Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Questing in Shorts: April 2019

Another month gone means another roundup of the short fiction I've been reading. It's been bookended by a pair of horror collections that pushed me out of my comfort zone in the best possible way, while I catch up on the remainder of my Hugo short fiction reading and plug away on some more recent magazine releases.

Those who pay attention to these things will note we're rolling with a new - hopefully permanent - column title this month. This is both to distinguish this feature from those at other venues already having short fiction adventures (good ones!); and also to reaffirm the values of this column as comfy, easy to wear, and relaxed about the prospect of not catching 'em all.

Strange Horizons January - March 2019

The first quarter of Strange Horizons brings a new ebook format which makes it a lot easier to look back through the fiction and non fiction entries. It's great, because viewing these stories as a whole monthly set often brings out commonalities in tone and style that complement each other even when they're not originally released that way. Opening January's offering is "2086" by T.K. Le (read online), a near-ish future government promises time travel in its election manifesto, and follows through by putting machines which mysteriously only show up in lower income, immigrant neighbourhoods. The protagonist's Bà Ngoại (maternal grandmother) is the most enthusiastic of the family about the new machine, but when she goes to visit it one night she doesn't come back in the way the family expect. This gentle haunting story is full of explorations of diaspora identity and the parts of people we keep close to when we grow up, as well as the wider political factors which inform how our world thinks about human value for immigrant cultures.

February takes us to some icy places, first with a group of unusually creepy clowns performing a ritual for a town trapped in endless winter by ML Kejera ("The Magician's Clown"), and then into the similarly chilly winter of an exiled Bohemian king for what feels like a purely historical - up until it isn't - story by Sarah Tolomie ("The Imaginary Palace of the Winter King"). Both bring a very different sense of place, linked by the season and by the feeling of lost tradition and standing in unforgiving worlds. The month's stories are rounded off by the weird and uncomfortable "Dem Bones" by Lavie Tidhar (read online), from which the cover image of plague masks and apples probably gives you all you need to know going in.

From March, the Samovar stories provide a nice boost to the amount of fiction content, although the sexual assault content in H. Pueya's "Saligia" (read online) was deeply off-putting. The standout for me, though, was "Truth Plus" (read online), a near future end-of-the-world tale by Jamie Wahls which punched right through my heart with its take on the ways we lie to each other in order to maintain hope in the darkest situations. It centres around two characters - a PR person and a scientist - involved in a project to save a tiny portion of humanity in the face of an incoming asteroid, while reconciling their former romantic relationship and learning how to take comfort in what their connection has now become.

Rating: 7/10

The Merry Spinster by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Reading the reviews on the back of this book, I am told that Ortberg "has a knack for knowing where in fairyland the bodies are buried", and that definitely comes across in this collection. However, the horror that most deeply struck me was the heart-tightening feeling of inescapable abuse in many of his tales. Particularly towards the end of the collection, the stories draw their horror from main characters who are trapped in cycles of manipulation and misery from supposed friends, and it's not clear whether we should be relieved or disappointed to be past the earlier stories about main characters who are often-gleeful abusers and occasional murderers of the hapless beings around them. The mode of telling is mundane and often quite wry, which adds to how jarring its more weird and vicious moments are. There's also several subversions of the gender binary, particularly juxtapositions of male pronouns and female familial positions, usually daughters. This requires a further recalibration and adds to the disorientation until we do so, forcing us to think about about what makes a story about "a daughter" different from a story about "a girl", often reinforcing the sense of powerlessness within the family unit, as in "The Thankless Child", "The Merry Spinster" itself (a Beauty and the Beast retelling), and the skin-crawl-inducing rape apologist analogy of "The Frog's Princess".

Ortberg notes the inspirations from each story at the back of the book and it's interesting to see the breadth of stories being drawn from and mashed up here. From the Brothers Grimm to the Velveteen Rabbit to, of all people, Thomas Aquinas, this isn't just a collection trading in on some "hey, older versions of fairy tales are grimmer than the Disney editions, who knew" line, but something much broader and more interesting. Not everything here rises to the occasion individually, but put together, it's pretty relentless, while staying away from being too gratuitous or silly. It's absolutely not going to change your mind if you're not already partial to the nexus of horror and fairytale - but if you are, it's one to check out.

Rating: 6/10

Uncanny Magazine: Issue 27 (Read online for free)

There's a lot of love and broken hearts across the stories in Uncanny this issue, including a couple where the genre elements are quite subtle and understated compared to the relationships at the heart of the narrative. In particular, Bonnie Joe Stufflebeam's "Every Song Must End" isn't a corner of genre I get on super well with - a slice of life poly romance whose main speculative element is a potential move to Mars for one of the couples involved, while storms ravage the earth the protagonists are stuck on. Despite that, the vignette style - each section even has its own soundtrack song - is evocative and although the genre elements didn't need to be genre elements, the imagery of storms and of escape to faraway planets at add an interesting dimension to the protagonists' lives and bring tension into the shelter and comfort they find with each other.

The theme of lost love is carried through highly accomplished stories by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - "On the Lonely Shore", also featuring the call of the ocean - and  A.T. Greenblatt: "Before the World Crumbles Away", also featuring queerness and a great, if unrealistic, view of a dying world. The story that made me gasp most inappropriately on the train was Marie Brennan's "Vīs Dēlendī", the first fridged woman story in a long time that didn't make me furious about what could have been. Set in a tradition-bound magical university, the story opens a tiny window into a world whose opaque rituals are taken by surprise by a student inspired by a folk tale (one recognisable to Earthly audiences too) into a never-before-seen act of magic that will secure his place at the highest levels of the academy. The inspiration for Harrik Neconnu's act is Voland, an outstanding female student accidentally killed by an overconfident male classmate. Now being harnessed to the desires of yet another supremely confident man, Voland ends up with the final say on her fate, however, bringing this attempt to harness obsessive love - over twelve months and a day - to a bleak, clinical close.

Rating: 7/10

The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan

I've read a couple of Kiernan's longer works at this point. The Drowning Girl, I liked; Agents of Dreamland passed me by. She looms large in my mind as a figure with an enormous catalogue and influence, who I haven't engaged with fully but want to see more of. Alas, nothing quite prepared me, delicate non-horror reading snowflake that I am, for the adventures in gore, weirdness, body horror, sex and mundane hopelessness that pervades this collection of her best short fiction. A few days on, I don't feel equipped to translate my reactions to this rollercoaster of unexpected beauty, unapologetic queerness and distilled "oh, YIKES" into a coherent review. All I can say is, like all good rollercoasters, it left me dizzy and excited and desperate to go around again, even though I know the many, many moments during the experience itself where I just wanted it to be over.

The biggest strength of this collection is the range of images that slam straight through your defences, and it's those which have stayed with me more than any individual character or plotline (which are sometimes noteworthy and sometimes just there to hang said images on). For instance, the music teacher brought in to play a violin studded with ammonite shells - "The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4)" - or the journalist pushed into a horrifying guro-filled underworld of sex and mutilation in "A Season of Broken Dolls". Linear time is irrelevant in the story of a woman travels to Mars only to be locked in a mental institution while they attempt to unpick the horrors that ended her journey; in another, "In View of Nothing", the narrator's memory and concept of time is so disjointed that it becomes almost impossible to follow either her own reality or the story's, not that that holds anyone back. Lest you think it's all eldritch abominations and vaguely timeless historical moments, there's also stories with a more contemporary bent, like "Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)" and "Fairy Tale of Wood Street", which remind me of more recent writers like Margaret Killjoy in the best way (there aren't any dates in my copy of the anthology, but these stories almost certainly predate Killjoy's Danielle Cain novellas). I made more save-for-later highlights in this book than I have in any other title in 2019 so far. I come out of the other end wide eyed, hands clenched in hair, adrenalin spent and memories perhaps less reliable than they should be: this collection has done its job well.

Rating: 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.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Time Capsule: SF - The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (1956)

Cover Art: Richard Powers

Joe: We do enjoy our conversation pieces here at Nerds of a Feather and though we do love talking about awards, we wanted to step back from that and instead to focus a conversation around one book much as we did with our roundtable Vigilance review.

We are hopeful that this will be the first in a new series of focused conversations and with that in mind, we wanted to pick something that felt like a spiritual successor to our Feminist Futures conversation.

Judith Merril may be best known today is a short fiction writer. Her debut story “That Only a Mother” was reprinted in Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthology as well various Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies and more. Merril’s influence on the genre, though, is less about her fiction than it his for her editorial work (and more). Merril was the editor of twelve editions of Year’s Best anthologies (which included inconsistent title naming conventions, ranging from “The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy” to simply “SF12”), the first edition of the Tesseracts series anthologizing Canadian short fiction, and an additional seven anthologies (including England Swings SF notable for helping to launch the New Wave in the United States). Merril also helped to found the highly influential and important Milford Writer’s Conference with Damon Knight and James Blish.

Today we’re talking about Judith Merril’s first Year’s Best anthology: SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, originally published in 1956.

Adri: Yes! Second hand retailers have been scoured, books have crossed oceans (well, the North Sea), and I have had the kind of fragile paperback reading experience which has renewed my love of ebooks, and of publishers like Gollancz, who make a lot of classic longer SF accessible on e-reader.

Paul: I am reminded that rights make it difficult to get many of these older anthologies except in falling-apart paperbacks. I do think there is something lost when these things fall out of print, because the notes make this more, in my view, than just the sum of the stories. There is value in reading this collection above and beyond the individual stories themselves.

On that note, one thing I did like in this anthology that you don’t get in a lot of modern anthologies is the “Sewing together” that Merrill does in providing explicit direction as to what she was thinking in placement of stories on subject and theme. I don’t think that gets enough play these days, and too often, anthologies seem to have stories in any old order without a sense of how they reflect and refract on each other. Merrill WANTS you to know what she is thinking. It’s a more “present” place for an anthologist than what you get these days.

Joe: I’m not sure what surprised me more, that the introduction to this anthology was written by Orson Welles or the tone of it. Here is how Welles opens his essay:
“One thing’s sure about science-fiction: there’s too much of it.

A leading editor in the field announces that the boom days are over, but the yearly amount of the stuff that still gets into print is pretty staggering.

My advice to any but the most bug-eyed addict would be to abstain from the novels. “S.F.” is often at its aching worst in “book-length” versions”
The rest of the essay proceeds by being a knock down of nearly all of the science fiction novels of the day, most of the stories, and many of the magazines. It’s as if Welles is trying to sell this anthology by saying it is the only thing that matters and that everything else is bunk.

I want to quote the entirety of the Orson Welles essay, but I don’t want to contact his estate for the rights.

Adri: Yes, the introduction is fascinatingly backhanded. Even the praise for short fiction, and the stories in this anthology, is qualified by comparing them to fables and suggesting that it’s hard to get a fable wrong. Orson Welles is a big deal, so I guess he could say what he wants and “introduction by Orson Welles” would still be a selling point for the anthology, but it adds this tone of self-deprecation to the anthology as a whole which is just a bit unnecessary?

Joe: The other quote I’d like to offer up for comment is from Judith Merril in her preface.
“The serious-minded reader will also have to forgive our authors if they resort to the frivolities of space-ships and flying bath-mats, robots and talking rats, to make their points. Even in s-f, a writer is only secondarily a philosopher; his first big job is entertainment...and that hasn’t changed since Aesop’s time at all”
I find it fascinating that Merril’s preface talks about the big ideas science-fantasy writers are tackling and not providing neat answers, how the stories are the testing ground for why and what if, but then she weirdly undercuts it at the end. Of course, that’s how it presents in 2019 to a reader steeped in science fiction and fantasy, who lives in a time where speculative fiction is at the forefront of popular culture, where there is no shame except in the highest of literary towers to tell a story smacking of genre. How would that preface have read sixty years ago when this anthology was first published?

Adri: It’s timely to look back at this at the same time that there’s been some conversation on Twitter about the current direction of genre snobbery between literary fiction and SFF, and how some who read across both camps feel there’s more coming *from* the SFF-verse and the wholesale dismissal of litfic as “professors with midlife crises starting inappropriate relationships”, whereas on the literary side SFF themes are quite widely accepted as potential areas of exploration. I can only interpret Merril’s introduction as the kind of putdown one comes to when you’re pre-empting other people getting there first?

Joe: Equally interesting, Merril’s conclusion almost reinforces the intro from Orson Welles, “This was the year the house collapsed. The house of cards, I mean, otherwise known as the Science Fiction Boom”. Merril seems to be talking about the state of science fiction publishing, and it is an echo we hear about time and time again in the more than sixty years since this anthology was published.

Adri: What I found interesting about the stories in here is that they challenged my biases about the kinds of themes that this era of SF dealt with and valued, even as they confirmed my suspicions about the representation of humanity in said stories. For example, the opening story, “The Stutterer”, deals with an invulnerable robot who is being hunted down by humans, but whose inner life shows he is just as alive and worthy of respect. This is the first of a few “humanising the other” stories here, which is more interested in exploring psychological responses to the robot than to going into detail about the fictional metal he’s made of, but the “humanisation” is done by giving him a neurotypical white male psyche that’s clearly supposed to read as “default”.

Also, given that there’s a certain narrative about classic SF as being about “fun” and “the adventure”, which does shape the conversation despite the… agendas… of many who promote it, it’s interesting to see stories like “The Hoofer” and “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts”, which deals in the day-to-day struggles of people living their lives in space or with fantastic elements, without having to make galaxy-changing decisions.

Joe: I’ve read a lot of feminist science fiction over the last year written during this period, as well as a number of anthologies featuring stories from the era. There were certainly fun adventure stories chock full of action and swordplay and ray guns, but they were no more fully reflective of their era as you could say that the 1980’s and 1990’s were all about a particular style of epic fantasy because of Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Raymond Feist, and Robert Jordan. It’s never just one thing.

Paul: “Pottage” by Zenna Henderson felt really like something from a “different planet” as does a lot of other Henderson work as put aside Campbellian Science Fiction. And even as it has a female MC and is seemingly of a separate strand of SF, it still manages to touchstone some SF stropes. Psi powers. A MC who knows more than she is telling at first, and only in time reveals what she knows--and what she does.

More contemporaneously, the cult like atmosphere of the repressed group is interesting, and also what about immigration and minorities in today’s society--they feel real different than they did when I first read them.

Joe: SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy is by no means a feminist anthology. If I can count, only three and a half of the eighteen stories are written by women and there is a limited number of female protagonists, let alone the push of the stories. But you are absolutely right - given the generic stereotype of classic science fiction, this anthology is very much not that.

Paul: It does undercut the whole narrative that there was none of this stuff to be found until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Is it overwhelmingly male authors and protagonists? Sure. But there is more representation outside that than I was expecting. I think that’s the editorial hand at work.

Adri: Not to be the disruptive diversity hire here, but despite Merril’s hand at the helm I didn’t have that experience. I got about the level of representation I was expecting, which was next-to-none and generally reinforcing hierarchies when marginalised groups do put in an appearance. Which is fine. It’s fine, guys. Fine. Just fine. I’m glad the genre has moved on.

Joe: I did expect more diversity in the anthology than we got, but that’s because at this point I’m used to seeing Merril mentioned or included in anthologies like Women of Wonder, Sisters of the Revolution, and The Future is Female!, so there’s a connection in my mind that isn’t necessarily on the page or reflective of what her editorial eye might have been (either by design or by necessity)

Adri: I guess it’s hard to judge based on one anthology, when Merril’s contribution to the genre spanned so much writing and editorial work as you mention above. There’s a couple of “Best of the Best” anthologies drawn from the first ten years of these annual editions and I’m intrigued to pick one up and see whether those volumes, with more material to pick from, come across any stronger in their representation - at least of women.

Joe: I’m not going to speak to which story is “best”, but the one that most jumped out at me was “The Cave of Night”, by James Gunn. I dug this story. Gunn references how stories of people trapped in impossible situations until rescue might possibly arrive is transfixing in a way that can’t quite be explained, and then goes on to tell the story of an Air Force pilot, perhaps one of the first astronauts, is hopelessly stuck in the first rocket to orbit the Earth. Remember, “The Cave of Night” was published in 1955 and Yuri Gagarin would not orbit the plane for six more years. In Gunn’s story, the 30 day odyssey captivated a nation and the globe.

Paul: I do have opinions, though, on which stories I thought were the best, or the strongest, or the most resonant for me, and I think we can talk about those stories that worked for it. As it so happens. Joe, I thought Gunn’s story was one of the best of the best of the set for me, too, although I am not sure about the premise, at least if it happened now. Do we have too fractured a landscape of news and information that if it happened now, it would not captivate and motivate the world in the way it does by effect here? Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, though I wouldn’t quibble with the premise.

And I am reminded of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars where the asteroid impact and disaster does mobilize a response to get off of the planet, but even there, MRK is careful to note there are countervailing forces against that push.

Joe: Honestly, I do think we’d get suckered into someone being stuck in orbit. We still get enraptured by that sort of tragedy. The Chilean miners in 2010, Baby Jessica stuck in the well in 1987. Standoffs. I know you said that you’d believe it even ten years ago but not now, but I suspect if there was a major catastrophe AND we could communicate in some fashion with the trapped, we’d respond. We’d listen.

Would it be enough to mobilize the future into a major space race? That’s a much bigger question.

Paul: Very much so. This also puts me in the mind of stories where a fake alien threat is meant to unite the world (also, c.f. Watchmen)

Adri: It’s interesting that you pull this story out - for me, it was an intriguing blend of timeless elements (for an even more recent example than Joe’s, look at the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand last year) as well as being really hard to separate from its time. This was very much the story that brought home to me that I was reading science fiction written before spaceflight, and both this and “Bulkhead” do a convincing but recognisably speculative job of representing what that might be.

On the fictional side, the appeal to collective humanity is a significant motivator for all the humans who aren’t Mark Watney in The Martian: a prominent recent title whose blend of human interest and scientific elements feels like one of the most direct descendents of some of this stuff.

Speaking of stories that gave me a weird mix of 2019 and 1956: check out “The Public Hating”, by Steve Allen, one of the few non-prolific genre authors in the anthology. This tale of future crime and punishment, in which a man is publicly shamed to death by the collective mental powers of the rest, feels in part like the kind of thing someone would write (probably in a Black Mirror episode) while staring meaningfully at Twitter. While there are certainly parallels to be drawn around shame and holding people to account in the public sphere, it’s a pretty shallow analysis - and it also involves a very 1956 exploration of psychic powers (or “psi”) and an inescapable aura of anti-Soviet sentiment which kills the Charlie Brooker vibe somewhat.

Joe: There’s also a bit of the whole “mob mentality” that comes out here, where the protagonist maybe wasn’t all about the hate but was swept up in it - of course, he did come out to participate. Plus, there are echoes of George Orwell’s 1984.

Paul: I was also thinking “Two Minutes of Hate” but with Psi powers which just makes the subtext, text, here. Here, the hatred can literally kill.

I didn’t really remember or grok how much Psi powers were a thing in the 50’s until recently. It’s a nail that gets hit again and again in this volume, in different ways. It might even be a theme: psi powers of aliens, of supermen, of ordinary people, amplified.

Joe: It was seriously a thing, and all the psi-powers puts me into mind of the Darkover novels from Marion Zimmer Bradley, which also began in the late 1950’s (though Bradley is persona non grata and rightfully so).

Adri: Yeah, the psi concept - especially as explored here, and in Clifton’s “Sense from Thought Divide”, hasn’t stood up well as a trope. The main feeling it evoked from me after reading was a desire to go and play the recent X-COM games, which I have just now realised are the main vehicles for these sorts of pulp sci-fi concepts to infiltrate my cultural awareness. So, hey, I guess I do like psi, but only when it turns my freedom fighting supersoldiers into unstoppable purple glowing war machines.

Joe: I expect that a common trivia question would be “Who won the first ever Hugo Award for Best Novel”? (Alfred Bester for The Demolished Man). A harder question would be: Who won the second Best Novel Hugo? That would be Mark Clifton with Frank Reilly for They’d Rather Be Right / The Forever Machine.

Adri: An easier question than you’d think if you’ve ever Googled “what’s the worst Hugo novel winner”, for which this is one of the commonly accepted answers. I haven’t read it, so I couldn’t objectively comment, but Jo Walton makes a pretty compelling case in her history of the Hugos despite also not having picked it up…

Joe: There’s a part of me that has wanted to go back and read all of the Hugo winning novels, but more likely I’ll focus on Dreamsnake (Vonda McIntyre), The Snow Queen (Joan Vinge), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis) this year. Which is besides the point of talking about this anthology, but I do love my digressions. Regardless, I don’t expect to ever get to the Clifton / Reilly novel given how forgettable “Sense from Thought Divide” was. I had already forgotten the story less than two days after finishing it.

Much more memorable for me was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bulkhead. I’m not going to claim that Sturgeon is the most prolific short story writer out there, but his name is synonymous with short fiction (he does have an award named after him, after all).

I got a weird Johnny Got His Gun feeling from “Bulkhead”. Sturgeon doesn’t necessarily reference Dalton Trumbo’s classic 1938 novel, but he does echo the brokenness of Trumbo’s protagonist.

Paul: I thought this was going into “Cold Equations” territory for a really long while, stowaways and all that. I was surprised by the turn into psychology. Really solid writing, character analysis and depth here.

Adri: A bit weird, a bit overly militaristic, but still one of the best stories in the collection for me - really compelling in a way I can’t quite figure out how to describe.

Joe: One final story to briefly discuss is from Shirley Jackson, “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts”. The title is somewhat on the nose, because this *is* a very ordinary (if compelling) story with a twist at the end. Because I read far too much genre, I wonder if the older man and his wife were supernatural in any way or if they just go around being good / being complete dicks to people.

Paul: Hey, another genre story from the author of “The Lottery”. The randomness of how the MC (and it turns out his wife) do in changing lives, for good or for ill, does feel rather random. A question that shows how lives can be changed by small encounters, but not very genre. I think the implication is that they ARE supernatural, or at least knowing enough or being skilled enough to “place the lever”. Even in a collection with Psi powers, this felt the most fantastic.

Adri: Funnily enough, I just read “The Lottery” as the only genre story (non-supernatural horror) in an otherwise very literary anthology of forgotten 20th century women authors. Not that I don’t like a good “how sad it was to be a divorcee in 1947” tale, but it really stood out in that company. “One Ordinary Day” feels a lot lighter and not quite at the same level, but it’s still an interesting one.

Paul: Overall, looking at the collection from a couple of weeks remove of reading it, I think that the already noted prosaic nature of a lot of the stories does come back to me time and again. Maybe the Mundane SF crowd have a point about the strength of setting SF right here and now as opposed to more interstellar and galactic horizons. Or maybe the province of space opera and the like really is at a longer length than you typically can manage in a collection of this size. You can in the end only get so much information density on a page.

I want to thank you both for joining me in this look at a seminal SF collection from a seminal figure in the field.

Adri: Yes, this time capsule of an anthology challenged my expectations in ways I didn’t realise it would - which has in turn made me look back and realise where those expectations come from in the first place. As tricky as it was to get hold of this title, and despite the challenge of reading a book that literally started falling apart at the end (sorry, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, but my level of distraction by the time I got to your story calls into question my objectivity as a reviewer), this has been an eye opening exercise for me and one which has definitely rekindled my interest in engaging more with older stories. I’ll not be making that shift at the expense of reading that represents an actual cross section of the human experience, though.

Joe: Even though we know that awards are not the full marker of the importance or skill of a writer, it is notable that Judith Merril has put together an anthology filled with writers who have racked up a significant number of awards and nominations. The writers included here have won 14 Hugo Awards and a total of 45 nominations, 3 Nebula Awards on 28 nominations, and 2 World Fantasy Awards with 6 nominations. There have been 3 recipients of World Fantasy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, 4 writers recognized as SFWA Grandmasters (an honor that can only be given when the writer is still alive), and at least three awards have been named after the the writers collected here. All that when we were nearly twenty years away from the creation of the World Fantasy Awards, almost ten years from the first Nebula Award, and the Hugo Awards were only five years old when this anthology was published.

There’s no real takeaway from noting this, but since we do like to talk about awards and looking back at Merril’s debut Year’s Best anthology from a distance of sixty years, what Judith Merril put together stands up to almost any metric we care to measure the success of an anthology by.

Also, she included a story originally published in Good Housekeeping and that has to be some kind of a first.

Thank you both for the conversation.

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.

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

Friday, April 26, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Hound of Justice, by Claire O'Dell

The Hound of Justice ably continues the fantastic story of Dr. Janet Watson and Sara Holmes in a darkly plausible near-future Washington D.C.

By the end of A Study in Honor, the first in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson Chronicles, the writer had established the parameters of her world, introduced our two main characters in full, Dr. Janet Watson and Sara Holmes. These two queer women of color as posited are indeed this world’s versions of the classic detective duo, in a near future 21st century Washington D.C, where America, after the divisiveness of a Trump administration is wracked by something even worse: A new Civil War. The two meet, and a first step toward Watson engaging with the war-torn past that cost her an arm is the central mystery at the heart of that novel.

In The Hound of Justice (yet a second novel title in homage to Doyle)., Dr. Watson’s story continues.

The novel has a whopper of an inciting incident to get things off. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the novel begins with a bombing during the inauguration of a new President, one that came to power in the wake of the events of A Study in Honor. This soon ramps up into a mystery, as patients at her hospital soon start mysteriously dying, even as she herself is struggling to be accepted as a surgeon with her new advanced artificial arm. This plot tension reflects and refracts Sara Holmes’ own struggle. The aftermath of the first novel has not beens salutary for her espionage career prospects, and that relationship tension informs and infuses the plot. Finally, when the game IS afoot, both are drawn into another mystery revolving around the ever present Civil War.

The milieu as created by the author is also a highlight for me. What I really liked in the worldbuilding in this novel was the throughline of having the war come to Washington D.C, and then, in the course of the novel, Watson and Holmes journey into the dark heart of the war zone, into the New Confederacy. What would the U.S look like riven by the faultlines of a new, modern Civil War? I found the author’s vision of what that would look like in practice to be all too plausible and chilling. The main characters are drawn into the dark heart of the conflict and it is, frankly, harrowing and all too much resonant. This is a vision of America I hope remains firmly in the science fiction aisle of the bookstore. It’s almost too painfully plausible, richly detailed and it evocatively comes across the pages.

And yet it is Watson’s journey and development that really is the central portion of the novel. The dark and richly textured world is one thing, it is the mindset and the journey of Watson that really counts. That aforementioned inciting incident is a dagger to the heart of someone who is dealing with the very real demon of PTSD and the aftermath of her experience at the battle of Alton. The author captures how Watson has to confront the “war come home” as well as how the journey into the dark heart of the war affects her protagonist. And even wrapped up in all that is all that else is going on in Janet’s life. The world is a complex mosaic, and even with the Brotherhood of Redemption, Sara Holmes’ future, and Watson’s work struggles, there is a potential romance, her relationship with her family and much more. This is a novel whose primary, first focus is on the relationships and internal growth and struggles of the protagonist, to equal or maybe even greater degree than the author’s previous novels. This is science fiction for readers who want to engage deeply with a main character they can get to know on an intimate, personal level.

The novel doesn’t stand well on it’s own, if this has intrigued you to this point, I strongly recommend picking up A Study in Honor. It’s not so much the plot that you need to catch up on (which can be summarized and gets referenced back a couple of times in the novel), it is the emotional growth and development of Watson as a character that makes the first novel absolutely crucial to enjoying this one to the utmost.

The novel ends with Watson at a turning point, and a whole new potential hook for a mystery in the bargain. It’s a complete story, don’t get me wrong, but even more than the first novel, this novel is clearly setting up for a potential follow up as Dr. Watson’s story continues. I for one am eager for another Janet Watson novel.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a very strong focus on Watson and her personal story.
+1 for a darkly immersive near future world

Penalties : -1 for a slight weakness of the actual mystery as opposed to the rest of the novel’s merit

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

Reference:  O’Dell, Claire  The Hound of Justice [Harper Voyager, 2019]

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

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

End Game is finally here!  I have my tickets to see it Sunday morning and have muted specific terms for the first time since I joined Twitter many moons ago. Early reviews for the movie are good and I am excited to watch this phase of the MCU reach its epic conclusion. May you all have a spoiler free next couple of weeks.

Pick of the Week:
Ascender #1 - Set 10 years after the conclusion of Descender, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen return to the world they introduced us to five years ago.  The Harvesters have purged the known universe of all robots and technology. The Mother rules all with an iron fist and has enslaved many planets. She wields a powerful magic, but there is a rumor of another magic user that is haunting her. Hope comes in many forms, and Mila appears to be that force in this book. Her mother died for her so that her father and her could be free. Freedom sounds good, but it essentially means they are outcasts who are forbidden to interact with the "saved", those who have pledged devotion to the Mother. Lemire and Nguyen do a masterful job introducing the reader to this universe and setting the stage for competing factions as the resistance seeks to bring back technology and free everyone from Mother's rule. This really makes me want to revisit Descender as I am embarrassed to admit I never finished.

The Rest:
Criminal #4 - Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue to produce the goods with another stellar issue of Criminal. This issue provided us a night from the perspective of Ricky Lawless, complete with cocaine use, murder, bar fights, and some of the worst impulses that a human could have. You start to feel a bit sorry for Ricky, who is driven by the death of his father and has relatively good intentions. The death of Teeg Lawless was mentioned in the first Criminal story and at the end of the book Brubaker and Phillips let us know that we finally get to hear how it all went down in the next issue! I cannot recommend this series enough and remain impressed at how fresh Brubaker and Phillips keep this series after so many years and so many tales. 

Redneck #19 - Following the horrific events of the last arc, Bartlett and his family are at the end of their ropes and desperate for help. They were told of a man that could help them, but it would come with a cost. This brings the family south of the Texas border and among the dead in the Asilo Del Muerto. We are teased with who this new individual is, Senor Carrona, but Donny Cates promises that we will get to know him better as this new arc unfolds. There is something unsettling watching the vampires leave Texas and the Bowman clan should be afraid at what Bartlett is plotting with Carrona.  Very excited about this new arc!

Star Wars: Vader Dark Visions #3 - In the most bizarre book in this series, we are introduced to a nurse on the Death Star with a creepy infatuation with Vader. The book opens with the appearance of a simple crush, getting nervous when he is around and daydreaming of the two of them together, but it quickly goes beyond a simple crush as we learn she has a collection made up of blood and other bodily items that she found cleaning up the operating room. As I type this it feels like this book shouldn't exist, but thanks to the magic of comic books we have Fatal Attraction set in the Star Wars universe. The difference is that Vader is not one to put up with this type of infatuation lightly.

Doctor Aphra #31 - When we last saw Triple-Zero and Aphra and their attempt to deactivate the bombs they had been implanted with, Triple-Zero was ready to give up and walk away from it all thus triggering the proximity bombs. Thinking quickly Aphra revives Beetee-One, thus sparking a brief moment of joy in Triple-Zero and giving him the will to live. While this hasn't been the best arc in the series, it has been pretty fun and reminds me how important the droids are to this series. Towards the end of the book Beetee-One comes in very handy and returns to his harbinger of death form and quickly dispatches of a group of storm troopers. I feel I am getting to the point of dropping this title and wonder if it would have been better as a mini-series following her debut in the Vader series.

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Microreview [film]: My Name is Julia Ross

A long time coming, but worth the wait

Out of the ashes of the late, lamented FilmStruck streaming service, comes the Criterion Channel. When it launched this month, the Criterion Channel came out of the gate with a showcase of Columbia Film Noir, and one of the films included was 1945's My Name is Julia Ross. Since 1945, the movie hadn't been easy to see. I found out too late that it had been included in a retrospective at one of the art house theaters here in LA about a decade ago, but it never had a home video release of any kind until it was briefly issued in a box-set of backbench noir films issued by Turner Classic Movies in 2011. I missed that one, too. But the retrospectives had the effect of creating a kind of aura around this film   one of the great noir films you couldn't see. It was referenced in DVD commentaries and articles about other, better-known noir films, but was itself hard to put your eyes on.

It certainly didn't help matters that the lead actress, Nina Foch, told me in her 80s that it was one of her favorite roles, even more than the film for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Nina taught for decades at USC, and was an inspirational figure for hundreds of students like me throughout the years. So why couldn't I see her favorite role?!?!

So, thanks, Criterion Channel. Plus, watching this movie in 2019 offers additional joys that it maybe wouldn't have had I caught it at that retrospective all those years ago. Because My Name is Julia Ross is about gaslighting. We get the term "gaslighting" from the 1944 George Cukor movie Gaslight (the most popular rendition of a story that began on the stage in 1939), and I'm here to tell you folks, the term should be "Julia Rossing." I think My Name is Julia Ross is the better movie (produced with a tiny budget and with only a 64-minute running time), and for a number of reasons.

Here's the plot: Julia Ross, an American living in London, answers an ad for a personal assistant for Mrs. Hughes, a wealthy old widow with an adult son, Ralph. Julia gets the job. After Mrs. Hughes sends Julia away with some money for shopping and packing her things, she tells the woman staffing the temp agency that they can close up shop. Like, all the shop. Like, disappear. So what's up? Julia reports for work, and wakes up in an entirely different place, surrounded by Mrs. Hughes, her son, and the servants, who all call her "Marion," Ralph's wife. They tell her she's been ill, and confused, and she never was any "Julia Ross." She's been there at the seaside house, recuperating, for months. So we know the Hughes family is trying to brainwash her, but to what purpose?

What makes this movie so awesome, apart from Nina's performance that really anchors us to Julia and a Gothic-noir atmosphere, is that Julia is always herself, and always fighting. I have a number of issues with Gaslight, from Charles Boyer's performance to the way in which Ingrid Bergman's Paula character is written in a fainting, sort of damsel-in-distress manner. But Julia Ross don't play. I kept worrying that her derpy boyfriend, left behind in London, was going to be maneuvered into saving her, but I needn't have been concerned.

This movie was killer in 1945, and through the machinations of social discourse in 2019, it has additional resonance and a hero we are happy to root for.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for Nina Foch's magnetic performance in the title role; +1 for a kick-ass heroine who isn't here for these rich people's legal problems; +1 for taking the noir out of the gutter and sticking it in a Gothic setting

Penalties: -1 for the 64-minute running time

Cult film Coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention

Posted by Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer for nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, Emmy-winning producer, and veteran of two semesters with Nina Foch.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Microreview [book]: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

An inventive opening to a ghost ship trilogy, but the reliance on stock tropes and uneven tension are hard to ignore.

Django Wexler has been on my "authors to try" list for a long time, mainly for his five-part "Shadow Campaigns" series - the opening volume of which is sitting on my TBR shelf and judging me right now. I actually hadn't realised that he also writes YA until this book showed up on my radar, but it seemed like a great place to start with his work that's highly relevant to my interests - kickass heroine takes on a ghost ship in a fantasy world? Sign me up!

Ship of Smoke and Steel
starts on pretty safe ground, introducing us to a mysteriously magical young protagonist making her way through the underworld on what to her is a routine mission. Isoka is an adept from the Well of Combat, one of nine magical sources of power which people can be born to tap into - being an adept means that she's more magically powerful than those who are merely "touched" or "talented" by the wells, which can also variously give powers of fireballs, force waves, perception skills and creepy mistrusted healing powers. In Isoka's case, her Melos powers mean she can make magical force blades appear out of her hands, and summon armour to protect her, and she's somehow managed to hide these magical talents in a society where only nobles and those pressed into Imperial service are supposed to have them. When we meet her, Isoka is completely resigned to the realities of her world and her own violent position in it. The only bright spark is her relationship with her younger sister, Tori, who Isoka has managed to secure a spot in a nice area of town while she works to keep her in luxury and away from the harshness of the life they were born into. All this means that when Isoka is caught by one of the most powerful people in the empire within the first couple of chapters Tori is the easiest bargaining chip to compel her to do what the authorities want: steal the Soliton, a mysterious ghost ship that makes a route around the known world and demands magical teen tribute wherever it goes. If she comes back with the ship, her sister won't be murdered. Good times.

All of this is an adequate if not inspirational set-up for Isoka to be particular type of hero: a hardened do-what-it-takes disaster, with just enough callousness for us to understand the lengths she'll go to for survival, while retaining enough sympathy to let us root for her as the external challenges mount up. It's a stock character, but it works for the grim narrative and the reason this type of powerful heroine keeps showing up is because it produces a satisfying story, even though we might wish that Isoka's external motivations had been slightly better explored before taking her out of that environment and throwing her into a new one. The other character the narrative really pushes is Meroe, a princess from Jyashtan, a southern land which Isoka has barely even heard of, who has been cast out by her father and is oddly reluctant to disclose her own powers. There's an unfolding romance between Isoka and Meroe which is quite sweet; although it does play out against a background of internalised homophobia from both Isoka and Meroe's cultures, none of the other characters express homophobic opinions about their attraction, and there are other queer characters and relationships too. The romance also adds a more immediate positive relationship to Isoka's quest than her rather distant connection to Tori, which is much needed given her predisposition to otherwise fight anyone who comes within magical-blade range.

The back of this book calls the story "cinematic", and that's a great description for how Isoka's time on the Soliton plays out. There's a lot of attention paid to building up terrifying monsters, like giant tentacled crabs called Blueshells or the Hammerhead, a mouth on legs - for Isoka and her band of allies to fight, and it makes for accomplished, well-realised battles with a satisfyingly strong-but-challenged heroine. However, the way they're built into the plot feels less like a movie and more like an RPG-style "episodic adventure, then return to camp" structure - a feeling I also had with Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings (at least in one of that book's enormous subplots). It's a structure I'm totally into when used by games: go fight a thing, then come back to the Normandy and see if your sidekicks have any new dialogue, then repeat until everything is dead and solved. With a book like this, however, I feel like this structure does weird things to the tension when Isoka and company aren't in a "designated threat scene". While the dwellers in the Stern, the main habitable area of the ship, are supposedly under constant threat from the various crabs and even toothier things that live just beyond their flimsy walls, there's an awful lot of hanging around and posturing and having sexy moments in their tenuously safe areas and not much indication that anybody is actually on guard except when they're out in the Depths. Isoka has a lot to do in camp too, finding her way from the very bottom of the heap to a trusted member of the Stern's leadership respected for her fighting talents, but the lack of attention on the mission originally given to her by the empire, which is supposed to keep the one thing she cares about safe, is also a bit offputting.

The mysteries of the Soliton itself are intriguing and far from resolved in this volume, although I was sadly disappointed by the lack of nautical content. The idea of an ostensibly magical but all-too-real ghost ship patrolling the known territories of the world is a fascinating image, but what the Soliton actually draws on is a significantly more modern affair, full of endless metal corridors and narrow suspended walkways (all filled with crabs) and controlled by a mysterious Captain. The Soliton is supposedly bigger than a city, contains cavernous depths which take days to escape from, and is full of a type of magical energy whose sudden introduction might come as a surprise unless you've read the cheat sheet at the front of the book and assumed that "Eddica, the Lost Well" is probably going to end up being plot relevant at some point. It would be spoilery to go into how the "well of spirits" fits in with Isoka's story, but despite the somewhat left-field introduction the ship's mysteries do pick up considerably once it starts playing a role, although this is very much the first book in the trilogy and there is plenty of ground left to cover in the second two volumes - not least Isoka catching up on the part where she actually has to steal the ship and bring it back to an empire she hates in order to save her sister.

Whether I'll actually be on board for those subsequent instalments is another matter. I liked Ship of Smoke and Steel, but ultimately the parts I enjoyed didn't obscure the feeling that I could see too much of how the trick was being done to really sit back and enjoy the show. There's creativity and interesting worldbuilding on display here, but the formulaic pacing of battle scenes switched me off despite how well done the scenes themselves are, and the curious detachment from Isoka's own quest and the mysteries of the Soliton for large parts of the book left the narrative with little time to actually invest me in seeing how these play out. Ship of Smoke and Steel is by no means off-putting, however, and for the right reader, the start of Isoka's grim quest to fight her way out of the forces against her will no doubt be a more compelling experience.

The Math

Baseline: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Interesting take on the idea of a ghost ship

Penalties: -1 Too much stock in stock tropes and motivations; -1 the formula of "cinematic" tension doesn't build up as well as it could

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

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: Wexler, Django. Ship of Smoke and Steel [Tor Teen, 2019].

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.


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].