Friday, July 31, 2015

Microreview [book]: What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn (Rogues #2)

 Short Story #2 in the Rogues anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Well, I didn’t particularly care for this one. But Gillian Flynn, in case you didn't know (which I didn't), is the author of the book and then film adaption Gone Girl and I don't think my opinion will effect her career at all so I'll just go ahead and tell you all how I really feel about the story...not that I normally hold back anything anyway, now that I think about it. 

What Do You Do? is the story of a woman who was raised poor and taught to beg, but now makes a pretty good living for herself through less than reputable means. She goes from begging with her mother to working in the sex industry to moving laterally into the front office as a psychic/con artist. And while the narrator believes that she is a con artist in this respect, there are hints throughout the story that she is perhaps more than she seems, as she is able to see and feel auras and can give detailed descriptions of strangers’ personal characteristics. One of her front office customers, a woman named Susan, expresses her fear that something is wrong with her ‘evil’ stepson, potentially stemming from the ‘evil’ house they just moved into. The narrator sees an opportunity in this and agrees to help by coming to ‘cleanse’ the house twice a week for 6 months and $1200. While in the house the narrator encounters the Eddie Munster-like stepson who releases blood curling screams, threatens to kill her, and vomits in her purse. So far, what we’ve got here is a fast-paced and easily readable recount of an X-Files episode. So yadda yadda blood on the wall and all the usual stuff and then BAM! A twist! Stepson corners the narrator and explains that really, it’s Susan who wants to kill her because she found out that she was giving hand-jobs to her husband Mike (who happens to be our narrator’s favorite client) and now Susan is coming after narrator and stepson since she hates the stepson because, ya know, child of anotha motha.

This twist is full of holes and not at all believable. I mean, what working professional basically single parent (dad’s always traveling you see…well, at least when he’s not off getting hand jobs) has time to go to flea markets and rummage through boxes of old pictures until they find one with a family of four with a boy who looks like stepson and then use that picture to create a fake website full of fake history that will come up readily in an online search for their house? Not to mention, why did the kid puke in our narrator’s purse? Oh right, because he thought it would be fun to go on with the ruse for a while. Yeah, that’s believable. Anyway.  So our narrator buys this BS and ‘rescues’ stepson from now evil Susan and wait, what’s that? It’s another twist! Thats right, we have now gone from the short story version of an X-Files episode to the short story version of an M. Night Shymallama film. Oh yaaaaaaaaay.

Anyway, so the second twist turns out that stepson really is evil. Well, maybe not evil, but he’s definitely a little shit. He’s the one who found out about dad, he’s the one who made the website, and he may have cut off the cat’s tail but we’re not sure because the cat may have been a Manx. 

And now he’s playing the ‘you’re a kidnapper and I can get out of the car and make a phone call and you won’t leave because you’re a kidnapper now’ card. Which makes no sense to me. The explanation given for why our trusty narrator doesn’t just pop this kid in the face and go on her merry way is that since she engages in less than reputable employment opportunities she must have a criminal record so no one will believe her side of the story if he turns her in for being a kidnapper. Okay, perhaps this is true, but….how is he going to turn her in? He doesn’t even know her real name. I don’t even know her real name. Susan probably doesn’t even know her real name. She’s already quit giving hand jobs pretty much and I don’t think a person who has made their living begging and conning and hand jobbing is really worried about having to quit her job as a phony(ish) psychic to avoid being found. I don’t buy any of this.

The worst part of it all is that our narrator is quite a good character. Sure, she engages in acts that may not be the most socially acceptable, but since when has that been a reliable judge of character? She makes a good living for herself. She’s hard working, ambitious, and smart. She has control over her own destiny…or did at least until twist number two. Now, all of a sudden, all of her agency is lost. She is unable AND unwilling to get herself out of this (minor IMO) situation and spends the last few pages of the story trying to convince herself to allow this fool to manipulate her and to like her new situation, instead of trying to get herself out of it.

So all in all, What Do You Do? is probably worth skipping. It’s very well written, don’t get me wrong. It's an engrossing and fast-paced read, but the whole story is just contrived, in every definition of the word. The only thing that saves this story is that it's short, so I only really had time to get slightly annoyed after 40 pages rather than extremely infuriated after suffering through 400.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for writing style, which really was quite good.

Penalties: -1 for taking away narrator's agency, -1 for leaving way too many holes in the story to make the twists and the narrator's acceptance of the explanations even remotely believable 

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (not very good)

Posted by: Tia   who is currently discovering the joy of the short story anthology

Reference: Flynn, Gillian. What Do You Do? From: Rogues, Eds. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois [Bantam Spectra, 2014] 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

This edition of Thursday Morning Superhero marks my triumphant return to Austin Books and Comics, the LCS where my journey at Nerds of a Feather began.  I felt like a bit of a stranger in my old stomping grounds, and it was bittersweet in some ways, but it felt like home.  In the upcoming weeks I will be able to report on the Fables Wake and look forward to the impact this move can have on my posts.

Pick of the Week:
Star Wars #7 - If you are a Star Wars fan you should stop reading this and go pick up this issue.  I continue to be amazed by the job Marvel has done with this franchise.  This week we are treated to a brief glimpse in the life of Obi Wan when he is in hiding on Tatooine.  We get to witness his struggles to remain hidden to protect Luke and the order and try to protect the innocent from the vile grasp of Jabba the Hutt.  You can feel his struggle as he does nothing as people suffer in order to protect against the extinction of the Jedi.  You can sense his feeling of being alone as the last of his kind and he tries to protect Luke without showing his hand. This type of insight into the Star Wars universe is truly amazing and something that is a joy for a fan to read. 

The Rest:
Mad Max Fury Road: Furiosa #1 - I love that Vertigo is running comic book prequels to the stunning film.  I was blown away by Mad Max Fury Road, but it only created a thirst for more knowledge about the interesting cast of characters.  In this issue we learn about the moments that led to Furiosa springing the wives from Immortan Joe, but I hope we will learn more of her past in upcoming issues.  The book does a great job capturing the feel of the movie and has an authentic grit that is very satisfying.  What we learn about Immortan Joe and his war boys was very interesting and I look forward to more in this series.

Southern Bastards #10 - In this issue we learn more about Esaw, a minor character who works for  Boss and clearly has some issues with his temper.  I really enjoy how this book has evolved and the multiple lenses that Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have provided for us to enjoy the sick and twisted world of Craw County.   Witnessing what Craw County has to offer from the perspective of Esaw is not the most pleasant experience, but it is one that highlights the types of lowlifes that Boss has working for him.  I feel it demonstrated the power that Boss has on the town and how his henchmen will do whatever they can to feel important.  

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

6 Books with Fantasy Author Django Wexler

Django Wexler is a computer scientist and author of the (excellent) flintlock fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns (see our reviews here and here), as well as the middle-grade Forbidden Library series. Today he shares his "6 books" with us…

1. What book are you currently reading?

Seveneves, which I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve been a Stephenson fan from way back, and this is one of his better books, with a thriller-y urge to keep reading to find out what happens.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

This is a weird question for me, because I’m always so far behind on my reading! So what I’m excited about isn’t really upcoming for anyone else. I’d go with Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey, which has been out for a few months now. That’s another series that I absolutely love, and it gets better with each volume. Judging from reviews I’ve heard, I won’t be disappointed.

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?
I don’t re-read as much as I used to, but I’ve been thinking about going over some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series again. Possibly as audiobooks, since I hear the productions are top-notch.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

Some of the books I read as a young adult didn’t hold up when I went back to look at them again. Dragonlance, for example, is a lot of fun but mostly pretty fluffy.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, which I read around my senior year of high school, were an eye-opener in terms of great storytelling, especially very multi-layered storytelling. He takes wonderful advantage of the medium’s ability to slip things into the background. It was one of the first pieces of great writing I read that I recognized as great while I was reading it.

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome?

My latest is The Price of Valor, book three of The Shadow Campaigns! This is my military fantasy series, with a vaguely Napoleonic setting. So it’s got muskets and cavalry charges and just enough supernatural stuff to keep things interesting. If you’re new to the series, you should start with book one, The Thousand Names.

-Django Wexler


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

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Microreview [book]: European Monsters, eds. Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir

Behind every continent, there are a few good monsters.

There's something primal about monsters, about those things that seem to lurk in the darkness, just out of sight. Horror was largely founded on them, using monsters not only as a threat from outside, something so wholly foreign and inconceivable as to make humanity seem insignificant, but also to embody those very human failings that we try to deny in ourselves. Monsters great and small have filled the imaginations of people stretching back before recorded history, survived as stories, as bad feelings, as warnings about where to go and where to stay away from. Which is why the Monsters series of anthologies from Fox Spirit is such an interesting project, because it solicits stories from writers about those monsters native to where they live and write. This first collection centers on Europe and features a slew of European writers delivering dark stories to frighten and captivate.

What I liked about the collection was how varied the stories truly were, reflecting a nice diversity of monsters, styles, and themes. Many of the stories, like Aliya Whiteley's "A Very Modern Monster" and Krista Walsh's "Moments" showcase monsters of a more mindless sort, a kind of big cat and lake monster respectively. These are beasts, mostly, but in each story there are monsters deeper still, human ones who see the world as needing something to hold it in check or emotional doubts and fears that lurk beneath the surface of consciousness. In each there is not exactly any doubt that the creatures are real, but there is a question of whether the monsters are the most monstrous things out there. Is the more dangerous animal the cat or the man who raised it. Is the larger hurt the loss of a loved one or the dread that maybe the love was one sided, that maybe it had been about to end anyway? The stories do an excellent job of marrying the physical monsters with deeper themes and teasing them out slowly even as the stories are visceral and inky dark.

Some of the stories take a more historical tract when dealing with monsters, confronting them in times when they were more common. Unfortunately, some of these felt a bit more confusing to me, though perhaps it had more to do with not being as familiar with the creatures those stories chose to use. And of course, there were exceptions to this rule, as I felt that "The Cursed One" by Icy Sedgwick was a historical fantasy/horror done right, about a group of initiates to a secret society hunting a creature with strange and dangerous powers, and how the monster the men are sent to hunt shows a mirror back at them, at the organization they wish to become full member of. It's an interesting tale that managed to use the time period to evoke a historical legacy that made the ending that much more effective.

The collection also has the benefit of its format, that of a coffee table book. Along with the stories are some interesting pictures depicting the various beasts as well as a pair of graphic stories that fit in fairly well with the overall theme. The first, "Serpent Dawn," by Adrian Tchaikovsky & Eugene Smith, is great fun, a tale of two women who take care of mysterious cases involving the supernatural and who are drawn into a bungled plot involving a basilisk. It's a well balanced story with art that fits the mood and strangeness of the story, giving plenty of personality to the characters, and this felt like something I'd like to read more of (I suppose I should find out if there is more out there...) as it feels like just the tip of a larger story. The second graphic story felt a bit weaker to me, relying a bit too much on a twist at the end to drive home its point, and with art that seemed almost too pretty for the plot. But it did again revisit the idea of where monstrosity lurks, that humans are just as monstrous as the darkest of myths.

My favorite stories in the collection, though, were James Bennett's "Broken Bridges" (about a troll living in the world of men) and Aliette le Bodard's "Mélanie" (featuring no monsters at all, really, but rather a moving love story that had me wanting to read so much more). They are very different, but both show the raw humanity of people viewed as monsters, and show that sometimes monstrosity is created from misunderstanding and loneliness. In both, the "monsters" yearn for companionship, for love, and yet find themselves hampered by their natures. They are incredibly different in how they handle their themes (and how they end), but that's part of why I like them so much, because they represent such different ways of approaching the idea of monsters.

In the end, the collection is a nice montage of monsters and a nice sampling of styles and conceptions of what monsters are and how they infringe on the human world. While some are a little less successful in my mind in complicating the standard monster depictions, the collection overall presents a satisfying array of monster stories, from the more traditional to the incredibly innovative. I personally would have loved to have a bit more supplemental information from the authors (probably after each story) about what the monster is (is it historical, what's its significance is), but lacking that I didn't feel lost too often. For me, this is definitely a series of anthologies to watch.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for following through on the promised theme, +1 for the integration of graphic stories and prose, 

Negatives: -1 for lack of context/explanation on the actual monsters used, -1 for a few stories that bogged down the collection a bit for me

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "a mostly enjoyable experience"
(check out our scoring system to see why a 7/10 is very good)

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

Reference: eds. Thomas, Jo and 
Margrét Helgadóttir. European Monsters [Fox Spirit, 2015]

Monday, July 27, 2015

Microreview [book]: So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

This book should be the official Twitter user manual

To be honest, Jon Ronson's new book isn't right in line with the nerd/geek-theme of this site, but we nerds aren't exactly known for our calm, rational, measured responses to news or new releases in our particular fandoms that we don't immediately like. We drove Joss Whedon off of Twitter when Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn't everything we hoped it would be, after all. So even though I feel like the internet's dad and we're having to have The Talk, here goes:

In this book, Ronson chronicles the re-emergence of public shaming as a punishment. Used to be, back before the mid-19th century, people convicted of certain crimes would be made to stand in the stocks, or pillory, or publicly whipped, or otherwise publicly made an example of. It was deemed, however, that these were effectively cruel and unusual punishments with lasting, sometimes catastrophic psychological consequences. Let me stress again, people in the 1830s found public shaming excessive punishment. Well, nobody loves anything as much as a public hanging, it seems, so we've now resurrected the public shaming for the digital age.

Ronson starts off by tracing the trajectory of pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer's career. Until 2012, Lehrer was a best-selling author and in-demand public speaker. He then committed some journalistic sins (which are pretty minor, as far as journalistic sins go), and was made to endure an almost unimaginable public crucifixion via Twitter when he attempted to apologize at a media conference. Ronson also follows the stories of Justine Sacco, who was terrible at making jokes about white privilege, Lindsey Stone, who didn't understand Facebook privacy settings when sharing an intentionally disrespectful photo with a friend as a joke, and "Hank," who made the same joke everybody who's ever heard the word "dongle" has made, but this time it cost him his livelihood, and the security of his children. And that's nothing compared to what it did to the woman who set those events in motion.

Ronson also ventures into the worlds of extreme porn, prisons, courts, and online reputation management, and he unearths some obscured facts about the Stanford Prison Experiment that may be kind of important. But overall, this is a book that explores the human costs of hundreds of thousands of us taking ten seconds out of our day to say something casually awful about another human being in a place where the entire world can see it. By and large, Ronson lets these events, the people involved in them, and their repercussions speak for themselves. But I'll go a little farther and say a little about something he only touches on, namely the arbitrary nature of our pile-ons and our own complicity.

Take, for instance, the story of Mike Daisey. You may remember Mike Daisey as the journalist whose story on This American Life about working conditions in China for Apple's suppliers almost turned the world's wealthiest tech company on its head. This is, until This American Life had him back on to corner him about certain misrepresentations in Daisey's original broadcast. Remember? I do. I didn't go on Twitter to talk about what a piece of shit Mike Daisey was, but thousands of others did. But here's the thing: Mike Daisey isn't a journalist. Never really was. He was a stage performer, and did a one-man show about working conditions in China. Ira Glass, the ruler of the This American Life kingdom, saw Daisey's show and invited him onto the air to give his performance for all of This American Life's listeners. But then the fact-checking process revealed some problems with Daisey's account of his trip -- not the facts he was discussing, just his personal exposure to them. So Ira Glass had him back on to ambush him and get him to admit his duplicity. But the way I see it, this isn't Mike Daisey's fault. I don't assume everything Louis C.K. says in his shows literally happened, because he's a stage performer, not a journalist. But Ira Glass made different assumptions than I would have, and opened the door for a public shaming of Mike Daisey that almost drove Daisey to suicide. But now Daisey's pretty much okay, and Jonah Lehrer, who did much the same thing, has yet to publish again or get back on his feet.

Jimmy Kimmel handles it as a joke in his series "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets," and that's one thing. Celebrities are at least accustomed to casual vitriol. But we do this -- repeatedly -- to regular people with a few dozen Twitter followers who happen to say something that can be taken out of context or divorced of its original intention, and as a result, we all chuckle for a bit at somebody's callousness and then these people watch as their lives literally disintegrate. There are actual racists on Twitter. There are entire partisan "news" outlets who only exist to twist and misrepresent things that happen in the world. This is a world where a board member of the NRA blamed the South Carolina shootings on one of the victims because that person voted in the state legislature against a concealed-carry law. But instead of these genuinely awful people, we pick easy targets, weak targets, and straw men. And we destroy them casually.

And when asked about it later, we say, "I'm sure they're fine." Thankfully Jon Ronson went and tracked those people down to let us know that they're not fine, and that our actions online have real-world consequences.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10 for telling human stories that have deep emotional resonance

Bonuses: +2 for holding up a mirror in a timely, meaningful way and telling us truths that we'd probably rather ignore

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10. This isn't the best book you'll read by a longshot, but it's a message we all need to hear as social media races toward its adolescence. 

Posted by -- Vance K, who doesn't want to be publicly shamed, and is proactively watching his ass.

Reference: Ronson, Jon. So You've Been Publicly Shamed [Riverhead Books, 2015].

Friday, July 24, 2015

Microreview: Humans [TV] part two

The action accelerates but the emotional logic falls behind

Leo and Max, hunted whilst on the hunt

Television reviewing is an easy task in many ways. A short, intense burst of culture means for the busier blogger they can access something of note far more efficiently than through gaming, novel-reading or,er, calligraphy. There needs to be more calligraphy review on here by the way.  Anyway, it can also be a difficult task. Instant responses from the critical mass of press and online writers and comment boards means the personal and often solo experience of novel-reading is - unless you can filter out the noise that comes down your fiberoptic cable - mutated by others' opinions. Additionally, the practice of reviewing a series after one or two episodes in is of course like giving a book review after 75 pages, or stepping out into the lobby after 25 minutes of a film. It's a staple of how the form is assessed, followed by several episode-by-episode reviews, and a finale round-up that looks back at the series as a whole, finally tying-in with the way all other forms of story-telling are judged.

So at what point does one step into the fray? Is it justifiable to place judgement on a story only half-told? Or should we only judge the telling, and not the tale? On this translucent stage, I return to the British version of the Swedish hit Real Humans, because I'm inspired by how the telling as affected my experience of the tale, and how it reveals the pitfalls of an admirable attempt to merge sci-fi philosophy with the trapping of a modern-day tv thriller. 

One element that has blossomed and developed since I wrote my first review  is that a level of both fun and sadness has emerged in the plotting to give emotional complexity to a show that was feeling little too one-note in its dour and quiet depiction of its characters' paths. This is perhaps best displayed by two of the synth characters - Niska (Emily Berrington) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) - and how they contrast. Without too much spoiling for those further back than episode 7, it is clear that the central synth characters are linked in some way, yet despite a common background Max and Niska's take on the world is wildly different. Just like real humanity, their A.I. is influenced by experience and so the trusting innocence and loyalty that Max retains is replaced in Niska through horrible treatment by embittered, aggressive distrust and another form of wisdom. The way these two negotiate their journeys, and their philosophical stances, has been for me the highlight of the series, and emblematic of its ambition to tackle the big questions of A.I. - what is true humanity, what is instinct and what is programming, who is superior and can co-existence occur after the singularity ? It doesn't hurt that like most of the cast these two shine in every moment they are in and bring pathos and humour to the often monochromatic emotional moments they find themselves in.

Sticking with performance over plotting for now, William Hurt, though in a supporting role for the most part, also is allowed to delve deeply into these issues and areas of light and shade. His 'humanity' shines out of his eyes with each wry smile and heartbroken shrug, and whilst that is perhaps mere testimony to a gifted actor, it is also a signal of the intelligent decisions in direction and writing to let someone of such gravitas and nimbleness perform some of the key moments of debate and moral confusion. 

However, the perfomances and dialogue in the core story of synth Anita/Mia and the Hawkins family to me clearly demonstrate in every episode the key flaws in both the tale and telling. Whilst Gemma Chan as Anita continues to impress with an adept display of both unnerving robotic creepiness and heart-tugging humanity, often in the same moment, and the family themselves often rise to meet this excellence (particularly the older daughter Mattie and at times Katherine Parkinson as the mother), too often I found myself frustrated by the seeming need to ground the narrative in cliched 'everyday suburban family' behaviour - the exasperated, judgemental yet wounded mum/wife, the taciturn yet naive and selfish husband/dad, the rebellious intelligent teenage girl, the wanking son... I have no problem with wanting to draw in an audience that otherwise would not watch a sic-fi show with relatable conventions, and some moments ring true, but too much of the drama hinges on how these people react to circumstance and in almost all episodes their reactions are predictable and dull. (Spoiler alert- can skip to next paragraph) Parkinson's Laura is distrustful of Anita and envious of their bond with the children, but comes to care for her and defend her, just as the repressed, falsely-affable dad (a disappointingly one-note act from Tom Goodman-Hill) goes from 'hey, it's cool, the synth is great' to 'hmm, I want to shag the synth' to 'I am ashamed and want to synth out of here'. The way the moment of sexual perversion (is it rape, as the teenagers at the party earlier attempt?) by him his used as a plot pivot is dull and unconvincing, and far too weighted as a device to push things forward. This culminates in his bland treachery of calling the police on Leo and Max, despite nothing needing him to do that. 

Oh shit, um, nothing, what, it's just homework,  I wasn't wanking! Go away, I hate you!

The children fare better, perhaps because their coming-of-age stage of maturity ties in well both with society's learning to deal with the synths, and with the advanced synths' coming-of-age. The elder daughter is rather neatly a coding wizard so becomes the link to Leo and Max, and this is a much better contrivance, as is the link between the agent hunting them and their inventor. Also worth mentioning at this stage is the improvement in the initially amateurish strand involving Neil Maskell's police officer and his intruiging partner played with increasing impressiveness by Ruth Bradley. His distrust of synths is at first used as a blunt metaphor for racism, not helped by his 'London geezer' accent and 'I don't play by the rules' tv cop cliched behaviour. (spoilers again, sorry) Yet it becomes touching when his marriage dissolves in the face of his wife's falling for her synth, and his numb shock at his partner's true nature shows how far synth-human relations have to go, and works as a great metaphor for sexuality, gender indentity and coming out.

So we have one episode to go, which no doubt (given the events at the end of episode 7) will resort to action and contrived moments of accidents determining fates, but the word is that like its maternal Swede, the series will be renewed for a second run, so plenty of threads will be left hanging and avoid too-neat a conclusion. For as the waters have muddied and the layers have developed, this sci-fi drama has, like the synths, evolved into something far more interesting and complex than it could have been. All I ask is that as a second run allows a little more breathing space, we are given less logic-defying jumps in plot and more surprising and individual behaviour from the human characters. Because what is a story about robots becoming unpredictable, unique almost-humans, if the humans themselves are rendered at times as somewhat less than that?

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the synth characters of Anita, Max, Niska and Odi - moving, amusing and scary; +1 for the largely superb performances; +1 for the now-unpredictable outcome of the story

Negatives: -1 for the sometimes cereal-commerical cliches of the Hawkins family and the boring husband; -2 for logic-failings and forced moments of plot-shifting action (I'm looking at you, bridge leap) that remove you from the sense of realism

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"
(check out our scoring system to see why a 7/10 makes this a worthy watch)

POSTED BY: English Scribbler, who, if they were a synth, would be called Cassius and work as a techno dancer in Ghent. NOAFFT contributor since 2013

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

Today we finally return to our normal Thursday Morning Superhero programming, but we do so on a bittersweet note.  I spent the better part of ten hours today loading up my family's belongings into a moving truck for a triumphant return to Austin!  While I am excited to return to what I consider home, I am sad to leave the Evansville comic book community.  I found a home at Comic Quest and I will miss helping out with special events, the friendly and knowledgeable staff, and the good feeling that my kids and I were part of the Comic Quest family.  I was surprised to find such an amazing comics and games store in a a small town and I will surely miss my weekly visit.  If you find yourself in Evansville, Indiana, make sure you pay them a visit and tell them I sent you!

Pick of the Week:
Mind MGMT #35 - Much like my impending move, the ending to Mind MGMT is bittersweet.  It is tough to say goodbye to one of the most inventive and creative comics I have ever read, but it is nice to see the book end on Matt Kindt's terms.  Henry has the one thing that Julianne doesn't have and it gives him a huge leg up.  The animal assault is one of the most powerful scenes in the series and it sets the stage for the final showdown between Meru and Julianne.  I can't believe that this series is ending with the next issue, but am blown away by the compassion and strength that Meru has had throughout this series.  She is clearly one of the best female characters to ever grace the pages of a comic book.  Her growth and development throughout this series should be applauded and I am happy to have shared this journey with her.  Cheers Mr. Kindt!

The Rest:
Old Man Logan #3 - While I am still not on board with Marvel's latest event, I am enjoying the throw backs like this title.  Old Man Logan finds himself outside of his domain, and his attempt to understand what is happening is met with much resistance.  Battleworld is a strange place with a lot going on, and like Logan, I would like to get to the bottom of it and hear from Lord Doom.  Solid spin-off title from an underwhelming summer event.

Birthright #9 - Things get a bit intense as the Nevermind infecting Mikey continue to create difficulties for Brennan and the rest of his family.  It appears as though the conflict between Mikey and the Nevermind has reached a boiling point, but Brennan really steps up to protect his brother and possibly aid the Nevermind in completing its evil quest.  Quite the stressful issue, but another great one from Joshua Williamson. 

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

6 Books with Science Fiction Author James L. Cambias

James Cambias is author of the highly-regarded science fiction novels A Darkling Sea and Corsair. He is also an accomplished writer of short fiction and the founder of Zygote Games--a company that seeks to produce "high-quality, fun-to-play games that also educate players about scientific facts and concepts." Today he is here to share his "6 books" with us...

1. What book are you currently reading?

The Knight by Gene Wolfe. I literally just started it, but the subject is one I've thought about before: what would it really do to a person to be transported into a fantasy adventure?  

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick. I recently read an excerpt and am now desperate to see what the rest of the book is like. Swanwick gets better every year.

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read? 

I re-read constantly, without much planning. However, I've recently been re-reading a nonfiction book, Newton and the Counterfeiter, so I may go back to Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. 

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

Positive: That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. As a teenager I disliked it, as a younger adult I thought it was implausible, but each time I re-read it I find it is more real and more full of wonder. It also becomes more sadly prophetic over time. Negative? Foundation by Isaac Asimov. This was my favorite series as a teenager, but it has not aged well for me. The characters don't seem up to the epic backdrop, and the Seldon Plan gets creepier and creepier the more I think about it.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing? 

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. This question is obviously a tough one because there are so many possible answers. But Thurber basically set my own template for humor.

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome?

My latest book is Corsair, from Tor Books, and it is awesome because: it is a near-future, hard-SF, entirely realistic take on SPACE PIRATES! It's also about shady characters in the Caribbean, mutinous Air Force captains, pirate theme parks, orbital mechanics, and a killer with a magnificent mustache. Think of it as a collaboration between Carl Hiaasen and Tom Clancy.  

By the way, I'm writing these responses from a hotel room while on a promotional tour with three other great writers: Elizabeth Bear, Max Gladstone, and Brian Staveley. We're currently in Connecticut, but then go to Towne Book Center in Collegeville, Pennsylvania on July 22, Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs on the 24th, Everyone's Books in Brattleboro, Vermont, on the 25th, and wrap things up with an appearance at Phoenix Books in Burlington on the 26th.

-Jim Cambias


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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Micoreview [book]: Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues #1)

Short Story #1 in the Rogues anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

I recently presented my overly ambitious summer reading list, and when I put this list together I didn’t take into consideration that, well, it's summer. Here in the northeastern USA, it seems to be cold more often than its warm, so during summer I am outside as much as possible. My free time is spent riding the trail, playing in the garden, and watching baseball. Sounds great right? But there is one thing missing….reading. I’m not even one to read on the beach, which is an incredibly popular pastime 'down the shore'. I’d rather just sit in the sand and smile at (or go swim in) the ocean. My most heavy reading is done in the fall and winter, where the bike rides are short and bundled and the play outside time is spent shoveling snow.

So perhaps my summer reading list should have been comprised of short stories. But, I’m not really a short story person either. I don't know why, but I just never really got into reading them. However, I do have a bad habit of buying short story compilations simply because they contain ASOIAF canonical works. I read those GRRM pieces and tuck the anthology away on my bookshelf, never to be opened again (Legends I, Legends II, Warriors, Dangerous Women, Rogues). And I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. Thing is though, most of these compilations are chock full of fabulous writers, many of whom (in Dangerous Women and Rogues in particular) are household names to fantasy readers: Abercrombie, Lansdale, Butcher, Sanderson, Grossman, Sykes, Rothfuss, Gaiman, etc. It's a shame to let these all go unread. In fact, the only short stories or novellas I have ever read (of my own accord) that weren't part of the ASOIAF cannon, were part of the Kingkiller one. I fear I am a lengthist, practicing short story elitism. Frankly, I am ashamed of myself.

So, disgusted with my practicing length discrimination and vowing to change, I dusted off the ol' Rogues anthology, went to the table of contents and noticed, unsurprisingly, that Joe Abercrombie's story was first in the compilation.

In case you’ve blocked out all genre awards this season, and I don't really blame you if you did, Joe Abercrombie has most subtly pointed out that Tough Times All Over won a Locus Award this year:

To combat my apparent short story discrimination, I've decided to read the entirety of Rogues in order, including the stories by authors I'm not familiar with. I'm going to cover one story per post and like these stories themselves, I'll keep it short and sweet (well, maybe not always sweet) since time is precious in the summer. We will start with Abercrombie, end with Martin, and throw a little Lynch, Gaiman, and Rothfuss in for good measure.

So, without further ado, lets go rogue.

Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie

I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised this story won an award, and you call tell that Abercrombie had fun writing it. The story chases a package from character to character around the city of Sipani. And in the span of about 40 pages, Abercrombie develops 14 different characters to the extent that it takes some authors a whole book to develop one. There are couriers, thieves, crime ring leaders, drunk Northmen, and magicians, to name a few. Going back through the pages to get an accurate count of the number of characters who take a POV in Tough Times (again, 14), I was able to remember something distinctive and familiar about each one of them. That is no small feat.

This story is quite often laugh out loud funny, particularly in the quick dialogue exchanges as characters interact. The dry humor is exquisite:
     "I'll give you something willingly," said Fallow, to sniggers from the others.
     The woman didn't snigger. "It is a parcel, wrapped in leather, about..." She held up one big hand, thumb and forefinger stretched out. "Five times the length of your cock."
     If she knew about the luggage, she was trouble. And Fallow had no sense of humor about his cock, to which none of the ointments had made the slightest difference. He stopped grinning. "Kill her." 
Dry humor rules this story, but so do women, much to the surprise of the male characters. As hinted at in the passage above, the males often underestimate the females, usually to their sudden dismay. In all the books I’ve ready by Abercrombie, he has given his female characters equal treatment. They are just as tough, just as cunning, and just as messed up as the guys, even if they are in a society that tends to not value them as high. This is one of the things I’ve always loved about his writing. (Steven Erikson does this really well too, with both gender and race, and he talks about it here.)

So, in conclusion, I really enjoyed reading Tough Times All Over. It was fun and funny, and was fast paced and gripping. This one is most definitely worth an hour or two of your precious summer, and most definitely deserving of the award it won.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for presenting men and women as equally despicable

Penalties: nothing

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)

Next up: What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn

POSTED BY: Tia, who is currently discovering the joy of the short story anthology

Reference: Abercromobie, Joe. Tough Times All Over. From: Rogues, Eds. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois [Bantam Spectra, 2014]

Monday, July 20, 2015

11 Tips for Surviving Our Current Dystopia

Congratulations, Friends! Social, economic, political, and environmental forces have all coalesced to form the dystopia we've long been promised in the pages of science fiction...and we got here without even a nuclear apocalypse! Imagine how messy THAT would've been.

Although, to be fair, Friends, a nuclear apocalypse would've been at least a clear punctuation mark, indicating that the following clause would be dystopian in nature. As it happened, though, we sort of slid into our dystopia sideways, and not everybody realized what was happening. But now that it's here — and it's certainly here, Friends — here are some handy tips for making it through these turbulent times unscathed.

1. Don't Pay Too Much Attention

Dystopian science fiction from 1984 to Snow Crash to Hunger Games tells stories about the one marginalized person who recognized that things were not as they should be, and made noise about it. The subtle lesson here is found on the other side of the coin: The majority of people didn't realize how terrible everything was, and the few that did mostly just bit their tongues. They were happy in their ignorance until one person looked around and said, "Wait a second...!" Friends, don't be that person.

2. Self Medicate (legally)

Aldous Huxley was quick to point out the benefits of being zonked out of your mind to help ease any friction you may feel with your small role in the larger dystopia. We are lucky, Friends, to have so many readily available methods for self-medication, then. Our doctors are willing to prescribe us opium in pill form in staggering numbers all while we laugh about how heroin used to be sold in drugstores. Is there anything those old-timey simpletons wouldn't do?! But do make sure you only take the drugs that are most profitable for Wall Street. Getting caught with illegal drugs is one of the surest ways to come face-to-face with the dark heart of our current dystopia.

3. Get Really Angry (About Things that Aren't so Important)

A few sessions back, the Supreme Court declared that money is speech, and the only way for corporations, who are people without mouths, to speak is by shoving fistfuls of money into the pockets of politicians at every level of government. They also ruled that generic pharmaceutical companies can't be held liable when their drugs cripple and debilitate patients prescribed them, meaning patients harmed by any of the 80% of drugs sold in the United States have no legal recourse at all. This is scary stuff, so you'd be far better served by ignoring or downplaying it all, and instead getting very, very angry about the President saluting a Marine while holding a coffee cup.

4. Shun Critical Thinking

Friends, remember how rough it was to have kids in school accuse you of being smart? You know, the famous mantras in 1984 made pretty good sense as long as you didn't think about them. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. That last one is the most important to remember these days. As scientific consensus solidifies behind the idea that some of the most destructive things humans do to the planet and each other are also stunningly profitable, it would seem disingenuous if the only people attempting to refute these findings were the ones making that money. Friends, we're never going to see any of those profits. Not as wage growth, and not as corporate-tax-funded government services, but these companies need our help! The more of us that weigh in loudly, even angrily (see #3, above), on their side, the more credible their arguments will sound. There are a number of news outlets that will even remind you what to say, if you forget.

5. Read More Articles Like This, With Numbered Lists of Things

Try to stay plugged in to what people are talking about, especially if you can keep it at the most superficial level possible. Everybody needs a mental break from time to time, but you're going to want to really go the extra mile on this. Remember, every article you read about a bachelor and/or bachelorette is time you could have spent learning. And nobody at the top wants that.

6. Make Sure All Naked Selfies Include the American Flag

The government is keeping copies of any naked photos you send of yourself, so make sure to announce your patriotism at all times. Also, you can remind others of your patriotism by not getting too upset that the government is keeping copies of the naked photos you send of yourself.

7. Form Homogeneous Communities

Friends, the best way to ward off that "Wait a second...!" moment (see #1, above) is groupthink. Groupthink is really the best way to isolate yourself from any ideas that may challenge your own or illuminate an aspect of society you weren't previously acquainted with. So make sure you surround yourself, both in real life and on social media, with people who have similar backgrounds, tastes, views, values, ethnicity, age, and income as yourself. It's much easier to blame a faceless "other" for so many of our problems if we don't actually know anything about them.

8. Don't Be Poor

Being poor is one of the fastest ways to come into contact with the most dystopian structures and contradictions in our present moment. And Friends, once you're poor, there are lots of systems in place to make sure it's very, very hard for you to stop being poor. So best to avoid it altogether if you can.

9. Be Wealthy

There is a big difference between simply not being poor and being wealthy. You will certainly have the best and easiest time in today's oligarchical landscape if you can afford to simply write the laws you want. Really, this is the best overall tactic for success and wild fashion experimentation in the years to come.

10. Be Totally Cool with Surveillance, and Report Your Own Activities as Much as Possible

If you're not doing anything wrong, then what's the harm in having all of your activities monitored? If the definition of "doing something wrong" changes, you may or may not be notified and given the chance to opt-out. So no need to worry. Also, there are some very good reasons to use your credit cards as much as possible and leave location data embedded in all the photos you post to Instagram. If you are ever wrongfully accused of a crime and those electronic records can provide an alibi, for instance. But there are other good reasons, too, like making it easier for any organization that wants to buy the data to find out where you are at all times and what you're doing and who you're with and what type of lipstick would go best with the dress you just took a selfie of yourself wearing and where the closest store to buy some is. Everybody was so frightened of Big Brother for so long, and then when it ultimately showed up, Big Brother was Soylent Green, and everybody was cool with that.

Oh, and Soylent Green is people.

11. Stay Home on Election Day

Voting is fun, sure, and you get the nice sticker. But, Friends, the fewer people who are able to do it, the better. That's how our glorious dystopia got here, and how it will sustain itself.