It Was Fifty Years Ago Today…

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album about which it is, I think, impossible to talk sensibly or objectively.

For the generation for whom it was created — those a few years younger than the Beatles themselves, people in their teens and early twenties on May 26, 1967 — it was self-evidently the greatest album ever made. This is something that couldn’t even be questioned by a surprising number of people — I certainly remember when I was a child, as the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of the album’s release were massive media events, seeing multiple documentaries on TV which simply took this as an objective fact. Sgt. Pepper was The Greatest Album Ever Made was a fact in the same way that it was a fact that the battle of Hastings was in 1066.

However, it was an equally objective fact to almost everyone I know who was around my age — at least among those of us forty or younger who have engaged at all with the Beatles’ music, which is a smaller proportion than many Boomers might think — that Sgt. Pepper wasn’t actually all that great. I mean, it’s a nice album, but frankly not even the best album the Beatles released in 1967 (assuming one counts Magical Mystery Tour as an album rather than an EP and a few singles).

I think there’s a parallel here with another cultural icon, which was released one day before Pepper‘s tenth anniversary — Star Wars. People only a few years older than me, who saw that film in the cinema, were convinced (and many still are) that it was the greatest film ever made. I’ve tried watching it on several occasions, but could only *guarantee* having sat through the whole thing once, when I watched it a couple of months back. Like Sgt. Pepper it’s an enormous technical achievement, but it does very little for me.

(Pepper does more for me — I love about half the album and wouldn’t be without even the half I don’t love. But same principle.)

In both cases, I think you have to have been the right age for the work. Not when you first experience it, but when it first came out. No-one now can watch Star Wars in its cultural context, and the same goes for Sgt. Pepper — both in fact destroyed, even as they were destroyed *by*, the cultural context they were created in.

In the case of Sgt. Pepper, when it came out, when it was first heard, it was an album that signified an inescapable progression, a forward momentum, a glorious future. People were capable of *this* now. What would it be like tomorrow?! Music was progressing faster than ever, and this was the New Exciting Sound, but tomorrow would have another New Exciting Sound.

But within a few months, it became apparent that, like all exponential curves encountered in reality, the “progress” of rock music was a sigmoid curve, and rather than being a point on an upward curve headed to infinity, Sgt. Pepper was a turning point. By early 1968 the watchword was simplicity, people were “going back to our roots” and “getting our heads together in the country”. There would, of course, be progress and innovation in rock music — that didn’t really stop altogether in the mainstream until the mid-90s, and may even continue to this day in some of the niche subgenres — but the idea of a mass of artists, all headed in roughly the same direction, racing each other to be the latest people on the charts with the new sound… that idea died with the summer of 1967.

So the album became canonised, not because of its own qualities (though again, it sounds like I’m saying it’s a bad album — it’s not. It’s an album I like a lot) but as a symbol of The Lost Time When Things Were Getting Better.

But being canonised as a never-to-be-bettered artifact of a mythical Golden Age is, of course, exactly the opposite of those things Sgt. Pepper stood for at the time. And now it’s been reissued in three different versions for the fiftieth anniversary (a single CD, a double CD, and a six-disc box set) it’s all too easy for those of my generation to see in it all the *worst* aspects of the generation it defined. Fetishism of the military, Empire nostalgia, an obsession with the past, appropriation of non-European cultures, casual sexism… they’re all here, present and accounted for. There’s been a fashion in the last twenty years or so to dismiss it as worthless (something I’ve been guilty of myself in younger, more reactionary, days).

But yet, that’s no more an objective judgment of the album than the one that says “Greatest EVAR!!!”, is it? It’s all cultural context stuff, too, and from a context that will, right now, only see the worst in the boomer generation that loved this album, because right now most of the social and political problems we’re going through are caused by them growing old resentfully.

The new reissue gives as good an opportunity as possible to judge the album *as an album* as we’re going to get. It’s now being presented in a new remix by Giles Martin (and I wonder if the 1967 stereo mix is now being deleted altogether, like the original Star Wars?). I’ve bought the two-disc version (I don’t have the money for the six-disc version, though if anyone wanted to spend a hundred and ten quid buying me a copy I’d gladly review it…), and it’s definitely worth doing.

The two-disc version contains the full album, along with outtake versions of every song on the album, and of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, both of which are also presented in new stereo remixes.

The remix is a genuine, subtle, improvement, at least over the original stereo mix. The 1967 stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper was, frankly, a mess. It had a song at the wrong speed, it had songs where the mix had all the instruments in one channel and all the vocals in the other… it was generally sloppy, as most mid-sixties stereo mixes were.

So Giles Martin has gone for a stereo mix which replicates the original mono mix in terms of instrument balance, but which has a modern stereo spectrum. He’s also gone back to the original multitracks before they were bounced down, so the sound quality is several generations better. It’s possible to hear details I’ve never heard before — for example in “Fixing A Hole” it’s possible to make out a tiny fluffed guitar note right at the end of the fade. But it’s *also* possible to tell that the harpsichord on the same track is doubled, thanks to the stereo separation.

This can be a double-edged sword — for example, listening with headphones to “Getting Better”, the tamboura pops out and resonates in a way it simply doesn’t on earlier versions. But at the same time, it’s also easier to notice the change in ambience when it drops out again. Listening to it in this way draws attention to the music as a made thing, as a result of technologies and choices, as an artifact, rather than as a whole thing in itself as the slightly muddier-sounding mono mix invites.

(Though again, this may be at least in part because I’m listening to it in those terms in the first place because of the presentation).

I don’t think this will ever become my preferred listening experience for Sgt. Pepper — that will remain the 2009 reissue of the original mono mix — but it’s a good, interesting, one. Some may, of course, regard it as blasphemous to have the album available in a new mix, but given that the band and George Martin’s *intended* mix has been unavailable for most of the last fifty years (except, latterly, as part of an expensive CD box set of all the mono albums) to my mind it’s better to have a good unintended mix out there than a bad one.

The outtakes are less interesting. George Harrison often spoke of how the recording process for Sgt. Pepper wasn’t very organic, and didn’t allow for experimentation by the band, as opposed to the relevant songwriter. “A lot of the time it ended up with just Paul playing the piano and Ringo keeping the tempo, and we weren’t allowed to play as a band as much.”

That’s borne out by the outtakes here. Other than the two full versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” which were spliced together to form the final single version (one of which was already available on Anthology 2 anyway) this is mostly just sparse recordings of backing tracks without the overdubs, sometimes with guide vocals. It’s fun enough to hear, but there are none of the revelatory outtakes here that one gets in something like the similar reissues of Kind of Blue or Pet Sounds — when arrangements stop being worked out by a live band, full alternate versions don’t exist in the same way.

This fiftieth anniversary set (in whatever form) likely marks the last moment that Sgt. Pepper has any real cultural currency. By the time it’s sixty-four, the majority of the generation who canonised it will, sadly, have died out. I suspect — though I can’t know — that the Beatles will remain listened to for as long as any recorded sound is, though in the same way we now listen to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke. And I think that in fifty years’ time, their legacy will look very different. It seems likely that Revolver or Rubber Soul will be viewed as their true masterwork, though I wouldn’t bet against Please Please Me, the White Album, or Abbey Road either. I think the further we get from 1967, the more Pepper will fade.

But it’ll never fade away completely. This is still the album with “A Day in the Life”, with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, with “She’s Leaving Home”. As long as any music from the last century is listened to, people will still be discovering and loving those.

It’s been going in and out of style, but it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

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Bleh

So, on Saturday, after being down in That London watching the Beach Boys and meeting up with friends for a couple of days, I decided I needed a few days without seeing any people or doing anything.
Since then:
I discovered a friend who lives in Australia was in town for one day and wanted to meet up (this was great fun, but took energy. I’m *very* glad I did it though, especially given all the below.)
I got commissioned to come up with a bunch of ideas for videos from a regularish freelance job I have, and so I’ve had to spend the last two days coming up with ideas for nonthreatening childrens’ stories. During which time…
Some utter shit decided to bomb the city I live in and kill a bunch of kids, just to be a bastard.
My wife received news her citizenship had finally been approved, after eleven long years of effort.
My wife *also* got a job interview, at basically no notice, for what if she’s accepted would be a dream job.
I then discovered that one of the children still missing after the attack is a relative of my sister’s partner, and I’m worried sick for him and his family.
I also discovered, in the same phone call, that an old family friend has just been arrested for murder (not the murders mentioned above).
And then this morning I had to help my wife find the place for her interview, because she’s blind and not great at finding new places anyway, and especially not great at it when public transport to the place she had to go (at only a few hours’ notice) has been shut down and rerouted because of the aforementioned utter murdering shit blowing children up in one of our major transit hubs.

Obviously I don’t mean to compare all these things, which are very, very different in importance and impact from each other. But all of them (even the good ones) took more energy than I was expecting to have to expend over the last couple of days, so if I don’t post on here for a day or two, or if I don’t do something I said I was going to, it’s because at this point I’m basically delirious from adrenaline poisoning.

Back soon.

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A Day of Very Mixed Emotions

It’s (thankfully) not every day you wake up to the news that someone has bombed your city, killing a bunch of children. (At least not if you live in Manchester — I’m very aware that there are parts of the world where this isn’t the case).
It’s also not every day your wife receives a letter saying she’s finally been approved for citizenship, after eleven and a half years living here and god knows how many thousands of pounds spent.
I’m in tears, but at this point I don’t even know which is the main cause. I just feel very tired…

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I’m Alive

Had a couple of people asking if Holly and I are OK. We’re fine, and as far as I know no-one either of us know was at the arena last night (though it feels creepy enough that we passed through the tram stop in the same building complex barely an hour before).
It’s not the first time Manchester has seen terrorist activity (for those who don’t know, the IRA blew up half the city centre in the mid 1990s) but it’s the first in my lifetime with such a loss of life. I hope all the injured kids recover, and I also hope (though I suspect in vain) that this isn’t used as an excuse to push through ever-more-authoritarian laws that wouldn’t have prevented this.
My thoughts are with the families of those killed, and with those injured.

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Hugo Blogging: Best Fan Writer

Once again, there are six nominations for this award, of which five are proper nominees and one is gamed onto the ballot by fascists, and who I will be ranking below “No Award” without reading.

As the one fascist on the list, Jeffro Johnson, unlike the rest of them, seems to have Google alerts set up for his name and care passionately about other people’s opinions of him, I will repeat my quotes from 2015 and 2016, when I actually paid attention to his “work”:

“This might even be worthwhile, if Johnson showed any sign of having any analytical ability, insight, awareness of any literature that *doesn’t* relate in some way to role-playing games, or ability to craft a sentence. Fundamentally Mr. Johnson is just a very, very, very stupid but harmless man who is being used for the second year running by “Day””
“I’m just not interested in what a very dull-witted man without even the most rudimentary of critical analytical tools has to say about them.”
“On the evidence of these pieces, Mr Johnson is an affable, hugely enthusiastic, but rather stupid man with (to put it politely) outdated notions about gender relations.”
“Someone could potentially write an interesting essay on that subject, but that someone won’t be Mr Johnson, whose level of insight doesn’t rise much above “neat! This could make a great game!””

I do not expect Jeffro Johnson’s work to have improved dramatically over the last year, so won’t even bother considering it. The rest of the nominees are ranked below, in order of merit. Some are people whose writings I read regularly, while for others I’m going only from material provided in the Hugo Packet, but I’m trying not to judge unfairly on that basis.

Abigail Nussbaum is possibly the most perceptive SF critic around. I often disagree with her views on the quality of a work, but she’s one of the best people I know of at teasing out threads of thematic meaning, and at talking about why a work matters.

She doesn’t say so explicitly, but her Hugo Packet entry can be read as an implicit defence of identity politics and of what are mockingly referred to as “SJW” attitudes. Nussbaum wrote a great deal last year, and has chosen here reviews, primarily of media SF rather than prose, which examine attitudes towards identity, whether that be her look at the way Ex Machina deals both with consciousness and (obliquely) with trans issues, her discussion of Luke Cage in the context of Black Lives Matter, or her review of Russell T. Davies’ queer version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is not to say that her writing is heavy-handed political polemic — her work is focused on the art itself, not on putting across her political views — but rather that she is one of those people, all too rare in criticism from the SF fandom mainstream, who can actually read a text on multiple levels and put it into a cultural context. The works she looks at are products of their times, and she reads them as such.

It says something about her work that even though I’ve only seen one of the works she’s examining (Arrival), and even though I’ve read all these essays before, I still reread them with absolute fascination.

Mike Glyer is in many ways the polar opposite of Nussbaum, but would also be a worthy winner. Glyer is not someone who specialises in analysis, or indeed in writing memorable, quotable sentences. Rather, what he does, and well, is news journalism. He collates news from different sources, fact-checks, links, interviews people, and does all the things that a journalist needs to do.

This means that when it comes to providing material for the Hugo Packet Glyer is at a disadvantage when it comes to the others — there are no 6,000-word essays of deep-dive analysis. But the fact is, especially in the last two years with their multiple controversies about fascist entryists in the Hugo Awards, Glyer’s site has been the essential site for anyone wanting to make sense of the world of SF fandom. His work is vital, and he’s done more than anyone else to hold together a community that would, I suspect, have broken down without his work.

Chuck Tingle is a brilliant satirical genius, who also happens to write a lot of gay dinosaur erotica. Last year, the fascists gamed his Space Raptor Butt Invasion onto the Hugo ballot, presumably in the belief that this would embarrass “SJW”s. Instead, Tingle spent a year satirising them with sites like this, raising funds for LGBT charities, and publicising books by authors who the fascists particularly hate.

As a result, this year he is a legitimate nomination, and may well win. His packet entry includes his video about the “Bad Dogs Blues”, links to several interviews, this Storify of his Tweets about the Hugos, and copies of two of his short stories: SLAMMED IN THE BUTT BY MY HUGO AWARD NOMINATION and POUNDED IN THE BUTT BY MY HUGO AWARD LOSS.

These stories are both, ostensibly, gay erotica about anal sex with anthropomorphised concepts, but in the case of these two stories, at least, that makes up a rather small proportion of the actual stories. Rather, these remind me more than anything of Richard Herring’s podcast As It Occurs To Me, which shares a *very* similar aesthetic with them. Both revolve around fictionalised versions of the author using news stories and events in his own life as jumping-off points for metafictional, existentialist, comedy which involves characters commenting on the metafictional nature of their own comments on their own existence, and then commenting on the clichéd nature of such metafictional commentary and the way it’s easy to do to impress the kind of audience that’s impressed by that kind of thing. Both also focus on the author’s own insecurity and need to write quickly, both have their own catchphrase-like vocabulary, and both use science-fictional elements (especially parallel universes). And both are obsessed with anal sex.

I found SLAMMED IN THE BUTT BY MY HUGO AWARD NOMINATION, in particular, absolutely hilarious:

I can’t say that I’m not a little jealous as I sit here in this imaginary coffee shop, my every action meticulously described by some external author who I’ll never meet, but at the same time there is a certain relief to knowing that the future is out of my hands. I am nothing more than a collection of words upon a page, incapable of pain or excitement or love, unless, of course, the writer wants me to be.
But the writer is kind, and I know that he’s brought me here for a reason.
And if you think that it’s unreasonable for me to learn all this from a simple email notification, the author would like me to remind you that I’ve been living in a deeper level of the Tingleverse for years, growing more and more suspicious of the bizarre happenings around me every day. He doesn’t have time to tell you about the fact that my mailman is hunky unicorn in leather, assless chaps, or that the last flight I took was delayed because the planes were all having a hardcore gangbang on the tarmac.

Tingle definitely deserves some sort of award. One real problem with this category for me is that there is no possible way to compare gay erotica about an anthropomorphised concept with a year’s worth of news posts, or either with deep textual analysis of films. My ranking of my top three is based on my personal rather narrow interpretation of what it means to be a “fan writer”, but I’d be very happy if any of them won.

I suspect that I’m rather harsher than I should be on Foz Meadows, and that many people will be ranking her work higher. In part, her relatively low ranking for me is just because the subjects she deals with aren’t ones I’m particularly interested in — I know nothing about the computer game Dragon Age, and I bounce off the Vorkosigan Saga every time I try it, for example. But also, her voice is very close to mine — she’s guilty, like me, of an overuse of asides in the middle of complex sentences, set apart by em-dashes, with too many clauses, for example — and she does the same thing I do of changing register from very high to very low, often in the same sentence. These are tics I dislike in my own work, and seeing them in someone else’s puts me off.

Meadows’ analysis seems, as far as I understand it without having experienced the works she’s talking about, reasonable enough, and certainly her complaints about the representation of bi women are ones I have seen many of my bi friends make. I suspect other people will rank her higher than I do, and I can certainly see the argument for doing so, but the narcissism of small differences makes me rank her fourth. I’ll certainly not be unhappy if she wins though.

And finally (other than No Award and Johnson, in that order) Natalie Luhrs‘ blog entries included in the packet seem unexceptional to me. There are five pieces here. The first is one on the role of women in Hamilton, and may be of more interest to people who like that musical than it is to me, but doesn’t grip me in the way Nussbaum’s writing about things I’ve not seen does. The second is a breakdown by gender and race of the Locus recommended reading lists for several years, and must have required a lot of work. The third is a defence of the romance genre, the fourth is a look at techniques used to silence marginalised people, and the fifth is a set of suggestions on how to fix the problems the World Fantasy Convention has with accessibility and harassment.

All of this is perfectly fine, useful, stuff, but nothing here jumps out as much better than a million other blog posts on similar topics. I don’t want to sound too harsh towards Luhrs here — these essays are the kind of thing I’d gladly share on Twitter if I came across them. This is perfectly good work, just not (in my personal opinion) up to the standard of the other four proper nominees.

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Out Today: Destroyer

My new novel, Destroyer is out now.

When Rudolph Hess flew to Britain, he was on a secret mission — to give Nazi spies in Britain the secrets of an occult ritual that would win the war for the Germans.
With the fate of the world at stake, Alan Turing, Dennis Wheatley, and Ian Fleming have to find the occultists and stop them. But what is Aleister Crowley’s involvement? And how can they decode the ritual in time?

It can be bought in hardback from Lulu. The Kindle edition is available from here (UK) and here (US), and the paperback from Amazon UK and US (I’m trying Amazon’s self-publishing for my paperbacks, though hardbacks will remain with Lulu). Non-Kindle ebook versions will be available from other stores over the next few days. This Books2Read Universal Link will, once they’re available, give you links for your preferred ebook retailer. My Patreon backers, of course, get a free copy — here’s the link for Patreon backers.

(One thing I should note about this, because many of my readers will care — every character in this book is male. I thought long and hard about doing that, and the nature of the genre it’s pastiching would make it even more problematic to actually include anyone of another gender. I understand if this puts readers off, but want you to understand that it was a choice I thought about and didn’t take lightly. My next novel, out *very* soon, will hopefully make up for this.)

I will be serialising it here, one chapter a week, over the next forty weeks. Here’s…

Chapter One
May 1941. A cold, dark, night. The pilot is determined that the plane will reach its target, bearing a cargo that could determine the course of the war, and the fate of the entire planet. Maybe even more than that. Nothing is more important than this. Not even the pilot’s own life. His life, after all, is only that of one man, and he has already decided to put it in service of the greatest possible cause. If he loses it, so be it. There are worse things than death. And he, who has been so willing to send others to their deaths, can’t balk at the idea of his own.

May is supposed to be a warm month. A month when the days are finally growing noticeably longer after a long, dark, winter, when the sun is finally up long enough to heat the ground below. A month when you can feel the flowers bursting from the ground, and everything coming to life. May is meant to be spring.

But flying across the North Sea, at night, in a one-man plane, is cold no matter what the time of year, and the pilot can see his own breath in the air. He shivers, and smells the aeroplane fuel, a scent that fills him full of wonder, even as the fumes make him slightly dizzy. The aeroplane is a marvel of modernity, of Aryanism. It is the greatest marvel of a century of wonders. The plane allows a man to fly above the world and, if necessary, to rain death down upon it. The aeroplane is everything that National Socialism is working towards – soon the whole world will be controlled by those who create such machines. The future that is coming is one where such technological marvels will be commonplace. But that future depends on his actions tonight.

The Reich and Britain should not be enemies. The Aryan race should not be divided. The pilot knows this, deep in his heart. The two great empires should be allies against the Communist threat. All other concerns should be secondary to that. And his great work would bring the day of peace closer. All he has to do – all that the golden future requires of him – is to get his plane to Scotland. After that, he can rest. His job will be done.

That would be a simple task in most circumstances, but right now there is a war raging in Europe – a war that the pilot hopes to end, but which may take his life before he has the chance. Not only will the enemy attack him if they can, but his own side may not realise the nature of the mission with which he has been entrusted. They, too, may attempt to kill him. They may even succeed.

No matter. He is only one man. Millions have died already. And millions more will die before this is all over. His only task is to ensure that those millions will be the enemies of the Reich, and that they are a sacrifice for the best of causes.

It is the darkest of nights, in the darkest of times, but the pilot is bringing the light. Soon this conflict will be over, and soon the glory of the German people will be obvious to all. This fallen world will rise up again, and become worthy of the Führer’s genius. It will come through the fire and be purged of its impurities, the pure metal fit to be forged into the shape the Führer has anticipated.

The twentieth century is the German century, and the pilot knows it. He is the bearer of a cargo as important to the future of the world as the Holy Grail itself. He is Parsifal, carrying the spear that will heal the wounds in the Aryan people and unite them against their common foe. His plane, like that spear, is a weapon that does not serve the purpose of weapons. It will unify rather than tear apart.

The cargo is only a handful of documents, but what documents they are! They are the culmination of his life’s work. The pilot had never been the most ardent of mystics – his devotion to the cause is a personal one, not an ideological one – but nonetheless, he understands the import of this moment. It may well be the most important moment in the history of the world. He feels genuinely humble, even while acknowledging his own role in history. He is not the important one. He is just a vessel.

The documents he is carrying will change everything. Given to the Reich’s allies, they will allow the civilised world to unite against the lesser men, the dwarves who are determined to destroy everything good about civilisation. His allies are noble men. They will know what to do with them.

The storm rages around him. He’s dizzy now. His heart is racing with excitement, and the blood is rushing in his ears so loudly it almost drowns out the sound of the plane’s engines. He bites his lip, and feels the salt, metallic taste of his blood in his mouth mingle with the smell of the plane fuel. He closes his eyes, just for a second, and allows himself to become one with the plane, to feel what it feels, to experience the air rushing around him and the ground pulling him towards it. To know the freedom of the air, and realise that it is only with a superhuman effort that such freedom can be maintained.

The pilot knows this mission, the most important of his life, must succeed. He has been entrusted with this mission by the Führer, and no-one else can possibly know its true purpose. Even Rudolf Hess, himself, the pilot, doesn’t know all the details, although he is the one who oversaw it all personally. He desperately needs to see the Duke of Hamilton, the only man he can trust. He needs to get the documents to him, and to relieve himself of this immense burden.

The plane starts to head towards the ground. Hess knows that the plane will not survive the landing, but he is sure that he will remain unharmed. The hand of destiny is on his shoulder.

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Hugo Blogging: Best Novelette

So the Hugo Packet arrived today (yesterday when you’re reading this — I am cleverly scheduling a couple of posts for while I’m away), and so I’m going to continue looking at this year’s finalists.

As with the short stories, there’s one item on here that I’m not going to dignify with treating as a proper Hugo finalist — it was gamed on here by fascists — but as there are six finalists rather than the five that were previously the norm, it’s easy enough to stick fascist crap below “No Award” and treat the rest as the proper finalists. So that’s what I’ll do. There may be spoilers ahead…

My thoughts ranked from best to worst:

Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman is absolutely stunning. Like much Hugo-nominated short fiction of recent years, it’s essentially a character piece, but this story, about a woman driving an alien and its human “translator” around America, deals with a lot of themes that SF can deal with better than any other genre — the nature of humanity, the impossibility of communication, the necessity of empathy — while also having a really unique SFnal idea. The alien in this story is revealed, as the story progresses, to be intelligent but non-sentient — it has no self-awareness or consciousness as we understand them, even though it’s far more intelligent than humans. But the means by which it communicates with its human translator allows it to experience self-awareness vicariously, at the eventual cost of its own life.

It reminded me very much of some of Greg Egan’s better short fiction, and I’m very eager to read more by Gilman, who I was shamefully unaware of before (she has a long history of publishing credits, but I’d somehow missed out on hearing of her).

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon is another very strong story, and while Gilman’s is more to my personal taste I think that Vernon’s story may be the better story. A sequel to her earlier story Jackalope Wives (which was kept from the 2015 Hugo ballot by the fascists), like that story it features the character of Grandma Harken.

Harken is, to all intents and purposes, Granny Weatherwax under another name (though hints are dropped here that in future stories more may be revealed about her), and this is very, very, reminiscent of some of Pratchett’s witches stories, notably the Tiffany Aching books and Lords and Ladies. While it’s not played even slightly for comedy, Harken’s character and behaviour are so similar to Weatherwax’s that I have to assume she’s intended at least in part as a tribute to the earlier character.

However, while Pratchett’s stories are set in a fantasy version of rural England, Vernon’s is set in an equally fantastic American West, a desert populated by jackrabbits and coyotes, and where the gods are gods of the railway. An almost hallucinatory heat haze hangs over everything, and for me at least adds to a sense of unfamiliarity and the uncanny (I’d be interested in what readers from Texas or Arizona think of the relative effects of this and Pratchett’s work).

Vernon’s plot is a simple enough one, built up almost entirely out of folk tale motifs, but her writing is so strong that that really doesn’t matter. This is all about voice, character, and atmosphere, and on that level it works better than anything else here.

The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allen is a pleasant enough story of a woman searching for her birth father while coping with her mother’s dementia. It’s a very well written character piece, but fundamentally doesn’t do much for me. The big revelation isn’t set up well enough for it to really be effective, and there’s not enough in it really to hold my attention.

You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay by Alyssa Wong is one I might have enjoyed more had I not read it directly after Vernon’s story. While the two stories are very different in plot and theme, both are set in fantasy Old West deserts, and all the coyotes, mockingbirds, mesas, and yucca trees seemed like a rehash to me. Not Wong’s fault, just the luck of which order I read the stories in.
That said, even had I read them in reverse order, I would still place Wong’s story below Vernon’s. It does what it does very well indeed, but what it does is less interesting to me. And I’d knock points off for it being written in second person. While I would not ever argue that second person should be avoided in all cases, I do think it needs a reason, and I don’t really see one here. Others may, of course, disagree, but to me at least this story could have been written in close third without any major changes, and when that’s the case it just feels like someone showing off their own cleverness, but without it actually being a particularly clever thing to do.
It’s a decent enough story, but much like Wong’s entry in the short story category, it’s not for me.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde I’m afraid I found utterly unreadable. I won’t be placing it under No Award, because it’s not that it’s doing what it does badly, it’s just that what it does is completely uninteresting to me. It’s marketed as “an epic fantasy in miniature”, and I’m not a fan of epic fantasy at the best of times. It’s the kind of thing where people talk about “worldbuilding” and the “magic system”, and those are the main appeal of the story. Those things do nothing for me, and so I gave up on the story about thirty pages in.
I’m sure that people who like this kind of thing will find it the kind of thing they like, and I’m not going to stick a story below No Award just because I’m not a fan of the genre, but this isn’t the sort of thing that I, personally, read SFF for.

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