Wednesday, October 18, 2017

WORLDBUILDING: A Big World and Beyond

Welcome to the first post in our Worldbuilding series, where our writers explore various elements of imagining place, people and culture. Today I'm going to discuss where inspiration for fantasy worlds comes from, and what I'd like to read more of in that regard. Obligatory disclaimer: this is an opinion piece. You may agree, if our tastes align or if the arguments put forth resonate with you; or you may disagree, if they do not. That's healthy. There is ample space for all kinds of approaches to fantasy, and life would be boring if we all wanted to read the same things. -G

Second-world fantasy is not historical, but draws from human histories, cultures and mythologies. The most famous and influential fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien, drew heavily from Nordic and Celtic mythologies in constructing Middle Earth. Most fantasy published since The Lord of the Rings has been similarly Eurocentric, utilizing the tropes he established and/or popularized as well as other widely-known (European) sources: Arthurian Legends, the Brothers Grimm, Niebelungenlied and various medieval bestiaries. Many, like Tolkien, are also in a sense a retelling of Song of Roland, or Herodatus--wherein a "civilized" stand-in for the West is threatened by a horde from the geographic periphery.

Herodotus' version of the Battle of Thermopylae, which is frequently retold in epic fantasy. 
There are a few reasons why this approach came to dominate the fantasy shelves at your local bookstore. The most obvious is that modern fantasy developed in the UK and US, where medieval European traditions are widely recognized and culturally resonant. The second is that The Lord of the Rings offered up a really compelling formula: take the swords, magic, lore and questing of sword & sorcery, and position them within apocalyptic fight between good and evil. Unlike the sword & sorcery model that predates Tolkien, something really big is at stake. As more writers adopted the Tolkienic approach, both the epic structure and individual tropes (e.g. "elves in decline"), Eurocentrism became more deeply embedded in fantasy.

Of course, Tolkienic epic fantasy is not the game in town. Sword & sorcery is, as noted, the older tradition, one less tethered to the medieval European experience. Robert E. Howard's Conan novels, for example, are set in a pre-medieval "barbaric" world, with Conan embodying the value system of the pre-civilizational milieux as imagined by Howard, a Texan. While they can be quite racist, the Conan books do not juxtapose a civilized West against Southern/Eastern/Northern barbarism. Rather, barbarism is framed as vibrant and healthy, and civilization as inherently full of rot.

Today there's quite a lot of non-Eurocentric fantasy available. N.K. Jemisin's Dreamblood series is inspired by Ancient Egypt. Elizabeth Bear's series Eternal Sky draws on the histories and cultures of the medieval silk road. Glen Cook's Black Company novels take place on both sides of a Mediterannean-like sea. But unlike, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, they do not other the South/East. The multiethnic Company, as it happens, comes from the deep south (actually from a portal located in the deep south, but I digress).

That's undoubtedly a great development. The world is rich with historical and mythological building blocks for fantasy novels and series, and it's about time that authors started looking farther afield for inspiration (and publishers started looking farther afield for authors). This is not a zero-sum game; there is ample room for both Eurofantasy and non-Eurofantasy. The rise of the one does not preclude the flourishing of the other.

Beyond History and Mythology

While fantasy's (re)discovery of the world is unambiguously a good thing, it's not the only window that needs widening. Increasingly, I'm looking for fantasy that radically departs from things that have actually happened, places that have actually existed, or mythologies that were once treated as religious or material fact.

Why? Because it's fantasy. As in, something that by definition can't happen in the real world. Untethering your world from ours is not, or at least should not be, a big deal. Granted, there will always be some tethering--perhaps there has to be for suspension of disbelief. But there is definitely room for a lot more experimentation. Some things I'd like to see more of:

  • Social relations that depart from (perceived) historical norms
  • Political institutions that depart from (perceived) historical norms 
  • Economic models beyond barter, mercantilism and early capitalism
  • Mythologies that do not map onto specific human cultures
  • Biases and modes of social exclusion beyond modern racism or nationalism 
  • New architectures, social geographies, weapons, calendars, forms of address, modes of decorum, etc.

I've banged on about this before, and I'm inspired to bang on about it again after re-reading Gardens of the Moon. Erikson points in many of these directions, and as a reader, I found it inspiring. It's not the only path. It's not even the better path (what is). But it's a path that, I think, might be fruitfully explored by the right authors.

If you've read something along these lines, I'd love to hear about it. Please tell me what it is and why it's exciting!


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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fright vs. Fright: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Fright vs. Fright is a series of comparisons between classic horror films and the lesser-known works that inspired them, or subsequent remakes that stand on their own merits.

The Film: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Plot: Dr. Miles Bennell stumbles into a police station raving about not being insane, and needing people to listen to him. A psychiatrist arrives and agrees to hear Bennell's story. It goes like this: Miles returned from a medical conference to news that many of his patients had called and made appointments in a panic while he'd been gone, and then a day or so later, all called to cancel. When a friend says that she thinks her uncle isn't really her uncle, Miles is concerned for her. But then when a little boy comes in with his grandmother saying that his mother isn't really his mother, Miles begins to worry more generally. Stuff gets really weird when Miles gets called to his friend Jack Belicec's house because Jack's wife seems to have found a...body. It's a strange body. Sized and shaped like Jack, but without distinct facial features or fingerprints. Miles remembers his would-be girlfriend Becky saying she thought her dad was behaving strangely, and he darts to Becky's. In the dark basement, he believes he sees a doppelganger body of Becky in a locker down there, but afterward can't be sure. When he and Becky return to the Belicec place, though, the four of them discover giant alien pods in the greenhouse, each pod growing a copy of each of them. They've uncovered an alien plot to replace humans with unfeeling clones, and now they have to try to get away...and stay awake.

The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about as good as 1950s horror/sci-fi gets. There's not a lot of "guilty pleasure" here — this is lean, taut storytelling that is maybe not as visceral today as it would have been in 1956, but is no less thought-provoking. That this movie can be claimed as both a tacit endorsement of McCarthy-ite Red Scare paranoia and a rejection of that very same ideology speaks to how engaging it is. The filmmakers all went to their graves insisting that there was no political motivation or didactic intent behind the film, but there's no denying that it is a product of its zeitgeist. Can we be saved from the threat of secret Communist infiltration? Or, can we be saved from the reactionary forces in control that insist on homogeneity? This is in many ways the best of genre storytelling — a metaphorical treatment of existential forces that a society is wrestling with.

Fun bit of connective tissue: Carolyn Jones (later Morticia Addams), was in last week's installment, House of Wax, and also plays Teddy Belicec in this movie.

Remade As: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

How It Stacks Up: I'm not sure which of these two version is "better," so suffice to say that when it comes to the daunting task of remaking classic movies, this is about as good as they come. There are some elements that are a little dated — like the super-fake nosebleed on the pod-body of Jack Belicec (this time played by Jeff Goldblum) — but on the whole the practical effects hold up, and Philip Kaufman's film does a great job of painting on a broader canvas than the original film. Set in San Francisco, instead of a small town, the stakes begin much higher, and the barriers to stopping the alien pod-people from spreading are much more daunting. The ick-factor is ratcheted up in this version, and one additional characteristic added to the pod people in particular really heightens the creepiness. It's the shrieks. The shrieks of the pod people. It's unsettling and kind of chilling, and such a great reminder of how the well-chosen little things can be used to much better effect in horror than gore-for-gore's sake.

Worth a Watch? Absolutely. I think it's hard to go wrong with either of these two versions. There are more versions out there, but these two I can recommend without reservation.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012. Perennial watcher of dozens of horror movies each October. Not a pod person. As far as you know.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Microreview [book]: Rencor: Life in Grudge City, by Matt Wallace

Wallace takes the reader on a wild ride of wrestling, mummies, and absurd action comedy.

I've tried to figure out a way I could write about professional wrestling for Nerds of a Feather while maintaining the genre focus of this blog. I didn't come up with anything, though I deeply admired Matt Wallace's essay on storytelling using a match between Bret Hart and Roddy Piper. I just didn't have an angle I could dig into. Bray Wyatt has been doing less quasi-supernatural stuff these days and The Undertaker is all but retired after his Wrestlemania loss to Roman Reigns.

Then, I discovered Rencor: Life in Grudge City. It combines lucha libre wrestling with a sort of crossed purposes buddy cop story. There's also a possible tie in to the supernatural, maybe. That part is less certain. What is certain is that Rencor is a high energy dive into a lucha culture where the tecnicos (the good guy wrestlers) have worked with police for generations to solve supernatural crimes that are too much for regular beat cops and are in a constant blood feud with the rudos (bad guy wrestlers).

Wallace reunites a legendary rudo long banished from Cuidad Rencor with the heroic tecnico who conquered him. Their enmity spans generations and runs deeper than simple "good guy versus bad guy", this is about their deepest core of who they are as men and as wrestlers. Being a rudo or a tecnico is a way of life, not a character they put on when the wrestler steps into the ring.

So far we've only discussed, in very general terms, the wrestling aspect of Rencor. It is, after all, what brought me to this book. But - knowledge, appreciation, or understanding of professional wrestling is not required to read Rencor.

The heart of the novella is the buddy cop story where the buddies hate each other with a passion matched only perhaps by the Hatfields and the McCoys at the height of their blood feud. El Victor and El Mil Calaveras are brought together by the Rencor police department to solve a museum robbery that resulted in reports of mummies wandering the streets of Ciudad Rencor.

Matt Wallace describes Rencor as such:
It’s set in a modern world, but it’s also a throwback to the heyday of 70’s cop shows and Mexican B-monster movies starring legendary enmascarados. It also explores what it is to be a pro-wrestler, the business itself, and the culture surrounding it. It’s got great action, great humor, great heroes and villains, but it’s also about the masked hero of myth dealing with a very real world that’s constantly evolving.
Looking at it from the outside, Wallace does lucha culture proud and with great respect. In doing so, Wallace takes the reader on a wild ride of wrestling, mummies, and absurd action comedy. Folks, Rencor: Life in Grudge City is a blast. Like Wallace's Sin du Jour novellas, Rencor is funny without being a straight up comedy and chock full of energy and drama.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for bringing professional wrestling into a story in a way that feels natural for both the wrestling and the mystery.

Penalties: -1 The museum robbery is almost besides the point, even though it's technically the main driver of the story.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10,  "well worth your time and attention". See more about our scoring system here.

Wallace, Matt. Rencor: Life in Grudge City [Parts Unknown Press, 2016]

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, October 13, 2017

Microreview [film]: Fiend Without a Face

Brains. Filled with telekinesis goo.

Look, I’m going to cut to the chase — you’re going to want to watch this movie for the last fifteen minutes, when killer brains start attacking all the stock characters. Before that, it’s pretty standard fare.

There’s a wonderful scene in Ed Wood where Ed pops in to see an old editor on the studio lot that just got a batch of stock film, and Ed laments it all ending up filed away, saying,
“Why, if I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what's causing them, but it's upsetting all the buffalo. So, the military are called in to solve the mystery.”
The reason why I love that line so much is because it almost perfectly describes so many actual, low-budget sci-fi movies from the 1950s. In film after film, the entire first reel is just stock footage of various military exercises and two guys in Army uniforms in a nondescript office describing some mysterious problem. Fiend Without a Face is no exception. The problem the guys talk about in the nondescript office is the locals complaining that the nuclear tests from the base are messing up milk production from the family cows.

Little do they know there’s a bigger problem brewing. I’ll keep it simple and just say the nuclear tests don’t play well with a local professor who has been perfecting his theory of telekinesis, and an invisible killing machine that sucks out its’ victims brains is the result.

When those brains reappear at the end of the movie, it is more than worth the wait. They still have the spines attached, and have grown these sort of eye-stalks, like a slug. They can climb, these brains, they can jump, and they can ooch along the floor. They can also, when shot with an Army .45, make a disgusting gurgling sound and belch out black goo. We’ll call it telekinesis goo.

This movie has been called the goriest of its era, and I won’t argue that point. If you think sentient, malevolent, crawling — and then exploding — brains are up your alley, not only are you my kind of person, but you should probably also put this movie up at the top of your list.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +2 for all the stuff I said about the brain monsters, +1 for the line, "You ever consider trying sleep instead of Benzedrine?"

Penalties: I think I've made it pretty clear what to expect

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (which is pretty dang high, given our scoring system)

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

An odd thing happened over the weekend at New York Comic Con. Marvel announced that there was a planned partnership with the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. There was a promotional comic book image featuring the Avengers and the Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus (N.G.E.N.) that had to be yanked due to public outrage over the agreement. Fans even brought up Tony Stark and how he got out of the weapons business after he saw its impact first hand. Marvel heard the outcry, cancelled the partnership and the event announcing it, and this is likely the last we will hear of it.

Pick of the Week:
Babyteeth #5 - Sadie, in addition to dealing with the possibility that her newborn is the Antichrist and that there is an assassin currently trying to kill him, now learns that her sister is working with a warlock who is part of a secret organization known as "The Way". The life of a young mother is never easy, but Sadie has it particularly rough. What I love about this book is the way that author Donny Cates walks the fine line of keeping this book light and touching, while interweaving the bigger picture of the competing factions we are introduced to in this issue. Sadie is not only confronting the difficulties of being a young mother and family drama, she now has to worry about "The Silhouette", a group who believes that her child will bring about the end of days, and whether or not she should trust Dancy Cherrywood, the warlock who just saved her life. Loving the direction this series is heading and really enjoying the multiple titles from Cates I am currently reading. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

The Rest:
Royal City #6 - Jeff Lemire gives us a glimpse into the past as he takes us to 1993 as we learn more about the family dynamics, Tommy's life before his death, and some of the day to day activities that the family engaged in. On the surface this feels like a very simple issue, but it was nostalgic and was an issue that made me reflect on my life as a teenager in that same time period. I am still not sure on where this series is heading, but it evokes feelings of Sweet Tooth and I am really enjoying every single panel. I think that this flashback will cause a lot of readers to revisit the first five issues to see what connections they are able to draw.  At least that is what I plan on doing.

Daredevil #27 - This is by and far my favorite current Marvel series. Charles Soule has done a phenomenal job with Daredevil and the current arc is a must-read. In this issue we learn how Blindspot came to China and the price his family paid to get him his sight back. Trapped in a pit, Daredevil is forced to listen to the horrifying truth, listen to the screams of Tenfingers who is thought to be dead, and forced to confront a demon if he wants to save his former partner. This is a dark and gritty arc and Ron Garney, Matt Milla, and VC's Clayton Cowles are absolutely crushing the art in this series.

Doctor Aphra #13 - The arc that featured the soul of an awakened Jedi trapped in a droids body came to its conclusion in this issue and left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. I have really enjoyed this spin-off and think Aphra is a terribly interesting character who walks the fine line of good versus evil quite well. I think what frustrated me a bit with the conclusion of this series is the lack of a payoff from Vader. He showed up, defeated Rur, and simply returned to the Emperor with no repercussions for Aphra. Given their past relationship, I expected more than Vader allowing her to escape and take a leave of absence. I am hopeful that this will be rectified in the next issue, but this oddly felt like a series finale even though it is slated as an ongoing book.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Microreview [novella]: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

There is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection. 

I love going into a book, or in this case a novella, knowing as little as possible. I might know the general premise, a plot point or two, but generally that's about it. Occasionally, I'll have seen a title recommended by people with similar reading tastes.

In this instance, I tuned into Brooke Bolander's writing later than most. I first came across it when I saw her story, "And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead," in Lightspeed, February 2015. I knew then I'd be a fan for life and to keep an eye out for any and all new stories.

When I started hearing talk surrounding The Only Harmless Great Thing I knew even less than I normally would because I purposely wanted to go into the story and be surprised. I'd heard references to the radium girls and elephants but I dipped out of any conversation going beyond that. But I should tell you a bit more, that is why you're here after all.

This is an alternate history novella set in Newark, New Jersey taking two historical events, the radiation poisoning of female factory workers and the public execution by electricity of an Indian elephant on Coney Island. Bolander weaves these events into something wholly new and heart-wrenching.

With Bolander's writing, you never know quite where she's going to take you but one thing is always certain, the journey is going to be exquisite.

Bolander's prose is some of the best I've ever read. Period. It is artful and sharp as a razor's edge. Allow me to give you a visual representation of Bolander's writing in my mind:

That's right. I needed a picture from the Hubble telescope. Her writing makes me feel grounded and weightless, as though the ending she provides seems the only possible ending while at the same time I feel the world is nothing but endless possibility.

This novella is not typical anything. It is not a standard scifi adventure, it isn't a literary gem, it isn't any one thing because it is everything.

There is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection. Sometimes you read a novella and lament it is not book-length. The Only Harmless Great Thing could only ever be what it is and Bolander nails it. Despite it's brevity you get to know Kat, the scientist, Regan, one of the radium girls turned elephant handler, and Topsy the elephant. My cherished Topsy.

The cast is kept at a minimum to tell Topsy's story and we jump between the narrative timelines as the story progresses. It is never jarring as we switch between points-of-view and timelines, the prose flows like a river.

It might not be the story most genre or sci-fi readers expect when they pick up a a novella from, but maybe it should be. Maybe we need more gut-punching, heart-wrenching, definition-defying, stories in the world. I know I'm hoping for more.

The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 10/10  

Bonuses: Read it!

Penalties: None from me!

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10 -- this novella is my new gold standard for what a story can be and do.

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

Reference: Bolander, Brooke. The Only Harmless Great Thing [, 2017]
Our scoring system explained.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fright vs. Fright: House of Wax

Fright vs. Fright is a series of comparisons between classic horror films and the lesser-known works that inspired them, or subsequent remakes that stand on their own merits.

The Film: House of Wax (1953)

The Plot: Henry Jarrod is a gifted 19th-century sculptor whose wax museum is struggling because he refuses to recreate scenes of torture and villainy of the past. His unscrupulous business partner sets fire to the museum to collect insurance money on it, leaving Jarrod unconscious inside as it explodes. Jarrod, thought dead, reappears a few years later with a new wax museum. Now confined to a wheelchair and with badly burned hands, he relies on a pair of assistants to do the actual sculpture. Jarrod's old business partner is murdered, as is his girlfriend, and a young woman named Sue Allen witnesses a beastly, deformed creature commit the crime. When both of the corpses disappear, the police recognize something is afoot, but can't figure it out. Sue Allen begins suspecting that the bodies are actually on display in in Jarrod's museum, but has trouble convincing anyone else of such an outlandish theory.

The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent: This movie is remarkable for several reasons. It's a prime example of 50s major studio horror, and a lot of fun. But beyond that, it a) kicked off Vincent Price's career as a boogeyman, b) was one of the first studio films shot in 3-D (which is the source of some of the biggest groans in the movie, including a famous ball-paddling barker), c) features a very young (and very ripped) Charles Bronson when he was still using his given name of Charles Buchinsky, and d) features Carolyn Jones, who went on to play Morticia Addams in The Addams Family.

Based On: The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

How It Stacks Up: This movie is a hell of a thing to try to get your head around. When it starts, it feels like House of Wax is going to be a straight remake. The opening scenes with the shady business partner and the fire in the wax museum are almost identical in the two films — down to lines of dialogue, camera angles, and particular stunts. But soon after, we meet spunky, fast-talking newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey. It seems like maybe she's going to be the Carolyn Jones part, and her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray, of King Kong fame) will be the Sue Allen role, but it becomes clear that this is going to be more complicated than that. See, there's this inexplicable subplot about a wealthy heir in some fancy family who gets arrested for the murder of a socialite, but Florence is determined to clear his name. And then the murdered girl is the one that turns up in the wax who the hell is Florence? Over the course of the film, she somehow becomes the main character. Her bickering, you're-fired-you're-rehired relationship with her editor is a total head-scratcher. Then there's a lot of cop stuff that's the same between the two movies, and the climax at the museum is basically the same between the two versions. The whole thing was kind of a mess, but I finally figured out what was going on: believe it or not, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a horror re-telling of The Front Page, the smash Broadway hit from 1928 that would later be the basis for the Rosalind Russell-Cary Grant film His Girl Friday in 1940. You can be forgiven for thinking that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Worth a Watch? Mystery of the Wax Museum is a curiosity, at best. It was shot in 2-strip Technicolor, so it has a visual texture that only a few other surviving films have, and that's definitely something to see if you're interested in that kind of thing (I am). And in the role of Florence, actress Glenda Farrell does a dynamite job as a streetwise dame with moxie to burn. Her performance is maybe not the equal of, but certainly holds its own against better known performances by Russell and Jean Arthur. But in the end, this is two very different movies fighting to exist inside the space of 74 minutes, and it just winds up reminding you that there are much better versions of each of them readily available.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012. Perennial watcher of dozens of horror movies each October.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Nanoreviews: Revenger, White Trash Zombie Unchained, Martians Abroad

Reynolds, Alastair. Revenger [Orbit, 2017]

Revenger isn't going to be the only novel Alastair Reynolds writes in this setting, is it? I know Reynolds is saying "standalone novel unrelated to any of the others", but that can't stand, can it? There's too much going on behind the scenes, too much rich worldbuilding happening with such ease that he could tell any number of stories here and still leave a wealth of material untouched. Maybe just one more?  This is excellent science fiction with space pirates, a brutal coming of age story for two teenage girls,  and damn, this was a compelling novel. More, please!
Score: 8/10

Rowland, Diana. White Trash Zombie Unchained [DAW, 2017]

I don't know for sure that White Trash Zombie Unchained is the end for Angel Crawford's story, but if it is, Diana Rowland stuck the landing.  The spread of zombies has been controlled and deliberate up until this point, but now there's a zombie outbreak that Angel and The Tribe are trying to contain and keep humanity from discovering. Also! Zombie alligators! I've loved this series from the first book and Rowland keeps delivering one great story after another.  Rowland has raised the stakes with each novel and this is the biggest one yet. White Trash Zombie Unchained may not be the ending, but it feels like an ending and there is a real sense of closure here. 
Score: 7/10

Vaughn, Carrie. Martians Abroad [Tor, 2017]

My son is almost three years old and I have a brand new daughter and while I am more than looking forward to taking each day and year as they come and watching them grow, I am also looking forward to when they are old enough to discover and hopefully love science fiction as much as I do. I want them to discover novels like Martians Abroad to show some of the energy of science fiction and the joy that can be had reading it. Polly Newton is a perfect heroine: plucky, resourceful, willing to do what's right and also chase her dreams of being a pilot. She's out of place and on Earth for the first time in a prep school for the elite. Martians Abroad is a friggin delight.
Score: 8/10

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.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Microreview [novella]: Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

A delightful—because contained in scope—science fiction-y “what if”  

Corey, James S.A. Strange Dogs. Orbit, 2017.

Buy it here.

I am of the considered opinion that this little novella represents a return to form for Abraham and Franck (aka “James S.A. Corey”), as they retreat from the flamboyant villainy of Marco Inaros into something much more provincial, as it were. Of course, the tale they tell has important implications for future Expanse novels: it helps show the broad outline of the threat—and opportunity?—Holden, Nagata et al will soon face from the rogue Martian operations led by Duarte. Since, up until this point, Duarte and his entire world has been shrouded in an impenetrable veil of mystery (from the perspective of the Roci’s crew), it was a great decision by Abraham and Franck to: a) take us behind that veil, and b) hang the story around a child (of limited but growing understanding), who sees the world through (relatively) innocent eyes.

When this child encounters the arch-nemesis of the solar system, Duarte, in the flesh, she of course knows nothing of his infamy, and finds him kind and accommodating. And when the child stumbles upon some of Duarte’s top-secret experiments, she finds them rather less monstrous than the reader has been conditioned to expect. That’s why having the story be told through a child was such a good idea: she doesn’t have any pre-conceived notions that proto-molecule tech = evil, and as a result, is able to see opportunities denied to those more judgmental adult humans who have encountered proto-molecule hybrids in the past. Is it perhaps fair to say that the only ‘evil’ in the proto-molecule is the foul intentions of the humans (like Jules-Pierre Mao, etc.) who sought to use it for their own ends?

Finally, ask yourself this question: if something terrible happens to someone you love, and a couple of glowing alien ‘dogs’ seem to offer that person a second lease on life (of a sort), would you reject them? And if so, why? Isn’t any kind of life better than the awful finality of death? And besides, there’s no evidence (yet) of that sort of miraculous assistance being weighed down with any Mephistophelean baggage. Our young heroine certainly comes to that conclusion, and I think many of us would follow her lead, even if (like her) we can’t really understand or predict the far-reaching implications of accepting alien organisms’ help. It seems we must stay tuned for the next entry in the Expance series to hear whether she chose wisely or (like Donovan!) ‘poorly.’

The Math:

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for drastically limiting the scope of the story, +1 for giving us a ‘child’s eye view’ of the world and its ethical quandaries

Penalties: -1 for, in my opinion, exaggerating the degree to which children’s understanding is primitive (they grasp intuitively a lot more than many adults appear to realize), and having her stream of consciousness be correspondingly ‘kid-like’

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 “Take that, Babylon’s Ashes!”

[Does this score seem low to you? Check our scoring system here to see why it’s plenty high!]

Like Zeus’s brainchild Athena, this review sprang fully formed from the mind of Zhaoyun, a devotee of speculative science fiction (even more than space opera!) since time immemorial and contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

New York Comic Con is this weekend and I am bummed that I won't be in attendance. I shall keep tabs on the happenings via social media and wish all of the nerds in attendance a happy time. The one exclusive that has risen to the top for me is this Sword of Ages pin from IDW and Skelton Studios.

Pick of the Week:
Paper Girls #16 - The girls find themselves in the height of the Y2K madness. Tiffany remains separated from the group and has been apprehended by local law enforcement who don't quite believe she is from the late 80's. Unknown to them, the girls are in violation of the article of The Concordat and are more closely connected to time travel than they ever expected. Their entanglement in all of this chaos seemed to be a mere coincidence, but it appears as if we are going to learn more about the girls' past and why they are at the heart of this attack. Since the normal monsters are not ready for battle, the nuclear option is used and we are treated to giant Robots. This comic continues to take unexpected twists and turns that are an absolute delight.

The Rest:
Star Wars #37 - Things are heating up as the Special Commando Advanced Recon or Scar Squadron are on a mission for Vader to hunt down the latest Rebel encampment and deliver Luke Skywalker. Leading the Scar Squadron is Sergeant Kreel, a lightsaber wielding trooper who I just can't get behind. His brutal squad decimates a Rebel camp to draw the attention of Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. The issue sets the scene for the next big arc and definitely is building towards all out war, but the second story absolutely steals the show. "The Sand Will Provide" gives us some insight to what life on Tatooine is for the Tusken Raiders. It shows the ugly side of discrimination and how they are misunderstood. It is a really heartwarming story that highlights the kindness of Obi Wan and is well worth the cost of the issue.

Darth Vader #6 - After enjoying the Inquisitors in Star Wars: Rebels we are provided some background on their origin and how the Emperor used them and Vader for his own gains. When we left off Vader had just acquired his light saber, but at the cost of his armor. Using the force, Vader repairs his armor and the Emperor grants him authority over the Inquisitors to hunt down any remaining Jedi. A simple issue that sets the scene for the onslaught that will continue throughout the next arc.

All-New Guardians of the Galaxy #11 - Stunning issue of All-New Guardians!  In an issue that doesn't include a single Guardian, we learn more about the Raptors and why they mucked things up in the last issue. They are in a quest for the Infinity Stones and are using Nova's younger brother to help them in their quest. Nova just learned that his brother is still alive, but is unaware of this plot. Should set up some interesting tension as this series moves forward. It was odd to read such a serious issue of this series, but Gerry Duggan appears to be laying the groundwork for an exciting arc.

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

HORROR 101: Dread

What do you dread? How does dread build inside you as you’re thinking about it? It’s that sinking feeling in your stomach, the rising of your heart rate, the way your thoughts begin to fire too rapidly as everything else slows down around you. Dread in horror is a key feature to terrifying an audience—be it reader, viewer, or player. Dread is built in various ways for different mediums: movies may use visual clues of repetition, video games might use escalating sound effects, and books often use deliberate pacing through paragraph breaks.

In scary stories, from our childhoods, dread is often built through repetition that we know will eventually bring something bad: the sayings in variants of the Mr. Fox/ Bluebeard stories of “Be Bold,” then “Be Bold, Be Bold,” before “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest Your Hearts Blood Run Cold.” It’s the campfire buildup of someone knock, knocking on a door, before shouting the last phrase so that everyone jumps. We find dread in patterns, because fairy tales have taught us to pay attention to patterns. In The Ring, for example, we know there’s a pattern set in place from the very beginning: watch the video, get the phone call telling you “Seven days,” have increasingly creepy events happen to you going through the next week, and then your TVs pop on and a creepy, demon girl comes to collect you. Not fun. The movie starts by showing us the end of this pattern for one unlucky victim, so that we’re already prepared for what’s to come—we know the pattern and so we can dread it. The film then highlights the patter, not only by counting down the days, but also with visual cues (screens—Tv or computer monitors-- are in a lot of scenes, visual elements from the video appear throughout the film, etc). This slow delay of the pattern, with end results we know are going to be horrific, is one way that films can successfully build a feeling of dread.

Another way is the slow build-up of creepiness through use of tiny visual and audio elements. I remember first watching The Orphanage and becoming so dread-filled that when there’s a banging sound near the end of the film, I probably jumped about three feet in the air. The film uses some, rare, jumpscares, but more effective in creating such dread-filled tension are its uses of small creepy elements—sounds that are just a little off, things flickering in the corners of our eyes.

The slow build-up to dread is almost even more effective in literature, where we have our minds as readers filling in the horrible blanks for us. I recently wrote, at Ploughshares, about the uses of dread in two stories, “The Night Piece” by Andre Alexis and “Sacken” by China Mieville. What I talked about was how each of those pieces used deliberate paragraph break pacing in order to sustain and build dread. In “Sacken,” Mieville makes use of several one to two short sentence paragraphs to force the reader into a pattern of reading that increases the tension leading up to the reveal (paragraph breaks are denoted here by slashes): ““Something was on the floor./ A darkness. A gross misshape. / Something huge and wrong and wet. / It blocked her way./ Mel’s throat closed. The new thing in the room dripped.”

In videogames dread is often built through ambience and sound. In Silent Hill 2 (WHICH WAS A MASTERPIECE), the main character walks through a fog cloaked town. A sign that nasty things are coming through the fog is the use of a radio whose static increases as things approach. When the sight line is diminished, the increasing static tells the player to prepare. Every blip of static, after the first time this effect is deployed, sends the player into a dread-filled panic. This panic often decreases the players chance of survival because we aren’t thinking as clearly which then reinforces the dread of the static.

Dread, ultimately is one of the best ways to build horror. It’s the difference between a jump scare which has an immediate tension and release and the feeling of horror that clings to you long after the film itself is over. Slasher movies tend to fall into jump scares, while dread is something more akin to a movie like The Ring (which bothered me for days afterwards). Dread when done right builds to an impossible tension level. I think of it as the typical plot chart of rising action, except it’s the rising dread that makes the viewer so unnerved that every moment become a terrifying expectation. Movies that utilize dread are often one’s talking about more universal conditions: The Orphanage’s horror is loss and the traumas of childhood, The Ring warns us against what we’re willing to do in the face of horror. I’ll return to my opening question: what do you dread? And how well has that feeling been conveyed through artistic mediums?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

An Apology

We made the editorial decision to pull a recent post on the video game Destiny. In the post, the author discusses at length the various weaponry used in the game and why some are more effective than others. 

Like most of our pieces, this one was written more than a week ago and pre-scheduled by the author. And in normal times, this would just be another piece on video games. But these are not normal times. Two days before the Destiny piece posted, a man used an arsenal of real weapons to murder more than fifty people in Las Vegas, whose only "crime" was attending a music festival. 

We do not believe that violence in video games has any more relationship to actual violence than violence in film, comics or pen-and-paper RPGs. But the timing of our post was nevertheless problematic. Like many of you, we are in deep shock and grief over what happened, and are angry that the US government does nothing to prevent these kinds of incidents. Thus we apologize for posting something that appears to treat these issues lightly, and just days after the massacre occurred.

-G, Vance and Joe

Monday, October 2, 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, 2017]
Publisher's Description:
Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to her critically acclaimed epic fantasy world of the Eternal Sky with a brand new trilogy.

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: Shana and I don't always overlap in our New Books Spotlight, but when we do we Elizabeth Bear. Normally, I would leave this one off my list and let Shana's selection stand on its own, but I adore the fiction of Elizabeth Bear. The opening novel in a new trilogy set in the same world of her Eternal Sky? You know I'm there.

Brust, Steven. Vallista [Tor, 2017]
Publisher's Description
Full of swordplay, peril, and swashbuckling flair, Steven Brust's Vallista is a treat for longtime fans of this popular fantasy series, a deep dive into the mysteries of Dragaera and all within it. 

Vlad Taltos is an Easterner—an underprivileged human in an Empire of tall, powerful, long-lived Dragaerans. He made a career for himself in House Jhereg, the Dragaeran clan in charge of the Empire’s organized crime. But the day came when the Jhereg wanted Vlad dead, and he’s been on the run ever since. He has plenty of friends among the Dragaeran highborn, including an undead wizard and a god or two. But as long as the Jhereg have a price on his head, Vlad’s life is…messy.

Meanwhile, for years, Vlad’s path has been repeatedly crossed by Devera, a small Dragaeran girl of indeterminate powers who turns up at the oddest moments in his life.

Now Devera has appeared again—to lead Vlad into a mysterious, seemingly empty manor overlooking the Great Sea. Inside this structure are corridors that double back on themselves, rooms that look out over other worlds, and—just maybe—answers to some of Vlad’s long-asked questions about his world and his place in it. If only Devera can be persuaded to stop disappearing in the middle of his conversations with her…
Why We Want It: Vallista is the fifteenth of a proposed nineteen novels featuring Vlad Taltos and they're all friggin great. As I mentioned in my 24 Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2017: It's a new Vlad Taltos novel. This is a cause for celebration.

Erdrich, Louise. Future Home of the Living God [Harper Collins, 2017]
Publisher's Description
Louise Erdrich, the New York Times bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of LaRose and The Round House, paints a startling portrait of a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event.

The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Thirty-two-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.

Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.

There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.

A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.
Why We Want It: A new Louise Erdrich novel is a literary event that seldom disappoints. Everything about the description of Future Home appeals to me, not the least of which is simply knowing that it is written by Erdrich.  I've already pre-ordered this one, which is not something I say lightly.

Modesitt, L. E., Jr. The Mongrel Mage [Tor, 2017]
Publisher's Description:
The Saga of Recluce chronicles the history of this world with world-building detail and an ingenious and disciplined magic system. L. E. Modesitt, Jr. returns to his longest and bestselling fantasy series with volume nineteen, The Mongrel Mage, which marks the beginning of a new story arc.

In the world of Recluce, powerful mages can wield two kinds of magic—the white of Chaos or the black of Order. Beltur, however, has talents no one dreamed of, talents not seen in hundreds of years that blend both magics.

On the run from a power hungry white mage, Beltur is taken in by Order mages who set him on the path to discover and hone his own unique gifts and in the process find a home.

However, when the white mage he fled attempts to invade his new home, Beltur must hope his new found power will be enough to save them all.
Why We Want It: Recluce. I'm tempted to leave it at that. I've loved these novels since I first stumbled upon Creslin skiing away from Westwind in Towers of the Sunset. Reading Recluce is like coming home.

Pullman, Philip. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage [Random House, 2017]
Publisher's Description
The much-anticipated new work from the author of The Golden Compass is coming at last! 

Renowned storyteller Philip Pullman returns to the parallel world of Lyra Belacqua and His Dark Materials for a thrilling and epic adventure in which daemons, alethiometers, and the Magisterium all play a part. 

The Book of Dust will be a work in three parts, like His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass). The book is set ten years before The Golden Compass and centers on the much-loved character Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon.

Philip Pullman offers these tantalizing details: “I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up. This volume and the next will cover two parts of Lyra’s life: starting at the beginning of her story and returning to her twenty years later. As for the third and final part, my lips are sealed.

“So, second: is it a prequel? Is it a sequel? It’s neither. In fact, The Book of Dust is . . . an ‘equel.’ It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognize, and characters they’ve met before. Also, of course, there are some characters who are new to us, including an ordinary boy (a boy we have glimpsed in an earlier part of Lyra’s story, if we were paying attention) who, with Lyra, is caught up in a terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world.

“Third: why return to Lyra’s world? Dust. Questions about that mysterious and troubling substance were already causing strife ten years before His Dark Materials, and at the center of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organization, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free. The idea of Dust suffused His Dark Materials. Little by little through that story the idea of what Dust was became clearer and clearer, but I always wanted to return to it and discover more.”

The books of the His Dark Materials trilogy were showered with praise, and the Cincinnati Enquirer proclaimed, “Pullman has created the last great fantasy masterpiece of the twentieth century.” With The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman embarks on an equally grand adventure, sure to be hailed as the first great fantasy masterpiece of the twenty-first century.
Why We Want It: It's like this. I read His Dark Materials as an impressionable teenager and they left, well, an impression on me. I haven't read them since, so I don't know how they've aged or - more specifically, how I've aged. But I've been eagerly awaiting The Book of Dust for pretty much my entire adult life - since the title was announced with no details and no word for the better part of two decades. I'm not sure this can possibly live up to my expectation, but that's no reason to not read the book.

Wallace, Matt. Gluttony Bay [ Publishing, 2017]
Publisher's Description
Gluttony Bay is the penultimate Sin du Jour affair, Matt Wallace's funny foodie series about the New York firm that caters to the paranormal, which began with Envy of Angels.

Welcome to Gluttony Bay High Security Supernatural Prison. We value your patronage. For your entertainment this evening, we are delighted to welcome the world's most renowned paranormal culinary experts.

And on the menu: You.
Why We Want It: Matt Wallace's Sin du Jour novellas are an absolute treat. They're some of my favorite pieces of fiction written over the last two years and, sadly, we're nearing the end. Each story comes with my highest recommendation and I could not be more excited for it.

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.