Friday, June 22, 2018

A Robot Learns to Love Itself: Reflecting on the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries is an AI self-actualisation story which takes us far beyond the basic "can a robot feel?" question that is still the standard starting point for these kinds of tales.


There's a moment near the start of Rogue Protocol, the third in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series (forthcoming August 7, 2018 from Tor.com Publishing), that quietly broke my heart. The self-proclaimed Murderbot, a rogue SecUnit (a human-robot hybrid "construct") which hacked its own governor module after an unfortunate murder-based incident that was subsequently wiped from its memory, is trying to distract itself from the endless, stupid problems of humans by watching a new show. Unfortunately, the plot isn't working out, and Murderbot is eager to get within range of a station so it can download something different. If only, it tells us, this terraforming horror series had a rogue SecUnit character who could stop the squishy humans from all getting horribly killed...

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a big deal. Murderbot watches rather a lot of shows  indeed, extensive media consumption is its most prominent character quirk  and it also does a lot of complaining, so the combination of the two is not exactly unusual. However, this is the first time it has articulated a desire to see itself represented positively in media. In the previous book, Artificial Condition, Murderbot had explained to its new "friend" ART the Asshole Research Transport (long story) why their favourite TV show is Sanctuary Moon, a show in a setting with no SecUnits or security issues at all. ART's favourite shows, in contrast, all tend to involve spaceships protecting their humans. Rogue SecUnits in media are all portrayed terrible monsters, because, it thinks, that's a rational way of looking at rogue SecUnits in general. To even fantasise about the existence of a heroic rogue SecUnit one book later is a serious step forward for Murderbot, even if it doesn't acknowledge the change of heart itself.

It's this constant grappling with the character's identity and self-worth that really lifts the Murderbot Diaries (a series which began with last year's Nebula winning, Hugo nominated All Systems Red, and is due to wrap up later this year with Exit Strategy) from being a merely hilarious story about a cynical construct to being something rather special. Like Moon, the central character in The Books of the Raksura (Martha Wells' other Hugo finalist this year), Murderbot is a convincingly non-human person who blends recognisable emotional responses with occasionally very alien reactions and behaviours; both are outsiders who find themselves offered friendship and community but have to learn how to accept it. In telling story it does, the Murderbot Diaries also turns the traditional robot narrative on its head: Murderbot isn't a robot learning to feel, it's a robot who is already all but overwhelmed by its emotions and has to learn how to manage and express them in a galaxy where many people still treat it as an unthinking tool.

And while Murderbot has it worse than most, it's apparent that a lot of people in this universe  be they humans, bots or something in between  are similarly struggling to establish their right to live and flourish beyond their usefulness to all-powerful corporations, who are not above mass murder to get what they want. When we first meet Murderbot in All Systems Red, it's been hired out to an uninhabited planet with a group of naive but (it grudgingly admits) likeable humans who are conducting a survey, when they find themselves in the middle of a highly subtle corporate assassination attempt. Murderbot, who has already gone rogue by this point but is pretending to be compliant, ends up accidentally "outing" itself as a fully realised sentient when it has to evacuate an injured party member, and spends the rest of the mission attempting to rebuff attempts  particularly from the mission leader, Dr. Mensah  to talk to it about its feelings and treat it like a person.

Murderbot is quick to tell us that this is because it doesn't want to make the humans uncomfortable, and the reader just as quickly realises that this is a planet-sized act of projection on our hero's part. Faced with a group of people with no preconceived notions of what a SecUnit should be, who discover that it's not a heavily armoured machine but a being with a human face, the ability to conduct caring small talk, and a massive addiction to trashy soap operas, means Murderbot suddenly has to cope with being treated like a person, forced to earn trust and friendship from its coworkers and treated accordingly when it does. To someone who has thus far dealt with being emotionally sensitive by insisting that nobody cares and hiding itself behind an opaque visor, this change is nearly impossible to process.

Because behind the sarcastic asides and wry commentary, Murderbot's narration is a veritable bingo sheet of unhelpful thinking styles; its propensity to internal self-sabotage is both relateable and excruciating to watch. Everything Murderbot does right is disqualified from positive consideration because it's just what SecUnits do, while everything that goes wrong is a total disaster that's all its fault. All of Murderbot's strengths are flukes or basic programming, while its weaknesses are all-consuming. Because Murderbot is very anxious around people, people must be objectively difficult things (except in media, where they are fascinating and enjoyable). All Rogue SecUnits are terrifying, terrible individuals who are very rightly the villains whenever they appear in media, and would be awful to meet in real life. Oh, and of course it's labelled itself Murderbot (and the first bot who sits down to watch TV with it "Asshole Research Transport"). While our hero does indeed recognise and label its own thinking as "anxiety", and can demonstrably think things through or talk itself down when required, the narration doesn't give us much second-order thought or self-reflection, leaving the mechanics of growth behind the scenes and leaving us with only subtle signs of growth behind Murderbot's aggressively curated self-image.

Later instalments have Murderbot truly going rogue and, in the process, straying even further outside of its comfort zone, passing as human while it pieces together evidence against the company which attacked its humans and discovers more about its own past (including the event which led it to call itself "Murderbot" in the first place). Intentionally or otherwise, it finds itself spending more time with humans similar to Dr Mensah's group: people it ostensibly finds insufferable, naive and incapable of staying out of danger but who treat it like a person, even when the "augmented human" identity slips.

We also get interactions between Murderbot and other bots and constructs, most notably ART in Artificial Condition, and the irrepressibly friendly (and, apparently, extremely annoying) Miki the helper bot in Rogue Protocol. Murderbot is rather rude about both of these characters, especially Miki, who it dismisses as a "human's pet": a dismissal which likely reflects its feelings about being offered a similar choice earlier in the series, rather than being directly Miki's fault. However, even while it's calling its fellow bots assholes and pets, Murderbot is also completely willing to accept them as people and in many ways treats them the same as humans: trustworthy in some ways but likely to betray you when their "programming" requires it. Even bots with demonstrably low capability get treated with respect by Murderbot, although it always puts its own self-preservation first. We are led to suspect the only thing that isn't a person to Murderbot is Murderbot itself: an ironic conclusion for the character to arrive at, given its narration leaves the reader in no doubt that Murderbot is quite definitely "one of us".

The Murderbot Diaries is an AI self-actualisation story which takes us far beyond the basic "can a robot feel?" question that is still the standard starting point for these kinds of tales in SFF. The series presents us with a robot character who we immediately accept as a funny, cynical, highly competent and resourceful person, and who I suspect many of us would love to hang out with, even knowing it would probably complain internally and make up rude nicknames for us if we did. In doing so, The Murderbot Diaries gives itself room to ask more complex questions about the relationship between how we see our own personhood and self-worth compared to how others see us; and how to find healing, growth and self-expression even when all one wants to do is self-isolate. For Murderbot, it's a slow, frustrating journey, and one which is largely obscured by bluster and sarcasm. But when the moments of growth shine through  when the Murderbot accepts that it might just be hero material  it's are all the more poignant and exciting for being so hard-won.

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.


References: Wells, Martha. All Systems Red [Tor.com Publishing, 2017].
                    Wells, Martha. Artificial Condition [Tor.com Publishing 2018].
                    Wells, Martha. Rogue Protocol [Tor.com Publishing 2018]

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

It's time for another entry of Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the six stories up for Best Novelette.

Novelette is inherently a weird category. There's not really a substantial difference between a short story and a novelette, except that a novelette is just a little bit longer (but not as long as a novella, which really is a different form).

One thing that I find interesting about the Novelette category this year is that it contains two stories that are spun off recent novels. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is part of Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series and "Extracurricular Activities" is from Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire. Fortunately, for both stories, no previous knowledge of the books is required.

Shall we take a look at how the stories stack up against each other?


Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)
Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)


Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time: We've all read vampire stories and they're a dime a dozen. Whether they can walk in the daylight, are public about their identity, live in fear of being found out, or any variation that you can think of, you've probably read the story. Or, so I thought. On the surface, this can be any other vampire story, except for one thing. Finley, the victim about to transition to becoming a vampire is a transman.

"Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" excels in exploring the intersection of Finley's transition to male with his transition to vampire. This is what science fiction and fantasy is all about - the exploration of different ideas and identities. What does the transition to vampire do to a body who has undergone gender transition? "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" is a sexy story of identity, belonging, heartbreak, and complication. It happens to be a vampire story. Szpara's story pushes boundaries and is an exceptional piece of fiction.


Children of Thorns, Children of Water:  I'm not sure if I can or if I even should attempt to separate my appreciation for "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" from my appreciation of de Bodard's excellent Dominion of the Fallen series of novels. If you've read the second of those novels, The House of Binding Thorns, you know that Thuon is a primary character and you can read this story as prequel. If not, or if you just don't remember, "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is "just" a very good story of clashing cultures and an attempt to infiltrate another organization that runs not unlike a mob family.

It's good, people. You should expect this if you've read Aliette de Bodard before. She never disappoints. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" tells the story of Thuon, a minor dragon prince (this is a literal statement) attempting to infiltrate House Hawthorn, one of several "houses" comprised of fallen angels (again, literal) ruling over Paris. It's complicated, risky, and there are problems in the house.

Because I have a poor memory, I spent half of the story thinking "this Thuon seems very familiar" - but that did nothing to lessen my appreciation for de Bodard's skill in telling a very good story.


The Secret Life of Bots: Suzanne Palmer is telling two stories here, though they are very much intertwined. The secondary story is that of the last gasp fight of humanity against an alien that has been winning the war and eradicating every human ship and outpost it can find and has launched a desperate attack in a derelict ship to hold the enemy back. The primary story is that of the titular "bots", which are used to do any number of menial task. The ship's AI is using bots to keep it operational, but sends one of the oldest bots, a now defunct model, after a rodent of sorts that has been damaging the ship.

The little robots are programmed to follow commands, but they have just enough AI to be able to interpret and figure out the best way to accomplish a task. It's that AI that gives the little robots fantastic personality. Palmer's story is charming, though coupled with the impending extinction of humanity perhaps charming shouldn't be the right word. It's tense, but the robots are the real heroes of this fight. I use this description a fair amount when talking about stories, but I wanted a whole lot more of this story while recognizing Palmer told it at the right length. "The Secret Life of Bots" isn't missing a thing and I was delighted the entire time I spent reading it.


A Series of Steaks: Since I've already written about the Short Story category, this is Vina Jie-Min Prasad's second story on the Hugo ballot and it is a real standout. Besides everything, what I really enjoy about "A Series of Steaks" is the framing of forgery and what makes a good forger. Ultimately, that's what "A Series of Steaks" is about. Helena semi-legally fabricates meat for restaurants that is otherwise undetectable for not being the real thing (ultimately, a forgery). She is offered a contract that she can't refuse because it comes with a threat to expose her.

The rest of the story is a tense game of Helena (and her new assistant) trying to fulfill the order and somehow protect herself. Prasad's writing is clear and pulled me right in. It's a damn fine story and I'm going to be looking for much more from Vina Jie-Min Prasad.


Extracurricular Activities: This is the second story on the ballot that is related to a novel. This one is set well before Yoon Ha Lee's novel Ninefox Gambit. "Extracurricular Activities" is a story of one of Shuos Jedeo's early missions well before he became a legend and a mass murderer, though already he had a reputation.

"Extracurricular Activities" will work perfectly well if you're not familiar with Shuos Jedeo from Ninefox Gambit or Raven Strategem. In one sense, this is a fairly straight forward story. It's an undercover mission to rescue another undercover crew that might be capture or otherwise in trouble. On the other hand, even if you're unfamiliar with Jedeo, there is a strong sense that Yoon Ha Lee is building a legend while showing what he was like as a man and an officer. Effective. Passionate. Creative and unconventional. Yoon Ha Lee's writing is on point and top notch. This is either a bite sized slice of a much larger story or it's a perfectly compact and excellent story that stands on its own. It's both, and it's exceptional.


Wind Will Rove: Though I don’t read nearly as much short fiction as I used to, it is becoming quickly apparent that Sarah Pinsker is one of my favorite short fiction writers and that her name on a story tells me that not only do I want to read it, that it is also likely to be exceptionally good. “Wind Will Rove” is one of two stories from Pinsker on this year’s Hugo ballot and, like “And Then There Were (N-One)”, it is fantastic. I want to use the phrase “top notch”, but I’m afraid I’m beginning to overuse it to the point that “top notch” has lost some of its meaning.

“Wind Will Rove” is a story of history, music, and a generation ship. I’m a sucker for a generation ship story. I almost always want more and more from the story, and that includes this one. With so much lost to a virus that destroyed databases worth of knowledge and culture, the residents of this particular ship have clung to what they can recall and what they were able to recreate – even knowing that so much of it is only partial truth mixed with imperfect memory. Depending on who you ask, of what generation, the culture of the ship has either stagnated or it is focused on remembering where they’ve come from. Sarah Pinsker asks important questions about what cultural identities are important to bring along untouched into the future and what culture should shape and reform around who the people are at that moment and in that place. What relevance does a song of an “Oklahoma Rooster” have for people several generations away from ever having even seen a rooster or a barn or the feeling of natural air on a planet? What meaning does learning the history of a long departed planet have for children who will live and die on a ship speeding between the stars?

Pinsker examines history and culture through the lens of “oldtime” fiddle music and through the passage of time on a generation ship. She doesn’t offer an easy answer but does suggest a way through. Perhaps she’s looking at a unique situation of a particular generation ship, but there are still things to consider in how we respond to changing culture today. Sarah Pinsker’s easy storytelling pulls you in, takes hold of your hand, and guides you on a journey. I don’t play music, and I know Pinsker is a musician, but the traditions and the art of music really comes through here. It’s a wonderful story.

My Vote
1. Wind Will Rove
2. Extracurricular Activities
3. A Series of Steaks
4. The Secret Life of Bots
5. Children of Thorns, Children of Water
6. Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time


Our Previous Coverage
Novel 
Novella
Short Story


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

Thursday Morning Superhero

We are officially less than a month out from San Diego Comic Con! The normal Thursday Morning Superhero will deviate from its standard format to provide some coverage of SDCC and what I hope to accomplish. My son is joining me this year and I am very excited to write about attending in what will be a different experience for me this year.

Sneak Peek: Exclusives
There are two exclusives that have been announced that I want to briefly highlight. My son recently started watching, and is hooked, on Rugrats. It is easily one of his favorite shows and this limited XXRAY Reptar vinyl from FYE blew his mind. The detail is stunning, but it is a bit out of his budget.


As one of the resident Funko collectors here at Nerds, I need to quickly note my first must have item that will be mine if I am fortunate enough to make it to the booth.  I am a huge Wes Anderson fan and cannot wait to attempt to scoop up this adorable two-pack.



Notable Comics:
While my weekly recap of my pull list will be enjoying a short vacation, I want to make sure to highlight some books that you should probably check out. The four books that I am reading this week include a pair of books from Jeff Lemire (Hit Girl #5 and Gideon Falls #4).  Gideon Falls is one of the best surprises in 2018 and it was nice to see Hit Girl, which I haven't been wild about, given the Lemire treatment.  This week also included a stunning Ether: Copper Golems #2 from Matt Kindt and Daredevil #604 by Charles Soule.  Returning to the world of Ether has been extremely entertaining and Soule's run on Daredevil is absolutely divine.  

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Westworld Wednesday: Some People's Children


Welcome back to Westworld Wednesday, a series of essays/ramblings about the themes & philosophies of Westworld. NOTE: while we deal more with themes here, rather than plot, the emphasis is not on what happened this week; HOWEVER, if you are reading this and wish to avoid spoilers, you should be current on the show (Seriously, there are spoilers in this).


Happier times! ...ish

No family is perfect. Hopefully makes you feel better about your family, because these people take the normal, everyday idiosyncrasies that make Thanksgiving slightly awkward and dials it up to 11.

There has been a theory making the rounds since William didn't murder Lawrence and his family (this time) that this is a sign of good in him. While he is definitely a complex character, Vanishing Point put any thoughts of that to rest, along with his wife and daughter. It's that wife, the un-subtly named Juliet, and their daughter Emily, that I want to talk about.

Juliet, though never seen in the flesh in Season One, appears in a photo that drives much of the plot. We see the bookend to Vanishing Point, the beginnings of William's detachment from the real world, and from Juliet, before he even marries her. The start of the darkness within him, reflected in the change in his headwear in Season One. In Season Two, we do see glimpses of good, but that's really all they are - a small amount of light shining through the cracks.

But if Westworld is all about living out fantasy without consequence, if the Hosts are really just unfeeling robots, are his actions that bad? That's the question at the heart of the character; he visits violence and evil on things put there for that express purpose, so are they really evil?

But let's step back here, because Vanishing Point does something that a lot of fiction does, that is a sort of played-out evil. The dead wife/mother/child of our straight, white, male protagonist (SWMP), her death serving as his motivation and reason he is generally surly, with lots of demons in his tortured soul. Granted, there's a reason this gets used a lot- seeing/having your family murdered/dead of cancer/whatever would definitely mess me up, and I am already grouchy most of the time. But seriously, fiction is full of dead families in the service of backstory.

Juilet is dead, more or less from the get-go (although time is pretty subjective in the show), and the reveal of her death comes before we actually know it was her, just that he had the run-of-the-mill Dead Wife Backstory (DWB). Eventually, we find that it is the very same woman from the photo, the one William fell in love with, then subsequently out of love with in favor of Delores, yet married after his transformation in order to get deeper into the Delos Corporation. Still a DWB, but at least it has some depth to it.

I wonder if it was by design, or if they retconned it in Season Two (Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan never invite me to their parties), but it's given added depth by the exploration of what lead to her suicide, alongside the reappearance (for William) of his daughter. This is the part of the DWB where some new damsel in distress needs the SWMP to emerge from his gloom and save her, after which they live happily ever after, or something.

Only Emily is no damsel in distress, but rather, her quest is to get her father to face some manner of justice for what he truly is. There is no redemption arc here, no breaking William from his shell. Just him answering the question of if what he did in fantasy mattered in reality, as he grasp on reality is either severed or ignored.

So if you are going to off a family in the service of story, make it really matter to the story.

It would be really nice if I could end it there, and say Westworld nails it and breaks the mold of so many pieces of entertainment that slaughter women and kids for backstory, but we spent a really big part of Season One with Arnold/Bernard's family having been killed offscreen. Maeve both experiences her daughter dying, dying alongside her (at the hands of William), AND has her daughter being actually alive. Lawrence ultimately awakens and tries to kill William because William killed his family (at least once).

Maybe in the ever-increasing body count of Westworld it doesn't matter; it's not even ineffective. At least it all serves to pain the picture of the Man in Black as evil and twisted, rather than a brooding anti-hero.

So next time you're annoyed with your family, just be glad they weren't killed off in the service of your backstory.

-DESR

I

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Born to the Blade: Episodes 5 & 6

Today we return to my look at Michael R. Underwood's consistently excellent serial Born to the Blade. Following my brief thoughts on Episodes 3 & 4 (see here), we continue on with episodes 5 and 6, written by Malka Older and and Marie Brennan, respectively.




Episode 5: Trade Deal

Secrets are revealed that perhaps shouldn't be revealed. Now that Kris Denn was victorious in the Gauntlet and earned Rumika a seat on the Warder's Council, he immediately fulfills his promise to Ojo of Quloo and confirms the titular trade deal of aerstone (a relatively rare and expensive ore that allows all of these island nations to float in the sky + build airships) and help out the otherwise sinking island nation. Being relatively inexperienced and trying to make friends and influence people, he lets slip during a night of drinking that Rumika perfected a method to manufacture aerstone rather than just strip mining their island like everyone else does. Whoops.

Whoops, indeed.

Malka Older balances the intensely action packed fourth episode with a quieter episode, if equally explosive in term of revelations. I really like how Older gets across the inexperience and naivete of Kris more here than in any of the previous four episodes. He's great with a blade (though still has more to learn in that arena, too), but his diplomatic experience is sorely lacking and it shows. That's the heart of what "Trade Deal" gets across. Kris may be a primary character of this narrative, but he made a really stupid mistake and this may be one of a pivotal event in the Born to the Blade narrative.


Episode 6: Spiraling

It's not that I want to say the episode titles are a bit on the nose, but if I'm being honest, they're a bit on the nose. After the successful trade deal between Rumika and Quloo in the last episode (and Kris's lack of circumspection), the fleet delivering aerstone to Quloo is destroyed. Distrust and rumors begin to infect and infest the warders of Twaa-fei. Events are not out of control yet, but they're getting there. Things seem to be spiraling out of control. Like I said, on the nose.

Thing is, that spiraling is exactly what is happening here. Marie Brennan is very effective at communicating the growing distrust between the nations represented by the warders at Twaa-fei. Things are tense and growing increasingly moreso. That tension is palpable. We're at the midpoint of Born to the Blade, so it's quite clear that things have to get much worse before they get better, assuming they do get better. That's not guaranteed and even before I see how this season shakes out I know that I don't want this to end. I want a second and maybe even a third season. It's good not-television.



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

Microreview [book]: A Study in Honor by Claire O'Dell

A Study in Honor is a white-hot reimagining of the Holmes and Watson story in a dark
twenty minutes into the future United States of America.


Dr. Watson is a disabled veteran from the war. With a substandard artificial arm, Dr. Watson wants
to try and return to medicine in Washington D.C, but that would require getting an artificial arm that
works. In the meantime, Watson is living a hand to mouth existence, trying to find a job,
find a place to live, and find a new path after the traumas of war. But Dr. Watson has some challenges in that regard. For you see, Dr. Watson is an
queer African American woman, Dr. Janet Watson. Dr. Watson’s discharge with a clunky
artificial arm is from a second American civil war, the heartland of the nation in the
hands of secessionists. For Janet, the war may be over, but it is far from over for the country.
And finally, a mutual acquaintance leads Janet to meet her new future roommate...the
African American Dr. Sara Holmes. And so a friendship is begun, just in time for
them to tackle a mystery regarding veterans of the civil war. And so we are introduced to the central character and the near-future world of Claire O’Dell’s
A Study in Honor. Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle himself are nothing new. In fact, such works
have been around for over a century. J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, wrote a Sherlock Holmes
pastiche “The Late Sherlock Holmes”, in 1893, a scant two years after Doyle’s first stories came
to print. The number of authors who have tried their hands at Sherlock Holmes stories is in the
hundreds. SFF writers are no stranger to writing Holmes stories, either, ranging from Neil
Gaiman to Michael Chabon to, recently, Aliette de Bodard. What does Claire O’Dell bring to a Holmes and Watson story, then? By putting it in a near
future US, a US which is riven by Civil War and social tensions, and by making both Holmes
and Watson African American women, the author brings a new and fresh perspective to the
mystery solving duo’s relationship, existence, and milieu to work in. Rather than being in a
rarefied pinnacle of social class and status as is common in most Holmes stories, this
Dr. Janet Watson is far more working class in her social mobility, outlook, and in her
day to day problems. Living on the edge as she does, the mystery of Holmes’s own wealth
and relative status gives Watson and Holmes a fractally complex relationship as Watson tries
to come to terms with her roommate’s nature. The Watson-Holmes relationship in any
Sherlock Holmes adaptation is rife with potential because of just how out of the box Holmes is.
Making her a African American woman like Watson diminishes the distance between them,
but her success, wealth, social status, and the mystery of her background distances her further.
Their relationship, in addition to the tight first person deep dive on Watson herself, is the strongest
part of the novel, and the real reason, I think, to read the novel. It would not be a Sherlock Holmes story without a mystery, and without Holmes and Watson
going off and trying to solve the mystery. Even in an age of computers and instant information
and databases, Holmes’ powers of deduction, and Watson’s determination, are still necessary
to unravel the central problem. Computers provide O’Dell’s Holmes with more information, but
it still takes Holmes’ powers to put the information together in the classic Holmesian manner and
come up with her deductions. The mystery at hand does tie into the ongoing Civil War, and into Watson’s own experiences
at the end of the Civil War itself. The mystery, while a fair one, though, is a pale shadow of the
other charms of the novel. I was enchanted and entranced by Janet’s story, and her
relationship with Holmes, and how all that unfolds, much more than the mystery the two
of them stumble into. This is a novel I read for character, much more than plot or even setting,
although the near future the author posits, from technology to social change and historical
change, is very well done. Based on the strength of her two characters and this world, I hope that there will be a sequel,
because I surely would enjoy reading much more about this Watson and this Holmes in this darkly
imagined near future world.



The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for an amazingly strong central character, whose plight and story come across vividly
on the page. +1 for Watson and Holmes’ relationship, which blazes across the page

Penalties : -1 the central plot and mystery may in itself be a bit short and is overshadowed
by the characterization and the strong character beats.

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

***

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Microreview [book]: Myth of the Maker by Bruce R. Cordell

Not Strange Enough


Carter Morrison and some of his friends are VR researchers and game developers. With quantum computing, they discover a limitless source of power with one hang-up; it's actually a dark network connecting universes and it's inhabited by terrible things that consume universes. In a panic, Morrison injects the world of their defunct MMORPG into the network to create a buffer between the monsters and Earth. But Morrison wakes up in a prepared storage unit and has to piece together what happened to his friends and why he isn't still in the Land of the Curse.

Myth of the Maker is fine. It's sort of unremarkable, even if the world is strange. That's a terrible pun, as this is "A Novel of The Strange", which is a table top roleplaying game. This is a tie-in novel, and it expands on that game's setting, but it's unlikely to draw in new fans. I've read the source game materials and then read the novel, and the novel puts some life into the game world, but it doesn't rise above the low bar that is acceptable tie-in media. It also doesn't make me clamor for more of these novels. While it touches on some of the more interesting aspects of the game setting (that is the countless universes, translation of one conscious into another's body as travel between them, and the concept of "alien" visitors from other universes walking among us), it's so focused on one non-Earth universe (the world of Ardyn, a standard fantasy setting) that it largely neglects what could make The Strange an interesting game.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 if you were lost reading about the game setting, this novel explains a lot

Penalties: -1 ... but it keeps referencing the six rules of Ardyn and never tells what those rules are, which is extremely frustrating!

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

***

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

Reference: Cordell, Bruce R. Myth of the Maker [Angry Robot, 2017]

Friday, June 15, 2018

Summer Reading List 2018: Chloe


As always, I enter summer with lofty reading goals set for myself. I will inevitably fall short of these goals, but it’s the trying that matters, right? RIGHT? As I’m working on writing a sci-fi novel over the summer, I’m planning to avoid reading sci-fi for these months and instead will be focusing mostly on non-fiction. While I have a goal of 100 books read, I’m guessing I’ll hit closer to 50 (between my own writing and doing freelance editing and critiquing work, plus planning classes for fall, this could also be shooting a little high). I'm also planning to reread some books (I'm not rereading all of Colson Whitehead's books, again. That would be ridiculous....But also I am and everyone should). Of those books, here are six that I’m planning to read first. These are books I’ve been very excited to start reading.

1. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Essays, Hanif Abdurraqib. 
Abdurraqib is not only an amazing poet, but he also writes about music in this way that makes you completely feel it—not only as music but as the context and lives lived around it as well. I’ve read some of these essays in various places, but I’m excited to really settle into reading the whole collection.






2. How to Write and Autobiographical Novel: Essays, Alexander Chee. 
Chee is a masterful writer and so I’m looking forward to diving into these pieces which covers reading, writing, politics, and more.








3. A Lucky Man: Stories, Jamel Brinkley. 
I have read exactly one story by Brinkley but it was so perfect that I basically immediately pre-ordered his first collection. Plus story collections are the best thing in all of the world.








4. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Percival Everett. 
Everett is hands down one of the greatest writers in the world. The fact that he isn’t read by everyone, everywhere, all the time, infuriates me. I’ve been making my way through all of his books and I’ve been saving this one for a bit. Everett plays with genre, with narrative and structure, and always with expectations.







5. Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller.
 Any time I see Miller’s name, I read whatever is attached to it. His writing is sharp and painful and gorgeous all at once. I can’t wait to read this dystopic novel that also has a whale in it (honestly, I know nothing else about the book, but that was already enough to sell me on it).








6. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje. 
The last Ondaatje I read was Cat’s Table and I’ve read it three times since. I’m not exactly sure what it’s about, because I’ve been purposefully avoiding reading about it, because I want to dive into it in the same way I dove into Cat’s (Ie: hmm. I like Ondaatje and I also like boats, I think there is a boat in this!).






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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

In a time when we need more good news, I have some incredible news to share. Maple Games is creating a board game based on Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT.  There are very limited details at this point, but it is being designed by Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier who have some quality games under their belts. I know Matt has been very involved with the process that started back with a chance encounter with the designers at Gen Con. I cannot wait to see what surprises this game has in store.



Pick of the Week:
The Magic Order #1 - Mark Millar's first title following the acquisition of Millarworld by Amazon is centered around an ancient order of magicians who live among us. The drama starts immediately as we bear witness to a magician assassination. This is something that only a dark and powerful magician could pull off and we quickly learn of competing factions. What impressed me is the brief history of the Magic Order we are provided in the first issue. We learn that the Order helped defeat ancient monsters that used to terrorize mankind and we learned that one of the most powerful magician's sons has given up the Order following the death of his daughter. I am very interested to learn more about his backstory and the rich tapestry that Millar has already managed to weave.  Fingers crossed for a Gob Bluth cameo due to the Netflix connection.

The Rest:
Darth Vader #17 - An absolutely brutal finale to the story of the Mon Cala. In a desperate move to escape from the Inquisitors, Master Barr executes Order 66 in order to turn the Clones on the Inquisitors. It was a clever move as all Inquisitors are former Jedi and Order 66 was the beginning of the end of the Jedi in the Clone Wars. As I have noted, this series makes Vader a much more formidable foe than the movies ever did, and also demonstrates that the Empire has no issue with genocide if it the result justifies the means. Curious what the next arc has in store for Vader.



Babyteeth #11 - This issue marks a turn I have been waiting for in that we are finally going to venture into the Red Realm. Sadie has been training with her dad and Olivia, but is nowhere near prepared for what she has to face. Olivia, who has survived her own trip to the Red Realm, offer some insight and attempts to calm Sadie down who is determined to save her son. We are offered some glimpses into the Red Realm, but ultimately it is a big tease. One that has me salivating for 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, June 13, 2018

Westworld Wednesday: Doors & Valleys

Welcome back to Westworld Wednesday, a series of essays/ramblings about the themes & philosophies of Westworld. NOTE: while we deal more with themes here, rather than plot, the emphasis is not on what happened this week; HOWEVER, if you are reading this and wish to avoid spoilers, you should be current on the show (Seriously, there are spoilers in this).




I'm talking about form. I'm talking about content. I'm talking about interrelationships. I'm talking about God, the devil, Hell, Heaven.
 -One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Life can be a mundane, banal affair. Weekends and vacations in the western world serve to recharge for another week of trying to earn a living and enrich someone else. Even escaping that routine is hard, since you could list off the gentrified shops and eateries which comprise nearly every city in North America.

But it's safe, mostly. Even with... well, we try to keep politics to a minimum here, so I'll say what's been going on in the news, America isn't overrun with gangs and warring factions in the streets (while also being occupied by American forces sorry sorry sorry I'm trying). Other places, not so much.

But no matter where you live, what your station in life is, you have probably looked at this world and said "this is wrong". We look to symbols, and search for doors. To some of us, those things, real or imagined, speak loudly. To others... not so much. None of us, though, know for sure what waits on the other side of the only door us mortals have available to us.

The hosts do, or, rather, did. Maeve, Delores, Angela and Ake visited and found... that world isn't so great either. Not only did they visit; they found their dead. Delores found her father a shell of what he once was, and in her ruthlessness, sacrificed him permanently. Ake found more, by finding less. The lifeless bodies of his wife and friend showed him a greater purpose. in doing so, he literally met his maker- which in turn, gave him even more meaning.

Delores, of course, was given purpose and meaning by Ford, but in fulfilling it, became more of a warlord than a savior. It drove her to take the lives of her fellow hosts, and force others to change against their will, bending to hers. 

Ford is much the same, dressed in nice clothes and winsome words. He resurrected a faux-Arnold, in direct opposition to the ideals of the man. He 'woke' Delores, but as above, her awakening is far from kind and loving. She seeks no door, or more acutely, she knows exactly where it is, and rams her way through it, battering the door down between worlds. She seeks dominion over both of them; or some manner of justice for the wrongs done for them.

But maybe the door isn't to heaven or hell; lands of living and dead are irrelevant and superfluous. William has ever sought ways to cheat death, and profit from it, and in the end, his reward was boredom, like a legitimate Tony Montana, sitting in the center of opulence asking "is this all there is?" The maze was denied him; in fact, it was useless to him. So Ford offered him the chance to seek the door, and mortally wounded, he proclaims "I'm not dying here".

Ake and his daughter, two of the people on the long list of those he has wronged, are only too happy to keep him alive. His punishment is not beyond a door, in hell, or in haven with some reward, but the fact that his sadism and cruelty in both worlds is fully exposed. As Garcin said in No Exit- "there's no need for red-hot pokers- Hell is other people".

The form those people take, the manner of their existence, hardly matters. Host or human, or trapped in between as Ford is, their machinations and designs all work to cause ruin to others. Those who find a way out only find other worlds full of the same wrongs.

Maybe there really is no exit.

-DESR

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.

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the six stories up for Best Short Story!

Even though the skill it takes to write an excellent short story does not necessarily translate exactly for the skill it takes to write an excellent novel, and short stories are by no means training grounds for novel writing, the short story category here is absolutely building a reading list of authors I want to read more from.

I'm already well familiar with Linda Nagata's recent near future military science fiction novels (The Red Trilogy, The Last Good Man), but this might be the first of her shorter works I encountered. Rebecca Roanhorse has received all the nominations for this story, but I'm also excited for her debut novel Trail of Lightning (really). I should really read more Ursula Vernon. You get the picture.

Rather than more babble, let's look at the stories.


Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)
Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)


"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand": For some reason, I have bounced off Fran Wilde's Hugo finalist stories. Last year was "The Jewel and Her Lapidary", which took two reads to even appreciate. This year "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" is the story I struggled with most. It is a more of an art exhibit than it is a straight up story. You, the reader, are being led through a museum of atrocities but that perhaps the real atrocity is you, the reader.

"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" becomes increasingly horrifying as the story goes on, and Wilde is very effective in delivering a disturbing experience for the reader. I appreciate what she is doing, but at the same time, it's not something I really appreciate in fiction, either.


Carnival Nine: More of a straight forward story than "Clearly Lettered", "Carnival Nine" is a story of family and sentient clockwork automatons whose lives are determined by the number of "turns" remaining in their main spring. It's a touching story of the sacrifices parents can make of their dreams for their children and how meaningful those sacrifices can become. Thinking about my own children, it isn't that my dreams are truly sacrificed, it's that my priorities have changed and so have some of my dreams. That's ultimately the story of "Carnival Nine", which is what the last line gets at. "My life had been different from the adventures I imagined as a child, but I made the most of the turns I was given, and that's all any of us can do."

I like what "Carnival Nine" is about, and I certainly appreciated it as a story more than "Clearly Lettered", but it still was not a favorite or something I expect to revisit any time soon.


"Fandom for Robots": So, the original sentient AI discovers fan fiction and gets involved in the fandom for the anime Hyperdimension Warp Record. On its surface, "Fandom for Robots" is exactly what it seems to be - an AI learning about fandom, about shipping characters, about writing fan fiction and commenting on other stories. But, I wonder, is there a point here where Prasad is also talking about how fanfiction gives a greater opportunity to marginalized people to see themselves in stories where they are otherwise excluded? Is Prasad telling a story about how fanfiction can build community and inclusion?

"Fandom for Robots" was a lot of fun to read, but it's a better story when I'm reading a bit deeper into what message may be baked into an otherwise basic story of an AI discovering fanfiction.


“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” is a complicated story that seems, on its surface, fairly simplistic. Jesse works for a virtual reality company that sells “authentic Indian experiences” for (generally white) tourists looking for their idea of “authentic Indian” rather than anything that might resemble the real thing, as if there were a singular real experience to be had anyway. So, the experiences are more cinematic and theatrical and pop cultural and anything that smacks too heavily of realism tends not to sell well to the public.

There is an interesting resignation to Jesse’s character. Some of his peers are angry and disgusted (while still accepting this is the job they need to do), but Jesse goes along fairly passively. I suspect there are multiple layers to this story that I’m unlikely to grasp, being a white male on the cusp of middle age, but from what I’m able to see the idea of cultural identity is being addressed in fairly original and important ways. Jesse’s identity seems tied up in the popular tropes of what an Indian is, while his wife recognizes that he is an Indian because he is, in fact, an Indian. Then, there’s the white man who may have some distant heritage seeming to come in and take everything away from Jesse, perhaps for not being “Indian enough”. I’m not sure if that’s a right reading of the story. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” gets a bit weird the deeper it goes and Roanhorse examines the difference between Jesse and “White Wolf”.

The story is told in second person perspective, which puts me (if not the generic “reader”) in the position of wondering if maybe we’re also getting Jesse’s “Authentic Indian Experience” as much as we’re being told the story on the surface. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” is an excellent story as also is the kind that puts the reader on notice that Rebecca Roanhorse is an author to watch out for.


"Sun, Moon, Dust": I am reminded how much I enjoy Ursula Vernon's short fiction. I should really make a point to reading more of it. "Sun, Moon, Dust" features a farmer given a magical / possessed sword by his warrior grandmother on her deathbed. The story I expected is that the farmer would take up the sword, embark on some quest, learn to be a warrior and standard fantasy tropes. That just seemed to be the set up Vernon was giving us, except everything about "Sun, Moon, Dust" is a subversion of that standard epic fantasy.

Sometimes a farmer just wants to be a farmer. Allpa, the farmer, knows who he is. He's not seduced by the sword's ideas of fame and valor and violence. Rather, it is his gentle humanity that gives a lesson to the spirits bound to the sword about who and what they may want to be. "Sun, Moon, Dust" is an absolute delight.


“The Martian Obelisk” is a bleak, bleak story that is ultimately about and laced with hope. This is what happens after the slow apocalypse, after the climate change and the rising seas and the wars and the viruses without cure. There are small pockets of humanity on Earth living in relative civilization because of proximity to particular cities that came through okay, but the inference is that most everyone else is not. There’s nothing left to do for the people who remain on Earth and the attempted colonies on Mars have all failed. Susannah has spent the last sixteen years of her life gradually (and remotely) building a monument on Mars, the titular obelisk.

What I most appreciate about "The Martian Obelisk" is that the story begins as a massive futile gesture of defiance into the void, but it ends with ultimately the smallest but most important of gestures of hope and kindness. It ends with the reaching out to help another, even at the cost of Susannah's dream of tilting at windmill with her obelisk. Nagata's story is powerful and moving.


My Vote:
1. The Martian Obelisk
2. Sun, Moon, Dust
3. Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience
4. Fandom for Robots
5. Carnival Nine
6. Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand


Our Previous Coverage
Novel 
Novella


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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Summer Reading List: The G

Ah, summer...days at the beach, the smell of freshly cut grass and, well, books! This past year has been one of the worst in my life, if the metric is sheer number of novels read. (Otherwise it's been quite good.) Between work, family and music, my reading has basically fallen off the proverbial cliff. But never fear, summer is here! And without further ado, here are the 6 books I'm excited to read...


1. The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

I've thoroughly enjoyed my trek through Malazan, though Dust of Dreams is currently trying my patience. However, I have it on good word that the epic 10-book series finishes on a high note, so I'm excited to see it through to the end. 







2. Synners by Pat Cadigan

This one's a re-read, but one I've been itching to do ever since our Cyberpunk Revisited series a few years ago. Worth noting: this is one of the last major works of cyberpunk (i.e. real cyberpunk, not post-cyberpunk or cyberpunk-influenced science fiction).  







3. Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

The most intriguing of the Clarke shortlist, Sea of Rust is a post-apocalyptic story about a robot, created as a human caregiver, wandering the wastelands in search of spare parts fifteen years after humanity's extermination. Promises to be bleak and disturbing. 







4. The Moon and the Other by John Kessel

In this work of speculative sociology, a colonized moon is politically fragmented into rival city-states, each governed by a distinct sociopolitical model. Also features a canine reporter. 








5. Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

My first foray into "pharmapunk," Daryl Gregory's Afterparty, was not a successful one. But Autonomous promises to channel Neuromancer in ways I find deeply intriguing.








6. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Murder mystery on spaceship! Murder mystery on spaceship! (Note: as this one is on the Hugo shortlist, I plan to read it before voting.) 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Summer Reading List: Phoebe Wagner

Unlike some folks here at Nerds, I still get to have a summer! [insert maniacal laughter here] And by summer I mean moving, prepping for a PhD, and writing my butt off before all free time ever evaporates. Yay for being a student! That being said, I’m trying to balance my reading with fun. If any of these books are on your summer list, let me know!



1. Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham

A bit of an older one that I’ve had on my shelf for half of grad school, but I knew when I first read the opening chapters that I was going to be hooked SO HARD. I’m excited to dive into this secondary world and the politics of Acacia. As a writer who hopes to publish in multiple genres, I’ll be looking at how Durham, first known as a literary writer, turns his talents to an epic fantasy. Plus, I need some 800+ page epic in my life as a celebration for finishing my MFA (thank you, thank you, no applause is necessary). It was a close call with rereading LotR for the Xth time, but I want to break some habits this summer.



2. Humankind by Timothy Morton

This philosophy book ends up on my list after Dark Ecology, which was an inspiration for Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Humankind analyzes and dissects what it means to be human when human biology is made up of so many other things, and I’ve been thinking a lot about humanity’s relationship with other-than-humans. Morton has an interesting mind to dig into on such topics, often included pop culture references as much as scholarship. I’m not really sure what I’m in for, but I think it will be a good brain stretch.



3. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Again, this is a bit more of a research book than for fun. I’ve only heard good things about Braiding Sweetgrass and I expect this essay collection to shift some worldviews in the best way. It came up several times at WisCon this year, so I believe it’s crossing over into the SF community, too. Since my PhD will be focused on environmental literature, I always want to expand my views beyond the straight, white, colonizer cannon, so I’m trying to grow my research beyond the white academic cannon. Her essay “The Grammar of Animacy” is one I’m probably most looking forward since I’ve heard a lot of chatter for it.


4. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Back to the fun stuff! I really, really want to write about Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s been on by TBR pile for a while, but my book buying budget does not agree with my reading wish list. I’m hoping to snag a copy for the library and stay up late reading it (as one does). It’s got everything—a female protagonist taking down the monarchy, magic, snow leoponaires (which just sound awesome). A YA set in a secondary world inspired by Africa, yes please!




5. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Since I heard of this book—a post-climate-apocalypse about a Din├ętah monster hunter—I’ve been excited. Monster hunter alone would be enough to interest me, but one thing I’m half-heartedly tracking right now is books that are coming out with a reference to climate change. It always seems slightly easier and more popular to take current events and reinterpret them in science fiction, but I love to see fantasy takes on current events and the political situation. Personally, I’d argue that fantasy is the perfect place to comment on climate change due to the heavy nature aspect so often built into the narrative. Regardless, I’m interested to read Rebecca Roanhorse’s novel and I suspect it will interact with my reading of Braiding Sweetgrass and Humankind in interesting ways.


6. Tahoe beneath the Surface: The Hidden Stories of America's Largest Mountain Lake by Scott Lankford

This book is the odd one out, obviously. I’m attending University of Nevada: Reno this fall for a PhD, and I’ll be living in Virginia City, an old silver mining town. I’ll be subletting at a place where wild horses munch the weeds in the front yard, so I’m excited to get a break from the Monsanto-green cornfields of Iowa. My landlord recommended this book in order to learn about Tahoe, which is not far off. In my writing, I love to use local folklore and history so I’m excited to learn about the area and most likely, write about it!



Posted by Phoebe Wagner