Friday, September 30, 2022

6 Books with Wil McCarthy

 Aerospace engineer/startup founder Wil McCarthy, formerly of WIRED and SyFy, has won the Prometheus once and the AnLab award twice.  He’s been nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Seiun, Sturgeon and Philip K. Dick awards, and Discover rated his world of “P2/Sorrow” one of the 10 best fictional planets of all time.  He has appeared in Analog and Asimov's, and his bestselling novels include New York Times Notable BLOOM, "Best of Y2K" THE COLLAPSIUM, and most recently, RICH MAN'S SKY.  He has also written for TV and video games, and published copious nonfiction.


Today he tells us about his Six Books

1)  What book are you currently reading?


NEEDLE, by Linda Nagata - book 3 of her Inverted Frontier series, which is a sequel to her amazing 1998 novel VAST.


2)  What upcoming book are you really excited about?


Of my own?  POOR MAN'S SKY.  Someone else's? MACHINE LEARNING FROM WEAK SUPERVISION, by Nan Lu, Han Bao, Masashi Sugiyama, Tomoya Sakai and Takashi Ishida.  Because "unsupervised machine learning" is by far the creepiest of today's hot topics.


3) Is there a book that you're currently itching to reread?


ARISTOI, by Walter John Williams.  First published in 1992, it really seems to have anticipated a lot of the directions science fiction was going to take in the 21st century.  I've been meaning to take another look at it, and see just how visionary it was.


4) Book that I love and wish I'd written...


QUEEN CITY JAZZ, by Kathleen Ann Goonan.  Another book from the 90s that seemed low-key and even a bit incoherent in its day, but only because it was ahead of its time.   I think this can be a real problem in science fiction - the really visionary stuff is often hard to see, except in the rear view mirror.  I wish I had told Kathy Goonan that before she died.


Also, I think ARISTOI, again.


5)  What's one book that has had a lasting impact on your writing style?


MAROONED IN REALTIME, by Vernor Vinge.  It not only spawned the pop-culture notion of the Signularity, but also showed that a good book (THE PEACE WAR) could have a *great* sequel.  I'm sounding like an old fart, here, because these two books came out in the 80s, but MAROONED was everything I ever wanted from science fiction at that time, and it has held up amazingly well.


6)  What's your latest book, and why is it awesome?


My latest novel is called RICH MAN'S SKY, and it's awesome because it takes a hard look at the future of private space programs, through the eyes of multiple characters seeing the situation unfold from different perspectives.  There are trillionaires, politicians, spies, terrorists, and blue-collar workers, all with their own agendas and viewpoints.  It won the 2022 Prometheus award, so there is at least some objective evidence that it strikes a nerve for some readers.

Thank you, Wil!

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

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg

The magic of names, a quiet romance, queer self-discovery and an impending tragedy

The Unbalancing is the first published novel set in R.B. Lemberg's Birdverse, a rich, multifaceted setting which the author has brought to life over multiple stories and poems. Indeed, the first telling of this story was in 2015, in the poem Ranra's Unbalancing, which involves Ranra, one of the novel's main characters, recounting its climactic events to an unknown gardener. The Unbalancing works if you know that ending (it has to!), but it's not essential reading to appreciate this version of the story, and nor are any of the other Birdverse stories essential reading to know what's going on here. However, while I won't go into specifics for those who want to experience Ranra's story fresh, I think it's impossible to discuss this story without identifying it as a tragedy, in a very foundational sense: its main characters face an overwhelming situation and confront the limitations of their own selves, and these efforts do not end in success. This book contains deep sadness and loss - and yet, it's also full of love, and connection, and hope; and a sense that destruction is worth struggling against even when the odds are overwhelming and those around you have chosen not to fight.

The Unbalancing begins by giving Ranra's nameless gardener both a name and a voice. Erígra Lilún is a reclusive poet living on the islands of Gelle-Gau, a land which sits next to a potentially destructive underwater star. While Lilún has the potential to be one of the most magically powerful people on Gelle-Gau, they have chosen not to take on that full power and the responsibilities that would come with it. Unfortunately for them, their ancestor was one of the Starkeepers, an order tasked with predicting the tremors and difficulties that come with living next to a scary underwater star, and when said ancestor reappears as a ghost to tell them they need to take up the Starkeeper mantle, Lilún agrees to at least meet with the new Starkeeper and see what they are like, and if they really believe they can do a better job. That Starkeeper is, of course, Ranra Kekeri, a driven and magically powerful young woman who has just taken up the mantle from a predecessor who neglected their duties. Seeing in Ranra the crisis management skills that they lack, Lilún chooses to work alongside Ranra rather than replacing her, and the two also form a connection which allows them to engage their magics together in a previously unknown way. However, all signs point to destruction by the star and both Ranra and Lilún's skills - and their relationship - are tested to breaking point as they try to understand and pacify a being that neither of them can even comprehend.

While Bird themself, and the magic of deepnames provide a common thread to other Birdverse stories, Gelle-Gau feels like a very different setting to the city of Iyar or the deserts of Surun' where other stories (notably The Four Profound Weaves) have taken place. Here, polyamory is the norm, though asexuality is named and understood, and gender is understood as a sometimes complex process of self-discovery, with Lilún learning over the course of the novel to find a specific ichidi (non binary) variation which fits with their identity, having not been able to come to that understanding before. The magic of deepnames is a beautiful system for the setting, realised through poetic combination-names and geometric descriptions which feel real even as it's hard to grasp exactly what they might look or sound like. Magic-capable people in the Birdverse can take one, two or three deepnames, each of which can be one or more syllables long: the longer the name, the less raw power it has, but practitioners with more names are usually more powerful and combining names of different lengths allows people to do different things with their magic. Ranra's combination is the Royal House, a three-name strong set of one, one and two syllable names; Lilún could have a Royal House, but instead they have "stopped" at a Scholar's Angle, with a one and a two syllable name. Other characters have similarly named configurations, and the novel ominiously warns us about the Warlord's Triangle, a trio of one syllable names, which is the most powerful configuration but comes with a coercive element that is almost impossible to responsibly wield. It's no accident that these descriptions of neatly configured and classified deepnames, which in turn define the people who wield them in certain ways, confers an overall sense of balance. In contrast, when we get up close to Gelle-Gau's underwater star neighbour, we learn that it exudes a huge number of four- and five-syllable deepnames in messy tendrils. This is such a serious and poetic book that I don't want to bring down the tone of the review with memes, but: Nice balance... would be a shame if something happened to it.

If its setting and magic provide a powerful backdrop to The Unbalancing's tale, Lemberg's characters are more than up to the task of making it shine. Despite the looming apocalypse, the heart of the novel is in its often quiet connections between characters, and the attempts by Ranra and Lilún to understand each other even as they constantly wish they had more time to spend on developing their relationship properly. For Lilún in particular, the speed of events is portrayed as a fundamental challenge for them: while their neurodiversity isn't labelled within the novel, the reader will probably recognise a lot of autistic traits in their interactions with people and the way they respond to overwhelming stimuli. The challenges they face aren't sugarcoated as the crisis escalates - while Lilún's ancestor may feed them lines about how their slow approach is what's needed in a real Starkeeper, they themselves are under no illusion that the world is going to slow down for their benefit, and instead they recognise and try to support Ranra's more quick-reacting approach to her role. Ranra, meanwhile, is dealing with the challenges of leadership (including an ex-lover who remains a beloved friend but whose relationship with her is constantly strained by the distance in their position and power), and also carries with her the trauma of an abusive parent, and lingering resentment over a society that left her with that mother through a childhood of belittlement and verbal abuse despite their general awareness of mental illness. The more we see of Gelle-Gau through Ranra's eyes, the more we recognise its negative, complacent aspects, even as other elements (i.e. the broad queer acceptance) might seem utopian to a contemporary reader.

While it's the longest Birdverse story so far, The Unbalancing isn't a long novel, and while it takes plenty of time over its character moments it still brings us all too quickly to that tragic, powerful ending. And, while it feels odd to describe a tragedy as "earned", within the context of the narrative that feels like the best way to describe this climax. Everything comes to a head in a way that subverts the original sense of prophecy which kicked events off (that Lilún should be Starkeeper, not Ranra), pushes Lilún and especially Ranra to their limits, and leaves us with a bittersweet ending where things are lost, but hope is never fully extinguished. I'd like to see more about the inhabitants of Gelle-Gau and their corner of the Birdverse someday, and if this is a new series to you, then The Unbalancing is a fine place to start. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

I think you should actually worry quite a bit, darling

Besides rehashing The Matrix for tradwives, there's very little that this transparent fable has to say about any of its themes

I'm usually careful with what I spoil in a review. This time requires a different approach. Proper analysis of Don't Worry Darling requires spoiling the twist. If that ruins the discussion, that's part of the problem.

So (deep breath): The Stepford Wives meets Vanilla Sky meets The Truman Show meets Pleasantville meets The Matrix meets Vivarium meets The Village meets The Handmaid's Tale meets Kevin Can F**k Himself meets WandaVision meets Desperate Housewives.

Do you see the problem here? We've seen this movie before, done better and with a sharper bite. Yes, we know our grandparents' gender roles were awful. Yes, we know nostalgia is poison. Yes, we know today's masculinity is in crisis, just not the one Jordan Peterson believes is happening. Yes, we know cults of personality never end well. Yes, we know women's liberation is in intensive care until we sort out this three-job economy we've fallen into. Don't Worry Darling resorts to precious, elaborate artistry to make the most obvious points about the clash between 21st-century feminism and 21st-century fascism. After making it through so many recycled bits from a dozen other stories, its only noteworthy reveal is that it has not a single original thought to offer.

Before you come at me screaming that nothing is new and everything is pastiche: I'm not faulting the movie for not having a unique concept; I'm faulting it for not exploring its concept from a unique perspective. What director Olivia Wilde seems to have to say about neoreactionary gurus is exactly what you can read in a Vox explainer, and the movie's stance on enforced domesticity goes no deeper than a Someecards meme.

To sum it up: In an isolated company town made of pastel colors, perfectly mowed lawns and perpetual dinner parties, an entire generation of young couples follow a creepily choreographed routine of the hardworking breadwinner husband and the contented pretty-faced housewife. This is the 1950s not as they happened, but as online manchildren imagine them. Our protagonist, Alice Chambers, gradually follows the clues until she learns that her picture-perfect life is built on staggering cruelty and hypocrisy: the entire town is a digital simulation her husband trapped her in because he felt emasculated in his joblessness and listened to one too many manosphere podcasts.

That's what happens. But what does it mean, beyond what it plainly says? Did Wilde really cast two of the world's biggest male sex icons and hire the cinematographer of Black Swan, an editor from True Detective and the composer of Happy Feet to say what amounts to "There are bad men who do bad things"?

This is a movie about a society ruled by men, but most of the men in the story (apart from the perfectly cast cult leader Frank) don't rise above a plot device function. In particular, discussion about Don't Worry Darling has obsessed over the underdeveloped acting skills of singer Harry Styles. The most charitable explanation for this impression is that the role Styles is playing is not actually Jack the 1950s patriarch, but Jack the 2020s loser who cosplays as a 1950s patriarch. But even under that interpretation, the movie still falls short of its potential. The anxious pursuit of substitute fatherly validation from a tyrannical CEO sparks obvious homoerotic questions the movie doesn't seem aware of. The husbands of the town jump to be noticed by Frank like they're schoolgirls at a Beatles concert. When Jack is promoted at work and Frank awards him a golden ring, the scene is acted and shot like a betrothal.

Unfortunately, any exploration of how patriarchy also traps men would have been too much nuance for this movie. It correctly identifies Jack as the villain who victimized Alice, but it flees in panic from the complexity that would result if it looked more closely at Frank's victimization of Jack. Likewise, we don't learn whether Wilde's character dragged her husband into her fantasy or he is in on the lie. Either answer would open a trail of discussion the movie is not equipped to confront.

You know a story needs reworking when the merely suggested possibilities are more attractive than the events you do get to see. There were many ways the false 1950s town could have been framed as commentary on America's delusions about itself, and the digital simulation is among the least interesting ones. If, for example, the town had been a physical location in the real world, blocked off from modern society, one could interpret the story to allude to conservative America's obsession with exceptionality and fear of openness. Jack's constant warnings to Alice that their idyllic lives could crumble down if she doesn't go along with the script could resonate with the manosphere's accusation that feminist activists ruined the good old days. The bizarre scene where Jack dances under Frank's commands could represent the rat race that corporate power has imposed on ordinary people. There could even have been an opportunity to draw parallels between the town's self-image as a chosen people and the Puritan colonies that gave the country its identity.

But that's not the movie we got. What we got is a skin-deep grasp of metaphor and a parade of confusing hallucinations that don't contribute to telling the story. What we got is a reliably predictable thriller that pretends to not know we've seen all the movies it's imitating. What we got is an accidentally ungrammatical title that creates a fascinating but unexplored ambiguity (without the comma, the "Darling" in Don't Worry Darling could be read in the vocative, as the man telling the woman "You, darling, should not worry," or in the accusative, as the woman being warned "Don't worry him"). What we got is the bare minimum of feminist theory dressed up as if it were a life-changing revelation.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +3 for Chris Pine's acting, +3 for gorgeous cinematography.

Penalties: −1 because it's excessively derivative, −1 because it's excessively heavy-handed, −1 because it falls into the trap of finding an individual solution to a collective problem, −1 because it relies too heavily on symbols that don't have meaning, −1 because any critique of 1950s patriarchy is incomplete without addressing 1950s racism and 1950s queerphobia, −1 because it doesn't develop the briefly portrayed issue of women who willingly support the systems that oppress them, −1 because the assorted events that pile up toward the ending make no sense.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Microreview: The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

 Space Nazis set loose a plague of zombies and well-worn tropes in this epic military sci-fi.

Tomorrow marks the start of Conflux, Canberra’s convention for speculative fiction writers. For 2022 it is doing double duty as the Australian national speculative fiction convention. It has become my tradition to review something by a Guest of Honour wherever possible. This year that’s John Birmingham.

The Cruel Stars is the first in an anticipated trilogy of military sci-fi. It follows the perspectives of five survivors of an attack by the Sturm. The Sturm are explicitly described as space Nazis, obsessed with keeping humanity pure of the neural nets and other in-body technology that has become so pervasive. Having been defeated once many years ago, they return following a necrophagic virus they’ve engineered to turn anyone with implants into zombies, wiping out most of civilisation. It’s up to our survivors to defeat them once again.

While The Cruel Stars is a solid read, it’s not exactly breaking new ground. Rather, it weaves together a bunch of well-worn sci-fi elements into a complex pattern. Most people live several lifetimes, downloading their consciousness into new bodies when their current ones wear out. Skills are frequently downloaded rather than learned, like in the Matrix.

Lucinda Hardy is the commander of the only surviving warship in the Royal Armadalen Navy and a warrior who has worked hard to acquire her abilities in combat. Her scenes are the most traditionally military sci-fi, reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica and, later, anything with space marines. Having grown up in poverty, she feels out of place among the officers on her ship. Her Imposter Syndrome and the class issues her story touches upon give her some interesting dimensions, but not much time and space are devoted to exploring these issues in depth due to the sheer number of elements in play.

The characters of Sephina L’trel and Booker3 lean into different aspects of cyberpunk. Sephina is the head of an outlaw band who are in the middle of a gunfight when the virus takes hold around them. These characters play more into the sassy, criminal, Japanese-influenced aspects of cyberpunk. In contrast, Booker3 is on death row for his heretical belief that the soul is code that can be transferred between bodies and machines. He has much more of a Ghost in the Shell vibe, with faint echoes of Murderbot. Some of the forms into which he is downloaded prove rather amusing.

A very young princess of a corporation and a very crusty retired admiral round out the point-of-view characters, along with the admiral of the Sturm. The number of POV characters with their very different situations gives a good sense of the epic scale of the attack. However, cycling through all the different storylines makes the pace slow, at least until they begin to converge.

I am not a big fan of zombie stories (with a few notable exceptions), but found their use in The Cruel Stars drew me in. After the initial, very gruesome shock of them, the zombie presence in the story remained relatively light, mostly remaining as an obstacle to the use of technology so prevalent in this world.

The cast is reasonably diverse, but not without problems. Using a character’s phenotype as a shortcut description seems a curious choice in a book about space Nazis — even if those space Nazis are less concerned with race than technology. Also, did we really need to fridge the gays?

Disability continues to be a weak point of the cyberpunk genre. It seems assumed that disabilities have been largely engineered away, except in the case of Admiral McLennan, whose refusal to have a predisposition to cancer engineered away and whose reluctance to relife has him facing disaster in 54-year-old body — traits which are framed more as eccentricities than solid representation of disability.

It managed to weave in some distinctly Australasian elements, which I appreciated. These elements mostly tied into the setting. This is a far-future story, but still based in our world. The Royal Armadalen Navy that Lucinda serves is the military arm of the Commonwealth of Armadale. For context, Armadale is a suburb in the city of Perth in Western Australia which originally started life as a small colonial garrison. Lucinda is also mentioned as earning the Star of Valour in the Javan War. One of the most powerful corporations-cum-noble-houses is the Yulin-Irrawaddy Combine (though, as they are also one of the least ethical and most ruthless, perhaps not the most well-considered inclusion) and a number of characters are described as having South-east Asian phenotypes.

The writing style was noticeably clunky early on and particularly in the first chapter. I found this surprising from someone I would have considered a reasonably experienced writer. Fortunately, it improved as the book went on, finding its strength more in action sequences and big moments. 

That said, I did find the ending somewhat unsatisfying, with a deus ex machina that was more literal than most.

All in all, The Cruel Stars didn’t blow me away, but may appeal to more devoted readers of epic science fiction.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Nanoreview: The Paper Museum by Kate S. Simpson

A promising recipe with an underbaked execution and very little to chew on

Young Lydia lives in a future where paper is obsolete (why?) and everyone uses a tiny portable computer that can be worn on the hand as a ring. Her family runs the last place (in the city? in the world?) that still keeps paper, a museum whose real function is about much more than preserving the printed word. She's happy to spend every day browsing those pieces of history (where are schools?), which sometimes contain ancient, inexplicable symbols like # and &, that have gone out of use (how?) and lend an air of mystery to the relics she lives with.

But one day, her parents vanish (what do they even do?) and Lydia, desperate to find them, files a report with the city government, with the unexpected consequence that, if her parents don't show up, the city will take ownership of the museum (who in their right mind approved that law?). Now Lydia must solve the case of her missing parents before she loses her home too (but what does that mean if we don't know how the rest of society works?).

The Paper Museum is a frustrating read. The microcosm inside the museum is described in abundant, at times excessive detail, while the world outside of it is a nebulous blank that may as well be made of air. Since we only follow Lydia, who basically never leaves the museum, the significance of a world without paper is lost because we never get to see that world. Her quest to locate her parents (and thus the reader's interest in the plot) is interrupted by the arrival of an uncle whose personality stops at "grumpy because reasons," and the duty to train new interns who happen to come to work with Lydia at this same time. Much is made of an ominous "mayor's initiative" that somehow threatens the museum, but neither the initiative nor the nature of the threat are explained. Days pass without anything really happening because the plot needs to give Lydia time to get to know the interns, but the importance of these characters in the final resolution is at best tangential (one of them is more than they claim, but even that one is underwhelming).

It's a pity that so much opportunity for wonder and excitement is wasted here. The idea of a sheltered place dedicated to preserving paper is immensely interesting, but hardly anyone visits the museum, so we don't learn what the place means to the people of this future. The educational system in this society is clearly different from ours, but we only get the barest essentials to explain the plot, so we don't get a sense of what our young heroine thinks about her prospects in life and her place in the cultural scene. This novel is made of concrete events without a context, written with a hyperfocused lens covered with blinkers. Only Lydia and her immediate interactions matter.

At some point we're told that this is a world that has banned magic, and part of Lydia's quest to find her parents is about rediscovering magic, but again, we're missing the why, the how, the when. The use of a narrator restricted exclusively to Lydia's thoughts and interests may be intended to reflect how little a child really understands about the larger world and the big picture, but what little remains in view is not solid enough to sustain a story. Lydia herself is a painfully generic character, and the rest of the cast is consistently one-note. Her best friend is gentle (and nothing else), her uncle is harsh (and nothing else), the mayor is malicious (and nothing else). When Lydia figures out the clues to where her parents went, we just have to trust that she got it right, because we're not even told enough rules about the magic to follow her reasoning or feel any anticipation about her solution.

There's undeniable potential in this story that could have been fulfilled with more rounds of revision and polishing. This is a novel with plenty of material to spark curiosity, but nothing to satisfy it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Penalties: −1 for less than barebones worldbuilding, −1 for overly simple characterization.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

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

Reference: Simpson, Kate S. The Paper Museum [Union Square Kids, 2022].

Friday, September 23, 2022

Microreview: Last Car to Annwn Station

Last Car to Annwn Station takes what is now a famous trope in Urban Fantasy --the presence of Faerie in the Twin Cities, and puts his own, Welsh mythological spin. Oh, and Streetcars.

Child Protective Services Attorney Maeve Malveaux has a problem. She is convinced that Chrysandra Arneson, yes of *that* Arneson family, is being abused, and needs to be rescued from her rich and powerful family. It’s bad enough that she is an attorney fighting powerful interest. However, when she stumbles into the fact that there is a conspiracy of mages involved, and that both she and her would-be new girlfriend Jill are tied to the Fae, well things have gotten even weirder and harder to save a little girl, who may not be what she appears, either.

This is the story of Michael Merriam’s Last Car to Annwn Station, recently re-edited and published by Queen of Swords Press.

As I said in the opening, Faerie in Minneapolis has been a thing ever since Emma Bull introduced the Faerie to Minneapolis with War for the Oaks, and permanently highlighted the Twin Cities as a hotbed of Faerie activity for games like Changeling the Dreaming, and other stories and novels taking up the cause.  A modest but not overwhelming city on the edge of Prairie and forest,plenty of lakes, a vibrant cultural scene that punches above its weight, and much more make the Twin Cities a logical place to set stories like this. 

So what do we have here with Merriam’s story, then and what is new and what makes this story stand apart? Merriam is of the classic school of intersecting a couple of different ideas and seeing where that lies.  One of those ideas is something I’ve only been vaguely aware of, and now need to know and explore more about, and that is the streetcars of Minneapolis. Once upon a time, Minneapolis was a streetcar town, before it became a car town (a sadly not unique story to Minneapolis).  And while I was vaguely aware of the existence of the Minneapolis Streetcar Museum, which celebrates this heritage and even has a short ride possible on a couple of working streetcars, I have somehow not done this¹ Merriam takes the old Streetcar system and posits ghostly streetcars still running in the city, if one has the sight and power to see them. 

And this is one of Merriam’s inciting incidents. Mae suddenly can see the ghostly streetcars that run in Minneapolis, boards one, and so enters the faerie portion of the story. A cast of characters are on the streetcars, including Merriam’s take on the personification of Death. How and why she was suddenly able to see the Ghostly Streetcars, well unraveling that is part of the story. The Streetcars do drive her to learn about the magical and faerie connections 

And about those Faerie connections. The other major innovation that Merriam brings to the Urban Fantasy Faerie in Minneapolis trope is that instead of a more traditional Faerie or even generic by the numbers “Celtic fantasy court” is that Merriam goes deep into Welsh Mythology, legend and lore. You might not have known, but I picked up from the title right away with “Annwn” (the Welsh land of the dead). Merriam goes for the “diminishment” approach to how the faerie of the Welsh otherworld are faring in light of the forces arrayed against them, and that is where Mae, and Jill wind up coming into the plots. 

Being that this is Welsh Mythology and Annwn features prominently in the plot, and the fact that Mae gets involved in the first place thanks to being a Child Protective Services Attorney, I should warn you that while the majority of this is a pretty fun and entertaining urban fantasy (Mae and Jill trying to figure out their relationship, the characters on the streetcars, the mise-en-scene of Minneapolis), the novel does go to some dark places. This is in keeping with the Welsh Mythology I’ve read, which does have these elements built into the mythos. So, the use of Welsh Mythology leans into those themes.  It’s a quite effective look at what and where the Welsh otherworld might be in these modern times. But content warnings for endangerment of children, talk of suicide, and other dark themes definitely should be kept in mind for readers.

Further, though, I found that the work was quite queer friendly, Jill and Mae’s relationship is accepted by all and sundry without question.  Both Mae and Jill wind up becoming heroes, and saving each other in turn as they grow and change. There are costs to this of course (c.f. Welsh Mythology) and I really enjoyed the arcs both of them get in the novel. I entirely enjoyed and rooted for their tentative, growing relationship throughout the course of the story.

Finally, I have not talked about the framing of the novel, and it is difficult for me to do so without revealing a lot of plot spoilers. I found the framing of the novel and who and why and how they are doing it (really, they are the third main character) to be thematic, clever and a good use of a frame to hold the story together. It’s also very plot relevant in the end how Merriam crafts the story, on a skill level as well as emotional beats, as mentioned above. 

And I think I need to visit a certain running streetcar soon, now.


Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong and interesting worldbuilding fusing the history of Streetcars with Welsh Mythology in Minneapolis

+1 for a very strong pair of queer main characters with a believable and strong burgeoning relationship to root for

Penalties: -1 Some of the denouement in the end feels extremely rushed and could have been an entire sequel in and of itself, and a fascinating one at that.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Merriam, Michael, Last Car to Annwn Station [Queen of Swords Press, 2022]

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

¹I have not yet done so as of the time of the writing of this review

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: Stray by Blue Twelve Studio

You may not have a collar, but you'll never get lost.

Stray, the long-awaited game in which you play as an unnamed ginger cat, has finally arrived. Explore the grungy walled city with its vibrant cyberpunk dystopian setting and robot citizens. Discover the mysteries behind Walled City 99 and assist its citizens in their tasks as you pitter-patter around on your little pink toe beans. Knock stuff off of surfaces, nuzzle friendly folks, tear up every scratching post you see, or use the dedicated meow button to get attention. Stray does justice to its main character and ensures that the novelty of controlling a cat is not only enjoyable but remains so for the duration of its playtime.

Toward the beginning of the game, our cat protagonist finds themselves separated from their clowder and is flung down into the depths of Walled City 99. The primary objective of the game is to return to the surface. With your newfound floating robotic friend, B-12, you embark. Through B-12, the protagonist can understand what the robot citizens are saying, Not only that, but much of the journey with B-12 is about recovering memories from its past; Who were they? What happened to the city? What happened to humanity?

Keeping an eye out for collectible memories is important if you're going to get the most out of Stray’s lore. The robotic citizens don’t share too much and are rather sheltered, only really knowing their direct surroundings, or if they do know something, are afraid to do something or speak about it. The primary collectibles in the game aren't superfluous and add to the overall experience, unlike most other games out there. Stray does collectibles right and doesn't have very many of them, which helps keep the game on pace.

The unfortunate thing about Stray is that it is a very short game, and while it doesn't overstay its welcome, it does charge the premier price for an indie game ($30). The game's quality is high, and Blue Twelve Studio did well in ensuring that the vision for Walled City 99 was met. The neon lights and garbage-filled alleys create a great sense of atmosphere, which in turn pique curiosity in the game’s world and lore. The high price point is surely to deal with the effort put into visuals, and while I have no issue with that, I like the level of substance to match that of the style.

The gameplay is simple. It's a platformer, but without the challenges of a platformer. You don't have to time jumps or land accurately, the game does all of that for you. You simply press the jump button when you see a prompt on a ledge and bingo! Sometimes the game would auto-detect the wrong ledge at the last second and I had to jump back to where I was before, but it’s not a huge problem considering you don't have to manually make the jumps. There are a few chase sequences and dealings with Zurks to change the pace, and some simple puzzles along the way to shake things up. The game never truly offers a challenge, I’d put it in the same category as something like Journey or Gone Home, where the adventure or story is the primary focus, not the gameplay. And while it doesn't quite hit the highs of either of those games, it’s more enjoyable to control.

Playing as a cat is a treat. The animations are cleverly done, the sound effects match up, and you can make the cat do the zoomies. You can even use the dedicated meow button during some cutscenes! Blue Twelve Studio made controlling the cat exactly what one could have wanted. Large vertical leaps, little paw slaps when knocking things off ledges, and purring (which you can feel through the DualSense controller) are all accounted for and the developer has stayed true to the experience they envisioned, even if it was at the expense of more gameplay freedom and challenge. I think it was the right decision.

Stray’s story is straightforward, never wowing, but consistent and enjoyable. The game doesn't ask too much of the player emotionally or mentally, and when it does have a warm moment, I find it halfway succeeds. You don't spend very much time with any specific characters in the game to grow an emotional attachment to them. As well, not enough is done with the time given per character to create an attachment between the player and the characters. The affecting moments are surface-level, but they do their job.

When I wrapped up my first play-through of Stray after about five hours, I was pleased with the overall experience. I went back and cleaned up the few remaining collectibles and even did a speed run and beat it in under two hours. The game was never stale and I enjoyed playing as a cat and meowing at all of the robot denizens of Walled City 99. I liked finding out about the history of the world and the humans that once inhabited it. Stray isn't a very deep game, but it is enjoyable. If you like cats and simple adventure games with cool settings, Stray may scratch your itch.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for purrfect cat animations and sound effects. +1 for good pacing and never overstaying its welcome.

Penalties: -1 for being more style than substance. -1 for almost no challenge.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Nanoreviews: The Genesis of Misery, Even Though I Knew The End

The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang (Tor Books)

As a huge fan of Neon Yang’s Tensorate novellas, I’ve been very eagerly awaiting this first novel from them and The Genesis of Misery does not disappoint, pulling together a whole bunch of worldbuilding elements that combine seamlessly into an outstanding action-y space read. There’s the Catholic religious vibes (the one liner for the novel is “Joan of Arc in space”); the ritualistic, authoritarian trappings of empire around that which call to mind Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate or Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch; and the giant sacred space robots and the battles between the Empire’s space robots and the forces of the rebel Heretics – smaller in number but able to engage in more novel formations thanks to said heresy. Add to that the plucky squad of variously damaged folks brought together around the promise of a bold new strategy – with a special shout-out to the haughty but hot space princess, initially out for her own political gain, forced to undergo a crash course in humility – and then, into the middle of it all, throw one (1) absolute mess of a human called Misery Nomaki. It’s a lot, but we’re in very safe hands with Yang’s storytelling, and the combination of Misery’s narrative voice and the regular interludes by a third party narrator make for a powerful prose combo.

There’s a lot of things I could pull out to talk about (and would, if this were a full length review), but what I love most about The Genesis of Misery is Misery themself. Misery’s journey has a lot of familiar storytelling beats, and yet the setting and their choices combine to make something that feels quite fresh, from the moment we meet them, on the run and apparently suffering from beginning of the same illness (voidmadness, aka another fantastic concept) which killed their mother, to their co-optation by elites within the empire who compel them to play the part of a prophet even when they are convinced they are a fraud, to the actual awakening of their powers and the impact this has on their religious beliefs and their role within the system that’s trying to use them. (As a side note, Misery uses she/they pronouns, with the book sticking mostly to having Misery call themself “she” in narration and everyone else use “they”. This definitely isn’t how all non binary folk use multiple pronouns, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a character depicted using more than one pronoun by choice at all, and that’s a long overdue thing). Misery’s journey in this first book of a trilogy doesn’t end up where I expected it to from the tropes at play here, but that makes me even more intrigued about what comes next, and I’m excited to see more of this world.

Even Though I Knew The End by C.L. Polk (Tor dot com Publishing)

Polk’s first published novella is a bittersweet gem of a noir fantasy romance. Set in the Chicago of the 1930s, in an urban fantasy setting where magic and demons exist alongside the more mundane monstrosities of human society, Even Though I Knew the End is the story of Helen, a jaded detective and former medium who gets pulled in for one last job, pushing herself through by thinking of the time she’ll get to spend with her lover afterwards. Helen knows this is her last job because ten years ago she sold her soul to a demon, in an exchange that felt worthwhile at the time, but now she only has three days left until her debt comes due. But her employer dangles a tantalising promise before her: use her three remaining days to catch the White City Vampire, a vicious serial killer, and her soul can be returned to her along with a tidy reward, letting her retire for real and live out the rest of her days with her darling Edith.

Like many good urban fantasies (historical or otherwise), Even When I Knew The End works because it blends its supernatural elements so effectively with the day to day business of being human. In Helen and Edith’s case, that means being queer women in love and living as part of a marginalised but quietly flourishing queer community, and Helen specifically deals with the disapproval and estrangement from her magical brother, who is still part of the Brotherhood which kicked her out when she lost her soul. Noir doesn’t need any supernatural elements to deliver the genre’s brand of horror, and while this story introduces us to angels and demons with plenty of convoluted, impenetrable motives, it also grounds Helen’s core decision – the choice to sell her soul, even knowing what it would mean for her a decade down the line – in an incident with such a mundane sense of tragedy and unfairness that it sets the whole story spinning around a real, recognisable emotional core. As to the ending, Even Though I Knew The End gives us a genre-compliant romance ending that nevertheless hits some of the most bittersweet notes of the whole narrative. It’s painful, beautiful and very fitting, and it caps off a novella that’s well worth checking out.

Adri (she/her), Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A look back at Ancestry & Culture, an Alternative to Race in 5e

OneD&D still doesn't know how to fix the game's long-standing racism problem, but an independent publisher already offered a solution two years ago

Must all elves know how to shoot bows? Must all dwarves be talented at masonry? Must all halfings have a knack for sneaking where they're not supposed to?

All these are more learned than inherited traits, yet Dungeons & Dragons has consistently failed to acknowledge the difference. It was Tolkien who first popularized the image of elves as ethereal paragons of beauty and orcs as savages basically made of evil, but in the decades since Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons has reinforced and cemented that bioessentialist paradigm in the popular consciousness.

The current owner of the D&D brand, Wizards of the Coast, has been taking tiny steps toward removing the problematic implications of bioessentialist descriptions of fantasy creatures. Last year, errata files were published that removed default moral alignments from playable characters and some monsters. This change aims to do away with the decades-long trope that certain populations of intelligent beings are innately evil. Of course, attributing one single moral stance to an entire people is not only lazy storytelling, but also an extremely dangerous mindset with real historical consequences. So, for example, sending the heroes to raid an orc encampment just because they're orcs and they must be killed on sight is no longer an acceptable plot point. It's bad enough that Tolkien reinvented orcs as the incarnation of a plethora of Orientalist clichés; we don't need to add on top of it the idea that there's a group of people whom it's always OK to kill.

However, this update to the rules did little to correct the fundamental problem, which is linking behavior to lineage. In the Fifth Edition Player's Handbook, the description of elves still says they "love nature and magic, art and artistry, music and poetry, and the good things of the world," while halflings "are easily moved to pity and hate to see any living thing suffer," and half-orcs "are not evil by nature, but evil does lurk within them." You'd think these behaviors must have a cultural origin, which would make them contingent and malleable, but the manual treats them as fixed elements of their respective heritages.

In a further attempt to separate characters' cultural and biological traits, Wizards of the Coast has recently released playtest material for an overhaul of the Fifth Edition rules. This new project, called OneD&D, consists so far in a revision of the steps for character creation. The proposed update would take into account a character's background in addition to their ancestry (an approach that competitor game Pathfinder has been using since 2019). For example, a character with the Cleric class and the Acolyte background would begin play with different skills and proficiencies compared to another Cleric with the Pilgrim background.

While this system is a move in the right direction, it's definitely not enough, and in some respects it goes backwards. The OneD&D playtest links languages to backgrounds, resulting in absurd assumptions such as all characters with the Farmer background speaking Halfling, or all Hermits speaking Sylvan. It still carries heavy bioessentialist baggage to designate Draconic as the language of nobility or Goblin as the language of warfare. And the core ancestries of the game keep much of the original problem: dwarves are still assumed to be trained in forge tools (presumably from birth), gnomes instinctively know how to magically create a tiny machine, and halflings are born with Stealth proficiency. And when it comes to characters of mixed heritage, the suggested mechanics make no sense, and the text reaches a degree of exoticization you'd expect from a 1980s game.

D&D has a lot of catching up to do. Strangely, it still uses the term "race" to refer to Tolkien's canonical humanoid species. Replacing "race" with literally any other descriptor should be the very first step to keep D&D relevant to future generations of players, and the immediate next step should be to pay attention to the inexcusable missteps that keep occurring and keep damaging the good faith the game has cultivated.

This discussion is by no means new, and fans have been thinking of alternatives faster than Wizards of the Coast can make up its mind. In 2020, independent publisher Arcanist Press saw the problem with D&D "races" and launched an unofficial supplement: Ancestry & Culture, which contains a clearer, more practical set of rules for character creation. The approach is, in a nutshell, what it says in the book's title: each character is born from a certain lineage and is raised in a certain culture, and the two can be freely chosen in any combination. Biological traits are limited to lifespan, size, speed, senses, monstrous body parts, and when aplicable, physical resistance to damage. Cultural traits refer to everything that comes from education and training: languages, weapon proficiencies, ability score increases, and starting cantrips. So, if you want, you can have an elf raised by tieflings, a dragonborn raised by humans, an orc raised by gnomes, and so on. Notably (and rightly), alignment is neither an inherited nor a learned trait. Alignment is a strictly individual matter, unrelated to whichever society your character comes from.

Furthermore, Ancestry & Culture contains remarkably sensible (and sensitive) rules for creating characters born with mixed lineage and/or raised in a multicultural environment. If you've ever wanted to roleplay the child of a halfling and an orc who grew up near a dwarf-gnome border, this supplement is exactly what you need. For an even more granular method of character creation, there's an appendix for you to build your own combination of cultural traits. As unofficial material, it only includes the ancestries enumerated in the Open Gaming License, but, anticipating the players' understandable wish to adapt other ancestries to this system, the author explains how to generalize the application of these principles.

The standard of quality of this supplement received the highest endorsement when it won two ENNIE awards: Best Electronic Book and Best Supplement, in addition to a nomination for Product of the Year. Since the publication of Ancestry & Culture, Arcanist Press has gone on to launch half a dozen other similar rulesets, with a total of over a hundred alternative ancestries to choose from. As a final treat, Ancestry & Culture includes two playable adventures, one centered on protecting a multicultural city, and one about convincing various peoples to cooperate.

So we don't need to wait for Wizards of the Coast to learn its lesson. We're living in the middle of an explosion of creativity in the roleplaying community, and it's evident that players and independent creators have moved on from the outdated mindset the game was created with.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for beautiful character illustrations that show precisely how the various combinations of bloodline and upbringing can produce wonderfully unique stories.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Marshall, Gwendolyn. Ancestry & Culture: an Alternative to Race in 5e [Arcanist Press, 2020].

Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

A moving allegory about the urge to survive under impossible oppression

Centuries ago, something came to Earth. Wishing to learn about humanity, it brought human-looking creatures to live among us. They're good at pretending to be human: they can walk and breathe and speak, and even reproduce, but biologically they're very different from us. They were designed to absorb information, most of them by physically consuming the written word, a rare few by consuming the content of the human brain. These scavengers of information were meant to gather as much knowledge about Earth as they could until their creator returned to take them away.

But their creator never returned. So the book eaters and mind eaters were left stranded on our world, physically unable to survive on any other food, psychologically unequipped to integrate into human society. Over the centuries, this secret population has managed to build a culture of its own, complete with laws and traditions, social hierarchies and factions, but the pressures of modern life pose an inevitable threat to the anxious rigidity of their makeshift civilization.

We're introduced to book eater society through the eyes of Devon, a young woman who has spent all her life in an old mansion under the supervision of a dozen uncles and aunts, whose main concern is to find her a favorable marriage. Because, you see, there's a problem with her kind's biology. For some reason, girls are far less common than boys. And that creates a population bottleneck that book eaters have tried to circumvent by setting up a strict system of aristocratic lineages based on patriarchal control over female reproduction. Girls are raised with the utmost care until they can be married off, at which point they become tradeable assets who only exist to give birth. When Devon outgrows her deliberately curated fairy tales and experiences the actual cruelty of her people, she resolves to escape the rules of the game, and become an outlaw.

What makes The Book Eaters a specially interesting read is the allegoric opportunity that this parallel society provides to craft a microcosm of the emergence of the first institutions, and with them, the first dynamics of oppression, in ancient humankind. As we learn about the history of book eaters and the various crises they've had to overcome in order to survive, we get a sense that the author is trying to show us a mirror of how human beings first came up with the notions of family, kinship, marriage, authority, gender roles, obligations, etiquette, ceremony, and propriety. This is one of the most effective tricks in the science fiction arsenal: to speak of the imaginary, only to mean the real. Creating this separate species makes it easier for the author to make incisive observations on human patriarchy and the ways it poisons all social relations.

When a novel has such a strongly defined point to make, the reader may fear it to remain at the level of a transparent moral fable written in a preachy tone. The Book Eaters does not suffer from that pitfall. Far from that. Its dissection of what's wrong with humankind by the indirect way of showing us an alien community rotten at its core goes beyond the well-trodden talking points of contemporary feminism. In fact, this novel makes a fascinatingly intimate study of the mechanisms of domestic abuse, unraveling each of its minute daily assaults and the reasons for the victims' seemingly self-defeating but actually self-preserving survival strategies. Devon's quest to break free from her family's control requires her to twist her way around hundreds of small rules and expectations that, in aggregate, form a suffocating web around her will to live. The author demonstrates a considerably vast comprehension of the ways patriarchy devours its own beneficiaries and stifles the dignity of its sufferers. Upon reading about the extent of Devon's family dysfunction, I had to conclude the author has either first-hand experience with this kind of trauma or spectacularly developed powers of empathy.

(In particular, the interaction between Devon and her brother feels painfully true to life. There were moments I had to take a breath from this novel's disturbingly accurate depiction of how patriarchal tyranny ruins both men and women. Take it from someone who survived such perverse treatment: this is exactly how domestic abuse works, and this is exactly how a victim reacts to keep their independence of mind until a chance of freedom appears. Trust me, I've been there.)

In fitting heroic style, Devon has a source of power that patriarchy cannot understand or counteract. The force that propels her to keep fighting is a simple one: she has somebody to protect. Devon is a mother, and after the system that raised her has taken everything from her, she still has her unshakable sense of responsibility toward her son, and she will move mountains to spare him from the life she had. Her one-woman war against centuries of settled custom is a prime example of the ongoing literary turn from the aristocratic protagonist to the ordinary one. Devon was educated to be a princess, but through pain and fire, she remolds herself into something nobler: a real person.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +2 for psychological depth, +2 for originality of concept.

Penalties: −3 for not adding a trigger warning about domestic abuse.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Dean, Sunyi. The Book Eaters [Tor, 2022].