Review No.91 – Corsets and Clockwork

Corsets and Clockwork – Trisha Telep (editor)

Constable & Robinson, 2011

In this collection of steampunk romances, fantasy meets science in the strangest of places. A mermaid’s daughter seeks her fortune on the streets of London. A clockwinder’s creations go to war. There are inventors and spies, corsets and airships, kings and first kisses. Hearts are given, and broken, and occasionally, replaced…

The spectrum here is flexible; some stories are definitely more weighted to the romance than the steampunk, while several feel more like straight out fantasy. Not all are entirely well realised, but there are excellent ideas and memorable characters too. My favourites were Frewin Jones’s macarbely practical adventuress, Maria V. Snyder’s World War II inventor, and Tiffany Trent’s mysterious story of scientific extremists and otherwordly conquest.

Review No.90 – Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank

Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank – Phil and Kaja Foglio

Airship Entertainment, 2011

In a town of mad inventors where automated giants guard the university gates and resurrection is just a matter of the right bits staying intact, Agatha Clay is no one important. Whatever clanks she tries to make blow up and no one, not even her kindest professors, take her seriously. Then one day Baron Wulfenbach shows up at the university with his son, his clanks and an impossible demand, and Agatha’s life begins to unravel at the edges – revealing the secrets that lie underneath.

This graphic novel/comic, the first volume in the Girl Genius series, is pretty much perfect. It’s sharp and witty and intelligent, the artwork is excellent, and all the characters are enormous fun to be around. The story continues in Volume 2, Agatha Heterodyne and the Airship City. Confusingly, that is also the name of the Foglios’ first novelisation of their series, but because the internet is wonderful and the Foglios are too, all of Girl Genius to date (plus some excellent extras) is available for free on their website, with new pages posted every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (I caught up on over ten years worth of the story in a matter of months because I simply could not stop reading. Be warned!)

If you don’t know what a Jägermonster is yet, you are missing out.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.46 – The Troll’s Little Daughter

Back when I reviewed ‘Farmer Weathersky’, I mentioned a story that featured transformation as an intentional growth experience, like a gap year from humanity. Readers of my vignettes may also remember I quite like this idea. I promised at the time to follow up on that reference, so here we are, with this Danish fairy tale from Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Ogres and Trolls.

It begins when a boy in search of a job meets a troll in search of an employee. The boy doesn’t see this coincidence as especially fortuitous, but trolls are not the sort of people you say no to, and when the troll starts talking about bushels of gold the boy’s attitude takes a definite upswing. They go home to the troll’s mound, which is populated by a menagerie of caged creatures. The boy’s task is to feed them. It takes him all day to do it, and by the time they have all been tended he is so exhausted he flops down on a pile of straw to sleep.

The troll is pleased with his work. “You’ve done well, my lad,” he says, over breakfast the next morning. “My creatures won’t need feeding again for a while. So in the meantime I’ll allow you to play.” With a single word – and without the slightest warning – he turns the boy into a hare. As you do.

Actually, the boy quite likes being a hare. He’s light footed and free and the forest is his for the exploring. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the troll catching and locking up every other creature in the woods, the sight of him brings on a frenzy of hopeful hunters. The boy-hare is forced to run for his life, learning how to trick dogs off his trail and dodge the bullets of his pursuers, but he’s resourceful enough to manage it, and reckless enough to enjoy it.

His ‘holiday’ comes to an end one day when he hears the troll calling and is whisked back to the mound to be restored to his proper shape with the same word said backwards. The troll presents him with his first bushel of gold and the boy, having stumbled into a life of adventure and fortune, is more than happy to stay on. He feeds the animals for a second time, and this time is rewarded with a word that turns him into a raven. Wings! Flight! A wide open sky! The boy-bird is ecstatic. Of course he’s no sooner spotted than the hunters return in full force with their guns, but none ever manage to injure him.

In time the troll’s voice summons him back to the mound and the raven is returned to the shape of a boy. Two bushels of gold are handed over and another year of service agreed upon, though really all he does is feed the animals for a third time before the troll releases him into the forest as a fish.

Being a fish is pretty excellent. For one thing, the hunters don’t realise he is there, so he doesn’t have to worry so much about just staying alive. For another, EXPLORING. He follows the forest stream until it meets with the sea, and keeps swimming until he comes upon the strangest thing – a palace all made of glass on the ocean floor, so clear that he can see right inside to where a beautiful girl is wandering in quiet misery. The boy-fish is troubled by her sadness. He swims around the palace in increasing frustration, wondering how to speak to her, then remembers the troll’s word. Having heard it once, he tries saying it backwards, as the troll does, and takes his own shape. At the bottom of the sea, mind you, but he quickly lets himself into the palace, where there is air. And of course the girl.

Her astonishment at the sight of him quickly turns to delight. He’s company, and what’s more, a sympathetic ear to her problems. “It was the troll who put me here,” she explains. “He calls me his little daughter. But I am not his daughter. I am not! I am the daughter of a king, and the troll stole me away, and brought me here so that none should find me. But you have found me, dear, dearest lad, and now I am not lonely any more!” The boy is more than happy to agree with this sentiment. For a whole year they live together in the underwater palace, and when his time as a fish is nearly up, he doesn’t want to leave her.

“Ah, but you must,” the princess tells him. “And I have thought of a plan by which you may rescue me, if you will do exactly as I tell you.” She lays out her plan in detail and has barely finished speaking when the sound of the troll’s call reaches them. Even after agreeing to do as she says, the boy resists changing shape; the furious princess slaps him for threatening to screw up her shot at escape and at last he turns back into a fish.

The troll is, as usual, waiting by the mound. He pays the boy with three bushels of gold and offers another year of employment, but the boy has other plans. He tells the troll he wants to see something more of the world. What he doesn’t say is that there’s a very specific part of the world he has in mind, i.e. the kingdom of the princess’s father. Once he gets there, he takes up service as a groom, literally currying favour by looking after the king’s favourite stallion.

The king has it pretty rough. Not only has his daughter been kidnapped, he owes the troll six bushels of gold and though the time for payment is fast approaching, he hasn’t got the money. So he is in a decidedly receptive mood when his new groom reveals himself to have All the Answers, even if the boy’s plan – or more correctly the princess’s – is to dress up as a clown and do crazy stuff. The boy’s cause is probably assisted by the fact he can lend all the required gold.

So they travel to the troll’s mound together, where they find an enormous brand spanking new palace. The boy promptly starts smashing windows. The troll is outraged; the old debt has no sooner been paid than a new one of equal weight is incurred, and unless it can either be paid on the spot (impossible) or the king and his bizarre friend can answer the troll’s three questions, they will lose their heads.

This is all going perfectly to plan. The first question, “Where is my daughter?”, is easily answered, as is the second: “Would you know her if you saw her?” Or so the boy thinks. The troll summons out a procession of identical girls from inside the palace, all dressed exactly alike, and demands for the boy to choose the real princess from the line-up. Of course, he doesn’t have a clue, but this is an eventuality the princess can handle. As he passes her, she smooths back her hair. The boy pounces. “This is the princess!” he declares, correctly.

The troll is not pleased. As his final question, he asks, “Where do I keep my heart?” “In a mouse,” the boy replies, but of course it isn’t as simple as that. With a whistle the troll summons millions of mice from which the boy must choose. Again, he couldn’t possibly guess on his own; it is the princess who spots it and nudges him.

He seizes a little grey mouse from the throng and squeezes it violently. The troll screams. This is a rather disturbing means of gaining control, but I forgive the boy for that because his first demand is for the troll to release all the animals back into the forest (where they can eat more than ONCE A YEAR.) He then reveals himself to be the troll’s former employee. The troll rightly points out that he never did the boy any harm; the boy retorts, also not unreasonably, that he wants a horse for the princess before he even thinks about letting that heart go.

When they are very, very far away from the troll’s mound, at the edge of the king’s lands, the boy dismounts and releases the mouse, allowing his hold over the troll to vanish into the world. After all, a bargain is a bargain.

Which leads me to several important conclusions. Firstly, if I had my way, transformational gap years would be mandatory. It would, I think, have an excellent influence on human empathy. Secondly, this is an excellent example of co-operative rescue, an aspect of fairy tales that deserves better recognition. The knight in shining armour wouldn’t get very far without the imprisoned girl feeding him instructions. Just because you can’t get out on your own does not make you helpless.

Thirdly, this kingdom really needs an official adoption agency. The troll seems to mean well, but he has the same parenting philosophy as Rumplestiltskin and I can’t help feeling most of this mess could have been avoided if someone had given him a few key tips – like that coercion and abduction are not appropriate ways of obtaining a child. Actually, given his obvious talents with the whole transformation thing and that affinity with glass, they could have trained him up as a fairy godmother. I’d want him on my side.

Reviewing Who – Vengeance on Varos

Doctor: Colin Baker

Companion: Nicola Bryant

Script writer: Philip Martin

Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Director: Ron Jones

Originally aired: January 19th 1985 – January 26th 1985

Episode 1: On the prison planet Varos a young man is chained shirtless to a wall with a camera trained on him while cell disintegration rays strike randomly across his body for the viewing pleasure of the Varosian population. The scene is screened live into the sparse, ratty living quarters of sullenly married couple Arek and Etta, but it doesn’t please them much, or disgust them either – they are more interested in the latest food shortages and bickering over what constitutes a really entertaining execution.

Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, bickering of a different nature is taking place. The Sixth Doctor – a walking, talking rainbow in his loud patchwork coat – has just completed some unexplained adjustment to the console and his long-suffering companion Peri is waiting for the explosions. “You sound confident,” she tells him. “Every time you sound confident nowadays, something terrible seems to happen.”

She’s right on the money; the console suddenly dies and the Doctor, looking uneasy, checks a few controls. In the most melodramatic fashion possible, he announces that the TARDIS has run out of power, leaving the two of them stuck in space forever. He then flops sullenly in a chair, ignoring all Peri’s attempts to rouse him into action. “It’s all right for you, Peri,” he exclaims. “You’ve only got one life. You’ll age here in the TARDIS and then die. Me, I shall go on regenerating until all my lives are spent.” Peri, I am glad to say, is not sympathetic.

Also having a bad day is the governor of Varos, who is negotiations over the sale price of his planet’s only export of worth, the metal zeiton-7. The representative he’s dealing with is Sil, a diminutive reptilian alien with a revolting sense of humour and a pair of muscly humanoid bodyguards trailing him everywhere he goes. He’s not planning to pay more for the zeiton-7 – on the contrary, he’s trying to lower the price, and he’s got the governor’s chief officer on his payroll to help him achieve that.

On Varos, every decision the governor makes is put to the people for them to approve or, well, not. Taking a seat in front of a camera, he gives a rousing speech about bettering the planet together, which comes down to more ration cuts. Etta is very moved. It doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty dishy and a good speaker. Arak is less impressed, and the majority of the viewing public seem to agree with him because the vote goes against the governor. The light of a cell disintegrator beams down over his chair, torturing him in a similar way to the chained prisoner. This is the justice of Varos.

He survives, just, to Etta’s delight and Arak’s disgust, and staggers off-camera only to be faced with Sil, who wants to start up negotiations again at once. Winning a temporary respite from that fun-fest, the governor collapses into a chair. One of his more supportive officers offers an idea for placating the murderous populace: what about executing a rebel? The governor does not like the idea, having a fraction more moral fibre than is the norm on Varos, but it’s his life or the rebel’s and he goes with self-preservation.

A guard called Rondel arrives to pass the news to the rebel’s wife Areta, who is also imprisoned in the hellish Punishment Dome. He is an old friend of the condemned man and Areta makes an effort to convince him to help her, explaining what Jondar saw that drove him to become a rebel in the first place – the hypocrisies of the officers, the luxuries that are denied to ordinary Varosians. Rondel doesn’t want to hear it. Later, she receives a visit from one of those hypocritical rebellion-inducing officers, a creep in a pretentious mask called Quillam. He is a ‘scientist’ who wants to use her in his new experiment and he’s trying to convince her that she hates herself. Actually, she hates him. A lot.

In the immobile TARDIS, Peri has rooted out the TARDIS manual and convinced the Doctor to at least take a desultory flip through the pages. The console suddenly starts to move and the Doctor realises that his assessment of their situation was actually completely wrong. Not that he says so, of course. He keeps starting and not finishing rhetorical questions in a very irritating and non-informative way. The upshot of it all is that they have just enough power to make a short trip, but in order to get the TARDIS working properly again they will need a rare metal called zeiton-7. Guess where is the only place in the universe to get it?

The last person to hear of Jondar’s execution is Jondar himself. A cute little golf buggy shows up beside him and drops off the guard who will oversee his death. This guard is kitted out with an anti-hallucinatory helmet to protect him from the dangers of the Punishment Dome, but he’s barely put it on before it’s malfunctioning, because what the hell else could cause a blue box to appear out of nowhere before his eyes?

Being a guard, his first reaction is to shoot it. This has no effect other than to miff the Doctor, who decides that the best way to handle a scared man with a gun is to pop outside for a chat. The ensuing encounter, in which the guard retreats in a panic and the Doctor wrestles his gun off him, is witnessed by everybody, including the governor, his chief officer and Sil, all of whom were waiting together for the execution. Sil feels terribly cheated. The governor orders for it to be dealt with, then passes out. Being unconscious is probably the highlight of his day, but it means he does not hear Sil’s gloating plans for a very literal commercial takeover.

Meanwhile, the Doctor – having inevitably gravitated to the nearest rebellion – is freeing Jondar with the laser that was meant to kill him. Cut off from the TARDIS by the Golf Buggy of Evil, the three of them run into a maze of corridors. The Doctor cuts off power to the area with a bit of judicious vandalism and when a hand pokes out from the wall to beckon him into a secret compartment, he takes it, leaving Jondar and Peri to follow. Their rescuers are none other than Areta and Rondel, who has had a change of heart. It doesn’t last long. He is the first to risk stepping back into the corridor, and he is shot. The others flee.

All of this is, of course, being televised live, and the reaction in at least one household isn’t exactly what the officers might want. Arek is cheering on the ‘rebbos’ while Etta roots for ‘the one in the funny clothes’. Finally some quality entertainment!

The quartet enter the Purple Zone, reportedly one of the most dangerous areas of the dome. The name is explained by a sudden wash of purple light that illuminates, at the end of the corridor, a vast insectoid creature lying in wait. The Doctor recognises that for an illusion, convincing the others to close their eyes and follow him on regardless. Past the fly is the smell of an animal and a pair of glowing green eyes – these are just lights, as the Doctor instantly works out. Possibly the Purple Zone was done on a tight budget. They reach the site of Jondar’s interrupted execution safely, only to discover the TARDIS is gone. It is now in the possession of the governor and his officers who are attempting, unsuccessfully, to open it.

Denied their planned escape and with another guard patrol on their tail, the four escapees scatter. Jondar, Areta and Peri are captured; the Doctor, who went a different way, is not. He finds himself struggling through the endless sands of a desert. Before him stands Peri, holding a glass of water just out of his reach…Only it’s all only another hallucination. The real Peri is being held captive by the governor, forced to watch as the Doctor collapses and the camera zooms in on his lifeless face.

Episode 2: Peri throws herself furiously at the governor and is wrestled easily away. Then the questions begin. The governor thinks she is a rebel, while Sil suspects she is from a rival mining company. They are all so focused on her that no one notices when the Doctor twitches. The first they know of his reanimation when, transported to a particularly nasty sort of mortuary, he gets up and taps a guard on the shoulder. The guard topples over into the acid bath intended for the Doctor’s body. He tries to pull himself out but only succeeds in dragging the second guard in with him. The Doctor grimaces, whisks on his coat and leaves them to their fate.

The governor is chatting, quite courteously, with Peri about the ever-presence of Death when his chief officer arrives with news of the Doctor’s escape. In a quick change of plan, the governor decides to turn this to his advantage, using Peri as a bargaining chip to extract information from the Doctor. It’s sexist and nasty and Peri is disappointed in him. As it turns out, though, that plan isn’t necessary, because the Doctor can’t resist stealing from a guard station and gets caught by Quillam the psycho scientist.

He is dumped in a cell with Jondar and Areta, then collected by a group of men in robes pretending to be priests for a novelty ‘primitive’ execution – a hangman’s platform. The governor is waiting there with Peri. The women are handed over to Quillam’s research, dragged off kicking and screaming, and the men are led up onto the scaffold to the erratic chanting of the priests. The governor keeps asking for last-minute confessions and finally the Doctor explodes into explanation, accusing Sil of lying about the true worth of zeiton-7. Sil screams for the execution to continue. When the governor, his attention well and truly hooked, does not oblige, Sil’s guards try to do it themselves. One of them manages to pull the hangman’s lever, but the whole thing is revealed to be a charade when the nooses just unwind, leaving the Doctor and Jondar unharmed.

The same can’t be said for Peri and Areta, who have been strapped down under a cell mutation ray. Peri starts growing feathers, while Areta turns reptilian. Even though the governor has given orders that they be released, the chief officer leaves them there, hoping to derail this new co-operation with the Doctor. Quillam, who is also in cahoots with Sil, insists that the process is too far advanced, and that the governor isn’t the boss of him anyway. The Doctor retaliates in very mature fashion by ripping off Quillam’s mask, revealing the distorted results of early experimentation.

Amazingly, this does not improve the situation! Quillam refuses to say which switch will end the procedure, telling the Doctor to take a guess. The Doctor and Jondar refuse to play along, grabbing themselves some guns and blowing up the control console, which does the trick nicely. By the time they arrive in Quillam’s lab, the mutations are already fading. The two women are still weak and confused, but there’s no time to let them recover; guards are on the way. The Doctor and Jondar intercept a patrol buggy and steal it, hoping to speed up the escape. By the time they return, however, Peri has come to and wandered away. She is picked up immediately and brought back to the control room. The chief officer chooses now to play his hand. He tells the governor that he must ‘take responsibility’ for this failure to crush the rebellion and take that to a public vote that they all know will be fatal.

Peri is made to stand beside him as evidence of his failure. While they wait for the chief officer to say his piece to the public, the governor explains to her what is going to happen next. He will be killed by the vote and his successor will be chosen from a pool of senior officers, forced to govern until he too dies. The idea is that someone that scared for their life will find better solutions, but of course, as this governor has come to realise, there are no solutions that the Varosian public want to accept.

Peri is sympathetic, but the speech is actually aimed at the guard who is watching them. The governor addresses him by name, Maldak, asking as one last favour for Peri to be allowed to go free – or, failing that, killed quickly instead of being handed back to Quillam. After all, in this system, Maldak is hardly in a fantastic position himself. He could end up as the next governor very soon with this whole mess on his hands. Maldak refuses. The governor returns resignedly to his chair to face the wrath of Varos.

That is summed up by Arak, who hits his ‘no’ vote and takes Etta’s for good measure, to her furious indignation. The cell disintegration ray beams down, the governor is writhing in its light while Peri looks on in horror, when Maldak suddenly changes his mind. He fires on the disintegrator and leads the reprieved governor and Peri into a ventilation shaft to go meet up with the Doctor – who, though he looked, has failed to find Peri for obvious reasons. He and his rebel friends have reached an area of the Punishment Dome known as the End Game. There is rumoured to be a way out here, though no one has ever found it. The three are struck by a state of hallucinogenic happiness, beckoned forward by smiling phantoms; the Doctor comes to his senses just in time to prevent them all falling into a seething pit. They backtrack, only to run into a pair of half-naked crazies in loincloths. Perhaps they were fellow prisoners once, but Jondar’s speeches are coming way too late. Running from the deranged cannibals, they come across a curtain of dangling tendrils. The Doctor guesses these are most likely poisonous and orders the others to maneouver a way through without touching them; moments later, one of the pursuing cannibals proves his point by brushing a tendril and falling instantly dead.

It looks like they may have a shot at escape, but the cameras are still rolling and Quillam has other plans. He and the chief officer arrive to collect their troublesome prisoners and Quillam treats everybody to a monologue on exactly how he intends them to die. It’s ironic, really. His job is to make traps and he doesn’t even realise he’s walked straight into one. The Doctor and his friends release a bunch of the killer tendrils from a string bundle and they flick outwards, brushing Quillam, the chief officer and their accompanying guards with their instantaneous poison. Peri, Maldak and the governor arrive to the sight of their bodies.

There still remains the question of Sil. He has requested an invasion force from his company and, expecting their arrival any time now, is occupying himself by musing aloud to his long-suffering guards about how very suitable he is for the mantle of power. He is all set to gloat when the governor comes for him, trailed by the rest of the revolutionaries, but just at that moment a message comes through from Sil’s company. The invasion has been cancelled. A supply of zeiton-7 is required urgently, at any price. The governor is more than happy to reopen negotiations.

Varos’s first customer, though, is the Doctor, who is offered as much zeiton-7 as he needs free of charge in return for his assistance in both restoring their financial future and bringing down the officer hierachy that had made this planet such a hellish place to live. The Doctor and Peri wave cheerily to Sil on their way out, leaving the governor to announce the changes to the Varosian public. Arak and Etta are left bewildered.

ARAK: No more executions. Torture. Nothing.

ETTA: It’s all changed. We’re free.

ARAK: Are we?

ETTA: Yes!

ARAK: What shall we do?


Together they stare at their wall screen, the blank face of freedom.

The Verdict: Colin Baker’s era as the Doctor is, like his coat and Peri’s American accent, a deeply divided subject prone to mockery by even diehard Whovians. Certainly the Sixth Doctor’s relationship with Peri is a mess, veering from grudging affection to open hostility on both sides. That’s a problem that really comes from scriptwriters and bad direction rather than the actors themselves, but as a result I’ve never been much inclined to rewatch Baker No.2’s stories. Vengeance on Varos is one of the exceptions. It is riddled with problems, from constant sexism to visible racism to massive plot holes, but it’s ambitious and exciting and funny. It’s a 24/7 Hunger Games for a dystopian society that’s so bored and world-weary that they’ll watch anything. With evil golf buggies and 80s hair.

And actually, the coat grows on you. Does anyone else love his cat badges?

Colin Baker has had the chance to reshape his Doctor into the man he should have been with a run of audio adventures that give him greater warmth and range than the TV series ever did. I am still ANGRY that he and the other living Doctors do not seem likely to make a proper appearance in the 50th anniversary special. Next month we move on to another controversial incarnation: the enigmatic and occasionally eerie Sylvester McCoy, who in July will be facing down otherworldly knights, a destroyer of worlds, and a brand new Brigadier who is so not impressed.

Looking For A New Horizon

The really important thing to be was yourself, just as hard as you could.

– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

I am Australian and I am white. This combination makes me feel very uncomfortable bringing up the subject of racism on the pretty basic principle I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I’ve never been sworn at on public transport because of my skin colour, or treated like a potential terrorist because of my accent. I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from. Sure, I’d love to see more female protagonists in books, TV and movies, but at least I can find representation of people like me.

This is privilege. I never asked for it, but I have it anyway. It is not something I am ashamed of, but it’s something I do have to be aware of, and my recent internet reading – from the Star Trek whitewashing issue to discussions like this one on Sarah Rees Brennan’s Tumblr – has made me realise it’s probably something I should talk about.

The Australia I live in was founded on slavery. British criminals were transported to the other side of the world against their will to colonise a continent that was already very much occupied. The ‘law’ was established by the people who had the most guns, which meant the military representatives of a distant government that didn’t much care about what happened to anyone once they were off British soil.

Because the indigenous population had not yet come up with a slew of ultra-efficient ways to kill each other or a version of civilisation that included demolishing large tracts of the natural environment, their rights were not so much trodden on as crushed into smithereens. They were classified as animals by ‘law’ – I will continue using that word in quotation marks until it GROWS UP – and subjected to the usual range of disaster that befalls the invaded, from slave labour to rape to massacre.

And it actually got worse. At a time when Australia was meant to be growing into a real country as opposed to a imperial prison colony, life as an Aboriginal Australian was hell. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t lay legal claim to land your ancestors had been living on since before recorded history. Your children could be taken away and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.

Things are better now. Frankly, it didn’t take much. Acknowledging the indigenous population of this country as human beings was a good start. Every Australian citizen over the age of eighteen can vote now, regardless of race; an official government apology has been made to the victims of the Stolen Generation, and some land has been returned to its traditional owners. But legal equality is a completely different matter from social and economic equality, and we’re a LONG way off from that.

I have been aware of this history for most of my life, in the same way I was aware of the Roman empire and Viking invasions in the northern hemisphere – it happened, it was awful if you were unfortunate enough to be there at the time, the planet moved on. You see, that wasn’t the Australia I lived in. We were better than that. I saw gorgeous artwork by indigenous artists exhibited in art galleries, saw displays of their experience of history in the state museum, heard Aboriginal activists talking on television. All those terrible things had happened, but we had collectively learned from our mistakes and moved forward to Better Things.

Yeah. I’m such an optimist.

It’s been a long time since I really believed my country was at that point. Since I started reading newspapers, really. Hearing about incidents of racism, though, is still like getting little electric shocks – spikes of pain to that bright-eyed optimist who lives inside my head. Really? This happens in my Australia?

Even that awareness didn’t prepare me for hearing that a black American woman was worried that she wouldn’t be safe in my country.

Her name is N.K. Jemisin. She is an acclaimed fantasy writer who was recently Guest of Honour at Continuum in Melbourne and she made a speech there about the issue of race in speculative fiction. It’s generated a bit of buzz, both positive and negative, which is how I heard of it. I’m glad I did. It made me think, which is always a good thing. It also reaffirmed her position on my Authors I Must Read list, because anyone who can be that fierce and funny and articulate in one speech must be superb in a novel.

Many of the points she made are ones I’ve seen discussed before: that diversity is still seen as a revolutionary thing by a lot of people and is being actively discouraged within the genre in a multitude of ways. What she did was put all that in the greater context of history, both Australian and American, the imagination-defying ways in which our societies have failed non-white people, and the ways in which they are (or are not) trying to make amends. Jemisin calls for active attempts at an official Reconciliation within the science fiction and fantasy community. It’s a wonderful idea. And as I said, it makes me think.

I do not feel responsible for the actions of those first white settlers, who are not even my ancestors; I do not feel guilty or apologetic for living here, in the country of my birth, despite the cost at which it was built, because this is the only version of Australia I have ever experienced and Australia is my home. But I have to be aware of that cost.

I want my Australia to be the place that I once believed it was, where equality isn’t an illusion that breaks if you look at it directly. I want my Australia to be a place where anyone of any race feels welcome and safe. I want speculative fiction, my favourite genre, to be the same – a safe space for everybody.

The point of science fiction and fantasy, for me at least, is to reach for the horizons only imagination can find and do our damn best to make them real. This genre has introduced me to Time Lords and mutants, vampires and goddesses, goblins and giants – how can human diversity in fictional worlds be so hard? Seriously, how do we do think we’re going to cope with meeting aliens if we can’t cope with other human beings?

Basically, I want things to get better. And that starts with saying so.

Review No.89 – This Is Shyness

This is Shyness – Leanne Hall

Text Publishing, 2010

It is the night they both go looking for forgetfulness, and find each other. The only names they give are Wolfboy and Wildgirl. He comes from the mysterious corner of the city called Shyness, where the night never goes away; she wants to lose herself, and if that means following a stranger into the deep dark woods of an abandoned suburb, why not? But even with a guide, Shyness is full of dangers that the daylight can’t touch – and no one who goes in comes out quite the same.

This is Shyness is Leanne Hall’s first novel, a YA urban fantasy that is an improbably cohesive combination between dreamlike enigma and raw, hard reality. She makes no attempt to explain her world; you have to step inside and accept it for what it is, which I liked. Wildgirl and Wolfboy are flawed enough to be believable, but well intentioned enough to be likeable. Hall returns to Shyness with a sequel, Queen of the Night.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.45 – Foni and Fotia

This Sudanese fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1973 collection A Book of Sorcerers and Spells. An orphan girl called Foni is minding her flock of goats, her cows, and her own business, when the wicked sorcerer Duma happens by and decides she’ll do for a wife. He thinks he can win her affections with a bit of pretty jewellery, but she quickly puts paid to that idea. “Go away!” she tells him firmly. “I don’t want your earrings, I don’t want your beads. I will never be your wife, no, never, never!”

I’d say that’s pretty unequivocal, wouldn’t you? But wicked sorcerers are not known for their ability to take a hint and Duma turns all Foni’s goats into stones in an attempt to make her change her mind. She doesn’t. The next day when he comes back with promises of rubies and diamonds, she shouts at him to go away. Offended, he turns all her cows to stones. She has no herd left, and without it, no livelihood. “When you are my wife,” the sorcerer assures her, “you shall live like a queen.” “I don’t want to live like a queen,” Foni retorts furiously. “I want my goats and cows. I will never be your wife.”

Again, unequivocal! Duma only laughs and vanishes, planning to try again when she’s properly desperate. Unfortunately for him, just at that moment a friend of Foni’s sees her crying in the field of stones. He’s a young man called Fotia who is both nice and cute. Hearing Foni’s story of the stalker sorcerer, he offers on the spot to marry her and she says yes. Duma, who has made himself invisible so he can spy on the effects of his spell, is enraged. He turns Foni into a bear and Fotia into a lion. Being a very powerful sorcerer does not necessarily give you a mature approach to relationships.

His plan doesn’t work as well as he might have liked, though. The transmogrified young couple find a cave in the mountainside and live there together quite peacefully. The biggest problem is diet: as a lion who doesn’t remember being human very well, Fotia is constantly trying to convince his girlfriend to eat the meat he drags home, while she patiently reminds him she’s actually vegetarian now.

One day he finds a little boy asleep under some bushes near the cave and brings the child home, hoping that such a lovely morsel with tempt Foni. It certainly makes her happy, but not in the way Fotia expected. Foni still remembers being human and, far from eating the little boy, she adopts him. She isn’t to know that he is really the king’s son and that huntsmen are everywhere searching for him, led by the king himself. When they find the boy’s cap amidst a lion’s tracks, they’re sure he must have been eaten. Distraught, the king follows the tracks to the cave, intending to exact his revenge on the lion – only when he gets there, he sees his son very much alive, being carried about in the arms of an adoring bear.

Foni sees the king, works out what has happened, and carries the boy out to return him. The prince doesn’t like that; he’s been having fun in the cave and wants to stay with her. When the huntsmen raise their spears to kill the bear, the prince screams furiously. Realising there’s something a bit odd about all this, the king has both Foni and Fotia tied up and brought back to the palace with him instead, where they can be examined by his personal sorcerer Salem.

Salem takes one look at the pair of them and recognises the handiwork of his old enemy Duma. He explains the situation to the king and comes up with a plan to set things right. The lion and bear are locked in a garden with enough food to last them forty days while outside the spiked iron gates Salem builds an enormous fire. On the twenty first day, Duma takes the bait. He sends a violent storm to put out Salem’s fire; Salem fights back with piles of wood to keep it alive. At last a scream rises from the mountain. Duma’s hubris has finally rebounded upon him.

With his death, his spells are broken. Foni and Fotia are returned to their human shapes and, as a reward for excellent childcare, the king throws them a lavish wedding. They return to the mountain to find Foni’s herd likewise restored, peaceably grazing like nothing exciting has happened at all.

In a world where there are sorcerers wandering about the countryside, there will inevitably be abuses of power. Duma’s deliberate destruction of Foni’s livelihood in an attempt to coerce her into marriage is the most basic form of blackmail, but he never bests her, not even when she’s trapped in the shape of a bear. Judging from Salem’s reaction (crazy transformations and misery, yep, that’s him all right) this isn’t the first time Duma has misused his powers. It’s pretty satisfying that his inability to accept no as an answer is what eventually brings about his destruction.

Review No.88 – Between the Sea and Sky

Between the Sea and Sky – Jaclyn Dolamore

Bloomsbury, 2011

The highest honour that can be accorded in mermaid society is the siren’s belt, but it is also their greatest danger – if a siren’s belt is stolen from her, she will never be able to return to the sea. When newly made siren Esmerine suspects that her sister Dosia has been kidnapped by humans, she risks her own safety to go ashore in search of answers, in the process stumbling across an old friend. Alander is of the winged Fandarsee, belonging to the sky as Esmerine belongs to the water. But it is only together they have any chance of discovering what has happened to Dosia.

This book begins by feeling like a retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and, according to the blurb, there’s a dash of Pride and Prejudice in there as well, though I couldn’t see even a trace of that. There were good ideas but they were given an infuriatingly shallow treatment, reducing what could have been a deeply gripping story of abduction and family loyalty to a meandering and ultimately unconvincing romance. The characters lacked motivation and sincerity and the resolution insulted me with its lack of believability; the original fairy tale has much more heart.

Still Talking About Fairy Tales, No One Is Surprised

Anyone familiar with this blog will know by now that when it comes to the subject of fairy tales and feminism, I have a great deal to say, so when I was recently asked to write a guest post for the fanzine SF Signal I barely had to stop and think. In my article I talk about retellings, oversimplifications, and flamethrowers. If you’re interested, it can be found here.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.44 – The Artful Soldier and the Czar’s Three Daughters

This week’s story comes from Hamlyn’s Russian Fairy Tales and goes to show that sometimes fairy tale parents actually have very good reasons for locking up their daughters. A Czar, his Czarina and their three daughters are a happy and astonishingly functional family right up until the eldest girl turns seventeen. On her birthday she goes walking in the castle grounds and, though surrounded by servants, manages to disappear without a trace. That doesn’t deter her sisters – each plead so persistently for outings into the fresh air that they eventually gain permission, and each one vanishes under the watchful eyes of their intended protectors.

Their parents are in a state of despair. The Czar’s solution is the tried and tested method of  offering half his kingdom and a princess’s hand in marriage to anyone who can find the missing girls. Among the first to make the attempt is a general who demands a small fortune and a regiment of soldiers for his search, all of which is immediately provided. He then sets off with his money and his men, but they get no further than the end of town before he decides to stop and rest at an inn. The soldiers are told to wait outside; only the general gets to go in, where he orders the most expensive delicacies at the Czar’s expense and starts gaming with the proprietor. It isn’t long before the general is so badly in debt that he’s not going anywhere. The innkeeper locks him and his blameless men in a pig-sty, and that’s the end of that.

Another general goes to the Czar some time later with slightly more moderate demands, which are again granted. He ends up in exactly the same inn and shows no more financial restraint than his predecessor. I don’t know what the innkeeper means to do with all these soldiers, by now he must have more of them than pigs in that sty of his.

Finally a soldier serving in the castle goes to the Czar to try his luck. The Czar is considerably more sceptical now than he was at the start, but with a kind of ‘what the hell’ desperation, he hands over some more money and sends the soldier off with another fragment of hope. The soldier, wouldn’t you just know it, gravitates towards the inn that you may know better as the Vortex of Doom. Luckily for him, the innkeeper is out. His daughter’s in charge. When she hears where her latest customer is going, she laughs herself sick and lets slip what really happened to the generals. The soldier expresses his amazement that anyone could be more dishonest than his superiors. “That may be so,” the girl concedes, “but father has a magic chair. Whoever sits in it always wins.” By very fortunate coincidence, this chair is the very one in which the soldier is sitting.

When the innkeeper returns, a game of cards is proposed. He tries to reclaim his magic chair but can’t make a proper fuss about it without tipping off the soldier, unaware that the secret’s already out. Showing a remarkably idiotic optimism, he hopes to win anyway. Of course he doesn’t; the soldier soon wins back all the Czar’s money, then the freedom of his fellow soldiers, and finally the generals who got them all into this mess in the first place. Only they’re not in charge any more. The soldier is the one giving the orders from here on in.

They travel on into a strange town, where the only thing for sale at the market is rope. The soldier makes a forward-thinking purchase that pays off soon afterwards, when they come to a deep gorge. The soldier has himself lowered to the bottom of it and there finds the Czar’s eldest daughter imprisoned in a castle of lead. She has, as it turns out, been kidnapped by a three-headed dragon, but now that she has a way out of the hollow she soon comes up with a plan to incapacitate her captor.

“The dragon keeps two bottles in this closet,” she explains. “On the right is the water of strength, on the left the water of weakness. As soon as he arrives, he will sense your presence. But have no fear, soldier. Go and meet him and speak with him. He will drink from the bottle on the right and you the one on the left. But I will have changed them over…so that he will grow weaker and you stronger.” She knows what she’s talking about. The dragon returns in a fiery temper, not intending to lose his hard-stolen princess, and suggests a drink so that he can up his strength for the fight. Of course, not being the brightest spark, he never dreams that his pretty little prisoner might have messed up his odds. The soldier cuts off all three of his heads with one easy stroke.

The eldest princess is delighted. She tells the soldier where to find her middle sister and reveals another bit of useful dragon magic, handing him a lead egg that essentially transports the castle wherever he wants it to be. Well equipped for the next confrontation, the soldier heads on his way. He soon comes to a silver castle where the second princess is being held captive. Using the first girl’s plan, they defeat the six-headed dragon who held her there and reduce the castle to a silver egg that the soldier takes with him as he goes to find the third sister. She is guarded by a nine-headed dragon, but drinking proves the death of him too.

The three princesses are reunited and pulled back to the surface by the waiting generals. Instead of bringing up the soldier, however, they leave him there and terrorise the girls into agreeing to their own version of events. Realising that he’s been sold out, the soldier makes the best of things and summons up one of those handy port-a-castles. A devil promptly appears, prepared to serve the soldier’s wishes, and when asked to provide a meal produces a lavish feast. This piques the soldier’s curiosity. He tries the service of the other two castles as well and, not being a particularly imaginative man, asks for food from each of them. By the time he gets to the gold castle, he’s so full he can only look at the gorgeous banquet laid out for him, unable to fit in so much as a mouthful.

While he’s sitting there contemplating the devilishly decadent works of his new chefs, he notices a balalaika hanging above the table, and sees no reason not to take it down and try out a few notes. No sooner has he struck the strings, though, than all his devils appear to him in a mad panic. The balalaika was not meant for him; it is on loan from hell, and there will be, well, hell to pay if it doesn’t get back in pristine condition. In exchange for its safe return they form a ladder with their own bodies so that the soldier can escape the gorge.

The Czar’s town is in uproar when he returns. The princesses are home at last! The eldest and middle daughters are to be married to the generals who ‘saved’ them from the dragons, but they aren’t giving in to imprisonment again that easily. The youngest girl goes to the Czar, asking for the generals to bring their brides silk stockings exactly like those worn in the gorge. The Czar is baffled, but prepared to give his beloved daughters whatever they want. Which puts the generals in something of a pickle, considering they never even set foot in the gorge.

The story reaches the ear of the soldier, who has taken up residence in town with an old man who is poor enough to go along with the machinations of his weird new tenant. On the soldier’s orders, he goes off to meet with the generals and offers to make the desired stockings in return for three thousand roubles. With half a Czardom at stake, the generals don’t haggle. The old man can’t actually make what he’s promised, but that’s not a problem. The soldier just opens each of his castles, rummages about until he finds the stockings the girls wore, and hands them on to the old man to pass on to the generals.

That only buys them breathing space. The next request that comes from the princesses is for velvet slippers exactly like those they wore in their prisons. The generals turn once again to the old man, who names an even higher price this time before procuring the slippers. But the youngest princess has a trump card up her one-of-a-kind sleeve. “As these gallant generals were able to bring us our velvet slippers which we wore in the other, hollow world,” she announces calmly to her father, “let them now build us by morning the castles we lived in there.”

Even the adoring Czar thinks that’s a bit steep. He has enough trust in his daughters, though, that when they tell him this is important he believes them. The generals don’t think it can be done, but the old man (who probably doesn’t think it can either) assures them he’ll do it…if they cough up ten thousand rubles. Given it’s that or lose half the Czardom, the generals scrape it together. The old man and the soldier go out partying all night to celebrate and in the morning they walk to the Czar’s castle, where the soldier casually juggles his dragon’s eggs. Within moments three castles are standing there, shining in the sun.

The royal family come running out to examine the miraculous building site and find the soldier sitting nonchalantly on a doorstep. The youngest princess pounces on him, pulling him up to meet the Czar. The three girls explain about the lies and the death threats, and their furious father has the generals banished immediately. As for the soldier, he marries the youngest princess and wins  half of the Czardom, as he was promised.

I have my doubts about the hero of this story, who comes across as opportunistic rather than especially good hearted, but he is completely overpowered by the excellence of the royal family. A father who has legitimate reasons for wanting to lock up his daughters! A mother who is alive and doing things! A trio of sisters who come up with cunning plans to escape creeper dragons and unwanted marriages! Mind you, this is from the same book that brought me ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue Eyes’. I am coming to expect a certain level of awesome from it.