Friday, February 28, 2014

Microreview [book] : The Martian, by Andy Weir

The Martian; Weir, Andy [2014, Random House]

The Meat

This book has been around a while; self-published three years ago, it found a fan base and got picked up by the big leagues, and in the time I've been reading it a poster campaign has hit the London Underground walls. So this is a huge success for Weir, and in many ways deservedly-so. The set-up is great, and ripe for a film adaptation. After an accident during a storm on Mars (in the near-future) a manned mission aborts and heads for home, with one injured member lost and left for dead in the storm. He is however alive and becomes the titular Martian, the only human on an entire planet.

Descriptions of his feelings, or his surroundings are almost entirely absent; too much present-day colloquialisms ("owned", starting statements with "so") to feel right, combined with a casual jocular and slightly jock manner. Feels too samey, too safe. And the admirable technical and scientific details Reid flood the tale with take more in emotion and drama than they bring in vermissitude. I wanted the terror his humour holds at bay to surface. 

Just as I was starting to get bored the narrative switched to third person of mission control back home and then it gets more interesting, however this blessing is a mixed one. When we get back to Mark on Mars's diary, it's twenty days later . The flow and intensity of the situation has been eased even more and he is still hookah about old tv shows like the geeky blogger he is rather than the trained astronaut he should be. And I still couldn't feel what he felt , couldn't get a sense of his environment and what it's like to be alone on a planet. One of the greatest and most chilling endings to a book I've read was the end to Jed mercurio's Ascent, (spoilers) with the cosmonaut stranded forever on the dark side of the moon, alone with no one aware he was there.

The log nature of the telling continued to wind me up the wrong way. When Watney writes things like "Sorry I haven't been keeping the log up to date" I felt relief that I could for once just be told what happened in one chunk. This is largely because Weir knows his stuff. And his stuff is air pressure, water supplies, drill voltage and hydrogen separation. All, literally, vital stuff for our stranded hero, and the issues with equipment, environment and maths are the fibres of his survival suit, but honestly I don't want to know how James Bond's ejector seat gets fixed, I just want to see it work. 

Yet to appreciate a moment of disaster one has to have understood the previous ten pages of science. I'll admit to being a failed student and also admit to enjoying the straightforward and unpretentious way Weir guides us through telemetry or airlock pressurisation. Although I stand by my point that the wads of exposition dragged, there were also several moments where it felt like I finally had the physics teacher I would have wanted at school. However, overall, the lasting effect was for me a drain on my concentration and a further drain on the tension of the situation.

And then (spoilers) he makes contact with Nasa and soon millions are watching the daily news shows centred on his situation, and we as readers are freed from the chain of log entries, introduced to new characters and see a months-long rescue plan kick into gear. During this mid-section of the book, as the people on Earth wrestled with how to resupply, the crew who unknowingly left Watney behind wrestle with their guilt and what to do next and Watney's fate becomes more uncertain, my interest rose again and the returns from others' stories to his log entries made me fonder for them.

Still, though, his unflagging and unflappable optimism held, and no true understanding of what such isolation and fear would do to a mind emerged. This is an inter-planetary tale that remains all surface. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for amazing detail and research; Reid seems to know and love his science. 

Negatives: -1 for unconvincing emotional journey of main protagonist and failure to put my heart with him on Mars 

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 good but too many flaws to ignore 

By English Scribbler, starman and Nerds contributor since 2013

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

So many good comics out this week.  Alyssa Milano continues to impress, Valiant gives us three decades of nostalgia, and we have a new series from Cullen Bunn.  This is the biggest week of this column to date.  Nine, count 'em, nine books have been reviewed and most of them were quite good.  If the wallet would have allowed, I might have reached double digits this week.  There is always next week.

Pick of the Week:
Bloodshot and H.A.R.D. Corps: H.A.R.D. Corps #0 - The fine folk at Valiant sure know how to introduce an event in its universe.  Entitled "Three Decades of Destruction", this issue features different art teams that produced art remnicent of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  When you complete this issue it feels like you have gone on a journey with your old comic books.   The upcoming Valiant event centers around a rouge Bloodshot.  A creation of Project Rising Spirit (a private security contractor), Bloodshot is free of his programming and needs to be stopped.  In an act of desperation, Project Rising Spirit reactivates the H.A.R.D. Corps in one last attempt to stop him.  This issue features the troubling past of the H.A.R.D. Corps project and has me excited to pick up the next issue in this event.  If you are longing for a nostalgic trip down 90s comic memory lane then you owe it to yourself to pick up this issue.

The Rest:
The Remains #1 - This four part mini-series from Cullen Bunn and MonkeyBrain Comics is off to a tremendous start.  At only 99 cents you should stop reading this and simply go out an buy it.  A harrowing tale from a farm that reaches out for help from the wrong individual, the debut issue of this series will leave a lasting impression on you and have you clamoring for issue #2.  Bunn once again delivers the horror goods and the art from A.C. Zamudio is simply spectacular.  I think MonkeyBrain might have figured this whole industry out.  Deliver high quality comics for less than a dollar an issue.  I don't think I have read a bad MonkeyBrain title yet and this one deserves your attention.

Chew #40 - I always knew that John Layman was a little crazy, but as his masterpiece winds its way down to its conclusion he may be an insane genius.  Much is revealed in Chew #40 and I ate it up (I am truly sorry for that one).  Tony and John consume some of the gallasberry cooked in the juices of a psychedelic chog (I told you he was crazy) and have a trippy good time attempting to help the FDA.  I really want to reveal more, but would hate to spoil a fitting conclusion to the Family Recipes arc.  I would be remiss if I didn't give Rob Guillory a pat on the back for another stellar issue.  As this series advances I tend to take the great work he does on this series for granted.  He delivers A+ work each issue.   I can't move on to the next book without enjoying the fact that Layman gave us a ABC toe (already been chewed toe) and a nice shout out to the great Ghosted from Joshua Williamson.  So happy to be back into this series.

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind #2 - The action and drama are ramped up in issue #2 of this new series from Dark Horse.  Fans of the original series should be all over this series as Zach Whedon continues to remain faithful to the beloved franchise.  The writing feels like it is a continuation of the television show and this issue really delivered a strong hook that could bring in casual fans like myself.  Zoe is finally transported to get the medical care she desperately needs after giving birth, but this ultimately leads to her capture and puts the Alliance hot on the tail of Serenity.  After the tease of Jayne in the first issue, fans will be pleased to learn that he is featured more prominently in this book.  The tension between Jayne and Mal felt very real and the ending will have you desperately waiting for issue #3.  Even as a casual fan of the series I am hooked on this title.

Tomb Raider #1 - Dark Horse did not mess around when it set out to create a sequel to the most recent Tomb Raider video game.  Dark Horse went out and got Gail Simone to deliver the goods.  As a fan of the game, I was happy with this debut.  Simone did not waste any time setting the scene for the next chapter in Lara's life.  She and the surviving crew are suffering nightmares and it may be connected to the gold they took from the island.  To me what made this title work so well was the art from the team of Nicolas Daniel Selma, Juan Gedeon, and Michael Atiyeh.  Their combination of pencils, ink, and colors create a cell shaded effect that feel like a video game.  Most impressive and looking forward to more.

Mind MGMT #19 - Matt Kindt's latest spy series has reached its midway point and the second chapter looks to be as engrossing and exciting as the first.  In the first installment, Meru, Lyme, and company seek to recruit another Mind MGMT agent to their side.  This time the Magician is at stake and things don't go quite according to plan.  Meru's ability to cancel out an agents powers is turning out to be more of a crutch than a weapon.  Add that to the fact that the Eraser and company have officially formed the second coming of Mind MGMT and Lyme and Meru have their work cut out for them.  This is feeling like a good time to go back and revisit the journey from issue #1.  Love this series.

Hacktivist #2 - It turns out that Alyssa Milano should have begun writing comics quite some time ago.  Hacktivist has been a fun ride and the new twists and turns in issue #2 were unexpected and exciting. Nate and Ed, at the suggestion of Nate, team up with the U.S. government to seemingly aid the Tunisian rebels.  By leveraging coding skills and social media, Nate and Ed understand how to create a movement with technology similar to this.  Ed, aka, ..sve_Urs3lf, doesn't seem fully on board with the agreement.  Not wanting to spoil anything, Milano does a nice job throwing in some surprises and delivering a hook that will bring you back to issue #3.  With a nod to Snowden, Hacktivist feels almost as if it is reporting current events, not merely telling a story via the comic medium.  If you are someone who is into coding and social media then look no further than this title.

The Wraith #4 - This title is such a departure from Locke and Key that I am curious what fans of the series think of this.  While Joe Hill is the master of horror, he always includes so much heart in both his comics and novels (well maybe not The Cape).  The Wraith is pure evil and it can be difficult to stomach at times, but still manages to capture my attention.  If you have not read NOS4A2 I don't know if this title is for you.  As a fan of NOS4A2, this has been a disturbing look at Charles Manx, but if you aren't familiar with the story I don't know how enjoyable this would be.  Highlight this week was the nod to Curious George with the names Punch and Judy.  I am enjoying this, but would be cautious with who to recommend it to.

The Walking Dead #122 - "All out War" is rabidly reaching its conclusion and I am not sure how I am going to cope with the loss of Negan (assuming he is lost).  This vile individual has breathed new life into this series that, while still good, had lost some of its early charm.  This issue is clearly setting the stages for the final issues in this arc.  Can Negan trust everyone in his clan?  Is Rick's plan going to be effective against the relentless Negan?  I really want to spoil how Negan took Lucille to the next level, but that wouldn't be fair.  A seemingly calm issue in what has been an exciting arc.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thoughts on the Nebula Shortlist

Hey, hey! The 2013 Nebula Award Shortlist has been announced. As usual, here it is! When available, I've included links for purchase on all novels and films, for those who are so inclined, and links to !FREE! stories when available for short stories, novellas and novelettes. After presenting each slate of nominees, I offer my thoughts and predict a winner.

Best Novel

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
Fire with Fire , Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ancillary Justice  Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

I have to confess that, of this list, I've only read Ancillary Justice, but if you'll recall it did make my Hugo shortlist. It's definitely a good enough book, though I think it better fits the profile of a Hugo than a Nebula winner (it's organized around a simple but striking conceit, it's aspirations are firmly grounded in genre and it is, in a fundamental way, in explicit conversation with genre). Nevertheless, it's probably the front runner.

The Golem and the Jinni is another book I could see winning, as it combines urban fantasy with the kind of "political conflicts dressed up as cultural/civilizational conflicts are stupid and pointless when you consider: a) how much we've got in common; and b) how much everyone would benefit from some cooperation and mutual understanding" type message that I find sensible and appealing. Disclaimer: I haven't read it. But from what I've read about it, the book seems to be very well-written too.

As far as the rest go, I'm happy to see Samatar and Small Beer Press get recognition from what is arguably the institutional voice of the genre. And I'm inclined to support the choice of The Red: First Light, for the simple fact that it demonstrates the SFWA recognizes the changing dynamics of the publishing industry and does not exhibit the kind of reflexive prejudice against self-publishing that is yin to the yang of Hugh Howey's zealotry. (I've also heard the book is very good, so it's not just any self-published novel.)

Hild, however, is the kind of daring choice that underscores my belief that the Nebulas are inherently superior to the Hugos. It's gotten more attention from mainstream literary types than genre insiders; it subverts and inverts a number of questionable assumptions about gender in the Middle Ages, generally transported wholesale into fantasy; and it's barely fantasy, for that matter. I don't expect it to win, but I'm glad it's on the list.

Predicted Winner: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK) because it's the buzziest SF novel of 2013.

Best Novella

‘‘Wakulla Springs,’’ Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages ( 10/2/13)
‘‘The Weight of the Sunrise,’’ Vylar Kaftan (Asimov’s 2/13)
‘‘Annabel Lee,” Nancy Kress (New Under the Sun)
‘‘Burning Girls,’’ Veronica Schanoes ( 6/19/13)
‘‘Trial of the Century,’’ Lawrence M. Schoen (, 8/13; World Jumping)
"Six-Gun Snow White," Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean)

 Lawrence Schoen again? I find that hard to explain, unless he happens to be one of a small number of writers the SFWA's "conservative," "progressive" and "I don't care about the politics" wings can agree on. This story just isn't that good, to be frank. Nor, unfortunately, is Valente's--a disappointment, given how good her writing generally is. But maybe I just have "fairly tale retelling fatigue," a condition I blame on Disney and the various abominations that go under the name Once Upon a Time--wretched creatures that murdered this niche genre before my very eyes and then performed wicked and depraved acts upon its corpse.

"Wakulla Springs," by contrast, is a more interesting choice, but if Hild is barely fantasy, this one isn't really SF or fantasy at all. Can't see that winning.

Predicted Winner: ‘‘Trial of the Century,’’ Lawrence M. Schoen (, 8/13; World Jumping) because other SF/F writers seem to really like his novellas.

Best Novelette

‘‘Paranormal Romance,’’ Christopher Barzak (Lightspeed 6/13)
‘‘The Waiting Stars,’’ Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky)
‘‘They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,’’ Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov’s 1/13)
‘‘Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,’’ Henry Lien (Asimov’s 12/13)
‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,’’ Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/13)
‘‘In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,’’ Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons 7/1 – 7/8/13)

This is a decent slate, with quality stories by Liu, Pinsker and de Bodard. ‘‘Paranormal Romance,’’ I'm afraid, didn't do it for me--it's the kind of inward-looking, self-referential genre story that Paul Kincaid associates with SF's "exhaustion" and I generally associate with the Hugos. ‘‘The Waiting Stars’’ by Aliette de Bodard is my favorite of the shortlist, though Liu and Pinsker would also be worthy winners.

Predicted Winner: ‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,’’ Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/13) because it's good, everyone loves Ken Liu and, well, his stories just feel like award-winners. 

Best Short Story

‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)

None of my Hugo nominees made it, which is a horrible stain on the reputation of the SFWA. And boy does the SFWA rank-and-file seem to prefer Lightspeed over Clarkesworld. (No knock on Lightspeed, but where's the love for Clarkesworld?)

But now that I've had a chance to read some of these, I'll concede that ‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers’’ by Sofia Samatar; ‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth’’ by Matthew Kressel; and ‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer’’ by Kenneth Schneyer are all very high-quality. Schneyer's piece is a great example of how to effectively deploy an experimental story structure, but I imagine it will feel a bit too much like a "thought experiment" to some. Samatar's, by contrast, is an emotionally-charged, Clarion-style piece; what's more, it hits hard in the way only short stories can hit hard. 

Predicted Winner: ‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13) because it's the story that leaves the biggest emotional impact on the reader.

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor’’ (Nick Hurran, director) (BBC Wales)
Europa Report (Sebastián Cordero, director) (Start Motion Pictures)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, director) (Warner Bros.)
Her (Spike Jonze, director) (Warner Bros.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, director) (Lionsgate)
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, director) (Warner Bros.)

I find the idea of comparing Pacific Rim to Gravity exceedingly strange.

Predicted Winner: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, director; Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, writers) (Warner Bros.) because it is a rare "hard" SF film, because it uses the medium in unique ways and because, in comparison to it, everything other than Europa Report is a complete joke.

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Indigo)
When We Wake, Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin; Little, Brown)
Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson (Grand Central)
The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
Hero (The Woodcutter Sisters), Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)
September Girls, Bennett Madison (Harper Teen)
A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty (Levine)

I have read none of these and know very little about any of them. Sorry.

Predicted Winner: Your guess is as good as mine. 


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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What I Owe to Harold Ramis

Another name has been entered into the Tobin’s Spirit Guide.

I’m not going to go through Harold Ramis’s oeuvre. I'll mention Stripes, Caddyshack, National Lampoons Vacation, Groundhogs Day. A prodigious career, an amazing one.

He will, however, always be Egon Spengler to me.

Ghostbusters is one of those films that we’ve all seen many, many times. By “we all” I mean those of us born between 1970 and 1980. Nerds and geeks born between 1970 and 1980. For us, Ghostbusters was more than just a film. It was glorious, funny and scary—well, scary enough for a ten-year-old. Actually it wasn’t all that scary, except for the hellhounds. And the hands. And the fridge.

My friend David and I rented Ghostbusters time and again, eventually getting VHS copies of our own, making the script easier to menorize. We made our own proton packs (backpacks with vacuum hoses) and ghost traps (shoebox with some wires taped to it). We begged our parents for jumpsuits and combat boots in our own size so we wouldn’t have to borrow oversized pairs from our fathers. We replayed scenes in backyards, driveways, alleys, schoolgrounds. Granted, we did the same with Platoon and The Untouchables—David’s dad bought him a fedora, which drove me insane with jealousy. But those films eventually receded in my mind, replaced by or muddled with countless crime and war films.

Ghostbusters, however, stuck. In fact, it’s still a means for bonding with my friends—albeit, in a very different way. After a night of porch drinking with my buddies, we throw on Ghostbusters, quote lines, argue over exactly what makes it a great film, usually passing out before Winston gets hired. Maybe if we started it before 2 AM.

Looking back on it, Peter Venkman had all the memorable lines. Because Bill Murray is Bull Murray. In fact, I can only remember offhand three of Egon’s lines. When Janine asks Egon if he has any hobbies, he responds, “I collect spore, mold, and fungus.” I wasn't really sure what these were, but I thought it was hilarious. I still do.

Then Egon prognosticated: “Print is dead.” I recall being struck by this even at my tender young age. What was to replace it? How would I read comics if not on paper? What alternative was there? TV? That's all there was. Why did we have to choose? I could read Uncanny X-Men and watch Robotech. But Egon knew. Egon knew.

It remains a great film. The sequel isn’t terrible either. Plus it includes perhaps Egon’s finest moment:

Here's another scene. Because it's funny:

Ghostbusters mattered in my life, not because it was hilarious, but because it prepared me for other things. That the villain was a god—not a demon, but a god—blew me away. I was a good Catholic boy, firm in my belief. The existence of gods other than God—gods perhaps older than Jehovah—was thrilling. Ghostbusters led me to looking into other gods, specifically to the wonderful D’Aulaires books on Greek and Norse mythology, beginning a gradual slide through comparative religion toward atheism.

More importantly, Ghostbusters primed for Lovecraft. I’m not saying that Ghostbusters is “Lovecraftian,” but it’s clear that Ramis and Dan Aykroyd drew from the master. Tobin’s Spirit Guide is the kid-friendly Necronomican. Zuul is a sexy Cthulhu. 

Thanks, Harold Ramis. This weekend, my buddies and I will prepare a magnificent feat in your honor. Then we'll watch Ghostbusters. But, we'll start it at ten, Ghostbusters 2 around midnight. We'll get through them all.

Peace out, good sir. You're in the embrace of Zuul now.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Tower Broken, book three of the Knife & Tower trilogy by Mazarkis Williams

Williams, Mazarkis. The Tower Broken. Jo Fletcher Books, 2014. Buy starting June 3rd.

The Meat

Trilogies are kind of strange, when you think about it. They’re especially odd creations in light of the need for authors to wow the audience with the first installment. Ideally, installment two should at the very least sustain readers’ interest, and the final installment should blow their minds. In other words, books (or movies) one and three have to do all of the real work, with book one as the attention-grabber and book three as the stunning conclusion complete with melodrama galore. Comparatively little is asked of book two, in order to allow expectations for book three to rise stratospherically high.

Exceptions to this pattern certainly exist, but I’d argue such exceptions thrive precisely because our expectations for the middle installment are much lower than for the first or last installments. The primacy and recency effects also help ensure the middle installment is the most forgettable, but any time it greatly exceeds our low expectations, the middle installment can capture our imaginations the same way a good underdog story is irresistible to most of us. The Empire Strikes Back just feels sooo much better than either A New Hope or Return of the Jedi, to say nothing of the prequel trilogy (another exception to the trilogy pattern, thanks to all the installments being so uniformly unnecessary and, despite being visually magnificent, such poorly told and conceived stories, though here too some can be heard saying Attack of the Clones is ‘better than I expected’). Of course, part of the greatness of The Empire Strikes Back comes retroactively, comparing quite favorably to its sequel, since Return of the Jedi is far from satisfying in most ways.

This is all by way of saying that expectations for The Tower Broken, final installment in Mazarkis Williams’ Tower & Knife trilogy, were quite high despite the slight disappointment of book two. But if Williams’ book two was no Empire Strikes Back, The Tower Broken definitely manages to surpass the underwhelming bar set by the Return of the Jedi model of trilogy conclusions (apologies to those of you out there who are still laboring under the illusion that Return of the Jedi is a great movie).

"Admiral! We have enemy ships in sector 47!" "It's a trap!" The scintillating dialogue is just one of many reasons to find Return of the Jedi pretty silly...
I must confess I was deeply concerned by the direction Williams seemed to be taking her story, partly due to the childhood trauma of having read the Earthsea Trilogy and been quite taken with Ged, only to read Tehanu and find my hero emptied of all that made him heroic, transformed into an old man, depressingly ordinary. Would Williams drop-kick Sarmin, erstwhile pattern mage, down that same dark and hopeless hole into which Le Guin dropped Ged? Fortunately, the answer is ‘not really.’ True, Sarmin must struggle to face the ever-escalating threats assailing his empire without recourse to his own pattern magic, but Williams uses this power vacuum to explore another aspect of his world, namely elemental magic, and the result is impressive indeed. Moreover, about the Empress there had always been a certain promise of greatness, and Williams chooses this apocalyptic crisis as the moment to let Mesema shine. 

All in all, Williams manages to weave all the disparate elements of his story and his world into a very satisfactory conclusion, an effort worthy of the excellent first book and far surpassing the less impressive second installment. Would this reader have been even happier had Sarmin suddenly recovered his pattern-power and whipped up an intuitive solution to the crisis? Yes…but perhaps that’s just the unhealed wound of Ged’s magical emasculation reopening again.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for making elemental magic kind of awesome (though it all ends in a T.S. Eliot vein, without much of a bang), +1 for developing characters like Mesema into a position of greatness

Penalties: -1 for pulling a Le Guin-like trick on Sarmin (it’s bad, but not Tehanu-bad!)

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10   Which, as a score here at Nerds of a Feather, is 'a bit of all right', as my Australian friends say!

This review brought to you by Zhaoyun, sf/f book and movie aficionado and main cast member of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

Kearney, Paul. The Ten Thousand [Solaris, 2008]

The Meat

As a historian by training, I am always excited to see fantasies loosely based on accounts of historical events. Spending time in historical archives always makes me appreciate just how full the human experience is... some people's stories are so compelling, so dramatic, and so adventurous that if they did not happen they would have to be made up. In fact, the best stories generally tend to occur in real life, not on the page of the novel. So I was happy to realize that Paul Kearney's fantasy, The Ten Thousand, was based off off of one such historical precedent. The Ten Thousand is a dramatic and fanciful (but somewhat loose) retelling of the Anabasis, the tale of ten thousand Greek mercenaries who accompanied Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to seize the throne of Persia. For those of you who know the Anabasis, unfortunately you are aware of how the story ends. Cyrus met his end in a battle near Babylon, and the Greek mercenaries found themselves stranded deep within enemy territory. But the true joy of The Ten Thousand is the journey, not the destination. It is a well-told military fantasy that takes the reader deep into the physical and emotional battles of long campaigns. 

Kearney rightly retells this story through the dark, melancholic, and gritty lens of the (grim-)darker turn in modern fantasy. The world, which is ancient Greece re-imagined, features soldiers of the Macht, a mountainous area composed of independent city-states that are always at war with each other. This has led toward important developments in military technology: the phalanx formation, a massed infantry formation that marches forward and fights as a single (almost mechanical) entity, crushing its opponents. The phalanx formation and its use in the internecine warfare of the age have given the Macht a legendary prowess on the battlefield, a prowess that makes Macht highly sought after as a mercenary force. And the battles they fight, and methods used, are eminently believable:
There was no extravagance to the fighting; no glory... These men were doing their job. They were at work. They did not raise battle-cries, or scream curses. They pushed with their comrades, they looked for openings, and they stabbed out with a swift, economic energy, like herons seeking minnows.
The main protagonist of the story is a young man named Rictus, one of the few survivors of the sacking of his home city of Isca. Cityless and alone, Rictus takes his considerable martial skills to join a mercenary force and to make a name for himself. Only through war will he have a chance at glory and, more importantly, citizenship in one of the great Macht city-states. But upon joining the mercenary force, Rictus soon finds himself swept up in events beyond his control. He joins a force of ten thousand Macht mercenaries, which were employed to travel across the seas to the land of the Kufr, to aid in a struggle for rulership over the Asurian Empire. In the process, the epic Macht quest for glory and gold degenerated into an extended battle, a base struggle merely to survive. 

The Ten Thousand is pure and unadulterated battle porn. Of course, it is extremely well-written battle porn, featuring crisp and engaging prose, a colorful supporting cast, and a rich and textured world building that never fails to pull the reader in. And Kearney does not exalt battles as a tool to gain glory. He continually refuses to romanticize or glorify war. As Jason, one of the Macht commanders, says:
Do not wish to see war. It is the worst of all things, and once seen, it can never be forgotten. 
At the same time, The Ten Thousand makes it clear in a number of poignant passages that although the worst of things, war is a natural part of human order: 
The army marches, there is a slaughter, and a form of words is made to make the world change. But the world does not change; the water still flows, the seeds still sprout, and those who work the soil continue to work it, a little poorer, a little thinner and sadder than before. The storm moves on, and in its wake the world goes once more about its business. This is war, this passing storm on the land. This stink on the air, this dustcloud which hems the sky. These creatures marching in their thousands, changing everything and changing nothing with their passage. This is war.   
This novel does have a bit of an awkward tendency to Orientalize the Kufr in the same way that Frank Miller/Zac Snyder Orientalize the Persians in 300. But it counterbalances this by also demonizing the Macht. Far from being good men yearning for "freedom," most warriors (on both sides) are violent killers who blow off steam by committing atrocity, murder, and rape. In such a violent world, only a sucker could hope for a happy ending. This book is not for the faint of heart. 

At its best, The Ten Thousand reminds me at times of Steven Erikson's Malaz novel Deadhouse Gates, though the journey of the ten thousand Macht never reaches the emotional heights or power of Coltaine's Chain of Dogs. But the book falters at times because it is too dark: this is where Kearney fails to match the best writers in the genre. Erikson punctuates the darkness and grit of Coltaine's Chain of Dogs with the fantastic comic relief of Iskaral Pust. Joe Abercrombie keeps the all-out hilarity of Nicomo Cosca on stage left to lighten the mood of his darker novels. Kearney's failure to provide something... anything... similar to break up the gloom constitutes the biggest weakness in what was otherwise a very good read.

A final note: I also wish the author would have paid more attention to believability, especially in regard to the consequences of rape. Now I would be the first to admit that the constant references to rape in the novel are understandable. Soldiers in enemy territory sometimes "go wild," for lack of a better term, and commit acts of depravity that would shame them on the home front. But to have one of the main Kufr characters repeatedly raped, only to turn around suddenly and fall in love (with perhaps the one person who had no designs on her) and want to make 10,000 babies with a Macht soldier... well, that strikes me as lazy writing.  

Please take these criticisms with a grain of salt, though. I recommend The Ten Thousand. It is an enjoyable read that will appeal to lovers of grimdark and military fantasy.  

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the phalanx, +1 capturing the spirit of battles

Penalties: -1 lazy writing, -1 for no comic relief

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "a mostly enjoyable experience"

See why a 7/10 at NoaF ain't so bad here.

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

Another stellar week of comics that is filled with a plethora of quality horror books and I am happy that there has been an uptick in the genre as of late.  The big news in the world of comics came as Top Shelf announced that it would be launching a series of DRM free graphic novels.  Simply purchase a book, pay a small additional fee, and you have yourself a digital comic that is truly yours.  It is a good time to be a fan of independent publishers who are being innovative and put the reader first.   Viva la comics!

Pick of the Week:
Ghosted #7 - The second arc of Ghosted looks like it might exceed the first.  I never thought the heist and horror genre could pair up so nicely.  In this issue Jackson, Trick and the rest have made their way down to Mexico to save Nina from sex traffickers.  We quickly learn that this particular group has quite a lot of power and has a fetish for girls who are possessed by demons.  Jackson is still looking for a way to die and find peace, but Anderson (who is quickly becoming my favorite character), isn't sure his time has come.  Having already pulled successful heists that have included large amounts of cash and a ghost, he is just the man to plan a heist to steal a girl who is possessed.  Joshua Williamson gives us a new spin on a haunted house and continues to write a smart, humorous series that is phenomenal.  Mix in the art of Davide Gianfelice and I think we have an Eisner worthy series.  I love Gianfelice's ability to transition from a seemingly normal panel to one filled with terror.  His style matches the wit and humor of Williamson's writing.  I was worried with Locke and Key over and done with and the Sixth Gun on its way that I wouldn't have a quality horror comic to fill the void.  Something tells me I will be ok.

The Rest:
Fables #138 - Leave it to good old Bill Willingham to bring a series that is 138 issues deep full circle.  Whether he has been planning this all along or not, a tip of the hat to you kind sir.  As Fables draws to an end we are treated with the return of Geppetto in an issue that was simply mesmerizing.  It ended faster than expected because I was entranced with what the old carpenter had been up to since his capture way back when.  I had mixed feelings when I heard Willingham was going to end his magnum opus, but given the direction it seems to be headed I feel the conclusion will be nothing short of epic.

Daredevil #36 - Mark Waid's run with Daredevil has been nothing short of glorious.  This week we get the pleasure of Matt Murdock reaping all sorts of legal havoc by, under oath, admitting that he is Daredevil. It is a bold move to take down the Sons of the Serpent in an action packed, fun issue.  Waid has taken Daredevil to new heights and, without spoiling anything, I am very curious to see how this upcoming move is going to pan out.  The one thing I know for sure is that I will be picking up the next issue to see what happens next.

Curse #2 - Having read and enjoyed some Hoax Hunters, I was excited to delve into another horror title from Michael Moreci.  Laney Griffen is a former football great, who is currently unemployed and struggling to pay for the medical bills amassing from his son's sickness.  He lost his wife at some point in the past, and his sister-in-law (the town's sheriff) is threatening to take his son away because she can provide better care.  In a final attempt to secure enough money to pay for his son Jaren's medical bills, Laney attempts to secure the bounty on a mysterious killer that has been on a rampage.  He has an encounter with the beast (Anton the werewolf) and currently has him locked up in his basement.  Moreci and Tim Daniel have crafted an interesting story thus far and I look forward to its conclusion over the next two issues.  Riley Rossmo and Colin Lorimer deliver some truly haunting panels with splashes of blood all over the place.  The sum total of this work is a solid mini-series that is well worth your time.

Undertow #1 - Set in a dystopian future, Undertow explores a world in which humans live primarily underwater and those who exist on land are more beast than man.  Atlantis is the primary hub underwater, but explorers have begun to break away and seek refuge on land.  Redum Anshargal is a man that shouldn't exist.  He has lived above water and with his fellow refugees hunts the water dwellers from above.  The protagonist in this story, is taken under the wing of Redum and begins to learn the lay of the land.  Steve Orlando delivers a solid first issue, but the art is where this book truly shines.  Artyom Trkhanov delivers some of the most stunning panels of the year and his character design of the water dwellers, the surface dwellers, and Redum is diverse and effective.  I suggest you pick this one up.

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

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

GUEST POST: Talking to Aliens, and Talking Past Aliens by James L. Cambias

We are thrilled to present a guest post by novelist James Cambias! James is also an accomplished writer of short fiction, with stories appearing in F&SF, Shimmer and multiple Year's Best collections (of both the Dozois and Horton persuasions). What you may not know, however, is that James got his start writing for the tabletop gaming industry, and that he is also the founder of Zygote Games--a company that seeks to produce "high-quality, fun-to-play games that also educate players about scientific facts and concepts."

In a glowing review, I described his debut, A Darkling Sea, as "challenging in all the ways SF can and should be challenging." One of my favorite aspects of the book was how conflict emerges less from ill-intent (though there is a bit of that too) and more from problems of communication. Today James discusses that theme in greater detail...

My novel A Darkling Sea is about a lot of things — the value of science and exploration, the fallacy of trying to distinguish between human activity and what is "natural," and the way our goals are driven by personal desires as much as grand ideologies or rational calculation. But one of the main themes is communication.

The whole plot revolves around attempts to establish communication with aliens, and the consequences of failure. I ran a lot of variations on the theme: Henri Kerlerec blunders into his fatal contact with the lobster-like Ilmatarans in part because he has been forbidden to communicate with them. Later on, Rob Freeman avoids that fate because he is willing to try to talk, which convinces the Ilmatarans that he really is an intelligent being.

Right up front, I want to stipulate that I handwaved away some tof the difficulties in translating alien languages. Realistically, the humans would probably have much more trouble talking to the Ilmatarans, and vice versa. But while stories about figuring out how to communicate are fascinating, that wasn't the story I wanted to tell in A Darkling Sea.

Even when two species understand each others' languages, there are still communication problems. I tried to show this with the interactions between the humans and the Sholen (another spacefaring civilization, more advanced than the humans in most ways). They can talk to each other just fine — but what is said, what is meant, and what is understood are all different things. (I'm sure that theorists of language and communication have some nifty technical terms for all that, but I've never studied those subjects.)

So the humans say they're just peacefully studying Ilmatar. They mean they're asserting their right to do so and refusing to let the Sholen prevent. And the Sholen understand them to mean they're not going to recognize any restrains on what they do. Which, to the Sholen, means the researchers are an imperialist vanguard.

Meanwhile the Sholen say they want to protect the Ilmatarans from cultural contamination resulting from alien contact. What they mean is they want to keep humans (and themselves) from affecting any other worlds in the Galaxy. And what the humans understand is the Sholen want to end space exploration forever. Not a recipe for a happy outcome.

It gets worse when the two sides are communicating by acts and gestures rather than words. Some of the humans resort to practical jokes and minor harassment to let the Sholen know how unwelcome they are in the human research station. The Sholen either don't notice, or take the pranks as genuine attacks. When the humans try passive resistance, the Sholen see wilful disobedience. When the Sholen try a show of force, the humans see outright aggression.

We saw a lot of this in the real world, especially during the Soviet-American Cold War, when both sides would painstakingly parse every speech and action by their adversaries, trying to figure out what they "really" meant. As I write this, China and Japan are doing the same — and if two cultures which have existed next door to each other for more than two millennia can still misunderstand one another that badly, imagine how badly two species which have only been in contact for a couple of decades can screw things up.

But there is one kind of communication which crosses species boundaries: science. In my book the search for knowledge and understanding of the world is something all three species can relate to. When at last, after much trouble and bloodshed, the humans, Ilmatarans, and Sholen come to some kind of cease-fire, it's the scientists who bring it about. It's not that I have any faith that scientists are smarter or more rational than the rest of us (I know plenty of them and have no illusions on that score). But science, by its nature, has to deal with the real world. It is grounded in verifiable facts. And since the facts of the physical universe are the same everywhere, as far as we know, that makes science the truly universal language.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Interview: Evan Endicott & Josh Stoddard, Creators of Amazon's BETAS

Amazon Studios - Betas
 Amazon's foray into original programming just wrapped up it's inaugural season. Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard, creators of BETAS, one of Amazon's two comedy offerings, talked with Nerds of a Feather about the entire process. To watch BETAS (first three episodes are free without Amazon Prime membership), go here.

NF: Congratulations on a successful first season of BETAS, which helped launch the inaugural season of Amazon Prime's original programming. How did you wind up getting involved with Amazon, as opposed to a network?

EVAN: Thanks! Success is all relative, of course, but we're happy with how the show turned out and where it's going. And the people who've seen it seem to be responding positively, which is really satisfying-- we'd love to make more!

Getting involved with Amazon was our producer Michael London's idea. He heard Amazon was getting in the original content game and met with them to discuss their vision for the new network. After speaking with Joe Lewis, Amazon's head of Scripted Comedy, Michael thought Betas, which we'd been developing as a more network-y show up to that point, would be a great fit.

We pitched Amazon the show and they agreed-- although we all decided to take it in a more serial, cable-type direction as opposed to the wacky sitcom we'd originally concocted. It's worth adding that we pitched more traditional outlets as well-- F/X, HBO, Showtime-- but that Amazon responded very strongly to the idea and the creative team behind it. Perhaps because they're from the tech world the show inhabits, the idea made sense to them from the get-go-- they didn't need us to walk them through the ins and outs of start-up culture or explain why it was a rich setting for comedy.

Amazon Studios
NF: Having created some controversy with its first attempts at getting involved in film, there were a lot of eyes on Amazon, and on you, when Amazon premiered its pilots and opened them up for fan voting. What was that process like for you, and when did you know BETAS had gotten picked up?

JOSH: It was thrilling, fascinating and occasionally brutal. Users' reactions were popping up in real time-- offering opinions, insults, praise... I couldn't tear my eyes away from the screen the entire month the pilots were up. It was like TV Thunderdome, streaming live for the world to watch. And although we were told we weren't in competition with any of the other shows, it sure felt like we were. And once the month was over and Amazon quietly, painstakingly, collected all their data and measured all their metrics, we were notified that we made the cut. We couldn't believe it -- not because we didn't think we made a great show -- but because they only chose TWO of us (out of eight) to go to series (Alpha House being the other). I couldn't understand how we survived while some really high profile, high quality projects were back-burnered. A strange, humbling and mysterious experience all around. We feel very lucky.

NF: Both BETAS and ALPHA HOUSE are TV-MA. Were you aware of a conscious decision from Amazon to embrace more risk-taking in its comedies, or is that just how the fan voting shook out?

EVAN: I think it's a conscious decision on their part, although it also reflects what viewers expect from premium content. Since network TV is free to all, offering shows similar to what's available on those channels (but charging for it) doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Amazon wants to set themselves apart, to deliver something viewers will seek out and join Prime for, and that tends to means more "mature" offerings. Betas is a part of that package. So are their new dramas. And I'm sure they'll keep expanding to offer a range of content that reflects the diversity of their viewership.

NF: Can you talk about how your roles evolved on the show from the pilot to the season actually being in production? I know TV veterans Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland are the showrunners, so how do you the four of you work to create a consistent vision?

JOSH: A lot of the pilot process consisted of the four of us (Evan, myself and the Alans) getting to know each other, our visions for the show, our different sensibilities, different backgrounds (theirs being more network and animated comedy, ours being more indie film) and finding the best ways to synergize it all into a cohesive voice. And although, personally, I thought it would be a hard process, full of starts and stops, the Alans were great, gracious facilitators and collaborators. There was much more overlap in our vision for BETAS than there were bridges to build.

Once we went to series and the Alans began to trust us a bit more creatively, they really let us take the reigns and run. They protected us, protected our time, fought for our crazy ideas and made our less inspired ideas better. I don't always like to be gut-checked creatively and I can be a bit precious with my stuff, but having someone there to make sure you aren't crapping the bed, is really really valuable. The Alans changed our sheets more than once. They helped create an environment that allowed us to come into our own as creators. It wasn't always easy, but it was worth it.
Amazon Studios - Betas

NF: One of the things I most admired about the season was how -- despite the TV-MA rating and potential for abusing racy, over-the-top humor -- you kept things grounded in character, very much like a cable drama. I mean, you had a guy carrying around an embalmed cat for weeks and when he finally...ahem, got rid of it...I felt a legitimate pang of regret for him. Were there times in the writing that you consciously cut jokes to save that real estate for honest character moments?

EVAN: First of all, thanks for saying that. Josh and I strive to keep our writing grounded and to mine our characters for humor rather than writing to punchlines-- so it's nice to hear it worked, at least some of the time. And to answer your last question: Absolutely! Any time you have a writer's room, there's a temptation to cram every script with jokes, and we had a ton of funny people pitching hilarious shit left and right. But we tried to be ruthless and determine what jokes actually made sense for our characters and the overall tone of the show, rather than throwing in whatever made us laugh in the room.

Since we don't strive to be a joke machine, we have to dig a little deeper and find the pathos and the vulnerable, human aspects of these characters. Hobbes's tragic arc with Ray Catzweil is a perfect example of that-- something that started as a one-off joke became a metaphor for his relationship with his ex-wife, and then his inability to let go of the past. And when we saw the first cut of Episode 6 (with the infamous, ahem, "bit" you refer to above) we didn't think Hobbes's emotional arc was really working so we wrote a new scene (Hobbes in the bathroom with Ray, drunk and weeping) and shot it during another episode so we'd have that connective tissue. And even though it's just a brief scene, it adds a lot to the cumulative emotional effect... while still being hilarious, at least to us. So yeah, we work hard to keep our characters honest and real, no matter how outlandish the situations get.

NF: After you had firmly established the world of the show a few episodes in, the episodes seemed to begin focusing on a single character. You had a Nash episode, a Mikki episode, a Hobbes episode, and so on, while the season's longer arc played out behind them. Was that originally your plan, or a natural evolution of having a fantastic cast, or did I just read too much into what I was seeing?

EVAN: I think that's a legit observation, and the result of a couple different factors. First and foremost, any time you launch a show, you have to introduce a world and a group of characters very quickly. As a result, you rely on stereotypes and shorthand-- Mitchell is the immature geek who can't talk to girls, Hobbes is the grizzled vet/jester who's always causing chaos, Nash is the uptight stress case, Trey is the cool, ambitious leader, etc etc. But if you know and love your characters, you have ambitions way beyond that-- backstories and flaws and nuances you can't wait to dig into-- and the later episodes provide an opportunity to pull back the layers and reveal who they really are.

It's a tricky balancing act, 'cause you want them to feel unique enough early on that viewers will want to watch them, but you sort of have to cheat and give viewers something familiar too, as a gateway into the world. There was so much to establish in those early episodes, especially the particulars of Silicon Valley, which can be a bit arcane-- we just hoped viewers would stick around to see what else these characters had to offer beyond their superficial "type."

So anyway, that's the main thing-- but what you suggest about having a fantastic cast is also true. Like, we knew early on we wanted Mikki's mom (played by the incredible Sandra Oh) to show up during the season, but if Maya Erskine hadn't turned out to be such a phenomenal actress, that episode would have been scripted very differently. But after working with Maya for awhile, we knew we could push the envelope dramatically and that she would deliver, which allowed us to show parts of Mikki's character that weren't apparent from the first few episodes, where she was the dry, wise-cracking tomboy. We lucked out with an amazing cast, and feel like each of them could carry an episode that way-- hell, I'd watch an entire season that was just Dashawn and Trevor working the graveyard shift at Game Go-- so we look forward to coming up with more dimensions to these characters as time goes on.

NF: Do you know when you'll hear about whether we have a Season 2 in our future (Amazon doesn't have upfronts, after all), and what kinds of things might be in store for your Silicon Valley denizens?

JOSH: We're hoping to hear something by early March. That's the word on the street at least. Amazon likes to keep their decision making process farily hush-hush, so all I know is what trickles down. We know they like the show and are happy with it, whether or not we did enough to warrant another season is anybody's guess... Fingers crossed. Obviously we'd jump at the chance to do more.

That said, it's not too late to influence Amazon's decision! We need eyeballs on the show! We need people to talk, Tweet, favorite, spread the word, yell from the rooftops, review on amazon, imdb, etc... Amazon Instant Video is an exciting new way to watch original content, but its still very much a new way, people may need some help finding our underdog show about underdog app developers. We need all the homegrown, grassroots support we can get.

The good news is, there's no shortage of ideas for Season Two. The tech industry is so full of wonderful, too-crazy-to-be-true material, I feel like we could go for ten seasons and still have stories to tell. We'll continue to build on the seeds we've already planted in Season One; BrB vs. Zach Casper's social juggernaut, Trey & Nash's friendship, The Murch's fight to reestablish his good name, Hobbes' debauched (but earnest) misadventures, Mikki having to experience life in Mitchell's "friend zone." We've got some new characters in mind, a few peripheral ones who will play surprising roles in the BrB universe. Mostly though, we just want to get to know these characters even better, watch them thrive and falter, grow up and grow apart -- have them continue to make us laugh. We've got a great cast -- full of brilliant actors that are game for anything. That's an exciting prospect for any writer. It makes us work harder, dig deeper.

NF: Finally, whose idea was the "All Your Beers Are Belong to Us" banner at the bar? I kinda want that for my kitchen.

JOSH: That was all Evan - a brilliant gag, by a brilliant man, designed for a very small (but hopefully appreciative) audience. We try to sprinkle as many niche references in there as possible. It makes us laugh and hopefully will make a few other folks chuckle as well.

To watch BETAS (first three episodes are free without Amazon Prime membership), go here.

Posted by: Vance K, cult film aficionado, unapologetic lover of terrible movies, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Monday, February 17, 2014

AiIP: The Value Proposition

I'm going to open somewhat traditionally, with two small notes:

First: There are a lot of links in this. Generally, I use a fair amount to links (as most blogs do) as reference or to cite something- however, for this post, I highly recommend you click most or all of them, should the topic of modern publishing interest you.

Second: I am borrowing/plagiarizing a term from Chuck Wendig: Author-Publisher. I feel this encompasses much more than self-publisher, even if it is splitting an awfully fine hair. To whit, the author runs the business of writing and also the business of publishing.

With those out of the way, let's move on, shall we?


In my last post in this space, I examined if self-publishing is really worth it. I wondered if that post was worth it, relevant or if anyone cares.

Turns out, they do (remember when I said to click links? Click that one).

Hugh Howey, as is his wont, finds yet another way to emphasize self-publishing is the way of the future and if you choose any other way you are an idiot. This time, it comes via ostensibly reliable data, and hard numbers proving the aforementioned point as well as ZOMG THASSALOTTA CASH!

Obviously Hugh has done alright for himself, and obviously he and I disagree on several points, and this is one of them. As I say in those linked posts, the fact that you can make money as an author-publisher is news to zero people. Not people working on books, dreaming of making it. Not people who have finished books and are submitting them madly to agents and publishing houses. Not people who have published books through those houses, not the people who work for those houses, not my mom, no one is surprised by this.

One day, my writing will allow me to do this.
So this is where I get off Howey's bizarre train of self-confirmation. That author earnings page was sent to me by several (quite well intentioned) individuals with the basic subject of "this changes everything", when in fact, it changes nothing. It changes nothing because it is so fundamentally flawed and biased, it is actually worse then useless.

How do I mean that? Well, if one was so inclined, they could pick apart the 'data' piece by piece (click that on too), but I really want to tackle the one piece of completely misleading information is this: it is based on one day of Amazon's data. From this, he's extrapolated data to reach annual numbers.

I cannot begin to tell you how stupid this is, but I will try.

If you took my own data, on my best day (when I, you know, had a book on Amazon), I hit somewhere in the mid-80's of SF on Amazon. This translated to something like 30 books in one day, at a price of $4.99. At 70%, I made around $105. So if the snapshot was of that day, the 'data' would say I made almost $40,000 last year from being an author-publisher.

I did not, as significantly more days would suggest I made exactly $0.00 as an author-publisher.

Now, perhaps in the amalgamation, this is fine, as it's not analyzing DES Richard's data, but publishing as a whole. But overall, it still only serves to confirm a bias- not provide any useful, actual information.

In conclusion, I will reiterate what I have said before, and will say again, I'm sure: If you want to help the cause of author-publishers, show them how to be successful, emphasize quality in their works and champion the ones who do it right. Don't just confirm your own bias over and over again using flawed data.


D.E.S. Richard is the author of 3024AD and various short stories. You can read (more) of his ramblings and musings on his blog, or follow him on Twitter. In addition to reading and writing, feel free to talk about food, drink, dress or any old movies.

Microreview [film] : A Field in England directed by Ben Wheatley

{the posters were too good to choose just one}

A Field In England [Ben Wheatley, UK, 2013]

This haunting, beautiful, nightmarish and exasperating film was the first British film to get the Cronenberg treatment of a simultaneous release - on dvd, online and in cinema; and being funded by cable channel Film4 was on T.V. not long after. Only now has it come out in the U.S., however, so I thought it was time for an appraisal as it is both one of the most frustrating and most wonderful horror films I have seen in years, and therefore one I recommend seeking out.

Set during the English Civil War (1640's or thereabout's; before your time anyway), the film begins in the thick of battle somewhere in the countryside. We encounter the bookish and terrified Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, always excellent and possibly familiar from the legendary League of Gentlemen) who flees the smoke and cannon fire with two deserters. Soon they meet the mysterious and threatening O'Neill (the equally-excellent Michael Smiley) who soon has them under his vicious control, digging for treasure in an anonymous (and emponymous) field. Then they stand around talking like they are in a Beckett play, before going nuts.

Not exactly Dickensian levels of plot, then. Nor is there much in the way of dialogue, and that which occurs often confuses more than explains events. To say this is a mysterious film is to say air is a bit tricky to see. It's baffling and deliberately-so. It doesn't make sense. It has non sequiturs and lengthy periods of plot-less imagery. It estranges the viewer and yet assaults them. All these things are to be freely taken as negatives, and I got the impression the film-makers weren't keen to please anyone other than those that shared their interests and tastes. And yet alienating and niche works are often the most powerful, and personal. For whilst, for example, I have found David Lynch's surrealism and incomprehendable plots sometimes to leave me feeling cold, something here hit home. Well, maybe not hit. Crawled. Slunk.

And then it lingered, like the song you can't stop playing or the book you didn't want to end. Walking down the road days later, I found myself lost in thought about what for me is the flim's highlight - a moment so bizarre as to teeter on the edge of comedy, only to fall back into the ditch of horror. To avoid spoilers yet to illustrate how odd this film is, this moment is a slow-motion shot of Whitehead walking out of a tent, grinning. Not exactly exciting sounding, but trust me - if you like films that, bluntly, creep you out - this moment will disturb and delight in equal measure.

That slow-motion shot is just one example of the stunning digital cinematography by Laurie Rose. Black and white and naturally lit, faces pop from the screen, and the grey skies press down and the balnd flora swims in the wind. This visual palette is then edited in gripping and twisted fashion by Wheatley and the writer-editor Amy Jump (to whom Wheatley is husband), especially when images are mirrored, reversed, spun and generally screwed with in a hypnotosing way at the film's climax, resulting in a psychedlic sequence that was impressive and yet hard to watch. Wheatley also composes static portaits of his characters, staring down the lens or fixed mid-movement, as if posing for a painter. The score, meanwhile, is really fantastic. In fact all departments, form sound to costume, seem to have been given free reign to excel.

Now, as I glance back on the last few paragraphs, I can see I'm deep into writing a rave review. So I'll quickly halt and change tack, for I need to remind you of the 'frustating' and 'exasperating' tags I used. This is not a film that makes sense, and despite a love of mystery and stories that wonder rather than explain, I was frustrated by the impossible-to-understand actions of most of the characters, the reliance on surrealism over realism, and the ending that it is simply as mad as a drunk badger in a sack of mosquitos. I found myself annoyed and upset by the insanity on display, and yearning for sense and reality to arrive. However, I was also conflicted in this reaction - the very things I found wanting were the things that made the film so other-worldly and powerful. Sure, a lot of the goings-on can be explained by hallucinations brought on by mushroom eating and battle trauma, but most of it was sheer craziness. And this kept the horror at the centre of the 'story'. As frustrated as the lack of a clear plot or explanation left me, I revelled in this frightening disorientation and confusion. This is the realm of horror than is more deep, cold terror of the unknown, than mortal shock, like the emotions that come from the weirdest and most disturbing nightmares, where you wake up with an aftertaste of fear but no ability to explain why it was so scary. There are no monsters here, no zombies or Freddies or Jasons. Just atmosphere, dread and human cruelty and pain.

It is also a difficult film to'enjoy'. None of the people are appealing or cause much empathy, and they have no clear mission or goal (their decision to go find an alleged tavern for a pint is quickly thwarted) to root for. It's also set in a world that is to me drab and reminiscent of countless cold and dull Sunday walks in the countryside with my family as a kid, but perhaps English fields are more exotic and fascinating to foreign eyes. Perhaps not. I do admit that a familiarity with the historical background, and with the ferns and trunks of the landscape made it all more captivating than it might otherwise have been, but, as I watched at home on the telly, I found my eyes wandering and there were at least three trips to the kitchen. I never do that during Man vs Food... This is down to a story flaw I believe; the very madness and surrealism from which comes the film's strongest elements and best moments would be damaged by coherence and conventional plotting, but the lack of those makes for less gripping viewing overall.

The cast do an amazing job all round and they help to humanise the other-worldliness of it all. Sheersmith is awkward, arrogant, nerdy and weak, yet also the emotional heart of the film; we feel his pain and root for his survivial the most. Smiley is bullying, charming and cruel, full of the righteous anger that was the due of the invaded and enslaved Irish of the era, and cloaked in occult strangeness on top. The others all represent different shades to human personality and behaviour (the kind fool, the cocky thug) without a hint that they aren't of their time; they all look like they live in their costumes.

As is hopefully clear, A Field In England is - more so than even Wheatley's previous film Kill List - a demanding viewing experience. If the idea of men screaming for ages in muddy grass puts you off, you may find you need to watch Agents of Shield or something afterwards to bring some colour and warmth back to your mind. Maybe some tunes from Despicable Me 2 and a hot chocolate. It has strong influences (an obscure 70's film, 'Winstanley', being the chief one), amazing elements and a great cast, yet many flaws. It is not an outright triumph, but it is different, and for that is to be applauded. Just be in a happy place when you watch it.

The Mathematics:

Cricket crease measurement : 7/10

Goals :  +1 for being so lovingly and obsessively made, and acted; +1 for the moments that stayed with me for days- true horror; +1 for taking on unusual and rarely-seen period in history; +1 for not pandering to such mainstram desires as coherence or meaning

Off-sides : -1 for not pandering to such sensible desires as coherence or meaning; -1 for a reduction in thrill born out of having characters that are hard to root for and a story with no endgame; -1 for doing the rather dull trick of resolving things with bullets

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

POSTED BY : English Scribbler - film-fanatic, book-worm and failed fiddle player. Nerds of A Feather contributor since 2013.