Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy was Star Trek

Today we lost Leonard Nimoy, and even though he lived a long and rewarding life, I am still deeply saddened.

Painting by Cameron Petri.
Understandably, the obituaries and articles and tributes today have focused largely on his decades-long portrayal of Spock in Star Trek, and touched lightly on his other accomplishments inside and outside of film. But to me, Mr. Nimoy wasn't just Spock, but Star Trek itself. Two years ago I wrote in this space that although Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek ("It's Bonanza in space!"), Nimoy and, later, movie producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer were actually better stewards of the franchise. That remains true. But Nimoy was the breakout star when the show first aired — to the much-publicized chagrin of William Shatner — and rightfully so. James Tiberius may have been the captain, but the emotionless (on the surface) Spock was the soul of the show. Mr. Nimoy had the biggest load to carry, and as an outsider character he inherently spoke to sci-fi fans who themselves felt like outsiders. He spoke to nerds.

But it went far beyond that. A couple of years ago, a post from the My Star Trek Scrapbook site went viral, showing the 1968 response that Mr. Nimoy had written to a bi-racial teen who felt utterly alone in the world and had written to Spock with her problems. Mr. Nimoy's response is epic, and profound, and gracious, and all the things you could ever hope someone would tell this girl. It also came in the larger context of the first bi-racial kiss on television and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. personally telling Nichelle Nichols that she had to stay on the show because of the boost it gave to the African American community at the time. This was all part of a very, very big deal.

Mr. Nimoy always seemed to understand that it was all bigger than him, and he seemed to have felt obliged to give it his best service. The three-film arc of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home, of which Nimoy directed two, represents to my mind the franchise's most profound emotional storytelling. Star Trek wasn't his baby, but he raised it to the best of his ability.

Mr. Nimoy's name has been synonymous in my mind with science fiction for my entire life. Even his actual name, "Nimoy," always sounded strange to my ears, unique, almost "Nemo," something I was familiar with, but just off. Like Spock himself, almost normal but somehow apart. Granted, he'd been playing Spock for over a decade before I was born, so I came into a world in which Mr. Nimoy was already woven into the fabric of popular sci-fi, but it always seemed to me like a very comfortable match. Thanks to his work, we are all a little better than we might've been, so his loss feels all the more profound.


Posted by Vance K, whose desk looks like this, and has for several years: 

Microreview [book]: The Burning Dark, by Adam Christopher

Great Fun Slightly Marred by TMDI

Christopher, Adam. The Burning Dark. Tor Books (paperback/Kindle): March 2015.

Buy it here starting March 3rd. 

If you're wondering what the "D" stands for above, it's 'Dramatic', as in "Too Much Dramatic Irony", the irksome phenomenon in which we readers instantly know or can easily guess a key plot point but characters struggle on, oblivious to what's right under their collective noses. There's been an epidemic of TMDI in US/UK fiction (books and movies) recently, my favorite example of which is the inevitable stupidity of characters in zombie movies when confronted by the eponymous baddies. Zombies are, one would think, pretty self-explanatory, even at first glance, and yet all too often, sloppy directors and authors try to get us reader/viewers to swallow the ultimate whopper: that most of us, if confronted by zombies face to face, would take absurd risks and wind up getting killed, all out of an obstinate refusal to accept the idea that zombies could exist. 

The DI component is particularly problematic in stories that are, to the reader/viewer, obviously about zombies, since from the very beginning we know zombies are going to appear, and are forced to dread the first 50% or so of the tale, since it's simply going to chronicle the extremely prolonged reluctance of the surviving main characters to accept what, to us, is the fundamental premise of the story! So here's a nickel's worth of free advice for all you would-be zombie storytellers out there: ditch the stupid "this can't be happening!" and "a strange noise? Think I'll go check it out, alone, in the dark, while drunk!" nonsense. How about, instead, we get a few stories showing what people would actually do, if confronted by slavering green-tinged maniacs: instant understanding, followed swiftly by the trusty 'two to the head, make sure they're dead' approach.

"It's so nice to just sit here and share some human companionship!"
This seems as good a time as any to admit that The Burning Dark does not, in fact, have zombies (though it sort of does, now that I think about it). But this otherwise excellent novel does suffer from a bit TMDI, which was particularly acute in my case given my background in Japanese cultural history. You see, the story is purportedly a mystery about, to paraphrase the children's song, "Which of these (characters) is not like the others?" That's because one of the characters is not human at all, but an ancient and vengeful goddess trapped in the underworld and hell-bent (see what I did there?) on revenge against all living things. But there's little real mystery involved. Imagine this Villainess introduced herself as, oh, I don't know, "Orpheus's Wife" yet all the characters failed to make the connection to the 'trying to return from the underworld but betrayed by her husband' idea. We get the Japanese cultural equivalent of "Orpheus's Wife", Izanami, so readers well versed in Things Japanese will know from page one the "secret" identity of the Villainess.

"Aha!" You might say, pouncing on my argument, "most readers won't know that, which means this isn't DI at all!" Not so—Izanami's otherworldliness is made explicit right from the beginning, with glaringly obvious hints dropped to both reader and characters (as well as not even the flimsiest attempt to cast suspicion on any of the other characters as potentially being 'the one not like the others'), but none of the characters figure it out until *right* at the end. If that's not DI, I don't know what is! "Unfair!" I hear you cry, "the story explains why the other characters have trouble realizing that Izanami isn't who or what she claims to be," but that's actually irrelevant, since I'm objecting not to the explanation of the characters' idiocy within the story, but the type of story itself: a story fueled (or in my opinion, polluted) by dramatic irony.

Does it ruin the entire novel, an intricately crafted horror/suspense/sci fi page-turner? Not at all. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes one or more of the following: a) novels about the unfathomable alienness of, well, alien life forms; b) well-crafted, interesting characters who face Interesting Situations; and/or c) good times. But those hypersensitive to (TM)DI, you have been warned. Take solace in the fact that there's plenty to enjoy, though, especially the intrepid Captain Ida Cleveland, and the fact that there is no (concerted) attempt to pair off the characters in happily ever after-style romantic couples. Not every great sci fi story need rely, after all, on the sort of emotional release the firm promise of heterosexual romantic love provides the audience; Terminator 2 is certainly the finest of the Terminator movies and (not coincidentally!) is the only one of the series to have so deftly avoided any sexual subplot.

Meandering back to the topic of The Burning Dark, it's two thumbs up, minus half a thumb for TMDI!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a mostly mesmerizing story, +1 for fine characters like Captain Ida

Penalties: -2 for an unmysterious streak of (TM)DI

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[Before you cry havoc and let slip the words of war, let me hit you with some knowledge: here at NOAF, our reviews are on a bell curve, meaning there are very few 9s/10s--or 1s/2s. In our system, a 7/10 is excellent!]

Zhaoyun, whom you have by now discovered is no fan of dramatic irony, quite likes sf/f/zompire stories that push beyond the inane limitations imposed by convention, and has been singing the praises of such stories here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is hard to believe that the anxiety, excitement, and frustration of Comic Con is already beginning to unfold.  This past week was open registration, which saw dreams made and hopes dashed simultaneously.  Congrats to those who secured passes, but to those that didn't, don't feel sad.  If you really want to experience SDCC, you may do so in the Gaslamp with the plethora of offsite activities.  If you are just hankering for a convention, I would suggest C2E2 in Chicago.  It is one of the bigger comic book conventions and always has an amazing lineup, but it is approachable and an absolute blast.  My only request is that you don't complain about an unfair system or get angry at the folks behind the scenes.  No system is perfect and everyone is acting with good intentions.  It's just rough when demand outranks supply by such a wide margin.

Pick of the Week:
D4VE #1 - A little over a year ago I reviewed a fabulous digital comic from the good folk at MonkeyBrain Comics.  It pleases me that IDW is bringing this to the masses and I hope it can enjoy a wider audience.  It is your basic story.  Man creates robots, robots kill man, robots kill all living things in the universe, robots mimics man and lives a dull and mundane existence.  In the first issue we learn about D4VE, a former defense bot who has seen his life go from one of the heroes of all robot-kind, to working a dead end job and stuck in a loveless marriage.  Ryan Ferrier and Valentin Ramon deliver a fresh, humorous book with amazing visuals to go with it.  Small touches from hoodies that D4VE wears, to the complaint about forgetting to pick up oil from the convenience store on the way home may this book special.  I said it was a must read comic a year ago, and that holds true today.  It was great to revisit this title and I hope the sales reflect how freaking good this book is.

The Rest:
Chew #46 - Well, it wasn't a dream.  As crazy as this series is and the bizarre stuff that John Layman and Rob Guillory put in each issue, the heartbreak from issue #45 is real.  Things have reached a pretty depressing state in the Chew Universe and I am not sure how things will be undone.  While it appears Colby had good intentions for snapping Poyo's neck, Agent Chu is up a creek without a paddle.  Amazing that I can feel that way after reading an issue in which the Devil was fleeing from Poyo in Hell, there was a Swedish Fish battering ram, and we saw the return of D-Bear.  I'm not sure if Layman is a genius or if he is certifiably insane.

Batman #39 - Solid issue, but color me a bit underwhelmed.  The prospect of Batman returning to the Court of Owls was genius, but the actual meeting felt a bit flat.  I think we will learn more of the meeting next issue (I hope), but I was hoping for more.  Despite this, Batman has quite the scheme to attempt to extract blood from Joker's spine in an attempt to find a cure for what is plaguing Gotham.   Fun issue and I can't wait to see the conclusion of this arc, but not quite what I wanted.

Darth Vader #2 - Despite getting the business for his screw up on the Death Star, Vader is still Vader and is one conniving sun of a gun.  I never felt his character in the movies to be truly menacing or evil, but feel the comics provide a fresh take on him and really paint him in a new light.  I sound like a broken record, but I continue to be impressed with Marvel's ownership of this franchise.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Dossier: Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville (1965).

Filetype: Film.

File Under: Protocyberpunk. 

Executive Summary: Lemmy Caution is a secret agent sent from "the outlands" (other planets) to Alphaville, the technocentric galactic capital. Posing as a reporter and newspaper photographer, he investigates the disappearance of another agent, Henry Dickson, and begins searching for Professor von Braun, the developer of Alpha 60, a vast computer that controls all of Alphaville and its citizens. 

Caution meets Natacha von Braun, the professor's daughter, and tries to use her access to get a meeting with the professor. As an outlander, Caution has not been brainwashed by Alpha 60, and still retains his emotions and affinity for inessential constructs such as poetry. Natacha slowly begins to re-awaken to these same feelings after spending time with Caution, but in so doing she runs the risk of finding herself at the wrong end of a firing squad, like all people who succumb to non-logical behaviors such as crying at a spouse's death, or smiling. 

After comprehending the inhuman implications of Alpha 60's control, Caution decides he must bring down the system and von Braun, its creator, to prevent Alphaville's tech from spreading throughout the galaxy. And also save Natacha, if he can.

High-Tech: Alpha 60 is the central technology on display in Alphaville. It is an artificially intelligent, omnipresent computer that all of the citizens of Alphaville are plugged into in some way. Caution refuses to "check in" when he arrives, which is the process through which residents are indoctrinated/brainwashed. When Alpha 60 is compromised, the city's residents are rendered completely unable to function, shown wandering into walls and rolling on the floor.

Although the locales of Paris used in the film were the most modern of the 1960s, there is otherwise very little effort spent to try to sell the reality of the future. Caution's spaceship is a Ford Mustang, for instance. The primary concern of the film is not one of suspension of disbelief, but instead a philosophical exploration of the intersection of humanity and technology.    

Low-Life: Women are by-and-large reduced to sexual objects, many of their job titles being Seductresses (First-, Second- or Third-Class) in addition to whatever other responsibilities they may have -- hotel clerk, for instance. Caution finds Dickson, the missing secret agent, in essentially a flop-house, being encouraged by the landlady to commit suicide, which is the recommended course of action for those unable to cope with life under Alpha 60. Residents and visitors are also provided bottles of tranquilizers as a matter of course.

Dark Times: The bleakest reality of Alphaville is the summary executions of those residents who show emotion. Whether they do so willingly or accidentally, there is only one punishment: to be taken with the others to an Olympic-sized swimming pool, walked out onto the diving board and then machine-gunned before pretty divers swim out and retrieve their corpses.

Legacy: Alphaville predates the actual punk movement and the cyberpunk movement, by one and two decades, respectively. That said, it is arguably the first dystopian film to peg its civilization's troubles on computers and the abuse of digital technology. It relocates the film noir into a science fiction milieu, and replaces the familiar antagonists of the hard-boiled detective (the idle rich, corrupt politicians, bumbling or equally corrupt cops) with futuristic analogues. The fundamental push-pull of the film is the dehumanizing nature of computer technology when the tools are given primacy over the users of those tools. These are all structural, aesthetic, and thematic elements that would become fundamental to cyberpunk.

In an obscure interview given to an Italian journalist while promoting Johnny Mnemonic in 1994, William Gibson himself actually discussed trying to make the film years earlier, with Alphaville as his and director Robert Longo's primary inspiration.

In Retrospect: Alphaville, like each of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, isn't for everybody. The film is absurd and silly on its face, but even more so when put in context. Lemmy Caution is the central character in a series of British novels, where Caution is an American intelligence agent. The books were popular in France and Germany, and throughout the 50s and 60s a number of French Lemmy Caution films were made, all starring (like Alphaville) Eddie Constantine in the title role. So Alphaville, then, was like if the producers of the James Bond series had followed up Goldfinger with Thunderball starring Sean Connery, set on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, and where everyone drove Chryslers and talked like robots, except Connery, who talked like Humphrey Bogart. 

All of this goes to show that Godard was in fact trying to make the film he did make, and simply didn't waste a lot of time on things he considered nonessential. So if the viewer is able to go with the fact that the Ford Mustang is capable of both terrestrial and space travel, and that the Instamatic camera is the pinnacle of imaging technology, then what remains is a compelling, thoughtful and vastly ahead-of-its-time film that asked many of the same questions cyberpunk authors would be asking two decades hence, and we are still asking today.   


For its time: 5/5
Watched today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 9/10

Posted by -- Vance K, film geek and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Dossier: Naam, Ramez - Nexus (Angry Robot, 2013; Random House, 2015)

Filetype: Book

File Under: Cyberpunk Legatee

Executive Summary: "In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realises.

From the halls of academia to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand – Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion."

Or - geek hero with ridiculous luck goes on global spy adventure with dangerous super-soldiers and dabble in post-humanism, sees lots of weird stuff, and gets in trouble.

High Tech: The titular drug is a nicer way to jack into a singularity than the old Gibson cords - a vial of nanotechnology washed down with juice, resulting in an acid-trip of emotions and visions as the taker is given access to their own soul and those they can connect to on the same high. The complications to this joy arise from Nexus 5, the latest version, which can allow mind-control and brain augmentation to a terrifying extent. But also a cool extent - languages and fighting skills are options, as is the ability to control each others' bodies. This results in government secret services and rebels all out to control this potent human-boost, and threatens what it means to be human.

Low-Life: The span of this (long) debut novel is pretty vast. Whilst never diving offworld, we go globetrotting with the main character Kade Lane from San Francisco to Thailand, and meet people from all walks of life (though mainly cybersoldiers and scientists, they are a pleasingly varied bunch in terms of ethnicity) and it therefore is hard to pin it down the gritty streets a la classic Cyberpunk, but the underground drug scene briefly seen at the start paints a lightly rebellious underclass emerging against the suppressive yet still democratic U.S. government whilst sadly reminding me of the Matrix cave-rave... shudder... It might be 2040 but they still like backpacker trance, it seems. However, the bulk of the story is an action thriller mainly set at a scientific conference so is a bit like Big Bang Theory but starring Jason Bourne.

Dark Times: No simplistic fantasy dystopian state here. Naam, whose expertise, and initial writing career, is in computer programming and exploring post-humanism, brings his theories and opinions on the concept of altered and superior human brains, via the drug's inserts, to the structure of a spy thriller. Yet despite plot mechanics that are familiar from countless airport thrillers and movies (not an insult by any means, by the way), the author keeps things pretty believable. The U.S. government is realistically anti-drug and pro-conformity, and understandably keen to not let the supposed enemy (China again, not the Cyberpunk dominant Japan of old) from using it. Everyone wants what Kade's skills can bring, and he just wants to do the right thing.

Legacy: Too soon to speak of any legacy, but it seems Nexus, with a sequel now published, has become both a respectable genre success and also a flag-bearer for pro-singularity commentators and posthuman/transhuman debates. It will be interesting to see how hard sci-fi continues to tackle the old cliches in this area and if it will ape Naam's trick of empathy for the changes, whilst playing on the fears they bring.

In Retrospect: Despite my above assertion that legacy is not to be talked about with a novel only a year or so out of the gate, I myself came to the book after enjoying Naam's short story 'Water'. I was however, confused by the relative heat the story was getting over, imo, much better works in the collection, yet I soon learnt of Naam's background and TED-friendly speeches and writings in nonfiction, and realised Nexus was worth a look based on he being an author of ideas. So to find these ideas inserted onto a fairly clunky thriller with some 2-d characters often spouting b-movie dialogue, was a disappointment. The title even has the tagline: 'Mankind gets an upgrade'. This suggests a writer who despite his tech know-how and spiritual complexity still wants applause at comic-con (probably crap but I mean he craves the populist vote as much as the scientific; he does ref the The Matrix and Blade Runner rather than Gibson in his talks).

So whilst the world he paints in process is fascinating and the Nexus-trip descriptions and the effect on the characters' lives compelling, but I yearned after the first hundred pages for the anxious chase to stop and for it to settle into more cyberpunk gritty everyday and less Tom Clancy blockbuster panic. However, the swarm of ideas and science held me on to the story, despite frequent stodgy infodumps, and I look forward to not the sequel which I fear will up the action but to his next new world, where I hope for more exploration of where humanity could head in our lifetime.


For its time: 3/5
Read today: 3/5
Cybercoefficient: 6/10

Posted by: English Scribbler, who would happily trade some old memories for a Bruce Lee neuro-upgrade.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Brilliant Alternate Reality Spoiled by Orientalist Hogwash

What would have happened had the Axis won World War II? An intriguing question, and one that Philip K. Dick took on in this fascinating alternate reality, The Man in the High Castle, which he wrote in 1962. So intriguing is this question that it has recently been adapted into (and summarily guillotined by) a new Amazon television show, one that highlights the struggle between the good ol' American forces of freedom and goodness and the totalitarian Nazi Third Reich dystopia. Of course, the television show is zillions of light-years removed from what Dick had intended for his novel. Whatever the case, the TV adaptation piqued my interest in this classic Hugo-Award-winning novel.    

So what would the world have looked like? The Man in the High Castle, which takes place in the early 1960s, is witness to a new political order far removed from our own. The Third Reich has seized most of Europe and Africa. The Jews have for all practical purposes been wiped out in Nazi-controlled areas, and there are whispers of brutality and racially motivated genocide that have decimated much of the African continent. It took only fifteen years for the Germans to ruin half a continent. The Germans, thus, have forged a new order only beneficial to blond-haired, blue-eyed fascists or to people of Aryan stock. Their Japanese allies, on the other hand, managed to construct the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which encompasses the arctic tundras of Sibera to the jungles of Burma and India, and even reaches as far as Australia, New Zealand, and the west coast of America.

The story takes place, for the most part, in the former state of California, which is ruled by the Empire of Japan. The United States of America has been divided into three separate entities: the German-controlled United States of America; the buffer zone of the Rocky Mountain states; and the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America. Whereas the Atlantic seaboard is controlled with the firm hand of the Third Reich, the Japanese rule the Pacific states with a much lighter (and technologically poorer) touch. Jews theoretically have less to fear from their Japanese overlords than they would from the Reich.

The main storylines follow four main characters. Each of these characters face difficult moral dilemmas at some point during the book, and each of them work to reset their moral compasses. Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese businessman who works in the Nippon Times Building in San Francisco, is forced multiple times to choose between his own conception of right and wrong. Robert Childan is an "authentic" American artifacts dealer who is torn between being obsequious toward the power of his Japanese overlords and  seizing his own (national, cultural, and personal) worth through his wares. Frank Frink, a craftsman who produces cheap imitations of "authentic" Americana, sets out to reclaim his own sense of worth through the creation of contemporary art. Finally, Juliana Frink, Frank's estranged wife, begins a quest (with an Italian truck driver named Joe) to find the author of an underground novel, and in the process will make a moral decision that will no doubt affect her for the rest of her life.

The notion of authenticity dominates each overall storyline. What does authenticity mean? And its corollary, how do we know what is fake? The novel is populated with figures and items that are not what they appear to be. Frank Frink is living under an assumed name, and he produces imitations of "authentic" civil war memorabilia. Childan sells much of this "authentic" Americana to a rich Japanese clientele. And his Frank's estranged wife, Juliana, becomes fascinated with a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which poses a "fake" reality where the Axis loses the war. I don't want to spoil this for future readers, but a number of other characters are also not who they pretend to be. In the process, Dick does a fantastic job of problematizing our own notions of reality in history and society. The true brilliance of this novel is the way in which Dick leaves the reader guessing about what is true and authentic.

Too bad, then, that this brilliance is marred by utter Orientalist and culturalist essentializing hogwash.  I remember reading that Dick never finished the sequel to The Man in the High Castle because he had trouble getting into the minds of the Nazi victors. If that is the case, he shouldn't have written this novel either. He did not understand the Japanese any better. The Man in the High Castle is replete with Orientalist notions of America's new Japanese overlords. They are inscrutable, difficult to tell apart, overly rigid, focus solely on propriety and at all times require the proper utterances, and have attained a sense of simplicity based on wabi, which of course cannot be understood by outsiders. And for some reason, the Japanese constantly refer to the I Ching as an oracle to give counsel at important moments in daily life. But isn't the I Ching a classic Chinese text? And isn't using the I Ching as an oracle absurd? At least Tagomi at times recognizes this absurdity:
"We are absurd," Mr. Tagomi said, "because we live by a five-thousand-year-old book. We set it questions as if it were alive. It is alive. As is the Christian Bible; many books are actually alive. Not in metaphoric fashion. Spirit animates it. Do you see?"
Making matters worse, Japanese culture is often brought into focus through the use of another Chinese concept, the Tao. Tagomi often worries that he is straying far from the Tao. And Childan acts obsequiously toward a young Japanese couple that are "close to the Tao." Where, then, does Chinese culture end and Japanese culture begin? Are they one and the same? [The answer is a definitive "no"]. Even a basic reading of prewar and wartime newspapers would have disabused Dick of many of these notions, and might have convinced him against focusing on Chinese concepts to explain Japanese culture, especially at a point in time when a nationalist and inward-looking Japan regarded with contempt their Chinese brethren.    

The Man in the High Castle is thus a reflection of its times. Philip K. Dick perhaps was influenced by a general mixing and mashing up of all "Oriental" cultures that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem with this, however is that it undermines the the cultural "authenticity" of the world he created. Was this done on purpose? Did Dick's ambiguous take on what is "authentic" extend to his world building as well? Perhaps such an argument could be made, but I would have a hard time buying it owing to the profusion of Orientalist notions throughout this novel. In the end, Dick's brilliant message about historicity and authenticity gets lost in a setting of cuturalist essentialism. And this is too bad, because The Man in the High Castle is a real thought-provoking novel...     

The Math 

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +2 for the brilliant ambiguity of authenticity

Penalties: -4 for the utter Orientalist hogwash

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.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Brief Note on Awards

The other day I got into an interesting conversation on twitter with fantasy author Sam Sykes. I was complaining about the Nebula shortlist leaving off a few books I thought should have been included, specifically Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs. The latter book, I asserted, was the only fantasy novel I read in 2014 that moved the genre forward, and argued that this merited its inclusion. Sam took issue with phrase "moving the genre forward," and he has a point. I probably should have called City of Stairs "the most innovative, trope-busting fantasy novel I read in 2014."

Sam also questioned whether this was even a good frame of reference to use for awards, suggesting that a lot of books that get categorized as "standard" or "fun" actually have a lot of depth to them--depth that frequently gets ignored in critical discussions of the year's "best."

I agree. A great example of this would be John Scalzi's Old Man's War books, which can be read as straight adventure, but which--when you scratch the surface--are actually problematizing and subverting the Heinleinian source material. They are smart, clever and--crucially--fun. There are loads of other examples, one of which (Baptism of Fire) made my Hugo list.

That said, a book's impact on the field of science fiction or fantasy literature should, I think, be one of the foremost considerations when voting for awards. Actually I think it should be the second consideration, after an assessment of the book's overall quality. This is why I think it's so fundamentally disappointing that SFWA voters left Station Eleven and City of Stairs off the shortlist. These are incredibly good books--well-written, well-crafted, engaging and memorable. But they are also both breaking new ground and charting new paths for their respective styles, post-apocalyptic science fiction and epic fantasy. To me, at least, that's the essence of award-worthy.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Microreview [book]: Unbreakable by W.C. Bauers

Entirely Plastic

"Hollywood doesn't always get it right. Authors don't always get it right. "Civvies" like me don't always get it right either." - W.C. Bauers, from his blog

While I was reading Unbreakable, I had to question the author's background and I found this quote from his blog. It really struck me because he's absolutely right. I am notorious to people who know me for picking apart badly done military costumes in media. As an ex-Army veteran, I know all too well the modern uniform standards, and seeing those standards done poorly in TV and movies really grinds my gears. It's not hard to get right, so I don't understand why it is done wrong so often. It's arguably harder to get the military right in other aspects, particularly when you don't have the visual crutch. Bauers didn't get it right.

After her father is killed in a raid on their farm on planet Montana, Promise Paen enlists in the Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine Corp. After a mercifully brief stop through training (the 'basic training' chapters of mil sci-fi are something I find painfully overdone), Promise ends up back on Montana, now as a marine, in support of the RAW as they attempt to protect Montana from pirate raids, and prevent the Lusitanian Empire from taking the mineral-rich planet.

What Bauers gets right is the mechanics of the book. It moves at a steady pace, and it competently weaves its tale. He also gets the mechanics of the military right. Each faction has the right branches and departments and roles. There's no lack for acronyms, ranks, hierarchy, or cool military weapons.

But Bauers' military is a cartoon. Worse, it's doesn't feel authentic. Nevermind that Promise rockets to the top of her local command chain through field promotion. Every mil sci-fi does that. But the whole of the book is very cookie cutter. Promise is a young leader put in a tough position, much like every other protagonist in mil sci-fi. Her forces are always outnumbered but never defeated. She's the President's buddy, because she's apparently the only marine from Montana. The colonists on planet Montana are all rugged individualists with their own antiquated firearms. Even the names of these fictional locations, governments, and people define who they are. It's no coincidence that the planet of rugged individualists is Montana. Does the name 'Lusitanians' evoke an image for you?

The book doesn't make a convincing argument for why I shouldn't be rooting for the Lusitanians. With the exception of a couple of villainous Lusitanians, who are operating outside of command, they're not really even evil. It is implied that they pay mercenaries to attack RAW planets disguised as pirates, but the RAW wants Montana as much as they do. If the tables were turned, I'm not convinced that the RAW wouldn't do the same things the Lusitanians do.

Despite some gruesomely described deaths, I don't feel like I'm down on Montana with Promise. I feel like I'm watching her on TV. None of the characters come off as human, least of all Promise. She's nearly omniscient in her foresight. This is troublesome, because I never felt like something bad was going to happen in a story where the protagonists are desperately outnumbered. We're told early on that Montana's citizens have been burned by the RAW before and not likely to be receptive, but they are absolutely helpful, receptive, docile even. They don't show an inkling of resistance to the RAW occupation, nevermind turning against them and aligning with the Lusitanians. Their only detractor is an old man, whom the rest of Montana tells to stuff it.

There are also some little things that might be classified as mere pet peeves. Characters in the book refer to platoons as 'toons'. I have never ever ever ever heard anyone refer to their platoon as a toon. I've also never cared about where anyone's helmet was but mine and my soldiers', but I'm well aware of where Promise put hers because she racks it on her hip frequently. Yeah, sure, knowing where your stuff is is absolutely important. But have you ever walked around with a helmet attached to your hip? I'd rather wear mine. Of course, the Lusitanians, the so-called bad guys, are duplicitous, cheats, liars, and their uniforms are black and red.

But the worst, the absolute worst, is that Promise is haunted by her long-dead mother. Her mother, whose death is either not explained or poorly explained to the point that I glossed over it, frequently converses with Promise to give her life advice. Her mother's a tough woman, like all Montana women, but I'm particularly bothered that Promise might be insane and in a command position. We see enough of the other side's perspective that perhaps we're not dealing with an unreliable narrator, but this is the first part of The Chronicles of Promise Paen, and presumably her command won't be taken from her, despite being a person who's guided by the ghost of her mother.

Color me disappointed or annoyed more than anything. I feel like it would take more than a little bit of work to make me interested in another story about Promise. Maybe I'd be interested if Promise actually were insane, and we were to see what a broken person in a position of authority does. It would at least make for a more interesting story. Unbreakable is YA mil sci-fi. It's G.I. Joe. I don't dislike G.I. Joe, but I'm too old for it. I want more than what G.I. Joe has to offer. Likewise, Unbreakable could stand to be more adult.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 Well paced

Penalties: -2 Entirely cartoonish in almost every way, nevermind military conflict

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (Not very good)


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

Reference: Bauers, W.C.. Unbreakable [Tor, 2015] 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

This has been an odd week.  Neptune buried my neck of the woods with a blanket of snow, dropped temperatures well below freezing, and delayed my ability to pick up my weekly fill of comics.  By the time the shipment was in I was surprised in the number of titles that caught my eye.   It seems all IDW books are delayed due to the port strike, and I am left with only two books to review.  With only a pair to select from, I am going to forgo the normal Pick of the Week and simply review the titles.

Before hopping into that (pun intended), did you know Dark Horse collaborated with Rogue Ales and made a Hellboy beer?  Right Hand of Doom Red Ale drops on February 21 and you can preorder the beer at  It is described as a heavy-handed, supernatural red ale and the good folks at Things from Another World in Portland are hosting a release party on the 20th.  I don't think my wife would be too keen on me flying out for this, but we shall see.

The Books:

She-Hulk #12 - The brilliant run by Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, Muntsa Vicente, and VC's Clayton Cowles came to an appropriate end this week as She-Hulk closed the books on infamous blue file.  Soule assures us that there will be more She-Hulk in the future, but it will unlikely be from this creative team.  Soule closed the case on a run that featured a super-hero that didn't act like your typical super-hero.  She relied on her wit, charm, compassion, and skills in the courtroom to bring about positive change.  Sure, some bad guys got punched and there were some epic fights, but this title marks the end for a unique book in the Marvel Universe.  This is one I hope gets the deluxe treatment as a collected series.

All-New Captain America #4 - This issue really had it all.  A rocket of fleas filled with weaponized blood, and appearances by Zemo, the Armadillo, and Cobra.  Despite Sam Wilson wielding the shield, which I am a fan of, Rick Remender has really captured that classic Captain America feel.  The characters feel human and the schemes that are being hatched seem plausible.  Even a horde of weaponized fleas.  Following Ed Brubaker's departure I found myself no longer reading Cap.  Thanks to the remarkable job Remender has done with the new Cap, I am happy to be back on board.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Dossier: Gibson, William. Neuromancer (Ace, 1984).

Filetype: Book.

File Under: Cyberpunk. 

Executive Summary: Case used to be a console jockey and data-thief. Until, that is, he tried to steal from his employer. When their agents caught up with him, they injected a mycotoxin into his bloodstream--making it impossible for Case to access the virtual dataspace known as “the Matrix.” Out of work and suicidal, Case makes ends meet as a smalltime hustler in the Japanese port city of Chiba, where he fences goods for other lowdown expatriates, half hoping someoneone might take a shot at him and put him out of his misery.

Only, one day a street samurai named Molly Millions tracks Case down so her ex-SpecOps boss Armitage can make him an offer he can’t refuse--a procedure that will counteract the mycotoxin. The only thing Case has to do is steal a ROM from a protected data library, one that contains the “ghost” of his former mentor, Dixie Flatline--at which point the real mission begins. Case, Flatline, Molly and the sociopath/holographic illusionist Peter Riviera must break into one of the most heavily protected data libraries in existence--located in the orbital headquarters of business clan Tessier-Ashpool--and free the artificial intelligence known as Wintermute.

High-Tech: The operative technologies in Neuromancer are cybernetic, with the most distinctive pertaining to how the cybernetically enhanced interface with “cyberspace,” a virtualized datafield not unlike an internet you could navigate by proxy, as if physically present. Individual “jockeys” access “the Matrix” (the name for the actual datafield, as opposed to its virtualization) by “jacking in” to a “deck,” such as the ubiquitous Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7--which is to say, plugging a cord into a neural implant on the side of the head and connecting it to the deck. Jockeys largely enter cyberspace for profit--sneaking past corporate “ICE” (i.e. security programs) to obtain data illicitly.

“Microsofts” are another form of cybernetic enhancement, small microchips inserted behind the ear that grant the wearer tangible skills in the physical world, such as mastery of language. These don’t play a huge role in Neuromancer, but are instead an element of worldbuilding. Gibson also largely predicted the rise of reality television with “simstim,” recorded experiences in which the user experiences a full array of sensory information recorded by the actor.

Though cyberpunk is primarily known as an earthbound style of science fiction, much of Neuromancer actually takes place offworld, meaning that space ships and orbital habitats play a far greater role than one might assume. And, of course, one of the novel's central preoccupations concerns the nature and ambiguities of artificial intelligence and how created sentience might interact with its progenitors. 

Low-Life: The future envisioned in Neuromancer is one of unimpeded urbanization, to the point where the stretch of coast linking New York to Atlanta is now simply referred to as “the Sprawl.” These, and other, urban environs are decidedly rough-and-tumble, marked by overcrowding, rampant criminality and an extremely thin state presence. The well-to-do, as it happens, are not only gated away from the masses, but reside offworld in lush, fully-appointed orbital habitats.

In the novel’s opening section we meet Case, the former jockey turned small-time fence and hustler, in the dangerous and expatriate-heavy port section of Chiba, Japan--giving the novel a decidedly neonoir flavor. As action moves offworld, the sociological lens shifts to the capital classes, much as Chandler’s novels do when action brings Marlowe to the wealthy enclave of Bay City, and with a similar air of rot and decadence. 

Dark Times: Private armies, ascension of unaccountable corporations, movement of capital offworld and near invisibility of the state all feature, coalescing to give Neuromancer a distinctly dystopian feel. Crucially, though, there is no central authoritarian actor, like Big Brother in 1984, but rather a series of rapacious, competing interests, few of which are informed by any sense of obligation to community or “the greater good.” The chaotic nature of the system, however, creates space for individuals to “use the system against the system,” or perhaps more accurately, “use the tools of the system to carve out some safe space for themselves.”

Legacy: Neuromancer is the single most important work of cyberpunk ever written, likely the most important work of science fiction published in the 1980s, and may even be one of the five or ten most influential science fiction novels ever written. Simply put, it’s one of those books that changed pretty much everything that came after it.

In Retrospect: There are reminders of Neuromancer’s age littered throughout its text. People smoke a lot of cigarettes, networks are accessed with plugs and wires and there is not a single cell phone to be found, smart or otherwise. And the whole “future is Japanese” thing, a reflection of the early 1980s zeitgeist, seems quaint today (considering Japan’s ongoing, multidecade recession and the concurrent ascendance of China to economic superpower status). But these moments aside, it’s amazing how well Neuromancer holds up. The book still feels amply futuristic, and though Gibson’s prose improves as his career progresses, the writing is remarkably thick with allusion and metaphor, yet still quite readable--lending Neuromancer an exhilarating, experimental feel that recalls the best of the New Wave.

From 2015, of course, the opening Chiba section reads like an encyclopedia of cyberpunk tropes that have long since passed into cliche--which is incredible to think about, given how many were shown first light here (or developed from Gibson’s earlier short fiction). But it also strikes me that this section is pretty much all I remember from my first read some twenty-plus years ago. The offworld sequence, which takes up the most real estate, isn’t at all what one thinks of when the term “archetypal cyberpunk” springs to mind, and that’s a major reason Neuromancer can stand the test of time. It’s not a one-note symphony, but a complex, variegated and deeply insightful novel that by and large lives up to its reputation.

However, I will note that the plot doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you really think about it--half the characters, for example, are basically superfluous. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Actually, as far as I’m concerned, Neuromancer is less about the destination as the ride--a magnificent tour of Gibson’s exotic yet familiar and (in many if not all ways) still deeply plausible vision of the future.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5
Cybercoefficient: 10/10

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

AiIP: Story Time!

For those of you who have been following this space for any length of time, you probably know this Adventure has been mostly commentary on publishing in general, and something of a diary for my own publishing adventure. Recently, printed copies of the second edition of 3024AD: Short Stories Series One arrived, the production of which has been chronicled in this space.

So as a thank you for sticking around (or further penance), I offer you Unforgiving, the first short in the collection. Enjoy:

Corey White stared at the poster, regarding it thoughtfully as he had every day for the last several weeks. At first, he had merely given it a passing glance while walking by on his way home. He lingered, then stopped. Now he stared at it, chewing his bottom lip.

Eighteen year old Corey was almost done with school but lacked purpose and direction. His home life was certainly not helpful; his father was barely worth the title, his mother more concerned with her looks than whether of not her son had a future.

The stocky youth stared at the poster of a skull and crossbones emblazoned over a tattered Union Jack with a call to arms against pirates that preyed on British trade routes stenciled in lettering above and below it. His dark eyes shifted from the poster and rested on the glass door to his left. He chewed his lip a moment longer, then set his jaw and charged in. The door slid aside at his approach and he paid no mind to the words Recruitment Center as he passed them.

Several months passed by swiftly. The training was constant and arduous. He even excelled, and found that structure and discipline, now in his life for the first time, suited him well. While he was no leader, he didn't pretend to be and took his orders well. Over time his formerly pudgy body became a stocky, muscular build.

He wrote to his mother once. She answered with a note, suggesting in a generic manner that he not get hurt. He did not reply. He got on well enough with his fellow recruits, but made no friends. He thought perhaps he should, but while no one shunned him, no one reached out to him. He found he didn't mind and so in the end left those at basic training behind as quickly as he had those on Earth.

 The docking bay of the training station was expansive, with a shuttle connected to boarding tubes, waiting to take the new soldiers to the far reaches of the galaxy. Nervously, Corey stood in line, with black hair freshly cut short, and a duffel bag slung over his shoulders,. The others were glancing about wide-eyed with puzzled expressions that told of their wonder at which shuttle they would be told to board and where it would take them. Corey silently glanced at the line ahead of him, and listened to the sergeant give each soldier an assignment.

“Infantry, Atlas, gate three.”

“Spaceman, HMS Victory, gate six.”

“Spaceman, Compass Rose, gate twelve.” Corey came to the front of the line, and presented his papers, stating his name and serial number. His instructions followed the same pattern as all the rest. 

“Gunner, HMS Daring, gate eight.” Corey pulled himself along the handrail to gate eight, presented his papers again and boarded the shuttle. It was already close to full and they were soon under way, leaving the station and the Earth far behind. The recruit next to him was tall and thin, with a meek face. Corey wondered how the man had made it through basic. On his other side sat a woman who showed considerably more promise. She was short with blonde hair tied in a ponytail. Her chin was set in a determined fashion, and her blue eyes stared straight ahead.

“Know anything about the Daring?” Corey asked her.

She started, as if he had interrupted her train of thought. Before he could apologize she answered. “She's brand new, that's why there's so many of us headed there.” She nodded to the full transport. “Destroyer. We get to hunt pirates,” she finished in an excited tone.

“You know your stuff,” he said.

She shrugged dismissively. “I did my homework. I asked to be assigned to a ship that would see action.”

“You can do that?” It had never occurred to him.

She laughed, her voice light and airy. He smiled. “Kendall Hood,” she held out her hand to him.

“Corey White.” They chatted the rest of the way to Mars, small talk that occasionally shifted from their shared experience at basic to their curiosity for the future. The ship slowed and the announcement that they had reached Mars came on.

“Ready?” she asked him with an excited smile. 

“Absolutely,” he replied with a grin. 

* * *

The Daring was long and tall, her hull a tapered V-shape, wide at the top, and completely enclosed. Two banks of engines were aft and set out from the hull, which allowed them to fire forward or behind. Maneuvering engines had been placed along the hull, so she could navigate in any direction. 

The gun deck was uppermost and hosted twenty heavy laser cannons, ten facing in each direction. At the moment they were hidden behind the heavy blast doors that slid aside when needed, allowing them to fire outward. There were two additional chin-mounted cannons that could fire forward.

As the shuttle closed in towards the dock, Corey could see the bridge protruding above and aft. The shuttle passed in front of it to enter the docking bay of the large station.

Inside they were filed along to their bunks, which were on the lowest desk. The room looked bizarre to Corey, who had spent his whole life planetside. The 'bunks' were vertical metal slabs that stretched from floor to ceiling. There was a sleeping bag attached to either side, flapping open in zero gravity. 

Above that was a small locker for stowing their gear. Corey stopped and looked around, unsure what to do. He felt an elbow in his back, shoving him forward.

Available now!
“White, grab a bunk and stow your gear!” A sergeant barked at him, and he hurried to obey. He only wondered briefly what sleeping like that would be like; the bunks had been much more traditional during basic.

A gruff-looking officer appeared in the doorway, clad in full armor. It was blue-gray with a bright Union Jack on the shoulder. The officer held his spherical helmet in one hand.

“Gunners, briefing room, now,” he shouted gruffly and turned around to pull himself along the rail in the opposite direction. Corey fell in behind the others as they exited, hoping they knew where to go.

The briefing room they were heading to was down the hall, and the recruits found it with ease. The officer who had ordered them there stood in the center of the room, a holoprojector beside him. A row of railings was arranged around it for them to hold onto in zero gravity.

“I am gunnery sergeant Leary,” he began. “Welcome to the Daring. The lot of you will make up the gun crews of this ship, two of you to a gun.” Corey glanced around at the thirty-nine other gunners in the room as the sergeant spoke on. “For the most part, our mission will be to escort GalSpan and other Imperial ships and protect them from pirates. For our first mission, though, we have an opportunity to help capture a dangerous fugitive. He is working with a crew of French Pirates. Special Services has set a trap for him and we are to provide firepower to stop his pirate cohorts. Mission details are in your inbox. Get familiar with them, we leave in two days. Dismissed.”

Corey returned to the bunks for a while before he explored the ship, the rec areas and the gym. Each crewmember was required to spend three hours a day in the gym in zero G conditions, and Corey was fine with that- he enjoyed letting go while he worked out.

He went up to the gun deck, where he had been assigned to Saber Three, the third gun aft. It was a massive double-barreled laser cannon, which sat back on a track that it would slip forward on when the gun port opened. He slid into the seat, staring down the barrels and past the dim heads up display, to the cooling tubes at the cold steel of the closed gun port. For the first time, he wondered what battle would be like. He had heard stories of people who spent their whole tours on escort duty, never so much as sniffing a pirate- he was pleased his first mission held a guarantee of combat.

“You look nervous, White.” He glanced over his shoulder at the speaker. It was Kendall, holding herself steady on the raised platform in the middle of the gun deck.

He released his grip on the controls, floating upward and pivoting, pulling himself over the seat towards her. “A little,” he replied, grabbing a handle on the ceiling. “Are you?”

She smiled. “A little.” She looked at the massive cannon behind him. “Gunner, eh?”

“Yeah. I guess I tested well for it. First time for everything. How about you?”


“Oh, high class,” he said with a touch of sarcasm.

“I tested well for it,” she replied with a smile. “I doubt that's the first time you tested well for something, though.”

“Not really.”

“Are you nervous?”

“A little. It will be different, going straight into combat instead of just patrols and escorts.” Her voice went quiet. “I have to go. Take care of yourself, okay?” He nodded and she turned and pulled herself forward. He floated in the empty gun deck for a long moment before he headed below. He turned his mind from the coming combat to other things.

* * *

Two weeks later, the Daring hung in space an hour from where the trap had been set. Corey sat in the seat of his cannon, the straps holding him fast. He wore his combat gear, a lightly armored space suit with a helmet that offered him a wide field of vision. An information display feed came from the cannon, ready to calculate targets for him. He glanced around at the other gunners, similarly in their places waiting for the gun ports to open and offer them a mark.

Leary held fast in the center of the gun deck, saying nothing for a long while. Then the ship lurched, moving forward quickly. “They've taken the bait,” he informed the gun crews. “Stay on target, men, concentrate, and do your job.” He offered no other inspiring words and lapsed again into silence.

The hour of travel dragged by. Corey felt as if he had aged decades before they arrived. Abruptly, the ship jerked before beginning to slow. The gun port split before Corey and slid apart to reveal the battle already in progress. His digital targeting array came to life, and the sensors scanned for weak points on the pirate ship that was separating from the now derelict British craft.

“Open fire!” boomed Leary. Corey's gun slid forward along the tracks, until he was even with the hull of the ship. He aimed for the engines and squeezed the triggers. The two gun barrels pounded like giant pistons, a red line tracing from the barrels to the opposing ship. He could see the glowing red marks where his shots tore at the opposing ship’s armor.

It drew closer and returned fire. From the top of the ship came missiles, trailing blue flames. One detonated just fore of the gun deck. Shrapnel and flames bellowed in all directions. A piece of the hull tore off and blew into the gun port of Saber One, spinning rapidly. Corey watched it, seemingly in slow motion, as it flew into the gunner, slicing through his armor and neck with grim efficiency. Globs of blood flew through the vacuum, splattering Corey’s helmet. He felt sick as he saw the decompression freeze and strip the corpse as it was sucked out into the void.

He swallowed hard and turned his attention back to the fleeing pirate ship. Bay doors opened aft and a smaller, sleek ship flew out. He pivoted the cannons as far as possible, squeezing the triggers. He hit it once, but the craft was too nimble. It accelerated rapidly as it passed the speed of light, winking out of sight.

He pivoted the guns back to the larger ship, caught between the Daring and the Adventure. He poured fire into it, his lasers cutting a glowing red swath into the engines. Seconds later, the armor was breached and the fuel cells detonated in spectacular fashion. The pirate ship began to tear apart as her munitions ignited, and moments later all that was left was a hollow husk, burned out and riddled with holes.

Corey leaned back in the seat, relaxing his grip and feeling the ache in his hands. He wiped the blood off his visor and looked around. The gun deck had taken quite a bit of damage; scorch marks from the explosions scattered across the deck, several pieces of shrapnel floating in the midst of it.

“Damn fine shooting, son,” Leary congratulated Corey, and it dawned on him how quiet the whole exchange had been in spite of the tremendous violence. Leary's words seemed deafening to him.

“Thank you, sir,” he replied, unstrapping himself. He wondered how escort duty would compare. 

I hope you enjoyed it. If you want the rest, you can grab the ebook & paperback here.

Dean is the author of 3024AD and the ongoing SciFi Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, The Venturess. He is an 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.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Microreview [book]: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

All I need to say is giant squid submersible, right?

The Meat:

Blending a historical Western with a healthy dose of steampunk and a heaping helping of kick-ass, Karen Memory is probably the most unbridled fun I've had with a book in quite some time. And it's one that, with its very existence, seems to challenge the conventions of how history and realism fit into a speculative framework.

Because, for all that the book includes a lot of Wild, Wild West-style steam technology and alt-historical trappings, Karen Memory is still, at its heart, steeped in historical authenticity. What's surprising about that, what's refreshing, is that the book doesn't linger on the ugliness or the poverty of some mythical "past," but paints its setting much as we see the present, as a mix of positives and negatives. Too often (I feel), the "past" is used in speculative fiction to evoke a dirtiness and sense of hopelessness as a way of framing narratives that are violent, pessimistic, and narrow-minded. Either the past is used as a way to Other certain struggles (wasn't it bad when people were killed based on their race, gender, and sexuality, as if it's no longer happening) or as a way to justify stories that are violent and pessimistic under the guise of "historical accuracy."

Karen Memory, however, has the feeling of a book that was carefully researched, and even some of the characters in the novel are based off of historical personalities. The struggles that Karen and her friends engage in are not just revolutionary by the standards of the time period, but are still revolutionary today. The sex positivity, the importance of consent, the freedom to love openly who you love without fear of imprisonment or violence: these issues are not things we can safely laugh about because "look how backwards the past was." These are issues that were issues then and are still issues now. This book does not exactly clap the present on the back and say "look how far we've come." Instead, it points back and says "look how long we've been fighting." It affirms by refusing to erase those historical figures that challenge the widely accepted idea of what the past was like.

But perhaps I should look a bit at the actual story of the book. Karen Memory the character is a sex worker at the Hôtel Mon Cherie in Rapid City, which is owned by the impressive Madame Damnable. Most of the principle characters of the story are female, are either fellow sex workers or those working to free women from the shackles of sexual slavery. I loved that the book draws the line between consensual sex work and non-consensual slavery. Never does it blame women for being in sex work, either by choice or by force. For those who choose to work the trade, it's a legitimate choice that allows them empowerment and opportunities they would otherwise not enjoy. For those forced into the trade it's rape. Never is the violence or unwanted attention directed at the women in the story used to pass moral judgement on them. Again, this works in the historical context as well, because sex work has pretty much always been a profession, and though today it is outlawed in most of America, the taboos of today do not stretch infinitely back. Again, the story has a ring of historical authenticity while rejecting the standard "historical" portrayal of female sex workers.

And here I pull myself back yet again from tangent-land. The action of the book is classic, playing off of tropes in Western stories by having the house be threatened by a greedy and tyrannical asshole who also happens to have a mind control machine. And perhaps some ties to some Russians who have a GIANT SQUID SUBMERSIBLE! It's a submarine that looks and can function as a squid, using its tentacles to rip other ships apart. Karen is helped not only by her friends at the Hôtel Mon Cherie but also Marshal Bass Reeves, a black man on the trail of a killer escaped from Indian Territory. With him is his Comanche posse man Tomoatooah, and together they assist when the killer they've been following shows up in Rapid City, leaving a body right at the door of the Hôtel Mon Cherie. 

What follows is a fast paced crash of action, betrayal, and our heroes generally kicking ass. Seriously, aside from the squidmersible (which should really be enough to sell anyone on this story), there are knife fights, gun fights, electricity fights, and even fights involving a modified sewing machine that works as a mech-suit. This book is just incredibly entertaining. It's fun and voice established with Karen is relatable and genuine. She is a woman making the best of her situation, which turns out to mean generally being amazing. She's stubborn and determined and capable, flawed and yet unwilling to give up. And amidst all that she's starting to fall for a woman who managed to escape sexual slavery and who has a knack for languages. There is just so much good to say about this book.

Not that quite everything worked for me. Unfortunately, I felt that the villains in the book weren't exactly the most nuanced. Recognizable, yes. There are plenty of men who want power and domination and hate women. And it makes for some fist-pumping fun to see Karen and company overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. And it fits with the style, with the Western aesthetic which is carefully created and maintained through Karen's voice. Westerns aren't exactly known for their subtle villainy, but with all the tropes that the book breaks, I would have liked to see a little bit more in that direction.

Still, overall the book is just incredibly fun. It's challenging and groundbreaking less in the actual storyline, which is fairly standard action-adventure Western and more in the way it builds its setting, the way it refuses to let the grit associated with the past to settle into every aspect of the world. The book is groundbreaking by being more realistic than "realistic" Western stories that focus solely on the death, rape, and white men saving the day. Because for all this book has some very dramatic confrontations (like a sewing machine mech-suit vs the squidmersible), it still values life. Death is not something that is visited wholesale on city and town. Each death is impacting and important. There is a loss with every death, a value that the book chooses to dwell on, because though death might have been more present in the past (in the West especially, as anyone who played Oregon Trail would know), that doesn't mean that it was any less tragic, or any less significant.

In closing, the book does an excellent job of providing a fun, kick-ass story that left me smiling. The plot might be a bit straightforward, but it's enjoyable and full of action and tension. The real draw of the book, for me, is its approach to history and to the tropes of the Western. In breaking the expectations of what this time and place in American History looked like (and yes, even with the steampunk trappings of airships and mech-suits), Karen Memory manages to show what a historically authentic book can be, and is full of diversity, empowerment, and affirmation. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a great take on historical authenticity, +1 for SQUIDMERSIBLE!

Negatives: -1 for not the most complex of villains

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

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory [Tor, 2015]