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Thursday, April 18th, 2019 08:59 pm

Posted by Associated Press

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Millions more Instagram users were affected by a password security lapse than parent company Facebook acknowledged nearly four weeks ago.

The social media giant said in late March that it had inadvertently stored passwords in plain text, making it possible for its thousands of employees to search them. It said the passwords were stored on internal company servers, where no outsiders could access them.

Facebook said in a blog post Thursday that it now estimates that “millions” of Instagram users were affected by the lapse, instead of the “tens of thousands” it had originally reported. It had also said in March that the issue affected “hundreds of millions” of Facebook Lite users and millions of Facebook users. Facebook Lite is designed for people with older phones or slow internet connections.

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 07:00 pm

Posted by Leah Schnelbach

The Municipalists, Seth Fried’s debut novel, is a futuristic noir that isn’t quite a noir; a bumpy buddy cop story where the cops are a career bureaucrat and computer program, and most of the outsized emotions belong to the computer program; a love letter to cities that actually looks at the ways cities are destroyed by systemic inequality.

It’s also deeply, constantly funny, and able to transform from a breezy page-turner into a serious exploration of class and trauma in a few well-turned sentences.

At first it seems like a wacky buddy cop book. The buttoned-down bureaucrat Henry Thompson is a proud member of United States Municipal Survey, traveling around the country to make improvements to city infrastructures. The Municipalists of the title are the people who hover behind the scenes like a sort of benevolent community theater version of Brazil: they actually want cities to be more efficient, healthier, and safer for all of their diverse inhabitants. The United States Municipal Survey is the massive hub that sends out region station masters, the people who preside over each city locally. This is the kind of position where increasing train efficiency and shaving a minute off an average rush hour commute time can not just make your career, but earn you a folk hero status that will be repeated to colleagues for years to come.

Henry thrives in this environment—up to a point. He is frighteningly good at all the minutia and t-crossing and i-dotting that needs to happen for his department to run well. He’s a born bureaucrat, and he loves filing paperwork. But as becomes clear in the opening pages of the book, he’s also still recovering from trauma in his childhood—or he’s not recovering. Not really. Henry has no friends. The other agents avoid him, mock him behind his back, sneer at his love of model trains. In a building stuffed with wonks, he is too much wonk.

This bureaucratic soul will get him in a lot of trouble over the course of the book, but it also saves his life a couple of times.

It’s clear that we’re in a slightly alternate U.S., but some places are the same: South Bend Indiana gets a mention; Detroit’s decline is based on a bureaucratic fight rather than the collapse of the American auto industry/institutional racism. But possibly the most important element of the AU is that D.C has been transformed into Suitland, Maryland, and New York City is now Metropolis, and is larger and better organized than this universe’s version of my fair home.

Described by the former poet laureate Anaya Davis as “the million-city city,” Metropolis is a clash of competing visions. Art deco skyscrapers dating back to the rise of the automobile stand alongside modern glass spires and sidescrapers that run along whole avenues. Buildings with programmable facades adjust themselves into pleasing shapes under the shadow cast by the knobbled steeple of a two-hundred-year-old cathedral.

The perfect grid of broad streets occasionally gives way to labyrinthine tangles where cobblestones still push up through the pavement, cramped streets winding through old neighborhoods of two-story brick buildings that tempt those passing through to imagine a thousand rainy afternoons in the 1800s or drunk sailors getting lost on some bleedingly hot summer night. These reveries are inevitably interrupted by the sudden sight of buildings stretching vertiginously overhead or by the powerful rush of air from a vent underfoot as an express bullet train races uptown.

Or at least it was better organized, on the surface, until the kidnapping of a beloved teen celebrity left the city reeling, only for people to be knocked truly punch-drunk by a series of terrorist attacks.

The attacks and the kidnapping might be related.

We’re soon taken all the way into sci-fi territory however when Henry gains a partner—a snarky AI called OWEN who is positively giddy about being sentient. He (he seems to prefer masculine pronouns) has access to pretty much all knowledge, an can project himself, via Henry’s tie clip, in any form he wants, and he flashes through an array of costumes and accessories over the course of his first case. He’s also an alcoholic (in a digital sort of way—at one point he vomits green code all over Henry’s shoes) which becomes more and more of an issue as the story goes on.

The banter between them is witty and quick, and Fried finds absurd humor in their case, as when they attempt a stake out at the Metropolis Museum of History (MetMoH)and receive an unexpected assist from one of the exhibits:

After entering the exhibit as museum guards, we found a nice location in one of the many bond spots of the museum’s surveillance cameras. Across from us was also a surprisingly graphic display of a moose giving birth, which was driving enough patrons away from our general area that we were able to get settled without anyone noticing.

Of course OWEN, being a computer program, doesn’t understand why groups of teens keep wandering by and cracking up, which leads to Henry having to explain the innate hilarity of moose vaginas to a certain type of person. OWEN is also a bit baffled by human behavior in general, as most of his education comes from the classic noir and Westerns that he was fed by his creator, mad computer genius Dr. Gustav Klaus. Unfortunately, he insists on applying hardboiled gumshoe solutions to their case, and Henry is very much not a hardboiled gumshoe.

Seth Fried has been writing fiction and humor for years now, with excellent short work popping up in McSweeney’sTin House, One Story, and The New Yorker—his Tin House story “Mendelssohn”, about a Raccoon of Unusual Size, was a particular favorite of mine. His 2011 short story collection, The Great Frustration, was wildly diverse. Now with The Municipalists he proves that he can orchestrate a tight, complicated plot, without ever losing touch with his characters. And maybe best of all he keeps his usual sharp humor, but never at the expense of heart. Henry’s pain is real, and so is his fraught friendship with OWEN. The motivations of the various terrorists and kidnappers in the book are nuanced and complex. There is no black and white here. Everyone has a point.

My one quibble here is that as a basically humorous novel that is also a noir riff, we get a lot of violence and action scenes, and Fried keeps an extremely light touch in those scenes. OWEN is obviously invulnerable, as a holographic AI, but Henry gets knocked around quite a bit, and I think there are points where Fried could have stayed in the violence and pain a bit longer to help the punches land, as it were. But that’s a very small note in the midst of an inventive and ultimately moving book.

At its heart, Fried’s book is about a very big topic indeed. What makes a city? Who is a city for? Is it for the rich who can shuttle between fancy penthouses and even-fancier cocktail lounges? Is it for the young, spiritually hungry student who wants to make their mark on the world by any means necessary? Is it for the poor and working class, the people who race between shifts at diners and shifts in cabs, the people who work 70-hour weeks to try to earn their way into a better school district? What is the City’s responsibility to its people? Why the hell do only rich people get to send their kids to good schools? Is a successful city defined by its gross income or its leisure or by the dollar signs on its real estate or its average commute times or by the happiness of its residents? And how is happiness even defined?

Like I said, there is a lot here. But Fried has also given us an endearing protagonist in Henry Thompson, and an all-time classic drunken AI, and if there’s any justice in the cities in this reality this will be the first book in a Municipalists-verse.

The Municipalists is available from Penguin Books.
Book cover: Penguin Books; Background photo: Ville Hyvönen. Modified from the original under CC BY-SA 2.0

Leah Schnelbach wants an AI sidekick, dammit. Or, maybe she should be the sidekick? Whatever. Come celebrate efficiency with her on Twitter!

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 05:30 pm

Posted by Bogi Takács

A Matter of Oaths is Helen S. Wright’s first and—so far—only novel, originally published in 1988 and re-released in 2017. It is a traditional space opera book with the mindbending, baroque elements characteristic of 1980s SF, but also with very clear queer themes: Two of the male protagonists and point of view characters are in a relationship with each other, and there are other queer characters as well. The gay elements are very matter-of-fact, and both clearly spelled out and treated as completely ordinary in the setting. A Matter of Oaths is not an issue book of any kind, but rather something that’s very much in demand right now: a space adventure with characters who just happen to be queer.

Rafe is a webber: a person who has gone through a set of standard body modifications to be able to connect to the web of a spaceship. Webs are complicated control systems which connect several people together to guide a ship, or perform another task of comparable complexity. Rafe is great at what he does, yet he has difficulty finding a job because of his past as an oath-breaker—he defected from one interstellar empire to another, earning him a mind-wipe and a permanent blemish on his record. Thanks to the memory-wipe, Rafe’s not even sure why he broke his oath. He has spent the decade since then taking jobs far below his expertise.

Rallya is a spaceship commander and an elderly woman, serving well past the time when webbers usually retire, but still going strong. Her ship has an open position, and her Webmaster Joshim is interested in hiring Rafe. Rafe is both talented and charming… but he seems to have enemies in high places. Rafe and Joshim begin a relationship, but troubles start to mount as, after a decade of ignorance, Rafe’s memories of his past slowly resurface. Why does everyone want to kill Rafe, and what can the crew of the spaceship do to prevent it?

A Matter of Oaths is an engaging novel with multiple points of view and a cast that is also diverse along multiple axes. Very few people seem to be white (one of the two rival emperors is a notable exception), queerness is just business as usual, and there’s also some casual disability inclusion. Characters have a fair amount of sex, but it is not shown in detail; I personally did not feel that the narrative was voyeuristic. Sex is an aspect of their lives, but not a particular focus—they are busy enough with staying alive! I was happy to see that the author didn’t fall into the trap of “if the future is more open-minded, then everyone must have a lot of casual sex”—some characters certainly do, while others aren’t interested.

Going in, I thought this would be a novel with space magic, but in my reading, all the magic seems to be very advanced technology. Moreover, this technology has real-world parallels. There were multiple spots in the narrative where I thought the author’s work background showed through; Wright has worked “in a wide variety of Information Technology roles in the electricity generation and supply industry” according to her bio in the book. For example, I felt that one scene where something goes really wrong in the web was especially believable, both in the small details and the larger conceptual aspects of how such a system would work… and how it would malfunction. A Matter of Oaths is quite unlike so much of the early cyberpunk that was devoid of a real understanding of technology, though it shares many of the same core themes.

The only part of the worldbuilding which could perhaps be considered more fantasy than science fiction comes at a point when the characters discuss techniques for remembering one’s past lives, but this happens in the context of religious observance, and at a later point, another character expresses skepticism about reincarnation. The book itself doesn’t seem to take a stance, here: Some people we meet hold these beliefs, while others don’t.

Despite the more technological aspects, this is a solidly character-oriented book, and very enjoyable as such: You get to root for the protagonists and become frustrated with the antagonists. I only had one qualm: Rallya has less of a role in the last sections of the book, as she prepares to move into a more political position. I would love to see this followed up in a second book; while the author is now writing again, however, her current project doesn’t sound like a sequel to this novel. I am still holding out hope, because there are many fascinating plot threads that could be addressed. One of the most tantalizing is the plot line where Rafe chances upon a mysterious object whose provenance we never quite find out. Large-scale political changes are also set in motion, affecting the characters’ lives. I feel there is room here for at least a trilogy, if not more… and while there wasn’t as much space for this type of queer storytelling in publishing in the late 1980s, there certainly is now.

Moreover, the book has aged surprisingly well when we consider the broader social context. Minus a little outdated terminology, nothing struck me as particularly hurtful. Sometimes fun queer space adventures adopt science fiction tropes without considering their imperialist and/or colonialist origins, and this can really sour me on entire plots. (“Fight against the evil aliens, whose planet we invaded in the first place” is an example that still keeps reoccurring, even in recent books.) In A Matter of Oaths the author uses empires as a major component of the plot, but they are by and large presented as a problem, not a solution—the characters tilt against the political status quo and are also constrained by it.

The only thing that frustrated me somewhat was the detail about Rafe having some “near-human” ancestry; this aspect of the worldbuilding wasn’t discussed at length. I read it as related to humanoid extraterrestrials, but with Rafe being a person of color, this made me uneasy and brought to my mind books where species is a stand-in for race… though this was mitigated somewhat by almost every other character being a person of color, too.

An endnote for completionists: The text of the re-release seems to be identical to the previous editions, with the exception of the dedication. (Though it should be noted that I do not have a print book of the first edition to compare, only a PDF file that used to be available on the author’s website while the book was out of print.)

Next time, I will be talking about an epic fantasy tome of Tolkienesque proportions and ambitions—one that is almost unknown today!

Book cover: Bloomsbury Caravel; Background image: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 04:00 pm

Posted by Tyler Dean

Let’s start with an unpopular opinion that I happen to hold: Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy are, by far, the two best characters in both George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and the TV show based upon it. Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep fondness for Tyrion, I’m on board with Daenerys, Sam, Arya, Catelyn, Brienne and a whole slew of others. But Sansa and Theon are in a class by themselves. This is probably due, in no small part, to their position as Martin’s window into the Gothic, which is a genre that dominates my professional and personal life.

Martin’s series is most often compared to the works of epic fantasy writers like Tolkien and Robert Jordan. He cites historical fiction writers like Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwall, and Sharon Kay Penman as some of his biggest influences. With HBO’s adaptation, we have seen horror become a third dominant genre, especially with the hiring of The Descent’s Neil Marshall to direct two of the series’ biggest episodes (season two’s “Blackwater,” and season four’s “Watchers on the Wall”) …and, you know, all the zombies. But, in a series that is so focused on the ways in which people obtain, hoard, and lose political power, it is worth noting that the Gothic threads—especially those in Sansa and Theon’s plotlines—are some of the most explicit and nuanced in their discussion of that central theme. This is the first of two articles on the subject. In this one, we’ll discuss the general ways in which we might talk about Martin and the Gothic as well as do a deep dive into the life of Sansa Stark, the more obvious candidate for the mantle of Gothic heroine.

[Potential spoilers: This article discusses Game of Thrones through Season 7 and the Song of Ice and Fire books through The Winds of Winter preview chapters.]

In order to talk about the ways that Martin’s novel embraces the Gothic and uses it to nuance and sharpen his central conceits, it’s important to understand a little bit about the Gothic in general. It’s a genre that spans four centuries and has a lot of different permutations but, for the purposes of this article, let’s say that the Gothic is a series of interrelated tropes that usually coalesce as stories about imprisoned women. There is the Gothic heroine: usually an innocent maiden who is denied her birthright or her inheritance as part of a dastardly scheme. There is the Gothic villain: usually an older, miserly, but sometimes very seductive man who plans to marry and murder the heroine to get at her money or her magical powers. And there is the Gothic hero: usually an afterthought, but nevertheless a plucky and good-hearted young man who ends up marrying the heroine and inheriting her money (but doesn’t want to murder her). There are often creepy abandoned ruins, ghosts that warn people of past transgressions, corrupt clergymen, psychological torture, and at least one sequence where the heroine faints at the sight of something dreadful.

The Gothic is also a genre in which female authors have dominated and the concept of female interiority is central to its identity. An important feature of many Gothic novels is a female protagonist who spends much of the novel imprisoned or otherwise isolated and, as a result, lost in her own thoughts—bringing her feelings, her fears, and her personhood to the forefront. Many scholars have made a case for one particular trope or another being central but I have always been most convinced by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim that the unifying idea of the Gothic is “live burial,” whether literal or figurative.

One form of live burial that is all but ubiquitous in Gothic novels is imprisonment within a striking space. The genre itself takes its name from the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages because many early Gothic novels were set in the romantic ruins of Gothic castles or cathedrals. The Castle of Otranto, the 1763 Horace Walpole novella that is generally considered to be the first Gothic work, takes place almost entirely in the imposing and haunted Medieval ruin for which it is named. Anne Radcliffe’s 1791 novel The Romance of the Forest is centered around an abandoned abbey that has become a haunt for bandits and been reclaimed by dense woods. While the use of the literal architectural style has become less common in Gothic tales, the trope of setting one’s story in a once-grand place that has fallen into ruin and reflects the corrupting and corrosive excesses of its degenerate residents is still very much a core feature. Martin seems to have a fondness for Gothic spaces that reflect the cruelty and monstrousness of its inhabitants. Sprawling haunted ruins like Harrenhal, dismal forgotten relics like Dragonstone, cursed halls like the Nightfort, and even Martin’s iconic, central vision of a bladed throne that is described as has having a strange will of its own are all uncannily familiar to Gothicists.

Martin ensures that the majority of Sansa Stark’s plot in A Feast for Crows is spent in such a place. The Eyrie, seat of House Arryn, which was previously visited during Tyrion and Catelyn chapters in A Game of Thrones, becomes deeply unnerving in Sansa chapters, featuring pillars like “fingerbones” and “shadows [that] danced upon the floors and pooled in every corner”. We are told that there was “no quieter castle in the seven kingdoms” and her final vision of it in the novel is that, in oncoming winter, it is a perverse fairytale structure: “a honeycomb made of ice”.

But, as with all Gothic spaces, the haunted quality is more than physical. Sansa spends months in the largely empty Eyrie after the murder of her aunt listening to the sad music of the singer falsely accused of the crime. Martin opens Sansa’s chapters in the fourth novel with the assertion that “No matter where she went in the castle, Sansa could not escape the music. It floated up the winding tower steps, found her naked in the bath, supped with her at dusk, and stole into her bedchamber even when she latched the shutters tight”. The Gothic is often a meditation on female powerlessness where the gaze of the patriarchy (and oftentimes of the Gothic villain patriarch) is literally built into the architecture: the painting with cut-out eyes through which a woman is spied upon, or the ghastly cherubic heads that magically turn to watch their hapless mark. Here in the Eyrie, the music of the doomed singer follows Sansa into intimate spaces; it observes her naked, it plays at marital domesticity with her while she eats, it sneaks into her bedroom, menacingly. The music is a polymorphous metaphor as well: the soundscape of the Eyrie, the sound of her captor Littlefinger’s plans coming to fruition, the mournful song of Marillion—a man who tried to sexually assault her. In two sentences, Martin makes the Eyrie a place of not just imprisonment, but of the peculiar mixture of loneliness and sexual menace that defines so much of the Gothic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In many of the most iconic Gothic novels—Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) just to name a few—the central plot of the novel involves a coerced, forced, or otherwise suspect marriage. Much of Sedgwick’s vision of “live burial” is the acquiescence of the Gothic heroine to the matrimonial assault provided by the Gothic villain who may or may not desire her but needs something from her, be it her virtue, her dowry, or her lineage. Sansa Stark is something of an overdetermined Gothic heroine insofar as she is constantly being used as a pawn in numerous marriage plots. The novels begin with her being engaged to Prince Joffrey Baratheon to secure an alliance between the Northern and Southern regions of Westeros. Once her native North is in open rebellion against the throne, she is married to Joffrey’s uncle, Tyrion Lannister, in an attempt to give him a kingdom to inherit via their prospective children. After Tyrion is framed for Joffrey’s murder, Sansa is abducted/rescued by Petyr Baelish who has an unhealthy obsession with Sansa’s mother. In the books, Baelish plans to marry her off to Harry Hardyng, the unlikely heir to yet another region of the fractured kingdom. By contrast, the TV show has Baelish marry her to Ramsay Bolton, the heir to the family that became the Wardens of North after Sansa’s own family was slaughtered. So that’s three different marriage plots in the books and one alternate version in the show, all of which are Gothic novels in miniature.

The main villain of Sansa’s plotline in the novels and certainly the animating force behind her misfortunes in the show is Petyr Baelish, often referred to as Littlefinger. Even apart from his relationship with Sansa, Littlefinger ticks many of the boxes commonly found in Gothic villains. He is a scheming social climber who uses his cunning to upset the “natural order” of aristocratic succession and lay claim to titles and lands beyond his reach. Like many Gothic villains, he is physically unimposing—described early on as very short and prematurely gray. This means that, in grand Gothic tradition, the menace he represents is not in brute strength; Gothic heroines often fear for their lives in Gothic novels, but it is because the villains have set clever traps for them. In Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and many other works, there are scheming servants that watch the heroine’s every move. Littlefinger has a vast network of paid informants and loyal spies seeded in various courts throughout Westeros; Sansa is initially drawn into his grasp by trusting in the knight-turned-fool, Ser Dontos Hollard, who turns out to be invested in her only so far as Littlefinger’s money carries him. In France’s tradition of the tale of Bluebeard, the means of control is a magical (and bloody) key, and, indeed, Gothic villains often employ or are themselves practitioners of dark, magical arts. Littlefinger also commands sinister and arcane forces—though in Martin’s fantasy-light narrative these forces are economic and political in nature. Sansa even draws the comparison between Baelish’s smooth talk and sorcery after witnessing him play a number of lords off against one another, saying, “He betwitched them. But perhaps the greatest weapon that Gothic villains wield is the power of doubt and terror. Eve Sedgwick’s paramount principle of “live burial” also refers to a kind of self-burial that comes as a result of gaslighting. Gothic heroines are often portrayed as so isolated and misinformed by the villains that imprison them that they begin to believe they are mad. Littlefinger’s repeated insistence that “some lies are love”  is offered to Sansa as a bit of wisdom for surviving courtly intrigues, but it is the mantra of the serial gaslighter.

And this brings us to one of the more Gothic structural aspects of Martin’s novels: Martin does not number his chapters and only titles them with the name of the close third person “narrator.” This becomes much more interesting and complex in books four and five when characters begin to be identified by something other than their full first name. In some cases, the nomenclature appears to be a sign of the character’s “lesser” status in the narrative. Martin admits that he needed to add in a few more narrators than he planned in order to make the scope of his story work and, in these cases, relatively minor characters get points of view but also have their individuality stripped away by giving them descriptive titles. This includes folks like Ser Arys Oakheart who is called “The Soiled Knight” in his single chapter, and in the cases where the character has multiple chapters, it changes each time to further relegate them; for example, Quentyn Martell’s chapters are titled, variously “The Merchant’s Man,” “The Spurned Suitor,” “The Windblown,” and “The Dragontamer.”

Martin also uses this convention to begin to ask deep questions about the effect of gaslighting on identity, playing into the Gothic themes of interiority and live burial. A central feature of many Gothic novels is the slow dissolution of self when subjected to the Stockholm syndrome that follows long imprisonment. Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel The Woman in White, for instance, hinges on the revelation that two different women are, in fact, one and the same and that the unfortunate heroine has been so thoroughly brainwashed that she herself does not realize it. Sansa, who must pretend to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter, Alayne Stone, has her Feast for Crows and upcoming Winds of Winter chapters titled “Alayne.” This is revealed to be more than a writerly flourish as Sansa’s chapters in those novels deal with the ways in which the eldest Stark daughter begins to blur the line between her pretended identity and her actual one. In A Feast for Crows, Littlefinger tells her that she “‘must be Alayne all the time.’ He put two fingers on her left breast. ‘Even here. In your heart.’”. By the time of The Winds of Winter, Sansa’s internal narrative reflects her slow conversion from one person to another: “She felt alive again, for the first since her father…since Lord Eddard Stark had died.”  

Alayne Stone is careful to correct herself when she begins to think of herself as Sansa Stark, but Martin also uses her narrative to explore the whole of these struggles with assumed identity. Martin is fairly explicit about this in her first Feast chapter, wherein Sansa attempts to discern whether or not she can trust her protector/captor:

He had saved her. He had saved Alayne, his daughter, a voice within her whispered. But she was Sansa too…and sometimes it seemed to her that the Lord Protector was two people as well. He was Petyr, her protector, warm and funny and gentle…but he was also Littlefinger, the Lord she’d known at King’s Landing, smiling slyly and stroking his beard as he whispered in Queen Cersei’s ear. And Littlefinger was no friend of hers. […] Only sometimes, Sansa found it hard to tell where the man ended and the mask began. Littlefinger and Lord Petyr looked so very much alike.

As Sansa attempts to reckon with whether or not she can be Alayne Stone and not just pretend to be her, she comes to the startling conclusion that there is no way for her to trust in any action, no matter how seemingly altruistic. Littlefinger/Petyr is a rapidly collapsing binary and Sansa is increasingly unable, throughout A Feast for Crows to discern whether or not any action is a part of the man or the mask.

This is made all the more uncomfortable and dangerous by the fact that it is the lie that protects Sansa. As Alayne Stone, she is Littlefinger’s bastard daughter and thereby immune to his sexual advances. As Sansa Stark she is a surrogate for Catelyn—the only woman Littlefinger professes to have loved—and thereby exposed to his predatory behavior. It is, after all, only after Sansa’s aunt Lysa has seen Littlefinger kiss her that she threatens Sansa’s life—a course of action that ends with Littlefinger murdering Lysa. And at the end of Sansa’s Feast for Crows chapters, Littlefinger simultaneously drops the mask, letting Sansa in on his plans to elevate her to Lady of the Vale, while also demanding her physical affection. After she kisses him on the cheek to welcome him home from travels abroad, Martin tells us that “He pulled her closer, caught her face between his hands and kissed her on the lips for a long time. ‘Now that’s the sort of kiss that says welcome home. See that you do better next time’”. By chapter’s end, he reiterates his promise to secure her future, saying, “So those are your gifts from me, my sweet Sansa […] That’s worth another kiss now, don’t you think?”. It is one of the few times in the novel that Littlefinger calls her “Sansa,” fully acknowledging her autonomous identity as someone other than a daughter under his control. It also comes with a demand for recompense. If Littlefinger is dropping the mask and revealing that he is her advocate, he also reveals that he expects her sexual attentions and is, in fact, her captor. She is his hostage even as he seeks to foil her other would-be captors.

If this revelation is not much of a surprise to the reader, it is one to Sansa herself. Throughout the first three books in the series, Sansa thinks in terms of songs and fairytales. She is utterly seduced by the sanitized pageantry of Medieval courtly love. When the drunken, debt-ridden Ser Dontos offers her a way out, she thinks of him as “my Florian,” a legendary fool whose buffoonish exterior hides his martial prowess and romantic heart. Sansa has often occupied a place of contempt for misogynists who cite her belief in these stories as proof of her lack of intelligence. But, if Sansa is obsessed with fairy tales of brave knights and virtuous maidens, so too is the rest of Westeros. Even Littlefinger, who claims to be beyond the reach of comforting stories has lived his entire life in the shadow of one—throughout the novels, it is revealed that, as a boy, he challenged Catelyn’s fiancee, Brandon Stark, to a duel for her affections. The TV show condenses his line of thinking thus:

[Catelyn] loved me too. I was her little confidant, her plaything. She could tell me anything, anything at all. […] The castle she wanted to live in and the man that she wanted to marry. […] So I challenged him to a duel. I mean, why not? I’d read all the stories. The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories. In the end, she wouldn’t even let him kill me.  

Though Littlefinger has built his life in reaction to this incident and seemingly made himself into a cure for this kind of hopeful romanticism, he is still beholden to it. It is not so much that Littlefinger sees the world as it is, but that he sees it as the inverse of the stories he once believed in. When taking Sansa from the capitol, he even slips back into the grandly romantic fairytale of his youth, telling her, “I could never have [Catelyn’s] hand. But she gave me something finer, a gift a woman can give but once. How could I turn my back upon her daughter? In a better world, you might have been mine, not Eddard Stark’s. My loyal loving daughter.” Littlefinger, it would seem, cannot help but try and justify his actions through the rose-tinted glasses of courtly love stories.

Martin has made Westeros a place of unimaginable cruelty and horror, but it is a place whose outer appearance is one of genteel pageants, stirring tourneys, and heroic battles between easily differentiated good and evil. We even see this revisionism in response to events within the novels themselves. Joffrey’s wedding involves a song called “Renly’s Last Ride” where a murdered would-be claimant to the throne and former enemy of the Lannisters is reimagined as having repented in death and come to the aid of his foes to defeat his murderer and clear his good name. We as readers know the mundane reason that Renly’s armor appeared to ride into battle, but it is the song that wins out. Westeros is built on the songs and stories that Sansa is so often criticized for being obsessed with.

And the Gothic, as a genre, is similarly built on songs and stories. Gothic fiction largely takes place in ruins, as we discussed earlier. But those ruins must be remnants of once-great places in order for the effect of their desolation to be felt. There is a reason that we think of ghost stories as taking place in sprawling castles, stately English manor houses, and decrepit mansions. The story of greatness comes first and the Gothic is produced in the decayed and degenerate difference between what was then and what is now. In that way, Sansa’s dawning recognition of her thorough entrapment and the fact that she clings, in that live burial represented by her false identity and circumstances, to stories of a past that has long since ceased to be, is our recognition of just how Gothic Martin’s world truly is and how everyone—from villains to heroines—is buried alive within it.

In part two, we’ll look at Theon Greyjoy, Martin’s other great Gothic heroine, and the way in which the show has attempted to double down on these themes by bringing the two of them together.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 03:00 pm

Posted by Megan N. Fontenot

Picture of a golden-haired warrior

In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment focuses on Glorfindel, an Elf-lord with only a few appearances, who channels the divine power of the Other-world and whose presence in Middle-earth twice assures the survival of—well, basically everything.

Glorfindel has the double distinction of being, first of all, an elf whose name was so unique that Tolkien felt like it couldn’t be used again for anyone else; and second of all, an elf whose power was so great that he was specifically sent back to Middle-earth by the Valar to aid Elrond and Gandalf in the fight against Sauron. But his fame doesn’t end there: the tale of this particular character is also what drove Tolkien to almost tirelessly revise his theory of elvish reincarnation.

His textual history, while not as complex as some of the others’ we’ve looked at so far in this series, is particularly fascinating because he appeared in a relatively stable form so early in Tolkien’s drafts. In fact, the Glorfindel who appears in the 1916 or 1917 version of The Fall of Gondolin is not all that different from the Glorfindel of the final version of The Lord of the Rings—and indeed, the latter depends entirely on the former for its coherence.

The earliest drafts of The Fall of Gondolin were written during and around Tolkien’s time in the trenches of WWI, though as Christopher Tolkien notes, it’s difficult to date them exactly since Tolkien himself offered several different origins stories for the (The Fall of Gondolin, hereafter FoG, 21-22). Whatever the exact date of the story’s birth, it is at least clear that Tolkien was approximately 24 years old when he began to pen these drafts, and that they represented, significantly, the first forays into the great mythos growing in his mind.

However much one loves Tolkien and admires his work, it must be admitted that these early drafts are difficult to read. Here’s the sentence that introduces the star of today’s column: “There stood the house of the Golden Flower who bare a rayed sun upon their shield, and their chief Glorfindel bare a mantel so broidered in threads of gold that it was diapered with celandine as a field in spring; and his arms were damascened with cunning gold” (Book of Lost Tales II, hereafter BLT II, 174-5). The vocabulary is rich and beautiful, to be sure, but it leaves us with a text that is difficult to navigate, especially if you aren’t used to language of that sort.

The important thing to note is that even here in the early stages, we have Glorfindel, Lord of the House of the Golden Flower of Gondolin, as powerful and high-hearted as he is beautiful. When Gondolin is sacked by the armies of Morgoth and overrun with Balrogs (seriously—Our Heroes kill them by the dozen in the early days), Glorfindel and his company act as rear-guard for the fleeing refugees, and it’s the selfless sacrifice of Glorfindel that allows them to escape when a Balrog comes roaring into their midst. Without the scene of the Battle of the Cleft of Eagles, in fact, Glorfindel as he is known in The Lord of the Rings could not exist.

The point is that in The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel acts as a shaman, which essentially means that he is a sort of in-between figure who has direct access to both the spiritual and physical worlds, and that his purpose on Middle-earth is to protect “souls” who are threatened by the powers of the Shadow. He couldn’t do this if it weren’t for his previous battle with the Balrog. Why? Because that battle is his initiation.

There are a number of elements that seem to be ubiquitous in a shamanic initiation experience: a dangerous or narrow passage, a dizzying climb, the clash of opposites, an encounter with fire, the experience of radical paradoxes, a struggle with a demonic force, and the ascent of the soul, often symbolized by the appearance of eagles. All of these things are present even in the earliest versions of Glorfindel’s battle with the Balrog. Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, the fact that the battle takes place above the “Cleft of Eagles” already signals that we’re going to be dealing with some kind of ecstasy or spiritual transfiguration. Eagles, in many mythologies and in Tolkien’s stories, metaphorically represent the moment when the struggling soul is transformed and raised up by some great act of courage, sacrifice, or heroism. (This is, incidentally, why the Fellowship couldn’t possibly just fly the eagles to Mordor. The eagles only ever appear when the soul has extended itself to the utmost, poured itself out, or reached the point at which there is no more physical escape: suddenly, in agony and ecstasy, the soul is transfigured and raised beyond the heights of the material world. So no, just sitting around waiting on the eagles to function as literal transportation across Middle-earth doesn’t work, won’t ever work. Go ahead. Look at all the scenes with eagles. I’ll wait.) So, when the refugees of Gondolin enter the Cleft of Eagles, with enemies on their heels and a Balrog leaping down among them, we should be prepared for an encounter that will try the soul.

And it does. The path the company travels is one that hems them in: the Cleft of Eagles, or Cirith Thoronath—

…is an ill place by reason of its height, for this is so great that spring nor summer come ever there, and it is very cold. […] The path is narrow, and of the right or westerly hand a sheer wall rises nigh seven chains from the way, ere it bursts atop into jagged pinnacles where are many eyries. […] But of the other hand is a fall not right sheer yet dreadly steep, and it has long teeth of rock up-pointing so that one may climb down—or fall maybe—but by no means up. And from that deep is no escape at either end any more than by the sides. (FoG 104)

In this description we see some of the important markers for a shamanic initiation. The way is dangerous and narrow, there are great opposites existing simultaneously (on the one hand is a great height and on the other a great depth), and it’s terribly cold, which will be important later because the Balrog comes as a demon of fire (heat).

Then the Balrog itself arrives. We read then that “Glorfindel leapt forward upon him and his golden armour gleamed strangely in the moon, and he hewed at that demon […]. Now there was a deadly combat upon that high rock above the folk” (FoG 107). They climb higher and higher locked in combat—another important marker of shamanic initiation. Glorfindel deals a mortal blow to his demonic enemy, but as the Balrog falls, he clutches Glorfindel’s hair beneath his helm and together they fall to their deaths (FoG 108). Later, in the published Silmarillion, we’re just told that “both fell to ruin in the abyss” (243), which foreshadows Gandalf’s later encounter with a Balrog. Personally, I prefer the version in The Silmarillion, because it seems too cruel that the feature for which Glorfindel received his unique name—his golden hair—should be his downfall.

Regardless of how he dies, Glorfindel’s body is retrieved by the Lord of the Eagles, Thorondor, from the depths of the abyss: metaphorically speaking, Glorfindel’s spiritual battle against a demon leads to the transfiguration of his soul. Thorondor also buries the body in a high grave, “and a green turf came there, and yellow flowers bloomed upon it amid the barrenness of stone, until the world was changed” (Sil 243). (In the early draft of The Fall of Gondolin, Tuor has Glorfindel buried in a cairn, but Thorondor protects it ever after.)

What happened to Glorfindel, and how did he return? In a very late essay, presented roughly in two parts (as a sort of note, and then as a more complete, though still unfinished draft), Tolkien expounds upon Glorfindel’s role in the text. An “air of special power and sanctity […] surrounds” him in The Lord of the Rings because of his death and reincarnation, Tolkien explains. In fact, through his sojourn in Valinor, between death and “resurrection,” the elf lord actually “regained the primitive innocence and grace of the Eldar,” such that he had become “almost an equal” of the Maiar and a particular friend of Olórin, a.k.a. pre-Middle-earth Gandalf (Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 381).

This claim is particularly significant because Glorfindel, as a follower of Turgon and a lord of Gondolin, was a leading participant in the rebellion of the Noldor against the Valar; his return to “primitive innocence and grace” is a therefore return to a sort of pre-fall state, a hallmark of the shamanic initiation. His rise to a level of power that rivaled that of a Maia (Gandalf, Sauron, and Balrogs are all Maiar) emphasizes the fact that Glorfindel is very much of two worlds at once. Within his person the spiritual and the material take up residence. He straddles the divisions between worlds: between Valinor and Middle-earth, the seen and the unseen. And, as a spiritual warrior and shaman he is particularly selected to return to Middle-earth to aid Elrond in the war against the growing Shadow (PM 384).

Now, what does his early experience with the Balrog have to do with his appearance in The Lord of the Rings? As I said before, the latter cannot exist without the former. In The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel specifically plays the role of spiritual guide and protector against the demonic power of the Nazgûl. In “The Flight to the Ford,” Glorfindel is situated in three places in particular: the Road, the Bridge, and the Ford, all three of which are important because they represent spaces that are in between the spiritual and the material (and they often show up as symbols in shamanic rituals). The Elf-lord acts as a protector on the Road, but he also leaves his token on the Bridge which signals to Aragorn that it’s safe for them to cross (I, xii, 210). His white horse, Asfaloth (another marker of the shaman), escorts Frodo across the dangerous passage of the Ford. Without that initial encounter with the Balrog, his subsequent transfiguration, and his recovery in Valinor, Glorfindel would be entirely incapable of helping Frodo and facing the Nazgûl, the evil shamans.

Gandalf explains all this to Frodo as he lies in Rivendell, recovering. “‘I thought I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others,’” Frodo says. “‘Was that Glorfindel then?’” (II, i, 223). Gandalf’s answer comes in two parts, one before Frodo even asks the question. First, he explains that “‘here in Rivendell there live still some of [Sauron’s] chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at one in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power’” (I, i, 222-223). Valinor is situated in relation to Middle-earth as a version of Elven paradise, and therefore Gandalf’s comment emphasizes the spiritual divide that these figures, the Elven-wise, bridge; they have a foot in both worlds, as it were, and thus they are able to channel their divine power to bring endangered souls to safety; i.e., to act as shamans.

The second part of Gandalf’s answer focuses more specifically on Glorfindel. “‘Yes,’” he reassures Frodo, “‘you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn. He is an Elf-lord of a house of princes. Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while’” (II, i, 223). With these comments Gandalf confirms Frodo’s suspicions, that the “shining figure of white light” was indeed Glorfindel unveiling himself against those evil shamans, the Nazgûl: and “caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath, they were dismayed, and their horses were stricken with madness” (II, i, 224). Again, elements are put in opposition: fire and water, much like the fierce cold and fire of the battle above the Cleft of Eagles. That it is Glorfindel who initiates this dichotomic situation is reflective of the elf’s status as shaman and spiritual intercessor, “for [he] knew that a flood would come down, if the Riders tried to cross, and then he would have to deal with any that were left on his side of the river” (II, i, 224). Glorfindel thus overcomes the Nazgûl by forcing them into the liminal space between opposites; unlike the Elf-lord, the Nazgûl are not able to transcend the difference, are stripped of their corporeality, and left to return “unhorsed” to Sauron—and given the extent to which shamans depend on their equine partners, the defeat is a great one indeed despite the fact that “the Ringwraiths themselves cannot be so easily destroyed” (II, i, 224).

Glorfindel is thus a key figure in the tales of Middle-earth despite the relatively limited role he at first appears to play. First, his sacrifice in the Cirith Thoronath makes it possible for the refugees of Gondolin to escape, thereby ensuring the survival of the young Eärendil (who later also becomes a shamanic intercessor) and, by extension, Elrond and Elros. Thus, because of Glorfindel we have one of the last strongholds in the war against Sauron (Elrond’s Imladris) and the line which produced Aragorn (Elros’s Númenoreans), the returning king of Gondor and Arnor. Then, in The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel reprises his role as a shamanic intercessor and protector, one of the few who, because of his spiritual transfiguration, was able both to ride openly against the Nine and to provide Frodo with safe-passage over the Ford and into the safe haven of Rivendell. Without Glorfindel, the Ring never would have made it as far as Rivendell.

Glorfindel fascinates me because he represents one of those figures that so captured Tolkien’s imagination, a person Tolkien saw with such clarity that he was allowed to exist in nearly the same form from the earliest days to the latest. And not only that, but the whole trajectory of his character leads up to that miraculous encounter at the Ford of Bruinen. Glorfindel is a particularly significant character because his appearance in The Lord of the Rings proves that the spiritual world is not removed from the material: we just have to know how and where to look for it. Glorfindel’s miraculous appearance on the Road at just the right moment, his past which perfectly prepared him for the flight to the Ford, his nearly instinctive self-sacrifice—all these point to the fact that the Powers have not abandoned Middle-earth, nor are they as far away as they might at times seem. Glorfindel, along with Gandalf and others, reveal to readers, as well as to the characters around them, that the Valar (and by extension, Ilúvatar) are working for the good always, even when they themselves appear to be absent or deaf to the world’s groaning.

Top image: Glorfindel, by SaMo-art.

Megan N. Fontenot is a hopelessly infatuated Tolkien fan and scholar who is very happy that this week’s star didn’t have a special character in his name. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 for scholarly and unscholarly news and other sometimes-tragic tales.

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 02:00 pm

Posted by James Davis Nicoll

The 1970s may have been an era when most of the interesting new writers were women, but you sure would not know it from that era’s Best SF of the Year anthologies. These were almost always overwhelmingly male .

Women pushed back. They managed to fund and publish their own anthologies, filled with notable works by women—anthologies like 1976’s Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson, and Virginia Kidd’s 1978 Millennial Women. Which brings us to Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthologies.

Sargent had been shopping the initial anthology around for several years without luck. Publishers generally felt the market for such an anthology would be small. She got a lucky break when Vonda N. McIntyre asked Vintage Books how it was that despite having done all-male anthologies, they’d never published an all-women one. Vintage was interested in the idea, provided that someone not on their staff did the editing. McIntyre introduced Sargent to the folks at Vintage and the rest is SF history.

Women of Wonder could have stood on its own (and given the prejudices of the time, might have been intended as a one-off). The volume provided a short history of science fiction, a fine essay whose main flaw was that it came to an abrupt halt in 1974 (possibly due to the fact that it was written in 1974). The rest of the book was an assortment of prose pieces, plus one poem. With the possible except of Sonya Dorman’s “The Child Dreams,” all of the pieces included were reprints, arranged in order of publication. The oldest work was Judith Merril’s 1948 “That Only a Mother,” the most recent McIntyre’s 1973 “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand.”

Sales! Success!

Success demands a sequel. Sargent eschewed recapitulation. The second volume, More Women of Wonder (1976) also drew on both vintage and recent works, but focused on novelettes. While everyone I have asked agrees that novellas are the optimum length for science fiction stories, novelettes are almost as good.

The New Women of Wonder (1978) rounded off the series by focusing on what were then recent works, like Russ’ “When It Changed,” and Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See.” Works that are now classics.

Women of Wonder wasn’t the first all-women SF anthology to appear, but it might have been the first one to reach the University of Waterloo’s bookstore , where I snapped up a copy. Unfortunately, three books and three years into the series, it seemed to be at an end.

[Thematically appropriate music here…]

Until 1995, that is! In 1995 there was a two-volume follow-up to the original series. Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (1995) featured older works, many of which had appeared in earlier WoW anthologies. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (1995) drew on the body of speculative fiction published in the seventeen years since The New Women of Wonder. Although The Classic Years sifted a span twice as long as The Contemporary Years, both volumes are of similar length. This may be a reflection of the greater number of women active in the field in recent years.

When I reread these books a few years ago, I was worried that time might have been cruel to the stories, that social progress might have stranded these works on the other side of a vast gulf. Not to worry! It’s not as if women are now getting equal pay, or even useful pockets. If anything, we’ve regressed. Issues that were pressing half a century ago are still pressing; those stories that comment on those issues are, for the most part, still quite relevant.

Rights issues make it unlikely that these books will be reprinted. When last I talked to the editor, she had no plans to continue the series. But there have been and will be other such anthologies, works that I am sure that I or some other Tor.com reviewer will visit.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 01:00 pm

Posted by Alice Arneson, Aubree Pham

Welcome back to the ongoing reread of Oathbringer, as we approach the Part Three Avalanche! No, it’s not starting just yet, but it soon will be; the anticipation is getting stronger with every passing chapter. This week, Shallan as Veil is out showing off, and Shallan as Shallan has trouble getting herself back. Cue up something ominous, and join in!

Reminder: We’ll potentially be discussing spoilers for the entire novel in each reread. This week, there are really no Cosmere spoilers; just a brief appearance by Hoid. But if you haven’t read ALL of Oathbringer, best to wait to join us until you’re done.

Chapter Recap

WHO: Shallan as Veil, Shallan as Shallan
WHERE: Kholinar markets, Yokska’s kitchen
WHEN: 1174.2.2.5 (Three days after Kaladin patrolled with the Wall Guard; eight days after Shallan burgled Rockfall.)

Shallan, as Veil, checks in with her regular poor-folk contacts, but is frustrated that she can’t do more. Encountering a parade of cultists, she creates a new Illusion and “becomes” a very convincing spren, but nearly loses herself to whatever is influencing the cult. Shocked, she tells the cultists to quit playing at being spren and go home to their families; she herself returns to the tailor’s shop for the night. Elhokar is in the kitchen, writing up lists of possible troops and contemplating heroism; Shallan does an idealized drawing of him before going to her room. Ishnah awaits her there, with a note inviting her to join the revel.

Truth, Love, and Defiance

Title: Swiftspren

“The Swiftspren!” he said, nudging one of the other beggars. “Look, the Swiftspren!”

AA: This is, to Shallan’s surprise, the name that’s been given to her (or rather, to Veil) in Kholinar. We’ll discuss the whole shindig below, rather than here.

Heralds

Jezrien is the Herald of Kings and patron of the Windrunners, associated with the divine attributes Protecting and Leading. Paliah is the Scholar, patron of Truthwatchers, with the divine attributes Learned and Giving.

AA: My best guess on Paliah’s presence is for Shallan’s research into ways she can actively help the starving people of Kholinar, as well has her plans to infiltrate the Cult. It’s not a solid connection, but it’s the best I’ve got. Jezrien, I’m almost positive, is for the drawing of Elhokar, when Shallan sees him as a true king.

AP: Pattern also reminds her of the Truths she spoke as Ideals when she starts to lose herself in her different personas.

Icon

The Pattern icon denotes a Shallan chapter… or at least one or two of her personae.

Epigraph

Today, I leaped from the tower for the last time. I felt the wind dance around me as I fell all the way along the eastern side, past the tower, and to the foothills below. I’m going to miss that.

—From drawer 10-1, sapphire

AA: I can’t think of anything significant to say about this Windrunner recording, except that it must have been recorded very shortly before he or she used the Oathgate to leave Urithiru for the last time. I wonder why none of them ever returned just for a nostalgic visit… or if they did, and we just don’t hear about it.

AP: Unmade infestation possibly? We don’t know why the city was abandoned, but we know the Night Mother was there for a long time before it was rediscovered. Whatever the reason, it was significant enough for the Radiants to feel the need to get everyone out in a hurry, and dangerous enough to prevent them from coming back.

AA: You’re probably right about the Unmade infestation. From the fact that our current people are living there, the fact that the fabrials aren’t working at capacity wouldn’t necessarily be enough to keep them away. Combined with the presence of an Unmade, or two, or three… that would do it, I’d think.

Bruised & Broken

“The Swiftspren!” he said, nudging one of the other beggars. “Look, the Swiftspren!” …

“Swiftspren?” Veil asked.

“That’s you!” he said. “Yup, yup! I heard of you. Robbing rich folk all through the city, you do! And nobody can stop you, ’cuz you’re a spren. Can walk through walls, you can. White hat, white coat. Don’t always appear the same, do ya?”

AA: I have to say that there’s something very appealing about the name and its implications. Swiftspren! The “Robin Hood” of Kholinar! The effect on Veil/Shallan is… disturbing, though.

Veil smiled—her reputation was spreading. … Surely, the cult couldn’t ignore her much longer.

AA: She is, reasonably, pleased with the idea that her work should soon get the attention of the Cult. That was the (official) point, after all. But… something about all this is giving me the creeps.

“Feeding these few is something we can do.”

“So is jumping from a building,” [Pattern] said—frank, as if he didn’t understand the sarcasm he used. “But we do not do this. You lie, Shallan.”

“Veil.”

“Your lies wrap other lies. Mmm…” He sounded drowsy. Could spren get drowsy? “Remember your Ideal, the truth you spoke.”

AA: Pattern is adorable. In anyone else, this would be sarcasm, but Pattern is just stating a fact, and reminding her that while her lies are useful, she needs truth. And… she just lies some more. Lying to herself more than Pattern, I think; she speaks as though she’s correcting him, but she’s the only one who believes Veil and Shallan are two different people.

AP: As usual, Pattern is on point. I like that he keeps her grounded, and reminds her who she is. Even as Veil, she is still Shallan.

AA: Also, why does he sound drowsy? We’ve speculated that her layers of lies are beginning to smother their bond, as they did six years earlier. Thoughts? Maybe it’s something to watch for in the rest of the book?

AP: I think that’s definitely a good theory! It makes sense that, as Shallan loses herself more and more in her constructs, the bond with Pattern would start to fuzz. She needs to get back to her core Truths.

She released [the Stormlight] in a puff, then stepped through, trailing tendrils that wrapped around her and transformed her shape.

People had gathered, as they usually did, when the Cult of Moments paraded. Swiftspren broke through them, wearing the costume of a spren from her notes—notes she’d lost to the sea. A spren shaped like a glowing arrowhead that wove through the sky around skyeels.

Golden tassels streamed from her back, long, with arrowhead shapes at the ends. Her entire front was wrapped in cloth that trailed behind, her arms, legs, and face covered. Swiftspren flowed among the cultists, and drew stares even from them.

AA: First, I have to note that her “golden tassels with arrowhead shapes at the end” seems awfully similar to the description we’ll get later of the mandras—the luckspren—that pull ships in Shadesmar. I assume this is deliberate, but it’s never addressed. Hmmm.

Beyond that, though, this is an awesome visual. She doesn’t even seem to have thought about this Illusion, much less drawn it. She just does it. Poof. It may not have the depth of backstory that Veil and Radiant have, but it seems far more… intricate. (That’s not really the word I want, but I can’t find it.) It’s much more instinctive and immediate; I can’t help wondering if this is what Lightweaving is supposed to be like.

At the same time, it’s troubling to see her flow so easily into an illusion that’s not even quite human… and the next few paragraphs are absolutely terrifying. She wonders just how much she can do with her lies, and as she listens to the cultists chanting, she begins to feel their emotions—what she calls, with inadvertent wisdom, the peace of surrender—and she goes along with it.

Swiftspren breathed in their chants and saturated herself with their ideas. She became them, and she could hear it, whispering in the back of her mind.

Surrender.

Give me your passion.

Your pain.

Your love.

Give up your guilt.

Embrace the end.

AA: Sound familiar, anyone? Not that we recognized it at the time, but… Wow. This is definitely of Odium!

AP: Yup, definitely our favorite baddie!

Shallan, I’m not your enemy.

That last one stood out, like a scar on a beautiful man’s face. Jarring.

AA: SAY WHAT??? Okay, knowing what we know now, this was most likely Sja-anat, right? (Although some have suggested that it was Pattern interjecting… but I go with Sja-anat.) What a shock that was! So she stands still in surprise, and her tassels go on waving behind her, even though there’s no wind. Girl is seriously into this Illusion—so much that the cultists begin to believe that she’s a real spren, and start kneeling around her. What follows is… I don’t even know the right words. Terrifying, thrilling, awesome, and awful, all at once.

AP: Is it though? I thought it was still Odium, since that’s his MO. “I’m not really bad! I just want you to stop repressing your feelings!” Which, yes, Shallan does need to stop tamping down her emotions… but not like that! This is also exactly the wrong tack with Shallan because of her traumatic history: She doesn’t trust easily, and it just puts her on high alert and snaps her out of the trance like state she was in.

AA: Um… Well, of course it’s Odium. ::feels silly:: Since everything else was, why would it not be? At the time of the beta (and yes, I spent too much time in the beta spreadsheet last night!), our best guess was that this was Pattern trying to get through to her. It wasn’t many more chapters, though, until we met Sja-anat as more than “something in the mirror,” and for some reason I pulled that sense of familiarity back to this moment. It makes far more sense, though, that it’s Odium.

“There are spren,” Shallan said to the gathered crowd, using Lightweaving to twist and warp her voice, “and there are spren. You followed the dark ones. They whisper for you to abandon yourselves. They lie.”

The cultists gasped.

“We do not want your devotion. When have spren ever demanded your devotion? Stop dancing in the streets and be men and women again. Strip off those idiotic costumes and return to your families!”

They didn’t move quickly enough, so she sent her tassels streaming upward, curling about one another, lengthening. A powerful light flashed from her.
“Go!” she shouted.

AA: Again, the visual impact is astonishing, and in essence I agree with her speech. I just can’t help thinking it’s… a bit ill-advised, just now.

So they all run away, and she fades to black. When she’s moved away a bit, she comes back as Veil—always as Veil these days!—and worries about how easily she’d become like the cultists. Then, poor girl, she begins sorting through personalities to figure out who she needs to be. Veil wants to be a folk hero, and that makes her insufficiently logical for the job. For that she needs Jasnah, but that’s one Illusion she’s not willing or able to try. Maybe Radiant… and she just about folds in on herself, because she doesn’t know how to be what she thinks she needs to be.

AP: So, regarding her always being Veil—that is one of the oddest decisions for me, and shows how deeply dissonant her constructs are. No one in Kholinar knows Shallan; there is no need for a disguise. But Veil is the “spy” so she is Veil when she goes out. She has the skills within her to accomplish her goals, but she doesn’t know how to express them without “becoming” someone else.

Sometimes she felt like a thing wearing a human skin. She was that thing in Urithiru, the Unmade, who sent out puppets to feign humanity.

AA: Poor child. She’s coming to pieces.

AP: Worst case of impostor syndrome ever!

Veil finally let go. She folded her hat and coat, then used an illusion to disguise them as a satchel. She layered an illusion of Shallan and her havah over the top of her trousers and shirt…

AA: You know what I find most disturbing about this? It’s not the effort required to make Veil let go, it’s that she still layers an illusion of Shallan over Veil. Sure, she needs the havah instead of the trousers and shirt, but she could have released all the illusions, and then just created the illusion of the correct clothing.

AP: Yep, this is one of the passages that made me truly realize that “Lady Shallan” is another construct.

Relationships & Romances

Veil let go reluctantly, as she kept wanting to go track down Kaladin in the Wall Guard. He wouldn’t know her, so she could approach him, pretend to get to know him. Maybe flirt a little …

Radiant was aghast at that idea. Her oaths to Adolin weren’t complete, but they were important. She respected him, and enjoyed their time training together with the sword.

And Shallan … what did Shallan want again? Did it matter? Why bother worrying about her?

AA: In retrospect, this is clear and blatant foreshadowing. (Isn’t it always, in retrospect?) We’ve got Veil showing distinct interest in Kaladin; Radiant placing more value on oaths than on emotions; and “both of them”—i.e. Shallan herself—seem to be uninterested in what Shallan thinks or feels.

Squires & Sidekicks

The urchin pulled the bag of food close, closing his dark green eyes, looking … reserved. What an odd expression.

He’s still suspicious of me, she thought. He’s wondering what I’ll someday demand of him for all this.

AA: I couldn’t swear to it, but I think this is our first hint that there’s something wrong with Veil’s plan to give food to the most needy, telling herself that she’ll gain information and get the attention of the Cult to justify her plan. Grund is less grateful and happy to see her than she expects, and she just puts it down to him worrying about future demands. It doesn’t even occur to her that she’s putting him in danger with her continued attention.

She checked in on Muri next, the former seamstress with three daughters. …

Muri always had some gossip that was amusing but generally pointless.

AA: So is Muri deliberately pointless, trying to avoid attention, or is she just naturally not a useful source of information?

AP: I think it goes to Veil not making logical use of resources. Feeding Muri and her children is a good act, but it does not help her to accomplish her goal of getting closer to the Cult of Moments. It does feed into the Veil-as-folk-hero myth.

Veil left about an hour later and made her way out of the market, dropping her last package in the lap of a random beggar.

AA: And the random beggar is the one who gives her valid information. He’s the one who tells her about the “Swiftspren” they have named her.

She’d enhanced it by sending Ishnah and Vathah out, wearing illusions to look like Veil, giving away food.

AA: Aha! Her team is finally allowed to go out on their own, eh? I wonder if they’re all over the city at the same time, further enhancing her reputation by being places she couldn’t possibly have gotten to in time. The text isn’t clear, but it does make sense if the goal was to enhance her reputation. Also, it was useful:

Back in her rooms, she met Ishnah, who was grinning. The short, darkeyed woman had been out earlier, wearing Veil’s face and clothing.

She held up a slip of paper. “Someone handed me this today, Brightness, while I was giving away food.”

Frowning, Shallan took the note.

Meet us at the borders of the revel in two nights, the day of the next Everstorm, it read. Come alone. Bring food. Join the feast.

AA: Again, there’s not much to say about this, except that it’s probably a good thing she had multiple versions of herself out there so she could get this. Looks like her efforts have borne fruit; she’s invited to the party.

AP: Finally! Yay party time! There’s no way this could go wrong!

Places & Peoples

She’d hoped that Kholinar would prove to be warmer, after so long on the Shattered Plains or Urithiru. But it was cold here too, suffering a season of winter weather.

AA: This is one of the few times since the first book that I’ve noticed the random “seasons” on Roshar. For informational purposes, Roshar doesn’t actually have seasonal changes; presumably there’s very little axial tilt to the planet, so they don’t get “summer” and “winter” like we think of them. Instead, the humans refer to weather changes by the words they brought with them from their previous planet—which apparently did have regular seasons. Just thought you’d like to know, if you didn’t already.

Weighty Words

[Elhokar] raised the glowing cup to her as she gathered some flatbread and sugar. “What is that design on your skirt? It … seems familiar to me.”

She glanced down. Pattern, who usually clung to her coat, had been replicated in the illusion on the side of her havah. “Familiar?”

AA: If ever you needed it, there’s some pretty solid evidence that Elhokar had indeed been seeing Cryptics all this time. I wonder if he’s no longer seeing them much because one has begun to form a bond.

AP: Definitely! But also, what’s up with putting spheres in the drink? Elhokar is so weird sometimes.

AA: Yeah, that was… odd. Pretty, though. Maybe it’s Elhokar’s imaginative side coming through; poor guy doesn’t get much opportunity to be creative. I didn’t quote it, but when Shallan walks in here, he’s writing glyphs and numbers to plan for a palace assault. He seems quite proficient with glyphs—maybe more so than many men would be? (Yes, that’s speculation, but he also showed he could draw a good map.)

“There are few people remaining to whom I can still be a hero, Radiant. This city. My son. Storms. He was a baby when I last saw him. He’d be three now. Locked in the palace…”

AA: This makes me so sad for him. For so long, he wanted to be a hero, to honor his father’s memory by being a worthy successor. Now he’s given up most of that. He still wants to learn to be a good king and a leader, but his dreams of being a hero have distilled down to the one I can admire most: He wants to be a hero to his son, to rescue that little boy.

Cosmere Connections

It’s him, she noticed absently. Wit’s leading the songs.

AA: You knew that right away, didn’t you? As soon as there was light, and music, and laughter… you knew Hoid would be there. He may not be feeding people, but his refreshment is every bit as real as any of the food Veil gives out.

A Scrupulous Study of Spren

Pattern hummed as she stretched, exhaustionspren—all of the corrupted variety—spinning about her in the air, little red whirlwinds.

AA: Fascinating little beasties. Exhaustionspren normally look like brown jets of dust shooting up in the air around you. Now they’re little red whirlwinds.

AP: Every time we see the corrupt spren it makes me wonder what they look like in Shadesmar, and what effects the corruption has there. For this one in particular, a jet of dust sounds pretty tame, but a whirlwind, that sounds ominous to this Midwest farm girl. Tornadoes are no joke.

AA: Oh, good point! Not being from tornado country, this didn’t have quite the chilling effect on me that it would on someone more intimately acquainted with the watchfulness a whirlwind can trigger. But Brandon is from Nebraska—he’d know that feeling. Clever.

Far too many hungerspren in the air, and fearspren at nearly every corner.

AA: Nothing in particular to say about this bunch, but to note that there are a lot of them hanging around Kholinar these days. The city is in bad shape.

… corrupted awespren exploded around several of their heads. Soot-black puffs.

AA: Instead of blue smoke rings, these are puffs of soot. Okay, then. Smoke and soot are both products of fire, but have very different visceral effects. More cleverness.

Appealing/Arresting/Appraising/Absorbing Artwork

“I don’t have a proper sketch of you,” Shallan said. “I want one.” …

Elhokar was a good man. In his heart, at least. Shouldn’t that matter most? He moved to look over her shoulder, but she was no longer sketching from sight.

“We’ll save them,” Shallan whispered. “You’ll save them. It will be all right.”

… It depicted Elhokar kneeling on the ground, beaten down, clothing ragged. But he looked upward, outward, chin raised. He wasn’t beaten. No, this man was noble, regal.

“Is that what I look like?” he whispered.

“Yes.” It’s what you could be, at least.

… Storms. He almost seemed to be in tears!

AA: And I am in tears. This is such a beautiful, heartbreaking scene. The moment I read “Elhokar was a good man. In his heart, at least,” I knew he was going to die. The line about “it’s what you could be” was so reminiscent of Bluth back in Words of Radiance, it was pretty much a set expectation: He would take on a near-hopeless task, and die to complete it. In the beta sheet, I wrote, “Please, let it work. … If he has to die, let him die doing something worthwhile. Let him save his son, and be a hero.” (I think this is what makes me loathe Moash so much; this scene made me care about Elhokar, and made me so sure he had the potential to be a great king, and I hate Moash all over again. It was just so petty, compared to what he could have become.)

AP: I think one of the most real things about these books is that not everyone gets to reach their potential. Sometimes mistakes have permanent consequences. Elhokar spent a lot of years being a weak and ineffective leader. He could have chosen to be better a long time ago, and didn’t. I do think this is an example of Shallan unconsciously “improving” a person through her drawing and having an effect in the cognitive realm. She is changing how Elhokar views himself, and he is able to do better because he sees himself as better. I think this is a latent Lightweaver power that she needs to explore more fully. I hope she gets the opportunity to do so.

AA: I agree. I’m pretty sure what Shallan is doing here involves a lot more than drawing motivational posters. I look forward to learning more about it!

I also agree that Elhokar spent most of the last six years being a weak king, and several years before that being a weak prince. I often forget how young he is: He was only 20 when he came to the throne, younger when Roshone’s manipulated him in the silversmith debacle, and only 26 now. Where I disagree is that I think he was trying to be better the whole time, but had no idea how. It’s not natural to him; he’s extremely pretty, but he doesn’t have his father’s charisma or his uncle’s dynamic appeal. He tried to reproduce their effects without grasping the cause, and it doesn’t work that way. Now, finally, he’s trying to pursue the kind of character that can get the results he wants. He’ll be cut short, but I think, even now, he has finally begun to be the man he always wanted to become.

And there you have it. Join us in the comments! Be sure to come back next week for some exciting times, as we rejoin Dalinar in Rathalas. We’re going to take Chapters 75 and 76 at one gulp, because it’s all one episode.

Alice is finally able to relax; the musical was well performed, and now the props are returned to storage and the sets put away. ‘Twas an excellent production! Also, have y’all checked out the new Stormlight 4 update on Reddit?

Aubree is considering a new folk hero persona.

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 04:00 am

Posted by rbarenblat@gmail.com (Velveteen Rabbi)

The year your mother died
just before Pesach

I remember my grandfather
at the seder.

He had aged, inexplicably.
He looked lost.

But I don't remember you
that year: were you

grieving, did you struggle?
I was a teenager

and we didn't communicate
much, you and I.

I hope someone asked you
how you were.

I hope someone told you
it was okay

to grieve your father's
diminishment,

to feel her absence like
a missing limb.

I hope there was comfort
in the words, the wine

the songs, the soup --
how though the ground

of your being had shifted,
the seder hadn't changed.

 

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 07:22 pm

Posted by Patrick Lucas Austin

The hotly anticipated and futuristic Samsung Galaxy Fold is set to hit shelves before April’s end. But a handful of journalists reviewing the foldable smartphone have highlighted some potentially major hardware issues after only days of use.

The multitude of issues, as described by various reporters, are likely due to the titular folding mechanic, as well as the screen’s unorthodox construction. Samsung did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

The Verge’s Dieter Bohn encountered a mysterious bulge protruding from beneath the Galaxy Fold’s creased screen. “It’s a distressing thing to discover just two days after receiving my review unit,” wrote Bohn, who sent the device back to Samsung for analysis. “More distressing is that the bulge eventually pressed sharply enough into the screen to break it.”

Other reviewers, like Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, ran into issues after removing what appeared to be a plastic screen protector film from the Galaxy Fold’s screen. The plastic film is in fact what Samsung calls a “polymer layer,” designed to keep the display intact and touch-friendly. “I removed it, not knowing you’re not supposed to (consumers won’t know either),” said Gurman in a tweet. “It appeared removable in the left corner, so I took it off.”

Not every Galaxy Fold is kicking the bucket, however. Both Quartz’s Mike Murphy and The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler shared more positive experiences with the Galaxy Fold. “I tried folding and unfolding it 100 times in a single sprint, but did not spot any problems,” tweeted Fowler, who shared a time-lapse image of himself opening and closing the device repeatedly.

In March, Samsung released a video depicting the durability tests applied to the Galaxy Fold’s mechanical hinge, folding the smartphone 200,000 times to simulate five years of use.

This isn’t the first time Samsung’s ambitious smartphone ideas have put a dent in the electronics giant’s reputation. As recently as 2016, the company’s stylus-equipped Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was recalled due to widespread battery issues responsible for multiple fires, prompting Samsung to discontinue and recall the smartphone.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 07:00 pm

Posted by Anne M. Pillsworth, Ruthanna Emrys

Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

This week, we’re reading Wilfred Blanch Talman and H. P. Lovecraft’s “Two Black Bottles,” first published in the August 1927 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.

The sun, now hanging like a red ball upon the crest of the mountain, was beginning to dip low, and there, some distance ahead of me, bathed in its bloody iridescence, stood the lonely church.

Summary

Following the death of a never-met uncle, narrator Hoffman travels to Daalbergen, a “dismal little village” in the Ramapo Mountains of New York. There grocer Mark Haines describes Johannes Vanderhoof’s last years.

Vanderhoof was pastor of the village church. Ten years ago he hired sexton Abel Foster, an uncanny old man whose servile bows at the church door repulsed worshippers. He tended the churchyard well, but muttered at the graves as if speaking to their inhabitants. Foster was particularly attentive to the grave of Guilliam Slott, the church’s first pastor in 1701.

Following Foster’s arrival, the Daalbergen iron mine petered out. The remaining villagers eked livings out of farming. The church offered little comfort, for Vanderhoof bewildered the people with sermons that described “regions of hideous, unseen spirits.” Vanderhoof, gigantic in physique but timid at heart, seemed forced to these topics by “some higher power that forced him to do its will.”

Eventually Vanderhoof preached that congregation down to zero. And apparently kept preaching, unaware that the pews were deserted. Only Abel Foster remained to take care of the old pastor—but his servility changed to “demoniac and ill-concealed hatred.” Villagers shrank from his bent form; though all believed Foster was somehow the cause of Daalbergen’s hard times and Vanderhoof’s spiritual decline, none dared reproach him.

One morning Foster came to town smiling, full of perverse delight at the sad news he carried. Vanderhoof had died, and Foster buried him beside Slott. Haines sent for Hoffman, hoping the nephew could illuminate his uncle’s mysteries. Hoffman doesn’t have any insight, but is curious enough to explore. Is there time before sunset for him to walk to the church? Horrified, Haines begs Hoffman not to approach Foster at night. Unwilling to yield to the “superstitions of ignorant country folk,” Hoffman immediately strides off churchwards. The “dingy, gray parsonage” hovers “like a wraith” over fetid swamp and a dismal tunnel of willows. In the shadow of the church steeple, a white cross marks a fresh mound. In some intangible way, his uncle’s grave strikes Hoffman as living.

The parsonage is deserted. Twin glaring lights, along with the sound of drunken and obscene song, lead him to the church belfry. At the top of the stairs he finds himself in a dust-choked study full of ancient books and manuscripts, shelves of jars holding dead things—and Abel Foster, wrinkled and wild-eyed. Hoffman’s touch panics the sexton, who screams, “Go back—go back!” Once Hoffman identifies himself, Foster mumbles, “I thought ye was him. He’s been a-tryin’ to get out… sence I put him in there.”

Since Foster put Vanderhoof in his grave, that is. Every night the cross falls over, the earth loosens. Hoffman presses the terrified sexton into a chair. His nerves aren’t helped by looking out a window to see that his uncle’s cross has indeed tilted. Foster grows calmer, as if in resignation. He tells Hoffman these books and paraphernalia were originally Dominie Slott’s. Slott came from a Europe that burned black magicians, but once in Daalbergen he was careful not to get caught in his dark studies and curse-casting. Foster learned from Slott’s papers. He started casting his own curses. He bewitched weak-willed Vanderhoof into preaching strange sermons. Then, once the congregation deserted, he could do what he wanted with church and pastor!

Which was what?

Foster cackles. Why, he stole Vanderhoof’s soul and put it in a black bottle, and now the pastor’s stuck between heaven and hell, and he’s got to get his soul back to travel on! Listen, he’s pushing his way out of the ground right now, he’s that strong!

Hoffman looks to see the cross tilted further. Infected with the sexton’s terror, he asks if they can’t dig his uncle up and restore his soul. No, Foster cries, for he’s forgotten the formula, and Vanderhoof freed will kill them both.

Seeing two black bottles on a stool behind Foster, Hoffman advances. Foster sings peculiar words, making Hoffman’s vision gray. He lurches at the wizard. One bottle breaks, releasing sulfurous stink and white vapor that escapes out the window. Foster collapses, cursing: The soul in that bottle was his own, taken out by Slott two hundred years before! His body blackens, crumbles away. Hoffman feels the second bottle, which he’s seized, grow warm. He puts it down, hears sliding earth outside, flees the church. Behind he hears a roar and turns to see a “gigantic, loathsome, black shadow climbing from [his] uncle’s grave.”

Next morning he tells his story to the villagers. One old man accompanies him back to the church, where they find Vanderhoof’s grave open. In the belfry there’s a pile of yellow dust and crumpled clothes trampled with gigantic footprints. They burn the books and white cross, and fill in the empty grave.

Old wives say that when the moon’s full, the Daalbergen churchyard is haunted by a “gigantic and bewildered figure clutching a bottle and seeking some unremembered goal.”

What’s Cyclopean: We are twelve, and not over the use of “ejaculated” as a dialogue tag. It makes for a good distraction, as Lovecraft wasn’t really at the top of his adjective game for this story. The word of the day is the relatively pedestrian “uncanny,” and it appears only three times.

The Degenerate Dutch: Oh, those ignorant, superstitious rural folk. It’s so awkward how they’re always right. Also, black magic is definitely a thing that gets brought over by immigrants. Dutch immigrants. Just in case you were worried.

Mythos Making: This week’s cosmology is straightforwardly Christian.

Libronomicon: You can tell you’re in a wizard’s lair by the reading material: “old and dusty books and manuscripts—strange things that bespoke almost unbelievable age.”

Madness Takes Its Toll: Foster, terrified into drunken stupor by the likelihood of his old boss coming back for his soul, does not initially greet Hoffman with a sane gaze.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Wilfred Blanch Talman (1904-1986) met Lovecraft in New York City in 1925. Previous to their meeting, he’d sent Lovecraft a copy of his poetry collection Cloissonne, self-published while Talman was a student at Brown University. The next year Lovecraft edited “Two Black Bottles” for his new friend and correspondent; apparently his chief contribution was rendering the dialogue of the Daalbergenites into “Dutch” patois that looks a lot like Lovecraft’s own rural New England vernacular. Talman may not have liked the change, but he let it stand, and the story was published in Weird Tales in 1927. Much later (1973), he’d publish a short memoir called “The Normal Lovecraft.” I wonder what that “normal” means. That Howard was normal after all? That normally he was abnormal, eldritch, squamous, choose-your-adjective? Sufficiently intrigued to find out? You can get a copy (with bonus essays from L. Sprague de Camp and Gerry De La Ree) for around $30.

Like Lovecraft, Talman took an interest in local history, particularly that of his Dutch ancestors. No wonder then that he sets “Two Black Bottles” in an area of southeastern New York and northeastern New Jersey settled by Dutch colonists. Which I didn’t know until I searched “Ramapo Mountains”—the village name “Daalbergen” and mention of a moor had me thinking we were about to settle in for a tale of Old World weirdness. Huh, so the Ramapos are part of the Appalachians. Serendipity then struck, as I noticed an enticing entry about the region in Weird New Jersey. It opens:

For many years now there have been stories of a degenerate race of people who live an isolated existence removed from the civilized world in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains. As far back as the revolutionary war New Jerseyans have heard, and told, tales of a motley group of social outcasts who had taken refuge in the northeastern hills of the state and inbred to the point of mutation. The group, which has been alleged to be comprised of a mongrel hybrid of renegade Indians, escaped slaves, Hessian mercenary deserters, and West Indian prostitutes, have come to be known as the Jackson Whites.

A fascinating article on the whole, as are the comments that follow. But if this doesn’t read like the background of one of Lovecraft’s stories of rural “degeneration,” like “Dunwich Horror” and even more so the Dutch-flavored “Lurking Fear,” with a “Red Hook”-ian addition of “exotics” like Native Americans, escaped slaves and West Indians! Talman doesn’t go where Howard might have feared to tread (but couldn’t resist the temptation): His Daalbergen is homogeneously white, as far as I can tell, and not particularly degenerate for all its economic decline. Not that narrator Hoffman can forbear to sniff over the ignorance of these country folk. Who, as usual, turn out to be right about the bad guys.

To undigress. I enjoyed “Two Black Bottles” as an atmospheric and compact weird tale—Hoffman’s trip over the swamp and through the willow-tunnel, that light-devouring mountain in the background, that sunset-ensanguined church looming, was a favorite bit. Other nice details were the painting of Christ’s Temptation through which Foster glares at his reverend victim; the tilting cross; and the background character Dominie Slott, a refugee from Europe’s witch hunts. And I’m always game for necromancy. I mean, visiting old graveyards and poring over nearly-effaced tombstones is everyone’s top choice for a pleasant outing, right? Wouldn’t it be exponentially better if the dust beneath the stones could answer your muttered musings about his or her life as a “belov’d Spouse et cetera”?

I guess it would depend on the dust you’re talking to.

“Two Black Bottles” brings to mind Lovecraft’s “Terrible Old Man,” who keeps his captured souls in bottles tricked out with pendulums. It also recalls Charles Dexter Ward’s superlatively skilled necromancers. If the Essential Saltes of a person can be considered his soul, then Curwen and Friends amassed a collection rivalled only by Satan Himself. No vulgar and breakable bottles for Joseph Curwen, though. He kept his soul-Saltes in lead jars of two classic Grecian styles, one for the Custodes or guards, another for the “Materia,” a chilling term for the dead from whom he wheedled or tortured posthumous intelligence. What else can the dead supply but their memories and otherwise lost erudition? In which case, why didn’t Abel Foster know how to put a soul back in its rightful owner—couldn’t he just step out to Dominie Slott’s grave and ask his old mentor for the formula?

Slott might have told him to piss off, though. After Slott stole Foster’s soul, Foster probably killed the wizard-pastor, either as a returned corpse or a living but hollow monstrosity, immortal so long as its soul stayed bottled.

The destination of Foster’s released soul is betrayed by the sulfurous smell that accompanies it. I hope Dominie Vanderhoof’s “perfume” will be more celestial, if he’s ever lucky enough to drop and break that bottle he totes under the full moon.

May some old wife be around to witness the result!

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Two years after this story’s written, and a year after it comes out, Frank Belknap Long’s fictionalized version of Lovecraft will speak dismissively of horror that relies on “tired props” like hellfire and the visceral fear of death. Given how frequently the real Lovecraft transcends such pedestrian fears, I’m tempted to blame the hellfire-ish focus of “Two Black Bottles” on Wilfred Blanch Talman. In fact, I’ll do so: Lovecraft’s not above a biblical allusion or three, but his “demon-worshippers” inevitably develop to be treating with something much weirder and more dangerous than anything found in standard cosmologies. The greater emphasis on “priest corrupted by the forces of darkness” over “ancestor corrupted by the forces of darkness,” and the complete absence of any hint that the corruption is likely to spill over to our narrator, are also most un-Lovecraft-ish.

Talman himself was part of Lovecraft’s circle, but this is the only work they collaborated on. Apparently the bulk of Lovecraft’s revision was to the Dutch dialect, which seems weird since Talman was himself a descendant of Dutch immigrants and was involved with the literary end of the New York Dutch community. (It’s not reported whether he had any opinions about Lovecraft’s opinions of that population.) Most of their relationship appears to have consisted of Talman attempting to get Lovecraft jobs that paid—everything from a travel writing gig to a hypothetical novel offer—and Lovecraft turning him down.

“Two Black Bottles” would have benefited at least as much from the addition of a few non-dualistic horrors from beyond the stars as Lovecraft would’ve from steady work with the New York Times.

The most fun I managed to get out of this story was playing spot-the-idea for concepts that play out in more interesting form elsewhere in Lovecraft’s oeuvre. The preservation of the self after death, and the fine line between preservation and imprisonment, shows up often enough to count as an obsession. Could it have been that one detail that drew Lovecraft to this manuscript? Like Dominie Slott and his circle, the Terrible Old Man keeps souls, or something like souls, in bottles. He doesn’t stop at two, either. Joseph Curwen distills great minds to their Essential Saltes, also stored in bottles; the Mi-Go stick brains in canisters instead but it pretty well amounts to the same thing. Desperate for immortality, Dr. Munoz imprisons himself in his own air-conditioned apartment. And so on, and so on. Some sorts of preservation bring benefits as well as horrors, and most depend on deals with something far more dangerous than any devil.

Claiming an inheritance from a long-lost relative is also a common Mythosian activity, but less hazardous here than usual. The situation never really gets personal. Hoffman has no fear that his uncle’s predilections, passed on through a taint of the blood, will inevitably become his own. He has no interest in claiming his uncle’s position or living quarters, nor does anyone push him into that awkward situation. He’s called in, he witnesses the bad thing, and he goes away again. “Old wives” may be disturbed by the “gigantic and bewildered figure” that stalks the graveyard at night—but that figure’s nephew, so far as we can tell, will sleep perfectly soundly.

 

Next week, and for a couple of posts afterwards, we’ll explore the Mythos in translation. We start with the title story from Asamatsu Ken’s Night Voices, Night Journeys anthology of Japanese Lovecraftiana (first of four anthologies in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series). The story itself is authored by Inoue Masahiko and translated by Edward Lipsett.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 05:30 pm

Posted by Nisi Shawl

In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here). Since then Tor.com has published 25 in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and another essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. This month’s column is dedicated to Pym by Mat Johnson.

FUNNY PECULIAR

Well known for Incognegro, his not-so-comic graphic novel about a white-passing reporter investigating Southern lynch mobs, Johnson tackles racial politics yet again in Pym. This time the perspective is that of a black academic denied tenure for, among other social crimes, refusing to serve on his university’s diversity committee. Fired English professor Chris Jaynes believes that the proper study of blacks is whites. He’s particularly obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Following up on a clue to the ostensible real-life source of Poe’s inspiration, Jaynes pursues firsthand knowledge of Dirk Peters, Pym’s supposed co-survivor of the Antarctic shipwreck with which Poe’s Narrative ends. Jaynes’s wry commentary on ivory tower politics and the antics of a Peters descendant claiming Indian blood provide early touches of humor, and Johnson continues in this jesting vein as his hero assembles an all-black crew to sail to the South Pole. Even the end of the civilized world takes on a comic air as Jaynes et al. escape their useless radios and internet connections only to be enslaved by a bunch of white, yeti-like creatures they dub “snow honkies.”

PECULIAR INSTITUTIONS

Johnson’s Antarctica is a busy place. In addition to Tekelians (the polite name for snow honkies) inhabiting secret under-ice caverns, there’s the climate-controlled dome where famous painter Thomas Karvel hides out. Karvel is a very thinly disguised Thomas Kinkade, and his oversaturated, multihued color schemes represent a different kind of whiteness: the cultural kind. Like Poe, Karvel/Kinkade idealizes the sort of Caucasoid purity which never could have existed: removed from the global history of inventiveness, independent of international trade and labor.

There’s yet another form of whiteness to be found in the cartons of Little Debbie Snack Cakes imported by Jaynes’s childhood friend Garth Frierson. The most soulless of foods, the empty essence of consumer goods, addictive and void of all nutritional value, Little Debbies come to play a pivotal role in the black/Tekelian economy.

INSTITUTIONALIZED CHOICES

Johnson himself is mixed race; the novel’s literally black-and-white take on our world springs from the reduction and disassembling of the author’s own identity. In this country, at this time, we’re still in thrall to the notorious “one-drop rule”: African ancestry is so powerful that it overcomes any white admixture, no matter how dilute the blackness or how blond and blue-eyed the result of the blending.  Barack Obama, for example, is consistently called the U.S.’s first black president, though he was born of a white mother.

The horrific Tsalalians of Poe’s Narrative are so dark even their teeth gleam with blackness. Countering this image, Johnson gives his Tekelians starkly white gums. He also transforms their supernaturally large size, which could be seen as a mark of superiority, into monstrousness akin to the bestial physicality projected by racist whites onto black athletes, and lampoons Tekelian whiteness in other ways as well.

As a young child, I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood in the small, Midwestern town of Kalamazoo. I vividly remember a babysitter’s explanation of what white people were like, which she offered in answer to my puzzled inquiries. First, she assured me that they weren’t actually white like paper, but then she admitted that their features were sharp, as if they’d been cut from paper—especially their noses. “And their lips are thin, and they don’t hardly ever smile or laugh,” she added. “They really don’t have much sense of humor or know how to relax and have a good time.” True, my own light-skinnedness and the presence of a pair of African American albinos across the street didn’t help matters, but I had a hard time recognizing the grocer on the corner, Mr. Schulz, from this description.

When I realized the mix-up, I suspected what science now confirms: race is simply a convenient social construct. But it’s a social construct that can punish, imprison, torture, and kill you, as many of us know to our sorrow.

In Pym, Johnson makes race his intellectual plaything. He has lots of fun parodying the various ways in which it reinforces its dominance. By the end of the novel, though, he abandons it. Arriving at last on the subtropical Antarctic island of Tsalal, his goal throughout the novel’s adventures, Jaynes discovers not Poe’s race of subhuman black savages but a welcoming “collection of brown people,” women, men, and children, typical inhabitants of “a planet on which such are the majority.”

CHOOSING TO LAUGH

One of speculative fiction’s greatest strengths is its ability to de-familiarize ideas we take for granted. Critic Darko Suvin examined this ability in his scholarly work on the concept of cognitive estrangement. Using his black characters’ encounter with the ultra-white Tekelians as a lens, Johnson both focuses on and distances us from the politics of racially-based oppression. With distance we gain clarity, perspective, and the possibility of treating this notoriously serious social construction as a joke.

Not all stories told by people of African descent have to be about racism. We’re complex. We’re intersectional. We’re people. Mat Johnson has done a heckuva job telling this one, though.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, and the editor of the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 04:00 pm

Posted by Vivian Shaw

Much has been written about the enormous importance of looking things up before you write about them so as to avoid ranking too high on the Dan Brown Scale of Did Not Do The Research—but there’s another side to this particular coin. As someone who spends a hell of a lot of time looking stuff up on the internet, I can affirm that it is, in fact, possible to do more research than you can actually use.

There are any number of methodologies for conducting research, but the one I generally end up following to start with, at least, is the Wiki rabbit hole. It’s ill-advised to rely on Wikipedia for all of your information, of course, but it’s a jumping-off point from which you can track down primary sources; it tells you what you need to look up next. It can also lead to some fairly bizarre search strings, and you can come out miles away from where you started, having lost hours, but it’s fun most of the time…except for when it’s frustrating. It is also possible to go too deep, to get hung up on some particular tiny detail that almost certainly isn’t important enough to warrant this level of focus, and find yourself bogged down and going nowhere. There’s a point where you have to pause and back away: you don’t need to get a degree in the subject, you just need to not get specific things hilariously wrong.

Such as physical setting. The original draft of what would become my novel Strange Practice was written before Google Street View existed, and much-younger me hadn’t bothered to look up maps of London in the middle of NaNoWriMo rush, so there were several instances of completely erroneous geography worth at least 7 Dan Browns. When I rewrote it a decade later, I was able to accurately describe the setting and the routes characters would have taken through the city, including the sewers—although I then had to take a lot of those details out again because they did not need to be on the page.

This is the other consideration, with research: how much of what you now know do you need to tell your reader? For Strange Practice I spent a lot of time on urban exploration websites (I do this anyway, so it was fun to put that interest to use) including those devoted to clandestine sewer and drain exploration, and with that and the aid of a gorgeous 1930s London County Council Main Drainage map which I found on Google Image Search, I was able to pick out and describe a pathway through the sewers from point A to point B. Which was accurate and correct, but it also resulted in half a page of highly specific infodump about the Fleet sewer and its overflows, and—quite rightly—my editor told me to take it out again. All that needed to be there was the fact that this character had entered the sewer and made their way through it toward their destination before being apprehended. I could—and probably should—know the specific path they had taken, or at least that it was possible to take that path, but the reader didn’t need to know those minute details.

I don’t consider the time I spent plotting out the directions wasted, because I enjoyed myself immensely and it added a lot to my overall knowledge of London; that definitely gave me more confidence and security in my ability to write about a place I haven’t been to since 2005. It wasn’t too much research; it simply didn’t all need to be there at that point in the text.

This is a difficult line on which to balance; on the one hand, if you don’t add specific details to a scene you run the risk of looking like you don’t know what you’re talking about, and on the other if you do what I did and gleefully infodump all the stuff you’ve just learned onto the page, your reader is likely to feel lectured rather than told a story. It gets easier with practice. I recently wrote a novella about air crash investigation and practical necromancy, in which I had to learn a great deal about how air traffic control works, how flights are routed, how to read various types of chart, where various controls are located in the Boeing 737’s cockpit, and so on—and then I had to not have my protagonist lecture the audience about any of these things, or bring them up in conversation with the other characters unnecessarily. Writing a particularly intense scene where I had to walk that thin line felt physically exhausting, like lifting weights with my brain, but it was also deeply satisfying to have done.

It’s worth pointing out that I could do it because it is so absurdly easy to get hold of useful resources online these days—which does increase the likelihood of getting hung up on one specific point and losing momentum, but it’s still so much fun. You can explore the 737 from stem to stern on The Boeing 737 Technical Site, or go play in SkyVector to create custom flight plans and roll around happily in all the different types of charts. Complete accident reports are easily accessible on the National Transportation Safety Board’s website. And it’s not just aviation-related resources; you can find almost anything on the internet if you keep looking. For a horror story set on Venus I could stuff my head full of Soviet Venera lander technical details at Don P. Mitchell’s site, complete with color photos of the planet’s surface, and listen to the lost-cosmonaut hoax recordings at (where else) lostcosmonauts.com. For Dreadful Company I didn’t have to rely on a twenty-year-old memory of a single and limited tour of the Palais Garnier to describe the interior; I was able to explore the whole of it from 3,794 miles away, because they have Google-Street-Viewed the inside of the building like they did with the British Museum, all the way from the lake in the cellars to Apollo’s lyre on the roof, and incidentally I just looked up the distance from Baltimore to Paris and got an answer in a fraction of a second. Research is easy if you have internet access, and there is no excuse for not doing it—but, having done it, care must be taken in what one does with it.

I think in the end it comes down to letting your story decide how much detail you need to include, based on the characters and their setting. Would the characters have a conversation explaining to each other (and therefore the audience) this information, or would it be casually alluded to without tons of detail? How would people who are familiar with the subject talk or think about it? What does the plot need in terms of this information; how necessary is it to put on the page?

It is also important to remember that you can spend time looking things up in extreme detail just because you’re interested in them, rather than for a specific story. Research is for writing but research is also for fun, and it is never a bad idea to add to your store of knowledge.

Now go explore the Paris Opera House and the British Museum for free.

Photo by Latemplanza (Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vivian Shaw wears too many earrings and likes edged weapons and expensive ink. Her debut trilogy starring Dr. Greta Helsing is published by Orbit; her short fiction has featured in Uncanny and is forthcoming in Pseudopod. She is a stickler for research and currently lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Arkady Martine. Look for Strange Practice and Dreadful Company now out, and Grave Importance coming in late summer 2019.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 03:25 pm

Posted by Stubby the Rocket

The Way of Kings art by Michael Whelan

In an update posted on April 16th in the Stormlight Archive subreddit, author Brandon Sanderson revealed a bit of how the next Stormlight Archive book, tentatively titled The Rhythm of War, is shaping up.

Amongst the updates regarding word counts and concurrent progress on Starsight (the sequel to Skyward), was an intriguing outline of what characters might be where after the events of Oathbringer.

Speculation ahead!

Sanderson’s explanation via the update:

Rhythm of War, however, is plotted more like The Way of Kings—meaning the separate books in it are divided by viewpoints.

In TwoK, Kaladin’s complete arc was “book one” of my outline. Dalinar’s was “book two” and Shallan’s was “book three” with all of them being interwoven into the final product, and with Part Five being a capstone epilogue to them all. This novel is similar, though with more viewpoints.

We have what I’m calling the Primary Arc, which focuses on four characters who are all together in one place, their plots interweaving. The Secondary Arc is three different characters, their arcs interweaving, but in a separate location from the primary arc. The Tertiary arc is the last two characters, in a third location.

Though we’re still a ways off from Stormlight Archive Book 4, there’s now some fun speculation we can dig into. Who do you think will appear in which arc? What locations could they take place in? In what other ways might The Rhythm of War be similar to The Way of Kings?

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 03:00 pm

Posted by Natalie Zutter

I still remember finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the middle of the night in summer 2007, crying as I turned the final page, mostly out of the catharsis of a solid series ending. Harry’s seven years at Hogwarts—which I spent about seven years experiencing in real time, between reading and waiting for the books from 2000 to 2007—is a compelling chapter of the larger wizarding world of J.K. Rowling. And while the series has since spun into a multimedia franchise, exploring both the past in the Fantastic Beasts movies and the future in Cursed Child, I’ve never felt the same connection to the expanded universe as I did to the original novels. But as someone who grew up writing fanfiction for a variety of fandoms—including, yes, 100-word Harry Potter drabbles—I feel that the real successors of Rowling’s incredible imagination are the variety of responses from a new generation of writers, in the pages of books and playing out across stage and screen.

A “normal” person pretends to be a mage, and poses vital questions about how magic affects the day-to-day. Magic-users craft spells out of pop culture touchstones and sing their way into battle. Background characters get to tell their side of the story. A former Chosen One faces the uncertainty of an adventure-free life. These new stories take Rowling’s building blocks and remix them into tales that look back at their source material, but also look forward.

 

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

You know those Tumblr posts joking about young witches and wizards magicking their way through sex ed, or the entire account dedicated to the poor Hogwarts IT guy troubleshooting wifi issues in an ancient castle? Many of us Muggles want to know just as much about the mundane as the magical when it comes to wizarding school stories—and Gailey’s debut novel fully scratches that itch.

When private investigator Ivy Gamble gets assigned a most unusual case—a grisly murder at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages—she finally gets to see for herself the magical world that her twin Tabitha left her behind for… only to discover how head-scratchingly normal these magical teenagers are. Sure, some enterprising mage-in-training uses an impressive spell to keep graffiti from getting scratched off lockers, but they’re still just defacing lockers. Or surreptitiously going to the school nurse for birth control, or distracting each other in class with cleverly-folded paper charms inscribed with love notes. They’re kids, after all.

But it’s not all pranks and passed notes at Osthorne. As Ivy follows leads—and avoids the restricted section of the library—she follows in Tabitha’s footsteps in ways that amp up her yearning for this world… especially when its inhabitants automatically assume that she’s one of them. Ivy’s mingled shame at slipping into this persona, and delight that she can fool everyone from a student to a love interest, is uncomfortably relatable for every reader who ever dreamed of finding even a spark of magic within themselves.

 

Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School for Magic and Magic

If you’re still saving your Galleons to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or one of the Warner Bros. studio tours, you might consider the more affordable, equally immersive experience of Puffs. This off-Broadway play (full disclosure: I know the playwright, Matt Cox) is like your own private tour of Hogwarts, not led by some stuffy expert guide but by smiley students who were actually there when that bespectacled boy wizard defeated that scary snake-guy.

But everyone already knows that story, so the real magic is in making it fresh—instead of following Harry and the other Braves (that is, the Gryffindors), the Smarts, or the Snakes, Puffs follows the much-maligned fourth house full of awkward, tenderhearted misfits. The Puffs’ core trio includes Wayne, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-T-shirt-wearing oddball from New Mexico; Oliver, who just wants a proper maths education; and Megan, a goth daughter of one of Voldemort’s followers who rails against being placed in the Puffs when she believes herself a Snake at heart. Having a new set of magical and romantic misadventures to focus on brings a new angle to familiar series beats like the Yule Ball, the Triwizard Tournament (Puffs’ Cedric Diggory is a charismatic delight), and the moment that the Puffs have to prove they’re not soft on the inside. All this—a sweet and occasionally sassy retelling—with a lo-fi budget that rivals Cursed Child for onstage magic and transportive story.

Puffs is currently playing at New York City’s New World Stages, or you can purchase the live performance recording!

 

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Potter fans were still reeling from the Battle of Hogwarts and the encounter in Kings Cross station when they turned the page to… 19 years later? Yes, they were surely wondering what happened to Harry, Hermione, and Ron—but, like, maybe a week after saving the wizarding world. Cursed Child picked up that thread, jumping ahead two decades and then some to how the next generation nearly unravels all of their parents’ hard work; but, again, there’s no real delving into how the trio made it to Auror, Minister of Magic, and stay-at-home dad.

Now, you could read lots of time-gap fanfic… or you could pick up Rainbow Rowell’s Wayward Son. With Carry On, she brilliantly subverted the Chosen One narrative through self-fulfilling prophecies and other expectations heaped upon magical kids to satisfy some arcane, predetermined narrative. But once Simon Snow overcomes his destiny… he doesn’t actually know what to do next, or even how to get his newly-winged self off his couch. The solution? ROAD TRIP across the American West with your bestie, your roommate-turned-enemy-turned-hopefully-eventually-lover, and lots of supernatural beasties! Who knows if Simon makes it to his world’s equivalent of an Auror? This is about figuring out who Simon Snow actually is. And while Harry flash-forwarded to a wife and two kids, Simon has something much more monumental to chase: the second kiss.

 

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

And what if you want to go beyond the second kiss? Or to magical grad school and mundane adulthood? Grossman’s The Magicians, published just a few years after Deathly Hallows, is as unmistakably infused with Rowling’s magic as baby Harry with his lightning-bolt scar. But the book, written during the wait between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, also bears traces of Narnia, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Dungeons & Dragons, and American Gods in its DNA—making for a delightful mashup that ponders how the story would be different if it took place across the pond and jumping ahead a few years.

And then co-creators John McNamara and Sera Gamble added even more ingredients to this adaptation potion and conjured up yet another take on this quintessential story that manages to stand apart from its source material. Remember when Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban followed up Chris Columbus’ two by-the-book film adaptations with the divisive decision to dress Harry, Hermione, and Ron in street clothes? Polarizing though it was among fans who had envisioned robes and house uniforms, it opened up so much about the characters in such a deliberate visual decision. McNamara and Gamble do that, but ten times over, by situating their Millennial magicians within the kinds of pop culture references that would come naturally, even within the Narnia-esque fantastical world of Fillory: Margo and Eliot speaking in TV show references as code to thwart an eavesdropper; Margo casting a spell that compels everyone to sing “One Day More” from Les Miserables to build Eliot up before a duel. Basically, anything involving Margo and Eliot, who have been expanded beyond their book selves into uniquely fascinating new characters.

 

What are your favorite post-Potter works?

Natalie Zutter is still not sure how to feel about her contradictory Pottermore sortings but doesn’t mind identifying as a SmartSnake (or, if you want to be formal about it, a Slytherclaw). Talk Potter fic and other fanworks with her on Twitter!

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 02:34 pm

Posted by Stubby the Rocket

Jean Grey, Dark Phoenix, final trailer

The final trailer for Dark Phoenix has arrived, and the X-Men will never be the same.

The X-Men do missions in space now. Cool. (If you like X-Men comics, you already knew that, we know.)

We get a better sense of the film’s arc in this one, as well as the beginnings of the plot, which is useful for context. We also see Magneto getting ready to absorb a few important life lessons in terms of his own limits. Yikes.

Dark Phoenix is coming to theaters on June 7th.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 02:00 pm

Posted by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

This essay is a continuation of “Constructing Blindness,” a series by Hugo Award finalist fanwriter Elsa Sjunneson-Henry.

“I’ve been blind from birth,” is what I usually tell people, even though it’s technically not true. The only world I can remember is the world of being blind, though, so it seems like a truth even if it isn’t precisely what’s true.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” They reply, their voices sotto and hushed, as though to speak about my disability is scary or harmful. As though what’s obvious from the guide dog at my side (or the white cane in my hand) and the occluded cataract of my right eye is something I am trying to hide.

On the one hand, people are guilty for talking about my, as they might call it, deficiency. They are worried they are drawing attention to a difference which I’m more than happy to talk about—a personality trait which definitely makes people uncomfortable.

By the same token, though, people are fascinated. Many of them have never spoken to a blind person before; they are unaware of what it’s like to live the life that I do.

For most sighted people, the assumption is that there is only one kind of blindness. That no blind person wears glasses, that we cannot read, or use cell phones, that for all of us it is a resignation to the darkness.

Some of this is because of the media that we’re exposed to (see last month’s column on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for more on that) and some of it is because, up until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in the 1990s, it was a lot easier to shove a disabled relative or independent person into an institution and call it good.

Which is what makes the prospect of sighted authors writing blind people difficult. Because ultimately, if you think that blindness is only one thing, how can you accurately portray a disability with such diversity that it’s almost impossible to categorize what blindness even is?

One of the things presently informing my perspective here is that I attended guide dog school in March of 2019 and I was surrounded by twelve other blind people—all with completely different varieties of blindness from my own. I was the only one with congenital cataracts, for example.

This is why I really like it when sighted authors don’t actually write blind people when they employ lack of sight as a storytelling device, and instead turn to other methods for exploring what it’s like to live in the dark.

It is unusual for a sighted author to get the world of the blind right. Most sighted people make giant leaping assumptions about what it is like to be blind—glossing over the realities of safety, security, and independence in favor of isolation and grief. Which is why I’ve found Bird Box—the 2014 novel that was adapted into the recent Netflix film—to be an interesting and notable exception to the rule. Author Josh Malerman didn’t take the usual route of trying to imagine what it was like to be blind. He didn’t try and interpret an experience he doesn’t understand.

Instead, Malerman took a bunch of normal sighted people and shoved them into the dark as a way to survive in an apocalypse designed to kill anyone with working eyes. The reason I liked this is that it reads true—the novel reads convincingly like a bunch of sighted people bumbling around in the dark and having to find their way.

I should note, though, that one of the questions that I had about Bird Box is inextricably tied in with the reason it works: why are blind people relegated to the last chapter? They are presented as an afterthought in an apocalypse which, while designed to target and destroy the sighted, is uniquely designed to make the world the kingdom of the blind. And this is replicated in the film adaptation, as well.

While the book seemed to distinctly understand the vast difference between the sighted protagonist’s experience and that of a blind person navigating a world with which they are familiar, however, the film didn’t seem to. Between shots of shaky cam behind blindfolds, watching able-bodied people trying to manufacture adaptive tools and reinvent the wheel became almost painful. More than once I shouted at the screen, “But that’s what a white cane is for!” It was frustrating to me because I feel like at least one person would have seen a blind person crossing a street with a white cane before. It’s especially frustrating because in many ways, after years of living with blindfolds, people were still behaving like the sighted.

In the end, where the novel by Josh Malerman made me feel as though a sighted author understood that the sighted experience of not being able to see and the blind experience are distinct skill sets, the film version did no such thing. The film depicts the home of the blind as a beautiful haven, but what it did not do was show the range and diversity of blindness, or portray the use of adaptive devices widely. I did not get to watch a real blind person work a cane for more than a second, I did not get to watch a guide dog zip through a crowd. Yes, it was wonderful to see blind people thriving at the end of the film, but in some ways I would have preferred to hear their story, to get some sense of their experience and the ways in which it differed from the protagonists’.

Malerman is not the only author to play with sight as a means of developing horror and suspense—in fact it is a relatively well-known trope. Films like Don’t Breathe and Wait Until Dark have used it as a method for inspiring fear in their audience, but these narratives are constructed using blindness as the problem. In Wait Until Dark, for example, a recently blinded woman is trapped in her own home with a group of thieves. The expected terror and unease is generated because the presumably sighted audience cannot imagine being in her situation, or relate to her experience. For me, the horror is because as a blind woman, that film portrays me as an easy victim. (For the record, I found Wait Until Dark so viscerally upsetting I never finished it.)

In Caitlin Starling’s debut The Luminous Dead  she plays with sight in a very different way. Rather than taking her characters’ sight away through fear of an outside threat (as in Bird Box), it’s a matter of the setting: a deep cave on a sci-fi planet. Her protagonist, Gyre, navigates a cave using various technologies to enhance her sight underground, but the primary method of travel is through feel, and the knowledge of her environment comes through maps and a handler who’s responsible for guiding her along the way.

In many ways, Starling, perhaps unknowingly, has depicted a large part of the blind experience—having to trust those people in your environment who can see where you are to guide you, and having to rely on your wits and your knowledge of the space you are in to make your way through an environment. It’s amazing what a little challenge in worldbuilding can accomplish.

Both Bird Box and The Luminous Dead show readers a world where lack of sight builds interest and tension, but without the misapprehensions and the heavy layer of ableist guilt that characterize many books that seek to specifically address blindness as a condition or situation. It’s my hope that abled authors will look at these examples, and begin to divorce their constructions of blindness from their own misplaced sense of guilt and ableist assumptions: Rather than assuming that a blind person is helpless within the world of the sighted, consider what we can do in the dark.

In the end, only by divorcing the narrative from the constructions of blindness that we see in shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the CW’s new series In The Dark (oh, don’t you worry, reader—I’ll be covering this in a future column!), and in many other films and books, will we get a more realistic portrayal of what it’s like to live without sight.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a gimlet made from feminism and snark. She’s a deafblind speculative fiction author, and she writes disability focused nonfiction as well. Her work has appeared in Uncanny, Fireside, Tor.com, CNN, and The Boston Globe, and she is a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for Best Fan Writer, as well as a Best Semiprozine Hugo finalist for her work as an editor on Fireside Magazine and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue. She writes from a dragon lair in NJ, and can be found on the web @snarkbat and snarkbat.com

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 01:30 pm

Posted by Tor.com

Tor.com Publishing is excited to announce that consulting editor Jonathan Strahan has acquired World English rights to Zen Cho’s wuxia-inspired fantasy novella The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water.

A bandit walks into a coffeehouse and it all goes downhill from there…

In this rollicking update on the classic Chinese bandit fantasy, Zen Cho tells the story of Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon who joins up with an eclectic group of bandits, whether they like it or not.

Said Zen Cho:

“Some time ago I got an idea for a wuxia-inspired story about a displaced nun who joins a group of bandits—but it only came to life when it collided with my interest in the contentious period of Malaysian history known as the Emergency. The result owes as much to Petronas holiday ads as to Jin Yong.

At heart The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a story of common (and some very uncommon) people seeking to survive in an uncertain world. I’m thrilled that Tor.com Publishing has taken it on, and I hope it resonates with readers of all backgrounds.”

Said acquiring editor Jonathan Strahan:

I fell in love with Zen Cho’s work when I stumbled across a copy of her wonderful short story collection, Spirits Abroad. It was smart and romantic and completely delightful. I’m not sure it prepared me for her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, which was the Jane Austen-influenced dragon fantasy set in London that I never knew I needed, but always did, but I knew I wanted to work with her as soon as I could.

We started talking about Zen writing a novella for Tor.com Publishing a few years ago—there was a coffee in Finland, some emails, a meet up somewhere else—and then The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water fell into my inbox not so long ago and I was entranced. It’s a magical story of a thief and a nun and . . . Well, you have to read it for yourself. I know you’re going to love it.

Photo credit Jim C. Hines.

Zen Cho is the author of a short story collection (Spirits Abroad, Fixi, 2014) and two historical fantasy novels (Sorcerer to the Crown, 2015 and The True Queen, 2019, both published by Ace and Macmillan). She is a winner of the Crawford Award and the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and a finalist for the Locus, Hugo and Campbell Awards. She was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 01:00 pm

Posted by Jonathan Carroll

A couple is concerned when their dog behaves increasingly bizarrely: first to their chagrin, and, eventually, to their alarm.

 

 

She was the first to fall. As she walked the dog one night, it saw something off to the side and bolted. The strength of the big animal’s lunge on the leash spun her violently around and she lost her balance. Falling into that awful moment we’ve all known, the “I can’t stop this” moment, her only thought was: Not my head. Not my head— But the drop was brutal and when she went down her head hit the curbstone. Luckily she wore a thick woolen cap, so the blow was softened. But her body took a full hit. She stayed down on the pavement long moments—breathless, shaken, and heart-poundingly disoriented. The dog stood calm nearby, staring at her.

When she got back to the apartment her stricken face said it all. Doing the dishes at the kitchen sink he looked up, saw her, and hurried over. “What’s wrong? What happened?” He made her sit down and drink a cup of tea. Unsteadily, she recounted the trauma. Talking it over with him helped a little to lessen the aftershocks but not enough. A fall like that always reminds us how, in a second, life can skid off the road straight into our very own black hole. Down deep we know sooner or later it will, God forbid. A trip, a bad stumble, stagger, and fall shouts the ugly fact we’re never really in charge or control of our steps, our days, our lives. No, not really.

As soon as she woke the next morning, she walked naked into the bathroom to look at her body in the full-length mirror there.

He stayed in bed as long as he could stand it, waiting for her to come out and tell him what she saw. But the anticipation was too great and he had to get up and go see.

She stood in front of the mirror, twisting from side to side, hands on her hips. The livid black bruise on her thigh was about ten inches long and spelled out in perfectly shaped block letters: MAMA BRUISE.

He winced when he saw it. “Jesus!”

“Where is he?” she asked quietly, still looking in the mirror.

“I guess in the kitchen in his bed.”

She looked at him. “Are you sure?”

“No. Do you know what you did? What might have caused it?”

She shook her head. “No, nothing—I did everything as I always do. Gave him the same amount of food, took him out when he likes to go . . . but then this. It’s getting worse. You know that—it’s getting worse.”

“What can we do? We’ve tried everything but nothing works. He just seems to get angrier. It’s almost every day there’s something that bothers him.”

It had begun weeks before, on the night they went to the opera. In the excitement of preparing for the special night out, they’d forgotten to feed the dog. During intermission, the man went to the refreshment stand to buy two glasses of champagne. Taking his wallet out of his pocket, he saw written in what looked like thick, purple magic marker on the back of his right hand the word LADDIE. He stood there, scowling. When and why the hell did he write that there? He had absolutely no idea. It was just weird. Wetting his left thumb, he tried to wipe the word off but to no avail. Days later, it was still there, although it had just recently slowly begun to fade.

That night, after they returned home late from the opera, the man was opening a can of the dog’s food and half-consciously noticed the name on the label: LADDIE.

 

A week later it was the cookies. For his birthday, she baked a dozen of his favorite chocolate chip cookies and left a plate of them fresh out of the oven on a corner of the kitchen table to surprise him when he came in from work.

When he entered the living room she raised her eyebrows in anticipation. “Did you go in the kitchen?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Didn’t you see what was on the table in there?”

He looked puzzled. “No—there was nothing.”

“What?” She got up from the couch and crossed the room to enter the kitchen. The table was empty. No cookies, no green plate. She looked quickly around, then down at the ground just in case. For a moment she questioned whether or not . . . Damn it, of course she did! She’d baked the cookies half an hour ago and put a plate of them out on the table for him when he got home. Happy birthday. The room even still smelled of baking. So where the hell were they? The dog lay on its bed at the far end of the room, watching them. She looked its way, wondering for a second if maybe it had eaten them. But if that were so, where was the plate?

“This is nuts! Where did they go?”

He stood behind her. “Where did what go?”

“Cookies! I made cookies for your birthday and— Wait a minute.” She went to a cabinet over the sink and opened it. Inside on a shelf was a plate with the rest of the cookies. That didn’t calm her. She pointed to them and made a face. “There you go—that’s the rest. But where are the damned ones I put on the table?”

He had to fight to keep from smiling. She was getting pretty wrought up over . . . uh . . . cookies.

“Oh, anyway . . .” She moved over to the broom closet and, opening the door, took out a big, gray, nondescript box with a red bow tied around it. “Happy birthday, sweetheart. I hope you like it.”

But she already knew he would because he’d been talking about getting a really good cowboy hat for months. She thought they looked dorky on anybody except cowboys a hundred years ago. But he loved them so she kept her opinion to herself and bought him a genuine, top-of-the-line Stetson Silverbelly 10X Shasta Fur Felt Hat—the gold standard of cowboy hats.

Taking the box over to the table, he put it there and sat down in front of it, placing his hands on the red bow. He grinned and she was really excited to see how he would react when he saw what it was, although she kept thinking about those stupid cookies.

“What is it?”

“See for yourself, birthday boy.”

“You always give great presents.”

“Open it.” She stood a few feet away from him, so at that angle she couldn’t quite see into the box.

He pulled slowly on the red ribbon and it slid off. He took off the top of the box and looked inside, his expression all happy anticipation—for a few seconds. Then it changed. It torqued into a sort of quizzical smile, an “am I being tricked?” smile. An “I don’t get it” smile.

She read the confusion immediately and came over to look. Inside the box was a green plate with five chocolate chip cookies on it.

The couple looked at each other skeptically, wondering if a trick was being played. Had he discovered her present and slipped the cookies into the box to give her a nasty little freak-out? From his perspective—was she playing some kind of not terribly funny prank on him on his birthday?

They’d been going through a rocky period lately, and at one point had only just brought their boat into shore before their emotional storms grew fierce enough to capsize them. Sometimes they still looked at each other warily, sadly, worriedly, both wondering if their marriage was strong enough to survive. In happier times they would have taken this moment to look slyly but delightedly at each other and assumed the best kind of joke was being played on them by their partner. But now, if this “what’s in the box?” was a joke, their gut reactions were mixed.

“There’s only five.”

“What?”

She pointed at the cookies. “There’s only five there. One is missing. I put six cookies on that plate.”

They looked around the kitchen, as if the missing cookie might have escaped the plate while it was being put inside the box.

“Did you do this? Did you know about the hat?”

What hat?” he asked.

She needed a long silent moment to look at him, at his expression, to make sure he was telling the truth. In the old days, in their solid love days, she would never have needed that moment.

“The hat I bought for your birthday; the Stetson.”

His face opened like a child’s in wonder. “What? You bought me a Stetson? Really? That’s crazy!”

Instantly she took what he’d said the wrong way. “Why crazy?”

“Because it’s great; because they’re expensive and you didn’t have to do that. What an amazing present!”

He could be so open, so full of joy and appreciation sometimes. It was one of his most lovable qualities. She didn’t see it so often these days, but knew that was partly her fault.

Still grinning, he asked, “So where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“The hat, the Stetson—I can’t wait to see it.”

“It was in the box. This box—the one which is now filled with chocolate chip cookies. Abracadabra. What is going on?”

He held up a hand to slow her down. He knew when she got really wound up it was time to run for the hills. “Take it easy—”

“I don’t want to take it easy—I want to find your hat and know why the stupid cookies are in there and not on the table where I put them.”

“It’s no big deal—we’ll figure it out.” He didn’t know what else to say, and could tell from the rising tone of her voice that she was about to blow.

She stopped checking the kitchen for evidence and slid her eyes back to him. They were cold as Antarctica. “I know it’s not a big deal, but the whole thing is very strange; no— actually, it’s creepy, and I don’t like creepy. Know what I mean? I had everything planned out for tonight: The cookies, the hat, a nice dinner with you on your birthday—”

“We can still do that! Where would you like to go?” But now his voice started to rise. Not a good sign. Not good at all.

Maybe it was the tone of their voices. Dogs seem to know when the human voice goes grim, and what that often portends. Whatever the reason, it got up from its bed in a corner, stretched, and walked over to them. Standing next to the man, it wagged its tail slowly. It looked from one human to the other. The man felt its presence and looked down at his old friend. He knew the dog didn’t like it when they raised their voices. Recently, when that happened, the animal had taken to slowly skulking out of the room as if it were to blame for their unhappiness with each other.

The man patted it twice lightly on the head, forgetting for a moment the article he’d read the other day that said dogs don’t like to be patted on the head.

“I just want to find your damned hat right now.”

The dog looked up at the man to see if he was going to answer. When he didn’t, it walked out of the kitchen, across the living room, and into the bedroom. There it started to bark. And bark and bark. In the kitchen, the couple looked at each other quizzically, because it never barked.

“What the hell—” They left the kitchen to see what was going on. Following the barking to the bedroom, they saw the dog sitting by the side of the bed, facing the door, as if it were waiting for them to come in.

Placed on the middle of the man’s pillow was a beige cowboy hat. On her pillow was a fat chocolate chip cookie.

She gasped.

He loved it. Turning to her, he said gleefully, “That is so brilliant, honey. Really! This whole setup—you had me so fooled.”

“I didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“I didn’t do this.”

“Come on.” Smirking at what she said, he walked to the bed, plucked the hat off the pillow, and plopped it on his head. He stepped to the wall mirror to check his reflection. “Damn!” Turning to face her, he pointed to the hat with both hands. “Come on—tell me I do not look gooood in this.”

She thought he looked ridiculous. But he was so happy, so proud and pleased with himself. How could she say no? She gave a wan smile, a tilt of her head to the side she hoped would tell him, You’re right—you’re the man! without her actually having to say anything.

“But really—I didn’t do this. I didn’t switch these things.”

“I heard you.”

“No, but you’ve got to believe me—somebody else or something did.”

He took the hat off his head and held it tightly in two hands in front of him. She wasn’t joking—that much was clear by the tone of her voice. But what was he supposed to say, or ask? Half sarcastically, he asked, “Well, who do you think did it, him?”

Standing a little off to one side, the dog watched and listened as the man pointed at it.

 

They didn’t put the strange incident behind them, but were able to shift it to a corner of their lives—for a while. Secretly, she continued to wonder if he had moved the cookies and the hat as a dumb joke. But if he did, why keep denying it? There was nothing funny about it, and he knew things like that kind of unexplained chaos, however small, disturbed her.

In college she had been diagnosed with a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and no one knew better than he how it affected her. How many times had they returned to their apartment just one more time for her to check again to see if she had turned off the stove? It was imperative to her that certain matters and details be arranged just so—silverware in specific drawers, daily schedules, clothes lined up just so in the closet, the order in which she ate her food, the way she thought the world should work. It didn’t, of course, so she fretted about too many unknowns and unlikely possibilities, most of which never happened. Time and again, her husband told her she was too full of what ifs, and more times than he liked to admit, they screwed up the balance of their relationship. It was certainly part of the reason why they’d been so at odds with each other recently. Our quirks may define us, but they’re not always endearing or attractive to those who love us, no matter how much they care.

She understood that and could sympathize with how her eccentricities (she preferred   that term) burdened him. On the other hand, wasn’t the wedding vow “for better or worse” what it was all about:  Empathy, understanding, forgiveness?

And didn’t she put up with his shortcomings? The soul-withering tight-fistedness with money, and his loutish, sometimes truly embarrassing behavior when they were with friends or at social gatherings (the crude jokes and comments told to absolutely the wrong people who more than once looked at her with pitying eyes). But the worst of all were his dreadful parents, who from day one had made it very clear they didn’t like her and would be happy if she disappeared from their son’s life altogether. How they openly mocked her, but her man never said anything to them in her defense. When she brought it up, and she did often, he dismissed their gibes, derision, and personal insults as if they were nothing, or his parents didn’t really mean them, or they’d had too much to drink, or perhaps she was being a little oversensitive, thin-skinned . . . She’d even gotten right up from meals on two occasions and walked out the door after his father said something so cruel and hurtful that momentarily she could not believe what she’d just heard. Both times, she’d turned to her husband and asked if he was going to say anything. But he only looked away from her volcanic glare, embarrassed but not about to stick up for her against “Pop.” Well, bullshit on that.

The last time her father-in-law said awful, unnecessary things to her, thinly frosting the remarks with his brand of “humor,” she told the old man to go to hell. He was a seventy- two-year-old asshole, and she’d had enough of him. Then she marched like a majorette out of the restaurant. Later, she told her husband that was the last straw. He could visit them whenever he wanted, but she was done with both his parents. “Pop” had finally crossed the line. No, he’d crossed it a long time ago, but tonight was the end.

“What do you mean, crossed the line? What line?”

She patted her chest over her heart. “This one—this line. Remember it? For years, your father has said terrible things to me that hurt my heart, and you were there every time to hear him. But you never, ever told him to stop, or at least shut up. Fair enough—that was your right, because he’s your dad. But he isn’t mine, so I don’t have to put up with him like you and your mom obviously do.”

His mouth tightened. “What’s the matter with my mother?” His voice was a growl.

She growled right back at him, “Besides the hundred mean things she’s said to me, only in a quieter voice? She enables him; in her own slinky way, she eggs him on. You’ve said it yourself. But I’m done with both of them now, and you know why. Please don’t pretend you don’t. Go see them whenever you want—I’ll stay home with the dog.”

 

The first time he did go for dinner alone with his parents, she ate hers standing up in the kitchen. As usual, the dog sat on its haunches, watching. She thought it wanted a piece of the large chicken leg she held, but no, there was something else there, some sort of different look in the hound’s eyes that night as it stared at her.

What? Do you want some of this?” She often spoke to the animal as if it were a person, and felt no shame or embarrassment doing it in private or when there were others around. She’d had dogs all her life and always considered them just another member of the family.

She was leaning with her back against the sink as she spoke, the dog directly in front of her. As soon as she finished speaking, there was a loud explosive shishhhh noise behind her. Shocked, she staggered forward then turned around to see what it was. The faucet was shooting water into the sink full blast, as if some invisible hands had turned on both hot and cold handles all the way.

“What the hell?” She knew she hadn’t touched them, and water doesn’t turn on by itself. The first surprise of the sound and discovering what it was receded, but she was still a little shaken up when she went back to the sink and turned off both spigots. Firmly. She stood there and looked down at them, trying to figure out how it had happened.

Then she remembered the chicken leg she had been eating. “Damn it!” She must have dropped it when the water started gushing. Looking down at the floor around her feet, it wasn’t there. For a moment she thought had she already finished it? No. It was definitely in her hand when the water started flowing, She was sure of it. But so where was it now?

“First the water goes crazy, then my dinner disappears. What’s next?”

What came next was the usual—when things got agitated in her life she almost always had to pee. Even the smallest things could set her off and start her bladder screaming NOW OR ELSE. Her husband thought it was cute and she knew he kind of secretly enjoyed her discomfort sometimes because normally she was such a control freak. But when it came to her bladder, she was its slave.

Stupid as it sounds, crazy water in the sink and a disappearing chicken leg set off the alarm this time, and she headed for the toilet. The dog watched her leave the room and padded after her. When she got to the bathroom, she opened the door and slid her hand up and down on the wall just inside, searching for the light switch. When she found it she flipped it on. The first thing she saw was the chicken leg placed on top of the lowered toilet seat.

 

After that, things got crazier in a hurry. They went from whimsical to worrisome and whaaaat? to dangerous and destructive. They kept coming and coming. But never once did either of them think any of it was because of the dog until finally, finally the writing appeared again on both of their bodies.

SPILKE changed everything.

One bright November morning, that name was inexplicably spelled out in clear black letters down the length of her right index finger. She did not notice it until she was brushing her teeth and saw it out of the corner of her eye.

Her hand froze and then slowly she lay the toothbrush down on the edge of the sink. Raising her hand to eye level, she stared at the finger, incredulous at what was written there: SPILKE.

Dennis Spilke. My God, how long had it been since she thought of that name, or him? He was her first boy crush when she was eleven years old. Because she loved and trusted her father much more than her mother and considered him her best friend in the world, he was the only person she told about her love for Dennis. Her father was such a good guy back then. Back before the drinking and later the drugs hollowed him out and shrunk him into someone unrecognizable, then crazy as a fly banging against a window, then dead at fifty-one. Even her girlfriends at school didn’t know about her short-lived swoon for Dennis. Even Dennis Spilke didn’t know. Only her dad, and when it was over weeks later, he was the one who comforted her. He said: Somewhere out there in the world right this minute is the man you will one day marry. Can you believe it? He’s out there doing stuff, living a life like you. But all the time that’s happening, he’s moving slowly, slowly towards you. Think about that for a minute: He’s coming—that boy is coming just for you. And when you two meet, you’ll be so crazy about him that all the Dennis Spilkes you’ve known till then will seem like cockroaches compared to this new guy. Just the word “cockroaches” got her laughing and, as always, her father’s words made the hurt of her small world less.

But now here it was again, SPILKE, a zillion years later written in black on the inside of her finger. That odd name, all the forgotten memories of a boy and that time in her life suddenly came back zap into her head like an electric shock. A moment later she happened to look in the mirror above the sink. In the reflection she saw the dog sitting in the bathroom doorway behind her. Very humanly, it nodded at her as if to say, Yes, it was me—I did that to you.

 

Days later, when she finally told her husband the whole story, he exploded. “What do you mean it nodded?” Despite the loud skepticism in his voice, he threw a quick mistrustful glance at the dog lying near them on its bed. Its body was relaxed but the eyes were watching. When it saw the man look, its tail thumped once on the floor.

“Just what I said—it nodded, and then when I directly asked if it had written on my finger, it nodded again.”

“Bullshit! That’s completely bullshit!” He threw up his hands in exasperation. His wife could be nutty sometimes, especially about her obsessions, but this was way beyond that. This was stone-cold crazy.

She blew a strand of hair off her face. “Bullshit? Really? Then watch this.”

He glared at her.

“No don’t look at me—look at him.” She pointed to the dog.

He looked and the dog nodded to him.

He looked back at his wife. “It nodded. Great. Nice trick. So what? Dogs do stuff like that.”

“Now look at your fingers.”

He was right-handed. He saw nothing there. He looked at his left hand. Down the fat pad to the base of his thumb were black letters spelling TURLEY. Jennifer Turley was the name of his first girlfriend.

What the fu— What is this?”

“I think it’s my father.”

 

After that it took almost a full hour for her to explain to him what she thought was going on. She used example after example, some of which he had experienced, to prove her point. At the end, he told her about the night at the opera when the word LADDIE mysteriously appeared on his hand.

She wasn’t surprised. “My dad died and came back as a dog. It explains why we chose him over all the others at the animal shelter that day. What made him so special? Just look at him—he’s completely plain, nondescript—just a dog-dog. Why would we choose him over all the other sweet ones we saw there?”

You chose him. I just said okay.”

“Exactly—I chose him and now I know why, but I didn’t then. I just thought he was cute.”

While she spoke he kept glancing over at the dog. “How much does he know? I mean, does he know everything; can he understand everything we say?”

“I don’t think so, and that’s part of what’s so frustrating. He knows little bits and pieces, which come and go like fireflies. I think his mind or his soul is caught between three places—human, dog, and death, or back from the dead. When his head is clear he can do all kinds of magical things, but a minute later he’s like an old, old man with very bad Alzheimer’s disease. Absolute blank, or just absolute dog and only dog. He can’t remember or express anything; he doesn’t understand anything you say. No, he does, but only in the way a dog understands human commands. He knows and can do amazing things but it’s all broken up and scattered. Like, how did he know the name of your old girlfriend? And then the things he does know, he keeps forgetting. But he also can do these wild things, like making those words appear on our fingers, or turning on faucets, or . . .” She stopped and looked at him, her face almost guilty.

He sat up in his chair, sensing something. “What? Come on, what?”

She nodded slowly, as if telling herself it was okay to continue. “I told you about my father at the end of his life, remember? How he stole all of my mother’s savings to buy drugs. He even took fourteen dollars I’d saved for a skateboard and spent it, too. He was completely out of control by then—mean and scary and desperate. God, he was so desperate. He probably would have sold our house, too, if the deed hadn’t been in my mother’s name.” She made to say more, but instead got up and went to a desk nearby. She opened a drawer, took something out, and walked back with a bankbook in her hand. She opened it, leafed through some pages, found what she was looking for, and handed it to him. “Look at the balance.”

It was their joint savings account. Because he was a tightwad, he knew exactly how much was in there, or did until that moment. When he saw the new, hefty balance his eyes widened. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.

Watching his reaction, she put a hand over her mouth and then flapped it away. “I didn’t tell you about it until I checked with the bank to make sure the money was real. It is. I believe he’s paying me back for all the money he stole from us when he was alive.”

He snorted. “Paying you back with interest! This is amazing. You’re sure it’s real?”

“It is real. And it fits a pattern—I think he came back to make amends.”

 

But their wonder and delight was short-lived because, like a person with severe dementia, whatever the dog knew or whatever powers it had brought back from death rapidly began to blur, fade, and slip away like a human mind sucked down into the quicksand of the disease. And with that fade came the frustration and fury of the sufferer.

For a while, a short while, there were fascinating glimpses of what the dog had experienced after it died as a human, what death was like and how reincarnation worked. But only in mysterious, tantalizing fragments—three words written in sugar across the coffee table in the living room. Or a paragraph on Tibetan bardos in a book about after-death experiences magically highlighted right before the woman’s eyes in vivid yellow as the woman was reading the words for the first time. When the highlighting stopped, three exclamation points appeared beside the paragraph and then, in black, the word this!

No more money was put into their account, but a beautiful new ornate gravestone for her mother was in the cemetery the next time they went there to lay flowers on her plot.

One night, his awful parents appeared at the door and invited themselves in on the excuse Mama had baked his favorite chocolate chip cookies and just knew he’d want to eat them fresh out of the oven.  The real reason they came was for one of their periodic snoops around the house to find things to fault and be nasty about. But first the old bitch had to show off and there had to be a cookie unveiling followed by the son’s required yumming over how delicious they were.

The cookies were in the large red tin she always used and, for the umpteenth time, said she needed it back when it was empty. Why would the harridan think anyone would want to keep her old dented box?

The four of them sat down on the couch and Mama leaned forward to present  the goodies. As she did, a loud sound—a sort of burp-urup-urup came from inside the box. When she pulled the top off there were no cookies inside but an enormous, slimy, brown African goliath frog as big and wide as a Frisbee; it must have been ten inches by ten inches. The giant thing fit perfectly inside the tin. Before any of them could react, it hopped out of the box, across the coffee table, and onto the floor. The dog took one look at it, leapt forward, grabbed the huge frog in its mouth, shook it violently from side to side, and ran out of the room with his catch going urup-urup all the way.

The old woman squealed, her husband squawked like a parrot, and the two of them fled.

The younger couple sat on the couch, staring straight ahead. The woman fought back a smile but it didn’t work. The smile turned into a giggle and then a howl of laughter. Her husband, his parents having just jetted out of his house in abject horror, cracked up, too. Neither of them felt the need to go find the dog.

When it reappeared later, its muzzle was covered with cookie crumbs.

 

Soon after that things got darker. The dog, that until then had slept peacefully, began having what sounded like terrible nightmares every time it slept. It twitched and shook, growled and barked. Several times, they tried to wake it, but that was dangerous because it came out of sleep in a rage, snapping and snarling, as if fighting off its dream enemies in real life.

The few messages it conveyed became more and more incoherent, most of the words misspelled; toward the end, strung together, they made no sense at all. The dog grew surly, sullen, and aloof—a complete change from the lovable goofy, friendly, warm guy who in the past liked nothing more than to cuddle up next to you on the couch and snooze.

After it pulled the woman to the ground, things got even worse. MAMA BRUISE was the last coherent message it communicated until right before the end. Twice after that it knocked the man down from behind when he was walking to answer the front door after the bell had rung.

“It’s like he doesn’t want me to answer it—like he’s expecting someone bad.”

And by its behavior in other ways, it did seem like that. For hours it sat on the couch looking out the picture window onto the street, just watching. When they took it outside for a walk, it moved its head from side to side like a searchlight, its body so tense that it shook much of the time when it stood still.

The day it bit her, it ran away. She was walking it around the block when they saw another person coming toward them with a large white poodle on a leash. As soon as the two dogs saw each other, they stopped. Then the poodle flew into a barking, growling, snapping fit. It started jerking wildly on the leash, as if to get off and attack her dog however it could.

She’d never seen an aggressive poodle before, so she was surprised and caught up in watching it act out. Then she felt a terrible pain in her right hand—the one holding the leash. Looking down, she saw her dog biting her for the first time in its life. Yelping, she dropped the leash and the dog ran off as fast as it could, the leash trailing behind.

She just stood there watching it, helpless, her hand exploding with pain from the bite.

 

Although the dog had all of its rabies and distemper shots, her husband insisted she go to the hospital to be checked.

Driving home, he asked quietly, “Do you think we should try to find him?”

“No.”

He nodded and said nothing more.

 

Hours later, in the middle of the night, he awoke and found she was not in bed. He got up and padded around searching for her. She was sitting in the dark in the living room on the couch, in the same place where the dog had stationed itself in the past days, staring out the window there.

Her husband sat down next to her. She turned to him and held up her bandaged hand. “This was a message. He didn’t bite me because he was angry or trying to get away. He was telling me why, and that was the only way he could convey it at this point.” She stopped and swallowed. “This was the only way he could tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“It came to me before when I was sleeping. It might’ve been the bite. Somehow it connected us in a way we hadn’t been before. What came through was when you die and are reincarnated, you’re not supposed to bring anything from your past life into the new. But for some reason he did, somehow he stayed part human—my father—part dog, and God knows what else. I think that combination should never have happened. But it gave him those special powers like some kind of weird alchemy. After a while, though, it all started to mix together in bad ways and then implode. Like a medicine gone bad, or that stops working. At the end, everything was slipping away from him. But whatever he was by then, he still knew one thing—they were coming to get him.”

Her husband frowned. “Who was?”

“Other dogs and whatever else didn’t want him alive. It’s why he sat at the window all the time watching. He knew something was coming for him. That’s why the poodle went crazy tonight when it saw him. They know. They all know that, with his mixed knowledge, no matter how debased it is, he’s a threat, and they’re out to get him.”

“Get him? Why? What did he do?”

“Nothing. He didn’t do anything—somehow it was done to him or it happened by mistake. He’s like a calf born with two heads. A freak, but a dangerous one, because he knows things he’s not supposed to. We’re not supposed to communicate with animals, or know what happens to us after we die. But he does, so as long as he’s alive he might tell us—” She stopped, cocked her head to one side, and held up a finger for him not to speak.

In the midnight quiet that followed, after a few moments they both heard it—a faint scratching. A faint scratching on their front door. Then loud sniffing—scratching and sniffing. Then, their ears attuned to the sounds, they heard more of them, many more just outside the house, all of them near, all of them growing louder. Scratching, hard scratching now, frantic sniffing and whining. Louder, all those familiar sounds times ten, louder and more every minute, everywhere out there in the night. Very close.

 

“Mama Bruise” copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Carroll.
Art copyright © 2019 by Mark Smith.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 04:00 am

Posted by rbarenblat@gmail.com (Velveteen Rabbi)

My first bicycle was hot pink.
When I was eight and skipped PE
for weeks on end you hired coach
to tutor me. She taught me


how to catch a frisbee,
not flinch from a softball,
ride a bike without training wheels.
My second was electric blue


and I rode it barefoot around
the curves of Contour Drive
past magnolia and honeysuckle
with wind in my hair.


When I grew hips I put the bike away.
I felt like a galumphing goose
next to you, perfect petite
size zero sparrow.


By college when my boyfriend
invited me to bike across Nantucket
I demurred, sure he wouldn't
want me if he saw me huff and puff.


But I remember your red Schwinn
with a tiny seat bolted to the back
for me. I remember the freedom
of skimming along Contour


once I was old enough to go
further than you could see.
Mom, today I bought a bicycle.
It's black and sturdy, German,


a bike for a middle-aged woman.
When I go riding with my son
I'll say a shehecheyanu. Maybe
I'll feel you perched behind me.


They say the body never forgets
these old motions. I wouldn't mind
forgetting how to resent
every ounce and inch


that made me not like you.
From where you are now
can you teach me how to thank
this clunky, sturdy frame?


Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 06:00 am

Posted by Michael Liedtke / AP

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Apple and mobile chip maker Qualcomm have settled a bitter financial dispute centered on some of the technology that enables iPhones to connect to the internet.

The surprise truce announced Tuesday came just as the former allies turned antagonists were facing off in a federal court trial that was supposed to unfold over the next month in San Diego. The resolution abruptly ended that trial, which also involved Apple’s key iPhone suppliers.

The deal requires Apple to pay Qualcomm an undisclosed amount. It also includes a six-year licensing agreement that likely involves recurring payments to the mobile chip maker.

Investors reacted as if it were a resounding victory for Qualcomm. The San Diego company’s stock soared 23% to close Tuesday at $70.45. Apple shares edged up 2 cents to $199.25.

Neither Apple nor Qualcomm would comment beyond a brief statement announcing they had resolved their differences. Details about how much Apple and its iPhone suppliers will be paying Qualcomm could emerge in court documents or when the companies announce their latest financial results. Apple is due to report its quarterly results on April 30 while Qualcomm is scheduled to release its numbers on May 1.

Apple had been seeking at least $1 billion for money that Qualcomm was supposed to rebate as part of an earlier licensing agreement. Apple had begun to have misgivings about that deal as it added more features to its increasingly popular line-up of iPhones.

Qualcomm was seeking $7 billion for unpaid royalties it contended it was owed for its patented technology in the iPhone. Apple’s iPhone suppliers, including Foxconn and Pegatron, wanted another $27 billion from Qualcomm.

The dispute was clearly beginning to hurt all parties involved, motivating them to settle, said technology industry analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.

“Both Apple and Qualcomm got deeper into this than they wanted to,” Moorhead said.

Qualcomm also held another bargaining chip: It makes the modem chips needed for future smartphones to work with the next generation of high-speed wireless networks known as “5G.” Two of Apple’s biggest rivals, Samsung and Huawei, are already getting ready to introduce 5G models. The iPhone would have been at a disadvantage if it didn’t have a pipeline to Qualcomm’s chips.

Falling behind the competition isn’t something Apple can afford with its iPhone sales already falling .

“Ultimately, Apple realized this was more about two kids fighting in the sandbox and they have bigger issues ahead with 5G and iPhone softness versus battling Qualcomm in court,” Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives wrote in Tuesday research note.

Apple had already lost an earlier battle with Qualcomm last month when a federal court jury in San Diego decided the iPhone maker owed Qualcomm $31 million for infringing on three of its patents.

Qualcomm still faces other potential fallout from its demands to be paid royalties in addition to the fees it charges for its mobile chips. The Federal Trade Commission has accused the company of using its royalty system to stifle competition in the mobile chip market in another case in which Apple played a central role.

A trial about the FTC’s lawsuit wrapped up in a San Jose, California, court in January, but the judge still hasn’t issued a ruling.