Wednesday, 13 October 2021

American Cleon

There has long been a lapsarian strain in the American imagination, and that’s why Foundation is so
Hari Seldon never suggests making something
better than an Empire. He wants to make Trantor
Great Again. (Image via CNET) 

appealing — and so dangerous — right now. But unlike the fate of the Galactic Empire, the outcomes of the issues facing us today are not certain.

Books and articles about the decline of the United States and of what is called “Western Civilization” have populated bookstore shelves and magazine pages for more than a century, with such notables as Niall Ferguson, Chris Hedges, Emmanuel Todd, and David D. Schein contributing tomes to the pastime of prognosticating American eschatology.

But in the past decade, these types of predictions have reached a fever pitch. And it’s not difficult to see why. Factors such as political polarization, global warming, the decline of democracy, increasing resource scarcity and disparities between rich and poor, all seem to have clear and exacerbating trend lines. If there were one of Hari Seldon’s prime radiants, one could imagine these trends being plotted through the equations of psychohistory and seeing a definitive predictive answer that an unpleasant end awaits us all.

These are historical trends that seem inexorable; they seem as inescapable as “the known probability of imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” all of which afflicted the Galactic Empire during the reign of Cleon II.

It must be understood that Foundation reflects the argument made by Edward Gibbons in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; that decline was only in part caused by forces external to the empire itself, that a determinant of collapse was a gradual loss of civic virtue among its Roman citizens (Though by ‘civic virtue,’ some have suggested Gibbons meant ‘members of lower classes knowing their place’). Asimov had just finished reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he began writing Foundation, but he was also writing in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, and a period of upheaval and uncertainty about his country’s future.
Some pundits have gone further back,
and compared present-day politics to
Asimov’s source material.


The idea of the United States as a “new Rome” has existed since shortly after the American revolution. It is communicated through the myth of manifest destiny and is encapsulated in the architecture of Washington, D.C. At various points through its history, American preachers have attempted to create historical narratives that cast the rise and fall of the country as divine prophecy (Just as one high-profile example, Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith told his followers that the U.S. Constitution was a divine document, and that Jesus’ second coming would occur in Missouri).

Foundation as a narrative has to be understood in this context; Isaac Asimov’s understanding of history was informed by American exceptionalism, the influence of America’s third ‘Great Awakening’ of apocalyptic religiosity, the wake of the Great Depression, and of a period of upheaval and uncertainty about the country’s future. It might be asked why, after 80 years, the books are finally being adapted to the screen; is it perhaps because we are again in a period of upheaval and uncertainty?

While we should be aware that the original novel is a product of the ideas and concerns of the time it was written, the television show is a product of today and makes arguments about the world of 2021. We would suggest that the television series version of Foundation contains hints of Gibbons’ classism, echoes of Asimov’s concerns about America on the eve of the Second World War, but also reflects our own 21st Century concerns about decline.

Margaret Atwood has said that “Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it's always about now.” And it’s really more about how people perceive the present, as today’s perceptions determine the actions of tomorrow. Apple TV’s Foundation series resonates because people perceive these trends to be inescapable, and determinative. This is underscored by science fiction’s ideas shaping powerful political forces.

If we accept that this new iteration of Foundation is indeed about the United States, those who take its core messages seriously may help ensure that decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problems facing the world are not insurmountable. There are policies and technologies that will mitigate climate change. Pressure on politicians can force them to behave in our best interest. These things are not easy but they are necessary if we want to avoid Seldon’s predicted outcome.

Inescapable doom can sometimes be more comfortable than faint hope; if the Empire’s going to collapse one way or another, then enjoy it while you can and let Raven Seldon worry about what comes next. If we, as citizens of the world, accept the metaphor presented by Foundation, it can inculcate fatalism about the very real problems we’re facing. As Florida International University professor of English Charles Elkins argued in his Marxist reading of Foundation, “Reading these novels, the reader experiences this fatalism which, in a Marxist analysis, flows from his own alienation in society and his sense of impotence in facing problems he can no longer understand, the solutions of which he puts in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.”

Decline is a powerful idea, and one that rightly should worry us. Foundation suggests that individuals have little agency to affect real change. In doing so, it absolves us for doing nothing.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Location Matters

In December, members of the World Science Fiction Society will have to choose between three potential host locations for the 2023 Worldcon. Given the competing considerations of this vote, it may end up being the most controversial site selection in several years.
Crossing the Jin River, the Anshun Bridge is an
iconic sight in downtown Chengdu, China.
(Image via Wikipedia)



Where the World Science Fiction Convention takes place has an impact on accessibility, safety, and consequently participation for most members of the science fiction community. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to seriously consider the ramifications of each of these possible options before casting a ballot.

None of the bids are perfect, and there are human rights concerns with each of the proposed host countries.

EDIT: On October 18, the bid to bring the 2023 Worldcon to Memphis was formally withdrawn by the bid chairs. While it will still appear on the ballot in December, it is no longer a viable option for the Worldcon. 


Chengdu, China


A bid to bring Worldcon to China’s fifth-most-populous city has been brewing for most of the past five years. In fact, this bid is so high-profile that much of the discussion seems to have broken down into pro-China and anti-China positions. This is a shame since this sort of discussion misses the complexities of the underlying questions.

Chengdu in 2023 is a well-organized bid whose supporters have done an excellent job of promoting through social media, through attendance at previous conventions, and through outreach to conrunners.

By all accounts, Chengdu is a beautiful city, and the fans working on this bid have been terrific. That being said, they may be fighting an uphill battle.

Despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China, this group’s account has the most followers of all the 2023 bids, with 294 followers as of this writing. While that follower count is dwarfed by the Glasgow 2024 bid, it still indicates that the Chengdu champions have been doing the legwork to promote their organization.
China is noted for its government's
deep and abiding respect for privacy
(Image via HRW.org)


This is the second bid for a Worldcon in China, after Beijing’s failed bid for the 2016 Worldcon. With the country’s vibrant community of science fiction talent, and an engaged and enthusiastic fan base, the prospect of bringing a Worldcon to the country has generated significant excitement.

In recent years, Worldcon has done more to embrace the “world” part of its name, and ensuring equitable access to the convention is something that WSFS members should prioritize. Let’s be honest, if the convention is held in a place that most Americans either can’t or won’t access in 2023, they’ll have had the opportunity to attend one in their home country in 2021 and 2022.

However, China doesn’t fare as well on travel safety indices as the competing bids, and there are significant questions to be raised about the conduct of China’s government in recent years that should trouble site selection voters.

Pros:

  • Organization
  • Resources
  • Enthusiasm
  • Facilities
  • Global perspective
  • Interesting and vibrant city
  • High vaccination rate, estimated to be in excess of 80 per cent of the central Sichuan population vaccinated

Cons:


Memphis, USA


Possibly prompted by the concerns some Americans have about the prospect of a Worldcon in China, there has been a slightly chaotic scramble to present a credible US-based alternative to the Chengdu bid.
Much like its namesake, Memphis
has an iconic pyramid. This one's
a bit newer though. 
(Image via MemphisTravel.com)


Whether the impetus behind this campaign is just parochial miserliness or is genuine concern about human rights and safety is probably a matter of perspective. That being said, after the collapses of the Spokane 2023 bid and the New Orleans 2023 bid, Memphis has emerged as the US standard bearer for this year’s Worldcon.

The bid documents paint a picture of a fairly standard US Worldcon; solid facilities, well-planned out commitment to diversity and accessibility. Memphis is a storied American city with a significant importance to the history of music. It is also a city that is known for its cultural and ethnic diversity.

That being said, there is only a bare-bones web presence for the bid, and a modest Twitter presence. (Full disclosure, one of this Blog’s contributors has volunteered a small amount with the Memphis bid.) Concerns have been raised about the lack of local Memphis involvement in the bid.

Pros:

  • Convention organizers have expressed commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • Existing US-based fandom community has track record of successful conventions under difficult circumstances
  • City known for a rich musical history

Cons:

Winnipeg, Canada


Having only announced their intention to host at the end of April, the Winnipeg in 2023 bid is the late entrant into the Worldcon race this year. It’s also the only city currently bidding to have previously hosted a Worldcon, having done so with 1994’s “ConAdian.”

Despite the late entry, Winnipeg’s bid is extremely active and credible. The website has a robust amount of content that is updated regularly, they have been blogging about the strengths of their bid, and have extremely active social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Since their announcement, they have made promotional appearances at almost every relevant online convention.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights is a
beautiful and interesting museum in Winnipeg,
but unfortunately gives short shrift to labour
organizing as a means to promote workers' rights.
(Image via humanrights.ca)

Given its relatively mild summer weather, August is just about the perfect time to visit Winnipeg.

The bid committee has a solid group of experienced conrunners involved, and there is a lot of reason to believe that if Winnipeg is selected, they will be able to pull together a successful convention despite the shorter-than-usual timelines.

Winnipeg itself is a much more interesting and vibrant city than you might expect, with significant cultural influences from Indigenous, French Canadian, and Anglo-Canadian traditions, as well as many new Canadians. It is the city in Canada with the largest number of Indigenous residents, a fact that can be seen in the city’s art and its cultural centres.

Among the locations that are bidding for the Worldcon in 2023, Manitoba is probably the safest place for LGBTQIA2S+ travelers. It was the first jurisdiction in Canada to ban conversion therapy, and was among the first to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Pros:

  • Well-organized bid committee
  • Enthusiasm
  • Indigenous culture and art
  • Excellent facilities
  • Safest for LGBTQIA2S+ community

Cons:


COVID-19
(Image via NewScientist)

While we hope that by 2023, the current pandemic will be mostly in the rearview, we would be remiss if we did not flag that each of these locations has COVID-related risks.

At the time of this writing, Memphis (and much of the American Southeast) has been pummeled by a deadly fourth wave of the pandemic. The province of Manitoba (where Winnipeg is located) repeatedly bungled its pandemic response, though not quite as badly as some other jurisdictions in Canada. Chengdu appears to have the highest vaccination rate among the three potential hosts, but there are reasons to doubt the Government of China’s reporting methods.


Conclusion

There is no perfect host for this Worldcon — or for any other. In this instance, there are compelling reasons to vote for any of these options, but just as compelling reasons to vote against them. It is our suggestion that the least problematic host city is Winnipeg, though ultimately this is a matter of which accessibility and/or convention-running issues voters prioritize.

Friday, 1 October 2021

The Best Laid Plans Of Paratime Mice

Over the course of six volumes and almost a million words, Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series has careened rapidly from one genre to the next. The series has at times been a portal fantasy, a crime drama, a nuclear thriller, a steampunk subterfuge, and finally an alien invasion tale. The series has been many things, but predictable is not one of them.

Wrapping up the Empire Games
trilogy,  Charles Stross has delivered
his most satisfying novel in about
eight years. 
(Image via Goodreads)
The series wrapped up this month — possibly for good — with the release of Invisible Sun, a much-delayed but ultimately satisfactory conclusion. This is a book that many longtime fans will welcome, and serves as a good argument for why new readers should give the series a go.

Invisible Sun kicks off with a simmering feud between alternate versions of America, connected by paratime travel (between timelines). In one America, a steam-punk democratic revolution is struggling with a succession crisis, while in the other America (one more similar to our own), the post-9/11 War on Terror has metastasized into a relentless surveillance state. While part of the story involves a covert extradition mission from the surveillance state world, another part of the story involves back-channel diplomacy to avoid nuclear war. Simultaneously, both worlds have to confront a threat posed by a far-advanced and ancient evil race from a third timeline.

It’s a lot to juggle, and our main criticism of the book would be that at times, some of these plotlines receive short shrift. That being said, we appreciate a narrative structure that is stronger than many of the previous Merchant Princes books. Specifically, Invisible Sun doesn’t derail its readers.

Because often, these books do go off the rails with unforeseen problems cropping up for the protagonists. One could even describe the series as an exercise in subverting expectations. It seems as if two or three times per book, the point-of-view protagonist (Miriam Beckstein in books 1-3, and Rita Douglas in books 4-6) concocts seemingly well-thought-out plans … only for things to go sidewise.

As a reader, having your expectations subverted is often a lot of fun, and Stross is an expert at doing so in a way that feels natural and believable. At its best, this series offers surprises that once revealed seem like the natural consequences of the setting and of choices made by the protagonists.

And this lack of predictability has been both the strength, and the pitfall of these books. Unlike the
Laundry Files — Stross’ other long-running and Hugo-shortlisted series — The Merchant Princes never gets overly familiar or in a rut.

It's difficult to think of another
series that could start somewhere
like Nine Princes in Amber, and 
end in The Sum Of All Fears.
(Image via Goodreads)
But after five books, the trick of subverting expectations can grow wearying. There’s only so many rugs that can be pulled out from under the reader before the trick becomes stale. The directness of Invisible Sun, the more streamlined nature of the denouement, and the lack of shocking revelations and surprises is … actually quite welcome.

We would note that the final 20 pages of the final book does feel somewhat rushed. All the denouement, all the resolution, are jammed into as few words as possible. It feels almost as if after writing a million words in the series, the author just wanted to be over and done with it. And maybe so do we.

The entire book club read the first book in the series, with somewhat mixed reactions, but as of yet, only two of us have read the complete series. Those who made it past the first book were enthusiastic about the unpredictability of Stross’ imagination. Re-reading the entire series back-to-back, it becomes clear just how much Stross has evolved as a wordsmith and as a crafter of narrative structures.

The Merchant Princes is a series that accomplishes a lot in six books; offering a reassessment of classic portal fantasies, delving into development economics, examining the tension between safety and privacy, and exploring ideas about how democracies come into existence and wither over time. At its best, there was no better contemporary long-running science fiction series. And by offering it a definitive conclusion, Stross has provided an opportunity to assess it in fullness.

We hope to see it on the Hugo Award ballot for best series, and if it does will likely rank it highly.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bombastic Ego

This blog post is the fourth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

On September 19, 1964, Harlan Ellison invited a group of fans over to watch an episode of television
Although Harlan Ellison was denied a Hugo nod
for his Outer Limits episode "Soldier," it remains
an influential classic. In retrospect, its omission
from the Hugo ballot seems questionable.
(Image via UltimateActionMovies.com

he had written: The Outer Limits season premiere “Soldier.” Although Ellison had written a handful of television episodes in the preceding two years, only one of those had been science fiction (an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that he’d regretted).

Ellison told his Los Angeles-based fandom peers that “Soldier” was a milestone in his quickly growing fame, and that it would advance the reputation of science fiction on television. It was an episode of which he was proud, and one that he would spend much of the year promoting to Hugo voters as being worthy of recognition.

“The tension from a high-pitched show (and a higher-pitched host) was terrific. And at the end I felt I had spent a valuable hour even though I’m not yet a TV-watcher,” Ron Ellik wrote in his fanzine Starspinke.

Although Ellison would later have a large collection of Hugos, in 1964-65 he had yet to receive even a single nomination, and was hungry for the recognition.

In the January 1965 progress report of that year’s Worldcon (which was to be held in London) the convention’s organizing committee announced that they would present Hugos in the categories that had been recognized at the previous year’s convention. And as it so happened, Best Dramatic Presentation had been omitted in 1964, due to a lack of interest.

So there was to be no Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award that year, and “Soldier” would be denied the nomination that Ellison believed he was due.

The young Harlan Ellison 
already had a reputation for
bombast and temper. 
(Image via ElpasoPost.com)
Well-known for his level head and cool demeanor, Ellison responded to the omission of this category with good grace. He contacted a number of fans across the Western United States, suggesting that the Worldcon be stripped of their right to hold the Hugo Awards, with the possibility that the awards would instead be handed out at a North American convention. He went so far as to call Worldcon chair Ella Parker at 5 a.m. one morning in late January, and told her that Ben Jason would not be sending the Hugo trophies to the UK convention (though this was easy to disprove, as Jason had quit being the manufacturer of the trophies two years previously).

“When [Harlan] did finally phone-me, I lost no time informing him of his colossal blunder and, in no uncertain terms, advised him to write a letter of apology,” Jason wrote.

Though he backed down from that attempt, Ellison was adamant that there should be a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1965, and encouraged other fans to write in nominations for the category … with the apparent belief that if the category was being considered that year, his Outer Limits episode would be a shoe-in.

But the 1965 Hugo Awards operated under a unique set of rules that have not been used since; as per the convention committee, the shortlist was created via “nomination by a panel of experts, selecting from suggestions offered by the membership at large.” In practice, this meant that no matter how many voters included “Soldier” on their nominating ballot, the Hugo Committee could omit it if they so chose.

In the final tally, this nominating committee chose to include only two names on the shortlist for the
At least one fan believed that
Disney classic Mary Poppins
deserved to be on the Hugo
ballot. We're inclined to agree.
(Image via EW.com)

Best Dramatic Presentation category in 1965; the only instance in any Hugo category of a shortlist that brief. As recorded in fanzines, it is clear that there were at least some nominating ballots submitted for “Soldier,” for Mary Poppins, and for The Last Man On Earth. But the Hugo Committee determined either that there weren’t sufficient nominations for these, or that the works listed weren’t appropriate for the Hugos.

It is a puzzling decision, particularly in light of one of the works they did include: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. Glacially directed by George Pal, and starring lilly-white Tony Randall as the racially stereotyped title character, it was agreed by most of our cinema club to be among the worst works ever shortlisted for a Hugo Award in any category. To compound the movie’s abhorrent racism, the dialogue spoon feeds the audience a series of simplistic moralist messages delivered with acting that is exceptionally exaggerated and broad. This is a movie that drips with condescension for its audience. The question of why The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao ended up on the Hugo shortlist remains baffling to us and leaves us wondering what Ellison’s emotional reaction might have been.

Best Dramatic Presentation was the last award handed out on the evening of August 29, 1965. “And we have a remaining category, for Best Drama. It goes to Dr. Strangelove,” presenter Robert Silverberg said. “We do not have Dr. Strangelove himself here to accept the award, but we do have Peter George who wrote the novel on which the movie was based.” 

The extent of George’s acceptance speech (as far as we are aware, the shortest Hugo acceptance speech on record) was: “Thank you very much. This is lovely.”
Dr. Strangelove author Peter George
accepts a Hugo Award in 1965.
Sadly, the author died of a self-inflicted
gunshot wound within the year. 
(Image via Fanac.org)

Dr. Strangelove is only marginally science fictional; the only element of the movie that is clearly speculative is the doomsday weapon, although there had long been a tradition of nuclear war fiction without any speculative technologies being considered for the Hugo — The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker had been the runner-up for the very first Hugo Award in 1953. Still, for at least one of our bloggers this deficit of clearly science fictional elements in Dr. Strangelove was enough to bring into question whether it should have been recognized at all.

The shortlist from 1965 was probably too short, as there were numerous works that year whose omissions are puzzling. Matheson’s classic I Am Legend had been adapted as The Last Man On Earth, an effective and moody Hammer Horror movie starring Vincent Price. Later remade as The Omega Man, the original version hews more closely to the novel than later adaptations, and features a superb performance from Franca Bettoia who imbues her vampire character with enormous humanity. The intense loneliness conveyed in the movie is a more moving form of horror than any of the jump scares of Will Smith’s later I Am Legend.

We might also suggest that the Hugo shortlist might have done well to find room to honour The Earth Dies Screaming; a quirky low-budget British movie about an alien invasion. Despite its low budget, the film’s robots and zombies are often an effective storytelling device as the tension ratchets up. It’s difficult not to note the more economical pace of this low-budget movie, and how tightly edited it is, in comparison to the high-budget but soporific Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.

Overall, it is hard to question the decision of Hugo voters that year; Dr. Strangelove despite its paucity of obvious science fictional elements was the right work to recognize. The decisions of the nominating committee are less transparent (how did this committee work? What did they leave off and why?). Though some of us might have preferred to see Ellison’s “Soldier” receive the honour, as it was a far more science fictional story, his bad behaviour may have prevented him from snagging his first Hugo in 1965.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Going Back To The Same Well

The Best Dramatic Presentation (short form) ballot seems to indicate that Hugo nominators are a group that like to go back to the same well, year after year. This year’s shortlist, in fact, may represent the nadir of this trend.
The final episode of She-Ra and the Princess of
Power 
earned the show its first Hugo nomination.
(Image via she-raandtheprincessesofpower.fandom.com)

Consider that between the six finalists there are representative entries from the three of the screen franchises most-often represented on Hugo ballots: Doctor Who (six wins out of 35 nominations) Star Wars (three wins out of ten nominations) and The Good Place (three wins out of six nominations). Of the entire ballot, only the She-Ra and the Princess of Power episode “Heart” represents a franchise that has never won a Hugo Award.

To be fair, many of the entries on this shortlist are excellent representatives of their respective fictional universes. “Gaugamela” from The Expanse plays with tension without descending into melodrama; an extraordinary hour of science fiction television. “The Jedi” from Mandalorian tells a mostly self-contained story exceedingly well, all while teeing up the narrative arc for the rest of the season. While not as carefully structured as the other nominated episode from Mandalorian, “The Rescue” provides the payoff that longtime fans likely want. And the funny, charming, and genuinely surprising “Fugitive of the Judoon” might be the finest episode of the Chibnall era of Doctor Who.

As has been widely noted across the Anglosphere, there has been an increasing reliance among media corporations to lean on their franchises instead of developing new content. It is simply a safer bet for movie and television executives to invest in iterations of existing intellectual property instead of trying something new. To some degree, it’s disheartening to see that at least the majority of those nominating for the short-form dramatic Hugo are reinforcing this corporate risk aversion. It might be noted that only once in the past decade has there been a Dramatic Presentation Short Form shortlist on which a majority of nominees were from franchises that had not previously won the award.

Last year there were several excellent science fiction and fantasy television shows that might have benefited from the attention offered by a Hugo nod.

The Robbie Amell post-cyberpunk comedy Upload, the oddly compelling Japanese series Alice in Borderland, Alex Garland's meticulously planned out Silicon Valley fable DEVS, and the intricate and beautiful German time travel epic Dark come to mind.
Critically acclaimed SF horror Lovecraft County
creator Misha Green was blindsided by the decision
to cancel the program
. It deserved a Hugo nod, 
as well as a second season.
(Image via NBCNews.com)


The abrupt cancellations of Lovecraft County, I Am Not Okay With This, Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist and Tales From The Loop (among others) seem to indicate that even the best-reviewed original (non-franchise) content is now in constant jeopardy. If we want to enjoy a mass-media landscape that continues to produce diverse, nuanced, and engaging stories, it will take concerted collective effort to ensure that such stories thrive. Hugo nods (and Emmy nods) may not be enough to secure a place for such works, but we’d argue they are at least a part of the solution.

It is interesting to note that in the prose fiction categories, Hugo nominators have long shown an aversion to recognizing licensed franchise works. It seems that the voting public is averse to recognizing such works — even critically acclaimed, fan beloved, and bestselling works such as Diane Duane’s Star Trek novel My Enemy, My Ally, and Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novel Heir To The Empire. This is not a complaint on our part; we are entirely supportive of this unwritten rule to avoid franchize fiction in the prose categories, but it seems odd that other Hugo categories now embrace this sort of profit-chasing multimedia universe.

This year’s short-form dramatic Hugo ballot is one of the better ones in recent memory, with works that are at least mostly enjoyable delves into established (and perhaps somewhat tired) universes. If the nominees were all we watched this year, we’d be left wishing for new worlds to explore.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Memory Going Backwards

One of the most interesting questions in A Memory Called Empire is whether or not protagonist Mahit Dzmare will turn her back on her native Lsel Station. Will she embrace and adopt the colonial culture of the Teixcalaanli Empire?
(Image via Goodreads)

One of the elements that elevated Arkady Martine’s debut novel above many others is the depiction of Dzmare’s internal turmoil and the interplanetary politics that force the question.

This isn’t a simple decision for Dzmare; not only had she been fascinated with the colonial superpower in her formative years — she had fallen for Three Seagrass, an Imperial bureaucrat. This exploration of a cultural identity is a tender, heartbreaking, and moving series of decisions that reveal the integrity of Dzmare’s character, and perhaps Martine as an author.

For us, this was why Martine deserved the Hugo Award she received for A Memory Called Empire. But it is a source of confusion when assessing the sequel A Desolation Called Peace.

Martine is a fine writer who crafts characters you want to root for and we think readers who want to spend more time in the company of Dizmar, Seagrass, Yskandr Aghavn, and Nineteen Adze will enjoy the book thoroughly. This is a well-written, engaging space opera adventure novel.

The problem is that bringing these characters together again (and returning Mahit Dzmare to the centre of the action) requires no small degree of contrivance. Whether or not a reader finds this construction believable and satisfying will depend on how they understood the relationships in the preceding novel.

This sequel picks the action up just weeks after the end of the first book, with Mahit having returned to her home station to find that she is no longer welcome there. Meanwhile the Empire has become embroiled in a war against an unknowable and mysterious alien race. Three Seagrass strategizes to reunite with Dzmare and drag her into the front-lines of the intergalactic conflict.

Some readers might find the first 150 pages of A Desolation Called Peace serves to undo the resolution of the first book. For example, the will-they-won’t-they romance is restored to uncertainty as if the characters were in a sitcom that needed to return everything to the status quo at the end of every episode. When looking at A Desolation Called Peace through this lens, if feels as though the nuance and meaningfulness of the previous book has been diluted. The final decision that Mahit made at the end of A Memory Called Empire seemed retconned to be not so final. The heartbreaking ending of her romance with Three Seagrass is suddenly not so heartbreaking.

In the novel’s defense, some readers might find the sequel to be a deft examination of the nature of
Colonialism is toxic and has a corrosive effect on
human relationships such as the one between 
Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass. Even if there's
real affection, one cannot help but question the
dynamics of power and appropriation of culture.
(Image via History.com
freedom within the context of colonization. There continue to be strong themes about marginalization of non-mainstream cultures, the erasure of history, and the belittling of an individual’s background or past. When these themes come into conflict with the ideologies of the dominant class, the novel becomes far more interesting. This quote of Dzmare contemplating why she is angry with Three Seagrass makes this tension explicit: “She'd meant, When you understand that there's no room for me to say yes, even if I want to. She'd meant, You don't understand that there's no such thing as being free. Free to choose, or free otherwise.” Ultimately the empire doesn’t change and Dzmare’s story ends the only way it could. This left some readers wondering how the relationship with the empire and the new aliens will evolve.

It’s worth noting that some of the best parts of A Desolation Called Peace feature characters who were not present or not prominent in the previous novel: Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus and Imperial heir Eight Antidote. In these sections, the world of the Teixcalaanli seems as fresh and vibrant as it did in the first novel. The ways in which Imperial power structures and monoculture are corrosive to even those who are in positions of privilege are explored with nuance, and it is shown how internecine factionalism can tear down even those who excel within the system.

But fundamentally, the events of the second book no longer seem to be Mahit Dizmare’s story; she’s written to be the main character, but the story is no longer her own. Rather it seems like a story that was taking place in one corner of the galaxy far from anywhere that an Ambassador from Lsel Station should be. The continued focus on Dzmare seemed incongruous.

In many ways, A Desolation Called Peace succeeds: It’s engaging, sweet, often interesting, and fun. But it also has trouble connecting with and growing from the original story.

Friday, 30 July 2021

The Future Refusing To Be Born

There will always be a place that our unevenly distributed future reaches last.
(Image via Goodreads)


In Neil Sharpson’s excellent debut novel When The Sparrow Falls, that place is The Caspian Republic: a country founded by expatriate American and Russian bioconservative activists, whose boundaries are roughly those of present-day Azerbaijan.

While the rest of the world has embraced an almost-singularitarian future of AI-guided mass prosperity, near immortality, and widespread expansive human rights, this Caspian Republic has hewed to a quasi-religious “Humanity First” doctrine and polices the use of technology.

The reader’s guide to this setting is Agent Nikolai South, an aging detective with StaSec, one of the country’s various rival agencies devoted to maintaining ideological purity, and punishing those who try to use illegal technologies.

In a police state where ambition is often met with tragedy, South’s proclivity for keeping his head down has kept him safe. But when the agency needs someone politically reliable, yet expendable, he gets swept up into a protection detail and investigations that have implications for the entire country.

Sharpson’s prose is sparse, clear, and engaging. He ably paints a picture of a deeply flawed society, and one that is the all-too-believable result of nostalgia-driven politics and identity-driven ideology. Because the Caspian Republic’s technology is pretty much limited to what was common in North America in the 1980s, readers will be reminded of late-era Cold War spy stories.
Welsh statesman 
Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)
once described Fascism as
"The future refusing to be born."
(Image via Wikipedia)



But while the setting may seem familiar to readers over 40, many readers will engage with it viscerally because of quotable passages like “Nominally, the currency of the Caspian Republic is the moneta, but in truth the coin of the nation was fear. Whoever could inspire fear was rich, whoever lived in fear was poor.”

One of the highlights of the book is the way in which cultural mores come into conflict between the protagonist and influences from the world outside the boundaries of the Caspian Republic, and the questions that are interrogated. Who or what deserves to have legal rights? What limits should be placed on individual action for the good of the community? To what extent should we allow technology to dictate the future of the species and the planet?

There are coincidences scattered throughout the book that do strain credulity. It is suggested at one point that this may be due to an iteration of Roko's Basilisk — a thought experiment about a future artificial intelligence so advanced it can manipulate events in our present to ensure it comes into being — but for us this thread of the novel fell flat.
Author Neil Sharpson provides
interesting insight into his novel
on an episode of Androids and Assets.
(Image via Amazon)

Likewise, it was at times difficult to believe South’s emotional journey from apathetic true believer in the national cause, to someone who sees the country’s problems and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Not because this journey can’t happen, people can change beliefs, but because of the speed with which it happens in the novel. Over the course of two days, South becomes comfortable betraying all he has stood for his entire life.

While many reviewers have made comparisons between When The Sparrow Falls and Orwell’s 1984, we feel that those comparisons, while useful, are perhaps superficial. Although both authors begin by examining repressive government autocracies, Sharpson is far more hopeful and seems to suggest that all such regimes are unstable and will collapse under their own internal contradictions. We feel that When The Sparrow Falls is just as much in conversation with a lesser-known midcentury science fiction novel: the infamous Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, as it tackles similar questions of governance by algorithm.

Because the novel takes place almost entirely within the borders of the Caspian Republic, the AI-embracing rest of the world is largely ignored. The few glimpses of the mind-uploading, technocratic, utopian society are somewhat facile (though it has to be admitted that such scenes are difficult to write well). We were left with questions about whether the rest of the world is that much better than the Caspian Republic. If nothing can be done without approval of the Artificial Intelligences that guide humanity, in what way is it not a totalitarian state?

The strength of Sharpson’s prose, the fast-paced and engaging plot, and the extraordinarily interesting political dynamics of the setting make for one of the best debut novels of the year, despite some minor flaws.