Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Our Approach to Reviewing: Embrace the Gray

Recent events have put focus on negative reviews and so-called “hate blogging,” which I guess just means regular blogging but with added invective. These conversations bring to mind other recent discussions among authors, critics and fans in SF/F, not least of which those centered on author/reader interactions, interpretive space and the role of review outlets, such as this one. Reflection on these topics has, in turn, inspired me to further articulate the approach we take to reviewing creative products--not just books, but films, comics and games as well. 

This is not to say that our way is the only way. Other sites do things differently than we do, and that makes me happy. I enjoy reading a whole range of review styles. Some reviewers only write about books they would recommend; others are much harsher than we are. Criticism must encompass a range of styles and approaches, and even the most negative can be useful in “moving the needle,” as Justin Landon recently put it in a discussion on twitter. (Emphasis on "can"; in other cases, it does no such thing.)

With all that in mind, here is a further articulation of our approach to reviewing:

1. This site does not, as a rule, engage in “hate reviewing.” We may be indignant or frustrated with something we encounter, but we try to be fair and highlight both positives and negatives. On the flipside, this site also does not engage in “review cheerleading,” wherein reviewers uncritically promote the text at hand.

To cite example of the former, the lowest score I’ve ever given to a book is 3/10, for James Lee Burke’s crime novel Cimarron Rose. Yet even a book I describe as “a Long Island Ice Tea of cheap well liquor from a North Hollywood dive served up by the guy who played Mr. Belvedere's stunt double on Fantasy Island” also gets a nod for prose that is “vivid, tense and atmospheric.” And Burke is a really talented writer (see this other review); he just happens to have written what is, in my opinion, a pretty bad book.

Conversely, I can highly rate George R. R. Martin’s first three Song of Ice and Fire books for the richness of world-building, intricacies of plotting and depth of characterization—among the best I’ve encountered in epic fantasy—while simultaneously noting how problematic they can be in other respects (the casual rapeyness, the exoticizing of Eastern cultures, etc.). Generally speaking, liking a given text does not mean you have to approve of or even tolerate everything about it, while finding elements of a text objectionable does not mean you can’t enjoy or appreciate other things about it. (This *should* be commonsense, but in a world of 140-character arguments, purity often wins over nuance.) 
Our scoring system is designed around this assumption of “grayness” and consequent rejection of essentialist logic. If selected at random, books should score on a bell curve—a Gaussian or normal distribution, centered on 5/10. However, because we do not select books entirely at random, our score distribution is skewed to the right. Nevertheless, we believe that both extreme high and low scores should be ultra rare. That means the vast majority of things we review will by definition do some things well and other things less well.

2. We believe that books, films, comics and games are conversations among creators and consumers, and not the sole "property" of the writer. As Robert Jackson Bennett put it, "when you bring your own perspective and state of mind to my stuff, you are by default changing it – giving it nuance, color, beauties,  associations, problems, and conundrums I could never hope to. The human mind is a wonderfully, tantalizingly strange thing, and it is endlessly more complicated than any book could ever be." At the same time, we believe that authors (and other creators) do have vast ranges of special insight--on intentionality, on inspiration, on authorial context and on what never made it off the cutting floor, as well as more obvious things like "what I'm planning to do with these characters in book two." In a sense this reflects the classic emic/etic (i.e. insider/outsider) distinction in anthropology--the insider has specialized knowledge not available to the outsider; the outsider has critical distance. As such, we support author/reader interaction and enjoy hearing about the creative process from the creators themselves. We just don't think their opinions are the only ones that matter.  
3. As a rule, we avoid drawing inferences about creators-as-people from the fictional texts they produce. In other words, just because we decide a book contains “problematic gender relations” doesn’t mean we’ve concluded the author has problematic views on gender in the real world. It just means the author has produced a text that we find problematic on the issue of gender. If it becomes a pattern over time, we may conclude that the author’s writing generally displays problematic attitudes on gender. We would still be careful about drawing conclusions about the author’s actual feelings or beliefs--especially when we're in negative territory--unless there was significant corroborating evidence from outside fictional texts (e.g. public statements, behaviors, etc.) to back that up.

4. We also assume most authors, comic creators, filmmakers and game developers implicitly understand that this is where we are coming from, and most of the time they do. If they do not, we will reiterate the position that we stick to the text and don’t judge individuals solely on the fiction/films/comics/games they produce. If our language is sloppy on the distinction, we will make note of that and strive to be clearer in the future. If, however, it is the creator who can’t distinguish between criticism of text and criticism of person, then there really isn’t much we can do about that.  

5. We present ourselves as a group blog with a carefully crafted institutional voice, but note that we are simultaneously a collection of individuals with different assumptions and interpretive frameworks. We don’t always like or dislike the same stuff, and may strongly disagree with each other, as in this case.

6. In the end, nerds of a feather, flock together is a fundamentally critical project, which seeks to provide honest and trustworthy recommendations to genre readers. Yet we also accept the fact that opinion is fundamentally subjective. Arguments, such as those found in reviews, are just opinions with supporting evidence—a case, if you will, predicated on that supporting evidence. We strive to produce good arguments in our reviews, but understand that no argument could ever convince everyone. This is a good thing—life would be awfully dull if everyone just agreed all the time, and no one would ever learn anything. What would be the purpose of reviewing then? 


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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Buy This Bundle: Humble Mozilla Bundle

Nine Indie Games, Pay What You Want, Demo in the Browser

What’s up with indie game bundles? They really started with the original Humble Bundle. The concept was simple: you get a handful of indie games, DRM-free, pay what you want. Since then, they’ve added Steam keys, different platforms, charity donations, choosing how to split your money, and other features, but the concept is generally the same. Indie game bundles might seem like a really bad business decision, and maybe it is, but it undoubtedly leads to more people playing your game than they would’ve if you waited for the next big Steam sale, or tried to market it by yourself.

I’ve bought a huge amount of indie games through indie game bundles, so I like to share the love and call attention to good bundles from time to time. Many times, friends of mine have missed out on indie game bundles because they’re almost always limited-time affairs, and that’s a shame. Not necessarily the time limit, but also the lack of awareness. I don’t actually gain anything from people playing more good indie games, as I have no connection to any game developer, but I love it when people discover great games because I recommended them.

Today, I want to call attention to the Humble Mozilla Bundle. Five games, eight if you beat the average, and nine if you pay more than $8. The charities benefiting from this bundle are Mozilla Foundation, CodeNow, and Maker Education Initiative. It ends on October 28th. The highlighted feature of this bundle is that all of the games can be demoed in Mozilla Firefox for free, in the browser, without any plugins. It’s really kind of neat, if not entirely practical, to see in action! But let’s talk about my three favorite games in this bundle.

FTL: Faster Than Light - FTL is like Battlestar Galactica the video game, if you only focused on the constant need to keep moving, and crew management. It’s a game where you control a starship with a small crew that’s running from a rebel fleet. You explore star systems, answer distress calls, trade for fuel or weapons, and blow up aliens, slavers, pirates, and rebels. In combat, you can pause time to issue orders for manning a particular station, or putting out fires, or fighting enemy boarding parties. It all sounds fairly complex, but FTL is one of those games that is easy to play, but hard to master. It’s a lot of fun if you love space sci-fi.

Super Hexagon - Super Hexagon is pure arcade fun. It has two controls, rotate left and rotate right. You use these to navigate your triangle through a fast moving maze. There are only three levels, but it is quite difficult, especially if you don’t have quick reflexes. The chip tunes soundtrack is really great, and perfectly fits the pace of the game.

Aaaaaaa! for the Awesome - This is a really weird game. It’s a first-person freefall simulator. The goal is to get close to as many obstacles as you can without touching them, while giving thumbs-up to supporters, the middle finger to detractors, and spray-painting particular obstacles. It’s totally score-driven, so if you do badly, you can still finish a level. Give the demo a shot, because I can’t possibly describe this in a way that makes sense. It’s really satisfying to get through a level with a huge score all through quick, fine movement. The quirky sense of humor in this game is fantastic.

Those three alone would make this bundle worth it to me for a minimum of $8, and then you would also get Zen Bound 2, Osmos, Dustforce DX, Voxatron, Democracy 3, and a secret ninth game that will probably be revealed very soon. And even if you only beat the average (currently $5.67), you’d still get eight good indie games for less than the price of most of those games alone. Check them out, and I hope you find them as enjoyable as I do!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Falcon Throne by Karen Miller

Good foundation, poor execution

The Falcon Throne is a political epic fantasy that takes place in the medieval realm of The Tarnished Crown. This first installment in the projected quintet by Karen Miller centers on the neighboring Duchies of Harcia and Clemen, and the neutral territory of the Marches in between. Belfre, unruly heir to Harcia, dreams of reuniting Harcia and Clemen under one king (him), while his younger brother Grefin just wants everyone to be happy. Meanwhile in Clemen, the disavowed Duke Harald is usurped by his bastard cousin Roric, who also just wants everyone to be happy. Harald’s son Liam, believed dead, stews in the Marches awaiting his rise to glory, while a prince thought long gone does the same.

The world building is solid but not complex. We have courts and jousting and travelling merchants and people from various places who look different depending on their origin. There are downtowns and districts and healers and witches. Half way through we get Exarches as well, which I am assuming are priests of the new religion that exists in contrast to the old “pagan” ways, but no one seems to like them or their religion so I’m not really sure. Anyway, the story itself is intriguing, albeit not original: courtly politics and heirs thought dead, waiting to grow up and reclaim their thrones (sound familiar?).

The foundation is good but unfortunately the delivery falls short. The telling of the story is very one-dimensional, as there are no hidden layers and Miller doesn’t let us figure anything out for ourselves. We don’t need to worry if someone is lying, because we are told in the next line “he was lying,” and we don’t need to wonder if the letter was a fake because the text quickly states “the forged letter.” This is good in a way I guess, because since the book is fairly long (almost 700 pages) it allows you to more or less graze over dialog without absorbing every word, knowing that you’re not going to miss anything. This type of read is needed here, because the characters are all very flat and rather uninteresting. Everyone is either mean or nice, good or bad, no in between.

The lack of character development is most noticeable with the women. I get it, it’s a patriarchal medieval society and they think of women as horses, valued only through their bloodlines and ability to reproduce. I’d be okay with that if Miller didn’t give us the female perspective, but once we get inside the women’s heads we discover that all they think about is sex and babies. Well, unless they’re an older woman, then they are just crotchety and mean. Almost every adult female character has some sort of relationship to sex and a baby, even if it’s a dead baby’s head that tells her who to have sex with. There is one female character who, upset with her father’s choice of arranged marriage, exacts her revenge by taking birth control (baby) and committing adultery (sex). Yes, because she was forced into a loveless marriage she seeks to deny her husband a rightful heir and deceptively put the son of her lover on the throne (sound really familiar?). The only female character who shows any signs of hope is Catrain, but every time she does or says something independent her mother scoffs and likens her to her father.

My final issue is kind of petty, but worth mentioning because it really effected the ease of read for me. I’m not a language prude and I like a good, well-timed curse as much as anyone, but the word f--k is used so much in this book that it is jarring. It doesn’t fit in the context of a medieval setting and I really wish Miller would have developed a world-specific expletive to use it its place (Hood’s balls!). I’m sorry, I just can’t picture dukes and lords walking around saying f--k, f--k, f--kity, f--k all the time. Also, “feggit” is constantly used as a slur among the common folk, as in “don’t be a feggit,” and this really bothers me too. About half way through the book we do get a world-specific expletive (cockshite) and I really wish Miller would have gone back and did a find and replace for all the feggits.

All in all though, once I got past these misgivings and accepted it for what it was, the story and its world were captivating at times. The prologue initially grabbed my attention and when that storyline started to creep back in it left me wondering what was going to happen next and kept me reading on. Because you don’t need to hang on every word, The Falcon Throne is a book that can be blown through on a rainy weekend, despite its length, if you don’t have anything better to do. But remember, this is just the first in a five-book series.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 6/10

Bonuses:  +1 fairly solid world building

Penalties:  -2 for giving women a voice and doing NOTHING with it
                  -1 for too many f--ks and feggits

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 “problematic, but has redeeming qualities”


Reference: Miller, Karen. The Falcone Throne [Orbit, 2014]

Friday, October 17, 2014

Forza Horizon 2

[Forza Horizon 2, Turn 10 Studios, Microsoft Studios, 2014]

Why so serious?

Sony and Microsoft treat their respective flagship racing franchises with extreme stern-faced rigidity. They aren't racing games, they're racing simulators. They take the actual cars into sound studios and record their engine noise. They re-create authentic race tracks from around the world. They're so photorealistic that you often can't tell the game from a NASCAR broadcast. They allow extensive customization of your cars, to an annoying point in Gran Turismo in my humble opinion, but I'm not much of a gearhead. If I were more into that sort of thing, I have no doubt I would prefer it to Forza Motorsport. But I take my car to Jiffy Lube to get the oil changed and I couldn't tell a header from a heater coil, so I prefer Forza's more simplified upgrade system. 

Forza Horizon 2, although it is a top-notch driving simulator, takes a more fun-loving approach to the driving game genre. There are a multitude of game modes that all take place in an open-world environment set in France and Italy. You can choose to take part in them by marking their location on a map and your GPS will guide you to the location. Then you actually have to make the drive there, unlike most racing games where you just start at the track. There are also several bonus activities that Turn 10 added to the game to make the open-world experience more engrossing.

Gameplay types

Horizon Solo

The Horizon Solo portion of the game will be the most familiar to race game fans as it contains the traditional single player race mode. However, it also has some new welcome additions that make this game unique. The Solo game type options are as follows. 


This mode will be the most familiar to Forza fans. It acts just like Forza Motorsport races with a few important deviations. First and foremost, as mentioned above, you have to drive to the races. You aren't just magically transported to the starting line. Once you arrive at the race's starting point, you are prompted to hit 'X' in order to begin. The other way it differentiates itself from the franchise's big brother is the Rally and Off-Road Races. Not only does this game offer you the chance to take a Subaru WTX STI tearing through the vineyards of France's wine country or a Cadillac Escalade shredding underbrush in the Italian countryside, but many of the races required you to take your pristine Bugatti Veyron slipping and sliding down asphalt backroads. Although purists may consider that a sin, I found it was a refreshing change of pace, if a little difficult to control. 


There were Showcase Events that began automatically after you completed a regular Race Event. In these creative additions, you had to race alternative forms of transportation. These included a Jet, a high-speed train, hot air balloons, a troop transport plane, and a crop-duster. These were, by far, the closest races in which I took part. I was able, for the most part, to win the regular Race Events handily. I only managed to beat the train by 0.15 seconds. The Showcase Events were highly enjoyable and yet another example of Turn 10's creative, outside-the-box thinking when it came to creating this multi-layered title. 

Bucket List

The Bucket List was one of my favorite additions to the Forza franchise. In Forza Motorsport, if you wanted to drive a McLaren P1, you had to save up over a million credits and purchase it yourself. With the Bucket List, you were able to drive many of the game's most desirable automobiles for free. There were Bucket List challenges spotting the map all over the place. They contained challenges like catching big air, driving through the woods at night, time trials, and barely missing oncoming traffic, all while in some of the cars dreams are made of. 

Bonus Boards

Placed all over the map are boards like the one seen above. They offer the player one of two things, either an XP bonus or travel discounts. The XP bonus boards are pretty self-explanatory. They give you XP, period. You just have to track them down and run them over. The travel discount boards lower the cost for the player to fast travel. Rather than driving halfway across the map to begin an event, you are often given the choice to fast travel there. However, it comes at a price, often between 8,000 and 10,000 credits. Depending on your bank account this can be worth it to save time or it can be too expensive for your taste and not worth the savings in time. I rarely used fast travel, but it was worth it on occasion to save myself a ten minute drive just to do a race that only paid 5,000 credits. 

Online Multiplayer

There were fewer options when it came to the online multiplayer, but it was still a (mostly) enjoyable break from the ordinary racing game experience. Top 10 and Microsoft still have a few bugs to work out when it comes to the multiplayer modes, but I'll get to that a bit later. 

Car Meet

When you boot up FH2, you are immediately taken to a Car Meet. These are locations all over the map where you can challenge others to head-to-head races. You can examine other players' rides, check out their stats, and pick one to take down. It is a convenient and well-constructed way to find other players interested in online one-on-one competition. The one downside I found, usually for the person in the other car, is that it didn't match you based on the level of your car. I was able to take on a level B Corvette with my level S2 Lamborghini. I loved it, but I suspect the other player didn't have such a good time when I blew past him like he was standing still.

Road Trip

Road Trip is basically just like the single player races, but instead of going up against AI Drivatars, you're racing real players. Groups of up to 12 real players are pitted against one another in the same races in which you can participate in single player mode. I found this not only offered much more of a challenge than the Drivatars, but it also brought on a seriously heightened number of crashes and paint trading. Where the Drivatars went out of their way to avoid hitting you most of the time, real people aren't so careful. 

Free Roam

I honestly didn't really get the purpose of Free Roam. The only difference I could tell between it and the Horizon Solo mode is that there were actual players roaming the streets instead of Drivatars. Both offer the ability to join Road Trip activities, but Free Roam didn't contain the races, only Road Trip and the bonus boards. Since you could also enter the Road Trip races from single player mode, as well as drive freely around the map without taking part in any formal activities, this game mode seemed mostly redundant and extemporaneous to me. Maybe I missed something, but that was my personal experience when I tried it.

There were some...issues

Unfortunately, there were several glitches that popped up while I was playing the game, and nearly all of them had to do with the multiplayer side of the FH2 coin. The one problem that occurred during single player mode was that paint jobs failed to actually stick to the car. In one instance, my Lamborghini Huracan LP 610-4 refused to change paint jobs in the menus. No matter what design I added to it, the car remained in its black-and-orange paint. In the game itself, the changes I entered showed up just fine, so it was a very minor glitch. So minor, in fact, that I almost didn't mention it. However, this is a report on the issues I had with the game so I decided to put in everything from the mundane to the major. I also had an Acura NSX that refused to change color. In the garage, I changed it from the original white to a reflective blue chrome, but when I took it out of the garage to use it, the car was as white as the driven snow. A simple system reboot fixed the issue and I eventually got my sapphire-tinted Acura, but not until I had tried to make the change at least three times without success. 

A slightly more annoying glitch was opponents' cars tendency to seemingly hop around magically by a couple of feet to either Online Road Trip. It reminded me of the animation from Max Headroom. For you readers under 30, you're going to have to ask your parents about that reference. It was a decent commercial by 1980s standards that inconceivably became a sensation and spawned a horrifically bad TV show. I thought I could be having issues with my Internet, but I ran Speedtest on it and came up with 23 Mps download speeds so the problem wasn't on my end. Although it didn't really effect the gameplay as my opponents weren't gaining any sort of advantage by the glitch, it really effected the overall experience by drawing my focus away from the race and placing it on those magic dancing automobiles. 

The real problem I had with the game was the lag. It was significant in many of my multiplayer matches. All motion stops, then you teleport forward 20 feet into a tree. The game seems to pause itself just long enough for you to fly off the road and out of contention for first place. I even saw lag on a load screen a couple of times. The view was panning across a panoramic scene of a French vineyard when it briefly stopped, then picked up again a few feet further to the left. While the lag didn't make the game unplayable like others I've seen, it was pretty annoying when it happened. That said, I'm not the world's biggest online multiplayer gamer and the solo campaign is fun enough by itself to justify purchasing this game. I'm simply reporting my experience,  both the multitude of good stuff and the anger-inducing tidbits. I'm just a humble game critic, here mostly to entertain and hopefully enlighten just a smidge, if possible. I guess my point is that you shouldn't forego FH2 because of the minor flaws, which don't ruin the overall experience and could be patched in the near future. 


The plethora of music in this game is fantastic, rivaled only by Grand Theft Auto and its seemingly endless options when it came to radio stations. The game contains nearly 150 different tracks spread out over seven widely varied radio stations, each with its own theme. The tracks were chosen by UK DJ Rob da Bank, host of multiple shows over the years on the BBC's Radio 1. The stations are as follows:
  • Pulse - Laid back pop, nu-disco, and electronica
  • Bass Arena - House, electro, and techno
  • XS - Indie and alternative rock
  • Hospital Records Radio - Drum and bass
  • Innovative Leisure Radio - Music from the LA-based indie label
  • Ninja Tune Radio - Tracks from the legendary trip-hop/acid jazz record label
  • Radio Levante - Classical music's greatest hits
Although I take issue with Bass Arena's definition of its tracks as electro and techno (I'm somewhat of an underground purist when it comes to these genres), I generally enjoyed the melange of options the game provides. There's nothing quite as exhilarating as going neck-and-neck into the finish line while the 1812 Overture is blaring through your speakers.  

The last lap

I had tons of fun playing this game. It was refreshing to experience a racing game that didn't have delusions of grandeur and act like it was an Air Force flight simulator that was vital to national security because it was necessary to train our fighter pilots for the country's defense, yet didn't stoop to Burnout levels of ludicrousness to entertain. Horizon 2 has all the real-world physics and true-to-life driving replication of its stern-faced older brother, Forza Motorsport, but it also has the guts to take some chances outside the box and, glitches aside, it definitely worked out for the best. In fact, in one way I found it to be even more realistic than Forza 5. The open-world design allows the player to drive off of the track into dirt, grass, or asphalt and the terrain acts like it would if you did the same in an actual car. Forza 5 limited you to driving on-track at all costs, reality be damned. They took it to the extreme in that if you strayed from the path, albeit onto concrete or dirt/grass, the cars reacted as if you had just pulled into a foot-deep pool of wet concrete and slowed to a 15 mph crawl. I found that unnecessary penalization to be more intrusive into my fantasy of being Emerson Fittipaldi behind the wheel of a Formula 1 beast than the few glitches present in Horizon 2. All-in-all, if you are looking for a racer that is built purely to put a huge smile on your face without delving into the realm of  the ridiculous, then Forza Horizon 2 is just what you've been waiting for. 

the math

Objective Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for having the chutzpah to try so many different things. 

Penalties: -1 for the glitches. None of them were bad enough to ruin the game, but I've come to expect perfection when it comes to the Forza franchise and they usually deliver. Here the issues occurred often enough to taint my overall impression of the game, if only slightly. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

Halloween ComicFest is a mere 9 days away! Check to see if your local comic book shop will be participating here and plan for a day of free comics, costumes, and maybe even candy. Marvel stole the show at NYCC, revealing its 2015 event, Secret Wars. Jonathan Hickman will be the primary author of the series that is rumored to make reference to all prior events. Color me intrigued.  As for this week's titles, while I enjoyed them all, the pick of the week is one that allows me to share this hobby with my son.

Pick of the Week:
Skylanders #1 - It is a bit surprising that it took Skylanders this long to break into the comic book world, but as a fan of the series, it is worth the wait. This title not only adds a whole new level of depth to the characters my son and I have grown to know over the years, it also provides a great entry point to bring new readers into the comics medium. One thing I loved about the video game series is the way it bridges both creative play and video games, the addition of the comic book will provide new ideas and character depth to further guide the play when the TV is turned off. Great all-ages book that fans of the beloved video game franchise will be sure to love.

The Rest:
Death of Wolverine #4 - While I doubt this will have any major ramifications, Charles Soule penned an appropriate death for Wolverine.  His final moments bring him into the laboratory of Cornelius, the scientist who grafted his adamantium skeleton to his mutant bones. Without spoiling much, Wolverine dies a noble death and one fitting of a superhero.  While cheesy at times, Soule gave Wolverine a respectful end that will likely last a month or so.

The Sixth Gun: Days of the Dead #3 - As long as Cullen Bunn is spinning a tale in the Sixth Gun universe I will be on board. The backstory of the Knights of Solomon and the Sword of Abraham continue as the two clash in an attempt to claim Yum Kimil, the undead lord and master of Eli Barrow, for its own. The intent behind wanting Yum Kimil is unknown, as we set the stage to see how the two groups became intertwined with the six. Must reading material for fans of the original series.

Daredevil #9 - Matt Murdock may be up against his most formidable foe to date.  The children of the Purpleman, Kilgrave, have the ability to force emotion onto its foes.  Even with his sonar abilities, Daredevil does not have the ability to block his traumatic past when the children force him to revisit painful memories.  I am still not fully sold on Daredevil setting up shop in San Francisco, but Mark Waid has my full faith and I trust that he will continue his impressive Daredevil run.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

AiIP: The Venturess

It seems like forever ago I started working on 3024AD. When I did, I was working on a novel- epic space opera, with zero G battles, gritty wars, grim locales and tragic romance- and one of the things I realized about my writing (which I detest in others) is that word count was astronomical. I like detail as much as the next reader, but I am not a fan of, say George R.R. Martin's level of exposition. To me, it gets weary.

So, alongside the novel, I started writing short stories, challenging myself to be precise in my wording, to make each sentence, each word have gravity. Then, partially in an effort to simply get over my own fear of having other people read my work (OMG), I started posting them on a blog.

And people liked them. A lot. Soon, I was focusing on shorts nearly exclusively, a coherent story forming itself (Stories, as it would turn out). So I collected them, and published them.

To me, for all the headaches, that is the glory of indie published. You can do whatever the hell you want. Imagine pitching that to an agent, an editor or the like (I do all the time).

Me: It's a scifi short story collection.

Publisher: There are literally a million of those.

Me: These all are set in the same universe, though.

Pub: So it's a novel.

Me: No, some of the stories aren't directly connected.

Pub: ...does it have white people kissing?

Me: (spoiler) It has a Spanish princess dying in the arms of her lover.

Door: SLAM

Maybe it would go better than that, but that's pretty much how I envision it going down. The publishing industry, like most which fall into that vein, is notoriously risk-averse. Indie publishing gives you the freedom to put something out there that they probably won't even touch. Sometimes something that is completely impossible for them.

With that in mind, I'd like to introduce you to a brand-new project: The Venturess.

Graphic designer, I am not
The Venturess, simply put, is a SciFi choose-your-own adventure. Except instead of buying a book, and turning to page 135, every other Friday, a new story is posted. At the end of that story is a poll where you vote on what happens next. The voting is open for a week, at which point, votes are tabulated, bribes are taken and the next story is written. It is totally, 100% free (although I will probably add a Patreon or donation thing if people really dig it), and I am beyond excited to get going on this.

What's the premise of it, you ask? I'm so glad you did. The Venturess is a delivery ship, presently with a crew of three. Sometimes the deliveries are for legitimate concerns, more often they are not. It takes place in an undetermined future, in a universe populated with all manner of alien races.Humans are in the vast minority, and not looked on with the favor common in a lot of science fiction.

Laurie Mack is the owner and captain of the ship. Serious, though not as serious as she often appears. She is brave and calculated, a businesswoman, yet a misfit in her own right- hence owning a ship and venturing on her own.

Chip is her pilot. Young and brash, he is a brilliant pilot. Happy-go-lucky and cheerful no matter the situation, and loyal to a fault.

Scorch is an automaton, brought on for loading and moving cargo, there is a quiet wisdom to him. While intended to simply fill labor roles, he has become a valuable member of the crew.

Those are the very basics. The first installment is up now. Read it, vote on it, and please spread the word!

Welcome aboard.


The D is for Dean.

 He is also an aficionado of good drinks (extra dry martini; onions, not olives), good food and fine dress. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.

He also has an unhealthy obsession with old movies and goes through phases where he plays video games before kind of forgetting they exist.
He lives in the Pacific Northwest and likes the rain, thank you very much.
You can buy his debut release, 3024AD: Short Stories Series One here: Kobo | Nook

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Guest Microreview [book]: We See A Different Frontier, eds. Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

In space you still have to check your privilege.

Today's guest review comes from writer, reviewer and all-around nerd Charles Payseur. His fiction has appeared, among other places, in Perihelion Science Fiction, Dragon's Roost Press, and is forthcoming at Fantasy Scroll Magazine. His fiction reviews have appeared in TeenReads and Kidsreads, GraphicNovelReporter and Tangent Online. 

Speculative fiction in general, and science fiction in particular, has a long history of examining injustice, in prompting deeper understand and a more complex view of the Other. In true Western fashion, though, the stories that get held up as shining examples of brilliant speculative fiction have been, and are still often from writers in the majority, white writers and male writers and straight writers and affluent writers, writing about (mostly) white and male and straight and affluent characters and problems. Much less prevalent have been voices from cultures directly marginalized by the mainstream through historical and cultural colonialism.

And it is that lack that We See a Different Frontier seeks to address by specifically and consciously presenting a collection of stories from a post-colonial point of view, from cultures and peoples dealing with the aftereffects of war and conquering, of assimilation and appropriation, of erasure. It is an incredibly complicated collection to approach, because the stories are not expected, are not uniform or typical, but come from a space that most people don't like approaching because it is uncomfortable to do so as a person in the majority.

Which makes me both an excellent and a terrible person to review this collection, because I am white and male and while not especially straight or the most affluent, I am most definitely Western. And I feel like because of that this collection represents something that is very important for me and for other Western readers to experience, because it confronts the reader with the effects of colonialism, both the brutality of war and the just-as-real suffering of cultural colonialism. It doesn't pull its punches, and it is not the happiest of collections, not the most fun to read. Not because the stories are less than amazing (they are great) but because they push at ideas that are left well alone in polite (affluent and white) society.

The diversity of the stories, though, does an admirable job of showing the range of voices and experiences that have largely been ignored in the wake of the massive colonial efforts of recent history (the last five hundred years, mostly). Not to say that all of these stories are historical in nature (though some are). The colonizing ranges from past to future, from India to Mexico to other worlds. There are historical fantasies like Sofia Samatar's "I Stole the D.C.'s Eyeglass" and Gabriel Murray's "Forests of the Night." There is the hard science fiction of "The Gambiarra Method" by Fabio Fernandes and the softer, near-future science fiction of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's "Them Ships" and the cyberpunk stylings of "Vector" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Characters are old and young, male and female, straight and queer.

And yet in the end the stories all share a cohesion that makes them powerful, that leads from one to the next and on, a parade of voices fighting back against the pressures of oppressor and colonizer. They are challenging, and they are deep, and they got me to think and to feel. My favorite stories in the collection were J.Y. Yang's "Old Domes" and Sunny Moraine's "A Heap of Broken Images," which are both haunting with a splash of hope, and like many of the stories confronted the ideas of identity and erasure, though in different ways. In Yang's piece, a young woman who exorcises the spirits of old buildings deals with a difficult assignment and learns a bit about history. In Moraine's, an alien tour guide begins to confront a past that his people are determined to ignore.

It is somewhat difficult for me to find critical things to say about any of the stories, in part because any criticism that I could find is also subject to thought and introspection. It forces in ways that other stories or collections might not the reader to confront how preference can be shaped by culture. I will say simply that We See a Different Frontier is one of the best collections I have ever read. I felt each story was worth reading, and that as a whole the anthology provides a mosaic of experiences that is important to read for anyone interested in speculative fiction today. It is a game-changer, it's uncomfortable in all the best of ways and the stories are amazing. There is representation, there is voice, emotion, everything.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the sheer range of genres, writers, and characters, +1 for addressing a part of the human experience often overlooked in speculative fiction.

Negatives: -1 for not being a particularly happy read (be ready to feel uncomfortable at times).

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


Reference: Fernandes, Fabio and Djibril al-Ayad, eds. We See a Different Frontier [The Future Fire, 2013].