Tuesday, August 31, 2021

6 Books with Robert V.S .Redick

 A novelist, and freelance editor specializing in fiction, international development and environmental justice topics, Robert V.S .Redick is best known asthe author of the epic fantasy series The Chathrand Voyage Quartet, which begins with THE RED WOLF CONSPIRACY. His new series is the Fire Sacraments trilogy.

Today, he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

At The Mouth of the River of Bees, by Kij Johnson. Often understated but always exquisite fantasy stories. "Fox Magic" is one of the best things I've read in years.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Revelator by Daryl Gregory. A dark fantasy set in Appalachia, where my mother's family comes from. And by Daryl, who is a modern master. That's right around the corner. Further ahead, Marisca Pichette's visionary fantasy novel Broken, which I read a lot of while teaching in the Stonecoast MFA program from which she graduated.

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

Oh, many. I'd really like to slow down and reread Barry Unsworth's enormous Sacred Hunger, which is a rigorous, scholarly piece of historical fiction set aboard a slave ship--and suddenly 2/3 of the way through, becomes an alternate history fable. It shouldn't work, but it does, beautifully.

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

This happens often, but here's one your readers might find interesting. Dune. Only the first book, mind--I have little use at all for the sequels. And while I've always loved the sheer adventure and imagination of the original, the (younger) English major in me developed something of an aversion to Frank Herbert's prose. About two years back, however, I reread the book, and found myself grudgingly admitting that his style is an asset, not a defect. While the stylistic "shortcuts" (reliance on italics, very short paragraphs, innumerable exclamation points) are plain to see, that whole chunky stew of language somehow creates exactly the reading experience Herbert wants, and tens of millions love. I don't want to write that way--it's not me in the least--but I must confess that my attitude towards it was just that--an attitude.

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

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. It's middle grade, and yet the prose and the overall structure are better than most grown-up literary novels. I think Cooper must have assumed that there would be a few hundred 11-year-olds in the world ready for such a book, and it turned out there were ten million or more of us. It made me realize, at a tender age, that brilliant writing mattered to me as much as content. That was a lifetime lesson.


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

My brand-new book is Sidewinders. It's the sequel to Master Assassins, but folks are telling me it's also quite enjoyable as a standalone (as I hoped it would be). If you love epic fantasy, road trips, literary adventure, deserts, family gothic tales, or anti-imperialist, anti-war fables, this one might be for you.

And since you're giving me license to brag, Grimdark Magazine called it "a beautiful fever dream of a novel that is bound to impress."

Thank you, Robert!


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

Novella Files: The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler


Subject: E. Catherine Tobler. The Necessity of Stars [Neon Hemlock Press, 2021]

Accolades: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction 

Executive Summary: Plagued by the creeping loss of her memory, diplomat Bréone Hemmerli continues to negotiate peace in an increasingly climate-devastated world, ensconced in the UN-owned estate Irislands alongside her longtime friend and companion Delphine.

The appearance of the alien Tura in the shadows of Bréone’s garden raises new questions about the world’s decline. Perhaps, together, Tura and Bréone will find a way forward… if only Bréone can remember it. (From Goodreads)

Assessment: The Necessity of Stars makes reading about memory loss indelible. As both Bréone's mind and environment degrades, ravaged by time and climate change, there's an otherworldly spark to it. Not just because of creatively imagined aliens, but because the prose glistens with lyrical magic. It's able to alternate between sci-fi and the mundane in ways that are both skillfully imaginative and cuttingly authentic.

The story is appropriately layered and fragmented, mirroring Bréone's interiority, exploring how a woman's aging undeservingly diminishes desire for them from powerful men who are really the ones that deserve undesirability. Or how information is similarly fragmented--distorted, branching off into many tributaries without much certainty of which is true and which are lies. It's done mainly through introspection, but is also able to form deep characterization, particularly between Bréone and the similarly aged Delphine, whose connection grounds what could be a shaky foundation into passionate humanity.

I'd be lying if I told you I had everything about The Necessity of Stars figured out. It's a novella that packs as much depth as the best of them. What I do know is that the refined prose, excellent characterization, successfully experimental structure, and expansive themes were enough to keep me fully engaged until the end. Time might do some damage to the mind, but just like Bréone's excellent characterization, The Necessity of Stars will remain timeless.

Score: 8/10

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

Monday, August 30, 2021

Interview: Astounding Award nominee Simon Jimenez

Congratulations to Simon Jimenez, who is nominated this year for an Astounding Award! Not a Hugo, but awarded at the same ceremony, the Astounding Award is given to the best new writer whose first professional work was published in the last 2 years. 

Jimenez's debut novel, The Vanished Birds, was also nominated for the Locus award and was shortlisted the Arthur C. Clarke award.  In the space opera future of The Vanished Birds, faster than light travel is done through "pocket space". Much of the story revolves around freighter captain Nia Imani, who spends  months in pocket space while 15 years pass for the rest of us.  With time literally flying by, the chapters jump forward and backward in time, allowing the reader a larger view of Nia's universe. And what must it be like for Imani? She enjoys what she does, but everytime she touches down planetside, 15 more years have passed - children are adults, adults are older, elders have passed away.  And soon the crew of Nia's ship have new crew member - a mysterious young boy.   Their  life is peaceful for a few years . . .  until everything goes pear shaped.

Reviews of The Vanished Birds have compared Jimenez's it to the works of Samuel Delaney and Ursula K. Le Guin, with many reviewers calling it the best debut of 2020.  

Jimenez was kind enough to have a short chat with me about his inspirations behind The Vanished Birds, how long it took to write this ambitious novel, among other topics. Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: Welcome to Nerds of a Feather! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Simon Jimenez: Sure! My name is Simon Jimenez, and I am the author of the sci-fi novel The Vanished Birds.

NOAF: What were your inspirations behind The Vanished Birds?  

S.J.: The emotional core of the book was influenced by my insecurities and obsessions surrounding time, aging, and intimacy, but a lot of the genre-level inspirations came from Simmons’ Hyperion series, Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and a ton of other seminal works that were not necessarily sci-fi.         

NOAF: Nia's ship travels faster than light, through pocket-space. For every 15 years of our time, Nia and everyone on her ship only experiences eight months. What does that do to a person, to barely grow old as their friends and family age and die? How has Nia's lifestyle affected her?

S.J.: I imagine it is a very isolating experience - probably has some emotional parallels to the classic tales of immortal beings doomed to watch countless lovers and, as you said, family and friends, grow old and pass on without them. There is a power to aging slower than others, but also a loneliness. The idea of mortality might be a constant and looming presence. It would also warp their relationship with nostalgia, and reminiscence.

Regarding Nia, this is a lifestyle she opts into – it doesn’t change her too dramatically, I don’t think, but rather further cements her already self-isolating habits.  

NOAF: Who was your favorite character to write in The Vanished Birds? Which character was the most challenging to write?

S.J.: My favorite character to write was Sartoris Moth, a verbose socialite who is dropped into a situation that is out of his depth. He likes words, and talks a lot, which makes him easy to write.

The most challenging to write was the boy around whom the novel pivots. He has an unusual backstory - one that is not immediately relatable. It took me time to get comfortable writing him.   

NOAF: How long did it take you to write The Vanished Birds? While you were writing the book, what surprised you the most?

S.J.: From the first chapter to final draft submission – say a little more than three years?

In terms of surprise, this may sound glib, but while writing the book I was most surprised by my capacity to actually write a book. Before then, the longest thing I had written was maybe thirty, forty pages. Writing more than a hundred seemed impossible. 

Turns out it just takes time.

NOAF: What's next for you? Do you have any new or current projects you can tell us about?

S.J.: I am finishing up a mythic fantasy novel called The Spear Cuts Through Water. It should be out spring 2022.

NOAF: Thank you so much for chatting with me!

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, August 27, 2021

Microreview [book]: The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Far future science fiction that engages with questions of gender and societal change

Fift is a 3-bodied Staidchild growing up in the neighbourhood of Foo, in the nation of Fullbelly on a planet with trillions of subterranean inhabitants. Fift has seven Fathers and one Mother; as an only child, ze is viewed a little suspiciously by a society that offers privilege to lastborns. Ze also had problems integrating the sensory experiences of having three independent (if identical) bodies as a child, though ze overcomes this as ze gets older. Fift's childhood is largely unremarkable until zir fifteenth year, when ze receives tickets for a live performance that ends up turning zir whole planet's society on its head. Since ze lives in a world where anyone can tune into anyone else's "Feed" and view what they are doing at any time, zir fame quickly snowballs, with huge implications for zir coming of age, relationship with zir best friend Shria (who, as a person of Vail gender, ze isn't supposed to have a crush on)  and, of course, the revolution ze is caught up in.

If that sounds like a lot, then... yes. Welcome! The Unravelling is a far, far, far-far-far, far, far, far future story of a human society that is immensely different from our own, evolved over tens of thousands of years on an unnamed alien planet to the point where genders, societal relationships, life milestones, norms of privacy and selfhood, taboos and even terms of endearment have become all but unrecognisable. It's a world where individuals exist simultaneously in different places, doing different things and holding separate conversations (sometimes sharing information  they've picked up in one of their other bodies with others who aren't there), where one can sleep AND do one's homework AND hang out with friends at exactly the same time, giving equal weight to each activity. The subterranean setting (the surface of the planet is perfectly inhabitable but has been given over to a giant forest nature reserve) and all the descriptions of floating habitats and transportation tubes is perfectly coherent, but it's also hard to really comprehend. Within this bizarre worldbuilding, all we really have to grasp on to are the very recognisable human emotions, particularly Fift's: and there, the Unraveling uses elements of its far future setting to really ramp up the stakes. Fift is recognisably a teenager to us, but in zir world ze is somewhere in First Childhood, and ze won't be expected to come of age for a century, making zir frustration with zir parents' attempts to control zir even more of a challenge because ze has what, to us, is a lifetime to put up with it. Add into that a complete lack of privacy, and an economic system based on collective societal approval, and Fift has an enormous weight on zir shoulders: one that's created by an unrecognisable society out of all-too-recognisable elements.

The Unravelling's version of gender took a while to land with me, but when it does it becomes clear how restrictive and harmful the gender roles of the Staids and Vails are. There is a definite sense that Staids are given more power in their world, with greater access to knowledge and history through their participation in the "Long Conversation", a sort of ritualised group recitation that is taboo for Vails to know anything about (although the actual content of the Long Conversation is generally depicted as a bit navel gazey and ridiculous despite its cultural importance). Staids are supposed to be the unmoving "centre" around which the Vails operate, but we also see glimpses of how toxic growing up Staid can be, including parents who "mood collar" their children, suppressing all of their emotions in order to make sure they don't violate gender norms. On the other side, we meet more Vails, who are supposed to be passionate and mercurial and to be more attuned to their physicality - which means lots of (appropriate, ritualised) fighting and lots of sex. Our perspective of Vail coming-of-age comes through Shria, Fift's best friend turned forbidden-love-interest, although we get much less of a sense of what makes vem tick. We also meet more Vails who are outright unhappy with the system and their place in it (though most of Fift's parents are Vails, and all of the ones we spend time with represent a much more conservative viewpoint), and its the push to overturn the relationship between Vails and Staids that triggers the broader "unraveling" of society to which the title refers.

Because its worldbuilding is so dense, and because Fift is usually doing something in more than one place simultaneously, The Unraveling is constantly throwing new information and action at the reader, whether that be exposition about new aspects of Fullbelly society or a line-by-line switch between a parental argument and a violent riot. The effect is impressive, but it can also get exhausting, and in the most high-action sequences it has the effect of being both overwhelming and making things feel much slower than they would if each scene was taken in turn. Because Fift is usually at home in at least one of zir bodies, it also makes zir parents (who do technically have individual quirks, but there are several fathers who just become interchangably shrill) into a near-constant melodramatic chorus, berating Fift and each other and the state of society while ze is trying to get zirself out of highly challenging situations. That's not to say that The Unraveling's multi-bodied balancing act isn't impressive - those high-action scenes flow together in a way that frankly has no right to work as well as it does, somehow managing to signpost where Fift is interacting with each character across vastly different social spheres. It's just that the way that affected the narrative didn't hit as well for me as I'd have liked. 

Still, despite the painful parents and the oddly paced action sequences, The Unraveling managed to really invest me in its strange, far future revolution and especially in the coming-of-age journey of Fift, the kid who gets inadvertently stuck in the middle of it all. At its core, this is highly engaging science fiction: a novel that asks you to invest in a radical thought experiment, and then follows through with some truly magnificent weirdness and an engaging emotional journey. Its unusual and satisfying and it presents its ideas in a way that I think will stay with me for quite some time. Very good stuff indeed.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 following a multiple-bodied human protagonist whose simultaneous interactions play out seamlessly

Penalties: -1 sometimes there's so much going on that it slows the actual plot down

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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: Rosenbaum, Benjamin. The Unraveling [Erewhon, 2021]

Thursday, August 26, 2021

6 Books with John Appel

John Appel is a former paratrooper, current swordsman, and life-long rum-drinker who writes SFF. He lives with is supportive and very tolerant family in Maryland.

Today at Nerds of a Feather, I ask John about his Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I generally have three books going at once: one in print, one e-book, and one audio. On audio right now, for walking and wood-work time, is RF Kuang's The Poppy War, which I've just started. The other two books in the trilogy are queued up right behind it. My current e-book read is Arkady Martine's fabulous A Desolation Called Peace, the sequel to A Memory Called Empire. I'm currently enjoying the swapping of places between Mahit and Three Seagrass from the first, with Three Seagrass being the visitor on Mahit's domain. And in a completely different vein, my print reading is Mission Furniture and How to Make It, by H.H. Windsor. It's a reprinting of three handbooks published by Popular Mechanics between 1909-1912 detailing how to build a variety of pieces, from side tables to chairs to full-sized cabinets and dining room tables.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Without a doubt, Matt Wallace's Savage Bounty, which came out July 20th. Matt's Savage Legion is a powerhouse epic fantasy that twists a lot of classic tropes like the rubber band in a toy airplane, and the action comes as fast as the spinning propeller. Savage Bounty promises more of the same. These books are also informed by our modern sense of the inherent injustice found in a lot of the things we see in traditional fantasy, and make for a refreshing change from the "we need to restore the royal line" plot we so frequently see. 

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

I'm seriously contemplating a re-read of the late great Kage Baker's "The Company" series, which features a group of immortal time-traveling cyborgs who work for Dr. Zeus Inc, a company in the future that has sent them back in time to recover artifacts lost in what Baker calls "event shadows," the unrecorded moments around great historical events. The series has some incredible characters and Baker's writing was sharp, often snarky, and frequently hilarious. If I had to pick one example from the series it would probably be Mendoza in Hollywood.

4. A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

I'd give up a redundant organ to have written Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand, about a young man named Fred Cassidy whose uncle left him a generous stipend as long as he pursues a college degree - a process which Fred has stretched out for over a decade. Fred gets caught up in the disappearance of an alien artifact on loan to Earth as part of a cultural exchange and hijinks ensue. Fred's narration of events is done with incredibly deadpan hilariousness and at times a Douglas Adams-esque absurdity, and Zelazny's usual brilliant touch with language and imagery. 

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

Probably Alistair MacLean's Force Ten from Navarone. I read a lot of MacLean's books as a youngster and the sense of action, the pacing, and the multiple layers of secrets found in his best works are definitely features in my own work. Along with that comes competent characters, people who are really good at what they do, who often are improvising because the situation they find themselves in has gone pear-shaped. In Force Ten for example, the question of "How do you destroy a bridge in German-occupied Yugoslavia when you've lost your explosives?" gets solved in a spectacular way.

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

My latest book is also my first! Assassin's Orbit  was published on July 20th, and if you look closely you can see where I've filed the serial numbers off of MacLean's underlying action/thriller model. The first aspect of which I'm especially proud is my cast of older female protagonists, all in their 40s to 60s, who have been there, done that, and don't have time for foolishness. These are MacLeanesque or possibly Heinleinesque heroes, highly capable and competent women who are doing their best under trying circumstances - but hopefully I've managed a more realistic depiction of women than my predecessors. I'm also particularly proud of the Exile Cluster, the universe I've created for the books, trying to make it feel truly lived-in and full of life beyond the bounds of the story in the book.

Thanks, John!

Find out more about Assassin's Orbit with my Nerds of a Feather Review.


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


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Superman & Lois season 1 feels like a fix fic of the Snyderverse

It's like the producers watched the first two DCEU entries and said, "OK, let's do that, but let's also give it heart"

As the latest addition to the already sizable Arrowverse, Superman & Lois jumped deep into the themes of family and community in its first season. The plot gets moving fast: the Kents move to Clark's childhood town after the death of his mother, and soon he has to deal with his son gaining superpowers, his old friends having money problems, his father-in-law not knowing how to separate work from family, and his wife losing her job. And that's just the first two episodes. By the end of the season, Smallville has rampant unemployment, Clark has learned of a lost Kryptonian half-brother who wants to body-snatch his town, and his wife has just met the daughter she had in another universe.

One can forgive the producers for not making Clark cope also with the fact that his cousin has been stranded in the Phantom Zone for months. That's fine. His plate is full enough as it is. And this season apparently had an even more important mission than probing into Clark's convoluted family issues: it also repeats the plots of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Objectivist Boogaloo, and fixes what's wrong with them.

On one hand, we have a Kryptonian conqueror who plans to use an archive of Kryptonian heritage to transform Earth into a new version of his world. On the other hand, we have an armored fighter with fancy gadgets who is convinced that Superman is dangerous, so he embarks on a mission to kill him. These parallels are overt and intentional. Basically, the Arrowverse is telling the Snyderverse, I see what you were trying to do, but let me show you how you should have done it.

First correction: the armored guy

In BvS, Lex Luthor manipulates Superman's public image so that Batman will feel motivated to kill him. But it shouldn't be that easy to fool Batman. The destruction that befell Metropolis in the previous movie was Superman's responsibility, but in no way his intention. He committed, of course, a fault of omission in not steering the fight elsewhere, but it was literally his first day as a full-grown superhero, and in the end he got rid of the invading Kryptonians. Since then, he's done nothing but good deeds. Batman may feel sour on a personal level because of his injured employees, which is understandable, but he doesn't have a defensible excuse to hunt down Superman. All he has is distorted news and a weird dream. The deaths in Nairomi and the bombing of the Senate ought to have alerted the instincts of the world's supposedly greatest detective. If we're going to go with the explanation that Batman always needs to be prepared for every threat, that gets us to the point where he makes a kryptonite blade, not to the point where he decides it's time to use it. In short, there's no solid reason for Batman to be doing this.

In S&L, John Irons has every legitimate reason to believe his suspicions are correct. He doesn't have probabilities; he has facts. The Superman of his world has in fact killed thousands, and the show intelligently timed the moment of his final confrontation with our Superman to match with the moment when Superman is brainwashed to be evil. There is a believable risk that he may destroy the world, so this time, his hunter does have a justification for bringing the kryptonite.

In both versions of this plot, it is the weight of Superman's human connections that gives the killer pause. However, in BvS, the Martha moment couldn't have been handled more ineptly. Learning that Superman was raised by humans shouldn't suddenly change Batman's assessment of the threat. In S&L, the tension applies to both sides of the fight: Lois needs to convince Irons that Superman can be rescued, but once she does that, Irons still needs to get Superman to shake off his brainwashing. This is what BvS was going for, but it failed because it ignored that it takes two to tango. Batman was trying to kill a Superman who had no intention to destroy the world. Making our heroes bash each other in the head for an hour over a misunderstanding that could have been fixed by talking makes our heroes look rather incompetent. Instead, S&L has Superman convince Irons of his good intentions early in the season, then it makes Irons learn of Superman's human connections, then it makes Superman turn actually evil and throw the first punch, and only then it makes Irons wrestle with the choice to kill him or not.

To make the point even more obvious, the very first thing S&L does in the very first episode is kill Martha. Memo to Snyder: forget about Martha. When you make superheroes disagree to the point of fighting, have the fight be resolved by heavier considerations than unresolved mommy issues.

Second correction: the Kryptonian guy

So we have a Kryptonian invader with a plan to replace all humans with his own people, and Superman isn't enough to defeat him, because they're equally strong. How does Superman win?

Break his neck, says Man of Steel. Easy peasy.

Not so fast, says Superman & Lois, because the enemy is possessing the body of Superman's son.

Gosh, I love it when a story goes out of its way to deny the hero an easy loophole to use violence.

Once again, what saves the day is human connection, and once again, it's Lois who gets it done. The moment of Jordan's salvation, ultimately triggered by his brother's love, establishes a curious parallel with the situation between Superman and his evil brother. Earlier in the season, Jonathan utters a powerful line that forces his grandfather to reconsider his choices: I'd never be afraid of my own family. This is the power of humanity that is lacking in Tal-Rho. It is the power that saves Jordan, and the power that Superman attempts to use to bring his brother to his side. Unfortunately, Tal-Rho is beyond the help of this kind of connection. His father's corrupting influence did too much damage. He needs to be kept away from anyone he could harm. And still, he doesn't have to be killed.

The manner of defeat of Tal-Rho serves to explain why S&L decided to redo BvS before redoing MoS. Superman cannot beat Tal-Rho on his own, but he has access to the weapons John Irons was going to use to beat Superman. In a way, this mirrors how, in BvS, Batman's spear proves useful against Doomsday, but it also provides a solution to the Zod problem in MoS. Part of the reason why the moral question in MoS is so contrived is that the plot forces Superman to fight alone. But Zod is not a local problem of Metropolis; he plans to destroy the whole planet. If we accept the Snyderverse as a whole, Zod arrives in an Earth where, at the very least, Aquaman and Wonder Woman already exist. Either MoS should have used an enemy whose reach didn't extend beyond Superman, or Superman shouldn't have had to fight alone.

This exposes a key problem with Zack Snyder's treatment of Superman: it assumes a world-ending threat is Superman's business instead of everyone's business. This is in line with his individualistic ethos for the character. Jonathan Kent in MoS is the worst version of Jonathan Kent ever, but let's not forget the atrocious advice Martha Kent gives in BvS. It is a gigantic lie to say that Superman doesn't owe the world anything.

In Snyder's version of the Kryptonian invasion, Smallville is wrecked and never thought of again, because the plot has to follow Superman. In S&L, Smallville is wrecked and we stay there to watch how the common people help each other. This choice matters because Superman owes everything to Smallville. Memo to Snyder: it takes a village to raise a Superman.

Third correction: who is Superman?

Clark Kent in the Snyderverse is not believable as a person with feelings and ties to other people. Clark Kent in the Arrowverse is deeply aware of his place in the community.

Clark Kent in the Snyderverse is baffled that people would be wary of his immense power. Clark Kent in the Arrowverse exerts constant self-control, because he can put himself in other people's shoes.

Clark Kent in the Snyderverse is first of all a god among mortals. Clark Kent in the Arrowverse is first of all a husband, a father, a neighbor and a citizen.

You say you want to #RestoretheSnyderverse? Superman & Lois already did it. It may not have a blockbuster-sized budget, but it has heart. That, in the end, is what makes or breaks a story.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for fixing the ugly cape attachments Superman wore in the Supergirl series, +1 for giving Jonathan an interesting arc despite having the greatest risk of having nothing to do, +1 for clever mirroring of the brotherhood theme.

Penalties: −2 for telling a story nominally in the Arrowverse but effectively in isolation from the Arrowverse (for example, the Fortress of Solitude looks nothing like the one in Supergirl).

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Interview: Davis Liss, author of The Peculiarities

As I was reading the promotional blurb for David Liss's new novel The Peculiarities, everything sounded fairly straight forward (for supernatural sci-fantasy values of straight forward) until I got to the phrase "leaves are sprouting on Thomas's skin".  And with those six words I was hooked, and immediately emailed Mr. Liss's publicist and requested an interview. The Peculiarities hits bookstore shelves on Sept 7, and promises an absurdist romp through through Victorian London, where Thomas seeks a magical cure to his ailment. . . while saving the family business, avoiding supernatural murderers, and following proper etiquette.  Historical fiction, comedy, surrealism, body horror, and that cover?  I. am. intrigued!

Liss is known for his historical fiction thrillers and novellas for adults, his Randoms series for middle grade readers, and a number of comics project including Black  Panther, Mystery Men, The Shadow Now, Angelica Tomorrow, and The Spider.  His first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), won the Edgar award for best first novel and the MacAvity award for best first mystery novel, and Liss has been publishing ever since.  You can learn more about Liss and his work at his website, davidliss.com

Liss was kind enough to indulge my curiousity about the man who grew leafier.

NOAF: A young man stuck in a tedious job contracts an illness that makes leaves sprout from his skin. I have to say, you had me at “grows leafier”. What can you tell us about your new novel The Peculiarities?

David Liss: For most of my life, I've been interested in historical magic, by which I mean magic as it was actually practiced by people who truly believed – or at least hoped – what they were doing was working. Specifically, I've been interested in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was an organization that emerged in the late 19th century, during a time when many people believed science had nearly reached its pinnacle, and everything had already been learned or would be learned soon. I find it fascinating that in this world that imagines science as triumphant, you have a group of mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent people – that is to say, people who benefit most from the illusion of global progress – wanting to see beyond scientific truth. On top of that, they develop a school of magic which, for pretty much the first time in human history, is supposed to be widely accessible. Magicians had always hidden and obfuscated their secrets. The Golden Dawn wanted to spread the knowledge and the ability to obtain it.

I've long been interested in writing a novel about Golden Dawn magicians. The Peculiarities includes a number of real historical people, but it takes place in an alternate world in which Golden Dawn magic works, and the fact that it works is new. In other words, something has changed during the late 19th century and the world, for reasons unknown at the beginning of the novel, has become a much more magical place.

This is a very long answer, so maybe a shorter one would be that The Peculiarities is about a young man whose family hates him and who is turning into a tree. After a great deal of thought, he decides maybe he should try to do something about that. It also includes scary rabbits.

NOAF: What are the “Elegants”? Such a beautiful word, but I have a feeling the answer is going to be scary.

DL: The magic in this novel is mostly based on the magic people believed they could really perform, so it is fairly low key. No one is shooting energy bolts from their hands to teleporting from place to place. On the other hand, there are some bizarre transformations and manifestations happening all around London. One of these is the Elegants, a well-dressed, monstrous couple who wander around the city murdering people and cutting out their organs. They are generally believed to be responsible for the crimes previously attributed to Jack the Ripper.

NOAF:  The Peculiarities is a historical fantasy, filled with magical ailments, supernatural creatures, and a few real people. What research did you do for this novel? During your research, did you come across anything especially unexpected?

DL: I did a great deal of reading about the Golden Dawn as well as organizations and movements that preceded it, such as the Rosicrucians and Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. On top of that, I read biographies of Golden Dawn members as well as their own writings, if they had any. I think the thing that surprised me most was the relative gender equity of the Golden Dawn. The formal leadership was all male, but unlike the traditional English club, with which the organization seemed to have a lot in common, women were members and often the informal intellectual leaders.

NOAF: Which scene in The Peculiarities was your favorite to write?

DL: When I was planning this novel, I had a lot of fun coming up with the bizarre creatures, curses, transformation, and circumstances that I wanted to inhabit the world, but the truth is I love writing the character scenes the most. The moments I most looked forward to writing were when characters have interesting conflicts or make important discoveries about themselves or those around them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing the real-world magician Aleister Crowley, who, in my research, often came across as unpleasantly arrogant and self-absorbed. Yet it turned out that writing someone so arrogant and self-absorbed was super fun. 

All of this came together in a scene where Thomas, my protagonist, is dragged by Crowley to a brothel that specializes in women horribly transformed by the Peculiarities. While he's there he encounters some people from his past, and he learns shocking information about his family. Any time I can combine big character moments, emotional impact, and fish-women in a single scene, I'm happy.

NOAF: You mentioned on twitter that you studied and dissected Anne Perry's books to understand why they worked so well. What was the most interesting thing you discovered during that process?

DL: In our culture, we often praise certain kinds of successful people – like entrepreneurs or athletes – for working hard, but we expect creatives to be inspired geniuses who simply "know" how to produce great art. The first time I tried to write a novel, in my early 20s, I discovered it was hard and concluded that I wasn't cut out to be a writer. When I tried again, about ten years later, I'd come to understand that writing was primarily about craft. There must be some native talent, like in music or the visual arts (two fields in which I have zero native talent), but that "feel" for the medium is really just the first step. After that is all about understanding the form, the reason why certain kinds of characters or plots or styles work or don’t work. 

Once you peek behind the curtain and see how and why fiction works, it's still really, really hard, but at least you know how to try to proceed. Stumbling with the lights on beats stumbling in the dark.

NOAF: Your award winning debut novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, was published in 2000. How have your writing habits changed (if at all) since then? Has your view of the publishing world changed since then?

DL: I don't know that my habits have changed all that much. I still work five days a week – more if I'm trying to finish something or a project has a lot of energy. The only real difference is that I've leaned into the fact that I'm a morning person. I wake up most days between four and five a.m. and get to work immediately. My creativity shuts down a little bit after around noon, so I tend to try to get as much done as possible in the early morning and save the rest of the day for research or side projects.

NOAF: You've written historical fantasies and thrillers, science fiction adventures, YA, comics, and horror. What so far has been your favorite type of fictional world to play in?

DL: Oh, man. You can't ask me that. Honestly, I like it all. I mentioned earlier that what I really enjoy is writing strong character moments, and you can and should do those in any genre or story-telling medium. I definitely love the kinds of weird and wonderful elements you can add into the mix in genre stories and comics, but I don't feel like I need those elements to have a good time once the writing starts. I think those things are more fun when it's in the planning stage. And part of what I enjoy about my career is the variety. When my first book was in the production pipeline, my agent and editor were pushing me to immediately begin work on a sequel, but I was afraid if I did that, it would be harder for me to break out and write other kinds of things. I feel fortunate that I've been able to get away with experimenting as much as I have.

NOAF: What books and or short stories have you read lately that you really enjoyed?

DL: My favorite genre is what I like to call "messed up people further messing up their already messed up lives." Two books I recently read that fit the bill are The New Me by Halle Butler and Earthlings by Sayaka Murata. I also love old-school style space opera, and I'm currently reading and enjoying Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio. On the non-fiction side, if I'm not doing research, I love issue-based books with a first-person element. I've recently read and loved On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger and Culture Warlords by Talia Lavin.

NOAF: Thank you so much David!

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, August 23, 2021

Free Guy is so chock-full of allegories that it gets its messages confused

Guy's journey mirrors step by step the perils of far-right radicalization, and at times the movie doesn't seem to know where it stands

Free Guy is a comedy about a videogame character who, after gaining sentience, fights to save his digital world. It is also an allegory about the search for purpose and authenticity in life. It is also a critique of the ease with which we adopt a hyperviolent persona in online interactions. It is also an exploration of the inherent dignity of nonhuman life. It is also a tale of workplace romance wrapped inside an action thriller. It is also a corporate drama about the ethics of intellectual property.

Now you begin to see the problem with all the things this movie is trying to do. Because on top of this pile of thematic homework to complete, Free Guy is also an antifascist story so clumsily executed that at times it comes alarmingly close to contradicting its own position.

Guy lives in a fabricated world where his actions are ultimately inconsequential. The first scene describes who actually matters: the people with cool hair and cool clothes who just take what they want and, as a reward for breaking the laws of society, get to run away with the fanciest cars and the hottest women.

That's a good summary of how many videogames work.

It's also exactly how incel ideology believes the real world works.

We run again, for the thousandth time, into the problem of the narrative treatment of violence: how do you criticize a culture of sociopathic rulebreaking without at the same time making it look aspirational? One possible reading of this first scene is as a satire of superhero media: the cool dude driving away in the shiny car doesn't care about the massive destruction he leaves in his wake. Neither Batman v. Superman nor Captain America: Civil War succeeded at an honest exploration of our eagerness to cheer for titans smashing buildings at each other. Free Guy had an opportunity to engage with that theme without the baggage of having to maintain established characters as marketable heroes, an opportunity to bring into the digital realm the long tradition set by Watchmen and Irredeemable and The Boys. Instead, it loses itself in the awesomeness of slow motion gunfights and exploding cars and lightsabers. Very deep inside, Free Guy wants to question macho culture, but it's so fluent in the language of macho culture that it almost parrots its same messages.

Which is why I bring up incels.

A disturbing amount of jokes are made about Guy's sexual inexperience. He is repeatedly and annoyingly mocked for his traits of innocence and sincerity, which supposedly doom him to "a lifetime supply of virginity" (what the incels call a beta male, or maybe lower; it's hard to keep up with fake psychology). So his journey of self-improvement is framed as a struggle for the right to hang with a high-status woman, which, again, is how incels interpret social interactions. Molotov Girl essentially tells him, "Don't call me until you've accumulated more stuff and more money," which means one thing in the context of MMORPGs and a very different one in the context of PUA indoctrination.

In the sordid pit of self-hatred that is the manosphere, interaction between men and women is defined as a constant competition to see who makes the best impression. Free Guy falls into this trap when Guy's way to prove his worth to Molotov Girl is to bring her into his lair where he can boast all the loot he's gathered from other characters. There is the briefest hope that this scene could lead to a healthy discussion of the human search for meaning; after all, Guy explains he began his quest to improve the world in order to address a profound dissatisfaction in his life. But in the next line, he says that the tipping point was meeting Molotov Girl, and this derails the theme. He didn't become a hero to help people, but to impress a girl he saw once. That this is treated as a moment of growth for him is extremely concerning, because it echoes an misogynistic talking point. Incels believe women are like peahens, impressionable by expensive displays of success. Guy is supposed to be playing the game as a good and decent character, but the kind of rewards he gets are indistinguishable from those given to violent players.

You can tell a lot about someone's values by paying attention to what shocks them. This movie has to come from a depressingly bleak worldview in order to treat a pacifist run of a videogame as somehow groundbreaking. Commentators and streamers react with amazement at Guy's campaign to keep his world safe, as if it had never occurred to any gamer ever; players have their entire mindset shaken by the idea that they perhaps ought to be nice to imaginary characters; and Millie's proposal for an MMORPG where you interact with characters without killing them is treated as if it were a world-shattering revolution in game design. In our real world, pacifist runs of violent games are news to no one, there's a whole emerging crop of fascinating new games specifically designed to not reward combat, and even established franchises are starting to accommodate this style of play.

Games are about what their mechanics reward. (I learned this the hard way with Age of Empires II, when I realized that my demilitarized society of monks and farmers didn't meet any of the victory conditions.) It is an oversight on the part of the screenwriters that Guy was able to get experience points from good actions. That shouldn't happen unless the game was intentionally designed with such actions in mind, and this absolutely doesn't look like the kind of game where good behavior gets you anywhere. (But if it is, that speaks volumes about the players' choices.) If we take Free Guy's forced metaphor of game world as stand-in for real life at face value, we may conclude that a society is about what its laws encourage (or discourage, if you accept the pessimistic position that fines are prices). So, given the choice to be nice people, why be jerks? It's not enough to argue that players in Free City get away with misbehavior because they're not attacking real people; after all, it has PvP mode permanently enabled. A simpler answer is that Free City is designed to reward rudeness and brutality. In other words, it's not just that the game doesn't object to you killing bystanders, but that it expects and wants you to do it. In some ways, lethal violence is even more satisfying in PvP, and the only way to mentally compartmentalize a space where you can indulge in PvP in the real world, the only consistent way to treat life as if it were an all-against-all competition, is to pretend that some categories of people don't matter.

You know, like NPCs.

Free Guy contains multiple cans of worms for a viewer familiar with online extremism. In alt-right discourse, the concept of the NPC has become a poisonous meme. Because fascist ideology keeps coming up with new and insidious ways to make the same flawed arguments, antifascist education keeps having to restate the same points again and again. So now the alt-right is using the term NPC to label people who supposedly lack independent thought because they argue from an unchanging script. This rhetorical tactic is nothing but a conversation stopper, a bad faith move intended to preempt rational discussion. One does not become a mindless automaton for proclaiming obvious truths, especially when the other side's strategy is to attack obvious truths. The core conflict of Free Guy, about the rights of artificial lifeforms, hinges precisely on one of those obvious truths: to brand a person as an NPC is to deny their humanity.

However, the rules of narration do not allow for this kind of story. Guy's condition as an NPC is immediately annulled by his role as the designated protagonist of the movie. Secondary characters who get the main focus of the story are not secondary characters. It has often been argued that one of the hallmarks of the evolution from the classical epic to the modern novel is that stories no longer focused on kings and gods but on ordinary people. But that process already happened centuries ago; it's not like Free Guy brings anything new to the art of storytelling. What can be said in its favor is that the very act of choosing an everyman as the protagonist challenges the notion of an everyman. And that relates to how we perceive ourselves in the larger narrative of society.

One of the basic disagreements between liberals and conservatives, since the times of the French Revolution, is what we on the liberal side have been trying to make the case that there's no such thing as unimportant people. For example, the Great Man view of history effectively divides humanity into protagonists and NPCs, but for some time now, scholars have been retelling world history by focusing on the smaller, neglected figures who actually constitute the bulk of humanity. This is totally a worthy exercise from an ethical standpoint. But in terms of storytelling, it's not really that big of a change. As soon as you shift your focus from the conquering general to the farmers who fed his soldiers, what you've done is choose different protagonists. History deals with reality, but the account of history needs to employ the tools of storytelling, and a story can't not have a spotlight.

Part of the distorted story that the alt-right tells itself about the direction society is going has to do with the anxiety of falling out of the spotlight, of losing protagonism. Guy's malaise is precisely this nagging suspicion that he doesn't influence the story, that he doesn't count. This is a common first tactic of extremist indoctrination: to tell you that you are the victim of a conspiracy, that the rules of society are set to keep you down.

Guy experiences two key moments in the movie that bear an eerie correspondence to the steps on the road to online radicalization. The first is the theft of the eyeglasses (a detail stolen from the movie They Live, where the special eyeglasses allowed the wearer to recognize the secret cabal of aliens who pulled the strings of world affairs). In online parlance, this moment is referred to as taking the red pill (a massive irony considering where they took that term from). Supposedly, taking the red pill lets you see how it's really men who are disadvantaged and who need to reclaim their power. In the movie, Guy's entire motivation to take this step is to pursue a girl. Once he understands how little he matters in the world, he starts to level up, and in the end gets to kiss the girl. For the incel crowd, this is the perfect power fantasy, and it's not clear what the movie is trying to say by replicating this fantasy point by point. Red pill ideology teaches that there are a few (and only a few) sure ways to earn female attention. The problem is that Free Guy portrays this unhealthy process as actually working. Guy starts the story as the Nice Guy stereotype. When he becomes stronger, wealthier, and more aggressive, Molotov Girl responds quite favorably. What's the movie's point by doing this?

The second moment that pushes Guy toward the edge is the reveal that his world is a game. This quickly turns him into a nihilist. He loses all sense of meaning because he thinks his life is irrelevant. The things he's been trying to do to become a better person will ultimately not give him happiness. He will not win the game, he will not get the girl, and that's a fundamentally unchangeable fact of reality.

In incel circles, this step of becoming convinced that there is no hope and that the world is unfixable is called the black pill. This is how you create an Elliot Rodger and a Jake Davison and many other perpetrators of senseless violence. Maybe Free Guy didn't consciously consider this angle, in which case the screenwriters should have paid more attention to the implications of what they were creating. But even if one believes that Free Guy intentionally chose to make an allegory of rightwing indoctrination, the point gets muddled in the execution, because Guy is not the one committing senseless violence on a daily basis in his city. It's everyone else. When you think of the overlapping memberships of online misogyny and online racism, and when you think of the movie's treatment of Free City as a pleasant community of peaceful citizens who were minding their own business until a mob of outsiders arrived to burn the place and flee with the women, you can see how the whole premise takes a twisted turn toward resembling an anti-immigration fable.

Once you notice the parallels between Guy's journey to total despair and the fall into radicalization, the rest of the movie suffers. Once Guy becomes a public hero, he's known around the world as "Blue Shirt Guy," and fans start copying his style of dress. This development is supposed to be a victory for the character. However, one cannot help being reminded of the real, historical Blue Shirts, the nickname of several violent organizations affiliated with the far right.

Another example: in videogame terms, "skin" is the entire way a digital avatar looks: body shape, clothes texture, hairstyle, facial expressions, etc. Yet, it is regrettable that the movie has a character of color, played by an actor of Indian descent, compliment the white protagonist on his pretty skin. Even worse, the white protagonist attributes his pretty skin to a genetic advantage, and to complete an already terrible moment, the scene extends the dialogue into a joke about facial care products, which, in the context of cosmetic racism in India, is in horrendous bad taste.

I bring this scene up because it illustrates how this movie doesn't understand the dangerous metaphors it's flirting with. Just after this dialogue, two game programmers proceed to chase after the protagonist within the game world, demanding that he remove his skin, meaning, of course, that they want him to stop using what they believe is a stolen character design, but the conflict takes a more sinister significance when one keeps in mind the connections between the movie's plot and online discourse. To wit: the most rabid fringes of the alt-right claim that secret forces are scheming to persecute them for their white skin. In any other movie, this scene would have been a fun chase. But in a movie so full of references to fascist propaganda, it raises a lot of questions. I'd like to have a talk with every single writer, proofreader, script doctor, supervisor and intern who had a hand in the script of this movie, because I find it hard to believe that this many thematic missteps are accidental.

However, I'm not claiming, because I don't believe, that Free Guy is secretly pushing a fascist message. The happy ending comes as a result of a collective effort against corporate abuse. Guy is saved from the black pill by his ties to other people, starting with his closest friend. The true hero that saves the day is human connection. In Guy's decisive fight against a Chad-esque distortion of himself, the way he defeats the monster is not by punching him harder, but by sharing his perspective with him.

Also, Guy is a Moses figure in a movie made by a Jewish director. There's no way this is a fascist movie. But, as I said, it speaks the language of fascism so well that it's difficult to hear what it's trying to say.

If a story employs the perennial Jewish trope of a man on a mission to lead his people across the water and away from a threat of extermination to a land of bliss and riches they originally came from, it stands to reason that the forces opposed to his mission can be read as playing a role akin to that of historical tyrants. Free Guy's choice of tyrant is a tech bro, the go-to target of blame for everything in the 2020s, a role given to Taika Waititi, who previously played a parody version of Hitler. Free Guy has been repeatedly compared to The LEGO Movie, The Truman Show, The Matrix and Groundhog Day, but this time the moral dilemmas about the fate of the fantasy people are decided outside of the fantasy world, which means that the closest analogue is actually Horton Hears a Who! To take its antifascist statement to completion, Free Guy has to set aside what should be the mind-blowing news of artificial lifeforms developing intelligence and instead focuses on defeating the tech bro with legalities. It's the least exciting way to end what purported to be a quest for freedom and self-realization. But it fits within the larger problems of a movie that is loaded with references but doesn't care what they mean.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the restraint it must have taken to digitally animate a city in constant warfare without falling into a Michael Bay mess, +3 for giving more visibility to nonviolent roleplaying.

Penalties: −1 for inept handling of its political themes, −1 for insensitive jokes, −1 for too obvious dialogue, −1 for not following its own worldbuilding rules (for instance, how did Millie kiss Guy after it was established that the game had no kiss command?), −1 for stealing the digital memory-restoring kiss from WALL-E, and −1 for the kind of Disney product placement that makes one think of Space Jam: A New Legacy, both because no one wants to be reminded of Space Jam: A New Legacy, and because no one wants corporate inbreeding to be the future of movies.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

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

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Microreview: Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 Cage of Souls by  Adrian Tchaikovsky takes the skills of the prolific author of a variety of subgenres and turns them to one new to him: Dying Earth Science fantasy.

The city of Shadrapar has a problem. First, it is, as far as anyone knows, the very last city on a dying planet Earth. The sun is not doing well, lashing out with increased heat and radiation, the world outside the ancient, last city of man is a riot of evolving plants, creatures and who knows what else. The city is a mausoleum aborning, the waiting room for the end of the human race. And yet people strive for power, authority and just scramble to survive day by day.  

When the city sends academic Stefan Aventi to a prison colony island for a crime he did commit, however, it sets in motion not only the story of Stefan Aventi for the reader, but a series of events that will leave both the prison and the city transformed, forever. 

This is the story of  Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls.

One thing I really appreciate about the work of  Tchaikovsky is that, in his endless fecundity and ability to produce novels and stories fast or faster than I can read them, he tries not only new subgenres, but also new styles and techniques and frames and other devices as well. This can also mean that some of his invention doesn’t always work quite as well as it might have if he had stuck to more familiar paths for him. 

 Here in Cage of Souls, Stefan Aventi’s story is different than many of his other works in a couple of respects.  First, it is told in a  testimonial first person point of view from the point of view of an academic. This consequently means we are told the story in a somewhat discursive style. We start with Stefan’s trip to and arrival on the Island, and while we get the immediate details of that he has been sent there, why he has been precisely sent there, what he did to deserve (if anyone can be said to deserve) that exile only gets eventually told. The present day narrative of Stefan relating his time on the island is punctuated occasionally by him talking about his previous life. 

There are, though, two major discursions where we break the narrative of the present entirely and plunge ourselves into Stefan’s present. Tchaikovsky is clever and showing how this is an uinspooling of memory and testimony can be an organic process and not in a simple linear narrative. The first of these discursions brings from the past to an early part of Stefan’s history, revealing just what he did and why it is such a threat to the city, although it is only a portion of Stefan’s backstory and does not close the loop. Closing the loop on how Stefan came to undergo his exile takes the second great discursion, and that shows us the Underworld, the underbelly of the city.

This is a novel that while it has some interesting and weird fauna, it is a very peopled novel, and it is the characters and our narrator’s often fumbling and deliberately wrong perceptions of people, for all that he is an intelligent academic, he can be amazingly clueless, that this novel runs on and with¹. It is Stefan being dumped into the society of prisoners and wardens on the Island and the existential terror of that and the bonds he forges, that runs a lot of the novel. In the back matter, his upbringing and his growth into a person, and the major thing he has done, is less rich in character and more rich in idea, in one of the central conceits of the novel. In some ways, then, this section, while giving Stefan a lot of interior character development, is somewhat running against the novel’s strengths. 

The second section, however, where Stefan goes to the Underworld, is in many ways for me the richest and best and most interesting part of the novel. More than Shadrapar itself, or the vicious and dangerous jungles, or the Prisoner and Warden society of the Island, it is the Underworld, I think, where all the powers of what the author is doing in terms of character, invention and worldbuilding. We get to see Stefan as a fish out of water in a place not quite as perilously dangerous as the Island, but pretty close. But we also get a more complicated environment, and more complicated social network than what we see on the Island. 

We also get, as I think about The Underworld, my favorite minor character in the novel, and that is Sergei. Sergei, it turns out when he reveals his backstory to Stefan, is not from Shadrapar, not from the jungles of the dying earth, but from somewhere else *entirely*. His story, in miniature, from the beginning to the end is a masterpiece and I felt a real kinship with him. A novel from his point of view of the events we see would have been *real* interesting. Greygori, the Transforming Man, a man who is changing himself to make a better form, is also intriguing, especially when Sergei gives him another name, a name that Stefan won’t know but we, the reader, might certainly recognize. 

The Underworld section, then, really exemplifies as mentioned above, the characters of this novel, the characters that will stick with me. Greygori and Sergei, and Stefan himself, obviously, but also Peter, the chess playing warden. Trethowan, dead author of a work that the academic Stefan quite literally clings to for life. Thelwel, who is not who and what he appears. The dangerous governor of the Island and the cruel, capricious and even more dangerous Lady Ellera, the so called Witch Queen.Gaki, the prisoner who might take Stefan’s knowledge and ideas to dangerous ends.

In the end, Cage of Souls keeps many of the strengths of the author’s writing, put into a framework, and discursive style that is sometimes at odds with his subject matter, although I always do in the end appreciate a book that thinks and considers about how a story is being told and to whom and why. The final secret of this novel, and maybe its capstone, if not its point, is how and why Stefan, academic exiled to the Island, came to be writing this testament in the first place. 

¹Interestingly, a character who our narrator dismisses, later on reads the account we ourselves are reading, and gives the narrator a lot of grief for it. It does make one reevaluate a lot of the other character 


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 For an intriguing dive into yet another subgenre for this prolific author.

+1 for an interesting set of characters and their relationships.

Penalties: -1 The stylistic and writing differences between this and much of the author’s  other work make this a not great place to start with the author. This book is atypical, for ill as well as good

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Reference: Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Cage of Souls  [Head of Zeus, 2019]

The Novella Files: Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Subject: Cassandra Khaw. Nothing But Blackened Teeth [Nightfire, 2021]

Accolades: N/A

Genre: Horror

Executive Summary:  A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.

But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt. (From Goodreads)

Assessment: Ennui is characterized by listlessness yet is never made more animated and compelling than in Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Sometimes ennui can be seemingly mundane--a lack of satisfying direction in your life. Other times, it can be a bride buried alive under her wedding venue, waiting for her runaway groom to arrive. While huge contrasts in severity, those who've experienced the former know that it can still be quite horrifying, and this novella is able to drudge up human nature and make it just as unnerving as the spiritual evil it unearths. That's not the only contrast between realism and fantasy. Nothing But Blackened Teeth has an array of realistically flawed characters, infused with Japanese folklore and sweeping, metaphorical language to elevate its tone into something uniquely satisfying.

Cassandra Khaw knows how to make every object seem interesting with inventive descriptions, but their dialogue is just as cutting. Whether its protagonist Cat's half-remove from the horrific proceedings in which things are still bubbling within her but she tries to stifle, or her friend Faiz' jovial attitude that begins to unmask, the characterization is always compelling and authentic. One thing that should be mentioned is that Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a story that leans more heavily into characterization than horror - especially in its first half - but to me, it's that grounding in humanity that make the latter proceedings cut deeper.

Khaw's writing has always worked for me, but I think this is my favorite of their works. The prose is just as lyrical and original as their best, and it's married to themes and characters that develop a lot of growth and complexity. It moves at a steady pace and growing tension, rewarding its readers with something incredibly moving and illuminating. Nothing But Blackened Teeth will make its readers think they've been plummeted into the action with lasting effects that should temper their ennui for quite a while.

Score: 8/10

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Novella FIles: Local Star by Aimee Ogden

Subject: Local Star by Aimee Ogden [Interstellar Flight Press, 2021]

Accolades: N/A

Genre: Space Opera

Executive Summary: Triz is a guttergirl, an engineer who has risen from living in the uninhabitable sewers of her space station to having a stable job at the wrenchworks and a steady romantic relationship with Casne, a decorated war hero, and Casne's wife Nantha. Unfortunately, while out for drinks (and trying to avoid Kalo, Casne's fellow soldier and Triz's ex) Casne is arrested for a war crime she almost certainly didn't commit, and Triz is sure that this must be the work of the Cyberbionautic Alliance, a transhumanist terrorist force. Triz needs to prove Casne's innocence, a challenge which will push her well past her usual limits... and, of course, it'll involve teaming up with that pesky Kalo and confronting a few difficult truths about Triz's world and her place in it.

Assessment: On the surface, Local Star is a fast-paced, action packed adventure, full of conspiracies and twists and satisfyingly tropey scenes: Bonding with a gruff but ultimately (maybe) OK mechanic mentor! Horrible futuristic bureaucracies! Jailbreaks! Journeys through space station trash chutes! Zero Gravity Shenanigans! Near-death fakeouts! Within that adventure are a lot of satisfying trials and challenges that add depth to Triz and her world. The space station setting is comfortably familiar for the genre, but with enough flourishes of its own worldbuilding to make it feel distinctive, and Triz's marginalised upbringing and precarious current position gives us a unique perspective on its society, even as we see her move through the same spaces as Casne and her friends with little difficulty. The Cyberbionautic Alliance, or CeeBees, are a plausible, slightly two dimensional adversary force, but what makes them engaging is Triz's own prejudices against almost any form of cyborg body modification as a result of their existence. That's a challenging prejudice to hold when one of your girlfriends is trans and most of your friends are in the military and prone to serious injuries that require advanced prosthetics, and over the course of the novella we see her worldview evolve to something less absolute.

The novella's blurb and marketing puts polyamory at the centre of its description, and the different character relationships - particularly Triz, Casne and Nantha and Casne's parents, who are in a quad marriage - do a lot of work in relatively little space to show us how this works in practice, and what romance and family look like in a world where polyamory is the norm. As an orphan "guttergirl" who owes her current position to Casne's family (her position at the wrenchworks involves working with Casne's meanest and least emotionally open parent), Triz is constantly aware of the power inequalities between herself and Casne and Nantha, who had more privileged upbringings and went to the same flight school before they knew her, entering their shared romantic relationship with a bunch of history and shared experience that Triz is left out of. Instead of glossing over this dynamic, we are made aware that the characters ideally want to form a quad like Casne's parents, with a fourth person who would shift the balance of the relationship. That all of the characters approach this with openness and acceptance makes Local Star's romance elements really pleasant to read, and while Triz and Kalo's dynamic starts off painfully awkward, their bickering soon smooths into a fun adversarial dynamic - complete with a lot of learning about the others' background that apparently didn't happen during their first fling. I struggled to get a sense of what Triz and Kalo's first relationship would have been like just from their dynamic here, but their adventures together make the eventual end pairing a satisfying conclusion.

Local Star is a romp of a novella, and as such it offers few outright surprises, but its conspiratorial, mystery elements very much work as intended and it deploys its tropes very well. More than that, it's a great example of balancing effective worldbuilding, character beats and an action packed plot at a tasty novella length. Definitely one for sci fi romance fans to look out for! 

Score: 7/10

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

WE RANK 'EM: The Films of Godzilla's Heisei Era

I don’t know if you know this, but 2021 is the year of Godzilla. Oh, it’s not an official anniversary year for the franchise and there are no special events since we are still three years away from Godzilla’s 70th Anniversary in 2024, so maybe a better way to say it would be that 2021 is MY year of Godzilla.

At the time of writing this article I have watched 24 Godzilla films this year, which is a somewhat staggering number if I stop to think about it. I started the year with the American films Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs Kong (as well as Kong: Skull Island). They were absolutely delightful and drove my desire to see what the original franchise of Japanese films was all about. I didn’t expect that I would watch nearly this many, but in July I wrote about the first 15 Godzilla movies comprising the “Showa Era” for the franchise. Now I’m writing about the next 7 films, which comprise the Heisei Era.

The different “eras” of the Godzilla franchise are generally named for and cover the films made during the reigns of the Japanese Emperors. The Heisei Era is named for the reign of Emperor Akihito and it reworks the continuity of the Godzilla franchise.

By production year, The Return of Godzilla would technically be part of the Showa Era of Godzilla films, but tonally it fits much more as Heisei - plus it kicked off this new era of films and the chronology works far more as The Return of Godzilla being a new thing rather than the lat Showa film. New director, new producer, new focus.

What separates the Heisei Era from the Showa Era is that Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 Godzilla. Everything that came after, from Godzilla Raids Again to Terror of MechaGodzilla, were discarded and didn’t count when it came to story and chronology. It has now been decades since Godzilla attacked Toyko and had been beaten back.

As with my Showa ranking, this is not definitive. I’m just having fun here, though I’m quite serious with what the best of the franchise is and what the best of the era is. Now, three of the movies were real disappointments given how good the first Heisei movies were and how strong of an ending Godzilla vs Destoroyah was, but with this many movies in the franchise I suppose we can’t expect them all to be winners - but let’s find out which one of them are!

7. Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993)

Oh, it’s fucking baby Godzilla in this movie. Can’t Ghidorah come back from the dead and just kill that little shit?

I am quite happy to see the baby rainbow mothra projection and the twins again even thought they said in the earlier set Godzilla vs Mothra that they'd be back to help when needed and clearly Mothra was needed and they only sent a warning to some humans which I'm not sure really helped all that much.

Space Godzilla kind of looks like one of the Gremlins once they’ve gone bad. Now I want to watch Gremlins again. This doesn’t make Godzilla a Mogwai, though someone with artistic skills should totally try to reverse engineer that. I'd like to see that picture.

There's a low angle shot of Godzilla stomping through the jungle that was just awesome and not something that we’ve seen before.

I can’t quite decide if this is a serious or campy Godzilla movie. It's not helped by the existence of Baby Godzilla, which feels like it is in a completely different movie (and not a good one, but Baby Godzilla is the WORST).

I do appreciate the bullshit theory of how Space Godzilla was formed from Godzilla cells shot into space from Biollante, entered into a black hole, exited through a white hole (which is apparently a real thing), and merged with crystals? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even relative to the existence of this franchise, but sure, why the hell not?

As always - the final bottle is an awesome spectacle. That’s one thing this franchise has done well even in movies that are otherwise whack. I well know that Godzilla movies are never wall-to-wall monster fighting, but sometimes the human elements are crappy enough that the rest of the movie doesn’t hold up and can’t be lifted by the hot kaiju action. This is one of them.

6. Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994)

Oh, it’s fucking baby Godzilla. Can’t Ghidorah come back from the dead and just kill that little shit?

I am quite happy to see baby rainbow mothra projection and the twins again even thought they said that they'd be back to help when needed and clearly Mothra was needed and they only sent a warning to some humans which I'm not sure really helped all that much.

Space Godzilla kind of looks like one of the Gremlins once they’ve gone bad. Now I want to watch Gremlins again. This doesn’t make Godzilla a Mogwai, though someone with artistic skills should totally try to reverse engineer that.

The low angle shot of Godzilla stomping through the jungle was awesome and not something that we’ve seen before.

I can’t quite decide if this is a serious or campy Godzilla movie. Not helped by the existence of Baby Godzilla, which feels like it is in a completely different movie (and not a good one, but Baby Godzilla is the WORST).

I do appreciate the bullshit theory of how Space Godzilla was formed from Godzilla cells shot into space from Biollante (see my thoughts on the much better Biollante movie in just a bit), entered into a black hole, exited through a white hole (which is apparently a real thing), and merged with crystals? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even relative to the existence of this franchise, but sure, why the hell not?

As always - the final battle is an awesome spectacle. That’s one thing this franchise has done well even in movies that are otherwise whack. I well know that Godzilla movies are never wall-to-wall monster fighting, but sometimes the human elements are crappy enough that the rest of the movie doesn’t hold up and can’t be lifted by the hot kaiju action or really absurd explanations. This is one of them.

5. Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)

Godzilla vs Mothra opens with an Indiana Jones esque sequence and I think I want to watch *that* movie. Just a couple of folks who keep searching for random kaiju eggs.

Speaking of random kaiju eggs, Mothra is back! That's probably not a big surprise since the movie's title is Godzilla vs MOTHRA and all, but Mothra has taken a back seat from the franchise for a while and this is a lovely reintroduction complete with the singing twins (I love the singing twins). I also love the humans waving goodbye to Mothra at the end of the movie. So cute!

Added bonus - Dark Mothra! There's Battra, which is in a larval stage for far too long before it turns into a bat-thing kaiju. I don't know what the hell, but as an antagonist for Godzilla it's pretty great. Not buzzsaw in the chest great, but as a nastier version of Mothra great.

Like the 1964 Mothra vs Godzilla, this is much more of a Mothra movie where Godzilla shows up occasionally as an antagonist than it is a "Godzilla" movie, though that distinction is fairly fine. Also, granted that Godzilla is an antagonist for pretty much the entire Heisei era. No hero Godzilla here.

The effects in Godzilla vs Mothra are really quite bad and are a major reversion to the earlier Showa era effects budget and techniques. The only exception to that is the underwater fight scene - but that gets to the idea of using darkness for greater impact and covering up the flaws / things they can't do well yet.

It's fine for what it is, but the movie is the first real disappointment of the Heisei era. The film was so close to being more interesting than it turned out to be, but just missed. Mostly due to the effects.

4. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)

Time Travelers from the future come back to inform Japanese officials that their country will be in ruins if they don’t go back further back in time to eliminate Godzilla before it can become the monster we all know and fear.

This is Godzilla origin story that I didn’t know I wanted - it was just a dinosaur that somehow survived until the 1940’s (the species, I’m sure Godzilla itself isn’t seventy million years old, probably) and then was nuked into awesomeness. But - in the midst of eliminating Godzilla, this altered timeline inadvertently created King Ghidorah and now there’s a timeline where Ghidorah wrecks Tokyo with no Godzilla to stop him. Of course, this being a Godzilla movie Godzilla does return from non-existence to fuck some stuff up.

There is a point here where Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is pivoting from some of the storytelling decisions (and tone) of Godzilla vs Biollante. I read a review elsewhere that suggested that Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is as much of a Showa Era movie in its absurdity than it is a Heisei Era film. I somewhat disagree, because while the time travel aspect is relatively absurd, everything here is taken so much more seriously than the excesses of the Showa Era. It may be nuts to go back in time to destroy Godzilla and create King Ghidorah and then go back to to nuke Godzilla back into existence, but it’s played straight and it works right up until the climactic fight, which - I’ll admit - does feel like a more classic / Showa era battle. Oh, and the Time Travelers have become a comic version of the T-2000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and it’s a bit of a jarring note to the rest of the movie that is, as noted, played fairly straight.

With that said, I did like that sort of slap fight right before Godzilla gets serious and takes King Ghidorah down - so I don’t mean any of that as a negative. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is a movie partly out of time - somewhat unsure of what it wanted to be. It’s also pretty great. Bonus points for the post-Ghidorah destruction within the city and the lead in to making Ghidorah mecha. At every turn someone needs to upgrade one monster because the other monster is too bad ass - but then that monster needs to be defeated, so let's revive the defeated monster. It's great. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is just extra.

3. Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)

Godzilla has never looked better, now 17 movies into the franchise and the second entry in the Heisei era, and the costume department has finally fixed my biggest problem - the eyes. Now Godzilla looks like a terrifying monster rather than a what the fuck are wrong with his eyes monster.

Godzilla vs Biollante features genetic engineering, where a sample of Godzilla's flesh after the final battle in The Return of Godzilla has allowed scientists to combine Godzilla's DNA with that of a rose mixed with human cells (don't ask). The results are amazing and naturally go very wrong.

The first fight with the giant rose was good, but then Biollante levels up late in the movie for reasons and THAT FIGHT IS AMAZING. Biollante is freaky as hell, shoots green goo, and reminds me of the Marlboro from the Final Fantasy video games (perhaps the one enemy you least want to fight). The second fight could have been a bit longer, to be honest, but what was there was great.

The whole idea of the giant plant monster reminds me of the smog monster in Hedorah, and that was one of my favorites of the Showa Era.

With that said, I appreciate the change in the Heisei Era of Godzilla to a more serious (giant plant monster notwithstanding) tone. It's working really well so far. Godzilla vs Biollante also has one of the better human stories thus far in the franchise.

2. The Return of Godzilla (1984)

Released 9 years after Terror of MechaGodzilla, The Return of Godzilla serves as a direct sequel to the 1954 original as well as a reboot of the franchise, ignoring the loose continuity of everything that has happened since in the franchise.

The Return of Godzilla is darker in tone and starts out more as a horror movie (and maintains some of that tone throughout)

Thinking about the original Godzilla, I love the use of darkness to reintroduce Godzilla. There's just so much menace when you can't see the monster clearly and it is a looming terror in the night. That was always one of the most effective uses of Godzilla and the other monsters in the Showa Era of the franchise. With that said, they do need to stop with the closeups of the face that do occur because that rubber suit still does not look great and the eyes are lost somewhere in the uncanny valley.

The plan to cause a volcanic eruption in the hopes of burying Godzilla is fantastic in its absurdity, but one of the touches I appreciated most was the conference at the UN with the United States and the USSR advocating heavily for the use of nuclear weapons. The Japanese ministers have serious discussion about what that would mean for the country for the citizens relative to the threat of Godzilla and demure, but the conversation about nuclear weapons is more pointed than it might have been coming from other countries. Of course, the two ambassadors were over the top aggressive clowns - which somehow makes a lot of sense.

The point, though, is that The Return of Godzilla - more than any other movie in the franchise (at least the first twenty two of them - gets to the core of what Godzilla is.

1. Godzilla vs Destoroyah (1995)

This Godzilla is going to fuck somebody up. As the movie opens, Godzilla looks pissed, looks like it is in pain, looks raw, and is laying waste to Hong Kong.

Godzilla vs Destoroyah is a bad ass movie. After the opening Godzilla attack it takes another 30-40 minutes before it shows up again and it doesn't matter. There is a traditional slow build to the action, but the mini destroyers cause enough havoc that Godzilla vs Destoroyah is tense the whole way through.

The movie has Japan grappling with nuclear threats again (see the previous entry) - from Godzilla potentially going supernova to Godzilla attacking a nuclear reactor and the fear of how to respond, it's good stuff.

Besides that - when Destoroyah merges into it's final form, it is an incredible badass kaiju. We love Mothra, and Ghidorah is probably Godzilla's greatest antagonist (smog monsters not withstanding), but for my money Destoroyah ranks right up among the best of them.

Godzilla vs Destoroyah also features a return of Godzilla Jr, which would normally be an occasion for the gnashing of teeth but Godzilla Jr is all grown up and is closer to a regular strength Godzilla - but the OG Godzilla here is a nuclear furnace hell beast of pain and rage.

The music late in the movie really sells that this was intended to be a farewell for Godzilla. It is epic and sweeping, occasionally nostalgic, and absolutely perfect. Spoilers, but it ends with Godzilla melting away as the furnace inside the kaiju finally overcomes the body.

Director Takao Okawara knows what he's about and has crafted the finest Godzilla movie since perhaps the original. Nothing else quite compares.

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