Friday, November 28, 2014

Microreview [video game]: Alien: Isolation

(Almost) Perfect organism.

I’m a huge fan of the Alien franchise. Alien is an amazing movie. The rest of them are mostly good for different reasons, but Alien is the true masterpiece. The video games based on the franchise, however, have largely focused on Aliens and beyond. It’s all marines, and pulse rifles, and “game over, man”, and usually predators too. The next most recent Alien franchise game was Aliens: Colonial Marines and it was a huge mess, but it was a straight-up action game. A bug hunt, if you will. It seemed like Sega had wasted a lot of money and time to make a game that couldn’t do any justice to the movies. Now, we have Alien: Isolation. Note the difference in title. Alien rather than Aliens. Isolation, not Marines.

There is but one alien. There are no colonial marines. There are no pulse rifles. This is a game that wants to recreate the suspense and horror of the original Alien. The game casts the player as Amanda Ripley. Amanda is the daughter of Ellen Ripley, the main character from the Alien series. Amanda’s an engineer and she joins a Weyland-Yutani crew to retrieve the flight recorder of the ship her mother disappeared from in Alien, the Nostromo, from the space station Sevastopol.
Sevastopol, from a cutscene
Isolation is a first-person game, but to call it a first-person shooter would be misleading. Sevastopol is inhabited with scared civilians, scavengers, maintenance androids (known as Working Joes), and an alien. Though the game provides a handful of weapons and constructable devices to combat these threats, in most cases, it’s a better idea to run and hide. In sharp contrast to every single other Alien game ever, this alien is invulnerable. It cannot be killed, only chased off or evaded. The androids are not invulnerable, but they are rather hard to kill. You will waste a lot of ammunition if you try to kill all of them. Fortunately, Sevastopol is littered with cabinets, lockers, and closets to hide in. The AI is not particularly hard to get away from, either. The alien has rather good vision and runs faster than Ripley, but the androids seemed particularly unaware of their surroundings. They were more of a threat in numbers. Human combatants seemed to have the awareness of the alien, speed of androids, and guns. In fact, I was rather put off early on in the game by the first encounter with hostile human enemies. I started the game on ‘hard’ difficulty, and as soon as anyone spotted me, I was riddled with bullets and reloading my save game. It happened about 10 times on the very first enemy encounter. I just couldn’t get around them sneakily. After I dialed the difficulty back down to medium, it was less of a problem.

This mixture of threats lead to some interesting situations. If the alien was around, it could be exploited to clear a path. Most often, if I found hostile humans, I’d use a throwable or other tool to make some noise. It would attract the alien, who would summarily clear the room of all hostile humans. Then I could swoop in, pick ammo off of the bodies, and continue on my way. This never seemed to work with androids, though. I guess the alien didn’t care about them. This ambiguity also affected the constructable items. There are a lot, such as noisemakers, smoke grenades, EMP mines, molotovs, and others. There is no tutorial, which I appreciate, but it takes some practice to learn the usefulness of each item. I never found a situation where the flashbang would’ve been more useful than any of the others. This combined with a save point system to create a lot of tension, but also at least some unneeded frustration.
Some really incredible lighting and effects.
You can’t save anywhere, only at emergency terminals. These terminals helpfully beep continuously, so they’re easy to find. However, there is a delay between when you use it, and when the game saves. This means that if the alien is chasing you, you can’t run to the save point to save your progress before it impales you from behind. There were also a couple situations in which the next save point is far enough away that dying before you reach felt like a real loss of progress. A particular section had me navigating a stairwell while stopping to turn on lockdown systems. The stairwell was littered with androids, and the alien was lurking around. Combat makes noise, so engaging the androids meant also engaging the alien, which I was not equipped for at that point. I died more than a few times because I had gotten two of the three lockdown systems turned on, but an android stumbled across me, and the alien ate my face in the ensuing struggle.

So the AI isn’t great, the save points suck sometimes, and the story is thin, but Alien: Isolation is fantastic to play. All of the environments are ripped straight from Alien, and amazingly detailed. Sevastopol looks lived-in and falling apart. It almost decays in front of your eyes. Every work area is filled with tools and containers. One of the best parts of Alien is that the set design is amazing and it’s just as good in Alien: Isolation. Human enemies talk to each other. Working Joes mutter to themselves constantly. The alien hisses and crawls through vents. All of the screens and monitors and computer interfaces look perfectly early eighties. The environment in Isolation is unparalleled.
Spoiler alert: This isn't going to do anything to the alien.
This level of detail is also enhanced by the immersive controls. They’re fairly simple, but the game combines them in interesting ways. Door bars need to be removed, maintenance hatches need to be cut off with a torch, security systems need to be hacked. These are all done with two mouse keys, a use key, and the movement keys. You can look around while you’re performing most of these actions, so you can see if an android is approaching or if the alien is in the distance. Even though it was often too late to escape if you did notice such thing, being able to keep an eye out felt right for this game.
I love the eighties technology aesthetic in this game.
Most first-person games clock in under 10 hours. The bigger budget games can get even shorter, such as Call of Duty games. Alien: Isolation does no such thing. I clocked 15 hours into it. It may have gone on a little longer than it needed to, but I never felt like it was outstaying its welcome. In fact, the more I played, the more I wanted. After getting past the frustrating stairwell bit, I was hooked.
"I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality."
The bottom line is that, despite some minor flaws, Alien: Isolation is an amazing game, probably the best Alien franchise game ever.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 amazingly detailed environments, +1 Alien game that’s not a bug hunt, +1 immersive, sensible controls

Penalties: -1 dicey AI, -1 save point frustrations

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (Well worth your time and attention)


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

Reference: Creative Assembly. Alien: Isolation [Sega, 2014]

Bonus DLC Review: I had a chance to play through the “Crew Expendable” and “Last Survivor” DLCs for Alien: Isolation before posting this review. These two DLCs are short (maybe 30 minutes each) but replicate some of the intense parts of Alien, taking place on the Nostromo and playing as members of the crew. It’s cool in the way that walking through a movie set is cool. The ship is lovingly recreated and there are audio logs from the crew scattered about. There’s not a ton of new game to play in here, but any Alien fan should play them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Microreview [book]: Desert God, by Wilbur Smith


 Obviously Stephen King has only ever read a single historical novelist...

Smith, Wilbur. Desert God. William Morris: 2014.
Don't buy it, but if you must, do it here.

Ever been tempted to write a series about a smug, all-knowing Renaissance Man? Don't. Just...don't. I can't think of many less appealing topics, but the indomitable octogenarian Wilbur Smith doesn't seem capable of letting his demigod-like Taita go quietly into the night. In Desert God, the world's least appealing polymath is up to his usual laughably improbable tricks, and it's worse than ever.

I honestly can't remember the last time I started reading a book but gave up due to lack of interest (or indeed for any other reason!) before the end. But then I encountered Wilbur Smith's books, and I've now gone 2/2. I want you all to know that I invested tremendous effort in my multiple attempts to read this entire book, and even went back and took a look at the first book in the series, River God, to see whether Smith used to be great but has just fallen on hard times (the answer to that is a resounding 'no'), but no matter how many times I gritted my teeth and tried to just power through it, subconsciously my mind kept leaping at the slightest distraction to get me doing something, anything, else. This deadly one-two combination of River God and Desert God temporarily drained the act of reading itself from all its joy, sucking the life out of every word.

Reading either of these books is like sawing off your own arm: possible, with a supreme effort of will, but be prepared to faint out of horror and disgust countless times in the process.
How you'll look if you keep reading Desert God.

What is so bad about Desert God, you might be wondering? The answer? Everything. The writing is contrived and terrible, the characters shockingly uninteresting and entirely undeveloped (Smith uses his characters like a diarrhetic uses toilet paper), and the 'historicity' of the ridiculous plot makes me quiver with rage. 16th century BC Egyptians using "cavalry lances" to run down Bedouin bandits they've cornered after following their tracks—in the friggin' desert?!? (Caveat emptor: there are dozens more anachronisms and willful falsifications in this "well-researched" book.) The good guys get to run down 'the natives' and teach them what for...I guess 'Egyptian-colored' skin is the new white!

And the utterly charisma-less character of Taita was a terrible idea, even for an author like Smith. Taita can do everything better than anyone else in the history of mankind, speaks all languages in the world or can learn any new ones in five minutes, he's like a billion years old but still agelessly beautiful, can apparently call in Horus/other supernatural forces at will (i.e., a deus ex machina whenever the plot demands), histrionically claims in the first-person narration that he's humble and would never boast and yet goes on and on about how wonderful/clever/etc. he is on practically every page, and is supposedly smarter than everyone else in the universe, but when the plot demands, he makes the most jaw-droppingly terrible decisions imaginable. This poop-fest is as bad as (check that: even worse than) Orientalist drivel like Shogun or other Clavell novels!

And speaking of Orientalism and Clavell, Smith, it seems, is another card-carrying Orientalist dreaming longingly of the halcyon days when the "civilized" (=white) people man bestrode the world like a colossus. But wait! How can that be, since this is ostensibly an 'Egyptian' story? Yeah—it isn't. For all you wondering if the subaltern can ever really speak/get out from under the thumb of their former colonial oppressors, all I can say is, if Smith is writing for you, not bloody likely! This entire "Egyptian" story has the cloying stink of European high medieval fantasy epic all over it. People freakin' bowing, spouting chivalric nonsense all over the place--at least Smith should have had the decency to set this tale where it belongs, in medieval Europe, and not slapped the highly suspect fig leaf of 'ancient Egypt' over it! Worst of all, the millions (that's right, millions) of people who read this nonsense come away thinking, "Now I know all about Ancient Egypt! Golly, what a romantic time it was—never a dull moment, what?" This is all enough to make me want to cry. Of course, negative reviews can't affect either Smith himself or his gazillions of fans, meaning that book sales won't suffer because of my visceral dislike. (I dislike this book so hard I was clenching my teeth like nobody's business while reading it, and by the time I gave up, I needed the psychological equivalent of the Jaws of Life just to pry the splintered ruin of my teeth apart.)

So in conclusion, if you've never read any of Wilbur Smith's Ancient Egypt train-wreck of a series, congratulations. You dodged an elephant-sized bullet. And if you just love Wilbur Smith and can't understand how I could be so mean and isn't Taita just so wonderful after all, please consult the following checklist: are you a 1) white? 2) man? Since you answered yes to both 1) and 2), quod erat demonstrandum. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just go straight to jail—I hope all they give you to read there is Desert God :)

The Math:

Objective assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: +1 for the off-chance that the second half of the book is better than the abysmal first

Penalties: -1 for awful writing, -1 for awful characters, and -1 for an astonishingly awful story

Nerd coefficient: 1/10 "Yowsers—run for the hills!"

[NB on scoring: we give out 1/10 very sparingly on this site, which should demonstrate yet again the level of stinkitude here.]

This has been a public service announcement warning you of the unprecedented toxicity of Wilbur Smith's Desert God, brought to you by Zhaoyun, protecting humankind from the forces of darkness (and bad taste!) here on Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Microreview [film]: Under the Skin

A real, real slow exploration of Scarlett Johansson driving a van.

Amazon sent me an email the other day telling me that based on my sci-fi-leaning taste profile they thought I'd enjoy Under the Skin, which was now available on Amazon Prime. I thought nothing of it. When I launched the app to watch something else a day or so later, Under the Skin was the first thing I saw in the app, front-page promotional prime real estate. I thought "Man, they are pushing this thing hard."* So I read the synopsis. Scarlett Johansson is an alien that uses her sexy wiles to lure men to their doom. Ok, sure, Friday night, I'll give it a go. Why not?

Now, I'm not a guy who is scared away by a slow, inscrutable movie. I own Last Year at Marienbad, for Pete's sake. But man. Under the Skin really gave me a run for my money. Allow me to summarize the movie by halves: First Half: Scarlett drives a van, talks to guys on the street, if they appear to have no meaningful human connections in their immediate goings-on (aren't late for a meeting, say), then she picks them up, takes them back to her apartment/all-black void, where they both get undressed, and the guys disappear into a black lake of nothingness. Second Half: Scarlett tries to eat cake, but fails, falls into a mopey, silent, crippling depression, and then goes for a hike. Why the change between the two halves? Not sure.

The Internet is apparently of two minds on this film. One camp holds that this is vibrant, revelatory filmmaking that is unsettling, deeply moving, and a prime example of "film-as-art." The other camp holds that this is just some goddamn boring nonsense. I fall somewhere in between. Something about the movie fascinated me, and after finishing it I went back and re-watched the first 20 minutes to try to make more sense of what came after. It helped only slightly. On the other hand, I just think the filmmakers fundamentally missed the mark. Under the Skin gives us almost literally nothing in terms of character motivation, inner life, narrative drive, or the like to grab onto. In fact, the entire film seems to be building to the revelation that Scarlett is actually an alien, which is coincidentally disclosed in the summary and all marketing materials for the film. It's like in Yor, Hunter from the Future, where the big revelation is that Yor the Hunter is actually...yep, from the future. Or it would be like the description for <i>The Sixth Sense</i> reading "A ghost who doesn't know he's dead befriends a small boy who is able to speak with the spirit world." If the film had owned early on that Scarlett's an alien, and illuminated her struggle to fit in as a human (which I think is what's happening here), it feels like this could've been a much stronger movie. A few months ago, I talked about Shane Carruth's Upstream Color as a near masterpiece, and I feel like that movie — which is in many ways very similar to this film — hit every note perfectly that Under the Skin missed. So maybe opt for that one, instead.

Unless you're just dying to see Scarlett Johansson naked. In that case, by all means please watch this movie rather than trolling the Internet for stolen cell phone photos.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for so many Scottish accents!; +1 for absolutely beautiful cinematography

Penalties: -1 for total narrative obscurity; -1 for needing a spoiler alert in the movie's one-sentence description; -1 for a lack of character development/revelation

Cult Film Coefficient: 4/10, problematic, but has redeeming qualities.

Posted by — Vance K, resident lover of both good movies and unintentionally terrible ones, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

*I kept asking myself why Amazon is putting so much muscle behind such a strange, idiosyncratic movie, so I did some digging. Amazon signed an exclusive distribution deal with distributor A24 for the Amazon Prime streaming service, so whatever A24 releases (Spring Breakers, The Spectacular Now, The Bling Ring), expect Amazon to put front-and-center, regardless of objective quality or potential commercial appeal. Word to the wise.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Microreview [book]: Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

The other side of Chandler's Los Angeles

Regular readers know of my Chandler obsession--the unshakable, near-religious belief that his Marlowe novels and short stories are the most literary works genre ever produced, and contain enough mesmerizing prose and astute social commentary to transcend genre and sublimate to significant works of literature. They are, however, products of their time; nowhere is that more apparent than in Chandler's dismissive treatment of race.

Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress is a text both indebted to and in conversation with Chandler. It takes place in 1940s Los Angeles, stars a hard-nosed, persistent and stubbornly moral protagonist who takes a punch better than he throws one, and centrally involves a femme fatale. But if Chandler's fiction is ultimately about the relationship between corruption and class division in 1940s Los Angeles, then Devil in a Blue Dress is about those same things refracted through the deleterious race relations of the time.

It's an important point of contrast with Chandler, not least because of Marlowe's ambivalence towards the African-Americans he encounters. But it also made me think about the contrast between that time and this one. Though American society has improved, racism-wise, in any number of meaningful ways, Mosley makes the implicit point that in other ways things have gotten worse. Rawlins' LA is a place of economic opportunity, where manufacturing jobs are plentiful and social mobility is possible even for the city's downtrodden. Compare that with American inner cities of today--disproportionate populated by ethnic and racial minorities, and where jobs and opportunity are scarce--and today doesn't look so hot. In that sense, Devil in a Blue Dress is also thematically focused on a death of a specifically black version of the American Dream, which emerged in the immediate post-war days and closed sometime after "white flight" (i.e. re-segregation), de-industrialization and the crack epidemic gutted the American inner city during the 1970s and 1980s.

Howvever, though Devil in a Blue Dress addresses some weighty issues, it never feels heavy. Easy Rawlins is a likable rogue, a borderline drunk and a working stiff who has issues with his boss (who, for the record, is kinda racist). He's a homeowner and proud of it, but also has a problem--if he can't pay the mortgage, the bank will foreclose, and, well, he just told his racist boss where to shove it. Along comes Joppy, an ex-boxer turned speakeasy proprietor who might just have a line on some work for Easy. An old associate, DeWitt Albright, is looking for a white girl who was last seen in Watts. Joppy tells Easy it will be a cakewalk, but Easy has a bad feeling about Albright. But as it turns out, that bad feeling is only the tip of the iceberg...

Devil in a Blue Dress is a smart and perceptive novel whose social commentary blends into the background and never gets in the way of the fun. I certainly enjoyed reading it. At the same time, it does feel like Mosley is still working through the formula here. There are too many murders and, well, too many characters--many of which never really get much in the way of development. As a result, a couple major elements of the plot feel forced. Incidentally, the paperback version I bought also includes a short story, "Crimson Stain," which was written a number of years later and, perhaps uncoincidentally, feels a lot more sophisticated. But if that's what I have to look forward to with this series, then sign me up for the whole thing.  

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for doing social commentary the right way; +1 for bringing race into a literary conversation with Chandler;

Penalties: -1 for excess characters; -1 for "huh?" moments.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."


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

 Reference: Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress [Washington Square Press, (1990) 2002]


Friday, November 21, 2014

Microreview [book]: Dangerous Games, ed. Jonathan Oliver

Some games are more fun than others.

The Meat:

Theme collections of speculative fiction can be tricky things. Especially when the theme is games, which is such a broad subject that finding an overall focus and direction can be fraught with difficulties. Because the genres involved are vast and varied, there's a risk of diluting any theme by spreading it too thin and also, conversely, concentrating too much on any one area so that the collection becomes unbalanced. Dangerous Games does a fair job of selecting a group of stories from a diverse swath of SFF, but it definitely felt heavier in certain areas than others, and any overall message was a bit lost in the face of the many different interpretations of the theme that the stories required.

With only a few exceptions, the collection could probably be best described as speculative horror. As such, most of the stories are murky, bleak, and a bit unsettling. At their best, the stories approach how the games people play mirror the world they live in. And this can best be seen in Yoon Ha Lee's "Distinguishing Characteristics." My favorite story of the collection, it uses a game as a way of framing conflict, politics, and power. A rich fantasy, it is dark and disturbing and left me craving more like it. The idea of the game was integral to the story and the message it was trying to convey.

Much of the collection, though, takes the idea of games in a very different direction, toward torture and death. Perhaps because the collection is never outright billed as horror specifically, I wasn't expecting quite so many stories that featured serial killers or murderers as their main characters. Not that such stories can't be good. "Lefty Plays Bridge" by Pat Cadigan makes a haunting statement over a game of cards, and is both disturbing and begs a close reading. And Hillary Monahan's "The Bone Man's Bride" is equally chilling, a rural horror about a community willing to sacrifice its children for their own prosperity. And those stories, at least, still featured games prominently, as part of the story they were telling.

After a dozen stories featuring murderers, though, it got to be draining to read. More appreciated would have been the inclusion of more stories that were uplifting and hopeful, like Libby McGugan's "The Game Changer." Of course, for all that it was a breath of fresh air, the game aspect of the story, like many in the collection, seemed a bit tacked on. It wasn't really vital to the story, and the story really wasn't about games at all. Still, it was nice to have a happier story (even one that was primarily about a child with cancer), because even with it the collection as a whole came off as quite dark and hopeless. For fans of horror and dark fiction, there's quite a bit to like, but for anyone else this might be a rather difficult book to read for long stretches, and probably won't leave anyone more hopeful about humanity.

I would also have liked to see the collection stick more to its espoused theme. Each story comes with a short introduction from the editor that basically justifies its inclusion, but for some of the stories I found the explanation a bit of a stretch. Yes, playing with emotions can be like a game, and yes Civil War reenactment is like a game, but I didn't feel that it was enough to merit inclusion into a collection about games. There were also a few stories where the games were only incidental, where a game was present but had no real effect, and wasn't really what the story was about. While it's not a testament to the strength of the stories, it did distract me, and overall made me enjoy the collection less because of it.

Individually, the stories of Dangerous Games are pretty strong. Many are very good. But I think the organization of them makes the collection feel unwieldy. There were a few I thought were too similar, where the story is all building toward the reveal that the narrator is a serial killer or where the game included is really about killing someone. And while I still enjoyed some of those stories, I got tired very quickly of so many circling around the same ideas, which didn't always do anything interesting or challenging with games. Too many seemed shoehorned in, to the point that the overall message of the collection was muddled. As I said, having a theme collection can be quite tricky, and while I enjoyed many of the stories, this one left me a bit tired.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for some clever uses of games across multiple genres.

Negatives: -1 for too many serial killer/murderer stories, -1 for having a number of stories that didn't fit well with the theme.

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

POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since last month (so 2014).

Reference: ed. Oliver, Jonathan. Dangerous Games [Solaris, 2014]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is officially one week from Thanksgiving!  The time when we take a break from our weekly routine, and give thanks for comic books.  My favorite holiday of the year and a time that allows me to revisit classic arcs and revisit stories that I haven't read in quite some time.  It will be hard to wait a whole week before I dive into some Tofurkey, but once again we have been blessed with some great books to hold us over.

Pick of the Week:
Over the Garden Wall Special #1 - Over the Garden Wall is a comic spin-off of a miniseries from Cartoon Network.  Created by Patrick McHale, this miniseries follows two brothers (Wirt and Greg) who get lost in a dark and whimsical forest called the unknown.  The comic has all of the magic and charm of the show and involves the boys sailing off in a pasture with the Four Wayward Soldiers.   For a children's show and book, it is a little dark, but it is absolutely wonderful.  Greg reminds me a lot of Mei from Totoro.  Both are a walking definition of what it means to be a child full of hope and imagination. Wirt is a wonderfully nervous older brother who loves Greg more than he would like to admit.  Over the Garden Wall is a magical tale that should not be missed in either print or animated form.

The Rest:
Daredevil #10 - I think the reason I enjoy Waid's run on Daredevil are the small things that make him relatable.  Last issue, Daredevil was pushed to the brink by Killgrave's children and this issue opens with a powerful monolog addressing the depression that has affected Daredevil throughout his life. This is one way that Waid makes the book bigger than the superhero and I love it.  Not to mention that once the kids have the adults in town hiding from them they take over an arcade.  Awesome.

Inhuman #8 - Prior to Inhuman and I hadn't read a lot of Charles Soule and I plan on fixing that soon. The air of mystery that is surrounding Black Bolt and Maximus in the aftermath of their bomb is reaching a boiling point.  Inhuman is a good human drama akin to the early X-men and even to an extent, Battlestar Galactica.  It is difficult to judge who you can trust and who has his or her own agenda.  I suspect that Queen Medusa is viewing Black Bolt from the lens of being his wife and her judgement of his recent actions is flawed.

Fables #146 - The impending end of this great series has caused me to revisit this title and I fear I am too late!  The arc of Rose Red throughout this series has been fascinating to read.  She started as a simple troublemaker and is going to fulfill a destiny that will shock the entire Fables community.  Without spoiling anything, that state of Bigby is going to force my hand to backtrack and attempt to get current with this series before issue #147 drops.  It is going to be tough to say goodbye to this old friend.  I often use Fables as a gateway comic to hook unsuspecting friends on comics.

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Microreview [book]: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

Funny but forgettable...

Just to lay my cards on the table, I was  excited about the chance to read Willful Child, Steven Erikson's goofy and light-hearted parody of Star Trek. After all, what can be more awesome than a parody of Star Trek, told by the Master of Malaz? 

My excitement for this novel partly owed to the fact that I grew up on Star Trek (The Next Generation, but I worked my way back to the original series). But more importantly, it owed to the fact that I am a big fan of Malazan Book of the Fallen co-creator Steven Erikson. Erikson is a funny guy. Damn funny. Even his funny bones are funny. I can't remember reading anything (in recent memory, at least) as laugh-out-loudtastic as Midnight Tides, the fifth volume of his Malazan series. His critique of capitalism and his story of the destruction of the Letheri economy, told through the eyes of the comedic duo Tehol Beddict and Bugg, is pure comic genius. But what makes his sense of humor shine is that his characters' silly quips and hilarious conversations punctuate the exceedingly dark mood of the series. Comedic grimdark? Whatever the case, Erikson succeeds in lightening a brooding, dark tale in a way that few other writers can.

So I assumed that if anyone could do justice to a parody of Star Trek, Steven Erikson could. Even before picking up the book, I had imagined Tehol Beddict, Bugg, Iskaral Pust, Bauchelain, and Korbal Broach fighting in the bridge of Galaxy Quest. What could be more entertaining? 

Quite a bit, actually. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Certainly, Erikson hasn't lost his comedic sense. He writes quips, jibes, and funny jokes with verve that I have found lacking in the genre. Willful Child made me bust out laughing a number of times. But over time his jokes started to wear thin, and I found myself losing interest in the story. I will get back to this point later in the review. Just to give you a sense of the type of humor in the book, here's a quick example...
"What is that?" Hadrian demanded.
"Extreme magnification, sir! I think it's a thruster!"
"Back off a few stops, will you? I think my retinas are on fire."

Willful Child, true to Star Trek form, features a plot composed of multiple episodes. In this context, the book's overall structure feels somewhat similar to John Scalzi's Redshirts. Where they differ is in the careful attention Erikson always places on Captain Hadrian Sawbeck, the hero of the story. No other character (outside of Tammy, the rogue AI that commandeers Sawbeck's ship) receives similar attention. Sawbeck is man who has the intelligence, good looks, and daring of Captain James T. Kirk and the morals, personality, and sense of responsibility of Futurama's Zapp Brannigan.

On the one hand, Sawbeck can be both intelligent and daring. But at the same time, he is more often narcissistic, sex-crazed, and has a penchant for downright stupidity. He chooses many of his bridge officers based on their buxom proportions, and spends a great deal of time trying to get into their pants (and when he is unable to, at he spends the rest of his time mentally tearing off their clothes). He has no qualms about committing acts of genocide against lesser species. He assigns as his chief of security the Varekan Galk, a nihilistic man who cares little if he lives or dies, and who always chooses the worst possible weapon for his away missions. At least that keeps life interesting--and Sawbeck would rather go out in a blaze of glory than at home surrounded by his loved ones. And he has ample, humorous opportunities to do so on away missions. Here is an episode from one such mission, where pretty much everyone neglected to bring mission-appropriate weapons:
The captain then turned to Galk. "My, that's an impressive piece you've got there. What is it?"
The combat specialist hefted the massive, multisectioned, globular, shoulder-locked weapon. "This is an Atomic Laser-Attenuated Defensive Interceptor Multiple-Phase-Shield Last-Stand Forlorn Hope, Mark II, sir."
"Outstanding, Galk. What does it shoot?"
"It doesn't shoot anything, sir. It stops anything from hitting me."
"I see. So, I take it, then, that you haven't got my back."
The Varekan frowned. "Good point, sir. I guess I picked wrong again, didn't I?"
"Don't let it bother you," Hadrian said, turning to his two security officers. "As you can see, my security detail here... well, one of them's wearing a rapier and the other one appears to have a camera."
The woman with the camera strapped round her neck stepped forward. "It's rapid fire, sir."
Although Sawbeck is noticeably sexist and has an over-the-top machismo found in the original Star Trek as well as 1950s science fiction writ large, Erikson uses this machismo as a way to poke fun at the space opera genre. The sexism, after all, is often times self-referential. Female characters frequently note that they would not be the target of such sexism were they male. And Sawbeck even has a unique chance to see the world from a woman's viewpoint (not that this would change his worldview in any way). Thus, sexism and cultures of machismo serve as part of Erikson's larger comedic arsenal, to be used and abused to parody the genre as a whole.

Erikson also hits directly on problems in today's society, from narcissism and apathy to rampant consumerism. It is about consumerism that he waxes most eloquent:
"You are suggesting, as  understand it, a contracted existence, whereby inactivity is encouraged, via a pan-universal shopping network."
"Exactly. Buy at the click of a button. I can envisage individual Plog big as planets. Just bear in mind the no-return policy."
"Such an existence," the Plog captain mused, "invites drooling apathy, the proliferation of reactionary, stupid opinions and beliefs, a denigration of educational standards, a facile adoration for fads and glam, and an appalling ability to weather the most inane salesmanship imaginable. It is hard to envision a civilization such as the one you describe, Captain."
"Hardly. I invite you to peruse Terran history files..."
It is clear that Steven Erikson loves Star Trek, and it is also clear that he had a great time writing this book. Even the overall storyline is a wild ride through the galaxy. Sawbeck gets promoted to Captain after solving the Mishmashi Paradox... and within the space of a few days he commits genocide, loses control of his ship to a rogue AI, travels through enemy space and initiates conflicts against a few major species. All of this Erikson writes with verve and flair.

But as much fun as the book is, it still falls flat. The The humor soon grows old, and without it the story lost its grip on me. It was not balanced by sufficient plot twists or a grimdark-esque environment necessary to keep the reader's attention. This is why the comedy of his Malaz world works so well. The humor provides a much needed break from the dread, the violence, the danger, and the agony that is life in Malaz.

Willful Child, in the end, was a funny but all-too-forgettable ride through Erikson's vision of the Star Trek universe...

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for classic Erikson humor; +1 for the Plog

Penalties: -1 for the humor becoming tiring midway through the book; -1 for no real plot twists or anything else to keep my interest. 

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

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

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

Reference: Erikson, Steven. Willful Child [Tor, 2014]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Free by Brian Ruckley

Fun and entertaining...

The Free by Brian Ruckley is a gritty (but not quite grimdark) stand-alone fantasy that follows the last and greatest company of mercenaries (a.k.a The Free) as they take on one final contract to right a wrong done long ago. The story is told from the perspective of two characters: Yulan, the righteous leader of the Free; and Drann, a young peasant turned foot soldier turned contract holder. It takes place in a land torn apart by civil war and strife. While the nobility is rising up against royalty, the land and its people must still be protected from the threatening Orphans, a power that is wont to impale families on spikes in a circle so that they can watch each other tortuously die. All of the mercenary companies have since been disbanded, except for the legendary Free of course, and all of the clevers (those who wield magic) are under the control of the School, save those few who ride with the Free. The Free and the School each harbor one of the world’s two tamed Permanences, which are physical representations of pure and destructive magic. These prodigious and terrifying weapons can only be held at bay by the strongest of clevers, at great cost. But when the School’s Permanence goes missing, and Yulan finds out who has it, the final contract of the Free becomes heavier than ever.

If the story is starting to sound appealing, that’s because it is. The world building and accompanying magic system is terrific. Magic is centered on entelechs, which are elemental in nature, and those who can harness the entelechs (clevers) must choose to do so wisely. Magic does not come without a price, and each time a clever takes something from an entelech, they must give something back. The  most grand acts of magic are breathtaking, but occur at great cost to the clever, a cost of which they seldom recover. Even the simplest form of magic takes its toll, be it in the form of something like a permanently disfigured finger. I like this take on the magic system. So often those who wield magic are envied for their astounding capabilities, which they here, but in The Free we feel a sort of pity for them as well. Imagine being capable of an outstanding feat of power, used however you may see fit, but knowing that releasing even a fraction of your full potential will likely end in your nonexistence. Heavy.

Some of the characters are a bit stereotypical, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t well written. Yulan, for example, is a little too righteous of a leader, always worried about not forcing the members of the Free to do something they don’t want to, and not necessarily dropping the axe when necessary. But he is not by any means one dimensional and fights demons of his own. In fact, all around the characterization is astounding. Drann, in his coming of age of sorts, is the most heartwarming, as he has always idolized the Free and now rides with them. And Hestin, whose has hardly a line of dialogue in the whole book, is the most heartbreaking, and the color of her cloak can elicit more emotion from the reader than most characters can throughout an entire novel.

The Free does, however, have some minor technical flaws that can effect readability. Mainly, the story shifts between the POVs of Yulan and Drann within chapters, and often this shift is choppy and takes a second to adjust to. Ruckley also uses sentence breaks—like this see what I’m doing here and how you are getting lost inside the sentence thinking about pink elephants and purple lions—which are sometimes confusing. Another flaw with The Free is the predictability of the story line, as it’s not hard to figure out what’s going to happen next. Although, this predictability didn’t really effect my reading, perhaps because the world is so captivating and the characters are so empathetic.

Honestly, this is a hard book to put down...and, its relatively short at only around 450 pages. So, if you are looking for a good, engrossing read to perhaps bridge the gap between volumes in a series, give The Free by Brian Ruckley a try…I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for stellar characterization in spite of generalization, +1 for great magic system and overall world building

Penalties: -1 for predictability

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 “an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws”


Reference: Ruckley, Brian. The Free [Orbit, 2014]

Monday, November 17, 2014

AiIP: New Books!

One of the concepts I had when I was first approached to write this post/column/piece/whatever was to promote new, good self-published works.

That plan, to paraphrase a dark lord, has been altered. Partially because this space has been a fun outlet for my own adventure in self-publishing, but mostly because (and I phrase this as diplomatically as possible) there is a dearth of good self-published works. This is not to say they do not exist, and a couple have been highlighted here, but as I pointed out early on (ed. Note: Jeez, things have changed) (can I put an editors note in my own column? I just did)... no editorial control means, well, just that. Suffice it to say, the quality of self-published works could stand to be improved.

If you are neither a self-published author, or are, and are still with me despite sufficiently bruised ego (yes I have seen your comments), here are two books you should check out:

Mechalarum, by Emma Larkins


Green Zulu Five One: and other stories from the Vyptellian War,  by Scott Whitmore.

Instead of doing the same ol' review (mostly because I know Scott personally), I thought I would pick the respective minds of the authors as to why they took the path of self-publishing and their thoughts thereon. To the Interview-mobile!

Why did you decide to self-publish?

Emma Larkins
No contest on this one. There are an infinite number of reasons for newbie authors to self-publish. In the interest of saving space, I've kept it to five reasons here. Feel free to hit me up if you want an ongoing feed of the entire list!

1. It's fast.

Never before in history have humans been so frustrated with slowness. A 50 millisecond delay on a mobile website page load? Kill the process, and move on to the next thing. A New York City Starbucks patron glancing up at the menu boards instead of spouting out a well-rehearsed order spiel? Reason enough for a riot.

Despite all our advances in technology, traditional publishing still moves at a snail's pace. Expect it to take six months to three years minimum to find an agent - if you're lucky and work your butt off. The agent then shops your book for two or more years before finding a publisher (again, if you're extremely lucky). In the three to five (or more) it would take me to get picked up, I could easily self-publish a whole series.

2. I don't care about approval by gatekeepers.

Speaking about agents, who decided that a small group of people would be the tastemakers for entire generations of readers? Sounds pretty aristocratic and backwards to me, and if I remember my history correctly, we made a whole bunch of salty tea during an emphatic declaration that we weren't going to put up with that anymore. It baffles me to no end when I attend self-publishing Meetups only to hear the same refrain - "Okay, self-publishing, fine, whatever. What I really want is tips on how to get picked up by those famous companies that will make all my dreams come true." First off, no, they won't - as a first-time author, they'll midlist you, give you no marketing resources, and throw you in a dogpile of other newbies to see who comes out on top. Secondly, who cares what they think? I care what the readers think. They're the ones who will make or break my career. Agents and publishers have a very narrow set of criteria to meet. They need to find the books that are most likely to fit their formulas for making the most amount of money with the least amount of effort. Your epic genderbent cyberfi might thrill your niche and make you a comfortable living, but if it won't pay for your editor's Manhattan penthouse, you're not getting signed.

3. I want control.

So you've made it through the whole find-a-publisher rigamarole. You've won the coveted traditional contract prize. Congratulations!

The publishing house, most likely, now has full rights to your work. Sure, your contract gives you a little control, but they're the ones paying the bills, so they have most of the power. They can choose to illustrate your heroine half-naked and clinging to a minor male character on the cover. They can choose to re-label your genre and force you to take out that great alien romance scene. They can even decide to write your name on the spine in Comic Sans, if they want to (shudder).

I chose my fonts. I chose my artist. I chose my editor. I changed my mind, when it felt right. Sure, it was a ton of work, but in the end, I'm proud of the sum of my decisions.

4. I have the skills.

Self-publishing means taking on dozens of roles that people spend their whole careers perfecting. Including, but not limited to: editor, publicist, graphic designer, producer, marketing specialist, salesperson, event coordinator, social media manager, accountant, and fundraiser. I've been lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) to have many different jobs that allowed me to dabble in the skills required.

5. Self-publishing (well) makes traditional publishing more likely.

Simply put, successfully self-publishing your book makes it much, much more likely that you'll be able to get a traditional contract. As much as the process worked for me, I could see at some point in the future handing off publication in return for getting to focus my attention on other projects. Just look up Hugh Howey's story for an example of how it can happen.


Scott Whitmore
In many ways it was a continuation of the challenge I gave myself to write a novel. After finishing Carpathia, I tried the traditional route by sending queries to agents and publishers. Many queries. Many, many queries. The only positive replies I received back were from vanity presses. So, I started looking into self-publishing, what it would take, and found out it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to do myself.

I’m fairly computer literate and like learning new things. When I hit stumbling blocks I found a lot of great resources online, especially people who had already solved whatever problem I was facing. 

I’ve never considered myself the next Great American Novelist so it wasn’t like I was saying “I’ll show those traditional publishers and agents for ignoring me!” I wrote something that I liked a lot and wanted to see in print. For me, the way to make that happen was self-publishing.

How has the self-publishing experience been? Better/worse/about what you expected?

Also Scott Whitmore
Scott: I really had no expectations going in but throughout I’ve enjoyed self-publishing tremendously. I like being able to do things for myself and as I said above, learning new things. The Indie author/publisher community has been, with very few exceptions, great to get to know. Very supportive and generous. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Scott, You review a lot of books as well- what are common mistakes you see from self-published authors? What solutions do you see to these problems?

Editing, editing, editing.

When I say that the first thing most people think of are typos, but I like to point out that I find typos in traditionally published books all the time. I don’t mind a few typos as much as some people seem to. For me they’re a “glass houses” situation because I know my books still have some ever after the copy has been scrubbed sooo many times. It’s like they’re breeding or something. Anyway, when I’m reading for a review I usually highlight the typos I find — I was a newspaper copy editor for a couple years so it’s second nature — and I give the list to the author.  Of course there is more to editing than just fixing misspelled words or bad grammar. Continuity mistakes and plot holes bug me more than a few typos. A lot more, actually.

The obvious solution is finding a good editor, but for a lot of Indie authors money is an issue. I know it is for me. I’d love to have my books professionally edited but my silly wife also insists we not default on our car loan or mortgage. I’ve also run into more than a few self-published authors who went ahead and spent a lot for editing services from people who were hardly professional. So even if your budget supports it, you still have to find someone who knows what they’re doing. (Here’s a hint: the better ones usually have long waiting lists because word gets around.)

One work-around is the barter system, which can be an informal or formal arrangement. On the informal side, can ask fellow Indie authors to help you by either beta reading or proofreading/editing your book and in exchange you’ll do the same for them. Good, honest feedback from beta readers may not find all your typos but you’ll learn about issues with pacing, tone, continuity and in general whether or not the story “works.” If you’re planning on writing a lot, consider formalizing this process by starting an Indie Author Co-Op in which each member pledges to help the others with editing, covers, etc. If the co-op works the way it should, there will never be a case of someone being too busy to help another member. Either way, be prepared to work as hard helping someone else as you want them to work for you.

What would you tell someone looking to self-publish?

Emma: As much as you need to have a range of skills to self-publish, you also need to have a very strong sense of what you're good (and terrible at). Most people can not entirely self-edit their own work. Every author I've ever met has (or would) benefit from content editors, copy editors, and beta readers. And of course, covers sell books. Unless you've received compliments or awards for your design work - and not just from family and friends - get help.

Also, every self-published author needs to embrace sales and marketing to some extent. But that doesn't mean that you must do what everyone else does, if something just really isn't your style. Do marketing your way. Knit and give away book cozies. Dance in Times Square. Compose songs about your books, and put them on YouTube. Have your cat be your online persona. If you market in your own way, people will respond to your authenticity.

Self-Promotion time! What is your book about?

Emma: "Strong heroine Kiellen risks slow death for the power of biomechanical flight."

That's my elevator pitch. (You have one for your book, right?)

It's a science fiction story that's easy to dig into - many readers who don't normally go for scifi have been swept up in the plot and well-defined characters. Aliens, intrigue, flying suits, robots, drama - it's got it all.

Scott: My latest is Green Zulu Five One and other stories from the Vyptellian War, a military/sci-fi novella inspired in large part by your 3024AD: Short Stories Series One (More Ed. Notes: Flattery gets you everywhere on this blog) (Also go buy it). It is set in a distant part of the galaxy during a war between humans and the alien Vyptellians that has been going on for sixteen years. Each chapter is essentially a short story about some event or aspect of the war; some characters appear in more than one chapter and some are one-offs. The stories of Tyko, a teenage space fighter pilot, and Siengha, a battle-hardened platoon sergeant, are told over several chapters and represent space and ground operations of the war

My goal was to have Green Zulu Five One work on a couple levels. There’s action, battles and such, but also I hope to provoke some thoughts. What’s it like to grow up never knowing peace? How does a long war with no end in sight change a society? What does the way we portray our enemies say about us? There is some subtext in this book which comes from my experiences. I grew up with Vietnam on the TV at dinnertime and the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation in the background. I served in the U.S. Navy for twenty years, sat off the coast of Yugoslavia while those folks killed each other, tried to wrangle an assignment in Kuwait for Desert Storm (denied!), ran a naval station security detachment after 9/11, and retired just before we invaded Iraq (EVEN MOAR ED. NOTES: Did you know Scott is awesome? He totally is)

What's your favorite part?

Emma: Anything that has to do with Cerise. She's my favorite character to write. You'd think Kiellen would be my favorite, but the main character is often the hardest, as you have to strike that perfect balance of interesting and accessible (so readers can put themselves in her shoes). Cerise is a side character, so I can go a bit more crazy with her. She's sensual. She's disgusting. She's insane. She's the central processing unit for a hive mind of monosentient robots. She's sickly sweet. She's vicious and unpredictable. What could be more fun than that?

Scott: Oh, that’s like trying to pick your favorite child, isn’t it? J I like Tyko’s story a lot but honestly Sergeant Siengha is probably my favorite character. She was going to just be a one-off character, too, but after introducing her I realized there was more of her story I wanted to tell.

The people I asked to beta read the rough draft really liked the final chapter, “A Promise Kept,” which is good because it’s one of my favorite, too. “Three Minutes Out” is another chapter I like a lot; it was actually written after getting comments back from my awesome beta readers because I felt the book needed something with a little more action in the early chapters.
Oh, that’s like trying to pick your favorite child, isn’t it? J I like Tyko’s story a lot but honestly Sergeant Siengha is probably my favorite character. She was going to just be a one-off character, too, but after introducing her I realized there was more of her story I wanted to tell.

The people I asked to beta read the rough draft really liked the final chapter, “A Promise Kept,” which is good because it’s one of my favorite, too. “Three Minutes Out” is another chapter I like a lot; it was actually written after getting comments back from my awesome beta readers because I felt the book needed something with a little more action in the early chapters.

Oh, that’s like trying to pick your favorite child, isn’t it? J I like Tyko’s story a lot but honestly Sergeant Siengha is probably my favorite character. She was going to just be a one-off character, too, but after introducing her I realized there was more of her story I wanted to tell.

The people I asked to beta read the rough draft really liked the final chapter, “A Promise Kept,” which is good because it’s one of my favorite, too. “Three Minutes Out” is another chapter I like a lot; it was actually written after getting comments back from my awesome beta readers because I felt the book needed something with a little more action in the early chapters.

Why should we all rush out and buy it right this very instant?
Scott: I gave up telling people what to do a long time ago, so let me just say I think it’s a relatively quick read that can be enjoyed for the action and sci-fi elements or by exploring and considering the deeper issues. And all for less than a dollar.

Emma: Because you're dying to have your expectations subverted, to read something "different than anything [you] have ever read" (Goodreads - And not in a show-offy, manipulative way, but in a way that feels totally offhand. In my book, any person or non-person, of either (or no) gender, creed, species, orientation, etc., can be kind, cruel, passive, aggressive, sexual, needy, short-sighted, angry, supportive, weak, or strong. 

It's not realistic. Stereotypes are still rampant in the real world. But that's okay, because reading fiction is escapism. And maybe someone will read it and think, "So it's okay to subvert traditional roles." Or, "it's okay to embrace traditional roles." Or even, "I don't care. I do what I want!"

What's next for you?
Scott: I have a few ideas for stories so hopefully I won’t go nearly two years between books again as I did between my second novel and Green Zulu Five One. I also have a pile of books to read as I took a break from that while finishing up the novella.

Emma: Writing the sequel!

That's another thing about self-publishing - it's rarely a one and done deal. Every new book that's related in some way (written in the same universe, sequel, on a similar subject) is another chance to attract people to your personal brand. People like consistency. The more material you put out there, the better.

There you have it- a couple novels well worth checking out, plus some insights into a couple of individuals self-publishing process!


Dean is the author of 3024AD and otherThe Venturess, an ongoing SciFi choose-your-own-adventure, 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.