Friday, July 3, 2015

Summer Reading List 2015 - Vance

I find myself in one of the most creatively busy periods of my life at the moment (scoring a film, finishing an album, writing, blogging, repairing the house, and also, the kids are out of school), so the approach I've taken to my summer reading is one that will hopefully allow me to bite things off in pieces, and keep from getting bogged down. Nabokov's Pale Fire was on my reading list last summer, for instance, but I'm still working on that one because it is both densely written and a physically demanding book to read. You have to have two bookmarks, for instance. So biting that one off was a mistake I'm trying not to replicate.

To that end, I'm eyeing short story collections and things that are easily sub-divided. Off we go...

1. Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

I'm not entirely sure why I haven't picked this one up sooner. I am, after all, the guy who ranked all of Vonnegut's novels in a way that met with far less derision than when I tried to rank the Harry Potter movies or those times I tried to let readers rank sci-fi TV shows and movies. These stories deal chiefly with war, and while I rarely love Vonnegut's short stories in the way I love his novels and autobiographical writings, they are always artfully crafted and engaging. I do feel a little strange about this collection being published posthumously and kicking off a series of posthumous story collections, since Vonnegut expressed during his life that A Man Without a Country was intended to be his final work, but his son Mark was involved in this collection and wrote a lengthy introduction, and I guess that's just what people do when famous artists die. Ask Johnny Cash.

2. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's just one of those cats who make our time here a little better. His tongue-in-cheek short story Shoggoth's Old Peculiar, in which a lone American tourist on a walking tour of the English coastline stumbles into a town populated by acolytes of Cthulhu, is one of my favorites, and I have been very proud of my children's fondness for Coraline and Fortunately, the Milk. I picked up Trigger Warning when it was released earlier this year, and can't wait to dive in. This is a collection of stories written over, broadly, the last decade or so, so concurrent with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I consider if not a masterpiece, certainly a near masterpiece.

3. The Sandman Library, Vol. 8-10 by Neil Gaiman

The presence of both of these Gaiman works on this list is a coincidence. I shamefacedly admit that I never read the entire arc of Sandman, so I started anew last year with the first issue, thanks to the wonderful "Graphic Novels for Adults" section at my local library. Now only three volumes remain. I'm pretty sure the spoiler statute of limitations runs out somewhere before 20 years, but nobody spoil it for me, kay?

One thing I have enjoyed very much in these editions under the "Sandman Library" banner is reading the introductions by other writers, and how they chronicle in part the legitimization of comics and graphic novels as a literary medium, It's been said over and over that nobody had ever seen anything like Gaiman's work on Sandman before these stories were published, and it's neat to read about an entire medium in its ascendancy, written by different voices, and as it was happening, from the locus of the stories that prompted that shift.

4. What If? by Randall Munroe

I'm so excited about this book.

xkcd cartoonist and one-time NASA roboticist (is that a word? anyhoo, "dude who built robots") attempted to provide serious scientific answers to absurd questions like "What would happen if you hit a baseball traveling at 90% the speed of light?" or "If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change color?" I happen to love science, while simultaneously being very bad at it, and I love dumb stuff. So this juxtaposition of really smart, rigorous thinking applied to really dumb "Did that just come out of my mouth?" types of questions seems right up my alley.

5. Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy (Graphic Novel) by Timothy Zahn

I confess I never got into the Extended Universe, and certainly not the way my wife has. But she and everybody I know who is into it has told me that Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy is the crowning work of the EU. But once again fearing a repeat of the ongoing Pale Fire debacle, I'm just being realistic when I say I can't commit myself to a three-book cycle anytime soon. So good news for me that the graphic novel adaptation of the trilogy is back in print. I think The G read it back in the day, but I tracked down a copy at the really big comics shop near me (sorry, Comics vs. Toys. I feel like I cheated on you!) and intend to knock this out after I finish Sandman.

6. The Woolstonecraft Detective Agency Book 1: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford

It's not for me, I promise. I read to my kids at night, and as they've gotten a little older, we've gotten to tackle more complex books. We've done The Hobbit, we've done The Phantom Tollbooth, a bunch of Roald Dahl, and even The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Know what all those books have in common? They're about boys doing cool stuff. As it happens, girls do cool stuff just as well as boys, and this is a lesson I want to impart upon my kids. Enter Jordan Stratford, and his amazing "what-if" scenario: what if, as children, Mary Woolstonecraft (later Shelley, who invented science fiction) and Ada Byron (later Lovelace, who invented computer programming) had known each other...and solved mysteries. I'll be...ahem, my kids...will be all over this, and I expect the wait for Book 2 will be a difficult one.

Posted by Vance K -- cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, and doing his best to instill a love of the odd and mysterious in smaller versions of himself since before that.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero: My SDCC Schedule

It boggles my mind that San Diego Comic Con is only one week away.  While there are a lot of loose ends I need to tie up before my trip, I am feeling more excited about my annual excursion with each passing hour.  SDCC has released its full schedule and I thought I would share my plans with you.  I have not finalized all of my press requests and plans always change, but here is my day-by-day breakdown of what I hope to do.  If you happen to see me, please say hello!

4:00pm - My SDCC adventure is going to begin with a taping of Conan.  Conan is taking over Comic Con, and thanks to the kindness of the SDCC Community, I am going to attend his first taping.  Guests Elijah Wood and Chris Hardwick are sure to entertain and I am extremely excited about being fortunate enough to attend.

7:00pm - In what has become an annual tradition, I will once again be attending Hop Con.  I have attended each event with my brother and it is hard to top enjoying delicious Stone beer and listening to Wil Wheaton and crew celebrate what it is to be a nerd.   From the atmosphere, to the gourmet spread, and topped with exclusive beer, I can't think of a better way to celebrate a week of fun.

12:30pm - I may actually get to sleep in one day!  I am also excited because the first panel I attend is one of my must see panels of the entire convention.  Return to Gravity Falls in 6A.  Creator and actor Alex Hirsch leads this panel after the shocking conclusion of Season 2.  My wife and I describe this show as Twin Peaks for kids and is our family's favorite television show.

2:00pm - Next on the list is Image Comics: Where Creators own the Mainstream in 23ABC.   Image Comics has quite a few panels throughout the con, and this one features Michael Moreci and Chip Zdarsky in addition to some other great guests.  There is something special about creator owned content and it is a big reason why Image has been growing so fast.

3:30pm - In keeping with a comic book theme, I am going to mosey on over to Robert Kirkman's Skybound Entertainment Celebrates Five Years in 6BCF.  Kirkman has done a masterful job with Skybound and it will be great to get the latest on The Walking Dead, Outcast, and get a sneak peak at its first feature length film, AIR.

6:00pm - Ending on a bit of a lighter note, I will venture outside of the convention center over to the Indigo Ballroom for Comedy Central: Drunk History and Another Period.  I look forward to hearing some behind the scenes tales from Drunk History and hearing from the amazing cast of Another Period.  Another Period is a faux reality show set in the turn of the century.  It follows the hijinks of the deplorable Bellacourt sisters and the cast includes Michael Ian Black, Jason Ritter, David Wain, Natasha Leggero, Riki Lindhome, and more.

7:00am - I will be up early in the morning to attend the Star Wars Fan Breakfast.  I had a blast last year and enjoyed a quiet breakfast with a group of like minded individuals.

9:30am - Friday is my Hobbit day, as I will be having second breakfast that I am not sure how much I can disclose about.  Hopefully when this is happening we can get #SecretBreakfast trending.

12:00pm - While I have been unable to attend in previous years, I have always wanted to attend the MattyPalooza panel in 25ABC.  I will give it a legitimate try this year as I learn about the many lines that Mattel offers.  I have heard good things about this panel and want to experience it at some point.

2:15pm - I am a fan of Phillip K. Dick, which is why I am stoked to attend the Amazon: Man in the High Castle panel in 6A.  This is the highlight of my Friday and I am looking forward to learning what Amazon has planned for this beloved book.   The panel features executive producer Frank Spotnitz, producers David Zucker, and Isa Dick Hackett, and numerous cast members.  Should be informative and hopefully let us know the show is in good hands.

4:00pm - Following this I am going to be part of history at IDW: The Best Panel in recorded History in Room 4.  While I am excited about the shocking announcements, I am most pumped to hear what John Layman has to say.  The creator of Chew is one of the most interesting individuals in the industry and it should be very entertaining.  Throw in Gabriel Rodriguez and you have me hooked.

7:00pm - While there are other panels I would like to see, I am going to take a short break before going to Funko Fun Days.  The good folk at Funko have promised a bigger and better event and I can't wait to see what changes they made.  One of my top highlights from last year, I am really looking forward to my return visit.

10:00am - Assuming that Con fatigue hasn't kicked it too bad, I am going to start my Saturday at the The Last Man on Earth panel in the Indigo Ballroom.  Featuring the lovely Kristen Schaal and creator Will Forte, I look forward to see what the plans are to follow-up the highly successful first season.

11:15am - This one is going to be cutting it close, but if I can manage to make it to 6DE I am going to attend the New DC Universe: Batman: Are you Ready? panel featuring Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo.  I have really enjoyed Snyder and Capullo's Batman run and look forward to hearing what is in store for the Dark Knight.

3:00pm - Following a quick break and a bite to eat, I will venture over to 6DE for the Outcast TV Series: A First Look with Robert Kirkman panel.  Following the success of The Walking Dead television show, it isn't surprising that he was quick to land a deal for Outcast.  I have high hopes for this one and look forward to a sneak peek.

4:15pm - My son would be upset with me if I didn't see what was happening in room 6A for the LEGO Marvel's Avengers: From Silver Screen to Videogame Console panel.  Including a special appearance from Stan Lee, attendees will see gameplay from the new LEGO game set to debut this winter featuring scenes from Avengers: Age of Ultron.  We are a big LEGO gaming family and I look forward to seeing what is next from TT Games.

10:00am - Tears will be shed as fans celebrate the genius behind Phineas and Ferb in the Last Day of Summer: TV Guide Magazine's Farewell to Phineas and Ferb in 6BCF.  A staple in our household, Phineas and Ferb is one of those rare shows that is truly entertaining for both kids and parents.  I am sad to see it end, but happy that summer vacation lasted over 200 days! 

11:15am - Looks like I can stay in my seat and hang out in 6BCF a bit longer to watch the World Premiere of LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League: Attack of the Legion of Doom panel.  This one is pretty self explanatory, but promises some surprise guests.  Should be fun and it allows me to taunt my son when I get home.  Hooray!

1:00pm - Sticking with the LEGO theme, I will then venture over to 7AB to attend the LEGO Ninjago panel for the second year in-a-row.  It was a lot of fun last year and my son really enjoyed the inside scoop I was able to provide.  Looking forward to more of the same this year.

Sadly this is where my SDCC adventure will end.  Looking above it sounds like my plate is full, and this doesn't even include floor time, off-site events, and some press events I am really looking forward to.  As much as I would love to attend some of the panels in Hall H, I am getting too old to hang out in line with these kids today.  Feel free to comment on what panels you are attending or anything that you thought I missed.  Cheers!

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Microreview [video game]: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Following the Path

The Witcher 3 is great, and you should play it immediately.

The Witcher 3 follows closely after the events of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. Geralt is a witcher (not a witch, or witch-hunter), a human transformed by mutagens and trained to kill monsters that prey on common people. He has recovered his lost memory and is on the search for his love, the sorceress Yennefer. He finds Yennefer in the service of Emhyr var Emreis, the emperor of Nilfgaard. Emreis has a mission for them: to find his daughter (and Geralt's adopted daughter) Ciri. Ciri has been missing for a long time, but Emreis's intelligence has spotted her in the conflicted lands of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. Ciri is thought to be pursued by the Wild Hunt, a mythical group of spectral riders that bring death everywhere they go. Geralt goes out in search of Ciri and the hunt begins.

If you've never played a Witcher game, the most obvious comparison is to a third-person Skyrim. It's a huge, third-person action RPG with a single character focus. You're not an avatar of yourself, but Geralt. Geralt has a voice, and history, but his conduct is largely up to the player. Dialog options aren't restricted to "saint" or "asshole" but several shades in between. Sometimes you can use witcher magic to manipulate conversations, but (in contrast to previous games) this sometimes backfires. Geralt can freely summon a horse, and fast travel is available at semi-regular intervals throughout the world. The main quest is not time-limited, so you're free to pursue side quests, witcher contracts (monster hunts), and play mini-games. Areas are not auto-leveled to provide a particular challenge and it's not difficult to wander into a fight you're not ready for, which gives exploration an appealing degree of danger. The quests in the game are helpfully labeled with a suggested player level, which I found to be mostly accurate to the degree of challenge I expected.

If you played The Witcher 2 (and you should, it's amazing), then you're likely pretty familiar with how to play The Witcher 3. It still has two swords, heavy and light attacks, potions, throwables, and magical signs. It has, however, been thoroughly tweaked to make the gameplay a little smoother. Melee attacks are not as easily interrupted. Potions are brewed once (after recipe and ingredients have been found) and then they stay in limited quantities in your inventory and auto-refill with every rest period. Potions don't last as long as they used to, so they're more freely chugged during combat. There are no knives to throw, but they've been replaced with a crossbow and bombs auto-refill like the potions do. The axii sign (mind control) actually works outside of dialog in The Witcher 3 to stun enemies, and yrden (magical trap) is less of an instant stun and more of an area-of-effect debuff zone. The availability of traps is far, far lower in The Witcher 3, which is great news if you're still having nightmares about that trap-filled jungle outside of Flotsam. You can freely dodge, block, and parry without worrying about a stamina meter. Signs require a recharge time per casting, but it can be sped up with character development. Overall, some of the rough corners of The Witcher 2's main combat loop have been smoothed over in positive ways.

Beyond the mechanics of the gameplay, this is very much an evolution of The Witcher games of the past. No easy choices, and very few of them shake out entirely from the start. You find out hours later how your choices have affected the world. It doesn't only affect characters either, as the actual world of The Witcher 3 changes. Not in huge ways, but little details such as seeing more soldiers in the streets, or different background conversations as the game progresses.

Quest design is incredible. The main story has a few interesting turns, but some of the side quests almost overshadow it. It felt like the designers got to where most video games would end a quest line, and decided to continue it for a few more beats. Of all the many, many quests I completed, I only ran into one that got stuck on a bug, and even that quest could be completed in another way due to its design. Even beyond quests, the landscape is littered with stuff to do, like destroy monster nests, find hidden treasures, and liberate areas from bandits. There's a CCG-ish mini game called Gwent that some people are huge fans of. I'm not one of them, but I appreciate it for doing something other than simple dice poker. Secondary quests include Gwent, fist fighting tournaments (like those in The Witcher 2), and horse racing. The amount of stuff to do in the game easily rivals or surpasses the largest RPGs.

There is also a huge amount of little details that The Witcher 3 gets right, where most games do not. There is no unspoken dialog. Every conversation is voiced. Even though the world is absolutely enormous, the parts of it all seem unique and different. Where most games this big might feel like they've been cut and paste together, the world of The Witcher 3 feels crafted. Every piece of equipment changes Geralt's look with very few palette swaps. Cutscenes are all rendered in-game, so every Geralt looks like your Geralt. If you're riding your horse, you can hold down the run button and the horse will (mostly intelligently) follow the trail you're on. It's all of these little touches that add up to The Witcher 3 being an amazingly immersive experience. There's very little in the game that pulls you out of its world.

If I had to make one complaint about the game, it's that the crafted narrative experience comes at the expense of having a character that represents the player. Playing the whole game as Geralt simply isn't going to appeal to every single person, and it doesn't have to, but it limits the audience. Your Geralt probably differs from mine in many ways, but we're both still playing as Geralt, not some representation of ourselves. It's a downside to the improved narrative you get from playing a single character. When you're playing a character, you can't play as yourself. Compared its modern RPG contemporaries, such as Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age, or Skyrim, this makes The Witcher 3 rather limited in choice of player representation.

But if you're into Geralt, this is the best Witcher game yet. It's an enormous open world that is fun to explore and live in for the many, many hours you'll spend in it. It's an extremely immersive game that sends The Witcher series out on a very high note.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 10/10

Bonuses: It's an amazing video game.

Penalties: -1 unless you're not into playing as Geralt. Then it's an excellent game that might not be for everyone.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)



The Witcher 3 Free DLC

In the time since release, CD Projekt RED have released 10 pieces of free DLC, two pieces every two weeks since release. These pieces of DLC are truly DLC sized additions consisting of three quests, two sets of armor, two alternate costumes, an alternate set of art for Gwent cards, alternate hair and beard styles, and a new crossbow set. They are mostly minor additions, but the quests add more time and are of a quality consistent with the rest of the game. One of the new quests alone (a scavenger hunt) added another two hours to my time.

The new stuff, however, blends in so well with the rest of the game that it might be hard to locate new quests or items without some directions. Contrary to Elder Scrolls fashion, the new items are not accompanied by quests or mysteriously delivered notes, and the quests must be stumbled upon like any other quest. If you're just trying to check out the new stuff, it would behoove you to find a wiki page or forum post from someone who can tell you where to find the new stuff so you're not sifting through a sea of stuff you already know about.

They're nice bonuses that will give me a reason to fire the game up again when the rest are released. I am very much looking forward to the more substantial expansions that are planned for the game. 

The World of the Witcher [book]

I'm a sucker for video game art books. The World of the Witcher is, specifically, an art book for the video game series and not necessarily the book series. It's heavy on finished art and lore, but doesn't pull back the curtain much on concepts or designs, and the lore won't tell you much that you won't already know from playing the games. It's weighty and well-built, but not mindblowing.


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

Reference: CD Projekt RED. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [CD Projekt RED, 2015]
Reference: CD Projekt RED. The World of the Witcher [Dark Horse Books, 2015]

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Microreview [book]: Time Salvager by Wesley Chu

The year is 2511, and James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, one of the elite few who are charged with traveling into the world’s past to recon resources. You see, during the late 21st century, humans on Earth were at their prime, a technological golden age if you will. But it didn’t last long, and a series of wars and global disaster led humans to seek refuge elsewhere in the solar system. Now, 500 years in the future, much of those technological advancements are lost, having died with the last of the Technology Isolationists. Sure, there are still advanced space stations, ships, and weaponry, but these 26th century humans no longer know how to produce the energy needed to fuel them, and so must send operatives back through the chronostream to harvest resources. These resources from the past are essential, as they help prolong the impeding human extinction. But travelling the chronstream is not a task for the weak-hearted, and the job is starting to take it’s toll on James, a seasoned veteran. He’s tired of watching people die over and over again, powerless to help them because of the time laws. Creating ripples in the chronostream is a dire offense, but bringing someone back to the future (ha) is strictly forbidden.

The story is great. The world is fascinating, the imagery is sound, and the ideas Chu has come up with here are entertaining to say the least. I particularly like the personal protection system the chronmen wear, being a series of bands on their arms that they can telepathically communicate with and that do everything from act as a Babel Fish to paint disguises to create an exosphere to shoot laser beams. It’s no wonder that Paramount jumped on this one and set Michael Bay at the helm a month before the book's release.

I was totally wide eyed and engrossed in this book until about a third of the way through when the character Elise is introduced. Wow, she is obnoxious. I think her purpose is to be cute and smart and independent, but instead she comes across as childish, naïve, selfish, careless, and unappreciative. Kind of like this, but worse because she’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist:

Frankly, Elise’s chapters are insufferable. The time spent with the Elfreth (a wasteland tribe) is flat boring and the fact that most of it is told from Elise’s POV makes it even worse. And despite the fact that Elise refuses to acknowledge the reality of the danger that she is in and continually puts herself in more, yells “take it off, take it off” when she realized the “ugly” bands can be used as weaponry, and needs to be constantly babysat but has children following her around all the time because, ya know, she’s a woman, the most insufferable part of it all is the first interaction between her and a 90-year old woman James brings to the camp. The women, upon site, visibly hate each other, with Elise pretty much crossing her arms and stomping her feet and the elderly woman clinging to James just to antagonize her. THIS is SICKENING. I just….can’t. And there’s so much more too. These people are starving and Elise has to walk up 70 flights of stairs to get to her makeshift lab and she thinks to herself "well, at least it's good exercise." Yeah, because thats what women who are sustaining off of slug paste are concerned about, getting their exercise. Barf.

But not all the characters are as bad as Elise. Grace Priestly is fantastic (mostly) and James Griffin-Mars constantly challenges the stereotype he's designed to fit. In fact, it is his rejection of the expectation of machismo and absence of emotion that fuels the major plotline of the story. First, he has already failed at protecting his family and is constantly haunted by it. Sure, he seems overly concerned with protecting Elise, but that is because he is substituting her for his prior failures in an almost desperate attempt to right the wrong. Second, chronmen (most of whom are men) must interact with the past, usually entering at points of time immediately preceding a major disaster, but they are expected to not feel emotion or compassion for any of the people they interact with, and are especially not allowed to alter their destiny. This takes its toll on the chronmen, and most poke the giant in the eye (a.k.a. commit suicide) long before their contract is up. But James, on his last job before his contract is bought out, caves and breaks the greatest time law ever (I think this is spoilery but it’s in the publisher description) by saving someone’s life and bringing them back to the future (still funny).

I know I'm using some strong words to describe my feelings on Elise, but that's because it made me really mad. And not just because of the negative stereotype rigmarole, but mostly because this book was awesome up until her and she pretty much ruined it for me. Now, if this Elise stuff won’t infuriate you, or if you can just accept it for what it is, Time Salvager will be very entertaining. The imagery is fantastic and the world is imaginative. I especially love James' beat-up ship 'Collie', which reminds of the Bebop only smaller. 

The Bebop
I think this book will translate well into a movie, and I’m actually kind of excited to see all the technology and time travel come to life. And I'm sure Michael Bay can’t wait to cast a supermodel to play Elise and then put her in a tight fitting Prada lab coat. Hopefully though no one will be carrying around a laminated print out of the statutory rape law this film.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for naming the Elfreth after the oldest community in the US which happens to be in my backyard, +1 for visual imagery especially during time travel 

Penalties: -2 for everything about Elise

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

*and by flaws I mean Elise. This book would be very good if she wasn't in it.

POSTED BY: Tia,  who is becoming increasingly weary of writing about the misrepresentation of women in SF/F and other media and wonders why this is still and issue but realizes that America is only just beginning to recognize that there is a problem with flying the Confederate flag over government buildings 150 years after the Civil War ended and knows that equal rights does not mean equal representation and so will not stop writing about it and will call it out when she sees it because "you're only as loud as the noises you make."   

Reference: Chu, Wesley. Time Salvager [Tor Books, 2015]

Monday, June 29, 2015

Microreview [book]: Tide of Shadows and Other Stories by Aidan Moher

Sometimes the journey is more important than the stories. 

Short story collections are interesting to me, because unlike novels and even unlike most short fiction publications, the organization of the stories tends to be equally important as the stories themselves. Having read many different single author collections, I'm not sure that there is a "right way" of doing it. For some, the best way to present their stories is without comment or clarification, as just the texts without further adornment. Others choose to link their stories into a sort of continuous narrative by adding additional text or structure. Some separate stories by theme, or by genre. Tide of Shadows and Other Stories decides to organize based on time, on when they were written, to create an overarching narrative not centered on the stories themselves, but on the author's growth as a writer from story to story.

It is certainly a brave tactic. Because it does go ahead and show stories that are rough, that are ambitious but that I feel don't quite succeed. "A Night of Spirits and Snowflakes" and "The Girl with Wings of Iron and Down" are both interesting stories, with some neat hooks and plots, but they didn't quite come together in a way that I found satisfying. The endings are a bit soft, a bit muddy, and though they both sound nice, have some good moments in them, they come off as somewhat disappointing. At least, without the commentary. And here is where I'd make the argument that they fit quite well into the narrative that the commentary establishes. That here is a writer starting out. Influences are a bit obvious and the writing in general feels like it wants something without quite knowing how to achieve that. But it is earnest and it is trying and it has moments of clarity that make the stories interesting to read, especially in the context that the author gives at the end of each.

And I think it was a good move to frame the stories in this fashion, as a sort of personal growth for the author in his writing, for the story of him discovering more his voice and his focus. The third story, "Of Parnassus and Princes, Damsels and Dragons," is a much more confident piece. It's a bit more trying to do its own thing, trying to be funny and yet make a point. It shows the same ambition of the earlier work but a little bit more willingness to branch out. Of course, I also think that it's still not quite there when it comes to saying what it means to. I can see in it a desire to tell a story that subverts the fantasy fairy tale trope, that presents a happily ever after that would never make it at Disney. The characters are unlikable and unapologetic, and that can be refreshing. They are also not straight, which is also something to cheer, except that they're queerness and their awfulness seemed linked in a way that made me a bit uncomfortable about the story overall. Again, it's easy to see the author trying, taking chances, and while the result can be a bit rough, I still found things to pull out of the stories.

And even that roughness becomes part of the writing process, another instance of learning and moving forward. Which, I will admit, made me enjoy the collection as a whole even as I wasn't particularly thrilled by most of the stories. Though the last two, "The Colour of the Sky on the Day the World Ended" and the titular "Tide of Shadows" did show a marked improvement over the earliest stories. Both show more of the confidence that marked the twisted fairy tale but with a bit more subtlety and complication. The stories all show a good eye for ideas, but with the later ones there is more of a payoff, more satisfaction in reading, even on those that end right where another story begins. They bring the characters to a more solid footing, exploring them much more than the stories at the beginning of the collection.

In the end I think the project is successful at framing a narrative of the author's growth through the combination of the stories and the commentary provided after each entry. The fiction is interesting but rough, even the final entry showing that while the author has developed much more his own voice and style, that there is more journey yet to come. It is a fascinating read, though, because I can't think of too many projects like it. It keeps things short, not bogging the experience down over a great many stories, and it brought me as a reader on a journey, stopping to admire some neat worlds but mostly showing how it is a writer develops, the kind of work that goes into becoming a better writer. This collection makes me curious to see what a collection from the author will look like in ten years. Or twenty. Until then, it's an interesting project.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for an ambitious organization and effective structure

Negatives: -1 for a kind of mixed bag of actual fiction

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"
(check out our scoring system to see why a 6/10 is still pretty good)

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: Moher, Aidan. Tide of Shadows and Other Stories [2015]

Friday, June 26, 2015

Microreview [book]: Echopraxia by Peter Watts

The Predator and the Prey

Echopraxia sounds like it's the start of a bad sci-fi TV series. What happens when you put hibernating monotheistic monks, an acolyte, a pilot, a military officer, a biologist, a vampire, and a small army of zombies on a space ship heading for the sun? Not wacky hijinks, as TV would tell us, but something much, much better.

Echopraxia follows Daniel Brüks, a so-called baseline human for being non-augmented in a time where everyone is augmented, in the role of the main character and the biologist in this crew. Daniel gets swept up in an attack on a Bicameral Order monastery and winds up on the Crown of Thorns, a Bicam ship headed for a platform close to the sun. How he ended up on the ship, what his role is, and what their mission was to begin with is all revealed in a more or less break-neck pace.

The story moves rather fast but not at the expense of approaching some topics of excellent discussion. The Bicameral Order practice science with faith. They're posthumans trying to find God. Heaven is also a place, and you can talk to people there. Brüks is a skeptic, and his discussions with the acolyte Lianna touch on the importance of faith and the role of God in a posthuman world. The pilot seemingly hates him, and the colonel takes him under his wing, but both of them are on the ship with their own motives.

And then there's Valerie. Valerie, the vampire. You see, science resurrected vampires, and they're even more lethal than most stories portray. They're so dangerous that they're normally kept contained and separate from each other because of the threat they pose to everyone else. She's got the classic vulnerability to crosses, but she's leaner, smarter, faster, and stronger than anyone else on the ship. She's rivaled only by her zombie bodyguards. They're not the shambling type, but the mindless, strong, hard to kill type. She's obviously the wild card of the crew and she's the most intriguing character among them.

The mystery of how the crew was assembled and what their mission is is the central conceit, and it's fantastic. Everyone has their own motives for being there, except Brüks, but even he has a purpose. The way Watts pulls the crew together and then jams wedges between them is excellent. There is a constant feeling of building tension as the crew learn more about each other, and it's extremely satisfying when everything pops.

If I have one complaint, and it's incredibly minor if you're a fan of hard sci-fi, it is that it is sprinkled with technical jargon. However, even if you don't grasp it all (I'm no biologist, so I didn't), it conveys enough to get the gist. It doesn't necessarily detract from the story, but it will give cause to slow down a it.

Slowing down, though, is hard. Echopraxia moves swiftly and doesn't let up once it gets started. It's very hard to put down because of the intricate relationships of the crew. Though it's the second part of a series, it doesn't suffer from "middle of a story" problems, but it did make me want to go back the first part. It's the kind of story that asks a lot of questions, answers most of them, but left me thinking about it long after I finished it. It's excellent.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 great use of unknown motives to build tension

Penalties: -1 might be jargon heavy for some readers

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)


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

Reference: Watts, Peter. Echopraxia [Tor Books, 2014] 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero: SDCC Off-Site Events

My hands are shaking a bit as I type this because San Diego Comic Con is only two weeks away!  In two, short weeks I am going to be attending panels, battling the masses for swag, and attempting to soak in as much as I can in the Gas Lamp in the name of science.  While the action inside the convention center is the main event, the off-site offerings have dramatically improved each year.    Today I will give you my top four off-site events of 2015.

1. Conan at Comic Con - Conan O'Brien has announced that for the first time ever, he is going to tape four shows during Comic Con.  He is going to occupy the Spreckles Theater in downtown San Diego and tape shows on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  The demand for tickets far exceeded the supply and like many others, I am waitlisted and hopeful I still might be able to attend.  The guest list is sure to impress and I can only imagine what types of hijinks Conan and Andy will get into in San Diego.  While it looks unlikely I will be in attendance, I am excited to watch all of his shows from Comic Con.

2. Funko Fun Days 2015 - Last year's surprise hit for me was attending Funko Fun Days.  I had no idea what to expect, and after three hours of madness, I walked away with a huge smile on my face and had turned my brother into a Funko Pop! collector.  This year Funko moved into a bigger location and still managed to sellout within a matter of hours.   I am very much looking forward to a fun night with fellow collectors that includes good food, good drinks, and some fun giveaways. 

3. Hop Con 3.0 - My brother and I have made The w00tStout Festival an annual tradition and I can't wait to begin my SDCC experience enjoying some gourmet food paired with exclusive brews.  Wil Wheaton has packed even more star power into the event this year, which includes Greg Koch, Drew Curtis, Aisha Tyler, Kevin Eastman, Dave Johnson, Mitch Steele, Kris Ketcham, Richard Rossi, and Alexis Light.  SDCC can be a very overwhelming experience, and events like this are the perfect calm before the storm.  There will be over 35 beers on hand, including seven that can only be had at this event.   I am getting thirsty just thinking about it!

4. The Nerd HQ - The Nerd HQ, presented by Zachary Levi and The Nerd Machine, is back again and is moving into a new venue.  The Nerd HQ will be moving into the New Children's Museum in downtown San Diego in its largest venue to date.  While the larger venue made me wonder if it would remain as intimate as it has in years past, the Conversations for a Cause are limited to only 200 tickets each.  In the chaos that is Comic Con, I have found the Conversations for a Cause to provide a great relief to the madness and give the fans a truly unique and personal experience.  The Nerd HQ is also partnering with IGN and AMD and will feature an entire floor dedicated to gaming.  Raising funds for Operation Smile, I am happy to see that this labor of love is returning once again.

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