UTH #2: The Story of Valkyrie and Zen

written by David Steffen

This article is based in the idea of UTH (Universal Transitive Headcanon); if you are not familiar with the concept you can read more detail about it here.

The long and varied history of Valkyrie and Zen is a story of the power of memory to shape a life whether with by your choice or someone else’s. Born on Earth, Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) when she was young had her first encounter with an alien lifeform when a Tarantian came into her house. (Men in Black: International, 2019) The Men in Black arrived and wiped her parents memories of the encounter, but she was left with her memories intact and chose to devote her life to finding the secrets of the universe. After twenty years she succeeded in finding the secretive Men in Black organization and convincing them to recruit her where she was dubbed Agent M. Her assigned partner was the smooth-talking Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who unbeknownst to her was actually Thor of the alien realm of Asgard visiting the Earth incognito. (Thor is of course known colloqiually as a “god” but despite his longevity and durability is strictly speaking an alien not a god. Thor’s inclusion in this film is… honestly more confusing than anything, without some contemplation of how this film might relate to Thor: Ragnarok. We will get to that later.).

It is fitting that the beginning of Molly’s quest for adventure begins with a near-miss encounter with a neuralyzer, a standard-issue tool that all Men In Black agents use to cause civilians to forget their encounters with alien lifeforms. Molly throughout her life encounters manipulation of memory as a mechanism of control.

The exact progression of her story from Agent M to Valkyrie has never been explained in detail (though one can hope for a film disambiguating this important transition in her life!) but if there’s anything that fandom can agree on it’s that a neuralyzer is involved somehow:

  1. Voluntary Retirement
    Did Agent M chose retirement in the tradition of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black, 1997), choosing to dwell among aliens since she had always yearned to learn more of the universe outside of Earth? To me this seems unlikely given her young age and how she seems to be thriving in the role as Agent M.
  2. Forced Retirement
    Did the MiB organization force her out? Again, this seems unlikely without further evidence. She has proven her abilities and her resolve. Without some clear reason why this would be beneficial to the MiB organization, I think we can rule this out.
  3. Escape
    Did Agent M flee Earth to seek refuge elsewhere? This is not out of the question, but without any concrete evidence this seems to be grasping for straws.
  4. Sleeper Agent
    Is it possible that both the MiB and Agent M voluntarily agreed to have Agent M’s memory erased for some other reason? YES LET ME ELABORATE.

Let’s return for a moment to her partner Agent H, aka Thor. It’s not clear exactly how he ended up as an MiB agent. But given his celebrity status in the organization and the fact that even in the story of MIB: International his memory has been messed with, it seems likely that the MiB organization made some unethical choices in “recruiting” him. Thor was probably exiled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth (as he did in Thor, 2011), or perhaps Thor exited of his own volition. The MiB organization saw his potential as an agent given his near-invincibility, strength, and control of weather, and neuralyzed him and gave him a new backstory. Without knowledge of his alien origins, Agent H lives for some time as an agent, and is no doubt watched very closely as it may not be clear if the neuralyzer’s effects are as permanent on an Asgardian as a human.

Between MIB: International and Thor, Thor has ended up back in the realm of Asgard as himself. Again, the exact circumstances are unclear. Most likely someone from Asgard came searching for him and the MiB cut their losses and wiped his memory again and sent him back. It was simply too much of a risk to try to hold him here on Earth anymore, and also too much of a risk to allow him to remember his tenure in the organization. But the MiB also couldn’t let that remaining risk go unchecked either. They needed an inside agent to keep an eye on things on Asgard, someone skilled enough and clever enough and determined enough to be suited for such a difficult task. His former partner, Agent M.

Agent M as herself could perhaps be well-suited for the task, if it were not for Loki (Tom Hiddleston, from Thor 2011 among others). Loki, master of mischief with his mind tricks, and with a vendetta against Thor. What would be the use of wiping Thor’s mind to protect the MiB’s secrets, if Agent M could be so easily found and the secrets pulled directly from her mind? So she volunteered to be neuralyzed and take on an entirely new persona–that of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie (colloquially known to fandom simply as “Valkyrie”, from Thor:Ragnarok, 2017, among others). Powerful so she can take direct action if needed, but one of a team of Valkyries so that she would not individually be the subject of suspicion. Assigned to work with the royal family which allows her to keep an eye on her former partner as well as the conniving trickster Loki. Her memory wiped of Earth and MiB in her history, but with implanted suggestions that would enable her to send coded messages to the MiB if the need arose and with others that could restore at least some of her former memories to allow her to act in full Agent M capacity, she became a deep cover sleeper agent who was consciously unaware of her own mission.

Which worked fine until the Valkyries were all but wiped out defending Asgard from Hela (Cate Blanchett) (Thor: Ragnarok), leaving Agent M stuck in her deep cover as Brunnhilde, shorn from her lines of contact with the MiB and remembering nothing about her original identity and mission. She resided on Sakaar for a time working as a bounty hunter called “Scrapper 142” and drinking to forget her past as a Valkyrie. And perhaps subconsciously hoping to remember her past in the MiB–again, wanting to control her destiny through manipulation of memory is a recurring theme of Agent M’s life.

When she found Thor, some part of her memory reawakened with the implanted suggestions to keep an eye on Thor, and so despite her selling him initially to the Grandmaster, she works with him to escape the scavenger world and return to Asgard to once again defeat Hela–joining the two of them as partners again, despite neither of them remembering having done so before!

Later, after helping to defeat Thanos (Avengers Endgame, 2019) Thor appoints Valkyrie as the leader of New Asgard. The progression her life takes from Valkyrie the newly appointed ruler of New Asgard in Avengers Endgame to Zen (Dirty Computer, 2018) is the least clear point in the progression of her plotline. When next we see her she is living on an entirely different world with the love of her life, Jane 57821 (Janelle Monáe).

One possibility is that, since Avengers Endgame, another political upheaval changed the Asgard political landscape yet again and Valkyrie was deposed from her position (perhaps by a committee of alternate timeline Lokis before their sudden but inevitable betrayal of each other) and exiled Valkyrie to fight to survive under a fascist regime. Another possibility is that she traveled there in secret, perhaps in a quest of self-discovery, after finding the mantle of leadership stifling, and was expecting to leave but was so drawn by Jane that she lingered there and may have missed her chance to return.

By this time she has taken the new name of “Zen” and appears to have given up her warrior ways and by all appearances is living a crazy, classic life with Jane: after a life of focusing on duties and work, she is free to live life for the sake of life, dancing and flirting and spending time together with Jane and Jane’s other love, Che Achebe (Jayson Aaron) and their like-minded friends. Making films, playing instruments, and practicing her art, including a tattoo of a crucified woman with an old-fashioned television head on the inside of Jane’s forearm. She has even become a priestess, performing baptisms and weddings.

In some ways she is very different as Zen than Valkyrie. She shows much less tendency toward violence, even when provoked. The reason may be hinted at with Jane’s words: “I always used to say I would never hurt a fly, but I would put one to sleep”. Zen has turned over a new leaf, and has taken a vow of pacifism. Zen never speaks of Asgard or her leadership there. But she still remembers her Valkyrie days, a continuity which she shows with similar style of facepaint of white lines, a reminder of where she came from, so it appears that it is not another life event involving memory loss. Not speaking of Asgard is a choice.

But even though she is no longer fighting hostile aliens, her life is no less dangerous, because the society that she and Jane live in is oppressive to anyone who is different. She is labeled as a “dirty computer” and targeted by the government for her queerness and rebellion against authority. One by one, she and her friends are captured and scheduled for reprogramming, to work out the so-called “bugs”.

Zen is captured. After all of her struggles to maintain control of her life through memory Molly/Valkyrie/Zen is made to forget. By the time Jane is captured, Zen’s memories have already been taken from her and now she is known only as Maryapple 53 and is working as a torch, assigned as a friendly face to guide people through the reprogramming process. At first, she remembers nothing when Jane speaks to her, but Jane’s recalling of their times together starts to ruffle the programmed facade, and their time together acts in both directions, with the tattoo acting as an important focus for both of them.

Jane is subjected repeatedly to “the Nevermind”, a hypnotic fog that extracts memories and allows technicians to view and erase them, but with Zen’s presence, Jane’s memories sometimes appear again after having been deleted. Zen, still under her programming, advises Jane that it is better to just accept the process and not think. “People used to work so hard to be free. We’re lucky here. All we have to do is forget.” And though Zen does finally remember everything, the credits roll after what appears to be a successful reprogramming of Jane: Jane (introducing herself as Maryapple 54) is assigned to be the torch for Che when it comes his time for reprogramming.

Some of the details of the trio’s capture are unclear. One of these scenes appears to show Jane and Zen escaping as Che is arrested. Another scene shows Zen being captured alone while Che holds a distraught Jane back from rushing in to be captured as well. Unless one of them pulled off an improbable escape this doesn’t quite seem to add up. Most likely this is a symptom of memory damage caused by the Nevermind’s extraction process. One of the Nevermind technicians who push the buttons to operate the extraction comments “What is this? It doesn’t even look like a memory.” Though he seems to be relatively new to the job, not yet hardened to the brain damage he is intentionally causing, he seems to have enough experience to understand that this is not how these things are supposed to go. Later he says “I thought we deleted this beach stuff already” which, again, indicates that something here has gone awry in Jane’s memories that serve as the foundation for our understanding of the story. This could be Zen’s influence at work. Her particular relationship with memory may have made her resistant to the Nevermind, and maybe this has granted some protection to Jane as well.

We may not be able to trust every detail of those memories, but we are never given any reason to doubt the love between Zen and Jane. In the end, their love for each other proves out, and Zen delivers gas masks to the other two as they gas the rest of the facility with the Nevermind, sticking to their pacifist ideals and not harming anyone on their way out even though we could certainly have understood them wanting to.

After the end, and I hope that a revolution is on its way soon to free all the others who were captured before them and who will otherwise be captured after. I hope that Zen and Jane and Che have a long and happy life together being true to themselves and surrounded by loved ones. May they always remember what they wish to remember, and may they always forget what they wish to forget.

Aug 1st: Submission System Glitch (RESOLVED)

Sorry, folks. Diabolical Plots SHOULD have opened to submissions (at 1am, Central Time), but alas — the hatch is jammed. There is a technical glitch. Our mutant hamsters have eaten our operating manual.

Apologies, all. We expect a fix towards evening, US-time. Stay tuned for updates!

ETA: This has been resolved and as of the evening of August 1st (US time) the submission portal is up and running!

First Reader Applications AND Upcoming Submission Windows

written by David Steffen

Hello! We have a few upcoming things we need to announce, let’s get right to it shall we?

General Submission Window

Diabolical Plots is opening for general submissions for the first two weeks of August 2021. Read the guidelines for more information!

First Reader Applications

Diabolical Plots is looking for new First Readers! You may also know them as “slushreaders”, they help read submissions of stories that come in to help us consider them for publication. We are taking applications from BIPOC applicants until June 30th, and after that from everyone until July 10th. For more detailed information and the actual application form please follow this link.

Themed Submission Window

Diabolical Plots is pleased to announce our first themed issue ⁠— stories of food, dining, and cookery, which we couldn’t resist titling “Diabolical Pots”! (Actual pots optional.)

We’ll be accepting submissions for this special issue from October 7th – 21st, 2021. In addition to being centered around food, stories must have a speculative element. Pay rate, format, and submission restrictions (no reprints, no resubmits, etc.) will follow our general submission guidelines.

So, how can food be integrated into your story? Any way you want! Maybe a crew of space pirates is about to score big on some outer-planet delicacies. Or a tense family dinner gets tenser when the youngest child insists they hear scratching sounds in the wall. Or two witches both reach for the last bundle of herbs and their eyes meet and…

For this themed issue, our assistant editor, Kel Coleman, will be taking the wheel and making final selections. Of course, your story should still be a good fit for Diabolical Plots—check out our general guidelines for an idea of what that means—but what might win you extra points with Kel?

Well, Kel would love to see:

  • Lush descriptions of food
  • Immersive worldbuilding—food is never just food. Food is love, food is culture, food is survival
  • Science fiction that’s high on emotional resonance, low on unexamined imperialism
  • Any kind of prose—it can be ornate, experimental in structure or tone, or punchy and simple, as long as it is intentional and serves the story

“Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell is a Hugo Award Finalist!

written by David Steffen

The news came out yesterday that, for the first time, a story first published by Diabolical Plots is a Hugo Award finalist: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, about a haunted house that just wants a nice family to come live in it.

A lot of people really love this story, for it was also nominated for a Stabby Award, a Locus Award, and a Nebula Award: all which are the first times that John Wiswell has been nominated for those awards, as well as the first time that works published in Diabolical Plots have been nominated for those awards. Well done, John!

We look forward eagerly to results–though it will be a while for this one, the Hugo Award ceremony won’t be until December this year so they can attempt to have an in-person convention instead of entirely online.

Welcome Kel Coleman to the Diabolical Plots Team!

written by David Steffen

About a year ago, we made the announcement of an assistant editor for the first time for Diabolical Plots when Ziv Wities joined the team. Don’t worry, Ziv Wities isn’t going anywhere! We are welcoming a a second assistant editor–Kel Coleman, who you might recognize from their story “A Study of Sage” that was published in Diabolical Plots this year.

Kel started as a first reader for the January submission window and has been helping out with line edits for the stories after the final selections, and we are looking forward with working with them more in the future!

Diabolical Plots 2020 Award Eligibility

written by David Steffen

Hello! This is one of those posts where I declare what is eligible for speculative fiction awards (such as the Hugo and Nebula and Locus) and in what category from Diabolical Plots offerings.

Semiprozine

Diabolical Plots itself is eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine.

Editor (Short Form)

David Steffen is eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form), for both Diabolical Plots as well as The Long List Anthology Volume 6.

Publisher

Locus Awards have a category for Publisher, which would be Diabolical Plots, L.L.C. for Diabolical Plots, Long List Anthology Volume 6, as well as being the entity responsible for The Submission Grinder.

Best Reprint Anthology

For the Locus Award!

Related Work and Fan Writer

Websites that relate somehow to science fiction and fantasy are eligible for related work. So I believe Diabolical Plots as a whole is eligible, and I am eligible as “Fan Writer” for my work here.

Individual works of nonfiction are definitely eligible so individual pieces on Diabolical Plots, whether reviews or otherwise, are eligible.

This year marked the start of a series of articles I’m quite fond of: Music Video Drilldown, in which I analyze a professional music video as though it were meant to be a regular film instead of a music video–trying to understand the plot. Many of these end up being quite speculative.

And very recently I started a new series on Universal Transitive Headcanon–a metafictional framework of my own devising. In a nutshell, it is based around the idea that every character played by a particular actor is all part of the same character continuity, and every actor who plays a particular character (i.e. often rebooted ones like James Bond or Batman) are also part of the same character continuity. The concept is explained in more detail in this foundational post, and the first of the actual articles was posted very recently: The Story of Gandalf and Magneto.

And The Submission Grinder may be eligible as well! People ask me every year what they can nominate it for. (I think it would be very unlikely to win since that is a tool for writers and Hugos are voted by broader group than just writers but it is probably eligible anyway.)

Also, this may be a little bit odd of a suggestion, but the cross-stitch on the Diabolical Plots Twitter feed could be a related work. In 2020, in particular, I finished The Mighty Samurai, a project that took me FOUR YEARS to complete and which I chronicled step by step on the Twitter feed. There are also other cross-stitch projects completed in that time, including a Stormtrooper helmet, but The Mighty Samurai is certainly the most notable of this content.

Professional Artist

Diabolical Plots commissioned one artwork this year, for the cover of The Long List Anthology Volume 6, which was produced by Jorge Jacinto. I believe his work would fall under the Professional Artist category by Hugo Award definitions. Check out his website.

Short Stories

This year only one of my own stories is eligible:

“Love From Goldie” by David Steffen, at Zooscape
We used to be so close. What happened between us, Gloria? Is it because I died? I would never have thought our marriage was so superficial. For Christ’s sake, we’d been married for eighteen years! And now you won’t even talk to me, won’t even look at me. I’d never even believed in reincarnation, but here I am. I guess reincarnation believed in me.

All of the original fiction published by Diabolical Plots falls into the “Short Story” category as defined by both the Hugo and Nebula and Locus awards (meaning that each is under 7500 words apiece). The eligible stories are listed here with the announcement of Year Six fiction–but only those with 2020 dates, the ones with 2021 dates are eligible next year instead. Note that if you’ve been following along from previous years that this is a change from previous years–the last couple of years had had an anthology published early in the year that contained all of the story from April of the year to March of the next year–when that happened those stories were all first published in the anthology, and so the first 3 months of stories published on the site the year after were actually eligible the year before because of the anthology. These anthologies have been discontinued and so now “date on the site” is the only publication date to be considered. This means that even though Diabolical Plots has continued to publish two original stories every month, this year only 9 months of those stories are eligible (April through December). You can find all Diabolical Plots fiction here.

For the sake of convenience, here is a list of the eligible short stories with links and brief excerpts:

“A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella
It is a long way down to the sea. A long way down, and treacherous. But I must make this journey today from my uncle’s castle, carrying his bones. I must make this journey, both for my uncle’s bargain, and for my own.

“On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris
You place the urn carefully onto the examination table. The doctor opens the lid, takes a peek inside, sniffs a little. He nods, like he’s evaluating a new blend of coffee, then dumps half of your husband’s cremains into a big metal mixing bowl, the kind they had in the restaurant kitchen you used to work at. He uses a large copper whisk to mix in a bottle of purified water.

“Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble
Max found the box that fit absolutely everything when he was clearing space for Roderick to move in. They had agreed he’d pare down to a single bookshelf, so he drove by the local rental place and bought a half dozen boxes.

“Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner
The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.

“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell
133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

“The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne
Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

“Minutes Past Midnight” by Mark Rivett
Ruth slammed through a metal security hatch. Solid steel met Ruth’s super strength and speed, and it shredded like tinfoil. From Ruth’s perspective, the world was frozen in time. Soldiers were posed in action – walking through halls, manning their posts, and otherwise going about the daily business of staffing a nuclear missile silo. None of them would be aware of the super hero in their midst. Only later – instantaneous in their perception, but many long seconds in Ruth’s – would they experience her intrusion: ruined passageways and an obliterated weapon.

“Bring the Bones That Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.

“Finding the Center” by Andrew K Hoe
I brought Annie to my math-racist’s because I’d stolen a laptop from the Syndicate. I’d stirred the vipers’ nest. Their reach was long, and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. Last year, they’d killed Annie’s mother—a trained policewoman—using crooked cops from our own precinct. So Annie went where I went—even to Sanger’s beat-down porch.

“For Want of Human Parts” by Casey Lucas
The woman cuts down the street in her high-heeled shoes and descends to St. Patrick Station with her blood-red lipstick and victory rolls. The flare of her skirts and the streak of her eyeliner remind Bone Pile of a bygone era, not that it knows what a bygone era is. But something about her feels like home. Like a place Bone Pile can still remember.

“The Last Great Rumpus” by Brian Winfrey
Except for me, he goes unseen and untouched by the world. But animals can still sense him somehow. So, as he drifts among them, dogs tense and huff and growl. Finally, the boldest of them, a pug, lets out a high-pitched squeal of a war-cry and charges.

“That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban
Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.

“A Complete Transcript of [REDACTED]’s Video Channel, In Order of Upload” by Rhiannon Rasmussen
Dark kitchen, grainy. Camera, low resolution, is pointed at a cooking range with dented skillet resting on it. Both are crusted with food and what appears to be rust. The stovetop paint is flaking off in layers. Over the side of the skillet, a lump which appears to have hair in it is visible. A black sheet has been draped across the counter behind the cooking range. After a moment of rustling, it becomes apparent that hands in black gloves have been in view.

“Are You Being Severed?” by Rhys Hughes
He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.

“Many-Faced Monsters in the Backlands” by Lee Chamney
On the third day, while using the washbasin, I saw my face had become asymmetrical. As I watched, the left side fattened. I put a hand to it and felt the bones below shift. The left side soon contaminated the right, and my face became someone else’s. It looked at me with eyes not my own.

“Mama’s Hand of Glory” by Douglas Ford
Mama’s hand normally stayed inside the dining room cabinet, the kind that most families used for nice china. With it just me now, I used ours for other stuff, like interesting bones and rocks I came across. Naturally, Mama’s hand was the centerpiece. I picked it off the floor—fortunately, far enough from the vomit that it didn’t need cleaning—and placed it back on its display rack. I judged that it looked ok, despite one finger, the one that would’ve held a ring if Mama had ever gotten married, hanging off kind of funny. The pinky, along with most of the dried flesh under it, was gone completely. It didn’t look how Mama intended. But the tattooed planchette on the back didn’t suffer much damage, so I suspected it would still work.

“‘My Legs Can Fell Trees’ and Other Songs For a Hungry Raptor” by Matthew Schickele
The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.

“Tony Roomba’s Last Day On Earth” by Maria Haskins
It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

written by David Steffen

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a 2011 contemporary fantasy novel, the first in a series of three books by Ransom Riggs depicting children with unusual abilities.

The protagonist of the book is Jacob Portman, who as a child was enamored by his grandfather Abe’s stories of fleeing from Nazi persecution of Jews in World War II–to hear his grandfather tell it there were literal monsters and his grandfather found safety in a secret safehouse with peculiar children watched over by a “wise old bird”. When he was a child, Jacob took these stories literally, but as he grew older he doubted their literal reality, figuring that his grandfather was communicating with metaphor about the horrors of war. As his grandfather dies, Jacob sees a vivid vision of what appears to be a monster lurking nearby, but no one believes he saw what he saw, and he is sent to therapy to cope with the trauma of his grandfather’s death.

His therapist, Dr. Golan, suggests that Jacob should travel to Cairnholm, Wales, the place where his grandfather had lived at the supposed home for peculiar children. There he can either establish the reality of the home, or not, and settle what everyone else believe to be fantasies. He travels there with his family on a work trip.

This book has a very good hook, although it’s clear from the title and the picture of the book that it’s clear that “peculiar children”, whatever that means, are central to the book, and one can probably assume that the home for peculiar children exists or they wouldn’t name the book after it, there is still plenty of mystery in the book to keep turning the pages. As the mystery is revealed there is plenty else to keep the story going in terms of interesting characters and looming villains. It’s hard to discuss it in much more detail because the reveal of the mysteries is the biggest part that is fun in the book.

But another thing that makes this book stand out from other fantasy books is the found pictures that form the basis for many of the ideas. Throughout the book are actual found photographs of “peculiar” children, children who appear to be floating, or appear to be an invisible child visible only as hovering clothing, or things like that. Riggs has worked with collectors of these odd photographs to make a huge collection of images of these, and many of the characters are based on these photographs, so it’s really interesting how those odd photographs, presumably of early photographic special effects, were the basis of the story–it lends the story some feel of truth as well as adding a very cool weird touch to it all.

Highly recommended!

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Untitled Goose Game

written by David Steffen

Untitled Goose Game is a 2019 puzzle stealth game developed by House House in which you are a goose generally making a nuisance of yourself in a small village.

“It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a terrible goose” is the line that starts the game. You are a goose with a purpose, and that purpose is a seemingly arbitrary handwritten list of objectives written on lined notebook paper wherein the only unifying seems to be “to be a nuisance”. As the villagers are trying to go about their daily business tending gardens, running pubs, and otherwise going on about their lives, you are the goose among them causing them endless inconveniences, stealing their things and move those things to other places, honking and scaring them at inconvenient times, and otherwise just generally making their days unpleasant.

Different villagers respond differently to seeing you–though generally most of them will chase you to retrieve their things if they see you stealing them, so much of the game is based on looking inconspicuous until their back is turned and then stealing and running off before they notice. There is also a puzzle element to the game, as many of the objectives give you a general idea what needs to be done but not HOW to do it. For instance, one of the objectives in the first area is to make a man wear a different hat… but how do you do that? Both the hat on his head and the other hat hanging on a hook are out of your reach.

This is a diverting and silly game, and it’s fun to have a game where your main objective is to be rather annoying, but the stakes are not earth-shaking by any stretch of the word.

Visuals
Cute cartoony style, even if it is a little creepy that none of the humans have eyes.

Audio
Very cute, the instrumental music cranks up in intensity when someone starts chasing you, and the HONK noise is amusing enough that I usually just walked around honking whenever I wasn’t trying to be stealthy.

Challenge
Some of the challenges are pretty straightforward, others take some experimentation, but generally it’s pretty low-stakes since the worst thing that generally happens is that a human takes back a thing you stole and puts it back where it was originally. Where the biggest challenge comes in the game is later advanced objectives when you have a time-limit for completing a series of tasks. You have to work quite hard (and also be pretty lucky) to streamline your nuisance-making to fit it in tight time-limits. (It’s also probably the silliest idea in a silly game, who is imposing these time limits on the goose?)

Story
Extremely light on story, which is fine, it’s not a story game. Other than the generally increasing dislike of the villagers toward the goose, there is not much progression. (But that’s okay, it’s not a game you play for story!)

Session Time
Except for the time-based goals later in the game, you can start and stop pretty much whenever, and it will save your progress (even the time-based ones, the time limits are only a few minutes, so it’s not a big time unit anyway).

Playability
Easy, there are only a few buttons–movement with the joystick, a general “manipulate” button, and a dedicated honk button (you can also flap your wings but that is almost never necessary, you can do it just for fun).

Replayability
Certainly some replay value, after you beat the basic objectives you get some extra timed objectives, and even after that you could go back and find new ways to annoy the villagers (such as stealing all of their belongings and hording them in your den).

Originality
Obviously stealth games are nothing new, but this one made quite a stir because the choice of the goose as protagonist and the goals as being just generally ways to be annoying to random villagers made this game a thing of its own.

Playtime
It took me a few hours to play through everything including the advanced objectives.

Overall

A silly and fun stealth puzzle game well worth the time and cost. Even after all of the memes it inspired, I still found it original and fun and did not wear out its welcome. I still go back and play it just for fun even though I have completed all of the objectives.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: Fetch-22

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls is a 2019 graphic novel for kids, the eighth in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

The villain Petey the cat is trying to turn over a new life and be a force for good instead of a force for evil, mostly motivated by a desire to live up to the confidence of his son, an immature clone of himself, known as Lil’ Petey. Lil’ Petey is a good-hearted scamp who is now in shared custody between Petey and Petey’s nemesis Dog-Man who is half-dog half-cop (Lil’ Petey and Dog Man are also members of a superhero group the Supa Buddies with the third member being the robot 80HD). But Lil’ Petey’s faith in humanity has been shaken.

The Fair Fairy is a long-running children’s TV show where a fairy explains to children how to be fair. But, it turns out that she’s not so good at keeping her temper when dealing with kids when she flips out (again!) on live TV and stomps off to become the newest villain. This combined with a minor mishap with some “supa brain dots” that turn a pond full of tadpoles into flying telekinetic monsters that team up with the Fair Fairy to wreak havoc on the city, and Dog-Man and his friends again have their work cut out for them!

Still very enjoyable series for grade-school age kids.

BOOK REVIEW: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

written by David Steffen

In case you haven’t heard of the names, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (the most common way she was referred to, though it was never quite her name she did answer to it) were real historical figures that worked together on the early theory of computing before the first calculating machines were made in the first half of the 19th centure. Charles Babbage built a functional prototype of the “difference engine” which was a mechanical computing engine using gears and steam that could calculate sums. He had plans for much a more complex machine built on the same concepts he called the “analytical engine” for which he had very detailed designs. Babbage was a celebrity of his time, though notorious for almost never quite finishing his projects, and he never actually finished building an analytical engine. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and her mother strived to insulate her from her father’s “poetical” ways (which seems to be a commentary on mental health rather than the poems themselves), and very accomplished in the field of mathematics, especially for a woman living in her time when women were actively discouraged from mathematical pursuits. The thing she is most well known for is creating the first programming language, intended to be used with the analytical engine. Since the analytical engine was never built, she never saw her language go into use, and it was a very long time before a calculating machine that was built and the language to go with it.

Lovelace died at the age of 36, and Babbage never finished building the engine that he considered to be his life’s main work, but they are such fascinating figures with ideas well beyond their time that it’s fun to imagine what might’ve been if things had gone differently.

This is a book that’s maybe half non-fiction and half fiction. The first section of the book is all non-fiction, albeit told in comic style, telling of the backgrounds and real-life pursuits of Lovelace and Babbage, though told in a narrative style much of it is based directly in quotes from correspondences and publications of various and in the nature of their personalities revealed therin.

The second section of the book is a fictional steampunkish tale making up fun stories about what might have happened if Lovelace had lived longer and if Babbage had created his machine.

It’s a fun romp, both educational and just plain fun. I learned a lot about both Lovelace and Babbage who are both very interesting people that I would love to read more about, and the second fictional part of the book was an exciting and fun comic in its own right, and even more so for being based on the real people.