Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Riordan Retrospective: Daughter of the Deep

Welcome once again to my Riordan Retrospective. For those of you just joining the fun, this is my look back at the works of Rick Riordan. That means Percy Jackson, its sequels, and spin-offs. This is less of a formal review and more of a relaxed look back.

Last time, we finished our look back at The Trials of Apollo with a look back at The Tower of Nero. We thought that we’d said goodbye to the worlds of Rick Riordan. Little did we know that a new book was about to surface. As such, we’re taking a look back at Daughter of the Deep.

Ana Dakkar is about to finish her freshman year at Harding-Pencroft Academy. It is a five-year academy specializing in marine science. She, and her nineteen classmates, are about to begin their freshmen trials. Harding-Pencroft holds its students very high standards. However, before they can take off, the school is destroyed by a series of sonic torpedoes. The remaining students and professors of Harding-Pencroft regroup aboard their yacht the Varuna. Ana discovers several major revelations. Jules Verne’s novels 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island were based on actual events. Captain Nemo was indeed a real person, and Ana is his direct descendant. In fact, the whole point of Harding-Pencroft Academy is to safeguard Nemo’s legacy and technology. Their next stop is Lincoln Island, the final resting place of Nemo and the Nautilus. But danger lurks around every corner as the survivors of Harding-Pencroft are hunted by their old rivals: Land Academy.

Well, it looks like we’re back sooner than I expected. I thought we’d be back for that Irish Mythology book Rick said he was planning. However, that seems to have been put on the back-burner. Daughter of the Deep apparently has been a long time coming. Way back in 2009, Disney executives asked Rick what Disney property he would want to write a book based on. It could be anything he wanted. He chose 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as the 1954 film adaptation is one of his favorite movies. Technically, Disney only owns the rights to the movie, not the original book. The original Verne novel has long since slipped into the public domain. I’m tempted to think that Rick was, at least somewhat, trolling the executives.

I actually went back and watched the 1954 movie adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I agree with Rick here. The movie is, I must say, a truly underrated gem among live-action Disney films. In fact, I might even give it its own review at some point. Now, the movie does take some liberties with the source material. Though, personally, I’d say that was to its benefit, as it made for a more engaging story that worked better in film. Verne was known for doing a lot of research with his novels, and often devoted entire paragraphs to explaining the science in detail. Unfortunately, this does make for a rather dry reading experience. I’ve heard Verne works better in the original French, but that is a language I do not speak. Amusingly, students at Harding-Pencroft are required to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. Ana found them both to be a bit dry for her taste. I myself enjoyed The Mysterious Island slightly more than 20,000 Leagues, but it still suffered from many of the same issues.

I’ve heard a few people wonder what it might be like if Rick Riordan were to write a science fiction novel. Well, we now have our answer. We know more about the surface of the Moon than we do our own deep oceans. Twelve people have walked on the surface of the Moon, but only two have ever been to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Ocean-based science fiction is still comparatively rare compared to space-based or terrestrial-based science fiction. So, I’m glad to see that Daughter of the Deep tapped into some of the vast potential of ocean-based science fiction.

Now, I should probably clarify that Daughter of the Deep is set outside of the Riordanverse. Rick has confirmed that it takes place in its own self-contained world. So, don’t expect to see any cameos from Percy, Annabeth, or any other Riordanverse characters. Still, it is similar enough in terms of style to a typical Riordanverse novel, and thus, I’ve chosen to include it as part of the retrospective.

Speaking of style, let’s begin there. Rick has said he took a film writing course before he wrote Daughter of the Deep. That is very apparent in how the prose itself is written. It reads very much like a movie script. The narration is presented in first-person present tense. This helps add to the sense of action and urgency as the plot movies along. The pacing also feels very much like what you might find in a movie. We got a lot of action scenes in quick succession. We get the usual info dumps, but we don’t really take as much time for introspection. As we’ll discuss a bit later, this lack of introspection was very much to the book’s detriment. I’m willing to bet that all this is very much by design. Daughter of the Deep is being adapted into a movie on Disney+. In fact, the movie was announced even before the book came out. So, it certainly feels like Rick wrote Daughter of the Deep with an eye towards the movie adaption.

I would have liked if we had gotten to explore Harding-Pencroft Academy a bit more before it got destroyed. What brief glimpses we do see are utterly fascinating. The students are all decided into four different houses based on their area of study. Yeah, they’ve heard all the Harry Potter jokes plenty of times. Though, personally, when I saw the initials HP in an ocean-themed book, I briefly wondered if Rick Riordan was going to tackle the Lovecraft Mythos. Back on topic, the houses are Dolphin, Shark, Cephalopod, and Orca. Dolphin focuses on communications, exploration, cryptography, and counterintelligence. Shark handles command, combat, weapons systems, logistics. Cephalopod deals with engineering, applied mechanics, innovation, and defensive systems. Orca is all about medicine, psychology, education, marine biology, and communal memory. If you’re wondering about that last one, it basically means the history of Harding-Pencroft and Captain Nemo.

One of the things I appreciated was that each of the four main characters is from a different house. One of my gripes about Harry Potter is that pretty much all the important characters come from Gryffindor. Well, unless they’re a villain, and come from Slytherin. Ravenclaw had Luna and Cho, I guess, but Hufflepuff got the short end of the stick for sure. Getting back on track, having the four main protagonists of Daughter of the Deep be from different houses provided a theme that everyone has something unique to bring to the table. You can also see it as advocating for multiculturalism, but without being preachy about it. 

 However, I do have on criticism. House Orca needed a better name. Orcas are a type of dolphin, the largest, in fact. We’ve got representatives for mammals, fish, and mollusks. How’s about giving some love to the reptiles? Personally, I would have named them House Sea Turtle instead. Or failing that, show some love to the echinoderms, and name them House Seastar. House Sea Cucumber would also work. Don’t give me that look! Sea cucumbers are noble animals and wonders of nature.

I do wish that we’d gotten to see more of Harding-Pencroft before it was destroyed. What brief glimpses we do get are utterly fascinating. As you might expect, they have quite an expansive aquarium full marine creatures. Upperclassmen train in submarine simulations using full-size mock-up submarines submerged in deep pools. However, the most fascinating class is one where students get to consider, and theorize, about the ways technology and science might have developed had history gone differently. As a major fan of alternate history I have but one thing to say: sign me up now! Well, its actually there as a way to slowly ease the students into learning the truth about Captain Nemo and his inventions. Still, sounds like a very fun class to take. I also liked how the various sections of the school are named after famous ocean explorers. There’s one part named after the Chinese navigator Zheng He, and one named after the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.

I thought all of the diving scenes were particularly well-written. Rick Riordan has a true passion for scuba diving. This really shines through during the diving scenes. I also really like how the diving suits all use jet-propulsion that mimics the siphons of cephalopods. That was a really creative touch. 

Also, for those wondering, Land Academy was named after Ned Land. He founded it, along with Professor Aronnax, in hopes to keeping the world safe from Nemo. Aronnax and Land viewed Nemo as a madman. I assume Aronnax was the brains behind that one. Ned Land was good natured, but not terribly bright. 

Okay, let’s talk about the characters. Ana is the protagonist, but I want to save her for last. We’ll start with her roommates, and best friends, Nelinha and Ester. Nelinha da Silva grew up in an orphanage in Rio de Janeiro, but got to attend Harding-Pencroft on a scholarship. She’s also the closest the series gets to referencing Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I can best describe Nelinha as what would happen if Charles Beckendorf and Silena Beauregard were to have a kid. And, you know, if they were still alive. She’s a complete mechanical genius, and geeks out over machines and engine parts. She’s a member of House Cephalopod, naturally. However, she is also obsessed with fashion, and always makes sure to look her best at all times. Nelinha doesn’t just pack outfits, she packs entire wardrobes.

One of my prior complaints about Rick Riordan is that he only seems to know how to write one type of female character. Namely, he seems to believe that being a strong female character means being a tomboy who hates all things girly. So, it was nice to see Nelinha as a course correction on that front. Nelinha being from Brazil is likely a nod to how popular Rick Riordan’s books are in Brazil. So, I’m sure Brazilian fans were excited to finally get a Brazilian main character.

On the flipside, we also get Ester Harding. She’s a member of House Orca. She is a blood relative of one of the founders of Harding-Pencroft. She is also the first autistic character in a Rick Riordan book. I’m still bitter about how he wrote a Muslims character before he wrote an autistic character. In the Riordanverse, anyone can be a demigod, unless you’re autistic, it would seem. I had high hopes for Ester. You don’t see autistic girls too often in the media. Riordan has said that he got sensitivity readers to help him with writing characters from different cultural backgrounds. However, it would seem none of them offered insight into autistic people. It almost feels like Riordan watched a couple episodes of The Good Doctor and was like “I got this!” You know those TikTok clips of that guy having a temper tantrum while shouting “I am a surgeon!” Yeah, that’s The Good Doctor. It was another show I had high hopes for, but fell back on stereotyping autistic people. Don’t get me started on my problems with The Good Doctor, we’ll be here all day.

Anyway, Ester displays a number of stereotypical traits. She yo-yos between being basically non-verbal, and shouting at the top of her lungs. She does this all in a robotic monotone voice. In contrast to Nelinha, Ester has basically no fashion sense, and seems to be going for the long-lost daughter of Albert Einstein look. Ester also doesn’t have much in the way of common sense, and though it never comes up, she’s probably Jewish. Not too many gentiles name Ester. She’s got an excellent memory, to the point of being almost eidetic, but that’s somewhat accurate. Well, maybe not eidetic, but most autistic people do often have amazing memories. How do you think I’m about to write these retrospectives?

Ana briefly remarks about how some people claim that autistic people can’t feel love or other emotions, and that Ester proves this isn’t true, due to how empathetic she is. Again, this is true, as autistic people can be quite empathetic. Though, I can’t help but wonder if Disney specially made Rick insert that line to cover their asses. See, this isn’t the first time Disney has tackled autism. There was an episode of Girl Meets World about how we should all be nice to autistic people. All well and good, but they also claim that autistic people are incapable of experiencing emotions, including love.

Gemini Twain has been assigned as Ana’s bodyguard. He’s a no-nonsense member of House Shark. He’s also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints. This is certainly an interesting choice, as Gemini is also Black. Historically, Mormons haven’t exactly gotten along well with Black people. Or Native Americans, or Polynesians, or…well, pretty much anybody who isn’t White. The most infamous instance was when Mormon schools refused to desegregate. The American government threatened to revoke their tax exemption status, but wouldn’t you know it, Mormon God rather conveniently changed his mind about Black people. Though, Gemini’s faith doesn’t really come up that much. He doesn’t like swearing or taking the lord’s name in vein, and he mentions his grandma raised him and his brother in the LDS church, but that’s about it. Well, he did get into a minor scuffle with Nelinha. Gemini’s brother went on his mission trip to Brazil, and Gemini assumed Nelinha would know his brother, because she’s from Brazil.

Well, nice touch having one of the non-White characters be flawed enough to be accidentally racist. I remember back in The Hammer of Thor retrospective when I said, paraphrased, “A Muslim demigod? What’s next, a Mormon demigod?” I have on occasion wondered if Rick Riordan reads these retrospectives. Probably a long shot, but you never know.

Technically, there is a fifth main character: the Nautilus itself. It took until about halfway through the book before the Nautilus showed up. Yeah, this book has some pacing issues. The Nautilus has what can best be described as an artificial intelligence system. Also, apparently it also includes some organic components. As you might imagine, it is extremely untrustworthy of anyone who isn’t a blood relative of Prince Dakkar, aka Captain Nemo. So, Ana’s biometrics are key to unlocking the Nautilus.

Unfortunately, the Nautilus also highlights one of the issues I had with the book. Apparently, every major invention of the 20th Century was a result of Harding-Pencroft discreetly releasing them to the public. That, or Land Institute stealing them. This caused Daughter of the Deep to evoke the Great Man Theory of History. The theory goes that society gets stuck in ruts until a great man, and it’s always a man, shakes up the status quo and moves the world forward. This view has largely fallen out of favor with mainstream historians. Most historians emphasis how the changes were put into motion, often by complex chains of influences, long before the supposedly great men came about. 

You do kind of get this with the main Riordanverse, where pretty much anyone who did anything was either a demigod or a magician. However, that was softened by just how many demigods and magicians there were throughout history. So, it felt more like a team-effort. By contrast, Daughter of the Deep gave us a single scientific übermensch who, apparently, leapfrogged from steam-power to cold fusion reactors. Now, granted, this is also true of Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Still, maybe Rick shouldn’t have depicted Nemo in such a lock, stock, and barrel sort of way.

And that segues into my next point. Harding-Pencroft is deathly afraid of letting the general public get access to Nemo’s technology. They only release technology sparingly, and only when they feel humanity has earned it. Uh, and what metric do they use to determine how worthy humanity is? Beats me, the book offers no details. The adults all make a big deal about how corporations would try to monopolize Nemo’s technology, but nobody ever suggests releasing it as open-source tech. Well, I know the real reason for that. There’s no way that Disney, the poster boy for copyright abuse, is going to be advocating for open-source. A particularly facepalm worthy moment is that fact that Harding-Pencroft refuses to release cold fusion technology…despite climate change being a serious issue! The book would have you believe Harding-Pencroft are the good guys. However, I’m tempted to think Land Institute had a point about Harding-Pencroft being corrupt and selfish.

Hey, wait a minute. Harding-Pencroft is a secretive organization that is very selective of its membership. It trains its students so that, effectively, they’re cut-off from the outside world. They indoctrinate their students from a young age into their views. They have charismatic leaders and founders. Yikes, I hope the cafeteria never served Kool-Aid! Harding-Pencroft is a cult!

It would seem that Harding-Pencroft has something akin to the Prime Detective from Star Trek. There has been a lot of debate about the morality of the Prime Detective. The main thinking seems to be don’t give advanced weaponry to civilizations that aren’t morally mature. The Original Series also says that it is okay to break the Prime Directive if a planet is in imminent danger. Contrast this with Next Generation, where one episode has Captain Picard dithering about if he should save a planet, even if it break the Prime Directive. Of course, the worst offender was Voyager. It had an episode where the moral was, basically, don’t save a baby trapped in a burning car, or else the baby will grow-up to be Hitler. Yeah, the Prime Directive kind of devolved into an immoral religious dogma as Star Trek went on.

Point is, Harding-Pencroft’s Prime Directive seems to lean towards that of the later Star Trek entries. Apparently, screw the planet, we need to keep the tech away from corporations! The irony of Disney railing against corporations is so thick you can practically cut it with a machete. Also, if the concern is that the corporations would hoard stuff like the cure for cancer, well, how’s that any different than what Harding-Pencroft is doing?

Much is made about how Ana must choose to reconcile both the good and the bad of Nemo’s legacy. However, nothing really comes of this. We don’t see her seriously debate or challenge Harding-Pencroft and Land Institute’s views of Nemo. In fact, she gets indoctrinated into Harding-Pencroft’s views pretty quickly. It would have been a great opportunity to show Nemo’s complexity, not just tell us about it. How many innocent lives did he take in his quest for vengeance? Should he have shared his technology with the oppressed peoples chafing under the yoke of colonialism? Is it possible that Land Institute has some valid points, and that Harding-Pencroft has lost its way? All excellent questions that sadly go unanswered.

As for why that is, it ties into the biggest problem I have with Daughter of the Deep. Overall, it feels like merely the novelization of the yet to be produced movie. I was hoping that the novel would be able to stand on its own merits. However, Riordan clearly wrote it so that the adoption process would be streamlined. Debating ethics might not translate to film. Though, it could work in the hands of a competent scriptwriter.

I feel this streamlining was ultimately to the novel’s determent. I certainly didn’t hate Daughter of the Deep. It had plenty of the action and adventure you’d expect from a Rick Riordan novel. However, for every thing I liked, there was almost always something else I didn’t like. It is ironic that Rick claims he spent years working on Daughter of the Deep. It overall feels like it was yanked out of the oven before it had a chance to bake properly. Then again, he also claims to have gotten the idea for Magnus Chase before he wrote Percy Jackson, and look how that turned out.

The audiobook is narrated by Soneela Nankani. She’s the narrator for the Aru Shah audiobooks. Personally, I wasn’t too thrilled when I saw that Soneela would be narrating. However, she gave a fairly decent performance. She voiced Ester in a rather stereotypical way, like she was imitating Sean from The Good Doctor, but that was the only true sour note. Speaking of music, the audiobook is filled with music. There’s lots of musical cues throughout the audiobook. Scenes of wonder and whimsy have inspirational music, action scenes have exciting music. There’s a scene where Ana plays a pipe organ aboard the Nautilus, and we actually get to hear it. I thought that was a really nice touch.

Now, let’s analyze the cover. This is a nice looking cover. The undersea landscape is bright and vibrant. We see Ana and Gemini in their divining suits. Their faces are clear and unobscured. The Rick Riordan Presents books goes with this approach as well. Something about it being important for minority kids to see themselves clearly represented on book covers. We also see the Nautilus in the background, along with a giant octopus.

So, Daughter of the Deep has a lot of potential, and I certainly wouldn’t mind a sequel. However, there’s a lot of room for improvement. It needed to stand on its own merits, not just be the dry run for the movie script. Still, it's lightyears better than our next port of call. Next time, we’re tackling The Sun and The Star. The claws are coming out, and I’m prepared to fully eviscerate Mark Oshiro’s glorified self-insert fanfic.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Friday, May 12, 2023

The Audio File: Human B-Gon

My policy for reviewing serialized audio dramas is that I require at least one complete season before I commit to a review. Well, today we’re taking a look at a show that asked me to review them a while back. They have now finally met that requirement. I won't waste any more time, let’s get into it. We’re taking a look at Human B-Gon.

Human B-Gon is a science fiction comedy set in a post-apocalyptic future. Well, post-apocalyptic future if you’re a human. Robots declared war on humanity, and the robots won. The robots have reshaped the world in their image. Though, that image really isn’t all that different from when humans were running the show. Humans lurk in the shadows and crevices of this brave new mechanical world. Naturally, the robots consider them quite the nuisance. Fortunately, for the more Hominid Rights minded robots, there’s one team who are always on-call: Human B-Gon! They are a trio of robots who specialize in the ethical relocation of humans. Well, on paper anyway. In reality, our trio of heroes are complete morons who barely know what they’re doing. Still, they’re going to try their level best. After all, they’re the finest ethical human relocation service in the greater Droidston, Nanotoba area. Then again, they’re also the only one. But hey, that’s something, right?

I’d interacted with Human B-Gon on various social media platforms; Reddit, Facebook, Twitter. They’ve been supportive of my work with these reviews, and with my own endeavors to create audio drama. Naturally, they ask if I’d review the show. They now fit my minimum requirements, so here we are now. Human B-Gon is created by Drew Frohmann. 

Human B-Gon is a member of the Fable & Folly network. Time for an audio drama roll call! The other members of Fable & Folly include, but aren’t limited to, Spaceships, Alba Salix, We Fix Space Junk, Harlem Queen, The Carlötta Beautox Chronicles, and Who is Cam Candor.

Human B-Gon is presented in the form of a fictional television series. It reminds me a bit of the sort of shows you tend to see these days on Discovery Channel and History Channel. The sort of shows they air now that they’ve both, mostly, given up on educational documentaries. In fairness, much as I rag on Discovery and History of that, there have been a few diamonds in the rough. Pawn Stars actually does a pretty good job teaching people about history, and I do love those crazy dudes. And I also admit that I used to watch Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe fairly frequently.

I was particularly reminded of Billy the Exterminator. It was a show on Discovery Channel about, well, an exterminator named Billy. Fun fact, Billy is from Bossier. It is the city directly across the Red River from Shreveport, where I live. Shreveport and Bossier are collectively counted as a single metro area, but Shreveport is the bigger of the two. I’m not sure if Billy the Exterminator was a direct influence on Human B-Gon, or if it was just coincidence.

Anyway, getting back on topic, Human B-Gon really captures the feeling of those sort of shows. Albeit, with a fair bit of farcical exaggeration. We’ve got a cast of three wacky characters taking us on a tour of their day-to-day lives in a somewhat unusual, by robot standards, line of work. It is mentioned that the robots speak their own language, which is rendered as English for our convenience. Human languages, by contrast, are depicted as a series of high-pitched hooting and chittering.

There are also several ads for various in-universe services and products. They’re included alongside out-of-universe ads, and at times, I can’t tell which is which. That’s some very good ad integration. The in-universe ads offer things such as a service that will remove your personality circuits. That way, you don’t have to feel any of those negative and dissatisfied feelings, and can get back to work as a newly mindless drone. Your productivity is sure to skyrocket! Or how about a tasty burger made from radioactive materials? Robots can’t get enough of those radiative burgers, and there’s so many options to choose from.

The world of Human B-Gon really isn’t too different from our own, just with robots running the show. There’s plenty of robot puns to be found. For example, our heroes live in Scanada. Specifically in the province of Nanotoba. Okay, Scanada is Canada, and Nanotoba is Manitoba. What would Droidston be? Canadians, help me out with this one. Well, anyway, we also meet famous robot celebrities, such as 8-Blanchett, 3-Anu Reeves, and 9-an Reynolds. We also meet a robot named Buggy Eddie, who is probably a nod to Crazy Eddie, which is apparently an electronics chain. I assumed it was a reference to Honest Ed’s, a famous discount store from Toronto. I freely admit that I only know about that one because of Scott Pilgrim. In contrast to all of this, based on the brief descriptions we get, the robots aren’t even remotely anthropomorphic. I suppose this makes sense, given that most robots view humans as little more than vermin.

So, let’s talk about the main characters. Kit is the owner of Human B-Gon. He inherited the company from his father, and his greatest desire is to make his father proud. Kit has a generally sunny and chipper disposition, though he can be easily flustered. He’s also very enthusiastic about helping peacefully relocate humans. He’s enthusiastic, but he’s an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In fairness, his partners aren’t much better. There’s plenty of information available about human behavior, dietary habits, and other important human things. However, Kit can’t be bothered to look any of that up. After all, who should we trust more? Well qualified and certified experts, or a schlub like Kit? Kit is played by Paul JP.

Hundo is Kit’s second-in-command, and primary love interest. In contrast to Kit, she’s very brash, bold, and assertive. Though, this is partially a conscious act on Hundo’s part. She’s trying to present herself as a serious rapper. However, rapping isn’t the first time Hundo was involved in music. When she was younger, she used to be known as Robecca Black, and recorded a song called “Pi Day.” This made her an overnight laughing stock on the Robot Internet. “Pi Day” is treated as so bad that it is painful for humans to listen to, but I thought it was kind of catchy. Of course, I don’t know what it sounds like in the original robot language. Hundo likes to think of herself as more on the ball than Kit, but she’s often just as scatterbrained as he is. Hundo is played by Kat Letwin 

Rounding out the main trio is Influx. He’s a level twelve intelligence, and thinks of himself as far smarter than Kit, Hundo, and basically all other robots. Influx is incredibly arrogant and condescending. He’s also a paranoid conspiracy theorist who believes that the world is ruled by a secret cabal known as the Algorithminati. In fact, for all of his delusions of genius, Influx isn’t much better than Kit and Hundo. It probably doesn’t help that he likes to indulge in magnets, which are basically the robot equivalent of marijuana and LSD. The effect seems to depend on how strong the magnets are. Influx also serves as the primary transport for Human B-Gon. As in, he’s like a Transformer, and can turn himself into pretty much any vehicle. Influx is played by Ian Slessor. He’s familiar, but I can’t think where I’ve heard him before. 

Then there’s Poo-Poo. He is Kit’s long suffering pet human. Hardly an episode goes by without Poo-Poo getting set on fire, slammed against a wall, stabbed like a pincushion, or otherwise brutalized. It also doesn’t help that Kit insists on feeding Poo-Poo “foods” such as wire insulation, silicone gel, and metal ball bearings. Like all humans, Poo-Poo’s speech is rendered as monkey-like hooting and chittering. Though, we can still tell that he very clearly isn’t happy with the way that Kit tries to take care of him. Influx likes to troll Kit by threatening to drop Poo-Poo off on Garbage Island, where all of the other humans are dropped-off.

Garbage Island is located in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is indeed a real collection of plastic located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is twice the size of Texas, or three times the size of France. Though, there is a bit of artistic license here. In reality, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is primarily made of microplastics. True, some patches are more visible to the naked eye, but certainly not stable enough to build settlements on. Though, since Human B-Gon clearly isn’t going for realism, I’ll let that one slide.

The way Poo-Poo is treat is clearly played for laughs. That being said, at times it felt a tad uncomfortable. I was reminded a bit too much of the short story “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi. It is set on a far future Earth that is completely polluted and environmentally damaged beyond repair. Humans genetically modified themselves into cyborgs that are barely organic anymore. In doing so, removing themselves from the web of life. So, it follows three of these cyborgs who work as guards for a mining company. They find a dog that has survived against all odds, and decide to take care of it. A big theme is about how the cyborgs just can’t comprehend how delicate, fragile, and ill-suited for the polluted world that the dog is. And the cyborgs are two guys and a girl, and the guy and girl are in a relationship…hmm, I wonder if “The People of Sand and Slag” was an influence on Human B-Gon?

Well, anyway, it is an excellent short story, but very brutal at times. Doubly so if you have a beloved pet dog, like I do. So, when I listen to all the shit Poo-Poo gets put through, I think of the poor dog from “The People of Sand and Slag.” But I concede this is really more of a me thing.

Human B-Gon is fairly episodic, but there are plot threads that run throughout the episode. For example, Kit’s continuing struggles to keep the business floating. I’ll briefly mention some of my favorite episodes. I liked the episode where Human B-Gon has to unexpectedly clear out a former human mall on Sunday. Influx uses Sundays as his fun day, and by fun day, I mean he gets high on magnets. So, he shows up to work high as a kite. At one point, he hallucinates that he can hear humans talking. And they tell him…that he is the smartest robot in the world, and they will be his loyal servant to help him take over the world.

Another fun episode was where the Human B-Gon crew have to clear out humans from a quantum reactor facility. This leads to some fun quantum shenanigans. We hear two versions of the characters talking. At first, they say totally opposite things, then they say the same thing, but phrased differently. The number of humans also fluctuates, due to quantum uncertainty. The episode where Influx builds an assistant robot named ADM, and he proves to be way better at everything than the rest of Human B-Gon, was pretty fun too.

I won’t give away the season finale. However, I will say that it sets up some very exciting possibilities for season two. And I certainly can’t wait to see what comes next for Human B-Gon.

So, there you have it. Human B-Gon is a science fiction comedy about three idiot robots trying, and often failing, to peacefully relocate verminous humans. It takes the form of a fictional television series, and has a lot of fun with the format. Season one is a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to see what season two brings to us.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Flag of Buddhist India

This is the flag of Buddhist India. It comes from a world where Buddhism remained the dominate religion of India. It began during the reign of Ashoka the Great. As in our world, Ashoka converted to Buddhism after spending much of his life as a warlord who united much of India. Unlike our world, however, Ashoka formalized the relationship between the Sangha and the secular government. Ashoka’s system can be thought of as similar to the role the Catholic Church played in Medieval Europe in our world. Buddhist monasteries received funding via taxes, and the monks often involved themselves in the affairs of the state.

Another result of Ashoka’s reforms was that the Maurya Empire lasted several centuries longer than it did in our world. The empire covered almost all of the Indian Subcontinent, and its continued existence lead to a sense of Pan-Indian identity. In fact, the Maurya Empire would come to hold the same cultural significance in India as the Roman Empire does in the West, and the Han Dynasty does in China. All future Indian empires would, to varying degrees, attempt to emulate the glories of the Maurya Empire.

The changes resulting from Ashoka’s reforms ultimately meant that Vedantic Hinduism never came to be. However, life for the average Indian didn’t really change all that much under Buddhism. Most people continued to worship the same local gods they always had. The old traditions mixed freely with the new. For example, you might go to the Buddhist temple to pray for enlightenment and contemplate philosophy. However, if your child got sick, you would pray to whoever the local healer deity happened to be. The caste system never came to be, but there was a still a strict social hierarchy within Indian society.

In time, several Buddhist monks began to study the natural world, and developed natural philosophy of a sort. This led to several discoveries and innovation, the most significant of which was the discovery of gunpowder. India went on several campaigns of expansion. Several of these were nominally to spread Buddhism, but in practice, were really about expanding India’s political and cultural power. India conquered Persia, and even managed to push as far west as Egypt and the Levant. However, holding these lands proved harder. The empire shrank to only the Indian Subcontinent in a little over 100 years. However, this brief period of expansion did lead to Buddhism spreading further. Iran follows a combination of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, and Central Asia is majority Buddhist. Southeast Asia is also majority Buddhist. It also helps that Islam was never found in this world.

Buddhist remain a significant minority in the Near East. Unfortunately, there have also been numerous conflicts between Buddhists and Christians in these lands. Buddhism never made major in-roads in Europe, barring a few minor communities in the Balkans. There were some Buddhist communities in Spain and Southern France, but they were whipped-out by Christian forces. Unlike our world, most Westerners do not stereotype Buddhists as being pacifists. In fact, due to a misunderstanding about Buddhist belief in reincarnation, many Christians stereotyped Buddhists as being violent, and having an incredibly cavalier attitude towards human life. However, during this world’s equivalent of the Enlightenment, several European scholars began to re-examine and reevaluate Buddhism. Though, they also often viewed it through a heavily Orientalist lens.

The flag is orange and maroon in reference to the colors of Buddhist monk robes. The white is to offset the orange and maroon. The Wheel of Samsara, also known as the Wheel of Rebirth, is displayed prominently in the center of the flag.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Flag of the Commonwealth of New England

This is the flag of the Commonwealth of New England. It comes from a world where the Huron won the Huron-Iroquois War of 1648-1650. This resulted in the complete destruction of the Iroquois Confederacy. Some Iroquois were absorbed into other tribes, including the Huron themselves. The Huron’s victory meant that their vast trading network was never disrupted. This meant that Europeans weapons were able to make their way towards the interior tribes of North America. This made Native American tribes better able to resist European colonialism. New England remained involved in the fur trade longer than it did in our world. Meanwhile, the Huron largely cut France out of the fur trade. 

Another result of all this was that King Philip's War never happened. There were still armed conflicts between the English colonists and Native Americans, but they were part of the larger English-French rivalry. New England never got drained economically by King Philip's War and remained financially self-sufficient. Before long, many in New England began to question if they needed to remain part of England. The Commonwealth of New England formally declared its independence in the early 1700s. It initially included the New England Colonies plus New York and New Jersey, but later expanded to include Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. The Middle Colonies faced competition and raids from tribes allied with the Hurons.

By the present day, North America is a patchwork of nations. There are several Native American tribes who were able to maintain their independence and carve out nationstates. Canada has remained largely French, while to the south, the Republic of Grand Florida also includes what would have been the Carolinas. Towards the west lies the nation of Caddo, a result of English and French settlement in Texas.

The New England government takes inspiration from the Roman Republic. It is a bicameral legislature composed of a People’s Council and a Senate. The Council is directly voted on by citizens of New England, and serves as the lower house. The citizens also elect the two praetors, who serve as the co-heads of the executive branch. The Senate is the upper house, and is composed of experts in various fields, as well as former governors and praetors. Praetors serve a single term of six years, while members of the Senate serve for life. Elections for the Council happen every four years. All political parties receive proportional representation within the Council. Praetors are not required to share the same political party. In fact, many people feel it is better when they don’t, as they will keep each other in check.

New England isn’t a major world power like the United States in our world. It is more comparable to Japan or the United Kingdom of our world in terms of international influence. However, New England is quite wealthy, and quite involved in international trade and commerce.

This is reflected in the design of the flag. A golden New England clipper ship is proudly emblazoned in the center of the flag. The green references the forests of New England, and the white recalls snowy New England winters.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Flag of the Neo-Hanseatic Republic of Welserland

This is the flag of the Neo-Hanseatic Republic of Welserland. It comes from a world where German settlers established a colony on the northern coast of Venezuela. The initial agreement was that the German settlers would help settle the interior of Venezuela, and produce goods and resources. Settlement would, in theory, be administered by all the kingdoms of Germany. It was hoped that the colony would help give rise to a new Hanseatic League. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass. However, people from all different parts of Germany began to flood into the colony. This gave the colony a very eclectic flavor. It was named Welserland as a reference to Klein-Venedig, the previous attempt by Germany to colonize Venezuela.

The interior mountains have a temperate climate, and allow for the production of crops such as crops such as peaches, strawberries, cabbage, carrots, beets, cauliflower, and lettuce. In fact, the interior mountains wouldn’t be out of place in Bavaria. The coastal regions have a more tropical climate, and allow for the production of crops such as bananas, mangos, oranges, and coffee. Coffee production formed the backbone of Welserland’s economy during its early days. On paper, Welserland was considered part of Venezuela, and merely leased to the kingdoms of Germany. As time went on, however, the Germans exerted greater control over Welserland. Venezuela made various attempts to get Germany to back down, but these never amounted to much. This came to a head following the unification of Germany in 1871. Germany formally purchased Welserland from Venezuela to establish a foothold in the Caribbean and South America.

Welserland enjoyed several decades as a province of the German Empire. Then the First World War broke out. Welserland found itself in the crosshairs of Britain and France’s Caribbean colonies. As the war dragged on, and the odds of a German victory diminished, many in Welserland began to worry about their future. It was decided that independence would be the best course of action. Welserland officially declare independence from Germany in 1917. Welserland added the titled Neo-Hanseatic to its name in reference to its roots as an attempt to revive the Hanseatic League. Welserland survived by playing Britain and France off of each other. It also courted a powerful new ally in the form of the United States. The United States helped ensure that Venezuela didn’t attempt to re-annex Welserland.

Against all odds, Welserland has managed to survive to the present day. It has become a popular destination for German tourists, but they are far from the microstate’s only visitors. Tourists from around the world come to visit the little slice of Germany on the coast of South America. Tourism makes up a big part of Welserland’s economy, and it is also home to many casinos and resorts. It is generally agreed that, of all the nations in the Western Hemisphere, Welserland makes the best beer. In fact, several Welserland breweries have won major awards for their beers. In the past, money laundering, offshore banking, and the illegal drugs trade also formed major contributions to Welserland’s economy. However, they have put all of that behind them…for the most part.

The flag includes the traditional German colors of black, red, and gold. A Lutheran Rose Seal sits in the middle of a St. Andrew’s Cross. Lutherans are the largest religious group in Welserland, but Catholics form a sizable minority. Welserland also has decent-sized communities of Orthodox Christians and Jews.

The flag has caused some controversy with American tourists, due to its superficial similarity to the Confederate Battle Flag. Welserlanders find this rather annoying. They are frequently quick to remind Americans that Welserland sent non-combative volunteer regiments to help fight against Nazi Germany during World War II. Welserland also welcomed Jewish refugees with open-arms during World War II. In fact, most of Welserland’s Jewish community is descended from these refugees.

Some Catholic and secular-minded Welserlanders dislike the inclusion of the Lutheran seal on the flag, and have been known to cut it out. Of course, this also leads to the flag looking even more like the Confederate Battle Flag, so many support keeping it, if only so the American tourists will shut up.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The Alt-Hist File: Cthulhu in the Deep South by Kirk Battle

The world of audio fiction podcasts has gone through many changes over the years. The mid-2000s brought us short story podcasts such as Escape Pod, The Drabblecast, and Lightspeed Magazine. By the 2010s, the audio drama boom was in full swing, and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Earlier than either, however, were podiobooks. Podiobooks, as their name suggests, were serialized audiobooks made available as podcasts. Podiobooks aren’t as common these days, but you do see some new ones pop up from time to time. Such is the case with the podiobooks we’ll be reviewing today. We’re taking a look at Cthulhu in the Deep South by Kirk Battle.

Cthulhu in the Deep South is a series of books set in South Carolina between the 1830s and 1860s. Usually, the action is set in or around Charleston, but two mysterious islands, named Ryland and Carcosa, also play a major role in the plot. Another common thread is people from New England, more specifically Arkham, finding themselves in South Carolina. But above all, the core of the series is the way that the creatures of H.P. Lovecraft combine with real world historical events to produce some fine historical horror.

Okay, so I think I ought to be upfront about a few things before we move forward. Many of you come here for my audio drama reviews. However, Cthulhu in the Deep South is a podiobook. It is like a standard audiobook; no bells and whistles beyond that. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so I’m good with that. But I know some people feel differently, some I’m giving you all the info upfront. If that sounds good to you, let’s press on. I should also note that all six books of Cthulhu in the Deep South are also available as eBooks

I was approached by Kirk Battle to review Cthulhu in the Deep South after he saw my review of Modes of Thought in Anterran Literature. Each season of Cthulhu in the Deep South is a book in the series. I’ll give general thoughts and remarks before we get into each individual book. I liked the way that Kirk Battle incorporates actual history into the story. Kirk includes a bonus episode at the end of each season. In the bonus episodes, he explains his thought process when crafting each book. Naturally, he talks about which works of H.P. Lovecraft he draws upon. However, he also talks about which primary historical sources he uses. He will also spends quite a bit of time discussing what those primary sources are, and what they’re about. As someone with a history degree, I very much appreciate all of this.

Okay, so let’s get into the individual stories. Book one begins in the 1830s. It follows a man from Arkham, Massachusetts. He was part of an ice harvesting crew. The crew have collected their ice from the Arctic, and now they’re bound for balmy South Carolina to sell the ice. However, strange things begin to happen. Our protagonist begins to wonder if, perhaps, the crew has brought more than just ice with them. Things get even stranger when our protagonist finds himself on a pair of twin islands, located just off the South Carolina coast, called Ryland and Carcosa. They are a strange otherworldly place where White planters seem to take orders from their own slaves. There is something strange about the people of Ryland and Carcosa. Almost as if they aren’t exactly human.

Okay, so Cthulhu in the Deep South starts out strong. Out of all the books in the series, this is the one that comes closest to mimicking Lovecraft’s writing style, and the general feel of a Lovecraft story. I don’t mean that as a slight against the other books in the series. Kirk Battle has stated that he wanted each of the books to have their own style, and to play into other genres. Overall, I would say he succeeded in that goal. But all of that is to say that the genre for the first book is straight Lovecraft.

That being said, and as previously noted, Kirk Battle also included quite a bit of historical research into this one. One detail is that a lot of the crew of the ice harvester are Black. A lot of free Blacks did indeed find work on sailing ships. Quite a few whaling ships had predominantly Black crews. I also liked the details the bonus episode gave about the history of ice selling. I’m alway fascinated how people were able to preserve ice in the days before refrigeration. Apparently, ice water wasn’t then instant hit you might think it would be. A lot of people didn’t like that it made their teeth hurt, and others were worried that ice water would be dirty. To be fair, that latter concern probably wasn’t totally unfounded. Not that room temperature water was much better, mind you. Still, ice salesmen often had to pay people to give ice water a try, and to sing its praises. A little underhanded, perhaps, be it certainly bore fruit in the long run.

Book one poses a question that crops up a lot throughout Cthulhu in the Deep South. That question is this: at what point is turning a blind eye towards something horrible the same as being complacent in it? Our protagonist comes from an abolitionist family, and considers himself on as well. However, he clearly holds deeply racist views of Blacks. True, he doesn’t own any slaves himself. However, he doesn’t really do much to oppose slavery, beyond some hollow words. This is, sadly, not to far removed from actual history. Many abolitionists were opposed to slavery on philosophical grounds. However, this didn’t mean they believed Blacks should be equal to Whites. The number of people who did was comparatively small. Many abolitionists proposed sending Blacks back to Africa. The nation of Liberia was the results of such attempts.

Okay, history is all well and good, but what about the Lovecraft? Book one takes inspiration from “The Shadow Out of Time.” So, unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of Ryland are members of the Great Race of Yith. I always thought that “The Shadow Out of Time” was one of the more underrated stories from the Lovecraft Mythos. I loved the way all of the different authors put their own signature styles into the story. I have also found the Great Race of Yith to be underrated, as far as Lovecraft creatures. It is mentioned briefly, but our protagonist attended Miskatonic University, which frequently pops-up in the works of Lovecraft.

There were a few minor anachronisms. For example, at one point, one of the Yith makes reference to dinosaurs and genetics. The term dinosaur didn’t come into common use until 1842, and Gregor Mendel was still a kid in the 1830s. Granted, the Yith are time travelers, but the protagonist should have been tripped up by such terms. Still, just a minor instance that I noticed. Overall, the historical research was extremely well-done.

Cthulhu in the Deep South comes out of the gate with a strong first book. Let’s see if it can mainline that momentum.

Book two takes place in Charleston, South Carolina only a few years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. The protagonist of book two is a woman from New England who married the son of a wealthy plantation owner. Her family has pretty much disowned her, as they are all abolitionists. Still, she was convinced that she can build a happy new life in the Deep South. She assumed that she could reform her husband’s plantation into a kinder gentler place. Oh how very wrong she was. Our heroine finds herself drawn into the casually, and not so casual, cruelty of plantation life. This tears her apart mentally, and it only gets worse when her young son Daniel dies. The protagonist begins to hear voices that sound an awful lot like Daniel. Has he returned from the dead? Our heroine teeters on the edge insanity and mental breakdown as South Caroline, and the South as a who, draws ever closer to secession.

Well, well, it would seem that Cthulhu in the Deep South was able to maintain that momentum quite well indeed. The main Lovecraft influence for this one is the Dreamlands Cycle. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was also a major influence on book two. However, the real horror from this one comes not from eldritch horrors, but from the all too real horrors of history. It is tempting to laugh at the protagonist’s naïvety. When you get down to it, there is no such thing as a truly benevolent slave owner. Slavery wasn’t horrible just because of the physical violence, but also the psychological violence that slaves endured. At any moment, you or your loved ones could be sold completely on a whim, and you’d never see them again. In fact, slave marriages often included the phrase “til death or distance do you part.” Slaves were property, not people, so slave marriages were not legally binding.

I’m reminded of something that Augustine of Hippo once wrote. He wrote about a friend of his who decided to go to a gladiator game. The friend assumed that, as a good Christian man, there was no way he’d get drawn into the violence and bloodshed of the arena. Well, suffice it to say, it didn’t take long for the friend to be jeering loudly for the gladiators to kill each other. The supposedly good Christian man had found himself drawn in by the arena.

It is in book two that we meet the most vile and despicable creature in all of Cthulhu in the Deep South: the heroine’s mother-in-law. Now, you might think I’m joking, but let me assure you that I’m not. On most plantations, it wasn’t the actual owner you had to watch out for. He’d usually be off playing sports, or hunting, or doing other rich people things. Oh, the overseers were certainly nasty, particularly to field slaves. However, it was the lady of the house you really had to watch out for. The wives and mothers of plantation owners were expected to run a tight ship. Many of them often took sadistic glee in the power they lorded over their slaves. They’d often do things like forcing slaves to whistle while they cooked, to ensure they slaves didn’t eat anything. Any slaves who failed to whistle would be hit with a wooden spoon. Kirk Battle drew upon the personal diaries of plantation owner’s wives for his historical research.

Our heroine is frequently tormented by her mother-in-law, who resents her for being a Yankee. Things only get worse when the protagonist’s husband becomes involved with the newly formed government of the Palmetto Republic. That was what South Carolina was called before the other Southern states formed the Confederate States of America. Kirk Battle mentioned that he wanted to tell a story where the protagonist is driven to insanity, per Lovecraft tradition. However, he wanted to depict that insanity as a means of escape and liberation, rather than a terrible fate. I won’t give away the ending, but Kirk certainly achieved that goal. Then again, given how horrible the main heroine’s life is, pretty much anything would be an improvement for her.

Book two of Cthulhu in the Deep South is a worthy follow-up to book one.

Book three takes place during the American Civil War. We follow a young Free Black man from Arkham. He felt the swell of patriotism and decided to enlist in the Union army. However, he soon finds himself facing discrimination from all sides. Many of his commanding officers assume that he’s trying to swindle money out of them. Most of his fellow Black soldiers are former slaves, and he has quite a bit of cultural difference with them. As for the Confederate soldiers he fights against, well, that goes without saying. Our protagonist is assigned to a dangerous mission to the islands of Ryland and Carcosa. It is a mission that will lead him straight into the heart of darkness.

I just didn’t enjoy this one as much as I thought that I would. Don’t get me wrong, book three had its moments, and it did have some interesting historical and literary influences. Still, I just feel like it never quite came together for me.

Let’s take a moment to talk about those influences. The main Lovecraft influence on book three is “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” The big non-Lovecraft influence is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Kirk Battle admits that he’s always had a certain fondness for that novel. Yeah, I guess I can see the influence. Our protagonist goes on a riverboat trip with a man who slowly looses his mind. Some people say that Heart of Darkness is racist. I wouldn’t say that, but I do feel it could have been a bit harsher towards the horrors of the Belgian Congo. On the other hand, it was one of the first novels to speak-out against the horrors of European colonialism in Africa. Ultimately, Heart of Darkness is a product of its time; take a bad with the good.

I did like the historical details. Many freed slaves did indeed join the Union army. Many slaves ran towards the Union army whenever they were nearby. However, many of these former slaves needed to be taught how things were going to work now. Many slaves developed several forms of passive resistance against overseers. They might pretend that they didn’t hear the instructions, or they might do their work as slowly as possible. However, once the slaves joined the Union army, they had to be taught that doing such things was now treason. The Harriet Tubman cameo was also fun. Still it just wasn’t enough to salvage book three for me.

So, unfortunately, book three was a bit of a misfire. Let’s see if Cthulhu in the Deep South can shake it off and recover.

Book four begins in the middle of the American Civil War, and ends not too long after Reconstruction begins. We follow a Christian missionary abolitionist from Arkham. She is heading to South Carolina as part of an effort to help newly freed slaves make better lives for themselves. She finds herself on Ryland and Carcosa, naturally. She becomes acquainted with a conjuring woman named Mam Ruth. Mam Ruth is the leader of the Black community on the isles. Mam Ruth is also privy to the many supernatural happenings on the isles.

Ah, it would seem that Cthulhu in the Deep South recovered quite well. Book four is our first introduction to Mam Ruth. She becomes a very important supporting character from this point forward. Mam Ruth is a root doctor, which were practitioners of folk magic common in Gullah communities. Kirk Battle said he wanted to take a root doctor character, and make her into a wise sorcerer type character, like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. I liked that he drew from Gullah culture for inspiration. The Gullah are a very fascinating people group. They live in the Sea Isles, off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Unlike most other enslaved peoples, the Gullah managed to retain a fair bit of the ancestral African culture. They also have a very distinctive dialect.

Another fun bit of real history is one of the characters who is part of the main character’s group. He’s an anthropologist who is interviewing the newly freed slave about if their traditions have roots in African culture. He is heavily inspired by an actual anthropologist who did pretty much the same thing. This wasn’t necessarily bad in and of itself, but the Black people he interviewed wished that he would talk more about the racism and discrimination they were facing. The main character disparages him, but she’s not as different as she’d like to think. Sure, she is trying to give the former slaves an education, but she goes about it in a very White Man’s Burden kind of way. She tends to put most emphasis on teaching them the Bible, and her primary motivation for teaching them to read is so they can read the Bible.

Of course, later in the book, the protagonist runs into trouble trying to get charities in New England to help the former slaves. Most charities focus on helping Union soldiers and their families. Certainly an admirable cause, but it also highlights a major part of the North’s reaction to the Civil War. 

There are many reasons why Reconstruction failed. I would say the biggest was that the South was granted amnesty way sooner than it should have been. Thanks at lot, Andrew Johnson. Southerners, including several former Confederate generals, were able to fight Reconstruction from within Congress. That Confederate leaders never got hanged for treasons is, in my humble opinion, one of the biggest mistakes in American History.

All of that having been said, the second biggest reason Reconstruction failed was the apathy of Northerners. I would compare Reconstruction to the War in Afghanistan. It was a very controversial military operation, there were numerous calls to pull out, and everything went to hell when the troops actually did pull out. Northerners might have been willing to fight to end slavery, but weren’t necessarily going to invest in the Black community afterwards.

Cthulhu in the Deep South manages to dust itself off and stand proud once again with book four.

Book five is set in 1866. It follows a man from New England who has recently moved to Charleston. He’s a bit of a hustler and a conman, and is always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. He has recently become part of a group of similar-minded men of fortune who are looking to strike it big by finding buried treasure.

I’m just going to be honest, this was probably the weakest book in the whole series. In fairness, Kirk Battle said that book five was where he struggled the most as a writer. He wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a Carpetbagger. Problem is, there aren’t really any primary sources to use. Carpetbagger was a pejorative used by Southerners against Northerners who moved to the South following Reconstruction. The Lost Cause Narrative painted Carpetbaggers as evil swindlers who swindled innocent Southerners. In reality, however, most “Carpetbaggers” were, basically, White Northerners who didn’t totally hate Black people. Same goes for Scalawags, who were viewed as basically like Carpetbaggers, but Southern rather than Northern in origin. Again, most “Scalawags” were simply White Southerners who didn’t totally hate Black people.

There were some fun ideas. I liked how book five drew parallels between the Plat-Eye of Gullah Folklore and the Shoggoth from the Lovecraft Mythos. And there’s a bit towards the end that draws upon “The Thing on the Doorstep” for inspiration. Unfortunately, on the whole, I just couldn’t get into book five. Oh well, maybe book six will improve things.

Book six takes place during the 1870s. We follow a young Black woman who managed to get sent up North to get an education. Unfortunately, the North didn’t prove to be the land of opportunity she was hoping for. So, she moved back to South Carolina to be with her sister. It is a very turbulent time for Charleston. There’s a lot of unrest and race riots. Still, our heroine has managed to land a job as a maid for a wealthy family. They’re very peculiar folks. In fact, at times they almost seem not quite human. Things only get strange when she discovers a mysterious metal box in the attic. The box introduces itself as Mam Ruth.

It has often been joked that the even number Star Trek movies tend to be better than the odd numbered ones. I’m not sure I’d agree with that; the only truly bad Star Trek movie was Final Frontier, though that was the fifth movie. I’m tempted to say that the same pattern holds true with Cthulhu in the Deep South. Book six was a significant improvement over book five.

Kirk Battle said that he wanted to write book six as maid fiction. Think like the parts of Downton Abby that focus on the servants. It is a genre that hasn’t been popular in decades, but I feel that Kirk Battle pulled it off pretty well. He also drew upon the novel Kindred by Octavia Butler. Well, not just in book six. Kindred informed Cthulhu in the Deep South in general. Kindred is a great book, so I’m glad to hear it was an inspiration. In terms of Lovecraftian influences, we’ve got “The Whisperer in Darkness.” The mi-go do appear, and their habit of putting brains into canisters plays a big role in the plot. We also get “The Thing on the Doorstep” once again.

We also get some insight into social dynamics. Our protagonist finds herself competing against another housekeeper named Maeve. Maeve is a recent immigrant from Ireland, and constantly tries to sabotage the protagonist. Maeve particularly resents that the protagonist got the coveted job of house cook, which pays better than being just a maid. Maeve can’t cook to save her life, but still resents loosing the position. Of course, our protagonist can give just as good as she gets. I’m reminded of something Chris Rock once said about how there’s nothing a White man who only has a penny hates more than a Black man who only has a nickel.

Our protagonist is presented with a tantalizing proposition. She could switch bodies with someone from 1968, and escape the horrors of her own time. Of course, to do that, she’d be condemning someone from 1968 to a life in the 1870s. And, as far as she knows, there’s no guarantee that 1968 will necessarily be much better. In fairness, while 1968 was better than Reconstruction, there was still plenty of racism and discrimination. Still, interesting plot to have someone from the past contemplate potentially escaping to a better future.

And with that, we’ve covered all six books that are part of Cthulhu in the Deep South. It is a series that combines Lovecraftian horrors with the real life historical horrors of the 19th Century South. There were a couple misfires along the way, but on the whole, it is an excellent series of novels. Kirk Battle is planning more entries in the series, however, he’s taking a break from Cthulhu in the Deep South. He’s currently working on a purely historical fiction novel set in the Reconstruction era South titled These Hallowed Halls. And yes, it is available both as an eBook and a podiobook. I wish Kirk Battle the best of luck with all his future endeavors. I’m sure they will be excellent.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Alt-Hist File: Brave New Frontiersman

I’ve encountered a lot of very friendly and helpful people within the audio drama community. This has only increased since I have begun work on my own audio drama. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d give back to an audio drama that offered its help to me. And by give back, I mean write a review. We’re taking a look at Brave New Frontiersman

Brave New Frontiersman is set in an alternate version of 18th Century Colonial America. This version of North America is a land filled with magic and mythical creatures. You have creatures from the Old World, such as banshees and trolls, but also creatures from the New World, such as Sasquatch and Raven Mockers. Our hero is simply known as The Frontiersman. He travels across the frontier to aid those in need of help. He is joined by his old fur trapping companion Coyote. Along the way, they pick up a noble named Jame Byron, who has an aptitude for magic. Our three heroes will travel the frontier and encounter many strange creatures and strange magics.

I had known about Brave New Frontiersman for a while. Recently, however, I was contacted by the Brave New Frontiersman Twitter account. They had seen my casting call for my upcoming audio dram The Books of Thoth, and wanted to know if I needed people sent my way. I already cast the roles for the first three episodes, but I’ll certainly keep them in mind for future episodes. I also figured it would be nice if I gave them a review.

Now, normally I prefer an audio drama to have at least one complete season before I write a review. However, given that there tends to be a bit of a gap between episodes of Brave New Frontiersman, I am waving my usual requirement.

I’ve always found America to be a place with a look of potential to be a fantasy setting. I like to think that American folklore and history are just as rich and varied as the lore of any fantasy world. That our landscapes could rival any fantasy geography. I’m always happy to find more American-inspired fantasy. So, big point in Brave New Frontiersmen’s favor. Being set in the 18th Century, and dealing with the frontier, I was immediately reminded of the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper. The most famous book in the series being The Last of the Mohicans.

The frontier has always had a special place in the mythology of America. I’m reminded of when Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition. He asked them to bring back a wooly mammoth, as many people believed that mammoths still roamed the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Well, obviously, they didn’t have much luck finding a live mammoth. However, they did find a fossilized mammoth tusk. Hmm, I wonder if there are mammoths in Brave New Frontiersman. No have appeared so far, but they could always pop-up later.

Point being, frontier has often been mythologized as a land of adventure and discovery. A land completely unknown, well, except for the numerous Indigenous tribes that were already living there. The point I’m trying to make is that Brave New Frontiersman taps into that mythologized notion of the frontier as “here be dragons” territory.

As previously mentioned, Brave New Frontiersman is alternate history. Obviously, there’s the magic and mythical creatures bit, but there’s other aspects as well. One episode begins with the characters reading a newspaper. From this, we learn that the Aztec Empire still fell to Spanish Conquest. However, it did so in the 18th Century, rather than the 16th Century, and rather recently in terms of when the story takes place. We also learn that the Seven Years War, known to Americans as the French and Indian War, lasted twenty years in the world of Brave New Frontiersman. I guess it will be called the Twenty Years War instead. I do wonder what effect that will have on the American Revolution. We’re already getting hints of friction between the colonists and the British. It is mentioned that nobles have an affinity for magic, but what does that mean? Do nobles have a greater aptitude for magic? Or can anyone learn magic with enough time and practice, and nobles are just more likely to have better training? It is repeatedly mentioned that lead cancels out the effects of magic, so an anti-monarchist rebellion could still work.

Another interesting point is the depiction of religion. So far, we’ve only seen Catholic priests. Now, the first time was in a town populated by Irish settlers, so that was understandable. As for the second time, it made me wonder whether the Protestant Reformation still happened in the world of Brave New Frontiersman. Granted, settlements of English Catholics weren’t unheard of. Maryland was founded so that English Catholics would have somewhere to freely practice their religion. Still, this being alternate history, all bets are off.

Now, let’s talk a bit about the voice acting. The first couple episodes were a bit rough at times. It was clear that the Brave New Frontiersman team hadn’t quite found their footing yet, and were still trying to figure out how the characters should sound. However, as the series progresses, the casts gets more of a handle on their characters, and the performances get stronger. I see more improvement with each new episode. I’ve also noticed that sometimes the sound levels will be a tad uneven. Again, this is improving, but it is important to make sure all the dialogue is equalized. That way, it helps create the illusion that everyone is together in the same place. Also, this is a minor point, the characters pronounce New Orleans as New Or-Leans. I’m from Louisiana, as many of you know, and we pronounce it as New Or-Lens. I realize this doesn’t make a lot of sense to people who aren’t from Louisiana. However, pronouncing it as Or-Leans is a goo way to mark yourself as someone who isn’t from Louisiana.

Let’s shift gears and talk about the bestiary. One episode had our heroes facing off against a dullahan, a type of headless horseman from Irish Folklore. It makes for a clever reference to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. In fact, one of the twists in the episodes has its roots in the twist of “Sleepy Hollow.” Very nice use of literary allusions. Another episode see the heroes deal with a Raven Mocker. It is a creature from Cherokee Mythology. They’re shapeshifting spirits who target the dead and dying, and eat their victims’ hearts to extend their own lives. They can only be seen by an experienced medicine man, and usually his presence will be enough to keep them at bay. I always enjoy when I get to learn about a new mythical creature.

There are only six episodes of Brave New Frontiersman out so far. That means there’s still a lot of places for the story to go. Obviously, I’m very interested in the alternate history aspects of the setting. I’m also hoping that we’ll get to meet some Native Americans at some point. Native Americans aren’t very common in pop culture, which is a real shame. I did raise my eyebrow a bit when it was mentioned that all Indigenous spirits are vulnerable to tobacco. That felt like it was playing into the unfortunate trope where all Native American cultures are lumped together into a single category. Though, thankfully, the Raven Mocker was specifically identified as a creature from Cherokee Mythology. So, I have hope that Brave New Frontiersman will be able to handle Native Americans with tact.

I’m also hoping we learn a bit more about the backstories of the Frontiersman and Coyote. At the moment, we don’t know too much. Going by the cover art, the Frontiersman does look vaguely similar to Natty Bumppo, the protagonist of the Leatherstocking Tales. So, I wonder if he might have a similar backstory. The way Coyote talks kind of reminds me of Tonto from The Lone Ranger. Though, I don’t think Coyote is suppose to be Native American. On the other hand, the Coyote is a trickster spirit common to many Native American tribes. So, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The keyword with Brave New Frontiersman is potential. There is a lot of potential in the characters and the setting. We’ve got six episodes so far, and I feel a clear sense of improvement and progress as the episodes go on. I feel confident that Brave New Frontiersman will be able to keep up the momentum, and spread its wings even further in the future. And I certainly can’t wait to see where the adventure takes us next.

So, there you have it. Brave New Frontiersman is an audio drama set upon the frontier of an 18th Century America filled with magic and mythical creatures. Only six episodes out so far, but it improves with every episode, and has a lot of potential.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.