Wednesday, November 24, 2021

6 Books with Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen writes short science fiction and fantasy, essays, and poems. She lives atop some of the oldest bedrock in North America. She is among the premier speculative fiction writers in the world named after fruit.

Today, I axe, err, ask her about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading Megan E. O'Keefe's Catalyst Gate, which is the culmination of a trilogy that starts with Velocity Weapon. It's space opera that's filled with spaceships, alien intelligence, nanites, and shooty-shoot--and also personal relationships and the human heart. The series is full of twists and turns, and I can't wait to see where it all ends up.


2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I'm really bad at preorders, but I have made an exception for Ken Liu's The Veiled Throne. It's the latest in the Dandelion Dynasty Saga, and I expect it to be what I love most about late books in a series: consequences, consequences, consequences. Ken has set up so many world-shaking things in this series--now we see how it all plays out, what the characters build when they have a chance. I can't wait.


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

Always. I'm a little bit afraid to think about this question because it might send me down a rabbit hole. But I think the one that's most at the top of my mind on this blustery autumn day is Pamela Dean's The Dubious Hills. I love how the language the characters use starts the worldbuilding immediately. I love their relationships, I love their exploration of the world, I love how self-contained they are and yet how they interact with the Secret Country trilogy. I see new things about how it's constructed every time I reread it.


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

For some reason, the first time I tried Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead, I did not connect to it *at all*. The opening that now strikes me as exciting and evocative left me cold. I can't even tell you why. It just did. I'm really glad I gave it a second chance, because it and the entire Craft Sequence are now favorites for their sharp wit, worldbuilding, and characterization. Sometimes things are worth a second look. (I have negative examples, too, of course--we all do. But I prefer to focus on the positive.)


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

Like a lot of Swedish-American children, I grew up with more of Astrid Lindgren than just Pippi Longstocking. One of my favorites is Ronia the Robber's Daughter, which is a story of a semi-feral little girl growing up running around in the Swedish woods--which I still love to do whenever I get the chance, although mine don't have harpies and dwarves in them, that I've ever found. They live in a half-ruined castle, and there are massive thunderstorms and all sorts of very vivid images that stuck with me quite firmly. She and her best friend turn their parents' bands of robbers peaceful and honest in the end, but not before a lot of shenanigans as they grow up. I still love Ronia.


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

My chapbook is Monstrous Bonds, a collection of five short stories about monsters and friendship. I think the thing that's most awesome about it is its inspiration, my friend and fellow author John Wiswell. I was sitting in on a panel John was doing on monsters at Fourth Street Fantasy in the beforetimes, and I started writing down title idea after title idea, all related to monsters. Five of them have coalesced into these stories. (I might write more later!) The combination just felt like a really good time to me, and having it come out on Halloween was the obvious choice.

 There's a really large range of monsters here, both physically and relationally, and I just find it really satisfying to write about friendship. I hope you find it satisfying to read too! You can find it on Marissa's site here.

 Thank you so much, Marissa!

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' is the latest round in a conversation we're tired of having

It's become a vicious cycle: we keep begging movie studios to do something original, and they keep refusing to learn from their bad choices

How to properly grapple with the fearsome cultural weight of the original Ghostbusters is a question that the franchise has acknowledged before. In 1997, the beloved cartoon The Real Ghostbusters was followed by an unexpected sequel: Extreme Ghostbusters, in which paranormal researcher Egon Spengler recruits a new team of young heroes to continue the fight against supernatural menaces. This show was darker and less goofy than the previous one, a necessary course correction given how The Real Ghostbusters had attempted, starting on its third season, an ill-advised shift toward a family-friendlier tone. Notably, the series finale of Extreme Ghostbusters is about Egon reconnecting with his old pals and going out to chase ghosts like they used to, annoying the new team with their obvious mid-life crisis and condescending attitude. Most of the humor in this two-part episode is done at the expense of the original team, portraying them as so self-absorbed and meddlesome that we can't wait to see them go. The villain is defeated by the collaboration of both teams, but not until the seniors acknowledge that the torch has been passed.

That degree of self-awareness is lost on Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the latest result of filmmakers' current state of utter terror of their own audiences. Just like Disney took the overblown hatred thrown at The Last Jedi seriously and gave us the insipid Rise of Skywalker, Sony Pictures let the vitriol about the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot scare it into delivering a safe, reassuring, bland, reverential, unimaginative, inoffensive-yet-fully-offensive pat on the head for all the entitled manchildren who couldn't accept women wearing a proton pack and spent the last half decade demanding that the studio go back and fix it.

This attitude of "go back and fix it" has done serious damage to the movie industry. When James Cameron returned to the Terminator franchise with the explicit intention of erasing everything after T2 (Cameron actually said the words "we’re pretending the other films were a bad dream," which by now ought to be taken as a prophecy of doom in Hollywood), hardcore fans cheered, only to be treated to the underwhelming Dark Fate. Even today, many fans still demand that George Lucas be brought back to supposedly save Star Wars, forgetting how the prequels are made entirely of bad choices. The same bizarre cult of personality forms the backbone of the #RestoretheSnyderverse movement.

Hidden beneath the rage and the hyperbole is an interesting discussion about the nature of authorship and canonicity. The fixation on canon stems from a misplaced need for veracity that belongs in historical studies, not in fiction. It actually matters if Nelson Mandela was freed and elected president of South Africa, and did not, as many misremember, die in prison. It does not matter if Superman gets married in one storyline and is back in high school in the next. To offer a not wholly unrelated example: each region of India has their own myths about the gods, and the Hindu attitude is to deem all of them valid. Conversely, in the Western world, there's only one official canon of Scripture, even though in the early Christian times there was an immense variety of gospels in circulation, and there were bitter disagreements about which selection of books were meant to belong to the One True Canon. The latter approach is the one taken by fans who demand that all pieces of a franchise fit together in a single, neat, agreeable lore. Viewed in this context, it's not surprising that genre canon is being treated with a reverence that crosses into dogmatic fanaticism. The Ghostbusters franchise repeats the fatal mistake of the Terminator franchise in adopting the position that only the Holy Word of Reitman is true.

Even worse, this disregards the franchise's own ethos. For all its flaws, the original Ghostbusters at least made the progressive statement that ordinary, working-class people could become heroes by dedication and effort (as bumbling and unprofessional such effort may be). Afterlife, instead, is an aristocracy where only the legitimate progeny of the heroes (and of the filmmaker) deserve to inherit the legacy. This feeds into a toxic possessiveness that shuts off possible avenues for innovative storytelling.

The many ways Ghostbusters: Afterlife fails to entertain have already been dissected in ample, gory detail. It's been called "a soulless ode to nepotism," "dead on arrival," "manipulative and ethically dubious," "nostalgia whack-a-mole at its worst," "a nightmare colored in shades of sepia," "an ouroboros of nostalgia cannibalizing itself," "a dungeon of necrophilia," "a slimy, stinking corpse of a sequel," and (my favorite) "a gloomy nostalgia trip through the ruins of American culture." There's no diplomatic way of putting it: a movie made this badly should be a career-ender.

But Ghostbusters isn't done with us. This is a conversation we cannot avoid, however much exhausting it is to have to tell angry Gen-Xers that the way they remember the 80s is very biased and that the rest of us shouldn't have to care about their hair-sprayed, mini-skirted, shoulder-padded, neon-lit, lead-fueled memories anyway.

So, time for a little bubble-bursting: the character of Peter Venkman in the original Ghostbusters is an insufferable narcissist, a parasitic excuse of a friend, and a serial sexual predator (and in the second movie, a xenophobic bigot) who would have been kicked out of academia (not to mention out of polite company) decades before we meet him in the first movie, and the fact that the actor who played him was brought into the 2016 reboot for the sole purpose of blasting him out a window was a fully deserved catharsis.

You need to do some serious work on your adulthood if your childhood is even capable of being retroactively "ruined." No movie, however much cherished, deserves to be treated as sacred and untouchable. The original Ghostbusters oozes with erotic subtext that is missing from devoted fans' starry-eyed recollection of their first viewing. The movie reaches its climax with the heroes smeared from head to toe in creamy white goo, and the second movie, even more overt in equating heroism with intercourse (see: Louis Tully), is obsessed with a different type of goo that is bluntly coded female (as in bright pink and highly emotional). When fans demand a sequel that respects Ghostbusters, it's hard to comprehend what exactly they find so respectable.

This phenomenon is not new. Haters of The Last Jedi protested that it didn't respect Star Wars, but what you get when you make a movie worried with respecting Star Wars is the nervous people-pleaser that is Rise of Skywalker. The same thing has happened with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It's embarrassing to see a studio agree to perform any humiliation demanded of it, and it's depressing to consider that this won't be the last time fan feedback will intimidate filmmakers into abandoning all self-respect (it's no wonder that "don't be yourself" is made into a motif in Afterlife).

Even if we try to be generous and analyze it apart from its connection to the franchise and (for the sake of argument) apart from the torrents of discussion surrounding it, Ghostbusters: Afterlife fails at the basics of storytelling. We begin by following the story of Callie, a single mother who moves with her two children to a rural town in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma because they're penniless and the only thing they have left is the badly kept farmhouse where her estranged father died. Her son Trevor barely has a role beyond being a hormonal creep, but Phoebe, her genius daughter, quickly discovers that there's something not quite right about this place. There are unexplained earthquakes, and ominous rock carvings, and self-moving chess pieces, and people who call themselves "Podcast." As it turns out, her mysterious grandfather was not a jerk, but a hero who died trying to capture an evil deity before it could consume the world.

Phoebe reconnects to her family's heritage with the help of literally the first acquaintance she meets in the town, a summer school teacher who happens to know some geology and who by the magic of plotting chance is a big adoring fan of her grandfather's exploits. But once he's provided the mandatory exposition (with the implied moral that today's adults do their children a grievous disservice by not telling them about the Ghostbusters), this character ceases to be any help at all. Despite being the only person in the state of Oklahoma who even knows what a ghost trap does, his first impulse upon finding one is to poke it with a stick and irresponsibly release an undead monster that immediately runs to the ominous rock carvings to help bring the end of the world. The next thing our heroic teacher proceeds to do is get possessed by a dog demon, engage in a sexual ritual that couldn't possibly have been consensual, and... that's it.

So let's check up on the kids. The role of Phoebe was given to a decent actress, but the way she's written makes her the least believable portrayal of neurodiversity since Sheldon Cooper. Her petulance gets boring very fast, and her relationship with her mother is adversarial to the point of emotional wounding. One might say, in Phoebe's defense, that she comes from a difficult family background. Not only did her grandfather leave with no explanation; her father is also to blame. It's completely understandable to break up because you don't like your partner anymore; it's monstrous to break up because you don't like your child. However, that doesn't suffice to build a defense of Phoebe, because the movie has no interest in exploring that angle. The massive amount of trauma in her backstory is glossed over in the service of ancestor worship.

On her brother Trevor's side, the seams of the story become even more strained. He's not so much a character per se; he's more of a recognizable face that's useful for selling tickets. He has an instant crush on a girl who only keeps him around to play mean pranks on him and who by the magic of plotting chance is related to the only other adult in the town. The rest of the characters are treated as background decoration, which makes it hard to believe in the stakes when an ancient horror crawls out of its pit.

Said horror takes the shape of an androgynous fashionista who doesn't seem much interested in conquering; she likes to sit and pet her demon dogs and look menacing until someone comes to tell her bad jokes and steal one of her dogs. In the final battle, in which a family that have only behaved in a mean and resentful manner to each other have suddenly learned to cooperate, the young heroes prove incapable of completing the job, and a team of retired Ghostbusters come out of nowhere to show the kids how it's done. We meet the disturbingly wordless specter of the dead grandfather, who seemingly gets forgiven for simply showing up, and...

Yes, and... this movie doesn't even bother having a proper ending.

Where does this leave us? Yay because the monster is gone, boo because the heroic family is still destitute. Yay because the kids uncovered their true place in the world, boo because their own effort had no part in building it. Yay because the lonely mother landed a hot boyfriend, boo because he's a terrible teacher who makes zero effort at his job and despises his students. Yay because we got a girl Ghostbuster, boo because the only way Afterlife could think of to make the concept of a girl Ghostbuster palatable to the rage mob that savaged the previous movie was to remove from her character design all physical and behavioral markers of femininity.

In sum: seen on its own merits, it has none. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not exciting, or scary, or funny, or interesting. It's just a very, very bad movie. But when we bring all the context back into the discussion, it becomes something worse. It's a capitulation to the rage mob and a validation of its abusive tactics. It's a vulgar stroking of the audience's nostalgia buttons. It's a set of manacles fastened around the creative potential of the franchise. It's a childish attempt to remove from memory the actually good 2016 reboot (and the actually good 1997 cartoon).

This movie pulls a back muscle with how hard it winks at the viewer. The repetition of the same villain with the same plan and the same methods as in the original movie is an appalling display of subservience to lore and plain unimaginativeness. The needless completion of Ivo Shandor's origin story is exemplary of the worst tendencies of explainer culture, which confuses mysteries with mistakes. The camera fetishizes every piece of merchandise prop with such awe that one expects the frame to include price tags. The ending includes a "go back and fix it" redo of dialogue from the original movie that was uncalled for and ultimately inconsequential to the fight. The post-credits scenes land with all the obnoxious box-ticking of Chewbacca's medal. And one can almost hear Phoebe say "I'm all the Jedi" when Harold Ramis is digitally dragged from the grave for a moment of cheap fanservice that is contemptible beyond words.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife has nothing valuable or memorable to add to the main continuity it so anxiously defends, shows no awareness of the raunchy tone that made the original a classic, and sets a disturbing new precedent for the dynamic between fans and filmmakers. That this was avoidable (they could simply have ignored the rabid manchildren and produced sequels to the 2016 reboot) makes the result even more lamentable. Instead of a loving homage to a generation of cinema, what we got is an era-definingly bad movie.

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10.

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

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Microreview: The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann

 The Fallen continues Ada Hoffmann’s story of Jasira and Tiv, whose inadvertent rebellion against the Gods and the Angels that serve them has irrevocably not only changed them, but the planet of Jai as well.

When last we left the pair, after Jasira’s contact with the Outside and the eruption of the Plague literally bringing down the wrath of heaven on them, they had managed to escape the Angels and set themselves up in a region of the planet Jai where the laws of physics were...different, and malleable. Destroying the region and all within it is a last resort the Angels are not yet ready to implement, but their forces are waiting just outside the Chaos Zone, ready to pounce. The problem for Tiv, is that she is trying to hold together the fragile society they have built in the zone, Jasira herself is very much not holding herself together, when Tiv, and the others, need her the most.

This is the story of Ada Hoffmann’s The Fallen, sequel to The Outside. [I reviewed The Outside here in 2019: ]

What happens after the heresy and defying the Gods, and having to actually build and hold things together in the wake of the drama of the first novel and the contact with things outside reality. After you make the dramatic break, how do you hold things together, especially built on such a slippery foundation?  Hoffmann’s story explores this in detail, showing how the society within the zone on Jai depends strongly on Tiv and her counterparts. It’s a precarious situation for Tiv and company and the story of them trying to hold the Zone together itself could be the mainline of the novel.

The novel, however,  provides much more. I was conflicted at first by the novel taking Yasira off of the table for much of the novel, relying on Tiv, but I realized the clever switch of the major POV here to Tiv and it works rather well, and like this. Yasira, with her contact with the Outside, is now something much more than human, and the Seven (including Tiv) have to hold the Zone together, help their people and keep watch on what the people are doing. Yasira is not quite a deus ex machina, but keeping her offstage, and mostly out of sight, and keeping her power at bay does mean that Tiv and the others have to find other solutions to the problems besetting them. This is accentuated by the narrative cruelty of Tiv, among the Seven, not having any “superpower” granted to her by the Plague. She can’t manipulate reality as the others can (who really do some across as “superheroes”) and more so, is the ostensible leader with Yasira incommunicado (and clearly in distress for all of that). 

There are some interesting narrative tricks, too. In addition to Tiv, and in the end, some from Yasira, the point of views we get in the book help illuminate the narrative. Elu and Akavi, the former angels of Nemesis now on the run from the Gods themselves for failing to stop Yasira, Tiv and Dr. Talirr from unleashing the Plague, definitely want to finish the job, regardless.  I also particularly liked Enga as a point of view character here, getting inside of her head and how she thinks was effective on two levels--first, it helped illuminate a rather mysterious character (or more of a force of nature) and second, like with the stories of Tiv and Yasira, it helped strengthen and promote the neurodiverse voices and  overall diversity in the book. Hoffmann’s protagonists, Enga included, are fascinatingly flawed individuals who nevertheless try the best that they can.  Rather than making it a black and white story of those who support the gods and those who oppose them, the use of character voices like Enga also show other sides of the conflict in Hoffmann’s verse.

And then there are the “Story” bits. Throughout the narrative, we get some short sections where the Gods tell the “Story” of the Chaos Zone from their point of view. This point of view is very much skewed on their point of view, and is uniformly hostile to all of our protagonists, and Elu and Akavi do come across in a new light as they are ostensibly trying for these goals, as well as their own agendas. All this complexity enriches the narrative of the universe and the narrative of the characters as well. 

The narrative tricks also extend to the timelines and order of events in the novel as well. There is a lot of hopping around in time and events throughout the book, which makes sense given that the characters are quite literally in a zone of reality where the rules of the universe don’t quite work the way they are supposed to, this makes sense. The novel disorients a reader in its experience, and I think that is a deliberate choice on the part of the author.

But this also illuminates a weakness for me for the novel. Where I think the novel doesn’t quite hit the worldbuilding, characters, representation and other elements is the plotting. The through line of the plot isn’t as strongly delineated as the other elements of the book, and I think that is a weakness. It’s not a fatal weakness for the novel, and I delighted in the other elements of the book, but for those who want a strong overall plot, this novel feels a bit of a step back from the first book, whose inciting incident definitely kept the plot rolling with its implications and results. Here, the novel begins sometime after the end of the Plague, but there isn’t the same sort of narrative drive. The hopping around  in time and space masks this problem rather than solves it in my view.

Overall, for all it discomfited me, and the plotting frustrated me, I enjoyed this long awaited followup to The Outside. The world that Hoffmann creates here, particularly, is one I would like to spend some more time in. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for continued interesting worldbuilding and asking the question of “what happens next” effectively

+1 for interesting use of point of views to illuminate the narrative.

Penalties: -1 A lack of narrative plotting drive in the plotting is a real weakness of the book.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 

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

Reference: Hoffmann, Ada The Fallen  [Angry Robot, 2021] 

Friday, November 19, 2021

6 Books with Marjorie B. Kellogg

Marjorie B. Kellogg is an associate professor of theater at Colgate University. Kellogg has written several novels, including Lear's Daughters, Harmony, and The Dragon Quartet series. She has adapted work for the stage and written an original musical. She has a BA from Vassar College. In addition to teaching at Colgate, she has also taught at Princeton University and Columbia University.

Today she tells us about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,
by Joshua Hammer

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

After the Fall, by Ben Rhodes

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I tend to read several books at once, for variety and to suit my level of concentration at any given moment. These are all books given to me by friends, except for the KSR, which I made myself wait to read until I’d finished my own book about flooded Manhattan. Fortunately, the two could not be more different. With something as vast and far-reaching as climate change, there are a billion stories yet to tell.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Any new book feels like an exciting prospect!

But I’ve been too busy this summer to keep an eye on what’s in the pipeline. Plus, I look for enthusiastic recommendations from other readers I trust, and none have come my way recently. A chance to work through the stacks waiting on my desk and bedside table.

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

I don’t tend to reread books, as the surprise element in a narrative is important to my enjoyment of reading. And there are so many books yet to read, with so little time!

But if I really loved a book, and enough time has passed that I feel I might read it differently, see it in a new light or learn something new from it, then I’ll revisit it. 

It might be time to reread Cloud Atlas, for instance. Or early George R.R. Martin.

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

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. 

This book I have reread, more than once, and still find moving and magical. Her portrayal of an alien civilization is so deeply drawn, so compassionate, so non-comic-booky, and yet so relevant and relatable to our own Earth-bound issues and selves. It’s what Science Fiction can do like no other genre.

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

I didn’t think much about writing as a young adult. I read a lot of science fiction and I thought most about story, and how SF, while being a fun read, could also discuss and bring to life issues like racism, gender, or especially the environment, topics that were then and still are most important to me.

Perhaps, as a youngster I first noticed good writing in the work of Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, Johanna Russ, Sheri Tepper: people who paid attention to style when that wasn’t required in genre fiction. Now there’s lots of good writing around, which may be one reason why science fiction, and particularly climate fiction, is being read by a much wider public. About time, since the future that climate fiction has been prophesying for decades is upon us already.

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

My latest is Glimmer, debuted October 12, from DAW Books. It’s a near-future novel about living with the disruptions of climate change. It’s not a coming-disaster tale. The disasters are already happening, page by page, and Glimmer does not offer some magical fix. Instead, it’s an intimate, first-person narrative by a young woman who, traumatized into memory loss, finds surprising community in chaotic, flooded Manhattan, and with that community, explores new ways to live in a climate-changed world. She endures terrible loss as lethal weather and random violence surge around her, but surfacing memories ignite a healing process of self-discovery. 

We often read how the rich and privileged are preparing for climate change. I wanted to imagine what ordinary folk, the left-behinds without power or wealth, might do to survive as the social order darkens and falls apart. Can Darwinian fitness take on a new definition? Is might-makes-right the only possible outcome? I wanted to locate hope for a reasonable future for the Earth in my characters’ determination and creative ingenuity, the positive side of being human.

Thank you, Marjorie!

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

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Microreview [book]: Obviously, Aliens by Jennie Goloboy

An SF novel centered around humor, but also characters, relationships, and ultimately heart.

Dana has a problem. When traveling to Spokane to meet a memorabilia company to pitch them an idea for a line of collectibles, she makes the mistake of drinking the wrong can of soda from a can in a rental car. Except the soda isn’t a soda, and now she has someone else in her body. This isn’t even the weirdest thing that Dana has to face, as she is soon plunged into a world of a variety of aliens, government agencies, tech companies with secrets, her past with her famous father, and even more weirdness. Not a great day for someone who just wants to sell her idea for Doges of the Month. 

Obviously, Aliens, is the debut novel of Jennie Goloboy.

Humor is a hard thing to pull off in a SF novel, especially as a tentpole. There are precious few writers who have the skill of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. And, really, in this day and age, you need more than just the humor to sustain a narrative .So, Goloboy is certainly brave to make the attempt at a comic SF novel here, even if the novel is backed with a strong set of characters, a strong focus on relationships, and a relatively soft and comfortable storyline. 

As it so happened, breaking the fourth wall here, I read a large portion of this book while waiting for Urgent Care for a thumb injury. It turns out a light, fun and breezy SF novel leavened with humor is exactly the kind of thing you want to read in a situation like this. Somehow I think a more serious or complex narrative was not what I was interested in, but this novel? This novel is the SF equivalent of a beach read, something that I could read while in discomfort, and fall for the humor, the characters, the relationships. 

Plot is pretty much not the point of a novel like this. We start with Dana, trying to realize her artistic dream, and switch between her and Adam, who loves Jay, who at the beginning of the novel gets inserted into Dana via that “soda can”. A series of adventures plague both as Dana gets pulled into a world that Adam (and Jay) know much more about, but even they don’t quite know how deep the rabbit hole goes. They are aware of one alien, yes, but it emerges there are several sets of aliens on Earth, with varying agendas and plans, and both Adam and Dana get wrapped up in their shenanigans.

Describing humor is relatively hard, I find. How do you convey the sense of humor and fun that this novel has. I can broadly say that it runs to the absurd and situational, rather than more dry or literarily focused. But I think a comparison is in order, and to two movies. Obviously, Aliens, although the author mentions Scarecrow and Mrs King as an inspiration, reminded me of two movies. The first, no surprise, is Men in Black, with a variety of aliens on Earth, trying to get along, and occasionally having their agendas cause problems for others. The other movie is one I happen to like, and my citing of this movie is meant as a compliment, and one I want to discuss in detail. And that movie is Hudson Hawk.

Hudson Hawk, you may have heard, is “not good”. For me, this is far from being true. That it was a box office failure is undeniable. But I recently rewatched it and I saw what the movie tries to do, and for people who accept it, can see and enjoy it.  It’s utterly absurdist, as Bruce Willis’ main character, who just wants a cup of espresso and live his life now out of prison, gets pulled into a plot heist involving Leonardo Da Vinci, the Vatican, quirky and weird egotistical millionaires and a lot of humor all over the place.. It’s a movie that never takes itself seriously, and there is a softness to the movie that makes it perfect to watch if, say, you are sick and want something breezy and fun. Obviously, Aliens felt for me exactly like the literary equivalent of Hudson Hawk in that regard. Dana just wants to make a living (although finding a stable relationship would be nice). Adam and Jay want to make their relationship work, even if there are...challenges given their current states of being. The government agents...they just want to keep things on an even keel. And the aliens, too, all of them, have pretty basic wants and needs, but when they all collide, funny things happen. 

The novel also has a lot of heart. It treats its characters, even the ostensible antagonists, rather gently and with love and respect. You will get to know Dana, Adam, Jay, Sophie and the rest and get to know them, road trip style. (If this book were ever turned into an audiobook, this novel would be really fun to listen to on a driving adventure). Sure, the characters go through all sorts of disasters, reversals, and “can you believe THIS?”  but it is a very lighthearted tone. The relationships especially work well. Adam and Jay trying to keep it together. Dana, trying to find someone as her world gets weirder and weirder. The friendships and work relationships as Dana further sinks into this world. 

Spoiling a comic SF novel is easy, but I will give a shot at what Dana finds as she plunges into a world that she never knew existed:  Aliens with multiple bodies. Alien ship landings. Mysterious tech companies. Dogs who are really Aliens. Robot duplicates. Strange libertarian communities offshore of San Francisco. What REALLY is underneath Denver Airport. Alien run grocery stores. And a whole lot more. Goloboy puts these elements in the blender and turns it on to high and every chapter brings something new, and funny, to the fore.

On a more serious note, the novel’s writing is excellent. Goloboy knows when to stop pressing a joke, and more importantly, knows when to jump the narrative forward and bring us to the “next bit”. The novel is lean in the sense that we aren’t stuck interminably trying to get to the next funny bit, the narrative fast forwards us to the next interesting scene with vibrant pacing. There is an RPG term for not bogging characters and players in dull stuff, called “Fun, Now.”. The author has applied that philosophy to her novel.  Reading this novel in a waiting room at Urgent Care, I was consistently entertained, and the novel ever flagged, which was crucial in trying to put my mind off my discomfort, my fears of my thumb injury, and the soul-sucking interminability of a hospital waiting room.

But, reader, you don’t need to get a thumb injury in order to enjoy Obviously, Aliens. Do you want a comic SF novel with fun characters, a breezy pace and plot, and a lot of heart tht reads quickly and humorously? Then Goloboy’s step into fiction (and novel length fiction at that) is for you. It’s not a novel that will change your life permanently, no, but to put your mind off of the world for a little while, Obviously, Aliens will keep a smile on your face.  Things could be worse, after all. YOU could drink from the wrong soda can or figure out how to get your boyfriend out of a strange woman’s body, or figure out this weird species called humanity. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +2 for a comic and fun SF novel that kept me entertained and amused and distracted during a painful experience in an unpleasant place. 

 Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 Reference: Goloboy, Jennie. Obviously, Aliens (Queen of Swords, 2021)

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Adri and Joe Play the Hugos: Best Video Game

: If there is one category I’ve appreciated the extra time before the voting deadline for, it’s Best Video Game. This is a new category for the Hugo Awards, a special one time only trial to see how it works and maybe it’ll come back on a more permanent basis later, and I’m pretty happy with it. Participation wise, it received comparable nominating votes as the fan and editing categories and we’ll get into it, but it’s a really nice cross section of gaming in 2020.

There is a nice mix of major AAA big budget titles like Last of Us Part 2, Final Fantasy VII Remake, smaller games like Spiritfarer and Hades, one of the biggest hits of the year in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and a what the hell is this browser game in Blaseball.

It works for me, but it also works for me because this year I have access to all of the platforms the games were released on. I have a Playstation 4 and a Nintendo Switch (and an internet browser, naturally). I am a console gamer, primarily.

But, if Chicon brings the category back next year and, say, Ratchet and Clank: A Rift Apart is a finalist, that’s a game I won’t be able to play because I don’t have a Playstation 5 and I don’t think my family is planning to buy one for at least another year (and that ignores the general console scarcity of the PS5 and the new Xbox due to chip shortages). So it’s an interesting category as a concept. It’s also a category with a higher barrier to entry as some of these are $60 games and not everyone is going to be up for buying multiple big budget games just to vote for the award - assuming they have the console in the first place.

Adri: Agreed - I bought a second-hand Playstation 4 specifically so I could play everything in this category. At the same time, though, I think it’s unfair to highlight financial barriers to entry in this category as being much greater than others: we talked about the price points for novellas, for example, and the number of works in Best Series makes that an expensive category to vote in as well. The voter packet does offset some of those costs, as do libraries (I remember the days when you could rent video games from a physical shop, the same as you could rent movies!), but there are alternative ways to access video game stories as well, notably through free streams and Let’s Plays.

With that said, I think we should come out and say that neither of us has played everything in this category. For my part, I have had to recuse myself from Animal Crossing: New Horizons (with apologies to all my friends who love it!) because I struggle with the addictive elements of certain video games, and I know that the second I pick that one up, I will disappear into a hole for three months and forget all my actual responsibilities. That might have worked if I’d invested when the game first came out, with all the pandemic awfulness making it easier to want to fall into a hole and the social aspect of the game making it a bit less isolating to do so. But I dedicated 2020 to Fire Emblem and then to Hades, and I missed the Animal Crossing hype train, and now I don’t have the time in my adult life to step into something that I know is going to hook me in a not entirely healthy way.

So, I’ve chosen not to experience that thing - and I want to give a PSA that DNF’ing, or DNP’ing, or deciding against anything in the Hugo voting list for any reason is actually OK! The Hugo awards work because a critical mass of voters put in a good faith effort to engage with everything in a particular category, but if something is triggering or difficult to get hold of or just not working out, then it’s entirely possible to decide you can still make a good critical judgement and proceed accordingly. So that’s what I’m doing with video game: I know what Animal Crossing is about, I’ve watched bits of people playing and seen my friends get super excited, and I’m basing my judgement of it on that.

Joe: It’s true. I’ve played two hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and I do plan to try it some more but right now I’m not sure it’s the game for me. I’ll actually talk about it more when we talk about Spiritfarer, because there is a slight connection to those two games in how I think about them and how I interact with them.

The other game I have not played is The Last of Us: Part II. I thought the original game was spectacular and heartbreaking and amazing, but for various reasons I didn’t get a copy of Part II until late this year and I’m almost finished with Final Fantasy 7 Remake and I’m just not going to get to The Last of Us: Part II before the voting deadline closes (and frankly, I’m super excited to start Tales of Arise when I finish up Remake) I know you’ve played it, so maybe that’s as good of a place for you to start this off.

: Yeah, so. This shooty-survival action adventure horror game is not my usual thing, and in order to play The Last of Us: Part II, I first decided to play The Last of Us. In that game you play as Joel, a grizzled old mercenary-type charged with taking Ellie, a *special* teenage girl, from your home of Boston to safety among a failing rebel group. Oh, and there’s been an ongoing zombie apocalypse for the past 20 years, except the zombies are a kind of terrifying cordyceps mutation and the game does some really interesting things with how that might work (even if they have to leave “they want to bite you” in there, because… zombies).

It’s grim, and both games do everything they can to make you really feel the misery, rubbing your face in the destruction of human society and the awfulness of what many people have to do to survive. When Joel and Ellie find their way to safety at the end of the first game, it’s very precarious and hard won, and it comes at the expense of a really bad choice that Joel makes at the end of the game. After a lot of misgivings, I came out of the first game exhausted, but feeling like I’d really played something special.

That feeling lasted perhaps a quarter of the way into The Last of Us Part II, a game which puts Ellie in the driving seat along with new… well, let’s call her a rival… Abby. Ellie is, for reasons I won’t explicitly state, on a very focused revenge mission in this game, along with her girlfriend Dina (hurrah for queer representation in murder-vendettas), and we play through most of her increasingly brutal actions before switching to Abby, and a different take on some of the same overall dynamics that were playing out while Ellie was murdering. Like the first game, The Last of Us: Part II is packed full of pain, brutality and fear, and it heightens all of those feelings by making the player fight through action scenes where one wrong move, or bad shot, could mean a swift end for your hopelessly outnumbered character. Unlike the first game, there’s also this overwhelming sense of inevitabile doom (especially in Abby’s story), and the lack of player agency - you are effectively just piloting Ellie and Abby through their journeys and their murders, not contributing to the game’s story - makes that feel particularly frustrating. It’s grimdark misery in a dystopian zombie future video game, and if this was a book we wouldn’t feel it was doing anything interesting or new just by taking “people sure can suck and make bad choices!” to gruesome, unpleasant extremes.

In fact, that’s something I noticed overall in this ballot. Among the story driven games, there’s nothing here that gives the player agency over creating a different story from branching paths. I only felt it as a shortcoming for The Last of Us: Part II, but it’s a shame we’re not doing this category in a year with a juicy Bioware-type RPG, or with representation from other games with more malleable narrative experiences.

: I haven’t played all that many branching narrative games (Heavy Rain, some Telltales, I’m sure others) - but that *feels* like something that pops up in more open world RPGs and that generally hasn’t been my thing. We can digress for exceptions, but I’m going to move on to the other game that is significantly story driven, which is Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

Not to point too fine a point on the title of the game but this is, in fact, a remake of the original Final Fantasy VII originally released in 1997 for the Playstation and eventually ported to a bunch of other platforms with some upgraded features.

Final Fantasy 7 was a phenomenon. I’ve played the series from the very first iteration on the NES: Final Fantasy, and it had long been a favorite series. Final There had been rumors and fans begging Square to remake Final Fantasy 7 and this isn’t a Remaster, this is a from the ground up remake. It’s a different battle system, the story has been significantly fleshed out - as in, the ground Remake covers in 40+ hours is really only the first 5-7 hours of the original game. It’s the Midgar section and that’s it.

The thing is, despite my nostalgia for a game that I maxed out all my stats, got a gold chocobo, defeated all the weapons, spammed Knights of the Round, and got Aerith’s Level 4 Limit Break for reasons - I was not all that interested in playing Remake despite the positive reviews. It was too different.

In the end, that works for me. It’s more on the rails than my nostalgia remembers and it’s way more fluffed out than the original which was really thin on telling the story. Remake gets into these side characters in Midgar and makes you care. There is some extra fluff and it did feel like I was running around a lot more than I needed to, but Remake is not nearly as padded as I thought it was going to be. They’re just telling, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

And it’s fun! I didn’t expect that, somehow. Remake isn’t the same game. It plays differently, it feels different, Cloud talks, but - at least for me - it taps that nostalgia without wallowing in it and it’s incredibly successful. Remake is like Final Fantasy 7 fanfiction that keeps the biggest story beats but tells all the stories that original game couldn’t be bothered to tell.

Adri: I know you’re not quite at the end of the Remake yet, so you haven’t experienced all of the ways it engages with its source material - things get quite weird and meta, and I for one am absolutely here for it.

Joe: I’m right at the end of Chapter 14, so after I finish up a couple of last side quests I’m in for the final push. I’m very curious in what way Remake is going to wrap up the story because despite being so abbreviated it almost feels like there is both too much and not enough time for what is left, but maybe it’s not. Either way, I’ve been seeped in Final Fantasy 7 for, well, almost twenty five years now.

Adri: Final Fantasy has never really been part of my gaming landscape, and I was too young for Final Fantasy 7 when it first came out (my half formed child brain struggled with the tactical elements of Pokemon Red, which came out a year later, so I wouldn’t have stood a chance). By the time I did get to it, some time in the mid-2000s, it was too late for the graphics not to look terrible, and I’d already been spoiled on the game’s most pivotal plot moment (which most people know by now, but if you don’t then you’re not going to learn it here). I did play most of it, and I sure did breed some of those Chocobos too, but I never got around to finishing it or watching or playing any of the spinoff stuff.

Imagine my delight, then, when Final Fantasy 7 Remake managed to both hit nostalgia buttons I didn’t even realise I had (mostly score-related: this game’s music is extraordinary) and to make me properly, fully, fall in love with its main characters and their troubles. Watching your party of adventurers, Cloud, Tifa, Aerith and Barrett, explore the city of Midgar and all its facets, I finally feel like I got the experience that so many people had with the first game. It didn’t hurt that both Tifa (protagonist’s childhood friend) and Aerith (local florist) flirt with Cloud and each other constantly and adorably, and this game really dials the romantic playfulness up in other areas too, although I have mixed feelings about the weird brothel town that still ends up in here.

Most of all, Remake finally got me to grasp what an enormous disaster Cloud Strife is from the outset, beyond the very thin facade of “hardboiled sword boy”. Cloud goes through a lot in the plot of Final Fantasy 7, and through the original game we discover that he’s really midway through his journey, and that the journey isn’t what we might have expected. The Remake only covers the start of the original game, so there’s a lot more to uncover here, and a lot left unexplained in this instalment. There’s definitely pacing issues, and some really weirdly conceived sequences, but overall this game really engaged me in all the right ways.

I want to jump to talking about the ballot’s indie choices next - and specifically to the other sword-wielding disaster boy, Zagreus, protagonist of Hades. I love Supergiant Games as a developer, especially their previous game Pyre, so I had high hopes for this game, even though I held off playing until right at the tail end of early access. Imagine how impressed I was when it blew even though high expectations out of the water, and then imagine my delight when it set off what felt like several months of everyone playing Hades together! This was such a great experience of a game for lots of people, and it’s also a perfect fit for a Hugo award in video games, because I can’t think of many games that put as much thought into their storytelling as this one.

: I really like the narrative in Hades - it’s probably the one roguelike or roguelite game (a style where the levels are different each time you play and you will die and start over again and again) where the style truly fits the theme of the game You’re trying to escape the underworld and each time you fail you’re right back where you started, but a little bit stronger and you know just a bit more of the story.

I don’t like the style as a matter of gaming preference, but this is a very well done and engaging game. I put in a reasonable amount of hours and plan to play more at some various point when I’m done with at least four other games on my Switch, but it’s a smooth game with solid action / battle controls. I know part of the point of the game is incremental progress and incremental story reveal and sometimes progress is some runs being noticeably worse than the one you just did because that’s just how it shakes out, but I do tend to appreciate more consistent progression.

On the other hand, I just read about God Mode and I think I need to turn that on to better enjoy the game for what it is.

Adri: I am a huge advocate for using easier difficulties to make games more enjoyable, and I took advantage of God Mode in Hades and easy difficulty in The Last of Us to smooth out my learning curve, because I’m a simple minded player who likes hitting things very hard and gameplay that requires significant sneaking or dodging takes a while to penetrate my thick skull. For Hades, God Mode was probably the difference between giving up and putting the game away, and persevering, figuring shit out, and then going on to sink 200 hours with increasingly challenging runs.

And, look, in a category where I can (and intend to) gush for ages about the majority of entries, Hades is one of the most impressive games I’ve ever played. It’s a story that works perfectly with the Roguelike mechanic, setting you up for run after run and building failure into the process. Your character Zagreus is one of the Gods of the Underworld, so going home means checking in with family and friends - even if things are strained at first, what with your decision to leave - maybe switching up your weapons or getting a new ability, and then diving back in to see more of your family (the Olympian Gods) on your way out. As the game progresses, you have the opportunity to deepen those relationships, learning more about your place in the underworld (including why Zagreus took the decision to leave in the first place) and the consequences of escape. The payoff of a first successful run is immense, kicking the storytelling onto another level, and it stays good for a super long time, letting you keep building relationships and finding out new things about characters long after most games would have gone into “you saw it all, but sure, keep playing as long as you like!” mode.

On top of having a story tailor-made for the iterative roguelike mechanic, Hades manages to take several Greek tragedies and other bittersweet myths - Achilles, Orpehus and Eurydice, Sisyphus, even the Minotaur and Theseus - and use the fact that the game is set in the underworld to tell what is effectively fix-it fic about characters whose primary stories, for thousands of years, have been to suffer and fail. In presenting a scenario where those stories can continue, without undermining the tragedy of the original canon, Hades puts all its storytelling energy into this core theme that things can change, that no tragedy is forever, and that hard situations are worth fighting to overcome even when it feels like we’re doomed to repeat the same things all over again. It’s smart, and it’s kind, and I wish I could erase it from my mind and experience it all over again.

: Well, now I want to get back into Hades. You’ve sold me, especially with making the game a bit easier with God Mode. But, before I can do that, I need to finish playing Spiritfarer on the Switch. I’m just about to the end with only a couple of spirits to go.

Spiritfarer is an absolutely lovely and beautiful game where you play as Stella, a young woman chosen to take over from Charon as the titular “Spiritfarer”, the ferryman bringing souls from the world of the living to the afterworld. The game is cute and warm and occasionally sad. I had strong feelings when it was time to bring several characters to the Everdoor and for those characters to move on. I didn’t expect that. Spiritfarer is such a gradual and gentle game and, especially at first, it seems so slight and then the game stabs you right in the heart when you’re not expecting to feel things like that.

Spiritfarer does take a bit of time to get going and to figure out the rhythm of the game, but it is a beautiful journey and I really love it.

Adri: Spiritfarer is another game that takes a particular mechanic (progressive resource gathering and crafting) and uses it to craft a story that wouldn’t work without it. It also works with the concepts of death and dying in ways that are really unusual for a video game, and I loved its combination of cheerful aesthetic and quirky characters while appreciating that it doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of the human experience, instead letting its main character show compassion and patience even with the most difficult people. Also, you don’t mention it above but all of the spirits are represented by cute anthropomorphic animals, and you can hug them all! You can also hug your cat. This is important.

That said, what I don’t like about Spiritfarer for this category - where we are judging games on their content up to the end of 2020 - is that the game alone doesn’t give you the complete story. There are flashes of Stella’s life and the people in it beyond this quirky afterlife, but we don’t see the full story in the way that we do in the game’s 2021 DLC, or the artbook. Obviously, we’re about to get onto Blaseball where the surrounding art and community is basically the whole nomination, but Blaseball is pretty upfront about being… whatever it is. When I discovered that Spiritfarer wasn’t being deliberately ambiguous about its characters and setting, and that I just had to spend more money or wait for DLC to explain the rest to me, that soured my feelings on the game just a tiny bit. (But the DLC is free and the first one is very cute! I’m waiting for both the second and third to be released before diving in again.)

Joe: Since I haven’t quite completed the main story of Spiritfarer, I would not have known that, but that’s interesting that it isn’t Stella’s full story. Of course, I’m not sure how much of Stella’s story has been as important as the reveals and the connections of Alice, Atul, and Astrid, to name three spirits whose names begin with an A. Maybe I’m just not curious enough, but I haven’t been nearly as concerned about who Stella is than I have in connecting with most of the characters. I’m pretty much ignoring Bruce and Mickey right now.

Up until you saying that the game isn’t quite the full game, I wasn’t too concerned with how the story was being told because I figured that was the way the story was being told. And with that said, I’m still okay with that, even if there is more story in the DLC.

You brought up Blaseball so do you want to get into it?

: Well, I don’t think I can give a better description of Blaseball than in my first column, Blaseball Mondays, from a couple of weeks ago: “a text-based baseball game simulator that, through various weird game mechanisms and its overarching cosmic horror narrative, has risen to become much, much more. Blaseball games unfold as strings of text, with sets of whimsically named players on a weird, punny team (we've got the Hades Tigers, the Kansas City Breath Mints and the Canada Moist Talkers, among many others) playing against each other, but beyond those mechanics lie narratives created by both the developers and the players, as players vote to control their teams and the rules of the league, and the creatures in power respond accordingly.”

That makes it very different to any of the other games here, an experience which qualifies as a “video game” on a pretty small element of its mechanics

Joe: I’ve….played it.

I think if Blaseball was a thing when I was twelve, I would have absolutely loved it. That’s not to say that this is inherently for kids but the weird strategy and story of Blaseball would have fit the sort of lonely obsession I would have eaten up as a teenager.

But, I played Blaseball and because I haven’t figured out how to invest my time and mental energy, I have not been able to pick up the story between the seams. It doesn’t amount to anything, though when you did a Blaseball writeup and I’ve seen other people talk about it - Blaseball sounds super cool. Trying to actually engage with it and play with it? It’s a mess.

Adri: It’s funny you say that it could have become a lonely obsession. It’s certainly possible to follow Blaseball as an individual, and the convoluted plot of the main seasons, in particular, make it quite hard to explain to someone who isn’t actively following. But it’s also an activity with a big community around it, most notably the official Discord and its many unofficial side servers. There’s a “Society for Internet Blaseball Research”, which gathers the stats nerds among the nerds to provide statistics on the players and the economy; an actual punk band called The Garages, names after the Seattle Garages team; a Blaseball news site which provides rankings every season (i.e. week); and tons of artists, writers and general enthusiasts. It transforms Blaseball from numbers on a screen to a living, growing work, and that’s why a Baseball simulator has made it to the Hugo ballot.

There’s two sides to a work like this being nominated. The good side is that Blaseball brings this special video game category a step closer to the spirit of the permanent proposal, developed by Ira Alexandre, for a “Best Game or Interactive Experience” category. Blaseball is pretty light on “video game” elements, but it’s undoubtedly an interactive experience, even when the fan creations are taken out of the equation. The Game Band, Blaseball’s creators, build ways for fans to engage in Blaseball and then respond to that engagement by making things weirder and scarier and driving the plot along, and it’s an extraordinary undertaking.

The flipside is that Blaseball the interactive experience of 2020 can’t really be experienced by anyone who wasn’t there (which includes me). Sure, there’s plenty of mechanical explanations to go through, and art and media to consume, but what did it feel like to go through the Grand Unslam, or the necromancy of Jaylen Hotdogfingers, or the epic takedown of the peanut god? We’ll never quite know, and that makes it harder to rank Blaseball against the other games here.

Joe: And - even though Blaseball is an ongoing thing and there is new Blaseball in 2021 that was, I think, a similar experience to 2020 and then the temporary reboot that you’re working through in your columns that is a new / expanded thing - I don’t think I’d want to see Blaseball on the ballot again because I’m not sure I’d say it would be a substantially new thing in 2021.

But - that just about wraps up another category. I’m not sure what next year’s Worldcon is planning regarding maybe adding Best Video Game as another one-off category while it continues to be investigated and discussed by the business meeting (I’m not sure how close we are to a vote on a permanent category), but I really like this year’s line up and I think it shows some of the breadth and strength of what a Best Video Game category can be and how it can represent a wider range of gaming. I have ideas for what I would nominate next year if the category makes a comeback, but I’ll hold off on that until there is a second year for this category.

The top of my ballot is fairly well locked in. I’m all in on Spiritfarer and Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I really appreciate the storytelling in both games, which is important, but more important is that both games are just straight up fun to play in very different ways. Now that I know about God Mode and can gradually make my character even stronger through additional runs so I can get deeper into the game and deeper into the storytelling, we’ll see how that changes my opinions on Hades as my frustrations lessen.

I imagine that Hades is right near the top of the your ballot, but in a strong year, what does the top of your ballot look like?

Adri: I admit to being less up to date on the permanent voting than I should be (the proposal was on the Business Meeting Agenda in 2019 and was referred back for further study), but I’m so, so happy that DisCon used their prerogative to make this year’s special award happen.and this is a wonderful ballot that shows just what a games category can bring to the Hugos in general. As you surmise, Hades is far and away the standout in a strong lineup for me, but my second and third places aren’t as clear cut. Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Spiritfarer and Blaseball are all fantastic experiences and each bring very different things to the table. In the end, I think it will be the first two that get my second and third votes, but… Blaseball! It’s hard.

And that’s it for video game, as we count down to the last few days of voting!

Joe: Next up will be a conversation about the finalists for Best Related Work - which will be a different sort of chat because Adri was a part of ConZealand Fringe and is a well deserved finalist in that category. As such, we will not be running that category discussion until after Hugo voting closes, both because it probably won’t be complete but also because we would like to avoid a potential conflict (and conflict of interest) in having that chat while voting is still open. But - there’s some really great stuff in Related Work and we hope you all vote for whatever you like best.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Nanoreviews: The Physicians of Vilnoc, Isolate, The Immortal Conquistador

Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Physicians of Vilnoc [Subterranean]
This is the plague novella that was supposed to come out before The Orphans of Raspay (the pirate novella) but was delayed because of, well, the real world pandemic. I'm pretty sure I have that right. Regardless, one Learned Penric is happy and content with his life when his brother-in-law asks for Penric's help as a physician. Apparently there is a touch of plague at the military fort and perhaps Penric (and his demon Desdemona) can help.

The question, of course, isn't whether Penric will stop the plague it's how Penric will stop the plague. Which is good, it's always nice when someone is able to stop a potential pandemic. It's interesting reading Physicians of Vilnoc during an actual pandemic where we're not sure how far things will go - though reading Vilnoc in 2021 might have been a different experience than if I read it earlier in 2020.

Listen, this is the eighth published Penric and Desdemona novella. You can mostly jump in wherever and Bujold gives enough context to figure it all out but the richer context is from having read more of the series of very linked stand alone novellas. Lois McMaster Bujold doesn't miss and she doesn't miss here. Physicians of Vilnoc is excellent
Score: 8/10

Modesitt Jr, L.E. Isolate [Tor]
Isolate is a fantasy novel from L.E. Modesitt, Jr. That sentence is doing a lot of work and it is important because if you've read any of Modesitt's fantasy novels you have a pretty good sense of the shape and style of Isolate. If you've read more than one of his fantasy novels, you have a really good idea what sort of novel this is.

Isolate is set in a somewhat more modern setting - there are cars (though steam powered) and buses and the primary city of the novel just feels more modern than anything we've seen in Recluce or Imager or the Corean Chronicles. Steffan Dekkard is somewhat older and more accomplished, which is something I appreciate when Modesitt writes full adults rather than the youth who needs everything explained - though Dekkard is a political neophyte and as the security for a councilor, he is getting new political lessons as he is going to be coming up in that world. It's not that much different than any of the Recluce protagonists reading The Basis of Order and working on theory. Here it's a lot of political conversations, local politics as well as some that touch a wider nation. If you like all of that, if you like the slow burn and the day to day interactions and meals (and meals) and theory and even some political campaigning and that does build to a larger conflict that is oh so slowly being revealed - Isolate is for you. It's the first novel in a new series that is completely unrelated to any of Modesitt's other works. L.E. Modesitt, Jr writes a L.E. Modesitt, Jr novel and for me, that's exactly what I'm looking for.
Score: 7/10

Vaughn, Carrie. The Immortal Conquistador [Tachyon]
Rick has never been my favorite character in the Kitty Norville series. Long time readers know Rick as the vampire Master of Denver and eventual friend / ally of Kitty. I never thought much about it in these terms when reading the series as it was published, but I was very much Team Werewolf. The vampires were either antagonists or a nuisance in some fashion, not counting the ultimate evil of Dux Bellorum. But likewise, I also never wondered about Rick, and how he got that way. If Rick and his vampire hijinks are your thing, this is the collection for you!

With that said, The Immortal Conquistador is a short story collection (with a linking interstitial storyline) written by Carrie Vaughn and she's a fantastic writer. Though Rick isn't necessarily my favorite, the collected origin stories of Ricardo de Avila are as delightful and charming as I've come to expect from Vaughn. These are smoothly told and, frankly, the idea of Rick befriending and briefly adventuring with Doc Holliday works far better than it has any right to and I wouldn't wanted to have missed it. Come for a vampire who wants nothing more than to never meet another vampire, stay for "Dead Men in Central City"
Score: 8/10

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

Monday, November 15, 2021

Blaseball Mondays: The Seattle Garages (are a credit to the league)

Logo by Zandterbird

Season two of our first Short Circuit is done, and it brings league victory for The Seattle Garages! During regular seasons, the Garages have become best known on the field for having a truly ridiculous rotation: 8 pitchers at its largest. 5 is the standard number, and during the wibbly wobbly team sizes of the Expansion era, many teams went down to just 2 or 3 in order to keep their best on the mound as much as possible. With delightful names like Durham Spaceman, Summers Pony and Alaynabella Hollywood on that rotation, scrolling past a Garages game in progress was always a delight.

This circuit, the Garages have become best known to me, the important protagonist of this column, for absolutely creaming our poor Georgias nearly every time we played. This is because the current Seattle Garages rotation, while not boasting high star counts, knew exactly how to nullify our one strength...

Here's the five pitchers from the Garages in Season 2, arranged into a lovely table form courtesy of Blaseball Player Viewer. The numbers all correspond to those "forbidden knowledge" stats we talked about last week, and thanks to the Player viewer we can see that the relevant stats for Pitching are coldness, overpowerment, ruthlessness, shakespeareanism, suppression, and unthwackability.

There's a lot of red numbers in this rotation, which is very common for "new" players like all of the short circuit generated players are. In particular, this set score really low on unthwackability, which is what makes their pitches hard to hit. These kids are all chucking nice, easy, underarm pitches to our batters, and any decent batter from the regular game would probably love that.

But! Look at that middle column, with those 0.9s and even a 1.0! That's Ruthlessness, and Ruthlessness is what makes pitchers accurate, ensuring they pitch the ball within the strike zone every time. If a ball is within the strike zone, it can't be a ball, and pitchers are far less likely to pitch the four balls which a player needs to walk to first base.

Remember what I said about the Georgias strategy? How our high moxie meant that our players had great discipline, letting them convert the many balls of the Short Circuit pitchers into walks by not trying to hit them? Well, that doesn't work against Miria Senior, Berger Bronzebell and Malin Jolly. Instead, we needed our lineup to hit the ball, and... well. They prefer not to.

So the Garages won! Which is great for them, seriously. Couldn't have happened to a better team (except for ours), and they came from our Solid Evil league and everything (second coolest team in it, if you ask me). Go Garages!

We did get to do this to poor Goodie Funday on the Dallas Steaks. I'm so sorry, Steaks!

The Garages Suck

On a related note, did you know that the Garages aren't just a fictional Blaseball team, but also an IRL music band playing songs about the fictional Blaseball team? Fans of the DIY punk music aesthetic and those who want to dive into a musical exploration of the cultural event of Blaseball are in luck, because the Garages (the band) combine both and they do it in spectacular grungy style.

Take the classic "We'll Suck Forever", an anticapitalist anthem about doing your best and getting mixed-to-negative results and having a great time doing it: 

And here's their second most recent release, a four-sided musical retrospective on the Discipline Era. It's seriously good stuff:

Broadcast Interrupted

Because we were forewarned about the short circuit ending this season, we knew that this election wouldn't be about changing our players, but preparing for the next circuit in some way. The election therefore gave us options on two things: we voted across the league for what kind of circuit we wanted next, and we voted in our teams for a player to "Charge the Microphone".

We don't know what "charging the microphone" means, but the Georgias sent our tiny mouse Agnes Caster to do it. Are they our best player? Very far from it! But they are the player of our heart and we're sure that sending a really poor Blaseballer with one amusing quirk to do a plot relevant thing will never come back to haunt us.

Sadly, the end of the short circuit means we've said goodbye to a lot of cool players this season, like pitcher duo Everly Mitchell (a demon summoner) and Mags Kemp (demon, cute):

Art by @gabbazael

Or the obligatory shark Georgia, Carmella Baskerville (also a pitcher, wearing a scarf because this version of Atlantis is frozen and cold)

Art by Shogun Fish

Yes, yes, the whole point of Short Circuits was to not get attached to players, but the players are the best bit and having more players means making up more weird shit deep and thoughtful backstory! From noir hero Jamaal Piazza to charismatic base stealing Wes Whirlie, this was a super fun team to spend a fortnight with.

And with that (and some weird betting bugs, but what's a few million extra votes between Blaseball friends?) we draw the curtain on this circuit of Blaseball. These kids will keep playing but the Microphone is taking us somewhere new now, and it'll probably be December by the time we meet our new players and get to do it all over again (with a win this time. I can feel it.)

See you then!

The Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards: Results

Over the past almost-year, a top secret group of bloggers and fans has been plotting the most nefarious of plots: to decide, subjectively upon the best genre works of 2020, and then throw rocks at them. By "throw" we mean "lovingly post", and the rocks all have a nice message painted on them, and it's... an award? We suppose?

Yep, it must be time for Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards (SCKA) again!

SCKA last made an appearance on Nerds of a Feather at the longlist stage, when our team of epic jurors (including Adri and Sean) nominated their favourites across the seven categories. Since then, we've read furiously, narrowed each category down to a shortlist of two or three nominees, and then picked our favourite from among them. I'm therefore excited to introduce both our winners and other shortlisted works in this post: all are worthy of your consideration, so go and check them out!

Without further ado, the winners:

Best Short Story

Winner: "You Perfect, Broken Thing" by C.L. Clark (Uncanny Magazine Issue 32)

Our jury said: This is a story about an athlete competing in a Race which forces her to push her sick body to its limits to win a cure. There's a perfect blend of cameraderie between the main character and their training partners, and the desperate, unfair competition they are pushed into to survive; these are characters still fighting in the face of constant, overwhelming struggle and that's a powerful, challenging, necessary thing. 

Also Shortlisted: "Yellow and the Perception of Reality" by Maureen McHugh (

Adri says: These two stories rose to the top of a strong, wide-ranging ballot, but there was only ever one choice for me, and that was Clark's Ignyte winning story.

Best Novella

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo ( Publishing)

Our jury said: The Empress of Salt and Fortune is an epic tale in miniature: a mosaic of moments and manipulations that resolve into a bigger picture of rebellion

Also Shortlisted: Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark ( Publishing)

Adri says: Our SCKA shortlists don't often overlap directly with the Hugo awards, but this pair happen to be the two I am agonising about most on that ballot too. Empress of Salt and Fortune is a well deserved winner, but this really could have gone either way.

Best Debut Novel

Winner: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn (Simon & Schuster)

Our jury said: With a young woman discovering magic at an elite school, Legendborn could have felt like we’d read it all before. Instead, the panel were impressed with how Deonn combined familiar tropes and well-known legends into something different, avoiding the obvious to deliver a tender exploration of grief and Black girl magic in a richly crafted world touching on slavery, privilege and secret societies.

Also Shortlisted: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (Swoon Reads); Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (Hot Key Books)

Adri says: We ended up with three excellent books shortlisted from a very YA-heavy new category: I love all of these books, but Legendborn's smart, sideways take on a classic genre story set it apart.

Best Blurred Boundaries Novel

Winner: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Jo Fletcher Books)

Our jury said: This stylish thriller blends Gothic tropes with 50s noir and body horror. Expect modern themes of prejudice and complicity in an unapologetically creepy tale of controlling families and psychedelic fungus.

Also Shortlisted: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon Books); The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (Orbit)

Adri says: Blurred boundaries is always a very diverse category, as "blurred" encompasses anything we think crosses lines of genre and/or style. Interior Chinatown was a great literary dark horse, and The Bone Shard Daughter brings really interesting SF elements into a fantasy setting, but it's ultimately fitting that ultra-talented genre-hopper Silvia Moreno-Garcia took this one in the end.

Best Fantasy Novel

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (Orbit); The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk (Erewhon)

Our jury said: Alix E. Harrow has crafted something truly special with The Once and Future Witches. Her prose is by turns powerful and deft of touch, and blends together fantasy, fairytale and history into a thoroughly modern classic.

The Midnight Bargain is not only a wonderful story about witches in a richly imagined Regency-style setting, but it’s a clever exploration of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. It is a thoroughly modern and political book while masquerading as a gorgeous escapist fantasy, and that makes it a fantastic read.

Adri says: Two winners! Yep, we had a tie in our final round of voting, and while we could have gone to some sort of dramatic internal tiebreaker, instead we decided in true chaotic fashion to give out a second rock. This pair both utterly deserve it.

Best Science Fiction Novel

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson (Hodder & Staughton)

Our jury said: A beautiful intelligent story exploring the parallel worlds concept but also combining it with issues of racism and classism, with a core of hope running throughout.

Also Shortlisted: Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Adri says: One of my favourite things about SCKA is getting to focus on books that feel like they've been overlooked in the more mainstream awards, and both finalists here certainly fit that bill. The Space Between Worlds really pushed the envelope for me, an excellent dimension-hopping tale in a category full of space and cyberpunk and all sorts of sub-genres.

Best Series

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (HarperVoyager)

Our jury said: R.F. Kuang's trilogy starts off as an academic fantasy, transforms into a military historical fantasy, and ends as a grimdark narrative. This Asian-inspired series delves into the layers and the consequences of power and warfare.

Also Shortlisted: Dominion of the Fallen by Aliette de Bodard

Adri says: Another powerful pairing - and another underrated gem, in de Bodard's Dominion of the fallen series - but in the end, it felt inevitable that The Poppy War was going to take this home. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.