Tor.com content by

Natalie Zutter

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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Mac Rogers’ Audio Drama Give Me Away Reminds Us How Compelling Small-Stakes Sci-Fi Can Be

The season finale of Give Me Away has all the hallmarks of a Mac Rogers science fiction story: a brutal yet pragmatic use of radiation, a familial resolution (if not complete closure), and warring human and alien motivations. But what’s unusual is its relatively smaller scale: It’s neither the paradigm-shifting body horror twist at the end of Steal the Stars, nor the domestic points-of-no-return in The Honeycomb Trilogy—instead, Gideon Media’s contemporary SF audio drama ends its first season on a quietly devastating turn. Give Me Away is playing the long game.

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Halloween Kills Is a Cautionary Tale Against True Crime and Vigilante Justice

It’s all the podcasters’ fault. At least, that seems to be the narrative progressing from David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween reboot to its covid-delayed sequel, Halloween Kills—that there’s a straight line from Jefferson Hall’s true crime podcaster shaking the Michael Myers mask in the man’s face, roaring for a reaction to the first generation of Michael’s surviving victims taking up baseball bats, screaming “EVIL DIES TONIGHT!” and seeking to… unmask Michael Myers? What seems intended as a redemptive sequel about a town exorcising its Bogeyman instead turns into The Purge: Haddonfield and sacrifices one of its best new characters in a perfect demonstration of the problem with middle-movie syndrome.

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A Light Will Always Burn, But So Will Dark Desires: Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

When C.S. Pacat introduces the two sixteen-year-old protagonists of Dark Rise, each embodies elements of the Chosen One archetype, but with a clever riff: Will Kempen works as a humble dock boy, despite his bearing and patched clothing hinting at him belonging elsewhere in society… but it’s not that he doesn’t know where he came from, it’s that he steadfastly does not think about it. Violet Ballard, a biracial Indian bastard raised in her father’s London household, envies her half-brother his allegiance with revered businessman Simon Crenshaw… but he’s not the only one who has the strength to become Lord Simon’s right-hand man. In short, Will and Violet each know something that the reader doesn’t, yet they also have a lot to learn about how their respective heritages relate to the centuries-long, otherworldly war between the Stewards of the Light and the Dark King with his revenant army of shadows and Reborn.

This saga is both endless and ending; the last of the Stewards are pushing back against the Dark King’s long-planned return, and depending on how these new players affect the cyclical fight, they could either prolong the epic stalemate or finally push things into either blinding hope or black despair. The first in a new young adult historical fantasy series from the author of the beloved Captive Prince trilogy, Dark Rise relies heavily on the light-versus-dark shorthand, with not quite enough time spent in the gray areas—because when Pacat does acknowledge the lure of dark desires and the problems with purity, the story is at its most engaging.

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Once, Twice, Infinite Times Upon a Dream: Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered

One of the most cutting details in Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered is when self-described “dying girl” Zinnia Gray reflects on how she used up her Make-a-Wish at age 11 to spend one night as a Disney princess. By then, it was already too late: She could see past the too-accurate costumes and practiced smiles to the emptiness of her future, fated to die by age 21. Cosplaying as a cursed maiden didn’t do anything to lift her real-life curse of amyloidosis, caused by corrupt corporations stirring up environmental toxins. It’s a brutal anecdote because the truth is as clear as the proteins that have taken root in her lungs.

Zinnia thinks she’s wasted her one wish—until the night of what should be her final birthday, when she pricks a spindle for the hell of it and winds up in the Sleeping Beauty multiverse. The first installment of Harrow’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse remix on classic fairy tales is an engaging (if at times overly zippy) adventure that sets up exactly what every fairy tale needs: A heroine who is out of fucks to give.

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