Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Nanoreviews [video games]: Broforce, Slain: Back from Hell, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

Free Lives. Broforce [Devolver Digital, 2015]

Broforce is a non-stop action platformer in the vein of Contra. It takes all of your favorite action heroes from the last 30 years, gives them copyright non-infringing names (like Brobocop and Rambro), their signature weapon, and sets them loose in a variety of missions with a goal to kill terrorists and that's about it. It's mindless and fun, until you get to some of the more platform heavy levels. That's where the fairly loose controls cause the game to suffer. Otherwise it's fun to pick up and play for 15 minutes just to blow stuff up.

Score: 7/10 

Wolf Brew Games. Slain: Back From Hell [Digirati Distribution, 2016]

Slain: Back From Hell is also an action platformer, though much closer to Castlevania than Contra. It's got a great Gothic atmosphere with everything cast in shadows and dripping blood. It also has a great metal soundtrack, as it's scored by Curt Victor Bryant, formally of Celtic Frost. But above all else, it's a real difficult game! You've got a handful of tools to avoid death and damage, and you better get used to them because it's full of enemies and instant-death traps. Like Broforce, it's not a great game but it's a good time killer in small pieces. I felt like I made more progress by rage quitting and coming back after a day or two than trying to stubbornly push through it.

Score: 7/10

Treyarch. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 [Activision, 2015]

In Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, you are a straight up cyborg who murders a lot of people and robots for a variety of reasons. I wasn't really into it either, until about halfway through. Then the story takes a real turn for the weird and I got way into that. It's got Christopher Meloni, Katee Sackhoff, Robert Picardo, and other celebrities. I couldn't tell you about the multiplayer or zombies, because I didn't touch those but the single player has enough going on for me. Few games do spectacle like Call of Duty.

Score: 8/10


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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

[microreview] Ghost Summer: Stories by: Tananarive Due

Beauty and horrors....

In her introduction, to Tananarive Due’s collection Ghost Summer: Stories, Nalo Hopkinson writes about the unease caused by the stories in the book. It’s the exact word for the mood that the collection conveys: unease, a slowly building sense of something terrible to come.

The stories in the book, Due’s first short story collection, cover a wide array of characters and predicaments—while never falling into the paths a reader might expect. A teacher moves to a new town and is changed by the experience (and, boy, do I mean changed). In another story (and my favorite in the collection), a mother deals with a changeling-like child and the ways in which it’s actually much nicer than her own baby. In another excellent story, a woman returns to help her best friend and her best friend’s daughter with surprising revelations. What is particularly masterful in these pieces are the ways in which Due builds character’s quickly so that the reader always understands their motivations even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.

Due’s stories mostly fall into horror, but of the best type: the horrors are built entirely out of character, even when there are supernatural elements involved, so that one even when something monstrous occurs it still feels like a part of the world she has created. Due also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of reality, yes a woman can clone herself—a fantastic premise--but her reasons for doing so lie in a horrific, and all too real childhood.

If there is an issue with the collection, it’s this: many of the stories feel somewhat incomplete, like the story hasn’t completely told itself yet. I enjoy Due’s pacing in how she conveys plot details, but often times I felt more rushed to the ending than I would have liked. This is a greedy reader’s lament: these characters and plots were so compelling, that I wanted the stories to be as rich as they were. Instead, I felt like some of them were more easily shaken off than I wanted them to be, solely because it was easy to quickly move on to the next piece in the collection.

Overall, this is an excellent debut collection from an amazing and exciting voice. While I’ve long followed Due on Twitter and had read a few of her pieces, I’d never fully delved into her work. I’m very glad I did and can’t wait to read more of her work. This collection makes for a strong first glimpse into the characters and images that compel her and would (hint) make a great gift for any horror fans.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for one of the best changeling stories I’ve read

Penalties: -1 for some of the stories not living up to their excellent premises and characters

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


POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016.

Reference: Due, Tananarive Ghost Summer: Stories [Prime, 2016]  

Monday, November 28, 2016

NERD MUSIC: Interview with Vampire Step-Dad

NERD MUSIC is excited to present an interview with Vampire Step-Dad, a high-concept synthwave act by an up-and-coming artist in the scene. [Disclaimer: The G mastered Vampire Step-Dad's last two releases.] Please join Vlad and I as we talk music, nerdery and '80s pop culture! And if you like what you see/hear, you can support Vampire Step-Dad by purchasing his music via Bandcamp, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter, where he is very active.

Thanks for "sitting down" with me! To begin, how did you get into making synthwave music?

Glad to be "here." To answer your question, I first discovered synthwave from a video on YouTube called "MiniDrones Blew Up My Toys!" It's this awesome video where RC cars and mini quadcopters are fighting, using explosions and it's all stylized like a Michael Bay movie. But good. Anyway, they used "Hang 'Em All" by Carpenter Brut, and I was instantly in love. This was just before EP III came out, so just after finding him, he released EP III and I was blown away. It sounded familiar but different than anything I'd heard before. It took me a month or two to look into what style of music it was, and that's when I discovered Synthwave. I was instantly fascinated and had to try and make some myself.

One of the things I love about Vampire Step-Dad is the concept, the idea that the music is made by the protagonist in an Alf-like sitcom. How did you come up with that?

Well, I knew I needed something really original. At first I was thinking of a "name" style, like "Skip Tracer" or something like that, but I realize it had two flaws: 1. It was already taken by a country band 2. Personal names are easily forgotten. "Was it Chip Tracker? Skip Lazer? I know it was a name of some sort..." So I had to avoid that route. The most important thing to me was that it screamed "80s" all on it's own. There was plenty of trope names already, nights, neon, lazer, had all been done to death. And on top of that I've never really been able to take myself too seriously, so I didn't want to try to put on airs of badassness.

So I thought hard about what I experienced the most out of the 80s. For me, it was the TV shows. I loved 80s action movies, but if I'm honest, most of what I watched was family sitcoms. Cosby Show, Family Ties, Alf, as you mentioned. So I knew I wanted to go that route. Expounding on this, the 80's had a lot of non-nuclear families, like My Two Dads and Three Men and a Baby. So that was another facet that said "80s" to me. And LASTY, you know... monsters.

Zombies are overdone, werewolf didn't roll of the tongue very well, and Frankenstein's Monster would leave you too limited. So, Vampire + Step-Dad. It fit all my needs. It sounded 80s. It was memorable, because it makes you immediately start imaging what he'd look like and what situations that could cause. And it aligned with my sense of humor very well. Of course, I didn't realize "Stepdad" is the proper way to spell it until after I got my logo designed, so I had to embrace my own idiocy and run with the dash. (Yeah, that's right, dad jokes. brace yourself.)

You explore different aspects of '80s pop culture in your music. Is this a conscious part of your creative process, or something that emerges organically?

Very, very conscious. My attraction to synthwave is all about the nostalgia. I totally respect the guys making old sound new (like Carpenter Brut) but for me, I want to sound like someone forgot to release the soundtrack to an old movie you've not seen before. Also, with the way I write, sporadically and with no real theme, it serves me well to just go with what's inspiring me at the moment, and see where it takes me. This is why it surprises me when people say my release have any sort of coherence. But hey, I'm not going to argue with anyone that's liking my stuff. But yes, ultimately, I want the first few chords of a song to scream "THIS IS AN 80S SONG! GET IT? DOESN'T THIS FEEL SOOO 80S?" Some people think this is a path that leads to a dead end, but oh well. Maybe I'll shift gears when I feel like it. Right now: EIGHTIES.

When I first heard "Green Berets for Breakfast," I felt like it was straight out of a Stallone and Schwarzenegger buddy flick that was never made, but should have been. A live action Contra. Or Ikari Warriors.

Which version? Original, or Redux? "Berets" was on my first EP, and the response I got with it was very lackluster. But I knew I had something good there. The original has a very slow start, and doesn't do anything special for a good long time, so I can totally understand why people moved on from it. But I new it deserved better, so I revamped it for my second release, Sweater Weather. I gave it a much more powerful open, I sped it up just a tad, and I threw in some new synth solos, to really drive the point home that this is all about badass sweaty dudes with camo paint on their faces. I grew up in a military family loving action movies, so I spent plenty of time running through the woods playing "army" so I knew I wanted to make a track worthy of being in Commando. Man I love that movie.

"Redux!" That was the first time I heard your music, and the Commando vibe is unmistakable. I'm still waiting for the VSD ode to Predator, though. You could call it "Get to the Choppah."

No, I think I'd call it "Puddle of Mud" just to throw people off.

Another thing I enjoy about your music is that it doesn't align neatly with any one of synthwave's dominant tropes, like "retro cyberpunk" or "teen romance." Instead you cover a range of references and approaches, even on a single release. At the same time, there's an unmistakable VSD sound. Conveying a range of aesthetic interests while cultivating a signature sound is no easy task. How do you pull it off?

Completely by accident. I'm not "aligned with a trope" because I can't be that consistent. I rarely sit down and go "OK, I'm going to write an action song!" Cause it always comes out forced. Most of the time I fiddle through presets for an hour until something grabs me, then I build on that. A lot of the time it feels like the song itself wants to be something. Like I'm just digging up something that already exists. I often just feel like I'm along for the ride. A few months ago I noticed I had a few songs and ideas that feel along two paths, so I thought to myself "I can make these two EPs, and actually have a themed EP! Like the pros do! SO I continued with that plan, but I've been stuck for a month now cause saying "I need to write this kind of song" to fill out an EP has me sapped for motivation. My brain has a really hard time working that way. The fact that I have a "sound" is immensely gratifying to hear, as I think most artists are unable to really know what their sound is, or even if they have one. The way people hear your music can be completely different than what you intended.

A lot of our readers are fans of science fiction, fantasy, role-playing games--you know, geek culture in general. And synthwave arguably fits into that category too. How would you describe the connection between this music and broader geek culture? In general or in specific reference to your own music.

You know, I've always felt like geek culture, and this is especially true today, is not so much a discrete culture, but just pop culture in overdrive. Anyone can enjoy a good sci-fi movie, but we're the ones that want to fully understand the universe it's set in, and create a board game, a graphic novel series, and a pen and paper RPG set in it. We want to bathe in it. In the same way, synthwave is just the 80s in overdrive. We're not actually interested in recreating the REAL 1980s. We want to recreate what our memories tell us it was. The distilled, hyperreal version of the 80s. And a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is similar. Look at Blade Runner. There's not a normal street in the whole movie. Everything is wet and lit by neon. People are holding umbrellas with fluorescent lights in them. It's ridiculous, but we love it. So synthwave has that same feel. Soaked in aesthetic. Just drenched with it. And of course, it's also referencing all those movies to, so it has a doubling down effect.

What other groups or artists are you into these days?

Hello Meteor is my go to. When I don't know quite what I want to listen to, but I know I want it to be good, Hello Meteor is it.

I'm obsessed with Oscillian's Shakedown EP. It's like he mainlined Harold Faltermeyer, and it's just so perfect. And Brandon is another one I listen to a lot lately. His debut EP, Neon Haze, is a ridiculously good foot to start on. He's got great songwriting skills, not to mention his production is stellar.

How about your upcoming projects—I think I heard something about a Valentine's Day release...

Yes, I've got a romance themed EP, set to come out in time for VD Day. V Day. Sorry. I've got another one after that that I'm pretty excited about. Not to say I'm not excited about the V Day EP, I'm just stuck working on it right now, so I'm less happy with it.

For all the fellow producers out there, I've got to ask: what kind of gear/software do you use?

I use Reaper for my DAW. Got tired of paying for Pro Tools over and over again and checked out Reaper and was blown away. Never looked back. I use pretty much all stock plugins for mixing, save reverbs. The stock plugins in Reaper sound great and are easy to use. You can actually get them as a free plugin suite if you're on PC. Use them in whatever VST supporting DAW you want.

I work entirely in the box. Software synths, drum samples, amp simulators. I actually have my DAW set up within Dropbox so I can hop between my desktop and my laptop seamlessly. I can start writing a song while on the train, and then when I get home, I can hop on my desktop and it's right there, just as it was on my laptop. It's a pretty awesome workflow. If this intrigues anyone, feel free to find me and ask questions.

My favorite softsynths are Synth1, and OP-X Pro II. Synth1 is free, and the stock bank is cheesy, so a lot of people write it off, but it's so easy to work with once you understand the signal flow, and I've been able to make some great sounds with it. OP-X Pro II is an Oberheim ripoff, and it sounds great, and has a million amazing presets to start from. So good for basses and leads. They sound huge.


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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Microreview [film]: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Written and produced by her, it follows Newt Scamander (author of the textbook of the same name) as he travels to New York City in the 1920s with a case full of magical creatures. In America, like in Britain, wizards are in hiding under the Statute of Secrecy, but here they fear persecution from groups like the Second Salemers, who believe witches should be burned or flogged. Magical beasts are banned in NYC but when Newt arrives something magical is already terrorizing the city. As you can imagine, bringing a suitcase full of magical creatures into a big city could be a recipe for disaster and as expected, some of the creatures escape.

The character development in the film is quite good, for the main characters at least. I think credit in this right goes equally to Rowling and the actors who play these characters. Eddie Redmayne in particular is wonderful as Newt Scamander. He is humble and funny and caring, and fierce when he needs to be. Queenie is my second favorite, and she fits into Rowling’s m.o. of having ‘beautiful’ female characters be more complex than traditional media usually allow.

All that said, there is a certain magic missing from the film. The sense of wonder and awe is just not the same with the Harry Potter series, and I think a lot of that is due to the fact that this is a story told only through film. I read (and listen to) the Harry Potter series very frequently and that sense of wonder and magic is always there, no matter if it’s the first or hundredth iteration. Rowling's writing in Harry Potter proper is so charming and much care is given to minutia. A lot of that is lost in this film translation. For example, there are a few glaring continuity issues. Newt spends the first quarter of the film trying to catch a niffler, which is cute and fun and all, but he could have easily caught it in three seconds with a summoning charm. And also, I’m pretty sure you need to have a wand to apparate, even side-along, and I can't believe that it’s possible to apparate with a muggle. 

The overall story is also quite contrived. That’s not to say that the Harry Potter series didn’t follow known story telling tropes, but Fantastic Beasts is highly predictable throughout and the climax and resolution feel like an afterthought.

There is one thing though that really makes you appreciate film as the medium for this story, and that is Newt's case. I was a bit disgruntled up to this point, missing the magic and feeling a bit bored by the story, despite Redmayne’s stellar performance, but then we get to see inside Newt’s case.

The case reminds me a lot of Hermione’s purse, and Newt reminds me a lot of Hagrid, and there is an erumpent, which makes me think longingly of Luna and her father and that all makes my heart smile. But I miss reading about the wizarding world in book format. I just do. While there are some writers and filmmakers who can bring that wonder and hidden detail alive in film, Fantastic Beasts just isn't there. I’m sure there are hidden treasures to be discovered upon multiple viewings, but the problem is, I have no desire to see this film again. While it was entertaining for sure, nothing about it grabbed ahold of me or left me wanting more.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Redmayne’s performance, +1 for the case

Negatives: -1 for the uninspiring ending, -1 for the lack of wonder

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 - an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

POSTED BY: Tia  Harry Potter fanatic first, everything else second, and nerds of a feather contributor since 2014

Reference: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. dir David Yates. written by J.K.Rowling

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Microreview [novella]: A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

This novella will pull out your heart, show it to you, and then put it back better than ever. 

I'm not hugely used to reading novellas. Which is a shame, because as this one shows the form allows for an intensity and a depth that is harder to maintain over a novel-length work while still being able to stretch with a vivid world-building and complicated plot that would have felt rushed in a shorter piece. This story nails what makes novellas exciting—presenting an emotionally resonant, stylistically complex, and expertly paced story that can be devoured in a single sitting.

The story jumps back and forth through time, revealing a setting that is rich, dense, and very strange. While at first blush the story seems to borrow from North African and Roman aesthetics, the similarities kind of end when aliens get involved, beings who are able to provide some of the civilizations with vast resources and technologies, but not without a price. In the past, Aqib is the son of the Master of Beasts and has an affinity for animals, something that he takes for granted but that, in the future portions of the story, take on another level entirely. In the past, Aqib has fallen for a foreign soldier, Lucrio, despite the taboo in his own culture, despite the criminal nature of the acts of love he participates in. In the future he is married to a powerful woman, is a prince with a daughter, and yet for all his fondness for his wife and devotion to his daughter, he always has to deny himself, can never fully express his sexuality and has to stand by while he witnesses a similar stifling in his daughter.

The story takes a great look at how cultures pressure people into denying themselves. Not just through the laws and punishments but more with how Aqib's family treats him. His relationship emboldens him because it affirms him, something that his family hates, something that they try to stop. They try to threaten him, to cajole him, to gaslight him, to convince him to give up this part of himself that they don't appreciate, that doesn't serve them or their interests, and the story is sensitive to how insidious that can be. How difficult it is to deal with family and love and loyalty and fear and support. In the future, his attraction to men is something that Aqib has to purge entirely or risk death and worse. But in the past he has this taste of freedom and is forced to make the wrenching choice of what to do. And the story set me up so well to break my heart, to stab me right in the feels and then twist the knife. [SPOILERS because I kind of have to talk about this…] And then…it didn't. Through a very clever narrative choice the novella chooses to twist quite hard at a key section and completely rewrite the trajectory of the story to that point.

One of the genres that the novel lists is gay romance, and I appreciate the ways in which it complicates the tropes associated with that. This is not a very happy story. It's a story about fear and the threat of exposure and death. It's a story about erasing a part of yourself in order to be safe. It's a story about love failing to overcome. Until it's not. I'm not going to argue that this isn't gay romance. It hits all the requisite points, up to and including the happy ending. But this is not a story for people looking for a familiar gay romance. Through a beautifully speculative setting these character reach for each and are torn apart, then put back together again. It is affirming and lifting and joyous, but it's also difficult and gritty at times. And it did kind of pull the rug out from under me. It's an emotional roller coaster that left me breathless, elated, and a bit raw.

At its core, though, I think it's about speculation. The danger and the cost of it, as Aqib learns, of looking back and wondering how it might have been different. Worrying that maybe he made a mistake in doing what he did. But also the power and freedom of looking forward and asking "what if?" What if I don't have to live in fear? What if I can be free? And finding strength in that to take dangerous action, yes, but also to overcome it and reach a place of peace, safety, and love. And it's a devastating examination of what makes speculative fiction so compelling, exploring the possible worlds actions can create and forcing the reader to confront what those possibilities imply about our own world.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Negatives: -1 for breaking my heart

Bonuses: +1 for unbreaking my heart and +1 for the complex mix of fantasy and science fiction

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "outstanding!" see our full rating system here.

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

Reference: Wilson, Kai Ashante. A Taste of Honey [Tor, 2016]

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Microreview [book]: Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

A Gaiman Book My Children Aren't Terrified Of

This book makes me deeply happy.

I've never been shy about my love of Neil Gaiman's books, nor have our other contributors, and long did I look forward to the day when I could share Neil Gaiman with my children. I showed them Coraline and one of my kids immediately said they wanted to get it on DVD, a wish I accommodated with great joy, but since then the memory of the spider has been too much, I guess, and the DVD has sat upon the shelf collecting dust. So I tried reading them Coraline, but again, it seems the memory of the spider from the movie was a little too much, and we stopped shortly after we started. Someone recommended The Graveyard Book, telling me, "Things that scare adults don't seem to really scare kids that much." I took a look, and that one begins with a kid's parents being knife-murdered in the night, and I just decided to skip it.

Then one day I was at Target probably looking for the latest Wimpy Kid book, and I saw a lone copy of Fortunately, the Milk sitting all by itself in the wrong place on the book rack. I hadn't heard of it, and started reading right there in the aisle. I made it a handful of pages in, and knew this was my big chance!

Fortunately, the Milk is a shaggy dog story in which a young boy recounts the story his father told him and his sister about why it took so dang long to walk to the corner store for a jug of milk for the kids' breakfast and bring it home. The dad is given to elaborate excuses in general, and this one is a whopper. It involves, among other things:
  • green space aliens
  • time travel
  • a Pirate Queen
  • a stegosaurus who is also a scientist
  • a volcano god (named "Splod," no less), and
  • intergalactic police (who are also dinosaurs)
Fortunately, the Milk reads like Roald Dahl meets Douglas Adams, and was every bit as fun for me to read as it was for the kids to listen to me read. It is filled with Gaiman's usual wit, and does fun things with the idea of an unreliable narrator, which adds a level of manageable complexity you don't often find in this kind of kids' chapter book. Normally I'd do the whole "Math" section here and grade the book, but I don't know how to do that with a kids' book. I mean, if you're an adult and a fan of Gaiman, this book will be a fun, but probably forgettable, way to divert yourself for an hour or so. But if you're the parent of elementary-aged (or younger, I guess) kids and want to share your love of speculative fiction and imagination with them, for my money this book deserves a place of pride on your shelf alongside The Phantom Tollbooth. And that is high praise, indeed.

Reference: Gaiman, Neil. Fortunately, the Milk [HarperCollins, 2013].

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, musician, and Emmy-winning producer.

Monday, November 21, 2016

New Books Spotlight

Welcome to another edition of the New Books Spotlight, where each month or so we curate a selection of 6 forthcoming books we find notable, interesting, and intriguing. It gives us the opportunity to shine a brief spotlight on some stuff we're itching to get our hands on.

What are you looking forward to? Anything you want to argue with us about? Is there something we should consider spotlighting in the future? Let us know in the comments!

Cover Art by Richard Anderson

Beaulieu, Bradley P., & Rob Ziegler. The Burning Light [ Publishing, 2016]
Publisher's Description:
Disgraced government operative Colonel Chu is exiled to the flooded relic of New York City. Something called the Light has hit the streets like an epidemic, leavings its users strung out and disconnected from the mind-network humanity relies on. Chu has lost everything she cares about to the Light. She’ll end the threat or die trying.

A former corporate pilot who controlled a thousand ships with her mind, Zola looks like just another Light-junkie living hand to mouth on the edge of society. She’s special though. As much as she needs the Light, the Light needs her too. But, Chu is getting close and Zola can’t hide forever.

The Burning Light is a thrilling and all-too believable science fiction novella from Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler, the authors of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and Seed.
Why We Want It: Our very own Brian had a chance to read The Burning Light back in August and he absolutely loved it. Who are we to argue with him?

Cover Art by Daniel Dociu
Corey, James S.A. Babylon's Ashes [Orbit, 2016]
Publisher's Description:
A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy - a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships - has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny, and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity. 
Why We Want It: Babylon's Ashes is the sixth volume in The Expanse, and honestly, if you're not a fan of the first five there's nothing I can tell you that will convince you to pick this one up - but The Expanse is thrilling space opera with a sprawling cast of characters. We've been waiting for this one the moment we turned the final page of Nemesis Game.

Cover Art by Dominic Harman
Egan, Greg. The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred [Subterranean Press, 2016]
Publisher's Description:
Camille is desperate to escape her home on colonized asteroid Vesta, journeying through space in a small cocoon pod covertly and precariously attached to a cargo ship. Anna is a newly appointed port director on asteroid Ceres, intrigued by the causes that have led so-called riders like Camille to show up at her post in search of asylum.

Conditions on Vesta are quickly deteriorating—for one group of people in particular. The original founders agreed to split profits equally, but the Sivadier syndicate contributed intellectual property rather than more valued tangible goods. Now the rest of the populace wants payback. As Camille travels closer to Ceres, it seems ever more likely that Vesta will demand the other asteroid stop harboring its fugitives.

With “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred,” acclaimed author Greg Egan offers up a stellar, novella-length example of hard science fiction, as human and involving as it is insightful and philosophical. 
Why We Want It: We like our novellas here at Nerds of a Feather HQ and for years Subterranean Press has been the standard bearer for publishing some of the finest limited editions around. Greg Egan's The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred was originally published in Asimov's in late 2015 and quickly garnered heaps of praise. This release gives us another chance to discover Egan's novella.

Cover Art by Vanessa Han
Larbalestier, Justine. My Sister Rosa [Soho Teen, 2016]
Publisher's Description
What if the most terrifying person you know is your ten-year-old sister?

Seventeen-year-old Aussie Che Taylor loves his younger sister, Rosa. But he’s also certain that she’s a psychopath — clinically, threateningly, dangerously. Recently Rosa has been making trouble, hurting things. Che is the only one who knows; he’s the only one his sister trusts. Rosa is smart, talented, pretty, and very good at hiding what she is and the manipulation she’s capable of.

Their parents, whose business takes the family from place to place, brush off the warning signs as Rosa’s “acting out.” Now that they have moved again — from Bangkok to New York City — their new hometown provides far too many opportunities for Rosa to play her increasingly complex and disturbing games. Che’s always been Rosa’s rock, protecting her from the world. Now, the world might need protection from her. 
Why We Want It: The premise of My Sister Rosa is terrifying and compelling and as written by Justine Larbalestier, it is also something we expect we won't be able to look away from.

Cover Art by Anxo Amarelle CGI
Newman, Emma. After Atlas [Roc, 2016]
Publisher's Description:
Acclaimed author Emma Newman returns to the captivating universe she created in Planetfall with a stunning science fiction mystery where one man’s murder is much more than it seems…

Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes… 
Why We Want It: We loved Planetfall and with After Atlas, Emma Newman brings us back to that setting, though with a completely different perspective. It appears to be less a sequel than a sideways novel, but a new novel from Emma Newman is to be celebrated.

Cover Design by Lauren Panepinto
Wagers, K.B. After the Crown [Orbit, 2016]
Publisher's Description:
The adrenaline-fueled, Star Wars-style sequel to Behind the Throne, a new space adventure series from author K.B. Wagers.

Former gunrunner-turned-Empress Hail Bristol was dragged back to her home planet to fill her rightful position in the palace. With her sisters and parents murdered, the Indranan empire is on the brink of war. Hail must quickly make alliances with nearby worlds if she has any hope of surviving her rule.

When peace talks turn violent and Hail realizes she's been betrayed, she must rely on her old gunrunning ways to get out of trouble. With help from an old boss and some surprising new allies, she must risk everything to save her world. 
Why We Want It: Brian reviewed Behind the Throne back in July and despite rating the novel 7/10, was not all that impressed by it. We seldom do multiple reviews of the same book here at Nerds of a Feather, but I would have given it the same score but with heaps more praise. Behind the Throne was a fast paced romp of a novel with the feel of condensing space operate into the political sphere. After the Crown takes the next step and I can't wait to see what sort of ride Wagers takes us on next.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004, Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.   

Friday, November 18, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 10/2016

You know, October might be over and done, but events that have happened in November have forced me to revisit the SFF that I've read recently. I wish I could offer some sort of respite from current events, but that's not really what I'm doing here. It's like trying to make beer from water that's been tainted by frakking—it changes the flavors irreparably. To pretend otherwise would be, to me, dishonest and disrespectful.

But come in out of the growing cold. Sit down. The stories on tap this month are all about resistance and the numb divide between reality and paranoia. These are not all hopeless tales, but they are pieces that recognize the difficulty and the need to stand up against hate. They are pieces that describe the wild tumble down the rabbit hole that can cause us to question the very nature of existence, that pull away a mask covering an uncomfortable possibility. These are stories of blood and bullies. Violence and mourning and the sky falling. This is our world now. Drink up.


Tasting Flight - October 2016:

Art by Sam Schechter
"Plea" by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Lightspeed)
Let's kick things off with a taste of devastation and loss, injustice and violence. "Plea" by Mary Anne Mohanraj is all of that and more, a brutal blade twist to the gut that taste like an Imperial Scotch Ale to me, heavy and cloudy and with a taste that's hard to place, the flavors intense but nearly confusing. It's a story of people living on another world, humans who live together despite some being modified to adapt to the mostly-water world and some maintaining their base human markers. It's a situation that has worked for a long time, and yet as the human colonies are being swept by a wave of xeonophobia and fear, Gwen and her wife Rose had to worry what to do with their children in the face of violence. In the face of intolerance that wasn't supposed to spread out among the stars. It's a story of the powerless feeling that comes from watching a situation go from bad to worse. If you need a tale for the times we are living right now, read this one. Read about a family that wants to believe in peace, in human compassion, and finds that there are always limits, always exceptions that people write in to who is deserving of empathy. I read this story when it first came out and rereading it now is…well, I think it's even more important now, staring hatred and powerlessness in the face, forcing the reader to feel the weight of love and the threat of evoking the good old days. Like a certain situation going on now, the story reveals the ways in which humans can turn on each other, can blind themselves to harm being done, can simply declare that some people are worth more than others. And like an Imperial Scotch Ale the swirling flavors of the story slowly combine under the strength of the prose and message, leaving me as a reader stunned and sad and but also ready to stand and fight. 

Art by Reiko Murakami
"None of This Ever Happened" by Gabriela Santiago (Nightmare)
When you stare into the Black Ale, the Black Ale also stares back into you. And that's exactly what I feel about Gabriela Santiago's creepy "None of This Ever Happened," which combines a subtle sweetness with an almost tar-like punch that conveys the feeling of paranoia and drive that carries through the prose. The story is dominated by consumption and the truth and the twisting of both, so that the narrator is both ravenous and devoured, both sage and liar. The voice of the piece is immediate, the atmosphere dark and vivid. I love how the story takes the mundane and the terrifying and smashes them together, so that where reality ends and the fantastic begins is hard to tell, always a nebulous space between the narrator and the reader, one that shifts in and out of focus as the story progresses. And more than anything, to me, the story is about the power but also the danger of imagination. The way that the creative can command their gift but also the way that it can run away from them, the way that it can threaten them. Because to me the story resists a purely literal interpretation of what's going on. Is it more frightening that there is some sort of haunted rock that compels people to eat, to consume, or that a person's mind can be so creatively charged that envisioning such a story becomes a sort of curse? A sort of infection that undermines the stability of experience and reality and left me with a lingering dread and unease, an existential question mark wrapped in shadows and bathed in horror. Like a Black Ale it pours opaque and smoky, begging the reader to consume and consume until all that's left is an empty glass and a blank page. 

Art by Peter Mohrbacher
"The Calculations of Artificials" by Chi Hui, translated by John Chu (Clarkesworld)
Pale Ales taste almost like ghosts to me. They're not as brash or bitter as IPAs and there's something about them that feels…not exactly incomplete, but not fully filled in. And Chi Hui's "The Calculations of Artificials" plays with that idea wonderfully, the feeling that the world as some experience it is all an illusion for the benefit of those Actual people in a wide sea of artificial intelligences. On one level the story seems almost pessimistic, featuring a story where Actual humans must be kept separate from each other, surrounded by Artificials who are only active in the presence of humans, who make the world seem like it's kept going after Armageddon after Armageddon. And Aixia thinks he is one of the few in this world that know the truth, an Actual dedicated to helping to fix the problems facing humanity. An Actual who finds himself, amidst the ranks of Artificials, lonely. And little by little the story reveals a conspiracy to try and protect humanity from itself but also something else, something even larger than that deception. And I love how the story handles illusions and lies, how Aixia maintains the hope that humanity can still come together. And while the story offers a devastating blow Aixia's drive to reconnect with humanity, it does shine a light on the hope that lives even in the face of overwhelming destruction. It just doesn't ignore the harm done and the fact that there are not an infinite number of chances for humanity to overcome its violent and hateful tendencies. It's a story that builds up this vast show that Aixia thinks is for the benefit of the Actuals still living on Earth, and in that he's not wrong, but he does misjudge exactly what that means. It's a clever and challenging story, and like a Pale Ale it creates an experience of hints and vapors that leaves a ghostly presence on the tongue. 

"The Mourning Hour" by Anya Ow (GigaNotoSaurus)
There's something comforting about a Nut Brown, something that evokes for me sitting in front of a fire, being warm, and being with people you care about. So for me Anya Ow's "The Mourning Hour" tastes a lot like a Nut Brown, about a man reaching for something to comfort him in the long aftermath of a shattering loss. The plot unfolds across two timelines and features Kiat as he deals with his daughter, Anna, going off to Mars and dealing with the dramatic events that unfold there. The story is a mystery built around a collective absence, an attempt to colonize Mars that…does not go well. And now, much later, Kiat searches not for answers but for someone to fix the last thing his daughter gave to him, a small holographic dog who acts as his constant companion. And I love how Anna and the holographic dog become parallels, their losses cutting through everything in Kiat's life. With Anna on a different world, though, it becomes the quest to be reunited with his dog that takes on the greater urgency, in part because Kiat is never able to really find answers as to what happened with his daughter on Mars. Kiat is not a character who communicates well, is stuck in some ways by his own prejudices and by his own stubborn beliefs. It's something that separates him from his daughter and in some ways from his own emotions. It's the wall that he maintains to keep the flood of regrets and grief at bay. And after what happens on Mars, he patrols that wall with his dog, with this feeling that connects him back to the time before everything fell apart. It's a moving story about how the lack of closure can act as a festering wound, as something that never really heals, and so Kiat is left in orbit, unable to move on, finding comfort only in the things that remind him of before. It's an emotional and heavy story that, like a Nut Brown, invites the reader to sink into a rich, warm, dark complexity. 

"The Book of How to Live" by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Bracing. Spicy. Lightly bitter. It's how I would profile a Session IPA, a drink that speaks to me of autumn and the smell of burning leaves. It's also how I imagine "The Book of How to Live" by Rose Lemberg would taste, with an eye toward resistance and revolution and city teaming with magic, cultures, and history slowly coming to a boil. And that might seem a bit dramatic for a story that is, at the surface, about lanterns and machine lubricants water pumps. And yet the story does a magnificent job of looking at the economics of magic with a careful eye on where the magicless reside in a society that so strongly values magical talent. What happens when incredibly competent by magically ungifted individuals who have to live as second class (or third class) citizens decide that they're not going to be quiet any longer? I love the way the story builds the dissatisfaction and the many ways that progress can be uncut by dominant voices preaching patience and incremental growth. For those living under the oppression of injustice and inequality, being asked to wait is not a neutral act, does not come without harm. And the story builds a relationship between two characters who have come from entirely different worlds, both outsiders in a city that distrusts them. Both brilliant and driven. Both interested in doing the work of inventing, of creating things. Because there is a magic in that as well, one that doesn't spring from a deepname but rather comes from a person's mind and heart, their ability to see injustice and their hunger to fight it. Light a Session IPA, the story is strong and a bit fierce, but the potential bitterness is smoothed over by the rich spice of its hope and optimism. 

Art by Mark Smith
"Everything that Isn’t Winter" by Margaret Killjoy (Tor dot com)
When a story brings a healthy dose of explosions and mixes with equal parts unrest, stubbornness, and fear, as "Everything that Isn't Winter" by Margaret Killjoy does so well, it's a good chance it will pair superbly with a Red IPA, which is like fire in a bottle, bitter and moving but with a hint of blood and the frantic pounding of a heart. I love how this story layers a satisfying, action-packed plot with a resonating and lifting story of love and harm and fear. Aiden is a soldier in the story in a time when soldiers have pretty much screwed up the planet. What's left is supposed to be better, is supposed to be peaceful because the world can't afford more blood, and yet Aiden's position as defense for a small tea-growing commune is not a dull one when trouble arrives in a big way. At the same time, Aiden is having difficulty with their partner, Khalil, the two feeling a distance between them that is a living thing threatening to tear them apart. And to me, more than anything else, the story is about fear. Especially fitting, given everything, Aiden has to defend themself against a group of bullies and a charismatic leader determined to take what the commune has built. It is a striking and dynamic story that examines how Aiden fights back against fear. The fear of acting against a threat of violence. The fear of not living up the promise of a new world. And the fear of…not death, exactly, but of the loneliness that it might bring. I love basically everything about this story and especially how the quieter moments are the more difficult ones, that there is a freedom in the flight of bullets and the dance of corpses, but something so much more real in two people standing in the night and talking, really talking. Like a Red IPA the story lights a fire. Not to burn things down, though, but rather to bring warmth and shelter and a spot of comfort against the dark.


"Butter-Daughters" Nin Harris (Sockdolager)
Have I told you that I love SFF cooking stories? Yes? Well, let me tell you again by saying how much I love this story, which to me goes down like a Butter Cream, a mix of 1 part butterscotch schnapps, 1 part Irish cream, and 2 parts milk, served over ice. In a very short amount of space this piece reveals a world richly developed and strictly ruled. There is a magical butter. You cannot eat it, must not eat it, when a certain moon is in the sky. Why not? Well… The story begins as a sort of instructional piece, the voice well versed in the history of this butter which is in some ways the history of the people of the region, a mix of science fiction and fantasy into something sublime and moving. And yet even as the story creeps forward, building the mythology of this butter, there's something else that happens as well. A subtle twisting of the tone of the piece. An emphasis on the horrific aspects of the consequences of eating this butter at the wrong moment, and a growing obsession with knowing what that forbidden flavor tastes like. As the story draws to its close it's obvious that something dark is going on, and it is a seductive read, one that made me as a reader like my lips and wonder. Wonder… And like a Butter Cream the story goes down smooth and easy but leaves the taster mired with a quiet longing for more. For more… 

"Rabbit Heart" by Alyssa Wong (Fireside Fiction)
Grief is a powerful thing, which I guess is why it often gets broken down into stages. How people proceed through those stages is often very personal, but the general goal seems to be to battle forward toward acceptance. And yet what if there was a way to step in and slap a band-aid on grief so that denial and acceptance look kind of the same? That's the premise of this story, which sees a person able to create replicas of lost loved ones, though not perfect ones, and the story tastes like a Rabbit's Foot to me, a mix of two parts Rye with a single part apricot liqueur and a dash of bitters and evoking a desperate hope to change circumstances. It's a tale that looks at the realities of people unwilling to move on, who bring their loved ones back, sometimes over and over again. At first it might seem like the main character is only cashing in on grief, perpetuating the cycles of abuse that led to many of these tragedies in the first place. And in some ways that's not wrong. At the same time, though, the story goes much deeper than that, reaching into the heart of loss and desperation and tapping into that blind hope that maybe things are ruined. Especially now that's an understandable desire, to see the damage done and want simply to see it undone. But the story also acknowledges that any illusory change is fleeting, and that ultimately there must be a reckoning. It's a tender and moving story that, like a Rabbit's Foot, is strong and sweet and crushingly deep. 

"The Sky, Falling" by Anton Rose (Terraform)
With a single misstep the action of this story goes from relaxed to relentless, moving in a fluid arch that hits with the power of a Skydiver, a mix of equal parts vodka and orange juice and capturing the feel of open air. In the story Suref is an engineer in a future where the skies must be maintained to mitigate climate change—where overcast skies are literally saving the planet. And yet in the face of such technological achievement there is also a sense of loss to the piece, and a danger of further loss, because while creating technology to fight against the effects of climate change might be necessary to survive, it only treats the symptom rather than fighting the infection. Suref maintains the machines in a delicate balance, everything supposedly kept perfectly in order. And yet the story shows that an claim at perfection is illusory, and that we are always one step from the edge for as long as we do not act to sweepingly change our ways of life and how we create energy and treat our planet. The prose is beautiful, both nearly nostalgic and paternal and all so collected in the face of what happens. Suref has a family to think of, and he remembers them as a way of telling himself it will be okay. And yet even family is only an illusion of continuity should things go from bad to worse, and the story does not flinch away from the hard truth of gravity. Of entropy. Of human nature. All can be denied for a time, but out of all of them only human nature can be truly changed, and we might be running out of time. Like a Skydiver, the story offers the sound of wind rushing past, the numbers that cannot be denied of the ground growing closer and closer.


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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Thursday Morning Superhero

Since next Thursday is Thanksgiving and one of my only weeks off each year, I thought I would open this week's post with the comic book creators I am thankful for.  I am thankful for the duo of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez who introduced me to the magical world of Locke and Key.  I am thankful to Jeff Lemire for making me a better father by reading the complicated father/son relationships that tend to remain central in his stories.  I am thankful for Brian K. Vaughan for continuing to push the boundaries and for gifting us the epic that is Saga.  I am thankful for Matt Kindt and his ability to cause me to question reality and to look for hidden clues beneath the surface.  There are many other creators that I am thankful for, but I feel I am starting to ramble.  I will finally say that I am thankful that smaller publishers are continuing to thrive and companies like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and many others have provide creators the freedom to create such wonderful works of art.

Pick of the Week:
Ether #1 - It is a happy day when we have a new Matt Kindt comic and it should come as no surprise that it involves a mystery.  In what appears to be a classic whodunit set in the magical world known as the Ether, I feel that there is much to unravel about our detective and some of the interesting characters that populate the magical city.  Boone Dias is a scientist who has been traveling to the Ether's capital city, Agartha, in an attempt to gain a scientific understanding of knowledge.  On his most recent trip, his presence is requested by the mayor who needs his help solving a murder.  We learn that Dias has solved other mysteries by using the logic that is found on Earth.  In classic Kindt form we are introduced to a series of interesting characters and magical objects.  Among them is a bird known as the bloody screecher and a bullet that can change course mid flight.  While this side of the tale is enough to capture my interest, what Kindt reveals about Dias' life on Earth is what has me intrigued.  This truly is a story about two sides of a coin and it is going to be a blast learning about them both.

The Rest:
Thanos #1 - I cannot think of a better fit for a new Thanos story than having it penned by Jeff Lemire.  In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos is a power hungry Titan and a force to be reckoned with.  This is true in comic book form, but his past is filled with unrequited love and his familial relationships are a great fit with Lemire.  Thanos has returned to the Black Quadrant to reclaim his throne and restore his order once again.  His son and a couple of other Titans, teamed up with Death of course, have a plan to take it away from him.  Lemire wastes no time demonstrating Thanos' power and setting the stage for a family throw down.  Seems fitting with Thanksgiving only one week away.

Old Man Wolverine #13 - I hope you are all feeling as happy as I am that this week's entry includes back-to-back Lemire titles.  In the fitting conclusion to this series, Logan channels his time in the wastelands after he had given up everything to live a normal life.  While I love seeing Wolverine break out the claws and go berserk, it is always a nice change of pace to be reminded about how much he craves a simple life.  By channeling that desire and how truly caring he is, Logan is able to calm the young boy who has been leading the Silent Order in one last chance at setting things right.  Despite some very intense moments, the beauty that Lemire is able to inject in this final issue is a nice way to wrap things up.  Even if everything isn't fully resolved.

Batman #11 - While I wasn't feeling the last issue when Batman and Catwoman were scheming to break Psycho Pirate out of Bane's prison, I must say that this issue provided a pleasant surprise.  Things don't quite go according to plan and Tom King provides some nice surprises for his readers.  I will say having more Catwoman is always a good thing and I am intrigued to see how the Ventriloquist will pan out in the next issue.  I will admit the last issue had me fooled thinking this was a simple heist and I thoroughly enjoyed how things panned out.  Looking forward to issue #12.

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Microreview [board game]: Mystic Vale from AEG

A Card Crafting Gem

Mystic Vale is a card crafting game that generated a lot of buzz this summer at both Origins and Gen Con.  This title from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) is not only stunning on the table, it is a game that will leave you wanting to immediately reshuffle and play as soon as the game is over.

In the game you assume the role of a druid who is attempting to heal the suffering lands of the Valley of Life.  While playing the game you are calling on various powers and allies to help you save the forest.  I would agree with other reviews that have complained the theme feels a bit tacked on, but that is a minor complaint in one of the most mechanically solid games I have ever played.  In addition it allows for some of the most stunning cards that have ever graced my table.

When I first saw the clear cards and the term card crafting, I was sure this was going to be simply a gimmick.  After playing the game for the first time I knew that designer John D. Clair had stumbled upon something brilliant that will be used in many different games in the near future.  Similar to what Dominion did for deck building, Mystic Vale will likely do for card crafting.

In Mystic Vale, players start with identical decks of cards.  These cards are all sleeved, and throughout the game you will purchase new cards, or enhancements, that you sleeve into your starter deck.  These enhancement cards are printed on a clear plastic base that allows them to sleeve into your starter card and modify its effect the next time it is in play.  There are many combinations of enhancements that you can craft and by not adding to your deck size you are able to reap the rewards of your new purchases much quicker than a deck builder. Whether you want an efficient deck that turns over more frequently, you want to earn spirit symbols to buy Vale cards, or you want to increase your spending, the way you craft your cards is up to you.  In addition, each turn has a push your luck element that really builds tension and adds another layer of strategy to an already exciting game.  When you are drawing your starting hand, you can always attempt to gain one more card, but if you reveal a card with decay then you "spoil" and you lose your turn.

Once the pile of victory points has vanished and the final tally is calculated, a victor is crowned and you will immediately think about how you could have crafted a card slightly different and what combinations would work really well together.  It is rare to play a game with a mechanic that you have never experienced before, but one that is so intuitive and familiar.

AEG has also just released an expansion to Mystic Vale, Vale of Magic, which adds cards that provide greater rewards at a greater risk.  Powerful cards that add to the decay and can increase your chances of spoiling on your turn.  It is a great addition that adds a lot of really interesting cards.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for an amazingly intuitive and new mechanic, +1 for high quality components with stunning artwork.

Penalties: -1 for a theme that feels a little tacked on, -1 for a box that is too big for the game's britches (although more expansions are always welcome!).

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

6 Ways to Understand and Cope with Dystopia, Part I: Music

People have different reactions to political trauma: some get depressed; others get angry; and others try to pick up the pieces and move on. In my case, it's a combination of all of the above, and making sense of that can be challenging.

Now, as you are all surely aware, this blog is dedicated to nerdery not politics; when we do get political, it's typically in the context of fandom politics, or the politics of specific works of fiction--both of which can be divisive and heated enough. Even still, like many people (including many whose preferences are strikingly different from my own), I see a deep and foreboding storm brewing--not just in the US, but globally. And to make sense of that, I turn to my favorite media: music, books and film. 

Thus, without further ado, I present you six pieces of music that have helped me make sense of our world's darker tones (with a Spotify megamix at the end). 

1. Makeup and Vanity Set. Wilderness [Telefuture, 2015]

My favorite album of 2015, Wilderness is a sprawling double album of remarkable cohesion, which manages to sound both '80s retro yet also extremely current. As Black Book describes, this album feels as if it was "specifically written for warm weather night drives towards the end of the world." There are foreboding truths encoded in Wilderness, yet also a glimmer of hope and humanity amid the crushing darkness. Buy. Stream.

2. Cybotron. Enter [Fantasy, 1983]

Though known primarily as the world's first techno record, Enter is also a powerful and frequently surprising meditation on automation, corporatization and postindustrial decline of the American Dream. Produced at the same moment in time, this album has a startling affinity with William Gibson's cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. And like that work, Enter simultaneously reminds you that the anxieties we feel today are not new. Nor, however, have they been resolved. Buy. Stream.

3. Wolves in the Throne Room. Celestial Lineage [Southern Lord, 2011]

Black metal is an acquired taste that few people acquire: its beats are too fast, its vocals too much of a shriek, and its thematic obsessions with satanism and vikings a bit too...uh, yeah. But Wolves in the Throne Room are not your typical black metal band. Their music is majestic, epic and deeply evocative, and their music manages to evoke both the immensity and timelessness of nature and the deep threat to it posed by modernity. This is both dystopian and utopian music at the same time. Buy. Stream.

4. Pink Floyd. The Wall [Columbia, 1979]

The story of a isolated, psychologically-abused child who grows up to become a celebrity-cum-fascist. Buy. Stream.

5. Joy Division. Closer [Factory, 1979]

An apocalyptic masterpiece, arresting in minimal glory from start to finish. Quite possibly my favorite album of all time, and one that is also frighteningly prescient. Take, for example, these lyrics from album closer, "Decades": We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chamber/Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in. Buy. Stream.

6. Mos Def. Black on Both Sides [Rawkus, 1999]

A piece of music intrinsically concerned not only with oppressive politics, but with the everyday dystopias that most of us internalize. Unlike some of the other selections on this list, however, Black on Both Sides is not bleakly pessimistic, but rather affirmational. Those of us privileged enough to be new to dystopia clearly have a thing or two to learn from those with more experience of it. Buy. Stream.

Coping with Dystopia MEGAMIX

Monday, November 14, 2016

Microreview [book]: Cumulus by Eliot Peper

App Overload

Cumulus is fine. It doesn't do anything new, or particularly well. It's a fast-paced cautionary tale of tech overreach, class lines, and the willingness of people to trust that things are going right without any oversight. Its characters are made of cardboard, and its ending is bafflingly upbeat. I read it while traveling, which is appropriate because it's more or less airport bookshelf fodder; not good enough to read unless you have nothing else to choose from. 

Cumulus is a surveillance program, or maybe it's a social network, or maybe it's something else, but the gist of it is that it knows everything about you. In a series of unfortunate events, the CEO of Cumulus, Huian Li, finds herself coming to the rescue of Lilly Miyamoto, a technophobic photographer. Together, they discover that an agent of Cumulus is out of control and threatens civil war between the Greenies (elites living in the Green Zone) and the slummers. 

The world of Cumulus is entirely within the city of Oakland and depicts your stereotypical, class-divided, libertarian dystopia, with an app economy twist. Those who can afford it live in the Green Zone; they've got the protection of private security, move freely with app-summoned transportation, and the government stays the hell out. Everyone else lives in the slums, where life is dangerous and protection of the law is not guaranteed. It's not original in the slightest, but it does throw a lot of Silicon Valley shade, with everything given tech industry inspired names like Security for the private security in the Green Zone, and Fleet for their automated personal transportation service. 

With more aspersions cast at Silicon Valley and the app economy, Cumulus knows everything and the antagonist is exploiting it to further their own goals. The story doesn't do anything special. It's a warning against putting too much trust in technology, but it does move fast and doesn't lose pace much at all. This is a benefit, because there's not much to the characters. Their motivations range from dead simple to unknown or non-existent. This is a particular problem for the antagonist. In the end, I couldn't explain why it all happened in the first place.

It's hard to recommend Cumulus. There's not much about it besides the author's obvious love for Oakland and quickly moving story. It won't say anything you haven't already heard and does so with weak characters.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 a compact story that sticks close to the plot

Penalties: -1 weak characters

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (not very good)


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

Reference: Peper, Eliot. Cumulus [Self-published, 2016]