Some Thoughts on Season 1 of The Expanse

So season 1 of The Expanse finally has a German DVD release and I finally got around to watching all of it – after having watched the episode that was nominated for a Hugo last year. That is, I thought I’d watched the episode that was nominated for a Hugo last year, for upon rewatching all of season 1, I realised that I had accidentally watched the wrong episode. Oops.

Now I did read Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series by James S.A. Corey, on which the TV show is based, around the time it first came out back in 2011. I remember liking it quite a bit at the time. Hey, it was space based science fiction at a time, when such fare was still thin on the ground, because the great space opera resurgence was still a few years away. However, for some reason I never got around to reading the subsequent books. And when I revisited The Expanse books, when the series was up for the inaugural best series Hugo last year, I noticed something very strange. Even though I knew I had read Leviathan Wakes, I remembered very little about it. And considering that I have no problems recalling details of e.g. some Isaac Asimov short stories I first read thirty years ago, forgetting most of a novel, one I sort of enjoyed at that, only approx. five years after I first read it is strange indeed. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it turned out that I’d forgotten most of say a category romance or regency romance a few years after the fact, since those genres are very much literary comfort food for me, something for which I reach when I’m ill or tired. But having problems remembering a well regarded science fiction novel, start of a well regarded series, after only a few years is very unusual for me indeed. Especially since I have zero problems recalling plot details of other books I read around the same time.

Nonetheless, I was looking forward to watching season 1 of The Expanse. Because hey, it was a space opera show and there is way too little space opera on TV and even less of it is actually good. And besides, The Expanse TV show had gotten generally good reviews and even won a Hugo in the best dramatic presentation short form category, so it promised enjoyable science fiction entertainment. And sometimes, fun action in space with likeable characters is really all you want.

So I sat down and watched the show, full of anticipation and… well, I guess it was okay. It wasn’t nearly as good as I’d hoped for and it was infested with many of the problems of this alleged golden age of television (TM) as well as some tropes that are much older than the either the show or the books it is based on (more on that later), but watching an episode of The Expanse was a perfectly fine way to spend forty minutes. It was certainly more satisfying then watching the umpteenth rerun of NCIS Whatever or Hawaii Five-O or some other perfectly watchable, if forgettable crime drama. It’s TV comfort food set in space with characters who are likeable enough and look distinctive enough that you can tell them apart, even if you probably won’t remember most of their names.

Warning! Spoilers under the cut!

Before you continue reading my thoughts on The Expanse, take a minute to visit The Baffler and read last year’s Campbell Award nominee Laurie Penny’s review of the first two seasons of The Expanse (a.k.a. Campbell Award nominee reviews best dramatic presentation and best series nominee). Let’s have a quote:

The Expanse is also quite good. It is, in fact, the very epitome of quite good, and right now, quite good is good enough. The show does not want to mislead us by pretending to be unduly serious about the time we’re going to spend together. It knows what it’s for and is proud of its reliability, and you can tell this, because in one of the very first scenes the showrunners decided to cut the flirting and just give us what everyone who watches a science fiction series, deep down, really wants to see, which is attractive people having sex in zero gravity.

The Expanse loves its audience and wants us to be happy. It is a study in terribly expensive blandness and also, quite possibly, the finest show ever made. By which I mean: it’s fine. It’s not a good show. It’s not a bad show. Its sheer unremarkability is its only remarkable quality. It is the lukewarm gas station sandwich of popular narrative: unmemorable, but when you’re hungry and headed down a dark road, it’s exactly what you need. More flavor would be inappropriate.

It’s not just a brilliant review, Laurie Penny also very much mirrors my own feelings about the show as something that is neither particularly good nor particularly memorable, just perfectly serviceable entertainment, if “action and adventures in space” is catnip for you. Coincidentally, I initially tried watching the show with someone for whom “action and adventures in space” is not nearly as much of a draw as for me, since they’d rather watch the umpteenth rerun of some forgettable crime drama, and well – let’s just say it didn’t work for them at all.

Even though it’s science fiction rather than epic fantasy, The Expanse is very much part of the quest to find the next Game of Thrones, down to the fact that its title sequence depicting the parts of the solar system where the action takes place deliberately mirrors Game of Thrones famous animated map opening. But there are more similarities between Game of Thrones and The Expanse than just the title sequence. Both shows follow several different characters and their storylines, which may or may not eventually intersect. In The Expanse, two of the three main storylines eventually intersect in episode 8 and the characters spent the last two episodes of the season teamed up. For Game of Thrones, we’re mostly still waiting for the multiplying storylines to finally come together.

The similarities to Game of Thrones are probably not quite coincidental and not just due to US TV stations looking for the next Game of Thrones either. For both Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, who make up the James S.A. Corey writing team, know George R.R. Martin and live in the same region and in fact, Ty Franck even used to be Martin’s personal assistant. Though Ty Franck has stated in interviews that he doesn’t write like George R.R. Martin, which mostly seems to refer to writing process, since George R.R. Martin is quite famously a discovery writer, while Abraham and Franck seem to be more on the outlining and planning side of the fence. Nonetheless, there are similarities, for both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Expanse have multiple storylines which may or may not intersect. They also – in this is even more notable in the books than in the respective TV shows – give everybody and their sister their own POV.

Now this “cast of thousands with multiple intersecting plotlines and lots of POV characters” approach used to be very common in both epic fantasy and space opera in the 1980s and 1990s. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t the only series with roots in that era that does it. On the space opera side of the fence, Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker saga (the first book came out in 1995) follows the same approach and features lots of different storylines and POV characters which eventually come together. However, what interesting is that most current space operas and for that matter many current epic fantasies feature much fewer POV characters than the “everybody and their sister gets a POV” approach of the 1990s. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Sara Creasy’s Scarabaeus duology and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles for an epic fantasy example all have only a single POV character and are often written in the first person. And while e.g. Becky Chambers’ books or Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series feature multiple POV characters, they usually stop at four or five at most. Sometime in the early 2000s, novel length speculative fiction switched preferences from a cast of thousands, each with their own POV, to a limited number of POV characters and frequently even a single first person narrator. I’m not sure why this shift occurred, though I suspect it seeped into the rest of the genre via urban fantasy, which often featured first person narrators and was booming in the early to mid 2000s.

The Expanse novels are contemporary with many of the novels and series listed above – the first book Leviathan Wakes came out in 2011. Nonetheless, they stick to the 1990s multiple plot strand and multiple POV approach and stylistically sometimes feel like a throwback to a much earlier area. Indeed, in spite of the state of the art effects and pleasantly diverse cast, I frequently found myself thinking, “This all feels kind of old-fashioned” while watching the show to the point that I had to check that I hadn’t misremembered things and the first book really came out in 2011, i.e. only seven years ago.

The first of the three focal characters in The Expanse is Jim Holden, who starts out as second officer aboard the ice freighter Canterbury and ends up as captain of his own ship, the appropriately named Rocinante. Coincidentally, one area where The Expanse really excels is the naming of spaceships. The derelict ship that lures the Canterbury to her doom is named the Scopuli after the home of the sirens from Greco-Roman mythology. The death-dealing cloaked mystery ship that everybody is chasing for much of the season is named Anubis after the Egyptian god of death. A Martian battleship is named Scipio Africanus after the Roman general who defeated Hannibal. The Earth battleship send to take down Earth colonel turned belter rebel Fred Johnson is named Nathan Hale after a figure from the American revolution. Okay, so it makes no real sense that the UN would name a spaceship after such a specifically American figure who is little known outside the US, but then The Expanse is a very American show. And the Rocinante, a ship crewed by questing knight errants, is named after Don Quixote’s horse. Coincidentally, as a kid I had a wooden hose named Rocinante, which immediately made me root for the Rocinante and her crew.

And Jim Holden, the Roccinante‘s captain, is very much a knight errant figure determined to take on every windmill he can find. He is also the unluckiest person in the universe, because wherever Jim Holden shows up, spaceships and space stations blow up and people die. By the end of the first season, Jim Holden has survived the destruction of no less than four spaceships, not to mention a space plague struck asteroid and countless cosmic mishaps in what is clearly an attempt to give Commander Cliff Allister MacLane of the fast cruiser Orion a run for his money (MacLane quite famously managed to destroy seven Orions – over the course of a seven part TV series). Holden is extremely likeable – however, he’s also a person from whom you want to run away very fast, because trouble inevitably follows him.

Laurie Penny describes him as follows:

The characters are likeably bland, especially Joe Protagonist, the drama-magnet and cut-price Kit Hartington–lookalike whose given name I still can’t recall despite it being spoken in almost every scene.

This man has no obvious competencies besides being neither a dickhead nor an idiot, which by the standards of most narrative arcs including America’s makes him more than qualified to make decisions at a galactic scale. He is so obviously the hero that one must assume that every luckless minor character who crosses his path has either never read a novel or assumes the rules don’t apply to them, a dreadful mistake to make in a universe which—again, much like our own—is written by linear-minded sadists who care not at all for the life chances of anyone with more than a subsidiary speaking role.

The focal character of the second plot strand is Joe Miller, a cop who works the mean streets of Ceres in the asteroid belt. Miller is your typical noir protagonist, the hardboiled and cynical cop with a heart of gold. Miller is such a typical noir protagonist that he walks around in 1940s style get-up, complete with a hat – in a universe where nobody except Miller wears hats. Laurie Penny has the following to say about Miller:

Another of the show’s key characters has been provided with a hat in lieu of a fleshed-out personality profile. At one point in the second series he loses the hat, and this is commented on in every scene just to remind us that this is that guy in the hat, because the showrunners know we’re probably not giving this our complete attention, and that’s okay. The character in question is a jaded detective with unorthodox methods and a drink problem, and while there was definitely room for the writers to improve on the cliché and do a deep-dive into psychological, experimental space-noir, that would have left less screentime for sparkly space explosions, so they put him in a battered trilby and trusted us to get the idea.

Once more, Laurie Penny is harsh, but not wrong, because Miller is a walking cliché, even though actor Thomas Jayne does his best to imbue him with a bit of personality. Coincidentally, in this house we referred to Miller as “man with hat”, because the hat literally is his most defining characteristic.

At the beginning of the show, Miller is tasked with finding Julie Mao, the daughter of a wealthy and unscrupulous businessman, who discovered her social conscience on Ceres, joined the unfortunately named rebel group/terrorist organisation OPA (apparently, it stands for Outer Planet Alliance, however “Opa” is also the German word for “grandpa”, which is not a connotation you want to evoke) and went missing. Tracing back Julie’s last steps, Miller stumbles into a huge conspiracy, the same conspiracy that also causes spaceships and space stations to explode underneath Jim Holden’s feet. Miller’s quest to find Julie and his growing obsession with her is pretty much the 1944 film noir classic Laura relocated into outer space. Except that while I never had any problems understanding just why the detective protagonist was so beguiled with Laura as portrayed by Gene Tierney, I never really understood why Miller was so obsessed with Julie Mao, because for much of the series, Julie is a bland non-entity, a plot token rather than a living, breathing person. It’s only in the penultimate episode – after we learn that Julie is already dead – that she gets a little fleshed out, when we finally see what happened to her. However, fleshed out Julie isn’t that much more interesting than plot token Julie, since Julie was basically a poor little rich girl stereotype who was exploited by everybody around her from her villainous father to the OPA and who continues to be exploited even after her death. Though it is tragic that Julie died only minutes before Miller, Holden and the rest of the gang find her.

Indeed, one of the main problems with The Expanse is that the two central mysteries, which eventually turn out to be one and the same, aren’t actually all that interesting. At any rate, I was never particularly interested in what happened to Julie Mao. Indeed, I found some of the other characters surrounding Miller, such as his current partner Havelock – last seen in hospital on Ceres, after he got himself nearly impaled during a riot – and his former partner Octavia, who has an unrequited crush on him, a lot more interesting than Julie Mao. Of course, it didn’t help either that one of the few things I remembered from the book was that Julie was already dead, so I could never really become invested in her fate. Similarly, I could never really get invested in the destruction of the ice freighter Canterbury, the catalyst which sets off the plot, either, simply because we were never given enough time to get to know the Canterbury and her doomed crew. We briefly meet the Canterbury‘s crew in the first episode, but even there the focus is mainly on Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex, the characters who will eventually survive. And Naomi, Amos and Alex are less fleshed out in the TV show than in the books, where we get scenes from their POV. Then by the end of the episode, the Canterbury is destroyed and everybody aboard dies. Of the dead characters, only the Canterbury‘s captain and Holden’s blonde lover make any sort of impression at all. The crew of the equally doomed Mars battleship Donnager (they make the mistake of taking Jim Holden on board) is as underdeveloped as that of the Canterbury, which leads to the odd dissonance that while the characters are up in arms about the fates of the destroyed ships, the viewer really couldn’t care less. What makes this even more problematic is that The Expanse does prove that it knows how to make us care about characters we meet only very briefly before they meet their inevitable ends. In fact, the brief flashback featuring the striking miners of Anderson Station before the station and miners are destroyed by Fred Johnson, earning him the nickname “the Butcher of Anderson Station”, did manage to make me care about those miners and their fate in a way I never cared about the crew of either the Canterbury or the Donnager.

There is a third focal character with her own storyline in The Expanse, namely Chrisjan Averasala, UN assistant undersecretary. Unlike Holden and Miller, Chrisjen Averasala is not a particularly good person. In the very first episode, we watch her torturing a suspected spy and in subsequent episodes we watch her lie, cheat, steal and throw friends and associates under the bus. Nonetheless, Chrisjen Averasala is awesome. She is a character we don’t often see on TV, an awesome older woman of colour in charge. It does help that there are scenes with her husband and grandchildren that soften the character somewhat, but Averasala would still be awesome even if we never got to see her family. She’s clearly the most complex character and the smartest person in the show (coincidentally, the second smartest person is probably Naomi Nagata, the only other female character of any note) and the one who comes closest to unravelling the conspiracy at the centre of everything. And she does it from Earth, while Holden and Miller go jetting all over the asteroid belt in search of the truth. Finally, Chrisjan Averasala also gives me wardrobe envy, since she has hands down the best clothes in The Expanse. Yes, sometimes I am that shallow.

Chrisjen Averasala, the awesome older woman of colour, is the sort of character you wouldn’t have seen on TV or in science fiction as recently as ten years ago. And her awesomeness very much highlights how comparatively bland our two white dude heroes Holden and Miller come across. In fact, it sometimes seems as if both Jim Holden and Joe Miller wandered in from completely different SF novels. Both characters clearly belong to older traditions of science fiction, traditions that are a lot more white and male than current space opera. Jim Holden, the everyman spaceship captain who only tries to do the right thing and inevitably gets himself and others in trouble, is very much a golden age hero. He’s the sort of protagonist one might find in a Robert A. Heinlein novel of the 1950s. Even Holden’s unconventional family background – he was raised in a weird religious sex cult and has eight or nine parents – sounds like something straight out of a Heinlein novel. Joe Miller, meanwhile, is a hardboiled detective from a 1940s/50s noir novel, who has wandered into science fiction via the cyberpunk era of the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, the mean streets of Ceres, which are Miller’s beat, with their subjugated population, their gangsters, gambling dens, crooked union officials, etc… are pure cyberpunk. In many scenes, Ceres and later Eros even look like a downmarket version of Blade Runner.

All this contributes to the feeling that something about The Expanse is rather old-fashioned. For even though The Expanse clearly considers itself part of the so-called “golden age of television” and engages in such annoying practices as perpetually dim lighting (“Just turn up the bloody lights”, we frequently yelled at the TV) and aggressive serialisation with very abrupt endings, while the novels are part of the 2010s space opera resurgence, both books and TV show draw on tropes and traditions that are much older.

As for the setting, The Expanse is set in the solar system a couple of centuries into the future. Humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt. Space travel is fairly common, but humanity has not yet achieved faster than light travel or left the solar system. Political tensions are running high between the three major players: Earth and the Moon, now ruled by the United Nations, the newly independent Mars and the mining colonies in the asteroid belt, where life is hard, poverty runs rampant and the so-called belters fight for better living and working conditions and eventually independence. All three major players are in opposition to each other and when things start going wrong, every fraction suspects that the other two have united against it. Meanwhile, it is pretty obvious to the viewer (though the characters take a while to catch on) that maybe, a fourth player is setting the three major players against each other.

As settings go, The Expanse‘s is pure early 2000s mundane science fiction with a bit of Heinlein thrown in for good measure. In fact, it’s almost as if Abraham and Franck had used the mundane SF manifesto as a checklist: No FTL, no artificial gravity, space travel is limited to the solar system, etc… In general, the depiction of space travel, asteroid habitats, zero gravity and the solar system in general is hard enough to satisfy even Charles Stross, provided he could ever be persuaded to watch it. Okay, so there probably still isn’t enough talk about economics and no one has mentioned VAT yet, but at least the asteroids are located suitably far apart from each other.

The fact that The Expanse tries to adhere to the dogmas of mundane science fiction and that it attempts to portray life and travel in space in a hard SF style doesn’t mean that the show is scientifically accurate, because it isn’t. Weightlessness and low gravity still only exist when it’s expedient for the plot or allows for a titilating zero-G sex scene or when the special effects people want to insert a cool effect. We are told that belters are tall and skinny with weak bones due to the low gravity environment, yet the two leaders of the belter rebels we meet, Fred Johnson and the treacherous docker and rebel leader from Ceres are both played by rather stocky gentlemen, namely Chad L. Coleman, who also plays Bortus’ partner Klyden in The Orville, and Jared Harris a.k.a. the dude who hanged himself in the office in Mad Men. We also learn that in this future it is possible for eight or nine different people to combine their DNA to produce a child together, but they still require a human woman to bear that child, since apparently no one ever thought of uterine replicators or read Lois McMaster Bujold. And the doomed freighter Canterbury meets its fate, while hauling ice from Saturn to the asteroid Ceres, which makes me wonder if the writers have any idea how vast the distance between Saturn and the asteroid belt actually is. Still, The Expanse makes a big deal out of the fact that it tries to be scientifically accurate. Laurie Penny decribes the show’s approach to scientific accuracy as follows:

In place of narrative invention, The Expanse offers a series of vignettes that might one day be included in a safety-training program for people trying to survive long-haul space travel. Many extraterrestrial dramas skate over the actual mechanics of super-atmospheric survival, but in The Expanse, this is where the VFX team really got to go to town. Water, whiskey, and bodily fluids of various hues glide in perfect jewel-like constellations through the thinning air. Spacesuits have exciting near-failures on the surface of moons that look like that screensaver you had in 2005. People get thrown into airlocks a lot. Really, a lot.

Science fiction has always grappled with serious philosophical issues, from the intimate application of surveillance to the makeup of a post-scarcity society to how the human race might morally as well as practically survive thermonuclear war. The Expanse contributes to this tradition by grappling with the socio-technical questions that everyone, including serious futurists who present papers at conferences, really wonders about at three in the morning. Questions like: What happens when someone gets decapitated in vacuum? What happens is that the visual effects people get very excited and we all go home happy—not that we’ve left the house in days now that the next episode countdown feature comes as standard.

In spite of being set in a globalist future – we are repeatedly reminded that Earth is governed by the UN – the politics of The Expanse are still very American. For starters, the United Nations are clearly not a benevolent body in The Expanse, echoing American suspicions of the UN. The UN officials we meet are all backstabbing plotters, even the otherwise awesome Chrisjen Averasala. The UN also tortures prisoners, something which so infuriated Ian Sales that it put him off The Expanse altogether.

In general, of the three major powers, Earth is portrayed the way Americans sometimes view Europe, as aging and arrogant power on the decline, a place which all the dynamic people left behind long ago to go elsewhere, the source of everything that’s wrong and yet a place to be envied. Mars is portrayed the way Americans sometimes see themselves, as young and aggressive, a military obsessed rising power which has the technological edge over everybody else (though Abigail Nussbaum claims that Mars is communist, so maybe it also embodies American fears of China as a rising power). The belters, meanwhile, are the developing world analogue, colonies exploited by the older powers. And even though it is said that both Mars and Earth exploit the belters, the main exploiters we see are Earthers. And yes, this is a very American view of the world. The European view is quite different. For according to the European view, the people who stayed here and did not emigrate were not weak or cowardly, but they were doing perfectly fine. Meanwhile, those who emigrated to the US (leaving aside forced migration due to slavery and indentured servitude) were the ones who couldn’t hack it here, the younger sons who did not inherit the farm or the family business, the women who could not find a partner for whatever reasons as well as people who had to leave because they were persecuted for political or religious reasons or simply because they were wanted for some crime or other. And that’s the polite way of putting it.

But it’s not just the general political set-up that is a very American view of the world, it’s also the details. Even though The Expanse attempts to portray a diverse future and particularly the belters mostly seem to be mixed race, the main male characters are white dudes with such whitebread anglo names as Joe Miller and Jim Holden. Security in the belt is privatised and unions are portrayed as mob-like groups given to violence, another very American view (in Europe, even people who don’t like unions would rarely compare them to the mob). Abigail Nussbaum writes:

And yet despite making no bones about the fact that Belters have genuine, legitimate grievances against the inner planets, The Expanse repeatedly teaches us to distrust them as a political force. It’s actually not that unusual for Hollywood to treat labor and civil rights movements as inherently suspicious, reducing them to the two extremes of un-organized suffering and organized insurrection, with no middle ground for legitimate unionizing or political action. (This is changing a little under the force of real-world events, to the extent that only two and a half years after its premiere, The Expanse already feels a little out of step on this front.) But The Expanse takes this even further with the personalities it places at the head of OPA, and the way it contrasts them with Holden’s apolitical desire to do good.

An Earth battleship is named after the American revolutionary Nathan Hale, a figure who is largely unknown outside the US and not someone one would expect the UN to name a spaceship after. The “Remember the Cant” slogan that appears all over Ceres following the Canterbury‘s destruction is clearly modelled on the “Remember the Maine” slogan from the Spanish American war (just as the Canterbury‘s demise is kind of modelled on the destruction of Maine, since both ships were not destroyed by the people ultimately blamed for it), another reference that has little resonance outside the US. In fact, I had to explain both the Nathan Hale and the “Remember the Cant” references to the person watching with me.

The portrayal of religion in The Expanse is also very American. Now I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I don’t care for religion in my science fiction and prefer secular futures. And at least in Europe, the trend also points towards an increasingly secular future. I don’t mind religion used as a worldbuilding detail – the way one would use sport, food, art, entertainment, fashion, etc… – but too much focus on religion and I’m out of there. Now thankfully, The Expanse does not focus on religion. In fact, religion doesn’t play any role in the plot at all, with two exceptions. Most of the time, the future portrayed in The Expanse is fully secular. There are no Catholics, no regular Protestants, no Orthodox Christians, no Muslims, no Jews, no Hindus, no Buddhists, no Sikhs, no Yezidi, no Jain in The Expanse. These religions don’t exist, not even as background detail. You never see a nun in her habit, you never see a priest or monk, you never see a woman wearing a hijab, you never see a man wearing a kippah, you never see a Sikh wearing a turban, not even among the background extras. What is more, two of the main characters – UN official Chrisjen Averasala and Alex, the pilot of the doomed Canterbury and later the Roccinante – are of South Asian origin, which would suggest that they are Hindu or maybe Muslim or Sikh or Jain. However, we have no way of knowing, since their religious affiliation is never mentioned, not even in passing.

However, one religious denomination is mentioned repeatedly in The Expanse and that is Mormons. For you see, the Mormons are building a generation ship shaped like a huge golden angel (yes, really) to travel to the stars and the construction of that ship at Tycho station in the belt is used as a cover for all sorts of nefarious activities. What is more, a Mormon missionary also shows up aboard a shuttle to talk about Jesus Christ to Joe Miller. Now I wouldn’t mind the Mormon presence in The Expanse, if they were just one of many religious groups mentioned. However, Mormons are literally the only religious group we ever see in The Expanse, which I found not just odd, but flat out grating. For starters, you would be hardpressed to find a more specifically American religious group than Mormons. Cause in spite of their missionary activities, Mormons just aren’t much of a presence outside the US and a few Latin American countries. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, they simply aren’t on the radar. Most Europeans have never had any conscious contact with Mormons and couldn’t tell you what they believe beyond some vague stereotypes about polygamy. And yes, I know that Mormons have a stronger than normal presence in speculative fiction, mainly because the Mormon Brigham Young University has an excellent and genre-focussed creative writing program. Nonethless, if the Mormons of all people are the only religious group to show up in The Expanse (though apparently, a Methodist preacher is a main character in a later novel in the series), this makes the show irritatingly American. In fact, at one point the person with whom I was watching said to me, “Please tell me that it turns out that the Mormons are the ones behind the conspiracy.”

The only other mention of religion involved the cult/commune which birthed Jim Holden. Again, the way this cult/commune is portrayed is very American. For starters, the commune is literally located in the US midwest and the cult is in constant conflict with the government, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, at least not in the TV show. What struck me, however, was that the cult which birthed Jim Holden was portrayed largely sympathetically. Whereas in Germany, religious cults and fringe religious groups are inevitably portrayed as dangerous and not to be trusted. Back when I was at school, warning kids of religious cults was part of the curriculum. The “cults are evil” chapter in my religious education textbook was illustrated not just with Moonie mass weddings and singing Hare Krishnas, but also with graphic images of the dead at Jonestown (which my teenaged self found deeply disturbing and my adult self still considers completely inappropriate). In general, I found the insistence on warning kids about the dangers of cults – which inevitably also included the dangers of tarot decks, ouija boards, meditation and other largely harmless things – a bit overdone, particularly since our teachers were making us suffer for the 1960s generation’s susceptibility to weird cults and new age woo woo. Nonetheless, portraying religious cults as anything other than negative is very strange to me. Now I would have glossed over the portrayal of the cult that birthed Jim Holden in The Expanse (after all, not all cults are Jonestown, some only fleece their members for money), if not for the fact that an apologetic TV show based on the events at Waco, which sympathises with the cultists and condemns the FBI (which is not how anybody here viewed it), was airing at around the same time I watched The Expanse. It’s not the only Waco apologia I’ve recently come across either – apparently, this is a thing now. And my reaction to the portrayal of the cult that birthed Jim Holden in The Expanse was very much coloured by anger at the Waco apologias, because I viewed it as yet another example of how Americans will always side with fringe religious cults and defend them, no matter how problematic those cults obviously are. Meanwhile, Islam, a world religion of approx. one billion adherents, is treated like the ultimate evil. In fact, the only likable Muslim character in an American TV show that I can think of is Sam Hanna from NCIS: Los Angeles and the fact that he is Muslim is handled in a very low-key way.

So in the otherwise secular future of The Expanse, the only religions mentioned are Mormons on the one hand and a weird religious fringe cult living in a commune in the American midwest on the other. Honestly, you can’t get any more American in your portrayal of religion than focussing on two very American fringe groups, while not even mentioning the various major world religions at all. Worse, neither of those two religious groups have any impact on the plot at all, unless it happens in future books. The Mormons and their generation ship are merely there to give Fred Johnson an excuse to putter around on Tycho Station, while conspiring. As for the commune that birthed Jim Holden, does it have any impact on his character at all beyond giving Chrisjen Averasala and Jim’s birthmother as portrayed by Frances Fisher an opportunity to square off against each other? Not that I mind seeing two awesome older women chewing up the scenery, but I still wonder what the purpose of that scene was. By the time, we meet Jim’s family, we have already amply seen what kind of person Jim is, namely a fundamentally decent person who always wants to do the right thing. We don’t need to learn about his family background, especially since the kind of background Holden has rarely spits out people like him. Okay, so we learn that Don Quixote was Jim’s favourite book, which explains his choice of spaceship name. Still, if you want to have religion in your science fiction, focussing solely on American expressions of religion is not the way to do it.

Coincidentally, I happened to rewatch Firefly and Serenity over the Easter weekend and noticed how much better that show plus the movie handled the issue of religion. Of course, one of the main characters in Firefly is a priest of some Christian denomination (I don’t think it’s ever explicitly defined), so religion of course plays a bigger role in Firefly/Serenity than it does in The Expanse. However, you also see brief visual references to religions other than Christianity. There is a woman in a burqa, a man wearing a taqiyah, there are buddhas and shrines, the “marriage ceremony” of Mr. Universe and his lovebot is Jewish, etc… There are worldbuilding issues with Firefly/Serenity, most notably the fact that there are hardly any Chinese people visible, in a universe where Mandarin is one of the main languages. However, it handled the religion issue so much better than The Expanse did more than ten years later.

Getting back to The Expanse, the disparate plotlines of Jim Holden and friends trying to figure out just why the hell spaceships keep exploding under their feet and Joe Miller trying to find out what happened to Julie Mao finally come together in the second-to-last episode, when Miller tracks Julie and the Rocinante crew tracks the lone survivor who might know what the hell happened to the Canterbury, the Scopuli and the Donanger to a seedy hotel on the asteroid Eros. A shoot-out erupts near randomly in the lobby, Miller bursts in to save Jim and friends and together they finally go to Julie’s room, only to find her dead body, encrusted with crystals and the glowy blue alien protomolecule, which is the main MacGuffin of the plot aside from Julie. Coincidentally, I only knew that the blue stuff was an alien protomolecule from the books. I don’t think the show ever says what it is. It does look an awful lot like the magic mushroom drive and the inhabitants of Pahvo from Star Trek Discovery, though. We also get another Americanism, for though Julie dies naked in a hotel bathtub (which will remind German viewers of another infamous death in a hotel bathtub and one of the most famous press photos of all time), the alien crystals have managed to cover up her breasts, since The Expanse is a US TV show and apparently not one that airs on HBO.

For the last two episodes of the season, The Expanse suddenly turns into a 1990s episode of The X-Files, complete with a shadowy conspiracy using a mysterious alien substance (extracted from the body of poor dead Julie) to infect the hapless residents of Eros, because… – well, it’s not entirely clear why the shadowy villains led by Julie’s own Dad are doing what they are doing. Just as it’s not entirely clear why they want to trigger a war between Earth, Mars and the belters. Profit, I guess? There is the suspicion that the villains want to use the alien protomolecule as a bioweapon, but one of the things I do know from the books is that the protomolecule is not a bioweapon and that its tendency to infect and kill people is just an unfortunate side-effect.

Person watching with me: “So what does that blue stuff actually do?”

Me: “Uhm, it builds stargates.”

Person watching with me: “So the blue stuff infects and kills people and then builds a stargate? But that makes no sense whatsoever.”

Though the breakneck speed of the final episode, the one that won a Hugo, doesn’t leave you much time to realise that what you’re watching doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Because Miller, Holden and the crew of the Rocinante find themselves trapped on an asteroid with an alien killer virus – pardon, killer protomolecule – that is rapidly infecting the civilian population as well as with a bunch of gangsters, hired killers and other lowlives who have replaced the legitimate security personnel on Eros.

Meawhile, back on Earth, Chrisjen Averasala figures out that the mysterious stealth ship Anubis, which is responsible for the destruction of the Canterbury, Scopuli and the Donnager was built on Earth and not on Mars or in the belt, as previously assumed, and that it was privately financed. Since the guy from whom Averasala got the information was killed, though the murder was made to look like a suicide, Averasala assumes that the conspirators will now try to kill her, too.

During a firefight on Eros, that has station security firing on civilians, the group is broken up. Naomi, Amos and Alex try to make their way back to the Rocinante, which is made more difficult by the fact that Eros station is on lockdown, including the docks, and that the criminals turned security guards are patrolling everywhere. Meanwhile, Miller goes off to investigate what is going on and Holden, being once more too heroic for his own good, follows him.

The rest of the episode is taken up with Naomi, Amos and Alex as well as Miller’s old pal Sam and a bunch of belter refugees they pick up along the way crawling through maintenance tunnels, while wondering why Naomi can read the OPA symbols that point the way. Meanwhile, Miller and Holden uncover the terrible secret of what is really going on on Eros station (which isn’t that much of a surprise, if you’ve ever watched only a single episode of The X-Files back in the 1990s). Basically, the shadowy conspirators (TM) have taken a sample of the alien protomolecule from the body of poor dead Julie and derived a serum from it. Then they engineer a fake radiation leak on Eros and have the criminal security guards heard the population into shelters, not without first injecting them with what’s supposed to be an anti-radiation drug, but is really the alien protomolecule. Once the infected belters are locked in shelters, they are left to die. And then, once the alien protomolecule has done its work, the shelters full of dead people are flooded with high radiation, because… – well, I’m not entirely sure what the radiation was supposed to achieve. Maybe the shadowy conspirators (TM) wanted to see if radiation would stop or kill off the alien protomolecule. At any rate, they are wrong, because the alien protomolecule really likes radiation and soaks it up to grow and spread even more.

Worse, Miller and Holden, being not just heroic but also fatally unlucky, manage to stumble into one of the shelters full of dead belters just as it is being flashed with high radiation. And so they catch a pretty much lethal dose. Of course, this is the future and a lethal dose of radiation isn’t necessarily lethal, if you get treatment fast enough. And so the race is on to get back to the Rocinante, before the ship leaves and before either the radiation or the criminals turned security guards or the shadowy conpirators can get them. Miller also gets revenge on the guy who impaled his partner Havelock (remember him?) back on Ceres (he was one of the criminals turned security guards), while Jim Holden does his best to keep an increasingly trigger-happy Miller in check. They make it to the airlock of the Rocinante literally with seconds to spare and are rescued, because Naomi refused to leave without Holden (and Miller) on board and because Amos shot Sam, Miller’s former partner, who tried to force Naomi to take off.

The Rocinante blasts off Eros station, Miller and Holden are taken to the medbay for treatment, where Holden and Naomi manage to almost, but not quite kiss, earning dark looks from poor Amos and sighs of frustration from the audience. Meanwhile, one of the few survivors aboard the station – the spy whom Naomi and Amos had caught skunking around in the crawlspaces of the Rocinante earlier – gets eaten by the alien protomolecule to nobody’s regret. Coincidentally, I just realised that we never learn what became of the Mormon misionary who talked to Miller about Jesus on the shuttle to Eros. I presume he’s as dead as everybody else on Eros.

And that’s it, the end of the first season. It’s not much of an ending at all, even though our heroes are all safe for now. Now The Expanse does have a tendency towards rapid, cut to the credits endings – another typical feature of the so-called “golden age of television”, where TV episodes no longer have endings, but often just randomly stop. Mad Men did it, too, for example, up to and including the final episode. But the season 1 finale of The Expanse ended so abruptly that we actually checked the DVD to see whether we’d missed an episode. But nope, that was really the end. It just wasn’t much of a payoff. Hell, we didn’t even get a kiss between Holden and Naomi, no matter how much it was teased.

In many way, the less than satisfying ending of the first season was rather apt, because The Expanse left me rather unsatisfied as a whole. It’s something that really should be right up my alley – adventure and intrigue in space – but it just leaves me lukewarm. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Abigail Nussbaum largely shares my feelings:

For two-plus years, I’ve watched this celebration of the show with bemusement. I don’t hate The Expanse, and I’ll probably keep watching it for as long as it’s on. But I also find it singularly un-engaging—surprisingly so, given how well-calibrated its premise and genre are to my interests. I would describe The Expanse as a show with great casting and production values, amazing worldbuilding, a so-so story, and characters who are, with a few notable exceptions, dull as ditchwater.

This I quite remarkable, because while I always appreciate Abigail Nussbaum’s genre reviews, I rarely agree with her on anything. What is more, while I famously hated the new Battlestar Galactica, the TV show The Expanse and much of contemporary TV space opera is clearly trying to emulate, usually to their detriment, Abigail Nussbaum very much liked it. But even she finds The Expanse competently made but rather bland.

Also, as noted above, while The Expanse looks modern, has a pretty diverse cast and fits in visually (the effects are good, but the lighting is dim, so very dim that you can barely see anything) with the so-called “golden age of television”, the actual story feels much older. It’s a hodgepodge of 1990s and early 2000s influences from The X-Files to mundane science fiction to cast of thousands, multi-POV epic SFF intermixed with some strands that are even older, such as 1980s neo-noir Cyberpunk, 1950s Heinlein novels and 1940s hardboiled and noir fiction. And though The Expanse, both books and TV series, clearly belongs to the space opera resurgence of the 2010s (The first book, Leviathan Wakes, came out in 2011), it’s nonetheless an outlier. With space opera books such as Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and Provenance, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax and Dredd Chronicles series, Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War series, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Sarah Creasy’s Scarabaeus duology, Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars, etc… it’s easy to see that for all their differences, these books are still part of the same tradition. The Expanse, however, doesn’t really fit in with any of those. Why this series was adapted for TV rather than one of the many others I listed above I have no idea. That is, I do have some ideas, after all. Namely I suspect that The Expanse was adapted because it has a veneer of seriousness and respectability, it has no aliens (i.e. no extensive make-up or CGI characters necessary), it’s a series written by two male authors featuring male main characters and a cast that’s white enough to satisfy US TV executives.

But there is not just a space opera resurgence in written science fiction at the moment, but there is one going on in televised science fiction as well. At any rate, there are currently several different space opera shows on TV – after many years of none at all. Of those current space opera shows I’ve watched, I find The Expanse the least interesting. True, season 1 of Star Trek Discovery was a hot mess and rumours suggest that season 2 won’t necessarily be any better. But if there’s one thing that Star Trek Discovery wasn’t, it’s bland. Meanwhile, for those of us who actually like Star Trek to be – well – Star Trek, Seth MacFarlane is regularly dishing up 1990s Star Trek with more humor and the serial numbers filed off as well as updated for 21st century sensibilities in The Orville.

Of these three, The Orville is actually the show I enjoy the most, which surprised the hell out of me, because it was also the show of which I had the lowest expectations. But while The Orville is clearly less ambitious than the other two shows, it knows what it wants to be and does what it does surprisingly well. Star Trek Discovery, meanwhile, has all the advantages – a great cast, a big budget and one of the most recognisable science fiction franchises of all time – and yet squanders much of it, because it’s obvious that the show has no idea what it wants to be and instead seems to turn into a completely different show every other episode. And while some of these different versions of Star Trek Discovery are actually pretty good, they don’t form a coherent whole. The Expanse, meanwhile, also has the advantage of a big budget, a promising premise and a serviceable enough cast, and yet does very little with it. Unlike Star Trek Discovery, The Expanse clearly knows what it wants to be and therefore the occasional tonal shifts are not nearly as jarring. The Expanse also has a coherent story, however, that story is neither particularly original nor particularly interesting.

I still have two more space opera TV shows lined up: Killjoys and Dark Matter. I’m currently four episodes into the latter. I’ll do a more detailed post, once I’ve actually watched Dark Matter all the way through, but so far I like it a lot more than The Expanse, even though it only has about a fraction of the budget and is obviously cheaply made (outer space looks like Canada once again). It’s also less ambitious than either Star Trek Discovery or The Expanse, but it has plenty of thrills and action in space and an intriguing central mystery that quickly reels you in and keeps you watching.

So what’s the lesson here about televised space opera? Maybe that the expensive shows like The Expanse or Star Trek Discovery tend to be overly ambitious and so they overreach, while the cheaper shows have few ambitions apart from giving you a good time, but generally succeed at what they’re doing.

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Some Reactions to the 2018 Hugo Award Finalists

For my own take on the 2018 Hugo Award finalists as well as the 1943 Retro Hugo Awards finalists, go here. Meanwhile, reactions from around the Internet are trickling in, though the debate seems rather muted this year, compared to the last five years (yes, there were intense debates about the merits of the Hugo finalists even before the puppy years). Mostly, people are just happy that we have a very good Hugo ballot that is entirely free of puppy poo.

This is more or less the tenor of Joe Sherry’s post about the 2018 Hugo finalists at the Hugo-nominated fanzine nerds of a feather. He’s really happy about the overall high quality of the finalists as well as happy about the nominations for nerds of a feather as well as for fellow nerds of a feather contributor Charles Payseur in the best fanwriter category.

At Dreaming About Other Worlds, Aaron Pound also shares his thoughts on the 2018 Hugo finalists and is happy to have a strong and puppy-free ballot. He also weighs in about the new YA Award and the insistence on stressing that it is “not a Hugo Award”, even though to most fans and voters there won’t be much of a difference.

In his post at Patreon, Aidan Moher is also pleased with the overally high quality of the 2018 Hugo ballot with some reservations. One is that Aidan Moher is not happy with the best fanzine nomination for Rocket Stack Rank following some controversies in the past year and wishes Quick Sip Reviews had been nominated instead. Never mind that Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews has been nominated for best fanwriter, so it’s not as if he’s been forgotten. Not to mention that there is room for more than one (or even more than two, for that matter) SFF short fiction review sites. Besides, even though the approach of Rocket Stack Rank and Quick Sip Reviews to reviewing short fiction is very different, both do good work and both are valuable resources that complement each other well. And coincidentally, I disagree with both of their reviews much of the time, because tastes differ. That’s precisely why it’s important to have more short fiction review sites.

Another issue that Aidan Moher raises is that of repeat nominees, i.e. that the same names keep showing up on the Hugo shortlist year after year after year. Now repeat nominees are definitely is an issue, though it’s far from a new phenomenon, but instead one we’ve been seeing for more than thirty years now. Mike Resnick got at least one nomination per year for twenty years or more. Michael Whelan practically owned the best pro artist category in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hell, best fanwriter was a two person race between David Langford and Mike Glyer for approx. twenty years. I also think everybody can name one or two finalists (not necessarily the same finalists) in any given year that you personally suspect were nominated more because their fanbase will nominate anything they produce and less on the strength of this particular work. For example, I was a bit surprised that The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi made the ballot, for while the book is perfectly fine and enjoyable, I don’t find it particularly outstanding. There are more interesting and innovative space operas out there, but Scalzi is popular with the Hugo electorate. And while I like a lot of Seanan McGuire’s work, I have to admit that the Wayward Children series just doesn’t do it for me like it evidently does for others. And then of course, there is the annual nomination for whatever Doctor Who episode is eligible that year. Though the Doctor Who dominance has receded compared to previous years (there was one year where the best dramatic presentation ballot consisted of four Doctor Who episodes and one episode of something else, which I disliked, so I wound up ranking four episodes of a show I had already given up on) and it’s been a while since the good Doctor has been able to win the category. Just as we regularly see new names and also a churn of established names in categories like best fan writer, best fan artist, best pro artist, best semiprozine and best fanzine, which used to be dominated by the same names year after year after year.

And besides, many people continue to do good work year after year. Should we not nominate them, because they’ve been nominated before, if we honestly think they are the best choice for the category in question? There are names I nominate year after year as well, because I simply like their work a whole lot and because I honestly think they are among the five best in the respective category. Though I also have to admit that when I have a choice between someone who has had plenty of Hugo nominations before and someone who has never been nominated, I tend to go with the new voice, all else being equal.

Talking of new voices, at the Singapore Straits Times, Toh Wen Li celebrates the two Singaporean Hugo finalists, J.Y. Yang and Vina Jie-Min Prasad, who has a great Cyberpunk story in Uncanny this month. The Straits Times also has a nice double review of J.Y. Yang’s Hugo nominated novella The Black Tides of Heaven and its sister novella The Red Threads of Fortune.

The Indian site celebrates the two Indian Hugo finalists, Mimi Mondal, who is nominated in the best related work category, and Gautam Bhatia, who’s on the staff of Strange Horizons.

Meanwhile, the Australian publishing news site Books + Publishing focusses on the various Australians nominated for the Hugo Awards this year. Initially they forgot Camestros Felapton and best fan artist nominee Mia Serreno a.k.a. Likhain, but they’ve been added in a corrected version of the article.

At the Washington Post, Michael Cavna focusses on the best graphic story category and profiles Emil Ferris, artist/author of My Favourite Thing Is Monsters, ironically the lone nominee on the best graphic story shortlist I am entirely unfamiliar with. Turns out that Emil Ferris is female in spite of the name.

ETA: Night Shade Books is thrilled about the best series Hugo nomination for Martha Wells’ Books of Raksura series and offers a short primer to the series, including a suggested reading order.

Meanwhile, over at the puppy camp, there is resounding silence regarding the 2018 Hugo finalists. I checked out a lot of puppy blogs, but there’s nothing. It seems that the puppies have all moved on to the Dragon Awards or the Conservative Libertarian Fiction Alliance Book of the Year Award (for which you can vote here) or the Planetary Awards. They are also happily proclaiming the impending pulp revolution. This is a good thing, because it means that the movement formerly known as sad and rabid puppies is finally doing something constructive and building up their own structures rather than trying to hijack and take over someone else’s. Plus, this is the first year of Hugo voting where I finally have a ballot completely free of puppy poo to vote on. Yes, there are still nominees I’ll probably no award, but that’s because I dislike these works that many other people evidently like, not because the puppies or anybody else for that matter cheated them onto the ballot.

Though Camestros Felapton, most worthy nominee in the best fan writer category, did uncover some puppy activity after all on Facebook, where I don’t have a account and therefore cannot see it. Because it seems that Larry Correia – the man who started it all, when he lost the Campbell Award to Lev Grossman back in 2011 and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that the Hugo electorate liked another writer more than him – is bitching on Facebook that the 2018 Hugo shortlist is an April’s Fool joke, because it is full of Tor books, women, writers of colour and people and works puppies don’t like, that people are nominating works based on the author’s gender, race or sexual orientation and not because they actually like them and that the Hugos are only good for academics trying to get tenure anyway. Oh yes, and the Hugos, WorldCon and Tor are doomed. In short, it’s more or less the same stuff we’ve heard from that crowd before. Camestros had some highlights here, while Larry Correia’s original post and the comments may be found here.

As usual, the puppy arguments are easy to debunk. As for Tor’s supposed dominance, as pointed out in my original Hugo post, Tor or more precisely Publishing only dominates in the novella category for obvious reasons, because Publishing’s novella line is the biggest market for novellas around. Some magazines do accept novellas and indeed Uncanny could get one nominated, and of course, writers can always self-publish them. However, magazine and self-published novellas are competing both with Publishing’s marketing dollars as well as with the very high quality of their novella line. If you’re an indie, you really have to be someone of the calibre of Lois McMaster Bujold to even get noticed.

Meanwhile, Orbit actually dominates the best novel category, but then a few pups have noticed by now that Orbit a) exists and b) that they hate it, too, which is progress, I guess. Meanwhile, the short fiction categories are a mixed bag with Uncanny winning six nominations (plus best editor and best semiprozine), and Clarkesworld winning two each and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex and Asimov’s winning one each. But then, the puppies have decided that they hate Uncanny, too. Best series is another mixed bag with two nominations for Tor, and one each for DAW, Broadway Books, Nightshade and Harper Voyager. The YA Not-a-Hugo Award is yet another mixed bag with one nomination each for Viking Press (owned by Penguin Random House Bertelsmann), Harper Teen, Alfred J. Knopf (also owned by Penguin Random House Bertelsmann), Big Mouth House (operated by Small Beer Press), Henry N. Abrams Books (operated by Hachette) and a small press/self-published book. So in short, the alleged dominance of Tor/Macmillan/Holtzbrinck is very much a fiction outside the novella category.

As for the “But what about the poor white menz?” complaints, I already addressed this point here one and a half year ago. The short version is, it took fifteen years for the first woman writer to win a Hugo in a fiction category and seventeen years for the first writers of colour to win a Hugo in a fiction category. A few years in a row of Hugo shortlists and winners that are majority female don’t change this balance. Maybe, after fifteen years of only women winning Hugos, the men can start whining.

Besides, there are men, some of them even straight and white, on the 2018 Hugo shortlist. Looking at the fiction categories alone, there are John Scalzi, Kim Stanley Robinson, Yoon Ha Lee, K.M. Szpara, Robert Jackson Bennett, Brandon Sanderson, Sam J. Miller and Philip Pullman. All of them are male and all but one are white. However, the problem of our canine friends is not so much that there are no male Hugo finalists, but that the wrong men got nominated. The puppies’ IMO inexplicable hatred for John Scalzi is well documented, Yoon Ha Lee, K.M. Szpara and Sam J. Miller are all LGBT writers, Kim Stanley Robinson is an environmentalist, Philip Pullman is known to be highly critical of organised religion. Okay, so I have no idea what their objection to Robert Jackson Bennett and Brandon Sanderson could be, especially since Sanderson’s bestselling fantasy series should be right up their alley.

As for the puppies’ insistence that people nominate and vote for women, writers of colour and LGBT writers as a form of virtue signalling and not because they genuinely like those works, Hugo voters across the board have repeatedly been saying that they nominated and voted for the works they liked. I certainly have been nominating only works I like and my Hugo ballot has been full of women, writers of colour and LGBT writers these past four years. However, I have also nominated Tim Powers, a white conservative Catholic man, because I love his fiction. However, as has been amply demonstrated, the puppies have problems accepting that tastes differ and that other people might genuinely love works that they dislike. Hell, there are works on the Hugo shortlist that I don’t particularly care for or outright dislike, but enough people apparently felt differently and so those works made the shortlist.

As for the claim, that authors are using Hugo nominations and wins to persuade universities to hire them for teaching positions and/or give them tenure, as was extensively discussed in the comments at Camestros’ post, university hiring committees usually don’t care about the genre fiction or the Hugo Awards and may not even know what the Hugos are. A literary award might help an author to nab a university job, a genre award won’t. Besides, there only is a single author on the 2018 Hugo shortlist who is a university professor in a field related to writing and literature, namely Nnedi Okorafor. All other authors on the shortlist don’t work in academia and aren’t currently applying for any teaching positions.

Meanwhile Jon Del Arroz’s Happy Frogs site has put out its Hugo voting recommendations. It’s obvious that his picks aren’t even remotely serious, since he intensely dislikes many of the people he recommends, but then recommending works and people you hate for Hugo Awards is a thing among the remnants of the puppy movement – Vox Day did it last year as well and recommended N.K. Jemisin. Apparently they think that if people they hate win Hugos, it will devalue the award or something. And no, I don’t get it either. And just in case there was any doubt regarding the Happy Frogs slate, Jon Del Arroz has also posted a video in which he shares his thoughts on the 2018 Hugo finalists. That is, he mostly mocks the Hugo finalists’ names, complains that there are too many women and that he hasn’t heard of most nominees and generally displays his complete and utter ignorance of pretty much everything. He also feels offended and persecuted by commenters at File 770 yet again. Nonetheless, his Hugo picks are actually pretty good, but then we do have a really good ballot this year, so even if you picked your first choice at random, you have a high chance of hitting something good.

Comments are closed – puppies and frogs whine elsewhere.

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A Triple New Release and Some Thoughts on Cozy Space Opera

Now that the excitement caused by the triple whammy of Easter, Passover and the announcement of the 2018 Hugo Finalists has died down somewhat, I have an announcement of my own to make. And it’s a big announcement, because I have not one but three new In Love and War stories to announce, two short stories and one short novel.

The first of the two short stories isn’t quite that new, because it has been available as part of the anthology The Guardian for a while now. However, if you want a standalone edition, here is your chance.

Like Dreaming of the Stars and Graveyard Shift, Baptism of Fire is a prequel to the In Love and War series proper, though it is listed as Part 2 at most vendors, because they don’t support prequels very well.

With Baptism of Fire, there now are three prequel stories to the In Love and War series, because I like showing who Anjali and Mikhail were before they became the people they are today. In Dreaming of the Stars, we meet them both as teenagers and learn what drove them both to join their respective militaries. The next two stories focus on their respective military careers. We’ve already briefly seen Mikhail as an operative of the Republican Special Commando Forces in Graveyard Shift, though he’s only a supporting character in that story. In Baptism of Fire, we now see Anjali as a young cadet with the Shakyri Corps.

If you’ve read some or all of the In Love and War stories, you know that it isn’t exactly a conventional space opera series, let alone conventional military SF. In Love and War is basically the story of two people who decide to run away from the typical space opera/military SF plot, in this case an endless intergalactic intergalactic war. Only that the plot keeps coming after them, trying to drag them back. In fact, as mentioned here, the In Love and War series was born out of frustration, because after the third or fourth time of running into a science fiction plot featuring a couple that couldn’t be together because of reasons, I got very sick of the whole thing and wished they’d just run away together to become space pirates or intergalactic outlaws or open a restaurant on a far away planet or something. However, space opera and military SF characters don’t normally run away from the plot, no matter how logical that would be, so I had to write that story myself.

However, while the In Love and War series isn’t conventional space opera or military SF, Baptism of Fire is as close as it probably comes to that. After all, the story was deliberately written to attract new readers to the In Love and War series, many of whom may well prefer a more traditional adventure in space. And so the story follows Anjali as a seventeen-year-old cadet on her very first mission with the Shakyri Corps, where things go of course disastrously wrong. We also meet Anjali’s commanding officer Captain Vikram as well as fellow recruit and later Anjali’s good friend (and he’s really just that, no matter how much Mikhail might suspect otherwise), Anil Golkhari. Both characters will probably appear again in future In Love and War stories.

Baptism of Fire
Baptism of Fire by Cora BuhlertCadet Anjali Patel had hoped for something more exciting than guard duty for her first mission with the legendary Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, the best fighters in the Empire of Worlds.

However, this boring job quickly turns hot, when an enemy convoy comes up the mountain pass Anjali is supposed to guard.

This is a prequel story of 4500 words or approx. 18 print pages to the “In Love and War” series, but may be read as a standalone.


More information.
Length: 4500 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
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While Dreaming of the Stars, Baptism of Fire and Graveyard Shift are all prequels of sorts, Freedom’s Horizon is (to date) the first book proper in the In Love and War series. Coincidentally, it’s also the longest at 55000 words, which makes it a novel, albeit a short one, by SFWA standards.

Though Freedom’s Horizon is the true beginning of the In Love and War series in more ways than one, because it was – at least in part – the first In Love and War story I ever wrote. For approximately two years ago, a scene popped into my head: Two intergalactic mercenaries, a man and a woman were bantering while walking through a grimy spaceport. I knew at once that they were a couple and that they came from very different backgrounds which they had left behind to be together. They worked as mercenaries now, not because they wanted to, but because it was the only option left open to them. They were also on the run and about to apply for a security position aboard a freighter, because the ground had gotten too hot for them. This early scene became, in slightly altered form, the second chapter of Freedom’s Horizon.

I was intrigued by the bantering couple, so I started writing. As I followed them through the spaceport, I learned a lot more about them: Their names, that they had both been elite soldiers on opposite sides of an endless intergalactic war, that they had fallen in love and run away together. I also got, in bits and pieces, the story of how they’d met and fallen in love and what had prompted them to leave behind everything they’d ever known and run away together. Eventually, I went first back in time to the story of how they met and fell in love against all odds (which will eventually be published, though it is emotionally draining to write) – and then forward to other adventures set when Anjali and Mikhail were already an established couple. Because by Freedom’s Horizon, they haven’t been together long and are still trying to figure out how they feel about each other. That is, Anjali is trying to figure out how she feels about Mikhail and their relationship and the loss of her old life. Because Mikhail already knows very well how he feels about her.

After I’d published several stories of varying lengths in the In Love and War series, I went back to take another look at that very first story I wrote that I’d never finished and noticed that I had a solid story there that was approximately two thirds finished, even though it wasn’t the story I’d initially thought I was telling. Because originally, I had intended for the story that eventually became Freedom’s Horizon to be a kind of Firefly-esque space opera, chronicling the adventures of the crew of the Freedom’s Horizon, including new recruits Anjali and Mikhail, during their voyage through pirate-infested space. However, as I wrote the story, trouble found Anjali, Mikhail and the Freedom’s Horizon before they could even leave the orbit of Metra Litko. And the trouble that found them was a lot more exciting than any altercation with space pirates could ever be. I also realised that Anjali and Mikhail were the true focus of the story, while the crew of the Freedom’s Horizon, though interesting people, were secondary characters. Coincidentally, Elijah Tyrone, Captain of the Freedom’s Horizon, also appears in Graveyard Shift, where you learn more about his family and his background.

So is Freedom’s Horizon a typical space opera? Well, it has spaceships, shoot-outs, fight scenes, chase scenes, desperate last stands, a seedy spaceport bar named The Scuttling Cockroach, a big space battle and a dramatic stand-off in orbit – in short, lots of the good stuff. However, it also has romance, friendship, emotions, people talking about their feelings, characters bonding over vid dramas and food – in short, lots of the mushy stuff. It even includes a recipe, because there is so much talk about food, I thought that some readers might like to know how to make one of the dishes. And yes, I know that recipes in the backs of novels are a thing in the cozy mystery genre and occasionally pop up in romance as well, but they aren’t very common in science fiction, though Joyce Chng includes recipes in some of her novels.

Coincidentally, I also added a new author’s note to Graveyard Shift, where I talk a bit about the pastries that the members of the military tribunal eat, while plotting cover-ups and handing out death sentences. No recipes this time, because these aren’t my pastries, but those of one of my favourite bakeries. And yes, I tuckerized the bakery.

When I was getting Freedom’s Horizon ready for publication and writing a different In Love and War story, where food also plays a big role, at the same time, I thought, “Other writers put recipes into their cozy mysteries, but I put them into my space opera. I guess I’m writing cozy space opera here.”

And then I thought, “Actually, cozy space opera sounds pretty cool.”

Of course, I didn’t invent that term. A bit of googling revealed that the newly Hugo-nominated podcast Sword and Laser referred to Becky Chambers’ debut The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as cozy space opera, which it absolutely is. Ditto for A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers’ second novel.

Also of interest in this context is Liz Bourke’s article on domestic space opera from last year, in which she names Becky Chambers’ books as well as C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series and Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe stories as examples.

Liz Bourke defines domestic space opera as follows:

Yet the operatic element—the intensity of emotion and of significance—still comes to the fore in all of these stories, for all the ways in which they take place in intimate settings and concern, often, small acts. It is this reaching for the high pitch of intensity, albeit in small and sometimes domestic contexts (and whether always successful or not), that makes them space opera, I think.

There is enough emotional scope within one single person’s life and relationships to cover any artist’s canvas in furious colour. And there’s something faintly radical about treating an individual in quieter settings as just as worthy and interesting a subject as the clash of empires…

Shaun Duke responds to Liz Bourke’s post with his own reflections on domestic space opera and points out that the personal is political, in space opera as in life. He also adds parts of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and her novel Provenance and the works of Joyce Chng as examples of domestic space opera.

Let’s have a quote from Shaun as well:

I’d like to add one thing more: the personal is fundamentally representative of the political, and the use of domestic spaces can reveal the influences of the political sphere on everyday life. How people live, what they do in their homes or among friends or family, etc. are all fed by the larger political systems in play, such that the traditional space opera tensions are echoed in the tensions within the domestic. Indeed, you might say that much of space opera — and its fans — has focused on the macro level, looking at the tensions produced by big sweeping motions of the writer’s brush; domesticity, however, focuses on the micro level, giving us a glimpse into how those much larger tensions actually impact individual relationships and behavior at home.

These definitions definitely fit the In Love and War series, where the eighty-eight year war between two galatic powers is reflected in the relationship between two people, who manage to fall in love with each other, even though their respective nations are at war and have been for longer than either of them have been alive. We also see the endless war and its consequences reflected in other characters such as Elijah Tyrone, Captain of the Freedom’s Horizon, and Colonel Brian Mayhew, Mikhail’s former mentor/surrogate father turned antagonist, who is probably the character who surprised me most, considering that I originally intended him to be just a simple villain.

The In Love and War series has quite a bit of action – after all, Mikhail and Anjali are elite soldiers turned mercenaries, and fighting is what they do. However, there are also plenty of quieter moments, plus love, friendship, family, characters bonding and of course, food.

But this is still a new release announcement, not a rumination about cozy space opera, so why don’t you give Freedom’s Horizon a try, cause it really has all of the good stuff – seedy spaceport bars, chases, shoot-outs, space battles, emotions, feelings, love, friendship, family – all that and recipes, too.

Freedom’s Horizon
Freedom's Horizon by Cora BuhlertOnce, Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were soldiers on opposing sides of an intergalactic war. They met, fell in love and decided to go on the run together.

Now Anjali and Mikhail are trying to eke out a living on the independent worlds of the galactic rim, while attempting to stay under the radar of those pursuing them.

After a run-in with a Republican spy on the rim world of Metra Litko, Anjali and Mikhail need to get off planet fast. So they sign on as security aboard the freighter Freedom’s Horizon, which is supposed to transport a valuable cargo through pirate infested space.

But they have far bigger problems than pirates, for the Republic of United Planets sends no less than three battlecruisers after them, commanded by none other than Colonel Brian Mayhew, Mikhail’s former superior and now their most determined pursuer.

The chase culminates in a stand-off in orbit around Metra Litko, where Anjali and Mikhail have to make a fatal choice. Fight and endanger the innocent crew of the Freedom’s Horizon or surrender and face death and worse at the hands of the Republic.

More information.
Length: 55000 words
List price: 3.99 USD, EUR or 2.99 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 iTunes, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Inktera, Playster, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel,, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, e-Sentral, 24symbols and XinXii.

The final new release for today is another In Love and War short story. I should maybe say something about the reading order for the In Love and War series now. In principle, all In Love and War stories can be read as standalones in any order, because they’re all self-contained. However, if you want an official reading order, start with Dreaming of the Stars (which is also the quiestest story of the series), then Baptism of Fire and Graveyard Shift, then Freedom’s Horizon, followed by Courting Trouble. Then Bullet Holes, Dead World and finally, the last new story for today, Double-Cross. This is also as good a moment as any to point you to the special In Love and War series bundle, where you can get all of the stories in the series to date at a drastically reduced price. Only at DriveThruFiction.

Double-Cross is another story to come out of the 2017 July short story challenge, where the goal was to write a story per day in July 2017. Baptism of Fire was another July short story challenge story, by the way.

Like many of the July short story challenge stories, Double-Cross was inspired by a piece of science fiction concept art, namely this lovely piece of Cyberpunk art. The image intrigued me, so I sent Anjali and Mikhail into that rain and neon-drenched environment on a retrieval mission. They successfully completed their mission and retrieved the McGuffin and I was stuck regarding what should happen next. So I looked through my folder of inspirational images again and came across this piece of Cyberpunky concept art, which sort of matched the first image. And suddenly I knew what would happen next.

While we’re on the topic of art, I’d also like to add a shout-out to the wonderful artist Tithi Luadthong a.k.a. Grandfailure, whose striking artwork graces all of the In Love and War covers so far.

Like all of the In Love and War stories, Double-Cross has plenty of banter between Anjali and Mikhail. It also has nanotech, noodles, space ninjas and a double-crossing client.

So go and check out…

Double-Cross by Cora BuhlertOnce, Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were soldiers on opposing sides of an intergalactic war. They met, fell in love and decided to go on the run together.

Now Anjali and Mikhail are trying to eke out a living on the independent worlds of the galactic rim, while attempting to stay under the radar of those pursuing them.

When they are hired to retrieve a shipment of bootleg medical nanobots, it seems like a routine job at first. But it quickly turns out that they are not the only ones who are after the nanobots. And their client has an agenda of her own.

More information.
Length: 5100 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
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Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part II: The 2018 Hugos

For my comments on the 1943 Retro Hugo Awards, go here. Meanwhile, here are my comments on the main event (sorry, long dead authors, filmmakers, artists and fans of 1942), the 2018 Hugo Award finalists.

For other comments on the finalists, see the discussion in the comments at File 770. Also at File 770, JJ has compiled a list of where the find the 2018 Hugo finalists online. Best novel nominee John Scalzi is delighted to be nominated and finds some kind words for his fellow nominees, too. Joel Cunningham weighs in at the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, while Andrew Liptak weighs in at The Verge. Newly minted best fanwriter nominee Camestros Felapton shares his thoughts on the 2018 Hugo finalists here. Meanwhile, a certain jerk who managed to get himself kicked out of WorldCon 76 months before the con, attended the public announcement of the Hugo finalists, managed to behave himself enough that he was not kicked out and still feels persecuted. He’s also been saying nasty things about the Hugo finalists on Twitter.

Overall, the 2018 Hugo Award finalists are a very good and diverse ballot with some notable exceptions (more on that later). Best of all, they are completely puppy free – no dinosaur erotica, no Castalia House, no Vox Day, no John C. Wright, no umpteenth take on Appendix N – and contain quite a lot of people that the various puppy groups and offshots hate.

So let’s jump right into the categories, starting off with best novel: It’s a solid ballot: Provenance by Ann Leckie and Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee were both on my ballot as well. And of course, both Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee have had previous nominations for other works in the same worlds. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty is a neat murder mystery on a generation ship that was on my longlist, but didn’t make my shortlist. Plus, Mur Lafferty seems to be popular with Hugo voters. After a few years of absence, John Scalzi is back with The Collapsing Empire, a solid space opera. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin was an obvious nominee, considering that the previous two books in the trilogy won this category in the past two years. The only finalist in this category I don’t care for is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I know that Robinson is popular with the Hugo electorate and has been nominated several times, but I have bounced off every book of his that I tried. I also don’t care for Robinson’s public persona as displayed in articles like this recent one from The Guardian. He reminds me of the joyless eco activists with whom I tangled in highschool. My father worked in the waste disposal industry at the time (and not the eco activist approved part thereof), which means I got a lot of backlash and open hatred from radical eco activists. Some of them were classmates, some of them even were my teachers. Ironically, my Dad has probably done more for the environment than any of those people. Of course, none of this is in any way Mr. Robinson’s fault, but I still react badly to his articles and don’t like his fiction. Coincidentally, the best novel category is very science fiction and particularly very space opera heavy this year. Even The Stone Sky, the most fantasy of the finalists, sits on the borderline of science fiction and fantasy.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 2 POC, 1 LGBT (as far as I know)

On to best novella: This is another very good list of finalists. All Systems Red by Martha Wells and River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey were both delightful and were also both on my nomination ballot. “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker is another fine novella that was on my longlist, but did not make my personal shortlist. The Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely and besides, Binti: Home is the sequel to a previous winner. I haven’t yet read J.Y. Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven and its sister novella The Red Threads of Fortune, but I have enjoyed other works by J.Y. Yang and the novellas got a lot of positive attention. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is another novella I haven’t read, but it is a prequel to last year’s winner in this category (which I didn’t particularly care for, so I never read the prequel), so it’s far from a surprise.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 non-binary, 2 POC, 2 international authors, 1 LGBT (as far as I know)

Let’s take a look at best novelette: “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard and “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee are both excellent stories (and tie in to the authors’ respective Xuya Universe and Hexarchate/Heptarchate series). “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad got a lot of positive attention, though the story didn’t quite work for me. I somehow missed “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzette Palmer, though I have enjoyed other stories by her. I also missed “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szapara, even though I recognise the title from this year’s Nebula ballot. “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker is another story I haven’t read, because I don’t have access to Asimov’s. Coincidentally, this is also the sole nominee to originate in the print magazines.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 3 POC, 2 international authors, 2 LGBT (again as far as I know)

On to best short story: “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata is a very good story and coincidentally was also on my ballot. “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” by Rebecca Roanhorse and “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon are all lovely stories. I also think Rebecca Roanhorse is the first Native American ever nominated for a Hugo Award. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde didn’t quite work for me, though I have enjoyed other stories by this author. As mentioned in my comments on the 2017 Nebula nominees, “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim also didn’t work for me, though once more I have enjoyed other stories by the author. And while I think the worldbuilding of “Carnival Nine” is interesting and I can see what Caroline M. Yoachim was trying to do, the story carries an IMO problematic subtext (possibly unintended) of “women must take care of sick children, elderly parents and relatives and wayward partners and shouldn’t expect help from anybody” and also “Stay at home and don’t even try to get away, because your place is here”. Worse, whenever the story’s protagonist tries doing something for herself, usually going to the carnival, bad things happen. I probably react stronger to this subtext than others, because as a women with several elderly and ill relatives, I have had to fight against such attitudes.

Diversity count: 6 women, 3 POC, 1 international writer

So let’s take a look at best series. This is the category where my personal tastes are completely out of step with those of the Hugo electorate, since none of my nominees made it. Worse, there are several series here I have never read at all and also have zero interest in. Not sure how and if I will vote in this category. I’ll probably leave the series I don’t know off my ballot altogether. Lois McMaster Bujold is of course a perennial favourite and last year’s winner in this category for the Vorkosigan saga. This year, she is nominated for her World of the Five Gods series, which includes The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt as well as the Penric and Desdemona novellas. And indeed, I nominated one of the Penric and Desdemona novellas this year (as well as in the previous years), though I did not nominate the series as a whole. Still, a fine and worthy nominee and I wouldn’t be surprised, if Lois McMaster Bujold managed to win this category two years in a row. Seanan McGuire is of course another perennial favourite with the Hugo electorate. Last year, she was nominated in this category for her October Daye series, this year she is up for the InCryptid series. I read and enjoyed the first two books in the InCryptid series, though the series had blossomed to seven books since then, largely without me noticing. Nonetheless, this is a fine and worthy finalist. I’m also really happy to see Martha Wells recognised twice on the 2018 Hugo ballot, in best novella and best series, especially since her work has been largely ignored by the various genre awards. I also read and enjoyed The Cloud Roads, the first book in The Books of the Raksura series, which is nominated in this category, but again I haven’t read any of the sequels. With both the Raksura and the InCryptid series, part of the problem is that both are not easy to find in Europe, unless you specifically order them. I read and enjoyed Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court books, but I have to admit that I never read any of her nominated Memoirs of Lady Trent books, largely because dragons aren’t really the catnip for me that they evidently are for many other SFF readers. I do read books about dragons, but I do not seek them out and a dragon on the cover does not mean an instant sale with me. The Divine Cities trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett did get a lot of positive buzz and one of the earlier volumes just missed the best novel ballot during one of the puppy years. However, again this is a series I have never read, partly because I tried one of Robert Jackson Bennett’s earlier urban fantasy novels and did not particularly care for it and partly because the description for the Divine Cities series did nothing for me. Brandon Sanderson finally is a hugely popular fantasy author, but so far, none of the works by him that I tried (two Hugo nominated novellas and his novel Steelheart) did much for me. For some reason, I quickly tend to forget Brandon Sanderson’s works after reading them to the point that I had to look up what the novel by him that I tried was called and whether it was part of the nominated Stormlight Archives series (it’s not). So in short, I haven’t read a lot in this category and I have no idea how I will vote or if I will even get to all finalists in time, particularly since some of those books are really long. Interestingly, while science fiction dominated in the best novel category, best series is completely dominated by fantasy.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men

As in the past few years, Orbit dominates the best novel category and unsurprisingly dominates the best novella category. However, the dominance is no longer quite so notable in the other short fiction categories, which is a good thing.

Best Related Work promises to be another category that will be really difficult to judge, if only because the finalists are all so very good, which is a relief, particularly considering what a trashfire this category was during the puppy years. Talking of puppies, Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn will absolutely infuriate them. It is also a highly worthy nominee. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, is another highly worthy nominee and coincidentally a book I purchased in the green room at WorldCon 75 from one of the editors herself before it was even officially out. And yes, it was on my ballot as was Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Liz Bourke, a collection of her columns, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Paul Kincaid’s critical overview of the works of Iain M. Banks got a lot of positive buzz and the only reason I haven’t yet read it is because I bounced so badly of Banks imitators during the New British Space Opera era of the early 2000s that I could never really bring myself to try the original. I guess I should remedy that some time. The collection No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters by the late Ursula K. Le Guin is a logical nominee in this category, especially since this is probably the last chance to honour one of the true greats of our genre. A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff kind of passed me by, though I will be interested to read it.

Diversity count: 5 women, 2 men, 1 POC, 1 LGBT (again as far as I know)

Best graphic story is another really strong category this year. Monstress, Saga and Paper Girls are all previous nominees in this category and also really great comics. A previous volume of Bitch Planet just missed the ballot during the puppy years, so I’m glad to see it recognised this year. Now I have never particularly cared about Marvel’s Inhumans – they were always some of the weirder characters in the Marvel canon – Volume 1 of Saladin Ahmed’s and Christian Ward’s Black Bolt comic, which dumps Black Bolt, a normally not very likeable character, into a space prison, was excellent. Okay, so I have something of a weakness for prison stories, particularly space prison stories. They are catnip for me, just like dragons are catnip for other SFF readers. And the best graphic story ballot this year has two space prison stories with Black Bolt and Bitch Planet (and Saga and Monstress may well have had prison scenes, too, I can’t remember right now), so I’m pretty happy right now. The final nominee in this category, My Favourite Thing Is Monsters, is the only one I don’t know.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making comics.

On to best dramatic presentation long form: The two best picture Oscar nominated SFF films of 2017, The Shape of Water and Get Out!, both unsurprisingly made the Hugo ballot. They are both worthy nominees as well, though I find that the backlash after The Shape of Water won the best picture and best director Oscars, while Get Out! took best screenplay, has slightly soured me on Get Out!. Thor: Ragnarok was the best superhero film of 2017 and I’m very glad to see it nominated here. Wonder Woman was another hugely popular superhero film, though I have to admit I don’t love it quite as much as many others do. It’s a perfectly fine film and definitely the best of DC’s recent superhero movies and Gal Gadot is wonderful, but I don’t quite get the intense love for this movie. I guess a lot of people were just really desperate for a decent superheroine movie that it overshadowed the flaws. Coincidentally, I rewatched both Thor: Ragnarok and Wonder Woman only a few days ago, since both are now out on DVD and TV is crap during the Easter weekend, and found that Thor: Ragnarok has become better the second time around, while Wonder Woman got weaker. My parents, both of whom are long term Wonder Woman fans going back to a stack of Golden Age comics with my Dad and to the Lynda Carter series of the 1970s with my Mom, were also underwhelmed by the film, because it was basically a WWI film with a bit of the Wonder Woman they remember thrown in the final half hour. Star Wars: The Last Jedi may have been divisive – and its nomination will almost certainly piss off the puppies – but it was also a movie that a lot of people loved (my own feelings were somewhat mixed, as chronicled here) and besides, it is Star Wars and Star Wars always gets nominated. The Hugo nomination for Blade Runner 2049 somewhat surprised me, because while the film was visually stunning, it was still an unnecessary sequel to a movie that didn’t really need one. And it didn’t even answer the questions left open by the original all that well. The overall reception also wasn’t that positive – unlike with almost every other movie on the ballot – so I’m surprised that enough people nominated it.

Again no diversity count, since there are too many people involved in making movies. Though I’m pleased that we have a female director and two male directors of colour nominated in this category.

Let’s take a look at dramatic presentation short form: This is usually the category where my personal tastes are most out of step with those of the broader Hugo electorate and this year is no exception. Though at least one of my nominees made it, the excellent Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”, which I discuss in greater depth here. Star Trek Discovery may have been a mess of a show, but it did have a handful of really good episodes and the best of those, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” won a Hugo nomination. And while I may have been pretty harsh on the show overall, I have absolutely no beef with this nomination, because it was a really good episode that gave the cast and characters a chance to shine and – more importantly – it actually felt like proper Star Trek rather than grimdark mirror Star Trek. Besides, Gabriel Lorca gets killed 47 times in a row, so what’s not to enjoy? Perennial Hugo favourite Doctor Who is represented by the 2017 Christmas Special Twice Upon a Time, which was a multi Doctor and a regeneration episode and also pretty good. Last year’s surprise nominees Clipping managed to score another nomination with their song “The Deep”. Considering how dominated this category is by various Hollywood and BBC juggernauts, I’m really happy for them.

Then finally, there is the Hugo finalist which had me literally screaming in frustration, namely The Good Place. Now I mentioned in my 2017 Nebula reaction post that I had zero interest in The Good Place, because I don’t care for US style sitcoms, don’t care for afterlife stories and don’t care for religious “heaven, hell and all that jazz” stories. Whereupon people urged me to give The Good Place a try anyway, because it was really, really good. So I did. More precisely, while channel-surfing, I came across The Good Place (which I didn’t even know was airing in Germany until that point) on a fairly obscure channel. “Hey, it’s that Good Place show the Americans are all into these days”, I said, “Let’s give it a try.” So we watched about five minutes, until we looked at each other and said as one, “What the fuck is this shit?” and changed the channel. About a week later, I chanced to come across The Good Place again while channel surfing, managed to watch another five minutes or so, before I had to switch the show off, because the show was literally painful for me to watch. Now part of that may be due to the German dubbing – sitcoms are often dubbed in a screechy, hysterical style that I can’t stand. But considering that I hated both the new Battlestar Galactica and Orphan Black (and no awarded the latter, when it was up for a Hugo), I nonetheless managed to watch three whole episodes of the new Galactica and one whole episode of Orphan Black. Of Fringe, which I also did not like, I still managed to watch the whole first season. The Good Place, however, grates so much on my nerves that I cannot abide watching even a whole episode (and these episodes are short, only 25 minutes). It’s everything about it – the characters, the actors (and I usually like Ted Danson), the screechy dubbing, the sitcom suburb sets (yes, American suburbs are literally hell. We get it by now, so why do US films and TV shows have to repeat that point). And this show which is literally painful for me to watch gets not just one but two Hugo nominations at a time where there is a lot of very good SFF TV out there. The Handmaid’s Tale, undoubtedly the standout SFF show of 2017, which won both the Emmy and the Golden Globe, doesn’t even get a single nomination and The Bloody Good Place gets two. Lucifer (which actually does something interesting with this whole heaven and hell thing), Preacher (ditto), Outlander, The Expanse, The Orville (which occasionally falls into the sitcom trap, but manages to balance the SF and sitcom elements so much better), Game of Thrones, the various DC Arrowverse superhero shows, Gotham, The Defenders, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Stranger Things and lots of other decent to good SFF shows didn’t make the ballot and the bloody Good Place does. Hell, if you want afterlife stories, why not watch Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, two very good interconnected series, which used the “Welcome to the afterlife” so much better (it’s not longer a spoiler more than ten years on, is it?), and never even won a single Hugo nomination over five seasons. I may give The Good Place one more try, but frankly I suspect I will be no awarding this and I will absolutely not feel sorry about it. Luckily, we have four good nominees and only two dreadful ones in this category.

Again no diversity count, too many people are involved in making TV shows and music.

So now I’ve ranted enough, let’s go on to the two editing categories. Best editor is a fine ballot of highly worthy nominees. The finalists are largely the same as last year, though Joe Monti and Diana M. Pho are new.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 2 POC

The best editor short form category is also largely the same as last year. Lee Harris is new to this category, though he was nominated in the long form editing category a few years ago.

Diversity count: 2 women, 5 men

So let’s take a look at the two art categories. Best pro artist is a mixture of returning favourites such as WorldCon 76 guest of honour John Picacio, Sana Takeda, Galen Dara and Victo Ngai and new names such as Kathleen Jennings and Bastien Lecouffe Deharme. I suspect that the latter profited a bit from Terry Goodkind behaving like an arsehole and saying unkind things about Lecouffe Deharme’s cover for his latest novel. Though Lecouffe Deharme does some really great work as well.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, at least 3 POC, 3 international artists.

Best fan artist is another mix of returning favourites such as Likhain a.k.a M. Serreno, Spring Schoenhuth and Steve Stiles and new names such as Geneva Benton, Grace P. Fong and Maya Hahto (who designed the WorldCon 75 mascot Major Ursa among others).

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, at least 3 POC, at least 2 international artists.

The best semiprozine category again looks very similar to last year’s. Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons and The Book Smugglers are all returning favourites. The two new nominees are Fireside Magazine, which has been doing some very good work these past two years, and Escape Pod. It’s also nice to see an audio magazine nominated in this category.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in editing and publishing semiprozines.

Best fanzine is another mix and longtime favourites and new names. File 770 has been nominated and winning in this category for more than thirty years now and also holds up the traditional fanzine flag together with Journey Planet, another longtime nominee and previous winner. Chris Gracia introduces Journey Planet and the team behind it in this post at File 770, BTW. nerds of a feather, Rocket Stack Rank and SF Bluestocking are all returning nominees from last year and they all continue to do good work in their respective niches. Newcomer Galactic Journey is a fanzine with a twist, since it reviews all SF magazines, films, novels, etc… – from 55 years in the past, because for Galactic Journey, it’s 1963 and they’re probably very surprised to be nominated for a Hugo in the far off future of 2018. It’s a great site and seeing reviews of vintage SFF mags in context – with the good, the bad and the ugly – is fascinating. It was one of my nominees these past two years and I’m really glad that it made it this year.

Again no diversity count, too many people.

The best fancast finalists also include plenty of returning favourites such as Galactic Suburbia, The Fangirl Happy Hour, Ditch Diggers and The Coode Street Podcast. Verity! wasn’t nominated last year, though it has definitely been nominated in the past, because I remember listening to it. Sword and Laser is new to this category, though the podcast has been around for a while and is usually good. All are fine nominees, though I’m a bit sad that my pals of the Skiffy and Fanty Show didn’t make it this year.

Diversity count. 13 women (some of them nominated twice), 5 men

While a lot of the other categories have plenty of returning nominees, the best fanwriter category has plenty of new names. Mike Glyer is of course a multiple nominee and winner in this category. Foz Meadows has been nominated a few times as well, but hasn’t won so far. Camestros Felapton is a new name and one I’m really happy to see here, because I always enjoy his blog, even when it has been taken over by cats and dinosaurs. A highly deserved nomination. Charles Payseur of nerds of a feather and Quick Sip Reviews is another fanwriter who does good work, but hasn’t been recognised before, at least not individually. I follow Bogi Takács on Twitter, but I haven’t read all that much of their fanwriting so far, though I’m looking forward to remedying that. Sarah Gailey is a curious case, because I love her fiction (River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow were personal favourites), but her non-fiction writing doesn’t do nearly as much for me. Still a very worthy nominee. Coincidentally, I suspect that both Foz Meadows and Camestros Felapton profited indirectly from recent puppy attempts to smear both of them (follow the whole silly and sordid saga here), since some people are apparently unable to imagine that Australia is a big place and that more than two people live there. Because the smear attempts exposed a lot of people to Foz Meadows’ and Camestros’ respective blogs and several of them probably liked what they saw there.

Diversity count: 2 women, 3 men, 1 non-binary, 3 international writers

Now we get to the two “no a Hugo” categories. The first is the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer. The nominees are all excellent choices. Vina Jie-Min Prasad and Rebecca Roanhorse wrote some excellent short fiction last year, Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts got a lot of attention, as did Jeanette Ng’s debut novel Under the Pendulum Sun. I haven’t read Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale and its sequel The Girl in the Tower, but a lot of people seem to like them. Sarah Kuhn had a self-published or small-press published novel a few years ago, which doesn’t count for the Campbell, and is now nominated for her fun superhero novels Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.

Diversity count: 6 women, 4 POC, 2 international authors.

The final “not a Hugo” category is the new YA Award, which will eventually be called the Lodestar Award. The inaugural ballot is very strong indeed. Philip Pullman’s return to the world of the His Dark Materials trilogy in La Belle Sauvage was one of the biggest YA books of the year. Frances Hardinge, who is nominated for A Skinful of Shadows, is another highly acclaimed YA author, though I have to admit that I have never read anything by her so far. I adore Sam J. Miller’s short fiction, so I am very happy to see his debut novel The Art of Starving nominated. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher a.k.a. Ursula Vernon was lovely (and coincidentally, the only indie published work on the whole Hugo ballot) and Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor was another very good YA SFF book. And while I have enjoyed previous books by Sarah Rees Brennan, I haven’t yet read In Other Lands, the book for which she is nominated. Still, it’s a strong ballot and – more importantly – these are the sort of books that actual teens read rather than adult SFF author’s ventures into YA, which are often nominated for the Andre Norton Award.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 1 POC, 1 LGBT

Finally, let’s take a look at my hit rate: I got 35 nominees out of 114, i.e. 30.7%. My Mom, who did not nominate in every category, got 9 out of 114, i.e. 7.8%.

I can’t see any notable themes this year. Space opera is clearly popular in several categories, while the fairytale trend of the past few years has abated somewhat. The 1980s nostalgia trend also seems to have abated a bit. 2017 has also been a really strong year for Asian writers and artists. Finally, I’m also really happy to see several trans writers recognised, particularly since March 31 is Trans Day of Visibility.

All in all, this is a very good Hugo ballot. A lot of things I liked, some I don’t care for, but where I can see why other people like them, a few things I don’t know, but look forward to trying and only three nominees I really, really don’t like (New York 2140 and The Good Place times two). Compared to the puppy years, where you were often happy to have one decent nominee in a category, this is great. Looks like the Hugos are back on track.

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Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part I: The 1943 Retro Hugos

So the finalists for the 2018 Hugo Awards and the 1943 Retro Hugo Awards were announced tonight, following some controversy, because the announcement happens to take place not just on Easter Saturday, but also on Passover. Coincidentally, it’s not a great time for me either – I just had a triple new release, plus it’s Easter and the end of the quarter, which means I have to do my quarterly taxes. But then, I doubt it’s possible to find a time to announce the nominees that works for all of fandom.

So let’s take a look at the nominees. Retro Hugos first, than the current year Hugos in part II:

The 1943 Retro Hugo ballot is – as usual with Retro Hugos – rather Heinlein heavy (well, even I nominated the two Heinlein novellas and I’m not a big fan of his). Best graphic story, best series and best dramatic presentation long are all conspicuous by their absence. Now I’m not surprised that best related work, best semiprozine, best fan artist, best editor long form and best fancast are missing, since nominating for the Retro Hugos in these categories is difficult to nigh impossible. But 1942 had some very good comics (Wonder Woman, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Superman, Batman, Captain America, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Tin Tin and you still couldn’t find anything to nominate?), some fine series (Captain Future, The Spider, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Lensmen, Jules De Grandin, Pellucidar, The Avengers, G-8 and His Battle Aces and once more not enough nominations?) and even a few dramatic presentations over 90 minutes. The Perils of Nyoka serial is still great, for example, and was one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones.

But let’s look at the categories which do have nominees:

The two fan categories – best fan writer and fanzine – are full of familiar names, who had a long career in fandom and also in the pro field. All look like solid choices. Alas, only one female nominee – Morojo a.k.a. Myrtle Douglas who co-edited a fanzine with Forrest J. Ackerman.

Best editor is also full of good choices: Whatever you think about John W. Campbell, Astounding and Unknown published a whole lot of outstanding stories in the 1940s. Dorothy McIlwraith is not just the lone female nominee in this category, but also did very good work at Weird Tales. Malcolm Reiss was the editor of Planet Stories, the home of planetary romance, which published a lot of highly enjoyable stories in the 1940s, including a lot of Leigh Brackett’s, C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s (either apart or together) work. I’m also really happy to see Oscar J. Friend, editor of Captain Future Magazine, here. I have a deep and abiding love for Captain Future (and keep nominating him for the Retro Hugos), because the 1979 anime adaptation of Captain Future was one of the properties that turned me into an SF fan in the first place. Raymond Palmer’s star has sunk somewhat in later years due to stuff like the Shaver mysteries, but that only started a few years later. In 1943, he did good work as the editor of Amazing Stories and Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Donald A. Wollheim is the only surprise in this category. Now Donald Wollheim was a fine editor, but in 1942 his only pro editing work was Stirring Science Stories, a largely forgotten short-lived science fiction pulp.

Best pro artist is also full of excellent choices: I’m particularly glad to see Margaret Brundage – resident cover artist of Weird Tales in the 1930s and early 1940s – nominated, because her art is still stunning (and so sexy that Amazon wouldn’t let an indie publish a book with a cover like that). Hannek Bok and Virgil Finlay also did excellent work on Weird Tales. Edd Cartier was mainly an interior illustrator and contributed his atmospheric artwork to Weird Tales and The Shadow (so why no best series recognition for The Shadow and Captain Future?). Hubert Rogers was the resident cover artist for Astounding Stories. Harold W. McCauley is an artist I mainly associate with later work on SF magazines and sleazy paperbacks in the 1950s, though he apparently did a few covers for Amazing Stories in 1942. He’s another artist specialising in scantily clad attractive women – well, it was the 1940s.

Best dramatic presentation short form is a bit of a mixed bag. Bambi, Cat People and I Married a Witch are all fine, if very different movies. The Ghost of Frankenstein and Invisible Agent are both lesser later entries in series (Universal’s Frankenstein and The Invisble Man respectively) and I’m actually surprised to see them nominated, since there were better choices in the respective year and category. Invisible Agent is a WWII propaganda film as well, but then WWII propaganda stuff is difficult to avoid in 1942. However, if people screech about the 1943 Münchhausen movie – which is not a propaganda movie, but only happened to be made during the Third Reich and involved a lot of people who were more or less openly anti-Nazi – I will point them at Invisible Agent. The Korda Brothers’ Jungle Book adaptation is the film that introduced Sabu to the world and is actually over ninety minutes long. It was eclipsed by the later Disney version, but it is still a good movie. Talking of Sabu, my favourite 1942 film starring Sabu and Jon Hall (who also stars in Invisible Agent) as well as Maria Montez, namely Arabian Nights, sadly did not make it. Now I have a deep and abiding love for the Maria Montez films of the 1940s, since they were a TV staple of my childhood, but I guess others don’t share that fondness.

So let’s take a look at the best short story nominees for 1943: “Runaround” by Isaac Asimov, one of his Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell stories, and “The Twonky” by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner are both classics and were on my ballot. I haven’t read these particular stories by Fredric Brown, Hal Clement, Fritz Leiber and Donald Wollheim (writing as Martin Pearson), but all are great writers with lengthy careers. I’m a bit sad that none of the Leigh Brackett stories that were eligible made it and that Isaac Asimov’s “Victory Unintentional” and “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”, both of which are utterly hilarious, didn’t make it either, especially since I clearly remembered both stories thirty years after I first read them.

Best novelette has two absolute classics with “Foundation” a.k.a. “The Encyclopedists” and “Bridle and Saddle” by Isaac Asimov, the first two stories of what would eventually become the Foundation series. These stories blew my mind at 16 and I still love them at almost 45. “There Shall Be Darkness” by C.L. Moore is another fine story by one of the best women writers of early science fiction. “The Goldfish Bowl” by Robert A. Heinlein under one of his many pseudonyms was actually on my personal longlist, but did not make my final ballot. “The Star Mouse” by Fredric Brown I haven’t read (I haven’t read a lot of Fredric Brown, for some reason, though I generally liked what I did read). “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. Van Vogt, finally, is the most problematic nominee on the Retro Hugo ballot. Now I freely admit that Van Vogt’s fiction doesn’t work for me. I tried reading him repeatedly, but he just doesn’t work for me and I suspect he never will. However, the presence of “The Weapon Shop” on the Retro Hugo ballot doesn’t just bother me, because I don’t care for Van Vogt’s work. Because “The Weapon Shop” is basically an anti-gun control story, which was probably not that problematic in 1942, but is hugely problematic in 2017. I’m honestly surprised that this story was nominated, especially since the Parkland Shooting, which heated up the gun control debate in the US anew, happened in the middle of the Hugo nomination period. Okay, maybe all the pro-gun people nominated it. Once more, none of the three Leigh Brackett novelettes, which were eligible in 1942, made it, which is a pity, because Leigh Brackett was one of the best science fiction writers of the pulp era period.

The best novella category consists of two more Heinlein stories, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” and “Waldo”. Both of them are classics and coincidentally were also on my ballot. Yes, I do like some Heinlein works and in fact, my issues with Heinlein mostly involve his later works. A lot of his stories from the 1940s and 1950s were very good. It’s only with Starship Troopers that everything goes to hell. Though I’m surprised that Heinlein was so prolific in 1942, in the middle of WWII, since he worked as an engineer for the US Navy. “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher is another fine story and coincidentally was also on my ballot. I also did nominate Alfred Bester in the best novella category, though I went with a different novella (“Push of a Finger”) than with “Hell is Forever”, the one that made it. I haven’t read the Van Vogt (like I said, not a fan) and Lester Del Rey stories.

So let’s take a look at the Best Novel category for the 1943 Retro Hugos: I’m really great to see The Uninvited by Dorothy McArdle, a classic gothic ghost story, nominated here. Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak is another classic, though probably better remembered via its film adaptation these days. Now I have to admit that I could never get into E.E. Smith’s Lensmen series, probably because by the time I tried to read them in my mid twenties, I had already read and seen plenty of imitators who took the ideas Smith pioneered and did something more interesting with them. Nonetheless, the Lensmen series was hugely influential and Second-Stage Lensmen is an obvious nominee in this category. One of Heinlein’s many pen names is once again present with Beyond This Horizon – again not an unsurprising nominee. Darkness and the Light by Olaf Stapledon I haven’t read, since Stapledon is another classic author who just doesn’t work for me. And while I tried to read Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright, I found it pretty boring.

Still, it’s a pretty good ballot for the 1943 Retro Hugos, even with no Leigh Brackett and no finalists at all in the best graphic story, best series and best dramatic presentation long form categories. I wonder what the puppy types will make of this, especially since many of them claim to champion pulp era science fiction and keep complaining that Heinlein couldn’t get nominated for a Hugo these days (he only got nominated four times) and that authors like C.L. Moore are completely forgotten (two Hugo nominations, one joint and one on her own, are not bad for a forgotten author.

Hit rate: 23 out of 54 in the categories that actually have nominees, i.e. 42%, which is pretty good actually. My Mom got 8 out of 54, but then she only nominated in a few categories, including series and graphic story, which have no nominees.

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Indie Crime Fiction of the Month for March 2018

Welcome to the latest edition of “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some February books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Our new releases cover the broad spectrum of crime fiction. We have cozy mysteries, small town mysteries, paranormal mysteries, historical mysteries, WWII mysteries, British mysteries, humorous mysteries, crime thrillers, psychological thrillers, domestic thrillers, romantic suspense, sea adventures, spy fiction, hot FBI agents, reformed thieves, stalkers, serial killers, superheroes, spies, doofus detectives, intrepid reporters, crime-busting librarians, innocents accused and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Crime Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Indie Crime Scene, a group blog which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things crime fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Darke Accused by Parker AvrileDarke Accused by Parker Avrile:

An FBI agent goes undercover to catch a thief who turns out to be too hot to handle.

Darke Davis destroyed evidence to give his partner-in-crime time to flee with thirty-nine million dollars— and Special Agent Flare Greene is determined to get that money back. Hooking up with Darke at a popular gay roadhouse seems like a brilliant way to insinuate his way into Darke’s life.

Flare didn’t plan on the two of them stumbling over a body and finding themselves on the run from charges of first-degree murder. It’s the perfect opportunity to bond with Darke, but if they can’t work together to solve these crimes, they may find themselves locked up together for longer than just one night.

No cliffhangers, and you may expect the killer to find justice. However, because Darke and Flare are at the beginning of their journey together, they reach a happy for now ending with relationship challenges remaining ahead of them.

Dead on the Docks by David BannerDead On The Docks by David Banner:

Brandon Waters was never expecting everything to go as planned, but he never imagined it would go this far off the rails…

After receiving a phone call from a new client he finds himself in St. Augustine, Florida ready to go to work. But right from the start, this is no ordinary case and it isn’t long until he finds himself caught up in the underground world of organized fight clubs and twisted millionaires.

With an seemingly innocent woman’s freedom on the line and a rogue FBI agent at his side he must try to find the truth in the lies and help uncover what really happened to his former best friend’s father. Were the police right, was the woman in jail really guilty of the crime or was there more to the case?

Dead on The Docks is the highly anticipated third installment of the hugely popular Dangerous Waters series.

Her Sister's Secrets by V.J. ChambersHer Sister’s Secrets by V.J. Chambers:

An anonymous letter summons Emilia Farrow to Siesta Key. An oceanfront house has been rented there for her, its closet stocked with designer clothes in her size. The mysterious correspondent promises that if she comes, she will find out what really happened to her sister Violet.

Her death wasn’t an accident.

Immersing herself in a world of wealth and privilege, Emilia has nightmares about the Wainwright mansion next door. Her mother used to work there years ago. Recently, her sister also worked for the Wainwrights. Just looking at the house makes Emilia feel as if she can’t breathe. Her strongest memory of the place is her mother packing up her and her sister and fleeing in the hours before dawn.

What happened all those years ago? Was Violet murdered? Who killed her? And who rented this house for Emilia?

Found Drowned by B.K. DuncanFound Drowned by B.K. Duncan:

Smuggling. Prostitution. Murder.

London. 1920 and coroner’s officer May Keaps is tasked with solving the mystery that surrounds the death of a young boy, found drowned in The Thames.

But was it murder or an accident?

May knows that when children go missing, the reason is often linked to money but she is in danger of underestimating the corrupting influence of power . . .

On streets where poverty and exploitation walk hand-in-hand everyone has a price. And some are more valuable dead than alive. But who is pulling the strings?

May must journey into the dark underbelly of London to find the answers.

The Zero Commandment by Lawrence J. EpsteinThe Zero Commandment by Lawrence J. Epstein:

It is 1941. The country is on the edge of war. In New York, three men are murdered. The detective Charlie Singer is drawn into the case after rescuing a young woman being attacked in Central Park. With Katie Walker, his partner, Charlie deals with a famous gossip columnist, an organization devoted to fighting Hitler, and a violent group of haters. As Charlie uncovers the lies and secrets, he discovers a blossoming relationship with Katie who is undergoing a major life change.


Game of Bones by Geraldine EvansGames of Bones by Geraldine Evans:

Sergeant Llewellyn’s remark that, perhaps, ‘Someone ELSE had made them a gift of Professor Anthony Babbington’ as the murderer, was just sour grapes, in Detective Joe Rafferty’s opinion.

But Llewellyn could plant a doubt where none had existed before. And Rafferty, sure in his own mind that they had the culprit, disregarded Llewellyn, who was known to greatly admire Babbington. They had so much proof it was embarrassing: Babbington’s fingerprints on the murder weapon; the victim’s blood on his shirt; and his DNA on the dead man.

Rafferty couldn’t believe it when his ‘sure thing’ began to slowly unravel. He refused to admit his growing doubts about Babbington’s guilt to Llewellyn, who championed the professor, and was as convinced of Babbington’s innocence as Rafferty was of his culpability.

But gradually, all Rafferty’s certainty vanished into dust, and he was left to prepare himself to face the music when Superintendent Bradley came back from his expensive holiday, to find that the ‘sure thing’ he had left with Rafferty, had inexplicably become anything but.

Unless Joe Rafferty could find some way to turn defeat into triumph…

Double Murders are Twice as Bad by Milo James FowlerVic Boyo, Doofus Detective in Double Murders are Twice as Bad by Milo James Fowler:

Two murders. One detective. Half a brain.

1931, New York City: Detective Vic Boyo may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but that doesn’t stop him from solving cases as only he can. With a little luck and a whole lot of gumption, Boyo sets out to find the murderer of a local cop. Problem is, Boyo’s more interested in a gorgeous femme fatale accused of killing her husband. She’s destined for the electric chair, but Boyo’s got a hunch she might be innocent. And nobody gets in the way of Boyo’s hunches, not even Vic Boyo himself.

The Corrector by Ethan JonesThe Corrector by Ethan Jones:

When covert operations go wrong, the CIS sends in . . . The Corrector.

After a botched retrieval operation, Javin Pierce is sent in to complete the mission where others failed. But, before even getting started, Javin and his less-than-trusted partner, Claudia, must deal with a devious terrorist plot. Their search leads them to a flash drive containing scandals that could topple world governments and plunge Europe into absolute chaos if they do not retrieve it in time.

How will The Corrector fix this disastrous mission? Uncertain if they can even trust each other and unprepared for the shocking truth that could cost their lives, Javin and Claudia must stop the treasonous plot, retrieve the elusive drive, and save themselves and the entire European continent, all without leaving a trace . . .

Not a Mermaid by Madeline KirbyNot a Mermaid by Madeline Kirby:

It’s July in Houston, and when heat waves and storm warnings finally give way to flooding rains, Jake Hillebrand’s strange dreams take a sinister turn. When the flood waters recede, the body of a young woman is found on the banks of Buffalo Bayou – a young woman whose life overlaps with that of Detective Victoria Perez.

With Perez on the sidelines, maybe she and Jake can finally come to an understanding. Or not.

Petreski’s working with a new partner, Jake’s declared a major, Jennifer Katz is moving on with her life, and Don has no idea that the new cat hanging around his apartment is not what she appears.

Contains even more carbs than “Not a Werewolf”, plus all you can eat shrimp!

Extra! Extra! Dead All About It by Amanda M. LeeExtra! Extra! Dead All About It by Amanda M. Lee:

The primary election is almost here and Avery Shaw is in her glory. Her boss has unleashed her on the leading candidates – including two of whom she downright loathes – and Macomb County’s leading reporter (and pot-stirrer extraordinaire) is about to turn the election on its ear.
She just needs to find a story first.
When her nemesis Tad Lancaster loses a volunteer, Avery sniffs out a bigger story … or at least she thinks she does. She has a pile of documents, too many insidious ideas to wrangle, and a long-suffering boyfriend who can do nothing but shake his head.
Avery is determined to find out the truth, even if it doesn’t lead to Lancaster’s downfall. She only has a limited time to do it, too, and the clock is ticking down to election day.
In short order, Avery has to uncover a pile of financial corruption, irritate her co-workers to the point where they don’t want to steal her story, hook her ex-boyfriend up with a new girlfriend, survive family dinner, convince her boyfriend she’s not chasing ghosts but rather something that’s really there, and save Macomb County’s election process for the people.
Oh, she also needs to figure out a way to avoid a baby shower, too.
It’s all in a day’s work for one hard-working and fast-talking reporter. She just needs to survive the final showdown to prove to everyone exactly how superior she really is.

In Silence Sealed by J.R. LindermuthIn Silence Sealed by J.R. Lindermuth:

Lydia, daughter of Swatara Creek Police Chief Aaron Brubaker, is accused of murdering her boyfriend, Jason Russell, handsome but feckless stepson of Clay Stoneroad, a famous writer who recently moved to a farm outside town.

Daniel ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, now a county detective, is determined to prove Lydia’s innocence. His job is made more difficult when the weapon her father insisted she carry is found missing.

Mysteries surround the Stoneroad family. Vickie Walker, a strange young woman—also recently arrived in town—insists Nan Calder, the writer’s secretary, is her sister, a claim Calder denies. Then Diana Wozniak, reporter for a sleazy tabloid, is the victim of a hit-and-run accident, and police learn she attempted to blackmail the writer.

The sudden disappearance of Lydia and Vickie puts Hetrick and his friends in a desperate race against time to find them, unravel secrets, and apprehend the real killer.

Oblivion by David NethOblivion by David Neth

Ethan still doesn’t know what happened to his missing brother four months ago. No idea where he went, who took him, or where to find the answers. But then he discovers Fizz, a mutant whose acid spit can melt off a man’s face, and he has a new lead.

Meanwhile, Carlo Martelli is in a rage. His cousin’s murder can only be a threat to his rule in the local mafia. The immediate suspect is the traitorous Michael Bello who ratted him out to the police. As the mob war erupts, Fuse finds himself in the cross-hairs, which may have been a trap for him all along.

Murder is in Fashion by Danielle OceanMurder is in Fashion by Danielle Ocean:

When Lindsey visits the site of the Fasha magazine photo shoot with her friend Jenna they expect to be dazzled by the spectacular clothes of the new edgy designer. What they don’t expect is to try to solve a murder. But then the stunning model, Dawn, is found murdered. The police decide to cancel the fashion show that was planned for that night at the same place for security reasons, unless the murderer is found. Lindsey decides to help out and try to find the killer before the show gets canceled.

This is the first novella in the Lindsey Brown mystery series.

Final Chapter by Pam StuckyFinal Chapter by Pam Stucky:

For Megan Montaigne, library director, living in the top floor of the mansion-turned-library is a dream come true. At least it was, before the murders started.

Megan Montaigne has always secretly wanted to be a forensics investigator. The small-town library director has just begun rebuilding her life after tragedy tore it apart less than a year ago, and is happily settling into her new apartment on the top floor of the library by the river. But when a local celebrity turns up dead, the time has come to put her sleuthing fantasies into action. Has she unwittingly invited the murderer into her own home? And will she be able to prove her innocence before she becomes a victim herself?

Serial Stalker by A. WoodleySerial Stalker by A. Woodley:

By murder number five, Lennie is becoming more and more aware that these killings could have something to do with her.
The man she keeps seeing in inconspicuous places, doing natural-looking, everyday things appears to be anything but innocent to her as time goes on, but is she being silly and paranoid? Or is he really out to get her?
Lennie is forced to make changes to her life in order to keep her contacts safe but while the body count rises around her, a pattern seems to be emerging and Lennie is sure it must be only a matter of time before he kills again.
Tracking the stalker, when the police come up empty, brings its own consequences and it begins to look as though he’ll never be caught.
Will Lennie ever be free of him?

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