Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Author Donny Cates is a Texas native and put together a quick fundraiser to raise money for the Houston Coalition for the Homeless in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. For only $25, not only can you get this awesome t-shirt, but you can help an amazing organization that could greatly use your support.  Click here to place an order if you are so inclined.

Pick of the Week:
Saga #46 - An emotional issue of Saga sees the conclusion of the abortion that Alana needed to survive. The fetus had already passed, but it is clear that Marko and Hazel still had a lot of emotions to work through as they grieved together. Hazel's relationship with her imaginary brother is beautiful and heart breaking at the same time. We are reminded about how much suffering Hazel has had to endure in her short life and how fragile life is for the group of outcasts that currently make up this story.  Not to be outdone, Prince Robot and Petrichor deal with issues of loss and suicide in one of the heavier issues.  Brian K. Vaughan does a great job treating these topics with care and attention in a non-judgmental way that seems very appropriate. For a book that can get extremely bizarre and gratuitous, this issue really stands out and is one I will likely read many times over.

The Rest:
Secret Empire #10 - Is this the issue where Nick Spencer will finally stop taking so much crap for turning Captain America a Hydra agent?  The finale of this summer's big Marvel event takes us inside the sentient cosmic cube that is Kobik as the Captain America that we all know and love returns. Would he lose this battle? Would there be a lasting impact on the Marvel Universe? Nope. In the end I am ok with this and really enjoyed this arc from the beginning. Was Captain America being a sleeper Hydra agent a gimmick? Absolutely, but it was one that had a great team behind it and a compelling story to boot. Well done Mr. Spencer.  Well done.

Mace Windu: Jedi of the Republic #1 - Following the conclusion of the Battle of Geonosis, Mace Windu finds himself conflicted about the Jedi's new role in the name of the Republic. Preferring peace to war, Windu is now a General and must lead various military forces in a quest for peace. Windu's first mission takes him to the planet Hissrich and he assembles a team that includes Kit Fisto, the blind Jedi Prosset Dibs, and pilot Rissa Mano. While we don't quite know what the separatists are up to on this planet, it is clear that the Jedi must find out quickly and intervene. This was an enjoyable first issue that gives Windu the additional attention that his character deserves.

Star Wars #35 - Han Solo is the galaxy's only hope as the Republic needs someone to smuggle Grakkus the Hutt past enemy lines so that he can be properly interrogated. After the demise of Sunspot Prison it is imperative to get Hutt to a new holding facility. If you recall, this Hutt is a muscular foe with a set of robotic scorpion legs and quite the formidable foe. Solo has to deal with not only the smooth talking ways of the Hutts, but one of the strongest characters that exists in the comics to boot. This was a highly entertaining issue and a great way to get your Star Wars fix in before Force Friday this weekend.

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Microreview [book] The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is the culmination of the best fantasy trilogy written today and that might be an understatement.

The Stone Sky is a novel in conversation with the two Hugo Award winning novels which precede it, it is a novel in conversation the fantasy genre as a whole, and it is a novel in conversation with the culture in which it was written. That's a lot for one novel to take on, but N.K. Jemisin is more than up to the task. The first two volumes of The Broken Earth trilogy set the bar so incredibly high that it would take a remarkable novel to even approach that level, let alone meet it. The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate were masterworks. Jemisin has set an impossible standard for herself, but her control in telling one unified story shows off the skill of an author at the height of her powers. The Stone Sky more than lives up to the promise and standard of those first two Broken Earth novels.

Each novel in The Broken Earth requires a moment of centering, a moment to process and figure what sort of story Jemisin is telling - because even though this it truly a cohesive whole, each novel has its own distinct and tight focus setting it apart. 
"Imprisonment of orogenes was never the only option for ensuring the safety of society." I pause deliberately, and she blinks, perhaps remembering that orogene parents are perfectly capable of raising orogene children without disaster. "Lynching was never the only option. The nodes were never the only option. All of these were choices. Different choices have always been possible."
When I wrote that The Stone Sky is a novel in conversation with the culture in which it was written, I did so will the full understanding and recognition that I may not be the most appropriate commentator for this. Jemisin is writing about race and power and privilege; I'm an upper middle class white male. It's not that I do not get to have thoughts and opinions about this, but my understanding of the systematic oppression Jemisin is writing about is necessarily limited.

The Stone Sky is a novel about the consequences of oppression, about how a utopia is built on the backs of a persecuted race and a persecuted class. Utopia for whom, is a great question. Even mentioning utopia in commentary on The Stone Sky is absurdity because readers at all familiar with the first two novels of the trilogy know there is no utopia here. There is nothing close to a utopia in The Broken Earth.

Like The Obelisk Gate, the primary viewpoint characters of The Stone Sky are Essun, her daughter Nassun, and the stone eater Hoa. Hoa, we find out in The Obelisk Gate, was the narrator not only of his own chapters (it is a while before we know this), but also is the one telling Essun's story. This was incredibly important because, even though I didn't question it for far too long, who was telling the story mattered and it changed the shape of the narrative I thought I was reading.

In The Stone Sky we learn early on that Hoa is, remarkably, more than forty thousand years old and has memories stretching all the way back to before there were cataclysmic Seasons. Through Hoa's first person narration we discover the utopian continent spanning city of Syl Anagist. Syl Anagist is, in just a handful of chapters, one of the great cities of speculative fiction.  It is a city of wonder and amazing technological developments. It is on the cusp of moving to a post scarcity economy.

It is also built on the back of genocide and persecution and oppression and manufactured hatred.
Perhaps it began with whispers that white Niess irises gave them poor eyesight and perverse inclinations, and that split Niess tongues could not speak truth. That sort of sneering happens, cultural bullying, but things got worse. It became easy for scholars to build reputations and careers around the notion that Niess sessapinae were fundamentally different, somehow - more sensitive, more active, less controlled, less civilized - and this was the source of their magical peculiarity. This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.
It is all too real and fresh. It is reminiscent of recent world history and of the tendrils of a rotten past still rolling through America's present. While The Stone Sky is not necessarily about directly engaging with American history, readers can't help but bring that knowledge and background into the narrative.

I may be putting too fine of a point on this aspect of The Stone Sky and ultimately I think the corollary to the real world is subtext, though perhaps very pointed subtext. Throughout the story, Jemisin offers an examination and a condemnation of how the privileged and powerful treat those deemed "other", especially when that prejudicial classism and racism and prejudice just happens to protect their own power and position. That's the story of the fall of Syl Anagist and throughout The Stone Sky we see how that fall resonates and directly impacts the stories of Essun and Nassun.

Don't worry, I didn't forget about Essun and Nassun. As she has done with every other aspect of The Broken Earth, Jemisin completely nails the parallel stories of mother and daughter.

Following the destruction of Essun's temporary refuge, the Castrima comm which very effectively showed a way for orogenes and to live in harmony with "regular" humans, Essun is on the move with the remnants of the comm looking for a new home offering safety during the Season. After the events of The Obelisk Gate, Essun is much like her mentor Alabaster was - she overextended the use of her powers and now additional use of orogeny will cause her to more rapidly turn to stone. The problem is that she can't just follow Castrima and not use her power because Essun's true goal is to find her daughter and, oh yeah, pull the moon back into proper orbit with the planet.
When we say that "the world has ended", remember - it is usually a lie. The planet is just fine.
Nassun, on the other hand, is hell bent on using her prodigious power to destroy the world Essun is hoping to save. She is only ten years old but has experienced pain and loss and horror the likes of which can scarcely be comprehended, and she's got the righteous and focused anger of a child and the raw power to do something about it.

As with so much of The Broken Earth, the stories of Essun and Nassun are as wrenching and compelling as anything in fiction today. While perhaps nothing in The Stone Sky is as brutal as that scene in The Fifth Season where Syenite kills her own child rather than allow the Fulcrum take him and enslave him and use him up to feed the nodes stabilizing the Stillness, the revealed origin story of the orogenes is filled with equal amounts of pain and horror that calls complicit all those who benefit from the oppression of others and do nothing to alleviate that oppression and suffering.
The world is broken and you can fix it; that's what Alabaster and Lerna both charged you to do. Castrima is more reason for you to do it, not less. And it's tie you stopped being a coward, too, and went to find Nassun. Even if she hates you. Even if you left her to face a terrible world alone. Even if you are the worst mother in the world . . . you did your best.
Essun is one of the remarkable and notable characters in fantasy literature. She has endured so much, suffered so much, and she has come out still pushing to make a world better for her daughter. She's not a hero, at least not in the generic epic fantasy sense of the world. Essun is a woman with incredible power and though the whole world is not her responsibility, her daughter is. Even as impossibly difficult Essun's life has become (again) and how impossible the Season has made long term survival, the focus never gets too far away from Essun finding a way to find Nassun.

Normally we would say "rescue" Nassun, especially given that her daughter is only ten years old, but Nassun comes across as so preternaturally assured and powerful that it's so easy to forget she's so young. She is running a parallel course with Essun because the nexus of power Essun needs to pull the moon back into course correction with the world is the same nexus Nassun needs to finish the work of the emergent Season.

The Stone Sky caps off a stunning epic fantasy trilogy, one which began with the threaded narrative of three orogenes and concludes with the story of a woman and daughter finally coming back together. If you think there's going to be a truly happy ending, you haven't been paying attention. That's not the story N. K. Jemisin is telling here. The Stone Sky weaves deep personal drama and trauma with the overarching racial commentary that underpinned the entire trilogy.

The Broken Earth is a monumental achievement in fantasy fiction. The Stone Sky is the culmination of the best fantasy trilogy written today and that might be an understatement.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 because Jemisin somehow makes Schaffa somewhat sympathetic and that's absolutely amazing given where Schaffa started in The Fifth Season

Penalties: None.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "Very High Quality / Standout in its category". See more about our scoring system here.

Reference: Jemisin, N.K. The Stone Sky. [Orbit, 2017]

Other Reviews:
The Fifth Season
The Obelisk Gate
The Inheritance Trilogy
The Killing Moon
The Shadowed Sun

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Microreview [book]: Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw

If you love horror, monsters, science, mystery, you will enjoy this book.

I will let you know right now, I loved this book. This book made me laugh, cry, and generally fall in love with all the characters (well, minus the super bads).

Dr. Greta Helsing, a descendant of the famous Professor Abraham Van Helsing, is living in modern day London following in her father's footsteps. After medical school, Greta joined her father's practice, taking over after his passing. However, this isn't just any medical practice, Greta treats all manner of the otherworldly, from vampires and vampyres to mummies and ghouls. A firm believer that all persons, including the undead, should receive respect and properly medical care.

When a vicious attack on a vampyre friend of one of Greta's patients appears connected to the serial murders occurring in London, Greta, and her friends end up squarely in the sights of an evil unlike anything they've seen.

Without a doubt, the best thing about this book are the characters. Shaw beautifully blends Greta's analytical mind and intelligence with deeply connected friendships and compassion. Lord Edmund Ruthven, he prefers you abstain from using Lord, is the best host, a considerate friend, willing to help tend a baby ghoul, a vampire you can depend on no matter what the situation, and a dear friend to Greta. (And yes, there is a difference between vampires and vampyres, a detail I adore.)

Shaw clearly did her research when it comes to undead history and tales. There are so many references fans of horror will truly love and respect. It adds a richness to the text and an authority to the voice behind each character. Many times urban lore surrounding a certain undead will be openly addressed during conversations yet never felt forced into the narrative. Weaving such history into the story itself allows Shaw to make her Helsing tale wholly her own.

The attacks and murders lead into a pretty straight forward mystery where Greta and her companions start unraveling clues Scotland Yard is not privvy to since the undead are a bit harder to kill and become a witness to the crime versus victim. Greta is driven to solve the murders in order to protect those closest to her. The undead can't afford a lot of police and investigations poking around. She fears the worst from abductions for experimental probing to the pitch fork brigades. Protecting her patients and friends is of the utmost importance to her, and it is a credit to Shaw's skill that I was right there alongside Greta wanting to protect everyone.

It takes a bit to make me cry at a book, Black Beauty and Where the Red Fern Grows managed it and now I can add this one to the list as well. It wasn't because of a tragic thing (to avoid spoilers that is all I will say) it was because there is a moment when Greta is so upset she is a slobbering, sobbing mess and I was so invested in these characters I found myself tearing up and having to blow my nose, once again, right alongside Greta. It is that kind of character-building that will carry this series for as long as Shaw wishes to write it. As soon as I finished the book I went looking to see if I could at least pre-order the next in the series, sadly it isn't listed yet.

Every time I think I am firmly in the the "I prefer standalones always and forever" a book like this will come along and sweep me away selling me on the idea of series and spending more time with characters.

If you love horror, monsters, science, mystery, you will enjoy this book. If you are like me, you will keep checking Orbit's listings to see when the second is on the horizon and available for pre-order.

The Math: 
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for truly wonderful characters

Penalties: Not a one.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 - A seriously great cast I look forward to following for many, many books!

Our scoring system explained.

Reference: Shaw, Vivian. Strange Practice [Orbit, 2017]

POSTED BY: Shana DuBois--extreme bibliophile and seeker of raindrops.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Microreview [film]: The Invisible Boy

Oh...boy. Just, yep. I'm gonna leave the pun right there.

Forbidden Planet is an undisputed classic of sci-fi film. At the time it was produced, it was a tremendously expensive film, and a disproportionate amount of that budget went to pay for a single prop: Robby the Robot. That sure must've seemed like a good investment when the breakout star of the film was not sexpot Anne Francis, or strapping, not-yet-gray Leslie Nielsen, or even venerable actor-with-gravitas Walter Pidgeon. Nope, the breakout star was Robby the Robot.

And with good reason. Robby is amazing. Robby is better than Gort, and I love Gort. I don't even care. We can fight. So given the success of Forbidden Planet and Robby, the studio wanted a sequel, naturally. That sequel was The Invisible Boy. Now, The Invisible Boy is bonkers, so rather than write a straight review, I wanted to try something different. Here, then, is An Imagined Conversation Between Screenwriter Cyril Hume and the Producers of Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.

The scene is a small, executive office on the MGM lot. A PRODUCER sits behind a mahogany desk. It's nice. Swanky digs, sure, but it's second-class fancy, for Golden Age Hollywood. The really nice offices start a floor up. But this producer's doing ok. We'll give him a cigar. Because 1956.

In walks CYRIL HUME, screenwriter. He's in a suit, also because 1956, but you can tell. It's the 1956-everybody-wears-suits equivalent of a Foo Fighters concert-T. Still, this has been the biggest year of his professional life — three hits. Ransom!, with Glenn Ford (big star), Forbidden Planet, and Bigger Than Life directed by Nicholas Ray right after Rebel Without a Cause.

PRODUCER: Cyril, baby. Have a seat. Have a seat! You want a cigar?

CYRIL HUME: Scotch and soda? Just, Scotch with a ray of sunlight that passed through a bottle of Schweppes.

PROD: That's a writer for you! I'll have my girl mix it right up for you.

He pushes a button on the intercom.

PROD: Stella, mix up a, er? Is it "Stella"?

VOICE ON INTERCOM: Sheila, sir. But keep trying.

PROD: Great. Listen, baby. I need a Scotch and soda for our writer friend, and that's Scotch with a...what was it?

CH: It's just Scotch and soda. Just...really?

PROD: That's just Scotch and soda, Shirley. In a glass. With ice, maybe.


CH: So...?

PROD: Right. Listen, baby. This Forbidden Planet, it's a humdinger. It's doing gangbusters. We need a sequel, ready to shoot, right away.

CH: I told you a science fiction version of Shakespeare's Tempest would work.

PROD: Whatever, whatever. This Shakespeare guy, friend of yours? If he's got other ideas, great. But listen, we need another movie with Robby the Robot, right now. Like, yesterday. Something fiction-y. For the, uh, for the geeks and stuff.

CH: Yeah, that's great. Making a film on such a huge canvas was fantastic. We could explore other worlds...maybe on their way back to Earth...

PROD: You kidding me? No, they're on Earth. Jesus, that fake planet cost me a fortune. And black-and-white. Color film was a nightmare. I chewed through three pillows in my sleep just from seeing the lab bills.

CH: So...a black-and-white sequel, on Earth, to a Technicolor space tragedy that takes place 300 years in the future?

PROD: On the nose, baby! And present-day. No space cities, or future science, or none of that. Just put the robot in it.

CH: The robot won't be invented for 300 years.

PROD: Then make it come back with time travel or something. That's a thing, right? People from the future? All that?

CH: Wow, yeah. There's never really been a serious time travel film. This could be pretty amazing.

PROD: Yes! There you go! But don't spend too much time on that part. We don't want to have to build any fancy time machines, or go to other times, where the costuming...oh the costume costs, just give me an antacid. So it's now, but there's a robot from the future. Go! Oh, no wait! Listen, I got this cousin...or, second cousin? I don't know. But they got this kid, he wants to be in pictures, he's, whatever, he's kid-aged. Like, we'll say 10. Put him in it.

CH: Look, not to tell you your business, but "dogs and kids," you know? Never work with them?

PROD: He doesn't have to be in the whole thing. Just, I don't know, make him invisible halfway through and then forget about him.

Sheila enters, gives the screenwriter his Scotch and soda. It disappears in a single toss of the head.

CH: Two more, please.

Sheila cocks an eyebrow, then looks at her boss. Gets it totally. She leaves.

CH: So it's a black-and-white picture about a time-traveling robot and a little kid who turns invisible halfway through?

PROD: Solid gold. We'll call it...The See-Thru Kid! Or, something like that. As long as it's eight reels long.

CH: What if, and I'm just thinking out loud, what if the sequel to the fantastic, futuristic space picture took place in space. In the future? We could re-use the ship from the first movie, we could --

PROD: Cyril, baby. We already sold the ship to CBS, and they're going to use it in a bunch of TV shows this cat Rod Serling is making. The ship is gone. Damn, sailed. The ship has sailed. Let's pretend I didn't flub that joke, ok? Where were we?

CH: You had just put my career in a time machine and sent it backwards twenty-something years to when I was writing Tarzan movies.

PROD: Right, right. You know what else is hip these days, is computers, and aliens. I have definitely seen those words on the covers of magazines.

CH: So you want eight reels about a kid who plays with a space robot from the future, but then turns invisible halfway through, with a computer that may or may not be from another planet?

PROD: Perfect. You're a genius.

Sheila appears with two more Scotch and sodas.


Let me just say that our hero, screenwriter Cyril Hume, accomplished everything that was asked of him in this imagined meeting. If you think that sounds like it'll make a good movie, than The Invisible Boy is right up your alley. I will say, and this is no B.S., the movie has one of my most favorite lines of dialogue ever from any movie. I will sometimes put this movie on at home just to watch that moment. And if that's not a cult film punching above its weight, I don't know what is.

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Microreview [book]: Cibola Burn (book four of the Expanse series)

The weakest entry in the series (so far)…and yet still great fun!

Corey, James S.A. Cibola Burn. Hachette Book Group, 2015.
Buy it here.

So here’s the thing—I’m a big-time fan of the Expanse series. At the point I’m writing this review, I’ve read the first five books, and enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The first one got things off to an explosive start, the second one continued that momentum, and the third one upped the excitement ante. Like the first three books of Robert Jordan’s near-interminable Wheel of Time series, the first three almost felt like a stand-alone trilogy, one which had reached a mostly satisfying (if open-ended) conclusion. The question is, how could the authors of The Expanse sustain this impressive pace into book four?

Well, the answer is they couldn’t (though they came close). Overall, Cibola Burn was certainly entertaining, but (like book four of the Wheel of Time) it felt rather anticlimactic.  It’s plenty interesting, but there’s a slight diminishing-returns sense of “they’re at it again” when we see the crew of the Roci solve every problem with trademark skill (if not ease). We are, of course, unable to doubt the overall trajectory of the Holden + (ghost) Miller duo: like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series theme song, we know “the good guys win and the bad guys lose.” 

Also true of most books, movies, etc.
So it’s no spoiler to say that they manage another miraculous save. My sense is that the authors wrote themselves into a bit of a corner with what film reviewers of every Jason Statham movie would have described as a ‘high-octane’ plot in the first three books, leaving them no room to up the ante.

Perhaps it would be best to see the Expanse as more of a single unit (albeit one whose end is not yet in sight), in which case it would make sense to have something of a lull in the middle, or (like in one of those mix tapes John Cusack raves about in High Fidelity) after a few fast-paced hits in the beginning. By that logic, we might reasonably expect a return to ‘high octane romp’ form in book five. To see if this is the case, check in next Friday for a review of Nemesis Games!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for somehow turning the entire gate/1000 worlds thing into a manageable story

Penalty: -1 for not quite overcoming sequel fatigue

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "Enjoyable experience but not without a flaw or two"

To learn more about our unique scoring system, see here.

It is I, Zhaoyun, explorer extraordinaire of space operas of all shapes and sizes, and reviewer for Nerds of a Feather since time immemorial (2013), who brings you this message.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

It seems like things are starting to return to normal. The convention season is behind us, my kids are back in school, and Nintendo is still making it really difficult to purchase their products. At least I have Supreme Court action, back from the dead fighting, a new virus breaking out on earth, and crazy vampire grandpas to keep me occupied.

Pick of the Week:
Dept. H #17 - Mia gets one helluva an email from Lily that details the shaky background of their friendship. The crew is close to finally making it back to the surface, but if we can trust the briefing from Lily it looks like they might want to remain under water. According to Lily, the H-Virus had another outbreak on land and is creating all sorts of havoc. I want to trust her and feel that her heartfelt email to Mia is a way to get her message out before they all die. Aaron is looking might suspicious, but I haven't nailed down a motive on him just yet.  What is clear is that Matt and Sharlene Kindt have crafted a great murder mystery at the bottom of the ocean and this is a series well worth your time.

The Rest:
Redneck #5 - We finally learn the truth about what happened to Slap and holy hell was that brutal. Apparently not everyone in the family is on board with attempting to co-exist with humans and Slap was caught in the crossfire. This issue brought back memories of the first and makes you really appreciate what author Donny Cates is setting up. JV is pissed off and I don't think things are going to end well for anything. Add into the mix that they are accountable for turning Father Landry and are going to have a hard time remaining hidden for long. I am expecting a lot of blood in the next issue.

Secret Empire #9 - We had some nice victories over the past few issues. Led by Sam Wilson, the Avengers were able to take down the planetary shield and destroy the bubble over Manhattan. On top of that, they were able to welcome the Winter Soldier back to the team after everyone thought he was killed at the hands of Zemo. Come from behind victories and the return of seemingly dead best friends is pretty cliche superhero comic, but it is pretty cliche for a reason. When properly written and executed it is a lot of fun.  Thanks to Nick Spencer and crew, Secret Empire continues to be an entertaining event that will likely have no real impact on anything other than a fun story. Issue 9 is an epic battle showing how the tides really are turning, but there is one enemy that they were never prepared to face. Captain America himself.

Daredevil #25 - Matt Murdock has made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In an attempt to establish a legal precedent that masked superheros don't have to identify themselves to testify, Murdock is up against one of the best lawyers in the country and Kingpin himself. In addition to the lawyer, Fisk reaches back out to Tombstone to take a more violent approach to preventing this case from being heard. I liked watching the justices fight Daredevil in his mind as he made arguments and dealt with tough questions. This was a fun approach to Daredevil that focused more on the law and less on him beating up bad guys with his billy club, which based on the conclusion of this issue, Plan C for Fisk involves a lot of fighting.

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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!

Bear, Elizabeth, The Stone in the Skull [Tor Books, 2017]

Publisher's description:
The Stone in the Skull, the first volume in her new trilogy, takes readers over the dangerous mountain passes of the Steles of the Sky and south into the Lotus Kingdoms.

The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.

They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.
 Why We Want It: When I hear there is anything new from Elizabeth Bear I am already in line. Seriously. Bear's novels never fail to sweep me up and away. Her last, Karen Memory, was a phenomenal weird western I've given multiple times as gifts. I suspect this one will be on my gift-giving guide as well.

Toptas, Hasan Ali, Shadowless [Bloomsbury, 2017]

Publisher's description:
In an Anatolian village forgotten by both God and the government, the muhtar has been elected leader for the sixteenth successive year. When he staggers to bed that night, drunk on raki and his own well-deserved success, the village is prosperous. But when he is woken by his wife the next evening he discovers that Nuri, the barber, has disappeared without a trace in the dead of night, and the community begins to fracture.

In a nameless town far away, Nuri walks into a barbershop as if from a dream, not knowing how he has arrived. Try as he might, he cannot grasp the strands of his memory. The facts of his past life shift and evade him, and as other customers come and go, they too struggle to recall how they got there.

Blurring the lines of reality to terrific effect, Shadowless is both a compelling mystery and an enduring evocation of displacement from one of the finest, most exciting voices in Turkish literature today.
 Why We Want It: I love finding genre in translation and after stumbling on this cover I knew I had to put this one on my list. I'm not sure I've read any Turkish literature yet so this will be such a wonderful addition to my shelves.

Alderman, Naomi, The Power [Little, Brown and Company, 2017]

Publisher's description:
In THE POWER, the world is a recognizable place: there's a rich Nigerian boy who lounges around the family pool; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But then a vital new force takes root and flourishes, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power--they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world drastically resets.

From award-winning author Naomi Alderman, THE POWER is speculative fiction at its most ambitious and provocative, at once taking us on a thrilling journey to an alternate reality, and exposing our own world in bold and surprising ways.
Why We Want It: It has a blurb from Margaret Atwood on the cover and the premise sounds flipping incredible. I want this book so much!

Hearne, Kevin, A Plague of Giants [Del Rey, 2017]

Publiser's description:
From the author of The Iron Druid Chronicles, a thrilling novel that kicks off a fantasy series with an entirely new mythology—complete with shape-shifting bards, fire-wielding giants, and children who can speak to astonishing beasts

Tallynd is a soldier who has already survived her toughest battle: losing her husband. But now she finds herself on the front lines of an invasion of giants, intent on wiping out the entire kingdom, including Tallynd’s two sons—all that she has left. The stakes have never been higher. If Tallynd fails, her boys may never become men.

Dervan is an historian who longs for a simple, quiet life. But he’s drawn into intrigue when he’s hired to record the tales of a mysterious bard who may be a spy or even an assassin for a rival kingdom. As the bard shares his fantastical stories, Dervan makes a shocking discovery: He may have a connection to the tales, one that will bring his own secrets to light.

Abhi’s family have always been hunters, but Abhi wants to choose a different life for himself. Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, Abhi soon learns that his destiny is far greater than he imagined: a powerful new magic thrust upon him may hold the key to defeating the giants once and for all—if it doesn’t destroy him first.

Set in a magical world of terror and wonder, this novel is a deeply felt epic of courage and war, in which the fates of these characters intertwine—and where ordinary people become heroes, and their lives become legend.
Why We Want It: I love Kevin Hearne's writing and his approach to world-building. I am beyond stoked for this upcoming epic fantasy.

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia, The Beautiful Ones [Thomas Dunne Books, 2017]

Publisher's description:
Antonina Beaulieu is in the glittering city of Loisail for her first Grand Season, where she will attend balls and mingle among high society in hopes of landing a suitable husband. But Antonina is telekinetic, and strange events in her past have made her the subject of malicious gossip and hardly a sought-after bride. Now, under the tutelage of her cousin’s wife, she is finally ready to shed the past and learn the proper ways of society.

Antonina, who prefers her family's country home to the glamorous ballrooms of the wealthy, finds it increasingly difficult to conform to society’s ideals for women, especially when she falls under the spell of the dazzling telekinetic performer Hector Auvray. As their romance blossoms, and he teaches her how to hone and control her telekinetic gift, she can't help but feel a marriage proposal is imminent.

Little does Antonina know that Hector and those closest to her are hiding a devastating secret that will crush her world and force her to confront who she really is and what she's willing to sacrifice.
Why We Want It: I think Silvia Moreno-Garcia is too often overlooked when people are looking for their next favorite read. Pick up any of her novels and you better settle in because you will be sucked in and not want to leave her world.

Stearns, R.E., Barbary Station [Saga Press, 2017]

Publisher's description:
Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates—only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew—and survive long enough to enjoy it.

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out.

Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the AI met an untimely end, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds.

There’s a glorious future in piracy…if only they can survive long enough.

Why We Want It: Yes. Yes. Yes. Give this to me now please and thank you. I have been waiting for this book since I first heard about it a year ago.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

FIRESIDE CHAT: Jonah Sutton-Morse of the Cabbages & Kings Podcast

Welcome to another Fireside Chat with The G! This time I welcome Jonah Sutton-Morse of the excellent Cabbages & Kings Podcast. We talk fantasy and science fiction, and how fandom can actually be a pretty cool "place."

G - So what have been into lately, books-wise? Are there any that have really stuck with you?

JSM - At the moment, I'm reading Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series. I've read the first few books, but never finished the series. This go round, I've finished King's Dragon (book 1), and just started Prince of Dogs, so I'm still firmly in reread territory.

I'm also working on C S Lewis' Till We Have Faces for a possible podcast book club, will probably read The Horse and his Boy for the same. I'm working through the stories of a Djinn Falls in Love, which has had a number of really top-notch stories.

Recently, I still can't get Treside McMillam Cotton's Lower Ed out of my head - top-notch book showing how to create a narrative informed by both data and lived experiences. On the SFF side, Lavie Tidhar's Central Station was excellent (how often do you say that about a fixup novel?), and Ernest Hogan's High Aztech (which I picked up based on one of Vajra's Strange Horizons columns) was wierd and fascinating Cyberpunk. Plus I'm working on Adam Roberts' History of Science Fiction, which gives me plenty to think about and argue with.

So that's a big list to potentially jump off from. I'm curious about the Witcher books, because I think you said you've just finished the series, and praised it highly. How do those books relate to what got you into SF/F, and how do they relate to what you like to read now? Were they close to an introduction for you? Would you pick them up today if you hadn't started the series a while back? What do you love about them that you also love about the genre? (Or what do you love about them that you don't see elsewhere in the genre?) give me the story of The G and SF/F via The Witcher books :)

G - It always strikes me how many more books people read than I do! I’m a slow, plodding reader. But anyway--that’s an interesting list. Kate Elliott is great, of course--one of the best fantasy writers out there. Ernest Hogan is another good one, but for whatever reason he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. I read Smoking Mirror Blues a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It’s SF-meets-magic-realism, and also genuinely funny at times. There should be more humor in genre--not humor books, per se, but humor in books.

...and that’s a good segway into the Witcher Saga, since it also fits on the magic realism tree. I mean, this is epic fantasy, so maybe “realism” is a misnomer here. But the influence of Latin American magic realism is palpable, and is, I think, one of the reasons why these books resonate with Spanish-language readers--besides just being fantastic books, of course. They tap into a literary history and cultural tradition that Spanish readers will be intimately familiar with.

For me, well, I’ve realized that the Witcher Saga has pretty much everything I could ever want from a fantasy series. The characters are great, and their relationships with one another take center stage. There is real warmth and love--and pain too. There’s humor--the books can be quite funny--and romance. Not the cheesy stereotype of what romance is, ripped bodices and Fabio lookalikes, but the kind of thing romance readers tell us we are missing out on. The kind of thing that might convince a skeptic like me to read an actual romance novel.

Most of all, though, the books are just emotionally devastating--frightening and sad, yet redemptive at the same time. I felt very unnerved and upset at the end, but also--I don’t know--validated? It’s hard for me to describe.

The question inevitably comes up about how this series fits into fantasy styles and subgenres, and in a sense it doesn’t. It starts as a sword and sorcery subversion of fairy tales, then turns into an epic fantasy subversion of Tolkein and then turns into something else entirely, something more akin to Gene Wolf or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s also very political. There are no clear “good guys” or “bad guys,” aside from the main characters. I know that’s become quite fashionable these days, but it’s not done like it is in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, where the solution is basically just to make everyone either bad or a victim. Here it’s about presenting you with certain assumptions, and then calling those into question. Another way to think about it, is this is Sapkowski exploring what a Tolkienic universe would look like if it were populated by actual people rather than avatars.

And the books are stylistically daring--the storytelling is elliptical from the get-go, but by the fourth book, the narrative fragments completely. I wasn’t completely sold until I understood where Sapkowski was going with things. And the payoff is considerable.

So yes, you should read it. I think it’s the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. Everyone should read it.

JSM - man, I want to talk about The Witcher Saga, but only after I've read it, so I'll have to read it and invite you on. And similarly, I like what you said about humor (and my goodness High Aztech was hilarious), but again, I just don't have much to say about humor. There should be more, but I don't like books that lean into it a lot. We need to find a good topic! We could bond over feeling like we read slowly. I need to get off Twitter…

Here's a possible topic - what, if anything, is a common thread between say Kate Elliott (who I read as writing solidly within the Epic Fantasy tradition), something apparently genre-bending like The Witcher, and the humorous and punk SF of Ernest Hogan? What even is "genre" anyway? (And how do you and I, who I think have very different touchstones even if we've read some of the same titles, have that discussion?)

I don't think this is a great topic. We need a better one. But that's hard when our go to "these books define what I love about the genre" are (I think) so different? Is that worth exploring? Can we do better?

G - I’m of two minds about those kinds of topics. On the one hand, it’s good to explore why you like things. On the other, it’s bad (in my opinion) to define it in such a way that you only select books fit inside those boundaries. But in the spirit of the former, here goes:

I’m particularly attracted to certain substyles of SF/F: space opera, near-future SF, post-apocalyptica, sword and sorcery and epic fantasy. And I’m attracted to stuff that sits on the boundary of SF/F and mimetic fiction, like J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux or Emily St. John Mandel. I’m generally not into urban fantasy. The reason for that is very personal--I just can’t suspend disbelief. It’s like, I can accept elves and magic in the Kingdom of Narhav’a, but not in New York or London. I’m not trying to knock urban fantasy here, this is a matter of personal taste. I just can’t do it. I have done it, a few times, but in general it just doesn’t work for me.

The binding tie, for me, is that I want fiction to be imaginative, to be more than just people doing things in sequence. It should be that too, but not just that. And I think that’s a pretty good conception of genre: imaginative fiction. I didn’t come up with that; I think Jeff Vandermeer uses the term in Wonderbook. It’s a good term. Both science fiction and fantasy are imaginative genres. All genre is imaginative--crime and romance too. But science fiction and fantasy put the imaginative-ness up front and center. Those of us who are attracted to SF/F are probably all inveterate daydreamers.

What about you: what do you see as the binding tie in your reading preferences? And does that potentially speak to a conception of what genre “is” or “isn’t?”

JSM - I'm really, really wary of "all of us" narratives at this point. One of the things I'm becoming acutely aware of as I interview people for the podcast is how many different paths into these overlapping genres that marketers have decided should be shelved together we all took are. Just a general note, "what was your early experience with the genre" followed by "have their been any bumps on the way to here" are excellent questions I wish people asked more often.

For myself, I grew up on Epic Fantasy, got bored somewhere in the midst of Robert Jordan, and then NK Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed and Long Hidden pulled me back. Somewhere along the way, I decided to actually figure out more about Science Fiction, which I'd interacted with but never really immersed myself in, which means that I spend a lot of time with SF thinking about what it is and how it works, while I just immerse myself in fantasy I'm reading unless I specifically try to distance myself from it.

But also like you I have trouble with urban fantasy. I've never been all that interested in Sword & Sorcery or Space Opera, though I've tried to read enough to get a sense of what they both are. I avoid mimetic fiction like the plague because it makes me feel dumb.

I'm losing the thread here. Yes to your idea of "imaginative", I like that term. I like that as a unifying idea. I'm also wary of unifying notions. I suspect that at the moment, reading SF/F for me is simply a way of defining my identity. I am a reader of these books, and people I know who read these books are reading certain titles and having kinds of discussions and so I will participate, and so the process repeats itself. But also I think about Tolkien's "I desired dragons with a profound desire". That's a good one for me too. Over and over again, books that just say "the world around you is a constructed thing, and there are other realities" are speaking to me right now. I didn't *love* Ninefox Gambit, and I think the Calendrical System is maybe a bit too nail-on-the-head, but I *like* that part of the book. (I liked other parts of the book too. It's fine, not exceptional, in my opinion.)

I want to ask you something smart about borders, and how urban fantasy is fantasy intruding into what could be mimetic, while the mimetic that tends towards fantastic is what you find appealing, but I'm so underread that I can't think of what to say. Did you read Brisset's Elysium by any chance?

I'm going to jump to that question for later now, as well.

G - Funny you mention Wheel of Time as a jumping off point. It was for me as well--I think somewhere around book five or so. Prior to that, I read a ton of SF/F. But that series just sort of killed the joy for me. Afterwards, I migrated toward gritty realism, like Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Tim O’Brien and Denis Johnson, and classic noir--Raymond Chandler, mostly. Then I started reading stuff on the boundary of genre, like JG Ballard and Don DeLilo. That was a gateway back into SF, which was a gateway back into fantasy. Like a lot of people, I started back up with A Game of Thrones. I have not been impressed with the direction that series has taken (especially in A Dance with Dragons), but at the time, the first three books reminded me that fantasy can be complex and smart.

So here’s another question: what, if anything, has been frustrating you lately? In terms of books or conversations *about* books. Or twitter. You should stay on twitter, by the way--it’s the best.

JSM - Twitter is the worst except when it's the best, and also it's a habit and those are hard to break and I'm putting my energy elsewhere at the moment. I have two objections to conversations about books at the moment. First, they seem so rarely to be about books. Like actually the text. Passages, characters and how they develop or interact with the world. They seem much more to be about shoehorning books into existing conversations. (Note how I'm not being particularly specific here? This is me perpetuating bad discourse while I criticize it. Erin's reading here is excellent. This reaction to Sharke reviews of Ninefox Gambit isn't excellent, but it's at least trying to engage with what people are actually saying.)

Second I think these conversations don't make space for the different ways we come to the genre. I've learned a lot by listening to people for whom seeing themselves in media is both a rare and empowering experience, but I can't join those conversations, and when I try to participate (or even when I'm just chatting with people who use that lens), it's pretty easy for me to say something hurtful or be dismissed. Similarly, there's a critical strain that the Sharke project claims to want to see more of that can easily come across as harsh and unpleasant if you don't buy into it, but can also be energizing and stimulating, and a bunch of the reaction to the project seems to be "this isn't for me". I wish "we" (fans online) were better at figuring out that we're having different conversations, and not trying to apply our approach to everyone. Sometimes just listening is good. Sometimes just ignoring that obnoxious take (or the conversation that's not intended for you) is good.

I feel like I'm being vague and not helpful. Is there anything there worth grabbing onto? We need to edit like 80% of this out!

G - With regards the former, I think I know what you mean--when a review of a space opera becomes a commentary *on* space opera, to the point where the book itself is just a vehicle. Is that correct?

As far as the latter goes, yeah, well, the critical approach rubs people the wrong way for a few interrelated reasons. First, self-identified critics are elitist. There’s no way around that, and the fact is that a lot of people resent elitism--particularly in genre fandom. Second, there is a culture of nice of genre fandom that’s antithetical to the critical approach. Like, you should only post reviews when they are positive. Critics don’t do that.

The culture of nice is a pet peeve of mine, by the way. I don’t think reviews should be unnecessarily brutal, or belittle other people’s preferences, but I value honest opinions that are illustrated through supporting evidence. Doesn’t make them *objectively true,* or anything like that--they are still, ultimately, quite subjective. Even still, I value an argument that can be assessed on its merits. There are some reviews that I think are quite off, but nevertheless good and important to read. Okay, I’m getting off topic now.

There’s one more reason why critics get flack, and its related to the culture of nice. The fact is, a lot of people just can’t tell the difference between comments on a text and comments on the person who wrote it. Writers are obviously invested in their work, and fans often identify with their preferences--to the point where each can see criticism of text as a personal attack. But this is nonsensical. Disagreement is good, and healthy. We should all be able to read stuff we disagree with and not feel like it’s a personal attack--provided, of course, that it actually isn’t a personal attack. This also goes for critics and reviewers: if we make an argument *about* a book, and someone publicly disagrees with it, we should also be open to continuing that conversation. Again, provided everyone is sticking to the text.

Not long ago I had an interesting interaction with Cora Buhlert. I’d made some comments on the Nebula shortlist, basically saying that none of the nominees in the novel category involved rigorous speculation on the future--implying that this was a problem. (And I do think it is.) She challenged that in a blog post, after which point we had a very good conversation about it. I enjoyed that. I’m glad I *can* enjoy that, rather than raising shields and arming the photon torpedoes.

Granted, sometimes that isn’t possible. For example, if I read a review and it hinges on some kind of social group animosity, I’m out the door. Ditto something that’s purposefully antagonistic, or a threadbare hot take. But a lot of the stuff we get hot under the collar about doesn’t fit into any of these categories; it’s more “they said my favorite book is bad.” So, ignore it and move on. Or, better yet, say why it’s good. Jonathan McCalmont and have disagreed about John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books. He thinks they are militaristic garbage; I think they are a clever subversion of militaristic garbage. I love Jonathan’s critical writing--as much or more than any other person’s writing on SF. But we don’t need to agree on this. Actually it’s better that we don’t, because I’m not sure I would have felt compelled to articulate my own long-form thoughts on the series if we hadn’t had that discussion.

In the end, I agree with what you said about people recognizing that there are different streams, and we don’t have to follow all of them. Sometimes it’s good to listen, as you say, or even just ignore. To the greatest degree possible, though, I think people should try to engage with ideas and opinions that challenge our assumptions.

JSM - I guess challenging assumptions is probably not usually a bad thing. But I don't think it's necessarily a good in and of itself either. I mean, in general, I'm really wary of complacency, *especially* because I'm really privileged, and I think that when I'm getting complacent it usually represents me acquiescing to systems that are designed to cater to me at the expense of others. So clearly in that case challenging assumptions is good. But I don't see it as an intrinsic good.

That said, I get the impression that one area we'd both agree on is that it can be extremely rewarding to learn from other people, so maybe we can go out on some lessons we've learned from others around the internet? Either because of what they said or what they prompted us to think about?

One of my most important early lessons was that when SFF-fandom is angry about something, it's not generally because people enjoy being angry, but rather because books or creators have said or done something incredibly offensive to many of the people in the community. That's a good reminder to me when I see frustration brewing that it's (usually) not rooted in drama for it's own sake. Similarly, I try to keep an eye on my anger and snark, and inquire whether I'm offended, or enjoying the performance.

It was Renay who taught me that I should be proud of loving the stories and characters that I love, not because I can defend their critical value in some way but because they genuinely bring me joy, and that's a pleasure.

It was Kate Elliott and Rose Fox to who taught me to ask where the marginalized characters are in a story, and what communities they've found for themselves.

Nerds-Feather reminds me that the simple act of regularly writing and thinking about the stuff we're consuming is difficult, excellent, and an essential piece of keeping this community (however cohesive or uncohered it may be) moving

The list could go on, but the point is that I'm a better reader and a better person online and off because a whole bunch of us decided to go along with the categories that marketers decided to stick on shelves together and talk about the books and movies and games and stories we love, even if we love them for very different reasons. I think that's where I'd want to leave my part of this conversation where it seems like every time one of us got excited about a particular book or idea, the other was just ho-hum about it. We don't have to get excited about (or have read) the same things to enjoy talking about this thing we both love.

G - That’s a good question, and one worth thinking about. Yes, I do agree that it’s important to listen and learn from other people. But just to clarify, when I said it’s important to engage with ideas that challenge our assumptions, that’s pretty much what I was getting at. I don’t mean to say that all assumptions are by nature off-base. Rather, it’s the process of engagement that helps us assess the validity of our assumptions. About half the time, it ends up reinforcing rather than undermining preconceived notions, turning assumptions into understandings. And by “understandings” I mean: things we have thought about, subjected to a form of review and then determined whether they still pass the smell test. I think that’s an important process, and I also think it’s intrinsic to learning from others. Then again, I’m an academic, so I’m trained to think that everything should be endlessly scrutinized and re-evaluated.

In terms of who I’ve learned form, there are too many people to cite. Pretty much everyone I regularly engage with on Twitter is someone I try to learn from. I engage with them because I feel like their opinions are worthwhile and interesting (usually also because they are nice, fun people). There are a few people I think of as my “big siblings in fandom,” mainly because they sort of took me in and showed me the ropes in one way or another. I’ve been reading SF/F all my life but I’m relatively new to fandom, so that was an important part of entering the community. Aidan Moher in particular, but there are many others. Speaking of Aidan, I still miss A Dribble of Ink and wish it would come back, though I get that he’s happier now writing fiction. Also, his fiction has gotten quite good! But I digress…

I share your view of fandom as a happy place. I mean, it’s not always a happy place--it can be an angry place, like you say. But ultimately this is one community I really enjoy being a part of, even though I’m not a joiner by nature. Then again, I’ve been really lucky to fall in with a good crowd. I think of you guys as my friends, even though I’ve never met most of you in real life. Hell, I’ve only met half my fellow nerds of a feather in real life! Despite all the problems inherent to social media, it’s kind of amazing that this is possible now.

So I think I’ll end it there too, on pretty much the same note you did. We can think differently, like different things and even disagree vociferously, but the fact that we can come together to have these conversations, and keep having these conversations, is awesome.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Microreview [film]: Seconds (1966)

Shadowy, Faustian, and Sci-Fi-Adjacent

The premise of Seconds is solidly science fiction — a middle-aged, middle-manager type tired of his life allows a shadowy company to stage his death, give him a new face, a new name, and a new life — but the execution doesn't spend much time on the fantastic elements. Billed as a sci-fi movie, it actually unfolds more like a paranoid thriller. This feels natural since director John Frankenheimer's two previous movies were the paranoid classics The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.

The scenes inside The Company have an almost surrealistic feel to them, with unexplained rooms full of people sitting around and waiting for...who knows?...and offices with random people present, staring at the wall doing...who knows? This is essentially the extent to which the movie characterizes the science fictional or fantastic aspect of its tapestry. The main character, Arthur Hamilton, undergoes the surgery and recovery process, and emerges as Rock Hudson, well, his name is now "Tony Wilson," but as played by Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson was never one of those movie stars that pushed the boundaries of film acting, you might say — he always feels to me like Cary Grant, but not as witty or sharp-edged. He had a great role in Giant and did a good job with it. But he really surprised me in Seconds.

The bulk of the movie concerns itself with the reality of actually escaping oneself. Ok, let's just take as a given that some mysterious group can provide you with a new face, name, house, all that. But under the new exterior, you're still "you." And is it your circumstances that you were tired of, that made you want to go down this bonkers rabbit hole, or was it Beach house, servant, new girlfriend, sure, but can that make you happy? Can you really hit the reset button as easy as all that?

One of the most effective sequences in the film is also one of the strangest. Arthur/Tony goes with his new girlfriend, Nora, to a wine festival, and suddenly people start stripping off their clothes and dancing around in the wine vats naked. Arthur/Tony is repulsed at first, the way a middle-aged baner from 1966 might well be, but slowly lets himself go, allowing himself to get caught up in the moment. This is the first moment in the film where he really loosens the fist clenched around the idea of who he's "supposed" to be, and feels the freedom of this new, second chance at life. This sequence — and it has a lot of female nudity — was unsurprisingly cut from the American theatrical release, but has since been restored. I think without that experience, though, this would feel like a very different movie. From a character standpoint, I think it's an essential scene, and a lot would be lost without it. It's one of the only moments where I felt like I could start pulling for Arthur/Tony.

This is the most natural, and engaging performance I've ever seen from Rock Hudson. And he does a really convincing drunk, in one crucial scene. I have to wonder how much this role was informed by his real life as a closeted gay man. It feels like the kind of role, where he is having to hide his true self and can only let go in a couple of stolen moments, that he was probably living off-screen, as well. It is a heartbreaking idea to consider.

This movie did poorly on its initial release, but in recent years has bubbled up again. I first became aware of it because I am a big nerd for movie title design, and I saw the Saul Bass-created opening sequence maybe a couple of years ago. Criterion and the Library of Congress National Film Registry have helped raise the movie's profile recently, and I think it's well-deserved. It's an odd movie, and not perfect, but in the end, Seconds feels like an extended, darker-than-usual episode of The Twilight Zone. If that sounds good, you'll probably dig it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses:: +1 for Rock Hudson's performance; +1 for Murray Hamilton's brief, but unsettling performance; +1 for gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe

Penalties: -1 for an outcome that feels like a foregone conclusion; -1 for the sort of blasé approach to the sci-fi setup

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 07/2017

I realized after I had chosen the stories for the July Monthly Round that the flavors are dominated by a few persistent themes. Distance. War. Loss. Corruption. Given the news and trends recently, maybe that’s not such a big surprise. These are stories that weave together settings magical and awe-inspiring…and dark. Empires of exploitation, planets on the verge of catastrophe, whole realities in danger of being swallowed up into the void. And in the face of it are characters just trying to find love, or comfort, or security. Discovering that for all they want rest and release from conflict, there is no way out that leaves their souls intact. That to strive for good requires a constant effort and constant struggle against corruption and hate.

These are not stories about burdens being lifted. They are stories that examine the burdens that cannot be lifted, the damages that cannot be wiped clean, the wounds that never fully heal. They are not about despair, at least not about giving into it. The stories don’t lose hope, and though the burdens they reveal cannot be lifted, they can be shared, and through sharing the weight of them can be managed, and slowly shifted without anyone getting crushed. These are stories about community, and the breaking of isolation, and the crossing of impossible distances. These are stories about resistance, and revolutions.

July is the height of summer, yet even so the days are growing shorter, the nights longer. The sunsets seem to last forever. Come in and pull up a seat. Enjoy the view. I can’t say you’ll find much relief in what’s on tap, but you might find just a bit of refreshment, enough to get you back on your feet, and back to the fight. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - July 2017

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: With a nose of spice and dry heat and a body of fire painting the world in hues of red, the first taste smolders—the second ignites.
Pairs with: Imperial Rye IPA
Review: Sometimes a story captures all things I wish SFF had more of—an extended cast of diverse, flawed, queer af characters; a setting full of magic and history and conflict; sex and sexuality, enthusiastic consent, and intimacy; and a cohesive mix of personal growth and a larger, layered narrative. And, well, this story delivers on all count, finding the Old Royal worn thin after a long life full of betrayals and deceits, mistrust and violence. They are a sort of phoenix, full of transformations and the prospect of renewal, even if it does come with a death, as well. But when the Raker happens along, a much younger person with hurts that run to the core and some serious trust issues, the two find in themselves a sort of renewal that doesn’t require a death, but rather a lowering of defenses, an intimacy that is an act of rebellion in a situation pushing them toward conflict and ruin. And I love that the story imagines a world where the very fabric of reality and magic is weakening, where further strain could tear everything apart. It mirrors the situation between the different cities and nations of the world, where violence and war is common and people like the Old Royal have very few reasons to trust a powerful stranger. In such a delicate landscape, though, the story does not act with caution or suspicion. Instead the characters find hope and meaning in bridging the distance between them, in finding peace and companionship, learning and love. It’s not without complication, but the story is brilliantly hopeful and joyous, even as it brushes against some very serious themes and content. And for my money, it is perhaps the best story I’ve read this year.

Art by Geneva Benton
“Cracks” by Xen (Fiyah)
Notes: With a smoky flavor like a plunge into darkness, the pour is deep brown, the nose a memory from a life that could have been, where burdens seem lighter.
Pairs with: Doppelbock
Review: Asad and Tarif are brothers with a duty to patrol the streets of their city looking for cracks, portals into another world that, if allowed to grow, consume their world and threaten to shroud it in nothingness. For Asad, this duty has consumed most of his life, because he is needed, because the price of failure is so high. And yet for Asad, queer and closeted, sure that there is no hope of finding someone while everything about him seems dominated by the work he does, one particular crack offers him a glimpse of something he’d never allowed himself to hope for. Happiness. Leisure. Love. It’s a siren’s call that strikes at the foundations of his resolve, revealing him to be the young person that he is, still struggling with the injustice of having to spend his life trying to fix something he didn’t break, something he won’t ever be free of. And wow, yeah, I love the way the story shows his anger and his bitterness, his isolation even as he is always among family. Because his family cannot offer him the kind of intimacy that he craves, that he yearns for, and it is wrenching, heartbreaking to watch him confront the warped reflection of what his life might have been like if only. The stakes of the story are certainly high, dealing with disaster and cataclysm on a planetary level, where one wrong move could lead to the destruction of an entire city, and yet I love how the story shows that the human cost is no less important, that Asad’s struggles are not selfish or indulgent, but rather embody the conflict at the heart of such settings, questioning whether survival is enough if it means giving up the hope of happiness. And the story finds a way forward despite the threat of despair, despite the distance and doubt. It finds meaning and hope and love and beauty even in the harsh reality of a world cracked under the strain of its past sins.

Art by Victo Ngai
“Waiting on a Bright Moon” by JY Yang (Tor dot com)
Notes: Conflict mingles in the form of a carbonated fizz, giving this drink a shine that cannot hide a complex and mature flavor, and packs a surprising punch.
Pairs with: Belgian Ale
Review: Tian’s life is defined by duty and distance, and as an ansible singer she is part of a power that allows her empire access to the far reaches of the galaxy. As the story opens, though, bubbling tensions are beginning to boil and the relative safety of being an ansible is shattered as corruption, magic, and murder all meet to devastating effect. The story looks very closely at the ways that Tian has been pushed into living as a literal resource for the Empire, used for her talent but denied the open expression of her identity, stripped of her chance to be someone important because of who she loves. And even then, the story shows that as the Empire allows her a sort of space to be herself, it’s defined by distance, by denial. She isn’t allowed to be with the person she loves, isn’t allowed a physical expression of her desire, is instead pushed into being ignorant and, save for the beauty of the song she shares over lightyears, alone. Until a different woman enters her life with magic of her own and the power to break through the walls keeping Tian isolated and repressed. It’s an opening up even as it comes at a time of growing fear, uncertainty, and danger. They both end up becoming a part of a resistance that pushes them to the breaking point and maybe beyond, each of them willing to risk everything once they realize that they never really had anything, just the lies and illusions of securing and contentment they were fed by the powers that be. The story is violent and fast while still maintaining a definite weight around the very small and intimate actions Tian makes. And even amid the galaxy-altering conflict the story doesn’t lose sight of Tian and her desires, holding to the hope that they won’t be consumed by the ravenous jaws of war.

“Owl vs. The Neighborhood Watch” by Darcie Little Badger (Strange Horizons)
Notes: Teetering between dark and light, the pour is a gold tinged in shadow, the taste a breath of autumn woods where the setting sun reveals a foreboding presence.
Pairs with: Amber Bock
Review: Nina has always been haunted by the specter of owls, harbingers of bad luck. All her life they have come before a tragedy, before a period of stress and difficulty. And not just owls, but Owl, a singular presence that has steered circumstances toward ruin, who keeps finding her to focus on, to bring down bad luck upon. So when Owl steps into her life again, when Nina has finally settled into something of a good life, a life of quiet employment and joy, she decides she’s not going to wait around to find what he’s bringing—she’s going to fight back. What follows is a delightful story about Nina’s battle against the forces of bad luck, against the magic that seems out to get her. What I love about the story is the tools she wields to fight back—informational packets on safety and by keeping an eye out for something strange or dangerous. I guess what I love is that in the face of this magical power, this being that brings bad luck, Nina isn’t afraid to fight back the way she knows how, not with spells or anything like that but with the magic of caution and care. As a scientist it’s a magic she knows well, how to take steps against the unknown—how to come together as specialized people to do something big, to do something as a community. The idea of the neighborhood watch is just that, where responsibilities can be portioned out and some measure of control can be regained in the face of seemingly random disaster. It’s a fun story, full of determination and the hope that even if you’ve never succeeded before, it doesn’t mean you won’t this time, or the next time. And that people helping people creates a sort of magic that can overcome even a supernatural being like Owl.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“Elsewhere” by Meera Jhala (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: Cloudy and dull as tarnished dreams, the nose is strong and bracing and the flavor a harsh bitterness tinged with the slight saltiness of tears.
Pairs with: Bitter Ale
Review: Mrs. Bhatia knows she has to move her family away from Earth. The pollution, the climate—things are not good, despite the technology that makes it possible. That same technology, after all, has helped humanity to move to other worlds. But it’s not cheap. Still, Mrs. Bhatia and her husband are ambitious, and they imagine what life could be like if they could get off of Earth and be a family somewhere else. The story is about bargaining, about compromise, and about corruption. Mrs. Bhatia makes her decisions for her family, makes a plan and sticks to it, but at every step the costs are just so high. So she over works, and her husband over works. So she has to send her children ahead, and live apart from them. Every decision seems like a smart one, because it takes her closer to the vision in her head of what it will be like afterward, when they’re all together, when their hard work has been rewarded. And what the story reveals is that such dreams are often illusions, sold to people so that they will be complicit, so that they will go along with the system enough to be eaten alive by it. The story is a gripping tragedy of the failure of this system, this world, to live up to the promise of Mrs. Bhatia’s dreams. She believed she was making a deal, her own misery and the misery of her husband for a future payoff, but such payoffs are not givens in a world where corruption has doomed the planet to a slow decay. Instead of working in the moment, instead of trying to work toward a better system, Mrs. Bhatia tries to use the broken one to get herself away, and learns that using a broken system comes with its own grief and losses.

Art by Jennifter Johnson
"A Question of Faith” by Tonya Liburd (The Book Smugglers)
Notes: Aromatic and full of the breath of gods, with a sweetness tucked away under layers of earth and dreams and the hope of a better life.
Pairs with: Semi-dry Hard Cider
Review: Ceke navigates the changing roles in her personal life even as her professional life takes something of a turn when the young man who was volunteering for her research suddenly starts exhibiting god-like powers and an ego-trip to match. The story seems to me very much about ideas and identity, Ceke struggling with the changing roles—her wife pregnant with their first child and neither of them sure what exactly to expect. Their research flows around the idea of godhood, of archetypes that exist in the brain that can be tapped to gain very real powers. The world building is fresh and complex, the setting drawing on ancient Egyptian aesthetic but blending in science and magic, psychology and dreams. The action is intense as Ceke must confront the being that she’s helped create, a man who has lost himself to a god, to the idea of a god. And the story looks at the thin line between ideas and reality, between roles and identities. Ceke is a driven character, full of fear that she might not measure up as a parent, as a partner, as a scientist, as a mentor and friend—but her fears do not stop her from acting, and acting decisively to protect those she cares about and to prevent tragedy from striking at her and hers. As with many of the stories on tap this month, the villain of the story isn’t exactly the man with the power to kill, but rather a system that has left him without a strong sense of himself, a corruption that Ceke fights against, striving to prevent her friend from becoming a victim of a larger injustice. It’s a tightly paced, moving story with a pervasive darkness that can’t overcome the dazzling light of the characters’ spirits.


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