Wednesday, October 18, 2017

WORLDBUILDING: A Big World and Beyond

Welcome to the first post in our Worldbuilding series, where our writers explore various elements of imagining place, people and culture. Today I'm going to discuss where inspiration for fantasy worlds comes from, and what I'd like to read more of in that regard. Obligatory disclaimer: this is an opinion piece. You may agree, if our tastes align or if the arguments put forth resonate with you; or you may disagree, if they do not. That's healthy. There is ample space for all kinds of approaches to fantasy, and life would be boring if we all wanted to read the same things. -G

Second-world fantasy is not historical, but draws from human histories, cultures and mythologies. The most famous and influential fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien, drew heavily from Nordic and Celtic mythologies in constructing Middle Earth. Most fantasy published since The Lord of the Rings has been similarly Eurocentric, utilizing the tropes he established and/or popularized as well as other widely-known (European) sources: Arthurian Legends, the Brothers Grimm, Niebelungenlied and various medieval bestiaries. Many, like Tolkien, are also in a sense a retelling of Song of Roland, or Herodatus--wherein a "civilized" stand-in for the West is threatened by a horde from the geographic periphery.

Herodotus' version of the Battle of Thermopylae, which is frequently retold in epic fantasy. 
There are a few reasons why this approach came to dominate the fantasy shelves at your local bookstore. The most obvious is that modern fantasy developed in the UK and US, where medieval European traditions are widely recognized and culturally resonant. The second is that The Lord of the Rings offered up a really compelling formula: take the swords, magic, lore and questing of sword & sorcery, and position them within apocalyptic fight between good and evil. Unlike the sword & sorcery model that predates Tolkien, something really big is at stake. As more writers adopted the Tolkienic approach, both the epic structure and individual tropes (e.g. "elves in decline"), Eurocentrism became more deeply embedded in fantasy.

Of course, Tolkienic epic fantasy is not the game in town. Sword & sorcery is, as noted, the older tradition, one less tethered to the medieval European experience. Robert E. Howard's Conan novels, for example, are set in a pre-medieval "barbaric" world, with Conan embodying the value system of the pre-civilizational milieux as imagined by Howard, a Texan. While they can be quite racist, the Conan books do not juxtapose a civilized West against Southern/Eastern/Northern barbarism. Rather, barbarism is framed as vibrant and healthy, and civilization as inherently full of rot.

Today there's quite a lot of non-Eurocentric fantasy available. N.K. Jemisin's Dreamblood series is inspired by Ancient Egypt. Elizabeth Bear's series Eternal Sky draws on the histories and cultures of the medieval silk road. Glen Cook's Black Company novels take place on both sides of a Mediterannean-like sea. But unlike, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, they do not other the South/East. The multiethnic Company, as it happens, comes from the deep south (actually from a portal located in the deep south, but I digress).

That's undoubtedly a great development. The world is rich with historical and mythological building blocks for fantasy novels and series, and it's about time that authors started looking farther afield for inspiration (and publishers started looking farther afield for authors). This is not a zero-sum game; there is ample room for both Eurofantasy and non-Eurofantasy. The rise of the one does not preclude the flourishing of the other.

Beyond History and Mythology

While fantasy's (re)discovery of the world is unambiguously a good thing, it's not the only window that needs widening. Increasingly, I'm looking for fantasy that radically departs from things that have actually happened, places that have actually existed, or mythologies that were once treated as religious or material fact.

Why? Because it's fantasy. As in, something that by definition can't happen in the real world. Untethering your world from ours is not, or at least should not be, a big deal. Granted, there will always be some tethering--perhaps there has to be for suspension of disbelief. But there is definitely room for a lot more experimentation. Some things I'd like to see more of:

  • Social relations that depart from (perceived) historical norms
  • Political institutions that depart from (perceived) historical norms 
  • Economic models beyond barter, mercantilism and early capitalism
  • Mythologies that do not map onto specific human cultures
  • Biases and modes of social exclusion beyond modern racism or nationalism 
  • New architectures, social geographies, weapons, calendars, forms of address, modes of decorum, etc.

I've banged on about this before, and I'm inspired to bang on about it again after re-reading Gardens of the Moon. Erikson points in many of these directions, and as a reader, I found it inspiring. It's not the only path. It's not even the better path (what is). But it's a path that, I think, might be fruitfully explored by the right authors.

If you've read something along these lines, I'd love to hear about it. Please tell me what it is and why it's exciting!


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fright vs. Fright: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Fright vs. Fright is a series of comparisons between classic horror films and the lesser-known works that inspired them, or subsequent remakes that stand on their own merits.

The Film: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Plot: Dr. Miles Bennell stumbles into a police station raving about not being insane, and needing people to listen to him. A psychiatrist arrives and agrees to hear Bennell's story. It goes like this: Miles returned from a medical conference to news that many of his patients had called and made appointments in a panic while he'd been gone, and then a day or so later, all called to cancel. When a friend says that she thinks her uncle isn't really her uncle, Miles is concerned for her. But then when a little boy comes in with his grandmother saying that his mother isn't really his mother, Miles begins to worry more generally. Stuff gets really weird when Miles gets called to his friend Jack Belicec's house because Jack's wife seems to have found a...body. It's a strange body. Sized and shaped like Jack, but without distinct facial features or fingerprints. Miles remembers his would-be girlfriend Becky saying she thought her dad was behaving strangely, and he darts to Becky's. In the dark basement, he believes he sees a doppelganger body of Becky in a locker down there, but afterward can't be sure. When he and Becky return to the Belicec place, though, the four of them discover giant alien pods in the greenhouse, each pod growing a copy of each of them. They've uncovered an alien plot to replace humans with unfeeling clones, and now they have to try to get away...and stay awake.

The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about as good as 1950s horror/sci-fi gets. There's not a lot of "guilty pleasure" here — this is lean, taut storytelling that is maybe not as visceral today as it would have been in 1956, but is no less thought-provoking. That this movie can be claimed as both a tacit endorsement of McCarthy-ite Red Scare paranoia and a rejection of that very same ideology speaks to how engaging it is. The filmmakers all went to their graves insisting that there was no political motivation or didactic intent behind the film, but there's no denying that it is a product of its zeitgeist. Can we be saved from the threat of secret Communist infiltration? Or, can we be saved from the reactionary forces in control that insist on homogeneity? This is in many ways the best of genre storytelling — a metaphorical treatment of existential forces that a society is wrestling with.

Fun bit of connective tissue: Carolyn Jones (later Morticia Addams), was in last week's installment, House of Wax, and also plays Teddy Belicec in this movie.

Remade As: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

How It Stacks Up: I'm not sure which of these two version is "better," so suffice to say that when it comes to the daunting task of remaking classic movies, this is about as good as they come. There are some elements that are a little dated — like the super-fake nosebleed on the pod-body of Jack Belicec (this time played by Jeff Goldblum) — but on the whole the practical effects hold up, and Philip Kaufman's film does a great job of painting on a broader canvas than the original film. Set in San Francisco, instead of a small town, the stakes begin much higher, and the barriers to stopping the alien pod-people from spreading are much more daunting. The ick-factor is ratcheted up in this version, and one additional characteristic added to the pod people in particular really heightens the creepiness. It's the shrieks. The shrieks of the pod people. It's unsettling and kind of chilling, and such a great reminder of how the well-chosen little things can be used to much better effect in horror than gore-for-gore's sake.

Worth a Watch? Absolutely. I think it's hard to go wrong with either of these two versions. There are more versions out there, but these two I can recommend without reservation.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012. Perennial watcher of dozens of horror movies each October. Not a pod person. As far as you know.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Microreview [book]: Rencor: Life in Grudge City, by Matt Wallace

Wallace takes the reader on a wild ride of wrestling, mummies, and absurd action comedy.

I've tried to figure out a way I could write about professional wrestling for Nerds of a Feather while maintaining the genre focus of this blog. I didn't come up with anything, though I deeply admired Matt Wallace's essay on storytelling using a match between Bret Hart and Roddy Piper. I just didn't have an angle I could dig into. Bray Wyatt has been doing less quasi-supernatural stuff these days and The Undertaker is all but retired after his Wrestlemania loss to Roman Reigns.

Then, I discovered Rencor: Life in Grudge City. It combines lucha libre wrestling with a sort of crossed purposes buddy cop story. There's also a possible tie in to the supernatural, maybe. That part is less certain. What is certain is that Rencor is a high energy dive into a lucha culture where the tecnicos (the good guy wrestlers) have worked with police for generations to solve supernatural crimes that are too much for regular beat cops and are in a constant blood feud with the rudos (bad guy wrestlers).

Wallace reunites a legendary rudo long banished from Cuidad Rencor with the heroic tecnico who conquered him. Their enmity spans generations and runs deeper than simple "good guy versus bad guy", this is about their deepest core of who they are as men and as wrestlers. Being a rudo or a tecnico is a way of life, not a character they put on when the wrestler steps into the ring.

So far we've only discussed, in very general terms, the wrestling aspect of Rencor. It is, after all, what brought me to this book. But - knowledge, appreciation, or understanding of professional wrestling is not required to read Rencor.

The heart of the novella is the buddy cop story where the buddies hate each other with a passion matched only perhaps by the Hatfields and the McCoys at the height of their blood feud. El Victor and El Mil Calaveras are brought together by the Rencor police department to solve a museum robbery that resulted in reports of mummies wandering the streets of Ciudad Rencor.

Matt Wallace describes Rencor as such:
It’s set in a modern world, but it’s also a throwback to the heyday of 70’s cop shows and Mexican B-monster movies starring legendary enmascarados. It also explores what it is to be a pro-wrestler, the business itself, and the culture surrounding it. It’s got great action, great humor, great heroes and villains, but it’s also about the masked hero of myth dealing with a very real world that’s constantly evolving.
Looking at it from the outside, Wallace does lucha culture proud and with great respect. In doing so, Wallace takes the reader on a wild ride of wrestling, mummies, and absurd action comedy. Folks, Rencor: Life in Grudge City is a blast. Like Wallace's Sin du Jour novellas, Rencor is funny without being a straight up comedy and chock full of energy and drama.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for bringing professional wrestling into a story in a way that feels natural for both the wrestling and the mystery.

Penalties: -1 The museum robbery is almost besides the point, even though it's technically the main driver of the story.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10,  "well worth your time and attention". See more about our scoring system here.

Wallace, Matt. Rencor: Life in Grudge City [Parts Unknown Press, 2016]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Microreview [film]: Fiend Without a Face

Brains. Filled with telekinesis goo.

Look, I’m going to cut to the chase — you’re going to want to watch this movie for the last fifteen minutes, when killer brains start attacking all the stock characters. Before that, it’s pretty standard fare.

There’s a wonderful scene in Ed Wood where Ed pops in to see an old editor on the studio lot that just got a batch of stock film, and Ed laments it all ending up filed away, saying,
“Why, if I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what's causing them, but it's upsetting all the buffalo. So, the military are called in to solve the mystery.”
The reason why I love that line so much is because it almost perfectly describes so many actual, low-budget sci-fi movies from the 1950s. In film after film, the entire first reel is just stock footage of various military exercises and two guys in Army uniforms in a nondescript office describing some mysterious problem. Fiend Without a Face is no exception. The problem the guys talk about in the nondescript office is the locals complaining that the nuclear tests from the base are messing up milk production from the family cows.

Little do they know there’s a bigger problem brewing. I’ll keep it simple and just say the nuclear tests don’t play well with a local professor who has been perfecting his theory of telekinesis, and an invisible killing machine that sucks out its’ victims brains is the result.

When those brains reappear at the end of the movie, it is more than worth the wait. They still have the spines attached, and have grown these sort of eye-stalks, like a slug. They can climb, these brains, they can jump, and they can ooch along the floor. They can also, when shot with an Army .45, make a disgusting gurgling sound and belch out black goo. We’ll call it telekinesis goo.

This movie has been called the goriest of its era, and I won’t argue that point. If you think sentient, malevolent, crawling — and then exploding — brains are up your alley, not only are you my kind of person, but you should probably also put this movie up at the top of your list.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +2 for all the stuff I said about the brain monsters, +1 for the line, "You ever consider trying sleep instead of Benzedrine?"

Penalties: I think I've made it pretty clear what to expect

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (which is pretty dang high, given our scoring system)

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, folk musician, and Emmy Award-winning producer.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

An odd thing happened over the weekend at New York Comic Con. Marvel announced that there was a planned partnership with the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. There was a promotional comic book image featuring the Avengers and the Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus (N.G.E.N.) that had to be yanked due to public outrage over the agreement. Fans even brought up Tony Stark and how he got out of the weapons business after he saw its impact first hand. Marvel heard the outcry, cancelled the partnership and the event announcing it, and this is likely the last we will hear of it.

Pick of the Week:
Babyteeth #5 - Sadie, in addition to dealing with the possibility that her newborn is the Antichrist and that there is an assassin currently trying to kill him, now learns that her sister is working with a warlock who is part of a secret organization known as "The Way". The life of a young mother is never easy, but Sadie has it particularly rough. What I love about this book is the way that author Donny Cates walks the fine line of keeping this book light and touching, while interweaving the bigger picture of the competing factions we are introduced to in this issue. Sadie is not only confronting the difficulties of being a young mother and family drama, she now has to worry about "The Silhouette", a group who believes that her child will bring about the end of days, and whether or not she should trust Dancy Cherrywood, the warlock who just saved her life. Loving the direction this series is heading and really enjoying the multiple titles from Cates I am currently reading. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

The Rest:
Royal City #6 - Jeff Lemire gives us a glimpse into the past as he takes us to 1993 as we learn more about the family dynamics, Tommy's life before his death, and some of the day to day activities that the family engaged in. On the surface this feels like a very simple issue, but it was nostalgic and was an issue that made me reflect on my life as a teenager in that same time period. I am still not sure on where this series is heading, but it evokes feelings of Sweet Tooth and I am really enjoying every single panel. I think that this flashback will cause a lot of readers to revisit the first five issues to see what connections they are able to draw.  At least that is what I plan on doing.

Daredevil #27 - This is by and far my favorite current Marvel series. Charles Soule has done a phenomenal job with Daredevil and the current arc is a must-read. In this issue we learn how Blindspot came to China and the price his family paid to get him his sight back. Trapped in a pit, Daredevil is forced to listen to the horrifying truth, listen to the screams of Tenfingers who is thought to be dead, and forced to confront a demon if he wants to save his former partner. This is a dark and gritty arc and Ron Garney, Matt Milla, and VC's Clayton Cowles are absolutely crushing the art in this series.

Doctor Aphra #13 - The arc that featured the soul of an awakened Jedi trapped in a droids body came to its conclusion in this issue and left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. I have really enjoyed this spin-off and think Aphra is a terribly interesting character who walks the fine line of good versus evil quite well. I think what frustrated me a bit with the conclusion of this series is the lack of a payoff from Vader. He showed up, defeated Rur, and simply returned to the Emperor with no repercussions for Aphra. Given their past relationship, I expected more than Vader allowing her to escape and take a leave of absence. I am hopeful that this will be rectified in the next issue, but this oddly felt like a series finale even though it is slated as an ongoing book.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Microreview [novella]: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

There is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection. 

I love going into a book, or in this case a novella, knowing as little as possible. I might know the general premise, a plot point or two, but generally that's about it. Occasionally, I'll have seen a title recommended by people with similar reading tastes.

In this instance, I tuned into Brooke Bolander's writing later than most. I first came across it when I saw her story, "And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead," in Lightspeed, February 2015. I knew then I'd be a fan for life and to keep an eye out for any and all new stories.

When I started hearing talk surrounding The Only Harmless Great Thing I knew even less than I normally would because I purposely wanted to go into the story and be surprised. I'd heard references to the radium girls and elephants but I dipped out of any conversation going beyond that. But I should tell you a bit more, that is why you're here after all.

This is an alternate history novella set in Newark, New Jersey taking two historical events, the radiation poisoning of female factory workers and the public execution by electricity of an Indian elephant on Coney Island. Bolander weaves these events into something wholly new and heart-wrenching.

With Bolander's writing, you never know quite where she's going to take you but one thing is always certain, the journey is going to be exquisite.

Bolander's prose is some of the best I've ever read. Period. It is artful and sharp as a razor's edge. Allow me to give you a visual representation of Bolander's writing in my mind:

That's right. I needed a picture from the Hubble telescope. Her writing makes me feel grounded and weightless, as though the ending she provides seems the only possible ending while at the same time I feel the world is nothing but endless possibility.

This novella is not typical anything. It is not a standard scifi adventure, it isn't a literary gem, it isn't any one thing because it is everything.

There is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection. Sometimes you read a novella and lament it is not book-length. The Only Harmless Great Thing could only ever be what it is and Bolander nails it. Despite it's brevity you get to know Kat, the scientist, Regan, one of the radium girls turned elephant handler, and Topsy the elephant. My cherished Topsy.

The cast is kept at a minimum to tell Topsy's story and we jump between the narrative timelines as the story progresses. It is never jarring as we switch between points-of-view and timelines, the prose flows like a river.

It might not be the story most genre or sci-fi readers expect when they pick up a a novella from, but maybe it should be. Maybe we need more gut-punching, heart-wrenching, definition-defying, stories in the world. I know I'm hoping for more.

The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 10/10  

Bonuses: Read it!

Penalties: None from me!

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10 -- this novella is my new gold standard for what a story can be and do.

POSTED BY: Shana DuBois--extreme bibliophile and seeker of raindrops.

Reference: Bolander, Brooke. The Only Harmless Great Thing [, 2017]
Our scoring system explained.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fright vs. Fright: House of Wax

Fright vs. Fright is a series of comparisons between classic horror films and the lesser-known works that inspired them, or subsequent remakes that stand on their own merits.

The Film: House of Wax (1953)

The Plot: Henry Jarrod is a gifted 19th-century sculptor whose wax museum is struggling because he refuses to recreate scenes of torture and villainy of the past. His unscrupulous business partner sets fire to the museum to collect insurance money on it, leaving Jarrod unconscious inside as it explodes. Jarrod, thought dead, reappears a few years later with a new wax museum. Now confined to a wheelchair and with badly burned hands, he relies on a pair of assistants to do the actual sculpture. Jarrod's old business partner is murdered, as is his girlfriend, and a young woman named Sue Allen witnesses a beastly, deformed creature commit the crime. When both of the corpses disappear, the police recognize something is afoot, but can't figure it out. Sue Allen begins suspecting that the bodies are actually on display in in Jarrod's museum, but has trouble convincing anyone else of such an outlandish theory.

The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent: This movie is remarkable for several reasons. It's a prime example of 50s major studio horror, and a lot of fun. But beyond that, it a) kicked off Vincent Price's career as a boogeyman, b) was one of the first studio films shot in 3-D (which is the source of some of the biggest groans in the movie, including a famous ball-paddling barker), c) features a very young (and very ripped) Charles Bronson when he was still using his given name of Charles Buchinsky, and d) features Carolyn Jones, who went on to play Morticia Addams in The Addams Family.

Based On: The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

How It Stacks Up: This movie is a hell of a thing to try to get your head around. When it starts, it feels like House of Wax is going to be a straight remake. The opening scenes with the shady business partner and the fire in the wax museum are almost identical in the two films — down to lines of dialogue, camera angles, and particular stunts. But soon after, we meet spunky, fast-talking newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey. It seems like maybe she's going to be the Carolyn Jones part, and her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray, of King Kong fame) will be the Sue Allen role, but it becomes clear that this is going to be more complicated than that. See, there's this inexplicable subplot about a wealthy heir in some fancy family who gets arrested for the murder of a socialite, but Florence is determined to clear his name. And then the murdered girl is the one that turns up in the wax who the hell is Florence? Over the course of the film, she somehow becomes the main character. Her bickering, you're-fired-you're-rehired relationship with her editor is a total head-scratcher. Then there's a lot of cop stuff that's the same between the two movies, and the climax at the museum is basically the same between the two versions. The whole thing was kind of a mess, but I finally figured out what was going on: believe it or not, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a horror re-telling of The Front Page, the smash Broadway hit from 1928 that would later be the basis for the Rosalind Russell-Cary Grant film His Girl Friday in 1940. You can be forgiven for thinking that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Worth a Watch? Mystery of the Wax Museum is a curiosity, at best. It was shot in 2-strip Technicolor, so it has a visual texture that only a few other surviving films have, and that's definitely something to see if you're interested in that kind of thing (I am). And in the role of Florence, actress Glenda Farrell does a dynamite job as a streetwise dame with moxie to burn. Her performance is maybe not the equal of, but certainly holds its own against better known performances by Russell and Jean Arthur. But in the end, this is two very different movies fighting to exist inside the space of 74 minutes, and it just winds up reminding you that there are much better versions of each of them readily available.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012. Perennial watcher of dozens of horror movies each October.