When Dimple met Rishi is adorable and funny and utterly delightful. It was just what I needed during a stressful day.
Here’s the plot setup: Dimple is eighteen and about to go to Stanford. She resents her Indian-born mother’s attempts to mold her into a traditional woman. Dimple’s plans revolve around school and career, with no interest in marrying and having children. Above all else, she resents any suggestion that she would go to college to get a husband. Since Dimple’s parents are very protective, Dimple is surprised but thrilled when her parents readily agree to let her spend part of the summer at Insomnia Con, a summer program on web development held in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Rishi, who is also eighteen, tells himself and everyone else that he is happy to be a model oldest son to his parents, who are also from India. Rishi used to love drawing comics, but he has set that aside, applied to MIT, and plans to have a career in computer sciences. Rishi trusts his parents to arrange a marriage for him.
As a matter of fact, Rishi’s mom and dad are acquainted with Dimple’s mom and dad. They think Rishi and Dimple might be a great match, so they send Rishi to Insomnia Con to meet Dimple. However, Rishi’s parents don’t mention to him that Dimple’s parents haven’t told her anything about Rishi or the possibility of an arrangement. Dimple’s parents don’t tell her anything about Rishi either. When a total stranger walks up to Dimple at a coffee shop at Insomnia Con and says, “Hello, future wife!” it doesn’t go well.
Happily, the big misunderstanding is cleared up almost immediately so Dimple and Rishi can get on with becoming friends who absolutely do not date because Dimple is not looking for a relationship. Of course, it immediately becomes obvious to one and all that Dimple and Rishi are fabulous as a couple. They respect each other (eventually), they balance each other’s hang-ups as the best couples do, they are both very smart and very funny, and they have fantastic chemistry.
All of this makes for extremely fun and swoony reading. This book is set up as an opposites attract book, with Dimple determined to chase her dreams and Rishi resigned to fulfilling the dreams of others. However, they have more similarities than differences. Their only real conflict lies in Dimple’s fear of romance distracting her from her career and her independence.
The degree of swoony can be seen in the “not date” when Rishi takes Dimple to Two Sisters Bar and Books (a real place that recently closed, alas). Rishi and Dimple first met at a wedding when they were kids, and at that time Dimple was reading A Wrinkle in Time. So, at their table Rishi has a present waiting for Dimple – a special edition copy of A Wrinkle in Time from the year they met.
In turn, Dimple takes Rishi to a place where they have an amazing view of the San Francisco Bay Area. She tells Rishi that she’d like to make their “not date” a date, but wonders if he feels like there’s a point to dating since she’s not sure she’ll ever want to get married. Rishi says that tradition is important to him, but:
The point of dating you, Dimple Shah, is to get to know you. To spend time with you. To see the way you push your glasses up on your nose when you’re especially moved by whatever you’re saying. To smell your amazing shampoo. To feel your heart beating against mine. To see you smile. To kiss you. So maybe all that other stuff that’s important to me can take a backseat for now. And maybe I’m totally fine with that…if you are?
Pardon me while I pass out for a while.
There are only a couple of nitpicks standing between this book and an A. One is that Rishi and Dimple seem to have a lot of free time for two people in an incredibly complex and difficult competition with high stakes. Another is that the conflicts are so nicely resolved about two-thirds of the way through the book that the ensuing complications feel contrived. Granted, they are the kinds of contrivances that two eighteen-year-olds would generate. The better things go with Rishi, the more nervous Dimple gets, until she’s second-guessed herself into a state of complete panic. It does make sense for her character, but it also means a smart and admirable heroine suddenly seems obtuse and inconsistent, purely so that the story can keep going for another hundred pages.
Generally, however, this is a lovely book. It is sweet and funny and heartwarming. The parents and Rishi’s brother get some chances to shine and Dimple’s roommate is a good, if confused, friend. Both Dimple and Rishi have solid character development. Dimple has to learn to trust in a relationship and Rishi has to learn that his dreams have value. The ending is, appropriately, HFN instead of HEA, but it’s very satisfying. I happily recommend this book.
We interrupt this Tuesday afternoon to bring this fresh stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here is a book you would like in your possession? Tell us in the comments!
Psi powers—telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and other parapsychological activity—was one of the founding tropes of science fiction, up there with rocket ships, time travel, and aliens. John W. Campbell coined the term “psionics”—from psi and electronics—and encouraged his stable of authors to write about it. And so they did.
But after reaching maximum saturation in the 1950s, psionics began disappearing from SF in the 70s, became uncommon by the 90s, and are a rarity today. (That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write one. I miss them!) The five books below, as well as being some of my favorite novels, show how the subgenre evolved, and why I think it’s unlikely to go extinct.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Slan to science fiction. Van Vogt’s prose style is not to everyone’s taste (see Damon Knight’s infamous essay dismantling Van Vogt in In Search of Wonder), but the power is in its big idea: a hidden race of supermen, wielding awesome mind powers, is secretly controlling the world.
Slan, which was first serialized in 1940, established the idea that psi powers go hand in hand with the evolution of the human race. To paraphrase Bowie, you gotta make way for homo superior. Van Vogt’s ubermensch conspiracy resonated deeply, and perhaps not healthily. The early science fiction community embraced “fans are slans” exceptionalism—weren’t SF readers smarter and more special than the “mundanes?” Every psi story to follow had to wrestle with this yearning for a master race.
Bester’s novel, which won the first Hugo in 1953, offers one solution to the superman problem: register and license them. In the 24th century there are many “espers,” from low-level class 3’s to powerful Class 1’s, and some of those Class 1’s want to rule the world. Lincoln Powell, a Class 1 esper detective, is chasing a murderer (and latent telepath) that he knows is guilty—Powell read his mind—but because evidence gained via telepathy is not admissible in court, he has to collect evidence the old-fashioned way. Great power, Bester argues, can be reined in by laws and society.
This 1977 novel, the second book in the Patternist series, was the first Octavia Butler novel I read, and it was thrilling. The story is about Mary, a latent telepath who is part of a breeding program orchestrated by a 4,000-year-old immortal, Doro, whose mind hops from body to body. Mary becomes the most powerful psionic in the world (there are flying telekinetics, too) by linking with first six, then over a thousand telepaths in what she calls a Pattern.
But typical for Butler, Mary doesn’t want to rule the world; she wants to protect her family, and this community of Patternists. When Doro, feeling threatened, attacks Mary, the group kills him. Butler demonstrates that power for the sake of power is a hollow goal.
Speaking of hollow… Jeremy, the protagonist of Simmon’s 1992 novel, is a grieving telepath who was married to a woman who shared his powers. When she dies, he can no longer keep out the “neurobabble” of other minds, and so goes on the road, seeking isolation.
As in the best SF, metaphors are artfully literalized. The marriage of true minds has dissolved, and Jeremy’s become yet another widower trying withdraw from the world. Then he meets a sociopathic killer whose mind is full of static, a person literally disconnected from all human connection. And Jeremy hears a “voice” calling him, a new telepath who needs his help. The purpose of Jeremy’s life is not to save the world or create a new race: it’s to save one child.
Just to prove that there’s no ultimate psi novel, no master text that this subgenre will evolve into, here’s what I consider a timeless classic in the field. Written over fifty years ago, More than Human is about a group of damaged yet powerful people who gradually find each other. There’s a troubled young man with telepathic powers, a telekinetic girl, two mute twins with the ability to teleport, and Baby, a toddler super-genius. They become more than a family; they’re a new kind of organism: homo gestalt. The organism becomes whole only when it’s joined by a normal man, who serves as their conscience. This new race won’t dominate humans, but work with them.
More than Human is still finding readers, partly because the creation of homo gestalt—like Butler’s Patternists and the improvised family in Simmons’s novel—captures the way the world feels when we’ve finally found our family. And that’s why psi novels, though they may never again be as popular as they were in the 50’s, will continue to be written. They’re excellent vehicles for showing that mysterious process by which we come together, each of us with an array of abilities and dysfunctions that are mostly invisible to the outside world, and become a little stronger than we were alone. Also? Psionics is just plain cool.
Top image: cover art for French edition of Slan (J’ai Lu, 1977); illustration by Jean Mascii.
Daryl Gregory’s latest novel is Spoonbenders, about a family of down-on-their-luck psychics, out now from Knopf. Recent work includes the novels Afterparty and Harrison Squared, and the novella “We Are All Completely Fine,” which won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. Daryl lives and bends cutlery in Oakland, California.
Star Trek Generations Written by Rick Berman and Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga
Directed by David Carson Release date: November 18, 1994 Stardate: 48632.4
Captain’s log. A bottle floats through space and breaks on the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-B. Joining Captain John Harriman on her maiden voyage is a gaggle of press, as well as Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov. The trio look around and talk to the helm officer, Ensign Demora Sulu, Hikaru Sulu’s daughter.
After Kirk gives the order to leave Spacedock—which he only does reluctantly, and only after Harriman insists—they set course for a trip around the solar system. However, they pick up a distress call. Two ships are stuck in an energy ribbon and are about to be destroyed. Harriman tries to fob it off on another ship in range—but there is no other ship in range, so Harriman reluctantly sets course. Throughout all this, Kirk is practically jumping out of his skin.
When they arrive, they can’t get close enough to transport without getting sucked into the ribbon. The ship’s tractor beam and photon torpedoes won’t be installed until Tuesday, and the medical staff doesn’t report until then, either, which is why Harriman was reluctant to enact a rescue. They manage to beam 47 of the 300 people on the two ships away before they’re destroyed—and then the Enterprise itself is being torn apart by the gravimetric forces of the ribbon.
Since there’s no medical staff, Chekov and a couple of reporters take care of the refugees, one of whom, Soran, is beside himself wanting to go back for some reason. Another we recognize as Guinan.
Scotty thinks that an antimatter blast will disrupt the gravimetric field, but without photon torpedoes, that’s hard to manage. The deflector can be gimmicked to simulate a torpedo, though. Harriman is about to do it, leaving Kirk in charge. Kirk eagerly sits in the center seat at first, then thinks better of it, telling Harriman that his place is on the bridge of his ship.
Kirk goes to deck 15 to do what needs doing. Demora activates the deflector when he’s done, and they break free, but a backwash from the ribbon hits decks 13-15, including the section where Kirk was. Scotty, Chekov, and Harriman go down to find the hull breached, and no sign of Kirk.
Seventy-eight years later, a promotion celebration is held on the holodeck of the Enterprise-D, with a sailing ship—also called Enterprise—re-created and the crew in 18th-century sailing outfits. Worf is treated as a prisoner, the charges against him being performing above and beyond the call of duty and earning their respect. Picard then promotes him to lieutenant commander, “And may God have mercy on your soul.”
Worf then has to walk the plank and snatch the tricorn hat from a bit of rigging. Riker then “accidentally” removes the plank rather than retract it, and Worf falls into the water. Data doesn’t get the humor of the situation and asks Crusher to explain it. Her explanation inspires him to push Crusher into the water, which everyone in the audience thinks is hilarious, but nobody on the ship does for reasons the script never adequately explains.
The festivities are interrupted twice, first by Picard receiving a personal message that his brother and nephew have died in a fire, then a distress call from the Amargosa Observatory that they’re under attack. Everyone leaves the holodeck and the Enterprise-D goes to red alert.
When they arrive, there are no ships in the area and the observatory is in bad shape. Only five of the nineteen crew members assigned to the observatory have survived. Riker takes an away team over with Worf, Crusher, and a security detail. One of the people they rescue is Soran. They find two Romulan corpses as well, which indicates that they were the ones who attacked.
On the Enterprise, Data views his difficulty with humor as a reason to finally install the emotion chip that Dr. Soong made for him and that Lorestole. (Never mind that the difficulty was with everyone else, as what he did was funny! It was even the same kind of funny as what Riker did to Worf!) Meanwhile, Soran goes to Picard and insists that he return to the observatory to complete an experiment, but Picard won’t let him until the investigation is complete. Soran then says some crazy-ass things that would do absolutely nothing to convince anyone to let him do what he wants, which makes you wonder why he said it. He also avoids Guinan’s gaze for fear of being recognized.
Worf’s investigation reveals that the Romulans were looking for information on trilithium, even though that wasn’t part of the observatory’s remit. La Forge and Data beam over to try to find traces of trilithium, and they don’t find any, though Data does finally get a joke La Forge told seven years earlier. However, they do find a hidden door that Data gets open, revealing a hidden lab. Before they can investigate, Data is overwhelmed by his emotion chip—then Soran inexplicably shows up and ambushes La Forge and threatens Data so that now he’s overwhelmed with fear.
On the Enterprise, Troi checks up on Picard, who finally reveals that Robert and René died in a fire. He laments the end of the Picard line—because, apparently he’s sterile? I dunno. Anyhow, they’re interrupted by the sun imploding. A shockwave is going to destroy the observatory, and La Forge and Data are still on it. Riker and Worf try to enact a rescue but Soran fires on them, then beams to a Klingon ship that has just decloaked, along with La Forge. Data is cringing in fear, but he, Riker, and Worf beam back before the shockwave hits.
Soran is in league with Lursa and B’Etor, who are still trying to put themselves in position to rule the KlingonEmpire. They stole the trilithium from the Romulans for Soran, which is why they attacked the observatory. He wants to figure out a way to destroy suns for his own reasons, and the Duras sisters are aiding him so they will have a powerful weapon.
Crusher has found Soran’s Wikipedia entry and discovers his connection to Guinan. According to Guinan, the ribbon isn’t just a spatial phenomenon, it’s a gateway to a place called the Nexus, a place of total joy. Soran has been trying to get back there, but Guinan has no idea how destroying suns would further that goal.
Picard and Data work through the problem, and they realize that he’s destroying suns in order to affect gravitational fields in the vicinity, which will change the ribbon’s course so that it will hit a planet. Soran plans to be on that planet—Veridian III—in order to reenter the Nexus. He’ll destroy Veridian’s sun, which will send the ribbon to the planet. Unfortunately, that will shortly thereafter destroy all the planets in the Veridian system, including the fourth planet, which has more than two hundred million people on it.
Soran has modified La Forge’s VISOR, and then gives Lursa and B’Etor the secret to the sun-killer before beaming down to Veridian III. Picard negotiates with Lursa and B’Etor to return La Forge in exchange for Picard himself as a prisoner—but only after he beams down to talk to Soran. They agree, mainly because they put a camera on the VISOR. Through La Forge, they’re able to find out the ship’s shield frequency and fire their torpedoes through the shields. Data, Worf, and Riker manage to figure out a way to remotely engage their cloaking device, which lowers their shields long enough for Worf to fire a torpedo, which destroys them, but not until after the Klingons have pounded the shit out of the defenseless Enterprise.
Picard’s attempts to talk Soran out of his destructive course fail, and Picard can’t get through the force field Soran has protecting himself. However, Picard does find a way under it, which he crawls under once Soran isn’t looking.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise took too much damage. The warp core loses containment. Riker evacuates everyone from the drive section into the saucer and they separate, but they can’t get far enough away from the drive section before the breach. The saucer is damaged in the explosion and crash lands on Veridian III.
Soran and Picard get into a fistfight on a catwalk. Soran wins and then the probe launches, destroying the sun and sending the ribbon to Veridian III. Both Soran and Picard are swallowed up by the ribbon and sent to the Nexus.
Seconds later, Veridian III and the Enterprise saucer are destroyed.
Picard finds himself in a beautiful Victorian house in the midst of a Christmas celebration with his wife and many children, nieces, and nephews—including René, alive again.
However, the twinkle of the ornaments reminds him of a sun going nova, and he knows this isn’t real. He encounters Guinan, dressed as she was when the Enterprise-B rescued her—in truth, it’s an echo of her from when she was in the Nexus. While he is reluctant to leave his newly discovered family, his sense of duty takes over and he insists he has to go back so he can confront Soran again.
Guinan can’t go back with him—she’s not really there—but there’s someone else who is there: Kirk.
Picard finds him chopping wood outside a rustic cabin in the middle of the mountains. Kirk is confused, as he sold the cabin years ago. To his surprise, his ex Antonia is there, and his dog Butler is there as well, even though he died seven years earlier.
Kirk finally realizes that he’s returned to the day he told Antonia he was going back to Starfleet. Picard tries to convince him to return to Veridian III with him. Kirk, though, has been informed that history believes him to be dead, and who is he to argue with history?
He goes to bring Antonia her breakfast, but instead of telling her he’s going back to Starfleet, he’s going to tell her that he’s going to stay with her—
—except that doesn’t work. Instead, they both wind up at Kirk’s uncle’s stables, which is the day he met Antonia. He rides off to do so, and Picard follows on another horse. Kirk makes a jump with the horse that he made dozens of times, and it always scared him—but this time it doesn’t, because it isn’t real.
Kirk decides to join Picard. They come out of the Nexus. The Enterprise crashes again. Soran goes to the catwalk again.
And this time he’s confronted by both Picard and Kirk. Soran manages to get away, and they give chase. Fisticuffs ensue, and Soran manages to cloak the launcher—but then he drops the controller. Kirk runs to the catwalk that the controller fell on, and Soran shoots it. Picard helps Kirk get off the catwalk safely, then they split up. Kirk goes for the controller while Picard goes for the launcher. Kirk manages to snag the controller and decloak the launcher, enabling Picard to clamp the launcher in place. When Soran chases him away from the launchpad, he runs to it only to be blown up when the launch sequence completes and the thing can’t fire.
Picard goes to where Kirk has been crushed by the fallen catwalk. Picard assures him that he helped save the day. Kirk says it was fun and then dies. Picard buries him, then is rescued by a Starfleet shuttlecraft.
Casualties were light in the crash, but the Enterprise isn’t salvageable. Three Starfleet ships rescue the crew and they head back home.
Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Even though they had to evacuate the ship once to get rid of trilithium resin, Riker and Worf talk like trilithium is a new thing. It will be seen as an explosive moving forward, and I guess it’s 50% more lithium-y than dilithium…
I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty, of course, manages to beam some of the El-Aurian refugees away despite the temporal interference, and also comes up with a way to get the Enterprise-B away from the ribbon. He also takes great joy in tweaking Kirk.
It’s a Russian invention. After (re)introducing Kirk to Demora, Chekov insists that he was never that young. Kirk puts a friendly hand on his shoulder and says that he was younger.
Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu apparently had time for a family. This rather shocks Kirk.
Thank you, Counselor Obvious. Troi notices that Picard has had an emotional whammy as soon as he gets the e-mail that his brother and nephew are dead, but it takes her a bit to get him to actually open up about it.
If I only had a brain… Data implants his emotion chip. It doesn’t go so hot.
There is no honor in being pummeled. Worf gets a long-overdue promotion to lieutenant commander, a rank he’ll keep through the remaining films as well as his tenure on DS9. In honor of this, he finally gets a chair at tactical.
Syntheholics anonymous. Guinan spent some time in the Nexus after she was rescued following the Borg attack on her homeworld. She helps navigate Picard through it.
In the driver’s seat. Two different officers are seen at conn, but when the ship is crashing, Troi winds up taking the helm. Many imbeciles have used this as an excuse to ding Troi—ha ha, the counselor flew the ship and it crashed—but it was gonna crash no matter what. While she was flying it, the ship landed somewhat safely with what Picard described in his log entry at the end as minimal casualties. That’s actually good piloting.
No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. Picard goes on at some length to Troi about how the Picard line ends with him. No news on when Picard got the vasectomy…
Channel open. “Just imagine what it was like—no engines, no computers, just the wind and the sea and the stars to guide you.”
“Bad food. Brutal discipline. No women.”
Picard being romantic about sailing ships, with Riker being a bit more realistic.
Welcome aboard. Back for more are William Shatner, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig, starring alongside Sir Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Patti Yasutake, and an uncredited Whoopi Goldberg, the latter nine reprising their roles from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Barbara March and Gwynyth Walsh make their final appearances as Lursa and B’Etor, following TNG‘s “Redemption,” “Redemption II,” and “Firstborn” and DS9‘s “Past Prologue.” Brian Thompson plays their helm officer; he appeared as various other aliens (including another Klingon) in TNG‘s “A Matter of Honor,” DS9‘s “Rules of Acquisition” and “To the Death,” and Enterprise‘s “Babel One”/”United”/”The Aenar” three-parter.
And finally, Malcolm McDowell plays Soran, the man who killed Captain Kirk. Lucky him.
Trivial matters: Famously, this movie went through a major reshoot of the ending when test audiences very much disliked the way Kirk died. It was re-shot at the last minute. The original ending can be found in J.M. Dillard’s novelization, which had already gone to press when the re-shoots were done. Dillard’s novel also included additional prologue material with Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov, as well as appearances by Spock, McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura. The novel also had a YA novelization by John Vornholt and a comics adaptation by Michael Jan Friedman & Gordon Purcell.
The prologue of this movie takes place about a year or so after The Undiscovered Country. As promised at the end of the previous film, the Enterprise-A was decommissioned, and this is the launch of the Enterprise-B. The main body of the film takes place about a year after “All Good Things…,” the final episode of TNG.
This is the final appearance of William Shatner, Walter Koenig, and James Doohan as Kirk, Chekov, and Scotty, though Scotty’s next chronological appearance is in TNG‘s “Relics,” which aired in 1992. The characters will next appear in the 2009 Star Trek, played respectively by Chris Pine, Anton Yelchin, and Simon Pegg.
When Scotty is rescued from the Jenolen by the Enterprise-D in “Relics,” he posits that Kirk himself rescued him, which is at odds with Scotty being present for Kirk’s “death” here. Ronald D. Moore has said in interviews that it wasn’t worth trying to reconcile them, and he’s right.
When TNG wrapped, the studio always intended to bring these characters to the screen, with The Undiscovered Country having been the final outing for the original crew (at least in this timeline). Rick Berman wanted to do a passing of the baton, as it were, from the original series, and commissioned story pitches from several TNG past and present staffers—former show-runner Maurice Hurley, current show-runner Michael Piller, and current staffers Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga. Piller declined and the studio preferred Moore & Braga’s notion over Hurley’s.
Earlier drafts of the script called for the entire original crew, and later it was simplified to three, originally intended to be Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, with Kirk later interacting with the TNG crew. Both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley declined, so instead they got James Doohan and Walter Koenig, with Spock’s lines given to Doohan’s Scotty and McCoy’s to Koenig’s Chekov.
The studio’s first choice for director was Nimoy, but he declined to direct a Trek movie he had no say in the story of. Instead, they turned to veteran Trek TV director David Carson.
Internal dating on the movies themselves indicate that there’s roughly a decade of time between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. (The former was two-and-a-half years after the end of the five-year mission, the latter fifteen years after “Space Seed,” which was early in the 5YM.) This movie establishes that, for part of that time, Kirk retired and lived with a woman named Antonia. She’s seen in the distance, and played by stuntwoman Lynn Salvatori. In her honor, the character was given the last name of Salvatori when she was seen in tie-in fiction, particularly the Crucible trilogy by David R. George III. She’s also referenced in Christopher L. Bennett’s The Darkness Drops Again (part of the Mere Anarchy miniseries) and Dayton Ward’s Elusive Salvation.
The backstory for Demora was provided in Peter David’s novel The Captain’s Daughter, which also did a certain amount to redeem the character of Harriman. Harriman, Demora, and the Enterprise-B were further seen in David’s short story “Shakedown” in EnterpriseLogs, David R. George III’s Lost Era novels Serpent Among the Ruins and One Constant Star and his short story “Iron and Sacrifice” in Tales from the Captain’s Table, Andy Mangels & Michael A. Martin’s novel Forged in Fire, and in the comic books Alien Spotlight: Klingons by your humble rewatcher and JK Woodward, Captain’s Log: Harriman by Marc Guggenheim & Andrew Currie, and Spock: Reflections by Scott & David Tipton, David Messina, & Federica Manfredi. Demora will next be seen as a child in Star Trek Beyond.
Up until this film, TNG and DS9 were filmed as if starbase personnel wore the turtleneck uniforms seen in DS9 while starship and headquarters personnel wore the TNG uniforms (as evidenced by Sisko switching to a TNG uniform when he was assigned to Earth in “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost“). However, Starfleet personnel in this movie wore the TNG and DS9 uniforms interchangeably, and Voyager would have everyone assigned to that ship wearing the DS9 uniforms. So not confusing at all.
Neither Jeremy Kemp nor David Tristan Birkin, who played Robert and René Picard in “Family,” were used for the photographs Picard looks at. Instead, uncredited actors played the two roles.
The El-Aurian refugees found by the Enterprise-B are fleeing a Borg attack on their homeworld, which was previously referenced by Guinan in “Q Who.”
Data’s emotion chip first appeared in “Brothers,” and Data acquired it in the “Descent” two-parter. Despite this movie establishing that the chip is permanently fused to his neural net and unable to be switched off, he will switch it off in First Contact and remove it in Insurrection. It isn’t even acknowledged in Nemesis. The evolution of the emotion chip is dealt with in the short story “Friends with the Sparrows” by Christopher L. Bennett (in the anthology The Sky’s the Limit) and the novella The Insolence of Office by William Leisner (part of the Slings and Arrows miniseries). Leisner’s novella also deals with La Forge switching from the VISOR to optical implants, done in part due to the VISOR being used against him in this movie.
In “The Chase,” Picard is given a Kurlan naiskos by his mentor and father figure, Dr. Richard Galen. He goes on at some length about how rare it is and how honored he is to be given this amazing gift from a person to whom he was truly closer than his own biological father. So it’s rather disheartening to see him casually toss the naiskos aside in the wreckage of the Enterprise-D…
A cut bit of dialogue establishes that Guinan’s sensitivity to temporal mechanics, as seen in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” is because of her time in the Nexus.
In Lursa and B’Etor’s previous appearance in “Firstborn,” Lursa was pregnant with a son. That son’s fate is unclear, though the Star Trek Online game establishes the son, named Ja’rod after Lursa’s father, is alive and serving the empire.
In the tie-in fiction and Star Trek Online, Picard and Crusher marry some time after Nemesis, and they have a son, named René. So not the end of the Picard line after all…
To boldly go. “I hate this! It is revolting!” When I first saw this movie in 1994, my first thought was that it was a promising first draft that was rushed into production. This is mostly because it was a promising first draft that was rushed into production. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga wrote this in about seven-and-a-half minutes, at the same time that they were writing the (much much better) “All Good Things…” and then the movie was slammed into production right after TNG wrapped production as a TV show.
This rushed nature is seen most obviously in the visuals. The sets and costumes and props were all designed to be seen on a small screen—and this was before the days of high-definition TV, remember—so despite David Carson turning all the lights down all over the Enterprise, they still look chintzy. So does La Forge’s VISOR (I still remember chortling twenty-three years ago during the discussion of Data’s emotion chip when you can see LeVar Burton’s eyes blinking through the slats of the VISOR in closeup).
But the main place it’s seen is the script. There are good themes here, ones involving emotions and how you handle them, of the passage of time and how it affects one, of life and death and loss. Precisely none of those themes are handled well. Data’s journey through his emotion chip should have been linked to Picard’s grief over his family instead of being relegated to an idiotic low-comedy subplot. (It didn’t help that the whole thing was inspired by Data apparently not getting humor even though he did something incredibly funny! C’mon, pushing Crusher into the water was fucking hilarious!)
Soran has no bite to him as a villain. Malcolm McDowell does the best he can, but we don’t know what he went through in the Nexus beyond quick, cursory mentions by Crusher and Picard, and he’s just a guy being nasty. Snore.
Lursa and B’Etor are mainly there as a vehicle by which they can destroy the Enterprise and build a new one that looks good on a movie screen next time.
Picard’s Nexus experience makes absolutely no sense. It feels like it was inspired by Sir Patrick Stewart’s regular gig of doing a one-person performance of A Christmas Carol, but while a Victorian Christmas with a wife who cooks goose and a bunch of moppets might be a cute experience for Stewart, there’s nothing about it that says, “Jean-Luc Picard.” And why is he bemoaning the end of the Picard line? Why isn’t he using Robert and René’s death as the impetus to finally grab Crusher, kiss her on the mouth, and go make babies? Sheesh.
The one way in which this movie shines is in the prologue. The Enterprise-B launch-as-photo-op is very well done. Alan Ruck deserves a ton of credit here, as he’s obviously been put in a terrible position, trying to mount a rescue with a half-empty, half-finished ship. While it would’ve been nice to see Spock and McCoy alongside Kirk, Scotty and Chekov work just fine—the entire crew has been together long enough that it’s just as funny to see Chekov and Scotty snarking off Kirk after he says, “Take her out” to thunderous applause, and Kirk grumbling, “Oh, be quiet.”
In general, the interactions among the 23rd-century folk work beautifully. Shatner is especially good, amused by the whole spectacle, and then wanting desperately to take over when the crisis hits. Not to mention the moment when he stops Harriman from modifying the deflector, knowing that it’s Harriman’s ship, not his.
Also Kirk’s Nexus experience is interesting. There’s this big honking gap between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan when Kirk went from being back in the center seat to go exploring to a desk job with the Enterprise as a training ship with Spock as her captain. While lots of people have, unimaginatively, in my opinion, posited a second five-year mission for that timeframe (it just doesn’t strike me as being that interesting, to have them do exactly what they did before), there’s lots of things they could have been doing in that decade, and even if you do put another 5YM in there, that could have resulted in Kirk having the ship taken away again and him deciding to retire and live with Antonia for a while before the siren call of the center seat came back.
I also like Kirk’s advice to Picard about how the big chair is where you can make a difference and you should never give it up.
The final battle of Kirk and Picard vs. Soran is spectacularly uninteresting. Lots of people have complained that it was a lousy death for Kirk, but there’s no such thing as a good death, and at least he helped save a solar system that included two hundred million inhabitants. No, it’s just that the whole thing is just perfunctory and boring and full of middle-aged men flailing on catwalks and bleah. Shatner, at least, is having fun with it—”Call me Jim!”—which is pretty much all that’s memorable about it.
Speaking of things that aren’t memorable, man, do the Trek movies have trouble coming with things to call their planet-threatening menaces. I mean, we start with “V’ger,” which sounds like a badly thought out comic book sound effect, then we have “the probe,” and now we have “the ribbon.” What’s next, the doily?
Also, if Picard could leave the Nexus any time, why not come back to Ten-Forward when he first met Soran, only this time come with a security detail and throw his ass in the brig? As it is, we never do find out how Soran managed to beam off the Enterprise to the observatory to capture La Forge without anyone noticing. Then again, nobody noticed that Soran put a frickin’ camera on La Forge’s VISOR, either…
This basic story could have made a good movie. The themes could have been tied together much better. We could have had a proper exploration of the Nexus as a place where your dreams come true, but it’s all hollow unless you embrace it. It’s interesting that the long-lived El-Aurians so totally embraced it while the much shorter-lived humans didn’t. There’s perhaps something to that that a script that actually had had some time spent working on it might have been able to do something with.
Warp factor rating: 2
In two weeks:Star Trek (2009)
Rewatcher’s note: We’ll be taking Independence Day off, returning with the Bad Robot TOS films on the 11th of July.
This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by LibrarianJessi. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Best First Book category.
If anyone saw the prom boards Amelia Blanco makes on her favorite fashion app, they’d think Ethan Laurenti was her boyfriend. They wouldn’t know that all the plans she’s made for them are just dreams, and that she’s the girl who watches him from the kitchen while her parents cook for his famous family.
When Amelia’s abuelita enrolls her in a month-long fashion internship in NYC, Amelia can’t imagine leaving Miami–and Ethan–for that long. As soon as she gets to New York, however, she finds a bigger world and new possibilities. She meets people her own age who can actually carry on a conversation about stitching and design. Her pin boards become less about prom with Ethan and more about creating her own style. By the time she returns to Miami, Amelia feels like she can accomplish anything, and surprises herself by agreeing to help Ethan’s awkward, Steve-Jobs-wannabe brother, Liam, create his own fashion app.
As Liam and Amelia get closer, Ethan realizes that this newly confident, stylish girl may be the one for him after all . . . even though he has a reality TV star girlfriend he conveniently keeps forgetting about. The “new and improved” Amelia soon finds herself in between two brothers, a whole lot of drama, and choice she never dreamed she’d have to make.
Here is LibrarianJessi's review:
Although I used to mainline teen fiction like there was no tomorrow, I’ve largely taken a break for the last couple of years. This is partly because I spent the last two years reading 300+ adult fiction books while I served on a committee which I lovingly referred to as “My Crazy Ass Reading Committee” but which is properly known as The Reading List Committee. Reading Alterations, I was reminded of the other reason teen fic and I took a break: especially in contemporary teen fiction, I suddenly found myself empathizing with the parents more than the teens, which was shocking and made me feel ancient. I have to admit I suffered from this in Alterations too. I often found myself wanting to smack Amelia upside the head or sit her down for a long talk. Because of this odd tug-of-war between wanting to sink fully into the drama llama-ness of the story and my rational (apparently) adult brain offering distracting advice, my thoughts about the book are fairly split too. So, I’ve decided to resort to every Type A, detail-obsessed librarian’s favorite tool: The Pro/Con List.
Things that really worked for me in Alterations:
My number one favorite thing about this story was the grandmother/mother/daughter dynamic. Amelia lives with both her abuelita and her mother. Their relationship rings very true with lots of love, expectations, bickering, etc. It’s a complete miracle to have functional, living parents in teen fic, and I really appreciate authors that take the time to create them. Amelia’s relationship with the matriarchs in her life reminded me of Jane the Virgin, the best show on TV right now and the perfect show for every romance reader.
Amelia’s passion for fashion (yeah I know, I couldn’t resist) is infectious. All the people in her life who love her support her and help her find the confidence to pursue her dreams. Her coming-of-age journey is quite excellent. And for days after finishing the book, I was plagued by the need to hang with Tim Gunn in Project Runway reruns.
The story created a very positive message about finding your people. Amelia, like many of us, feels like a bit of a weirdo. But suddenly, she finds her fellow fashion people – “Isn’t it amazing how we’re all sort of loners in our regular worlds, but we come here and we all seem to fit”. The experience was not unlike what many of us experience here with the SBTB community. It’s magical and one of the most fundamental parts of growing up and learning to love the person you are.
As a complete Broadway nerd, I have a slight (read: major) obsession with NYC. Amelia’s trip was an absolute armchair travel delight for me. The city comes alive through her eyes and I was all but drooling to visit again.
Liam, Amelia’s very obvious OTP (one true pairing), is exactly my kind of hero. He’s nerdy and adorkable and even though it’s not his thing, he totally gets Amelia’s love of fashion and works really hard to help her find her full potential.
Things that really didn’t work for me in Alterations:
While I appreciated the excellent job Scott did creating Amelia’s parentals, the story was lacking in the female friendship department. She did have girlfriends – both old and new – but often developing those relationships was sacrificed for other story elements. Often, the relationships or the friend characters fell a bit flat for me.
It took Amelia too damn long to get over Ethan. Every time she went all googly eyed over him, I wanted to smack her. He was obviously a complete asshat and I had absolutely no patience for her obsession with him. Every time I thought she was making some headway getting over him (and noticing the adorableness that is Liam) she would backslide. There were many times I wanted to chunk the book across the room, but I was reading digital and didn’t want to harm my darling Kindle.
Because it took her sooooooo long to see past Ethan, we didn’t get nearly enough of the puppy dog eyes and wooing with Liam. My heart hurt for him every time he was on page. He had it so bad and Amelia was just so oblivious. When they finally get to the HEA, I didn’t feel like the romantic groundwork was laid for the two of them and I also felt like Amelia owed him a bit more groveling.
In the end, my struggles with the romantic subplot outweighed my enjoyment of other parts of the story. I would have enjoyed it quite a bit more if the romance wasn’t there at all.
In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I have always loved the idea that the world is greater and more mysterious than we will ever understand; that there are strange things moving in the far corners of the world and in our own backyard. That what we call our reality, our history, is just a story among many others. It could be because I was reared on fairy tales, mythology, and stories of weird beings in the Swedish countryside. No matter the reason, there it is.
There was a special moment when I walked over from the library’s children’s section into the adult section. There, I found a shelf that was different from the others: Disputed Phenomena, or as it would be classified in the modern Dewey system, 130-135. I devoured all the books on that shelf and was left hungry for more. I went on to empty the same section in the central city library, and then went for the esoteric shelves in used bookshops. I collected books on paranormal phenomena, mysterious places and cryptozoology. I loved two things in particular: humanoid beings that aren’t really human, and lost civilizations. That’s when I stumbled over Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet.
Sitchin argues that the sudden rise of human civilization was triggered by alien visitors from a “twelfth planet” that passes through our solar system every 3,600 years. He claims that evidence can be found in old Sumerian myth, which was then passed on to later civilizations. He isn’t alone with his theory. You might be familiar with books like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods or Gerhard Steinhauser’s Jesus Christ: Heir to the Astronauts. Or, for that matter, the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. The message is the same: aliens have visited Earth numerous times in the past, and stories of those visits live on in myth and art.
The idea of ancient aliens hit all my sweet spots. There really were gods. And even better, the gods were aliens. What’s not to like? And let’s face it. When you look at depictions of gods in ancient art, they look human … but not quite. Aren’t the proportions off? Doesn’t that headgear look suspiciously like a helmet? Isn’t that gadget eerily reminiscent of a jetpack? Is that man actually seated in a cockpit? What’s with those weirdly elongated skulls?
In myth all over the world, the gods came down from the sky to teach humans about agriculture, about technology, about architecture. There are a lot of stories of flying chariots and strange aerial ships: vimanas, shem, chariots of fire. There are even tales of the gods engaged in something like nuclear warfare. In the Bible, you can read about the nuclear destruction of Sodom and Gomorra; the Mahabharata speaks of “incandescent columns of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns”. Even the Norse myths tell of the world ending in something like a nuclear winter. Surely, all these images and stories point to one single thing: the memory of alien visitors with a technology far superior to our own.
The idea of gods and strange creatures walking among us fed directly into my writing when I started out. On a backup drive somewhere are lamassu come to life; Nefilim swooping down from the sky to wreak havoc on humanity; the remains of ancient civilizations with strange and wonderful technology.
The ancient alien theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, of course, and as I got older I also realized that the premise is inherently problematic. The civilizations claimed to have had contact with aliens in ancient times are mostly non-western, many of them located in places that once colonized by the West. There is an underlying assumption that these ancient civilizations were savages who couldn’t do math on their own. Someone had to come and teach them. Realizing that one of my favorite theories was built on a racist and colonialist foundation was less than fun, but it’s part of growing up.
Still, all experiences leave traces. Everything I see, hear and read lands on the great compost heap of creativity. The elements mix, ferment, mutate. What finally lands on the paper is, you could say, the juice that seeps out from the bottom of that heap. I don’t actually write about ancient aliens. What all those books about paranormal phenomena and ancient aliens have left me with is the sensation that the world is stranger than we know. I write about things that are almost-human, and encountering intelligent life with minds and agendas we can’t understand, and sometimes that intangible sense of old age that you sometimes encounter in certain places: the remains of older worlds. My story “Listen” deals with beings that claim to be human but who communicate in a way that humans have enormous trouble understanding. “Starfish” describes mysterious concrete roads built on the bottom of the ocean. In my novel Amatka, there are remains of an older civilization; it’s not the main theme, just present at the edges of the story.
Adulthood and research have stripped me of the idea that humans weren’t capable of great feats on their own, and I have accepted that sometimes a vimana is just a vimana. But I still like the idea that older civilizations knew things that we have forgotten, although that knowledge wasn’t passed on to them by aliens. And even though alien beings may not have uplifted humanity, perhaps something walked the earth in ancient days, something that wasn’t quite human. Mythology is flush with those not-human beings. John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, theorized that those beings that modern humans interpret as aliens or cryptids are in fact native to this planet. I like that idea too.
The idea of a richer reality is part of what made me a writer. I don’t really believe that the truth is out there. But I’ll always be in love with the thought.
Top image: cover art from The 12th Planet (Harper, 2007)
Karin Tidbeck is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. She lives and works in Malmö as a freelance writer, translator, and creative-writing teacher, and writes fiction in Swedish and English. She debuted in 2010 with the Swedish short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? Her English debut, the 2012 collection Jagannath, was awarded the Crawford Award 2013 and short-listed for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel Amatka is now available from Vintage.
Let’s cut to the chase up front—Transformers: The Last Knight isn’t very good. At all.
It manages to sidestep the stultifying narrative incoherence of Age of Extinction and a good dose of the weird cruelty of Dark of the Moon, but runs headlong into the massive racial stereotypes of Revenge of the Fallen and the bloated running length of the entire franchise to date.
There’s a three headed robotic dragon in the movie. Somehow it’s still dull.
But, in a weird way, it’s also a really interesting movie. Because this looks, and feels, like the end of an era. A mere four films late, Michael Bay is (probably, hopefully) finally stepping away from the franchise he’s been exploding in slow motion for a decade now. And while he leaves vast, and vastly photogenic, damage in his wake there’s some hope for the future.
But we’ll get to that.
Because there are elements of The Last Knight that don’t just work, they’re actually REALLY fun. Especially an opening sequence depicting King Arthur and his knights at a pivotal battle and Merlin getting sozzled and yelling at a spaceship.
Played with Captain Jack Sparrow when he was still fun levels of glee by Stanley Tucci, this Merlin is a liar and a fraud. But he’s a liar and a fraud who’s found an alien spaceship and talked to the beings inside…He pleads for their aid and just as all seems lost, Merlin and the OTHER knights of the roundtable, the Autobot ones, ride to the rescue.
This idea is so gloriously over the top, and Tucci is clearly having so much fun that you’re genuinely sad when this sequence stops. Had Bay done an entire robotic knights versus Saxons movie then this would have been way better than it is. Odds are we may get that movie later though, so go Team Drunk Tucci Merlin!
We jump forward in time from there and discover that the events of the previous movies have, for once, had consequences. Optimus Prime, Murderbot is lost in space after forgetting interstellar distances are a thing. Earth is so thunderously sick of the transformers that a rapid response force has been set up to kill them on sight and areas of Chicago destroyed in the last movie are still roped off and patrolled.
It’s an interesting, untidy set up which gives these movies a weight they’ve never had before. Instead of hand waving away the consequences of events this feels like a world buckling under the weight of a decade of trauma.
Front and centre in that world is Izzy. Played by Isabela Moner, Izzy is an actual female lead with actual agency and intelligence who’s actually fun. In these movies that’s like going ten minutes without an explosion. A survivor of the Chicago attack, she’s angry and homeless, living in the locked off zones and repairing any Autobots she can find. This includes Canopy, who lives just about long enough for us to get his name, and Sqweeks, the obligatory comic relief Autobot.
Izzy’s GREAT. She’s fun and tough and has a great back story and the entire movie could be hung off her.
So of course, Mark Wahlberg rocks up ten minutes later to do the exact same thing he did last time just grumpier and without the repellent sub plot about his daughter. Cade Yeager was dull in Age of Extinction and he’s duller this time although Wahlberg at least doesn’t shout as much. He’s an odd leading man, occasionally brilliant, often serviceable and just as often actively bad. Age of Extinction was the worst performance he’s ever turned in. This just about makes it into the serviceable range.
Aided by Jerrod Carmichael as Jimmy, his assistant, Cade runs a junkyard/sanctuary for the Autobots. His ‘tenants’ include Grimlock and the dinobots from last time as well as Bumblebee (Still Bee), Drift (Still every samurai cliché rolled into one), Hound (still dull) and Crosshairs (Still actively mean spirited for no good reason). But there’s a problem, without Optimus Prime, Murderbot the Autobots are fighting amongst themselves.
Worse still, colossal structures are appearing all over the planet and a planetary mass is heading into the solar system. Something on Earth is waking up and Cybertron is riding to meet it. In the meantime Megatron makes a deal with the humans, Prime meets his goddess and in England, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Laura Haddock patiently wait for the plot to catch up to them.
This all happens in the first 90 minutes or so of the movie. Bay and scriptwriters Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan appear to have responded to the non-existent plot of the previous movie by throwing three scripts’ worth of events in a blender and hitting MAELSTROM. As well as Izzy, Jimmy, the Autobots, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Prime meeting God and the TRF there’s some back-filling continuity about every previous movie, a little (but not enough) more about the Knights of Cybertron from last time and an entirely superfluous NASA sub plot as well as a high speed chase through London and a profoundly weird sequence with a submarine.
Some of this works surprisingly well. The massive amounts of exposition Sir Anthony Hopkins is required to spout as the last member of the society who have recorded Transformer presence on Earth in particular. Plus it sets up a lot of potentially interesting spinoffs. Because apparently the Transformers helped win World War II. And helped Harriet Tubman. And caused a volcanic eruption or two. And fought in World War I.
Consistent with previous movies? Not even a little! Way more interesting than previous movies? You bet!
Likewise Haddock’s Viviane Wembly, a no-nonsense British academic whose best moments involve telling Cade to shut up or being the most competent person in the room. Of course she ends up falling in love with Cade, because movie, but Haddock is, along with Moner, the first woman who’s ever been given something substantial to do with the series and clearly relishes it.
And that brings us to the problems. Because fun as Haddock and Moner are, they’re endlessly pushed off screen by too much of other things. For reasons that defy rationality John Turturro literally phones in his info dump cameo from Cuba. Santiago Cabrera is utterly wasted as the head of the TRF, the anti-Transformers force. He’s required to do nothing more than look grumpy and be yelled at by Cade and a returning Josh Duhamel as Lennox who somehow has even less to do than he does. Then there’s the fact that Izzy and Jimmy, who get chunky introductions, are written out of the movie for an hour so Bay and co can de-camp to England. Or at least the version of England they think exists, where Sir Anthony Hopkins runs a de facto retirement home for dementia-riddled old Autobots and you can walk up to the door of Number 10 Downing Street, call a policeman a ‘dickhead’ and not get shot.
If this sounds bad, it is. It’s made even worse once you take a look at the Cybertronian cast. Drift, Crosshairs and Hound are catchphrase machines. Bumblebee is quite fun, as ever, but given this movie establishes he’s basically unkillable and that he’s still messing around with his voicebox there’s nowhere to really go with him. Unless it’s into the past with Hailee Steinfeld of course.
Then there’s Optimus Prime, Murderbot. The greatest leader of the Autobots is off screen for at least half the movie and it’s so much better for his absence. Bay’s Prime is a murderous, arrogant sociopath and while this movie tries to make that a feature not a bug, he’s still startlingly unlikeable. Prime’s narrative line here is:
Fail to make it out of the solar system on a quest to murder God.
Impact on Cybertron.
Get brainwashed, return to Earth.
Murder some autobots.
Get talked down by Bee.
Be late to the final fight.
Save Viviane and Cade.
If there’s a character Bay has destroyed in this series, it’s Prime—and while it’s great to see his awful choices have consequences for once, the character is still a very long way from likable. Hopefully he’ll be rested for a few movies. Hopefully he’ll take Drift and Crosshairs with them. Hopefully he’ll forget to bring them back.
Then there’s Megatron’s collection of tropeticons. Mohawk is a bike who, you guessed it, has a Mohawk. Barricade’s sum totality of character is in his PUNISH and ENSLAVE knuckledusters and Nitro Zeus is almost implausibly terrible. Idiotic name aside, he talks like someone who failed an audition for Oz and wears an actual, hand to God, gold chain.
He’s a 30 foot transformer.
Wearing a gold chain.
And the first time we see him he’s getting out of prison.
The last time these movies were this overtly racist and stereotypical was Revenge of the Fallen, which is less a film and more a series of blows to the temple. It’s somehow got even less charming since then.
In fact, the movie makes a very definite return to the mean-spiritedness of Revenge of the Fallen. There’s a fat joke about once a half hour and an entire running gag about how funny it is when British people say ‘bitch’ Throw in the moment where Cade calls Izzy ‘Lil J-Lo’ and you’ve got a veritable tapas spread of terrible script choices. Possibly the most surreal of which is the excellent Omar Sy being cast as Hot Rod, only to spend the movie complaining about his accent.
So, yeah, this is a bad movie. But there is good news. This really does feel like the last time around for this iteration. Next up is Travis Clark’s Hailee Steinfeld fronted Bumblebee movie set in the 1980s. Written by Christina Hodson it’s already being talked up as a smaller focus, more character driven movie. Every single member of the creative team do good work and I’m hopeful that it will be a much needed course correction for the series. Likewise Transformers 6 which, so far, is not being directed by Bay, won’t star Wahlberg and will be largely set on Cybertron sounds promising. But we’ve been here before, more than once.
If The Last Knight is the last bow, then these movies may finally be en route to being as fun as they should have been from the start. There’s vast intelligence and potential in the Transformers and the comics—More Than Meets The Eye and Lost Light have demonstrated that for years. Maybe with the help of Clark, Hodson, Steinfeld and the 1980s, we’ll finally see that on screen. Because, fun elements aside, we definitely don’t see it here.
A fair number of my stories feature science or technology, even when they’re fantasy. About my first novel, Updraft, my friend Max Gladstone said, “There’s no magic in this book. It’s all engineering.” He was right… and a little wrong (sorry, Max!). There is magic in Updraft, and it’s all engineering.
Because the Bone Universe series — which began with Updraft in 2015 — concludes with Horizon this September, I’m thinking a lot about engineering and how it appears in science fiction and fantasy. For Tor.com, I assembled a roundtable of SF author-engineers and analysts. I also pulled one of the engineering consultants for the Bone Universe series into the discussion. Today, Hugo-Award winner John Chu, Nebula- and Locus-award winner Aliette de Bodard, short story author A.T. Greenblatt, and short story author, editor, and 2017 debut novelist Nicky Drayden join New Zealand-based naval architect and marine engineer (aka: my sister) Susan Lake for a roundtable on engineering in science fiction and fantasy. Here we go:
Engineering Roundtable: Considering that without engineering, we wouldn’t have many trebuchets, forts, rocket ships, or ray guns, why do you think engineering is or isn’t featured as much in science fiction and fantasy as other scientific fields?
John Chu: It is and it isn’t. There are any number of hard SF stories that valorize engineering. The heroes are engineers. They talk tough to each other. They build the thing or they fix the thing and, so, save the day. Sometimes, it’s described as science rather than engineering but engineering does get its due. (E.g., many mad scientists are probably really mad engineers.)
Then there are also any number of worlds in genre where the infrastructure is taken for granted. Now, taking some aspects of the world for granted isn’t unusual. I mean, the DM of the Pathfinder game I play in doesn’t enforce the encumbrance rules because neither he nor anyone playing in the game find them fun. (Yes, there are people who view those rules as part of what makes role-playing fun but none of them are playing this game.) If some aspect of the world doesn’t impinge on the story in a way that’s interesting or useful to the story, it tends to be assumed. Hence, we have universal translators, food production and distribution happens somehow, and buildings are generally sound.
If something is everywhere, it looks as though it’s nowhere. And anything that it is built is a matter of engineering.
Susan Lake: I’m probably looking at this question from the opposite point of view. Engineering is and always has been the way I see the world. I love SFF where engineering is respected—even if the rules are different. Where there are rules and they are applied? That’s what separates a good engineering story for me from one where logic must be suspended to be enjoyed.
Nicky Drayden: The biggest problem is that engineering isn’t much of a spectator’s sport. It’s similar to being a visual artist. People recognize and love your work, but most would be hard-pressed to name any but the most famous artists. And virtually no one cares what brushes the artist used to get a particular effect, or how she buys her canvases in bulk from Costco. In science fiction, we want our rayguns to vaporize alien invaders, but we don’t care about the nuts and bolts that make the light show possible. Engineers get none of the glory or recognition when things go right, but the very instant our space toilets fail, you can bet their names will go down in infamy.
A.T. Greenblatt: For me, SFF gets some things right about engineering and misses the mark on other things. Things that it does well is imagination and that’s the first step in any new design—imagining what a solution would look like and how it would be used, not only by a single user but a society as a whole. SFF is really excellent at that.
But I also think engineering gets brushed over in SFF. I have a few theories for why. First, good engineering is invisible. If something is designed well, it works and no one thinks to question that. Second, we as consumers are usually more interested in the final product than understanding the design cycles needed to make it. That’s the unglamorous part of engineering. It’s sort of like writing in that way—most readers are uninterested in reading earlier drafts of a story if they have access to the final, polished version.
Engineering Roundtable: Who are your favorite engineering-influenced or engineering-driven SFF authors and media?
Aliette de Bodard: I think Ken Liu is pretty good at this—both in his SF stories, but more surprisingly in his fantasy ones. The Wall of Storms has a set of really delightful passages where the main characters try to make airships and weapons to resist a foreign invasion, and where they work out how huge war animals breathe fire and use that to defeat them. In the same vein, Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe has a lot of delightful passages about how cities of bone would keep growing upwards, and how people would fly and how they would design flying machines.
Susan Lake: With Doctor Who, Star Wars (love the Rogue One prequel catalysis), Neil Stephenson (Seveneves being the most recent example, as colonists use engineering to survive), engineering is the foundation that makes everything else work and the story believable.
John Chu: Hmm… I’m genuinely not sure. I do think that “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is one of the greatest stories of all time.
A.T. Greenblatt: I’m going to be cliché on this one. Isaac Asimov and Star Trek. For both of these, I love how they asked the “what if” questions and explored the answers with an eye both on the scientific possibilities as well as the social ones. Runtime by S. B. Divya also does this really well.
Nicky Drayden: Andy Weir’s The Martian does a great job of making engineering appealing to the masses. Weir throws one life-threatening obstacle after another at an engineer who has few resources and sometimes mere seconds to work out a solution. MacGyver-like ingenuity in the face of certain death is one way to create interest in fiction centered around engineers.
Engineering Roundtable: What’s the most SF thing you (or your characters) have ever engineered?
A.T. Greenblatt: The coolest SFF thing I’ve ever made was a robotic fish feeder in high school. The coolest thing a character of mine ever made (to date) is her own home in the middle of a void.
John Chu: A branch predictor for a microprocessor in a technology where instead of electrons, they use nanoscale dots and all the interactions are physical. (E.g., logical gates are literal gates.) I did this in my story, “The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale”, which was published in Clarkesworld in July 2016 (where the design is explicated in the form of a quest-oriented fairy tale).
Nicky Drayden: Once upon a time, I briefly considered studying to become an architectural engineer, and one great thing about writing fiction is that you can easily play around with these could-have-been career paths. Last year I took a free online course from Monash University, called “How to Survive on Mars.” We assessed available resources and cutting-edge technology that could make living on Mars possible within our lifetimes.
A lot of my classmates were heavy proponents for nuclear power as an energy source, but I felt that if we did away with our bigger-is-better mindsets and tried to build environmentally friendly architecture with Martian sensibilities, we could harness all the energy we need through solar, wind, and kinetic power provided by people with these cool floor tiles. Buildings could be 3-D printed from Martian soil, opening so many possibilities for unique architecture, which could also incorporate plant material into the designs to supplement the food and oxygen supplies. And that’s just Mars! Imagine building ice palaces on Titan, or undersea stations on Ganymede. The sky is literally the limit.
Susan Lake: Well, at my firm, we’ve built foiling catamarans, and energy kites (makani). We’ve created build plans for hydro turbines and flying cars.
I’ve had long conversations with inventors who were sure they had perpetual motion machines—usually magnet based. I also get a lot of late-Friday-afternoon phone calls—the ones where you’re pretty sure that the person on the other end has maybe been down to the pub, had a brilliant idea, and then somehow googled a number for a composite engineer to ask them to build things.
Lately, clients have included architects realising that the composites (carbon fiber, mostly) I work with can make their wacky concepts/ideas/visions a reality. So I’m making a lot of structures that appear to “float” or free-span while remaining extremely thin.
What’s coming next? I have no idea, and I wouldn’t count free-form creativity among my strengths. But once someone does have that idea, I’ll figure out how to build it.
Aliette de Bodard: I don’t get around to engineering much (except embedded software which can get pretty cool and pretty scary), but my characters definitely do build quite a few things! I designed an intergalactic plague for two linked stories, “In Blue Lily’s Wake” and “Crossing the Midday Gate”—a virus that was transmitted from organic artificial intelligences to humans. It was a lot of work because I had to not only have an idea of how the virus worked, but also had to come up for an entire set of scientific history around the development of the vaccine—how they found it and how they ran the vaccination campaigns—and finally another entire set of problems, because the plot required the first round of vaccination campaigns to fail, and I had to come up with reasons that it did!
The second most complicated thing I did was run on something close to engineering principles: one of the characters in my novel The House of Binding Thorns was pregnant in a 19th-century alternate Paris, and I needed to work out how her pregnancy would have been followed medically—which was a bit tricky as they had medicine that wasn’t quite at the same stage as in the real world, due to the presence of magic. I also needed to write a birth scene that led to complications–and it turned out that the major difficulty of all this wasn’t so much coming up with complications, as it was making sure said complications didn’t kill either the mother or the child. I read a lot of medical and midwifery history, and it was in equal parts fascinating and horrifying to see how bad it got back then, and also how far we’d come!
Engineering Roundtable: What are common flaws and assumptions you see in SFF that are engineering related?
Nicky Drayden: One engineering trope that bugs me is how Howard Wolowitz, the aerospace engineer on The Big Bang Theory, is constantly degraded by his peers. I don’t know if this reflects common views in actual scientific communities, since my theoretical physicist friends are few, but the dude flew to space, and still gets flack.
Aliette de Bodard: By far the most common one is “perfect projects” that are always delivered on time and where nothing ever goes wrong. In real life you’d expect delays, and compromises made to fit existing technology into the budget and the time available: sometimes the technology just isn’t available, sometimes it’s available but it costs too much, sometimes it’s available but it just can’t meet all the requirements for operations. But in SFF a lot of people just seem to order an engineering-related thing like it’s a meal from a menu—and get exactly what they expected in record time!
The next one is maintenance, which often gets skipped on: the future is always shiny and exciting, and nothing ever seems to go wrong: the artificial intelligences never have tiny glitches (when they do have glitches generally it’s of the world-destroying, humanity-ending kind!), and you never quite seem to see people who work all day long trying to keep the spaceships going, the ambient systems live, etc.
John Chu: That engineering isn’t primarily about people. That engineers only get involved when something has gone horribly wrong. That the immutable laws of physics are somehow the engineer’s biggest obstacle. I should point out that, on the other extreme, “Oh, this would be brilliant if it were not for all the bureaucracy forcing the engineers to make it awful” is also a pitfall.
A.T. Greenblatt: One of the biggest inaccuracies I see in engineering in SFF is that the napkin sketch looks exactly like the final product. When designing things in real life the end product is often quite different from those initial concept ideas. Especially if you’re working in a team with other engineers. (And engineers usually work in teams.) Another one is that in stories, the end user uses the product exactly as intended, with no hiccups. In real life, this is a pipe dream. The end user is often a creative abuser who never bothers to read the manual before installing. So usually this results in: 1. A redesign. 2. Lots of broken products. 3. The user finding innovative and unexpected uses for that design.
Engineering Roundtable: What question would you most like to ask or see asked about engineering in SFF?
A.T. Greenblatt: I want to know how will design standards change when Earth and Earthlike conditions are no longer standard for all humans? Will there be engineers who specialize only in constructing things for Mars? How will that affect industry and the economy?
Aliette de Bodard: What would engineering be like if the laws of science turned out be different? (either because we’ve discovered new ones or because we’re in a universe where ours don’t apply). I think a lot of SF focuses on laws of science as they’re known now, but people tend to forget that they can and do change. 150 years ago we didn’t know about quantum mechanics, string theory or general relativity, or even imply about exoplanets and all the odd and wonderful things you can find in space, so just imagine what we could be doing in a few centuries! (I’d love to see more aliens with a different understanding of science as well—not just magical thinking but a rigorous system that just takes a completely different set of explanations to ours for the universe and makes it work!)
NIcky Drayden: What constraints are the most challenging to overcome when engineering for space travel? Do these constraints make for better design overall?
Susan Lake: I’d like to see inquiry into more details—making the structures, the vehicles, and the physics not a background but a contributing character to the story.
John Chu: Patrick Nielsen Hayden once described hard SF as “two engineers talking tough to each other.” He did this at a Boskone panel some years ago. As a working engineer, I feel I can say that “talking tough to each other” does not reasonably describe my day-to-day interactions with my workmates. So, I’d like to see SFF explore other ways engineers interact with engineers (or non-engineers, for that matter).
Engineering Roundtable: What engineering related fields would you like to see explored?
John Chu: Like I said, if it can be built, it involves engineering. So, for example, I find the engineering of musical instruments endlessly fascinating. We’re still trying to figure out how to build a good violin!
When I was in grad school, the choir I sang in toured Italy. One space we sang in—I think it was in Assisi—was so live at rehearsal. Everything echoed and the echo hung for what seemed like days. Our conductor actually demonstrated this to us by having us sing a chord, cutting us off, then just having us listen to the echo as it didn’t fade. Come concert time, though, the space was fine. The acoustic now worked for the music we sang. The difference, of course, was that the space was now filled with people and their clothes absorbed the sound.
There is lovely interaction between music, fashion, and architecture. (My choir sang unmiked, but, nowadays, you can throw in electronics as yet another way to create an acoustic.) What I’d like to see more of is an interdisciplinary approach where we see not only how engineering affects various areas of life but how those areas affect the engineering.
Aliette de Bodard: I would definitely like to see more transport engineering—not only because it’s my day job but because transport networks and how they integrate with the cities and space habitats is a subject that has a lot of potential, and a lot of material for stories. It’s already changing quite a lot especially in urban environments: I’d be really interested to see takes on what happens when you have an entire intergalactic empire to keep together, and you need to keep lines of supply going.
I also would like to see more materials engineering: there’s a lot of related sciences being explored but materials tend to be a little handwavy in the sense that characters get exactly what they need and generally don’t ask themselves further question on how it was designed and manufactured.
Nicky Drayden: I could totally geek out on a book about an architectural engineer. Building structures on other planets is sure to hold interesting challenges that would make for good fiction.
Susan Lake: Civil, chemical, environmental, mechanical, geotechnical… All of these. Both about what contributions engineering can make to SF stories, but also—and probably more so—about SF foretelling where engineering will take us. The last I think is the closest to how I see it—SF is that Friday afternoon phone call posing the crazy new reality that engineering will get to sort out how to make happen.
(Moderator’s note: I DO NOT PHONE UP MY SISTER ONLY ON FRIDAYS.)
A.T. Greenblatt: Lately, I’m loving stories that are using 3D printers. Also, I would love to see stories that explore greener societies and solutions. SFF is the imagination that inspires engineers and I want to see more stories imagining better futures.
John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator and podcast narrator by night. He has a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Most of his day job work is covered by NDA. His fiction has appeared at Boston Review, Uncanny, and Tor.com among other venues. He has narrated stories for Lightspeed and the Escape Artist podcasts. His translations can be found at Clarkesworld, The Big Book of SF and other publications. His short story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. His most recent publication is “Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me” in the May/June 2017 issue of Uncanny Magazine. His bibliography can be found at his website. His Twitter handle is @john_chu.
Aliette de Bodard works as a System Engineer, designing embedded software for automated trains. By night she writes stories of maths and magic. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories which have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her space opera books include The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a book set in the same universe as her Vietnamese science fiction On a Red Station Drifting. Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz, 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, Gollancz).
Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. Her debut novel The Prey Of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks. See more of her work at her website or catch her on twitter @nickydrayden.
By day, A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer for a small telecommunications company where she’s usually juggling about five different designs at any given time. She lives in Philadelphia and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She’s a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and is part of Clarion West’s class of 2017. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, and Mothership Zeta. Her most recent work is “A Place to Grow” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at her wesite and on Twitter @AtGreenblatt.
Since 2011, Susan Lake has worked with Core Builders Composites (New Zealand) building America’s Cup 50 platforms and wings for the USA and Japanese America’s Cup teams as well as components for Artemis Racing, Groupama and ETNZ. Other recent projects include clean energy kites, hydroturbines, solar cars and bespoke architecture. With a Masters’ in Mechanical Engineering and degrees in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, she has served as President of the Composites Association New Zealand since 2014 and advocates on behalf of the industry to promote composite manufacturing for architectural and infrastructure projects around New Zealand. She likes to make things that go really, really fast. She’s not allowed to talk about the flying cars.
Fran Wilde has been a science and technology writer for clients including the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland. Her novels and short stories have been nominated for two Nebula awards and a Hugo, and include her Andre Norton-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 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.
Almost fifteen years after Syfy’s Tremors television series got cancelled, the network is taking another stab at transferring the monster movie franchise to the small screen. But instead of a spinoff, like the 2003 series, this new project is going the route of Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead and having Kevin Bacon reprise his role from the 1990 cult classic.
In the original movie (which has since spawned a franchise of direct-to-video sequels), repairman Valentine McKee (Bacon) discovered giant, worm-like monsters called Graboids lurking beneath the town of Perfection, NV. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Tremors sequel series picks up 25 years later and find Valentine “attempting to save the town again—but this time, also battling age, alcohol and a delusional hero complex.” Andrew Miller (The Secret Circle, League of Pan) will write the pilot.
In a press release, Bacon shared his excitement to play Valentine again: “This is the only character I’ve played that I’ve ever thought about revisiting. I just got to thinking, where would this guy end up after 25 years? Andrew Miller has a fantastic take on it and we hope to create a show that will be fun and scary for fans of the movie and folks that have yet to discover it. Let’s kick some Graboid ass!”
If that didn’t get you sufficiently amped up for more Tremors, check out the trailer for the original film:
The new Tremors series is one of several projects in the works from Blumhouse Television, including the TV series set in the universe of the horror franchise The Purge. Blumhouse’s film division was also behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
The Bourbon Kings by J.R. Ward is $1.99! This book is more of a dysfunctional family saga than a romance, and it was also the inspiration for my first Covers & Cocktails post! Redheadedgirl gave this book a B:
As a novel where there’s a bunch of crazysauce, I appreciated it. I do think the current trend in romance is lacking in crazysauce. There’s a lot that happens!
For generations, the Bradford family has worn the mantle of kings of the bourbon capital of the world. Their sustained wealth has afforded them prestige and privilege—as well as a hard-won division of class on their sprawling estate, Easterly. Upstairs, a dynasty that by all appearances plays by the rules of good fortune and good taste. Downstairs, the staff who work tirelessly to maintain the impeccable Bradford facade. And never the twain shall meet.
For Lizzie King, Easterly’s head gardener, crossing that divide nearly ruined her life. Falling in love with Tulane, the prodigal son of the bourbon dynasty, was nothing that she intended or wanted—and their bitter breakup only served to prove her instincts were right. Now, after two years of staying away, Tulane is finally coming home again, and he is bringing the past with him. No one will be left unmarked: not Tulane’s beautiful and ruthless wife; not his older brother, whose bitterness and bad blood know no bounds; and especially not the ironfisted Bradford patriarch, a man with few morals, fewer scruples, and many, many terrible secrets.
As family tensions—professional and intimately private—ignite, Easterly and all its inhabitants are thrown into the grips of an irrevocable transformation, and only the cunning will survive.
Make Me by Tessa Bailey is 99c! This contemporary romance has come up in a couple Rec Leagues: He’s Not Worthy and He’s Always Loved Her. Reader Katie C. and I talked about this book in line while at RT17. She loved it! (Maybe she can pop into the comments and share her thoughts.) Meanwhile, I was really anticipating this book and felt disappointed by the pacing.
Construction worker Russell Hart has been head-over-work boots for Abby Sullivan since the moment he laid eyes on her. But he knows a classy, uptown virgin like her could never be truly happy with a rough, blue-collar guy like him. If only she’d stop treating him like her personal hero—a role he craves more than oxygen—maybe he could accept it.
With the future of her family’s hedge fund on her shoulders, Abby barely has time to sleep, let alone find love. And her best friend Russell acting like a sexy, overprotective hulk any time their Super Group goes out in public definitely isn’t helping her single status. But after a near-tragedy lands Russell in her bed for the night, Abby’s suddenly fantasizing about what he looks like shirtless. Chest hair and tattoos—who knew?
As Russell struggles to keep Abby at a safe distance, she begins to see through his tough-talking exterior—and acknowledge her own feelings. Now she’s ready to turn the friend-zone into foreplay…and make him lose control.
Luke by Barbara Freethy is 99c at Amazon! This is the first book in the 7 Brides for 7 Brothers series, which caught my eye because the movie (of the same name) was part of my childhood. This is a second chance romance. Some readers warn there’s an annoying plot moppet in the romance, but others recommend the book for fans of sweet, second chance stories. Some of the other books in the series are also available for 99c!
Meet the Brannigan brothers—seven sexy brothers who bring the heart and the heat! From bestselling authors Barbara Freethy, Ruth Cardello, Melody Anne, Christie Ridgway, Lynn Raye Harris, Roxanne St. Claire and JoAnn Ross comes a brand new contemporary romance family series: 7 Brides for 7 Brothers. You won’t want to miss a single one!
LUKE – Barbara Freethy
Luke Brannigan lives for the adrenaline rush, which makes his job as a filmmaker of extreme sporting adventures the perfect career choice. He loves to travel the world, risking life and limb to capture the most amazing shot. Some might say he’s running away from something…or someone.
When Luke’s billionaire father Colin Brannigan dies unexpectedly, Luke is shocked to receive title to the mountain lodge where his parents first met. Having been estranged from his father for years, Luke has no idea why his dad picked him to inherit this very personal piece of property…until he realizes the pretty blonde manager is Lizzie Parker, his former college girlfriend.
Luke and Lizzie have an emotional and heartbreaking past, but will they have a future? Will love be Luke’s greatest adventure yet?
Bikers and Pearls by Vicki Wilkerson is 99c! This is a small town contemporary romance with an opposites attract element. Some readers expressed difficulty sympathizing with the heroine, while others loved how the relationship progressed between the hero and heroine. Reviews also mentioned that this is a romance without any explicit sex scenes.
Who said tempting a sweet Southern belle would be easy?
When rebel biker Bullworth Clayton gets tangled up with pastel-and-pearls-clad April Church, sparks fly. Sure, April would clearly rather work with anyone else, but if teaming up with Bull means a successful charity event for a sick little boy they both care about, then so be it.
April is baffled at how drawn she is to the leather-wearing, tattooed Bull—he just doesn’t fit with her simple, safe, country-club life. And as much as the handsomely rugged man tempts her, she still can’t shake the images of the tragic motorcycle accident from her past, which left her scarred and her father broken.
Bull tempts her to don a pair of leather pants and go for a ride with him, while April desperately tries to resist her attraction to the wild side and keep her exploits hidden from her small town. Will they be able to navigate their differences and find a middle road to love?
Science fiction is rarely great at depicting older women: it seldom does, and when it does, rarely does it seem interested in them as women—with grown children, family issues, rich inner lives, friends and relationships both platonic and sexual—as opposed to ciphers. When I find a book that does depict an older woman well, and moreover puts her in a central role, in the narrative forefront—well, that’s a special occasion.
Nancy Kress’s Tomorrow’s Kin has Dr. Marianne Jenner, human geneticist, for a main character. Dr. Jenner is a mature woman who has just made a minor but important breakthrough in her field when she is summoned to an alien embassy in New York’s harbour. There, she learns that Earth may be facing a catastrophe: space-born spores that could potentially wipe out the whole world.
(Light spoilers ahead.)
Jenner’s response to the likely extinction of her entire species is to focus on her work—she’s helping to find people with a genetic connection to the aliens. But her emotional response is mediated through her reflections on her adult children: her two eldest children have established careers of their own, while her youngest, Noah, is a drifter and a dreamer who finds a connection to the aliens and immediately finds a sense of belonging with them and with their culture. Jenner’s relationship with her children is fraught—as is often the case with adults who have different values and priorities even when they’re not faced with a threat to their very existence that only a handful of people can hope to do anything about—but it is clear that she loves them.
In many respects, Tomorrow’s Kin keeps a tight focus on domestic and personal questions. Jenner’s life after the immediate crisis is past is dominated by her desire to bridge the gap of resentment between Earth’s humans and the aliens, her desire that there should be open communication and commerce between them. But thematically the book is most interested in Jenner’s human relationships with the people around her: her estrangement from her elder son, her complicated relationship with an academic peer who is her sometime lover/partner, her desire for and eventual sexual relationship with her younger, less-educated male bodyguard, her role inlocum parentis for her grandchildren—her son’s children, one of whom has a really interesting sensory condition that resulted from the spore crisis—and her friendships, such as they are.
Tomorrow’s Kin is deeply interested in Jenner as a person, and its quiet, close intensity makes for a refreshingly original piece of science fiction. That’s not to say it’s without flaws: the first section is amazingly well-constructed, but the second half of the book sees a reduction in emotional force and thus, in consequence, feels like a bit of a let-down. It’s also a bit of a let-down from the point of view of being inclusive: both the gay best friend and the black personal assistant (and yes, they’re sufficiently singular as to require the definite article) kick the bucket. So there’s that, too.
On the other hand, it’s really good to have a science fiction novel that is so interested in an older woman with a family who already knows who she is, and must negotiate the challenges of a mature life. Instead of a novel that takes a coming-of-age narrative, or a chosen hero one, for its model.
Hi! I'm having a bit of a problem here. I wanted to edit a layout I made for a friend to use on her community. It has a fixed navigation at the bottom of the page which I don't know if could be causing this problem, but the sidebar looks right on recent entries page but it looks wonky everywhere else.
I have it testing here so you can look through the css. If you could help me out a bit D: I would be very grateful.
In Which… Brandon Sanderson’s dedicated band of Knights Radiant search out problems in the world of Roshar, on behalf of Cosmere fans everywhere. Oathbringer is coming, and work behind the scenes has been building for many months. Now it’s time to ramp up your anticipation, making sure y’all are as excited as you can get by November—as much as we can without giving anything away, of course, because we would NOT do that to you. However, spoilers for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance abound, so if you haven’t read them, be warned.
A long time ago (a little over three years), my first article for this website was about beta reading Words of Radiance. There’s a fair amount of water under the bridge since then, and I’ve done more beta reads, all of which functioned more or less like that one. Then came Oathbringer. I’m here today, in collaboration with a few of the beta readers, to talk about what this one was like. Special thanks to Ted Herman, Ravi Persaud, Joel and Jory Phillips, Ross Newberry, Brandon and Darci Cole, Deana Whitney, Alyx Hoge, Eric Lake, Nikki Ramsay, Gary Singer, Paige Vest, Becca Reppert, Lyndsey Luther, and Mark Lindberg for all their input. They are a small but representative (and vocal) sampling of the beta readers; so far as I know, they will all return for the gamma in the next few weeks.
Alpha, Beta, Gamma
For those new to the concept, here’s how the Greek letters work in the Sanderson world:
Alpha readers are (logically) the first to read what he’s working on, and give early feedback on bits and pieces before a complete novel has come together.
Beta readers from a variety of backgrounds and interests join the alpha readers later, to give feedback to and through the completed novel. Beta reader Brandon Cole writes:
As beta readers, we have two very different jobs that have to be balanced.
Immediate reaction feedback—Brandon wants to know how I as a reader feel at any given point. How do I feel about this? Do I have a question about this? What/how does this make me think?
Looking for continuity. While enjoying the book and fanboying over every new bit of lore, it’s important to look for and comment on anything that feels like it might be out of place, out of character, or just plain contradictory to other parts of the story. This can be difficult to balance against the thought that “Oh, he knows what he’s doing and is amazing, so everything must be intentional.” The BrandonFan goggles have to come off during the beta process.
Gamma readers are the final group to review the book before it goes to print, looking for nitpicky details that only a human brain will be able to catch: missing prepositions, the correct place to hyphenate an in-world term, a misplaced name… that sort of thing.
So. That’s how it usually works. For the most part, that’s how it worked for Oathbringer… except on steroids.
Now, you have to understand how our beta-reading functions. It begins when Peter Ahlstrom emails the document to the beta readers, who choose their own methods to read and to record personal reactions. He also emails the link to a Google spreadsheet, with tabs for timeline, general explanations, each chapter (sectioned by Plot, Character, Culture, Other, and Title Suggestions), and general reactions. The procedure is usually to read a chapter, making notes as you go, and then enter your comments in the spreadsheet. (Some folks prefer to enter stream-of-consciousness comments as they read. I used to, but I hit one too many spoilers for things later in the same chapter… so I started collecting my comments in my document margin and entering them at the end of the chapter.)
So, Oathbringer. Beta-reading on steroids. In the first place, the beta version was 517,000 words. (For reference, the final count for Words of Radiance was 403,000, and the final revision of Oathbringer is around 450,000.) Because of the size and the structure—and to streamline the process so deadlines weren’t so deadly—the beta read was done by parts. When we started on Part 1, Brandon was revising Part 2, and Moshe Feder (his editor) was still working on Part 3.
In the second place, there were approximately 8,257 beta readers. Okay, I’m exaggerating. There were about seventy… which is more than twice what I’ve experienced before. This created issues—the first one being that Google Sheets isn’t entirely prepared to have seventy people entering data at the same time in the same spreadsheet! The other major issue, initially, was that there were so many comments it was almost impossible to figure out whether your thoughts had already been addressed, or where to add them. Combine that with a lot of first-time beta readers (it’s so easy to forget to separate reactions into the different sections!), some of whom didn’t realize that we needed to keep the comments sequential within a section… well, it was pretty chaotic for a while.
These particular issues were resolved in a couple of ways. Because everyone reads and comments at their own pace, the initial volume dropped off as real life intruded on reading time, spreading out the inputs. So that helped, along with a gentle reminder via email about keeping things in order. We also had a new column for “upvotes”—plus-one if you just want to note your agreement with a comment—which cut down dramatically on the “Me too!” “Me three!” sort of thing we used to do. And one of the biggest innovations in Sanderson beta-reading came about when Mark developed a script that would insert persistent paragraph numbers—which was a huge thing, because with the variety of platforms we were using, page numbering was useless as a sorting tool. Let me tell you, paragraph numbers were AMAZING. They may have saved our sanity—and also friendships.
The ultimate solution was for everyone to pull together and make it work: for each other, for Peter, for Brandon. And it did work.
Question & Answer with the Beta Readers
A few weeks ago, I asked the Storm Cellar group what questions, if any, they would like to ask the beta readers. I did a little Google Sheet of my own, though not for 70 people—for one thing, I didn’t have everyone’s email addresses, and for another, I’m not as incredible as Peter! Still, we collected some good material for your entertainment and enlightenment. (I only wish I could include all of it!)
Q: How soon will you read Oathbringer again after it comes out?
A: Unanimously, “When the gamma read starts!” After that, the answers ranged from, “On the plane home from the release party,” to “Oh, sometime in the first couple of months. Life’s busy.” Most agreed that the first thing they’ll do with a hard copy, though, is look at all the artwork. Some of it will be included in the gamma version, but there will be some we won’t see until publication.
Q: How challenging is it when canon differs from what you read in the beta?
A: The most up-voted answer to this was Ross’s: “I occasionally get surprised by misremembering a detail that changed, but for me the best part is seeing how feedback was incorporated to make the end result a better work.” Beyond that, several people commented along the lines of “I expect it to change, so it’s not a problem.” A couple of my personal favorites were these:
Alyx: “I feel like I’ve been filing away “suspect scenes” that are likely to be changed so that I can intentionally pay attention to what’s different when the final version comes around. I’ll just have to be careful to keep the final version straight in my head!”
Becca: “This is my first time as a beta reader so I don’t know yet. But I’m excited to see how much changes and if future me remembers things wrong because of it.”
Q: How extensive are the comments that you make? And how many of your comments/ changes/ suggestions actually make it into the book? Sub-question, has a suggestion of yours become a major (or not) point in the canon?
A: BAHAHAHAHA!! Fun trivia fact: there were more words in the comments (not even including quotes) than there were in the manuscript; Peter stopped counting after 550,000 words. The comments were… extensive. Yes. Oddly enough, most of us thought we were commenting a lot, but as Ted noted, “when I look at the accumulated comments of the other betas, I feel like I didn’t make enough comments.”
As far as how many of our inputs “make it into” the book… well, it’s more a matter of influence, and that’s hard to quantify. In the final version, there are definitely changes that reflect the discussions we had, though we rarely know how much of that is a matter of confirming something Brandon planned to change, versus taking a new tack. Even when there are specifics, we’re a bit skittish of pointing them out; while it’s nice to know we helped, we have no desire to cast any shade on the author! Plus, to avoid spoilers and because we don’t yet know what was changed, we can’t give any examples from Oathbringer.
That said, Joel reminded us of how Words of Radiance was slightly altered to include the pain and the aftercare involved in acquiring tattoos, based on the personal experience of several beta readers. He also recalled his support for Dalinar calling Kaladin “Soldier;” some thought it sounded derogatory, but for a guy with military experience, it was a term of respect. It stayed. Lyndsey led the charge to formalize the wording of Kaladin’s third Ideal, which originally seemed too casual for such a momentous occasion. And then there was The Great Skirts in Water Discussion, wherein all the women piled on to insist that skirts will most emphatically not flow gracefully when descending into water. (To be fair, I’m reasonably sure the men had limited experience with the general behavior of skirts in such situations, and none of them were foolish enough to argue with us.)
Also, Gary is counting the number of his jokes included in final versions. He’s at three so far.
Q: Does beta-reading take away the enjoyment of experiencing the published work in its final form?
A: The responses to this covered the full spectrum from, “No, not at all,” to “Yes, absolutely.” One of the most reflective responses was this one from Nikki:
For me, yes, it does take away some of the joy of reading the final published book…. It takes away from the excitement of Release Day, the ability to read at your preferred pace, and the ability to be in your own world while reading it. That last is one of the major downsides, for me, of a beta-read done by such a huge group in a relatively public space. You lose that first pure, personal experience with the book, because you’re also seeing many other people’s opinions and predictions, and discussing things as you go. Beta-reading turns that first read-through into “work” for me. It’s a completely different experience than just picking up a new book and reading it for fun.
Whether it takes away the enjoyment for any individual is… well, individual. But I think we all agreed that beta-reading changes the enjoyment.
Q: Did you make sure he didn’t use “maladroitly” again?
A: We had a good laugh about this one—and naturally, Ravi had to research it. Turns out that Brandon used “maladroitly” five times in one book, and only three times in all his other books, but that five times made it a Thing. We did threaten to find places to insert it in the gamma, though.
Q: How have you seen Brandon’s writing evolve with Oathbringer vs. previous works? (Specifically wrt: TSA, focused on technique improvements and that sort of thing, not content-specific.)
A: Everyone who responded to this had a different angle, but everyone said they had certainly seen improvement. It’s really hard to pick just one or two comments for this one! Ravi noted Brandon’s increasing ability to elicit emotion, and as Eric said, “The lows are so devastating, and the highs will make you scream with joy.”
Others mentioned greater skill with chemistry and romantic tension; the self-contained structure within each Part; the build-up of context and meaning to a dramatic pay-off at the end; and the remarkable ability to still surprise the reader with amazing plot twists and incredible character moments throughout the book.
Q: How much is Team Dragonsteel involved in your discussion? Do you talk with Peter Ahlstrom or even Brandon himself very much during the beta read?
A: To paraphrase Jory a little, “Contact with Dragonsteel is limited, but not restricted. Peter is constantly on the prowl through the beta spreadsheet, offering points and counterpoints and generally keeping us in line… We had no direct contact with Brandon, though we did occasionally see him creeping through our work late at night.”
Lyndsey mentioned the late-night creeping at a signing: “He laughed and said it was a huge temptation to just leave the spreadsheet open all the time and watch us comment.” She also observed, as we all must sometimes, that Peter is marvelous. “He doesn’t get NEARLY enough credit for all the amazing work he does on these books. Any time any of us had a question, he’d be there to answer it. He worked with us to streamline the process and make it easier for us all.”
Q: Are there any obvious hints you don’t catch during beta and find them later on reread (and facepalm yourselves)?
A: From Darci: “I ALWAYS miss stuff when reading these books. So for me it was incredibly eye-opening to watch the rest of the betas discuss points of interest that had completely flown past me. I’m much more of a casual reader, paying less attention to wider Cosmere references, so getting to see others catch those as I read was awesome.”
We each tend to look for different things, but I’m pretty sure we all miss things the first time through. My personal example from Words of Radiance was Zahel’s identity; I missed that, and didn’t entirely believe the beta readers who did catch it… until Nightblood showed up. So it’s less a matter of finding them on a reread, than it is being stunned by what someone else catches that I just flat-out missed.
Q: I would also love to hear any stories you’ve got about particularly intense debates or silly controversies that the beta readers got into, or weird inside jokes or misunderstandings.
A: This one could be a standalone article of its own!! We’d talk about Ravi, our resident speed-reader, who would be making comments on the last chapters when most of us were still in the first third. The pun-offs in the beta chat. The debates… well, we can’t talk about those yet, because they have too many spoilers. (I’ll include some of those in the spoiler review or the follow-up, I promise.) The theorizing while waiting for the next Part to come out. (Mark thinks we should find a way to force everyone to stop at one specific point and discuss for several weeks before being allowed to move on.) The typo jokes. (Well, mostly one, which will forever among this group of beta readers be a rallying cry: “That tight sh*t!”)
One that will always be a “fond” memory—or perhaps not so fond, because the argument got flaming hot—was “that one point where Brandon directly asked for our positions and mine ended up being the opposite of what I ever thought, and everyone was divided and it was awesome to read all the opinions. That was pretty great.” (Mark) It was pretty great—I, too, was shocked to find myself voting exactly the opposite of what I’d always said. We’ll all be watching to see how the final version of that turns out!
My personal favorite, though, is the Beta Babies. Yes, we had Beta Babies, and they are adorable. “Thumper” was born to Brandon and Darci Cole, just a few hours before Lyndsey Luther delivered Sammy, about a week before the beta read officially started.
Here’s “Thumper” in early January, just about the time the beta started:
For the Gamma versions, here are brand new pictures as of the day of uploading this article:
Grown just a bit, they have. Check out the stuffed animal for scale! All. The. Cute.
Q: How unique and/or similar are the analyses of each of the beta readers?
A: From Joel: “What I love about this group of beta readers is the diversity of style and vision. It can cause interesting discussions in the beta chat. Everyone seems to have an open mind to a new idea, possibility, or vision. These discussions have never devolved into anything ugly, either. We all seem to recognize that we have equal input, regardless of education, background, and interests. We get multiple opinions/viewpoints on multiple subjects.”
Ross pointed out that the different areas of focus and expertise worked well together: laws of physics, magic system quirks, fashion, relationship dynamics, politics, historical accuracy, physical descriptions… Add it all together and the coverage is pretty thorough.
Several people noticed certain trends in perspective. Nikki says, “As you beta-read, you’ll definitely start to notice the people whose opinions (mostly) align with your own, or those whose opinions (mostly) don’t. But I don’t think there’s ever been someone I NEVER disagreed with, or NEVER agreed with. We all come at it with different perspectives, and that definitely shows.” Paige also remarked that eventually, whenever she found a comment from Ravi that she agreed with, she felt it was worth mentioning in the spreadsheet. (Come to think of it, that was pretty rare…) There were strong disagreements over the emotional responses of characters in certain situations, for example. (Very. Strong. But civil, too.)
Q: Do you ever feel like Peter and Brandon are delighted—or surprised—by your impressions?
A: It was passed on to us by Peter that Brandon is particularly happy with the beta process this time around. (Thanks for the reminder, Jory.) When the author feels that the beta process was extremely helpful, all the work is worth it.
Darci also passed on one that several of us missed: “Peter mentioned to us that Emily (Sanderson) read a lot of our commentary and she feels like she knows us now, which I think is equally as cool.”
Personal notes from the beta readers:
To conclude this section, let me present a collection of random inputs on the general subject of the Oathbringer beta read:
Ravi: “It’s like we threw an unfinished book and a bunch of crazy, amazing people into a blender and a finished book came out! I loved every second of it.”
Jory: “The most wonderful part of this process is the friendships that have grown from the beta … we all come together in a mutual respect for each other and love for the book that we’re nurturing together.”
Ted: “Reading is usually a solitary activity, but beta-reading and beta-discussion add a whole amazing dimension to reading enjoyment!”
Ross: “For a number of the seasoned beta readers, the Oathbringer beta process started well over a year ago, with a private group reread of the whole Stormlight Archive…, noting unanswered questions as we went.”
Alyx: “It’s really a team effort like nothing else. Every fan has the things that they focus on and their own perspectives to bring to the table. We all put in some contribution and the finished product is a better work for it.”
Mark: “I’d like to highlight the amount of work that being a beta reader involves. For three months, I planned anything outside of work around the beta schedule, because when a new part arrived, I disappeared into my cave, working through a few chapters every evening. I had no free time. It was gruelling, intense, and sometimes discouraging when it felt like all I was doing was +1-ing comments that other people had already given. It is not for everyone, and there are plenty of people who say they want to be beta readers but don’t realize how much work it really is.”
Deana: “The greatest surprise of the Beta was the new friendships. The beta chat can become very busy at times. Yet talking to them every day about something we all loved was friendship development on fast forward.”
Joel: “To know 100 years from now my great great great grandchildren could pick up a Sanderson novel and see our names and know that we contributed to the final product of these amazing stories that Brandon writes, gives me such a warm feeling. For me, a man without a college degree, that grew up reading all kinds of fantasy—C.S. Lewis, McCaffrey, Eddings, Tolkien, Jordan to name a few—to know that over the coming years Sanderson’s name will be considered among equals with those great writers, and to know that even on a small scale you helped contribute to the final product of some of his books, it’s difficult to put to words….”
Darci: “I’ve beta read for a lot of authors, published and aspiring. As a writer myself, I’ve loved seeing the diversity of thought in the readers’ responses, the roughness of Sanderson’s work (it’s nice knowing your heroes aren’t perfect), and seeing the many ways that Peter and the Dragonsteel team help sustain Brandon so he can focus on the part of his work that he truly enjoys. I’ve loved it.”
Eric: “The Oathbringer beta came at my busiest time at my work, but there’s nothing I’d rather lose sleep doing than working on this. It really is a huge array of work. It’s not fun and games. You read an exciting bit—there are lots of them—and you have to stop and write down your thoughts coherently. It’s way more time consuming than reading the book for fun. Still, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
Gary: “I loved it, but it was 2.5 months of sh*t hard work!”
Paige: “I knew it would be difficult yet satisfying work. I did not realize just HOW difficult it would be (my only previous beta being Edgedancer) or how utterly, wonderfully, fantastically satisfying it has turned out to be—both during and after completion. It was the best experience as a fan and I cannot wait to do it again.”
Lyndsey: “I’m going to get a bit sappy here. I’ve done a LOT of beta and gamma reads over the last four years, but this one… This one was so special to me. My baby was born about a week before we got part 1. I was in and out of the hospital with complications and dealing with a lot of depression and mood swings, and beta reading this book kept me sane. Working on this gave me something to look forward to, something to focus on, when everything seemed so bleak and I felt like I would never recover. At least I had Kaladin and Adolin and Bridge 4 to escape to. At least I had this wonderful group of people to be there for me, to talk to me about something other than the depression, to heap compliments and love on my babe when I shared photos. Most of them didn’t know the extent of the pain I was in, but the puns and the debates and the camaraderie helped me to feel connected. To say that this book means a lot to me is an understatement, but a necessary one, as there are no words to adequately express my thankfulness for my involvement and this community of people, in addition to the usual joy of being able to help—in a small way—make something I love even better.”
Becca: “This was so much harder than I expected it to be. I made things hard on myself by planning a wedding and studying for a professional exam as the same time as the beta. I had no idea that the time commitment would be so great and there were times I wondered if I’d be able to do everything. But despite the stress and complete lack of free time, I am so happy to have been given this opportunity to contribute. I would absolutely do it all again.”
So you want to be a beta reader?
Here’s a challenge from Deana Whitney:
Wait a week in between parts. Are you still sane?
Stop reading in the middle of the climax to write two pages about your thoughts and feelings and “his eyes are blue” comments. Were you able to stop reading?
If both answers are “Yes,” you might have what it takes. The personal notes above will give you some idea of the additional challenges. There are probably hundreds of people out there thinking they’d like a chance, but … like Eric says, it’s not fun and games. It’s bloody hard work. Several of us were on the verge of burning out by the time we were done. Only 45 of the original 70 even put their names on the Part 5 spreadsheet. Brandon Sanderson himself was tired of Roshar by the time he finished revision 3. (And he still had another revision to do!) Peter had to enlist the aid of a couple of the beta readers to sort through the comments, collate them, and create a condensed version to be useful. Emily sorted through our myriad chapter-title suggestions to pick the best ones. It was, as several people noted, a grueling process for everyone.
But, WOW. It was worth it. Come on, November!
Alice Arneson is by now a veteran beta reader—who nearly met her match in Oathbringer. Watch for upcoming articles from Tor staff and the beta readers on the story to this point, various refreshers, cosplaying The Stormlight Archive, being a Stormwarden, new artwork, and of course early release chapters of the book itself. Oh, and Alice is sure to do another “spoiler-free reactions” article for you to throw darts at, come early November.
In this HaBO, we’re trying to track down the first romance Reader Esti ever picked up:
I was talking to Bea at the Ripped Bodice about the first romance novel I ever read, and she suggested I contact you because I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the book (to be fair, I was only ten. Someone messed up and put it in the kids section at a book sale and I bought it. It definitely gave me an education, lol.)
Anyway, the story was about a divorced couple whose son was kidnapped around Christmas time. Of course they fall back in love while searching for their son. I believe the kidnapper was the hero’s partner, who wanted the heroine for himself.
I’m pretty sure the cover was blue (I know, how cliche) and that it was they type of books that come out every month, like the Silhouette romances.
It’s Monday night, the night when I get drunk on Kraken rum and watch The Bachelorette for your entertainment.
This week we have a two-hour episode on Monday, and a two-hour episode on Tuesday.
Pray for my liver.
Is anyone out there a doctor? Because I’m really going to need a note for work on Wednesday.
Boss: “Elyse, why are you in pajama bottoms and is that a tortilla chip in your hair?”
Anyway, last week a bunch of guys were jerks, everyone fought with each other, and Rachel broke down crying because of the shittiness of the group. Iggy tattled on everyone. Lee revealed himself to be the missing Malfoy child. Kenny was accused by Lee of being aggressive.
Dean and Peter stood out by not engaging in the bullshit.
We also need to take a moment to talk about Lee’s hair. There’s no justification for his bouffant or the amount of gel that he needs to achieve it. My working theory is that he’s smuggling exotic birds up there.
Anyway, on with the show!
We’re back on Hilton Head Island, SC. Kenny has approached Lee to confront him because Lee told Rachel that Kenny was aggressive toward him.
Now let’s take a moment to call that statement out for what it is: coded racism.
Last week pretty much all of the men were shouting at each other during an epic blow up. No one got physical and there was no indication that anyone would. Multiple people shouted at Lee because Lee is a raging asshole.
Lee only accuses Kenny of being aggressive.
Coincidentally Kenny is a large Black man.
Rewatching clips from last week, it’s apparent that Kenny was never going to get physical with Lee. He was feet away from Lee when they argued, and while voices were raised, both had relaxed body posture.
By accusing Kenny of being aggressive, Lee puts Kenny in an untenable position. If he gets mad at Lee for being a shitbag, he’s an aggressive, potentially dangerous Black man. Same if he vociferously defends himself. Now all Kenny can do is keep his cool while Lee attacks him like the cowardly little rectal pustule he is.
Very calmly, Kenny says to Lee, “You are a disingenuous snake.”
That’s pretty fucking unfair to snakes. Snakes are just eating rodents and keeping their ecosystems sound. Snakes aren’t using all the hair gel.
It’s obvious that Lee is trying to provoke an angry, potentially even violent reaction from Kenny, who refuses to engage.
I expect Rachel will immediately see through all of this
After all that nonsense, Rachel shows up and gives Bryan the group-date rose , which is interesting because I actually forgot that Bryan existed. Which one is he again?
The next day Rachel goes on a one-on-one date with Jack, who looks a lot like Bryan, which is confusing me. They take a carriage ride and then shuck and eat fresh oysters. They go dancing and Jack flirts, and it’s painful because there’s no chemistry between them. Rachel is clearly aware of it and doesn’t want to kiss him because she’s “sick.”
Cut back to the hotel. Some of the other dudes tell Lee what a shitty, racist thing calling Kenny aggressive is, and Lee gets suitably butt-hurt because Kenny “played the race card.”
He acts like he has no idea what the connotations of his comments are.
Then we go back to Rachel and Jack having dinner. Jack is trying sooooo hard to impress Rachel and she has this kind of vacant stare going on. He’s talking about how they really connected and Rachel looks like she’s thinking about The Black Panther teaser trailer. Or shampooing her carpet. Or cuddling with her dog, Copper. Or anything other than spending time with Jack, really.
He is super oblivious to the fact that this woman has totally checked out.
Rachel comments, “Jack says ‘I just want to take you back to Dallas and just lay in bed and talk.’ That didn’t sound…great to me.”
She tells Jack that she doesn’t feel a romantic connection to him and that he won’t be getting a rose.
Jack, who was busy naming their future children, is stunned. I felt a little bad for him but also, pick up on signals dude. She didn’t want to kiss you! By this point in filming the “sick” thing is nonsense. Everyone has the same cold.
Except Lee. Lee has bird flu but only because an African Ringneck Parakeet that I’ve named Mr. Tweeters is living in his hair.
The next night (or same night? It’s all a little fuzzy here) Rachel puts on a black dress that is held together by sequined clips and makes her look like a goddamned goddess. She decides to omit the cocktail party and go straight to The Dreaded Rose Ceremony.
Cut back to the house where Peter, who is actually aware of human beings other than himself, is telling Iggy how the mens’ awful, childish behavior hurt Rachel.
I feel like right now is a good time to admit that I really want Peter to win.
He doesn’t engage in petty bullshit. Every time Lee is starting some shit or Eric is screaming “MY NAME IS IN YOUR MOUTH” Peter is off on his own, presumably working out the blueprints of the dream house he will build Rachel with his goddamn hands.
Rachel’s dog, Copper, loves Peter. Copper spent their whole flight to Palm Springs with his head in Peter’s lap, gazing adoringly at him. Dogs know. They always know.
Also when the WTFery is high, Peter adopts the Jim Halpert “is this real life” look.
Case in point:
Then it’s time for The Dreaded Rose Ceremony–the ceremony when Chris Harrison gets to drink the blood of fallen Bachelorette contenders, thereby freeing him to walk in daylight.
In a cutaway Adam (the one who had the puppet) says, “I feel like she hasn’t seen the full Adam yet. She’s had a glimpse. She’s had a snack. I want to give her the full kitchen.”
Is The Full Kitchen a sex move I don’t know about? Is it having sex while scouring the sink?
Kenny gets a rose. Peter gets a rose. Adam gets a rose.
Then we’re down to one flower.
Chris Harrison shows up to tell us we’re down to the final rose. THANKS CHRIS!
Clearly at the behest of the producers, Rachel gives the rose to Lee.
I might have thrown up in my mouth a little, but this drinking isn’t great for my GERD.
Iggy is left out. He looks physically ill. The Tickle Monster doesn’t get a rose.
“I gotta get back out there, and look for a girl who appreciates a good set of tickling,” he says.
I don’t know what that means, but it upsets me. It sounds like something that would be scrawled in blood at a crime scene, baffling detectives.
Next they all jet off to Oslo, Norway! They immediately start off with a one-on-one date with Bryan (who I forgot existed again).
They repel down a 187 foot ski jump. Because that sounds …fun.
Bryan tries to kiss her in midair. I would have been so absolutely panic-stricken at this point that I would have reflexively punched him in the face. Like a full on KO. Don’t fucking touch me when I’m dangling 187 feet in midair.
Over dinner Bryan and Rachel discuss being insecure in high school and college. Bryan tells her that previously he was afraid of commitment in relationships, but he’s matured since then. Which totally explains why he’s looking for marriage on reality TV. Because maturity.
Then he says the words, “I’m falling in love with you.”
EVERYONE TAKE A SHOT.
Despite her “cold” Rachel totally makes out with Bryan. She also gives him a rose.
Back at the hotel Lee is busy drinking the tears of children when the date card arrives.
It’s a group date with…IDK a bunch of the dudes. I’m drunk.
Regardless, Kenny and Lee aren’t in the group date which means they have a two-on-one date later.
Mr. Tweeters makes a brief appearance from Lee’s hair and gingerly accepts a pistachio from Chris Harrison.
For the group date, the dudes and Rachel learn how to play handball. Rachel describes it as a combination of football, basketball and water polo. Minus the water, I guess. It’s not the handball I played in high school gym class which involved hitting a ball with your hand and bouncing it off a wall. It makes about as much sense though and is equally appealing.
This is why I could never be The Bachelorette. You have to do all this physical stuff. My idea of a good group date is everyone read silently in the same room. With snacks. And booze.
Also for reasons that boggle the mind, Dean wears his jock strap OVER his uniform.
We cut back to the hotel where Kenny Facetimes his daughter and my heart melts.
Meanwhile Lee lifts weights, polishes his cowboy boots and puts on his most douchey pair of distressed jeans. They show him reading a book about Oslo and I 100% guarantee a producer had to flip the book right-side up for him.
The two-on-one date card comes for Kenny and Lee, and includes a poem from Chris Harrison. I am not making this up:
Yes. That actually happened. I totally believe that Chris wrote it himself too. While cackling. The poem is about murder, but no one has figured it out yet. Chris prays to the Rose God.
Back to the group date. Rachel and Peter have dashed off to the hot tub where they’re gone for “three and a half hours” according to one of the dudes. I’m thinking they may actually have had sex. Just the parts that were filmed looked like they were about seconds from penetration.
Despite that, Will gets the rose. This confuses Peter because THREE AND A HALF HOURS. That’s stamina. He worked hard, okay? He didn’t carb up for that. That was all grit.
The next day it’s the two-on-one date. Lee, Kenny and Rachel take a helicopter ride out to the wilderness. They have drinks by a river. Mr Tweeters calls out to the wild birds of Norway.
Kenny and Rachel go to talk privately. Kenny tells Rachel that he loves spending time with her, but also that he feels like she’d be a great role model for his daughter. For the most part he skirts the bullshit with Lee, and focuses on the relationship he wants with Rachel.
Rachel isn’t at all blind to Kenny’s maturity and sincerity.
Then Kenny and Lee sit awkwardly alone while Rachel is (presumably) filming her cut always. A bird chirps really loudly onscreen and I yell, “Mr. Tweeters!”
My husband looks up from his book. “What?!”
Oh, lord, I’m drunk.
Then Lee and Rachel go talk alone. I’d like to point out that Lee has major There’s Something About Mary hair going on. Lee tells Rachel that Kenny had tried to “violently” pull him out of a van and that it appalled the other contestants, which is a blatant lie. Then he tells Rachel that Kenny gets violent when he drinks. Again, there is no evidence of this.
“I’m never gonna lie to you,” Lee says while lying to Rachel.
Somewhere Darth Vader is thinking that Lee is the son he wished he had.
I’d call Lee a worthless sack of shit, but shit can be used as fertilizer. He’s an oxygen thief. A waste of perfectly good hair gel.
I felt so genuinely bad for Kenny at this point. He’s being attacked, lied about, and there’s so little he can do to defend himself other than hope Rachel sees through Lee’s bullshit.
Then we get TO BE CONTINUED with clips implying that Kenny and Lee come to blows. I doubt it — the show has a vested interest in keeping anyone from getting hurt, and it’s bullshit to imply it’s going to lead to violence.
If anything, Mr. Tweeters might finally lose his shit and peck Lee to death, which I’m okay with.
Are you still watching? Who do you think should get the final rose?
Memory and language: Two concepts that Desirinia Boskovich had in mind for her novella Never Now Always. And now, here she is, to remember to you, in words, why they were important to her story.
There are key moments and motifs in fiction that we latch onto as readers, and as writers. Symbolic scenes that loom large for us because they connect in some deeper way with our own buried nightmares and past traumas.
For me one of those moments is in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where every single day, bound to that chair, the prince remembers how much he’s forgotten. Fleetingly, he understands he’s a prisoner and also that he can do nothing about it, imprisoned equally by his own enchanted brain.
I was just six or seven when I read this and the horror of it simply overwhelmed me and then infiltrated me: that moment when you know, and simultaneously know the knowledge won’t last.
I think it terrifies me because the vulnerability and powerlessness of that moment is so crushing and absolute.
In Never Now Always, I set out to explore the terror of that moment. And also to face it and conquer it, putting my characters in the same predicament, yet giving them tools to fight.
So the story centers on Lolo, a child who finds herself trapped in a mysterious labyrinth under the supervision of a horde of voiceless alien Caretakers. She is surrounded by many other children, but none of them know how they ended up there, or what happened before. And as the Caretakers subject the children to psychological experiments focused on trauma and memory, their ability to form short-term memories is limited, too. Everything they learn, or think they learn, just slips between their fingers like water.
Then Lolo hits on the concept of writing — scrawling drawings and pictographs as simply as possible, designed to represent these fleeting pieces of story to her future self. Hoping that she stays the same, that her perception persists enough from day to day that when she sees those scribblings later, she’ll still know what they mean.
For me, as the writer of the novella, it was more complicated. The deeper I got into the story, the more I realized how truly challenging it would be to tell a story where the mechanics of narrative are broken, where one thing doesn’t always lead to another and pieces of story don’t necessarily add up.
In some ways every scene felt like a first scene. There are gaps in this story, and continuity errors.
But I also realized that while I wanted my reader to feel somewhat disoriented, I could not let them remain as disoriented as the characters, because that would really not be an enjoyable story to read.
So I also ended up depending heavily on language to do the work — I tried to anchor everything in touch and taste and feelings, always in the present tense, a language reinvented for children whose sense of time is confined to a narrow slice of perpetual now. Everything that’s happening to them is happening in the immediate, and the present is the only moment that matters.
And in that perpetual now is where I think my characters — and I, myself — find redemption and solace. Because love is deeper than language. Because my dog doesn’t need to remember all the days of his life with me to know that with me he’s loved and safe and home; “yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t actually mean anything. As always, my dog is wiser than I am. So I gave Lolo a dog, too, to help her figure it out.
In the end, the story returns to the one idea I find most comforting: that in this world and the next, life after life, we always make our way back to protect those who’ve protected us, and to be reunited with the souls we’ve loved.
Some time back, when I still had cable, I fell asleep on the couch and woke up at three in the morning to a documentary about Pablo Escobar’s hippos. It was a topic so weird that my brain refused to believe it was true. Clearly, I was still dreaming. The very idea that a drug kingpin would (A) buy hippos for his own zoo, and then (B) that those hippos would get loose and start to take over the countryside, seemed ridiculous. When I got up the next morning, I looked it up online convinced that my brain had produced it during some sort of bizarre fever dream.
It was 100% true, and I still can’t believe it. That documentary immediately sprang to mind when I saw the summary for River of Teeth by Sara Gailey. I thought, “This sounds absolutely bananas.” Followed by, “I need to read this.”
River of Teeth is much like the hippo itself. It seems, at first glance, to be incredibly silly. The hippo is big and round and cartoony and utterly ridiculous as a creature. It’s not something we ever think of as being a killer. And yet, they’re considered to be one of the most dangerous land mammals in Africa. Which makes them more deadly than LIONS. (From now on, the line from The Wizard of Oz will be, “Hippos and tigers and bears, OH MY.”)
Gailey plays up to this just right, taking what appears at first glance to be a ridiculous concept—cowboys on hippos out for revenge and glory—and striking that pitch perfect note between taking it utterly seriously, and giving a little wink to the reader. Yes, it says, this looks silly. But it is also a ferocious blood bath. So while it’s not what I would consider laugh-a-minute, I’m putting it under the whimsy category. Not enough of a hard sell for you? Anje, a bookseller at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA, nails it with her summary:
I had read several of McGuire’s October Daye books, and while I enjoyed them, they don’t really fall into the area of great whimsy. The InCryptid series, however, revels in it. The lead character in Discount Armageddon, Verity, is a member of the Price family, which has been policing the monster world for a couple of generations. Verity is also a ballroom dancer. There are a lot of cool creatures, of course, but my favorite thing? Verity lives with a colony of Aeslin Mice. The mice are highly religious, have an excellent memory, and turn many of the events in Verity’s life, now matter how small, into holy holidays. The mice are hilarious.
I was reading this book out loud to my son and my husband walked by, stopped, popped his head into the room and said, “I’m sorry, did you just say ‘dragon vomit’? What on Earth are you reading?” (This is a frequent conversation.) Cold Cereal is about a boy, Scott, who hallucinates some pretty weird things—like a leprechaun stealing his backpack. Or a giant talking rabbit. Only it turns out that his hallucinations are real, and they’re hiding from an evil cereal company. Complete with commercial breaks and silly illustrations, Cold Cereal is Adam Rex at his wacky best. (We also love his picture book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake.)
I’m going to start this with a caveat—not every young adult book is appropriate for every teen. The Awesome is definitely aimed at older teens and is full of language that some parents would object to and talks a lot about sex, which even more parents might object to. So keep that in mind. I would hand it over to my teen, but then he’s heard all that language from me and I’m a big believer in talking openly about sex because knowledge is power and all of that. Got all that? Great. Let’s move on. The Awesome? It’s awesome. Maggie Cunningham fights monsters with her mom and desperately wants her journeyman’s license so she can kick butt on her own. The problem? She’s a virgin, and that’s like catnip to certain kinds of dangerous creatures. Maggie is crude, funny, and actually sounds like a teen. Her attempts at seduction are awkward and hilarious. The honest and open relationship with her mom is delightful. This book is darkly funny and snarky and I wish I’d had it as a teen. Also the cover is, well, awesome.
It’s no secret in my house that Big Trouble in Little China is one of my favorite movies. It’s weird and funny and different, especially when you realize that Jack, the lead, is actually the sidekick. Wang is, of course, the actual hero. He’s talented, special, and trying to save the love of his life. Jack is just…well, he sort of just falls into everything. So I was both excited and wary of a Big Trouble in Little China comic book. I felt better after I saw that Carpenter was attached to it, but it was Eric Powell’s name that made me really breathe a sigh of relief. (I loved Goon.) So I started picking up the single issues and burning through them. The comic takes up right where the movie ends and continues Jack’s exploits. Powell’s humor and the almost cartoony art style meshed perfectly, and I really enjoyed it. Funny and weird, my two favorite things. However, I have another caveat for you—after the third graphic novel collection, the creators change, the art style shifts drastically and the story takes a huge left turn. The changes might work for you, but they didn’t for me at all, and everyone had to listen to me whine about it for weeks.
I have a two-year-old obsessed with zombies. He likes zombie toys, pretends to be a zombie, basically goes nuts for anything zombie. (I know I’m biased, but his zombie impression is pretty stellar.) Oddly enough, there aren’t a lot of zombie things aimed at toddlers. When he found Zombie in Love on my shelf, he went nuts. The book is about Mortimer the zombie, who is lonely and just wants to find love. It’s funny, sweet, and a little creepy. (Mortimer is followed around by a zombie dog and a group of adorable worms.) The illustrations are wonderful and done in a watercolor style. They are full of funny and smart details and fit perfectly with DiPucchio’s wit. (Mortimer’s personal ad can be read to the tune of the Piña Colada song.) It is adorably creepy whimsy, and if you love it, you should pick up Zombie in Love 2 + 1 where Mortimer and Mildred end up with a human baby.
Have a favorite funny or whimsical read? List it in the comments! Everyone could use a little more in their lives, don’t you think?
Lish McBride currently resides in Seattle, spending most of her time at her day job at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. The rest of her time is divided between writing, reading, and Twitter, where she either discusses her desire for a nap or her love for kittens. (Occasionally ponies.) Her debut novel, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and was a finalist for the YALSA William C. Morris Award. Her other works include Necromancing the Stone, Firebug, and Pyromantic.
For those following Sarah MacLean’s Scandal and Scoundrel series, The Day of the Duchess is finally Seraphina and Malcolm, Duke of Haven’s, story. Malcolm was the one who got knocked ass-over-teakettle into a fish pond in The Rogue Not Taken and launched the whole series with his soggy duke-pants.
Now, you don’t need to read the other books to read this one, but I do think the series works really well in order. That said, this is also the weakest book.
I was really excited for this story which promised to be a super angsty reconciliation story–which it is–but I found that I could never forgive the hero. Even though The Day of the Duchess is really just a prolonged grovel by Malcolm (and he needs to grovel, ya’ll) I still didn’t like him at the end.
Weirdly, despite not liking the hero, I still liked the book. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that Seraphina is amazing and badass, and so are her sisters. They spend a lot of time together in this novel, and they have no fucks to give. They love each other and support each other and will shove Malcolm in as many fish ponds as needed to make Seraphina feel better.
Also there was this line:
“Perhaps not. But perhaps you will. And when you are, I shall be here.” [Malcolm] said it as though he had nothing to do but languish here, in his underwater lair, waiting for her to wander in and ask him to make love to her.
I NEED THAT AQUAMAN FANFIC RIGHT THE FUCK NOW.
Anyway, the book opens with the return of Seraphina, the-up-till-now missing Duchess of Haven. Seraphina is the oldest of the Talbot sisters aka The Dangerous Daughters aka The Soiled S’s. Her father, a wealthy industrialist, won his earldom at cards with Prinny (like you do) and so when Sera and her sisters had their debut, it gave everyone in the ton something to turn their noses up at.
Sera and Malcolm met at a ball and it was basically lust at first sight. Malcolm courted her–kind of. Like they could meet in secret but he wasn’t going to visit her family or act like he would with a “respectable” lady. Afraid that if Malcolm didn’t marry her, her reputation and her sisters’ (and their marriage prospects) would be in tatters, Seraphina traps him into marrying her by sleeping with him (which was his idea) and then getting caught (which was her mom’s).
For the record, he was going to marry her anyways, but he was being a tool about it.
So after they’re married, Malcolm is all asshurt because he thinks she trapped him for his title (despite the fact that he was totes willing to ruin her before proposing). They kind of live apart, but then he finds out she’s pregnant and he’s mad that she didn’t tell him she got pregnant (WHY SHOULD SHE? YOU’RE ACTING LIKE A TOTAL DOUCHENOZZLE) so he does the logical thing and…
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has sex with another woman. But just the once. Like that makes it better.
Then their child dies during childbirth, Seraphina almost does, too, and the doctor declares her barren.
So she figures, fuck this noise, takes her money and runs away.
It’s a lot of prologue, I know.
The book opens three years later. Seraphina is back, and she wants a goddamn divorce. Malcolm, having three years to get over his hurt feelings, realizes he loves her and wants her back. He agrees to divorce her if she comes to his estate to help him pick out his next duchess (cuz that’s not fucked up) which is really a ploy to woo her. Seraphina shows up with all her sisters and one pissed off cat as backup.
I never forgave Malcolm. I never really liked him because it was really hard to come back from all the shitty things he did. MacLean tries hard to redeem him, making it clear that he wasn’t sure of Seraphina’s intentions and that he felt betrayed by her actions. The problem is, his actions were super shitty, and having hurt feelings isn’t an excuse to behave horribly. Welcome to adulthood dude. You gotta own your shit.
That said, I found myself compulsively reading this book. I loved Seraphina. LOVED HER.
This is from one of her first meetings with Haven, before everything went to shit:
“You called me ‘my lord,’ It’s ‘Your Grace.'”
She smirked. “How did you know how thoroughly women adore being corrected by men? And over forms of address, especially. It’s a great wonder that none of us have ever fallen in love with you.” She dropped a little curtsey, the movement making him feel like a horse’s ass. “Farewell gentlemen.”
Cheers to you, madam.
And after everything goes to shit:
“You stood in the house where we might have built a home, our wedding breakfast barely over, and you told me to leave you.”
When he opened his mouth to reply, she found she was not through.
“And do you know the great irony of it? The whole world thinks you ruined me before you married me, when the truth is I was not ruined until after the fact. You ruined my hopes. My dreams. My future. You ruined my life. And I’ve had enough of that. I am here for one reason only, Your Grace. I want my life back. The one you stole.”
I want to drink with Seraphina. I want her to hang out and come to book club and be my new friend.
Malcolm acknowledges that he’s been a douchebag, but like a true romance hero, rather than offer her a sincere apology making it clear he understands what he did wrong, he manufactures a scenario in which he can win her back. It includes the underwater apology cave he built.
I mean, underwater apology caves are the shit, and this one has stained glass and everything, but I’d take a Hallmark card and some honest conversation over that.
Unless Jason Momoa is in the cave. Then the cave wins.
“Go away. I’m having Jason time.”
Grand gestures aside, I couldn’t forgive Malcolm. I couldn’t forgive him for
Click for spoilers!
his infidelity, for not being there when Seraphina was almost DYING IN CHILDBIRTH, for courting her in such a shitbag way.
It was too much to come back from.
Which makes grading this book hard.
As a romance, it doesn’t really work if I didn’t feel like the hero deserved the heroine.
As a book about a woman who has come to burn the fields and salt the earth, and her sisters are there to back her up, it totally worked. I mean, I loved this part. The sisters are all crammed in a carriage, heading to Haven’s estate to wreak havoc, one of them gets carriage-sick, and there’s a pissed off cat who doesn’t appreciate being stuffed in a basket:
“Does Haven like cats?”
[Seraphina] looked to Sesily, already coming to the edge of her seat, Brummell in arms, as though she was prepared to do battle. Sesily was often first into the fray, even when she was green at the gills. “I don’t know. But I doubt it.”
“Excellent,” she said.
Haven opened the door, and Sesily flew from the carriage, thrusting the panicked cat into his arms. “Hold this!”
Surprisingly, he did, somehow controlling his own shock as failed to control the animal, which immediately went wild, hissing and clawing and flailing to be free.
All while Sesily cast up her accounts upon the duke’s perfectly polished boots.
Sera’s hand flew to her mouth, as though she could capture her astonished gasp. As though she could hide the pleasure that edged though it. She couldn’t.
His head snapped up at the sound, and he met her eyes, at once furious and shocked beyond words. Sera lowered her hand, revealed her grin, wide with the realization that everything had, in fact, gone pear-shaped.
Ah sisterhood. Sometimes it means throwing up on somebody who desperately needs to be barfed on.
If you really like a good grovel, this book might be your catnip. As much as I loved Sera and her sisters, I just couldn’t buy the reconciliation.
I am, however, super excited for Sesily to get her own story…and I’m off to read some Aquaman fanfic.
Welcome to another Monday, and another Say What?. As much as we try to complete things in an expedient fashion, sometimes the evil of procrastination takes hold and we’re left scrambling at the last minute. Therefore, without delay, we’ll be looking at never put off until tomorrow what you can do today and procrastination is the thief of time, with some timely help from the characters of Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s.
Matthew Telemachus seems, at first glance, like a typical fourteen-year-old. Some of his problems are prosaic enough. His mom Irene, for example, has fallen on hard times, forcing her to move home, to once again share quarters with Matty’s grandfather and deeply eccentric Uncle Buddy. Matty is also nursing a lusty, hopeless crush on his step-cousin. Malice is two years older, after all, not to mention indisputably cool. She’s also totally indifferent to him.
But Matty isn’t ordinary, and neither is his family. At one time his grandparents, mom and uncles were a bona fide psychic act, billed as the Amazing Telemachus Family. True, grandfather Teddy was a straight up conman, able to pull off miraculous mind-reading feats by virtue of well-honed sleight-of-hand. Grandmother Maureen, though? Maureen was Gifted with a capital G, the real deal. She and Teddy met at a CIA-sponsored investigation into psychic abilities. Somehow in the process of keeping the wool firmly pulled over their testers’ eyes, Teddy found his way into both the intelligence community and Maureen’s heart.
As Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders opens, the Amazing Telemachus Family’s career as exotic performers has long since died on the vine. The family was discredited on national television; the act fell apart. Maureen was obliged to continue remote viewing work for U.S. Intelligence until her tragic, premature death. Now in 1995, Teddy and the three kids are batching along, in many ways still mourning her loss.
Maureen’s genetic gifts to her children took different forms. Irene—inconveniently for all her loved ones—is a human lie detector. On his rare good days, Uncle Frank is telekinetic. As for Buddy… well. He generally can’t be convinced to explain his visions, or even to speak. Mostly, he just engages in an endless, silent round of baffling home renovations while wondering what year he’s in.
As the three Telemachus siblings tread water against misery and the always-hovering threat of financial ruin, Matty begins to come into powers of his own.
The subject matter of Spoonbenders makes it something of a charming literary stepcousin to books like Katherine Dunn’s unforgettably savage novel Geek Love and Connie Willis’s more recent book Crosstalk. Like the former, Spoonbenders is a tightly focused family story about a group of performing tricksters—freaks, if you will. But where Geek Love is a knotty, searing, emotionally difficult book, whose characters often seem bent on tearing each other apart for the sheer joy of destruction, this novel has a comic and romantic bent. In tone, it has more in common with Willis’s comedy about the hazards of dating under the influence of telepathy.
Spoonbenders has a complete and pleasing story arc for each and every member of the Telemachus clan—Gregory’s website says it has already been optioned for television, and I am not at all surprised. Along the way, they all go to enormous lengths to sabotage their own happiness. Matty, for example, can’t bring himself to tell his mom about his powers. He feels bad about them, because Irene wants so desperately to lead a normal life. Meanwhile Irene herself is hunting romance in the single parent chatrooms emerging on AOL, attempting to handicap her treacherous ability to detect every lie, no matter how small, when she talks to someone in person. A requirement of total honesty, after all, sets an impossible standard for any potential relationship. (This, too, is an echo of Crosstalk, but Gregory’s approach is messier and more convincing: Irene’s romance was one of the things I loved most in this book, which is filled with delightful relationships.)
Oblivious to his daughter and grandson’s problems, Teddy moves through a world of his own, living in the past and running small cons on women in grocery stores, apparently just to keep a hand in. The CIA is circling him, shark-like, hoping they might find a replacement for Maureen camping on one of the bunk beds Buddy keeps bolting, randomly, to the basement walls of the family home. The skeptic who debunked the Telemachus clan is out there somewhere, and Frankie is energetically operating pyramid schemes, cheating at roulette, and getting in ever deeper as he borrows money from mobsters.
Even Maureen is still in play, sending her husband letters from beyond the grave, and collaborating with Buddy on a project that may redeem the whole family, but at a terrible cost to him.
Gregory has a wry, clear, powerful voice, and his characters leap off the page. They are charismatic enough to hold the attention, yet imbued with the kind of qualities that make them seem like people anyone might meet in their day to day lives. Despite their powers, the Telemachus clan come off like the folks next door. Paranormal abilities haven’t kept them from craving or losing the essentials of human existence: security, respect, connection, and above all affection. The result of all their efforts, somehow, is a book that is unabashedly lovable.
The Spoonbenders plot doesn’t offer a huge number of surprises. Its story unfolds stylishly, and all of its oddball romances thrilled me to my bones, but it wasn’t hard to see the ending coming. Even so, this novel’s resolution left me with a sense of genuine, unalloyed emotional uplift. It is the kind of happy conclusion Hollywood films frequently try to deliver… and unlike so many of those cinematic attempts, this story doesn’t strike a wrong note, or descend into cheese. Gregory has written a story about a family in freefall, one that manages to not only land on its feet, but to find those feet clad in elegant dancing shoes, ready to deliver a spin and final flourish as a prelude to a well-deserved fictional bow.
So, I sat down to pick an end point for this week’s blog post and realized that the problem was not so much the end as the beginning. Yeah, someone forgot where the dividing line was between chapters 3 and 4. Some of the important details in chapter 4 were neglected and we need to take a second look. These issues help frame the competing forces of identities, relationships, revenge and duty in chapters 5 and 6, and those are fairly central to the book.
This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.
Miles is a pretty Carpe Diem kind of guy (which explains the Marvell poem i mentioned last week), and is even more so in his Naismith persona. It’s a sign of his desperation that, during his second embassy reception, he’s reduced to pondering seizing a goldfish on suspicion of espionage. In his defense, the reception has been undermined by a set of mis-delivered in-ear translation devices. I suspect sabotage, perhaps a plot by the short-staffed Cetagandan embassy. Miles’s companion on this occasion is one of the wives of the Baba of Lairouba. They don’t share a common language, so I can’t evaluate her interests or personality. I imagine that she’s a biologist with a keen interest in genetically modified seeds, and she dabbles in interior design. Her younger brother is a budding actor who has been taking classes in mime, which is why she finds Miles amusing. No word on who Ivan is awkwardly pantomiming to. I concur with Miles’s dismay when the earbugs are delivered just in time for the after-dinner speeches.
Post-speech, Miles is approached by the reporter who watched Naismith’s rescue of the clerk from the liquor store in chapter three. I mentioned this last week, but I think it is worth bringing up again. Not atypically for Miles in his mid-twenties, he thinks he’s a lot smoother than he is. He proposes that Naismith is his clone, blames the Cetagandans, and then says that Naismith’s presence makes “his own security” nervous. Our plucky girl reporter either isn’t at the top of her game, or has bought the romantic balderdash the Lord Mayor of London’s wife was encouraging Miles to dish out at the last reception; She fails to spot that Miles’s “own” security is not provided by the Barrayaran government or, at least in this instance, by his father’s armsmen. Lt. Lord Vorkosigan doesn’t have his own security on Earth. Miles’s own security in this instance is provided by the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, Admiral Naismith commanding.
Miles is going to encounter this reporter again shortly, in his alter ego. Once again, the Dendarii’s funds have not come through. The Dendarii need a loan, and the Admiral’s duties are piling up. Miles secures permission from Galeni to take a security detail and tend to business. Miles’s head is full of foreshadowing as he suspects Galeni of embezzling the Dendarii’s funds, and wonders what his family might have lost in the Komarran revolt. Galeni hasn’t said anything about his family, which is hardly surprising, as he also doesn’t seem to be interested in socializing with his juniors. But yes, that is an interesting line of thought.
Miles heads for the shuttleport, security in tow, and everything gets hairy when someone tries to drop a maintenance vehicle on him. At this point, it should be evident to the most casual observer that Miles has both Dendarii and Barrayaran security working for him, which should blow his cover. But he sticks to the story while the London police interrogate Elli, who blew away the attackers with a rocket launcher. That she fired from the hip. I fully understand why Miles finds her so irresistible. I can also see why the press shows up and Miles does his best to continue to confuse his enemies. At this moment, he feels certain his enemies are the Cetagandans, with a possible side-order of Duv Galeni. The police let Elli go when they discover that the remains in the maintenance vehicle belonged to some local hit men. Miles assumes that the Cetagandans are trying to subcontract out Naismith’s assassination.
The kerfuffle at the shuttle port results in a delay in Vicky Bones’s plan to commit financial fraud. It’s a short delay, and the plan is successful anyway. The Dendarii start looking for temp jobs to try to prevent the financial situation from deteriorating further. Miles also dispatches Elena Bothari to deliver a message to Commodore Destang at Tau Ceti IV about Miles’s suspicions in re. The missing eighteen million marks. Miles’s theories revolve around Galeni pocketing the cash for an unknown purpose. He hopes that’s not true because he would hate to justify Barrayaran prejudices against Komarrans.
The third line of duty that Miles is going to attend to this week is Lord Vorkosigan’s duty. He proposes to Elli. Remember that Elli is in on Miles’s personal story, but she usually spends time with Admiral Naismith. So Miles isn’t just proposing to her, he’s proposing in his own person as someone Elli doesn’t really know. Miles and Elli have only been out on a date once, and he was Admiral Naismith then. Remember that, on that occasion, Elli bought her own cat blanket, and then sent it back to the embassy with Miles. This is a metaphor for what their marriage would be like if Elli was crazy enough to consent to it; She would have to make enormous sacrifices to take on an entirely new role in life for Miles’s benefit. Elli sees Miles as an Admiral who sometimes pretends to be heir to a Barrayaran countship and a Lieutenant in the Barrayaran military. She not only doesn’t know Lord Vorkosigan (although she thinks his accent is cool), she doesn’t know why Miles wants to continue to be him.
I don’t think Miles deserves to propose at this point. He and Elli have been avoiding romance until very recently. Furthermore, Miles still has a huge crush on Elena Bothari, and he’s hooking up with Taura in his free time. I don’t think he’s been up-front with Elli about any of that. He wants things that he hasn’t earned. The idea of earning the right to propose is pretty far off his twenty-five-year-old radar. I’m glad she said no. Miles will be finding himself encumbered with more relationships, and with the obligations they confer, shortly after he returns to the embassy and finds that Galeni has disappeared.