Life Lessons from a Murderbot: Reading All Systems Red as a Trans Woman

I was tearing up at the end of All Systems Red, and I wasn’t sure why. Yes, it was sad that Murderbot was leaving its friends and colleagues, and a promised life of safety, behind. But there was something more, something to do with the entire arc of Murderbot’s journey from a SecUnit—seen more or less as a lethal appliance—to a trusted and capable member of a team of humans.

For me as a trans woman, All Systems Red’s concoction of heartbreak and ever-present anxiety felt achingly familiar to me (even as Murderbot’s narration and dry delivery cracked me up more often than not), as I looked back at various pressure points in my own transition. The novella has a lot to say about building a personal identity on the fly.

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“Do Not Board This Ship”: Watch the First Teaser for Syfy’s Adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers

Nightflyers is a haunted house story on a starship,” George R.R. Martin says in Syfy’s first behind-the-scenes teaser for its adaptation of his sci-fi/horror novella. “It’s Psycho in space.” Though the video is only a minute long, it’s filled with shots both behind and in front of the camera: the ambitious set and special effects that go into pulling this eerie story out of Martin’s mind, as well as a hint of the gory terrors befalling the crew of the Nightflyer.

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“My Mother Is a Bird”: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan

On the same day Leigh Chen Sanders kissed the boy she’d pined over for years, her mother, Dory, committed suicide. She leaves no note, no reason or explanation, just a cavernous hole in the Sanders’ world. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom.

At the behest of the bird, Leigh and her father travel to Taiwan to meet her mother’s estranged family. Desperate to save her mother, to make contact, to be close once again, she digs through old family memories and unearths long-hidden secrets. With the guidance of the bird and a box of magical incense, Leigh is pulled between reality and fantasy until she can no longer tell the difference between them. What she learns on her journey won’t change the past, but may finally put it to rest.

[“I want you to remember”]

My Formative SFF: Forgotten Classics of the ’70s and ’80s

I’m a nerd from a family of nerds, and I grew up reading a lot of science fiction. Specifically, I grew up reading a lot of my mother’s science fiction collection, which included a lot of brilliant writers, some of whose works are not as well-known today as they once were.

Since this is a pity, I’d like to introduce you to some of the books that affected me strongly growing up, and influenced me as a reader—and probably also as a writer.

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Revealing Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

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Black Lightning Is A Superpowered Example of How Systems Dominate the Bodies of Black Americans

The CW’s latest DC Comics series, Black Lightning, has been doing a lot of things really well from the very beginning. With only eight episodes aired to date, it has shown itself to be a very considered character study focused on the additional effort required and the heightened stakes of being a black person with any influence in an urban community. In the process, it has also become not only another media touchstone for black superhero representation but black lesbian superhero representation. It’s also a lot of fun to watch Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), and his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams) being smart, critical, hilarious, and badass in as many scenes as possible.

Moreover, the show is doing an interesting job not being preachy about a reality that tends to take up a bafflingly large amount of real estate in the visual/dramatic imagination of black lives. Even if you love the character, love superhero fiction in general, or just want a fun drama to watch on a Tuesday night, there’s no denying that film and television has already spent a lot of time (for some, perhaps even too much time) retelling the stories of black people in urban American communities struggling in the middle ground between the rock that is hostile law enforcement and the hard place that is gang warfare. It’s familiar territory—regardless, especially in the revealing light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, if Black Lightning wanted to be preachy, it’d be hard to argue that the sermon would be terribly unwelcome or ill-timed.

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Darkness Meets Light in the Newest Cloak and Dagger Trailer

“The universe keeps pushing us together.”
“The universe keeps pulling us apart.”

The latest trailer for Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger is all about dualities: Tyrone’s (a.k.a. Cloak) need to be perfect, to constantly prove himself at his prep school, contrasted with Tandy’s (a.k.a. Dagger) tendency to skip town when things get tough but also her ability to get away with living on the fringes. But what unites these teenagers are formative childhood tragedies and the fact that, with their complementary powers, they seem fated to meet—as a “divine pairing” meant to team up. But what’s that about one of them living while the other dies?

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Gaming and Virtual Reality Novels Featuring Fierce Female Characters

I love Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. I love it so much, it’s among the handful of titles that I re-read annually. I love the popular culture references, the throwbacks, the easter eggs, and I especially love the audiobook version narrated by Wil Wheaton.

What I don’t love is the way the character of Art3mis is treated like a side quest, some challenge to be conquered by our torch-bearing hero. It happens in actual video games, too: my game of choice is The Legend of Zelda. I mean, her name is literally in the title and yet the character of Zelda (in all her reiterations) is hardly seen; instead, players run around the land of Hyrule as Link. In some versions of the game, Zelda doesn’t appear at all. Before I started playing, I even thought Link’s name was Zelda because, well, why wouldn’t the eponymous character appear as a major player in the game that features her name?

[Luckily, there are plenty of novels that put women gamers front and center.]

Fairy Tale Horror: The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

Mallory Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster, is more a chimera than a collection of straightforward retellings. Fairy tales, children’s stories, ballads, and prayers weave throughout these short stories, sometimes in form and sometimes in reference, and always like a shared and sinister mythology. If, like the subtitle of the book proclaims, these are “Tales of Everyday Horror,” it is because they’re horrible in their proximity to our everyday lives, and to the strange cultural miasma that informs it.

The fantasy genre is saturated with fairy tale makeovers, usually in some combination of “the original but darker,” or “the original but with better politics.” There’s nothing wrong with these retellings—I might even argue there’s more than one thing right about them—but Ortberg’s playful foray into the western canon feels like a different project altogether. It is dark, certainly, and it doesn’t lack for things to say about gender, violence, love, and a host of other politicized things. It is also—in keeping with Ortberg’s reputation on The Toast (RIP), The Shatner Chatner, and other reputable publications—funny. What makes Ortberg’s everyday horrors truly different, though, is that they map questions onto these old stories instead of answers. Instead of saying “The daughters in these stories should have more agency,” or “The daughters in these stories had agency all along,” they ask: “What is a daughter?” and, “With agency like this, who needs enemies?”

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Sleeps With Monsters: Feeling and Faith in The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

I’ve only ever read a handful of books that treat the question of religion in fantasy with any serious weight. The presence or absence of gods and their powers, the (un)knowability of divine things, the question of whether or not one can get, or understand, an answer from a god—the question of whether, if you’ve given your fealty to a god, it matters if you understand the use said god makes of you—is not a question that fantasy in general deals with in great detail, even—or perhaps especially—in those works that take the existence of gods for granted.

Until now, my short list has generally included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods works (The Curse of Chalion, Penric’s Demon) and not much else. But now I find—in the middle of a grimly humorous story that reminds me of nothing so much as a really fucked up Forbidden Realms adventuring party—that T. Kingfisher (otherwise known as Ursula Vernon) has a revelatory scene in her The Wonder Engine, second and final book in the Clocktaur War duology.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Reading The Wheel of Time: Mistrust Fractures the Fellowship in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World (Part 5)

Robert Jordan has talked about how he intended for The Eye of the World to include some reference and homage to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and since these resemblances have often been remarked upon (sometimes positively, sometimes less so) by readers, it seems fitting at this moment to circle back around to the themes I addressed in the first week of this read. Then, we talked about questing stories and the formation of a fellowship. Now, it is time to talk about what happens when that fellowship is inevitably broken.

[Let’s get to the recappin’.]

Series: Reading The Wheel of Time