Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy was Star Trek

Today we lost Leonard Nimoy, and even though he lived a long and rewarding life, I am still deeply saddened.

Painting by Cameron Petri.
Understandably, the obituaries and articles and tributes today have focused largely on his decades-long portrayal of Spock in Star Trek, and touched lightly on his other accomplishments inside and outside of film. But to me, Mr. Nimoy wasn't just Spock, but Star Trek itself. Two years ago I wrote in this space that although Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek ("It's Bonanza in space!"), Nimoy and, later, movie producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer were actually better stewards of the franchise. That remains true. But Nimoy was the breakout star when the show first aired — to the much-publicized chagrin of William Shatner — and rightfully so. James Tiberius may have been the captain, but the emotionless (on the surface) Spock was the soul of the show. Mr. Nimoy had the biggest load to carry, and as an outsider character he inherently spoke to sci-fi fans who themselves felt like outsiders. He spoke to nerds.

But it went far beyond that. A couple of years ago, a post from the My Star Trek Scrapbook site went viral, showing the 1968 response that Mr. Nimoy had written to a bi-racial teen who felt utterly alone in the world and had written to Spock with her problems. Mr. Nimoy's response is epic, and profound, and gracious, and all the things you could ever hope someone would tell this girl. It also came in the larger context of the first bi-racial kiss on television and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. personally telling Nichelle Nichols that she had to stay on the show because of the boost it gave to the African American community at the time. This was all part of a very, very big deal.

Mr. Nimoy always seemed to understand that it was all bigger than him, and he seemed to have felt obliged to give it his best service. The three-film arc of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home, of which Nimoy directed two, represents to my mind the franchise's most profound emotional storytelling. Star Trek wasn't his baby, but he raised it to the best of his ability.

Mr. Nimoy's name has been synonymous in my mind with science fiction for my entire life. Even his actual name, "Nimoy," always sounded strange to my ears, unique, almost "Nemo," something I was familiar with, but just off. Like Spock himself, almost normal but somehow apart. Granted, he'd been playing Spock for over a decade before I was born, so I came into a world in which Mr. Nimoy was already woven into the fabric of popular sci-fi, but it always seemed to me like a very comfortable match. Thanks to his work, we are all a little better than we might've been, so his loss feels all the more profound.


Posted by Vance K, whose desk looks like this, and has for several years: 

Microreview [book]: The Burning Dark, by Adam Christopher

Great Fun Slightly Marred by TMDI

Christopher, Adam. The Burning Dark. Tor Books (paperback/Kindle): March 2015.

Buy it here starting March 3rd. 

If you're wondering what the "D" stands for above, it's 'Dramatic', as in "Too Much Dramatic Irony", the irksome phenomenon in which we readers instantly know or can easily guess a key plot point but characters struggle on, oblivious to what's right under their collective noses. There's been an epidemic of TMDI in US/UK fiction (books and movies) recently, my favorite example of which is the inevitable stupidity of characters in zombie movies when confronted by the eponymous baddies. Zombies are, one would think, pretty self-explanatory, even at first glance, and yet all too often, sloppy directors and authors try to get us reader/viewers to swallow the ultimate whopper: that most of us, if confronted by zombies face to face, would take absurd risks and wind up getting killed, all out of an obstinate refusal to accept the idea that zombies could exist. 

The DI component is particularly problematic in stories that are, to the reader/viewer, obviously about zombies, since from the very beginning we know zombies are going to appear, and are forced to dread the first 50% or so of the tale, since it's simply going to chronicle the extremely prolonged reluctance of the surviving main characters to accept what, to us, is the fundamental premise of the story! So here's a nickel's worth of free advice for all you would-be zombie storytellers out there: ditch the stupid "this can't be happening!" and "a strange noise? Think I'll go check it out, alone, in the dark, while drunk!" nonsense. How about, instead, we get a few stories showing what people would actually do, if confronted by slavering green-tinged maniacs: instant understanding, followed swiftly by the trusty 'two to the head, make sure they're dead' approach.

"It's so nice to just sit here and share some human companionship!"
This seems as good a time as any to admit that The Burning Dark does not, in fact, have zombies (though it sort of does, now that I think about it). But this otherwise excellent novel does suffer from a bit TMDI, which was particularly acute in my case given my background in Japanese cultural history. You see, the story is purportedly a mystery about, to paraphrase the children's song, "Which of these (characters) is not like the others?" That's because one of the characters is not human at all, but an ancient and vengeful goddess trapped in the underworld and hell-bent (see what I did there?) on revenge against all living things. But there's little real mystery involved. Imagine this Villainess introduced herself as, oh, I don't know, "Orpheus's Wife" yet all the characters failed to make the connection to the 'trying to return from the underworld but betrayed by her husband' idea. We get the Japanese cultural equivalent of "Orpheus's Wife", Izanami, so readers well versed in Things Japanese will know from page one the "secret" identity of the Villainess.

"Aha!" You might say, pouncing on my argument, "most readers won't know that, which means this isn't DI at all!" Not so—Izanami's otherworldliness is made explicit right from the beginning, with glaringly obvious hints dropped to both reader and characters (as well as not even the flimsiest attempt to cast suspicion on any of the other characters as potentially being 'the one not like the others'), but none of the characters figure it out until *right* at the end. If that's not DI, I don't know what is! "Unfair!" I hear you cry, "the story explains why the other characters have trouble realizing that Izanami isn't who or what she claims to be," but that's actually irrelevant, since I'm objecting not to the explanation of the characters' idiocy within the story, but the type of story itself: a story fueled (or in my opinion, polluted) by dramatic irony.

Does it ruin the entire novel, an intricately crafted horror/suspense/sci fi page-turner? Not at all. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes one or more of the following: a) novels about the unfathomable alienness of, well, alien life forms; b) well-crafted, interesting characters who face Interesting Situations; and/or c) good times. But those hypersensitive to (TM)DI, you have been warned. Take solace in the fact that there's plenty to enjoy, though, especially the intrepid Captain Ida Cleveland, and the fact that there is no (concerted) attempt to pair off the characters in happily ever after-style romantic couples. Not every great sci fi story need rely, after all, on the sort of emotional release the firm promise of heterosexual romantic love provides the audience; Terminator 2 is certainly the finest of the Terminator movies and (not coincidentally!) is the only one of the series to have so deftly avoided any sexual subplot.

Meandering back to the topic of The Burning Dark, it's two thumbs up, minus half a thumb for TMDI!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a mostly mesmerizing story, +1 for fine characters like Captain Ida

Penalties: -2 for an unmysterious streak of (TM)DI

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[Before you cry havoc and let slip the words of war, let me hit you with some knowledge: here at NOAF, our reviews are on a bell curve, meaning there are very few 9s/10s--or 1s/2s. In our system, a 7/10 is excellent!]

Zhaoyun, whom you have by now discovered is no fan of dramatic irony, quite likes sf/f/zompire stories that push beyond the inane limitations imposed by convention, and has been singing the praises of such stories here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is hard to believe that the anxiety, excitement, and frustration of Comic Con is already beginning to unfold.  This past week was open registration, which saw dreams made and hopes dashed simultaneously.  Congrats to those who secured passes, but to those that didn't, don't feel sad.  If you really want to experience SDCC, you may do so in the Gaslamp with the plethora of offsite activities.  If you are just hankering for a convention, I would suggest C2E2 in Chicago.  It is one of the bigger comic book conventions and always has an amazing lineup, but it is approachable and an absolute blast.  My only request is that you don't complain about an unfair system or get angry at the folks behind the scenes.  No system is perfect and everyone is acting with good intentions.  It's just rough when demand outranks supply by such a wide margin.

Pick of the Week:
D4VE #1 - A little over a year ago I reviewed a fabulous digital comic from the good folk at MonkeyBrain Comics.  It pleases me that IDW is bringing this to the masses and I hope it can enjoy a wider audience.  It is your basic story.  Man creates robots, robots kill man, robots kill all living things in the universe, robots mimics man and lives a dull and mundane existence.  In the first issue we learn about D4VE, a former defense bot who has seen his life go from one of the heroes of all robot-kind, to working a dead end job and stuck in a loveless marriage.  Ryan Ferrier and Valentin Ramon deliver a fresh, humorous book with amazing visuals to go with it.  Small touches from hoodies that D4VE wears, to the complaint about forgetting to pick up oil from the convenience store on the way home may this book special.  I said it was a must read comic a year ago, and that holds true today.  It was great to revisit this title and I hope the sales reflect how freaking good this book is.

The Rest:
Chew #46 - Well, it wasn't a dream.  As crazy as this series is and the bizarre stuff that John Layman and Rob Guillory put in each issue, the heartbreak from issue #45 is real.  Things have reached a pretty depressing state in the Chew Universe and I am not sure how things will be undone.  While it appears Colby had good intentions for snapping Poyo's neck, Agent Chu is up a creek without a paddle.  Amazing that I can feel that way after reading an issue in which the Devil was fleeing from Poyo in Hell, there was a Swedish Fish battering ram, and we saw the return of D-Bear.  I'm not sure if Layman is a genius or if he is certifiably insane.

Batman #39 - Solid issue, but color me a bit underwhelmed.  The prospect of Batman returning to the Court of Owls was genius, but the actual meeting felt a bit flat.  I think we will learn more of the meeting next issue (I hope), but I was hoping for more.  Despite this, Batman has quite the scheme to attempt to extract blood from Joker's spine in an attempt to find a cure for what is plaguing Gotham.   Fun issue and I can't wait to see the conclusion of this arc, but not quite what I wanted.

Darth Vader #2 - Despite getting the business for his screw up on the Death Star, Vader is still Vader and is one conniving sun of a gun.  I never felt his character in the movies to be truly menacing or evil, but feel the comics provide a fresh take on him and really paint him in a new light.  I sound like a broken record, but I continue to be impressed with Marvel's ownership of this franchise.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Dossier: Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville (1965).

Filetype: Film.

File Under: Protocyberpunk. 

Executive Summary: Lemmy Caution is a secret agent sent from "the outlands" (other planets) to Alphaville, the technocentric galactic capital. Posing as a reporter and newspaper photographer, he investigates the disappearance of another agent, Henry Dickson, and begins searching for Professor von Braun, the developer of Alpha 60, a vast computer that controls all of Alphaville and its citizens. 

Caution meets Natacha von Braun, the professor's daughter, and tries to use her access to get a meeting with the professor. As an outlander, Caution has not been brainwashed by Alpha 60, and still retains his emotions and affinity for inessential constructs such as poetry. Natacha slowly begins to re-awaken to these same feelings after spending time with Caution, but in so doing she runs the risk of finding herself at the wrong end of a firing squad, like all people who succumb to non-logical behaviors such as crying at a spouse's death, or smiling. 

After comprehending the inhuman implications of Alpha 60's control, Caution decides he must bring down the system and von Braun, its creator, to prevent Alphaville's tech from spreading throughout the galaxy. And also save Natacha, if he can.

High-Tech: Alpha 60 is the central technology on display in Alphaville. It is an artificially intelligent, omnipresent computer that all of the citizens of Alphaville are plugged into in some way. Caution refuses to "check in" when he arrives, which is the process through which residents are indoctrinated/brainwashed. When Alpha 60 is compromised, the city's residents are rendered completely unable to function, shown wandering into walls and rolling on the floor.

Although the locales of Paris used in the film were the most modern of the 1960s, there is otherwise very little effort spent to try to sell the reality of the future. Caution's spaceship is a Ford Mustang, for instance. The primary concern of the film is not one of suspension of disbelief, but instead a philosophical exploration of the intersection of humanity and technology.    

Low-Life: Women are by-and-large reduced to sexual objects, many of their job titles being Seductresses (First-, Second- or Third-Class) in addition to whatever other responsibilities they may have -- hotel clerk, for instance. Caution finds Dickson, the missing secret agent, in essentially a flop-house, being encouraged by the landlady to commit suicide, which is the recommended course of action for those unable to cope with life under Alpha 60. Residents and visitors are also provided bottles of tranquilizers as a matter of course.

Dark Times: The bleakest reality of Alphaville is the summary executions of those residents who show emotion. Whether they do so willingly or accidentally, there is only one punishment: to be taken with the others to an Olympic-sized swimming pool, walked out onto the diving board and then machine-gunned before pretty divers swim out and retrieve their corpses.

Legacy: Alphaville predates the actual punk movement and the cyberpunk movement, by one and two decades, respectively. That said, it is arguably the first dystopian film to peg its civilization's troubles on computers and the abuse of digital technology. It relocates the film noir into a science fiction milieu, and replaces the familiar antagonists of the hard-boiled detective (the idle rich, corrupt politicians, bumbling or equally corrupt cops) with futuristic analogues. The fundamental push-pull of the film is the dehumanizing nature of computer technology when the tools are given primacy over the users of those tools. These are all structural, aesthetic, and thematic elements that would become fundamental to cyberpunk.

In an obscure interview given to an Italian journalist while promoting Johnny Mnemonic in 1994, William Gibson himself actually discussed trying to make the film years earlier, with Alphaville as his and director Robert Longo's primary inspiration.

In Retrospect: Alphaville, like each of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, isn't for everybody. The film is absurd and silly on its face, but even more so when put in context. Lemmy Caution is the central character in a series of British novels, where Caution is an American intelligence agent. The books were popular in France and Germany, and throughout the 50s and 60s a number of French Lemmy Caution films were made, all starring (like Alphaville) Eddie Constantine in the title role. So Alphaville, then, was like if the producers of the James Bond series had followed up Goldfinger with Thunderball starring Sean Connery, set on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, and where everyone drove Chryslers and talked like robots, except Connery, who talked like Humphrey Bogart. 

All of this goes to show that Godard was in fact trying to make the film he did make, and simply didn't waste a lot of time on things he considered nonessential. So if the viewer is able to go with the fact that the Ford Mustang is capable of both terrestrial and space travel, and that the Instamatic camera is the pinnacle of imaging technology, then what remains is a compelling, thoughtful and vastly ahead-of-its-time film that asked many of the same questions cyberpunk authors would be asking two decades hence, and we are still asking today.   


For its time: 5/5
Watched today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 9/10

Posted by -- Vance K, film geek and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Dossier: Naam, Ramez - Nexus (Angry Robot, 2013; Random House, 2015)

Filetype: Book

File Under: Cyberpunk Legatee

Executive Summary: "In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realises.

From the halls of academia to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand – Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion."

Or - geek hero with ridiculous luck goes on global spy adventure with dangerous super-soldiers and dabble in post-humanism, sees lots of weird stuff, and gets in trouble.

High Tech: The titular drug is a nicer way to jack into a singularity than the old Gibson cords - a vial of nanotechnology washed down with juice, resulting in an acid-trip of emotions and visions as the taker is given access to their own soul and those they can connect to on the same high. The complications to this joy arise from Nexus 5, the latest version, which can allow mind-control and brain augmentation to a terrifying extent. But also a cool extent - languages and fighting skills are options, as is the ability to control each others' bodies. This results in government secret services and rebels all out to control this potent human-boost, and threatens what it means to be human.

Low-Life: The span of this (long) debut novel is pretty vast. Whilst never diving offworld, we go globetrotting with the main character Kade Lane from San Francisco to Thailand, and meet people from all walks of life (though mainly cybersoldiers and scientists, they are a pleasingly varied bunch in terms of ethnicity) and it therefore is hard to pin it down the gritty streets a la classic Cyberpunk, but the underground drug scene briefly seen at the start paints a lightly rebellious underclass emerging against the suppressive yet still democratic U.S. government whilst sadly reminding me of the Matrix cave-rave... shudder... It might be 2040 but they still like backpacker trance, it seems. However, the bulk of the story is an action thriller mainly set at a scientific conference so is a bit like Big Bang Theory but starring Jason Bourne.

Dark Times: No simplistic fantasy dystopian state here. Naam, whose expertise, and initial writing career, is in computer programming and exploring post-humanism, brings his theories and opinions on the concept of altered and superior human brains, via the drug's inserts, to the structure of a spy thriller. Yet despite plot mechanics that are familiar from countless airport thrillers and movies (not an insult by any means, by the way), the author keeps things pretty believable. The U.S. government is realistically anti-drug and pro-conformity, and understandably keen to not let the supposed enemy (China again, not the Cyberpunk dominant Japan of old) from using it. Everyone wants what Kade's skills can bring, and he just wants to do the right thing.

Legacy: Too soon to speak of any legacy, but it seems Nexus, with a sequel now published, has become both a respectable genre success and also a flag-bearer for pro-singularity commentators and posthuman/transhuman debates. It will be interesting to see how hard sci-fi continues to tackle the old cliches in this area and if it will ape Naam's trick of empathy for the changes, whilst playing on the fears they bring.

In Retrospect: Despite my above assertion that legacy is not to be talked about with a novel only a year or so out of the gate, I myself came to the book after enjoying Naam's short story 'Water'. I was however, confused by the relative heat the story was getting over, imo, much better works in the collection, yet I soon learnt of Naam's background and TED-friendly speeches and writings in nonfiction, and realised Nexus was worth a look based on he being an author of ideas. So to find these ideas inserted onto a fairly clunky thriller with some 2-d characters often spouting b-movie dialogue, was a disappointment. The title even has the tagline: 'Mankind gets an upgrade'. This suggests a writer who despite his tech know-how and spiritual complexity still wants applause at comic-con (probably crap but I mean he craves the populist vote as much as the scientific; he does ref the The Matrix and Blade Runner rather than Gibson in his talks).

So whilst the world he paints in process is fascinating and the Nexus-trip descriptions and the effect on the characters' lives compelling, but I yearned after the first hundred pages for the anxious chase to stop and for it to settle into more cyberpunk gritty everyday and less Tom Clancy blockbuster panic. However, the swarm of ideas and science held me on to the story, despite frequent stodgy infodumps, and I look forward to not the sequel which I fear will up the action but to his next new world, where I hope for more exploration of where humanity could head in our lifetime.


For its time: 3/5
Read today: 3/5
Cybercoefficient: 6/10

Posted by: English Scribbler, who would happily trade some old memories for a Bruce Lee neuro-upgrade.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Brilliant Alternate Reality Spoiled by Orientalist Hogwash

What would have happened had the Axis won World War II? An intriguing question, and one that Philip K. Dick took on in this fascinating alternate reality, The Man in the High Castle, which he wrote in 1962. So intriguing is this question that it has recently been adapted into (and summarily guillotined by) a new Amazon television show, one that highlights the struggle between the good ol' American forces of freedom and goodness and the totalitarian Nazi Third Reich dystopia. Of course, the television show is zillions of light-years removed from what Dick had intended for his novel. Whatever the case, the TV adaptation piqued my interest in this classic Hugo-Award-winning novel.    

So what would the world have looked like? The Man in the High Castle, which takes place in the early 1960s, is witness to a new political order far removed from our own. The Third Reich has seized most of Europe and Africa. The Jews have for all practical purposes been wiped out in Nazi-controlled areas, and there are whispers of brutality and racially motivated genocide that have decimated much of the African continent. It took only fifteen years for the Germans to ruin half a continent. The Germans, thus, have forged a new order only beneficial to blond-haired, blue-eyed fascists or to people of Aryan stock. Their Japanese allies, on the other hand, managed to construct the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which encompasses the arctic tundras of Sibera to the jungles of Burma and India, and even reaches as far as Australia, New Zealand, and the west coast of America.

The story takes place, for the most part, in the former state of California, which is ruled by the Empire of Japan. The United States of America has been divided into three separate entities: the German-controlled United States of America; the buffer zone of the Rocky Mountain states; and the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America. Whereas the Atlantic seaboard is controlled with the firm hand of the Third Reich, the Japanese rule the Pacific states with a much lighter (and technologically poorer) touch. Jews theoretically have less to fear from their Japanese overlords than they would from the Reich.

The main storylines follow four main characters. Each of these characters face difficult moral dilemmas at some point during the book, and each of them work to reset their moral compasses. Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese businessman who works in the Nippon Times Building in San Francisco, is forced multiple times to choose between his own conception of right and wrong. Robert Childan is an "authentic" American artifacts dealer who is torn between being obsequious toward the power of his Japanese overlords and  seizing his own (national, cultural, and personal) worth through his wares. Frank Frink, a craftsman who produces cheap imitations of "authentic" Americana, sets out to reclaim his own sense of worth through the creation of contemporary art. Finally, Juliana Frink, Frank's estranged wife, begins a quest (with an Italian truck driver named Joe) to find the author of an underground novel, and in the process will make a moral decision that will no doubt affect her for the rest of her life.

The notion of authenticity dominates each overall storyline. What does authenticity mean? And its corollary, how do we know what is fake? The novel is populated with figures and items that are not what they appear to be. Frank Frink is living under an assumed name, and he produces imitations of "authentic" civil war memorabilia. Childan sells much of this "authentic" Americana to a rich Japanese clientele. And his Frank's estranged wife, Juliana, becomes fascinated with a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which poses a "fake" reality where the Axis loses the war. I don't want to spoil this for future readers, but a number of other characters are also not who they pretend to be. In the process, Dick does a fantastic job of problematizing our own notions of reality in history and society. The true brilliance of this novel is the way in which Dick leaves the reader guessing about what is true and authentic.

Too bad, then, that this brilliance is marred by utter Orientalist and culturalist essentializing hogwash.  I remember reading that Dick never finished the sequel to The Man in the High Castle because he had trouble getting into the minds of the Nazi victors. If that is the case, he shouldn't have written this novel either. He did not understand the Japanese any better. The Man in the High Castle is replete with Orientalist notions of America's new Japanese overlords. They are inscrutable, difficult to tell apart, overly rigid, focus solely on propriety and at all times require the proper utterances, and have attained a sense of simplicity based on wabi, which of course cannot be understood by outsiders. And for some reason, the Japanese constantly refer to the I Ching as an oracle to give counsel at important moments in daily life. But isn't the I Ching a classic Chinese text? And isn't using the I Ching as an oracle absurd? At least Tagomi at times recognizes this absurdity:
"We are absurd," Mr. Tagomi said, "because we live by a five-thousand-year-old book. We set it questions as if it were alive. It is alive. As is the Christian Bible; many books are actually alive. Not in metaphoric fashion. Spirit animates it. Do you see?"
Making matters worse, Japanese culture is often brought into focus through the use of another Chinese concept, the Tao. Tagomi often worries that he is straying far from the Tao. And Childan acts obsequiously toward a young Japanese couple that are "close to the Tao." Where, then, does Chinese culture end and Japanese culture begin? Are they one and the same? [The answer is a definitive "no"]. Even a basic reading of prewar and wartime newspapers would have disabused Dick of many of these notions, and might have convinced him against focusing on Chinese concepts to explain Japanese culture, especially at a point in time when a nationalist and inward-looking Japan regarded with contempt their Chinese brethren.    

The Man in the High Castle is thus a reflection of its times. Philip K. Dick perhaps was influenced by a general mixing and mashing up of all "Oriental" cultures that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem with this, however is that it undermines the the cultural "authenticity" of the world he created. Was this done on purpose? Did Dick's ambiguous take on what is "authentic" extend to his world building as well? Perhaps such an argument could be made, but I would have a hard time buying it owing to the profusion of Orientalist notions throughout this novel. In the end, Dick's brilliant message about historicity and authenticity gets lost in a setting of cuturalist essentialism. And this is too bad, because The Man in the High Castle is a real thought-provoking novel...     

The Math 

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +2 for the brilliant ambiguity of authenticity

Penalties: -4 for the utter Orientalist hogwash

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

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Brief Note on Awards

The other day I got into an interesting conversation on twitter with fantasy author Sam Sykes. I was complaining about the Nebula shortlist leaving off a few books I thought should have been included, specifically Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs. The latter book, I asserted, was the only fantasy novel I read in 2014 that moved the genre forward, and argued that this merited its inclusion. Sam took issue with phrase "moving the genre forward," and he has a point. I probably should have called City of Stairs "the most innovative, trope-busting fantasy novel I read in 2014."

Sam also questioned whether this was even a good frame of reference to use for awards, suggesting that a lot of books that get categorized as "standard" or "fun" actually have a lot of depth to them--depth that frequently gets ignored in critical discussions of the year's "best."

I agree. A great example of this would be John Scalzi's Old Man's War books, which can be read as straight adventure, but which--when you scratch the surface--are actually problematizing and subverting the Heinleinian source material. They are smart, clever and--crucially--fun. There are loads of other examples, one of which (Baptism of Fire) made my Hugo list.

That said, a book's impact on the field of science fiction or fantasy literature should, I think, be one of the foremost considerations when voting for awards. Actually I think it should be the second consideration, after an assessment of the book's overall quality. This is why I think it's so fundamentally disappointing that SFWA voters left Station Eleven and City of Stairs off the shortlist. These are incredibly good books--well-written, well-crafted, engaging and memorable. But they are also both breaking new ground and charting new paths for their respective styles, post-apocalyptic science fiction and epic fantasy. To me, at least, that's the essence of award-worthy.