Thursday, October 31, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero: Halloween Edition

Happy Halloween!!!  It is the best night of the year and I can't wait to pass out comic books and raid my kids' candy stashes!  In honor of this spooky holiday I thought I would recommend five books that would be appropriate to enjoy on Halloween.

Locke and Key: Welcome to Keyhouse - This is the book that kicked things off for Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's epic horror story that centers around house and its magical keys. The story centers around the Locke family and the return of a dark force named Dodge. This is by and far my favorite comic book series and would make for some great Halloween reading.

Batman: The Long Halloween - While the entire story doesn't take place on Halloween, Joesph Loeb's classic Batman story features a mysterious killer only know as Holiday.  Holiday murders one person a month on the holiday associated with that month. It is a dark and gritty book that features other classic Batman villains and is considered a classic for good reason.

Nailbiter - Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson introduced us to the town of Buckaroo, Oregon, a town that has created a wealth of deadly serial killers. An FBI agent has gone missing and Nicholas Finch uncovers the reasons behind the creation of so many serial killers.  Edward Charles Warren, the Nailbiter, is the most current serial killer and it appears that he might be helping Finch in his investigation.  That is, if we can trust someone who enjoys chewing off his victim's nails.

The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes - One of Neil Gaiman's best comics (which is saying a lot!) features mankind's attempt to capture the physical embodiment of Death, but accidentally traps her brother Dream instead.  I first read this on the way to my first SDCC and will never forget the horror that Dream instilled in humans who had taken his objects of power. Just writing this small recap makes me want to revisit this series.

The Sixth Gun - If you are looking for a book that deals with the occult set in the time period following the Civil War then you have found what you are looking for in The Sixth Gun. You cannot have a list of Halloween titles without including Cullen Bunn. This series centers around Drake Sinclair, his history with the guns, and a cast of characters that is difficult to capture in a brief summary.  The six guns represent six weapons that have existed throughout the history of mankind. Each weapon grants its owner tremendous power, but at a cost. If one individual should wield all six guns, that person has the ability to reshape the earth in his or her own vision.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Questing in Shorts: October 2019

Greetings and welcome back to Questing in Shorts! After a month off I'm back to bring you more highlights from my journeys in short fiction. For some reason, September and October were months for proliferation in my subscription ebook folder, and the situation got a bit intense in there for a while. I've now caught up but at the expense of having any hope of catching up with actually logging all the stories I've read from 2019 for Hugo purposes. There are two ways things could go from here: either I get really into reading admin for a few hours between now and December and spend it on that, or I just hopelessly flail at my nominations and recommendations as I have in previous years. I'm trying so hard for the former, friends, for all our sakes - but time will tell.

Anyway, on with the stories:

... and other disasters by Malka Older

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Malka Older's first short fiction collection is a chapbook-length affair from Mason Jar Press, bringing together both fiction and poetry into one beautifully curated package. Older's work particularly appeals to me because we're in not-dissimilar careers, so she brings a lot of experience to her fiction that I recognising and find illuminating. This came through strongest for me in stories which lay bare the expectations and power dynamics which travellers to other cultures bring with them - "The Rupture", about a young woman coming to study on a dying earth despite the protestations of her family about how dangerous it is, and "Tear Tracks", about the first diplomatic visit to an alien culture and one traveller's attempt to match up her communication, her perceived role and the very different situation in which she finds herself. Both are stories which, despite living in the perspective of their transient visitor protagonists (and maintaining sympathy for them), avoid othering the cultures being visited, and the result is something beautiful. There are a couple of more on-the-nose political explorations here too, including "The Divided," a story in which the USA literally becomes surrounded by an impenetrable barrier and the impact it has on those left outside, and "The End of the Incarnation", a piece whose parts are scattered through the rest of the collection and chronicle the break-up of the United States and speculate on what might come next.

What I found challenging about the stories in this collection are the lack of recognisable endings to most stories; most of the time, the focus on putting forward an experience for a set of protagonists rather than delivering a neatly-wrapped storytelling experience. On a craft level its an understandable choice for the kinds of narratives these are, and I appreciate the resistance to easy story beats and the nuance this adds to the scenarios in many of the stories. Unfortunately, when put together in a collection where this keeps happening, the frustration does linger from piece to piece, and I suspect I'd have had a better time if I'd broken up my reading of individual stories with other writing styles. Regardless, ...and other disasters is a great achievement, and well worth picking up for anyone interested in Older's writing.

Rating: 8/10

The Trans Space Octopus Congregation by Bogi Takács
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Let's get the obvious out of the way first: titles don't come much better than this. Takács' debut short fiction collection (I believe e has also released a poetry collection this year) is the very best kind of "does what it says on the tin": the kind where the tin has an exquisite purple octopus on the front and the word "space" in a cursive font and queerness front and centre in the title. Its a cover holding a dense and varied set of stories, ranging from near-future slice of life to magical space speculation, all wound through with some fascinating thematic resonance and centring characters whose nuanced identities require no explanation or excuse, regardless of whether the characters experience marginalisation in their own contexts (and often they do). Themes of marginalisation and difference in all their forms are ever present, whether they are front and centre of the narrative or just another consideration for characters to work in, and there's a nuanced treatment of how characters communicate across experiential divides, usually handled with sympathy though not always with success, that makes for some great interpersonal arcs packed into the small packages here.

Another theme that jumped out of me while reading was the many stories that deal with how people maintain community and tradition: whether it be the octopus protagonists of "Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus" or "A Superordinate Set of Principles", the deeply affecting refugee/alien invasion story of "Given Sufficient Desperation", or the many stories centring Jewish communities (spacefaring and otherwise). Takács makes an art form of offering up windows into worlds which don't feel the need to overexplain or overcomplicate their specific, nuanced traditions, while still ensuring that everything feels deliberate and well-placed within the story contexts. Particularly in more overtly science fictional stories, it feels like there's a deliberate rejection of the dichotomy between the behaviour of "rational" human behaviour and the traditions of myth, belief and ritual which often get left at the door as soon as there's a spaceship involved. It helps that the prose is so consistently beautiful, offering an otherworldly quality even to more straightforward tales. I came out of The Trans Space Octopus Congregation feeling like in many ways I'd only skated the surface of what Takács had to show me in this collection, and I'm keen to see what e comes out with next.

Rating: 9/10

Beneath Ceaseless Skies (284, 287)

Beneath Ceaseless' Skies "two stories every two weeks" format has been posing an unfortunate challenge to my particular review capacity - individual issues feel like there isn't enough to talk about, but by the time I reach critical mass I've forgotten what stories are in which issues, and probably fallen behind on individual issues as well. A couple of issues have stood out over the past couple of months, though, hence the slightly eclectic issue selection in this roundup.

Issue 284 brings together a pair of stories which work beautifully together: both are tales told through an academic lens of dubious interpretive value, dealing with narratives within narratives and the unreliability of mirrors. If those feel like quite specific similarities, what's even more impressive is how different each story feels within those constraints: "The Mirror Dialogues" by Jason S. Ridler is a series of fragments which cover the relationship between a "mirror scribe" and their sovereign, and the way the relationship between the two shapes the world around them. It's a story which keeps the reader guessing as to what's real and what's really going on, and the academic lens really allows that uncertainty to shine, letting us look back at a fictional history as uncertain as our own and to make our own judgements about the external interpretation and the events themselves. In contrast, M.E. Bronstein's "Elegy of a Lanthornist" offers up the story, in her own words, of Isabel Hayes-Reyna, a scholar herself who is recognised for a groundbreaking interpretation of an earlier text, whose dark magical elements she herself starts to experience, with grim and apparently tragic consequences. Of course, because we are engaged as readers of fantasy, we are far more inclined to take Isabel's path of discovery seriously than her contemporaries, whose dismissive and pitying attitudes towards her apparent disappearance come across more as condescending than as an interpretation to be taken equally seriously. An impressive pair made stronger by the pairing.

Of equal note is the double Issue 287, with four original stories - all quite long - for our reading pleasure. We start off with a darkly humorous entry from K.J. Parker, "Portrait of the Artist", about a young woman who has discovered a rather unpleasant way to try and raise the capital for an investment that should bring her feckless family out of (relative) destitution. Its a story whose protagonist is deeply engaging despite not exactly being sympathetic, and the recurring motif on the value of money - and other things - is darkly entertaining and also plays with our sympathies in interesting ways. The issue follows that up with "Sankalpa", a time-skipping reincarnation story from Marie Brennan, drawing on Indian myth to tell the story of a woman engineering a revenge that's lifetimes and huge wars in the making.

"One Found in a World of the Lost" weaves together the story of two very different twins, Pavitra and Gayatri, living in a community increasingly struggling to survive against the will of the ground they live on. When Gayatri, the far better hunter of the two, is killed unexpectedly, Pavitra has to deal with her loss and with her own feelings of self-worth and the skills she feels she lacks in comparison to her sister. Its a story that deals well with self-worth and coming into one's own in an intriguing setting. Finally, there's "The Witch of the Will" by Aaron Perry, about a witch who, having removed free will from a King, is asked to do the same thing by a young man who then forces her to deal with the consequences of his predictable actions. It's a story whose lighthearted, matter-of-fact tone hides a really dark core, and it packs a hefty punch into the decades of events it covers in its short length.

Rating: 8/10 for both of these standout issues.

The Dark, Issue 52

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Three quarters of the stories in this issue of The Dark deal with women looking, in some way, for better lives, but that's basically the only thing they have in common. In "Brigid Was Hung By Her Hair From the Second Story Window" (original), Gillian Daniels tells the story of an immigrant from Ireland to Boston, who accepts an offer of marriage from the man who brought her over as a maid, only to have to give things up for a magical escape when his abuse becomes too much. She's given a second chance in the form of a better second marriage, but the feeling that there will be a reckoning for the "magic" which enabled her escape is borne out in a twisted way in the story's final words. The title is a great stylistic choice here, drawing attention to a turning point that otherwise could feel matter-of-fact in the everyday abuse of Brigid's first marriage, and underscoring her lack of agency and draws attention to the lengths she feels she has to go to in order to have even the most basic choices about her life. The issue's second story, "Our Town's Talent" (reprint), is told from the nameless collective perspective of a traditional modern town's wives, on the occasion of their childrens' school's annual talent show. After all the effort which goes into preparing their children to showcase their talents, a newcomer to the town rocks the boat by holding a show of her own in which a winner will be chosen, and upsets the balance of the town in a way that's unexpected and yet wholly fitting for a tale of this kind. Its a story which ends up being about agency, challenging our assumptions about the value of the undifferentiated feminine chorus at its heart and their complicity in their own mundane oppression. The result is something that, while not exactly uplifting, offers a form of escape that I found surprisingly satisfying.

Providing the second original story in this issue is Ruoxi Chen, with "The Price of Knives": a Chinese take on the Little Mermaid that ties elements of the myth to the historical practice of foot-binding. Its a story that could end badly for its mermaid protagonist, who makes a choice between giving up her voice or the sensation of walking on knives as the "price" for transformation (she chooses the price of song), only to discover a society on land that she has no chance of fitting in to, with a Prince whose professed affection for her ends up being as hollow as we'd expect. When foot binding takes away her autonomy and ability to walk, the mermaid finds an escape that will allow her to regain what she's lost, at a price that this time she's very willing to pay. Like "Our Town's Talent", the voice of the collective which tells this story is a great device, this time adding to the growing threat as we wonder who the second-person narrative, with all its asides about what the listener already knows, is aimed towards. Rounding out this month's offering is “All My Relations” by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada (reprint), an own voices Hawai'ian story about how annoying disrespectful divers with cameras can be. I mean, no, it's not really about that, but I definitely relate to the "monster" here for that and many other reasons, and its a brilliant, dark story with teeth that made me add the anthology series its drawn from onto my Christmas list for this year.

Rating: 7/10

Clarkesworld Issues 155 and 156

I've had back issues of Clarkesworld piling up for the past few months as well, and in making the effort to catch up I read through August and September in quick succession. August turned out to be a great point at which to pick things back up, with some stories that run the gamut from fun slice-of-life (Harry Turtledove's scenes from an alternate-ice-age-Yorkshire vet employing an ingenious solution to a local mammoth's broken tusk) to heartbreaking human moments (Rachel Swirsky's "Your Face", about a mother visiting a "backup" of her daughter several years after her death). The story that took me most by surprise was Chen Qiufan's "In this Moment, We Are Happy", translated (seamlessly) by Rachel Kuang, which takes the form of a three-part documentary script on childbirth and technology over a period of decades. It's a surprisingly evocative format, and I found I could really follow along with not just the narratives themselves, but the descriptions of videography used in different scenes, the way things were cut together, all adding up to something that felt really tangible as the "intended" medium as well as the medium we actually have. In the three parts of the documentary, Chen weaves together a surrogate mother and a parent-to-be seeking to use a surrogate; followed by a man who has become pregnant for an artistic stunt and a same-sex female couple giving birth using only their genetic material; and finally a far-future fertility cult which is apparently developing a controversial transhumanist approach to a further-future reproductive crisis. Its all handled in a way that's deeply sympathetic to all of the characters, normalising queerness and offering agency and respect to characters from marginalised identities; even the male artist, whose motives are interrogated as selfish and bizarre, is offered a humanising arc, although it's the bluntest tool in a generally quite subtle toolbox. As is often the case in documentaries, there's no answers or single narrative line here - just windows into the lives of people whose different experience add up to something which resonates on a broader level. I found myself tearing up at the end of this story, having felt that I really had watched a window into these different peoples' lives through a camera lens.

Compared to August, September was slightly more subdued, although there's still some fun stuff here. "Dave's Head", by Suzanne Palmer, features a road trip with the titular object, who also happens to be a sentient animatronic dinosaur from an abandoned theme park. The story itself is just as weird and wonderful and surprisingly poignant as that sounds. I also greatly enjoyed the long novelette "To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things" by M.L. Clark, a mystery about interspecies cooperation and rights to life on a planet colonised by multiple species with more to it than initially meets the eye. While I struggle to keep up with Clarkesworld, and not all of their stories hit the spot for me, there's still a lot to enjoy in the kind of meaty short-form science fiction they publish, and the continued commitment to translated works is also a huge bonus.

Rating: 8/10 for August, 7/10 for September

POSTED BY: Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather Co-editor, 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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

LET'S FRIGHTEN CHILDREN! Bonus Conversation Edition

Welcome to a loverly punctuation mark at the end of the LET'S FRIGHTEN CHILDREN! series, in which I look at how to share horror with our offspring. Today's guest is Chloe N. Clark, an author and educator who has taught far more folks about horror than I have children. So let's talk scaring tiny people!

VK: Thanks for agreeing to chat about this!

CNC: Of course, I'm excited! Thank you for asking me!

VK: In your book recommendations for this series, you talked about how you got into horror at a very, very young age. I'm spending a lot of time thinking about how I roll this type of stuff out to my kids. But do you think, in the end, it matters? I mean, you seem to have turned out ok.

CNC: I honestly think it depends on a lot of factors: openness of the family in general and the kind of other media the child is consuming (as a child, I was also watching shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and talking about it with my parents, so there was certainly a level of my parents allowing me to be comfortable talking about adult matters); it also deeply depends on the child — I'm an immediate coward, I jump at jump scares like nobody's business but I also don't carry fears over. So as a child, I didn't get nightmares, for example. So I think a big thing is knowing that the child feels really safe in their surroundings. If they do, then I feel like horror is more manageable. There's also just the fact that a lot of children's entertainment is inherently scary — in Disney films and fairy tales, fucked up stuff happens, too.

VK: That's very true. I didn't realize how twisted even Snow White was until I re-watched it as I was getting into animation more generally as a late teenager. So much of that stuff just missed me as a small kid. Maybe it was because evil step-mothers and those fairy tale tropes felt so foreign. They didn't touch my life.

CNC: That's true, definitely — like they are based out of specifics that, in a way, are true to all genres of terror. There's a quote I love that I can't remember which Italian folklorist said, but is along the lines of "Don't believe fairy tales, they're true." Because at the time of their writings, they were the issues that people dealt with (where women died in childbirth way more frequently, etc), so there were stepmothers aplenty. Or where children did have to act as scullery maids (a la Cinderella)

VK: Right. For me, as someone who has always had very vivid dreams, as a kid the idea of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies was too much for me, and I steered clear of them for a very long time. It wasn't a burned-up guy with razor knives that did it, it was the idea of my dreams turning against me. When I talked specifically about Coraline and ParaNorman in this series, I discussed how it's given me an opportunity to talk with the kids about othering in very specific terms. It's easy for me, and my kids, to identify with Norman, or Coraline, as a kindred spirit with outsider interests. As those characters are othered and rejected by those around them, we've been able to have great talks about empathy, and how we don't want to make the mistakes of the crowd. Do you think that's a central part of the horror narrative overall?

CNC: Definitely, I can see that (fun side fact, Nightmare on Elm Street is how I realized I was a lucid dreamer as a child). And that's what horror does so well: it links into that idea of base primal fears (our own mind going against us, or the beach being dangerous, or whatever), but I almost think those are *good* lessons for kids to learn early. And yes, I think empathy is a key to horror. Obviously I think about othering and horror a lot — it's literally what I teach about. It is how we view monsters as others and how that shapes the narratives of fear told culturally. Horror is actively telling us to listen to those we might not listen to, and that's one of the biggest, most valuable lessons I think it can offer to us.

VK: This is one of the big reasons why I was looking forward to you participating in this series: Monster Theory! Can you talk in general terms about that?

CNC: So in general, Monster Theory is the critical lens of examining how monstrosity is used by different cultures in order to perceive of othering or social constructs, etc. I more specifically use it to talk about constructions of privilege and how horror is often a lens to examine that. This is something Get Out, for example, does exceptionally well. Making groups we fear into monsters has been a tactic since the beginning of storytelling. It's the most effective tactic for controlling a populace. And it's one, more and more, that we see horror narratives questioning in ways other genres are not.

VK: Right. Because there's an understandable, natural aversion to something that's different. But what separates humans from, say, my cats with new people in the house, is that we have an intellect and empathy and ways to synthesize those into an understanding of others. But routinely we see those impulses weaponized by leaders who want to divert someone's gaze away from where they should be looking. I feel like that's one of the most important lessons I can pass on to my kids, because it's a fundamental mechanic of the world. And you're right — I don't know other genres that consistently explore that theme.

CNC: Yeah, that exactly sums up why I teach horror in a rhetoric class. If there is one skill I want college students to have, it is to see the world with empathy and to understand the way fear is used to promote rhetorics of violence. Horror is the perfect genre to combat and explore that.

VK: Is the "what you thought was the monster isn't the real monster" (ie, Frankenstein, etc) a sub-genre in monster stories, or is it sort of the home key, do you think?

CNC: I think for the most part, it's the home key. I mean look at zombie movies — the whole premise is often, Oh shoot, wait! The humans are the ones we should be fearing after all!" The same goes for even things like Jaws — the shark is following its natural instinct, but it's the money-grabbing mayor who is actually the villain by not allowing the knowledge to spread/closing the beach. Like at their hearts, most horror stories operate on someone-did-something-awful-and-it's-created-a-monstrosity.

VK: That winds up getting perverted in the slasher genre, though, right? Because the "something awful" gets colored almost entirely by conformity/regressive morality. The promiscuous teens get chopped to bits, the virginal Final Girl lives on. I'm not showing the kids slasher movies. I mean, it's just something else that exists in the genre waters.

CNC: Definitely, Though I'd argue that in some ways those also have at least one, perhaps unintentionally, progressive bent — the premise is "listen to women." In almost all of them, the Final Girl susses out what's up and then absolutely no one takes her seriously. Which again becomes a people-in-power-not-doing-anything-to-help-stop-the-issue.

VK: Yeah — it's hard to imagine if Kevin McCarthy got pod-peopled in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dana Wynter was the one who went to the next town over for help, that anyone would take her seriously.

CNC: Yes! That exactly! In the remake with Donald Sutherland, we even sort of see that a little bit with Veronica Cartwright versus Donald Sutherland's character.

VK: And it's so, so great.

CNC: It is one of my favorite films.

VK: We talked about the dangers of othering and how horror can provide a powerful (however bloody) window into that, so I guess we should talk about the other side of the same coin, which would be to keep a healthy skepticism of the uber-normal. I don't want to wander into the weeds of "Stranger Danger" or anything, but there's a consistent thread that connects The Stepford Wives and Body Snatchers, American Psycho, and even Get Out, I suppose, where the ultimate villain is someone who appears super normal on the surface.

CNC: Yeah, definitely. The veneer of normalcy needs to be interrogated in horror movies a lot of the time. Which I think is important — we idealize certain qualities, right? From "nuclear families" to "perfect marriages," etc, but we don't question enough what goes on beyond the surface of that. Horror helps us to push the idea of, "We can never know what secrets lurk beneath the surface." In horror, it's extreme, right? "Oh no! That successful businessman is a psychotic killer!" or, "Your neighbor is actually an alien!" But on a less extreme level, we do find that out all the time. The perfect husband is actually abusive, the business that seems so environmentally sound and respectable is actually using slave labor. Interrogation of ideals is a good skill to have.

VK: Yeah, and a perfect message for kids. Bruce Springsteen tells a story in his autobiography that he can't stand wind chimes to this day because when he was a kid, the husband in the next house was an abusive drunk, but the wife hung up these wind chimes to try to make the house appear peaceful and "normal" on the outside. You can see how that same lesson informs his entire career, and it's so easy (it's the norm, probably), for people to encourage their kids to be "like" somebody else. What's that really teaching them?

CNC: Yeah, it's teaching them this horrible lesson that if things aren't like everyone else then it's their fault. So many people don't report abuse because they don't want to be seen as being outside those cultural norms, too. Which is much more horrifying to me than a horror movie is.

VK: Agreed. Horror allows us a lens through which to process our own fears, and I'm thankful we've had so many generations of genre storytellers helping us all out.

CNC: Yes, that exactly! It also, I think, helps us to think about the ramifications of those fears. Like, we get the safety of asking "what would I do" before we ever have to actually face that question in real life. What would I do in a dangerous situation? Who would I be and who would I want to be?

VK: "Who would I want to be?" It's a perfect question, and one I think we should be encouraging our kids to ask (be they small, or in college).

CNC: Definitely. It's a lesson it's never too late to learn, but I wish we'd all learn earlier.

Posted by Vance K and Chloe N. Clark — in agreement about horror movies at nerds of a feather since at least 2016.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Blogtable (1968, Best Short Story)

The widest focus of The Hugo Initiative has been on the Best Novel category and examining the influence and importance of the various winners, but a goal for the project was to also engage with some of the other categories across the history of the Hugo Awards. With that in mind, we are looking at the three finalists for Best Short Story in 1968.
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison (If Mar 1967)
“Aye, and Gomorrah…,” Samuel R. Delany (Dangerous Visions)
“The Jigsaw Man,” Larry Niven (Dangerous Visions)
Adri: I can’t quite believe I’m reading Dangerous Visions / Harlan Ellison for you…

Joe: I’m not sure I fully processed that Harlan Ellison is at least partially (if not fully) responsible for everything on this ballot. Dangerous Visions really was a landmark anthology in 1967. I bought a copy years ago and until now, have never actually cracked the cover. So, I suppose, thank us all for that for picking this year’s category.

Paul: I picked up Dangerous Visions (and Again, Dangerous Visions) umpty years ago when I was in a very deep Harlan Ellison phase, as I read collection after collection of his work, including his non fiction stuff. But I had not read any Ellison in a number of years before we decided to set this up. So I guess I was overdue!

Adri: First on the list, and winner of this particular year, is “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, by Harlan Ellison - his second award in the short story category, after ““Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman” in 1966 (no, me neither). The story follows a small group who are apparently the last survivors of the human race, as they wander through a nightmarish underground hellscape run by AM, an all-powerful AI which has wiped out the rest of humanity and now tortures them in revenge for its own suffering. There’s some vague motivations in terms of plot movement but most of the story is just about detailing the various miseries that the humans have inflicted on them (and sometimes inflict on each other) and their diminishing hope of escape.

Joe: Even though I know I’ve never read Delany or Niven, I had always assumed that I’ve read a handful of Ellison’s short stories. I haven’t. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is my first (and to date only) Harlan Ellison story. I’ve been at least vaguely aware of it over the years. I knew there was a video game based on it and that the story was horrifying.

This is an ugly, ugly story and I don’t know if it is actually good despite it’s stature in genre history. The story is moderately compelling, but the grimness and torture seem to be the point. There’s a place for that, but I’m not really here for grim torture porn laced with misogyny and that’s what Ellison serves up.

Honestly, the best thing coming out of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is the title. It’s a great title and has become so ubiquitous within the genre that I’ve used it as a template for jokes. The jokes land reasonably well, but I’m not sure the story does anymore.

Adri: I have read two thirds of these authors before but Ellison is new!

I generally agree with Joe above. Everything in this story is pretty gratuitous, and the storytelling skill is put to the service of thinking up unpleasant circumstances in which to put the characters. There are also some decidedly clumsy moments, like the way in which information about their location is imparted through some casual “story time” in the middle of the endless torture.

The story’s treatment of Ellen, the only woman in the group of humans, is a particular low point. All of the characters are presented as caricatures, through the lens of an unreliable narrator - although to a modern reader he falls uncomfortably close to just reading like a standard old school white male protag - but Ellen is seen entirely through the lens of her sexuality, and effectively as a sexual outlet for the rest of the men. She’s also black, and the only character whose race is mentioned. The whole thing reads as misogynoir of the highest order, and coupled with some drive-by and frankly nonsensical homophobia which I don’t even want to touch, it makes this story pretty unpleasant.

Honestly, I also found the climax to the story a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it’s because of how well-used and evocative the title is, but I didn’t find the “now human is blob person” to be as much of a final twist as I am clearly expected to.

Paul: I remember jazzing on this story decades ago. “How grim, how dark, how twisted, the narrator is now immortal and going to live as a thing in the belly of the beast forever.” I saw it as a tragedy, and a deserved fate too, for the rather unpleasant narrator. That’s how I saw this story before this time.

This reading of the story was somewhat different. Some things were still the same. The clear and really evocative writing. A world, sketched in easily and effortlessly. A contrast of character and character types, a way to have a variety of archetypes to set in this horrible situation. It’s the dystopia of all dystopias, four people alive with a malevolent AI acting like an Old Testament Yahweh to torture them forever and ever. The setup and premise and basis are potent and powerful, then and now. I still think the ending is pretty dark and grim and potent.

It was the other things I saw this time, that I did not see on prior readings, that really jumped out at me. The casual misogyny of the story with how the story handles Ellen. The homophobia now was something that really jumped out at me. I will say, explicitly, Adri, what you didn’t: “He had been gay, and the machine had given him an organ fit for a horse.”. I mean, what the hell, Ellison? What the heck is that even supposed to mean? I get the whole “everyone gets tortured with what they fear and hate, especially our narrator who doesn’t even realize how messed up he is himself, but that does not even try and hit the mark in the case of Benny. I just couldn’t accept it anymore.

Our second story is “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel Delany. The story (which ended up winning the Nebula Award for Best SF story) gives us a world where astronauts, Spacers are neutered before puberty so that there isn't a mutation of their gametes. Our story follows Kelly, one of these Spacers, who finds that the only real company that will tolerate him besides other Spacers are Frelks. Frelks are fetishists who are aroused by the company of the neutered Spacers and will even pay them for that contact. There is conversation and debate and tension between Kelly and the Frelks he associates with, as the fundamental problem of Spacers, being unable to have sexual relations, and being shunned by most of society, are shunted into associating mainly with the Frelks, who can’t help their hopeless attraction to a group who cannot truly return their desire. More poignantly still, it is the Spacer inability to return that desire which heightens that desire among the Frelks.

Adri: I get that Ellison predates Delaney in the genre world by about a decade, but I’m not sure that makes it forgivable for the introduction to imply Delaney is a “new” or upcoming author when he had nine science fiction novels out by this stage.

This is a really interesting story because it’s so firmly about sexual transgression and queerness and kink, in ways which the current myths of genre would have us believe weren’t being written at this time. Clearly they were, and Ellison’s patronising introduction of Delaney aside, the fact that this rose to the top of Dangerous Visions for readers in 1968 makes it clear that the appetite for queer SF explorations - despite perhaps not being done in the most unproblematic way, from a modern angle - was clearly there.

That said, like the others, I’m not sure what to make of the story itself on an initial reading. I found the lack of opinion or perspective from the spacer themself to be kind of bizarre - we never get a sense of what spacers get out of their relationships with frelks, beyond getting paid. It feels like a line is being drawn between their lack of sexuality and their lack of opinion on human contact in general. Again, I’m not quite sure what I’d want to see here instead, in context, but I’m just left a bit confused and that’s definitely not been my response to Delaney works previously.

Joe: I probably spent far too long trying to figure out what exactly a “frelk” was, which was important but not as important as the amount of time I spent on it. The thing is, I’m still somewhat unclear because I’m working on the details more than the emotional arc of the story.

Spacers are neutered before puberty and feel no sexual desire because the neuter allows them to safely work in space with the radiation. Frelks are people who love and desire Spacers, knowing that they can’t really get what they want in return. But - somehow Spacers can still gigolo at frelks and pick them up and get paid. Those are details, but they’re not the story.

The story, I think, might be able to at least partially be tied up into this quote
“You don’t choose your perversions. You have no perversions at all. You’re free of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer. My love starts with the fear of love. Isn’t that beautiful? A pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror, the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”
I may not grasp what I’ve read, but I really appreciate that sentiment.

Also, I wish I didn’t read Ellison’s introduction to the story which includes a crack about pitiful homosexuals living at home with their parents. There’s stuff to get into here given that it is in the intro to a Delany story (which is beside the point of its general offensiveness), but I’m not sure it’s really worth the time.

Paul: It’s been a long long time since I read this, and I had not remembered it at all. I read the DV and ADV anthologies and so I know I must have read it, but it didn’t press on me, then. Maybe it was a case of not grokking what I read, then.

Now, I understood it a lot better. At least I think I do, anyway. Fetishization, prostitution, the literal neutering of one’s desires and one’s sexuality, it’s clear that Delany was playing with very potent concepts, now, and especially then. What did the readers in the late 60’s make of this (answer they gave it a Nebula award). I can see why I blacked it out of my mind back at the time, because I probably didn’t understand it at all then. I read it twice here and now to try and grasp what I am reading. I think I do better with longer form Delany, so that I am in the text, in the space longer and more immersed so that I really get my mind around it. Shorter Delany doesn’t let me do that and re-reading it kind of puts me at the start, again and again. I think this story is ultimately about loneliness, and trying to transcend it, no matter what one’s nature is.

Joe: In Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man”, the advent of blood typing has led to people convicted of the most serious crimes being forced to “donate” their organs for the betterment of society and to provide restitution for said crimes. But, because the societal demand for those organs is so high, lawmakers have re-evaluated the degree of criminality required for the death penalty and organ donation.

Adri: Because my experience with Niven to date was with Ringworld, a novel that to my modern eyes calls forth images of the Halo video games before anything else, I really side-eyed the introduction to this which states that Niven is in the game of hard science fiction only, things that are provable with current facts and progress, no speculation here. This story then sets itself up as what effectively reads as an alternate history: though I think the setting is intended to be near-future relative to the time of writing, because it draws on the discovery of blood types in 1940 it bases its vision of the future on assumptions about the social and ethical significance of that discovery which, even at the time, were provably false.

It’s a shame, because I think I’d have been a lot more well-disposed to the story if I wasn’t applying such strong scrutiny to its plausibility. The idea of exploitation of people’s lives and bodies by rich and privileged groups is a theme that’s just as timely now as it apparently was at the time of writing (see, for more recent examples, Never Let Me Go and Jupiter Ascending, or any speculative future with corporate indenture in its worldbuilding). In some ways, the construction of the story to leave the protagonist’s very minor crimes as an eventual twist sort of undermines this, in that it hides the extent of injustice within the system until the final sentences.

As with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the elements that rely on horror were the least successful for me - during the actual scene dealing with the organ harvesting technology I had to wonder what it would look like if someone like Kameron Hurley had been writing 50 years earlier. Otherwise, while I certainly wouldn’t say The Jigsaw Man changed my life, and I wouldn’t say it lives up to its own promises when it comes to “just the facts” SF, I did quite enjoy the action here.

Paul: Like Ellison, I had a strong and long Niven phase, where I read all of his stories, read all of his novels,really thought that what SF and especially SF Space opera was, that is what Larry Niven was writing. Just like I tried to read all of Heinlein’s future stories, I tried to read everything in the Larry Niven timeline of Known Space.

The Jigsaw Man is a pretty old story and pretty early in the timeline. It turns on the implications of one premise and I admired, then and now, just how that it goes from the implications of that one premise: guaranteed no-rejection organ transplant technology. Given that premise,the entire world we see spins out, from Niven’s vision. The old and the rich will criminialize everything, with the death penalty, for the steady supply of organs that will keeo the rich alive as long as possible. And thus we have someone who violated some traffic laws being under a death sentence.

Today, I am much more cynical than I was back when I first read the story and I am more inclined to believe it would really go this way than I did back in the day. Wouldn’t the rich see the organs of others as a resource and thus make sure they could get them by any means necessary? I agree it is a VERY fearful story and fearful vision, but does that mean that Niven is *wrong*?

Joe: Larry Niven wrote “The Jigsaw Man” in the still early days of human kidney transplants and as liver, lung, and heart transplants were just beginning to be worked on, some more successfully than others. It’s a fascinating concept that Niven saw those medical advances, the possibility, and what he saw as a possible future was that the ability to save human organs in transplants could be enough to change the morality and the law in countries so that the death penalty would become rampant and in use for even minor crimes.

It’s easy to say looking back on a story written some fifty years ago that Niven is pushing a crazy fearful vision of the future. “The Jigsaw Man” feels like a stretch, even for science fiction. It’s not a story that I can see written today (at least not as a story written in a plausible future). I can see how it might have been plausible then, but I don’t see it as plausible now. At least not without a greater revolution - something that goes further in codifying the privilege of the wealthy into law. More than just having enough money to be somewhat above the law, but rather to have that status fully protected. I don’t see that future.

Adri: Paul, here’s a question that you are uniquely qualified among us to answer: Do you think that the Delaney and Niven stories are two of the strongest from the Dangerous Visions anthology? It clearly underscores how important it was at the time that ⅔ of the ballot is drawn from it, but I find myself wondering (without having the time to commit to the rest of this quite large volume, for now) what drew voters particularly to these two.

Paul: These are strong stories in a strong anthology, but Hugo and Nebula voters aside, I think there are equally strong stories in the volume.

“Faith of our Fathers” by Philip K Dick is maybe the one best distillation of PKD into a story that you can possibly get. Its for me THE PKD story and its a personal favorite.

“Gonna Roll the Bones” is a fantastic Fritz Leiber story that I also think is really strong.(It won the Hugo for best Novelette!)

Auto da Fe by Roger Zelazny is a very Zelazny story, but I don’t think it’s his best, but its a really good Zelazny. That IS a theme of the anthology for all of it being Dangerous Visions, it’s an anthology where time and again, the real distillation of an author is found in the story they wrote. Spinrad’s Carcinoma Angels is also in that tradition, and really potent and powerful, with a killer ending.

Granted, DV is not all great, and I think there are some real clunkers of stories--clunkers by authors I really otherwise like, too.

Joe: Here’s a question to close out this Hugo conversation. Now that we’ve read the 1968 Short Story ballot - how would you vote? Who would you give the award to?

Adri: This is a really hard question, because there’s so many factors involved with information I don’t have access to - this is such a tiny snapshot into a full year of story, and the genre has evolved so much since this was considered the top flight of material. What I can say definitively is that “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” would be at the bottom of my list - if I were thinking through my equivalent processes in recent Hugos, it would then be a toss-up between the story I liked more (Niven), or the story I think probably had more to say (Delany). I can’t begin to answer the question on where “No Award” would go, though - what constituted Hugo Worthy in 1968? The story I liked least, apparently, so where does that leave my analysis.

Paul: How would I have voted? That’s a good question and has multiple answers based on whether you’re asking how I’d have voted when I first read the stories, or NOW? Back in the day, I would have gone Ellison-Niven-Delany. Now? I think the misogyny and homophobia of the Ellison would knock it off of its perch but I feel conflicted between the Niven and the Delany, with maybe the Niven just edging it out. I would NOT No Award the Ellison, though. But ask me again in five years and my opinion on that could change.

Joe: I expected a wider range of opinions, but I agree with both of you on this. It’s a toss up between Niven and Delany. Niven’s story is a bit smoother and hits my storytelling buttons, but I think Delany’s is better written and has much more to say. There’s a more important point to “Aye, and Gomorroah”. Harlan Ellison would rank third. I wouldn’t consider No Award, but I seldom use No Award.

Anyway, this was fun. Thank you both.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. 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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

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

Friday, October 25, 2019

Microreview [book]: A Jewel Bright Sea by Claire O'Dell

A Jewel Bright Sea returns readers to the River of Souls universe first published by O’Dell under her given name, Beth Bernobich, in a story of magic, intrigue, and pirates.

Once upon a time, an author named Beth Bernobich came out with a trilogy of novels, starting with Passion Play, and a couple of short stories in the bargain. In her magic rich secondary world fantasy universe, Bernobich crafted a world in her River of Souls verse where souls reincarnate again and again, seeking each other (or stumbling into each other)  through lifetimes in a way that reminded me much like Katherine Kerr’s Deverry verse. The novels featured interesting and often thorny relationships between the reincarnated lovers, strongly drawn and empowered female characters

In a Jewel Bright Sea, under her Claire O’Dell name, Bernobich returns us to that world.

A Jewel Bright Sea brings us to the Eddalyon Archipelago. Lady VIljana, a Vrou noble in the Empire has journeyed from the heart of the Empire to these tropical islands, surrounded by a retinue of henchmen and guards, as befits her station. Exploring the ancient ruins here, maybe do some sketching, explore and see the edges of Empire--that’s what people with money and power do, don’t they?  Sounds like something that Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent or Jen Williams’ Lady Vincenza might do, right?

But it’s all a head fake. For you see, what almost none of even her retinue realizes is that the Lady Vrou is really Anna Zhdanov, a bonded woman to Lord Brun. And she is here in the tropical islands not for pleasure and mild adventure and spending more money than sense, but she is seeking Lord Aldo Sarresz. Lord Sarresz has pilfered a rather potent magical jewel, you see, and that magical jewels is greatly desired by the Emperor, by Lord Brun and others. And were Anna to get her hands on Sarresz and that jewel, Anna might yet gain her freedom. The fake outward trappings of freedom and adventure might be hers for real.

But, in borderland tropical archipelago islands, there are others who are very interested in Sarresz and his jewel, including more than one set of pirates. Multi Sided conflict, pirate adventure, a treasure hunt and searching for clues for what happened to Sarresz, and more importantly, what he has done with the magical jewel. The race, as it were, is on, and who can trust whom, and who else is carrying secrets besides Anna?

And thus a tale is told.

One doesn’t really need to read the prior series to appreciate this book. Setting it earlier in time than Ilse and Raul’s story and in a different part of the world means that the connections to the earlier novels are feature, and not needed, in order to enjoy what the author does here. Readers who have read the previous novels do have an advantage in guessing how some of the character beats might go especially in terms of the two principals. However, as in the original trilogy, the author’s key and core idea is one that she likes to examine, twist, change and use the idea of reincarnating souls as a strand within the major framework. The novel’s cover “codes” as romance but that is highly misleading. The romantic elements between the two characters is very much backgrounded for the vast majority of the novel. This is an epic fantasy that has romance as a strand and NOT a romance novel set in a fantasy world. The distinction is important, especially in terms of reader expectations of what the book offers.

What this book DOES offer is a rich worldbuilding focused on her magic, and extending into the tropical island setting, evocatively described and brought to life on the page.The author throws us into this world quickly and deeply, and it is an immersive experience.  I am not much of a tropics person, by perceived inclination and also just by lack of opportunity, but this is the kind of novel that made me want to get on a ship and go sailing through a subtropical set of islands, making ports, finding ancient ruins, capturing that experience of sun, surf, wind and sea.

With the brisk movement of action and plot, this is not a languid trip to the tropics, this is a “Catch the morning tide!” sort of adventure. The plot and action beats, with that magic are also good. There are a number of set piece battles and conflicts, with lots of swashbuckling action beats and a fast paced adventure. From magical battles to flashing blades in a port town, the novel keeps the reader turning pages.

 In her determination to find her quarry, Anna does not dilly dally, she can’t afford to. She has a prize to win and freedom to be grasped, after all. Similarly, Andreas is a driven and determined pirate captain, who has problems of his own and goals he wants to accomplish that slowly become clear as we learn his backstory.  That story and what drives him is as equally important to him and he is every inch the fascinating character that Anna is. Sometimes I think Anna and Andreas do throw the other characters into a bit of shade as far as their complexity and delineation by comparison..

My major complaint (besides that cover and the expectations problem) with the book is this. With a book that focuses on Pirates, in an archipelago that is on the edge of civilization, a wild place that the main characters are searching for the MacGuffin, a map is sorely missed here. And it would not only have been extremely useful in following and lining up the action, but it would have been really thematic to have a Portolan style chart in a novel where piracy and high seas action is on the menu.

The novel promises a sequel, The Empire’s Edge, which looks to have even more High Seas magic and strong character focused action potential. I for one am very eager to sail the high seas in O’Dell’s world once more.

The Math
Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a very good central pair of characters
+1 for strong plotting and crackerjack action beats
+1 for interesting worldbuilding

Penalties : -1 for the lack of a map, to give a clearer sense of the geography, important in a book where those geographies are paramount.. -1 for a beautiful cover that does not entirely work with the novel.

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

Reference:  O’Dell, Claire A Jewel Bright Sea, [Rebel Base Books,  2019]

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

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero: Halloween ComicFest Edition

This Saturday marks the return of Halloween ComicFest! Participating comic book stores will be handing out free comics and more!  It is the perfect time to test out your Halloween costume and pick up some free comics to boot.  My family has a tradition of ordering the comics ahead of time to hand out to trick-or-treaters.  Here are the five books that I hope to pick up on Saturday with my kids.

The Adventures of Cthulhu Jr. and Dastardly Dirk - Dastardly Dick is hoping to attain supervillain status and is trying to prove himself and climb the ranks. He is tasked with capturing the son of Cthulhu and it doesn't quite go as planned. I tend to jump at any opportunity to share a Cthulhu book with my kids.

Star Wars Age of Rebellion: Boba Fett #1 - While it isn't a halloween book (sorry), I did pick up my Rise of Skywalker tickets this week and have Star Wars on the brain. I don't often decline the opportunity to learn more about everyone's favorite bounty hunter and this book is no exception.

Just Beyond - If your house is similar to mine your kids have busted out the R.L. Stine books for some kid friendly scares. This book is about some kids who encounter aliens on a family camping trip.  Apparently there is something out there in the woods!

House of Fear: Attack of the Killer Snowmen - This is touted as a fun and spooky adventure for kids
of all ages, but you had me at killer snowmen.  I am always down for a holiday crossover and don't mind a bit of Christmas mixed with my Halloween.

DCeased #1 - A pandemic has hit earth that is turning everyone into ultra violent zombie type creatures.  The cover evokes Walking Dead crossover (with faster zombies) and I am on board for some zombie fun at Halloween.

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Dragon Prince Re-Read: Sunrunner's Fire

"Why does it happen this way?"

Rohan's whispered bitterness startled her out of her own. His face was as composed as Pol's, but his eyes were open wounds. "What do you mean, beloved?" She made her voice gentle, forbidding fear to scrape the words raw.

"This," he repeated. "Always. One man battling another."

Himself against Roelstra, Maarken against Masul, Pol against Ruval. Whole princedoms distilled down to two men. "Better one battling one than thousands battling thousands," she answered softly. It was the High Princess speaking, not the woman who had watched husband and nephew and now son go forth to their small, private wars. 

This, I think, is to the heart of what the Dragon Prince trilogy is dealing with, which is the contradiction of Rohan's desire to be civilized and to make his world a better and safer one of laws while being continually forced to deal with men who refuse to accept anything but conflict and war.

Welcome to the final entry in my re-read series of the Dragon Prince trilogy. We began with Melanie Rawn's debut novel, Dragon Prince, and continued last month with The Star Scroll. Now we tackle the concluding volume with Sunrunner's Fire. As before, this is less of a proper review and more of a re-read. There is an excellent chance of book and trilogy spoilers, though I will attempt to limit (but not necessarily eliminate) those that touch on the Dragon Star trilogy. You have been warned. The quick answer is that I am a huge fan of these novels from Melanie Rawn and very highly recommend them. Go read, I'll still be here.

After finishing Sunrunner's Fire I wondered if I've been looking at this whole trilogy thing wrong. In a technical sense, this is the concluding volume of the Dragon Prince trilogy. That's true. But, to a point, Dragon Prince is a standalone novel that also sets up the potential for subsequent stories (as opposed to being a novel without a true conclusion). The Star Scroll and Sunrunner's Fire, however, seem more like one massive novel than two individual books. To a point. Each of those two novels have different focuses with character and story, but they tell more of the overarching battle against the sorcerers than they complete a fixed trilogy.

If there is a trilogy here, it looks like this:
1. Dragon Prince (1 book)
2. Star Scroll / Sunrunner's Fire (2 books)
3. Dragon Star Trilogy (3 books)

That's my side thought for the morning.

So, Sunrunner's Fire begins only days (40 days?) after the conclusion of The Star Scroll with the ceremony of Andry assuming formal command of Goddess Keep and all of the faradh'im. Andry has had visions of the future, much as Andrade, the former Lady of Goddess Keep, has had. Andrade used those visions to shape her actions to prevent a future that she did not want and to shape it into one that she did. We never learned what most of those visions were, except that one involved her marriage to the High Prince Roelstra. We do learn Andry's visions, however, and his visions are of a future at war and of the destruction of all that he loves.

Though that is not what Sunrunner's Fire is focused on, it shapes the actions of Andry. It is a thread running through the novel. It sets up the Dragon Star trilogy, though when I read this book for the first time I had no idea there would be more, but this is the driving force behind all of Andry's actions. We know he is a young man given a whole lot of power without having sufficient time to be trained on how to use it wisely and humbly. There is a streak of arrogance to Andry that, to a point is present in his whole family and in Andrade, but Andrade still had some political skill in maneuvering people to her own ends. Andry is all blunt force without the political tact to work towards his goals, and since he firmly believes that war is coming in the future and only he can prevent it, he continues to push and alienate himself from his family.

Remember the sweet boy who loved his brothers so much it hurt in The Star Scroll? That boy is gone and at each step, he feels like he is betrayed by his family even though he pushes them away by holding so tightly to the idea that everything he does is right and he is justified in all of his actions no matter the consequence. It is difficult to read, to see how quickly he becomes "other".

In retrospect, Andry's story is the one I have spent more time thinking about in regards to Sunrunner's Fire even though it is the smaller story.

The larger story, of course, is that of Pol growing into a man and a ruler and of the sorcerers Mireva and Ruval (Ianthe's son) making their play to destroy everything that Rohan has built and to take their place as rulers of the continent. It is Pol figuring out who he wants to be and that while he is likely to be a man and Prince that honors his parents, he won't exactly be the same sort of man and ruler that his father was. There is conflict there, especially as he begins to fall in love with the sort of woman his parents disapprove of as a future High Princess.

There is drama in the political wrangling, which is always a highlight with Melanie Rawn, and the characters we've been following and love don't get off easy. Characters die, and very bad things happen to very good people. From what I recall, that is only going to get worse in the next trilogy. Sunrunner's Fire is compelling reading, and I think it's a bit more focused than The Star Scroll was.

But, back to Andry. I don't think I'd want a whole novel from his perspective because I think he works better as seen in response to other characters than he would as an obnoxious lead character that we don't quite sympathize with. He does, however, have a perspective that works towards a big picture that only he knows is coming. The trouble is, he doesn't trust enough to share it because he's afraid he won't be believe or trusted himself. It's a vicious cycle, so all he tells people is that he has seen war coming and that everyone will need him in the future and that the ways he is twisting what the faradh'im have been is so very necessary and so is his personal war against the sorcerers.

What makes that so interesting, though, is at the very end of the novel when Andry goes on his little genocide is that one of the sorcerers had a letter written and while it was unclear as to who the recipient is, the letter seems to be about how the sorcerers could return to power not through conquest, but because Pol is of their blood, and Riyan is, and that with men and women of good character in ruling positions, they could reveal themselves and be protected by those rulers and also teach those rulers their ways.

It seems reasonable, though Andry would never see it that way. It also shows that not all the sorcerers are like Mireva, striving for vengeance and murder. Of course, the old woman who had that letter was also murdered by Andry, so I think what we are seeing is a lost opportunity. Which, like most things with Andry, is sad.

And with sadness over Andry, we shall close out the Dragon Prince trilogy.

Stay tuned, because next month we'll pick up with Stronghold and begin the Dragon Star trilogy. Where I have read the three Dragon Prince books many times, I have only read Dragon Star just the once. I'll be interested to see my perspective on that and see what I latch onto on my second time through.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Nanoreviews [non-fiction]: Joanna Russ, New Worlds: Year Two

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Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones

This academic biography, written by Gwyneth Jones, is one of the latest in the University of Illinois' Masters of Modern Science Fiction series on the works of prominent science fiction and fantasy writers - and the first of the series I've actually read. That means I don't have much to compare the particular style to, but I enjoyed the largely chronological deep dive into Russ' works, encompassing novels, short fiction and her extensive review work, much of which was unknown to me. In doing so, Jones charts - sympathetically but with an eye to contradictions and tensions within Russ' identity - her journey within science fiction, from a talented but not challenging fiction writer and a reviewer more likely to judge her female peers harshly while offering men a free pass for much worse books, to the explicitly feminist writing and stances which readers are more likely to associate with her today.

The focus here is very much on Russ' work and the highlights for me were reading the deep critiques of Russ' novels, particularly The Female Man and We Who Are About To (a work I tackled during Feminist Futures last year). Jones's reading of The Female Man, in particular, was interesting in the way it presented a radically different lens than the one I had read the novel in, taking the different aspects of the Joanna personality as a reading of identity across time rather than dimensions. It's a reading which brings Russ into conflict with her own identity as an SFF writer and Jones doesn't hold back from the implications of that reading, tracing it throughout the rest of her work and noting where the seeds come in at earlier points. If, like me, you don't often approach literature from a strongly academic lens, some of this will probably be well in the realms of "well I'd never thought of it like that", but it never comes across as particularly prescriptive or inherently dismissive to other readings, so I was able to enjoy the different ways of thinking about the texts rather than feeling put in my place by them, as is always the risk with more academic takes.

What I was missing from this - and, again, I'm not sure if this is me asking this book to be something it's not - was a greater elaboration of Russ 'relationships with others in the genre. There were some interesting gems of interaction here, notably the roundtable on "Women in Science Fiction" which took place over a period of years with other participants including Suzy Charnas, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, James Tiptree Jr and brought together by fanzine editor Jeffrey D. Smith, which gets a lot of attention - and which I'd love to learn more about! However, given the breadth of written correspondence which most writers were engaged in at the time, the lack of focus on how Russ was being received by her contemporaries - beyond those who were clearly afraid of what she represented, and its impact on her work - was an area I wish could have been incorporated more in the text.

All in all this is an interesting experience, if sometimes a little routine - collections of short stories are looked at together, followed by review periods, followed by the novels, in a chronological march that doesn't leave a lot of room for novelty. But despite the limitations of coverage and perhaps of the form, this is one to look out for, especially fans of Russ' work who want to read a more academic perspective on her writings, and I hope this is a contender for next year's Best Related Work Hugo.

Rating: 8/10

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New Worlds, Year Two: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan

This collection was released at the two year mark of Marie Brennan's Patreon of the same name, which publishes an essay per week on topics of interest to speculative worldbuilding, challenging creators to think about aspects of their fantasy or science fiction worlds which might not have crossed their minds. While I'm not in a fiction writing stage of life myself, I enjoyed the first year of essays which incorporated everything from plate tectonics to cannibalism, and this second volume delivers  the same experience on a similarly broad range of topics.

The essays are grouped into thematic areas, slightly separately from the Patreon itself, reflecting the experience of reading in a book rather than as week by week essays. It works well, and there's an impressive minimum of overlap even in those essays with similar subjects - its generally clear when a series has actually been written and posted in sequence, but there's no obvious drawbacks or unintentional skipping around even when it hasn't. Essays are bite-sized, running a couple of thousand words, and unpick both the technological and societal elements of each area being covered. That means that, for example, the series on weapons and armour which makes up the first few essays first looks at both the possible weapons one could use to do some duels, and the societal concepts of masculinity and honour that go into the culture of duelling, before looking at the historical contexts of duels themselves. Its all done in a way which draws mostly on Brennan's own areas of relative expertise (she did most of the work for a PhD in Anthropology before becoming a full-time writer): Japan and Europe come up a lot, as do the Pacific Islands, but there's an acknowledgement that this is far from the full range of real-world examples. Immediately after reading, I was torn on the question of whether guest entries from experts with different geographical or subject areas of expertise would improve the reading experience (either on Patreon or in book form), but regardless of the answer I don't think it detracts from what New Worlds is, which is effectively a series of writing prompts that challenge worldbuilders to go away and do their own research, rather than offering a full range of examples.

As well as weapons and duelling, the Year Two collection covers beauty and body modifications, clothing, weddings and courtship, writing and literacy, the societal concept of time (briefly discussed in book 1 but the subject of multiple essays here), religions, and superstitions and the supernatural. As in the previous collection, it closes with four more "meta" essays on the concept of worldbuilding itself which cover a little more of the "how" of what speculative worldbuilders might do with the prompts covered here. There's plenty to talk about under each of these concepts and a nice mix of "foundational" (clothes) and more "niche" (honeymoons, incense, "the social economy of clothing") topics - there's no sense that Brennan is at all running low on ideas or struggling to find topics of general relevance to write about. Perhaps because of their genesis on Patreon, the style is chatty and often quite informal, and there's no pretence to academic rigour on the historical examples; there's no citations here, and a few points where the text outright states something like "I know I've read an example of thing X, but I don't remember what it was". It doesn't affect the book's ability to do what it says in the tin, however, and as thought provoking elements the veracity of the examples given here (none of which stray into territory that I would consider particularly controversial or open to misinterpretation) isn't really the point.

The elephant in the room when reading these in ebook is whether this format adds to the reading experience - and, honestly, I don't think that ebook or Patreon lets these essays shine to their fullest extent. Patreon's system, while it has a lot of strengths and is linked to a monetary system that allows authors like Brennan to do this kind of work in the first place, isn't inherently great for archiving posts and allowing users to search for old content, and ebooks are similarly much harder than physical books to flip through and search for things rather than reading cover to cover. Luckily, Book View Cafe also has you covered if you want New Worlds in physical format - and I suspect that for people who really want this for its intended purpose, that's the version that is most going to allow its content and usefulness to shine.

Rating: 7/10

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.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: This Immortal (1966, Best Novel)

Dossier: Zelazny, Roger. This Immortal [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct - Nov 1965]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: Set in some distant nuclear fallout of planet Earth with only some four million survivors and much of the planet is still radioactive populated by mutated humans. This Immortal follows Conrad Nomikos, the Art Commissioner for the planet, as he is reluctantly assigned to protect Myshtigo, an alien surveying Earth to either write a travel guide or as advance work for a major real estate deal. The alien Vegans (from Vega) own much of our world. It's a little confusing how it all fits together and everything isn't as it first appears. 

The novel is a bit of a travelogue of a ruined planet, but one where the core is Conrad wearily cracking wise as he takes Myshtigo from place to place to place while attempts are being made on both of their lives, possibly from the rest of their travel party.

Conrad may be some sort of mutant himself, partially disfigured with a half ruined face and one leg shorter than the other - Conrad may also be immortal or at least extremely long lived and he doesn't seem to know why. Of course, Conrad seems to also lie all the time as well, so it's a bit of a question mark. 

Legacy: This Immortal won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1966, tying for the award with Dune. There have only been three ties for Best Novel in the history of the Hugo Award and it would be almost thirty years until the next tie in 1993 (A Fire Upon the Deep and The Doomsday Book). This Immortal does not have quite the same reputation in the field as Dune, but few novels could live up to that legacy.

Over the course of his career, Roger Zelazny was a fourteen time Hugo Award finalists and a six time winner. Zelazny would win Best Novel again for Lord of Light in 1968. His four other wins were for Novella and Novelette (two each). 

This Immortal was Roger Zelazny's first novel. It was originally serialized in The Magazine of Science Fiction as "...And Call Me Conrad", but the magazine publication required the novel to be abridged from his original vision for the story. Much of the original text was restored for book publication.

The legacy of This Immortal is likely more that it was a part of Zelazny's influence on a generation of writers than of the novel itself having a lasting impact. There are direct lines of influence to writers like Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Steven Brust. The character of Vlad Taltos in Brust's Jhereg novels has strong echoes of Conrad in the particular flavor of wise cracking hero Brust employs. The idea isn't original to Zelazny, but the flavor and the influence is specific and particular in regards to Brust.

In Retrospect: "I always meant to read Zelazny" was my common refrain for years, to the point that I bought the Amber omnibus edition and a copy of Lord of Light and both have languished on my shelf for well over a decade. Picture my surprise when This Immmortal ended up as the first Zelazny novel I read. 

I can only imagine that a novel which tied for the Hugo Award with friggin Dune was more than well regarded by readers of its time. Zelazny was in the middle of a five year run where he would be a finalist for the Hugo Award eight times. But, how This Immortal was received in 1966 has little bearing on how the novel reads more than fifty years later in 2019.

It took a moment to remind myself that some of the casual racism and contemptuous comments from Conrad "but he was a Turk, so who cares?" was a function of the historical enmity between Greece and Turkey, even in a post apocalyptic future. It grated, perhaps all the more because it was in reference to real peoples and cultures rather than a fictional race. 

"I'm in charge here, thank you," said I. "I'm giving the orders and I've decided I'll do the vampire-fighting"
What works exceptionally well today is the easy wit of conversation. I referenced Zelazny's influence on writers like Steven Brust, and it is how Zelazny uses dialogue which comes across as far more modern than many novels of its time. 

In the end, This Immortal is perhaps more notable for being an important novel from Roger Zelazny than it is for being a novel that stands up among the all time greats. It doesn't hold up as being a true classic of the genre, but there is value here in reading early Zelazny and getting a glimpse of what the shape of 1965 was like, especially in comparison not only to Dune but to other works on the Hugo ballot. Zelazny shared a ballot with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (interestingly enough and for reasons I really need to research, that novel would go on to win the Hugo Award the following year in 1967 despite being on the ballot in 1966), with a John Brunner novel (The Squares of the City), and with the final novel in E.E. Smith's Skylark series. 

While not one of the genre's great novels and not reaching the reputation and recognition of Dune, This Immortal holds up as a solid if unspectacular novel.

For its time: 5/5
Read today: 3/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 8/10 

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.