Sandra Newman’s fourth novel, The Heavens, is just out from Granta and Grove Atlantic. We think it’s a remarkable book, and we’re not alone. The New York Times has called The Heavens “heady and elegant … a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid.” Tor.com says, “How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations.” The Washington Independent Review of Books praises the book for its humour and style, but above all for its knack for portraying the unstable reality of its two central characters. Vector recently got the chance to chat to Sandra about her writing …
I have admired Aliette de Bodard’s writing since I was given a copy of Servant of the Underworldclose to nine years ago. That novel and its sequels are fantasy mysteries featuring Aztec high priest of the dead Acatl, as he solves crimes that affect the balance between the mortal realm and the supernatural realm. De Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series is urban Gothic fantasy set in Paris after a magical war. Both of these series feature both full-length novels and shorter works. Her Xuya fiction, however, is all shorter works, including The Tea Master and the Detective, a stand-alone novella set in a far future world (Xuya) where China and Vietnam are global powers.
This novella is an ideal starting point for new readers, as it does not need a great deal of knowledge about the Xuya universe. It is another mystery story, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, where Holmes is the scholar and scientist Long Chau, and Watson is the sentient mindship The Shadow’s Child. Like Watson, The Shadow’s Child is a military veteran, surviving the aftermath of a harrowing conflict. She barely makes a living blending brews to help people cope with the pain of existing in deep space. Into her shop comes Long Chau with a proposition: she needs to collect a corpse floating in space, for research purposes. Reluctantly The Shadow’s Child agrees to help Long Chau — after all, the rent is due — and the two travel to deep space, both facing their traumatic pasts.
De Bodard’s worldbuilding is beautifully rendered, from the ingredients of the brews that The Shadow’s Child creates to the technology of the Xuya universe. This novella is a wonderful jumping off point for readers new to De Bodard’s science fiction, who have some treasures ahead.
Ali Baker is a lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of East London and a researcher in children’s fantasy literature. She is the Programme Chair of Eastercon 2019, Ytterbiumcon.
Ian Moore reports back on Octocon, Ireland’s national science fiction convention, which this year ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October. This write-up originally appeared at Secret Panda.
I recently attended Octocon, the exciting Irish national science fiction convention. Octocon is the other extreme to huge conventions like Worldcon, being an intimate affair taking place over a weekend rather than a five-day event involving thousands of attendees. If you have been to more than one Octocon you will recognise a lot of the attendees and panellists, with there being considerably more overlap between these two categories than might be the case elsewhere. The programme is multi-tracked but not massively multi-tracked. So Octocon is basically a boutique convention and would suit people who like neither crowds nor a surfeit of choice in the programming.
Due to unpleasantness Octocon this year has moved to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The location suits it as Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is itself a strangely artificial place, like something out of a JG Ballard novel; in the near future, we will all live in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The hotel meanwhile felt like a pretty swish spot, with well-appointed function rooms and a large open space that served as a light and airy dealers’ room. I don’t know what the two birds in the lobby made of the Octocon attendees but they probably see all sorts.
A cat issue meant that I was late out on the Friday and missed the opening ceremony. I did however catch The Trance Mission Diaries, which was a performance piece by O.R. Melling with electronic music by Cha Krka. This was something of a work in progress as the goal is for it ultimately to include considerably more advanced elements like holograms and singing as well as the projected visuals and electronic music accompanying Melling’s narration. I enjoyed it but found the narrative difficult to follow, which I think was as much down to my own tiredness and it being the first thing I encountered at the con. Nevertheless, the narration and music worked well together and I look forward to seeing how this work develops.
Following that I attended a film-related panel featuring John Vaughan and Robert JE Simpson comparing and contrasting the 1960s gothic horror films of Hammer with the contemporary oeuvre of Blumhouse. The contention was that the business model of the two companies is similar: spewing out somewhat trashy films made on relatively modest budgets but hoping for at least some mainstream success, perhaps throwing in an occasional more serious film to gather some critical respectability. I was at something of a disadvantage here being almost entirely unfamiliar with the works of Blumhouse, and the big unanswered question for me was whether that studio has developed any kind of consistent aesthetic in the way that Hammer did. I was also left reeling by the panellists’ anti-Hereditary comments, which did remind me of some reviews that suggested it was a horror film for people who are not true horror fans.
For me Friday ended with a panel on how we as fans deal with things we like that have changed, particularly when the change moves things on from what we liked about them in the first place. This kind of thing is sometimes framed negatively (i.e. discussions of butt-hurt racists saying that they will never watch a Star Wars film again now that an Asian actor has appeared in one or people moaning about the Doctor becoming female). However, I think that there are times when fans are right to abandon a property (while obviously being wrong to harass persons involved in its production); e.g. two of the three Star Wars prequels were completely terrible and anyone who saw them and decided that they were done with Star Wars was making a reasonable decision, while no true Trek fan should waste their time with the recent Star Trek films. Also, people do just grow out of things sometimes.
The changing canon panel also had me thinking about how much a thing has to change before it is no longer the same thing. The panel discussed whether the character of Iron Fist should have been portrayed by a white or Asian character in the recent adaptation of the comics (in which Iron Fist is white but playing a character that in our enlightened times might perhaps be more appropriately presented as Asian). I have no familiarity with Mr Iron Fist but I was reminded of the periodic discussion of whether James Bond could be played by a black or female actor; my own view on this matter is that in this case such changes would so far deviate from the core of the character as to essentially make it an entirely different one with the same name (though I must add that I do not give a shit about James Bond and his misogynist antics and would be happy for the character to be played by Leslie Jones, edgily re-imagined as an American ophthalmologist).
For me though the most fascinating thing that came out of the canon panel was C.E. Murphy mentioning the Kirk-Drift theory, this being the idea that the popular conception of original series Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk as an alpha male dipshit shagger is essentially a mass delusion. Further investigation brought me subsequently to Erin Horáková’s development of this idea and its consequences in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons, which I encourage all readers to investigate.
Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn’t find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon’s Hugo trophy.
The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.
More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.
Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don’t know what these are but I want to go to one.
Not the Monster panel
As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.
Of the panellists’ own works, Sarah Maria Griffin’s take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.
The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film’s awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people’s attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.
I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.
The BSFA is looking for a new team member to work on Focus, especially handling the layout. Someone with experience of InDesign or Publisher would be ideal, but we can help you to learn the ropes. It’s a great opportunity to gain some entry level editorial experience, and to be part of a future-facing fan association, encouraging and promoting SF in all its forms. For more information, contact Donna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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