Regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy reading and discussing vintage SFF, particularly lesser known works. And so today’s featured fancast is right up my alley.
Therefore, I am thrilled to welcome JM, Gretchen and Nate of Chrononauts to my blog today:
Tell us about your podcast or channel.
JM: Chrononauts is a podcast that delves into the history of science fiction literature, and seeks to discuss more obscure works in tandem with or in relation to more well-known stories and writers. In the beginning, I don’t think we had a very precise vision of what we wanted to do, besides: “Hey, let’s talk about some cool sci-fi books! And maybe we can proceed sort of chronologically through the genre’s history!” As time has gone on I think we’ve gotten a more firm handle on this, but also adopted a somewhat relaxed approach, so that while we are still, roughly speaking, moving forward chronologically, we are also taking many tangential side-steps, and are open to including newer works “out of sequence” as it were, particularly if they match up thematically with something from the past. Since I’ve always been into hunting down obscure treasures, I think one of my goals, from the beginning, was always to highlight things that were lesser-known, either because they simply didn’t get as much promotion or, in some cases, had no exposure in the English-speaking world.
We’re also just friends who like discussing books, and I think that comes through in our podcasts. Also, when I was at university in the early 2000s, I did take a science fiction class, and the professor took an interesting approach, wherein the first half of each class discussed some kind of scientific principle or development, and the second half dealt with stories that were connected to that concept. I thought this was really cool and interesting, and I think a part of me wanted to duplicate, although not too rigorously, that approach. So that’s why sometimes we’ll include a segment of history or science background before we get into discussing a particular work. I think it really helps sometimes to add some interesting and informative context to discussing fiction.
Who are the people behind your podcast or channel?
Chrononauts is JM, Gretchen and Nate, we’re three fans who are interested in science fiction history.
JM: I’ve been a science fiction fan for my entire life, really. I also have a background in English literature studies and went to work for the library for the blind producing books in alternate formats. Now I do work in information technology, but stories have always been one of my primary interests. I first got into the Doctor Who television series when I was ridiculously young, and not long after that, my father introduced me to “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, by Mark Twain, and you could say I was hooked. I don’t read only science fiction and some of my favourite books are not considered a part of this genre, but it’s one of my biggest interests; always has been, and in early 2020, I decided I wanted to finally get in on this podcasting thing. The basic idea was initially suggested by another friend, who in the end didn’t have the time to participate, but Nate, whom I’ve known for years, was a natural fit for this and I knew right away that I wanted to ask him to join. It was always in my mind that we should have three hosts, and in late 2021 we were finally able to bring that to fruition again, adding my friend Gretchen to the group.
Nate: My background is in academia (history of electrical technologies) and I’m approaching the podcast from more of an “English major” reading background, despite the fact that I haven’t taken an English class since high school. My favorite authors are Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Proust, Joyce, Balzac, Eliot, Fielding, E. Bronte, Woolf, etc., and while I’ve read some SF/F before starting the podcast, it hasn’t been a huge percentage of my reading habits, and as such a lot of the stuff we cover on the podcast I’m coming to for the first time. I’m a native English speaker, but would consider myself at B2 proficiency in Spanish and A2 proficiently in Russian, so I’ve done a number of amateur translations of stories in these languages for the podcast, and made some attempts at some in Italian, German and Catalan (to varying degrees of success).
Gretchen: I have a background in literature and academia as well; I’m currently working on a thesis for English and will be working on a master’s degree in English and information science by the coming fall. My taste in novels, like my taste in pretty much all media, is pretty eclectic, though I definitely have a deep fondness for science fiction. I’ve been a fan of sci-fi franchises such as Doctor Who and Star Trek since I was young, and started getting into the literature around middle school after reading some Bradbury and Douglas Adams, but there’s still a lot out there I haven’t read, so I’m grateful working on this podcast gives me such an opportunity to do so.
Why did you decide to start your podcast or channel?
JM: Put very simply and briefly: We all love stories, and are all science fiction fans to varying degrees. I think that 2020 will be remembered as a time when, among other things, many peoples’ lives changed; I was certainly going through a very rough personal crisis, and I needed something to do to keep my mind occupied and stimulated. I thought: Why not explore this area of interest, so I can share knowledge, have a good time with friends, and learn things, too.
Gretchen: As JM mentioned, I became a member of the podcast after he invited me to join in late 2020. Since then, the podcast has given me a chance to enjoy and talk about many works of sci-fi I haven’t had a chance to read before. As a college student, I get assigned a good amount of readings, but the podcast provides me with other stories and books to read that I can have fun discussing with friends, and all, of course, without the stress of being graded.
Nate: At the start of the pandemic, JM approached me with the idea. My normal reading was in a bit of a slump as I did most of it on my daily commute via train, which had been disrupted when the world shut down, so a new project to work on was just the thing to rekindle the fire. I’m a librarian by day and love doing these in-depth research dives, so discovering an entirely new world to me filled with hundreds of cool sounding stories from the early days was an absolutely fantastic process, as was trying to organize them in a logical fashion. Doing the interlude music also got me back into composing (also to varying degrees of success).
What format do you use for your podcast or channel and why did you choose this format?
Nate: Our format took a while to arrive at. Honestly, our early episodes are a complete mess. We had no idea what we’re doing. It smooths out as we go, and I think now we’re happy with the current format. We decided to approach science fiction history chronologically in the beginning, so we started off with Lucian’s “A True Story” written in the second century AD, and went through various proto-science fiction works through the Enlightenment before we arrived at Mary Shelley in our second episode. In the latter half of the 19th century, a lot more stories that could fall under the SF umbrella were being published, so from roughly episode 5 forward, we started to focus on the origins of various themes and tropes that play out throughout the genre’s history. We’re a spoiler podcast, but we’ve structured our latest episodes to include non-spoiler discussion at the beginning of each segment, so someone who hasn’t read the work can get a feel for if they’d want to or not. We’ll often include in-depth biographical or technical history segments where we think it’s relevant for the material we’re discussing. We like this format as it allows us to cover a wide range of works, and play similar works off of one another, often pairing a popular work with an obscure one.
JM: It’s definitely a work in progress, but I think we have found a really good groove, now. The format has sort of developed over time.
Gretchen: As a new addition to the podcast, I wasn’t a member while some of the changes were occurring, but since joining, we added, as Nate mentioned, the non-spoiler section for our listeners, and we have also started dividing topics and numerous works related to them over longer spans of time, which has, I think, given us a better ability to cover individual stories more in-depth. It is possible there will be more changes in the future, but for now, the format seems to work quite well.
The fan categories at the Hugos were there at the very beginning, but they are also the categories which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines, fancasts and other fan projects are important?
Nate: The media interests of my formative years were largely dominated by underground music (metal, punk, noise), where fanzine culture and independent releases were very much a part of the landscape, allowing a community to exist separate from the big corporations. I think its important to have that grass-roots, ground up voice, where people can exercise their creativity in expressing their own interests on their own terms, which can often lend a unique, authentic air in contrast to the top-down approach to fandom that comes from big publishing companies.
JM: It may be cliché to say, but fans keep things alive and thriving. The science fiction fan community started out, pretty much, in the earliest of the SF-oriented pulp magazines, and it gave people an opportunity to share ideas and enthusiasms. Many of these fans also became writers, illustrators, or found some other way to get directly involved. Like Nate, I also have some experience with more underground music subcultures, and I got my first science fiction fanzine when I was eight years old, from the local Doctor Who club. Science fiction seems a particularly appropriate place for fandom and fan outlets to thrive, because it always, at its best, promotes some really passionate discussions and, being a form that’s “obsessed with ideas and speculations”, it makes sense that it’s from these kind of grass-roots community-based initiatives flourish and, in a way, lead the proverbial charge.
Gretchen: I agree with my co-hosts that fan content is important for keeping things thriving and fostering independent communities. As a person born after 2000, I’m acquainted with fandom in the digital age, and I have been and am a part of fan communities in online spaces that create their own projects and content based on the media they enjoy. This is part of a long history of fandom, springing in part from the science fiction community.
In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online and fancasts have sprung up. What do you think the future of fan media looks like?
Nate: The media criticism sphere of Youtube has really expanded in the last five years, and in addition to the fanzines, websites and podcasts, I would expect to see a lot more SF/F content in the video essay area in the future
JM: I imagine we’ll be seeing more and more audio and video content, probably on all sorts of platforms.
Gretchen: I, too, believe in an expansion of online fan media in both video and audio formats. Besides more of a shift to online fanzines, there will likely be increasing efforts to find and digitally archive previous projects.
The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Are there any awesome fanzines, fancasts, fan writers and fan artists you’d like to recommend?
Nate: Jess Nevins’ “The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana” is one of the essential reference works we’ve used, which has now been made available online. “What Mad Universe” is a podcast that covers similar historical stuff to us, but more broadly focused on “genre” media, rather than just science fiction. There’s an awesome Youtube channel called “Quinn’s Ideas” that has these amazing dramatic plot summaries of the Dune books with some incredible fanart.
JM: In addition to the things Nate mentioned, there are other terrific genre literature-oriented podcasts like The Elder Sign, Apocalist Book Club, The Paperback Warrior, Hugos There Podcast, and the Dickheads Podcast. I also enjoy movie podcasts like The Projection Booth and Sci-Fi On Screen.
Most people will probably associate John Jakes mainly with the weighty historical epics that made him a bestseller in the 1970s and 1980s. If you were a kid during that time, John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles and North and South were probably on your parents’ bookshelves. They certainly were on my parents’ bookshelves (and still are, in fact).
And even if your parents or grandparents didn’t read John Jakes, you’ve probably at least seen the North and South TV miniseries and its sequels Love and War and Heaven and Hell, which were smash hits in the 1980s that everybody watched. Reruns of the three miniseries – called Fackeln im Sturm (Torches in the Storm) in Germany, because a TV executive claimed North and South sounded like the title of a travel program – still get good ratings in Germany almost forty years later. The Bastard, The Rebels and The Seekers, the first three Kent Family Chronicles novels, were made into TV mini-series as well, though they never had quite the impact that North and South did.
For many years, I mentally shelved John Jakes as a writer of the sort of historical doorstoppers that were immensely popular from the 1960s to the 1980s. John Jakes was very much “parent literature”, enjoyable and interesting enough when you found yourself stuck on a holiday with nothing to read but your Mom’s paperback copy of North and South. His novels were also better researched than many others of the same type – and indeed Jakes was aware of his responsibility as a writer of historical fiction, since he knew that for many people, his books would be the first and only time they ever heard about the historical events they covered. However, Jakes was not really someone whose works I would seek out on my own.
And indeed most obituaries, such as Robert D. McFadden’s from the New York Times and Mike Barnes’ from The Hollywood Reporter, focus mainly on John Jakes as a writer of bestselling historical fiction. Interestingly enough, I couldn’t find any German obituaries at all, even though North and South was immensely popular here in the 1980s. I find this very telling, especially since I found at least five different obituaries for the far more obscure German Romanian writer Richard Wagner (not to be confused with the composer of the same name), who happened to die on the same day.
What is only a footnote in all of the mainstream obituaries is that John Jakes was also an SFF writer as well as a writer of crime fiction, westerns and erotica long before he found success beyond imagination with historical sagas.
I certainly had no idea that John Jakes had written SFF before I came across his name in a review at Galactic Journeyand thought, “Wait a minute, the North and South guy used to write SFF?” Turns out John Jakes did not just write SFF, he wrote a lot of it and was also one of the protagonists of the second sword and sorcery boom.
John Jakes debuted towards the end of the pulp era (and indeed was probably one of the last surviving authors of the pulp era) with a story called “The Dreaming Trees” in the November 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures, when he was just eighteen years old. The story in question is an early work of ecological science fiction and may be read online here. In fact, that story sounds fascinating and I will probably do a Retro Review of it eventually.
Interior art by James B. Settles for “The Dreaming Trees” by John Jakes
John Jakes’ next story “Your Number Is Up!” appeared only one month later in the December 1950 issue of Amazing Stories. More stories appeared in rapid succession in the Ziff-Davis SFF magazines, but also in If, Planet Stories, Imagination and even Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, at the time two of the most prestigious SFF magazines.
Interior by Edmond Swiatek for “Your Number Is Up!” by John Jakes
John Jakes was a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, even though he was only six months old, when Conan of Cimmeria burst onto the scene in the November 1932 issue of Weird Tales. And so he created his own sword and sorcery hero loosely inspired by Conan in Brak the Barbarian, whose adventures initially appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination between 1963 and 1965 under the editorship of sword and sorcery champion Cele Goldsmith Lalli (more on her in an upcoming article in issue 1 of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine).
Brak the Barbarian debuted in “Devils in the Walls” in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic
Brak meets “The Girl in the Gem” in the January 1965 issue of Fantastic. Note Brak’s signature ponytail, which gives him a resemblance to He-Man in the 1989 New Adventures of He-Man series.
Brak and friends explore “The Pillars of Chambalor” in the March 1965 issue of Fantastic.
When Cele Goldsmith Lalli left Fantastic for Modern Bride magazine, Brak’s fate like that the other sword and sorcery heroes who had appeared in its pages seemed sealed, for the new regime preferred cheap reprints to original fiction. However, when the second sword and sorcery boom was kicked into overdrive with the Lancer paperback editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, publishers scrambled to reprint any sword and sorcery they could and so the Brak stories were reprinted as a series of fix-up novels with striking Frank Frazetta covers starting in 1968. New Brak stories also continued to appear in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords anthologies well into the time when John Jakes hit paydirt with The Kent Chronicles.
The 1968 paperback edition of Brak the Barbarian with a striking Frank Frazetta cover.
Brak the Barbarian is often called a “Clonan”, i.e. a Conan clone, but that’s unfair, because Brak is very much his own character. Yes, he is a Barbarian (and note that Conan never refers to himself as Conan the Barbarian) and an outcast from his people for daring to question their gods, but Brak is more vulnerable than Conan and frequently finds himself enslaved and forced to serve wizards against his will. Unlike Conan, who drifts through life, Brak is also on a quest to find the promised land of Khurdisan the Golden. He never finds it in the published tales, but rumour had it that there is one more Brak story in which Brak finally find the promised land, to be published only after John Jakes’ death. I really hope that rumour is true.
Even though John Jakes eventually left speculative fiction behind for the greener and more lucrative pastures of historical fiction (and who could blame him?), he nonetheless was and remained one of us, a writer and a fan of SFF and kept returning the genre throughout his life.
I used to do an annual post commenting on the Academy Award winners, but a quick check of my archives reveals that the last time I did an Oscar winner comment post was in 2019. Of course, skipping the pandemic years does make sense, but I also stopped watching the Oscar livestream a few years ago, because just following the announcements on social media and later watching the highlights is a better use of my time. Plus, a lot of the time the sort of movies that get Oscar nominations are not movies I care about or have even seen.
Furthermore, I’ve now reached an age where I no longer believe that I have to be interested in something (Oscar-winning movies, certain literary award winners, the latest Wagner production in Bayreuth, cultural programs on TV), because “true cultured people” (TM) care about these things. So I stopped paying a lot of attention to the Oscars, because while “true cultured people”(TM) might enjoy Oscar bait movies, I sure as hell don’t. At least not in this universe.
Of course, I did miss seeing Will Smith slap Chris Rock live last year, but it wasn’t as if there weren’t a hundred replays of that particular moment. And personally, I wasn’t surprised that someone snapped and slapped an Oscar host, I was just surprised that it took so long for it to happen, considering how rude and condescending many Oscar hosts are.
As for why I’m commenting about the 2023 Academy Awards this year – well, that’s because even though many of the usual Oscar baits were nominated – the hollow historical drama of questionable accuracy, the biopic about a great man or woman (bonus points, if the biopic is either wildly inaccurate or downright offensive), the film that’s not a biopic, but pretends to be one (Lydia Tár may have a website and a Twitter account, but she’s not real, at least not in this universe), the war movie, a famous director revisits his sad childhood, which usually involves their parents getting divorced (at least, Kenneth Branagh’s version was about the traumatic experience of the Northern Ireland conflict escalating and invading his happy childhood), the contemplation of the American navel, the depressing slice of life drama filmed entirely in shades of gray and brown – the big winner of the night was actually a quirky indie science fiction movie with a majority Asian cast travelling through the multiverse.
One cannot state how remarkable the fact that Everything Everywhere All At Once not just won, but won big, really is. For starters, SFF films almost never win Best Picture or the acting categories. Only four SFF films have ever won Best Picture in the 95-year history of the Oscars, all of them in the 21st century. They are Return of the King in 2004, Birdman in 2014, The Shape of Water in 2018 and now Everything Evrywhere All At Once. Considering how many musicals have won Best Picture over the decades and how often musicals get nominated, this is remarkable. Also consider the lengthy list of popular and beloved SFF films that failed to win Best Picture Oscars (and sometimes weren’t even nominated), which includes The Wizard of Oz (had the misfortune of coming out the same year as Gone With the Wind), Miracle on 34th Street (lost to Gentleman’s Agreement), Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (both lost to My Fair Lady), 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Rosemary’s Baby (all three not even nominated, the winner was Oliver!), A Clockwork Orange (lost to French Connection), The Exorcist (lost to The Sting), Star Wars (lost to Woody Allan’s Annie Hall in a decision that aged really badly), Raiders of the Lost Ark (lost to the inexplicably popular Chariots of Fire), E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (lost to Gandhi in one of the most inexplicable decisions), Ghost (lost to Dances With Wolves), The Beauty and the Beast (lost to The Silence of the Lambs), Groundhog Day (not even nominated, the winner was the nigh unbeatable Schindler’s List), Twelve Monkeys (not even nominated; the winner that year was that insult to Scottish history Braveheart, the SF-adjacent Apollo 13 was also nominated), The Sixth Sense (lost to the terrible American Beauty), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (lost to Gladiator), The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers (lost to Chicago and A Beautiful Mind respectively), District 9 and Up (lost to The Hurt Locker in another inexplicable decision), Avatar, Inception and Toy Story 3 (lost to The King’s Speech, another inexplicable winner), Hugo and Midnight in Paris (lost to The Artist, which I’m actually fine with), Beasts of the Southern Wild (lost to Argo, which at least has an SF connection, while Avengers was not even nominated), Gravity and Her (lost to Twelve Years a Slave), Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian (lost to Spotlight, which is one of those winners that have completely escaped my memory), Arrival (lost to Moonlight), Get Out! (lost to another SFF film, The Shape of Water), Black Panther (lost to the terrible Green Book) and Dune (lost to Coda, Don’t Look Up! and Nightmare Alley were also nominated). And a lot of those films were more accessible and more typical Oscar winners than Everything Everywhere All At Once, the scrappy little movie that could. Everything Everywhere All At Once is certainly the weirdest movie to win Best Picture since The Artist back in 2011 (and plenty of Americans are still angry about that).
For starters, while the idea of parallel worlds and a multiverse is far from new, it also hasn’t really been mainstream until fairly recently. Maybe the idea of a multiverse full of parallel universe where things are like ours, but just a little different is just a little too weird for mainstream viewers. As a result, a remarkable number of people assume that Marvel invented the idea of the multiverse sometime around 2020/2021, even though there have been plenty of multiverse and parallel world stories in movies and TV before that, including the original Star Trek‘s 1967 episode “Mirror, Mirror” (which spawned a host of sequels), the 1993 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Parallels”, which sends Worf on an Odyssey through the multiverse and into Deanna Troi’s arms, the 1995 TV-series Sliders, the 1998 German movie Run, Lola, Run (which was famously snubbed by the Oscars and not even nominated, in spite of being a worldwide success) and the somewhat lesser known Sliding Doors, the 2013 TV show Fringe, the various multiverse plots from the DC superhero TV-series, most notably The Flash, but also the entire complex of shows popularly known as “the Arrowverse” (now snuffed out of existence by DC’s latest restructurings) and the 2018 animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (which actually did win the Oscar for Best Animated Film).
Science fiction has been playing the multiverse game even longer. The 1934 story “Sidewise in Time” by Murray Leinster is usually considered to be the first parallel universe story, though some people also make a case for H.G. Wells’ “A Modern Utopia” from 1903. Jorge Luis Borges tackled the multiverse in his 1941 story “The Garden of Forking Paths”, while Michael Moorcock became the first to actually use the term “multiverse” in an SFF context in 1963. There have been many more since.
Americans superhero comics also really love the idea of a multiverse, because it allows them to reconcile conflicting versions of the characters with each other and to tell fun “What if…?” stories. DC Comics were the first to get into the multiverse, because unlike Marvel, who tried to maintain continuity with their Golden Age comics, DC just rebooted most of their superheroes at the dawn of the Silver Age and quickly found themselves faced with the fact that there were two version of The Flash, Green Lantern and other popular heroes. The solution they came up with in the early 1960s was that there are two parallel DC Universes, Earth One and Earth Two. The number of universes eventually snowballed, until DC tried to consolidate them all in the epic 1985 crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, only for the number of universes to escalate once again, requiring another reboot and so on.
Marvel was more hesitant with the multiverse concept, though the Fantastic Four and the Avengers occasionally dealt with parallel universe all the way back to the 1960s. The first run of the What If…? comic started in 1977, featuring one-of parallel universe scenarios. Alan Moore’s and Alan Davis’ Captain Britain comics from Marvel UK from the early 1980s really dialled up the idea with an often nightmarish trip through parallel universes and also gave the main Marvel Universe the designation Earth-616. A little later, Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald came up with the classification of the Marvel Multiverse that also incorporated spin-off media like cartoons, live action TV shows and newspaper strips.
If you’re a habitual science fiction or comic reader, you ran into the idea of the multiverse a long time ago. For me, it’s been so long that I can’t even tell what my first encounter with the idea of parallel universe was. I suspect it might have been a rerun of Star Trek‘s “Mirror, Mirror”. However, if you’re not a habitual science fiction or comic reader, Multiverses are weird and sometimes hard to get your head around, as reactions from casual viewers of The Flash and the other Arrowverse shows to those show’s multiversal shenangigans show.
So the big question is how did a movie about the multiverse not just manage win a whole lot of Oscars, but also completely trounced the more conventional competition, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Editing? If Ke Huy Quan had been nominated for Best Actor rather than Best Supporting Actor, Everything Everywhere All At Once would have joined the rarified ranks of movies who managed to win all five categories considered the most important. Only three movies have managed this feat, namely It Happened One Night in 1935, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992. That’s not just success, it’s an enormous success, particularly for a quirky indie movie.
At The Yale Review, David M. de León declares that the world right now is not just full of terrible things happening, because it always is, but that the pressure to do something about those things or at least care is overwhelming, so the idea of a multiverse where everything that can happen does happen is a lot more seductive or at least a lot more palatable.
Another possible reason is that decades of more subdued multiverse stories, which stick to one or two universes at a time rather than throwing everything at the viewer all at once have softened up mainstream viewers to the idea of the multiverse. Just as decades of timeloop stories and non-linear narratives have softened up audiences to the fact that not every story needs to be linear.
The nihilism that nothing really matters, that there is no point, no fate, not god and that the universe – none of them – doesn’t care about people at all that is addressed (and ultimately rejected) in Everything Everywhere All At Once, is a theme that is increasingly showing up in pop culture – one of the most unexpected examples was Masters of the Universe: Revelation of all things, but last year’s Oscar contender Don’t Look Up! is another, even bleaker example. I strongly suspect that this nihilist resurgence really is tied to the zeitgeist, where terrible things keep happening and things get worse instead of better. It’s definitely a trend worth watching.
Finally, Everything Everywhere All At Once is not just a multiverse story in the way the various Marvel movies are. Instead, it uses the multiverse as a device to tell a story about a family, about intergenerational trauma and about the immigrant experience. And all those are subjects that both Oscar voters and mainstream audiences can connect with and that many Oscar winning and nominated movies have tackled over the years, though in a far more conventional way. The changing make-up of the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also helps movies gain recognition that would never have won or even been nominated ten years ago.
In general, I haven’t been this happy with a slate of Oscar winners in forever – well, in thirty years of so at any rate. There are only a handful of winners I’m unhappy with, all of them for one particular film, but more of that later.
Let’s start with the good. I’m happy with all the winners in the acting categories. Michelle Yeoh is amazing and one of those actors who should have won a long time ago, except that she made the wrong sort of movies and in the wrong country. Michelle Yeoh is also the first Malaysian ever and the first Asian actress to win an Oscar in the Best Actress category. Miyoshi Umeki, the other Asian actress to win an Oscar, won Best Supporting Actress all the way back in 1958.
Ke Huy Quan is not only immensely likable – who did not get misty eyes at his acceptance speech and when he hugged Harrison Ford? – and gave a great performance, but his story is also a classic underdog story – from Vietnamese refugee kid to child star to “Once you’re no longer the cute kid, we have no roles for you” to Oscar winner. And Hollywood loves underdog stories.
Brendan Fraser is another underdog story. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was everywhere and then suddenly he vanished due to what was later revealed to be sexual harassment followed by blacklisting. But he made a roaring comeback in The Affair and Doom Patrol. And even though The Whale is the sort of depressing Oscar bait I don’t like and Fraser’s role of the “a fat suit and make-up” (and The Whale did win Best Make-up) school of acting that usually annoys me, I’m still very happy for Brendan Fraser, because he’s incredibly likeable and has deserved the recognition for a long time now. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw reports about a backlash against the Oscar wins for The Whale, since fatsuits are considered controversial. I don’t like them myself and while they make sense in some cases, e.g. where a rapid transformation is needed, much of the time just hiring an overweight person would be a better choice. However, the backlash mostly seems to focus on the Best Make-Up category (which seems unfair as well, because the make-up artists don’t decide to use a fatsuit, they just build the things. The decision lies with the director, so blame Darren Aronofsky), since everybody is happy for Brendan Fraser, even if they don’t like the film. Brendan Fraser seems to have been adaopted by the Everything Everywhere All At Once cast, by the way. Maybe somewhere in the multiverse, there is a version of the film that Brendan Fraser was actually in.
Which brings me to what is probably the most controversial acting award of the evening, Jamie Lee Curtis’ win for Best Supporting Actress in Everything Everywhere All At Once. A lot of people are annoyed by this win, because they would have preferred Angela Bassett or Stephanie Hsu to win. And personally, I would have preferred Angela Bassett or Stephanie Hsu as well. However, there is no way that Jamie Lee Curtis would not have won, at least in this universe. For starters, Jamie Lee Curtis is Hollywood royalty, the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. She has been acting since her late teens, has been in some hugely successful movies and yet has never had a single Oscar nomination, because most of her acting credits are for horror movies, action films and comedies, i.e. ot the sort of genres that attract Oscar nominations. And her illustrious parents only ever had one nomination each – for The Defiant Ones and Psycho respectively – and never won. So Jamie Lee Curtis won not just because the Academy ignored her for 45 years, but also because it ignored her parents. Of course, much of the same applies to Angela Bassett – a lengthy career, but never really got the recognition she deserved (though she did have one previous nomination for the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It). But Jamie Lee Curtis also had the advantage of being in the biggest winner of the year.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the movie Angela Bassett was nominated for, did get to take home one highly deserved Oscar for Best Costume Design for Ruth Carter, who also won for Black Panther in 2019.
Guillermo del Toro has managed to break through the Disney/Pixar stranglehold on the Best Animated Feature category with his take on Pincocchio, which is another win that makes me very happy.
The extremely catchy “Natuu, Natuu” from the Indian blockbuster RRR won a highly deserved Oscar for the Best Original Song, beating out four ballads which might just as well have been nominated twenty or thirty or forty or even fifty years ago. There was also a great live performance of the song, complete with an amazing dance number. The win for “Natuu, Natuu” is also the first ever Oscar win for a song from an Asian movie. It’s also a win for SFF, because RRR is alternate history. The two protagonists, though based on historical figures, never met in real life and the British Raj were obviously not defeated via dance battles.
Now let’s get to the wins that I’m not happy with, all of which are for the same movie, All Quiet on the Western Front. If you’d opened any German newspaper or watched a German news program yesterday, you might be forgiven for assuming that All Quiet on the Western Front was the biggest winner of the night and won all the awards, because after several paragraphs of extolling the virtues of All Quiet, there would be a brief note – almost an afterthought – that Everything Everywhere All At Once actually won the highest number of awards and most of the major categories. Meanwhile, All Quiet on the Western Front took four categories, Best Foreign Language Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score. Unfortunately, it did not deserve any of them.
In the interest of full disclosure, like most Germans, I was forced to read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in tenth grade and absolutely hated the book. I hated it so much that I gleefully sold my copy at a used bookstore the summer after I graduated and used the credit to buy comics. It’s not the worst book I was forced to read in high school – Emilia Galotti a.k.a. “honour killings are totally defensible, as long as you commit them to further the case of democracy” by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Drachenblut a.k.a. Der Fremde Freund (Dragon’s Blood a.k.a. The Distant Friend) by Christoph Hein a.k.a. “Hey, hitting women is just like hitting dogs, it means nothing, and also women who have abortions are evil. Also, there are no dragons in this book” were both worse, because they promote actively harmful messages. However, All Quiet on the Western Front is the book I hated most of everything I was made to read in high school.
That said, unlike Emilia Galotti and Drachenblut (sorry, but it was never called Der Fremde Freund, when I read it, even though the West German title is false advertising), my adult self does see that All Quiet on the Western Front is a valuable and important book, because it shows the horrors of WWI from a pespective of a young, initially idealistic and then quickly disillusioned soldier. This grunt’s eye view is what makes the book important. It doesn’t matter that this particular soldier happens to be German – he also could have been British, French, American, Russian, Austrian or from any other nation.
When I first heard that there would be a new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (the book already had two adaptations in 1930 and 1979), my initial reaction was “Why?” My second thought was, “Well, the 1930 adaptation was ancient even back when I was in high school, so a maybe they’re making this thing so that teachers have a newer film to show. After all, high school students are a captive audience.”
However, there is one huge problem. The latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front is not just grossly inaccurate, it also manages to undermine the point of the novel by introducing a subplot about a German politician at the peace talks in the woods of Compiegne, whereas the novel explicitly sticks to the grunt’s eye persepctive of protagonist Paul Bäumer and the politicians and their manoeuverings, which eventually cost Paul’s life are never seen, as distant from Paul as if they were on Mars. Paul doesn’t even really know why he is fighting or what for, except “for Germany”.
The latest movie also changes the ending and thus manages to undermine both the point and the title of the novel. Because – spoiler alert for a 95-year-old book – the day late in the war on which Paul is killed is considered so unremarkable by the military higher-ups that the daily front report only reads “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Paul’s life and his death meant nothing at all (which would actually bring the movie in line with Everything Everywhere All At Once). However, an unremarkable death on an unremarkable day is not the Hollywood way and so the movie kills off Paul in a hyper-dramatic battle scene, thus completely undermining the point that his death was unremarkable and meant nothing.
Historians also criticised that the movie contained all sorts of factual errors from attacks that wouldn’t have happened that way to soldiers being executed en masse for alleged cowardice, when this was extremely rare in the German army during WWI. Of course, inaccurate historical movies are nothing unusual – hear me rant about Titanic some time – and All Quiet on the Western Front is not the least accurate WWI movie – the much lauded Wonder Woman is much worse in that respect and makes gross errors such as having the Ottoman Empire fight on the wrong side and having Diana kill real life German general Erich Ludendorff, who survived WWI, conspired with Hitler until turning against him for being not Antisemitic enough (!) and finally died of cancer in 1937. Yes, we know that the DC Universe is not ours, but did they have to use a real person rather than a fictional general?
Even weirder was the German press cheering the Oscar win for James Friend, the British cinematographer of All Quiet, and completely missing the fact that Friend beat Florian Hoffmeister, the German cinematographer of Tár. If you’re rooting for the home team, you’re doing it wrong. That said, James Friend is probably the most deserving of the people who won Oscars for All Quiet on the Western Front, though personally I think both Empire of Light and Tár were better. Probably Elvis as well.
The win for Best Production Design is completely inexplicable, because the Production Designer basically had to make WWI look suitable gray and grimy and also dress up someplace in the Czech Republic (because all of Europe looks like the Czech Republic, don’t you know) like a small town in early 20th century Germany. Never mind that there are plenty of German small towns that can easily be made to look like the early 20th century. Hell, you could probably have used Remarque’s hometown Osnabrück, though it’s not that small. Honestly, every other nominee in this category would have been a better choice.
As for Best Foreign Language Picture, All Quiet was definitely the worst of the bunch. Personally, I would have preferred The Quiet Girl from Ireland or EO, the Polish movie about a cute donkey, but even the movie about the military dictatorship in Argentina and whatever the Belgian contender was, would have been better. Also shame on India for not putting forward RRR and saving us from All Quiet on the Western Front. At least India makes historical epics of questionable accuracy that are fun.
At least All Quiet did not win Best Adapted Screenplay, which would have been a complete joke, considering that the movie ignores and undermines the novel, and instead lost out to Women Talking by Sarah Polley, the other former child star to win an Oscar this year. And indeed Women Talking and Living were probably the best of an extremely poor set of nominees, since they actually adapt something. Because Glass Onion and Top Gun: Maverick are not adapting anything except their own prequels and All Quiet is an adaptation which ignores its source material. In fact, I’ve noticed that the nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are increasingly only adaptations of anything if you squint really had, probably because there simply are fewer literary adaptations made these days. Maybe it’s time to retire Best Adapted Screenplay and just have Best Screenplay going forward, similarly to how the split between black and white and colour cinematography and costume design ended in the 1960s, when black and white films became an endangered species.
But the question, how did a movie like All Quiet on the Western Front manage to gain so many Oscar nominations and wins, when it’s not very good? This Spiegel article by Oliver Kaever attempts to answer the question and points out that a) All Quiet was produced and heavily pushed by Netflix, who are eager to have award-winning prestige projects on their platform, also see Roma and The Irishman. Oliver Kaever also suspects that the anti-war message of the novel, though not really captured by the movie, might have resonated with American audiences because of the war in Ukraine, which I personally find questionable, since in both the US and Germany, the war in Ukraine is officially viewed as a “just war”, not senseless slaughter like WWI. And unlike Germany – where a lot of people disagree with the official view and see the war in Ukraine as yet more senseless slaughter that should be ended as soon as possible – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of questioning in the US.
Interestingly, the German Secretary for Culture and Media Claudia Roth declared that the Oscar win for All Quiet on the Western Front was also a blow against Putin. My initial reaction was, “Wait a minute, will they tie him down and force him to watch it?” That said, the Best Documentary Feature win for Nawalny, the documentary about Russian dissident Boris Nawalny, really is a blow against Putin.
However, Oliver Kaever also hits on what is IMO the most important point, namely that All Quiet on the Western Front is a movie that caters to American (and British) tastes. Director Edward Berger actually specialises in this sort of fare, German historical movies and series that cater to American tastes. He previously helmed the three season series Deutschland ’83/’86/’89. Now Deutschland ’83 had terrible ratings, when it debuted on German TV and was actually pulled from prime time TV and shuffled off into the graveyard slot, because German audiences didn’t want to see “yet another Stasi drama”. The show then ended up on a streaming service and for some reason, Americans went gaga over the thing and actually caused the streaming service to commission two more seasons.
This illustrates a broader issue with the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar (and also streaming services distributing films and shows globally that would originally have aired only in their country of origin), namely that the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar rewards not actually the best movies from the respective countries, but the movies that most appeal to American tastes and stereotypes.
All four German movies to win Best Foreign Language Picture (with the possible exception of The Tin Drum, though I don’t like that one either) are not actually good, let alone the best examples of German filmmaking, but won Oscars because they conformed to American stereotypes, while better movies about the same subjects were ignored and often not even nominated. There are much better movies about former East Germany than The Lives of Others (still the worst of the four German Oscar winners, because it was actively harmful in standardising how we talk about East Germany, by focussing on all Stasi all the time – see Deutschland ’83). There are much better movies about the Third Reich than Nowhere in Africa (a win so baffling the director Caroline Link didn’t even show up, but elected to stay home with her sick baby). And in general, there are much better and more nuanced movies both about German history and the way we live now than that sorry quartet of stereotype confirming historical epics.
However, whenever Germany puts forward a movie that is not a stereotype confirming historical (and the “one pre-selected movie per country” rule is problematic in itself), the film usually doesn’t get nominated, no matter how good it is. Last year’s German entry, the science fiction romantic comedy I’m Your Man, was a vastly better movie than All Quiet and yet not even nominated, because “We want you to make historical dramas, not SF”). Goodbye, Lenin, one of the most successful German movies of the post-1968 era, and a worldwide success was not nominated, even though it is a much better movie about former East Germany than The Lives of Others. But it doesn’t conform to stereotypes. Aimee and Jaguar, a lesbian romance about a German and a Jewish women during the Third Reich based on a true story that made Steven Spielberg cry, was not even nominated, because lesbians were too shocking, I guess. Run, Lola, Run, an early parallel universe/multiverse film that was a worldwide success in 1998, was not nominated. Fatih Akin’s Head On, the movie about Turkish immigrant lives in contemporary Hamburg, which gave the world Sibel Kekili, and Akin’s In the Fade, a movie about neo-Nazi terrorism in contemporary Germany starring bonafide Hollywood star Diane Kruger, were not even nominated either – because Hollywood prefers its Nazis safely in the past and apparently can’t get its head around the existence of a large Turkish immigrant community. There are many more examples.
The most ridiculous example happened in 1991, when the newly united Germany snubbed one Nazi era film in favour of another Nazi era film, because there can be only one, prompting the producer and director of the first film to scream Antisemitism all over the German and international press and eventually persuading Poland, which had co-produced the movie, to put it forward. It was promptly nominated, because it was the more stereotype-confirming of the two movies, though both are actually pretty good and would have been worthy contenders.
This doesn’t just apply to German movies either. The British movies to get Oscar nominations and wins are usually historical dramas, often about the monarchy or the upper class or a war movie. A kitchen sink working class drama, a gangster film or an immigrant drama has little chance, no matter how good, because that’s not how Hollywood sees the UK.
Meanwhile, the Oscars regularly honour American movies which are about explicitly American issues with little interest in whether the rest of the world cares. I tend to call those films a bit snarkily “contemplating the American navel”. And there’s nothing wrong with them – the movies and the Oscars should serve their own audience rather than deliver what the rest of the world expects from Hollywood (which is mostly kicks, explosions, special effects and superheroes, which Hollywood does better than anybody else). However, it’s annoying when good German (or British or French or [insert country here]) movies get ignored in favour of movies catering to American tastes.
Another almost annual issue with the Oscars is that the “In Memoriam” segment omits several notable people whom we lost last year. The Guardian reports about actress Mira Sorvino being furious that her late father, actor Paul Sorvino, was not included. Other notable omissions include Anne Heche, Tom Sizemore, Chaim Topol, Lisa Marie Presley, Leslie Jordan and Charlbi Dean, who actually starred in one of the Best Picture finalists, Triangle of Sadness, before her untimely death at age 32. And while Tom Sizemore and Chaim Topol died very close to the ceremony, so that editing the “In Memoriam” reel may no longer have been possible, this excuse does not apply to the other omissions. The Tom Sizemore and Chaim Topol also reminds me of Bill Paxton, who died unexpectedly very shortly before the Oscar ceremony, and was omitted from the “In Memoriam” segment twice, the year he died and the following year.
Still, at least in this universe the 2023 Oscars were really good, with the exception of the four wins for All Quiet on the Western Front. Surely, there is a universe somewhere where something more worthy won instead.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy reading and discussing vintage SFF, particularly lesser known works. The subject of today’s spotlight does just that, because Remembrance of Things Past and Future is a blog focussed on reviewing and discussing vintage (and current) SFF published in magazines.
Therefore, I’m happy the welcome Brian Collins of Remembrance of Things Past and Future to my blog today.
Tell us about your site or zine.
Remembrance of Things Past and Future is devoted to science fiction, fantasy, and horror as published in the magazines. The history of SF especially is tied to the long history of magazine publishing; some of the old classics of the genre spent years stuck inside brittle magazine pages before getting turned to books. It’s a rather niche criterion for what can be reviewed (a story must have been originally published or reprinted in a zine), but it’s at the same time wide-spanning. I could review a Robert E. Howard serial from 90 years ago and also Elizabeth Bear’s latest (and no doubt good) outing without crossing the streams, so to speak. I review short stories, novellas (because I love those), novel serials, and even occasionally a “complete” novel. I do that last one as a special thing because I’m not a very good reader and I can’t fathom reviewing novels constantly. If it’s SF, fantasy, and/or horror and it was published in a periodical at some point, it’s on my plate. As to when I’ll cover any given thing is a different matter…
Who are the people behind your site or zine?
It’s a one-man show. I’m Brian Collins and I write, edit, and post everything (excluding comments, of course) on Remembrance. I do this for free. I’m a compulsive writer. I have a day job, and while it’s crummy it covers my back enough.
Why did you decide to start your site or zine?
I first started writing SFF fan material as part of Young People Read Old SFF [profiled here], but at some point I realized I needed a better outlet for writing about SFF—preferably one where I call all the shots. I’m very selfish like that. I also realized that a couple of my friends run blogs and, being a literary type, I thought it embarrassing that I didn’t run a blog of my own. After a bit of brainstorming, scheduling, and writing, I had created a new fanzine.
What format do you use for your site or zine (blog, e-mail newsletter, PDF zine, paper zine) and why did you choose this format?
It’s a blog. WordPress isn’t perfect (it can be glitchy at times), but it’s user-friendly enough and it’s more practical than a paper zine, as cool as that sounds. I’m not a printer—not even an amateur one.
The fanzine category at the Hugos is one of the oldest, but also the category which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines and sites are important?
History is paramount. A lot of people love SFF but evaluate it in sort of a vacuum. There’s too much forgetfulness in fandom, and the low voter turnout for the fan categories tells me fans aren’t in touch with their own history (which, after all, involves the present) enough. For years I loved SFF but was stuck as a rogue agent, lacking context for so much of the field, until I started getting into other people’s fan projects.
In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online. What do you think the future of fanzines looks like?
The era of the small-press fanzine that got mailed to a list of subscribers is basically dead. Well that’s sad. The good news is that the blog reaching maturity (user-friendliness and affordability) means that it’s now easy to start your own fanzine and spread the word through social media. I started using Twitter regularly partly so I could let likeminded folks know that I’ve made this thing and I think it’s good. Ah, but the bad news is that social media is terrible, and really, how do you find these outlets in the first place? A tough question that as a content creator myself I still have not been able to answer.
The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Are there any awesome fanzines, fancasts, fan writers and fan artists you’d like to recommend?
On of the most enjoyable things about the Fanzine and Fancast Spotlights has been to discover that there is a huge range of fanzines and fancasts on any SFF-related subject imaginable. Case in point: The subject of today’s spotlight is a fanzine that focusses on convention news.
Therefore, I am happy to welcome Petréa Mitchell of SMOF News to my blog today:
Tell us about your site or zine.
SMOF News is a weekly newsletter about geek-oriented fan conventions, published every Wednesday evening (Pacific time). A typical issue is divided into four parts:
1) The big news of the week, or, if there isn’t any, informational articles about various aspects of cons.
2) News in brief, for minor news and routine items like Convention Adds Guest, Fan Fund Opens Voting, or (sadly) Convention Goes on Indefinite Hiatus.
3) Worldwide convention listings for the next five weekends.
4) One interesting link which does not necessarily have anything to do with conventions.
The overall tone it aims for is “industry newsletter”.
Who are the people behind your site or zine?
Just me and anyone kind enough to send me news tips or letters of comment.
Why did you decide to start your site or zine?
There was an unfilled niche. I used to contribute to a convention news blog, Con News, and didn’t have enough spare time to take it over when the editor had to give it up. Convention-related news doesn’t get much attention from more general fannish news sources unless it’s the editor’s home convention or one they’re attending that’s affected.
I’m one of the lucky people who suddenly had a lot more time on their hands when the world switched to remote work, and in late 2020 I got to thinking about that unfilled niche and what kind of publication I could create to fill it.
What format do you use for your site or zine (blog, e-mail newsletter, PDF zine, paper zine) and why did you choose this format?
Substack newsletter. Yes, I am aware of the concerns about who Substack offers a platform to. I looked around, and my other options were either Substack-like features being offered by social media companies, which had been knowingly profiting from bigoted content for far longer than Substack has been around, or pay-to-publish outfits which had no content filter at all. With no unbigoted platforms to choose from, I chose to endorse the one that I think has the healthiest model for paying writers (although SMOF News is 100% free).
I picked Wednesdays for publishing because if anything big happens at a weekend convention, there will usually be multiple accounts of it, official statements, and so forth available by Wednesday.
The fanzine category at the Hugos is one of the oldest, but also the category which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines and sites are important?
Because they are fandom. Conventions are just the parties where fandom gets together.
In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online. What do you think the future of fanzines looks like?
Pretty much like now.
The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Are there any awesome fanzines, fancasts, fan writers and fan artists you’d like to recommend?
I have subscribed to a zillion convention-specific newsletters, and my favorite so far is Metropol Con’s, Das Krähende Schwein/The Crowing Pig, because it usually contains items of general interest to sf fans that I wouldn’t have read about anywhere else.
For my fellow anime fans, I’d like to point out Sakuga Blog, which is primarily about appreciating the art of anime, but which has also become an important source for learning about the working conditions for animators in Japan; and Day With the Cart Driver, which you can count on for solid reviews and hilarious season previews.
The finalists for the 2022 Nebula Awards were announced today. This time, the announcement didn’t happen that close to the Hugo nomination deadline, but then Hugo nominations close more than a month later than usual this year, which gives Hugo nominators enough to time check out worthy works they might have missed.
So let’s dive right in and take a look at the individual categories:
This category is a mix of the expected and the unexpected.
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree was not only one of my favourite discoveries of 2022, it also gave a boost to the already simmering cozy fantasy trend and I’m really glad to see it nominated. This one is also on my personal Hugo longlist.
Ursula Vernon a.k.a. T. Kingfisher is a long-time Hugo and Nebula favourite, so the nomination for Nettle & Bone is not a huge surprise. And a most worthy finalist it is, too. Nettle & Bone is another book that’s on my personal Hugo longlist.
The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir is one of the most popular SFF series of recent years. The first book Gideon the Ninth was a Hugo and Nebula finalist, while Harrow the Ninth was a Hugo finalist. Therefore, the Nebula nomination for Nona the Ninth is not all that surprising and I expect to see it on the Hugo ballot as well.
Babel by R.F. Kuang has been showing up year’s best lists all over the place, so it’s no surprise to see it nominated here. I have to admit that I haven’t read Babel, because Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy did not work for me at all. Maybe Babel will be more up my alley.
I also haven’t read Spear by Nicola Griffith and The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler. The Mountain in the Sea did get quite a bit of buzz, but I don’t recall seeing a lot of buzz for Spear, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see it on the Nebula ballot.
Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 1 writer of colour, 2 international writers*
This category is another mix of the expected and unexpected.
Becky Chambers is one of the most popular science fiction writers to come up in recent years and the nomination for A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the second novella in her Monk and Robot series, is no big surprise, especially since the first in the series was both a Hugo and Nebula finalist last year. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is also on my personal Hugo longlist.
C.L. Polk is a Nebula favourite and also was a Hugo finalist last year for their Kingston Cycle, so the nomination for their novella Even Though I Knew the End… is not a huge surprise. That said, I’m always happy to see fantasy romances recognised in a genre that traditionally has had issues with romantic elements. This novella is also on my personal Hugo longlist.
I have been enjoying Kelly Robson’s works, though I haven’t yet read her historical fantasy novella High Times in the Low Parliament. It sounds fun, though.
“Bishop’s Opening” by R.S.A. Garcia from Clarkesworld is another novella I haven’t read, though it also was a finalist for the Ignyte and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards.
I Never Liked You Anyway by Jordan Kurella completely passed me by. A quick Google reveals that it’s an Orpheus and Euridice retelling.
Tor.com still dominates this category with three of five finalists – the remaining two finalists were published in Clarkesworld and by the small press Vernacular.
Diversity count: 3 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 2 writers of colour, 3 international writers
I have read only two of the finalists in this category. “We Built This City” by Marie Vibbert from Clarkesworld, and I’m very glad to see it nominated here. This story is also on my personal Hugo longlist.
I also read and enjoyed “Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness” by S.L. Huang, also from Clarkesworld.
For some reason, I did not read any of the three nominated stories from Uncanny, though John Chu, S.B. Divya and Natalia Theodoridou are all fine writers and I will certainly check out the stories before the Hugo nomination deadline.
The final finalist in the category “A Dream of Electric Mothers” by Wole Talabi from the anthology Africa Risen, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet either.
It’s notable that Uncanny and Clarkesworld dominate this category with only one finalist published elsewhere.
Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 4 writers of colour, 2 international writers
Best Short Story
I can’t say much about this category, because I haven’t yet read any of the finalists. 2022 was a stressful year for me, so I read less short fiction than usual. I will try to remedy that before Hugo nominations close.
That said, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and John Wiswell are two of the most exciting writers to come up in recent years. They’re both lovely people, too, and I’m really happy to see them nominated here.
Ai Jiang is a name I’m seeing in the TOCs of the various SFF magazines more and more, though I haven’t read the story of hers that’s nominated. Suzan Palumbo is mainly known as a horror writer and coincidentally the second writer from Trinidad and Tobago on the 2022 Nebula ballot next to R.S.A. Garcia. I’m not familiar with either Samantha Mills or Ian Muneshwar.
This category has the greatest variety of sources of nominated stories and includes stories published in Asimov’s, F&SF, The Dark, Nightmare Magazine, Tor.com and Uncanny. We don’t see a lot of finalists from the print magazines in the Hugos and Nebulas anymore, because the online magazines are more accessible and therefore read by more people. It’s also notable that we have two finalists from horror magazines, proving that the Nebulas are a lot more open to horror than the Hugos, since we’ve had several horror stories on the ballot in recent years.
Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, at least 3 writers of colour, 3 international writers
Andre Norton Award for YA and Middle Grade SFF
I can’t really say much about this category, because I haven’t read any of the finalists and wasn’t even aware of most of them. I have heard of K. Tempest Bradford, of course, but mainly as an astute commentator on race issues in SFF and not so much as an author of middle grade SFF. The only other author in this category I’ve heard of is H.A. Clarke. Jenn Reese, Maya MacGregor and Deva Fagan are new to me.
Diversity count: 3 women, 2 non-binary, 1 writer of colour, 1 international writer
Ray Bradbury Award for Best Dramatic Presentation
Not a lot of surprises in this category.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is currently winning all the awards (and deservedly, too), so I’m not at all surprised to see it on the ballot.
Andor was the best of the three Star Wars series to air last year and put the political commentary, that has always been an integral part of Star Wars, front and center in a way that Star Wars rarely does. The nominated episode is the one about the prison break, which was truly excellent.
I’m really, really happy to see the gay pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death on the ballot, since it was such a delight and apparently still hasn’t been renewed.
Severance has gotten a lot of critical acclaim, though I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, partly because office/workplace shows aren’t my thing at all, probably because I’ve never had that sort of office job. Though thankfully, no one has had the sort of hellish office job depicted in Severance.
Nope seemed to get less attention than Jordan Peele’s previous movies Get Out! and Us. It’s still a highly deserving finalist and I actually preferred it to Us, which didn’t really work for me.
The Sandman is a bit of a surprise, because the series came out ten to fifteen years too late and didn’t seem to get that much popular attention in a landscape crowded with excellent genre TV. On the other hand, it’s Neil Gaiman and it’s Sandman.
Interestingly, no Marvel movie or TV show has got a single nomination. Of course, last year’s Marvel movies weren’t all that great (that said, Wakanda Forever was actually good), but the TV shows were pretty good. So has Marvel finally lost its luster?
It’s also interesting that only two of the finalists are movies, the other four are TV shows. But then, we are living not just in a new golden age, but actually a golden deluge of genre television.
No diversity count, too many people are needed to make movies and TV shows.
Best Game Writing
I can only repeat what I said about this category in previous years, namely that I’m not a gamer, don’t recognise any of the titles except for Elden Ring and can’t really say anything about them.
No diversity count, too many people are needed to make games.
All in all, this is another excellent Nebula ballot. Those who are worried that not enough men are being nominated for the big genre awards will be happy to see that there are several men, including white men, on the ballot this year. Though I’m sure they will find something wrong with the men in question anyway.
I don’t see a lot of notable trends at first glance. We do have fairytale and Greek mythology retellings, both of which are popular right now, though the fairytale retelling trend seems to be waning a bit. We have a couple fo historical fantasies and the Nebulas continue to be more open to horror than the Hugos. Interestingly, there is comparatively little science fiction on the ballot. Cozy SFF is clearly on the rise – which will annoy certain people to no end – and a couple of finalists clearly fall into the cozy category. Definitely Legends & Latte and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. You could also make a case for Our Flag Means Death and probably others.
Regarding publishers, Tor and Tor.com as well as Uncanny and Clarkesworld are still quite dominant, though let’s not forget that Tor is the biggest SFF publisher in the English speaking world. And we do have plenty of finalists published in other magazines or by small presses. Even the “big three” print magazines get a look in – well, two of them, at any rate.
As for indie writers, Legends & Latte by Travis Baldree was originally self-published, but was then picked up by Tor. And I can’t tell if I Never Liked You Anyway by Jordan Kurella is self-published or published by a small press. Nonetheless, we used to see more indie writers on the Nebula Ballot five years ago (and the Nebulas were one of the first genre awards to nominate a self-published novel, well before SFWA started accepting indies), so something changed. Is it because indies don’t have the marketing budget of a big publisher and are thus invisible to many nominators (but then we do have a couple of small presses nominated and they don’t have much of a marketing budget either) or because indies don’t write the sort of thing Nebula voters are looking for or did the indies all take their ball and went home after the 20Booksto50K uproar of 2019?
All in all, it’s another very strong Nebula ballot.
*International authors means authors living and writing outside the US.
ETA: And we actually have a minor Nebula uproar, when a Baen Books editor claimed that the novel The Dabare Snake Launcher by Joelle Presby had been leading during the nomination phase, but was not on the final ballot. Eventually it turned out that the screenshot in question was from the Nebula recommended reading list and not from the actual nomination tally, which is not public.
March marks the start of spring when gardens begin to bloom and seeds are planted, so enjoy Seedlings, a sweet science fiction story about chickens, little girls and gardening… IN SPACE! from my Shattered Empire space opera series.
So follow Holly and Ethan as they plant…
The rebel world of Pyrs spun through the black vastness of space, a cold rock orbiting a dying star.
Once, Pyrs had held deposits of rare minerals, gallium, germanium and indium, gold and platinum, even diamonds. So humans had come to the inhospitable world to harvest the precious minerals. And then, once they had taken every last grain of ore, every last raw diamond, every last nugget of gold from the ground, they went away again, leaving behind a gutted husk of a planet, crisscrossed by a warren of tunnels and mine shafts. And so Pyrs was just another dead rock hanging in space again. Until the Rebels came and made it their home.
The Rebels no more liked Pyrs than the miners had. It was simply too cold, too dark, too far from its own faltering sun, let alone the galactic core. However, the Rebels had even less choice about living on Pyrs than the miners. For if you had a death sentence on your head everywhere in the civilised galaxy, Pyrs was the only place left for you to run.
Holly di Marco, former mercenary and currently one of the two thousand five hundred and sixty Rebels on Pyrs, was currently headed for the lone bright spot on that cold, dark lump of rock. It was called the greenhouse, a dome of glass collecting the rays of Pyrs’ fading sun, bundled and amplified by a cunning arrangement of mirrors. This meant that the greenhouse was the only place on Pyrs that got a bit of daylight for six hours a day, about as much as other worlds received on a grey and cloudy day.
The miners had used the place for recreation, an oasis allowing them to soak up the meagre sunlight. The Rebels, not having the advantage of regular supply ships, had given the greenhouse over to food production. The yield wasn’t much, but anything that spiced up the monotony of all protein sludge all the time was more than welcome.
Born on a planet that was only marginally more hospitable than Pyrs, Holly did not have much use for the greenhouse. Plants, particularly in larger numbers, tended to make her nervous. That much green just wasn’t natural.
As it was, Holly had only one reason for visiting the greenhouse and that reason was Ethan Summerton. Lord Summerton, to be precise, for Ethan had inherited the title by default after the Empire had murdered his father and brothers along with the rest of his family, leaving Ethan the sole survivor of a once numerous clan.
Holly had saved his life, which meant that she was stuck with him now, by decree of Arthur Madden, leader of the Rebellion, himself. Apparently there was an old Earth saying which claimed that once you’d saved someone’s life, you were automatically responsible for that person until the end of their days. Personally, Holly thought it was all just a load of bunk, but her objections had been overruled. So for the time being, she was stuck with Ethan, Lord Summerton.
Not that she minded much. For someone who had been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, Ethan was surprisingly non-annoying. He didn’t even insist on being addressed by his title. On the contrary, he said that whenever someone called him “Lord Summerton”, he always had to turn around, expecting to find his father standing behind him. And since his late father — either heroically killed in the service of the Rebellion or cut down in the streets like the traitorous dog that he was, depending on which version you chose to believe — was something of a sore spot for Ethan, Holly refrained from doing anything that might trigger painful memories. For heaven knew, he sure had enough of those.
In spite of his high birth, Ethan had ended up in charge of the greenhouse. Though the assignment wasn’t a jab against his aristocratic background. It was simply the most suitable job for him, given the circumstances.
Ever since joining the Rebellion, Ethan had been eager for revenge and desperate for a mission, a job or just something to do. Holly certainly sympathised. Being cooped up on Pyrs was bad enough when you had a job and the prospect of getting off planet eventually. When you had nothing to do, it was infinitely worse.
However, Ethan was also badly traumatised — seeing your entire family slaughtered in front of your eyes will do that to you — and simply not ready for any kind of combat mission. Before sending him into battle, he first needed to heal.
But sitting around cooped up in his quarters and brooding wasn’t conductive to healing either, especially not since Ethan hardly ever slept and was plagued by nightmares, whenever he managed to catch some shut-eye. What he needed was something to do, a job to stop him feeling like dead weight and take his mind of his murdered family, at least for a little while.
So Arthur Madden in his infinite wisdom had finally hit upon the long neglected greenhouse and turned it over to Ethan. For prior to suddenly finding himself an outlaw and a Rebel, Ethan had devoted his life to studying farming methods and cultivating plants and had even won a prize for breeding a new type of squash, whatever that might be. Apparently, he had originally turned to agriculture as a sort of “fuck you” to his illustrious ancestors and their long lineage of warriors.
“We also have a long family history of winemaking…” Ethan had once told Holly, “…and I prefer making wine to killing people.”
Not that Ethan ever got to grow any wine in the greenhouse — nice though that might be. No, it was mostly leafy greenish things and thick brownish roots and tubers that looked as awful as they tasted. Still, Ethan never seemed more at peace than when he was puttering about in the greenhouse, so Holly approved. For Ethan found little enough peace as it was.
Though there were also times in the long dark nights on Pyrs, when Ethan confessed to her that he felt useless, felt that he should contribute more to the cause, that he should go on combat or espionage missions like the other Rebels.
“Growing vegetables…” he said bitterly, “…isn’t nearly enough, when people, good people, are fighting and dying out there.”
Whenever he had one of those moments, Holly always assured him that vegetables were very important, even vital to the Rebellion. Not because she believed it, cause she didn’t. But Ethan needed to hear it and that was enough for Holly. Because she’d really come to like him by now.
Whenever the bulkhead door to the greenhouse cycled open, the first thing that hit Holly was the air, a couple of degrees warmer and several percents more humid than the rest of the base. The smell was next, since it turned out that plants quite literally grew in human shit. No wonder Holly had always been suspicious of greenery. Finally came the sniffles, which occasionally rose to the level of a fully blown sneezing attack, for it turned out that Holly wasn’t just suspicious of plants but actively allergic to many of them. Greens — you just couldn’t trust them.
Holly had barely managed to suppress the inevitable sneezing attack — for now — when she spotted a figure in a grey utility coverall hurrying towards her. Not Ethan. This was one of his assistants, an effusively polite fellow named Stuart.
“Miss di Marco…” Stuart sketched a bow which looked more silly than anything, considering he was wearing a utility coverall and mud-splattered work boots. “Lord Summerton has been looking for you.”
“Well, that’s helpful,” Holly said, “Cause I’ve been looking for him, too.”
Stuart bowed once more. “If you’ll follow me, Lord Summerton will be right with you.”
He bowed one final time and scurried off, presumably to fetch Ethan or rather Lord Summerton, as Stuart insisted on calling him. Ethan himself seemed more embarrassed than anything to be addressed as Lord Summerton and repeatedly asked Stuart to stop.
But Stuart didn’t care. His mother had taught him proper manners and brought him up to show respect to his betters, he said. Somehow, Stuart hadn’t quite gotten the hang of this whole democracy thing yet.
Still, odd as Stuart was, he and Ethan got along well, probably because they both hailed from the same planet, Caswallon, a farming world that had been home to the Summerton family since forever or at least since humanity had taken to the stars.
When the previous Lord Summerton, Ethan’s late father, discovered his conscience and decided to throw in his lot with the Rebellion, the Empire’s retaliation had been both swift and brutal. Not only had they slaughtered every member of the Summerton family they could get their hands on — no, once the Empire ran out of Summertons to avenge themselves on, they instead focussed their anger on the clan’s homeworld.
The Emperor wasted no time and put Caswallon under martial law and then let one of the more sadistic Imperial generals run riot. There were bombings from orbit, random arrests, disappearances, public executions and the like. The general, sadistic bastard that he was, even brought the good old practice of decimation back… in the most literal sense of the word.
As a result, any inhabitant of Caswallon who could get off planet, evading the increasingly strict controls at the only spaceport still in operation, did so. Not a whole lot of people managed to escape. Stuart was one of the few who did. And since he had nowhere else to go — any attempt to escape from the planet-sized prison that was Caswallon carried an automatic death sentence — he eventually made his way to the Rebellion where he met Ethan. They immediately hit it off, bonding over reminiscences of their lost homeworld and discussions of farming techniques. And if the thought ever occurred to Stuart that if only the elder Lord Summerton had minded his own business and kept away from the Rebellion, none of the horrors visited upon the planet of Caswallon would ever have happened, he kept it to himself.
Holly found a wall to lean against and surveyed the garden. There were rows upon rows of plants, some of them mere bushels of leaves close to the ground, others larger shrubs. There even were a handful of tall and menacing tangles of leaves and what looked like tentacles. Other plots had only been planted recently and were still bare brown soil, dotted with the occasional sprout of green. And because the ground was not enough to hold all the crops, there were also pots of greenery hanging from the ceiling and set onto shelves along the walls and generally crammed onto every available surface.
A labyrinth of pipes snaked overhead, studded with nozzles that sprayed water onto the plants at pre-programmed intervals. Micro-drones buzzed about among the rows of greenery to pollinate the plants. Powerful spotlights were set around the perimeter to supplement the meagre light provided by Pyrs’ weak sun. And above it all loomed the glass dome of the greenhouse and the blackness of deep space beyond.
Chickens — ugly, noisy, feathery things — were scurrying between the neat rows of plants, picking at the ground. The chickens had been Stuart’s idea. Apparently, his family had been keeping chickens back on Caswallon and Stuart believed the eggs they produced would enrich the Rebel diet. Stuart’s family had been keeping pigs, too, but Ethan vetoed the pigs. Too big and too smelly, he said. Holly was inclined to agree. The chickens were about as much animal life as she could handle.
At the far end of the greenhouse, Stuart was talking to Ethan who was engaged in some cryptic task or other. The other assistant, a tall taciturn fellow named Mikhail, was carting buckets full of soil back and forth, again for some unfathomable reason. Ethan sometimes tried to explain to Holly just what they were doing in the greenhouse. Holly didn’t pretend to understand much of it, even though she usually grunted and nodded out of sheer politeness.
Together, Ethan, Stuart and Mikhail made up the entire full-time staff of the greenhouse. But they sometimes had helpers. Such as the three little boys, too young yet for serious work, who were diligently putting plants from smaller into larger pots.
Pyrs, it was generally agreed, was no place for children, and so the Rebels made very sure that there wouldn’t be any more children born here. Nonetheless, there were children on Pyrs, because some of the men and women who joined the Rebellion already had kids. And even if everybody agreed that though Pyrs was a horrible place for children to grow up, leaving them behind would be even worse, because the Empire had absolutely no scruples about killing children.
The Rebels did their best to accommodate and protect the few children on Pyrs, to arrange for schooling and supervision. But nonetheless, it was hard, for Pyrs was a dangerous world and truly no place for children. For starters, the Rebel base was cramped, so the children constantly got under foot. Plus, pretty much everything on Pyrs, every room, every vehicle, every piece of equipment, was actively dangerous to children, particularly children of the more nosy sort who simply had to touch everything and press every button they could find.
The greenhouse was actually one of the least dangerous places on Pyrs. Because while plants might make you sneeze, if you happened to be allergic to them, and the squeaky, noisy chickens might stink and hack at you with their beaks, none of them could actually kill you. Besides, children — just like plants — apparently required sunlight to grow. And so the greenhouse was the ideal place for the children of Pyrs to hang out, when they were not in school. As a result, there was always a handful of children, not always the same handful, hanging around at the greenhouse.
Holly had often told Ethan that he should just throw out the children, if they bothered him. Let the people whose job it was to supervise the kids actually do their job for once. However, Ethan claimed that the children were welcome, that he did not mind them. On the contrary, he even found little jobs for them to do, jobs like digging holes or potting plants. Or maybe it was simply that the smaller hands of children were better suited to certain tasks than the giant paws of Mikhail and the only slightly smaller ones of Stuart.
A commotion somewhere among the endless rows of green leafy things attracted Holly’s attention. A little girl, much too young for any sort of useful work, was stumbling through the plot on unsteady legs, chasing after the ubiquitous chickens. The chickens outran her easily, for the girl was barely able to walk, much less run. Nonetheless, she did not give up, apparently having decided that a chicken would be a fine catch indeed, though Holly had no idea what in the universe the kid wanted with such a screechy, feathery thing. But then, children were weird.
Holly leant back to watch the uneven chase, a smile on her face, though she did not quite know why. And then it happened. The race between child and chicken was decided once and for all, when the little girl stumbled and fell face first into the soft brown ground, flattening a bunch of delicate leafy greens in the process. The child immediately erupted into a wail of pain and frustration, while the chicken fluttered away in a blur of wings and feathers.
“Uh-oh, kid,” Holly thought, a sinking feeling in her stomach, “You’re in trouble now.”
The girl’s wail was loud enough that Ethan and Stuart stopped discussing whatever vitally important thing they were discussing and turned around to see what was going on. It didn’t take them long to spot the source of all that uproar, for the little girl was not just wailing louder than a life-support failure alarm, she was also trying to push herself back to her feet again and managed to crush even more plants as a result.
“Now you’re really in trouble,” Holly thought.
Stuart scowled and set off towards the girl, but Ethan held him back. So he was going to deal with this tiny threat to his precious plants himself. A few long-legged strides and he had reached the little girl, who was still trying and failing to get up. Ethan bent down and picked the child up. Holly averted her eyes. She did not want to see what came next.
She expected more crying, but to her infinite surprise the little girl quieted down. So Holly made herself look and saw that Ethan had crouched down beside the kid and was gently brushing dirt from her clothes. Tears were still streaming down her little dirty face, but at least she was no longer wailing. She was also standing on her own two feet again.
Blood was seeping from a gash on the little girl’s knee, so Ethan reached into a pocket of his coverall and produced a tissue to wipe the blood away. The kid made a face, as the disinfectant did its work, but she did not start wailing again.
“Yes, I know it stings,” Ethan said, “But if you blow on it, it stops hurting, just like magic.” To prove his point, he blew some air on the kid’s scraped knee. “See? It’s already better.”
It was all bullshit, of course, but then kids were naïve and believed pretty much anything. And so the little girl stopped crying, wiped her eyes with her little hands and flashed Ethan an uncertain smile.
Ethan picked the kid up and settled her onto his hip. “And now come on, sweetie. We don’t want to keep Holly waiting, do we?” He planted a kiss on the kid’s forehead.
Holly watched as the little girl nestled against him, her tears already forgotten. And as she watched Ethan with the kid, she couldn’t help but think that this was the way the universe ought to be. A universe where a child did not have to fear beatings and punishments for a simple mishap. A universe where she would not have to work as soon as she was old enough. A universe where someone dried her tears when she was crying. A universe without pain or terror.
Her eyes stung with stupid, silly tears. Angrily, Holly wiped them away. Damn those blasted plants!
Ethan — wouldn’t you know it? — caught her just as she wiped away the last of the silly tears that ran down her cheeks. Even worse, he noticed.
“Holly, I… — What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Holly said. She pulled a not very clean tissue from a pocket of her uniform and heartily blew her nose. “I’m just allergic to your bloody plants, that’s all.”
Ethan gave her a strange look. With his tousled brown hair, mud-splattered boots and equally shabby utility coverall, not to mention a snot-nosed kid on his arm, he didn’t look very lordly at all. A chunky ugly ring — the symbol of his lordship — dangled from a chain round his neck. He wore it that way, so the ring wouldn’t get in the way when he was working in the garden — and because it was way too big for him and kept slipping off his finger.
“Still, I’m glad you’re here…” Ethan said, “…cause there’s something I want to show you.”
Abruptly, he turned around and stalked off again, still carrying the little girl. Her head was resting against his shoulder. She looked straight at Holly and stuck out her tongue.
“Okay, now you’re really pushing your luck, kid,” Holly thought and went after Ethan, careful not to step on any of his precious plants. The greens had suffered enough for one day.
She didn’t know what Ethan wanted to show her, but she had her suspicions. For ever since Ethan had taken over the greenhouse, he tended to use Holly as a guinea pig for his latest produce, probably to see if it was fit for human consumption. To be honest, most of it ranked barely above protein sludge in terms of taste. Endless green leaves and root vegetables weren’t Holly’s idea of a good meal.
Still, feeding his plants to her seemed to make Ethan happy. And since he did not have a whole lot of reasons for being happy these days, Holly usually humoured him and ate his plants without spitting, choking or making a face, even if she sometimes wanted to.
Today’s crop seemed to be something really special (or really horrible), for they all gathered around to see what her reaction would be, Ethan, Stuart, Mikhail, even the three young boys who had been repotting plants.
Ethan was happily blathering on about how his attempts to cultivate some plant or other had finally paid off and born fruit — yes, fruit. Holly nodded politely, though she didn’t really listen. Idly, she wondered whether Ethan was aware that all of his blabbering about plants and crops was lost on her, for they all looked the same to her, far too leafy and far too green.
“Could we get to the point, please?” she finally interrupted, because if she hadn’t, Ethan would still have been holding forth about his latest cultivation success a couple of standard hours later, “Cause the big boss wants to see us and I for one don’t want to keep him waiting.”
As if to emphasise Holly’s point, the little girl on Ethan’s arm yawned heartily.
“Arthur Madden wants to see us?” Ethan repeated, “What about?”
“I have no idea. Maybe he’s got a mission for us or maybe he just wants to compliment you on managing to grow… well, whatever it is you’re trying to show me.”
“Actually…” Ethan scratched his head. “…I didn’t tell him what I was trying to do. We didn’t want to tell anybody until we could be sure it worked.”
“Then it probably is a mission,” Holly said. She knew how eager Ethan was to finally do something for the Rebellion, something other than growing plants, that was. “But if you want to find out, I’d suggest you get a move on. Now.”
The perpetually subservient Stuart blanched at her bluntness, though Ethan didn’t. But then, he rarely got offended, unless Holly said something really shocking. Which, to her infinite shame, she sometimes did just to rile him up, if only because he was kind of cute, when he began to blush and stammer. And amusements were few on Pyrs.
“All right, so…” Ethan was about to finally feed her whatever edible plant he wanted to try out on her, only to realise that his hands were full because he was still holding the little girl. “Could you take her for a moment?”
Holly did not want to take the kid. She didn’t understand children, didn’t like them, didn’t know what to do with them. But before Holly could protest or as much as say no, Ethan had already dumped the kid in her arms.
Holly halfway expected the little girl to start wailing at once — that was what children did, wasn’t it? — but to her infinite surprise she didn’t. Instead, the little girl wrapped her little arms around Holly’s neck and settled herself against her shoulder, perfectly content. She was surprisingly heavy, too, for such a little thing.
Ethan, meanwhile, bent down to pluck something from one of his plants. This particular specimen didn’t look like much, just a small plant with green leaves and unremarkable white blossoms, barely twenty centimetres tall. There were certainly more impressive plants to be found in the greenhouse.
Ethan rummaged between the leaves of the plant until he found what he had been looking for. Then he straightened and held out his hand to Holly.
“Look. Isn’t this wonderful?”
The thing in his hand was most definitely not wonderful. It was a small bulb, bright red with small dark spots and what appeared to be tiny hairs. It looked like some kind of malign tumour or maybe the reproductive gland of an unknown alien species. And Holly most certainly didn’t want to put this thing into her mouth.
“Oh, of course…” Ethan blushed, which was rather sweet to be honest. “…I should wash it first. Sorry, I forget these things sometimes.”
And then he was off to wash his precious fruit. Unfortunately, it didn’t look any more appetising, when he returned.
Holly eyed the strange red fruit warily. “Are you sure this thing is edible?”
“Oh yes, it’s ripe, in case you’re wondering,” Ethan replied, “Now come on, try it. You’ll love it, I promise.”
Holly sincerely doubted that. But since he was so insistent, she allowed him to pop the thing into her mouth, privately vowing that she’d kill him, if he managed to poison her.
The fruit was sweet and sour, soft and tart, succulent and full of crispy bits all at the same time, a riot of flavour exploding in her mouth.
They all looked at her expectantly. “And?”
“Not bad”, Holly said, munching down the last of the fruit, “Not bad at all.” She smiled. “Best damn thing you’ve managed to produce so far.”
Ethan smiled back, inordinately pleased. “See, I told you you’d love it.”
“So what is it?”
“Uhm, a strawberry. Couldn’t you tell? I mean, it’s a bit small, but…”
Strawberry. Holly knew the term. But up to now, she’d always assumed it was a euphemism for sweet and pink and bland.
“Ah, so that’s what they’re supposed to taste like,” she said, “Explains a lot, actually.”
Ethan bent down to his row of plants again and produced a second fruit, a little smaller and paler than the first.
“I’ve got one more,” he announced, “So who wants to try it?”
“Me, me, me,” the young boys yelled seemingly all at once. Stuart looked as if he would have like to yell “Me” as well, but had barely managed to control himself. Mikhail was stoic as ever.
Ethan looked from one to the other. Finally, his gaze settled on the little girl on Holly’s arm.
“Emma. She’s the youngest, so she gets to go first.”
There was a bit of grumbling among the boys, but amazingly they all seemed to accept Ethan’s reasoning that the youngest kid got first dibs on the fruit.
Meanwhile, the little girl — Emma — obediently opened her mouth and let Ethan pop the strawberry inside. She munched and chewed and red juice dripped from her mouth. “Hmm,” she finally said. Then she wiped her mouth with her hands and her hands on Holly’s shirt and exclaimed, “More!”
“Sorry, sweetheart, but that was all we had.” Ethan fondly patted the little girl’s head and turned to the three young boys. He smiled apologetically. “You’ve got first dibs on the next crop, promise. And a Summerton always keeps true to his word.”
The boys nodded solemnly. Apparently, they had already absorbed the long list of things that Summertons did or did not do. Hanging out with Ethan would do that to you.
“Uh, Comrade Ethan…” Mikhail began. Everyone turned to him, if only because it was so rare that he said anything at all. Never mind his irritating habit of addressing everyone as “comrade”, which was apparently how things were done on his homeworld.
“…you forgot the crisps.”
“Oh, of course.” Ethan turned to Holly again. “We’ve been trying out a new process for preparing root vegetables,” he explained, “It was Mikhail’s idea. On his homeworld, they chop up root vegetables and fry them in large open pans…”
As if on cue, Mikhail produced a bag of something and offered it to Holly. Inside the bag, were dry chips, ranging in colour from pale yellow to dark red. Whatever the stuff was, it didn’t even look remotely edible. If anything, it looked as if Mikhail had scratched the insulation off the walls in his quarters and bagged it.
“They’re really quite good,” Ethan said, while Mikhail gave her an expectant look.
Holly looked at the flakes and decided that — polite or not — she really couldn’t bring herself to eat even one. Besides, she figured she’d already done her duty for the day, playing guinea pig for Ethan’s latest agronomic breakthrough.
“Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough experimentation for one day.” She flashed Mikhail an apologetic smile. “Another time, okay?”
If Mikhail was disappointed, he gave no indication of it. He simply nodded and went back to whatever he had been doing before Holly arrived. But then, Mikhail’s face never gave much indication of anything.
“But you must try the crisps,” one of the young boys who’d taken to hanging around the greenhouse insisted.
“Yes, try, try, try,” the other boys chanted.
Because it looked as if the boys were either about to start a riot or burst into tears, both of which would be equally unpleasant, Holly finally gave in. Besides, how much worse than protein sludge and nutri-cakes could it possibly taste?
So she reached into Mikhail’s bag and retrieved one of the chips. It was pale yellow and reminded Holly of those cheap and nasty, dry-as-wall-plaster protein cakes she’d had as rations while working security for a crime syndicate on the planet Kagawa. Those had been pretty bad and yet she’d survived, so how much worse could this stuff be? So she braced herself, closed her eyes and put the chip into her mouth.
The thing was crunchy, slightly salty and slightly earthy, and not at all bad. Probably great for deep space rations, except that the crumbs and the grease — and Holly’s fingers were stained with both — might cause electronics trouble.
Holly opened her eyes and found that everybody was looking at her expectantly.
“Not bad,” Holly said, still munching on her crisp, “Actually…” She wiped her grease and crumb stained hands on her pants. “…this is pretty good.” She turned to Mikhail. “Well done.”
Mikhail beamed. “Thank you, Comrade.”
“Mostly we used potatoes, for traditional reasons…” Ethan explained.
“Gimme,” the little girl on Holly’s arm crowed suddenly, startling Holly so much she almost dropped the kid.
She threw an imploring glance at Ethan, but he was still busily explaining how the crisps were made.
“…though we also tried parsnips, turnips, carrots and…”
“Gimme,” the little girl repeated, more insistently.
“…beetroot — Uhm, I think she wants a crisp,” Ethan pointed out.
Holly looked at Emma who nodded emphatically. And since no one else was volunteering, she reached into Mikhail’s bag again, retrieved yet another crisp and held it out for the little girl, who promptly snatched it and managed to slobber all over Holly’s fingers in the process.
“More,” Emma insisted, so Holly fed her another. And another.
“They would taste even better, if we had paprika…” Mikhail said, completely oblivious to his rapidly dwindling supply of crisps, “…and chilli pepper. Maybe we could grow some.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Ethan exclaimed, “Growing herbs and spices would greatly improve the taste of our food in general…”
Holly felt another endless discussion of plant cultivation coming on, so she quickly interrupted them. “Uhm, sorry, but the big boss is waiting for us.”
“Of course. Sorry, Mikhail, but it seems I have a meeting. Let’s continue this when I get back.”
“Let’s go,” Holly said, but then she remembered the little girl who was still nestled against her shoulder. She couldn’t possibly take the child to a briefing. But on the other hand, she wasn’t sure what else to do with her either. “Uhm, what about her?”
“Just put her down,” Ethan said, “She’s better now, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
Emma emitted a sound that might have been a “yes”.
“And she’ll be safe here, with Stuart and Mikhail and the boys. Maybe Mikhail even has some more crisps for you.”
So Holly cautiously set Emma back onto the ground and got a surprise, for before she could let go, the little girl suddenly slung her arms around Holly’s neck and planted a slobbering, strawberry-juice and salt dripping kiss on her mouth. Then Emma spotted a chicken and took off after it, whooping with glee.
When Holly straightened up again, she found Ethan smiling at her. “I think she likes you.”
“Which just goes to show that children are dumb,” Holly said and strutted off, not waiting to see if Ethan was following.
It was a long walk from the greenhouse back to the command centre. Ethan and Holly spent most of that long walk talking. Or rather, Ethan was talking, nattering on about plants and cultivation methods and soil quality and a dozen other things, while Holly nodded politely at appropriate intervals and pretended to listen, though truth to be told, she had mostly tuned out. Plants and their cultivation were a lot more interesting to Ethan than they would ever be to her.
Absentmindedly, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve, still wondering what had possessed that little girl to kiss her. Kids didn’t normally like Holly. They were afraid of her and with good reason, too. And the feeling was mutual.
“Thank you,” she said abruptly, cutting off Ethan in the middle of some doubtlessly fascinating lecture about fertilising agents, “Thank you for being so kind to the little girl.”
Ethan blinked, as if surprised by the sudden interruption. Probably not used to being interrupted, considering that Mikhail never talked and Stuart worshipped every word that fell from his mouth.
“Emma? She doesn’t talk much — apparently whatever the Empire did to her home and her family was really bad. But otherwise she’s a real sweetheart. You simply have to love her.”
“You could have punished her,” Holly pointed out.
“Punished her?” Ethan blinked, as if he didn’t quite follow. “Emma? What in the universe for?”
“She damaged your plants,” Holly said, “And you could have punished her for that. But you didn’t. And I wanted to thank you for that.”
Ethan turned on her, eyes blazing with barely suppressed fury, and Holly instinctively shrank back. She’d always known Ethan had a temper. She’d seen him angry, even furious before, had seen him beat some other guy to a pulp until the guards dragged him away. But until today, his anger had never been directed at her.
“You think I’d beat a child? A small child?”
Holly shrugged, willing herself to remain calm in the face of his freak-out. “You could have. Nobody would’ve said anything.”
“She’s a child.”
“And she chased your chickens around and damaged your plants,” Holly said calmly, “You’ve put a lot of work into cultivating those plants and the kid just crushed them because she was careless. You had every right to hit her.”
“It was just lettuce,” Ethan exclaimed, “Okay, batavia lettuce, which is kind of hard to come by, but just lettuce nonetheless. And Emma is a child. A living breathing human child. How… how can you even think I’d ever hurt a child over something as trivial as lettuce?”
He was still outraged, as angry as Holly had ever seen him. Worse, she didn’t even know why. After all, the little girl — Emma — was the one who’d done something wrong, had landed face first in a bed of prized baba-whatever lettuce, not she. All Holly had done was thank Ethan for not punishing the kid, for Emma — dumb as all children were — hadn’t.
“We could have eaten the lettuce,” she pointed out, as calmly as she could, “We can’t eat the kid.”
Though Holly had no doubt that somebody somewhere had done just that, consumed children for nutrition. Nonetheless, eating children was wrong, deeply and thoroughly wrong. Nobody had the right to eat children, not while there was still protein sludge and probably not even when there wasn’t.
“She’s dead weight, useless, too young for any sort of work. You don’t have to put up with her or the other kids hanging round the greenhouse…” Come to think of it, Holly had told him, repeatedly, that he should just throw the kids out, that no one would say anything or mind. “…and you certainly don’t have to tolerate her crushing your valuable lettuce.”
“She’s a child,” Ethan repeated for the third time, as if he was not just unwilling but unable to comprehend her point, “Children are precious, a gift, a privilege.”
“Not where I come from,” Holly said quietly, not looking at him.
“Then it must be a horrible place…” Ethan said, wrapped in his invisible cloak of righteousness as always, “…if they don’t value their own children.”
“It was,” Holly said, eyes fixed on her combat boots and the steel floors of Pyrs.
She felt Ethan’s hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“For being a self-righteous prick?” Holly asked, still not looking at him.
“That, too,” he admitted, “I shouldn’t have lashed out at you. Not you of all people.” He took a deep breath. “But most of all, I’m sorry that you were hurt by people who should’ve taken care of you, when you were a kid…”
“Nobody hurt me,” Holly snapped, harsher than she had intended and harsher than Ethan deserved, “At least no worse than many others.”
“I’m still sorry…” Ethan insisted, “…that you had to grow up in such a horrible place.”
Now Holly did look at him. “Whatever for? It’s hardly your fault, isn’t it?”
“No, but… I just think no one should have to grow up that way, that’s all.”
He was right, Holly thought. No one should have to grow up like she had.
“Especially not you,” Ethan continued, absurdly touching in his earnestness, “You deserved better.”
“Yes,” Holly said, “I guess I did. But some things can’t be helped.” She injected some cheerfulness she didn’t feel into her voice, all because she couldn’t stand that sad puppy-dog look on Ethan’s face anymore. “And besides, that’s all in the past. I’m better now.”
Ethan gave her a doubtful smile that suggested her faux cheeriness hadn’t quite worked as well as intended. “You sure?”
“Not really,” Holly admitted, if only because she found she couldn’t lie to him, “But I can’t let my past drag me down. And besides I’m not the only person in the galaxy who grew up in a horrible place.”
Holly reached out and put a finger, still stained with grease and salt, on his lips to shut him up.
“Pyrs is a pretty awful place to grow up as well. It’s dark and it’s dangerous and it’s depressing and children really, really shouldn’t live here…”
She took her finger away, because she felt rather silly. Besides, she had his full attention now.
“…but they do, cause some things just can’t be changed. But you…”
She looked him straight in the eye, took his hand in hers, squeezed it.
“…you’re making this horrible place a little less horrible for those kids in the greenhouse. That’s a great thing, probably the greatest thing you can do for the Rebellion.”
Ethan shook his head. “It’s not. Anybody would’ve done the same.”
“No, anybody wouldn’t have done the same. Most people would’ve punished the girl or at least yelled at her. But not you. No, you took her in your arms and comforted her when she was crying, which is pretty fucking damn rare…”
Holly looked at him and saw him in a different light for the first time, not as a clueless if well-meaning aristocrat whose life experience was light years from hers, nor as a mission that had been thrust upon her against her will, an annoying tag-along she just couldn’t get rid of, but as a genuinely good person, a man she was proud to call friend.
“…and I just wanted to thank you for that, cause I don’t think anybody else here does.”
“And now let’s go and see Arthur Madden before he sends out a search party. Or worse Alanna Greyskull.” Holly shuddered at the thought of the much feared deputy leader of the Rebellion.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ethan countered, “Commander Greyskull is always perfectly civil to me.”
“Yeah, cause you keep addressing her as Commander Greyskull,” Holly replied, giving him a jab to the shoulder.
Ethan grinned at her, their disagreement already forgotten. “Well, it works, doesn’t it?”
Not the end…
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.
Of course, I already have a very nice She-Ra figure, but since Mattel never made any of her friends and particularly her three canonical love interests in Origins for reasons best known to themselves (especially since they did make most of the male villains), my She-Ra was a little lonely.
However, a couple of characters from the vintage She-Ra: Princess of Power cartoons did come out in the Masterverse line, such as She-Ra’s friend/rival/enemy/lover (it’s complicated) Catra.
Catra’s feline friend as a Schleich Eldrador Shadow Panther, which works perfectly in scale with her.
So now I have both She-Ra and Catra, let’s see what happens when the two former friends turned enemies meet:
In the Whispering Woods:
“The Whispering Woods are rebel territory. You have no business here. Leave now and no one needs to get hurt.”
“Not a chance, She-Ra. If I’m leaving the Whispering Woods, I’m taking you with me as my prisoner. If I bring you back to the Fright Zone, the Mighty Hordak will reward me richly.”
“Hordak is using you, Catra. You don’t need to work for him anymore. Walk away and join the rebellion, just like me. And then we can be together again, be friends again, just like we used to be.”
“Things will never be like they used to be, Adora. You left me. You joined the rebellion and went back to your birth family and left me all alone.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to take you with me, but…”
“Liar! You forgot all about me the moment that He-Man walked through the door.”
“He’s my brother, Catra! Hordak stole me from my family, when I was a baby and he probably did the same to you. Why do you still work for him?”
“Because Hordak made me Force Captain, once you left.”
“Don’t you see that he’s just making you do terrible things in the name of the Horde?”
“The Horde is only doing what needs to be done. Once upon a time you used to know that. Before you turned traitor.”
“No, Catra, I don’t want to fight you.”
“Then you’ll surrender to me without a fight? Good. That makes it easier for me to bring you in. Hordak will be so pleased.”
“We used to be friends, Catra, blast it! And while I won’t fight you, I will defend myself, if you force me to.”
“Look, I don’t want to fight you either, Adora.”
“Then don’t. Hordak doesn’t own you. You don’t need to do what he wants. You’re your own person, Catra. You can do whatever you want.”
“What do you want to do, Catra?”
“I… I just want to kiss you.”
“I want to kiss you, too.”
“Then why don’t we…?”
“Hordak won’t like this, you know?”
“Ugh, I’d rather not.”
“Forget Hordak and kiss me.”
Yes, She-Ra is canonically bisexual and kisses girls. Live with it.
The fact that Adora likes girls wasn’t invented by the 2018 She-Ra and the Princesses of Power cartoon either. In fact, the remarkably good DC Comics Masters of the Universe run from 2012 to 2016 introduces Adora as the Horde enforcer Despara who’s a lot more evil than her counterpart in The Secret of the Sword. As Despara, Adora sports a buzzcut and shows an unusual interest in Teela and zero interest in any of the male characters. In fact, Adora’s two male love interests Bow (who never seemed very straight in the first place) and Sea Hawke don’t appear in those comics at all. Honestly, look at this panel and tell that there are no sapphic vibes here.
So yup, Adora likes girls. Will she end up with Catra or someone else? Only time will tell.
However, that’s it for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed this Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Photo Story, because there will be more.
Disclaimer: I don’t own any of these characters, I just bought some toys, took photos of them and wrote little scenes to go with those photos. All characters are copyright and trademark their respective owners.