Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Microreview [film]: Mute, directed by Duncan Jones

A Gorgeous Onion!

Jones, Duncan. Mute. 2018
'Tis available worldwide (only?) on Netflix, as of 2018.

The name 'Duncan Jones' will immediately evoke, in the minds of the small but powerful(ly voiced) group of cine-nerds, the masterful 2009 film Moon, and/or the respectable cerebral (get it?!) thriller Source Code of 2011. Garden-variety meathead non-nerds, on the other hand, might recall him as the director of the 2016 video game-to-film adaptation of Warcraft—you know, the movie that absolutely no one was eagerly awaiting. No matter your nerd credentials, then, you probably associate Duncan Jones with a certain cinematographic pizzazz, and like me, your expectations were probably quite high for his latest brainchild, the only-on-Netflix 2018 futuristic neo-noir Mute. The question is, were those expectations met?

Nah. But before we get to the bad news, I’ll give the good news. The film is breathtakingly beautiful, leaving no rock of the delectably dirty futuristic Berlin unturned, and what’s more, it is full of quirky little visual predictions of what the world will be like in twenty years (you know, mini-drones delivering food through the drone-only doggy door on windows, etc.). Plus, Paul Rudd was, in my opinion, an excellent casting choice, as his snarky-but-harmless star persona helps mask the darkness lurking deep within his character here.

Image result for mute film
With a face/attitude like that, you just know (/hope) that Rudd's character will come to a sticky end...
But fans expecting or hoping for the same level of storytelling as was present in Moon, or even Source Code, will likely leave the theater their living rooms somewhat disappointed. The story is fairly predictable from the get-go, and certain things are never adequately explained (like how a bartender, even an unusually tall and lanky one, can use a bedpost to beat down entire rooms full of heavily armed professional thugs, but for the visual flair Jones brings, I’m still willing to watch even rather nonsensical scenes!).

It turns out that Mute is an onion: each layer of the story is delicious, but peel them all away to get to the core and you find…nothing. Side note: I’ve never really understood the high value placed on the onion as a metaphoric device. Lots of things have layers, but shouldn’t the metaphoric object get progressively better/more profound as one works one’s way further in? It seems clear to me that, in the realm of vegetal metaphors, the artichoke is king, because while the outer layers might be palatable, the heart is the greatest prize. This is all to say that Mute feels like an artichoke without a heart (i.e., an onion), or a story with nothing especially profound to say (the title’s making more sense, eh?).

artichoke infographic
Life is like a box of artichokes--kind of a pain, but on balance worth the effort!
Bottom line: you should totally watch this film, but Moon fans should temper their expectations, because this is no artichoke; it’s a beautiful, shallow onion. But it’s a really good onion, like maybe a Vidalia onion, which means there is only one question:

Shrek Sexy Face | DO YOU LIKE ONIONS | image tagged in shrek sexy face | made w/ Imgflip meme maker
Well said, Shrek!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for peppering the film with thought-provoking suggestions of the near-future, +1 for Jones’ flair for the cinematographically dramatic

Penalties: -1 for being such a let-down compared to Moon (and, in a sense, even Source Code)

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

[Score seem harsh? Not at all: see here for why this is better than average!]

This message brought to you by Zhaoyun, demigod of nerdery, who is currently halfway through a series on high-profile Netflix projects of potential appeal to nerds of the world (unite!), and has been a reviewer for Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Microreview [video game]: Dark Souls 3 by From Software (developer)

Hard But No Diamond

A short while ago, I'd committed to ignoring games described as inspired by Dark Souls. I'd played some Dark Souls and didn't enjoy it much, played some Dark Souls inspired games like Lords of the Fallen and Bound by Flame and I didn't like any of them. But this isn't a consistent dislike. I really really enjoyed Salt & Sanctuary, but the qualities of Dark Souls that inhabited Hollow Knight turned me right off. And almost immediately after I'd decided that Dark Souls-like games were not for me, Humble Monthly gave me a copy of Dark Souls 3. I beat Dark Souls 3. I enjoyed Dark Souls 3.

I am ill equipped to describe what makes Dark Souls 3 so different from Dark Souls, and even less equipped to compare it to Dark Souls 2, but Dark Souls 3 hooked me fairly quick. I know how these games work and they're very unforgiving, particularly of my overly-aggressive playstyle. With the help of a build guide to direct my efforts on creating a character I would enjoy playing with, a simple melee sword-and-board fighter, I sliced and chopped my way through hordes of monsters. The variety in combat encounters and enemies ensured that even my simple character build was never boring. Maybe Salt & Sanctuary made me a more patient player, but I rarely felt like the fights were unfair, even when I was dying to bosses over and over. I'd eventually learn their patterns and weaknesses, and chop them to pieces with my sword. Where as I found Dark Souls to be a largely frustrating affair, Dark Souls 3 never felt frustrating; it was rewarding.

What isn't rewarding in the game is the storyline, or lack thereof. It starts with a cutscene explaining that the lords of cinder have left their graves and need to be returned to their thrones to rekindle the dying world. From there, there's more or less nothing much to offer until you reach the end, and you get a short cutscene for your efforts. Sure, you'll find other non-hostile people with some "quests" of their own, but there's no journal. No quest log. Often, I struggled to even remember their names. Most items have a sentence or two of flavor text but that's about it for worldbuilding. You could go end-to-end through this game and never learn a single thing about the lords of cinder that you're mercilessly hunting down and killing.

This is a bit of a shame because the world they've built, without the exposition, is really interesting in that it's not standard fantasy or grimdark. If anything, it's sorrowful. This is a dying world, roamed by undead things, desperate for purpose and meaning. I find myself wanting to go back to Dark Souls again for another try to see if I can fill in the blanks because I want to learn more. Even if I can't, if I can find in Dark Souls what I found in Dark Souls 3, that'll be enough. Dark Souls 3 is a challenging game that rewards persistence and learning without feeling cheap.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 a huge variety of enemies and worlds that never gets boring

Penalties: -1 non-existent storytelling does the world no justice

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


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

Reference: From Software. Dark Souls 3 [Namco Bandai, 2016]

Monday, March 19, 2018

Microreview [book]: Dark State, by Charles Stross

Return to the multiverse.

My experience of reading Charles Stross is a persistent struggle between the quality of his ideas and my perception of the quality of his writing, which is to say that I seldom find that the writing lives up to the promise of the ideas. 

When I wrote about Empire Games (my review), I noted "the level of Stross's writing is actually beginning to rise to the level of his ideas" and that once Stross got the story rolling, nothing distracted from the cool ideas of the world walking between the worlds we've already known and the opening up of new worlds and the drama of the how the United States interacts with the world walkers from a parallel universe.

Dark State picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of Empire Games, and despite the increasingly breakneck pace of the second half of that novel, Dark State suffers from some of the same issues that Empire Games did. Stross spends at least a third of Dark State resetting the playing field and planting the seeds for where the rest of the novel and trilogy will go. That's fine, as far as narrative conventions go, but Stross is not at his best as a writer when working with a more deliberate pace.

The A and B stories of Dark State are probably first that of Rita, the daughter of Miriam Beckstein (from the original Merchant Princes series) who was given up for adoption as an infant, but who has an unlocked world walking trait and who was recruited by the United States government to both infiltrate and liaise with the alternate timeline which has the former Clan in a position of power; and second, that of Elizabeth Hanover, a princess of from that alternate timeline looking to escape a life with an arranged marriage and defect to the Clan led government in New London. I'm grossly simplifying the story lines, of course, and Stross develops each of them far beyond what I've given, but we know from Empire Games (and the Merchant Princes) that the United States will go farther and go darker in their plans to "protect the Homeland". That definitely is a factor here and it permeates almost everything in Dark State.

As with Empire Games, when Charles Stross decides he wants to move the story, the interesting stuff happens. I’m engaged as a reader, he’s not giving the reader much time to take a breath and he’s making stuff happen. It’s when he is in set up mode, we see the clunk. Dark State is not as acronym heavy as past Stross novels, though there are references to BLACK RAIN and such, but there are moments early in the novel which feel overly didactic. Those moments come across less as storytelling and more as just telling.

In ways that are completely typical for reading a Charles Stross novel, I can only say that I was less annoyed as the novel progressed – to the point that I only noticed very late in the novel that I was finally engrossed in the story being told. I don’t know that it was good, in whatever nebulous way I describe a good novel, but it was better than how Dark State began. This is nearly always the case with Charles Stross. Whether it is reengaging with his particular brand of flow or if it is just waiting for that moment he decides to stop revving the novel’s engine and punch the gas, I like the ride when he’s moving.

Dark State has left me far more conflicted about the new trilogy than Empire Games did. I’m not sure if it was the excitement of stepping back into Merchant Princes or if it was that Stross seemed to have leveled up a bit since he last stepped into this world, but Dark State does not quite live up to the promise of the previous novel. Readers are still left with plenty of interest in how Stross will wrap things up and interest in what new cool stuff he will introduce and tweak. The ideas in Dark State remain as fascinating and involving as ever. It’s just what he does with his ideas that do not measure up.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 the stuff in timeline four with the destroyed Earth through the portal adds an extra bit of intrigue to what might be going on with the other unexplored timelines.

Penalties: -1 clunk clunk clunk. 

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10, "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore" See more about our scoring system here.

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. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

NERD MUSIC: Science Fiction/Synthwave Pairings

Way back in 2013, in the midst of a serious heavy metal binge, I posted this piece. The idea was to match metal albums to grimdark fantasy novels, the way you'd match wine or beer with food. So now, in the midst of an even more serious synthwave binge, I figured it was high time for a sequel. And why not? Synthwave is futuristic, or rather, retrofuturistic--and a large subset is explicitly SF-themed.

Selection Criteria

I've selected 6 science fiction novels--not necessarily the best, or even my favorites. But 6 novels that people who read science fiction generally know, or at least know of. Next, I paired these with synthwave albums that best capture what these books mean to me. So without further ado, I present to you six science fiction/synthwave pairings. Oh, and if you like what you see/hear, click on the book title link or on the musician's Bandcamp embed to purchase.

Don't forget to swish and spit after you taste...

The Pairings

1. Neuromancer by William Gibson/Wilderness by Makeup and Vanity Set

To start things off, I'm pairing the greatest cyberpunk novel with the greatest cyberpunk-inspired synthwave album. Neuromancer is a complex, multilayered and challenging novel--it is remembered for being mesmerizingly original and conceptually breathtaking, though it is Neuromancer's strong emotional core that convinces me to re-read it every few years. Wilderness is much the same, but in musical form. Featuring compositional complexity, high concept and deep emotional resonance, it is probably my favorite electronic album of any kind ever made.

2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin/Return to Alvograth by Futurecop!

LeGuin's Hainish cycle radically transformed our understanding of what science fiction could do. It is, at base, a work of speculative anthropology. With its focus on culture and ritual, The Left Hand of Darkness is a warmer and more earthy (for lack of a better term) book than most of its colder and more clinical contemporaries. This is not a common aesthetic in synthwave, but is well represented by Futurecop's brilliant 2017 album, which integrates New Age and mystical elements into their dreamy, pop-inflected synthwave. A lovely book paired with a lovely album.

3. Warchild by Karin Lowachee/Bionic Chrysalis by DEADLIFE

DEADLIFE is one of the best new darksynth artists around, and his music is basically hard-charging action music that draws heavily on science fiction themes. That reminds me of Karin Lowachee's Warchild, a riveting, action-packed but thoughtful military SF novel whose protagonist can only survive by becoming a living weapon. In other words, by undergoing a bionic chrysalis.

4. Saturn's Children by Charles Stross/Galactic Melt by Com Truise

Science fiction isn't the most romantic or sexiest of genres, but every once in a while there's a novel that explores romance and sexuality in more than a cursory way. Saturn's Children is one of those books, and is full of sex and romance. It centers on a femmebot courtesan, designed to serve human desires, and her adventures long after humanity has gone extinct. Galactic Melt by Com Truise is similarly one of the few synthwave albums that is not only science fictional, but also explores sex and romance thematically.

5. The Apollo Quartet by Ian Sales/The Space Tapes by Syntax

When I listen to Syntax's music, it makes me feel like a kid again--looking up at the stars and imagining what's out there. Similarly, Sales' Apollo Quartet captures everything about classic science fiction that attracted me as a kid, but with a modern sensibility and direct engagement with all the stuff that makes classic science fiction feel dated and regressive in 2018 (e.g. the sexism, militarism, uncritical positivism, etc.). Both, moreover, evoke that "sensawunda" we all remember from childhood but can rarely recapture as adults.

6. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson/Cosmopolis by The G

Apologies for the shameless self-promo here, but I made Cosmopolis with books like Red Mars in mind. The album is about the journey to a domed city off-world, and explores both the romance of space travel and anxiety that life under a hermetically sealed dome would engender. Red Mars is, I think, the best novel written about building these kinds of settlements. So while the two aren't an exact fit (Cosmopolis is retro '80s, whereas Red Mars is distinctly progressive), it's books like Red Mars that give me inspiration for my music.


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

Thursday Morning Superhero

Only two comics on my pull-list this week means that it is the perfect time to attempt my addition of reviewing one older comic per week. For the debut of this feature I am going to review the classic Chew #1. When I first started reading this series I was blown away at the food universe that John Layman created and was not prepared to where that journey led.

Pick of the Week:
Darth Vader #13 - An interesting development is afoot as the Empire is vying for control of Mon Cala, home of Mr. Ackbar. It is pretty interesting to see Admiral Ackbar pre-admiral title working on his home planet. Apparently there are some valuable resources on this underwater planet and Palpatine isn't taking too kindly to a rumor that the Jedi are present. In addition to positioning a fleet in the planet's orbit under the control of Tarkin, Vader and the inquisitors are attempting some "diplomacy". They have the attention of who I believe is Obi-Wan and I am anticipating an action packed follow-up to this issue. One of the best Vader issues in a while and I am definitely curious where this arc is heading.

The Rest:
DuckTales #7 - I think we can make a good case for Joe Caramagna to join the Disney XD crew at the writers' table for season 2. He has done an amazing job filling in the gap between seasons with his mini-stories that are an absolute delight. My favorite this week involved a ghost town and was very reminiscent of classic Scooby Doo. If you or your kids enjoy DuckTales then this is a title that should be on your pull-list and one well worth your time and money.

A look back (working title):
Chew #1 - The opening page of this comic provides a hint at what to expect in this off-the-walls series. It opens with someone chopping some vegetables for a soup and accidentally cutting themselves. Most people would proceed to then deal with the wound, but this person uses their bloody hand to add in the final ingredients. Chew focuses on detective Tony Chu, who works for the FDA. It is a time where chicken is outlawed and his skill as a cibopath is extremely valuable. What is a cibopath exactly? It is someone who gets visions of the life of the food he eats, with the exception of canned beets. If he eats a hamburger, he will get a flash of what the cow ate and how the cow was slaughtered. This particular set of skills comes in extremely handy when dealing with food related crimes. This debut issue featured some of the over the top characters and gore that fans would come to experience throughout this amazing series. We meet D-Bear and witness Chu's partner take a hatchet to the face.  This series is illustrated by the amazing Rob Guillory who shines in bringing this bizarre series to life. I can't imagine a different artist on this series. Good times.

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Microreview [TV series]: The Frankenstein Chronicles

They’ve squared the circle! Sean Bean's character shuffles off his mortal coal…yet is alive again for Season Two?!?

Image result for frankenstein chronicles
Doesn't Sean Bean look vaguely surprised to be still alive? Him and me both!
Both seasons currently available on Netflix!

It’s one of the longest-running gags in show business: cast Sean Bean in your TV series and there is an extremely high chance his character will perish by the end of season one. If in a movie, he’ll probably die heroically, indeed motivationally, spurring the surviving heroes on to greater successes; in TV series, his specter looms over the remainder of the show, meaning everything that happens from then on occurs in the shadow of his sacrifice (since he is usually innocent of any wrongdoing but is executed/killed anyway). So when I finally watched The Frankenstein Chronicles, I knew to expect a gruesome end for Bean’s “John Marlott” at the end of season one. I don’t even feel the need to issue a spoiler alert so far, because Sean Bean’s near-inevitable death early in projects is a truth universally acknowledged.

But now I must give you fair warning for the major (if extremely easily predictable) spoiler ahead: not only was I not disappointed (he is hanged), the makers of The Frankenstein Chronicles managed to jolt me out of complacency. They altered the Sean Bean death formula in a unique way, providing a (sort of) plausible pretext to have their cake and kill him too! To speak plainly, Marlott truly does die, in public, after being framed, but he is pseudo-scientifically restored to life at the very end of season one. How marvelous that the makers managed to murder Marlott but maintain him as main character (and astonishing alliteration!). This feat is surely the great triumph of this TV series.
Image result for one does not simply survive
You said it, Sean Bean!

Sad to say, there aren’t many other triumphs in this ho-hum costume drama. Bean brings his customary gravitas and Sheffield brogue to the role of Marlott, and the makers did a reasonably good job in constructing the mise en scene, recreating a broadly believable atmosphere of early 19th century Britain, but the story itself is a bit slow, and the Forrest Gump-like obsession with having Marlott bump into all the luminaries of the day is tiresome. 
Image result for forrest gump meeting Nixon
It was dumb when Forrest Gump did it, and no better today...
I hear A&E, which handled the US broadcast of this British show, dubbed it “thrilling and terrifying” and yet overall, it was neither. Here’s a more accurate epithet: “more or less watchable despite the slow pace.” Yet despite this lukewarm endorsement, I must admit I’m hooked and will finish watching season two; any show which manages to retain Sean Bean into a second season is spellbinding!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +2 for finding a (barely) plausible pretext for having Bean’s character survive execution (it’s like a Ned Stark do-over!)

Penalties: -1 for the plodding pace, -1 for the thoroughly irritating Forrest Gump effect

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 “still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore” for regular viewers, 8/10 for major Sean Bean fans

[For more info on our scoring system, see here.]

This snide review brought to you by Zhaoyun, ardent fan of Sean Bean’s on-screen death scenes as far back as Patriot Games and reviewer at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Emerald City Comic Con

It is undisputed scientific fact that Seattle is the greatest city in the world, and home to the greatest Comic Con in the world, and least in my very scientific study of only having attended ECCC. OK, so perhaps there is some dispute. Nevertheless! Attend ECCC I did, and I wanted to give you my highlights.

On Thursday, I actually went up to the Funko store in Everett to grab some exclusive for our very own Mister Newhouse-Bailey, my brother in silly toy collecting, as well as for my friend who runs Collect it Here, a collectibles shop which I will blatantly plug now. This was really exciting, because I hadn't actually been to the Funko shop yet.

This is not where I got in the line
But seriously, the shop is an event unto itself.

A photographer I am not. there is a reason I write.
Saturday and Sunday I spent at the con, and I'm just going to sort of-apologize for not taking many pictures. As you can see up above, it's not my greatest skill in life, it was crowded as hell, and there are lots of outlets with very expensive cameras and professional photographers that took loads of pictures, if you want visuals.

Saturday was my day to mostly wander around (even once I got inside the con, since I ended up parking, I am pretty sure, further away from the convention center than I actually live). The cosplay was - as per usual - amazing (my own cosplay consisted of "doing my hair slightly different and wearing my jacket that everyone says looks like Wolverine anyway". No, you don't get a picture.). There are some great roundups of the cosplay on io9 and SyFy wire. The highlight of the cosplay, for me, was a spot-on Last Jedi Leia, which, how do you even put that on without sobbing? My goodness.

Also receiving votes: pink-bonnetted Mal, tiny Rey & Kylo,and anyone who wore a costume that didn't cover a lot, because it was really cold.

Sunday was more geared towards art, games and shopping. Artist Alley featured its usual assortment of people far, far more talented that I, so that was annoying.

If you like impossibly adorable stuff, check out Little Brigade. I mean, seriously. 

I'm only human. Take my money.

On the less cute side of things, Mike Manomivibul caught my eye with some really clever, almost-surreal work.
Outstanding in my eyes was Geoff Pascual's watercolors. There is just something about this style I adore. - and the images online (like most art) really don't do them justice. 

(not appearing at the con, but you should also check out Megan Levens)

If anyone wants to buy me a set of Norse Foundry dice, I will love you forever. PROMISE.

Which actually segues nicely into the part I've been avoiding, which is that I spent most of the day Sunday just playing board games. Which was super fun, but not exactly riveting to read a description of me trying to remember how to play Arkham Horror since I haven't played it in years. On a related note, Arkham Horror game night, my place. Who's in?

In all seriousness, we've moved so far beyond Comic Cons being about comics. If that's your thing, there are a million booths with (what I presume are) awesome comics. I'm not super into comics, and I could have spent a week playing games with random people and spending far too much money on toys and art, and there still would be more to do. 

ECCC has done a great job of running an organized, clean and (hopefully) safe and inclusive con (I'm a white guy, so I can only speak to this so much).


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories (which should be on YOUR summer reading list). You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog. 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.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Microreview [book]: Dayfall by Michael David Ares

Close the Shades, Stay Inside

Dayfall takes place in too-near-future New York City. After nuclear war has put a permanent cloud over the city, the weather is about to improve and "Dayfall", the first time sun has shone on New York City in a very long time, is coming. But the city is torn between its elected mayor and a privately-owned security company that rebuilt it after the darkness came. Some mysterious killings threaten to cause chaos when Dayfall happens, favoring the security company, and the mayor wants to get to the bottom of the murders. Enter outsider detective, Jon Phillips, hired by the mayor to solve these crimes before Dayfall.

Let's get this out of the way first; this is not a good read. Look no further than the name of the main character, Jon Phillips. It's about as bland as you get, and the rest of the novel follows suit. Phillips himself is utterly without character. He likes old detective novels and falls in love easily. That's about all I could attribute to him. The rest of the cast is no better. Even Halladay, the big Scot police officer, who's probably supposed to be the big, loud character in the story, isn't really there. He's got some racist tendencies and nicknames for people. That's about it.

The story takes no surprising turns. The pair of Phillips and Halladay investigate a crime scene, follow up on some leads, and eventually solve the crimes. I'm not convinced that this wouldn't have gone the same way with any other pair of police officers. In fact, midway through their investigation that's on an extremely short timeline, they lose several hours to a little shut eye and some alone time with the women in their life! I'm talking they've got 30 hours to solve this, but they've got enough time to get some sleep and, for Phillips, to fall in love/lust with a bartender. Later, Phillips confronts a suspect with some extremely flimsy evidence, and it does nothing but make him look like an idiot. I guess the most intriguing parts of this story are these scenes that don't really make a lot of sense.

At no point was I impressed, but I definitely checked out about 3/4ths through it when the author conflates ex-military with sociopaths with transgender people with identity switching for the sake of blending in. It's a flipping mess and I was very much not into any of it. It's the worst of a clumsy, boring book that ends abruptly but not soon enough. There's no reason to read this.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10

Bonuses: Nope, sorry, I've got nothing.

Penalties: -1 bring a map, because it spends more pages giving character to the city than any of the people in the book.
Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 (just bad)


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

Reference: Ares, Michael David. Dayfall [Tor, 2018]  

Friday, March 9, 2018

SIDE QUESTS: Synthesizers, A Love Story

Today's episode of SIDE QUESTS is more than a little personal. That's right, it's about my favorite inanimate objects: synthesizers!  - G

What Are We Talking About?

A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that produces sound waves. The earliest and basic method is called analog subtractive synthesis. An oscillator produces sine, square and/or sawtooth waves with electrical current. A filter and envelope generator then cut into, or subtracts from, the waveform to alter the sound. With the advent of digital synthesis in the late 1970s, new forms of synthesis became possible, including wavetable, FM (frequency modulation) and S&S (sample and synthesis).

The synthesizer has actually been around since the 1930s, but didn't really catch on until Bob Moog's voltage-controlled synthesizers made their way into studios in the late 1960s, and onto albums by Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and The Monkees. By the mid-1970s, synthesizers were a thing, though it wasn't until the 1980s that they threatened to displace the sainted guitar. 

Bob Moog with some of his 1960s and 1970s synths.
Nowadays you hear far more music made with synthesizers--or samples of synthesizers--than with guitars. That's a sad fact if you're the kind of person who yells at clouds and hates Millennials because they love avocado toast and refuse to spend money on Budweiser or Applebees. For someone like me, it's bittersweet. I love the synthesizer, and am proud of its ascendence to the pinnacle of music making; but I love the guitar too. 

The Rabbit Hole

So, basically I've been obsessed for as long as I can remember. Why? Because, in their purest form, synthesizers don't sound like anything you make with strings, reeds or stretched out skin. They sound like the future. They still sound like the future, even though now it's more often the future we dreamed of in the past.

I don't know how it started. I certainly didn't get it from my parents: my dad mostly listens to classical music and a smattering of rock and folk, while my mom refers to all music as "noise." But my dad did have the Vangelis album Spiral on vinyl--in retrospect, that was probably ground zero.

Flash-forward to 1983. We were just getting music videos at that time--not on MTV (no cable), but on weekly shows that came on just after the news. If I was lucky enough, I could watch half before my parents shut the TV off and told me to get ready for bed. Those shows played a bit of everything, but the only songs I remember were the ones with killer synth lines, like "Jump" and "The Message."

The school I went to had a really strong music program, and in the music room, they had a Casio CZ-5000 and a Roland Juno 106. Whenever possible, I'd sneak in early and move the knobs and sliders around. I didn't know what I was doing--I was just a dumb kid. Most of the time, I ended up playing the baseline from "Blue Monday" on the Juno, or some Flock of Seagulls chords on the Casio.

In 1991, I finally convinced my parents to go halfsies on a Roland D-50. My keyboard teacher, Carl, assured me it was the "best one in the biz," and that his guy could get me an unbeatable price. I adored Carl, who was an old timer from the northside of town--an area mostly known for red sauce joints and organized crime. So I mowed lawns and shoveled sidewalks until I'd earned half.

Now, $500 in 1991 was a lot, but it wasn't a lot for a new Roland D-50. Looking back, I've often wondered if my synth just fell off the back of the truck, as they used to say. More likely, Carl's guy just wanted to liquidate stock. After all, by 1990 the D-50 was out of production and had been emphatically replaced by the mighty Korg M1.

The Roland D-50 used something called Linear Arithmetic (LA) synthesis, which was proprietary speak for "sample and synthesis" (S&S). What that means is that the D-50 paired the attack transient from 8-bit samples (think the precise moment a trumpet blares or a mallet hits a xylophone) with the decay, sustain and release from a synthetic waveform (think everything that comes after that moment). It sounded otherworldly--and in fact, you'll recognize the D-50 from basically every late '80s New Age cliche ever. Perhaps the most iconic use of the D-50 was on Enya's 1998 song "Orinoco Flow," which used the Pizzicato Strings patch.

Unfortunately for young teenage me, the D-50 was also brutally difficult to program. Unlike the Juno 106 we had at school, you had to go menu diving to make anything happen--there was nary a slider or knob in sight. But I didn't care--I had my first synth.

The Music of Futures Past

By the mid-1990s I'd discovered techno, house and ambient music. This wasn't music featuring some electronic instrumentation; it was all electronic instrumentation. I did like some sample-based house music, but by and large I gravitated towards the stuff that sounded like science fiction expressed musically.

A lot was made with really cheap gear that had been repurposed from its original intention. For example, the Roland TB-303 Bass Line--a cheap-looking plastic box with a single oscillator designed to provide accompaniment for practicing guitarists. It didn't sound much like a bass guitar, and was kind of a pain to program. But it did have this wonderfully squelchy filter and a characterful way of tie-ing notes together. In 1987, a producer from the South Side of Chicago named DJ Pierre discovered that sweeping the filter along short patterns created an irresistible hypnotic effect. Techno producers from Detroit (and, later, New York, Canada and Europe) achieved a similar effect with other synths, including the same ones I'd used from school--the Roland Juno 106 and the Casio CZ-1000. I can think of no better vision of the future, as seen from 1997, than "Organa" by Dutch producer Steve Rachmad:

I started making my own techno in 1996, though I never really finished anything. I had a mental block--a fear of failure, I think. Basically, if I never finished anything, then I never had to experience the pain of rejection. So I'd muck around, make loops and then fuck off for a few months at a time. Looking back, I regret that I wasn't more serious and driven from the get-go.

That changed in 2015, when I discovered synthwave. Actually I already knew Kavinsky and College, who are widely credited with inspiring the genre. But I didn't realize there was this whole scene of people inspired by magenta-tinted '80s retrofuturism.

That changed soon after we began our series Cyberpunk Revisited. I was re-reading Neuromancer, Mindplayers, Software, etc. and I wanted to find something that captured the mood in musical terms. I found a couple cyberpunk playlists on Spotify and immediately got shoved down the rabbit hole. Makeup and Vanity Set, Perturbator, Miami Nights 1984...I couldn't get enough. I was hooked.

Slowly but surely I got back into making music, and found that--with kids and far less free time--I suddenly had the drive and discipline that had been missing during my 20s and early 30s. I started finishing songs, decorating them in lush, lovely synth tones--I even released some of them. And then made an album!

Synthesizers: The Greatest Thing on Earth

But enough about me--let's talk synths. There are many kinds of synthesis, but I'm mainly into subtractive--the studio sound of the late '70s and early '80s, and the underground sound of the late '80s and early '90s. One of my all-time favorites is, of course the Roland Juno 106. Released in 1984, was basically the older Juno 60 only with MIDI (which allows electronic instruments to communicate with one another) but no arpeggiator.

The 106 features a single digitally-controlled analog oscillator (DCF), which means it produces sound via electrical current but also features an electronic pulse that keeps the oscillator in tune. It has a single digitally-controlled filter (DCF), a single envelope generator, which modulates both amplitude and the frequency cutoff on the DCF, and a single low-frequency oscillator (LFO), which can modulate either pitch, pulse width or the filter cutoff. The 106 also has a silky smooth chorus effect that makes everything sound like gold. So while the 106 has a more limited feature set than some of the other synths I'll talk about, it's almost impossible to make a bad sounding patch with it. It has been called, rightly in my view, the ultimate beginner's synth. And boy does it sound lovely...

Next up is the Oberheim OB-8. Released in 1983, the OB-8 replaced the more famous OB-Xa (made famous in "Jump"). For my money, however, the OB-8 is the best of the bunch. It featured two voltage-controlled analog oscillators (VCOs) per voice, with 8 total voices of polyphony, a Curtis ladder-design voltage-controlled filter (VCF), two envelopes and a whole junk ton of LFO modulation capabilities. You can also pan individual voices across the stereo field (i.e. left to right speaker), leading to some seriously out there stuff.

The last hardware synth I'll present for you is brand new, the Korg Prologue. It's not out yet, but I've had the pleasure of playing one in the shop--and let me tell you, it is mighty fine. The Prologue features a pair of VCOs, a VCF and two envelope generators, but also has a digital multi-oscillator that can do simple FM or wavetable synthesis. What that means is that you can do classic analog, '80s digital or more complex patches that blend the two.

Of course, one of the great things about being alive today is how cheap, convenient and good software synthesizers have become. Some are truly excellent, like Diva by Germany's u-He: a synth that lets you mix and match modules emulated from various classic pieces of kit. It can even simulate the character analog synthesizers pick up as they age...bad tuning and oscillator drift! Here are a couple videos made by my favorite sound designer for Diva (and now friend), Swan Audio. The first is a synthwave track using sounds be made for the preset pack Analog Hits, and the second are his OB-8 recreations, which sound amazingly realistic if you ask me.

Well, that about wraps it up! But just for good measure, here are a couple love songs I've written to the synthesizer. Enjoy!


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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

We did some rearranging at my house over the weekend and some purging of old items and it got me thinking about some of my older comics that I haven't read in ages. Part of the purge involved taking some books to Half Price Books and I think I need motivation to revisit some old series and might start including a write-up in this space.  I just feel that re-reading books like Blankets, Batman:Knightfall, and Infinite Kung Fu to name a few would be a fun project. While I think about that enjoy this week's reviews and go pick up Gideon Falls if you haven't already!

Pick of the Week:
Gideon Falls #1 - Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino team up to bring us a mysterious story set in a small town. It sounds like it will be a classic good versus evil, but I am sure there is much more to it than that. On one side you have Father Wilfred who just moved to town following the death of the previous priest. We haven't learned what led to his demise, but it sounds like it might be part of an ongoing problem in Gideon Falls. On the other side we have Norton Sinclair, a formerly committed young man who is obsessed finding mysterious black shards in the trash throughout the city. Turns out that Lemire created this character in the late 90's back when he was in film school and is finally getting to tell his full story. I am extremely intrigued by what Sorrentino and Lemire introduce us to in this first issue and am looking forward to visiting Gideon Falls again in the next issue.

The Rest:
Infinity Countdown #1 - The race for the Infinity Stones is on and I am not sure how I feel about it. Marvel is prepping for a reboot and it will require someone to get all six stones and recreate the universe to match their vision. This was a Guardians of the Galaxy heavy issue which is fine by me, but it feels all too formulaic. I think there is pressure to reboot the universe to draw new fans as they are shifting over to more of the creator own projects from other publishers. I do enjoy comics written by Gerry Duggan and did enjoy this book, but I feel that it will be too predictable as it moves closer to hitting the reset button.

Star Wars Adventures #7 - I probably sound like a broken record on this series, but it really is one of the best all-ages books being published and is a lot of fun for Star Wars fans of all ages. I particularly enjoyed part 1 of "Endangered", which featured the Rebels crew attempting to save a sacred bird. The "Tales from Wild Space" story this week was nothing to write home about, but works well as quick and fun entry in this series.

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


I'm not sure, when my parents let me stay up past 8:00 p.m. for the first time to watch a show about a medical unit in the Korean War, they meant for it to have any profound effect on me. Or perhaps they did - my mom is the biggest bleeding heart liberal you're likely to meet, so maybe that's why I got to watch it. Whatever the case, watch it I did, and I fell in love with it.

Backing up a bit - my family aren't big TV watchers. My aforementioned mother is a self-styled hobbit, very content to dig in her dirt and make massive amounts of food for anyone and everyone who stops over for dinner (that's a side quest post for another day). But we watched M*A*S*H reruns together - honestly, I don't remember if it was every night, or once a week, or just when my parents were tired of me falling asleep after reading literally all night, and it was easier to let me watch a show.

I loved that show, as a little kid, not getting half the humor. I think the first episode I saw was 'the Joker is Wild', a war of escalating practical jokes. It was hilarious, lowbrow and slapstick enough that my young mind got it. I watched it just the other day; I have seen it north of 20 times now. It's actually not as funny these days. It's better than that; a twenty minute expiration of the psyche and paranoia.

If you want to know what M*A*S*H is about, the one thing, you're left grasping for straws. Looking back, I see how much that influenced me. I have been accused of being a dichotomy - my own opposite - many times, and while I doubt that came from M*A*S*H, I think I saw myself in it. Want to make a serious point? Tell a joke. Want something to be funny? Set it against something serious. M*A*S*H does that, in spades, to beautiful, human affect.

I doubt on that weeknight that I got to stay up two-and-change decades ago that my parents thought I'd watch that show again. After graduating a local college, I left that house, though, and, as I said, didn't watch much TV - I didn't have cable, or even an actual TV. But every paycheck from my new Real Job, I bought another season of M*A*S*H on DVD.

I still watch them, even though some of the episodes skip, and I recently (a couple years ago) discovered you can turn the laugh track off, and that infinitely improves the show.

I'm not sure what they intended, but I doubt my parents thought I would ever seek out cast and crew members at book signings or events, and greet them like they were old friends - because they were. The most amazing thing, though, is that those people, who influenced countless lives, who were part of revolutionary, groundbreaking television, were just as happy to greet me in kind.

I grew up with Star Trek and Wars, Babylon 5. I've seen Firefly nearly as many times as M*A*S*H, and I feel a kinship with all of you who feel those people are family, because they are. It's one of the things that, to me, to the point which is the title of this site, is so great about being a nerd. We're all excited by and for the same things. We really do feel like family, to people we've never met.

David Ogden Steirs died last Saturday. Charles Emerson Winchester is one of the roles he will be remembered for; it certainly should not be the only one. I never got to meet him. I hope you'll permit me to ramble for a moment, but last year, Carrie Fisher died. I wrote the... post? Eulogy? Whatever? for her on this site. To borrow a sports cliche, I tried not to do too much with it. For the first time in my life, Leia was gone - Carrie was gone.

I never met her. I never met David. But there is a very small collection of individuals who poured themselves into their work - not in the sense that they worked hard to portray a character; those are myriad; no, these are people who allowed themselves to shine through into their work. The stories from the set of M*A*S*H tell the story of the dedication they all had, not simply to their craft, but to the philosophy and message, is singularly unparalleled.

With your very kind permission, I am going to make myself a martini and toast my old friends with whom I was privileged to grow up, and who I learned so much from.

Many thanks, my friends.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

HORROR 101: Enclosed versus Exposed

Image result for annihilation movie

Horror often comes divided into two categories in my mind: Personal Vs. Global. Within these two categories, the horror is then again divided into two sets: Enclosed Vs. Exposed. In the first category divide, we have stories that are personal terrors versus globalized ones—ie a haunted house would be a personal terror and a zombie pandemic would be a global one. This is just based on scale of the horror at hand, since ideally all horror is personal horror or you’d just have a bunch of characters no one cares about getting killed off in creative ways (oh, wait, that is a lot of horror. *raises eyebrow pointedly at some horror writers*). The other category divides between two kinds of how the horror is portrayed on screen: Enclosed horror is the tight spaces of something like The Descent whereas Exposed horror is the expanse of the ocean in Jaws, where the threat can be coming from literally anywhere around you. This edition of HORROR 101 is going to delve deeper into Enclosed versus Exposed, and a later edition will tackle Personal Versus Global more in-depth.

Both of the Enclosed/Exposed horror types with the feeling of isolation and being trapped in different ways. In Enclosed horror, we have the feeling of being stuck and unable to escape easily. In Exposed horror, you never know from where the monster will strike and you are literally an easy target as you’re out in the open. I brought up Personal Vs. Global horror earlier because many times these categories go hand in hand Personal horror is Enclosed Horror and Global Horror is Exposed Horror. Zombie apocalypse films are almost always Exposed, as characters have to navigate across landscapes rife with zombie hordes. Haunted house films are almost always Enclosed with characters trapped inside a house that wants to do them harm.

What do both of these horror types give us and what are the best examples of the form? We’ll start with Exposed as it allows me to bring up a very recent film. Annihilation (which, for the record, I liked a lot and I was glad it didn’t stick to the book very closely) uses Exposed horror to create a feeling of constant tension—the scientists in the Shimmer are always in danger, from all possible sides, as they make their way towards the lighthouse. This allows us to have a duality between the fear of attack, while also building up the way that they are literally being exposed to something beyond their control on a much more microscopic level (as the Shimmer may be messing with their minds or bodies in distinct ways). Other entrants in Exposed horror include films like 28 Days Later which does an interesting turn between Exposed and Enclosed 2/3 of the way through the film (a topic I’ll address more in an individual post on the film later); the aforementioned Jaws; and I’d argue the Nightmare on Elm Street series does this in an interesting way—the horror/danger scenes are all Exposed horror as they are literally dreams that can shift and change the surroundings of the victims, but, in some ways, they are also Enclosed as the horror is happening inside the victims’ heads (guess what? I’m also doing an individual post later on the Elm Street series.)

Enclosed horror uses tightly controlled spaces in order to raise the level of terror and does so often in unique ways. This can be seen in the use of ventilation systems in something like Alien to the sometimes collapsing cave tunnels of The Descent. Enclosed horror also allows every object in a given space to become and object of horror. One of my favorite recent horror films (and one of my favorite recent films, just in general, and why oh why didn’t Daniel Kaluuya win Best Actor at the Academy Awards??) Get Out uses this to maximum effect. Main character Chris is isolated in a house in the middle of the woods, so a common Enclosed horror trope. He’s also trapped within his own mind for part of the horror, enclosed within the already enclosed. This makes a dual form of isolation and raises the level of horror beyond just bodily entrapment. The hypnosis scene in the film is one of the most effective uses of enclosed horror that I’ve ever seen on a screen. Other excellent examples of Enclosed horror include: The Thing, The Others, The Devil’s Backbone, and more.

So, which do you prefer: Enclosed vs Exposed? What makes one better than the other? Join in the conversation by tweeting me @PintsNCupcakes.

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

SIDE QUESTS: Fonts and Typefaces!

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together. The name kind of says it all. Collectively, we share a love of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — and the tendrils that both braid those together and simultaneously allow them to branch out in so many different directions. But while Nerds of a Feather is a genre blog, as individuals we're nerds about way more than just science fiction and fantasy. SIDE QUESTS is a new essay series where we explore some of the other stuff we geek out about. A nerd cannot live on but sci-fi and fantasy alone...though it's certainly fun to try.

What Are We Talking About?

Today, friends, we're talking typefaces and fonts. I know there's a difference between the two words, but I don't want to be pedantic, I just want to share the joy of making letters in slightly different ways. Who knew there could be so many!? For today's purposes, I'll be using "font" because it's the more prevalent term in the parlance of the times.

The Basics

At what is probably the most fundamental level, you have two varieties of fonts: Serif and Sans Serif. A "serif" is the little embellishment we find at the terminus of a line, like the little flare at the bottom of a "t." What you're reading now is a serif font. In general, serif typefaces are thought to be more readable, so the vast majority of books and magazines will use a serif font for their body text. A couple examples probably everybody's familiar with are Times New Roman and Garamond. Serif fonts aren't afraid to linger a little, to take just that tiniest little moment to put a little flourish on the otherwise rote exercise of, say, writing an "R."

Sans serif fonts, or gothic fonts, don't have time for any of that ornamental nonsense. They're all about precision and control. They're clean and efficient, and their eyes are on the horizon — not for the sunset (save that for the serifs), but for the future. The archetypal gothic font is Helvetica. Starting in the late 1950s, Helvetica became the go-to font for logo designers because its clean, spare lines seemed to capture the essence of living in the jet age. Apple computer licensed Helvetica and it is the default font on Apple devices. Microsoft didn't want to license it, so PC users got Arial, or "Crappy Helvetica." It just doesn't have the same grace and balance of Helvetica.

The Rabbit Hole

A capital "F" is always a (more or less) vertical line and two (more or less) horizontal lines (more or less) intersecting it. On my computer, I have 956 typefaces. They all make that capital "F" in a different way. Some are almost identical to others, some are wildly different. The limitless variety of ways that designers have found to make letters while keeping them recognizably letters is bewildering and, for me anyway, a testament to our endless creativity, and our ability to create beauty and express our personalities even when working within narrowly defined limits.

I fell in love with fonts at the same time that I stumbled into design, which was in my late teens while playing in a metal band. There were cassettes to be made, and inserts to design, and eventually, a CD to make and design. I didn't do a great job. BUT! The world of metal is a tremendously valuable case study. Metal — like sci-fi and fantasy and horror — is littered with sub-genres. So, so, so many. So, take a look at three typography examples. These are all metal bands, and, from top to bottom, they get more extreme. You can see that in the logos. Black metal has gotten bonkers about the ornate, illegible logos, and that's a fun tangent to explore on its own. But the fact that simply a typeface can act as a logo — not just for bands, but for products and services, giant corporations and the little restaurant on the corner — points to the thing that I think I find most meaningful and intriguing about fonts:

Fonts are storytelling.

The choice of font can convey elegance or earthiness, optimism or pessimism, momentum or rigidity. A million different things. Fonts can conjure images of the past or capitalize on the promise of the future. They can help us tell our stories better, and they can allow others telling their stories to manipulate us (no negative connotation implied...but, you know, be wary). So in my humble, geeky opinion, we would all do well to have at least some understanding on how something as "simple" as a font can have an impact on our emotional reactions to something that we are presented with out in the world, in a store, on TV, or on the web.

It's also worth thinking about how the fonts you use say something about you. It's not an accident that I described serif and sans serif fonts in terms of personalities above. If you choose to employ Copperplate Gothic Bold, for instance, people might assume that you never made it out of the 90s. Fair warning. If you use Comic Sans, you are announcing to people that you don't have great taste, and that you also don't know what comic lettering actually looks like. And Impact is now forever "the meme font." Unless you're making a meme, or a fake meme, or a meta meme, use it at your peril.

We Are Not Alone

There are so many great resources about fonts and typography. Here are some that I enjoy, and you might, too:

  • Butterick's Practical Typography. An online primer about typography. It's clear, concise, helpful, and lovingly done.
  • Typeset in the Future. A look at how sci-fi films employ typography in world-building and set design. With the occasional Homestar Runner reference thrown in. So, win-win-win.
  • Blambot. Comic book fonts. So many of them. You can lose a day on this site, easy.
  • Fonts in Use. A site that breaks down what fonts were used in actual design examples. Want to know what font they used on the Speak and Spell or the labels on your dad's old stereo receiver? This is your stop.
  • My Fonts. Get your fonts here. Pay the designers. They earned it.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, sometime designer, musician, Emmy-winning producer, and all-around rabbit hole dweller.