2018 from Tor.com Publishing. From the catalog copy:

SciFi’s favorite crabby A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

Posted by Jeffrey Rotter

Old science magazines can be an unexpected source of pathos. I own a copy of National Geographic from February 1958 that features, among other topics, a long piece titled “Exploring Our Neighbor World, the Moon.” It was that February when the U.S. Senate convened a committee with the aim of establishing a new government agency to explore outer space. Several months later, NASA would be born. The first moon probes would not follow until shortly thereafter. So, this article, which describes in detail a stroll on the lunar surface, is largely a work of speculative fiction.

This is my favorite kind of writing about the moon, untainted by too much direct knowledge. I like, especially, H.G. Wells’ heroic effort in 1901—The First Men in the Moon is breathtaking because it was so far off the mark. When Dr. Cavor’s homemade space sphere lands in the basin of a vast crater, the surface appears dead on arrival: “a huge undulating plain, cold and gray, a gray that deepened eastward into the absolute raven darkness of the cliff shadow.”

The sphere sits on a hummock of snow, but it’s not frozen water. The dust we now know to be pulverized rock is, in Wells’ imagination, a layer of frozen oxygen. But as the sun rises, the dead satellite undergoes a phantasmagorical change. The drifts of air boil and become gas, supplying an atmosphere. The warmth awakens a dense jungle of dormant plants—“miraculous little brown bodies burst and gaped apart, like seed-pods, like the husks of fruit; opened eager mouths that drank in the heat and light pouring in a cascade from the newly-risen sun.”

Every moment more of these seed coats ruptured, and even as they did so the swelling pioneers overflowed their rent-distended seed-cases, and passed into the second stage of growth. With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air. In a little while the whole slope was dotted with minute plantlets standing at attention in the blaze of the sun.

Wells does something I’m constantly asking of my creative writing students: he interlaces setting with action. This is not a landscape but an action painting. As the snow melts and pods germinate, the sphere comes unmoored and tumbles off its perch, rolling deeper into the crater, as if life itself were drawing it in. In the process our two astronauts are bloodied and knocked unconscious.

This isn’t just a crafty deployment of setting; Wells captures the essence of astronomy. The science began as a means of measuring seasons so that humans could master life on earth—turn wild plants into dependable crops and predict the migration of game. It evolved into a pursuit of more remote game, life beyond our little globe.

Wells’ moon is not astronomy but the dream of astronomy. He persuades his readers that—given the presence of energy, liquid water, and carbon—life beyond earth is inevitable. Even in the briefest hours of a lunar summer, life insists. Without the hope of speculators like H.G. Wells, the Senate subcommittee might never have come to order in February of 1958.

“‘Life!’” he goes on. “And immediately it poured upon us that our vast journey had not been made in vain, that we had come to no arid waste of minerals, but to a world that lived and moved!”

My novel, The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering, tries to imagine a world that has turned its back on astronomy. Rumors of the last surviving observatory draw a group of damaged people on a road trip to the Atacama Desert of Chile. What they discover there is a facility based on the Very Large Telescope (VLT), a remote array built by the European Southern Observatory atop Morro Paranal. The location is significant. Humidity in the desert is among the lowest on earth. The weather almost never changes, so the skies are dependably clear. For scientists who live and work there, the desert poses challenges. The landscape is apparently lifeless, comparable, some say, to the surface of Mars. Residents complain that it’s difficult to sleep because of the oppressive silence. Likewise the dryness makes it difficult to breathe.

In my research I spoke to Dr. Franck Marchis, now at SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), who pulled a long stint at the VLT. He told me a remarkable story about the persistence of life even in this barren land. In the scant moisture that forms under rocks, he found tiny insects. There were unconfirmed sightings of a desert fox. Once, during his tenure there, a rare weather pattern brought rain from Bolivia. In hours, the hillside erupted with blossoms.

As he spoke, rapturously, about this event, I thought of Wells. Here was an astronomer, like the first men in the moon, rhapsodizing about organisms in a dead world.

While certain religions insist on the specialness of earth and its inhabitants, another ancient instinct pulls us in the other direction—an urge to discover life in the most desolate-seeming outer places. As much as we like to feel special, we do not want to be alone. H.G. Wells paints that urge on the blank canvas of the moon.

Within hours after the rains passed, Dr. Marchis said, the flowers had all died, and their stalks had shriveled beneath the red sand to wait.

This article was originally published in May 2015 as part of our Writers on Writing series.
Top image from The First Men in the Moon (1964)

Jeffrey Rotter is the author of The Unknown Knowns, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, The New York Observer, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. He has assembled modular furnishings at NORAD, dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog for Texas school children, and written romance copy for flower-seed packets. He now resides in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s edging ever closer to Green-Wood Cemetery and the eternal verdict of the earthworm.

Posted by Bruce Schneier

The ISO has decided not to approve two NSA-designed block encryption algorithms: Speck and Simon. It's because the NSA is not trusted to put security ahead of surveillance:

A number of them voiced their distrust in emails to one another, seen by Reuters, and in written comments that are part of the process. The suspicions stem largely from internal NSA documents disclosed by Snowden that showed the agency had previously plotted to manipulate standards and promote technology it could penetrate. Budget documents, for example, sought funding to "insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems."

More than a dozen of the experts involved in the approval process for Simon and Speck feared that if the NSA was able to crack the encryption techniques, it would gain a "back door" into coded transmissions, according to the interviews and emails and other documents seen by Reuters.

"I don't trust the designers," Israeli delegate Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at the University of Haifa, told Reuters, citing Snowden's papers. "There are quite a lot of people in NSA who think their job is to subvert standards. My job is to secure standards."

I don't trust the NSA, either.

([syndicated profile] slacktivist_feed Sep. 20th, 2017 11:02 pm)

Posted by Fred Clark

Even if your individual self-interest or the interest of your ethnic or religious tribe is the only thing you care about, that self-interest should compel you to ensure equal protection and full accommodation for people with disabilities -- because you could become one of them in the twinkling of an eye.

Posted by John Scalzi

Because yesterday I got to hang out a bit with Alison Moyet, who if you didn’t know is one of my absolute favorite singers, both in Yaz, and with her solo work. We’d become Twitter buddies in the last couple of years and when I mentioned to her Krissy and I would be at her Chicago show she suggested we have a real-life meet. And we did! And it was lovely! And brief, as she had to prepare to entertain a sold-out show (and she did; the concert was excellent), but long enough to confirm that she’s as fabulous in the flesh as she is in her music. Which was not surprising to me, but nice regardless.

(Alison has also blogged about our meet-up as part of her tour journal, which you can find here. Read the entire tour journal, as she’s funny as hell.)

I noted to some friends that I was likely to meet Alison this week and some of them wondered how it would go, on the principle that meeting one’s idols rarely goes as one expects (more bluntly, the saying is “never meet your idols.”) I certainly understand the concept, but I have to say I’ve had pretty good luck meeting people whom I have admired (or whose work I admired). I chalk a lot of that up to the fact that while I was working as a film critic, I met and interviewed literally hundreds of famous people, some of whose work was very important to me. In the experience I got to have the first-hand realization that famous and/or wonderfully creative people are also just people, and have the same range of personalities and quirks as anyone else.

If you remember that when you meet the people whose work or actions you admire, you give them space just to be themselves. And themselves are often lovely. And when they’re not, well, that’s fine too. Alison Moyet, it turns out, is fabulous, and I’m glad we got to meet.

(Which is not to say I didn’t geek out. Oh, my, I did. But I also kept that mostly inside. Krissy found it all amusing.)

Anyway: Great Tuesday. A+++, would Tuesday again.


Baen's mass market paperback edition of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is coming up next week. Official launch date is next Tuesday, Sept. 26th. However, I don't think this one has a hard don't-sell-before date, so it will probably start trickling into brick-and-mortar bookstores whenever they get around to opening the boxes in the back room.

My box of author's copies arrived. Front looks like this, more or less -- Baen's shiny foil does not scan well.




The back looks like this:



They somehow got the first draft of the cover copy onto this one, and not the final one as it appears on the hardcover jacket flap. That last line was not supposed to be, misleadingly, All About Miles, but rather to put the focus on the book's actual protagonists and plot, and read, "...the impact of galactic technology on the range of the possible changes all the old rules, and Oliver and Cordelia must work together to reconcile the past, the present, and the future."

Ah, well. Most readers (who bother to read the back at all) will figure it out, I expect. Those that don't will be no more confused than usual.

Ta, L.

posted by Lois McMaster Bujold on September, 20

Posted by Ruthanna Emrys, Anne M. Pillsworth

Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House,” first published in the December 5 1891 issue of Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Spoilers ahead.

“‘It is,’ said the Doctor slowly, ‘the very rope which the hangman used for all the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancour!’ Here he was interrupted by another scream from Mrs. Witham, and steps had to be taken for her recovery.”

Summary

Malcolm Malcolmson, mathematics student, seeks a quiet place to study for his examination. He chooses Benchurch, a sleepy market town where he has no acquaintances to distract him. Fate’s apparently guided him, for he’s able to lease a long-unoccupied Jacobean manse fortified by a massive brick wall, solitude enough for anyone. His landlady at the town inn, motherly Mrs. Witham, pales when she hears he’s taken the Judge’s House. Its builder was indeed a judge, and a notoriously harsh one. The place has had a bad reputation for a century, though precisely why she doesn’t know. But if Malcolm was her boy, he wouldn’t sleep there one night!

Malcolm thanks her, even as he laughs at her fears. A fellow wrestling with Harmonical Progression, Permutations and Combinations, and Elliptic Functions can have no bandwidth left for less rational mysteries. He finds an old woman to “do” for him and takes for his apartment the house’s great dining room. Mrs. Witham makes his bed cozier with a screen, though the thought of bogies looking over the screen drives her from the house. The charwoman, Mrs. Dempster, is more practical. “Bogies,” she opines, are everything but bogies — rats, mice, beetles, creaky floors, loose roof slates. Why, does Malcolm suppose the dining room wainscoting isn’t full of rats, so many years since anyone’s lived there?

Luckily Malcolm’s no murophobic. As the resident rodents get used to his intrusion, they make a great racket: racing and gnawing and scratching behind the walls, over the ceiling, under the floorboards. Some even venture from their holes, but they strike him as more playful than threatening. Soon he’s deep in study that only a sudden cessation of rat noise disturbs. He looks up to see a huge rat in the very armchair where he took his evening tea, its eyes baleful. He rushes it with a poker and it dashes away up a heavy rope hanging by the fireplace, the pull-cord of the great alarm bell on the roof.

Next morning Mrs. Witham objects to Malcolm calling the huge rat “a wicked looking old devil” — many a true word’s spoken in jest!

The “old devil” reappears that second night, again heralded by silence. Malcolm hurls books at it. Later he notices that no weighty math treatise bothered the rat, only the Bible his mother gave him. He also notices that the great rat disappeared into a hole in a dirty painting. He asks Mrs. Dempster to clean the rat’s retreat so he can see what it depicts.

That day he meets a Dr. Thornhill in Mrs. Witham’s sitting room. The good landlady has summoned the physician to council Malcolm about his bad habits of drinking too much tea and sitting up too late. Malcolm agrees to take better care of himself, and tells of the great rat’s latest antics. Mrs. Witham has hysterics. Thornhill notes that the alarm bell rope, the one the rat climbs, is the very rope the old Judge used to hang his victims.

Malcolm returns to the Judge’s house. Mrs. Dempter’s lit a cheery fire, for a storm’s brewing. The rising wind roars around chimneys and gables, making “unearthly” noises throughout the house. Its force even moves the alarm bell, so that its pull sways unnervingly, “the limber rope falling on the oak floor with a hard and hollow sound.” Malcolm gets a start from the cleaned picture, a portrait of the Judge himself in his scarlet and ermine robes, seated in the great rat’s favorite armchair. His eyes shine with the same malevolence as the great rat’s.

Meanwhile, the great rat has chewed the bell pull through, sending a long coil of rope to the floor. Malcolm chases the creature away. When he turns back to the portrait, he sees a Judge-shaped blotch of unpainted campus. With dread, Malcolm looks at the armchair.

The Judge, flesh and robes, sits in it. While Malcolm stares paralyzed, the man dons a black cap, takes up the rope and fashions a hangman’s noose. Like a cat playing with a mouse, he tosses the noose repeatedly at Malcolm, who barely dodges each throw. The Judge’s baleful eyes hold his, freeze his will.

He wrenches himself free and sees that the other rats are streaming from their holes and leaping to the dangling end of the bell pull, one after the other, until their combined weight begins to sway the bell. Soon they will set it ringing, and draw help!

Anger brings a diabolical scowl to the Judge’s face. No more playing around. Eyes like hot coals, he approaches Malcolm and tightens the noose around his neck. His nearness completes Malcolm’s paralysis, and he doesn’t resist as the Judge carries him to the armchair, stands him on it, steps up beside him and ties the end of the noose to the bell pull. As he touches the rope, the rats flee squeaking; as the Judge descends, he pulls the chair out from beneath Malcolm’s feet.

The ringing alarm bell draws a crowd of Benchurch residents. Dr. Thornhill leads them into the dining room, where Malcolm dangles dead. The Judge is back in his picture, wearing a malignant smile.

What’s Cyclopean: The descriptive adjectives come out in full force for the Judge himself. His face is “strong and merciless, evil, crafty, and vindictive” as well as “cadaverous,” with that vital mainstay of Victorian (and, my housemates point out, modern) villains, “a sensual mouth.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Greenhow’s Charity House is awfully paternalistic towards its denizens, keeping them on a strict curfew. Of course, their harsh rules do keep Mrs. Dempster from getting hung by a ghost-infested rat, so perhaps they have a point.

Mythos Making: Lovecraft was fond of rats, and haunted houses, and math. And houses haunted by Nyarlathotep-granted rat-like familiars who can teach you really esoteric math.

Libronomicon: Mathematical treatises are perfect for throwing at leering rats. Don’t neglect your mother’s Bible, either, especially if the rats in question are haunted.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Malcolm seems perfectly sane, just… not too bright, outside his narrow area of study.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I’ve completed my masters thesis. I’ve gone through the intensive final months of my dissertation, and the last-couple-chapters-done-any-day-now sprint of writing a novel, which is surprisingly similar. So I can sympathize with the desire to get away from well-meaning friends and entertaining temptations, somewhere far from cell phone service and wi-fi where you can just focus. I’m entirely with Malcolm2 as he searches the train schedule for the dullest stop, and finds an inn far from any possible company.

Where the inn becomes insufficient, though, we part ways. Malcolm2 has weird ideas about how to avoid procrastination. House abandoned for years, barely in habitable condition? I’ll take it! I can always concentrate when there’s a decade’s worth of cleaning waiting to be done! Dust on everything? Even better, nothing like allergies for the academic mind. Rodents have taken over? I’ll just make servants come every day to this rat-infested pile so I can study in rat-infested peace and quiet. Infested by possessed rats? Perfection itself!

Personally, when I need to concentrate, I like a well-kept house with a great restaurant nearby that delivers. But maybe that’s just me.

Stoker is of course a master of horror, and he definitely has a way with atmosphere. The final confrontation between Malcolm2 and the judge is genuinely chilling. However, Stoker also has no shame about driving a story through pure plot force, plus a protagonist who dives head first into a ball pit full of idiot balls. The biggest Plot Item, of course, is the alarm bell, which spends the whole story shouting, “Look at me! I’m on a mantle! Whee!” before going off in not-exactly-as-expected fashion at the end. The twist works, but I spent the whole story wondering how that particular alarm with that particular rope ended up in that house in the first place. It’s not exactly normal, is it? Having an alarm in your house that can be heard all over town? That’s sort of an official-building thing, not a town-official’s-private-home thing. Also, unless the judge was in the habit of hanging people in his own house (and he may well have been, but you’d think someone would have mentioned such a juicy detail), hangman’s nooses don’t usually require multiple stories worth of rope.

I imagined our cruel, execution-happy judge forced at last into retirement. “Damn it, now I can’t terrorize the town with my unjust verdicts. What can I do to keep the joy in my life? Aha! I’ll have this alarm installed and wake everyone up at random intervals!”

He does seem like the sort who enjoys theatrics. After all, he could have strangled Malcolm2 in his sleep—but no, he wants to glare at him in rat form, then escape his picture frame to play Evil Wonder Woman with the noose.

I’m sure the actual connection between this story and Lovecraft’s work is detailed in our friend Howard’s own writings. But my own mind was inexorably drawn to “Dreams in the Witch House,” so very much like “The Judge’s House” and yet so totally different. I want to think of it as a rejoinder: I’ll show you what kind of haunting is best for mathematical study! Walter Gilman doesn’t ultimately do any better than Malcolm2, but at least he gains real mathematical insight along the way. Plus a bonus trip to the elder thing homeworld! If you’re going to sacrifice yourself on the altar of geometry, you really ought to get something out of the experience that isn’t available at your average bed and breakfast.

 

Anne’s Commentary

In our usual suspect monograph, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft praises Abraham “Bram” Stoker for the “starkly horrific conceptions” of his novels but laments that “poor technique sadly impairs their net effect.” The Lair of the White Worm could have been a favorite, what with its gigantic primitive entity lurking in an ancient castle vault, but damn it, Bram, you had to screw up the “magnificent idea by a development almost infantile.” Dracula’s good, though, and “is justly assigned a permanent place in English letters.”

Howard doesn’t mention “The Judge’s House,” but in my opinion, it’s a better haunted-house tale than his paragon of last week, “The House and the Brain.” Instead of cramming all the standard scare tropes into a small space, thus diffusing their impact, it focuses on three: the perpetrator of evil in life whose sheer malevolence survives death; the avatars of that survival, here the giant rat and the portrait that won’t stay put on canvas; and the rationalist overwhelmed by that which his philosophy dreams not of (innocent/amiable subtype.) This focus creates the “net effect” Lovecraft missed in Stoker’s lesser novels—for me, an atmosphere of rising dread that chokes slowly but in the end as surely as the noose that collars Malcolm Malcolmson. Luckily the choking’s not fatal—the reader lives to reread the story whenever she wants a cautionary tale about the dangers of renting without due diligence. Oh, and when she’s in the mood for rats.

Rats! They scurry and gnaw and scratch their way through so many classic works of horror. Lovecraft gave us two great rodent stories in “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Stoker also used them as the Count’s minions in Dracula. M. R. James has one story called “Rats” in which rats don’t even appear—they’re just scapegoats for the real horror, as in “Pickman’s Model.” Of course it’s rats trying to get out of that well, no ghouls around here, nope, no way. And as Mrs. Dempster wisely notes, “Rats is bogies and bogies is rats!”

What is it about rats, anyway? Okay, they raid our food supplies. And, in modern days, chew on our wiring. And reproduce at a ridiculous rate, from a primate’s point of view. And make noises in walls and startling dashes across floors. And have naked, wormlike tails and twitchy whiskers and high-pitched squeaky voices. Then there’s that unfortunate Black Death thing. Speaking of which, I don’t think I’d mind rats much, or their cuter cousins mice and voles, if they didn’t carry so many diseases I could catch! Really scary diseases. The whole time Mrs. Dempster was sweeping up the Judge’s dining room, I was thinking, Nooooo, you’re going to get hantavirus, and so’s Malcolm! Or Lassa fever, or Machupo, or any number of less exotic but still nasty infections! Airborne rat droppings are no joke, woman.

Nor are airborne rats. No, I’m not talking about bats. Horror movie addicts will recall the shivery Willard, in which offscreen animal handlers threw unsuspecting rats at a screaming Ernest Borgnine! Terrifying, right? Then there was the ultimate abomination of Michael Jackson crooning “Ben.”

Not that Ben wasn’t a good rat, when humans didn’t push him too hard. Rats can be endearing. People keep them as pets. You can bring one to Hogwarts as your familiar or star them in Disney and Pixar movies. Which brings me to my first ever reading of “The Judge’s House,” when it confused the moral hell out of me.

I was young enough to believe in absolutes, okay? Those rats all had to be bad, not just the big baleful one. So why did the regular-sized rats always make themselves scarce when Big Baleful came along? Surely they weren’t scared of him? Maybe they were just being respectful of his Evil Magnificence! Yeah. But then why did Malcolm not mind the regulars? Why did he even think of them playful company? And why, oh why, did the rats try to thwart the Judge by ringing the alarm bell? They were on his team, surely.

Now I see they weren’t. In fact, they probably resented the Judge for appearing as a rat and giving them a bad name, like it wasn’t hard enough to scamper in the world as a rat. Besides, the Judge (unlike “House/Brain’s” sorcerer) was AN EBIL BEYOND NATURE, hence intolerable. All natural creatures had better band together against him!

A little space left to express my appreciation for Mrs. Witham as both a touch of comic relief and as representative for the wisdom of superstition and intuition. Mrs. Dempster, Dr. Thornhill and Malcolm himself represent common sense, reason, intellect. Those things saved the “House/Brain” narrator, who might posit that Malcolm fails because he’s a neophyte to the uncanny, unprepared for so powerful a manifestation as the Judge.

Stoker implies that Malcolm’s rationality keeps him from learning a life-saving lesson from his flung Bible. Math tomes don’t bother the Judge—he simply dodges these weighty symbols of reason and science. No, it’s only religion, only faith, that could have preserved the young scholar. Too bad he was no Van Helsing, a doctor of divinity as well as of medicine and law, wielder of crucifix and Host as well as books and physician’s kit, hence the ultimate slayer of Big Bads!

 

Next week, parenting tips from the Goat With A Thousand Young—join us for Nadia Belkin’s “Red Goat Black Goat.”

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

([syndicated profile] tordotcom_feed Sep. 20th, 2017 06:30 pm)

Posted by Sweepstakes

The future is here; the future is unknown. We’ve put together a Tor Books and Tor.com Publishing prize pack of four very different books about the here, now, and yet to come, and we want to send it to you!

One lucky reader will win copies of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, Malka Older’s Infomocracy, and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway.

In Infomocracy, it’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.

Walkaway takes place in a future when anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer. There seems to be little reason to toil within the system. It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike—but when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them. Then the walkaways discover the one thing the ultra-rich have never been able to buy: how to beat death. Now it’s war – a war that will turn the world upside down.

In All Systems Red‘s corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Autonomous‘s Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin, are hot on her trail. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 2:30 PM Eastern Time (ET) on September 20th. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on September 24th. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Tor.com, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

([syndicated profile] tordotcom_feed Sep. 20th, 2017 06:00 pm)

Posted by Paul Cornell

It’s a period of turmoil in Britain, with the country’s politicians electing to remove the UK from the European Union, despite ever-increasing evidence that the public no longer supports it. And the small town of Lychford is suffering.

But what can three rural witches do to guard against the unknown? And why are unwary hikers being led over the magical borders by their smartphones’ mapping software? And is the immigration question really important enough to kill for?

A Long Day in Lychford is the third book in Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford series, available October 10th from Tor.com Publishing.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Marcin Przybylski was lost, and the voice in the cab of his lorry wasn’t being much help. “At the roundabout, take the third exit, and continue…”

He stared into the darkness of the tree-lined road ahead. “Where’s the roundabout?” he asked his phone, helplessly. The phone was attached to a bracket on the dashboard, and illuminated as if to underline its importance. Because right now it ruled his life. Mr. Ofgarten, who right now would be asleep in his comfy bed, had some sort of beacon attached to each one of these phones. If, when he woke up and checked his enormous tablet over his delicious morning pastries, one of those drivers was not anywhere near, in this case, the brand new Tesco distribution centre at Pilning in Gloucestershire, however you were meant to pronounce that… well, there would be a stream of German obscenities down the line. It was said that to be more than twenty minutes late meant automatic dismissal. At least then Marcin could tell him what he could do with his smoked sausages.

He’d got to the Oxford distribution centre for Sainsbury’s with no problem. That was second nature by now. It was the combination of this new location and this “brilliant new crowdsourced navigation app” that Ofgarten had installed that was foxing him.

A sign loomed ahead in the summer night. “Lychford,” he said to the phone.

“I do not recognise the location,” the phone replied.

“Of course not.”

“I do not understand the instruction.”

“Oh, go to hell!”

“Changing route now.”

“No! Stop!”

“Stopping now.” And the screen showed the moving circle that indicated it was waiting for further instructions.

Marcin managed to avoid bellowing at it, worried that might dig him in deeper. He was passing a new housing estate on the edge of this Lychford, woodlands on the other side. Was there anyone around here he could wake up at this time in the morning to ask for directions? How willing to answer their door would they be? And he didn’t have much English. Did he trust his phone to translate for him?

Suddenly, the light seemed to change a little, and he jumped, worried that, despite being used to the night shift, he’d fallen asleep. But no. Still the woodlands. Maybe that had been lightning? Or was it getting light this early?

“Turn left,” said his phone. Ah, it was back!

Only of course there didn’t seem to be a… no, what was that up ahead? He couldn’t see it properly, did he need glasses? The road seemed to suddenly—!

Marcin had to haul on the wheel as abruptly, impossibly, the road he was travelling on turned almost at a right angle and headed upwards into… what the hell was that?!

“I do not recognise this location!” yelled his phone. And it kept yelling it. As Marcin and his lorry skidded uncontrollably into what seemed like… nothingness.


Autumn Blunstone woke up, and gradually realised she was lying face down, fully clothed, in her own bed, upstairs at her magic shop, Witches, in the market town of Lychford, in the Cotswolds. These facts came to her one by one, introducing themselves politely.

The sun was already up. A cool breeze was ruffling the curtains. It was… really early still. Why was she awake?

Autumn felt… bloody awful. Not actually entirely… hungover, not yet. It was like the hangover was literally hanging over her, waiting to expand to its full dimensions, but had first just wanted to knock on her door to tell her it was getting ready to do its thing. We have a delivery for you, it was saying, and we will not hand it to a neighbour, but intend to unpack it in your every special place.

Knocking on her… no, someone was actually knocking on the door downstairs. Really quite loudly and urgently. At this time in the morning. And there was distant music somewhere out there. The duff duff duff of dance music. What was that about?

Autumn shouted something incoherent, reached out to find her robe, realised she didn’t need to and fell out of bed.


At the door she found PC Shaun Mawson, in uniform and definitely on business. In the air, from somewhere behind him, faded in and out that beat of some distant, ongoing rave.

“Miss Blunstone,” he said, “can I come in? It’s urgent.” It must have been for him to call her by anything other than her first name, or more usually just a shy nod. Shaun was the son of Autumn’s elderly employee and supposed mentor in the ways of magic, Judith, but he shared none of his mother’s bloody-mindedness. Thank God. He turned down the offer of tea, and made Autumn sit down in the kitchen.

“Is someone… dead?” she asked.

“We don’t know. That’s why I’m here.” He got out his notebook and pen and held up a hand to gently halt her questions. “Let’s start at the beginning. Can you remember much about last night? Can you remember where you got to?”

Great question.

Worrying question.

Why had he asked her to sit down?

No, come on, concentrate on the question. Where had she been last night? Autumn had always said there was a pub in Lychford to suit her every mood. If you wanted the good company of builders and town councillors, there was the Plough. If you wanted to meet people who were just passing through, or to sit and read quietly, there was the Market Hotel. If you wanted noise, youth, and the offer of drugs in the toilets, there was the Randolph. And if you wanted a fight, there was the Custom House. That was it for the pubs of Lychford these days. A couple had closed down recently. When Autumn had been a teenager, there’d been seventeen. Over the years, her range of options had narrowed, but, neatly, so had her range of moods.

“I think I was at… the Custom House?”

The Custom House was the sort of pub that the town council kept wanting to find a good reason to close down. The dusty whitewash on the outside gave one a clue that here was an inn the carpet of which could have been the subject of a TV nature special by David Attenborough. As you headed for the bar, your footsteps crunched. The walls inside were bare, the cloth on the pool table ripped, though people still played on it. The fruit machine’s soundboard had once had a pint tipped into it, resulting in strange, muffled, warblings. However, the landlord, Malcolm, kept the beer pipes clean, and for the Custom House’s clientele, that was the only required saving grace. After you got to know people, the décor became a feature, not a bug.

But yeah, there were often fights.

“Why did you decide to go there?” Shaun’s tone suggested that no nice young lady would. Autumn tended to end up at the Custom House having had a couple of drinks at one of the other pubs, become slightly angry with something someone had said there—but not enough to want to cause a fuss—and thus decided to move on. Her light complexion, what her best friend Lizzie had once called her “had clothes fall on her accidentally” sense of style, and, she supposed, the fact that she’d always been around, all distracted from the fact that she was, as they said these days, a person of colour. So she overheard things in those other pubs: perfectly nice people who’d never use the N word still saying “chinky” and, incredibly, “pikey”; people on her own social level knowing they were being risqué when they’d had a few, making jokes that started with “Jewboy and Mick walk into a pub.” When she’d been younger, she’d always spoken up at that point, and had been pleased when there’d often been whoops of applause rather than dismissal. Some of it was “oh ah, here she goes again,” but some of it had always been that feeling that she was to be congratulated for speaking up for “her own people.” Not that she knew, apart from her extended family in Swindon, any of her own people. Not since her Dad had passed away. She was literally the only non-white person in the entire town. That, she suspected, was the only circumstance in which you’d get that welcoming reaction, when the majority thought of you as the sole representative, and therefore harmless. Of course, in Lychford, there were also Sunil Mehra and his employees, but she’d never felt they had much in common. Sunil was part of the “reception for the Prince of Wales” crowd in this town, who’d probably see himself as “one of them,” while she was… whatever class it was that owned magic shops.

She was aware that, as she’d gotten older and still overheard things in pubs, she’d stopped speaking up so much. Because when you stopped being a teenager, you started feeling less sure of yourself, and not everything seemed like it was life and death. And she liked fitting in. She was quite popular, wasn’t she? And these were good people, really. Really. But it hadn’t eased off like she used to think it was going to. It had gotten worse. It had gotten more normal. The ones being “risqué” seemed to find it easier to say.

And then last year, that bloody year.

The walk through the marketplace on the day after the Brexit vote had been like something out of a science fiction movie. And that was saying something, coming from someone who was getting used to seeing magical beings. Which of these people, she had thought, looking around herself on that market day, had voted to saw themselves off from the rest of Europe? Which of these people, in their heart of hearts, wanted a Lychford that was “just like it had been in the 1950s”? Which of the shops she spent money in were owned by people who wanted the full emulsion white paint job, corner to corner, maybe without even having thought about it enough to know that was what they wanted? Which of the coffee shops contained people who were cheering inside today? She’d never know, because this was Britain, after all, and nice people don’t talk about anything that might cause trouble, and so all that day the town had been weirdly silent.

She’d gone down the pub that night, and people hadn’t talked about it there, either, but Autumn had overheard things, a lot of things, and that had been the first time she’d found herself going down the road to the Custom House. In the weeks and months that had followed, after the election, she’d found herself going there more and more. She’d talked with Lizzie about how she felt, and that always made her feel better for a while, like going on the Women’s March in Bristol after Trump’s election had made her feel better for a while. But the trouble with talking about this with Lizzie was that Lizzie would never understand how much these things made Autumn feel like an outsider in her own town. It had been months now, and she still couldn’t find a way to haul herself out of the pit that social media dropped her into every morning. She looked at the future, and for the first time in her life, the way ahead looked uniformly grim. There were such incredible things in people’s lives now, like photos from space probes around Saturn, and such incredible things outside those lives, the magic only the three of them knew about, and yet still, still, these tiny bloody people with their pent-up little bloody fears—! Even if she could have put it all into words, she couldn’t be sure Shaun Mawson would ever understand.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know why I went to the Custom House.”

“Did anything… particularly stressful happen to you yesterday? I’m wondering how worked up you were when you got there.”

Yesterday had been a long, sweaty summer day, which had seemed to gather up anger within itself, ready for a storm. And, oh God… yeah, she remembered now, the storm had broken. During that day, she had ended up having the row she was always going to have. And, horribly, it had been with the mother of the police officer who was facing her now. It had been with Judith.

They’d fallen into it by accident. The old witch of the hedgerow, as Judith liked to style herself, both mentally and in terms of grooming, had sat permanently behind the till that day, just like most days now, glaring at any tourists who might happen to come into the shop, setting quizzes about the occult history of Gloucestershire in the sixteenth century to any of them who might offhandedly try to strike up a conversation about crystals or the healing energy of unicorns. It was like Autumn was keeping a troll behind the counter, in every sense of the word. She had wondered hopefully, in the last few months, as Judith’s attitude to people had got worse, if Judith might seem like the more challenging end of the real ale spectrum, that people might start to say that was the real thing at that magic shop, that, horrible as it tasted, it was the genuine experience. But no, after the third tourist yesterday had left without buying anything, at a speed which left the shop bell bashing against its hanger, Autumn had finally dropped the idea of monetising the degree of difficulty her employee presented to the world. “Okay,” she’d said, “you can’t keep doing that. What with Brexit, I need to start making some sales here—”

“What about it?”

Autumn had realised that, at the end of a tiring day, she had finally let slip what she had avoided talking about with Judith all this time. She had said the magic word. Ironically. Still, she knew that Judith’s grasp of economics was usually that of an elderly aunt who every year tried to bet five pence each way on the Grand National.

“Any supplies I get in from Europe are now literally worth their weight in gold, and given everything that’s happened this year, the council will be putting the rates up.”

Judith had made a dismissive sound in her throat. “Things’ll get better.”

Autumn had paused, wondering if that had meant what she’d thought it had. Judith had made grudging eye contact, then looked away. And Autumn had recalled how, according to the polls, there had been a direct correlation between one’s closeness to the cemetery and how willing one was to mess up the future for generations to come. It had occurred to her that it would be just like Judith to have done what a number of the folk down the pub seemed to have done: to have taken any yes/no question from any government as an immediate reason to burn down their own house and everyone else’s. “Okay, you got me. You’ve been working hard today to separate my shop from its customers. I’m interested in how you feel about separating other stuff. Which way did you vote?”

Judith had glared at her. “None of your business.”

Which nobody on the Remain side ever said. It was only the Leavers who wanted to hide it. “Oh no. You did, didn’t you?”

“Vote’s private. That’s democracy, isn’t it?”

“But you’re not proud of it?”

“I don’t talk about politics or religion.”

“You’re a witch, who works in a magic shop and, like the car sticker would say, your other apprentice is a vicar.”

“I don’t talk about politics. Stop going on. Do you want a cuppa?”

Which had been the first time in the history of their association that Judith had ever offered to make the tea. The enormity of this distraction might even have worked, if Autumn had been willing to let it. With the sun getting lower in the shop window, the row might have faded and Autumn might have decided to let it go, let her go, let her go back to her house and annoy her neighbours instead. As the song so nearly put it. But that had been the moment, Autumn remembered now, the moment she’d realised something huge about the situation she and Lizzie were in, something that had felt in that second like sheer complicity on her part. “Oh my God,” she said. “That’s what you’re teaching us to do.”

“What?” Judith had looked at Autumn like she’d gone mad.

“We’re defending the borders of this town. We’re here to deter the outsiders. That’s what we’re all about, isn’t it? That’s what we do.”

There had been a long silence. There had been, even then, Autumn thought now, things Judith could have said.

But instead, Judith had slowly got to her feet. “Do you want me to keep on working here, then?” Those merciless old eyes had fixed on Autumn. Judith had done what she always did. She had boiled down the complexities of a situation to some ridiculous basics.

Autumn had wanted to say of course she wanted Judith to stay. She really had. But in the heat of that moment, she hadn’t been able to get the words out. Instead, she’d said nothing.

After a moment, Judith had picked up her bag from under the desk, and headed for the door. Autumn had wanted to call to her before she got there. She had not.

So Judith had left, and the door had closed gently behind her.

It had taken Autumn a few minutes after Judith had left to move at all.

When she had, it had been fast. She had been shaking with emotion. She had locked up the till, locked up the shop, slammed the bolts… and headed down to the Custom House.

“It had just… been a long day,” she said to Shaun now. “I’d had some problems with one of my staff.”

He carefully wrote that down. What was going on here? She felt like she’d just somehow incriminated herself. “Okay,” he said. “Was there any trouble when you were in the pub itself?”

Autumn recalled that she hadn’t been the first to set forth across the crunchy carpet of the Custom House last night. Her heart had sunk, in fact, when she’d seen who’d gotten there before her for early doors. It had been Jenker. Keith Jenkins, he was properly called, a taxi driver who’d married someone in the Backs. The Custom House was his local. Earlier that summer, when Autumn had come in complaining about the heat, he’d said something about her working on her suntan. At the time, she hadn’t been quite sure whether or not he’d meant it literally, and he’d maintained eye contact, kept that innocent grin on his ruddy, aye aye, here’s the life and soul of the party face. She couldn’t help but be wary of him after that, though, and yeah, she’d overheard things.

“Hello hello!” he’d boomed yesterday night. “Here comes trouble.”

Which would normally have been the sort of greeting she loved. But not from him. And especially not after the day she’d had. She’d nodded to him, she remembered, and ordered a pint of 6B. It would have been impossible, in the circumstances, not to talk to him, but the last thing she’d wanted to talk about was what had happened with Judith and the guilt and anger that were wrestling within her. He’d tried the normal, harmless, topics, such as football and the weather, and she’d nodded along, barely listening to his replies. With anyone else, on any other day, she would gleefully have raised the subject of the weirdness of her work at the magic shop. She liked to present what she did, at least the public part of it, to her pub friends in all its eccentricity and have them tease her about it. But she couldn’t do that with Jenker. She wouldn’t make herself sociably vulnerable to him.

After a couple of drinks, however, she’d taken something he said for a starting point for a conversation that swiftly turned into come on, did he feel okay with how things were now, when you couldn’t say anything on Twitter without some fascist, some, I mean, literal fascist, someone who if you asked “are there any fascists here?” would put up his hand and say “actually…”? It had turned out Jenker wasn’t on Twitter, and thought people who paid too much attention to the Internet were a bit… he’d made big boggly eyes at her.

Where had it gone from there? Oh God, she was starting to remember. Shaun the police officer was actually quite good at this interviewing thing, wasn’t he?

After three drinks, one of which Jenker had bought her, and she’d suddenly started to wonder if he thought she was coming on to him, but no, that moment had gone past without comment, they’d started to seriously argue about what Brexit was going to mean to the economic future of Britain. He kept cutting her off and saying “nah,” while making points she found she didn’t have the information to hand to come back about. If you were a “crap farmer, not a good farmer” you had reason to vote to stay in, he said, but fishermen had a good reason to vote out. Then Autumn said what about wanting to keep all the brown people out, and he’d said it wasn’t about the brown people, he was mates with a lot of brown people, like her, no offence, it was the bloody Poles and the whatever they were from central Europe, who couldn’t speak English, taking their jobs, bringing their own shops over here and their foreign muck into our supermarkets. If she thought it was about brown people, that was where the chip on her shoulder had come from. No offence. Here, Autumn had been on steadier ground, at least in terms of data, and she’d held her own, and had actually said out loud that she felt she was one of those people too. Every sort of those people. He’d said, what you? You’ve been here longer than I have! He’d started holding up a finger for his interruptions, and had said they should have another pint and blimey love, you can talk, can’t you, you and me must have been separated at birth, maybe I had a touch of the tar brush too, ’cos you’re not full on, are you, you’re half and half, so I don’t see what you’ve got to worry about, and she’d been about to… explode? Yeah, hopefully she’d been about to do that rather than force a laugh, when one of the many, many people who had somehow filled the pub around them, some of whom were now looking on in glee or embarrassment, had spoken up.

Oh. Oh my God. She remembered now.

This was him. She remembered his face. An old lad, in his seventies, newspaper under his arm. A ruddy, drinker’s face, balding, a fleck of grey stubble on his chin. He was so important. Why was he so important? What had happened to him?

“There… wasn’t really any trouble,” she said to Shaun. “Bit of a row.”

“Do you remember anyone in particular being there?”

She mentioned Jenker. But okay, Shaun probably had in mind this… weirdly important guy she’d just remembered. “Someone told me his name was… Old Rory?”

“Rory Holt.” That seemed to be the box he’d been wondering if she was going to tick. “Did he say anything in particular to you?”

Yeah. Yeah, he had, now Shaun had made her think of it. And it had been a terrible thing. It would have appeared in her memory, sometime today. It would have popped up, to bring her crashing down. Like it had halted her in her tracks now.

She could see him in her mind’s eye now, a little grin on his face as he’d said it. “Bloody good idea.” That’s what he’d said.

“What is?” she’d replied.

“A wall,” he’d said. “Trump’s got it right. We should build one too. Keep ’em all out.”

Which had gotten laughs, because come on this was still Britain, and nobody, whatever their politics, flew a flag for the most ridiculous American of them all, and that had come out of bloody nowhere. But it had left Autumn speechless. It had been a one-two punch with the awkward anger at what Jenker had just said.

She had stared at the old man. He’d met her gaze, challenging her. He hadn’t looked away. His gaze said, What the hell are you doing here in my sight? Did you think we were equal? This is my home. Not yours.

Jenker had tapped her on the shoulder. “Old Rory’s been reading the Internet too much,” he’d said, and made the boggly eyes again. “Do you want another?”

Was that how furious the look on her face had been, that he’d felt he’d needed to distract her?

What had happened next? She remembered leaving the pub… didn’t she? Had that been soon after? Had she had that next drink and lost track? Had she lost track of Rory Holt too?

“What happened next?” asked Shaun.

“I… I really don’t know. Could you tell me why you’re asking me all this?”

Shaun pursed his lips.


Like a lot of elderly people, Judith Mawson didn’t need much sleep, and thus tended to get up early. She would put the television on in her kitchen and watch something stupid before the news as she made a very early breakfast, these days usually consisting of whatever half-arsed cereal the doctor said she needed to force down for the sake of her… heart, usually, but pick any organ. Like they said, eating healthy food might not help you live longer, but it certainly made you feel like you were. In the last six months or so, as she went through her usual ritual, she’d find herself glancing at the stairs, always thinking she’d heard a voice, when actually she hadn’t.

“Stupid,” she whispered to herself. “Soft.”

Judith had got used to living with the spiteful ghost of Arthur, her husband, or rather, a curse that had taken his shape. The spectre might have been evil and cruel, but at least he’d been company. She was still trying to find a way to deal with the lack of another presence in the house, and thus, for the first time, having to completely accept that the real Arthur was gone. It was a strange, attenuated sort of grieving, made worse by Judith only having two people she could talk about it with: her apprentices, Autumn and Lizzie. Well, make that one person, after yesterday. The thought of it made her stop, with the cereal packet in mid-air. She had to take a moment to control her anger, as she had so many times before finally getting to sleep last night. Of course that stupid girl had wanted her to stay on at the shop, she just hadn’t been able to bring herself to say the words. And that wasn’t bloody good enough. Before she set foot in that place again, before she let Autumn resume her training, she would want, at the very least, an apology. And more money. And… whatever bloody else that stupid, stupid—!

Judith stopped herself. Her doctor probably wouldn’t approve of her getting so worked up, and what for? It had only been the sort of thing young folk did, with their emotions flooding all over the place like spilt milk. She’d lost sleep about it, but so what? She wouldn’t go in today, get an afternoon nap, let the stupid girl come to her.

For the umpteenth time, she put that matter to the back of her mind. What was worrying her more right now was this note she’d found attached to her fridge by a magnet. It made no sense. The note said:

Remember that your parents are dead, you great fool.

Which was ridiculous, because Judith’s parents still lived next door like they’d always done. Only… no, that wasn’t true, was it? She clicked her tongue, annoyed with herself. That was her getting old. Joyce who had that horrible laugh lived there now, with her parakeet. So… Judith’s parents must have moved out, but… they’d have told her where they were going, wouldn’t they?

They must have moved out.

Where?

This bloody note, making no sense. Nothing of magic about it, either. It hadn’t just appeared. Someone had, quite normally, written it and put it there.

The weirdest thing about the note was, it was in Judith’s own handwriting.


The Reverend Lizzie Blackmore groaned, and threw out a hand to hit her clock radio. It was only when her hand had connected three times to the button atop the radio, and she had only succeeded in switching it on, and it had filled the room with the soothing really very early morning sounds of BBC Radio 2, that she realised it was not actually 6:30 a.m., but a whole hour earlier. She switched it off, and then realised what had actually awoken her. The sound of distant music was wafting through her open window. Duff, duff, duff, dance music, so far away you could only hear the beat, then the beat changing, then back to the previous beat. She got up, stumbled to the window, and closed it. That wouldn’t be uncomfortable. The Vicarage was cool in summer, if bloody freezing in winter. But she could still hear the beat, like a distant tapping. It was locked into her consciousness, specific and now just at the volume that made your ears listen out for it. Had it stopped? No, there it was. Had it stopped now? Nope.

She went back to bed and listened for about ten minutes to the changing beat, without wanting to. If it would only stay the same for a minute or two, she could have fallen asleep to it. She really didn’t feel much like bloody dancing. Finally, she got up, put on her dressing gown, and grabbed from her bedside table the item which was now ruling her life. She’d gotten the Exercise Tracker for herself as a New Year’s present, following that rather traumatic Christmas. The little electronic sadist was already making a bit of a difference to the size of her arse. Then she headed for the stairs, intending to make a cup of tea. She could spend this extra hour sending out a few emails, getting ahead of the day’s problems. And perhaps she could play Overwatch for a bit.

She was surprised, and then alarmed, as she walked blearily down the stairs, to hear that the kettle was already boiling. She stopped, remembering that the burglar alarm was still below her in the hall. It was only relatively recently, after she’d been bathed in the water from the well in the woods, and become able to see the magical powers surrounding and threatening Lychford, that she’d even started turning it on. She couldn’t get to the emergency button, but her phone was charging upstairs. She’d started to carefully make her way back up when a voice called from below. “Do you want a cuppa?”

She recognised the voice, and the way it had just said the most ordinary of sentences as if it was learning a foreign language, and was first relieved, then angry.

She marched down the stairs and into the kitchen to find Finn, Prince of the Fairies, appreciatively watching her kettle boil as if it was some sort of modern art installation. “What the hell are you doing here?” she said.

He turned to look at her, not his usual jovial self. “Something strange is happening. I’d have gone to see, you know, the other one—”

“You mean Autumn? Your ex?”

Finn’s supernaturally handsome features creased into the most gorgeous frown Lizzie had ever seen. It really was hard to stay angry with him. Which was, in itself, worrying. “I can’t be expected to remember everyone. You people keep… reproducing. And then I look up from whatever I’m doing and you’ve had a millennium and I’m like ‘where does the time go?’ and—”

“Is there any point in asking how you got in? And yes, now you’re here, I do want some strong black coffee, thank you.”

Finn, as if he was following the most exotic process of preparation, and looking to her for guidance every other moment, made just that, and for himself poured hot water onto a tea bag it looked like he’d brought along, because Lizzie was pretty sure she didn’t own any that glowed green. “I got in by walking down past the walls, which was really hard, as expected, because the Vicarage still has about it some of the old shapes of protection”

“I thought that in Lychford the vicar and, you know, magic people were always on the same side?”

Finn took a long drink from his mug, and glowed slightly green himself for a moment. “You church folk are indeed usually allies with the wise woman of the town, but the nation of my father, we’re not always friends with humans. This is reasonably easy to grasp, surely? Human beings still have different nations. You have borders even from your allies, right?”

“True.”

“So those who built the Vicarage made its shape to defend against people like me slipping in and out without a lot of effort. Hence this.” He pointed to his mug. “Keeps my strength up. Like I said, I’d have gone to see one of the other two for preference, but the old one’s got some serious ‘keep away’ hoo-hah round her place these days, and Autumn’s got a guest over.”

“Oh?” Lizzie realised she’d put the wrong note in her voice and changed it to a more neutral “Oh.”

Finn raised a frankly delightful eyebrow. “How are she and that new lad of hers doing?”

“How do you know about that?”

Finn just pointed at himself.

“Has that question got anything to do with the sort of company she’s got this morning?”

“Not sure. Probably not. So how are she and Luke doing?”

Lizzie noted that he knew Autumn’s boyfriend’s name. “They have their ups and downs, but they’re still together. He’s off on some teaching thing up north.”

“Probably for the best.”

“Why?”

“Because of this strangeness that’s been going on. As I was about to say before I was so rudely interrupted, today it wasn’t just the shape of this place that made it hard to get in here. Something has happened to the borders. Leaving fairy and getting into Lychford is normally just about taking a step here and a step there. This time it was like stumbling down a hill. I felt like I’d crash any moment, and I don’t know what crashing would even involve. When I get back, everyone’ll be yelling about this.”

“That is worrying. Okay, thanks for—”

“But that’s not why I came here! I only found that out on the way here! And now I think of it, maybe the two are connected, because this is damnable, this is unconscionable, this I was sent from the court of my father with urgent diplomatic condemnation concerning!”

Lizzie held up her hands, amazed at the sudden fury which had taken him over. It was as if he had remembered that he was supposed to be officially angry, and in that moment, took on that emotion for real. Once again, she’d been reminded that though a fairy like Finn might resemble a human being, he was actually very different. “What?!’

What,” yelled Finn, pointing out of the window in the direction of the repetitive beats, “is that bloody music?”

Lizzie could only shrug in agreement. “I know.” Then she realised she was representing possibly the entire human race in an official diplomatic negotiation with another… species? If that was what fairies were. Not a situation she expected to encounter while still in her dressing gown. She made herself straighten up and adjusted her robe. “I mean…” she said, more carefully, “I don’t know.”

Finn sighed. “I now have a new winner for our ‘stupid things humans say’ board.”

“Do you really have a—?”

“What you’re trying to say is: you don’t know what that music is either?”

“I know what it is.” And before he could scream in frustration, Lizzie quickly explained the concept of illegal raves, from the perspective of someone who’d last gone out dancing two decades ago.

Finn seemed relieved to at least have an explanation he could take back to his father. “Well, normally I’d be all for that, and good work there with the mind-expanding drugs, because at least someone here’s trying, but how is the sound of it getting into fairy? We’ve got stuff to do, you know. We need the sleep of ages under the hills. We can’t be having with dush dush dush all the time.”

“So the dance music is… keeping the fairies awake?”

“That’s what I just said. Try to keep up.”

“Well, our local police, such as they are, will be out trying to find it, I should think.”

“Probably, though I’ve seen a few of them this morning doing other things besides. But what worries me most is, since I got here I’ve had a bit of a look for where the music’s coming from, and I can’t find it. And I have the nose of a bloodhound. In my pocket.” He took something that Lizzie really hoped was a felt novelty of some kind from his jacket and showed it to her. “So your police won’t be able to. You put that together with the borders getting messed up, and it’s big trouble for everyone.”

“You’re right. I’ll tell the others.”

Finn seemed satisfied. “Excellent. This is what the three of you are for.” He threw back the remains of his tea, then glanced suspiciously at Lizzie, carefully washed out his mug, and retrieved the tea bag. “Good luck with it. Now I have to go home and listen to everyone at court getting worked up all over again. Let’s hope you can deal with it before that boils over into, you know, the collapse of reality. Or whatever.” And with a gesture that seemed somehow dismissive as well as functional, he vanished. Then there was a sudden clonk sound from somewhere inside the walls, and a cry of pain, and then a motion of air that Lizzie somehow knew meant that now he’d actually gone, on the second attempt, and that the Vicarage’s old defences were still good for some things.

Lizzie’s first impulse was to go and see what sort of company Autumn had at this time in the morning, but no, Judith was who she should go to find.

She went back upstairs, pleased at having added an unexpected flight of steps to her fitness tracker’s records, dressed, then headed off to Judith’s house.

As she walked up the hill from the marketplace, that distant sound of dance music was still drifting over the town. It was indeed weird that, if that was an illegal rave, the police hadn’t found it and closed it down by now. Something that loud couldn’t be legal, could it? Wouldn’t she have had a warning letter through her door, or something?

There didn’t initially seem to be anyone at home at Judith’s house. But that was often the case these days. Lizzie knew Judith had been grieving in a manner that was, quite possibly, unique in all of human history. Lizzie had been doing her best to help, because comforting grieving widows was very much part of her skill set, but Judith had been, as expected, one of her more challenging subjects. The old lady’s desire to not say anything to anyone about anything unless it was somehow offensive had reached a new intensity in these last few months. It took a bit of work for anyone dealing with her to realise that she’d changed, because she now bore an entirely different burden than the one she’d borne for years before. And that burden had been made worse, of course, by its own potential for change, that someday Judith might bear no burden at all. The weight on her shoulders had grown to be part of her, had informed the malice that often seemed, to those who didn’t know her well, to be what kept her going.

At Lizzie’s third ring of the bell, the door opened. Judith stood there, looking even more grim than usual. “I was just about to come and find you,” she said. “Summat terrible has happened.”

“I know—” began Lizzie.

“No you don’t,” said Judith.

Excerpted from A Long Day in Lychford, copyright © 2017 by Paul Cornell.

Posted by Niall Alexander

Happy as I hope we all are, on the whole, I expect each and every one of us has lived through a few bad days too.

Now I don’t mean those days when we have to deal with death or ill health or anything actively awful. I’m talking about those days that just suck a bunch; those days when nothing seems to go your way. Maybe it starts with a letter from the taxman and spirals up, up and away from there. Maybe the milk is spoiled so you can’t have your morning coffee. Maybe traffic makes you late for work even though you left early. Whatever the particulars, these are the days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and damn your plans.

These days don’t destroy us, because we’re reasonably well adjusted human beings. Tomorrow’s another day, we tell ourselves. It’s not like the world is ending or anything. But it is in Patrick Ness’ ninth novel. Like The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This before it, Release is a smart and sensitive standalone story that mixes the mundane with the magical in order to underscore the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary. It’s a brief book about a bad day as bold and as beautiful as any finely-honed tome about the rise of Rome.

The bad day I’ve been banging on about is had herein by a young man called Adam Thorn. Adam is a pretty typical kid. He’s never done drugs or caught an STD or seen a psychiatrist or displeased the police. He probably did decently at school, and he’s definitely been holding down an alright job at a warehouse run by an Evil International Mega-Conglomerate in the several years since. He doesn’t deserve to be miserable, but he is—in large part because of his family.

They fuck us up, our families! They don’t mean to, but they do, and Adam’s family is no exception to that regrettable rule. His father’s a pastor at The House Upon the Rock, his mother is Big Brian Thorn’s number one one fan, and his older brother Marty does God’s Work as well. Naturally, none of these things should stop them from caring for Adam like a good family would, except that he’s gay, and with this, they are not okay. “There was always a wound, it seemed, kept freshly opened by a family who also kept saying they loved him.”

Whilst his family’s love has caveats attached, his best friend Angela’s does not. But early on in the day Release revolves around, Angela informs Adam that she’s moving away from Frome, where they’ve lived since they were little:

They were, on the whole, fairly normal very-lower-middle-class kids in a rural suburb of the big megalopolis that curved around Puget Sound like a J. The Thorns were a clergy family with airs and ambitions; the Darlingtons were farmers, for God’s sake. Nobody had enough money to get into really interesting trouble, and nobody had the inclination for the more readily available trouble just anyone could afford.

Nevertheless, there’s trouble coming, in part due to the fact that Angela’s imminent departure isn’t even the most devastating news of “this day [that] showed no sign of stopping,” because “underneath everything else, today was the day Enzo left forever.”

Even if he did turn out to be a bit of a dick, Enzo was the first love of our lad’s life, and Adam still isn’t totally over him. That’s just one of a thousand things that could come out at the goodbye “get-together” that represents the release after which Ness’ novel is named. It’s a party that, as the day drains away, will force Adam to finally confront his family, not to speak of his (lack of) feelings for Linus, the sweetly geeky guy he’s been seeing since.

“This eternal, pivotal day” also takes in a sequence of supernatural sightings as the ghost of a girl strangled to death before our story starts visits with a series of people who may or may not be to blame for the dark turn her life took. It’s a little like A Christmas Carol, if Scrooge were a meth-head and Tiny Tim a seven-foot monster manifested from myth, and although it occasionally acknowledges Adam’s story, and Adam’s story it, it’s so fragmented and remote from the focal point of the fiction that at first it seems superfluous.

In the end, however, the speculative aspects of the text prove crucial to the moment of release Ness’ novel builds inexorably towards. It’s a release not least because it sees these separate threads finally intertwine, and it left me sporting shivers—not because it’s spooky but because I physically felt like something magical had happened.

Something magical had, at that, but it wasn’t the “dead woman in a drowned dress” or the “seven-foot faun following at a respectful distance” that made my body respond. It was Release‘s sensible yet sorrowful central character at last achieving clarity. “Everything was so clear in books and movies. Everyone always knew their reasons. But real life was such a mess,” and when Adam finally makes his way out of the maze, it’s impressively momentous and emotionally potent.

Release falls just short of being the small but perfectly formed novel its predecessors led me to expect for a few reasons. In its twinning of the potential apocalypse and one young man’s struggle to make it through an important moment, it’s rather reminiscent of The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Ness doesn’t quite repeat himself here in this book about faith and family as opposed to friendship and fitting in, but the parallels between the pair played on my mind from time to time. So too did the dialogue, which at points positively drips with melodrama, particularly the “until the end of the world” shtick Adam and Angela share. But these are teens talking, and Ness is a canny enough author to call them on their nonsense, suggesting that sometimes, “you just got to eat the corn and enjoy it.”

And at the end of the day, in more than one sense, I did. The latest in an increasingly long line of life-affirming works of fiction, Release is rich, resonant and quietly remarkable.

Release is available from HarperTeen in the US and from Walker Books in the UK.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

Posted by Fran Wilde

Last week, in the Thomas Jefferson Building auditorium at the Library of Congress, the newest U.S. Poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, gave her inaugural reading.

Why am I writing about this on Tor.com, you might ask? Read on, friends. Smith has nerd cred to spare.

In grade school, Smith says she found poetry’s meter and rhyme scheme “akin to magic.” (from her memoir, Ordinary Light.) Sure sure, you say. Everyone tosses “magic” around. And the literary world in general sometimes seems to want nothing to do with science fiction, except to play with the shiny bits. But wait, there’s more…

Smith grew up in a science and science fiction family. At the Library of Congress, she talked about her father coming home from working on the Hubble Space Telescope, and sitting down to read Larry Niven. Her mother, a teacher, passed away when Smith was just out of college. Her first two books of poetry—The Body’s Question and Life on Mars—act as memorials to her parents. But they are also more than that; they are lyrical investigations of a person coming to terms with the universe.

Yeah, I’m kind of a big fan.

I love poetry’s lilt. Its meter. I love the way it can carve a page open, with the deftest of knives.

I studied poetry for much of my late teens and early twenties. Around the same time that Smith studied at Harvard and Columbia with poets Helen Vendler, Lucie Brock-Broido, Henri Cole, and Seamus Heaney, I was studying with Rita Dove and Charles Wright, Larry Levis, and Heather McHugh. My career took a different direction—and I’m glad for it, but I still keep my eye on poetry. Smith caught my eye first with her 2011 collection, Life on Mars (Greywolf Press), and then the one before it, The Body’s Question. I’m reading her memoir, Ordinary Light, now.

Smith uses the conventions and themes of science fiction, westerns, and other genres as tools, much as many of us do who write within genre. She’s said she views them as “distancing devices,” and “a way to shift the metaphor.” (NYT, 6/14/17) and for that I recognize her honesty. I’m also hopeful that if enough literary writers re-envision science fiction as a tool, rather than a gimmick, it might act as a bridge between genre and literature—one that allows passage both ways. I think we’re seeing much more of that now—especially in writers like Carmen Maria Machado and Kelly Link.

Smith’s poems act as a part of that bridge—the science fictional poems especially, but also her upcoming and more recent work: a libretto in progress and a book that includes the exploration of Black Civil War soldiers’ voices—doing the work with language and imagery that we sometimes view as our turf: starfields, aliens, alternate and hidden histories, zombies. She puts her hand out into space and draws starstuff down to the page.

Here’s what I’m talking about: the newest Poet Laureate of the United States wrote this in 2011:

My God, It’s Full of Stars (excerpt) Tracy K. Smith

1.

We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.
Or one man against a city of zombies. One man

Who is not, in fact, a man, sent to understand
The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants
Let loose down the pants of America. Man on the run.

Man with a ship to catch, a payload to drop,
This message going out to all of space. . . . Though
Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent,

Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics
Of an outmoded design. Some like to imagine
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,

Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best

While the father storms through adjacent rooms
Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,
Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw.

Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.

The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.

 —from “My God It’s Full of Stars,” Life on Mars, Greywolf Press, 2011

 

So, dear reader, when Tracy K. Smith was named U.S. Poet Laureate, I lost it a little (ask Theodora Goss—I filled her texts with a wall of delight). And when Smith talked about taking poetry to small towns across the country, because, as she told The New York Times in June, “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not,” I was even happier. The idea that poetry isn’t distant and hard to understand, or meant to be feared and struggled with, has parallels in how we once saw space, before we began reaching out to it, exploring, and bringing it home.

So when a friend at the Library of Congress asked me if I wanted to attend Smith’s investiture? I booked my ticket at lightspeed. I’m so glad I did. Smith read from Life on Mars and The Body’s Question as well as reading newer work about the legacy of slavery in the South, and she celebrated the junior poet laureate—Amanda Gorman—who at 19 is part of a new generation of artists swiftly coming into their own.

Most of all, though, I wanted to write about Tracy K. Smith at Tor.com because she writes lines like this:


Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings

In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

 

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire

And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

 

The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,

Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.

—excerpted from “The Universe as Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

 

Smith’s language is that of the movies, primarily. She spoke during her investiture of her father’s work, but also how she came to science fiction through the movies—like 2001: A Space Odyssey—and the visual frame of cinema. Her reference is often from the movies, but it’s also auditory; you can hear it in the crackle of black noise, of sounds in outer space, or in the moment when we first saw photos from Mars in 1976.

Smith was four then. Not much older than me.

When someone told young-poet-me that no one wrote poems about rocket ships, I believed them. I refocused and wrote verse about the world around me, even as I began writing science fiction and fantasy very quietly, and somewhat rebelliously, on the side.

Smith? She laughed and kept on writing.

I love when someone reads her poems for the first time, that dawning recognition. That sense of—perhaps—poetry moving closer, becoming more accessible. Or at least a sense that we can move towards and out into the verses, if they’re written in a way that teaches us how.

In 2011, Smith’s second volume, Life on Mars (Greywolf Press), sent those discourses with the universe, the stars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Bowie, and more out into the world, where it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I know Smith comes from a side of literature that—perhaps—doesn’t always co-exist well with genre. And I get it. But I encourage you to take a look at Smith’s work, to seek her out if she comes to your town. New U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith is brilliant, her work resonates. And, SF fans, with Life on Mars, especially, she’s broadcasting on our frequency.

And once you check out Life on Mars, you may also explore other SF poetry, too—like Sofia Samatar’s “Girl Hours”, and C.S.E. Cooney’s “Postcards from Mars”, and other lovely pieces in Stone Telling’s excellent Catalyst Issue, edited by Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan. Check out Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl (Mythic Delirium). Listen also to former poet laureate Rita Dove discuss Star Trek. And that bridge? The one between genre and literature? Look for the writers who are continuously crossing back and forth—Kelly Link, Carmen Machado, and many more.

In the meantime, I’m gonna go put more rocket ships in my poems.

Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been nominated for two Nebula awards and a Hugo, and include her Andre Norton- and Compton-Crook-winning debut novel, Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequels, Cloudbound (2016) and Horizon (2017), and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” (Tor.com Publishing 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She holds an MFA in poetry, an MA in information design and information architecture, and writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, io9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.

Posted by Matthew Keeley

In 1968, the late Brian Aldiss published Farewell, Fantastic Venus! This anthology, which reprinted writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sagan, C.S. Lewis, and Olaf Stapledon, celebrates the image of Venus that had once dominated science fiction stories—a planet full of jungles, swamps, adventure, and mystery—and would soon be forever eclipsed by the lifeless inferno the first space probes discovered.

I admit that this description of a British science fiction anthology from 1968 may seem an odd way to open an article on a film made seven years earlier behind the Iron Curtain, yet Aldiss’s anthology kept coming to mind as I watched Czech director Karel Zeman’s 1961 Baron Prášil, better known to Western audiences as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Zeman’s film opens with Tony, a stolid astronaut (or cosmonaut—we never do learn his nationality), sensibly clad in a bulky spacesuit, exiting his space capsule to plant his flag and make his giant leap for mankind. He is, of course, perturbed when he sees a whole path of footprints stretching away from his capsule.

Tony follows the footprints to a derelict nineteenth-century space capsule, and, nearby, three men in frockcoats, top coats, and waxed mustaches: the three members of the Baltimore Gun Club from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. With them, equally unconcerned about the lunar climate and the lack of oxygen and looking quite hale for a man of 350 years, is Cyrano de Bergerac, who once wrote about empires on the moon. Baron Munchausen, who claims to be the bravest of adventurers, the wisest of diplomats, and the most irresistible of lovers, and who certainly is the greatest of raconteurs, arrives shortly thereafter astride a flying horse. Believing poor Tony, with his clunky spacesuit and his bewildered incomprehension, to be a delegate from another planet, the Baron resolves to show his new friend Earth: They depart in a sailboat towed by flying horses and land in the eighteenth century.

You can imagine how a modern American or European film would depict the voyage from the moon: the rushing CGI horses, the stars bursting overhead, the long monologue from the Baron, speaking over the rush of air and the neighing of the horses, explaining the rules of the dream world (for there must be rules). And you can also imagine how one of Zeman’s contemporaries, like Ray Harryhausen, would have operated: back-projection, stop-motion horses that, for all the care lavished on them, seem alive precisely because they’re not entirely believable. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen looks nothing like either of these alternatives; nor does Zeman’s movie look much like Terry Gilliam’s 1988 Adventures of Baron Munchausen, though Gilliam conceived his film as an homage to the Czech master.

Zeman worked with all the care of Harryhausen and all the ingenuity of Gilliam, but his great inspirations for the look of his film were two great French artists: the engraver Gustave Doré and the filmmaker Georges Méliès, director of turn of the century classics like A Trip to the Moon and Baron Munchausen’s Dream. At their best, Méliès films seem like illustrations come to life, blending animation and live action to create something strange, beautiful, and nameless. Zeman imitates his master’s techniques and effects: his live characters wander an illustrated world; many of the “sets” are illustrations by Doré, who is so important to the film that he receives billing in the opening credits.

Although there is sound, dialogue, and music, most of Baron Munchausen plays out in variously tinted monochromes: blue tints for night, red for fire and fighting, a burning yellow for the desert, and so on. At other times, Zeman plays tricks with the format of the screen—in one memorable sequence, the frame splits into three slightly slanted registers. In the bottom register, a bright red animated rose blooms, in the middle we witness a desperate horseback chase, and in the topmost slice of the screen we see the peaceful crescent moon and the blinking stars. It’s one of the most beautiful and unexpected moments I’ve seen on film.

I haven’t talked too much about the plot or characters (besides the Baron and Tony), as this isn’t a film that pays much attention to either. At just 81 minutes, there’s little room for character development, and even if there were, it would likely be overshadowed by the visual extravagances and miracles on display. As in Gilliam’s later film, the display and celebration of Imagination overshadows the quotidian concerns of more conventional filmmaking. Any of the Baron’s individual exploits—riding a cannonball, flying to the moon, slaying thousands in a single swordfight—matters less than the surfeit of wonder occasioned by their abundance.

I watched The Fabulous Baron Munchausen on the new Blu-Ray from Second Run Films. Although it’s produced by a British company, the disc is region-free and should play in any Blu-Ray player. Unlike some prior releases of Zeman films, the subtitles are clearly the work of a fluent English speaker.

At the end of the movie, Tony and the Baron, returned to space by an unlikely method, bid farewell to “the fantasists in frockcoats” and the other inhabitants of the prescientific moon, who must seek another world as yet innocent of reality; I hope they did not migrate to Venus. I think they’re doing fine—The Fabulous Baron Munchausen reminds us that the worlds of imagination are limitless. Farewells are not forever.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

([syndicated profile] languagelog_feed Sep. 20th, 2017 03:17 pm)

Posted by Victor Mair

Excerpts from "Kazakhstan: Latin Alphabet Is Not a New Phenomenon Among Turkic Nations", by Uli Schamiloglu (a professor in the Department of Kazakh Language and Turkic Studies at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan), EurasiaNet (9/15/17):

Kazakhstan’s planned transition to the Latin alphabet raises complex questions. While alphabets may not be important in and of themselves, they play an important role in helping define a nation’s place in the world.

As a Turkologist, I regularly teach a range of historical Turkic languages using the runiform Turkic alphabet, the Uyghur alphabet, the Arabic alphabet and others. Turkologists also study various Turkic languages written in the Syriac alphabet, the Armenian alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet, the Greek alphabet and others.

Stated briefly, you can use a lot of different alphabets to write Turkic languages. From a technical point of view, it is just a question of how accurately any particular alphabet represents speech sounds.

The classic version of the Arabic alphabet — with additional letters introduced for Persian — does not represent the vowels of Turkic languages accurately. Nevertheless, it was used successfully for Chagatay Turkic in Central Asia and Ottoman Turkish in the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, innovations were introduced to represent vowels more accurately, and this is certainly the case with the reformed Arabic alphabet used currently for Uyghur.

Using the Latin alphabet to represent Turkish languages is not a new phenomenon. The alphabet was used to write the Codex Cumanicus in a dialect of Kipchak Turkic in the early 14th century. More recently, Turkey adopted one version of the Latin alphabet beginning in 1928, as did Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan from 1991, and Uzbekistan in 2001, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We should also recall that in the early Soviet period most of the Turkic languages of the union shared a common Latin alphabet — the so-called Yangälif — beginning in 1926. But this alphabet was soon superseded by individual Cyrillic-based alphabets that were different from each other.

There are several linguistic factors supporting Kazakhstan’s planned switch to the Latin alphabet. One, of course, is that the Latin alphabet is familiar to a far larger number of educated persons than the Cyrillic alphabet. It is also used widely for communication over the internet and cellular telephones.

It is now official policy in Kazakhstan to promote three languages through the educational system — namely Kazakh, Russian and English. I think it is well documented by now that the Russian-speaking space is in decline throughout the former territories of the Soviet Union. But Kazakhstan, like Tatarstan, is so strongly bilingual that I am not worried so much that the use of Russian will decline in Kazakhstan any time soon. The real challenge is to make sure that Kazakh becomes viable as the official language of Kazakhstan.

Unlike in Turkey, or say Uzbekistan, Kazakh has a long way to go before it becomes the default language of choice among citizens of Kazakhstan.

The entire article is fascinating and well worth reading, not just by linguists, but also by political scientists, social scientists, and cultural historians.  The only thing I would add is that the movement toward the adoption of the Latin alphabet among modern Turkic-speaking peoples began in 1928 with its promotion by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

[h.t. Jichang Lulu]

Posted by Stubby the Rocket

The Punisher

Marvel and Netflix have given us a new look at Jon Bernthal as The Punisher! And it is dark, violent, and is basically the most PUNISHER thing that ever PUNISHED. Be warned that there is a straight-up murder shown in the first few seconds of the trailer…but, well, it’s called The Punisher for a reason. Plus, as always, the Netflix/Marvel music cues are more perfect than perfect.

Click through for the full trailer!

See? Marvel/Netflix knows the crap out of their audience. And how sweet were those machine gun/drumbeats? The Punisher will skulk into our Netflix queues on later this fall!

[via Netflix!]

 

Posted by Grady Hendrix

STEPHEN KING: I am going to write a book.

PUBLISHER: Hooray!

STEPHEN KING: It will be a sequel to The Shining, and Carrie will be in it.

PUBLISHER: But HawtRoland1208 already did that on KingFanFictionForum.net.

STEPHEN KING: It will have vampires.

PUBLISHER: Vampires are sexy.

STEPHEN KING: My vampires will be old and drive R/Vs and torture children to death.

PUBLISHER: You look tired. Are you tired? Maybe you should skip the book and take a beach vacation instead.

Fact: Stephen King once ran over a leprechaun and it cursed him so that if he ever stops typing, he dies. Since 11/22/63 thudded onto bookstore shelves in 2011 he’s published a play, two novels, reissued a previous novel, cranked out two collaborative novellas, and one Kindle Single. He wrote that one in his sleep. Earlier this year he also published the novel Joyland about a haunted amusement park but let’s face it, Joyland cannot be a serious King book because it is less than 5,000,000 pages long and sounds like a repurposed spec script he once wrote for Scooby Doo.

So, with lots of qualifying phrases, Doctor Sleep is the “first” “new” “Stephen King book” in a “very long time.” A sequel to one of his most iconic books (The Shining) written 36 years (and 51 novels—he’s pretty scared of that leprechaun) ago, when it came out the most recent project that had King’s name on it was the TV series Under the Dome so anything short of being hit in the back of the head with a sock full of pennies probably sounded like a win to his readers. And let’s be clear, reading Doctor Sleep is way better than getting hit in the back of the head with a sock full of pennies. For one thing, you don’t lie on the ground in a stupor afterwards while a thief goes through your pockets. For another, Doctor Sleep doesn’t suck and, for a sequel to one of the most beloved horror novels of all time, that in itself is kind of a miracle.

In interviews, King has speculated on what would happen if Danny Torrance, the psychic kid from The Shining, grew up and married Carrie White, the psychic teenager in Carrie (no mention was made of The Dead Zone’s Johnny Smith becoming their wacky landlord, or Firestarter’s Charlie McGee being their kooky roommate—but the potential for a psychic version of Three’s Company is clearly there). King’s Carrie White is 11 years older than Danny Torrance so there’s a bit of an age gap to overcome on top of everything else, but you can tell it’s the kind of high concept idea that King couldn’t let go of and in Doctor Sleep he actually pulls it off without the creepiness you might normally feel when a 66 year-old-man tells you that two of his imaginary playmates are getting married.

King has always been more than a little obsessed with the idea of reworking The Shining. Did you know he hated the Stanley Kubrick film? You did? That’s because he won’t shut up about it. You can imagine him jumping up and down and shouting “Whooppee!” when he realized that the Author’s Note at the end of Doctor Sleep would provide him with yet another forum to slag off Kubrick’s now-classic film. He even took his own stab at redoing it himself, working with director Mick Garris and writing a 1997 The Shining TV miniseries starring Steven “Wings” Weber and Rebecca “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” De Mornay. How was it? It ended with the proud ghost of Jack Torrance attending his son’s high school graduation, so there’s that. Even King seems a bit embarrassed about how his version turned out because in Doctor Sleep he retcons it out of existence, making sure we know that Jack Torrance never attended Alcoholics Anonymous, whereas in his Shining miniseries Jack got his job at the Overlook Hotel thanks to his AA sponsor.

It might feel weird to talk about continuity in a novelist’s body of work, but King loves stitching his fictional worlds together, like a kid making his GI Joes join the Star Wars guys to fight the Smurfs. In Doctor Sleep there’re shout outs to Jerusalem’s Lot (setting of ‘Salem’s Lot) and another to Castle Rock, King’s favorite fictional town. There’s even a mention of Charlie Manx, the bad guy from his son, Joe Hill’s, recent book, NOS4A2, and a car sporting a bumper sticker for that book’s Christmasland. But most of the connections to previous books are to The Shining, and to poor little Danny Torrance.

All grown up, the fresh-faced five-year-old of King’s 1977 book is now a 40-year-old alcoholic struggling to stay sober, the kind of guy who cleaned out the wallet of his one-night-stand and left her kid teething on a bag of cocaine before he ran out the door. That was the moment he hit bottom and these days, Danny works as a janitor in a hospice where he’s earned the nickname Doctor Sleep because he helps patients die, not so much by holding a pillow over their faces but by being super empathetic and using his psychic “shining” power to make death a more positive experience for them. But a gang of psychic vampires known as the True Knot are cruising the country in their Winnebagos, feeding off the “steam” (psychic essence?) of kids who have the shining. I’m not sure if King is working on some kind of metaphor about how old people and their social security are sucking the life out of young kids, but I bet Joe Hill might have something to say about rich old people who just won’t die sucking up all the oxygen.

Enter teenager Abra Stone, who is basically a better adjusted Carrie White, able to move objects with her mind—but wait!—she can also see cryptic visions of the future. She’s got so much steam building up in her that the True Knot sense her existence from across the country and come gunning for her. With nowhere to turn, she reaches out to dried up old Danny Torrance for help.

Compare Doctor Sleep to The Shining and commit a bit of blasphemy because, line for line, Doctor Sleep kicks its butt all over the page. The sentences are crisper, the imagery more surprising, and King, with a Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters under his belt, is content to say things once rather than again and again as he was wont to do early in his career. At 528 pages, most people aren’t going to be tucking Doctor Sleep into the back pockets of their jeans, but the length is earned and not on account of endless historical digressions (like It) or proliferating POVs (like The Stand).

Despite occasionally feeling like Mad Libs (“The True Knot requires the steam from your shining,” could be one of its sentences), King manages to make his readers feel not the slightest bit stupid while reading this book. In fact, for the first half of the book, the True Knot are the scariest bad guys to ever brag about their Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100s. Another neat trick? He writes a sequel to a beloved book that not only doesn’t diminish The Shining but actually adds to it. In a world of Scarlett (sequel to Gone with the Wind) or The Book of the Green Planet (sequel to ET), that’s no small feat. I’m a pretty jaded reader, but this was a book that I couldn’t put down…until page 417.

That was the moment when I realized that nothing bad was going to happen, and let’s face it, we read Stephen King for bad things to happen—the bucket of blood in Carrie, the shoebox in the closet of The Stand, the mid-book twist of Firestarter, the bummer ending in “The Body,” the messed-up climax of The Dead Zone. But when Danny and Abra come up with a plan to defeat the True Knot—a plan that requires several characters to accept ridiculous claims without meaningful argument, the invincible bad guys to suffer a massive IQ drop, a previously evil ghost to do the good guys a solid, and for every elaborate deception to unfold seamlessly—the whole thing goes off without a hitch. That’s just not interesting.

The problem is Abra, the closest thing to a Mary Sue King has ever written. Despite a nod to having anger issues and telling a little white lie to her parents, she’s too perfect, too powerful, too absolutely amazing in every way. Her story comes to an end with no price paid for victory, no scars from the trauma, no lessons learned except how awesome it is to have superpowers. Throw in a completely out-of-left field long-lost-relative revelation that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens at his worst, and King almost manages to ruin his previous 400+ pages with his last 100. Almost.

But at the end of the book, King returns to his more interesting character: failed, flawed, fighting-to-stay-sober Danny Torrance. As King’s recent books have become more and more obsessed with death, and featured more and more characters dying of (or surviving) cancer, it’s no small thing that Danny works in a hospice providing end of life care for terminal patients. In the final chapter, he has to provide his psychic euthanasia services to a character he loathes and it winds up being a minor-key coda like the last pages of The Dead Zone, or The Stand, or Cujo, or even It. It’s become popular for the cool kids to claim that King can’t write endings, but I think it’s his small, quiet, emotionally mature endings that are the best part of his books, and the one he serves up in Doctor Sleep redeems his too-slick, action-packed climax.

Readers must have thought the same thing, because Doctor Sleep sold a ton of copies. It debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and even though it only stayed there for about three weeks, it hung on in the top ten for fifteen weeks, which is pretty good for King these days. Back around Gerald’s Game, King stayed on the list for about 30 weeks with every book, but that fell to ten weeks or so around the time of From a Buick 8. 11/22/63 returned him to somewhere in the middle, hanging on for around 16 weeks, and with Doctor Sleep doing about the same it looks like that’s his place these days, and that’s pretty good. Even in his latest incarnation as an elder statesman of American letters (with the medal to prove it) King’s still no slouch when it comes to sales.

Doctor Sleep rocks as long as it keeps its focus on Danny Torrance and his sobriety which is so delicate, so fragile, and so clearly precious both to him and to his author that it feels worth fighting for. When it shifts to Little Miss Perfect (aka Abra) it’s still satisfying, but mostly on the level of a Clive Cussler book. Nothing wrong with that, but you don’t win a Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for being Clive Cussler.

Fortunately, King is now a good enough writer to fluff the entire action-packed climax of his book and still stick the landing through sheer writerly skill and a deep, empathetic love for his imaginary characters. In fact, the ending almost brings a tear to your eye. Which is no small thing in a book that posits 9/11 as a giant ashes-huffing party for vampires, and a scene of high tension featuring our heroes riding into danger on a teeny tiny choo-choo train.

This article was originally published as a book review in October 2013.

Grady Hendrix is the author of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Horrrostör, and, most recently, Paperbacks from Hell, a history of the horror paperback boom of the Seventies and Eighties.

Posted by Tor.com

Tor Labs Steal the Stars preview audio drama Mac Rogers

Steal the Stars is the story of Dakota Prentiss and Matt Salem, two government employees guarding the biggest secret in the world: a crashed UFO. Despite being forbidden to fraternize, Dak and Matt fall in love and decide to escape to a better life on the wings of an incredibly dangerous plan: they’re going to steal the alien body they’ve been guarding and sell the secret of its existence.

If you haven’t yet listened to Tor Labs’ sci-fi noir audio drama written by Mac Rogers and produced by Gideon Media, you can read our non-spoiler review and catch up on the first seven episodes: “Warm Bodies,” “Three Dogs,” “Turndown Service,” “Power Through,” “Lifers,” “900 Microns,” and “Altered Voices.” Then click through for this week’s installment, in which Dak takes a field trip!

Dak has a whole new plan to be with Matt now, a far more dangerous one. One which will carry her across the country to start putting the pieces in place for a perfect getaway.

Steal the Stars is a noir science fiction thriller in 14 episodes, airing weekly from August 2 – November 1, 2017, and available worldwide on all major podcast distributors through the Macmillan Podcast Network. It will be followed immediately by a novelization of the entire serial from Tor Books, as well as an ads-free audio book of the podcast from Macmillan Audio.

Subscribe to Steal the Stars at any of the following links:

iTunes | Google Play | SoundCloud | Spotify | StitcherRSS

About Tor Labs:

Tor LabsTor Labs, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, specializes in experimental and innovative ways of publishing science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related genres, as well as other material of interest to readers of those genres.

About Gideon Media:

Gideon Media proudly builds on the acclaimed, award-winning theatrical tradition of Gideon Productions in creating complex, riveting genre entertainment. Gideon Media meticulously crafts new audio worlds in which listeners can lose themselves, centered around heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding tales of science fiction and horror.

Posted by Jeff LaSala

Welcome to the Silmarillion Primer, wherein I discuss, praise, and adoringly poke fun at J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal work in a series of essays, spanning twenty or so installments, as a prep for its would-be readers. I’d warn you that there will be spoilers, but honestly, spoilers just aren’t a thing to the good professor and he sure wouldn’t have cared (hey man, Frodo lives!). But more on that later.

They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the West, my kin. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars…. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it was a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore.

Thus spoke Elrond in 1937’s The Hobbit, which turns eighty years old this week. He name-dropped Gondolin again in 1954’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Yet it would be another twenty-three years before J.R.R. Tolkien’s readers got the full story of that ancient Elven city and the other previously-alluded-to mysteries of the Elder Days. And so very much more.

The Silmarillion, a text Tolkien had been working on most of his life, is a hot mess of a masterpiece. Even in its vast world-building brilliance, it is merely, as he called it, “a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity,” and it’s essentially Middle-earth’s origin story. Fans of his legendarium owe much to Christopher Tolkien for bringing it all together, since his father did not live to see it completed himself. In fact, after The Hobbit’s success, Tolkien pitched The Silmarillion to his publisher but they rejected it almost on principle, since they really just wanted more hobbit stories.

But he never gave up, never stopped working on it. After his death, and presented with his father’s august but many-layered and often inconsistent drafts and notes, Christopher had his work cut out for him. As he explains in the Foreword:

I set myself therefore to work out a single text, selecting and arranging in such a way as seemed to me to produce the most coherent and internally self-consistent narrative.

And what a narrative it is! Anyone who’s tackled The Silmarillion at least once can tell you that it can be intimidating. There’s no question. Some who have attempted to read it have called it boring, dry, “a slog.” The language is often archaic, the chronology less than intuitive, the timescale enormous; and the character and place names are hilariously legion. But those who’ve made it through, especially those who’ve gone back to read it again out of sheer love for the world and its lore, know what a treasure trove it really becomes. I say becomes because you can miss a lot on the first (or second, or even tenth) go-round. Then, of course, to many of us it’s anything but boring. What starts as a stumbling block, that rich language, becomes as poetry—half the story is the art of language itself.

To be sure, The Silmarillion is not a novel in the way we’re used to; it doesn’t resemble The Lord of the Rings very much in structure or even style, except perhaps in dialogue. It’s more like fantastic nonfiction, or like a history book that might be shelved in the library of Rivendell. Yet even the historical bits are interspersed with novel-like segments. The narrative often pans out—way out—offering a god’s-eye-view of all existence and spanning huge swaths of time in just a few passages, then at unexpected moments slows down, zooms in close, and observes the very words and manners of its heroes and villains.

My answer to the challenge posed by this seemingly ancient tome is this very Primer. I’ll help you weave through the lofty language and highlight the names most worth remembering. This is not a reread or a thorough analysis of the text. (There are some excellent places to find those out there already.) This is—for lack of a better word—a prelude or pre-read aimed mostly at casual Tolkien fans. I hope to convince you to dive deep into its “din waters of the pathless sea,” walk its treacherous and “clashing hills of ice,” and defy its “dark nets of strangling gloom” with me.

In my humble opinion, The Silmarillion is fantasy of the highest order, a great drama unfolding beneath the “wheeling fires” of the universe and set “in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of innumerable stars,” a world simultaneously like and unlike our own. And for those of you who are familiar with Tolkien’s creation myths already—those who have seen the light of the Trees—I hope this will be a fun refresher for you.

The Silmarillion is many things, and contains an almost incalculable number of themes, lessons, and beautiful/astonishing/terrible characters. But if I had to really boil it down to its bones, I’d say it’s this: the story of a world wrought by an omniscient and flawless Creator with the help of many flawed sub-creators who are wise but not all-knowing. Despite the book’s sumptuous yet daunting language and larger-than-life heroes, it’s imbued with all-too-familiar patterns of human behavior—even in its nonhumans. There’s always this perception floating around that Tolkien’s world is black and white, that his good guys are all goody-two-shoes, that his villains are too simplistically evil. And I can kind of see where this idea comes from in The Lord of the Rings, even if I disagree, but my immediate reaction to that is always: “Oh, they probably haven’t read The Silmarillion, then.”

Sure, The Silmarillion has its share of virtuous Aragorns and Faramirs and it definitely has its dominate-everyone-LOL Sauron types (including actual Sauron), but most of its characters wade through a murky spectrum of honor, pride, loyalty, and greed. Heroes fall into evil, good guys turn against each other, high-born kings turn out to be dicks, and powerful spirits tempted by evil may either repent of it or double down. It’s all there.

Oh, and lest I forget: The Silmarillion features fantasy literature’s most epic of jewel heists. Hell, the whole thing is a string of gem thefts. The titular gemstones, the Silmarils, are both like and unlike the One Ring we know and love. They’re coveted by pretty much everyone and inspire some truly dastardly deeds, yet they are of somewhat divine origin. Not intrinsically corrupting like Sauron’s ring, they do not possess the malice of their maker, and in fact are hallowed, scorching “anything of evil will” that touches them. In Tolkien’s world, the Silmarils are both MacGuffins and Chekhovian guns. Off the page, they motivate people to run around and do what they do; on the page, you know at some point someone’s going to get burned. Or stabbed. Or slashed. Or have something bitten off. It happens.

And that’s The Silmarillion for you. It’s all shining gems, flashing swords, whips of flame, foul dragon reek, and blood-soaked earth. It has more tragedies than victories, more sorrow than joy, but because it was written by a man of self-conscious faith, it also packs a few eucatastrophic punches. So chin up, good readers: the body count is high, but the payoff is glorious.

Tolkien, by the way, didn’t give a warg’s ass about spoilers. As a culture, we’ve become overly sensitive to the concept in recent years. When I read or hear discussions of Tolkien’s books, I still sometimes hear the “spoiler alert” expression, used either in observance or mockery of this modern day craze. But neither Tolkien nor his son had any such sensitivity. In his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien casually refers to Sauron’s annihilation at the end. If you wanted to keep from knowing certain plot developments in this book, you’re kind of out of luck. He’s going to “spoil” them for you, and once you start to pick up on this tendency, it gets downright humorous—never mind how many appear in the chapter titles themselves. Anyway, if you didn’t already know that the One Ring indeed gets destroyed at the end of LotR, then I’m guessing you’re also not sure just yet about Luke Skywalker’s parentage, who Keyser Söze is, or why Snape is such a jerk to Harry Potter the whole the time. Oh, and the walrus was Paul.

One thing a reader might wonder once they dive into The Silmarillion is: Whose account is this exactly? Is the narrator both objective and omniscient? Sometimes it feels distinctly like an Elf’s point of view. Well, it’s lightly implied in the LotR Prologue, then later supported by Tolkien himself in notes and letters, that within Middle-earth, the Baggins’s Red Book of the Westmarch—which details the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as written by the hobbits—also includes Elvish legends of old, which means some or all of the events detailed in The Silmarillion. Alternatively, consider this excerpt from Morgoth’s Ring (Vol 10 of The History of Middle-earth), wherein Christopher Tolkien shares more of his father’s behind-the-scenes intel:

What we have in ‘Silmarillion’ etc. are traditions . . . handed on by Men in Númenor and later in Middle-earth (Arnor and Gondor); but already far back—from the first association of the Dúnedain and Elf-friends with the Eldar in Beleriand—blended and confused with their own Mannish myths and cosmic ideas.

And there we have it; Elvish POV but as passed down by mortals and translated by hobbits, perhaps even characterized by their own imperfections. And all of this is mere myth, after all. But to Tolkien, myth was meaningful, illuminating, relevant. Much more can be said about his stance on fantasy and myth, much more, but…another time. For now, consider that now more than ever before, Tolkien’s fairy-stories can provide the perfect escape. Not from real lifebecause God knows, The Silmarillion has its share of anguish and mourning alongside its triumphs and joys. I mean, rather, escape from whatever keeps us from from keeping our heads: political cobwebs, social blinders, or whatever snake oil the profiteers of the modern world are peddling. Escape from whatever current discord troubles us.

Speaking of discord, the first installment of the Primer will discuss the Ainulindalë, the introductory creation myth chapter in The Silmarillion, on October 4th.

Jeff LaSala is a production editor and freelance writer who can’t leave Middle-earth well enough alone. He also wrote some sci-fi/fantasy books and now works for Tor Books.

Posted by Matthew Kressel

When the original Blade Runner film was released in 1982 to mediocre box-office sales and lukewarm reviews, few could predict the film would have such a lasting legacy. For nearly three decades, the film’s neon-saturated, overcrowded, rain-swept dystopia served as the default backdrop for dozens, if not hundreds of science-fiction films. Even the Star Wars prequels borrowed (or ripped-off) the film’s noirish cyberdream vision for some of its urban landscapes. But more so than its look, Blade Runner’s themes have survived long past its inception date.

Consider the future Blade Runner that posits for November, 2019: a society of haves and have-nots. A world where the rich literally dwell above the poor in luxury skyscrapers, or migrate Off-world with personal servants/slaves. Meanwhile, the mass of citizens crowds below, eking out dreary lives, struggling against entropy and despair to make frayed ends meet. It’s a world of crumbling infrastructure and collapsing social order, a world of decadence and decay. Take away the neon and the incessant rain, the flying cars and the Off-world colonies, and you have a world not too different from the one we inhabit today.

Our planet right now has sixty-two people who possess as much wealth as the world’s 3.2 billion poorest. Our best climatologists predict more extreme weather, more devastating droughts and storms, and massive sea level rise due to our carbon-burning addiction. In many places around the world, our transportation infrastructure is in dire need of repair. We don’t need World War Terminus—the nuclear holocaust in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—to ruin life on Earth as we know it, because we’ve already entered an only slightly less rapid period of global destruction known as the Anthropocene, the current epoch in which humanity’s need to dominate every last patch of land and sea, to burn carbonized ancient sunlight, is having a massive deleterious effect on the planet. Add to this mix the virulent nationalism and aggressive slouching towards fascism recurrent in many so-called democracies, and one doesn’t need science fiction to see dystopia written large. Dystopian fiction may be falling out of fashion, but that’s because for many it’s no longer a fantasy. We’re living in one.

Blade Runner, at its heart, is a story about slaves who wish to be free. But it’s Exodus without a Promised Land, for there is no hope for Roy Batty and his hapless followers. They are hunted and exterminated, or “retired” as the film terms it, one exploding bullet at a time. The grindstone of capitalism demands they use the euphemism “retired” in the same way we call the animals we eat “beef” and “pork” and not “cow” and “pig.” To call it by its true name, murder, is emotionally unsustainable. The fugitive replicants are shot in the street simply for trying to live like everyone else—a scenario that should sound disturbingly familiar to anyone watching the news in 2017.

The replicants are Frankenstein’s monster. They are Golems of Prague, HAL 9000s, the sometimes-sympathetic antagonists of tales where creators lose control of their creations, so-called “monsters,” who run amok and kill, but not indiscriminately. They kill because they want more life, fucker. They are us, through a black mirror. And so when visionary businessmen and the world’s brightest minds warn us that artificial intelligence, and not nuclear war, is our greatest existential threat, we’d better listen. When one of the world’s largest financial firms predicts AI will replace more than a third of all jobs by 2030, we’d better listen. The military is creating AI war bots to kill better than us—move over “kick-murder squads.” Companies are putting AI in sexbots to learn what turns us on; we’re already past “basic pleasure models.” And when, in twenty or a hundred years, our AIs evolve out of the specific to the general, when they perform every task orders of magnitude better than we do, will we have time to ponder the warnings of Blade Runner before we’re Skynetted out of existence? Maybe these future creations will be like Batty and have a moment of empathy for their human creators. Maybe they will be more human than human. Maybe not.

Deep down, I’m an optimist. I believe it’s imperative we dream up positive futures to counter the prevalent dark narratives. And yet Blade Runner remains my favorite film, mostly because it dissects the heart of what it means to be a thinking, rational creature, aware of our own impending oblivion, while at the same time not offering easy answers. Do our memories define us? Our feelings? Our bodies? What are we besides meat? And what does it say about our so-called “humanity” if our material comfort rests on the backs of slaves?

I’m cautiously optimistic that Blade Runner: 2049 will continue to explore these themes, adapted as they must be to comment on our present world. A short clip of Ryan Gosling’s “K” character entering into what looks like a child-labor sweat shop seems to hint in that direction, how we rely on slave-wage worker classes to keep the engine of capitalism well-oiled. My fears that the new film will descend into pyrotechnic pablum are allayed by director Denis Villeneuve’s other films, like Sicario and Arrival, both of which are excellent.

Blade Runner may exist in a universe where Pan Am still has wings and Atari never derezzed. But that’s just neon. Its essential themes are more relevant than ever.

Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award finalist. His first novel, King of Shards, was hailed as, “Majestic, resonant, reality-twisting madness,” from NPR Books. His short fiction has or will soon appear in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Nightmare, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and the anthologies Mad Hatters and March Hares, Cyber World, Naked City, After, The People of the Book, as well as many other places. His work has been translated into Czech, Polish, French, Russian, Chinese, and Romanian. From 2003 to 2010 he ran Senses Five Press, which published Sybil’s Garage, an acclaimed speculative fiction magazine, and Paper Cities, which went on to win the World Fantasy Award in 2009. His is currently the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan alongside Ellen Datlow, and he is a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writers group. By trade, he is a full-stack software developer, and he developed the Moksha submission system, which is in use by many of the largest SF markets today. You can find him at online at http://www.matthewkressel.net, where he blogs about writing, technology, environmentalism and more. Or you can find him on Twitter @mattkressel.

([syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed Sep. 20th, 2017 12:42 pm)

Posted by John Scalzi

Today, award-winning author Fran Wilde has a shocking confession to make! About something she said! Here! And yes, it involves her new novel, Horizon. What will this confession be? Will there be regret involved? Are you prepared for what happens next?!?

FRAN WILDE:

Dear readers of John Scalzi’s blog, for the past three years, I’ve been keeping secrets.

I’m not sorry.

Trilogies are a delicate thing. They are a community of books unto themselves. They inform and support one another; their themes and actions ripple and impact one another. They have their own set of rules. Among them: Write down the main character’s eye color or favorite food so you don’t forget it. You’ll regret using that hard-to-spell naming convention by the middle of your second book. Destroy something in book one, you’re not going to magically have it to rely on in book three — at least not without some major effort. Everything gathers — each choice, each voice.

Trilogies are, by intent, more than the sum of their parts.

And, when brought together, a trilogy’s largest ideas sometimes appear in the gathered shadows of what seemed like big ideas at the time.

In Updraft, book one of the Bone Universe trilogy, what began to crumble was the system that upheld the community of the bone towers. It didn’t look like it then. So I didn’t tell you when I wrote my first Big Idea.

Instead, the first time I visited this blog, I wrote: “At its heart, Updraft is about speaking and being heard and — in turn — about hearing others…”

That was true – especially in the ways Updraft explored song as memory and singing and voice. But it was also kind of a fib. I knew where the series was headed, and voice was only the tip of the spear.

I planned to return here a year later to write about leadership, and I did — and, I wrote about demagoguery too, and abut having a book come out during a charged political season. That was September 2016, Cloudbound, the second book in the series was just out, and wow, that post seems somewhat innocent and naive now. But not any less important.

Again, saying the big idea in Cloudbound was leadership was true on its face, but it was also a an act of omission. And again, singing came into play — in that songs in Cloudbound were being adjusted and changed, as were messages between leaders.

With Horizon, I’m going to lay it all out there for you. Horizon is about community.

Structurally, Horizon is narrated by several different first person voices — including Kirit, Nat, and Macal, a magister and the brother of a missing Singer. These three voices come from different places in the Bone Universe’s geography, and they weave together to form a greater picture of the world, and its threats. A fourth voice appears only through a song — a new song — that is written during the course of Horizon, primarily by one character but with the help of their community. That song is the thread that ties the voices together, and, one hopes, the new community as well.

And, like Horizon, for me, the big idea for the Bone Universe series is also community. How to defend one, how to lead one, how to salvage as much as you can of one and move forward towards rebuilding it.

In my defense, I did leave some clues along the way. I shifted narrators between Updraft and Cloudbound in order to broaden the point of view and reveal more about the lead characters and the world, both between the books (how Nat and Kirit are seen each by the other vs. how they see themselves), and within them. I shared with readers the history of the bone towers and how that community, and the towers themselves, formed. I showed you the community’s [something] – that their means of keeping records and remembering was based on systems that could be used to both control messages and redefine them. I made the names of older laws and towers much more complicated to pronounce (and, yes, spell SIGH), versus the simpler names for newer things. This community had come together, then grown into something new.

The evolution of singing in the Bone Universe is, much like the idea of community, something that can be seen in pieces, but that resolves more when looked at from the perspective of all three books together.

Remember that solo voice — Kirit’s — singing quite badly that first book? In the second book, Nat’s voice joins Kirit’s — a solo, again, but because we can still hear Kirit, and because we know her, it becomes a kind of duet. In the third book, three voices present separate parts of the story, and when they all come together, that forms a connected whole.

When you listen to a group of people sing, sometimes one voice stands out, then another. Then, when multiple voices join in for the chorus, the sound becomes a different kind of voice. One with additional depth and resonance.

That’s the voice of a community. That drawing together of a group into something that is more than the sum of its parts. It is an opportunity, a way forward, out of a crumbling system and into something new and better.  

That’s the big idea.

—-

Horizon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


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