Fantasy Archive

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Book Review: The Anthology of European SF

In the introduction to the Anthology of European SF, editors Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes outline their intention to use an exploration of European identity as the framework for an anthology of science fiction. Specifically, they assert that “Europe has a political union and a common market, but not a cultural common market or a publishing common market.” As a result, the editors are keen to showcase this collection as a means of mobilizing Europe’s native talent for a European audience while also bringing it to the world at large.

As a result the Anthology of European SF is rather broad in its approach to the genre. For example, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Dead Orchards opens the book with a story that lands at the intersection of fantasy, post-apocalyptic story-telling, and horror. Jetse de Vries’ Transcendent Express stands out as classic “hard” SF, and is perhaps one of the best stories of the anthology for the effort. There’s even a bit of Lovecraftian horror, in both style and form, from Liviu Radu’s Digits Are Cold, Numbers Are Warm. Even without the safety net of an explicit theme or trope to hold the anthology together, a great many of these stories are strong enough to stand on their own. Generally those tales which fall short of the mark do so in terms of failing to present a measurable conflict; the strength of their prose is undeniable, but from my point of view a story must do more than build a world and end on a note of introspection.

Honour Roll

Starsong by Aliette de Bodard

As a rule, I tend to avoid recognizing reprints in this section of my anthology reviews. I think I better serve my readers by highlighting new works of fiction, rather than dwelling on stories which have already received an initial publication credit, and likely critical praise, outside of the anthology. I’m happily breaking this rule for Starsong.

The first few hundred words of Starsong almost put me off the story. The prose is elegant but somewhat difficult to parse. Further adding to the story’s opaque nature is a structure which shifts between ethereal and temporal narratives. Whatever confusion I initially felt, however, was put aside as the two layers effortlessly folded into each other. By the end of my first read through, I couldn’t believe I had even considered writing off the write-off. Mea culpa.

Starsong grounds its inner/outer universe dialogues in terms of a double story about humanity’s relationship to technology and its relationship to itself. It does so through focusing on a young woman’s marginalization from society at large. While this motif is nothing new within science fiction, Starsong pulls at the threads of this vast tapestry in a very compelling way. Ideas of racism and alienation are teased as to make the reader wonder if the “other” is indeed a literal alien. This was the hook for me. The finisher was when the story made me wonder why I thought the former question was somehow a relevant distinction.

For its ability to blend contemporary issues of racism, race loyalty, and xenophobia within a far-future human civilization, Starsong is not a story to be missed.

Repeat Performances by Carmelo Rafala

It is a rare and wonderful thing to see a story which is so much bigger than the few thousand words it comprises. Using near-future Mexico as a setting, Repeat Performances invokes elements of Latin American culture as a base for the story’s extended metaphors – FYI: de Bodard’s story does the same thing. How interesting that this part of the world prove such a fertile ground for European storytelling.

The conflict at hand is driven by an attempt to reclaim agency and reunite family within a world of exploitative flesh traders and post-humans who have symbiotic relationships with alien parasites. I believe this to be something of an intentional commentary in that all of the story’s post-humans are all children who have willingly embraced having their bodies changed at the hands of an extraterrestrial McGuffin. Where children are curious enough to forfeit part of their humanity to become something else, the adults only seem capable of recognizing an opportunity to appropriate something for their own ends.

Though this was my first exposure to Rafala’s writing, I think I would gladly read a novel set within this world.

News from a Dwarf Universe by Dănuţ Ungureanu

A very simple concept drives News from a Dwarf Universe: that of a machine capable of shrinking anything and then returning said object to its original size. Using a documentarian’s voice, Ungureanu shows how this technology could usher in a golden age for humanity, at least until a significant percentage of the population gets stuck in their shrunk down state. In that light, it is hard not to look at this story as a parable on the dangers of becoming dependent upon a technology which is not fully understood.

Beyond that, this piece is commendable for its efficiency in storytelling. It’s one thing to read a work of fiction where the author says “what if” with a new piece of technology. Witnessing Ungureanu introduce said technology only to remove it, and in turn showing the ways in which this upsets the apple cart, all while working within the confines of short fiction is no small (no pun intended) achievement.

While News from a Dwarf Universe is something of a lesson in hubris, it’s also an optimistic, if cautionary, tale on a sustainable lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

If the goals of this anthology were to A) expose readers to quality content from the European science fiction community and B) promote ISF Magazine and Europa SF at large, then I would say mission accomplished. The majority of the stories in this anthology are quite good, and a few are absolutely great. Those that failed to deliver, for me at least, did so because actual story proved secondary to style, remarkable as the latter may have been. Overall, the Anthology of European SF is a solid read and a promise of great things to come from its editors and parent publisher.

The Anthology of European SF

Edited by Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes

Published by ISF Magazine and Europa SF


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Adam Versus Steam Greenlight, Volume 3: The Cat Lady, Yuri Nation, and Lords of Xulima

For your consideration, noir horror, epic fantasy, and a dog who just wants to be loved on this month’s edition of Adam Versus Steam Greenlight. Presenting the candidates: The Cat Lady, Yuri Nation, and Lords of Xulima.

For anybody not familiar with the process, this is a monthly feature where I pull the first three games out of my Steam Greenlight queue, answering the core question of Steam Greenlight, “Would you buy this game if it appeared on Steam?”

Let’s jump right in.

The Cat Lady by Harvester Games

Click here for The Cat Lady’s Steam Greenlight Page.

As a completed and currently available noir point and click adventure game, The Cat Lady is looking to make the jump to digital distribution on Steam.

Here’s the description.

The Cat Lady is a new, gory horror adventure game not for the faint hearted from designer R. Michalski, the creator of successful adventure game Downfall. A gripping story, pumping soundtrack, high-resolution artwork and voice acting will engross you on your journey through the strange and often terrifying world of The Cat Lady.

Susan Ashworth, known in her neighbourhood as the crazy Cat Lady, is a lonely 40-year old on the verge of suicide. She has no family, no friends and no hope for a better future.

One day she discovers that five strangers will come along and change everything… But those five, “The Parasites”, are also the most ruthless, deranged and cold-blooded bunch of psychopaths the city has ever known. They will stop at nothing to hurt Susan. Unless, she hurts them first…

Despite a lack of Oxford commas in the copy, the premise alone sounds fascinating. After watching the trailer, which goes on for about three minutes longer than is necessary to sell me on the title, my only complaint is that I’m not quite sure I would call all the voice acting “high resolution”. The female voice actor, presumably the eponymous Cat Lady, is reminiscent of Kate Beckinsale. However some of the male actors sound a little bit too forced. Of course, this is just a trailer. Perhaps the delivery is better when everything is in its proper context.

Also, I sincerely hope the audio balance in the game is an order of magnitude better than what we see in the trailer.

 

Verdict: It has been a long time since I’ve played a good horror game on the PC. For roughly twelve dollars (as priced on Desura) I would be willing to roll the dice on The Cat Lady.

Click here to head over to The Cat Lady’s website for more details.

Yuri Nation by Serotonin Studios

Click here for Yuri Nation’s Steam Greenlight page.

If a person were to say the name of this game as one word, they would soon discover the M.O. of this particular entry. Expected to release in the fourth quarter of 2013, Yuri Nation is…well it’s a game about peeing on things.

Maybe I’ll just go straight to the video on this one.

 

Though the developers talk about drawing inspiration from the likes of Paperboy, Grand Theft Auto, and Mario Kart – all games which I have enjoyed at some point in my life – I really don’t think I’m sold on Yuri Nation’s core concept. I mean, you play as a dog intent to piss on as much stuff as possible as part of a turf war with other dogs. It’s about one diabetic toddler away from being a pitch for a TLC program.

I suppose if I was twelve I might be able to appreciate this game on some level. Perhaps I may recommend it to my friend, Chris, as a present for his five-year-old. Though I can’t see his wife approving of the core mechanics any more than I do.

Verdict: A resounding, “No.”

But if you manage to find yourself interested in this game, here is its kickstarter page.

Lords of Xulima by Numantian Games

Click here for Lords of Xulima’s Steam Greenlight page.

Finally, we have Lords of Xulima. Expected to release at the end of 2013, this is Numantian Games’ attempt at recapturing the spirit of the late-90s RPG.

Lords of Xulima is an isometric, turn-based, single-player 2D role-playing game. It is set in a mythical lost continent called Xulima where the world makers lived in ancient times. The game features a challenging vast world where you will have to command and create a six characters (sic) party in an epic story between gods and men.

Question: If the game uses an isometric perspective, is it not still presenting a 3D view?

 

I will say that the exposition in the trailer is a little bit much. There even came a point when the flying text shifted voice between a heroic history and an outright personal narration.

Ultimately though, I think there is some potential to this game. If XCOM: Enemy Unknown has demonstrated anything it’s that there is still a market for turn based strategy in today’s gaming world. Assuming the price point on Lords of Xulima peaked at $25, I would probably buy in. Bearing that in mind, my customer and critical expectations for this game will be pretty high. Given an obvious inspiration from the likes of Ultima, Baldur’s Gate, or Planescape: Torment, I would expect Lords of Xulima to get it right on the first try. When standing on the shoulders of giants, there is little margin for error.

Verdict: Tentative yes.

Head over to lordsofxulima.com for more information on the game.

And there we have it. Two thumbs up out of three for this month. Tune in next month when I pull three more games out of the queue and take them apart for your reading pleasure.


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Book Review: The Book of Thomas, Volume 1: Heaven

To explore the first volume of Robert Boyczuk’s new series, The Book of Thomas, I think it is necessary to begin in the middle of the story. Therein, an orphan boy with eidetic memory makes a meta commentary on the novel as a medium. In reflecting on a world where the Church has banned all books save the Bible, Thomas says, “The novels I read…contained an idealization of truth. In real life, the truths are still there, but they are never quite so clear.” As I read those words, I pondered what truths Mr. Boyczuk was attempting to idealize within this novel. Thomas, as both protagonist and narrator, is witness to a world filled with murder, corruption, impiety, and the reduction of science to Jesuit oral history. Of course, truth is a tricky thing, particularly in a novel which seems to take pleasure in wholesale subversion.

In some ways, The Book of Thomas puts me in mind of another CZP book, James Marshall’s Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies. If the trajectory of these books were graphed on to a Cartesian plane, they would likely emerge as parallel lines albeit with a vast distance between them. Boyzcuk modifies the Aristotelian model of the universe to create a “planet” of many concentric spheres as a setting for his story – Hell being the innermost sphere and Heaven the outermost. He then installs the Catholic Church as the governing power of this purportedly pious but ultimately decadent and decaying world. And just so the reader knows Mr. Boyzcuk is serious in his deconstruction/appropriation, pederasty, persecution, and rape abound in the book’s first chapters – all of which can be blamed squarely on the various institutions of Catholicism. Despite this, the novel rarely preaches. Thomas, through his perfect memory, is a fair narrator. He recognizes is own sins as readily as he does those of others. And though it may seem like The Book of Thomas is subversion for its own sake, its methodology quickly becomes a mechanism for approaching the heroic epic without placing the narrative inside an idealized world of objective good and evil.

Though gifted with characteristics and history suitable to a heroic character, guilt, shame, and obligation inform Thomas’ quest. In this Thomas knows he will likely never find absolution for his misdeeds. Despite this knowledge, and a form of ironic self-flagellation which would put the best Greek poet to shame, Thomas embraces the hero’s journey. His voyage creates a delightful contrast in the duality of man as a creature of equal parts free will and determinism.

Further shading the non-idealized epic tradition is Boyczuk’s treatment of the characters essential to Thomas’ world. Clever nomenclature alludes to their roles within the story: Kite, Thomas’ shield, who like all shields will eventually break; Ali, the leader, who drives Thomas while himself being led by other powers; Meussin, the Pope’s illegitimate daughter, who embodies both sin and truth in equal measures. None of these characters have simple motivations or a trope driven nature which might lend to quick critical dissection. There’s a brilliant ambiguity to the players, which returns to Thomas’ meta discussion on novels and life; wherein literature streamlines the divergent demands of readers and writers into digestible packages. Only in this novel, the complexities of life and people are fully imposed upon the heroic journey.

The novel’s pace is another element contributing to its nature as a contemporary subversion of the epic. Much of the volume is bound up in Thomas’ journey from a lower sphere to Heaven. While there are many questions and conflicts within this sojourn, a grand sense of narrative only emerges in the final pages of the book. So yes, there is a lot of world building in The Book of Thomas, but it is a gorgeous world to behold. The Spheres of the Apostles are byzantine, flawed, and utterly beautiful. In his dialogue and narration alike, Boyczuk’s remarkable use of language hangs on the border of anachronism, serving to remove the reader from our world and fixing them upon the firmament of a sphere.

There is one possible point of contention I would deal with before wrapping up the review. To do so constitutes a very light spoiler; I apologize in advance. Still, I feel it necessary to discuss a particular rape scene within the novel. My first impression of this scene was that it was too matter of fact. It felt like a pulled punch for the sake of narrative convenience. Each time the story returned to the rape as a formative event within Thomas’ journey, I felt it to be a cop out which cheapened both of the involved characters. About 150 pages later (a guess as I read the book on my kindle) the book reveals certain details that, to my mind, wholly justified why this rape scene had to happen. Indeed the revelation drove home just how little personal agency there is within both a theocracy and Boyczuk’s preternatural world. So to those who approach this scene with some reservation, have faith that it is essential to the art of the story.

In a novel that dedicates so much of its efforts to framing a larger tale, the simplest benchmark for success is a reader’s desire to keep reading after the last page. To Robert Boyczuk I now say, “I want more.” The Book of Thomas’ first volume is as layered as the world in which it is set. A subtext of critical skepticism juxtaposed with deist belief in a higher power underpins a story which shamelessly and unrepentantly flirts with multiple genres. Ultimately this combination of opposing thematic forces produces a novel which frees the hero’s journey from idealism and infallibility, offering something that is, perhaps, closer to the Truth of those called to greatness.

The Book of Thomas, Volume 1: Heaven by Robert Boyczuk.

Published by ChiZine Publications.


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My Dark Souls Conversion

Last year I received two video games as Christmas presents: Batman: Arkham City and Dark Souls. Though I hadn’t played either game, I was confident I would like both. I was half right, at first.

Friends boasted about Dark Souls length and punishing difficulty; I called them noobs. I touted conquests like Final Fantasy (NES), Master of Orion (PC), and Colony Wars (PS1) as proof of my gaming epicocity. “If a game beats me,” I would begin, “it’s because of bad design, not any lack of skills on my part.”

Braggadocio thy name is Adam.

Equal parts fear and dread seized me upon discovering Dark Souls was developed by the Japanese studio “From Software”. I flashed back to over a decade of failed attempts to master the pointlessly byzantine Armoured Core series of robot combat games. “Bad design, that’s why I quit those games.” I muttered.

Steeling myself, I dove into Dark Souls. I lasted about five minutes before seeing the following words.

YOU DIED.

Those two words came to haunt me. Over and over they would flash on the screen as undead minions and massive Lovecraft meets Japanese tentacle porn uber-demons gallivanted over my corpse. I started a new character. I tried new tactics. I took different paths through the game’s open world.

YOU DIED.

YOU DIED .

YOU DIED.

and YOU DIED.

I took the game out of my Xbox, gave it the finger, and fired up Arkham City. Sure, there were moments when I led Batman to his death. Yet losing in a 20 vs 1 street brawl never felt quite so demoralizing as one of Dark Souls’ nameless minions running me through with a rusty sword.

Two weeks ago I was playing Star Trek Catan at a friend’s house. Wherein another friend informed the group he had taken up Dark Souls and, against all odds, was enjoying it. I was sceptical.

Since giving Dark Souls the finger I had found other critical voices who had spoken out against the game. I thought myself all the more clever for writing off Dark Souls as an exercise in self-flagellation after five hours, rather than making a chump of myself and playing through the whole 100 hour affair a la Roger Ebert. Yet my friend was convinced I needed to give the game another shot.

I said there was no story.

I said it was a shameless farce meant to inflate an otherwise simple (and short) game.

I said there’s no art to a game which only appeals to a handful of compulsive lunatics willing to spend 100 hours for the sake of unlocking an achievement.

Matt just smiled his idiot knowing smile and said, “Give it another try.”

So last week, high on cough medicine and boredom, I gave it a go.

Guess what happened?

YOU DIED.

“Fuck this shit right in the ear,” I said aloud as the words crossed my screen.

Then something interesting happened. In an attempt to piss take, I fell back on an old Warcraft/Starcraft habit. Rather than speaking to NPCs (Non Player Characters) once and moving on, I kept clicking the “talk to” button. And instead of getting mad at me, or killing me – because everything else in the game seemed intent on ramming a spear up my ass – they revealed useful information. The world of Dark Souls, and more importantly my part in it, began to make some small bit of sense.

You see, I’m the sort of gamer who craves narrative. Dark Souls hints at a grand fantasy setting with its opening cut scene, but then provides nothing else in the way of exposition or purpose. There’s nothing in the manual. There are no in-game tutorials. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, why I was doing it, or how being undead (the game’s character is a sapient undead who fights “hollow” zombies and demons – don’t ask, it’s complicated) factored into game mechanics like humanity points, there was no investment on my part. All I saw was a game intent on breaking my balls and making me feel bad about myself. I don’t need that from a video game, that’s why I have in-laws.

The revelation that Dark Souls has a story, albeit a story I had to earn, kept me playing a little longer. Therein I discovered something else missed in my first play through: Dark Souls has a pretty fantastic combat system.

Dark Souls combat stems from a first principle: you, the player, protagonist, and hero, are not special. You’re not Batman, Sephiroth, or Ryu Hayabusa. You are an undead escaped from the undead asylum, nothing more. Because of that, a couple of well placed stabs, cuts, or smashes will kill you.

I was frail.

I have been the indestructible Master Chief, the one in a million person immune to zombie bites, and the immortal Master of Orion. Dark Souls has the nerve to make art imitate life by turning me into something soft and weak.

Though the game hints at becoming stronger, tempting the player with high level weapon descriptions during load screens, I, Shaftoe the Mighty, was a fragile little newbie in a big bad world. I had to set aside years of gamer impulses and actually duel with each nameless grunt who stood between me and the boss.

Even now, after ten hours of play resulting in a character who can effectively use a halberd with one hand while working a kite shield with the other, I still have to be respectful of my foes. Sure I can one-shot a lot of generic baddies, but my level 23 character only has marginally more health than I did as a level 6 character. A single sword cut against me matters in Dark Souls in ways other 3rd person sword play games would never dream.

Now it seems hard not to appreciate the design elegance in a game which demands a twitch inclined button mashing audience slow down to think their way through combat. On a practical level, a cautious approach to playing Dark Souls makes death less of a chore and more of natural barrier within an open world game. When Dark Souls started killing me, my inclination was to get angry and have another go at the beast which dared to cross swords with an all powerful User. Then I would die again. In doing so I would lose the unspent experience points/humanity left behind in the essence of my last incarnation. Gamer rage became my own worst enemy. In slowing down and thinking, I approached death with a measure of Zen. Once reborn I would return to the remains of my last self, literally reclaim the experience of my past life, and set a new course away from the mechanism of my previous demise.

Thus Dark Souls is not a game about grinding, persistence, and tilting at windmills. It’s an exercise in caution, restraint, accepting one’s own limits – temporary though they may be – and checking one’s ego at the title screen. Played like any other action game, the likes of which hinge upon convincing the player they are somehow special, I can see why it might require 100 hours to complete Dark Souls. Yet now I feel confident anybody could finish the game faster if they purge themselves of any sense of exceptionalism and adjust their approach to suit Dark Souls’ philosophy.

And that’s the story of how I came to appreciate a game I’d once written off as a pointless endeavour in making mountains out of a mole hill.

My name is Adam, and I was wrong about Dark Souls.


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Retro Movie Review: Krull

The poster makes this movie look so much better than it is.

Even by the standards 80s genre movies, Krull is one of the most derivative pieces of garbage that I’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing. On the surface, the movie is little more than a pastiche of tired fantasy tropes. Arguably, this movie might seem less offensive and more original in a world where Peter Jackson didn’t bring the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen. Though I have to assume that even in the early 80s, with nothing other than the crudely rotoscoped Lord of the Rings movies in play, enough people had read Tolkien’s books to realize just how shamelessly Krull appropriates the ideas of its betters.

Seriously, Adam, we’re not going to read all of this review if you’re not going to do anything other than pick on a 30 year old movie.

Fair enough. Let me come to the point of this review. Despite the bad acting, worse writing, and even more terrible special effects, which make the Master Control Program spinning God that shows up in The Ten Commandments look state of the art, there is something of critical value within the five pointed turd that is Krull.

For those keeping score at home, I did just compare a cinematic interpretation of Yayweh to the bad guy from Tron.

Returning to the point at hand, Krull offers viewers one interesting take away message. That’s not to say it’s a particularly deep subtext, but it’s something that seems to have persisted within popular culture. From start to finish Krull is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the culture battle between fantasy and science fiction, and an odd forecast of the ultimate triumph of the former over the latter.

Krull’s antagonist is an alien called “The Beast”. He arrives on planet Krull, a world of magic, feuding human kingdoms, Cyclopes, and giant spiders, in a space ship locally known as The Black Fortress. Fearing some sort of prophecy (why is there always a prophecy?) the Beast busts up a wedding that would have united the two dominant human kingdoms of Krull. The Beast’s Slayers then kidnap the princess leaving the prince to find a magic weapon called “The Glaive” and rescue his lady love. In doing so the boy becomes a man, he meets some cannon fodder friends, he has some adventures, and ultimately kills the bad guy through the power of magic and…love. Yeah, love is the ultimate power that allows Prince Packing Paper and Princess Mostly-A-Prop to destroy the Beast.

Setting aside the fact the big bad’s hired goons ride (terribly) on horseback, for what were obviously budgetary reasons, The Beast and his Slayers are actually interesting science fiction creations. The Beast himself appears ancient, enigmatic, and able to take on any form that pleases him. He cares not for humans, save for the prophecy that says they will come to dominate the galaxy. Subject to the limits of 80s theatrical productions, the interior of the Black Fortress hints at a geometry that is beyond our three dimensional understanding of reality. In short, The Beast could quite easily fit into the canon of Elder Old Ones as envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft.

Slayers advancing on Prince Packing Paper

The Slayers are perhaps even more interesting. Armed with laser-swords, that is to say a weapon which offers a metal blade on one end and a directed energy weapon on the other, the Slayers look like the generic sort of storm trooper rip off that was ubiquitous among the drek of the late 70s and early 80s. It’s only when a Slayer is killed that they become unique. Upon a Slayer’s death, a slimy alien crawls out of the deceased’s helmet and burrows into the ground. So perhaps the Slayers are humanoids controlled by parasites. Maybe they are aliens piloting mechanical bodies. Being the nerd that I am, the Slayers reminded me of the Radamians from Tekkaman Blade: plant based alien parasites that convert suitable life forms into armoured foot soldiers.

Despite the obviously superior technology that the Slayers possess, never once does a member of Prince Packing Paper’s band trade in their sword and shield for a Slayer’s laser blade. To do so would offer a tacit admission that the ways of technology are better than those of fantasy. The movie’s third act further supports this supposition. Since the Black Fortress teleports to a random location each day, the heroes search out…magic flying horses (yeah, I know, I’m sure it hurts you to read it as much as it hurt me to write it) to confront their foe. During the final battle, the Prince uses the Glaive to wound the Beast. However, it is only pure love powered magic that ultimately fells the extra terrestrial foe.

The message is quite clear: magic always beats technology and consequently fantasy trumps science fiction.

What really galls me is that within Hollywood’s expectations of what people want, Krull gets it right. Even though Krull’s sub-textual bludgeoning makes it very obvious that science fiction and fantasy are opposite sides of the same coin, the thirty years that have followed this movie demonstrate a far greater dedication to fantasy than science fiction within cinema. Not to be labour the point, because I really do like his movies, but consider that Lord of the Rings gets the Peter Jackson treatment while the most recent Dune adaptation was a low budget Sci-Fi Channel affair.

Still not convinced? Ask yourself this, when a fantasy movie flops is the damage ever spoken about in terms that extend beyond the film in question? When a sci-fi movie pulls a Prometheus it’s something that spurs conversation about the future of the genre. Don’t believe me? I dare you to read this and tell me it’s the first time you’ve heard a conversation along these lines. Somehow one bad science fiction story has the power to invoke doubts about the prospect of science fiction as a genre so much so that studios are only willing to invest in proven properties. Drop a stinker of a fantasy movie, and life moves on without questioning the foundation upon which fantasy stories are told.

While Krull might offer little in the way of entertainment value, it’s marginal worth can be found in an ability to foreshadow the entertainment tastes of a generation. If that’s not enough motivation for enduring this ninety minute bowel movement, Liam Neeson is in it. I guess Battleship is less the exception and more the rule when it comes to Liam Neeson’s recent penchant for questionable movies.

Directed by: Peter Yates

Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony and Freddie Jones


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Book Review: Torn Realities Anthology of Lovecraft Inspired Short Fiction

In his introductory essay, Paul Anderson, editor of Torn Realities: An Anthology of Lovecraft Inspired Short Fiction, states his intention to bring together a collection of stories that deal with H.P. Lovecraft’s “other” themes. He quite properly points out that the Elder God Cthulhu has become iconic to the point of cliché. Quoting now from Mr. Anderson,

I sought stories dealing with Lovecraft’s other themes – forbidden knowledge, the idea that we are essentially untethered from the workaday world, or lunacy-inducing creatures predating the dawn of man – or kept [Lovecraft’s] most famous theme (the idea of mind-boggling other gods) more general. I wanted stories that sought that grey area in horror…

Generally speaking, the eighteen stories that appear in this anthology fit that bill. Though they are drawn from a variety of genres (contemporary horror, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy) most succeed in making a connection with the Lovecraftian tradition. About half of the stories manage to find a tangent within that particular body of work, and then chart a unique direction therein; those are the ones that I liked. The rest run a little too parallel to Lovecraft. As a result I found those stories to be dull, predictable, and perhaps too fixated on things that go bump in the night. Still, a .500 batting average is about what I’ve come to expect as a marker of acceptable performance within an anthology.

Before I get into the honourable mentions, I want to take a moment to speak on the editing. In my mind, Mr. Anderson made two significant mistakes in the way that he laid out this collection. The first was selecting JW Schnarr’s Opt-In as the lead story. While veteran readers may have no problem with second person narratives, anyone approaching this anthology as a relative newcomer to horror, Lovecraftian or otherwise, will likely find this story terribly alienating. It is never advisable to go Brechtian with the first story.

Schnarr’s tale, which sees the voice of the protagonist’s dead lover usurped as a marketing tool, is certainly clever and relevant to the modern reader. Yet its tone is, perhaps intentionally, jarring to the point that the message can be lost in the prose. Sufficed to say, this was not the story that hooked me into reading on within the book. That came in the anthology’s second story, Jamie Lackey’s What Waits Out There. More on that in a moment.

The other issue I take with the anthology’s editing is the placement of Clive Barker’s novella Rawhead Rex. It is ordered sixth in the book. I made a point of leaving it to the end if only out of fairness to the seventh story, The Midnight Librarians by Brad Carter. Though neither of these stories ended up impressing me, the latter being a little too predictable, and the former for its laughable invocation of menstruating women as kryptonite to a monster who eats ponies and babies, it struck as quite the aberration to make any up and coming author perform as the follow-up act to one of the genre’s living masters.

Honours Candidates

Among the few science fiction stories that appear in this book, Jamie Lackey’s What Waits Out There is the best. It takes space travel seriously, in the style of James Patrick Kelly, as an activity that is unfit for human beings on a strictly biological level. It then mixes in “The Unknown” as a true horror. At its core, empathy is what drives this story, rather than the insanity one might expect given the nature of the anthology. It’s also one of the few stories that dares to suggest that the Chaos Gods, or what have you, can be overcome by us mere mortals.

Kathryn Board’s The Troll That Jack Built is a magnificent piece of contemporary horror. It’s one of the few stories within the anthology that suggests the things which are known can be equally monstrous as those that are unknown. Said unknown fiend is then integrated into cyberspace, allowing for a “monsters around the corner” story that has real relevance to a modern tech savvy reader. If The Twilight Zone were still on television, this would make for a perfect episode.

Ankor Sabat by C. Deskin Rink is perhaps the most archetypically Chthonic story of the anthology. I suspect the story finds its spiritual roots in At The Mountains of Madness, yet its narrative structure is wholly unique. The writing is as detailed and lugubrious as anything Lovecraft wrote. At the same time, it loosely follows the patterns of a heroic quest. Though clever readers will likely see the end coming from a distance, the protagonist’s descent into despair combined with the presence of an actual “Elder God”, replete with a chamber of mortal horrors, is quite the thing to behold.

Matt Moore’s Delta Pi plays with geometry in the finest tradition of Lovecraft, himself. For anybody who has ever taken a physics course, the title tells the story before the narration even begins. In that sense, the payoff for this story is seeing what Mr. Moore does with a world where Pi is no longer a constant. Therein, perception is synonymous with protection, and Euclidean geometry is the thing that keeps humanity safe from the horrors that lie beyond the veil of comprehension. This may sound high concept, and it really is among the smartest offerings of the anthology, but it is completely accessible to any reader.

Should you buy it?

Ultimately the good outweighs the bad in this anthology. Yes, there are couple problems on the organizational level. While I’ve only named four stories as exceptional, there are at least four more that are worth reading. Only two entries, which shall remain nameless, bored me to the point that I didn’t bother finishing them.

As a $5 e-book via Amazon, there’s really no excuse not to buy Torn Realities. At the time of this review, Torn Realities is also available in paperback via Amazon for $13. Either way, it would be money well spent, even if every story in the collection fails to float your boat.


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Fiction Friday: The Aurora Awards Edition – Part 2: Marie Bilodeau’s The Legend of Gluck

The Barbarian by ~XiaMan via Deviant Art

Image by ~XiaMan via Deviant Art

This week’s Aurora Awards edition of Fiction Friday changes gears from alternate Earth primate assassins to sword and sorcery fantasy. Before I get into the review I’ll offer one quick disclaimer. I’m not the biggest reader of fantasy stories. Moreover, I thought the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring (book) and the entirety of Peter Jackson’s movie of the same name were boring as sin. Those formative experiences have, for good or bad, shaped a lot of how I evaluate fantasy stories.

What’s it about?

The Legend of Gluck was originally published in Dragon Moon Press’ When the Hero Comes Home anthology. As such, the story centers on events that occur after Gluck the Barbarian, ninth of his name, has fought with an alliance of elves, dwarves, and fairies to defeat Klar the Dark. The story’s opening scene sees Gluck dragging the decapitated head of Klar the Dark back to his ancestral homeland.

For Gluck, defeating Klar was never about saving the world from the forces of evil. Gluck’s motivations were much more personal. Among his people, Gluck the Seventh, Gluck’s grandfather, was believed to actually be Klar the Dark. Therefore, Klar’s festering inhuman cranial remains were to be the proof that absolved Gluck’s family line from the shame that had been heaped upon them. Unfortunately, Lurp the Seventh, chieftain of the barbarians, refuses to acknowledge Klar’s maggoty head as acceptable proof of Gluck the Seventh’s innocence. When Klar’s head comes back to life, things really get bad.

Why it works

First and foremost it tells a story in a fantasy setting without having a word count that is best conveyed in scientific notation. (I’m talking to you, George R.R. Martin.)

There’s also the fact that Marie Bilodeau has eschewed every awful stereotype of barbarians in her construction of Gluck and his tribe. These aren’t the sort of barbarians who include lamentations of widows among the things that are best in life. Gluck’s people have a well developed class structure and vicious internal political squabbles. The few lines of text that shed light on this reality make Gluck’s people seem more akin to Florentine nobles than any sort of Sumerian gimmick.

While there’s an inevitable pathos that comes with stories about war veterans, regardless of the genre, war is hell, The Legend of Gluck draws upon it with the utmost in subtle brushstrokes. In doing so, Gluck’s return home contrasts the difficult relationship between people of worldly perspectives and those who are more provincially minded.

Gluck’s people cling to ancient racial stereotypes of elves as sneaky and dwarves as lazy, despite the fact that those people fought a war, which in the case of the fairies was a genocidal affair, on behalf of the isolationist barbarians. In the hands of a lesser writer, a scenario such as this would lend itself far too easily to a pro-military propaganda piece disguised as fantasy. Such is not the case with this story. Gluck may see his people as narrow minded cowards when they turn on his elven comrade in arms, yet he also recognizes that his sense of self, as well as his personal honour, has grown beyond his tribe’s limited definition. In that realization, going home does not mean returning to the place he was born, but the place for which Gluck took responsibility: the world at large.

The Most Memorable Part

This bit, right here.

Gluck grabbed his axe – the double edged weapon was covered in nicks, but still sharp.

““Wait,” Alara shoulted, but Gluck ignored her, rushing forward. He embedded the axe in both Klar’s eyes with a cross hit. Dark liquid gushed forth.

If I live to be one-hundred twenty years old, I will never, ever be able to get that image out of my head. Awesome.

The Bottom Line

Marie Bilodeau’s The Legend of Gluck might work within established fantasy confines, but it tells a tale that imagines the barbarian as a character who is as sharp as the weapon he wields. There’s a persistent appeal to emotion, but reason is the dominant motif that carries the narrative. Unburdened by excessive world building, the plot is fast paced yet remains suitably complex. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Marie Bilodeau simply fixes horse to cart and lets the story happen. This is exactly what every fantasy story ought to strive for.

The The Legend of Gluck was originally published within the When the Hero Comes Home anthology. Joining the CSFFA allows for access to this story, as well as many other great works of Canadian fiction.

Next week, Randy McCharles’ One Horrible Day.


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The Daily Shaft: The 2012 Prix Aurora Nominees

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of the year again. The nominees for the 2012 Prix Aurora Awards have been announced. Voting opened up on April 16, 2012.

Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident can join the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association whereby they will get a voting ballot for the Auroras. This year, however, the ten dollar registration fee buys you more than a franchise. Members of the CSFFA get e-book access to a voter’s package that contains excerpts and some complete editions of the nominated titles.

So if you fancy yourself a literary critic or just want to have a hand in supporting your favourite author, then there’s really no excuse not to get yourself registered.

Here’s the list of the nominees and here’s a link to the Prix Aurora Award homepage. Deadline for all ballots is July 23, 2012.

Best Novel – English

Enter, Night by Michael Rowe, ChiZine Publications

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by David Nickle, ChiZine Publications

Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy, ChiZine Publications

The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet, ChiZine Publications

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley, EDGE

Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada

 

Best Short Fiction – English

“The Legend of Gluck” by Marie Bilodeau, When the Hero Comes Home, Dragon Moon Press

“The Needle’s Eye” by Suzanne Church, Chilling Tales: Evil Did I Dwell; Lewd Did I Live, EDGE

“One Horrible Day” by Randy McCharles, The 2nd Circle, The 10th Circle Project

“Turning It Off” by Susan Forest, Analog, December

“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” by Derek Künsken, Asimov’s, October/November

 

Best Poem / Song – English

“A Good Catch” by Colleen Anderson, Polu Texni, April

“Ode to the Mongolian Death Worm” by Sandra Kasturi, ChiZine, Supergod Mega-Issue, Volume 47

“Skeleton Leaves” by Helen Marshall, Kelp Queen Press

“Skeleton Woman” by Heather Dale and Ben Deschamps, Fairytale, CD

“Zombie Bees of Winnipeg” by Carolyn Clink, ChiZine, Supergod Mega-Issue, Volume 47

 

Best Graphic Novel – English

Goblins, webcomic, created by Tarol Hunt

Imagination Manifesto, Book 2 by GMB Chomichuk, James Rewucki and John Toone, Alchemical Press

Weregeek, webcomic, created by Alina Pete

 

Best Related Work – English

Fairytale, CD by Heather Dale, HeatherDale.com

The First Circle: Volume One of the Tenth Circle Project, edited by Eileen Bell and Ryan McFadden

Neo-Opsis, edited by Karl Johanson

On Spec,published by the Copper Pig Writers’ Society

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, edited by Julie Czerneda and Susan MacGregor, EDGE

 

Best Artist (Professional and Amateur Nominations)

(An example of each artist’s work is listed below but they are to be judged on the body of work they have produced in the award year)

Janice Blaine, “Cat in Space”, Cover art for Neo-Opsis, Issue 20

Costi Gurgu,cover art for Outer Diverse, Starfire

Erik Mohr, cover art for ChiZine Publications

Dan O’Driscoll, “Deep Blue Seven”, cover art for On Spec magazine, Summer issue

Martin Springett, Interior art for The Pattern Scars, ChiZine

Fan/Volunteer Award Nominations

Best Fan Publication

BCSFAzine,edited by Felicity Walker

Bourbon and Eggnog by Eileen Bell, Ryan McFadden, Billie Milholland and Randy McCharles, 10th Circle Project

In Places Between: The Robin Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest book,edited by Reneé Bennett

Sol Rising newsmagazine, edited by Michael Matheson

Space Cadet, edited by R. Graeme Cameron

 

Best Fan Filk

Stone Dragons (Tom and Sue Jeffers), concert at FilKONtario

Phil Mills, Body of Song-Writing Work including FAWM and 50/90

Cindy Turner, Interfilk concert at OVFF

 

Best Fan Organization

Andrew Gurudata, chair of the Constellation Awards committee

Peter Halasz, administrator of the Sunburst Awards

Helen Marshall and Sandra Kasturi, chairs of the Chiaroscuro Reading Series (Toronto)

Randy McCharles, founder and chair of When Words Collide (Calgary)

Alex von Thorn, chair of SFContario 2 (Toronto)

Rose Wilson, for organizing the Art Show at V-Con (Vancouver)

 

Best Fan Other

Lloyd Penney, letters of comment

Peter Watts, “Reality: The Ultimate Mythology” lecture, Toronto SpecFic Colloquium

Taral Wayne, Canadian Fanzine Fanac Awards art

 


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The Genre Wars: Are They Over?

In August, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction review published my short story Ascension, which is about the zombie apocalypse told from a zombie’s point of view. Some would say this alone makes it a horror story. Yet it also deals with mass consciousness and the transcendence of the physical to the purely mental―the zombie apocalypse as the singularity―topics normally found in science fiction.

So, is it then a sci-fi story?

My question is: does it even matter? And are these divisions hurting us as a community?

In genre fiction, we tend to separate down (sometimes rigid) genre lines: she loves fantasy, he only reads sci-fi, she digs horror. These divisions and identities sometimes border on the obsessive. I’ve seen a discussion become an argument that almost came to blows over whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy. Star Wars cos players dissing steampunkers.  Science fiction nerds dismissing the entire horror genre because it doesn’t deal with “big ideas.”

I can’t help but wonder if our rivals in literature segment themselves so fiercely. Has anyone almost had a fist fight over whether The Handmaid’s Tale is more CanLit or FemLit? I doubt it.

But back to us. Are we doing ourselves a disservice by trying to define and segment genres? Could this infighting contribute to the image the literary set has of genre as childish stories for childish people, neither of which can be taken seriously? As a community, can we set aside the idea of “genre” and judge and evaluate stories on their own merits?

Looking at the state of genre fiction, we find more and more stories crossing genres or that are difficult to classify. Peter Watts’ The Things is up for the Hugo, a science fiction award, even though the story’s beats and tone read as horror (similar to the source material―John Carpenter’s The Thing and the short story “Who Goes There?”). Over on AE, which is running some great mixed genre stories that anyone can read for free, the second story of its inaugural issue was my Touch the Sky, They Say (which is, ahem, up for an Aurora Award). Set in a world where the sky has literally fallen, transforming the Earth into a grey, passion-less place, it’s not quite science fiction and not quite fantasy. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Death Collector has horror elements but a sci-fi vibe. And how do you classify Don’t Move a Muscle, Mr. Liberty by Jordan Ellinger?

Not only do they defy easy genre classification, in all of these works literary qualities—character, pacing, settings, theme―are taken seriously.

Have we finally returned to a point where stories are just stories? No one labeled Shelley, Verne or Wells as “genre writers.” (Although the term “scientific romances” was used.) And witness The Time Traveler’s Wife or Oryx and Crake being shelved in mainstream literature. And let’s understand that the idea of genres was started by book stores so the pulp adventure stories of Howard’s Cimmerian or Heinlein’s spaceships wouldn’t be shelved with serious literature.

Granted, there are those who not only vigorously defend the need for the genre/literature distinction (on both sides of the writing world), but also the dividing lines of the big three (horror, science fiction and fantasy; granted, there is also romance, westerns and crime).

Horror, some say, is a personal and moral genre. Horror stories push us into a state of disquiet and dread, begging examination to determine why we are horrified.

Fantasy, on the other hand, offers escapism with places and creatures far-removed from our humdrum lives.

Meanwhile, science fiction posits how a new technology―be it digital, physical or even supernatural―affects the human condition, and by doing so shows something about our world.

While these distinctions make analysis and discussion of works interesting, authors are not remaining trapped within their confines, nor are magazines and anthologies. Here in Canada, we see On Spec, Neo-oposis, Tesseracts, ChiZine, Ideomancer and, of course, AE more interested in tone and theme (and quality) than narrow definitions of what is and is not science fiction or fantasy. (Apologies to any Canadian markets I missed.) This editorial leaning will force writers to focus on characterization, mood and theme rather than just a cool idea about robots or graphic descriptions of blood letting.

Still, this does not mean genre fiction will lose its genre edge. We need robots and blood letting. Ascension has a line about a zombie feasting on loops of guts it pulls out of someone’s abdomen, and the story would be the worse without it. So genre fans rejoice―what makes science fiction great will continue to be there. But the bar is being raised and the quality of work is improving.

And hopefully, we can stop sniping at each other behind our backs.