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Natalie Zutter

Not Dead Yet: The Time Traveler’s Wife, “Episode Two”

So… it would seem that I’m in the minority for really enjoying Steven Moffat’s adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife. This is not the first time I’ve championed something other critics have panned, but I do want to clarify what I like about it. Because listen, this is not going to bring together an incredible fandom like Our Flag Means Death or even demonstrate the near-perfection of a book adaptation like Station Eleven. But it’s engaging twenty-year-old source material in a new way, and it’s clear that Moffat has been waiting a long time to do this. So that’s what has enraptured me with each episode, on both first watch and rewatch.

I also appreciate how episodic it is; last week was the first date that Henry messes up, while this week’s second date has Henry getting his first lesson in actually being vulnerable with his future wife, by way of some Moffat cleverness.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife Is Steven Moffat at His Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Best

Back when I first heard that Sherlock creator and former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat had finally gotten the rights to adapt The Time Traveler’s Wife, I was worried that his take would veer too close to the multiple Doctor Who episodes and season arcs that had in fact been inspired by Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel. How could I not, when this writer had made clear how he imprinted on her work, not unlike child Clare imprinting on her imaginary friend slash future husband Henry?

The pilot doesn’t make the best first impression, starting out overwrought thanks to dual voiceover, a cringey home-video frame story (with unfortunate aging makeup), and the dare-we-say-twee note of recreating the book cover in its opening credits. But eventually we get to 28-year-old time traveler Henry and 20-year-old artist Clare’s first date, during which she almost immediately blurts out that she’s his future wife… and the tone shifts just enough from heavy drama about soulmates and waiting to the absolute farce of these two kids confronting the fact of their entire future together. The snappy banter is reminiscent of Coupling, with the Möbius strip of their argument less about the mechanics of time travel and more the romance premise of you mean to say I fall in love with you? It’s exactly what I wanted from this adaptation.

…OK, there is one timey wimey mystery-box element, because Moffat.

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The Best Nona the Ninth Fan Theories

Nona—unexpected but already wildly beloved star of Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth—has justified an entire new book between Harrow the Ninth and Alecto the Ninth. She seems to be posed like the Virgin Mary?! She has perhaps the most eclectic birthday party invite list known to man… Who is she?

No, seriously: Who. Is. She!? Every tidbit that Tordotcom Publishing and Tor.com have revealed—from Tommy Arnold’s cover to the Dramatis Personae to an excerpt of the first chapter—creates more questions than answers (though thank Jod we know where Gideon’s aviators wound up). So we’ve sifted through the fine bone dust of fan speculation, across Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit, in order to collect the most compelling theories as to Nona’s identity (identities?) and what to expect in the third Locked Tomb installment.

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Outlander’s Season 6 Finale Tells Too Much and Doesn’t Show Enough

After an overstuffed season premiere, the rest of Outlander season six seemed to be settling back into I would call classic Outlander hijinks: a baby in a basket on the river; Fergus helping Marsali through labor via orgasms; Malva Christie spying on Jamie and Claire having sex in the stables like a grade-A creeper. Plus we got a flashback that explained this season’s theme song change, and another time traveler ominously whistling an anachronistic song. Outlander, how could I have ever doubted ye?!

But then the season wrapped up (or attempted to) a considerable number of plot threads including illegitimate babies, murder, and polyamorous handfasting with “I Am Not Alone”… and we were back to the problems from “Echoes.” Namely, of characters rattling off plot details at one another instead of acting them out, so that every juicy development felt like it was being told thirdhand. If even Claire or Jamie weren’t experiencing what should have been thrillingly dramatic moments, then there was no hope for us viewers.

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The Ever-Changing Outlander Theme Song Is Constantly Outdoing Itself

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?

The first time I saw the opening lyrics to Outlander’s theme song posted on a friend’s Facebook post, I thought it sounded ridiculous, way too on-the-nose to start every episode by acknowledging the series’ premise. YES WE GET IT CLAIRE YOU DISAPPEARED.

That was before I actually listened to it, and watched the title sequence—and then, like Claire at Craigh na Dun, I fell hard. Now, I forbid my husband from fast-forwarding through the credits every time we watch… and considering that we binged a season at a time to get caught up in a matter of weeks, that means I’ve got it well memorized. But why do I find this particular TV opening so compelling?

The answer, I think, is that it presses all of my nerd buttons: it’s a remix of a mashup, with an excellent invocation of Rule 63. It is the platonic ideal of a TV theme song.

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The Outlander Season 6 Premiere Needs to Go Beyond “Echoes” of the Books

The first episode of Outlander is up there with some of the best television pilots. Ronald D. Moore’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s fantasy romance breaks down the first of the series’ many doorstoppers into key points: Claire Beauchamp Randall is rediscovering her marriage following World War II separating her from husband Frank. Until, that is, their second honeymoon in Scotland sends her back in time 200 years, where she is accused of being a spy and rescued by hunky Jamie Fraser. Viewers, whether longtime fans of the book or complete newbies like myself, are whisked along with Claire, following along with the plot beats of her new life: For her protection, Claire must marry Jamie; they begin to fall in love; Frank’s ancestor Black Jack Randall hunts them both. It’s perfect romance, where the emotional stakes are as inextricably bound to the larger plot action as the wedding vows that unite a time traveling nurse and a Scottish highlander.

Obviously as the seasons and decades have gone on, Jamie and Claire’s love story has expanded to include children, partners, rivals, other travelers, famous historical figures, and nemeses, not to mention looming historical eras like the American Revolution. But for the most part, the series has continued to walk the narrative tightrope between adapting countless favorite moments from the books and distilling them into engaging television. However, the season 6 premiere “Echoes” was the first time I was keenly aware that Outlander was erring on the side of the book fans rather than the non-readers.

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12 SFF Tales Told From Second-Person Perspective

Writing in second person—forgoing I or she/he/they of other perspectives in favor of that intensely-close, under-your-skin you—can, ironically, be rather alienating. Often it feels too intimate for the reader, or it distracts them from the story unfolding with questions of who is actually telling it. But when a writer commits to telling a story to you, about you, through you, the result can often be masterful—an extra layer of magic surrounding a sci-fi/fantasy/speculative tale and embedding the reader in the protagonist’s journey more intensely than even the most self-reflective first or closest-third could achieve.

Enjoy these dozen SFF tales, ranging from cheeky epistolary novella to intricate manifestations of grief to choose-your-own-adventure Shakespeare, that take on the trickiest perspective and make you (that’s you, the reader) forget you were ever skeptical.

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There Are No Heroes or Villains in Station Eleven, Just Fans

The play’s the thing, in Station Eleven, wherein they’ll catch the conscience of the king Prophet. Or could you say the comic’s the thing—Station Eleven the book absolutely terraforming two vulnerable kids’ post-pandemic worldviews? Or the play adaptation of the comic that elevates a man’s death scene from subtext to supertext? Or the ancient Lisa Loeb karaoke track unearthed by the Museum of Civilization, performed by a post-pan teenager devoid of any context? Or the Independence Day speech that endears an aspiring actor to his idols? Or the rap rendition of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions” that brings more joy than awkward Christmas carols?

Patrick Somerville’s TV miniseries based on Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is a near-perfect adaptation. It very much gets its own source material, yet isn’t precious about intersecting some plot lines and excising others. The end result is imbued with both the spirit and specificity of the book, a credit to Somerville and his collaborators assigning Station Eleven the comic its appropriate level of reverence in the universe of the show, but also echoing that love of art across all of the aforementioned media. Every single song, page, or video is attached to a human life, which is what makes it survive beyond the end of the world.

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Station Eleven Will Cut You Like a Knife and Sew You Back Together

The best moment in the first three episodes of HBO Max’s Station Eleven comes in episode two, “A Hawk from a Handsaw,” when one of the Traveling Symphony’s adoring fans follows their caravan in order to audition yet again to join the hybrid music/Shakespeare troupe. Except, he hasn’t prepared a monologue from the Bard. Yet they let him go ahead anyway with a rousing rendition of President Thomas J. Whitmore’s epic speech from Independence Day—but what comes out of his mouth is not his voice but Bill Pullman’s, and that movie’s sweeping orchestration that sounds just this side of cheesy. No surprise, he brings the fucking house down.

Now, there is no actual house—this takes place on the Wheel, the road the Symphony retraces each year since the flu that ended the world—and the post-electric future makes it impossible to actually lip-sync to one’s favorite movie speeches. But that’s how it sounds to the aspiring actor’s audience, and to us viewers. This is a future powered by sheer imagination, which perfectly sums up the magic of this sharp-edged but hopeful adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 pandemic novel.

[Some spoilers for the first three episodes of Station Eleven.]

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Your Problems Follow You Into Space in Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon

In the lead-up to the 2021 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

The Relentless Moon marks roughly the halfway point of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, at least considering how many books have been published and/or announced so far. It’s fitting, then, that the 2020 novel represents a shift in how her punch-card-punk alternate-universe series addresses its own premise: The first two novels, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, are about humanity’s rush to figure out a way off-planet before The Meteor’s climate cataclysm renders the Earth completely uninhabitable. The Relentless Moon doesn’t have all the answers yet—but by transforming into a tense spy thriller set in a claustrophobic lunar colony, it picks that equation back up and continues to work toward a solution with a fresh set of eyes.

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You Can’t Go Wrong With Charlie Jane Anders’ Dynamic Short Fiction Collection Even Greater Mistakes

There’s a quote in “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word,” Charlie Jane Anders’ delightful far-future short story about courtship across class and gender, describing this more-than-infatuation-but-less-than-true-love in floridly hyperbolic language: “Theirs must be a fleeting happiness, but how bright the afterimage!” As it turns out, this also perfectly encapsulates the experience of reading one of Anders’ inventive, provocative works of short fiction: With boldly realized worldbuilding in a fraction of the space that many SFF novels take up, these stories feel almost too short—they often end with the reader blinking back a powerful afterimage, followed by the urge to immediately read another.

That’s where Even Greater Mistakes, Anders’ new short fiction collection from Tor Books, comes very much in handy. These 19 stories, ranging from Anders’ early career to award-winning offerings, will appeal to both readers like myself (who have sought out Anders’ short fiction across such platforms and publications as Uncanny, Asimov’s, and of course Tor.com), as well as those new to her body of work.

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All That Glitters Is Not Happily Ever After: Marissa Meyer’s Gilded

If there’s anyone who is adept at spinning familiar fairy tales into radically new retellings, it’s Marissa Meyer. Best known for her Lunar Chronicles series, the bestselling author has turned Cinderella into a cyborg, trapped Rapunzel in a satellite, and cast a spell with a Moon-dwelling Wicked Queen.

Gilded, her new yarn about the mischievous Rumpelstiltskin, is being described as her return to fairy tales, yet simultaneously it feels like she never left. But just as with her magical contemporary romance Instant KarmaGilded is something new for Meyer: pure fantasy shot through with chilling darkness, interrogating every angle of the Rumpelstiltskin source material with the endeavor of finding (or creating out of whole cloth) the two sides to the story.

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Alison Stine’s Trashlands Makes Something Lovely Out of a Bleak, Climate-Ravaged Future

It would be easy to take the title of Alison Stine’s second novel Trashlands at face value: It describes a near-future in which floods that “rewrote the map with more blue” carry the world’s plastic into Scrappalachia (as this North American region has been rechristened) for pluckers to trade and transform into daily objects—survival depends on reusing refuse. Trashlands is also the name of the area’s primary source of entertainment and business, a seedy strip club playing the same thumping bass on repeat beneath the only neon sign for miles. The connotations are there for readers to write off both the setting and its inhabitants, as the rest of their world has.

But as Stine demonstrates with her powerful second novel, even after the floods, there is still room for art.

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German Robot Rom-Com I’m Your Man Weighs Data Against Desire

“You have no idea how hard it is to program flirting,” a robotics employee ruefully commiserates to scientist-turned-test-subject Alma (Maren Eggert) at the start of I’m Your Man. “One false move, one misleading glance, one careless remark, and the romance evaporates.” It’s much the same for contemporary science fiction films: make them near-future enough to retain the comfort of the familiar, yet be very deliberate in what sets them a few steps ahead. Too many futuristic innovations—smartphones, cars, other tech—distract from the core emotional story, but without some memorable speculative element, it comes across like a bad Black Mirror knockoff.

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