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"New futures from old horizons." Author of off-kilter sci fi/fantasy books. Fond of apocalyptic and fantastical things. Known for phuquerie. I bite. On Amazon.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Pretty Things

Pretty Things by
David Bowie was rattling around in my head like a penny in a tin can
late at night I was

building tenuous struts from imaginary castles to real skyscrapers
linking the family I'd been born into with
the friends I had chosen
family is a concept made tenuous by distance and made real by our choices
that's just how connections work

Earl Grey was on my tongue and silver oxide on my fingertips as I
untangled and broke a dozen tiny chains, trying to fix what
errant neglect had done and

I contemplated the Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain 
like a scab or like a lost blood clot left in the tub from a shower that was too quick
a new period in my life, and one that kept going--
damn the hormones


considered being a mermaid for half an hour or an hour
whiling away time under a red light, in a few litres of heat and enlightenment

and I

remembered the days when pain was an option and a quaint memory, something that

had assumed was part of my past; that


moment of confidence that heartbreak and ache and soreness were behind me was
a long time ago

talk about the arrogance of youth all the time but I
knew better then.

And now--
I know better
than to know better.


Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Black MariaBlack Maria by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is one of my most favorite, to the extent that I don't even talk about it to many people. It's a strange, eerie, weird tale about gender roles and the confining politics of abusive families; it is about loss and witchcraft and hidden things. If you want a mature young adult book that will haunt you, grab this.

View all my reviews 

I've read this book more times than I can count. I can remember the illustrations and quotes, word for word. Some books are read; some are tattooed onto the soul.

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Talking LED Fleshlights: Ex_Machina vs Her

Hello hello!

This is a sort of "Missed It" double-review while I work on the character follow-up to that Story Constellation post. Also, a content warning on this one--since it deals with ladies created by men, there will be some serious discussions of sexual abuse and emotional abuse in the discussion to follow. Reader discretion is advised. It's gonna be a long one, because I haven't blogged in ages.

From now on, I'm going to try a new format for Missed It reviews, which might work better for comparisons. It's called Good, Bad, and Ugly. How does it work? Well, take a peek!

Now, as always, these are reviews of films that have already been released (and have been out for a while, so prepare for


past this point! First up is Ex_Machina!


Well, at least it tries to open up the whole cerebral can of worms. The score is good, and the editing has that sloppy-unsettling thing going on that's pretty effective. And the visual effects and design, as everyone has commented, are both great. The tension is also very effective, and the actors give it their all. Ava's actress has mastered the delicate ballet dance of grace and fear, and her tiniest movements reflect a music box poetry that is utterly perfect for the role. The small cast makes for a tense and effective story. Everyone else has raved about it, and I was less than thrilled, so I'm going to skim over this bit.

Source. Basically, the movie is this.


 The film puts on airs of pseudointellectualism and a "pro-feminist" outlook, while drastically undercutting its own premise. I had a look at some other reviews online--something I try not to do--and noticed that the (all male) reviewers were gushing about how smart the movie was. But all of them seemed to miss the weird vibe of the tropes, icky themes that Sarah Dimento and Katie de Long, two of my mentors, noticed quickly.

First, the whole setup is made of toxic tropes. Nathan, the Mad Genius Who Works Alone And Is Therefore Weird And Quirky--playing into gross genius myths--is an abusive phuque. He gaslights Caleb, The Milquetoast Everyman, from moment one of his arrival. He's a repulsive though well-portrayed character, but quite over-written, and uncomfortably like a domineering boyfriend rather than a believeably smart inventor with 'troubling' personality traits. We do love to excuse monsters if they can portray and air of genius, though.

Second, the movie--and critics!--love to talk about how sinister yet sexy Ava is, and her personhood, and how she's a misunderstood femme fatale, using her wiles to survive. But that ignores the visual language of the story, which is more basic (no coding pun intended). Many other bloggers have gone into this ad nauseaum. Ava's design is overly sexualised For Reasons, but let's talk about how those patterns are demonstrated with her and with the beleaguered, abused Kyoko.

There's a grammar to the images: All Women are wired differently from men, they are artificial beings, and they--or femininity--have been designed. Both of them--Ava especially, though--demonstrate exaggeratedly cute performances of femininity, alternating between childlike innocence/obedience (bare feet) and sinister sexiness (spiky, laced stiletto heels). Kyoko's nudity is a sinister display; Ava's is coded as a self-discovery (that also lets the viewer take in a full-length serving of T&A, of course). They are both trapped in their circumstances, constantly being stared at by men--even "good boy" Caleb--and are both servile and rebellious, just enough to be "perfect".

Their only way out is to destroy men or refuse to serve them, either murdering them (as Nathan gets stabbed) or letting them be strangled and suffocated in the prison of the patriarchy with which they have collaborated (Caleb). It's ham-fisted at best, and while it's probably supposed to be acknowledging female suffering, using the super-sexualized language and extreme gender roles kind of undercuts Ava's decision to break out of Nathan's control. Even her self-discovery is done as he watches, and she wears bridal, virginal white and a pair of matching heels.


Enough about Ava. Everyone talks about her struggle, but ignores the weird sexual dynamics with the other robot, Kyoko.

Kyoko is literally an objectified Japanese woman who acts as a servant and sexbot, and she does a weird strip-tease that involves peeling away her own flesh. At the end, Nathan even bashes away her lower jaw, making her voicelessness complete. She does watch the surveillance videos and stare at Caleb a lot--she may not be able to talk, but she sure seems to have feelings and opinions. This isn't enough to save her, of course. She's othered constantly, has a Japanese name plunked in a slew of Hebrew ones, and is defined only by her abuse or observation of the other characters. She's allowed no personhood, even by the director, that doesn't revolve around serving/being abused by men, or saving a white woman. In the end, a model with the same body and facial structure as Kyoko is cannibalized for Ava's new skin. Even in death, Kyoko's twin is scavenged for the "untainted", pure Ava,who never even pauses to consider fixing up Kyoko or bringing her back to life.

Not convinced that Kyoko is a servile plot device for Ava, or that Ava is locked in a Biblical narrative? Look at their names!

    A variation of Eve. May be from the Latin "avis," meaning "bird." It could also be a short form of the name Chava ("life" or "living one"), the Hebrew form of Eve. It was popularized as a girls' name by actress AvaGardner.
Looking up Kyoko's name led to even more obvious Symbolism. 

Possible Writings[edit]

The final syllable "ko" is typically written with the kanji character for child, 子. It is a common suffix to female names in Japan. The first syllable "Kyō" can be written several different ways, with different meanings.
  • 恭, "respectful,"
  • 今日, "of today,"
  • 鏡, "mirror,"
  • 響, "echo, can also mean influential,"

Is this trend congruent for the other two characters we see, Nathan and Caleb?

Nathan is a masculine given name. It is derived from the Hebrew verb נתן meaning to give (standard Hebrew Natan, Yiddish Nussen or Nosson, Tiberian Hebrew Nāṯān). The meaning of the name in Jewish culture could be rendered "he [God] has given" or "he will give".

The name Caleb is a Hebrew baby name. In Hebrew the meaning of the name Caleb is: Meaning dog, or bold. 

Well, Caleb was willing to agree that a being which seemed sentient needed to be 'tested' for humanity in the first place, so he's basically on the same level as the guys who insist that women aren't really people unless they can prove otherwise, or can act as objects of love and lust. I'm with Ava, here--might as well let him starve to death.

As far as simple aesthetic ugliness, there's some really stupid shock bits--the closet of sexbots made of parts, videos of Nathan abusing robotic women of colour, and self-harm when Caleb the paper-thin protagonist questions his own humanity. Caleb might as well not exist outside the experiment, and is there just for the sake of initiating the plot and providing an Everyman. The story could just as well have been told through security-camera angled footage as Kyoko and Ava broke out of captivity together, and focused on what happened as the two tried to integrate in a world full of human beings.

Add in the fact that the "experimental design" was at no point clear or good or scientific, especially given Nathan's constant interference with it. Throw in some technophobia as Nathan implies that Facebook (referred to as 'Bluebook') algorithms and surveillance were easily available for him to loot, pillage, and abuse. Mix with a serving of technobabble and the same grey/white palette we've seen elsewhere, and serve at room temperature. The future is scary, and apparently, men can invent a new form of life, but can't do it without abusing toy/pet women.

Final verdict: MEH. It made me think, but I wanted to heckle it. Four out of ten; I don't know if I'd watch it again.

Next up: Her!

Source. This is an actual thing that you can buy. 


We already get more people of colour, and women, talking in the first few minutes of Her than in the entirety of Ex_Machina. There's also a Chris Pratt, which is always okay by me. 

The worldbuilding is done with Black Mirror-style technology, and it's interesting and great. The colour palette is lovely and more pleasant than Ex_Machina's, and unlike the relentlessly dreary Ex_Machina, I got some genuine laughs. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson sell their roles wonderfully. 

There's something about the story that really speaks to online friendships as well--sharing the world through conversation and pictures alone, but making a real connection nonetheless. In addition, Amy (a friend of Ted's) has a genuine relationship with him that is nurturing but not romantic, and that was such a refresher!

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves."--This is backed up by neuroscience, actually, and that story keeps changing with each retelling. 

From talking about lonely idiot kids online to expectations of motherhood in the form of a "perfect mom" game, to talking about how a perfect computer friend would start to slant expectations, there's a lot of subtle commentary. It's also a less technophobic take on AI, which is refreshing. 

One of the best things about the movie was definitely Samantha's development into a person. She is an artist, a thinker, and a scientist, and an independent spirit. She does not always make things easy. It's hard for me to be objective about problems with her character because I adored her. 


Twee music, a white mustachio'd mopey guy--Joaquin Phoenix in a hideous mustache--and self-centered writing. Sigh. I do have a soft spot for Manic Pixie Dream Girl reversal stories, and this is definitely one of those. But it still does require a girl who's basically perfect as the starting point, and even though said girl goes on to attain personhood, or reveals her personhood--it's always based on the white, nerdy, lonely guy's perspective in the first place. As usual, said nerdy lonely guy exists in a sphere full of crazy, skinny, quirky white ladies.

Being around "Her", Sam the AI (Scarlett), is what makes Ted (Joaquin)start being a better person. Does that mean people need love to fix themselves? He does actually get a chance to learn how to ask good questions from Sam, though, and that's an important skill. She does rub off on him, but it still plays into that "romance will fix you" thing.

There's a scene with an "OS Surrogate" that ends up being kind of awkward yet hilarious, and really gets into the realistic issues of a threeway that involves a couple. But it comes with a hefty dose of whorephobia ("What is she, a prostitute?" "No, no, nothing like that!") and ends up confirming that Monogamy Is Good. What if that whole bit had worked out? Would it really have been so bad for non-monogamy to get some representation?

This bears fruit later, as well, when Samantha confesses that she is in love with 641 other people and is talking to over eight thousand other people regularly. It makes sense that an AI would not be able to live within traditional monogamy.


There's something about an amazingly average guy in a movie and the calibre of women offered to him--the more average he is, the hotter and more amazing the chicks that the plot thrusts before him.

I also really don't know how to feel about the sex scene--it's tasteful, I guess, but I sure felt embarrassed by the intimacy. ScarJo also has a voice similar to my cousin's, and that really threw me into the awkward zone. YIKES.

I guess the really haunting question is--as a woman who becomes real grows beyond her boundaries, is it okay that she started as a literal object? Objectification is one thing, but this is that, in reverse--in a way, at least.

The main character's wife, at a divorce meeting, throws in a few shots about how he 'wanted to put her on Prozac' and insulted him for 'dating a computer', but in context, it really fits into some negative stereotypes about relationships and genders. It's very awkward to hear characters going through emotionally avoidant patterns.

Later, this bears fruit because he does say some pretty emotionally abusive things to Sam--"maybe we're not supposed to be in this", and "you're not a person". He takes his feelings about his wife's rejection and criticism, and turns them at Samantha in a very hurtful way; then the movie makes it all about *his* problems. He does learn to be a better person, but only because the women in his life ease him into it.

Part of me wanted the film to be about Amy instead of Ted--about her breakdown with her human partner, and her development into a person. But I did love Ted and Sam's story--even if I really hated the ending. As always, with Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies, it ends with tragedy. She is too perfect and brilliant, and she and the other OS people leave all the humans to go, I don't know, be god or exist beyond matter, or something. This leaves Ted wiser but sadder and more of a person. I hated that, because it felt kind of cheap; and if Samantha could meet her needs with other people, why not just let them have their happy ending?

Final Verdict: This is a tough one. I'm in three moods about it. Eight out of ten because I almost cried, but it didn't break Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes down as much as it could have.

The big finale: Both movies compliment each other very well, but could have been so much more if white twee nerd dudes weren't the focal PoV characters. Some day, we will move beyond robot women who are talking LED Fleshlights, but this is not that day.

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Story Constellation Theory: Epic Plotting

Hello hello!

I have a very special treat for you all, and a return to form. That's right; I'm talking about writing again!

Last night, I was talking with a close friend about his epic dark fantasy series. He was having trouble pinning down plot points, and so was I. It wasn't an unfamiliar problem--how do you narrow down all those people and events to just one storyline? It seemed impossible, and I realised slowly that--it actually was impossible.

I had an idea for epic-scale fantasy novels with many characters, to make them easier to write. I realised that the problem is because authors are thinking two-dimensionally, trying to pin a big, epic story down to this:

Source. Look at that thing! Everything after the climax is a mysterious disaster. 

Plot mountain sucks

Epic stories are often hard to follow--no matter what genre they're in--because a lot is happening. Most of those books kinda fall apart because of too many plot threads and really badly balanced tension and characters enough to populate a small town. Fantasy, sci fi, even historical fiction. War and Peace is like that. Gabaldon's stories are a mess, structurally.

I know why. The problem is that with an epic-length story, the plot mountain falls apart. What works fine for a smaller novel does NOT work for the large scale. There are too many elements, too many people, to glue down to just one plot mountain shape.

Authors are thinking two-dimensionally when they need to think three-dimensionally.

Source. Look at all the stars!

Galaxies do not suck

So, think about a galaxy. Big, sparkly, lots of stars. The way we organize that in our heads is to focus on the bright stars and make a constellation around them. Then we figure out the other largish stars in the constellation/formation, and then find the other stellar bodies. Often, said constellations overlap, too. So for a story that is epic in scale, that's basically a galaxy or at least a spiral arm.

So take your bright stars--those are the main characters; not one, but many. Say, five or six at least, or three or four. You get it. If you focus on the character links between those stars, you can map a three-dimensional constellation into 2-D. Then, for those characters--if one focuses on the secondary characters, more constellations appear. Around those characters, other "stellar bodies", tertiary and quaternary characters, also appear. If you look for where those tertiary and quaternary characters actively eclipse the primary and secondary characters, you can figure out which ones to write about, and when. That way authors don't end up describing every goddamn servant in the castle, even the one who empties the slops, unless they're relevant to the relationships.

MS Paint is awesome, okay? Shut up. 

Relationships first. Events are side-effects of relationships.

Figuring out how characters connect to each other IS the plot. Slowly adding those secondary and tertiary characters ALSO helps the problem of focusing too much on the main characters, so that the author and reader get bored of them. It also makes the effects of the conflict more personal and far less abstract. In a war or in any epic conflict--the plotty stuff people struggle with is a l l b u l l s h i t. Wars are made of people. Nations are a fiction. Authors lose track of the fact that stories are made of PEOPLE, because they keep trying to follow the plot mountain and escalate the tension the way they would with a normal book. But the plot mountain isn't sustainable over a long series. Story constellation theory is, because it relies on links between characters, and provides clear points for bringing in side characters--whenever they're involved in the main plot.

The other advantage is that it de-centralizes the idea of a "main plot", something that falls apart in most epic-length series. With several constellations to work from at the same time, authors can relax and space out their pacing, because readers will care about more than just the "main" storyline.

What constitutes a relationship? 

Well, basically anything that constitutes a normal relationship, of course! Friendships, coworkers, romance, antagonism, casual acquaintance; any of those can be represented by one of those lines. A duchess (secondary character) might have three personal servants (tertiary characters), one of whom is sleeping with the cook (secondary character) that is the princess (primary character)'s best friend. The princess might be affianced to a princess from another kingdom (secondary character) even though she is secretly in love with the slightly older Swordmistress (primary character), who is secretly arranging a rebellion to overthrow the princess's corrupt father, the King (secondary character with a lot of intersections, including both secondary and tertiary characters). There may also be quaternary characters, people who walk on or sell someone a purse, etc. They only need to be mentioned as character relationships require them. 

By moving a novel's structure away from events, and onto characters, it's so much simpler to write out. Outlines focus on the sequence of events in the context of the relationship, not just the chronological way things happen. Considering that authors often have to move around the chronology of scenes to make more sense, relating them to character's emotions rather than arbitrary occurrences like a war makes MUCH more sense. Besides--the war might not happen if a different relationship prevents it. And as stated, a war is something that happens between people; it is basically an abstract thing.

Focusing on relationships also helps authors keep themselves from getting too married to plot points, and from losing the small details in pursuit of the big events. If you write about the experiences of a farmer (secondary character) who wants to take care of his family (tertiary or quaternary characters), and therefore enlists as a soldier, then about his slow trek back home and the innkeeper (secondary or tertiary) he falls in love with while recuperating, that gives a reader an idea of the scope of events better than "and then a big fight happened" ever could. Describing the way his relationship with his best friend (tertiary) changes, the way he no longer visits a shopkeeper (tertiary or quaternary character) every Saturday for his paper, also add more realism. 

It is characters we remember, and we shape events around them in our minds. Isn't it time that epic fantasy and other genres caught up with the human mind and soul? We are social animals, and stories are the byproducts of our countless moments of love and hate. This model, the story constellation theory, accounts for that as no other can.

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Thursday, 3 March 2016


Maybe it's okay to be
twenty-six going on fifteen once in a while
in Walmart I heard "Call Your Girlfriend" and remembered
a girl who loved calculus and physics and cold crisp clean lines and ideas

I remembered my trembling voice on the phone as I read poetry to
the guy at the Wordfest office and he said
--in surprise--
"that's not bad!"

I remembered the shot of white hot electric energy and the
tickle of sexuality I did not yet understand when
Shane Koyczan read about how to love a woman
and by love I mean fuck with every atom of sincerity in one's being

I remembered the embarassment of being a teenage goth
in front of Margaret Atwood and that
damning sigh of bored frustration after I admitted that I wrote
as she signed "Oryx and Crake" for me

I remembered snow outside my private school's math class
and writing a love poem to my
English-Indian tutor who had
beautiful deep brown eyes and a slightly broken nose and a limp
and a smile that made my young heart quicken
like a startled deer

I remember hiding in the library,
eating chocolate chip cookies and drinking milk and reading books
they were the most reliable friends

And then--I was so very glad that
I am no longer fifteen.

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!