Friday, September 21, 2018

Microreview [Book]: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

Zero Sum Game has some strong, subversive ideas, but weak characterisation and a slow-to-hook plot leaves it less than the sum of its parts.

Though it's new to print this year, Zero Sum Game was already on my radar in its previous, ebook only self-published incarnation, although it never made the leap from the ever-growing collection of Kindle Samples I keep around to inform potential purchases onto my actual TBR. This new version, published by Tor, has been revisited and polished up, and is now being released much more widely as part of the publisher's #Fearlesswomen initiative, bringing this unconventional superhero thriller to a bigger audience, and also to me.

Our protagonist Cas Russell is a mathematical genius, and a hired gun, but not in the way you'd expect. Far from being your average brains-over-brawn number crunching geek, providing support to a team from behind some giant, poorly lit computer display, her abilities let her calculate the trajectory of bullets, survive falls that should kill her and punch people much larger than her at just the right angle to drop them with minimum necessary force. Cas is extremely cagey about these abilities and keeps them very close to her chest, particularly as she lives in a world where she seems to be the only person who can do this kind of thing. However, after a routine extraction of a young woman from a Colombian drug cartel ends up leading her to an organisation led by someone with even more terrifying abilities, Cas ends up in the middle of a plot that's both more wide ranging and more relevant to her, personally, than she had realised.

The way Cas' abilities play out - and, almost as importantly, the way they don't - provides Zero Sum Game with its most unique and compelling facet. Our introduction to her capabilities is almost exclusively through her ability to manipulate real-world mechanics, giving her superhuman combat abilities and problem solving skills which allow her to, for example, move a series of random objects in an alley to manipulate the acoustics enough to hear a conversation happening in a distant room. This is all very cool stuff, and it absolutely sets the scene for Cas as an action hero subversion of the "maths geek" trope. In contrast, Cas' abilities to apply statistical analysis, while also developed in later chapters, take a long time to come to the fore, and importantly they never dominate the way the first-person narrative . Even when Cas does run the probabilities of what the people around her will do, it's embedded in interpersonal and emotional reactions to the situations she's in, and tends to come with a much lower rate of reward than her kickass physics-ninja skills. Cas is bad with people, but she's bad in a generally misanthropic way, not a "human emotions do not compute" way, and this makes for a more interesting character (especially for the purposes of first-person narration).

Cas is thrown into an action packed plot which kicks off right from the very first page and never really stops moving. I struggled with this in early chapters, as very little time is spent establishing the limited networks and sense of "normal" in Cas' life before these are ripped away from her in a move which feels rather like the prologue of a Bioware game, motivating her continuing interest in a case that otherwise doesn't hold much long-term appeal for such a self-interested character. It's not until the introduction of the big bad, and her own abilities, that I became more invested in where things were going. Dawna Polk is basically a telepath, in the way that Cas is basically a superhero - while she might not be able to magically read minds, her ability to interpret psychological cues is so good that she's able to read everything a person is thinking and, even more terrifyingly, manipulate the impact that encountering her has on the memories and intentions of others. The uncertainty this brings to what was formerly a fairly standard plot is chilling in all the right ways, and used to great effect both in the book itself and to set up hooks for the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, Dawna is a standout character in a story which doesn't really have any others. Even Cas herself is hard to like, and her characterisation is somewhat thin outside of the maths stuff, although some of the gaping holes in her background and motivations do make more sense towards the end. Also, this is yet another book where I was frustrated by the gender balance: besides Cas and Dawna, the only other women turn up near the beginning and are pretty much just there as victims, and there's no non-binary representation. By far my biggest annoyance was Rio, Cas' only "friend", who is supposed to be a compelling sociopath-with-a-code and whose motivations and relationship to Cas come to the fore at several points in the plot. Unfortunately, Rio's main functions are to do horrible things that Cas constantly makes excuses for, and mansplain her own emotions and behaviours to her for her own good. I can't help but note that Huang didn't need to make Rio a sociopath for this to be a plausible set of behaviours for him to exhibit towards a female protagonist, and the effect was far from endearing. Cas' other sidekick is Arthur Tresting, a Private Investigator who comes off better when his counterpoint is Rio, but is otherwise bland at best, getting upstaged by his bit-part hacker friend in the few scenes the friend gets to be in.

Ultimately, while I can certainly admire the elements that Zero Sum Game does well, for me the good didn't fully outweigh the things I didn't like about this story. Cas and Dawna both have highly compelling powers and are interesting characters in their own right (odd but ultimately justified choices on Cas' part aside), but the plot took a little too long to get its hooks into me, and the supporting protagonists were at best forgettable. For those who are more invested in fast paced action and don't mind the drawbacks I've mentioned here, Zero Sum Game's calculation might work out more in their favour, but alas, it's not going to go down as one of my favourite reading experiences this year.

The Math
Base Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Genuinely brilliant reimagining of the "maths nerd" trope into something completely different, +1 If Cas Russell were reading this, she'd already have calculated the probabilities of where this score is going to go

Penalties: -1 Lacklustre characterisation outside of the compelling villain, -1 I'm suddenly really tired, I think I'll take a nap instead of justifying this score... what do you mean, psychic manipulation? No, no, none of that here, I assure you...

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Huang, S.L. Zero Sum Game [Tor, 2018]

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

There is less than 24 hours left to help fund Comics Comics #1!!!  Check out this amazing looking Kickstarter here and support this project. Backed with the talent of Patton Oswalt, Rose Matafeo, Sam Jay, and many other talented comedians.

Pick of the Week:
The Terminator: Sector War #2 - How the hell did I miss the first issue when this came out?!?! A Terminator mini-series penned by Brian Wood?!  Thanks to a retweet from the Dark Horse twitter account I was alerted about this series yesterday morning. I quickly added both issues #1 and this issue to my pull list and this series is an absolute blast. It seems that a second Terminator was deployed in 1984 to New York City in pursuit of Lucy Castro.  The first two issues amount to one incredible chase sequence, a solid body count, and a Terminator that won't give up in his pursuit to prevent the birth of Castro's future child. Apparently he is instrumental in the future resistance to the machines and the Terminator is pulling out all of the punches in order to prevent this child from ever organizing against them in the future. This series pulls on all of the right nostalgic heart strings and is a lot of freaking fun. Cannot recommend this one enough. If this continues to entertain like the first two issue I will need spin-offs in Texas, Minnesota, and across the globe.

The Rest:
Star Wars #54 - War is imminent as Leia and some rebels make a desperate gambit to secure jump codes right under Darth Vader's nose. The highlight was Leia hijacking a Tie-Fighter to escape only to learn that without a pilot's helmet there is no way for her to communicate with the X-Wings she needs to rendezvous with. Fortunately there is a little thing called the Force and her twin brother and her are both strong with it. This was a thrilling end to the current arc and a much larger war is impending. When the rebels jumped to safety I had some Battlestar Galactica vibes, which I quite enjoy.

Ether: The Copper Golems #5 - The second book in the Ether universe has come to its depressing end. Boone was able to successfully close the final portal and save earth, but it carried with it a massive cost. This series has been a trip from the beginning and for some reason this is the issue where I really started to feel for Boone and his desire to travel to the Ether. I never considered what he was sacrificing in his pursuit of knowledge and I am even more intrigued about Book III and what Matt Kindt and David Rubin have planned for this bizarre universe. This ended definitely makes me want to go back and read Book I and Book II back-to-back in preparation of what I think is the final chapter.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Microreview [book]: Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning is an electric debut with a post-apocalyptic world, a kickass heroine, and her adrenaline-fueled ride through that landscape.

After a spectacular and very likely supernatural apocalypse that has drowned much of the world, much of North America is underwater and much of the remainder that isn't is a mess. The land inside of what was the Navajo Reservation is protected by a quartet of magical walls. And yet even inside of the boundaries of the walls, in this new world, there are monsters, and monstrous people, and such dangers and threats must be addressed, and fought.

That’s where Maggie Hoskie comes in. She’s been trained as a monster hunter by the very best, but she is new to fighting monsters on her own. And it is in the fighting monsters on her own that she is drawn into a plot that will not only gain her a partner, but also uncover a threat to the entire world inside the walls and the people who live there. Can Maggie protect herself, and those around her, when she must also restain an even greater monster--herself? And just what DID happen to her old mentor, anyhow?

This is the central question at the heart of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel, Trail of Lightning.

There is plenty to love in Trail of Lighting, and Maggie as a main character is front and center the heart of the novel and she makes the novel sing. An indigenous woman granted supernatural powers that are complicated and make her an outsider by their very nature, Maggie’s life as a newly solo monster hunter is a fraught one. The author writes her action beats very well, and when Maggie takes the stage as a fighter, the novel positively sings. Through those action beats, and the first person point of view, we get a really intense look at Maggie as a character, how she sees herself, how others do, and the sometimes fraught relationshop between those two visions.

The second major character in the novel, Kai, a rather unconventional hero. Thanks to the nature of the character, and the plot, and the secrets that Kai is hiding, he is somewhat difficult to get a handle on as a character. I think that the author may have made Kai just a tad too slippery for readers to get a good enough purchase on for my taste. As the novel progresses, we get to see why Kai is the way he is and the relevance of that to the plot, but I think a little more hook on him would have been good.

The worldbuilding is top notch and a leading light of the power of #ownvoices. There is an authenticity to the myths and legends made supernatural manifest fact within the Sixth World that the author presents here. This is a post-apocalyptic world whose suipernatural denizens, threats and features felt like the author was truly delving deep into her own culture, understanding it and presenting it to us in context and the richness of what is on offer. And much of it is new to most readers and rich with details and ideas that I was very happy to have the author explore.  I particularly liked her interpretation of Coyote, the Trickster, who has an agenda for Maggie that only slowly becomes clear as the novel unfolds. But it is the things that go bump in the night, the entities that Maggic must encounter and fight, that shows the author’s invention the best.

The worldbuilding also extends to the non supernatural elements as well. From the vividly described desert landscapes in what used to be the Navajo Reservation, to the people who inhabit it, I got a deep sense of place and people in reading the novel. As I read the novel, I found myself consulting Google Maps time and again, and turning on the Satellite image to get an even better view of where events took place. The author also invoked a more than mild desire for me to one day see  the real life terrain and meet the people who live there. There are also a number of set piece locations that the novel is built around, that serve as hubs or tentpoles where the novel’s major scenes takes place. I particularly like Grace’s All-American, one of the few bars left, and built like a fortress. Grace and her family are quite the distinctive characters,. too.

There are some small flaws in the novel, however. It is very clearly a first novel, and its pacing and plotting can get a little herky-jerky in places. The action beats as mentioned above are strong and rich, but sometimes the connective tissue.isn’t quite what it could be, and it sometimes meanders, without strong compensative character development at the same time. The novel, in fact, definitely does best in character development during those action beats.

Still, I look forward to what Roanhorse does in the next Sixth World novels, and hope that some of the roughness of the first novel wears off and she only improves on the strengths of this novel.

Find out more about Rebecca Roanhorse and her work in our Six Books Feature.

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for  a deep dive into an intriguing main character
+1 for an inventive and well described world

Penalties : -1 for some first novel  pacing and plotting issues.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: well worth your time and attention

Reference:  Roanhorse, Rebecca  Trail of Lightning [Saga Press 2018]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Microreview [film]: The Predator by Shane Black (director)

Mindless Animal

I know what it means when a child is a prominent character in a R rated action movie. In the opening 20 minutes of The Predator, we’re introduced to Rory McKenna, a grade schooler on the autism spectrum and son of Army man Quinn McKenna, this film’s protagonist. Can you guess why Rory is here? I groaned out loud, which is okay because I watched this from the comfort of my car at my local drive-in theater. It didn’t get better.

The Predator is a sequel to the previous Predator and Alien vs. Predator movies, starting with a predator crash landing on Earth. After a brief encounter with the senior McKenna, it’s captured by scientists while McKenna tries to escape with some alien equipment stolen from the crash site. McKenna is captured by the government and put with a group of other “crazy” military veterans, but the predator escapes and starts to track down the stolen gear, which McKenna had accidentally sent home and are now in the hands of his pre-teen child. McKenna enlists the help of his new friends and one of the surviving scientists to track down the predator and save his son, but none of them are ready for a second, even more dangerous predator that has also come to Earth.

I saw the trailers for this movie and it did not look good. I should have trusted my instincts. The gaggle of damaged military veterans are obviously made to emulate the special forces team of the first Predator, except they somehow have even less dimension to their characters, and essentially no motivation to take on this suicide mission. McKenna’s motivations are so incredibly weak as well, mostly correcting for a problem he caused for himself by stealing alien artifacts for seemingly no reason. But the worst of these are the motivations of the first predator that crash landed on Earth. Without spoiling the weak plot, the reason for why the first predator is on Earth to begin with is nonsense, especially in context of its actions. The only character that makes any sense whatsoever is the super predator but even its actions can’t be reconciled with its motives at times. The ending is completely predictable, and how they get there requires so much hand waving and movie magic that it pulled me completely out of its fiction. This movie world does not make sense, and not in a whimsical way, just a thoughtless way. I cannot believe a single thought went into this script beyond the singular purpose of getting from one end of the movie to the other.

Even if it made sense, it’s a bad action movie. For unknown reasons, the whole movie takes place at night (with a questionable amount of fast forwarding through time at the start), and nearly every scene is poorly lit. This is good for the predators though, because they don’t seem to take much advantage of the benefits of being a predator, namely being able to hunt invisibly. You see so much of these predators that they may as well be slasher movie villains. This is Predator by way of Friday the 13th. No skilled hunters, just invincible killers brutally murdering anyone in the path of their (again, weak and nonsensical) mission until the plot dictates that they have to be defeated.

I don’t hold any franchise sacred, but this is worse than just a bad popcorn action movie. It belongs in the gutters with Terminator 3, Terminator: Genesys, and Alien: Resurrection. This is a movie so bad that it should put the franchise on the shelf for a very long time. I don’t want to see someone course-correct on this. Please, Fox/Disney, put Predator away and let us forget this horrible outing.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: Nada

Penalties: -1 completely and utterly mindless in every manner

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10 (really really bad)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Black, Shane (director). The Predator [20th Century Fox, 2018]  

Microreview [Film]: Fahrenheit 451

With some dystopian themes taking hold in our everyday reality and the success of Handmaid's Tale TV series, it may seem like a good time for HBO to revisit other classics of dystopian science fiction. This year, they released a new movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 – the novel about firemen burning books because different opinions and worldviews create unhappiness, and about literati rebels fight back by the way of illicit bookcrossing and memorizing whole novels.

The story is recognizable for the fans of the novel, I guess, even though writer-director Ramin Bahrani (together with his co-writer Amir Naderi who is an established director in his own right) has played around with the characters and events quite a bit.

There's a lot to modernize in a novel that is a 65 years old speculative future, of course, but I wouldn't describe much of it as very successful. There are new books to fight about, for sure: We see the book-torching firemen burn a copy of a Harry Potter novel and Clarisse McClellan – transformed from the teenage neighbor appearing in Bradbury's novel into a fire brigade's unwilling informer and eventually the protagonist's love interest – is memorizing Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

Instead of soap opera parlor walls (or whatever it was everyone was addicted to in the novel) the citizens of this new world seem to be obsessively consuming reality TV broadcasts of raids by the firemen. It is never explained and it has no consequence for the story, but all the emoticons and comments appearing on the building-size displays suggest some kind of social media aspect to this technology, even though everything and everyone seems to be firmly under the bootheels of their paramilitary rulers. Any amount of free expression is hard to reconcile with the vision, so the world starts to come apart at the seams if you consider it too closely. Some hard drives get torched with the books and there are computers and networks around but the rebels mostly stick to reading and smuggling dead-tree editions which seems a bit unpractical.

The main character is still Guy Montag (played by Michael B. Jordan) from the novel, a fireman who starts having second thoughts about what he's doing, but Bahrani has completely dropped his wife to make room for Montag's romance with McClellan. As a consequence, the film doesn't have a person who would stay desensitized by the stale state-approved entertainment as a contrast to Montag who has woken up. That's perhaps one of the biggest things making the film less engaging. Showing us only the conflict between firemen and their opponents leave much of this dystopian world unexplored.

Of course, there's only so much the film can do, given its source material. Fahrenheit 451 is ultimately making a philosophical armchair argument, and transforming that into high-adrenaline political action was never an easy task. For anybody living in 2018, banning fiction as a way to lessen tensions between different worldviews is as nonsensical a proposition as it gets, because practically all other imaginable kinds of human interactions (social media, journalism etc) are much more effective in polarizing societies around the world today. Perhaps this would have been an interesting theme to look into in the movie adaptation, and quite possibly something that Bradbury would be thinking about if he was writing Fahrenheit 451 today.

The haunting character of fire brigade captain Beatty played by Michael Shannon, the musical-esque opening scene in which firemen sing in their fire truck, and occasional cool visuals are about the only solid things about this movie. In addition, the ending is your cup of tea if you enjoy over-the-top poetic and metaphoric moments and can manage to suspend your disbelief in the book-loving rebels' arguably rather silly master plan.

The Math

Base Score: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for "Down the red-hot valley, lo! The phantom armies marching go! Salamander ho! Salamander ho!"

Penalties: -2 for missing so many opportunities to be a relevant adaptation of a novel that was highly relevant

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 – "Very little good I can say about this"

Reference: Fahrenheit 451 [HBO 2018]


POSTED BY: Spacefaring Kitten, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Microreview [video game]: No Man's Sky Next by Hello Games

Listlessly Drifting Through Space

No Man's Sky wasn't exactly a success on release. Sure, it seemed to sell well and generate a lot of discussion, but an overwhelming majority of that discussion was on whether or not the developers delivered on what they promised. Such an incredible number of words were written about what was or was not promised, and was or was not delivered, that the developers essentially dropped the game and disappeared from public eye, quietly updating and improving it until we reached this most recent update. It was enough of a leap to warrant a release on a new platform (Xbox One), and a new name, No Man's Sky Next. However, it doesn't exactly fix what made No Man's Sky a disappointment.

In No Man's Sky, you are a solitary explorer in an infinite galaxy. The game pushes technological boundaries by providing an almost limitless number of planets to explore, with almost limitless numbers of aliens, plants, and minerals on those planets. And before the Next update, that was about it.

Over the course of two years, and including the Next update, the game added the ability to build a base, manage a fleet of frigates, interact with other people through online multiplayer, and offered a handful of quests with storylines to follow. The base game just kind of pointed you to the center of the galaxy, but now there are things to do in this universe. Unfortunately, it's still not much of a game. The bulk of my time was spent filling meters and watching them slowly tick down while I tried to accomplish the meager and sometimes unclear goals the quests gave me. There are so many planets to explore that none of them seem particularly noteworthy until you land on a nasty one that is hostile to almost all life and you're low on resources. Then I spent too much time scraping enough bits and pieces together just to get off the planet and hope the next one I landed on wasn't such a hellhole. Every planet has a universal system of space police that seem to serve only to annoy you. If you mine resources in front of them, they attack. If you fight back, they summon reinforcements, escalating in number and size, never backing down. The only way to escape them was to literally run into any building and hide.

I did this all for about 20 hours, on top of the 10 I spent on the original release, before I gave up entirely. I had built myself a sizeable base on the least hostile planet I could find, but I still couldn't find the point in continuing to play this game. It's barely fun and barely a game at all.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 they added a lot since the original release

Penalties: -2 nothing in the game, not the worlds, nor the aliens, nor the player's actions, seem to matter, not even within the fiction of the game

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (not very good)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Hello Games. No Man's Sky [Hello Games, 2016]  

Friday, September 14, 2018

Eco-Speculation #2 Animals Among Us

Environmental fiction is often bracketed into a narrow shelf. The Kim Stanley Robinsons and Jeff Vandermeers and a few Atwoods. The best books maintain elements of “fun” reading, like The Southern Reach Trilogy but in general these books have a #message. Otherwise, why would we call them environmental?

I’d like to challenge such an idea. On the academic and activist sides of the environmentalists, intersectionality is the hot word. Is Flint, Michigan an environmental issue? Yes. Does the situation also contain issues of race and class? Yes. As the intersections of environmental issues continue to grow, I wonder if we will reimagine old texts as more environmental than we thought. For example, Tolkien is not usually placed on the environmental shelf beside Vandermeer, but how can he not be seen as an environmental writer, especially when one gets to the know the man who could spend half an hour looking at a flower?

Speculative literature has long been lauded for its ability to produce empathy since so much of the genre is about understanding other places/people/races/species/whatever. In particular, I wonder about the impact of the genre’s inclusion of animals and nonhuman beings as a common element in speculative literature.

There’s no perfect word for referring to other-than-humans. For the purpose of this column, I’ll use nonhuman, which I still find way too human centric, but it’s common in academic fields as well as the speculative side of things. What is a nonhuman, you ask? Usually another other living thing, though “living” is pretty broad. For example, a tree can be nonhuman (take Ents, for example). But so can a mountain or a river.

In the discussion of nonhuman beings, one is often discouraged from projecting human characteristics on them. I heard this a lot in my writing workshops at my environmental MFA. If you give a river emotion, you are forcing it into the box of human understanding. This distinction will become more developed as new writers come into speculative literature, but I wonder about evaluating older literature with this set of rules. Humans are animals, after all. The human body is a type of biome, much like a mountain.

When I look back on my road to environmentalism, the books that impacted my thinking often contained anthropomorphic beings. In particular, the Redwall series sticks out from the shadows of childhood. Written by Brian Jacques, the series spans twenty books. While not clearly chronological, they can be read in certain orders to tease out repeating characters. The novels revolve around several enduring places rather than characters or plots—Redwall Abbey, Salamandastron, and Mossflower Woods. The beings that populate these places are mice, moles, hedgehogs, shrews, hares, badgers, otters, rats, owls, snakes, etc. They carry swords, wear habits, cook scones, and fight wars. For the most part, they are explicitly human with one key difference—they rarely subjugate other animals (example, riding a horse). It does happen (book one, Redwall, contains the most specific instance with the villain whipping a horse), but animal subjugation is less often than in such a text as Wind in the Willows.  

Today, animal studies theorists and environmental writers would most likely raise an eyebrow at claiming Brian Jacques as an environmental writer. For me, it comes back to empathy. These stories made me see a mouse as something worthy of respect. One could argue that the respect grew out of the human attributes rather than the animal aspects, but I can’t help but feel it something more. That respect for these creatures as having worlds of their own (even if it was their humanity appealing to me as a child) created a foundation I’ve built on since then.

It is fantasy, after all. Should we continue to explore new ways to respect nonhumans through our human storytelling—yes, but I wonder at the power of giving animals humanity in the eyes of a child, to give rich lives to the animals a child recognizes as “pests,” such as a mouse. I’ll leave you with this quote from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories:” “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery [fantasy]-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.”

Posted by Phoebe Wagner, a writer living in the high desert. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w