Thursday, December 13, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

While the news is about a month old, I don't think I have shared that Hulu ordered a pilot based on Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire! Lemire is one of my favorite creators and Sweet Tooth is in my top 5 comics of all time. I am curious to see how the comic will translate to the small screen and hope this gets picked up.

Pick of the Week:
The Batman Who Laughs #1 - When I learned that Scott Snyder was teaming up with Jock for a new Batman miniseries that brought shades of horror back to the Dark Knight I was quite excited. I am happy to report that the first issue didn't disappoint as Batman is now confronted with a Joker/Batman hybrid from another realm. Apparently Joker, no matter what the realm, has a fail safe that will release Joker toxin if anyone were to actually kill him. The Batman in the other realm was successful and is now a Batman who has been poisoned by the Joker toxin and is a force to be reckoned with. Nobody is sure why he has made the trip to this realm, but it isn't good and Batman is desperate to team up with his Joker in a feeble attempt to stop this mad man. Definitely a bit cliche, teaming up with your arch nemesis, but cliche plays well in Batman and I am curious to see where this is headed.

The Rest:
Miles Morales: Spider-Man #1 - In preparation for the movie that is coming out this weekend I thought I should read some Miles Morales. I haven't read any since he debuted many years ago and a reboot is the perfect time to start! Saladin Ahmed does a great job reacquainting the reader with some events in the past that have led Miles to his current predicament. In addition to learning about Miles' school, friends, and personal life, we are taught a bit about his family and are led into the story that is going to drive the first arc. It contains spoilers so I won't go into details, but it is an interesting premise that brought The Rhino to town and I am excited to read more. I will likely share this book with my son who is very excited to see the new movie this weekend.

Birthright #34 - We are reaching a turning point for this series and Mikey is forced to confront his younger brother who has been taken over by a magical toxic brought by the witch Kallista. Mikey refuses to fight his brother and we are treated with flashbacks of their relationship prior to Mikey's disappearance.  This was an interesting issue, and while it contained its fair share of violence, really focused on the relationship between two brothers. Despite their differences and how much they have changed due to recent events, they remain connected by a powerful bond. I am a bit worried for what will happen in the next issue, but excited to see Joshua Williamson start to steer this series towards its conclusion in issue #50.

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Recent Recommended Short Fiction, December 2018

As an SFF fan who gravitates towards novels for the bulk of their reading, I am now used to the annual panic of reaching the end of the year, when recommended reading lists start coming out and people start thinking about their Hugo nominations, and realising that I've barely scratched the surface of the excellent short fiction that has come out. In the second half of this year, I've got better at doing something about it - I've taken some time to curate and make sure that I'm reading the subscriptions I have, in formats that I like (i.e. ebooks - web-based fiction reading is a big nope for me). I'm happy to report that the effort has paid off, and it means I have some recommendations to share!

Not So Stories, edited by David Thomas Moore

As the name suggests, this collection from Saga Press riffs off Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, but through a lens which explicitly addresses and unpacks the colonial legacy of those stories and the wider implications of having a white Edwardian impose and define the folklore of another continent for generations of young people. The result is a mix of "animal fables" and human narratives, with the defining thread being about stories and storytelling rather than the exact form of the Just So Stories. Although the jumps between "timeless" animal fables and more contemporary tales are a little jarring at points, this is still a well-curated collection that was very easy to get through in one sitting, and there's a range of talents on display here. For example, "How the Ants got their Queen" is, on the surface, a straightforward retelling of the history of colonialism and of the history of nations after the colonial power leaves, but the style and the reimagining as a story of ants and pangolins makes it one of the strongest stories in the collection. "Queen", by Joseph E. Cole, is another great entry (and an author debut!), telling of a meeting between the Queen and a young girl, and the story which the Queen imparts. There's also some wonderful "lighthearted" entries including "How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off" by Paul Krueger, "How the Tree of Wishes gained its Carapace of Plastic" by Jeanette Ng, and Zina Hutton's cat-based story of gods and belonging, "Strays Like Us".

Rating: 7/10

Uncanny Magazine Issue 25, edited by Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damien Thomas and Michi Trota. (Read online for free!)

Uncanny is an institution with a deservedly beloved place in genre fiction at the moment, and this, the first issue in their fifth year of operations, is about as close to perfect as I can imagine a single magazine issue being (a feat which is particularly impressive given it comes on the heels of the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue, which also had a great deal to recommend it.) In "How to Swallow the Moon", Isabel Yap kicks off the issue with a fairytale retelling drawing on Filipino myths about the bakanawa - a moon-eating serpent - as part of a queer coming-of-age love story with twists that will be satisfying to anyone who enjoys this form of myth-exploration. There's also a T. Kingfisher story which is sure to be an instant hit, particularly with those who like the more ribald notes of humour in her other work. "The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society" is based around various males of the magical persuasion getting together to commiserate about Rose, the woman who got exactly what she wanted - without any pesky heartbreak or murder - out of their various fey liaisons. Also in the issue are a Sofia Samatar reprint, some great short fiction from Monica Valentinelli and Cassandra Khaw, and an insightful essay about Diana M. Pho about how writing fanfiction has shaped their work as an editor (and some poetry, which I'm absolutely no good at analysing the quality of, but hey, poetry!)

For me, though, the standout was "The Thing About Ghost Stories" by Naomi Kritzer: a story about a researcher who catalogues stories of the supernatural, and how this leads to final contact with her mother, who recently died after a period of living with Alzheimer's. Kritzer has such a wonderful light touch as an author, letting the main character cope with the grief of losing her mother -- to an illness where much of her was already "lost" before her passing -- in a way that feels real without being heavy. I think short fiction soars when stories pair interesting supernatural (or science fictional) ideas with evocative emotional content, and Kritzer crafts an outstanding example of that here.

Rating: 9/10

Awakenings, edited by The Book Smugglers. (Read online for free!)

Like many, I was sorry to see the Book Smugglers' announcement that their publishing wing will be closing at the end of December, but 2018 is a hell of a year for them to go out on, with six strong stories ranging from short to novella, all collected in this year's-end anthology. It's a lineup that showcases what I like most about the Book Smugglers' editorial line: their eye for diversity, for emotionally driven stories without easy answers, and for young adult themes like coming-of-age within the short fiction world. As you'd expect, "Awakenings" gets a pretty broad interpretation across the stories here, which range from epic fantasy to alt-historical first contact to transhumanism and stories of magic school. It's perhaps a more painful collection than I was expecting; it turns out some "awakenings" lead us only to death or pain, and others can be ambiguous at best. Still, nothing feels forced or unearned, and if one story ("Timshala" by Leah Cypess, the only novella of the bunch) feels like it ends right at the point the fun should start, that's a narrative decision that's given plenty of in-text justification.

My favourite of the six is the first: "When the Letter Comes" by Sarah Fox, a story about being left out of easy magical answers and having to work through your own transformation - and the power that brings. Also worthy of note is the deeply unsettling novelette "Nussia" by Michele Tracy Berger, which is probably the best story here, but gave me stomach ache with its unforgiving vision of an alien teenager's highly publicised stay with a Black family in the 1980s. The Awakenings stories are all available for free online but, at least until the end of the month, you can also avail yourself of the handy collected version, which also puts insightful author interview after each story.

Rating: 7/10

FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 8: Pilgrimage, edited by Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins

The theme of this FIYAH issue is pilgrimage, and its a topic that brings out an impressive and very different quartet of stories. "Bullet", by Stephen Kearse, tells the story of a pilot flying a "bullet" ship designed to destroy an entire planet across two years of space, and their attempts to either sabotage or come to terms with the journey they've decided to undertake. In "Magicians Trial" by Sarah A. Macklin, a young woman returns to the birthplace of humanity to take the test that will allow her to become a sorceress: a test that requires her to confront and address different aspects of herself. It's not spectacularly original, but Macklin handles the tropes well and those who enjoy fantasy coming-of-age stories will find satisfaction in how she allows her protagonist to triumph after solving the puzzles put in front of her. 

Then there's "Pedaling", by Tuere T.S. Ganges: a story very much in conversation with Octavia Butler's Parable stories (to the extent where they could plausibly be set in the same world), about a diverse group of teenagers travelling a lightly post-apocalyptic society trying to survive and to support those they meet. The use of Butler's "so be it, see to it" affirmation, and the care and community which the teenagers bring to each other - completely subverting the usual stereotypes that would be attached to a gang of teens of colour in a world like this - was heartwarming, and the plot gives them a nice way to showcase their talents and humanity against a deliberately two-dimensional white supremacist enemy. Rounding out the prose fiction is "Saudade", a story of survival in a post-spaceflight Korea, which I liked least of the four but still more than holds its own. (There's poetry too, including a great take on the Rapunzel myth by Doxa Zannou.)

Rating: 8/10

Fireside Magazine October - December, edited by Julia Rios.

Fireside's fourth quarter (which, for full disclosure, I read through a monthly ebook subscription rather in their physical "Fireside Quarterly" issues, although I envy all who receive the latter!) contains one S-rank among all the As: "STET" by Sarah Gailey, an unusual piece told in the form of marginal editorial comments on the first page of a journal article. Contained within this inventive structure is an excruciatingly good - and bitter - tale about artificial intelligence and the value of life in a world of machine learning and algorithms. The story also effectively addresses the tensions between lived experience and "professionalism", as the author of the article struggles to retain her rage at the technology they are writing about in the face of editorial concern that wants to separate their individual, emotional identity from the argument they trying to make. To say more would be to spoil the effect of the piece itself, which you honestly just need to read immediately.

That's not the only thing to look out for this quarter, of course. In "And I Never Named Her" by Renee Christopher, we follow the protagonist on a hunt for a mysterious creature, whose form and identity haunts them throughout the process. "Birch Daughter" by Sara Norja is a fairy tale of rescue and adventure, with bears! "Cleaning Up", by Brian M. Milton, is a fabulous tale of supernatural janitorial heroics, with a bonus talking cat. And December also brings a reprint of "All The Time We've Left to Spend" by Alyssa Wong, which was one of the outstanding stories from the Robots Vs Fairies anthology from earlier this year.

Rating: 8/10 overall (but STET is at least a 9 on its own)

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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Microreview [Book]: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky stands well on its own but, when coupled with The Calculating Stars, is a masterpiece.

"Do you remember where you were when the stars came out? I was with my husband, on Mars."
After reading The Calculating Stars (my review) earlier this year, I wrote about how Mary Robinette Kowal did more than achieve a sense of wonder, she brought the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and directly into readers hearts. The Calculating Stars was a masterful novel that will surely find a place on many Year's Best lists and a number of awards ballots. It's a lot to live up to, but the near perfection of The Calculating Stars only serves to whet the appetite for The Fated Sky.

The Fated Sky picks up a few years after the end of The Calculating Stars. There is a fledgling base and colony on the moon, regular round trip missions from the earth to the moon, and the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) is planning for its first Mars mission. Each of the two books are tagged as "Lady Astronaut" novels and Mary Robinette Kowal won a Hugo Award for her story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars". We know how the progression of Elma's story, where she ends up. It isn't about spoiling the ending, the beauty of The Fated Sky is in the journey. In this case, a journey to Mars.

I watched Hidden Figures (again) earlier in the day that I wrote this review and while the stronger comparison is to the first Lady Astronaut novel, The Calculating Stars, the story of the three black women overcoming institutional, societal, and personal prejudice and racism resonates with the story being told by Mary Robinette Kowal. It's not the same thing, let's be clear of that. The story of Elma York is the story of a white woman overcoming sexism to reach the stars, but as Kowal acknowledges throughout the two novels with the experiences of the men and women of color, there is still privilege in that prejudice. There is back story in the Lady Astronaut novels touching on the racism and oppression faced by black men and women in the United States as seen through the lens of the astronauts of color who have to work harder and receive fewer opportunities than their white counterparts. This is seen even in the character of Elma York who, despite her own struggles with systemic prejudice, is still advanced over those peers who do not share her skin color. To Kowal's credit, this is something continually acknowledged and addressed.

Knowing that Elma York eventually does arrive on the red planet and early enough to receive the moniker of "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", the opening of the novel serves to move characters and story around to get Elma onto that Mars mission. One of those characters moved is Helen Carmouche, Elma's friend and, incidentally, a woman of Asian descent. It is a case of a minority once again being bumped for a white astronaut, and that for a white astronaut who hasn't done the same amount of work and has to catch up to the training of the rest of the crew. It's not that Elma York is not a qualified or skilled astronaut, it's that Elma is also a bit of a celebrity astronaut and her presence will help maintain the funding required for the mission. Taken in isolation, this is perhaps not a big deal. But, these things are never in isolation and are always an accumulation of slights and indignities. A notable and important part of The Fated Sky is Elma's growing understanding of her privilege and of the discrimination faced by some of her peers, as well as Elma's working through and working out how to support those peers in a way they would like to be supported.

The beating heart of The Fated Sky is the training for and journey to Mars, as seen through the eyes and perspective of Elma York. It is so good. The sense of wonder from The Calculating Stars is still there, but it's different now. Elma has already been to space. There's still joy in the voyage, but it's not new. It's not shiny. It is wonderful. Training for Mars offers its own set of challenges, but Elma does not have to prove that she belongs in the program the same way she did in the previous novel.

Space travel, however, is something else. Kowal gets across both the monotony of the daily routine tasks of space travel as well as the hair's breadth precariousness of the whole enterprise, where a clogged toilet is a serious health concern and not cleaning the lint traps in a dryer can be a life threatening emergency.

Kowal shines in the intersection of the interpersonal relationships with the science and drama of space travel. Elma is as beautifully written as she was in The Calculating Stars, but there is a greater internal depth to her characterization. She continues to strive to overcome her imperfections, to do better as an astronaut, a colleague, and a human being. The most remarkable achievement in The Fated Sky was how Kowal handled the character of Stetson Parker, the misogynist (and all around asshole) senior astronaut who spent much of The Calculating Stars working against Elma's achievement. Here he is the mission commander making the on-the-spot decisions and judgments. Parker issues with Elma remain. They don't like each other, seldom give the other benefit of the doubt, and we well remember his background. He was Elma's antagonist in The Calculating Stars, but Kowal shows his humanity in The Fated Sky. He's not exactly likeable, though even Elma notes that he can be remarkably charming and that he knows how to manage people on an individual level during a mission or training scenario. A detente is reached, if not actual peace, when Elma and Stetson can begin to understand each other as people rather than opponents. At no point does Kowal diminish or sweep aside the very real issues with Stetson Parker as a person, but how his character is developed and explored is fascinating to follow.

The Fated Sky may not have the same newness and sense of wonder that only a first book in a series can have, but it delivers in all the ways that matter. The raw joy of being in space is there. The amazement of landing on a new planet is palpable, where it doesn't matter if you are the first man or woman to place your foot on that soil. The simple fact of being there is wondrous and Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey that emotion so perfectly the reader experiences it.  The Fated Sky stands well on its own, but when coupled with The Calculating Stars it is a masterpiece.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 because Kowal overcomes the difficulty of losing that initial sense of discovery of the first novel and still delivers a novel just as powerful and wondrous as The Calculating Stars.

Penalties: -1 because even when she makes mistakes, Elma sometimes seems to be leading an overly charmed life of everything going her way.

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

Reference: Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky [Tor, 2018]

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

Nanoreviews: Jade City, Moon of the Crusted Snow, Space Opera

Lee, Fonda. Jade City [Orbit, 2017]

Any commentary on Jade City which does not mention The Godfather is avoiding the the obvious comparison. The thing is that even though the comparison is obvious and easy does not mean that it isn't apt and on point. Jade City is the story of two rival gangster clans vying for control of Janloon, a city of on the island of Kekon. The No Peak and Mountain clans control neighborhoods and collect tribute / protection money from businesses in their districts and are in a perpetual state of armed rivalry with each other for more territory and resources.

Fans of crime and mob fiction will find plenty to love here. The setting of Jade City feels much like a 1970's era city and the novel plays out like The Godfather with Magic. The novel is told much more from the perspective of the No Peak Clan, so the characterization there is much stronger, coming across as both familiar and fresh. To give balance to the narrative, in just a few bold strokes, sentences, and scenes, Fonda Lee absolutely nails down two major characters of the Mountain Clan and breathes greater life into the war between clans.

Jade City is one of the best novels of 2017 and my only regret is that I did not read it earlier so I could have nominated it for all of the awards.
Score: 9/10

Rice, Waubgeshig. Moon of the Crusted Snow [ECW Press, 2018]

Imagine something goes wrong. The power goes out, phone lines and cell towers are down, an isolated community becomes completely shut off and forced to be self reliant during a hard northern winter. There are bare hints of the wider world and whatever the greater societal problem is has little bearing on the lives of this Native community.

Moon of the Crusted Snow tells the story of a remote Anishinaabe community in northern Canada. Knowing a novel is post apocalyptic sets up certain expectations in the reader and Waubgeshig Rice subverts those. This is a novel of quiet survival, of social pressure and changes in the face of disaster, of community, of maintaining a way of life in the face of what otherwise seems like the impossible. In a sense, Moon of the Crusted Snow reminds me a bit of When the English Fell, David Williams' novel of a collapsing world told from the perspective of an Amish community.

I appreciated the deliberateness of the storytelling, how tight the novel is to limited character perspective. It would be so easy to reveal too much of what the wider global (or even regional) story might be, but Rice holds back and Moon of the Crusted Snow is all the stronger for it.
Score: 7/10

Valente, Catherynne M. Space Opera [Saga, 2018]

The most common reference point for Space Opera is the legendary Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a novel of galactic absurdity. It was a bold statement the first time I heard it made and it remains a bold statement now that I've read Space Opera. The thing is, it is not an unreasonable claim that Space Opera is today's successor to Douglas Adams' classic. Now, only time will tell is Space Opera holds up in decades to come or if we'll talk about Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes in the same tones that we do Arthur Dent, Marvin, and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Valente's novel is Eurovision in Space and it is absolutely delightful and once Valente gets Decibel Jones to that Megagalactic Grand Prix, the novel kicks into high gear and maximum absurdity with high entertainment and real emotion. It's one hell of a novel.
Score: 9/10

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Microreview [book]: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand is an immersive and compulsively readable epic fantasy that draws on traditions and cultures and milieus, the Mughal Empire, a culture and heritage hitherto rarely seen in the Western fantasy tradition.

Mehr is the daughter of the Governor of Irinah, the now-province of the Empire that her mother, long since estranged and gone from her life and her father’s, comes from. As he never married her mother, and now has a wife from the core of the Empire, the status of Mehr, and her younger sister Arwa is illegitimate and thus constantly imperiled. Her stepmother has very strong ideas what it means to be the daughter of the governor, and her control over the household, and the lives of Mehr and Arwa is ironclad. Worse, the sisters are of a persecuted and despised minority, the Amrithi. The desert dwelling Amrithi are treated with fear and scorn for the magical power in their blood, a power that Mehr does not think she shares herself, even as she tries to live within the traditions of their culture as best she can. But when Mehr’s very real ability comes to the forefront and manifests, the Empire suddenly has a use for Mehr, and a fate that she may not be able to escape.

This is the story of Tasha Suri’s debut novel, Empire of Sand.

Mehr and her story are the heart of this story. The novel opens with building up her life within the world of the Governor’s Palace and how her status is on the edge of a knife. Her absent birth mother, her stepmother Maryam, Arwa and her relations with the servants of the palace and people beyond provide a relationship map that helps define and highlight Mehr in the early stages of the book. Later, we meet her father, and we meet the man whom the Empire has determined she will marry, Amun. As the setting of the novel moves from the palace to the temple that the Empire has sent her, the relationships and connections around Mehr change sharply, and it is Mehr’s need to remain true to herself, even in a very foreign place, where trust is a dangerous card to play.

Empire of Sand reminded me as I started to read it and progressed deeper into the novel,  of Kare Elliott’s first Spiritwalker novel, Cold Magic. Non-European culture, check. Young female protagonist with the potential from a heritage she does not understand with supernatural ancestry, including an absent birth parent. Check. Growing up in a relatively sheltered and enclosed locale, and then taken away from that locale by means of an unexpected, forced marriage to a mage, whose relationship is thorny and a subsequent plot driver. Check. I do think that readers who enjoyed the Spiritwalker series would really enjoy what Suri does here in Empire of Sand.

The world that the author portrays is also fresh and interesting and something new and different. The author was inspired by the Mughal Empire in Northwest and North India for the cultures and society we see in the novel. Using that template, we are portrayed a world of a grasping empire, seeking to conquer all and sundry, including cultures and kingdoms very different than the center. Setting a novel in a distant desert province of an Empire doesn’t *sound* new, but there is a rich authenticity that is portrayed on the pages. With sleeping gods, supernatural beings, and the reality bending Dreamfire storms that periodically afflict Irinah and beyond, it is a rich and well developed world. From the corridors of the palace, to the stark beauty of the desert, to the temple of the Maha, all of the locations that Suri invokes in the novel richly put me as a reader into the setting. I particularly liked the daiva, which we meet early in the novel, and their ties and connections to both humans and Gods a mystery and piece of the world that is slowly revealed as the plot unfolds.

While I see the necessity of the strand, I think that the chapters where we break Mehr’s point of view to show other points of view, particularly her friend Lalita, do not feel as crisp and does not feel as deep, as the main narrative with Mehr. This secondary strand does provide for a lot of shorthand for when that strand finally intersects Mehr, but I don’t think the story in that strand is anywhere near as cohesive as Mehr’s story. I was always ready to go back to Mehr and what she was doing, instead. I had a lot of buy in to her story and her relationships, much more than any other character.

Overall, Empire of Sand is a rich and very promising debut in a world with a central character that I want to know much more about. Empire of Sand delivers on fantasy “Beyond the Great Wall of Europe”, and in spades.The ending of the novel makes it clear that this is the first in a series, but the ending of this novel is a satisfactory one for those who want an “off ramp”. A complete, and most excellent story, is told in this volume.

The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a strong main character with believable and deep relationships
+1 for rich and immersive worldbuilding

Penalties : -1 for less effective switches in point of view that do not resonate as well as the main narrative.

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

Reference:  Suri, Tasha Empire of Sand  [Orbit, 2018]

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

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

I'm not sure if it is a change in the weather or if I caught something from one of my kids, but today's Thursday Morning Superhero will be on the short side as I am currently battling a wicked cold.  Cheers!

Pick of the Week:
Batman #60 - After a long hiatus from this series I decided to check out what Tom King had cooking for the Dark Knight and really enjoyed what I read. It is part three of a story called "The Tyrant Wing" and Batman is completely unhinged. He has concerns about Bane secretly running operations in Arkham and is beating anyone who recently got out of Arkham senseless. In addition, Penguin is being held prisoner in the Bat Cave and says he has insights on Bane's operations. The problem is that everyone who is out on parole swears that Bane is holed up in his cell doing nothing. King has definitely returned to the darker side of Batman and I am looking forward to reading the earlier issues in this arc and am curious about the development that was revealed at the end. I won't spoil anything, but it has the potential of being a game changer.  Very happy I decided to return to this series.

The Rest:
Star Wars Adventures: Destroyer Down #2 - This series about the Ghost Ship and the quest to pillage it by Rey and company on Jakuu and the flashback to see how the Ghost Ship ended up on Jakuu continues to be highly entertaining. A series for all-ages of Star Wars fans, this book gives us a glimpse into Rey's life prior to TFA and a bit more on her interaction with relics of the Rebellion. Sometimes it is nice to find a book that is just fun to read. It might not have the depth of some of the other series, but you leave feeling entertained.

Prodigy #1 - Edison Crane has the unique ability to learn anything faster than anyone in the world. When his dad grew frustrated with him, he cut his inheritance to only one dollar which Crane turned into over $1 billion in a year. He is constantly commissioned to write screenplays, compose music, and solve mysteries. Recently there is a rash of spontaneous combustion in humans and animals in Australia. Crane is convinced that this is the early signs of an invasion and I am a bit intrigued. Crane is as cocky and over-the-top as a lot of Mark Millar's creations.  From learning how to fight from martial arts as a 10-year old to performing open heart surgery on a friend, Crane is definitely an interesting character. 

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Feminist Futures: The Future is Female!

Dossier: Yaszek, Lisa. The Future is Female! [Library of America, 2018]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: The subtitle to The Future is Female! is "25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin", which is a fairly accurate summation of the anthology editor Lisa Yaszek has put together, though it is interesting that in collecting the stories from three eras she has chosen to note Pulp as an era but mark the ending as a single author.

Yaszek reaches farther back in time than most with The Future is Female! The earliest story, "The Miracle of the Lily" was published in 1928 and the next two, "The Conquest of Gola" and "The Black God's Kiss" were published in 1931 and 1934 respectively. "Black God's Kiss" is a particularly well considered selection as marks the first appearance of the legendary sword and sorcery character Jirel of Joiry. 

Yaszek divides the anthology into three major Eras: Pulp, Golden Age, and New Wave. Three Pulp Era stories are included here, a whopping thirteen from the Golden Age, and a solid nine from the New Wave era. There is perhaps a wider gulf between the final pulp era story "Black God's Kiss" to Leslie Perri's "Space Episode" than there is between the Golden Age to the New Wave, at least as defined by Yaszek. There isn't much of a line dividing the Golden Age stories of "Car Pool" and "For Sale, Reasonable" from the New Wave "Birth of a Gardener" and "Tunnel Ahead". There is strong narrative and thematic similarity on either side of the line.

Ending The Future is Female with the powerhouse trio of Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr, and Ursula K. Le Guin is a power statement and an incredible way to close out an anthology.

Feminist Future: Though not all of the stories included in The Future is Female are explicitly feminist, the act of a woman existing is feminist in nature and a woman carving out a place for herself in any industry is a feminist act. It can also be a revolutionary act. In her introduction to The Future is Female!, Lisa Yaszek writes

"Adopting personae ranging from warrior queens and heroic astronauts to unhappy housewives and sensitive aliens, women were pioneers in developing our sense of wonder about the many different futures we might inhabit, partners in forging the creative practices associated with the best speculative fiction, and revolutionaries who blew up the genre when necessary to address the hopes and fears of American women." 

In revisiting the history of science fiction and in noting the continued presence of women most often forgotten at all times in this genre's history, Yaszek reminds us that the existence of the work itself is feminist even if any individual story may or may not be.

Legacy: Much as Pamela Sargent was intending to do with her Women of Wonder anthologies, Lisa Yaszek is reminding readers that women have *always* been a part of science fiction and fantasy. It would be an impossible task to offer up a proper survey of women in science fiction in just one volume or even two. What Lisa Yaszek accomplishes here is a broad as possible survey showing off the range of achievement of women in science fiction and fantasy. 

While luminaries such as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and C.L. Moore are included, Lisa Yaszek reminds readers that the field includes a number of names that we might not remember today but really ought to. When we talk about the earliest science fiction writers, we should remember Clare Winger Harris and Leslie Stone. When we talk about that Golden Age, we should remember Rosel George Brown and Alice Glaser and Mildred Clingerman. With The Future is Female!, Lisa Yaszek ensures we don't forget.

In Retrospect: The Future is Female! stands on its own as an anthology surveying some of the history of women in science fiction and fantasy, but I cannot help but compare it to Pamela Sargent's seminal Women of Wonder anthology. More than forty years separate the two anthologies, but they share a common theme and a common purpose: the acknowledgement and remembrance of where science fiction and fantasy has come from, the opportunity to create a platform placing a spotlight on the women of the genre.

Yaszek covers some of the same ground as Sargent did in the original Women of Wonder, including four stories also selected by Sargent for her anthology: "That Only a Mother" (Merril), "Contagion" (MacLean), "When I Was Miss Dow" (Dornan), "Baby You Were Great" (Wilhelm). 

The difference, of course, is that Yaszek has the benefit of time. Though beginning with a story published in 1948, Sargent also included contemporary stories to when Women of Wonder was published. The most recent story in The Future is Female! is fifty years old and Yaszek has had the benefit of a wider range of subsequent anthologies and a revitalized interest in classic science fiction and rediscovering the lost masters. 

Some of that benefit of time makes Yaszek's decision to include a story co-authored by Marion Zimmer Bradley a very curious and uncomfortable one. Bradley's status as an important writer is not in question, but given that Bradley's own daughter came forward in 2014 stating that Bradley sexually abused her and other children, as well as permitting and facilitating the same abuse perpetuated by Bradley's husband, I just don't know how to justify the inclusion of "Another Rib". It is not as horrifying a story as compared to "The Wind People" (which was included in Women of Wonder) in terms of content compared to the personal life of MZB, but continuing to anthologize Bradley is to continue to celebrate Bradley. 

Moving on to writers worth spending the time on, in Leigh Brackett's "All the Colors of the Rainbow" aliens visit Earth, the backwater planet thta we are, to help uplift the planet to eventual membership in a galactic federation. The aliens seem to look just like us (or close enough), except they're green. This is straight up a story about racism as she has two aliens visit a small southern town that never bothered with integration because, well, black folks just didn't want to live there (aka, they were run out of town the same vicious way these aliens are treated). It's a bit simplistic, but compelling and well written. It's also a science fiction story overtly dealing with racism, and I'm not sure how often that happened, especially in 1957. Maybe I would be surprised.

Though I've heard of Jirel of Joiry for almost as long as I've read fantasy, I've never read any of C.L. Moore's stories. I don't think I realized just when these stories were published, certainly not as far back as 1934. "The Black God's Kiss" holds up. It is a classic sword and sorcery story featuring a bad ass heroine and it is told with such timeless craft that with some minor exceptions it could almost have been published for the first time this year. It's good, period.

With "The Tunnel Ahead", Alice Glaser offers up a future with significant overcrowding (the United States has a population of 1 billion), resulting in tightly crammed automated cars and limited opportunities for outside play - a 40 mile trip the beach takes 5 hours, plus several hours waiting in line to go into the water, and no opportunity to actually swim just tread. It's a fairly tightly controlled domestic story, but with a hard twist at the end that's just delightful if you find twists delightful. The twist, in a different sense, in reminiscent of Judith Merril's story "That Only a Mother", a domestic story that lives on a gut punch of an ending.

I enjoyed Joanna Russ's "The Barbarian" far more than I did her seminal novel The Female Man, likely because "The Barbarian" is a story of a strong female warrior reminiscent of Jirel of Joiry, though working from a different base. I'm already looking for more of Russ's Alyx stories.

Ending The Future is Female! with Ursula K. Le Guin's "Nine Lives" was an excellent choice. I still find it interesting that Le Guin is almost an era onto herself here, but I also can't find much to argue with that decision. Originally published in Playboy under the byline "U.K. Le Guin", "Nine Lives" was a finalist for the Nebula Award and that recognition is very much deserved. "Nine Lives" deals with cloning and the idea of self, as well as life in a very hostile environment. 

This is a top notch anthology. If you're looking for a contemporary anthology putting a spotlight on many of the great science fiction and fantasy writers of the past, you can't do much better than The Future is Female!.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 3.5/5
Wollstonecraft Meter: 8.5/10 

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Microreview [Book]: A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy by Alex White

White continues to deliver on action-packed space adventures in a strong, satisfying sequel to A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Hurrah! With this review, I have officially reached my "sequeliversary" for Nerds of a Feather: Alex White's A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe was one of the first books I reviewed on this site, and now here I am looking at its successor for your potential reading pleasure! Admittedly, there were only six months between the two, but I still think that's cool. If you haven't read White's breakneck opener full of grumpy yet brilliant ladies and satisfying space magic, now's the time to go check out that review and the book behind it...

A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy opens one year after we last saw the crew of the Capricious, having hunted down the big ship at the edge of the universe (also known as the Harrow) and started to uncover a galaxy spanning plot. Like it's predecessor, Bad Deal doesn't waste any time, throwing its audience right into the middle of things. Former racecar driver and rich kid Nilah Brio is still running with the crew of the Capricious under Captain Cordell, trying to pick up agents under the control of the first book's Big Bad. Unfortuantely, while they've had some luck mopping up, they're much less able to pick up a live person to interrogate. Of course, we've joined the Capricious at this moment for a reason, and obviously that reason is because they're about to go and pick up Elizabeth "Boots" Ellsworth, one of the few people in the galaxy born without magic, who left the crew again at the end of the previous book to retire to a nice quiet planet and farm whiskey (or something). Obviously this retirement does not survive contact with the gang, who get extremely drunk and convince her to come back for One More Job - again.

Through their initial running around and a convenient pre-death monologue from an early target, the Capricious crew uncover information that leads them to the Children of the Singularity: a cult of hyper-libertarian space nationalists who hate weakness, intergalactic peace institutions and the Capricious crew. The Children are manipulating the galactic internet to create false information about the Capricious and generally redefine galactic history to their own ends, and appear to be at the heart of the conspiracy involving Henrik Witts and the Harrow, so they are clearly in line for taking down. Honestly, the "whys" of what happens next don't come across as particular integral - there's a powerful magic artefact involved, and figures from Boots' past and from the destruction of Clarkesfall, the planet from which many of the crew hail from, play roles, but at the end of the day it feels like we are infiltrating the angry-boy death cult, with all that it entails, Because It Is There and That's What the Capricious Does Now. I'm on board with that.

White's mixture of magic and science fiction continues to be very enjoyable. The basic premise is that almost everyone is born with a particular "mark" which allows you to do a specific type of magic, from "hoteliers" who are really good at cleaning to "mechanists" who can talk to and hack machines to "readers" who can extract memories and truths. Inevitably, the villains end up with less savoury powers, ranging from bit players who get to shoot lasers out of their hands to the "gods" at the top the conspiracy the Capricious are attempting to unravel, who each appear to have immense powers over time, space and reality. The organ that controls your magic - your cardoid - also basically acts as an identity marker, like a fingerprint or retina would be in our world. The entire technological base of the Salvagers universe is seamlessly integrated with these magical powers, something that means that for a arcana dystocia sufferer (i.e. muggle) like Boots, navigating the world is more difficult at every turn, as technologies simply don't recognise her existence or work properly for her. While this is more often played as an advantage where the plot is concerned, especially where subterfuge is required, White does make it clear how frustrating this must be to live with day-to-day, without compromising on Boots' portrayal as a hardass, resourceful middle-aged woman.

The rest of the characterisation is also strong, if occasionally a bit flat when it comes to the ensemble. Nilah Brio has grown up significantly in the year she's spent with the Capricious, and its interesting to watch her increased levels of empathy and self-awareness and to see them bump up against the still far more significant and traumatic experiences of the rest of the crew. Nilah is resourceful and interesting, but she's ultimately still a rich girl palling around with a group of war veterans, refugees and traumatised child experiments. To my excitement, Nilah's relationship with robot-mechanist and quartermaster Orna continues into this book and becomes its own minor but well-done plot thread. Cordell remains satisfyingly captain-y, the rest of the crew get enough development to remind you you're around without taking up much of the action, and there's a new pair in town in the form of Jeannie and Alister Ferrier, twins who have the same magical mark - a genetic near-impossibility in the Salvagers' world - and an obligatory mysterious, traumatic past. On the antagonist side, the presence of "godlike" magic makes the threat suitably terrifying despite the ease with which the Capricious crew seem to cut through some of the lower orders of the Children, and the stakes for the main antagonist battle make for a highly satisfying climax.

I've recently been thinking a lot about series and sequels in science fiction and my own feelings about when to continue to invest in a set of books and when to bow out. First books often make me feel more excited for the promise of the series than the book itself, and this makes me want to give series a second or third chance even when initial entries haven't blown me away - with my TBR pile usually expanding accordingly. It's something I can do less now, as my reading time has gone down in the past few months and I need to be more selective with what I use it on. However, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy is the kind of book that bears out the strategy. Where I found Big Ship breakneck to the point of confusion, Bad Deal was still fast paced but easier to follow in its action. Where Big Ship relied a little too heavily on coincidence and inertia to get a particular set of characters together, in Bad Deal everyone has grown into their roles and while there's still interpersonal tension, there's also a lot more weight behind some of the relationships, which you could only get through time spent with the characters.

It feels like we're in a golden moment for fantastic, pulpy-yet-self-aware action-heavy space opera, and White's series is a very worthy addition in that current line-up. With a threequel already on the cards for next year, we haven't seen the last of Boots, Nilah, Cordell and the gang, and I'm definitely going to be in line for their future adventures.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 A sequel experience that really rewarded my attention past the first book; +1 Disabled middle-aged woman protagonist who still gets to be the most unquestioned badass on the team.

Penalties: -1 Occasional flatness in background characterisation and plot motivations

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Reference: White, Alex. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy [Orbit, 2018].

Monday, December 3, 2018

Feminist Futures: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Dossier: Tiptree Jr, James. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever [Tachyon, 2004]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: This collection of 18 short stories and novellas spans the publication career of Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote chiefly under the pseudonym "James Tiptree, Jr." until her identity (and gender) was revealed. She also wrote under the name Racoona Sheldon, a persona also represented by a pair of stories included here.

The stories included in this anthology span a wide range of sci-fi settings, from present day ("The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" and "The Women Men Don't See") to established outer space operations ("And I Have Come Upon this Place by Lost Ways" and "We Who Stole the Dream") to scientific or space exploration ("The Man Who Walked Home," "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," and "Houston, Houston Do You Read?"). There are a number of other stories that center the point-of-view in an "other" or "outsider" character, whether it's a human gripped by some form of madness or psychic distress ("Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" and "With Delicate Mad Hands") or some type of far-future, evolved human or sentient, decidedly non-human alien ("Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death" and "Slow Music"). The breadth of the collection is truly staggering. 

One of the best-known works here is "The Screwfly Solution," which tells the story of a mysterious pathogen that is driving men all across Earth to commit femicide — murdering women without seeming to realize what they're doing. I will not spoil the reveal buried in the last line of the story, which gives some clarity to what's been taking place. 

Another story that has come to take on something of a legendary status is "The Women Men Don't See." In this one, a male narrator — Don Fenton, a comfortably middle-class businessman who has nothing much to distinguish himself — tells the story of an ill-fated jungle tour in Mexico when the chartered plane he's on crashes on a sandbar in a storm. He and Ruth Parsons, one of the other passengers, set off to cross a marsh in order to find help, leaving Ruth's daughter and the pilot, Esteban, behind with the plane. Don struggles to perceive Ruth as anything but a collection of types — a "Mother Hen" with her daughter, one of the countless "Mrs. Parsons" working in accounting and billing et cetera throughout the D.C. bureaucratic corps — but as Ruth begins behaving very strangely and mysterious lights and sounds accost them in the marshes at night, Don begins to realize that Ruth might be preparing to go to extreme lengths to get away from the world of men...the kind of men who refuse to acknowledge in her any individuality or unique humanity.

One of the more heartbreaking stories in this collection of heart-breakers and gut-punchers is "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" This is a parallel narrative of the authorities and family members of a girl who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital, and the story of the girl herself, who believes that she is a courier in a far-future after the nuclear wars, when all men have died off. The collision of her beautiful fantasy world and the ugly, brutal reality that she (thankfully) can't see but is nevertheless tightening its net around her is a painful journey to go on, but one that is beautifully rendered.

Feminist Future: There are a number of feminist futures (and presents) on display throughout Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. And, truth be told, most of them are pretty grim. These are stories where individual women and groups of women are victimized by men just as a matter of routine, where women are expected to perform scientific as well as sexual roles for their male crewmates during space exploration, and about women in societies where men have vanished, but (unlike Herland) hardly find themselves at peace in a worry-free utopia. 

Hope for the Future: These are not hopeful futures. The worlds of James Tiptree, Jr. reflect in various far-flung settings a profound, nuanced, and lived-in understanding of the big and small ways in which women might be victimized, ignored, made invisible, or treated like property throughout most of the 20th century. Alice Sheldon took her lived experiences, which clearly filled her with a pervasive sense of righteous outrage, and transposed them into speculative frameworks that could illuminate her struggles and the struggles of women more broadly. By couching daily rituals of degradation or possessiveness in narrative and genre trappings, Sheldon was able to discuss and probe with deep empathy the effects of gender inequality that plagued her own era, and many of which sadly persist to this day, despite some progress. So in that way, thirty years after her death, her pessimism was at least partly justified.

Legacy The work of Alice Sheldon inspired generations of female authors who felt that, for the first time, they were able to see themselves in science fiction. At a time when Arthur C. Clarke was writing stories where a hyper-intelligent ape might be a member of a space crew but a woman could not, Alice Sheldon was telling stories with female protagonists that could make women who experienced the same kinds of societal constraints that she did feel seen. That she had to do it in the guise of a man was instructive to the science fiction community at large, and Sheldon's contribution remains memorialized today in the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award and Tiptree Fellowships.

In Retrospect
First, a quick primer on "James Tiptree, Jr." For a wonderful audio profile, check out this story from KCRW's Unfictional in 2015. Tiptree appeared on the science fiction scene in the late 1960s with a string of short stories that immediately landed on lists for the top awards in the field, but he never arrived to pick up the awards. Never made personal appearances at all. But Tiptree kept up correspondences with a number of fans and young genre authors, particularly young women. Known to these correspondents as "Uncle Tip," Tiptree wrote overtly sexual, explicitly phallic stories in a muscular, brash style that often centered on female protagonists or on men confronted with a woman or group of women who explode against their plans, perceptions, or worldview, forever altering or imperiling them. In the landscape of late-1960s science fiction, this was a startling anomaly. Men simply didn't write women's stories in that field. Women's stories largely weren't told — unless women were included in roles like the ones in which Don Fenton saw Ruth Parsons...secretaries, mothers in the background of men's stories, assistants, etc. 

So people began to wonder if maybe James Tiptree, Jr. wasn't secretly a woman. It's hard to imagine this detective work coming from anything but a place of ill will. Whether to discredit the stories or the author, the digging into who Tiptree *really* was ultimately forced "Uncle Tip" to come clean as Alice Bradley Sheldon, formerly of Army intelligence and the CIA. Alice Sheldon and Racoona Sheldon never received the acclaim James Tiptree, Jr. did, but the work remained astonishing, gripping, and bleak. 

In reading Tiptree, I couldn't help but be reminded of Flannery O'Connor in that wherever the stories started or whichever direction they may start heading, they would always veer hard to death. Characters don't get happy endings, hope is inevitably extinguished just when it seemed likely to pay off, and those misgivings nagging at the back of characters' minds always turn out to be harbingers of a doom lurking just up ahead. The writing veers from aggressively straightforward to experimental, but the characters remain vibrant and engrossing. Even though plowing through this anthology winds up taking a toll, making the world look perhaps a little more gray, a little less trustworthy when you look up from the pages, these stories represent a towering body of work. 


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 10/10

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