Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory

51vz63p2bz8l-_sx321_bo1204203200_And back to the Nebulas.

I wasn’t super enthralled by the premise of this one either, I have to say. It just didn’t really grab me… and partly because it felt so fundamentally and unassailably American. I probably wouldn’t Get It. It would make References. They would be Funny. I would see them and go “huh”. I don’t really enjoy the prospect of stuff going over my head, shockingly enough.

And I was right about that. A lot of the book felt weird or off or just… intrinsically nonsensical, because I was missing a lot of the cultural stuff behind it so I did, in fact, Not Get It. But underneath that, some of the time, not consistently, but occasionally, there were flashes of something I could grab hold of, and could, if I pushed myself, wade through the Americanness and enjoy. I’m not sure they were enough to make it worth it, but it definitely dragged the book up to 3 out of 5 stars by the end, and made it not a total chore to finish.

The story follows a family of psychics, who used to be famous, back in the eighties, but whose tv show career stumbled to a halt. We have the dad, his three kids and one of his grandchildren as viewpoint characters, and we slowly learn exactly what happened in the past, while following their lives in the present too. Both perspectives focus just as closely on the human relationships as they do on the movement of the plot, and we get to see various events from different perspectives, casting them in new lights as they come back again, with a lot of forboding to the future too. It’s a book that thinks about timing quite a lot, and about personalities.

And it’s not a bad shot at multi-timeline narrative. The points of view are often good, and very well differentiated from one another. The story builds quite well, and the use of past and future does a lot of good work in foreshadowing, without being too blunt an instrument. But the problems are really in the details. Some of which, as I say above, are just so grounded in suburban Americana that, well, I’m not the target audience. That’s no one’s fault, but it does exclude the book from the best possible ratings just because… well… you can’t fully appreciate something you don’t understand so much of. It’s just not possible. But beyond that, there are actual failings* that matter just as much, and which really do get in the way of my enjoyment.

Primarily, this is because none of the characters feel worth my time or investment. It’s a really fine line to tread between “plausible, human characters with real flaws” and “unloveable, irritating fuck-ups”, and Gregory tends toward the second category, mainly because the good sides of his characters – which he says are there and even plausibly are there – happen off screen, or are told instead of shown. For instance, Teddy Telemachus, patriarch of the family, is meant to be charming. We keep being told how charming he is… but we never really see it. We instead see him with his family, whom he has no reason to want to charm, and this is acknowledged… but in the bits where he’s interacting with others, we never really see it either. Some of this is context – he’s not going to try to charm his old buddy from back in the day – but that’s still something of a flaw. If you tell me someone is charming, it needs to show up somewhere. Likewise, Matty is meant to be kind and good, and wants to help his mother. What we see of this is pretty much exclusively limited to him getting a part time job, ostensibly to earn them some money. None of his other actions really feed into that description (which is made of him by other characters in different ways), and so it falls a bit flat too. This pretty much goes on throughout.

And then there’s Frankie. I want to punch Frankie. He’s meant to be annoying, or at least a bit full of himself, but I am pretty sure not to the extent I found him. I think we’re meant to sympathise with his motives, as they get revealed throughout the story but I just… don’t. We don’t get given enough for that to be true. Instead, we get this self-important little man, shielding his ambition behind a tattered flag of “doing it For His Family”. And yes, it’s not all plain-sailing for him through that – it’s not, fundamentally, a happy book – but that doesn’t stop the premise being thoroughly irritating.

Even Irene, who is the character I come closest to liking, makes terrible, stupid choices for terrible, stupid reasons and never really gives you enough of herself to make you feel bad for her over them, instead of rolling your eyes.

They all just fall a little bit flat.

And for a book that is so heavily invested in the goings on of one family, and all their relationships, that’s a huge failure. Because not enough has been invested in the plot – mainly a lot of mildly silly shenanigans that interact – to make it worth the time investment without the characters.

I’m not saying it’s a total loss. The premise itself is pretty sound, and the straddling of boundaries between con-artist psychics and real psychics is interesting, as well as the setting being novel. Had Gregory managed to pull of his characters with more grace, I think it could have been a much, much better book, because the ingredients, as much as it surprised me from disliking the blurb, are actually all there. It just need that little bit more. It took me a while to get into it, as the pacing is a little weird, but the timeline stuff does pull you in eventually, and had it just that bit more heart, I could see myself actually properly enjoying it. But it didn’t. So for me, it’s a solid “meh”. Not terrible, not great… just hovering in the in-between.

Which puts it at the top of my current Nebula rankings, as meh far outstrips Autonomous. Next up, probably more Lady Trent, plus The Sparrow again for book club, and most like the next Nebula read will be Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter… which I don’t really anticipate enjoying either. It seems self-indulgently and insipidly twee. But we shall see.


*Obviously not catering precisely to my tastes is a terrible failing, but I have a suspicion not everyone agrees with me on this one.

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In the Labyrinth of Drakes – Marie Brennan


I needed some comfort reading after that last… whatever it was. So obviously – VICTORIAN FEMINIST DRAGON SCIENCE! It was the only solution. And to be quite honest, the science is better anyway. This series just continues to make me happy, often in very predictable ways.

That being said, for all that such things are possible in the fairly predictable world of comfort reading, there will be spoilers in this review, mainly because I can’t be bothered to talk around something I want to enthuse about. If you want the tl;dr, it remains just as good as the rest of the series. I gave it four stars on Goodreads. It made me happy. The art is still lovely. And the relationships remain brilliant, plausible and joyful. And of course it remains a pseudo-Victorian world where the narrator and the author both acknowledge the issues of the setting and work within and around them, without white-washing struggles of the real Victorian world. Is it done perfectly all the time? No. Is it still an honest and good faith attempt that mostly hits the mark? Yes. And in this book, for me, at this time… that’s good enough. Ultimately, they remain joyful, comforting trash and I love them. They only don’t get five stars because I totally acknowledge that they are trash and I do want more than that in my life a lot of the time.

And now, onwards, to spoilers.

So, in this book, we’re in the pseudo-UAE (I think? – it’s somewhere with a lot of desert, nomads and the rulers of areas within it are called emirs, the religion is definitely intended to be pseudo-Islam, and there’s a lot of gender-segregation stuff). It remains as thinly veiled a version of a real country as all of hers are, but I think this, in many ways more than some of the others, shows quite how good an idea that is. Because not only do you get all the general complexity of real-world stuff, in this specific one – intra-religious differences exist! There are sects within Segulism (the protagonist’s religion which I am fairly sure is pseudo-Judaism) and among the Amaneen (probably pseudo-Islam). These lead to different dietary requirements, different ideas on how much prayer should happen, different times and types of fasting… and then we get mentions of e.g. how there are periods of the year when either the Segulists or the Amaneen are under religious strictures about what they can do, and the others pick up the slack in joint endeavours. We see someone getting dispensation not to fast/abstain because he’s travelling in the desert (and how that means he will have to do some other stuff when he gets back). It’s nowhere near a primary focus of the book, but I love that this sort of nitty-gritty religious stuff comes up in a fantasy novel.

Likewise, the issues of inter-religious marriages in the pseudo-Victorian world. Segulists get their religion from the mother, Amaneen from the father. Different surname conventions. It’s great!

But as I say, not the primary focus of the book.

The main plot is a fairly unsurprising continuation of the general theme. Isabella and Tom get greater recognition (but not enough) and receive an opportunity to do more and try to get the recognition they deserve, as well as pushing the boundaries of dragon science… this time in a new country and focussing on a new type of dragon. It doesn’t go to plan (and nobody is surprised). But it’s ok, because SUHAIL IS BACK, which is a shock to literally no one. He’ll help!

I guess that’s what stands out for me in this book, more than anything, the presence of Suhail. I love him a lot anyway, because he’s an archaeologist and keen linguist, but I really like having Brennan portray someone else with a passion for their area and how they interact with Tom and Isabella – I like that she’s not made them lone obsessives in a world of dilettantes. The way his passion and theirs overlaps and diverges… it’s great. And it creates a nice contrast at points when they discover things, showing us more of the world Brennan has created than the subset of Isabella’s interests. But also he’s just a very satisfying character. He’s so… nice? While also being very very competent and… sometimes he underestimates Isabella and she has to push him back, but he learns and changes and respects her, and Gets It, so we have a character who is very sympathetic but still grounded a little in the attitudes of his pseudo-time. It’s not totally realistic I’m sure, he’s very willing to change his views when presented with alternatives theories and evidence, which clearly couldn’t have been true of everyone or we’d have had suffrage before any World Wars happened, but y’know. It’s an awareness that there exists joy in having a character that conforms to our modern views, without the need to just let him be modern and hang the consequences.

Also, I suspect I and 75% of all other readers have just been wanting to know if he and Isabella get together, so having him turn up again gets us some resolution on that plot.

Beyond that? I’ve not got a huge amount more to say than I’ve said before. The cover and art in general remain beautiful. The writing remains easy-going. The characters are pleasant and relatable, with legitimate conflict but not so much as to prevent the comforting nature of the book. Isabella remains adorably mono-focussed. I have one book left in the series and I am looking forward to it enormously, though it’ll be in a few books time.

Current schedule runs: Spoonbenders (for the Nebulas), Folk (because I want to read it and suspect I’ll want a break after Spoonbenders), The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, which sounds pretty idiotic if I’m honest and is irritatingly expensive for a book I know will piss me off… then something else, maybe Amberlough. I really need to bomb through these to get them done in time for the results.

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Autonomous – Annalee Newitz

71bbppa_l8lAnd so, the Nebulas begin! Shame the first one I read was terrible.

I mean, I was kind of expecting it? I decided to start with the ones I didn’t expect to be keen on this year (to avoid last year’s issue of getting so bogged down in The Dark Forest and Death’s End that I ended up delayed on the Hugo’s). But I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this… just… rubbish.

The main issue that stuck out the whole way through, though it wasn’t alone, was how bloody patronising the book was. The tone was just unrelenting – I felt like Newitz was assuming I was an idiot all the time, so she laboured every single point, just in case I maybe missed it. I was being hit around the face with a metaphorical brick every damn page. It was exhausting, and nothing was likely to turn me against an author more than this.

But this is part of a wider problem – the writing is just so clunky and amateur. She labours points, she explains things the reader definitely inferred from context or from just… it being bloody obvious, she is the most textbook example of someone needing “show, not tell” tattooed on the back of both hands, she can’t write a plausibly emotional character to save her life, she’s got her science-superiority-complex waving like an enormous flag… *takes a breath*… her world-building is frankly lazy in places and is never sufficiently innovative to excuse the lapses, her politics have the subtlety and nuance of a 14 year old on the internet as well as being ones I partially disagree with, her sex scenes are painful… and I should finish this sentence here, though I could go on. Nothing about the novel rose above mediocrity, and a lot dipped well below. It’s not a book that made me angry by being objectionable, it’s just stunningly… not good.

So, to start at the beginning. From the blurb, I knew this book was very invested in politics surrounding intellectual property and piracy. Uh-oh, says the brain, because I am not solidly aligned with the nerdy consensus on this one. I… actually think piracy is… bad? In a lot of cases? Don’t @ me. This is not me trying to start that political discussion, I’m just trying to tell you where I’m coming from. But the novel requires so much buy in on IP = pure evil that… it’s really hard to sympathise with any of the (more reasonable) points because it’s all built on that completely un-nuanced foundation. So already, I am not in the target market because it’s aiming at people who already agree – it’s not a book out to persuade anyone who isn’t already on the more… uncritical end of that viewpoint anyway. Fine, I can read books whose politics aren’t for me. But oh no, then we have the non-science bashing. Done smugly. And not at all in a self-aware way. But fine, fine, I am aware that this sort of thing is fairly common, I can deal.

But the thing is… you have to sell me on something to make dealing worth my while. I will absolutely suck up things that don’t sit right with me for the sake of a well written book. But this just isn’t it. I’m not saying every point you make has to be subtle, but you can’t punch your readers in the face with your points that are dull, that are basic or that are just banal.

And part of what needs to be good to sell me on this is good characters. Not cardboard cut-outs who don’t display the emotions the author tells us they’re going through. Or show any capability to change. Good, emotionally plausible characters will drag me through even the most stunningly dull bits of political soapboxing, because you care what happens to them. These are not that. If you watch a character go through the deaths of two of their close friends and not react in any way to either of them (even though the author tells us they are deeply affected)… how are you meant to care? And some of the characters are just a bit inexplicable. I honestly can’t tell if I’m meant to think one of them had a redemption arc. I mean, he definitely didn’t from what was in the text, but I think I was maybe supposed to find something about him compelling so… something clearly had to be going on? There wasn’t anything obvious about him to latch onto, and yet the story keeps putting him in a sympathetic role? I don’t understand…

One of the characters is a robot, so maybe I should cut some slack on that one? Except the robot-speak is just awful. And I never want to read again a passage like this one (mild spoilers but it’s early in the book and I don’t think hugely impacts one’s view of the plot):

I don’t want to know about his engorged reproductive organ, I really don’t.

But then, the author is really quite bad at intimate scenes. I present to you also this gem:

Mmmmm tastes like science and political analysis. And a nuanced ethical understanding of the patent system. Delicious.

Good to know our protagonist is Too ScienceTM for emotions.

I could descend into a lot of these (when I got frustrated with the book I took photos of the bit that annoyed me, so I have a load just waiting) but the rest have spoilers in and I’d like to keep this relatively spoiler safe.

I think they do prove my point though – at times, the writing here is comically bad.

But let’s say I can’t tell the difference between good and bad writing. What about the rest?

The world building, I’m afraid to say, is just dull. There’s nothing clever or interesting being done, and very little that hasn’t been done before. Much though I hate to praise it, Too Like The Lightning did a much better job of drawing a post-country sort of future world than this does, by miles. Lumping all of Africa together just felt… lazy. Likewise the Eurozone. The only areas that seemed to get anything beyond their continents suddenly becoming monolithic entities was, shocker, North America. Who would have thought such a strange thing could occur. And then of course the awful future it portrays is a very… American nightmare? I’m not saying it could never happen in the UK, because life is complicated and unpredictable, but it’s not the horror that plagues our visions of the future in the same way. I felt alienated by the world building, in some ways… which is frankly quite weird.

Likewise, the portrayal of the police/pseudo police was… very alien to me. My awareness of the US law enforcement comes through a) tv and b) tumblr so obviously I have quite the warped perspective, but again, it felt like a blinkered US view trying to apply itself to the whole world. There’s a homogeneity to everything that feels unnatural and unpleasant, and does not appear to have been put in there to make a point. It seems just there because the author… can’t do better.

I could go on, but essentially… the book is glaringly amateurish, and in places frankly confusing. It lacks any consistency of message or nuance of view, sometimes to the point of offence. But more importantly, the writing is just so intrinsically bad that I got dragged out of it to point and laugh. I don’t understand why this is on the Nebula list, and if it wins, it says a lot about the quality of the rest of the nominees. That said, NK Jemisin is in again, and much though she’s not my thing, if she maintains quality she beats this hands down, no questions. Which… I wasn’t expecting myself to say that. Fingers crossed the only way from here is up…

The nominees for this year (in no particular order):

Autonomous – Annalee Newitz
Amberlough – Lara Donnelly
Jade City – Fonda Lee
The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss
Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory
Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty

My next read from the list will be Spoonbenders, but I’m taking a quick diversion to the fourth Lady Trent book first. Just to cheer me up after this… this.


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Injection Volume 2 – Ellis, Bellaire, Shalvey

81qhu8dosilIt did not take me long to get to the second volume (mainly because it did not take Boyfriend long and yay, free access to books). But also… I did really enjoy volume 1, so obviously I was keen to keep going.

Now, remember when I had some concerns they were just going to make one of the characters a cheap Holmes knock-off? Yeah, that happened. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because frankly there are some depths you can plumb there – especially the kind of depths that have feminist-KKK as your antagonists, naming no names – but it wasn’t exactly amazing either. The Holmesian super detective is not an unhackneyed trope, and it’s the sort of thing that’s quite difficult to do well when what you’re doing isn’t new or interesting. It’s too easy for your detective to be some sort of magical super brain… which Holmes himself totally is, but hey, Doyle got there first so he gets some leeway. I generally find pseudo-Holmes characters really irritating, either because they’re emphatically not as good, or because they have a “logic” superiority complex that makes me want to wallop them with a philosophy textbook. Often both. Vivak doesn’t make it into that sort of territory – and they definitely do some work to mitigate the Holmesian emotionless logic-bot thing – but it’s still such a tired old thing to be doing that it just doesn’t work for me. And the whole volume is Vivak time.

The other issue with it is somewhat linked. It’s a volume about a detective character, and so, for the most part, it slips into the role of the detective story. Shocking, I know. Alas… it’s not a very good detective story. It’s still too busy trying to give us more of the world building and setup for the cool and exciting magical stuff, and that gets in the way of making a neat detection story. If you introduce magical effects or actions late in the game, you ruin the solvability of the mystery, or the illusion of solvability. I think a good detective story, when you get to the answer, has to feel like you had all the tools to get there yourself… you just didn’t quite make it. But if you’re introducing concepts in the last third, you’re never going to get that impression – you didn’t have all the facts. And so it falls a little flat.

And then… there’s the humour. It’s pretty damn juvenile several times – we’re talking referring to a dildo as “Dongzilla” levels here – and again, it just fell flat for me. It’s not my sort of funny. I know it works for others but just… not me.

Which makes it sound like I hated it. But I promise I didn’t. Because underneath the several not-quite-ideal bits, there’s still a really cool setting that’s clearly gearing up for some fantastic plot. Yes, I’ve just spent a whole volume with a character I find dull as all heck… but they’ve wanted me to spend time with the characters. They clearly want to give us space to love them all (even though some of them won’t work for me) and I like that. I like the dedication to character building. Especially as it seems like the next volume focuses on someone I really do want to learn more about (Brigid, super-hacker).

When it comes to all that cool world-building, to a large extent, there’s nothing new about it compared to the first volume. But that’s sort of what I want? It’s consistently good on that front, in a way that promises well for things to come. It’s moving the story along, giving us new information at a decent pace, and maintaining the standard of that information. It’s all pretty good stuff. If you drag it away from the silly detective thing… it’s a really solid volume.

I do think the art in this one was also a bit better – I don’t know if it was to do with the story being told, but it felt like it contributed a lot better to the atmosphere of the whole thing. True, it still wasn’t exactly stellar levels, but it was better.

A lot is going to rest on volume 3. If it does a story I like more, and maintains the good parts we’ve had so far, then sure, I’ll be fully sold and dedicated unless later volumes do something egregious. If we have another silly gimmick that falls flat? Eh…

Next up, I get started on the Nebula nominees, beginning with Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. I’ve in fact finished it already and… yeah that blog post is going to be longer than this one was. Probably a lot longer. And grumpier.

Spoilers: not a fan.

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Lustrum – Robert Harris

Image result for nicholas boulton imperium

I’m a fucking augur!

In niche jokes*…

But anyway, Lustrum is the continuation of the story from Robert Harris’ Imperiumand shockingly enough, given it’s a story about Cicero, I still love it. There’s not a huge amount I have to say that I haven’t really covered, either? It remains really really solid. The narrator remains really likeable, Cicero still feels like Cicero, with plenty of snark, sarcasm and general smart-arsery. It’s funny and enjoyable, while still also being a serious piece of historical fiction about a very political topic.

I think in many ways that’s one of the most satisfying things about it – because the politics in it is real, with real stakes and real motivations, it feels so much better to read than e.g. politics in fantasy novels. They’re always too contrived. Well, not always, some people do manage to get it right. But for the most part. Whereas this felt, shockingly enough, plausible. Even when Caesar is being frankly a bit bonkers (which he does not entirely infrequently), it feels… believable. And that’s such a trivial thing to say about a novel which is based on real events, but given that I normally read 100% fictitious fiction, it felt like such a change of pace and I loved it. I mean, I get it, politics is difficult and complicated, it’s a hard thing to write, especially when you’re using it as a tool for plot progression but it was just so satisfying to read it done well. It made me want more. Not enough to read about actually politics, admittedly, because well… no. Just no. But still.

On the other hand, the fact that it’s based in real events does have one downside – I know how this story ends. And it’s not exactly happy**…

Yes, yes I did spend the entire book being a bit sad about Cicero. I regret nothing. Because, well, he was an author who always felt, even when I was quite crap at Latin, like he had a distinctive voice. You read him and yes, you heard the sarcasm. The smug cleverness. It was pretty plain, even to First Year me. And that was really enticing, because it gave you that connection to someone who felt like a real person, but over 2000 years ago. So of course there’s always going to be some fondness there. Not for everyone, I know – not everyone loves the sentence that’s ten lines long and you spend the entire time waiting for the verb to show up – but for me, sure. So there’s a lot of nostalgia for me there, and for all that I’m hardly weeping at the fact of Cicero’s death, if you take a figure of nostalgic connection and make a story about him, well… I’m going to get a bit emotionally invested. Especially if you can write him as a good character.

And yes, Harris does write a good character. Or ten.

The above image is of one of my favourites, Metellus Celer. He’s not in the story a huge amount, but even in his brief wanders into the plot, he immediately hits you in the face with a force of personality. The text does it already, but I have to admit, seeing the play really doubled down on that because the actor playing him was brilliant – he’s a brash, unthinking patrician who just assumes everything will work out for him because well of course it will. And Boulton did him beautifully. And with all the comedy that his swearing is meant to invoke.

But Celer isn’t alone. Cicero’s family are all beautifully described and personal, as are his enemies and his friends. And then you have big figures of history, who come down to us in their own words and the words of others… and for all I’m not sure I buy his depiction of Caesar, for instance, it feels incredibly plausible. We’ll have fun when I meet Augustus in book 3, I’m sure. But Harris strikes the right line between “plausible from what I know about this person” and “plausible as a human actor in this story”, which I can imagine is really rather difficult. I think I said in my review of Imperium I found it interesting that Harris strikes such a different line on the same figures as McCullough’s books, and this remains true. It’s fascinating how you can get such differently characterised views from the same historical sources, and I love continuing to read and see that difference.

But yes, essentially… it continues to be good in exactly the same way as the first book. It continues to include sweary augurs. I’m happy.

Next up, Injection volume 2, which I’ve actually already finished…


*As I think I mentioned in my review of Imperium, we went to see the trilogy staged as plays in Stratford. This has, for good or for bad, permanently changed my mental image of Metellus Celer to be Nicholas Boulton wearing his augur’s cap and shouting “I’m a fucking augur!”. I swear this is funny if you see it. Well… ok, it might just be me. But it gives me the giggles when he says the same thing in Lustrum.

**It’s not spoilers to tell you Cicero dies. If you’re not up to speed 2061 years later, there’s no helping you.


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Star Trek Discovery (Spoilers)

Yes, I know, it’s not a book. But I’ve (finally) finished watching it and I have Thoughts. These Thoughts will contain spoilers.  But tbh I am already late to the party on this, so if you care and you’re still not there, why did you even click this link?

My thoughts run as follows:

  • Thought number 1 – the whole Culber thing
  • Thought number 2 – the Klingon arc
  • Relatedly, thought number 3 – Ash Tyler, the chinless wonder
  • Thought number 4 – Mirror Universe? Please fuck off now
  • Thought number 5 – the best way to make this TV show better is for it to be more like traditional Star Trek and shut up let me explain I’m not just being a sulky nerd here
  • Thought number 6 – what does it mean to be Star Trek?
  • Additional Thought – that theme tune though
  • Additional Thought 2 – episode titles
  • Concluding Thought – maybe it’s not all bad

There may exist other thoughts.

Thought Number 1 – Medical Officer Hugh Culber, of whom we were cruelly robbed

I didn’t like this when it happened, but a small part of me was holding out on 100% judgment just in case they used it to do something relevant. But no. No, he died to further the character development of Ash Tyler. Ugh. See Thought 3. It was such a fucking waste, when it looked like he and Stamets were going to just… be awesome. And continue to be awesome.

One of the issues I had with the series early on was how cheaply death came. It was messing with my sense of how the narrative ought to be because it was very… un-Trek. I don’t mean redshirts. I mean the security chief! And that… kept on. Death came lightly, without much regard, and that felt so deeply wrong, so Culber is not only a case of “should have had any awareness of the Bury Your Gays trope and why it would be a thing to not”, which is plenty on its own, but also just a culmination of a trend of wasting the lives they’ve spent time developing on momentary developments and shock value. It doesn’t speak to good long term planning of character arcs and general developments. If they’re going to chuck away people I’ve spent several hours learning to care about, and it’s not going to mean anything… why should I spend those hours caring?

Also just come fucking on Hugh was glorious. Even if he did kind look like my old boss’ boss. Which was a bit weird.

Thought number 2 – I’m sorry, where did the Klingons go?

It looked at the beginning like we were going to see this whole thing from two angles – we’d spend time on the Klingon perspective, gain a deeper understanding of the conflict, maybe start feeling that Starfleet wasn’t totally right after all, maybe there was middle ground.

But no, that all just petered out into, once again, the Saddest Tale of Ash Tyler, about whom we do not care.

And like, I get that having that one guy you’re meant to care about is easier than selling us a whole alien civilisation. And likewise, I get that we needed to pull back from the Klingons to sell the “Ash is a secret Klingon” bullshit plot twist. But it just meant that we suddenly felt completely cut off from what had been an important part of the narrative. And that yawning gap was never going to be filled by one dude and his secret surgery. To try to fill it with one really useless and pathetic dude and his secret surgery (plus bonus murdering of a Good and Well-Acted character)… it’s just stupid. The pay-off is never going to be worth all those episodes you spent wondering where that stuff had all gone. There has to be some satisfaction, or you have to leave us hanging for less time.

Reducing the entire Klingon plot to being about Ash (and L’Rell a bit) also feels like it really trivialises the whole concept of the war. If it could be resolved with individual action like it was… well… that was a really silly thing to have wasted thousands or more lives on. It renders it Silly, and that very much didn’t seem like the tone they were going for with their war.

Thought number 3 – Ash Tyler, the chinless wonder

Yeah, no, this guy was ridiculous.

I mean, I could leave it there? I think it’s a pretty uncontroversial statement, but may as well elaborate.

So in channeling the whole Klingon plot into this dude, they required him to carry the weight of a big section of the show’s entire drive. Just this one guy. Now, Burnham also has that going on, and Sonequa Martin-Green seems like a pretty great actress so no big, and also Michael’s character is actually compelling on a fundamental level. You’ve got the whole growth and acceptance of emotions thing, the lingering regrets over her actions, her mourning of her captain and friend’s death, her desire for redemption, her now struggling to find her place amid a crew who mix old colleagues and also… Lorca… who is… well. There’s a lot going on, so she can carry the weight of about half the plot on her own. She makes it work. Ash Tyler on the other hand… what does he actually bring to the party?

No, really. I don’t know.

The actor, for a start, is Not Great. This is obviously a fairly big issue. But also in terms of character he’s just not given enough to work with. Prior to Woe Is Ash, what did we have? He was a competent security man and apparently fancied Michael. And hated the Klingons. That’s not really a character, or not enough to build your whole tv show on. Then we learn his secret woe (and were desperately disappointed by it, at least in this flat), and he is supposed to take on the mantle of Tormented Soul wracked by Conflict and Angst. And… he doesn’t carry it. How are we supposed to sympathise with him when he killed Culber? Oh, no but he’s sad about it. And now his girlfriend doesn’t love him because he tried to kill her too. Awww, the poor thing. And now he’s human again but has to live with his Klingon memories. And the boyfriend of the man he murdered won’t forgive him, very politely. Truly, his suffering is the greatest of all.

It’s very hard to sympathise with his plight, is what I’m saying. And then the crew (led by Tilly, who still irritates me), decide to forgive him like that and suddenly it’s supposed to be ok? Michael of course can still be upset with him, but the rest of the crew? Nah, fine. It’s all cool. It just doesn’t work.

And if we can’t sympathise with him… he can’t really function in the role he’s cast for… and well, there’s about a third of your show that can’t work. Not  ideal.

Thought number 4 – in which many things are rushed, except the mirror universe for some fucking reason

I have never liked Mirror Universe episodes. There is a fleeting joy in seeing the caricatured evil version of your favourite characters, but it lasts about five seconds and then it gets simultaneously very dull and incredibly cringeworthy. Luckily, previous Trek has understood this, and rarely gives you more than one episode on the trot of goateed shenanigans. It gets that it’s a gimmick, and gimmicks like that need to be used sparingly.

Which is why I was unprepared for that part of Disco. I kept expecting it to end, so it took a while to recalibrate and deal with it on its own terms – which, hey, that’s on me, sure. Maybe I shouldn’t judge it all by the old Trek yardstick*. But I did. And it comes up short. Because for all they tried to make the Mirror Universe Terran Empire legitimately scary Nazi/Romans… it’s still inherently a caricature. It’s not funny, but it is ridiculous. And in what is clearly trying to be a serious tv show? Yeah, no, dragging out your overblown evil empire thing is going to undermine your serious tv show plaudits.

Yes, yes, I know we needed the grounding to get the evil-Lorca twist. I know. But that was a shitty setup too. The “Terrans are sensitive to light” reveal was so contrived. It would have been shit with only one episode of work, sure… but it was already shit. Maybe if they’d accepted that, made it a two-parter and then gone back to some serious plot, we could all have just put it behind us.

More seriously, I do think Mirror Universe stuff works much better if your context is more Monster of the Week. If you frequently have episodes that rely on one gimmick or context, then throwing this one in, alongside time travel, Nazi planets and energy beings… well it becomes part of the style of your show. But I think you have to be willing to be more subtle if you want to extend it – you have to take it as seriously as you take the rest of the plot – and if you’re drawing from existing Trek, it’s really hard to take the Mirror Universe (which gave us goatee-Spock, hyper-sexy Kira and a host of impractical outfits) any amount of seriously at all.

Basically, Disco put themselves in a position that made this impossible. I’m just not sure the Mirror Universe as Trek presents it to us is compatible with a modern, serious tv show. Either you have to change the Mirror or change your scope. But as they both are? They just don’t work.

The Mirror Universe, by its predetermined nature from previous Trek, is also incredibly predictable. You could see Emperor Georgiou coming a mile away (I have the chat conversation transcripts to prove it if need be), for instance. And again, that level of almost comedic obviousness just doesn’t sit well with making a proper, serious tv show.

Every episode, I was hoping we were done with it. And, it felt like, every episode… oh god there’s still more. I really hope they abandon it firmly for season two (just not in favour of time travel episodes please because I like those even less).

Thought number 5 – Why they should strive to be More Trek

Ok, so, genuinely, I think this series would have been made better if they went back to the format of e.g. TNG, Voyager and DS9 – the 26 episode series.

It would have given them the scope – scope they clearly wanted – to explore some of the bits of the series which really did work. My favourite moment of the entire thing is, in the final episode, when Burnham comes full circle and threatens to mutiny again, this time flipping sides and holding true to the morals of Star Fleet against Admiral Cornwell’s pragmatism. That, for me, is an affirmation of what I love about this franchise. But it got no space. It was rushed, and so lacked the weight it would have got, the drama, had the crew had to ponder in silence whether they would stand with Burnham. Had there just been that time for doubt, for longer talk, for more conflict, it would have been a better moment – it would have earned the stirring reprise of the theme music it gave us.

As it was, I still enjoyed it, but it did feel sped along. They had a lot of ground to cover in the last episode and did it at a heck of a pace, at the expense of weight, drama and just… everything feeling right.

But that’s not the only reason.

One of the other things I love about Trek is the big ensemble casts, whom you slowly come to know through the episodes that focus on different people. Think TNG – you’ll have the main plot where Picard is dealing with a diplomatic incident with the Andorians… meanwhile Data and Geordie have to rescue a cat from a plasma conduit. Or Worf is stranded with Wesley on a Tellarite ski resort and they have a bonding moment. Or it’s a Reg episode, and everyone has the joy of the shared trauma. But having twenty-six episodes gives you the space to do that – to spend some of your screen time exploring characters at a forgiving pace, so that when you have your big, important moments, the people involved in them really mean something to you. When I watch TNG, I do genuinely care about a lot of the characters. I love Guinan – who’s a really small character, when you think about it (presumably because getting Whoopi Goldberg to shoot was logistically difficult? Or probably she commanded quite a hefty rate of pay? I have no idea)… but she gets a couple of episodes over the course of the whole show that really do focus on her closely, as well as moments scattered throughout where she reveals herself through brief interactions with the rest of the crew.

Whereas if your series is what… fifteen episodes? Maybe you don’t have time to do that. Maybe you have to let some of your characters be more background. Which is a shame, because I want to know more about Detmer. I want to see Saru being more than a foil for Burnham. I want to see Stamets and Culber have more than just their moment together brushing their teeth. I want to know the other bridge crew whose names I don’t currently remember, if I’ve ever been told at all. Airiam and Owosekun, Rhys and Bryce. I don’t know anything about the tactical officer or helm. This feels… wasted.

And then you combine this with what I said above, about how cheaply they throw away the characters?

They make it really hard for me to find something to invest in.

So yes, what I would have loved to see, is a full length, proper Trek series, where we do have that major plot drive that carried the Disco we had… but also some measured pacing, giving that plot drive space to breathe, and interspersed Monster of the Week episodes that let us connect with the broader cast and get a feel for who the people we’re supposed to care enough to watch week after week actually are.

Thought number 6 – the matter of morals (or “Why Discovery is aiming for better than DS9 ever managed”)

Dark does not have to be gritty. Optimism makes the difference. And Disco has that optimism, when you peel away the dark and serious veneer. It revealed itself, at the beginning and at the end, to be striving to be the Trek I love. Because the message we had, the message that mattered and carried from Georgiou through to Burnham was that morality and upholding decent principles matter. To quote another bit of Trek – survival is insufficient. This is the Trek of Picard and of Janeway**, the one where we do not compromise to make life easier, and where the ethical captain may be dragged through a thorny problem but will, in the end, come out on top. They may lose a lot in the process, they may be forced to make hard decisions, but they will, with those morals, eventually prevail. It is Star Trek that envisions a future in which we are fundamentally Good, and that being Good is not a detriment. A future in which our protagonists fight to retain equality, diversity and prosperity for everyone, where people aren’t left behind, where they put their trust in others to be Good People too, and that trust is rewarded with peace.

It didn’t always succeed. It did leave some people behind, and let some die who should never have been killed. It clung to close to a need to be dark in order to be relevant, or serious. It is not perfect, and needs to Do Better. But in what it actually wanted to be, the core underneath all of it? It is the Trek that believes in an optimistic future… and that’s what I want, most of all.

Additional Thought – the intro

Also, not gonna lie, I loved the theme music. But I like the Enterprise theme music so I am clearly irredeemably wrong. But… but… stirring strings. Optimistic noises. Pretty but meaningless images dissolving around a tiny starship. Unrepentant reference to TOS music. It has it all. And it’s very, very hummable. I am absolutely sold on that decision, and I’m honestly glad that didn’t return wholeheartedly to the original style. After Enterprise broke away completely, I think sticking with the different style was necessary, but they improved on it.

Additional Thought 2 – episode titles

Pretentious episode titles are where it’s at. If you’re not going to give me “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”, “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”, “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” or “Requiem For Methusaleh”, you are not trying hard enough. Admittedly, Disco doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it does give it a fair try. It’s even got some Latin, throwing us “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” – admittedly, this is from a more hipster choice of author (Vegetius) than “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” (Cicero), but given it’s a fairly well-known phrase in English, it still has some way to go in comparison. Nice try, in any case, though the English ones don’t quite reach TOS series 3 levels of self-regard. 8/10.

Conclusion – tentative optimism

So there’s a lot wrong with Disco. Genuinely quite a lot. It has made some egregious mistakes, both in terms of actual plot decisions and also just in general stuff like pacing and structure. It’s not up there with my favourites or anything.

Not… yet.

But the thing is, it’s done some stupid shit, but its heart is in the right place. If it can calm down, care more about its characters and maybe take the space to pause, slow down and give us time to care about what it’s showing us… I think it might be really really good. I haven’t spoken about a lot of the thing I like, but there were plenty. Burnham is a well-cast and complex but sympathetic lead, and the decision to follow not the captain was a sound one. Georgiou in the first episode was hardcore the captain I want to see in Trek forever. She was meant to be the ideal of a Starfleet captain and she achieved. The set design was lovely, and generally just the look of the show (apart from maybe their costume/make up decisions for the Klingons). Some of the supporting cast are also really promising – Stamets, Saru and, yeah, even Tilly. Given time, I really think they could be characters I’m heavily invested in. Stamets particularly I want to have episodes of his own, development, plot arcs, just… more. Sarek was used a lot better than I originally expected of what seemed like a flagrant name drop at the start. Real, believable relationships were pushed to the forefront at least some of the time and made valuable.

There’s a lot there. It doesn’t balance out the bad and the stupid, not yet. But it could. And I hope it does. I hold out a lot of hope for a calmer, better series two, with that continued feeling of optimism that makes Star Trek a show I want to watch.


*Should? No. Will? Absolutely.
**This may or may not be controversial view. I am aware different opinions exist on this one.

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The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

515igugltblIt’s no surprise that I’m reading a le Guin book, so soon after her passing. As it happens, it’s a book for book club, but this has been on my list to read for a good long while, and I would have got to it sooner or later either way.

The reason it’s been on my list, however, is that I don’t actually like le Guin’s work, from the one thing of hers I’ve previously read (Earthsea*). I know she was a pillar of the genre though, and that she’d written deeper, more interesting works than that, and that my tastes have changed a lot over the years, so I ought to give her another go. The Left Hand of Darkness always seemed the most appealing option, given the gender themes I knew it worked on, so I’m really glad it was the one that came out of book club to read.

And mostly, I did enjoy it. It was definitely an interesting experience, and one I’m really glad I got round to.

But, of course, there’s a but.

It’s very, very dated. I couldn’t escape the feeling of how you know it was written nearly fifty years ago, with every page. And that was… grating. Not enough that I didn’t give it 4 stars on Goodreads, but it was very present. It’s the one overwhelming negative I really have from reading it. And it’s doubly annoying because I think if I’d read this book thirty years ago, I may have loved it unreservedly.

The way the past has looked at the future is always interesting – it’s one of the things I like about watching different series of Star Trek – as time passes, our ideals for a positive or realistic future change. We go from the optimistic and adventurous, but still combative and militaristic in some sense, attitude of TOS, to the utopian pacifism of TNG, the bleaker pragmatism of DS9 and Voyager, and the unsettling xenophobia and self-congratulation of Enterprise. What each series thinks is going to come for humanity is vastly different and that’s… fascinating. And not just in Trek, obviously. Sometimes the difference is as simple as mocking what we think the future’s fashions will be. But here, the issue is a deeper one, and is rooted in one of the biggest themes of the book – gender.

The somewhat-anthropologically-inclined narrator, Genly Ai, is our viewpoint on the world we read here, more or less, with some interruptions by other sources. And for the most part… he’s quite gender-essentialist. And a lot of this feels like it might be a deliberate strategy by the author to colour our view of Genly. But that’s undermined by the same essentialism coming from the journal of another character, whose species doesn’t even have socio-cultural gender. So some of this… well, it has to just be coming from the author. Which isn’t a surprise for someone writing in 1969, of course. But it makes it harder to read in 2018. But it somewhat punctures the narrator’s observations about the genderless humans he’s among, when his observations and comparisons are against stereotypes. And when he cannot honestly claim that women, in his view, are as intelligent as men (when asked to explain the concept of a woman to someone). And this isn’t to suggest the author is a raging misogynist – shockingly, that’s not something I think at all – but that the author lived in a time when this sort of misogyny seemed like it was an entirely plausible future for humanity. And that’s what I mean by dated – she’s at a point when she’s not envisioning a future with better attitudes to gender than that.

And to some extent, where we are now isn’t vastly better. But it is better. And so that makes it difficult for me, now, to read this book and see, in the attitudes of the narrator, the future of humanity. Because it feels like a step backwards. Especially when the book, for all its grimness, seems a fundamentally optimistic one.

If I look past that, though – as I did and I must – the rest of what’s there is honestly brilliant. I can see, too, how much of an impact it must once have made. But also it’s just… really well written. The dry, scientific tone particularly is one I thought made the book particularly notable and readable – it made the feeling that the entire narrative was actually just an unfolding of the world around our narrator… more enjoyable. It felt deliberate. And also that was because it wasn’t just the physical world of Gethen, but the socio-cultural too. You learn, in this, so much more about an imagined place, three imagined cultures, than you do in many full series. Le Guin makes Gethen and the Ekumen real to us, and that’s beautiful, however dated the book feels.

Unfortunately, a dry, scientific tone does tend to mean you get less of a human connection with your narrator… but I don’t think that works out badly here? I doubt I would be much inclined to like Genly Ai as a person anyway, and having him at that remove means I can focus on the parts of the book I enjoy all the more, which is primarily the worldbuilding and the underlying themes.

I also particularly enjoyed the theme of… a united humanity that it presents. Not necessarily united in that they are one body politic, but in the sense that, however diverse, humanity to Genly is… fundamentally similar and thus relatable. Much of what he sees on Gethen, he has seen before in other cultures on other worlds. Everything is connected. Everything has a parallel or a link. The philosophy of a religion on Gethen reminds of a philosophy somewhere else, a poem reminds of an image and so on. And this is where I find the optimism – the idea that the future le Guin writes is one of connection and similarity, not a divisive or divided one. Her future humanity is one of commonality, and the desire to share that with others, and that lifts up even the saddest, grimmest story.

So overall, I did really enjoy the book. I could never get past the limitations of it being written in 1969, it was always there, just on the edge, and sometimes shoved to the forefront, but it remained worth it, despite that. I will almost certainly continue to seek out and read le Guin, but I don’t think she’s ever going to be one of my favourites. And yes, some of that is sad, because I just got to her at the wrong time (in time generally and in my own life) – a lot of it can’t be new and exciting for me anymore because I’ve already read other, newer stuff. But I can’t say I’m not looking forward to reading The Dispossessed. It sounds like the next logical book of hers to pick up, following on from this, so fingers crossed I keep enjoying.

However, that won’t be for a while, because the Nebula Nominees are out! More on that in a post soon (I need to finish off Lustrum first, but then I’ll be starting on Autonomous and talking about all of the nominees for this year).

*It’s been a good long while since I read the Earthsea Quartet, so I’m a little hard-pushed to explain exactly what I disliked in much detail, but I think it was one of those cases where, because I was coming to it a lot later than it came out, when so many more things had been done in the same idea, it felt a lot less stunningly original than it must have done when it was originally published. It felt like it wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t read before, and wasn’t doing it any better, so why should I care? Such is the fate of some of the classics, I suspect – if you spawn copies, you’re eventually doomed to some sort of mundanity as a result of your success. I also have vague memories of not being a fan of the tone or pacing, but as I say, it was a long time ago.

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