Ferretnibble 3 - Two Different Frontiers, One Class, and Four Text Adventures

by Robinson L

Robinson and Arthur offer reviews of two short stories, a Doctor Who spinoff series, and a grab-bag of interactive fiction pieces.
Editor's Introduction: Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here's another set of Ferretnibbles - pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, two of the three nibbles are written by Robinson L, so I've tossed them under his byline. Nibbles are always welcome at the usual editorial address.

“Remembering Turinam” and “Forests of the Night” (Robinson L)

Multiple author anthologies are always a mixed bag for me in terms of my interest and enjoyment. I have little or nothing of substance to say about the majority of stories from the 2013 postcolonial speculative fiction anthology We See a Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad. This being the case, I’m going to ignore Ekaterina Sedia’s excellent advice in the Afterword that the anthology is best read as a whole, and concentrate on my two personal favorites from the collection. Keep in mind my tastes are subjective, and the stories I like most probably aren’t the best of the bunch. With that stipulation, let’s have a look at the stories.

Remembering Turinam

“Remembering Turinam,” by N. A. Ratnayake, follows Salai, a brown-skinned Turian scholar going to visit his dying grandfather. For decades, the Turian culture has lived under the boot of the imperialistic Rytari, their language outlawed, their schools of learning put to Rytari use, their very philosophy of knowledge warped by Rytari utilitarianism.

In a mere eleven pages, Ratnayake paints a vivid picture of both Turian and Rytari cultures. The Rytari are monstrous and despicable, but they’re no cartoon Empire out of Star Wars; they have their complexities and their elaborate institutions and codes which give them an illusion of legitimacy. The former Turians, too, while clearly portrayed as morally superior to the Rytari because of their scholarly pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and their rejection of violent warfare, are never romanticized as some idyllic people.

“Remembering Turinam” is a story about colonialism, a story about genocide. Not so much genocide in terms of wholesale slaughter, but in terms of tearing the heart and soul out of a culture, destroying its language; its values; its sensibilities and its ways of conceptualizing the universe, what matters, what’s real, what people are and can be.

It’s also a story of downfall and complicity on the part of the Turians. We see the way Turians like Salai and his grandfather have had to serve and perpetuate the Rytari oppression of their people in order to survive.

But “Remembering Turniam” is also a story of survival, resilience, and the potential for redemption and liberation. Turians like Salai and his grandfather might be complicit in their own oppression, but they may yet be able to subvert it.

At first, Salai thinks to drive the Rytari out violently, but Grandfather urges him not to, citing the fall of Turniam, when “We turned our backs on everything our elders had taught us about the fruits of violence being illusory and temporary at best.” Violent resistance will not avail, but neither does Grandfather—or the story—counsel acceptance of Rytari domination, and abdication of resistance.

The key to Turian liberation, if it ever comes, is in the seed of Turian culture which Grandfather passes on to Salai. Turian culture, the ending suggests, with its more enlightened and humanistic beliefs and philosophies, may yet survive and flourish.

As Walidah Imarisha writes in the Introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements: “the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

Forests of the Night

“Forests of the Night,” by Gabriel Murray, tells the story of a young man who grew up with his Malay mother, but has now been taken on as valet by his Anglo father, Captain Lyons, to live on the Captain’s rural Yorkshire estate. But all is not well in this particular county, as several sheep have been found dead, and the killings quickly spread to encompass dogs and eventually humans. Paw prints are found by the scene of the killings which resemble those of a large tiger. But how could a tiger have found its way into the middle of 19th Century Yorkshire?

This story does a great job of depicting the protagonist’s ambivalence about his white father—a man he admires despite what he recognizes as an often patronizing attitude—and discomfort living in rural England, with all the attendant unthinking Orientalist racism. By the end of the piece, it also evolves into a riveting family drama and an impressively intense thriller story.

The language is both rich and economical, using precision and inference to impart a wealth of information and ideas with only a small amount of words. The explanation of the cat’s true nature takes only a single paragraph clocking in at 29 words total, but between the information already presented in the story and some very basic knowledge of folklore, that’s more than enough to tell the reader everything they need to know.

The story expertly raises tension bit by bit until the reader is galloping up to the climax. The ending is cleverly foreshadowed early on, setting up one of the most perfectly appropriate last lines I’ve read in ages.

Class (Robinson L)

I’ve previously savaged Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, and while I stand firmly behind everything I said in that review, in the interests of fairness I feel I should also give my thoughts on Class. For those not already aware, Class is a Doctor Who spin-off, whose eight episode first series aired in late 2016, and was written by Ness.

Class takes place in Coal Hill Academy, the fictional secondary school where Ian and Barbara taught Susan back in the First Doctor’s run, and where Clara Oswald and Danny Pink taught more recently. Apart from Clara’s and Danny’s names on a plaque, and a reappearance by a minor character who only hard core Who fans (harder core than me, anyway) will recognize, it has little direct overlap with the Coal Hill Academy we’ve seen in recent seasons of the parent show.

The main connections to Who are an extended Capaldi cameo as the Twelfth Doctor in the first episode to help the protagonists out of a bind and establish the status quo for the rest of the series, and the tone; the aliens the protagonists encounter and the types of problems they get into feel like they’d be right at home on the new Who. (And if one is sufficiently nerdy, one would be tempted to conclude the living shadow which killed Elton Pope’s mum in the backstory to “Love and Monsters” was one of the villainous Shadow Kin.)

Despite being mainly about secondary school students, Class skews a bit more mature than Doctor Who, content-wise. Some of the deaths are more brutal and gory, the themes are sometimes a bit more intense, and there’s a brief sequence of rear nudity in the second episode (from a teacher, not one of the student characters).

Our protagonists are a group of sixth form students, one of whom is an alien, and their teacher Miss Quill, also an alien. Together they witness the opening of a tear in spacetime in the middle of their school, which the Doctor tasks them with protecting. (The students are almost as quick as your humble reviewer to make the “tear = Hellmouth from Buffy” connection.)

The first three episodes are okay, made more watchable for a number of really effective character moments. Starting with the episode 4 & 5 two-parter, though, the plot begins to catch up with the characterization, and delivers some exciting and emotionally compelling stories—until the finale, but we’ll come to that presently.

The characters are complex and engaging; of the three I had the lowest hopes for, two wound up becoming my favorites, and even Charlie, the alien prince, has some genuinely effective moments.

While I’m hardly an expert, I feel like Ness does a decent job of portraying his Sikh and Nigerian characters, as well as a homosexual romance between two of the white characters, with complexity, sensitivity, and no obvious racist or homophobic f**k-ups. I'm not arguing these depictions are absolutely and necessarily above board, just that they’re at least not wrong in such a blatant way that I could point at them and say “Hey, that isn't right.”

Also, knowing the writer is Patrick Ness—plus the fact that it’s a new Who spin off produced by Steven Moffat—I’m frankly astonished the series made it a whole six and a half episodes into an eight episode run before breaking out the cheap melodrama, and even then it’s pretty brief. The finale, sadly, is more standard fare in terms of melodrama, with a couple supporting characters getting fridged to make the point that This Time, It’s Serious, and the climax revolving around multiple warmed over moral dilemmas. Even here, the melodrama is only at moderate levels compared to the heights both Who and Ness have delivered in the past.

To give the finale credit, the murders of Ram’s father and Tanya’s mother enhanced the tension and created genuine concern about the fates of April’s mother, Tanya’s brothers, and even the main cast later in the episode. This is a claim often made for character deaths in fiction, and the Class series finale is one of those rare instances where it actually worked that way. However, the two recurring characters who get killed are the two primary PoC parents, which is pretty dodgy. Then again, there aren’t too many other recurring characters the show could kill off to achieve the same effect, with the prime candidate being a physically disabled white woman, so I guess it’s a no win situation there.

The series also has a running theme debating the ethics of genocide—xenocide, to be precise—ultimately coming down in favor. This would be immensely problematic on its own, but the characters never even ask whether the Shadow Kin are all evil like the Daleks, or whether they just happen to have an asshole King whom they’re obliged to obey; we’re just supposed to take it as read that it’s the former.

Finale aside, most of the moments of sadness, tragedy, and drama depicted on the show feel earned. And even the points of highest melodrama don’t really break out the Themehammer, which again was a pleasant surprise coming from the author of the Chaos Walking trilogy. (He does have a minor go with it in the first episode, but that’s a brief annoyance at worst.)

I found Class genuinely smart, enjoyable, and engrossing, and even the irritating finale didn’t put me off the show, though it makes me worry for future series. If not for the finale, I could give Class a wholehearted recommendation. As it is, I still tentatively recommend the show: if future series don’t amp up the melodrama, they’ll probably be worth watching, if not as good as I was led to expect based on the first seven episodes alone.

Tiny Text Adventures (Arthur B)

Lately I have been poking at a number of text adventures, largely because the interactive fiction database has been refined to the point where it's really nice and easy to find good ones. Whilst some can be true epics, others can be wrapped up extremely quickly - here's some I quite enjoyed recently.

9:05: This bite-sized nibble of text adventure goodness from Adam Cadre is a gentle, easy introduction to the format. There are no real puzzles beyond getting out of bed in the morning, leaving the house and driving where you need to go - except if you do all that as expected of you, you run into a twist which prompts you to immediately replay it and puts a whole new spin on all the descriptions so far. Brief yet fun, and an interesting exercise in how the limited descriptions offered in text adventures can blinker the player.

Lords of Time: Written by Sue Gazzard, this was an early time travel game, commercially published back in 1983 by Level 9 Computing (both as a standalone and as part of the Time and Magik trilogy, though the games in the latter series didn't have much of a connection). It has an interesting central mechanism - a grandfather clock with nine cogs inside gave access to nine different time zones, allowing you to travel about until you reached the endgame as you tried to collect the essential items needed to repair the structure of time for… reasons. It was let down, as were many games of its era, by the extremely limited text descriptions, which resulted in the premise of the game being a bit heavy-handed and the experience not seeming especially rich compared to later efforts. In its era, it was probably pretty good, but the rich standards of post-1990s text adventures have rather spoiled it for me since it cannot help but seem a bit threadbare in comparison.

Three-Card Trick: Chandler Groover’s pocket-sized adventure gives the player much less freedom than it at first appears, but if you pay attention to the descriptions it yields not just useful hints for progress, but also hints as to a deeper horror to its world. In principle, you’re just an award-winning stage magician annoyed at your rival improving on your signature trick; in practice, something much darker is happening. Making the protagonist a fabulous woman stage magician in a dapper tuxedo is the final bit of polish that makes it perfect, and the clever tricks it pulls with the standard IF parser format are fun.

Anchorhead: You and your husband Michael have moved to the New England town of Anchorhead, where Michael has unexpectedly inherited a family mansion and been given tenure at the local university. Of course, this was as a result of his relative Edward Verlac abruptly killing his wife and children and then committing suicide - but it’s beyond credibility that a sinister ancestor would reach out from the past and try to possess Michael as he tried to take Edward and his family, with the aim of invoking dark gods to end humanity’s pitiful reign on this planet, right… right?

Anchorhead bills itself as a Lovecraftian text adventure, but it’d be more accurate to call it Derlethian - it uses August Derleth’s Standard Narrative as used in his Mythos pastiches to the hilt. That said, it is much more enjoyable than those stories in part because designer Michael S. Gentry is a much better prose engineer than Derleth, and in part because it casts you not as the possessed inheritor of a sinister house but as the inheritor’s wife, which opens up a new take on the old story. Various flavours of real-life abuse are thematically touched on, making this a story more comfortable with dealing with real-life horror than Derleth ever was, and in some respect more than Lovecraft ever did. It is rendered a little tough going by the ease with which you can get the game into an unwinnable state inadvertently, however.

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