Keeping Telepaths in Mind: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester


Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

With the Hugo winners recently announced for 2016, its the perfect time to look back to the novel that was awarded the first ever Hugo Award. That novel was The Demolished Man, a book that stands with The Stars My Destination as one of the two masterpieces of SF author Alfred Bester.

The past, as the saying goes, is a foreign country, and visiting it again often leads to unpleasant surprises. Though the novel was awarded the then-highest honor in Science Fiction, how does The Demolished Man hold up for readers today? Can it still be read and enjoyed by people who aren’t seeking a deep dive into the history of the field, but want to enjoy an early and important work? Is it even readable by contemporary audiences? Should you read it?

The Demolished Man presents us with a science fictional future world that is quintessentially a product of its 1950s origins. There are computers, powerful even by the standards of today—although their punchcard format might incite giggles in readers rather than awe. It is a world of Mad Men or North by Northwest-like captains of industry: technicolor, confident characters that are, yes, primarily white male Americans, striding forward into the future. It is a rapacious extrapolation of trends of that Mad Men world in many of the same ways that C.L Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants is, although that novel takes that trend even further than The Demolished Man does. Discussion of that novel merits its own space and time.

What drives the story of The Demolished Man, however, beyond its world reminiscent of Mad Men or the massive and powerful punchcard computers, are telepaths. Telepaths and their psionic abilities are not new in science fiction now and they weren’t when Bester wrote The Demolished Man, either. Such powers and abilities date back to at least A.E. van Vogt, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and John W. Campbell more than a decade before the novel, if not earlier. The innovation and the invention that Bester brings to the concept, however, is to broaden and explore the sociological elements and implications. We don’t just have a superior human psionic running for his life like Jommy Cross of Slan. Here we have telepaths existing as an integral part of society, with a society interior to themselves and exterior to the world. How would the world work if a stratum of society could read minds? What are the implications of that? Bester gives us the answers.

The plotting of the novel itself starts us off with the story of Ben Reich, the aforementioned captain of industry, seemingly on top of the world—a New Yorker at home in New York, the center of this world. Alfred Bester was a native New Yorker, and I, as an expat of New York City, note and approve how much of a New York-centric world that the book has. We have scenes outside of the city, even in space, but they all feel secondary and not important, echoing the spirit of that famous New Yorker magazine cover. New York is the center, and it’s the center that is important and our protagonist knows it. But all is not well in Reich’s world, and he knows that too. Trouble is approaching, his position and power are under threat. But what to do? And how to do it? The unthinkable must be considered: Murder. And in contemplating the crime, complicated methods must be constructed to assure that he can get away with that crime. But how does one outwit Justice computers and the ever-present telepaths? The first half of the novel, in introducing this world, builds up Reich’s plan like a carefully composed painting, the pieces coming together as we move toward the actual incident. The pace is whip fast by modern standards (although a reader of, say, van Vogt, might consider the pacing sedate), bringing us toward the fulcrum of the novel before a reader even knows it.

The Demolished Man then shifts, after the murder, primarily to Lincoln Powell, an Esper detective. Although we’ve met Espers earlier in the novel, in this second half, we get to see the Espers from the inside, in the context of trying to solve the mystery and prove that Reich was indeed responsible. The cat and mouse game switches in terms of the crime itself, as we watch Powell trying to tease out the puzzle. The symmetry between the buildup to the crime, and then the process of solving the crime after it takes place is now a standard fusion form. This science fiction/mystery fusion works extremely well, and it may surprise readers to know that The Demolished Man is actually one of the early examples of that fusion of genres. Many science fiction authors who seek to mix mystery into their science fiction could profit by observing how Bester does it in this novel. Characters as contemporary as the Expanse Series’ detective Joe Miller owe some of their DNA to this book.

But in the breathless, rapid-fire plotting of the novel, we get so much more than just a mystery and all of it is lean, mean, and compactly written. Bester gives us a real sense of the telepaths and what they are about—a guild of people with honor and responsibilities, whose exiled members keenly feel the loss of being cut off from that former union. And yet, the telepaths are a secret society, willing to try and breed ever more powerful and numerous telepaths, toward the goal of populating the world entirely with telepaths. They see themselves as the future, and are playing a long game to make that happen.

One interesting aspect of the novel is its distinctive typography, which is best experienced in print rather than (or in addition to) listening to it as an audiobook or even an ebook. The use of fonts, and spacing, in the text, and even the depiction of some character names are a reflection of the characters and ideas as they are shortened and altered through the clever use of type. This is meant to help convey the shorthand of the telepaths in depicting how they think of people and people’s names: “Weyg&” for Weygand, “@kins” for Atkins, and so forth. A defrocked telepath whom Reich engages for his murder scheme has his title and rank listed as “Esper 2“. A denial of wanting snow in a mental conversation between telepaths is rendered as “s n o w“. This is all rendered poorly in ebook form, and is completely lost in audiobook, of course, which dilutes the impact of what Bester was trying to achieve in demonstrating how Espers think differently by showing it on the page. He does accomplish this in more conventional ways, of course, but it’s in the typography that this difference is most directly conveyed.

Fans of the science fiction series Babylon 5 will know that the show features telepaths as part of its future setting, and delves in the the details of how telepaths would interact with the rest of society as well as their internal dynamics. The series makes sense of what it means to have telepaths as a known entity in the world, very much in the tradition of The Demolished Man. And it is clear that the creator of the series, J. Michael Straczynski, deliberately took more than a few cues from the novel: one of the recurring minor characters in the series is an enforcement officer of the telepaths, a Psi Cop, played by Walter Koenig. He is powerful, intelligent, ruthless, and devoted to telepaths and their goals. The name of that cop? Alfred Bester. It is a deliberate and fine tribute to the author, and to this book.

There is much more to be found in the book, from its exploration of Freudian psychology to some extremely strange, but hauntingly irresistible, character dynamics at play. The novel is one of those that bears repeat reading to catch the subtleties of character and nuance, relationships and worldbuilding, that cannot be picked up on the first run-through. And there are surprises, especially in the denouement, that I hesitate to spoil for first time readers…instead, I’ll simply state my contention that The Demolished Man remains as relevant and interesting to readers and writers today as it was in the 1950s.

An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).

Remembering Gene Wilder, 1933-2016

Gene Wilder

We’re saddened to report that actor Gene Wilder has passed away at age 83.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, he began acting while still a child, and eventually attended the Old Vic Theater school in Bristol, England. He continued his training back in the U.S., studying with Lee Strasberg, and supplementing his income by teaching fencing. After a decade in theater he became a breakout film star for his supporting turn as blanket-loving Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

A few years later, he became an icon to generations of children when he starred as a reclusive candy maker in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. From his somersaulting entrance to his snarky asides to the kids to his heartfelt rendition of “Pure Imagination”, Wilder made Willy Wonka a thorny, loving, and completely unpredictable mentor-figure to impoverished Charlie Bucket, and proving that a children’s movie could embrace moments of darkness without sacrificing heart.

The entrance was particularly important:

I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.

The reason for this elaborate entrance? “…from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

1974 saw the release of two more comedies with Mel Brooks: the Western spoof Blazing Saddles, and what is probably the greatest sci-fi satire of all time, Young Frankenstein. In both of these films, Wilder infused ridiculous roles with a surprising sweetness and even pathos, creating enduring characters rather than one-dimensional caricatures.

Wilder starred in a series of comedies with Richard Pryor which, at their best, probed race relations through increasingly wacky situations. Of these, 1978’s Silver Streak and 1980’s Stir Crazy were both the strongest artistically, and massive box office hits.

Gene Wilder was married four times, to actress-playwright Mary Mercier, Mary Joan Schutz, legendary comedian-writer Gilda Radner, and Karen Boyer. After nursing Radner during her long fight with ovarian cancer, he took fewer acting roles, instead devoting himself to raising funds and awareness of cancer through Gilda’s Club, which offers emotional support, education, and advocacy to people with cancer and their loved ones.

Wilder is survived by Karen Boyer and his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. He contributed unforgettable characters to film, defined many childhoods, shaped countless sense of humor. He is irreplaceable, and his work, both onscreen and as an advocate for those with cancer, is going to inspire people for generations to come.

NASA’s HI-SEAS Crew Has Completed Their Year-Long Mars Simulation Mission

HI-SEAS NASA crew Hawaii simulation Mars

On August 28, six NASA crew members successfully wrapped up the fourth HI-SEAS mission by “returning” to Earth from Mars. Here’s the thing: They never actually left the planet.

The HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) missions simulate life on Mars by having a crew live in a small dome about 8,000 feet above sea level, on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano—the closest approximation to the surface and conditions of the Red Planet. Isolated from Earth, with limited resources and not much space, the crew are guinea pigs for the effects of isolation and confined quarters on future Mars trips. The fourth HI-SEAS mission was the longest yet, with the crew locked away for a full year.

To be honest, I find myself more fascinated by these kinds of stories than by how Mark Watney survives in The Martian—not that the stakes aren’t terribly high in that case, but also for this reason: The HI-SEAS crew were not misled about where they are; there was always a “safety net” in place if anything truly disastrous had happened.  Take this quote from a video recorded halfway through the mission: “On Mars, we would know that we are part of history,” crew biologist Cyprien Verseux says, “whereas here… well, we’re lucky if we have a footnote in a history book.” I would respectfully disagree, considering all of the attention this mission has gotten. If anything, knowing that they were on Earth and training themselves to act as if they’re on another planet must have made for a really fascinating mental (and, by extension, emotional) state.

Of course, the setup of HI-SEAS was meant to help with that: Supplies were replenished only every few months (food every four months, water every two); their transmissions to Earth were on a 20-minute delay (not quite Interstellar, but still creating a sense of detachment); and if they wanted to go outside, they could do so only wearing heavy, puffy spacesuits.

There were also the group dynamics to navigate. While each crew member had one or more distinct jobs—commander, physicist, biologist, doctor, engineer, architect, journalist—to perform, some of their greatest challenges included learning how to coexist in a tiny shared space without going insane, fighting off the effects of loneliness, and dealing with everything from a pesky wart removal to an unplanned communications blackout. (The crew did a Reddit AMA in June discussing how they defused interpersonal conflict and how much more productive they were without the distractions of viral YouTube videos.)

For a crew practicing isolation on Mars, there’s plenty of information online about this HI-SEAS mission—and we’ll know a lot more once NASA has a chance to analyze the data from the first four missions. In the meantime, filmmakers Lauren DeFelippo and Katherine Gorringe are crowdfunding Red Heaven, a documentary about the crew’s year in isolation. Upon meeting the six HI-SEAS crew members before they entered the dome last August, DeFelippo and Gorringe shot some preliminary interviews, then left the six with handheld cameras to record their daily activities in the hopes of providing “a raw and intimate look into what life on Mars might really be like.”

In addition to the official HI-SEAS website, crew journalist Sheyna E. Gifford also posted updates on the blog Live From Mars, talking about the various challenges of surviving on “sMars.” I’ll leave you with this excerpt from her final blog post, reflecting on the year and a day spent away from Earth:

Technically, my crew never left the planet. Just as true: our species has only just arrived. To this day, in fact, we’re mostly not of this world. I don’t mean in the Carl Sagan, we-are-stardust way, though that’s true too. I mean that each and every one of us is mostly water. Most of the water on this Earth has been measured and proven to be from comets. So you were brought here, really, bit by bit, molecule by molecule, assembled and constructed over eons. Maybe that’s why we’re always trying to leave here: The journey was never mean to be one-way. Or maybe the joy and terror of riding through the skies was captured along with those bits of ice and rock. Maybe the will to wander through the stars still resonates in the bonds that hold one hydrogen to another. I couldn’t say for sure. I am a just traveler myself. I came here with a leather bag. Tools were taken out. Tools were used, and returned.

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Saint Camber, Chapters 12-13


Welcome to the weekly reread of Saint Camber! Last time, Camber and company were working Deryni magic to integrate Cullen’s memories with his own before being rudely interrupted by Cinhil.

This week Camber attends his own funeral, Evaine shows hidden depths, and the legend of Saint Camber gets a boost from the man himself. With bonus lengthy Michaeline chapter meeting.


Saint Camber: Chapters 12-13

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 12 picks up directly from the end of Chapter 11. Cinhil demands that the random monk (who is actually Evaine) look at him when he talks.

So of course we know what Evaine does. She shape-changes. Then she doubles down. She manipulates Cinhil into believing that not only is she a very pretty, very male monk, she saw the spirit of Camber healing Cullen. She leads Cinhil on and on until he falls full-on into her trap. Then he goes off to think it over, with an admonition that no one talk about what just apparently happened.

That leaves Dualta to be duly and properly scammed in his turn. Joram takes the lead on that, and convinces him not to tell anybody, either—using the seal of the confessional to make sure it sticks. And if that’s not enough, he adds a Deryni mind-whammy. Rhys reinforces it. And that gets rid of Dualta.

Alone at last! Evaine, having been proactive and daring and totally in charge, is back to her submissive little female self—for values of submission that include steel-magnolia belles and Fifties master man-manipulators. She’s pleased with herself, and Joram being all disapproving barely makes a dent.

While Rhys follows her like a good dog, she explains that they studied more than the basics of memory assimilation. Joram is barely listening. She shape-changed.

Rhys doesn’t see the problem. Joram has to spell it out. They now have witnesses to a holy miracle—and the Church has rules about such things.

The layfolk still don’t see why it’s an issue. It only happened once. What could possibly go wrong?

Joram can’t exactly answer that, but he’s definitely concerned. He’s especially worried about what Cinhil will remember.

Sure enough, Cinhil is on the prowl, and he’s headed for Camber’s alleged body. He takes a good long time to take it all in, inch by glittering inch. Then he mentally upbraids the dead man for not leaving him alone. He shifts from that to railing at God for letting Camber rip him out of his monastery etc. etc. etc. all per usual with extra added “Why can’t he just stay dead?”

God isn’t answering. Cinhil, desolate, trudges back to his rooms.

Camber has slept the sleep of the utterly smug and self-assured. When he wakes, he’s in fine condition, though he can’t remember much from the previous night. He’s quite pleased with himself, and is pleased with the body he’s in, and is altogether pleased to discover how well Cullen’s memories have integrated.

Having congratulated himself on the excellence of everything to do with himself, he takes a nice long time to evaluate Rhys before whammying him into deeper sleep and putting him to bed. Then he gets to work on being vicar general. Quite conveniently, he has Cullen’s handwriting as well as the rest of the physical attributes.

He’s quite full of himself when he finishes his bits of admin—notably his recommendations for the next vicar general—and opens the door. He expects Johannes the aide, but not Dualta, who should be off duty by now, though Camber is foggy on the details.

He plays Cullen to the hilt, discovers that Dualta did go off duty but just can’t stay away and wants something to do. Camber sends Dualta off to the grand master with the letter about his successor, and Johannes to take the second letter to Jebediah. He also puts Johannes to work tending Rhys.

Johannes is dubious about the latter, but obedient. Camber congratulates himself on being so very good at convincing both of them that he’s just fine. This gives him time and brain space to convince himself that assisting in his own funeral Mass is canonically allowable, seeing as to how he’s a deacon. He’s not as pleased with himself about that as he is about the rest.

Meanwhile Cinhil is demonstrating his mile-wide stubborn streak. He’s obsessing over Camber, and how he won’t stay dead, and what it means: that Camber is working miracles from beyond the grave. Which in Church terms means he must be a saint. Cinhil cannot accept this at all.

Cinhil being Cinhil, this means he pivots right back around to himself, and freaks out. What if dead Camber knows all about his secret stash of priestly paraphernalia? This drives him into a full-on panic attack.

He manages to get himself under control, put his crown on and join the funeral procession. The procession includes his queen, who as usual has been crying. Cinhil can’t cope with both her and Camber.

Shift to the historian-voice for a fast synopsis of the funeral, followed by a reaction shot: Camber diving for cover and having his own freakout. He has, after all, just officiated at his own funeral.

He is, however, Camber, and like Cinhil he is completely true to himself. He works through the freakout, compartmentalizes it, and lets the Alister-personality take over while he goes through the aftermath of the funeral Mass. This includes a great deal of description of the outfits, and a carefully modulated talk with Joram. There’s a Grand Chapter this afternoon, and Camber/Cullen wants Joram to attend. Camber makes sure to do this in front of witnesses, thereby backing Joram into a corner. Joram can hardly refuse.

Camber takes his time getting to the meeting. Once he gets there, Cullen’s memory ambushes him with grief for one of the casualties of the last fight. Camber notes with interest that Cullen’s memories have taken on a life of their own.

The meeting is an emotional and political minefield. Camber is getting it over with as fast as he can, but that doesn’t prevent him from making a lengthy speech about the rebellion and the aftermath. He calls on Jebediah to reckon up the losses to the Michaeline order, which have been significant. After Jebediah reckons the human cost, Nathan goes on at length about the financial and physical costs. Both sets of losses are huge.

Nathan hints but does not state outright that this is not just overtly bad. It’s a bad situation if Cinhil turns against the Deryni.

The Commanderie, Jeb adds, is completely gone. But Camber has one ray of light to offer. Before the last battle, Cinhil granted the order two parcels of land, to be handed over when a new vicar general is chosen. And that is the main reason for the meeting.

Chapter break. Chapter 13 opens after the end of the meeting, which went on for hours. Camber has narrowed the field of Cullen’s successors to three candidates.

He mulls this over while he makes his way to his rooms, but he takes a detour. He can’t resist one last visit to his alleged body. It’s in a coffin in the cathedral, and there’s a mourner.

It’s Guaire, and he’s inconsolable. Camber, ever confident in his manipulative skills, sets out to console him.

It takes doing. Camber has to extricate him from the chapel and hand him over to Johannes with instructions to put him up for the night–along with Rhys, one may presume. He’s sobbing through this. Camber leaves Johannes with him (and Rhys?) and goes off to be nonplussed. (One wonders when Johannes is going to inform his employer that there’s no more room in the inn.)

Camber had no idea Guaire loved Camber that much. He was Cathan’s friend. Camber never even met him till after Cathan died. Now it seems Guaire has developed a fixation on Cathan’s father.

This is a problem. Camber ponders it at length, finally deciding to dose Guaire with drugged wine, which will soften him up for some Deryni mind-whammy. The drug should keep Guaire from recognizing Camber’s personal touch. Then “Camber MacRorie would see that all was made right.”

Couldn’t ask for a clearer insight into Camber’s take on the world and the people in it.

Next scene, Guaire is half drugged and half conscious. He’s half aware of the drug. Eventually he comes to enough to witness the show Camber has prepared for him. It’s a ghostly apparition, with bonus heavenly light, intoning that he’s at peace.

But Guaire isn’t satisfied. Camber left too much undone.

Camber falls right into it. Why, he says, others can do those things. Guaire can do them. Everybody can do them. They can keep Cinhil from going off the deep end. Cullen especially. He needs Guaire.

Guaire isn’t sure about that. Cullen is “so gruff.”

Oh, no, says Camber. Cullen is really a softie underneath. “Will you help him, Guaire? Will you serve him as you served me?”

Guaire takes a little persuading, mostly of the “am I really worthy?” variety, but of course he gives in. Camber gets him to promise to help Cullen, and makes sure Guaire knows this is the one and only time he’ll see this apparition.

Then Camber tries to leave, but Guaire won’t let him. He wants Camber’s blessing. Camber gives it, with added whammy. Then he’s gone.

Guaire is completely off his head. He’s crazy-happy. He wants to fling out his arms and sing out the news. Camber came back! He made Guaire his deputy in the world!

But he can’t tell anyone. He promised.

But he has to. He comes to the conclusion that there’s one person he can tell: Father Cullen. He scampers off to do just that.

Camber has ducked hastily under the covers. When Guaire comes tippytoeing in, he pretends he just woke up. Then he gets to hear the whole thing in a stammery, breathless rush.

Camber manages to keep a straight face while Guaire promises to serve him. He’s stern about how different this service will have to be. Even as a bishop, “Cullen” won’t be keeping the kind of state the Earl of Culdi did.

Guaire doesn’t care. He’s all in with whatever he’s in for. He weeps tears of joy, kisses Camber’s hand, and exits, leaving a bemused Camber behind.


And I’m Thinking: Camber keeps digging himself in deeper. Now he’s got an eager sidekick who can’t ever know the truth, and he’s set up a situation that’s only going to escalate. We all know where it’s headed, even if we either haven’t read the book or don’t remember the details.

Evaine is the most amazingly amoral character. She happily plays with magic, dark or light, and everything she does is for Daddy. She’s terrifying in an adorable-little-girl way.

Rhys is looking more clueless with each passing chapter. He bumbles around, does what Camber or one of Camber’s offspring tells him, and only actually gets a clue when it’s applied upside the head.

The whole thing is a study in cult thinking, and Camber is as smug as any revivalist preacher. But even he has some dim inkling that the situation with Cinhil is getting progressively worse.

Cinhil is not holding up well, either. He has two modes: sobbing and dead stubborn. If he’s not whining or fetishizing his priest stash, he’s hating on Camber with the kind of frenzy usually seen in adolescents.

It’s really kind of repellent all around, but Kurtz’s characters are so vivid and her settings so detailed that it’s impossible to look away. We can’t stop reading, even while the train wreck happens all around us. Even when it’s a long, dull, detailed meeting that goes a long way toward explaining why later fantasy writers were strongly discouraged from writing meeting scenes. Because we know there’s action coming–in a Kurtz book, that’s always a sure thing–and if there won’t be explosions, there will definitely be Deryni mind tricks and shiny light shows.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in 2015, and she’s currently completing a sequel. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

DC Film Universe to Introduce Justice League Dark

Justice League Dark

Variety has announced that Warner Brothers recently tapped director Doug Liman to helm their “Justice League Dark” film. Michael Gilio will be penning the script, with Scott Rudin producing.

What do we know about the film so far?

This film has been in the works since 2012, back when it was titled “Heaven Sent” and Guillermo del Toro was set to direct. He stepped away from the project in 2015 after a long back-and-forth about whether or not DC wanted to include the movie in their current continuity. Now it seems that the project will be fully in line with the DC Cinematic Universe, and that the script will focus on John Constantine, Swamp Thing, Deadman, Zatanna, and Etrigan the Demon.

Justice League Dark was launched in 2011 as part of the New 52 reboot, and differed from the Justice League due to the group’s ability to tackle supernatural-type phenomena. Given that the group is made up of a slew of antiheroes and odd folks, Justice League Dark might bring the ambiguity and heft to DC films that Suicide Squad was meant to bring. There are plenty of ways for these characters to get engaged with occult mysteries, especially with Enchantress about post-Squad; the witch’s separatation from her host, archaeologist June Moon, is actually what causes the formation of the Justice League Dark–magic starts going wild all over the world as a result of their disunion.

Oddly, the only woman cited in the crew’s lineup is magician Zatanna. Which is unfortunate, given that the Justice League Dark has had plenty of female members, including Raven, Black Orchid, and Pandora. Madame Xanadu was also a member, a character with super-fun ties to Arthurian legend and a lot of fun backstory to sift through.

Did I mention that she formed the group in comics canon? Yeah. So it’s sort of awkward to see her name left out. (And weirdly mirrors how Mina Murray was sidelined as the founder of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman when it made its way to film.)

On the other hand, we get to ask who will get cast for these roles! They’re all a blast to speculate about, but could I put in an early vote for someone actually middle-aged for Constantine? No offense to anyone who enjoying the current TV version, but I prefer my Constantine’s older and way more grizzled and messed up. It’s part of his… charm. Or something.

The Monster Next Door: I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not A Serial Killer

IFC Midnight and director Billy O’Brien have brought Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer to life on the screen, starring Max Records and Christopher Lloyd. Our protagonist, John Wayne Cleaver, is a teenage sociopath attempting to keep his life together and himself in check with the help of his therapist and small-town associates. This is, of course, until a rash of serial murders begin in his town—and there’s something more or less than human behind them.

When the novel was originally published—six years ago—I found it reasonably compelling and entertaining, as evidenced by this review. It had some narrative hiccups but a strong use of voice and an engaging internal conflict for the protagonist; overall, I thought it was decent. So, when I had the chance to scope out an adaptation from IFC, I thought: why not?

Spoilers ahead.

The film, much like the source text, has strengths and weaknesses—and interestingly, they’re almost opposite. While Wells’s novel does a mediocre to poor job of building tension about the nature of the evil stalking the town of Clayton, O’Brien’s adaptation gets rid of the reflective mode and presents a linear narrative. During the murder John initially witnesses on the lake it comes as a surprise that the old kindly neighbor Crowley, played to delightful effect by Christopher Lloyd, is actually a monster. Compared to the novel, there’s far more tension in the narrative as the movie builds up to this revelation, while John’s young friend jokes about werewolves and John tries to be a detective.

Unfortunately, the subtraction of the point-of-view narrative also does the text a disservice: the audience misses out on the compelling struggle within our protagonist against himself, his world, and his urges. Part of the reason Wells’s novel was so engaging was John-as-narrator. It was a unique perspective, invested with a great deal of struggle and intensity. Without that, the narrative itself falls a bit flat: we have less sense of the stakes, even if John explains a few of them (his strategy of paying compliments to potential victims when he feels violent, et cetera).

While O’Brien has increased the tension in the plot as it progresses into a game of cat and mouse between John and the monster, the tension in terms of character growth and conflict has flatlined. The end result is a film that drags a bit during the middle, once we’ve figured out the nature of the murders but John isn’t acting on the knowledge yet—just following Crowley and watching people be slaughtered by him. The internal conflict would have brought some life to those scenes; instead, John barely hints at it in his conversations with the therapist.

The screen doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that kind of narration, of course, but something else could have stood in for it, to help even out the pacing. As it was, I found myself less engaged in the continuing story even once we arrived at the endgame. Also, the decision to spend a relatively long period of screen time—several minutes—with a CGI “demon” talking to John and his mother made me sigh with frustration. The creature wasn’t particularly frightening or realistic, and the CGI didn’t blend as well as it could have with the film scenery and the prior usage of effects. The classic horror movie problem: show too much incorrectly and it goes from scary or compelling to silly. This leapt across the line into “silly,” which is a real shame, considering that the scene could have had a lot of poignancy and heft.

I also found the plotline with Brooke to be shoehorned in and underdeveloped in the film. She plays little part except being a girl who shows up occasionally to be not freaked out by John. That presents a narrative dead-end that we don’t have enough of a sense of to become invested in. John’s mother is also a lesser figure here. The compressed nature of the film relegates most of the characters who aren’t either John, the neighbor/monster Crowley, or his therapist to secondary or tertiary roles; however, it still tries to include them, sometimes to greater success than others.


As a whole, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a decent adaptation of decent source material. It was visually compelling, and Max Records does a good job showing John’s compulsions and awkwardness through tiny details of body language and tone. Christopher Lloyd, rather obviously, makes for a sympathetic but terrifying demon/serial killer who desperately adores his wife in spite of the odds stacked against them. The small-town tension is believable, though the accelerated pace of the murders is a little hard to swallow. As a psychological sort-of scary movie, it does a decent job of getting the audience invested and making them uncomfortable.

While it does drag a bit, it was a fine enough movie for the folks who’ll be interested in it—though a bit less of a stand-out than the original novel. I would’ve liked more of the mother and family dynamics, and more of the complicated relationship with Brooke, to flesh out the rather-heavily-gendered scale of narrative interest the movie presents. As a whole, though, O’Brien and his cast have done a solid job of bringing Wells’s book to the screen.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

Enter the Dream of HBO’s Latest Westworld Trailer

HBO Westworld new trailer

HBO has released the latest trailer for Westworld, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s adaptation of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie. Set in a retro futuristic theme park that’s like Jurassic Park but for the Wild West, populated by robots who are as much prisoners as Ava from Ex Machina, the series looks to tackle the crossovers between consumerism and artificial intelligence—with a stellar cast, to boot.

While past trailers showed us the (West)world, we now get someone whose eyes we can look through. Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) doesn’t seem to understand that she’s not real, or at least believes that she lives in some sort of dream. But when other robots begin going off-book and misbehaving in exceedingly violent ways, Dr. Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) dream slides into nightmare territory.

Enter the Man in Black (Ed Harris), who might offer a way out, or be part of the larger conspiracy. Check out the trailer for itself—it’s NSFW, but mostly just for scantily-clad saloon girls:

Westworld also stars Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Tessa Thompson, Rodrigo Santoro, and others. It will premiere on HBO in October 2016.

via Flavorwire

Who Are the Biggest Breakout Stars of Television’s Golden Age?

Barb Barbie

If you’re like me, you’re startled by the staying power of Stranger Things. While I enjoyed the show, I also saw that there were some flaws, and I certainly didn’t expect that it would be the breakout hit of the summer. But here were are, a month later, with Stranger Things cupcakes, Stranger Things cats, and roughly two thousand posts about Barb.

Finally, Jason Concepcion over at The Ringer asked the question: what is the deal with Barb? Why is everyone so obsessed with her? Since such questions are part of the ineffable workings of the cosmos, and provide no ready answer, he quickly moved on to an even more interesting question: why is it that characters with tiny fractions of screentime sometimes explode? OK, Concepcion didn’t quite answer that one either, because really, characters become fan favorites for lots of different reasons. But he did come up with a really interesting way to look at these breakouts.

First, he formulated a way to look at breakout characters in a more theoretical way, divorced from their actions in their respective shows. He chose to create a sample size by looking at each characters hits on Google News, and then created an equation he called CUPS (Content Units Per Scene). Then he did a little math:

(Google News hits) divided by (total screen appearances) = CUPS

Again, this allows a pop culture scholar to look at the breakout character in their purest form – no catchphrases, slapstick routines, crying jags, fashion choices – just screentime. Using this formula, Concepcion then works out the Top Ten Television Characters by their CUPS. The current listing features several characters from Stranger Things, but also a few surprising entries from classic, pre-Netflix-binge shows as well, such as Seinfeld’ Soup Nazi. Even more interesting is that certain aspects of iconic characters have more CUPS than others. For instance, “crying Don Draper” has a higher CUPS count than any other version. Could this mean that people are responding not to an iconic, handsome, ultra-patriarchal symbol of 1950’s masculinity, but instead to the moment when his facade of perfection cracks?

Or does it just mean that we enjoy illustrating points with crying gifs?

Concepcion also grapples with the other implication of his CUPS scoring process: people who write for the internet are in constant need of content.

Much like our hunter–gatherer ancestors, the modern content creator has learned to use every part of that which sustains them. Lunch does not purchase itself. This process, spurred by parallel developments in technology and a deepening of human understanding, will only continue. CUPS has revealed patterns in the roiling chaos of the internet.

Head over to the Ringer to see the CUPS results!

The winning portrait of Barbie as Barb via A Doll’s World over on Instagram!

Hammers on Bone Sweepstakes!

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

We want to send you a galley copy of Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone, available October 11th from Publishing! Read the first chapter here.

John Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He’s been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid’s stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He’s also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he’s hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

As Persons investigates the horrible McKinsey, he realizes that he carries something far darker. He’s infected with an alien presence, and he’s spreading that monstrosity far and wide. Luckily Persons is no stranger to the occult, being an ancient and magical intelligence himself. The question is whether the private dick can take down the abusive stepdad without releasing the holds on his own horrifying potential.

Hammers on Bone is a new novella from rising author Cassandra Khaw.

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 11:30 AM Eastern Time (ET) on August 29th. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on September 2nd. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor:, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Five Books about Loving Everybody


Words are powerful magic. Finding a word—polyamory—to describe my romantic and sexual relationships made it possible to tell people what I was doing: my friends, my family, my lovers, and most importantly, myself. I was a college dropout when I first encountered the term polyamory, which we’ll define here as the conscious romantic and/or sexual involvement of three or more consenting adults.

The comic book which introduced me to the name of this concept, and which I read so eagerly, has gotten lost somewhere in my forty-plus years of raggle-taggle relocations. Its main character was named Polly, and I think the front cover was mostly black…. At any rate, it left me longing for further literary examples of this newly validated category of human behavior: stories about kissing and hugging and making love with everybody, without guilt or shame. Which I both wrote and found.


Tales of Nevèrӱon by Samuel R. Delany

Tales-NeveryonTales of Nevèrӱon contains one of my favorite polyamorous situations. Obviously thumbing his authorial nose at traditional anthropology’s tendency to reframe other cultures’ practices within its own values, Delany writes of the polygamous Rulvyn from a feminist viewpoint. Among these mountain people, the sage Venn explains, “a strong woman married a prestigious hunter; then another strong woman would join them in marriage—frequently her friend—and the family would grow.” Reversing the conventional interpretation of polygamy’s power dynamic while keeping numbers and gender identical, Delany calls familiar readings of such relationships into question. Yet the brief passage on Rulvyn mores is only one of the many neat tricks he pulls off in this stunning 1979 fantasy, which on its surface is simply another book in the sword-and-sorcery subgenre.


Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

FledglingOctavia E. Butler’s last novel, Fledgling, was also ostensibly lighter fare, at least according to the author: a vampire story. Of course it’s something more, because of Butler’s inevitable engagement with problems with gender roles, racial representation, and hierarchy. Heroine Shori Matthews spends the bulk of the book carefully constructing a polyamorous family for her own protection and nourishment. Trading sex and pleasure and improvements to their immune systems for humans’ blood, Shori takes male and female symbionts into her fold. Lots and lots of them—a mentor advises her that eight is a good number of symbionts, and that she should let any jealousies work themselves out without interference. On top of that, her species, which is called the Ina, mate with other Ina in groups, and they live communal yet sex-segregated lives. I so wish Butler had lived to write this 2005 book’s sequels.


“«Légendaire.»” by Kai Ashante Wilson

Stories-ChipMy next recommendation is a bit of a cheat, because it’s a short story rather than a novel. First published in 2013 and reprinted in 2015’s Stories for Chip, “«Légendaire.»” by Kai Ashante Wilson features polyamory as a given, background to a fantastic tale of love and loss and imperious artistic destiny. “When she lies down with her husband or with her wife,” Wilson writes in the story’s fifth paragraph, matter-of-factly introducing us to the group marriage out of which his hero’s born. A few lines later he adds, so there’s no mistaking what’s meant, “Her wife and husband have long since gone to bed.” Such arrangements are not the focus of “«Légendaire.»” but its armature. In this case, the mundanity of multiply-partnered love is balm to my oversensitized, underprivileged heart.

To atone for choosing a short work I’ll recommend a second, bonus story by the same author, from 2014. In “The Devil in America”, Hazel Mae, mother of protagonist Easter, battles off the warped obscenities of an adversary accusing her of promiscuity, the vice most commonly–and mistakenly–associated with the polyamory she has secretly practiced.


The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Fifth-SeasonJemisin’s The Fifth Season, published in 2015, is not only a novel, it’s the beginning of a trilogy. As such, it has the epic scope we expect of longer narratives: it spans countries and civilizations, oracles and ages. Large as life, it depicts horrific disasters on a global scale, and hints at human rights abuses to match. But at a certain point, a revivifying lull in its grim action, it brings together three major characters in a joyful male/female/male ménage à trois. At first awkward and unlooked for, (“‘So you have decided to share?’…She blinks as the words register. ‘Uh?’”) the relationship eventually becomes a source of solid comfort and stability for the witch, wizard, and pirate chief who enter into it. For as long as it lasts.


Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Black-WineYou may have noticed that all four of these recommendations are by authors of African descent. Why? Not because we’re the only ones who write about polyamory in SFF, I’m sure. Nor because that’s all I read. As proof, my fifth recommendation is the 1997 novel Black Wine, by the inimitable–and European-descended–Candas Jane Dorsey. In this—fantasy? fable? far-future science fiction? whatever it is—dirigible sailors formally bond with one another in families of three or more. Five adults is the usual number, and these romantic, sexual, and domestic circles are called, unsurprisingly, “hands,” with individual members known as “fingers.” Slippery as the book’s genre, Dorsey’s depiction of gender, sexuality, and love rides meandering currents through strange lands and interesting times, with the claspings of the sailors’ hands among its happiest moments.


None of these recommendations are “about” polyamory. More accurately, these stories are around polyamory: loving everybody figures into what they’re about in different ways—as an exception, as a cultural marker for travelers in time and space, as a signifier of civility and sophistication, and so on. I’m sure that a thorough search would provide at least as many examples of ways of portraying polyamory in SFF as there are of practicing it.

Take my suggestions. Read them. Read my work as well, for you’ll find that, as I noted earlier, I’ve definitely written polyamory into several of the worlds I’ve imagined. And add your recommendations to mine in the comments below. There’s no reason to stop with five, is there? Our hearts and our minds can hold more.

Top image: Game of Thrones (2011- )

Everfair by Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books, September 6) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.