Sunday, December 31, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 19 - Spider Robinson

For the final episode of season 2 of Invaders From Planet 3 (posted on the final day of 2017) we're joined by author, editor, columnist, podcaster and musician Spider Robinson.

As we jump into our conversation, already in progress, Spider shares his thoughts about the loss of his wife and sometime collaborator, Jean; the passing of his daughter; and facing one's own mortality. He recounts his experience of dealing with a medical condition in his youth that caused his lungs to collapse frequently, the painful surgical procedure to cure it, and how listening to a Duke Ellington marathon on the radio got him through it.

On the science fiction front, Spider talks about his longstanding love for the works of Robert A. Heinlein, starting with Rocket Ship Galileo. He also mentions some of his other favourites, ranging from the classics to more recent fare, like James Alan Gardner's All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault.

He also discusses writers' block, and what Theodore Sturgeon once said about an extended break from writing.

My conversation with Spider took place in October 2016 at the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention.

Find out more about Spider Robinson on his website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, Stitcher, Overcast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Making Space for Everyone - A Review of "Everyone: Worlds Without Walls"

Normally when I review books, I do several at once, posting big batches of them together, mixing the good, the bad, and the indifferent. This time, I'm posting a solo review because Everyone: Worlds Without Walls is important enough that it merits having the spotlight entirely to itself.

It would be tempting to say this anthology — edited by Tony C Smith of the StarShipSofa podcast — is simply a reaction to the divisive ugliness of nationalism and intolerance that have become a plague in recent years. Blowhards like Donald Trump and his ilk around the world attempt to inspire fear, distrust and hatred of other cultures to try to raise support for their own twisted values or to distract people from their wrongdoings. They talk about building walls.

Smith, like many of us, became fed up with this nonsense. His solution was to launch a fundraising campaign to publish a new anthology of speculative fiction, one gathering writers from a variety of backgrounds across the globe to celebrate diversity, share perspectives, and show that all of these different types of people and stories can work well together side by side.

And that's why it's only tempting to say that this anthology is merely a reaction. Because that wouldn't be correct. It wouldn't be the full story. While this book is a protest against divisiveness and intolerance, it's also much more than that. It's an assertion of faith and hope. Faith that most of us, as sf fans and as human beings, are better than those who would drive people apart. Hope that if we just keep talking with one-another (hey, there's nothing wrong with dropping a Pink Floyd reference), if we share our stories and our perspectives, our hopes and our fears, that we can somehow move past all this and learn to get along with each other, knowing that our differences are, in fact, complimentary, and that having this variety makes us better. It's appropriate that a collection of science fiction, fantasy and weird stories takes this stand, because seeing the possibilities, especially those that can propel us towards something new and positive, is something that speculative fiction is very good at. And Everyone: Worlds Without Walls excels in this role as a booster rocket, propelled by diverse voices, taking us to new heights.

Now, in the interests of disclosure, I have to say that I contributed a little money towards this project, and am listed among the many, many supporters on the Acknowledgements page at the back. Some might say that means I've got a bias and so, of course, I'd say nice things about this book. Not at all. I may have participated in the funding of E:WWW because I believe in what Smith is trying to do, but that doesn't mean that I'd pile unwarranted praise on the book if it didn't deserve it. On the contrary, if the whole thing had been a washout, I would have had no problem saying "good intentions, but it didn't work and here's why..."

Fortunately, this is a good anthology. Not only is its heart in the right place, it offers a solid lineup of stories, many of which I enjoyed. While I can't say that every story worked for me, that's not because they were bad. Rather, they just didn't click with me on some level. And that's not unusual for an anthology — it's pretty rare that I'm going to love every single story. Instead, it's a question of whether, on the balance, I enjoyed or was challenged by most of them, and, secondarily, were the stories I didn't enjoy at least well written. Everyone: Worlds Without Walls passes this test easily, and, as a bonus, it has introduced me to some fine authors I hadn't encountered before. Even better: these are authors from other parts of the world, and I love anthologies that show me different outlooks on life and give me a glimpse into how speculative fiction is being perceived and written in other cultures.

Now for the breakdown. Here's the good:

Let's start with Smith's opening rant. It's presented as a copy of something he's handwritten. Profanity erupts through it. The words look like they've been blasted onto the page at a breathless, frenzied pace. The emotion in them is palpable. They are occasionally illegible. But this is what makes the piece effective. Smith is channeling the incredulous frustration that too many of us feel these days when reading/listening to/watching the news and trying to comprehend the viciousness stalking through politics and society. It's a torrent that splatters itself across the page like the literary equivalent of a rage-fuelled graffiti tag more than as an editorial. It just wouldn't capture the same raw emotion if it was neatly typed out, structured with an eye to order, and presented with restraint.

Dr. Amy H Sturgis follows with an editorial that reads like a hymn to what is best about sf, and what the genre can be. It was an absolute pleasure to read.

Among my favourites from the story lineup:

"Mother's Love" by Dayo Ntwari was enjoyable for its exquisite turns of phrase. My favourite: "foaming rapids of passengers".

JY Yang's "The Blood that Pulses in the Veins of One" was effectively creepy and alien, reminding me a little of "The Things" by Peter Watts, and yet it was a little sad.

"The Dust Garden" by Ken Liu was as brief and pretty as its namesake in the story.

Yukimi Ogawa's "The Seed Keeper" was a sweet, sad little tale that stayed with me for a while.

And, guaranteed to give any chocolate lover a shudder, Chikodili Emelumadu's "Candy Girl" is a story about a curse that's guaranteed to stick to the reader like toffee cementing your teeth together. It's also an interesting metaphor for overcoming colonialism, though there's an irony underneath that layer that may not have been considered.

The down side:

As I mentioned previously, there were a couple of stories that didn't click with me, but I certainly can't fault the writing.

Aside from that, the copy could have used another pass in front of an editor to catch some of the spelling and punctuation issues that made it through here and there, but that seems to be a common fact of life in publishing these days.

Overall, Everyone: Worlds Without Walls is entertaining and, as an anthology showcasing sf writers from around the world, it's important for its role in introducing readers to authors and cultures that they may not have known about before.

This book is also important because it is more than just an act of defiance by a single editor, or a small group of writers, against the forces of meanness, small-mindedness, insularity and racism. It is important because it is a declaration by a community — the editor, the participating writers, other writers who maybe would have liked to be included but couldn't for various reasons, the funders who backed the book, and everyone who reads it and talks about it and loans it out and likes even just one story from it — that we, as a genre, celebrate our differences. That we are better and stronger and, let's face it, more interesting for having different experiences and points of view and opinions and stories to tell. That we're a world that's better off without walls. A world where everyone is welcome.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 18 - John Jantunen

We're joined by author John Jantunen in this episode. John starts off by telling us about his early influences, including David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr series, Stephen King, old Hammer horror vampire films starring Peter Cushing, and post-apocalyptic movies like The Road Warrior, Escape from New York, A Boy and His Dog, The Quiet Earth, and Night of the Comet.

We also talk extensively about John's love for the works of Philip K Dick, especially Counter-Clock World; Valis; A Scanner Darkly; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He also discusses watching Bladerunner when it first hit the theatres, what it's like rewatching it now versus his experience as a kid, and how it compares with 'Androids. While John talks about how Dick's weird ideas and the fundamental desperation of his writing were the biggest influence on his own development as a writer, he also discusses the slippery slope of reading too much PKD.

And we go into detail about John's love of the post-apocalypse as subject matter, and specifically the question he continuously asked himself as a kid in the shadow of the Cold War in the 70s and 80s: what would a Canadian apocalypse look like? These thoughts fed into his eventual development of his short story "The Body Politic", and most especially his novel A Desolate Splendor, which we examine.

Our interview took place in December 2016 via a Skype connection between John's home in Guelph, Ontario, and my location in the Lair of bloginhood, located in a cave beneath a hill fort in Kent.

Look for John Jantunen's books in your nearest bookstore or online.

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 17 - Alyx Dellamonica

Author Alyx Dellamonica joins us in this episode of the podcast. She tells us about her first loves in the genre, including Spider-Man comics, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. We'll also talk about how she grew up in a home where, from a very young age, she was free to read anything, from children's books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, to more adult fare like Jaws.

We'll also talk about her development as a writer, starting with her first attempts at "Dr. Seuss-inspired doggerel" during childhood, to submitting stories to magazines at 16, and her eventual success in getting published. Alyx tells us about how being steeped in the world of theatre helped her writing, and what other writers can learn from the dramatic arts. She also talks about why she feels most at home writing speculative fiction, and we discuss some of her work, including her Hidden Sea Tales trilogy, and her contribution to the 007-inspired anthology License Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond.

And Alyx tells us about some of her latest stories. Those include the short story "Tribes" in the anthology Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts and "Bottleneck" in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound — both collections published by Laksa Media as  a benefit for people with mental health challenges. She's also working on a novella, "Of Things" and a novel, Win Conditions — both set in a world of resource scarcity where popularity is like currency.

Our interview took place in December 2016 via a Skype connection between Alyx's home in Toronto, and my studio in the Lair of bloginhood, located on a house-sized chunk of ice in the rings of Neptune.

Find out more about Alyx Dellamonica on her website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Goodbye and Thank You, Kit Reed

Sometimes life pounces on you like an automatic tiger.

On Sunday, I'd just finished writing something for a client and decided to catch up on gossip on Facebook. A minute after logging in, it felt like I'd been kicked. My wife, hearing me say "Oh no", came in, and asked what was wrong. Kit Reed had died.

The news, posted to her feed by her son Mack, was that she'd gone in her sleep, at 85, after a battle with brain cancer.

Kit was one of my favourite authors. There are a lot of writers whose work I like. There are a few I absolutely love. Beyond that, there is a select core of absolute favourites — the ones whose work penetrates the deepest, and resonates once it gets down there so hard that it rewires my brain. Authors whose books are so damn good that I'm willing to push just about everything else on the to-be-read pile out of the way so I can crack them open as soon as they're available. Kit was one of those.

My first encounter with her work was her novel Thinner Than Thou, probably back in 2006. I don't recall whether I read about it online, or if it just caught my eye on a shelf at the bookstore, but the title just grabbed me, and after devouring the first page, I had to have it. The frankness, the cynical humour, the unflinching examination of what makes people tick and the hypocrisy of society and its portrayals of — and judgements of — weight and body image, the intelligence of the book, and its ability to be deeply dark while still allowing the possibility of hope and redemption were all served up masterfully. The descriptions of a landscape overrun by suburbs and identical mini-malls conjured up the Pretenders' song "My City Was Gone" as the relentless soundtrack to the Abercrombie family's trek to rescue Annie. William Gibson may have talked about the post-industrial tech midden of the east coast sprawl in his cyberpunk novels, but Kit's endless strip malls, though more tame in appearance, were more apocalyptic for their visceral, banal realness and inevitability.

After that, I snapped up every Kit Reed book that I could find.

It would be easy to talk about Kit as an author in comparison with literary giants of the past. She was as incisive as Thackeray, with her surgical dissection of American upper-middle-class individuals in their suburban community in Son of Destruction being as keen as the examination of its Victorian England counterparts in Vanity Fair. Their masks, self-delusions, hypocrisies, crimes, weaknesses and flaws laid bare and catalogued, the characters are then probed deeper for possible (but not guaranteed) signs of hidden strengths or redemption. In her collections The Dogs of Truth and The Story Until Now, she sometimes conjured images as soulful and melancholy as anything from Poe or Hardy. And, in everything she wrote, Kit had the ferocious, merciless wit of Twain. But her voice was all her own. Even when she played with different styles of writing, skipping gleefully and unpredictably between subjects as varied as rampaging giant babies, nocturnal visits from zombie princes, the hunts of feral girl scouts, and the hijackings of entire towns to pale alternate dimensions, you always knew you were reading a Kit Reed story.

There were two tropes in particular that were hallmarks of her stories: the transformation of banal settings into the surreal; and the notion that it's inherently dangerous for an individual to be completely isolated from a group, even if that group is itself in a dangerous situation or place, or making questionable choices. We see these tropes come up again and again in her work, especially her novels, from the theme park secretly doubling as a reality show in Magic Time, to the disease outbreak at the private school/mountaintop prison in Enclave, to the various types of hauntings taking place at the family home/trap in Mormama. Each time, Kit would pick up these tropes and re-examine them from different angles in an attempt to reveal something new and interesting about human beings, and how they behave and see the world — and each other — from within and outside of groups.

Over the years, I had the pleasure of getting to know Kit a little beyond her stories. It started when Mack came across an online review I'd written for one of her books, got in touch, and connected me to her via Facebook. She was warm, sharp, funny, and genuine, and I always enjoyed chatting with her about her stories (I still remember one day when she mentioned someone was trying to get Thinner Than Thou banned from some school somewhere in America, and I replied that it should be required reading — especially at the high school level) or what made a con just the right size to attend, or reading her posts about everyday life — from heading out to the matinee to catch some over-the-top popcorn flick, to baking for company, to the continuing adventures of her little dog, Killer.

It was also an honour and a real pleasure when I had the chance to interview her for an episode of my podcast, Invaders From Planet 3. We talked about a lot of things — the stories that were early influences, her career as a journalist, her own writing — but I think my favourite part of our conversation came near the end when we talked about comics. I listened that episode again the other day when I was in the car, and you can hear her just light up and get so excited talking about Preacher and other comics. Those are the kinds of moments that turn an interview into a delight.

And then the news came down that she was gone. No more new Kit Reed stories to challenge and entertain us. No more warm, thoughtful personality for the rest of us to orbit, whether at the distance of the internet, or — for those luckier than I, who knew her as a friend, family member, or mentor — more closely in person at her home, the university, or cons. Sure, there are other intelligent, entertaining authors who are great people to get to know, but the speculative fiction community is still diminished because she is gone. But then I look over at my bookshelf, at all of her wonderful stories waiting patiently to be revisited, and I think how lucky we all were to experience her work, and to get to know her as a person, if only for a while. And I'm grateful for that.

Thanks, Kit.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 16 - Kelly Robson

In this episode, we're joined by author Kelly Robson. We talk about her first love in the genre, Star Wars — how it was big, exciting and sexy, but also an escape from family drama at home; and what it's like to look back on the movie now as an adult and a professional speculative fiction writer. We talk about other early sf pleasures, like the original Battlestar Galactica; books by Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, and others; and the genre magazines of the 70s and 80s. Along the way, we also discuss the early superhero Zorro (and specifically the George Hamilton movie Zorro — The Gay Blade), and why you may have to read Heinlein before a certain age in order to enjoy his stories.

Turning to her own career, Kelly tells us how the Connie Willis story "Blued Moon" reprogrammed her brain and made her want to become a writer. She talks about the positive aspects of starting her career in middle age, and how, despite writing being a selfish line of work, she's still able to be happy as an author married to another author. We also talk about how growing up on a farm in a small town in rural Alberta has influenced her work.

As well, we discuss Kelly's unique suggestion to resolve the Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy that wracked the Hugo Awards in 2015 and 2016.

And Kelly tells us about some of her recent stories, including "A Human Stain" on, and her contribution to the Kickstarter project NASTY — Fetish Erotica for a Good Cause.

Our interview took place in December 2016 via a Skype connection between Kelly's home in Toronto, and my studio in the Lair of bloginhood, located in the rafters of an abandoned whisky distillery in the Highlands of Scotland.

Find out more about Kelly Robson on her website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Farewell to Brian Aldiss

It's a strange feeling being a middle-aged fan these days. When I first started reading adult-level science fiction and fantasy back in the 80s, the giants of the Golden Age and New Wave still walked the Earth, and more importantly, were still publishing. One by one, over the years, the stories stopped, and their lives came to a close. A week ago, Time claimed another: Brian Aldiss.

My first encounter with Aldiss' work was as a teenager in 1989, when I read "Let's be Frank" in the anthology Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 19 (1957), edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. The short story chronicles the life/lives of Frank, a minor noble born at the time of King Henry VIII, who passes a genetic mutation down to some of his descendants, causing them to become new vessels of his consciousness. They are not clones/separate versions of Frank; rather, a single mind existing simultaneously throughout every member of the family who shares this gene (like a fully biological version of The Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation). This allows Frank to live forever, gain wealth and power, and eventually spread his mind across the world until, through his many descendants, he constitutes about half to two-thirds of the Earth's population. It was a clever little story, and a bit funny, but there was something sad (though this isn't reflected in the story's tone — it's just my impression) and disturbing about it too, with all those new humans being born, but more and more of them just being more and more of the same old Frank, rather than unique individuals.

Over the years, I read other Aldiss short stories and novels from time to time. Some, like Super-State, were okay reads, but didn't leave much of an impression, while others, like Frankenstein Unbound, were absorbing, unsettling and left a permanent mark (the protagonist desperately treading existential water as realities shift around him with increasing frequency; the mating dance of the monsters). On the shelf right now, Harm and the Helliconia trilogy are still waiting for me to crack them open. There were also movies based on his work: Roger Corman's version of Frankenstein Unbound wasn't very good, but Spielberg and Kubrick's A.I. — Artificial Intelligence (based on "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long") was deeply affecting in places (Teddy settling resignedly back as David leans forward against the windscreen of the submerged copter, desperately praying to the Blue Fairy statue in the murky distance for ages until their power cells run out gets me every time).

One afternoon at Worldcon 2014 in London, I was trying to choose between a number of program options. One of them was a session with Brian Aldiss. While the other panels, presentations, etc looked interesting, I thought there aren't many chances to sit and listen to one of the giants of the field reminisce, and (yeah, I know, this was a bit morbid) Aldiss wasn't getting any younger, so there might not be many more to come. I met up with my buddy Geordie (who has some nice stories about meeting Aldiss at conventions throughout the years) outside, and, along with way too many other fans, we jammed ourselves into a room that was much too small and listened to Brian talk about his life and his work. Sure it was uncomfortable seating, and yeah, the AC just couldn't keep up with the heat generated by all those bodies, but it was worth every minute. Brian was funny, charming, and interesting. At the end, the con organizers wrapped up the session by leading us all in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday". I'm glad I had the chance to be part of it.

Brian Aldiss died on August 19, 2017 at the age of 92.

What are your memories of Brian Aldiss and his work? Share them in the Comments section below.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 15 - David Nickle

Author and editor David Nickle joins us for this episode. He tells us about works of speculative fiction that influenced him early on, including the TV series Lost in Space (and what it has in common with Larry Niven's Ringworld), Lester del Rey's novel The Runaway Robot, and the stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King. On the subject of enjoying King, David talks about how he and his wife, author and editor Madeline Ashby, read a chapter of Salem's Lot out loud every night before bed. But also in our discussion of the giants of the genre, he also explains why Robert A. Heinlein isn't among his favourites.

On the subject of being an author, David recounts the tale of his first stab at writing: dictating Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons fanfic to his mother for transcription when he was four. He talks about how being a journalist has helped his writing. And David shares his thoughts on whether national identity plays a role in writing Canadian sf these days. He also discusses the challenges he and Ashby faced as co-editors wrangling the legal ins-and-outs of the anthology License Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond, which was released only in Canada due to copyright laws.

And David tells us about his new book, VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination.

Our interview took place in December 2016 via a Skype connection between David's home in Toronto and my studio in the Lair of bloginhood, located in a bunker beneath a picnic table at Long Beach near Tofino.

Find out more about David Nickle on his website: (a.k.a The Devil's Exercise Yard)

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Winners of the Dark Tower Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of the Dark Tower Giveaway, Geordie Howe and Carol Williams!

Carol and Geordie have each won a copy of Stephen King's The Gunslinger (the first book in his The Dark Tower series), courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Dark Tower Giveaway

The Dark Tower, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, is set to hit the silver screen in just a few days.

Stephen King fans will no doubt be paying close attention to how well the movie honours the series of books that inspired it.

To celebrate the film's upcoming release, Simon & Schuster Canada is giving away two copies of the first novel in the series, The Gunslinger!

The best part is you don't have to be a gunslinger or set out on a perilous quest to get one — just email me at:

Include "Dark Tower giveaway" in the subject line, and your mailing address in the body of the text.

On Tuesday, August 8, I'll pick two winners from among everyone who's emailed in, and make the announcement here on

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ep 14 - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In this episode, we're joined by author and editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia. She tells us how HP Lovecraft and Peter S Beagle were among the English language authors who made an early impression on her. Silvia then goes on to discuss what it was like coming back to Lovecraft while doing thesis work, analyzing the attitudes towards race and sex in his stories, and how some of her own works have responded to him. She also shares the importance of Silvina Ocampo, one of the few female authors writing magic realism in Spanish during the 1950s.

We also talk about Silvia's experience with overlapping cultures — growing up in Mexico while also being exposed to American culture, then moving to Canada — and how this has influenced her writing, as demonstrated in her luchador superhero short story "Iron Justice versus the Fiends of Evil" (from the Masked Mosaic anthology). This leads us into a discussion about the phenomenon of Latin American speculative fiction authors getting recognition in their home countries only after moving overseas and writing in English. And she tells us what needs to happen for Latin American countries and Spain need to build their own strong, local speculative fiction communities.

Silvia also teases her upcoming novel, The Beautiful Ones (set for release in October, 2017).

Our interview took place in October 2016 at VCon 41 in Surrey, BC.

Find out more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia on her website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Stephen Furst Passes Beyond the Rim

Some sad news out of Hollywood this weekend: actor Stephen Furst has died at age 63.

My first memory of him onscreen was when I was a kid watching rented movies on VHS that I was probably too young to be watching, and Furst, playing Kent "Flounder" Dorfman, came rolling happily down the sidewalk at Faber College in Animal House, looking for a fraternity where he'd be accepted.

When you think of Animal House, mostly it's the larger-than-life characters like Bluto or Boon or Otter who push their way to forefront of your memory, but without Flounder and his buddy, Pinto, the movie doesn't happen. They're our window into the staggeringly drunken world of Delta house, and our avatars within it. And Furst gave a wonderful performance as Flounder. His reaction to the horse's heart attack is priceless. His deliciously innocent "Hello!" when the dean rattles-off his name in preparation for his dressing-down is perhaps the best moment of the scene where the boys are expelled. And while it's not the flashiest character wrap during the riot at the end of the movie (it would be hard to top Bluto's lecherous pirate diving from the rooftops to make off with the sorority girl, or DDay's war cry of "Ramming speed!" as the Deathmobile charges towards the grandstands), his ecstatic, cathartic jump for joy when Niedermeyer is bulldozed off by a runaway float is certainly the most satisfying moment of Animal House, and never fails to bring a smile to my face when I rewatch it.

Around the same time, I also enjoyed him on St Elsewhere, though my memories of the series are pretty fuzzy at this point.

But Stephen Furst's best role — by far — was as diplomatic assistant (later consul, still later conspirator and assassin, even still later ambassador, and much later emperor) Vir Cotto on the television masterpiece Babylon 5.

Amidst all the legendary captains, the ambassadors navigating conspiracies, the tough cops, dedicated doctors, armies of light and soldiers of darkness, Vir was just a normal guy. He was a quiet, likeable, straightforward, intelligent, moral, chubby little guy working hard at an unappreciated (and often undignified) job; a minor member of a minor house on Centauri Prime who just wanted a stable career and (somewhat unusually for his people) a wife who he could love and who might hopefully love him back. While all of the larger characters in the series were well-rounded and believable, it was Vir's ordinariness that made him most identifiable for the audience (at least, as identifiable as an alien character with some truly funky hair can really be).

And Furst played him perfectly. Absolutely, credit is due to Straczynski and the other writers who created him, and to the series directors (and Furst was one of them, from time to time), but Furst was the one who brought Vir to life and made him believable. In so doing, he made Vir stand out as vitally important to the show's overall story.

There are so many Vir moments that are memorable, but in my opinion, these five are the most significant:

"In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum" season 2, episode 16: Naturally we have to mention Vir's famous response to Mr Morden's question "What do you want?" Sure, Sheridan may have blown Morden up (mostly), and Londo had him tortured and beheaded, but Vir — the little guy with no real power — stood his moral ground when confronted with a clearly powerful and dangerous opponent, and with his "... some favours come with too high a price..." response told the Shadow agent that he saw right through his game, he wanted his head on a pike, and showed him exactly how he'd wave at that head when the time came. There are so many ways that scene could have been played wrong, but Furst danced through it perfectly.

"The Long Night" season 4, episode 5: Vir may be remembered in this episode for killing the mad emperor, Cartagia, but Furst's performance really stands out later when the attache/conspirator/assassin, drunk on liquor but in truth hammered by guilt, pours out his emotional agony over the murder to Londo. Sure, Cartagia deserved to die, and it was necessary to save the Centauri people, but it was a killing none-the-less — moreover, Vir's first killing —and Vir would have to live with it. In a series where killing, whether in battle or by murder, is almost a daily occurrence, Furst's believable portrayal of Vir's struggle shows us the truth that there's usually a high emotional price for taking a life.

"Sleeping in Light" season 5, episode 22: In a smaller, quieter moment in this quiet goodnight to the series, Vir tells the story of how he and Londo once heard the Pak'Mara singing. Furst delivers it with just the right amount of wonder and wistfulness that in many ways captures the heart of Babylon 5.

"Comes the Inquisitor" season 2, episode 21: One of the most powerful moments of the entire series: Vir, riding alone in an elevator with G'Kar, attempts to apologize for the wholesale slaughter of Narns during the Centauri bombing of Narn. G'Kar rounds on Vir, slashes his own hand with a knife, and for every drop of blood pronounces "Dead.", then asks the Centauri attache how he can apologize to the dead Narns. When Vir says he can't, G'Kar flatly decrees that he can then never forgive. The blood dripping litany of death stretches uncomfortably long, and part of what makes it uncomfortable is Furst's masterful look of pure shock, horror, and defeat.

"Sic Transit Vir" season 3, episode 12: For all of these moments of drama, we can't forget that Vir was frequently a character of comic relief in the series. And so, because Stephen Furst's family has indicated in their announcement of his passing that the actor would want to be remembered for making people laugh, it's most appropriate to end on a funny note. In this episode, Vir, having just discovered he's engaged to be married, and having no idea what to do with his all-too-eager fiance who's just arrived on the station, goes to Ivanova for advice on how to please a woman in bed. It's the single funniest moment in the entirety of Babylon 5 and its sequels, and one of the funniest moments of any science fiction TV series. I give you "we have six":

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 13 - Matt Ruff

Author Matt Ruff joins us in this episode, where he talks about how books like Bertrand R. Brinley's The Mad Scientists' Club made him fall in love with scientific thinking and science fictional ideas. He also tells us how being given a box of Robert A. Heinlein's adult books at the age of 9 got him thinking critically about stories, and how they could be written better. And he discusses other influences over the years, such as Stephen King, John Crowley's Little, Big, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson.

Matt shares his thoughts on writing, including how to know when something is written well, crafting stories that are in conversation with the works of other authors, and why he doesn't like to go back over the same ground. We also talk about a trope he frequently explores in his stories: the challenges of dealing with power — getting on in a world where power imbalances exist.

This leads us into a discussion about Matt's latest work: his mosaic novel Lovecraft Country, about an African-American family in the 1950s dealing with the supernatural machinations of a Lovecraftian cult, as well as the day-to-day horrors of racism in the U.S. Matt talks about confronting the racism and sexism in Lovecraft's work. He also shares this thoughts about the importance of doing a good job on the writing, and of finding common ground, as a white author writing about African-Americans. And we talk about last week's announcement that Jordan Peele, Misha Green, and J.J. Abrams will be producing a Lovecraft Country series for HBO, and how he's okay with adaptations and letting TV writers play with his ideas.

Our interview took place in May 2017 at Matt's home in Seattle.

Find out more about Matt Ruff on his website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 12 - Robert Charles Wilson

In this episode, we're joined by author Robert Charles Wilson, who tells us about how he fell in love with speculative fiction — including stories such as Louis Slobodkin's The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree, the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time —  as soon as he learned to read. We'll learn how sf's juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary fascinated him, and how exploring the genre and its ideas was a reaction to growing up in an incurious family.

Bob also talks about how he became a writer, and overcoming his anxiety about his work — an anxiety that gave him nightmares. We'll discuss some of the tropes frequently addressed in his stories, including unfathomable cosmic forces and how humanity deals with them, and how he'll sometimes examine them from different perspectives across several unrelated novels. We'll also talk about the presence of characters in his books who are on the autism spectrum.

And we'll hear about some of the stories he's developing (including his novel Last Year, which was released in December 2016, a couple of months after our interview).

Our interview took place in September 2016 near Bob's home in the Greater Toronto Area.

Find out more about Robert Charles Wilson and his books on his website:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 11 - Sebastien de Castell

Sebastien de Castell, author of the Greatcoats fantasy series, joins us in this episode. We talk about how his love of fantasy started with CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the importance of the story to him at a time when he was dealing with one of the toughest experiences a child can face. As well, he shares his thoughts about fantasy's role in highlighting the wonder of the real world, rather than just being a means of escape.

Sebastien then discusses how a rainy camping trip with a copy of Keith Taylor's Bard ultimately inspired his career path: music, swordplay, and storytelling. We explore how his writing has been shaped by what he's learned as a musician. As someone who's coordinated sword fighting scenes for stage productions, he also talks about how technique with a blade is often less important to writing a fight scene than the other experiences one has during a duel.

He explains the benefits of having a good working relationship with his editor, and having beta readers who will help him hash-out a story. Sebastien also talks about the challenges of transitioning from writing one book to another, and of shifting gears when he has multiple stories on the go at once (at the time of our conversation, he was working on three books simultaneously: the upcoming Greatcoats instalment Tyrant's Throne, the also soon-to-be-released Spellslinger, and a third book that's in development).

We talk about the problems that arise when people try impose a personal frame on art. This leads to a discussion about the 2016 Hugo Awards controversy.

Our interview took place in June 2016 at Sebastien's home in Vancouver, BC.

Find out more about Sebastien de Castell and his works at:

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Podcast Playlist - What I'm Listening to

Season 2 of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast has just launched! Keep your eyes — and ears — on over the next couple of weeks for a new group of interviews with authors and editors from every corner of speculative fiction. There's also a "Voice of the Fans" episode.

Since podcasts are top-of-mind for me right now, I thought I'd share a list of the shows I enjoy. I've grouped them into five broad categories: Speculative Fiction, History, Science, Comedy, and The Dearly Departed (for shows which have wrapped up, but which are certainly worth listening to if you can still find them).

They vary in length. Some are host-only, while others are interviews or panel discussions. And, as a warning for those with sensitive ears or kids in the room, some contain explicit language or disturbing material.

Each has its own strength or set of strengths: most of the hosts are pretty engaging; some hosts have a solid, professional sound; some shows have fascinating guests, and some of the hosts are good interviewers; some 'casts are really well researched; some have great production.

By the same token, none of them is perfect (but who is?). I won't get into my critiques of each show because everyone's tastes are different, and what sticks out to one listener may not be an issue for another. Decide for yourself what you like.

Whether you need something to listen to on your daily commute, or while you're reorganizing your bookshelf, making supper, cleaning the garage, or working out (well, you might need something to listen to while working out, but, as somebody who legendarily avoids the gym at all costs, and has been known to taunt people with ice cream bars while they work out, I won't be needing any audio for exercise purposes), each of these podcasts is worth downloading. I get them off of iTunes myself, but some have their own websites, and you may be able to find them on other podcasting platforms. I've linked their titles to their websites where possible, and their iTunes pages otherwise. If you like them as much as I do, be sure to rate and review them on iTunes or whatever site is applicable. Enjoy!

Speculative Fiction

Three Hoarsemen
Once upon a time, there were three members of the SF Signal Irregulars who started a podcast. Their knowledge of speculative fiction was vast and deep. They were like the Great Old Ones of fandom, except, rather than being a menace to the universe, they were only a threat to the bookshelves of other fans when they expounded upon the thousands of books and comics both new and old that you should be reading. For a while, Jeff Patterson, John H. Stevens and Fred Kiesche were content to write reviews and comments for the late, lamented SF Signal site, and later appeared as occasional panelists on the similarly late, lamented SF Signal Podcast. Frequently crotchety, always insightful and entertaining, they were, singly or together, many times the highlight of the show. And then they launched their own monthly podcast. In each episode, the Three Hoarsemen (sometimes accompanied by guests) discuss a particular book, the works of individual authors, issues in the genre, or other topics, and then opine about the novels, short stories, comics, movies, TV shows, and other culture they've consumed since their last show. Rarely is there an episode where I don't finish without adding a book or three to my to-buy list. But they've also been a good early warning system that's kept me  away from stuff that maybe wasn't worth while. Episodes are usually in the ballpark of an hour, but can vary.

The Coode Street Podcast
Long-running and lively, the weekly Coode Street Podcast features critic Gary Wolfe and anthologist/editor Jonathan Strahan hurtling between discussions and debates about books and short stories, authors, awards, trends in writing, and issues facing the field of science fiction and fantasy and its fandom as a whole. The show frequently features guests, some of whom are authors interviewed about their own work, others there to discuss awards or issues the genre community is wrestling with. Episodes are generally longer than an hour, but with the brisk pace set by the hosts (even during prolonged and intense discussions about a particular topic) it certainly doesn't feel like it.

MF Galaxy
This show is about more than just speculative fiction — it's a catchall of interviews with writers and others about writing, pop culture, politics, history, and Afrocentric issues. But, because my main area of interest in the show is the interviews with sf authors and discussions about books, movies, comics and TV (although I do listen to the other episodes), I'm including it in the speculative fiction category of podcasts. It's hosted by author Minister Faust (whose books I've enjoyed for years, and who was a guest on my own show last season), who is insightful, funny, passionate about his subject matter, and has a good, professional on-air delivery. The podcast features new interviews, as well as archival material gathered over the years. It also has a nice, well-produced sound. Episodes generally run about a half-hour, though longer versions are available for show supporters.

The Black Tapes
A radioplay about a young journalist who, in the course of profiling a crotchety paranormal investigator, uncovers a cult's attempts to bring demons into the world, The Black Tapes podcast feels like the lovechild of The Paper and Poltergeist, midwifed by The X-Files. I first heard about the show when it was mentioned by a guest on The Nerdist podcast, not too long after the first few episodes of BT were posted online. It only took one episode to get me hooked, and pretty soon I'd made my wife into a fan. The show has a wonderfully creepy, claustrophobic, something's-standing-over-your-bed-leaning-right-into-your-face-while-you-sleep feel to it, good character development, and a nice, tight plot. While I might occasionally quibble about the ethics or likelihood of the protagonist's journalistic practices (yes, I know I said at the outset that I wasn't going to detail the weaknesses of each show, and yeah, I may have hung up my Electro-Voice 635 mic a few years ago, but I can never entirely stop thinking like a reporter), overall it's a good tale about how one story can lead to another, and how sometimes a story can threaten to consume the investigator. Definitely one of those shows that will have you eagerly waiting for each new season. Episodes are usually in the range of half-an-hour.

Myths and Legends
As the name implies, this show is devoted to retelling old (and sometimes not so old) myths and legends from around the world. That said, the host, Jason, makes a bit of a change and retells them in a modern style — which is the right choice, to my mind, in that it creates a consistent sound and feel from story to story, as well as a rhythm that lends itself well to the occasional editorial interruption. Rather than break the flow of the story, these comments serve to engage modern audiences and let us know that we're all interpreting the story the same way. If the host didn't interrupt the story from time to time to call characters — or the narrative itself — out for things that we of the 21st Century would deem odd or inappropriate, then the risk would be that the modern audience might become alienated by outdated values or ways of looking at the world. Something I also appreciate is that the host makes a point of noting when there are multiple versions of a story (or of a particular plot point within a story), and then explains his rationale for choosing one over the other, or for taking bits from several to synthesize a compromise version that sounds good and is consistent with the rest of the story. It's also interesting to hear about the origins of legends and fairy tales, especially when it's revealed that some come from different place than you'd expect. Each episode also ends with the "creature of the week", a short segment (unrelated to the main myth or legend) profiling critters from folklore from around the world. Overall, the show is well-written and produced, and the host has a good read and seems like a nice guy. Episodes usually run half-an-hour to 45 minutes.

Welcome to Night Vale
Imagine listening to a local radio news broadcast in a community in the US where pretty much everything from every episode of The Twilight Zone and all of the horrific supernatural strangeness from the depths of Lovecraft's mind happens all the time. In fact, weird things like the Sheriff's Secret Police, or the Dog Park with its menacing figures that no-one is allowed to talk about, hostile subterranean cities beneath the bowling alley, or faceless old women living in everyone's homes are so commonplace that the inhabitants take them for granted — or, in some cases, fervently embrace them because this is the only life they've ever known. That's the fictional town of Night Vale, and listeners become a part of it every time they tune in to anchorman Cecil's rundown of local news, sports, weather (which isn't a weather forecast, rather it's a slot where the show cuts to a song from a different musician each episode), gossip, community calendar listings — and sometimes events from his personal life. The podcast is brilliant for being so wildly imaginative, and for its total commitment to the world it has built, where Cecil delivers descriptions of all manner of unsettling creepiness in such a matter-of-fact — and sometimes giddy — way. Even the life-lessons that are occasionally given out (either in the podcast or on its Twitter feed) are framed in a way that's only appropriate for life in Night Vale ("Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but at other times it's a venomous snake painted as a cigar in an attempt to assassinate you."). Part of the genius of the show is the way in which the horror of Night Vale's world is completely undercut by the cheesiness of Cecil's earnest delivery of his newscast. It's also fun listening for old cliches from our world given a completely different, and frequently icky, twist for the show. The other thing I enjoy is how much (paranormal facts of life aside) Cecil's broadcast sounds like newscasts or DJ breaks at some small town radio stations I've known over the years. The ones where the community world-view is very insular, the station's focus is narrow, and the on-air talent is more eager than talented. I listen to Cecil and his forced, overblown delivery, or his gushing about his personal life, and I think "I knew guys like this when I worked in radio!" — broadcasters who weren't the best newspeople or jocks (broadcaster slang for DJs, not sports guys) in the business (some probably shouldn't have been on-air at all), but who were so committed, so gung-ho, and who loved their stations and their towns so much that they'd become fixtures in the community, and everyone in town loved them right back. Not much room left for personalities like that in these days of media contraction. Episodes are just shy of half-an-hour, and the producers take the show on the road around the world every now and again.

This weekly audio magazine has been around for years, and has built a solid reputation in the sf community. The podcast features narrators reading the short stories of various authors (usually one story per show), as well as other tidbits from the sf community, including occasional interviews. The host, Tony C Smith, is enormously and genuinely enthusiastic about whatever topic is at hand, and seems like someone you'd like to hang out with. The narrators do a solid job reading the short stories. Episodes can range anywhere from half-an-hour to upwards of two hours, though most are in the neighbourhood of one hour.



Emperors of Rome
The premise of this podcast is, as the title implies, fairly straightforward: each episode profiles a different Roman emperor in chronological order. The lineup is frequently interspersed with episodes about other luminaries of the ancient world, such as pre-Imperial rulers, generals, poets, senators, the wives and consorts of the emperors, and others. The format is a conversation-style interview between host Matt Smith (no, no the 11th Doctor) and a professional historian, which, for most episodes to date, has been Dr. Rhiannon Evans. Smith and Evans both sound personable, and they have a good on-air dynamic with each other which makes the show easy to listen to, while being very informative. The biographies in each of the biweekly episodes are well researched, and the hosts are good about naming the sources for various claims about the personalities or deeds of whichever historical figure is being covered. Production on the show is also good. If you found yourself missing The History of Rome podcast, then Emperors of Rome is for you. Episodes are usually in the range of half-an-hour long.

The Irish History Podcast
Covering different events and figures throughout Irish history, this podcast is broken up into several miniseries, each of which goes in-depth over multiple episodes to explore every facet of its topic. Because of the miniseries format, the show jumps around in time: from the medieval Norman invasion, to the rise of the labour movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, to the Black Death, to the Troubles, and more. And yet, despite going forwards and backwards through history, the show maintains a consistent feel and a comfortable rhythm. Rather than being locked into a chronology, it's like browsing through the shelves of a library and stopping here and there to pick topics of interest. Host Fin Dwyer, an archaeologist by trade, does an excellent job of researching his topics, and has a solid, friendly delivery. The show runs weekly and episodes are normally in the rang of half-an-hour.

The British History Podcast
Starting in prehistoric times and moving forward chronologically, this series profiles the major events and people in British history. Host Jamie Jeffers and his producer, Dr. Zee, do a great job of researching topics and historical figures for the show, and occasionally include interviews with experts on British history and archaeology. They also do a good job of identifying grey areas where different sources have different things to say about an event or a person — or when sources have nothing to say about something important that happened — and Jamie explains his rationale for going with one account over another. Jamie has a good delivery, and his personality comes through in his writing. One thing to keep in mind: if you're looking for a complete overview of what's happening across all of Britain in a given year, decade, or era, the focus of the show narrows considerably by the Medieval period — it's only a podcast about all of Britain until the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons arrive; after that it becomes almost exclusively about England. I gather from passing references that there's members-only content that pertains to Scotland and Wales, but you won't hear about those countries much on the main, free podcast. At least not at the point where the show is as I write this blurb, which is the time of Alfred the Great — though, as I write this, the most recent episodes have taken a detour into Wales by way of introducing us to the Welsh priest and scholar Asser, who was coveted by Alfred, and some of the fighting involving the Sons of Rhodri, which seems to have had some entanglement with English politics as well. Perhaps Scotland and Wales will be brought back into the show on a more regular basis at a later date. I certainly hope so. That said, it's a good podcast, and I certainly encourage anyone with an interest in English or British history to give it a listen. Episodes air weekly and run about half-an-hour.

History of Germany Podcast
Available for listening in both English and German, the History of Germany Podcast outlines the history of the region influenced by German language and culture chronologically (mostly) from ancient times to the present. The show occasionally makes detours when guests are brought in (usually as part of a crossover involving different podcasts) to talk about other subjects related to events in the main timeline (like a recent episode about power struggles between Holy Roman emperors and the papacy). Host Travis Dow does a good job of researching his topics, and you can tell he's hugely enthusiastic about his subject matter. The show is also well produced. Episodes are usually biweekly to monthly, and generally half-an-hour to an hour in length.

The History of the Crusades
Ah, the Middle Ages: knights in shining armour; high-stakes backroom politics pitting kings, nobles religious leaders, and peasants each other; land grabs spanning countries, regions, and even continents; and the wholesale, stomach-turning butchery of human lives and wanton destruction of property (committed by all sides) that was the Crusades. I started listening to Sharyn Eastaugh's podcast a couple of years ago when she was doing her first series on the various Crusades in the Middle East, and was thoroughly impressed by the amount of detail she put into researching the blow-by-blow events for every show, especially her use (and citing) of multiple sources from different perspectives. I thought the podcast had wrapped up when that series ended, but I've recently come back to it and discovered that during the intervening time, she's done another series on the Crusade against the Cathars, and is now in the middle of a new series on the Baltic Crusades. Needless to say, I'm currently binge-listening my way through the Cathar instalment to try to get caught up. You might want to give it a listen too.

The Scottish History Podcast
This show examines various events, figures, groups and other points of interest from Scotland's history. Rather than being bound to a timeline, episodes jump back and forth across Scottish history to cover everything from the Battle of Culloden, to Scotland's role in the African slave trade, to what Vikings ate. The topics are well-researched, and the hosts are enthusiastic and keep up a good banter. Episodes are usually around half-an-hour long, and air infrequently.

History of Pirates Podcast
Who doesn't love pirates? Or, at least our modern romantic notion of pirates as lively adventurers on the high seas, rather than the real thieves, slavers, and killers of yore. But as fun as our 20th and 21st Century swashbucklers like Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, and Captain Chunk may be, what's more fun is to learn about the fascinating scofflaws like Drake, Teach, Kidd, and Zheng Shi who preyed on ships and coastal settlements centuries ago. The History of Pirates podcast is well researched and host "Captain" Craig Buddy is clearly highly enthusiastic about his subject matter. The show is chronological (sort of), starting by exploring the seafaring nations of the Bronze Age that made piracy a part of their foreign policy, and moving forward towards the golden age of piracy. Occasional detours are made to talk about other issues, or to profile pirates of note from other periods. Episodes are infrequent and can run anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.



Quirks and Quarks
For 40 years, CBC's Quirks and Quarks has been the gold standard for science reporting in broadcast,  and it's great to be able to download the show (or individual segments from episodes) in podcast form. Host Bob Macdonald and his producers interview researchers about breaking news from around the world in the fields of science (all branches — from astronomy to oceanography, chemistry, palaeontology, and everything in between) and technology, as well as ongoing issues (like global warming), and the effect of government policy on science and the planet. Macdonald has a friendly, solid delivery, and knows his stuff. The show is very well researched and guests (both those responsible for new scientific discoveries or developments, and those invited to comment about breaking news and issues) include leading international scientists. The show runs weekly, but takes a break for a couple of months during the summer. Episodes run 54 minutes, though segment lengths vary.

StarTalk Radio
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and a rotating crew of comedian sidekicks and scientific experts discuss all things science-related in this weekly show. Episodes vary from one-on-one interviews (accompanied outside the interview by commentary from Neil and his co-hosts) with special guests such as scientists and celebrities, to panel discussions about recent scientific discoveries or ongoing issues. Occasionally other scientists from the roster of regulars will take over hosting duties for special episodes. And there's usually a segment at the end of each episode where Neil and his guests will answer questions sent in by listeners. A separate closing segment features and editorial from Bill Nye the Science Guy. Episodes run about an hour.



The Bugle
This weekly dose of political and social satire is a necessity for maintaining sanity in a world that, with every update of daily news, seems to be sinking further into insanity. Host Andy Zaltzman and his gaggle of guest co-hosts are pretty much guaranteed to have me laughing within minutes of the opening fanfare. The show is so good that Zaltzman & co. can even make sports (or, occasionally their bizarre, alternate universe mockery of sports) entertaining.

Allegedly broadcasting from a pod floating high above... somewhere (though usually in a Toronto comedy bar, or sometimes from the host's kitchen, or an apartment on the road), The Seanpod is whatever comedian Sean Cullen feels like serving up. Sometimes it's the improvisational madness of his on-stage performances, other times, Cullen may just muse about new music he's getting into. During the episodes taped at his stand-up gigs, listeners are treated to everything from off-the-cuff songs, to new instalments of his "awkward family conversations" skit, to occasional "scenes beside the scenes" sketches (where we find out what background characters are discussing during famous cinematic moments), to interactions with the audience, to bits with other comedians and actors who join the show as guests. Cullen is apparently a science fiction fan, and, while the genre doesn't creep into every show, he does reference it from time to time. One of the funniest instalments featuring sf was episode 15 a couple of years ago, when Kids in the Hall star Scott Thompson joined Cullen onstage and they did a prolonged skit savaging John Norman's Gor series. At the time, I was listening to it on headphones as I walked home from work, and several people gave me odd looks as I cackled away helplessly. Episodes are infrequent, but it's worth subscribing for those times when The Seanpod does land on your playlist with something new.

The Nerdist Podcast
Comedian Chris Hardwick hosts this weekly show where he (sometimes accompanied by sidekicks) chats with other comics and various Hollywood types. His interview style is very informal — there's no official "welcome to the show" during the interview proper; Hardwick's producer just starts rolling when the guests arrive, and they start talking. Sometimes guests are taken a little by surprise when they find out the interview is already under way. Most of the episodes are reasonably funny, and sometimes you get to learn a lot about who the guests really are. The show runs weekly and episodes are usually about an hour.

My Dad Wrote a Porno
The name pretty much says it all for this one: a couple of years ago, a guy in the UK made the uncomfortable discovery that his retired father had started writing and self-publishing porn. Really, really bad porn. "Bad" as in catastrophically poorly-written (with a truly stunning lack of knowledge about the female anatomy). The son — Jamie Morton — decided the only way to cope with it was to share it with a couple of friends — and the world. Each week, Morton and his sidekicks, James Cooper and Alice Levine, sit down around the kitchen table and record an episode of the podcast where they read a chapter aloud and savagely mock it, pretty much on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The results are hilarious, though you'll never be able to look at a pomegranate the same way again. After two seasons, the show has amassed quite the following (including celebs Elijah Wood and Daisy Ridley, who've been guests on the 'cast), and they've taken it on the road for live performances... of the reading/heckling that is, not the porn. Episodes run weekly for as long as it takes to get through one of the books, and usually last for anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour.

Part of writer-director Kevin Smith's film and social media empire, this podcast pairs Smith up with his long-time collaborator, producer Scott Mosier, in a show where they talk about... whatever. Sometimes they discuss projects they're working on, sometimes they'll talk about people they know (such as episodes marking the passing of Carrie Fisher and Alan Rickman that were really quite touching), or stuff in general that's caught their eyes (like this past winter's news story about the guy in Alberta who beat up a cougar that was attacking his dog in a Tim Horton's parking lot). I'm not a regular listener, but the episodes I've downloaded have been funny enough to make it worth while checking out the occasional instalment from time to time.


The Dearly Departed
(Podcasts that have reached the end of their run, but are worth tracking down)

The History of Rome
Chronicling the history of Rome from its origins in legend to the crumbling of the Western Roman Empire, Mike Duncan's show set the standard for history podcasts. Well-researched from different sources, the show takes listeners step by step through one of the greatest civilizations of antiquity, profiling its leading citizens, covering its conflicts, and doing a good job of talking about life in general and how the empire was run. While the show has wrapped up, its episodes have been archived so you can still listen. Episodes run from about 10 to 30 minutes.

The SF Signal Podcast
Not so long ago, there was a marvellous online hub of all things speculative fiction called SF Signal. Over its span of many years, it spawned a group of podcasts, one of which was called The SF Signal Podcast. During its run, the show won a Hugo Award for Best Fancast, and for good reason: it featured a lot of interviews with interesting guests (writers, editors, critics, and others), hosted many rousing panel discussions, and pretty much everyone on it seemed to be having a great time — as did listeners. Episodes vary in length, and the show is still archived online.

Caustic Soda
A podcast devoted to examinations of all things weird, uncomfortable, dangerous, upsetting, lethal, or just plane gross. Like a sort of Three Stooges of the disturbing, hosts Joe Fulgham, Toren Atkinson and Kevin Leeson would irreverently explore the science, history and pop culture behind everything from shark attacks to fire, vampires, acid, elephants, explosives, and history's worst killers. The trio was frequently joined by expert guests to talk about some subject matter (including doctors for shows related to medical issues, scientists from various disciplines for relevant episodes, and others). The 'cast would also sometimes feature a musical interlude. If you're squeamish, have triggers, or don't appreciate deliberately tasteless humour, this show isn't for you. If you're curious about the bizarre and icky, and you don't mind jokes that tackle these issues head-on in an effort to take the edge off, Caustic Soda is definitely worth checking out. Episodes averaged between an hour and an hour-and-a-half.

Spider on the Web
A few years ago, author Spider Robinson launched a podcast where he shared his opinions on, well, everything; read excerpts from his stories and newspaper columns; and played and talked about music. Spider's a cool guy with a great voice, and if you like his stuff, it's worth while to dig up this show. Episodes run anywhere from a couple of minutes to two hours.


So what podcasts do you listen to? What should I be adding to my playlist?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Invaders From Planet 3 - Ep 10 - Voice of the Fans

The invasion resumes!

In this episode, bridging season 1 and 2, we hear from a group of fans about their first loves in science fiction and fantasy. Our guests include the owners of Vancouver's White Dwarf science fiction bookstore, Jill Sanagan and Walter Sinclair; Vancouver film critic Thor Diakow; and fans-about-town Geordie Howe and Brandon Wong.

Some of the interviews were conducted around Greater Vancouver (accounting for the non-stop construction noise in the background), while others were held in the lair of bloginhood, located in an abandoned coal mine deep beneath the Cumberland village centre park on Vancouver Island.

Be sure to tune in over the coming weeks for more episodes from our new season of Invaders From Planet 3!

To listen to Invaders From Planet 3, or subscribe, visit LibsyniTunes, StitcherOvercast and Spotify. Be sure to rate and review the show while you're there!

Let the invasion begin!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An End of Winter Avalanche of Mini Book Reviews

As the dark days of winter draw to a close (at least, in theory — we've been hit with snowstorms twice this weekend, and this is supposed to be the Lower Mainland!), I've discovered in the course of reorganizing my library that my pile of books to be reviewed before they can be shelved has been, well, piling-up! To get them to the safety of the shelves, and to give you a few titles to think about if you're looking for something to read, I figured it was high time to sit down and babble a bit about what I've been devouring for the past several months.

In this edition of the Mini Book Reviews, we'll take a look at:

Wild Cards — High Stakes                 edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

Seveneves                                            by Neal Stephenson

A Desolate Splendor                           by John Jantunen

Last Year                                             by Robert Charles Wilson

The Goblin Emperor                           by Katherine Addison

Lovecraft Country                               by Matt Ruff

The Mongoliad — Book One               by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo,
                                                             ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey & Cooper Moo

The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk     edited by Sean Wallace

Clockwork Canada                              edited by Dominik Parisien

Mother of Eden                                    by Chris Beckett

As usual, spoilers ahead.


Wild Cards — High Stakes edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

This latest addition to the Wild Cards series explodes out of the gate right where its predecessor, Lowball, left off: a lethal underworld fightclub and gambling ring in Kazakhstan that's been kidnapping Jokers off the streets of New York has been busted open. Markus "The Infamous Black Tongue" Morgan, a snake-centaur vigilante who was taken for the games, is now on the run with a Russian woman he befriended while in captivity, looking to get home any way he can. Officer Francis Black, a normal human serving in New York's Jokertown police precinct, has also been caught overseas in the battle at the fightclub, and now finds himself in the strange position of having to team-up with the elderly Ace gangster who was running the operation just to try to stay safe as the city of Talas begins to erupt into horrific violence. With the end of the death matches, a strange force has spread throughout the city, driving people to kill each other, and transforming them into nightmare creatures. The chaos is being generated by a Lovecraftian entity forcing its way in from another dimension to spread its malevolence across our world. Back in New York, the UN's team of Ace peacekeepers, The Committee, gathers to go to Kazakhstan to make a stand against the darkness.

As with the rest of the series, High Stakes is immensely entertaining. The plot thunders along like an out-of-control freight train heading for a stalled school bus. The characters are well-rounded and interesting — even those who aren't likeable are still people who I couldn't take my eyes off and wanted to see more of. Each individual character arc was well-crafted and, while functioning perfectly independently, meshed with the others to form a cohesive and believable overall story. The real sign of the book's quality was the level of frustration it created at the end of each chapter: I wanted to stay with that chapter's character to find out what happened to him/her next, but at the same time I couldn't wait to find out what was happening to the next protagonist in the chapter ahead.

For all of the violence and depravity splashing through these pages, what's often most brutal is the impact of it on the minds and emotions of those who are forced to witness, battle, or endure it. Even with the help of a local wildcard-powered healer, no-one escapes unscathed. Not really. What was most surprising though, was that the authors pulled back a bit from the horror at the end. Which is not to say that I was surprised by the ultimate conclusion of the story, but rather that the plot seemed unavoidably pointed towards a truly awful sacrifice that would have had to be made to save the day, and then that didn't happen. Perhaps the authors stepped back from that brink because it would have been a pyrrhic victory, because it would have left the characters too soiled. And, you know, I'm okay with that.

If you haven't read it yet, go out and buy or borrow Wild Cards — High Stakes.


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I find myself shocked to say this about a Neal Stephenson book, but here goes: Seveneves is a novel that wants to be superb, but turns out to be merely adequate.

The story begins in the near future, when a mysterious object shatters the Earth's moon. With months before the debris field begins to rain down, scouring life from the surface of the Earth, the world unites to channel all of its resources into building a fleet of mini arks to join the International Space Station (now attached to a captured iron asteroid) in orbit to house as many young scientists as possible. The goal is to keep humanity alive in space for a few thousand years until the Earth can be made habitable again. But while "in space, no-one can hear you scream", it's also true that no-one can escape politics and the darker side of human nature. And these factors come into play again millennia down the road when it's time for the new species' descended from humanity to go home.

Something that struck me (and no, it wasn't a rogue chunk of the moon) during the opening act of Seveneves was how the destruction of the moon reminded me of the opening credits of the early 80s cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian — except there would be no lightsabers, wizards, or Wookiee ripoff Ookla the Mok when the dust settled. Not much of anything at all, in fact. It also reminded me of the scene in the first half of Simon Wells' 2002 remake of The Time Machine, where the moon is blown apart (by overzealous mining). The efforts of a (mostly) united world to pool resources to save humanity (one way or another) also harkens back to Firstborn, the third volume of Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey series.

On the positive side, Seveneves offers a cast of well-rounded characters who react in a believable way to the gigantic challenges they face, in terms of the construction project, personal relationships (especially having to deal with saying goodbye to loved ones who wouldn't be part of the offworld evacuation), politics, and survival. Stephenson also offers a (mostly — but I'll get to that in a sec) believable response to a crisis sparked by a mega-scale natural catastrophe. And the overall story is one that should be gripping, with moments of real tension. I also appreciated the fact that the book is as an argument for the plausibility of the space ark or generation ship, at a time when stories like Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora (which, don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed) seek to label this old trope of sf as unworkable.

But Seveneves is dragged down by some significant faults. The first is infodump. I mean a shocking, brutal, unforgivable level of infodump. Now, I know there are hard science fiction fans out there who love, nay, insist on, stories deeply, strongly anchored in known scientific fact; who want to see the equations; who get off on detailed, jargon-heavy explanations of technical minutia — and they probably enjoyed the hell out of this book's tidal wave of hard science. I didn't. I don't mind some level of technical exposition, but what I'm really looking for in a story is a good story. Story is king. No. Story is god. And when the formulae or physics or chemical analysis or whatever gets in the way of the story, then the author hasn't done his/her job. And the technical details most certainly get in the way of the story here. There are countless pages — frequently consecutive pages — where Stephenson overexplains orbital mechanics and course calculations, to the point where opportunities for character and story development are ignored — no, smashed underfoot — and pacing is sacrificed bloodily on the alter of obsessive jargon. And nearly all of it is unnecessary. Single sentences could have summed up what it takes the author pages to do. It's technical masturbation. Seveneves is a book that's more than 850 pages long, but it probably could have been 600 or 700 pages — and much more intellectually and emotionally satisfying — if the infodump and other, occasional instances of repetition in the writing, had been hacked out. Yeah, Stephenson's known for writing door-stopper-sized tomes these days, but this one didn't have to be this big.

And speaking of unnecessarily big, Seveneves also should have been smaller because it should have been split into two books. The third act, set in the far future, is so completely different from the initial how-do-we-survive-a-meteor-shower-apocalypse-and-not-subsequently-kill-each-other-in-orbit story in terms of tone, type of plot, character interactions, and character goals (and lower levels of infodump), that it should have been flushed-out and made into a sequel.

Lastly, as much as I'll give Stephenson credit for being realistic in his portrayal of how inevitable human politics and personal greed, and instinct-level animal viciousness, can lead to projects started with the best intentions (like saving humanity) running into serious trouble; and as much as I'll give him credit for, as an American writer, making an American politician one of the prime causes of trouble in the story, I don't think the author gives the reader a broad enough look at the different ways governments and individuals would behave in the desperate scramble to survive in the face of extinction. Going back to Clarke & Baxter's Firstborn, we're told that even as most of humanity works to prepare to withstand the coming solar blast, some of the super-rich build their own luxury space stations in orbital safe spots to ride-out the disaster. While Stephenson tells us in Seveneves about one politician violating the evacuation rules, and of one family company's attempts to dig a deep shelter (which, admittedly, leaves the door open for others having done the same), what he doesn't get into (probably because he didn't leave room for plot while cramming the book with infodump) is the likelihood that various governments or powerful individuals would also have gone rogue to get into the orbital arklet swarm and take control, or built outward-bound colony ships, or dug deep shelters to emerge much sooner to establish a larger, stronger control over the surface before the orbital descendants could, well, descend in their re-colonization plan.

I wanted to love Seveneves. I really did. It had all the elements I want out of a story. But the infodump  and other failings killed it as surely as a bombardment of moon fragments.


A Desolate Splendor by John Jantunen

If you grabbed John Jantunen's A Desolate Splendor off the shelf and flipped to a random page, there's a good chance you'd think you'd found yourself in the middle of a typical CanLit pastoral. You might find yourself drifting along amidst the slow rhythm of life on the farm, interspersed with the occasional challenge from nature, but where, really, the biggest challenges are in the relationships between family members. But then you'd turn the page and find something very different. Maybe the adventures of a teenager exploring the wilderness on this own. Or the story of a teenaged girl finding her own path after escaping brutality. Or the story of two young First Nations men trying to make a name for themselves with a daring raid. Or the experiences of a small gang of former soldiers and other stragglers living hand-to-mouth, day by day, preying on whomever they come across and revelling in retelling their old war stories as some kind of way to hold onto a non-existent past and justify their continued existence. Or the account of a group of women looking for an opportunity to escape a bleak existence of rape and enslavement at the hands of a horde of mute, self-multilating, cannibalistic men —the Echoes — who exist solely to burn, kill, and destroy. And as you spiralled down this black hole of increasingly grim plot threads, you'd quickly realize that, far from being a naval-gazing pastoral or a pioneer-era frontier adventure, this is a hard tale about hard-scrabble life in a post-apocalyptic world.

Jantunen paints a picture of a future far enough down the road from its disaster that the old world (while remembered by some) is entirely irrelevant. The remains of a highway are a curiosity in the distance rather than a trade or travel route. A car is nothing more than a dusty, dead amusement in a barn. What concerns the people of this deceptive rural tranquility the most is having enough food to survive after they've paid-off the protection racket of the roving gangs. Their crops are threatened by flocks of ravenous birds, and even the rain. Farmers and their dogs have to fight off packs of huge, vicious bear-wolves. And sometimes the Echoes come avalanching through at night to take the women and kill, eat, and burn the rest. Civilization is gone, and it often looks like humanity — referring both to our species and to the ability of people to demonstrate kindness, mercy, and understanding to one-another — may not be far behind.

And yet, for all its horrors, the world of A Desolate Splendor is not so unremittingly bleak as that of Cormac McArthy's The Road, and this saves the book from corrupting the experience of reading into a form of torture. Here, strangers met in the wild are not automatically enemies — some help those in trouble. There's a chance for redemption and a moment of peace, to build new family units instead of just watching as they're torn apart. And there's room for hope. Because of this, the characters remain interesting. We get to see them grow as individuals, form new relationships, and experience the world in different ways.

But this is still the post-apocalypse. Even in the protagonists' moments of triumph, there's still the lingering, nagging, vague fear, like a scream bouncing off the walls of an enclosed room again and again, that the Echoes might still be out there and about to come sweeping in once more. As much as they are a literal menace in the story, the Echoes are a metaphorical representation of humanity's current, active, seemingly unthinking (or at least indifferent) embrace of behaviour that could leave the real world desolate. Perhaps even more frightening are the members of the soldiers' gang, who are every bit as predatory and brutal as the Echoes, but operate behind friendly smiles and chit-chat with the farmers under the thin venire of providing a necessary service. And so even as the story leaves us with the splendour of a new family unit growing together, and of two young people possibly making a future for themselves, neither the characters nor the reader can sit entirely comfortably.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that a copy of this book was sent to me by the author. But that doesn't affect my opinion at all. A Desolate Splendor is an absorbing, smart read and worth picking up.


Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's newest novel, Last Year, is the love child of Hell on Wheels and Escape from LA, midwifed by The Time Tunnel. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Set in the late 1800s, the story is about Jesse Cullum, a man born in a rough part of San Francisco, who's led a life as an itinerant worker across the American West, and is now a member of the security staff at the City of Futurity, a tourist resort for people of his era — and ours. He's also a man who just wants to own a good pair of Oakley sunglasses, a goal in life that's made more difficult when his current pair is broken while saving President Grant from a would-be assassin.

Futurity is the creation of a 21st-Century billionaire who's exploiting technology that can create gateways to the pasts of alternate timelines (not the past of his own specific timeline, thereby avoiding paradoxes). The facility only runs for a few years before it's closed down, and a new one is constructed to bridge to another, similar timeline. In addition to giving tourists from the present the chance to visit the Old West, tourists from the past are invited to pay to stay at the resort and see museums hinting at the wonders of the future, and take rides on helicopters. An important part of the business also involves selling cheap, supposedly harmless technology of the future to the locals in exchange for gold (a currency that's good in any timeline).

The problem is, someone on the inside has been selling dangerous technology — like Glock handguns — to the locals. Worse, the culprit has been sharing details about civil rights advances of the future, offending the stodgy beliefs of the people of the past and throwing the country into chaos, and putting Futurity itself at risk. Having proven his toughness and reliability, Cullum is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, a security officer and military veteran from the future, and sent to investigate the technological and historical leaks. Over the course of their assignments together, Cullum comes to the realization that just doing his job and owning a pair of Oakleys might not be enough in life, and that finding your place in the world sometimes means changing worlds entirely.

If you read enough of Wilson's work, you soon learn that he likes to switch back and forth between stories about big, galaxy-spanning, high-concept philosophical material exploring man's place in the universe (if humanity even has a place amidst the grand workings of things ancient and unfathomable), and smaller, more intimate stories about individuals trying to figure out their place in their own lives. And he does both very well. Last Year is one the latter types of stories. It's not about time travel or paradoxes, or the mysteries of where this technology comes from. Even the question of the ethics of the use of the time gate technology by the owner of Futurity is very much on the sidelines. This is an in-depth exploration of a person figuring out what's most important to him, realizing that he wants to go through life with someone who he cares about and who cares about him, rather than just going through the motions alone, and deciding what he has to do to have important relationships with other people. He transforms from being just another commodity that Futurity has at its disposal to a full person who takes an active role in what he's going to do and what happens around him. Which makes it more interesting that throughout the story, two worlds — the past and the future — revolve around Cullum, but in the end, he takes the position of "the world be damned". He really doesn't care what happens to his own world (the past) or the ramifications of Futurity's collapse on the future, as long as he's able to be with Elizabeth and ensure the safety of his sister. Which ultimately puts the reader in the same position: by the end of the novel, it doesn't matter what happens to the owner of Futurity or his daughter, or what the company will do next either in the 21st Century or the past of any alternate timeline, or what the mystery of the time-travel technology is really all about; all the matters is that Cullum's shot at finding happiness.

Make some time to go out and read Last Year.


The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Try to recall everything you've read about goblins and elves. Now forget it. That's your homework before reading Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor.

You'll find no sweeping medieval-style battles between armies of light and soldiers of darkness over the fate of the world. There's a total absence of conjuring of fae magic in glades under the stars. And there won't be any torchlit monstrous blood rites sating the hungers of old gods in the stygian darkness of deep caverns. No, this is a book about courtly manners, the occasional bit of intrigue, and municipal infrastructure proposals. Which makes The Goblin Emperor wholly refreshing.

Set in a fantasy world that's advanced to a Regency or Victorian era equivalent of technology and society, the story follows Maia, the exiled son of the elven emperor's fourth wife — a goblin princess — who finds himself catapulted to the throne and ultimate power after an airship crash kills his father and older brothers. Taken to the imperial capital, Maia must establish his authority over headstrong members of the bureaucracy and his extended family, learn to conduct himself like a cultured noble and good ruler, avoid overthrow and assassination, and, perhaps most challenging of all, find a wife. Then there's the matter of whether to approve the construction of a bridge. And that's pretty much it.

On one hand, I enjoyed all of the ways that Addison has bucked the usual fantasy trends when writing stories about elves or goblins. As much as I like tales in medieval-analogous settings, there's always a point when I wonder about the apparent technological and social stagnation that's present in these worlds, and wish that authors could show us what it would be like if they evolved towards something more modern. The Goblin Emperor does that, giving us airships right off the bat, and a large elven nation that has a modern type of diplomatic relationship with its goblin neighbour, focussed on maintaining peace and profitable commerce. Another difference is the approach to appearance and behaviour. Normally, we're presented with pointy-eared beauties (although Addison's elves are pointy-eared and never described as average-looking or ugly) and twisted monsters locked in unrelenting hatred and coming together only to slaughter one-another in an eternal holy war. This time, the elves and goblins are described as being kindred species physically, or, more likely, simply different ethnicities of the same race, with differences in skin tone and hair and eye colour. And, as the varieties of skin tone and eye colour in the imperial palace demonstrate, intermarriage at all levels of society is not uncommon. These elves and goblins may be hobbled socially by varying degrees of racism, differences in customs, and distrust no doubt founded in disputes or wars of the past, but they enjoy some of the same activities, like dancing and horse breeding and riding, and, ultimately, want the same things out of life. Like humans, they're more alike than not. And the decision to centre the story around life at court, instead of a grand adventure abroad to save the world, was a nice change of pace.

But a story focussed entirely on the minutia of courtly manners, broken only by the occasional kidnapping and threat of usurpation and death, is of limited appeal. There's also no real depth to the writing — it's not a story with especially juicy metaphors to decipher; or where a reader can pay attention to different aspects and learn new things on a second or third pass; or fun enough to go on the reread rollercoaster again. And speaking of writing, the frequent use of quasi-antiquated language like "canst do nothing for thyself" is clumsy and distracting. As a worldbuilding technique designed to illustrate the difference in the elvish culture from ours, or the language and culture of the imperial court from that of the common citizens, it's over-the-top, unnecessary (given the lavish descriptions of court customs, dress, etc), and distances the reader from the story.

I didn't dislike The Goblin Emperor, I just can't see any reason to read it again.


Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

It's no stretch to say that HP Lovecraft and his works have been the subject of a lot of the conversation in the world of speculative fiction in recent years. Check out the sf shelves in any bookstore and you'll see novels and collections of short stories both inspired by (and sometimes drawing directly from his characters or worlds) and reacting to his work. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is one of the latest comments in that conversations, and one that's definitely worth paying attention to.

The novel is a mosaic of interconnected stories focusing on former soldier Atticus Turner and the members of his extended family and their friends. As if being African-American in the racism-plagued US of the 1950s wasn't hard enough, the family is dragged into the schemes of a group of cultists trying to draw on the dark powers of a Lovecraftian netherworld to increase its members' wealth and influence. Again and again, the cultists use blackmail and other tricks to try to force the family members to become their tools, though sometimes they run afoul of the group simply through sheer bad luck. Through their love for and loyalty to one-another, determination, intelligence, and courage, the family members survive everything from encounters with ghosts, trips to other worlds, missions to recover arcane objects, and ceremonies to tap ancient godlike power. In fact, they do more than survive: they triumph.

I've read a few Lovecraft stories over the years, and while I'm not a fan of his work, I am a fan of Matt Ruff's, and it only took a couple of pages to make me a big fan of Lovecraft Country. Each character is well-crafted: three dimensional and believable. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are people you'd love to hang out with; others aren't that likeable. Either way, you get a good understanding of why they do what they do, and see how each grows throughout their experiences. Each of the stories is well put together too — as unique in their own ways as the characters are, whether they're action-oriented, or leaning more towards quieter journeys of self-discovery. Each is both frightening and inspiring. And all of them fit together perfectly, like the members of the family, to form a greater whole.

In terms of what the novel as a whole, is saying, it's obviously a critique of America — both for the racism of its past (where Jim Crow laws in the South made life for blacks into Russian Roulette, and tacitly accepted discrimination and violence frequently made other parts of the country not much better), and for the fact that despite some social advances, the legacy of that racism remains today.

Ruff is also using the novel to hold Lovecraft and his writing to account on a number of levels. In terms of the mechanics of storytelling and the patterns of the plots, Lovecraft's tales are universally bleak, frequently involve powers and entities beyond human comprehension, and end in death, or at least the loss of one's mind or part of one's soul. And yet here, confronted by similar situations, we see that the forces involved are, in fact, pretty comprehensible to our protagonists. The members of the family are smart people who quickly grasp the situations their faced with, the stakes, the tools, and the implications, and they then move on to deciding how best to survive what's happening, and possibly counteract the people who seek to exploit them. Rather than bleakness, as bad as things get, the family tenaciously hangs on to hope — hope that they'll be reunited with each other, that they'll be free of the machinations of the cult, that their businesses will thrive, that they'll have good lives, and that America will change to become a nation of truly equal people. Far from losing things like their lives, sanity, or souls, the protagonists save each other's lives, and gain everything from new homes to stronger family bonds and a better understanding of one-another.

The Lovecraft stories that I've read also tend to lack any real action: someone goes someplace old and evil and just kind of hangs out, they feel a terrible presence, and death ensues, or sanity or souls are lost. In Ruff's story(ies) though, there's a lot of action: detailed descriptions of searches for missing family members, escapes from race riots, attempts to recover arcane objects from booby-trapped rooms that might exist in other dimensions, researching safe travel tips for African-Americans, and sometimes they take a break from dealing with the forces of evil to have fun at parties. While these stories do take their time for the protagonists to think about what's happening, or to discuss things with other characters, the plots are never slow for long.

Lovecraft also wasn't known for including women in his stories. Here, female protagonists headline many of the stories, and loom strongly in the background of those lead by the men.

Lovecraft Country is also a response to HPL's racism. All of the protagonists here are African-American. All are educated, strong, hard-working, self-determining people. Some run businesses, all support their family, friends, and community, and preserve their history as they openly work to make a better future. And, as noted above, all come out on top when faced by challenges, whether they're supernatural or man-made racism or greed. By contrast, it's the rich, well-connected, white cultists and their minions who are ultimately brought down — destroyed when their arcane experiments go awry, or disempowered (literally, one of the prime manipulators loses his magical powers, as well as his influence within the cult), and their group is broken-up (though the cult never really had much cohesion, as its members seemed to always be scheming against each other one way or another). The cultists are always operating in secret — even keeping secrets from one-another. They come in from a position of having lost their history, and finish the story having lost their future, both as individuals with power, and as a group able to engineer grand projects and schemes.

In the end, I found myself asking a dangerous question: Is Lovecraft Country better than the real America of the 1950s? I know that, as a white Canadian, I'm treading on thin ice exploring this train of thought, and could very well be missing perspective important to interpreting this book. But it seems to me that for all the supernatural horror present in the fictional world of the novel, at least the odds are somewhat evened: the intelligence, loyalty, and determination of the Turners and their family and friends gives them an advantage in dealing with said supernatural horrors that the white cultists, for all their monetary and political/social advantages, don't have. In Lovecraft Country, when it comes to overcoming supernatural horrors, it's the African-American protagonists who come out on top, and do so immediately — they don't have to labour for years to get on an equal footing. In the America of the real world, on the other hand, that equal footing would be decades of hard work and sacrifice away, and some might argue that it still hasn't arrived.

Next time you're in the bookstore or library, take a trip to Lovecraft Country.


The Mongoliad — Book One, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo

In the middle of 13th Century, the Mongols are preparing for an invasion of Europe. As he waits for the right moment to attack, the general in charge of the invasion stages a medieval version of Mortal Kombat, inviting warriors from across the known world to come and battle one-another in death matches to show off their prowess. But these gladiatorial games are more than just entertainment: they're a means for the general to evaluate the abilities of his potential enemies, a political diversion to lull the leaders of Europe into thinking they have more time than they actually do, and a way to show off the strength of his own forces. A group of knights from the monastic Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, otherwise known as the Shield Brethren, are on their way to the tournament, but the event is a diversion tactic for them as well. While they try to draw the Mongols' attention to themselves at the games, another contingent of Shield Brethren, aided by the female scout Cnan, makes its way east on a secret mission: to assassinate Ogedei, the Khan of Khans. Meanwhile, in the Mongol capital of Karakorum, a young warrior, Gansukh, is sent to the imperial court to protect Ogedei. But Gansukh soon learns that the great khan may need to be protected from himself more than assassins — suffering from increasing depression  as he chafes at administrative life rather than being in the saddle at war or hunting, Ogedei has become a drunk who behaves erratically. If dealing with a temperamental khan and palace intrigues weren't enough, Gansukh faces the challenge of learning the manners and customs of the court from Lian, a Chinese slave, to become a political operator himself.

As much as I should have enjoyed The Mongoliad, with its melees, descriptions of varied medieval European and Asian fighting styles, court intrigues, and cultural details, the whole thing just felt flat. None of the characters were particularly interesting, the plot seemed to drag, and even the action sequences failed to have any real emotional impact. Maybe it's a case of too many chefs spoiling the sauce. I don't know.

I'll give the authors credit: they've done an excellent job of researching the arms and armour, fighting styles, cultures and dress of the period. But none of it was enough to make me want to see the series through.


The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk edited by Sean Wallace

If you're looking for a one-stop introduction to dieselpunk (sf set between the end of the First World War and the end of World War II, or on worlds with an analogous level of technology and set of cultures) that examines this sub-genre from a variety of perspectives, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk is for you.

This door-stopper of a collection roars to a start with Jay Lake and Shannon Page's butt-stompingly fun "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story" and, for the most part, keeps up the smokey, greasy noir-era coolness all the way through. Along the way, it shifts gears from time to time, slowing down for stories like Jeremiah Tolbert's "Instead of a Loving Heart" or AC Wise's "The Double Blind", before hitting the gas again for an entry like Dan Rabarts' "Floodgate".

Sometimes the anthology's engine sputters, or the thing blows a tire: not every story is good. One or two would have done just as well on the scrap heap. But that's to be expected in a collection of this size, and overall the thing is shiny and rolls along nicely.


Clockwork Canada edited by Dominik Parisien

I've been waiting for a Canadian-centred steampunk anthology for a long time. While the country's history is much older than Queen Victoria's era, stretching back thousands of years to the time when First Nations people came over from Siberia, to several hundred years ago when the first Europeans, Africans, and Asians began arriving, and while some of the key moments in our history predate her as well (such as the British victory over France in the Seven Years' War, or the successful driving-back of American invaders in the War of 1812) and others wouldn't come until decades after she was gone, the British North American colonies did get their official start as a country under old Vicky's watch. And personally, spending the first half of my childhood in south-western Ontario, the legacy of the Victorian era was all around me: many neighbourhoods were still graced with its big red brick homes, those homes were filled with furniture and other antiques from those days, and people gathered in parks on chilly May nights for Victoria Day fireworks displays. Canada is a country that's perfect to celebrate this past — and to hold it accountable — and there's no better form of literature to do that than speculative fiction. Which brings us to Clockwork Canada, edited by Dominik Parisien.

Like the various regions of Canada, the stories in this anthology are very much a matter of personal taste. Taken together, they form a workable tapestry that showcases the many different interpretations of who we are. Individually, they're very hit and miss, depending on what you're looking for. I enjoyed Holly Shofield's "East Wind in Carrall Street" with its clockwork lion and two kids trying to bridge their cultures, Brent Nichols' steampunk superhero yarn "The Harpoonist", and the female-James-Bond-esque Klondike adventure "Strange Things Done" by Michal Wojcik. While some of the other stories could have used some work, or could have been replaced with better fare, overall, Clockwork Canada is a collection worth reading.


Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Eden is a planet with no light other than the bioluminescence of its plants and animals. The thousands of humans who live there are descended from just two survivors of a spaceshipwreck many generations before. They've now spread across their world, founding a number of different cultures, each based on the specific beliefs, stories, and teachings of some of the people involved in a violent schism generations before. Starlight Brooking — a member of a peaceful, isolated island commune following the tenants of Jeff, a crippled inventor and dreamer — takes part in a trading expedition to a town on the mainland (founded by followers of a brutal thug who took control of the original Eden society, in part prompting the great schism) where she meets Greenstone Johnson, a young prince from a subterranean settlement on a continent on the other side of the ocean (founded by supporters of John, the strong-willed young hunter and inventor who was also partly responsible for the split in the original society). The two are attracted to each other, and Starlight goes with him across the sea, where they're married and she is given the role of Mother, or spiritual leader, of his people. Starlight quickly sees inequalities in her new culture, and begins using her influence to push through changes. But some of the nobles feel threatened by this new, more gentle way of doing things, and Starlight and Greenstone find themselves facing a revolution.

Mother of Eden is the sequel to Chris Beckett's magnificently-crafted Dark Eden, and, while it's a fundamentally different story, it's every bit as good as its predecessor.  There's a clear biblical allusion running through the series, with the first novel being a mixture of Genesis and Exodus, casting John as a combination Cain and Moses, while Mother of Eden casts Starlight as a New Testament-style messiah — minus the divinity and miracles. Like the original, the protagonists and supporting characters of MOE are well-rounded and believable, each possessing their share of flaws.

The various cultures that have evolved from the schism are also believable, with each having its own variation on the original tribe's hybrid founder-worship and cargo-cult religion, its own laws and politics, styles of clothing, levels of technological achievement, manner of speaking, and rivalries with and tolerances for the other nations.

The plot moves along briskly and yet leaves time for characters to process what's happening to them, and at the end of each chapter I was torn between wanting more of that section's character, while being eager to see what the protagonist occupying the next segment was doing.

While Mother of Eden was wholly satisfying on its own, I can't wait to see what Chris Beckett has in store for readers in the third book.