Friday, April 21, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 11 - Sebastien de Castell

Sebastien de Castell, author of the Greatcoats fantasy series, joins us in this episode. We talk about how his love of fantasy started with CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the importance of the story to him at a time when he was dealing with one of the toughest experiences a child can face. As well, he shares his thoughts about fantasy's role in highlighting the wonder of the real world, rather than just being a means of escape.

Sebastien then discusses how a rainy camping trip with a copy of Keith Taylor's Bard ultimately inspired his career path: music, swordplay, and storytelling. We explore how his writing has been shaped by what he's learned as a musician. As someone who's coordinated sword fighting scenes for stage productions, he also talks about how technique with a blade is often less important to writing a fight scene than the other experiences one has during a duel.

He explains the benefits of having a good working relationship with his editor, and having beta readers who will help him hash-out a story. Sebastien also talks about the challenges of transitioning from writing one book to another, and of shifting gears when he has multiple stories on the go at once (at the time of our conversation, he was working on three books simultaneously: the upcoming Greatcoats instalment Tyrant's Throne, the also soon-to-be-released Spellslinger, and a third book that's in development).

We talk about the problems that arise when people try impose a personal frame on art. This leads to a discussion about the 2016 Hugo Awards controversy.

Our interview took place in June 2016 at Sebastien's home in Vancouver, BC.

Find out more about Sebastien de Castell and his works at:

Visit iTunes to subscribe to Invaders From Planet 3 and download episodes, and be sure to rate the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Podcast Playlist - What I'm Listening to

Season 2 of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast has just launched! Keep your eyes — and ears — on over the next couple of weeks for a new group of interviews with authors and editors from every corner of speculative fiction. There's also a "Voice of the Fans" episode.

Since podcasts are top-of-mind for me right now, I thought I'd share a list of the shows I enjoy. I've grouped them into five broad categories: Speculative Fiction, History, Science, Comedy, and The Dearly Departed (for shows which have wrapped up, but which are certainly worth listening to if you can still find them).

They vary in length. Some are host-only, while others are interviews or panel discussions. And, as a warning for those with sensitive ears or kids in the room, some contain explicit language or disturbing material.

Each has its own strength or set of strengths: most of the hosts are pretty engaging; some hosts have a solid, professional sound; some shows have fascinating guests, and some of the hosts are good interviewers; some 'casts are really well researched; some have great production.

By the same token, none of them is perfect (but who is?). I won't get into my critiques of each show because everyone's tastes are different, and what sticks out to one listener may not be an issue for another. Decide for yourself what you like.

Whether you need something to listen to on your daily commute, or while you're reorganizing your bookshelf, making supper, cleaning the garage, or working out (well, you might need something to listen to while working out, but, as somebody who legendarily avoids the gym at all costs, and has been known to taunt people with ice cream bars while they work out, I won't be needing any audio for exercise purposes), each of these podcasts is worth downloading. I get them off of iTunes myself, but some have their own websites, and you may be able to find them on other podcasting platforms. I've linked their titles to their websites where possible, and their iTunes pages otherwise. If you like them as much as I do, be sure to rate and review them on iTunes or whatever site is applicable. Enjoy!

Speculative Fiction

Three Hoarsemen
Once upon a time, there were three members of the SF Signal Irregulars who started a podcast. Their knowledge of speculative fiction was vast and deep. They were like the Great Old Ones of fandom, except, rather than being a menace to the universe, they were only a threat to the bookshelves of other fans when they expounded upon the thousands of books and comics both new and old that you should be reading. For a while, Jeff Patterson, John H. Stevens and Fred Kiesche were content to write reviews and comments for the late, lamented SF Signal site, and later appeared as occasional panelists on the similarly late, lamented SF Signal Podcast. Frequently crotchety, always insightful and entertaining, they were, singly or together, many times the highlight of the show. And then they launched their own monthly podcast. In each episode, the Three Hoarsemen (sometimes accompanied by guests) discuss a particular book, the works of individual authors, issues in the genre, or other topics, and then opine about the novels, short stories, comics, movies, TV shows, and other culture they've consumed since their last show. Rarely is there an episode where I don't finish without adding a book or three to my to-buy list. But they've also been a good early warning system that's kept me  away from stuff that maybe wasn't worth while. Episodes are usually in the ballpark of an hour, but can vary.

The Coode Street Podcast
Long-running and lively, the weekly Coode Street Podcast features critic Gary Wolfe and anthologist/editor Jonathan Strahan hurtling between discussions and debates about books and short stories, authors, awards, trends in writing, and issues facing the field of science fiction and fantasy and its fandom as a whole. The show frequently features guests, some of whom are authors interviewed about their own work, others there to discuss awards or issues the genre community is wrestling with. Episodes are generally longer than an hour, but with the brisk pace set by the hosts (even during prolonged and intense discussions about a particular topic) it certainly doesn't feel like it.

MF Galaxy
This show is about more than just speculative fiction — it's a catchall of interviews with writers and others about writing, pop culture, politics, history, and Afrocentric issues. But, because my main area of interest in the show is the interviews with sf authors and discussions about books, movies, comics and TV (although I do listen to the other episodes), I'm including it in the speculative fiction category of podcasts. It's hosted by author Minister Faust (whose books I've enjoyed for years, and who was a guest on my own show last season), who is insightful, funny, passionate about his subject matter, and has a good, professional on-air delivery. The podcast features new interviews, as well as archival material gathered over the years. It also has a nice, well-produced sound. Episodes generally run about a half-hour, though longer versions are available for show supporters.

The Black Tapes
A radioplay about a young journalist who, in the course of profiling a crotchety paranormal investigator, uncovers a cult's attempts to bring demons into the world, The Black Tapes podcast feels like the lovechild of The Paper and Poltergeist, midwifed by The X-Files. I first heard about the show when it was mentioned by a guest on The Nerdist podcast, not too long after the first few episodes of BT were posted online. It only took one episode to get me hooked, and pretty soon I'd made my wife into a fan. The show has a wonderfully creepy, claustrophobic, something's-standing-over-your-bed-leaning-right-into-your-face-while-you-sleep feel to it, good character development, and a nice, tight plot. While I might occasionally quibble about the ethics or likelihood of the protagonist's journalistic practices (yes, I know I said at the outset that I wasn't going to detail the weaknesses of each show, and yeah, I may have hung up my Electro-Voice 635 mic a few years ago, but I can never entirely stop thinking like a reporter), overall it's a good tale about how one story can lead to another, and how sometimes a story can threaten to consume the investigator. Definitely one of those shows that will have you eagerly waiting for each new season. Episodes are usually in the range of half-an-hour.

Myths and Legends
As the name implies, this show is devoted to retelling old (and sometimes not so old) myths and legends from around the world. That said, the host, Jason, makes a bit of a change and retells them in a modern style — which is the right choice, to my mind, in that it creates a consistent sound and feel from story to story, as well as a rhythm that lends itself well to the occasional editorial interruption. Rather than break the flow of the story, these comments serve to engage modern audiences and let us know that we're all interpreting the story the same way. If the host didn't interrupt the story from time to time to call characters — or the narrative itself — out for things that we of the 21st Century would deem odd or inappropriate, then the risk would be that the modern audience might become alienated by outdated values or ways of looking at the world. Something I also appreciate is that the host makes a point of noting when there are multiple versions of a story (or of a particular plot point within a story), and then explains his rationale for choosing one over the other, or for taking bits from several to synthesize a compromise version that sounds good and is consistent with the rest of the story. It's also interesting to hear about the origins of legends and fairy tales, especially when it's revealed that some come from different place than you'd expect. Each episode also ends with the "creature of the week", a short segment (unrelated to the main myth or legend) profiling critters from folklore from around the world. Overall, the show is well-written and produced, and the host has a good read and seems like a nice guy. Episodes usually run half-an-hour to 45 minutes.

Welcome to Night Vale
Imagine listening to a local radio news broadcast in a community in the US where pretty much everything from every episode of The Twilight Zone and all of the horrific supernatural strangeness from the depths of Lovecraft's mind happens all the time. In fact, weird things like the Sheriff's Secret Police, or the Dog Park with its menacing figures that no-one is allowed to talk about, hostile subterranean cities beneath the bowling alley, or faceless old women living in everyone's homes are so commonplace that the inhabitants take them for granted — or, in some cases, fervently embrace them because this is the only life they've ever known. That's the fictional town of Night Vale, and listeners become a part of it every time they tune in to anchorman Cecil's rundown of local news, sports, weather (which isn't a weather forecast, rather it's a slot where the show cuts to a song from a different musician each episode), gossip, community calendar listings — and sometimes events from his personal life. The podcast is brilliant for being so wildly imaginative, and for its total commitment to the world it has built, where Cecil delivers descriptions of all manner of unsettling creepiness in such a matter-of-fact — and sometimes giddy — way. Even the life-lessons that are occasionally given out (either in the podcast or on its Twitter feed) are framed in a way that's only appropriate for life in Night Vale ("Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but at other times it's a venomous snake painted as a cigar in an attempt to assassinate you."). Part of the genius of the show is the way in which the horror of Night Vale's world is completely undercut by the cheesiness of Cecil's earnest delivery of his newscast. It's also fun listening for old cliches from our world given a completely different, and frequently icky, twist for the show. The other thing I enjoy is how much (paranormal facts of life aside) Cecil's broadcast sounds like newscasts or DJ breaks at some small town radio stations I've known over the years. The ones where the community world-view is very insular, the station's focus is narrow, and the on-air talent is more eager than talented. I listen to Cecil and his forced, overblown delivery, or his gushing about his personal life, and I think "I knew guys like this when I worked in radio!" — broadcasters who weren't the best newspeople or jocks (broadcaster slang for DJs, not sports guys) in the business (some probably shouldn't have been on-air at all), but who were so committed, so gung-ho, and who loved their stations and their towns so much that they'd become fixtures in the community, and everyone in town loved them right back. Not much room left for personalities like that in these days of media contraction. Episodes are just shy of half-an-hour, and the producers take the show on the road around the world every now and again.

This weekly audio magazine has been around for years, and has built a solid reputation in the sf community. The podcast features narrators reading the short stories of various authors (usually one story per show), as well as other tidbits from the sf community, including occasional interviews. The host, Tony C Smith, is enormously and genuinely enthusiastic about whatever topic is at hand, and seems like someone you'd like to hang out with. The narrators do a solid job reading the short stories. Episodes can range anywhere from half-an-hour to upwards of two hours, though most are in the neighbourhood of one hour.



Emperors of Rome
The premise of this podcast is, as the title implies, fairly straightforward: each episode profiles a different Roman emperor in chronological order. The lineup is frequently interspersed with episodes about other luminaries of the ancient world, such as pre-Imperial rulers, generals, poets, senators, the wives and consorts of the emperors, and others. The format is a conversation-style interview between host Matt Smith (no, no the 11th Doctor) and a professional historian, which, for most episodes to date, has been Dr. Rhiannon Evans. Smith and Evans both sound personable, and they have a good on-air dynamic with each other which makes the show easy to listen to, while being very informative. The biographies in each of the biweekly episodes are well researched, and the hosts are good about naming the sources for various claims about the personalities or deeds of whichever historical figure is being covered. Production on the show is also good. If you found yourself missing The History of Rome podcast, then Emperors of Rome is for you. Episodes are usually in the range of half-an-hour long.

The Irish History Podcast
Covering different events and figures throughout Irish history, this podcast is broken up into several miniseries, each of which goes in-depth over multiple episodes to explore every facet of its topic. Because of the miniseries format, the show jumps around in time: from the medieval Norman invasion, to the rise of the labour movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, to the Black Death, to the Troubles, and more. And yet, despite going forwards and backwards through history, the show maintains a consistent feel and a comfortable rhythm. Rather than being locked into a chronology, it's like browsing through the shelves of a library and stopping here and there to pick topics of interest. Host Fin Dwyer, an archaeologist by trade, does an excellent job of researching his topics, and has a solid, friendly delivery. The show runs weekly and episodes are normally in the rang of half-an-hour.

The British History Podcast
Starting in prehistoric times and moving forward chronologically, this series profiles the major events and people in British history. Host Jamie Jeffers and his producer, Dr. Zee, do a great job of researching topics and historical figures for the show, and occasionally include interviews with experts on British history and archaeology. They also do a good job of identifying grey areas where different sources have different things to say about an event or a person — or when sources have nothing to say about something important that happened — and Jamie explains his rationale for going with one account over another. Jamie has a good delivery, and his personality comes through in his writing. One thing to keep in mind: if you're looking for a complete overview of what's happening across all of Britain in a given year, decade, or era, the focus of the show narrows considerably by the Medieval period — it's only a podcast about all of Britain until the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons arrive; after that it becomes almost exclusively about England. I gather from passing references that there's members-only content that pertains to Scotland and Wales, but you won't hear about those countries much on the main, free podcast. At least not at the point where the show is as I write this blurb, which is the time of Alfred the Great — though, as I write this, the most recent episodes have taken a detour into Wales by way of introducing us to the Welsh priest and scholar Asser, who was coveted by Alfred, and some of the fighting involving the Sons of Rhodri, which seems to have had some entanglement with English politics as well. Perhaps Scotland and Wales will be brought back into the show on a more regular basis at a later date. I certainly hope so. That said, it's a good podcast, and I certainly encourage anyone with an interest in English or British history to give it a listen. Episodes air weekly and run about half-an-hour.

History of Germany Podcast
Available for listening in both English and German, the History of Germany Podcast outlines the history of the region influenced by German language and culture chronologically (mostly) from ancient times to the present. The show occasionally makes detours when guests are brought in (usually as part of a crossover involving different podcasts) to talk about other subjects related to events in the main timeline (like a recent episode about power struggles between Holy Roman emperors and the papacy). Host Travis Dow does a good job of researching his topics, and you can tell he's hugely enthusiastic about his subject matter. The show is also well produced. Episodes are usually biweekly to monthly, and generally half-an-hour to an hour in length.

The History of the Crusades
Ah, the Middle Ages: knights in shining armour; high-stakes backroom politics pitting kings, nobles religious leaders, and peasants each other; land grabs spanning countries, regions, and even continents; and the wholesale, stomach-turning butchery of human lives and wanton destruction of property (committed by all sides) that was the Crusades. I started listening to Sharyn Eastaugh's podcast a couple of years ago when she was doing her first series on the various Crusades in the Middle East, and was thoroughly impressed by the amount of detail she put into researching the blow-by-blow events for every show, especially her use (and citing) of multiple sources from different perspectives. I thought the podcast had wrapped up when that series ended, but I've recently come back to it and discovered that during the intervening time, she's done another series on the Crusade against the Cathars, and is now in the middle of a new series on the Baltic Crusades. Needless to say, I'm currently binge-listening my way through the Cathar instalment to try to get caught up. You might want to give it a listen too.

The Scottish History Podcast
This show examines various events, figures, groups and other points of interest from Scotland's history. Rather than being bound to a timeline, episodes jump back and forth across Scottish history to cover everything from the Battle of Culloden, to Scotland's role in the African slave trade, to what Vikings ate. The topics are well-researched, and the hosts are enthusiastic and keep up a good banter. Episodes are usually around half-an-hour long, and air infrequently.

History of Pirates Podcast
Who doesn't love pirates? Or, at least our modern romantic notion of pirates as lively adventurers on the high seas, rather than the real thieves, slavers, and killers of yore. But as fun as our 20th and 21st Century swashbucklers like Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, and Captain Chunk may be, what's more fun is to learn about the fascinating scofflaws like Drake, Teach, Kidd, and Zheng Shi who preyed on ships and coastal settlements centuries ago. The History of Pirates podcast is well researched and host "Captain" Craig Buddy is clearly highly enthusiastic about his subject matter. The show is chronological (sort of), starting by exploring the seafaring nations of the Bronze Age that made piracy a part of their foreign policy, and moving forward towards the golden age of piracy. Occasional detours are made to talk about other issues, or to profile pirates of note from other periods. Episodes are infrequent and can run anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.



Quirks and Quarks
For 40 years, CBC's Quirks and Quarks has been the gold standard for science reporting in broadcast,  and it's great to be able to download the show (or individual segments from episodes) in podcast form. Host Bob Macdonald and his producers interview researchers about breaking news from around the world in the fields of science (all branches — from astronomy to oceanography, chemistry, palaeontology, and everything in between) and technology, as well as ongoing issues (like global warming), and the effect of government policy on science and the planet. Macdonald has a friendly, solid delivery, and knows his stuff. The show is very well researched and guests (both those responsible for new scientific discoveries or developments, and those invited to comment about breaking news and issues) include leading international scientists. The show runs weekly, but takes a break for a couple of months during the summer. Episodes run 54 minutes, though segment lengths vary.

StarTalk Radio
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and a rotating crew of comedian sidekicks and scientific experts discuss all things science-related in this weekly show. Episodes vary from one-on-one interviews (accompanied outside the interview by commentary from Neil and his co-hosts) with special guests such as scientists and celebrities, to panel discussions about recent scientific discoveries or ongoing issues. Occasionally other scientists from the roster of regulars will take over hosting duties for special episodes. And there's usually a segment at the end of each episode where Neil and his guests will answer questions sent in by listeners. A separate closing segment features and editorial from Bill Nye the Science Guy. Episodes run about an hour.



The Bugle
This weekly dose of political and social satire is a necessity for maintaining sanity in a world that, with every update of daily news, seems to be sinking further into insanity. Host Andy Zaltzman and his gaggle of guest co-hosts are pretty much guaranteed to have me laughing within minutes of the opening fanfare. The show is so good that Zaltzman & co. can even make sports (or, occasionally their bizarre, alternate universe mockery of sports) entertaining.

Allegedly broadcasting from a pod floating high above... somewhere (though usually in a Toronto comedy bar, or sometimes from the host's kitchen, or an apartment on the road), The Seanpod is whatever comedian Sean Cullen feels like serving up. Sometimes it's the improvisational madness of his on-stage performances, other times, Cullen may just muse about new music he's getting into. During the episodes taped at his stand-up gigs, listeners are treated to everything from off-the-cuff songs, to new instalments of his "awkward family conversations" skit, to occasional "scenes beside the scenes" sketches (where we find out what background characters are discussing during famous cinematic moments), to interactions with the audience, to bits with other comedians and actors who join the show as guests. Cullen is apparently a science fiction fan, and, while the genre doesn't creep into every show, he does reference it from time to time. One of the funniest instalments featuring sf was episode 15 a couple of years ago, when Kids in the Hall star Scott Thompson joined Cullen onstage and they did a prolonged skit savaging John Norman's Gor series. At the time, I was listening to it on headphones as I walked home from work, and several people gave me odd looks as I cackled away helplessly. Episodes are infrequent, but it's worth subscribing for those times when The Seanpod does land on your playlist with something new.

The Nerdist Podcast
Comedian Chris Hardwick hosts this weekly show where he (sometimes accompanied by sidekicks) chats with other comics and various Hollywood types. His interview style is very informal — there's no official "welcome to the show" during the interview proper; Hardwick's producer just starts rolling when the guests arrive, and they start talking. Sometimes guests are taken a little by surprise when they find out the interview is already under way. Most of the episodes are reasonably funny, and sometimes you get to learn a lot about who the guests really are. The show runs weekly and episodes are usually about an hour.

My Dad Wrote a Porno
The name pretty much says it all for this one: a couple of years ago, a guy in the UK made the uncomfortable discovery that his retired father had started writing and self-publishing porn. Really, really bad porn. "Bad" as in catastrophically poorly-written (with a truly stunning lack of knowledge about the female anatomy). The son — Jamie Morton — decided the only way to cope with it was to share it with a couple of friends — and the world. Each week, Morton and his sidekicks, James Cooper and Alice Levine, sit down around the kitchen table and record an episode of the podcast where they read a chapter aloud and savagely mock it, pretty much on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The results are hilarious, though you'll never be able to look at a pomegranate the same way again. After two seasons, the show has amassed quite the following (including celebs Elijah Wood and Daisy Ridley, who've been guests on the 'cast), and they've taken it on the road for live performances... of the reading/heckling that is, not the porn. Episodes run weekly for as long as it takes to get through one of the books, and usually last for anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour.

Part of writer-director Kevin Smith's film and social media empire, this podcast pairs Smith up with his long-time collaborator, producer Scott Mosier, in a show where they talk about... whatever. Sometimes they discuss projects they're working on, sometimes they'll talk about people they know (such as episodes marking the passing of Carrie Fisher and Alan Rickman that were really quite touching), or stuff in general that's caught their eyes (like this past winter's news story about the guy in Alberta who beat up a cougar that was attacking his dog in a Tim Horton's parking lot). I'm not a regular listener, but the episodes I've downloaded have been funny enough to make it worth while checking out the occasional instalment from time to time.


The Dearly Departed
(Podcasts that have reached the end of their run, but are worth tracking down)

The History of Rome
Chronicling the history of Rome from its origins in legend to the crumbling of the Western Roman Empire, Mike Duncan's show set the standard for history podcasts. Well-researched from different sources, the show takes listeners step by step through one of the greatest civilizations of antiquity, profiling its leading citizens, covering its conflicts, and doing a good job of talking about life in general and how the empire was run. While the show has wrapped up, its episodes have been archived so you can still listen. Episodes run from about 10 to 30 minutes.

The SF Signal Podcast
Not so long ago, there was a marvellous online hub of all things speculative fiction called SF Signal. Over its span of many years, it spawned a group of podcasts, one of which was called The SF Signal Podcast. During its run, the show won a Hugo Award for Best Fancast, and for good reason: it featured a lot of interviews with interesting guests (writers, editors, critics, and others), hosted many rousing panel discussions, and pretty much everyone on it seemed to be having a great time — as did listeners. Episodes vary in length, and the show is still archived online.

Caustic Soda
A podcast devoted to examinations of all things weird, uncomfortable, dangerous, upsetting, lethal, or just plane gross. Like a sort of Three Stooges of the disturbing, hosts Joe Fulgham, Toren Atkinson and Kevin Leeson would irreverently explore the science, history and pop culture behind everything from shark attacks to fire, vampires, acid, elephants, explosives, and history's worst killers. The trio was frequently joined by expert guests to talk about some subject matter (including doctors for shows related to medical issues, scientists from various disciplines for relevant episodes, and others). The 'cast would also sometimes feature a musical interlude. If you're squeamish, have triggers, or don't appreciate deliberately tasteless humour, this show isn't for you. If you're curious about the bizarre and icky, and you don't mind jokes that tackle these issues head-on in an effort to take the edge off, Caustic Soda is definitely worth checking out. Episodes averaged between an hour and an hour-and-a-half.

Spider on the Web
A few years ago, author Spider Robinson launched a podcast where he shared his opinions on, well, everything; read excerpts from his stories and newspaper columns; and played and talked about music. Spider's a cool guy with a great voice, and if you like his stuff, it's worth while to dig up this show. Episodes run anywhere from a couple of minutes to two hours.


So what podcasts do you listen to? What should I be adding to my playlist?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 10 - Voice of the Fans

The invasion resumes!

In this episode, bridging season 1 and 2, we hear from a group of fans about their first loves in science fiction and fantasy. Our guests include the owners of Vancouver's White Dwarf science fiction bookstore, Jill Sanagan and Walter Sinclair; Vancouver film critic Thor Diakow; and fans-about-town Geordie Howe and Brandon Wong.

Some of the interviews were conducted around Greater Vancouver (accounting for the non-stop construction noise in the background), while others were held in the lair of bloginhood, located in an abandoned coal mine deep beneath the Cumberland village centre park on Vancouver Island.

Be sure to tune in over the coming weeks for more episodes from our new season of Invaders From Planet 3!

Visit iTunes to subscribe to Invaders From Planet 3 and download episodes, and be sure to rate the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An End of Winter Avalanche of Mini Book Reviews

As the dark days of winter draw to a close (at least, in theory — we've been hit with snowstorms twice this weekend, and this is supposed to be the Lower Mainland!), I've discovered in the course of reorganizing my library that my pile of books to be reviewed before they can be shelved has been, well, piling-up! To get them to the safety of the shelves, and to give you a few titles to think about if you're looking for something to read, I figured it was high time to sit down and babble a bit about what I've been devouring for the past several months.

In this edition of the Mini Book Reviews, we'll take a look at:

Wild Cards — High Stakes                 edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

Seveneves                                            by Neal Stephenson

A Desolate Splendor                           by John Jantunen

Last Year                                             by Robert Charles Wilson

The Goblin Emperor                           by Katherine Addison

Lovecraft Country                               by Matt Ruff

The Mongoliad — Book One               by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo,
                                                             ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey & Cooper Moo

The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk     edited by Sean Wallace

Clockwork Canada                              edited by Dominik Parisien

Mother of Eden                                    by Chris Beckett

As usual, spoilers ahead.


Wild Cards — High Stakes edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

This latest addition to the Wild Cards series explodes out of the gate right where its predecessor, Lowball, left off: a lethal underworld fightclub and gambling ring in Kazakhstan that's been kidnapping Jokers off the streets of New York has been busted open. Markus "The Infamous Black Tongue" Morgan, a snake-centaur vigilante who was taken for the games, is now on the run with a Russian woman he befriended while in captivity, looking to get home any way he can. Officer Francis Black, a normal human serving in New York's Jokertown police precinct, has also been caught overseas in the battle at the fightclub, and now finds himself in the strange position of having to team-up with the elderly Ace gangster who was running the operation just to try to stay safe as the city of Talas begins to erupt into horrific violence. With the end of the death matches, a strange force has spread throughout the city, driving people to kill each other, and transforming them into nightmare creatures. The chaos is being generated by a Lovecraftian entity forcing its way in from another dimension to spread its malevolence across our world. Back in New York, the UN's team of Ace peacekeepers, The Committee, gathers to go to Kazakhstan to make a stand against the darkness.

As with the rest of the series, High Stakes is immensely entertaining. The plot thunders along like an out-of-control freight train heading for a stalled school bus. The characters are well-rounded and interesting — even those who aren't likeable are still people who I couldn't take my eyes off and wanted to see more of. Each individual character arc was well-crafted and, while functioning perfectly independently, meshed with the others to form a cohesive and believable overall story. The real sign of the book's quality was the level of frustration it created at the end of each chapter: I wanted to stay with that chapter's character to find out what happened to him/her next, but at the same time I couldn't wait to find out what was happening to the next protagonist in the chapter ahead.

For all of the violence and depravity splashing through these pages, what's often most brutal is the impact of it on the minds and emotions of those who are forced to witness, battle, or endure it. Even with the help of a local wildcard-powered healer, no-one escapes unscathed. Not really. What was most surprising though, was that the authors pulled back a bit from the horror at the end. Which is not to say that I was surprised by the ultimate conclusion of the story, but rather that the plot seemed unavoidably pointed towards a truly awful sacrifice that would have had to be made to save the day, and then that didn't happen. Perhaps the authors stepped back from that brink because it would have been a pyrrhic victory, because it would have left the characters too soiled. And, you know, I'm okay with that.

If you haven't read it yet, go out and buy or borrow Wild Cards — High Stakes.


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I find myself shocked to say this about a Neal Stephenson book, but here goes: Seveneves is a novel that wants to be superb, but turns out to be merely adequate.

The story begins in the near future, when a mysterious object shatters the Earth's moon. With months before the debris field begins to rain down, scouring life from the surface of the Earth, the world unites to channel all of its resources into building a fleet of mini arks to join the International Space Station (now attached to a captured iron asteroid) in orbit to house as many young scientists as possible. The goal is to keep humanity alive in space for a few thousand years until the Earth can be made habitable again. But while "in space, no-one can hear you scream", it's also true that no-one can escape politics and the darker side of human nature. And these factors come into play again millennia down the road when it's time for the new species' descended from humanity to go home.

Something that struck me (and no, it wasn't a rogue chunk of the moon) during the opening act of Seveneves was how the destruction of the moon reminded me of the opening credits of the early 80s cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian — except there would be no lightsabers, wizards, or Wookiee ripoff Ookla the Mok when the dust settled. Not much of anything at all, in fact. It also reminded me of the scene in the first half of Simon Wells' 2002 remake of The Time Machine, where the moon is blown apart (by overzealous mining). The efforts of a (mostly) united world to pool resources to save humanity (one way or another) also harkens back to Firstborn, the third volume of Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey series.

On the positive side, Seveneves offers a cast of well-rounded characters who react in a believable way to the gigantic challenges they face, in terms of the construction project, personal relationships (especially having to deal with saying goodbye to loved ones who wouldn't be part of the offworld evacuation), politics, and survival. Stephenson also offers a (mostly — but I'll get to that in a sec) believable response to a crisis sparked by a mega-scale natural catastrophe. And the overall story is one that should be gripping, with moments of real tension. I also appreciated the fact that the book is as an argument for the plausibility of the space ark or generation ship, at a time when stories like Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora (which, don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed) seek to label this old trope of sf as unworkable.

But Seveneves is dragged down by some significant faults. The first is infodump. I mean a shocking, brutal, unforgivable level of infodump. Now, I know there are hard science fiction fans out there who love, nay, insist on, stories deeply, strongly anchored in known scientific fact; who want to see the equations; who get off on detailed, jargon-heavy explanations of technical minutia — and they probably enjoyed the hell out of this book's tidal wave of hard science. I didn't. I don't mind some level of technical exposition, but what I'm really looking for in a story is a good story. Story is king. No. Story is god. And when the formulae or physics or chemical analysis or whatever gets in the way of the story, then the author hasn't done his/her job. And the technical details most certainly get in the way of the story here. There are countless pages — frequently consecutive pages — where Stephenson overexplains orbital mechanics and course calculations, to the point where opportunities for character and story development are ignored — no, smashed underfoot — and pacing is sacrificed bloodily on the alter of obsessive jargon. And nearly all of it is unnecessary. Single sentences could have summed up what it takes the author pages to do. It's technical masturbation. Seveneves is a book that's more than 850 pages long, but it probably could have been 600 or 700 pages — and much more intellectually and emotionally satisfying — if the infodump and other, occasional instances of repetition in the writing, had been hacked out. Yeah, Stephenson's known for writing door-stopper-sized tomes these days, but this one didn't have to be this big.

And speaking of unnecessarily big, Seveneves also should have been smaller because it should have been split into two books. The third act, set in the far future, is so completely different from the initial how-do-we-survive-a-meteor-shower-apocalypse-and-not-subsequently-kill-each-other-in-orbit story in terms of tone, type of plot, character interactions, and character goals (and lower levels of infodump), that it should have been flushed-out and made into a sequel.

Lastly, as much as I'll give Stephenson credit for being realistic in his portrayal of how inevitable human politics and personal greed, and instinct-level animal viciousness, can lead to projects started with the best intentions (like saving humanity) running into serious trouble; and as much as I'll give him credit for, as an American writer, making an American politician one of the prime causes of trouble in the story, I don't think the author gives the reader a broad enough look at the different ways governments and individuals would behave in the desperate scramble to survive in the face of extinction. Going back to Clarke & Baxter's Firstborn, we're told that even as most of humanity works to prepare to withstand the coming solar blast, some of the super-rich build their own luxury space stations in orbital safe spots to ride-out the disaster. While Stephenson tells us in Seveneves about one politician violating the evacuation rules, and of one family company's attempts to dig a deep shelter (which, admittedly, leaves the door open for others having done the same), what he doesn't get into (probably because he didn't leave room for plot while cramming the book with infodump) is the likelihood that various governments or powerful individuals would also have gone rogue to get into the orbital arklet swarm and take control, or built outward-bound colony ships, or dug deep shelters to emerge much sooner to establish a larger, stronger control over the surface before the orbital descendants could, well, descend in their re-colonization plan.

I wanted to love Seveneves. I really did. It had all the elements I want out of a story. But the infodump  and other failings killed it as surely as a bombardment of moon fragments.


A Desolate Splendor by John Jantunen

If you grabbed John Jantunen's A Desolate Splendor off the shelf and flipped to a random page, there's a good chance you'd think you'd found yourself in the middle of a typical CanLit pastoral. You might find yourself drifting along amidst the slow rhythm of life on the farm, interspersed with the occasional challenge from nature, but where, really, the biggest challenges are in the relationships between family members. But then you'd turn the page and find something very different. Maybe the adventures of a teenager exploring the wilderness on this own. Or the story of a teenaged girl finding her own path after escaping brutality. Or the story of two young First Nations men trying to make a name for themselves with a daring raid. Or the experiences of a small gang of former soldiers and other stragglers living hand-to-mouth, day by day, preying on whomever they come across and revelling in retelling their old war stories as some kind of way to hold onto a non-existent past and justify their continued existence. Or the account of a group of women looking for an opportunity to escape a bleak existence of rape and enslavement at the hands of a horde of mute, self-multilating, cannibalistic men —the Echoes — who exist solely to burn, kill, and destroy. And as you spiralled down this black hole of increasingly grim plot threads, you'd quickly realize that, far from being a naval-gazing pastoral or a pioneer-era frontier adventure, this is a hard tale about hard-scrabble life in a post-apocalyptic world.

Jantunen paints a picture of a future far enough down the road from its disaster that the old world (while remembered by some) is entirely irrelevant. The remains of a highway are a curiosity in the distance rather than a trade or travel route. A car is nothing more than a dusty, dead amusement in a barn. What concerns the people of this deceptive rural tranquility the most is having enough food to survive after they've paid-off the protection racket of the roving gangs. Their crops are threatened by flocks of ravenous birds, and even the rain. Farmers and their dogs have to fight off packs of huge, vicious bear-wolves. And sometimes the Echoes come avalanching through at night to take the women and kill, eat, and burn the rest. Civilization is gone, and it often looks like humanity — referring both to our species and to the ability of people to demonstrate kindness, mercy, and understanding to one-another — may not be far behind.

And yet, for all its horrors, the world of A Desolate Splendor is not so unremittingly bleak as that of Cormac McArthy's The Road, and this saves the book from corrupting the experience of reading into a form of torture. Here, strangers met in the wild are not automatically enemies — some help those in trouble. There's a chance for redemption and a moment of peace, to build new family units instead of just watching as they're torn apart. And there's room for hope. Because of this, the characters remain interesting. We get to see them grow as individuals, form new relationships, and experience the world in different ways.

But this is still the post-apocalypse. Even in the protagonists' moments of triumph, there's still the lingering, nagging, vague fear, like a scream bouncing off the walls of an enclosed room again and again, that the Echoes might still be out there and about to come sweeping in once more. As much as they are a literal menace in the story, the Echoes are a metaphorical representation of humanity's current, active, seemingly unthinking (or at least indifferent) embrace of behaviour that could leave the real world desolate. Perhaps even more frightening are the members of the soldiers' gang, who are every bit as predatory and brutal as the Echoes, but operate behind friendly smiles and chit-chat with the farmers under the thin venire of providing a necessary service. And so even as the story leaves us with the splendour of a new family unit growing together, and of two young people possibly making a future for themselves, neither the characters nor the reader can sit entirely comfortably.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that a copy of this book was sent to me by the author. But that doesn't affect my opinion at all. A Desolate Splendor is an absorbing, smart read and worth picking up.


Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's newest novel, Last Year, is the love child of Hell on Wheels and Escape from LA, midwifed by The Time Tunnel. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Set in the late 1800s, the story is about Jesse Cullum, a man born in a rough part of San Francisco, who's led a life as an itinerant worker across the American West, and is now a member of the security staff at the City of Futurity, a tourist resort for people of his era — and ours. He's also a man who just wants to own a good pair of Oakley sunglasses, a goal in life that's made more difficult when his current pair is broken while saving President Grant from a would-be assassin.

Futurity is the creation of a 21st-Century billionaire who's exploiting technology that can create gateways to the pasts of alternate timelines (not the past of his own specific timeline, thereby avoiding paradoxes). The facility only runs for a few years before it's closed down, and a new one is constructed to bridge to another, similar timeline. In addition to giving tourists from the present the chance to visit the Old West, tourists from the past are invited to pay to stay at the resort and see museums hinting at the wonders of the future, and take rides on helicopters. An important part of the business also involves selling cheap, supposedly harmless technology of the future to the locals in exchange for gold (a currency that's good in any timeline).

The problem is, someone on the inside has been selling dangerous technology — like Glock handguns — to the locals. Worse, the culprit has been sharing details about civil rights advances of the future, offending the stodgy beliefs of the people of the past and throwing the country into chaos, and putting Futurity itself at risk. Having proven his toughness and reliability, Cullum is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, a security officer and military veteran from the future, and sent to investigate the technological and historical leaks. Over the course of their assignments together, Cullum comes to the realization that just doing his job and owning a pair of Oakleys might not be enough in life, and that finding your place in the world sometimes means changing worlds entirely.

If you read enough of Wilson's work, you soon learn that he likes to switch back and forth between stories about big, galaxy-spanning, high-concept philosophical material exploring man's place in the universe (if humanity even has a place amidst the grand workings of things ancient and unfathomable), and smaller, more intimate stories about individuals trying to figure out their place in their own lives. And he does both very well. Last Year is one the latter types of stories. It's not about time travel or paradoxes, or the mysteries of where this technology comes from. Even the question of the ethics of the use of the time gate technology by the owner of Futurity is very much on the sidelines. This is an in-depth exploration of a person figuring out what's most important to him, realizing that he wants to go through life with someone who he cares about and who cares about him, rather than just going through the motions alone, and deciding what he has to do to have important relationships with other people. He transforms from being just another commodity that Futurity has at its disposal to a full person who takes an active role in what he's going to do and what happens around him. Which makes it more interesting that throughout the story, two worlds — the past and the future — revolve around Cullum, but in the end, he takes the position of "the world be damned". He really doesn't care what happens to his own world (the past) or the ramifications of Futurity's collapse on the future, as long as he's able to be with Elizabeth and ensure the safety of his sister. Which ultimately puts the reader in the same position: by the end of the novel, it doesn't matter what happens to the owner of Futurity or his daughter, or what the company will do next either in the 21st Century or the past of any alternate timeline, or what the mystery of the time-travel technology is really all about; all the matters is that Cullum's shot at finding happiness.

Make some time to go out and read Last Year.


The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Try to recall everything you've read about goblins and elves. Now forget it. That's your homework before reading Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor.

You'll find no sweeping medieval-style battles between armies of light and soldiers of darkness over the fate of the world. There's a total absence of conjuring of fae magic in glades under the stars. And there won't be any torchlit monstrous blood rites sating the hungers of old gods in the stygian darkness of deep caverns. No, this is a book about courtly manners, the occasional bit of intrigue, and municipal infrastructure proposals. Which makes The Goblin Emperor wholly refreshing.

Set in a fantasy world that's advanced to a Regency or Victorian era equivalent of technology and society, the story follows Maia, the exiled son of the elven emperor's fourth wife — a goblin princess — who finds himself catapulted to the throne and ultimate power after an airship crash kills his father and older brothers. Taken to the imperial capital, Maia must establish his authority over headstrong members of the bureaucracy and his extended family, learn to conduct himself like a cultured noble and good ruler, avoid overthrow and assassination, and, perhaps most challenging of all, find a wife. Then there's the matter of whether to approve the construction of a bridge. And that's pretty much it.

On one hand, I enjoyed all of the ways that Addison has bucked the usual fantasy trends when writing stories about elves or goblins. As much as I like tales in medieval-analogous settings, there's always a point when I wonder about the apparent technological and social stagnation that's present in these worlds, and wish that authors could show us what it would be like if they evolved towards something more modern. The Goblin Emperor does that, giving us airships right off the bat, and a large elven nation that has a modern type of diplomatic relationship with its goblin neighbour, focussed on maintaining peace and profitable commerce. Another difference is the approach to appearance and behaviour. Normally, we're presented with pointy-eared beauties (although Addison's elves are pointy-eared and never described as average-looking or ugly) and twisted monsters locked in unrelenting hatred and coming together only to slaughter one-another in an eternal holy war. This time, the elves and goblins are described as being kindred species physically, or, more likely, simply different ethnicities of the same race, with differences in skin tone and hair and eye colour. And, as the varieties of skin tone and eye colour in the imperial palace demonstrate, intermarriage at all levels of society is not uncommon. These elves and goblins may be hobbled socially by varying degrees of racism, differences in customs, and distrust no doubt founded in disputes or wars of the past, but they enjoy some of the same activities, like dancing and horse breeding and riding, and, ultimately, want the same things out of life. Like humans, they're more alike than not. And the decision to centre the story around life at court, instead of a grand adventure abroad to save the world, was a nice change of pace.

But a story focussed entirely on the minutia of courtly manners, broken only by the occasional kidnapping and threat of usurpation and death, is of limited appeal. There's also no real depth to the writing — it's not a story with especially juicy metaphors to decipher; or where a reader can pay attention to different aspects and learn new things on a second or third pass; or fun enough to go on the reread rollercoaster again. And speaking of writing, the frequent use of quasi-antiquated language like "canst do nothing for thyself" is clumsy and distracting. As a worldbuilding technique designed to illustrate the difference in the elvish culture from ours, or the language and culture of the imperial court from that of the common citizens, it's over-the-top, unnecessary (given the lavish descriptions of court customs, dress, etc), and distances the reader from the story.

I didn't dislike The Goblin Emperor, I just can't see any reason to read it again.


Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

It's no stretch to say that HP Lovecraft and his works have been the subject of a lot of the conversation in the world of speculative fiction in recent years. Check out the sf shelves in any bookstore and you'll see novels and collections of short stories both inspired by (and sometimes drawing directly from his characters or worlds) and reacting to his work. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is one of the latest comments in that conversations, and one that's definitely worth paying attention to.

The novel is a mosaic of interconnected stories focusing on former soldier Atticus Turner and the members of his extended family and their friends. As if being African-American in the racism-plagued US of the 1950s wasn't hard enough, the family is dragged into the schemes of a group of cultists trying to draw on the dark powers of a Lovecraftian netherworld to increase its members' wealth and influence. Again and again, the cultists use blackmail and other tricks to try to force the family members to become their tools, though sometimes they run afoul of the group simply through sheer bad luck. Through their love for and loyalty to one-another, determination, intelligence, and courage, the family members survive everything from encounters with ghosts, trips to other worlds, missions to recover arcane objects, and ceremonies to tap ancient godlike power. In fact, they do more than survive: they triumph.

I've read a few Lovecraft stories over the years, and while I'm not a fan of his work, I am a fan of Matt Ruff's, and it only took a couple of pages to make me a big fan of Lovecraft Country. Each character is well-crafted: three dimensional and believable. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are people you'd love to hang out with; others aren't that likeable. Either way, you get a good understanding of why they do what they do, and see how each grows throughout their experiences. Each of the stories is well put together too — as unique in their own ways as the characters are, whether they're action-oriented, or leaning more towards quieter journeys of self-discovery. Each is both frightening and inspiring. And all of them fit together perfectly, like the members of the family, to form a greater whole.

In terms of what the novel as a whole, is saying, it's obviously a critique of America — both for the racism of its past (where Jim Crow laws in the South made life for blacks into Russian Roulette, and tacitly accepted discrimination and violence frequently made other parts of the country not much better), and for the fact that despite some social advances, the legacy of that racism remains today.

Ruff is also using the novel to hold Lovecraft and his writing to account on a number of levels. In terms of the mechanics of storytelling and the patterns of the plots, Lovecraft's tales are universally bleak, frequently involve powers and entities beyond human comprehension, and end in death, or at least the loss of one's mind or part of one's soul. And yet here, confronted by similar situations, we see that the forces involved are, in fact, pretty comprehensible to our protagonists. The members of the family are smart people who quickly grasp the situations their faced with, the stakes, the tools, and the implications, and they then move on to deciding how best to survive what's happening, and possibly counteract the people who seek to exploit them. Rather than bleakness, as bad as things get, the family tenaciously hangs on to hope — hope that they'll be reunited with each other, that they'll be free of the machinations of the cult, that their businesses will thrive, that they'll have good lives, and that America will change to become a nation of truly equal people. Far from losing things like their lives, sanity, or souls, the protagonists save each other's lives, and gain everything from new homes to stronger family bonds and a better understanding of one-another.

The Lovecraft stories that I've read also tend to lack any real action: someone goes someplace old and evil and just kind of hangs out, they feel a terrible presence, and death ensues, or sanity or souls are lost. In Ruff's story(ies) though, there's a lot of action: detailed descriptions of searches for missing family members, escapes from race riots, attempts to recover arcane objects from booby-trapped rooms that might exist in other dimensions, researching safe travel tips for African-Americans, and sometimes they take a break from dealing with the forces of evil to have fun at parties. While these stories do take their time for the protagonists to think about what's happening, or to discuss things with other characters, the plots are never slow for long.

Lovecraft also wasn't known for including women in his stories. Here, female protagonists headline many of the stories, and loom strongly in the background of those lead by the men.

Lovecraft Country is also a response to HPL's racism. All of the protagonists here are African-American. All are educated, strong, hard-working, self-determining people. Some run businesses, all support their family, friends, and community, and preserve their history as they openly work to make a better future. And, as noted above, all come out on top when faced by challenges, whether they're supernatural or man-made racism or greed. By contrast, it's the rich, well-connected, white cultists and their minions who are ultimately brought down — destroyed when their arcane experiments go awry, or disempowered (literally, one of the prime manipulators loses his magical powers, as well as his influence within the cult), and their group is broken-up (though the cult never really had much cohesion, as its members seemed to always be scheming against each other one way or another). The cultists are always operating in secret — even keeping secrets from one-another. They come in from a position of having lost their history, and finish the story having lost their future, both as individuals with power, and as a group able to engineer grand projects and schemes.

In the end, I found myself asking a dangerous question: Is Lovecraft Country better than the real America of the 1950s? I know that, as a white Canadian, I'm treading on thin ice exploring this train of thought, and could very well be missing perspective important to interpreting this book. But it seems to me that for all the supernatural horror present in the fictional world of the novel, at least the odds are somewhat evened: the intelligence, loyalty, and determination of the Turners and their family and friends gives them an advantage in dealing with said supernatural horrors that the white cultists, for all their monetary and political/social advantages, don't have. In Lovecraft Country, when it comes to overcoming supernatural horrors, it's the African-American protagonists who come out on top, and do so immediately — they don't have to labour for years to get on an equal footing. In the America of the real world, on the other hand, that equal footing would be decades of hard work and sacrifice away, and some might argue that it still hasn't arrived.

Next time you're in the bookstore or library, take a trip to Lovecraft Country.


The Mongoliad — Book One, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo

In the middle of 13th Century, the Mongols are preparing for an invasion of Europe. As he waits for the right moment to attack, the general in charge of the invasion stages a medieval version of Mortal Kombat, inviting warriors from across the known world to come and battle one-another in death matches to show off their prowess. But these gladiatorial games are more than just entertainment: they're a means for the general to evaluate the abilities of his potential enemies, a political diversion to lull the leaders of Europe into thinking they have more time than they actually do, and a way to show off the strength of his own forces. A group of knights from the monastic Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, otherwise known as the Shield Brethren, are on their way to the tournament, but the event is a diversion tactic for them as well. While they try to draw the Mongols' attention to themselves at the games, another contingent of Shield Brethren, aided by the female scout Cnan, makes its way east on a secret mission: to assassinate Ogedei, the Khan of Khans. Meanwhile, in the Mongol capital of Karakorum, a young warrior, Gansukh, is sent to the imperial court to protect Ogedei. But Gansukh soon learns that the great khan may need to be protected from himself more than assassins — suffering from increasing depression  as he chafes at administrative life rather than being in the saddle at war or hunting, Ogedei has become a drunk who behaves erratically. If dealing with a temperamental khan and palace intrigues weren't enough, Gansukh faces the challenge of learning the manners and customs of the court from Lian, a Chinese slave, to become a political operator himself.

As much as I should have enjoyed The Mongoliad, with its melees, descriptions of varied medieval European and Asian fighting styles, court intrigues, and cultural details, the whole thing just felt flat. None of the characters were particularly interesting, the plot seemed to drag, and even the action sequences failed to have any real emotional impact. Maybe it's a case of too many chefs spoiling the sauce. I don't know.

I'll give the authors credit: they've done an excellent job of researching the arms and armour, fighting styles, cultures and dress of the period. But none of it was enough to make me want to see the series through.


The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk edited by Sean Wallace

If you're looking for a one-stop introduction to dieselpunk (sf set between the end of the First World War and the end of World War II, or on worlds with an analogous level of technology and set of cultures) that examines this sub-genre from a variety of perspectives, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk is for you.

This door-stopper of a collection roars to a start with Jay Lake and Shannon Page's butt-stompingly fun "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story" and, for the most part, keeps up the smokey, greasy noir-era coolness all the way through. Along the way, it shifts gears from time to time, slowing down for stories like Jeremiah Tolbert's "Instead of a Loving Heart" or AC Wise's "The Double Blind", before hitting the gas again for an entry like Dan Rabarts' "Floodgate".

Sometimes the anthology's engine sputters, or the thing blows a tire: not every story is good. One or two would have done just as well on the scrap heap. But that's to be expected in a collection of this size, and overall the thing is shiny and rolls along nicely.


Clockwork Canada edited by Dominik Parisien

I've been waiting for a Canadian-centred steampunk anthology for a long time. While the country's history is much older than Queen Victoria's era, stretching back thousands of years to the time when First Nations people came over from Siberia, to several hundred years ago when the first Europeans, Africans, and Asians began arriving, and while some of the key moments in our history predate her as well (such as the British victory over France in the Seven Years' War, or the successful driving-back of American invaders in the War of 1812) and others wouldn't come until decades after she was gone, the British North American colonies did get their official start as a country under old Vicky's watch. And personally, spending the first half of my childhood in south-western Ontario, the legacy of the Victorian era was all around me: many neighbourhoods were still graced with its big red brick homes, those homes were filled with furniture and other antiques from those days, and people gathered in parks on chilly May nights for Victoria Day fireworks displays. Canada is a country that's perfect to celebrate this past — and to hold it accountable — and there's no better form of literature to do that than speculative fiction. Which brings us to Clockwork Canada, edited by Dominik Parisien.

Like the various regions of Canada, the stories in this anthology are very much a matter of personal taste. Taken together, they form a workable tapestry that showcases the many different interpretations of who we are. Individually, they're very hit and miss, depending on what you're looking for. I enjoyed Holly Shofield's "East Wind in Carrall Street" with its clockwork lion and two kids trying to bridge their cultures, Brent Nichols' steampunk superhero yarn "The Harpoonist", and the female-James-Bond-esque Klondike adventure "Strange Things Done" by Michal Wojcik. While some of the other stories could have used some work, or could have been replaced with better fare, overall, Clockwork Canada is a collection worth reading.


Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Eden is a planet with no light other than the bioluminescence of its plants and animals. The thousands of humans who live there are descended from just two survivors of a spaceshipwreck many generations before. They've now spread across their world, founding a number of different cultures, each based on the specific beliefs, stories, and teachings of some of the people involved in a violent schism generations before. Starlight Brooking — a member of a peaceful, isolated island commune following the tenants of Jeff, a crippled inventor and dreamer — takes part in a trading expedition to a town on the mainland (founded by followers of a brutal thug who took control of the original Eden society, in part prompting the great schism) where she meets Greenstone Johnson, a young prince from a subterranean settlement on a continent on the other side of the ocean (founded by supporters of John, the strong-willed young hunter and inventor who was also partly responsible for the split in the original society). The two are attracted to each other, and Starlight goes with him across the sea, where they're married and she is given the role of Mother, or spiritual leader, of his people. Starlight quickly sees inequalities in her new culture, and begins using her influence to push through changes. But some of the nobles feel threatened by this new, more gentle way of doing things, and Starlight and Greenstone find themselves facing a revolution.

Mother of Eden is the sequel to Chris Beckett's magnificently-crafted Dark Eden, and, while it's a fundamentally different story, it's every bit as good as its predecessor.  There's a clear biblical allusion running through the series, with the first novel being a mixture of Genesis and Exodus, casting John as a combination Cain and Moses, while Mother of Eden casts Starlight as a New Testament-style messiah — minus the divinity and miracles. Like the original, the protagonists and supporting characters of MOE are well-rounded and believable, each possessing their share of flaws.

The various cultures that have evolved from the schism are also believable, with each having its own variation on the original tribe's hybrid founder-worship and cargo-cult religion, its own laws and politics, styles of clothing, levels of technological achievement, manner of speaking, and rivalries with and tolerances for the other nations.

The plot moves along briskly and yet leaves time for characters to process what's happening to them, and at the end of each chapter I was torn between wanting more of that section's character, while being eager to see what the protagonist occupying the next segment was doing.

While Mother of Eden was wholly satisfying on its own, I can't wait to see what Chris Beckett has in store for readers in the third book.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Star Wars Rogue One - a Cautionary Tale about the Dangers of Bad Upper Management

When we watch Star Wars films, we expect action and adventure, plucky heroes who defy the odds, and stories that reassure us that good eventually triumphs over evil. The newest instalment in the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, delivers all of that, though in a darker, grittier fashion than its predecessors. But what's most interesting is something else that it does: Rogue One offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of bad upper management.

This movie doesn't just contain flat depictions of tyrants who are evil simply because they want to rule the universe. It's an in-depth study of the different types of real, toxic personalities who get into positions of power and weaken organizations; their failings; and the consequences of these problems. What's particularly impressive is that it's not just the Empire that's held up to the microscope; the flaws of the good guys — the leaders of the Rebel Alliance — are exposed too.

Yes, yes. Of course. Spoilers ahead and all that.

Rogue One is told through the eyes of two people trying to find their way in the world. The first is orphan Jyn Erso, a young woman trying to escape from Imperial custody, find her lost father (who was kidnapped by the Empire to help with the Death Star project), and — eventually — bring freedom to the galaxy. The other is Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer who's enthusiastic about his work (as the project leader for the Death Star's construction), and wants some recognition for a job well done — and maybe a promotion.

Both run tragically afoul of bad upper managers in their respective workplaces. Unless you're very fortunate, at some point you've probably worked for, or with, one or more of these types of executives, and you understand the havoc they can wreak on employees and organizations.

Krennic would seem to be the most obvious example of someone who's been victimized by bad managers. Ranking somewhere in the fluid wilderness of middle management on the Imperial org chart (sure, the Death Star is the Empire's biggest project at the moment — that we know about — but Krennic's pay grade isn't as high as a regional governor/Grand Moff, probably not as high as an admiral, certainly not on the level of one of the Emperor's ministers, and definitely not anywhere near a Sith Lord), Krennic is dedicated to doing anything and everything to make his assignment a success. Is he evil? Absolutely. It's hard to feel much pity for someone who's cavalier about mass murder as a measure of his project's success, and who includes kidnapping and murder as part of acceptable human resources practices (even if these activities are accepted part of the Empire's corporate culture). And yet there's no denying that Krennic gets a raw deal. Never mind the expected challenges of having to recruit the right talent (I mean, come on, flying all the way out to the middle of nowhere for a head-hunting meeting to land Galen Erso must have been a real scheduling hassle), obtain the necessary resources, deal with the actual designing of the battlestation (after all, we don't know how much effort the Seperatist forces actually put into the Death Star's blueprints during the Clone Wars — Darth Tyranus might have left Geonosis with nothing more than an exterior appearance concept sketch saved to a jpg file waiting to be printed on a big foamcore sheet for a public information/zoning hearing), planning the construction logistics, and actually getting the thing built, the guy's gotta deal with some of the worst senior management in the galaxy. Starting with Grand Moff/Governor Tarkin.

Because Tarkin is a bully.

Without getting involved in any of the hard work himself, Tarkin constantly tells Krennic that his work isn't good enough, pressures him to get to the job done faster, and threatens him with punishment if the Death Star project fails or has operational shortcomings. It goes without saying that  threatening an employee and putting him or her down all the time doesn't foster top-notch work or loyalty. And demanding faster work on a complex project leads to corner-cutting, stress- and fatigue-induced mistakes, and the potential for disaster.

Moreover, Tarkin's refusal to take any responsibility for delay or failure (also the hallmark of a bullying manager) is done without a hint of irony on his part, even though the governor always reminds Krennic that he is in charge. Tarkin complains about security breaches even though he's heaped security oversight duties onto Krennic, who's specialty is R&D engineering and wearing crisp white tunics and capes, and who's already overworked as the construction foreman. The fault lies with Tarkin for not doing the smart thing and hand-picking oh, I don't know, maybe an actual veteran security expert from the ranks of the Imperial Starfleet or the Emperor's red-robed praetorian guard to handle security for the Empire's biggest and most expensive weapon right from the start. Rather than admitting his mistake or responsibility, Tarkin heaps more pressure and blame on Krennic. You just know that if there was a mis-fire of the Death Star's planetkiller laser, and if the Emperor then called a project post-mortem meeting to discuss what went wrong, Tarkin would bring Krennic along to make a PowerPoint presentation prior to the next item on the agenda: screaming, writhing death by Force lightning.

And, while doing none of the actual work, Tarkin is also the kind of senior manager who relishes in taking all of the credit for successful projects. When Krennic announces that the Death Star is complete and it's main gun is ready for its first firing, Tarkin denies him the opportunity to blow up an entire planet (as the weapon was designed to do), limiting the test to the destruction of a mere city. Tarkin's excuse: "We need a statement, not a manifesto." But that's a lie. If you build a planetkiller, it needs to be tested on a planet, or at least a good-sized moon. But Tarkin doesn't want that to happen while Krennic is around, because Tarkin refuses to allow for the possibility of anyone other than himself getting credit for the success of Project Death Star. He allows Krennic to be present for the destruction of the temple city on Jedha just to make sure that the gun works — a statement, if you will, of its functionality for his own progress reports — but Tarkin clearly wants the public destruction of an entire planet — the issuing of the Empire's manifesto of its supreme power — to be ordered, overseen by, and credited to himself alone. There's a real emphasis on Tarkin being associated with the weapon's first major test, and with that being necessarily highly publicly visible. We see this later (in the overall timeline of the franchise) in the governor's statement to Princess Leia in A New Hope about the need to destroy Alderaan because Dantooine was too remote. It's pretty clear that Tarkin had two criteria to determine the completeness of the project: the successful test fire of the main gun (because, hey, if you can take out a city and the surrounding countryside, the planetkiller setting will probably work too), and the elimination of any possible security leaks around the battlestation's plans. Once the city on  Jedha was destroyed, Tarkin's only use for Krennic was to do the mop-up dirty work of killing anyone who might have leaked the details of the station's schematics. After that, Tarkin could get rid of Krennic so he could take all the credit for the Death Star's success for himself.

And there's no doubt that getting rid of Krennic was always part of Tarkin's plan. As stated before, the governor was all too willing to throw Krennic under the bus in the event of failure, but the outcome of the raid on Scarif also makes it pretty clear that Tarkin was going to eliminate him one way or another even if the project was a success. Tarkin blows up the Imperial archive base on Scarif knowing full well that Krennic is down there (on Tarkin's orders). Could Krennic have been killed in the fighting? Sure. But he could also still be alive. Tarkin doesn't even bother to call and check. Given his success on the Death Star, Krennic is obviously one of, if not the most effective project managers currently in the Empire — an important staff resource for any organization. And yet Tarkin's all to willing to vaporize him with a giant laser or see him crushed by a tsunami just to ensure that the governor gets all the credit for himself. Under these circumstances, it's not unreasonable to speculate that even if Krennic and the archive base's general had succeeded in crushing the Rebel raid and prevented the Death Star plans from being transmitted off-site, Tarkin would still have found a way to remove him. Best case scenario: Tarkin would have banished Krennic to some unimportant outpost in the middle of nowhere where no-one of rank would ever hear from him again. No further work on major projects like "Black Sabre" or "Scruffy Nerf-herder" or whatever other labels get put on the Emperor's X-files, just assignments like designing a new sewage system for an abandoned industrial park on Coruscant, or testing the cold resistance of Wookiee hair versus Wampa fur, or evaluating the nutritional value of blue milk versus Gorax armpit sweat. Worst case scenario: Tarkin would have had Krennic executed as soon as he was back aboard the Death Star, if not blown out of the sky when his shuttle was on final approach. You could argue that if Krennic had survived, he would have been a risk to the Empire if Tarkin ignored or marginalized him, because, for revenge, he could have defected to the Rebellion or at least sold the battlestation's blueprints to them. But it's a lot simpler than that. Tarkin is type of manager who's insecure about staff who do good work and have ambition about advancing through the company ranks. Tarkin wanted all of the credit, Krennic demanded to be recognized for his efforts, and so Krennic was going to die.

Grand Moff Tarkin: the type of senior manager who bullies staff by threatening them and telling them that they're of no consequence, who makes unreasonable demands on project completion, who refuses to share any responsibility for failure, and who buries staff who do good work so he can take all the credit.

But he's not the only example of a toxic senior management style. There's also Darth Vader: the wagon circler.

When things get bad working under Tarkin, Krennic goes to the next executive on the ladder (or, even if Vader isn't Tarkin's superior, he's at least another vice-president-level boss who has some interest in the project) and asks for some intervention, or at least clarification of roles and responsibilities. As is proper. After all, most organizations would say that ideally, if a staffer has a problem with his or her boss, the staffer should try to work things out with the boss, and, failing that, go up the ladder or to HR. Krennic does that. And is told by the Dark Lord of the Sith to fall in line, quit whining and get the job done, and forget about any aspirations for a promotion. There's obviously a problem with Tarkin's behaviour, but instead of doing anything about it, Vader's the type of senior manager who circles the wagons with other executives when something goes wrong. Whether it's because Vader and Tarkin are golf buddies at the Emperor's annual Texas scramble tournament, or because the Sith Lord thinks he's already got enough on his plate without having to deal with an HR issue in someone else's department, or because he wants to avoid getting into a pissing match with another VP, or because the Emperor's apprentice thinks that dealing with a problem involving another senior manager would expose a weakness in the organization's overall management staffing and strategy that would make all the executives look bad, or because Ani just doesn't give a shit about the little people, he does nothing. It's a management style that's bad for any organization because it hurts morale, increases the likelihood of losing good workers, and can ultimately cause operations to go off the rails because the people in charge are making poor decisions. Need proof? Vader does nothing about Tarkin's behaviour during the Death Star's construction, initial testing, and the raid on Scarif, resulting in not only the loss of a talented engineer and project manager, but an entire archiving base (and who knows how many important documents contained therein that didn't have copies in other locations), two Star Destroyers, several fighters, and countless personnel. One might even argue that Tarkin's behaviour in Rogue One planted the seeds for the Death Star's destruction in A New Hope. And Vader could have intervened and prevented the whole affair. Instead he chose to back, or at least tolerate, Tarkin and his bad management practices.

But don't think that having toxic executives is a failing exclusive to the Empire. It would be too easy to dismiss it as simply being a case of an evil begetting evil and necessarily attracting people to senior management who are flawed to the point of weakening their organization. After all, look at Hank Scorpio (The Simpsons), Aunty Entity (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), or Thulsa Doom (1982's Conan the Barbarian). These are badguys who have built fairly solid organizations, expanding the reach and success of their operations, building infrastructure, hiring effective and unified senior managers (mostly), recognizing risks and trying to deal with them, and generally treating their staff well. Bad upper management is a risk any organization (large or small, public or private sector, corporate or non-profit, good or evil) runs if it doesn't honestly look at and monitor its senior management as scrupulously as it does its front-line staff. Rogue One makes it abundantly clear that the Rebel Alliance has this problem too. And it's a problem that ultimately gets Jyn Erso killed.

Let's start with General Draven: the close-minded manager.

Draven is apparently the chief of the Rebellion's covert operations/dirty tricks/black ops/assassination division. Initially, he appears to be ruthlessly effective at the job, coordinating Cassian Andor's activities, identifying Jyn as a potential asset and ordering her extraction from Imperial custody (you can't really say that she was "freed" because the Rebels don't give her her liberty once she's out of the prison wagon — K-2SO knocks her flat), and coordinating an air strike on the Imperial kyber refinery on Eadu. In fact, his goal of engineering the murder of Galen is so single-minded and unremitting that he seems as bloodthirsty as Saw Gererra is rumoured to be. And yet, it's that single-mindedness that makes Draven a poor senior manager in the Rebellion hierarchy. When his operatives bring Jyn to him, his only thought is to use her to flush out her father so the Death Star engineer can be killed. There's no indication that Draven is willing to consider using Jyn to capture Galen to pump him for information, or maybe convert him to the Rebel cause and put him to work helping to actively identify weaknesses in the battlestation and coordinate attacks, or maybe even design some cool weapons or defensive systems for the Alliance that might help even the odds against the superior Imperial fleet. Instead, he's fixated on assassination and wastes a potential resource. In fact, his well-organized airstrike on Eadu proves that he jumps the gun rather than thinking out the possibilities — were it not for the X-wing attack on the refinery, Galen might have been alive for the Rebels to kidnap and exploit.

Draven is also a victim of limited thinking in the wake of the Eadu attack when he refuses to consider the possibility that Jyn (and by extension, Galen) may be telling the truth about the Death Star having a critical weakness in its design. He then goes further and argues against any attempt to try to steal the battlestation's plans. A lack of faith in front-line employees is a sure way to demoralize them and cause the organization to lose talented staff. If Draven had been better at his job and more open to possibilities, the raid on the Imperial archive on Scarif could have been better planned, equipped, and staffed. Rather than merely being a success because Jyn's commandos and Admiral Raddus' fleet were able to get the plans out (and only being a success because of that hand-off, since nearly everybody died in the attempt), a better organized raid might have resulted in the capture of other important information from the archive (like, say, the names of Imperial agents sent to infiltrate the Rebellion, or structural plans that would facilitate a break-in at the Imperial palace on Coruscant, or the list of Emperor Palpatine's favourite hamburger toppings that could be poisoned — or worse, waylaid to create Imperial frustration with an inadequately dresesed burger) and maybe more of the Rebel staff making it out of that raid alive. And Draven has to take some of the blame for those losses. Caution is one thing, but a good manager knows to look at all the possibilities, and is sometimes willing to take a chance on a plan that could have a big pay-off. In many respects, Draven's the kind of person who should never have made it to the executive level. Rather, he'd be more effective at a much lower management level where he could focus on one particular set of tasks, and where he couldn't limit the Rebellion's ability to at least investigate, if not completely exploit, new opportunities.

Speaking of hardasses, Saw Gererra is another senior manager you wouldn't want to have in your organization. He's the brilliant tactician who's doesn't understand long-term planning.

Now, let's get the obligatory detail-obsessed nerdy nitpicking out of the way: technically, no, Gererra is not an official member of the Rebel Alliance. He's the independent leader of a separate terrorist group who's seen as a little too extreme by the Rebel leadership (The Rebels shoot nervous contacts in alleys; Gererra's people start firefights with Imperial transport columns in the middle of busy urban streets where tiny children are present, so it's a matter of degrees between Rebel freedom fighters and Gererra terrorists. I guess.). But that's splitting hairs. Clearly Gererra and the Rebel leaders know each other and it's likely they've worked together in the past, and while they've technically gone their separate ways, Draven's attempt to contact Gererra for info on Galen is clearly and indication that there's a desire to work together again in the future. So he's separate, but not that separate. Like a former partner in a business who's become an independent contractor that might be brought back in at some point, or the head of a stakeholder agency that's in the same field who might be convinced to partner-up on certain sectoral initiatives, or the head of a separate division in a large conglomerate.

So, under the overall umbrella of groups rebelling against the Empire, as executive team members go, Gererra is highly effective at leading his team when he's focussed on challenges in front of him, like organizing an ambush, or roughing-up a defecting Imperial pilot to determine his reliability. But in the final analysis, he's a poor leader because he hasn't planned ahead, addressed major threats to the organization (like the possibility of something big coming along and blowing everybody up), or come up with strategies to prevent, minimize, or evade those threats. Granted, to be fair, something as ridiculously huge as the Death Star and its ability to destroy Jedha's temple city and Gererra's base  and several hundred square kilometres of surrounding territory might be unforeseeable. Except for the fact that the Death Tomato-er-Star (Muppet Babies flashback) was sitting there in orbit for all to see, getting shipments of kyber crystals everyday, which should have tipped him off that something seriously bad could happen. But even beyond that, Gererra doesn't escape criticism because he could have planned for other, entirely reasonable threats to his base, like having its security compromised and its location leaked, and waking up one day to have a Star Destroyer parked overhead about to begin an overwhelming aerial/spatial bombardment — which would have had the same practical effect as the blast wave from the nearby strike from the Death Star's main gun. Gererra should have installed planetary-defence-strength shields like the Rebels later did on Hoth in 'Empire, or, if that strong an energy signature would have advertised his position, then at least a means to evacuate all of his troops quickly and efficiently (like a transport, or set of escape pods, or super high-speed underground rail line). Anything to get his people out safely and allow them to regroup and launch a counter-attack. But he didn't. The very real possibility of having his base wiped off the map in some form of attack didn't occur to him. And it got all of his people — including Gererra himself — killed.

Back within the ranks of the Rebel Alliance proper, if we're looking for more examples of bad management at the executive level, pretty much every faction leader around the board room table is guilty of weakening their organization. With the exception of Admiral Raddus, Senator Bail Organa, and Senator Mon Motha (although her managerial failings will be examined shortly), none of them recognize the opportunity presented by Jyn's Death Star information (either disbelieving her or not bothering to take the time to consider it) to take the initiative in the next phase of the war against the Empire. They're also unable to agree on a single course of action for the common good. There isn't even any talk of compromise: different faction leaders just start threatening to walk away from the table. This leaves the Rebellion in the position of doing nothing in the face of a new threat, and creates the very real possibility that its factions could break apart, rendering each less effective in mounting a resistance (whether armed or merely politically) and making it easier for the Empire to pick them off one by one. This lack of solidarity among the members of the senior management team and their inability to act on opportunity makes them, as much as General Draven, responsible for the raid on Scarif being as ill-planned as it was, and for the deaths of everyone involved and the loss of valuable equipment.

Which takes us right to the top: Senator Mon Motha, the weak leader.

Admittedly, there are differences between being the leader of a coalition engaged in an armed political uprising and the CEO of a corporation or executive director of a non-profit or chief bureaucrat or elected official in a government. More diplomacy is needed; firing people can be difficult when they're volunteers who are armed and don't want to leave; and if one of your faction leaders doesn't like how things are going, they can pack up an entire division of the organization and go their own way — or knock the boss off and take over. Although, a disloyal exec can quit, entice talent away from the company, and set up his/her own shop,  and those with an eye on power can sweet-talk a company or charity's board of directors into changing the leadership. So it is fair to criticize Mon Motha in the context of allowing bad senior managers to hold her organization back.

As the leader of the Rebel Alliance (and it's pretty clear that she is the CEO, or president, or chair of the board, or executive director, based on her interactions with Draven, how she's trying to run the meeting of the heads of the various Rebel factions, and, later in Return of the Jedi, how she's on-site prior to the attack on Death Star II to give the big pep talk), Mon Motha suffers from a pair of related problems: she can't keep control of her senior executives, and she's unable ensure their unity.

From the scenes in the Rebel command centre on the moon of Yavin, we get the impression that Draven reports to Mon Motha. He may plan and coordinate military operations, but it's pretty clear that he has to keep her apprised of the situation, and that she has the final say in what's going to happen. This is emphasized when Jyn and Cassian are about to leave for Eadu, and Draven quietly takes the spy aside and instructs him to kill Galen regardless of how things go. The fact that the general does this so surreptitiously gave me the impression that he wasn't just trying to prevent Jyn from overhearing; he didn't want Mon Motha catching wind of the scheme either because she'd disapprove and possibly override him. The fact that this is happening at all illustrates that the senator doesn't have control over her senior staff. How many other operations are going on without her knowledge or consent that might impact the Rebellion's survival — or it's public image (something a career politician would be especially sensitive to)? If she had control over her executives, this wouldn't have happened.

This lack of control over her senior management team becomes a full-blown crisis at the end of the film when she's unable to keep the various faction leaders unified as they react to the news of the Death Star's destruction of the temple city on Jedha. Some, like Admiral Raddus, want to keep fighting, others insist on hiding, others think the war's over and they should disband, while some call for open negotiations with the Empire, which is tantamount to surrender. It ends with some groups walking away from the table and threatening to leave the Alliance if other factions insist on fighting and possibly incurring the Empire's planet-killing wrath. It also ends with Jyn and Casssian leading a band of other front-line staff in an impromptu raid on Scarif without the knowledge of Mon Motha and the other executives, and thus without the opportunity for better planning. And Mon Motha is helpless through the whole thing.  She clearly doesn't have enough control over the others — whether through respect or leverage — to make a final decision, issue an order, and have them follow it. She's unable to bring them around to her position through reason or diplomacy. And she fails to inspire them to remain united and redouble their efforts to bring down the Empire. There's no rousing "Will you stand together?" speech like Captain Sheridan's when he returned from Z'ha'dum on Babylon 5, or the not-quite-as-strong-but-still-adequate "Victory or death!" speech from Ambassador Enduran in The Last Starfighter. Rather, she's ringing her hands helplessly, probably dreaming of the future when in Return of the Jedi when she can make a sad little statement about the deaths of many Bothans (thereby alienating everyone else in the Alliance who's worked to expose the secret construction of Death Star II). It's a failure to give them the inspiration for success that they need when they need it the most. The result is a Rebel Alliance so fractious that anyone can do pretty much anything he/she wants.

That's not to say Mon Motha needs to be like her opposite number, Emperor Palapatine. There's no need for Force lightning or choking, Order 66, or Death Stars. But a good CEO needs to have earned the respect of her senior managers so that when she makes an informed decision and issues orders, they'll carry them out. Because Mon Motha fails in this respect, it's amazing the Alliance managed to survive, never mind eventually win control over a sizeable chunk of the galaxy.

The New Republic seems to have been founded in spite of its leadership, not because of it. For that matter, the Empire seems to have rolled along as long as it did on inertia, rather because of any quality in its executive team (at least those presented in the films). Ultimately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn't standing on a soapbox and shouting a full manifesto on how to build the perfect organization, nor is it a class warrior anarchist screed against all people in positions of power. But it does make a statement about the dangers of having bad upper management. And when we hear regular stories in the news about organizations plagued by workplace bullying and harassment, disaffected and burnt-out employees, companies or whole industries weakened by short-sightedness or dissension among the ranks, or greedy leaders focussed only on their own personal gain, it seems Rogue One is perhaps the most grimly relevant instalment of the Star Wars franchise for our times.