Monday, June 30, 2014

Microreview [book]: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Lost Meets Lovecraft in the American South

VanderMeer, Jeff. Annhihilation [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014]

I'm not exactly well-versed in the New Weird. Sure, I've read a bit of Mieville and the stray short story here and there, but my experience with weird fiction mostly starts and ends with Lovecraft. Who better, then, to turn to than Jeff VanderMeer--highly-regarded writer and co-editor, with wife Ann, of the definitive New Weird collection?

Annihilation is the story of an scientific expedition to "Area X," a space located somewhere in the American South, where an unexplained event has occurred, causing the Southern Reach--an administrative unit of unclear origins--to wall it off from the rest of the US. The book takes the form of a journal kept by a member of the expedition--a biologist, who has been sent to investigate Area X alongside a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor. This is the twelfth such expedition; all the others ended in disaster, or with the mysterious reappearance of participants on the other side of the border. 

As this is a journal, the narrator does not feel the need to give the reader much background, but we do get snippets of information here and there. All four participants in the expedition are female, and we learn that at least one previous expedition was all-male. The biologist's husband was a member of the eleventh expedition. No one is allowed to enter Area X with anything other than antiquated equipment. 

The team discovers a tunnel, which the biologist insists is a submerged tower; it is not on their maps. They investigate, and discover odd writings--in English--that are apparently made up of organic matter. Shit gets really weird. But what is going on? What, moreover, do the other team members know? Do they all have the same mission, or are there hidden agenda? 

That's about as good a description as I can manage, because this compact novel is, for lack of a better term, extremely weird. It is also dense, challenging and very well written. Though VanderMeer has tried to distance himself from Lovecraft, the book does exude a Lovecraftian attraction to the grotesque, while the biologist's voice does recall Randolph Carter. The main difference, I think, is that Lovecraft's protagonists find the strangeness they encounter terrifying; VanderMeer's biologist, by contrast, finds it fascinating. Or, put another way, where they are repelled, she is attracted.

Annihilation also reminded me of Lost--and specifically, the Dharma Initiative storyline as it was presented in the second season. We are given a space where conventional assumptions are challenged, and a scientific mission to map out and understand the underlying mechanisms that account for it; and we are shown how that environment complicates and problematizes the scientific endeavor. Area X traces a straight line, in this respect, to the Zone in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's masterpiece Roadside Picnic.

The book ends without much resolution, while the nature of Area X remains largely mysterious. I'm not sure how much is explained in the sequel, Authority, and to be frank, I'm also not sure how much I want to be explained. Annihilation is appealingly murky. If you're up for a seriously crazy freakout, this is the book for you.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: none awarded.

Penalties: none awarded.

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


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

Friday, June 27, 2014

Wolfenstein - The New Order

[Wolfenstein - The New Order, Bethesda Softworks, Machinegames, 2014]

A classic re-visited

The New Order is the latest in a series that goes back to 1981. Unfortunately, even though I owned a Commodore 64, I didn't play Castle Wolfenstein. It was available on the early system, among others. My first initiation with this classic was with Wolfenstein 3D on my little IBM PC in 1992. In it, you play as Captain B.J Blazkowicz, captured by the Nazis and trying to escape from one of their castles. It was available as shareware (a free game, for those of you born after 1977 unlike me) and is generally credited with being one of the first games to popularize the first-person shooter genre.

I spent weeks, neigh months playing this literal game-changer. It was my original experience with the first-person shooter and my memories are fond, to say the least. Therefore, you can understand why I was noticeably reticent when I heard that they were re-vamping the series yet again. A version of the series came out for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 2 in 2009 to mediocre reviews that generally left fans looking for more. That's why when a new version came out for the XBox One, I had my doubts. That said, I was generally pleased with the result. For one thing, Bethesda Softworks took the reigns. The publishers of personal favorites Fallout and The Elder Scrolls helped to put my mind at ease. For another, the premise is scrumptiously crunchable. It takes place in an alternate universe in which the Nazis won World War II by nuking the U.S. Who couldn't get just a little bit excited about this Tarantino-esque re-writing of history with twinges of childhood nostalgia thrown in for good measure? Only a true Nazi, that's who!

what kind of world did hitler create?

Hitler created a pretty awful place to live, to literally no one's surprise. It's mostly concrete and the Beatles sing neo-nazi ditties because it was that or go to the death camps. When returning as B.J. Blazkowicz, you have been in a coma for over 14 years. You went into the coma in 1946 and didn't come out again until 1960 when the asylum you've been living in is being "liquidated." The kindly old doctor and his wife were killed along with the rest of the patients. The only survivors are their daughter and Blazkowicz, who conveniently wakes up just in time to kill a few Nazis, save her life, and escape. 

You have to be able to suspend a little disbelief to enjoy this one, like forgetting that people who have been in comas for fourteen years can't walk, much less snap necks and fire automatic shotguns within minutes of waking up. However, if you can perform this minor feat of mental gymnastics, you're in for a good time. You eventually meet up with the resistance and take the fight to the Nazis and General "Deathshead" Strasse.

A good multiplayer decision

With nearly everything coming out these days having one including games that probably shouldn't like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, it is refreshing to see a game choose to put all of their effort into creating a quality singly player instead of spending time and effort to make a mediocre and unecessary multiplayer component. According to senior gameplay designer Andreas Öjerfors, the game doesn't contain a multiplayer due to a desire to create the best single player experience possible. "If we could take every bit of energy and sweat the studio has and pour all that into the single-player campaign, it gives us the resources to make something very, very cool, compared to if we would also have to divert some of our resources to making multiplayer." 

In my humble opinion, not enough games make this tough decision today. I realize that the replay-ability rises considerably when companies take this step, but not every game is designed for a multiplayer experience. In the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto, we all played the game with the same single character(s). It simply makes no sense for us all to take the protagonist(s) into a multiplayer game. The math just doesn't work. Even with number five's three main characters, it still felt awkward. With games like Call of Duty and Titanfall that have chosen up front to be multiplayer games, I say run with it. However, there are plenty of titles out there that have a multiplayer that feels tacked on. With these games, they should have just focused their time and energy on the campaign. Instead, you end up with two halves that don't make a whole and a game that feels unfinished. Sometimes adding a multiplayer just because you can takes away from the overall experience and simply shouldn't happen. 

the meat and potatoes

This game was a whole lot of fun. I don't see it winning any Game of the Year awards, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth picking up. The gameplay is solid. The graphics are impressive, if not mind-blowing. The alternate-history aspect of the story line is intriguing. All-in-all, this is a really good game. I won't go so far as to call it great, but I have trouble when trying to find any flaws in this one. Give it a look. You won't find a reason to be disappointed. 

the math

Objective Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the use of an alternate universe where the Nazis won WWII. Re-writing history is a winning proposition as proved by Inglorious Basterds.

Penalties: -1 for the need to suspend your disbelief on a regular basis. Once or twice is okay. Every two minutes is a bit much. 

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 A mostly enjoyable experience.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

With less than a month away from San Diego Comic Con, the big toy companies are dropping new exclusives everyday that are sure to put some nerds in credit card debt.  I am not going to go into all of the exclusives that I hope to see (I rarely brave the chaos that is the Hasbro booth and missed out on getting my daughter a toy last year by 2 spots at Mattel), but here are a couple of noteworthy items.  Yesterday Funko announced a new Wampa Pop! that is stunning.  Feast your eyes on this baby!

The other exclusive I will speak of this week is a Hasbro Equestria Girl doll that I may brave some punching to get for my daughter.  Seriously, it isn't for me.  Check her out.

Pick of the Week:
Outcast #1 - Robert Kirkman debuted a new comic this week and it warranted the hype it was getting prerelease.  Outcast tells the story of a man with a troubled past that involves demonic possessions.  This has led to his status as a shut-in and a man who is often gossiped about in the small town in which he lives.  He is known to be a violent man and is one who no longer has custody of his daughter.  Kyle is an outcast who is going to uncover quite a bit about himself as he seeks answers to why these demons seem to be following him and affecting those he loves.  I have a feeling that Kirkman and company have just barely scratched the surface of the demonic and it should be an enjoyable ride.  Paul Azaceta is a phenomenal artist who sets a dark and foreboding tone that works really well with this story.  Very curious where this is headed next.

The Rest:
Chew #42 - Release the Quacken!  Tony Chu embarks on an incognito underwater investigation to solve the mystery of who murdered Sammi the Seal, a twice-decorated naval seal.  At the prospect of spending three weeks trapped in a secret government underwater lab, Chu goes berserk in an attempt to escape this underwater grave.  Featuring another flash-forward to issue #60 it is clear that Layman has big plans to give this title the ending it deserves.   Throw in the fact that there is a Chew cartoon in the works and I am a happy camper.

Mind MGMT #23 - This may be the most beautiful comic I have ever laid eyes on.  The amount of care and love that Matt Kindt pours into each issue is astonishing.  The flashback between Meru and Bill is on another level.  Issue #23 is an emotional roller coaster and it isn't looking good for the rebels.  Mind MGMT is a powerful agency with some of the most powerful individuals ever put to paper.  Meru appears to be close to unleashing something quite powerful, but if she can't gain control of her emotions I am not sure she will be strong enough.

Stray Bullets: Killers #4 - This week David Lapham, who has a strange ability to humanize his characters in a way that feel all too real, delivered a beautiful love story that is somehow hidden in the dark world he created.  A young man, who is missing one leg, falls head over heels for a 16-year old with mob ties.  Not surprisingly, the young man's mom is not a fan of his new lady love and the two seek refuge in a ganger's beach house.  The romantic mood is set in that the gangster is notorious for pulling people's fingers off.  I don't know how he creates such powerful characters in only a few panels, but the man is a genius.  Each issue is a beautiful singular narrative, that when taken with the others, forms an amazing tale.

Batman # 32 - Zero Year is so close to its conclusion that I can taste it.  I would have never guessed that the Riddler could be such a formidable foe.  Batman and crew are once again one step behind the Riddler as they attempt to rescue Gotham from his control.  It has been enjoyable to see Bruce grow as a hero.  Understanding his doubt and the role that Alfred has played in his development has been a blast.  I will leave you with this quote as we ponder how Batman will outwit the Riddler when Zero Year concludes next issue. "Maybe that's what Batman is about.  Not winning, but failing and getting back up, knowing he'll fail, fail a thousand times, but still won't give up."

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Microreview [book]: Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski

A Cut Above

Epic fantasy is one the least prestigious genres of fiction, perhaps only surpassed by the supermarket romance novel, video game tie-in and that peculiar subset of cozy mysteries in which cats solve the crimes. And though there are a lot more decent fantasy novels than detractors might believe, very few can credibly claim to be significant works of literature. Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Cycle is a rare exception.

Baptism of Fire is the third entry in the Cycle proper, the fourth Witcher book available in English translation, and the fifth overall. Series neophytes are recommended to start with the linked short story collection The Last Wish (and then lament the fact that the second such collection, Sword of Destiny, remains untranslated.*) before moving on to Blood of Elves. Those who have not yet read Time of Contempt may also want to skip the italicized summary below, as it contains spoilers for that book.

But first, some background: Sapkowski originally wrote the Witcher Cycle during the years 1990-2000, while fantasy was in the midst of a paradigm shift from the heroic archetypes of Tolkein and Howard to the pessimistic antiheroism that arguably stands as the institutional center of the genre today. And while all the great series of the 1990s are a part of that transition, none embody it quite like the Witcher Cycle.

As detailed in reviews of previous volumes, the series begins with subversion—of fairy tales, Tolkein and all the tropes produced from that source material. The books are playful and romantic—yet sharply critical of the binary archetypes (good/evil; heroic/cowardly; virginal/depraved) that once dominated heroic fantasy. In Time of Contempt, the critique widens, portending a shift into grittier territory.

Baptism of Fire begins in the forest of Brokilon, where the dryads tend Geralt’s wounds after his battle with archmage Vilgefortz on Thanedd. Here we meet the archer Milva, a rare human tolerated by the dryads. We find out that Milva, for unexplained reasons, works to guide shattered Scoia’tael commandos to the shelter of the forest after engagements with Northern armies, most of which do not go well for the elves.

Word reaches Brokilon that the Emperor of Nilfgaard, Emhyr var Emreis, has captured Geralt’s protégé Ciri—heir to the throne of Cintra and carrier of the fabled “Elder Blood”—and plans to marry her in order to legitimize the Empire’s occupation of Cintra. Accompanied by Milva and the indomitable bard Dandelion, he crosses war torn lands in quest to rescue her. At this point, of course, there is little hope that Ciri can save the world, though everyone—from the Emperor of Nilfgaard to the Northern Kings to various Elven factions to a cabal of sorceresses plotting to redraw the political map—appears ready to use her for their own devices. Geralt simply wants to save Ciri from a life where she would be little more than a symbol and tool of the politically ambitious. 

Ciri, meanwhile, is not captive at the Imperial court, but a member of the Rats—a band of outlaws preying on the Imperial aristocracy near the northern border. As her identification with the Rats grows, the tether to former lives as princess, witcher’s apprentice and novice mage grow weakens, and Ciri herself grows increasingly hard and violent.

As anticipated, Baptism of Fire is much grittier than previous entries in the series. The quest for Ciri takes Geralt and his companions across a desolate landscape of massacre, pillage and displacement, through harrowing encounters with the entrepreneurs of violence and fortuitous ones with like-minded souls. It presents a world engulfed by apocalyptic war between an expansionist, authoritarian and vaguely Teutonic Empire and the supposedly heroic kings of the north—who, when not losing battles to “evil” Nifgaard, are busy massacring elves and dwarves or herding them into decrepit urban ghettos.

Many readers will doubtlessly intuit a link with A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords—books similarly sanguine about warfare in a medieval setting and equally contemptuous of heroic fantasy’s romantic notions of “the good war.” Like George R. R. Martin’s epic, the experience of war is painted in decidedly unromantic (grim and dark) terms.

Yet in other ways Baptism of Fire contrasts with A Song of Ice and Fire—first and foremost in how it frames the central political conflict. Both begin with the assumption that power games are ultimately about hoarding and little else, and that cynicism and self-interest drive most political calculus. But in A Song of Ice and Fire, nearly everything is at risk, and most everyone feels they have a stake in the outcome. Everyone, moreover, is aware that it matters, and that it matters to them personally. In this regard, the Witcher Cycle is far more radical in its departure from heroic convention: the central conflict between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms doesn’t matter, beyond the death and destruction it creates: there is little appreciable difference among the belligerents, and their interests are remote from those of nearly everyone else.

At the same time, Baptism of Fire contains a very clear notion of what heroism looks like in such a context—a primarily symbolic heroism like that found in the hardboiled variant of noir fiction. Geralt is no "white Knight"; rather, like Chandler’s Marlowe, he is an ethical man in a sociopathic age, swimming against the tide of darkness. As Marlowe finds in the dark recesses of Los Angeles, that tide may be insurmountable. But the presence of some goodness, divorced from simple self-preservation or the acquisition of power, is in and of itself redemptive, or at least suggests that redemption is still possible.

There are also differences of scale. Though Martin’s strength as a writer, arguably, is his tight focus on character, the series is unmistakably epic in scope. Baptism of Fire, feels decidedly microscopic in comparison. The political conflict happens around Geralt, Ciri and the others, though it frequently threatens to envelope them. There are a few passages—mostly involving Redanian spymaster Dijkstra or his unrequited love, the sorceress Philippa Eilhart—that do speak to the grand conflict. But the bulk of action, whether following Geralt or Ciri, focus on small vignettes, and are constructed out of Sapkowski’s sophisticated, elliptical dialogue.

What’s more, despite the grim darkness of the world it presents, Baptism of Fire is nonetheless charming and funny, and is in another sense a celebration of good companionship. The new characters introduced in this volume are wonderful additions. Fans of the video game series will rejoice at the introduction of Zoltan Chivay, while Milva exactly the kind of independent and highly competent female character many critics find lacking in male-authored gritty fantasy. But my personal favorite is Emiel Regis Rohellec Terzief-Godefroy (aka Regis), the teetotaler vampire, because he, more than any other character in the series to date, best exemplifies Sapkowski’s quirky humor.

As great as the new additions are, I nevertheless found that we were given too little of Ciri and Yennefer of Vengerberg, who for my money is just as interesting and compelling a character as Geralt. The small taste we do get serves as a reminder: any scene she is involved with is pure gold. But Baptism of Fire felt poorer for the lack of Geralt/Yennefer interaction, even in the form of their letters to one another, which was such a bizarre joy in Time of Contempt. (Note: I amaware this doesn't fit the plot at this point; nevertheless, I missed it.)

In sum, while perhaps not transcendent in the manner of its immediate predecessor, Baptism of Fire nevertheless solidifies the Witcher Cycle as one of the best and most interesting fantasy series I’ve ever read. Though it functions well as adventure fiction, it has added depth and value as satire and commentary on fantasy literature.

Moreover, though there are many good writers working in fantasy, Sapkowski is a genuine stylist. His prose is not as dense as Gene Wolfe’s, or as elegant as Elizabeth Bear’s, but it is supremely clever—hiding texts and subtexts in the most innocuous of places—and uniquely playful. I see a clear affinity with Latin American greats Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño—an affinity that may go far in explaining Sapkowski’s immense popularity in Spanish translation. That’s rare praise for a genre writer, and especially for one who plies his trade in epic fantasy—a category of fiction that is only rarely, to invert Gene Wolfe’s turn of phrase, magic realism in English.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Milva, Zoltan and Regis.

Penalties: -1 for relative lack of Yennefer and Ciri.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."


Sapkowski, Andrzej. Baptism of Fire [Orbit/Gollancz, 2014]

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Science Fiction Predicts the Future!

Most of the time science fiction is just that--fiction. But sometimes our beloved authors are on to something. This infographic details some of the things--scientific discoveries, technological advances, sociological changes--that SF has successfully predicted:

(H/T: Universe Today.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

AiIP: Raising the Hachette

At first blush, the Amazon/Hachette flap has little bearing on the world of indie publishing. After all, they're one of the BIG FIVE that the independent author seeks to be, well, independent of. And surely, as that Guardian article points out, it's not as if Hachette is without resources, whereas your run-of-the-mill indie author is pretty much a one person show.

So where's the connection? It ties back to my whole anti-Amazon thing lately. I don't actually believe that Amazon is evil in and of themselves- I believe they are trying to make money, and are going to do what makes them (or what they believe will) the most money. While bookselling is a pretty noble profession, there's a reason they're not just given away- we're all trying to make a living here. Where it crosses the line for Amazon, as it does for anyone, is when it ends up being greedy and all-consuming.

Kindle is not the only E-reader out there
That this is going to happen is a reality of business. But, again, the author-publisher is trying to make a living as well, and Amazon has catered to that in a way that can ensnare all of us in a net. Amazon- along with (at least very nearly) every other ebookseller out there- offers the author publisher a 70% cut of a sale. You don't have to be an accountant or industry expert to know this is pretty damn good. There's not even a lot of fine print a bait-and-switch; it is what it says it is. So what's the problem?

It comes in the form of what is happening with Hachette- if Amazon controls the market, it holds all the cards, and why on earth will they give away money when they don't have to? To the point at hand, if everyone registered on KDP received an email stating that in 30 days, that cut would change from 70% to 50% or 30%, what recourse would the indie community have to protect themselves? As one would expect, it is stated in the Terms & Conditions (yes, I read them) that they may be changed at any time, and as regards royalties and grants:

2 Agreement Amendment. The Program will change over time and the terms of this Agreement will need to change over time as well. We reserve the right to change the terms of this Agreement at any time in our sole discretion. We will give you notice of the changes by posting new terms in place of the old at and with a revision date indicated at the top or by sending an email to the email address then registered for your Program account. Here are the rules for when changes will be effective and binding on you:

2.1 Changes to Agreement Terms Other than Those in Sections 5.4.1 (Royalties) and 5.5 (Grant of Rights). Changes to terms of this Agreement other than those contained in Section 5.4.1 (Royalties) and 5.5 (Grant of Rights) will be effective on the date we post them, unless we otherwise provide at the time we post the changes. You are responsible for checking for updates and your continued use of the Program after we post changes will constitute your acceptance of the changes. If you do not agree to the changes, you must withdraw your Digital Books from further distribution through the Program and terminate your use of the Program.

2.2 Changes to the Terms of Sections 5.4.1 (Royalties) and 5.5 (Grant of Rights). Changes to terms of this Agreement contained in Sections 5.4.1 (Royalties) and 5.5 (Grant of Rights) will be effective and binding on you on the date 30 days from posting or on the date you accept the changes, whichever first occurs. You accept the changes by either (a) clicking agree or accept where you're given the option to do so or (b) by using the Program to make additional Digital Books available through the Program. Changes to the terms of Sections 5.4.1 and 5.5 will only apply prospectively with respect to Digital Books sold after the date thirty days from our posting of the changes, unless you accept the changes as provided above. If you do not accept the changes, you must withdraw your Digital Books from further distribution through the Program and terminate your use of the Program prior to the date thirty days from our posting of the changes. Note that we may make acceptance of changes a condition to continued use of the Program.
This is, in a nutshell, why I would like to see both consumers and authors diversify when it comes to bookselling, and see indie bookstores find a way to have happier marriage of the two (and for a lot of self-published authors to, you know, suck less). If people are buying books other places, and authors are going get a bigger cut other places if the bottom drops, Amazon will not have the leverage to drop royalties. As the caption to the image in that Guardian article referenced earlier states, selling Hachette titles is one of the things that has made Amazon the bookseller it is. Indie authors are another- but unlike with Hachette, Amazon has all the cards.


Dean is the author of 3024AD and other stories, engineer, and geek about many things. He lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. You can listen to him ramble on Twitter and muse on his blog.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Summer Reading List: Philippe

Philippe plans to read comics this summer. That's about it.

I never read the books on my summer reading list. As a rule. If I tell someone that I am planning to read this or that novel this summer, I will not read the book. Not that summer, probably not ever. So I’m changing my game plan: I plan on reading a shit-ton of comics this summer. I might actually get through a third of the following list.

1. Crime Comics (but actually Stray Bullets): In my adulthood, I have phased in and out of regular comic reading. One of my ebbs coincided with a brief renaissance of crime comics in the late ‘00s: Vertigo Crime, Brubaker’s Criminal, and…Screw it. I’m rereading Stray Bullets. To catch up. David Lapham’s remarkable Stray Bullets is perhaps the most underrated comic of all time. Or maybe it isn’t. Since I haven't ever reread the entire series, I really can’t say. So this summer, I’ll figure it out. And get caught up.

2. Marvel, but old Marvel: Every three years, I decide that I am going to read some Marvel Comics. (I didn’t like DC as a kid, so…) I ask buddies about what’s going on in the universe, they tell me about all the changes, recommend some of the recent crossover events. I go back to where I left off—Secret Invasion, as of now. And every three years, I’m thoroughly disappointed. So this time around, I’m going to read old school Marvel Comics, the classic runs. Specifically, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson’s Thor, and picking up where I left off in 2012 on Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. I think Storm had a Mohawk.

3. Nonfiction comics: In my humble opinion, this is the future. Of course, nonfiction comics have been around forever. And books like Maus, Palestine, and Persepolis drew an audience that never read, or likely will ever again read comic books. I would perhaps have more to say about nonfiction comics if I had read more of them. So this summer, I dive in. I’ll start with the political: Harvey Pekar’s Students For A Democratic Society: A Graphic History and The Beats: A Graphic History; A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld; and J.P. Stessen’s Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda. No autobiographical comic, please. I got enough of those in the ‘90s.

4. Peanuts: Particularly the early years. This one is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve been reading the first decade of Charles Schultz’s strip for the last few months. This is the most perfect comic ever, beautifully drawn and crafted, as well as thoroughly sweet. Plus, Schultz snuck in enough gender politics to make you feel like a better human being—or at least a person who has read a great piece of America.

5. New comics from the comic store: I will walk into the store. I will browse. I will patiently browse. I will select a new book. I will buy it. Maybe I will enjoy it. Or I’ll just buy…

6. Lone Wolf and Cub: This is ambitious. There are 28 volumes in Dark Horse’s omnibus collection. Over 8,700 pages. I’ve loved Lone Wolf and Cub since I was a kid. I tried to track down every issue of the original translations from First and then began buying Dark Horse’s re-releases as they came out. But at some point—volume 12, to be exact—I got bored with the story. After all, it’s 80% increasingly implausible hits. But this time, I am confident that I can finish the whole thing. Though it is 8,700+ pages. But a lot of that is nature shots or people jumping in the air. Four volumes in. This will be a good summer.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

I am starting to worry that the bubble is bursting for comic fandom.  New York Comic Con sold out in record time and there are rumors that Marvel is exploring a $4.99 price point for comics.  They will deliver more pages and are technically a better deal (less money per page), but I worry for the little guy. There have been some great innovations in recent years (MonkeyBrain, Marvel Unlimited, ComiXology) that have definitely helped, but I still have my fears.  That being said, with the popularity this industry has seen, as a reader, I am enjoying more titles from some amazing individuals each week and couldn't be happier with the quality and variety that is brought to the table every single week.

Pick of the Week:
The Wicked + The Divine - The tagline for this title says it all. "But remember: just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever."  12 Gods have have been reincarnated as pop stars with only two years to live.  They have started to cause a bit of a youth revolution, but have their detractors.  There is a tension that is present between the believers and the non-believers that feels real.  It brought back memories of my youth when the pastor at my church spoke out against bands like Def Leopard.  The divide between those in power and those who have the ability to speak to the disenfranchised is very real and I think a lot of people will relate to this title. Kieron Gillan does a masterful job developing meaningful characters and establishing the premise for this book in an effective way.  Well done.

The Rest:
The Auteur #4 - In a somewhat toned down issue, this work from Rick Spears continues to be one of my surprise hits of 2014.  Following the events from the last issue, Rex isn't comfortable putting what he filmed on the big screen.  Despite praise from executives, Rex has a plan to fix the movie and hopefully clear him of any legal troubles he may now face.   In a somewhat subdued issue (from a gore standpoint), Spears delivers a twist I did not see coming and some laugh out loud moments.  As I have said with each issue, if you have the stomach for this type of thing, you need to be reading this title.

Original Sin #4 - We were left with the Winter Soldier slicing off the head of Nick Fury and stealing the Watcher's eye.  It was a hell of an ending to my favorite Marvel event of recent and readers were due some sort of explanation.  Issue 4 delivered that explanation, but upped the ante with the reveal at the end.  There are still a lot of questions to be answered and while I am enjoying the whodunnit mystery, I am more excited about what the Watcher knew.  Really digging this event.

Axe Cop: The American Choppers #2 - As a huge fan of Axe Cop, I felt a little let down by the majority of this issue.  It was filled with some of the typical Axe Cop humor, but felt a little forced.  It was fun to see Axe Cop struggle as a leader and I definitely enjoyed where this book ended up at the end, but I wonder if it would have worked better in its traditional format on the web.  I will stick with this title as I am a dedicated fan and have faith it will improve, but would steer newcomers to the series to the webcomics.

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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Remaining, by D.J. Molles

An Intriguing Zompire Premise Poorly Executed

Buy it here.

Zompires! Technically, the baddies in The Remaining are victims of a plague, presumably some sort of super-strain of bacteria that's resistant to antibiotics and creates an insatiable hunger for living flesh in those infected by it, but even though they might still be alive, their initial characteristics are an intriguing mix of zombie and vampire menace. I say "initial" because in some ways one senses author D.J. Molles moving in an I Am Legend or The Girl with All the Gifts direction, dropping hints quite early in the book that there may be more to the infected than mere murderous hunger.

The Remaining is at its best when describing protagonist Lee's first contacts with the infected, as he quickly learns he's facing less the shambling corpses of Night of the Living Dead than the ferocious, near-unstoppable sprinting horrors of 28 Days Later.  So horrible are they that human civilization is pretty much entirely destroyed in about a month, as people (and not only the infected) start tearing each other apart, often literally.

Where the story is markedly less successful is in the other half of the premise: that the U.S. government had prepared for the apocalypse by selecting 48 of the most psychologically resilient soldiers they could find and sending them into little bunkers whenever there was a potentially civilization-ending threat, and telling them to wait a month (if they got no 'all clear' message, that is) and then emerge to aid groups of survivors in rebuilding. If, when reading this paragraph, you started out by nodding your head, but gradually found yourself shaking it in puzzlement by the end, you and I are on the same page. In a word...wuuuuut?

Moreover, as Lee struggles to make sense of the new post-apocalyptic reality, his trademark resilience (which I took, apparently wrongly, to mean the ability to make wise decisions and not crumble under pressure) epically fails him time and time again. Indeed, he makes so many utterly inane decisions (my favorite was leaving a preteen refugee in his precious bunker before leaving on an incredibly risky mission, then acting all surprised when he comes back to find the place a gutted ruin) one has to wonder what on earth he did to qualify for the elite government program that landed him in said bunker.

Worst of all, there's a deeply troubling current of misogyny running through the story. Finally, the male survivalist type characters like Lee and eventual comrade Jack (and, perhaps, the author himself) seem to be saying, a world where men can be men, and can just shoot guns and make fun of women for not knowing about them! In fact, the only female character of any significance in this, the first book in the series, is immediately shunted into a nurturing role, looking after the two kids (one of whom, admittedly, is her own) and contemptuously denied access to the all-male arena of combat (she claims she can help the two macho men as they prepare to do battle, only to be openly mocked, then derisively tossed a shotgun and told to stay with the kids where she belongs). I have no idea what qualifies Lee (or Jack) to make these snarky comments, especially with Lee's astonishingly bad track record of decisions while playing Cops and Zombies, but my interest waned all too rapidly when "the men" started talking this way.

All in all, The Remaining has at its core a mildly intriguing premise, but it is rather poorly realized. The characters are mere archetypes, the protagonist lacks charisma and just seems shockingly dumb, and the female character (yes, the singular is intentional here) is present only to mind the kids (and, in the sequels, presumably become a sexual conquest for the unlikable Lee). Does all this add up to me being interested in reading the sequel? I never thought I'd say this of any post-apocalyptic zompire story with echoes of I Am Legend, but my answer is "not so much."

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for going the 28 Days Later rather than the Night of the Living Dead direction with the zompires

Penalties: -1 for Lee's utterly terrible decision-making, which exposed me to a potentially lethal dose of prescient dramatic irony; -1 for making the main male characters so openly misogynistic

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 "not very good"

[Here at Nerds of a Feather, even a 4/10 is better than it sounds; check here for more info on our non-inflated scoring system.]

This was a public service announcement by Zhaoyun, sf/f aficionado and Nerds of a Feather stalwart since early 2013.

Molles, D.J. The Remaining. Orbit: 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Summer Reading List: Zhaoyun

Zhaoyun's Fantastic (with a few post-apocalyptic romps thrown in) Summer Reading List--"it's better than the ones you had in high school"

1. Reached by Ally Condie.

Which way Cassia will go—to Ky or Xander? If this is sounding a little like a soap opera/eerily similar to The Hunger Games trilogy idea of a tempestuous love triangle, well—it is. But it's still entertaining! It was in my "Time Permitting" category last summer, and time did not permit. But here's hoping time will graciously give permission this year!

2. Half a King by Joe Abercrombie 
(release date: July 2014)
  I, like Jemmy, am half in love with Abercrombie (clarification: we're in love with his work!), so this book coming out is one of the most exciting things happening this entire summer!

3. The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham (release date: Aug 2014)

W00t! I love this series, and I'll be fighting tooth and nail with my fellow-feathered Nerds for the privilege of reviewing this latest installment of Abraham's magisterial Dagger and Coin series.

4. Sand by Hugh Howey

Wool sold me on Howey, and his earlier work like Half Way Home wasn't too shabby either; now it's time to examine his latest offering, and see which direction he's going—backwards, or to new and ever more dizzying heights of brilliance!

5. Valour (sic!) by John Gwynne 
(U.S. release date: July 2014)

 His first book, Malice, was very nice indeed, and I have Dickens-level (i.e., "great", get it?) expectations for the sequel!

6. The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin (release date: Oct 2014)

The conclusion to Cronin's excellent (book one) or at least very very good (book two) vampire saga—who wouldn't jump at the chance to devour it? Technically, it's not really coming out this summer, not until the fall, but the way I see it, that just means I'm more likely actually to have time to sink my teeth into it (wink wink).

This list brought to you by Zhaoyun, sf/f aficionado and member of Nerds of a Feather Quorum of Twelve (ish) since early 2013.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Lost Echo for iOS

A Short and Stylish Adventure for iOS

Tablets are a natural home for point-and-click adventure games, both because of the multitouch interface and because the 30-somethings who buy tablets are, for the most part, a nostalgic bunch. Early in the cycle you had ports of classics like Beneath a Steel Sky and The Secret of Monkey Island; then, more and more, you started to see originals--adventure games designed for tablets from the ground-up. Lost Echo is one such game, a memorable and melancholic journey that is short, sweet and stylish.

As the game begins, you find yourself in an outdoor cafe with your girlfriend Chloe, a well-known journalist. She says she has something important to tell you, but a phone call interrupts. Just then you see a surge of blinding light. You black out and wake later in the hospital. Your friend Greg visits you, but when you ask about Chloe, he claims not to know who you are talking about. No one does, in fact. The doctor wonders if you have sustained brain damage, but you feel just fine--you just need to find out what happened to Chloe.

Your quest follows the standard adventure game format: you explore, have conversations and solve puzzles--some of which are brain teasers and others of which depend upon your having scoured every corner of every environment to find the right items (the usefulness of which may not have been evident at the time). The puzzles aren't particularly great, but they're good enough. It does, however, help that the touch interface is so well done; you can really tell this was designed for tablets and not ported from PC or console.

What really makes Lost Echo stand out, though, is its engaging, science fiction story, its tight focus on character and (gasp) character development--such a rarity in the world of video games. A  beautiful soundtrack centered on Eric Satie's "Gymnopedie" gives the game an appealing and memorable air of melancholy--also a rarity in the world of video games.

Overall, Lost Echo is an excellent choice for tablet gamers, adventure game enthusiasts and those who like the idea of an interactive story.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: + for emphasis on character and emotionally resonant storytelling; +1 for visual and auditory style.

Penalties: -1 for some of the puzzles feeling a bit too random.

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

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Summer Reading List: Jemmy

Today, Jemmy--a SF/F fanatic, a failed wall gazer, and a Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012--presents his summer reading list. 

This summer I plan to dedicate wholly to my first love, fantasy. I have been trying to work up the courage to go back through the books that inspired my love for fantasy as a junior high school student--the original Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. But to be honest, I am super concerned that re-reading Dragonlance might be akin to seeing a picture of "the one that got away" more than 20 years after the fact. One glance at that picture would no doubt bring shock, dismay, and wonder why you were so into that person in the first place! Basically, I fear I might realize that they are all really, really bad books, with cookie-cutter-esque unidimensional characters, a tired plot, and all that I dislike as a reviewer of contemporary SF/F. So before I kill my first love, it's time to gorge on the good stuff!

1. Half a King by Joe Abercrombie [Del Rey, 2014]

This is my next review for Nerds of a Feather, one that I look forward to beginning. I have always been a fan of Joe Abercrombie, who gets better with each book he writes. While I think his books as of lately have become somewhat repetitive and formulaic, I am really interested to see how he tunes down the "grit" and darkness of his world for more of a YA crowd.  

2. The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin [Orbit, 2012]

To be honest, I have been a bit worried about this one. The first book of Jemisin's Dreamblood Duology, The Killing Moon, is so good and ends on such a perfect note that I wonder whether she can even come close with this, the second volume of her duology. But I hear from reputable sources that not only is The Shadowed Sun top-notch, it might even be better than The Killing Moon! I'm salivating just thinking about this right now...

3. The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham [Orbit, 2013]

Welcome back, Daniel Abraham. You have the dubious honor of having the same book on my summer reading list two years running! Perhaps I was too ambitious last year, when I promised to read 23 books over the summer. Whatever the case, The Tyrant's Law is now on my desk, waiting to be read. I really appreciate the way the series has progressed thus far, and thinks that Abraham is close to genius in his portrayal of the simple, childlike quality of evil and depravity. His writing of horrible atrocities in almost an aloof manner--without celebrating their grit, their blood, or their gore--makes them even more disturbing! I am really looking forward to this installment of the series!

4. Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson [Tor, 2012]

Steven Erikson is another writer who just keeps getting better. Forge of Darkness is the first prequel to his Malazan Book of the Fallen, a prequel that takes readers to Kurald Galain, the warren of Darkness. I can't wait to take a bite out of this novel... if not for the story itself, then for the fact that there is no writer in fantasy who makes me laugh as hard as Steven Erikson (Scott Lynch does come close). 

5-7. The Witcher Series (The Last Wish, Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt) by Andrzej Sapkowski

The G has constantly sung the praises of this genre-subverting masterpiece. So it's high time I join him for the ride. Given how Sapkowski creates a dark world that both embraces and parodies the conventions of high fantasy (and fable), I am looking forward to checking them out...  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is hard to believe that a week has passed since the great basement incident of 2014.  I am proud to report that the basement is refinished, the comics are safe, and we have another great week of comics to look forward to.

Pick of the Week:
The Sixth Gun #41 - Cullen Bunn's masterpiece continues its path towards its epic conclusion.  This week we are treated to the backstory of Griselda the Grey.  I have to hand it to Bunn, but he made me feel sympathy for this vile creature.  Understanding her past was a riveting experience and would be enjoyable even if you haven't read this series (why haven't you?  It's great!).  The more I learn about the history of The Six, the more I hope Bunn has planned for this world (worlds depending on how many times things have been remade).  Understanding why Griselda uses others and how important she is in this whole thing was extremely satisfying.  I remain in awe of this issue and this series.

The Rest:
The Empty Man #1 - Cullen Bunn must be one of the hardest working gents in the business.  I am not sure how he has the time to do what he does, but he has managed to deliver another stellar horror title.  The Empty Man, might be a pandemic that is impacting people's sanity.  Vile acts are being committed, and based on the open, it may be connected to a religious cult.  While Bunn has another intriguing story at hand, Vanesa R. Del Rey delivers some truly horrifying art.  She establishes a dark tone that truly allows this story to shine.  Make sure you go back and pick this title up.

Angry Birds #1 - Before you rush to judgement on this title, it might be worth your time if you are a parent.  As the father of a six-year-old boy, I have endured a lot of Angry Birds, and Angry Birds related products in my life.  I wasn't sure I needed a comic, but I feel fine about it.  At least it encourages reading and manages to deliver a few laughs.  Definitely not for those who aren't Angry Birds fans, but not a bad book to introduce children into the wonderful world that is comics.

Deadpool #30 - Deadpool's Original Sin tie-in continues, but little has been revealed about his past.  He is currently busy fighting vampire's to help out his wife.  Disco era Dazzler and Deadpool taking down hordes of vampires set to the lyrics of disco music is worth the price of admission alone.  The not so subtle jabs at X-Men and time travel were thrown in for good measure.  Fun title that ended with a quasi-reveal of what the Watcher knew about Deadpool.

The Walking Dead #128 - The new arc continues, albeit slowly, establishing the new colony that Rick and crew has set up.  This slow pace has me nervous for the hammer that Kirkman is going to drop.  Negan is still alive, befriending Carl, and the newcomers are set to do some digging.  This definitely feels like the calm before the storm.

Wolverine #8 - With all of the hype around "3 Months to Die" I thought it would be a good time to revisit Logan and see what he has been up to.   Wolverine has lost his ability to heal and is currently seeking answers regarding his own death.  This has brought him into a confrontation with Sabertooth, who is currently holding his current romantic interest hostage.  While I don't fully appreciate the backstory, this seemed to be a good jumping on point to participate in the death of Wolverine.  Not bad.  Not great.

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Microreview [film]: Europa Report

A great idea, and half of it is executed brilliantly. 

When The G gave me the heads-up about Europa Report being on Netflix, I couldn't wait to watch it. I've thought for years a film about a trip to the moon of Jupiter covered in water ice would be a great idea. But great ideas still need to be executed well, and Europa Report gets a lot of things right, thankfully.

Europa Report follows the crew of the first manned space mission to investigate a moon of Jupiter thought to the best candidate for other life in our solar system. The crew has challenges along the way, one of which damages their communication capabilities back to Earth, so mission control at the private company that funded the mission is in the dark, unsure of whether or not the mission and all aboard have been lost. But we get to see the mission continuing beyond the loss of communication, and reaching its destination. Once they reach the surface of Europa, their quest to find evidence of microscopic life takes a bizarre turn when they begin to notice radioactive distortion in much of their equipment that seems to stem from a luminescent substance beneath the surface of the ice.

The human moments are by far the most effective. The actors (including some genre standouts like Sharlto Copley of District 9, Michael Nykvist of the Millennium Trilogy, and Embeth Davidtz of Army of Darkness) are uniformly quite good. Their moments of recognition as they become the first humans to cross certain barriers and experience things no one from Earth has ever experienced before are captivating. But the second half of the film tries to bridge the gap between sci-fi and horror, as Alien did before it, and those moments are far less engaging. Relying purely on genre tropes, it's impressive the filmmakers generate as much tension as they do, but the repeated moments of "You only have 20 minutes of air left..." and "I think if I just go a *bit* farther..." make the outcomes of these scenes so preordained as to make them far less meaningful. It made me wonder how much better the movie could have been if the filmmakers showed the same dexterity with the horror part as they did with the sci-fi part.

Produced at the end of the "found footage" craze, the film immediately stands out as one of the more effective examples of this style/technique/gimmick. With the exception of three interview cutaways woven throughout the film that lend a documentary angle to the film, all of the camera angles are from fixed positions on the craft recording the progress of the mission. Films like the (quite good) Chronicle begin to strain credulity with the notion that one of the characters is constantly holding a camera as they go about their adventures, and Europa Report deftly dodges that issue. However, the film does suffer from a non-chronological editing structure that it gets no mileage out of. It seems an unnecessary directorial affect, and a linear version of the film might have actually done a better job of intermingling the sci-fi and horror, perhaps reducing the feeling of piling cliches on top of one another.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10. After Gravity, even merely competent space effects look like the 21st century equivalent of 1950s films having two characters talk in front of a blank wall with an Erlenmeyer flask on a desk, and we all collectively pretend it's a laboratory.

Bonuses: +1 for getting the emotions right; +1 for an adept approach to "found footage" filmmaking; +1 for cleverly subverting the "documentary" expectations

Penalties: -1 for kind of dropping the ball on what could've been a really good third act

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10, which is pretty dang good by our standards.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer Reading List : English Scribbler

Today the English Scribbler--funslinger, two-bit word-whore and contributor to the 2-years-young Nerds of A Feather since 2013--presents his Summer Reading List! 

Given I'm prone to intending to read rather than actually reading a lot of the time - letting many a masterpiece sit forlornly on the shelf whilst I watch Fargo episodes or play post-apocalyptic dirt bike games on my phone - a reading list is often more like a foreshadowing of reading lost.

List-making itself is for me a potential distraction from the all-enveloping and vital task of simply diving in and consuming chunks of text and losing your mind inside stories, good or bad. I was great at this as a child, forgetting myself in the fusty aisles of libraries or getting red elbows from lying on the carpet for too long, flicking page after page. Adult maturity (sort of - let's not forget the dirt bike game) has come with downfalls. Too often my gaze is everywhere and up, too drawn by the wider world's complexities to focus down and into a book. And with my first child on the way this summer, time and tiredness may add to my ongoing adult literary failings.

However, the arrival of a new family member and the onset of a new stage in life have made me both look forward to what stories will suit this future world of nappies, finance plans and midnight tears, and what will inspire the imminent human, and made me look back to what stories shaped my own childhood. As we here at Nerds of A Feather prepare to begin an occasional series of re-reviews of some of our old favourites of youth, I thought I'd sprinkle the demands of this list with some comforting flashbacks and a few new ones too.

1+2. The Sword of Shannara and The High Druid's Blade (The Defenders of Shannara #1) by Terry Brooks [Del Ray, 1983; Del Rey, 2014]

We start with a mixture of both. Often derided as a Tolkein-thief, Brooks engrossed me as a nine year old. Whilst The Lord of the Rings wearied me, the Shannara trilogy was to my naive mind a better read - fun and action-packed. Yet now in looking at the plot on Wiki I find myself failing to recognise much of it. So I plan to take the original off the shelf (sorry, Dostoyevsky... maybe next year, yeah?) and hold it up to the light, then take a look at his favourably-reviewed and darker latest.

3. Crossword Ends In Violence (5) by James Cary [Piqwiq, 2014]

British author Cary's quirkily-titled new novel has an interesting premise : "It’s hard to keep a million-man invasion a secret. Very hard. But the Allies looked like they were going to pull it off. That was until D-Day codewords began appearing in cryptic crosswords in the national press, all set by one Carl Bookman. You’d assume Bookman was a German spy, wouldn’t you? But would you think the same if Carl Bookman was your grandfather?"

Given the D-Day remembrances of the past week (yes, I did cry during the news. Twice), this will hopefully be entertaining but reverential.

4. Letter 44 (graphic novel) by Soule and Alburquerque [Soni Press, 2014]

Despite the illustrator's name needing me to check the spelling three times, this looks fantastic. Our statuesque yet svelte comic king Mikey* reviewed this in episodic form a while back, and I'm keen to plough through this over some sunny days in the park.

5. The Box of Delights by John Masefield [Fontana Lions, 1935] and the 1980's TV series

Yes, that is sunshine, in England. I know. Talk about science fiction. And, yes, that dog is wearing a weird garland and the man looks like a pervert tramp. But you can all bugger off, because he played the second Dr, the dog is celebrating Xmas, and the book and telly series were both incredible. Like all good kids, I saw the programme first, but both haunted my dreams. Kay's journey into a strange conspiracy of ancient magic during a snowy Christmas in the English countryside was a pre-war classic. So I'm intrigued to see if they hold up to adult scrutiny. If they do, I shall scare my son with them when he is seven too.

* I actually have no idea if Mikey is statuesque or svelte. I've never met him. I hear he has 'magic fingers', however...