Fearless by Allen Stroud

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Allen Stroud’s name will be well known to readers in this parish. He is currently BSFA Chair and has long been prominent in genre circles. His latest novel has been positively reviewed, including in Amazing Stories, where Ernest Lilley recommended Fearless and observed that Stroud brings “a Clarkian feel that grounds the story in the best tradition of science fiction.”

Fearless is, by flavour, not only science fiction, but specifically, space opera. Space opera, as a subgenre, has arguably two sets of defining characteristics. There is its iconography of spaceships, colony worlds, disasters, piracy and spaceship battles. However, equally important are its tonal choices of larger-than-life characters, intrigue, extravagant settings and fast-paced plotting.  Which Brian Aldiss neatly captured in his term “widescreen baroque.”

While it is fallacious to say that space opera is enjoying a renaissance (as it never went away) it is true to say that prominent names, including James S.A. Corey, Charles Stross and Ann Leckie, have boosted space opera and broadened its appeal. They built on the founding ideas of the original space opera and the popularity of the New Space Opera that came after it.  This number of books has inevitably crowded the field and the challenge for any writer is how to make their space opera stand out. 

Allen Stroud throws us into his version of the “widescreen baroque.” The novel is set in AD 2118 with habitats across the solar system (where humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars, Ceres and Europa). Fearless feels confidently New Space Opera, as it melds pyrotechnic action with ethical dilemmas and strong characterisation. This is particularly evident where Stroud challenges the male-dominated narratives of the past, to put a woman, Captain Ellisa Shann, in command of the space going vessel Khidr. Shann is one of the novel’s three first person protagonists (which also include two junior crew members, Johannson and Sellis). Shann is the most distinct of the narrators, in part because she was born without legs. Ordinarily, her story, or backstory, would include how she overcame this disability, or is defined by it.  However, Stroud has said that he “wanted to portray a disabled character in space who was not attempting to overcome her disability.” Shann’s disability is a part of her, rather than all of her.

Khidr is a rescue ship and this feels like a distinct social point that Stroud makes. He is writing space opera, and enthusiastically opening its toybox for the reader. But he is not revelling in the violence of a warship. Khidr has been described by other reviewers as analogous to the coast guard or an emergency service and its purpose ordinarily, is to assist other vessels, rather than fight. New Space Opera is able to widen the narrative to include people like Shann, physically disabled but still capable, who are in space with altruistic intentions––rather than opportunistic ones.

The Khidr’s role also allows Fearless to explore similar motivations to the work of writers like Frederick Pohl and Alistair Reynolds, who have looked at blue collar workers living in space and looking to make a living rather than warriors and world-beaters. These are the people who do the unglamourous and necessary work that often gets overlooked in the widescreen baroque.

Fearless begins with a routine emergency when Shann receives a call for help from the spaceship The Hercules. They expect to offer routine assistance, but this soon leads the crew into an attempted mutiny and Shann into a political drama that spans the colony worlds. Stroud’s use of three revolving viewpoints offers differing perspectives on the mounting crises both on and off the ship.

Space opera is well known for the speed at which tension mounts and the range of the catastrophes that its characters face. In Fearless, the plot develops fast, with all the narrative acceleration and pyrotechnic action that we might expect. The Khidr deals with an onboard murder, external attack by an unidentified spaceship, and intrigue and battles across the solar system. 

This setup gives Stroud an opportunity to turn a fresh authorial eye to a number of familiar tropes. Cliques in the space-going Fleet, hidden colony worlds and a tantalising alien manifestation dating back to Apollo 10 all appear. This makes for a story that is both a high-octane adventure and a character study for each of the three viewpoint characters.

In terms of plotting, Stroud walks the tightrope of completing the arc of his characters’ story by the final page and also setting up a sequel. He puts in motion a number of threads (starting with that alien manifestation that Apollo 10 encountered in real life) and it would have been unwise to try to neatly tie off all of these strands (and dissatisfying to the reader). By the end of the novel, the Khidr has discovered and abandoned artifacts and several political players remain unmasked and still working against the Fleet. At the same time, Stroud brings his novel to a satisfying dramatic crescendo.

Lastly, a mention for a stylistic decision that Stroud made. This is his use of present tense.  Stroud has said that this was a deliberate choice, having experimented with the form at shorter length. Ultimately, he found that present tense added more immediacy and tension to his writing. While it can be off-putting to read a long work in present tense, Fearless may just be the right place for readers to start.

And if you like Fearless, more is on its way as Stroud is currently at work on a sequel.

Copyright Dev Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Shanghai Fortress and the Sino-future

By Dev Agarwal. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

To state that art does not exist in a vacuum is to loosely paraphrase the late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. That in turn leads to his further observation that “the artist exists because the world is not perfect.” 

China is home to the largest film production economy in the world, surpassing Hollywood as well as the juggernauts of India and Nigeria. In 2012, it was the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. It has had the largest number of screens in the world since 2016, and in 2020, it became the largest market. CNN reports that Chinese cinemas brought in $3.1 billion at the box office in 2020, nearly $1 billion more than the United States did that year. 

China has also become a major hub of business for Hollywood studios, encouraging their entry into its domestic market. Yet it is interesting to note that at the same time, in 2016, China passed a law banning film content deemed harmful to the “dignity, honour and interests” of the People’s Republic, and encouraging the promotion of Chinese “socialist core values.” 

Discussing China’s film business (and its science fiction output as a subset thereof) is not purely an economic matter, as to discuss any facet of China’s art is also to discuss the confluence of one of the world’s five remaining self-described communist states, the world’s most populous country, and a nation that may become our newest superpower. As Tarkovsky said, there is no vacuum.

The multi-media artist Lawrence Lek observes that “Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives. It is a movement not based on individuals, but on multiple overlapping flows … Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not. It is a science fiction that already exists.”

Sinofuturism is with us, through a wide array of products, individuals and narratives. As a movement it has reached the point where commercial cinema has paid it attention and invested in it, bringing to Netflix The Wandering Earth (2019, Frant Gwo). This was a big SF spectacular, with a suitably cosmic story of moving the earth to safety past Jupiter on its way to the star Alpha Centauri, as our sun turned inhospitable to life. The film was successful both at the box office (posting $700 million in receipts worldwide) and with critics. 

A core theme of The Wandering Earth is sacrifice. The global population has died en masse, and a big problem (the sun is turning into a red giant in three hundred years rather than in its projected five billion years) is solved with a big solution — moving the planet all the way to a new star. The Wandering Earth, therefore, works on a big scale both in terms of the disaster — it’s planet-wide — and of the loss that’s occurred in the backstory. The solution is not about calling on actors to work individually, rather, the characters are representatives of the Chinese state and function obediently within it. 

Continue reading “Shanghai Fortress and the Sino-future”

From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020

By Dev Agarwal, Focus editor

As 2020 recedes from us, we look forward to the world opening up and restarting from lockdown safely. While 2020 was obviously the year of Covid-19, it was also a year of community and solidarity. I hope that readers had those experiences as well.

Friend to Focus and writer, Leigh Kennedy, described the grip of Covid-19 as eerie and familiar, like “being in a science fiction novel we all read long ago.”

On top of the pandemic, 2020 was a year packed with political drama. The year started a month after a significant general election in December 2019 in the UK. By the end of 2020, the US had had one of its most important and defining presidential elections ever (where the election of a Black and Asian American woman as Vice President was one of many significant moments). And that’s without us even commenting on the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, major conflicts in Armenia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere, wildfires across Australia, the attempted violent overthrow in the US on 6 January 2021, and the ongoing fight to vaccinate the planet.

That’s a lot to process and a tough year for writers and artists to make their voices heard and their work noticed. For readers, the challenge was possibly to concentrate long enough to fully enjoy the fiction and art available. A further struggle for writers and artists was to create art in the first place. Despite these challenges there were many successes to celebrate.

Continue reading “From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020″

From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2019

By Dev Agarwal

There was a lot to try to keep up with in 2019.  As usual my attention was split between what was new, what I’d missed and what I revisited.  As this is the regular review of the new, I’ll keep my attention squarely there — though I’ll confess to missing key releases that will doubtless prove to be among the best of the year.

As 2019 was also the end of a decade, this is a moment to note that over the last ten years we’ve seen a number of new writers establish themselves as major names in the genre.

Continue reading “From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2019”

Dev’s Best of 2018

By Dev Agarwal, part of our ongoing look back at 2018.

2018 feels like it was almost too busy to keep on top of, both inside and outside of the genre.  I’m far from the only commentator to say I’ve got sensory overload as we limp into 2019. My reading often lags behind the current zeitgeist but last year I caught a number of new books, or book-length projects, of genre note.

Continue reading “Dev’s Best of 2018”

Get Out

By Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in Vector 287.

Get Out premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and was theatrically released in the United States a month later. The film was well-received by critics and audiences, with particular praise for Jordan Peele’s writing and directing and for Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Get Out was chosen by the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, and Time magazine as one of the top 10 films of the year, and received four Oscar nominations.

The film is both its own unique story and part of a canon of socially relevant horror films. It blends social commentary, comedic elements, drama and genuine scares to bring together a coherent narrative about exploitation and the black experience in America today. 

Besides being the highest grossing feature debut for an original screenplay, the film made Peele the first black writer-director to reach $100 million on a feature debut. And at $162.8 million, it’s the biggest domestic hit from a black director. It cost $4.5 million dollars but it now grossed $175 million in the USA and 254 million worldwide. It is the third highest ranking for an R rated horror after IT and The Exorcist.  

In fannish circles, Get Out arrives at a time when some loud voices are decrying diversity as “virtue signalling” and “message fiction.” Message fiction, they claim, puts politics ahead of all other considerations, especially storytelling and entertainment. As science fiction writer Larry Correia puts it: “Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment!” This little schism in science fiction reflects a greater schism in western society itself. For the first time in decades, the neoliberal consensus is under serious pressure, both from the left and from the alt right. Long held certainties are in question. Brexit has wobbled the postwar European project. Nuclear Armageddon is being credibly imagined once more. There are actual Nazis everywhere; Marine Le Pen of the Front National brushes against the French presidency while White Nationalists run down protesters in Charlottesville. And, of course, looming over everything is the still remarkable phrase: President Donald Trump.

And none of this is fiction. Not even the most outlandish science fiction. Into this volatile, surreal world comes the movie Get Out

Get Out posits the story of a black man, Chris, driving from his comfortable middle-class home in Brooklyn to upstate New York. But just before we get to Chris and his story, there is a pre-credit prologue. A black man is lost in a prosperous white suburb … a ‘nice’ part of town. We have, for many years and regardless of our own origins, been invited to follow the story from the default setting of white protagonists navigating white society. Get Out invites us to instead follow black protagonists navigating white society, and horror proves a relevant genre. As this prologue unfolds, the terror mounts, and racial identity become an increasingly urgent matter. 

Tanarive Due draws a comparison with ‘The Comet’ by W.E.B. DuBois, observing that DuBois was writing horror from the heart. And, of course, what he’s trying to counteract with that story is a different horror […] There were moments in the DuBois story where he’s nervous about where he goes and how he’s seen from the outside. It’s similar to the opening of Get Out, being lost in a strange, white neighbourhood. That’s so real.”

Manohla Dargis, reviewing in the New York Times observes that “Peele briskly sets the tone and unsettles the mood. He’s working within a recognizable horror-film framework here (the darkness, the stillness), so it’s not surprising when a car abruptly pulls up and begins tailing the man […] when this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin.”

The film soon introduces our main character, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya. A staple of horror is that things begin very “normally.” Chris is a black man in Brooklyn, living a comfortable middle-class life with his white girlfriend, Rose, who is played by Allison Williams. So things may seem normal, even humdrum. Chris has been invited to meet Rose’s family, who live upstate on a huge estate. At the outset, the implication is that Rose’s family are part of the wealthy white middle classes, post-racial, egalitarian, liberal, and welcoming. Chris’s attempts to anticipate any racial awkwardness are met with disarming humour by Rose. This premise could be lifted from Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967, but then projected through the amplifying lenses of both horror and science fiction.

As we journey closer to Rose’s family, things begin to steadily deviate from anywhere near “normal.” On the drive upstate, Rose and Chris hit a deer – a jump scare and also a distressing and bloody encounter. A white policeman arrives on the scene and his reaction to the traffic accident is to demand Chris’s ID. It’s a moment designed to outrage a liberal audience. But it also reveals how both characters react. Chris is pragmatically compliant, whereas Rose, the one who was actually driving the car, confronts the officer. Following this tense, ambiguous encounter, Chris affirms Rose’s act – “that was some ride or die shit, baby; I like that” – but it’s a remark with many layers, and even below those layers, we sense that there is a lot he isn’t saying. This film doesn’t just talk about race, but also about silence: about all the ways race isn’t talked about.

By the time he arrives on the estate, Chris has been through two unnerving events, the death of an animal and the threat of a police officer. Neither incident is fantastical, and yet they add to the accumulation of tension and discomfort. Now, the family who awaits him ranges from the patronisingly liberal to the loutish and offensive. It’s just the welcome Chris appeared to fear at the outset. 

In this sense, the film is experimenting with the use of ‘normality’ in the standard horror arc. As Tananarive Due points out, “Horror is a great way to address this awful, festering wound in the American psyche, the slavery and genocide that was present during our nation’s birth.” The possibility of being arrested or murdered whenever he meets the police is part of Chris’s reality that Rose is shielded from. Likewise, the awkwardness of managing the family’s creepy behaviour is ‘normal’ for Chris. 

Nevertheless, at this stage, the story may seem more social drama than horror. However, Peele has already skilfully slipped in cues which will resonate later in the film. The narrative’s details continue to accrete like coral. The black characters on the estate are mostly servants, and they remain distinctly uncommunicative with Chris, or weirdly out of sync in their behaviour. Indeed, it is these few black characters who create the gateway into the horror genre proper. Their uncanny presence, and the reactions of the white characters to their disturbed behaviour, is the chief source of tension in this part of the film. The smallest details imply warnings of the looming terror, as the ‘minor’ characters start to leak their secrets, and bit by bit the skin of the genteel peels back to expose a brutal, fantastically horrific foundation.

I’ll avoid any big spoilers, but this is a film you can run your mind over afterwards, admiring the many small, clever details that reveal its careful construction. Many audiences may be satisfied with the jump scares and plot surprises, while more schooled genre viewers will take the extra pleasure in their anticipation of horror and SF tropes. Peele engages established genre elements – hypnotic suggestion, out-of-body experiences, experiments on human subjects that would fit within David Cronenberg’s body horror films. We even get grainy video footage of the 1980s that looks like the Dharma Project from Lost, or recalls that moment in Quatermass where a major plot development is explained by silent film footage. 

At the same time, Peele never resorts to mere pandering allusions or cheap tricks. He asks us to emotionally invest in the characters’ lives, and that means understanding how they feel in specific settings or situations. The film draws on the history of slavery and exploitation, as well as the racist stereotypes about the ‘physical vitality’ of black bodies. The allegory has resonated so widely that a UCLA course in African-American Studies has now been named after a key conceit of the film: ‘Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic.’ The course is now made available to anyone online. The trick that Peele pulls off is to make the message mesh with his story in such a way that they become synergistic and ultimately indivisible.

Get Out cost $4.5 million dollars to make and took $33.3 million on its opening weekend. It’s now surpassed the $175 million mark in the US alone, putting it behind The Exorcist and It for R-rated horror. In financial terms, Get Out is a success.

And, in cultural terms, the film is already earning the sobriquet “revolutionary.” In an interview with Evan Narcisse for io9, Tananarive Due said that, “just recently, we were talking to some network execs about a pilot we were developing […] and they were like, “Oh, like in Get Out.” And it’s not that it’s anything similar to Get Out, it’s just that was now the new framework. That’s what black horror looks like: Get Out. They can now have a reference point and you can continue with the conversation. Because before, you could barely even get that conversation started.”

Any work that is discussed as revolutionary resists pigeon-holing, especially if categorisation itself is symptomatic, as in the case of Get Out being nominated in the “comedy” category at the Golden Globes. Peele himself has said that “[t]he reason for the visceral response to this movie being called a comedy is that we are still living in a time in which African-American cries for justice aren’t being taken seriously. It’s important to acknowledge that though there are funny moments, the systemic racism that the movie is about is very real. More than anything, it shows me that film can be a force for change. At the end of the day, call Get Out horror, comedy, drama, action or documentary, I don’t care. Whatever you call it, just know it’s our truth.’’

References:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/movies/get-out-review-jordan-peele.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/magazine/jordan-peeles-x-ray-vision.html?
  3. https://io9.gizmodo.com/how-get-out-inspired-a-new-college-course-on-racism-and-1801027341
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_Out
  5. https://themuse.jezebel.com/a-chat-with-actor-betty-gabriel-about-get-out-white-co-1794312117
  6. https://io9.gizmodo.com/get-out-almost-had-a-much-bleaker-ending-according-to-1792959724

Vector #287

Cover image: Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind from ‘In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’

An interview with Larissa Sansour by Polina Levontin and Jo Lindsay Walton, plus a review of Larissa Sansour’s work. TV in 2017 by Molly Cobb and So Mayer.

Film in 2017 by Nick Lowe, Andrew Wallace, Dilman Dila, Cheryl Morgan, Ali Baker, Paul March-Russell, Amy C. Chambers, Lyle Skains, Gary Couzens, and Dev Agarwal. 

Ricardo Suazo reflects on SF inspired trends in fashion, and Martin McGrath takes a close look at three panels from Avengers #8.

Games and AR are covered by Erin Horáková, Susan Gray, and Jon Garrad.

With also have an extensive section on audio and podcasts in 2017 with Peter Morrison, Erin Roberts, Laura Pearlman, Victoria Hooper and Tony Jones.

And of course three Recurrent columns with Paul Kincaid, Andy Sawyer and Stephen Baxter, plus the Torque Control editorial by Jo Lindsay Walton.

This one’s a bumper issue — 80 pages! If you are a member of the BSFA, a copy of Vector 287 was mailed to you in March 2018. If you’re not a BSFA member yet, why not sign up now?

Missed this issue? Don’t worry, this one is also available on Lulu.