Thursday, November 30, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Quite the roller coaster week for Marvel. You have the bizarre story about its new editor-in-chief, C.B. Cebulski, admitting to writing under a Japanese name for over a year. Cebulski, or Akira Yoshida as it were, wrote several story lines and made up stories of seeing Yoshida in the office to cover his tracks.  Follow that up with the new trailer for Infinity War complete with Thanos, the Infinity Gauntlet, and a gaggle of superheros. The week after Thanksgiving is historically light, but at least we are gifted a gem from Gabriel Rodriguez and another fun entry into the Star Wars Adventures line.

Pick of the Week:

Sword of Ages #1 - Having seen a lot of images teased by Gabriel Rodriguez on social media I was still absolutely surprised by this book. Avalon is a child who was brought to the red planet by way of the stars and raised by tigers. Her mother wishes the best for her, and allows her to train with a mysterious old man and his bird, Nikola. The story opens with her leaving her family with the strange old man to train at the White Monks' Citadel. Mixing elements of science fiction and fantasy, Rodriguez does a great job of introducing us to the world he has created. We meet some of the elder gods and other inhabitants on this planet, and I cannot wait to learn what role they all play. Rogriguez delivers absolutely stunning art per usual as this book is extremely easy on the eyes. The coloring by Lovern Kindzierski and letting from Robbie Robins combine to make this book the complete package. I had high expectations for this series, and am pleased to report that so far it has exceeded my expectations. We just need more sword in the next issue!

The Rest:
Star Wars Adventures #4 - While not my favorite issue in this series, it remains a comic that all children should be reading. The first short story is going to continue into the next issue and features a standard Star Wars style diplomacy gone wrong. What I enjoyed was how Luke soaked up the compliments about his odds defying shot that took out the Death Star. The other story was a cute story involving a bully and some tough farm kids/aliens. Definitely a fun series with one of the cutest letter sections I have ever read.

Rick and Morty #32 - I've been reading this series to fill the old Rick and Morty void until next season, but didn't particularly enjoy this one. Summer embarks on a relationship with a spaceship and a lot of female stereotypes in what felt like a bunch of cheap gags. Written by Pamela Ribon, who also wrote the screenplay for Moana and is co-writing Wreck it Ralph 2, the book lacked that keeps me connected to the television series. I am sure a lot of Rick and Morty fans will enjoy this one, but it wasn't my cup of tea.

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nanoreviews: Sourdough, Extinction Horizon, Mandlebrot the Magnificent

Sloan, Robin. Sourdough [FSG, 2017]

The owners of a barely legal bakery skip town and leave their best customer, a robotics engineer, the starter for their tremendously delicious sourdough with instructions of how to care for it. The starter, and thus the sourdough, is so good that it opens the doors for Lois to consider leaving her career and embark on a new path to a wild underground farmer's market. The premise is out there, but Sloan's previous novel (Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore) was excellent and I wanted to love this one, too.  I enjoyed it, but I didn't find Sourdough nearly as engaging as I expected. The voice was there, Sloan has that in spades, but there's something missing in this recipe. It's still enjoyable, but that's the best that I can say.
Score: 6/10

Smith, Nicholas Sansbury. Extinction Horizon [Orbit 2017 / self published 2014]

Extinction Horizon is a fast paced military apocalyptic thriller with an Army special operations team investigating the reason a top secret medical facility went silent. Naturally, a scientist was working on a weaponized form of ebola that could be deployed to target an enemy without needing US troops to directly get involved. Readers, it all went wrong and a global pandemic ensued. The novel itself is nothing remarkable, but it is engaging and intriguing enough that I want to keep reading. There's plenty of action, some conspiracy, biological terror, and a solid story. I'm interested enough in this now apocalyptic storyline to read Extinction Edge.
Score: 6/10

Ziemska, Liz. Mandelbrot the Magnificent [ Publishing, 2017]

Arthur C Clarke once said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and while I only find that statement partially compelling, I think it applied here in how Zeimska uses mathematics. This is the all too harrowing story of Benoit Mandelbrot's early years as a Jewish refugee in soon to be Nazi occupied France. Much of the novella mirrors the real life events of Mandelbrot though I imagine the novella's resolution with mathematics as magic wasn't exactly how things went down. Then again, "sufficiently advanced technology". The parts of the story that were deeply focused on the math, using diagrams and equations, were the sections my eyes glazed over. The rest, dealing with the horrors of the Nazi occupation and the Mandelbrot family's quiet resistance and survival is moving and vital.
Score: 7/10 

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Microreview [book]: Infinity Wars, by Jonathan Strahan (editor)

The future of warfare is here!

Cover Art by Adam Tredowski
The various anthologies of Jonathan Strahan's Infinity Project present different ways of looking at the future, whether it is humanity's striving for the stars or the engineering required to build incredible structures almost beyond our current understanding. With Infinity Wars, Jonathan Strahan asks fifteen writers to take a look at the future of warfare. What sort of war would humanity engage in? What would it look like?

The answers presented in Infinity Wars are as varied as the writers. Each story show vastly different facets of what future war might look like. This is perhaps most starkly shown in the opening story, "Evening of the Span of Their Days", by Carrie Vaughn. Where so many stories are focused on interstellar war and its direct consequences, Vaughn takes a look at the shipyards which service the ships and how a burgeoning war impacts the lives and the jobs of the dock workers. We want to know more of the conflict raging behind the scenes and the changes it will bring to the dock, but in the end the real story is the understaffed and under-equipped women and men who will do the work keeping the ships in the fight.

Another story that shows off the range of how war might be fought in the future is one of my favorite stories from the anthology, "Oracle", by Dominica Phettaplace. It begins with "the two biggest applications for predictive software are killing people and selling things". Rita's AI made her incredibly successful at selling thing, but she couldn't say no when the Department of Defense came calling, asking her to use her software to choose countries to invade that would result in wars popular enough with the American public to boost the approval numbers of the narcissistic sitting President. The story comes across as a little more narrated than lived in, but with the cynicism of when presidents order airstrikes (to distract from personal crisis) and how successful war bolsters popularity, it's a prescient story.

There are, of course, a number of boots on the ground stories in Infinity Wars. "The Moon Is Not a Battlefield" is a less successful story of the grunt level soldier fighting proxy wars on the moon, whereas David D. Levine's "Command and Control" does a better job at telling a straight up action story of a war between India and China with some interesting future technology.

One story I found interesting, if wholly unsatisfying, is An Owomoyela's "The Last Broadcasts". This is a story of a a classified project to put out false news broadcasts from Caribou, a distant human colony under attack from an alien invasion most of the rest of humanity spread across the galaxy has no idea about. The colony is about to go dark because it will be completely overrun, but Daja's (the protagonist) job is to come up with a more palatable reason for Caribou's lack of future communication so as to prevent a galactic panic. The most interesting aspects of "The Last Broadcasts" are everything surrounding the story and the way Daja interacts with the world and struggles to keep herself focused and on task. The least interesting aspect of the story is the actual story - how Daja takes the job and immediately puts herself in conflict with her job and her superiors and her sense of morality towards Caribou.

I also appreciated "Conversations with an Armory", by Garth Nix. The concept here that I loved is that of all major military warships AND armories having artificial intelligence. The story opens with beleaguered troops trying to convince an armory to let them in so they can throw together one last ditch fight back at the alien enemy and the AI not recognizing theor authority. It's darkly comic, at moments almost worthy of the best of Joseph Heller.

Though there were some disappointments in Infinity Wars (the aforementioned "The Last Broadcasts"and "The Moon is Not a Battlefield", as well as "Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ship"), Strahan delivers an overall solid and eminently readable anthology with some truly standout stories. Besides "Oracle", readers should consider picking up Infinity Wars just to read "Dear Sarah" and "ZeroS".

"Dear Sarah" is the story of Mary Jo, a young woman from a family suffering from increasing poverty caused by her father's job loss due to alien technology replacing human labor. It's a deeply relevant story to America today and notes the reality of America's poorest making up a significant portion of enlistments because the military is viewed as a way up and a way out. Except now, the military is fighting American rebels who are against the nation's alliance with the aliens (the rich benefit, the poor continue to lose out) and each battle is a battle against our nation's poorest. Nancy Kress has written a knockout and as happens so often with Kress, I'd love to read more of these stories.

"ZeroS", from Peter Watts, is the class of this anthology. The super short explanation about basically making zombie super soldiers (of sorts) with a human mind running backup in the new body. Watts has intensely strong storytelling and action sequences. I understand that's it's a bit of a prequel story to Watts' novel Echopraxia. Hell, don't worry about any of that, just go read the story. Then go read the anthology.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 because the highs of Infinity Wars are really damn high.

Penalties: -1 for the middling and forgettable stories, one of which I honestly forgot that I read one day after reading it.

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

Reference: Strahan, Jonathan. Infinity Wars [Solaris, 2017] 

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Microreview [video game]: Brigador: Up-Armored Edition by Stellar Jockeys (developer)

Extremely Stompy


Neon lights, an authority violently overthrown, and buildings that crumble like they're made out of ash under your mech's stomping feet, all to a synth soundtrack. Brigador knows exactly what it wants to be. The good news is that it mostly achieves its vision, with a couple hiccups.

You play as a mercenary collecting a paycheck by completing missions in support of the Solo Nobre Concern. They're offering a ticket offworld if you can help them overthrow the factions controlling the city of Solo Nobre. You'll do this in an isometric action game from a variety of mechs, tanks, and anti-grav vehicles with dozens of weapons.

At first look, Brigador might remind you of the classic Strike series (Jungle Strike, Desert Strike, Nuclear Strike, etc) of helicopter action games, due to the vehicle selection and third-person isometric perspective. That's not a terrible comparison, but Brigador offers a lot more. Not only are there more vehicles, weapons, and pilots, but more depth to the combat.

You're armed with two weapons, and an auxiliary ability. Each weapon has its own fire rates, and their own behaviors. There are the standard machine guns and cannons, but also mortars, lasers, and shotgun-type weapons. Your mouse controls not only set the direction of fire, but also the range of fire, so you can launch mortars over walls, spray smoke canisters in semi-circles or lines, and shoot over or past enemies. This is cool in a lot of ways for the level of control it gives you over the destruction you're going to rain down, but it complicates what is otherwise a fairly simple action game. Instead of just pointing in the direction of the bad guys and firing away, you've got to actually consider their distance and aim so that you're not shooting in front of or over them. If you can't get this and just treat it like any twin-stick shooter, you're going to have limited, frustrating success.

The campaign mode offers a couple dozen missions with premade pilot/vehicle/weapon combinations that are fun, but it's kind of training wheels for the operations mode, which is much more freeform. Operations mode lets you select any pilot, vehicle, weapon you desire, and go on a multi-map romp with an open set of objectives and building difficulty. Early options and low level pilots offer easy difficulty and a couple maps to stomp through, but unlocking high level pilots will greatly increase the resistance and later operations become endurance runs to see if you can manage to keep up your health and ammo count across several sprawling maps.

The music of Brigador is also notable for perfectly pairing this dystopian mech action with Makeup and Vanity Set's synth sounds. It's a beautifully drawn game with a moody soundtrack that comes together very well. However, some of the weapon sounds could use some work. In particular, big cannons don't really sound like the size they are. They nail the whirring sound of very large machine guns though, which is great.

Brigador is a great action game after you've figured out its quirks. It'll frequently overwhelm and stomp on you, but rarely to the point of frustration. Your implements of carnage come in a large variety, so there's a ton of action to be had. It's only slightly marred by disadvantaged by doing more than action games of this nature normally do when it comes to weapon control, but that's a gift once you've got the hang of it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 the Makeup and Vanity Set soundtrack superbly fits the mood

Penalties: -1 controls might put off some people looking for a more simple action game

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (well worth your time and attention)


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

 Reference: Stellar Jockeys (developer). Brigador: Up-Armored Edition [Stellar Jockeys, 2016]

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Microreview [film]: They Live directed by John Carpenter

Cardboard Carpenter

I’ve always been a huge John Carpenter fan, and I have fond memories of They Live. So I recently decided to revisit the film and see if it has stood the test of time. Verdict: not a bad film, but not exactly good either.

They Live is the story of a drifter named John Nada (Rowdy Roddy Piper) who arrives in Los Angeles seeking work after an unspecified economic crisis. It’s never clear whether the film takes place in the present or near future, so the crisis is either the 1987 savings & loan crash or a stand-in for it. John  finds work on a construction site, where he meets Frank Armitage (Keith David). Armitage takes Nada to a homeless encampment straight out of Steinbeck. But the encampment, it turns out, is actually a cover for an underground movement seeking to expose the fact that the world is being taken over by aliens, who see humans, and the Earth, as resources to be exploited. After discovering a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see who is human and who is not, Nada embarks on a vision quest to destroy the transmitter that makes the aliens look human.

It’s pretty interesting to watch They Live in 2017. It serves as a reminder that the anxieties of the present—economic precarity, inequality, environmental degradation, the militarization of law enforcement and declining social mobility—were just as scary in 1988 as they are now. The anti-capitalist, anti-elite message of They Live might also resonate with viewers in 2017, given the emergence of “democratic socialism” (i.e. continental social democracy with a pointless new name) and economic populism in general. I also thought it was interesting that Carpenter made the connection between alien exploitation of the Earth and the historical exploitation of the developing world.

Beyond that, though, it's just not a great film. Carpenter's best films, like Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing, have incredible presence. They are moody, full of atmosphere and deep shadows. For that, one can credit both his peculiar approach to direction and the memorable synth scores he made himself. They Live just doesn't match up. The music--such an integral part of his earlier work--does nothing to build tension. Worse, the film suffers from uncharacteristically poor direction. There are all these weird pauses throughout the film: between lines, in the middle of action scenes, and so forth. And it doesn't help that both Piper and co-star Meg Foster turn in the most wooden of wooden performances.

In the end, They Live has some neat ideas but suffers from execution problems that I found frustrating. It's okay, but not better than okay.

The Meat

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Keith David, the world's greatest character actor.

Penalties: -1 for weird pauses and sluggish pace; -1 for disappointed score from a great film composer.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. "Meh."


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

Monday, November 20, 2017

6 Books with Mira Grant

Photo by Carolyn Billingsley
Mira Grant is the pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire. She was awarded the 2010 John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010. McGuire / Grant has gone on to garner 13 Hugo Award nominations, winning three of them, most recently for her spectacular novella Every Heart a Doorway, which was also a Nebula Award winner.

Today she shares her 6 books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading?

In Other Lands, by Sarah Reese Brennan.


2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

The sequel to Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys.

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?

I'm probably going to give John Dies at the End, by David Wong, another spin around the floor soon.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King. I originally read it when I was way too young, and thought it was incredibly boring. Revisiting it as an adult was a revelation.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle.

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome?

My latest book is Into the Drowning Deep, and it's awesome because it does for mermaids what Jurassic Park did for velociraptors.


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, November 17, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 10/2017

First of all, let’s just say Happy Birthday to the Monthly Round, which turns three years old with this installment, debuting in the Long Ago of November 2014 (covering the short SFF of October 2014). Free party hats for all!

October. For me, it means a lot of things. Typically, the first snow of the year happens. There's Halloween, with its long shadows and spooky revelry. For many, the month probably means autumn and gorgeous colors, but for me it means the first touch of winter, and the heat kicking on, and the shutting away of the world in an effort to conserve warmth. It means the tastes on tap today have a definite slide toward the dark side. We start with light, and happiness, and hope, and we end with a wrenching bleakness, a facing of difficult realities. In between is a powerful month of short SFF, full of magic, stars, and strangeness.

Sit down. There’s a chill settling in, but a drink might shake a bit of fire into your limbs. Settle in and watch the pour with anticipation. Then, enjoy. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - October 2017
Art by Ashley Mackenzie
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny)
Tasting Notes: A surprising tang gives this a punch of sweetness that almost overpowers with its joy, settled only by the complexity of its profile and the lingering smiles it leaves in its wake.
Pairs with: Peach Hard Cider
Review: Computron has a fairly ordinary job...for the only sentient AI in existence. He teaches kids about robots and artificial intelligence, something that he’s rather singularly qualified to do. Only it really doesn’t seem like people consider him the marvel that he is, judging him on the retro-futurist aesthetic he has, imagining he’s outdated despite his uniqueness, despite the fact that he’s sentient. It’s not until he finds a show that features a character much like himself, an older-style robot named Cyro, that he begins to understand just how much he was yearning to see himself represented in media, to interact with other people who won’t think he’s strange because of the way he looks. Enter fandom. I love how this story explores the ways that fan spaces allow people to explore and celebrate themselves. No, fandom isn’t perfect, and Computron does have to deal with aspects of that, but at the same time it gives him this new purpose, this new feeling of belonging. Where he doesn’t have to fit all he has to say into a tiny window inside a larger presentation on robotics. Where he can really get into something and be appreciated for it and make connections through it and shatter the isolation that had dominated his life. It’s a story about being a fan, and how fun and freeing that can be. The story revels in Computron’s journey into fandom, writing fic and offering feedback and just being an all around pleasant person. And it’s a joyous story to experience, clever and cute and playing with the tropes of how AI mirror humans, but how they are distinct as well, and valuable in how they are different, able to contribute in ways that are surprising and wonderful.

Art by Geneva Benton
“Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington (Fiyah)
Tasting Notes: With a nose like fresh baked goods and a rich copper pour, the taste is sweet but complex, a tugging disquiet that gives way to a positive warmth and the feeling of home.
Pairs with: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale
Review: For many, college is a freeing experience, a time of freedom and exploration. For Bab, though, a young trans woman who already had a bad college experience once, going back has been difficult, even if being in the correct dorms has been a huge improvement. The fear of being “found out” and rejected is strong, and coupled with anxiety and a few other issues, it means Bab is something of a hermit, staying in her room where her main company is a portrait of her grandfather’s great-aunt, Barbara. Which might seem very lonely indeed, except that it’s a very special portrait. The story blends magic and navigating the strange and obscure social landscape of college. For Bab, it means experiencing the push and pull of wanting friends but not wanting to expose herself to danger. Of needing connections and community and fearing that she’ll never truly belong. The story does an amazing job of capturing the voices of a solid cast and finding powerful resonance in situations that might seem at first low stakes. Because it shows how Bab can take nothing for granted, how her world sometimes feels like it’s closing in around her, and how it can take a friendly face and a reassuring presence to make the world a less painful place. Plus, well, it’s a story that combines magic and cooking, bringing people together by the foods they cook, by the ways they each bring something different to the experience, to the meal, in order to create a feeling of completeness, safety, and belonging. It’s a quieter kind of story, but one that shines with an indomitable heart.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow (Flash Fiction Online)
Tasting Notes: Strong and with a taste of the ocean, the pour is an inky oblivion, an impenetrable cloud in which anything might lurk, but which reveals slowly a soft texture, a tenderness only seen in hindsight, only experienced after everything has been bathed in dark.
Pairs with: Oyster Stout
Review: Some stories take a long time to lay the groundwork for devastation. To map it fully and without blinking. Others, like this one, manage with the broad strokes of memory and pain, the absence of a person who, for the main character, was everything. And okay, I might have a soft spot in my heart for stories that in some ways are built as reviews that might or might not actually exist, fleshing out a world and, more importantly, a relationship by the way the narrator describes what these stories meant. It’s a piece that seems quiet, reserved, and yet that packs the emotional punch of a freight train, driving relentlessly around the space once occupied by Allie, now empty. It’s a story of layers and time and grief, each story pulling back another veil, revealing more and more of what has happened and what it has meant for Claire. Framing the stories around stories is a great touch, too, because it looks at the power of fiction in these situations. Not only to draw the boundaries of despair and give that feeling of lurking danger, each story mentioned one of monsters, after all, and darkness. But it also allows a framework to begin to heal, to allow Claire the power to begin to conceive of a world that is better. To reach for a place where she no longer feels quite so much pain. Where she can continue, and where perhaps she can be reunited with Allie, or at least find some way to cope with what has happened. It’s a short but elegant read that opens up this huge hurt but also the even larger power of speculative fiction to give hope, to inspire. It centers the power of imagination as a redemptive impulse in humans, to use to navigate life’s travails and find a course to a better future.

Art by Tomislav Tikulin
“The Whalebone Parrot” by Darcie Little Badger (The Dark)
Tasting Notes: There’s a distinct ghostly quality to the feel of this, the pour a gold leeched of vibrance, the taste an echo of something bright dulled to bitter, everything about it reaching for a light and hope that seems ethereal, cold, and distant.
Pairs with: Pale Ale
Review: Erasure and family and colonial harm mix and mingle here as Emily—a young woman who grew up in an orphanage that stripped her of her Native American heritage, name, and language and tried to make her acceptable for the white society that consumed her land—visits her sister, Loretta, who is about to give birth to her first child. The story captures a nicely Gothic style, setting up the isolation and distance and haunted nature of place that Emily must inhabit. Her sister is married to a white man, supposedly liberal, and yet for all his kindness his world is defined by his language, that of empire and white dominance, and his view toward his wife and her sister is hardly free of either misogyny or racism. Instead he is an Intellectual, burdened by his own family issues and sure that those thorny problems of inheritance and pride supplant the very real dangers that Emily and Loretta face from a source he refuses to recognize. The source? The ghost of a parrot, which Emily knows is serious but which Albert believes, in Gothic tradition, is an indication that something Isn’t Right with Loretta, or Emily, or both, an entirely different kind of threat for them to Be Quiet or else end up in an institution. The weight of expectations and Albert’s refusal to truly risk himself, placing as primary importance the securing of his fortune, is something the story weaves into this malevolent force, revealing just how at risk the sisters are when they think the system will ultimately protect them. And I love how the story shows that it’s only by finding strength in each other and the heritage that everyone else seems to think is better off erased, that Emily and Loretta can hope to survive and overcome. By doing what they need to do, regardless of what they are allowed to do. It is an empowering, redemptive story that does not conceal the danger or the dark, but shows how it can be fought, and defeated.

“To Us May Grace Be Given” by L.S. Johnson (GigaNotoSaurus)
Tasting Notes: Brash and with the taste of blood, wine and beer meet and battle here, the pour a riot of ruddy copper, the first sip bitter, the experience memorable and strange and bold and unsettling even as it dances with promise.
Pairs with: Syrah IPA
Review: Sometimes there are situations that have no good options. Where the setting and circumstances have been twisted and corrupted into leaving only hard roads paved in loss and blood. For Addy, a young person being raised as a boy to make them less of a target for abuse and rape, the world seems mostly what their mother tells them, a pit of vipers and a landscape of monsters. Faced with the prospect of being forced off their land by a man with considerable pull in the frontier town, Addy’s mother hatches a plan, to use a monster to kill another monster. In so doing, though, she reveals the cruelty and violence in her own heart, and Addy is left in a situation where there is no way out without doing harm, without betraying someone. The story is fast, visceral, and unsettling as fuck. This is a setting where to survive is essentially to become a monster, where violence and abuse are so woven into the fabric of society that there is getting away from it. Addy is put into an impossible situation and wants only the uncomplicated love of their animals and for a bit of safety in a dangerous world. What they get is a conflict they never wanted and no way to avoid the chaos and the noise and the death that finds them. It’s a story that weaves together vampires and six-shooters, blood and magic and revenge. It has a power to it, and a momentum that cannot be denied or delayed. And it also has something, coated in mud and mire and all manner pain, but beautiful all the same—that in a world where everyone is a monster, you still have choose what kind of monster you’ll be. That a broken world is no excuse for not trying to do the right thing, even with the right thing is impossible. That for Addy, the most important thing is to be true to themself, and to see how far that will get them.

Art by RubĂ©n Castro
“My Struggle” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex)
Tasting Notes: Evoking an older German style, this updates and twists expectations, offering up a freshness that breathes with the feeling of autumn—of fading light, the coming of winter, and the crunch of dead leaves underfoot.
Pairs with: Oktoberfest
Review: So I don’t think I expected a story featuring Hitler (yes, Hitler) as a private detective in an alt-history noir mystery about the Spear of Destiny would ever make the Round. And yet this piece so deftly marries the offensive, monstrous narrative of Hitler, P.I., with a frame that makes it about the desire to rewrite history, about the many might-have-beens that could take the place of real-life atrocities. More than that, the story captures a tone and feel of a time and reveals through essentially making Hitler the “good guy” of the story just how dangerous and powerful stories can be, and how especially for stories of that time period, swapping Hitler with the main character doesn’t actually break the story. What does it say, in some ways, that this story exists, and that for some the urge might be to root of Hitler. Especially given recent events, the story seems to ask what people like this look like without the power over states. The answer is...they look familiar. And there’s the darkness and the horror of the story, the way that it builds this rather familiar narrative and makes it fun and almost farcical except for the parts that you can’t ignore or get around. Because, in the end, it’s a story with Hitler as one of the main characters. A story that is almost…fun as it spotlights celebrities and scandals of the era and builds a plot around greed and shades of fascism. And it doesn’t lose sight of how delicate a proposition that is, grounding the larger narrative not with Hitler but with a Jewish man trapped in the Berlin ghetto, trying to find distractions even as the reality of his life looms ever larger. It’s unrelenting and powerful and manages to make a story about Hitler subtle and nuanced, and it does it in breathtaking (and heartbreaking) fashion.


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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

This will be the final pre-Turkey day Thursday Morning Superhero and it has me reflecting back on 2017 and the books we were graced with. One of my most anticipated books of the year hasn't been released yet (Sword of Ages), but I find it fitting that this week we are treated to a pair of books from author Donny Cates. He has jumped out as one of my favorite new authors and someone that will have a big impact on this industry.

Pick of the Week:
Babyteeth #6 - The mystery grows as we learn a bit more about the Warlock Dancy and his connection to Sadie and her family. Sadie is clearly in need of help with her child, but she notes her concern about trusting someone who can easily alter people's minds in order to get them to do what he insists. In a particularly funny moment, Sadie spots a demon on the wing of the plane (straight out of the Twilight Zone) and Clark wakes up screaming! Being the potential Antichrist, his scream nearly brings down the plane before Dancy intervenes. Without spoiling anything, the location where Dancy brings Sadie and her family took me completely off guard and has me even more excited about unraveling the history between Dancy and his group. Mix in the seemingly unstoppable force that is headed Sadie's way and we have ourselves quite the impressive book.

The Rest:
Doctor Aphra #14 - Really entertaining story as both Aphra and Imperial officer Magna Tolvan are dealing with recent changes in command. The two come into contact as Aphra is on a team that is trying to steal data from the Clone Wars from the post that Tolvan is stationed. The two run into one another and there is clearly a mutual respect and possibly more between these two strong female characters. The evolution of Aphra from the time when she was Vader's partner continues to impress and I would love to see her work her way into another medium.

Darth Vader #8 - The inevitable run-in between Jocasta Nu, the Jedi librarian, and Darth Vader is nearly upon us. Nu is securing a database of all of the force sensitive children in the galaxy from a secret room in a Jedi archive when she is forced to detonate her ship after she is discovered. This draws the attention of Vader and what ensues next really has me excited for this series. The rage of Nu watching her books mistreated is a sight to behold. I love seeing a different side of a character that I previously knew little about.

Doctor Strange #381 - Donny Cates is taking over the Doctor Strange series and his first arc gives us a new sorcerer supreme, Loki! Things are working out about as well as you would expect between Loki and the other magical beings, but I fear he has grand plans for the magical gifts he has been bestowed with.  I have not read much Doctor Strange, but I am curious to see why Stephen Strange gave up his title and abilities and passed them on to Loki. There is likely a plan for this madness, but we will have to wait and see. I enjoyed Cates' debut on this title and look forward to continuing with the arc.

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nanoreviews: Vallista, Penric's Mission, Beyond the Empire

Brust, Steven. Vallista [Tor, 2017]
Vallista is something of a locked room mystery where the rules of the room keep changing because of magic and time travel. This is the fifteenth volume in the long running Vlad Taltos series of novels and Steven Brust's wit and charm are on full display here. I laughed. I had emotions. I was confused. I loved it. Steven Brust is spectacular. “Reader, I murdered him” was one of many lines I read aloud to my wife, and it's one that I'm going to leave here without context.
Score: 9/10

Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric's Mission [Spectrum Literary Agency, 2016]
I'm left wondering quite what happens in the next chapter of Penric's Mission.  I would say that the ending is a touch abrupt, but the story of Penric's Mission is complete. It's just that Bujold begins another storyline late in the novella that is, presumably, going to be continued in a later book.  The Penric & Desdemona novellas are a continuing delight
Score: 8/10 

Wagers, K.B. Beyond the Empire [Orbit, 2017]
Let's not bury the lede here, Wagers stuck the landing with Beyond the Empire. Everything that you loved about Behind the Throne and After the Crown is in full force here, from the wit to the action to Hail questioning that she's the best choice to lead the empire but willing to do it anyways. There's scheming, plotting, murder, betrayal, and a whole lot of ass kicking. Beyond the Empire is a frigging delight and somebody should make a movie of these books. 
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.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A (cranky) Casual Gamer's Manifesto (Updated)

I am a casual gamer. As in, very casual. Like it says in my bio-thing at the bottom, I'll play for a while, and then just sort of forget they exist. I loved Borderlands 2, and it took me, oh, about two years to actually play through it. Video games are in a cool place right now, they look amazing, they tell some amazing stories that are immersive, so I'm not knocking them or saying I have some great position on them.


As that very casual gamer, I am stupid excited for Battlefront 2. The original two may be my favorite games of all time. Not because they are so immersive, tell great stories, etc, but because they don't. The best part, for me, is that you can literally play it for a few minutes, and then walk away, and not have to remember much when you pick it up again a few months later. And while the mutiplayer aspect that nearly every game has that side now, that's the beginning, middle and end of the first couple Battlefront titles. You can't do that with Fallout, Skyrim, etc.

The new one has a campaign, and it looks pretty awesome, but we're here for ground level troops dukeing it out on the best battlefields in the Star Wars galaxy.

At least, I thought that's why were all here. Apparently, I was wrong. It's all about getting the most powerful heroes and being able to wreck shop. If you pay attention to video games even a little bit (like, say, as little as i do), you've heard about this. It takes roughly 40 hours of gameplay (three years in Real Dean Time [RDT]) to unlock Luke or Vader. This I am fine with. Again, Battlefront is supposed to be about the troops, not the Jedi and Sith and whatnot.

The real problem comes in where the game has a micro transaction system wherein you can just buy credits outright, with your real monies, and thus unlock said heroes. All told, it costs about $800 to unlock all the heroes.

Eight. Hundred. Dollars.

In a sixty dollar game.

I have read comments such as: "that's like making me work a second job that pays less than minimum wage!" which, no. It's a game. No one is making you pay for heroes, players just want shortcuts. It's the same mentality that ruined the Old Republic MMORPG - players were so concerned with getting to level whatever as soon as possible, they never, you know, played the game. For me, and others like me, tagging along with our dinky lightsabers and level 12 or what have you, it got boring in a hurry - which is too bad, because the game itself was a delight.

I'm sure some of this sounds very "get off my lawn", and maybe it is. There are a million games out there - good, fun games - that are suited to getting the heroes, the upgrades, the best gun, armor, etc. That's not what this game is, though - or should be. Dice could have easily avoided the whole mess by not having microtransactions at all. By having heroes be earned in a reasonable manner, and not making them such a key part of the game.

And then make a game centered around Heroes that has good lightsaber controls and I am in. For, like, a month at least.

Update: All heroes have had their cost reduced by 75%. Enjoy your instant gratification. Kids these days...


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series, is an aficionado of good drinks (extra dry martini; onions, not olives), good food and fine dress. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.
He also has an unhealthy obsession with old movies and goes through phases where he plays video games before kind of forgetting they exist.
He lives in the Pacific Northwest and likes the rain, thank you very much.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Microreview [video game]: ICEY by FantaBlade Network (developer)


ICEY calls itself a meta game in disguise but that disguise is real thin. When the game exits the prologue, there is a narrator constantly commentating on your actions. The narrator is the meta game part of this otherwise familiar 2D action game, and one of its biggest detractors.

You play as ICEY, a clone in a tank, or maybe a cyborg, and you have to find and kill Judas. He's the bringer of the apocalypse, that wicked devil. At the start, that's it. The narrator and environment reveals more of the story, sort of.

The gameplay is simple sidescrolling action. Move to the right, mash the light or heavy attack until the enemies die, then use money to upgrade your combos or life meter. It's competent and mostly fun without getting too repetitive, but the game is rather short.

What makes ICEY unique is the Stanley Parable-esque narrator. He tells you where to go or not to go, what to do, sometimes even why you're doing it. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the player directly. He talks a lot, and the game touches on a broad range of stuff from player choice to the elder gods.

Unfortunately, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It feels like there's something to it, some message, but it's all given to you in bits and pieces. None of it really adds up. Also, the voice acting on the narrator is bad. It's lifeless, and stiff. Worse, the narrator is ever present. The bad narration follows you everywhere. If you can't get over it, you're never going to enjoy the game.

Some of the ideas may have been lost in translation. The developers are Chinese, so it may make more sense if it were played in Chinese. But there's not a lot of excuses for the narrator. He's a central figure in the game and one of the least enjoyable parts. Despite these problems, I enjoyed ICEY. It's got enough weird in it that I wanted to press on to see what else it'd do, and the action is fun. But it's hard to deny that the time wouldn't be better spent on The Stanley Parable and Dust: An Elysian Tail, both of which do well the narration and action parts (respectively) of what ICEY tries to accomplish.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 a pile of interesting ideas...

Penalties: -1 that don't really come together, -1 saddled with bad voice acting

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 (still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore)


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

Reference: FantaBlade Network (developer). ICEY [X.D. Network, 2017]

Friday, November 10, 2017

Microreview [board game]: The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31

Mondo, who is well known for its limited prints and stunning vinyls, is getting into the board game arena and its debut is quite impressive. The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31, puts gamers at the dreaded Arctic outpost from John Carpenter's 1982 thriller The Thing. Sticking true to the source material, players are either a human or are an imitation and the only way for humans to survive is to escape without letting any imitations on the helicopter. This is a great medium to lightweight game that works with experienced gamers or as a gateway game for new players.

At its heart, The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 is a social deduction game. Inspired by games like Werewolf and The Resistance, players have to read social clues from one another to determine who you can trust and who is secretly working against you. One big difference from other social deduction games, the miniatures and the way you progress through the outpost enhance the immersion and gameplay experience. The game supports 4-8 players and takes between 1-2 hours. If you want to learn more about the rules you can watch a snazzy video featuring Elijah Wood!

Players are dealt a blood sample card to start each game to determine who is human and who is imitation. For the humans to win, players must go on missions throughout the outpost, collecting essential gear and battling the Thing. If they are able to collect the necessary gear and are successful in their battles, they enter the final escape phase. The escape phase is where this game truly shines, as the selected captain must choose who is able to ride the helicopter to freedom and who is left behind. If only humans are on board then the humans win.

Each round the captain, who rotates each turn, selects his or her team to go on a mission. The captain determines which room to explore and those selected secretly pass the captain a card to help or sabotage the mission. The captain shuffles up the cards and examines the cards to see if the mission is successful or not. Each captain has unique abilities and the option to swap cards in an attempt to help or harm the current mission.

The imitations have multiple paths to victory. By sabotaging missions, they can move the chess computer down the imitation track, destroy rooms to cause the outpost to collapse, or sneak onto the helicopter and bring about the destruction of the human race. The game seems to be skewed a bit in favor of the imitations, which is a good thing in my opinion.

The Components:
Featuring art from Justin Erickson, the board, player dashboards, cards, instructions and box are all beautiful and really enhance the player experience. The spot UV on the board looks sharp and the game insert allows for easy setup and take down. I was impressed with the quality of the sculpt of the miniatures (or movers as they are called in the orientation and regulation manual) and it is a lot of fun playing as Wilfred Brimley or MacReady. In typical Mondo fashion, a limited version of the board game debuted at Mondo Con last weekend featuring a limited print and cover art from Jock. In addition, players get two bonus missions complete with miniatures. It is limited to 1,982 copies and the remaining stock will be sold at Mondo's website at some point soon.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for attention to detail and movie references, +1 for the artwork

Penalties: -1 for repetitive missions, -1 for advantage given to imitations

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "
well worth your time and attention"

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

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

I'm not sure if you've heard the big news this week, but Brian Michael Bendis signed an exclusive multi-year deal with DC.  A staple for various Marvel titles since 2000, Bendis' impact on the Marvel universe is immense. He helped lauch the MAX imprint and put Jessica Jones in the spotlight, and was one of my favorite authors for Daredevil and others. DC sales have lagged behind Marvel in recent months, so the move isn't too shocking. I feel that DC is still figuring out where to go after the New 52, Rebirth, and the issues on the big screen (Wonder Woman is the exception). Congratulations are in order for Mr. Bendis.  DC landed a great talent and I am curious to see the impact.

Pick of the Week:
Royal City #7 - It bears repeating, but this series hearkens back to older Jeff Lemire titles Sweet Tooth and Essex County.  Essex County even gets a nod on the first page of this issue and it brought a huge smile to my face. Lemire gives us a sneak peak back when Tommy was still living. We learn that he has some irregular patterns in his brain, and are given some hints as to why some of the other characters are currently hearing him over the radio waves. There is still a lot to unpack in this series, but it is one of the rare series where all of the characters are real and I am able to connect with each one. Lemire excels at writing parental and spousal relationships and this series reflects that. Definitely a phenomenal series that would be a good gateway book to bring in non-comic book readers. Really breaks the mold in terms of what normally graces the pages of a comic book.

The Rest:
Daredevil #595 - Kingpin has been elected Mayor and Daredevil is not too happy. One of Mayor Fisk's first tasks is to restrict the authority of the masked vigilantes roaming the streets. This is part of the Marvel Legacy series and it oozes the classic tension that exists between legal authority and superheros. Despite Murdock successfully arguing his case in front of the Supreme Court, Fisk is not backing down and is using his resources to build up cases against Daredevil and his buddies. Interesting start to a new arc and a definite throw-back that fits well with the legacy framework.

Birthright #28 - Is Joshua Williamson pulling a fast one on us? After painting a pretty one sided picture of Lore, the evil overlord who Mikey is trying to save Terrenos from, just healed his greatest foe and is shows us his vision of peace in Terrenos. This was a twist I didn't see coming and I am very interested to see how this pans out over the next two issues in this arc. It seems that there is a lot more to this story than I initially thought. It has been an up and down ride for me personally, but I definitely want to wrap up this arc before making my decision to continue the series. Very interesting development this week.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Lost World of Hawkins, Indiana

Someone on my Facebook feed posted a really interesting article on Stranger Things and the enduring pop cultural appeal of '80s nostalgia. Unfortunately I can't find it now, but one of the more notable tidbits was the observation that the current wave of '80s nostalgia, which traces back to the late '90s, has now been around almost twice as long as the '80s themselves.

In truth, it's phased in and out, but never gone away. Now, in 2017, it is in full bloom: we've gotten a remake of It, a sequel to Blade Runner, an '80s themed entry in the Thor movie franchise and, most importantly, a second season of Netflix's unabashedly nostalgic sci-fi horror show, Stranger Things. Meanwhile, synthwave--the overtly retro '80s music that I make (shameless plug)--is more popular and visible than ever.

I've long wondered why I'm so attracted to '80s nostalgia, why I've always been attracted to it, but also why I'm so particularly attracted to it now. The simple answer is that I grew up in the '80s, but that's only part of the story. I was a teenager in the '90s, so you might think I'd be nostalgic for that cultural moment. I probably will be at some point, but I'm not right now, not really. So there's clearly more going on there, and I suspect that's the case for most people. What follows is an attempt to make sense of it all, with special reference to Stranger Things.

An Evolving Aesthetic

In 1997, VH1 debuted what would become its signature program in the post-video age: Behind the Music. Though not limited to '80s musicians, episodes that featured that decade's more ridiculous figures were instant hits. In 2002, VH1 adapted the British program I Love the '80s, which surveyed the decade's pop culture landscape a year at a time. (I Love the 70s and I Love the 90s followed soon thereafter.)

These programming decisions both reflected and contributed to the wave of nostalgia for '80s pop culture that, according to Simon Reynolds, cast its shadow over the entire decade. Indeed, if you look at independent music in the early '00s, it's positively drenched in the stuff: from the "punk funk" aesthetics of LCD Soundsystem, Franz Ferdinand and Datarock to the new wave revivalism of Ladytron, Fisherspooner and Scissor Sisters. And it wasn't limited to music either. The cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) was, in a sense, the Stranger Things of its day. And Napoleon Dynamite (2004), though not technically set in the 1980s, had a distinctly '80s nostalgic aesthetic. So why does the current round of '80s nostalgia feel different?

In 2005, VH1's Michael Hirschorn had this to say about the '00s wave of '80s nostalgia:

[It] applies to a specific kind of Gen X, self-mocking, slightly ironic thing. For this group of people, you can't give them straight nostalgia of the sort of baby- boomer, "everything was wonderful and great when we were kids" feel. People Gen X and younger know that things weren't that great. We never thought that Motley Crue was saving the world. We identify with them passionately, but with a certain wink.

The ironic take still holds, to a degree, but it's never been the only thing going. Revivalists from the ''00s, such as Daft Punk and Ariel Pink, described their approach in decided unironic terms, as less an attempt to recapture a specific sound (with the addition of a wink and a nudge) as to recapture the "blissfully indiscriminate" way in which music was consumed at that time, something that evaporated with the decline of radio and MTV's switch to scripted programming. And if anything, the current wave of retro enthusiasm feels much less ironic and much more earnest than it did in the '00s.

There are plenty of haters, who dismiss the current wave of '80s nostalgia as insipid or emblematic of cultural exhaustion (for example, here and here). But I think those people vastly miss the point, namely, that '80s nostalgia in 2017 is purposive, and says more about where we are today than it does about the moment it portrays. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the lost world of Hawkins, Indiana.

The Lost World of Hawkins, Indiana

When I first starting watching Stranger Things, I was struck by how familiar Hawkins, Indiana felt. I grew up in a place more or less like that, an old Northeastern mill town. It was a twenty minute drive from a small city, and just under an hour from a big one. But it was also a self-contained universe. Most people worked in factories, making calculators, school uniforms or costume jewelry. Others worked in supporting industries--one friend's father owned a small metal treating company, which served the factories. There was a vibrant main street, and a great diner that got so packed on Sundays you could think the whole town was there. There was little crime, and it felt like everyone was looking out for everyone else. It was the kind of place where you knew the police and firefighters by name. The real locals, by which I mean those with roots in the community, probably knew them all from school or little league.

A lot has changed since then. Most of the factories have closed, with the work they once did (and the work that supported them) outsourced to cheaper labor markets. Main Street, like so many across the US, is a dilapidated shadow of its former self. The town as a whole is still okay--its proximity to the aforementioned cities meant it was able to transition from a place that made things to a commuter suburb. And the diner's still there. Many factory towns have not been so lucky.

But when I see the town of Hawkins, Indiana, it feels like I'm looking back at the place I grew up in, as it once was, but which no longer exists in the same form. This feels important. Stranger Things isn't just a celebration of pop culture from a previous moment, but a window into a lost world--one where things that have become deeply uncertain are rendered certain again.

The appeal of peeking into this world makes a lot of sense when you consider the political trend, both in the US and globally, toward economic populism. Strikingly, this trend is evident across the political spectrum, though it manifests differently on each end. Both sets of populists want to turn back the clock on several decades of globalization, outsourcing and the financialization of the economy. They just apportion blame differently. Left wing populists are angry over the dissolution of what George Packer calls "the Roosevelt Republic," a 50-year period of state-regulated economic security and egalitarianism, which was broken up in wake of late '70s stagflation to encourage faster growth, which in turn has disproportionately benefitted the richest of the rich. Right wing populists, by contrast, blame mass immigration for driving down wages and labor unions for driving out the factory owners. Both blame free trade for making it cheaper to build things abroad, though left wing populists also stress its negative effects on emerging markets.

The window to Hawkins shows a place where none of these things have happened yet. Though deregulation was already well underway by 1983 (when season one of Stranger Things takes place), the effects were not yet evident. We are looking at a place that hasn't experienced the financial crises of 1987, 2000 and 2008 or the cancerous spread of Walmart--a place where economic security and a middle class standard of living are still assumed. I imagine that most people who watch Stranger Things, regardless of their politics, find this comforting.

Another aspect of Hawkins that strikes me is its whiteness. I don't mean that in strictly racial terms; after all, Lucas is black, as are some other town residents. Rather, I mean it in cultural terms. No one in the town listens to hip-hop, funk or r&b, just rock and country. Aside from this season two's California transplants, no one seems to come from anywhere except Hawkins. There are no immigrants. There doesn't even appear to be a Chinese restaurant.

I also recognize this aspect of Hawkins from my own childhood, when we had to drive to the city for decent Chinese, or to the big city for Thai. That started the change in the '90s, when the area grew more diverse. In 1983, it wasn't very diverse at all. As part of a multilingual household and with an immigrant mother, I was basically the diversity.

This is not something I'm nostalgic for. Even at a young age, I found the hegemony of the monoculture oppressive. The '90s felt like an awakening to the world, with all the promise that entails. I am decidedly not nostalgic for the days when everyone died where they were born.

But I'm sure other people are. In 2016, pundits spoke at length about economic anxieties related to uneven globalization, but surveys have shown that more people have what you might call cultural anxieties. In extreme form, these manifest as racism, xenophobia and other exclusionary ideas that divide people into categories and then rank them by acceptability. More often, though, it isn't so much about accepting people from other backgrounds as accepting other cultural practices as valid and normal. It is possible, from this view, to accept individual people who look different as long as they don't act different. As long as they don't challenge the hegemony of the monoculture.

It would not surprise me to find out that some people are attracted to this element of Hawkins, Indiana, and more specifically, its portrayal of a world before multiculturalism and a time when the myth of strict assimilation still ruled supreme. Hawkins, one could argue, is a utopia for the culturally anxious, a place where the few non-white residents are perfectly comfortable within the monoculture, which in turn makes everyone perfectly comfortable with them. Put another way, Hawkins is exactly what people mean when they use "I don't see color." It means, "I don't want to think about difference."

I don't fault the Duffer Brothers for portraying Hawkins this way. Not everything has to center race, and I appreciate the fact that Lucas is treated as just another kid by everyone in the town. But as I examine my own feelings for this show, and for the place and time it portrays, I have to be honest about what I'm looking at, and how that makes me feel. Stranger Things is portraying my own lost world accurately, but there are things you lose and wish you could get back, and other things that are better left in the past.

The Lost World of Personhood Beyond Politics

Yet there are plenty of things I do wish we could go back to. Among those, the days when political identities were not so much a defining feature of your personhood as an element of color. Now, politics have always mattered, as have political disagreements. I remember the strong differences of opinion in the '80s: on welfare and taxes, on nuclear weapons and the threat of mutually assured destruction and so forth. But life was not as polarized as it is now. My dad and my friend's dad used to joke on election day that they were canceling out each other's votes. Can you imagine that now--not only saying it, but saying it to a friend and both of you thinking it's funny?

The shift in attitudes is widespread. As Pew noted in a 2014 report:

The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.
Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

The causes of this effect are multiple. Partisan gerrymandering has disincentivized median voter strategies, while unlimited campaign financing means politicians are more beholden to the wishes of individual donors than their districts. Concurrently, the decline of the newspaper and rise of both shrill partisan media and social media all contribute to the emergence of parallel echo chambers, which generate internal solidarity and views of the other as intrinsically threatening. What political polarization has done, then, is transform every political disagreement into a zero sum game, when in past days it might not have been treated as such.

You might be wondering where I'm going with all this; Hawkins, after all, is not a political world. In the series, the only political markers in the town are a solitary Reagan/Bush '84 sign on Mike's yard, as well as his father's bland statement to the men in black, "we're all patriots here." But that's exactly the point. We know very little about anyone's politics--no one even talks about it. So instead we form our opinions on the goodness of people through other means. And that's when it struck me: can you imagine deciding whether you think someone is a good person or not without knowing their political worldview? This was possible at one time, but it feels weird and alien now.

Some issues bely compromise--of that there can be no doubt. But today it often feels like everyone is fighting everyone on everything, and are so hideously polarized that they can't even think of the other side as equally human. Hawkins provides a comforting antidote to that paradigm, a glimpse back to a moment when people weren't as likely to other the political other. We don't know who Hopper or Joyce vote for; all we know is that they do right by people.

The Lost World of Childhood

Most strikingly, Stranger Things captures the freedom accorded to children in days past, and the lack of freedom accorded today.

I'm a parent now, and I'm clear-eyed about of how different it is to raise a child now compared to when I was a kid. Some things have improved--there's much more awareness of bullying, for example, and parents (dads especially) are a lot more involved in day-to-day child rearing than they once were. And, as mentioned above, I see immense value in exposing children to different cultures--something much easier to do now than before, especially if you live in a Hawkins. But I do lament the fact that my kids don't have the freedom I had as a child. The freedom to roam, explore and learn by doing.

Partly that's because I no longer live in a Hawkins. Since college, I've chosen to live in big cities. I've chosen that path on purpose; I find them more stimulating and exciting. But big cities come with crime and traffic, and their populations are transient. There is more to worry about, and fewer people around who you can trust implicitly. It is not possible to simply let your kid roam free at a young age the way you can in a small town. If you did, someone might even report you to the police.

But it's also cultural--not in the sense of ethnic or religious culture, but the prevalent culture of the moment. The zeitgeist. In many countries, the US included, the lives of children are increasingly structured. As journalist Hanna Rosin writes:

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.
It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

Rosin presents a theory of how this happened: the largely irrational fear of child abduction, combined with well-intentioned attempts to reduce the risks children face in their daily lives (for example, a largely ineffective campaign to reduce playground accidents). The end result is a safer, though in some ways less stimulating environment. Hawkins, by contrast, is a place where kids still roam free and only go home for meals. In so doing, it shines a light on all our misgivings with overprotective helicopter parenting in 2017. 

You may or may not buy Rosin's argument; I do, at least in the abstract. I see my own childhood in a place like Hawkins and lament that my kids may never experience those endless days spent on bikes, exploring in the woods or climbing around house construction sites. All done as a matter of course, of course--as long as we were home for dinner. But in practice I find it very hard to let go in that way. Clearly, so does Rosin, and I assume this is true for many parents who grew up the way I did but now find the world changed around them. We appreciate the things that have changed for the better, but we mourn the loss of things we once took for granted. And so, we look through the window into the lost world of Hawkins, Indiana, a place we can see but not touch. 

Endless '80s

Stranger Things exemplifies the purposive dimensions of '80s nostalgia in 2017. But how long can it last? By all rights it shouldn't have lasted this long. Only, rather than fade away, it appears to have metastasized. 

The fact is we are no longer locked into pop culture moments the way we once were. Recall that the '80s themselves were nostalgic for both the '50s and '60s, embodied in everything from The Stray Cats to The Wonder Years. Stranger Things is, itself, an homage to the way these earlier decades were reinterpreted in the '80s, through the form of the late '50s/early '60s monster movie that's really about fear of communism or McCarthyism. And then there's Steve's haircut:

The genius of the '80s was to mash its nostalgias up with a heady dose of futurism and neon. At a time when the future is scary as shit, the dead futures of past times can be comforting, even when they themselves are reimaginings of even older futures. Meanwhile, the microgenrefication of music and other entertainment media mean that popular culture can sustain all nostalgias at any given moment. Plus there's the fact that a lot of retro stuff is actually pretty creative. Synthwave, for example: this isn't '80s music made today, but rather a modern style of music that draws as much on incidental soundtrack and corporate music as it does on pop or indie stuff.

Or compare the pastiche of references in Stranger Things to those in Ernest Cline's 2011 novel Ready Player One. The references never overwhelm the narrative in Stranger Things, nor are they ever made explicit. In other words, if you haven't seen ET, Poltergeist or Aliens, you won't know the winks and nudges are there. Rather, they are window dressing on what is, at its center, a compelling human drama. Ready Player One, by contrast, hits you over the head with its unending stream of '80s references--delivered through a series of encyclopedia-style infodumps that are as jarring as they are unsubtle. Now, I realize that Ready Player One has its legion of fans; but I've tried to read it twice and in found myself unable to suspend disbelief. With Stranger Things, by contrast, I practically live in Hawkins for each 45 minute episode.

All this is a longwinded way of saying that, while it's possible that '80s nostalgia will recede from popular view, I don't see it going away. Not as long as we still dream of lost worlds.


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