Wednesday, April 26, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS : Nineteen Eighty-Four



Dossier: Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four [Martin Secker & Warburg, 1949].

Filetype: Book

File Under: Statist Dystopia

Executive Summary: Winston Smith, a worker for the oppresive Oceania state, helps in the rewritting of history to support the Party's propaganda. The population is divided into the Proletariat and the Inner Party members, whose iron fist bans any rebellion or sedition, even in an individual's mind. An endless war with the other regions on earth and a constant barrage of misinformation on enemies of the state ensures loyalty to the mythical leader, Big Brother. Smith begins small acts of rebellion which psychologically-coalesce into a secret love affair with a young woman from the Junior Anti-Sex League and discovers what may be the truth behind the Party's lies. Meanwhile mysterious Party official O'Brien and the Thought Police close in...

Dystopian Visions: The Party, and, one assumes, its two counterparts in the other regions, have absolute and immortal power over society, through a perpetual police state which extends its powers to controlling our very thoughts and desires. Family members shop each other in for Thought Crimes, work is unrelenting, a pointless charade, and prevents a private life of any note, culture and fun are replaced by rallies and all jointly staring in pure hate at a face on a big screen. 


Utopian Undercurrents: Even the Inner Party officials like O'Brien enjoy no seeming freedom of thought, and although they might go off and enjoy a glass of wine behind the scenes, our only viewpoint is from a prole, and for them life offers no hope or joy (if you don't count a cheeky painting, looking at a field and a few shags before being tortured and beaten for months). Even the gin is crap. Only the human hope in small moments like Julia's note of "I love you" shines through bleakly as a flickering flame of humanity, long after the story is over. I still see Orwell's statist hell as an allegory rather than a real possibility, that humans' individual spirit will out. But then maybe I just need some gentle rat-in-a-cage educating...


Level of Hell: Sixth. Or Tenth. There are no mutants, no everyday threat to life for most, and food (albeit shite) is available. People still hang out washing in the sun. People still make coffee after (illegal) sex. But when thought itself is controlled, does it matter how nice the coffee is or how warm the sun is? Any idea of hope is crushed in the final part, forever. It's almost worse that no physical apocalypse occured, that it was all the result of power-obsessed politicians and the blind nationalism of the masses. So Tenth.

Legacy: I was ready to find a disappointment in me at the end of re-reading this, one of the more astonishingly-bleak and impressive books of my childhood years (and I have read all of William Golding, so...). I based this mainly on its legacy. Endlessly-referenced phrase like 'two and two make five' , 'freedom is slavery', and 'Big Brother is watching you', and lines such as,'imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever', had made Orwell's final novel close to a self-parody in my mind. However, the depth and detail of the discourse here, and political world-building, outshine any senses I had that perhaps its originality was buried under its own subsequent fame. Everything from V For Vendetta to The Handmaid's Tale to Children of Men in our season on Dystopian Visions owe a huge debt to this novel, and I would suggest his warning - initially praised (and indeed marketed as in the U.S.) as an anti-communist one - has influenced us all, even those who who have never read it. The fear of loss of individual thought, the fear of the loss of diversity of culture and country, the fear of dictatorial control, all were ancient notions before Orwell even began writing, yet his masterpiece raised the flag of 'where-never-to-go' over so many minds that it can only be hoped that his vision will never see the light of day.


In RetrospectIn popular understanding, this is the benchmark of dystopian fiction, and this stems partly from the unrelenting grey hell it promises us. Even as the numerical year of the title is left far behind us, the threat of a time where power wins over individuality utterly and forever is a constant fear. ' What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?'. Reading this line again in our current times of false-populism, fake news, revised history and a revival in personality politics, I shudder with that same fear. 'America First', 'Brexit means Brexit', and anything by Le Pen et al. Philosophy of almost calming horror fills the pages that Eric Blair ended his days by filling. He was writing not just from the experience of WW2, Nazism and Stalinism, but of the failure of the British Left to uphold values in the pursuit of power, and his own personal experiences of the totalitarian Soviet machine lying to the people and creating false enemies while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. 
On reflection, I discovered a Smith-esque rebellion against the authority the book's renown held over me, an authority ordering me to respect and adore it. I found fuel for this rebellion in its partial, and ultimately slight, failings as literature - the one-dimensional supporting characters, the lack of recognisable everyday human warmth in interactions (which of course is the point, but the film with Hurt and Burton did much to overcome this through the actor's eyes) and the determination in its singular purpose - the scream as hope is crushed. However, like Smith toward the end, but without the need for dials of torture, I found the last gasp of my resistance collapse under the sheer excellence in the piece. It is that rare thing - a classic that should by now bore with obviousness due to its novel ideas rendered into cliche, its fame the killer of its verve, but which flares out at you still, even decades on from your first experience of it. More than this it is greater than merely a dazzling prose exercise, or a political nightmare. It was often mocked as one of those books you 'had to' read at school here in Orwell's home country. Yet like fellow standards of the teenagers' curriculum like Lord of The Flies, it shows our darkest natures back at us and dares us to fight the hard fight to resist the darkness. This is a harsh lesson we would do well to hear loud and clear in the coming years.

Analytics

For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5, for it cannot help but slightly pale as history and literature catch up and overtake its ideas.
Oppressometer Readout: 9/10.


Posted by English Scribbler, who lives in hope, and in a flat, and has contributed to Nerds of A Feather since 2013.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Guest Dossier by Rob Bedford)



Dossier: Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn: The Final Empire [Tor, 2006]

Filetype: Book.

File Under: Fantasy Dystopia.

Executive Summary: The Final Empire is the first installment in Brandon Sanderson's mega-popular, multivolume Mistborn Saga. The world presented is sugaring under the heel of the Lord Ruler, a creature believed to be evil for the power he wields over the populace on the world of Scadrial in the land known as the Final Empire. The Lord Ruler was once the Hero of Ages, a figure out of legend who became a god when he quelled an ancient evil at the mythical Well of Ascension. Of course quelling the evil force may have been the easy party. Keeping it at bay for a thousand years changed the Hero of Ages (doesn't that just sound optimistic?) into the creature who took the name Lord Ruler (less optimistic, no?). The novel begins here, as a group of rebels led by the charismatic Kelsier (the only known person to escape the Alcatraz-like Pits of Hathsin), try to break the Lord Ruler's tyrannical hold over the people he rules over as a creature just a half-step removed from being a god.


Dystopian Visions: The Hero of Ages thought he was doing the right thing by becoming a god to keep evil at bay, but now the people who know of the mythical Hero of Ages see him as an evil dictator. There are strange mists constantly floating in the shit, ash fall from the sky and the sun is blocked from view. Not exactly an uplifting setting. The Lord Ruler also has in his employee the Koloss, monstrous figures with spikes in their body who serve as the muscle as well as the policing force of the Inquisitors, imposing figures with spikes driven into their eyes. 

To put all this briefly, the Final Empire of Scadrial is oppressive to all but the most elite. 

Utopian Undercurrents: The Lord Ruler, like most “evil” antagonists think they are doing good and saving the world. By novel’s end and later in the series, what he was doing may just have been the right thing in spirit. Who doesn’t think vanquishing the force of evil and destruction is a bad thing? Unfortunately for the people who live under his rule, the execution and aftermath of the “saving moment” spiral way from the “right” thing drastically.


Level of Hell: 7th. The levels of hell embodied best in this book would be the Seventh (Violence) and Eighth (Fraud). The world is rife with violence through embodied by the Koloss and Inquisitors and Fraud by the Lord Ruler.

Legacy: Mistborn isn’t so much a dystopian work, at least the whole series, but The Final Empire runs strong with dystopic elements. In the grander Epic Fantasy field, the books are modern classics. Even though Sanderson’s first novel Elantris was a fine novel and received some nice buzz, when The Final Empire hit shelves, he took another leap. Fans of Heavy Metal music might make a parallel between Iron Maiden and Brandon Sanderson in that The Final Empire is like The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden was well-respected after two albums with lead singer Paul Di’Anno, but Bruce Dickson replaced him on The Number of the Beast, the album that launched them into the stratosphere of Heavy Metal music. Likewise, The Final Empire helped to set Sanderson on the path to one of the now elite practitioners of Epic Fantasy. As many fans of Brandon Sanderson may know, and fans of The Wheel of Time likely know, it was The Final Empire that Harriet McDougal read (Robert Jordan’s wife and owner of The Wheel of Time copyright) before agreeing with Tor publisher Tom Doherty that Brandon Sanderson was the person to finish The Wheel of Time.  

In Retrospect: In the decade since The Final Empire first published, Brandon Sanders has established himself as one of the brand-name powerhouses in epic fantasy. The venerable Adam Whitehead, purveyor of the estimable Wertzone blog, has been laboriously gathering lifetime sales numbers for SFF writers, with his initial list in 2008 and updates in 2013, 2015 and at the end of 2016. Sanderson doesn’t appear on the first list in 2008, which is not surprising since he was new to the scene with only three books on the shelves. In 2013, he ranks 48 with approximately 15 million in sales and the most recent ranking (three years later) he ranks at 40 with approximately 22 million in sales. Moving seven million books in with your name on them in three years is no small feat. Granted, three of those titles also had Robert Jordan’s name on top of them so had a built-in audience but Adam estimates nearly half of those sales (10 million) come from his solo titles. Suffice to say, a book with “Brandon Sanderson” landing on the bestseller list during its first week of publication is a safe bet. 

The series is often placed on “Best Fantasies/Series of the 21st Century” or whatever specifically the list-creator comes up with to differentiate his or her list from the three “Best of …” list the previous month. 

It is safe to say that The Final Empire is Brandon’s break out novel, the one that opened the door to The Wheel of Time for him, and led to his success. The great thing? It is only a hint of amazing novels of worldbuilding and storytelling to come from an author who will be regarded as a Master of the genre in the years to come, if he hasn’t already.


Analytics

For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 8/10.





Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He has been a site editor and book reviewer for SFFWorld since 2000, wrote for SF Signalfrom 2013 since it sadly closed in 2016, occasionally for Tor.com, and has a slowly dying blog about stuff. He is also, as his wife calls him, a beer snob. If you want to read random thoughts about books, beer, or his dog you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford

Monday, April 24, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: The Handmaid's Tale


Dossier: Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale [McClelland and Stewart, 1985].

Filetype: Book

File Under: Statist Dystopia

Executive Summary: Offred is a handmaid, which means she has proven fertile in a time of rampant infertility, and has therefore been deemed worthy of being assigned to one of the top officials in the Republic of Gilead, so that he might be able to reproduce. Referred to in the book as "The Commander," but ostensibly named "Fred," since Offred's name indicates that she belongs to him, her master's marriage to Serena Joy has proven childless. So once a month, in a ritual of the theocracy that is Gilead, Serena Joy holds Offred's head in her lap as The Commander attempts to impregnate Offred.

The story takes place early in the time of the Republic of Gilead, which overthrew the U.S. Government and instituted a Protestant theocracy in which women's bodies are not simply politicized, they are literally the property of the state. Women have no essential personhood in this "republic." Offred is paired with Ofglen, the handmaid of another official, to do the daily shopping and whatnot, and Ofglen slowly lets Offred into her confidence, revealing that there is an underground resistance attempting to overthrow Gilead. Offred also gets an inside seat for some of the other off-books types of activities that take place for the well-placed in Gildead when The Commander sends for her on a night that is not set aside for the monthly ritual. The Commander allows Offred to read old magazines, the kind that have now been banned and burned, and play Scrabble with him. Over time, he even sneaks her to a brothel run by and for the higher-ups in society. Serena Joy, for her part, worries that The Commander may not have the...spunk...to get Offred pregnant (something which, officially, can't happen because men don't shoot blanks and any failure to conceive is always the woman's fault), so she arranges for Offred to have a side-relationship with The Commander's driver, Nick. As Offred's entanglements with The Commander, Serena Joy, Nick, and the Mayday resistance become more complex and interwoven, she reaches a point where the center can no longer hold, and some drastic, potentially deadly, upheaval is increasingly certain.

Dystopian Visions: This is a pretty grim vision. One of the things that makes it worse in reading about it, though, is the thought that there are probably a lot of people out there in the real world right now who think this is actually pretty close to how things "ought to be." Women are denied any agency, not permitted to read, let alone have jobs or bank accounts. They are told explicitly what they may and may not do with their bodies. They exist for the pleasure of men and the propagation of the species...or, a certain part of the species. Racial and religious minorities are sent "away," ostensibly to places where they are segregated and "can be together," but it is strongly implied that they are either in concentration camps or killed. 


Utopian Undercurrents: There's not much, unless you're a well-connected, wealthy white guy. In that case, you get a big house, cushy position, a wife, a state-sanctioned concubine, trips to the brothel, and if any of that bores you, you can cash it all in for new models by insinuating that whomever displeases you may not be entirely faithful to the ideals of Gilead. That is, of course, unless someone suspects you of somehow transgressing, in which case it's all forfeit. 
The lower-status men must serve time in some type of dangerous military occupation before "earning" the right to an Econowife, so even the wide latitude and openly accepted hypocrisy afforded The Commander is a luxury.

Level of Hell: Ninth. While this isn't the cannibalistic wasteland of McCarthy's The Road, there are no doubt ways to argue about which society, particularly as a woman, you'd rather be a part of. This book combines the paranoia of 1984 or Arthur Miller's The Crucible with the dead-eyed violence of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, and mixes it with abominable gender subjugation. 

Legacy: I understand that people go both ways on Atwood, and this book in particular. Perhaps because The Handmaid's Tale exists at a nexus between speculative fiction, social commentary, satire, and feminism, there are a lot of very strong opinions about it, both positive and negative. Although none of what's included in the book is far-fetched on its face, one might argue about its likelihood of occurring in this place or that place. It has all occurred, and is occurring right now in some form somewhere on Earth.

In Retrospect
The details within the book, both big and small, are closely observed, and for this reader, at least, powerful. The idea of secreting butter away from dinner in one's shoe in order to apply it like lotion later on in one's room — in a world that still has Scrabble and has had Avon parties and fashion magazines — is hard-hitting, and the idea of religious fundamentalists who have built a society around the sanctity of fornication without lust in order to make acceptable babies also maintaining and visiting brothels reads as revolting but fundamentally true to human nature. So too, the characters by-and-large hover in the vicinity of archetypes, but their relationships read as true, and very recognizable. The resentment the women on the household staff display for the handmaids, for instance, feels painful but probably right. This is a book that takes and has taken its lumps, but as a piece of speculative fiction, is well rendered.

Analytics

For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 8/10.


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

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Dishonored


Dossier: Arkane Studios. Dishonored. [Bethesda Softworks, 2012]

Filetype: Video Game


File Under: Statist Dystopia

Executive Summary: You are Corvo Attano, royal protector, and you've just witnessed your empress murdered by assassins and the heiress kidnapped. You're arrested for her murder and locked in Coldridge Prison. During your interrogation, the Lord Regent reveals that he's framed you for the murder and orchestrated the assassination to further his own agenda. However, before you're execution, you're visted by The Outsider, a mystical being who brands you and grants supernatural powers. Using these powers, and with the support of Loyalists to the heiress, you escape Coldridge Prison and start unraveling the conspiracy and rooting out the corruption the infects the city of Dunwall. Or you can get bloody revenge and murder every single person who ever wronged you, contributing to the rivers of blood that drive an infectious disease that's ravaging the poorer parts of the city.

Dystopian Visions: The world of Dishonored, specifically the city of Dunwall, is a city divided deeply by class. The poor are being wiped out by disease, while the upper classes plot against each other. It's also an industrial world, where whale oil powers everything. This morbid cycle of finding great living things, and literally flaying them alive for the oil that powers everything in the city contributes to the atmosphere of death and decay throughout Dunwall.


Utopian Undercurrents: Dunwall is a city past its prime. The technological advances of the alternate industrial age it exists in are still there, but they're used to suppress underclasses. Parts of the city still reflect the opulence of the peak, and the upper classes are still enjoying the benefits.


Level of Hell: Sixth. You can heal your injuries with a drink if you can afford it, but you'll need those health elixirs whether you're part of the elite or working for one of the many gangs that control the slums.

Legacy: Dishonored took the stealth gameplay of Thief and combined it with the open-ended level design of Deus Ex to create something great. It generally skews towards stealth, no-kill playthroughs or violent, murder-everything playthroughs because it has two endings based on how much murderin' you do, but the gameplay is extremely flexible. It's both an excellent stealth game that nails all of the tools you could want to be sneaky, and a robust action game that gives you dozens of options for killing.


In Retrospect: Dishonored got two pieces of downloadable content that expanded upon the story, which showed the point of view of the Empress's assassins. It also got a recent sequel that received a generally positive if mixed reception. But Dishonored is a fantastic game for all of its world-building. It's beautifully realized in a dark way, and utterly filled with little stories and characters that give it life.

Analytics

For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 8/10.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Tabletop Pile of Shame: New Year's Resolution Update

Welcome to the first entry in my attempt to play through my pile of shame.  With International Tabletop Day right around the corner, I thought it would be good to starting working on one of my resolutions.  For those who don't know what this is, I am happy to explain.  A lot of people in the board game hobby tend to purchase games at a quicker rate then they play them.  I often fall victim to this trap as I am prone to purchase games and then struggle to get my group together to play.  One problem with a pile of shame is that as soon as you take a game off of the pile, another one or two find their way to the bottom (this happened to me as I added Clank! to my pile of shame earlier this week).

One of the New Year's Resolutions I set for myself in 2017 was to play 10 games from my pile of shame and that journey started last week as I played both Abyss by Asmodee and Colt Express from Ludonaute.  These two games were both published in 2014 and were huge hits.  Colt Express even won the Spiel des Jahres as the Game of the Year.



Abyss by Asmodee - Abyss is a simple set collection game that is wrapped up in some of the most impressive packaging I have ever seen.  A clever game from famed designer Bruno Cathala, players find themselves acquiring various allied race cards in order to gain the favor of important Lords who help you control key locations in the kingdom.  On the surface this clever little game feels like it could be created for half the cost, but the over the top production value fully immerses you in this underwater world.  From the pearls that you use as currency, to the stunning unique artwork, and the custom molded clam shell bowls, Abyss is a game that will catch people's eye when you set it up for a quick game.  Really looking forward to getting this to the table again.



Colt Express by Ludonaute - In Colt Express players are bandits attempting to pull off a daring train heist.  Complete with 3-dimensional train and adorable outlaw meeples, this programmed movement game is less strategy and more semi-planned chaotic fun.  Each round players will play cards in order to establish their movement for the round.  Sometimes you see what your opponents are planning, but if you are going through a tunnel the cards are played face down.  I tested this out a second time with my son and it is a fun game as long as you aren't too competitive.  You will be shooting your opponent and sending the deputy after them as well.  I could see some people getting pretty frustrated, but it is a fun little game that looks great on the table.



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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Not only is Free Comic Book Day around the corner (May 6!), we are in early stages of the big summer events from Marvel and DC.  I tend to buy the hype early and end up disappointed, so I hope this year is different.  It am intrigued by both and hopeful that they will hold my interest throughout the summer.



Pick of the Week:
Redneck #1 - This week we are gifted a dark, new vampire title from Skybound and Donny Cates.  The Bowman family and Landry family have a history of bad blood between them that goes back generations.  If the first issue is any indication, we are embarking on a new feud that will severe consquences.  Having been in this small East Texas town for hundreds of years, the Bowman family has learned to live a quiet life in the country devoid from human consumption.  The family does not attack humans and hints to a time when they were hunted.  It looks like there was some sort of truce that was formed to allow them to live in solitude.  In this first issue we are introduced to this gritty world that feels like a cross of True Blood (minus the cheese) and Southern Bastards.  This series looks very promising and Cates does a great job establishing tension and drama in a short amount of time.  Looking forward to this one.

The Rest:
Royal City #2 - Jeff Lemire's new drama continues this week as we learn more about the eclectic characters and the dysfunctional relationships that bind them.  While I am not sure if this is a good comparison to make yet, this series feels a lot like the Royal Tennenbaums.  The characters are good people, but they are not without flaw and are dealing with complicated issues on an individual and family level.  The patriarch of this group suffering a stroke has brought back most of them to Royal city and it will be an interesting read to see how it all comes together.  



Dept. H #13 - I am not anywhere near to winning the super-deluxe Junior Deputy Detective badge that Matt and Sharlene Kindt are offering the first reader to successfully solve this underwater whodunit.  There are some good theories, but I find myself questioning more people as I learn more with each issue.  I guess this is the sign of a good murder mystery and it will hopefully all come together soon.  For now, Mia and the remaining survivors must successfully surface after being exposed to a contagion, despite the threat of being fired upon if they should surface.  Lots of drama, lots of questions, and a series I should reread in hopes of obtaining a badge!



Secret Empire #0 - The introduction to the next big Marvel event is here and it is one that I am quite excited about.  Captain America, still believing he is an agent of Hydra, has declared war on the Marvel Universe.  It is odd watching Steve team up with Zemo and others, but the ramifications that this could have are huge.  I personally enjoyed the twist that Nick Spencer dropped when Cap uttered those infamous words, "Hail Hydra."  This sets the scene for the event that I think will kick off on Free Comic Book Day next month.





Daredevil #19 - We are closer to learning how Daredevil was able to put the cat back in the bag in regards to everyone knowing his secret identity.  Killgrave has trapped his children in a machine in an attempt to usher out his mind control at an unforeseen scale.  Daredevil shows up trying to stop Killgrave, but must first work his way through the mind games that Killgrave is playing with him.  It is difficult to determine what is real and what is due to Killgrave's ability.  While we don't quite understand yet how it all happened, I look forward to seeing how Killgrave and his children played a role in altering the minds of an entire world.



Batman Rebirth #21 - The Button part one is upon us.  DC's big crossover event kicked off in Batman this week as Bruce attempts to uncover the mystery of the Watchmen button that they found in the cave when Wally appeared.  While waiting for the Flash to arrive, Batman is greeted by Reverse Flash and a brutal fight takes place.  Not much is revealed in this issue, but a lot of questions are asked.  Where did this button come from?  Why did it react to Psycho-Pirate's mask?  There is another surprise that I won't spoil, but this definitely has a summer event feel to it and I hope that the inclusion of the Watchmen goes better than the last time I read modern takes on that series.



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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A(n Even More) Modest Proposal for Hugo Reform


I've previously weighed in on reforming the Hugo award categories, on the following grounds:

  • Awards, whenever possible, should be given to works and collections of works rather than individuals.
  • Criteria for inclusion in any given category should be clear, intuitive and reflect practical understandings of how the field is structured, rather than be path dependent to existing conventions.  
  • Following up on that, reform proposals shouldn't just add categories, but also subtract those that no longer reflect how the field is structured. 

For the most part, I stick to the recommendations made in 2015. That said, it's clear that this kind of comprehensive overhaul is unlikely to ever happen. As such, I have a few actionable proposals that could possibly happen:


1. Unburden Readers in the Fiction Categories

Last time around, I suggested adding a category for Best Anthology/Collection and getting rid of Best Novelette. I suggested this because anthologies and collections play an important role in the field, while very few non-professionals think in terms of novel/novella/novelette/story (and instead think in terms of novel/novella/story).

I still think this is a very sensible change. However, I understand that there are many people--professionals, mostly, but also hardcore readers of short fiction--for whom axing novelette would be a bridge too far. Thus I'd suggest the following as a sensible and practical half-measure:

Require all periodicals and anthologies to publish word counts as a prerequisite for consideration. 

While this does not address the issue of mismatch between existing categories and prevalent conceptions of the structure of the field, it does at least make life easier for voters and vote tally-ers alike, while potentially rendering the nonintuitive, intuitive.


2. Add a Category for Original Anthologies/Collections

Putting together a cohesive, high quality anthology or collection of stories is a skill that, frankly, the Hugos should recognize. I'd suggest limiting the award to original anthologies and collections, rather than anthologies and collections of previously published works.


3. Replace Best Semiprozine with Categories that Better Reflect the Field 

Outside WorldCon insiders and hardcore Hugo-obsessives, does anyone know what a "semiprozine" is? Do they care? The answers to these questions, unsurprisingly, are "no and no."

But the category's problems don't end there. I's ridiculous to ask voters (and vote tally-ers) to distinguish who is in or out of that category based on the amorphous criteria of "being professional" and how editorial staff are paid. And it's strange--to say the least--that the field's leading periodicals aren't up for an award of their own. So let's all get rid of this nonsensical award category and replace it with something more sensible and interesting.

Here I'm narrowing the suggestions in 2.0:

Get rid of Best Semiprozine, and replace it with:
  1. Best Fiction Periodical (SFWA Qualifying Professional)
  2. Best Fiction Periodical (Non-SFWA Qualifying Professional) 
While the SFWA is technically an organization for US writers, at this point it's membership is fairly global. And I'm not suggesting that certification by SFWA should be the criteria for inclusion in the former category, but rather whether the periodical--over the previous calendar year--has paid writers by the industry standard set by SFWA (currently $0.06 per word). Which, I'll note, is publicly available information.

In this scheme, popular online magazines like Lightspeed or Strange Horizons would compete with their print magazine peers, like F&SF and Asimov's. This makes a lot more sense to me than the way things look right now.


4. Ditch the Editor Awards

If we are granting an award to anthologists and expanding the fiction periodical categories from one to two, then really there's no reason to give out an award to short-form editors. As I've argued before, awards work better when they are given out for works or collections of work rather than people, as people awards almost inevitably become "lifetime achievement" awards rather than "stuff done in previous calendar year" awards.

And while we are at it, let's get rid of Best Editor - Long Form, since very few people know who edits what, and publishing companies are often not forthcoming with that information. Besides, aren't the editors already awarded via Best Novel?

***

That's it for now. Or, at least, that's all I'm going to stress for now. Hopefully one or more of these merits consideration at the business meeting.  -G


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Microreview [book]: Madness in Solidar, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Modesitt is in fine form with the ninth Imager novel



Most people generally don't begin reading a series with the ninth volume, but we all make different choices in life and that's the choice I made with Madness in Solidar. Madness in Solidar is the ninth volume of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s long running Imager Portfolio series. Having read all eighteen novels so far published in Modesitt's Recluce series, I was reluctant to begin another impossibly long series from the same author. 

I can't speak to how Madness in Solidar presents to readers most familiar with the eight previous novels in the Imager Portfolio, but it works as a fairly solid entry point because Modesitt tends to set his novels in different eras so that Madness in Solidar stands alone for new readers while enhancing the richness of the Imager world for longtime readers.

Here we are several hundred years after the founding of the Collegium of Imagers (think: magic school) and the power of the school is very much in decline. The school, now led by a man named Alastar, is caught between High Holders (think: land owning nobility) and the Rex (think: a king, but not in a fully absolute monarch). The Collegium is beholden to the Rex for funding, and despite the awesome power the school wields, is in the difficult position of being a feared and persecuted minority living somewhat on the forbearance of others. As the saying goes, people fear what they don't understand and the power of the Imagers is one of those things. This is a recurring theme throughout Modesitt's work, the fear of the magical other. That, and the desire of those in power to maintain their power and command exactly in the manner it has "always" been and without finding a way to work towards a mutually beneficial solution. And so, in life as in a Modesitt novel, death and destruction usually follow a man doing what he needs to do in order to survive and protect his people.

Reading a Modesitt novel is like coming home. It's comfort reading of the highest order. You have a fairly good idea what sort of novel you are going to get and Modesitt delivers exactly that. Alastar may not be quite the prototypical Modesitt protagonist in that he begins the novel with as a full grown adult in command of his powers and maturity (rather than being a young adult cast out to find his own way), but in other ways he is very much that protagonist. Alastar is newly in command of the Collegium and caught between two significant powers pulling him in different directions while Alastar's work is to keep the Collegium whole and perhaps even increase its power.

Madness in Solidar is a deliberate novel that lives and breathes in the details of Alastar's daily life of running the Collegium during this time of crisis. It lives on those moments of the discipline of students, in the correction of the kitchen staff, in the planning of building a road for the rex, and in the strategic planning for how the Collegium could be more independent in the future. This may not necessarily sound like the most riveting stuff for a fantasy novel, but in Modesitt's hands it is compelling and it builds the stage (before setting the stage) for the explosion of novel's looming conflict. It builds, brick by brick.

Madness in Solidar is a slow build, perhaps a little slower than a number of Modesitt's other novels, but this is familiar pacing for longtime readers of Modesitt. The time he takes to set up the characters, the long burn of the story, is time well spent in the world of the Imager Portfolio. I can only imagine readers more familiar with the history of this world will be even more rewarded by how Modesitt builds on the previous novels, but happily Madness in Solidar is a novel which also stands on its own.



The Math 
Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for Alyna, a character I could have written an essay on.

Penalties: -1 because readers new to the series might spend too much time wondering what references to previous books they are missing and if that matters.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 
See more about our scoring system here.


Modesitt, L. E. Madness in Solidar [Tor, 2015]


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

Monday, April 17, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Writing a Way Out



When thinking about dystopia recently for an essay (which can be read here), our conversation raised the question of whether writers have responsibility in how they depict dystopia and apocalypse. Is dystopian writing a “warning system?” The question intrigued me, as both a reader of and a writer of dystopian fiction, I wanted to think about it deeper. I also wanted to take the question to some writers who tackle dystopia. So I sought out some of the most interesting emerging SFF writers I know, and then barraged them with a series of questions, which they were all considerate enough to answer in deeply thoughtful ways. The writers I talked to were Kate Dollarhyde (SFF writer and co-editor in chief of Strange Horizons), Brontë Wieland (SFF writer and co-editor of the solar punk anthology Sunvault), Phoebe Wagner (SFF Writer and co-editor of the solar punk anthology Sunvault), and Tony Quick (SFF writer).

The first question I asked tackled the question head on. It was a question I struggle with (as I work on revising a dystopic sci-fi novel that tries to be hopeful): where is the line drawn between being didactic (a quality I hate when I read it) and being honest about what people have done to themselves and others? I also have some pretty hard drawn lines when it comes to responsibility in terms of horror: violence should never be depicted for strictly entertainment purposes for example (y’all should hear my very long rant against the torture-porn genre).

What responsibilities do we, as writers, have in depicting dystopia and apocalypse? Should we spend as much time considering the socially conscious aspects of our work as much as the narrative aspects?

KD: I believe writers have a responsibility to reflect an experiential truth in their stories, whether real or imagined. The reality we depict is, I think, a combination of the dystopia or apocalypse the writer is working with and the social reality of their point of view characters.
If a writer's apocalypse is one based in climate collapse, for example, the resonance of the depiction of that event or its aftermath depends so much on the position—both physically and socially—of the protagonist. A rich white man in post-water California and a working class Cuban woman in post-coastline Florida will experience wildly divergent realities, both valid as points of narrative inquiry, informed as much by their social position as by the lack or abundance of water in their particular setting. The reader might not have any experience with climate collapse, but they know what it's like to inhabit a social reality, and one well-crafted will only make more relevant and vital the narrative.
All of that is a roundabout way of saying that if a writer is considering the narrative aspects of their work, they should by necessity be considering the socially conscious aspects of their work. Calamity fiction is about the collapse and radical restructuring of social order. It's my opinion that the writer can't really have a coherent dystopic narrative that leans hard on one and not the other.

BW: I believe that our responsibility is to create depictions of the world as we see it, as we feel it, as we want it to be, and as we believe it may become. Often the issues facing us feel incalculable and insurmountable, and that’s where I believe dystopia has its roots: those moments when the world is overwhelmingly shitty and we begin to believe there’s no other path than something so dark. In that way, yes, I think we are responsible for telling these stories, for depicting the world how it presents itself to us.
The narrative and social aspects of our stories are inseparable, and we should always consider the impact our writing will have.


TQ: I want to be careful about assigning any specific “responsibility” to authors because I’m afraid litmus tests can be limiting. The dystopian and apocalyptic subgenres includes grim, somber novels in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or José Saramago’s Blindness but also includes chaotic carnivals such as Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist novel Cat’s Cradle or the psychedelic dreamscapes of J.G. Ballard’s novels The Unlimited Dream Company and The Drowned World. We’re standing under a wide umbrella here. We should definitely give serious thought to the socio-political underpinnings of our works but contemporary fiction shouldn’t be a soapbox. The contemporary audience becomes defensive and closed off once they sense unpolished propaganda. As artists, we’re challenged with hitching our larger societal concerns to plots featuring smaller, intimate narratives our audience can relate with. Fiction challenges us to show readers the ramifications of our society’s slow decline and turn statistics into stories.

PW: That's the balance isn't it--which comes first, social issues or narrative? How does one balance those ideas? I don't know. I'm always fighting with being preachy. Dystopia seems to do that well, though. Mad Max: Fury Road always comes to mind when thinking of social consciousness and narrative. While there are differing opinions on Fury Road, I loved the film for its high-octane moments balanced with critiques on everything from gender, human trafficking, capitalism, big oil, environmental issues--the list goes on. I personally believe writers have a responsibility in all their work. If I'm reading a dystopia and they aren't taking into consideration that yes, while rape or torture or INSERT AWFUL THING HERE might happen in an apocalypse, the writer must consider how those ideas will impact the reader. If the writer is casually using the horror of an apocalypse landscape just for its shock value without considering the social implications, I won't keep reading. Conversely, a dystopia offers a canvas to explore the dark side of humanity, which if done ethically and with empathy can be an enlightening experience.     


The next question I asked went back directly to something Philippe had asked me in the previous essay: is the technical accuracy of these depictions important? Again, it’s a question that I struggle with in terms of my own writing. My thought is that good science-fiction should be able to see the steps of how we got to the point depicted, even if those steps are not directly spelled out on the page.

 How much realism (in terms of how the dystopia/apocalypse comes about, but also the fallout of it) is needed in a dystopic depiction? Why? 

KD: I think the writer only needs so much reality as is required to make a dystopia feel truthful to the reader. The rub there is that every reader has a different threshold for what feels true based on their own social reality and how similar to or divergent from the social reality of the point of view character they are.
Reality is, I think, an argument the writer makes to the reader. A woman living in the United States today might not need much of an argument—that is, injection of reality—to find The Handmaid's Tale convincing; Atwood can take her dystopia to extremes of plausibility because her audience doesn't need much help to follow her there. But a cisgender progressive man might take more convincing. (Incidentally, I think that's why Atwood's MaddAdam trilogy has such broad appeal—everyone who lives under capitalism recognizes bits of their life in that dystopia.) You could, I think, make a similar argument for white people in general and Butler's Parable of the Sower. Could things really get that bad? To convince a reader who might ask that question, who might doubt, the writer needs a more exhaustive argument.
So, in short, I believe the level of realism required in a dystopic narrative is answered in who the author is writing for.

BW: For me, a dystopia is most effective when I can see clearly how it was once related to the world we live in. In the sense that I want the dystopias I read to be believable extensions of the society they stem from, I think writers should take great care to connect to a world their readers understand. In apocalypse narratives, I think there is greater leeway in the origin of the disaster event, but I still need to feel the way that the apocalypse informs and impacts our idea of the present and its trajectory.

TQ: Realism is subjective. When I read 20th century fiction, I’m  constantly reminded how alien the stories seem in our present day context. Look, I was born in the 20th century but when I read about these characters whose misunderstandings could be cleared up with a text message or read plots that would be resolved with a high speed internet connection and a search engine, I wonder if I have more in common with the science fiction protagonist who navigates a society transformed by new, disruptive technologies. Beyond that, social media has revolutionized how much insight and communication we have with people outside our immediate orbit. We are learning via Facebook and Twitter and comments sections across the internet that many of us don’t share the same reality.
But despite the age of “alternative facts” that dawn’s orange on the horizon, we all should be able to agree that our actions have concrete consequences. Chloe, I think you hit the bull’s eye with the word “fallout.” More important than adhering to an imaginary consensus of realism, we should aim to provide the audience with a sense the character’s actions matter. By proxy, the audience may come to believe their actions have an impact and maybe we can avoid the hammer’s fall. Maybe.

PW: I see that decision as belonging to the writer. Dystopia/apocalypse settings can fall under any of the three major genre branches (fantasy, science fiction, and horror) in my opinion, so the level of realism depends on what the reader needs in order to believe the story. As a reader and writer, I do need realism when it comes to the characters' reactions to the landscape. The environment needs to influence them. If the environment isn't impacting the characters, then why write a dystopia at all?

Finally, I asked the question that gets to the root of all good writing. Why do you do what you do? Why is this important to you? Dystopia is important to me because it shows a path not to take, a warning. It also shows that we do go on, despite all of this, we go on. Dystopia to me has always been a hopeful genre, because it shows we keep trying.

Why do you choose to write about dystopias?

KD: For me, dystopia's appeal lives in the braiding of hope and hopelessness.
Every person's present day—from 50,000 years ago to right now—is all fucked up. Our societies teeter always on the edge of ruin. Our individual lives teeter always on the edge of death. One person in the right place needs only to make one wrong choice to send us careening over the edge of oblivion. Someone launches a nuke. Someone mows me down in a crosswalk. Dystopias reflect that reality, that ever-present possibility of the end of everything. Dystopias say your hopelessness is not insane. You are not alone in being afraid.
But dystopias are not a nihilistic surrender to the uncaring smackdown of the universe, because hope is as much baked in to their narrative structures as hopelessness. A successful dystopic narrative is to me at least in part a promise: we can fuck everything up and still make it out alive. Even The Road, the most relentlessly depressing apocalypse story I've read, ends with hope. Not hope that everything will be as it was, or that everything will be okay, or that we won't lose everything that matters to us along the way, but that it's possible to keep going.

BW: When I write dystopia, what’s on my mind is usually a single action or behavior or sight that has struck me as unexpectedly and scarily oppressive. Often, it’s an everyday occurrence that presents itself in a new light, or it’s something I haven’t stopped to think about before, and I try to see the extension of the action and its consequences. Where will we go if we never stop to consider the ways we behave and let ourselves be influenced? That’s the question I try to answer in writing dystopia.

TQ: There’s this quote by William Gibson I keep coming back to time and again: “Nobody can know the real future. And novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written.” Despite my tendency to draw dark futures, I’m actually optimistic about humanity’s chances of survival. We are a stubborn species who have harnessed nature to the point that survivalist tales are our entertainment rather than, you know, our daily lives. Whether we continue on as tribes of neo-cavemen scattered across a bombed out landscape, as space-faring refugees colonizing the solar system, or genetically altered shades of ourselves retrofitted to fit our new environment, we are not going down as a species without a fight.
I’m concerned about our immediate present and near future, what ways we might maim ourselves on our road to that future and how we might rise above ourselves. Recently, one of my advisers expressed his exhaustion with the sheer pessimism of post-apocalyptic science fiction and a desire to see a return of optimism in the genre. There’s something to be said for this: writers can lean heavy on diagnosing society’s issues and genre’s unique capacity to imagine alternatives allows our fiction to do more. But that said, I don’t see dystopia and apocalyptic settings as a popular, waning trend but instead a subgenre that speaks to a wartime generation raised on Y2K scares, 9/11 fallout, 2012 Mayan calendar predictions, random acts of domestic and foreign terrorism, 24-hour doomsday prophets, and seismic societal changes all streaming to us live. Why are we surprised the generation who has been told “the end is nigh” since we were knee high write about futures where those predictions bear fruit?
Our contemporary society has a number of pressing issues: institutional racism, indoctrinated sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, class inequality, violations of rights, and so on. No one science fiction writer could ever tackle all these issues with depth and sincerity: we need an army. Science fiction is a useful tool for indirectly interrogating how society is organized without limiting ourselves to what “is possible” and “isn’t possible.” Those who are most impacted by society’s problems and are only now gaining a foothold from which we can speak aren’t ready to abandon the dystopian genre when it’s so useful to portraying shades of our unacknowledged reality.

PW: I write about dystopias as a way to explore the near future, a future which seems to be coming closer and closer. What happens when humanity is pushed to the end of existence? What breaks down, what survives? Now, working backwards from those depictions, how can I as an individual work to stop that degradation of society? For me, dystopias aren't fun an games but a way to explore big problems--climate change, the collapse of capitalism, gender, human and nonhuman relationships. If my dystopia isn't dealing with social issues, I usually avoid the setting. There's enough depressing literature out there, I'm not interested in adding to it unless some good might come from it.  

So dystopia creators and consumers, what are your thoughts on these questions (and the thoughts on them here)? I’d love to hear other voices on this, commenting here or discussing on Twitter (@PintsNCupcakes and @nerds_feather). You can also tag in any of the lovely writers above (Kate is @keightdee, Tony is @tonyquickpov, Bronte is @beezyal, and Phoebe is @pheebs_w).



DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Fahrenheit 451


Dossier: Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. [Ballantine Books, 1953]

Filetype: Book

File Under: Statist Dystopia

Executive Summary: Guy Montag is a fireman. Long ago, in a time remembered only in rumors, firemen put out fires, but since homes were rendered fireproof, the new vocation of the fireman is to burn — and burn books, specifically. On the way home one night, Guy meets his new neighbor, a teenage girl named Clarisse, who is odd. She doesn't watch the walls — room-sized televisions that constantly feature vapid, incomprehensible, but addictive soap operas — she believes in conversation, and thinks that there is value in experiencing nature. This is all totally foreign to Montag, but she insists he is more like her than he realizes. Montag returns home to find his wife Mildred has overdosed on sleeping pills. He calls the paramedics, who perform this kind of routine nightly, and who assure Montage that she will wake the next day with no memory of what has happened.

Montag spends more time with Clarisse, until she suddenly disappears, and on his next fire callout, he watches a woman immolate herself rather than have her books destroyed in front of her. Montag, without thinking, secrets a book away for himself, and sneaks it home. After witnessing this woman's suicide and stealing the book, Montag begins unraveling. As it happens, he has stolen a number of books over the last year or so, but doesn't know what to make of them or of himself. Montag's fire chief, Captain Beatty, pays a house call on Montag to see why he has missed work, and casually lectures about how books were slowly banned in the name of public happiness, since people increasingly found books to be a troubling source of introspection and led to discontent.

Soon enough, Montag returns to work, but finds his next call to be out to his own home. Montag is faced with the decision to burn his own home and attempt to re-assimilate into a monolithic society he no longer feels he belongs in, or to try to fight back and see what happens next when the game goes off the rails.

Dystopian Visions: Americans read fewer and fewer books every year, but even so, I like to think most people would agree that an outright ban on books would be something to be universally resisted. Nevertheless, Bradbury here constructs a future society where the written word has come to represent certain patterns of thought — discontent, self-reflection, empathy, abstraction — that the government has deemed harmful to the populace. There is a pervasive passivity to the citizenry that echoes that of Huxley's Brave New World, except in this case the general numbness of the average citizen isn't engendered by drug use or casual sex, but instead by an addiction to vacuous television programs. In watching "the parlor walls," which utilize software that make them interactive and personalized, so that the people on TV look at Montag's wife and ask, "What do you think, Mildred?" people are made to feel included, loved, and important, and the heavy lifting of thinking about their lives or why bombers are flying overhead every day need not be undertaken. It is a world that criminalizes thought. And where Shakespeare wrote that "the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose," Bradbury gives us the figure of Captain Beatty, who is well-read and conversant in how the world came to its current form, and argues eloquently that all is as it should be. "The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy," he says, in laying out the reasons why the people themselves, not the government, not really, decided that it was in everybody's best interest if we all just put matches to anything that might be in the least provocative.


Utopian Undercurrents: Like so many of the dystopian works we've looked at in this series, our heroes are the outliers, and everybody else is pretty happy. They may be existing only a single rung on the ladder above lobotomized wards of the state, but they're happy enough about it. They don't question, their basic needs are met, and they're comfortable. This fundamental note that sounds across so many volumes and imaginings of future, terrible societies suggests that it is a commonly-held belief that the majority of mankind really don't care about anything outside of their own animal comfort. Bradbury works to undercut this a little, however, in that the vague war hinted at throughout most of the book does make an appearance at the end, and it's reasonable to assume that Montag's "difference," his outsider status or way of thinking, actually prolongs his life, rather than the opposite.


Level of Hell: Seventh. If you're a free-thinker, it doesn't get much worse, but if you're happy to veg out in front of the walls, you're pretty ok. Until the bombs start falling. Easy to imagine a sequel where this same landscape is as hellish as it gets.

Legacy: Simply put, this is one of the foundational texts of the dystopian genre. So many works owe so much to this book that the entire genre would likely be a different animal without it.

In Retrospect: This is a very, very short book that nevertheless manages to weave a compelling story that echoes very clearly with things that are going on today, and have been going on since its original publication. It's a book that manages to hit square in the zeitgeist, whenever a reader happens to come to it. I read this book twice, probably 25 years apart, and it was as resonant the first time as is was last month. There is a prescience in Beatty's recounting of a society's collapse into illiteracy that still sets off warning bells in the modern reader. There are some limits to the characterization, and in some ways those are improved upon in Francois Truffaut's film adaptation, but it's still a book that earns its reputation, and does nothing to harm Bradbury's inclusion on the Mt. Rushmore of sci-fi writers.



Analytics

For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 10/10.


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

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 03/2017


It's a new beginning for The Monthly Round, for a number of reasons. The first is, I've finally gotten around to making a graphic for it! Gaze at the wonder that is my graphic design skills (better known as: I probably like playing around in Photoshop too damn much). I've tried to capture the feel for the series/column/whatever as best I good, with stars and a wizard hat and a creepy little accidental face. In short, I hope you enjoy it.

But that's not the only reason why this is a new beginning for The Monthly Round. Regulars have perhaps noticed that over the past few months I've been experimenting with the format of my reviews. I think I finally have something that I like. At the same time, as much as I like having a shot to accompany most anything, I think it's best to focus on just the main six selections for the Tasting Flight. I will still be including at least one flash fiction story in my selections each month, but I'm otherwise going to discontinue my Shots reviews.

And all right, business out of the way, welcome to the March edition of the Round! Come in out of the void and shake the star-stuff from your jacket. Let me pour you something. Know what you're in the mood for, or maybe you'll let me show you what's on tap this month. It's a mix of a little bit of everything, from sweeping science fiction to devastating horror to inspiring fantasy. No matter what you're in the mood for, you're sure to find something to enjoy this month so sit down, relax, and let's begin.

Tasting Flight - March 2017

Art by Sandro Castelli
"The Cold, Lonely Waters" by Aimee Ogden (Shimmer)
Notes: You’d think this would be best served cold, but the real treat of this drink, which opens to smokey and rich flavors of cocoa and vanilla, is that it only really comes out of its shell at room temperature, like a traveler pushing through the ink dark to find a warm hearth and the hope of new friends.
Pairs with: Vanilla Porter
Review: This story features mermaids in space. Mermaids. In. Space. Even a month later I am still delighted by that simple premise and the gorgeous way that the story unfolds. It imagines this great sphere made of glass and full of water, this incredibly delicate construct with three mermaids inside, three explorers looking to reach out to another world (or a moon anyway) for signs of life. For signs that they aren’t alone in the galaxy. The piece circles around the mysterious disappearance of humans on Earth even as the main character, a mermaid ill suited to the cold reaches of space, deals with the conditions. It’s a story that to me looks at the nature of isolation, looks at the tendency that we have to want to reach out and find someone else there. The mermaids were not treated well by the humans, not really, and yet the absence is like a wound, and though there are definitely dissenters among the mermaids the decision is still made to travel through space in hopes of finding company among the stars. It is not the happiest of reads, though, for all that it is breathtaking in its scope and execution. The action is at many times tragic and difficult, and there’s a heaviness to the piece, a weight from all the expectations and hope that the main character carries into the dark. It’s ultimately a very hopeful story, though, that reaches past the fear of failure, loneliness, and pain, and toward a warmth of belonging and community.

"It Happened To Me: I Melded My Consciousness With the Giant Alien Mushroom Floating Above Chicago" by Nino Cipri (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: With flavors of earth and air mingling in this strange, dark brew, the experience doesn't seem intense at first, but the more you consume the more you find yourself unable to put it down.
Pairs with: Shiitake Brown Ale
Review: There is a giant space mushroom floating over Chicago. And okay, yes, some people freaked out a bit at first. But, eh, it's Chicago, and as long as it doesn't mess with their commute it's no big deal. At least, it isn't for the main character of this story, until the episodes start. I love the framing of this series of stories, which take the form of confessionals you might find in some less-than-legit newsstand papers or on television on specials with names like "Bigfoot is my baby's daddy." And I love the way this story in particular shows how people can normalize so much weird in their life. So much that should make them turn and run but that once they've taken the first few steps it's nearly impossible to break away. And the story is about bridges, about a slow encroachment, about the ways that communing with a giant space mushroom might actually not be a bad thing because hear me out for a second. And I love that, the sly humor of the piece while at the same time there's something deeper going on here. That the main character has been chosen for this but maybe because they were desperate for connection in community, that even in a city of millions they were alone and vulnerable and the space mushroom offered them a way out of that. It's a story that mixes horror and fantasy because it seems to ask (for me, at least) if the space mushroom is any more nefarious or frightening than any other group out there that seems exploitative or suspect. We live in a world that so often seeks to exploit our need for comfort and understanding, and in that world this mushroom might not be so bad. It might beautiful, even, and if it isn't then this story certainly is.

Art by ilonareny
"You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych" by Kathleen Kayembe (Nightmare)
Notes: Ethereal and ghostly and pouring a pale, clear yellow, the bracing and citrusy nose yields to a subtle bitterness that seems on the edge of transcendence. 
Pairs with: White IPA
Review: Revealing the ways that loss and pain and grief can feed the fear of the different, can feed superstition and in turn violence, this story spaces itself over three sections and three characters all effected by a single rash action in the past. It begins most distant from that event, though, creating a mysterious and rather Gothic feel by having Izzy, a young woman trying to look after her uncle, a professor of stories and folklore. There's a forbidden room in his house, a missing son, and a fear in the uncle that creates at atmosphere of dread and anticipation. As the piece dives into the next character, Mbuyi, the missing son who turns out to be not so missing after all. The mystery of the forbidden room is revealed, as well as what the uncle is so afraid of, but the pains and betrayals go much deeper than that, and I love how the story adds layers to the narrative with each section, truly creating a triptych that, when complete, paints a vivid and complete picture of this situation, of this family. Which is what I feel the story is about. Family. The way that families can fracture and break and become abusive because a child is different. That by treating difference like a disease, like a wrong, it traps everyone in a sort of hell, unable to move forward and unable to heal and unable to fix anything because the real problem isn't the difference but the fear and hatred people respond to that difference with. The story reveals the tragedy of this family, made more harrowing and sad because it was completely avoidable, because very little of it had to happen. And yet once the first stone began rolling downhill it created an avalanche that devastates so much. Even so, the story does maintain a level of hope. Not to undo the harm done, but to prevent the avalanche from claiming even more. It looks at forgiveness and regret, violence and family, and it does it with a twist of horror and fantasy.

"Terra Nullius" by Hanuš Seiner, translated by Julie Nováková (Strange Horizons)
Notes: A strange and almost alien exterior gives way to an experience that is strangely salty and dark without being claustrophobic, opening up to reveal a surprisingly sweet finish.
Pairs with: Oyster Stout
Review: I've never read a story of alien invasion quite like this one, where the threat to humanity so closely mirrors one of the things that has allowed humans to become the dominant species on Earth—adaptivity. The invading force is able to create artificial worlds to help their offspring adapt to the very specific conditions of the worlds they arrive at, so that generation over generation they are able to overcome almost any obstacle. As adults, though, the aliens are static, rigid. The story explores how the environment they are raised in comes to define them, and how any chance at mediation or change has to start there, by reaching into those worlds that are supposed to exist only for teaching violence and colonization and trying something else instead. It's a beautiful story that shows just how difficult it can be to try and negotiate and coexist with people who have been raised to think a very rigid set of beliefs, who have been prepared and isolated since they were children to believe certain things, to promote certain kinds of violence and imperialism. It's a shocking piece that shows just how much it makes reality itself seem unstable, inconstant. How that level of manipulation and reality-curating can have huge effects even for those who don't subscribe to that vision of reality. And yet it manages to get to the heart and hope of this conflict, this war that's going on all over the story. That the key to avoiding human extinction is compassion and empathy and breaking through the isolation that allows these children to be turned into killers. That instead of continuing the narrative of inevitable war and violence the sides need to put their fear and aggression aside and work together toward a future they can all inhabit.

Art by breakermaximus
"If We Survive the Night" by Carlie St. George (The Dark)
Notes: Pouring the color of blood in the water and with a soft white head that could be mistaken for purity, there is a sweetness that lies over a more complex and fiery flavor.
Pairs with: Red Ale
Review: Horror, like many genres, can sometimes be defined by its tropes. No where is this so clear than in one of the stalwarts of horror—the slasher. Whether on the page or, perhaps more memorably, on screen, slasher stories are all about violence and virtue. The feature a Chosen girl who is going to survive in part because she's Good enough to. Everyone else? Well… This story takes direct aim at slasher tropes and populates a house full of dead girls. Dead women. People who were too queer or too brown or too sex-positive or did drugs or didn't aspire to be the Good girl. The story swirls around these women as they reenact the same things every day—breakfast, some weird shit with angels, and oh yeah, being brutally murdered every night. It's a disturbing and wrenching premise that delivers on the horror but doesn't keep its distance, doesn't limit itself to the comforts of staying within the tropes. Instead it brings those tropes kicking and screaming into the light to try and reveal why they exist and what they are saying. The women all must live trying to figure out why they died, why they've been trapped in this hell, all the while these angels tell them to repent, that it's somehow within their power to escape, if only they'd…something. The result is a nightmarish place where the women turn on each other more than anything, so in pain that it takes them a while to realize that they do have the power to escape, just not in the way they're being told. The story is about taking back space and a voice, taking back a narrative that has been so twisted and poisoned that it seems impossible. And yet the piece manages to bring something almost redemptive out of the slasher tropes—the deconstruction of them. It's a harrowing and uncomfortable read but it is also amazingly crafted and hits like a well placed axe to the sternum.

"Suddenwall" by Sara Saab (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: Pouring the color of packed earth with a touch of gold, the first taste seems almost simple and open until the complexity of the spices and zest set in, balancing the experience with a dense, almost mournful profile.
Pairs with: Abbey Ale
Review: In many ways Panette and Harvei have survived a war. Only it was never exactly a war and there are many ways that people can be alive without exactly surviving. Both women were pulled into the conflict for different reasons, Panette because she thought it was right, Harvei because she didn't have a better choice. There were clear lines and things seemed simple. Except they weren't. The story doesn't flinch away from tackling complicity and the complexity of violence and genocide. Both characters were part of a successful campaign to wipe out a people and a language. And both lived through that only to find that while they were away the nation they were presumably fighting for had a change of heart. And in order to avoid the guilt and shame of what had happened, the soldiers were all cast out into a new city, one with a morality of its own, one that would exile or kill any who broke its rules. Years after the war, Panette and Harvei have drifted apart despite an intimacy they had during the conflict. They are reunited only when the city rejects Harvei, and the old wounds and guilt and shame come flooding back. The story does a wonderful job of showing how violence and bigotry get into people, how they twist and corrupt. And it shows the uncomfortable reality of dealing seeing the pain of the soldiers left behind in the wake of genocide but not being able to see their victims, those erased by the campaign they were a part of. It shows what happens when people try to give up their ability to see right and wrong, when they rely on someone or something else to make their moral decisions. It shows how there can be no real healing without facing what has been done and learning from it, not just changing policy so that it doesn't happen specifically (by protecting just the one victimized group) but changing the way people live and think so that the same thing can't happen generally, so that people don't blindly follow. It's a tragic story not just because of how it plays out but because of how it reflects how we so often stop at treating the symptoms of intolerance rather than trying to get at the root of the problem.

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