Monday, March 30, 2015

INTERVIEW with Steven Erikson

Today, Nerds of a Feather "sits down" with bestselling novelist Steven Erikson, author of the influential epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen, the irreverent Star Trek parody Willful Child, as well as a number of other works (most of which are set in his Malaz world). Always generous with his time, Steven Erikson today discusses a wide range of issues with us, from grimdark to tragedy, satire, anthropology, gaming, and the need for empathy in human relations. We hope you enjoy this awesome interview! 


NoaF: You've recently waded into the meta-debate over “grimdark” fantasy, and we wanted to follow up on a few points you've made—here and also in your two essays for r/fantasy. Our understanding of your argument is that grimdark is not synonymous with “grit,” nor is it an extreme manifestation of grit. Rather, it seems that you are positioning grimdark-the-adjective as qualitatively rather than quantitatively different different from gritty-the-adjective. You seem to see “gritty” as the centering of narrative on the unflinching portrayal of hardscrabble lives under difficult circumstances, whereas “grimdark” is defined by the notion that catharsis, which is possible under gritty circumstances, has now been rendered impossible or unobtainable. Is that a correct reading, or would you instead say that the potential for catharsis is just one marker of several? And, if so, could you tell us why the potential for catharsis is such an important marker of grimdark/non-grimdark--both in and of itself and relative to more commonsense markers, such as the extremity or pervasiveness of violence, splatter and so forth?


SE: First off, thanks for this invitation: I have been very impressed with the level of discourse on Nerds of a Feather and am delighted at the chance to participate. Coincidentally, I was only a few days ago sitting on a panel at ICFA, addressing violence and nihilism in Fantasy, in which we rehashed the whole ‘Grimdark’ debate, and, as is often the case, the informal follow-up discussion that took place at the pool-side bar offered up a whole host of new ways of thinking about this. With the caveat that what I’m going to relate here comes from observations made by other people, and that I make no claim to authorship, I’ll see if I can summarize some intriguing points that came from that discussion.

If we can consider the evolution of modern Fantasy as derived from two parallel and rather distinct lineages (Sword & Sorcery emerging from the pulp tradition on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Tolkien exegesis), we could certainly track the drive towards a ‘realistic’ or ‘authentic’ approach to the fictional portrayal of violence in both streams, although there are qualitative differences between the two (for example, Howard’s take on violence is arguably more visceral than is Tolkien’s). Given that, the place to look for what distinguishes the two tracks has to come from asking what the violence serves. Answering that question can call on myriad sources, from biographical (Tolkien’s experiences in WWI) to direct textual analysis seeking pervasive thematic explorations, but that I’ll leave to the scholars. 

As a writer I can’t help but look at another author’s work of fiction from a perspective of what, how and why. What is being said, how is it being said, and finally, why is it being said. Only when satisfied that I’ve parsed some answers out of those questions does the potential for entertainment kick in. While this may seem odd to the general fan or reader, I’d humbly suggest that it’s little different for them, if less analytically: what rings true, or authentic, or honest, is how we all measure a work of art.

But every work of art is contextual, bound to its time of creation, and no matter how inventive a fantasy world, it can’t help but derive its inspiration from the real one. It doesn’t help that, these days more than ever, much of the (and here I’ll invent a word on the fly) ethosphere (as in, the ethos of the culture surrounding you, an alternative for Zeitgeist) is itself a fantasy, created by the incessant needs of market forces, consumerism, titillation and spectacle, and this is why in my own essays on Grimdark I drew in the culture of modern action films, superhero films and the like, to suggest that what we’re seeing in the Fantasy genre is no more or less than a delayed and not-particularly-original reflection of that ethosphere of nihilistic, sociopathic violence so prevalent in modern action flicks, which likely derived from the nonfictional ethosphere in which despair, random violence and mass destruction seem so prevalent (cool, I got to use my new word, twice!). 

Anyway, all of this is leading up to my saying that gritty violence in Fantasy is nothing new, especially if you backtrack along the Sword and Sorcery path. So everybody running around at the new ‘gritty’ Fantasy waving their hands in the air and going ‘ooh ahh!’ is kind of silly.

So, distinguishing ‘grit’ from Grimdark is, to me, rather easy. Grimdark may be characterised by ‘grit’ but something else is going on, and that something else is fundamental to what Grimdark is (and let me add, I no longer see Grimdark as a pejorative, and now use it as a descriptive). Nihilism is the key word here: the death of hope, the pointlessness of existence and, by extension, the indifference to suffering.

If we as authors are all driving towards authenticity, we still have to ask, introspectively, what are we really saying here? But let me emphasise: that is a neutral question. If the author, having asked that question of her or himself, then answers: ‘Hope is dead and so is God and nothing in this world means a thing so just fuck it’ they have the right to do so. There are moments in the lives of many of us when we may think precisely that. There are moments when despair simply overwhelms. These are genuine moments. They are authentic. Accordingly, many of us have written works that, years later, make us cringe.

As you may discern here, I’ve mellowed somewhat on the whole Grimdark thing. It’s all contextual, momentary, and quite possibly short-lived. But I will reiterate my central point in my essays, addressed to authors everywhere: Think through what you’re saying and ask yourself why are you saying it.

Catharsis is not possible in a nihilistic world. That’s why it’s such a rare concept these days. 

NoaF: Along those lines, there’s some debate over whether the Malazan Book of the Fallen counts as grimdark. You appear to be arguing that it’s something else--perhaps superficially related to grimdark but not substantively. What, in your opinion, demarcates the series from the archetypal grimdark story? And if Malazan is not grimdark, then what are some examples that you think do clearly fit within those boundaries?

SE: Given what I’ve said about Grimdark above, it’s pretty easy for me to distinguish the Malazan Book of the Fallen from that descriptive. The series was born of compassion and that is precisely what it sets out to explore, and at the risk of spoilers, it ends in a place of hope and redemption. But none of that would have any resonance without an adherence to some form of authenticity, and the conveyance of authenticity is a product of craft more than anything else. It comes from the use of details, touching on every sense (smell, touch, taste, sight, sound) in a way that immerses the reader as much as possible in that created world. It comes from characters who feel real, living in a solid, physical world; and who occupy an internal landscape that we can recognise, and who may walk the steps we’ve walked, think thoughts we’ve thought, and feel what we’ve felt. Detail can be seen as synonymous with ‘grit’ but again, ‘grit’ is merely descriptive. Finally, the Book of the Fallen adheres quite deliberately to a structure of Tragedy, and as such, catharsis is implicit, and exists for the characters in the tale (even as it is offered to the reader), which is, I suppose, what makes it post-modern (one can even say that the tale was told for the benefit of those characters and the journeys they undertook; and that, accordingly, it was told out of deep sympathy for these invented characters).

Again emphasising that I’m using Grimdark as a descriptive, not a pejorative, I’d suggest that both Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence are writing Grimdark.

NoaF: Much of the grittiness in the Malaz world involves the Bridgeburners and Bonehunters (or in Ian Esslemont’s storyline, the Crimson Guard), all of which feel strongly inspired by Glen Cook’s Black Company. What impact did the Black Company have on your own writing? And if you could name any other single author as exercising an important influence on your own body of work, who would that be? 

SE: Both Cam (Ian Esslemont) and myself were well-read in Fantasy and Science Fiction (if somewhat diversely) all of which provided a mostly formless foundation for the eventual creation of the Malazan world through our gaming. But, curiously, we were both attending the Creative Writing Program at the University of Victoria, immersed in ‘non-genre’ literature, at the time of the first glimmerings of what would become Malazan. If I recall correctly, Cam was buried in the existentialists and exploring their connection to Latin American Magic Realism (heady stuff), while I was lost in virtually every novel and story and nonfiction work related to the Vietnam War.

Cam was the first of us to discover Glen Cook (Dread Empire series) and it wasn’t long before I too was devouring everything he’d written. The Black Company was in its first run back then, and considering what I was reading in conjunction with it, that perfect meshing of the world-weary Vietnam War veteran voice, tone and atmosphere, left me reeling.

Years earlier, Donaldson’s Covenant trilogies stood in for my personal ‘Lord of the Rings’ (I was not a reader of Tolkien). So I would place these two authors as directly formative for me. And if you think about it, with Donaldson’s highly Latinate, complex writing style and Cook’s terse, droll understated style, I pretty much ended up somewhere in the middle of the two styles. 


NoaF: The Malaz world deconstructs and subverts many common fantasy tropes, from that of the noble savage to that of overly static notions of gender roles. We particularly enjoyed how you dismantled the gender gap in the Malazan Army. Both male and female commanders are called “Sir,” and soldiers high and low only gain respect if they are competent. Gender, in fact, has little to do with anything. Could you speak a little to your approach on this topic? 

SE: We were anthropologists (Cam and me). We’d met on a dig. We’d both worked with the original (now displaced) inhabitants of the New World. We’d spent summer after summer immersed in the remnants of their cultures -- recovering the modest evidence of when they were free, unsubjugated and unsuppressed. There exists a strange disconnect between the past and the present, and it is a poignant one. Sympathy is often patronising, and some would argue that empathy is impossible, but I would suggest that human history is a litany of displaced peoples (some being displaced, others doing the displacing, round and round since Day One), and empathy, no matter how open to challenge, remains a worthy goal. These days, it seems, such empathy (and the right to seek it, much less feel it) has become a target. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but to imagine two peoples reaching an understanding without empathy strikes me as a lost hope. If anything, the constant attack on allies of the wrong colour, wrong persuasion, wrong religion, or whatever, is having the effect of isolation, making exceptionalism a virtue and polarisation the common condition.

Many epic Fantasy works drew on a social structure that was demonstrably Eurocentric in inspiration. Employing a kind of romanticised and privileged interpretation of that Medieval European world-set brought with it the assumption of patriarchy as a self-evident baseline of normality, not to mention all the other obvious tropes of dark-skinned hordes from the East, decadent (and still dark-skinned) civilizations to the South, blonde and blue-eyed barbarians to the North, and so on. It was a bag crammed full of assumptions, stereotypes, pre-packaged conflicts, an obsession with aristocracy, and virtues born of birthright. Alas, the modern revisitation of all those assumptions and stereotypes also happens to be the most popular Fantasy series by a long mile, and to that I can only shrug in bemusement.

The Malazan world took shape in conscious refutation of that Eurocentric model. Point by point, we just hammered away at it. We did it in our gaming, we did it in our writing. We wanted colour-blind, so we made the Empire colour-blind. We wanted the utter absence of gender-based hierarchies of power, so we invented a magic system based on discipline, and we made that magic system effective enough to remove the ‘baby-making-factory’ trap of women in most pre-industrial civilizations. Then we took away the assumptions underscoring the language of sexism, particularly in, as you point out, the Malazan military.

Trying to imagine (and indeed, wish for) a world without sexism and a world utterly colour-blind was liberating in itself, making it a delight to dismantle all those pissy, miserable, pernicious tropes. Although it damn-near broke me, I have never had such (occasionally savage) fun as I did when writing the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen. Maybe it showed too much in the books on occasion (especially in Gardens of the Moon), but fuck, I’ve got no regrets at all. If there is anything of the wish-fulfillment in the Malazan series, it is found here.

NoaF: Malazan Book of the Fallen is in many ways a tragic tale, but it is punctuated with some of the most outrageously funny comedy scenes we at ‘nerds of a feather’ have read in a long time. We particularly enjoyed the interplay between the destitute Tehol Beddict and his manservant, Bugg. What do you see as the function of comedy in your series? Is it simply the other face of tragedy, something to lighten the heavy, dark, and gritty load, so to speak? Or do you see comedy as a more poignant way of making a statement about the world in which we live?

SE: I would think that comedy serves both the function of relieving pressure and providing another, perhaps more subversive, vehicle for social and political commentary. Tehol and Bugg are good examples of that, as they work to dismantle the rapacious economic structure of their native land. But also, it’s worth bearing in mind that humour often serves as a defense mechanism, both from the author’s point of view and also from that of characters who find themselves in extreme or traumatic situations, so it’s always worth it (when writing fiction) to keep that little pocket of irreverence near to hand for every character in a story. They need a break just like we need a break. They need to cut loose on occasion, same as we do. I would think that no matter how dark a story, or how repressive, humour remains a vital release-valve. And besides, sometimes it pays to impose a little perspective from a creative point of view.

NoaF: We would like to switch gears here and discuss authorial intent, something you discussed in a comment on our blog (here) and in your essays for the r/fantasy subreddit. You have argued that authorial intent does not equate to narrative “truth,” and have made an implicit criticism of authors who do not fully consider the assumptions they carry into their world. We think this is a valid point, but believe it is also possible to criticize the works of authors who have fully considered the assumptions they bring into their world. In this context, we’d like to discuss the role of humor, and specifically the deliberately "offensive" humor that permeates your recent book, Willful Child. One review deeming it "more than borderline offensive" on a number of fronts. Another review noted that it is hard “to not feel disgusted by the choices made,” but nonetheless found that the book revealed an important message of “the absurd, horrific consequences of Western Culture.” Is that an accurate summation of your intentions? Do you believe that in this case authorial intent, and the full consideration of the assumptions held by your characters, obviates criticisms of the delivery? What were the specific challenges of this kind of satire--say, in the case of Captain Hadrian?

SE: ‘More than borderline offensive,’ huh? Well, given that I set out to write the most offensive novel imaginable, I guess I pulled it off. It would strike me as an odd defensive tactic to claim authorial intent as a means to silencing critics. That just seems slightly skewed thinking, doesn’t it? No, the value of deliberate authorial intent is one of preparation: by knowing what you were up to, you can defend yourself rationally when a critic lets fly. Beats stumbling unwittingly into a firestorm. But having said that, why respond at all? The book is out there. It’s fair game to any and all critical review and commentary.

Satire is all about pushing the envelope. When I envisaged Willful Child I understood, almost immediately, that this would be, at its simplest level, Cringe Comedy. The kind that makes you flinch (often recoiling in disgust) or squirm. But it was also necessary for me to acknowledge to myself that comedy is a very personal thing: what works for one person won’t for another. I was aiming for the Family Guy kind of crowd, in terms of audience. Not everybody laughs at Family Guy.

Something of the range of comedy employed in Willful Child may have actually worked against the level of savage satire I was engaged in, since that satire was often portrayed subtly -- perhaps too subtly (so one reviewer argues) given the over-the-top humour surrounding it. I can see that it would be easy to react to the over-the-top stuff with such revulsion that the underlying satirical stuff doesn’t even get noticed. Gauging how a work is going to be received (especially a work as chancy as Willful Child) is always a crapshoot. I’ve given up trying to predict such things. For Willful Child, the only measure I have is that TOR has signed me for two more.

But to reiterate, nothing of my intent as an author obviates criticism, not just of delivery but also content itself. Intent for me is simply a means by which I guide and control what I write, how I write it, and my reasons for doing so. If a critic wants to engage me directly in a discussion of Willful Child or any other of my works, I would welcome the opportunity. Being told that something I wrote offended somebody won’t see me running for cover. Instead, let’s talk. 


NoaF: We’d like to shift to gaming for the moment. You’ve have outlined the impact of gaming on your fantasy fiction before, and we find it fascinating that parts of your series were gamed. In light of this, can you point to an instance in the series where something in the game went off the rails? Also, do you continue to play RPGs and draw stories from them?

SE: A game session going off the rails is not necessarily a bad thing, though it might seem so at the time. It all settles out in the end, and indeed, that clusterfuck may actually turn out to be the best outcome after all. Cam and I both approached running a game with the aim of thoroughly messing with the heads of our victims players, even when that player was just me, or Cam. It was a back and forth contest in how badly we could fuck up each other’s character. That’s what made it so entertaining, not to mention highly comical.

I have tried running a campaign again, but I find that my creative energies are more limited than they once were. 


NoaF: Before we end this interview, we have to ask a rather silly question. Do you ever have problems keeping track of all your characters? After all, Dust of Dreams alone has at least a few hundred who make an appearance or who are discussed in some way, shape, or form. How do you avoid inconsistencies, or simply keep track of all the characters that populate your stories?

SE: Keeping track of my characters is a pain in the ass, and it’s only getting worse. Crap, sometimes just remembering their names is a problem. But once I track them down, slipping back into their situation still seems easy, as does rediscovering their voice.

As for avoiding inconsistencies, well, I’ve managed a big fail on more than one occasion. I’ve got what, sixteen years of story-telling to keep in my head. Three and a half million words of it, and, as you say, more than a few characters wandering through all of that.


NoaF: One final question. If given the chance to write any of your manuscripts over again, would you have done anything differently? If so, what? And why?

SE: Apart from correcting inconsistencies, no. I’m no longer that person, the one who wrote, say, Gardens of the Moon, or Deadhouse Gates, or, for that matter, The Crippled God or Forge of Darkness. My creativity has a different flavour now. It sees things differently. And yet, where it is now is precisely because of everything that’s gone before. Accordingly, if I could jump in a time machine, defy this linear progression of time, writing new versions of old stuff would screw the timeline pooch. The Malazan Book of the Fallen, as we know it, wouldn’t exist. Is there any guarantee that what replaced it would be better? Any guarantee that I would have reached whatever level of skill I now possess, in the absence of lessons learned, or beneath the pressure of new lessons?

I have enough problems with this timeline! 


NoaF: Thank you so much for this fantastic interview!


SE: Thanks again for this invitation. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Greatest Sci-Fi Movie of All Time Tournament (Round of 16)

Folks, I have to admit I'm surprised.

A bunch of my picks bit the dust in the Round of 32, and we had one MAJOR upset: the 8-seeded Brazil knocked off 1-seed Frankenstein. Frankenstein, people! But where you really twisted the knife is in the Gort Region, where Donnie Darko knocked off The Day the Earth Stood Still...and not the Keanu Reeves one. That I could understand, but...man. Here's where I make some crack about young whippersnappers and getting off my lawn.

Here's where we stand:
Click for a larger view.
My guess is the only 1-seed that makes it to the Round of 8 is Empire Strikes Back. And if Brazil is the little engine that could, then we may have to say goodbye to Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, both. But that's for you to decide.

On to the voting!

Gort Region



HAL Region



Robbie Region



R2 Region



Polls will remain open until next Thursday night (Pacific), and the next round will open for voting on Friday.

Posted by Vance K — who knows where a life-sized Gort can be found if needed, and co-editor of Nerds of a Feather since 2012.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

The good folks at Travel Planners deserve some sort of medal.  On Tuesday, what the nerds are referring to as Hotelpocalypse went down.  At 9am PST the doors opened up as thousands of hopeful Comic Con attendees rushed to fill out their forms and determine their fate on a combination of speed and hotel rankings.  As with most things associated with SDCC, there were some glitches given the traffic to the hotel reservation website.  Nothing crazy, but you don't want to upset nerds when it comes to SDCC.  Despite having some issues, and dealing with them swiftly and fairly, the kindly folk at Travel Planners proudly provide their contact info (which seems to be rare these days) and allow you to converse with an actual human.  I would guess that if you are calling Travel Planners about your hotel reservation for Comic Con that you are not a happy camper.  Despite this, they put up with the complaints, respond quickly to questions, and really should be commended.  Well done Travel Planners.  My hat is off to you all.



Pick of the Week:
Powers #2 - I am very happy that this series has returned and feel that the creative duo of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming are among the best in the business.  Pilgrim's investigation hits a surprising dead end and Walker's lifestyle seems to be catching up with him.  For whatever reason I feel that Walker will regain his powers and assume his old role of Diamond.   That would be an interesting twist.

The Rest:
Jem and the Holograms #1 - Jem is back.  Not in pog form, but in comic book form and it is truly outrageous.  I will admit that I didn't grow up watching Jem, but I married a hip lady who introduced me to the 80's cartoon and we have since introduced it to our children.  I am far from an old school fan, but I know a bit about Jem.  The comic is a new origin story to how Jem meets Synergy and transforms from Jerrica to Jem.  There doesn't appear to be an orphanage in need of funding, but it looks like we will meet the Misfits in issue #2 and this should be a fun nostalgic trip for fans.





Darth Vader #3 - Lord Vader needs some help to carry out his secret mission under the radar of the Emperor.  He enlists the help of Dr. Aphra, who seems like a female version of Han Solo and Star Lord.  She is definitely someone to keep an eye on and possibly someone Vader shouldn't so blindly trust.  It isn't quite clear why Vader has gone through such effort to recruit someone like her, but it does make for an interesting read.








Skylanders #7 - Early on in this series a mysterious fairy named Calliope has been draining Skylanders of their power.  Despite a good amount of fluff in each issue, which my son loves, this story arc is by far the most intriguing.  It turns out that Calliope was being manipulated by a more powerful being who we should meet in issue #8.  Must read material for Skylanders fans and a great all-ages comic that improves with each issue.








POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Ghost in the Shell



Dossier: Ghost in the Shell (1995).

File Type: Film.

File Under: Postcyberpunk. 

Executive Summary: It is the year 2029. Japanese Major Kusanagi Motoko of Public Security Section 9 is assigned a near impossible task: her group is seeking to track down the so-called Puppet Master, one of the most dangerous cybercriminals the world has produced. Kusanagi's quest brings Section 9 into contact with another governmental group, Section 6, which is also tracking down the Puppet Master, to unknown ends. As they pursue the Puppet Master, Kusanagi's group uncovers the mysterious Project 2501, which Section 6 claims was created to catch the Puppet Master... but the project had begun one year before the Puppet Master's appearance. The trail gradually leads Kusanagi toward an important choice, one that could have grave implications for herself, humanity, and the future of the net.   

High-Tech: The most important technologies in Ghost in the Shell are cybernetic. Of them, the central technology is the cybernetic brain (or cyberbrain), which both contains an artificially enhanced brain and allows it to interface with a wide variety of technologies on the net. Implants within the cyberbrain allow the brain to maintain a connection with computer networks or even other individuals (think of this as a precursor to The Matrix). Moreover, the protective casing of the cyberbrain can even be physically transferred to another body in times of emergency. 

A host of technologies complement the cyberbrain, and allow people to engage in a wide variety of enhancements. At the most minimal level, the brain is retrofitted with a plug-based interface, allowing for external memory and wireless communication. At the most extreme level, full cyberization is available as well. Yet these technologies have a significant drawback: they create the possibility of "ghost hacking," where someone's cyberbrain can be wiped and replaced with new memories. This is the primary weapon of the Puppet Master, who ghost hacks unknowing victims.

Other technologies include thermal-optic camouflage and AI. Thermal-optic camouflage enables Section 9 troops to blend in with the surrounding environment. They become for all practical purposes invisible, even to thermal imaging. Robotic weapons make use of this thermal-optic camouflage and artificial intelligence to stunning effect.

Low-Life: Japan has emerged as one of the world's foremost societies, and its people have a higher standard of living than the rest of the world. That said, there is still a dark and grimy aspect to society, with a harsh difference between the consumerist upper class and the dark and poor underbelly of city life. The lower-rungs of society in this movie exist solely as objects of the Puppet Master's ghost hacks. 

Dark Times: Technological advancements have led to problematic developments. Reliance on jacking into the net means that people can have their memories wiped with impunity, and nations and races will fight for programmers who can create or wield these devastating technologies. 

Legacy: Ghost in the Shell is undoubtedly the most important postcyberpunk film created in the 1990s. It created a visual identity for cyberpunk itself. And the technologies from the world of Ghost in the Shell have proven hugely influential, inspiring the Wachowski brothers to make their hit series, The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers reportedly showed producer Joel Silver Ghost in the Shell in the mid-1990s, and told him, "We wanna do that for real." It also influenced such Steven Spielberg movies as AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report. 

In Retrospect: I had expected, when re-watching Ghost in the Shell, to find a charming yet deeply flawed movie that had captivated me nearly 20 years ago. Boy was I wrong. Although the animation is hopelessly outdated and at times the language feels a bit stilted, this movie was hugely influential for a reason. It is a true gem, in multiple ways. It de-centers notions of static gender roles, and provides a more interesting take on gender than most movies do today. And it asks the all-important questions of "what does it mean to be human?" and "what does it mean to have a soul?" That's a heavy role for a relatively short (82-minute) animated movie.

For its time: 5/5
Viewed today: 5/5
Cybercoefficient: 10/10

POSTED BY: Jemmy, a SF/F fanatic, a failed wall gazer, and a Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Monday, March 23, 2015

AiIP Microreview: Sing Me Your Scars, Damien Angelica Walters

Super quick personal note: I will be at Emerald City ComiCon next weekend. I am not at a table, though I will be hanging out with Adam P Knave & DJ Kirkbride, who make the Amelia Cole comics (which you should be checking out anyway) at A-17/18. I will have 3024AD goodies and maybe even a copy or two to give away if you ask nicely. Poke my on the twitter dot com if you'll be there!

Sing Me Your Scars, Damien Angelica Walters

I struggled for a while to find the write words to summarize this book. It is a collection of short stories, some of which were published previously, others are new to this collection. I have read several of them before, and maybe that's why it's hard to put it in a box or describe a collection such as this succinctly.

But, simply put, Damien writes horror. Now, not every story in here is strictly horror. Perhaps, by standard definition none of them are. The goriest story, Girl, With Coin is the least revolting- and the most touching.

And that is why I say she writes the most perfect horror you will ever read. Not because it is shocking (though saying it's not would also be untrue), but reading it feels like being the victim in a horror movie- you can't bring yourself to look away, even as a scene is painted in front of you of physical gore and emotional carnage, painted with a brush of beautiful prose that contrasts the sadness of the stories.

The Math

9/10 - very high quality/standout in its category (rating system HERE)

 I have nothing to give in the way of bonuses or penalties, even though that is generally the funnest part of reviewing stuff here. On the whole, it is an amazing collection of amazing short stories. They are gripping and vivid from start to finish.

In fact, the only reason this collection doesn't receive a 10 is that nothing does. This is a collection everyone should read, and is definitive of everything short fiction can and should be.

-DESR

Dean is the author of 3024AD and the ongoing SciFi Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, The Venturess. He is an engineer, and geek about many things. He lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. You can listen to him ramble on Twitter and muse on his blog.

Microreview [book]: Young Woman in a Garden: Stories by Delia Sherman

A Gothic collection with some very modern sensibilities.


The Meat:


It's rare that a single author collection of stories like Young Woman in a Garden presents a strong and unified voice. Especially when the stories are taken from across decades of an author's career (as this one is). Most of the time I would expect a number of stories to just not fit with the rest, some that feel forced into inclusion. With Young Woman in a Garden, though, there is a very consistent style and charm that infuses the stories, that gives the collection a more singular feel. It's not the time period that the stories take place in, because the stories do move from present to past to distant past. Nor is it the choice in characters, which range from male to female, straight to queer, human to something else. Instead there is a hint of what I'll call the Gothic in these stories that creates a common thread linking them all together. And everything is grounded very firmly in fantasy (or perhaps magic realism, to be more specific).

Because these stories are quite concerned with the past. It leaks from the pages by the choice in language, giving the stories a certain age to them, a feeling that evokes work of Gothic Horror. Again and again the proper world of upper class, educated men and women clashes with the raw, with the natural, with the supernatural. In "Young Woman in a Garden" an Impressionist painter's spirit possesses a student staying in his old home to study his life. In "The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor," a story steeped in steam technology, a maid must help her young master with the help of the ghost of one of his ancestors.

Time and again the stories show science and magic meeting and mingling, erasing the borders of what is fantastic and what is logical. In "Miss Carstairs and the Merman," for example, a female scientist at a time when women were not encouraged to enter into the fields rescues a merman from the shore near her home. The creature sparks her scientific curiosity, as she studies it and tries to understand it, and yet her growing obsession is not with scientific research but with the magic it possesses that allows her to experience the sea as it feels it. In "Walpurgis Afertoon," a house appears in a suburban neighborhood overnight. Even more shocking, though, are the women who live in the house, women who don't like the term witch and who blend science and magic to create stunning gardens and porcelain cats. The main character, a botanist, finds herself at first resistant to the idea of magic, but as she begins to experience it she realizes that there is no natural barrier between the two.

Perhaps the collection could have been called "the world is more dark and beautiful than we know." Many of the stories, after all, are not particularly happy ones, though most have hopeful endings. They take the form of faery stories, or fables, with a heavy dose of violence and darkness that is cut by the indomitable wills of the characters. And, of course, manners are quite important as well. There's just such a charm to the voice of most of the characters, to the way things are described, that makes the conditions aboard a sailing ship at the same time utterly terrible and just also, somehow, a little bit magic. Like magic is lurking behind every corner, in every deep water we can't see into.

That said, it's also a rather ponderous voice that dominates the collection, a voice out of the past. Which will probably not be to everyone's liking. Some of the stories do seem to drag a bit because the language, while well rendered and while (I think) contributing to the aesthetic of the piece, can seen a bit dull. In good Gothic fashion, the fantastic is often lurking unseen for a time, revealed in fits and starts and for some of the stories I think it works brilliantly. My favorite story in the collection, "The Faerie Cony-Catcher," employs that style as it sets a more mundane tone for quite a while before pulling back the curtain on magic. Which works for the story, because it makes the magic really pop when it finally arrives, a glowing stone suddenly revealed in the mud.

Overall, I think Young Woman in a Garden delivers for fans of fantasy and magic realism and even Gothic horror. In most of the stories there is a strong sense of isolation, loneliness, and in most there is also a hope that loneliness gives way to companionship, to happiness, if only briefly. But in those moments of companionship the veil of gloom is lifted, sometimes forever, as lives interact and magic flourishes. It's a lovely collection, with a strong shadow running through it, and a plethora of diverse characters and enchanting settings and stories. While it reads a bit dry for fans of action and adventure, it manages to stay very focused in its scope and powerful in its execution.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a unified style and tone throughout

Negatives: -1 for some dense language and (sometimes too) slow pace

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "a mostly enjoyable experience"


POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.


Reference: Sherman, Delia. Young Woman in a Garden: Stories [Small Beer Press, 2014]

Friday, March 20, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Deus Ex by Ion Storm








Dossier: Ion Storm. Deus Ex (2000)

Filetype: Video Game.

File Under: Cyberpunk Derivative

Executive Summary: J.C. Denton is a newly trained United Nations Anti-Terrorism Coalition (UNATCO) agent. He is tasked with retrieving a stolen shipment of the ‘Ambrosia’ vaccine, the cure for the Gray Death, from National Secessionist Forces (NSF). However, J.C. learns that the Gray Death is a man made virus, and someone is controlling Ambrosia shipments to shape world governments. This is only the tip of the conspiracy as J.C. travels around the world to find who is pulling the strings.

High-Tech: J.C. is one of the first nano augmented people in the world. His body is full of nanites that give him superhuman strength, regenerating health, the ability to see in the dark, and cloak, among other augmentations that make J.C. more than human. J.C., however, is preceded by a whole class of people who were mechanically augmented, like your typical cyborg. Still superhuman, but not the future that J.C. represents.

Computer hacking is also a big part of Deus Ex. Though gameplay, J.C. gains experience that he can put towards his hacking skills. There’s no minigame involved, but hacking can be augmented with items such as ICE Breakers, and often reveal story elements as well as useful information such as lock codes.

Sentient artificial intelligences also figure heavily in Deus Ex. Some are allies of J.C. and aid him throughout the game, and others are not. These AI have their own motivations and goals in the context of the game.

Low-Life: The common person in Deus Ex lives in fear of the Gray Death. It leads to a short, painful death as the victim’s body is consumed by the virus. The distribution of Ambrosia is controlled by FEMA and it is a temporary cure. Without a steady supply, the infected can expect to die shortly after it runs out. This makes anyone without a stable source extremely susceptible to control by forces that can interrupt the flow of Ambrosia.

Dark Times: Deus Ex is dense with social conflict. The most obvious is that which is dictated by the Ambrosia vaccine; the haves versus the have nots. The wealthy and those in power seem to have no problem getting a hold of the Ambrosia vaccine, but the poor suffer and die on the streets from Gray Death. This is largely what leads the NSF to steal the vaccine shipments, though not their only motivation. Then there is conflict between the nano-augmented (J.C. and his brother Paul) against the mechanically augmented. Recognizing the nano-augmentation is more operationally flexible and less physically obvious, the mechanically augmented feel like their future is limited. The AIs in the game are also an oppressed class, controlled by their creators but yearning for freedom.

Above all of this, the shadow organizations that seek to control the world are winning. The world governments are still there, but more or less helpless against the power of extragovernmental agencies that exert their control.

Legacy: Deus Ex was a big deal when it came out. It was Ion Storm’s biggest success and won many ‘game of the year’ awards for combining first person action, huge levels with an enormous array of options to complete them, RPGlike progression and a narrative far deeper than most video games, even today. It’s arguably one of the best video games ever made.

In Retrospect: Believe it or not, I finished Deus Ex for the first time not that long ago. I’ve owned it since 2000, but it was too much for me back then. As you might be able to tell, there is a lot to Deus Ex and it’s almost overwhelming. The first level alone allows for so many options and very little direction that it is often a huge turn-off for most people who expect to be spoonfed the gameplay systems slowly until the training wheels come off. There are no training wheels in Deus Ex.

Even if you get past the first level of the game, there is so much going on in the background and the foreground of the game, that it’s easy for completionists (as I’m sometimes compelled to be) to get frustrated. You have to learn to accept that you’re not going to read every line of dialog, open every door, hack every computer, or solve every mystery on your first time through Deus Ex. When I first bought Deus Ex, I was not ready for that game.

However, as I grew older, I came to accept some of my completionist tendencies didn’t need to be satisfied, and I just sat down and played the game. It is an extremely rewarding experience. Play the game however you like, and Deus Ex will probably accommodate you. Are you stealthy? You can play it that way. Do you like to shoot everyone? You can play it that way. Do you want to spend a lot of time underwater or in environmental suits? It kind of works!

This same manner of engagement applies to the story and lore of the game. There is a lot of it, hidden in books, encrypted on hard drives, stored on datapads, and these things are littered all over the levels. It’s a game that relishes in secrets and rewards those who seek them out.

The game does suffer a bit technically. It’s early Unreal engine, and it shows. The game has never been a looker, but you can improve it with a user made renderer that brings some newer Unreal engine improvements. It probably still runs fine without them, but they do improve the experience.

All told, there is a lot of things that other games have copied from Deus Ex, and many of them have done them better, but the number of games that succeed at doing so much is extremely small. Though successes in their own ways, not even the sequels to Deus Ex come close to its scope. In an industry that thrives on iterating to increasing improvements, it is as close as video games gets to a timeless classic.

 

Analytics

For its time: 5/5
Read/watched/played today: 5/5
Cybercoefficient: 10/10