Friday, September 18, 2020

6 Books with Kimberly Unger

Kimberly created her first videogame back when the 80-column card was the new hot thing. This turned a literary love of science fiction into a full blown obsession with the intersection of technology and humanity.

Today she spends her day-job time in VR, lectures on the intersection of art and code for UCSC’s master’s degree program and writes science fiction about how all these app-driven superpowers are going to change the human race. You can find her on Twitter at @Ing3nu or on her blog at www.ungerink.comKimberly’s debut science-fiction novel Nucleation will be released in November 2020,

Today, she shares her 6 books with us:

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I just got my hands on Glorious by Benford and Niven.  I haven’t read the first two yet, so I’ve gone back and picked up Bowl of Heaven, the first book in that trilogy. That’s my current “top of the stack”.  There’s been quite a long span between the first book and the last, so I am hugely curious to see how the writing and the characterization has evolved (or if it’s evolved) over that period of time. Writers' styles tend to change as their craft improves or their deadlines get shorter or they gain life experience. I rather enjoy observing that as part of my reading.  I do the same thing with comic book artists, there are a few I’ve been following for years and it’s been fantastic to watch them grow.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I actually had to go back and look through my pre-orders to see what’s in there.  I’m one of those people who, I see a book, get really excited, then go pre-order it and forget all about it until it hits my Kindle like an un-birthday present.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to read again? 

I’ve been thinking about digging back into the Laundry Files, It’s been a little while since the last book came out, the new one should be dropping shortly and I do deeply enjoy the way Stross’ characters do their best in the face of a future that is stunningly bleak when you really think about it (which is part and parcel to playing in that mythos, right?).  It’s unlikely this series will have a good ending and I am hugely curious to see how it all plays out.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

I… erm… That’s a hard one. I have authors who I have changed my mind about, in fact most authors I’ve met have been very different than I imagined them to be from their work. Books for me are different, I hold them when I read them in my timeline because people can change for better or worse, but books cannot. When I read them now I have a different reaction.  But that’s not really changing my mind, that’s just the evolution of my experiences crashing up against it.  An example of this might be Butcher’s Dresden Files books.  I enjoy the latest books in the series, but the first few books are written with a much younger lens. Current-version me is not a fan of some of the cringeable moments in those books, but if you sit down and do a binge read, you can watch the author’s style and world-choices maturing right alongside the characters through the course of the series, which is absolutely fabulous.  I’d be more careful about recommending them than I once was.  But, I also wouldn’t want the author to do a “revised edition” to bring it in line with who I am now.  I’d rather they keep all those moments so the characters can grow out of them. So you could say that I’ve revised my opinion about the first few books in the series a little towards the negative, but the series as a whole as a positive.

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

Patricia K. McPhillip’s The Changeling Sea is one, it was one of the shortest books I’d run across on a shelf full of epic-length high fantasy texts, but it still managed to be complete and whole and satisfying.  I started reading science fiction with shorter, faster pulpier works like Ron Goulart’s because some kind soul had sold off tons of them to the local used bookstore, so seeing that length of book emerge on modern shelves changed the way that I think about publishing.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome? 

Nucleation is a story about what happens when a woman at the top of her game gets her legs kicked out from under her. It’s about working in an environment that values one’s expertise, and how when you climb back up again, you may find your view has changed.  Throw in a healthy mix of remote-space travel, nano-robotics and an alien race that’s a mirror, not of us, but the things we create, and I think, I hope, you’re going to find Nucleation worth your time.

Thank you, Kimberly!

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

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

A fun book, but anticlimactic in its collapsage

(Note: While writing this review, I found it trickier than usual not to go into spoiler territory, and there's a fairly significant discussion of the trilogy ending ahead. I'll try and keep it as oblique as possible but spoiler sensitive readers will want to read the book first (spoiler free review: it's... fine.))

It is a well-accepted fact that some authors don't work for some readers. Even within our favouritest of favourite genres, there are books that just pass us by by people whose style, or storytelling focus never clicks. I am now ready to accept that John Scalzi is one of those authors for me but, here with yet another Scalzi book I yet again have no strong feelings about, I can't help coming out of the Interdependency - a series about entertaining people coming together against political intrigue and space battles to save the day, it should be perfect - feeling particularly frustrated that it has evoked no strong feelings of interest or engagement. 

The Last Emperox picks up where the last book in the trilogy left off - with an interstellar empire whose means of faster-than-light travel, a mystical phenomenon known as the "Flow", is closer than ever to collapse. Given that this interstellar empire literally calls itself "The Interdependency" and is almost entirely scattered across planets and habitats which aren't capable of independently supporting human life, this is a catastrophic event, and it's being made even more challenging by the squabbling elites who are more interested in making a profit off the collapse than in actually trying to save the people. In his review back in April, Joe notes that this backdrop is pretty on the nose for the compounding crises we're living in, and while there's certainly plenty to differentiate The Last Emperox from "our current political climate... in space!" (the hereditary monarchy being one of them) the device of having overwhelming problems which the characters have to find energy not just to survive but to push back against definitely feels... timely.

Enter Emperor Grayland II - also known as Cardenia Wu-Patrick - the young, unexpectedly competent and radical new leader of the Interdependency, who has spent the last two books dodging assassination attempts and trying to convince people that, yes, the Empire is in fact collapsing, with the help of her scientist-buddy-turned-boyfriend Marce and sweary ally Kiva Lagos. She also has the uploaded memories of all past Emperoxes (Emporex?) and the ancient king-in-a-spaceship-body they picked up in their last adventure. On the other side, we've got Nadashe Nohamapeton, fresh off her second failed assassination attempt and now engaged in a last-ditch coup attempt against the Wu family as a whole. At this point in the crisis, the political elite of the Interdependency have accepted that their world is changing, and the main decision they have to make is whether to act in the collective interest to save as many humans as possible (Cardenia's strategy) or to collect as much profit and political power for themselves as they can before leaving for the one safe, habitable planet that will remain after the Flow collapses. Aside from Cardenia and the Lagoses, almost everyone we meet among the political class is going for the latter option, and Cardenia lacks the political leverage to get them to act in a way that will save billions of lives. Plus, trying to deal with all that is hard when you're just trying to keep yourself from getting assassinated on the day-to-day, and also maybe squeeze in some quality time with your smart scientist boyfriend once in a while.

The Last Emperox is a lot of fun. It has characters who are enjoyable to be around, and a style which really brings the best out of them. Marce and Cardenia have a lot of opportunities to be sweet together, and Kiva's sections are deeply entertaining, showcasing the sweary captain-turned-political-leader's unique brand of cunning and resourcefulness. As a main antagonist, Nohamapetan could be less two dimensional, but the different ways in which she and Kiva respond to the same unpleasant living situation makes for an entertaining sequence. The bulk of the book (and these are not chonking volumes) is made up of their smartass dialogue and equally smartass inner voices as they banter, snark and swear their way through encounters with each other - and this is stuff that Scalzi is very, very good at. Full snark marks. It is possible that you will spend so much time enjoying this snark that you'll not be too bothered when you get to the end of the book and go "wait, weren't we going to see the Empire collapse?"

But for me, for all its fun and wit, I struggle to accept the fact that the Interdependency fails to deliver on the goalposts it actually sets up. Instead of being a plot about saving humanity, it becomes a plot about accumulating the power to do so. Probably. Hopefully. We think so, but we don't know. People have done shitty things with power before, but the distribution we end up here seems... OK. On one level, this plot brings in some nice pieces of history and background that have been set up across the trilogy, but it's also done in a curiously apolitical way, relying more on a deus ex machina technological device than an actual political triumph. Does it hit emotional beats? Sure. Does it complete an arc? Well, it gels with Cardenia's overall goals and arguably Kiva didn't really have an arc so much as a general drive to survive colourfully and entertainingly. For Marce, and for the entire concept of The Flow and what it meant for human society (you know, that whole "Interdependency" thing) the closure provided in The Last Emperox doesn't really answer many questions, just handwaves them off by tying up the political plot, and then draws the curtain just when success might happen. Plus, as a political triumph, it entirely relies on our read of the specific character it relates to: and yes, it works, because we are invested in the character, but it's not a particularly interesting answer to the question of cooperative action (you know, that whole "interdependency" thing rearing its head again). To be fair, the series where it does means that it escapes having to grapple with more potentially grim scenes that might throw off the tone of the series - this is no Expanse, the mistakes have bodycounts but not on the scale that it could be - but it feels like a "well, OK" sort of ending compared to the scale of the premise.

And that's ultimately how I feel about the entire Interdependency trilogy. It's enjoyable, its fun, it's diverting, with an author at Scalzi's level I've no doubt it does exactly what he intends it to do. There's always room for more popcorn-y sci fi adventures from authors who are thoughtful about what our spacefaring future might look like. If I were picking this up on a best Hugo ballot, I'd be just fine with reading it (see also: it's short) - but I'd also be quite annoyed at whatever it is in here is passing me by. Overall, though, while this might be your sort of space opera, I have to leave it with a shrug and an acceptance that this was probably never going to work out.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Entertaining characters and smart dialogue

Penalties: -2 Unsatisfying closure, doesn't pay off on the promise of its premise

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 

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

Reference: Scalzi, John, The Last Emperox [Tor Books, 2020]

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Microreview [film]: The Love Witch

There’s a lot to love

The Love Witch is a movie shot in 2016 that looks like it was shot in 1972. Supposedly, it was *the last* film shot on 35mm film and edited on a negative without using a digital intermediate. As a big film nerd, this all makes me way happy, but what writer and director Anna Biller did with this film far outpaces a simple stylistic exercise.

The eponymous love witch is Elaine, who is attempting to recover after the end of a marriage, and has — as she puts it — been reborn as a witch practicing love magick. But her magic is maybe a little too effective, as the dudes she sets her sights on never really seem to be able to move on from her. This failure to move on takes several forms throughout the movie, and Elaine seems both a little confused by this effect, but also ambivalent. It’s not really her concern if a romantic plaything can’t move on.

This is where gender dynamics come into play. I’m not the best reviewer to discuss this, but let me say that the gender dynamics in the film are complex and nuanced. Elaine articulates the notion that women should be subservient to men, and give them sex all, all, all the time. She tries to convince other female characters in the film of this. But Elaine doesn't really practice what she preaches. Instead, she seeks out men for *her own* sexual and relational gratification. We hear the abusive voices of her father and her ex-/late husband demanding greater physical perfection from her, and we watch her sexually engage with men only to come away still wanting, while the men collapse in weepy heaps in her wake.

For me, this is where the aesthetic beauty of the film comes into play. And please understand, this is a BEAUTIFUL movie. Anna Biller not only wrote and directed it, but also designed the sets and costumes. She and cinematographer M. David Mullen purportedly worked out blocking and lighting schemes from 1970s giallo movies in order to better mimic the look of those films. It’s one thing to mimic the look of old film with a plug-in, or even to shoot on the same medium, but to fully mimic it down to the nuts and bolts...well, something else happens there.

By perfectly copying the aesthetic of a bygone generation of films and doing so in the context of a new work that handles gender, narrative, and thematic content differently, Biller is setting her film up explicitly in dialogue with those earlier films. Giallo and independent Technicolor horror movies brought us a number of female heroines, but when fifty years later it’s plausible that a woman might yet be attacked in a bar because someone calls her “witch,” the narrative takes on an additional layer of meaning.

That is maybe too esoteric. At brass tacks, we have the following: Samantha Robinson as Elaine is probably as beautiful as any human has ever been in a movie; the production design is sumptuous and layered; there are evocative references to films like The Seventh Seal that make my film-nerd heart happy; and the narrative leaves room for ambivalence and competing interpretations of Elaine, her goals, and her accomplishments.

In the end, this is kind of everything you want from an independent film — a strong narrative voice, bold visual choices, and a thoughtful re-examination of genre conventions.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Samantha Robinson’s highly stylized performance; +1 for literally every single thing in front of the camera lens, because nothing is wasted

Penalties: -1 for a certain lack of narrative integrity that makes a couple of plot developments feel pretty mushy

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Vance K — Emmy Award-winning producer and director, cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together for lo these many years now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Microreview [book]: Ignorance is Strength, edited by John Joseph Adams, Christine Yant, and Hugh Howey

This is is science fiction shining a light on the world around us. The heart of these stories is in the lives lived through the adversity of a failing society.

Six years ago John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey edited the ambitious Apocalypse Triptych, three anthologies taking readers into stories set before, during, and after the apocalypse in their relative anthologies. It was a spectacular reading experience. Now, with Christine Yant this triptych of editors has an intensely (and sometimes uncomfortably) timely set of anthologies following the same model, focused on the idea of dystopia.

Ignorance is Strength is the first volume of the Dystopia Triptych, borrows its name from George Orwell, and is damned uncomfortable reading. This isn't prescient science fiction, this is is science fiction shining a light on the world around us. It feels particularly American, but the United States is in the midst of a dystopian fall and the best of these stories come across as oh too real. This isn't an anthology of despair, however.  These heart of these stories is in the lives lived through the adversity of a failing society - though everything fails in a different way.

One especially poignant story is "The Truth About the Boy", by Adam Troy-Castro - which has powerful echoes of the response to the elementary school shooting at Newton, Connecticut and the vile denials by some that the shooting even happened and the claims that those children were actors. Adam Troy-Castro takes that idea farther with active campaigns and harassment against the parents of such murdered children, though perhaps he also reflects reality.

Many of those same themes are worked with in Merc Fenn Wolfmoor's anthology closing story "Trust in the Law, For the Law Trusts in You" - which is similar only to a point. Wolfmoor's story takes the (likely) idea that the United States will do nothing to actually curb school shootings or to address gun violence in any meaningful manner but instead will introduce virtual reality to school because maybe there can't be a school shooting if there is no in person school. That's a nightmare idea on the surface, but Wolfmoor extends that idea further and it's a chilling tale, though at least for me Troy-Castro's story is the more effective one.

My initial focus on the two school shooting related stories and the different descents that brings to America is not reflective of the rest of the anthology, at least in terms of story content. Seanan McGuire's "Opt-In" tackles the social economics of human organ harvesting and the effects of poverty on the desperation to earn enough money to take care of one's family when there are functionally no legal options. There's a slight distinction, but I'm a little surprised this isn't a Mira Grant story but then it doesn't veer into the horror that Seanan McGuire does when writing as Mira Grant. As with the best of McGuire's stories, "Opt-In" is a punch in the gut.

Other stories work with the prison economy, employment, artificial intelligence, the future of learning, climate change, and all the ways we can fuck up our world and our society and just make things worse. Not every story works perfectly and I fully recognize stories that don't work as well for me (Violet Allen's "Mister Dawn, How Can You Be So Cruel?", for example) might well be the favorites of other readers. The best stories for me are the ones that punch me right in the heart, so Adam Troy-Castro and Seanan McGuire earn those honors as well as stories by Tobias Buckell, Darcie Little Badger, and Karin Lowachee. When Ignorance is Strength is humming, there is nothing better.

Since this is a triptych of anthologies with linked stories, I'm afraid of where some of these stories will go in Burn the Ashes and deeper into the heart of the despair of dystopia. The best of the stories here are so searing that taking the next step is a frightening proposition. I can't wait.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 I'm a sucker for dystopian stories. +1 That Adam Troy-Castro story was soooo good (and uncomfortable)

Penalties: -1 There are always stories which don't land. -1 One story only tenuously fit the theme (it fit, but aliens)

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

Reference: Adams, John Joseph, Christine Yant, and Hugh Howey. Ignorance is Strength [Adamant Press]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Microreview [Game]: Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games

A gentle, joyful experience that doesn't shy away from the complexity of its central premise

CW: Discussions of death, illness, some references to abuse and trauma, ableism. For a fuller discussion of themes, see the paragraph beginning "Content Note" below.

It took one sentence and two screenshots from someone else in a Discord group to make me realise I needed Spiritfarer in my life. The screenshots were of a set of ghostly characters in a factory, talking about tearing down capitalism and seizing the means of production. The comment was about the experience of escorting their first in-game friend into the afterlife, and letting them go. Anti-capitalism, cute ghosts, and gentle but ever-present exploration of death and loss would have sold me on their own, but then I learned that the entire game was set on a boat and my heart was lost entirely.

Spiritfarer opens with you, Stella, and your cat Daffodil, inheriting the role of Spiritfarer. Your task, from this point is to find lost spirits in the strange realm you've ended up in, and bring them to the Everdoor, the bridge between this reality and the next. Before you do so, you need to guide them through their final tasks, helping them to the point where they're ready to move on. In the meantime, you bring them onto your boat, build them nice things, feed them their favourite foods, and generally hang out as you sail through the odd, fantastic purgatorial landscape in which you've found yourselves: up until they decide it's time to say goodbye. It's a heavy premise, and Spiritfarer treats it with all the respect it deserves, making it clear from the start what sort of game it is going to be, and following through on its promises in a way that feels thoughtful and well-considered.

The quests all feel, on one level, like standard fare for the genre - build something new, learn to collect a new resource, visit a new place, all while trying to help people to untangle their last requests. Despite the initial introduction, however, it quickly becomes apparent that none of the character arcs in Spiritfarer are going to tie up these individuals' lives and motivations into a tidy, complete "life well lived, lessons learned" package before sending them off. Most of your Spiritfarer passengers mean well, and the relationships they build with you (as a silent protagonist, there seems to be an element of projection in this, but it doesn't really affect the power of these moments) are heartwarming and sweet, but most are coming from lives shaped by tragedy and some are downright challenging. All of them have regrets, all of them have aspirations for their time in the Spiritfarer realm which are left largely unrealised, most request help from you that doesn't quite turn out as they hope. None of it matters: at some point, they still have to make the final journey, and that this moment isn't one of gamified triumph is one of the most important elements of the Spiritfarer experience. Death isn't the end of a tidy story arc, but a messy, incomplete process, and that's OK.

One of the most heartbreaking goodbyes is the one to Alice, a grandmotherly hedgehog who joins - bringing a pet sheep with her - and initially sets about being as helpful and demanding as all the other passengers, asking for upgrades and buildings and then requesting a special trip to the setting of one of her favourite stories. When fulfilling that request and escorting her around the a desolate, snow-covered town which she views with total, unmitigated delight from start to finish - Alice's health starts to take a turn. From that point onwards, every progression in Alice's storyline is about her mental and physical decline, and it becomes clear that no fetch quest or story progression is going to reverse the effects of dementia. It was a story that hit close to home, and Spiritfarer manages to strike a balance with it that could easily have gone badly wrong. As it is, Alice's arc is one of the most impactful and bittersweet in a game that's already packed with high quality moments, an incorporation of end-of-life care that's respectful to its characters and the concept it is trying to portray within a game that still manages to do what game narratives need to do.

Spiritfarer definitely delivers on the gaming experience too, helped by the bonds it creates with characters and the way its arcs question some of the underlying assumptions behind resource management and fetch quests. One of the things that impressed me early was the game's ability to create a sense of epic, cinematic challenge without any genuine threat to progress. Many resources are collected through challenge sequences, usually tied to one of the characters - for instance, during my first lightning storm my Uncle Atul teaches me how to capture lightning in a bottle, and proceeds to call down lightning onto the deck of the ship with his flute while I run around trying to catch the strikes. Nothing will happen to me if I don't get the lightning strike lined up - though Daffodil has a hilarious animation every time she accidentally gets in the way of one - but the atmosphere, the soundtrack, and the animation all combine to make a relatively simple platforming challenge into something exhilarating. Tying these challenges to individual characters, and then keeping them open without their presence once they leave, is also a neat way to keep the memories of these past residents in your mind as you progress through the game. For catching lightning, which became a ritual with my favourite character which I kept repeating well after I needed to - finding the minigame after Atul's departure meant confronting his loss all over again, and the game makes you feel that every time.

Because the game is so well thought out from almost every angle, the one or two missteps it contains are a little more obvious. The platforming elements are good but not outstanding, with the controls around when one hits a platform or a zipline and when one falls through sometimes feeling arbitrary. There's some very light Metroidvania elements around picking up new skills (bought with the tokens that your passengers give you as payment for their stay), but the game isn't brilliant at signposting things that are deliberately inaccessible until a new skill is gained. None of this really affected my enjoyment, and some of the late game skills are just so fun to mess around with that it's hard to be annoyed that you've missed a platform you really felt you should have landed on if it means you get to do the wild leaps that got you close again. But for players less experienced or enamoured with platforming, some of these elements may become more irritating, and it definitely feels like the weakest part of the gameplay. As is par for the course in management games, the sheer number of tasks the game requires of you also becomes daunting (In particular, please note you do not need that many sheep) and can get repetitive and boring (though the beautiful animations and Stella's constant grin kept me doing many things well beyond my usual threshhold of annoyance). At a certain point, I basically felt encouraged to let most of the management go, spending the endgame selectively picking up resources that I actually needed, letting my fields be empty, and spending large parts of my voyages sat on the balcony of my by-then ridiculously full boat, taking in the game's music and ambience, rather than feeling everything needed to be all productivity all the time.

I also encountered a couple of frustrations with more story-driven game elements. Two quests rely on getting a group of characters together at one point, then travelling somewhere to continue the quest, but the way one of these gets realised (and a possible glitch in the "asking" mechanic) meant that I was left with an entirely empty "audience" for one scene, undermining the way the character's subsequent reaction played out.There is also one very significant deviation from the core formula with the Everdoor, which works well for the character on one level, but was the only point that had me reaching for the internet to figure out if my game had glitched, because it came so suddenly and felt like a betrayal of expectations that I didn't expect from the game at that point. It turned out to have been an intended mechanic, and one which I came to terms with, but this was the only point where I felt the game didn't have my back when it came to guiding me through its emotionally driven content.

Content Note: Spiritfarer's gentleness shouldn't obscure the fact that there are some heavy themes involved here. As noted above, one character's arc is centred around old age and dementia; another involves child abuse, while others deal with negative family relationships in more general terms. Two of the most challenging characters engage in negative, controlling behaviour over Stella, although as the characters have no power over you in-game (it is, of course, the opposite), it's easier to view this in the tragic context it seems to be intended. Also, one of the characters talks about the effect that disability - specifically, becoming a wheelchair user - had on their life in entirely negative terms. The way this is raised makes it clear that their intention is to discuss how they were objectified and dismissed by the people around them as a result of their wheelchair, rather than it being the disability itself that got in the way of achieving what they wanted to. However, other players may find that this portrayal falls short of offering a sensitively realised disabled character, especially as the character is once again able-bodied in the afterlife. (Update: the portrayal of this character has indeed been raised over Twitter, specifically a second conversation, which I didn't properly catch the implications of during the game. Thunder Lotus has apologised and will hopefully be addressing this dialogue and the character's arc in an update.)

None of these got in the way of my enjoyment of Spiritfarer, and all felt sensitively handled, but in a game that's already trading in on a challenging premise, many players will benefit from a clear sense of what the game is asking from them. And, of course, despite its nuance and careful treatment of the concept, this is a game that portrays a degree of beauty and closure in choosing death: for many of us, this is a concept that needs to be approached carefully and in the right headspace, and I urge all prospective players to take that into account before picking this game up.

All in all, though, Spiritfarer is a game that I adored playing, from its beautiful art and entertaining gameplay, to its immersive and luscious set pieces, to the deep, resonant, heartbreaking arcs of all of its characters. In creating a game around end of life care, Thunder Lotus have taken on an immensely challenging brief and have realised it with impressive thoughtfulness and flair. This is a game experience that is going to say with me for an awfully long time, and I can't wait to see what this studio does next.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 every character has their own unique hug animation! +1 thoughtful character storylines that are heartbreaking in just the right way

Penalties: -1 the few awkward moments stand out all the more in what's overall a highly thoughtful package

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

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

Friday, September 11, 2020

Microreview [book]: Repo Virtual by Corey J White

Corey J White’s Repo Virtual brings a fresh, inclusive and modern spin on Cyberpunk, with the story of a near future heist in South Korea that is far more than it appears

The future city of Neo Songdo in South Korea is a decaying icon in the mid 21st century. Built as being a beacon of the future, a testament to the power of the Zero corporation and as a highlight of 21st century power and strength, it is a city that has strong class divisions, weakened by being a corporate playground that has perhaps seen its better days. Tech is everywhere, and the street finds its own uses for technology, including the Massively Multiplayer Online game of Voidwar. And when a young man who spends his time using the in game currency of the game to get by is recruited into a heist to steal a virus, but it is something far more than he, or others, imagine. Something that could change the world. An Artificial Intelligence.

This is the story of Corey J White’s Repo Virtual. 

Repo Virtual hits all of the marks of a Cyberpunk novel, but with a 21st century sensibility. That includes the casting. Among the main characters in the narrative we have a non-binary person, a middle aged corporate troubleshooter, queer protagonists, and people of color. It's a spectrum of representation that early Cyberpunk novels often missed the mark on, and the cast shows the 21st century paint on the Cyberpunk chassis. The mid 21st Century South Korea setting in a corporate town that the characters inhabit feels resonant with prior Cyberpunk locations but definitely feels like a more likely setting, given trends.

Other elements hit the timeless power chords of Cyberpunk square on. The power and reach of corporations - corporations with the power of a government, but with concerns of profit and loss rather than providing basic services - is a theme of 20th century Cyberpunk, and it feels even more resonant now in 2020. A corporate controlled city of endless Minority Report-like ads, where expatriates from the city have set up a community on its edge, trying to escape and build a new life? Robot police dogs? Hacking technology, and technology turned to ends that its creators cannot imagine? Stolen technology that is more than even what it’s creators imagine it is-- not a virus at all, but a nascent artificial intelligence.

So let’s talk about the characters. JD is our entry into the novel, the titular “Repo” who winds up in the center of the heist to steal the “Virus” (which turns out to be the AI). He is a prototypical cyberpunk protagonist in many ways, down and out, looking for the perfect chance to get his knee fixed and maybe some money for his Mom. He is really distinguished by his connections to the other characters-- to Soo-hyun, who recruits him into the plot, to Troy, his lover, and to the AI as well. Soo-hyun’s idealism, which goes through the ringer, makes them an interesting pole, especially as the plot progresses and what seems like a straightforward heist most certainly is not. And then there is Enda. Enda is a middle aged queer woman who corporations like Zero hire to fix problems--such as the theft of a “virus”.. She has a past, a past held over her head like a sword of damocles. She has her technological toys, and skills and a sense of personal loyalty and straight dealing that, if you cross, God help you. In the course of events, she searches for our heist participants, the face of the “opposition”. There are also secondary non-point of view characters, all of them strikingly drawn, especially Kali, whose cult-like leadership of the expatriate community outside Neo Songdo is expressed in interestingly complex terms.

Readers of White’s Voidwitch series (starting with Killing Gravity) know that White hits the action beats and rings those changes well, and he takes those skills and puts them into his mid 21st century story with conflicts and set pieces both small and large. From a tense gun standoff, to a pulse pounding chase across the city, when the author turns on the action, the words just flow off of the page. As you might guess from above, Enda is the heart of these action beats and I have a real affection for her and her ability to use violence in a leveraged and effective way. The novel doesn’t shirk or glamorize the violence, its portrayed excitingly, but not without consequences.

For all of the action, and interesting characters, what really sets this novel apart from most Cyberpunk is its strongly philosophical bent. It sounds more than a little strange to talk about ontology and philosophy in the context of an often pulse pounding SF novel, but White’s novel and its thesis, for lack of a better word, is encapsulated in the sections when the AI starts to swim toward the surface of consciousness, and the debate, and the issues of a new sentient intelligence, and what that means. It is a far less toxic meditation on artificial intelligence, their rights and nature, than in say, the movie Ex Machina, which I kept thinking of as the AI moves from being a pure MacGuffin to being an entity in their own right, with slowly developing hopes and goals of their own. What rights does an AI have? What is the social contract, here? I was not expecting this level of deep thought, as JD and Troy and the AI come to slow understanding, JD and Troy from without, and the AI from within.

And then there is the Epilogue to the novel, once the dust settles. That epilogue, which I will not spoil in any way, since a lot of the power of it is not in the sheer wistful poetry of the worlds, but how it provides the framing for the entire story, is at once very un-Cyberpunk and yet has a perspective that feels so right. It's a testament to the craft and skill of the author.

Does Cyberpunk still have something to say and to present itself as a viable subgenre for the early 21st century for writers and readers? Repo Virtual by Corey J White proves that the answer is, that eye of the needle can be threaded. It’s difficult to write near-future SF, but White not only manages it but succeeds excellently at it.

Find out more about Corey J White and Repo Virtual in Andrea Johnson’s interview with him.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a diverse group of protagonists and points of view, on various axes
+1 for excellent heist framing and general action beats.
+1 for strong philosophical questions raised, and discussed

Penalties: -1 The  fates of some of the characters feels a little dissonant.

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

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

Reference: White, Corey J. Repo Virtual  [ Publishing, 2020]

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Cemetery Boys tells an otherworldly story with a skill that feels equally out of this world.

Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys has a slew of elements hiding in plain sight to the characters. A deep undercurrent of love flows between the main characters, as they consciously evade what should be obvious to each other during a significant chunk of the novel, until the romantic epiphany hits them with the subtlety of a truck. Ghosts are invisible to those not part of the brujx lineage (magic-possessing people who can commune and interact with the dead). And the main character Yadriel, a trans man, is dismissed by his family as being unable to deal with the brujx responsibilities because of prejudiced assumptions of his gender identity. Cemetery Boys shows that in all cases, with a little more perspicuity and focus, you can broaden your worldview, and see how you were blinded under a shroud of dazed ignorance.

Cemetery Boys follows Yadriel, a brujx trans man who isn’t persecuted violently by his father, but is persecuted non-violently and dismissed as a lost cause, because they believe only those who subscribe to a gender essentialist ideology can possess magical traits. Often by his side is his best friend, Maritza, a brujx who doesn’t often use magic because she’s a vegan, and magic is typically done with animal blood. Things quickly take a turn, when Yadriel senses the death of his cousin Miguel. On his search to find the body, he summons the spirit of a rowdy schoolmate named Julian who doesn’t know how he died. An investigation ensues to find out who’s responsible for the recent deaths. And the most electrifying romance I’ve read in some time blooms along the way.

That romance is expertly paced in the way it grows believably and is interwoven with the investigation. Sometimes novels have a dissonance between propelling the grander plot forward and developing a romance that turns your heart into swooning mush. But Aiden Thomas always has the grand events and themes bounce off the romance and vice versa. This is additionally extraordinary considering Cemetery Boys also covers Yadriel’s family saga with a family tree that is essentially big enough to envelop an entire city. There are only a couple instances when the novel stumbles in a morass of inaction, and that’s when events in the middle happen multiple times with slight alterations. The slightness of those changes is so minute that reading them feels like you’re eating the same meal thrice in the same day--a good meal, though with diminishing returns.

The novel tackles trans identity, acknowledging that transphobic prejudice still exists--but the book's optimistic of how many minds are capable of change and compassion. It’s unflinching realism with a dash of hope. Apart from a few ignoramuses, most of the prejudice is in the margins, away from the characters and their colorful adventure. There’s a heartwarming amount of love. Yadriel’s love interest has all the qualities of an archetypal transphobe: he’s initially painted as a classic bad boy—but there’s more to him than that. And that’s the sort of perceptual realignment that some characters in the novel have to make about Yadriel, unscrewing their ingrained transphobia. The ghosts aren’t the only characters in the novel who aren’t often seen properly.

The story is steeped in Latinx culture, and Aiden Thomas describes its mythology in an exciting and readable fashion. In fact, the entirety of the novel is written in a way that straddles the line between overwritten and choppy. There are lush descriptions that never descend into purple prose, nor are elements rushed. In terms of debut novels, the writing is otherworldly—a skill of such high quality that it's hard to grasp, like a wisp or ghost.

Cemetery Boys is infused with authenticity, thrills, and insight, until the feverish climax with a reveal that’s wispily hiding in plain sight. By the time the reader gets there, they might be unsurprised, not because the reveal is overly telegraphed, but because the novel expertly trains its readers to not take things at face value and to dig a little deeper. Something that felt like a gust wind shouldn’t be unequivocally assumed as a gust of wind—it might be a ghost. Someone who puts up a wall of unsociability might have their guard up because they’re scared that they will feel more than anybody else. The book is a rallying to know a person more personally than with a superficial glance. But one thing was eminently clear to me by just reading Cemetery Boy’s first page: this book is really good. And in that case, my assumption held up.

 The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For having the romance of the year.

+1 For having an incredibly well-developed supporting cast.

Negatives: -1 There are a couple pacing issues in the middle section of the book.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!

Reference: Thomas, Aiden. Cemetery Boys [Swoon Reads, 2020]