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Friday, April 28th, 2017 08:16 pm

Posted by Stubby the Rocket

Starry Night Calvin & Hobbes mashup Aja Trier

Artist Aja Trier‘s “van Gogh Never Saw” series of paintings came about because of an amusing misunderstanding: An education blog posted her painting of the Eiffel Tower inserted into Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting The Starry Night, incorrectly attributing it to the painter even though the Eiffel Tower was erected just a year before his death in 1890. Asking herself, “What else did van Gogh not see?”, Trier came up with these charming pop culture mashups, where everyone from Calvin and Hobbes to the TARDIS (and isn’t that a fitting touch, considering a certain Doctor Who episode) can enjoy this iconic nighttime scene.

Her take on the trippiest Mario world yet replaces the star swirls with blue shells:

Starry Night Mario Aja Trier

Art by Aja Trier

And then there’s this print, titled van Gogh Never Saw Gallifrey, and we’re not crying, you’re crying, shut up:

Starry Night TARDIS Doctor Who Aja Trier

Art by Aja Trier

Check out over a dozen mashups on Trier’s Instagram, or you can purchase prints in her Etsy shop.

via Laughing Squid

Friday, April 28th, 2017 07:30 pm

Posted by Sweepstakes

Down Among the Sticks and Bones Seanan McGuire

We want to send you a galley copy of Seanan McGuire’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones, available June 13th from Tor.com Publishing! Read an excerpt from the book here.

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern Time (ET) on April 28th. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on May 2nd. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Tor.com, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 07:00 pm

Posted by A.J. Hartley

One of the final panels of the Bayeux tapestry depicts a man scaling the roof of a large church clutching a weathervane. The church may be the first incarnation of Westminster Abbey in London, and the man shown is someone once called a “steeple climber.” Such people worked to build, clean, and maintain tall structures; as their name suggests, the original work in medieval Britain focused largely on the spires and towers of high civic and ecclesiastical buildings. These were the guys who used systems of ladders and ropes to scale those otherwise inaccessible structures to fix up what the regular masons wouldn’t go near. While they may have been employed for long-term work during the construction of a major abbey like Westminster, their work was largely itinerant, and they travelled from town to town repairing church towers and the like, often combining the labor with a sideshow display of aerial acrobatics and feats of daring. It was a dangerous profession, as can easily be imagined when you consider working on a steeple like Saint Walburge, located in my hometown of Preston, which is a dizzying 309 feet high.

Records surviving from the 1760s depict the tools of the steeple-climber in terms that remain unchanged for the next two centuries: the bosun’s chair (a short plank or swath of heavy fabric on which someone might sit suspended), iron “dogs” (hooked spikes that were driven into masonry to anchor ropes or ladders), and staging scaffold. But church spires and clock towers alone wouldn’t provide much employment for steeplejacks. In the nineteenth century their work shifted to the more mundane, less elegant, and far more numerous structures which were sprouting all over England’s northwest: chimneys. The Industrial Revolution brought mills and factories and increasing mechanization, all steam-driven and fuelled by coal and coke, and their chimneys needed constant maintenance. The steeple climber was suddenly in regular demand, and some time around the 1860s they became known by a more-familiar title: steeplejack.

the lost art of the steeplejack A.J. Hartley

A view of the factories of Manchester, circa 1870 (unattributed illustration)

I grew up in Lancashire, the work horse of Britain’s industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, and it was impossible not to know what a steeplejack was, though they had already become rare curiosities. The most famous twentieth century steeplejack, Fred Dibnah, said that from a particular vantage point in his hometown of Bolton—just down the road from my own Preston—he could, as a kid, count 200 towering chimneys over that cluttered industrial landscape. Lancashire was the heart of the British textile industry, and a good deal of those chimneys were attached to spinning and weaving sheds, though that industry had been steadily dying since before World War I. By the time I was born in 1964, many of those chimneys had gone, and those that remained tended to be disused, maintained only to stop them posing a risk to people and property below, and—eventually—subjected to the steeplejack’s special brand of controlled demolition. As the chimneys vanished, so did the steeplejacks, and when the local news featured Dibnah in 1978 during his work on Bolton’s town hall clock tower, he caught the attention of the BBC, who based an award-winning documentary on him the following year. Part of Dibnah’s charm—in addition to his broad Lancashire accent and cheery fearlessness when hundreds of feet aloft—were his old-fashioned methods. He was a throwback, a remnant of a former age and for all its delight in him and his work, the documentary was ultimately elegiac.

the lost art of steeplejacking A.J. Hartley Steeplejack

Cortauld’s textile factory at Red Scar (copyright Longride Archive, used with permission)

I attended a high school in the shadow of Courtauld’s textile factory at Red Scar, a factory boasting a pair of massive cooling towers and two great cannon-like chimneys which stood an astonishing 385 feet tall. They were a landmark for miles around, the first sign on family road trips that you were nearly home, and though they were in many ways an eyesore, I find myself looking for them whenever I returned from my travels. They were demolished in 1983, and not in the old fashioned way Fred Dibnah would have done it. Dibnah would have carved a hole in the bricks at the base of the chimney, supporting the whole with timber struts, then setting a fire which would eventually bring the chimney crashing down—if he had done his job properly and accurately calculated the timing and wind speed—along a precise line, causing minimal damage to surrounding structures. But the Courtauld’s chimney demolition was the end of an era, one which wiped that area of Preston clean of its industrial past, so it was perhaps fitting that even the method used—explosive implosion—should turn its back on traditional methods.

Indeed, the very profession of steeplejacking has almost entirely vanished now. Health and safety regulations allow no place for the Fred Dibnahs of the old world, sitting cheerfully on a plank suspended over a couple of hundred feet of nothing, even if the great factory smokestacks were still there to demand the work. I’m under no illusions about the allure of the Victorian past, built as it was on filthy and brutal working conditions, on empire, and on the exploitation of slavery: It was years before I realized that what we knew as the Great Cotton Famine in Lancashire was known in the United States as the American Civil War! Still, I can’t help but feel a pang of loss for the extraordinary structures which once defined the region I grew up in, and whose loss signaled decades of hardship and high unemployment.

the lost art of steeplejacking A.J. Hartley Steeplejack

Horrocks Mill, Preston (copyright Stephen Melling, used with permission)

I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, now. Though the city has had its share of industrial manufacturing, it was always primarily a trade and finance center, so there’s precious little of the kind of grand Victorian architecture that you still see dotted around northwest England. But if you take the I-277 ring road round the east side of the city heading north and you look directly right as you pass the cement works on the freight line, you can see two brick chimneys, one of which is lit up at night. They are square-sided, more like one of Preston’s last remaining Victorian chimneys attached to the Horrocks textile mill, and nothing like so tall as the Courtaulds stacks which so overshadowed my childhood. But they are good, solid, purposeful chimneys, and the one furthest from the road is distinctive because there is a bush growing out of the very top, an untended weed, left to flourish in the absence of an attentive steeplejack who would have kept the mortar clear and the brickwork pointed. Spotting that defiant shrub on my drive to work is an evocative reminder of the people whose hands once built it and whose labor to maintain it took nerve and skill—work in which, I suspect, they took great pride.

This article was originally published in June 2016.

A.J. Hartley is the bestselling author of a dozen novels including Sekret Machines: Chasing Shadows (co-authored with Tom DeLonge) and the YA fantasy adventure Steeplejack and its sequel Firebrand, publishing June 2017 with Tor Teen. As Andrew James Hartley, he is also UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare, specializing in performance theory and practice, and is the author of various scholarly books and articles from the world’s best academic publishers including Palgrave and Cambridge University Press. He is an honorary fellow of the University of Central Lancashire, UK.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 06:30 pm

Posted by Laura M. Hughes

You’ve probably noticed that there’s been some massive buzz about this bloke called Brian Staveley since the release of his debut, The Emperor’s Blades, in 2014. If you’re already a die-hard fan, it goes without saying that you’ll devour Skullsworn in mere days. If you’re anything like me—i.e. liked but didn’t love Staveley’s debut—then I can wholeheartedly recommend Skullsworn as the perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with his work.

Set in the same secondary world as The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne yet featuring an entirely new cast, Skullsworn is a win/win for fans, doubters, holdouts, and newbies alike; as a standalone, it’s an ideal entry point to Staveley’s work. Furthermore, the focused first-person POV makes for a much more intimate and sympathetic reader/protagonist relationship than the multiple characters of the Unhewn Throne allowed. I’d even venture so far as to say that readers who found themselves frustrated with aspects of Staveley’s earlier series will be pleased to learn that Pyrre, the protagonist, is everything that Adare was not.

Skullsworn introduces Pyrre with a framing narrative, which takes the form of a letter. In this letter, the reader is immediately brought up to speed on the titular Skullsworn by way of introducing, then dispelling, some of the outrageous myths that surround them:

I don’t swear on skulls, not on them, not to them, not around them. I haven’t seen a skull for years, in fact. A bit of blood-smeared bone through a torn-open scalp, perhaps, but an actual skull, wide-eyed and jawless? What in the god’s name would I be doing with a skull?

Not only is this a clever means for the author to avoid infodumps and clunky exposition, it also gives us an idea of exactly who our narrator is.

I have never fucked a dead person. I’m not sure who’s going around sizing up the erections of the hanged, but I can promise you, it’s not me. Most men are confused enough in bed already without the added disadvantage of death to slow them down.

Staveley really nails these opening pages. Pyrre’s voice is frank, humorous, and absolutely unafraid; though readers should be aware that past-Pyrre (i.e. the narrator of the main part of the story) is slightly more serious than the almost irreverent Pyrre who directly addresses her audience at beginning and end. Naturally this means that the tone is slightly different, but it is no less engaging—particularly since the main narrative has a small supporting cast who play off each other wonderfully.

I leaned over the table. “Insurrection.”

Ela blinked. “Is that a sexual position?”

“It is the cliff on the edge of which Dombâng has been teetering for decades.”

“Teetering. How tedious.”

“It will be a lot less tedious after we give it a shove.”

“We?” Ela cocked her head to the side. “I came for the dresses and the dancing, remember?”

“You can wear a nice dress to the revolution.”

“Any excuse for a party.”

 After just a few pages, I was damn sure that Ela’s persona—which initially put me in mind of Isabela, the pirate from Dragon Age II—would soon drive me up the wall. However, her interactions with Pyrre (and just about everyone else) are never less than charming; they are, in fact, some of the most entertaining parts of the story.

Ela cocked her head to the side. “I’m a little unclear on the details. Were we supposed to massacre everyone last night? Because if that was the plan, I would have done less dancing and had less sex.”

It quickly becomes clear that Ela exaggerates her deceptively shallow, Daisy Buchanan-esque exterior in order to mask deadly skills and resourcefulness that would put Black Widow and Lara Croft both to shame. In short, Ela is a perfect counterpoint to Pyrre’s seriousness, and provides levity amidst Pyrre’s single-minded focus on her trial.

Pyrre’s other companions are an equally effective study in contrasts, with Kossal’s age and taciturnity making him a perfect partner for a double-act with Ela. Though the reader at times shares Pyrre’s frustration with this seemingly unhelpful pair of Witnesses, we’re also able to appreciate the variety in characterization and temperament created by Ela’s light-heartedness and Kossal’s brusqueness. Similarly, we can see what Pyrre can’t: that Pyrre is fooling herself by projecting false emotions onto Commander Ruc Lan Lac in a desperate attempt to fulfil the conditions of her trial. This makes the reader feel like part of the group but also outside it—which gives us a separate (and somewhat smug) perspective on events as they unfold.

Skullsworn’s protagonists are excellent. Everyone knows, though, that all heroes need a villain: without Voldemort, there’d be no Harry Potter; without Sauron, we would never have had Frodo. There can be no Light without Dark; heroes need an Enemy, an opposite number, an antithesis, one that poses unique challenges and— most importantly—forces them to confront their inner demons along the way to the final showdown. There must also be a journey, physical as well as personal: Frodo to Mordor, Harry to and through Hogwarts, Pyrre to Dombâng. What makes Skullsworn special is that Pyrre’s antagonist is the city of Dombâng.

As entropic as it is dangerous, Dombâng is Pyrre’s childhood home. Lethal fauna and shady cults aside, her memories of the place are, by far, the thing she fears the most. The claustrophobic sense that the setting itself is a near-sentient threat lends a thrilling undercurrent of menace to events, especially given that the reader experiences them through Pyrre’s limited perspective. Our protagonist’s childhood home is wild—brutal, even; the city proper as much as the swampy delta itself.

As far as I’m concerned, Skullsworn’s setting is the real show-stealer here. The vivid sensory imagery used to describe Pyrre’s ordeals in the delta makes me long for an entire trilogy set in gorgeous, deadly Dombâng. Sure, it’s filled with the stuff of nightmares, but who doesn’t find that sort of thing morbidly fascinating? I’m reminded of an article I read last year (Creatures of the Deep: Why I’m Addicted to My Biggest Fear,” by Nate Crowley, here on Tor.com) in that this weird allure is the same reason I’m drawn to watching documentaries about spider bites or vampire bats; the same reason, moreover, that my favourite parts of Marc Turner’s and Scott Lynch’s novels are the bits that feature sea monsters and underwater boneyards, bottomless trenches and people getting eaten by sharks. This type of fascination is the reason why the Dombâng delta kept me reading Skullsworn each night, long after I should have been asleep.

Setting, tone, atmosphere, voice—there are so many aspects of Skullsworn that leap out, so many breathtaking descriptions and new ideas that allowed this book to surprise and excite me in a way The Emperor’s Blades never quite could. Staveley’s narrative voice feels more confident, more assured; he ventures into new depths of storytelling, pulling forth moments of wit and observation that Mark Lawrence would be proud to have written (in fact, Pyrre would fit right in at Red Sister’s Convent of Sweet Mercy!)

Truth is like a snake. If you’re vigilant, you can keep it caged. If you’re brave, you can set it free. Only an idiot, however, lets half of it out hoping to keep the rest penned in.

Finally,I should note that Staveley manages to pull off an unpredictable ending (astonishing, considering that the entire book seems to be building to a very limited set of potential conclusions), one which caught me off guard with its unexpected poignancy.

All that’s left to say—apart from “Ananshael guide your steps to the nearest bookstore to BUY THIS BOOK”—is “never them.”

While this may not mean much if you haven’t read the book yet, I promise that it will not fail to resonate with you once you’ve become immersed in the tale:

Never them.

Skullsworn is available from Tor Books.
Read en excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com.

Laura M. Hughes is Fantasy-Faction’s assistant editor. She lives with her husband and three cats beneath the grey, pigeon-filled skies of Rochdale, northern England. When she isn’t absorbed in playing Dragon Age or working on her first novel, you’re most likely to find her trying to convince unsuspecting bystanders to read The Malazan Book of the Fallen. She encourages like-minded folk to seek her out on Twitter @halfstrungharp, and to maybe have a gander at her horror-fantasy novelette, Danse Macabre, on Amazon.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 06:14 pm

Posted by Matt Peckham

If you’re wondering why Nintendo is adding a member to its 3DS family of game handhelds, or who it’s for, the company’s North American president just offered TIME a plausible explanation.

At the high end of Nintendo’s devoted gaming handheld family sits the new 3DS XL, a top-end, full clamshell, $199 entry with glasses-free 3D (enhanced by a face-tracking camera), capable of playing everything in the 3DS as well as original DS and DSi libraries.

Opposite it, at the entry-level tier, sits the standard 2DS, a $99 version with both of its notably smaller 3D-incapable screens fixed to a smaller rigid body. And though it, too, plays extant 3DS, DS or DSi games, it has no way to play games developed specifically for the new 3DS XL.

Get the latest deals, reviews and recommendations from the editors of TIME: sign up for The Goods newsletter here

The new 2DS XL, due July 28 and more aptly contrasted with the 3DS XL, now perches in the middle at $149. It is, for all intents and purposes, a prettier, lighter, ergonomically refined 3DS XL — minus the 3D. Or in other words, it’s for the hypothetical consumer who Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aimé says wants the size and spatial comfort of the 3DS XL but couldn’t care less about auto-stereoscopic razzle-dazzle.

“There is a visual impact difference between these different items, and we believe in our market by having these three different variants,” he tells TIME. “The Nintendo 2DS really focused on that entry level gamer, the four-, five-, six-year old that is just getting into gaming, but wants to play Mario Kart, wants to have a Super Mario Bros. experience, wants to play Pokémon. And we feel with Nintendo 3DS XL at $199 that it’s a fully-featured product, that it is, if you will, the Cadillac of handheld gaming. And then we heard from consumers, ‘Boy, I wish there was something in between.'” Ergo the new 2DS XL, says Fils-Aimé.

Which makes the 2DS XL a rather curious demographic bet, at least if you find questions like “How many people really care about autostereoscopic 3D?” interesting. Fils-Aimé says Nintendo doesn’t have usage data on where consumers map on the spectrum of 3D use. But he did divulge the demographic sales breakdown for the 2DS and 3DS handhelds to date.

“If you look life-to-date at the overall performance of the platform, almost 90% of the unit sales have been with 3D visual capability,” says Fils-Aimé. “So maybe said a different way, 2DS to date has represented only 11% of the total volume base. What that tells me is that for the vast majority of consumers, 3D is an important feature.”

That’s one possible interpretation. But it could also indicate consumer preference for the 3DS XL’s eye-and-hand-friendlier physical dimensions and screen sizes. That is to say, presumably some subset of that 90% bought the 3DS XL for its form factor, not its ability to output 3D. The question most salient to the new 2DS XL’s future is thus “How many?”

Will existing 2DS owners upgrade, or might younger ones be upgraded at the behest of parents looking to mitigate eyestrain? Will 3DS XL owners with cash to burn make a lateral move on the merits of the new 2DS XL’s redesign perks? And just how many more would-be 3DS family buyers are out there, now that the Switch is here with sharper visuals, myriad potential play scenarios and a form factor that’s just as mobile?

Fils-Aimé’s answer in part is to point to 3DS sales over the past year. “Our 3DS business is growing,” he says. “Here in the Americas, our financial year-on-year 3DS hardware grew by 13% and 3DS software grew by 28%.” Impressive numbers, but also pre-Switch ones. The grand experiment is afoot, and next year’s fiscal numbers will tell much of its tale.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 06:00 pm

Posted by Cory Doctorow

In Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway many in the youngest generation―now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life like food, clothing, and shelter―choose to do just that, walk away. But is it unkind to exit a society defined by daily toil that benefits the rich without helping others who don’t have that option?

Below, Doctorow explains the strains of history leading up to this question.

So much many of us are poor today than just a few decades ago; after the world wars’ orgies of capital destruction, wealth reached unprecedented levels of even distribution. After all, the poor had little to lose in the war, and the rich hedged their war-losses by loaning governments money to fight on, and so many of those debts were never paid. The next thirty years—the French call them “Les Trentes Glorieuses”—saw the creation of the GI Bill, the British and French welfare states, and the rise of an anti-capitalist, anti-war counterculture that reached its apex in the summer of ’68, when the world was on fire.

But since the malaise of the 1970s and the reboot of fiscal conservativism with Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened all over the world. The rich got a *lot* richer, and though the world’s economy grew, and though millions in China were lifted out of poverty, many millions in the “rich” world sank back down to pre-war levels of inequality—levels of inequality to rival France in 1789, when the Reign of Terror brought the guillotine and the massacres.

But being poor in 2017 isn’t the same as being poor in 1789. Even the world’s poorest (the people living on inflation-adjusted one dollar/day) enjoy lives that surpass those of the very rich of revolutionary France, thanks to sanitation, nutrition, and telecommunications—the Big Three that bequeath long, healthy, fulfilling lives to rival those of lords in times gone past.

Those who provide intellectual cover for gross wealth inequality say that this is why it doesn’t matter that today’s rich are so much richer. The problem of inequality is one of quality: quality of life. If the Great Men (and a few token Pretty Good Women) of the ultra-rich can preside over industrial and telecommunications process that provide enough to everyone, does it matter if they, personally, have much more than enough?

It does. Of course it does. The super-rich—like every other human being—are just as capable of kidding themselves as any other human. This is our great frailty as a species, the reason for the scientific method (because every experimenter will happily interpret their ambiguous results as confirming their hypothesis, so they have to expose their experimental results to hostile feedback from people who point out their stupid mistakes or nothing will ever get done). One of the most toxic forms of ignorance is self-confident ignorance, and the successful are even more prone to this kind of ignorance than the rest of us, because their skill in one domain gives them the erroneous belief that they are good at everything.

(This is why con artists do so well on the rich and powerful: merely flattering their self confidence is enough to lead them into unfamiliar territory where than can be readily fleeced.)

Concentrating power in a few wise hands works great, but it fails badly. Letting the smart, competent technocrats make all the decisions without having to explain themselves to the sheeple can produce remarkable results, but it also means that when the Ubermenschen made dumb mistakes, those mistakes go unchecked, because the emperor’s new clothes cannot be contradicted on pain of defenestration through the Overton Window.

So: the mental quirks of Galtian titans such as climate denial (USA), dotty cult religion (South Korea), cults of personality (North Korea), vicious misogyny (Saudi Arabia) and so on become the law of the land, and the consequences of these peccadilloes swamp any benefits we get from streamlining our authority structure to Get Stuff Done.

The more unequal a society is, the more out-of-balance its policies will be.

But how unequal can a society get? Economist Thomas Piketty suggests that the inequality in France on the eve of the French Revolution is a good benchmark, a point at which no amount of spending on guard-labor can keep M Guillotine from taking the stage. Piketty shows that most societies over the past 300 years that neared this level of inequality diverted some of the wealth of the few to benefit the many, because it was simply cheaper to spend on bread, schools and hospitals than it was to pay for the guards needed to keep desperate people from seizing these things by force.

But technology changes this set-point. Technology has allowed us to achieve astounding breakthroughs in guard labor: in 1989, one in 60 East Germans worked for the Stasi, the country’s notorious secret police. It wasn’t enough: the Stasi wasn’t able to stabilize that unequal, unfair society, and the Berlin Wall fell. But today, each NSA spy is keeping at least *10,000* people under surveillance (probably more, the business is secretive, after all)—that’s two and a half orders of magnitude in productivity increase in a mere 25 years. Screw Moore’s Law: go long on mass spying!

There are many upshots of making it practical to spy on everyone, always, but one is that it becomes possible to stabilize societies under conditions of otherwise unsustainable inequality. That’s the world we’re living in now: ever-larger roles for the biases and cherished illusions of the super-rich, thanks to ever-growing fortunes, kept in check by ever-growing surveillance.

Something has to give. When it does, the question is: how will we react? Will we shoulder one another’s burdens, grabbing our bags and bugging in to the places were our neighbors need us? Or will we act like the cruel and selfish people the billionaires insist we are, grab our things and bug out, leaving others to sort through the rubble.

I’m betting on the former. That’s why I wrote Walkaway, an optimistic disaster novel about being kind during awful times. Awful times are a given, even in well-run, stable societies—they get smote by war, by disease, by climate and by unimaginable failures of complex systems. The delusions we cherish about our neighbors, about their essential untrustworthiness and downright unworthiness determines whether we rush to their aid or run from them.

Walkaway is a story where crisis threatens to tip into dystopia unless we can beat back elite panic and realize our shared destiny. It’s a vaccination against paranoia and mistrust, and a reminder that working together to make a better world is the oldest, most noble dream of our species.

Cory Doctorow Walkaway cover by Cory Doctorowis a science fiction author, activist, journalist, blogger, and the co-editor of Boing Boing. His latest novel is the multi-generational SF thriller Walkaway, available now from Tor Books.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 05:00 pm

Posted by Martha Wells

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

A tense science fiction adventure, Martha Wells’ All Systems Red is available May 2nd from Tor.com Publishing.

 

 

Chapter One

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

I was also still doing my job, on a new contract, and hoping Dr. Volescu and Dr. Bharadwaj finished their survey soon so we could get back to the habitat and I could watch episode 397 of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

I admit I was distracted. It was a boring contract so far and I was thinking about backburnering the status alert channel and trying to access music on the entertainment feed without HubSystem logging the extra activity. It was trickier to do it in the field than it was in the habitat.

This assessment zone was a barren stretch of coastal island, with low, flat hills rising and falling and thick greenish-black grass up to my ankles, not much in the way of flora or fauna, except a bunch of different-sized birdlike things and some puffy floaty things that were harmless as far as we knew. The coast was dotted with big bare craters, one of which Bharadwaj and Volescu were taking samples in. The planet had a ring, which from our current position dominated the horizon when you looked out to sea. I was looking at the sky and mentally poking at the feed when the bottom of the crater exploded.

I didn’t bother to make a verbal emergency call. I sent the visual feed from my field camera to Dr. Mensah’s, and jumped down into the crater. As I scrambled down the sandy slope, I could already hear Mensah over the emergency comm channel, yelling at someone to get the hopper in the air now. They were about ten kilos away, working on another part of the island, so there was no way they were going to get here in time to help.

Conflicting commands filled my feed but I didn’t pay attention. Even if I hadn’t borked my own governor module, the emergency feed took priority, and it was chaotic, too, with the automated HubSystem wanting data and trying to send me data I didn’t need yet and Mensah sending me telemetry from the hopper. Which I also didn’t need, but it was easier to ignore than HubSystem simultaneously demanding answers and trying to supply them.

In the middle of all that, I hit the bottom of the crater. I have small energy weapons built into both arms, but the one I went for was the big projectile weapon clamped to my back. The hostile that had just exploded up out of the ground had a really big mouth, so I felt I needed a really big gun.

I dragged Bharadwaj out of its mouth and shoved myself in there instead, and discharged my weapon down its throat and then up toward where I hoped the brain would be. I’m not sure if that all happened in that order; I’d have to replay my own field camera feed. All I knew was that I had Bharadwaj, and it didn’t, and it had disappeared back down the tunnel.

She was unconscious and bleeding through her suit from massive wounds in her right leg and side. I clamped the weapon back into its harness so I could lift her with both arms. I had lost the armor on my left arm and a lot of the flesh underneath, but my non-organic parts were still working. Another burst of commands from the governor module came through and I backburnered it without bothering to decode them. Bharadwaj, not having non-organic parts and not as easily repaired as me, was definitely a priority here and I was mainly interested in what the MedSystem was trying to tell me on the emergency feed. But first I needed to get her out of the crater.

During all this, Volescu was huddled on the churned up rock, losing his shit, not that I was unsympathetic. I was far less vulnerable in this situation than he was and I wasn’t exactly having a great time either. I said, “Dr. Volescu, you need to come with me now.”

He didn’t respond. MedSystem was advising a tranq shot and blah blah blah, but I was clamping one arm on Dr. Bharadwaj’s suit to keep her from bleeding out and supporting her head with the other, and despite everything I only have two hands. I told my helmet to retract so he could see my human face. If the hostile came back and bit me again, this would be a bad mistake, because I did need the organic parts of my head. I made my voice firm and warm and gentle, and said, “Dr. Volescu, it’s gonna be fine, okay? But you need to get up and come help me get her out of here.”

That did it. He shoved to his feet and staggered over to me, still shaking. I turned my good side toward him and said, “Grab my arm, okay? Hold on.”

He managed to loop his arm around the crook of my elbow and I started up the crater towing him, holding Bharadwaj against my chest. Her breathing was rough and desperate and I couldn’t get any info from her suit. Mine was torn across my chest so I upped the warmth on my body, hoping it would help. The feed was quiet now, Mensah having managed to use her leadership priority to mute everything but MedSystem and the hopper, and all I could hear on the hopper feed was the others frantically shushing each other.

The footing on the side of the crater was lousy, soft sand and loose pebbles, but my legs weren’t damaged and I got up to the top with both humans still alive. Volescu tried to collapse and I coaxed him away from the edge a few meters, just in case whatever was down there had a longer reach than it looked.

I didn’t want to put Bharadwaj down because something in my abdomen was severely damaged and I wasn’t sure I could pick her up again. I ran my field camera back a little and saw I had gotten stabbed with a tooth, or maybe a cilia. Did I mean a cilia or was that something else? They don’t give murderbots decent education modules on anything except murdering, and even those are the cheap versions. I was looking it up in HubSystem’s language center when the little hopper landed nearby. I let my helmet seal and go opaque as it settled on the grass.

We had two standard hoppers: a big one for emergencies and this little one for getting to the assessment locations. It had three compartments: one big one in the middle for the human crew and two smaller ones to each side for cargo, supplies, and me. Mensah was at the controls. I started walking, slower than I normally would have because I didn’t want to lose Volescu. As the ramp started to drop, Pin-Lee and Arada jumped out and I switched to voice comm to say, “Dr. Mensah, I can’t let go of her suit.”

It took her a second to realize what I meant. She said hurriedly, “That’s all right, bring her up into the crew cabin.”

Murderbots aren’t allowed to ride with the humans and I had to have verbal permission to enter. With my cracked governor there was nothing to stop me, but not letting anybody, especially the people who held my contract, know that I was a free agent was kind of important. Like, not having my organic components destroyed and the rest of me cut up for parts important.

I carried Bharadwaj up the ramp into the cabin, where Overse and Ratthi were frantically unclipping seats to make room. They had their helmets off and their suit hoods pulled back, so I got to see their horrified expressions when they took in what was left of my upper body through my torn suit. I was glad I had sealed my helmet.

This is why I actually like riding with the cargo. Humans and augmented humans in close quarters with murderbots is too awkward. At least, it’s awkward for this murderbot. I sat down on the deck with Bharadwaj in my lap while Pin-Lee and Arada dragged Volescu inside.

We left two pacs of field equipment and a couple of instruments behind, still sitting on the grass where Bharadwaj and Volescu had been working before they went down to the crater for samples. Normally I’d help carry them, but MedSystem, which was monitoring Bharadwaj through what was left of her suit, was pretty clear that letting go of her would be a bad idea. But no one mentioned the equipment. Leaving easily replaceable items behind may seem obvious in an emergency, but I had been on contracts where the clients would have told me to put the bleeding human down to go get the stuff.

On this contract, Dr. Ratthi jumped up and said, “I’ll get the cases!”

I yelled, “No!” which I’m not supposed to do; I’m always supposed to speak respectfully to the clients, even when they’re about to accidentally commit suicide. HubSystem could log it and it could trigger punishment through the governor module. If it wasn’t hacked.

Fortunately, the rest of the humans yelled “No!” at the same time, and Pin-Lee added, “For fuck’s sake, Ratthi!”

Ratthi said, “Oh, no time, of course. I’m sorry!” and hit the quick-close sequence on the hatch.

So we didn’t lose our ramp when the hostile came up under it, big mouth full of teeth or cilia or whatever chewing right through the ground. There was a great view of it on the hopper’s cameras, which its system helpfully sent straight to everybody’s feed. The humans screamed.

Mensah pushed us up into the air so fast and hard I nearly leaned over and everybody who wasn’t on the floor ended up there.

In the quiet afterward, as they gasped with relief, Pin-Lee said, “Ratthi, if you get yourself killed—”

“You’ll be very cross with me, I know.” Ratthi slid down the wall a little more and waved weakly at her.

“That’s an order, Ratthi, don’t get yourself killed,” Mensah said from the pilot’s seat. She sounded calm, but I have security priority, and I could see her racing heartbeat through MedSystem.

Arada pulled out the emergency medical kit so they could stop the bleeding and try to stabilize Bharadwaj. I tried to be as much like an appliance as possible, clamping the wounds where they told me to, using my failing body temperature to try to keep her warm, and keeping my head down so I couldn’t see them staring at me.


PERFORMANCE RELIABILITY AT 60% AND DROPPING

Our habitat is a pretty standard model, seven interconnected domes set down on a relatively flat plain above a narrow river valley, with our power and recycling system connected on one side. We had an environmental system, but no air locks, as the planet’s atmosphere was breathable, just not particularly good for humans for the long term. I don’t know why, because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.

We picked the location because it’s right in the middle of the assessment area, and while there are trees scattered through the plain, each one is fifteen or so meters tall, very skinny, with a single layer of spreading canopy, so it’s hard for anything approaching to use them as cover. Of course, that didn’t take into account anything approaching via tunnel.

We have security doors on the habitat for safety but HubSystem told me the main one was already open as the hopper landed. Dr. Gurathin had a lift gurney ready and guided it out to us. Overse and Arada had managed to get Bharadwaj stabilized, so I was able to put her down on it and follow the others into the habitat.

The humans headed for Medical and I stopped to send the little hopper commands to lock and seal itself, then I locked the outer doors. Through the security feed, I told the drones to widen our perimeter so I’d have more warning if something big came at us. I also set some monitors on the seismic sensors to alert me to anomalies just in case the hypothetical something big decided to tunnel in.

After I secured the habitat, I went back to what was called the security ready room, which was where weapons, ammo, perimeter alarms, drones, and all the other supplies pertaining to security were stored, including me. I shed what was left of the armor and on MedSystem’s advice sprayed wound sealant all over my bad side. I wasn’t dripping with blood, because my arteries and veins seal automatically, but it wasn’t nice to look at. And it hurt, though the wound seal did numb it a little. I had already set an eight-hour security interdiction through HubSystem, so nobody could go outside without me, and then set myself as off-duty. I checked the main feed but no one was filing any objections to that.

I was freezing because my temperature controls had given out at some point on the way here, and the protective skin that went under my armor was in pieces. I had a couple of spares but pulling one on right now would not be practical, or easy. The only other clothing I had was a uniform I hadn’t worn yet, and I didn’t think I could get it on, either. (I hadn’t needed the uniform because I hadn’t been patrolling inside the habitat. Nobody had asked for that, because with only eight of them and all friends, it would be a stupid waste of resources, namely me.) I dug around one handed in the storage case until I found the extra human-rated medical kit I’m allowed in case of emergencies, and opened it and got the survival blanket out. I wrapped up in it, then climbed into the plastic bed of my cubicle. I let the door seal as the white light flickered on.

It wasn’t much warmer in there, but at least it was cozy. I connected myself to the resupply and repair leads, leaned back against the wall and shivered. MedSystem helpfully informed me that my performance reliability was now at 58 percent and dropping, which was not a surprise. I could definitely repair in eight hours, and probably mostly regrow my damaged organic components, but at 58 percent, I doubted I could get any analysis done in the meantime. So I set all the security feeds to alert me if anything tried to eat the habitat and started to call up the supply of media I’d downloaded from the entertainment feed. I hurt too much to pay attention to anything with a story, but the friendly noise would keep me company.

Then someone knocked on the cubicle door.

I stared at it and lost track of all my neatly arrayed inputs. Like an idiot, I said, “Uh, yes?”

Dr. Mensah opened the door and peered in at me. I’m not good at guessing actual humans’ ages, even with all the visual entertainment I watch. People in the shows don’t usually look much like people in real life, at least not in the good shows. She had dark brown skin and lighter brown hair, cut very short, and I’m guessing she wasn’t young or she wouldn’t be in charge. She said, “Are you all right? I saw your status report.”

“Uh.” That was the point where I realized that I should have just not answered and pretended to be in stasis. I pulled the blanket around my chest, hoping she hadn’t seen any of the missing chunks. Without the armor holding me together, it was much worse. “Fine.”

So, I’m awkward with actual humans. It’s not paranoia about my hacked governor module, and it’s not them; it’s me. I know I’m a horrifying murderbot, and they know it, and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous. Also, if I’m not in the armor then it’s because I’m wounded and one of my organic parts may fall off and plop on the floor at any moment and no one wants to see that.

“Fine?” She frowned. “The report said you lost 20 percent of your body mass.”

“It’ll grow back,” I said. I know to an actual human I probably looked like I was dying. My injuries were the equivalent of a human losing a limb or two plus most of their blood volume.

“I know, but still.” She eyed me for a long moment, so long I tapped the security feed for the mess, where the non-wounded members of the group were sitting around the table talking. They were discussing the possibility of more underground fauna and wishing they had intoxicants. That seemed pretty normal. She continued, “You were very good with Dr. Volescu. I don’t think the others realized . . . They were very impressed.”

“It’s part of the emergency med instructions, calming victims.” I tugged the blanket tighter so she didn’t see anything awful. I could feel something lower down leaking.

“Yes, but the MedSystem was prioritizing Bharadwaj and didn’t check Volescu’s vital signs. It didn’t take into account the shock of the event, and it expected him to be able to leave the scene on his own.”

On the feed it was clear that the others had reviewed Volescu’s field camera video. They were saying things like I didn’t even know it had a face. I’d been in armor since we arrived, and I hadn’t unsealed the helmet when I was around them. There was no specific reason. The only part of me they would have seen was my head, and it’s standard, generic human. But they didn’t want to talk to me and I definitely didn’t want to talk to them; on duty it would distract me and off duty . . . I didn’t want to talk to them. Mensah had seen me when she signed the rental contract. But she had barely looked at me and I had barely looked at her because again, murderbot + actual human = awkwardness. Keeping the armor on all the time cuts down on unnecessary interaction.

I said, “It’s part of my job, not to listen to the System feeds when they . . . make mistakes.” That’s why you need constructs, SecUnits with organic components. But she should know that. Before she accepted delivery of me, she had logged about ten protests, trying to get out of having to have me. I didn’t hold it against her. I wouldn’t have wanted me either.

Seriously, I don’t know why I didn’t just say you’re welcome and please get out of my cubicle so I can sit here and leak in peace.

“All right,” she said, and looked at me for what objectively I knew was 2.4 seconds and subjectively about twenty excruciating minutes. “I’ll see you in eight hours. If you need anything before then, please send me an alert on the feed.” She stepped back and let the door slide closed.

It left me wondering what they were all marveling at so I called up the recording of the incident. Okay, wow. I had talked to Volescu all the way up the side of the crater. I had been mostly concerned with the hopper’s trajectory and Bharadwaj not bleeding out and what might come out of that crater for a second try; I hadn’t been listening to myself, basically. I had asked him if he had kids. It was boggling. Maybe I had been watching too much media. (He did have kids. He was in a four-way marriage and had seven, all back home with his partners.)

All my levels were too elevated now for a rest period, so I decided I might as well get some use out of it and look at the other recordings. Then I found something weird. There was an “abort” order in the HubSystem command feed, the one that controlled, or currently believed it controlled, my governor module. It had to be a glitch. It didn’t matter, because when MedSystem has priority—

PERFORMANCE RELIABILITY AT 39%, STASIS INITIATED FOR EMERGENCY REPAIR SEQUENCE.

Excerpted from All Systems Red, copyright © 2017 by Martha Wells

Friday, April 28th, 2017 04:41 pm

Posted by Matt Peckham

Nintendo’s global sell-in figure for the NES Classic is now officially in the millions.

According to Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé, the total global sell-in for Nintendo’s pint-sized version of its 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System is 2.3 million. The last official figure we’ve seen arrived several months ago, when the company said it had sold 1.5 million NES Classic units worldwide. At that point, the presumption was that the system would continue to be sold indefinitely.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, and Nintendo counterintuitively discontinued the NES Classic this month. The retro 8-bit video game system, which comes with 30 classic NES games for $59, has been very difficult to find for months, boosting its price on secondary markets into the hundreds of dollars.

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“We had originally planned for this to be a product for last holiday,” Fils-Aimé told TIME. “We just didn’t anticipate how incredible the response would be. Once we saw that response, we added shipments and extended the product for as long as we could to meet more of that consumer demand.”

Which leads to the 2.3 million sold figure, a very respectable achievement for a system that plays games three decades old. When I asked Fils-Aime about the potential for the NES Classic to resurface as a product in future years, he declined to add anything to Nintendo’s existing statement, which stipulates that the company has “no plans to produce more NES Classic Edition systems for NOA regions.”

But Fils-Aime did suggest the reason why the company pulled the brakes on a system amidst unprecedented demand. “Even with that extraordinary level of performance, we understand that people are frustrated about not being able to find the system, and for that we really do apologize,” he said. “But from our perspective, it’s important to recognize where our future is and the key areas that we need to drive. We’ve got a lot going on right now and we don’t have unlimited resources.”

Friday, April 28th, 2017 04:00 pm

Posted by Grady Hendrix

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet serving up the oldest and mustiest forgotten paperbacks from the Seventies and Eighties for your dining pleasure.

Right now, we’re in the middle of calls for a brand new build-up in American military force, and we’re also confronting the reality of the asymmetrical battlefields of the future. New challenges require new military tactics and that often requires new weapons, but please let me state now, categorically and unequivocally, that the Pentagon should never develop weapons that include: giant spiders, doorways to other dimensions, evil rattlesnakes, spray-on marijuana, anti-Vietnamese piranhagenetically-engineered barracuda, robot killer sharks, shark-octopus hybrids, human-shark hybrids, or dinosaur-shark hybrids. Not even one dollar should be allocated to fund even the most preliminary research in those fields.

The entire film and publishing industry have spent decades warning us about the dangers of laser sharks and hyper-intelligent stingrays, but every time you turn around yet another military experiment has escaped back into the ocean where it eats its weight in happy-go-lucky swimmers on a daily basis. In case we missed the point, Killer warns us of the dangers in doing something even as seemingly innocent and foolproof as training a giant killer whale to become a super-smart, ultraviolent, weaponized sushi platter. Trust me, even this can go wrong.

The first novel from Peter Tonkin, who’s gone on to write dozens more, Killer wastes no time introducing us to its titular killer whale, 39 feet long and weighing seven tons, bred to be smart enough to do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in two hours flat. Housed at the Alternative Intelligences Marine Facility in Oregon, along with some psychotic dolphins, this big black and white baby is our latest line of defense against the Soviets and he’s highly trained in strategy and tactics. The only thing that could possibly go wrong is if he discovers how good human flesh tastes. Wouldn’t you know it, while on a tour of the facility a US Navy admiral makes a slight gesture with his arm that triggers the killer whale’s reflexes, and he instantly leaps 30 feet out of the water and takes the gesticulating limb off at the shoulder.

“Delicious!” the whale proclaims, as the base scientists scramble to destroy it. But it’s too late, and within seconds the whale has pulled a Free Willy and is heading north to the Arctic where it can’t harm anyone, as long as no eminent biologists schedule an expedition to look at some frozen lichen on the ice pack.

Coincidentally, at exactly that same moment, Kate Warren, an eminent biologist, has joined her father’s expedition to the Arctic to examine frozen fungi on the ice pack. Dammit! Brilliant and beautiful, Kate hopes to make a mess out of her daddy issues on this trip. “Ever since I was a little girl,” she tells him. “I have been working as hard as I can so that one day you might tell me that I am too good to be true.” Accompanying her on this dangerous and potentially embarrassing therapy session is Colin Ross, a one-armed giant and the best cold weather man in the business. Job, a very short Inuit, and Simon Quick, the camp director. They all hate each other, they all want to get into Kate’s pants, and they all taste like chicken.

Before anyone can even start unpacking their daddy issues, the expedition plane goes down and our maladjusted crew are stranded on a 20 acre ice floe that breaks off from the bigger pack leaving our delicious biologists floating out to sea without a hope of rescue. To Peter Tonkin’s credit, this happens by the end of chapter one. Like a killer whale, he’s not going to screw around while there are delicious human limbs to be eaten. As our humans struggle to untangle their emotional issues and not freeze to death, one of them makes the mistake of pointing at something on the horizon which brings the killer whale crashing through the ice to eat his arm like a buffalo chicken wing dipped in honey-mustard sauce. In this scene we also learn that the killer has acquired scars on his face and a team of less-intelligent killer whale henchmen, proving that he’s gone full supervillain.

But that’s hardly their biggest problem, because also stranded on that ice floe is an angry polar bear, leading to one of literature’s only bear vs. human vs. killer whale rumbles (there’s only one other incident of this that I can recall, in chapter 12 of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl and it mostly happens “off-screen”). The ice floe keeps shrinking as the killer whale and his henchwhales keep attacking (“Give me those delicious human arms!” they scream, in high-pitched whale song), and the humans keep doing stupid things like falling off ice cliffs and fumbling with their dynamite before dropping it down their own pants. Kate’s daddy issues are resolved when her father dies horribly. Then, a swarm of 200 walruses overrun the rapidly-shrinking ice floe as they flee in a frenzy from the deathpod of killer whales.

As in many of the greatest works of Russian literature, nothing expresses man’s precarious position in the universe like a man vs. walrus battle royale. Remember, this is a handful of humans with rifles, ice axes, and dynamite against 200 fear-crazed walruses. What follows is some of the goriest, most pedal-to-the-metal biologist vs. sea mammal warfare ever committed to paper. “They had been fighting the walruses for more than an hour and…they had won,” Tonkin writes as our battered humans, drenched from head to toe in walrus blood, sink to the snow, exhausted.

It’s not over!!! Because now the killer whale has his appetite thoroughly whetted by all that crazy walrus blood in the ocean and he really wants to eat the humans. And Kate has had her appetite whetted, too, and she makes awkward love to one of her gore-encrusted science friends in the latrine tent. Tonkin rewards the reader for sitting through that queasy-making scene with a finale that is all-out biologist on killer whale violence involving whale-riding, nose-chopping, dynamite-chucking, and Inuit suicide bombers. The chaos and madness only draws to a close when every last inch of the ice floe is smashed to pieces and soaked in blood.

Truly, one of the most action-packed, non-stop, hellbent-for-leather books about the angry pandas of the sea, Peter Tonkin lives up to the promise of that exquisitely berserk cover by the great Ken Barr and delivers a novel that should be read in its entirety at the next meeting of the Armed Services Committee. Build more nukes, build more drones, even build more shark-octopuses. But for God’s sake, America, leave killer whales alone.

best-friends-exorcism-thumbnailGrady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 03:00 pm

Posted by Alasdair Stuart

There’s a moment towards the end of classic British sitcom Spaced where Simon Pegg’s character, Tim Bisley, pleads with his landlady for forgiveness. The eventual scene where she forgives him, this being Spaced, involves a tank—but the first time Tim tries it, there’s one line that really strikes you, a line that’s repeated a few times in the final episode:

“They say the family of the twenty-first century is made up of friends, not relatives….”

Tim could have been talking about the Guardians of the Galaxy. (In fact, I like to think he probably is talking about them, right now, somewhere just off Meteor Street.) Guardians of the Galaxy may not be strictly a family film, but it’s one defined by family. The first two scenes alone set the stage as young Peter Quill, horrified and grief-stricken, refuses to see his dying mother for the last time. It’s a gut-wrenching moment, the last possible thing you’d expect at the start of an ostensible action-comedy superhero movie, and absolutely the opposite of every single opening scene we’ve seen in a Marvel movie. It shocks you, wakes you up, and is followed by a gear change that’s even more drastic.

We cut from a horrified Peter running from his mother directly into a UFO abduction to Peter as an adult. Dancing to classic American pop tunes on a reconfigured Walkman, he playfully grooves and struts his way across an alien landscape, steals an impossibly powerful object, and is nonplussed when his foes fails to recognize him (even when he smugly identifies himself as “Star-Lord”). Peter the terrified child has become Peter the joyously rumpled, morally questionable man-child.

His journey through the movie drives this home at every opportunity. Peter Quill is Peter Pan with jet boots, brought up by the worst possible people and operating on a shaky ethical framework based partly in the code of the space pirates who raised him and partly in the Earth culture he’s still able to remember. It’s particularly significant that while he hasn’t opened the present from his mom in twenty years, he has carried it with him constantly. Peter is emotionally immature because on some level he’s still expecting to be rescued. He clings to her gift, and to who he used to be, because he’s convinced that if he stays as he is, he’ll never have to face up to the fact that is his mom is really gone.

That leads up to one of the most successful emotional beats in any Marvel movie to date. The gift is, of course, a mix tape and as Quill plays it for the first time, he reads the last words his mother ever wrote to him. The shot of him—sitting on his bed, tears filling his eyes as Gamora silently checks in on him and quietly, just a little, dances—encompasses everything you need to know about these two. Peter has finally walked up to and through the gates at the end of his childhood. He’s raw and hurt and frightened and Gamora, who’s just done the same thing, is there waiting for him. They’re now the designated heads of a newly-forged family, one built out of friendship and choice. A living weapon and a near feral man-child have both officially become adults. Quill being Quill, he’s not great at it right away…but it’s a good start.

Quill’s new family have all experienced equally interesting (and troubled) journeys to get to this moment. Gamora in particular has far more agency on a second viewing than it might seem at first glance. Like Quill, she was taken against her will and, like Quill, she’s been changed forever by the people who took her and raised her. However, where Quill got some nice red leather duds and endearingly mutable morals, Gamora got a lifetime of combat enhancements, wounds of every imaginable sort, an upbringing that would make the Spartans recoil, and a reputation as one of the galaxy’s most prolific murderers.

And she refuses to let it break her.

Where Quill more or less cheerfully embraces the lifestyle of his captors, Gamora never entirely gives in. She lives her entire life as a weapon of Thanos but never once lets him corrupt her fully. She’s constantly working in the background, constantly planning her escape, and there’s a strong case to made that a prequel movie focused on her past, filling out her backstory more fully and leading up to her first appearance in Guardians, would be at least as interesting as the one we got.

It’s also crucial to note that she’s also the first member of the Guardians to express the importance of defending the stone. Gamora is principled in a way that none of the others, with the possible exception of Groot, quite are—she has a lifetime of hard, mostly bad decisions behind her, ones she had no choice but to make. Given the opportunity to turn that around, and (as she says) to die with friends, she embraces it completely.

An unmistakable angry, sharp-edged compassion is ultimately what drives and defines her. She’s clearly painfully aware of the damage, real and emotional, she’s done to her sister and is desperate to save her. She’s also clearly walled herself from the guilt of the crimes she’s committed in Thanos’ name. But, again, somehow, Gamora uses that guilt as a foundation for a surprisingly solid moral framework. You can’t help but feel she may be the Guardian who’d get on best with Steve Rogers. They’re both old soldiers who’ve done things they’re still struggling to make peace with, after all.

That’s why, along with Quill, she forms the heart of the family: two broken people who’ve repaired themselves on their own terms, making a new life out of the wreckage of their old ones. No wonder their emotional bond is so strong, even if Peter still managed to do at least one stupid thing an hour.

Drax, for his part, comes to the family with the most to gain and nothing whatsoever to lose. He’s a warrior and a failed one at that, a man who lost his family because he wasn’t there to protect them, which is both the most familiar, trope-riddled origin story of the entire group and the starting point for one of the movie’s most interesting characters. Dave Bautista’s take on Drax is a perfectly balanced combination of incredible physical presence and colossal emotional honesty. The moment where he belly laughs uncontrollably during a crash landing shows just how much more there is to him besides his impressive bulk. The fact that he’s seeking a good and honorable death, but can maybe wait around a while before really embracing it, makes him even more endearing. Drax starts the movie as an utterly off-the-shelf doomed warrior type. He finishes it as something far more complicated, interesting and sympathetic.

Which brings us to the two biggest outcasts in the group. Rocket is the furthest from home, the most alienated. The only one of his species to be altered to have intelligence, the smartest person in the room, and robbed even of the knowledge of his own origins, it’s no wonder that Rocket is so furious. He’s impatient with everyone and everything and trusts exactly one and a half people: himself and Groot. Despite this, and his own reluctance to sign up at the end, Rocket embraces not one but three extended families in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s devastated when the Nova Corps fall, stands with the Ravagers without a second’s hesitation, and puts his own crushing grief aside to assist in defeating Ronan. Rocket may be the furthest one from home, but he’s also the one who seems to recognize most keenly that he needs the group…or at the very least, that he needs Groot and Groot needs the group.

And finally, there’s Groot. The expressive, gentle, terrifying sentient tree clearly has a rich inner life that he balances with a willingness to connect that none of the others share (at least in the beginning). Groot is at peace in his world, happy being a part of it in a way that no one else is. That fundamental kindness and peaceful self-confidence is a key ingredient of the glue that eventually holds the team together, and Groot’s quiet, direct approach gives the film many of its best jokes and sweetest moments. It’s also what leads to the movie’s most touching moment. “We are Groot” has such weight, conveying everything that needs to be said in a single, simple phrase—and without this moment it’s hard to believe the characters would have the strength to face down Ronan at the end.

The Guardians of the Galaxy don’t so much jest about their scars as they play them off and refuse to recognize the extent of their damage. Not a single one of them is a functional individual and together they make a gloriously, raucously dysfunctional whole. But it’s precisely that damage that ties these five misfits together: a lost and abandoned boy finally facing his past, a super assassin looking for redemption, a warrior with a Quixotic journey ahead of him, a surgically-mutated engineering genius, and Groot. They bicker and fight not just because they don’t get on but because that how they express their love for each other. That, and they also really, REALLY like arguing.

Friends, the Guardians of the Galaxy, a bunch of a-holes…call them what you want. But don’t underestimate the bonds that hold this deeply weird, hilariously dysfunctional, and surprisingly close family together. And don’t ever let them trick you into a dance off.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 01:49 pm

Posted by Matt Peckham

Meet the New Nintendo 2DS XL, the newest member of Nintendo’s handheld gaming family, stealth-unveiled by Nintendo late Thursday night. The most salient takeaway: it’s rather pretty.

It’s also not what you’d expect in a step-up variant from the 2DS, which currently sports a rigid, unhinged design. The new 2DS XL by contrast is every bit the clamshell the new 3DS XL is. In fact it turns out to be virtually everything else the new 3DS XL is — minus the 3D. Nintendo says the new 2DS XL “packs the same power as New Nintendo 3DS XL,” which means that if you own a new 3DS XL, you essentially own the new 2DS XL, too.

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Except for a few maddeningly alluring aesthetics. Like the new 2DS XL’s completely refurbished housing, a slate black finish with electric-turquoise highlights. The ostensible ergonomic advances (over the new 3DS XL) extend to the interior top screen, which is now an edge-to-edge surface of the sort familiar to contemporary smartphone owners. (Where the speakers disappeared to remains to be seen.) The power button has wisely been shifted off the bottom edge and up to the open area south of the d-pad. (No more accidentally bumping the system awake!) And the camera and mic have moved from above the top screen to the hinge between the two screen. (Its formerly tip-top position could presumably change as 3D face tracking is now superfluous.)

Nintendo

It’s also lighter, weighing in at 9.2 ounces (261 grams), analogous to the standard 2DS, but svelter than the 11.6 ounce (329 grams) new 3DS XL. Nintendo shaved an almost indiscernible smidgen off the handheld’s height, open or closed, as well. In fact I see nothing to quibble with here that isn’t a mix of the cosmetic and personal. Like that the U.S. only gets this new iteration in black/turquoise colors, whereas Japan gets both those and an incredible-looking white/orange variant. Or the shift away from the new 3DS XL’s Super Famicom candy-colored face button lettering — imagine if they’d instead doubled down and dipped the buttons entirely in those colors a la the limited edition Japanese new 3DS XL.

You can have the new 2DS XL on July 28 (on the same day as Hey! Pikmin and Miitopia debut) for $149.99 says Nintendo, a $50 less expensive alternative to the $199.99 new 3DS XL. Or, if you want to think about it this way, the new 2DS XL is the $50 price drop everyone’s been waiting for on an ergonomically superior 3DS XL, minus a feature X people use.

Now solve for X.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 02:00 pm

Posted by Kelly Quinn

Spring is here in all its glory, and the spring anime season is here in—well, I don’t know if I’d say glory, but it’s definitely here.

This season the anime gods have bestowed upon us a stable of quite exciting sequels, which I’ll get into further down, as well as a heap of rather less exciting but still quite watchable new shows. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last few seasons, it’s that beggars can’t be choosers. As usual, I’ve watched a dizzying number of premieres and come to you, dear reader, with only the best: three new shows that you can start streaming right this moment. Oh and hey, did you know Attack on Titan is back?

 

Re:Creators

High school student Souta Mizushino (Daiki Yamashita) is stunned when he is transported into the world of his favorite anime, Elemental Symphony of Vogelchevalier. He’s quickly returned to modern Tokyo, but the protagonist of the show, a beautiful warrior named Selesia (Mikako Komatsu), comes with him. It turns out she’s not the only character to be yanked from her fictional universe: a mysterious woman wearing a military uniform and wielding far more swords than is strictly practical has used her power to bring all manner of anime and game characters into the real world, from cocky villains to magical girls. What will happen when these characters meet each other—and their creators—in our nonfictional world?

An anime-original project from director Ei Aoki (Fate/Zero, Aldnoah.Zero), this fantasy action show is just anime as hell. Obviously there’s the fact that it’s an anime about anime characters coming to life to meet an anime fan, but then there’s also the fact that the first episode features a girl who uses a sword to play an enormous gun like a violin. The show, produced at studio TROYCA (Aldnoah.Zero), looks pretty slick, and the characters are generally likeable, well-defined, and fun to pit against each other. Oh, and the whole thing is backed by a trademark bombastic Hiroyuki Sawano (Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill) soundtrack, which really adds gravitas to rogue magical girls destroying Tokyo skyscrapers with giant pink hearts. Re:Creators is no masterpiece, but it’s a well-executed not-masterpiece—the kind of show where if you don’t think too hard about the sort of dumb premise, you are almost guaranteed to enjoy yourself.

For fans of: Fate/Zero, The Devil is a Part-Timer!, GATE, Drifters

Watch it now on Anime Strike*

*I would like to take this moment to apologize for including two shows on this list that are exclusively available on Amazon’s Anime Strike. I’m not happy about it either, but here we are.

 

Sakura Quest

Yoshino Koharu (Ayaka Nanse) is a recent college grad looking for her first grown-up person job, with little success. After failing dozens of job interviews, her luck seems to turn when she gets a call from her old modeling agency. They inform her she’s been requested by the tourism board of a rural town, which is hoping to revitalize its faltering economy by hiring someone to drum up publicity as the honorary town “Queen.”

After the deserved success of Shirobako, animation studio PA Works (Shirobako, Hanasaku Iroha) comes out with another anime-original project about young adults trying to make it the workforce. This is a trend I can get behind, although so far Sakura Quest hasn’t totally sold me on this particular iteration. Our protagonist Yoshino is quite endearing—after flunking her interviews (hey, we’ve all been there), she’s making the best of her wacky accidental career, and watching her try to find her own little space as a semi-ridiculous town mascot is what makes the show worth tuning into every week. On the other hand, I’m not that attached to the supporting cast yet, and the overall objective of reviving this town is not one that Sakura Quest has managed to make me care about deeply in the first few episodes. A pleasant show featuring adults wearing hokey costumes.

For fans of: Shirobako, Hanasaku Iroha, Barakamon, Poco’s Udon World

Watch it now on Crunchyroll

 

Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul

Ten years have passed since the world narrowly avoided destruction at the hands (claws?) of the great dragon Bahamut. A powerful new ruler, King Charioce (Yuuichiro Umehara), has consolidated power, laying gods and angels low and enslaving demons to work in human cities. One masked vigilante, known only as the Rag Demon, causes chaos night after night by killing demon-oppressing humans and freeing their slaves. When the cheerful Nina Drango (Sumire Morohoshi) arrives in the capital, she hopes to make her living as a bounty hunter and odd-jobber but becomes accidentally embroiled in larger events whilst pursuing the infamous Rag Demon.

Okay yes, this is technically a sequel, but I think I can be excused for putting it on here because I’m fairly certain you can watch Virgin Soul without ever having seen Rage of Bahamut: Genesis. Virgin Soul dives right in with a fantasy racism/vigilante plot that, while less than nuanced, provides a compelling backdrop for both familiar and new characters. Nina is the most significant addition to the cast, and I’m really enjoying the chaotic energy she brings to the show (doubly welcome since we have yet to lay eyes on FAVAROOOO). While I do miss the more swashbuckling, lighthearted tone of the previous season, Virgin Soul is more than living up to what I thought another Bahamut anime would be. And it’s also managed to look pretty while doing it—polished art and animation from MAPPA (Yuri!!! On ICE) sets Bahamut apart visually from other moderately pleasant fantasy offerings tis season like Grimoire of Zero and SukaSuka.

For fans of: Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, Saga of Tanya the Evil, Coffin Princess Chaika, Maria the Virgin Witch, disembodied hands in overalls

Watch it now on Anime Strike (again I am so sorry)

 

Sequels Worth Waiting For

The highest quality goods this spring are all in the sequels department: besides Bahamut, which I have completely cheated by including above, we’ve got the long, long, long anticipated continuation of mega-hit Attack on Titan, though it’s apparently only with us for another twelve episodes. Superhero battle shonen My Hero Academia returns for a thrilling second season as well, and the consistently wonderful Natsume Yujin-cho graces us with its presence for a sixth season. Perhaps most exciting to me is the second season of The Eccentric Family, a lovely, richly complex show about a family of tanuki living in a modern Kyoto populated by flying tengu, trickster tanuki, and sorcerous young women.

 

So? What are you watching this season? Let us know what you’re loving (and hating) in the comments!

Kelly Quinn is a children’s librarian and professional anime watcher. You can find her talking about picture books and manga on Twitter.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 01:00 pm

Posted by Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer

Followers of the Vorkosigan Reread have known for a long time that Bujold’s works are inspirational in any number of ways. At least, I assume that’s why they’re following the reread. Last week, the Vorkosigan Series became one of the first ever to be nominated for a Best Series Hugo, and this week an article in Nature is describing work at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute on the development of a uterus-like life support system for premature infants! Bujold’s uterine replicator has played a major role in shaping the worlds of her books. It allowed for the creation of the Quaddies, and for their enslavement. It allows the all-male population of Athos to produce their precious and beloved children. It offered an alternative to abortion for Prince Serg’s victims. It lets the Star Creche on Cetaganda control reproduction without controlling interpersonal relationships. It lets Betan and Barrayaran mothers pursue dangerous careers in fields like space exploration and politics while their infants safely gestate in a controlled environment. And that’s just for starters. How close are we to developing a uterine replicator? Closer than we were!

Which is to say, not close!

The popular media is horrible at reporting scientific news. Headlines are sensationalized, and conclusions are misinterpreted to ensure maximum page views without adequate or thoughtful scrutiny. Remember all the articles about how dark chocolate helps you lose weight? Remember how actually dark chocolate does nothing of the sort? Bad science reporting is bad, and no one should do it. News headlines about this new device have used the term “artificial womb,” and that’s a little irresponsible. The language being used in the journal article is “extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb” or “biobag.”

What we have below is a lamb in a bag—it looks like you could tuck a little curry powder and some sprigs of mint in there and have Sunday dinner. It uses a pump that is powered by the lamb’s heartbeat to exchange blood through an oxygenator. A separate pump system handles amniotic fluid input and output. The device has been used to support prematurely delivered lambs for up to four weeks. Lambs grow in the bag. Some have survived delivery from the bag. One lamb has reached a year in age and had a normal brain MRI. Don’t get too excited about that—it just means that this particular lamb had normal brain structures; it’s difficult to evaluate neurological functioning in sheep.

The researchers on the project have described efforts to create a womb-like atmosphere by maintaining the biobag at normal sheep body temperature, keeping the biobag in a dimly lit room, and playing recordings of a sheep heartbeat to the lamb. They have also suggested measures that would facilitate parental bonding, like a video monitoring system that parents could access. Watching a livestream of a lamb isn’t going to benefit a mother sheep; the research team is clearly thinking hard about human applications. The long-term goal of the project is to provide an alternative to NICU care for extremely premature infants, and to improve outcomes for these infants by allowing them more time to grow in uterine-like conditions following cesarean delivery. One obstacle in the path of this goal—and a good one!—is that NICU care already does a pretty good job. Although there are a great many challenges in the field, and NICU care is not a substitute for time in utero, the effectiveness of current approaches to neonatal medicine create a pretty high bar for any experimental device to clear before it can be considered as an alternative to current approaches to care for premature (and even extremely premature) infants.

The authors of the study assert that they are not trying to extend the currently known limits of fetal viability. The biobag also won’t be used to address maternal risks in pregnancy until it’s undergone a great deal more testing and development; it’s not a good enough substitute for the human uterus to justify elective premature delivery before the development of a life-threatening crisis for mother or fetus. And certainly, the device that these researchers have created won’t make Betan-style, grab-a-few-cells-and-shove-them-in-a-replicator reproduction possible; the biobag requires that the fetus have an umbilical cord. The research team over at CHOP has ambitious plans. As a lay observer, I anticipate that the reality will involve years of animal studies before these plans reach fruition.

You know what, though? This is really cool. The place we’re in now, at the beginning of this very long scientific process, is a lot closer to making the uterine replicator—and hopefully just its benefits, not its ethically problematic drawbacks—into a reality.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

Friday, April 28th, 2017 04:00 am

Posted by rbarenblat@gmail.com (Velveteen Rabbi)

Logos

The month of May is almost upon us, and with it comes a weekend I've been looking forward to for some time: an opportunity to visit Congregation Bet Ha'Am in Portland, Maine with Rabbi David Evan Markus! We're honored to be this year's Bernstein Scholars-in-Residence there. (Previous years' scholars have included Dr. Nehemia Polen, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and Rabbi Art Green.)

Over the course of our weekend, we'll be co-leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service, offering Shabbat morning Torah study, offering a Shabbat evening se'udah shlishit ("third meal") and havdalah program with teaching and poetry, and sharing some teaching with their community Hebrew school on Sunday morning. Through song, text, teaching, and experience we'll offer an introduction to Jewish Renewal.

Here's what they've shared about our visit on their website:


Congregation Bet Ha'am, through the Rosalyne S. & Sumner T. Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence Fund, is proud to welcome this year’s Bernstein Scholars-in-Residence, 'The Velveteen Rabbi" Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, co-chairs of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Mark your calendars and plan to join us for the weekend of May 5-7, 2017.

The weekend marks the halfway point between Passover and Shavuot, exactly halfway between liberation and revelation. Here, the Torah teaches us “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Activities and discussions will focus on the themes of love, community, and holiness through various practical and spiritual lenses. We’ll look at how Jewish Renewal can use themes and motifs to deepen the spiritual experience of public prayer services timed to the Torah cycle and the spiritual flow of the year, how mitzvot are intertwined with ritual, and the support of Jewish community in modern times.

Friday, May 5, 7:30 PM - Kabbalat Shabbat Evening Service: Holiness, Love, and Community - Loving your neighbor in modern times.

Saturday, May 6 9:00 AM - Torah Study: The spiritual and practical of community and renewal.

6:00 PM - Potluck Seudat Shlishit and Havdalah: Havdalah Service with a program on Illness and Healing.

Sunday, May 7 10:30 AM - Adult and Children’s Workshop Mitzvah and Mysticism - Holy Doing and Holy Being.

All are welcome!

Please contact Benjamin Gorelick in the Bet Ha'am office at 879-0028 or benjamin@bethaam.org for more information about this exciting weekend.

If you're in or near Portland Maine, we hope to see you there next weekend.

Thursday, April 27th, 2017 08:26 pm

In case you noticed, things have picked up around here, and I'm aiming for that to continue. I'm planning to devote much more time and energy toward making this into the best possible community for writers on the Internet.

Lofty goals!

In order to do that, I need your help. Your comments are so so appreciated. I read every one and take them all very seriously. So please, tell me...

What would you like to see more or less of? Any new features you'd like to see?

Critiques?

Marketing?

Revamped newsletter?

Interviews?

I'm curious about the community elements too. Would you keep up the Forums? Start a Facebook Group?

What would be most helpful to you?

Thanks again!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: The Perfume Maker by Rudolf Ernst
Thursday, April 27th, 2017 03:03 pm
We are planning to do a code push late this weekend, at approximately 8pm PDT / 11pm EDT / 3am UTC on Sunday, Apr 30 (or May 1 for you transatlantic types.).

I don't have a list of changes for you yet, but most will fall into the following categories: things users have complained about to support volunteers, things support volunteers have complained about to developers, things [staff profile] denise has complained about not working the way she expects them to (and as we all know, The Boss is Always Right), and things that were printing warnings over and over in the production server logs, making it hard to spot when less frequent, more urgent errors were being printed. Oh, and also all the unused code I ripped out at the roots, which if you notice that, I did it wrong.

To sum up: we are rolling out a bunch of requested changes, so thank you all for your feedback!

If you're new to Dreamwidth and interested in tracking our development process, our commit logs are published to [site community profile] changelog and [community profile] changelog_digest, and every month or so, one of our volunteers will translate those often-cryptic entries into witty, informative code tours! The most recent one was published on April 1, so we're about due for a new one. Hint, hint.

We'll update here again to let you know when the code push is imminent!
Thursday, April 27th, 2017 08:00 pm

Posted by Niall Alexander

Following his triumphant trek through Area X in the cerebral Southern Reach series, Jeff VanderMeer mounts a more modest yet no less affecting expedition into uncharted territory by way of Borne, a surprisingly beautiful book about a blob which behaves like a boy and the broken woman who takes him in.

Her name is Rachel, and when she was little, she “wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer.” But we are what the world makes us, and no poxy author would have lasted long in the world in which this novel’s narrator was raised:

Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.

There is hope even in this haunted hellscape, however, and it takes a strange shape, as hope tends to: that of “a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours” Rachel finds in the festering fur of a skyscraper-sized flying bear called Mord.

She brings the titular thing, Borne-to-be, back to the Balcony Cliffs, a broken-down apartment building where she lives and works with Wick, her sometime lover and a secretive biotech beetle dealer who pushes a memory-altering product “as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself.” Out of the gate, Rachel intends to give her purplish prize to him to pick at—but something, the beginning of some instinct, stays her hand. Instead, she places it in her room, and tries to take care of it.

“This required some experimenting, in part because [she] had never taken care of anyone or anything before,” but equally because her amorphous mass is a complete mystery. Certainly Wick has never seen its like, and having worked once for the Company, he has seen everything there is to see. To wit, Rachel treats this colourful clump like a plant to start; reclassifies it as an animal after it starts to move around her room; and then, when it shocks her by talking, she takes to behaving around it as she would a baby boy. She talks to him; teaches him; comes, ultimately, to love him—and he her in turn.

This all happens fast—in a matter of months at most. Rachel’s experience is in many ways that of a parent’s, albeit with the long years squeezed into brief weeks. Crucially, though, little data is lost in the compression process. VanderMeer’s focus on the magical and the miserable moments of motherhood is so fine that by the time Borne is grown, it feels like a life has been lived, and an unbreakable bond formed. Thus, when that bond is broken, and that life almost lost, it is as momentous and as moving as it needs to be in a novel that may feature dizzying grizzlies and biotech-bred beasts but is at bottom about a relationship most sacred.

That’s not to say there aren’t some weird and wonderful things happening in the background. “Strange things were flourishing,” in fact. More bears have joined the monolithic monster that is Mord, and the Magician—another outcast from the Company in direct competition with Wick—is somehow changing the city’s children:

A growing army of acolytes helped make her drugs and protected her territory against Mord and the others; Wick had only his peculiar swimming pool, the bastion of the Balcony Cliffs, a scavenger-woman who could make traps but kept secrets from him, and a creature of unknown potential that he desired to cast out. […] Worse, the rumoured Mord proxies had finally made their presence known and seemed more bloodthirsty than their progenitor. They knew no rule of law, not even the natural law of sleep.

Both Mord’s proxies and the Magician’s children make moves against the ragtag family that call the Balcony Cliffs base camp, but this aspect of the narrative only really takes centre stage come the cacophonous climax, which boasts a long-in-the-coming confrontation, a couple of great character-based revelations and a truly vast battle made all the more majestic by the relative restraint its author displays elsewhere. Deliberately, I dare say:

There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos or in relation to the normal workings of a day. Worse, when these events recur, at an ever greater magnitude, in a cascade of what you have never seen before and do not know how to classify. Troubling because each time you acclimate, you move on, and, if this continues, there is a mundane grandeur to the scale that renders certain events beyond rebuke or judgment, horror or wonder, or even the grasp of history.

Happily, despite the presence of a big ol’ robot bear, an invisible woman whose gadgets basically make her magic and a talking blob that can in time take on any shape it dares—despite, in other words, the creative freedoms VanderMeer gleefully flexes in this fiction now that his very deliberate and massively taxing trilogy is done—Borne doesn’t give us the chance to acclimate to the action, or to the fantastic.

It has both, of course, but it isn’t ever overburdened by either. At heart, Borne is a small story, a sweet story, a sad story; a cunningly punning, playful and flavourful exploration of parenthood more interested in feelings and in fun than fungus. It’s definitely one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, and it may well be one of the best. Bravo.

Borne is available from MCD in the US and from 4th Estate in the UK.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

Thursday, April 27th, 2017 07:30 pm

Posted by Sweepstakes

The third book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series, City of Miracles, is available May 2nd from Broadway Books—and we want to send you a set of all three books in the series!

Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing.

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve.

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

Comment in the post to enter—and read on for a sneak peek from City of Miracles!

From Chapter One: Fallen Trees

There she is.

There sits the woman herself. The woman descended from the Kaj, conqueror of the gods and the Continent, the woman who killed two Divinities herself nearly twenty years ago.

How small she is. How frail. Her hair is snow-white—prematurely so, surely—and she sits hunched in a small iron chair, watching the street below, a cup of tea steaming in her small hands. Khadse’s so struck by her smallness, her blandness, that he almost forgets his job.

That’s not right, he thinks, withdrawing. Not right for her to be outside, so exposed. Too dangerous.

His heart goes cold as he thinks. Komayd is still an operative at her heart, after all these years. And why would an operative watch the street? Why risk such exposure?

The answer is, of course, that Komayd is looking for something. A message, perhaps. And while Khadse could have no idea what that message would contain or when it might arrive, it could make Komayd move. And that would ruin everything.

Khadse whirls around, kneels, and opens his briefcase. Inside his briefcase is something very new, very dangerous, and very vile: an adapted version of an antipersonnel mine, one specifically engineered to direct all of its explosive force to one side. It’s also been augmented for this one job, since most antipersonnel mines might have difficulty penetrating a wall—but this one packs such a punch it should have no issues whatsoever.

Khadse takes the mine out and gently affixes it to the wall next to Ashara Komayd’s suite. He licks his lips as he goes through the activation procedure—three simple steps—and then sets the timer for four minutes. That should give him enough time to get to safety. But if anything goes wrong, he has another new toy as well: a radio override that can allow him to trigger the blast early, if he wants.

He dearly hopes he never needs to. Triggering it early might mean triggering it when he’s still too close. But one must be sure about such things.

He stands, glances out at Komayd one last time—he mutters, “So long, you damned bitch”—and slips out of the hotel room.

Down the hallway, past the bloodstains, then down the stairs. Down the stairs and through the lobby, where all the people are still going through their dull little motions, yawning as they page through the newspapers, snuffling through a hangover as they sip coffee or try to decide what they’ll do with their vacation day.

None of them notices Khadse. None of them notices as he trots across the lobby and out the door to the streets, where a light rain is falling.

This isn’t the first time Khadse’s worked such a job, so he really should be calm about such things. His heart shouldn’t be humming, shouldn’t be pattering. Yet it is.

Komayd. Finally. Finally, finally, finally.

He should walk away. Should walk south, or east. Yet he can’t resist. He walks north, north to the very street Komayd was watching. He wants to see her one last time, wants to enjoy his imminent victory.

The sun breaks free of the clouds as Khadse turns the corner. The street is mostly empty, as everyone’s gone to work at this hour. He keeps to the edges of the street, silently counting the seconds, keeping his distance from the Golden but allowing himself a slight glance to the side. . . .

His eyes rove among the balconies. Then he spies her, sitting on the fourth-floor balcony. A wisp of steam from her tea is visible even from here.

He ducks into a doorway to watch her, his blood dancing with anticipation.

Here it comes. Here it comes.

Then Komayd sits up. She frowns.

Khadse frowns as well. She sees something.

He steps out of the doorway a little, peering out to see what she’s looking at.

Then he spies her: a young Continental girl is standing on the sidewalk, staring right up at Komayd’s balcony and violently gesturing to her. The girl is pale with an upturned nose, her hair crinkled and bushy. He’s never seen her before—which is bad. His team did their homework. They should know everyone who comes into contact with Komayd.

The gesture, though—three fingers, then two. Khadse doesn’t know the meaning of the numbers, but it’s clear what the gesture is: it’s a warning.

The girl glances around the street as she gestures to Komayd. As she does, her gaze falls on Khadse.

The girl freezes. She and Khadse lock eyes.

Her eyes are of a very, very curious color. They’re not quite blue, not quite gray, not quite green, nor brown. . . . They’re of no color at all, it seems.

Khadse looks up at Komayd. Komayd, he sees, is looking right at him.

Komayd’s face twists up in disgust, and though it’s impossible—From this distance? And after so long?—he swears he can see that she recognizes him.

He sees Komayd’s mouth move, saying one word: “Khadse.”

“Shit,” says Khadse.

His right hand flies down to his pocket, where the radio trigger is hidden. He looks to the pale Continental girl, wondering if she’ll attack—but she’s gone. The sidewalk just down the road from him is totally empty. She’s nowhere to be found.

Khadse looks around, anxious, wondering if she’s about to assault him. He doesn’t see her anywhere.

Then he looks back up at Komayd—and sees the impossible has happened.

The pale Continental girl is now on the balcony with Komayd, helping her stand, trying to usher her away.

He stares at them, stupefied. How could the girl have moved so quickly? How could she have vanished from one place and suddenly reappeared across the street and four floors up? It’s impossible.

The girl kicks open the balcony doors and hauls Komayd through.

I’m blown, he thinks. They’re on the move.

Khadse’s hand is on the remote.

He’s much too close. He’s right across the street. But he’s blown.

Nothing more to do about it. One must be sure about such things.

Khadse hits the trigger.

The blast knocks him to the ground, showers him with debris, makes his ears ring and his eyes water. It’s like someone slapped him on either side of the head and kicked him in the stomach. He feels an ache on his right side and slowly realizes the detonation hurled him against the wall, only it happened too fast for him to understand.

The world swims around him. Khadse slowly sits up.

Everything is dim and distant. The world is full of muddled screams. The air hangs heavy with smoke and dust.

Blinking hard, Khadse looks at the Golden. The building’s top-right corner has been completely excised as if it were a tumor, a gaping, splintered, smoking hole right where Komayd’s balcony used to be. It looks as if the mine took out not only Komayd’s suite but also Room 408 and most of the rooms around it.

There’s no sign of Komayd, or the strange Continental girl. He suppresses the desire to step closer, to make sure the job is done. He just stares up at the damage, head cocked.

A Continental man—a baker of some kind, by his dress—stops him and frantically asks, “What happened? What happened?

Khadse turns and walks away. He calmly walks south, through the streaming crowds, through the police and medical autos speeding down the streets, through the throngs of people gathering on the sidewalks, all looking north at the column of smoke streaming from the Golden.

He says not a word, does not a thing. All he does is walk. He barely even breathes.

He makes it to his safe house. He confirms the door hasn’t been tampered with, nor the windows, then unlocks the door and walks inside. He goes straight to the radio, turns it on, and stands there for the better part of three hours, listening.

He waits, and waits, until finally they begin reporting on the explosion. He keeps waiting until they finally announce it.

. . . just confirmed that Ashara Komayd, former prime minister of Saypur, was killed in the blast . . .

Khadse exhales slowly.

Then he slowly, slowly lowers himself to sit on the floor.

And then, to his own surprise, he begins laughing.

Reprinted from City of Miracles Copyright © 2017 by Robert Jackson Bennett. To be published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on May 2.

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Thursday, April 27th, 2017 07:00 pm

Posted by A.J. Hartley

Once a steeplejack, Anglet Sutonga is used to scaling the heights of Bar-Selehm. Nowadays she assists politician Josiah Willinghouse behind the scenes of Parliament. The latest threat to the city-state: Government plans for a secret weapon are stolen and feared to be sold to the rival nation of Grappoli. The investigation leads right to the doorsteps of Elitus, one of the most exclusive social clubs in the city. In order to catch the thief, Ang must pretend to be a foreign princess and infiltrate Elitus. But Ang is far from royal material, so Willinghouse enlists help from the exacting Madam Nahreem.

Yet Ang has other things on her mind. Refugees are trickling into the city, fleeing Grappoli-fueled conflicts in the north. A demagogue in Parliament is proposing extreme measures to get rid of them, and she soon discovers that one theft could spark a conflagration of conspiracy that threatens the most vulnerable of Bar-Selehm. Unless she can stop it.

Author A. J. Hartley returns to his intriguing, 19th-century South African-inspired fantasy world in Firebrand, an adrenaline-pounding adventure available from Tor Teen.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

The thief had been out of the window no more than a minute but had already shaken off the police. The only reason I could still see him was because up here we got the full flat glare of the Beacon two blocks over, because I knew where to look, and because he was doing what I would be doing if our positions were reversed. Moments after the theft had been reported and the building locked down, he had emerged from the sash window on the fourth floor of the War Office on Hanover Street—which was probably how he had gotten in in the first place—and had climbed up to the roof. Then he had danced along the steeply pitched ridgeline and across to the Corn Exchange by way of a cable bridge he had rigged earlier. The uniformed officers in the pearly glow of the gas lamps below blocked the doorways leading to the street, milling around like baffled chickens oblivious to the hawk soaring away above them. If he hadn’t shot one of the guards on his way into the strong room, they wouldn’t have even known he had been there.

But he had, and he was getting away with a roll of papers bound with what looked like red ribbon. I didn’t know what they were, but I had seen Willinghouse’s face when the alarm had been raised and knew how badly he needed them back.

Not Willinghouse himself. Bar-Selehm. The city needed them back, and I, Anglet Sutonga, former steeplejack and now… something else entirely, worked for the city. In a manner of speaking.

The thief paused to disassemble his cable bridge and, in the act of turning, saw me as I rounded a brick chimney stack. His hand went for the pistol at his belt, the one that had already been fired twice to night, but he hesitated. There was no clearer way to announce his position to those uniformed chickens below us than by firing his gun. He decided to run, abandoning his dismantling of the bridge, betting that, whoever I was, I wouldn’t be able to stay with him up here on the ornamented roofs and towers of the government district.

He was wrong about that, though he climbed expertly. I gave chase, sure-footed in my familiar steel-toed boots, as he skittered down the sloping tiles on the other side and vaulted across the alley onto a metal fire escape. He moved with ease in spite of his formal wear, and the only time he looked away from what he was doing was to check on my progress. As he did, he smiled, intrigued, a wide hyena grin that made me slow just a little. Because despite the half mask he was wearing over his eyes, I knew who he was.

They called him Darius. He was a thief, but because he was also white, famously elegant, and limited his takings to the jewelry of wealthy society ladies—plucked from their nightstands as they slept inches away—he was known by the more romantic name of “cat burglar.” I had never been impressed by the title. It seemed to me that anyone whose idea of excitement—and it clearly was exciting for the likes of Darius—involved skulking inside houses full of people was someone you needed to keep at a distance. I’ve stolen in the past— usually food but sometimes money as well—and I wouldn’t trust anyone who did it for sport, for the thrill of standing over you while you slept. For all his dashing reputation and the breathless way in which the newspapers recounted his exploits, it did not surprise me in the least that he had killed a man tonight.

I was, I reminded myself, unarmed. I didn’t like guns, even when I was the one holding them. Especially then, in fact.

I too was masked, though inelegantly, a scarf of sooty fabric wrapped around my head so that there was only a slit for my eyes. It was hot and uncomfortable, but essential. I had a job that paid well, which kept me out of the gangs and the factories that would be my only tolerable options if anyone guessed who I really was. That would be easier if anyone realized I was Lani, so my skin stayed covered.

I crossed the wire bridge, slid down the ridged tile, and launched myself across the alley, seventy feet above the cobbled ground, dropping one full story and hitting the fire escape with a bone-rattling jolt. Grasping the handrails, I swung down four steps at a time, listening to Darius’s fine shoes on the steps below me. I was still three flights above him when he landed lightly on the elegant balcony on the front of the Victory Street Hotel. I dropped in time to see him swinging around the dividing walls between balconies, vanishing from sight at the fourth one.

He might just have hidden in the shadows, waiting for me to follow him, or he might have forced the window and slipped into the hotel room.

I didn’t hesitate, leaping onto the first balcony, hanging for an instant like a vervet monkey in a marulla tree, then reaching for the next and the next with long, sinewy arms. I paused only a half second before scything my legs over the wall and into the balcony where he had dis appeared, my left hand straying to the heavy-bladed kukri I wore in a scabbard at my waist.

I didn’t need it. Not yet, at least.

He had jimmied the door latch and slipped into a well-appointed bedroom with wood paneling and heavy curtains of damask with braided accents that matched the counterpane.

Fancy.

But then this was Victory Street, so you’d expect that.

I angled my head and peered into the gloom. The bed was, so far as I could see, unoccupied. I stood quite still on the thick dark carpet, breathing shallowly. Unless he was crouching behind the bed or hiding in the en suite, he wasn’t there. The door into the hotel’s hallway was only thirty feet away, and I was wasting time.

I took four long strides and was halfway to the door when he hit me, surging up from behind the bed like a crocodile bursting from the reeds, jaws agape. He caught me around the waist and dragged me down so that I landed hard on one shoulder and hit my head on a chest of drawers. For a moment the world went white, then black, then a dull throbbing red as I shook off the confusion and grasped at his throat.

He slid free, pausing only long enough to aim a kick squarely into my face before making for the hallway. I saw it coming and turned away from the worst of it, shrinking and twisting so that he connected with my already aching shoulder. He reached for the scarf about my head, but I had the presence of mind to bring the kukri slicing up through the air, its razor edge flashing. He snatched his hand away, swung another kick, which got more of my hip than my belly, and made for the door.

I rolled, groaning and angry, listening to the door snap shut behind him, then flexed the muscles of my neck and shoulder, touching the fabric around my head with fluttering fin gers. It was still intact, as was I, but I felt rattled, scared. Darius’s cat burglar suaveness was all gone, exposed for the veneer it was, and beneath it there was ugliness and cruelty and the love of having other people in his power. I wasn’t surprised, but it gave me pause. I’d been kicked many times before, and I always knew what was behind it, how much force and skill, how much real, venomous desire to hurt, cripple, or kill. His effort had largely gone wide because it was dark and I knew how to dodge, but the kick had been deliberate, cruel. If I caught up with him and he thought he was in real danger, he would kill me without a second’s thought. I rolled to a crouch, sucked in a long, steadying breath, and went after him.

The hallway was lit by the amber glow of shaded oil lamps on side tables, so that for all the opulence of the place, the air tasted of acrid smoke, and the darkness pooled around me as I ran. Up ahead, the corridor turned into an open area where a single yellowing bulb of luxorite shone on intricate ceiling moldings and ornamental pilasters. There were stairs down, and I was aware of voices, lots of them, a sea of confused chatter spiked erratically with waves of laughter.

A party.

More Bar-Selehm elegance and, for me, more danger. I had no official position, no papers allowing me to break into the hotel rooms of the wealthy, nothing that would make my Lani presence among the cream of the city palatable. And in spite of all I had done for Bar-Selehm—for the very people who were sipping wine in the ballroom below—I felt the pressure of this more keenly than I had Darius’s malevolent kick. Some blows were harder to roll with.

I sprang down the carpeted stairs, turning the corner into the noise. The hallway became a gallery running around the upper story of the ballroom so that guests might promenade around the festivities, waving their fans at their friends below. Darius was on the far side, moving effortlessly through the formally dressed clusters of startled people. He was still masked, and they knew him on sight, falling away, their mouths little O’s of shock. One of the women fainted, or pretended to. Another partygoer, wearing a dragoon’s formal blues, took a step toward the masked man, but the pistol in Darius’s hand swung round like an accusatory fin ger and the dragoon thought better of his heroism.

I barreled through the crowd, shoving mercilessly, not breaking stride. The party below had staggered to a halt, and the room was a sea of upturned faces watching us as we swept around the gallery toward another flight of stairs. As I neared the corner, I seized a silver platter from an elegant lady in teal and heaved it at him, so that it slid in a long and menacing arc over the heads of the crowd below and stung him on the shoulder. He turned, angry, and found me elbowing my way through the people as they blew away from him like screws of colored tissue, horrified and delighted by their proximity to the infamous cat burglar. And then his gun came up again and they were just horrified, flinging themselves to the ground.

He fired twice. The gilded plaster cherub curled round the balustrade in front of me exploded, and the screaming started. Somewhere a glass broke, and in all the shrieking, it wasn’t absolutely clear that no one had been seriously hurt, but then someone took a bad step, lost their balance, and went over the balustrade. More screaming, and another shot. I took cover behind a stone pillar, and when I peered round, Darius had already reached the stairs and was gone.

I sprinted after him, knocking a middle-aged woman in layers of black gauzy stuff to the ground as I barged through. My kukri was still in my hand, and the partygoers were at least as spooked by the sweep of its broad, purposeful blade as by Darius’s pistol, though it had the advantage of focusing their attention away from my face and onto my gloved hands. A waiter—the only black person in the room that I could see—stepped back from me, staring at the curved knife like it was red-hot. That gave me the opening I needed, and I dashed through to the stairs.

Darius had gone up. I gave chase, focusing on the sound of his expensive shoes. One flight, two, three, then the snap of a door and suddenly I was in a bare hall of parquet floors, dim, hot, and dusty. A single oil lamp showed supply closets overflowing with bed linens and aprons on hooks. The hall ended in a steel ladder up to the roof, the panel closing with a metallic clang as I moved toward it.

He might be waiting, pistol reloaded and aimed. But he had chosen this building for a reason. Its roof gave onto Long Terrace, which ran all the way to the edge of Mahweni Old Town, from where he could reach any part of the northern riverbank or cross over into the warren of warehouses, sheds, and factories on the south side. He wouldn’t be waiting. He was looking to get away.

So I scaled the ladder and heaved open the metal shutters as quietly as I could manage. I didn’t want to catch him. I wanted to see where he went. It would be best if he thought he’d lost me. I slid out cautiously, dropped into a half crouch and scuttered to the end of the roof like a baboon. Darius was well away, taking leaping strides along the roof of the Long Terrace, and as he slowed to look back, I leaned behind one of the hotel’s ornamental gargoyles out of sight. When next I peered round, he was moving again, but slower, secure in the knowledge that he was in the clear.

I waited another second before dropping to the Long Terrace roof, staying low, and sheathing my kukri. The terrace was one of the city’s architectural jewels: a mile-long continuous row of elegant, three-story houses with servants’ quarters below stairs. They were fashioned from a stone so pale it was almost white and each had the same black door, the same stone urn and bas-relief carving, the same slate roof. Enterprising home owners had lined the front lip of the roof with planters that, at this time of year, trailed fragrant vines of messara flowers. The whole terrace curved fractionally down toward the river like a lock of elegantly braided hair. For Darius it provided a direct route across several blocks of the city away from prying eyes.

The nights were warming as Bar-Selehm abandoned its token spring, and the pursuit had made me sweat. We had left the light of the Beacon behind, and I could barely keep track of Darius in the smoggy gloom, even with my long lens, which I drew from my pocket and unfolded. At the end of the terrace, he paused to look back once more, adjusting the tubular roll of documents he had slung across his back, but I had chosen a spot in the shadow of a great urn sprouting ferns and a dwarf fruit tree, and he saw nothing. Satisfied, he shinned down the angled corner blocks at the end of the terrace and emerged atop the triumphal arch that spanned Broad Street, then descended the steps halfway and sprang onto the landing of the Svengele shrine, whose minaret marked the edge of Old Town. I gave chase and was navigating the slim walkway atop the arch when he happened to look up and see me.

I dropped to the thin ribbon of stone before he could get his pistol sighted, and the shot thrummed overhead like a hummingbird. He clattered up the steps that curled round the minaret and flung himself onto the sand-colored tile of the neighboring house. He was running flat out now, and I had no choice but to do the same. I jumped, snatched a handhold on the minaret, and tore after him, landing clumsily on the roof so that I was almost too late in my roll. Another shot, and one of the tiles shattered in a hail of amber grit that stung my eyes. I sprawled for cover, but Darius was off again, vaulting from roof to roof, scattering tile as he ran, so that they fell, popping and crackling into the street below. Somewhere behind us, an elderly black man emerged shouting, but I had no time for sympathy or apologies.

As the narrow street began to curl in on itself, Darius dropped to the rough cobbles and sprinted off into the labyrinth which was Old Town. The streets were barely wide enough for a cart to squeeze through, and at times I could touch the buildings on either side of the road at the same time. There was a pale gibbous moon glowing like a lamp in Bar-Selehm’s perpetual smoky haze, but its light did not reach into the narrow ginnels running between the city’s most ancient houses. Down here his footfalls echoed in the dark, which was the only reason I could keep up with him as he turned left, then right, then back, past the Ntenga butchers’ row and down to the waterfront, where I lost him.

The river wasn’t as high as it had been a couple of weeks before, but it filled the night with a constant susurration like wind in tall grass. As the carefully maintained cobbles gave way to the weedy gravel around the riverside boatyards and mooring quays, any footfalls were lost in the steady background hiss of the river Kalihm. I clambered down the brick embankment that lined the riverbank and revolved on the spot, biting back curses as I tried, eyes half shut, to catch the sound of movement.

There. It may have been no more than a half brick turned by a stray foot, but I heard it, down near the shingle shore only fifty yards away. It came from the narrow alley between a pair of rickety boathouses that straddled a concrete pier. I made for the sound, opting for stealth rather than speed, one hand on the horn butt of my kukri, picking my way over the rounded stones, my back to the city. Even here, in the heart of Bar-Selehm, when you faced the river, you stepped back three hundred years, and there was only water and reeds and the giant herons that stalked among them.

I heard the noise again, different this time, more distinct, but in this narrow wedge of space between the boathouses, almost no light struggled through. The river itself was paler, reflecting the smudge of moon in the night sky and touched with the eerie phosphorescence of glowing things that lived in its depths, but I could see nothing between me and it.

Or almost nothing.

As I crept down the pebbled slope, I saw—or felt—a shape in front of me as it shifted. Something like a large man crouching no more than a few feet ahead. A very large man. I slid the kukri from its sheath, and in that second, the shape moved, black against the waters of the Kalihm. It turned, lengthening improbably as it presented its flank to me. It was, I realized with a pang of terror, no man. It was as big as a cart, and as it continued its slow rotation to face me, a shaft of light splashed across its massive, glistening head. I felt my heart catch.

The hippo rushed at me then, its face splitting open impossibly, eyes rolling back as it bared its immense tusks and bellowed.

 


CHAPTER 2

I scrambled up the riverbank, knowing the hippo could easily outrun me and that those jaws would fold and break me like a steam hammer. My boots slid on the wet stones. I was falling.

I felt the mad, blood-rushing horror of dropping to the ground in front of the great beast. I knew how it would trample me, toss me, rip me apart.

And then, somehow, I was recovering my balance.

In a blind madness of terror, I vaulted the embankment, feeling the hippo snapping its great coal-hatch door of a mouth inches behind me. Then I was clear and shooting up the slope toward the dim huddle of domes and spires that was the edge of Old Town.

The hippo roared again: a tremendous, window-rattling wall of noise that raised every hair on my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and slammed my hands against my ears, even though I knew it couldn’t get over the embankment. Or not there, at least. In places where the brick had crumbled, it was not unheard of for hippos to blunder into the outskirts of the town. I needed to move on.

My feet took me instinctively away from the snorting hippo in the dark of the riverbank, but I had no conscious idea where to go next. I had lost Darius completely.

Or so I assumed. In fact my detour to the river had taken only seconds. As I looked back, I caught the movement of a distant figure standing alone on one of the long brick jetties.

It couldn’t be.

But it was. He must have lost me when I went down to the river, and he was no longer hiding. He was, in fact, waiting.

I dropped into a balled crouch, then skulked crablike along the embankment wall to the head of the jetty and peered over. The hippo was grunting restlessly below me, some twenty yards to my left. Darius was perhaps three times that distance away. I watched as he drew something from inside his jacket and adjusted it. A white light leapt from his hand, vanished, then came back.

Luxorite. Probably a signet ring or locket he had purloined from some opulent bed chamber.

The light came again, then went. He was signaling.

I pulled out my long lens and started scanning the water, still aware of the heavy, shuffling breaths of the hippo in the dark, but I saw nothing beyond Darius’s dim silhouette. On the far side of the river, a half mile away, there was a distant glow of firelight: some large warehouse or factory on the south bank was ablaze. I smelled the smoke despite the distance, a strange and unpleasant stench quite unlike wood fires. I checked my surroundings, my eyes fastening on the rusty scaffold of a crane that loomed over the nearest boathouse. Its gantry stuck out over the river, the end well past Darius’s spot on the jetty.

Perhaps from there I would have a better view.…

I moved, stepping carefully, not looking back to Darius till I had reached the foot of the girdered tower. He had resumed signaling, his attention elsewhere. I grabbed the rust-bitten edges of the iron struts and began to climb. Pushing my boots into the triangular holes where the support beams intersected, I worked my way up, thirty feet, forty, till I reached a catwalk that gave onto the operator’s winch. In operation, the chains would be connected to a steam engine below, but the pulleys and cables were brown and furred with rust, as if the crane hadn’t been used for months, even years. The great arm of the main boom stuck out over the water into the night, pointing indistinctly toward the burning building on the other side. If it wasn’t structurally sound, I might not know till it was too late.

I pulled my way up over the cab and onto the lattice boom through which the main hoist ran. It had a triangular cross section, a yard wide on top, the bottom a single beam, the whole crisscrossed by supports like the rungs of a ladder. I crept out on my hands and knees, staring through the boom as I left the wharf and inched out over the dark and steadily moving water.

I was halfway along before I saw the rowboat approaching Darius’s position from the south bank of the river, and two thirds of the way along when someone stepped onto the arm of the crane behind me.

I stared as he hauled himself up. Not Darius, who was still down on the pier. Someone else. This new person, a white man in an incongruous suit and tie, stood tall on the girders of the boom, hands at his side, a revolver in one and what looked like a small pickax in the other. It sparkled coldly. Even at this distance, I could see that he was smiling as he took his first step toward me.

It was a cautious step, but he seemed quite composed, staring fixedly at me, his blond hair blowing slightly in the breeze that came up off the river, and as he took another, his confidence seemed to grow. Soon he was walking toward me with easy, measured strides, despite being fifty feet up in the air. It felt less like the skill of a steeplejack and more like the carelessness of someone who thought himself beyond harm.

It was frightening.

I kept crawling, though I had no idea where I would go when I reached the end of the crane’s jib. Maybe the cable would be hanging, and I would be able to swing to safety.…

Maybe. Probably not. But the alternative was the man with the gun and the pickax and the smile. It was the last that scared me most. He came on, a man who could not fall, eyes locked on mine. I struggled to my feet and drew the kukri, knowing that it was futile against a man with a gun. His smile widened, and I was first baffled, then terrified, as he slipped the pistol into his pocket and kept coming.

He wanted to fight me.

I felt the breeze stir my clothes as I stood up on the narrow boom, my weight balanced over my feet. I held the kukri by my right ear and extended my left hand toward him. He didn’t even slow. He took three more steps, slightly faster now, and I swung the kukri at him, a broad, slashing chop at his shoulder. He leaned away from it fractionally. The blade cut through the air, and I almost overbalanced as my arm came round. Instantly, he reached and tapped me on the side of the head with the pick as if he were striking a bell in a temple.

The blow stung like a wasp. I clapped my free hand to it. It came away slick with blood. He smiled again, and I knew that to him, this was sport. Entertainment. I stepped back unsteadily, then dropped to the boom, grabbed it with my hands, and scythed a kick at him.

He jumped. High up above the river and with nothing but two slim rails of metal to land on, he actually jumped over my kick, landed, and tagged me again with the spike of the pickax, this time in the small of my back. I cried out at that, less in pain—though it was real— and more in terror.

This, I thought with absolute certainty, is how I die.

I stepped forward and swung wildly at his face with my balled fist. He pivoted back out of range, and my momentum turned me away from him. As he closed in, I regained my balance and seized his outstretched wrist, trying to tug him off the boom, but I succeeded only in plucking his cufflink free. It arced through the night, sparkling bluish, and bounced on the iron frame before falling out of sight. He felt blindly at his flapping cuff, and a pulse of irritation went through his hard, pale eyes. He would kill me for that alone.

I couldn’t fight him. That much was clear. He was too strong, too fast, too skilled. Nor could I get past him. My only choice was to scramble to the very limit of the crane’s boom. I turned and half stepped, half jumped to get out of his range. He did not lunge after me, not right away. Seeing how futile my retreat was, he approached more cautiously. I backed away as far as I could, but in a few feet, I was out of room and there was nothing below me except a long fall into deep water.

There was a flash in my peripheral vision and an almost instantaneous bang. I looked down. The boat had reached the jetty, but as Darius had stooped to extend a hand toward it, the boatman had shot him down. The cat burglar crumpled, and the man in the boat reached up to tug the document roll Darius had been carrying free. The dead man spilled softly off the jetty into the water, his luxorite lamp lighting the river up with a greenish, dreamlike haze from below, as the boatman pushed off and rowed away.

I tore my gaze away and turned to the man on the crane, who moved almost close enough to touch. He held the pistol loosely at his side once more, but his right hand, the one with the pick, was taut and ready. Its spike was already tipped with the smallest touch of crimson. My blood. He was making no attempt to hide his face. A very bad sign. He did not intend for me to live long enough to tell anyone who I had seen. He was still smiling, a bland, unsettling smile at once ordinary and terrible. Though he could easily have shot me where I was, I knew instinctively that he would prefer to use the pick.

I jumped.

In fact it was more a fall, a desperate lunge into the airy nothing above the water, and I had just enough time to remember the hippo before I hit the surface.

Hit the surface I did. Hard. I have always been healthily afraid of water, because I can’t swim and I know what lives in and around the Kalihm, yet it had never occurred to me that falling into water would feel like falling onto concrete. I slammed into the river, my left knee, thigh, hip, and shoulder taking the full impact. The pain shocked the air out of me. For a second I was incapable of my own distress, stunned into inaction, turning over and over as I sank.

Then I was drifting to the surface again, borne toward the ocean by the current. All I felt was pain, so that I was not even able to keep my eyes and mouth closed. Before I broke the surface, my throat was full of the warm, soiled water of the Kalihm. I coughed it up and promptly swallowed more. My body screamed with the agony of impact and my lungs filled.

I was dying.

 


CHAPTER 3

“Well, obviously I survived,” I said.

Willinghouse watched me, his face stern, while the man I had known as Detective Andrews—now Inspector Andrews, thanks to his part in the Beacon affair—motioned one of his men to replace the sopping blanket around my shoulders with another.

My left arm was dislocated, and they had strapped it in place till someone from Saint Auspice’s could tend to it properly. My face throbbed. Most of my left side was suffused with a deep and coloring bruise that made the slightest movement painful. More to the point, as Willinghouse’s very first question had made clear, I had neither the stolen plans nor any clue to the identity of who had orchestrated the theft. The police had recovered Darius’s body and were planning to put notices in the papers requesting assistance from the public to confirm the cat burglar’s real name.

I had described the man with the pick, but he was nondescript in everything but the strange detachment with which he had planned to kill me, and I couldn’t put that into words they understood.

“He was white,” I said. “Blond. Ordinary-looking but well dressed.”

Willinghouse, never a man to hide his disappointment in me, scowled and looked away across the river to where a thick smudge of smoke hung over the remains of what ever had burned the night before. I had drifted only a few hundred yards down the river, my barely conscious body pulled into a central channel too deep— mercifully—to run afoul of the nearby hippo pod. I had snagged upon a raft of driftwood on the central stanchion of the shifting and rickety Ridleford pontoon bridge and been spotted by Mahweni longshoremen on their morning ferry ride to work. They had alerted the coast guard, who were out in unusual numbers.

“What burned last night?” I asked, following Willinghouse’s green eyes.

“What?” he asked, as if just remembering I was there. “Oh. Nothing. An abandoned factory. It’s not relevant.”

And that was Willinghouse. There was work—which was relevant—and there was everything else. I hopped from one category to the other like a secretary bird hunting snakes.

“Why all the coast guard boats?” I asked. I could see three this side of the Ridleford pontoons. They had armed men in their bows, and one seemed to be towing another vessel—actually more a raft bound together with rope and buoyed up unevenly on rusted barrels— crowded with people. Black people. Thin and ragged looking. Almost all women and children.

“Illegals,” said Andrews. “Trying to sneak into the economic paradise that is Bar-Selehm.”

I watched the people on the raft as they gazed from one shouting officer to another, uncomprehending and scared, the children huddled around their mothers, their faces tear streaked.

“How are you feeling?” asked Andrews. He was a thin-faced, cleanshaven white man whose eyes had a predatory intensity, but his voice was soft, and his concern sounded genuine.

I reached for my injured shoulder with my right hand, but couldn’t grasp it before the pain became too much. I winced, and he nodded.

“Anything other than your shoulder?” he asked. “That was quite a fall.”

“Just my pride,” I said, still watching the children as they were lifted from their listing raft and into the arms of the police who clustered around in the thigh-deep water. One of the women—wearing a filthy and soaking orange sarong that stuck to her sticklike limbs—was nursing a tiny infant.

“Why did you jump?” asked Willinghouse, peering at me from behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. “You couldn’t have, I don’t know,
fought them off or something?”

“No,” I said.

“I thought you were more adept at this kind of thing.” He didn’t sound critical as much as curious, and when I glared at him, he shrugged. “What?”

“The one who came after me was too strong, all right? Too skilled.”

“And you saw nothing to identify either him or the gunman in the boat?” Willinghouse pressed.

I shook my head, feeling stupid and useless, looking back to the ragged immigrants, then caught myself.

“There was something,” I said. “He lost a cufflink as we fought on the crane. It might have fallen in the river, but it might not.”

“Where?” asked Andrews.

“I’ll show you,” I said, getting to my feet with the inspector’s help. I scowled at Willinghouse, but he was watching the raft and seemed to have forgotten me entirely, so I led Andrews along the riverbank to the steps and the pier and the crane, a uniformed officer trailing us, uninterested. The hippo was still there, its back turned to the water, pinking in the sun.

“There,” I said. “We were at the midpoint of that boom when he lost the cufflink. It went behind him and hit metal on the way down.”

I shrugged apologetically. It wasn’t much of a clue.

“Benson!” called Andrews to the uniformed officer, pointing.

“Down there, sir?” protested Benson. “There’s a bloody great hippo!”

“Well, keep your distance from it,” said Andrews, not very helpfully.

Benson gave me a baleful look.

“Was it luxorite?” said Willinghouse suddenly.

“What?”

“The cufflink your assailant dropped. Did it contain luxorite?”

“I don’t think so. It was bright but only by reflection. Why?”

“If it was luxorite, he would have had an easier time finding it in the dark,” Willinghouse said with a noncommittal shrug. “Unless it fell into the river, in which case the point is rather moot.”

He said it sourly, the scar on his cheek tightening, as if where the item had fallen was somehow my fault. I talked to push away the sense of failure.

“Probably just crystal or enamel,” I said, “but large and blue.”

It took a moment for this to register in my employer’s face, but the transformation was marked.

“Blue?” snapped Willinghouse. “You’re sure? What shape?”

“I didn’t get a good look at it—”

“Diamond shaped?”

I thought hard, sensing how much he needed me to remember more than I had seen. I shrugged, and my shoulder cried in protest.

“I don’t know for sure,” I said. “Could have been.”

“On a white background?”

“White or silver, yes,” I said. “You know it?”

“Oh yes,” said Willinghouse, and there was something more than pleasure in his face. His jaw was set in grim resolution. He hurried away and was soon poring over the ground behind Andrews and Benson, who was peering into the water below the crane’s piers, keeping a watchful eye on the hippo some thirty yards away. I joined the hunt, but only for a moment. Willinghouse suddenly straightened up with a cry of “Huzzah!” He held the cufflink aloft, and his face was full of grim triumph.

“What is it?” asked Andrews.

“Elitus,” said Willinghouse, holding out the cufflink for Andrews to inspect it. It was indeed a blue crystalline diamond on a silvery white enamel background. “A club. Very exclusive.”

“Never heard of it,” said Andrews.

“No,” Willinghouse answered. “You wouldn’t have. No offense meant. If it’s any consolation, they wouldn’t have me as a member either.”

Andrews raised his eyebrows. Willinghouse was only a junior member of Parliament, but he was a man of considerable means, which was how he was able to employ me.

“Excuse me!”

We all turned to look down to the shore, where Benson gazed up at us with a look of considerable unease. “Did you find what you were looking for? Only, this hippo is eyeballing me something awful… ?”

“Oh, for crying out loud, man!” exclaimed Andrews. “Yes, we found it. Get up here.” He turned back to Willinghouse irritably. “You were saying you wouldn’t be allowed to join this Elitus club. Why not?”

Willinghouse smiled mirthlessly.

“Well, I’m not a member of the right party for one thing, but…” He hesitated. “Let’s just say that the cufflink’s white background is… symbolic.”

Andrews looked taken aback, embarrassed even. He knew that Willinghouse was a quarter Lani, though it wasn’t clear from his appearance. His hair was jet-black like mine, but his eyes were green, and most people would assume he was merely a little tanned by the Feldesland sun. His socialite sister, Dahria, passed even more completely for white.

“Did he see your face? Your skin?” asked Willinghouse.

I bit back my irritation.

“Are you asking if he saw who I was or what I am?” I said.

“Both. Either.”

I looked away.

“My face was masked,” I said. “He didn’t get a good look at me. Whether he could tell I was Lani… I don’t know. Maybe.”

Willinghouse scowled, dissatisfied.

“There’s no need for that, old fellow,” said Andrews. “Miss Sutonga has had a singularly trying experience—”

“I don’t dispute that,” Willinghouse shot back. “I’d just like to know whether our enemy realizes the government has a Lani agent working for them.”

“Your concern is noted,” I said, frostily, “but I can look after myself.”

“My concern,” said Willinghouse, “is that if they do, in fact, know that the person who pursued their agent was Lani or, for that matter female, then your use value just went into a sharp decline, wouldn’t you say?”

Fury got the better of me.

“My use value?” I spat.

“Your function as a government operative.”

“You’re not the government,” I said, swinging wildly now. “You’re a member of Parliament in the opposition’s back benches.”

“Who serves the interests of the city with the means available to him,” Willinghouse retorted.

“Meaning me? I’m the means available to you?”

“Meaning… no,” he said, stuttering to a frustrated halt. “I meant using my family’s fortune, a small part of which has been used to secure your services.”

“And excellent services they are too,” inserted Andrews, trying to keep the peace.

We both glared at him. There was a long silence.

“I’ll also remind you,” said Willinghouse pompously, “that while my party is not currently in power, this is an election year and the Brevard membership has high hopes of—”

“This Elitus place,” I said. “How do I get in?”

Andrews frowned.

“Miss Sutonga,” he said, “these people, whoever they are, have already demonstrated they are quite ruthless. Two people have already died trying to stop them. The documents are gone. The enemy have them, and nothing we do now will change that.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“That is confidential information,” said Andrews. “Even I don’t know—”

“Plans for a new machine gun,” said Willinghouse.

Andrews and I both gaped at him. I had seen a machine gun in use once before. I did not know how they could be made more lethal than they already were, but if someone had that knowledge, someone I had failed to stop…

“The documents were stolen from the War Office,” said Willing-house. “I was in a meeting across the street when the alarm was raised, which is why I was able to alert you to what was going on before the thief made his escape. The shadow secretary for defense spoke to me in the heat of the moment and was, you might say, unguarded in his speech. Something he now regrets. Anyway, yes, the plans are for a new machine gun, and word in government circles is that it’s the Grappoli who took them.”

“Of course,” said Andrews. “They always suspect the Grappoli.”

The Grappoli were the city’s colonial rivals, and they controlled considerably more of Feldesland, the continent of which Bar-Selehm was the jewel, than we did. Bar-Selehm had been established three centuries ago by King Gustav II of Belrand, a country on the northern continent of Panbroke: a pro cess equal parts military conquest, barter, and legal sleight of hand. The city-state eventually became an industrial sprawl unrivaled in Feldesland, but pretty isolated from its neighbors. It had leeched parcels of land away from the indigenous Mahweni over the years, but Bar-Selehm’s total holdings still amounted to no more than a few thousand square miles. The Grappoli’s native lands were in southeast Panbroke, their people still white, but tending to darker hair and eyes than the Belrandians, and their expansion across the sea to Feldesland had been a more concerted effort to dominate the continent. They had taken over whole countries in the north and west and seemed to be perpetually looking to expand farther. It was one of those bitter colonial jokes that when anyone referred to the “Feldish,” they meant the white colonists from Belrand, not the Mahweni who had always lived on the continent and who had called the land something different. I didn’t know what.

Willinghouse nodded.

“I know,” he said. “But this time… the Grappoli are moving east, north of the Hagrab desert. They are claiming obscure legal pre cedent based on settlements made a century or more ago. Reports suggest that they are fuelling tribal conflicts that are driving the locals off the land, and the only modern military resis tance they are encountering comes from local warlords who are fighting only to protect their opium fields. The people who live there are caught in the middle. We don’t know for sure what is happening yet, and there is no suggestion that the conflict might expand south toward Bar-Selehm, but it’s a mess, and a bloody one. Trade routes are being watched; sanctions against the Grappoli are being drawn up. Potential deals between Bar-Selehm and the Grappoli that might in any way augment their military capacity are being debated even as we speak. Some of my more hawkish colleagues are suggesting we send troops north to support the cartels, while others say that the drug lords are clearly the lowest of the very low, and that if we are to take sides at all, we are better lining up alongside the Grappoli. My party’s position is that the Grappoli’s current landgrab may not involve us at all, but we must ensure that Bar-Selehm does not support it, however indirectly. In the long term, the consequences could be dire.”

“The long term?” I said. “What about the northern tribes whose land is being taken now?”

“Miss Sutonga, let’s not make this a crusade, shall we?” he said. His eyes flashed to the now-empty raft surrounded by the coast guard, and I made the connection.

“Them?” I demanded. “That’s what this is? You said they were illegal immigrants.”

“They are!” said Willinghouse.

“But they are also refugees?”

“The lands north of the Hagrab desert are not Bar-Selehm’s concern,” said Willinghouse. “The people who live there have sovereignty over their own territory. Interference on our part would merely spark diplomatic discomfort. The results could easily escalate into trade sanctions, the closing of embassies, the collapse of interna.
tional trade agreements—”

“We’re talking about the Quundu, yes?” I said.

“There are various tribal territories involved,” said Willinghouse wearily, “but yes, the Quundu, the Delfani, the Zagrel—”

“Who all have their own sovereignty,” said Andrews.

“Yes,” I said. “You know what else they have? Spears. Shields covered with buffalo hide. Knives. While the Grappoli have machine guns. But let’s be sure not to spark diplomatic discomfort.”

“You can’t take things like this personally,” said Willinghouse. “It impairs your judgment.”

I watched where the police and coast guard were gathering the weary huddle of women and children together on the shore. Some of them had collapsed. How long had they been at sea? Days? Weeks? There were bodies on the raft that I had thought were sleeping, but they had not moved after the others disembarked. One wailing woman splashed through the water toward a small body, while a policeman pulled her back.…

“How do I get into Elitus?” I asked again, turning back to Willing-house, my tone neutral.

“I really don’t think—” Andrews began, but I cut him off with a look.

“How do I get in?”

“If someone of my status can’t get into Elitus,” said Willinghouse, “how on earth am I going to get a full-blood Lani girl in?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But I can’t wait to find out.”

Excerpted from Firebrand, copyright © 2017 by A.J. Hartley.

Thursday, April 27th, 2017 06:00 pm

Posted by Maurice Broaddus

One of the things I’m passionate about is community development. In trying to figure out how to do this using writing, I became a part of an arts collective called The Learning Tree. We’re a group of organized neighbors that specializes in Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). We identify and invest in the individuals, organizations, and the community to see and celebrate the abundance in our neighborhood. Simply put, our neighbors are our business partners.

The community I work in, like other communities, is rich with gifted talented individuals who care about each other and their community but don’t have financial stability. The problem is that poor people aren’t being seen. There is a misrepresentation of poor people, in terms of who they are and what their capacity is to effect change within their communities. The dominant narrative about poor people or neighborhoods is that they are impoverished, broken, and filled with needs. Most stories of the poor focus on their economic and personal failures. Stories define a people. Stories reflect a people. Stories shape our perception, from the news to media to politics. The thing about stories, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, is that it’s easy to let a bad one in you. Once labeled, it’s a constant battle not to live into that label.

Inspired by the book Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day (by Stuart Rutherford, Jonathan Morduch, and Daryl Collins), I was hired on as the staff writer to help collect the stories of our neighbors. Our thinking is that people in the neighborhood need to see themselves, their potential, their gifts, their talents, something to show the best of themselves. And there’s no better mirror than story. We pay attention to people’s gifts, seeing them as cultural, social, and productive assets within the community rather than consigning them to economic exile. As a part of getting to know our neighbors, I write profiles emphasizing their social capital, their skills, talents, and passions; their ability to fix things, trade goods, grow things. I write about how they commercialize their hobbies, invent, produce art, produce music, educate, and care for one another.

Where the system falls short, poor people slip through society’s cracks. We measure our neighborhood’s economic vitality and map their assets. We discover the informal economy outside of the consumer one. As we know people’s social capital, continue to build trust and cooperation, we organize. So what does this look like in action?

One day a group of neighbors from our community stumbled upon 25 doors dumped in an alley. This was a perfect metaphor of how our neighborhood was seen from the outside: someone in the city decided we were no longer useful or had any value so we’d been discarded and left to be forgotten. One of our artist neighbors came up with the idea to have the artists in our neighborhood—we had come to know over two dozen—paint their stories. As word got out, people started donating doors to us. We have about 70 painted doors which have been a part of several exhibits and are now traveling around the country.

It’s not just art for art’s sake, but rather using art to bring economic development for our neighborhood residents. We want to build their financial portfolio through employment and vocational opportunities. Through grants and investments, we pay our artists. We hire folks the system chews up and spits out, for example, formerly incarcerated young men to curate our art galleries. So for us, art is about survival.

Art brings people together. From music to story, narratives are important. Narratives shape. Narratives build capacity. Narratives are educational, with people learning from one another. This year we want to explore using story even more with a project we’re calling Sawubona 46208 (“Sawubona” is a Zulu greeting meaning “I see you”). We will take the stories of some of our neighbors, create short plays and monologues, and stage those stories on the porches of abandoned houses and street corners to reclaim those spaces (and quietly highlight the issue of gentrification in our community). Stories of the history and legacy of segregation in the city. Stories of the experiences with the criminal justice system. Stories of struggle, survival, and hope. We will film the productions to eventually create a documentary on the story of our neighborhood.

We’ve already assembled our Design Team—hip hop artists, actresses/actors, poets, visual artists, videographers, musicians—all from within the community. Each were artists out in the community largely doing their own thing. We thought it important for us to see and get to know one another. To see what sort of resources we had within the community so that we can support what each other s doing. And to show each of us that we weren’t out there alone anymore.

For a long time I struggled with the notion that “I’m only a writer, what can I do?” and, if I’m completely honest, used it as an excuse to do nothing. Art lifts community. Story creates identity. If we don’t control our own narratives, others certainly will. Our communities are more self-sufficient, more capable, than the dominant narrative wants to portray. Through art, through writing, we can catalog the positive things happening in our neighborhoods, we can make the invisible visible, and be the change we want to see. Through art, we resist.

Maurice Broaddus is the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Knights of Breton Court. Some of his stories have been collected in The Voices of Martyrs, out now from Rosarium Publishing, and he has a novella, Buffalo Soldier, available now from Tor.com Publishing.