Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fright vs. Fright: The House of Seven Gables

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: Twice-Told Tales (1963)

The Plot: Twice-Told Tales is an anthology film, like many that were produced around the same time period, including Tales of Terror and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. In this case, each of the three stories are inspired by the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. although only one of them actually comes from Hawthorne's short-story collection of the same name. The longest of the three, and most elaborate, is "The House of Seven Gables." In it, Gerald Pyncheon returns to his family home with his new bride Alice in order to try to find a treasure rumored to have been hidden when the house was constructed. But that construction wound up with the house falling under the curse of its maker, since Pyncheon's ancestor decided to accuse the architect, Matthew Maule, of witchcraft rather than pay him. Now, Alice begins seeing visions of Matthew and feeling drawn to Jonathan Maule, Matthew's descendant. All the while, Gerald's sister Hannah keeps reminding Gerald that he shouldn't have come back, since all Pyncheon men are cursed to die "with blood on their lips." And a painting of the first Pyncheon hanging on the wall in the study keeps bleeding from the mouth, and Gerald's drinking water keeps turning to blood. Just in case he didn't believe in spook-stuff. When Gerald thinks he's finally onto the treasure, he gets a little bloodthirsty (in the more traditional sense), and it becomes less and less certain that anybody will get out of this mess alive.

The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent: Twice-Told Tales is one of my favorite Vincent Price movies, and one I come back to almost every year around Halloween. The first two stories — "Dr. Heidigger's Experiment" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" — both have a lot of pathos and interesting twists, after a fashion. But "The House of Seven Gables" is all mustache-twirling scheming and ghost retribution. It amplifies the supernatural elements hinted at in the original story, and is short enough that in stripping away almost all but those elements, it's just Code-Era Hollywood gory fun. I'm wracking my brain to find something negative to say about it, but if you like this kind of thing, it's pretty great. But it is very much this early-60s horror vibe and not much else, so if that's not your bag, you'll probably be left flat.

Based On: The House of Seven Gables (1940)

How It Stacks Up: Watching this movie was kind of a joy. I realize that both versions share the same source material, so the 1963 version isn't directly inspired by the 1940 version, but that both of them feature Vincent Price in the lead, in two different roles, in two very different films made over 20 years apart was a lot of fun to see. This 1940 version hews much more closely to the source material, and any trace of the supernatural is circumstantial at best. Hawthorne was vexed by his family's involvement in the Salem Witch Trials two centuries earlier, and so his characters need not turn to the supernatural to do evil (even if they do invoke it for personal gain). There's no blood, really, and no horror, come to that, apart from how basely a man may treat his (literal) brother in the name of greed, so this film falls much more in line with films like the subsequent Portrait of Jennie or the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre (both the same decade), which you might call supernatural-adjacent, Old Hollywood romances.

Worth a Watch? Seeing Vincent Price play a romantic lead only two years after he made his first film is definitely worth a watch. It's not spooky, so maybe skip it for Halloween and go with Twice-Told Tales, but for sure put this one on your list for when that old-movie itch hits you.

Fun bit of connective tissue: Vincent Price, who featured last week in The Fly, brings us back to this film. So while it was completely unintentional, each of the films in this series has been connected by a performer. That we began and ended with Vincent is just icing on the cake.

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. Does not live in a haunted house, despite what his son's friend thinks (look, kid, it was just the cats...).

Monday, October 30, 2017

Microreview [book]: Gluttony Bay, by Matt Wallace

Come for the madcap gonzo writing, stay for the wrenching emotion.

You've got me feeling emotions
Deeper than I've ever dreamed of
-Mariah Carey "Emotions"
When Mariah Carey sang "Emotions" in 1991, I can only imagine that it was because someone traveled back in time and handed her a stack of Matt Wallace's Sin du Jour Affair novellas. I'm not suggesting that this is the most likely explanation for the inspiration behind her song. I just think it wouldn't be unreasonable for her to kick even one royalty check Matt's way as an acknowledgment because he definitely had me feeling emotions.

It's been clear for a couple of books now that Wallace was setting the stage for a conflict that will upend the world and lives of everyone who works at Sin du Jour.  I've been fully on board for the full Sin du Jour experience since Envy of Angels and with each book Wallace draws the reader deeper and deeper to the point that these aren't characters, they're old friends. They're old friends who are completely whacked out and perhaps slightly cracked out, they've got scars on the surface and unfathomable depths lurking underneath and we slip into their stories with ease like a well worn pair of pants.
"Mo got to be in a battle between demon clans from hell. He got to go to Hollywood and party with celebs and he was almost burned alive except three tons of vanilla frosting fell from the ceiling. A fucked-up merman puked all over him in front of dragons made of fire and a bunch of Japanese dudes made of gnomes. He met an angel. He got to meet an actual, real angel. He got to know there was more out there than anyone else ever knows."
There is no doubt that Matt Wallace will deliver an absurdly gonzo story. See the above quote that somehow perfectly encapsulates the previous five books in six sentences better than I could in six paragraphs. This is a given. It's just a question as to what seasoning he'll use as the delivery vehicle for telling a deeply emotional story that is becoming more and more personal for me the farther along in this series.

We're entering the stage where nobody is really safe and it's flat out terrifying and I found myself actively cursing at Matt Wallace several times throughout Gluttony Bay. Come for the madcap gonzo writing, stay for the wrenching emotion.

Gluttony Bay finds the Sin du Jour crew in open conflict with the powers-that-be who finance them and set up their extra-super-special catering work. Well, more specifically, Allensworth (the representative of said powers) is in conflict with Lena and Bronko because they are not falling one hundred percent in line with every one of his plans and that's not something he will tolerate for long.

As such, this is the first novella not directly centered around a catering job, though food remains a central through line, increasingly so late in the novella.

I so often focus on the absurdity Wallace threads throughout each story when talking about Sin du Jour because it's easy to point at something so epic and absurdly awesome and use that as a selling point for the novella. Early on, that was enough. But with each passing novella it is clear that Wallace's skill at storytelling is more than on point. Everything here is so tightly and perfectly plotted that it's easy to miss just how smooth of a ride Wallace is taking his readers on and how strong the craft behind all this glorious crazy is. Ultimately, Gluttony Bay (and the entire series) would't work and wouldn't resonate so strongly if Matt Wallace wasn't crushing it with everything behind the scenes.

Wallace has set up the relationships between Lena, Darren, Bronko, Ritter, Hara, Moon, Cindy, and everyone else on the line and in Shipping & Receiving so perfectly that the joys and disappointments and the raw pain are so visceral in Gluttony Bay and I can only imagine how poignant the ending of the series will be. 

Gluttony Bay is a perfect representative of the Sin du Jour series, laced with razor edged humor and absurdity and filled with a delectable story that builds to something bigger and more emotional than any individual bite would have suggested. Gluttony Bay is fantastic. Gluttony Bay is wonderful.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 because there's this oracle of a  clown that could probably scare Pennywise into submission due to his method of divination.

Penalties: None

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

Reference: Wallace, Matt. Gluttony Bay [Tor.com Publishing, 2017]

Previous Reviews
Envy of Angels
Pride's Spell
Idle Ingredients 
Greedy Pigs

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 27, 2017

FIRESIDE CHAT: Megan AM of Couch to Moon

Welcome to our latest Fireside Chat! This time I "sit down" with Megan AM, proprietor of the excellent book blog Couch to Moon. She most recently completed a stint on the controversial 2017 Clarke shadow jury where she read a bunch of books, discussed them with others, and then wrote essays about them. Megan also recently attempted, and failed, to read all of the Hugos. She is not, as I once thought, British. - G

G - Thanks for “sitting down” with me! In addition to book blogging, you were a part of the recent Shadow Clarke project. Could you tell me a little about this project came about? What were the goals--and what, ultimately, was your experience like as a contributor? 

Megan - Thanks for having me! Wow, that’s a lot to start with.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how the Shadow Clarke project came about. This project really came from the mind of Nina Allan, who worked closely with Helen Marshall at Anglia Ruskin University to make it all come together. I think Nina had been following my blog by that time and recognized my frustrations as a reader who was getting bored with SF. She invited me, that’s it.

I was already aware of the shadow jury concept from other book awards, including the work of other Shadow Clarke jurors, Victoria Hoyle and David Hebblethwaite, who are shadow jury veterans of other book awards. In fact, I had always admired the idea of regular readers “shadowing” an official book award jury (which I always assumed involves a lot of PR and schmoozing and general buddy-buddy-ness to get a spot on something like that).

The goals of the project probably vary from Sharke to Sharke, but I think we would all agree the primary goal was to open up the SF conversation and, at the same time, do some decent parsing of books. There might be a more historical, or even personal, context to it for some of the other jurors who have watched the Clarke Award move away from its origins as a critical award to a more commercialized, industry-type award, but that was all new to me, being new to the field and 5000 miles away from any British bookstore.

My own personal goal was to demonstrate that good, interesting, literary SF does exist; that it can come from anyone, anywhere, and in any language; and that it can compete with the basic, Americanized, TV-style SF I keep encountering on shortlists. Unfortunately, the 2017 Clarke submissions list didn’t give me much to work with on that front--a lot of the choices were very formulaic, very bland, not to mention very British, white, and male-- but I did manage to find some champions I’m grateful to have read: Joanna Kavenna, Martin MacInnes, Lavie Tidhar, Johanna Sinisalo.

As for my experience as a contributor… I mean, eight people I have admired in this field--most of whom I had never interacted with before-- read and talked books with me. It was the coolest thing ever.

I’m curious what you thought of the whole thing. Watching you watch it from the outside was interesting: You seemed genuinely interested in bridging gaps between contentious parties, communicating good faith in all sides, and withholding judgment until it was all said and done. So, now that it is done, what do you think?

G - Well, first off, I don’t think I would have been able to keep up! So I have to register my admiration for all of you who did. I also really enjoyed reading everything you guys had to say--even when I disagreed. I also enjoyed seeing how much you all disagreed with each other on specific books, like on The Underground Railroad: you, Paul and Jonathan loving it; Nina not loving it. Disagreement is, in my view, productive. I wish people felt more open to disagreement, and to its potential to enlighten. Instead, people feel threatened. 

I don’t understand this view, which is distressingly prevalent today. I mean, I guess it can be threatening, if criticism is framed in ad hominem terms. But criticism that sticks to the text? That’s just an opinion with supporting evidence. You can just say “that’s not convincing” and move on. Or better yet, explore your own feelings in reference to the argument made. 

I also think it’s liberating to embrace the notion of complex feelings. That is to say, we can like and appreciate something but not necessarily everything about that something. For example, I love George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books in many ways--the characterization, the worldbuilding, the lore and so forth. But I’m also uncomfortable with the way certain things are presented: rape, class, foreign-ness, etc. I don’t have to reject the books outright because of those issues, but I don’t have to excuse them either.

I’d also extend these observations to criticism itself. So I try to have a thick skin anytime I press “publish.” Someone is bound to think my ideas are rubbish, and that’s fine. At the same time, authors and fans are often guilty of violating the text/person distinction--taking depersonalized comments on a text personally and lashing out at the person who made them. The effect is to police what critics, bloggers and other reviewers can say in public, and that's bullshit. 

I could go on, but let's get back to the Sharke project! Or rather, back to awards. One thing that’s come up a lot in discussions is the concept of “award worthiness,” i.e. that there is some objective-ish bar that works of fiction must live up to in order to be proper candidates. I’ve bandied this term about a few times, generally when talking about the Hugos. I have a very clear sense of what, for me, constitutes award worthiness in science fiction and fantasy--some combination of ideas, execution, emotional resonance and prose chops. Not always the same combination, but hitting all four to a significant degree, and hitting one or two out of the park.

Sharke made me rethink that premise. Well no--not rethink what matters to me, but rather rethink whether all awards need to conform to this ideal. Sticking to novels only, I’ll note that the Clarke tends to award stuff like this, whereas the Hugos, Nebulas and Locus Awards only do so sometimes.* The rest of the time they award what you might call “SF/F comfort food.” You described the same thing, albeit more prosaically, as “dollhouse fiction where flat, two-dimensional figures move around in a flat, two-dimensional setting and do and explain flat, two-dimensional things.” That’s a stronger characterization than I’d use, because I think SF/F comfort food can be quite successful. But I also can’t put Ancillary Justice on the same plane as, say, Station Eleven

*For the record, I did think this year’s Hugo winner--The Obelisk Gate--was a good choice.

Since you’re from Texas, allow me to deploy this culturally-specific metaphor: I enjoy this kind of thing the way I enjoy a grill-top burger, but I’d rather give an award for barbecued brisket. Only, what if the award is for burgers? In that case, why am I banging on about brisket? Or, to be literal, I didn’t love Ancillary Justice, but it may just be that my expectations for the Hugos are out of step with the voting public. And is that their fault or mine?

That’s a longwinded way of saying that I’ve come to accept the idea of “award worthiness” as both personal and specific: a construct of intersubjectivity among voters or jurors and the publics they address. The very different publics, I might add. So maybe different awards can and even should have different standards of worthiness?

Of course, Ancillary Justice won the Hugo and the Clarke. So what do I know.

Megan - It also won the Nebula. And the BSFA Award. And the Locus. So it must be amazing.

This Texan is a vegetarian (most cost- and time-cutting upgrade I’ve ever done, fwiw), but I get your meat metaphor. However, I hesitate to continue that metaphor in this context because this is where I could get really insulting, because we’re mostly talking about McDonald’s here, and McDonald’s don’t deserve no awards.

Back to Ancillary Justice, it’s funny you bring that up now, because, just a few a years ago, it was a bit radical to say something like, “I didn’t love Ancillary Justice.” I just looked up your old review and it sort of reminds me of my own review from around that same time, in that it seems like we were stretching to point out the good things while equivocating a bit on our criticisms. Even the wording you use now: “I didn’t love Ancillary Justice” is itself equivocating. Why did we feel the need to hedge our opinions like that?

I don’t know about you, but when I wrote my review, I was still green, but aware enough of fandom politics (of which I was completely ignorant the year before) and I knew I was treading on sensitive territory. There is a feeling of suffocation to go against hype and popularity because fans get so swept up in it, and then they take the criticism personally. I had very few readers at the time (still do!), but I still knew I was on ‘uh oh’ ground. I’m only credible as a reviewer if I’m honest, and I want to be sharp and clear, but I don’t want to hurt people. But I’ve also been trained by many good professors (from a number of disciplines, even) to commit and commit hard. (And then those legitimate moments of ambivalence will seem more credible.)

I also completely agree with your statement about reviewers needing to develop a ‘thick skin’. This is the culture of nice, and my style is contrary to what a lot SF fans want to hear, so criticism of my work is expected. But that’s okay because the dominant style of reviewing has done little for me besides deliver more nights of plodding through some bad reading recommendations because lukewarm reviewing (or, urgh, tedious analysis of character behavior) has made it so difficult to differentiate what’s actually ‘mind-blowing’ or ‘beautiful’ from what is simply a competently written storybook.

(That said, this being the culture of nice, I only assume I get criticism, but rarely does anyone put it in my face, and when they do, it’s a schmuck puppy. Sometimes I find this patronizing-- as if they think I couldn’t handle it--but really, I think the gulf between myself and SF fandom is so wide, there’s just nothing to say.) (And I, in turn, prefer to follow a ‘no link’ policy, regardless of whether it’s a good or bad review. I definitely don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but I’m also not here for writers; I’m here for readers like me, or rather, readers like I was, who don’t know anyone or anything, and don’t care, and just want to read a great SF novel.)

This comes back to questioning the idea of an objective kind of "award worthiness." You mention "comfort SF," which is just as subjective, because I don’t find that kind of SF comforting at all. We’re living in a Trumpnado, where critical reading and thinking skills are devalued, fake news accusations are flying from all directions, nazism is being given a platform in centrist media, and yet progressive SF fans feel threatened by the idea that it might be necessary to sharpen up on difficult, rigorous, uncomfortable novels? I’m not sure it’s appropriate right now to award anything less than radical and complex. And even setting politics aside, the these ‘comfort food books’ are aesthetically old and crusty. Reading award-nominated novels from different decades really helps to put that into perspective: Not a lot has changed in the styling of SF and its “coding” of metaphors, so I’m confused by why we keep awarding the same styles and thoughts... seventy. years. later.

G - I thought Ancillary Justice was more or less successful on an ideational level. It was thought-provoking, and introduced some fairly radical ideas through the stale form of military-focused space opera. Beyond that, though...lots of rehashed tropes, and an overabundance of infodumping--which is one of my pet peeves in genre. As soon as a character breaks the fourth wall to convey information in encyclopedia entry format, my suspension of disbelief collapses.

The culture of nice is another one of my pet peeves, so I’m glad you brought that up. I mean, I try not to be an asshole--no one should be an asshole. But I prefer honest opinions to polite ones. And I’m never going to shy from saying how I feel. I will deliver my opinions politely, more often than not, but I’ll never shy from saying what I didn’t like. My preference is for reviewers who do the same. 

I also enjoy reading reviews that come to different conclusions than I did. Reading is an interaction between reader and text, with the latter mediated by the experiences, perspective and tendencies of the former. It’s always interesting to see how other readers get different things from the books I read, and sometimes an argument is compelling enough that I reexamine my own take.

Back to the notion of SF/F comfort food, I agree that what’s comforting is subjective--from person to person, but also over time. I’ll go through phases where I read a ton of fantasy, and phases where I’m positively allergic to the stuff. So you’re right: “comfort” is the wrong term--perhaps “entertainment fiction” instead? I don’t know--that seems bad in its own way, and I want to avoid being overly normative here. 

That said, I do see a fundamental difference between books that aspire to be good entertainment and books that aspire to be art. I tried to sketch out some thoughts on this once, in the context of review scoring. In any event, I’ll take good entertainment over bad or mediocre art any day of the week, but I usually prefer good art to good entertainment. What’s art? For me it’s mainly in the prose, narrative structure, imagery, allegory and so forth. 

Now, after marking that distinction, I’d like to muddy it up. Books that aspire to be art can be enormously entertaining. I mean, I thought Station Eleven, Cloud Atlas and Strange Bodies were all page turners. Equally, books that aspire to be entertainment can be more than *just* entertaining. I found a rather biting satire of militarism in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, cleverly delivered as by-the-numbers milSF. Part of its impact, I’d argue, derives from the fact that it looks so much like Starship Troopers redux in the first book, which is a set up; in books 2 and 3 Scalzi systematically deconstructs the Heinleinian ideal. 

Now, I don’t think the series is on par with, say, the Culture or Hainish books. But it’s not McDonald’s either. Maybe a tempeh-burger from a place that knows what both tempeh and burgers are supposed to taste like? And also features really good barbecue sauce, with plenty of chili and salt to cut the molasses. Basically, a good rendition of comfort food. Okay, now I'm getting hungry.

Another series I’m prone to bang on about, Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga, should fall into the “aspires to be art” category. It’s one of the most challenging and rich second-world fantasy series I’ve ever read--maybe the most. But it presents itself as entertainment fiction, and so is taken as such. The strength of Sapkowski’s writing is clear from the beginning. Only, as the series progresses, it starts to feel a lot less like a subversion of Tolkien and Moorcock and a lot more like Borges’ lost trove of Elric fan fiction. Yet I think it still works on that comfort food level. So maybe Sapkowski is like David Chang, the guy who started the bo ssam craze at Momofuku in New York. High brow chops but working in the form of everyday food. Do you like this metaphor or hate it at this point? 

Assuming you hate it, let’s finish it off. I think SF/F comfort food, or SF/F that aspires to be good entertainment, can be impactful. The Old Man’s War series was written at the height of the American military presence in Iraq. I can’t tell you if this actually happened, but I can imagine the books causing readers to rethink the notion of war-as-first-recourse. Despite my issues with it, I did think Ancillary Justice presented strong and compelling ideas. And pretty much the whole Anglophone genre world has missed out on Sapkowski because the Witcher looks like an Elric clone from a video game questing within a Tolkienic world (though the books came out, in Polish, long before the games). 

Bringing it back to awards, I’d say these are Hugo books. Also Nebula books and Locus books. Are they Clarke books? I don’t think so. Granted, Ancillary Justice won the Clarke, but to me it fits oddly within the list of winning novels. I would not have chosen it, had I been a Clarke juror, but I did have it on my 2014 Hugo shortlist. And I voted for it too--despite my reservations, I thought it was significantly better than the other shortlisted books that year.

(I also think Hugo voters have chosen some really underwhelming books over the past couple decades, which are kinda sorta McDonald’s.) 

So maybe the Hugos are the Oscars and the Clarke is Cannes, and like those awards, there is rarely much overlap. By extension, maybe it’s unfair to expect the Hugos to resemble the Clarke, and equally unfair to expect the Clarke to resemble the Hugos. They are, after all, determined by different folks who are, generally speaking, looking at different sets of books with different lenses.

The one thing that really disappoints me about the voting awards, though, is that they seem to have abandoned the kind of science fiction that engages in rigorous speculation on the future. I dislike the term “hard science fiction,” because it’s ultra-normative, fetishizes a retrograde understanding of “science” and has more than a tinge of sexism to it. But I do think there’s value in a distinction--fuzzy, I know--between books that extrapolate futures based on present conditions (and plausible paths of causality from there), and those that are simply set in the future.

This is not the only valid approach to science fiction, nor is it the only kind of science fiction I find compelling. But it is a vital element of what makes science fiction compelling as a genre, relative to other genres. If the field declines to engage in this kind of speculation--because the future seems unknowable, because it is too disconcerting or because we find comfort in the genre’s tropes--then I think science fiction loses some of its vitality. Basically what Paul Kincaid was saying back in 2012, that science fiction--in a very real sense--is on the verge of exhaustion.

All this brings up another question I had for you. You recently wrote that you felt fatigued with SF/F in general. This happens to me periodically as well, so I’m curious: what books, or types of books, do you gravitate toward when you feel that way? What relieves that sense of fatigue, or acts as an antidote to it?

M - Well... here’s my take on Old Man’s War.

Oh man, G, this was going so well, and then you had to mutually exclude entertainment and art. ;-) I can never separate the two. What many would call entertaining, I would describe as crusty and boring because it’s lacking art.

Maybe frivolous would be a better word for what we’re talking about, and maybe I can get behind that term because when I read what constitutes standard, unquestionable, basic SF, I often feel like I’m reading A Middle Class Fantasy, A White Man’s Fantasy, A White Woman’s Fantasy, A Hipster Fantasy--stuff that means nothing to me, a welfare girl from public housing, and it definitely means nothing to my husband, a Mexican immigrant who was moved here in his teens (who calls this kind of SF stuff ‘gringones’ whenever I describe it to him). It’s stuff that has no impact on the real world; that too often molds itself to the dominant centrist ideologies of the status quo; stuff that’s not really interested in shaping thought, but conforming to what’s already thought; not getting under the reader’s skin, or challenging things in any meaningful way.

This is exactly why some commenters on the ARU Sharke blog who value The Underground Railroad as a literary work were reluctant to embrace it as a valid Clarke nominee, and probably also why discussion of it as an SF novel messed with so many people’s heads at first: because SF is associated with frivolity, so to discuss a difficult and important novel like The Underground Railroad in an SF context felt like it was undermining the subject matter and Whitehead’s thesis. But you see, that kind of thinking is narrow and misguided, because SF is ideal for challenging public attitudes on a wider scale than even mainstream or literary channels because SF is better equipped to rearrange the world, demand complexity and critical thinking, and disturb our sense of balance.

Old Man’s War is a great example of not doing any of that on any deep level.

Now, Station Eleven is a wonderful literary read, but is just as guilty of recycling and flattening SF tropes as Ancillary Justice. It’s apparent to me that a lot of literary writers who excel at writing real people and real things and provoking real thought seem to hit a wall when they run into SF tools. It’s like the moment they bring out the aliens and the magic, bam, they suddenly go on vacation mode and abandon all efforts at complexity. This is why, like a lot of fans of Marlon James, I’m bracing myself for this fantasy novel he wants to put out next. He’s so brilliant and insightful about people, but I fear we’ll see the same thing other literary and mainstream authors tend do when toying with SF tropes: just another cosplay of SF, because the lit world doesn’t see the potential in SF either. (I am seriously hoping James proves me wrong.)

On your remarks about the different awards, I don’t expect the Hugos to resemble the Clarke, nor would I say the Clarke is Cannes, either. (And I fear the dollar signs that comment might bring to some admin’s eyes.) I agree with your sentiments about voting awards, but I’ve backed off quite a bit from criticizing the current-day Hugo winners because… well, it’s complicated right now. The Hugos have taken a hit, their vulnerabilities are still being taken advantage of, so any victory for the most opposite of a pup is a good thing (although there is a lot of overlap with the pups’ faves that should make some of my fellow SJWs question themselves more deeply). Does that run counter to the grandiose visions I outlined above for award-worthy SF? Definitely. And I’m okay with holding these two contradictions in my head.

Your final question: what do I normally do when I feel fatigued by SF? Read a bunch of beauty blogs and jog a lot, I guess. When I was younger, I lost my enchantment with Terry Brooks, and ended up just scrambling blindly in bookstores and the library. Didn’t finish much of what I got. (Oh, how I wish N.K. Jemisin had been writing back then because that’s just what I needed at that age.) I only started this focused SF reading thing five years ago and only just lost my mojo for it about a year ago. The lit stuff attracts me right now, which is funny because it’s so often characterized as upper- and middle-class white stuff, but that’s where I find the best non-’gringones’ stuff. One of the most glaring truths we noticed on the Sharke panel is that the lit world, particularly small non-genre publishers, are actually doing a better job of putting out brilliant SF-y type stuff, especially from under-promoted voices. I keep championing Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, which has won awards already, but would have been a killer, most-talked-about Clarke submission (I think it was eligible). Some of the most memorable stuff I’ve read during my SFatigue has been from all over time, space, and levels of publication fame: Yuri Herrera, Aliya Whiteley, Marlon James, Toni Morrison, Hiromi Goto, Adam Roberts, Sarah Tolmie, Han Kang, Italo Calvino, and, most recently, Paul Beatty. Those writers have moved me, disgusted me, confused me, bewildered me, and, get this, entertained me.

G - Going to have to stop you there--I didn’t say art and entertainment are mutually exclusive! But I do think we can say some books “aspire to be” good entertainment or good art. So for me the distinction I see is one of approach, of a writer asking themselves “who am I writing for?” I think you can often, though not always, glean that from the text.

It’s deeply subjective whether a book succeeds at either. Plus sometimes books aim to be one and end up the other. Raymond Chandler was trying to write good entertainment but his books are now widely considered to be important works of literature. And some books clearly aspire to be both. So the distinction doesn’t work as a strict typology (what does), but if we think of it as fuzzy and permeable, then I do think it’s meaningful.

Bringing things back to the Clarke, The Underground Railroad is science fiction written for a “literary” audience, which is not to say a “literary fiction” audience, but an audience of people who read genre and are centrally concerned with (a) artful craft, so to speak, and (b) how fiction reflects back on us, our histories and the societies we live in. Whitehead is very successful in addressing this audience, as well as a more traditional “literary fiction” audience. But I also thought it was a very hard book to put down, which is one way to define “books as entertainment” (though “fun” would be a terrible adjective to use for the book). So what does it aspire to be, ultimately? Art, certainly; but maybe also entertainment.

To your other, related point, I also find it weird to think that The Underground Railroad’s literary qualities would invalidate its categorization as a work of science fiction. Somebody much smarter than me once said that science fiction may be set in the future, but it’s really a commentary on the present. The best science fiction certainly is, like The Underground Railroad. So yeah, I don’t get it either.

As for SF/F that reinforces status quo norms, agreed. One of my pet peeves in fantasy is the whole “restore the balance” trope. Also “s/he was a princess/prince all along” trope, inherited from fairy tales, because god forbid we should problematize class barriers in imaginative literature. From SF, the one drives me nuts the most is “United Space of America” particularly in books set 100+ years into the future. Talk about a lack of imagination.

But reinforcing drab status quo norms is also very much an issue in mimetic fiction. A Depiction of Mundane Middle Class Ennui is like 60% of what gets reviewed in the New York Times. A good chunk of the remainder is Everything I Learned, I Learned in My MFA Program. I find both enormously tedious, unless the writing is particularly exceptional. Then I’m down for some good ol’ slices o’ life. 

A lot of stuff I really love is located on the fuzzy boundaries of genre. SF/F authors who get literary, like Sapkowski, or “lit fic” authors who take a stab at imaginative fiction. Though, granted, I agree that “lit fic author slums it in genre” can also mean “person who doesn’t get genre lazily tries to cash in on it anyway.” Did you read The Dog Stars? What a piece of garbage that is. If you haven’t, never read it. It will stain your soul with its awfulness. Murakami’s 1Q84 is another one that drove me up the wall, though it’s better than The Dog Stars. On the other hand, I’ll forgive Station Eleven its tropeyness because it was so captivating on the human level, so vivid and haunting--and also effectively nonlinear in its narrative structure (something I’m generally attracted to).

Okay, I think we need to wrap this up! Readers: if you enjoyed this conversation, please check out Megan’s excellent blog Couch to Moon.


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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero - Halloween ComicFest Edition

This Saturday marks the sixth annual Halloween ComicFest presented by Netflix and Stranger Things.  Halloween ComicFest celebrates our love for comics and our love for our local comic book shops. Participating stores give away free comics to fans, the website hosts a costume contest, and many local stores offer a lot of additional promotions and giveaways. You can even pick up bagged sets of 25 mini comics to pass out at your house on Halloween. It really is a great excuse to put on a costume, visit your local comic book store, and get some free books.  Here are my top five picks for Halloween ComicFest. To see all of the books that will be given away and to find a participating store near you click here.

HCF Babyteeth #1 - Rated for mature readers, I am thrilled that this title from Donny Cates will be offered up to age appropriate readers on Saturday.  Babyteeth focuses on the life of Sadie Ritter, a sixteen year old who is pregnant with what might be the Antichrist. Needless to say this makes being a teen mother a bit more complicated and takes her life in a direction she could have never expected.  If you haven't checked this series out yet, please pick it up this weekend and you won't be disappointed.

HCF Ghostbusters Dia De Los Muertos - How can you enjoy Halloween without some ghost busting? This books takes place on the Day of the Dead just following Halloween. While I haven't read a lot of this IDW series, I have heard good things and plan on picking this up on Saturday. Featuring a diverse cast of Ghostbusters, the crew is dealing with a ghost that is causing some problems for a family in New York. Rated for teen readers.

HCF 2017 Runaways #1 - Brian K. Vaughan, of Saga and Y: The Last Man fame, is penning a new Runaways series for Marvel that is sure not to let you down. The story centers around six children who are on the run from their parents. It turns out their parents are part of a secret criminal societey known as the Pride. I am very curious to read Vaughan's take on this classic Marvel series. Rated for team readers.

HCF 2017 Donald Duck Halloween Scream #2 Mini Comic Polypack - In addition to the free books that you can pick up, you can purchase polybag packs of 25 comics to hand out to trick-or-treaters. My top pick for the bagged mini comics is this book featuring Donald Duck. You can't go wrong with a classic Disney character and fits in well with the timing of the Ducktales reboot. You had me on Donald Duck meeting his match in a haunted house. Rated for readers of all ages.

HCF 2017 Archie's Madhouse Mini Comic Polypack - Archie is back in a big way and his annual Halloween min comic is always a delight. Featuring a collection of spooky stories, this title should be a lot of fan for readers both young and old. Given the success of the Riverdale television show, it should also be a hit for those tricky in between readers!  Rated for readers of all ages.

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Microreview [video game]: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice by Ninja Theory (developer)

High Production in Low Cost Package

If Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is anything other than an enjoyable video game, it's a value proposition. Developers Ninja Theory are no stranger to big budgets; they made Heavenly Sword for Sony, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for just about every platform, and the most recent Devil May Cry game for Capcom. They know how to spend money, so it's interesting that they've separated from big publishers to develop and publish Hellblade at a $30 price. The end product is mostly good.

In Hellblade, you play as titular Senua, traveling deep into Nordic territory to rescue the soul of your murdered lover. In the vein of what Ninja Theory does best, it's a third person character action game. What makes Hellblade unique is that Senua suffers from hearing disembodied voices and seeing things that don't exist.

A lot of the marketing around the game has to do with the challenge in trying to portray a character with mental illness. Plenty of games have tried and it's almost always a flat portrayal of someone who's zany or unpredictable without a lot of nuance. With the help of consultants in the neurological sciences, Ninja Theory has crafted a tortured, sympathetic character in Senua.

Another aspect of the game that reflects Ninja Theory's experience and skill is in the look of it. It's a beautiful game with some really incredible motion capture, particularly in the faces. They don't look like video game faces; they're expressive and emotional every time you see them. This really helps with connecting to the characters and feeling what they feel.

While they nailed the characters and look of the game, the game parts are kind of lacking. Each level of the game will have you doing one of two things: finding hidden objects in the environment, or fighting. The hidden object stuff is mostly clever, but it's almost always boiled down to aligning objects in the right perspective to find the symbol you're looking for. It doesn't change much from beginning to end.

The combat is also not very robust. There are five enemies, excluding bosses, that you will encounter in small groups. The challenge is to keep them away from your back as they'll try to flank you to attack. With infinite ability to dodge, and most attacks blockable, the only thing that has to be figured out is reading attacks to time blocks (or dodge), and how many whacks it's going to take to kill the enemy. It's fun for a while, but it really wore me down by the end. You've got one weapon, so once you've figured out how to use it, combat loses its shine.

But the thin combat and environment puzzles couldn't keep me from seeing it through to the end. Senua and the darkness that haunts her was compelling enough on her own to keep me playing. What Ninja Theory set out to do, make a high quality game at an indie price point, is successful as long as you keep your expectations at the sub-blockbuster level.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Great development of a sympathetic character in an action game

Penalties: -1 Low amount of variety in gameplay

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


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Ninja Theory (developer). Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice [Ninja Theory, 2017]

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fright vs. Fright: The Fly

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: The Fly (1958)

The Plot: Starting with a bang, The Fly introduces us to Helene Delambre as she smushes her husband Andre in a hydraulic press, then calls his brother Francois and tells him what she's done. Not sparing a thought for Andre, Francois comes over to make sure Helene's all right. The police arrive, and after careful sleuthing, determine that yes, Helene did turn her husband into a blood puddle in the press. But why??? After a nice long rest, Helene recounts the story of how Andre had begun experimenting with transporting matter from one place to another, lost the family cat in the ether, but successfully transported a guinea pig, and then accidentally scrambled his own atoms with those of a fly when he tried to send himself through. Up until the last possible moment, there was some hope that a certain "white-headed fly" (presumably a fly with Andre's head, since Andre's body now sported a fly head) might be the key to reversing the experiment. But Andre was becoming more beast than man rapidly, and asked Helene to smush him before he lost all reason and turned dangerous. Dangerouser?

The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent: This is not the first time I've tackled The Fly for this site, but it's been several years, so I revisited my old review to see if my opinion had changed any over the last five years. It hasn't. The Fly has a few indelible moments, but those are linked together by a whole lot of not much. And not yet in his horror heyday, Vincent Price is largely wasted. That said, this movie is not without its charm, and if you have kids you'd like to introduce to creature features, this is not such a bad way.

Remade As: The Fly (1986)

How It Stacks Up: This re-imagining is just a flat-out better movie than its predecessor. While the broad strokes of the plot are the same, David Cronenberg and co-writer Charles Edward Pogue sifted the original film through a sieve and got out everything extraneous — including the little kid at the center of the original who keeps asking, "When's Daddy coming home?" What remains is a tight drama with only three characters, which could really happen on stage (and would no doubt be really cool). I could spend a long time talking about all the things this movie does right, and how great Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are in it, but it should be sufficient to say, as our reviewer Molly wrote when we first looked at these films in a different context, "this movie is a disturbing, lasting experience." She's right.

Worth a Watch? Slam dunk, must-watch for horror fans.

Fun bit of connective tissue: Jeff Goldblum also appeared in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, last week's installment in this series.

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. Avoider, in general, of telepods, unless they're from the Angry Birds universe.

Monday, October 23, 2017

HORROR 101: The Uncanny

For this entry of Horror 101, I thought I’d dive into my personal favorite kind of horror: the uncanny. While we often think of horror as something viscerally frightening, the uncanny builds its horror through the use of the slightly wrong and, through this, creates a far more convincingly real and terrifying world. The uncanny as a psychological idea refers to the idea of something being “strangely familiar” or what I like to think of as the “falsely known.”

The uncanny to me is a crucial element of horror: not being able to pinpoint exactly what makes us scared. While the extreme can be terrifying (the xenomorph in Alien is a category crisis—its something we can’t classify/is not instantly knowable—but it’s not uncanny because we shouldn’t be able to know it/classify it as its something completely new to the human experience). However, even more terrifying is that which is just a little off: pod people who may look like your lover, but they smile in just a slightly different way. A man with fingers just a little too long. Women with hair in front of their faces so that their expressions are unknowable.

In technology, we refer to the “uncanny valley” (a term coined by Masohiro Mori in the 70’s) when dealing with robots and computer designed images of people. A robot who looks human-like but not realistically so (think Bender in Futurama) wouldn’t trigger the uncanny valley but a robot who looks extremely close to human, but has some tiny bit of offness, such as the more and more realistic robots we have currently, would fall into it and create a sense of slight fear, revulsion, or distrust. In the film Ex Machina (which on its surface is a film about a Turing test going very wrong, but in its heart is a take on the tropes of Gothic literature and the Bluebeard fairy tale), Alicia Vikander portrays Ava brilliantly by making the robotic elements include both Ava’s movements (more perfect than an average person’s) and speech (carefully clipped and enunciated)—this heightens the uncanny valley feeling while going against the entirely human looks of her face (which wouldn’t necessarily fall into the uncanny valley).

In literature, the uncanny is prevalent in Gothic narratives (Madeleine in the “Fall of the House of Usher” clearly falls into an uncanny being even before her turn to something more monstrous) and ghost stories. Haunted houses, in many ways, are examples of place as uncanny: the familiar sounds of a house settling become othered when the house is not one’s own. The uncanny also often coincides with liminal spaces (a subject I’ll explore in even more depth in a future Horror 101) and how these shift our perceptions of what is going on: for example, the nostalgia for childhood mixed with a sense of unease in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane falls clearly into the uncanny. The uncanny also shows up in more contemporary horror and monster films, as well.

Slasher films often times build off of the idea of the normal turned terrifying: a phone call (the Scream franchise) or a shower (Psycho and so many films since), for example. This twisting of what we should consider safe is a form of uncanniness (who didn’t look askance at their VHS collection after watching The Ring or wait an extra ring to pick up the phone after Scream?). However, even more interesting (to me) is when the uncanny creates monsters from the known.

In films with pod people or other variations on this theme, the uncanny is allowed to truly shine by raising our distrust in those we love (the ultimate kind of terror, really). From the shape-shifting thing of The Thing who could be right next to you, looking just like your longtime colleague, to your lover in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In pod people films, they look exactly like the person they’ve transformed into and yet they trigger the uncanny valley through their inability to do a trick with their eyes, a slowness to smile at a joke you’ve shared for years, a shift in their speaking tone. This is horror summed up: even the ones you love may not be the ones you love after all. If horror is at its roots often about loss, what greater horror than a loss that no one even believes has happened?

What are your favorite examples of the uncanny? Have a horror topic, style, or monster, that you’d like me to focus on? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @PintsNCupcakes or @Nerds_feather.

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 09/2017

Fall is officially in the air, though summer hasn’t quite died off entirely. We’re in that thin space between seasons, and though it means the weather shifts quickly and dramatically (made worse by human-drive climate change) and the freshness of summer is slipping toward the chills of winter, it also means the leaves are changing color, blushing a bit of beauty into a landscape that will soon be covered in white.

It might be no surprise, then, that the stories on tap for September’s flight are rather concerned with bleak settings and how people confront them. How they seek to come together to create warmth and hope and the chance for healing. The stories are, by and large, concerned with relationships and family, focusing on how people helping people, people respecting people, needs to be at the heart of any movement to survive. Because really, survival is about more than reproduction, more than merely delaying the decay that’s led to the problems in the first place. Survival is about balance and trust and harmony, and these stories all circle around people creating situations where they can reach towards something better, something more whole, or else being confronted by the rot at the heart of their philosophies, and having to see where those corrupted roads lead.

The stories very much run the gamut between joyous and crushing, but each one is beautiful in its own way, and each brings its unique flavor to this early autumn tasting experience. So settle in and raise a glass, and let’s get to it. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - September 2017

Art by Vladimir Manyukhin
“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab (Clarkesworld)
Notes: Expertly balanced between darkness and light, the story tastes like a breath of fresh air after a lifetime of smog, warms and lifts and offers a hope of healing.
Pairs with: Amber Bock
Review: Amir and Mani grow up in a Beirut strained by climate change, by water-scarcity, by the fear of doing greater harm. Both characters, because of their world and because of the weight of history, know only too well the cost of possession, of privatization. Both enter into service to try and heal the planet and bring water and hope and life back to a world that is on the brink. At the same time, they find themselves drawn to one another, and yet mindful that how humans treat the world, and how they treat each other, is linked, and that treating people like possessions, just like treating the Earth like a possession, leads only to corruption, deprivation, and loss. The story, through the exploration of these characters lives and relationships, begins to build a picture of what it might take to make the world work better. It stresses that it’s not technology alone that will save us, because without a philosophy to match, the exploitation and consumption will continue to escalate, pushing past all obstacles and barriers and safeguards. I love how the story implies that humanity needs a different framework in order to respect humans and the environment, in order to put cooperation and compassion ahead of personal ambition or passion. And it is a beautiful story that touches on how love still works in this philosophy, not quite in the same way that we now expect but still in profound and powerful dimensions that allow Amir and Mani’s story to be one of hope and healing and triumph, even as it is often about longing and distance as well. It is an amazing piece, and one of my very favorite stories of the year, period.

“The Last Spell of the Raven” by Morris Tanafon (Glittership)
Notes: With a pour as dark as night and thick as blood, a taste of smoke and grief slowly solidify and deepen into something hungry, mysterious, and devastating.
Pairs with: Imperial Stout
Review: Galen is a magician, one of the rare few who can cast spells, and most of his life is shaped by this one aspect of him, this one thing that makes him valuable to his government and their ambitions. A magician only gets five spells, though, and with the casting of the last they die. Magicians are supposed to use two of these spells in service of their nation, and the rest are sort of...bonuses. Galen isn’t exactly careful with his spells though, casting his first by accident and then losing the others. But more than that, the story shows just what Galen gives up because of what he fears to lose. It’s a piece that explores how he doesn’t fit in to the normal mold, but also doesn’t quite know how to break out of it. It captures the sense of his yearning, of his lust for life and love and connection, and how the world that he lives in and the exploitation and militarism that it operates by poisons everything it touches. It erodes every act of kindness and compassion that Galen does, pushing him towards isolation, grief, and loss. And yet even as he becomes a sort of symbol of what not to do and be in the eyes of his country, he also becomes a symbol for those who don’t fit in, and through that there comes a certain amount of...not healing, exactly, but something more like meaning. For his life and for his regrets—that he can show others that being different is possible, and that maybe if they embrace it, or act on it, they’ll be able to avoid the losses that he suffers. It’s a wrenching and deep story about value and about caring about people. Even when it’s not what’s valued in society. It’s about how the system grinds people down, but even so that small kindnesses are not only possible, but incredibly important.

Art by Setor Fiadzigbey
“On The Other Side of the Sea” by Nerine Dorman (Omenana)
Notes: Bitterness is cut by a warmth that gives a shine to this story’s golden pour, with a feeling of loss like an open wound slowly fading into something alive and hopeful.
Pairs with: Session Ale
Review: This is a story of sisters, the narrator the older and Lindi the younger. Together they carry the weight of their mother’s ashes across a mostly-barren landscape, hungry and afraid and injured, hoping to reach the fulfillment of a promise, that if they reach the sea there will be salvation. A hope that their mother told them and one that they cling to, for the world has fallen to the point where civilization is scarce and most people are cruel and eager for a target for their anger. For all the setting is bleak, though, and the situation harsh, the story for me is very much about kindness and trust and hope. The narrator, though, is distrustful and resourceful, concerned most with fulfilling her mother’s wish and getting her sister to safety. And I like how the conflict is hazy, filtered through the perception of the narrator, a child, the entire situation one of immediacies. She distrusts because of how dangerous it is, because she thinks there is this thing waiting for them, and yet as the story moves it reveals the full scope of the damage and destruction that has been done, the lies that were told to comfort, that were told because of the desire for there to be a better elsewhere, a place to escape to. And yet I like that the story shatters that hope without shattering hope itself. That it refuses to buy into the idea that escape is the only option, and begins to come around to the idea that there is something to gained in community and kindness, that what is truly required here is a situation where these children can trust and not be betrayed. And that with that, progress can begin again, and safety can be built, and maybe, someday, healing can be possible. But that it begins with people, and taking that step to try and trust, despite everything.

“Feeding Mr. Whiskers” by Dawn Bonanno (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: Brash and fun, the crisp, clear notes lead the taster down into a subtler and celebratory experience of sun, shadows, and friendship.
Pairs with: Pear Hard Cider
Review: When the family cat, Mr. Whiskers, needs a new bag of dry food retrieved from the basement, it falls to the family’s youngest member, Melanie, to brave the strange landscape that her imagination makes of the darkness and uncertainty she finds there. Basements are places rich in fear (at least, they were for me growing up), and the story captures just why, showing how the weird neglect and distance from the rest of the house imbues the area with an almost sinister aura. There is a palpable darkness to the nether realm of Melanie’s basement, and yet there’s also a sense of fun and adventure and possibility there as well. Melanie, in plunging down into the dangerous depths of the space, is also escaping in some ways the rules of the world above, the strict necessity that things maintain their proper place. The basement is where fantasy and reality can mix and mingle, and it makes it dangerous but it also makes it in some ways freeing, a place where Melanie can make new friends and have daring dos and have victories of her own. It’s a semi-controlled environment where she can build her experience and confidence and be powerful and connected that isn’t already infected by the constraints of the world outside, of gender rolls or the more crushing forms of horror. Nor is it completely isolating because it taps into the nebulous magic of basements, into a place that, if inhabited by monsters, might be inhabited by friendlier sorts as well. And I just love the feel of the piece, the humor and imagination and the push and pull of revulsion and adventure that the basement embodies. It’s fast and tight-paced and it’s got a cat named Mr. Whiskers, so probably you’ll love it. I know I do!

“They, We, Me” by Ryan Bloom (Terraform)
Notes: Capturing the heart of America, the complex notes of clear skies, golden wheat, and ignored intolerance, the flavor is almost smooth in its naked bitterness.
Pairs with: American Pale Ale
Review: The future this story paints is one where androids have finally gotten a certain amount of rights. Where they can work and earn money and where they’re supposed to be protected by the law, citizens of America. And while there is fear of extreme prejudice against androids, it comes from outside the urban centers where the androids must live in order to be connected to the grid that keeps them powered and alive. The threat is always framed as being rural, as being outside. And the story itself focuses on one android, Adéle, who was bought to be the sister to the narrator of the piece, and who has been living without a lot of direction since her brother went away to school. She gets a job at a small shop, but her presence isn’t exactly treated well, as people view her as a threat. Androids steal jobs. Androids think they’re better than everyone. Androids aren’t real people. The story looks at how these things express themselves within this situation, how Adéle refuses to play into the expectations people have about her, how she refuses to smile, to make nice. She expresses herself as she is, and the reaction she tends to get isn’t very encouraging. For me, the story becomes about how we think about difference and think about humanity and, ultimately, where we see extremism. For the narrator, he thinks of bigotry as something that only exists in caricature, the cartoon racism that people associate with isolated loners. He doesn’t see what exists, that bigotry and hate live everywhere we see difference, where we see people as less than fully human. In rural areas yes, but also in urban centers and even in the narrator’s own heart. It’s a deeply unsettling and impacting story that leaves an emptiness in its wake and demands we all pay attention.

“Stories We Carry On The Back Of The Night” by Jasper Sanchez (Mithila Review)
Notes: Complex and alluring, with a nose of sunrise on an alien world and a first sip of betrayal tinged with love, the taste gradually resolves into something strong, resilient, and powerful.
Pairs with: Baltic Porter
Review: Sam is a young boy caught between the pain and betrayal of the world he lives in, our world, where his gender and identity are often violated, and an alien world where he can be fully himself, but where he would have to give up being with his father, who is about the only person Sam knows who has treated him with dignity and respect. It presents something of an impossible decision to make, where Sam has to weigh being treated like who he is by an entire society of people against the love he has for his father. And the story does a great job of showing the complexity and weight of this choice, and I love how it ultimately reveals the options as somewhat misleading. There is this lovely use of ritual and harm within the story, that allows Sam to see the ways that this alien world isn’t quite as rosy and accepting as they seem. That they, too, have this strong enforcement of ritual and societal harmony, and any straying outside of that are punished, and punished harshly. That for all that Sam himself might be accepted for being a trans man, he wouldn’t necessarily be safe, because it’s not a society that truly trusts its citizens, or truly protects them. Sam is left having to navigate the situation where there is no perfect place. That even the world that promises to accept his gender would demand he hurt, would demand he give up something important. And I love how he’s able to see what a futile thing that would be, that any society demanding that he change for it is not a society that deserves his loyalty. That what does deserve his loyalty and trust are those who have earned it, who have treated him always as a person first, and it’s just a beautiful story that explores identity and family and hope in the face of injustice.


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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

My wallet gets a little bit of a break this week as I only had three titles on my pull list. When I have a slower week I like to take some time and read some of my old favorites. This week I have found myself revisiting Locke and Key as author Joe Hill shared a picture of the first shot of the Hulu pilot and you can take a peek here. I really hope that the third time is the charm after the first pilot was not picked up and the movie pitch fizzled out. I have good vibes for this one as Hill is directly involved in the script and it seems like a lot of the creative team that made the new It are involved as well.

Pick of the Week:
Dept. H #19 - Thanks to a quick charge from some remote subs, Hari and the crew are trying to track down Aaron and figure exactly what is going on. As is the style of the comics, we are treated to the backstory of one of the suspects. This issue highlights Bob, a former prisoner of war with an extremely violent past. While I am not close to figuring out this mystery, I feel pretty confident that Bob did not kill Hari's father. There was clearly some tension as to the option of moving the research to outer space. The stunningly beautiful universe and complex cast of characters that Matt and Sharlene Kindt have assembled is nothing short of extraordinary. 

The Rest:
Star Wars Adventures #3 - This all-ages Star Wars series continues to be a complete delight. The first story, Pest Control, features Finn and some hi-jinks that ensued during the time before he left the First Order. Apparently the cute alien stow-away is more than he bargained for. The second story, Adventures in Wookiee-Sitting, K-2SO gets to try his hand in babysitting some young Wookiees. I have said it before, but this series feels like a Saturday morning cartoon that I would have loved to have had as a child and one I would love to have currently.  Um.  For my kids, right?

All-New Guardians of the Galaxy #12 - The quest for the Infinity Stones to free Gamora has begun and it looks like the Guardians are enlisting the help of some other superheroes. I was not expecting to see the likes of Deadpool, Man-Thing, and Ant-Man, but it served as a nice set-up for the next arc. There were a few laughs and some good information sharing, but all in all it was a relatively quiet issue.

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

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.