Weird Kitties Reviews, Batch One (Elektrograd: Rusted Blood, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Just City, and Strong Female Protagonist)
Here’s the first batch of reviews. I’m still taking submissions for the next batch, to go up next Sunday. Send them to snowspinner at gmail.com. Short fiction reviews especially wanted.
Elektrograd: Rusted Blood, by Warren Ellis
Reviewed by Philip Sandifer
Eligible for Best Novelette, and available here.
The second of Warren Ellis’s current experiments in self-published shorts, this is a police procedural set in a now-crumbling early 20th century city of the future. It’s impossible not to compare it to Miéville’s The City and the City, especially given the way in which Ellis uses iconography of Soviet Russia to signify “failed 20th century utopia.” Which is a good angle, treating it, robotics, and AI as essentially interchangeable images of abandoned futures.
Stitching it together is a capable and unflashy cop drama. Ellis is good at these, having written both mysteries and police procedurals (two subtly different categories) several times. This isn’t where the story earns its wings, as it were; its purpose is to let Ellis work efficiently with the plot, getting in and out of his strange world. This makes for a story that spends less time dwelling in the particulars of its ideas than many of Ellis’s stories; those who love his knack for Stephenson-esque exposition about ideas will not find this to be their favorite thing he’s done. But it’s a tight-knit aesthetic experiment. Ellis talks in the postscript about wanting to write about architecture, and it’s an effective way to bind the iconography together.
Basically, a murder mystery about a rusting old future. Lovely stuff.
The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Sam Maggs
Reviewed by John Seavey
Eligible for Best Related Work, and available here.
I was going to start this review off with a satirical rant about this book being a perfect example of the way the SJWs “get you”–they start out with shipping and OTP and fanfiction, and then when you’re hooked, they start in on the feminism! But then I remembered Poe’s Law and decided to truncate that part significantly.
It is true, though, that Sam Maggs uses this book to walk women from the very basic points of fandom, such as identifying the things you love and finding other women who love it just as much as you do, up through to the point of having a social conscience about the things that you enjoy and critiquing them as items of cultural significance with potentially problematic subtexts. Most impressively, she does it without ever losing the casual tone, the warm-hearted atmosphere of acceptance and welcoming, and the inspirational message that embracing the things you love is unconditionally good and you should never feel ashamed of being excited and enthusiastic about them.
Along the way, the book takes in topics like, “What is a convention and how do I have a good time at one?”, “How do I deal with online trolls?”, and “How do I, too, write smutty fanfiction featuring my favorite characters?” It also has a few short interviews with various female creators, which was one thing I thought could have been expanded greatly, but the book does have a lot to take in, after all. (I haven’t even mentioned its tips on how to set up your own Quidditch match.) Through it all, Maggs keeps the authorial voice conversational and breezy–after all, this is a book about how to have more fun doing all the things you enjoy. It makes sense to speak in fan slang and Internet-speak. (The book also includes a helpful glossary, for all the people who do not yet understand that they can have all the feels about things.)
She also makes it clear that if you don’t like people who use fan slang, who speak in Internet-speak and who squee, then this is your problem and not the problem of the rest of the world. The strong subtext, and frequently the strong text of the book is, “It is okay to disagree; it is never okay to disrespect.” The message that fandom should have no gatekeepers resonated strongly with me and made reading the book a very happy experience even if I don’t necessarily know who the Nerdfighters, Marshmallows, Irrelevants, Interns, Castillions, Madokies, Walker Stalkers, Assassins, Smashers, Squints, Queen’s Readers, Homestucks, Moonies, Initiates, Gearheads, Truebies, Human Beings, Cortexifans, Psych-Os, Hetalians, Sleepyheads, Rum Runners, Shadowhunters, Pinenuts, and Lawsbians actually are. Because that doesn’t mean they’re not “real” fans. It just makes it clear that no matter how big I think fandom is, it’s always bigger than I realize.
The Just City, by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Kat Jones
Eligible for Best Novel, and available here.
This story is delightful. The goddess Athene decides to run an experiment – a real-life city based on Plato’s The Republic. Athene brings 300+ adults, all intellectuals, from different times spanning thousands of years to help set up and run the city. 10,000+ children, including an incarnate Apollo, are brought to the city to learn and become their Best Selves. Robots. Time travel. Impending doom – the Just City is situated at the feet of the rumbling volcano on Kallisti. And of course, because humans and Greek gods are imperfect creatures, there are flaws in the experiment.
First, I have to confess. I have never read The Republic. I’m not sure I’ve actually read ANY Plato. I have a feeling I would have gotten more out of The Just City if I had.
Even without that context, this story was delightful in so many ways! Many of the adults brought to the Just City are completely fictional, but quite a few of them are historical figures – philosophers, translators of Plato, and others. Again, probably lots of interesting Easter eggs that went right over my head because of my lack of classical study. These intellectuals are brought to the City from times ranging from Sokrates’ time through to a little bit in our future. Because of the time travel constraints on the gods, people (and things) can only be removed from their time when they will no longer influence history. As a result the men are mostly older, brought right before their deaths. Many of the women are younger intellectuals who would not have been able to live a life of the mind in their own times. Objects are rescued from fires or other destruction.
When the children are old enough to be able to appreciate him, Sokrates is also brought to the Just City to teach rhetoric. Sokrates, of course, is going to do what Sokrates does, rather than exactly what you want him to do. Sokrates opines about Plato’s versions of his dialogues. We get Socratic dialogues with children, gods, and historical figures. We get Socratic dialogues with newly sentient robots whose only means of communicating is etching in stone, so the streets of the Just City are literally being paved with Socratic dialogue. We get to experience Sokrates’ delight with the concept of Zero, and we get to watch him suss out whether the robots really are sentient. And of course, we get to watch him stir up trouble in an already flawed experiment.
The story is told through rotating perspectives – one of the children brought to the city, one of the adult women brought to the city, and Apollo. Beautifully done. You experience the city, and the secrets, from each of the major groups’ viewpoints.
Also, yes, you read that right. 300+ adults. 10,000+ children, approximately age 10 at the beginning of the experiment. Think about that for a minute.
Jo Walton is a master storyteller and is very funny. I know I’ve already said delightful twice (thrice, sir), but I’m going to say it again. Seriously, delightful.
The sequel is out – The Philosopher Kings. As soon as I finish this short story compilation of Liu Cixin’s that was Kindle-loaned to me for only two weeks, I’m pouncing on The Philosopher Kings.
Will I nominate The Just City for a Hugo? This is very high on my list of possible nominees, so far. Yes.
Strong Female Protagonist, By Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag
Reviewed by John Seavey
Eligible for Best Graphic Presentation, and available here.
The other day, someone mentioned to me that there was a really good webcomic called “Strong Female Protagonist” that should be in the Hugo conversation. They provided a link to www.strongfemaleprotagonist.com in with the comment, and I clicked on that link…and about six hours later I came up for air, having devoured every scrap of extant material, and started waiting for the next installment to be posted.
Because it is phenomenal. Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag are two people who have really given an immense amount of thought to the way a superhero universe would work, and they’ve come up with some really fascinating answers. And the best part is, those answers lead to more questions, and those questions make for great plot hooks that lead to fantastic stories. For example, “Why is it that you never see any superheroes with the power to generate cheap, pollution-free energy?” or “What practical use is super-strength and invulnerability in combating systemic social injustices like racism?” or “If Wolverine has a healing factor that strong, wouldn’t he do more good by just becoming an organ donor?” (The answer to that one is, by the way, one of the most heart-rending things you will ever see in a comic book story.)
All of that could be bloodless, but Mulligan and Ostertag do a great job of turning these abstract moral questions into grounded, meaningful human dramas. Protagonist Alison Green, aka “MegaGirl”, is a character who feels utterly real, someone granted great power for no apparent reason (although there are definitely hints that “no apparent reason” isn’t remotely the same as “no reason”) and is struggling to deal with it in the same way that any normal person would. She’s no paragon of seamless virtue–there’s a brilliant scene where she admits to a supervillain that she fantasizes about killing people hundreds of times a day, simply because the logic of “beat up the bad guys” is so seductively easy–but she’s immensely sympathetic nonetheless. She’s a good person trying to do her best to make the world a better place, but she admits to not knowing what that is.
And the supporting cast is great too. I don’t want to talk too much about it, because I’ve already probably hinted too much at spoilers, but there are a lot of interesting and unique takes on classic comic tropes. It’s a series that actively resists the temptation to slot people into the role of “hero” or “villain”; even the worst characters, like the twenty-foot tall guy with meat cleavers for hands and super-strength, turns out to be all too human and all too relatable, and some of the superheroes turn out to be petty, arrogant and stupid. They’re not superhumans; they’re humans with super powers, and they’re all trying to figure out what that means in a world where their only guide is a medium where all the problems end in thirty-two pages or less.
I could go on–I’ve barely said anything about Ostertag’s magnificent art, which gets better with each and every installment, or about the sparkling and literate dialogue–but at some point I have to just tell you to go read the entirely free comic instead of listening to me talk about it. I will say this: You will never look at the world the same way again after reading ‘Strong Female Protagonist’, much less a comic book. If ‘Watchmen’ was a major step forward in treating comics as real literature that analyzes what makes a so-called “superhero” tick, then this is the next step on from ‘Watchmen’. And it’s about time.