Illuminae – Best Novel Recommendation

Illuminae – Best Novel Recommendation

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is a mindblowing experience. Although nominally YA due to the protagonists, as with many other sci fi YA works, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult. The basic premise is that in the distant future, a corporation launches a devastating massacre against a remote mining colony. Two teens (still dealing with having just broken up) manage to escape but quickly wind up on separate ships trying to flee a warship determined to leave no surviving witnesses.

As with the best of thrillers, from there, the situation starts to get worse, and then the situation gets to that “How the heck did it get this bad?!! They are all going to die!!!” state, and its magnificent (and also more of a horror story than I expected). Beyond a finely crafted story and relatable characters, what really lifts this book up above the rest is the format. Illuminae is told in a “found format” of chat logs between the two teens, computer logs, memos, and the like. This sort of alternative format runs the risk of coming across as trite and silly – but not here. Kaufman and Kristoff’s use of the format is extremely effective. One space ship battle nicely captures the chaos of dogfight spacecraft. Another 2 page spread – you will know it when you get to it – I could have easily just glanced and moved on, but instead and read every bit of it while almost in tears.

Moving away from standard prose is in a way a very artificial presentation, but in another way, it can convey raw emotion so much more powerfully. It reminds of musicals in that regard. Sure, breaking into song is unrealistic, but in the best musicals, the music can carry so much more emotional content than ordinary dialogue. The format of Illuminae is much the same way. I would honestly no guess at the actual word count of this book, but the emotional journey is easily as deep and powerful as any novel I have read.

The only weakness is actually when they slide into a more traditional prose. In several points there is someone describing actions from video footage which at times was a little forced and not my favorite. However, it wasn’t overdone and for some portions it is necessary and thankfully is still enjoyable.

Overall, it was one of the best novels I read last year and certainly award-worthy. It is the first in a trilogy and the set up for the next one puts things in an interesting place and looks to be moving in a new direction rather than repeating the same storyline but with bigger stakes as often happens in a series.

Welcome to Night Vale “Best Of?” – Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Welcome to Night Vale “Best Of?” – Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Welcome to Night Vale has rightfully earned its place as one of the most popular podcasts around. I am actually surprised it hasn’t been nominated for a Hugo already, and I chalk that up to the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) being the “TV category” in people’s minds and little consideration of non-TV and especially non-film dramatic presentations.

For those unfamiliar with it, it is best summed up as Prairie Home Companion meets the Twilight Zone (with a more than generous helping of Elder Gods-style mythos sprinkled in). It is a community radio program hosted by Cecil Palmer (voiced amazingly by Cecil Baldwin) for the small community of Night Vale – a town descried in the opening words of the first podcast as

“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.”

Then Cecil proceeds to happily announce the opening of the new community dog park – where no one is allowed to enter. Hooded figures may be seen in the dog park. Do not approach the dog park! Do not look at the dog park!!

And right from the beginning, they captured this amazing vibe of a radio host who absolutely loves this town he lives in all the while completely accepting of the fact that it is utterly bizarre and home to many strange and inexplicable things. Some storylines grow over the course the series, and there are often references to past events, but to a large extent, each half hour episode stands well on its own, explaining needed references. This can get amusing as Cecil will refer to people in specific ways every. single. time. he mentions them. Like John Peters (you know, the farmer?) or Old Woman Josie who lives out near the car lot who is visited by angels even those by law, angels do not exist. These references are both funny and are sly way to inform you about the character very quickly.

It is hard to pick out an individual episode to nominate (especially since I’m a bit behind), but one that stood out for me in really capturing what makes Welcome to Night Vale so special is “[Best Of?]”. It is actually an atypical episode (although there are many that aren’t typical each year – “A Story About You” and the two-part “Sandstorm” are particularly great examples of this). This time Cecil I son vacation and former host Leonard Burton (voiced by James Urbaniak) comes out of retirement to host the show and play some recordings from Cecil’s early career. What happens over that half hour is really fun as we get glimpses of Cecil’s past as well as Leonard hearing about his own “retirement” all of which embraces contradiction and nonsense that actually makes perfect in the town of Night Vale. It is a great episode.

Listen:
http://nightvale.libsyn.com/67-best-of

or

or

in iTunes podcasts.

Sense8 “What is Human?” – Best Short Dramatic Presentation

Sense8 “What is Human?” – Best Short Dramatic Presentation

[Note: This is a long recommendation, but much of the last half if explaining each of the 8 main characters in case someone wants to just watch this episode and skip the previous portion of the season.]

Sense8 on Netflix is one of those series that does work as one long season-long story, but strikes a balance of also having each episode work with a full story arc(s) as well. All too often, some of these shows with a strong season-long story wind up with individual episodes just being a piece of a story and not a story on its own. Sense8 manages to avoid that to a large degree.

The series is about 8 people who are mentally linked – able to visit each other telepathically, use each other’s skills, and the like. One thing I love about the series is that it not only explores the ramifications of the sci-fi concept of the story, but also deals with themes building off of it. So it’s not just about 8 people whose minds are linked, but it is about relationships between people – the connections that bring us together and choices that drive us apart. It also has this meta-thing going on (mostly in earlier episodes, I believe) with references to Jean-Claude van Damme, Conan the Barbarian, and Lito’s telenovelas that shows how even ridiculous fun of these stories can have deep, inspiring impact for people (and that even a sci-fi show about 8 people telepathically linked can touch and inspire us as well).

I recommend watching the entire series, it is great – although it is certainly adult. There is recreational drug use, nudity and sex (including heterosexual, homosexual, and what is best described as a psychic orgy early in the series), and violence that is occasionally, but not always bloody. However, if you want to jump to the episode I’m recommending (“What is Human?”), you don’t need a lot of background to understand it (see below).

I have heard some people talking about recommending the season finale “I Can’t Leave Her.” That is another very strong episode, but more than any other episode of the series, it is really dealing with the overall season-long story and that, in my opinion, is what makes it strong. If you aren’t invested in the story of the entire season, then the finale is probably only okay. It does have some great teamwork of the entire cluster of 8, but as a stand-alone, I wasn’t as moved by it as “What is Human?”

With “What is Human?” – the 10th episode of the 12 episode season – it shows off everything I love about this series. In particular, the emotional structure they build into the stories really works for me. I tend to prefer uplifting stories far more than depressing ones, and in Sense8 they emotionally manipulate me perfectly. They have this way of sinking into tragedy right before leading into a moment of triumph. Don’t know about anyone else, but it works for me. It makes the triumphs so much stronger, and has an overall, more hopeful feel to it while definitely avoiding being sappy, feel-good. The lows are certainly low, but they persevere. They survive. Definitely reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption in that regard (at least the movie, haven’t read the original story). Characters bottoming out in miserable conditions, and then soaring to triumph.

This episode also has a beautiful moment near the end at an orchestra performance. Thinking about it, that scene is completely irrelevant to the plot. However, thematically, it is striking and really brings them in touch with their own humanity, and humanity in general, and is a moment of beauty we rarely think about. Like the karaoke scene earlier in the series (which is, in my opinion, one of the best karoke scenes ever), it brings a touch of humanity and connection to the characters, and (to get grandiose) the viewers as well.

I greatly recommend it for a Hugo nomination. Even if I could only nominate one thing this year, I would push aside all the stories I have read, and nominate this episode.

If you want to jump straight to this episode without watching the rest of the series before it, I think the quick summary below should have it make sense. Of course, a lot more happens in the first 9 episodes, but this is enough for “What is Human?” to make sense. If you want to watch the whole series without spoilers, then stop reading now.

Continue reading “Sense8 “What is Human?” – Best Short Dramatic Presentation”

The Shaman – Best Short Dramatic Presentation

The Shaman – Best Short Dramatic Presentation

With decent special effects becoming easier and cheaper all the time, sci-fi short films appear to be booming. Although a fair number of them come across more as teasers and the bare beginnings of a story to entice studios to hire the filmmaker to make a feature, some do tell cohesive stories. Although they face stiff competition from TV episodes for the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) Hugo award, I think some short films are as deserving of consideration as well. Unfortunately, their audiences tend to be massively smaller than, say, I don’t know – perennial nominees Game of Thrones and Doctor Who.

One short film that really struck me this year was The Shaman. It manages to strike a balance of hinting at a larger world and story but still being a complete tale itself. The summary from IMDB is:

The dark year 2204, in a world that has seen 73 years of continuous war. A Shaman is sent on a mission to convert the soul of a giant battle colossus.

The story is an amazing and seamless blend of ancient and futuristic with a shaman entering a netherworld to try and convert the soul of massive robotic engine of destruction. The worldbuilding really worked for me, and it definitely got me wanting to see more of this world, or even better yet, reading stories based in this setting. The film didn’t just rely on showing off their special effects chops, but instead went deliberately low key and psychological.

THE SHAMAN – a mind-bending short by Marco Kalantari from Marco Kalantari on Vimeo.


On a side note, One-Minute Time Machine is one that I wanted to recommend but unfortunately first came out in 2014. It’s not necessarily NSFW but has some innuendo and language. It does a great job of telling an amusing little story very simply.

Richard Anderson – Best Professional Artist

Richard Anderson – Best Professional Artist

 

When reviewing covers and other works for best pro artist, a couple jumped right to the top of my list (Empire Ascendant cover and Dinosaur Lords – especially interior art) and I quickly realized, they were by the same artist. Richard Anderson has a very distinctive, sketchy kind of style to his art that is actually extremely difficult to pull off. Making something look rough, loose, and active can very easily wind up looking rough, unfinished, and confusing. Anderson’s work does not do that.

His use of color with Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker series has drawn my attention even stronger than the reviews and blurbs I have read for the books (not discounting those, just the covers are SO striking!). Plus his work with Dinosaur Lords from the cover to the interior illustrations (just a few sampled below) capture the “knights riding dinosaurs” vibe so well when it could have gone so very, very wrong.

Looking over his work to see what works of his are eligible this year, I also noticed that he did the cover for Wesley Chu (Is Not Ken Liu 2016!!)’s Time Salvager. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but, as with all of Anderson’s covers, it uses light and dark as well as the color scheme to force your eye to go where he wants it to go, and conveys the kinetic action and rough settings these stories occur in. I’m now a definite fan.

On his site, Anderson has a gallery of a wide range of professional and non-professional work, but (as with many artists) not organized by year for easy award consideration. (Also, remember for Best Pro Artist – only work included in a professional work are to be considered.) At the very least, I know these 3 books have his work and are all 2015 published.

 

Empire Ascendant
(links to article about the cover reveal with comments by Hurley and Anderson)

spread

Dinosaur Lords 
(links to article about Anderson’s artwork for the book)

dinosaurlords-full

dinosaurlords_richardanderson_1

dinosaur-lords-interior-image-8-armadon

 

Time Salvager

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Unlikely Story – Best Semiprozine Recommendation

I have been trying to read through some of the magazines in preparation for this week, and one stood for me that I hadn’t heard of before. Unlikely Story is the sort publication that hits my sweet spot – sci fi and fantasy mixed in with quirky pseudo-academics. They publish online 3 issues a year, plus often a bonus April Fools issue of shorter flash fiction. Each issue is based around a theme of an academic journal.

So far this year they have published:

The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (a regular annual theme) that focuses on short stories related to technology. To quote from the opening editorial:

“In these digital pages, you’ll find stories exploring the limits and possibilities of technology and the various ways it defines, enhances, and intersects with humanity. An unorthodox application of a 3D printer; the creation of private worlds; hacking the human brain with extreme video sequences; parents customizing ideal children through knitted code; a self-aware AI taking up the pirating life; and a cult seeking transcendence through transformation — all of these stories explore coding, hacking, cracking, and our relationship with technology in most unlikely ways.”

Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia – Their flash fiction issue, this time with a focus on clowns – and all the terrible and wonderful things that implies. Apparently, it was a popular enough topic, they are publishing an anthology for it as well.

“In the exaggerated greasepaint features of the clown we find reflected none other than ourselves, the internal made external, both our internal beauty and our hidden evils.”

The most recent issue is The Journal of Unlikely Academia – Which the opening editorial explains as thus:

“This time around, rather than offering you a specialized subject, we are exploring the pursuit of knowledge itself. From the hallowed halls of venerable supernatural institutions, to fieldwork on an alien space station, and the shelves of your university library and beyond, the authors in this issue are celebrating learning in all its forms.”

This issue is the one that most caught my eye since it includes a story by Eric Schwitzgebel, a leading philosopher of mind. He often discusses the connections between science fiction and philosophy and how they can inform each other. In my spare time, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy with a focus on mind as well as medical ethics, and have taught a class in Metaphysics and Science Fiction. So our interests overlap quite a bit. His story “The Dauphin’s Metaphysics” fits well into that. It takes a classic philosophical thought experiment and posits it in a reality that may or may not be fantasy, exploring questions of identity and memory, with an interesting question of whether we can make a better, happier version of ourselves.

Another aspect of Unlikely Story that I enjoy is that they also include interviews with all of their authors on their blog. It offers an interesting look at the thoughts behind the stories as well as at the authors themselves and their other interests.

Overall, I am really impressed with Unlikely Story and it’s quirky focus issues and ideas that set it apart from many other publications out there. I am looking forward to the last issue of the year, which should be The Journal of Unlikely Entomology – their other annual topic (this time insect related), and the one odd idea that started the whole publication.

Shifting focus

I haven’t updated this in almost 3 years, but I am looking to start posting some new stuff. I have been following the Hugo Awards for best science fiction and fantasy the past couple years and whatever people’s opinions of this past year’s Hugo Awards, it’s clear that the nomination phase is pretty important. I’m someone who has been perennially behind in reading and consequently never really nominated anything, but I have been doing better about reading current stuff. Therefore I want to talk about some works I recommend as part of the Hugo Recommendation Season.

The old blog posts are mostly updates to my family especially as we went through a period of part-time employment and unemployment (and all ugly that entails), as well as a weight loss program we did (speaking about it publicly helped keep me accountable). Those blog posts still exist, but for now I just turned them all to Private to make a clear shift in focus. Might turn them back to Public sometime, and they are all still available at archive.org, I think.

So to my family that is still email subscribed to these from years ago – I’m going to start talking about sci fi stuff I’ve read and watched. If I actually complete some stuff, might even post some writing. Don’t feel obligated to read or stay following, but up to you. Thankfully, things aren’t as topsy-turvy for us as they were 3-5 years ago, so not a lot to update with the family. Besides,  I try to call and see you all more often than I did back then. :)