Thursday, February 28, 2019

Quick Sips - Serial Box: The Vela [episodes 1-2]

So do nothing halfway, I guess. In December I started reviewing Ninth Step Station from Serial Box, and this month I’m adding another of their projects, The Vela, which is almost out and is available for pre-order now (and you should really get on that, because wow). The project drops on March 6th, but I want to get out ahead of it and say loudly "It Is GOOD" so you all have time to clear your schedules. From near future to far future (or maybe even “second world science fiction”), this one looks at a solar system facing a decline, a destruction. Because while there was prosperity for a time, a general lack of water has led to over-harvesting of hydrogen from the sun, which in turn has led to cooling, which has made the outer planets uninhabitable. Refugees fleeing these dying worlds are finding most havens closed to them, even as they cannot stay where they are. The humanitarian crisis has produced many who have lost their world and their family, and in response one world has opened its arm to a large ship of refugees. A ship that has gone missing. So yeah, it’s a rather stunning premise, and a project I’m super excited about. Again, I’ll probably look at two episodes or so a month. To the reviews! 


“A Leisurely Extinction” by SL Huang (serial episode 1)

No Spoilers: Asala Sikou is something more than a mercenary, something less than a government agent. In practice, she’s a veteran and a former refugee from a dying world and, above all, a woman who gets things done. When she assigned to protect the life of a visiting head of state, it should be a fairly simple job. Except that the head of state is a dictator whose prejudice and hate are part of the reason that Asala doesn’t have a family any longer. Because in this solar system, hydrogen siphoning from the sun to create water on largely arid planets has led to the sun shrinking, turning the outer planets increasingly uninhabitable. Throw in Niko, a child of the president of one of the more liberal inner planets with some aspirations of hacking and activism, and the story hits the ground running with a lot of energy but still enough emotional moments to keep things complex and rewarding. It’s an episode that does a terrific job of introducing the characters and bringing them to life, and making sure the web of intrigue is so think there’s no hope of moving forward without either getting caught, or unraveling everything.
Keywords: AI, Assassination, Trade, Refugees, Non-binary MC
Reviews: Okay so this story does a lot of things all at once and is a brilliant hook for what promises to be a fantastic series. Because I’m already in love with the two main characters. Asala is professional and talented, a one-woman wrecking crew who has survived so much and seems to succeed in large part because she has little regard for her own safety. She’s messy and reckless, punishing herself for things that were outside her control but that she can’t help feeling guilty about. Responsible for. She’s a former refugee who has carved out something of a home for herself, even if it doesn’t really feel right. And Niko. Niko, my new favorite cinnamon roll, is delightful, a non-binary young person with a lot of thoughts on social justice and the state of the solar system. And really it’s Niko who I feel moves things forward a bit more, because with them there is this feeling that there is a future. A future that they want to move toward by pushing back against the system as is. But they’ve not come up against the same realities that have made Asala rather bitter and jaded. It means they’re rather naive, rather privileged in how wealthy they are and how they’ve been treated. But their idealism is infectious and also delightful. I love the chemistry between Asala and Niko, and the placement where Niko’s obviously going to have some very difficult choices to make.

And really the whole situation is compelling. The solar system is on the verge of death because people won’t move to fix the system. It would be too hard, too expensive, and so nothing is done. Sound familiar? the idea of climate refugees and disasters is topical and yet taken far away from any mention of Earth. Instead, the setting is fresh and layered in wounds and corruptions. Even the world the story opens on, which is supposed to be liberal and understanding, is in talks with a dictator and there’s the strong implication that things are more rotten still. The prose is beautiful, the world building intricate and deep, and the action visceral. It’s one hell of an opening salvo and a wonderful read!

“The Third Passenger” by Becky Chambers (serial episode 2)

No Spoilers: After the assassination attempts last episode, this one picks up with Asala and Niko headed for Asala’s planet of origin, Hypatia, aboard a private ship. Except that it turns out that they have a special guest for part of the journey—the dictator from the previous episode. Which does not sit well with Niko, who didn’t know ahead of time. And what follows is a rather interesting comedy of errors as the three unlikely companions have to spend time around each other and a malfunctioning ship. The sections still break between Niko and Asala, with a bit more focus on Niko this time through, but also featuring sections looking at the missing Vela and the people on board. It’s a tense read, full of heavy moments where especially Niko begins to learn about the people around them, and step outside the carefully curated nature of their life so far.
Keywords: Hacking, Non-binary MC, Trans MC, Travel, Diplomacy, Space
Review: This serial differs from the other that I’m covering (Ninth Step Station) in that it’s not really an episodic narrative. Or...well, it fits neatly into the episodes, but they each push the overall story forward without starting with a new subplot. With this chapter, the main distinction is setting. The main cast (plus their unwanted ship guest) are off planet and cradled in the inky dark. It means they’re isolated together, forced to deal with all the ways they don’t get along. But at the same time, the episode seems to me to be all about empathy and understanding. About the different ways that people face the idea of the end, and how people practice compassion. I love how it layers the voices of the refugees on Vela with the voices of the characters. How it contrasts Asala and Cynwrig, and how it shows the ways that Niko has been insulated from pain and death. How they find it so easy to condemn when they haven’t been tested. Which in some ways is unfair, because Cynwrig assumes that everyone would do what she has done. That everyone would be conservative in the face of her struggles. Which is bullshit. But certainly it does give a fresh perspective on the kind of savior complex that Niko seems to have. The conversations between the characters are amazing, and I love the deep dive the piece takes into the world building and lives of the refugees fleeing their freezing planet. Also Cynwrig giving a lecture on self care is just so fucking messed up it’s amazing.

The episode also pushes forward some of the larger story, too, though mostly it feels like a bridge to get more information about the setting and a better feel of the characters. It does, though, complicate the idea that Niko is super naive. Because in this chapter they are playing things on multiple levels, obfuscating things and making a very good show of being the spy that their father wants them to be. And the mystery of what their true purpose is, and what their father’s secrets are, is still very much at the top of my list of things I want to figure out. It’s a compelling way of building up the narrative, and while it skirts a little close to playing on the duplicitous non-binary cliché, I have faith that Niko is still mostly earnest. At least, I’m not willing to believe because of what has happened that Niko is a villain here, though I love how the episode plays with that idea, because it shows me how much I’m already protective of the character, invested in them and their arc. I want there to be a good reason for this, which means I’m very much looking forward to what happens next. It’s a mostly quite episode, a breather after the frenetic pace of the first one, but there’s still a solid pacing and enough tension to keep everything moving forward. It’s a fantastic episode, and shaping up to be an incredible series.


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