Monday, September 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones

Night of the Mannequins might be full of shaky anxiety, but its authorial voice is always sturdy.

Certain mental illnesses can color your perspective. Things become skewed and distorted. It's akin to having cinema seem more than just a credible imitation of reality, and instead feel like an overwhelming truth. And with a certain viewpoint, seeing an effigy of a human can convince you that you’re looking at a real, live one. But it’s not just what’s around you that becomes distorted—your interiority can become jagged, making you believe things to be true that are preposterous to most. That mindset can make crimes committed not from ill intent, but with a humanitarian bent--good intentions meshed with harmful actions. Real humans feel like simulacrums and irrationality coils around and obscures all else. Night of the Mannequins tackles that serious issue in a bloody, sometimes very extreme way but its intelligence and depth barely waver.

I’m going to be vague in my synopsis, because part of the fun in Night of the Mannequins is experiencing a specific shift in the story. The novel follows Sawyer – a teenage boy – and his friends. The group discover a mannequin in a creek, and take it as their plaything, developing a comical kinship with it, almost treating it like it’s part of their team. After they use the mannequin for a prank in a movie theatre, it walks right out of the theatre, somehow gaining the ability of mobility. That sight gnaws at Sawyer and devolves him into a spiral of desperation, weeping, and the desire to go to overreaching lengths to minimize the damage he fears the mannequin will cause. Then, a slasher-esque story with psychological undertones ensues.

When mental illness is covered in horror, authors sometimes find it easy to label those with stigmatized ailments as categorically evil. Thankfully, Night of the Mannequins doesn’t do that. All the horrors propelled by mental illness are done from characters with the intense compulsion to be utilitarian and as humane as possible. It humanizes mental illness by delving deep into the thought process of how someone could spiral down into a belief that causes harm, through a rationalization of charitableness.

That rationalization is underscored by the novel’s strong narratorial voice. The tone can pinball from humorous, to heartbreaking, to poetic, to horrific, without jarring tonal shifts. Despite the jumble of contrasting thoughts that twist and overlap like a coiled chain, the story never loses focus and barely stretches out into barren patches of inactivity. When the plot does halt at a standstill, it’s to illustrate the racing, repetitive thoughts from a certain character, which is easily apparent, and doesn’t justify making the reader go through the same line of thought again. The character’s recursive, swirly thoughts are established early on, and would be better if they weren’t hammered home.

The side characters are aptly established for a novella-sized length, but because of the skewed perspective of the story, I never really got a sense of who they were. I can’t fault that too much because it’s a side effect of the premise, but I think there are still ways to showcase and protrude their personality forward under an otherworldly lens.

Fiction is often an exercise in having a real author extract kernels of truth from unreality. The more kernels extracted, the more hard-hitting and real those stories become. And if the story is done right, for a little while we almost forget that what we’re reading or watching isn’t real. Night of the Mannequins takes that all-encompassing delusion that we all have forward and shows a perspective that is completely mired in unreality. But just like how most people cheer on the heroes of a book or movie, this character is moved to do what they think is the right thing and cheer on the seemingly right side. Night of the Mannequins could easily be a vapid slasher novella that keeps you entertained but fades from your memory immediately after reading. But Stephen Graham Jones adds nuance to create a pleasing simulacrum of slasher tropes and makes his story all the better for it.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For a clever meshing of B-movie and “arthouse” tropes.

Negatives: -1 For a mixed bag of character development.
-1 For a slightly drawn out midsection.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!"

Reference: Jones, Stephen Graham. Night of the Mannequins [, 2020]

Friday, September 25, 2020

Questing in Shorts: September 2020

Over the past month, I've found myself struggling to get much reading done again, as the various stresses of trying to live through Interesting Times have continued to take their toll. However, what I have found this month is that short fiction has come into its own for me: even when I'm not able to get myself motivated to read a novel, I've been able to pick up a story or two and my magazine folder is looking much healthier for it (on the other hand, let's not talk about my ARC folder...). It's not where I wanted to be at with my reading at this point in the year, but I'll take what I can get these days. So, let's see what's been on the menu this month:

Giganotosaurus July - September

I read the last three months of Giganotosaurus stories this month, all of which were excellent if very different in tone and outlook. "Miss Bulletproof Comes out of Retirement" by Louis Evans (August 2020) is an intriguingly meaty deity-superhero type setting with a main character taking on One Last Job which brings her into a conspiracy of the kind she's no longer as prepared to deal with as she used to; the worldbuilding here is first rate as are the relationships between the main characters. "The Pandora", by Stephanie Charette (July 2020), is unpleasant and claustrophobic, dealing with a girl who has been taken in by an abusive older man to shape her into a "perfect wife". Stripped of everything up to and including her own name, "Portia" (Jane) finds a lifeline in a doll which turns out to be sentient and able to enact a body swap, leaving Jane safe inside the Pandora's body while the Pandora withstands the various punishments and trials she is subjected to. The creepy doll trope is cleverly deployed here, leaving us, like Jane, uncertain about the Pandora's motives and unable to decide where to place our trust.

Then there's September's story, "A Wild Divinity" by Rebecca Schneider. This is the tale of Nassa, a woman who is dedicated to the god of reason, until he starts turning up in unexpected places and trying to impregnate her. She ends up taking refuge in the temple of the god most opposed to hers: the Queen of Delight. Initially worried and uncertain about her new situation, Nassa starts to appreciate this new divinity and particularly to forge a bond with Eidel, one of the devotees of Delight. Beautifully paced and set in a world that feels like it could support a whole lot more narrative, Nassa's specific journey, with Eidel and with her gods, is a delight from start to finish, giving space to her growth and tying everything together extremely satisfyingly at the conclusion.

Homesick by Nino Cipri

I've been meaning to read more of Nino Cipri's work for a while and this collection, bringing together 9 of their works, did not disappoint. As the title and the gorgeous cover suggest, this is a collection that's very much about homes: having them, leaving them, and what happens when we are set adrift both emotionally and (this is a speculative anthology after all) in the fabric of reality. Insofar as this collection has a centrepiece, it's the outstanding "The Shape of my Name", originally published on the website. This is the story of a family in possession of a time travelling device, narrated through the perspective of someone navigating a relationship with their mother as they both work through different points in time and the protagonist comes to terms with her trans identity. The way the time travel affects the relationships here is beautifully done and it's a story that weaves its fantasy and mundane elements together to offer a wonderful, heartbreaking experience.

It's difficult to pick other favourites in here: I enjoyed the novelty of "Which Super Little Dead Girl(TM) Are You", told in the form of a multiple choice quiz about a fictional doll franchise with exactly the premise you'd think; I also highly enjoyed "Not an Ocean but the Sea", and the weird, minor hauntings of "Presque Vue", whose protagonist keeps pulling keys out of their throat and is otherwise trying to live as normal a life as possible around that, as those around him deal with haunting circumstances of their own. All in all, though, this is one of those collections that just works as a whole, and I definitely recommend picking it up to appreciate Cipri's brilliance in this form.

Augur Magazine Issue 3.1

This is my first issue of Augur! And its an interesting, if rather grim place to start: this is an issue themed around "grief, giving and gateways". There are a ton of great poems, stories and even a cute comic, and all in all it was well worth overcoming my usual aversions to PDF for. The issue opens with "Prism" by S.D. Brown, which really sets the tone for what's to come: this is the story of a woman who has a child in prison who is taken away from her, and her attempts to take herself out of her grim reality and find ways to seek him out in the outside world. The horrors of the protagonist's treatment in prison, and the heartbreakingly small glimpses she gets of her son as he grows up under the care of another family, make for a grim but effective exploration of the brutality of the prison system and the racism inherent in the system. One to read the content warnings for, but very effective. Similarly affecting for me was "What Lies Within" by Isha Karki, the story of Swarna, a migrant woman married to a man from another country, who misses the chickpeas cooked by her mother in a way that seems linked to her inability to sleep in her new home. The "princess and the pea" overtones are evident, but this is no story of sensitive royalty and Swarna's experiences are of abuse, forced assimilation and mistreatment at the hands of the doctor brought in to treat her, all leading up to a sudden, devastating ending which feels deeply fitting even as it pulls the rug from under the reader.

My other favourite from this issue was "She Lies an Island", by Michelle Payne. In it, woman who returns to Ireland to see the body of a slain giant which has become a tourist attraction; she is going on the journey for her grandmother, who claims to have met a giant in her own youth. The story juxtaposes the tragedy of the giant's story and the protagonist's grief around her grandmother with an excruciatingly good representation of a sordid tourist experience. From the sleazy tour guide who ended up being the protagonist's uncharacteristic one-night stand from the previous evening, to the awkward behaviour of the other members of the tour group, to the awful activities organised for them when they get to the giant (the done thing is to take a bow and arrow and shoot at its face), it's evocative in a way that only enhances the inherent beauty and mystery of the dead giant herself. In a way, the ending (and yes, this is another grim one) comes as a release, a point of escape from the utterly cringey, miserable situation of the characters even as it ends in total disaster for almost everyone involved. The giant gets a fitting ending, though, and that's sort of all that matters.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 35

I'm behind with my Uncanny reading - in fact, it's possible my subscription has lapsed without me noticing, because those are the kind of times we live in now, folks - and some of the stories in this next-most-recent (I think?) issue worked better for me than others. Firmly on the "yay" side of that equation was "The Inaccessibility of Heaven" by Aliette de Bodard, a story of fallen angels and the humans who live alongside them (I'm not sure if this is in the same universe as The Dominion of the Fallen, though it definitely doesn't feel the same or contain any characters I recognise). It's a tight, intriguing murder mystery that puts its human protagonist in the centre of magical happenings which the Fallen in their life would prefer they stayed out of. Also fun was "The Ruby of the Summer King" by Mari Ness, a fable about the titular character trying to woo the Winter Queen and getting himself, and the entire seasonal realm, into a bit of a pickle over the whole thing. It's a story that takes fairly well-worn tropes and makes something that feels fairly timeless, but which nevertheless had me feeling that I genuinely didn't know how everything was going to turn out. And then there's "A Pale Horse" by M. Evan MacGriogair, which makes up for the sin of having my least favourite story ending line (please, please, stop telling me how much work the characters have to do as you close out your stories, I'm begging you, it drives me up the wall): a story whose plot hasn't stayed with me, but whose evocative sense of place and culture on the West Coast of Scotland, the relationships it forges between its characters, including a protagonist who is seeking belonging across different communities and languages, and the overall sense of an overwhelmed, dying near-future world which nevertheless is full of hope, all adds up to an excellent experience.

POSTED BY: Adri, 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

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Microreview: In the Black by Patrick Tomlinson

Patrick Tomlinson’s In the Black turns Tomlinson’s penchant for science fiction into full bore Mil-SF Space Opera, starting a new series with space battle, corporate intrigue, and his brand of dry humor.

Captain Susan Kamala  of the Ansari has a problem. Sure, she’s the captain of a class name ship in the CCDF, and she’s worked hard to get that position. But now a second defensive recon drone has “failed” in the 82 G Eridani solar system they are patrolling, and it does look like the Xre aliens are up to something. The seventy year old cold war between the two species may yet turn hot once again, with Captain Kamala on the grill.

Thuk has a problem. Sure, Thuk is the Derstu, the chosen leader of the Xre warship Chusexx, new and fresh, and it is probably a ship better than anything the humans have. But being Derstu is not quite like being a Captain, and Thuk has to see to the crew, as well as the orders from above. Poking at the humans, testing their defenses is a tricky thing to navigate. It's enough to want one to molt their shell. And so when the poking at the human defenses provokes a confrontation, that shiny new ship might get its real shakedown in a shooting match with a human warship.

Tyson Abington has a problem, too. Sure, he’s the CEO of Ageless, Inc. Sure, he has a kickass AI, Paris, which helps him keep on top of running one of the corporations that dominate Human Space. But his company’s colony over on a planet around Teegarden’s Star has a very nasty virus, and news of that when it gets out to the public is sure to hit stock shares. And there are intimations and rumors of other things, other threats to Ageless  in the offing. The corporate sharks are circling, and Tyson is getting the sense that these are moves for high stakes--stakes enough to threaten not just him, not just his position, but worse, his entire corporation.

Their three stories may start, or stop, or even hasten interstellar war in Patrick Tomlinson’s In The Black.

The beginning of the novel, the dedication of the novel, is to David Weber, Walter John Williams, Marko Kloos, and James S. A. Corey. The novel stakes out right away that this is squarely pitched at readers of, and playing in the Military SF Space Opera quadrant of the galaxy of SF. The novel is traditional enough and so well within the boundaries of that subgenre that if Mil-SF doesn’t interest you, this is, full stop, not going to be the novel that is going to give you the most in your reading bang for the buck. This is the novel where Tomlinson decides to see what he can do with a storied portion of SF, but it is not transcendent of that subgenre.

So what do we have here?

The social worldbuilding and the setup intrigued me. The corporate dominated Earth and how the Corporations have taken us to the Stars and run planets and fleets feels somewhat like a variation on the Corporate future of Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, but with the dials turned much more heavily to a militarized and military focused presence in space. I somehow get the sense that the Xre-Human war started off much like the Kzinti and Humans in Niven’s Known Space--the Xre thinking the humans were going to be easy prey and the Humans, caught on the backfoot, nevertheless got to parity and a cold war.. The Xre are much more crafty than the “Attack before they are ready” Kzinti. Tomlinson’s characterization of aliens, as seen in his previous novels, often shows far more nuance and craft than some of the stereotypes seen in Niven’s Known Space. Frankly, I would rather face a Kzinti force than a Xre force any day if I were given the choice between the two. Tomlinson avoids the twin pitfalls of “starfish aliens” that are incomprehensible and “rubber forehead aliens” who really are just humans with a dye job. The Xre are winningly described and characterized and by the back portion of the novel, their actions are comprehensible.

That leads us to the characters that Tomlinson populates his world with. There are archetypes, standard models of characters, basic variants that one finds in a lot of Military SF, Space Opera or not. Tomlinson subverts this from the get go with Captain Kamala and the crew of the Ansari. Kamala is no Smurfette on the ship--the ship, and indeed most of the fleet is crewed by women, because women handle the rigors of space better. It’s a poke in the eye of mediocre Mil SF which has Manly Men doing Manly things in Space, backed up with a logical reason as to why the crew of this ship, and most ships in fact, is mostly women. Tomlinson’s captain and crew are professional soldiers, with quirks, and full fledged personalities. This extends to the Xre, and to Tyson and the characters around him as well. This is not a novel of deep character arcs and development. However, Tomlinson gives a good dynamic range and inner life  to his characters, human, alien and also the AI Paris. Like his previous novels, Tomlinson understands character, especially the absurdity of characters’ lives, and that is a real joy to his writing. And there are other fine notes of dry humor, another staple of Tomlinson's writing that leavens the proceedings. I was expecting the Packers humor, but not the poke at a sit down restaurant chain, just to name two bits.

But it is the nuts and bolts of the Military SF that the novel really focuses on, and where for the most part it shines brilliantly. The FTL is the Alcubierre drive, frame dragging FTL with interesting limitations and restrictions. There is no Ansible (which means that the transmission of information between solar systems has to be by ship, which proves to be something that parts of the plot turns on) There is a definite sense of a cold war arms building up and testing on both sides. Like the 1970’s and 1980s as America and the USSR developed better weapon systems of various kinds, a Balance of Terror, there is a corporate cast to the weapons development, making profit motives an interesting tweak to how the Military tech development and execution proceed. There is plenty of space action as the opposite sides square off, and Tomlinson delivers what Mil-SF readers are looking for in terms of well described action and adventure. At the same time, there is an not so explicit criticism of the corporate military industrial complex (complexes if you count the Xre too) and a real sense of the potential costs of war and who war ultimately benefits.

My major beef with an otherwise high quality novel is the ending. The novel builds up, introduces mysteries, conflicts and sequences, and comes to a conclusion that really isn’t one. There is a final Mil-SF battle and set piece confrontation that is really spectacular, but there is a frustrating lack of finality to this novel, providing no off-ramp for readers who don’t want to read a second novel (or, worse, if a second novel should never happen). I was hoping for something more self contained along the lines of, say, Gate Crashers. I do like the world, the tech, the action and the characters and I would read a sequel, but I was hoping for something a little more self contained. Hopefully there will be more books in the series, so as the cliffhangery bits of this novel won't itch quite so much.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for an excellent cast of characters
+1 for excellent Military SF action beats right down the center of the pitch.

Penalties -1 for not sticking the ending.

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

Reference: Tomlinson, Patrick  In The Black  [Tor, 2020]. 

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

6 Books With Karen Osborne

Karen Osborne is a speculative fiction writer and visual storyteller living in Baltimore. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and won awards for her news & opinion writing in New York, Florida, and Maryland. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Fireside, Escape Pod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. Architects of Memory is her science fiction debut.  

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I wish I could write like Ashley Blooms. I would trade my spleen to write like Ashley Blooms. I am currently reading her first novel, Every Bone A Prayer, which is about Misty, a ten-year-old girl living in rural Appalachia. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this one since I read the first chapter when we were both at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2017. 

Misty can speak to the crawdads and the birds and the bottles and the trees, but she can’t speak to other people about the terrible things that are happening to her. And she has abilities—strange, magical abilities that help her heal and cope. Blooms vividly paints a picture of how it feels to be confused and ten years old, as well as delineating every blade of grass in a Kentucky holler. There’s a moment towards the end where I cried out of sheer emotion—the closest you get to that old Greek idea of catharsis, where a piece of art makes you feel something real. 

And she achieved this on her first time out.

This book is a lyrical brick to the face and a beautiful twist to the gut, and it’s not the kind of novel you read and forget. It’s an important book, the kind that enters the canon. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I really can’t wait for Valerie Valdes’ Prime Deceptions, the sequel to her wonderful debut, Chilling Effect, because it has everything I love about sharp, snappy space operas, and wow, do we need that kind of thing right now: a smart, messy mouth on a smart, messy heroine, delightful aliens, lots of action, and a crew you root for from beginning to end. Her series hits all of my happy places.

Humans are in the minority in Captain Eva Innocente’s vibrant galaxy, which owes debts to everything from Mass Effect to the glory of the Cuban pastelito (and they are glorious). She’s the kind of character that will risk everything for her family, whether it’s the sister she needs to rescue from a shadowy crime syndicate or the crew that are slowly becoming her family, too. Every chapter is filled with something that made me shriek with delight, and Valdes’ comic timing is perfect, whether it’s a joke or a reference or simply a fleet of psychic cats showing up at the perfect time. 

Valdes lands a hat trick that space opera writers rarely achieve: the reverent irreverence of Douglas Adams paired with the expansive world of Dune and the full heart of Star Trek and Mass Effect.

I’ll be on La Sirena Negra for as long as she flies.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to read again? 

I read Sarah Pinsker’s A Song For A New Day when it was released last fall, and I really enjoyed it. It was a story about a pandemic that made it impossible and deadly for people to spend any time together, and how society spun out afterwards. The book focuses on live music, the lives of rocker Luce Cannon and post-pandemic homebody Rosemary Laws, and what happens after they meet.

And then, uh, we had a real pandemic that made it impossible and deadly for people to spend time any together, one that turned live music into a deadly disease vector and, at the time of this writing, continues to disrupt every aspect of the lives we once knew. The author wasn’t trying to be a prophet, but she ended up nailing every single idea: concerts broadcast over Facebook Live and Zoom, online commerce, you name it.

Thankfully, Pinsker isn’t trying to write a hopeless dystopia, here. This is a story set years and years after the pandemic, a story that’s trying to heal the past and set up a new future. It was lovely to watch Luce and Rosemary brave new trails and follow their hearts. It’s going to be quite the experience to read this book again knowing what we now know about how their world began.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

I don’t like reading books from my middle school years now that I’m an adult—primarily because I re-read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. Seeing the Pern series with adult eyes changed everything.

See, I was pretty unpopular in middle school, and the bullying started the moment I got on the bus in the morning and didn’t stop until I got home at night. I have vivid memories of looking out the bus window, staring out the window and hoping a golden dragon would whisk me away. 

That’s all I understood. “Dragons are cool, and fighting Thread is awesome.” It didn’t connect with me that only men were dragonriders, aside from the unimportant riders of tiny green dragons. I didn’t notice that women were hardly even present. I was too young to understand love beyond holding hands with your crush—let alone the sexual fate of the Weyrwoman. Or the implications of her title—that there’s only one of her.

I know Pern is an influential and important work in the canon, and I appreciate that its author was one of the first woman to be recognized for her work in a male-dominated fandom. I don’t want to take away any of that.

But I do think there’s a valid criticism to be made of a world that relegates women to be drudges and bedwarmers and unimportant green riders. And once I recognized that as an adult, I knew I couldn’t go back. 

The dragons weren’t coming for me. They never were. And that made me incredibly sad.

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

My reaction to Pern is why I won’t read Brian Jacques’ Redwall again. It’s just too precious to me.

This was the early nineties, so while young adult books were being written they weren’t quite their own category yet, unless you were into Sweet Valley High, which I definitely wasn’t. So maybe that’s why I glommed onto these books in-between Heinlein and Donaldson and the other tough adult books the librarians were handing me because I was interested in Star Trek. (Donaldson. Really, librarians?)

Redwall was influential because in those years I felt small and worthless and undervalued because I was bullied at school, and Jacques’ tales were all about tiny mice devoted to peaceful lives that nevertheless would defend their friends and compatriots if threatened—and win. There are prophecies and rhymes and long descriptions of delicious food, and fearful woodland creatures getting over those fears all over the place. 

I didn’t see the same problematic issues of Jacques categorizing moral alignment by species/race as I do now, and I stopped reading the series about five books before I’m afraid to go back and read them as an adult lest the magic evaporate.

But wow. A mouse with a sword. A reminder that even the smallest creatures can be heroes. I give this book to every quiet 11-year-old I can.

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

A lot of people call their debuts the “book of their heart.” Well, Architects of Memory is more the “book of my incandescent anger” or “the book of my existential frustration.” Indentured salvage pilot Ash Jackson is threading a very thin needle after the alien attack that killed her fiance and ruined the company she hoped to join as a citizen. Ash is sick with a terminal illness, but if her new company finds out, she’ll be tossed out of the program. She won’t qualify for citizenship or the health care that might lead to a cure for her condition. On top of all that, she’ll never see her new love—her ship’s captain—ever again.

So that’s the stressful environment in which Ash is working when she uncovers a strange new alien weapon in some battlefield wreckage—a weapon that every company seems to want and that threatens to turn her into a weapon herself.

I think this might be the kind of book you write as an older millennial raised on Star Trek and glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, who was told her entire life that things are looking up, only to be clobbered with war and recession and more recession and more war and now this end-stage capitalistic gig-working hell. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I started writing this book while also attempting to make rent money on a gig platform that required me to pay actual money for the chance to work.

Add in a slice of my own dealings with chronic health issues and a crew that’s been waiting for a story since the turn of the century (since I thought them up in a boring college class, that is), and you have a novel that tries to be hopeful while dealing with things like corporate greed and betrayal and some other surprising things. I’m really proud of Architects of Memory, and I hope readers like it as much as I do.

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Interview: Andrea Hairston, author of Master of Poisons

When I started seeing promotional material for Andrea Hairson's Master of Poisons,  there was a turn of phrase that caught my eye: "Poison desert eats good farmland".   Something to know about me is that I live in a college town that is surrounded by farm land. And we're pretty protective of our farm land  and fresh water sources around here.  Anything that harms the land and the water, that harms how we feed ourselves, thems fightin' words. With its sorcery, floating cities, empires on the edge of collapse, powerful storytelling and deadly storms, Master of Poisons is obviously about much more than protecting the land. But, if we don't have land to live on, land to farm to feed ourselves, then what?  Come for the "save the farmland!" basics, and stay for the fact that this book pulls together research and stories that the author has been collecting for her entire adult life.

Hairston's previous novels include Will Do Magic for Small Change (finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lambda, and Tiptree Awards), Redwood and Wildfire, (winner of the Tiptree and Carl Brandon Awards) and Mindscape. (winner of the Carl Brandon Award).   

Of her newest novel, Master of Poisons, Hairston says:

"Master of Poisons is about denial and the empire of lies we’re willing to believe. It’s about decolonizing the mind. I wanted to write myself out of the hopelessness we feel facing devastation. This is a book about the stories we tell and the communities we make to do the impossible. . . .I am an Afro-Futurist in league with Indigenous-Futurists. I want to bring the wisdom of recovered ancestors into conversation with the future."

Not one to limit her artistic endeavors to just ink on a page, Hairston is a playwright and Artistic Director of the Chrysalis Theatre in Western Massachusetts, which has produced everything from scifi comedies to musical workshops, to radio shows and more.  To learn more about Hairston's fiction, essays, and stage work, you can visit her website at, and follow her on twitter at @AAHairsto.  

After learning about Master of Poisons, I had about a million questions for Hairston, from her inspirations for this novel, to her worldbuilding methods, how music and language plays into her storytelling, to her work on the stage. She was able to take some time out of her schedule to answer many of them.  Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: On a post announcing the book, you talked about how you "wanted to write myself out of hopelessness we feel facing devastation". Can you tell us more about this? Was writing Master of Poisons emotional for you, because of the feelings of hopelessness? (as someone who lives in a small city surrounded by beautiful farmland, the idea of farmland dying makes me want to cry!!) 

Andrea Hairston:
Some days a wave of despair inundates me. I feel like a brief speck of dust, struggling to survive the whirlwind, the hellfire. Writing is like prayer. Writing challenges me to feel the world, to find myself in relation to the dirt, the people, the rain, the bees, all living things.  

That’s how and why I wrote Master of Poisons. My emotions are fuel for activism, not a drain. 

We all use our emotions as fuel to create and sustain the changes we want to make, have to make. So, when writing, I don’t feel alone. I don’t feel helpless, hopeless, useless. I know that what I do matters. What we all do matters.  

NOAF: What were some of your inspirations for the novel?  

AH: The films of Guillermo Del Toro—he shows us the other worlds, beautiful and terrible, in our world. Frans De Waal’s books on animal emotion and intelligence—De Waal asks are we smart enough to know how intelligent animals are or wise enough to sense how much they feel? The plays of Pearl Cleage, Alice Childress, Anna D. Smith, and Tess Onwueme—these women recovered lost history, reinvented the present, and reached to the future. The novels of Octavia Butler, Michael Ende, Ursula LeGuin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tad Williams. They made me feel at home in Science Fiction, and Fantasy. 

NOAF: I love these kinds of epic, lush, complicated worlds, how did you create and design the Arkhysian Empire?  

AH: I tried to write a novella, tried to squeeze the story and the world into 40,000 words or less and it just didn’t work! The characters demanded backstories, geographies, their own particular languages, histories, and cultures. The conjure system demanded a full cosmology. Each language had words that didn’t translate, that had to be explained by stories, myths, and experiences. Nobody ate the same food. Even the trees and rivers wanted to tell their story! 

NOAF: What kind of research did you do for this novel?  

I’ve been researching this book since the ninth grade so that’s a very long time! I read history, cultural studies, novels, poems, plays. I love going to museums-- and looked at art, maps, sculptures, clothing, pottery, weapons, fabric, tapestries—all sorts of material culture. All praises to the Smithsonian Institute, particularly the Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of African American History and Culture. 

I’ve learned several languages. Learning a new language offers a particular way of seeing the world. Truly, every language makes a different world. 

Decades of doing theatre and performance was also good research. Theatre is great practice for getting inside characters and worlds that aren’t your own. I play balaphon –a West African Instrument with wooden keys and gourd resonators. The polyrhythmic West African music transports me, changes me. Like speaking a particular language, playing music offers me a portal to a new realm. 

NOAF: What is your writing process like? Are you a pantster or a plotter?  

A 12 key balaphon with gourd resonators

AH: So I do both! It’s a polyrhythm. I plot and then fly off with my muse, and then I settle in and plot and then fly off again until I find the end and then I can get the beginning to work. 

NOAF: Without too many spoilers, can you tell us if there was a particular scene that was your favorite to write? Was there a scene that was more difficult to write than you expected? 

I loved writing stories from the point of view of the animals, of the non-human characters in the novel. These were some of the hardest scenes to write, but also the most fun. I’m allergic to bees and becoming a swarm of them was thrilling. 

NOAF: You are the Artistic Director of the Chrysalis Theatre, a cross cultural performance ensemble, and you teach theatre and playwriting. How has your experiences in live theater and playwriting informed how you write short stories and novels?  

AH: Doing live theatre means you have to rehearse and rehearse yet be ready to improvise with whatever comes up during the performance. Writing for theatre, I’ve rewritten lines after the show has opened. Performers wanted to kill me, but if the lines I handed them were better than what they’d been struggling to get behind, they’d cuss and fuss and then change. So I am a champion rewriter. I revise and revise until I get the story I want. 

I love dramatic storytelling—finding the action, the mystery that propels they story. As I playwright, I love finding the voice of each character, the idiom of their thoughts, the idiom of their world. I bring all that into my novels. 

NOAF: How is telling a story on the stage different than telling a story on the page? 

AH:On stage you have actors, sets, lights, costumes. A novelist has to conjure all that setting in the minds of the reader. No designers or performers to the rescue! No music to underscore or illuminate intentions, motivations, mood. In the theatre, the audience can breathe the same air as the performers. They can taste the actors’ hunger and joy, feel the music of the actors’ voices in their bones. Sitting in your seat, taking in the play, you sync up heartbeats with the rest of the audience and send your energy up on stage to support the performers as they reach beyond themselves. But playwrights don’t write the interior landscape of a character. Word by word, the novelist maps that often complex and always intriguing interior and invites the reader on an intimate journey from self to other. Hours can go by and lost in the book, in the setting and music that the writer has conjured, the reader forgets everything else. 

NOAF: Thank you so much, Andrea, for this enlightening interview!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Interview: Jim C. Hines, author of Tamora Carter: Goblin Queen

photo credit: Lionel Davoust

Author Jim C. Hines sold his first short story in the late 90s, and he's been going strong ever since. He cut his teeth on more anthologies than I can count, along with having short stories published in Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Oceans of the Mind, Podcastle, and elsewhere.  His first full length novel, Goblin Quest, was published in 2006, and Hines took over a large chunk of the humorous and heartwarming fantasy from there as the writer of the Jig the Goblin series, the Princesses series, the Magic Ex Libris series, and his current Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series. All this while editing anthologies, speaking at events, and writing short fiction.

His fiction will make you laugh, it will make you think, and some of it will make you cry.  In 2012, Hines won the Hugo award for best fan writer, for his blog work that (among other things) interrogated how women have been portrayed in cover art.    I've been lucky enough to meet Hines in real life, and he is kind, brilliant, humble, observant, and always knows the right thing to say.  (Jim, are you secretly Doctor Who?)

Hines' newest novel, Tamora Carter: Goblin Queen (Available Sept 15) is a middle grade book that starts with roller derby, and then the goblins show up. The novel promises to be an enjoyable read for anyone who is young at heart.  Always the kind of guy who wants to try something new (because why not?), Hines did a Kickstarter to fund the book, and fully funded in less than 24 hours.   You can read the first chapter of Tamora Carter: Goblin Queen here.

You can learn more about Hines' work at his website , or by following him on twitter, @jimchines.  

Hines was kind enough to chat with me about his new novel, the adventure that is Kickstart, writing Smoosh the Cat, and the pure joy that is writing goblins. Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: What was the inspiration behind Tamora Carter: Goblin Queen? What can you tell us about this story?

Jim C. Hines: Tamora Carter: Goblin Queen is an anti-portal fantasy. In your traditional portal fantasy, your heroes go through a door (or wardrobe, or rabbit hole, or mirror, or whatever) into a magical world and have Adventures. Tamora is a girl whose best friend disappeared into that other world, and she got left behind. But then things start leaking back through into our world, starting with a pair of goblins who show up at the skating rink when Tamora gets out from roller derby  practice.

Basically, I wanted to mess around with the idea of the portal fantasy. Maybe humans aren’t always the heroes rushing in to save other worlds…

And I really wanted to write about goblins again. They’re just so much fun. 

NOAF: Who was your favorite character to write? Why were they your favorite? 

JCH: I don’t know that I have a favorite for this book. Gulk the goblin was a lot of fun, because he’s an unapologetic coward, but he’s also inspired by Tamora, and he loves parts of our world – like Pop Tarts. Tamora’s various pets were great too. They all have such fun personalities. Smoosh the cat is just gross (and based on a cat I had growing up). Her sheepdog Appa just wants to play with everyone, and doesn’t understand why the goblins keep running away. . .  

NOAF: Were there any scenes in Tamora Carter: Goblin Queen that were especially fun to write? Were there any that were especially challenging to write? 

JCH: Every book I’ve written has both. There are scenes that make you want to rip out any hair you might have left, but then there are the ones that feel so right, where everything comes together and you’re just sitting there grinning as you think about it. Those moments make all of the frustration worth it. One of the fun ones was the first time Appa gets to “play” with the goblins. It wasn’t a particularly Earth-shattering scene, but it felt like such a perfect embodiment of the tone I wanted, the sense of fun and chaos, and Tamora’s cleverness when it comes to dealing with potential dangers. 


NOAF: Why did you choose to use Kickstarter to raise the funds to print and publish the book? I imagine that self publishing on Amazon would be a lot less stress than running a Kickstarter. (but also, less fun?) 

JCH: Partly, I wanted to try Kickstarter because I’d never done it before. I’ve been very fortunate in my writing career so far, but I really want to try to branch out a bit more. To “diversify my income streams,” or something jargon like that. Writing is how I make the bulk of my living, and I want to make sure I can keep doing it. That means trying new things. 

I also wanted to be able to cover up-front expenses, the biggest of which was hiring a good cover artist. 

NOAF: I think it's fair to say that your Kickstarter to fund Tamora Carter was wildly successful, as you hit your goal within 24 hours, and ultimately raised more than four times the dollar amount you'd set as your goal. Were you surprised at how quickly the goal was reached? What were some things that helped your Kickstarter be so successful? 

JCH: I was both surprised and thrilled at the response. With this being my first Kickstarter, I had no idea what to expect. Especially since I was launching it in the early months of a pandemic. 

I tried to keep my initial goal reasonable, in part to make sure we reached it. Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, so if you don’t reach your goal, the project essentially fails. 

I think what helped the most was that I’m established enough as an author to have fans who both trust me and enjoy my work. The vast majority of supporters were people who have read my stuff and were excited about seeing something new. Plus, you know, goblins and roller derby make everything better, so that helped. 

NOAF: Doing a Kickstarter takes buckets of time, and a metric boatload of mental energy. Would you do it again? And if yes, is there anything you'd do differently? 

JCH: You’re not kidding! It’s basically all of the work that goes into self-publishing, plus a month of fundraising, followed by all of the reward fulfillment. I’m still working on getting books printed so I can mail them out to supporters. COVID-19 and other assorted 2020 chaos has caused some serious delays at the printer, which is frustrating. 

Would I do it again? Probably, if I had the right project. One nice thing about the Kickstarter was that we raised enough up-front money for me to hire a very skilled artist (Leanna Crossan) to do the cover, and then we reached the stretch goal where I could commission her to do three interior illustrations as well. 

I was advised to look into fulfillment services that help out by organizing and mailing out the rewards for you (for a percentage, of course). I'm not sure whether or not I'd try that next time. I'm a bit of a control freak, and I like being able to sign and personalize everything myself. But ask me again how I feel after I've mailed out 300+ personalized books . . .  

NOAF: I've been following your work for some time now, and I know you're always working on something, always playing around with story and character ideas. Do you have any current projects you can tell us about? 

JCH: I just turned in Terminal Peace, which is the third book in the Janitors of the Post Apocalypse trilogy. So my next project is to catch up on sleep and everything else I've put off while I was working on that final rewrite. 

Writing-wise, I'm not sure yet. My agent has been shopping around another middle-grade book, so I'm waiting to see what comes of that. Whatever I do next, I’m leaning toward making it a standalone. Probably fantasy. But we'll see what happens. 

NOAF: Thanks so much Jim! 


POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.

Friday, September 18, 2020

6 Books with Kimberly Unger

Kimberly created her first videogame back when the 80-column card was the new hot thing. This turned a literary love of science fiction into a full blown obsession with the intersection of technology and humanity.

Today she spends her day-job time in VR, lectures on the intersection of art and code for UCSC’s master’s degree program and writes science fiction about how all these app-driven superpowers are going to change the human race. You can find her on Twitter at @Ing3nu or on her blog at www.ungerink.comKimberly’s debut science-fiction novel Nucleation will be released in November 2020,

Today, she shares her 6 books with us:

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I just got my hands on Glorious by Benford and Niven.  I haven’t read the first two yet, so I’ve gone back and picked up Bowl of Heaven, the first book in that trilogy. That’s my current “top of the stack”.  There’s been quite a long span between the first book and the last, so I am hugely curious to see how the writing and the characterization has evolved (or if it’s evolved) over that period of time. Writers' styles tend to change as their craft improves or their deadlines get shorter or they gain life experience. I rather enjoy observing that as part of my reading.  I do the same thing with comic book artists, there are a few I’ve been following for years and it’s been fantastic to watch them grow.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I actually had to go back and look through my pre-orders to see what’s in there.  I’m one of those people who, I see a book, get really excited, then go pre-order it and forget all about it until it hits my Kindle like an un-birthday present.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to read again? 

I’ve been thinking about digging back into the Laundry Files, It’s been a little while since the last book came out, the new one should be dropping shortly and I do deeply enjoy the way Stross’ characters do their best in the face of a future that is stunningly bleak when you really think about it (which is part and parcel to playing in that mythos, right?).  It’s unlikely this series will have a good ending and I am hugely curious to see how it all plays out.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

I… erm… That’s a hard one. I have authors who I have changed my mind about, in fact most authors I’ve met have been very different than I imagined them to be from their work. Books for me are different, I hold them when I read them in my timeline because people can change for better or worse, but books cannot. When I read them now I have a different reaction.  But that’s not really changing my mind, that’s just the evolution of my experiences crashing up against it.  An example of this might be Butcher’s Dresden Files books.  I enjoy the latest books in the series, but the first few books are written with a much younger lens. Current-version me is not a fan of some of the cringeable moments in those books, but if you sit down and do a binge read, you can watch the author’s style and world-choices maturing right alongside the characters through the course of the series, which is absolutely fabulous.  I’d be more careful about recommending them than I once was.  But, I also wouldn’t want the author to do a “revised edition” to bring it in line with who I am now.  I’d rather they keep all those moments so the characters can grow out of them. So you could say that I’ve revised my opinion about the first few books in the series a little towards the negative, but the series as a whole as a positive.

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

Patricia K. McPhillip’s The Changeling Sea is one, it was one of the shortest books I’d run across on a shelf full of epic-length high fantasy texts, but it still managed to be complete and whole and satisfying.  I started reading science fiction with shorter, faster pulpier works like Ron Goulart’s because some kind soul had sold off tons of them to the local used bookstore, so seeing that length of book emerge on modern shelves changed the way that I think about publishing.

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

Nucleation is a story about what happens when a woman at the top of her game gets her legs kicked out from under her. It’s about working in an environment that values one’s expertise, and how when you climb back up again, you may find your view has changed.  Throw in a healthy mix of remote-space travel, nano-robotics and an alien race that’s a mirror, not of us, but the things we create, and I think, I hope, you’re going to find Nucleation worth your time.

Thank you, Kimberly!

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

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

A fun book, but anticlimactic in its collapsage

(Note: While writing this review, I found it trickier than usual not to go into spoiler territory, and there's a fairly significant discussion of the trilogy ending ahead. I'll try and keep it as oblique as possible but spoiler sensitive readers will want to read the book first (spoiler free review: it's... fine.))

It is a well-accepted fact that some authors don't work for some readers. Even within our favouritest of favourite genres, there are books that just pass us by by people whose style, or storytelling focus never clicks. I am now ready to accept that John Scalzi is one of those authors for me but, here with yet another Scalzi book I yet again have no strong feelings about, I can't help coming out of the Interdependency - a series about entertaining people coming together against political intrigue and space battles to save the day, it should be perfect - feeling particularly frustrated that it has evoked no strong feelings of interest or engagement. 

The Last Emperox picks up where the last book in the trilogy left off - with an interstellar empire whose means of faster-than-light travel, a mystical phenomenon known as the "Flow", is closer than ever to collapse. Given that this interstellar empire literally calls itself "The Interdependency" and is almost entirely scattered across planets and habitats which aren't capable of independently supporting human life, this is a catastrophic event, and it's being made even more challenging by the squabbling elites who are more interested in making a profit off the collapse than in actually trying to save the people. In his review back in April, Joe notes that this backdrop is pretty on the nose for the compounding crises we're living in, and while there's certainly plenty to differentiate The Last Emperox from "our current political climate... in space!" (the hereditary monarchy being one of them) the device of having overwhelming problems which the characters have to find energy not just to survive but to push back against definitely feels... timely.

Enter Emperor Grayland II - also known as Cardenia Wu-Patrick - the young, unexpectedly competent and radical new leader of the Interdependency, who has spent the last two books dodging assassination attempts and trying to convince people that, yes, the Empire is in fact collapsing, with the help of her scientist-buddy-turned-boyfriend Marce and sweary ally Kiva Lagos. She also has the uploaded memories of all past Emperoxes (Emporex?) and the ancient king-in-a-spaceship-body they picked up in their last adventure. On the other side, we've got Nadashe Nohamapeton, fresh off her second failed assassination attempt and now engaged in a last-ditch coup attempt against the Wu family as a whole. At this point in the crisis, the political elite of the Interdependency have accepted that their world is changing, and the main decision they have to make is whether to act in the collective interest to save as many humans as possible (Cardenia's strategy) or to collect as much profit and political power for themselves as they can before leaving for the one safe, habitable planet that will remain after the Flow collapses. Aside from Cardenia and the Lagoses, almost everyone we meet among the political class is going for the latter option, and Cardenia lacks the political leverage to get them to act in a way that will save billions of lives. Plus, trying to deal with all that is hard when you're just trying to keep yourself from getting assassinated on the day-to-day, and also maybe squeeze in some quality time with your smart scientist boyfriend once in a while.

The Last Emperox is a lot of fun. It has characters who are enjoyable to be around, and a style which really brings the best out of them. Marce and Cardenia have a lot of opportunities to be sweet together, and Kiva's sections are deeply entertaining, showcasing the sweary captain-turned-political-leader's unique brand of cunning and resourcefulness. As a main antagonist, Nohamapetan could be less two dimensional, but the different ways in which she and Kiva respond to the same unpleasant living situation makes for an entertaining sequence. The bulk of the book (and these are not chonking volumes) is made up of their smartass dialogue and equally smartass inner voices as they banter, snark and swear their way through encounters with each other - and this is stuff that Scalzi is very, very good at. Full snark marks. It is possible that you will spend so much time enjoying this snark that you'll not be too bothered when you get to the end of the book and go "wait, weren't we going to see the Empire collapse?"

But for me, for all its fun and wit, I struggle to accept the fact that the Interdependency fails to deliver on the goalposts it actually sets up. Instead of being a plot about saving humanity, it becomes a plot about accumulating the power to do so. Probably. Hopefully. We think so, but we don't know. People have done shitty things with power before, but the distribution we end up here seems... OK. On one level, this plot brings in some nice pieces of history and background that have been set up across the trilogy, but it's also done in a curiously apolitical way, relying more on a deus ex machina technological device than an actual political triumph. Does it hit emotional beats? Sure. Does it complete an arc? Well, it gels with Cardenia's overall goals and arguably Kiva didn't really have an arc so much as a general drive to survive colourfully and entertainingly. For Marce, and for the entire concept of The Flow and what it meant for human society (you know, that whole "Interdependency" thing) the closure provided in The Last Emperox doesn't really answer many questions, just handwaves them off by tying up the political plot, and then draws the curtain just when success might happen. Plus, as a political triumph, it entirely relies on our read of the specific character it relates to: and yes, it works, because we are invested in the character, but it's not a particularly interesting answer to the question of cooperative action (you know, that whole "interdependency" thing rearing its head again). To be fair, the series where it does means that it escapes having to grapple with more potentially grim scenes that might throw off the tone of the series - this is no Expanse, the mistakes have bodycounts but not on the scale that it could be - but it feels like a "well, OK" sort of ending compared to the scale of the premise.

And that's ultimately how I feel about the entire Interdependency trilogy. It's enjoyable, its fun, it's diverting, with an author at Scalzi's level I've no doubt it does exactly what he intends it to do. There's always room for more popcorn-y sci fi adventures from authors who are thoughtful about what our spacefaring future might look like. If I were picking this up on a best Hugo ballot, I'd be just fine with reading it (see also: it's short) - but I'd also be quite annoyed at whatever it is in here is passing me by. Overall, though, while this might be your sort of space opera, I have to leave it with a shrug and an acceptance that this was probably never going to work out.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Entertaining characters and smart dialogue

Penalties: -2 Unsatisfying closure, doesn't pay off on the promise of its premise

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 

POSTED BY: Adri, 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

Reference: Scalzi, John, The Last Emperox [Tor Books, 2020]

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Microreview [film]: The Love Witch

There’s a lot to love

The Love Witch is a movie shot in 2016 that looks like it was shot in 1972. Supposedly, it was *the last* film shot on 35mm film and edited on a negative without using a digital intermediate. As a big film nerd, this all makes me way happy, but what writer and director Anna Biller did with this film far outpaces a simple stylistic exercise.

The eponymous love witch is Elaine, who is attempting to recover after the end of a marriage, and has — as she puts it — been reborn as a witch practicing love magick. But her magic is maybe a little too effective, as the dudes she sets her sights on never really seem to be able to move on from her. This failure to move on takes several forms throughout the movie, and Elaine seems both a little confused by this effect, but also ambivalent. It’s not really her concern if a romantic plaything can’t move on.

This is where gender dynamics come into play. I’m not the best reviewer to discuss this, but let me say that the gender dynamics in the film are complex and nuanced. Elaine articulates the notion that women should be subservient to men, and give them sex all, all, all the time. She tries to convince other female characters in the film of this. But Elaine doesn't really practice what she preaches. Instead, she seeks out men for *her own* sexual and relational gratification. We hear the abusive voices of her father and her ex-/late husband demanding greater physical perfection from her, and we watch her sexually engage with men only to come away still wanting, while the men collapse in weepy heaps in her wake.

For me, this is where the aesthetic beauty of the film comes into play. And please understand, this is a BEAUTIFUL movie. Anna Biller not only wrote and directed it, but also designed the sets and costumes. She and cinematographer M. David Mullen purportedly worked out blocking and lighting schemes from 1970s giallo movies in order to better mimic the look of those films. It’s one thing to mimic the look of old film with a plug-in, or even to shoot on the same medium, but to fully mimic it down to the nuts and bolts...well, something else happens there.

By perfectly copying the aesthetic of a bygone generation of films and doing so in the context of a new work that handles gender, narrative, and thematic content differently, Biller is setting her film up explicitly in dialogue with those earlier films. Giallo and independent Technicolor horror movies brought us a number of female heroines, but when fifty years later it’s plausible that a woman might yet be attacked in a bar because someone calls her “witch,” the narrative takes on an additional layer of meaning.

That is maybe too esoteric. At brass tacks, we have the following: Samantha Robinson as Elaine is probably as beautiful as any human has ever been in a movie; the production design is sumptuous and layered; there are evocative references to films like The Seventh Seal that make my film-nerd heart happy; and the narrative leaves room for ambivalence and competing interpretations of Elaine, her goals, and her accomplishments.

In the end, this is kind of everything you want from an independent film — a strong narrative voice, bold visual choices, and a thoughtful re-examination of genre conventions.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Samantha Robinson’s highly stylized performance; +1 for literally every single thing in front of the camera lens, because nothing is wasted

Penalties: -1 for a certain lack of narrative integrity that makes a couple of plot developments feel pretty mushy

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Vance K — Emmy Award-winning producer and director, cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together for lo these many years now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Microreview [book]: Ignorance is Strength, edited by John Joseph Adams, Christine Yant, and Hugh Howey

This is is science fiction shining a light on the world around us. The heart of these stories is in the lives lived through the adversity of a failing society.

Six years ago John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey edited the ambitious Apocalypse Triptych, three anthologies taking readers into stories set before, during, and after the apocalypse in their relative anthologies. It was a spectacular reading experience. Now, with Christine Yant this triptych of editors has an intensely (and sometimes uncomfortably) timely set of anthologies following the same model, focused on the idea of dystopia.

Ignorance is Strength is the first volume of the Dystopia Triptych, borrows its name from George Orwell, and is damned uncomfortable reading. This isn't prescient science fiction, this is is science fiction shining a light on the world around us. It feels particularly American, but the United States is in the midst of a dystopian fall and the best of these stories come across as oh too real. This isn't an anthology of despair, however.  These heart of these stories is in the lives lived through the adversity of a failing society - though everything fails in a different way.

One especially poignant story is "The Truth About the Boy", by Adam Troy-Castro - which has powerful echoes of the response to the elementary school shooting at Newton, Connecticut and the vile denials by some that the shooting even happened and the claims that those children were actors. Adam Troy-Castro takes that idea farther with active campaigns and harassment against the parents of such murdered children, though perhaps he also reflects reality.

Many of those same themes are worked with in Merc Fenn Wolfmoor's anthology closing story "Trust in the Law, For the Law Trusts in You" - which is similar only to a point. Wolfmoor's story takes the (likely) idea that the United States will do nothing to actually curb school shootings or to address gun violence in any meaningful manner but instead will introduce virtual reality to school because maybe there can't be a school shooting if there is no in person school. That's a nightmare idea on the surface, but Wolfmoor extends that idea further and it's a chilling tale, though at least for me Troy-Castro's story is the more effective one.

My initial focus on the two school shooting related stories and the different descents that brings to America is not reflective of the rest of the anthology, at least in terms of story content. Seanan McGuire's "Opt-In" tackles the social economics of human organ harvesting and the effects of poverty on the desperation to earn enough money to take care of one's family when there are functionally no legal options. There's a slight distinction, but I'm a little surprised this isn't a Mira Grant story but then it doesn't veer into the horror that Seanan McGuire does when writing as Mira Grant. As with the best of McGuire's stories, "Opt-In" is a punch in the gut.

Other stories work with the prison economy, employment, artificial intelligence, the future of learning, climate change, and all the ways we can fuck up our world and our society and just make things worse. Not every story works perfectly and I fully recognize stories that don't work as well for me (Violet Allen's "Mister Dawn, How Can You Be So Cruel?", for example) might well be the favorites of other readers. The best stories for me are the ones that punch me right in the heart, so Adam Troy-Castro and Seanan McGuire earn those honors as well as stories by Tobias Buckell, Darcie Little Badger, and Karin Lowachee. When Ignorance is Strength is humming, there is nothing better.

Since this is a triptych of anthologies with linked stories, I'm afraid of where some of these stories will go in Burn the Ashes and deeper into the heart of the despair of dystopia. The best of the stories here are so searing that taking the next step is a frightening proposition. I can't wait.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 I'm a sucker for dystopian stories. +1 That Adam Troy-Castro story was soooo good (and uncomfortable)

Penalties: -1 There are always stories which don't land. -1 One story only tenuously fit the theme (it fit, but aliens)

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

Reference: Adams, John Joseph, Christine Yant, and Hugh Howey. Ignorance is Strength [Adamant Press]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Microreview [Game]: Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games

A gentle, joyful experience that doesn't shy away from the complexity of its central premise

CW: Discussions of death, illness, some references to abuse and trauma, ableism. For a fuller discussion of themes, see the paragraph beginning "Content Note" below.

It took one sentence and two screenshots from someone else in a Discord group to make me realise I needed Spiritfarer in my life. The screenshots were of a set of ghostly characters in a factory, talking about tearing down capitalism and seizing the means of production. The comment was about the experience of escorting their first in-game friend into the afterlife, and letting them go. Anti-capitalism, cute ghosts, and gentle but ever-present exploration of death and loss would have sold me on their own, but then I learned that the entire game was set on a boat and my heart was lost entirely.

Spiritfarer opens with you, Stella, and your cat Daffodil, inheriting the role of Spiritfarer. Your task, from this point is to find lost spirits in the strange realm you've ended up in, and bring them to the Everdoor, the bridge between this reality and the next. Before you do so, you need to guide them through their final tasks, helping them to the point where they're ready to move on. In the meantime, you bring them onto your boat, build them nice things, feed them their favourite foods, and generally hang out as you sail through the odd, fantastic purgatorial landscape in which you've found yourselves: up until they decide it's time to say goodbye. It's a heavy premise, and Spiritfarer treats it with all the respect it deserves, making it clear from the start what sort of game it is going to be, and following through on its promises in a way that feels thoughtful and well-considered.

The quests all feel, on one level, like standard fare for the genre - build something new, learn to collect a new resource, visit a new place, all while trying to help people to untangle their last requests. Despite the initial introduction, however, it quickly becomes apparent that none of the character arcs in Spiritfarer are going to tie up these individuals' lives and motivations into a tidy, complete "life well lived, lessons learned" package before sending them off. Most of your Spiritfarer passengers mean well, and the relationships they build with you (as a silent protagonist, there seems to be an element of projection in this, but it doesn't really affect the power of these moments) are heartwarming and sweet, but most are coming from lives shaped by tragedy and some are downright challenging. All of them have regrets, all of them have aspirations for their time in the Spiritfarer realm which are left largely unrealised, most request help from you that doesn't quite turn out as they hope. None of it matters: at some point, they still have to make the final journey, and that this moment isn't one of gamified triumph is one of the most important elements of the Spiritfarer experience. Death isn't the end of a tidy story arc, but a messy, incomplete process, and that's OK.

One of the most heartbreaking goodbyes is the one to Alice, a grandmotherly hedgehog who joins - bringing a pet sheep with her - and initially sets about being as helpful and demanding as all the other passengers, asking for upgrades and buildings and then requesting a special trip to the setting of one of her favourite stories. When fulfilling that request and escorting her around the a desolate, snow-covered town which she views with total, unmitigated delight from start to finish - Alice's health starts to take a turn. From that point onwards, every progression in Alice's storyline is about her mental and physical decline, and it becomes clear that no fetch quest or story progression is going to reverse the effects of dementia. It was a story that hit close to home, and Spiritfarer manages to strike a balance with it that could easily have gone badly wrong. As it is, Alice's arc is one of the most impactful and bittersweet in a game that's already packed with high quality moments, an incorporation of end-of-life care that's respectful to its characters and the concept it is trying to portray within a game that still manages to do what game narratives need to do.

Spiritfarer definitely delivers on the gaming experience too, helped by the bonds it creates with characters and the way its arcs question some of the underlying assumptions behind resource management and fetch quests. One of the things that impressed me early was the game's ability to create a sense of epic, cinematic challenge without any genuine threat to progress. Many resources are collected through challenge sequences, usually tied to one of the characters - for instance, during my first lightning storm my Uncle Atul teaches me how to capture lightning in a bottle, and proceeds to call down lightning onto the deck of the ship with his flute while I run around trying to catch the strikes. Nothing will happen to me if I don't get the lightning strike lined up - though Daffodil has a hilarious animation every time she accidentally gets in the way of one - but the atmosphere, the soundtrack, and the animation all combine to make a relatively simple platforming challenge into something exhilarating. Tying these challenges to individual characters, and then keeping them open without their presence once they leave, is also a neat way to keep the memories of these past residents in your mind as you progress through the game. For catching lightning, which became a ritual with my favourite character which I kept repeating well after I needed to - finding the minigame after Atul's departure meant confronting his loss all over again, and the game makes you feel that every time.

Because the game is so well thought out from almost every angle, the one or two missteps it contains are a little more obvious. The platforming elements are good but not outstanding, with the controls around when one hits a platform or a zipline and when one falls through sometimes feeling arbitrary. There's some very light Metroidvania elements around picking up new skills (bought with the tokens that your passengers give you as payment for their stay), but the game isn't brilliant at signposting things that are deliberately inaccessible until a new skill is gained. None of this really affected my enjoyment, and some of the late game skills are just so fun to mess around with that it's hard to be annoyed that you've missed a platform you really felt you should have landed on if it means you get to do the wild leaps that got you close again. But for players less experienced or enamoured with platforming, some of these elements may become more irritating, and it definitely feels like the weakest part of the gameplay. As is par for the course in management games, the sheer number of tasks the game requires of you also becomes daunting (In particular, please note you do not need that many sheep) and can get repetitive and boring (though the beautiful animations and Stella's constant grin kept me doing many things well beyond my usual threshhold of annoyance). At a certain point, I basically felt encouraged to let most of the management go, spending the endgame selectively picking up resources that I actually needed, letting my fields be empty, and spending large parts of my voyages sat on the balcony of my by-then ridiculously full boat, taking in the game's music and ambience, rather than feeling everything needed to be all productivity all the time.

I also encountered a couple of frustrations with more story-driven game elements. Two quests rely on getting a group of characters together at one point, then travelling somewhere to continue the quest, but the way one of these gets realised (and a possible glitch in the "asking" mechanic) meant that I was left with an entirely empty "audience" for one scene, undermining the way the character's subsequent reaction played out.There is also one very significant deviation from the core formula with the Everdoor, which works well for the character on one level, but was the only point that had me reaching for the internet to figure out if my game had glitched, because it came so suddenly and felt like a betrayal of expectations that I didn't expect from the game at that point. It turned out to have been an intended mechanic, and one which I came to terms with, but this was the only point where I felt the game didn't have my back when it came to guiding me through its emotionally driven content.

Content Note: Spiritfarer's gentleness shouldn't obscure the fact that there are some heavy themes involved here. As noted above, one character's arc is centred around old age and dementia; another involves child abuse, while others deal with negative family relationships in more general terms. Two of the most challenging characters engage in negative, controlling behaviour over Stella, although as the characters have no power over you in-game (it is, of course, the opposite), it's easier to view this in the tragic context it seems to be intended. Also, one of the characters talks about the effect that disability - specifically, becoming a wheelchair user - had on their life in entirely negative terms. The way this is raised makes it clear that their intention is to discuss how they were objectified and dismissed by the people around them as a result of their wheelchair, rather than it being the disability itself that got in the way of achieving what they wanted to. However, other players may find that this portrayal falls short of offering a sensitively realised disabled character, especially as the character is once again able-bodied in the afterlife. (Update: the portrayal of this character has indeed been raised over Twitter, specifically a second conversation, which I didn't properly catch the implications of during the game. Thunder Lotus has apologised and will hopefully be addressing this dialogue and the character's arc in an update.)

None of these got in the way of my enjoyment of Spiritfarer, and all felt sensitively handled, but in a game that's already trading in on a challenging premise, many players will benefit from a clear sense of what the game is asking from them. And, of course, despite its nuance and careful treatment of the concept, this is a game that portrays a degree of beauty and closure in choosing death: for many of us, this is a concept that needs to be approached carefully and in the right headspace, and I urge all prospective players to take that into account before picking this game up.

All in all, though, Spiritfarer is a game that I adored playing, from its beautiful art and entertaining gameplay, to its immersive and luscious set pieces, to the deep, resonant, heartbreaking arcs of all of its characters. In creating a game around end of life care, Thunder Lotus have taken on an immensely challenging brief and have realised it with impressive thoughtfulness and flair. This is a game experience that is going to say with me for an awfully long time, and I can't wait to see what this studio does next.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 every character has their own unique hug animation! +1 thoughtful character storylines that are heartbreaking in just the right way

Penalties: -1 the few awkward moments stand out all the more in what's overall a highly thoughtful package

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri, 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.