Friday, August 31, 2018

Eco-Speculation #1: Blame Tolkien

This post marks the beginning of an ongoing series about speculative literature and issues of the environment. While I regularly review YA speculative fiction, I’m starting a PhD in English Literature with the hope of writing my dissertation about environmental speculative fiction. As you can imagine, my reading time is going to be drastically cut, but this column will give me a chance to spin out some of my ideas about environmental SFF.

I promise, I won’t get all academic. Some of the greatest speculative writing happening today has environmental themes, whether it’s Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse or Jeff Vandermeer’s extensive work. Speculative writing almost always is concerned on some level with place—whether that’s a spaceship or Hobbiton. Environmental issues have only grown in the popular imagination since Thoreau, Rachel Carson, the 1979 World Climate Conference, and plenty of smaller, community focused issues in between. Similarly, environmentally-focused stories didn’t just start in recent days.

In fact, I blame Tolkien for laying the foundation of what has now become the focus of my career as an academic, writer, and activist. My dad tried to read aloud The Lord of the Rings to me when I was six. As one might imagine, it was a little scary for a six-year-old (though my younger brother was just fine). My dad successfully read aloud the trilogy the next year (because there was no way in heck he was going to let us see the movies without having read the books).

Tolkien’s work became a staple in my yearly reading, and each time, I find something new to love. The first time through The Lord of the Rings, my favorite character was Tom Bombadil (yes, I was heartbroken when he wasn’t in the movies). I also loved Treebeard. The only line I have underlined in my beat-up copies is a description of how Treebeard walks. Don’t even get my started on the wonderfulness of Quickbeam.

Image result for tom bombadilImage result for treebeard                        

Probably the most “radicalizing” moment was the end of The Return of the King (if you haven’t read the books and you don’t want spoilers, stop here). While plenty of folks comment on how the first hundred or so pages of Fellowship is boring, that was one of my favorite parts as a kid and remains a beautiful, endearing section to me as an adult. To see Tolkien bring the story full circle by having Saruman as Sharkey industrialize the Shire only to have the Hobbits rise up and take back their home stuck in my mind. A decade later after my first reading, the major fracking company Haliburton came to my sleepy rural town and destroyed farmland, cut down forests, poisoned the waters, and changed the landscapes of my childhood. Looking back on Tolkien, it all starts to add up how his writing prepped me to focus on the environment.

So that’s a bit of my personal story of how a time-honored piece of fantasy nudged a climate-change denier toward environmentalism. I promise, most of these posts won’t be as personal and will be more precise in their topics. Up next, I’m going to spend a few posts looking at animals in fantasy, ranging from Redwall to Mort(e) and all the beloved creatures in between.

Posted by Phoebe Wagner. A writer living in the high desert, she can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

Not much on my pull list, but I am excited to revisit the world of Scarlet by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. The original story had a big impact on my perception of comics when it was published in 2010. It was right around the time I got back into comic books and was happy to discover something new thanks to a friend who recommended it.

Pick of the Week:
Scarlet #1 - The new arc in Scarlet takes place after a violent protest has shut down the city of Portland. It seems the Portland police department is corrupt and Scarlet didn't take too kindly being left for dead after her boyfriend was murdered by a detective. After she recovered she filmed herself exposing the corruption within the department and the city rioted in solidarity. This books picks up with the city essentially under martial law and with no power. Told from Scarlet's perspective, we get insight into what she is experiencing in terms of hero worship and the pressure that comes from being the mastermind behind the current plan. Drawing on current and past political corruption, this series is reemerging at a time that is likely to make it a bit divisive.  Bendis and Maleev do an amazing job recapturing the feel of the original and I am excited to see where they are taking this series.

The Rest:
Rick and Morty and Dungeons and Dragons #1 - I can't think of a more appropriate duo to write a series that merges Rick and Morty and Dungeons and Dragons than Patrick Rothfuss and Jim Zub. As someone who is looking to get into D&D myself, I identified with Morty as he was a bit intimated as he was checking it out. While my motivation is a bit different from his, it was a lot of fun to watch Rick take him on a journey that ultimately led to them in a virtual world playing as their D&D characters. Complete with a charactersheet of Alkazaar the Magnificent (Rick's character), this was a lot of fun.

Star Wars Adventures #13 - In this issue I learned that Max Rebo has a brother named Azool who is quite the scoundrel. There is something magical about a short story that centers around everyone's favorite elephant looking, keyboard playing alien. I cannot recommend this series enough for Star Wars fans looking for an all-ages title. As an old Star Wars fan it has been fun to revisit a diverse cast of characters for some light reading.

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

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Microreview [Book]: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside's blend of adventure, intrigue and interrogation of the human cost of industrialisation gave me everything I wanted from it.

Rarely does a book instil such a sense of excitement in me as the first ten percent of Foundryside, the first in a new trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett. The book wastes no time throwing us right into the action with Sancia, a mysterious thief in the middle of a job that appears to be going terribly wrong. Sure enough, within pages, Sancia has accidentally burned down the docks of Tevanne and has most of the city's authorities out looking for her. More importantly, however, she has discovered that the mysterious object she has been asked to locate is a magical key that can open any lock, and which she is able to have direct conversations with thanks to her own mysterious and unique abilities. By the time Sancia and her buddy Clef (who is a boy key, a fact which is actually questioned and has an in-universe justification beyond "of course this inanimate object is of the default gender!") are making their way through magical doors that <SPEAK IN OSTENTATIOUS CAPITALS ABOUT THEIR LIFE MISSIONS>, I was absolutely hooked, and while Foundryside certainly gets darker from this point, I never lost sight of that initial hit of wonder from the world Bennett has developed.

If magical talking keys sound a bit too whimsical for your tastes, I encourage you to stick with Foundryside anyway, because this is not a world that runs on fairytale logic. Instead, we are shown a magic system whose rules work basically like a programming language, in which objects can be "convinced" to bend or alter the rules of reality -- gravity being the most common example, though there are plenty of others. The developers of this system are basically inventors and coders, sponsored by the city's handful of powerful merchant families to conduct R&D and help them maintain technological advantages, and this reliance on centrally-controlled innovation has led to the concentration of wealth and power within these families, who run "campos" where those who work for them live and work in relative comfort while the rest of the city is left to fend for itself. The technology levels in Foundryside encourage historical comparison, bringing to my mind both the period of industrialisation in Europe and a more Renaissance element of "rediscovering" technology from a far removed foreign age. In terms of political dynamics, however, there's just as much here that is relevant to the modern day, where public welfare is increasingly at the mercy of extraordinarily wealthy innovators. The city of Tevanne, where the action happens, doesn't appear to have any concept of charitable giving whatsoever, and the Commons are shown as dangerous and lawless slums which families ignore unless absolutely necessary, while those inside the campos are still dependent on the success and whims of their employers for all their needs. It's a system  utterly rife with exploitation, inefficiency and a complete lack of interest in human wellbeing, and it's this background obviously has a huge impact on how the main story of Foundryside plays out.

Like the Divine Cities, Bennett's previous trilogy (which was nominated for and should totally have won a Best Series Hugo this year), Foundryside grapples primarily with the human costs of industrialisation and (to a lesser degree than its predrpredec) colonialism through the lens of a magic-driven secondary world. The difference here is that in the Divine Cities, this often comes across as an intellectual exercise: the main cast of that trilogy are all elite outsiders to the culture they are interacting with, and their main concerns are far more about top-down conflict reconstruction than any emotionally driven response to the impact of their colonial occupation. There's simply nobody in the narrative positioned to have that response, which for me was an enormous disappointment in what was otherwise a highly accomplished series.

I therefore can't say how happy I am to have Sancia front and centre of Foundryside. Without spoiling anything, Sancia has firsthand experience of the most violent, exploitative elements driving Tevanne's success, having been a tool for achieving the technological objectives of elites who were utterly indifferent to her value as a human being. One scene that particularly struck me is a pivotal conversation on Sancia's experiences, in which the elite characters she is working with express disapproval at a specific "illegal" thing that was done to her. Sancia throws this back in their faces, pointing out that this single illegal thing was no worse than the years of legal exploitation and abuse she was subjected to, and calling out the privilege of those who accept that that any level of exploitation is acceptable for progress because they don't believe it could be them under the wheel. Foundryside centres the political elements of its plot in the narrative of its most marginalised main character, and that makes an enormous difference to how these are handled. It's not all-encompassing (what novel could ever be?) and there notably seems to be no racial component to Sancia's experiences, which means her experience of "escaping" discrimination and othering is quite different to a lot of real world examples. However, the elements it does include worked wonderfully for me, and I can't convey how happy I am that I am finally getting what I've always wanted from Bennett's writing. Dreams do come true, kids.

It goes without saying that the most impressive thing about Foundryside is the author's ability to psychically predict and incorporate my previously unwritten plot recommendations. Luckily for everyone who isn't me, this is backed up by plenty of technical excellence and a satisfyingly twisty, fast-paced plot. Although this is billed from the start as a trilogy, everything within this book does largely wrap up in a satisfying way, although the last couple of pages are dedicated to a slightly unnecessary cliffhanger; there's also plenty to be explored with these particular characters, which suggests that unlike the Divine Cities, the next book is likely to be a continuation of the same story rather than a branching narrative. The characters are another highlight: obviously, Sancia is great, but her allies and enemies are equally compelling, combining the best elements of "satisfyingly tropey" and "interestingly original" from stoic, honour-driven Gregor Dandolo to grumbly inventor Orso Ignacio and his long-suffering colleague Berenice. As an aside, while characters have little time or emotional energy for romantic attachments, queer identities are represented and form part of the book's relationship building, in an understated but unmistakable way.

In short, Foundryside is the work of an author at the top of his game, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in smart, politically relevant fantasy. With it, Bennett secures his place in my list of favourite authors, and gives me a book that I not only enjoyed reading, but am going to be able to recommend to people without the slightest hesitation.

The Math
Base Score: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 An opening that made me feel like a kid meeting Aslan for the first time; +1 political dynamics where a marginalised character's concerns are front and centre

Penalties: -1 A book this good doesn't need a cliffhanger ending to get me to buy the sequel!

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10: "very high quality/standout in its category."

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

Reference: Bennett, Robert Jackson. Foundryside [Jo Fletcher Books (UK)/Crown (US), 2018]

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Microreview [comic]: X-Men: Grand Design by Ed Piskor

New, shining translation of the Old X-Testament

It is debatable whether the mainstream superhero comics by major publishers have managed to do anything super-exciting lately, but there is still one subject only a Marvel comic can do justice to – the convoluted, messy, contradictory continuity of Marvel comics themselves. X-Men: Grand Design by cartoonist Ed Piskor takes a closer look at the mutants who Stan Lee and Jack Kirby turned loose in 1963.

In the beginning, Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast and Marvel Girl were teens in the shadow of Cuban missile crisis. You'd think that 55 years later they should have received their X-pensions already, but that's not how it works in their line of business, and most of them are still running around in spandex in 2018. A lot has went down since then, however – Beast is now blue and furry, Iceman is gay, Angel has lost his wings and Marvel Girl has died several times – and cataloguing all that is Piskor's mission in Grand Design.

It's a fascinating project, and part of what makes it so fascinating is how utterly unlikely it is. The alternative comics creator Piskor – probably best known for the hip hop culture documentary Hip Hop Family Tree and his work for Harvey Pekar's American Splendor – is certainly not among the people you'd guess Marvel would hire to document X-History, but here we are. It's a weird hybrid: the subject matter of X-Men: Grand Design is as mainstream as it gets, but the look and feel are definitely alt comics.

The series is published as individual comics issues but it probably makes more sense to dive into it with the big-page paperbacks that are scheduled to come out after every second issue. The first of them collects X-Men: Grand Design issues 1 and 2 as well as Lee and Kirby's X-Men #1, recolored by Piskor. Toning down the garish colors gives a nice touch to Kirby's art and makes its atmosphere suprisingly close to Piskor's own strips.

The first two issues of Grand Design that are collected here cram between their covers most of what happened in the first 66 X-Men comic books – that's every notable X-Incident between 1963 and 1970 when X-Sales were so bad that Marvel turned X-Men into a reprint comic book for years. In the mid-70s, Len Wein, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum would kickstart the title and it would finally become one of Marvel's (and Disney's) major properties, but the first book deals with those 66 issues.

Some of them are summarized with one panel, others with several pages, but Piskor mostly manages to make the fragmentary narrative smooth for the reader. Wolverine, Storm, Phoenix Force and other later additions were not yet present in the comics that are Piskor's source material here, but he goes through everything chronologically, so they make small appearances in addition to the actual, original X-Men. Also present are Banshee, Polaris, Havok and nowadays mostly forgotten Mimic who were all members or at least semi-members of the group at some point in the 60s.

The X-Men have slowly accumulated a gigantic backstory during the last 55 years, so it actually takes Piskor the entirety of his first issue to get us where we are at the beginning of the original X-Men #1 – if we get there at all, that is. It is interestingly a bit unclear if Lee and Kirby's first adventure (which is summarized on the second page of Grand Design #2) is compatible with Piskor's rendition despite it being included in the collection, because all of it doesn't add up if you look at the details too hard. For some readers, that may be a disappointment, but I'm fairly sure that with a project like this, the result is more enjoyable if your approach is that of an artist with a vision as opposed to that of a biblical scholar.

In that holiest of holy X-texts Professor Xavier's teenage mutant superhero boys meet Jean Grey for the first time and fight off Magneto who makes his supervillain debut hijacking some missiles. In this adventure, Jean Grey does not have her psychic powers yet (just as Superman could only take long leaps in his first adventures), and so she can only throw some missiles into the sea telekinetically.

In Piskor's retelling, conversely, she is already there when Henry Soon-To-Be-Beast McCoy is kidnapped by supervillain Conquistador and his henchmen. When Cyclops, Iceman and Angel run into trouble freeing McCoy, Xavier sends in Jean Grey to help them. Upon arrival, she turns Conquistador and his minions into drooling vegetables and makes it clear from the first appearance that she is a force to be taken seriously, not only a token female X-Man with a little softer superpower than his male colleagues.

This is one example of the creative freedoms Piskor has taken, and the book is probably stronger because of them. Still, the project is not about surface detail but the grand design, and reading the comic is a peculiar experience. On some level, you understand that the details and specifics of how exactly something happened are unimportant in a work such as this, even though the things Piskor played around with more or less unorthodoxically are probably going to draw most attention.

Diplomatically speaking, some of the original material that Piskor is covering here is not among the most memorable in X-History. I'm sure that most readers are waiting for the following volumes where we get to some of the juicier storylines, like Dark Phoenix Saga, Inferno, Mutant Massacre and what have you. Part of the attraction, I guess, is seeing how Piskor is going to get some of the more massive and significant events of the Claremont era compressed into their essence and fitted into the overarching narrative – I have absolutely no idea how that can ever be pulled off.

The Math

Base Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for visionary storytelling mindset

Penalties: -1 occasionally, there's just too much to take in at once. -1 for weaker source than the forthcoming parts of the series

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

Reference: Piskor, Ed. X-Men: Grand Design 1 [Marvel 2018]


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

Monday, August 27, 2018

Born to the Blade: Episodes 7 & 8

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

Episode 7: Dreadnought

War! Or, at least the first steps towards war have been taken. With the suspicion between Quloo and Rumika over the destroyed shipment of aerstone, Quloo has parked a warship over Twaa-fei and all the nations are more than on edge. They're taking sides, they're breaking old alliances and friendships. The neutral ground of Twaa-fei is looking more and more like it is going to be where the peace of nations is fully shattered.

Though the last episode was titled "Spiraling", that title would be just as apt for this one. Cassandra Khaw is extremely effective at bringing that spiraling distrust to the forefront. Each warder is on edge, Ojo in particular is as tightly wound as it is possible to be.

There is a moment of crowning awesomeness in "Dreadnought", which is that of Lavinia facing down that titular dreadnought. A loaded to bear warship is anchored above Twaa-fei and Lavinia, with just her sword and her skill, is able to use the magic of the forms and symbols of bladecrafting and single handedly take on that warship. It was spectacular and Khaw made that extended sequence do double duty, working through narrative of Kris feeling betrayed by a friend and Michiko's exerting a small bit of independence after finding herself the primary warder of her nation.

Episode 8: Refugees
"You mean like unprovoked attacks, colonialist rhetoric, stronger powers ganging up on the weak? Yes,  I'd say something is going around."
Even in an episodic series as smoothly written as Born to the Blade, there are certain story beats and landmarks that puts me in mind of who the writer is. A story tangentally dealing with refugees (despite the title, which is more a story driver than the story itself) is very much what I would expect from Malka Older.

We're still on the edge of a massive explosion into war. Both Quloo and Rumika are becoming increasingly isolated, though we see Kris Denn from Rumika still working to learn the truth of the destruction of the Rumikan fleet with hints that if he aligns Rumika with the Merkitan Empire that he will receive support. But that goes back to the opening quote about colonialism and stronger powers.

While I'm sure at some point Born to the Blade will erupt into all out war, I'm not in a rush. The gradual alienation is so effective and so - well, entertaining isn't the right word because the parallels to the real world is are just a touch too close for comfort. The alienation is compelling. Will Ojo be torn between duty to his nation or opposing what he feels is wrong? Will Lavinia succeed in driving every other nation to their knees in an echo of American arrogance? Will Rumika truly find allies? There's a lot to think about and more questions than that to see if Older will answer in Episode 9: "Assassination".

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

Microreview [Game]: The Banner Saga Trilogy

With the release of the trilogy's final game earlier this year, Banner Saga has successfully concluded its apocalyptic Viking procession through all my feelings.

It's the last battle of this game, and I already know I'm about to cry.

I always get here slightly differently. I've made the choices that get me to Boersgard enough times now that I know what the big ones will do, but there's still an element of luck in how things go: sometimes more of my clansmen make it, sometimes I play more recklessly or accept help from those who turn around and betray me, and end up paying the price. But when I get to this point, I almost always make the same - extremely off-brand, to those who know my narrative preferences - decision, and it never fails to break my heart. In fact, that's probably why I do it.

The Banner Saga, a trilogy of games whose closing chapter was released in July this year, is full of these sorts of moments. A Norse-inspired fantasy set in a world bursting at the seams with history, Banner Saga follows a group of unlikely heroes as they flee from what appears to be the end of the world: the sun has stopped in the sky and the Dredge, a race of unintelligible metal-clad humanoids, are pouring south in droves, destroying human settlements along the way. In the west, a group of Varl - a race of all-male horned giants, who are slowly dying of old age and battle injuries since the god who made them has died - escort a human prince towards a negotiation at their capital. In the east, the tiny settlement of Skogr becomes one of the first to fall to the Dredge, with hunter Rook and his daughter Alette leading the remainder of their people south towards safety. It quickly becomes clear that more than a simple invasion is going on, and as the stakes get higher, the prognosis for the world gets bleaker and bleaker. It's Rook and Alette who form the heart of this journey, keeping the Banner of Skogr alive through tragedy after tragedy.

Combat-wise, this plays out in a couple of ways. The heart of the game is a tactical, turn-based battle system, where six of our heroes face off against various Dredge, humans, horseborn (centaurs!), bears and more spoilery things. While you're often outnumbered, the game lets you direct individual team members in turns that alternate between each team, until one team has a single person standing. Banner Saga also employs an interesting dual health system where strength and health is determined by the same number. What this means is that a large team of injured (and therefore weak) members can end up being run through by a smaller group at full health who are taking the same number of turns, forcing you to adapt your tactics accordingly. Outside of battle, wider choices about your journey are presented through text-based conversations with your allies and enemies, with choices affecting your supply levels, caravan size and morale. The developers themselves have called this "King of Dragon Pass meets Oregon Trail", which is pretty accurate: some of your extended road-tripping family are going to die on this hopeless march to safety, and the only thing keeping you from total failure are your choices as a post-apocalyptic Viking leader.

And while the combat is highly enjoyable, it's the story that drags me in every time. In the Banner Saga, developers Stoic have honed the concept of hopeless, far-reaching video game choices to an absolute art. I have no doubt that somewhere on the gamer internet, there are guides which lay out in perfect detail what the "right" choices to beat the game are, but the narrative experience itself means that those mechanical decisions are rarely the most satisfying or consistent. Instead, every time I play, I find myself intrinsically invested in choices I know aren't optimal. Yes, my caravan leader says, we'll let these hungry, starving survivors join with us even though we don't have enough food. That's fine, I'll just spend this resource I could otherwise use making my heroes stronger to try and feed everyone. Well, now everyone is underleveled for this upcoming battle, and now they're injured and need to rest, so that's OK, we'll just hang out here and... oh, I've almost run out of food again. I guess I could accept this bribe from the bandit troupe up ahead but... no, I should save the people they are attacking instead. That's the right choice.

And so on, for three games. What the Banner Saga, and other games like it, deliver, is a storytelling experience that's more of a river delta than a straight path. Every time I play, the chapters are the same; the characters move at roughly the same pace across the screen, and fight battles in the same places. But within those chapters, my characters' choices diverge in ways that produce very different narrative experiences. The prince of the humans might survive a siege and learn his lesson, or maybe I could let him die of his own stupidity. A mercenary leader succumbs to madness alone, or confides the dreams and visions that threaten to overtake him to his shieldmaiden. This father does anything to keep his daughter safe and sheltered, while in another life, the same man trusts her to create her own destiny. That the Banner Saga is able to treat all of these permutations as equally valid is one of the most compelling aspects of video game storytelling to me, and the trilogy's final instalment finds a way to bring back even some of the quieter choices for both narrative and gameplay purposes. Having a character near the end call out one of the few choices I did "metagame" for, way back in the Banner Saga 1, turned what was already a tense scene into a moment that literally felt guilty for me as a player. The threat of being locked out of certain endgame relationships because I'd made a super mean choice that the game hadn't punished me for at the time is the kind of thing that can be incredibly frustrating, but in Banner Saga it feels more than justified.

My enthusiasm for this game doesn't mean there aren't things it could have done better. In particular, the human-coded cast are overwhelmingly white (there's one slightly darker skinned Varl and one Mongolian-coded character among those with human racial traits), while the army of Dredge are mostly in jet-black armour, and the generally darker-furred horseborn have a culture that doesn't understand why children shouldn't be murdered. Humans are also overwhelmingly heteronormative, while the Varl, a single-gendered asexual race with no concept of family or romantic love, also end up being textbook examples of toxic masculinity, whose constructive, non-human relationship building is all very much off screen. While the game does a reasonable job of both introducing and interrogating cultural gender roles (see, for example, Becky Chambers' piece on the first instalment), it's very hard not to read the exclusion of diversity as a manifestation of "queer characters and POC wouldn't be historically accurate". In a story driven by increasingly complex interactions with chromatically black metal people coming out of the ground, which therefore clearly does want to interrogate questions about race and difference, this choice is even more indefensible.

From a gameplay standpoint, while the third game maintained my emotional investment and brought closure to the story in a way that I felt did great justice to the characters I'd invested in, some of the core charms of the first two games don't come through as strongly here. In particular, interactions within my caravan were more constrained, with some allies from the first two games now left completely in the background. The story also does a better job of coming full circle on understated plot elements from the Banner Saga 1 than it does integrating what felt at the time like more pressing problems in Banner Saga 2. Without strong presence from a wider range of characters, and with a battle system that becomes increasingly exhausting as you progress, the rising bleakness in this game risks becoming pure emptiness, and I'm not sure I would ever replay this game without going through the first two immediately beforehand, to ensure I encounter it in its proper narrative place.

Despite not being perfect, however, I really do think these games represent something special in gaming and in storytelling. I very rarely reread novels, but I've replayed the first games of this trilogy multiple times, and I've not yet tired of the journey they have taken me on. I suspect the day when a video game reaches the finals of Best Dramatic Presentation are a long way off, but when it does happen, I want it to be something like Banner Saga: a game whose mechanics bring out the absolute best in its all-encompassing, heartbreaking story.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 has permanently invested me in what is, I repeat, a very off-brand narrative choice; +1 did I even mention the animations? ;+1 And the music? Seriously, there is so much understated beauty in this game.

Penalties: -1 It's always a bit sad when the final instalment of a trilogy is the weakest entry, though not by much; -1 suspends disbelief for world-eating serpents and magical lightning but not for LGBTQIA+ characters

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

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

ReferencesThe Banner Saga. Stoic 2015
                     The Banner Saga 2. Stoic 2016
                     The Banner Saga 3. Stoic 2018

Friday, August 24, 2018

Thoughts on the 2018 Hugo Awards

The winners of the 2018 Hugo Awards were announced on Sunday and I would like to offer a hearty congratulations to all of the winners. I've listed them below and for those who don't quite remember who all was nominated (we were!), the previous link also includes the full list of nominees.
Best Novel: The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)
Best Novella: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells ( publishing)
Best Novelette:  “The Secret Life of Bots”, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
Best Short Story: “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (tm)”, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)
Best Series: World of the Five Gods, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Harper Voyager / Spectrum Literary Agency)
Best Related Work: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Best Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long FormWonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins (DC Films / Warner Brothers)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The Good Place: “The Trolley Problem,” written by Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan, directed by Dean Holland (Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television)
Best Editor, Short Form: Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damien Thomas
Best Editor, Long Form: Sheila E. Gilbert
Best Professional Artist: Sana Takeda
Best Semiprozine: Uncanny Magazine, edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, and Julia Rios; podcast produced by Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky
Bet Fanzine: File 770, edited by Mike Glyer
Best Fancast: Ditch Diggers, presented by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace
Best Fan Writer: Sarah Gailey
Best Fan Artist: Geneva Benton
The WSFS Award for Best Young Adult Book: Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor (Viking)
The John W Campell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo): Rebecca Roanhorse

The awesome looking Hugo we didn't win, photo credit Kevin Standlee

Astute readers will note that we lost the Best Fanzine Hugo for the second time. My thoughts on this are a bit complicated right now, but it remains a true and exceptional honor to even be nominated once - let alone twice. I know well how difficult it is to get on the ballot and how long of a road it can be to even get a sniff of what we've now had twice here at Nerds of a Feather.

That for two years the readers of Nerds of a Feather and the members of Worldcon have thought well enough of the work we do here that they are were willing to put our name on their ballots and nominate us for Best Fanzine in sufficient numbers to get us on the final ballot is something that none of us here at take for granted even for a moment. It's a gift and it's one we hold in the highest regard.

I said this last year and it holds as true now as it did then.
We would like to again thank everyone who thought well enough of us to actually put us on their nominating ballot and did so in sufficient numbers to place us on the final ballot. That is awesome, amazing, and humbling. The field is so diffuse and there are so many venues producing really great writing and commentary that it is difficult to truly come to a consensus on which blogs and websites and more traditional fanzines are the ones to stand out from the field. That Nerds of a Feather was considered to be one of them last year is a true honor. So, thank you.
Being a finalist for the Hugo Award means that Nerds of a Feather is a part of the history of science fiction and fantasy fandom. I treasure that. I'm fairly sure I also speak for both Vance and The G when I say that. It is an amazing feeling to receive that notification and we're grateful for it.

I said this privately to our writers, but I would like to say it publicly as well. The reason we even had an opportunity for a Hugo is not because of the work Vance, G, and I are doing behind the scenes. It's because of the high quality of the work our writers are putting out every day. It's the cumulative power of the book reviews and essays and special projects and interviews and none of that happens without these fantastic writers. We may not have won the Hugo Award, but we are absolutely confident that we deserved to be at that table, that the work our writers are doing is as good as anything on that ballot for Fanzine. The name on the ballot might say "The G, Vance Kotrla, Joe Sherry", but it is that full list of contributors, past and present that have built the reputation we have and the every day excellence they deliver that allowed us to even have a chance. They're the best.

I would also like to offer Mike Glyer my heartiest of congratulations for his win and my well wishes for his health and a speedy recovery from his hospitalization during the convention (details here). Glyer's win here marks his 12th overall win. He has now won a Hugo Award 8 times for Fanzine and another 4 wins for Fan Writer. Overall, he has been a finalist an incredible 57 times. That's a mind boggling number is a mark of just how long Glyer has sustained his commitment and participation to providing fan writing and fan reporting, and just how highly regarded he is amongst the Worldcon community.  His first time on the ballot was in 1980 and it wasn't until his fifth time as a finalist that he finally took home a Hugo. Heck, Kathryn Cramer has not won a Hugo after 17 times on the ballot, nor has Jonathan Strahan after 14 times. It's so difficult to comprehend those numbers.

During his acceptance speech, given by Jo Van Ekeren on his behalf,  Mike Glyer recused himself from further nominations for either Fanzine or Fan Writer, which opens up a lot of opportunity for other writers and fanzines to be recognized. Glyer's graciousness in recusal is appreciated.

The Stone Sky (my review) was my favorite novel of 2017 and N.K. Jemisin's third consecutive Hugo Award for Best Novel is a monumental achievement that may never be equaled. Only twice before had an author even won Best Novel in two consecutive years (Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold) and now Jemisin has achieved the unthinkable: she has won the Hugo Award in three consecutive years for each novel of a trilogy. As I mentioned as part of my review: "The Stone Sky is the culmination of the best fantasy trilogy written today." It deserves every accolade it has received. Jemisin was already there in terms of skill and storytelling, but this third Hugo Award cements Jemisin's status as one of the all time greats. It's not hyperbole. These books really are that great.

I was honored to be in the audience for Jemisin's acceptance speech, which will likely also go down as one of the all time great Hugo acceptance speeches. You can read the text of it, or even better, watch it here.
But this is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics” — I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction.
You'll likely see this quote pulled, and it is absolutely perfect - but the whole thing is worth your reading and viewing time. It is powerful, moving, and full of hard and fiery truth. I might have cheered as so many in that auditorium cheered.

Photo Credit Rebecca Roanhorse

Another remarkable story coming out of this year's Hugo Awards is that of Rebecca Roanhorse. She pulled off the exceedingly rare triple of winning both the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, a Hugo for one of the fiction categories, AND a Nebula Award. Jason Sanford reported in his Genre Gossip column that the only other person to have ever done that was Barry Longyear in 1980 for his novella "Enemy Mine". That's quite a feat.

As impressive as that is, Roanhorse was eligible for the Campbell on the strength of just that one story "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" and it was that one story that convinced voters to not only nominate her but to vote for her at the top of their ballots. Having read Roanhorse's 2018 novel Trail of Lightning, I can say with full assurance that she is going to be a star in this genre for  years to come and that Campbell is without a doubt a heralding of a major new talent. Trail of Lightning is a fantastic debut novel (look for Paul Weimer's review on 9/17) and if Roanhorse had not won this year, she would be a clear favorite next year with that novel under her belt.

Photo Credit Olav Rokne
I would also like to congratulate Matt Wallace for winning his first Hugo Award for Best Fancast with Mur Lafferty (Ditch Diggers). I've been a huge fan of his work since reading the first of his Sin du Jour novellas (Envy of Angels) and I've been waging a mini campaign to get more people to read them and preferably nominate them for a Hugo. Thus far they haven't, but remember that the series as a whole is eligible for Best Series next year. I'm losing the point, so let me get back to it: Ditch Diggers is a podcast focusing on the business end of writing and publishing. Wallace and Lafferty give sage advice and hard truths about the work of writing and publishing, the ditch digging of the podcast's title. I am not a fiction writer and have only minimal aspirations to becoming one - but they have put out a podcast entertaining and informative to not only the ones who need to hear their message, but also to just those like me who care about publishing. It's a vital resource and a damn fine podcast.

I'm not sure I could be happier or prouder of Matt Wallace being recognized for the work that he and Mur Lafferty are doing with Ditch Diggers. They absolutely deserve it and I likewise hope to see Wallace back on the Hugo ballot next year for both Taste of Wrath (novella) and Sin du Jour (series).

Now, normally one of my favorite things to work on immediately following the ceremony is to start digging into the voting and nominating statistics and crunch whatever numbers look extra crunchy. I wasn't able to do that this year because I was at the Hugo Ceremony and then at the Hugo Losers Party. I did spend some time in the hotel room before the party digging into as much as I could (we took third again this year!, this time behind the always excellent SF Bluestocking). After that, I went to party with dancing robots and watched George R. R. Martin dance the Time Warp and then present John Picacio with an Alfie for his Mexicanx Initiative. I can't speak for anyone else, but I had a great time and met a whole bunch of awesome fans and writers and fans (and also somehow missed out on meeting an equal amount of fans and writers and fans).

Fortunately, Nicholas Whyte did some really solid work in crunching the results. Some of things to note before Whyte breaks down every category: 
  • Closest result of the night was Best Editor Short Form - Lynne M. Thomas and Michael D. Thomas finished just 6 votes ahead of Sheila Williams.
  • Most crushing victory was File 770 for Best Fanzine, 20 votes short of a first-count win, easily getting there on the second count.
  • Missed being on the final ballot by a single nominating vote:
    • Archive of Our Own (Best Related), would have replaced Sleeping with Monsters;
    • C.C. Finlay (Best Editor, Short Form), would have replaced Sheila Williams;
    • Yuko Shimizu (Best Professional Artist), would have replaced Kathleen Jennings;
    • Black Gate (Best Fanzine), would have replaced Rocket Stack Rank.
Finally, I would like to thank everyone who had us on their nominating ballots, everyone who ranked us on their final ballots and especially the 116 people who ranked us first. It means more than we can express. With any luck we'll all get to do this again and we'll see some of you in Dublin. It's been a privilege to be a Hugo Finalist and, at least for this, it's been an amazing year.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

Pull list was longer than usual so we are diving right into the books this week!

Pick of the Week:
Royal City #14 - While I am sad to see one of my favorite current books come to an end, I am happy that I was able to experience the life of Royal City and highly recommend this series to everyone. Learning about how everyone in this messed up family is coming to peace with the changes in their small town, a death in the family, and the other issues they are dealing with really gives me hope. Hope that people are able to roll with the bad times and persist. The quote that sums this series up for me is from Pat's inner monologue. "That's the thing about the past. It's gone. Just because it forms us, it doesn't mean you have to let it define you forever." Wise words that have a profound meaning given the turbulent times in which we all exist.

The Rest:
Cold Spots #1 - A spooky tale from Cullen Bunn and Mark Torres debuted this week and it leaves me with more questions than answers. There are some sort of presence in the form of ghosts that seem to be gathering in a central location. This has drawn the attention of the town folk and has brought with it unseasonable cold weather. Add in a missing woman and child and we have a very intriguing mystery forming. This book had me at Bunn and horror, but Torres does a phenomenal job with the overall atmosphere and tone for this story. One to keep an eye one.

Daredevil #607 - For the first time since he took the helm I am a bit concerned with where Charles Soule is taking this series. After surprising us with Matt Murdock meeting his twin brother Mike, we learn that Mike was accidentally created by Reader after going over case files Matt sent over to help bring down the Kingpin. While I appreciate the issues that may arise having a Matt Murdock twin interfering with things, I am not quite sold on the idea. It is novel and I will check out the next issue to see what grand plans Soule has for this development.

Darth Vader #20 - After not being sure about the direction Soule is going with Daredevil, it is crystal clear which way he is headed with Darth Vader. I sounds like a broken record talking about this series, but the sheer power and force of Vader in the comics is something to behold. Vader takes swift revenge on a pair of inquisitors he has concerns with and then openly defies the Emperor in order to make a very interesting demand. I won't spoil what Vader wants, but it is clear he wants some space to himself after his slaughter of the Jedi.

Doctor Aphra #23 - To set the scene where this book is headed, Aphra is currently trapped in a floating jail that is dealing with a toxic spore issue and is on a crash course with a neighboring inhabited planet. She and other prisoners have been abandoned and she is currently hatching an escape plan.  I will admit that this arc left a bit to be desired, but it is setting up an epic clash involving Aphra's knowledge that Vader wants to supplant the Emperor. It seems an encoded message has reached Vader and it will be interesting to see how it pans out and the impact it has on the Empire.  After all, public knowledge of such a plot would provide a lot of fuel for the Rebellion.

Redneck #14 - We are finally seeing the bigger universe in which the Texan vampires in Donny Cates' series exist and I am very curious to see what this next arc will bring. We are introduced to the Parliament of Elders who apparently own all of Austin. The Bowman family has houses on the land, but that land is property of this powerful group. These individuals have grand plans for Texas and I have a feeling that this series is going to take a very interesting turn.

Hit-Girl #7 - In part 3 of this mini-series from Jeff Lemire, Hit-Girl remains in Canada and is currently trying to escape from Billy Baker and his gang of thugs. It has been an odd journey with Lemire penning such a violent series, but his subtle touches that hearken back to his ability to connect characters with meaningful relationships add an interesting element as people get their heads lopped off. I will finish this mini-series, but will probably take a break from the upcoming Kevin Smith arc in which Hit-Girl is in Hollywood surrounding the making of an upcoming Hit-Girl movie.

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Microreview [film]: The Time Machine

A great choice for watching classic sci-fi with younger audiences

There was a period of time, about fifteen years ago when I was developing a time-travel screenplay, when I was focused pretty intently on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and a couple of its adaptations. I know I watched the 1960 version with Rod Taylor (probably best known for Hitchcock's The Birds) at that time, but I confess that in my mind it was overshadowed by the really quite bad 2002 version. I wish that had not been the case.

I recently dusted off 1960's The Time Machine, which was produced and directed by legendary cinematic puppet innovator George Pal, to watch with my little girl, and it was a wonderful experience. If you aren't familiar with the story, in the broadest sense it is that an inventor develops a machine — sort of a steampunk chariot with cushioned seating — and travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he finds a race of docile, ignorant humans who call themselves the Eloi. The Eloi are menaced by mysterious creatures of the darkness called Morlocks. The inventor finds the Eloi insufferable and hurries to race back to his own time, only to discover the Morlocks have absconded with his sweet steampunk ride.

There are a lot of things to recommend about this movie. The book was written in 1895, and Pal decided to keep the film's setting there, in order to have George (Taylor) stop off in some "future" times that were now past-tense for the audience, namely World Wars I and II. This gives the film a nice thematic element relevant to Cold War audiences to hang its hat on, as George has here invented the machine in order to try to escape human beings' warlike compulsions, and hopefully find a future time where humans have learned to live in harmony. To our eyes today, the effects are obvious and pedestrian — time-lapse photography, matte paintings, and yes, flaming oatmeal standing in for lava floes — but they are wonderful and fun in a kitschy way. Rod Taylor gives a solid performance he's totally invested in, without winking to the audience. The Morlocks are fantastic. Truly great movie monsters. I mean, the Eloi are deeply irritating, but I found this to be a minor complaint.

The upshot, really, though, was that this was a great way for me to share my love of sci-fi and classic movies with one of my kids. We've watched The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet and the parts with robots have always been big hits, but this was one of the first times my nine-year-old has really sunk her teeth into this kind of movie. We watched it twice in two days, and she asked to read the original Wells book. It's hard to ask for a better outcome than that.

I will also include some fun facts that made a contemporary re-watch of the film extra special (for me). First, Alan Young plays George's best friend. Young went on to become the voice of Scrooge McDuck in Disney's A Christmas Carol. One of George's other friends, and one who has quite too much to drink, thank you, is the actor Tom Helmore, better known perhaps as "Gavin Elster" in Hitchcock's Vertigo. And finally, and this one is something else, there are a handful of music cues I noticed as George is investigating the future that I knew I'd heard before. It took me a while, but then I placed them: they were quoted by Alan Silvestri in the score for Back to the Future. As much as I love Back to the Future, and Silvestri's score, I know have an even deeper appreciation for it, for slipping in quotations from Russel Garcia's The Time Machine score from 25 years earlier. Hats off, Mr. Silvestri, hats off.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for super cool sci-fi art direction and set design, from the time machine to the Morlocks' lair; +1 for the Morlock costumes; +1 for the supporting cast

Penalties: -1 for the Eloi looking like a bunch of Aryan beach bunnies

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10. Stands up against the test of...sorry...time.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather since 2012.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

6 Books with L. Timmel Duchamp

L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, which won a special Tiptree Award honor in 2009, and the founder and publisher of Aqueduct Press. She has published two collections of short fiction: Love's Body, Dancing in Time (2004), which was shortlisted for the Tiptree and includes the Sturgeon-finalist story "Dance at the Edge," the Sidewise Award-nominated "The Heloise Archive," and the Titpree-shortlisted "The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi"; and Never at Home, which includes a 2011 Tiptree-Honor List story, and co-author, with Maureen McHugh, of a mini-collection, Plugged In, published in conjunction with the authors' being GoHs at WisCon. Her Marq'ssan Cycle consists of Alanya to Alanya (2005), Renegade (2006), Tsunami (2007), Blood in the Fruit (2007), and Stretto (2008). Her novel The Waterdancer's World appeared in 2016, and the short novel, The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) appeared in 2005; she has also published the novella De Secretis Mulierum and dozens more short stories and novellas, including "Motherhood, Etc" (short-listed for the Tiptree) and "Living Trust" (Nebula and Homer Award finalist). In addition to her fiction, she has published a good deal of nonfiction. Since 2011 she has been the Features Editor of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. She was also the editor of Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies (Aqueduct, 2006), The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 1 (Aqueduct, 2007), Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles (Aqueduct Press, 2010), Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries from across the Known Multiverse (Aqueduct Press, 2013), and co-editor, with Eileen Gunn, of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2: Provocative essays on feminism, race, revolution, and the future (Aqueduct, 2008). Her latest novel, Chercher La Femme is forthcoming in 2018. 

Today she shares her 6 books with us... 

1. What book are you currently reading?

Mem by Bethany C. Morrow. It’s an elegant deployment a fantastic conceit, exploring the nature of memory and selfhood. Although its style is a sophisticated form of literary fantasy, it resonates powerfully with questions currently in the air, as neuroscientists work on locating specific memories in the brain on the one hand and on understanding consciousness and identity on the other.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

The two not-yet-published books that I’m really drooling over are still, alas, in progress—Karen Joy Fowler’s historical novel about the Booth family (of which Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was a member), which I heard her read from about a week ago, and Eleanor Arnason’s “Hearthworld,” a sequel to her novel Ring of Swords, of which I’ve read an earlier version.

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

Yes! I’m itching to reread Joanna Russ’s entire oeuvre of short fiction. Although I re-read her novels from time to time, I’ve never read all of her short fiction at one go, and lately the strangeness and complexity of her short fictions have been calling to me.

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

This happens more often than one might think. Just a couple of weeks ago I reread the novella that, in my mid-twenties, served as my gateway book into science fiction: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection. On my re-read, I easily recognized all that had captivated me in the mid-1970s, but in this read, the power of its prose and the engaging depictions of the characters drew me through the novella more than its storyline did. I couldn’t help but notice that the most compelling relationship in the novel was that of protagonist Lobey and Spider (who don’t meet until almost halfway through the book), despite the book’s insistence that Lobey’s motive force is the desire to recover/avenge the death of Friza, a la Orpheus and Eurydice, even though the book offers another perfectly good reason for Lobey’s departure from his village. Sad to say, my experience as an editor has a habit of perching on my shoulder, even when I’m reading for pleasure, waiting to pounce. And so, after finishing my re-read, I thought how much better the novella would have been had Delany been able to write the story without Friza—which in 1967 would have been difficult, to say the least. So, while I enjoyed my re-read of The Einstein Intersection and loved its deft thematic explorations, its inner song at times sounded, to my ear, muted or even smothered.

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

That would be Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I probably read it at too young an age, but the story’s emotional power and Jane’s fierce, indomitable spirit resonated with the rebellious, creative child I was. I don’t know if I could call it an influence on my writing, but it was certainly an influence on the parts of me that do the writing.

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

I’m so glad you asked! My latest book is a novel, Chercher La Femme, which began as my response to Stanislas Lem’s Solaris and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film based on the novel. The situation and premise of these works so intrigued me that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. And yet, their tight focus on individual psychology to the virtual exclusion of other aspects of the situation and premise nagged at me, and so I ended up writing a novel in conversation with them. Both Lem’s novel and mine are about what happens when humans enter into communication with a bafflingly alien intelligence that seduces as well as frustrates them; both novels share in common a fascination with the ambiguities and complexities of communication. Of late, science’s growing awareness of the trickiness of communication between species tells me that humans have an urgent need to find new ways of thinking about the intelligence and communicational strategies of nonhuman animals who are, except to the extent that they mimic the responses humans try to elicit from them, pretty much opaque to humans. For me, at least, Chercher resonates with that need.

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

Monday, August 20, 2018

Microreview [book]: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

More than just achieving a sense of wonder, the science of The Calculating Stars is magic. Kowal brings the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and into readers' hearts.

Several years ago I had the honor of attending a military event where Elizabeth Strohfus was the keynote speaker. Strohfus was a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot), a group of female pilots who augmented the Army Air Corps in World War II to free up male pilots to fly overseas in combat capacity. Strohfus told her story and the story of the other WASPs, of how hard they trained, of how they later trained male and female pilots, tested new aircraft, flew aircraft into actual combat theatres overseas, and also towed targets behind their aircraft so that male pilots could practice with live ammunition. Think about that last bit for a moment.

Everything about Strohfus’s story was remarkable. These women wanted so badly to fly and they put up with so much. Cast off uniforms from the men, disrespect and open antagonism from male pilots and administration, not being considered military (any WASP who died during service was not accorded military benefits and her family would be responsible for paying for the transport of her body), and worst of all, open sabotage from the male pilots. That’s a thing that happened. It pissed me off when I first heard Strohfus’s story and it pisses me off now.

The Calculating Stars from Mary Robinette Kowal is the story of Elma York, a former WASP pilot turned computer for NACA (a forerunner of NASA). If you’ve read Kowal’s Hugo Award winning story “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, you know how Elma’s story ends. The Calculating Stars is how it begins, assuming of course Kowal doesn’t later tell stories of Elma’s days as a WASP (since that is Elma’s true beginning). Elma just wants to fly. She’s a better pilot, smarter, and a quicker thinker than most of the men. But since she’s not a man, her role was as mathematician who never stopped dreaming of the sky and the stars.

In the aftermath of a meteorite strike that obliterates Washington D.C. and puts humanity on a course towards extinction, the future of human life is in space and NACA is kickstarting the space program. Kowal brings readers in on the ground floor towards manned space flight and the discrimination Elma York faces as she tries to get women to be seriously considered for the astronaut program. If humanity’s future is on another world, women will need to be included at some point. The Calculating Stars tells the story of how that happens. That's not so much a spoiler as an acknowledgement that the front cover and spine of this books has the tag "A Lady Astronaut Novel". There is a certain expectation for where this is going to go, for where this has to go regardless of your familiarity with "The Lady Astronaut of Mars".

Friends, I loved this book. Let's just get that out of the way right now. I absolutely loved it.

There are certain story beats that are familiar if you've read (or seen) Hidden Figures. The Calculating Stars is the story of a woman (and women) rising up and overcoming obstacles and more than earning a spot at the table, a spot that by skill, scholarship, and accomplishment that a man would have been granted for doing less. It's the age old story, but it's exceptionally well told. Elma York has to fight to overcome both institutional sexism as well as the personal sexism and disdain of the most famous astronaut in the corps. That aspect of the novel can be exhausting. It's more than that, too, because Kowal notes the racism of the time - of the further opportunities denied because of the color of a woman's skin. It doesn't all become too much, but there is a significant weight to the novel because of all of it.

This is part of what makes Elma's story so thrilling - that she has so much bullshit to overcome that she shouldn't. It would be a thrilling story just to become an astronaut, just to get to go to space - with or without the stakes of the Earth potentially becoming uninhabitable. Elma and the other women overcoming the sexism and racism, that just makes the accomplishment all the sweeter (if still frustrating to read).

It's not just Elma overcoming everything stacked against her that makes The Calculating Stars such a fantastic read, it's the completely thrilling mundanity of a countdown towards a launch. It's the checklists and the waiting. It's tremendous and exhilarating. We've been on this journey with Elma for some four hundred pages and The Calculating Stars is beyond a sense of wonder. I'd say that it's magic, but it's science. It's near perfection.

It's everything encompassed in this quote that I'll close with.
Weeping would be an unfortunate choice. I am an astronaut. I am inside a space-suit. And I am going into space today.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 because The Calculating Stars captures as accurately as possible what it would have taken to get women into the space program under impossible circumstances and make it feel both authentic and modern.

Penalties: -1 for the sometimes exhaustion of Elma needing to fight overt and subtle sexism over and over and over again.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10, "very high quality/standout in its category" See more about our scoring system here.

Reference: Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars [Tor, 2018]

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

Friday, August 17, 2018

Microrreview [book]: Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Empire of Silence starts a new space opera series, chronciling the rise to power of a protagonist who is destined to do great and terrible things to alien species and humanity alike.

Hadrian Marlowe is a criminal, on the edge of his survival, captured and scheduled to be executed for his crimes. We are told he is guilty of genocide of an alien species, and mass murder, including that of the Emperor himself, destroying a sun and killing billions of human beings in the process. He is a terrible, mythic figure in the far future he inhabits. And now he is stands ready to tell his story to readers.

Empire of Silence starts his life story, starting with his upbringing as the son of an Archon, the presumptive heir to a rich and powerful noble who is himself one of the most powerful vassals to his liege lady (the mother of his wife). In other words, it is a position of privilege and wealth and power undreamed in a far future feudal future. Hadrian does not want particularly to be Heir, he would rather be a scholar. However. his father has plans of his own for his son, and they revolve around the powerful religious arm of the Empire, the Chantry. The collision of those desires land Hadrian on a distant planet, with nothing save a chance to rise to his terrible destiny.

There are some interesting things the book does well. There are touches of the worldbuilding that really sung to me as a reader. The main character is very interested in languages, has multiple languages under his belt, and so the text spends lots of time with other languages, their nature and structure  The book  makes use of those other languages as a tool for description as well as worldbuilding and character development. In the moment, in the head for these details, the novel shows it's richness and strength, best.

There is a rich and varied universe in here, too, beyond language. There are extensive appendices at the back with names, planets, and concepts and these concepts are also well introduced into the book. The author spares nothing in filling his world with these concepts. The appendices explain that the book is a translation into classical English, with approximations, which is why the book is full of classical references and names, especially for military terms. This does reinforce the feudal future nature of the world, but gives it a Greco-Roman cast to that feudal future more than a Medieval one.

For all the novel tries to do well, there is, for me as a reader, a gigantic and unmistakable flaw in it’s worldbuilding and that is the ill conceived sense of scale and expanse of the Empire and other polities around it.  We are told and shown very early that the Empire is very big, huge, sprawling across arms of the galaxy in size. It’s been around for millenia. And yet, the faster than light travel that the Empire and other worlds have is painfully slow and the distances are just too vast for believability that this entity could last. Hadrian wants, early on, to be a emotion-free scholar like his beloved tutor Gibson, a scholiast. He is told that as he gets on board the vessel, that it will take a total of 13 years and that he has to be a cryogenic freezer for the trip. And this seems to be the norm, since there are passengers who have already been on the ship in the freezers for 21 years, on a voyage to yet somewhere else. These time frames just don’t work in the real world. How can the Empire maintain itself and keep from fracturing again and again when it takes years for the Empire to actually do anything. There is a FTL communications system, which does help, but if it takes years for an Imperial fleet to get to a rebellious system, that system has plenty of time to lay in enough surprises for any incomers.

Trade and commerce are even worse. What merchant on a spaceship is going to take a ten year journey in a freezer with only automatic controls to guide oneself? Especially since there are no guarantees that bad things won’t happen on the far end because of failed technology? Or, oops, in the four years it took you to get there from the next system over, the planet has a plague and you can’t even refuel, sorry. Also there is a mention at one point that the alien indigenous members of a planet had been taken off world to others, as use as slaves. How? How did they manage to freeze them successfully in the first place, given how little they actually know about the alien’s biology?  The book also makes uranium of all things, an extremely valuable resource, enough that it’s made the fortune of the Marlowe family. That’s really this galaxy-spanning civilization can do? Uranium? Even with the theoretical technological restrictions?

The problem of Hadrian, though, is inescapable even when the novel was head-down on a planet and the worldbuilding of the galaxy could be ignored. We remain entirely in Hadrian’s point of view, without deviation, and frankly, if you are going to serve up a main character who has a grand destiny to stride the stars, parallax is precisely what you need. Even Irulan-style epigrams would have been welcome to give us some perspective outside of the man’s own head. Instead, I felt trapped with a character I wanted perspective on more than a deep dive into his discursive thoughts.

In addition, Empire of Silence, in my opinion,  is trying too hard to be Dune. Although as noted above, there is plenty of invention, a fair amount of it is in straight up aping of Herbert’s novels. The parallels get repetitive in the worldbuilding over, and over. Religious order with lots of power and independent of the Emperor. Check. Strong theoretical bias against certain kinds of technology. Check (although that prohibition and regulation seems to often be more lip service than anything we see inside the story). Personal shields that stop missile and beam weapons but not hand to hand combat? Check. People trained to work with statistics and logic, instead of forbidden computers. Check. Past History that hints at a revolt and reaction against Artificial Intelligences. Check. Atomic weapons possessed by Houses, but not allowed to be used. Check. Intrigue between Houses, including the importance of bloodlines. Check. Hints at a cosmic, grand destiny for the main character right from the start. Check. It became a game for me to try and spot these sorts of things as the novel progressed. The main character starts on a lush edenic world where he has power, journeys to another world, loses his power and status, and has to build it up again. Instead of a desert world, he is on a ocean dominated world. And so forth.

By the end, with Hadrian’s life story only partly begun, I felt something I should not feel at the end of reading a book: relief. I am, sadly, not inclined to read more in the universe. Starting off with this being a Confessions style narrative tells me that I know where Hadrian Marlowe is going to end up...and frankly, there is a lack of interest in the character for me as a reader to want me to fill in the gap between the ending of this book, and his imprisonment. Certainly, parts of the world are rich and interesting, even if as an aggregate it makes no sense, but the desire to see more of the universe when I am not invested in Hadrian enough to want to do so? No.


Baseline Assessment 6/10

Bonuses : +1 for strong and interesting individual ideas on worlds and cultures
+1 for immersive description

Penalties : -1 for the inescapable problems of the basic space opera conceit.
-1 for a lack of perspective on a main character badly in need of one.
-1 for trying too much to ape a classic SF novel without being it’s own thing

Nerd Coefficient :5/10: problematic, but has redeeming qualities

Reference:  Ruocchio, Christopher: Empire of Silence[DAW, 2018]

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

Ruocchio, Christopher [2018]