Friday, September 21, 2018

Microreview [Book]: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

Zero Sum Game has some strong, subversive ideas, but weak characterisation and a slow-to-hook plot leaves it less than the sum of its parts.


Though it's new to print this year, Zero Sum Game was already on my radar in its previous, ebook only self-published incarnation, although it never made the leap from the ever-growing collection of Kindle Samples I keep around to inform potential purchases onto my actual TBR. This new version, published by Tor, has been revisited and polished up, and is now being released much more widely as part of the publisher's #Fearlesswomen initiative, bringing this unconventional superhero thriller to a bigger audience, and also to me.

Our protagonist Cas Russell is a mathematical genius, and a hired gun, but not in the way you'd expect. Far from being your average brains-over-brawn number crunching geek, providing support to a team from behind some giant, poorly lit computer display, her abilities let her calculate the trajectory of bullets, survive falls that should kill her and punch people much larger than her at just the right angle to drop them with minimum necessary force. Cas is extremely cagey about these abilities and keeps them very close to her chest, particularly as she lives in a world where she seems to be the only person who can do this kind of thing. However, after a routine extraction of a young woman from a Colombian drug cartel ends up leading her to an organisation led by someone with even more terrifying abilities, Cas ends up in the middle of a plot that's both more wide ranging and more relevant to her, personally, than she had realised.

The way Cas' abilities play out - and, almost as importantly, the way they don't - provides Zero Sum Game with its most unique and compelling facet. Our introduction to her capabilities is almost exclusively through her ability to manipulate real-world mechanics, giving her superhuman combat abilities and problem solving skills which allow her to, for example, move a series of random objects in an alley to manipulate the acoustics enough to hear a conversation happening in a distant room. This is all very cool stuff, and it absolutely sets the scene for Cas as an action hero subversion of the "maths geek" trope. In contrast, Cas' abilities to apply statistical analysis, while also developed in later chapters, take a long time to come to the fore, and importantly they never dominate the way the first-person narrative . Even when Cas does run the probabilities of what the people around her will do, it's embedded in interpersonal and emotional reactions to the situations she's in, and tends to come with a much lower rate of reward than her kickass physics-ninja skills. Cas is bad with people, but she's bad in a generally misanthropic way, not a "human emotions do not compute" way, and this makes for a more interesting character (especially for the purposes of first-person narration).

Cas is thrown into an action packed plot which kicks off right from the very first page and never really stops moving. I struggled with this in early chapters, as very little time is spent establishing the limited networks and sense of "normal" in Cas' life before these are ripped away from her in a move which feels rather like the prologue of a Bioware game, motivating her continuing interest in a case that otherwise doesn't hold much long-term appeal for such a self-interested character. It's not until the introduction of the big bad, and her own abilities, that I became more invested in where things were going. Dawna Polk is basically a telepath, in the way that Cas is basically a superhero - while she might not be able to magically read minds, her ability to interpret psychological cues is so good that she's able to read everything a person is thinking and, even more terrifyingly, manipulate the impact that encountering her has on the memories and intentions of others. The uncertainty this brings to what was formerly a fairly standard plot is chilling in all the right ways, and used to great effect both in the book itself and to set up hooks for the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, Dawna is a standout character in a story which doesn't really have any others. Even Cas herself is hard to like, and her characterisation is somewhat thin outside of the maths stuff, although some of the gaping holes in her background and motivations do make more sense towards the end. Also, this is yet another book where I was frustrated by the gender balance: besides Cas and Dawna, the only other women turn up near the beginning and are pretty much just there as victims, and there's no non-binary representation. By far my biggest annoyance was Rio, Cas' only "friend", who is supposed to be a compelling sociopath-with-a-code and whose motivations and relationship to Cas come to the fore at several points in the plot. Unfortunately, Rio's main functions are to do horrible things that Cas constantly makes excuses for, and mansplain her own emotions and behaviours to her for her own good. I can't help but note that Huang didn't need to make Rio a sociopath for this to be a plausible set of behaviours for him to exhibit towards a female protagonist, and the effect was far from endearing. Cas' other sidekick is Arthur Tresting, a Private Investigator who comes off better when his counterpoint is Rio, but is otherwise bland at best, getting upstaged by his bit-part hacker friend in the few scenes the friend gets to be in.

Ultimately, while I can certainly admire the elements that Zero Sum Game does well, for me the good didn't fully outweigh the things I didn't like about this story. Cas and Dawna both have highly compelling powers and are interesting characters in their own right (odd but ultimately justified choices on Cas' part aside), but the plot took a little too long to get its hooks into me, and the supporting protagonists were at best forgettable. For those who are more invested in fast paced action and don't mind the drawbacks I've mentioned here, Zero Sum Game's calculation might work out more in their favour, but alas, it's not going to go down as one of my favourite reading experiences this year.


The Math
Base Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Genuinely brilliant reimagining of the "maths nerd" trope into something completely different, +1 If Cas Russell were reading this, she'd already have calculated the probabilities of where this score is going to go

Penalties: -1 Lacklustre characterisation outside of the compelling villain, -1 I'm suddenly really tired, I think I'll take a nap instead of justifying this score... what do you mean, psychic manipulation? No, no, none of that here, I assure you...

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

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Huang, S.L. Zero Sum Game [Tor, 2018]

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

There is less than 24 hours left to help fund Comics Comics #1!!!  Check out this amazing looking Kickstarter here and support this project. Backed with the talent of Patton Oswalt, Rose Matafeo, Sam Jay, and many other talented comedians.



Pick of the Week:
The Terminator: Sector War #2 - How the hell did I miss the first issue when this came out?!?! A Terminator mini-series penned by Brian Wood?!  Thanks to a retweet from the Dark Horse twitter account I was alerted about this series yesterday morning. I quickly added both issues #1 and this issue to my pull list and this series is an absolute blast. It seems that a second Terminator was deployed in 1984 to New York City in pursuit of Lucy Castro.  The first two issues amount to one incredible chase sequence, a solid body count, and a Terminator that won't give up in his pursuit to prevent the birth of Castro's future child. Apparently he is instrumental in the future resistance to the machines and the Terminator is pulling out all of the punches in order to prevent this child from ever organizing against them in the future. This series pulls on all of the right nostalgic heart strings and is a lot of freaking fun. Cannot recommend this one enough. If this continues to entertain like the first two issue I will need spin-offs in Texas, Minnesota, and across the globe.

The Rest:
Star Wars #54 - War is imminent as Leia and some rebels make a desperate gambit to secure jump codes right under Darth Vader's nose. The highlight was Leia hijacking a Tie-Fighter to escape only to learn that without a pilot's helmet there is no way for her to communicate with the X-Wings she needs to rendezvous with. Fortunately there is a little thing called the Force and her twin brother and her are both strong with it. This was a thrilling end to the current arc and a much larger war is impending. When the rebels jumped to safety I had some Battlestar Galactica vibes, which I quite enjoy.



Ether: The Copper Golems #5 - The second book in the Ether universe has come to its depressing end. Boone was able to successfully close the final portal and save earth, but it carried with it a massive cost. This series has been a trip from the beginning and for some reason this is the issue where I really started to feel for Boone and his desire to travel to the Ether. I never considered what he was sacrificing in his pursuit of knowledge and I am even more intrigued about Book III and what Matt Kindt and David Rubin have planned for this bizarre universe. This ended definitely makes me want to go back and read Book I and Book II back-to-back in preparation of what I think is the final chapter.



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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Microreview [book]: Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning is an electric debut with a post-apocalyptic world, a kickass heroine, and her adrenaline-fueled ride through that landscape.




After a spectacular and very likely supernatural apocalypse that has drowned much of the world, much of North America is underwater and much of the remainder that isn't is a mess. The land inside of what was the Navajo Reservation is protected by a quartet of magical walls. And yet even inside of the boundaries of the walls, in this new world, there are monsters, and monstrous people, and such dangers and threats must be addressed, and fought.

That’s where Maggie Hoskie comes in. She’s been trained as a monster hunter by the very best, but she is new to fighting monsters on her own. And it is in the fighting monsters on her own that she is drawn into a plot that will not only gain her a partner, but also uncover a threat to the entire world inside the walls and the people who live there. Can Maggie protect herself, and those around her, when she must also restain an even greater monster--herself? And just what DID happen to her old mentor, anyhow?

This is the central question at the heart of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel, Trail of Lightning.

There is plenty to love in Trail of Lighting, and Maggie as a main character is front and center the heart of the novel and she makes the novel sing. An indigenous woman granted supernatural powers that are complicated and make her an outsider by their very nature, Maggie’s life as a newly solo monster hunter is a fraught one. The author writes her action beats very well, and when Maggie takes the stage as a fighter, the novel positively sings. Through those action beats, and the first person point of view, we get a really intense look at Maggie as a character, how she sees herself, how others do, and the sometimes fraught relationshop between those two visions.

The second major character in the novel, Kai, a rather unconventional hero. Thanks to the nature of the character, and the plot, and the secrets that Kai is hiding, he is somewhat difficult to get a handle on as a character. I think that the author may have made Kai just a tad too slippery for readers to get a good enough purchase on for my taste. As the novel progresses, we get to see why Kai is the way he is and the relevance of that to the plot, but I think a little more hook on him would have been good.

The worldbuilding is top notch and a leading light of the power of #ownvoices. There is an authenticity to the myths and legends made supernatural manifest fact within the Sixth World that the author presents here. This is a post-apocalyptic world whose suipernatural denizens, threats and features felt like the author was truly delving deep into her own culture, understanding it and presenting it to us in context and the richness of what is on offer. And much of it is new to most readers and rich with details and ideas that I was very happy to have the author explore.  I particularly liked her interpretation of Coyote, the Trickster, who has an agenda for Maggie that only slowly becomes clear as the novel unfolds. But it is the things that go bump in the night, the entities that Maggic must encounter and fight, that shows the author’s invention the best.

The worldbuilding also extends to the non supernatural elements as well. From the vividly described desert landscapes in what used to be the Navajo Reservation, to the people who inhabit it, I got a deep sense of place and people in reading the novel. As I read the novel, I found myself consulting Google Maps time and again, and turning on the Satellite image to get an even better view of where events took place. The author also invoked a more than mild desire for me to one day see  the real life terrain and meet the people who live there. There are also a number of set piece locations that the novel is built around, that serve as hubs or tentpoles where the novel’s major scenes takes place. I particularly like Grace’s All-American, one of the few bars left, and built like a fortress. Grace and her family are quite the distinctive characters,. too.

There are some small flaws in the novel, however. It is very clearly a first novel, and its pacing and plotting can get a little herky-jerky in places. The action beats as mentioned above are strong and rich, but sometimes the connective tissue.isn’t quite what it could be, and it sometimes meanders, without strong compensative character development at the same time. The novel, in fact, definitely does best in character development during those action beats.

Still, I look forward to what Roanhorse does in the next Sixth World novels, and hope that some of the roughness of the first novel wears off and she only improves on the strengths of this novel.

Find out more about Rebecca Roanhorse and her work in our Six Books Feature.
---

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for  a deep dive into an intriguing main character
+1 for an inventive and well described world

Penalties : -1 for some first novel  pacing and plotting issues.

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


Reference:  Roanhorse, Rebecca  Trail of Lightning [Saga Press 2018]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Microreview [film]: The Predator by Shane Black (director)

Mindless Animal

 
 
I know what it means when a child is a prominent character in a R rated action movie. In the opening 20 minutes of The Predator, we’re introduced to Rory McKenna, a grade schooler on the autism spectrum and son of Army man Quinn McKenna, this film’s protagonist. Can you guess why Rory is here? I groaned out loud, which is okay because I watched this from the comfort of my car at my local drive-in theater. It didn’t get better.

The Predator is a sequel to the previous Predator and Alien vs. Predator movies, starting with a predator crash landing on Earth. After a brief encounter with the senior McKenna, it’s captured by scientists while McKenna tries to escape with some alien equipment stolen from the crash site. McKenna is captured by the government and put with a group of other “crazy” military veterans, but the predator escapes and starts to track down the stolen gear, which McKenna had accidentally sent home and are now in the hands of his pre-teen child. McKenna enlists the help of his new friends and one of the surviving scientists to track down the predator and save his son, but none of them are ready for a second, even more dangerous predator that has also come to Earth.

I saw the trailers for this movie and it did not look good. I should have trusted my instincts. The gaggle of damaged military veterans are obviously made to emulate the special forces team of the first Predator, except they somehow have even less dimension to their characters, and essentially no motivation to take on this suicide mission. McKenna’s motivations are so incredibly weak as well, mostly correcting for a problem he caused for himself by stealing alien artifacts for seemingly no reason. But the worst of these are the motivations of the first predator that crash landed on Earth. Without spoiling the weak plot, the reason for why the first predator is on Earth to begin with is nonsense, especially in context of its actions. The only character that makes any sense whatsoever is the super predator but even its actions can’t be reconciled with its motives at times. The ending is completely predictable, and how they get there requires so much hand waving and movie magic that it pulled me completely out of its fiction. This movie world does not make sense, and not in a whimsical way, just a thoughtless way. I cannot believe a single thought went into this script beyond the singular purpose of getting from one end of the movie to the other.

Even if it made sense, it’s a bad action movie. For unknown reasons, the whole movie takes place at night (with a questionable amount of fast forwarding through time at the start), and nearly every scene is poorly lit. This is good for the predators though, because they don’t seem to take much advantage of the benefits of being a predator, namely being able to hunt invisibly. You see so much of these predators that they may as well be slasher movie villains. This is Predator by way of Friday the 13th. No skilled hunters, just invincible killers brutally murdering anyone in the path of their (again, weak and nonsensical) mission until the plot dictates that they have to be defeated.

I don’t hold any franchise sacred, but this is worse than just a bad popcorn action movie. It belongs in the gutters with Terminator 3, Terminator: Genesys, and Alien: Resurrection. This is a movie so bad that it should put the franchise on the shelf for a very long time. I don’t want to see someone course-correct on this. Please, Fox/Disney, put Predator away and let us forget this horrible outing.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: Nada

Penalties: -1 completely and utterly mindless in every manner

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10 (really really bad)

***

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

Reference: Black, Shane (director). The Predator [20th Century Fox, 2018]  

Microreview [Film]: Fahrenheit 451



With some dystopian themes taking hold in our everyday reality and the success of Handmaid's Tale TV series, it may seem like a good time for HBO to revisit other classics of dystopian science fiction. This year, they released a new movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 – the novel about firemen burning books because different opinions and worldviews create unhappiness, and about literati rebels fight back by the way of illicit bookcrossing and memorizing whole novels.

The story is recognizable for the fans of the novel, I guess, even though writer-director Ramin Bahrani (together with his co-writer Amir Naderi who is an established director in his own right) has played around with the characters and events quite a bit.

There's a lot to modernize in a novel that is a 65 years old speculative future, of course, but I wouldn't describe much of it as very successful. There are new books to fight about, for sure: We see the book-torching firemen burn a copy of a Harry Potter novel and Clarisse McClellan – transformed from the teenage neighbor appearing in Bradbury's novel into a fire brigade's unwilling informer and eventually the protagonist's love interest – is memorizing Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

Instead of soap opera parlor walls (or whatever it was everyone was addicted to in the novel) the citizens of this new world seem to be obsessively consuming reality TV broadcasts of raids by the firemen. It is never explained and it has no consequence for the story, but all the emoticons and comments appearing on the building-size displays suggest some kind of social media aspect to this technology, even though everything and everyone seems to be firmly under the bootheels of their paramilitary rulers. Any amount of free expression is hard to reconcile with the vision, so the world starts to come apart at the seams if you consider it too closely. Some hard drives get torched with the books and there are computers and networks around but the rebels mostly stick to reading and smuggling dead-tree editions which seems a bit unpractical.

The main character is still Guy Montag (played by Michael B. Jordan) from the novel, a fireman who starts having second thoughts about what he's doing, but Bahrani has completely dropped his wife to make room for Montag's romance with McClellan. As a consequence, the film doesn't have a person who would stay desensitized by the stale state-approved entertainment as a contrast to Montag who has woken up. That's perhaps one of the biggest things making the film less engaging. Showing us only the conflict between firemen and their opponents leave much of this dystopian world unexplored.

Of course, there's only so much the film can do, given its source material. Fahrenheit 451 is ultimately making a philosophical armchair argument, and transforming that into high-adrenaline political action was never an easy task. For anybody living in 2018, banning fiction as a way to lessen tensions between different worldviews is as nonsensical a proposition as it gets, because practically all other imaginable kinds of human interactions (social media, journalism etc) are much more effective in polarizing societies around the world today. Perhaps this would have been an interesting theme to look into in the movie adaptation, and quite possibly something that Bradbury would be thinking about if he was writing Fahrenheit 451 today.

The haunting character of fire brigade captain Beatty played by Michael Shannon, the musical-esque opening scene in which firemen sing in their fire truck, and occasional cool visuals are about the only solid things about this movie. In addition, the ending is your cup of tea if you enjoy over-the-top poetic and metaphoric moments and can manage to suspend your disbelief in the book-loving rebels' arguably rather silly master plan.


The Math


Base Score: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for "Down the red-hot valley, lo! The phantom armies marching go! Salamander ho! Salamander ho!"

Penalties: -2 for missing so many opportunities to be a relevant adaptation of a novel that was highly relevant

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 – "Very little good I can say about this"

Reference: Fahrenheit 451 [HBO 2018]

***

POSTED BY: Spacefaring Kitten, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Microreview [video game]: No Man's Sky Next by Hello Games

Listlessly Drifting Through Space



No Man's Sky wasn't exactly a success on release. Sure, it seemed to sell well and generate a lot of discussion, but an overwhelming majority of that discussion was on whether or not the developers delivered on what they promised. Such an incredible number of words were written about what was or was not promised, and was or was not delivered, that the developers essentially dropped the game and disappeared from public eye, quietly updating and improving it until we reached this most recent update. It was enough of a leap to warrant a release on a new platform (Xbox One), and a new name, No Man's Sky Next. However, it doesn't exactly fix what made No Man's Sky a disappointment.

In No Man's Sky, you are a solitary explorer in an infinite galaxy. The game pushes technological boundaries by providing an almost limitless number of planets to explore, with almost limitless numbers of aliens, plants, and minerals on those planets. And before the Next update, that was about it.

Over the course of two years, and including the Next update, the game added the ability to build a base, manage a fleet of frigates, interact with other people through online multiplayer, and offered a handful of quests with storylines to follow. The base game just kind of pointed you to the center of the galaxy, but now there are things to do in this universe. Unfortunately, it's still not much of a game. The bulk of my time was spent filling meters and watching them slowly tick down while I tried to accomplish the meager and sometimes unclear goals the quests gave me. There are so many planets to explore that none of them seem particularly noteworthy until you land on a nasty one that is hostile to almost all life and you're low on resources. Then I spent too much time scraping enough bits and pieces together just to get off the planet and hope the next one I landed on wasn't such a hellhole. Every planet has a universal system of space police that seem to serve only to annoy you. If you mine resources in front of them, they attack. If you fight back, they summon reinforcements, escalating in number and size, never backing down. The only way to escape them was to literally run into any building and hide.

I did this all for about 20 hours, on top of the 10 I spent on the original release, before I gave up entirely. I had built myself a sizeable base on the least hostile planet I could find, but I still couldn't find the point in continuing to play this game. It's barely fun and barely a game at all.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 they added a lot since the original release

Penalties: -2 nothing in the game, not the worlds, nor the aliens, nor the player's actions, seem to matter, not even within the fiction of the game

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10 (not very good)

***

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

Reference: Hello Games. No Man's Sky [Hello Games, 2016]  

Friday, September 14, 2018

Eco-Speculation #2 Animals Among Us


Environmental fiction is often bracketed into a narrow shelf. The Kim Stanley Robinsons and Jeff Vandermeers and a few Atwoods. The best books maintain elements of “fun” reading, like The Southern Reach Trilogy but in general these books have a #message. Otherwise, why would we call them environmental?

I’d like to challenge such an idea. On the academic and activist sides of the environmentalists, intersectionality is the hot word. Is Flint, Michigan an environmental issue? Yes. Does the situation also contain issues of race and class? Yes. As the intersections of environmental issues continue to grow, I wonder if we will reimagine old texts as more environmental than we thought. For example, Tolkien is not usually placed on the environmental shelf beside Vandermeer, but how can he not be seen as an environmental writer, especially when one gets to the know the man who could spend half an hour looking at a flower?

Speculative literature has long been lauded for its ability to produce empathy since so much of the genre is about understanding other places/people/races/species/whatever. In particular, I wonder about the impact of the genre’s inclusion of animals and nonhuman beings as a common element in speculative literature.

There’s no perfect word for referring to other-than-humans. For the purpose of this column, I’ll use nonhuman, which I still find way too human centric, but it’s common in academic fields as well as the speculative side of things. What is a nonhuman, you ask? Usually another other living thing, though “living” is pretty broad. For example, a tree can be nonhuman (take Ents, for example). But so can a mountain or a river.

In the discussion of nonhuman beings, one is often discouraged from projecting human characteristics on them. I heard this a lot in my writing workshops at my environmental MFA. If you give a river emotion, you are forcing it into the box of human understanding. This distinction will become more developed as new writers come into speculative literature, but I wonder about evaluating older literature with this set of rules. Humans are animals, after all. The human body is a type of biome, much like a mountain.



When I look back on my road to environmentalism, the books that impacted my thinking often contained anthropomorphic beings. In particular, the Redwall series sticks out from the shadows of childhood. Written by Brian Jacques, the series spans twenty books. While not clearly chronological, they can be read in certain orders to tease out repeating characters. The novels revolve around several enduring places rather than characters or plots—Redwall Abbey, Salamandastron, and Mossflower Woods. The beings that populate these places are mice, moles, hedgehogs, shrews, hares, badgers, otters, rats, owls, snakes, etc. They carry swords, wear habits, cook scones, and fight wars. For the most part, they are explicitly human with one key difference—they rarely subjugate other animals (example, riding a horse). It does happen (book one, Redwall, contains the most specific instance with the villain whipping a horse), but animal subjugation is less often than in such a text as Wind in the Willows.  


Today, animal studies theorists and environmental writers would most likely raise an eyebrow at claiming Brian Jacques as an environmental writer. For me, it comes back to empathy. These stories made me see a mouse as something worthy of respect. One could argue that the respect grew out of the human attributes rather than the animal aspects, but I can’t help but feel it something more. That respect for these creatures as having worlds of their own (even if it was their humanity appealing to me as a child) created a foundation I’ve built on since then.

It is fantasy, after all. Should we continue to explore new ways to respect nonhumans through our human storytelling—yes, but I wonder at the power of giving animals humanity in the eyes of a child, to give rich lives to the animals a child recognizes as “pests,” such as a mouse. I’ll leave you with this quote from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories:” “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery [fantasy]-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.”

Posted by Phoebe Wagner, a writer living in the high desert. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero


It might seem a bit too early to start your Halloween planning, but time is running out if you want to be cool and give out mini-comics to your trick-or-treaters!  Thanks to Halloween ComicFest, you can pre-order bundles of 25 mini comics from your local comic book store. I placed my order last week and look forward to introducing the neighborhood kids to the amazing Johnny Boo! Check out the comics you can pre-order here!



Pick of the Week:
Darth Vader #21 - We are starting to learn why Vader has selected the world of Mustafar for his prize from the Emperor. He was given Padme's royal starship as his vessel to embark to Mustafar and there is something very odd about Vader piloting such a pristine and shiny vessel. It seems that Vader has similar feelings and has an odd and surprising method of altering the shiny exterior. It seems that Vader has never felt more connected to the Force than his time on Mustafar. The location where he lost so much, including his life, has some sort of power over him and drives him forward with a blind allegiance. Marvel has really done a great job filling in the holes between the movies and providing us with valuable insights of characters that we have know since our childhood. When I think back to my first impression of Vader I thought he was simply a bad dude that could force choke someone out. We learned more about him as the movies progressed, but nothing like the nuance we get in the comics. The Clone Wars cartoon does a similar thing in regards to Anakin and I would love to see similar treatment given to other franchises.

The Rest:
Birthright #31 - It has been quite some time since I revisited this series and will admit that I will need to read the  previous few issues to properly catch up, but am instantly reminded why this series from Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan stood out to me when I first read it. The lore (inside joke) of Terrenos, the mages, and the world add such depth to what started as a missing child story. This week we learn more about the tragic upbringing of Mastema and the sheer power that consumes her. This issue is a nice pause in the story and Williamson promises the next few issues are insane.



Daredevil #608 - Matt and Mike Murdock have some family issues to work out. I was unaware that Matt had a twin brother, but apparently he died many years ago and was brought back through the powers of The Reader. He is already causing quite a few headaches and kidnapped Foggy, but Daredevil is conflicted faced with the prospect of killing his brother or a realistic copy of his brother. I am not entirely on board with this development, but it became more interesting with this issue and has me very intrigued given the fact that Mike just went to visit Kingpin and informed him of Matt's research into the legitimacy of the mayoral election. If only our current political environment was this entertaining. I think some good old fashioned superheros would really liven up the Mueller investigation!




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

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Microreview [Books]: A Glimmer of Silver by Juliet Kemp and Accelerants by Lena Wilson

Twin offerings by The Book Smugglers' Novella Initiative present vastly different experiences of growing up superpowered.




The Book Smugglers' Novella Initiative line was a highlight of my novella reading in 2017, bringing a set of diverse, different stories with some interesting romance and a more YA sensibility to some of the entries than I've seen in other fiction of this length. I've been hoping throughout this year that we'd see more from the line, and in August my waiting was rewarded with this pair - with some bonus theming around the classical elements to really seal the deal!

Both Accelerants and A Glimmer of Silver deal with people on the cusp of adulthood in their own societies, whose choices are immediately constrained by the societies they live in. Both protagonists also have superpowers: Jennery is a "communicator", one of an increasing but still tiny number on xyr world who can safely drink the water of their alien ocean, while Lucy Mi-Na is an "omni", capable of pyrokinesis in a world where superpowered people are suppressed and locked away. Despite these similarities, these are very different books in tone and outcome: where A Glimmer of Silver grounds its exploration of colonialism and other serious themes within a community that is loving, if not entirely supportive in the way Jennery wants, Accelerants is almost all sharp edges and barely concealed rage. This leads to an interesting juxtaposition between the two which means I might not have thought to directly compare them had the twin publication not felt like an invitation to do so. Certainly, you could pick up one or the other of these without "missing" anything in the book you do read -- but, in doing so, you'd be missing another novella which is well worth your time.

In A Glimmer of Silver, Jennery has grown up on a colony planet whose surface is covered by one large, sentient ocean. Upon learning this, and tentatively learning to communicate with Ocean, xyr society has developed around self-sufficient rafts and a complete taboo against eating anything that comes from the water - despite not being a single lifeform in the way we recognise, everything in Ocean is Ocean and eating people is bad. The fact that Ocean can and will destroy entire raft civilisations if provoked is also, of course, a good reason not to do anything one thinks will annoy it. All children in Jennery's world take a simple "test" when they are young to assess their capability for communicating with Ocean, with those who pass then being compulsorily trained in becoming a communicator between humans and the ocean. This involves several hours a day of floating in Ocean listening, an act which turns communicators' skin silver, but Jennery and I have a serious difference of opinion on how totally cool this would be, as all xe wants is to reach the age of 16 without hearing the voice of Ocean, at which point the rest of the communicators will have to give up on xyr and let xyr train as a musician instead.

Jennery walks a fine line between being bratty and sympathetic, which xe usually manages to stay on the right side of. I found the exceptions often stemmed from a fundamental element of the worldbuilding which I didn't pick up at the time, but found myself increasingly unsatisfied with after finishing the book. Forcing 16-year-olds into a single, all-encompassing "career" based entirely on abilities rather than interest or family situation feels very much like a problem of the 21st century, rather than a realistic crisis for a teenager on a precarious subsistence colony in space. Is it really the case that all these Communicators sit around doing nothing except be Communicators and live in their own bubble, with no time at all for any sort of other community-based activity? However, if you simply accept this one-person-one-career premise - as well as Jennery's occasional overuse of the word "stuff" (sorry, I am apparently my own grandfather) - you'll be rewarded with a very well-crafted quest of self-discovery and alien communication, when (of course!) Jennery hears Ocean at the last possible moment, telling xyr something xe can't ignore, taking xyr to the heart of a rebel settlement which threatens the balance on which humanity depends.

So, if A Glimmer of Silver is the warm, floaty novella with hidden depths, Accelerants is more like walking into a furnace. The opening drops us in one of the most harrowing moments of Lucy's life, and by the end, the catalogue of abuse and neglect and marginalisation verged on overwhelming for me. In the world of Accelerants, people with superhero powers are an open secret: known to exist, but highly controlled and effectively sent to government camps and locked away if discovered. Having burned down her house and apparently killed her mother when her powers first manifested aged 6, Lucy's story alternates between her present circumstances in one of these camps, and flashbacks to her past where she attempts to find her way as a queer, half-Korean teenager with severe anxiety around flame and a mountain of suppressed trauma. Because of this structure, we already know how the flashes of happiness in the past are going to turn out, a fact which becomes all the more heartbreaking because it's impossible not to root for the beautiful, supportive f/f romance in these sections. Lucy does manages to find support in her present too, in a relationship with a fellow inmate that has its own moments of loving care in the brutality that is the prison camp - whose "treatment" for omnis is a complete distortion of exposure therapy conducted by relentlessly sadistic prison staff.

Accelerants also does a wonderful (and, according to the "Inspirations and Influences" essay by Wilson, entirely intentional) job of confronting the "superpowers as marginalisation" trope by addressing the intersectionality between Lucy's identities. Although it's her pyromancy that gets her locked up, Lucy's terrible relationship with her father is clearly just as much a function of her race and his suspicions about her sexuality, and the latter in particular also shapes her experiences upon being locked up. One issue with telling this story at novella length is that there isn't space to directly experience the prejudices of Lucy's father while maintaining the effect of his menacing, silent presence throughout - but the effect of that presence is so well-realised that I can't fault the choice that was made here. I read Accelerants in one sitting, feeling increasingly sick and unhappy for Lucy as her story progressed: not, precisely, an enjoyable reading experience, but certainly not one that I'm going to forget in a hurry.

Ultimately, both Jennery and Lucy end their stories by coming to terms with themselves and asserting control over the positions their worlds have put them in. Lucy's climax, telegraphed from the start is a vicious yet not undeserved act of reclaimed identity; for Jennery, a more conciliatory but complex outcome is possible, re-centring agency on the colonised Ocean and enabling reconciliation on Ocean's terms. Both novellas end having punched far above their weight in terms of politically complex worldbuilding, and both deliver consistently excellent YA stories. Accelerants is, by a whisker, the more accomplished of the two, but A Glimmer of Silver offered me a more enjoyable reading experience (not least because, as regular readers of my contributor biography may have noticed, I'm a bit biased towards water). In any case, you can't go wrong with either of these, and I'm very pleased to see that the Book Smugglers' novella line is still alive and well.

The Math
A Glimmer of Silver
Baseline Score: 7/10

Modifiers: +1 Ocean content highly on-brand for reviewer; +1 colonialism narrative with non-human sentience that ends on the sentient's terms; -1 Communicator lifestyle just doesn't make sense

Accelerants
Baseline Score: 8/10

Modifiers: +1 superhero narrative addressing intersectionality theory; -1 just so relentlessly hard to get through on an emotional level...

Overall 
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. A pair that are both well worth your time and attention.

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

References: Kemp, Juliet. A Glimmer of Silver [Book Smugglers Publishing, 2018]
                     Wilson, Lena. Accelerants [Book Smugglers Publishing, 2018]

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

6 Books with Michael Mammay



Michael Mammay is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a masters degree in military history, and he is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives with his family in Georgia, where he teaches English to high school boys, which is at least as challenging as combat. Find out more at his website.

Today he shares his six books with us.



1. What book are you currently reading? 

I just finished Age of Assassins by RJ Barker and while I haven't picked it up yet, I don't think there's any world where my next read won't be the second book in that series. I don't usually go for a book two immediately, but Barker's work kind of demands it. It's so good. Before that I read City of Lies, by Sam Hawke, which I loved, and I'm getting ready to read The Accidental War , by Walter Jon Williams, which isn't out yet, but I got a copy from my editor.






2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I'm looking forward to The Disasters, by Megan England. It's a debut that I got a chance to read the first chapter of a while back, and I think it's going to be awesome. To love a book these days I really need great writing to go along with a great story, and this book definitely has that.









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

I don't re-read books very often. I think I could probably count all the books I've read more than once on my fingers. There are a couple reasons: first, I try to stay up to date on new books, so re-reading takes away from that, and second, I don't want to go back and re-read something I loved as a younger man and find that I don't love it anymore. I'd rather have the good memory. With that said, I re-read A Wizard of Earthsea this year to celebrate the passing of Ursula Le Guin and it was even better than I remembered.





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

The Forever War. I re-read it last year, and in my opinion, it's the best military science fiction book ever written. With that said, it has some outdated views on homosexuality that are pretty hard to read in the current environment. The book was written in 1974, and tends to treat homosexuality as synonymous with androgyny. It's not hateful, it just feels a bit awkward. It makes it hard to recommend the book to young readers, even though it's an absolute classic, and the allegory of it is still spot on forty four years later.




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

The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. The omnibus edition. I read it in the nineties and it's what made me want to write fantasy and science fiction. I think it was the first time I read military fantasy. I was in my twenties then. If you want something from when I was younger than that, I'd probably look to David Eddings. I read a lot of Heinlen as a kid, too.






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

My debut, Planetside, came out recently. Something I'm really proud of is that it seems to appeal to science fiction lovers, but also to people who don't normally read sci-fi. I've had so many people say 'I don't even like science fiction, but I loved this.' There's a really big mystery element in the book, and I think that surprises people in a good way. It's a military science fiction setting, for sure, but that element, while ever-present, isn't overwhelming. I think it's accessible to mystery and thriller readers, and I love that, because it might lead some of them to consider more science fiction in the future.


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POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Nanoreviews: The Skaar Invasion, Phoresis, The Expert System's Brother



Brooks, Terry. The Skaar Invasion [Del Rey]

With The Skaar Invasion, readers are in a headlong rush to the really, truly final ending of Terry Brooks' long running Shannara series. If we count the Word / Void novels (and I do), The Skaar Invasion is the 30th Shannara novel. It is the second of four volumes in The Fall of Shannara. There's a significant weight of expectation and history here. The novel mostly holds up to what it needs to do.

It is completely not fair to compare the latest novels from Terry Brooks to his earliest. Elfstones, Wishsong, and his four volume Heritage of Shannara are by far the high point of his oeuvre (though his Dark Legacy novels are the best of his later books). For a number of years now Brooks has sacrificed detail, worldbuilding, and atmosphere for a breakneck pace and quick references to the past. The Skaar Invasion, like The Black Elfstone before it, bridges that gap as best as Brooks is currently able or willing to do.

It took me all of The Black Elfstone and a decent way into The Skaar Invasion to realize the titular invasion wasn't yet another breaking of the Forbidding and a demon attack, but rather an expansion of the world (even though the action all takes place in the Four Lands. This is a fantastic decision because despite all the callbacks in this novel (Cogline, Walker Boh, Shea Ohmsford), this invasion isn't a retreading of ground Brooks has covered several times before. To make a comparison to other fantasy novels, the Skaar feel somewhat more like the Seanchan from Robert Jordan's novels or the invaders from Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire. The comparison is not exact, but I think it's on point. The Skaar Invasion may not be among the best of Terry Brooks, but it is a fully entertaining ride.
Score: 7/10


Egan, Greg. Phoresis [Subterranean Press]

I typically hesitate before picking up one of Greg Egan's stories. At least of the ones I've read, there is often a coldness there - as if the story is a vehicle for Egan to work out his ideas and perhaps a problem he would like to solve. They're intellectually interesting, sometimes, but I bounce off of them. That was the case early on in Phoresis, but much to my surprise - the deeper I got into Phoresis, the more I enjoyed and appreciated it.

It's a story of twin frozen worlds, one of which has inhabitants eking out lives that to call hardscrabble might be too generous. It is on that world (the names don't really matter) that a plan is made to build a tower so high that people might jump from the top and land on the other world in order to colonize it and hope for a better / easier / more stable life. Something about Egan's storytelling is compelling, even if the central conceit of the tower is a bit absurd an unwieldy. The passion and tension of the tower and the crossing the gulf between worlds is the heart of Phoresis, so long as you don't think too deeply on it. Phoresis is a three part story and multi generational. Phoresis is increasingly compelling and engaging.
Score: 7/10


Tchaikovsky, Adrian. The Expert System's Brother [Tor.com Publishing]

Our own Paul Weimer reviewed The Expert System's Brother at length over at Tor.com and one thing that Paul touched on that I appreciated is the idea of a fantasy story morphing into a science fiction one. It is perhaps the most interesting idea going on in this novella. While I'm not overly well read in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, I have the idea that a common theme is an opening of "what the hell is going on" that has the reader working through not just figuring out the story, but also scrambling to keep up with the underpinnings of the world itself.

The ideas running through novella are interesting, about what it means to be cast out from a community and the intersection of technology with an otherwise low tech existence. There's enough packed into The Expert System's Brother that it easily could have been (and perhaps should have been) a full length novel.
Score: 6/10


POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Fugue of Fantasy and the Grimdark Interregnum

Grimdark has been around since the 1990's. Is it really all that new? And is it here to stay? I think aloud about the currently dominant mode of Epic Fantasy being published today.


There have been tendencies and trends in epic fantasy fiction ever since it became a mass market genre in it’s own right in the 1970’s. Waves of authors have come into the subgenre, falling into various schools of thought. While it is Science Fiction that is the literature that emphasizes the “genre conversation”, with books reacting and responding directly to each other, in fantasy it is somewhat different.

The fantasy genres, and subgenres like epic fantasy are more like a fugue. A fugue is a type of classical music composition which is composed of various musical melodies which appear in the course of the piece, and get emphasized, deemphasized, changed, and otherwise are in dialogue with each other in the overall composition. The fantasy genre can be thought of as an complex fugue, with various voices rising, falling and reacting to each other as the music of fantasy progresses over the years. The music of Fantasy continues on and on, even as the voices change.

In the history of epic fantasy, following this analogy and paradigm, there has always been a voice in a minor key, a strain of fantasy with antiheroes, shades of dark grey and darkness, worlds where hope and optimism are not valued or are even punished. Violence is the name of the game, dystopic amorality the norm and the worlds are often the successor states or the  ruins of another, brighter time. The classical Western European model of the first few centuries after Rome fell is the historical ur-model, and indeed, many novels use thinly disguised or even explicitly set in that time period. The latest iteration of this minor-key fantasy, which had in recent years become a dominant theme in epic fantasy, is what we call Grimdark.

Grimdark and its earlier iterations of dark fantasy first arose in the late 1970’s with Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen Donaldson. Lord Foul Bane’s featured a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist (who commits a rape against an innocent girl), a fantasy world under threat, and a definite reaction to the Tolkenian model of epic fantasy. That model, at the same time, was being voiced by books that explicitly were replications of that model, such as Sword of Shannara. That voice, and more particularly the grimdark voice in the fugue of fantasy both gave way to an optimistic strain of epic fantasy. Authors like David Eddings, Judith Tarr, Raymond Feist and Margaret Weis defined epic fantasy for over a decade, ringing changes and variations on that voice in the fugue. In the 1980’s and early 90’s, this could be seen as a reaction to Reaganism, Thatcherism, the last gasps of the Cold War, and other such political strains in the Western World.

This is not to say that there was no strains of the darker material. Just as a voice in a fugue can go quiet but not silent, authors like Glen Cook and Michael Moorcock continued the dark theme that would become grimdark in later years. There has always been that dark theme, even when fantasy has been dominated by the more optimistic theme.

In the 90’s, external politics changed, a relative period of peace and calm  in the Western World came to the fore. The “end of history” was bandied about. The Wall had fallen, the United States was considered to be the only superpower in the world. It was in this environment that Dark epic fantasy rose again in series like Martin’s A Game of Thrones and Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series. In the early 2000’s, authors like Joe Abercrombie, R Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson took up this mantle and created the modern Grimdark voice in Epic Fantasy, although it was not called that at first. Grimdark as a term was a word borrowed from the dark space fantasy universe of Warhammer 40000, around 2008 ,and applied to the dark fantasy being written. Even before it was formally named as such, though, Grimdark became the dominant strain in epic fantasy. The epic fantasy bookshelves became as dominated with dark antiheroes and terrible amoral worlds. Press releases from publishers breathlessly would tell of how dark and gritty the newest grimdark was, just how gritty and dark the newest generation, the newest author was. Modern publishing releases combined with this dominant strange in the fantasy fugue to create an arms race of books exploring this theme.

I call this the Grimdark Interregnum.

Grimdark was not just limited to fantasy novels, either. A parallel descent into dark and gritty themes in comic books occurred in the late 1980’s and 1990’s as well, suggesting that the external social and societal pressures affected both mediums. The idea of “fridging” female characters was first made manifest, for example, in a 1994 Green Lantern comic strip.

Mixed in with it’s realism and focus on amoral anti hero protagonists, however, it must be said, that a lot of Grimdark featured elements that fantasy today is reacting to--issues of misogyny, erasure of women authors and representation of diverse characters. It is not unreasonable, to my view, to see a lot of , but not all, grimdark fantasy as appealing to a single demographic: young white men. Given that the majority of readers, including fantasy readers, are women, this has turned out to be an inherently self-limiting practice.

And with that increasing awareness and attempts to address these issues, as well as a reaction to the current politics, climate change and other world problems extant today, the environment in which authors are writing in has once again changed. Grimdark is no longer quite a dark mirror for our times, and no longer needs to, or perhaps should be, the dominant theme. And given the slow cargo ship turn that is the publishing world, things are changing, but only gradually.

But after years in the ascendancy, I think that Grimdark wave is starting to recede, and new forms are coming forward. I am seeing more and more novels being described as hopeful (or even hopeful grimdark, which sounded weird the first time I heard the phrase, but not the second or third).. I attended a panel at 4th Street Fantasy which discussed Hopepunk, a term coined by Alexandra Rowland, as a reaction to Grimdark.

If one wants a visual representation of this, compare how well the DC movies, very much in a Grimdark mode have been reacted to as compared to Marvel movies, especially movies like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. The latter movie is most definitely Hopepunk. It's what characters do with their agency, their power in a sometimes very dark world. Trying to build something better, on small or large scale, IS a hopeful act.

But make no mistake. Grimdark and dark fantasy are not going away, or going to go away. II do not see a return to 80’s style fantasy, either. I do think I hear a new voice in the fugue, one where the worlds may still be dark and gritty, or have elements of same, and yet the stories are not of antiheroes, nihilistic and brooding and without optimism. The green shoots of hope can now be seen. Even dark characters can find redemption and change. The lessons learned during the Grimdark Interregnum, in the exploration of that theme in the fugue, is producing a new voice in the fugue.

Will this newest trend hold and grow to dominate epic fantasy? We shall read and see.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

I wanted to open this week's post to draw your attention to the Comics Comics #1 Kickstarter.  Featuring the talent of Patton Oswalt, Paul Scheer, Megan Koester, and other comedians, this anthology pairs elite comedic and comic talent into what will hopefully become a quarterly anthology that will highly entertaining. There are still some amazing limited pledges left that are worth checking out.



Pick of the Week:
Leviathan #2 - John Layman's newest comic is an absolute delight. The U.S. government believes that something upset an underground ecosystem of dinosaurs that had been living underground peacefully for centuries.  The plan is to drive them to the surface to showcase the power and might of our military, but there is one scientist who is convinced that the Kaiju that wrecked New York City are monsters, not dinosaurs. Ryan learns his soon to be fiance was dappling with some dark magic and likely summoned something much worse than dinosaurs that have been secretly living beneath us. Sprinkled with some fun Chew Easter eggs and Layman's somewhat vulgar sense of humor, this is quickly becoming my favorite ongoing series. With each passing moment I struggle not ordering my own Leviathan plush from Skelton Crew Studio.  I have the Poyo plush and it is one of my favorite pieces and this comic features the first Chew collectible I ever had (the pink Chog).

The Rest:
Asgardians of the Galaxy #1 - Cullen Bunn's new series is a mix of Asgardian characters that I don't know a lot about and a family battle featuring characters I do know a bit about. With an intriguing cast of characters, including Valkyrie sharing a body with Annabelle (a bookworm who wants nothing to do with any fighting) and Throg, the Frog of Thunder! I have seen various collectibles of Throg and will admit that this is the first time I have enjoyed a book with him gracing the pages. It seems that there is an armada of spaceships featuring various outcast gods associated with the Ragnarok of their respective cultures. This type of power has caught the attention of Nebula and it is up to the Asgardians of the Galaxy to save the day! Packed with over the top action and humor, consider me officially on board.

Paper Girls #24 - The girls seem closer than ever to finally returning home in Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang's time-traveling blast of nostalgia.  Erin is connects with the grandfather's mother (it is typical for this series) and learns that there may be a way back home. This is all happening as we learn that Mikey is suffering from a rare case of cancer created by time traveling (I think we will learn she has been time traveling for an extended period of ...time) and KJ gets gassed. I will admit that I am still having a hard time wrapping my head around all of the moving pieces in this story, but I don't think the grandfather is going to be happy that the girls are getting closer to home.



Star Wars #53 - Following Han's successful run evading Vader and his forces, Luke and the Rogue Squadron are able to join the fight somewhat evening the odds. It isn't quite enough, so Luke attempts to motivate Admiral Akbar to put together one last rally after his crushing defeat. Leia knows that this cover can help her infiltrate one of the Empire's ship, but it is difficult to put one past Vader. He seems to be connected to some sort of Force that makes it difficult to slip anything past him. Leia's plan appears to be no exception and we are setting the stage for an epic showdown in the next issue.





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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Microreview [Book]: The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt

A less intense book than its predecessor, but one that leaves me very excited for where the series is going.


Fair warning, dear readers: this is the second book in the Axiom series, and as with all second book reviews, there may be small spoilers for the first book ahead! If a character-driven, banter-rich space opera with a great take on alien civilisations and "Big Dumb Objects" sounds like something you want to enjoy unspoiled, I suggest you stop reading now and just take my recommendation to go check out The Wrong Stars. Just promise to come back here when you're finished.

The Wrong Stars was an unexpected hit with me, taking a ton of entertaining space opera ingredients reminiscent of everything from The Expanse to Douglas Adams and blending them into something unique and entertaining. The humans of Pratt's world had made their way into the solar system when a jellyfish-like race made contact, telling grand stories of the wider galaxy and promising extraordinary technology in return for a base on Venus. The technology (and the base on Venus) materialised; the truth behind the grand stories did not, and after several encounters with different delegations, humanity branded its new sentient friends the Liars and fell into a good-natured but sceptical relationship with them. Now plugged in to a network of gates giving them access to nearly thirty different star systems, humanity happily develops in its new, larger sandbox. However, events involving Kalea "Callie" Machado and the crew of the White Raven, alongside five-hundred-year-old Elena Oh, sole surviving member of an ancient sub-light terraforming mission, and a surprisingly honest Liar named Lantern, have exposed this freedom for the lie it is. Now the crew of the White Raven are party to an ancient secret involving a dormant, all-powerful race of sadists who could wipe out humanity in a moment once we come to their notice - and, humanity being the curious-to-a-fault won't-take-no-for-an-answer race of stroppy teenagers we are, that's not so much a case of "if", but "when".

There's probably enough background in The Dreaming Stars to make it accessible to anyone who hasn't already read the first book. We are re-introduced to the Liars and the now-expanded White Raven gang, who have spent the months since the end of The Wrong Stars getting progressively more bored in close confinement with each other. The book fills us in very effectively on the rest of the backstory too - the now not-so-mysterious (but still quite mysterious) Axiom, the fate of Meditreme Station, the relationships among the main characters and their respective histories with sociopathy-inducing brain spiders, and the other events that have led to our multi-temporal heroes hanging out on their cool but limited zero-g asteroid base.

Despite its generously informative start, I hesitate to recommend jumping in here even if you're normally content to start mid-series, because what follows is an enormous amount of processing and follow-up to previous events. There's relationship conversations! And time refugee conversations! And post-traumatic event grief conversations! And some more relationship conversations! And some Fun with Simulators and Gravity! And then some more relationship conversations, and suddenly I'm wondering how we are so far through the book without any clear plan beyond "let's go see Callie's serially unfaithful ex husband". There's a method to all of this, and I'm not saying there aren't some charming moments: Callie and Elena's relationship is gorgeously well-negotiated and straightforward, and any scene with Ashok, the chief engineer, is an instant favourite of mine. However, having characters be generally quite nice and respectful to each other despite their differences (and this stretches to scenes with the unfaithful ex!) is at once highly refreshing while also limiting the hooks that conflict and tension can be built on, and with a notable exception near the start, everything in the first third of The Dreaming Stars feels like it has pretty low stakes.

Once the plot does get into gear, it's well worth the effort, although we're pushing halfway by the time we arrive on The Planet Where The Stuff in the Blurb Happens, making the action portion of The Dreaming Stars rather compressed. Despite this, the whole business with the nanobots works out pretty well. This is especially true for the solution to the finale's conundrum, which simultaneously does justice to the overpowering strength of the Axiom while also giving the humans a very believable and satisfying path to resolution. The Axiom themselves are a fantastic antagonist race, combining the unknowable menace of the Trisolarans with a terrifying aura of ominpresence that isn't diminished by the way things play out here. As soon as Axiom technology reasserts its presence, the tone of the story completely shifts, and Pratt manages to walk a very clever line between allowing his characters plot armour and letting us relax into their development knowing it's all basically going to be OK, while keeping the stakes high because it's nearly impossible to tell, until the very last minute, exactly how this could possibly work out once the Axiom are involved.

The crew of the White Raven also demonstrate how effortless and natural writing diversity into one's far-future space opera can be. Queerness is the norm, and people are open and communicative about their boundaries and methods of demonstrating affection. Notably, Callie is written as demisexual, which I don't think I've seen explicitly recognised in a book like this before, and there's also textual references to aromanticism and asexuality. Attention is also paid to neurodiversity and disability, although unless I missed something, the disabled characters all appear to be disabled through accidents rather than by birth. This isn't something I'd have picked up on a couple of weeks ago, but it's been brought to my attention by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry's excellent post-Worldcon thread on how eugenicist thinking often creeps into science fiction worldbuilding by failing to acknowledge that disabled people don't want to be cured or erased from the future by technology or whatever else. Just as neurodiverse characters like Uzoma and Sebastien have a place in the galaxy, it would be nice to see that extended to disabled characters who just are, rather than having the narrative emphasise extenuating circumstances as if disability somehow needs those to be allowed to exist.

If The Wrong Stars was the must-watch, high octane double-length pilot of your new favourite TV show, The Dreaming Stars is like taking a sample of the series middle, encompassing "the character driven talky episode" and "the really clever high-stakes detour". On its own, it's decent but not spectacular, but as part of a developing whole it represents a series that's shaping up as far more than the sum of its parts, and there's so much more to be developed: I want more Liars, more Drake and Janice, more glimpses at solar system and/or galactic politics and, please oh please, a lot more Ashok. If the author or publisher are reading this, I'd like to make clear that I would read the hell out of a 12-books-with-no-end-in-sight October Daye style Axiom series where Callie, Elena and the gang go on monster-of-the-week adventures disabling Axiom technology and saving the humans while getting slow-burning character development and the occasional game-changing plot twist. With the end of The Dreaming Stars promising at least one more adventure, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Pratt's space opera to become a fixture of my reading calendar for the foreseeable future.

The Math
Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Encourages readers to take space jellyfish seriously, unlike certain franchises *cough Mass Effect cough*; +1 Contributing to a series that's already more than the sum of its parts

Penalties: -1 Could have kicked off the cool alien stuff a bit sooner.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Pratt, Tim. The Dreaming Stars [Angry Robot, 2018]