Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Interview with "Bloodthirsty" Comics Writer Mark Landry

Today, Titan Comics releases issue #1 of Bloodthirsty: One Nation Under Water, the debut title from writer Mark Landry, illustrated by much-lauded artist Ashley Whitter (Squarriors, Interview with a Vampire). Mark is a Louisiana native who, for the last ten years since Hurricane Katrina, has been trying to find the right story to tell about that disaster while simultaneously building a career as a film and television writer (notably, of the Disney Channel movie Teen Beach Movie, which is a 180-degree tonal shift from Bloodthirsty),

When he had the idea for Bloodthirsty fully formed, he took to Kickstarter to help make the vision a reality. Despite getting successfully funded, there have been many roadblocks and lessons-learned that threatened the project ever seeing the light of day. Mark has been more open about these challenges than many Kickstarter creators, and discusses those elements, along with the genesis behind the new comic, the gulf between Disney TV fare and gritty comics for engaged, adult audiences, and why vampires aren't scary with Nerds of a Feather.

Nerds of a Feather: You're a Louisiana native, and you talk a little in the introduction to the first issue about the inspiration behind the book and what made you want to tell this story after Katrina. That really spoke to me because I was in the same boat -- I was a Gulf Coast native in L.A. when the news broke. I remember that sense of helplessness, and I feel like I understand your drive to contribute through storytelling. Can you talk about what the process of finding the "right" Katrina story was like? How did you land on this tale?

Mark Landry: It’s interesting, because I was already a “professional” writer when I wrote Bloodthirsty, but I hadn’t written any personal work that I would ever have wanted anyone to read. The only works I had really shown people at the time were topical comedy pieces and work-for-hire projects. Those always had my sensibility in them, but were never truly driven by any personal experience of my own (Teen Beach Movie for example; I’ve never even tried surfing).

I think, as writers, we all write a handful of early personal stories inspired by our terrible love lives, we all write about our parents in one way or another, etc. But I never liked my own autobiographical work. I only ever liked my writing when it was thematically in tune with my perspective, but not at all “about” me. So dealing with and navigating through the emotional inspiration for “Bloodthirsty” was really my education about who I am as a writer, and who I want to become, in terms of how I could even approach writing through a subject that has had a profound effect on me as a human being.

I had struggled with a lot of complex feelings about Katrina – anger, guilt, frustration – and year after year, they wouldn’t go away; they just kept getting worse. I didn’t have a therapist, but as a writer – as an artist – I could intuitively feel a nagging in my head that understood the best way to deal with this was going to be to make something, write something, say something. I had to start that process with a sort-of self-analysis: What’s angering me about Katrina? What’s frustrating me? Why do I feel guilty? And the answers to those three questions became the foundations for this story: I was angry because the human cost of the storm was largely preventable; I was frustrated because it had become clear to me that human nature and society have a long way to go to reach the point at which such a cost could ever actually be prevented; and I felt guilty because I – as a citizen in a democracy – was doing very little to contribute to our species and to our society’s very necessary improvements.

So I started with the anger, which is to say I started building the story with the villains. Once I had constructed their motives, I could figure out the hero and what he would do to try and short-circuit their plans.

NF: In other interviews, you've been clear that the blood-drinking bad guys here aren't vampires, although somebody not paying much attention might think so. There's something of a sci-fi element here in what's otherwise a horror story. Why was it important to you to make it more...well, feasible?

ML: Well for one thing, I have never found vampires particularly interesting. I know they’re supposed to be sexy or what have you, but I really couldn’t care less about some supernatural being that can live forever and doesn’t have a reflection. I fall asleep. Probably thanks to the various aesthetic trappings having become cliché, the vampire trope has grown stale to me; it has lost whatever allegorical significance it may have had.

I’m interested in human beings! The greatest threat to civilization is basic human greed! That’s exciting to me because it’s real. You see it on the street and in the news every day! It’s what caused the housing bubble, the great depression, the slave trade, the holocaust, and every social malady ever known to man. I would go so far as to say that racism stems from a basic greed of resources. One group wants to hoard resources (money, crops, power, etc.), and the easiest way to turn its members toward this purpose is to turn them against the “other” – which is any group that can be easily defined as “not us.” And the simplest way of doing that is the visual: they look different, so we must destroy them and take their resources.

For Bloodthirsty, I knew the project was going to be the longest and most time/energy consuming I’d ever undertaken, so it had better mean something to me. I needed the villains to be exactly what I despise about society: the Socratic ideal of the greedy, 0.001 percent, government-corrupting multi-billionaire class. They needed to be human beings who have cultivated a way to live better and longer at the expense of other people’s lives. I needed them to be “bloodsuckers” in every sense of the word, which is synonymous with greed.

If you look at organisms that feed on fresh blood – hemovores like leeches, mosquitoes, vampire bats, etc. – they all have a biological need for blood as a meal, and if they don’t get it, they’ll die. The hemovores in this story are the same way: their bodies are in a constant state of cellular repair, so they can enjoy long, youthful lives. But if they miss a blood meal, their cells become starved of oxygen and they die. Game on.

You just aren’t going to see any sparkly, pointy-toothed, flying, mind-controlling non-humans in this story. Our villains are 100 percent plausible. Heck, they could be in New Orleans right now. That’s way scarier to me than some non-existent boogeyman.

NF: Your hero, Virgil, was a Coast Guard rescue diver during Katrina. What did your research process entail to get that part correct -- the real-life part of this thing, which comes through in the issue's prologue?

ML: Most of the previous answer was devoted to the idea that people are the worst. And at the same time, only people can be the best. What I absolutely love about our existence is that, yes, people can do some horrible things; but other people have the power to do something about it! We’re not talking about alien invasions and sea monsters. Humans are villains, and humans are heroes. Period.

If you think about how absolutely selfish and evil money in politics is, and how absolutely evil racism is, and terrorism, imperialism, etc. – on the far opposite end of the evil-vs-good spectrum are human beings who literally put their lives in danger in order help others. I think of individual human beings as falling somewhere on that empathy scale. No empathy means you’re an evil, self-serving bastard; mega empathy means you would literally die to save someone else. And the men and women of the US Coast Guard are on the mega-empathy extreme.

Whenever anyone even scratches the surface of looking into the rescue and recovery efforts of Katrina, they’re going to find out pretty quickly that the Coast Guard operated at a stunning level of precision, speed and selflessness that would make your head spin. And it’s all online – every detail of it. The Coast Guard has an amazing archive of interviews, timelines, statistics, facts, figures, etc. about the event. So that’s where I started to discover facts like: there were 52 helicopters in the air, no air traffic control, zero collisions, and they rescued 33,000 people! Those facts alone are stunning. Then you dig a little deeper and read interviews about individual rescues. Beyond that, I contacted the Coast Guard, who were generous enough to arrange interviews with two rescue swimmers and a former captain – all of which will appear in upcoming issues in the series, after a statement from General Honoré and an environmental spokesperson.

I wanted the hero of the story to be one of these selfless, real-world heroes. At the same time, he needed to be someone from Louisiana, whose heart was breaking as he rescued people from the rooftops of his own flooded neighborhood. This is the kind of person who will find it within himself to take on the blood-sucking villains – so that’s exactly who Virgil LaFleur is. He’s the empathetic beating heart of New Orleans, sharpened and focused by his experience in the Coast Guard, and he’s the only one courageous enough to draw a line in the sand.

NF: New Orleans is definitely a main character in this comic. But there's a hell of a mix of characters overall in Bloodthirsty-- drag queens, prostitutes, do-nothing cops, corrupt officials, and so on. Did you have a sense of wanting to get New Orleans "regulars" X, Y, and Z into the comic, or did the story dictate the cast?

ML: The story dictated the cast, really. Or rather, the themes did. There had to be greedy plutocratic villains, so then there had to be corrupt cops and politicians (you can’t have one without having all three). But because these corrupt plutocratic types never get their hands dirty, I needed lower-level enforcers on the front lines doing the dirty work.

New Orleans was a factor here, in that only in The Big Easy would it make sense for a cross-dressing pimp and his prostitutes to perform at a nightclub that’s actually a converted church. I mean, that could actually happen in New Orleans, and that’s part of why everyone loves the place! It’s got character; it’s colorful and unique. I think of Mother Taneesha as Grace Jones meets Prince meets Frank-N-Furter, and his Hell’s Belles as the singing prostitutes from Cabaret.

Next, I couldn’t really tell a story about hemovores feeding off the blood of the poor without actually having any poor characters. So that’s where Mr. Parks and Dante come in. A story like this has to have victims, and it also has to have someone for whom the hero is fighting. Again, the story’s themes are dictating which characters are needed to tell it.

NF: Filmmaking is also a collaborative medium, so I wonder what kind of experiential overlap there might be between that and comics. As a produced screenwriter but first-time comics writer, can you discuss what the creative process of working with an artist on this project was like?

ML: I get the sense that every artist is a little different, as is every writer. In working on screenplays, I typically have a close collaborator of some sort, whether it’s a co-writer, a director, producer, etc. We get together often to discuss the story over several iterations until the script is locked. After that – in Hollywood at least – the writer is often handed his or her walking papers while the production team goes and makes the final product.

In comics, the editor is more like the producer, and on Bloodthirsty I was both writer and editor (with John Hazners and Chris Fortier at various stages) for most of it, until Titan brought on their editor, which has also been great. But I’ve been the person working most closely with the artists. Like I said, every artist is different. Ashley pretty much does her own thing, as does Richard Pace, who is working on later issues in the series. I provide a script and thumbs, and they go off and work, only calling or texting if they have a question or to talk through something. I’ve learned that sequential art is such an underestimated, difficult, arduous undertaking that artists need all the time, peace and quiet they can get while they’re working.

Georges Jeanty (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, etc. - ed.) – who has been a very generous mentor to me on the project – has been a lot more collaborative in his role, and I can tell that’s how he is as an artist. We get together and go over thumbnails, we talk on the phone about story points, and he’s even done a bunch of layouts to give the artists a better place to start than just the script I give them. I actually prefer the more collaborative writer-artist relationship in terms of getting the plan laid out. After that, of course, the artists just need their space to concentrate on getting the pages done. I try not to bother them much during that phase.

NF: This book is a Kickstarter success, but I know it took some doing to see the light of day even after being successfully funded. What would you most like to tell other independent artists who are eyeing Kickstarter as a launching pad for their own projects?

ML: I think the best bit of advice I can provide is this set of three guidelines:

1) Limit your variables. This means to limit the number of people you have to depend on to actually produce whatever the Kickstarter is funding. When I started my Kickstarter, the script had been written, but I after that, I had to rely on hired artists to bring the project to fruition. Be careful with that, because you’re making commitments based on another person’s ability or willingness to perform. If they’re late and your backers get mad, they don’t get mad at the person you’ve hired; they get mad at you. So if you limit or eliminate those variables and can do everything yourself (write, draw, etc.), do that instead…but only if you’ve got both the proper skills and a solid sense of professional integrity.

2) However much you think it will cost, double it. I know people always say that, but it’s so, so, so, so true. It’s not an exaggeration. Bloodthristy has ended up costing more than double its funding amount, which has come out of my pocket. I’m happy to do it because it’s a project about which I’m passionate, but everyone should be aware of the financial traps that unforeseen roadblocks can cause on a project.

3) However long you think the project will take, quadruple it. I started Bloodthirsty four years ago. When the graphic novel version (all five issues) is finally printed and sent to backers, it will have been two years late vs. the estimated delivery date. None of this is a result of laziness or poor management on my part. A litany of unforeseen roadblocks and setbacks has plagued the production process, but I’ve learned that these are sometimes a natural part of putting together collaborative creative projects. Expect delays, plan for them, schedule for them, and that way, you’ll be able to better manage your backers’ expectations in terms of when the project will be complete.

# # #

Bloodthirsty is available today from Comixology and Local Comics Shops everywhere.

Posted by Vance K — cult film and occasional comics reviewer, and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Do We Want the Fantastic Four in the MCU?

I did not see Fantastic Four. I don’t need to taste spoiled milk to know it’s spoiled. I’ll take your word. Same as I’ve taken the internet’s word on the unmitigated disaster that the film is.

Allegedly. I haven’t seen it.

But this post isn’t about that film. It’s about a hypothetical film, one that hopefully won’t get made. And one that no one seems to want. But, I already wrote this post, so...

We all know by now that Fox has the film rights to the Fantastic Four—for another five years or so  as a result of rushing this latest installment into production. We also know that Fox has the film rights to the X-Men universe, a property the studio hasn’t completely mangled, at least not recently.

So serious...
Marvel isn’t happy about this, of course, having made the deals back in the ‘90s when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. The company even appears to be actively sabotaging the Fox properties by phasing them out of the comic universe, thereby giving Fox no new characters to use or plots to adapt.

But, there’s a chance that Marvel can get its hands on the Fantastic Four. With the monumental failure of the latest reboot (as of this writing, it hasn’t turned a profit), Fox may be forced by its shareholders to work out some kind of deal á la Sony with Spider-Man. And now with Fox wanting to expand the X-Men universe into TV—and with Marvel owning the TV rights to those characters—Marvel’s first family may come home.

Marvel just wouldn’t get the Fantastic Four. They’d get Dr. Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Skrull, Franklin Richards. Others, I suppose. All could soon make their appearance in the MCU.

There are great characters in the Fantastic Four universe. While I cannot imagine that the Silver Surfer will look much different from his previous incarnation—the only thing good from those early installment—Galactus would certainly be something akin to the Celestial walk-on in Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, we’d actually Galactus as a god—not a space cloud. And Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War and Avengers: Secret Invasions (jettisoning most of the source material from the latterl, of course).

And Dr. Doom, possibly the greatest comic villain of all time. Marvel desperately needs interesting villains.

You know which characters are more or less unnecessary? The Fantastic Four themselves.

Would a Marvel Studio’s Fantastic Four be any good? 

Well, it would probably be a lot like Fox’s previous FF movies: a bit more colorful than the standard gritty fare we’re fed and a lot more tongue-in-cheek. Even the cast wouldn’t look much different: a collective of relative no-names, a handful of B-Listers, and maybe a bona fide star or two in support—plus a Nick Fury or Tony Stark cameo. There’s a chance that this formula would work better this time around. After all, the first Fantastic Four came out in 2005, the same year of the first Nolan Batman and five years after Singer’s interpretation of the X-Men. With Batman and Robin in recent memory, there seemed to be a consensus, within the industry and among fans, that the only way to translate comics into film was to up the grit, thereby “grounding” the story in the real world. Fantastic Four and Rise of the Silver Surfer doesn't fit that gritty mold—as the newest version seems to have conclusive proven.

They almost look like they enjoyed making the movie.
But things have changed since 2005. In spite of commonsense, Marvel Studios gambled on making fun and often funny films, presenting their characters pretty much as they are written in the comics—maybe even a bit less gritty and realistic than the many incarnations of these heroes. So, the Fantastic Four seems perfect in the actually-enjoyable MCU.

A Marvel Fantastic Four film could look a lot like Guardians of the Galaxy—or at the very least Ant-Man. Like those characters, the Fantastic Four aren’t among Marvel’s more “realistic” heroes, so the Studio could have fun with them. But, unlike the previously mentioned Marvel fare, the Fantastic Four does not benefit from being relatively unknown. They got baggage.

Does anyone like Fantastic Four? Yes, no one really likes Ant-Man. But few of us even have an opinion on Ant-Man. Most comic fans have an opinion on the Fantastic Four—and not a favorable one. Yes, we all pay lip service to the original Kirby-Lee run. But by the darkening eighties, the Fantastic Four seemed so out of step with the grittiness that was overtaking the medium, grittiness we fans demanded and ate up. While Spider-Man survived the Great Darkening, the Fantastic Four are no Spider-Man. Peter Parker, however, epitomizes much of what actual humans go through. The Fantastic Four as a set of human characters are weak and no very relatable in comparison. Hey, there’s the scientist guy! And the cocky hot shot! And the tough one! And…a woman…

We certainly never cared enough about the team to actually buy the book. And we don’t care to see the movie either.

Certainly, a Marvel Studio’s Fantastic Four would likely not be the unmitigated disaster that Fox’s latest effort is. But Marvel Studios would probably have made many of the same mistakes that Fox did. Marvel, after all, has a history of putting untested directors at the helm of big budget projects. Marvel may have even hired Josh Trank on the basis of Chronicle, just as Fox did. Furthermore, Marvel’s success stems in large part from its oversight on productions, ensuring that films look and feel like bona fide MCU movies. Edgar Wright’s exit from Ant-Man was the result of this oversight. Would Marvel had acted any different than Fox on the set of the film?

At the end of the day, we really don’t need a Marvel Fantastic Four. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty full as it is, with a dozen characters in waiting. Sure, Marvel probably would love to get their first family back, but as it stands the MCU is probably crowded enough. And Marvel should focus on making Spider-Man—another character I’ve never cared about—decent again. Not for me. For the fans.

Plus, wouldn’t you rather have Marvel involved in an Old Man Logan or X-Factor Netflix series? Unless Marvel is planning a series based on Ed Brubaker’s Doom. I’ll sit through another boring FF moving for that.

Monday, September 28, 2015

6 Books with Author Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson lives and works in the UK. He writes crime, speculative fiction and general fiction. He is an occasional artist, enjoys jazz, but cannot play the guitar to save his own life. He's on Twitter as @tadethompson and has a website, Long Time After Midnight.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I should point out that I never read one book at a time, so this is a difficult exercise for me. I'm reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I'm a big fan of Cloud Atlas and while I've read everything else that Mitchell has written, nothing has given me a frisson of excitement like this book. The characters are vivid and read from the first page. I'm only on page 46, but I already feel I know Holly Sykes and the possible transdimensional horrors that might be in store for her. Mitchell is a writer of consummate skill.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

Saga vol 5 Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples.

I didn't ask if it was cool to pick graphic novels.

I've been a fan of Fiona Staples' art since the Hawksmoor graphic novel she did way back when. Vaughn's work I can take or leave, but I do have all five Ex Machina volumes on my shelf.

Whatever alchemy brought them together on Saga should be bottled. It is an amazing series that grabs you by the gonads from page one of volume one. It tickles the hybrid fantasy/space opera bone. It's surreal and funny and farcical. It has a royal family with TVs for heads. It has a strange interracial couple running away from powerful factions tickling that Capulet and Montague bone. It has a lying cat-not a cat that lies, but one that detects lies in anyone around it. I want a lying cat for Christmas.

I can't wait to see what they get up to in Volume 5.

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

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy needs no introduction, but there's something about this book, something powerful about the voice of the narrator, or the absolute evil of the antagonist, Chigurh, or the utter tragedy of the Moss family. I've always wanted to go back to this book to give it a close, slow read. I want to know how he got me to care about these characters. He also manages to make all the settings seem apocalyptic and bleak. All of McCarthy's books are uncompromising, but this is the one that keeps pulling me back.

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

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

I first read this book ten years ago. I'm a big Atwood fan, but I've never understood her need to distance herself from Science Fiction, even when she's writing science fiction. That may have been the reason I responded negatively to 'Oryx and Crake'. It's the first of a trilogy, and my friend Stephanie Saulter recently read the last book and encouraged me to try again. Maybe it's because I'm older and (one presumes) wiser than I was ten years ago, but I really enjoyed it this time, despite the wonky science and the so-so Sci-fi tropes. The language is exquisite. I have the other two books in the trilogy and I now feel like reading them.

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

The Masters of Solitude by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin.

It's out of print, but you can find second hand versions. I have bought three copies of this book. The first one I read to tatters and I had to buy another. The second one I gave to someone dear. The third one is on its way to decrepitude.

This book was the first non-twee fantasy I read. It isn't Grimdark by any stretch, but it does not look away from the grimy aspects of humanity. It's about leadership, the sacrifices that brings, about the abuse of power (both supernatural and temporal) and intolerance. There is some exploration of telepathy (which interests me as a trope) as well as magic. It's about Wicca versus magic in a far-future, post-apocalyptic world.

It's part of a trilogy that the writers did not finish (one is now dead), but this is the only book that I cannot stop reading.

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

My book's called Making Wolf. It's a crime noir book set in an imaginary country in an alternate history West Africa. It's a gritty narrative in which I mash up Chandler and Spillane against West African culture. I think it's awesome because I have a bad guy called Church who will get completely under your skin. Don't take my word for it. Read the book and see. Money back guarantee if your skin doesn't crawl.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Microreview [book]: Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

A book that makes grimdark fantasy feel like a slightly lukewarm but otherwise pleasant bath.

The Meat:

Sometimes novels take us to the heights of achievement. Heroes overcoming great trials, great evils. There is a sense of jubilation as villains are defeated in the last moment, as battles are won, as good triumphs. As readers there is a shared pride at having reached such an ending. Sometimes, though, novels have no interest in the heights of achievement, in evil as something that can be banished or defeated, in heroes of any sort. In such books, instead of sharing the triumphs of the protagonist, the reader is made complicit in their sins. Making Wolf definitely fits into the later category, creating a rich and haunting narrative that moves with power and destructive energy of a truck tearing a man in half.

This is not a book for the feint of heart. The speculative element comes from the alternate history it creates taking place in Alcacia, a fictional Yoruba nation that in this setting formed during the Nigerian Civil War. What arrives out of this speculative landscape is a world where bribes are king, where violence is omnipresent, and where the food sounds delicious. Seriously, the detail given to the world here is vibrant, revealing a setting torn and stitched back together and torn again. The nation is one defined by the damage done by colonizers, the corruption that is the lasting legacy of the West.

"Alcacia isn't kind to anyone" (262)

I think that might be the most comprehensive summary I can give to the plot. The novel follows Weston Kogi as he returns to his home country to attend a funeral. From there he is drawn into a plot that places him in the sights of just about every faction in play. Told to solve the murder of a beloved figure in the region, Weston accepts as much to stay alive as because he has nothing else to do. As a character he is drifting, passive, and completely buying into his own lack in agency. He moves through life as an outsider in his former home, constantly reminded through beatings, through the crimes he witnesses and participates in, that the world he left is rotten.

If Alcacia is rotten, though, it is because it has been bruised. Hard. The prose does such a great job of capturing both the humanity and beauty of the place right alongside the extreme and pervasive ugliness. And Weston, for all he wants to be above and separate from the crimes he sees, is right in the middle of them. It's an unsettling read, because as a reader there was a part of me rooting for Weston, wanting to see him survive, win. It's a trap, though, that the novel expertly lays. There is no winning here, no escape. For all that Weston believes it's not really his fault, for all that it's understanding what he does, he does some terrible and unforgivable things during his time in Alcacia, and in the end he does them because he wants to, because he wants to be a person with power, of power. And I, in wanting him to survive, became just as guilty. In rooting for Weston, I was rooting for murder, for rape, for corruption. Because Weston is not strong enough to resist, to fight for something that might benefit more than just himself. He is drawn along, and as much as it doesn't seem like he has any better options, the truth is that he decides to keep going, decides to try and see it through, is bought and sold no less than anyone else that he looks down on as corrupt.

It is an incredibly difficult read. I would call it a grimdark fantasy, because as alt-history it fits into a sort of fantasy, but it has none of the distance that grimdark normally affords from the real world. Here there is no comfort. Which is part of my overall dissatisfaction with grimdark as a genre. It posits the world as dark, gritty, and relentless, but the depictions always toss those things into the past, into some fantasy realm that looks like historical Europe. When George R.R. Martin is asked about all the rape in his stories, he falls back on the "well that's how things were" logic that falls apart in the face of a work like Making Wolf. Because here the crimes are not pushed back into the past. They exist on (basically) our planet, in our time, are witnessed and committed by a man who has been in many ways "Westernized" from living in London most of his life. And though the plot unfolds in Alcacia, his Western-ness does not save him or keep him above what happens. If anything it locks him into being part of the problem, in trying to believe that the things he sees are separate from himself. It is the scars of colonization that exist right now that open up the ugliness of humanity to be viewed, that make colonizers of Alcacia's own sons, including Weston.

And it is the strength of Making Wolf that it refuses to let the reader off the hook. [And here we might get into some mild spoilers, so be warned!] There is no moment of redemption for Weston. There is ugliness and it does not end. In fact, Weston benefits from it. Is seduced by it. And it's hard to blame him. It's impossible to forgive, but it's hard to blame, and that is the ultimate triumph of the book, to leave the reader no easy release, no easy victory. To force that confrontation with the dark. And fuck I think I need a drink after reading this. For every sweeping snapshot of persevering beauty there are five moments of terror and filth and gut-wrenching pain. There are no heroes and, in some ways, no villains either. There are victims. Layers of victims. It would be difficult to say that Weston is not a victim, for example. But his victimization is very different from, say, that of the women in the story, which he becomes complicit in, which he in many ways condones by writing their hurt off as just part of the setting. So the novel is very much engaging the ideas of victimization and grittiness and pain and agency and providing a damning look at how basically being a man and opting to still try to be the hero plays out.

So I have to applaud the book for its unflinching look at humanity. At crime and punishment. It's not really the most pleasant book to read (though the food is lovingly detailed and I want to try it all), nor the most uplifting. Nor is the ending all that satisfying in the traditional sense. But it all works. It works and it's dark and it's a definitely worth picking up and struggling with. And I'm off to get that drink.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for being unflinching, uncomfortable, and uncompromising

Negatives: -1 for leaving me numb to happiness (seriously, I need to go look at kitten videos for a while now)

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "quite, quite good!" (check out our rating system here)


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

REFERENCE:Thompson, Tade. Making Wolf [Rosarium, 2015]

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

Today I present to you an abbreviated version of TMS.  Last week we moved into our new home, and between getting settled and wrapping up end of the term grading I will admit defeat when it comes to my weekly comic book intake.  Bone is still going strong in my family which has been a delight.  I also wanted to deviate a bit from comics and let you know that They Might Be Giants are releasing another kids album!  After their first amazing kids album No!, TMBG is releasing Why? on November 27.  You can preorder the album and gain access to some really cool digital downloads here.  You can even bundle the album with a TMBG yo-yo!

Pick of the Week:
Over the Garden Wall #2 - In a delightful issue, we learn about Fred the Horse and what led him to his path of crime.  Apparently the bird that is guiding the children is leading them to an old lady's house with the intent of robbing her blind and Fred wants in.  Poor Fred.  After leading an honest life, he was fired because he swore to secrecy when he was robbed hauling a load.  When people called him a liar because he wouldn't out who stole the goods, he turned to a life of crime.  I love the mystery that surrounds this series and the whimsical world that Pat McHale has gifted us.

The Rest:
Deadpool vs. Thanos #2 - Thanos and Deadpool continue to quest to discover why things are no longer dying.  Both Thanos and Deadpool have a relationship with lady Death, the the unlikely duo are forced to work together to uncover this mystery.  It is especially awkward because, not only are they polar opposites, but Thanos is the one that cursed Deadpool and made him immortal. The dichotomy of the two play well off of one another and the twists and turns that they encounter make this an enjoyable tale.  It appears the next journey will take them to Hell as they attempt to rescue Lady Death and restore order.  Fun little title. 

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

6 Books with Science Fiction and Fantasy Author Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is the creator of The Riyria Revelations books and of what was my joint favourite novel of the last two years - Hollow World His latest work is due in October and is the latest in the Riyria series, The Death of Dulgath. Today Michael kindly shares his "6 Books" with us...

1. What book are you currently reading?

'It's an unusual time for me because I’m not reading like I normally would, which is to say not anything for pleasure or research. Instead of making something up, or rolling back time to what I was reading last, I’ll just put the truth out there. I’m reading, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. Now, I know that sounds like an unusual book for someone who has fifteen genre novels released (or waiting publication), but there is a reason. I’m teaching a class for Writer’s Digest University in a few weeks, and this is the required reading material that the students will be using. I thought it would be a good idea to know what they are being exposed to so I can augment the class with my thoughts on the various topics covered'.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

'I’m looking forward to City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett. It’s the follow-up to City of Stairs , which came out last year around this time. I tend to spend much of my time “reading broadly” rather than “deeply” so I can see what some of my fellow authors are writing. For this reason, I read a lot of first books, and not many seconds. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the first ones, it’s just that I read slowly, and there’s only so much time in the day. The fact that I’m excited about his sequel says a great deal regarding how much I enjoyed the first one'.

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read? 'In general, I don’t do a great deal of re-reading. My mind is really good about remembering plots and characters, so I don’t “need” to re-read, for instance, when the next book in a series comes out. I do have a few top-shelf books that I re-read, but I do so whenever the mood moves me. In other words, I don’t “wait” to do the re-read such that an itch starts forming...'.

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

 'It's probably sacrilege to say, but I think my love for The Lord of the Rings is born more out of nostalgia rather than my current reading preferences. I find this ironic, especially given what I’m going to talk about in the next question. When thirteen, they rocked my world, turning me not only into a reader, but a writer as well. Fantasy has expanded over the years, and I find there are so many good books these days. If I picked up Tolkien’s work for the first time today, instead of 40 years ago, I think my impression would be different. Because of this change in perception, I put a caveat when recommendation Tolkien's work. Yes, it's still great, but it's not for everyone and so may find it a bit dry'.

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

'The word “influence” makes this a difficult question to answer because I tend to think of my writing as having its own unique voice. It's not like I can point to a, or b, or c, and say, "Oh I took a little bit of each and combined them together to create my style." That being said, if it hadn’t been for Tolkien, I probably wouldn’t have been a writer at all. Before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I wasn’t a reader. Afterward, I was so enthralled with the concept of creating worlds and characters that I started putting my stories down on paper. So, the more accurate thing would be to say that Tolkien was the spark that lit the flame. I guess that makes him more of a catalyst than an influence'.

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

'My latest book is The Death of Dulgath, the third novel in The Riyria Chronicles series. Upon reading, my wife proclaimed it to be “quintessential Royce and Hadrian,” which is encouraging considering I’ve been away from the pair for a while. I think it has a great mystery and some new characters that I hope people will love. For me, it’s the characters that drive the story, and I think there are few really good additions in this novel. The Death of Dulgath is available for pre-order now, and will ship at the end of October for ebooks and November or December for the hardcover and audio versions'.

-Michael Sullivan

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Microreview [book]: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

The Most Stephenson-esque Book Yet!

Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves. William Morrow: 2015.

Neal Stephenson is the Gary Oldman of novelists—he can take on practically any genre, and do it well. He went from straight post-cyberpunk sci fi to quasi-historical to quite historical epic, followed by a dip into the near-present, then veered into the murky realm of speculative fiction. His most recent book, Seveneves, weaves together his entire oeuvre (I can never remember how to spell the funny-looking word for “body of work”, constantly getting it confused with the French word for ‘egg’, so just in case I’m wrong this time, I mean the one that’s not an egg!). It’s got plenty of speculation, a veritable mountain of hard sci fi concepts and babble (more on that below), and takes place in two distinct time-frames, the immediate future and the so-distant-it’s-almost-unrecognizable future 5000 years hence.

If you, like me, love a mind-bending initial premise, then you’ll take to Seveneves immediately: its first sentence begins, ‘The moon blew up.’ This seemingly random, unexplainable event sets in motion what amounts, we learn quickly, to the End of the World. This is awesome! I was thinking as I read those early pages, a cool ‘what if?’ premise that asks the hard questions about, for instance, what actually has value if only the tiniest fraction of the human population is to survive (genetic diversity, scientists and engineers, intrepid no-nonsense types who can Get Things Done, etc.), and what has absolutely none (friggin’ politicians who interrupt messianic scientists constantly to talk incessantly, almost everything and everyone on earth, cloak-and-dagger plotters (=politicians), and also politicians and their sycophantic, cannibalistic lackeys. Politicians!). Of course, if none of the latter list would have any value in a high-pressure survival situation, one cannot help but begin to question their value even in our day-to-day lives…

Yes, the beginning of Seveneves is masterful and entertaining. And actually the ending, 5000 years in the future, is fairly intriguing as well. Even the middle has its moments. But the story definitely gets bogged down, or indeed bedeviled (the devil is, after all, in the details), due to Stephenson’s almost obsessive need to explain the workings of every single physics concept in excruciating detail. Ever wondered how orbit adjustments are/might soon be made in low earth orbit? Prepare to have all your questions answered, multiple times.

I’m probably even nerdier than Stephenson in most ways, but even I was taken aback by the loving, painstaking effort he put into all such descriptions. Trademark Stephenson, to explain the workings of thrusters or whatever in lavish detail, yet deadpan though multiple romantic encounters. He’ll spend dozens of pages on what amounts to background world-building, in a style that, while always entertaining to read, flirts with an almost footnote-like “here’s what you need to know about this physical process” approach, but skip through anything with the barest hint of melodrama (the inevitable attrition of the Cloud Ark population, for example, essentially isn’t described at all; instead we lurch forward in time to the critical moment for that dwindling population, skipping all the human drama in between).

As my previous reviews on this site will attest, I think romance, melodrama, and human emotions are all super-awesome, but techno-babble not so much. Given that context, you might be expecting me to “grade” Seveneves harshly. Expect again! (An expression that, I just noticed, doesn’t really roll off the tongue like “Think again”…)  Midway through I was gearing up to Go Negative due to all the descriptions of minute course corrections and the near-zero discussion of how everyone felt about things, but before I could bring my Guns of Negativity to bear, it suddenly hit me: all that emotional stuff is ALSO more or less useless in a high-pressure, ‘survival of the species’-type test. Who cares about a given character’s internal monologue about how much of a bummer it is that they had to work hard? Or whether so-and-so is getting married, or whatever? It’s all made irrelevant by the enormity of the challenge facing humanity. 

Seveneves is quite an unsettling story, in that respect, much like the recent Australian apocalyptic film These Final Hours. If there were an extinction-level meteor strike whose atmosphere-igniting firestorm will reach your country in twelve hours (or, in the case of Seveneves, a similar catastrophe in about three years), all of the normal narrative logic fails to apply. Hey, it seems like Jimmy and Zoe will get together after all—thank goodness he didn’t end up with horrid Vicki! Plus, Zoe’s pregnant, so happily ever after it is! But wait a minute…none of these relationships ultimately mean what we normally think they mean, because all (or, in Seveneves, virtually all) of the characters have been denied any chance at a future. Their ability to influence things, whether through making a genetic contribution (having kids) or by swaying the hearts and minds of others, is literally zero. If humanity will soon cease, for all intents and purposes, to exist, does anything we normally care about matter anymore? Stories such as these force the viewer to ask terrifying questions about what has ultimate value, and we might be surprised by what we discover in the night at the end of the tunnel.

So ultimately, Stephenson won me over with the unshakable logic that hardly anything, including who shacks up with whom, is of any import at all, and can safely be elided, whereas the physics of movement in space and such things are suddenly of tremendous importance (and perhaps have been all along, but we humans can only see this clearly when we are standing in our own graves!).

There were things about the book that struck me as not fully successful/satisfying, notably the transition from the present to 5000 years in the future (I’ve drunk the cool-aid that the journey is more important than the destination, but Stephenson clearly doesn’t rate how things came to be as of any significance compared to the simple matter of what is, and thus decided to skip ahead to the ‘good part’). Yet it was close to spell-binding throughout, even during the long near-asides to describe the workings of a thingamabob. Despite having only the faintest traces of melodrama about it, even to the point that we pretty much know almost none of the characters have any chance at a future at all, Seveneves was quite emotionally satisfying nonetheless, at least to me. Any fan of Stephenson’s prior work will likely find Seveneves, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, “just like his other books, only more so.”

The Math:

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for forcing readers to confront the bitter reality that all the crap we spend our time obsessing about (who ‘ends up with’ whom romantically, etc.) is of questionable value

Penalties: -1 for taking the Battlestar Galactica gambit of moving the story one year into the future, but multiplied by (literally) 5000, thereby demanding readers just accept our solar system’s future without any chance to see how things developed the way they did

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention, even if 40% of it is scifibabble!"

Zhaoyun, Wearer of Rose-Colored Glasses and Reader of Dreams, has been keeping it real here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.