Friday, May 28, 2021

Eden has cute robots, fun adventure, and deep ideas

Any story for kids that respects its audience enough to present hard ethical questions should be celebrated

"Does this world need humans?" is not a topic you often find in G-rated cartoons. Netflix's new anime mini-series-which-should-have-been-a-movie Eden moves effortlessly between friendly smiles and adorable fruit-harvesting robots, on one hand, and the messy debate on humanity's proper place in a world we're carelessly tearing apart, on the other hand. In this fictional future, an Earth without humans looks like a paradise painted in bright pastels, but the fact that the robots have forgotten how they came to exist points at an unpleasant mystery hidden in the past. No one has seen humans in a thousand years and no one knows what became of them. When two harvesters stumble upon a cryogenic pod occupied by a human infant, they are faced with a dilemma: should they neglect their tasks and protect this creature, or report it to the security robots, knowing that even talk of humans is forbidden?

Because this is a show for kids, the two robots obviously choose to flee and raise the child. But because this is not a show that underestimates its audience, it wisely employs its runtime in analyzing the difficulties of human development in the absence of human role models. Sara, apparently the only human in existence, grows up with an incomplete sense of identity and has to scavenge in toxic ruins to gather records that will teach her what it's like to cook or dance. The fugitive robots definitely love her, even if they give no hint of knowing that concept, but there's only so much they can teach her. It is an established rule of this world that robots are designed to serve humans, which means that, as creative and resourceful as they are, none of them can give her a true example of how to make autonomous choices. To become an adult, she needs to step into the unknown. When she hears a call for help that appears to come from another lost human, she starts putting together the clues to what happened to the world and why humanity disappeared from it.

Plotwise, Eden plays with the genre expectations that veteran science fiction fans can bring to the table. Yes, robots control this world, but they never took over. Humans are nowhere in sight, but they're not gone. The world was seriously damaged in the past, but the current state of affairs is not a punishment. What is at stake in Eden is not a fight for world domination, as might be the case if this were The Matrix or Terminator, but something more abstract and personal: the blurry line where an obsessive wish for protection becomes an urge for self-destruction.

Even while sticking to the content restrictions of a general audience rating, Eden doesn't shy away from portraying the regrettable facts of humanity and drawing attention to the desperate extremes we're capable of when love and death and joy and disillusion and hope and rage get entangled in that peculiar way that cannot be explained to a robot, but every child watching will understand. Eden trusts its viewers to ponder questions that even adults struggle with, because they are questions that stay with us even after we believe we've solved them. Stories should not be afraid of inviting children to devise a justification for our place in the universe. In these troubled times, it's very much up for debate. Eden makes the case that the answer children give to that question will literally open the future. It may sound like too heavy an undertaking for just under two hours of television, but it is presented with great skill, letting the viewers catch the emotional implications of the story without spoonfeeding them its meaning. For a show aimed at a demographic barely able to spell "existentialism," it's a worthy achievement.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Kevin Penkin's music, +1 for making its target audience reflect on the tough questions of life.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Novella Files: Introduction

A novella is, by definition, a short novel. Actually they are very short novels - the average length is a mere 20,000 - 40,000 words. The average SF/F novel, by contrast, is somewhere in the 80,000 - 150,000 range, though even longer books are increasingly common. But in the 1960s, the average novel was only 60,000 - 80,000 words. So, really, the modern novella is quite a bit closer to the old novel length than say, your average Peter F. Hamilton door stopper

Don't worry - I'm not yelling at clouds here. If people didn't want 300,000 word tomes, there wouldn't be a market for them. But I suspect there are a lot of people, like me, who've read enough pedantic descriptions of hyperspace engines or magic systems for one lifetime. Not everything needs to be explained in exacting detail. 

Perhaps this explains the recent resurgence of interest in both the novella and short novel, exemplified by the success of's imprint, which since 2014 has focused on this category. But outside Tor, there aren't a lot of outlets for the SF/F novella - a few small press, a few literary magazines (like F&SF or Uncanny). Even those don't really focus on the novella, but rather the short story. 

If you ask me, this needs to change, because the novella is a form of immense beauty. It combines the plot and character development of the novel with the economy of short fiction, compressing potentially larger stories into a framework that allows for no wasted space, unnecessary exposition or infodumping. "Artful economy" is what has always attracted me to literary fiction, the notion of saying more with less - and using "negative space" expressively. It is up to the reader to fill in the blanks. 

Does that sound as exciting to you as it does to me? If the answer is "yes," then get set, because we here at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together are about to ramp up our celebration of the unheralded novella! Starting now, we will be reviewing novellas and short novels using a variation on the dossier format that we have employed for all our special series. It will look like this:

Subject: [reference in NOAF format] 

Accolades: [major awards or nominations]

Genre: [science fiction, fantasy, horror, other]

Executive Summary: [plot]

Assessment: [opinion]

Score: [our usual x/10 system, but without the bonuses/penalties]


We will cover novellas and short novels, new and old - from genre-defining golden age classics to cutting-edge modern ones, and everything in-between. Needless to say, I am excited to shine a spotlight on the wonderful, underrated novella! 


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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Alternate History: Masked and Anonymous

Bob Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous is a sideways and sidewise foray for the singer into an alternate America, but one that is still undeniably our own.

Science Fiction and Bob Dylan are two spheres of interest that don’t at first seem to have any intersection at all. Bob Dylan’s music is grounded in reality, aren’t they? 

And yet he said himself in an interview:

What’s a writer gonna write about? … We’re living in a science-fiction world. We’re living in a world that Disney has conquered. Disney’s science fiction. Theme parks, trendy streets, it’s all science fiction. So I would say, if a writer has got something to say, he’ll have to do it in that. [….] There is a real world. Science fiction has become the real world. Whether we realize it or not, it has.”

And then there is Masked and Anonymous.

You will be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the movie. I had not and would not have, save for a cinephile (and Bob Dylan fan) work colleague who told me about it. It made ~$550,000 at the box office when released in 2003. It disappeared nearly without a trace, although it is available on DVD.

Although the wikipedia page says the movie depicts a  “decaying future North American society.”, it really is something even more science fictional: this is a dark alternate historical North American society, and this essay will explore the alternate history and world that the film depicts. If you aren’t a fan of Dylan’s music, the movie will likely be intolerable to you. Bits of songs, covers of Dylan songs, full or close-to-full pieces dominate the soundtrack and background. Pieces from Time Out of Mind predominate the soundtrack, but there is music from his entire range. The best and greatest of these is when a young girl, Tinashe Kachingwe, sings “The Times they are a Changin”. It’s the most moving part of this entire movie.

But you are here for the alternate history genre elements, not so much the music.

The movie disorients us right from the opening,  immediately by showing an America that most viewers won’t recognize, and then takes it further. Pictures of armed men that look like something out of the Contras, or Farc. Song lyrics in Spanish over unfamiliar scenes: Clips of troops, war, rebellion, destruction. It feels like it is like something from Central America or South America, and yet we quickly learn this IS an America, but not the one we know. It was primarily filmed in some of the poorer slums of Los Angeles and the movie uses that to disorient the viewer throughout the film. This America feels ramshackle, cheap, tawdry, hardscrabble. Even the halls of power when we see them don’t show any of the trappings of that power. 

It’s the little touches too in the movie that show what this America is like. The flag: We get glimpses of the alt-American flag at various points. It’s red, white and blue, has stars, but it also has a map of most of North America. Signs in foreign languages predominate. The bus that Bob Dylan rides at one point looks like something out of the third world. Men with large guns are everywhere. The poor and indigent are everywhere in this film. Posters of the President are everywhere, dressed up like a caudillo with a ton of medals. Air raid sirens are commonly heard in the background of many scenes. 

The President’s mansion is distinctly NOT the White House, we get that South American caudillo’s palace like look for it. When Dylan’s character calls the mansion, at first, the recording gives a potted history of the building that again, evokes something out of revolutionary South American history, the dates not connecting with US history in the slightest. America looks and feels like a third world police state and that IS the point. This is meant to be America, though, however twisted and dark. The movie’s alternate dark America is meant as a darkest mirror of our own. It’s as if the America of our timeline went to conquer all of Latin America, and become its worst nightmare in doing so but otherwise is the America we know. That is my own private continuity for how this America got to be the way it was. (It makes me think of the book For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel)

Dylan himself is an alternate version of himself. Here, he is Jack Fate, and he is the son of the President who is extremely estranged from his father. The narrative of Fate’s relationship with the President his father is, if there is a plot to be teased out out of the phantasmagoria that is this movie, is the story of this movie. John Goodman’s conniving Uncle Sweetheart, Jessica Lange’s network executive, Luke Wilson’s bartender and Jack Fate superfan, Jeff Bridges’ reporter, and Mickey Rourke’s President Chief of Staff are the main characters here, but the movie is replete with cameos, as it seems half of Hollywood wanted a short bit in a Bob Dylan movie. Like the rest of this movie, often what they have to say is cryptic, if not downright strange. I’ve watched this movie several times and I still don’t understand why Ed Harris’ character Oscar Vogel is in blackface. No, really.

And yet this movie does explore some things about the history of Dylan, through his character of Jack Fate. Fate’s career stopped, in the timeline of the movie, and he appeared to have been forgotten, much like some of the quiet periods of Dylan’s own career.  The controversy of why he wasn’t at Woodstock gets play here as Jeff Bridges’ reporter harasses Jack Fate on that and a number of topics of music history. There are plenty of other references to musicians of various stripes. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar puts in an appearance, for example, and becomes a physical weapon in the denouement of the movie. In other words, improbably, like a lot of the rest of the alternate history, it hews unreasonably closely to our own history. 

After years of not thinking about it, the movie and its imagery, power and aesthetics, and (for what it has) plot first came back in my mind in the era of the previous president and especially in the last year.  The autocratic, vicious nature of the Presidency, and the abuse of power by his enablers and subordinates, really came to life on the screen. The role of the media as enablers of the administration, the “Network”, having a dark power of their own in this movie, made me think of the networks in our own world who lie, cheat and dissemble in the service of the right. 

As the nature of how the 2020 election was contested, I thought back to this movie and how the Presidency in this movie is very much not an office decided on by voters, but by those willing to take the power for themselves. The America of this movie seems to suffer a continual civil war, something that may yet prove to be a dark prediction of our future. (This puts me in mind of Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson novels for the same dark view of America). 

The callous killing of George Floyd felt like of a piece of this dark alternate America where there are, if anything, even more guns and violence than in our own world’s America. And as I ultimately saw the injustice that Fate suffers at the end of the movie,  I again thought about the inequities of criminal justice in our own America. There is a dark and abiding cynicism that anything can ever change and that even individual action doesn’t do anything (one minor character talks about having gone from the rebels over to the government forces, and no one even noticed he switched sides). It’s an consistently downbeat movie about the America it depicts, and thus reflects on our own.

But in the end though, is Masked and Anonymous good science fiction? Is it a plausible and good alternate history? No. It’s really alternate history by means of dream, surrealism and illusion. The alternate history of Masked and Anonymous ultimately does not hang together as a narrative. Some of the cameos really are just actors wanting to have lines with Bob Dylan and not much else. Other bits, like the aforementioned Oscar Vogel, defy any rational explanation. The movie is a dark dream of Dylan’s life, and America’s as well and nothing more.

Is it worth watching? If Dylan’s music does not turn you off, and you want a wild and confusing, incoherent trip into an alternate America, and play “spot the cameo”, then  yes, the movie is worth watching, at least once. If for anything, again, for the best version of The Times they are a Changin you will ever hear and see. As for me, I find the movie strangely and weirdly comforting, perhaps because it shows an alternate America that is our own, and yet, measurably far worse. 


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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Review: We Are Satellites

This amazing near-future novel weaves a delicate thread through the messy places where our personal, professional and political lives meet

Sometimes, current events seem to give us an ominous glimpse of the direction we're headed. I remember having that feeling in 2011, after Apple released an ad campaign with the disgustingly condescending slogan, “If you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone.” The implied message was that possession of this particular product gave you an advantage that you were hurting yourself by choosing to skip. That attitude was taken too literally by Chinese teen Wang Shangkun, who became famous in the same year by selling one of his kidneys to buy an iPhone 4, and now lives permanently bedridden and dependent on a dialysis machine.

The fetishization of high-end gadgets as social status markers is the topic of Sarah Pinsker's new novel We Are Satellites. In a world uncomfortably too like ours, pharmaceutical company BNL (not related to Wall-E's Buy'N Large, though it may as well be) has launched a brain implant that promises to improve attention and productivity by helping the human mind approximate real multitasking.

Through aggressive marketing, the implant ends up subsidized by the government and de facto required for job applicants. Sooner than society can adapt to the shift, schools become segregated between those who do not want or cannot use the implant and those who have it and function so efficiently that they leave their classmates far behind. In a bone-chilling segment, the novel explains, "There wasn't even a rich-poor divide since the company covered them for kids unable to afford the procedure; the divide was between approved brains and unapproved brains and degrees of acceptable neurodiversity." Because the operation to install the implant leaves a pretty blue LED on one side of the head, wearing that dot of light becomes the focus of a dangerous status game that implicates school authorities, army recruiters, ad strategists, grassroot activists, drug dealers, illegal surgeons, corporate spies, and unsuspecting children.

We follow the story through the lives of Val and Julie, a married couple of career women who are raising their kids David and Sophie with the best intentions. When David convinces his mothers to get him a brain implant so he can perform better at school, the societal tensions defined by this very visible mark of privilege start seeping into their family dynamics.

It turns out his sister, Sophie, cannot get the implant because she has epilepsy and the manufacturer would rather not mess with her brain. One of the mothers objects to the implant on principle, but her wife gets the operation shortly after David because she wants to stay competitive in her field. After David's implant is revealed to have sensory processing issues, we are carried through a deeply detailed plot of corporate irresponsibility, medical neglect, political opportunism, workplace discrimination, sibling envy, systemic ableism, and the many ways the external world can invade our private choices.

All four family members get first-person chapters, but David's are the most engaging. The long train of sentences does a great job of conveying his mind's permanent state of panicked hyperawareness. For example, "He could describe the location of every fly on every wall in a room full of flies but he didn't notice his body's reactions until he counterreacted to them." If the delight of science fiction is making unreal worlds feel close to us, this novel does one better: it makes us live a mental state that has never existed.

Sophie's chapters are also enjoyable. Her lifelong determination to gain the respect of the adults in her life takes her on an unexpected road to maturity. The inner voices of the mothers are harder to tell apart, but the author manages to communicate with heartfelt sincerity the stress of raising children in a world of cutthroat overachievement. As the narration helpfully describes, these characters are trapped in "a system in dire need of change, but the wrong change had arrived. The wrong changes were everywhere."

I still feel bedazzled by the skill with which a book that could have been a standard techno-thriller became also an intimate meditation on family, identity, self-discovery, trust, anxiety, and a love that stays alive and defiant against the pull of impersonal competition. Toward the end, the author employs an interesting metaphor about the uninformed use of medical devices: one character watches, without paying much attention, "a home improvement show where people got absurdly excited about other people removing all the personality from their homes." The BNL implant expects its users to submit their individual thought patterns to a standardized information model, and what the novel expects from us is to treat such a proposal with all the skepticism it ought to deserve. We Are Satellites is definitely one of the highlights of this year, and will surely spark fertile discussions between academics, healthcare professionals, and tech enthusiasts.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for nailing the tone of David's inner monologues, +1 for a masterful handling of the emotional storm brewing within a family that comes close to breaking apart but rises again stronger.

Penalties: −1 for too short chapters. The various POVs are not a problem in themselves, but the chapters are composed mostly of a single scene that ends too soon before we jump into another character's head. Halfway through the book, one has developed a sense for when a chapter is just about to end, and the effect is an abrupt start/stop/start/stop sequence that hurts the narrative pacing.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Pinsker, Sarah. We Are Satellites [Berkley, 2021].

Monday, May 24, 2021

Genre Fight! Horror vs. Sci-Fi In Film: The 1930s

Welcome to the second installment of my series rounding up some key horror and sci-fi movies of a particular era, forcing them stare right at each other while standing too close together, and then making them duke it out. When last we met, the horror and science fiction genres were heading back to their respective corners, after horror decisively won Round One: the silent film era (1900-1929). The bell is ringing for Round Two — will science fiction even the score in the first full decade of sound film? Or will horror once again dominate the judge’s scorecard? Might there be controversy?

Let’s see who comes out ahead.

Genre Fight! 1930-1939

Sci-Fi: 1936 gives us a very interesting artifact — Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies and written by H.G. Wells, himself. I discovered this movie many years ago and actually re-cut it into a music video for the first song on the first album by my then-new musical project, Sci-Fi Romance. I’m biased, I have a soft spot for it, but also, it’s a really cool movie. It envisions the coming of World War III, and the worldwide destruction that follows, sending civilization back to little more than the Stone Age. But from the ashes, mankind rises to ever greater heights, and the film features some top-shelf retro-futuristic visuals.


The 1930s overall give us something else that becomes a formative component of the visual landscape of sci-fi: the theatrical serial. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and even the gadgetry of Dick Tracy may not have filled out feature films of the 1930s, but they were a key part of the moviegoing experience — along with newsreels and cartoons — and they helped shape the narrative and visual aesthetic of James Bond and Star Wars films to come, under whose shadows every big-budget tentpole movie of today lives.

But let’s be honest. The genre that is most closely associated with the 1930s — thanks primarily to two performers, a producer, and a studio working in concert — is horror.

There's no mystery, here — the performers are Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and the producer is Carl Laemmle, Jr., head of production for Universal Studios, which his father had founded. Working with directors like Tod Browning and James Whale, Laemmle made the decision to focus Universal's output on relatively inexpensive genre films during the early years of the Great Depression, and the studio produced a string of films that became synonmous with Classic Horror. Dracula (both the English and Spanich versions), Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy. I mean, books have been written about the Universal Monsters...many, many books. I don't need to elaborate.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The 1930s also brought Peter Lorre to the United States, and he starred in Mad Love, which was directed by fellow German ex-pat Karl Freund (who also shot Metropolis for Fritz Lang before coming to the States and shooting Dracula, directing The Mummy, and then essentially inventing TV studio production with I Love Lucy). Still in Europe, Carl Theodor Dreyer made Vampyr after his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. And speaking of H.G. Welles, his Island of Dr. Moreau was adapted as Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton.

But I hear some of you saying, "I thought Marty Shelley's Frankenstein is considered the first science fiction novel. So shouldn't Frankenstein be a science fiction movie?" You make a good point, invented naysayer. Frankenstein and Bride both have truly epic production design in the laboratories — the stuff of science fiction tropes from here to steampunk Victorian England and back. Yeah, good point. And, I mean, the movie James Whale made in between those, The Invisible Man, it's about a mad scientist...or at least a scientist whose work had the unfortunately side-effect of causing madness. And I guess in Mad Love, Peter Lorre plays a surgeon. Island of Lost Souls is about a doctor performing essentially genetic experiments. In a world that had only known that viruses were a thing for about the last forty years, a world where human flight was only a couple of decades old and the Jet Age was still beyond the horizon, science was not yet the massive portion of the zeitgeist that it would soon become.

So there's a lot of  overlap here. Too much for comfort.

The Winner: It’s a draw.

I know. I didn’t see it coming, either. But the 1930s present us with an earlier incarnation of a problem we face today, in the age of Peak Superhero. Is Jessica Jones a Neo-noir, or is it speculative fiction because of superheroes and mind control? Is it more one than the other? What’s WandaVision? What’s Frankenstein?

In the 1930s, there simply wasn’t a meaningful onscreen distinction between sci-fi and horror. They were treated largely the same way by the studios, in promotions and packaging, and shared the same talent in front of and behind the camera. At the bell that brings this round to a close, both of our battered combatants can return to their corners with their heads high. 

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012; film nerd since the local UHF channel played Dracula and Frankenstein for Halloween, tinted blue and green, respectively, many, many years ago.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Microreview [book]: The Blue-Spangled Blue by David Bowles

A failed promise, particularly when it comes to representation.

It might be breaking some sort of reviewer code to say so, but let me say it anyway: I wanted to like this book so very much. Despite a hiccup over the initial cover release, it came with an intriguing premise - a political thriller set on a planet grappling with its religious and cultural identity, told through a connection between an academic from Earth and a reform leader from that planet. Its author, David Bowles, has co-founded a grant scheme around the book to support new and emerging BIPOC women writers, called The Path Grant after the fictional religion in this book, and while I'm unfamiliar with any of his other fiction, he translated one of my favourite novellas of 2021, The Route of Ice and Salt. It is, all in all, a cool concept of a novel, from an independent press, with a lot of other cool things around it. And yet. This book was an exercise in frustration from start to finish, in ways which go beyond "small press (originally indie) publication misses the storytelling mark", and as awkward as I feel about it, I think I need to talk about why that is.

(Note: There are spoilers here, but they are the same spoilers as are revealed in the blurb for the second book - read that, or this, at your peril.)

At the heart of The Blue-Spangled Blue is its fictional religion, neo-gnosticism or The Path, whose followers believe that they aren't born with a soul but much achieve one through self-knowledge and enlightenment. Gnostics who follow the Path are almost exclusive to the planet Jitsu, and to the outside galaxy, the Path comes across as a fringe cult, particularly because its more dominant conservative wing opposes the planet making outside connections - a stance taken as a result of their own past as a corporate-owned world and ongoing scepticism about what, exactly, a liberal but hegemonic galactic structure might be able to offer Jitsu. The author clearly put a lot of thought into an intricate, multi-layered political context, though the main ways it's portrayed to the reader - through endless conversations between characters and dry news report-type interludes - made it very hard for me to follow more than the general shape of things. There are some pretty extensive glossaries for a reader more determined than I to pick up the nuance of this galaxy, but on the whole I found myself shut out of a lot of these elements, despite being drawn to them in the book's description.

In the first half, at least, the big-scope political plot is balanced out by a much smaller scale romance between main character Brando D'Angelo, a professor who has left Earth under fraught family and professional circumstances, and Tenshi Koroma, member of a politically (i.e. religiously) powerful family who has broken from the traditions of The Path and is now an architect and a leading voice in the planet's reformist movement. Tenshi and Brando fall in love pretty much instantly, bonding over long, expository conversations about Jitsu, their respective upbringings, The Path and various other pieces of their past, and soon the two are making plans to drive forward reform on Jitsu together, with Brando converting and adopting a supporting role to Tenshi's political career as they both seek religious enlightenment together. Tenshi and Brando's sections are combined with sections from others, including Tenshi's powerful fundamentalist uncle, and the powerful crime boss being supported to esalate violence on Jitsu - sections which often contain more action than the often placid and domestic scenes of married life - but it's Tenshi and Brando who form the core of the story.

Which brings us on to talking about representation in this book. As noted above, The Blue-Spangled Blue  had pushback on its cover release, with many pointing out that centring Tenshi, a Black secondary character, seemed to be disingenuously taking advantage of the "Black Girl Magic" cover trend when the actual protagonist of the book is Brando, a white Italian man. After an attempt to put the character choice in context, which didn't address the criticisms raised, the publisher changed the art to represent four characters, including Brando, Tenshi, another male main character and a woman who is... not (more on that later). While I don't want to speculate on whether Bowles and his publisher were trying to make the novel seem more diverse than it is through the initial cover choice, and the world of the Path is one that does include queer folks and people of colour, I found it hard not to notice that almost all of The Blue-Spangled Blue's main characters, including those with the most power, were male, with the few exceptions mostly being sex objects or nagging mothers. Or that, while Tenshi is pansexual and her most significant ex is a woman, both she and that ex end up in very heteronormative m/f relationships and all of the other significant romantic and sexual attachments in the book are also m/f. There's a disconnect between the way the world of The Blue-Spangled Blue wants to portray itself - as a future humanity that has gone beyond current discrimination - and the amount of unconscious bias, particularly on gender and sexuality, that has slipped in anyway. There are also a couple of real "wait, can we unpack that please" worldbuilding moments, specifically around both characters' childhoods and upbringings, with elements hitting directly onto moral taboos for a 2021 reader. While I don't have a problem with these elements being explored in a context where taboos are different (for example, appropriate relationships between teenagers and adults), this needs to be handled with a lot more care than simply throwing elements in as "it's the future now, things are different!" worldbuilding flavour.

That's all... a lot. But my real issue with The Blue-Spangled Blue is Tenshi, and specifically the fact that this book hinges around around the murder of Tenshi and her daughter in order to further Brando's emotional arc and plot development. Yeah, that's right, that super important black woman character on the original cover? She dies, in a textbook "women in refrigerator" moment, with her own ambitions unrealised, no closure with her family or other relationships, in a move foreshadowed by a prophecy that she's apparently resigned to. The book closes the first of its two sections on her murder, and after an interlude section we pick up eight years later, with Brando now a grizzled supersoldier working to bring down the forces that killed his wife and daughter. To cap things off, he's not even the only man motivated into violence by a dead lover - the other one and his own refrigerated girlfriend got added to the cover to address concerns of misrepresented diversity. This is, to use the technical term, some absolute fucking nonsense. The Blue-Spangled Blue doesn't fall apart without Tenshi - in fact, it picks up the pace a bit, with more action and fewer expository conversations - but it represents such an enormous waste of potential, and it does so by repeating one of the most tired, sexist, garbage tropes in the stable, putting a white male character's emotional pain over an in-process political reform narrative centring a Black woman.

And that's the point where The Blue-Spangled Blue tips from being a book that doesn't hit the mark, to one that I can no longer give the benefit of the doubt to - and you just need to take one look at the sequel concept to discover how replaceable Tenshi is to the overall arc of this series. This is not good representation, nor are its biases explainable through the lens of "it's the future, marginalisations are different now!" I wanted to like The Blue-Spangled Blue so very much, but ultimately it's a failed promise of a book, particularly in the ways that matter the most.

Score: 3/10

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

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Microreview [Book]: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

 A story with instructive, powerful, and necessary anger.

Oppression can be physical, but it’s often more than that. America has subjugated Black bodies for a long time—first with blatant slavery, and then with figurative, rather than literal shackles that has the insidious ability of being intergenerational. Disadvantages are established at birth, and the steps to get out of them are elusive, as ordained by the social system. In Riot Baby, a character is inserted with a gadget that monitors and controls them. But it’s also a significant metaphor for how incarceration, social disadvantages, and life with seemingly no escape route is embedded into many Black bodies. Not because they’re whipped and denied voting rights, but because America’s system has a way of finagling itself to mostly keep the status quo, while giving an illusion of exaggerated racial progress. It’s a system that should draw a lot of anger. And in Riot Baby, it does just that. Anger is suffused in this novella, both in characters and themes, giving even its meandering sections raging energy.

In America, Ella is a girl gifted with magical abilities that allow her to levitate, see the future, enter people’s minds, and much more. She mostly interacts with her family or secludes herself. She is Black. So is her younger brother Kev, who is incarcerated outrageously for being a young Black man. From there, the story explores American history, tragedies, and its deeply wrongful consequences and insistence, all within a novella that spans decades, many locations, while never really losing grasp of its narrative.

Kev is a tremendously fully drawn character. His sorrow, pain, moments of camaraderie, and anger, are all developed in ways that deliver a full-forced punch and are conducive to the narrative. Riot Baby has some of the best dialogue I’ve read in quite a while – both punchy and natural – and most of that dialogical brilliance is in Kev’s sections. Meanwhile, Ella could’ve solely been a mouthpiece for the book’s themes, but she’s so much more than that. Her semi-solitary/introspective journey might be more thematic, while Kev’s interaction with many people lends itself more to characterization, but Onyebuchi infuses Ella’s thematic exploration with otherworldliness, giving the themes a sense of magic, albeit an often upsetting and infuriating one.

Riot Baby flows quite well, but not completely smoothly. The story starts out very strong, has a mid-section with both emotionally cutting and meanderingly adrift sections, making me always appreciate Onyebuchi’s craft, but wondering if he had a solid plan of wrapping the story up. The parts I found meandering became worth it and increased in my estimation retrospectively because its conclusion is absolutely gorgeous, as the anger that had gradually built up erupted in something that absolutely befits what came before. I just wish the story could’ve made its lesser bits golden during my reading rather than after.

America might embed oppression into Black bodies, but as Riot Baby shows, it's not the only thing that seeps intergenerationally. Every day there’s a new racial tragedy, but every day there is also dignity and courage. Because oppression doesn’t make most people huddle away and let it eat away at them. There’s a fire that existed before, existed now, and will exist into the future. That fire has become stronger than ever before, and throughout all the terror, there’s hope that it will scorch wickedness and injustices. That feat within the American climate might seem daunting, but it’s possible. It’s not a fantasy, but it is magic. 

 The Math:

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For a brilliant ending.
+1 For a unique, fluid writing style.

Negatives: -1 For a middle that while still worthwhile, isn't as strong as its beginning or ending.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Onyebuchi, Tochi. Riot Baby [Tordotcom, 2020].

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

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Microreview [book]: Floodpath by Emily B Martin

Floodpath wraps up the story of a world-changing embassy, where intrigues over power run from the glass windows of the palace to slave camps in the desert.

At the end of Sunshield, the first in the Outlaw Duology, things were in quite a state. Revelations, a power structure now aware of the danger to it, and Lark starting to learn she is not who she always thought she was left the characters on almost literally cliffhangers, across the board. In Floodpath, the consequences of those revelations, and the slow turn and discovery of what forces are behind the long standing inequalities of a whole half of a continent, come to light and life through the four characters we get to know in Sunshield, but particularly Veran, Tamsin and of course the Sunshield Bandit herself, Lark.

When last we left Lark and Veran, in particular, Veran had just discovered the awful truth about Lark that she herself did not know--that she is in, fact, a missing long lost Lumeni princess, Mona Alastaire. Lark reacts to this revelation in classic Lark fashion, of course, and runs for it, not wanting to believe such a tale (surely Veran is manipulating her) and leaving Veran just to try and chase her across the hostile desert. Tamsin in the meantime has fled the Moquoian court too, as forces there are not happy with the long imprisoned Tamsin being active and free again, especially when the reasons for her imprisonment could shake an entire government. 

From here, the paths of the main three points of view, cross the desert and go through travail and hardship. If the first novel, Sunshield, was all about setting the pieces of the conflict on the Outlaw Road and starting to sketch and shade in the lines of the Problem, this is a novel of execution, and revelation and the consequences of some decisions that are long ago indeed. 

Along the way we get some by now classic Martin touches, including Veran and Lark having to traverse a truly dire part of the desert called The Water Scrape. Not only are they very reluctant allies, but Veran’s disability (his seizures) makes this a particularly prickly pairing. Readers might well guess what is going to come of this shared idea, but the relationship between the two is hardly fairy tale or trite, but more of a very slow approach to each other of very two wounded birds--one by his disability and one who has lived a rather hardscrabble life and can’t really remember the world before it. There is some very lovely set piece description and evocation of the dangers of having to cross the desert, and some very strongly emotive bits as they start to cross ecological biomes. This is a continent and ecological experience, reading, that is first and first an American sort of landscape in a way that a lot of fantasy fiction, even today, doesn't quite capture. Martin is still a trailblazer in using American landscapes for her settings.

The other classic Martin touch is to be willing to “blow up Vulcan” and show a ground floor change in the status quo, as Tamsin’s vocal disability leads her to a way to use her voice in a way that is hitherto unknown in this world. If the spread and the use of Tamsin’s clever idea is maybe a little faster than it might be in reality, the power of the story of such a revolutionary change, especially since the consequences and advantages only come to mind with time, feels accurate and right. I suspect that the invention, which delighted me when I realized what Martin was doing (and I desperately do not want to spoil) is going to have permanent and long lasting impacts on her entire world. Martin’s world is not a static one where things remain the same without change for generations--inventions, ideas and the actions of people can and do make a difference and a lasting difference. 

The plotting of the book also works well. Martin has evolved and matured as a writer, and now, by Floodpath, really knows how to leverage into her strength into keeping the action front and center, mixing up the character beats and the action sequences, and making the reader hooked into reading one more chapter on the heels of successes, failures and revelations alike. The word page-turner has some baggage and connotations, but it is Martin’s experience with YA and YA/Adult crossover writing that serves her here to make her prose and her plotting such that the reader engages and stays engaged in a distracted world we live in. Martin, pre-Covid, might spend summers in National Parks, but not all of her readers are so lucky as to get to read her books isolated from distractions, and so Floodpath, like Sunshield, definitely is written to keep the pages turning.

One stylistic consequence of the book does impact readers who are unfamiliar with the previous three novels set in this verse, Woodwalker, Ashes to Fire, and Creatures of Light. Given the place in the book where the climax of the action of this duology takes place, and the amount of falling action space, I think readers who are not familiar with the characters of the Eastern Alliance might be a bit lost at sea, or not quite get the full character impact on the characters that we have come to know over these two novels. Don’t get me wrong, there is an extremely moving scene I will not spoil, but I fear its impact is lessened and might feel less important to readers who have not been on the full five book journey, so readers of the last portion of the book might not quite get as much out of the aftermath as other readers do. 

That said, like the end of the first trilogy, there has been yet another massive set of changes to the Eastern Lands, this time  by the actions of Veran, Tamsin and Lark, and the consequences, good and bad of those changes doubtless can serve as fodder and inspiration for more novels set in this world. I’ve come to truly appreciate Martin’s sense of place, space, character interaction and evolving and growing writing style over these five books, and I think that, the stylistic consequence above aside, Floodpath is entirely and completely her best novel yet.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Very strong sense of geography and place for the characters to inhabit.

+1 for interesting ethical questions and not-easy answers to sociological problems

Penalties: -1 The amount of falling action in the book is much more geared toward all five novels, rather than the story presented the duology.

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

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

Reference: Martin, Emily B Floodpath [Harper Voyager, 2020] 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

6 Books with Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the acclaimed ten-book Shadows of the Apt series, the Echoes of the Fall series, and other novels, novellas and short stories including Children of Time (which won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2016), and its sequel, Children of Ruin (which won the British Science Fiction Award in 2020).. He lives in Leeds in the UK and his hobbies include entomology and board and role-playing games.

Today he tells us about his Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading? 

Becky Chambers – The Galaxy and the Ground Within

I love Becky Chambers. I’ve enjoyed absolutely everything she’s written. It’s a common trope to have space opera focus on the little people – that ragtag band of misfits. However they’re usually up to their necks in the big things – the galactic empire or universe-threatening terror or the like. Chambers excels at weaving stories about the everyday lives of spacefaring folk in a way that is absolutely engrossing. Showing that their own personal quirks and needs and histories are every bit as important to them (as ours are to us) as the galactic threat is to a more traditional space opera. She’s a character writer par excellence. 

Also, it’s a space opera standard that alien species be socially convergent to the point where they can interact as a community, but Chambers also keeps them alien, playing with the way that their particular physiologies, sensoria and psychologies rub against the need to work with other species. A great many of her POV characters aren’t human, and they’re a joy to experience the universe through.

I honestly wouldn’t have said, before coming to her first book The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, that I’d love this sort of slice-of-life science fiction quite as much as I do, but I’m an absolute convert. And, with the possible exception of Tidhar’s Central Station, I’ve not come across any other author who does it so well.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Claire North – Notes from the Burning Age

Obviously there’s a limit to what I can say, not having read it yet, but North is another author who has never disappointed. I started with the acclaimed First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as mind-twisting a book as you could possibly want, and I’ve enjoyed everything since, especially The Sudden Appearance of Hope, another book that really plays with narrative conventions and reader perception. Then there’s 84K, perhaps the bleakest and most plausible near future dystopia I ever read, which was a profoundly harrowing read and which has just stuck with me ever since.

Notes from the Burning Age feels as though it’s a post-apocalypse book in the general style of Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz – so not the immediate Mad-Maxiness phase but after things have settled and our own age has become myth (or I’m reading the blurb completely wrong, of course!) I’m agog to see what North does with that kind of setting. She really is one of the most incisive and original voices out there.

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

Jeff Vandermeer – Ambergris

I recently picked up the beautiful collected volume of Ambergris, Vandermeer’s first magnum opus series (and any author who has honestly produced multiple magnum opii (?) is always worth keeping an eye on. His Southern Reach definitely counts as another). City of Saints and Madmen came out shortly before I got my first book into print and was a huge favourite of mine at the time – an unconventional narrative/history tunnelling beneath a variety of different documents arising out of his fictional city of Ambergris. This then moved on to Shriek and Finch, playing out the long term history of the bizarre city and the secret behind and beneath it. For, just as the original denizens were the ‘mushroom dwellers’, and just as the visible mushroom is just the transient expression of the fungus beneath, so all we see of the city is just a fruiting body of something vaster and deeper and much more sinister. 

Vandermeer in full surrealist mode is one of those writers always telling two stories, the one set out in the words, and the one lurking in the subtext. It’s a trick relatively few authors can really pull off (Gene Wolfe, below, is another), and certainly I don’t think I have the knack for it, but it’s wonderful when you see a master pull it off so deftly, and with the actual material being so entertaining. Vandermeer is also an author with a profound sense of the natural world (it comes out even more strongly in the Southern Reach books, but it’s there in all of his writing), which is something I feel my own work is heavily informed by, and I always appreciate it in others.

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

Gene Wolfe – The Shadow of the Torturer

So I bounced the hell of this when I was about 15. I saw rave reviews and I went in with great expectations and just could not get any of it. The language was opaque and the plots just seemed to go nowhere and basically just what the hell, man?

Fast forward to now: Wolfe is most definitely one of my all-time favourite authors. I just hit him too young, and with all the wrong expectations. He doesn’t write the sort of straightforward narrative I was anticipating, and there are puzzles within puzzles hidden in the story for the reader to disentangle – to the extent that I’m sure that there’s plenty in Book of the New Sun that I haven’t ever clocked, despite reading it multiple times. But that’s fine, because even those strata that I have exposed tell such a remarkably rich story on multiple levels. There is all the complexity of Severian and his own rather suspect take on events (Wolfe is the master of the unreliable narrator), and there is the incredible world built through Severian’s travels and reminiscences and chance mentions. Then again there’s a profound burden of philosophical speculation woven through the text, much of which I suspect has passed me by.

From a pure worldbuilding perspective, the New Sun books are a real education. Because you can build a world through saying too little and you can build a world through saying too much, and both ways can go wrong. Wolfe somehow manages to do both without it going wrong at all. There is a vast, living, breathing world in those books, seen through Severian’s fleeting attention and obsessions, so that we’re dragged hither and yon by his stream of consciousness. The overall impression, once you settle into the way the story is being told, is of a vastness of creation beyond the details on the page. And because, when Severian does want to give us a deep dive into some small aspect of his world, he really goes deep, the implicit assurance is that the same level of detail is waiting invisibly in absolutely everything else, even those aspects that he gives only the briefest mention of. 

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

Diane Wynne Jones – Power of Three

Wynne Jones is, I suspect, one of the most popular choices for influential childhood author. However, Power of Three is certainly not one of her better known works (indeed my other favourite of hers, Homeward Bounders is also fairly obscure). This was an absolutely seminal work for me, though, because of the tricks it plays on the reader.

It starts off in what is clearly a bronze-age style fantasy world. There’s a village of people living by a lake, and they have enemies in the horrible shapeshifting fish people who live in the lake. So far so Celtic myth, so straightforward good and evil, us and them. Not so different from any heroic fantasy out there, you might think.

Except (and I won’t otherwise spoil it) everything you assume about the setting and what’s going on is wrong. Who’s right, who’s wrong and even the basic axioms of the world are completely up for grabs, and there are a couple of solid switchback reverses that, for a 14 year-old reader, were mind-blowing. I learned a great deal about what could be done with a story, and how the writer could interact with reader expectations, that stayed with me all the way to when I began my own attempts at serious writing. 

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

So let’s talk about Shards of Earth which is coming out in the middle of this year (August in the US and May in the UK). This is my own foray into space opera, as opposed to the somewhat more science-constrained SF I’d put Children of Time into. It’s an excuse to play with aliens, really great and small. It’s also absolutely an excuse to have my own ragtag group of misfits neck deep in galactic affairs because that is frankly fun to write. In this case, galactic affairs concern the Architects, moon-sized entities which turn up over inhabited planets and reshape them into delicate, beautiful works of abstract art, incidentally killing everyone living there. The Architects had a fair go at obliterating humanity a while back, destroying Earth and a lot of other colonies before mysteriously vanishing away again. 

The human ‘polyaspora’ was left deeply traumatised and has been slowly building itself back up, with the help and/or hindrance of a variety of neighbouring alien cultures and its wartime-developed Intermediaries, surgically enhanced human weapons designed to interact with the Architects but also (because of the peculiarities of travel in the setting and the way the Architects are related to it) superior FTL navigators. 

Idris, the lead, is one such Intermediary, now very much retired to obscurity, thank you. Except he and his crew come across a ship that’s been recently mauled by the Architects and suddenly the war might be back on just when humanity is on the brink of war with both its neighbours and itself. There’s a lot of action and espionage, there’s a real look at a humanity still living with the trauma of the war, and what sort of unhealthy things that can do to a culture’s outlook. There are all sorts of fun aliens (yes, including an insect hive-mind bunch, because it’s me). There’s deep space metaphysics because there’s most definitely something nasty in the unspace that people use to navigate between stars. And there’s a big mystery, because what are the Architects, where did they go, and why are they back?

This series has let me go a bit wild with the SF, whilst still trying to keep it all within a properly conceived and realised framework where it’s all internally knitted together. I’ve had a huge amount of fun putting a wider universe together and fooling around with the different aliens (some of which are quite human-level in their outlook, some of which really aren’t.) My favourites might be the Essiel, who were the first great Huge Alien Empire humans encountered, before the Architects ever turned up. They were perfectly positioned to be the great alien threat to humanity, except they weren’t invading anywhere and, despite their earnest desires to communicate something very important to us, nobody could quite work out what they wanted… until the Architects turned up and people realised they’d been warning us…

Thanks Adrian!


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

Monday, May 17, 2021

Yasuke celebrates African heritage at the expense of Japan's

Even a mythical reimagining should make an attempt at making sense

First, the facts:

In 1582, Japan was going through a violent process of unification. After defeating almost every other local leader and conquering their provinces, warlord Oda Nobunaga had secured control over almost all of Japan when one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, betrayed him by launching a surprise attack on his castle and causing him to commit seppuku. One of Oda's most loyal soldiers, an African man he had originally bought as a servant from Portuguese traders who had kidnapped him probably in Mozambique, has entered the history books as the first foreigner to ever receive the rank of samurai, but after the fall of the Oda clan, nothing more is recorded about him. We don't know his original name. The Japanese called him Yasuke.

Now, the fiction:

The new Netflix animated series Yasuke imagines the Black samurai twenty years later as a retired old warrior struggling with his inner demons but suddenly called again to battle when a magical girl becomes the target of a weird Christian cult that wants to exploit her powers. The plot gives much more attention to the girl's development as a character, with Yasuke relegated to a glorified bodyguard. In essence, this show has the character of Yasuke, but doesn't cover what he did in life, doesn't explore the significance of his achievements, doesn't give him much of a personality, doesn't rely on what actually made him historically interesting, and isn't even about him.

To make matters worse, the show just isn't very engaging. The animation is flawless, and I have nothing but praise for how the show looks, but the story is bland, generic, painfully predictable, and peppered with unoriginal one-liners that the writers had to have known were not going to impress anyone.

The writers' room of Yasuke has three African Americans (LeSean Thomas, Steven Ellison, Nick Jones Jr.) and one white Canadian (Alex Larsen). Not a single Japanese voice was involved in writing the story. The production used the services of a Japanese animation company, but the credits make no mention of any cultural advisor, sensitivity reader, or anyone who could have provided input to correct the Orientalist stereotypes and historical distortions in the script. By distortions I don't mean flying robots and sorcery. By distortions I mean things like the portrayal of Oda Nobunaga as an enlightened reformer who planned to expand civil freedoms and who was deposed by traditionalists primarily because he dared to knight a Black man. This is not only a blatant butchering of how military rivalries worked in early modern Japan; it's a clumsy attempt to transplant 21st-century preoccupations onto a setting where they don't make sense.

The story does reflect African values nicely through its titular protagonist (for example, the principle that everyone in the community is responsible for every child's safety), but when it comes to representing Japanese culture, all we get are tired clichés like the fixation with honor, as if Japanese society didn't have any other values. In the end, we don't get any tangible hint of who Yasuke was as a person (or even who the writers wanted to say he was) beyond a set of formulaic platitudes.

Yasuke does a grave disservice to a fascinating historical figure to tell a paint-by-numbers escort quest plot that doesn't illuminate his character and wastes the narrative possibilities of a crucial period in Japanese history. It's a real pity.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for beautiful landscapes and expertly fluid animation, +1 for the uniquely bold kind of worldbuilding that allows for a samurai, a sorcerer, a robot and a werebear to exist in the same story.

Penalties: −3 for using almost every Orientalist trope in the box.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Friday, May 14, 2021

6 Books with Nicole Kornher-Stace

 Nicole Kornher-Stace lives in New Paltz, NY, with her family. Her books include ARCHIVIST WASP (Small Beer Press/Big Mouth House, 2015) and LATCHKEY (Mythic Delirium, 2018), which are about a far-future postapocalyptic ghosthunter, the ghost of a near-future supersoldier, and their adventures in the underworld. She has two more books due out in 2021: FIREBREAK, forthcoming from Saga, and JILLIAN VS. PARASITE PLANET, forthcoming from Tachyon.

You can find her on Twitter @wirewalking, where she is probably semicoherently yelling about board games, video games, hiking, fictional representation of strong platonic relationships, good books she’s read recently, or her cat.

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I'm nearly through an advance copy of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (forthcoming in October 2021), and I recommend it highly! It subverts a bunch of horror tropes in really delicious ways, and the prose is muscular without being overwrought in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as Tanith Lee. I've also just finished reading Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, and it is delightful. It has an asexual protagonist whose best friend is her dog. Who is also a ghost. It's extremely wholesome and was just a really nice palate cleanser from ::gestures at 2020-2021:: and everyone should absolutely pick it up.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Apart from Nothing But Blackened Teeth, which I mentioned above, and Khaw's other forthcoming novel The All-Consuming World, I'm super excited about Rise of the Red Hand by Olivia Chadha!! It'll be out by the time this goes to print, and I just know that Future Me is going to love it. 2021 is going to be a great year for diverse, inclusive cyberpunk, and I'm very, very excited.


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

I actually just went back and reread my old copy of The Boxcar Children for an entirely ridiculous side project I'm working on in my Patreon, but, as for stuff I originally read when I was older than 5 or so--since realizing that Nothing But Blackened Teeth was reminding me of Tanith Lee, I've wanted to go back and read some of my favorites by her. I first discovered her work in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, (I remain very glad that when my dad found some of these books at a used bookstore and handed them to twelve-year-old me, he never flipped through them beforehand because there's so much stuff in there that my parents would have deemed age-inappropriate, but I'm not sure if I'd ever have gotten into writing SFF without them. 

So this is an anecdotal aside about not censoring your kids' reading, I guess.) and it blew my whole mind. I spent much of my teens hunting down as much Tanith Lee and Angela Carter as I could get my greedy mitts on, thanks to those anthologies, and they were absolutely formative for my writing, as you can very much tell if you can find any of my older stuff from pre-2010 or so!

At some point I got rid of a lot of my Tanith Lee collection--I move a lot, and books are heavy, and I'm not generally a big rereader these days, as I live about a block from a library, and there are way more books out there than I have time to read--but I kept some of the ones that were the biggest influence on me, The Secret Books of Paradys probably the most influential among those. I haven't read them since I was probably 18 or so, and they've been sitting on my shelf judging my life choices ever since.

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

This one's tricky! I'm not a big rereader or a big DNFer, so 99.9% of books I read get read once, for better or worse, and my opinion of them doesn't really change much afterward.

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

Even though my writing style has changed a lot from when I was a teenager, I still have to give lots of credit to Tanith Lee. Not even any one specific book as much as her body of work itself. I write (and read) as much for the prose as for worldbuilding, character, plot, etc., and her work is where I imprinted on a number of things I still seek out in others' writing and have adopted into my own. For instance: she was a master of word choice. Plenty of people can choose their words precisely, but she could weaponize hers in a way that did all kinds of heavy lifting in lieu of paragraphs of description and exposition. She could keep a reader perpetually slightly off-balance one unexpected turn of phrase at a time. She could make the atmosphere of a story feel like a weight that just pushes you down and sits on you, and she could do it in extremely little space. I wish I'd read any of her stuff recently, so I had specific examples to bring to mind. But if you're into muscular language, prose with real texture, and dreamlike imagery, and you haven't read her yet, oh my god are you in for a treat.

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

Hilariously, after having books out in 2015 and 2018 and nothing out in the years between or since, I have two books coming out this summer! Firebreak (May 4, Simon & Schuster/Gallery/Saga) has gotten compared a lot so far to Ready Player One, and it's similar in that it's about a VR gamer in the future, but, honestly, the similarity ends there. It's about Mal, the equivalent of a Twitch streamer in the year 2134, who lives with eight other people in a hotel repurposed as housing for people displaced by corporate civil war. The book is, essentially, the story of her radicalization from obedient consumer-citizen to anti-corporate activist. It's got ownvoices asexual/aromantic representation, strong friendships, lots of action scenes, and a whole bunch of stick-it-to-the-man energy. 

Then, in July, I have my middle-grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, forthcoming from Tachyon, which is a space survival story that pits an eleven-year-old girl with anxiety and a snarky, cartoon-addicted, shapeshifting, intelligent nanobot array against an alien planet full of creepy mind-control parasites. I'm chronically terrible at talking up my own books, but I had a ton of fun writing both of these, and I very much hope they find their readers.

Thanks, Nicole!


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

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Nanoreviews: Axiom's End, Angel of the Overpass, Murder by Other Means

Ellis, Lindsday. Axiom's End [St. Martin's Press]

It's interesting (to me) how a reader can know absolutely nothing about a book and avoid any sort of plot description and still be so very wrong about what the book is. It's a remarkable skill. With that said - Axiom's End deals with the idea that the United States has, in fact, made First Contact with an extraterrestial and, naturally, has covered it up. Nils Ortega is part of a group attempting to expose the government's lies and, it seems, gain as much publicity in the process. - but this isn't the story of Nils. This is the story of his daughter, Cora, who wants absolutely nothing to do with Nils, government conspiracies, and the unwanted attention it has brought to her life. Unfortunately for her, the truth about the cover up gets closer to her life than she wanted and she's in the middle of more conspiracy and truth about aliens than she ever would have imagined.

Despite featuring aliens and mind control and massive government conspiracies, Axiom's End is a fairly grounded novel because it's relatively tight to Cora's perspective and the reluctant hero works well here. One odd aspect to Axiom's End is that it's not set five minutes in the future, it's set five minutes in the past. Axiom's End is set in 2007, so during the second Bush administration. In some ways, it works better than actively being set during the Obama or Trump years or than making up a fictitious president. In other ways, it's just weird. The Bush / Cheney / Rumsfeld of it all feels like a different America and makes Axiom's End more dated than perhaps it should - though I do wonder what reading this in another ten years would be like. Either way, it's a solid science fiction novel. 
Score: 6/10

McGuire, Seanan. Angel of the Overpass [DAW]

Angel of the Overpass is the third of the Ghost Roads novels focusing on Rose Marshall, a ghost with a very full afterlife. The nature of her death (being hit and killed on the side of the road on the way to her high school prom) helped make her a ghost with a particular type of haunting (she's a phantom hitchhiker) but it's also made her a target over the decades from her murderer, a man (named Bobby Cross) who made a deal at the crossroads for eternal life. As with any of Seanan McGuire's novels, Angel of the Overpass is not about just one thing but if it was, it would be about Rose's potentially final fight against Bobby Cross and his attempts to end her life (again).

The Ghost Roads are a side series to McGuire's Incryptid novels - Rose Marshall is a minor side character there, but up until Angel of the Overpass there was minimal crossing over back to Rose's story. That changes here because the inciting incident takes place in the eighth Incryptid novel (That Ain't Witchcraft) - which presents a small barrier to entry - less so if you've at least read The Girl in the Green Silk Gown and Sparrow Hill Road, but this isn't a start novel it's the culmination of a journey.

Angel of the Overpass lives on the last third of the novel - if you've read enough of Seanan McGuire you'll be perfectly at home throughout the this novel but McGuire sets up that last act so well that even if you're "only" enjoying the ride you'll be strapping yourself in for that ending. Seanan McGuire escalates so well (spoilers, I guess, but there's a ghost dinosaur and it *works* for reasons). As a general rule, I enjoy the Ghost Roads but I don't love them like I do her Incryptid novels - but that ending - oh, that ending. It was glorious and wrenching. Seanan McGuire knows glorious and wrenching.
Score: 7/10

Scalzi, John. The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means [Subterranean / Audible]

I dug The Dispatcher (my nanoreview) when I read it back in 2017 and I expected to equally enjoy a second Dispatcher novella should John Scalzi decide to write one. He did, and I did, and here we are. Murder by Other Means, like The Dispatcher was written as an Audible original - which means it was published (and presumably written) with being an audio book first and a print book second. I don't know quite what that means in terms of what the best way to enjoy this particular story because I don't listen to audiobooks for reasons so I only encounter the work via print. With that said, John Scalzi's writing in general and with Murder by Other Means in particular is smooth, breezy, accessible and straight up fun to read. That's what Scalzi does and that's what he does here.

Murder by Other Means is set in our world, except inexplicably 99.9% of all murder victims are brought back to life wherever they feel safe. Accidental death = death. Murder, well, you're probably coming back. It doesn't need to make sense. Accept it and roll with it. What that means is that if you *want* to commit a murder you've got to be a bit more creative about that and people around Tony Valdez start dying in pretty suspicious ways. There's a plot afoot and it's told with the wit and panache readers have come to expect from John Scalzi. I think Murder by Other means works better by following The Dispatcher rather than standing alone but it works fairly well on its own. Scalzi still makes sure everything is explained and the dots can be connected - which is actually what makes Murder by Other Means as much fun as it is, when Scalzi starts connecting the dots and bringing things together it's a bit of a murderous romp.
Score: 7/10

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 5x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Jupiter's Legacy wants to question the Greatest Generation, but has no clue how

This show is convinced it's telling a Godfather-level family saga, but it's just God-awful

It's better if you don't waste your time with Jupiter's Legacy. I can't speak for the original comic, but its live-action Netflix adaptation is an embarrassment to watch.

In a world of superheroes and supervillains, the legendary Superman Utopian has led the Justice League Union of Justice for ninety years. However, the world he's defending doesn't resemble the one he used to fight for, and he has doubts about the readiness of his son and presumptive successor, superhero-in-training Paragon. It's the same kind of story you could tell about monarchs or CEOs or mob bosses, but this show decided it needed spandex. So that's where we are.

What passes for an inciting incident, because it's treated like it should have world-changing consequences, but turns out to be supremely uninteresting, is Paragon's choice to smash the skull of supervillain Blackstar just before he could detonate his antimatter heart and vaporize millions of people. When public opinion sides with him, his father is at a loss for what to do, because we're supposed to believe that an organization led by the cheapest Vito Corleone knockoff in the Overbearing Fatherly Expectations department has not once in ninety years of superpowered crimefighting killed a bad guy.

The show doesn't grasp the difference between a last-resort killing in a case of immediate urgency and the unlawful killing of a hostile combatant in ordinary circumstances. Paragon's actions definitely need to be scrutinized, but the prosecution doesn't have a case here. The real-life discussion on the abuses of law enforcement cannot be transplanted onto a fist vs. nuke situation. It's true that ethical theories are tested in the extreme scenarios, but whatever point might be ascertained from Jupiter's Legacy's contrived thought experiment is useless for the real-life discussion.

Look, no writer is perfect. From time to time, a story will trip over its shoelaces in the treatment of a sensitive moral issue. But Jupiter's Legacy trips, slips its shoes on dog poop, lands on a rusty nail, breaks an ankle, tumbles down a field of thistles, scrapes off its kneecaps, smashes an unsuspecting anthill, zooms past a cliff, and cannonballs headfirst into shallow water. This show was made without even the attempt at meaningful storytelling, but with all the pretense of having done so. It's not only the mishandling of the theme: the plot has no direction, and the worldbuilding exists in a fragile bubble.

In general, there's something off about the whole thing, productionwise. The green screen is amateurish, the cuts between scenes are confusing, the old age makeup is too obvious, the shaky cam is irritating, the sound volume is all over the place, and the fight choreography has no sense of emotional pacing. Josh Duhamel is the wrong actor to carry the weight of an aging patriarch resisting change in a ridiculous white wig, while Leslie Bibb doesn't seem to know another facial expression than shocked surprise, and Andrew Horton puts so much intensity into his lines that it feels like he's trying to play a character half his age.

And then there are the dialogues. Where do I even start with dialogues so cringeworthy in their directness. These characters don't live in their roles; they declare their roles to each other, as if reciting from the show's promotional blurb. Scene after scene presents a character saying what we all can see to a character who doesn't need being told. This pile of writing mistakes hurts the show's ability to carry any depth. There's nothing to find beneath what's plainly said. There's no complexity, no layers. This is a story that makes no demands on the viewers' part.

Jupiter's Legacy tries to address the question of excesive force, but its convoluted metaphors end up sending problematic messages. In the larger context of the institutional failures of American policing, the show's scriptwriting reveals a staggering lack of awareness. The show not only doesn't understand its own theme; it doesn't know what world its viewers live in. Worse, it carries itself like it's saying something terribly important about America's generational burdens and the eternal vigilance it takes to uphold the rule of law. But it's not saying anything. It's a collage of fragments of a story that is nowhere to be seen.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Ben Daniels, the only good casting choice in the entire show.

Penalties: −1 for bad technical decisions, −1 for bad thematic decisions, −1 for smearing Mark Millar's work.

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.