Monday 27 June 2022

Clark's inDjinnious worldbuilding

With his first novel, Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark returns to the alternate magical Egypt that he previously explored in works such as his Hugo-finalist novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015.
The UK edition of Master of Djinn sports
a cover that is as epic as the contents. 
The designer Matthew Burne deserves kudos.
(Image via Little Brown Book Group)

Set decades after magic was returned to the world by 19th-Century wizard al-Jahiz, these stories follow detectives who are tasked with solving supernatural mysteries.

This time, protagonist Fatma el-Sha’arawi is tasked with solving the murder of an important foreign dignitary, Lord Worthington, and the possible return of al-Jahiz himself.

What elevates the work is Clark’s use of the premise for confident explorations of colonialism, racism, and sexism. One member of our book club flippantly described Master of Djinn as being “from an alternate history where The Dresden Files bothers to say something interesting.”

Alternate history often doesn’t have a deep enough toolbox with which to examine and challenge historical power structures. Colonialism, patriarchy, and structural racism are so ingrained in the cause-and-effect patterns of real-world history that it’s difficult to find plausible allohistorical points of divergence in which these forces are subverted. In short, it would take magic of the sort that enriches Master of Djinn to tackle these entrenched forces and their myriad complexities.

The fantastical elements of Clark’s Egypt are imbued with a deep sense of history. While this book isn’t precisely an alternate history (as many purists of that genre will argue that any story that involves magic cannot be alternate history), Master of Djinn’s worldbuilding is complex enough for the reader to feel that there is a real past and a real future to this society.

In fact, this living, breathing history might be the most engaging character in the book. It’s a world full of sky trams, clockwork angels, and jazz clubs. Clark has skillfully woven worldbuilding details into the narrative that made it seem effortless and natural. It helped, of course, to have a character smitten with history and dedicated to sharing that knowledge.

An interesting parallel could be drawn between Master of Djinn and Rockne S. O’Bannon’s Hugo-shortlisted dramatic presentation Alien Nation. These are stories that deal with police investigating mysteries in a society that is adapting to the arrival of alien beings. In both cases, there are strong elements of social criticism and the use of non-humans as a metaphor for cultural barriers.
P. Djèlí Clark — also known as Dr. Dexter Gabriel
— holds a PhD in history and teaches at the University
of Connecticut. This education is evident in the 
richly layered history that he crafts in Master of Djinn.
(Photo by Peter Morenus via UConn Magazine)

While the central mystery of the book, and most of the characters, are mostly enjoyable they are also largely unremarkable. For some readers, the relentless description of the flawlessness, stylishness, and incredible competence of the protagonist became tiresome. Likewise, Fatma’s much-trumpeted skill as a detective is undermined by how selectively observant she was, and how much of the plot depended on her missing obvious clues. Those who are seeking an engaging mystery may be disappointed, for the reasons above and also because this is not a page-turner typical of that genre.

It did seem odd that the novel was peppered with so many references to the previous stories set in the same world. Those who had not read the preceding works were left feeling that there was something missing.

But for many in the book club, these quibbles are overshadowed by the engaging motivations of those who committed the crime, the well-thought out tensions in the world’s international politics, and the skillful interrogation of power dynamics. Digressions into a possible alliance between the Kaiser and Ottoman Empire, and speculation about what Lord Worthington may have been up to before his demise are all quite interesting.

A Master of Djinn is a strong Hugo finalist that may be near the top of some of our ballots.

Friday 17 June 2022

One Giant Leap Backwards For Science Fiction On Screen

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

“The dramatic Hugo is the least satisfactory category under today's reality.” - Harry Warner, Jr., 1970

“I didn’t see anything worth giving it to.” - Buck Coulson on Best Dramatic Presentation 1970

To say that the fictional works on the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo in 1970 was a step backwards would be an understatement.

On first glance, the shortlist seems like an aberration, comprising such unloved and unmemorable works as Marooned, The Bedsitting Room, Illustrated Man, and The Immortal. Watching these movies, we wondered what Hugo voters could have been thinking in nominating them. 
Hugo finalist dramatic presentation Marooned has
the unique distinction of being the only Academy
Award winner to be lampooned on MST3K.
(Image via IMDB)

But the more we looked at cinema from that year, the more we realized that Hugo voters had done as good a job as possible in selecting the shortlist, considering that the eligible films for those Hugos (movies released in 1969) included such celebrated works as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Moon Zero Two, Night of the Bloody Apes and The Curious Dr. Humpp.

Reality had overtaken screen SFF. The decision to honour news footage rather than fiction (a decision we had initially questioned) seems rather brilliant in the context of the rest of the shortlist and the state of science fiction cinema. 

The nomination process wasn’t helped by a moral panic among a recalcitrant conservative faction of fandom. With the site selection vote having given the 1970 Worldcon to Heidelberg, West Germany, there were fears that the Hugos would be taken away from the English-speaking West, that the United States might never have another Worldcon, and that the Best Novel shortlist would be comprised of nothing but Perry Rhodan books. Members of the 1969 WSFS business meeting passed several motions trying to prevent this speculative calamity, including provisions that put restrictions on the language that the Hugo finalist could be published in (spoiler: English only).

Thankfully, fandom has moved beyond this type of knee-jerk panic. There’s no object lesson to be learned from what happened in 1970, and none of these events are at all relevant to anything going on in Worldcon fandom in 2023.

This change meant that in 1970, the Japanese action movie Latitude Zero and the Italian-French comedy Hibernatus were ineligible. Although neither movie is a classic, either one would have been a more interesting finalist than most of the works on the shortlist.

Of the films that did make the shortlist, the most serious is the high-budget Marooned, a Martin Caidin-penned tale of three American astronauts dealing with technical problems during a NASA mission. Although the movie has high-wattage star power featuring (among others) Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman, it is astonishingly dull and monotonous.

There are a few redeeming moments in Marooned; the heroic role of Russian cosmonauts and the international cooperation depicted is certainly refreshing for the era. And there is an excellent taut sequence in which one of the astronauts is asked to sacrifice himself to save oxygen for the rest of the crew. But overall, it is an astonishingly dreary movie to endure.

It’s interesting that Marooned and 2001: A Space Odyssey were filmed on comparable budgets at approximately the same time. Although it won an Academy Award for special effects, Marooned seems cheap and shoddy by comparison to Kubrik’s masterpiece.

The Illustrated Man, based on Bradbury’s collection of stories, is mediocre in more perplexing ways. Much like the collection it’s based on, the movie uses a man’s tattoos as a narrative framework to tell various stories, including Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” “The Long Rain,” and “The Last Night of the World.”

While any of these stories could have been adapted into serviceable episodes of The Twilight Zone, they don’t work well when combined into one overarching narrative. Compounding this tonal mismatch is leaden dialogue and hammy acting.

The most controversial of the shortlist for us turned out to be The Bedsitting Room, a frankly bizarre post-apocalyptic comedy set in the ruins of London in the wake of a nuclear war. Based on a stage play by Goon Show legend Spike Milligan, the movie rambles between the 20 or so survivors of the atomic fires as they go about their daily lives and come into incredibly petty conflicts and surreal misadventures.

The Bedsitting Room is elevated by an exceedingly strong cast including Dudley Moore, Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, and Marty Feldman (in his film debut).
In the bright cold air, you seemed as innocent
and fair as Rita Tushingham in 1969.
(Image via IMDB)

Very little in the movie makes sense, whether it’s an elderly woman spontaneously turning into a piece of furniture, an aquatic bishop swimming up from a lake to perform a forced marriage, or the cast being listed in the credits by order of height. While those of us with strong cultural ties to the United Kingdom found some of these moments funny, overall it was a difficult movie to appreciate.

The nearly forgotten and short-lived television series The Immortal may have been the strongest fictional work on the ballot in 1970.

The show is a story about Ben Richards, a race car driver whose genetics render him impervious to disease and likely to live an extended lifespan. The show puts him in conflict with a billionaire who wants to kidnap him and harvest his blood. Much like Richard Kimble, The Incredible Hulk, or Johnny Bago, the series follows the protagonist as he flees across the country.

The Immortal — which didn’t even last a full season — wasn’t great. They took a decent novel by James E. Gunn, sanded the rough edges off it and made it safe and generic television. However, the fact that most of our cinema club would have put it on the top of our ballots is an indictment of the quality of screen SFF that year.

Produced by Universal's famous "factory" model
of television storytelling, the Immortal is remarkably
similar to many of the studio's shows. 
(Image via ComfortTV)
In light of the year’s fiction in this category, the selection of news footage from Apollo XI as the winner for Best Dramatic Presentation looks rather inspired. Certainly the special effects were extraordinarily realistic (given that they were real), viewers were emotionally engaged by the memorable characters such as Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, and the work did provide some of the most quotable dialogue in dramatic presentation history (who could ever forget lines like “One Giant Leap For Mankind”?).

The news footage is interesting, but needed an editor to tighten it down to a shorter run time and to provide context. Rather than going back and watching the original news footage, we would recommend watching the spectacular IMAX documentary Apollo 11. The event and the documentation holds up remarkably well 53 years later.

There was at least one major omission from the Hugo Awards ballot: Destroy All Monsters. The ninth, and arguably most bonkers, of Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla movies brings together kaiju from all previous entries in the series. This is the Avengers: Endgame of the GCU (Godzilla Cinematic Universe.) It is likely that among our viewing group, this would have been the top pick amongst actual movies and TV shows that year. Likewise, it's possible that one of the late episodes of Star Trek such as "All Our Yesterdays" might have warranted an inclusion … though even this might be a stretch. 

After several years in which Hugo nominators had an embarrassment of riches to choose from, the well had gone suddenly dry, and there was little top tier science fiction on screen.

It still feels weird to honour real history in a category that has otherwise been exclusively dedicated to fiction, but if not for Apollo XI, this might have been the first year that we suggested a No Award result. 

Thursday 2 June 2022

The Tsars Like Dust

For a genre that has an unparalleled canvas on which to sketch alternative systems, science fiction all too often falls back on the oldest, simplest, stupidest, and most regressive form of government: Monarchy.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary
of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's
ascent to the throne, the authors
and editors of this blog would like to
respectfully suggest that all monarchies
(even vestigial ones like the House of
Windsor) should be abolished.
(Image via
It’s easy to think of examples: Princess Ardala, The Gray Prince, King T'Chaka, Emperox Grayland, Emperor Six Direction, Princess Dejah Thoris, Emperor Balem Abrasax, Princess Irulan, Queen Yllana, Princess Astra, Emperor Zarkon, Princess Koriand'r, and Emperor Cleon II to name just a handful. Unfortunately, many of these examples do not engage critically with the idea of monarchy, nor attempt to grapple with the societal consequences of this form of government, nor question the underlying elitist philosophy it represents. Readers should therefore approach such stories with skepticism.

Given that there are few places that are still governed by monarchs of anything other than a vestigial variety, it might seem reasonable that few authors choose to engage critically with the consequences of the monarchies they depict. Americans under the age of 244 and British people with no recollection of what things were like before Peterloo don’t have any direct experience with just how truly awful it would be to live in a polity governed by Emperoxes. (Even if there's a good ruler like Greyland once in a while, they end up being hamstrung by the weight of tradition.) 

Authors seeking to more accurately depict what a space empire might look like should probably look to the few modern-day examples of absolute monarchy that still exist, places like the Sultanate of Oman, the Kingdom of Eswatini, and the Kim Family Protectorate of North Korea. To put it bluntly, in the real world there is a strong correlation between the authority of monarchs, and a lack of human rights, and this is rarely depicted in science fiction.

There are obvious reasons why writing about monarchs might be enticing: It’s an easy signifier of a character’s relevance and agency. The moment that someone mentions Princess Leah, the audience knows that this is a character who is important.

Likewise, from a storytelling perspective it’s easier to explain policy decisions as the result of one person’s choice, rather than the deliberative process often necessary for other forms of government to act.

It should also be noted that as the longest surviving human institution, persisting for more than 10,000 years, it seems likely that some form of monarchy will unfortunately continue well into the future.

But all too often, the genre has engaged uncritically with this repressive and regressive form of governance. For example, even when talking about what might replace a flawed and failing empire in the early Foundation novels, Asimov didn’t suggest a form of governance more complex or nuanced than monarchy.

Alderaan is depicted as idyllic
and a near utopian monarchy,
while in the real world kings
and human rights are incompatible.
(Image via
In the Honorverse novels by David Weber, Elizabeth III, Queen and Empress of Manticore is inevitably always on the right side of every issue — and her decisive leadership is a stark contrast to the incompetent and bumbling democratic governments in the series. Although Lois McMaster Bujold at least concedes that there have been terrible emperors in the past, Gregor Vorbarra is basically decent. By failing to challenge the myth of the benevolent despot, these works reinforce it.

Perhaps the colonization of the stars is more likely under the violent and rapacious system of monarchy. Often empires don’t survive if they aren’t expanding. So a democratic system might be happy (or forced) to focus on increasing (or achieving) the wellbeing of citizens instead of venturing to the stars. Like the corporate pseudo-monarchs of capitalism, a traditional monarchy might also feel compelled to reach for ever more. But then fiction's various versions of the Organas should be portrayed as violent and greedy instead of as compassionate rulers.

The Star Wars franchise has rarely made any pretense of being interested in deeper cultural criticism, but the increasingly incoherent and inchoate depiction of governance systems is worth noting. It’s almost impossible to parse out how any of their government works; there’s a senate, an emperor, elected princesses, and a trade federation that wields some sort of authority. What is made clear however, is that the problem isn’t with the institution of the monarchy: the problem is that the emperor is evil. Ergo: the problem is that the wrong people are in power, rather than a need for greater systemic reform.

Despite otherwise nuanced and
high-brow storytelling, Leprechaun
In Space
fell back on the tired
trope of having an interstellar monarch.
(Image via IMDB)
All monarchy is based on a presumption that there is an inherent superiority to those within a specific lineage, and as such it is underpinned by the same philosophy that informs institutional racism. This is reinforced in the latest Star Wars trilogy; Rey is a force adept only because she is a direct descendant of Emperor Palpatine. Her worth and power results from her lineage. It should therefore be no surprise that many science fiction writers who belong to marginalized and racialized backgrounds have tended to depict monarchies with a healthier degree of suspicion than the mostly white writers of the Campbellian era of SFF.

It is interesting to note that despite being on opposite poles of the political spectrum, of the big-name Campbell-era authors, Robert Heinlein and Frederick Pohl were possibly the most skeptical of monarchy as a concept. Pohl’s few depictions of monarchy are irreverent, while Heinlein depicts monarchy as either alien or abhorrent, while offering protagonists who champion democratic systems of various sorts.

There however is something to be said for fiction that directly engages with the idea of monarchy, and does so in order to interrogate what that system of government actually means for those who participate in it. An excellent example of this would be Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which somewhat unflinchingly depicts some of the consequences and externalities of having a privileged and chosen bloodline.

Monarchy is a brutal, awful system of government that has largely been abandoned in most prosperous progressive nations. At current count, the world has only seven absolute monarchies left, as well as a smattering of nations that have vestigial monarchs. It seems odd, therefore, that for significant portions of a genre that looks to the future this dreadful system seems to be the default.

When imagining futures for society, we would urge fandom to take an approach of healthy skepticism towards monarchies.