Friday, December 9, 2016

Nanoreviews: Elysium, Hammers on Bone, A City Dreaming

Brissett, Jennifer Marie. Elysium [Aqueduct Press, 2014]

I wonder if reading the publisher's description would have reset my expectations for Elysium. Pun intended.
"A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted." That's the description from Aqueduct's website and might have helped center how I read the novel. Elysium is disjointed, meeting the fractured nature of the program. One section has the characters as male and female with one set of names. The next has the same characters, but gender flipped with slightly altered names. The next they are father and daughter. The next they are different again.

This builds the sense of unease as we can't quite figure out why the narrative / computer program is broken and what that means for the story Brissett is telling. I often struggle with non traditional narratives and it is only at the very end that I finally began to understand the story of Elysium and how everything fit together. I have the sense that a second reading of the novel would be much more rewarding than the first, but the problem is that I don't actually want to read Elysium again. There's only so much time.
Score: 6/10

Khaw, Cassandra. Hammers on Bone [ Publishing, 2016]

Hammers on Bone is noirish detective novel with Lovecraftian overtones that become more overt as the novella progresses though they do not dominate the story. There is a lot to like here and I appreciated how Khaw treated the morality of the the protagonist, John Persons as well as how the story becomes increasingly creepy and disturbing the deeper into the investigation Persons gets. The thing is, I struggled to really connect or care much about how this was all going to turn out.

Part of my problem, I think, is because I read Hammers on Bone back to back with Ruthanna Emrys' forthcoming novel Winter Tide. Even though they are really only similar in the sense that both novels touch upon Lovecraftian mythos, reading them so close together has connected them in my mind. I'll admit that this isn't fair because the two novels are so stylistically different that comparing them is really without merit. I bring it up because I fully acknowledge that one of the reasons I didn't appreciate Hammers on Bone as much as I might have is that it isn't the book it isn't supposed to be. That's not fair, but that's also the reason I can't rate it higher.
Score: 6/10

Polansky, Daniel. A City Dreaming [Regan Arts, 2016]

Though I have no idea what it would feel like to drop acid, I imagine the literary equivalent would be Daniel Polansky's A City Dreaming. This is a bizarre, non-linear novel of linked vignettes which build the overall atmosphere of this sideways New York City filled with impossible magic and even more impossible creatures. This is what A City Dreaming is, and if you struggle with non-linear novels which bounce around as a series of scenes and prefer a much more straight forward narrative (as I do), you'll likely struggle with this one. I know that a novel is not for me when I have to wonder if taking drugs is perhaps the way to better appreciate a novel. This is not a flaw of the novel. It has everything to do with how and what I respond to in fiction. Of course, this does not change that I failed to engage with or appreciate A City Dreaming.
Score: 5/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Thursday Morning Superhero

Not to step on the toes of our impending holiday gift guides, I wanted to introduce today's post and suggest that you give your loved one the gift of Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire.  I am just finished my annual read through of this series and it never disappoints and it always feels new and beautiful.  Even if someone on your list isn't a comic book fan, this is likely going to appeal to them.

Pick of the Week:
Doctor Aphra #1 - This is the spin-off I have been waiting for ever since I was introduced to the good doctor and her two homicidal droids.  After faking her death, she is free to return to her day job which is basically Indiana Jones in space, with questionable ethics.  She is not in the artifact game to preserve anything, she is primarily interested in credits.  In her debut solo issue, she claims one artifact, escapes the planet with the assistance of her murdering droids and Wookiee friend, and learns that she may not quite have the credentials she claims.  Kieron Gillen is the perfect writer for this series and he delivered in full on issue #1.  Now we are officially in desperate need of a Doctor Aphra movie or Netflix series.

The Rest:
Nailbiter #27 - It has been almost 48 hours since Finch was taken and Sheriff Crane just found out.  In addition to that, Agent Barker has escaped and it doesn't appear to be safe in Buckaroo for Crane or her daughter.  Joshua Williamson has done a great job developing these characters throughout the run, that there are many loose ends to tie up with each issue.  The most terrifying aspect of this issue, in my opinion, was the scene were Finch appears to be coerced into becoming a killer via torture.  Whoever took him has plans for Finch and then wants the mystery of Buckaroo to vanish forever.  With the FBI investigating the underground tunnels and temple, I hope we discover it before it burns.

Batman #12 - I had my doubts with the latest arc, but Tom King just delivered my favorite Batman issue in quite some time.  Set to a letter that Batman wrote Catwoman when she was in Arkham, the scenes of Batman infiltrating Bane's fortress while he contemplates his very existence is almost soothing.  Batman waxes philosophically on life and death and he fights his way through endless thugs only to end up in Bane's throne room ready for a final confrontation.  The juxtaposition of Batman discussing how vulnerable he is in a heart felt letter against the violence that he is dishing out works extremely well.  Definitely a must read title.

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why This Matters: "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"

What can we do in the face of fate?

                                           Image result for clyde bruckman's final repose
When I was growing up, I was obsessed with The X-Files, like wanting to be an FBI agent level obsessed, like getting the “Scully” haircut level obsessed, like Mulder and Scully action figure-owning obsessed (actually, I still have those). So, that’s to say, it’s more than likely that I’ll return to more X episodes, but for this first post on the show that influenced me a whole lot, I thought I’d start with one single, perfect episode: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” A note on these posts: because I’ll be analyzing these works from a variety of angles and contexts, there will most likely be spoilers within for the pieces that I am talking about. If you haven’t seen/read them and wish to, avoid the post and come back later.

To begin, this isn’t even my all-time favorite X episode (that would be “The Unnatural” which is one of the greatest television—any show—episodes of all time). However, it is one of the first episodes I ever saw and it is also one of the first that truly meant something to me. For those of you who don’t know: The X-Files followed two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, working in an obscure unit of the FBI which investigates paranormal crimes. Mulder is the hardcore believer and Scully is the skeptical scientist. You’ve, I’m sure, seen the combination now down in countless other shows, but X did it best. This particular episode, the fourth of the third season, follows the duo as they investigate a slew of killings of psychics and meet one man, played brilliantly by Peter Boyle, Clyde Bruckman who is an actual psychic---the catch is that he can only see how people will die.

In terms of The X-Files, as a series, this was an important episode for many reasons. It remains regarded as one of the best in the series and it snagged the show’s only Emmy award for Writing (as well as a guest actor award for Boyle). The writer of this episode, Darin Morgan, also penned the equally classic “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.”

The episode also is important in that it is one of the few early episodes that offered a subtle role reversal. Mulder is depicted as a skeptic (somewhat) in how he calls out celebrity psychic Yappi, but more importantly Scully has a moment of beautifully veiled belief. The very end of the episode shows off some of Gillian Anderson’s exquisite acting as she realized that a vision Bruckman relayed to her is true, just not in the way that she had taken it to mean.

In addition, this episode matters to the wider genre of SFF because of its depiction of psychic abilities. We are used to seeing movies and TV shows depict psychics who are frauds, but “oh boy, what about this one real psychic!” twist. However, this episode takes that spin in a different direction—both the killer and Bruckman are psychic, but also both in highly specific ways. Bruckman can only see people’s deaths (a skill he claims arose from becoming obsessed with the vagaries of chance following the death of the Big Bopper) and the killer can only see himself committing crimes but not why he’s doing it. Both fall victim to their own powers. The killer kills because he sees himself doing so and doesn’t think otherwise, Bruckman ends up dying because he feels that that’s what is supposed to happen. What the episode seems to be saying is that everyone is a victim of fate, even if they have the power to see it coming. In the killer’s case, its madness to accept his fate of killing. In Bruckman’s case, it’s a kind of peace (echoing a recurring dream he has of his own body decaying and returning him to the earth).

Finally, the episode also contains one of the most perfect moments on the show: when Scully takes the bait and asks how she’ll die, Bruckman’s face glimmers for a second with real delight (the first time we’ve seen all of the sadness completely leave his face) and says that she doesn’t. Not only does this add to the show’s mythology—ie is Scully immortal?—but also offers a moment of such strange hope, in an episode filled with the futility of hope against fate, that one can’t help being moved by it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Microreview [film]: Arrival (2016)

Astonishing and humane sci-fi, respectfully adapted from the Chiang story

Given all the largely-positive reviews already out there on the deeply-disturbing-internet, I'm wary of merely placing another stone on the cairn of praise (the more readers that look up what a cairn is online is a reduction in the fake-news searches so go for it). However, given Arrival's cautious, fearful, complex and yet ultimately beautifully-warm message, I feel in this world of, well, 2016, no urge to seek out such stories can be strong enough.

A guarded love letter to a daughter (with one hell of a spin on that conceit), Ted Chiang's original short story 'Story of Your Life' is a sublime piece of writing. Despite what is often known as info-dumping at points (indeed, the film's adapters were concerned not to just make 'the world's most expensive Ted Talk'), these mines of explanatory description of language both written and verbal are the bedrock to the plot, and to its protagonist. It is a tale based firmly in Chiang's own academic viewpoint, but with a love of fantasy and good, old-fashioned human drama as well. What it does with these starting points is profound and moving, and yet surprisingly contained, and subtle.

I highly recommend this story; it is one of the finest ones I have read over the years. Yet I suggest in very strong terms that you read it after seeing the film. Enough time had passed for me to have submerged my memories of the plot detail but the film is faithful enough that it could undermine the experience, and I don't think the film's revelations weaken the enjoyment of reading the novella afterwards.

The chief reason I worry about the film being spoiled is I think it is finer than the work it is based on. Some elements taken out or replaced I missed, but like Shawshank and Blade Runner, so much more comes from the cinema experience than the short stories they are based on. Arrival is one of the very best reasons to fork out for a cinema ticket this year and makes me more confident in its director's success in his next project, the sequel to Blade Runner. Denis Villeneuve slipped up on Sicario in my eyes, stumbling with a flawed script, yet even there brought such exquisite foreboding and tension with a seeming flick of the wrist. His smoothly powerful work continues here, with the shot of our hero arriving on site being up there as cinema's best moment in some time.

Much credit for Villeneuve's results must go to the dazzlingly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It's been on my music player frequently since and is a fine album in its own right. Equally vital of course are the sound (which is near flawless despite Forrest Whittaker being often indecipherable) and photography (which is as superb in low and natural light as Deakins's work in Sicario; bravo Bradford Young, who will no doubt shoot the best-looking Star Wars film yet when he does the young Solo movie).


The cast meanwhile , although as sparse as a one-act play, are predictably excellent. It is a joy, pure and simple, to watch a mainstream sci-fi led, no, dominated, by a smart woman who, as played with such gentle force by Amy Adams, lives by her intelligence and by her own (sometimes selfish) emotional desires. Arrival is entirely her journey and Adams should be award-laden for a genuinely great performance, yet she probably won't be as it doesn't involve the weak emotional displays so seemingly required to win a Best Actress (this is no Bullock cry fest).

As for the reasons relating more directly to why I'm writing about this on this site, the alien craft and occupants are refreshingly different enough to make this feel original sci-fi fare. Sure, Kubrick shadows much of the imagery in the craft, and some of the sound, and the aliens themselves and their chamber occasionally reminded me of Lynch's Dune. Yet this is a vision boldly innovative enough to give that sense of wonder so needed in sci-fi, particularly these days.

"Story of Your Life" offers much more simple and practical interaction with the aliens, who are far more creature-like than the strange knuckles of the film, but what fires the mind on the page can be laughable on camera, and Villeneuve and his writers wisely keep the complete physical nature of the aliens elusive. The original story is also more deeply engaged in what one could imagine as a more everyday and realistic set-up surrounding the governmental reaction and procedures, whereas the film decides on propulsive, time-is-running-out movie plotting, including an actual ticking countdown at one point, compared to the weeks or months the book hints at. There are also moments of pointlessly obstructive military resistance to Adams and fellow scientists in both versions, yet the movie perhaps takes them to extremes of shouty CIA people and twitchy soldiers.

Quibbles all these things remain as being, however, in the face of such a lovely piece of filmmaking. Sci-fi is rarely this thoughtful, nor breathtakingly exciting, nor, ultimately so touchingly human. And that twist. What a twist. Never have the words to a Madonna chorus been coincidentally so heartbreakingly used. When Adams exclaims them, my popcorn-embattled heart broke.

The Math

Objective Assessment
: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the ultimate antidote to the idea of macho posturing being the way to resolve conflict, which sci-fi and politics are too full of lately.

Penalties: -1 for some uneven lurches in pace at times (one sudden shift into rapid voiceover montage in particular) , and possibly too much of one emotional tone despite some causal humour, from Renner especially, to offset the sombreness .

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 which is what we here class as 'very high quality / standout in its category'


Written by European Scribbler, who believes in the better aliens of our nature, NOAF contributor since 2013

Friday, December 2, 2016

Microreview [book(s)]: 2/3 of An Affinity for Steel, by Sam Sykes

Going from not so great to pretty good (to better?)

Sykes, Sam. An Affinity for Steel. Orbit, 2016.

You can buy it here.

Remember when The Phantom Menace came out? I was a teenager at the time, and was kind of excited despite myself—after all, the original trilogy was so friggin’ awesome, and if the new one was even half the trilogy that was, I was in for some entertaining fare! But the truth--which I realized one summer day in 1999 as the last of my childhood evaporated in the heat of my fury over the dumbitude--was that overall the world would be a better place if the prequel trilogy had never been made (yes, even including Revenge of the Sith, “the one that was actually pretty good”). I mean, what does any of it add to our understanding of the characters from the 1977-1983 trilogy? Do we need to see young Anakin to understand old Anakin? (Philosophy dork side note: are they even the same person, if we accept the Lockean idea that memory anchors identity, then point out that the young boy and the old grizzled warrior might well have nothing in common at all! And don't even try the Young Officer rebuttal, since we never see young middle-aged Anakin!)

So when I picked up Sam Sykes’ “new” An Affinity for Steel, after having enjoyed The City Stained Red quite a bit, I immediately made the analogy to the 1999-2005 prequel Star Wars trilogy. Actually, this was totally unfair of me, as Sykes (unlike Lucas) actually wrote the material in this omnibus edition first, before writing The City Stained Red, so the analogy breaks down almost immediately. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something to it, nonetheless. Lenk, Kataria, and (everyone’s favorite character, I’ll wager) Gariath, and the others too, had some marvelous adventures in The City Stained Red, and the reader could enjoy Sykes’ crafting of witty banter for the party of adventurers, a sort of tempestuous camaraderie that was endless food for snarky comments and whatnot. And then it hit me: why hadn't Sykes simply pulled a Lucas ca. 1977 and begun the story in media res, focusing on Lenk et al’s “episode four”, so to speak, without ever really explaining what happened in episodes one thru three? Do we learn anything truly vital about any of the characters in these first volumes that we can’t infer equally well by skipping ahead to the fourth installment?

And there’s the rub (what does that even mean, Hamlet?!?): we don’t. As proof, I offer my own experience—I read The City Stained Red first, and found it perfectly intelligible on its own. Nothing about it demanded or required that I go back and read about Lenk et al’s earlier adventures, so when I set about doing so, I was preparing myself for another Phantom Menace-sized disappointment.

Reading even the first third of the omnibus is a far more pleasant experience than a Phantom Menace--unlike that 'film', I got to the end of the book and didn't want to join Anakin in the volcano!

Fortunately, the reality wasn’t nearly so horrid. I must confess I’ve only made it 2/3 of the way through the omnibus trilogy so far, but I plan on continuing to read the final volume, and that should demonstrate my conclusion: it’s worth reading, after all (so Sykes can declare “wictory” over Lucas!). By volume two of this omnibus, the series is almost up to the level Sykes later reached with The City Stained Red, and I am optimistic that the improvements I noted in going from volume one to volume two will only continue, and perhaps accelerate, in volume three.

This has all been an extremely convoluted way of saying, in so many words, that the first volume of this series is, to put it bluntly, not great. The occasional, aggrieved soul-searching and witty rejoinders of the companions in The City Stained Red is a constant, far less witty, and downright aggravating drone in the first installment of Sykes’ original trilogy. I almost put the book down, in fact, so thoroughly did I dislike each and every one of the characters (even Gariath, since as it happens this is what we might call “Gariath in despair, before he has a purpose”). And while The City Stained Red explores racism in quite a pointed way through the relationship of Lenk and Kataria, and generates empathy in the reader for this sort of inter-special romance, in volume one (and thru the end of volume two) of the omnibus I found myself wishing one or the other would make good on their threats and put each other out of the reader’s misery. The love conquers all storyline hadn’t really hit its stride yet, you might say.

Interestingly enough, I think the real problem here was simply that Sykes has grown considerably more adept as a writer, and some of his attempts at witty banter—which he is definitely very skilled at crafting now, in the era of The City Stained Red—fall flat. Reading this omnibus, I felt as though I was watching him grow and improve as a writer, though, which was quite interesting. By the end of book one, and in particular in book two, I recognized the emerging skill of the writer who had produced The City Stained Red, and relaxed, confident I was in safe hands once more.

Now you might be thinking, “this is unfair, criticizing an author for writing a first book which isn’t as polished as his fourth—it’s your own fault for reading them out of order, and having unrealistic expectations!” To be sure, there’s some truth to this. But here’s the delicious irony: if I had done as most did, and begun by reading the first book (the “Phantom Menace” of the series) instead of the fourth (the “A New Hope”), I would probably never have continued on to installment two. So my out-of-sequence reading actually preserved interest in continuing to read, as I wanted to see how journeyman Sykes could dig himself out of his own Phantom Menace and arrive at A New Hope, and in that spirit, I am looking forward to reading volume three—Sykes’ Revenge of the Sith!

The Math:

Objective assessment (average of volumes one and two): 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for Gariath’s awesomeness, +1 for the steadily wittier dialogue in volume two

Penalties: -1 for how I hated all the characters (and their endless soul-searching) almost immediately in volume one, -1 for some of the dialogue, especially in volume one, which, to paraphrase a Blink 182 song, “tried too hard”

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 “still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore”

[For why this is a way better score than it sounds (probably like a B- rather than a D-, in fact!), see here.]

Zhaoyun has been ready to pounce on anything remotely resembling the Phantom Menace for many years now, and has been reviewing various SF/F and more at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thursday Morning Superhero

After enjoying a week off for some delicious food and time with family, I have returned with your post-Thanksgiving Thursday Morning Superhero.  As we approach the end of another great year of comics, I look forward to what 2017 has in store.

Pick of the Week:
Saga #40 -  Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples deliver another stunning issue of Saga and one that left me shaking at the end.  I am amazed at their ability to have such lighthearted and funny moments juxtaposed with the war that this universe is currently dealing with.  This was an incredibly beautiful issue that opened with Hazel and her friend watching Prince Robots dreams on his head while he slept.  I have always enjoyed what is displayed on his monitor and never thought about it playing his dreams.  These small touches really allow for the characters in his series come to life and I am terrified about what is next in line for the group.  This continues to be a must read series.

The Rest:
Old Man Logan #14 - The next chapter in the Old Man Logan saga is here and it is an absolute blast.  Jubilee, who is now a vampire (I had no idea!), has gone missing which takes Wolverine to Romania to investigate.  He joins a S.H.I.E.L.D. crew who informs him that Dracula is planning something big.  This leads to a raid on Dracula's castle and an unexpected twist.  The next issue is titles Old Man Logan vs. Dracula: Dawn of Justice and I couldn't be more excited.

M.A.S.K. #1 - While this comic provided a great nostalgic return to one of my favorite morning cartoons, it didn't break the mold to evolve to anything beyond that return.  This comic is full of great cartoon action and some amazing vehicles (it wouldn't be M.A.S.K. without them!), it didn't deliver beyond that like other nostalgic titles have (see TMNT).  While I won't be picking up issue #2, if you enjoyed the cartoon then this title may well be worth your time.

Batman Annual #1 - The first annual since Rebirth is upon us and we are treated to five short Batman stories for $5, including the return of Scott Snyder as the writer of one of them.  Like most annuals it is a fun read that isn't required reading (I passed on the Star Wars annual), but it is fun and I was curious to read Snyder's story.  Snyder's "Silent Night" was nice break from the action and we are introduced to an intriguing new villain named Stag who will return in 2017.  Overall an enjoyable read, but nothing too spectacular.


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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Nanoreviews [video games]: Broforce, Slain: Back from Hell, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

Free Lives. Broforce [Devolver Digital, 2015]

Broforce is a non-stop action platformer in the vein of Contra. It takes all of your favorite action heroes from the last 30 years, gives them copyright non-infringing names (like Brobocop and Rambro), their signature weapon, and sets them loose in a variety of missions with a goal to kill terrorists and that's about it. It's mindless and fun, until you get to some of the more platform heavy levels. That's where the fairly loose controls cause the game to suffer. Otherwise it's fun to pick up and play for 15 minutes just to blow stuff up.

Score: 7/10 

Wolf Brew Games. Slain: Back From Hell [Digirati Distribution, 2016]

Slain: Back From Hell is also an action platformer, though much closer to Castlevania than Contra. It's got a great Gothic atmosphere with everything cast in shadows and dripping blood. It also has a great metal soundtrack, as it's scored by Curt Victor Bryant, formally of Celtic Frost. But above all else, it's a real difficult game! You've got a handful of tools to avoid death and damage, and you better get used to them because it's full of enemies and instant-death traps. Like Broforce, it's not a great game but it's a good time killer in small pieces. I felt like I made more progress by rage quitting and coming back after a day or two than trying to stubbornly push through it.

Score: 7/10

Treyarch. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 [Activision, 2015]

In Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, you are a straight up cyborg who murders a lot of people and robots for a variety of reasons. I wasn't really into it either, until about halfway through. Then the story takes a real turn for the weird and I got way into that. It's got Christopher Meloni, Katee Sackhoff, Robert Picardo, and other celebrities. I couldn't tell you about the multiplayer or zombies, because I didn't touch those but the single player has enough going on for me. Few games do spectacle like Call of Duty.

Score: 8/10


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