10 min read

Astrolabe 16: The heroes of today, a mystic quest, and Ellen Ullman's life in code

This is your semi-regular reminder that Astrolabe is funded by its readers. A $5/month subscription helps keep the newsletter chugging along, creates opportunity for more and better content, and gets you access to all the Transmission Received transcripts right away.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

The Heroes of Today

"We are each what the past has made of us," says Kings of the Wyld's Lastleaf to an assembly of gathered rulers, peace dangling on the precipice. He speaks of the way the past informs the present and sets the course for the future.

Lastleaf is the antagonist of Nicholas Eames's debut novel, and his is the story of a dying breed clinging to relevance at whatever cost. The Druins are a once powerful race of otherworldly sylvan folk who arrived in Kings of the Wyld's Grandual a millennia earlier. They ascended to dominance over the native humans, minotaurs, wyverns, and various other fantasy races with relative ease—before sliding into living legend after the death of their emperor at the hands of his son.

They came. They saw. They conquered.

They faded away.

Because they couldn't play with others.

In the wake of this year's Hugo Finalist announcement, predictable hand-wringing occurred—as it has as long as I've been paying attention. A decade ago, my voice was among the loudest complaining about the lack of diversity on the ballot, its obsession with preserving the past, and the predominance of recurring names year after year.

(Some of my criticisms remain valid, I think. Along with bloggers like Justin Landon, we started to predict some of the mayhem to come from a sub-section of SFF writers who felt they were due representation on the ballot and went about chasing relevance in the worst and most harmful way possible. Other criticisms—particularly the way I targeted individual writers, rather than the rules of the award, the larger community, and the actual problematic groups—hold up less well and were actively harmful at the time.)

But in the past several years, the voices raised against the ballots, and the message they're carrying has changed. After the award's immensely transformative period from approximately 2014-2017, the yearly ballot has been stuffed not with work echoing the Golden Age of SF—wherein someone like David Langford could vie for his 29th award, riding a streak of 30 straight years of being a finalist—but a reflection of the new Golden Age we're living through right now.

As Jemisin and McGuire, Leckie, Martine, Roanhorse, Liu, Lee, and Anders share the Best Novel ballots—some of the widest-ranging and strongest the award has ever seen—a subset of the community that once dominated the awards is left complaining about the use of an obscenity in an essay title and the dearth of white men.

Change has come for the generation raised on Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. It's given way for those raised on Butler, Brooks, McIntyre, Jordan, and Elliott. It's a stitch in their side, a cramp in their back. It's the the call of the future.

Like Lastleaf, Kings of the Wyld's heroes are a band of adventurers whose better days are legendary and long behind them. Bands of adventurers tour the land—slaying monsters, saving villages, and racking up glory like the rock bands we idolize in our wyvern-free world.

After the greatest Band of all time, Saga, broke up, its members drifted apart. Clay Cooper gave up on glory to raise a family. Matrick became a king. Moog the wizard sought a cure to the deadly disease that claimed his husband. Ganelon—possibly the greatest warrior in history—was turned into a statue, untouched by time.

But their leader Gabriel? Golden Gabe, the subject of countless stories told with whispered awe? Like Lastleaf, he couldn't let go, even as time and age caught him up, and glory turned to dust.

What makes Kings of the Wyld exceptional is not just Eames's brilliant execution of a clever idea, but his understanding that as the world changes, so must its heroes.

Like all things, fandom moves on. The most highly visible writers producing the most compelling work in the field no longer grew up in the shadow of the original Golden Age. They're taking their rightful place in a community that ostensibly pretends it's about limitless aspirational storytelling but regularly erects towering walls of ice to keep out those who don't reflect the narrow truth of their lived story.

Many readers (most, I'd reckon) have adapted, and opened their experiences to the myriad brilliant writers working today. Some others, though—instead of embracing the future, they push it away and cling to the very writers whose legacies of literal fascism are being struck down by the very awards they're hosting.

Clay Cooper's knees hurt. Gabriel's shoulders are hunched with the regret of two decades chasing the dreams of a younger man. Some people don't like swear words. Moog cannot bring his husband back. The world is not what it once was. Tomorrow is not today. New voices are rising up. New heroes emerge to fight new threats.

The heroes of the old age become the villains of the new one.

We are shaped by the past, in ways. But the past is static and constant, unchangeable. The future is not. We are made of the past, but its permanence need not define us. Change is not only possible, but required—or you'll be left behind, wondering what happened.

The past cannot anticipate the friends we make, nor the communities we join. It does not supersede what we learn, nor our desires to be better than what we've seen, to overcome what we've lived. If Lastleaf feels defined by the past, it's because he refuses to look to the future.

Clay Cooper could've faded into obscurity, but Golden Gabe wouldn't let him. Gabe didn't understand how to change. Clay showed him. They got the band back together, but Saga didn't survive on their old tricks. They thrived through sore backs and beer guts, self doubt and a world that had passed them by understanding the need for the new guard fighting at their side. Because those youngsters aren't just the heroes of tomorrow—they're the heroes of today.

Out & About

(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)

Art by Stefan Tosheff

Most Astrolabe readers are familiar with me as a non-fiction writer/journalist/critic, but I'm also a fiction writer. So, This issue's Out & About column is a chance to share one of my short stories that I've always felt deserved a wider audience.

"On the Phone with Goblins" is the amusing story of Octavia and Wolfe—two wizards investigating a goblin-run telephone fraud ring running amok at their magical retirement home. It's like a magic school fantasy crossed with The Golden Girls.

“Grams? I need help.” The phone line wheezed like an old man. Even modern magic couldn’t improve the quality of transatlantic phone calls.
“Are you sick, Isaiah? You sound like you have a cold.”
A pause. “I’m fine. I mean, I’m not sick. I need money.”
“Do you still have that potion recipe I sent you last year? The one made with mussel shell and— Money?”
Octavia hadn’t heard from Isaiah in nearly eight months. Last she had heard, he was in—
“—Egypt. I...made a mistake”—which did not surprise Octavia at all—“and, well...”

Retired wizards? Check. Goblin crooks? Check. Time travel? Check. Sentient books? Check. Cute babies? Check. Boomball? Double check.

Wait, Boomball? Hell yeah.

Read "On the Phone with Goblins" on Curious Fictions

Some more:

LTTP—Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (SNES, 1992)

( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)

I went rogue this week and chose the LTTP game out of my own hat, mostly because I wanted an excuse to dive into a curiousity I've been meaning to play for years: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.

Released a year after Final Fantasy IV, Mystic Quest was Square's attempt to create a JRPG specifically catered to a western audience. While the genre was popular in Japan, it was struggling in North America, and wouldn't find its footing until Final Fantasy VII's explosive popularity a few years later. However, unlike VII, which was uniquely Japanese and focused on storytelling and cinematic gameplay, Mystic Quest was dumbed down for a western audience.

Right off the bat, you can see Mystic Quest is made in the visual mold of the NES Final Fantasy games, similar to Final Fantasy IV. Squat character sprites, repetitive tile-based towns and dungeons, and generic art design did nothing to help it stand out from the crowd. But it also brings over some of the charm from the contemporaneous series titles, like animated sprites that act out emotion during cut scenes, and vibrant, detailed enemy sprites in battle.

Its RPG systems have been simplified—your character's life is symbolized by a meter by default, rather than numerically, there are minimal character development choices, and you max out at two characters in battle (your hero and a story-based companion). But it also adds to the formula by allowing the player to jump, use items/weapons in the overworld, and filling the dungeons with puzzles to go along with the combat. Unexpectedly, Mystic Quest reminded me more of a simplified Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals than Final Fantasy—complete with its over-the-shoulder battle perspective.

Where the graphics fail to stand out, the music is wonderful, bringing in some unique instrumentation to the genre and living up to the series's reputation for high tier soundtracks.

I liked Mystic Quest well enough to restart the game on my SNES after playing it via emulation for LTTP. It may be simple, but it's also loaded with charm, unique features, and blazes by at a breakneck pace, all of which leads to a breezy and relaxing experience.

Watch the stream

Mystic Quest was released in October, 1992 in North America, September, 1993 in Japan, and October, 1993 in Europe. It was re-released for Wii Virtual Console in October, 2010, but is otherwise unavailable outside of purchasing an official cart.

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology and author Ellen Ullman

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman

This essay collection ranges from Ellen Ullman's writing from the late '90s to present day, diving deep into her personal history as a talented woman in the male-dominated tech industry. She brings a razor sharp voice to the conversation, and her insight is startlingly prescient.

Ullman fills her stories with rich life experience and sharp observations. She was on the front lines of tech growing up through the wild west of the 80s, but her book expands through 2017, remaining relevant and eye opening whether she's discussing sexism in the industry or analyzing how social media threatens privacy.

If you're in the tech industry, worried about social media's impact on human culture, or just curious about the way technology informs and shapes human culture, Life in Code comes with my highest recommendation. Read my full review.

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman is available now from MCD.

Quest Markers

(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)

End Step

Another great issue of Astrolabe under my belt! No transmission received this week, because I wanted to touch on some things I've been reading/thinking about lately, but I've got some wonderful interviews lined up. Excited to share those with you soon!

Also, keep an eye on this space for a few bits of exciting personal news coming down the pipeline. It's time to level up.

Thanks for reading!

Support Astrolabe

There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!

Keep in Touch

Enjoy Astrolabe? Want more SFF and retro gaming goodies? You can find me on Twitter and my website.


Astrolabe banner photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash