Five Faves: Fabulous Worlds of SF/F (Guest Post by Helen Lowe) #MonthofJoy

I believe worldbuilding is the characteristic that most distinguishes SF/F from other styles of literature. All other genres rely on the reader's understanding of the world as it is or has been. In SF/F, the writer must first build the world—a process that includes environment, geography, history, politics, culture, and religion, as well as technological and/or magic systems—for both the story to exist and the reader to engage with it. And as an avid reader of SF/F, as well as an author, there is nothing that rocks my reading and SF/F-loving world quite like a truly fantastic bit of worldbuilding. So in the spirit of #monthofjoy here are five of my favorites – although there are, of course, many, many more. Note: I should add that I am deliberately excluding both Middle Earth and Narnia, simply because they are so well-canvassed in the zeitgeist, but you may take it as read that they're definitely right up there for me. Read More

Five Faves: Space Opera Books — #MonthofJoy

It's Five Faves time! Throughout the month of June, I'll be diverting attention away from the things I'm supposed to be doing in order to spend a little time babbling about the things that I love. This feature will do exactly what it says:  list five of my favorite things in a category. Most of the lists will be "on topic," which is to say "related to SF/F in some way," but some lists will be on my other ancillary interests, such as reptiles, books of theory, pies, and...wait...pie? Oh my god, I love pie! Anywho...today's post, as the title suggests, will list 5 of my favorite space operas. I will use the following criteria for this list:
  • Books will be taken to mean "narrative fiction at novel length" rather than the broader definition we use today. Comics and graphic novels deserve their own list anyway. That means no movies either.
  • I'm using my personal definition of space opera. I'm happy to talk about that definition at another time, but for now, I just want to share some things I love!
Here we go: Read More

Month of Joy Begins Now

Given all the grumpiness in the sf/f community and the horrible stuff happening in Ukraine, I am taking the rest of the month off from anything annoying, fiasco-y, douche-y, and so on.  I'm also doing this to gain some perspective, particularly given that I have been part of some of the community-based debates and have begun questioning that involvement to some extent.  I feel like I need to refocus, to think about what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, how I feel about those things, and where I want to go.

So for the rest of the month, I'm only going to write and discuss and read about things that make me happy.  You can expect the following:

  • Book Reviews
  • SFF Film Odyssey Reviews/Columns
  • Random Discussions About Genre (I love books :P)
  • Maybe some comics-related stuff
  • Something else that is happy-ful
Feel free to join me.

Month of Joy: “Mike’s Favorite Comics” by Mike Underwood @mikerunderwood

I have many favorite comics, like I have many favorite novels, and so on. But the great thing about loving lots of stuff is that it’s much harder to run out of things to talk about. So here are a few of my favorite comics/runs from across my reading history, and a little about my relationship to each.

The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (Scott Lobdell and Gene Ha)
This is the oldest of the entries on this list, but one that stood out in my mind. I’ve always been a Cyclops fan, probably largely because I spent a lot of my youth being a Good Kid ™.  I followed the rules, wasn’t a rebel, and so on. Characters like Wolverine or Jubilee didn’t really resonate with me. But Cyclops, the long-suffering earnest leader of the X-Men, he stuck with me.

And in this mini-series, where Cyclops and Jean get catapulted into the future to raise Scott’s son, Nate (who later becomes Cable), I think the thing that really stuck with me was seeing a functional couple having adventures together, as partners.

I’m also endlessly interested by dystopian settings, and the challenges of growing up in harsh circumstances.  Like in many things, my genre education was fairly non-standard, and The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix was part of it – teaching me about dystopias before I’d even heard of the term, let alone read foundational texts like Brave New World, 1984, or Fahrenheit 451.

Planetary (Warren Ellis and John Cassaday)
In the parallel world where I’m a recently-minted PhD, one of the classes I’d offer is “The Planetary Guide to 20th Century Pop Culture Genres.” The class would use the comic series Planetary as an interpretive lens for examining 20th century pop/pulp genres (pulp, western, supers, golden age sci-fi, super-spy, Hong Kong action, etc.). Because for me, that’s what this series is – a way of re-interpreting a wide swath of 20th C. pop culture.

The series itself ran from 1999 to 2009, and I followed the series month-to-month almost that entire run.

The central premise of Planetary is that the 20th Century pop culture genres – pulp, superheroes, atomic horror, kaiju, etc., are all real. And the job of the protagonists, members of Planetary, are “Archaeologists of the Impossible,” discovering the secret history of the 20th century and fighting to keep the world strange and wonderful.

The full story is much larger and more magnificent, taking a knowing, deeply intertextual trip through 20th Century pop culture. Warren Ellis is one of my all-time favorite comics writers, and his partnership with John Cassaday on this series is simply incredible.

I highly recommend this series to any pop culture fan, especially if you are fond of re-interpretations of cultural history like Red Son, Astro City, or Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra)
One of the best “change one thing” science fiction comics that I’ve ever read, I also love that Y: The Last Man had a complete 10-volume arc, then ended. The ending works, the character arcs are rich and fulfilling, and then it’s done. One of the criticisms of comics as a medium that I hear and acknowledge most keenly is the fact that its serial nature can make it very impenetrable for a new reader. Where do you start? Will this series ever end? And so on.

Well, Y: The Last Man has been complete for five years now, and still stands out in my memory as one of the best whole comic book stories ever told.

Yorick Brown, the titular last man, is a loser. He’s an amateur magician without much life direction, who is on the phone about to propose to his girlfriend (who is in Australia) when the phone goes dead. The phone goes dead because at that moment, across the world, every other male mammal in the world is dying  grotesque death. Except for Yorick’s pet capuchin monkey.

The story that follows spans across the world, and, by necessity, is full of amazing, complex, dynamic female characters, who largely drive the story. If you or someone you know is put off with the (abysmal) way that women are depicted or treated in comics, this series is a fine contrast to that trend.

Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia (Greg Rucka and J.G. Jones)
Wonder Woman is my favorite mis-used character in DC comics. She’s the least popular member of DC’s Trinity (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), despite the fact that I think she’s an incredibly interesting character.

The Hiketeia is one of my examples to people of how awesome Wonder Woman can be when handled well. The Hiketeia was the first time writer Greg Rucka worked with Wonder Woman, and his success with the story is a likely contributing factor to him landing the role as the series’ regular writer for an extended (and very well-received run).

In The Hiketeia, Wonder Woman is honor-bound to protect a young woman who is executing a Greek ritual of vengeance known as the Hiketeia. This puts her in direct opposition with Batman, who is hunting the girl as a criminal and murderer.

The Hiketeia shows the entire conflict from Diana’s perspective, highlights her conflict between honoring tradition and protecting life. It also features a fantastic fight between her and Batman, where she wipes the floor with the Dark Knight, because, well, she can go toe-to-toe with Superman, and WW doesn't have a Kryptonite-analogue for Batman to use against her.

But ultimately, it is the characterization of Wonder Woman as thoughtful, determined, and compassionate that makes this story a winner in my book. It’s one of the best Wonder Woman stories I’ve ever read, and is marvelously stand-alone, which makes it a good book to use when saying “No, really, Wonder Woman is awesome. Read this.”

Marvels (Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, Marcus McLaurin)
Being a lifelong comics and supers fan, I am a total sucker for stories that let me re-examine familiar tales.

Marvels is all about re-examining huge moments of Marvel comics history from the perspective of the man on the street, casting the heroes as larger-than-life figures, nearly forces of nature.

Also, did I mention that Alex Ross does the art? That his paintings are probably the greatest Fine Art supers images in the business? No? Well, that. Ross’s painting style gives the series an instant feeling of historicity, of being something set a step aside from traditional comics storytelling, which proves an excellent approach for this mini-series.

Marvels follows news journalist Phil Sheldon as he reports on and experiences four iconic moments in Marvel comics history: The battle of The Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch (the first one), The juxtaposition of the wedding of Sue and Reed Richards with an anti-mutant mob, Earth’s first visit by Galactus, and finally, the death of Gwen Stacy. A veteran Marvel reader will have access to the interiority of the main players in these moments, but Sheldon is just an observer, forced to try to come up with his own explanation for the Marvels’ motivations behind their actions in the moments. In changing the frame, and giving one POV character across decades of Marvel history, Marvels is as much a work of self-reflection on the universe’s key moments, a meta-narrative, as it is a story unto itself.

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Michael R. Underwood has been reading comics since he was six and living in Brooklyn. His parents would let him handle the recycling, and he took the deposit money to his friendly local comic shop to buy issues of X-Men, Spider-Man, and whatever looked awesome that week.

Mike is the author of GEEKOMANCY and CELEBROMANCY, as well as the forthcoming YOUNGER GODS series. By day he is the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he games, reads, and studies historical martial arts.

You can find Mike on his website and on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood

Month of Joy: “Borderlands, the Game” by Paul Weimer (A Sorta Review)

Sometimes, blowing off steam is exactly what you need after a hard day in the mundane job. Sometimes you want to wander in an alien landscape, with not much more of an agenda than to kill mutant creatures, cannibals and other assorted beasties.

Sometimes, you want enter the world of Borderlands.

Borderlands was an action role-playing first-person shooter video game developed by Gearbox Software in 2009. Set on the planet Pandora [Which has nothing to do with the movie Avatar], a down-at-the-heels dry and desiccated planet, the plot revolves around how the main character, a soldier of fortune, is looking for a legendary Vault of alien artifacts that many have looked for, and died for, in vain.  Will you be any different?

You, however, are special. In Borderlands, you get to play one of four characters, each with special abilities and powers that give you an edge in the dog-eat-dog word of Pandora. From Brick, a tank of a character who can go berzerk and take on enemies with his fists, to Lilith, who can phase out of existence, to the solid soldier Roland and the sniper/hunter Mordecai, the gameplay at base may be the same for each character, but their individual powers and styles make for four different game experiences.
And what an experience. The physical puzzles, such as they are in the game, are pretty simple. You aren’t playing this game to recapture the experience of Myst, you are playing to shoot and kill things, and occasionally press a button needed to finish a quest. The game uses a quest-for-hire system to help the character get experience and money to buy the equipment needed to continue the main plot. The treasures are all weapons, health aids, shields and other geegaws that help your character kill things more easily, or survive in combat, or aid your powers. Its extremely stripped down and basic.

The stylized graphics look comic book like and are striking for pushing that aesthetic and making it work. And even though this is a shoot-em-up,  there are moments of character humor, too, especially with the claptrap robots.
This is the game I play when I want to blow off steam, and not think about things too much. I don’t have to think too hard. And shooting a shotgun into the face of a raving little midget running at you with an axe is surprisingly satisfying. And killing a particularly difficult monster gives me a real high.

I haven’t picked it up yet, but there is a sequel with four new characters and a new plot:  Borderlands 2.  Ain’t no rest for the wicked, indeed.

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Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota for the last 9 years, Paul “PrinceJvstin” Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for longer than Shaun has been alive. In addition to pitching in at Skiffy and Fanty, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin StyleSF Signal, the Functional NerdsTwitterLivejournal and many other places on the Internet.

Month of Joy: “Growing Up w/ Genre and Singaporean SF/F” by Joyce Chng — @jolantru

I grew up with genre. No, seriously, I did.

It all began with a book of children’s stories complete with shape-shifting and transformation. The girl turned into a fluffy plush-tailed cat… and I was hooked. And it just kept on coming: Star Blazers (Battleship Yamato), Battle of the Planets (or G-Force), Robotech (Macross – Southern Cross – Mospeada), Star Trek and the list continued. I fell in love with science fiction and it opened
a whole world of possibilities for a lonely little girl who had nobody but herself to amuse herself. That’s right: I am an only child.
Then as my reading hunger grew, I feasted on epic fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons. Mind you, I was the only girl in the group of boys and I played a cleric. I explored Krynn when I bought the Dragonlance books and went on further to read Frank Herbert’s Dune, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series and so on.

I thought I was the only girl reading science fiction and fantasy. I felt alone and lonely. Where in the world were the rest of my peers? Singapore seemed so dull, so empty – and I went on searching for that elusive geek girl (or nerd girl). For a while, I did find her, a good friend of mine who read the Pern series.
Around this time, I had started writing. Short stories. Fan fiction (even though I hadn’t heard of this term until the Internet came about). The stories found their way in school magazines and I had people who told me I wrote well. I started topping the standard for English composition. Yet, I still felt… alone.

Now, thinking back, I feel as if things are at least changing. There is a community of SFF writers here in Singapore. Trust me – they are elusive, like unicorns and phoenixes. But imagine my relief when I found them.

Mind you, it felt like trawling the sea for that single needle.

At the moment, Singapore SFF is slowly taking off as people find each other and their own voices.  The Singapore SFF writer seems to be a quiet breed… but we are around. When I returned from Australia after seven years of undergraduate and postgraduate study, I thought I was the only SFF writer around. That was how isolated I’d felt.

Then, I found out about the Happy Smiley Writers’ Group, got involved in Nanowrimo and suddenly, they are there! Singapore SFF writers. And illustrators. And creators. And readers.
This book came out of the Happy Smiley Writers' Group!
Singapore SFF started to coalesce a few years ago. Still nascent, still growing – but becoming stronger. My only hope is that it grows bigger and more prominent, that SFF writing (heck, writing) isn’t looked down upon or mocked at. Asian mentality sees writing as a job that doesn’t pay at all and I get those pointed questions from my folks who think that I am still going through a phase (and I am in my late thirties, for crying out loud).

As I sit before my laptop, staring out into the nightscape, I wonder how Singapore SFF would look like in five years’ time. And then, the deeper and harder questions: Will I continue writing? Will I end up throwing in the towel and walking away? These questions hover in my mind. But at present, I am happy at what I am doing: writing. Be it wolves who walk on two legs, phoenixes who hide in human form or a human A.I who pilots a warship, I will continue to create new worlds.

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Author’s note: This post is a tribute to Han May, whose book Star Sapphire captured my attention a long time ago.
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Joyce Chng lives in Singaporean and is proud to be Singaporean. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, M-BRANE SF and the Apex Book of World SF II. She also writes urban fantasy under J. Damask. Her writerly blog exists at A Wolf's Tale.

Editor's Note:  You can check out my mini interview with Ms. Chng for the Week of Joy feature here.

Month of Joy: “The Cardboard Robot” by Polenth Blake

After sending my critique partner a story about people living on the clouds, he commented that all my stories had robots. I denied everything. It was about cloud people! But there it was, the main character reminiscing on making a robot out of cardboard boxes as a child. Robots had made it in there.

It wasn't based on life. I never made a robot from cardboard, because I dreamt of functional
robots. Such things weren't easily available when I was younger, so I contented myself with Asimov's robot stories and Short Circuit (Number Five reminded me of me).
Eventually, I did get a robot for Christmas (which was expensive enough to also be my birthday present). It could be preprogramed to make noises and move on a set route. State-of-the-art toy material. And obsolete by the time I hit my teenaged years, when toys like Furby were all the rage. Robots could now react in a pseudo-animal way (within limits, as the original Furby couldn't really learn language, or remember phrases,
contrary to security fears).

I haven't been disappointed as an adult. Robot toys are increasingly lifelike. Movie robots now include one with a pet cockroach (it was like the people at Pixar knew all my interests when they made Wall-E).  Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot, has made it into space. There are robots everywhere, so perhaps I shouldn't feel bad if they're everywhere in my stories too.

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Polenth Blake lives with cockroaches and an Aloe vera called Mister Fingers. Her first collection, Rainbow Lights, is out in the ocean somewhere. Her website lurks at her website.

P.S.:  During my Week of Joy, I mini-interviewed Polenth about her collection.  You can read that here.



Month of Joy: “The Joy of City Stomping” by David Annandale

Though their heyday was undoubtedly the 1950s and 60s, giant monsters have rampaged through the movies long before and long after the era that saw the arrival of the Big Bugs, Godzilla and friends, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvels. Obviously, King Kong casts his long shadow from 1933, but before him were the dinosaurs of The Lost World in 1925 (whose climax features the first city rampage), and even earlier, Georges Méliès gave us the likes of the Frost Giant from The Conquest of the Pole in 1912, and the titular Gigantic Devil in 1902. So, when all is said and done, we have had well over a century of giant monsters stomping (or, in Méliès’ case, cavorting) across our screens.

Why?

I’m trying to tackle the question from a particular angle, given the theme of Shaun’s site this week.
What, exactly, is the joy that these creatures give us? And oh, why be coy: what is the joy they give me. They have for as far back as my conscious memories reach. I could go on about the symbolic riches they provide, such as the multiple, simultaneous readings embodied in Kong, the entangling patriarchy of It Came from Beneath the Sea’s octopus (defeated by the ingenuity of Faith Domergue), or Godzilla incarnating nuclear war in one film, enraged nature in another, or the vengeful spirits of the victims of Japanese war crimes in a third. And while it is true that these represent many of the joys I find in monster films now, they are only partial explanations. These reasons are encrustations, new pleasures that have grown on top of the old ones, but the old ones are still there.
To put it another way: while I am fascinated by Cloverfield’s allusions to the first Godzilla film as a way of underscoring the big thematic concern shared by both films (the re-enactment, in fantastic terms, of very recent national traumas), there is no getting away from the fact that my biggest thrill in watching that film is the giddy excitement of seeing that monster wreck stuff.

Let me put it more nakedly yet: when, in the VHS era, my brother and I were finally able to binge on all the Godzilla films, one of our primary criteria for deciding which ones were better than others was how much real estate was trashed. Monster fights in urban centres were way cooler than slugfests in the countryside (and this is a treat that Pacific Rim delivers in full during the Hong Kong sequence).
So there is joy in destruction, as we have known since childhood. Isn’t this the main reason we play with building blocks? So we can spectacularly knock down what we laboriously construct? In this respect, the monster movie and the disaster film offer overlapping pleasures, but not identical ones. To focus only on the falling skyscrapers would be to miss the importance of the monster itself.

It has been said (and I apologize for not recalling where I read this first), that one of the reasons children love dinosaurs so much is that they are non-threatening embodiments of power, embodiments that we first encounter when we are at our most powerless. If the power fantasies in super-heroes are ones where we suddenly have the ability to right the wrongs of an imperfect world, the monster gives us the ability to show an unfriendly world exactly what we think of it. Sometimes, we don’t want to save it. Sometimes, we just want to trample it underfoot. And that trampling is justified: with the exception of creatures such as King Ghidorah or Iris, who are the antagonists fought by the protagonist monsters (Godzilla and Gamera, respectively), the truly evil giant creature is rare indeed.* Kong, Godzilla, Gorgo, Gamera, Rodan, Mothra, Gwangi, and so on and on and on, even at their most vicious and destructive, have a core of innocence. They are more sinned against than sinning.

It is telling, too, that though the 1954 Godzilla is still arguably the grimmest, most despairing giant monster movie going, and emphatically not aimed at children, it would not be too many years before the reverse would be the case, and the character had become a super-hero. The joyless film somehow leads to the infamous-yet-infectious expression of joy that is Godzilla’s dance in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965).
So the joys of the giant monster films are very much paradoxical. Even in the case of the darkest films (and let there be no mistake: Godzilla is about as bleak as they come), when the fears and traumatic memories of the audience are receiving their fullest, most graphic expression, there is still that anarchic joy to be had. There is still the excitement inherent to the rampage itself. Let me close by suggesting one further possibility. The rampage almost never truly comes out of the blue.** As baffling as the monsters are for the terrified, fleeing masses, there is always a context for them. I propose that we see the creatures as examples of the Event as defined by Alain Badiou: something that a particular system cannot account for, or even imagine, but that is nevertheless a result of that system, and shatters it.

Perhaps, then, at some level, our joy is the result of recognizing the monsters as necessary.

They’re certainly necessary for my inner child.

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* Pacific Rim is no different: the evil kaiju are the antagonists, and while the jaegers are robots, it is significant that the opening narration refers to them as “monsters.”

** Cloverfield is an obvious exception here, in that the monster appears to have literally fallen from the sky. Its anomalous position is, I believe, a pointed one: one of the many aspects of 9/11 that the film is evoking is the confusion and terror of those on the ground in the middle of the event, people for whom, at that moment and in that place, the broader picture of why these things are happening is irrelevant.

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David Annandale brings doom to untold billions as a writer of Warhammer 40,000 fiction for the Black Library, most recently in the novel The Death of Antagonis. As the author of the horror novel Gethsemane Hall, he hopes to end sleep for you forever. During the day, he poisons minds as he teaches film, video games and English literature at the University of Manitoba. If you have any fragments of hope still left, you can have them crushed at his website or by following his Twitter account.

P.S.:  If you want to hear David's take on Pacific Rim, check out this episode of Shoot the WISB!

An Announcement: The Week of Joy Continues

After the horror of the weekend, which I will not discuss here, I have decided to continue the Week of Joy throughout the rest of the month.  Thus, July will now fall under the heading, Month of Joy.  For the remainder of this month, I will primarily blog about things that make me happy, and will refrain, as much as possible, from discussing the depressing garbage going on in our community.  Exceptions will exist, of course (I have a post about Jim Carrey coming), but I really want to bleed joy for a while.

And in the interest of making this as wide reaching as possible, I'm going to reach out to friends and writers for guest posts about joyful SF/F-related things.  Expect a lot of content for the remainder of the month!

On that note, I'm going to go teach stuff to students...