Friday, September 29, 2017

HORROR 101: An Introduction to Fear

What makes horror work?

Welcome to Horror 101. This will be an ongoing series of essays about the horror genre: from analysis about the elements of horror to using monster theory to in-depth looks at individual works of horror. While I have some plans already, please let me know on Twitter (@PintsNCupcakes) if there are specific horror texts/tropes/or monsters you think I should tackle!

For this first essay, I thought it would be helpful to illuminate why I’m doing this (and why I begged the lovely Powers That Be at Nerds to allow me to do it). Horror is deeply subjective, so it’s possible my analysis and thoughts about horror won’t agree with everyone. Thus, this might be helpful in gauging whether you wish to follow me on this journey into darkness.

I was drawn to the scary story at an early age—like think a three or four year old watching Aliens on repeat—but it rarely bothered me. I wasn’t a child who got nightmares—as much as I am a coward, trust me I am not the person opening the basement door where a weird noise has been coming from. So it wasn’t the fear that drew me to them, but rather the feeling of safety that they brought. I loved horror because it was contained. Close the book, turn off the movie, and the world was bright again. Even as a child this struck me as a power we don’t often have in life. I also appreciated that horror showed that people can fight against the darkness in their lives. It said be afraid, but be hopeful as well.

I read the Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (aka the greatest books of all time) over and over again. Their reliance on folklore and almost fairy tale like logic certainly was an early spawn for my lover (and eventual study) of lore. I joined the Goosebumps book club and then graduated from those to reading very single Fear Street and Christopher Pike book the library owned (as a voracious and fast reader, the time between school ending and me getting picked up from the library was often enough time to read an entire book). By age ten, I moved on to Stephen King (who’d I’d already heard in audiobook form on family car trips) and a new idea about what horror could teach its readers. King often wrote of the underdog overcoming horror. Bad stuff happens over and over in King’s books, but the characters almost always won. One of my fondest childhood memories is reading the entirety of The Stand while home sick from school. It was a novel that tapped into my direct fears (me, with a bad cold, reading about the plague) while also illuminating the idea of people working together to fight evil (my favorite of all story types and one I’ll return to in future essays).

As a child who loved to write, I also found myself returning to horror again and again for my own creative purposes. When I got to college, I’d often come up against the same question again and again in creative writing workshops: why horror? Can you do anything other than monsters? Ugh, ghosts, again. But more interesting to me were the questions people asked that showed no sense of reality: everyone in workshops wanted the horror to be happening because people deserved it. The idea of horror as morality tale is certainly one that we see all over (horrors links to fairy tales is evident for a reason). But it’s a misguided one. To me the power of horror is that it can reflect reality: ie bad shit happens to good people all the time. Maybe it’s not monsters, but it’s the monsters of everyday reality: illness, violence, systems set up to mistreat. Horror can serve as a veil to describe life (something Get Out did recently in a masterful way).

So as a writer and reader I loved what horror could give me. As a teacher and scholar, though, I wanted to look under the hood. I became interested in exploring how horror operates on a level of mechanics as well as how it operates as a means of communicating ideas. What was the rhetorical value of horror? After studying monster theory, a fairly new form of critical study that looks into monsters and horror from the analytical perspective, I began to think even more deeply about the value of monsters and using them both in writing and in teaching. I’m lucky to teach at a university that allows me to shape my composition courses and this allowed me to create a class that teaches multimodal composition and communication through the theme of Monsters. Monsters are a fun way to get students thinking about much deeper issues. By exploring the ideas of monstrosity, we’re able to look at acts of othering and monstering that permeate history: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and the list goes on. My students began to pick up on these ideas and tropes in various media they consumed. They realized it wasn’t just a “genre” thing as they could point to the language of othering and monstering in the speeches of politicians.

So horror has rhetorical value. It has value to me as a writer and reader. But what makes horror tick? To me, there are several key features to great/successful horror. I’ll be diving deeper into those in essays to come, but they include dread, the use of the uncanny, private versus global horrors, terror, awe, horror as masks, and more. Throughout these essays, I’ll be pointing to specific textual examples of successful deployment of these ideas. My horror taste runs the gamut from ghosts to zombies, supernatural thrillers to horror comedies, but as a head’s up I won’t be diving into torture porn such as Saw and its friends (which to me is not only not good entertainment, it’s also ethically questionable).

Finally, I hope you’ll stick around with me, as we enter Horror 101. You might not be a horror fan, but you may find that it has more to offer than merely goosebumps.

Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Pick of the Week:
Southern Bastards #18 - I love how this series has evolved and continues to tackle some of the ugly issues of society that has reared its head as of late. While I agree with author Jason Latour that it is unfortunate that this book is more relevant given recent events, it makes it all the more important to shine a spotlight on some of the issues with race that we don't want to admit are still a major issue in our country. This issue pulls no punches and gives me a lot of joy knowing that Earl Tubbs' daughter is going to ensure that his killer's suffer a similar fate. An absolutely brutal issue with stunning visuals from Chris Brunner, Southern Bastards remains one of my favorite books.

The Rest:
Redneck #6 - The first arc of this surprisingly good series ended with a bang. The Bowman family finally gets closure on the death of Slap, but it comes with a huge cost and one that has me completely clueless as to where this series is headed. It serves as a grim reminder about the history of this family and the skeletons in its closet that it must continue to fight in addition to the stigma of where ever they end up. Now that I have the full arc in hand, I look forward to sitting down and reading it from the beginning. If you missed this series, I cannot recommend picking up the first trade when it comes out enough. Fantastic series that I hope continues to do well.

Rick and Morty #30 - As someone very late to jump on the Rick and Morty bandwagon, I am very happy that the Oni Press book is a lot of fun and will do a good job filling the void that will be left in us all after the season finale next week. This issue gave us a day in the life of Beth and the frustrations she faces on a daily basis. No respect for her career, a husband who is helpless, and a father who is constantly bringing in horrors from other dimensions and threatening the lives of her family members. At moments it was very heartwarming, but the unexpected ending brought us right back to the Rick and Morty universe and serves as a great reminder on why Beth is so stoic and able to deal with so much. Really funny issue.

Duck Tales #1 - The rush of nostalgia that I felt when I heard Duck Tales was coming back made me feel like a kid again and had me craving a big bowl of sugary cereal. IDW comics launched a Duck Tales book this week penned by Joe Caramagna and it is an absolute delight. The first issue featured two self-contained short stories that have the same humor and feel of the television series. Definitely recommend it to the younger readers and also recommend this to anyone who enjoyed the original series and is excited to return to Duckberg.

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Confession re: Gaming Anxiety

Some Words About Video Games

I have a confession to make. Some games make me so anxious to play them that I don't play them. The absolute worst thing in the entire world (1) is the feeling that I'm wasting time, even when I'm playing video games. This is why I dread playing multiplayer games and I'll never get into something like Dota 2. If I spend 45 minutes playing a game, I don't want to lose. I can't play RTS games, because if I do something dumb and screw up so bad that the whole mission is a waste, I'm not going to go back to it. I can't play XCOM. I can't shake the feeling that everything I do is going to lead to me failing the whole game because I let a rookie die. Even save scumming doesn't help because I don't recognize long-term problems until it's too late. I'm not going to back to an earlier save to correct a problem if I've wasted hours learning I screwed up.

Where this truly bites me is when I use this excuse to avoid playing games that I genuinely enjoy and would have a great time with if I could just get over myself. It took me a decade to play Deus Ex because I wanted to see and do everything. If I couldn't do that in one run, then I'm wasting time. I'm not good enough to play it, or it's going to take multiple playthroughs to do it, and I've got a whole stack of other games to play. It took me 10 years to realize that it was stopping me from playing a really good game and it's not even vital to the game to "see and do everything". You shouldn't play it that way. I used the same excuse to avoid Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a game I really, really loved once I got into it.

Today, this is manifesting in my third serious attempt at Dishonored 2. I was really excited for Dishonored 2. Then I started it and all of the choices and freedom overwhelmed me. I stopped playing almost immediately after the tutorial. Later, I came back to it and got halfway into the first real mission. I got to a room with an upgrade rune in it that I couldn't figure out how to retrieve without murdering a lot of people. I'm trying not to murder anyone, so this was a real problem. Since I couldn't get that rune, I quit.

But today, I got over it. I just finished that level leaving behind two runes. And I'm okay with that. I had fun. That's what's important! Video games should be fun. If they're stressing me out, I'm not going to play them, but some of it is give and take. The time loss with RTS and MOBA games isn't something I can avoid. It's part of the game. But a stealth/action game with tons of options on how to play has those options so that I can feel free to enjoy it, not constrained by my own self-imposed limits. Those games speak to me, and I'm ignoring them when I dump unrealistic expectations on myself.

Tomorrow, I'll forget I wrote this and drop Dishonored 2 again.

  1. Literally not the worst thing in the world.

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Microreview [book]: A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and you know bad things are going to happen? You can sense it on a deeper level, almost taste it in the air. You aren't sure of how bad or when, just that they are coming.

Kazuki Sakuraba weaves suspenseful tension onto every page of A Small Charred Face. Only a few times did I somewhat anticipate/predict what was going to happen during particular events and yet, Sakuraba still made those moments, even if slightly predictable, emotionally powerful.

But I'm getting a tad ahead of myself and haven't told you anything about anything have I? Kyo is a small boy whose mother married a small-time criminal that quickly worked his way up in the Japanese organized crime syndicates. Unfortunately for Kyo, that man, his fourth papa by marriage, decided to steal the boss's money and woman and a contract was put out on the man's entire family, which included Kyo.

Yet, Kyo finds himself saved by a Bamboo, an ancient Chinese vampire born of the tall grasses. However, the greatest crime a Bamboo can commit is harboring and communicating with a human.

A Small Charred Face is not the story of single human or Bamboo. Rather it is the story of life and death, of retaining a sense of humanity in the face of terrible events. The narrative takes place over decades and follows multiple characters as their lives touch, like a baton being passed in a relay race.

I think Sakuraba has written one of the most touching and simultaneously horrific novels I've read in some time. The horror is not in gore, or jump scares, or anything remotely [air quotes] Traditional Horror. These characters, both human and Bamboo alike, must confront what it truly means to live. You see, Bamboo have long lives but they are not immortal. They can heal but they can and do die of old age.

Multiple times I was brought to tears while reading because Sakuraba so eloquently conveyed the depth of love these characters felt for life and each other. It is one of the most beautiful horror novels I've had the pleasure of reading.

Even now, as I sit here to write this, I am struck by the sense of life and fire this book carries within. This is a book I want to give out as gifts simply so I can talk about it with more people. So, do me a favor and go buy it so we can all talk about it, please? Seriously, I'll wait here for you.

The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 8/10  
Bonuses: +1 for brilliant tension throughout Penalties: None from me!
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 -- a truly refreshing vampire novel
POSTED BY: Shana DuBois--extreme bibliophile and seeker of raindrops.
Reference: Sakuraba, Kazuki. A Small Charred Face [Haikasoru, 2017]
Our scoring system explained.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Tip of the Hat: Gone Podcast

Occasionally, there's something that comes along that simply reminds you of the joy of fandom. The execution may not be perfect, but it's nevertheless touching, or thought-provoking, or simply fun. We wanted to introduce this occasional series to shine a light on those things when we find them.

I don't review podcasts. That's not one of my things. But even though I don't run in podcast circles, I do see a number of the more popular ones bubble up and enter into the conversational spaces I frequent. The one I don't see come up is Gone, a fiction / horror podcast written, performed, edited, produced, and everythinged by Sunny Moraine.

You may know Sunny Moraine from the excellent story "Eyes I Dare Not Meet in Dreams", originally published in 2015 at Cyborgology and reprinted this year at You may know them from their novels or story collection.

You should also know them from their excellent podcast because Gone is one of my favorite things running today.  You can listen to it here.

Moraine describes it as such:
Gone is a serial horror fiction podcast that I write, narrate, and produce. Most simply, it’s a creepy story about a world in which everyone but the protagonist has mysteriously vanished overnight, leaving no trace or clue regarding what happened and why. As the last remaining person struggles to make sense of her situation, that situation becomes increasingly desperate. Things begin to fall apart, the center does not hold – and the dark is coming. And she might not be quite as alone as she believed.

More deeply, it’s a very personal story about loneliness and fear, isolation, the terror of not being able to trust your own mind, and the pain of bitterness and resentment. There’s a lot going on in it.
Gone is fantastic, though a little bit difficult to find if you don't know who created it. I struggled a little bit to find it even after I knew it existed but couldn't remember where I heard of it.  I'm glad that I persisted because I look forward to new episodes every other week.  I'm writing this when there are only four episodes plus some interludes released. There will be a fifth episode by the time this publishes, which concludes the first mini arc at the midpoint of the first season. I would hold this article until after the fifth episode, except that I'm perhaps only days away from the birth of my daughter and I might be distracted for a little while after that, and I didn't want to not talk about Gone.

Each episode gives a little bit more of the shape of what happened, though centered tightly on the narrator and her perspective. It is becoming relatively clear (as much as anything is clear this early on) that things are not whatever the narrator thinks they are and there is something lurking behind the shadows and that she might not be nearly as alone as she thinks she is. It's creepy and fascinating.

Go listen.

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.  

Friday, September 22, 2017

Microreview [book]: Babylon's Ashes (book six of The Expanse), by James S.A. Corey

 A rather anticlimactic conclusion to the Holden/Nagata vs. Inaros saga, with too much Holden and Inaros and not enough Nagata!

Corey, James S.A. Babylon's Ashes. Orbit: 2016.
Buy it here if you wish. 

When The Dark Knight Rises (clumsily!) began building up the villain’s mystique of Bane, we knew two things right away: Batman would fight him twice, and the first time he would be utterly defeated. It is this initial defeat which increases the melodramatic payoff of his eventual victory: we know how tough the enemy is, because we’ve seen it first-hand.
Bane = a worthy adversary; Inaros = an annoying fop
A similar narrative convention is at work in books five (Nemesis Games) and six (Babylon’s Ashes) of The Expanse. Marco Inaros is the Bane of the solar system: he (to hear him retell it) single-handedly rocked (see what I did there?) the inner planets’ equilibrium, nearly destroying Earth. This corresponds to Bane’s initial victory over Batman; so far, so good. But all of this build-up is to increase the melodrama when Batman (or in this case the dynamic duo of Naomi Nagata and Jim Holden) eventually triumphs against this formidable foe. And this is where, in my opinion, Babylon’s Ashes missteps.

It turns out Inaros just isn’t that compelling a villain, and perhaps as a consequence of this, the good guys’ inevitable victory over him isn’t particularly cathartic. In one sense that shouldn’t matter, since of course it’s entirely up to Daniel Abraham and Ty Francks what sort of villain to create, and nothing mandates a “tougher than you can believe” archetype. The problem, as I see it, is that they fell into this narrative trope without having the right sort of villain for it. Inaros is simply a megalomaniac with a flair (sort of) for PR, but his ridiculous behavior and blunders end up alienating many of his erstwhile supporters. This leeches the catharsis right out of the mano y mano confrontation at the end, since in a manner of speaking Inaros has already been beaten, in small ways, numerous times before this.

If the big, bad wolf who wrecked the solar system is nothing more than a navel-gazing fool, it cheapens the hard work the crew of the Roci (et al) have to do to bring him to heel. Indeed, we are left with a somewhat less favorable impression of the super-crew, since defeating a moron like Inaros apparently taxed them to the limit of their abilities! Surely there was something less explosive they could have done to knock out all those rail guns in the ‘slow zone’? I mean, was that really the best plan they could come up with, these brightest minds in the solar system?

Despite Marco Inaros being a nincompoop, the writers chose to focus a bit too much on him and in particular, his thirst for vengeance against Holden, the man who kept humiliating him. Fair enough, to be obsessed with a pissing contest seems in character for the petty Inaros, but why did the writers let him and his quest to destroy Jim Holden dominate the story? A much more compelling storyline, it seems to me, would have been in a more explicit opposition between the methods and worldviews of Nagata and Inaros, since one way of thinking of this book is as a battle for the soul of Filip, their son. Besides, Nagata is a much more interesting character than Holden (of whose earnestness, if we’re all being honest, we’re getting a bit tired, aren’t we?).

Nothing against Alex and Amos, but in general, the male characters of this series just aren’t as compelling as the female ones: the Naomis, Bobbies, Michios, and Clarissas (to say nothing of the indefatigable Avasarala herself!). One humble suggestion for future installments in this probably interminable series: stick with the ladies! (I’m happy to say that their latest novella does precisely this, telling the story of an interesting tweenaged girl growing up on Laconia—stay tuned for my review!)

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for having such great female characters (but see ‘penalties’ below)

Penalties: -1 for the narrative mismatch between the fop Inaros and his Bane-like mystique, -1 for focusing too much on the boring male characters and too little on the ladies of the system!

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 “Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore”

[Does a mere 6/10 seem low to you? Check out our scoring system here, and learn why it’s actually not bad!]

Zhaoyun, who to be honest is more a fan of ‘spacemance’ than of space opera per se, has been inhabiting The Expanse since it burst onto the scene, and has been a regular(ish) contributor at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Kickstarter alert!!!!!  Comicker Press is very close to funding its crowdfunding effort to publish its next batch of creator-owned and diversity focused graphic novels. There are five amazing titles to select from and I really hope that it funds. Check out the campaign here and buy some books! There are great options for you no matter what genre of comics you prefer. Now on to my weekly comic report.

Pick of the Week:
Bloodshot: Salvation #1 - I need to read more Valiant books. I have enjoyed every title I read and when you add Jeff Lemire to the mix it becomes a must read. There were always grand plans to read his Valiant books, but I have never moved beyond simply reading one or two. When I saw there was a new Bloodshot series he was penning, it was a no brainer. When I learned it had to do with Bloodshot as a father and revolved around his daughter, I was absolutely thrilled. Lemire has a knack for writing exceptionally moving and powerful stories around parenthood and I hope this is no exception. In this series Bloodshot has retired, and it attempting to live a normal life with his wife Magic and his daughter Jessie.  Given his and Magic's past, things obviously don't go as planned and I can't wait to read more about why he is currently separated from both his wife and daughter. Just an absolutely stellar first issue.

The Rest:
Star Wars Adventures #2 - This all ages Star Wars comic continues to entertain. We are treated to the conclusion of "Better the Devil You Know", a story about Rey prior to The Force Awakens, and a story about a female X-Wing pilot named Evaan who played a vital role in rescuing a Rebel base that was under attack. I really can't say enough good things about this title. It is great for both young and old Star Wars fans, and feels like a Saturday morning cartoon from my youth. I think I might pour me a bowl of Cap'N Crunch when I read issue #3.

Dept H #18 - I feel we are nearing the end of this murder mystery set at the bottom of the ocean, but in addition to trying to solve out who murdered Hari, the H virus is killing hundreds of thousands of people on the surface and people are revolting over the attempted quarantine efforts. Despite the risks of surfacing, the crew has the antidote, but has other issues they are dealing with as well. I guess when one among you is a murderer and has sabotaged a lot of efforts at the bottom of the ocean things are going to be a bit rough. This issue is the first time we have a glimpse of the final moments that Hari was alive, but I am no closer to honing in clearly on a suspect. Matt and Sharlene Kindt have a great series in this book and I hope more people give it a whirl.

All-New Guardians of the Galaxy #10 - Things get weird in this issue when the Guardians reunite the Collector with his brother. While it appears that all hell is going to break loose, the two are happy to be together to figure out if everything is ok due to a cosmic shift. Something is happening with the other cosmic beings at it appears that the Gardener and Loki might be behind it. Gamora still is seeking out the Infinity Stone that has part of her trapped, but they are also needed now in an attempt to set the universe right. Not as light-hearted as some issues, but it has me excited for the next arc as the Guardians quest for the Stones.

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Microreview [book]: Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten

Chomp chomp

My daughter is really into dinosaurs. Like, really, really into them. So naturally I wanted to read a book about dinosaurs. Only, I've already done the Jurassic Park novels and Red Raptor isn't available for Kindle (or at local bookshops). So I went for the next best thing: a novel about prehistoric sharks.

Meg is the story of Naval diver Jonas Taylor, who thinks he saw a Megalodon on a disastrous dive down the Mariana Trench. He then gets a PhD, and flogs this kooky idea wherever possible: that vents at the bottom of the Trench make it possible for life once thought extinct to survive. Actually there's some merit to this view: not only does the Mariana Trench have a much biodiversity than once assumed, scientists have also discovered that species once thought extinct are still around, like the Coelacanth. (Though that's a 60kg fish, not one that's as long as two school buses.)

Plausibility aside, some people do believe in Taylor, including oceanography patron Masao Tanaka, who wants to build a refuge lagoon for whales near Monterrey, CA. He also wants Taylor to assist his son on another dive down the Trench, this time to recover an earthquake-monitoring device. Why? I can't remember, and frankly, it doesn't really matter. Taylor agrees, Tanaka's son gets chomped and a female Meg ascends through the middle portion of the ocean to the warmer water above.

What ensues will be familiar to aficionados of the "monster eats people" genre: the giant shark proceeds to eat a lot of people. This is, of course, completely absurd. Great white sharks, which are much smaller than a megalodon, don't even bother eating people, because our fat content is too low for the energy it takes to consume us. When they bite humans, it's usually because they mistook us for seals (which do have enough fat), or because they're just trying to see what we are, and they do that by biting. Yet this 25 meter shark, which presumably requires a shit ton more fat than a great white to keep the motor running, inexplicably acquires a taste for human flesh.  

This is only the tip of the spray-cheese iceberg. There's a "historical" scene where a megalodon eats a tyrannosaurus rex, even though the two species didn't exist at the same time.* There are characters introduced for the sole purpose of being eaten, my favorite being the naval officer "just one job aware from retirement." There are multiple over-the-top chomp scenes, each more gruesome and outlandish than the last, and an extended scene from inside the meg's belly. All amazing, and patently absurd.

Most characters, furthermore, are straight-up cardboard, like the ass-covering captain who covers up the first meg discover and will endanger everyone to save his own career--even coming out of retirement to deep-six whatever Taylor has planned. Or Terry Tanaka, the headstrong and free-spirited daughter of patron Masao Tanaka, who hates Taylor until she loves him. But the "best" of all has to be Masao Tanaka, who speaks English with the diction of proverbs, bows frequently, has stereotypically "old world"** views on gender, refers to Taylor as "Taylor-san" and peppers his speech with hai. Only problem is, we're told Tanaka grew up in Seattle, the adopted son of an American couple. Now, I don't know about you, but most people I've met who immigrated to the US as children speak English fluently; and, though possessing two cultural backgrounds, are just as American as anyone else. Yet Tanaka, somehow, embodies every every stereotype of Japanese-ness as portrayed on American television programs prior to 1990. I mean, come on--only weeaboos do that.

All that said, there's something likable about Meg. Sure it's a trashy dumpster fire of bad writing, but the ridiculousness factor is so absurdly high, you kinda sorta can't help enjoying the experience of reading it. As Chloe said on twitter, it's a great bad novel. Chomp chomp.

*This is explained as "hypothetical," though it's still ridiculous.

**Framed as "old world" in the novel.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: x/10.

Bonuses: + (n-2)/y for all the chomping.

Penalties: - (d/dx)(c) = q for all the terribleness.

Baseline Assessment: SYNTAX ERROR.


Reference: Alten, Steve. Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror [Bantam, 1997]

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

Nanoreviews: The Prey of Gods, The Last Good Man, When the English Fall

Drayden, Nicky. The Prey of Gods [Harper Voyager, 2017]

Well, this is nothing like anything I've read before. The reemergence humans born with the power of gods, the rise of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering - it's a wild combination that works on the strength of Drayden's prose. The Prey of Gods is set in nearish future South Africa and I really don't know how to describe this book except to say that it is a lot of fun to read and is a raw delight. This is a very strong debut and I'm excited to see what Drayden does next.
Score: 7/10

Nagata, Linda. The Last Good Man [Mythic Island Press, 2017]

Nagata's near future military sci-fi is as good as it gets. The Last Good Man deals with private military contractors and the automated and outsourced future of warfare. Nagata spins a tightly focused compelling story of a rescue mission and the secrets that can come back to haunt. It's damned good. I could have read another hundred pages of this and I'd equally love to see another novel focusing on Requisition Operations.
Score: 8/10

Williams, David. When the English Fall [Algonquin Books, 2017]

One of the 24 books I was most looking forward to this year, When the English Fall did not disappoint. It's an Amish post apocalyptic novel, which is perhaps the greatest description I've heard of for a novel. Told through journal entries, When the English Fall is a moving story of keeping one's faith and one's way of life in the midst of increasing and encroaching violence. I appreciated how communities like the Amish may, in many ways, be more equipped for breakdowns in civilization - at least until that breakdown shows up at their doorstep. I want more like this.
Score: 7/10

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.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Microreview [book]: Provenance, by Ann Leckie

Truth and lies and cultural identity

Let's start like this: Provenance is a novel about family, identity, culture, truth, and what it means to belong.  Provenance is set in the universe of Ann Leckie's earlier Imperial Radch trilogy, but only connects with references and by association. This is not Breq's Story 2.0. This is the story of a young woman, Ingray, attempting to run a pretty significant con in order to impress her mother, the matriarch of the Aughskold family.  She's a bit out of her league on this one.  There's something about hiring a company to rescue a disgraced member of a rival family out of a prison planet called Compassionate Removal with the hope / assumption that he will be willing to embarrass his family and help hers by providing her with stolen "vestiges" from his family.

A word about vestiges. Vestiges are highly valued historical documents and items, which could range from documents similar to a Declaration of Independence or the American Liberty Bell to an original copy of a famous speech or perhaps some sort of miscellany from some long ago gala where someone famous appeared. The older and the more historical the vestige, the more valuable and the more important the vestige. Vestiges can, in some respects, represent the identity of not only a family, but the heritage of of an entire world.

So, what happens when some of the most significant of them are quietly called into question?

The first opening chapters of Provenance are perhaps more compelling in the wake of a murder which occurs a quarter of the way through the novel and in light of the increasingly breakneck pace of the second half of the novel where Ingray comes into her own as a character doing the right thing because it is, in fact, the right thing (mostly). Prior to that, she's working for a vaguely defined personal goal. But, Leckie raises the stakes with the murder and the question of the true provenance of the vestiges. Her examination of family and cultural identity mixed with the lies and myths people tell of who they are is striking.

I don't know that Leckie is definitively making a broader statement outside of the novel about how we create our own mythology based on the documents and history we revere, but Provenance has plenty to say about it. It is through its own vestiges that a nation defines itself. America's obvious vestiges are the founding documents, but that national definition also includes Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Liberty Bell, artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission, and anything that helps create the myth and identity of the United States.

One thing I wondered about reading Provenance was how the importance of a vestige could ultimately overshadow the truth and mythology of that vestige's origin story. If there are no questions that an event occurred or what the text of a particular document / speech might be, is it truly important that after hundreds and thousands of years that an original vestige necessarily survive the passage of time? It is history and it is heritage, but is there a point where the original of something could be over mythologized and be invested with too much importance? I'm not sure if a historian can answer yes to that question, but with the fetishization of vestiges in Provenance it is something worth considering.

That fetishization is at the heart of Provenance because each of the supreme value the major families of Hwae place on the vestiges in their collections and how world itself defines itself based on those vestiges. It is that importance that drives the narrative forward, beginning with Ingray's plot to pull a rival out of Compassionate Removal in order to recover his family's vestiges for her own and then moving into a much large consideration to the veracity of nearly all of Hwae's vestiges.

Expectations are one hell of a thing. Ann Leckie wrote three incredibly well received and well regarded novels, the first of which, Ancillary Justice, won almost all the awards it was eligible for (including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke). Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy met and perhaps surpassed the high bar Leckie set with Ancillary Justice. With her debut trilogy this exceptional, the hype and anticipation build, the expectation for just how good the next book will be bursts through the roof and settle somewhere near the stars. The next book becomes of the most anticipated novels of the year, of almost any year.

So, when the opening chapters of Provenance do not immediately reach and exceed that expectation it feels like a disappointment. It's not fair, because Provenance is not Ancillary Justice nor is it supposed to be. Provenance is very much its own novel, but I just needed to get past a sense of dissonance through those early chapters and figure out what sort of novel Provenance is on its own. The callbacks to the larger Ancillary / Radchaai universe were both delightful as well useful in centering the limited way Provenance connects and fits into the larger tapestry.

That's the initial hook here, seeing where and and how Provenance fits. But once that hook is set, the interplay of truth and lies and cultural identity is where Leckie makes her strongest mark with the novel. There's so much to chew on with the vestiges that it does, ultimately, drive the narrative and shapes the reactions of Ingray and Pahlad, as well as the intense family dynamic of the Aughskold family. An entirely separate essay can be written about how families work on Hwae, the value the family head places on performance and ingenuity, and how that impacts Ingray's actions and those of her brother Danach. The idea of provenance through families entirely filled by adoption is a fascinating one and is a rich part of the tapestry of the novel. If so few are born to a family, what does it mean to belong when you are plucked out of poverty and raised to a new family in a life of luxury, privilege, and power?

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Leckie's light touch in connecting Provenance to the wider Ancillary universe and showing another facet to the cultural diversity contained within. It's not all Radchaai, folks.

Penalties: -1 because I might not have kept reading Provenance after the first two or three chapters if it wasn't written by Ann Leckie (on the other hand, I would have had a different set of expectations if it was by someone else)

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10,  "a mostly enjoyable experience". See more about our scoring system here.

Reference: Leckie, Ann. Provenance [Orbit, 2017]

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. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 08/2017

Welcome! Pull up a stool—let me tell you what’s on tap today. August represents the height of summer for some, and for others the first step toward Autumn. For my SFF reading, the month seems full of heat, decay, distance, and ghosts. Which makes a certain amount of sense, what with 2017 on its downward slope, having cleared the peak of June and July and entered into the fast descent toward the end of the year. And what a year...

The flavors are mostly heavy, alluding to the coming harvest with the sweet tones of apple and barley. Looming behind that, though, is the specter of winter, and scarcity, and cold. The bite of IPA stands as a resistance to going gentle in that good night, a fire to guide lonely travelers through the chilling dark. The stories are pulled from across SFF, with a lean toward fantasy, from contemporary to historical to second world, but there’s a hint of science fiction as well, a glimpse of the void and a voice calling out into the distance of space.

August saw a huge amount of short SFF published, and constructing this month’s tasting flight was a particular challenge, but I hope I have captured something of the season. A feeling of the growing isolation winter will bring, with despair creeping along the edges of everything, held back only by the warmth of compassion and the power of people helping people. So settle in and peruse the flavors—I hope you find something you like. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - August 2017

Art by Ira Gladkova
“Avi Cantor Has Six Months To Live” by Sacha Lamb (Book Smugglers)
Notes:Singing with notes of sweet romance complicated by the spices of trust, betrayal, and perception, its cloudy pour slowly resolves into a golden hue that shines with warmth.
Pairs with: Chai Spiced Ale
Review: In the mire that is high school, Avi isn’t even out as a trans man when his name appears on a bathroom mirror with the titular warning/threat/???. Rumors flood in and suddenly (and mysteriously) Ian, the other trans boy in the same grade, wants to become friends. And, it turns out, maybe even boyfriends. What follows is a beautiful portrayal of a budding relationship, struggles with family, with depression and suicidal ideation, with trust and betrayal and, ultimately, with magic. Avi is almost instantly compelling, caught between the pressures to conform and his drive to be true to himself. He faces poverty, loneliness, and a school situation ignited by this strange message foretelling his death. Through his interaction with Ian he begins to push back against some of those, even as the nature of their relationship, and some secrets that Ian has been hiding, threaten to make everything much, much worse. It’s a piece that takes an even look at depression and consent, not condemning Avi for his despair but also showing that healing is possible, that trust in the face of a hostile world is still possible. Not easy, definitely, and not without a few large complications, but possible, and beautiful. The speculative element takes a little while to show up in this novelette, but when it arrives it’s a wonderful twist on a number of tropes, casting a deal with the devil (or a devil, at least) in new light. And I love that Avi’s problem isn’t presented as him being a trans boy, but rather the lack of support he has, the way that society has let him down not only as a queer child but as the child of a poor Jewish mother, and how the story captures family in such vibrant and warm tones. There is a definite darkness to the piece, to the dangers in Avi’s life and despair he often feels, but it’s also a story about joy and hope and getting past mistrust and the betrayals of adolescence to a place of acceptance, security, and affirmation.

“The Wanderers” by Ian McHugh (GigaNotoSaurus)
Notes: Striding confidently into a cold landscape, the flavors only really open up as the drink finds the fire of company to cut the chill of loneliness, distance, and cruelty.
Pairs with: Nut Brown Ale
Review: Life as a fox isn’t easy, especially for Rhy-lee, who inherited her mother’s wanderlust even as she was raised by her devoted father. Pulled between her love of home and her strong desire to explore, to go out and meet the world, Rhy-lee tries to find piece in building a family with her partner. When tragedy strikes, though, it becomes time for her to finally strike out, though not on her own. Accompanying her is Yfan-wyn, one of her two sons—the one afflicted with the same itch to roam as she has. And the story follows them as they embrace a part of themselves they have always denied and feared. Rhy-lee, because of how she was abandoned, because she feared hurting her family like her mother hurt her, and Yfan-wyn because it’s always been treated as something to resist, something that his mother always had to fight against. Yet here they are allowed to go, to explore, to make friends and escape danger and discover a world that is certainly not safe. But at the same time, even as the world threatened to chew them up and spit them back out, there’s something beautiful about it, about the wild wonder, the strangeness and the wider community that can exist only when the familiar is left behind and the unknown is pierced. And slowly Rhy-lee finds that what she feared isn’t the case, what her mother assumed isn’t the case—to explore and to wander doesn’t mean to give up a home. It doesn’t mean giving up a family. The action of the piece is intense but the story maintains a slower pace throughout, with a sweep of adventure and a definite sense of fun. It shows what the characters are capable of when they celebrate their drive outward, while showing how necessary it can be at times to have some place to return to, and people who will always welcome you back.

“un/furled” by Jes Rausch (Strange Horizons)
Notes: A rush of different flavor variations compete for attention within the clear confines of the glass, one subtly more dominant and yet all combining into a memorable, bracing whole.
Pairs with: Four Hop IPA
Review: A four-part computer consciousness, made from incorporating four very different humanoid minds, is put in charge of a massive solar collector and tasked with providing energy to a burgeoning population. Only there seems to be something wrong with the system, and as the minds begin to investigate, a number of anomalies become clear that point to a very different (and bleak) situation playing out. The voices of the personalities are clear even as they merge at times, the four minds a gestalt, a “we,” while also allowing for individuality. That split between the individual and the consensus becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses, as the darkness and the terror of what’s happening begins to creep in along the edges of perception. It looks at how the minds within the greater whole vie for dominance and control even as they’re supposed to work seamlessly together. It’s a story that looks at corruption and a system tainted by inequality and injustice, while at the same time imagining a computer consciousness that might be starting to slip into a kind of dementia. It’s not a piece that provides solid answers, but one that provides clues for the reader to follow, an unreliable narrator struggling to hold things together. And for me it’s a story that resonates with the loneliness of space and the desperation of what might be the last vestige of an entire civilization, detached from the planet of its birth and yet connected as well, holding on as long as they can even as time takes more and more away. The style is bracing and strange but works to create an experience that blends some visual tricks and literary gymnastics to great effect. It explores memory and loss, ability and ignorance, and does it all with a keen focus and devastating impact.

Art by Red Nose Studio
“The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright (Tor)
Notes: Deep and with a since of nearly overwhelming longing, the first sip is a punch of premise and wonder that settles into a darker and much more intimate profile.
Pairs with: Barleywine
Review: The premise alone would have been enough to make me stop and pay attention to this story—a library made up of the stories lost to the world, the books that people never finish, or the works that are lost to time through accident or intentional destruction. Thrown into the mix, though, is a community of people working in this environment, ruled over by the authoritarian Librarian, for whom imagination is a sin, and populated by denizens stolen from time or made up of ideas and bits of detritus. And newly employed as a cataloger of these lost texts comes Tom, a young man on a very specific mission, infiltrating the Library in order to find a particular lost book. Along the way, though, he gets to know the other residents of the Library (including a few absolutely adorable Library rats), and discovers the complex and wrenching nature of this place, of history, of being lost. The story is full of longing, full of Tom’s need to hide who he is in order to pass safely before the Librarian’s scrutinizing gaze. The backdrop to the story is the destruction of stories and texts, from book burnings to moments of authorial self-doubt, and the Librarian’s voice becomes the one saying that these stories are best forgotten, catalogued but never experienced. It renders the loss of so many texts, of so many voices, value neutral, which is something that Tom cannot do, who feels the loss like a cut, like the absence that they are. It’s a story full of a heavy tension of the constant fear of discovery—Tom’s mission is largely isolating and personal, but it also allows for intimate connections and slow reach toward something better, safer, for stealing something lost and dragging it back into the light.

“Our Secret, In Keys” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Fireside)
Notes: With a nose of fire and notes of sweetness swirling into something almost chaotic and brash, the experience is breathtaking even as it is nearly violent in its boldness.
Pairs with: Cinnamon Hard Cider
Review: At the heart of this story is a relationship, fragile in the fact that one of the people in it is something powerful and magical and dangerous, unable to contain their fire when exposed to certain kinds of light. It’s a strain between the two, who live from place to place, trailing destruction, until they find what seems a perfect place, where they can shut the rest of the world away. The story, to me, becomes about the barriers and limitations. The nature of the character means that there are things they cannot do, ways that they cannot be together because of how they would hurt each other. Where this distance is a comfort to one of the characters, though, for the narrator it is unbearable, and so they go about trying to find a way to break through that barrier, regardless of what their partner wants or consents to. And in that the story becomes about fire and which of the character’s heats is more dangerous. Certainly one of them can start buildings on fire, and yet that doesn’t hold a candle to the damage that the narrator’s passion can do, the destruction not limited to property or even life, but to something much more intangible but even more important. Because the story is about the destruction of trust and respect, how breaking through those barriers are toxic to relationships, to love. It’s not a story about monsters so much as it is about prisons. Those that people are born into because of their natures and those that people create for themselves, built with the bricks of betrayal and violation and far more isolating and consuming because of it. It’s a rather heartbreaking story, beautiful and fiery but leaving only ash in its wake.

Art by Dana Tiger
“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost” by Allison Mills (Apex)
Notes: Pouring a ghostly yellow like the memory of sunlight, the drink mixes the bitterness of loss with a dim hope that persists, strong and lifting and holding on despite the grief.
Pairs with: White IPA
Review: Shelly is a young woman, the granddaughter of a real-life ghostbuster, someone who eases spirits into the next world and exorcises them from homes when they become a bit too troublesome. The story takes a very fresh and interesting take on ghosts, though, casting the most troublesome as the ghosts of animals confused over what has happened to them and showing that it’s ghosts who have much more to fear from people than the other way around. For Shelly, what starts as a way to connect with her grandmother becomes something else when she experiences a sharp loss and refuses to accept it, keeps looking to this supernatural phenomenon to try and ease the pain and grief that she feels, avoiding dealing with death by seeing it as somehow not final. The story is a mix of heavy loss and something lighter, almost fun, as Shelly learns about the way of ghosts. It’s a story about growing up and dealing with loss, learning that there is no bargaining with some things, that for all Shelly is granted power by her ability to bind ghosts, they cannot stand in for the people that are gone, and that ultimately she needs space and time to heal, not drawers stuffed with old ghosts who don’t understand what’s going on. It’s a slower story and a difficult one at times because of how understandable Shelly’s anger and frustration are, and how much harm she is capable of doing to reflect the hurt she holds inside. Even so, it’s a piece that reaches for healing and release, even if grief lingers and haunts for a time, even if pain never fully departs. And it’s also about asking for help, and allowing others in to try and ease what pain can be eased, finding comfort in family and community and finding the strength to move on and help others, especially those who are vulnerable and alone.


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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Comic book covers are getting a blast from the past! While DC is attempting to make lenticular cool again, Valiant is upping its game with authentic 90's foil covers! The 90's were plagued with "foil" variants and it appears that Valiant found a stock of vintage holofoil and is giving Quantum and Woody the foil treatment in honor of its upcoming television series.  I cannot wait to see what these look like. Anyhoo, time to check out this week's pull list!

Pick of the Week:
Babyteeth #4 - Just when Sadie thinks things can't get any worse after discovering her son will only drink blood and may have caused some natural disasters as he was born, her father notices that she has multiple baby bottles filled with her own blood and is understandably concerned. Donny Cates' story about the birth of the Antichrist hit close to home this week as it had me question how I would approach a situation like this as a father. Clearly the initial impression is one of extreme concern for the mental well being of Sadie, but when a bounty hunter shows up to kill Sadie and her child his fatherly instincts kick in. If that wasn't enough to deal with in this issue, Sadie's sister Heather is now dealing with what appears to be vampires or some other sort of monster that will clearly play a role moving forward. I love the world that Cates has created and appreciate how real all of his characters feel despite the supernatural situations they all find themselves in. Definitely one of my favorite new series and Cates is an author you will want to keep your eye on.

The Rest:
Doctor Aphra #12 - This series continues to delight. When we last left Aphra she was just informed that Vader was crashing the party. Apparently BeeTee and Triple-Zero alerted him to the situation, without informing him about Aphra's role in everything, in an attempt to blackmail Aphra for their freedom. I was shocked when I learned it actually worked and really hope that a spin-off is in the works. Given a chance to flee, Aphra decides to stay and try to save the artifacts even though that involves dealing with both the ancient Jedi and Vader. This series is a lot of fun and I love seeing a good side of Aphra after her introduction into this series.

Rick and Morty: Pocket Like you Stole It #3 - I just recently hopped on the Rick and Morty bandwagon and absolutely love how chaotic the series is.  While I skipped the first two issues, this issue is chaotic and definitely fits in with the direction the show is going. Morty is attempting to take down the Council of Ricks, but needs to enlist the help of his mom and her army of Jerrys (his dad). Reading this makes me feel like I need to go back and read the first two to see how this stacks up with the show. It definitely seems like a good fit, but I need the whole story before I render a final judgement. Something tells me that fans of the show will enjoy this series as it seems very true to form.

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Poetry

Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds:
Fire walk with me

It has been a little over a week since Twin Peaks ended. Ended? I'm almost halfway through re-watching the new series by now, and while certain things do make more sense after having seen where this is all going, it remains clear that all things will not be made clear.

I've been thinking a lot about what to make of, or, honestly, how to even think about what I saw over the 18 episodes of this resurrected series. It gave me my favorite hour of television ever — the bleak, inscrutable, horrifying, surreal episode eight, "Gotta light?" — and delivered more good episodes of Twin Peaks than the entire run of the original series. It opened up the world in a way that allowed us to ask a million more questions about what's "really" going on, what's behind the veil in the Twin Peaks Universe, and over the 18 episodes, answered about 35 of those questions. There are bad jokes, goofy happenings and characters, seemingly pointless scenes that go on for a long, long time, and scenes of miserable violence and suffering. WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?? That's what it seems like everybody wants to know. And I kind of want to know, too.

But does it have to mean something? Really?

For me, now, the question "What the hell did I just watch?" has changed, and given way to "What the hell did I just feel?" And I think that's maybe the place I was supposed to get to.

It occurred to me that Twin Peaks at least this incarnation (much less-so the original series) is poetry. Many, many years ago I made peace with poetry by no longer requiring of myself as a reader that I "understand" it. It became far, far more important to me that I feel it. And that was enough.

This is the water, this is the well.
Drink full and descend.
The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.

I love e.e. cummings with a burning passion. It's fine if you don't. The first time I read "anyone lived in a pretty how town," as a child...maybe a teenager but maybe brought tears to my eyes. Actual, oh-God-don't-let-anybody-see tears. In high school, when I saw that we were going to study that poem in English class, I was thrilled. And then we "broke it down" and "analyzed" it, and it robbed the poem of its magic. I mean, in that moment. Nothing can rob it of its magic, but it was a grind. Ok, yes, "Anyone" and "Noone" stand in for people's names, sure. And why is it a "how town"? Because people are busy, I guess? I mean, look. Sure. You can pick it apart, you can ask why "floating" comes before "many," you can unpack how many times the same dream metaphor is used for death. You may hit the egg with a hammer to see what's inside, but you won't have an egg anymore.

Sometimes it is enough to intuit, and to feel, and to put the analytical away. Why, in your dream, might you be terrified of a jug of milk on a counter? No reason, except you know you should be terrified of it. It doesn't matter if they really met last year at Marienbad. It is enough to wonder.

So that's where I'm at with Twin Peaks, and thank you, thank you to the executives at Showtime who gave us this artwork. I don't know that they got what they needed out of the business part of this show, but I feel like we have been given a gift. I don't love everything about it, but the fact that it exists in the world gives me joy, and ties me up in knots, and makes me ask questions I so, so rarely get to ask while watching TV.

Why is Monica Bellucci a dream detective? Because that scene is magic. Why is Phillip Jeffries a tea kettle? Because David Bowie died and his character had to be something. What happened to Becky? Or Audrey? Or, hell, Laura Palmer? Savage men do terrible things, and these cycles should stop, but often don't. If there was a message to these 18 episodes, I think it was that. But Dale Cooper is always, I think, the best of us. That part of us that wants to always fight against these corrosive, destructive cycles, even if we do not win. Even if we cannot, ultimately, win.

And that, for me, is enough. Even if I'm wrong.

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Conversation about Dystopia with Malka Older

Malka Older was kind enough to spare some time for a Google Hangout session so we could chat about all things Dystopia. 

Malka Older

Shana DuBois (SD): Let's start with your basic concept/definition of a dystopia.
Malka Older (MO): So, my concept of dystopia differs quite a bit from the common usage, and I fully understand that people may see it differently, but for me the idea of dystopia builds off the idea of utopia, and so I see them as opposite but equivalent. If a utopia is impossible to fully realize, and probably pretty boring and static once you get there, a dystopia should be the same: a state that is the opposite of perfect, so hopelessly bad that it is almost impossible for it to occur and more or less static and depressing if it does

I can make allowances for "utopian" and "dystopian" as being so tires that don't fully reach those states but kind of lean that way and certainly thinking about the terms in those kinds of absolutes somewhat limits their usefulness (because how many books/ideas really go that far, in either direction?) but for me the devaluation of the term dystopia in recent popular culture, where any future that is remotely authoritarian or has experienced any kind of mass disaster event is called a dystopia, is more problematic. Categorizing those scenarios as extreme and all but impossible future imaginings obscures the degree to which they are 1) easily imaginable results of the dynamics of where we are now and/or 2) occurring in some form (without the futuristic technology, with different names and locations, etc) in the present.

SD: I like your distinction about utopias and dystopias being the static extreme ends of a spectrum and therefore connected. If we removed the limiting lens of those terms as they are commonly accepted today, how would that open up pop culture ideas, from a creation standpoint? Or do you think we're already too steeped in a preconceived, and limiting, concept when it comes to dystopian elements in media (books/movies/games/etc)?

MO: I can only speak for myself, but I imagine those terms rarely come in at the creative process. I mean, maybe there are people out there who think, now I'm going to write a dystopia, but I think it's more common for a creator to have an issue of particular concern, or a terror of some specific outcome, and write it out. Those labels usually get put on in marketing (or reviews), so I worry more about their impact on consumers than on creators. Such distinctions serve a role in directing people to what they feel like reading (a cheerful future or less so, and that's a choice I respect and make all the time based on mood), but like I said they make it easier for people to distance themselves from the real implications of those works.

SD: Excellent point regarding creator versus consumer and how/when the terms come into the mix.

MO: They are also very broad terms, as the Kincaid essay in Nerds of a Feather notes. So, again on the critical side, there's room for a lot of interesting work about the *kinds* of so called dystopias (and, much less commonly, "utopias") we come up with. Some of that is already going on, but more recognized flexibility in the terms would be nice.

SD: For work categorized as dystopian, or even utopian, what role does illusion, or a constructed reality, versus reality play? Is such a break required to reach those extreme ends?

MO: The issue I see is that it is works of science fiction, or occasionally fantasy, that are categorized this way. If a fictional work set in the present (or the recent past) describes a horrible system, it is described as "realism" - which is pretty interesting, when you think about it. But add a few genetically modified birds and futuristic fashion and suddenly it's a made-up dystopia. Now, of course it's normal to take speculative fiction with a grain of salt, but for me the power of writing in a speculative way is that it gives us a different perspective with which to examine the here and now. 

"Realism" in literary fiction can be very powerful, but it can also give readers a way to say "that specific person is not me, that specific country is not mine, how sad this is and how beautifully written. So, glad I'm not involved in this story." What we often hope for in speculative fiction is for readers to be enjoying (or horrified) by the story and suddenly have a realization, partway through, where they recognize themselves, and their lives, through the funhouse mirror: if this were different, if that were different, if I change the names, oh, she's talking about us. Of course, it doesn't always work, and I'm not arguing for speculative fiction to the exclusion of literary realism, rather that we need both, because people's brains and empathy mechanisms work in different ways. 

SD: Continuing that train of thought, how much does your background and experience with humanitarian aid/development come into play with your writing and the story growth? And the desire to create a connection between the reader and the world around them?

MO: That is really important to me, maybe because I've had the experience so many times of being hired to go somewhere that I knew of only through stories - referring to the stories of news reports and the myths of common knowledge and connotations - getting there and finding that it is a reality like any other. When I was hired to go to Darfur, I was of course scared, because we're taught to be - of course, some very terrible things have happened there, but they have also happened in places we're not taught to be scared of - but I was confident enough to go because at that point I had enough friends in the business that I knew some people who had worked there. When I got there, and was in the place working next to people who lived there, for whom it was their daily life, it suddenly became real and much less frightening (I was briefly scared only a couple of times while I lived there, and all were because of misunderstandings). At the same time, though, it makes the terrible things that happened and happen there much more real to me, because they are no longer abstract terrible things happening in an already abstractly terrible place, but awful, unwarranted disruptions in ordinary lives of ordinary people, some of whom now happen to be my friends. That process, of moving from an abstract idea to something concrete and familiar and therefore meaningful, is what we'd like fiction to do: creating empathy and broadening our experience to places where we can't personally go.

This is why I worry about the label dystopia; I think it makes it easier to continue to say this is not a real place, these are not things that really happen, they are impossible. Usually they are things that happen, at most slightly exaggerated or slightly adjusted. Even if the writing is effective at putting the reader in that place, the label can allow them to distance themselves again.

SD: What do you think about your debut novel, Infomocracy, often finding the label dystopia applied? The events in that novel don't feel terribly far-removed from the world we live in now and yet it is often discussed as a far-future and extreme possibility.

MO: First I want to repeat what I said at the beginning, that I know my definition of dystopia is not the common usage; I'm not here to convince everyone that I'm right, you do you. Also, I'm perfectly fine with the idea that other people experience my novel in a different way than I do, in fact I think that's pretty awesome (and really interesting). So, I don't have a problem with people calling Infomocracy a dystopia. I do find it a little baffling, and fascinating, and I wonder why it has been so pervasive. After all, this is a book that's set about 50-60 years in the future that shows few signs of scarcity or impending apocalypse (there are some signs of climate change impacts, but nothing suggesting massive disaster), has some cool and effective new tech, and is not only mostly democratic, but mostly micro-democratic. So why is it so scary, why is it a future we would want to avoid? (I should note I'd be almost as baffled with people calling it a utopia. I didn't mean for it to be one or the other, but on balance I do see it as slightly more hopeful than not). 

I could be wrong about this, and I'd love to hear from people about it, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the pervasive surveillance in this world, even though that surveillance is not in the service of a single government and almost all of it is available to be seen by anyone (so, very different from Big Brother-type surveillance). If that's the case, it opens up a really interesting discussion about real-world surveillance, not just by governments but by companies and individuals, and how far that is from what is described in the book, and how we get lulled into ignoring additional surveillance as it becomes normalized. Do people find it scary as a possible future, or as a slightly tweaked version of our present, in which companies follow where we go on our phones and track not only our purchases but our searches and there are cameras not only on the streets but on our most commonly used devices, pointing at us all the time?

This brings me to something I found really interesting about Kincaid's essay. In that history of utopias and dystopias, there's a common element: order. The original utopia was, as Kincaid described it, about order: "it could be reached structurally: this perfection was not the province of god or of fairies or some supernatural inversion of the natural world, this perfection was achieved by rational men [...] For More [...]perfection was always equated with order. [...] within any society, order was what brought happiness."  But the later dystopias are also about order achieved by rational men: about utter control and regimentation. This odd similarity in the dichotomy suggests something about how why these terms are so popular. They reflect our struggle with the (relatively new) concept of a government that creates order in our lives. Much of the recent history of political science and government is looking for ways for us to govern ourselves through rules and order that protect us from the worst of what humans are capable of.

It's a paradox, because no number of rules can completely protect us from abuse or autocratic take-over; in fact, the more rules there are the more dangerous it becomes when the wrong person/people are in power. We try and try and try to rationalize and order everything, and yet there is always the human element in determining how it works - and in fact, dystopia tells us, it is when we succeed in exorcising the human element that we are in the most danger of oppression. So rather than a linear range, we're looking at more like a circle where at their edges, the extremes of utopia and dystopia are not so far apart. 

This is especially true because, except in the most perfect examples of these extremes, the experience is not the same for everyone. That's something else that tends to get flattened out by diluting the concept of dystopia: that in the modern concept they include a lot of inequality. For those people at the top, it's not a dystopia, it's closer to a utopia. Everything's working fine and ordered exactly the way they like it!  

That's an area that could use some more discussion in understanding what we're really afraid of.

Also, that is related to a problem I have with Kincaid's essay. The Handmaid's Tale is not a *feminist* dystopia. Yes, it is feminist, but there's no need to qualify the label. For one thing, as I recall things were not so great for most men in that world either. It's like calling 1984 a worker's dystopia or something.

SD: You brought up the power of the human element. In a lot of dystopias/utopias, we see a world where conformity has become a standard and individuality eroded. How does the disappearance of choice lead to the erasing of the individual thus leading to a dystopian/utopian environment?

MO: Again, this is something that comes up in relation to Infomocracy. In fact, there's a scene in which Mishima wonders whether it is the idea of its many nameless bureaucratic workers that makes people uncomfortable about Information. Similarly, I wonder if people see some kind of uniformity in the book that makes them label it a dystopia, even though the basic idea is about offering more choice in a democracy. So interesting how one person's choice is another's tyranny.

But I do think you're hitting on a really key concept. We want the bad people to be controlled, but the good people to be free. Since it's hard to define bad and good, and definitions differ from person to person, it's an impossible problem; hence the closeness between utopias and dystopias

SD: Do you think this fascination with dystopian works is a very American, or Eurocentric, concept specifically because privileged developed countries view themselves as approaching utopian ideals and the rest of the globe as a dystopian existence?

MO: I don't feel like I'm an expert on this, but my impression is yes, very much so. I've had conversations with people about, for example, The Hunger Games (which I loved, btw, speaking strictly about the books) and how I don't think it's a dystopia because it describes, with flourishes and fictionalization, things that have certainly happened throughout history and are happening to some degree RIGHT NOW in various places, and the answer comes back "well yes, but it's set in the United States, so part of the dystopia is linked to things going so badly that it happens here." 

First of all, the US is not so far off from many of the concepts in the book, and if there's anything we've learned from history it's that if it happens somewhere, it can happen anywhere (seriously, name me a country/region/people that hasn't committed "dystopia"-like atrocities in its history). Secondly, in my opinion, dystopias aren't about something bad having happened: they're about the systems that allow oppression and exploitation. If those systems exist somewhere, then this is not an extreme, impossible ideal: it's a commentary and a way of looking at the world we know. 

Also, and this is where I don't feel like an expert, I don't think the label is applied as readily to books that come from outside of US/Europe. Is it because we believe those places are already that bad? But I haven't done a comprehensive enough review of what has and hasn't been called a dystopia to say that with any certainty.

SD: With resistance often being a large element within dystopian works why do you think we keep the application so narrow? For example, LotR is centered around a very focused resistance to what would be the end of the world as they know it and yet I've never seen it categorized as a dystopian work.

MO: Well, the flip side of it is besides resistance, the oppression has to be somehow systematic, tied into government (I'm not sure when this became a part of the definition, but it does seem to be, and that distinguishes dystopian from, say, apocalyptic fiction). So, while Mordor presents a picture of what dystopia could look like in effect, the fact that it's created/managed/ruled via magic (or whatever you want to call it, elemental forces that are different from the ones in our world) it is harder to connect with it in that way. Which I think tells us something about what we are concerned about with these labels.

But it is interesting that fantasies - I'm thinking of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe too, and many others - often take a very similar form: the way the bad magic is defeated is often similar to the way oppressive government is defeated, and the way it's used has the same effects, so there are some parallels there. And then you have the fantasies that don't involve magic per se (like Baru Cormorant) but do exist in other worlds, with different place names and customs, and those I think are unfairly excluded, because they often provide very sharp analysis of these mechanisms.

Maybe that's why the Hunger Games feels like fantasy, because initially you don't know that it's set in a future United States: initially you are dealing with made-up names and a seemingly made-up place, with a future technology that's a little hard to distinguish from whimsical magic. It's a nicely done twist, actually.

SD: How would you like to see either the definition and/or genre of dystopian/utopian works grow moving forward?

MO: Honestly, I'd just like to see both words but especially "dystopian" used much more sparingly. I don't have any problem with the books they're used to describe; as I said, the labels usually come after the fact. I do think there might be some interesting work to be done in questioning and pulling apart some of the assumptions built into them, whether that work is done through fiction or through criticism.

SD: Any additional parting thoughts you'd like to share with the NoaF readership?

MO: Just to say again that even though I disagree with the broad application of the word dystopia, that phenomenon itself is really interesting and can tell us a lot about both literature and our society, so I'm glad NoaF is digging into it!


I'd like to thank Malka for taking the time for such an engaging conversation!

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