Two New Kurval Sword and Sorcery Stories Available: The Plains of Shadow and Worm Fodder

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/21/two-new-kurval-sword-and-sorcery-stories-available-the-plains-of-shadow-and-worm-fodder/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40782

It’s the first new release announcement of 2021. This one is for two new novelettes in my Kurval sword and sorcery series.

To recap, during the 2020 July short story challenge, I had an idea for a sword and sorcery story that would not fit into my established Thurvok sword and sorcery series, so I created a new character named Kurval, barbarian usurper turned King of Azakoria. Kurval was initially intended to be a one-off character. However, I like him and he allows me to tell stories that just don’t fit Thurvok and his friends, so it was obvious that he would show up again.

Indeed, the first of the two new Kurval stories was initially supposed to be Thurvok’s origin stories (for while Thurvok’s companions Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha have origin stories, Thurvok himself doesn’t have one yet). However, there was just one problem. The tale of the young captain of the royal guard of a lecherous king who is ordered to execute a young woman, victim of said king’s lechery, and doesn’t want to do it was simply too grim for Thurvok who is a more lighthearted character. And so I thought, “Why don’t I make it Kurval’s origin story instead? After all, we know that he wasn’t born a king.”

The other spark of inspiration for what would eventually become The Plains of Shadow was a piece of fantasy art, namely this image of a warrior confronting a smoke monster by Nele Diehl. At that moment, something clicked and the story largely wrote itself after that.

So prepare to accompany Kurval, as he confronts the dark gods and meets his destiny upon the…

The Plains of Shadow
The Plains of Shadow by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertLong before Kurval became King of Azakoria, he was a guard captain in service to the tyrannical King Talgat of the land Temirzhan beyond the sea.

One day, Talgat orders Kurval to escort the condemned witch Aelisia to the Plains of Shadow and behead her, so her blood may feed the dark gods who dwell there.

However, Kurval does not want to execute the sentence, once he learns that Aelisia is innocent of the crimes of which she has been accused.

But if he lets Aelisia go free, Kurval will not only have to face the wrath of Talgat, but also the fury of the dark gods who dwell upon the Plains of Shadow.

This is a novelette of 9800 words or approx. 33 print pages in the Kurval sword and sorcery series, but may be read as a standalone. Includes an introduction and afterword.

More information.
Length: 9800 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

Whereas The Plains of Shadow is a prequel, Worm Fodder, the second new Kurval story, is set after King’s Justice. Several characters from King’s Justice reappear such as Kurval’s vizier and chief councillor Izgomir and the young Count Ragur Falgune. Ragur’s bride, now wife Nelaira does not appear in person, though she is mentioned. And Ragur and Nelaira have good news.

In Worm Fodder, Kurval finds himself in a situation – slay a monster and rescue the damsel-in-distress about to be sacrificed to said monster – that Thurvok and his friends repeatedly dealt with as well, most notably in most notably in The Cave of the Dragon and The Temple of the Snake God.

However, with Kurval the basic plot plays out quite differently, because Kurval can do more than just slay the monster and rescue the girl. For as King of Azakoria, Kurval also uses his authority to outlaw human sacrifice and quite literally lay down the law to those who’d sacrifice a young woman to a worm monster.

So accompany Kurval as he is about to become…

Worm Fodder
Worm Fodder by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertAfter a hunt, King Kurval of Azakoria and his entourage make camp at the village of Ogwall. However, something is not right in the village. All men of fighting age are away at a mysterious ritual and the remaining villagers are clearly afraid of something.

Kurval investigates and learns that the mysterious ritual in the woods involves sacrificing the young Celisa to the dread worm Thibunoth.

Kurval is furious, for he outlawed human sacrifice in the kingdom of Azakoria. And so he sets out to save Celisa, deal with the monster and punish those who would violate the ban on human sacrifice.

This is a novelette of 9600 words or approx. 32 print pages in the Kurval sword and sorcery series, but may be read as a standalone. Includes an introduction and afterword.

More information.
Length: 9600 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

I have ideas for more Kurval stories, so you’ll see him again. As for the dark gods from the Plains of Shadow – well, they’ve tasted Kurval’s blood and they’re nothing, if not persistent, so they’ll eventually turn up again as well.

Fanzine Spotlight: nerds of a feather, flock together

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/20/fanzine-spotlight-nerds-of-a-feather-flock-together/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40664

It’s time for the next entry in my Fanzine Spotlight project. For more about the Fanzine Spotlight project, go here. You can also check out the other great fanzines featured by clicking here.

Today’s featured fanzine is the four-time Hugo finalist for Best Fanzine nerds of a feather, flock together.

And now I’d like to welcome The G., Vance K., Joe Sherry and Adri Joy of nerds of a feather, flock together.

Tell us about your site or zine.

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together is a review and commentary site that covers a broad array of fandom areas and topics. Although we focus mainly on SFF books, we also cover short fiction, comics, video games, TV, and contemporary SFF, horror, and cult movies.

In addition to reviews and interviews, we have recurring series, such as “6 Books with…,” in which authors share six books that are and have been meaningful to them, “New Books Spotlight,” where we highlight upcoming releases we’re excited about, and “Thursday Morning Superhero,” which looks at new and upcoming comics and comic-adjacent topics/adaptations, etc. We’ve also had the opportunity to provide our contributors a platform to publish thoughtful deep-dives into specific topic areas or works, such as ecospeculation, the superhero zeitgeist, horror, and the evergreen, ever-expanding Star Wars universe.

For the past several years, we’ve also tackled a larger, themed topic area. In 2020, we launched Nerds on Tour — a look at fiction, movies, and other content from outside the traditional United States-Canada-Western Europe focus area. Past projects include Feminist Futures, The Hugo Initiative, Dystopian Visions, and Cyberpunk Revisited.

We launched in 2012, and have had a not-inconsiderable cast of contributors in that time. Different writers cover different topic areas and interests, so types of coverage may wax or wane, but what brings us all together is a love and passion for all things nerdy, and respect for each other’s viewpoints and contributions.

Who are the people behind your site or zine?

The site’s founder The G started the site in 2012 with co-editor Vance K, and we’ve added co-editors Joe Sherry and Adri Joy in the last few years. In addition to the editors, who also contribute content, our current team of writers includes Aidan Moher, Andrea Johnson, Chloe N. Clark, Dean E. S. Richard, Mikey, Paul Weimer, Phoebe, Sean Dowie, Shana DuBois, and Spacefaring Kitten.

Why did you decide to start your site or zine?

At the time, I was reading a lot of SF/F and – being an opinionated person – felt the need to blast those opinions out into the ether. But I also didn’t think running a blog on my own sounded like as much fun as running one with other people. So I asked Vance if he wanted to start one with me (it didn’t take him long to say yes). After that we gradually added more people – some we knew personally, and others we met online. — The G, founder

G and I were next door neighbors in Los Angeles for about three years — both transplants from places with robust and storied BBQ traditions. There was a lot of grilling in our shared courtyard as a result, and over the course of many beers and cooked meats, we talked a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. After we’d both moved to new spots, he got the idea for a blog, and I think the night he reached out about it, I had just watched a deeply odd French psychological horror movie, and I was like, “I know just what to write about.” — Vance K

What format do you use for your site or zine (blog, e-mail newsletter, PDF zine, paper zine) and why did you choose this format?

It’s a blog. In the long-long ago of 2012, blogs were all the rage. And it seems like it’s still an effective medium for collaboration, shared access across our entire team, and as a way to get daily content out. We have added a newsletter, which Adri (sporadically) manages.

The fanzine category at the Hugos is one of the oldest, but also the category which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines and sites are important?

These types of platforms — going way, way back to mimeographed zines and including things that became iconic publications like Famous Monsters of Filmland or Locus — have always been about fans being able to share things that they love, and that speak to them, and to find others like them. Beyond our team of writers and contributors, each of us involved in Nerds of a Feather have expanded our relationships online and met new people — other fans, other creators — that we never would have found without it.

Even though the form of fanzines have changed over the decades, the core purpose has remained consistent: this is a space for fans to talk to each other about science fiction and fantasy, a space where fans can shape the conversation of the genre.

Plus, it’s really nice to have a platform where smart, passionate people can share thoughtful, in-depth looks at media that you love and respond to, and shine a new light on it.

In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online. What do you think the future of fanzines looks like?

Nerds of a Feather has always been a website and over the past few years we’ve been proud to share our community with other sites full of thoughtful, engaging analysis like Lady Business, The Book Smugglers, SF Bluestocking, Galactic Journey and Quick Sip Reviews, as well as awesome print fanzines like Journey Planet and Banana Wings. For many people – including some of our editors – the online community is the main way we engage with fandom and fan topics, and although social media has changed the blogging landscape significantly since the heyday of Livejournal and the like, it feels like there will always be a space for curated long form fan writing, and online fanzines are the natural fit to fill that gap.

That said, there’s no reason that the ease of creating and sharing digital content should mean an end to print fanzines. In fact, it’s interesting to see the ways in which online fan cultures are returning to physical products in other areas, like the popularity of zines which collect fanart and fanfiction for specific ships or topics, which are crowdfunded and volunteer-created and then shipped to fans all over the world. While that’s a different type of fanwork to the Hugo fanzine category, it’s clear that online and physical media are going to keep shaping each other when it comes to fan engagement, and fanzines are a big part of that.

The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Do you have any recommendations for any of the fan categories?

Adri: As well as the zines mentioned above, I always like to shout out The Quiet Pond, run by CW (https://thequietpond.com/), which is fanzine eligible. It’s a SFF and YA blog which runs lots of interesting news and reviews, and what makes it unique are the graphics and story snippets which are all about the animal residents of the Pond, including an axolotl called Xiaolong, Cuddle the otter, Sprout the sparrow and lots of others.

Fan writers I’ve been particularly impressed by this year – at least, the ones who don’t write for Nerds of a Feather – include Stitch of Stitch’s Media Mix (https://stitchmediamix.com/), who has done fantastic work on the intersection of fandom and race, and Jeannette Ng’s pieces on Medium (https://medium.com/@nettlefish), especially the ones diving into the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe, and her takes on the complexities of cultural appropriation and authenticity and how they affect writers of colour.

Also, I’m a huge fan of Booktube, which saw its first nominee in Fancast with Claire Rousseau last year, and I think there’s loads being developed in that community which deserves wider recognition. A few of my other favourite channels are Noria Reads/Chronicles of Noria (https://www.youtube.com/user/sitenoebulu), Kalanadi (https://www.youtube.com/user/kalanadi), My Name is Marines (https://www.youtube.com/c/mynameismarines) and Onyx Pages (https://www.youtube.com/c/ONYXPages) – but there’s tons out there to discover. On the podcast front, I think The Fantasy Inn (https://thefantasyinn.com/category/podcast/) had some great content last year (as well as being a cool fanzine too!) and I’m always a fan of Skiffy and Fanty (https://skiffyandfanty.com/).

Joe: Adri mentioned a number of really great ones, but anyone interested in the history of science fiction and fantasy, and in the Hugo Awards in particular, should really check out both Hugo, Girl and Hugos There – two podcasts reading through each of the Hugo Award winners for Best Novel.

Where can people find you?

Nerds of a Feather can be found at www.nerds-feather.com. Each of us are also on twitter. Links to the twitter accounts for each of our writers can be found on the sidebar at Nerds of a Feather, but if you want quick links to the editorial twitter handles we can be found right here:

@nerds_feather

@joesherry

@AdriJjy

@SciFi_Romance

Thank you, Adri, Joe, Vance and the G., for stopping by and answering my questions.

Do check out nerds of a feather, flock together, cause it’s a great site. Also check out their 2021 eligibility post.

***

Do you have a Hugo eligible fanzine or site and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

Marvel Does Pleasantville: Episodes 1 and 2 of WandaVision

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/18/marvel-does-pleasantville-episodes-1-and-2-of-wandavision/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40703

Of the many Marvel and Star Wars related projects Disney (who, if I may remind you, are still not paying royalties due to Alan Dean Foster and other authors) has announced for its Disney+ streaming service, WandaVision was probably the one that I least knew what to make of.

I mean, even the whole setup – “We’re making a sitcom that’s a parody of other sitcoms, the protagonists are phasing android and a reality-bending mutant – oh yes, and it’s set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too” – sounds like Disney and Marvel are trolling us. But then, I already suspected that Disney/Marvel were trolling us, when they announced they were making a Guardians of the Galaxy movie and we all know how that turned out. For in the past few years, Marvel has been at the point where they could tell pretty much any story, no matter how weird or offbeat (gonzo space opera, retro spy adventure, Afrofuturist fantasy, X-Files style paranoia mixed with space opera, heist movie with superpowers, etc…), and make a success of it. So why on Earth shouldn’t Marvel make a sitcom about an android married to a reality-bending mutant? If anybody could make it work, it’s them.

That said, I was skeptical about WandaVision for a simple reason. Namely, I don’t like sitcoms. I don’t watch sitcoms, I’m not familiar with most of the shows WandaVision is apparently trying to parody and I find US suburban sitcoms with their unfunny jokes and laugh tracks (Why, of why, are laugh tracks even a thing?) about as alien as if I were watching TV from another planet. In fact, it took me a long time to realise that the sitcom was considered a separate format of TV show in the US. So watching a sitcom parody should feel about as alien to me as watching a parody of Beijing opera or Kabuki theatre. It may be the best parody ever of Beijing opera or Kabuki theatre, but I can’t tell, because I’m simply not familiar enough with what’s being parodied.

In many ways, Disney+ rolling out a parody of US sitcoms through the decades as one of its major shows to a global audience was a huge risk, simply because the kind of suburban couple and family sitcoms WandaVision is parodying are a very uniquely American form of entertainment. Yes, other countries do have comedy TV programs, some of them focus on middle class couples and families and sometimes they’re very funny. But the claustrophobic setting of the typically American suburb (which many Europeans associate mainly with horror movies), the limited sets, the laugh track, the type of humour, all that’s uniquely American.

Occasionally, such shows can successfully cross the Atlantic. I Dream of Jeannie was a big hit in West Germany and I remember adoring reruns as a kid, while All in the Family/Till Death Do Us Part/Ein Herz und eine Seele was a big hit in the UK, the US and West Germany, even though it was never even remotely funny in any country. Though All in the Family/Till Death Do Us Part/Ein Herz und eine Seele did adapt its basic situation – creepy old racist with a very stupid wife, non-entity daughter and a progressive son-in-law as well as neighbours who are other – to every country differently. And so the neighbours are black in the US version and Socialdemocrats in the German version. And a lot of the jokes in the German version are based on West German politics of the 1970s, while the US version took the occasional detour into drama. So yes, the basic premise of a random sitcom can be adapted across cultures.

One early review, which I can’t find right now, declared that WandaVision was perfect even for people not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because it’s primarily a sitcom that doesn’t require any knowledge of comics or the Marvel Universe. Which made me wonder, “What about some like me who’s familiar with the comics that WandaVision is based upon – mainly the two Vision and the Scarlet Witch limited series from the 1980s and Tom King’s The Vision limited series from 2015/16 – but knows next to nothing about sitcoms? Will WandaVision work for me?”

The answer is, “I’m not sure yet.” I have to admit that the first few minutes of episode 1 – after a title sequence featuring newlyweds Wanda and Vision moving into their new suburban home – were actively painful with a noisy laugh track almost drowning out dialogue which simply wasn’t funny enough to justify such raucous laughter. However, then the episode got better and in the end I was actually laughing along with the canned laughter.

Warning: Spoilers below the cut!

The plot is simple enough. Wanda and Vision have just moved into a typically American house in the typically American suburb of Westview, hoping to fit in and lead typically American lives. They seem to be newlyweds, even though they neither have rings nor can they remember any anniversary. The setting is the 1950s or early 1960s, the models are the vintage sitcoms I Love Lucy (which I’m familiar with by reputation, even though I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen an episode) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (which I didn’t even know existed or rather assumed was a variety show hosted by Dick Van Dyke, because that what “The [insert name of celebrity here] Shows” were on German TV).

The late 1950s/early 1960s setting is recreated absolutely perfectly. Not only are episodes 1 and 2 shot in black and white and in the old 4:3 TV ratio, apparently the production team also used old cameras and practical effects to recreate the somewhat static look of early TV shows. Hairstyles, clothing, interior designs, etc… are also pitch perfect for the period. Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan also praises the retro trappings of thw show. There even are fake commercials, for Stark Industries‘ latest toaster in episode one and the Strucker wristwatch (complete with Hydra logo) in episode two. This is not just a neat Easter egg, it may also be significant down the line, considering that Vision was created from Tony Stark’s computer butler Jarvis and Wanda got her mutant powers in the movie from Baron von Strucker.

No sooner have Wanda and Vision moved in that their nosy neighbour (to the right) Agnes (played by Kathryn Hahn whom I remember from Crossing Jordan almost twenty years ago, though she also was in a lot of sitcoms) drops by to deliver a potted plant and ask questions Wanda can’t answer. And then there’s also the mysterious heart on the kitchen calendar, which suggests that the day is some kind of romantic anniversary, but of what?

At any rate, Wanda enlists Agnes’ help (well, she won’t leave anyway, so you might as well put her to good use) in preparing a romantic evening for herself and Vision. Meanwhile, Vision is at his job, punching computer punchcards for a mysterious purpose that no one at the company knows. Oh yes, and his boss Mr. Hart announces that he will be coming to dinner at the Visions that night with his wife. And the Harts are very demanding guests, so Vision and Wanda will have to impress them, if Vision wants a promotion. So that’s what the heart on the calendar stood for. So I wonder why Vision is so eager for a promotion in a dead end office job, when he’s an Avenger and could probably run Stark Industries besides.

The comedy grows from there.  Wanda is expecting a romantic evening by candlelight and wanders around the house in a negligé, while Vision shows up with the Harts in tow. Vision initially explains away Wanda’s behaviour with “Well, she’s an immigrant from Sarkovia.”

This was actually one of the more interesting bits of the episode, because after WWII and later the Korean War a lot of American GIs brought back brides from overseas, brides who quite often fitted just as well into a typically American suburb as Wanda and Vision. If they got to live in a typically American suburb, that is. Cause if their new husband was black, they often ended up in rundown inner city neighbourhoods or shacks in the rural south. This is a subject, which though widespread, is rarely addressed in US pop culture. An episode of Quantum Leap tackled the racism faced by an American GI and his Japanese bride more than twenty years ago, while Lovecraft Country did so more recently in the episode “Meet Me in Daegu”, which I loved, though no one else did. Unlike Quantum Leap and Lovecraft Country, WandaVision doesn’t really do much with its crosscultural marriage plot, but then it’s early yet.

Even though Vision has managed to explain away Wanda’s odd behaviour, they still have a problem, because there is no dinner, at least not for four. So Wanda enlists the help of nosy neighbour Agnes, who may be a variation of Agatha Harkness from the comics, and decides to magic up a five course dinner, including such midcentury specialties as Lobster Thermidor, Chicken a la King and Steak Diane. But of course, things don’t go smoothly, when Wanda first has problems getting rid of Agnes, then overcooks the chicken and magically turns it back into a bunch of eggs and magically throws the lobsters out of the windows. Meanwhile, Vision is having increasing problems to keep Mrs. Hart, who’s bored to death, not to mention just as nosy as Agnes, from investigating the strange noises coming from the kitchen.

It’s during the dinner party scene that I actually starting laughing along with the canned laughter. This is probably, because by this point WandaVision had morphed into a form I recognised, namely that of the boulevard theatre comedy, which was very common in Germany from the early 20th century well into the 1990s (there still are boulevard theatres, but they’re less common than they used to be). Boulevard theatre comedies were also a staple of German TV in the 1970s and 1980s and influenced a lot of postwar West German cinema comedies. And these boulevard comedies got a lot of laughs out of misunderstandings and people trying to frantically keep other people on stage from seeing something or someone, while the audience of course sees everything. I’m not sure in how far the European boulevard comedy influenced the US sitcom and or if resemblance was just the effect of the staginess of the first episode (which was actually shot with a live studio audience), but Vision’s desperate antics to keep the Harts from seeing Wanda’s magical cooking reminded me of Ohnsorg Theatre plays and Peter Alexander movies from the 1960s.

Eventually, dinner is magically on the table, but things come to a head when Mr. Hart first interrogates Wanda and Vision about how they met, how long they’ve been together and what their story is, questions which Wanda and Vision can’t answer, and then nearly chokes on a strawberry. The episode shifts away from the sitcom format at this point into a kind of strange, almost hypnotic moment of Mrs. Hart saying “Stop it” over and over again, until Wanda orders Vision to help Mr. Hart, using his phase powers to remove the offending strawberry. Mr. Hart is now so grateful that he promotes Vision, while Wanda and Vision decide to simply set an anniversary for themselves, come up with a song that will be theirs from now on, and also magic up wedding rings.

Cue beautifully retro end credits in black and white, until the camera zooms out, revealing someone watching the end credits on TV, while taking notes in a notebook embossed with the logo of S.W.O.R.D., S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sister organisation from the comics.

The second episode sees Wanda and Vision somewhat settled in Westview, though they’re still struggling to fit in. There seems to have been a time jump, because while the episode is still mostly in black and white, complete with a delightful animated title sequence, the setting now seems to be the mid 1960s, judging by hairstyles and clothing. The models for this episode are mid 1960s supernatural sitcoms like Bewitched (of which I’ve seen a few episodes) and I Dream of Jeannie (which I loved as a kid, when it was rerun on German TV), where the female half of an otherwise typical suburban couple is some kind of supernatural being and desperately tries to hide her abilities and fit in. There was always something faintly sinister about those shows, because why did the woman have to hide her awesome abilities? And why was there always a vague hint of dire disaster, if someone were to find out.

I’ve read somewhere (again I can’t find it now) that the supernatural sitcoms of the 1960s were a coded treatment of interracial marriages with one partner trying to pass as white, because the subject was too sensitive to be adressed otherwise. This would also fit in with the allusions to intercultural war marriages in episode 1.

Wanda and Vision are completely absorbed by a neighbourhood talent show, which is supposed to benefit the local elementary school (“For the children”, characters repeat almost mantra-like). Wanda and Vision have prepared a magical act as Glamour and Illusion (which interestingly were two characters in the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries of the 1980s). Of course, both can perform acts that look like magic with their little finger – the challenge is making it look fake. As the glamorous assistant, Wanda also gets to wear a sequin studded bathing suit that is about as close to Jack Kirby’s traditional Scarlet Witch costume that the character has come in the movies. Vision, meanwhile, wears the traditional magician’s ensemble of tailcoat and top hat.

We also get to meet more characters from Westview, as Wanda joins the organisation committee for the show, which is lorded over by Dottie (played by Emma Caulfield, best remembered as Anya from Buffy). At the committee meeting, Wanda also meets a young black woman who introduces herself as Geraldine and played by Teyonah Parris, who played Don Draper’s secretary Dawn in Mad Men and looks uncannily like a young Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek. What makes this even more interesting is that Teyonah Parris has been cast as Monica Rambeau a.k.a. the second Captain Marvel, so Geraldine is obviously not her real name.

Meanwhile, Vision goes to a meeting of the local neighbourhood watch, because he and Wanda have been woken up at night by noises outside their suburban dream home. Here he accepts a piece of chewing gum (and makes a masturbation joke, which somehow slipped through, even though WandaVision runs on the ultra-family-friendly Disney+), which he accidentally swallows – with unexpected results. The chewing gum messes up Vision’s mechanical innards and causes him to act like drunk.

And so he shows up at the talent show drunk out of his mind and promptly forgets that he’s supposed to hide his abilities. Luckily, Wanda uses her magic to make all the very real feat of super-abilities look fake. So far, I’d mainly seen Paul Bettany in dramatic roles, but he has excellent comic timing and is clearly having a lot of fun. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda mainly plays the straightman or rather straightwoman to Vision’s antics.

In the end, all is well, because the audience actually thinks that Wanda and Vision’s disastrous magical act is hilarious (well, it is) and so they promptly win the best comedy performance award. Even the hard to impress Dottie is impressed.

But once again, there are cracks in the idyllic facade and those cracks are widening. Cause what is that mysterious banging outside the window really? Why does a radio suddenly stop playing the Beach Boys and a male voice that may or may not be Captain America’s asks, “Who is doing this to you, Wanda?” Who is the mysterious figure in a beekeeper’s outfit who emerges from the sewers? And why does colour – always red as in Scarlet Witch – suddenly invade Wanda and Vision’s black and white world, first as a blinking light on a Stark Industries toaster, then as a toy helicopter with a S.W.O.R.D. logo, then as blood on Dottie’s hands, after she breaks a glass, until finally, the entire world becomes colourful. The invasion of colour is of course borrowed from the 1998 movie Pleasantville, while the voices from the radio are reminiscent of the wonderful and sadly almost completely forgotten British time travel/afterlife drama Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes.

US suburbs have always been associated with horror movies as much as with sitcoms and so the merging of horror moments with comedy are certainly appropriate. And the end of the second episode – while certainly a reason to rejoice for Wanda and Vision, for Wanda suddenly turns out to be pregnant – will fill those familiar with the comics with apprehension, because we know that the arrival of Wanda and Vision’s twins did not turn out well there.

By the end of episode 2, there still are only hints at the bigger picture, though we can be pretty certain that Wanda and Vision are not really living in a vintage sitcom. The occasional cracks in the sitcom world are a strong hint, as is the fact that the fictional suburb of Westview is a lot more diverse than either a real 1950s/1960s American suburb or a US TV sitcom of the period. After all, US sitcoms were extremely racially segregated until very recently, either all white (pretty much every other US sitcom) or all black (The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), which is another thing that always irritated me about them.

Instead, the world of Westview is likely some kind of artificial reality, though it’s uncertain whether that reality was created by Wanda herself – maybe as a way of dealing with her grief and trauma after losing Vision, who died in Avengers: Infinity War and never came back, unlike most other characters – or by someone else, quite possible someone sinister. Though if Wanda created this fake reality herself, I wonder why she chose a sitcom universe, because – as the show actually points out – Wanda is not American and therefore shouldn’t have the same attachment to sitcoms that Americans have. Of course, it’s possible that Sarkovian TV cheaply bought a bunch of old US sitcoms and reran them ad infinitum in the afternoons, where a young Wanda watched them and developed her image of America based on the image presented in those sitcoms. Or maybe Wanda developed a sitcom habit while in the US?

In his review, Camestros Felapton notes that WandaVision has a Philip K. Dick like quality of unreality. It’s certainly appropriate, especially since the Cyberpunk trappings we know associate with Philip K. Dick originate with the movies. Dick’s actual fiction was often set in what Joanna Russ called Galactic Suburbia.

So what’s my verdict on WandaVision? Well, it’s still too early for anything definitive, but in the end I enjoyed the first two episodes more than I expected. For while I don’t really connect to sitcoms, I’m a sucker for beautifully realised retro settings and WandaVision offers that in spades. Also, it’s nice to see Wanda and Vision, two characters who were somewhat shortchanged by the movies and whose entire relationship happened mostly offscreen, finally given their due.

I’m not sure if I’ll be doing episode by episode reviews, but I’ll definitely keep watching

Fanzine Spotlight: Salon Futura

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/18/fanzine-spotlight-salon-futura/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40657

It’s time for the next entry in my Fanzine Spotlight project. For more about the Fanzine Spotlight project, go here. You can also check out the other great fanzines featured by clicking here.

Today’s featured fanzine is Salon Futura, edited by four-time Hugo winner Cheryl Morgan.

And now I’d like to welcome Cheryl Morgan of Salon Futura.

Salon Futura No. 26Tell us about your site or zine.

Salon Futura is a web-based magazine that mostly publishes reviews of books, TV, films and conventions. I aim to publish 10 issues a year, taking a break in February (for the UK’s LGBT History Month) and August (for Worldcon) when I tend to be very busy.

Who are the people behind your site or zine?

It is mostly just me at the moment, though Kevin Standlee occasionally contributes an essay on WSFS issues.

Why did you decide to start your site or zine?

When I set up Wizard’s Tower Press, one of the things I wanted to do was create a semiprozine for non-fiction. It turned out that there wasn’t a market for such a thing at the time, and it closed after 9 issues. Then last year I saw Nicholas Whyte bemoaning the lack of interest in the Fanzine category of the Hugos. I’d already come to the conclusion that I needed some form of discipline to ensure I made time to read and review books, so I decided to relaunch Salon Futura as a fanzine. Thus far it has worked in that I have read a lot more books. I figure that if I ever get on the Hugo ballot again there will be a flood of new people voting in that category to stop me winning, and that will be the other objective achieved.

What format do you use for your site or zine (blog, e-mail newsletter, PDF zine, paper zine) and why did you choose this format?

It is essentially a blog format, but the entries for a particular issues are posted at the same time so it has the feel of an issue-based magazine. That’s what I did for Emerald City, so it is what I am used to. Obviously people can subscribe to it via the RSS feed. Amazingly the Feedburner list still works, so anyone who signed up for it back in the semiprozine days will still get an email when new content is posted, but officially Feedburner is deprecated so I can’t do new signups, which is a shame.

Cheryl MorganThe fanzine category at the Hugos is one of the oldest, but also the category which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines and sites are important?

I grew up on fanzines. I started out in role-playing fandom, where fanzines were just as common as in SF fandom. And of course I ran Emerald City for 11 years, winning a Hugo for it along the way. I have always seen fanzines as an important means of communication in fan communities. But equally I’m not purist about form. If people prefer to create zines by vlogging, or podcasting or on paper, or just tweet, that’s fine by me. In fact I think having categories divided by form is silly, and I make a point of including audio and video in Salon Futura occasionally to mess with people’s heads.

In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online. What do you think the future of fanzines looks like?

I think that increasingly people feel the need to do video, or at least audio, because fannish communication will ape what happens in real media, and the means of production and distribution of these media have become increasingly democratised of late. But I hope that there will still be room for the printed word. There’s much more space for nuance in an essay than you normally get in video or audio. And words can be beautiful. I mean, we are fans of reading books; why would we not want to write?

What I really want to see, however, is fanzines from outside of the anglophone world. The pandemic has forced conventions to go online, and we have seen the creation of new events such as FIYAHCON and FutureCon. This is helping us forge communities across national boundaries. I’d love to see more fanzines that support that process.

The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Are there any awesome fanzines, fancasts, fan writers and fan artists you’d like to recommend?

Well you, Cora. I’d also like to put in a good word for Rachel Cordasco’s SF in Translation blog: https://www.sfintranslation.com/. While I’m not a big short fiction reader, I’m very grateful for what Charles Payseur does to promote fiction about and by queer people.

These days I tend to be way too busy to follow much in the way of fan media, but I am hoping that this excellent new project of yours will help me find people to read, watch and listen to.

Where can people find you?

https://www.salonfutura.net/

https://www.cheryl-morgan.com/

And @CherylMorgan on Twitter

Thanks, Cheryl, for stopping by and answering my questions.

Do check out Salon Futura, cause it’s a great zine.

***

Do you have a Hugo eligible fanzine or site and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

Fanzine Spotlight: The Drink Tank

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/15/fanzine-spotlight-the-drink-tank/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40649

It’s time for the next entry in my Fanzine Spotlight project. For more about the Fanzine Spotlight project, go here. You can also check out the other great fanzines featured by clicking here.

Today’s featured fanzine is The Drink Tank, a seven-time Hugo finalist (if I’ve counted correctly) and Hugo winner for Best Fanzine in 2011.

And now I’d like to welcome Christopher J. Garcia of The Drink Tank.

The Drink Tank 425Tell us about your site or zine.

I started doing The Drink Tank is in 2005. That series ended in 2015, and I took a 3 year break and started back up with two new co-editors. The concept this time around is that we take a different theme for every issue. Some aren’t SFF, like our issues on The Tower of London or Musicals, but many are, like our look at Science Fiction Comics and Universal Monsters. Our issues range anywhere from 12 to 50-ish pages and tend to be from a wide-range of writers and artists. We’ve been lucky enough to get some amazing material from some amazing people.

Who are the people behind your site or zine?

It’s me, Chuck Serface (3 time Hugo nominee!) and Alissa McKersie (2015 Hugo Winner!) as the editorial team, and we’re lucky enough to have a batch of writers and artists like Helena Nash, Vanessa Applegate, Julian West, Kathryn Duval, Chris Duval, Doug Berry, and many more!

Why did you decide to start your site or zine?

That, sadly, is a very dull story. I wanted to have a zine to give away when the big fanzine convention, CorFlu, came to San Francisco.

The Drink Tank 425What format do you use for your site or zine (blog, e-mail newsletter, PDF zine, paper zine) and why did you choose this format?

We’re largely PDF, though that allows us to also print paper copies, which we do from time to time. I like the flexibility of PDF to act as an in between the traditional print and online format. I have also started uploading to Issuu, and their flipbook style actually works well with our stuff.

The fanzine category at the Hugos is one of the oldest, but also the category which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines and sites are important?

I’m the worst person to ask that question. Fanzines are still a vital part of the community, though what older fanzine folks think of as fanzines are slowly fading away. All you have to do is look at eFanzines.com to see the great material that is still being pumped out.

In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online. What do you think the future of fanzines looks like?

I think we’re seeing a lot of Fanzines are gonna look like. I think there will always be a place for a zine-like thing as opposed to the blog format, there’s something in adjacencies and layout that eZines give that no one has really managed to capture in the blog format. No doubt, online is the way it’ll be, but there’s always gonna be multiple forms.

The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Are there any awesome fanzines, fancasts, fan writers and fan artists you’d like to recommend?

So many. For Fanwriters, I can’t say enough about John Coxon, the great Helena Nash, Chuck Serface, and there’s Michael Carroll (and every comics fan should read Rusty Staples) and Padraig O’Mealoid. Fan Artist is so much harder, because you have people like Vanessa Applegate, who has done covers for us and interiors for LoLZine and Journey Planet, and Sara Felix, and if you haven’t seen the incredible Espana Sheriff, you really should go looking! (Technically, I guess I’m a fan artist, too!)

THere are so many amazing zines out there, but the ones I have th emost heart for are Rusty Staples, Banana Wings, The Zine Dump (Guy Lillian’s Fanzine Review Zine!) and Lolzine. Fancasts is even harder (I’m also a podcaster!) but I’ll say that the only thing I regularly listen to that would be in Octothorpe. Good folks on that one!

Where can people find you?

The Drink Tank lives at https://claimsdepartment.weebly.com/the-drink-tank—series-deaux. We’re the rare thing that ain’t got a regular social Media account, but we love to hear from folks at DrinkTankEditorial@gmail.com

Thanks, Chris, for stopping by and answering my questions.

Do check out The Drink Tank, cause it’s a great zine.

***

Do you have a Hugo eligible fanzine or site and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

Fanzine Spotlight: Galactic Journey

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/13/fanzine-spotlight-galactic-journey/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40602

As promised yesterday, here is the first Fanzine Spotlight. For more about the Fanzine Spotlight project, go here. You can also check out the other great fanzines featured by clicking here.

By the way, DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, has retracted the controversial policy to list only four people per finalist, a policy which would have disproportionately affected the fanzine, fancast and semiprozine categories, where the finalists are often produced by large teams. This is an excellent decision, because the many great people producing fanzines, fancasts and semiprozines for little to no pay deserve the recognition.

Today’s featured fanzine is Galactic Journey, three time Hugo finalist and a site that’s near and dear to my heart, since I’m one of the contributors. However, that’s not the reason why Galactic Journey is the first fanzine/site featured. Instead, they were the first to reply to the call I sent out.

And now I’d like to welcome Gideon Marcus of Galactic Journey.

Galactic journey banner

Tell us about your site or zine.

Galactic Journey is more than a site or a zine. It’s a time machine.

The 20+ writers for the Journey produce an article every other day from the context of SF fans (and professionals) living exactly 55 years ago.  Thus, when it turned January 1, 2021 in your world, we rang in the new year of 1966.

When we started eight years ago, in “1958”, we were just covering the three big American SF mags: Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and Analog, as well as the space shots — Pioneer 1 had just gone halfway to the moon.  Very quickly, as more people became associated with the Journey, we expanded our coverage to all the SF mags, current SF movies and TV shows (we’ve reviewed every episode of Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits, and Doctor Who), comics, fashion, art, music, politics, counter-culture…you name it!

A few years ago, we were nominated for the Hugo, and we’ve been on the ballot ever since.  We are very grateful and gratified to have made such an impact!

Who are the people behind your site or zine?

The Journey is composed of some of the most varied and accomplished fans ever assembled in one place.  Demographically, we range from 16 to pushing 80; roughly balanced gender-wise with a slight edge toward women, but including at least one non-binary writer; ethnically diverse; not a little queer; and geographically widespread, with correspondents from the US, the UK, West Germany, Australia, and even the Soviet Union.  Two of us are professional space historians, several of us are professional authors.

The one common element that unites us is that we are all fans.

Why did you decide to start your site or zine?

There are lots of great fanzines out there, from Nerds of a Feather to Journey Planet to File 770.  They necessarily cover current stuff.  I wanted a site that allowed people to rediscover great works that had been forgotten, marginalized creators who had been eclipsed.  Beyond that, I wanted to create an experience such that people could appreciate these works in context.

The Journey uses the past as a mirror to the current world, showing where we came from, what’s changed, and what hasn’t.

It’s also a lot of fun.  I don’t think there’s anything else like it in existence.

What format do you use for your site or zine (blog, e-mail newsletter, PDF zine, paper zine) and why did you choose this format?

The Journey has a lot of facets now.  We started as a blog, and that’s still the core of our effort.  But we also have a Twitter feed that we keep updated with “current” events.  Last year, we started The Journey Show, a live broadcast variety show set in the past with a bunch of great guests.

We chose to put our presence online to reach the most people, and because it’s the most versatile format.  At the same time, we try to evoke the fanzines of yore, in our format and our writing style.  We challenge anyone to catch us in an anachronism! (and a No Prize for the person who does…)

The fanzine category at the Hugos is one of the oldest, but also the category which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines and sites are important?

Back in the day, the line between fanzine and prozine was quite hazy.  A lot of pros would contribute content to the fanzines, and the path from fanzine writer to pro author was and is well worn.  Over the years, as the fan to pro ratio has increased (we’re no longer a community of hundreds, or thousands, but tens of millions), I think the barrier has been nurtured.  Even fan creators are deprecatory of their work (I recall a Hugo-nominated Fancaster a couple of years back reviewing the Hugo nominees of a year and then shrugging their shoulders when they got to Best Fanzine and noting they “didn’t really read those.”)

But fans love discussing their loves.  That’s why we’re fans (short for “fanatics”).  I’ve been on the TrekBBS for twenty years.  AO3 is a second home (and a deserving Hugo winner).  I get my news from File 770.  I get great commentary from Cora Buhlert.  A fan site/zine can cover anything they want; a professional site is limited by financial concerns.  So fan-run sites are the best place to get information on a fandom, to meet other fans, and to geek out.

And, as before, fanzines offer a stepping stone for fan authors to break into the pro world.  Certainly, it’s where I got my start (in fiction, anyway).

In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online. What do you think the future of fanzines looks like?

I feel like “fanzine” is a label that doesn’t make much sense anymore.  I don’t want it to disappear or be subsumed in Other Work because then a whole bunch of worthy entities will simply not make it onto the ballot anymore.  But the age of paper ‘zines, except as a fun affectation, is long gone.  And this from the fellow who helped make a TOS zinelet! 🙂

The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Do you have any recommendations for any of the fan categories?

Well, I’m a little biased!  The Journey is eligible for three out of four of these, one way or another.  Also, I spend a lot of time 55 years ago, so I’ve got a better handle on ‘zines like “Yandro”, “Zenith”, and “Science Fiction Times.”

That said, the sites mentioned above are all worthy, and as for Best Fan Artist, someone I really like is Goss:

(https://goss.dreamwidth.org/ and https://archiveofourown.org/users/goss/)

James Nicoll and Alasdair Stuart are great Fan Writers, too.

Where can people find you?

Galactic Journey

The Journey Show

The folks who do Galactic Journey

Galactic Journey on Twitter

Galactic Journey on Facebook

Thanks, Gideon, for stopping by and answering my questions.

Do check out Galactic Journey, cause it’s a great site. Also check out their eligibility tweet.

***

Do you have a Hugo eligible fanzine or site and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

Introducing Fanzine Spotlights

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/12/introducing-fanzine-spotlights/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40483

Hugo season is upon us. Nominations are not yet open, but DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, has just announced its Hugo Award related policies to some controversy, particularly with regard to limiting the number of names listed per finalists to four, which disproportionately impacts the fanzine, semiprozine and fancast categories, who often have large teams.

Some of you may remember that last year I started the Retro Reviews project to raise the profile of potential candidates for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The project did move the needle a bit, though not as much as I’d hoped.

The 1946 Retro Hugos were already awarded in 1996, so there will be no Retro Hugos this year. I will still continue to do Retro Reviews, because I enjoy (re)discovering great forgotten stories, but not with the same intense frequency and focus as last year.

However, the Retro Hugos are not the only Hugo-related thing that could use a boost. There are also regular Hugo categories that get little attention and few votes and nominations. Particularly the Best Fanzine category could use more love, since it consistently gets the fewest nominations and votes and is actively endangered by the 5% rule.

So I decided to do my part to raise the profile of the Best Fanzine and give more attention to the many worthy sites and zines out there. And so I decided to start a new project called “Fanzine Spotlight”, for which I will interview Hugo eligible fanzines and fansites and the people behind them.

The first Fanzine Spotlight will go live tomorrow and I have another scheduled for Friday. I will also continue to interview eligible fanzines throughout the Hugo nomination period. Do you have a Hugo eligible fanzine or site and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

So check out all the great zines, sites and newsletters that will be featured and consider nominating your favourites for the 2021 Hugo Awards.

ETA January 18, 2021: None of the below has been a problem yet and I don’t expect that it will, but nonetheless, here is a clarification of policies:

I want to feature as many different zines and sites as possible and everybody is welcome to participate. However, I reserve the right to refuse to feature something, e.g. if a site or zine (and/or the people behind it) is known for shitposting, harrassment and generally terrible behaviour.

I will post responses as I get them, including potentially controversial answers, unless there are egregiously problematic, e.g. racist, sexist, homophobic, etc… comments, in which case I will contact the interviewee to discuss edits.

Finally, a feature is not an endorsement. Instead, the Fanzine Spotlight project is intended as a resource to show Hugo nominators what’s out there and hopefully increase nominations in fanzine and the other fan categories.

First Monday Free Fiction: The Ghosts of Doodenbos

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/11/first-monday-free-fiction-the-ghosts-of-doodenbos/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40565

The Ghosts of Doodenbos by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the January 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. And yes, I know it’s one week late, but I was ill last week.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month.

Winter has finally come to North Germany. And since winter is also traditionally the season for spooky stories, this month’s free story is a wintery tale of historical horror called The Ghosts of Doodenbos.

So let’s travel back in time to the Spanish occupied Netherlands of the year 1571 AD, where the young widow Ann and her little son Florentijn have a close encounter with…

 

The Ghosts of Doodenbos

 

“Never go into the woods, especially not alone.”

Like everybody in the Dutch village of Doodenbos, Ann had grown up with those words, had heard them since she was old enough to walk.

“Don’t go into the woods alone or they will get you.”

Ann didn’t know who “they” were. No one else did either, since no one had ever seen them and lived to tell the tale. All she knew was that something fearsome and terrible lived in the woods that surrounded the village of Doodenbos.

Oh, the road that led to the neighbouring villages and the nearest market town was safe enough. Though even on the road, it was safer if you travelled with a caravan or armed guards and never ever by night.

But take one step off the road and you were doomed. Like Jan Renneboom, who’d gone into the woods on a dare and never returned. Or Dineke de Boer, who’d followed a runaway cow into the woods and never came back and neither did the cow. Or so many others from the village who had ventured too close to the woods and had been taken by the creature that lived there.

Ann didn’t know whether any of those stories were really true. But better to stay safe and keep to the village and the roads. So Ann had been told since she was a small child.

She was no longer a child. Ann was a grown woman now, a mother herself and — at twenty-six — a widow before her time. Her husband Martijn had gone off to fight for Willem of Orange, fight to throw the Spanish oppressors out of the Low Countries. He had never returned.

But at least he’d left Ann a gift to remember him by, the child she’d carried under her heart when he left, her little son Florentijn. He was three now, a pudgy golden-haired boy who was the joy of her life, her sun and her moon, her everything.

Once the mourning period ended, there had been other suitors. Widowers from the village, looking for a wife and mother for their orphaned children. Farmers in need of a wife and even the occasional merchant passing through. But Ann had turned them all down. For even though it had been three years now, she still wasn’t ready to forget Martijn, still wasn’t ready to move on and find someone else. Maybe she’d never be ready.

After all, there were stories of men who’d been thought lost in war or at sea and who’d nonetheless returned home, after years or even decades. What if Martijn was still out there, still alive, languishing in a Spanish prison, hoping to escape and return to her someday.

“It’s not good for a woman to live alone,” one of her would-be suitors, a widowed farmer named Pieter Ten Bos, had said, “Especially not in a house that’s so close to the edge of the woods. You know that they are out there, waiting, hunting.”

“Yes, they’re out there, in the woods,” Ann had replied. Sometimes, she thought she could see them, strange shapes moving around between the trees at dusk, watching and waiting. “Not here, not in the village, not in my house. I keep the fire and the lanterns burning all night, so we’re perfectly safe.”

And besides, she wasn’t alone. After all, she still had Florentijn.

When her little boy started to walk, it was a challenge. For like all children, Florenitjn was curious and eager to explore the world around him. And like all children, he was fascinated by the big trees at the edge of her small plot of land. He was quick, too, running on his little pudgy legs as fast as they would carry him.

There had been a few near misses, where Florentijn took off towards the woods and Ann only managed to catch him at the very last moment, so close to the deadly treeline that she could already hear them shuffling and moaning among the birch trees.

As a woman living alone, Ann had to be inventive. And so she took a piece of string, bound one end around Florentijn’s waist and the other around her own. That way, he had enough freedom to run and play like a little boy should, but she could still keep him close, keep him safe.

And besides, it was only for a few years. For soon, Florentijn would be old enough to understand that he must never ever go into the woods, especially not alone, that he must always keep to the village and the roads. Besides, it wasn’t a bad life for a child. There were plenty of things to do in the village, lots of places to explore, lots of children to play with.

So Ann and Florentijn lived peacefully in their little house at the edge of the woods. In summer, Ann tended the vegetable garden and in winter, she did needlework. And every morning, when she woke up at the crack of dawn, the first thing she did was to milk the cow Klementientje. Florentijn always tagged along, firmly bound to his mother by a piece of string.

***

It was a cold morning in December of the Year of the Lord 1571. Snow had started to fall overnight, the first snow of the winter, and continued to fall throughout the morning. Thick, fluffy flakes were swirling around the little house at the edge of the woods, like women in lace caps dancing in the freezing air.

Florentijn was beside himself with joy. He ran in circles around the yard, giggling and chasing snowflakes, the string that connected him to his mother tugging on Ann’s waist.

Ann would have loved to chase snowflakes with her little boy or maybe have a snowball fight or build a snowman. But first things first. For Klementientje was already mooing in her pen, her udder heavy with milk. So Ann headed for the stable, pulling a reluctant Florentijn behind her.

She grabbed the wooden stool, placed a bucket under Klementientje and began to milk. Occasionally, she felt a tug on her waist, as Florentijn reached the end of his rope in his quest to chase snowflakes. She heard him laugh and giggle and promised to herself that they’d build a snowman later on, once she’d milked Klementientje and done the other household chores.

The bucket was nearly full of fresh, still warm milk, when Ann realised that she hadn’t felt a tug on her waist in a while now. Nor had she heard Florentijn giggle and laugh and play. Instead, the stable and the yard were deadly silent, the only sounds the satisfied chewing of Klementientje and the beating of her own heart.

Filled with dread, Ann turned around and looked out over a silent yard, where the snow was already covering Florentijn’s little footsteps and her bigger ones. She looked down at herself, at the string that was always tied around her waist, linking her to Florentijn just as the umbilical cord had once linked them together. She reached for the string and found only a frayed end, where the cord had snapped.

Ann jumped to her feet, kicking over both the stool and the milk bucket and causing Klementientje to moo in protest. She dashed out into the yard, looked around. No Florentijn. And then she ran, ran towards the woods where she knew he must have gone, because that was where he always wanted to go. She ran and prayed, prayed to the good Lord above that he’d keep her little boy safe from the things that lived in the woods.

Ann reached the edge of the forest. At the treeline, she stopped and called Florentijn’s name, again and again. But there was no answer.

“Don’t go in,” a voice inside her mind said, a voice that sounded suspiciously like her father, dead five years now, “Run and get help. Run over to Pieter Ten Bos or Henrik de Klerk. They’re big strong men and Henrik even has an old musket. They can help you.”

But running over to the Ten Bos or De Klerk farms would take time, time that she did not have. For every moment that she hesitated was a moment that Florentijn could venture ever deeper into the woods and ever closer towards doom.

So Ann took a deep breath and crossed the threshold she’d sworn she’d never cross. She stepped into the woods.

In the thick, fresh snow, she could barely make out the little footprints that had to be Florentijn’s. Nonetheless, she followed the faint trail. It took only a few steps, then she was completely surrounded by birch trees, their white trunks melding with the snowy ground and their barren branches stark against the grey sky. She turned around and looked back, towards her house, towards safety, only to find that she could not see the house anymore. High above, a jay circled, calling out its warning.

Onwards, she trudged, deeper into the forbidden woods. Branches slapped her in the face, leaving angry red marks. Snow seeped into her wooden shoes and her toes became numb, but still she went on, following the trail that was getting fainter with every step.

By now, the undergrowth was getting thicker, making her progress more difficult. Brambles grabbed for her, tearing her dress and scratching her legs, as if they were trying to trap her in place. But Ann always tore herself loose again.

Undaunted, she went on, ever deeper into the woods. At times, she felt as if someone or something was watching her. But whenever she turned around, there was nothing there. Nothing except for trees and brambles and undergrowth.

Once, Ann spotted a movement between the barren branches. She froze and braced herself for an attack, but it was only a crow that fluttering away, croaking in protest.

And then, just as Ann was about to loose the trail for good, she heard something. Florentijn. He was crying.

With renewed speed and vigour, Ann followed the sound and stumbled upon a small clearing in the middle of the forbidden forest. And there was Florentijn, sitting in the snow and making snowballs, oblivious to the cold and the danger as only a child could be. And he wasn’t crying, he was laughing, laughing and clapping his little hands in delight.

But Florentijn wasn’t alone. For there were others with him. Creatures vaguely shaped like humans, with arms and legs and bony hands. Their faces were skeletal, their flesh grey and crumbling. They stared hungrily at Florentijn with hollow black holes, where their eyes should be.

Once, when Ann was but a young girl, heavy rains had flooded the small cemetery of Doodenbos and washed up coffins and corpses. She remembered seeing a corpse in his broken coffin, remembered the grey decaying flesh, the hollow eyes and the wisps of strawy hair that still clung to the skull.

The things that encroached upon Florentijn looked just like that washed up corpse Ann had seen as a child so long ago. They looked like the dead, because that’s what they were. Revenants, unquiet corpses, the dead returned to prey on the living. And now they had come for Florentijn, their bony hands reaching for him, stroking his beautiful golden hair.

Ann burst into the clearing, heedless of the danger. “Leave him alone,” she cried, “If you must take someone, take me, but leave my boy alone. He’s just a child.”

Florentijn turned to her and smiled his broad baby smile. “Mama?”

“Leave him alone,” Ann cried again. She dropped down to knees in the snow and tried to pull Florentijn away, pull him away from the dead hands that gripped him. But the dead held him fast, hissing at her with their tongueless mouths. More of them emerged from the woods all around, steadily advancing upon her and Florentijn, surrounding them.

One corpse, a woman wearing the remnants of a lacy cap, grabbed Florentijn’s little hand, hissing and spitting. Ann recognised her or at least she recognised the lacy cap.

Her name had been Mieneke van Zand, a wealthy widow, skilled lacemaker and secret heretic who would not abandon the Protestant faith. Three years ago, the Spaniards had sentenced her to death by drowning. Normally, heretics were drowned in ponds, rivers and creeks — those that were not burned at the stake, that was. But it had been the depth of winter and icy cold and so the Spaniards had simply drowned her in a large barrel of water. Mieneke van Zand had gone unrepentant to her death, with her head held high, wearing her very best lacy cap. The same cap that the undead corpse was wearing.

Ann forced herself to look at the other corpses and saw more evidence of violent death. There was a woman with long black hair clad in the tatters of a penitent’s gown, the mark of the garotte still visible on her throat. A girl with a swollen belly and deep cuts on her wrists. A man who still wore the hangman’s noose around his neck. A soldier, half his arm torn away by a musket shot. A man in fine, if tattered clothes, carrying his severed head under his arm. The charred body of a heretic burned at the stake. And suddenly, Ann understood.

These were the bodies of those who’d died violently — by the hand of the hangman or at the end of a musket or a blade or maybe by their own hand. They’d been sinners, criminals, heretics, suicides or soldiers who’d fallen in battle and they’d all been buried in unconsecrated ground right here in the forest. And because they hadn’t been given a proper Christian burial, they had come back to avenge themselves upon the living.

And now they wanted to take her child, her one and only, her Florentijn.

“Let go off my boy, Mieneke,” Ann yelled at the corpse with the lacy cap, “You made a cap for my Florentijn, when he was but a baby, so have mercy on him now.”

At sound of her name, the thing that had once been Mieneke van Zand paused, almost as if her rotting ears could still hear, her rotting brain still understand.

Encouraged, Ann continued. “My Florentijn is just a child. He’s not to blame for what happened to you. Take the Spaniards or take me, if you must, but leave my boy alone, I beg you. After all, you were human once, all of you.”

The corpses paused and seemed to confer amongst themselves, confer in a language no living ear could hear. And while they did not let go off Florentijn, not yet, they no longer held him in a death grip either. Ann took the opportunity to pull the boy to her, to crush him to her chest and wrap her arms around him.

“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice hoarse with crying, “I… I’d help you, if I could. Cause what was done to you is wrong.”

But how, how could she help those who were already dead and doomed to roam the woods of Doodenbos for all eternity?

“If I bring the priest — not the papist priest the Spaniards foisted on us, but the proper priest, Father van der Poort — and he blesses the ground, blesses you, will that help?”

The thing that had once been Mieneke van Zand nodded, the rotting lace cap bobbing on her head.

“I’ll come back with Father van der Poort, I swear. Just let us go, please.”

The corpses stood still for a moment, then they suddenly parted. Ann picked up Florentijn, though he was almost too heavy to carry by now, and made a run for it. But before she could get away, a corpse stepped in front of her.

It was a man or at least, it had been one once. A tall man, with dark hair that fell to his shoulders. He’d probably been handsome in life, but now he was dead like all the others. And like all the others, he’d died violently. Part of his chest and shoulder were missing, torn away by a musket shot or maybe even a cannon ball. The scorched and tattered remnants of his doublet hung over the wound. It was a fine doublet, made from good thick wool by loving hands. Ann recognised it at once. Because those loving hands had been hers, more than three years ago.

“Martijn…” she stammered, “…is that really you?”

The corpse did not speak. It could not. But it nodded. And then it reached out, its long bony hands, hands which had been so wonderfully gentle, when he’d been alive, touching her cheek. And though Ann knew she should be afraid, she found that she wasn’t.

“Oh my God, you tried to get back to me, to us, didn’t you? Only that you never made it. A Spanish musket ball found you and then they just dumped you here in the woods, not even a mile from home.”

Martijn looked at her and Ann thought she saw a flash of sadness in the hollows where his eyes had once been. His hand still touched her, tracing her face. Then he reached for the son he’d never seen, the bony fingers gently ruffling the child’s golden hair.

“This is our boy. I named him Florentijn, after your father, just as I promised before you left. I would have named him after you, but…” Tears were streaming down her face now, choking off her voice. “…I still thought, still hoped you’d come back.”

Martijn patted Florentijn on the head once more. Then he reached out for Ann and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks. He nodded at her in encouragement and stepped aside, joining the ranks of the undead once again.

And Ann ran. She ran through the woods, carrying her little son, tears for the husband she’d lost more than three years ago streaming down her cheeks. She ran from the dead, cold winter woods, ran for the little house at the edge of the wood, where there was warmth and life and love that even death could not extinguish.

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

Star Trek Discovery realises “That Hope Is You, Part II” in its season 3 finale

http://corabuhlert.com/2021/01/09/star-trek-discovery-realises-that-hope-is-you-part-ii-in-its-season-3-finale/

http://corabuhlert.com/?p=40509

We’ve reached the season finale of Star Trek Discovery, so here is the last installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

“That Hope Is You, Part II” starts where the previous episode, which confusingly was not part I of “That Hope Is You” (though the mystery of the dangling two-parter has now been resolved), left off. The Discovery is still in the hands of Osyra, Michael and Book, who have forced their way aboard, have been apprehended and Admiral Vance has just ordered the rest of Starfleet to open fire upon Discovery.

So we get a pitched battle with Starfleet firing upon Discovery, while Discovery is firing back and also targetting the shield generator. And then a whole fleet from Ne’Var a.k.a. the planet formerly known as Vulcan shows up in response to a distress call Michael sent to her mother who’s living on Ne’Var.

Meanwhile, acting captain Tilly and the bridge crew have broken out from where they were imprisoned and are having phaser battles in the corridors, aided by sphere data which has taken over some repair bots.  They’re not doing too badly either, but then Osyra closes the bulkhead doors and turns off the life support in the respective section of the ship, so Tilly and the bridge crew are trapped with rapidly depleting air supplies.

Because everybody loses, when the Discovery gets destroyed, Michael finally offers to ask Starfleet and the Ne’Var fleet to stand down. She also tells Osyra that they will listen to her and that Ne’Var is only here anyway because Michael called them. And so Michael implores Admiral Vance to trust her and let the Discovery and the Veridian go. Vance does let them go, though he does send all of Starfleet and the Ne’Var fleet of in pursuit. Everybody is using their warp drives, because Discovery can no longer jump with Stamets off the ship. Apparently, the dilithium shortage which propelled much of the arc of this entire season is forgotten when it serves the plot.

Osyra wants the dilithium from the mysterious planet inside the Verubin nebula that Discovery found two episodes ago. And since Book unwisely told her that he knows how to get there (to be fair, he was trying to save Ryn’s life at the time), Osyra first orders her pet scientist Aurelio to use his truth serum on Book and when that doesn’t work, she orders Zareh to torture him. Because Book is an empath, the torture will eventually kill him. Aurelio is not at all happy with this – he still believes in Osyra’s good side and besides, he didn’t sign on for torturing people to death – but Osyra threatens him that if he doesn’t shut, she’ll kick him and his family out of the privileged life Aurelio enjoys as an Emerald Chain scientist.

Since Osyra is a sadist, she also makes Michael watch as she tortures the man Michael loves. Eventually, Michael convinces Osyra that she can persuade Book to talk. But once she gets close to him, she activates the quarantine containment field of the sickbay (since Discovery has no dedicated torture chamber, Osyra decided to use the sickbay), locking out Osyra and most of her Regulators. Then Michael and Book make a run for it.

We now get some more Die Hard inspired action, including some thrilling fights in and rides on top of turbolifts (we also get our most in-depth look at how turbolifts work to date, though we’ve seen glimpses before). Because if you’re riffing on Die Hard, you of course have to have an elevator shaft fight. And of course someone – Zareh in this case – gets knocked down an elevator shaft.

Michael also accesses the ship com and sends a coded message to Tilly, telling Tilly and the bridge crew to knock the Discovery out of warp by exploding a bomb that detaches one of the detachable nacelles. Of course, the explosion will likely kill whoever sets off the bomb, but Tilly and the bridge crew are going to die from lack of oxygen anyway. In the end, everybody passes out from lack of oxygen except for Joanne Owosekun who has had deep sea diving training and can control her breath and oxygen intake. Of course, it now seems as if poor Owosekun is doomed, which annoyed me because I like Owosekun a lot. Never mind that killing off a character of colour sends a bad message, as Keith R.A. DeCandido points out in his review at Tor.com. However, the sphere data in the form of a repair bot saves Owosekun and takes her to safety, just before the bomb explodes, detaching the nacelle and knocking the Discovery out of warp. The robot is fatally damaged to the process, but Jett Reno manages to repair it.

We also get a touching reunion and hug between Owosekun and Dettmer, once everybody wakes up again and Dettmer realises that Owosekun is not dead. By the way, am I the only one who gets a “more than just friends” vibe from the interactions of Dettmer and Owosekun? Which I for one would welcome, even if Discovery already is the gayest ship in Starfleet. But then, Discovery has to make up for more than fifty years of no gay people in Star Trek.

Michael finally makes it to the data core, where she intends to use her authorisation as (former) first officer to reset the Discovery computer and lock out Osyra and her people. However, Osyra is already waiting for her and so we get a hand to hand fight between Osyra and Michael or rather her stunt double, since Sonequa Martin-Green is already visibly pregnant at this point. Osyra pushes Michael into some programmable matter, but Michael emerges again, kills Osyra, resets the computer, beams all Regulators off the ship and saves Tilly and the others.

I have to admit that Osyra’s demise was a little too quick for my taste, especially since the character reverted to the one note villain she was in her first appearance after acquiring more nuance last episode. In fact, I feel that Osyra was shortchanged, considering that she was supposed to be the main villain of the season. Because Osyra isn’t even mentioned until halfway through the season and only appears in four episodes. Not to mention that the run-up to the season finale was interrupted by the largely superfluous “Terra Firma” two-parter.  In fact, I would have preferred it, if Osyra had escaped to vamp and villainise another day.

But even though Osyra is gone and Discovery back under the control of her crew, they are not out of the woods yet. For once Discovery was knocked out of warp, Osyra ordered the much larger Veridian to pull her in, so Discovery now sits in Veridian‘s cargo hold with some very pissed off regulators firing at her.

Luckily, Michael has a cunning plan. Overloading the warp core and eject it to blow up Veridian. Never mind that overloading and blowing up your warp core in a universe with a dilithium shortage is a huge waste, there is another problem. Without Stamets, Discovery can’t use the spore drive to jump away. However, Aurelio – who is now fully on the side of the Discovery crew – has figured out that since Book’s empathic abilities allow him to communicate with all sorts of species, he should be able to communicate with the mycelium network as well and operate the spore drive. Coincidentally, does this mean that the show is keeping Aurelio around? Cause while I wasn’t particularly interested in the character himself, I do welcome giving disabled actors roles and support.

Not that I mind that people other than Stamets can operate the spore drive or that this opens up the possibility to having more ships with spore drives. But nonetheless, the solution is a little too tidy. Not to mention that Book has to make a complicated jump on his first try, without ever having done anything like this before. Meanwhile, Stamets had serious issues with making complicated jumps and even passed out at times.

Though I have to commend Discovery for firing all of the various Chekhov’s (Anton, not Pavel) phasers deposited around the ship in the finale. The sphere data gaining sentience, the detachable nacelles, the repair bots, Book’s empathy, etc… all play a crucial role in bringing about the solution.

Meanwhile, Saru and Culber are still trapped on the nameless dilithium planet with deadly radiation and the terrified Su’Kal. Luckily, Adira shows up with some of the much needed anti-radiation drugs, which they hid in their mouth, so the holo program would not make the drugs vanish, when it alters Adira into a species with impressive face markings. However, the holo program does even more. It also makes Gray visible to everybody – and turns him into a Vulcan. There is a touching scene as Culber meets his son-in-law (sort of) for the first time and hugs him and Adira. I have to say that I really love the little found rainbow family of Stamets and Culber, their non-binary adopted kid and their trans boyfriend (though I don’t think it’s been established whether Gray the character is trans or just the actor who plays him) with Jett Reno as the grumpy lesbian aunt. I really hope that we will see more of this found rainbow family in season 4.

But even though Adira bought Culber and Saru time, the situation on the planet is rapidly deteriorating. The holo program is failing, while the crashed spaceship is about to break apart. Meanwhile, Saru does his best to comfort Su’Kal and bond with him to get him to switch off the holo program and also face whatever it was that terrified him badly enough to cause the Burn. Eventually, Saru succeeds and Su’Kal finally agrees to enter the locked room. Here, they find the decomposed corpses of the ship’s Kelpian crew, including Su’Kal’s mother. Cause what freaked out a young Su’Kal enough to burn up all dilithium supplies in the galaxy and destroy the Federation was witnessing the death of his mother, a convenient log recording reveals. There is also a recorded message from Su’Kal’s mother thanking the rescuers and asking them to take Su’Kal to her family on Kaminar.

As solutions to mysteries go, this one wasn’t all that surprising. However, Doug Jones as Saru and Bill Irwin as Su’Kal give a great performance, as Saru is trying to bond with a 125-year-old child that is Su’Kal. Coincidentally, both Saru and Stamets and Culber have now thrown their hat in the ring for the 2021 Jonathan and Martha Kent Fictional Parent of the Year Award, though the competition will likely be steep. And indeed, it seems as if depictions of parenthood in popular culture are moving away from awful parents (and indeed the only reason there is a Darth Vader Parenthood Award at all is because awful parents are such a commoncliché in popular culture) towards portraying more loving and supportive parents. I for one welcome this change, if only because I think we need more positive depictions of parenthood.

But even after Saru has persuaded Su’Kal to face his fear, the away team are still stuck on a rapidly disintegrating crashed spaceship with Discovery and the rest of Starfleet occupied elsewhere. And indeed, when Stamets begs Admiral Vance to send a ship to the nebula to rescue Culber, Adira and Saru, he is rebuffed with, “Sorry, but no. Michael made the right decision.” However, in the end, Discovery arrives in the nick of time after all to rescue Saru, Culber, Adira and Su’Kal. Gray is back to being a ghost again or whatever he is, but Culber promises him to find a way that Gray can become permanently visible to everybody aboard Discovery, not just Adira. I suspect a mobile holo emitter like the one used by Voyager‘s doctor might be the solution they’re looking for. James Whitbrook makes the same point in his review at io9.

We now get something of an epilogue, wherein Michael explains that the Emerald Chain collapsed after the death of Osyra, which I for one find illogical, because when the leader of a criminal syndicate or whatever the Emerald Chain was supposed to be falls, there’s always at least one, usually more would-be successors waiting in the wings. So there might be infighting, but there wouldn’t be collapse, unless the entire leadership of the Emerald Chain happened to be aboard Veridian, when it blew up. In fact, The Mandalorian handled this aspect much better in the epilogue to its own recent season finale.

The Federation has found a way to mine the dilithium on the nameless planet inside the Verubin nebula, which again seems a little too tidy, considering that Discovery was barely able to get close enough to the planet to beam down an away team, which was subsequently almost killed by the intense radiation there. And now the planet is suddenly open for mining? What is this, another prison mine? And even if the planet mainly consists of dilithium, is that dilithium really enough to rebuild the Federation? It seems so, since both the Trill and Ne’Var are about to rejoin (nice cameos from their respective leaders). And even the lone Starfleet officer manning a deep space relay station from the season premiere is back for a brief cameo, which made me happy, because I feared that the poor fellow had been forgotten, while still remaining steadfastly at his post.

Since Discovery can jump anywhere in the galaxy, it has been tasked with transporting dilithium to the worlds disconnected from the Federation. However, Saru has taken a leave of absence to take Su’Kal back to Kaminar. And in his absence, Michael is promoted to captain by Admiral Vance (who basically tells her that she’s awesome, even though she’s a maverick who thinks orders are merely suggestions). The season ends with a grinning Michael, now clad in the grey uniform of 32nd century starfleet (which also happen to be cut a bit more loosely to accomodate body fat and baby bumps) , sitting down in the captain’s chair. Cue a Gene Roddenberry quote about the importance of connection and the credits, which are accompanied by the classic end title music of the original Star Trek.

Now Discovery changes captains as often as it changes security chiefs (and I note that this position still hasn’t been filled since Commander Nhan left to hang out aboard the seed vault ship) and Michael certainly deserves the position. As for anybody who complains that Michael is too much of a maverick to be captain material, being a maverick never harmed the careers of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Riker, Archer, Sisko, Janeway, Pike or even Lorca (or Commander MacLane for that matter) in the slightest. If you don’t have any problems with either of those characters, but have issues with Michael, ask yourself why.

That said, I’m not really happy with this development. Not because I don’t want to see Michael as captain, but because I’d hate to lose Saru. I initially didn’t much care for the character, but Saru has grown on me a lot and is now one of my favourite characters. He also was a very good captain, even if he was a different kind of captain than the usual Star Trek captain. And I really hope that Saru will be back in season 4, maybe with Su’Kal in tow. Or was “Bring your family along” an innovation confined to the Next Generation era?

Most other reviewers feel similarly. The AV-Club‘s Zack Handlen, who is not a Michael fan, isn’t happy about her being promoted. Keith R.A. DeCandido, James Whitbrook and Camestros Felapton don’t mind Michael getting promoted, but would all hate to loose Saru over this.

All in all, season 3 was the strongest season of Star Trek Discovery to date, even if it was not without its share of flaws. It seems that the show has finally found its feet, which is a very good thing. I also enjoyed how Discovery alternated between very classic Star Trek storylines given a fresh spin and exploring space opera and science fiction tropes that Star Trek has rarely tackled to date. It’s nice that the bridge crew was finally given more to do and Book, Adira, Gray, Aurelio, Admiral Vance, Su’Kal and of course Grudge (“She is a queen”, a furious Book tells Zareh at one point) are all welcome additions to the cast. And even if Osyra and the Emerald Chain were dispatched of a little too easily, rebuilding the Federation offers plenty of storytelling possibilities.

So bring on season 4.