Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero: Free Comic Book Day Edition

Welcome to a special Free Comic Book Day edition of Thursday Morning Superhero.  For those of you who don't know, Free Comic Book Day is this Saturday and participating comic book stores will be handing out comics for free!  Since 2002, Free Comic Book Day has encouraged reading via comic books by providing free comic books to the masses.  Many comic book stores make an event of it with costume contests, giveaways, and more.  To find a participating store near you click here.  This Free Comic Book Day is bittersweet to me.  While I am excited to be moving back to Austin soon, it will be my last FCBD at Comic Quest.  Comic Quest is an amazing store that I will truly miss.  In honor of Free Comic Book Day I present my top 5 books for 2015!

#1 - Kodansha Comics Sampler - You had me at Attack on Titan.  This anime had me hooked from the first episode and I have since completed season and am looking forward to catching a glimpse at the manga that inspired this amazing series.  I thought it lived up to the hype and is an amazing drama that I would compare to Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. 

 #2 - Teen Titans Go! Scooby Doo Team Up - What is better than enjoying comics?  Sharing the joy of comics with your kids!  I love watching both of these shows with my kids and can't wait to pick this up and share the joy of reading comic books with them.  It looks like there are some special guest stars in the Scooby Doo story that should be fun, but I would have preferred the Harlem Globetrotters.

#3 - Valiant 25th Anniversary Special - This past year I have really grown to be a fan of the work that is taking place at Valiant Entertainment.  They boast some of the best talent in the industry, just inked a movie deal with Sony, and have big things planned for 2015 that begin with this issue.  Great time to hop on board a fast moving train!

#4 - Avatar: The Last Airbender - In addition to the Avatar story, this Dark Horse title includes a Plants vs. Zombies tale and a Bandette story.  I think I will enjoy this one more than my kids, as both Avatar and Bandette are two of my favorites.  Any book that I actually enjoy reading to Henry and Zelda is a huge bonus from my perspective. 

#5 - Secret Wars #0 - Marvel has a history of launching its blockbuster events with a FCBD #0 issue and this year is no different.  While I tend to be skeptical of big comic book events, I do enjoy a free issue to see what it is all about.  There is good buzz around Secret Wars and I look forward to checking it out.

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Microreview [book]: Power Rises by R.M. Willis

A wonderful new voice...

Power Rises is the first installment in the Ways of Power series by R.M. Willis, and it tells the story of Rancoth, a light magi who has the rare power of summoning demons from other realms. But Rancoth has some demons of his own, plagued with guilt over the death of his mother and feelings of abandonment towards his father. Raised under the care of the Archmage Grecrum, with all the creature comforts he could desire, Rancoth yearns to see the world and experience life for himself, so he sets out with Dorbin, his Dwalish mentor and companion, on diplomatic missions for Grecrum.

The story takes place on Earth, far into the future. It is essentially fantasy within science fiction, as this world full of different races, some with marvelous magical powers, was created through genetic engineering. I really appreciate that the author allows us to infer this on our own. There is a prologue and epilogue to border this supposition, along with the publisher description, which I should add seems to be a summary of the entire series not just this first book. Regardless, there is no unnecessary explanation of how the world was created and no stating of the obvious, which makes me happy.

In fact, this whole book made me happy. I really, really enjoyed reading it.The prose is crisp and refreshing and not at all pretentious. And while this first book in the series feels mostly like world building and set up, it is surprisingly engrossing. Willis’ imagery is beautiful and immersive, and Rancoth’s mini quests are lighthearted and entertaining. The world Willis has created here is captivating but not over complicated, which makes it a purely delightful read. I had a hard time putting it down.

I have one major complaint though, and that is the objectification of women. From rulers of state to tavern maids to childhood mentors, they are all sexual objects to our narrator. For example, every female has their appearance critiqued (usually the bum) and in one scene Rancoth is rushing to save a character because she is exotic first and dying second. Now, I’m operating under the assumption that this is intentional, since Rancoth is a strapping, twenty something young man with the one thing on his mind 99% of the time. But it got old fast, and by the end I actually started to cringe when a female character was introduced. Hopefully in the next book this won’t be so prominent.

That aside, I really enjoyed Power Rises, and I highly recommend it. It is a humble, imaginative, and immersive tale by an emerging new talent, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

You can check out a sample (look inside) here.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for stunning imagery, +1 for engaging prose

Penalties: -1 for reducing all women to sexual objects

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

POSTED BY: Tia   Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2014

Reference: Willis, R.M. Power Rises [Burning Willow Press, 2015]

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan

Dossier: Cadigan, Pat. Mindplayers (Bantam Spectra, 1987)

Filetype: Book

File Under: Cyberpunk/postcyberpunk

Executive Summary: Allison Haas is a lost soul, drifting through life and seeking cheap thrills in illegal "madcaps"--cybernetic modules that induce temporary psychosis. But when the psychosis sticks, her friend and dealer, Jerry Wirerammer, drops her off at a "dry cleaner." The Brain Police are alerted, and both Allie and Jerry look headed for identity erasing. But Allie is offered a deal instead: train to be a mindplayer--a person who helps others navigate their psyche on a virtualized plane, as therapy or pastime--and all will be forgiven. So Allie takes the deal and becomes a mindplayer. 

After this, the book recounts a series of vignettes--of Allie's training and her various mindplay contracts.

High-Tech: Mindplay is facilitated by a device that links into the optic nerve. How the device works, beyond that, isn't explained in much detail, though in essence it separates the mind into a space to be traversed and a traveler to traverse it. Trained mindplayers, moreover, can enter another person's mind-field and help them achieve whatever goals they have set out for themselves. 

There are several kinds of mindplayers: pathos finders, who help individuals find their "calling"; fetishizers, who create fantasy trips; neurosis peddlers, who help individuals develop productive neuroses; bell jarers, who impose mind silence and allow individuals to recover from the effects of too much mindplay; and so forth. 

There are also artificial intelligences, or virtual personality constructs--it's never quite clear how autonomous or sentient they are. And most people have artificial eyes, because the mindplay interface causes trauma on natural eyes. 

Notably, Mindplayers also feels much less dated than the bulk of cyberpunk. Aside from the lack of mobile communication devices, the future feels suitably futuristic--even from 2015. There are no cringey "fax machine" or "8mb of data" moments.  

Low-Life: Wirerammer is a futuristic drug dealer, who later keeps one step ahead of the law by making illegal copies of his personality for sale on the black market.

Dark Times: Other than the Brain Police, who are sort of vaguely authoritarian, there isn't really much dystopia to speak of. Mindplayers, generally speaking, isn't really a fountain of  political commentary, a la Neuromancer or A Song Called Youth, and in general the book is focused on the psychological as opposed to the sociological. This future even seems pleasant! 

Legacy: Mindplayers is either the final major work of cyberpunk or the first major work of postcyberpunk. Cadigan is rightly identified as part of the core of first-wave practitioners, and her short fiction was instrumental in shaping the style. Mindplayers, though, feels like a departure from the precedent set by earlier first-wave novels, and dispenses with the tropes and aesthetics that initially made cyberpunk feel vital and new, but by 1987 had begun to frustrate the style's progenitors. So in that sense, Mindplayers feels like a bridge between the other first-wave works and postcyberpunk classics like Snow Crash and Fools (which Cadigan set in the same future as Mindplayers). 

In Retrospect: Mindplayers is a difficult book to review because of the way the narrative drifts--much as Allie is said to drift before her training as a mindplayer, and as she clearly continues to do afterwards. In other words, this is a book that isn't so much about something as it is about someone, i.e Allie, and things that happen to her in sequence. It works because Allie is a strong character, the world is fascinating, and the book is elegantly written, engaging and thoughtful. 

At times I found myself thinking of Neuromancer, because Mindplayers, like Gibson's masterpiece, both is and transcends genre. Yet they are, in style and approach, strikingly unlike one another. Whereas Neuromancer is all hard surfaces and sharp angles, Mindplayers is elusive--almost ethereal. It is, as noted above, a novel of the mind and what might be possible if you could traverse it. And it's one I think any fan of literary science fiction should read.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 8/10

Monday, April 27, 2015

Tales from the Borderlands - Episode 2: Atlas Mugged

[Tales from the Borderlands - Episode 2: Atlas Mugged, Telltale Games, 2K Games, 2015]

The Art of the Cliffhanger

Ah, the lost narrative style of the cliffhanger. I have only just started with Telltale's Game of Thrones series and while Walking Dead is on my playlist, it hasn't made it to my hard drive yet, so I can't tell you if all of their titles contain this type of plot device, but through the first two episodes, it appears to be a staple of the Tales from the Borderlands series. Just as Episode 1 left players with their jaws in their laps, Episode 2 has a similar, "What the frack?" ending that serves to deftly re-employ the ancient, somewhat lost art of the cliffhanger. 


<Episode 1 Spoiler Alert>

When we last left Ryhs and Fiona, they were trying to get away from Vasquez, Rhys' Hyperion nemesis, fittingly-voiced by Patrick Warburton of David Putty (Seinfeld) fame. Warburton does a fabulous job of playing the part of the scummy, yet somehow amiable corporate ladder-climber who keeps crushing Rhys' dreams of a bigger and better future. Much like his counterpart on the long-running sitcom, while you wouldn't ever want to be seen in public with Vasquez for fear he would say something awful and put everyone in earshot in a state of extreme discomfort, you can't help but enjoy the completeness of the character's persona. 

Anyway, Rhys (and his sidekick Vaughn) and Fiona (plus her partner Sasha) manage to avoid Vasquez's attempts to corral and kill them and end up falling into the Gortys Project, a room full of Atlas tech introduced by the former Hyperion headman and current inhabitant of Rhys' brain, Handsome Jack. All of this takes place as a retelling by Rhys and Fiona to an unknown captor who is holding them hostage and forcing them to recount all the details they know about the mysterious Gortys Project. Some of the more fun parts of both episodes 1 and 2 take place when the two protagonists begin to argue about the details of the story. It also serves to remind the gamer that he is re-playing a story rather than experiencing it first-hand. It is an interesting plot device and one you don't see outside of literature very often, certainly not in video games. 

<Spoiler Complete>

Episode 2

I will go into more detail about this episode in the upcoming review of Episode 3. I hate to spoil the fun for anyone who has yet to play it, but I don't like leaving out major plot-points for the sake of avoiding spoilers, either. I guess that's a prime reason the serial format lends itself to game reviews. By the time the newest episode has been released, you can pretty much assume that 90% of the people who were going to play the last episode have finished it already, so it's spoilers...AWAY!!! Until then, I will just give a brief synopsis while trying not to divulge too many details and stick to telling you what I think of the game. 

Episode 2 finds Rhys still suffering with random appearances of his unwanted AI implant, Handsome Jack. Since Rhys is the only one that can see Jack, he's kind of like Jimmy Stewart stuck with the six-foot rabbit, Harvey, where everyone else believes he's either having some sort of psychotic break or just putting them on. If he could only convince the right people at Hyperion that Handsome Jack's intelligence continues to survive inside his head, it could be his ticket to Easy Street, but unfortunately he's on Pandora and the only people he can tell are his lackey friend Vaughn who is in even less of a position to do anything for him than Rhys himself, and Vasquez, who could care less if the presence of the Almighty himself was inhabiting Rhys' brain so long as he gets his vault key. 

Again, I don't want to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that Rhys, Fiona, their respective counterparts Vaughn and Sasha, and the ever-loyal Loader Bot who is always there to lend a hand continue on their quest to discover the meaning behind the Gortys Project and, hopefully, uncover a vault key in the process. They are hotly pursued by Vasquez and his lackeys who have all the ethical standards of a Ponzi scheme plotter. Also, this episode ends with an even greater cliffhanger than the first. Not only are you left wondering what's going to happen next, but what the heck just happened. It leaves you hanging with all the skill of the best Saturday morning serial from the movie theatre glory days of old. 

The Mechanic's Shop

One place where this game both shines and leaves something to be desired is in the gameplay mechanics themselves. It's more of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story that takes place in the Borderlands universe than an actual Borderlands game. You have to make dialogue decisions a la Mass Effect that change the way the story goes and can have series-long consequences for your protagonists. Not only that, but the dialogue choices are on a short timer, so you are extremely pressed for time and only given a few seconds to make a decision that could alter the entire game experience. That said, it's not an RPG, it's not an FPS, it's not a looter. Basically it lacks all of the components that made Borderlands so addictive and gave it virtually neverending replayability. 

The only action, controller-wise, in the game is limited to a series of button-mashing commands, controller swipes, and the occasional matching of a hexagon with the indicated spot on-screen before you had to hit right trigger/R2. There are also small portions where Rhys uses his bionic eye to investigate the area, but the solutions are fairly obvious and present little in the way of a challenge. It's not like Borderlands required the complicated melange of button mastery needed to keep from getting constantly annihilated in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, what with its cryosuit boosts, slides, powers, grenades, and the like, but it certainly asked more of a player than smashing down on the X button until a green circle was filled in to keep the play continuing. This lack of anything but the simplest mechanics may be acceptable in the mobile gaming market, but for consoles with controllers boasting ten buttons and three directional controllers, it's just too simplistic. 

I realize that these Telltale Games titles are available on mobile devices, as well, and maybe it was the cross-platform requirements that restricted the controller options on the XBox One, PC, and PS4. However, as a long-time Borderlands fan and addict, it has been somewhat of a letdown, albeit a minor one as the games contain the same brand of off-color humor that make the original and it's pre- and post-sequel some of this reviewer's favorite titles of the last generation. That said, I'll be honest, I'm looking for a little bit more in a Borderlands game. I guess I shouldn't complain given the price and the ability to return to Pandora one more time for just a few bucks. It's well worth the money for any fan of the series. I don't see Tales From The Borderlands bringing in many new fans, though. If you have a miniature ClapTrap sitting on your desk, then these are definitely for you. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you should probably consider looking elsewhere, or just waiting for Elder Scrolls Online to finally hit consoles this summer...maybe. 

The Math

Objective Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for showing us a part of the Borderlands universe that was, as yet, unseen. So far, everything has been from the Vault Hunters' perspective. It's nice to see what an average Hyperion employee goes through. 

Penalties: -1 for a control scheme that would leave one of the three buttons on a Sega Genesis controller mostly untouched, nevermind today's complex pieces of ergonomic artwork. 

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

Read about our scoring system here

Friday, April 24, 2015

Greatest Sci-Fi Movie of All Time Tournament - Results!

"Hey, but everybody wins, right? Or me, I guess. I win.."
Guys, are you sure?

The smart money — and by that I mean the opinion expressed by most people who commented on this tournament on- and offline — said that this tournament was a race to second, because after early rounds it seemed clear that The Empire Strikes Back was a lock for the number one spot. But, as they say in actual sports, that's why they play the games.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Greatest Sci-Fi Movie of All Time, as decided by the Nerds of a Feather readers who participated in this tournament (and proud we are of all of them):


I wonder what it was. See, Star Wars has an unequaled fan base. But many readers, guests, and commentators on this blog seem to believe that the Star Wars films aren't, in fact, science fiction. More like "fantasy in space." Could be. As our own English Scribbler said to me, maybe the purists won. But one thing is damn certain, we all win when we watch Roy Batty's final scene.

Posted by Vance K — who wishes he could see anything off the shoulder of Orion.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

A big congratulations to the good folk at Valiant Entertainment who inked a five-picture deal with Sony Pictures this week.   Bloodshot and Harbinger will each get two feature films and a fifth crossover film will bring the two together in grand finale.  If you haven't given the Valiant properties a read I highly suggest you check them out.  Rai and Ninjak are two of my favorite, and I am now very intrigued to check out these two series in details.   Congrats!

Pick of the Week:
Mind MGMT #32 - The final arc is here and I am filled with a range of emotions.  I am anxious to read the finale Matt Kindt has planned for his opus, but I don't want to leave the world of Mind Management.  Well, I don't like the management as it is evil, but the cast of characters that Kindt has assembled throughout this series is simply stunning.  I want more characters that have unique abilities like in this issue.  The power of words, the ability to use a hive mind, and the power of propaganda to name a few.   It is a stunning world that may have an ending that isn't very happy.  The Eraser seems to be one step ahead of Meru at every turn.  Just when we think Meru has a chance to recruit a former agent, we realize she was too late.  The finale is sure to be epic and I am confident that blood will be shed, but believe in Meru.  I want my daughter to be like Meru.  Maybe Zelda can dress up as Meru for Halloween?

The Rest:
Chew #48 - John Layman is truly a comic book pioneer.  For the first time in comic book history, a cybernetic horse dick joke was dedicated to a fellow creator.  I hope comic book artist Nick Pitarra is truly honored to be part of history.  Beyond the awesome dedication, Layman delivered an epic issue!  Olive Chu is awake and ready to take down the collector.  She surprisingly has teamed up with Savoy (who I still don't trust) and must first face a deadly team of Jellassassins (a deadly group of criminals who have special powers associated with gelatin based food).  Layman is gearing up for an epic finale that is sure to leave large numbers of bodies in its wake.  I fear for Tony Chu and am convinced that Layman is only ending the book soon because he can't think of enough food related powers to keep the story going.

Convergence Wonder Woman #1 - I really want to give Convergence a chance, but may have spent my last $3.99 on a DC title until this event is over.  I imagine I will cave for Batman, but the Mortal Kombat of the DC Universe does little for me.  This issue introduced Wonder Woman as a champion of the Gotham from our world.  I like this idea, but was lost as soon as the vampire world villains appeared, including vampire Joker, Catwoman and Poison Ivy.  I am sure that some are enjoying this event quite a bit, but I think I will be taking a DC break for some time.

Star Wars #4 - After the hype of the new trailer that dropped at Star Wars Celebration, it is good to return to some new material set after Episode IV.  There is a lot of soul searching taking place amongst the characters.  Leia wants to define herself as a leader of the rebellion, Luke doesn't know who the hell he is, and Vader is trying to maintain a balance between serving the Empire and gaining control of it.  I continue to be impressed with this title and feel the creators have done an excellent job remaining true to the source material.  That is no easy task and should be commended.  Oh yeah.  A character named Boba Fett showed up.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

BLOGTABLE: Impending Doom!

Welcome to this month's Blogtable! I'm Dean E.S. Richard, and I will be your host this month. For those of you who may not know me, I write (primarily) science fiction, including the 3024AD Short Stories and the short story 'Far', which you can read for free this week over at QuarterReads. I also love to drink and cook, and even venture outside to snowboard or kayak. Primarily, I am obnoxious on Twitter. But enough about me. Time to meet your respondents:

Respondent the First: SEAN E. WILLIAMS is the NEW YORK TIMES best selling writer of FAIREST: THE RETURN OF THE MAHARAJA for Vertigo, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and SENSATION COMICS for DC Comics, ARTFUL DAGGERS for Monkeybrain Comics and IDW Publishing, and more. He co-founded the comics publishing company Comicker LLC, which launched with its Comicker Digital label in 2015. You can find him at, or on Twitter at @sean_e_williams. Comicker Digital can be found at, or on Twitter at @ComickerLLC.

Respondent the Second: E. Catherine Tobler's fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and SciFiction.  She was a Sturgeon Award nominee in 2013, and is currently senior editor at Shimmer Magazine. Her first novel, Rings of Anubis, is now available. For more visit Buy her book here.

Respondent the Third: Scott Whitmore Scott is an avid reader, and his most excellent review blog can be found here. He is just past what some may consider the midpoint of life (51 53), but likes to think he is still open-minded and (at least) partially aware of what’s going on in the world of pop culture. He has also written two three novels, his most recent being Green Zulu Five One. (ed: Update your blog bio, Scott)

In Which Dean Ponders the IMPENDING DOOM of publishing!

Prompt: Nearly any commentary on publishing these days reads like a 1950's science fiction movie poster. AMAZON! INDIE PRESS! INTERNET OUTRAGE! LACK OF DIVERSITY! Lost in that mess, it seems, is the fact that people actually read a lot. It's fairly safe to assume people will keep doing so. But in what fashion? Is there a way all the present options can coexist?

Those questions come with myriad options, so let's attempt to narrow them down for the purposes of this post:

1. With the massive variety of reading options out there (ebook stores, WattPad and the like, etc), is there a way to ensure the average reader will get a quality product, or does the medium benefit from a near-total lack of gatekeepers?

2. How, in said mess of options, can authors effectively reach and build an audience for their works?

To our respondents!

Sean: The lack of gatekeepers is a huge benefit in a lot of ways, as it allows for series that might not exist otherwise to reach the marketplace. For example, there's a large call for more diversity in YA fiction (well, in every storytelling medium), but publishers are slow to change their ways, partly because they don't know how well they'll sell, but also because they don't know how to market diverse titles.  I've seen this firsthand as a creator.  Luckily, the tide is starting to turn, like with a majority of the top-selling titles in Marvel's Buy-One-Get-One sale at comiXology being female-led series.  Things are getting better, and having an open marketplace showed that that was possible, and that it was needed.

As far as the quality question goes, readers know what they can expect quality-wise from larger publishers, such as DC or IDW.  It's something we're going for at Comicker as well.  But regardless of if it's self-published or published by the Big 2, user reviews are what people look to nowadays - either in comments, ratings, or via social media. If something's bad, people will let other people know.  It's the whole Yelp phenomenon - people will post a review if they don't like something, but they won't necessarily if they DO like it.  That's why I personally aim to only make recommendations via social media - there's so much negativity out there, I'd rather lift up the quality books than try to cut down books I don't enjoy as much.
One of the reasons I co-founded Comicker, and one of the reasons we launched with our Comicker Digital label, is because digital offers the biggest audience, and one that's growing. There are huge swaths of this country (and the world, in fact) that don't have a good comic shop or book store within driving distance, but tablets are becoming commonplace.  There's no shortage of readers out there, and from what I can see, there's no shortage of quality creators either.  There's room for everyone.

E. Catherine: "Quality product" can be defined in many ways, of course--what one reader finds to be quality, another may not. I would point anyone toward recent Hugo Award controversies as evidence of recent battles over quality, what does and does not "deserve" to have a place at the table. What one editor does not care for will find a home with another; the same is true of readers. What one person loves, another will loathe.

If gate-keepers are defined as editors and publishers, I don't think those are going to vanish any time soon, even among those who choose to self-publish. Certainly there are authors who won't bother, wanting to get their work into the market as soon as possible, but fortunately we live in an age of being able to read a sample before we purchase (oh gosh, we can do that in bookstores, too!), so readers can still determine if a work meets their own definition of quality before purchase.

If I knew the answer to the second question, about authors building and reaching an audience, I would surely be rich by now. I think audience attention is divided now more than ever--there's so much of everything. Video games and TV shows and movies and comics and tabletop games and apps and music. When everything and everyone is striving to be on top of the pile and have their voice be the loudest, it's overwhelming. I think authors have to trust that they will find their audience even if it takes a while. Love what you do, because that will come through in how you promote and speak of it to others.

Scott: I don’t think it is possible to *guarantee* readers get a quality product. First off, everyone has their own opinion on what constitutes quality. I dislike typos, but honestly if I’m paying $1-3 for an Indie author eBook I’m a lot more tolerant than I would be of a traditionally published eBook costing $10-15. As long as the story is good, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the Indie writer because I know what it’s like facing the choice of hiring an editor or paying your mortgage. (PS: I find typos in Trad Pub books all the time, too.)

The wide-open nature of the field these days certainly favors Indie writers. Anyone with a computer and a little knowledge can publish a book (eBook or paperback) and sell it on the web. Anyone lacking the computer and/or knowledge can hire someone with those things to publish a book for them. I’ve helped a couple people do it for free. Personally, I like that it has become easy for people to express themselves creatively.

Now, for readers this is a Good News/Not So Good News situation. There are many, many more books to choose from, some exploring topics previously ignored by Trad Pub (which usually focuses on playing it safe over being inventive) and this is Good. But having so many options can be overwhelming, paralyzing readers who just want to easily find a good book, and that is Not Good. Generally Indie books are much less expensive and that is Good. Stories that are poorly written or technical deficient, and there will be some (many?), are Not Good.

Now may be a good spot to discuss reviews. Ideally, reviews should help readers and writers equally, steering consumers to works they are likely to enjoy while letting substandard authors know they need to work harder. Unfortunately, we all know there is a lot of “gaming the system.” Recently, I’ve seen a surge in the number of websites offering glowing reviews for a fee, and I have been contacted a couple times by writers suggesting a “5-star swap” in which I praise their book and they praise mine. There are even books on how to set up “review circles” and create false personas for writing multiple reviews of the same book. Looking past these ethical lapses, even honest reviews from readers can be misleading and/or useless. My favorite is a one-star review of a novella featuring space ships on the cover: “Too much sci-fi.” One may wonder why the reviewer bought the book in the first place but the bottom line is the review tells me nothing about whether the book is worth my money. 

As to the second point, if I knew, I’d be driving a much sexier car than my 2007 Dodge (Ed: Yeah, right).

Ok, seriously, I think it starts with the writing. The cliché is “the cream rises to the top.” Your story must be compelling, inventive, exciting, mind-blowing, engaging, cool — pick an adjective. What comes next is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” deal. When the story is good enough, you’re going to get readers who will want to tell someone they know about it, and maybe write a positive, useful review, too. But to create that lovely word of mouth you’ve first got to get the story in front as many mouths (and eyes) as possible. Social media blitzes, free giveaways, contests, and targeted adverts are all options. But remember how egalitarian the whole deal is these days? Yeah, everyone else is doing the same things. How to stand out in such a crowded field? I just don’t know (see above re: my Dodge).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Accelerando by Charles Stross

Dossier: Stross, Charles. Accelerando (Ace, 2005)

Filetype: Book.

File Under: Cyberpunk Legatee

Executive Summary: Accelerando is a generational story, starting with Manfred Macx and following his descendents. Welcome to posthuman Earth. Macx is an idea man who gives it all away to escape his ex-fiancee. He lives half inside his own mind, and half through his computer agents, that are always bringing him fresh information through the internet. He lives on the cutting edge of computing, AI, corporate structure, and law. He’s always connected and he is the future of humanity. However, the future learns that exchanging humanity for efficiency comes at a cost.

High-Tech: From the start, Macx is simply more connected. His computer is wearable, and he receives all his information through a visor not unlike a souped up Google Glass. He’s largely accompanied by his cat, Aineko, which is an artificial cat that becomes increasingly intelligent. However, the story moves quickly into external minds, collective intelligences, wetware implants, artificial intelligences, simulated human existence, living corporate entities, nanoconstruction, planetary terraforming, the singularity and weakly godlike intelligences.

Low-Life: While most of humanity is riding the posthuman train to the singularity, there are some holdouts, largely concentrated in the highly religious populations. They reject implants and genetic manipulation. They prefer to do things the old fashioned way. There aren’t many of them, and their numbers diminish as the decades pass.

Dark Times: Early on, Macx learns that having your memories stored outside your own mind, such as a wearable computer, makes them susceptible to larceny and leaves Macx utterly helpless. However, this is a small problem when compared the challenges of uploading an entire race into the cloud. To say more would give it away, but let’s say that the challenges we face with our computers (not enough hard drive space, internet too slow, hardware out of date before you unpackage it) apply to humanity.

Legacy: Accelerando is a visionary depiction of the future as envisioned by Stross following the dot-com bubble. Reading it today feels as if he wrote it yesterday, and it’s a decade old. It’s a dinosaur in technology time. It won a Locus Award in 2006, and was nominated for best novel in the Hugo Awards, an Arthur C. Clarke award, and a BSFA award. His novel, The Rapture of the Nerds, is a not only a phrase that appears in Accelerando more than once, but a continuation on some of the ideas. Though its legacy is shorter than most novels we’ve discussed, it’s clearly a book that will be relevant for quite a while.

In Retrospect: I did this backwards. I read The Rapture of the Nerds a year ago, and Accelerando for the first time this month. Still, Accelerando is dense with jargon and buzzwords. It’s kind of hard to read unless you’re a real dork for computing and information technology. Fortunately, I am a real dork and the ideas don’t escape me even if the descriptions do. Stross has somewhat infamously cancelled a pending novel for being too close to reality after the Snowden files started being published, and I think he would’ve done the same for Accelerando if he wrote it today. 

For some perspective, this is the augmented reality future to Neuromancer's virtual reality future. The world Stross builds is instantly recognizable when you read about people who feel like they can't live without their cellphone, or how a smart watch is going to change their life. Most people don't want to stick their head inside a heavy virtual reality visor. They're fine with just having their life generally improved by having information at their fingertips. Don't get me wrong, I love the cyberspace, meta reality future as much as anyone, but Accelerando's future seems much more plausible.

Unlike most novels that would dump someone in an unfamiliar world, there is no reader avatar in Accelerando. This isn’t a problem though, as the near future Macx lives in is so close to our reality that it’s not hard to get on board. As the story progresses, it takes leaps and bounds by decades. We’re filled in, as readers, by a narrator that gives us a timedate stamp and brings us up to speed with the world as a whole. However, when many of the characters can exist in emulated realities, it can be hard to keep track of when, where, or what they are.

And even though the galaxy is on its fast ride to utter consumption, this isn’t the dystopian hellscape that most cyberpunk futures depict. It’s bright and sunny in its own ways. The dark clouds over it are dinosaur legal infrastructures, the economy and your mom. If you can get past the jargon, it’s a story that’s more relatable than some science fiction as it picks you up gently, and throws you into the sun.

Accelerando is available for free in many, many formats under a Creative Commons license.


For its time: 4/5
Read/watched/played today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 8/10


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

Monday, April 20, 2015

Microreview [book]: Prophecies, Libels, and Dreams: Stories by Ysabeau S. Wilce

 Magic and whimsy meet deadly and disturbing in this unique collection

The Meat:

This collection strikes me as interesting first and foremost because of its structure, that of a series of stories set in the same fantasy world. A bit like how old Gothic stories would be framed as "found" manuscripts or journals, these stories are framed as having been compiled by a historian to create something of a historical text. And the history is of Califa, or at least heavily centers on the city and, most specifically, on a few key personages. Each story is accompanied by an afterword, which offers commentary from the historian on the various tales. It's entertaining and a clever way of placing the stories in context. While the structure of the collection is interesting and engaging, though, I found the execution a bit more of a mixed bag.

The collection is not especially long, and a mix of fairly short stories and longer ones. The short stories jump around a bit, and are placed at the beginning and end of the collection. The two stories that open are short and do a nice job of building the scene, introducing a few key ideas and just setting up the feel of the setting, of Califa, a mix of gold-rush America with more Victorian manners and a unique magic system that adds an edge of darkness and wild possibility. The stories at the end of the collection, similarly, offer a few amusing diversions, including the last story which is actually set on Earth after the Civil War and is brought into collection as the historian explains that it is a fantasy based on quasi-historical places and events in Califa. Again, it's a clever way of presenting the stories, in fitting them all into a more unified whole.

The largest stories appear in the middle part of the collection, and center around the character of Hardhands as he deals with magic, betrayal, betrothal, and trying to forge his own future. I liked the character of Hardhands, his mix of brutality and privilege and near-innocence, but I felt these stories left me wanting more. They fit together reasonably well, and together might be considered a mosiac novel of sorts, a way of telling his life in episodes. If they are episodes, though, I felt that it was a bit distracting the parts of his story that were left out. Which brings me to my largest complaint of this collection, which will also likely be one of its greatest strengths to people more familiar with the setting: these stories are companions to a series of novels set in Califa. And as such there is no real sense of closure to the story of Hardhands. He overcomes obstacles, but they feel more like asides to something else, to a larger narrative that is here untold.

And I, personally, cannot speak to how well the stories fit into the larger tapestry that is built in the novels set in Califa because I have not read them. But as stand-alone stories I was left a bit wanting. Not because the prose is ineffective. The stories are always entertaining, always light and ridiculous with a vein of rather disturbing horror running through. The setting is dark, a twisted reflection of our own past, and the stories do an excellent job of capturing a mood and tone that evokes a fantastical past. But that the stories, while entertaining on their own, seemed to be a bit lacking in an overall direction and meta-narrative, for all that they are presented as a historical text. Or, perhaps, I got the feeling that there was something going on, but that I was missing it. That there was a layer of context that I, having not read the novels, was missing. For fans of the novels, I assume that having that added layer would make the stories pop more, would make the project as a whole pop more. For me, and perhaps for other readers for whom this is their introduction to Califa, the experience might leave a little bit to be desired.

At least for the stories that focus on Hardhands and Tiny Doom. While interesting and fun and dark and hilarious at times, the stories (and even the afterwords) hint at events and characters that I just wasn't aware of. As world-building it did make me interested in knowing more, but it was also frustrating because I kept feeling that I was missing something, that I was walking in during the middle of things and kept wondering what had added importance and what didn't. The shorter stories, and especially "Hand in Glove," I found positively delightful, but I will admit that for me the longer stories dragged a bit, and while fun and full of action, left me a bit confused.

And, in the end, that confusion pushed me out from enjoying the collection as much as I could. Not that I wouldn't recommend it, especially for fans of the series, but for people who are new I'm not sure I would suggest starting with these stories. They are fun, and they show a great deal of promise, but they don't come together as much as I would have wanted. Though the presentation is clever and rather engaging, I didn't feel that it really worked to pull me more into the stories or provide an added level of meaning to explore. At least not without having a better understand of the setting, of Califa, that the novels might provide.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the historical text approach to framing the collection

Negatives: -1 for not quite pulling it all together

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "Enjoyable, but the flaws are difficult to ignore"

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

Reference: Wilce, Ysabeau S. Prophecies, Libels, and Dreams: Stories [Small Beer Press, 2014]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Greatest Sci-Fi Movie of All Time Tournament (Finals)

I'm pleased that Metropolis made such a valiant showing, but there's no shame, I believe, in losing to Blade Runner. I'm also quite proud of the voters for not letting the second and third films of the Matrix Trilogy negatively impact their voting on the original, which was truly a groundbreaking cinematic experience.

The All-Harrison Ford Finals are probably a shoo-in for Empire, let's face it, but I find Blade Runner being here interesting. If I may: most people are well-versed in the saga of getting the Blade Runner edit right. Originally released in 1982, with a voice over by Harrison Ford that is universally derided, it wasn't until a decade later that the "Director's Cut" came out. It was subsequently revealed that it wasn't really Ridley Scott's final cut, so in 2007 they released the "Final Cut." Nerds of a Feather founder The G and I attended a screening of the Final Cut together when it was released. I remember walking out of the theater thinking that it was certainly the best version of the movie, but it was still a movie plagued by what might've been. It's clear in the final cut what everybody was going for, but there was still a certain looseness in some of the seams. So in a way, Blade Runner is a movie about possibility — a movie with some good performances, some great performances, and some transcendent moments, that still somehow hints that it could've been even more if only...

Maybe that's why it's made it this far, and yet will certainly fall before The Empire Strikes Back. As fans of imagination and speculation, somehow the promise of Blade Runner speaks to us in a way almost nothing else can.

Or maybe I ramble. Either way, off to the voting!

Results will post next Friday. Happy voting, and if there are any movies from this tournament you've never seen, treat yourself! They're all here for a reason.

Posted by Vance K — cult film aficionado and nerds of a feather co-editor since 2012, who couldn't be more proud of a blog that just turned three this month, and has such cute, chubby cheeks.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Akira Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo - Thursday Morning Superhero Edition

Welcome to a special Cyberpunk Revisited edition of Thursday Morning Superhero!

Dossier: Akira vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo (1982).

File Type: Manga.

File Under: Cyberpunk. 

Executive Summary: In 1992 a new type of bomb destroyed Tokyo in World War III.  At the conclusion of the war, the world began to rebuild. Tetsuo and Kaneda are two unruly teenagers who are involved in a motorcycle crash with a mysterious child.  A military helicopter descends as the child appears to vanish into thin air.  Tetsuo is placed on the helicopter and carried away from the scene.  We learn that the military has been conducting experiments on human subjects with fascinating results. Some of the children have exhibited superhuman capabilities, but are unstable and one such experiment, Akira, resulted in the destruction of Tokyo. Kaneda, in an attempt to track down the child, gets mixed in with a group of rebels who seek to stop the human experimentation and military state.  When Tetsuo returns, he suffers from psychic headaches and goes on a rampage through the city and leaving behind a wealth of bodies and destruction. The first volume, of six, ends with Tetsuo returning with the General to the military facility.  He is dependent on the medication they provide and intrigued by his potential of being as powerful as Akira.

High-Tech: Kaneda's motorcycle.  Need I say more? It is one of the most iconic vehicles in pop culture for a reason.
The rest of the technology lies in the juxtaposition to what the military has compared to that of the citizens.  The medical experiments are conducted with cutting edge equipment, hover bikes patrol the cities, and a massive cryogenic chamber rests beneath the stadium grounds.

Low-Life: Clearly the rebuilding process has been difficult on the citizens and Neo Tokyo-City finds itself overrun with deviants.  Bike gangs rule the streets and there is much political unrest.

Dark Times: In their quest to create humans with weaponized psychic abilities, Akira was born and destroyed Tokyo.  Frozen in a cryogenic chamber beneath the Olympic Stadium, it is only a matter of time before he is awakened.  Despite the destruction and harm brought about due to these experiments, the military moves forward with its agenda.  

Legacy: The impact that Akira had on our pop culture landscape is massive.  While the manga is a critical success, it didn't have mainstream success until the movie hit the scene. The anime that was inspired by this series is one of the first to cross the ocean and have a meaningful impact on our culture.  It is the definitive anime with good reason.  While it does not go into the political strife and intricacies as in depth as the manga, it is true to the source material and helped put it in the hands of fans all over the globe.

In Retrospect: 

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

If you were curious how Akira and The Simpsons would mash-up check out Bartkira