The Stars Look Very Different: Strange Stars by Jason Heller

Quick: when someone says “science fiction and pop music”, who do you think of?

These days, depending on your tastes and avidity for what’s new out there, it would not be entirely surprising if your mind jumped to Janelle Monáe. But a lot of people are going to immediately think of David Bowie—to whom Monáe herself would acknowledge a debt. Fittingly, he is the organizing principle of Jason Heller’s Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. Heller—a Hugo-winning music writer who has contributed to Pitchfork, the AV Club, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker—starts with “Space Oddity” and ends with “Ashes to Ashes”, and in between he provides a whirlwind survey course of how science fiction shaped popular music and pop culture from 1970 to 1980. He weaves a chronological narrative of science fiction-influenced music—some world-changingly significant, some probably best forgotten—and science fiction’s rise in popular ...

The Culture Reread: Prosthetic Conscience (Consider Phlebas Part 7)

Welcome back to the Culture reread! Apologies for the gap in posting; things have not quite gone according to plan, but I’m back now to finish off Consider Phlebas, with this and one more post to follow shortly. After these last posts, I’ll be taking a few weeks off to get rolling on The Player of Games.

Today, though, it’s time for the last act of Bora Horza Gobuchul and his quest for the Culture’s lost Mind. 

Chapter 13: The Command System: Terminus
Chapter 14: Consider Phlebas

While Xoxarle regales Aviger with old war stories (the Idiran idea of a good war story, apparently, involves telling about why a particular species’ religious beliefs meant that they deserved the wholesale annihilation coming to them at Idiran hands), Horza, Yalson, and Balveda continue to search Station Seven and the train parked there. Their engineer, Wubslin, is trying to start the ...

The Culture Reread: Eschatologist (Consider Phlebas, Part 6)

Welcome back to the Culture reread! This week, Horza and his crew continue their exploration of the Command System, where surprises and violence await. As we approach the conclusion of Consider Phlebas, the action ramps up, and Horza’s promises to the CAT crew that this was going to be “easy in, easy out” are increasingly shown to be lies.

Chapter 11: The Command System: Stations

Since the Damage game, in which he was thrown into a hideous spiral of self-doubt while accessing Kraiklyn’s emotional state, Horza has been plagued by nightmares where he cannot remember his name or finds his identity thrown into doubt. He wakes from another of these and, while he doesn’t spend much time in reflection as to why these nightmares disturb him so, he decides he’d rather not go back to sleep. When the rest of the company wakes, he puts on an act of ...

The Culture Reread: Irregular Apocalypse (Consider Phelbas Part 4)

Welcome back to the Culture reread! Apologies for having missed last week; it turns out that traveling and reread posting are not necessarily fully compatible. But we’re back on track now, approximately halfway through Consider Phlebas. This week, we finally learn exactly what Damage is. Horza catches up with Kraiklyn and rejoins the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence, and an acquaintance reappears.

Chapter 7: A Game of Damage

As Horza arrives at Evanauth—he’s heard that the Olmedreca was found abandoned, suggesting to him that at least some of the CAT’s crew must also have escaped—a journalist called Sarble the Eye helpfully provides us with an information dump about the game of Damage. It’s “an ordinary card game with a few embellishments to make it attractive to the mentally disturbed”. The first is that each player has an array of Lives: actual, literal human lives, people who will ...

The Culture Reread: No More Mr. Nice Guy (Consider Phlebas, Part 3)

Welcome back to the Culture reread! Today in chapters 5 and 6 of Consider Phlebas, Kraiklyn continues to prove himself an absolutely terrible captain, another heist goes dreadfully wrong, and Horza is captured by a cult. This entire sequence is one of the most revolting things I’ve read in almost any book anywhere. Don’t read this section while you’re eating, and don’t count on having an appetite for a while after.

Chapter 5: Megaship

As the Clear Air Turbulence makes its way to Vavatch, Yalson offers her theory of why they’re headed that way to Horza: there’s going to be a game of Damage played there. To the reader at this point, the nature of this game is obscure, though both Horza and Yalson seem concerned. It seems that games are rare and played for very high stakes (supposedly Kraiklyn won the CAT in a Damage game), and Kraiklyn ...

The Culture Reread: Nervous Energy (Consider Phlebas, Part 1)

Welcome to the Culture Reread! Today is the first proper post of the series, and we’re off with the prologue and chapters 1 and 2 of Consider Phlebas.

Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel that Banks completed and published, appeared in 1987. It takes place against the background of a long and destructive war between the Culture and the Idirans. The Culture, of course, is more or less human as we know it, post-scarcity, essentially socialist, and, until the war, largely thought of as a bunch of hedonistic pacifists; the Idirans are three-meter-tall tripedal beings bent on a war of religious conquest. At the time of Consider Phlebas, the war has been going on for four years, with enormous casualties on either side and no sign of surrender either way. One might expect this novel to be the story of some key conflict in the course of that ...

The Precise Nature of the Catastrophe: Welcome to the Culture Reread

The last time I had anything of length to say about the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, I remarked with regard to Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and the novella The State of the Art that “one of these four works is, in my opinion, Banks’s finest; which one and why I think so is a matter for another, longer examination.” Well, the time has come for that longer examination and … I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a little while longer for the details. But I hope to make it worth your while.

Over the next several months (well in to 2019 and possibly beyond, if I’m honest, given a biweekly publishing schedule and novels that get increasingly doorstop-like as we progress), I’ll be making my way through the Culture novels, in order of publication. We’ll kick things off properly ...

The Revolutionary Optimism of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novels

I was all set to finish a piece on the characters who inhabit the world of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, the advanced space-humans and artificial intelligences that drive the novels with their struggles and adventures. I’ve gotten distracted from that original plan, though. For one thing, a bad case of news poisoning has endowed the following paragraph from Banks’s 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture” with a lot more grim humor than they had around this time last year:

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is—without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple ...

Celebrating the Revolutionary Optimism of Iain M. Banks

I was all set to finish a piece on the characters who inhabit the world of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, the advanced space-humans and artificial intelligences that drive the novels with their struggles and adventures. I’ve gotten distracted from that original plan, though. For one thing, a bad case of news poisoning has endowed the following paragraph from Banks’s 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture” with a lot more grim humor than they had around this time last year:

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is—without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the ...

Story of Your Purpose: Arrival

Arrival movie review Fantastic Fest I’m no veteran of film festivals—and indeed, I only started going to Austin’s Fantastic Fest last year. But if it ends up being the only film festival at which I’m a regular, I’m fine with that. It’s a “genre” festival, a term which encompasses high-profile fantasy like Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (complete with Tim Burton on the festival red carpet), sensational (if not SFnal) art films like Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a surprise screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s SPLIT, and some magnificently disreputable midnight movie trash from all over the world. This year also featured horror short films presented as VR experiences, a “Satanic Panic Escape Room,” and the FF traditional evening of debates settled by fisticuffs at a local boxing gym. And, yes, well, it happened over a month ago, didn’t it. You may be wondering why I’m only just now getting around to writing ...

Of Myths and Zombies: The Girl With All the Gifts

Girl-With-All-The-Gifts Let’s face it: a lot of us are pretty weary of zombies by now. On those grounds it might be tempting to give The Girl With All the Gifts—one of a handful of YA genre novel adaptations screening at this year’s Fantastic Fest—a miss. (In fact my spouse told me afterward that if he’d known in advance about the “Hungries”, as they’re called in the film, he would have never set foot in the theatre due to sheer exhaustion with the genre.) But if you did, you’d be missing out on a genuinely good take on zombie horror with a terrific protagonist. That adolescent protagonist is a girl called Melanie, played with exceptional deftness by Sennia Nanua. When we first meet her, she’s a prisoner in a military compound along with nineteen other children. They are treated with extreme caution by the soldiers around them, who routinely refer ...

Old Timey X-Men: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

MissPeregrine03 Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children landed at Austin’s Fantastic Fest with an almighty splash. The Alamo Drafthouse has been gearing up for the release of this film with Septemburton, a celebration of Tim Burton’s work that includes special menu items, a Tim Burton issue of BirthMoviesDeath, and a slew of Burton programming. At the festival itself, each screening has been preceded by choice picks from the Burtonize This! contest (many of which have been uproariously funny, it must be said), and the day of the film’s screening was declared Keep Austin Peculiar Day—and Burton himself put in an appearance on the festival red carpet. It’s quite a lot of froofraw, and there was a certain amount of high expectation going in. After all, the fit between Burton’s filmic sensibilities and the Gothic eeriness of Ransom Riggs’s bestselling novel and its sequels is one of the most ...
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Cyborgs in the Real World

Neil Harbisson, Photo by Dan Wilton Electronic eyes, hologram-producing implants, haptic tattoos—these are all examples of body modification that you’ll find throughout cyberpunk fiction. When you learn about artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas and the modifications that they have developed and incorporated into their own bodies, you might be tempted to think of them as science fiction characters, but they’re quite real, down-to-earth, and dedicated to the use of cybernetic implants as a means of expanding the senses and the human experience of the world, a unique intersection of art and technology. They are the co-founders of the Cyborg Foundation, and in May they brought their art to Moogfest, where I had a chance to talk to them about aesthetics and cyborgism. Harbisson was born with a rare form of color blindness called achromatopsia, which means that he sees the world entirely in greyscale. As a trained visual artist, he sought a way to ...
Moon Ribas, "Waiting for Earthquakes"

Who Tells Your Story: The Hidden Figures of NASA History

Janelle Monae (left) with Taraji P. Henderson and Olivia Spencer in Hidden Figures Moogfest began as a one-day music festival celebrating both Robert Moog and electronic music in general. Over the last decade, it has grown into a multi-day symposium/festival with a scope that goes well beyond music and the circuit-driven gear that is used to make it. The daytime programming now includes discussions about transhumanism, cyborgs, race, and gender—and this year, the Afrofuturism programming track included a conversation with musician Janelle Monae and screenwriter Allison Schroeder, moderated by Kimberly Drew, who is Associate Online Community Producer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their conversation was billed as “Women and Afrofuturism”, but much of the discussion centered on the forthcoming film Hidden Figures, written by Schroeder and starring Monae, Taraji P. Henderson, and Olivia Spencer. The film is a look at a little-known piece of space exploration history: the African-American women who worked for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo missions. In ...

The Perils of Communal Living: High-Rise

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I was predisposed to like High-Rise, given my admiration for J.G. Ballard’s fiction and Ben Wheatley’s films. Wheatley is a Fantastic Fest favorite; his previous films Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England all had their US premieres there in previous years, so it’s no surprise that High-Rise was one of the hot tickets for this year’s festival.

Advance word out of TIFF was fairly polarized, and reactions at Fantastic Fest were similarly split. High-Rise is not to all tastes. Overly literal minds will spend too much time wondering why Laing doesn’t just leave the high-rise and go to Tesco instead of doing the notorious thing that he does for food in the opening scene. Some may be slightly disappointed by the fact that it is what they envisioned when they heard “Ben Wheatley is directing an adaptation of High-Rise” and ...

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Modern Folk Horror: The Witch

THE WITCH

If you use the words “horror” and “New England” together in a sentence, most aficionados of the genre will think first of H.P. Lovecraft and the Salem witch trials. You should now include The Witch in that list, a tightly crafted and deeply unsettling film that was a hit at Sundance and Fantastic Fest, and which has a very strong claim to being one of the best horror films of the year.

The Witch is set in New England in the early seventeenth century, when the Puritan settlers were still new to the area and culturally not so far removed from the England that they left in search of religious freedom. As the film opens, a clash of religious views between a man called William and the elders of a small town leads to the banishment of William, his wife Katherine, and their five children. They try to make ...

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Exuberant Science: April and the Extraordinary World

APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD

Knowing what I do about the readership here at Tor.com, I’m guessing that if I say “hey, you really need to check out April and the Extraordinary World, because it’s a delightful animated adventure story about a scrappy young scientist and her talking cat, set in an alternate history steampunk France that feels like a mashup of Jules Verne, J.J. Grandville, and Hayao Miyazaki,” then—

Okay, a bunch of you are probably already gone, trying to figure out where and how and when you can see this lovely film, which just had its US premiere at Fantastic Fest. But just in case you need a little more information…

April and the Extraordinary World is the English rendering of the original French title, Avril et le monde truqué, and in fact Avril’s world is largely more truqué—twisted or broken—than extraordinary. In this alternate timeline, Napoleon ...

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Reinventing Cyberpunk in Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot season 1 finale reinventing cyberpunk

Cyberpunk may have been one of the 1980s’ most quintessential subgenre-movement-phenomena, and it also may have been one of the quickest to descend into self-parody. It was easy to get hung up on the aesthetics—chrome, casual violence, neon reflected in dirty puddles, mirrored sunglasses, neo-Orientalist imagery driven by fears of a economically dominant Japan—while only superficially engaging with the deeper themes of the technology-driven, corporation-dominated near-futures portrayed therein.

Then the Internet age proceeded to co-opt the vocabulary of cyberpunk, much as the world of espionage absorbed the lingo of John le Carré’s fictional spies. Brief resurgences via The Matrix and Snow Crash (which is more satirical than some people realize) notwithstanding, cyberpunk now seems like a quaint retro-future at best, and entirely moribund at worst.

At least it did until Sam Esmail’s television series Mr. Robot came along—and on the USA Network, of all places. In a recent Reddit AMA, ...

Mr. Robot season 1 finale reinventing cyberpunk
Mr. Robot season 1 finale reinventing cyberpunk
Mr. Robot season 1 finale reinventing cyberpunk
Mr. Robot season 1 finale reinventing cyberpunk
Mr. Robot season 1 finale reinventing cyberpunk

A Farewell to Discworld: Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown

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One of the intractable problems of getting older is that you will inevitably watch your heroes die. For a reader, there comes the day when the pleasure of opening a new book by a beloved author is tempered by the knowledge that this is the last new one you will ever read.

With The Shepherd’s Crown, that time has come for the readers of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—and the characters of the Discworld must also bid farewell to one of their most enduring citizens.

Minor spoilers ahead (for things that become clear well within the first 50 pages).

The changes wrought in Snuff and Raising Steam continue to shape the Discworld; the railway continues to expand out from Ankh-Morpork into the Chalk and even to Lancre, and the Disc’s goblins enjoy new status as they become adept in the workings of steel and iron. Even goblin names are changing; ...

“Working in a Cupboard” — An Interview with Comic Artist Tula Lotay

Combined cover art for Supreme: Blue Rose issues 1-4

It might have seemed to some readers that Tula Lotay burst onto the comics scene from nowhere with her gorgeous art for the Warren Ellis-penned Supreme: Blue Rose, but she had already contributed work to such diverse titles as American VampireThe Witching Hour, and Red Sonja—and, not incidentally, had founded the Thought Bubble comics festival, now one of the UK’s top comics conventions. I met with her after negotiating the terrifying badge line at San Diego Comic-Con on Wednesday, and talked with her about her work with Warren Ellis, her process, and the ways in which the internet has been—believe it or not—good for women in comics.

How did Heartless come about, after Supreme?

Obviously Warren and I really enjoyed working together, and it was actually last San Diego [Comic Con] that we met up in Hollywood … From that we ended up talking ...

Lotay's artwork for Wicked + Divine
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