Space Sweepers (2021)

I couldn’t help but think of Cowboy Bebop. I’ll mention Planetes too, but I still haven’t seen it so I’m only making a topical connection.

See, Space Sweepers shares so many aesthetic and tonal qualities with anime that I would be remiss not to point it out immediately. If you already know you don’t enjoy less-rigorous, more-adventurous space thrillers with lots of crunchy techno-bits slathered on for that sweet flavor, but without the density of “totally realistic” sci-fi… this probably isn’t the movie for you.

If, on the other hand, you want a dramatic space thriller with some cyberpunkish themes and just enough emotional moments to make me sniffle, check out this movie.

Why? Because even with my few quibbles, Space Sweepers is still a touching story about grief, struggling to make ends meet, and the humanity of those society has cast aside. It’s flashy, it’s fun, and despite the rough bits it has heart.

Oh, and *damn* do I enjoy the cast and the polyglot melange of this space future. The faces on-screen are incredibly diverse, and absolutely helped sell me on this movie’s setting. Sure, all the main characters are South Korean, and the big antagonist is played by Richard Armitage, but whoever was in charge of casting actually paid attention when they were asked to get a *broad* range of different people.

Having said that, I do have to add one of those quibbles I’d mentioned: this movie’s acting quality and character development are unevenly distributed. I feel like that goes hand in hand with the anime themes I mentioned above, but it’s more noticeable when watching real live humans.

The core crew feel solid to me, and I don’t feel like the script screws them over. Bits of character background and motivation seep out throughout the movie, and I *like* that. We’re not immediately clobbered with each character’s backstory. I already mentioned Cowboy Bebop, but this is yet another place where I see a connection.

Unfortunately, the villain is a tad bit cardboard. I know that Richard Armitage can do better, so I can only assume that either there was more material which never made it to the film’s theatrical edit, or the script never allowed for the character to really shine. Similarly, the whole movie is peppered with some oddly stiff moments where bit-characters talk (mostly in the background) and simply feel… contrived. Like, it made sense for someone to say a thing, so the script included it, but the delivery didn’t quite land for me.

It wasn’t a big enough issue to pull me out of the movie, or even make me dislike it.

My other quibble: there are a few plot twists that feel contrived at best. They didn’t break the movie for me, but the logical holes were… pretty big. Big enough that I simply had to embrace them as part of the story and move on—which was more difficult for me than overcoming my quibbles with the acting. I think what gave me the most trouble wasn’t the deus ex machina, but the fact that the film could have covered it (or at least justified it better) with a few small changes earlier on. It felt like an unforced error.

Of course, knowing the little I do about movie production, I realize that I may be wildly off the mark. Who knows how many variations the script went through, how many of those last scenes were cobbled together from different shoots, or how much of their budget they’d run through by the time anyone saw the same plot holes I see? It’s not like making movies is simple or easy.

Anyway. I liked this movie. If you know you like its genres, I think you’ll like it too.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine absolutely knocks this one out of the park. 

A Memory Called Empire is a lot of things, but at its heart is a bittersweet tension of love, admiration, and despair for a culture and civilization which will destroy one’s own. It’s about being caught on the outside, stuck as an outsider despite so much work done to fit in. And it’s a thriller about loyalty and betrayal, both expected and not, from without and within.

It’s an excellent book, as I said when I mentioned it a couple weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to write anything more here, and thrown out a few hundred words that might spoil the book for you. Exploring what Arkady Martine does so well without giving away her story is… challenging for me.

She’s managed to write a compelling culture, one in which I can see traces of several historical imperial courts and practices, and held it up for us the readers as a deep and multi-layered thing tantalizingly out of reach of our own comprehension. The fraught weight of meaning is present and palpable, but just enough is lost in translation for us to experience it mostly as our narrator does, unable to be a full part of it as anything but barbarians.

Speaking as someone who studied linguistics, and specialized in the production of ideology and ideological identity through political speech, this book is a delight. Speaking as someone who loves studying political science, international relations, history, and the rise, fall, and gradual mutations of empire, this book is marvelous. And as someone who deeply appreciates heartfelt stories juxtaposed with intrigue and danger—wow.

I’m trying not to ruin anything for you. Please just go ahead and read the book. It’s really good.

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night had been on my to-watch list since it came out last year. I finally watched it Monday, early in the morning after my body decided three and a half hours of sleep was all I would get.

This movie was damn good.

These sorts of stories—stories with the feelings evoked by The Vast of Night—are usually pegged as horror movies. But most horror movies fail to deliver them well. Those movies are too caught up in the scare, in the burst of adrenaline and the heart-pumping thrill of being prey. Not so with The Vast of Night.

It is, at its heart, a mystery.

It’s about two young people, people who yearn for some way out of their small New Mexico town, discovering something odd and trying to chase down the truth behind it before it disappears. And it feels more like the slower paced, unsettling investigations sometimes found in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files than like any other horror movie I’ve seen in ages. I mean, damn, the movie even opens with an implied framing narrative as an episode of something like The Twilight Zone, right down to the Rod Serling-esque intro voiceover.

It’s been ages since I’ve been this captivated by watching people sit and talk to each other about things that aren’t happening on screen.

You may think that’s a joke, but seriously, I both loved it and didn’t understand it. Reflecting on the movie immediately after watching it, I couldn’t figure it out why I found that so rewarding. And yet, I did. Heck, there’s even the incredibly bold choice to simply hold on a black screen for a while, while we listen to someone speak, and it’s GOOD.

As you might expect from all that, this movie is low key. It’s grounded, both metaphorically and literally. The camera work very intentionally stays at or below shoulder height the vast majority of the time, leaving us just as stuck in this town as the main characters. There’s even a long low shot (that baffled me until I dug up more about it) which does an incredible job of tying the whole space of the town together.

There’s only one scene I can think of that really pulls out the stops and delivers the scares you might have expected from a movie listed as a sci-fi mystery thriller, and even then it’s incredibly subdued by thriller movie standards.

Instead, the movie hones its craft on a low-effects presentation that focuses more on the uncanny, the strange, and the wondrous, and it does this well. Extremely well.

A few other good notes that I must mention…

The sound design and music are great. I recommend watching the movie with a good sound system, or good set of headphones if you’re watching it alone. It’s worth it just to be sure you get all the details of everyone’s lines, all the richness of their voices.

And the consistent technical skill of the actors interacting with their props! That was really good. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but there’s something special for me about seeing characters on screen interacting with complicated machines in a way that brings both the machine and the character to life. That’s most true when the interactions are physical, and requires them to be internally consistent; that combination gives the character a feeling of expertise, and tells me more about them as a person. Part of what I appreciate about that internal consistency is that I know it’s not easy to create on set: you rarely get any of the feedback from a prop that you’d get from the actual device, so the appearance of fluid ease and competence (and the internal consistency of use that lets you learn how the machine works as they go) means that the actor put a lot of time into either learning the actual use of the machine or developing a legible acting language of use.

I could keep nerding about how much I like that for ages, but I’ll just say that it’s present in this movie and did a lot for my feeling of immersion and belief in the characters.

So. If you like investigative mysteries and the uncanny or strange, indulge yourself with The Vast of Night.

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The fourth and final member of Tor’s Reimagining Lovecraft novella collection, Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan, brings the weird and the uncomfortable home to roost.

Of the four stories, this is the one that felt least complete to me. It left obvious spaces open for the story to continue, implications that want some kind of follow-up… but I think I can see why the story stopped where it did. The novella contained its own neat little arc, even though the completion of the arc didn’t resolve the larger story lines this piece opened. Worth noting: there are sequels to this story, though I haven’t yet read any.

Each of the four novellas in this collection builds on a different part of the Cthulhu Mythos, and I’ve found aspects to appreciate about every one of these reinterpretations. They all draw out facets of Lovecraft’s stories—sometimes things he wrote explicitly, sometimes things he implied but failed to recognize—and I’ve enjoyed them as a return to cosmic horror, a way to engage more with stories that I’ve put aside in distaste but which still hold some good core of fright.

And that good core of fright is precisely what I think CRK captures so well here; its presence is the reason that I don’t feel at all cheated by this story. Despite leaving me wanting more resolution, more progress, Agents of Dreamland absolutely satisfied my desire for the Mythos’ pressing discomfort; Kiernan pulls from multiple pieces of Lovecraft’s work—the sometimes goofy and poorly written bizarre monsters, the fairytale otherness of (mis)understood dreaming—and delivers a horror story that holds together as whole cloth. It’s a reimagining, like it says on the novella collection, that improves on the material it draws from. Just like the other pieces in here do, but in its own distinct way (like, again, the other pieces in here do).

In many ways, I think Agents of Dreamland is the most Lovecraft-ish reimagining of the four novellas. Kiernan improves on the original content in a way that feels most comparable to the source material. Maybe that’s why I kept thinking about Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green games while reading it.

Anyway, yes, it’s another good piece in a good collection. If you like Cthulhu Mythos stories but are tired of / disgusted by Lovecraft, or could never get into those stories because of Lovecraft, I suggest these. They vary a lot from one novella to the next, but I’ve enjoyed them all a great deal.

The Tower of Péng the Unprepared, and Whimsy’s Throne

I’ve started a Patreon for the Locations that keep coming to me! You can find it here, at Whimsy’s Throne. There’s a free version of my first finished World Seed there, The Tower of Péng the Unprepared. Here’s the cover art, from my friend Worsey.

Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

I’ve finished two good books recently, A Memory Called Empire and Hammers on Bone. They both deserve more than a passing mention, but I’m only going to talk about Hammers on Bone right now—I’ve struggled to find good ways to cover A Memory Called Empire without spoiling things, and I’m taking the easier way out.

I read Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone through the same bundle of four novellas that brought me to The Ballad of Black Tom and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. I’m glad to say that this book deserves its company. Reading this has inspired me to tell my own investigative horror stories again, through its good example and obvious love for the material; for comparison, these days Lovecraft only evokes that kind of reaction for me by way of spite and a fierce desire to do better than he did.

Perhaps that’s what drove Cassandra Khaw. Whatever the case, they succeeded.

Evocative, punchy, and more full of body-horror and gore than I’d expected, this book wears its love for the stylings of noir on its nicotine-stained sleeve. Seriously, I haven’t read about this much smoking in years. But it’s a story that comes with all the scummy details and twists I expect from old PI noir, alongside the horror of the Cthulhu mythos and a grasp of descriptive language that leaves me reeling in envy and admiration. Not everyone should try this style of evocative, nearly synesthetic detail, but DAMN does Khaw make it work for me. Their prose lays on atmosphere so thick it’s like drowning, mashed face first into the yellowed pages of cheap detective pulp.

And it works. The quasi-hallucinatory perspective, with its depth of detail, goes beyond merely fleshing out a character voice; it rapidly told me more than I’d realized about who our narrator was… and how Mr. Persons was not at all what I’d first thought.

It’s not a big book, not a long story. It’s a quick and potent read, much faster for me than most of the other pieces in the Tor.com novella collection. If you like horror and noir it’s practically a must. I definitely recommend it. Get it here. Or buy the whole bundle (which I’ve enjoyed so far) here.

The Ruins of Ghalburg

Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.

The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.

Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.

The Lonely House

Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.

But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.

There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.

Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.

There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.

Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was a slow burn, and a good one.

I admit that it lost its compulsive hold on me part way through. I was distracted. My reading wandered, and I consumed several other tasty books. But when I returned to it after some time away, I finished it in one sitting. And while my hair did not stand on end (much harder now with its covid-length), this story does an excellent job of peeling back the skin and exposing fresh, homemade, very human discomfort.

Another friend of mine absolutely adored this book and inhaled it in one go, unable to put it down. In talking about it, we speculated that my distraction in the middle may have come from gendered differences. Perhaps, we thought, I was less caught up in it because it felt less intimately personal. Your mileage may vary.

Whatever the source of that difference, I absolutely agree with her (and with whomever decided to bundle these books at Tor) that like The Ballad of Black Tom (my review, Goodreads), this book does a beautiful job of reimagining abysmal source material with vibrance, reality, and truth. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe captures the same strange wonder and eeriness of Dreaming that I remember enjoying from Lovecraft’s work, while shedding Lovecraft’s awful baggage. I firmly believe that this story, like The Ballad of Black Tom, is superior to HPL’s work.

Read the originals only if you must, and only if you’re ready for how much worse Lovecraft was.

Speaking of ‘must,’ this story is an adventure of musts and mustn’ts. It’s about being pushed, pressured by society and those with more power. And this story is more concerned with wily survival against the wishes of malignant potentates than with any fulfillment of internal, personal dreams and desires. In fact, it’s about quashing one’s own hopes in order to conform, in hopes that conforming will offer some protection. That is part of what sets this story up so well as a piece of slow horror, but it’s also foundational to why it feels so honest. Our protagonist, Vellitt Boe, struggles against constraints even as she tries to uphold them; she’s caught in a vise, doing her best to protect the little island of home she’s found, the little space for broadening life’s horizons she’s been able to settle into… but to do so, she must drag another woman back from those broadened horizons, back into a constrained life, lest many more lives be lost.

Horrible. Perfect.

Now, some very light, very generalized *SPOILERS*…

The late-in-the-story turnaround leading to the story’s final resolution seems obvious when I think about it now, but it caught me by surprise in the best way. And throughout the story, I loved that Vellitt Boe accomplished more through her own previous experience—and the relationships she’d forged over her well-traveled life—rather than through any personal skill mastery or super-ability. Being experienced in the ways of the world, having old allies, and knowing how to convince people to do what she wanted all did more for her… and that felt perfect. In so many ways, Vellitt Boe is the opposite of the heroes or narrators chosen by Lovecraft, or his contemporary Robert E. Howard. And the fact that Vellitt Boe’s connections to other people are so fundamentally instrumental to her success… it feels to me like a beautiful refusal of the ideologies of the source material.

End *SPOILERS*.

Look, I like this book. I definitely recommend it. More deliberate than fast-paced, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is full of subdued horror, is uncomfortable but rewarding, and is very good.

Tel’s Spring

On a small mountain rising out of the rain forest, nestled in an opening amidst thick-trunked gray-brown trees wreathed in lianas, a cool dark pond bubbles up from the rock below. Barely convex with the force of its spring, the pool does not reflect the light of the sky overhead, only the undersides of trees’ leaves. When rain falls, as it does every afternoon of the wet season, the sky’s water slides off the quietly bubbling spring and seeps into the rocky earth around it. It is only in those moments, when that thin sheet of sky-water oozes away across the pool like oil, that one may see the gray clouds or spotty blues of the sky overhead reflected on the pool.

The spring’s water is uniformly cold to the touch. Soothing on a hot day, local animals sometimes swim in it, never fighting while sharing the spring’s waters. Indeed, the local wildlife is larger, healthier, and more frequently docile than others of their kind. But a careful observer will note that no animal drinks more than a single sip from the pool on any visit, preferring instead to dip themselves in the spring without drinking from it. But the trees around the spring, watered by it, grow strong and tall. And these local animals eat freely from the small fruits hanging on those thick-trunked trees, casting seeds far and wide.

The spring is reputed to belong to the jealous god of life, growth, and small beginnings, a formidable being who is not to be trifled with, taken for granted, or scorned. The story goes that anyone who drinks too fully from the spring offers themselves to this god of life, Tel, and invites Tel to work through them. Often, the story ends with an incautious and thirsty person clutching at their mouth in horror as mushrooms erupt from their skin and a small fruit tree with glistening gray-brown bark roots down through their feet and branches up through their skull. So it is that the spring is held to be both sacred and dangerous, a place to be venerated and, for the most part, avoided.

There are exceptions, of course. There are stories of some few more-favored by Tel who drank deeply from the spring and were blessed without becoming trees. And the people who hold the spring as holy do visit at certain times of year, as new growth burgeons and as seeds are sown, to make offerings and perform the rituals known to be pleasing to Tel. Those who are coming of age are bid to take one sip from the spring during these rites, in hopes of long and fruitful lives, while those whose limbs have been wounded, withered, or warped may sip in hopes that Tel will guide their limbs once more. But apart from these times, the spring is left alone on its mountaintop, a world apart from its surroundings, its strange reflections and turbulence unexamined and untouched.