Monday, April 22, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

A (Mostly) Harmonious Choir


Reviewer's Note: This is a review of the second novel in the Wormwood trilogy, so spoilers for the first novel should be expected. If you haven't read Rosewater, you should do that first because it's excellent, but The Rosewater Insurrection does an admirable job of bringing a new reader up to speed. While I never recommend jumping into the middle of a trilogy, it could work in this case. Either way, the spoiler-free review of The Rosewater Insurrection is that it's action-packed and slightly weird, but doesn't quite live up to the previous novel. 7/10. Last warning, spoilers for Rosewater will follow.

Following the events of Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection follows a handful of different perspectives as the city of Rosewater continues to act as host to an invading but seemingly benevolent alien. What the residents of Rosewater don't know is that the alien is just a "footholder" for a subtle but complete invasion as aliens essentially download themselves into human bodies. While this starts to take shape, the government of Rosewater declares its independence from their host county of Nigeria, which turns all eyes inward at a time when the alien is going through some changes.

Where Rosewater largely followed Kaaro, The Rosewater Insurrection makes Kaaro a secondary character to several others, such as Aminat, the alien avatar Anthony, and other characters more central to the plot. The multiple perspective changes serve to give a more complete picture of what's going on within the city of Rosewater than the singular perspective from Kaaro, but the non-linearity of perspective and the expanded cast is a lot to keep track of sometimes. The point, however, is that Rosewater is the focus of the story moreso than any one character.

While this hopping around might make a novel feel jittery or uneven, The Rosewater Insurrection progressively and competently builds to a crescendo that mostly pays off. Like the previous novel, this one suitably combines the near-future with weirdness and it's still fun the second time around. It does pull some stuff out of its pocket that feels like rewriting continuity a bit, but I'm excited to see where the next novel goes.


---

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Still weird, still engaging

Penalties: -1 Lots of moving parts to keep track of

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

***

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

Reference: Thompson, Tade. The Rosewater Insurrection (Orbit, 2019)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Microreview [book]: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night provides Big Smart Objects, interesting aliens, a gigantic canvas, and a strong first person narrative to lay a marker as some of the best Space Opera being written today.




Haimey DZ is a salvager. Along with her business partner Connla, their spaceship’s AI, Singer,and a pair of cats,  they make a living in the far future by finding ancient wrecks, and salvaging information and items of interest. When Haimey and company find an ancient ship, and some even weirder tech that is derived from a rather distressing source, their find is interrupted by interlopers. In a race to find what the piece of technology that attaches to Haimey means and what it can really do, Haimey and crew have a long ranging adventure ahead.

“Mantis Cop” Cheeirilaq is also soon on the case, and if he is ally, Javert, or has an agenda of his own, Haimey doesn’t know. He Is rather determined, though, with a tenacity that Prince Corwin of Amber might admire. Oh and there is a  sexy space pirate is determined to get Haimey and that technology  by any means necessary.

This and a lot more comprises story of Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night. 

Bear’s novels, for me, always really focus on characters. They are frequently broken, and in interesting ways, and the precise way that Haimey is broken seems clear at first in the novel. However, as the plot unfolds, Haimey herself starts to learn and question aspects of her history and even personality. In a world, and even more importantly, a culture and polity that is willing to, and does adjust personality and memory with far greater ease than taking pharmaceuticals may have well indeed adjusted Haimey more than she ever knew. In addition to all the worldbuilding and revelations on larger scales, Ancestral Night really is a journey of discovery and investigation by Haimey into her own past. It’s not a journey that she particularly wants to make, the introspection is painful, but we as readers are brought into that pain and discomfort as Haimey, in the midst of everyone else going on, has to face herself and who she really is.

What’s more, this first person deep dive lets Bear do a lot of exploration of “persons versus society” and explores the aspects of the galactic society that she has built, in relation to the individual, namely Haimey. Her future galactic civilization has advantages over our own, but it is no utopia, and the first person lens and personality dives lets her interrogate the society she has built, and by extension, interrogates our own.

While many readers will come for that deep dive into character, other readers will find the worldbuilding and the vision of a galactic future to be equally if not even more compelling. I was surprised right off that this novel was set in the same verse as the worldship series Jacob’s Ladder. (Dust, Chill, Grail). However, in Ancestral Night, we travel across the galaxy, wind up on multiple stations and ships, and get a much wider canvas. The themes of cultural divergence and the conflicts between cultures are carried from Grail to here, but setting it up as a conflict between the pirates and disaffected of the Freeport communities versus the Synarchy that is the predominant political system in the galaxy.  Plus there are ancient elder race artifacts, a trip to a supermassive black hole, secrets written  into the fabric of the universe, big smart (as opposed to dumb) objects and a lot more for readers to find. And I didn’t even mention the diversity of aliens, and the thought that Bear puts into a multi-species polity. The aforementioned Cheeirilaq is definitely my breakout favorite of these.

Integrating the personal story of Haimey and the larger scale space opera themes, and pieces of the world is the ultimate challenge and writing tightrope that Bear attempts here. It feels like the author is trying to appeal to two separate interest spheres within science fiction--the big damn sense of wonder wide open worldbuilding that stirs the heart, and the deep dive into character, psychology, personality and introspection.

The novel that Ancestral Night brings to mind, then, for me, is Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. That classic novel also gives us a first person protagonist, Robin Broadhead. While the novel gives us spacecraft programmed to go to *somewhere*, a devastated earth, a mysterious elder race (the Heechee) and a huge canvas. (Also, like Ancestral Night, a black hole is an important feature of the worldbuilding). But there is a deep focus in Gateway on the inner emotional life and the psychology of the protagonist, the interior life of Robin IS the point. Exploring Robin’s past and what really happened and how it’s made Robin who he is today--that very much resonates with parts of Bear’s novel. Ancestral Night doesn’t go that far in being a bottle episode, but there is plenty of Haimey coming to grips with her past even as events swirl around her and she has to fight for her future.

In a season, perhaps a year, that has exciting Space Opera on the menu, Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night stands tall as a marker as to why Bear is one of the leading writers in Science Fiction and Fantasy today. For a long time, I’ve recommended her Carnival as a novel for those interested in Bear’s fiction but not quite sure where to start. I think that, between canvas, character, story, and writing, This novel is a definitive and decisive book for SF readers who want to try her work. Given how deeply it is in dialogue with the themes and ideas of SF, on character and worldbuilding, I don’t think that the novel would work for a reader new to SF. This is not a novel to hand to a person just off the streets of mundania and walking through the portal into the realms of science fiction. But for those who already in the White Space of SFF, this is a novel for anyone remotely interested in the Space Opera being written today.

---
The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent worldbuilding and ancillary characters (team Cheeirilaq!)
+1 for strong first person character and viewpoint that engages in deep questions.

Penalties: -1 this is a novel that is best read by people already well versed in SF and Space Opera to truly appreciate the nuance of the novel


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


Reference:  Bear, Elizabeth, Ancestral Night, Tor, 2019]

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

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

My fellow nerds who ventured into the world of SDCC hotels are hopefully receiving confirmation that they got the location of their choice for this year's 50th anniversary of SDCC.  Meanwhile I am counting down the dates until the premiere of NOS4A2 on AMC. What AMC has shared with the public up to this point has me very excited that Joe Hill's creation will have a faithful adaptation to the small screen.



Pick of the Week:
Gideon Falls #12 - The new arc is upon us and we are treated to some of the history of Gideon Falls and the origin story of the Black Barn and the evil with in. It all began in 1886 when a serial killer named Norton Sinclair had killed 13 people.  It is unknown if this is the same Norton Sinclair who was suffering from mental illness and questing for pieces of the Black Barn early in the series, or someone he is related to.  What is clear is that the evil, the man who laughs, is using Sinclair as a doorway between alternate realities.  Father Burke is in pursuit of Sinclair and understands that his religion may serve as a strength in confronting this evil. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino really outdid themselves in this surprising new issue that is getting at the core of the evil in their creation.

The Rest:
Daredevil #4 - When we last checked in on Daredevil, he had just been rescued by no other than the Punisher himself.  After losing badly to detective Cole following a sting operation, it was looking grim for Murdock until Frank Castle surprised us all and unleashed a torrent of gun fire raining down on the police. In this issue we learn why Castle saved Murdock and the juxtaposition of Punisher vs. Daredevil plays out effectively as Murdock makes his case for his no kill policy.  Punisher follows a simple rule of math and figures that killing on bad guy saves the lives of many. The philosophical debate is capped with Daredevil making an exciting exit and pondering what is next for him as he attempts to clear his name. I remain impressed with the new creative team of Chip Zdarsky, Marco Checchetto, and Sunny Gho.

Morning In America #2 - I read the premise of this series, group of teenagers in 1983 small town USA investigate why their peers are disappearing, and I was intrigued. I am a sucker for a supernatural mystery that is nostalgic (Stranger Things, Paper Girls) and I am happy to say that this is an entertaining book. The book centers around a group of young women, known as the Sick Sisters, and their lives in Tucker, Ohio.  Tucker, Ohio is dealing with the issues associated with local industry jobs shutting down and the Sick Sisters are all dealing with the issues they face breaking numerous rules.  A classmate turns to them for help when nobody believes him when he describes some sort of monster that took his sister. The Sick Sisters go to investigate when they learn the police are actively trying to classify all of the disappearances as runaways.  While much lighter than Paper Girls and lacking a bit in the nostalgia factor up to this point, this series has been enjoyable and I look forward to reading more about what the Sick Sisters uncover. Props to author Magdalene Visaggio for giving us a diverse set of protagonists at the heart of her story.

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feminist Futures: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre


When we started planning for the Feminist Futures project at Nerds of a Feather last year, I had a lot of thoughts about what I wanted to cover. Russ and Tiptree? Yes please! (Le Guin was already well in hand.) Something to fit within our main time period but also demonstrate the existence of marginalised voices outside white cis women? Enter Jessica Amanda Salmonson's pioneering women-led adventure fantasy anthology, Amazons!. And I knew wanted to do something from a more thematic perspective, looking at how feminisms of the time hold up to modern perspectives, particularly where assumptions of the gender binary come in.

Those posts exist. However, one post that I wanted to write, that I expressed my excitement for to the rest of the team, that didn't happen? That was Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre. My copy of that book is currently in a friend's storage box, and I never quite figured things out in time to get hold of them. Dreamsnake, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus winning post-apocalyptic story of healing and hallucinogenic venom, whose author somehow doesn't get offered up in the same breath as Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree and Butler nearly as much as her contributions to the genre merit, would have to wait.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Vonda McIntyre died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. The catalogue of her contributions to genre - in her original stories, her canon-enhancing Star Trek novelisations and tie-ins, her founding of the Clarion West writers workshop and of the Book View Cafe ebook site, and her support and warmth to others - have since been written by those much better placed than I to appreciate the loss her death represents. Through these posts, I learned from these posts was just how much of a contribution McIntyre has made, and learning about these things through obituaries always, always, feels like too little too late.

So, last weekend, I returned to Dreamsnake, to remind myself of how it felt to experience this weird, wonderful story the first time around. It's a post that's been too long in the making, but even though the author is no longer with us, it's certainly not too late to put her feminist future in this series where it belongs.



Dossier: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Snake is a healer in a fractured post-apocalyptic world, travelling through various communities which live out relatively isolated existences in a world which appears to have gone through nuclear war. As you might guess from her name, the title, and almost every book cover Dreamsnake has been released with (except for a 1994 edition which decides to focus on the book's stripey horse. There's also... this.) this healing involves snakes: Mist, an albino cobra, and Sand, a rattlesnake, are both bred to synthesise various cures and vaccinations for illnesses, representing a combination of genetic engineering and on-the-spot biochemistry. The third snake is even more special: Grass is a dreamsnake, an extremely rare "offworlder" breed able to create hallucinations and pleasant dreams which are most often used to ease the pain of the dying.

Dreamsnake's plot falls roughly into three episodic parts. In the first - which originally formed the self-contained novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" - she meets with a nomadic desert community who seek help for a sick child, but panic when she leaves the boy with Grass overnight and kill the dreamsnake, leaving Snake bereft of one third of her abilities despite her success in eventually healing the boy's illness. Initially resigned to returning to her community to admit the loss, Snake is instead persuaded to travel into the mountains to the region's only "city" - an underground vault still closed off to outside visitors but which might be willing to help her in return for information about one of their own. The second act sidetracks this journey somewhat as Snake spends time in a mountain community healing the town's mayor and fixing everyone's problems, leaving with an adopted daughter and a shady follower apparently trying to steal her stuff. In the third act, Snake's interactions with that shady follower leads her to an unexpected source of Dreamsnakes and a dangerous showdown with the man who keeps them. Interspersed with all of this are brief scenes from the perspective of Arevin, a man who despite only meeting with Snake briefly in the opening has now been set up as her designated heterosexual love interest and is seeking to close the gap between them. Arevin is not going to make much more of an appearance in this review, which should indicate how much I think this romance adds to the overall plot.



Feminist FutureDreamsnake's science fictional underpinnings are mainly rooted in biology and genetic engineering, and the technology-disguised-as-magic of the healers and their snakes is complemented by other assumed developments in humanity, particularly when it comes to fertility. It's assumed that everyone in this world has enough physiological control over themselves to, uh, raise and lower the temperature of different body parts, preventing the release of gametes while letting them have all the no-strings-attached sex that they want. The ability to have sex divorced from threat of pregnancy plays out as a constant through the different communities in Snake's world, meaning that sex for pleasure is widely accepted and cohabitation is usually based on more than pairings, but that people can become ostracised if they get a reputation for not having control, as its assumed that sex with a risk of pregnancy won't be enjoyable for anyone involved. Given the level of technology that societies have in Dreamsnake, there's an implication that these scientific underpinnings came at least in part from whatever society came before Snake's, and while this is left completely mysterious it's still pretty revolutionary to consider that despite apparently wiping themselves out in a nuclear war, these forerunners also found time to take the gendered implications of fertility seriously and focus scientific priorities on it.It's also worth looking at the characterisation here. Dreamsnake follows a protagonist who it's hard to believe predates the "paragon Bioware protagonist" stereotype by two decades (maybe more, I have no idea how pathologically helpful you can be in Baldur's Gate). Snake is practical, sensible in both her actions and her emotional regulation, and constantly able to overcome the biases and irrationalities of people around her, and the narrative is happy to showcase her ability to do so, deepening the worldbuilding through what we see through her eyes. Snake gains different reactions from different people, but they are all through the lens of her being a healer - a non-gendered role - and aside from assumptions of heterosexuality there's no suggestion that Snake's journeys through the world are particularly shaped by her being a woman. It's a refreshing standpoint, reinforced by moments like Arevin taking the lead on childcare within his extended family, which makes me forgive the occasional moments where Snake comes across as a little too annoyingly right about everything, and it's a point that leads me on to...


Hope for the Future: In almost all post-apocalyptic stories I can think of, where human society contracts from a lost age of high technology into pockets of isolation, there's generally a patriarchy involved. Whether it's a return to "natural" hierarchies across society and the assumed erosion of status for women due to lack of average muscle mass, or the creation of pockets of extreme - often religious fundamentalist - patriarchy as part of a patchwork of ideologies, if you're reading a post apocalyptic story in which women exist, there's probably going to be some heightened misogyny, rape and exploitation somewhere, and it's probably going to be at least a side plot to the main narrative. There's an assumption that, without the social, cultural and technological forces of our current society, at least some men are going to go back to the default state of treating women like things.


What sets Dreamsnake apart is that it completely resists this interpretation of post-apocalyptic society. Sure, all of the societies Snake visits have their own permutations of close-mindedness, societal bias and emotional repression, with some interesting, understated nuances here. Arevin's people don't tell their names to anyone except immediate family and very close friends, making the fact that Snake learns his name in the short time they are together an indicator of how quickly and deeply he develops feelings for her; a group of nomadic scavengers are persuaded to overcome their fear of outsiders' medication and experiments with the promise of a Tetanus vaccination; the mountain community are collectively obsessed with beauty and ostracise Melissa, the girl Snake adopts, largely because of facial burns. What none of these societies have is baked-in misogyny: a point which is driven home (as cringey as this is going to be for modern readers) by the rape subplot with Melissa and her guardian. When Snake finds out that Melissa is being raped, she is completely thrown by how monstrous a person would have to be to do something like that, and faces a challenge in bringing the man's behaviour to light because the community's leaders are equally unable to believe that someone would force sex on another person. Although I'm a lot less impressed on a second reading with the introduction of male violence just to drive home how little male violence this book has, it does achieve that effect.

Moreover, the lack of baked-in patriarchy and restrictions on Snake's actions by virtue of being a woman make the antagonist of the third act, North, much more compelling and sinister, because the threat he represents is not overshadowed by the general awfulness of society, or played up to have to compete with the casually awful predators that men without societal constraints are expected to be in post-apocalyptic fiction. There are a ton of predatory undertones to North's behaviour towards Snake and Melissa, but these climactic scenes benefit from being allowed to stand as the behaviour of an awful person, rather than the inevitable result of a woman in post-apocalyptic times trying to do something besides staying at home with the water purifiers.

Legacy: Dreamsnake clearly made quite an impression on its release, winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus (SF) awards. In doing so, McIntyre became the third author after Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama) to pick up all three awards for the same book. What I don't know, but would be interested to find out, is how many other authors have picked up an award for a short fiction piece, as McIntyre did for the novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" (which won a Nebula) and then gone on to win again with a reworked longer piece. I can't think of any other examples, but that doesn't mean they're not out there...

In Retrospect: Four decades after its release, Dreamsnake is a fascinating and worthwhile read, with a world that's just as interesting on a second visit and which is well integrated into an episodic, character driven plot. There are elements that might look different if Dreamsnake were written today: the sexual violence against Melissa feels like an exhausting contribution to an overused plot device from a modern perspective, even though it's not used to humiliate her or to titillate the audience, and despite the expansion in what constitutes a family unit, the actual relationships and humans of Snake's world are pretty heterosexual and binary, particularly given the big biological reveal at the end. Nevertheless, this is a book which deserves all of its current recognition and more: a work which looks the patriarchy of our own world in the face and says "nope, this one's not for you". It may only be a small part of McIntyre's legacy but it's one I'm so grateful to have experienced.


Analytics

For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 9/10


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

Reference: McIntyre, Vonda. Dreamsnake [Houghton Mifflin, 1978].

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds


There's something in the dying (or at-least-super-old) Earth subgenre that has always resonated with me: a storyworld littered with weird and wondrous leftovers from times so far past that people are not quite sure what to make of them. In those stories, the massive weight of history hangs over the world and makes it alien in a very specific way. There's an intriguing contrast to our own situation in history where we (at least think we) can understand everything in sight better than our ancestors ever could, and there's (as far as we know) no unrealistically advanced technology we can dig out and play with without really grasping it. What a bummer.

In his Congregation series, Alastair Reynolds transposes the core of this subgenre into space. The human civilization is millions of years old and has gone through a number of different phases known as 'occupations'. Some of them left behind strange artifacts like big skulls that can be used for communication between spacecrafts and weapons defying the laws of nature. These objects are then scavenged from artificial mini-planets or 'baubles' that are normally closed but open at certain intervals to let daring adventurers in. Small spaceship crews of relic-harvesting semi-pirates try to make a profit by rushing in and taking what they can before the baubles close again – hopefully steering clear of actual pirates who are ready to kill you and take your cargo, or worse.

It's a rich setting filled with manufactured worlds, robots, alien races, spaceships with massive sails, and a mystery around 'quoins' that are used as currency, so there's a lot of storytelling potential. Reynolds is working on a trilogy set in the Congregation, and his new novel Shadow Captain continues the story of the Ness sisters Adrana and Arafura who in the first book Revenger escaped from their home planet in order to start a life of spacefaring adventure.

It didn't go as planned, of course, and Adrana was captured by the murderous space pirate Bosa Sennen. Revenger followed Arafura who tried (and finally managed) to free her sister, losing parts of her body and personality in the process. Arafura became rather murderous herself during the course of the book and finally killed Sennen and took over her pirate ship.

In Shadow Captain, we continue from there. Now the protagonist is Adrana who is suspicious of her sister's new Sennen-like behavior. On the other hand, Adrana herself was held by the pirate who intended to transform her into the next incarnation of Bosa Sennen with the technologies of tomorrow. So, Adrana and Arafura both seem to have features of Sennen in them, and this conflict is driving the plot forward for much of the book. In addition to them not being able to trust each other (or even themselves completely), they find out that their ship is being followed by a mysterious vessel which should be impossible.

This is the canvas for Shadow Captain, and its noticeably smaller than its predecessor had. The small crew lead by the Ness sisters is confined inside their spaceship (plus the occational bauble) for the first half of the book, trying to get their hands on necessary resources, planning for the future and being skeptical of each others' intentions. This is quite different than Revenger, in which we got to see several weird worlds and plenty more action, but Reynolds is not bad with the thickening suspense either.

My main criticism is that the other crew members are quite forgettable characters and they could have been spiced up quite a bit. Adrana is probably meant to be a little more adult version of Arafura, but to me she just felt like a more passive and frankly boring character. The book doesn't really get going until they make their way to a backwater planet for supplies and treatment for an injured crew member.

Finally, there's action, weird worlds and answers for mysteries, so I guess I got mostly what I wanted. Still, there's no hyper enigmatic adversary this time (just an enigmatic one), or same kind of a clear purpose that would be driving the main character forward. I was hoping for a little more energy in the book, even if it's still definitely worth your time and will hopefully set the stage for the final book that will – fingers crossed – be swashbuckling as hell.


***

The Math

Base Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the most amazingly fascinating fictional universe in recent memory

Penalties: -1 for not living up to Revenger in some respects, -1 lack of energy here and there

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

Reference: Reynolds, Alastair. Shadow Captain [Gollancz 2019]

***

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

Monday, April 15, 2019

Microreview [book]: Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

Solid as a Rock...



Terms of Enlistment is the debut novel from German SF writer Marko Kloos. It was originally self-published, then picked up by Amazon's 47North imprint. Since publication in 2013, Kloos has essentially written a sequel per year. The series is highly regarded by fans of milSF.

I first became aware of Terms of Enlistment in 2015, when its sequel, Lines of Departure, was (a) included in the sad/rabid puppies Hugo slate and (b) subsequently withdrawn from consideration by Kloos because he's not a culture warrior. This piqued my interest, so I made note to read the series. Four years later I have finally done so, and am happy I did. Terms of Enlistment is a well-made milSF novel that is sure to appeal to fans of the style - and would also serve as a good introduction for new readers.

Terms of Enlistment tells the story of Andrew Grayson, a self-described "welfare rat" who enlists in the North American Commonwealth (NAC) military to get out Boston - which, in the year 2108, is essentially one giant housing project. After basic training, he is assigned to the Territorial Army, tasked with keeping the peace in the welfare cities of the NAC. This is a setback for Grayson, who yearns to leave Earth and patrol the outer colonies, where the NAC and rival Sino-Russian Alliance (SRA) tussle over terraformed colony planets.

After a peacekeeping mission in the Detroit welfare city goes horribly wrong, Grayson is transferred to the Versailles - an aging starship tasked with ferrying supplies to the NAC's far-flung colonies. Not long after they arrive, however, the crew of the Versailles makes a horrifying discover - humans are not alone in the universe, and our neighbors are not exactly looking to make friends...

...

If this sounds familiar, it's probably because it is. Terms of Enlistment evokes the classics of the genre - and both Starship Troopers and Old Man's War specifically. It is neither as grandiose as the former nor as subversive as the latter. But Kloos is a veteran, and there are little details throughout the book that add an authenticity to Grayson's experience that make it stand out in a crowded field.

World-building is solid throughout. The NAC is basically the United Space of America, but this makes far more sense in the context of a divided Earth than it does when Earth is united. Kloos also does a good job portraying alien lifeforms. They feel suitably, well, alien.

And overall, Terms of Enlistment is a well-paced and fun adventure story. There is enough action to keep the reader engaged throughout, and mercifully little of the battle fetishism or tedious he-man posturing that mar the Baen-esque version of the style. Meanwhile, Grayson is a likable protagonist, though I would have liked more in the way of character development. Presumably that comes later in the series, but Terms of Enlistment would have benefitted from a deeper look inside his head.

Kloos' writing is clean and efficient - the kind of prose that fades into the background until you barely notice it anymore. Basically, it's "TV ready" fiction. More than once, I found myself thinking how well Terms of Enlistment would work on that medium. On balance that's pretty good - and way above average for milSF, which is not exactly the most literary of SF subgenres.

That said, there is too much infodumping for my tastes. The individual infodumps are relatively painless on their own but are made worse by the fact that the narrative is written in first person. If Terms of Enlistment were written in past tense, then I could imagine the narrative as a memoir written with future audiences in mind, but it's not. Instead, we have access to Grayson's innermost thoughts and he...explains basic politics as if addressing a tourist from another place and time.

The best SF writing, in my opinion, immerses you in perspective. It presents time and place as lived reality, exotic though it may be. It assumes that readers are smart enough to follow along, and to figure out by observing - to learn, for example, that thermobaric grenades are dangerous just by seeing them explode. By addressing the reader directly, infodumping breaks the fourth wall and shatters the suspension of disbelief. Its presence did not ruin my enjoyment of Terms of Enlistment, but as far as I'm concerned, the book doesn't need it and would have been better without it.

...

It is easy to see why the puppies liked this novel, and why they misdiagnosed Kloos as friendly to their cause. Recall that the puppies claimed that recent Hugo nominees were too literary and overly focused on political messaging (while also charging that progressives manipulated the nominations process to promote these works and freeze out conservative-leaning ones).

Terms of Enlistment thus seems to embody their ideal of what a Hugo-worthy book should look like. It is unabashedly genre fiction - well crafted, to be sure, but with no literary pretensions or political ambitions. And it certainly emphasizes story over message. Furthermore, while it not conservative "message fiction," there is a certain normativity to the book, and to milSF more broadly, that could easily be reconciled with a conservative worldview. For example, while the NAC's welfare cities could be interpreted as a critique of war capitalism, they could also be interpreted as a critique of central planning and reliance on government handouts. The ambiguity seems intentional to me, but readers will likely read their biases into the text.

Political ambiguity can be a good thing. In his Culture series, Iain M. Banks presents us with a utopia, but then explores the Culture's imperialist tendencies. We are thereby invited to sympathize with the Culture but also to feel uncomfortable as it meddles in the affairs of neighboring societies - typically without gaining consent.

Terms of Enlistment, by contrast, seems like it's trying to avoid having a political conversation altogether. For example, early on in the book, Grayson's brigade is called on to quell a riot in the Detroit welfare city. When they get there, they find mysteriously well-armed and organized adversaries shooting at them from apartment buildings. In response, Grayson commits what is in essence a war crime - firing a thermobaric grenade into a building full of civilians.

This would be a fascinating moment to explore - not because I think soldiers should be conflicted about taking civilians lives (though I do), but because I've read enough war memoirs and spoken to enough veterans to know that they often are. But Grayson doesn't really dwell on what he did. Instead, we are told that it's okay because he was being shot at, and because he loaded the thermobaric grenade accidentally. Later, we are encouraged to sympathize with Grayson and despise the "pencil pusher" who wants him to take the fall for the civilian deaths.

Look, it's not that I think individual soldiers bear the primary responsibility for crimes of war. Sometimes they do, but more often they do not - command responsibility is a well-established principle in international law and the rules of engagement that most nation-states adhere to. So ultimate responsibility does lie with policymakers. And the pencil pusher is no idealist - he's just covering the NAC's collective ass. But Grayson's shrug emoji reaction strikes me as a missed opportunity to both explore his mindset and raise some interesting moral questions.

(There is another example of this later in the book, but I won't mention it here because spoilers.)

All that said, I don't want to overemphasize the things I took issue with. On balance, I really enjoyed Terms of Enlistment. It's a fast-paced, fun and well crafted book that kept me glued to the page and got me excited to start on the sequels. It is undoubtedly a good book - just one that falls short of greatness.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for fast pace milSF fun; +1 for authenticity in the details of a soldier's narrative.

Penalties: -1 for infodumping in present tense; -1 for avoiding the tough questions it raises.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."

***

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


Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment [47north, 2013]

*

Friday, April 12, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein By Farah Mendlesohn proves to be an essential volume of genre criticism about one of the giants of the field.




Heinlein was among the earliest science fiction I tried to read, when my age was barely in double digits, back in the early 1980’s. After my introduction to science fiction, I took to reading my 7 year older brother’s works. The cover with a guy seated with a kilt, surrounded by beautiful women--well, it attracted me quite frankly, and so the first Heinlein I tried to read was not one of his juveniles, not his short fiction, but rather, Time Enough for Love. I didn’t quite understand all of it, even as the premise on the back cover of that edition was completely wrong (Lazarus Long does NOT become his own ancestor!). It took me a couple of years to try again with Heinlein, going to his short stories first, and then as his work got reissued in the late 80’s, his novels. I also read my first piece of real genre criticism, Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension, which covered his work until the late 60’s. I wondered if anyone had done similar criticism of Heinlein’s work after that (I Will Fear No Evil and subsequent books) but found nothing. Once I had finished reading Heinlein, I had let him lay fallow for a long time, with a couple of audiobooks re-reads as my only exposure to him. I had mostly moved on.

And so now years later, my interest in Heinlein reawakened with scholarship and thought about the man and his work, to point, the latest work of Heinlein scholarship, Farah Mendlesohn The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein. The title itself is a play on the Heinlein story “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”. The book was crowdsourced to its publication, and a list of supporters is at the back of the book.

The question is in this day and age if there is a place for Heinlein criticism, even given the supporters who backed the book. Has the field moved on from him so much that his worth is not worth discussing? The author very clearly thinks otherwise and lays out her arguments in the book.

The book opens up with a short biography of Heinlein, which for me extended and fleshed out the story of Heinlein I had gotten from Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction². For the first time, the pieces I had, from Heinlein himself, from that book and others are now fused together to give me a better view of the man and his story. How his life influenced his fiction is very meticulously laid down¹. I personally learned a fair amount of about Heinlein's life. This biography provides a solid grounding for the reader in Heinlein's life story and prepares the reader for the rest of the book.

The real meat of the book, though, comes in the subsequent chapters. The author handles her analysis of Heinlein’s work by theme. Heinlein’s Narrative Arc, Technique, Rhetoric, Racism and more are the framework for her to explore Heinlein’s oeuvre multiple times from multiple points of view. There is even a chapter on Heinlein’s relationship with cats, and I did not quite realize the scope of cats in Heinlein’s fiction before reading this book. This does mean that a single work of Heinlein's, like Farnham’s Freehold, for instance, is discussed in detail in the chapter best suited to it, and elsewhere in the book at all. This thematic approach allows the author to discuss the writer’s oeuvre as a holistic whole with each section, rather than rabbit-holing down the stories and novels in succession. I found the index at the back of the book helpful, and the text itself signposts when the author intends to discuss a book in greater depth elsewhere in the work.

The author provides a nuanced and well argued point of view (and giving credit in footnotes where appropriate to people who have influenced her thinking on particular matters) and the book has made me reevaluate significant aspects of Heinlein’s work and his oeuvre for myself. In a world where Heinlein’s work has become a touchstone of divisiveness, Mendlesohn lays out what she thinks of it all, the good, the bad, the nuanced, and the ugly in Heinlein’s work.

As she says herself in the preface:
“The purpose of this book is to tease out what I find fascinating about Heinlein, good, bad and reprehensible, and to understand his work as a close-to-fifty-year-long argument with himself and those he admired.”
I maintain that Mendelsohn has accomplished this in spades. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is the most detailed and comprehensive look at the man and his work that exists today. Sometimes that detail goes a tad long on length, but any genre reader or critic who wants to grapple with Heinlein’s work would stand very well to read Farah’s work. Just like the aforementioned Heinlein in Dimension, this is a crucial piece of Heinlein scholarship that also makes the case that reading Heinlein can be and still is worthwhile. That’s no mean feat.



¹ The book is meticulously footnoted as well. Some of them are rather funny and I found reading all of them worthwhile.

² Dey Street Books, 2018.

³ The full list is Biography, Heinlein's Narrative Arc, Technique, Rhetoric, Heinlein and Civic Society, Heinlein and the Civic Revolution, Racism, Anti-Racism and the Construction of Civic Society, The Right Ordering of Self, Heinlein's Gendered Self and the Epilogue, The Cat Who Walked Through Genres (itself a play on The Cat Who Walked Through Walls). There are also appendices.


---
The Math




Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for meticulous analysis in a well reasoned point of view.

+1 for being cogent enough to persuade a skeptical reader like me about some aspects of Heinlein's work.

Penalties: -1 for maybe just a little too much overwhelming detail.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10: very high quality/standout in its category. Very nearly a 10.



Reference: Mendlesohn, Farah, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Unbound, 2019]



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

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

My comic book New Years Resolutions are not going as well as I would prefer.  I am making an effort to read more indie comics, but my attempt at supporting the DC Cinematic Universe is failing. I plan on seeing Shazam this week, but still haven't watched Aquaman despite its recent release on home video.  I have watched Captain Marvel (it was great) and the family and I have begun working our way through the Marvel Cinematic Universe in preparation for Endgame, but attempting to conquer the DC movies just feels like work.


Pick of the Week:
Fairlady #1 - Jenner Faulds posed as a man in order to fight in the War of the Harshland, but following the conclusion of the war soldiers are having a hard time re-entering society. A good number of soldiers have become investigators known as Fairmen. Faulds is the only Fairlady, but has to settle for the cases that nobody else cares about. She resides in the Feld, a town built around the body of a fallen giant robot. In her first case, Faulds is tasked with tracking down a missing woman who made off with some money. In her quest to find the woman, it is learned that she took the money from powerful men as a Robin Hood-esque attempt to right some of the wrongs of the world. Fairlady is a beautiful book that has really piqued my interest to see what other cases Faulds will solve and what their connection to the Feld they will have. If you only read one book this week, I encourage you to check out this title from Brian Schirmer, Claudia Balboni, Marissa Louise, and David Bowman.

The Rest:
Prodigy #5 - Mark Millar's book about super genius Edison Crane is racing towards its conclusion and this issue provides the reveal on the real threat that the world is facing.  Crane was able to decipher a clue that was left thousands of years ago following a time travel mishap from a group of aliens who want to eventually take over the earth. The stranded time traveler carved the blue prints for a device that will serve a bridge to their plant in a temple, but that temple is currently occupied by terrorists with a bomber en route.  The solution is to send Crane and his photographic memory through the temple and memorize all of the carvings while dealing with the terrorists and escaping before the bombs hit.  Millar has really built Crane into a superhuman, but we start to see some cracks in the facade of the professor and the twist at the end of this book is setting up an epic conclusion.  I have been back and forth on this title, but it is definitely a lot of fun and this has been the best issue in the series thus far.

The Batman Who Laughs #4 - Bruce Wayne is finally getting close to uncovering where Joker has the portal that is bringing alternative Batmans (Batmen?) to Gotham.  While there is something nostalgic reading a Scott Snyder Batman book, the art of Jock is what really makes this book something special. This mini-series is getting close to its conclusion and the Joker uses the fear of the Batman who Laughs to turn the police against the real Batman.  After nearly saving Jim Gordon from another dimension, Batman is going to have a hard time returning the various Batmen and Robins to their rightful home and rescuing commissioner Gordon.  Snyder has been emphasizing Batman's code of not killing so I am curious if Batman will be able to honor this in the end.



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

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Battlestar Galactica as a Human Rights Narrative

Hey all, I promise this will be my last longform essay for a bit. I've been aching to write about Battlestar Galactica since the first time I watched it. Below are some musings on the role of Edward James Olmos as actor and director on the show.

Battlestar Galactica as a Human Rights Narrative

In 2003, Ronald D. Moore rebooted the 1970s television series Battlestar Galactica with Edward James Olmos in the star role. Unlike the campy Star Wars-inspired original, post-9/11 politics directly motivated the reboot as Moore and the cast, particularly Olmos, sought to explore human rights through a violent division between human and nonhuman (Woerner). While one could criticize the show for being post-racial, the discussion is shifted to human rights as humanity and the human-looking robots called Cylons attempt genocide against each other. Space might seem borderless, but a key image from season one remains the border between human and Cylon planets, and destruction of that border sparks war. By delineating human and Clyon spaces with a border, the line also decides who is human, thus uniting popular culture studies and human rights through the explorative lens of science fiction. While the entire series is beyond the scope of this paper, I apply James Dawes’ human rights subgenre theory to a close analysis of Olmos’ directorial debut on the show, “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” (2004). The popular culture nature of the show might seem dichotomous to human rights theory, but the 2009 presentation by the showrunners and actors, including Olmos, at the UN to discuss human rights suggest the cultural importance of Battlestar Galactica (Woerner).

When the reboot first aired with a miniseries in 2003, Edward James Olmos had a storied career ranging from his Oscar-nominated performance in Stand and Deliver (1988) to a starring role in Miami Vice (1984-1990) to the cult classics Blade Runner (1982) and Selena (1997) (“Edward James Olmos”). While only a sliver of his long career, these performances seem dichotomous from the role he often discusses: Commander Adama. A seemingly unusual turn in Olmos’ career, the show represents one of the only shows from that era with a person of color in the leading role, let alone a Chicano actor. While shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives, House, ER, Grey’s Anatomy,  and the standard CSI and Law & Order dominated the small screen, only Ugly Betty (2006-2010) overlaps with Battlestar Galactica. Unlike Ugly Betty, the show did not focus on the Latino/a/x experience but demonstrated a post-racial attitude. That being said, Battlestar Galactica strived for diversity before diversity became mandated by millennial audiences and had near gender parity, attempts at queer representation, disability representation (though not by disabled actors), and an ensemble cast featuring enough diversity that white actors did not dominate the screen. All of this is not to dismiss the problematic representation in the show, particularly with which characters experience violent deaths and villain-as-disabled trope. Yet, the show represents a network television show actively engaging with not only diversity but post-9/11 thinking. Indeed, the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning Robert Orr commented that “if [Battlestar Galactica] can get us thinking about [post-9/11 issues], then Amen, because it isn’t easy” (Woerner). Few shows on network television have as successfully demonstrated these commitments—and surely not on the Sci-Fi/SyFy channel, though The Magicians (2015-present) makes similar attempts. Current scholarship on Battlestar Galactica examines the show’s diversity and exploration of othernesss through the Cylons, but much of the scholarship focuses on the show’s connection to international relations. This paper argues that show represents an early presentation of human rights post-9/11 and creatively engages with what James Dawes’ calls “literature and human rights:” “[It] is not only a name for an academic subfield; it is a descriptor of increasingly deliberate institutional relationships and collaborations” (128). During the years that Dawes argues the field was solidifying (around 2007), Battlestar Galactica also explored these ideas on the small screen.  



While different season arcs develop and create complexity from 2003-2010, a singular concern on Battlestar Galactica remains survival. The opening miniseries shows the hatred between humans and Cylons as Cylons destroy the majority of the humanity with a nuclear holocaust. Less than fifty thousand people survive, including Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), commanding the only remaining battlestar, a military ship. After the genocide, Commander Adama and his crew represent the remaining human military force and only protection against the Cylons’ military presence. A few civilian ships escape and form a fleet under Commander Adama and the new president of humanity, Laura Roslyn, who was sworn in because she was thirty-fourth in line as minister of education. This power imbalance between experience and lack thereof (and between civilian and military authority) creates much of the tension around Commander Adama’s character arc in the first thirteen episodes. In season one, two main conflicts dictate the arc: general survival after the nuclear destruction of humanity and uncovering the human-like Cylons in the fleet.

While popular culture has not always handled human rights issues with sensitivity, Battlestar Galactica’s season arcs align with the creation of James Dawes subgenre of human rights literature. Dawes describes the paradox of human rights literature: “That representations of atrocity are both ethical interventions and acts of voyeurism; that human rights work protects the dignity of the human by juridically restricting what counts as human; or that it grounds itself in the integrity of the unviolated body even as its theoretical dualism denigrates bodily experience” (130). Exploring atrocity through speculative fiction shortcuts some of these issues—particularly voyeurism—but creates another: does treating such human rights violations as science fiction or fantasy dissociate from the reality of these lived experiences? Perhaps speculative fiction works best in concert with other works of literature and scholarship but not in isolation. Indeed, speculative works allow for theories in addition to experiences to be translated to a popular audience through the lens of popular culture. It also allows for subversion across partisan lines. For example, in Battlestar Galactica a season-long arc dramatizes a new colony of humans occupied by the militarily superior Cylons. The humans respond with suicide bombers, and while some characters discouraged the action, one of the main characters (Adama’s best friend, Saul Tigh played by Michael Hogan) deems the suicide bombers necessary to drive away the Cylons. This arc not only critiques the US invasion and occupation of Iraq but also demonstrates how that occupation radicalizes people. Here lies the power of speculative stories—they can distill ideas into a popular framework. 

Notably, the show engages with both plot structures that Dawes describes in “The Novel of Human Rights:” the justice plot and the escape plot (137). The first half of the series demonstrates the justice plot: “In the justice plot, the central narrative is a narrative of return, of violation and its investigation, of the pull of past crime and attempts to repair it” (137). Especially in season one, investigation of who might be a Cylon, how the Cylons were able to destroy humanity, and how the Cylons are able to track the remaining humans creates much of the tension. In addition, revenge for the genocide of humanity also provides character motivation. During the second half of the show, as Cylons and humans intermingle and form partnerships (including the first Cylon-human child), the plot shifts to the second plot identified by Dawes, the escape plot: “In the escape plot, the central narrative is a narrative of departure, of accumulating, forward-pushing violations, of escape as opposed to repair” (137). Rather than looking backward and remembering their human cultures, humanity and Cylons alike search for a paradise-like planet, prophesized as the home world of human and Cylon: Earth. The focus becomes escape as life is no longer sustainable on the worn-out ships.    

Significantly, Edward James Olmos’ first turn as director on the show address the concern of who is human and who is Cylon in season one’s “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down.” The A plot and B plot of the episode revolve around accusing multiple people of being Cylons. President Laura Roslyn believes Commander Adama is a Cylon after being lied to by another Cylon. Her fears are only supported by Adama’s strange behavior, which is caused by the random appearance of Ellen Tigh, his executive officer’s wife. Of course, due to her sudden appearance on a civilian ship, Adama fears Ellen could be a Cylon. A few minutes into the episode, President Roslyn approaches Commander Adama on his command deck, a space that he very much controls. As a Cylon detector has just been created, Roslyn asks Adama to have his blood checked first: “I completely agree [that people in sensitive positions should go first]. How about you? […] If you’re a Cylon, I’d like to know” (Olmos). This question immediately others him, and while the show attempts post-raciality, a powerful white woman asking an equally powerful Latino to prove himself—by extension, his humanity and loyalty—creates a tense scene that crosses into Dawes’ justice plot as finding the Cylons means exacting revenge not only for the genocide but the deaths that occurred since humanity has been forced to flee. If Adama were a Cylon, enacting justice against him would provide closure for the deaths that happened since humanity fled the genocide. These moments more clearly resonate with post-9/11 fear, but the fact they continue to resound over a decade later speak to how show tapped into a larger US-cultural fear.

In particular, Roslyn plays detective while trying to discover why Adama has seemed distracted over the past few days, thus aligning with Dawes’ theory again: “The justice plot looks to the detective novel” (137). Indeed, detective novels are a leitmotif throughout the show, particularly between Adama and Roslyn. She continues the investigation by asking her assistant to question his girlfriend (an officer on the battlestar) about Adama’s actions. She even brings in Saul Tigh, Adama’s best friend, for interrogation with her assistant, creating a low-key good cop/bad cop situation as she and her assistant question Tigh. The tension rises as Roslyn says: “I advise you right now to not say anything you would regret” (Olmos). The investigation continues to unravel as Tigh reveals his wife’s name, cluing Roslyn into Adama’s distracted behavior and making her suspicious that Tigh’s wife could be a Cylon.

While the episode could continue to develop the tension between Adama and Roslyn’s relationship evident throughout season one, the episode takes an unexpected turn to humor, which also undermines the justice plot. Due to the serious topics of the show, humor rarely appears. When the studio asked for “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” to represent a less serious turn on the show, Olmos disagreed with the choice but said: “Okay, but if you guys want humor, then I want to direct it” (ScreenRelish). The required use of humor inspired Olmos directorial debut on the show, and certain moments of humor in the episode are decidedly directorial through blocking, framing, and camera angles, particularly in central ensemble scene: a celebratory dinner and a confrontation over who could be a Cylon. The dinner scene consists of five characters: Saul Tigh and his newly recovered wife Ellen Tigh; Adama and Roslyn who both believe Ellen could be a Cylon; and Adama’s son Lee, a fighter pilot captain. Adama and Roslyn each attempt to ensnare a drunken Ellen in her words, such as when Adama says: “Any one of us could be a Cylon” (Olmos). Even though intoxicated, Ellen eventually catches on. A series of quick cuts provide close ups of each actor as they consider whether Ellen might be a Cylon, interrupted by Ellen shouting “Boo!” A wider shot shows the startled reactions as the moment of tension—in the room and for the viewer—is broken as there is no way this drunken, silly woman could be a master mind of evil. As Roslyn says later: “You actually think that woman is a Cylon?” (Olmos). Ellen’s actions end the dinner, though Adama, Roslyn, and Lee compare notes afterward, leading to another moment of humor. After watching Saul and Ellen drunkenly stumble out, almost falling in the corridor, Adama says: “Ellen used to encourage the worst instincts in this guy. Bring out the self-destructive streak in him” (Olmos). His son Lee responds: “Used to” (Olmos)? They stop cleaning up the dinner plates, pause for an extended beat staring into the middle distance, then resume cleaning. In a cathartic release with the characters, the audience can laugh about how ridiculous the drunken Ellen can act. This beat also enforces that Tigh, a recovering alcoholic, is in serious trouble with the return of his wife.

Battlestar Galactica rarely uses humor throughout an episode, so the turn to humor could possibly undermine the show, one reason Olmos wanted to direct the difficult—though memorable—episode. Similarly, the novels James Dawes explores as part of defining the human rights subgenre are not comedies but serious explorations of atrocity. While the episode’s humor is decidedly dark—questioning someone’s humanity, which would lead to their execution, is not typical dinner table talk—it demonstrates how such atrocity deeply changes people until even what is acceptable humor changes. Overall, Battlestar Galactica questions what becomes acceptable after genocide—torture, suicide bombers, mandated childbirth, martial law. Part of this questioning eventually leads to what becomes acceptable for survival, including relationships with Cylons. Through the popular culture medium of a speculative television show on the often derided Sci-Fi/SyFy channel, Battlestar Galactica ultimately works to erase the imagined line between what is arbitrarily defined as human or alien.




Works Cited

Dawes, James. “The Novel of Human Rights.” American Literature, Volume 88, Number 1, March 2016. DOI 10.1215/00029831-3453684.

“Edward James Olmos.” Internet Movie Database, imdb.com, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001579/#director. Accessed on March 10, 2019.

Olmos, Edward James. “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down.” Battlestar Galactica, Season 1, Episode 9, Universal, 2004.

Woerner, Meredith. “The Night Battlestar Galactica Took Over The U.N.” io9, 2009, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-night-battlestar-galactica-took-over-the-u-n-5173862. Accessed March 10, 2019.

Screenrelish. “Edward James Olmos: Humor on Battlestar Galactica - Fan Expo 2014.” YouTube, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPnsw8_YU5w. Accessed March 10, 2019.

Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mircoreview [book]: Alliance Rising, by C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher

Loyalty, family, trade deals, and interstellar politics.


Alliance Rising marks the return of C.J. Cherryh to her Alliance-Union Universe. It's been ten years since the publication of Regenesis, and since then she's published nine more Foreigner novels, but it's been a long wait for Alliance-Union fans. Alliance Rising is the earliest novel set in the timeline. Set on the cusp of the Company Wars, there are plenty of references for long time Cherryh readers: Pell Station, Cyteen, the azi and the Emorys, the ship Finity's End and its captain JR Neihart. Put together, the novel is grounded in a particular time and the edges of a setting that many readers are well familiar with even though no prior knowledge is required.

This may be an odd comparison to make, but the experience reading Alliance Rising put me into mind of reading L.E. Modesitt, Jr.  There is a certain comfort to returning to her universe, but the primary reason is how Alliance Rising is structured.  Alliance Rising is a long, slow burn of a novel with set up piled on top of set up and wrapped around some characterization and garnished with some more set up. It's not that dry, but much of the novel is a combination of local politics mixed with the implications of galactic politics on the verge of hitting home hard. A very significant portion of the novel is tied into building those political blocks into a tinderbox on the verge of an explosion. It's only the last act of the novel that races into that explosion and the fallout. That's a description that, with the change of one or two details, describes the plot of structure of Modesitt's fantasy epics.

The difference, of course, is that Alliance Rising is very hard science fiction and not an epic fantasy, but here that means the scale is galactic.

Alpha Station was the first station created by Earth / Sol before Pell and Cyteen basically founded themselves and splintered off. This is a station and a setting with lots of rivalries and lots of bad feelings and mistrust between stations and even towards Sol.

The early going of the novel focuses on both the politics of Alpha Station as well as the merchant ships which form the lifeblood of Alpha. Station politics is such that the massive faster than light ship being built is viewed as either being vital to the future of Sol and Earth Company or a giant suck on the resources and culture of the station. The surprise arrival of Finity's End, a legendary faster than light ship crewed by one of the oldest of merchant families, has the station in an uproar. Is this the first step of an incursion from Pell and Cyteen, an opportunity for Alpha, a strike against Sol, something else?

Alliance Rising is all about trade deals and, not to lean too heavily on the title of the novel, alliance building. Finity's End is on Alpha station to build an alliance of merchant ships into an intergalactic force (this may be a small spoiler to readers new to Cherryh, but it is also a central point to an ongoing series some forty years in). From the Stationmaster of Alpha to the captains of the Galway, Finity's End, Firenze, and every other ship on station, everyone is looking to make the best deal to protect their own future, and firmly in the middle of all that is the Earth Company built ship The Rights of Man.

It is very likely I'm not conveying this well at all, but in the hands of Cherryh and Fancher, this is gripping stuff. More than half of the novel is spent settling in, giving the reader an opportunity to live on Alpha, to really get to know Ross Monahan from Galway and, as much as possible, Jen Neihart from Finity's End. Through that younger generation readers see the absolutely loyalty of crew to their ships because the ship and the crew are family in truth. Family is the beating heart of the novel.

Alliance Rising serves to whet the appetite, not just for the second novel in the Hinder Stars sub-series but also to visit and re-visit the full Alliance-Union backlist of novels.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the details of ship history, legends, and the trading of patches

Penalties: -1 because the novel can be a touch dry at times

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10, "a mostly enjoyable experience" See more about our scoring system here.


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

Monday, April 8, 2019

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2019 Hugo Awards Finalists

Joe: Hey! The Hugo Award finalists have been announced. Where would you like to start?

Adri: Well, I’d like to start by marching around the room, banging a pan and chanting “Nerds are going to the Hugos” to the tune of Seven Nation Army. But I feel like our integrity as a finalist is dependent on me giving you a bit more than that, so!

Joe: Yeah, maybe that’s not the most dignified response to Nerds of a Feather making the Hugo ballot. But let’s just go with it as written that our hearts are filled with banging pans and a pastiche of The White Stripes.

Excluding the fact that we’re on the ballot, what immediately jumps out at you?

Adri: My reactions on watching the announcement were a combination of delighted nodding and thinking to myself “hmm, I don’t have a whole lot I need to read this summer”. There’s a lot of usual suspects across the fiction categories and while there’s very little I’m not excited to see recognised, it does all feel slightly… safe?

Joe: Safe is an interesting word. I didn’t read quite as much new stuff as I had wanted last year, but I think I did a solid job staying up on most of the major novels of the year.

I wonder if it is a function of what the Hugo Awards are and how they work - it’s difficult to be truly daring when building a broader consensus for a final ballot. Isaac Fellman’s The Breath of the Sun was an excellent novel and would have been a daring choice, but that might be easier to get through with a jury. I would have liked to have see Fellman recognized for the Campbell.

Adri: Yes, that’s true - and it’s worth bearing in mind that this position in which brilliant, diverse nominees get recognised as a matter of course in the Hugo ballot is one which was hard won and defended only recently. I feel similarly about the nominees in novella - Every River Runs to Salt by Rachael K. Jones would have been great to see here, but tricky to see getting the consensus vote. But then, I don’t want to take away from any of the six great nominees who are on the ballot.

Joe: We might be a little bit spoiled for excellence.

Adri: So, new excellence: FIYAH getting a nod for semiprozine is very exciting, and while it’s bittersweet to have recognition for Shimmer in its final year, I’m looking forward to having a reason to dig into their backlist (too late, I know!) Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe has been a fixture on my series nominations for the last three years on the strength of the stories from it that I have read, and now that it’s a finalist I’m really looking forward to tracking down the rest (hopefully the packet will give me a hand in that regard). And Rebecca Kuang’s position on the Campbell Ballot for The Poppy War is extremely well-deserved.

Joe: Semiprozine is a super exciting category this year. I had been hoping to see both FIYAH and Fireside break through and the final tip of the hat to Shimmer is nice to see. Years and years ago I had applied to be one of Shimmer’s slush readers. I didn’t get it, and that’s probably for the best, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Shimmer even though I haven’t been reading them as much as I should have.

Xuya seems like one of the bigger surprises is Best Series given that it is built on shorter fiction and some novellas. de Bodard is well known, but I didn’t know if Xuya had the reach to make it. I’m with you, though. I’m hoping the Voter Packet will give us On a Red Station Drifting and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls.

I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised, but Tor.com has five of the six finalists for Novella, much as it did last year (and four of the six the year before that). It has similarly dominated this same category for the Nebula Awards.

Adri: Not only that, but there are three sequels in the category, all from previous winning series (on a side note, I'm fascinated to see how the three Murderbot novellas stacked up against each other in the longlist, as I'd put money on both Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy being in the mix). That's an observation rather than a complaint, but it certainly goes to show there are some firm favourites out there. On the subject of Tor.com, they also published three out of six novelette works: The Only Harmless Great Thing, which was published in the novella line but just falls short of category length, and The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections and Nine Last Days on Planet Earth, which were both published online.

Do any categories stand out as particularly had to choose in (I mean, the right answer is ”all of them”, but you know what I mean)?

Joe: All of them, of course, but I think deciding on the Campbell for Best New Writer this year will be extra difficult even though four of the finalists were also on the ballot last year and I’ve read some / most / all of their work over the course of last year’s Hugo reading.

I’ve been thinking about reading S.A. Chakraborty this year anyway, so I’ll take the nudge to read City of Brass sooner rather than later. You mentioned R.F. Kuang earlier and I share your excitement to see her on the ballot. The Poppy War was an exceptional debut. As an aside and not that it really matters, but is Kuang the youngest Campbell Award finalist?

Adri: Good question, and one that I will definitely do more than zero minutes of research on before we go to publication (narrator: she did, but it is still a mystery). I have to say, while it's nice to see the Campbell list full of the same level of excellence as last year, it's a little bizarre that that’s because it’s literally filled with the same excellence as last year. Surely there are some debut authors who bring the same degree of awesomeness as last year's returnees? Again, this is one where I'll be interested to see the longlist.

Joe: Equally interesting, Jeannette Ng and Rivers Solomon didn’t have new work published in 2018. Katherine Arden didn’t either, but was a finalist on the back of two 2017 novels, and did publish a third in January 2019 (which doesn’t count, but might have kept her name fresh in memory). Prasad had a single story last year in Uncanny. They are all excellent, but it does feel a little lazy. I’d have to do some research, but it also felt unusual to have had as many first year eligible finalists last year. Of course, next year will give us an almost entirely new lineup of finalists just due to attrition.

Adri: Jeanette Ng did have at least one 2018 short story that I know of, in David Thomas Moore’s Not So Stories anthology, but it wasn’t at the same notability as Under the Pendulum Sun. I know I’m quite bad at finding and signal boosting Campbell-eligible authors, so that’s probably a factor in seeing the same names again in their second year. One that I did nominate was Y.M. Pang, who wrote “The Palace of the Silver Dragon” for Strange Horizons, which I liked a lot.

While we’re on the subject of missed opportunities: despite having several on my ballot and in our longlist, it’s another year where Booktube - the thriving community of Youtube book reviewers - has failed to place in the Fancast category. There’s some amazing stuff going on in that sphere - Claire Rousseau, Kalanadi and Books and Pieces are all channels to watch - and I have to keep hoping that one year that’ll be recognised to the same degree as the equally interesting podcasters who fill this category.

Joe: I won’t be surprised if the first Booktubers break through in the next couple of years. I remember how long and difficult of a road it was for blogs to make it for fanzine and while I don’t think Booktube has as uphill of a road against an entrenched institution, it is battling some of the same forces as we are in fanzine.

This is only the eighth year of Fancast as a category and there is already a strong tradition of nominating many of the same podcasts (which are all excellent) each year - likely because the Worldcon members who take the time to nominate are mostly listening to the same podcasts and not enough of them are watching Booktubes. To be fair, I’m not.

Adri: You’re right. Of all the categories, I keep getting drawn to short story as a counterexample to the notes of repetition - because, without getting too needlessly deep, it’s one which feels like the most promising sign of what the Hugos, and this SFF community, are engaged by. All the stories here contain, in some way, a subversion of who and what stories get to be about: who gets to control the narrative, and what power does that really give them? Most are stories which stretch the boundaries of what stories can be - especially our mutual favourite, "STET" - and while the convergence is on a relatively small number of beloved authors, the fact that stories which broaden stories is what we collectively alight on is a promising sign of openness to change.

Joe: That’s an interesting point regarding Short Story, because there is a sense of repetition in who gets nominated but the type of nominated story continues to evolve. Of course, you’ll never see me complain about too much Sarah Pinsker on the ballot. Pinsker is truly the best.

Related Work continues to be a fascinating category. Jo Walton’s Informal History of the Hugos is the exact sort of navel gazing we so love do engage in. That’s not snark, by the way, I love some genre navel gazing and Related Work is the perfect category for it. I remember when Walton first published those articles on Tor.com and eagerly followed along.

There’s the traditional Ursula K. Le Guin nomination, Alec Nevala-Lee’s well regarded biography, and three other very interesting and completely different finalists: Archive Of Our Own, The Mexicanx Initiative Experience, and The Hobbit Duology documentary which I have never heard of.

Adri: Archive of our Own (“AO3” to its friends) is a pretty intimidating prospect to put into context as a single “Related Work” nominee, but I do love that it’s up there after some pretty dedicated advocacy. Transformative fanwork has always been a cornerstone of fandom in general, but it’s generally been sidelined - no doubt because it’s disproportionately women who tend to be involved in transformative stuff. AO3 is a site that does so much more than just provide a home for all those extra scenes and alternative universes you never knew you needed from your favourite characters - they’ve gone above and beyond to develop functionality of that platform, as well as being instrumental in cementing the validity and advocating for the legal and creative space for fanwriters to work in. As I’ve already read the novel, novella and Campbell works this year, I guess that means I have no excuse not to go on a deep dive into fanfic this summer...

Joe: Moreso than other years, I’m not sure how to compare the Related Work finalists for purposes of voting. AO3 absolutely deserves its recognition, but how does it compare to an accomplished biography, a beloved essay series, a documentary, a major initiative at last year’s Worldcon, and a series of conversations with Ursula K Le Guin?

Adri: If nothing else, those sorts of decisions are really hard to then write sensible, defensible blog posts about afterwards… so good luck with that.

Given our collective love of all the words, we’ve spent surprisingly little time talking about the category at the top of the ballot - Best Novel. I noted in our earlier conversation that I wasn’t expecting much overlap between my ballot and the finalists, and in the end just one thing I nominated made it - Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, the strong end to the Machineries of Empire series. The finalists have collectively had a lot of love from our team, though, and there’s not one that I’m sorry to see here: I’m particularly happy that Space Opera lived up to our predictions as “a Hugo book”, and it’s nice to see Rebecca Roanhorse’s urban fantasy break in despite the lack of traditional recognition for that subgenre.

Joe: You think I write sensible, defensible blog posts? I’m touched.

Three of the novels I had nominated made the final ballot: The Calculating Stars, Spinning Silver, and Trail of Lightning. All are absolutely wonderful, though I’m not sure we should read too much into what Roanhorse making the ballot says about urban fantasy and how it might be accepted by Hugo nominators in the future. Roanhorse tapped into the genre zeitgeist in a stunning way with “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” and I think that got her a lot of readers who might have otherwise overlooked Trail of Lightning if it was pushed as “just” an urban fantasy novel. It’s not “just” anything, but that lack of traditional recognition exists and will likely continue to exist.

We were also right that Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City was more of a Nebula novel than a Hugo novel. I finally read it after our last conversation and it is excellent. It might have fought for a spot on my Hugo ballot if we weren’t past the deadline, but having read the novel, it still feels like a Nebula novel.

What I’m more surprised by is the lack of Kim Stanley Robinson with Red Moon. There’s nothing I would really push off the ballot, but I’m very curious to see how close it got and what would have missed out with just a couple of ballots swinging another way.

Adri: The lack of both Kim Stanley Robinson and John Scalzi surprised me, as I was expecting at least one of the two based on past performance. Scalzi’s books were both sequels to previously Hugo-nominated works, but perhaps they split the vote between them? I’m not a big KSR fan, so I can’t say I’ve been following the conversation around Red Moon, but it seems to have been at least as prominent as New York 2312.

Joe: The buzz on Red Moon seemed slightly less than that for New York 2312, but seemed enough to garner a nomination. KSR tends to write books beloved by enough of the Hugo nominating crowd that he seemed like a semi-lock for the 4th through 6th spot. I’m not as surprised by the lack of Scalzi, though, for no good reason other than this didn’t feel like the year.

Adri: Best Series also feels like an interesting category this year, with two overlaps from best novel (Wayfarers and Machineries of Empire) and one returnee in October Daye. It also feels like it reflects the diversity of the ballot as a whole this year, whereas the previous two years it has felt disproportionately white and male compared to what’s being nominated elsewhere. And, of course, now there’s no Lois McMaster Bujold to hand the trophy over to, it’s going to be a particularly interesting category to watch. I’m still enjoying watching this one develop although I’m not sure if it’s at full potential yet (or even what that would look like)?

Joe: The return of October Daye is one of the more interesting things about the category. Seanan McGuire is super popular (we both love her stuff) and even though I might have appreciated another year in between Toby Daye getting back on the ballot, it’s an opportunity to press on with her series.

I’m not sure Series has been as male as you think, at worst it has been a 50/50 split. White? Absolutely.

I’m with you on watching to see where the category goes in the future. It’s the sort of place you’d almost expect to see The Dresden Files pop up (speaking of white / male) because an individual novel may not be the best, but the series as a whole is beloved.

That said, I’m excited to see Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle pick up a nomination.

Adri: After getting into the series based on its nomination in 2017, I love October Daye so much that I 1) embarrassed myself by gushing to the sales assistant at length about the series when I discovered Night and Silence on the shelves at my local bookshop earlier than expected and 2) cried two days ago when learning what Seanan McGuire’s new Patreon story was about. That’s the kind of discovery that is the best thing about the Hugos for me, and while I have fewer opportunities to have that experience this year, I have to take comfort in the fact that it’s because of the excellent community I’ve become part of around the Hugos that I’ve already read so much of the work being recognised, and also that those fab titles are going to provide that experience to someone else in the Lucky 10,000.

Joe: If it isn’t too spoilery, what’s Seanan’s new Patreon story about?

Adri: Tybalt leaves London. I haven’t even read it yet but I’m sure it’s going to hurt in the best way.

Joe: I plan to read a lot more October Daye this summer, so that’ll probably mean more to me later.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on Art Book (new category alert!), but I think it’s very interesting that the Illustrated Edition of The Books of Earthsea is on the ballot. I know there is a substantial amount of new art, but I don’t think I’d have ever considered it an “Art Book” and I’m not sure it’s a fair use of the category.

Adri: Yes, it’s a weird one. I have to admit, I didn’t engage with the Art Book categories at nomination stage and while there’s some interesting stuff on there (I backed Julie Dillon’s Kickstarter for her art book although I only went for art prints for the physical reward) I suspect it’s going to be blank on my final ballot too. I’m keen to engage more heavily in the Semiprozine and Fancast categories this year than I have previously, and even without lots of novel reading, I don’t think I’m going to have the energy for giving those titles the full attention they deserve to judge.

Joe: Is there anything you’d like to touch on before we start wrapping this up? Personally and selfishly, I’m very curious how close we we able to get Feminist Futures to the Related Work ballot. I’m mildly disappointed that it didn’t get on, but I knew it was always a long shot. I’m so proud of the work that everyone did on it, and I would have loved to have had the opportunity for you and the other writers to get some of that sweet, sweet Hugo recognition.

Adri: I’m not saying that wouldn’t have been nice, but despite not having my name up on the ballot, I’m absolutely overjoyed at the recognition for Nerds of a Feather this year (especially as I’m not a jaded third-timer like some of you!) and very grateful for the recognition our little corner of the internet has got, in such fantastic company, even if total Nerd domination may still be a pipe dream...

I feel like we’ve covered a lot, but obviously it would be remiss of me not to mention that Tess of the Road is up for Lodestar - like last year, my biggest lock-in of the entire ballot is in this category (last year it was In Other Lands) and while, yes, the other things are fine and well and good, I have a lot of hopes riding on this lovely book.

Joe: I’m so happy to see Quick Sip Reviews on the ballot for fanzine. Charles was a finalist last year for Fan Writer and made it in that category again this year, but he puts in so much work and is such a positive part of the community that I am just thrilled for the extra recognition he is getting.

Charles had been a member of the flock here at Nerds of a Feather for a number of years, all the while running Quick Sip Reviews, and yeah - I’m just so happy for him.

Adri: Yes! I could spend another ten thousand words gushing about all the wonderful people recognised here - and about thirty thousand on those who aren’t, but should be - but maybe that’s a cue for us to wrap up and get on with some reading instead...

Joe: I think that’s probably a good idea. I’m done with Novel and Novella, but there’s still plenty to catch up on.

Happy reading!

****

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine (2017-2019). Minnesotan.

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.