Monday, February 19, 2018

Microreview [film]: The Cloverfield Paradox [2018]

An astonishingly wasted chance to revitalise space horror
"Can we please have a new script now? I was in bloody House of Flying Daggers, you know"

Some Netflix viewing experiences require the 15 second rewind button : ‘What did they say?’, or, ‘Woah, what was that?!’, or perhaps, ‘Oh that’s beautiful, let me see it again!’  Some, however, make you wish there was a skip-forward option instead : ‘Urgh, this is boring’, or, ‘Yikes, this is too gruesome’. A rare few, like The Cloverfield Paradox, make you want to do both. There are moments so amusingly-misguided or off-key that they invoke an urge to go back and check you didn’t mishear, like a third of the dialogue. On the other hand, there are twice as many points in the ‘narrative’ that inspire a desperate desire to skip ahead, like the tedious renditions of the age-old (and age-weary) ‘lone person walks slowly and nervously towards something no sane person would as the music screams at you how to feel’ device, or the repeated cuts after a violent or dramatic incident to wide exterior shot then moody silent shots of cast looking moody for ages before anything else happens.

The fact that this entire film is entirely made of sections of either skip-aheads or ‘wait, did they just commit that to the screen on purpose?!’ tells you all you need to really know about whether to see this. Yet the reason this review and indeed the reasons for my viewing The Cloverfield Paradox in the first place exist bears some scrutiny in relation to this new age of streaming commissions taking over from traditional channels of creation, coming at a time of renewed (and profitable) proliferation of Science Fiction and Fantasy filmmaking. Arguably at no time since the late 1950s have sci-fi dramas been so numerous in cinema and television. Yet so few do more than ape their forebears. And here comes what is essentially a crap B-movie Event Horizon with a bit of Alien and Sunshine thrown in, the sort of shameless rip-off film you see littering Netflix’s homepage once you get past the fifty or so decent movies. Yet it has been showered with attention because of the Cloverfield element, which has garnered it a decent budget and cast. Sadly, a decent story wasn’t necessary for this cynical business construct to be given life. I won’t go into the Cloverfield factor of this, for a few reasons. Firstly, so many others already have. Secondly, it feels so weakly connected that it might as well have been called the Battleship Paradox, or the Predator Paradox. Thirdly, the previous two films don’t deserve to be sullied by association. Suffice to say though that the sense of helpless dread the first two films created through artistry is barely touched on here in the poorly-depicted hints of [spoiler alert] ...... apocalypse on Earth. 

What remains then is a creation that feels like a commercial construction rather than a story. The cast are almost all lost, as if all required to be there against their will, like a shit theatre workshop retreat in space. When glimmers of personality surface, they glare awkwardly in the dim light of both the set and the script. The best example of this is Chris O’Dowd, clearly brought in to bring some wise-cracking light relief but despite his natural talents and charm failed to make me more than smile once or twice, and his ‘humorous’ lines and deployment as light relief agent jar terribly with the seriousness of the situation. Two spoilers as examples- fellow crew member for last two years dies in explosion of worms (don’t bloody ask) and he says, “So that’s where the worms went”. If he was in a broad comedy-horror (which actually would have been great), fine; here, it kills any tiny fragments of sympathy or connection we might have with the poorly-drawn characters. He later loses an arm in the most ridiculous way and the attempt to make a running gag of this drains the meagre resources of tension the plot thus far had managed to conjure, and kills the fear of bad things happening to other crew by how random and unbelievably daft it is. At least Event Horizon knew to play its body-horror madness straight. At no point does the threat of the random and deadly accidents, which result in the horror and befall most of the crew, achieve any sense of causality beyond the idea of two dimensions overlapping.

yes, this really happens

The rest of the cast are, bluntly, wasted or badly miscast. A couple retain dignity solely by not having to say more than a handful of lines, but some are simply not up to the challenge, and sadly the lead is chief among them. Gugu M'Batha-Raw fills almost all her moments with a singular emotion of fearful worry and despite being our lead-in to the crew, seems to have little connection to any of them in the dialogue and so is left in the background and it took me a while to clock what her role actually was. In fact, one of the worst elements is the poor interaction between the cast which suggest they were dumped on set in as sudden a manner as their characters are dumped far from home. A few merciful moments of genuine human connection, mainly told through the eyes of some of the underused actors, like Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo, only serve to hint at what could have been. As for the filmmaking, the cinematography is fairly bland and the sound design often awful, especially the use of Bear McCreary’s overly-wrought big, traditional orchestral score, which strikes the wrong tone regularly, especially in action scenes. Music can be the wings of a films as Zimmer said; here, it is the concrete boots.

Finally, it is vital that those reading this don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’ll be a mindless fun genre thrill. This film is actively bad. It is frustratingly poor storytelling that is a stain on the already fairly tarnished sub-genre of space horror and undeserving of the attention and resources it has. As for that much-discussed final ‘shock’ shot - I would have laughed out loud at how shoddy it is if my spirits weren’t already brought so low by the dire final act of inexplicable murder and resolution-through-fighting nonsense that preceded it. If you want to show (spoiler....) the world taken over by monsters, meanwhile, you need more effort than one guy looking worried and texting whilsts saving a random kid, and a final shot that makes your viewer think of the Jaws gag from Airplane. JJ Abrams and co had better find a seriously great script and a much better director for their next instalment.
You won't be able to un-see this film but at least you'll forget it almost immediately
The Math

Baseline Assessment : 4/10

Bonuses : +1 for... well... I finished it. It certainly enthralls you in the hope it'll sort itself out, like watching a drunk trying to do up their shoelaces.

Penalties : -1 for showing you actors you love do... nothing; -1 for the rubbish 'oh ok one person will suddenly decide to kill everyone' device; -1 for never once scaring me

Nerd Coefficient : 2/10 which is "really, really bad" on our scoring system

Written by English Scribbler, space horror obsessive and NOAFFT contributor since 2013

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Microreview [film]: Black Panther

The best Marvel film I've seen--by far...

I have a confession to make: I just don't love superhero films. I've loved superhero comics since I was a kid--and, at several points in my life, collected them. But the film adaptations rarely do it for me. Sure, there are plenty that I've enjoyed on first view, but only a few that I've actually wanted to see again. The ones that make the cut can be counted on one hand: Batman (1990), The Dark Knight (2008), The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). And even with those, the law of diminishing returns applies. Black Panther is different; this is a film I think I could see twenty times or more.

Black Panther is, at base, a very well made blockbuster. It does a good job integrating back story with foregrounded action--not always a guarantee in this genre. It is well-paced, with a tight balance between action and character exposition. The acting performances are almost uniformly good, and it looks and sounds brilliant (more on that later). Also, it contains a plot twist that is genuinely surprising, but which also feels intuitive. These qualities already mark it as a cut above most superhero films. This is not just Save the Cat for the Nth time.

But it's the richness and wonder of Black Panther's world-building that truly sets it apart. Much has been made about how Black Panther centers blackness, and how rare this is in blockbuster action films. To me, though, it is more striking and significant that it centers Africa and African-ness.

Watching the film really underscores how uncommon this is. In most cases, Africa is the backdrop to a film about a white protagonist (e.g. Blood Diamond). This is often the case for Hollywood films set in Asia as well (e.g. The Last Samurai, The Great Wall). However, China, Hong Kong and Japan have strong film industries as well, so films that center Chinese- or Japanese-ness are pretty easy to find in most countries. African films, on the other hand, rarely penetrate the global consciousness...which means that the rare Hollywood film will be all that many audiences ever see of Africa. Making matters worse, the Hollywood view of Africa is almost monotonically focused on deprivation.

Exceptions to the rule are rare--there's The Lion King, which is about animals not people, and Coming to America, 90 percent of which takes place in Queens. Both have an almost exclusively American cast. Here, though, we have a film with an African protagonist, a mostly African supporting cast and set in a modern African society. Many of the actors are either African or of recent African descent as well. The main white character, played by our own English Scribbler Martin Freeman, is the sidekick--a role usually reserved for a black actor.

This is meaningful to me personally. As a kid I loved Fantomen, the Swedish iteration of Lee Falk's The Phantom. The comic was very progressive for its time (1930s), offering a sympathetic view of Africa and Africans and a negative view of their colonial exploitation. As I grew older, though, I realized how The Phantom relegated black Africans to side characters in what should have been their own story, and so robbed them of agency. I've always wondered why the many reboots of this otherwise excellent comic franchise didn't just make the Phantom black. To my knowledge, it hasn't happened yet.

The Black Panther comic introduced in the 1970s was, in some ways, a response to The Phantom, as well as all the other African stories centering white saviors. The film feels like a powerful response to every white savior film ever made.

An amazing Jack Kirby cover too! 
Another interesting element of the film is that it also centers women. More than half of the film's central characters are women, and they are strong, independent women as well. Danai Gurira is electrifying as General Okoye, leader of the elite Dora Milaje warriors, as is Lupita Nyong'o as spy and T'Challa love interest Nakia.

None of this would matter much if the film were bad or mediocre--but it is in fact an exceptionally well-made blockbuster, first and foremost for the reasons I outlined above. However, it is also exception for how meticulously writer/director Ryan Coogler built Wakanda. The sets, costumes, rituals and institutions are draw from African cultures and symbols, as well as the modern tradition of Afro-futurism that gave us the comic character Black Panther in the first place. The effect is stunning, from a visual perspective--as well as unique within the genre. The soundtrack and incidental music are also really striking, enhancing the sense of place as well as dramatic tension throughout the film.

I also appreciated that Black Panther, in the best Marvel tradition, invites us to sympathize with the villain's cause, even as we recoil from his chosen methods. I won't get farther into it, for fear of spoiling the movie for you.

Since this is Nerds of a Feather, I'd be remiss if I didn't nitpick something--nothing is perfect after all. I have two relatively minor complaints. First, there are a couple moments when the film goes overboard with the CGI, in a way that will look dated in just a few years. These are relatively few and far between, though. Second, there is an element to the central plot twist that doesn't make a lot of sense unless you add more own exposition. This did annoy me, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the film.

Black Panther is the best blockbuster film I've seen since Gravity, and the best superhero film I've ever seen. By a mile.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for world building; +1 for centering Africa and Africanness; +1 for going beyond the Save the Cat formula.

Penalties: -1 for too much CGI at a couple pivotal moments; -1 for element of plot twist that, on consideration, doesn't make a lot of sense.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10. "Mind-blowing/life-changing."

Thursday Morning Superhero

Black Panther comes out tonight at midnight and from what I have been reading we should all go see it immediately. My schedule will permit me to view this film on Monday so I would appreciate you all remaining spoiler free on social media.  I'm looking at you, Carl! In addition to being critically acclaimed and projected to break some box office records, it brings joy to my heart that we have a movie with a nearly all-black cast that is getting this much hype and is already being celebrated world wide. Go see Black Panther this weekend. In fact, see it twice!

Pick of the Week:
Babyteeth #8 - Woah.  Donny Cates brought the heat (literally at one point) in the latest issue of his comic that chronicles the lives of Sadie and her newborn Clark. Something is a bit off with Clark, most notably his thirst for his mother's blood. It turns out that he might be the Antichrist and there are various groups that have a vested interest in his life. We recently met Sadie's mother, and in this issue she tells her about her ancestry and why Clark is important in opening the gate between our realm and the devil's.  There are some other amazing tidbits that Cates teaches us about Sadie's mother that I won't get into due to spoilers.  While Sadie's mother is currently holding her and Clark in a safe house, Sadie's father and sister will stop at nothing to save her and Clark, despite the efforts of the demon-ish Dancy and a fire-breathing demon raccoon type animal. Cates provides comic relief in an effective manner and this remains one of my favorite books currently in print.

The Rest:
Kick-Ass #1 - Kick-Ass is back and a brand new Hit-Girl is just around the corner. While I was initially skeptical of another iteration of this Mark Millar creation, the identity and background of the person behind the mask is one that is needed in comics. Even though it is a spoiler, the new individual behind the mask is Patience, a veteran who was a war hero in Afghanistan, an African-American, and a single mom. We quickly learn what an amazing woman she is and I look forward to how her identity shapes the direction of the character. This explosive debut issue features the ultra-violence that is associated with the series and is a lot of fun. I am very curious to see what plans Millar has for this character and look forward to seeing where her journey leads.

Darth Vader #11 - Now that Vader has the list of force sensitive children, he is on a mission to eliminate them.  Joined by The Ninth Sister, a former Jedi turned Inquisitor, Vader is investigating a force sensitive incident that was reported on Cabarria. We quickly learn that there is a group of bounty hunters that are targeting Vader. A highly entertaining issue that sees the destruction of Vader's lightsaber and an exciting flying vehicle chase. A great start to a new arc that seeks the answer of who set Vader up?

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

New Books Spotlight

Welcome to another edition of the New Books Spotlight, where each month or so we curate a selection of 6 forthcoming books we find notable, interesting, and intriguing. It gives us the opportunity to shine a brief spotlight on some stuff we're itching to get our hands on.

What are you looking forward to? Anything you want to argue with us about? Is there something we should consider spotlighting in the future? Let us know in the comments!

Bacigalupi, Paolo, & Tobias S. Buckell. The Tangled Land [Saga Press]
Publisher's Description:
From award-winning and New York Times bestselling authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell comes a fantasy novel told in four parts about a land crippled by the use of magic, and a tyrant who is trying to rebuild an empire—unless the people find a way to resist.

Khaim, The Blue City, is the last remaining city in a crumbled empire that overly relied upon magic until it became toxic. It is run by a tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor and his devious right hand, the last archmage in the world. Together they try to collect all the magic for themselves so they can control the citizens of the city. But when their decadence reaches new heights and begins to destroy the environment, the people stage an uprising to stop them.

In four interrelated parts, The Tangled Lands is an evocative and epic story of resistance and heroic sacrifice in the twisted remains surrounding the last great city of Khaim. Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell have created a fantasy for our times about a decadent and rotting empire facing environmental collapse from within—and yet hope emerges from unlikely places with women warriors and alchemical solutions. 
Why We Want It: I've had copies of the linked novellas The Alchemist (Bacigalupi) and The Executioness (Buckell) on my shelf for a number of years without ever having cracked either cover for no good reason that I can understand. I've been a big fan of Buckell's work since discovering Crystal Rain ten years ago, so I'm always excited to see something with his name on the cover. The Tangled Land pulls together the two previously mentioned novellas with two additional ones to weave together a larger epic story. Now is the time to finally dive into this world.

Barnhill, Kelly. Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories [Algonquin]  
Publisher's Description:
A stunning new collection of short fictions for adult readers from the World Fantasy Award– and Newbery Medal–winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

From award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Kelly Barnhill comes a stunning first collection of acclaimed short fictions, teeming with uncanny characters whose stories unfold in worlds at once strikingly human and eerily original.

When Mrs. Sorensen’s husband dies, she rekindles a long-dormant love with an unsuitable mate in “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch.” In “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through,” a young man wrestles with grief and his sexuality in an exchange of letters with his faraway beloved. “Dreadful Young Ladies” demonstrates the strength and power—known and unknown—of the imagination. “The Insect and the Astronomer” upends expectations about good and bad, knowledge and ignorance, love and longing. The World Fantasy Award–winning novella The Unlicensed Magician introduces the secret, magical life of an invisible girl once left for dead.

By an author hailed as “a fantasist on the order of Neil Gaiman” (Minneapolis Star Tribune), the stories in Dreadful Young Ladies feature bold, reality-bending fantasy underscored by rich universal themes of love, death, jealousy, and hope.  
Why We Want It: We loved Kelly Barnhill's Newbery Medal winning novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon (my review) and pretty much everything else Barnhill has written. I nominated Barnhill's story "Mrs Sorensen and the Sasquatch" for the Hugo back in 2015, but alas, it did not make the final ballot. I've been enjoying her short fiction for years, so this collection will be a delight.  It also includes The Unlicensed Magician (my review), so if you haven't had the chance to discover Sparrow, The Junk Man, or Marla the Egg Woman yet, you're in for a treat.

Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric's Fox [Subterranean Press]
Publisher's Description
With Penric's Fox, multiple-award-winner and bestselling author Lois McMaster Bujold returns to her World of the Five Gods, the setting of her acclaimed novels The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt. Continuing the tale begun in the novellas “Penric’s Demon, “Penric and the Shaman,” and "Penric's Mission," Bujold’s newest installment of Penric and Desdemona’s tale is another must-read novella for her legion of fans.

Some eight months after the events of Penric and the Shaman, Learned Penric, sorcerer and scholar, travels to Easthome, the capital of the Weald. There he again meets his friends Shaman Inglis and Locator Oswyl. When the body of a sorceress is found in the woods, Oswyl draws him into another investigation; they must all work together to uncover a mystery mixing magic, murder and the strange realities of Temple demons. 
Why We Want It: At this point we don't have to say much more than "Lois McMaster Bujold" to get you to pick up a book, do we? Bujold's Penric novellas are bite sized delights and I'm quite looking forward to more.

Burke, Sue. Semiosis [Tor]  
Publisher's Description
Human survival hinges on an bizarre alliance in Semiosis, a character driven science fiction novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke. 

Colonists from Earth wanted the perfect home, but they’ll have to survive on the one they found. They don’t realize another life form watches...and waits... Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet's sentient species and prove that humans are more than tools. 
Why We Want It: I've long loved novels of colonies and discovery across generations.  Semiosis continues to pop up on our radar and as this is a generational novel of a human colony struggling to survive on another world, it's exactly the novel I'm looking for. Semiosis should be an impressive debut.

Stross, Charles. Dark State [Tor] 
Publisher's Description
Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Stross dives deep into the underbelly of paratime espionage, nuclear warfare, and state surveillance in this provocative techno-thriller set in The Merchant Princes multi-verse 

Dark State ups the ante on the already volatile situations laid out in the sleek techno-thriller Empire Games, the start to Stross' new story-line, and perfect entry point for new readers, in The Merchant Princes series.

In the near-future, the collision of two nuclear superpowers across timelines, one in the midst of a technological revolution and the other a hyper-police state, is imminent. In Commissioner Miriam Burgeson’s timeline, her top level agents run a high risk extraction of a major political player. Meanwhile, a sleeper cell activated in Rita's, the Commissioner's adopted daughter and newly-minted spy, timeline threatens to unravel everything.

With a penchant for intricate world-building and an uncanny ability to realize alternate history and technological speculation, Stross' writing will captivate any reader who's a fan hi-tech thrillers, inter-dimensional political intrigue, and espionage.  
Why We Want It: Empire Games (my review) was perhaps the strongest of Stross's parallel universe hopping Merchant Princes novels filled with political intrigue. I didn't love it without reservations, but I frequently find myself coming back and thinking about the details and how things fit together. I'm hoping for more of Dark State to be set in Miriam's timeline since Empire Games skimped on that a bit, but I've got this sitting on the nightstand next to my bed and I anticipating cracking this one open very soon.

Wexler, Django. The Infernal Battalion [Ace] 
Publisher's Description
Military might and arcane power clash in Django Wexler’s thrilling new Shadow Campaigns novel. 

The Beast, the ancient demon imprisoned beneath the fortress-city of Elysium for a thousand years, has been loosed on the world. It absorbs mind after mind, spreading like a plague through the north. The fell army it has raised threatens the heart of Vordan, and it is under the command of the Beast’s greatest prize: legendary general Janus bet Vhalnich.

As Queen Raesinia Orboan and soldiers Marcus D’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass grapple with the aftermath of a hard-fought military campaign, they soon discover a betrayal they never could have foreseen. The news arrives like a thunderbolt: Janus has declared himself the rightful Emperor of Vordan. Chaos grips the city as officers and regiments are forced to declare for queen or emperor.

Raesinia must struggle to keep her country under control and risks becoming everything she fought against. Marcus must take the field against his old commander, a man who has seemed an unbeatable strategist. And as Winter recovers from her injuries and mourns her losses, she knows the demon she carries inside her might be the only thing standing between the Beast and the destruction of everything in its path…. 
Why We Want It: We here at Nerds of a Feather have long been fan of Django Wexler's Shadow Campaigns, especially The G, so you know we're looking forward to this fifth volume. 

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.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Image result for space
Welcome to the latest Fireside Chat! I sat down (ie emailed back and forth, but I’m sure there was a roaring fire at some point) with Brian Ramos, an all-around awesome person with degrees in engineering and a Masters in International Space Studies. He previously did work with Engineering World Health (a non-profit that works to improve healthcare systems in developing countries). He also recently completed an 8 month long stint in the HI-SEAS Mars habitat. This essentially saw him living inside a dome, next to one volcano and on the slopes of another, alongside a small crew, to help the study of what these kind of living conditions would be like for potential future manned missions to Mars. So we talked about his experiences and his ideas about depictions of space in media and science-fiction.- Chloe

Can you tell us a bit about your background and interest in space and science?

My academic background is in Biomedical and Electrical Engineering. I also have a degree in International Space Studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. My professional experience ranges from working on improving medical care in developing countries to work in the space industry. As much as possible, I try and make as much of my life about exploration, and both traveling and space/science fulfill this need (living in a dome on a volcano included).

Because you brought it up in there, can you explain the dome part of your answer?

Although living in a dome may seem as if it’s the opposite of exploration, given its stationary nature, it fulfilled this need to delve into a different way of life. It was an adventure in its own way. Rather than trekking around the world, what happens when you step outside of it entirely? What happens when you’re able to turn down all the noise and tear yourself away from the constant connectivity of the modern world? These were the sort of questions I was able to answer or at least dive into with the experience. On a more surface level, there was also a lot to learn through the research and performing of work, such as exploring lava tube caves.

Do you think the experience inside the habitat changed your perception of how community and/or relationships in space/sci-fi media are portrayed?

 I haven’t thought about its connection to space media, as much as it’s given me some insight into how a real astronaut may feel under certain conditions; such as  what may actually be necessary or unnecessary for creating a positive work and living environment, in an isolated space.

I did give thoughts to some sci-fi pieces such as I Am Legend or the movie Passengers in relation to being isolated. I tried to imagine how different I would feel if I were on the same mission alone.

 What kind of space media (books, movies, tv) have you enjoyed? What made these works stand out positively to you?

I’m going to have to say Firefly is probably my favorite space-themed show. Its incredible writing, character backgrounds and interactions, and well-meaning but stern protagonist all make me wish the series had continued. There’s something enticing about a group who lives job-to-job, traveling around to different planets. It scratches a certain traveler’s itch and envy, you know, except without the forced life of crime.

For movies, I’ve enjoyed the new Star Trek movies (the first in particular), Star Wars, and movies like Arrival. Star Trek provided this fantasy of an organization that anyone could join and lead a life, and career, exploring and observing the universe—basically a dream come true for any of us who would want to leave the planet someday. Plus, there’s a market for skills like martial arts; so, for once, my childhood hobbies would be respected on a resume!

Additionally, the idea of Star Trek’s prime directive is a really important thought in science fiction, I think. Having a rule of not meddling is something that we, as humans, rarely emphasize enough in practice. The crews in Star Trek aren’t looking to create settlements or colonize, but instead exploring to understand. I’ve enjoyed that idea of exploration rooted in good moral intentions, as well as the thought of curiosity being enough of a motivator for us to go out there.

I’ve enjoyed movies that try and have a degree of realism involved. The Martian or Gravity might be good examples of this. Though they’re not perfect, they have some elements that relate to actual space exploration as we know it, and that can be exciting for someone who knows the field. That being said, I don’t think that realism is necessary in science fiction. If anything, I want the media to take me somewhere new—show me possibilities rather than reality. Arrival did a nice job of this. Both the short story and the movie ask questions, and propose possibilities, that leave you thinking a while after the credits roll. It begged for conversation.

It wouldn’t be fair if I left out movies about actual space missions. Apollo 13 is probably the best example of this. Truth is often more engaging than fiction, and the story of what those men went through is engaging in every aspect.

Since you brought up films about actual space missions, I’m curious as to whether you feel those kind of films have an easier or harder time depicting space (since they have to stick to realism)? And, do you think it’s important for non-realistic science fiction to still realistically depict space? If so, why?

 I’m not sure that it’s a question of whether one is easier or harder to depict space, but perhaps more about the intent. A movie about Apollo 13 would likely go to great lengths to get the story correct, consulting with experts and the like, and the dramatization might be amplified for storytelling purposes. They consult experts on movies such as Star Trek, as well, a lot of times, but they don’t necessarily strive to be accurate and I don’t think they really need to be.
 What are your feelings/thoughts on science-fiction?

Oddly, space fiction isn’t something I indulge in much. Science-fiction in general does have a lot of utility. First and foremost, it needs to be good entertainment. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Science fiction does a good job of sparking ideas and showing off what kinds of things we may be able to create or want in the future.

The most valuable thing science fiction provides, for me, is a barometer for our society’s current trends. Culture drives everything, and space exploration is no exception. As interest in space and science has increased throughout the last several years, so has the amount of shows, movies, and projects about space. Ten years ago, only people in the industry could tell you what SpaceX was. Now, Elon Musk is a well-known name, complete with appearances in science-fiction blockbuster movies, such as Iron Man 2.

 What are things you’d like to see more of in science fiction (ideas, technologies, etc)?

I’d like to see more depth, in general. Science fiction, like any work of fiction, is stronger when it urges us to question ourselves and the world around us.

I would love to see more movies like Moon. In general, I’d love for filmmakers or whoever greenlights those films to feel less inclined to put in action scenes or pointless explosions into movies just for the sake of it. I loved 90% of Passengers—having to make the choice of waking someone up in the face of an eternity alone, at the expense of guilt, is a fascinating concept all on its own. I could have done without the engine heat body-blasting. These pieces don’t often offer up much, and often detract from the story.

That being said, given that no filmmakers will read this and think, ‘by gosh, he’s right!’, I’ll go ahead and say, at the very least, I would not be opposed to Star Wars adding a heavy second dose of Donnie Yen or more lightsaber battles. Nobody goes to those movies hoping to see Darth Vader falling in love.

You’re interested in cultural issues and aspects of space, as well as the science, is that something that you’d like to see addressed more in science-fiction? What are your feelings on science fiction’s depictions of exploring and living on other planets? Having had the habitat experience, do you think there’s specific elements of living on another planet that you’d like to see depicted? 

      I’m going to answer your questions in what might be a different way than what you’re asking.

    The old saying that truth is stranger than fiction is very true. If someone were looking for science fiction inspiration, I would look towards organizations that look at concepts for things like multigenerational worldships – the concept of having a self-sustaining society, contained within a ship, which would travel over many generations before reaching their destination. These are real studies that consider launching a group of people into space, with the knowledge that the ones who arrive at the destination will not be the ones who left Earth. Because of the complexity of the scenario, there are a lot of interesting questions that arise from the thought exercise. What might religions look like in that worldship, for example? Would they exist at all? Would they be Earth-based religions or something new? Would religions that focus on Earth matter to people who had never seen it? What happens when a terrible leader comes to power in one of the generations? How likely is that to happen? What might an economy look like on this ship?

These are just a few examples but the point is that a creator can take one simple concept – a Mars base, a worldship, the theory of panspermia, and run with the idea. Start with the truth and show me where your mind runs to.

Where do you hope to see the representation of space in science fiction and media go?

I’d like to see a growing demand and supply for space-related science fiction, simply because it shows that people are becoming interested in the topic. NASA is a publicly-funded organization, which means it depends on voters who care about space exploration. Without a desire and popularization of space exploration, I think it will be difficult for us to go anywhere interesting. At the end of the day, people need to care about the search for life and thirst for understanding of our universe.

For people wishing to learn more about space, what would be good resources?

 It depends on what sort of space they’re trying to learn about. There is a lot on the website about their research and progress. Speakers, such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, do a great job of being effective space communicators. I urge people to look outside of what NASA is doing. There are space programs, in many different nations, that look to leverage space in new and interesting ways. For those looking for an academic institution to grow their space industry knowledge, I highly recommend The International Space University.

Are you involved in the creation of anything space media related? (This question is essentially so you can plug your podcast, because I am helpful like that)

Yes! We run a podcast called Space For Everyone that’s going to explore interesting aspects of the space industry, ranging from religion to space organizations in developing nations. Our goal is to showcase the international and cultural aspects of space exploration. I also run The Traveling Spaceman blog which talks about my HI-SEAS mission and other lessons learned through exploring the Earth.

 Since often the focus, at least in the news and popular media, on space is linked to technology and exploration,  are there aspects of space or space exploration that you wished people talked about more?

There are a couple of things.

This isn’t unique to space exploration, but news media tends to focus on the accidents. When something goes wrong and people’s lives are threatened, there is a ton of coverage. There isn’t a lot when things are running smoothly. When the space shuttle program was cancelled, many people back home asked me what I thought of ‘NASA being shut down’. The International Space Station has been flying for over 15 years consistently and I think that should be recognized. When things are running smoothly, we tend to take for granted that the astronauts there are risking their lives every time they strap themselves to a rocket.
I wished that people connected more with the idea of exploration being something we should do simply because we are, because we exist and we can. No one asks why we want to breathe or be loved. We all understand that:those of us who are addicted to traveling or space feel the same wayabout hopping on a plane or discovering a possible signal of life on another planet.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Nanoreviews: The Stone in the Skull, Persepolis Rising, The Tea Master and the Detective

Bear, Elizabeth. The Stone in the Skull [Tor, 2017]

The Stone in the Skull is set in the same world as her superb Eternal Sky trilogy, but if you haven't read those books (and why haven't you?), don't worry because there are only loose connections that add to the rich tapestry that is The Stone in the Skull. Here Bear shifts the location south east to the Lotus Kingdoms and introduces readers to the Gage and the Dead Man, two characters whose personal stories, friendship, and interactions are riveting (one is a woman turned into automaton, the other a bodyguard / assassin from a now destroyed Caliphate), and also to Sayeh and Mrithuri, rulers of their respective kingdoms fighting to hold on and protect their people, their positions, and somehow manage to have a glimmer of a personal life outside of the rigid wall of expectation of a woman ruling in her own name. The Stone in the Skull is the first book of a new trilogy and so there is some building and setting up story and characters arcs that will pay off in books two and three, but both as a novel and the beginning of a trilogy, The Stone in the Skull stands as one of the best novels of 2017 or any other year.  Elizabeth Bear is at the height of her powers and her powers are mighty indeed.
Score: 9/10

Corey, James S.A. Persepolis Rising [Orbit, 2017]

The thirty year time jump from the conclusion of Babylon Rising was a risky move, but it paid off in spades in Persepolis Rising. The time jump was an opportunity for Corey to reset the deck, establish the new norms for the galaxy and begin to bring new characters into the mix while building a new threat to the forefront.  It works exceedingly well, and when Corey shows the new threat and brings the hammer, there's a very high body count, excitement, and the end result is one of the best novels in the entire series - which is an impressive feat for book #7.
Score: 9/10

deBodard, Aliette. The Tea Master and the Detective [Subterranean Press, 2018]

The Mindships of de Bodard's Xuya universe remind me somewhat of Anne McCaffrey's Brain ships, which is not so much a point as a random observation. The Tea Master and the Detective is a murder mystery with a sentient ship and a prickly detective uneasily working together to figure out how a body abandoned in deep space was killed. The novella is far better than my description. The excellence here is in the interplay between The Shadow Child and Long Chau and their characterization, development, and backgrounds.

Score: 7/10

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, February 9, 2018

Microreview [book]: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval promises a magical game but only delivers on the frustration of being tricked.

Trigger Warnings: Domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, suicide

With a brilliant book cover (yes, I’m guilty of judging covers these days) and a title with a hint of magic and mystery, Stephanie Garber’s Caraval seemed right in my YA wheelhouse. I wanted to like it. I wanted to dive into a carnival landscape and follow two sisters around while they unravel a deadly game. I was ready for the colorful cast of characters.

Except the novel only provides a skeleton of what’s promised on the back flap: “Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world.” The novel follows two sisters—Scarlett and her younger sister Donatella—who both dream of attending the famous Caraval, partially as an escape from their violent and abusive father. Scarlett writes to the Caraval’s creator, named Legend, for years before she finally receives the offer she’s been hoping for—tickets to the performance. One for her, Donatella, and Scarlett’s fiancé, a man she has never met.

The only problem: the marriage arranged by her father happens only a few days after the Caraval, so it would be nearly impossible for Scarlett to attend both. Donatella knows how much attending the Caraval means to her sister, and she has a plan to use the Caraval as a chance to finally escape their father’s abuse.

While the plot promises plenty of tension (though abuse as a character’s driving force usually worries me), I was eagerly turning pages to reach the Caraval descriptions. I was ready to be inspired by the wonder of this invented place that had so captured the imaginations of Scarlett and Donatella to the point it also captured my imagination. I felt promised this type of wonder as a reader.

Garber rarely delivers on this promise of magic. Moments of imagination were spread throughout the novel, such as a tattooed fortune teller who learned about his visitors by which of his tattoos they looked at—but such moments were often not fully realized. For example, a few pages after the fortune teller, Scarlett enters a kissing tent. Considering the sexual tension between her and the male main character, Julian, I felt excited to see the kissing tent, hoping for interesting descriptions of young love, adventure, ideas of first kisses, attraction, or a darker twist on these beloved tropes. Instead, the tent was described as mostly empty and Scarlett bought an elixir of protection, which felt like a let down as a reader. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of sexual tension throughout the book (though it starts off weird with Scarlett being kidnapped by Julian and nearly drowning), but it often felt misplaced or awkward—such as Julian trying to convince Scarlett to sleep in the same bed as him even though it made her extremely uncomfortable. 

Some of Garber’s best moments are when she describes the clothing. One of Scarlett’s dresses changes depending on her mood, and I loved the tight details of each new piece, from bustles and lace to risqué sleeveless tops and sweetheart necklines. Garber imbued the wonder into the clothing while the rest remained hard to visualize, even confusing at times, such as a description of a carousel that was unclear on size, speed, placement, or the ridable creatures. Had it been a passing description, perhaps it need not be so fully realized, but Garber cues the reader into its importance right away.

While the descriptions were not what I had been expecting or hoping for, I would’ve been more forgiving if the Caraval were not set in a secondary world. Other than the addition of magic, little seemed separate from a historical fiction set in the 1800s. I wasn’t sure why Garber invented a whole new place rather than add a taste of magic, such as in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which Caraval is often compared to. Using a historical version of our world might have made the light prose feel less spare since the reader doesn’t have to imagine (or reimagine) everything. After finishing the book, it wasn’t apparent to me why the world needed to be a totally new secondary place.

The mainstream reviews of Caraval feel like a totally different book than the one I read. Again, I wanted to like this fantasy. I wanted to be swept away in a dark carnival game, but thin descriptions, confusing prose, an unexplored secondary world made for an unsatisfying read, plus the amount of abuse (emotional and physical) spread throughout the novel had me cringing rather than rooting for Scarlett, who, in my mind, never seemed to overcome her victimization, even in the final turn of Caraval’s game. While I do not have experience with the abuse detailed in the novel, it wasn’t apparent to me what I should take away from those scenes. Overall, while Caraval was one of the hot picks of 2017, it didn’t thrill me.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: +1 for descriptions of costumes

Penalties: -1 for one of the biggest deus ex machina endings I’ve read in a long time

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 “Very little good I can say about this.” Read more about our scoring system here.

Posted by Phoebe Wagner

Garber, Stephanie. Caraval [Flatiron Books, 2016]