Thursday, June 28, 2012

Microreview [film]: The Reef

The Meat

I love shark films. Or, rather, I would if there were any good ones other than JAWS. But I was in a sharkey mood last night, so I figured hey...I can watch one of these just long enough to see the first person eaten, right? Wrong. Turns out I found a shark film worth watching all the way to the end!

I wasn't expecting much from THE REEF, a low-budget, small cast film about some people lost at sea. Things don't start well either. As the film begins, we're introduced to boring Luke, his boring love interest Kate, and their boring friends, who have gotten together to sail to Indonesia. Along the way they stop at a little island to go snorkling and have awkward conversations about relationships that aren't convincing. After this little interlude, the gang returns to the boat to set sail, only once they're 10 miles out from the island, they scrape bottom and capsize! Now they've got a decision: stay on the boat, in the hopes they see a plane before it sinks; or try to swim to shore, knowing that there are probably sharks out there. Four of the five decide to swim for it. At first it seems like a good decision. Then a dorsal fin appears.'s shark time!

I have to say, THE REEF is surprisingly good. It's not particularly well-acted, and dialogue is as stilted as it gets. But director Andrew Traucki does a great job trying viewers in knots--as it happens, the shark doesn't even show up for ages, but you just know it's out there. When it does appear, it's an actual great white, in all its hideous glory, not some ridiculous looking animatronic or CGI stand-in. The shark just oozes prehistoric malevolence, a soulless killer methodically stalking its prey. The intimate cinematography and a deeply evocative score heighten the tension, which barely lets up to the closing credits.

Bottom line, this is a must-see for shark fans, or fans of creature feature horror generally. It's not the second coming of JAWS, but it's one of the the best shark films released since JAWS, even if that's not necessarily saying much.

The Math

Objective quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for using an actual shark; +1 for I just bought the soundtrack; +1 for making the most of a small budget; +1 for being literally the only good shark movie I've ever seen other than JAWS

Penalties: -1 for everything up until the point where the boat capsizes; -1 for the unconvincing and unnecessary relationships between the characters (I mean, who cares? Bring on the shark!)

Cult film coefficient: 8/10. I'll definitely be watching this one again.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Microreview [comic]: Dan the Unharmable

The Meat

Dan the Unharmable (Avatar) marks David Lapham’s return to crime comics. Lapham revolutionized the genre during the nineties with Stray Bullets, melding the twist-heavy plots of classic series such as Crime Does Not Pay and Shock Suspense Stories with his own particular brand of black humor. Dan the Unharmable combines this offbeat approach with a touch of equally offbeat superheroism. You see, our hero has powers, hence the “Unharmable” moniker. Think The Big Lebowski meets Unbreakable. With a weird California cult thrown in for good measure.

Dan -- “just Dan” -- is a homeless, Melvins-loving, low-rent Philip Marlowe who is invulnerable to physical harm. And not only can Dan take a beating, but he can dish one out with gusto. Since he’s psychologically as well as physically invulnerable -- nothing freaks him out, other than damage to his “almost autographed” Prick CD -- he’s got no qualms about killing people in fairly creative and gory ways.

Gore seems likely to be a regular feature of the book. There’s the corpse reminiscent of the Black Dahlia, a dude getting punched through his junk, a disemboweled simpleton, and a Greyhound bus used as a weapon of mass murder. And that’s just the first two issues.

The story revolves around the murder of a woman in the Hollywood Hills. The victim’s daughter travels across country to enlist Dan in investigating the case, not because of Dan’s skills at detection -- which appear minimal -- but rather because she may be the daughter of Dan and the murdered woman. Dan, though, is not sure of the truth of the young woman’s claim because he simply doesn’t remember much of his past. But for $170 and a bus ticket to the West Coast, Dan decides to take the case. When a couple of sociopathic cult members from La La Land show up to retrieve the girl, fun sh*t ensues.

Dan the Unharmable is Lapham doing what he does best: stories about oddball characters getting themselves into bizarre though not entirely unbelievable situations. Almost unbelievable situations, perhaps. Dan is equal parts silly and disturbing, the dialog crisp, and the black comedy actually funny. Rafael Ortiz’s artwork perfectly complements Lapham’s plot: it’s simple and direct, in line with the Steve Dillon-like comic realism that seems to be Avatar’s penchant. Unlike company mates such as Jacen Burrows and Javier Barreno, Ortiz eschews grit and keeps it light. His attention to comedic facial expressions and expressive body language perfectly complements Lapham’s witty dialog and the post-hippie feel of the book. Even the villains are drawn with a certain exaggerated silliness that works as nice foil to their shear brutality.

The only problem I had with the book is that Lapham’s Dan is too much like Lebowski’s the Dude. But I’ll forgive this, if only because Dan’s hazy past may hold enough secrets for some interesting character development. The fact that Dan can’t remember much that happened prior to 2005 suggests that his origin story -- i.e., how the f*ck did he get his powers? -- may become a significant feature of the series.

I’m on board, Mr. Lapham. For the long haul.

The Math

Objective score: 6/10

Bonus Points: +1 for Lapham returning to crime comics; +1 for a non-gratuitous yet gruesome gore

Penalties: -1 for being a bit too much like The Big Lebowski

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Microreview [film]: Fire and Ice

The Meat

FIRE AND ICE is a 1983 collaboration between animator Ralph Bakshi and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta (who drew those awesome Conan covers), based on the technique of rotoscoping, where directors first shoot scenes in live action and then trace animation cells onto the film. It's the same technique Bakshi used in his 1978 adaptation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, though things run a bit smoother here.

FIRE AND ICE takes place in a "hyperborean" fantasy world that recalls Robert E. Howard's CONAN books, to a degree. There are bronze age cities where people (mostly) wear clothes, and stone age villages where people (exclusively) wear loincloths. A few people have magical powers. Others get to ride pterodactyls.

As the film begins, we're introduced to two warring kingdoms: Fire Keep (where good guys like Sean Connery King Jarol and g-string wearing Princess Teegra live) and Ice Peak (where evil sorceress Queen Juliana and her even more evil son Nekron live). Fire Keep is mostly populated by homo sapiens sapiens, and Ice Peak by homo sapiens neanderthalenis, though both Queen Juliana nor Price Nekron are also the former. Action begins with the destruction and massacre of a peaceful agrarian people by Ice Peak, and a plot by Queen Juliana to kidnap Princess Teegra. She escapes, and in the jungle that separates Ice Peak from Fire Keep, she meets loincloth-wearing Larn, the sole survivor of the massacre. Larn tries to help her escape from the evil neanderthals, but they prove crafty, while Nekron moves his glacier ever closer to Fire Keep. A confrontation brews, one that will only end with the death of the malignant Nekron or the total destruction of Fire Keep and everything good in the world.

There's a lot to recommend in this film. For one thing, the animation has a sort of THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN-but-good feel to it. For another, it relies more on suspense than action and exposition, with a result so thrilling you inevitably wonder why more fantasy films don't take this approach. The music is atmospheric and does a great job heightening the tension--as does the relative lack of dialogue. Yet you still feel as if you know the characters and understand the world. It's economic storytelling, and very effective.

And then there's just cool stuff like the freaky woods witch and her troll son. Or Cat Dude, who lives in the jungle and is awesome. He wears a panther skin and is impervious to magic. He can kill 15 evil neanderthals with his axe by the time anyone else kills 1, and he really hates Nekron. But that's not the best thing about Cat Dude. No, the best thing about Cat Dude is the fact that, despite wearing a panther skin, living in a tropical jungle and generally comporting himself like an enraged tiger, his name is actually Darkwolf. Because wolves are awesome.

Do not mess with Cat Dude
That said, there are a lot of important questions the film fails to answer. Like, why is Cat Dude named after a wolf? And why aren't people dressed more weather-appropriately? I mean, I can understand why you might choose to wear a loincloth or g-string in Fire Keep or a tropical jungle, but inside a glacier? Only Cat Dude bothers to bring something warm, and he wears it like a cape. Finally, and most importantly, why have I never seen this film before??!!???

The Math

Objective quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for OMG a fantasy film that's actually cool and good and not stupid and annoying; +1 for suspenseful approach, heightened by atmospheric music and economical use of dialogue; +1 for Cat Dude, aka Darkwolf.

Penalties: -1 for all the non-Teegra people from Fire Keep being kind of lame and annoying.

Cult film coefficient: 9/10. This is awesome, and ridiculous, which makes it ridiculously awesome.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Micro Review [film]: Bubba Ho-Tep

The Meat
Two realizations about this movie recently struck me:
  1. It is ten years old (Ten years?!?! How?!?! Already!?!!?)
  2. Inexplicably, not everybody knows about it
Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of a geriatric Elvis Presley, confined to a Texas nursing home that he shares with JFK, who was dyed black and hidden away after the failed 1963 assassination attempt in Dallas. Bummer for them that an ancient Egyptian mummy is roaming the halls of the convalescent home, sucking the souls of the elderly out of their buttholes.

Go ahead and read that again. Because despite the previous paragraph, this move is legitimately very, very good.

We all know movies rely on a willing suspension of disbelief. But Bubba Ho-Tep almost invites you to *not* suspend disbelief, and just see how far you can make it. Bruce Campbell has never been better, and Ossie Davis was a titan of acting, so by the time these two characters pause to talk about the pain of being absent fathers before heading out with their wheelchair and walker to battle a 5,000-year-old soul-sucking mummy...well, dang it, you're going to believe them and you won't be able to help it.

And personally, I like to think that I had a part to play in Bubba Ho-Tep's success. It was made independently without any distribution deal in place, so when it was finished director Don "Phantasm" Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell took it out themselves, setting up roadshow dates all over the country. A few weeks after I saw one of its roadshow engagements in Houston with Bruce Campbell in attendance, I was at the Austin Film Festival, where I met an acquisitions guy for MGM. I raved to him about Bubba Ho-Tep, which he had not heard of, and told him they had to give this thing a look. When the movie finally came out on DVD, it was MGM who distributed it. Coincidence...? (Probably.)

The Math
Objective Quality: 7/10, high production value, but definitely constrained by its budget

Bonuses: +1 for Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis' performances; +1 for the balls to actually make a movie about (see paragraph #1, above); +1 for comparing a giant scarab beetle to a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich

Penalties: -1 for the unnecessary penile affliction Elvis suffers from (couldn't he have just had a goiter or something)

Cult Value Coefficient: 9/10. Yep. Because JFK didn't die. He was dyed black. And hidden in Texas. This whole time. And fought a mummy. With Elvis.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Sunday, June 24, 2012

SUBMISSIONS: Write a Guest Post!

Yes, we nerds of a feather are currently soliciting guests posts! Specifically, we're looking for opinion pieces on the following topics:

  • Science fiction, fantasy and speculative literary fiction
  • Crime, noir and pulp fiction
  • SF/F and cult films
  • SF/F and crime television
  • Comic books/graphic fiction
  • Video games
  • Science and technology, when related to ideas or motifs in science fiction 

That doesn't mean we want anything on these topics. It also doesn't mean we would automatically turn down something that doesn't quite fit into these categories either. Rather, we want stuff that understands, fits with, but perhaps also expands, the site's horizons and preoccupations. There can be some give and take in the pitch process, so if you're unsure, just ask if your idea is appropriate.

A couple things we'd specifically like to avoid: use of this forum to explicitly market your (undoubtedly worthy) product or to express social prejudices (whether based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality or other criteria). However, we do encourage authors to use their experiences as springboards for broader commentary, and welcome analyses of those social prejudices and how they affect the various topics and fandoms we cover.

Nuts and Bolts

If you'd like to be a guest writer for this site, you can send us either a pitch and short writing sample (either as text embedded in the email or a link to a site you've written for in the past), or a finished article (as text). Send all submissions, in a single email, addressed to both and

Friday, June 22, 2012

Microreview [film]: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The Meat

Empress Wu has a problem: she's trying to build a massive buddha statue for her coronation and important people connected to it keep bursting into flame. And it's not any normal flame either, but one that comes from within, and is triggered by sunlight. She suspects the Prince, or another rival, because some people don't like the idea of a woman ruling China. Or maybe it's because she keeps killing dissidents? Or maybe it's both. Unclear. Regardless, she's got a problem.

Thankfully, the Chaplain (a sort of magical mystery monk) appears as a talking deer and tells her to hire her old enemy Detective Dee, who is in jail because he opposed her rule (either because she's a woman or because she keeps killing dissidents, or both). Despite this idea being pretty illogical, she decides to go ahead and do it. Only, when she sends her right-hand woman, Jing'er, to let Dee out of prison, she finds a crew of assassins already there, and hellbent on assassinating someone (though who, exactly, is not clear). Despite his reservations about the Empress, Dee agrees to head the investigation. Weirdness ensues. 

If a heavy dose of kung fu action peppered with steampunk and salted with a pinch of Tim Burton sounds like your thing, then you should check out DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME. If not, then fairly warned be thee, because that's exactly what this film is.

There's a lot to recommend here. It's a visually arresting, big budget flick starring many of Hong Kong's finest, and in the realm of Chinese action films, it's a highly original concept, executed with flair. (Oh, and there's a character named Donkey Wang. Yes, that's right: Donkey Wang. And did I mention that he's not only a licensed physician, but an accomplished black marketeer? Let me repeat: there is a character named Dr. Donkey Wang, and he's the man to see if you need some illicit fire beetles. 36 chambers of awesome.)

Unfortunately, all this comes at a price, and that price is the mystery narrative all this is built around. It's confusing at times, and downright illogical at others. I won't spoil things for you, but suffice to say that when plot twists are revealed, they often render earlier actions unfathomable and purposeless.  As many "woah!" moments as the film provides, there are just as many, if not more, points where you just look at the screen and say "huh?" Then the film ends in a sort of "well, we had to do it like this, because it's expected of us" way that will make sense if you've watched a lot of medieval kung fu period pieces, but feels unsatisfying when it could have gone a lot of different ways. This kept DETECTIVE DEE from achieving greatness in my eyes, but I still felt like it was a lot of fun, and worth watching. 

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the art direction; +1 for originality; +1 for Dr. Donkey Wang, the greatest character name in Chinese film history

Penalties: -1 for serious problems with the mystery narrative; -1 for the drab ending

Cult Film Coefficient: 7/10


Thursday, June 21, 2012

CONVERSATION: Big Summer Events Comics III

In the first nerds-feather roundtable (albeit with only two participants and without any physical table, let along one that is round), Philippe and the G are going to discuss those big, splashy summer events Marvel and DC love so much, and talk about what works and what doesn't. See the G's opening salvo here, and Philippe's first response here. 

Philippe, you make a compelling argument, but I'm going to suggest that this is only part of the problem. In honor of Comic Book Guy, let's call it:

Problem the First 

To recap, you argue that: 1) summer comics events are too obsessed with getting the reader to buy every tie-in; while 2) the main series loses its own narrative structure as it tries to integrate these stories; and 3) the tie-in series require too much background knowledge of the current narrative arc, outside the narrative arc of the summer event. Taken together, this leads to a frustrating, irksome and expensive reading experience.
I am lodging my complaint on the internets
I can think of a few summer crossover events that played out exactly like this. FINAL CRISIS is, I think, the most egregious offender. I remember a section where suddenly Superman is doing something very important in space, and you have absolutely no idea what it is or why it matters. Turns out, that story was being told in the SUPERMAN BEYOND tie-in. Then it happens again, and you need to have read the LEGION OF 3 WORLDS tie-in to get it...only thing was, delays meant this tie-in ended considerably after the main series. This guy spells it out the problem in more detail:
The biggest, most sinful affront to an event is when necessary plot points are in another book. Final Crisis does this in spades. Okay, to understand who the Tattooed Man is and why he’s gone to the Hall of Justice to help the heroes (Tattooed Man is a villain after all), you probably needed to read Final Crisis: Submit. It’s not even that great of a book, and it could have been explained in less than a page of exposition. But the biggest gripe I have is the 3-D two-part story Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. Each issue came laced with acid. If you lick a page, all you have to do is throw on those 3-D glasses and let Grant Morrison blow your mind. The idea of the book is actually quite brilliant, but the gripe comes in is if I didn’t want to read that book? If all I wanted to read was Final Crisis proper, I would have been screwed. I would have no idea who the shoehorned big bad of Final Crisis was if I didn’t read Superman Beyond. Why couldn’t the main event series be eight or nine parts long instead of requiring a tie-in to understand the end battle? Why don’t people, when so many bitch and moan about tie-ins to events, call DC on their shenanigans with Superman Beyond? Forget how unbelievably confusing the final issue of Final Crisis is (yes, I freakin’ know “time is broken”… I’m just saying nothing is actually explained and “time is broken” is about as shitty of an excuse for nonsensical conclusions as it comes), my biggest problem was actually the necessity of a tie-in to explain the sudden appearance of a vampiric Monitor that not once appeared in the event series proper.
So yeah, I totally agree with you. That said, I don't think it's the only problem summer crossover events have, nor do I think it affects all of them similarly. So, on to:

Problem the Second

Take DC's BLACKEST NIGHT or Marvel's SECRET INVASION, for example. You don't actually need to read the tie-ins to get everything you need from the narrative arc. Unfortunately, you don't actually need to read anything beyond the first and last issues of the series either. So if Problem the First breaks down to Marvel or DC saying "we've got this story and need 36 issues to tell it, and you have to buy all of them," then Problem the Second breaks down to "we've got this story and need 36 issues to te--oh **** we just told the whole ****ing thing in issue 1." Only, readers don't know this yet, so they inevitably keep buying the main series, and possibly the tie-ins too, even though absolutely nothing happens except for a bunch of repetitive battles that do exactly zilch to develop the story.

No repetitive battles shall escape my sight
To cite an example, in BLACKEST NIGHT, you have the Black Lanterns arrival on Earth in issue 1, followed by one fight after another where a dead character re-emerges as a Black Lantern to fight a living character. Ostensibly, the purpose of this was to highlight haunting episodes from these characters' backstories, but in the end it was just repetitive and grew less interesting with each issue. Skip straight to the conclusion, and you miss very little.

ARG, what could have been...
While that was a big disappointment, SECRET INVASION was worse. Why? Because the idea of shapeshifting aliens invading Earth absolutely begs to be treated as a paranoid thriller. There could have been infiltrations, sabotage, inklings among the real Superheroes that certain of their fellows were up to no good, more heroes and villains replaced by Skrulls, an investigation which revealed the dastardly Skrull plan and then--and only then--a climactic battle to save Earth. That would have been AWESOME. But is that what we got? No. We got all of that in issue one, followed by battles battles battles battles. Skip straight to the conclusion, and you miss absolutely nothing.

Problem the Third

If some crossover events empty the clip in issue one, others find themselves needing to resolve a slow-building story too quickly. CIVIL WAR comes to mind here. I actually really liked the first five issues: the story was good, it was well-paced and it was clear just from the main series why it all mattered. Everything looked good up to this point. Then Mark Millar had to two issues to end things, and in the rush, things started to come apart, most egregiously in the sudden, abrupt and unsatisfying ending. Given the nature of the narrative arc, I see no reason why this couldn't have been a year-long, 12-issue series. It should have been. But that would have screwed up Marvel's plans for THE INITIATIVE and the set-up for SECRET INVASION. (Oh wait...that sucked? Sorry Mark Millar!)

It was over too soon
This is the essence of Problem the Third, that summer crossover events aren't generally conceived of as stories told for the sake of telling good stories, but rather as stories told in order to set up universe-wide reboots that last exactly as long as it takes to get to the next summer crossover event.  I mourn for CIVIL WAR, because within its pretty good body beats the heart of a very, very good story.


Well, there's my rant to complement yours. Now I'd like to change direction somewhat, and ask what, if any, summer crossover events have gotten it right? What would it take for a summer event crossover to get it right?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

CONVERSATION: Big Summer Comics Events II

In the first nerds-feather roundtable (albeit with only two participants and without any physical table, let along one that is round), Philippe and the G are going to discuss those big, splashy summer events Marvel and DC love so much, and talk about what works and what doesn't. See the G's opening salvo here. 

I hate crossover events. They're annoying marketing ploys that have suckered many a greasy teen out of hard-earned cash. And I have been one of those teens. More than once. Damn you, Infinity Gems!

My primary gripe is that the narrative structure of a crossover event isn't all that conducive to a good reading experience. I generally find that the limited series at the center of the event tends to be a bit thin: much of it is devoted to tying in the various subplots of individual series. Meanwhile, the general story arcs of these individual books are sewn, often poorly, into the broader plot of the crossover. Magneto will either join forces with the lasted threat to all existence, of bury the hatchet with the X-Men and team-up against this evil. And as often as not, these crossover events tale away from the books that I am reading. They're a diversion from the stories at the heart of specific series.

I want to read every chapter of a story. Since neither the central mini-series nor the chapters of my favorite series in my favorite book suffice, I am forced to buy books I don't read. But the crossover subplots are usually tailored to that particular book's general story -- I am still lost. I end up spending as much time on wikipedia researching books I don't care about as I do reading actual comics. 

I have thus paid good money and wasted precious time reading books I don't like just to get the entire crossover story. I have even bought issues of the Avengers, which is in my view one of the most boring comics ever. This hasn't been an entirely bad development. If it wasn't for The Civil War I would never had decided to read Ed Brubaker's wonderful run on Captain America. But this is a rare event. 

I've got other problems with crossovers. I'll give you a hint for one of them: Black Goliath.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

WE RANK 'EM: The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut


I understand that people go both ways on Kurt Vonnegut. There are groups of people who loathe him, and think he was a talentless hack. They think he was Kilgore Trout, which Vonnegut himself may have agreed with. For me, however, Vonnegut is unparalleled, because he wrote simply, but profoundly. It is far easier to tackle profundity with a whole lot of words, but as a writer myself, I am forced to admit that I will probably never write anything as poetic, moving, and elegant as "So it goes."

I will now attempt to rank the 14 novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Watch:

"Slapstick" by Kurt Vonnegut
14. Slapstick (1976)
I have to be honest, I don't remember very much of Vonnegut's explicitly post-apocalyptic novel, except that it has a lot to do with his relationship with his own sister, who died many years earlier. When Vonnegut is at his best, his breezy style plays in opposition to the profound truths or moral lessons he communicates in that style. At worst, the result is entertaining, but slight, and that's how Slapstick feels. This is the first novel where he bills himself as "Kurt Vonnegut," dropping the "Jr."

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" by Kurt Vonnegut
13. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
Vonnegut's ode to the volunteer firefighter, the plot of this novel is almost identical to the first and last thirds of Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, of all things.

"Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut. Also published under the title "Utopia 14"
12. Player Piano (1952)
Vonnegut's first novel is perhaps not the straight-ahead sci-fi novel it is sometimes characterized as, but it does rely on a number of familiar sci-fi tropes, among them future society, mechanization, and dystopia. The plight of man against machine is one that is close to my heart.

"Deadeye Dick" by Kurt Vonnegut
11. Deadeye Dick (1982)
Tragedy is compounded upon tragedy in this novel, where a boy fires a bullet into the air, only to have it come down blocks away, killing a pregnant woman and her unborn baby. Not much of a narrative here, but lots of ideas, one of which is that the boy's father was a close friend of Adolf Hitler's when they were both aspiring painters in Germany in the 1920s, and now has to reconcile how he felt about the guy then, and...after.

10. Galapagos (1985)
Galapagos is set one million years in the future, narrated by a ghost who died in 1985, and is looking back across 1,000,000 years of human evolution. I'm not sure how it squares with Vonnegut's professed embrace of intelligent design before he died, but I don't think Galapagos wants you to take anything in it too seriously except this: your brain is too big, and will get you in trouble.

9. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
This is the most straightforward sci-fi novel in Vonnegut's canon, with intergalactic travel, alien meddling in human history, interplanetary war and travel, and other trappings of space opera. Vonnegut's second novel, and written several years after Player Piano, sees the writing takes a huge step forward, making his next novel, Mother Night, a clear next step in his stylistic evolution. Fun fact: first mention of Tralfamador, which will gain importance in Slaughterhouse-Five.

8. Jailbird (1979)
As I read it, I was consistently amazed by how much I was enjoying this book. Vonnegut's caricature of the multi-everything corporation undoubtedly seems less far-fetched these days than it did in 1979, and in a lovely bit of cosmic tomfoolery that I assume Vonnegut would have approved of, his main character's surname is Starbuck, which today graces every street corner, shopping mall, or both in America thanks to the ubiquity of just such a corporation.

7. Bluebeard (1987)
Don't feel bad if you've heard the names Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns but not Rabo Karabekian. In Vonnegut's book (mostly) about art, Karabekian was a talented and briefly successful contemporary of Pollock's who had the misfortune of using house paint that ultimately peeled off of all of his abstract canvases, leaving them all worthless. This book contains one of my favorite-ever Vonnegut moments, where Karabekian explains that he turned to abstraction because drawing realistically was too easy.

6. Hocus Pocus (1990)
Extensive reference is made to Madame Bovary at a key moment in this book, but I would gladly re-read Hocus Pocus daily before enduring Madame Bovary again. I'm sure Vonnegut would have thought me to be quite pedestrian. So it goes.

The main character's name is an homage to Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who, Vonnegut reminds us several times, said this, which is important: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

5. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Those that ravage Vonnegut's writing probably do so most often by invoking Breakfast of Champions, which provides the reader with the size of each male character's penis, and pencil sketches of things like buttholes. But this book was written by an artist and a human being in crisis, and to me it is fascinating. There is a metafictional section at the end that I find to be one of the more lucid expressions of an author's relationship to his/her own work, and the crises of confidence that must be endured to get to the final period and send it out the door.

4. Timequake (1997)
Vonnegut was well known for his essays and public addresses, many of which were included in collections like Palm Sunday and Fates Worse Than Death (only crucifixion, it would seem) and which are wonderful, funny, and endlessly entertaining. Timequake is Vonnegut's final novel, and it's clear that he just didn't have the patience to slog through writing a coherent book, so what he wound up doing was taking pieces of an unfinished novel, commentary on writing it, and random observations, more-or-less shuffling them, and slapping them between two covers. The result is engaging, funny, though-provoking, and touching. A fitting and wonderful swan song.

3. Mother Night (1961)
I would argue that this is the novel when Kurt Vonnegut became Kurt Vonnegut. If you read Sirens of Titan and then Cat's Cradle, you may be forgiven for not immediately thinking they were written by the same author. This is the novel where Vonnegut fully found his voice, and where he wrote, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

You can take that to the bank, if you'd like.

2. Cat's Cradle (1963)
I have never dog-eared a book to mark pages or quotations I'd like to remember as frequently as I did Cat's Cradle. This book features one of Vonnegut's coolest and most popularly enduring sci-fi concepts (ice-9), as well as his made-up religion Bokononism, which seems to exist mainly in the form of pleasant, pithy witticisms and observations. Sadly, the religion's followers seem to have replaced sex with the rubbing together of the soles of their feet, but what are you going to do? The world's going to end anyway, right?

1. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Not really a surprise to find this at #1, right?

If you have not read this book, what can I say? You should. You may hate it, or you may want to get portions of it tattooed on your body. So there is that.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Microreview [book]: 1Q84

The Meat

1Q84 is Haruki Murakami's 900+ page magnum opus, and thus should be his ultimate artistic statement. This is what's expected from magna opera generally, and a number of critics lined up to agree. But the praise and adulation wasn't universal. Suffice to say, the book is polarizing.

Action follows two narrators (though a third is introduced late in the game): assassin and gym instructor Aomame, who exclusively kills abusive husbands and other violent misogynists; and aspiring novelist Tengo, who is contracted to ghost-write a fantasy novel by enigmatic teenager Fuka-Eri, who is the daughter of a well-known cult leader. As events unfold, it soon becomes clear that Aomame's and Tengo's actions have a profound impact on the fabric of reality itself, thus drawing the ire of the Little People--malevolent, powerful gnomes of unclear motivation, but who command the cultists as their followers. Aomame and Tengo each come to realize that they no longer inhabit the year 1984, but the parallel reality of 1Q84. The book largely deals with their growing understanding the peculiar laws of action and reaction in this parallel reality, and the slow coming together of their narratives.

Let me begin my saying that I generally love books like this. David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is a personal favorite of mine, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666 is possibly the best novel I've ever read. I had hoped that 1Q84 would read like one of those--long,  but intricately structured, horizon-stretching fiction of the first order. In that sense, I was disappointed: 1Q84 possesses neither the inspired, complex plotting of CLOUD ATLAS, nor the exquisite prose and psychological intensity of 2666. Or, to use a metaphor, imagine you've just scaled Mt. Everest and K2 with the help of reliable and wise sherpas. Now you'd like to scale a third Himalayan peak, only this time the sherpas have been replaced with a vegan hippie who not only has a bad sense of direction, but periodically insists you stop to play hacky sack or listen to Phish. You might enjoy scaling the mountain, and certainly its breathtaking vistas, but that hippie is going to drive you nuts. 1Q84 is a lot like that.

That's not to say 1Q84 is bad--it's not. But it is a profoundly frustrating book. As a writer, Murakami is endlessly repetitive, and prone to giving his characters unnecessary soliloquies that summarize information already presented and understood by the reader. The book is also full of cliches that will be familiar to anyone who has read manga or watched a decent amount of anime, but which are not deconstructed or explored in any profound way. Compounding matters, these are often presented in chapters that do little to advance the plot, and even less to broaden our understandings of the characters. Then there's the Little People, who appear out of nowhere and then sort of just slip out of things without much fanfare. Not only that, they reminded me so much of the Underpants Gnomes from SOUTH PARK that, invariably, I got that song stuck in my head every time they showed up. Great, now it's stuck in my head again. ARG 1Q84!! 

The Little People's Master Plan
So yeah, at times I pretty much wanted to take the book and throw it out the window. At other times, though, it was mesmerizing. Murakami does do weird pretty damned well, and I like weird. When he hits his stride, particularly in the third segment of the novel, 1Q84 is hard to put down, and deeply affecting. There are passages that will stick with me long after I've put it back on the shelf, and I found the book's resolution both satisfying and moving. I've never been so conflicted about a book in my life.

In the end, most of 1Q84's problems boil down to the fact that it's about 300 pages too long. Though some authors can write this much and not waste any space, this is decidedly not the case with 1Q84. And it's not just the pointless recap passages, but also his endless use of stock phrases (if I ever have to read another passage about so-and-so making himself a "simple lunch," I may scream). This book should have been more carefully edited, and trimmed of its fat. Had that happened, this would have been a much stronger novel. As it happens, though, the problem isn't just too much space wasted on uninteresting things, but also that not enough space is dedicated to the stuff that really is interesting, like Tengo's family history.

1Q84 also could have used more deliberate plotting. Instead, it feels as if Murakami is making things up as he goes along. I know Murakami loves jazz, but an improvised trumpet solo on a standard is not a good model for the sprawling plot for your 900+ page novel. Maybe that's appropriate for someone who has been described as "Kafka with an iPod," but it's also about as annoying as the term "Kafka with an iPod."

The Math

Quality of Writing: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for general weirdness; +1 for the way things pick up in the last third of the book

Penalties: -1 for this books is way, way too long; -1 for that's partially because he keeps repeating himself and summarizing things the reader remembers and doesn't need summarized; -1 who was editing this thing, anyways, because there's also all this cool stuff that's just dropped after a tantalizing tease; -1 for apparently no one...ARG 1Q84!!

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

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Sunday, June 17, 2012

CONVERSATION: Big Summer Comics Events I

In the first nerds-feather roundtable (albeit with only two participants and without any physical table, let along one that is round), Philippe and I are going to discuss those big, splashy summer events Marvel and DC love so much, and talk about what works and what doesn't. I get the ball rolling, and apologies for all the caps...

Hi Philippe,

So it's summertime again, and you know what that means: BIGGEST! COMICS! EVENT! EVER!

This year we have AVENGERS VS. X-MEN (self-explanatory) and SPIDER-MEN (Spider-Man meets Ultimate Spider-Man) from Marvel, and NIGHT OF THE OWLS (Bat-people fight Owl-people for Gotham), THE CULLING (Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes team-up) and SECOND WAVE (actually just 6 new titles) from DC.


None of these books are like that, though several suggest lasting impacts on characters central to these universes. Is that a good or a bad thing? Do these giant crossover summer events mean anything anymore? Where did they go wrong? And is it possible to do it right?

I'm going to start off by suggesting that it's a good thing. We need a break from the unending stream of nothing-will-ever-be-the-same, which, frankly, has gotten to the point where it kinda sorta all seems the same. We don't just need one break--we need several.

That said, I do think it's possible to get it right. What do you think?

-The G

Friday, June 15, 2012

Micro Review [Comic]: Forgetless by Nick Spencer, W. Scott Forbers, Jorge Coehlo, Marley Zarcone

The Meat

Forgetless is a rather unmemorable book. There. I got that out of my system.

The comic, written by Nick Spencer (Morning GloriesT.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents), is basically a pitch in need of development. “Models moonlighting as contract killers, an idiot YouTube star, and a douchebag in a koala costume! Think Pulp Fiction meets American Pie.” Actually that’s the plot to “Live to See Last Call,” one of two stories comprising Forgetless. “Live to See Last Call” is heir to the crime films and Vertigo comics of the nineties: non-linear storytelling, cute girls with guns, and gross-out sex à la Garth Ennis. I am not opposed to these things as a rule, but Forgetless just reminded me how tired such devices are.  The sophomoric, dialog was a bit too Kevin Smith, particularly coming from the female leads. (Dick jokes are never really funny.) I did enjoy Spencer's clever use of Twitter, YouTube, and Craiglist as narrative devices in Forgetless, though alone they could not sustain the thin plot of "Live to See Last Call."

The book's second story, “Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors,” has even less to offer. What begins seemingly as a charming homage to Stray Bullets, ends as an episode of whatever show Demi Lovato is on. More dick jokes, but in Juno's voice. This is a shame because Marley Zarcone (Black Circle) was the best thing about Forgetless. In contrast to the stylized art of W. Scott Forbes and Jorge Coehlo on "Last Call," Zarcone’s subtle pencils evoked the work of Paul Pope and David Lapham. Yes, nineties again. But this time in a good way.

Had Spencer ditched the dick jokes and focused on models-with-guns, this  could been an entertaining read. Had Marley Zarcone drawn it, this book could have even been good. Her subdued and delicate pencil-work would have soften the rough edges of "Live to Last Call." As it stands the book reads like a throwaway project from a successful writer. 

Perhaps, I am being too harsh in my criticism. As a teenager, I might have even enjoyed Forgetless. Then again, I was a teenager in the nineties.

The Math

Obecjtive Quality: 4/10.

Bonuses: +1 for cute girls with guns.

Penalties: -1 for making me miss the nineties.

Nerd Value Coefficients: 4/10. “Not very good.”

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Redshirts: The "Reading"

So last night I went to see a John Scalzi reading/signing for his new novel REDSHIRTS. It was at the Burbank Central Library, which seems like a pretty special community space for Burbankians (Burbankites?), because it's well-stocked with books, staffed by nice people and open until 9pm (unlike our budget-strapped libraries here in LA).

I got there early, so I could pick up an extra copy of REDSHIRTS to be signed. By the time Scalzi arrived at 7pm, the room was pretty full. I'm terrible at estimating crowd sizes, but I feel like there were about 200 people there. In any event, it was a pretty big crowd for a book reading/signing, but given Scalzi's popularity, both as an author and blogger, that's not too surprising.

At this point, you may want me to explain why I put "reading" in quotation marks/double inverted commas...

[SPOILER ALERT: if you're going to see Scalzi read on the rest of his tour, consider NOT proceeding further. I'm not going to reveal anything "big," or give you a blow-by-blow account in detail, but I will discuss my experience at the reading, and you may prefer to go in clear-headed, as I did. If not, read on.]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

RANT: This. Must. Change.

Saladin Ahmed, author of THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON and someone I consider a friend of this site, recently posted this on his blog:
Hello. If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you’re a reader of my fiction and/or an IRL or online friend. In any case, a warning: This post is quite long, and it’s deeply (perhaps uncomfortably) personal.

I’m writing this post because I am, not to put too fine a point on it, in trouble and in need of help...In essence, this is a plea for a sort of patronage. A number of you have bought or spread word about my first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, and I can’t thank you enough for that support. I’ve also had a humbling number of readers write to ask how they can further support my writing. So here I’m offering up a new piece of fiction and, with it, a request for further support. Depending on who you are, this support might be described as help for a friend in need, patronage for a writer whose long-term career you’d like to support, or both
I won't get into more detail, but let you track back to his blog if you want to know more. Suffice to say, he's in financial trouble and that trouble is directly related to the struggle of trying to make a living as a writer.

Three Things To Take Away From This

1. Saladin needs support, both material and spiritual, from his fans. If you count yourself as one of them, then I urge you to consider giving your patronage. If you are not, but have been curious about THRONE, then I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy.

2. This situation is a direct result of the LACK of proper compensation given to authors. Let me spell it out for you: a typical publishing contract gives authors a 17.9% royalty rate. Booksellers, including ebook retailers, take about 30%; the rest goes to publishers. Now, admittedly, all stops on this supply chain do essential work, and all have been struggling as of late (with the exception of ebook retailers).

But I'm going to say it straight--it's messed up that the people actually coming up with the ideas and actually putting words onto paper and actually creating the worlds and characters and situations we get our pleasure reading about are getting the smallest share, and it's decidedly too small. 

This is EXACTLY why self-publishing has become so enticing to so many emerging authors...because you can take 70% of royalties instead of 17.9%. Sure you miss out on all the stuff publishers provide, but you can sell 1/4 the books and still make more just about the same amount of money. For those who are not at the apex of their careers, and who are unlikely to ever become GRRMs or Grishams, this is starting to make more and more economic sense.  As self-published books grow more acceptable to readers, this potentially creates a serious problem for publishing companies.

3. Don't take this as a rant against publishers. As I said above, they are also struggling, and you just need to look at imprints like Tor/Daw and Gollancz/Orbit to see how essential they are to maintaining the health and progress of SF/F as a set of genres. But if publishing companies are going to survive, they collectively need to re-examine their compensatory models. Publishers need to consider raising the wholesale prices of books and ebooks to up that royalty rate, at least to 20%, if not 25% or higher.

Now before you go all DOJ on me and claim I'm calling for some sort of anti-consumer price fixing, let me just say that I don't like the idea of spending more money either. But I can't see any way around the fact that authors should be compensated better than they are, or the notion that a generalized price increase is the most efficient way of getting to there. We--as readers--should be willing to pay a little bit more for books than we do, provided we know that extra money is going straight to the people responsible for expanding our horizons and providing endless hours of entertainment.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


A hearty, nerdy welcome to our newest contributor, Philippe! A prototypical post-hipster nerd, Philippe will be our point man on comic books/graphic fiction. But that's not all, folks: expect this nerd-for-all-seasons to grace us with his strong opinions on film, television and non-graphic fiction as well.

NAME: Philippe

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: Undisclosed until I return to L.A.

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): comics, films, time travel



RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Bukowski's Hollywood

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Ham on Rye, Breakfast of Champions

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: Finishing Claremont's run on X-Men

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: John Constantine and John Constantine


THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: When did Ghost World come out?

THE WORST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: I haven't seen Green Lantern yet, but I am going to say Green Lantern

I JUST WATCHED [FILM X] AND IT WAS AWESOME: Does the first three seasons of Community count?




WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: I couldn't make it to the end of either

THE OFFICE--BRITISH OR AMERICAN VERSION: The American. And soccer is a boring sport.

GAME OF THRONES--LIKE OR DISLIKE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BOOKS: Like, though I can't remember the books all that well. There was something about a power ring, right?

[Previous entries in this series: The G, Vance]

INTERVIEW: Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire

We were at Nerds of a Feather love us some short fiction, and believe that many of the most daring attempts to push, alter and expand the boundaries of science and fantasy fiction are happening within the short fiction form. To that end, we continue our interview series with Djibril al-Ayad, editor of The Future Fire magazine and--in his spare time--a writer and academic historian. Along with publishing generally high quality fiction, The Future Fire seeks to expand the range of voices represented in SF/F, and, to use their own words, publish "dark science fiction and art with a social conscience, a political sensibility and of the highest quality." The G sits down with Djibril to discuss the these topics and more.

 What’s the background story for The Future Fire? How did it come about?

The Future Fire was originally founded by five friends scattered across the globe (California, Switzerland, England and Scotland), with the idea that it would encourage experimental fiction and media that avoids the restrictions of genre while doing what all good fiction and art does, which is reflect the philosophies, politics and agendas of the world around us. Over time the editors have come and gone—I am the only one of the original five currently working on the magazine—but we still have editors in three countries. While all of the ideas we started with still apply (we'd love to run experimental and multimedia or interactive fiction, for example), our focus now is on social-political speculative fiction with no restrictions of genre.

How does The Future Fire fit into the world of SF/F journals? What journals or magazines do you feel an affinity to? How is The Future Fire different from the mainstream journals?

I'm not sure what the "mainstream journals" you refer to are.

I mean the traditional magazines in SF/F, ones like Asimov's or F&SF that, consciously or unconsciously, speak with a sort of institutional voice within the genre.

Okay. Well, I don't know those magazines very well, I almost entirely read small press speculative fiction, so I I can't speak to that. But as regards our difference from the mainstream, I would rather say that we have a niche, that we cater for a particular flavour of political and inclusive fiction, and I think we're known for the very high quality of the fiction we publish (especially considering the low rates of payment a nonprofessional 'zine can offer).

Everyone has their niche, and some are more experimental and interesting than others. I don't think any magazine is completely unique, but all have their strengths and weaknesses, and the good ones are still learning and are prepared to change things as time goes on. Other magazines that I would like to think exist in the same ecosystem as we do would include Not One of Us, Sein und Werden, Crossed Genres, Expanded Horizons and International Speculative Fiction.

You’ve described The Future Fire as a home for “science fiction with a social conscience.” What range of material does that term encompass? How do you see science fiction fitting into the broader world of social consciousness and activism?

All fiction says something about the cultural milieu in which it is written, about the beliefs and assumptions of the author and the shared world-view of the audience. Our attitude is that we should make sure the assumptions and the culture espoused in our fiction are socially responsible ones. This can mean: stories that tell cautionary tales about runaway free-market capitalism, imperialism, prejudice, security theatre, state surveillance and environmental damage; or optimistic stories that show a world with more freedom, with better representation of repressed people including women, quiltbag, disabled, non-white or non-anglophone people etc. Of course you can also have political stories about how immigration is a threat to civilization, or healthcare leads to communism and totalitarianism, but we're not interested in telling those stories. We make a choice, as everyone does, and we have our opinions about what "social responsibility" means.

Do you a potential within science fiction to affect politics, or popular views of politics, beyond the confines of literature?

Speculative fiction may not be going to save the world, or change a lot of people's opinions, but of course all art is part of political discourse, and all discourse or communication is and should be political. I don't mind even if we're only preaching to the choir, because (as Ursula Le Guin said in an article for _Gobshite Quarterly_ 2003), "if you don't preach to the choir the choir won't keep singing. We need to hear each others' voices."

How about with regards "diversity?" I think this can sometimes be a problematic term, especially when it just acts as a code for “tokenism,” like someone saying: “what we need is a black guy or a woman” and thinking that solves the problem, as opposed to seeking out different and challenging perspectives, and being open to whatever, and whomever, you find at the end of the road. But there’s also the tangible issue of marginalization, and we probably both agree that, in science fiction and fantasy, some voices are more marginalized than others. Could you speak to this issue? Do you see things trending in a more inclusive direction, or are there still major barriers to non-traditional (i.e. non-straight/white/male/Anglophone) voices in SF/F?

I'm resistant to the idea--which I know you're not espousing--that actively striving for more diversity does or should end with tokenism...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Summer Reading List: Vance

At some point, I lost track of new things. I used to follow authors who are/were alive and working, and I'd get their new books when they came out. Same with music, but in that case I can still identify some prominent album misfires that weaned me of the habit -- get my hopes all up, race to get the new thing the day it comes out, only to find out I'd been looking forward to a stink bomb. I still discover new music and books, but mostly through word-of-mouth.

I say that to say this: my summer reading list is super lame, since the most recent title on it came out in 2004. My selection criterion was nothing more than the single fact that these are the titles that have been giving me the dirtiest looks every time I walk past my bookshelf on the way out the door.

Full disclosure, I may not get to any of them. I am currently shoulder-deep in Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, which is book one of his In Search of Lost Time/The Remembrance of Things Past. My plan is to finish Swann's Way and put Proust aside for quite some time -- I love it, but I don't intend to read nothing but Proust for the rest of my 30s -- so hopefully I'll at least take a bite out of this list by September.

Vance's Summer Reading List

1. Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem [Harvest, paperback] (1994)

Thanks to my infatuation with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, I have an abiding love for the hard-boiled detective story. Horselover Fat (or Philip K. Dick, if you prefer), also holds a special place in my heart because somehow, since moving to Southern California, Dick's worldview seems to make a lot more sense. I'm sure that says terrible things about me... I am led to believe (by The G and others) that this book is "a high-octane blend of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick" (Boston Review). Sign me up.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke [Bloomsbury, paperback] (2004)

This book landed on my radar, like it did for a lot of people, after Neil Gaiman's hearty endorsement got the thing published in the first place. My wife was quite hopelessly casting about for something to fill the Harry Potter-shaped void in her life after The Deathly Hallows was published, so I gave her this. So now she and Neil Gaiman have recommended it unequivocally, and I can no longer hide behind its length as an excuse for not reading it. Because I'm reading Proust.

3. The Stranger by Albert Camus [Vintage, paperback] (1946)

Both this book and The Plague were breathlessly recommended to me by two separate friends. I read The Plague first, and didn't love it. I chalk that up, however, to having seen or read so many things that owe so much to Camus' book that what seemed groundbreaking in 1948 feels overly familiar now. That's not the author's fault, though, so I am happy to give The Stranger a shot...even though I'm not sure I've ever agreed with Camus' take on The Myth of Sisyphus, for which he is quite famous.

4. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald [Scribner's, audiobook] (1933)

The Great Gatsby suffers today from a couple of terrible film adaptations and being on high school reading lists. I think to really appreciate Gatsby, you have to have an actual past upon which to look back, significant regrets, and a bone-deep emotional understanding of what "shallow" really means. High schoolers tend not to possess these in any significant measure. I returned to Gatsby maybe five or six years ago after having found it mediocre in high school, and now realize that it is, in fact, and you better damn not argue with me on this, The Great American Novel. I don't expect this to be as good, but I owe Fitzgerald a lot more of my time than I have given him thus far.

5. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon [Harper Perennial, paperback] (1966)

Pynchon is a personal favorite (and if we're playing the Six Degrees of Separation game, I am only one degree away from him (wait, is "one degree" if you know them, or know somebody who knows them?)(I may be two degrees)(I've made a mess of this)). Re-reading this for the...third?...time. But it's been too long. Also, fun fact, Polish death metal band Vader's song "Silent Empire" is based on this book. And there's a place in my neighborhood called Trystero Coffee.

6. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut [Delta, paperback] (1963)

Kurt Vonnegut is, for me, the writer that most makes me want to give up writing. He has set such an impossibly high standard that I shrink from asserting that he and I are both in the same game. We're not. Reading Vonnegut is like coming home for me. Don't know how many times I've read this book, but I have to come back to it every few years. Since I finished all of his novels, I haven't read him as frequently as I would have liked. This must change.

Maybe I should do a "Best Vonnegut Novels" post and see how quickly the Internet tries to murder me via hateful comments from people who disagree slightly.

Maybe someday...

Saturday, June 9, 2012

E3: Star Wars 1313

This year's E3 was a bit light on triple-A game announcements. STAR WARS 1313 was a notable exception. That might seem odd, given the vast quantity of medicore-to-terrible STAR WARS products that have come out over the past 5 years. There have been a few notable gaming exceptions: the two KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC games, for one, and their MMORPG successor for another. But yeah, most STAR WARS products released since 1999 seem to exist only to soil the memory of the glorious original trilogy of films. So what about this one? As per IGN:
LucasArts isn't revealing much at this point, but we do know the basics on 1313's setting. It takes place between the trilogies, and is set on level 1313 of the Imperial capital, Coruscant. Coruscant has over 5,000 levels, and 1313 is a part of the planet's underworld, a seedy place full of criminals and lawlessness. The setting itself has never been delved into all that deeply in the girth of Star Wars novels, but LucasArts hopes that this will provide an appropriate stage to tell a mature Star Wars narrative.

While LucasArts wouldn't rule out a "Mature" rating for 1313, the team is definitely not trying to toss in gratuitous gore to make sure you're shocked into paying attention, either. No one was ever dismembered or disemboweled during the short demo, and the lead character never tossed out swear words as he reloaded or beat down an enemy. This isn't the black and white portrayal of Star Wars set up by the films or cartoons, but a complicated world where the "good" and "bad" people tend to be harder to discern. LucasArts wants 1313's maturity to come across in its themes, in the way it tackles heavy moments, and presents a darker side of the Star Wars universe -- expect more Mos Eisley cantina, less Ewok village.

That sounds good. That sounds really, really good. But, of course, you need more than a cool setting and shades-of-gray morality to make a really compelling game. One thing you won't have to worry about, it seeems, are the production values. According to Game Informer, the high production values on display stem from a collaboration between the developers and LucasArts' famous film and effects studios:
From a development perspective, 1313's most surprising feature is the group of people working on the project. Ostensibly a collaboration between LucasArts, LucasFilm, Industrial Light & Magic, and Skywalker Sound, there are tremendous resources at play in bringing the game to fruition. 1313 is described as a meeting point between tense action/shooting and harrowing platforming. It's a description that would fit well onto games like Uncharted, and we suspect this isn't the first or last time people will compare the two games.
How about gameplay in the E3 demo?
The firefight that ensues on board the ship is a familiar mix of cover based shooting and occasional melee exchanges. With the ship they're on about to crash, the elder bounty hunter evens the odds. Flinging an enemy combatant and a thermal detonator into an escape pod, he launches the pod into the enemy ship, resulting in an impressive conflagration.
See for yourself:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bethesda's Hot New IP: The Dishonored

There's usually one game demo-ed at E3 that blows people away, and this year it seems to be THE DISHONORED, from ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM and FALLOUT developers Bethesda Softworks.

Let me start by saying that I trust Bethesda to deliver quality. Buggy quality, but quality nonetheless. SKYRIM is possibly my all-time favorite video game, and though I had some issues with it, FALLOUT 3 had me hooked for months. I love their open-world approach, their impeccable aesthetics and the fact that they take their time delivering quality, rather than churning out sequel after sequel just in time for the holidays. 

That said, THE DISHONORED represents a departure of sorts for Bethesda. It's not an open-world action-RPG, but an open-world stealth-action game! Oh wait...did I not mention that I'm a complete stealth-action addict?? The SPLINTER CELL and DEUS EX series ARE up there with THE ELDER SCROLLS at the top of my my list, so the idea of combining the two is giving me goosebumps and the return of an eye twitch I thought I left in New York when I moved out West. 

But enough about me, let's talk about the game. According to ripten:

The story of Dishonored follows the standard conspiracy and revenge, in which the main character, former bodyguard Corvo Atano, is framed for the assassination of the Empress and must hunt down the parties responsible and clear his name. The game is set in an open-world environment that is fashioned after Victorian England but is teaming with Steampunk-esque enemies. When it comes to combat, first-person melee combat with swords, daggers and occasional firearms is the order of the day. Supernatural abilities such as freezing time and summoning plagued animals to attack your enemies round out your skill sets. The game is focused largely on stealth action and the trailer shows off plenty of fancy swordplay that will be employed during the game.
Steampunkish, Victorianesque, Bioshocky
As Inside Gaming Daily relates, Bethesda have put together an impressive design team, who have serious ambitions for the game:

Harvey Smith (he of lead designing Deus Ex 1 and 2) and Raphel Colantonio (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Arx Fatalis) are the lead designers on this ambitious and hugely stylish game set in a notionally steampunk-tech-level world already reasonably far apace into its own industrial age—carriages, cobblestones, fey snooty top-hatted nobility, and the looming specter of rat-born Plague, yes…but also smoke-belching factories, exotic electrical intrusions, stilt-legged, ‘meched-up armored constables-cum-executioners tottering around the city streets, the age-old furball between Technology and that other technology called Magic…and quietly (insidiously?) lubricating it all, that oh-so topical, allegorical (and, it would appear, damn-near all-purpose) precious fuel, whale oil. It also boasts a compellingly evocative world-that-might-have-been-somewhere setting, and some of the best, most thoughtful game-character/vehicle modeling ever created—simultaneously dramatically exaggerated, unflatteringly, warts-and-all ‘realistic’, and painstakingly, anachronistically crafted (of course that’s how the chassis suspension would be on a heartless Neo-Victorian noble’s personal armored carriage—it’s so obvious!)
Excited yet? I am. But don't take it from me, watch this trailer:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Celebrating Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury came of age in a system that no longer exists, and by virtue of the idiosyncrasies of that system, a tireless work ethic, a long life, and a prodigious imagination, he wound up making an artistic contribution that we will likely never see equaled.

When he was born, sound had not yet come to movies, and King Kong had its premiere when Bradbury was 13. Five years later, his love of that movie and others like it led him to a friendship with Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen, who were each to become luminaries in the film (and film fandom) landscape. Bradbury published his first short story in 1938, when these things were true:
  • People read magazines
  • Magazines published short stories
  • People read short stories
  • Writers were routinely paid for writing
  • Not everyone on the planet wanted to be a writer
None of these things are true anymore, but Bradbury was able to amass a resume of published work, mostly in sci-fi magazines, and forge a novel from many of his related, Martian-themed short stories (The Martian Chronicles) before television had reached its infancy, so when TV arrived and began looking for writers, they found Ray. Still writing prose all the while, he contributed to TV movies, and beginning with It Came from Outer Space, theatrical films. He continued contributing TV scripts for imminently influential shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

He wrote every day. And to accomplish that amount of work, let alone that amount of quality work, he certainly had to. His ingenuity, dedication, and ability corresponded with, essentially, the advent of popular culture. Bradbury positioned himself across three (four, if you include radio) media outlets at the time when entertainment began taking shape as a commodity, and kids began stockpiling it in their bedrooms and imaginations. Kurt Vonnegut, Bradbury's contemporary and friend, came from journalism, segued into sci-fi short stories for magazines, and then departed for what I think most people would call "literature." But Bradbury stayed put, always a champion of speculative fiction, and always available to lend advice and/or encouragement to other writers, so his influence achieved an unprecedented breadth and depth. He was a drop of ink in the well of American entertainment, and his contribution is present for everyone who draws water from it today. If you've ever watched anything with "Star" in the title or enjoyed a Steven Spielberg movie, you can thank Ray Bradbury.

As The G mentioned earlier today, Ray Bradbury's loss has a special significance for those of us in Los Angeles, because Ray was one of us, and an active voice in the writing community here. His 90th birthday party was held at the Mystery and Imagination bookstore in Glendale, and I was very pleased to be able to take my little boy, who was three at the time. He still remembers it, and hopefully will for a very long time. He will not meet the likes of Ray Bradbury again. The world has moved on -- in many ways that Bradbury imagined it would -- and I can say in all seriousness, they just don't make 'em like that anymore. His life represented a happy intersection of a person, time, and place, and we are all the beneficiaries.

You'll be missed, Ray. But thank you for everything.