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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Intergenerational Female Influences in Arrival and Moana

I’ve been talking a lot about books in this column lately. Pretty much exclusively, in fact. This week I want to make a slight change to our programme—since recently I watched Arrival and Moana back to back, and discovered that they share one surprising trait.

On the surface, neither Arrival nor Moana share many features in common. Arrival is a live-action science fiction film based on a Ted Chiang short story, designed for adults and talking about intimate human themes—loss, communication, strangeness, hope—and big science fiction ones—time, the alien, understanding and language. Moana is an animated Disney fantasia that draws its inspiration from Polynesian island myth and legend, fun for all the family, and its themes are—unusually for many of the Disney films I’ve seen—focused firmly both on coming-of-age and on the preservation or recreation of skills and knowledge from the past.

But both Arrival and Moana share one particular commonality. Family relationships—and the emotional resonance of those relationships—between women of different generations have a deep influence on each film’s main character.

Spoilers ahead.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Space Opera and the Question of Empire: From David Weber to Yoon Ha Lee

When I set out to write this piece, I had a grand vision for what I was going to say. Then I realised that in order to achieve that vision, I’d need to write myself a book’s worth of words. So instead of having an incisive and cutting post looking at approaches to imperialism and gender in space opera, you’re getting the shorter version: a sketch towards an argument comparing the space opera novels of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, David Drake, and David Weber, and how they treat empire.

Pretty much just empire. In brief.

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Series: Space Opera Week

Sleeps With Monsters: Space Opera and the Politics of Domesticity

Sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. Space, then, is quiet. A place where small actions can have large consequences…

This isn’t usually the mood we see in space opera, though, is it? Normally space opera is operatic in the grand sense: noisy, colourful, full of sound and fury. But it’s interesting to look at novels that aren’t flashy in this way—that are quiet, and in many ways feel domestic, enclosed—and yet still feel like space opera. Is it the trappings of space opera’s setting—starships, space stations, aliens, peculiarly advanced technologies and faster than light travel—that make something feel like space opera, even when the opera part is domestic, constrained, brought within bounded space, where the emotional arcs that the stories focus on are quietly intimate ones?

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Entertaining But Bland: Pawn by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is probably best known as the author of the iconic Star Wars Thrawn tie-in trilogy, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, which introduced Star Wars fans to Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, and gave them (us) a badass pregnant Leia Organa—and were, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the first space opera novels I ever read. He has also written more than two dozen original novels, at least one Terminator tie-in, and co-authored with David Weber a prequel to Weber’s popular Honor Harrington series.

Pawn is his latest original novel, and the first entry in a new series, the “Sibyl’s War.”

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Sleeps With Monsters: Tanya Huff’s A Peace Divided

Tanya Huff’s A Peace Divided is the second novel in her new space opera series, set in the same universe as her Valor novels, and starring former Marine Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr. The war is over, but that’s just released a lot of well-trained, battle-scarred survivors back into the general population. Someone with the appropriate training and mindset to deal with violence needs to be part of civilian law enforcement, and as it turns out, Torin Kerr and her crew of (mostly) former Marine misfits are reasonably well-suited to the demands of the job.

Torin herself is determined to keep an eye out for the sentient plastic that secretly caused and prolonged the war between the Confederation and the Primacy. She’s not the only one to worry. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the war, speciesist groups and speciesist sentiment is on the rise, most notably among humans. The group Humans First has turned from a joke into a serious movement, and it seems to have high-level backing. Torin suspects a weapons manufacturer to be behind it—and she’s right, as the reader knows and the characters can only suspect.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Imperialist Portal Fantasy: A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

Foz Meadows has been nominated for a Fan Writer Hugo Award more than once. Her commentary on genre and media is frequently astute and pointed, not to mention exceptionally readable. She brought some of the same skills to her first novel out of Angry Robot Books, last year’s An Accident of Stars. A Tyranny of Queens is An Accident of Stars’ sequel, and: wow.

An Accident of Stars is one of those books that engaged me so deeply on an emotional level that it short-circuited my critical faculties. Intellectually, at this remove, I can see that it has flaws—it could, for one thing, be a little more smoothly paced—but it is so full of amazing characters and cool shit and themes that matter to me that I don’t care. I love it.

I may love A Tyranny of Queens even more.

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Military Action and Gallows Humor: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

“She had no memory of her escape from the stricken ship, but she must have gotten out somehow. If she were still inside, she would be on fire, and she was reasonably convinced that this was not the case.”

These lines, on the first page of Robyn Bennis’ debut novel The Guns Above, convinced me that this was a book I was going to like. First pages can be uncertain predictors of things to come, but in The Guns Above’s case, my initial impressions were well and truly borne out: with delightfully dry whistle-past-the-graveyard humour, a soupçon of sarcasm, and an approach to military action that reminds me of nothing so much as Forrester’s Hornblower or Cornwell’s Sharpe novels—but with airships and female officers.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Roses and Portals

I’ve come late to reading Bryony and Roses, the Beauty and the Beast retelling by Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher. It’s been available for quite some time—indeed, T. Kingfisher has published more than one book-length work in the interim—and as I really loved The Raven and The Reindeer, and had been meaning to read Summer in Orcus since the beginning of the year, I figured I should perhaps also read Bryony and Roses.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Spending Time With a Murderbot: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Martha Wells is an author for whom I’ve long had no small amount of respect and admiration. Her first novel, The Element of Fire, remains one of my favourites, as does Wheel of the Infinite, while Death of a Necromancer and her Fall of Île-Rien trilogy made deep impressions. In recent years, her Books of the Raksura have received their share of critical attention and acclaim. So when I heard that Wells was to be publishing at least two novellas with Publishing in a new series called The Murderbot Diaries, you can be pretty sure I was interested.

All Systems Red is the first novella of those Murderbot Diaries, and it really doesn’t disappoint.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Thorns and Wings and Dragons

Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns and Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Flight don’t, on the surface, have much in common. One is a gothic, atmospheric novel of treachery and politics set in a decaying Paris, deeply interested in the politics of family and community and colonialism; while the other is a second-world urban fantasy novel starring a beat cop whose fun, light voice conceals some deeper thematic concerns with class and privilege, growing up and belonging.

What they do have in common is (a) dragons and (b) themes about family.


Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Science and Politics: Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final novel in Marie Brennan’s acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following last year’s Labyrinth of Drakes. And if you thought Labyrinth of Drakes was good, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a pure treat: I think I can say that at least as far as I’m concerned, Brennan definitely saved the best till last.

This review will of necessity contain spoilers for the series—if you haven’t tried the first book yet, what’s keeping you?—and for Within the Sanctuary of Wings itself. A striking revelation takes place in the middle of the narrative, and since it is central to the story, I’ll be talking about it. With that caveat, onwards!

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Military SF Without the Space Battles: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

It’s even odds whether Elizabeth Moon is better known for her fantasy novels or her military science fiction. Cold Welcome is an entry on the science fiction side of the ledger. In it, Moon returns to the universe of her Vatta’s War series, last seen in Victory Conditions (2008). And not only to the universe, but to the same characters: Kylara Vatta, now an admiral in the interstellar Space Defence Force which she helped to build from scratch; Stella Vatta, who now basically runs the Vatta family business from her headquarters on Cascadia; Grace Lane Vatta, Ky’s great-aunt, family terror, and now Rector of Defence for the planet of Slotter’s Key; and Rafe Dunbarger, who became CEO of the company that controls the ansibles and their FTL communications, thanks to his family inheritance, all return in starring roles.

If you’re expecting space battle action, though, you’re going to leave disappointed. Cold Welcome takes place almost in its entirety on the surface of Slotter’s Key.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Katabasis and Anabasis

Katabasis means a going-down, a descent. It’s a word sometimes used to describe journeys to the underworld. Anabasis is its opposite, a going-up: the most famous narrative is Xenophon’s Anabasis, the account of the Ten Thousand “going up” to the sea. Descent and rise, a symmetrical pairing.

Katabasis and anabasis are the words that come to mind when it comes to Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, books which I read back-to-back. They share some similarities—they are both about young bisexual women discovering the truth of their worlds and learning to claim and use their power, political or otherwise, and they’re both marketed as YA—but they are very different books.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Thoughts on the 2017 Hugo Awards Ballot

It’s that time of year again—the time when the Hugo Award nominees are announced, and we get to share our opinions on whether or not we agree with the choices of the Hugo electorate on what’s good and what’s not. This year is slightly different than usual, in that changes to the awards process mean there are now six nominees in each category (while each voter could nominate five works per category) and that this year’s Worldcon is trialling a Hugo Award for Best Series.

This year is a historic one for the Hugo Awards in more ways than one. In addition to the changes to the awards process, this is the first year in which the Best Novel nominees have been so completely devoid in white men. It may also be the first year in which more than one out trans author received a Best Novel nomination for their work.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters