Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Strange Fruit and Alien Geometries

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

August 20th was the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, famed Author of Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and other pulp tales of foreboding New England towns where clandestine conspiracies attempt to awaken long-slumbering, cosmic horrors. In honor of Mr. Lovecraft, I sought out a novel with Lovecraftian themes for this week’s review, the latest in my series, “I read this…with my ears.”

My search turned up a mesmerizing new novel, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. The book puts a novel historical spin on some classic Lovecraft themes but grounds the horrors and dangers in recent American history. I chose the audio book; there is always something unnerving about having a horror story read to you. In addition to serving as third person narrator, Kevin Kenerly does an apt job playing all roles, black, white, young or old, male or female.

Leaving aside H.P.’s break-out star Cthulhu, the iconic slumbering cephalopod, what are the most identifiable themes of Lovecraft’s eerie tales? What local landmarks would signal to a weary, but wary, traveler that they have crossed the border into Lovecraft country? I would posit there are three:

  1. Hostile environments: From the barren arctic poles to rural New England villages that don’t take kindly to outsiders, you get the sense that you are clearly not welcome among these insular, and probably inbred, country folk.
  2. Malevolent Conspiracies: If, despite the icy welcome, one were to make it to the manor house overlooking this odd community, there would be no respite from the strangeness and unease. One might soon discover that the country aristocrats are members of a secret society. A society whose tendrils influence every local authority. And if you come to their attention you may well be the “guest of honor” for a strange ceremony that you may not survive…
  3. Cosmic Insignificance: Dubbed “cosmicism” by H.P. himself, it is the horror experienced by the individual human mind when confronted with the fact that not only is it not the center of the universe, but in the grand scheme of things the struggles and desires of the individual do not matter.

So does Matt Ruff do anything different with these themes than what Stephen King has done many times over? Yes. He acknowledges that here, in America, an entire population had to cross through or even somehow survive and eke out an existence in “Lovecraft Country:” African Americans in the Jim Crow era.

If one’s skin is the “wrong color,” then the wrong turn down a country road at sundown could bring a motorist into a hostile rural town, where they do not take kindly to strangers, and where the police had no power to stop or were in fact in league with a malevolent conspiracy. Figures in white hoods would hold strange ceremonies and sacrifice hapless victims as offerings in a twisted theology. And even if they survived all that, African Americans would be presented with constant evidence that their lives do not matter. Eking out an existence on the margins of mainstream society could be revoked by the majority at any time, and any aspirations the individual might have based on talent and desire would always be barred to them. Cosmic Horror: the intuition that even if one survives the ordeal, the struggle is ultimately meaningless.

Our story is set in 1954 when Atticus Turner, recently returned from service in the Korean War, sets out on a road trip to find his estranged father who disappeared chasing mysterious bits of family lore in the rural and insular community of “Arden, Massachusetts” (as fictional as Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts). Joining him is an expert on traveling while black, his Uncle George Turner, travel agent and publisher of The Safe Negro’s Travel Guide. “The Guide” is a book for African Americans, cataloging which hotels, motels, campgrounds, and diners serve blacks, as seeking respite at other businesses could result in a door in the face at best and violence at worst. This is actually based on the real world publication of the time, The Negro Motorist Green Book, whose cover read, “Carry this book with you—you may need it.” Also along for the ride is Letitia, a childhood friend of George’s who claims to be a spirit medium, but demonstrates more than her fair share of street smarts and cunning. Being an avid reader of science fiction, pulps, and yes, even H.P. Lovecraft, Atticus takes it in stride when, after several life-and-death car chases, they finally reach Arden and find they have stumbled into a town very much like a Lovecraft pulp tale. He discovers that the Order of the New Dawn, a group of “natural philosophers” (i.e., would be alchemists) have lured him to a ceremony because they believe he carries the blood of a powerful sorcerer. The question is how polite are they going to be about collecting that blood? And even if Atticus and his band do escape, what strangeness might follow them back to Chicago…?

And that’s just the opening act. Once back in Chicago, the narrative becomes more episodic, with each section featuring a different friend or relation of Atticus and the troubling aspects of American history intermingled with the supernatural. In “The Witch House,” Letitia sets out to become a “Pioneer”—a black owner of a house in a traditionally white neighborhood. Not only is the system rigged against her (banks, reluctant to grant mortgages to blacks, instead set up alternate agreements heavily stacked against the would-be home owner), but she faces a two-pronged attack trying to force her out, beset on one front by her white neighbors and the other by a poltergeist. In one episode, the brothers of a Prince Hall Freemasons Lodge (Prince Hall Masons is a real-life, predominantly black Freemason order) go on a treasure hunt in the catacombs of Chicago’s underground, searching for a grimoire of a warlock, who was also a prohibition-era gangster. In these stories, the wrong inflection in tone while reciting an incantation or the wrong tone of voice when speaking with a police officer present equal danger for the hero or heroine. Another tale reframes Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to explore the experience of “passing”, when a light-skinned African American could present as either black or white and thereby adopt a dual identity.

I’d go on, but each episode builds upon the next to advance the larger narrative and I don’t want to spoil anything (save that the aforementioned “Witch House” and “Hippolyta Green Disturbs the Universe” may be my favorites). Frankly, some of the surprise is discovering which character mentioned offhandedly or even portrayed disparagingly in one chapter becomes the hero or heroine of the next.

The book has a lot for fans of horror and science fiction—even those who aren’t devotees of H.P. Lovecraft. Classic Sci-fi and pulp adventures available to a 1950’s audience—The Martian Chronicles, Tom Swift, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and radio pulp drama—are all touched upon, but again through an African American lens. Escapism becomes all the more important for a people whose lives are not only mundane but often difficult and steeped in struggle. But what does it mean when even in escapist flights of fancy, the underlying inequities of reality are still present?

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Lovecraft and race. With his posthumous fame, modern Lovecraft fans who care to look are confronted with personal correspondence, letters to the editor, and even bits of doggerel verse that display H.P.’s visceral detestation of peoples and cultures other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And while some of his apologists may claim that this was par for the times and his upbringing, I would argue that even for the time someone getting worried about “a plague of clamorous French-Canadians” may have been afflicted with literal xenophobia, the fear of the different. In his more fantastical writings, the hordes of Blacks, Jews, Poles, Catholics, Irish, Latins, and the aforementioned French Canadians became the hierarchy of bug-eyed creatures and mad cultists that so bedevil the characters of his stories.

In this novel Matt Ruff (who is white) asks us not to erase H.P. or love him warts and all but acknowledge the effect that his talents and his flaws have on the audience and move forward from there.

If asked to sum up the Lovecraftian aesthetic many would do so with the term “unease”. If pressed to elaborate one might expound, “unease at the true horror and injustice of the world.” By setting the narrative in the Jim Crow Era, that unease and injustice become a palpable, malevolent force even before any tentacled monsters or cultists arrive on the scene. For generations, tales from an ancestor who lived on a plantation, an uncle who was at the mercy of a vindictive police officer during a traffic stop, or an aunt tailed by a car full of white thugs have been the horror stories passed down in the family lore of all-too-many homes. For those lucky enough to be born in more favorable times, places, and stations, these horrors should be as terrifying as any strange elder god sleeping in a sunken city. For those not so lucky? Well, that’s just another day in Lovecraft country.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dirty Half Dozen

Suicide Squad
Movie Review by Kerey McKenna

With Suicide Squad, Warner Brothers may have finally figured out how to make their insistence on gritty and dark tones (of both subject matter and visual palette) work in the DC comic book universe: focus on the bad guys. While not a great movie, it’s a lot better than the last installment of the series, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and may signal an important course correction for the DC cinematic world. So it’s worth a look.

The set up for Suicide Squad is fairly straightforward: US counterterrorism/ intelligence bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) believes that the government can no longer depend on vigilantes like Batman or good Samaritans like Superman to save the day (or for that matter conduct traditional espionage or military actions). So taking a page from The Dirty Dozen, Waller recruits imprisoned super-criminals to form a new black ops team, “Task Force X.” For every mission they complete, the convicts of Task Force X receive time off their sentences and the chance to get out of their supermax cells and into the open air to deal death and mayhem. But given the dangers of their work, and the penalty for escape attempts, the convicts quickly dub the team “Suicide Squad”:

  • Deadshot (Will Smith): An assassin with unerring aim, be it with his arsenal of custom weapons and targeting gizmos or his naked eye and a standard handgun, he never misses.
  • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie): Formerly psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel of Arkham Asylum, she fell in love with one of her patients….Batman arch-nemesis the Joker. Leaving respectability and sanity behind, she becomes the Clown Prince of Crime’s gun moll until she is captured by Batman.
  • Enchantress/Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne): And speaking of good girls gone bad, we have Enchantress. After unsealing an ancient evil from a South American crypt, mousy archeologist Dr. Moone is now sharing a body with an ancient witch.
  • El Diablo (Jay Hernandez): An L.A. gang banger who has a literal fiery Latin temper. Unfortunately he is trying to put a life of violence behind him and declares himself a conscientious objector to the Suicide Squad’s violent methods.
  • Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney): An Australian thief with a signature weapon. Three guesses what it is.
  • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinuoye-Agbaje): a half man/half crocodile mutant with the strength and underwater aptitude (and table manners) of his reptilian namesake.
  • Slipknot (Adam Beech): An escape artist/thief.

    They work under the command of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a black ops soldier charged with keeping them on task and summarily executing any member that tries to escape. Flag is assisted by Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Like Captain Boomerang no points for guessing her weapon of choice. And while the Joker (Jared Leto) isn’t actually a member of the Squad, he makes his premiere in this new DC shared cinematic universe, his twisted intellect intent on finding Harley Quinn and springing her from jail.

    Was Suicide Squad a grand slam out of the park like Fox’s surprise hit Deadpool earlier this year? No. But it was a solid base hit that promises Warner Brothers isn’t completely mismanaging the translation of another set of comic book characters to the big screen. It’s a decent shoot-em up that also happens to do some world building for DC as they try to catch up with Marvel. And it succeeds at getting the Joker—and the DC universe—out of the shadow cast by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and the late Heath Ledger. The movie also delivers by bringing long-time fan favorite Harley Quinn to the screen. Better pop culture commentators than I have written much on what it means that one of DC’s most iconic women is a psychopath suffering from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, but for now it’s enough to say, she may be crazy but she is never boring. Also, speaking of unpredictability, Will Smith’s performance, seemingly peppered with improv, certainly helps punch up a very dour script and bring some much needed heart to the film.

    However due to some pacing issues early in the film and how the movie just can’t seem to shake the cynicism of the DC cinematic universe, my recommendation comes with a lot of reservations. If you want to see a fun movie with a group of lovable comic book rogues coming together to do the right thing, accompanied by a pop music sound track…go re-watch Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. If you want to see DC villains pull off a heist…look up Batman: Assault on Arkham, a direct to video animated film about the Suicide Squad, made two years ago with a bunch of the same characters; unlike the live action division, DC’s animation studios is unembarrassed to make films about comic book characters. BUT—if your comic book hero heist movie absolutely has to have Will Smith in it, then Suicide Squad is the movie for you.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

  • Wednesday, August 3, 2016

    Today's Tom Sawyer. He gets by on you.

    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
    Book Review by Kerey McKenna

    In a not-too-distant future beset by poverty, crime, and scarcity, a state-of-the-art virtual reality game offers an oasis from a world of devastation. It’s even called Oasis, the marketing department’s backronym for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. For the price of visor and gloves, even the poorest American can escape the drudgery of their everyday lives to delve into a virtual world built upon the culmination of over a century’s worth of telecommunications, visual media, and computer science. By the mid-21st Century, technology has finally delivered on the dreams of a generation of youth who spent the 1980’s escaping into fantasy by feeding their pocket change to arcade machines and huddling around a card table playing D&D.

    The creator of Oasis, James Donovan Halliday, was himself a child of the 80’s, before growing up into a combination of Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes. He never forgot that his state-of-the-art simulation would not have been possible without the wood-paneled home computer he got for Christmas as a child. As his legacy, he makes sure that no one else forgets….

    Upon his death, the estate of the reclusive billionaire releases an elaborate video game filled with more 80’s pop culture than if Cyndi Lauper’s tour bus crashed into VH1 headquarters and it was all filmed by John Hughes. The will states that like many programmers before him, Halliday has placed hidden content, an Easter egg, which can be found by dedicated players who can prove their aptitude at classic video games and love of 80’s culture. The player who completes the quest will be named Halliday’s heir and inherit a vast fortune and a controlling stake in his company—and therefore become de facto master of the virtual reality universe.

    And so a generation of Easter egg hunters (later dubbed “Gunters”) immerse themselves in 1980’s culture and claim it as their own. Their playlists are filled with 80’s classics (transferred from vinyl or cassette for that analog-quality sound). They read back issues of Dragon magazine for clues on Halliday’s game design inspirations. Re-creations of arcade parlors are meticulously programmed so that the Gunters can use state-of-the-art virtual reality equipment to simulate playing classic Pac-Man in a pizzeria while MTV cranks the tunes in the background--cutting edge technology used to make a game within a game. The customized virtual environments created by players are just as likely to be modeled after a 1980’s rec room as an interplanetary spaceship (and some users opt to simply put their rec room inside their spaceship).

    Enter our hero. Wade Watts, a pop culture-obsessed hacker with the disadvantage of being born into abject poverty. The virtual reality public school he attends offers an escape from his troubled home in “the stacks” (a slum town made by literally stacking RV’s into ramshackle high rise apartments). He has lots of practice on classic games that form the new arcade canon and his head contains more facts and stats about the 1980’s than Marty McFly’s Grays Sports Almanac. But with barely two quarters to rub together, he can’t afford the DLC gear and weapons to go questing with the other Gunters. At least, not until the long sought after quest begins practically in his own backyard. Wade is about to shoot to the top of the leader board and to the number one target for everyone else. And as an immortal classic movie once promised, “There can be only one”.

    Ready Player One is a love letter, or perhaps more fittingly a fan-fic, dedicated to the pop culture of the 1980’s; the references to anything past 1990 could, it seems, be counted on one hand. Fortunately for readers not well-steeped in nerd culture and/or the minutia of early video game design, the book is rather patient in explaining the mechanics and significance of the cultural artifacts it excavates, such as the simple text commands of the early PC games, or that yes indeed Spiderman did have a giant robot at his command (when he was adapted for Japanese TV viewers as Supaid├óman). I think to the degree that this works may well vary from reader to reader. For me it worked because our narrator Wade is a pop culture obsessive who is compelled to devour and then carefully curate every piece of trivia that interests him. And I found his interest infectious, but then I’m a receptive audience. (I am a reviewer for a blog called Nerds Who Read, after all).

    I chose to read this book now because Stephen Spielberg is working on adapting the novel to the silver screen. It’s a promising venture: much of the forward momentum of the story is driven by a treasure hunt right out of The Goonies or Indiana Jones, exactly the sort of thing Spielberg could knock out of the park. However, I wanted to experience the novel before Spielberg’s version eclipses the original, as happened with Jaws and Jurassic Park. I also wanted to imagine a world of real geeks and nerds, not Hollywood-attractive actors plopped into frumpy clothing. To experience a story that was equal parts Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and The Last Star Fighter, as opposed to merely a studio’s calculated gambit to greenlight “the next Hunger Games.” And in hindsight it was good to get a sense of the full breadth of author’s pop culture obsession. Through the vagaries of IP law, the novel was able to drop a lot of references to all sorts of music, video games, movies, comic books, etc. For example, at one point the novel talks about a character heading out to a VR club, dressed to the nines in a Buckaroo Bonzai costume, and stepping out of a vehicle that is gestalt of the Back to the Future DeLorean, Ecto 1 from Ghostbusters, and KITT from Knight Rider. Steven Spielberg might have had the clout to get Warner Brothers to send the Looney Toons over to Disney to play for a bit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but will Disney return the favor and let Steven borrow their shiny new toy Star Wars, along with an Avenger or two? Will Universal license footage from John Hughes classics to their rival Warner Brothers? I foresee a lot of scenes and set pieces being either dropped entirely or replaced with references that fall under Warner Brothers' ownership.

    But those are questions for another day. Presumably the movie’s opening day in 2018. For now grab the book, put on a Rush mix tape, chug a bottle of New Coke, and set your flux capacitor to 1985! I’ll start you off:

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2016

    Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! NO! It’s a DEADBEAT DAD!

    Dynamo 5. Created by Jay Faerber and Mahmud Asrar
    Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

    With his iconic blue, red, and yellow costume (bearing a strong resemblance to a certain Man of Steel), the superhero Captain Dynamo fought crime around the world and in his home territory of Tower City for decades. His five signature superpowers—strength, flight, super vision, telepathy, and shapeshifting—not to mention his good looks and natural charisma, made him one of earth’s most powerful and well-respected superheroes. Until the day he died, anyway, in a seedy motel room, most likely while engaged in one of the many clandestine extra-marital affairs he had throughout his career.

    Maddie Williams, Captain Dynamo’s widow and former ace reporter, is devastated on three fronts: the death of her beloved husband, the discovery of his years of philandering, and the prospect that in his absence supervillains will run roughshod over a defenseless Tower City. Determined to find new champions, Maddie puts her investigative skills to the test to discover if her husband left any secret…legacies. And she discovers five young people, each a reminder of her husband’s infidelity, each having grown up in a different background, each possessing one of her husband’s superpowers, and each with the potential to be a great hero—if only they can work with the other four:

  • Bridget Williams: A young, disillusioned screenwriter who, like many, went to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune but so far has only fallen into a dead end job. However, her unassuming and pale gothic looks disguise that she inherited her father’s super strength. Willing to roll up her sleeves as the team bruiser, she is…Scrap.

  • Olivia Lewis: Overachieving student at Georgetown University, she soars through the sky as…Slingshot.

  • Hector Chang: A bookish high school student in Vancouver who is, unfortunately the victim a bully right out of central casting. Thanks to his coke bottle glasses, Hector has no romantic prospects. But just maybe, after his super vision develops (x-ray vision and optic blasts), he’ll see a way out of his miserable school life. He is…Visionary.

  • Gaige Reinhart: the polar opposite of Hector. Tall, all-American hero of his small Texas town, lineman for the football team, he is literally the Big Man on Campus. His brute force tendencies are a stark contrast from the power he inherited from his father, the subtle skill of telepathy. He is…Scatterbrain.

  • Spencer Bridges: the most mysterious member of the novice superhero team. After a troubled and tumultuous childhood in the American foster care system, the adult Spencer became a ladies' man and grifter. His dubious vocations dovetail with his inherited power of shapeshifting. He will be the team’s espionage ace in the hole as…Myriad.

    Together they form—The Dynamo 5!

    With this novel premise and diverse cast, creators Jay Faerber and Mahmud Asrar launch a high-flying adventure that is equal parts bold classic superhero tale and modern deconstruction of the same genre. Unlike some such deconstructionist melodramas, Dynamo 5 does not apologize for being a story about superheroes: the costumes are bold to the point of garish, the greatest threats to the city can be defeated with a sound thrashing, and, most importantly, despite all the danger, this world would be thrilling to inhabit. The deconstruction comes from examining the human element of this world of magic, mad science, and aliens, and playing with standard superhero tropes. The late Captain Dynamo, in public a mighty defender of truth and justice was, in reality a cheating heel and deadbeat father to the children that resulted from his serial indiscretions. His widow, having formerly played the role of damsel in distress, now calls the shots for a team of superheroes. And each of the Dynamo 5 has a distinct personality and interpretation of what it means to be a superhero and the child of a famous father they never knew.

    While the dialogue in the first several chapters can be somewhat heavy on exposition, it’s balanced by an engaging plot with lots of twists and turns. It says a lot that while the big two comic book companies attempt to maintain interest in their well-established characters with ever more convoluted reboots, re-imaginings, retcons, and recastings, Dynamo 5 is able to do so much with a completely new cast. Thanks to the great art team and the engaging premise, I couldn’t put down the first volume, Post-Nuclear Family. Then I raced through the next four volumes in the course of a weekend. As far as I can tell, that’s the entire run, although I hope it’s just the entire run available in trade paperback. Volume 1 has a fairly complete story arc so I would highly recommend picking it up to enjoy either as a standalone adventure or as the introduction to a bold world full of potential.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

  • Tuesday, July 19, 2016

    Dynamic Duo—Radio and Superheroes

    Red Panda Adventures. Written and Directed by Greg Taylor. Performed by the Decoder Ring Theatre cast
    Review by Kerey McKenna

    [Organ music]

    “OLD TIMEY” RADIO ANNOUNCER: And now Decoder Ring Theatre presents the continuing adventures of Canada’s greatest superhero, that scourge of the underworld, hunter of those who prey upon the innocent, the marvelous masked mystery man known only as THE RED PANDA. The Red Panda, mysterious crusader for justice, hides his true identity as one of the city’s wealthiest young men, in his never ending battle against crime and corruption. Only his trusted driver Kit Baxter, who joins him in his quest in the guise of the Flying Squirrel, knows who wears the mask of the Red Panda!

    The adventures of the titans of the 1930’s-1950’s Golden Age of Comic Book Super Heroes weren’t always bound up on the printed page. Many of their stories where carried by the dynamic duo of comic books and radio. The Shadow, the Green Hornet—even Superman himself (a mere 2 years after his debut on newsstands)—all had beloved and long running radio dramas. Radio and comics make an odd yet complementary pairing: Comics are a visual medium that can only convey noises through artistic cues. Radio uses voice acting to paint vivid pictures in the mind’s eye. The radio shows of yesteryear weren’t merely ephemeral tie-ins chasing the success of the comics. They made significant contributions to the lore of each hero. It was Orson Welles’s chilling performances that promised listeners that the mysterious Shadow knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men. Radio introduced such mainstays of the Superman mythology as Kryptonite, Daily Planet editor Perry White, and photographer/cub reporter Jimmy Olsen.

    However, when radio dramas by and large left American airwaves, eclipsed by the post-war television boom, superheroes either jumped on the exodus to the small screen (a la Superman, Green Hornet, and Batman) or returned to the comic books, newspaper strips, or pulps from whence they came. Fortunately, a small audio dramatic group based out of Canada, Decoder Ring Theatre, has resurrected the radio superhero serial with Red Panda Adventures, a long running series of super heroic adventures, in the form of radio plays, available for free streaming or download from their website, and the subject of this week’s installment of “I Read this…with my Ears.”

    The Red Panda himself is equal parts Green Hornet and the Shadow. With a dapper suit, fedora, and red domino mask, his genius-level intellect and vast family fortune allow him to deploy an arsenal of weapons in his war against crime, such as a personal auto gyro, static shoes that cling to walls, and miniaturized radio equipment that is cutting edge for the 1930’s. But his greatest weapon against crime is his powers of hypnosis. In an homage to the Shadow, the Red Panda, after years of study abroad in the mystic arts, has the power to influence the minds of others. He can taunt and confuse criminals by making phantom doppelgangers of himself appear all over a room to sow confusion and draw their fire. Like the Green Hornet, the Red Panda goes into battle with his martial artist valet. In this case, that's his driver, Katya “Kit” Baxter, a sassy redhead who is as aggressive on the road as she was in her father’s boxing gym. Much of the humor of the series comes about because Kit would like to be partners in more than just crime fighting with her employer and mentor (The Red Panda is voiced by series creator Greg Taylor and Kit is voiced by his wife Clarissa Der Nederlanden-Taylor).

    The series begins in the Great Depression as the heroes defend Toronto from crooks, gangsters, and costumed supervillains, giving the city a fighting chance to recover from the economic downturn. Next, World War II, a weird war where Nazis have deployed ancient magic, dinosaurs, and all manner of sci-fi weaponry to fend of the Allies’ Super Services (the superheroes and adventurers of the combined Allied nations). Eventually the postwar years arrive. Mystery men bow out into retirement and hand the keys to the city to the garish “caped crusaders” of the Silver Age.

    Red Panda Adventures are fun for casual listeners and a must-listen for fans of audio drama or superheroes. It’s got the corny earnestness of the classic Adam West Batman series, the morals of classic Dragnet, and the romantic banter of the Nick and Nora Charles mysteries. From the intro music to the Foley sound effects, the Decoder Ring Theatre audio drama troop are dedicated to putting out rip-roaring superhero adventures on a shoestring budget. Like the radio plays of old, a small band of actors plays a large cast of characters. An actor playing a friendly beat cop one week may be featured as a supervillain the next. And in a time when superheroes of the big screen might be considered indifferent to the plight of civilians in the cities that they blow up, the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel are unambiguous about why they don their costumes. The Red Panda began his crusade out of a sense of noblesse oblige. The Flying Squirrel, who grew up in Cabbage Town, the working class section of Toronto, knows what it’s like to be one of the downtrodden masses; she wants to put a well-placed punch to the face of any racketeer, supervillain, or otherworldly dimensional terror that would make life harder for the blue collar masses.

    If, after listening to a few episodes, you decide that Red Panda Adventures scratch your itch for superhero thrills, I also recommend the four prose novels available for purchase. These are available in print, e-book, and audiobook; the latter is narrated by the author and Red Panda himself doing an excellent one-man rendition of the entire cast. The creators have also begun a series of proper comic book adventures available for digital download from Comixcology.com but they assume a bit of familiarity with the characters that would best be appreciated by people with a couple of seasons of the radio show under their utility belt.

    So if you’re ready for excitement, turn your dial to Red Panda Adventures. Only at DecoderRingTheatre.com

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Friday, July 8, 2016

    No Premium on Fun

    Review of The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent
    Audio Book by Larry Correia, Performed by Adam Baldwin
    Review by Kerey McKenna

    Welcome dear Nerds Who Read regulars to my new series of reviews, “I Read This…With My Ears,” where I will be reviewing audio dramas and audio adaptations of literature, as a change from my usual reviews of graphic novels. My first review will be of an odd little sci-fi farce I came across during an audiobook sale for my Amazon Fire, The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent. Written by Larry Correia, it is read by Adam Baldwin, who for Firefly fans is the man they call Jayne, and for followers of The Last Ship, XO Mike Slatterly. Tom Stranger works because of Baldwin's vigorous, over-the-top dramatic reading.

    What happens if assassins from a parallel dimension are coming after you as a way to get at your much more successful parallel dimension doppelganger? Is your dimension being invaded by platoons of Nazi dinosaurs? Then you better hope that you’re covered by Stranger & Stranger Interdimensional Insurance. In providing consummate customer service, Tom Stranger serves as actuary, bodyguard, and general man of action to defend his clients from bizarre dangers from all around the multiverse. And it is a bizarre and dangerous multiverse indeed, brimming with more over-the-top testosterone-fueled spectacles than John Cena juggling chainsaws while riding a dirt bike over a pit of alligators. Unfortunately, a clerical error has saddled Tom with Jimmy the intern, a slacker coasting his way to a degree in Gender Studies who would be better suited to the soul-numbing drudgery of a telemarketing call center operator than the mental and physical rigors of an interdimensional man of action.

    It is said that comedy is one of the hardest forms of drama to pull off and I have to credit the chuckles that Tom Stranger does get to Baldwin’s narration. Whether playing the taciturn Tom Stranger, his helpless slacker sidekick, a smarmy business man, a manatee CPA, or himself (in a parallel universe where Baldwin's TV role as a “libertarian cowboy” led him to the Oval Office), Baldwin performs with an infectious sense of fun. Baldwin is an outspoken conservative in left coast Hollywood, and his and Correia’s regular jabs against leftist politics and the Obama administration are not so much vicious barbs as big lemon meringue pies to the face lobbed by self-professed clowns.

    As far as sci-fi satire audio dramas go this will not challenge the audio adaptations of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but with a run time of just over two hours (which is brisk as far as audio books go) and priced to move on Audible, it might be worth a listen if you are in the mindset for a bit of mindless fun.

    The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent is available on Audible.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Monday, July 4, 2016

    Patriotism--from the Left

    1632 by Eric Flint
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg

    It's not my intent for Nerds Who Read to be a political blog. But I wanted to review something for the Fourth of July that captures the essence of America, and these days it's not possible to do that without inviting controversy. So here goes...

    Author Eric Flint dislikes the notion of American Exceptionalism. In his blog, he described it as “A term which has no coherent meaning except for serving its proponents as a general purpose Get Out Of Jail Free card. ‘It’s not America’s fault if we did X, Y, or Z. We’re exceptional. Rules don’t apply to us.’”

    So perhaps he will take umbrage when I say that his alternative history novel 1632 is one of the finest tributes to American Exceptionalism in print. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.

    1632 is the story of Grantville, West Virginia, which instantly and without warning is ever-so-gently ripped from the American heartland—and the present day—and relocated with all its people, buildings, and infrastructure intact to Thuringia, Germany—four hundred years in the past. The cause of this remarkable transposition—named the “Ring of Fire” because of the flash of light that accompanies it—is aliens, but that’s only mentioned in passing and isn’t important to the story. What is important is how the inhabitants of this all-American burg adapt to their new surroundings.

    They are dangerous surroundings. The Thirty Years War is in full swing and bands of mercenaries roam the countryside, pillaging what they can carry, burning what they can’t, and brutally raping any young woman who has the tragic misfortune to cross their path. It’s a world where the plague can attack at any time, anti-Semitism is par-for-the-course, and kings and nobles do as they please by Divine Right, while their subjects have no rights to speak of. Against this backdrop, the Americans must secure a food supply, keep their technology running, establish a government, and face down the combined military might of Europe's Catholic powers.

    There’s debate among the townspeople how to proceed. Some want to seal the town off and ration its limited resources. But the overwhelming majority, led by Mike Stearns, head of the town's United Mine Workers local, feels that closed borders isn’t the American way. Give me your tired, your poor, etc. When told, “This isn’t America, you stupid idiot,” Stearns replies, “It will be, you gutless jackass….I say we start the American Revolution—a hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule!

    When America is juxtaposed side-by-side with traditional European society, it’s hard not to appreciate American Exceptionalism. By "exceptional," I don’t mean, as Flint puts it, that America should get exceptions from the rules; frankly, that's a straw man. Like most people who speak of American Exceptionalism, I simply mean that America is different—in a good way—and that it behooves us, therefore, to understand, cherish, and preserve the things that make it different. Through most of world history, not just the seventeenth century, rapine and famine, tyranny and plague were the norm. America changed all that. The difference isn’t merely one of technology, although that plays a part in 1632, making for some incredibly fun (and well-written) battles. More important are differences in institutions and rights, attitudes toward education, and, above all, character. In 1632, a Scottish mercenary who allies with Grantville early on has an opportunity to observe the unique American character at close quarters. The way he sees it, America is, “a nation of commoners…each of which thought like a nobleman…He had never encountered such confident people in his life, and confidence is the most contagious of all diseases.”

    Eric Flint is an unapologetic Leftist. He came to writing late in life, after a career as a union activist. According to Wikipedia, he also “worked as a member of the Socialist Workers Party.” His early career is evident in his writing. CEOs of large corporations do not fare well in his hands. Small businessmen and middle managers might grudgingly get a spot at the table with the good guys, but the real heroes of 1632 are unionized coal miners and teachers. As Flint explains in an afterward, one aspect of modern fiction of which he is “more than a little sick and tired” is that “the common folk who built this country and keep it running—blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, and the like—hardly ever appear.” Nor is it an accident that the schoolteachers in the novel are public school teachers. “Public schools…remain the principal forges of America’s youth. Let others whine about their shortcomings and faults, I will not. You can have your damned playing fields of Eton, and all the other varieties of that exclusionary ‘vision.’ I’ll stick with the democratic and plebeian methods which built the American republic, thank you.” Since I am a product of those democratic and plebeian methods, this struck a chord with me.

    I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being unfair if I said that "America, yay" has not been the slogan of the Left for some decades now. Dylan Matthews’ Independence Day rant, “3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake,” is typical: the United States is nothing more than a nation that enslaved blacks and persecuted Native Americans, without benefiting from the “efficiency of parliamentary systems” to raise taxes and spend more. The world in general and North America in particular would have been better off if the colonists had just turned in their muskets and paid the tax on tea (You know, I’m NOT making this up!).

    Flint's worldview hearkens back to an earlier era of the American Left. And while it sometimes seems dated (who refers to feminism as "women's lib" anymore?), it is unabashedly patriotic. Like Howard Fast, in his novel The Crossing, Flint portrays George Washington as a hero, and after all, what better role model for a card-carrying Leftist than a revolutionary? While many of Flint’s political fellow travelers diss the Bill of Rights as the creation of “dead, white, slaveholding males,” Mike Stearns and company make it the cornerstone of their “new” republic: one of the few requirements of citizenship is to hear it recited. While the private sector doesn't seem to exist in the minds of today's Leftists, it saves the citizens of Grantville: Food turns out to be far less of a problem than expected, and one reason for that is trade. The other is hunting, which brings me to...

    Guns. It seems like everyone in Grantsville has at least one. The town is an arsenal of hunting rifles, automatic pistols, and sawed-off shotguns. One Vietnam vet even has an M60 machine gun that he liberated upon his discharge from the military. “I figured the Army owed me,” he explains. The head cheerleader, who trained to be an Olympic biathlete, turns out to be a coldly efficient and deadly sniper. I’m not sure how Flint feels about civilians owning guns in the twenty-first century, but it was a damn good thing the citizens of Grantville had them in the seventeenth: badly outnumbered in all of their battles, their most significant tactical advantage lay in rate of fire.

    A good novel of ideas must be, first and foremost, a good novel, and that means developing characters who are interesting enough that the reader cares what happens to them. Flint delivers. In my humble opinion, the most compelling characters in the book are not the native-born Americans, good as they are, but rather the immigrants—the characters who, like my own grandparents, had experienced the horrors of Europe and were therefore able to truly appreciate the greatness of America—once they got over their culture shock and came to understand what America was all about. Notable among these characters is Gretchen, the daughter of a German printer who was captured by mercenaries and forced to be their captain’s “concubine” until she was liberated by the Americans. “A steel angel, forged in the Devil’s inferno,” she managed, through sheer force of will, to take care of a baby, a younger sister, a grandmother, and a growing “family” of strays during her captivity. Another notable character: the Jewish philosopher/physician/banker/spy Balthazar Abrabanel, who had been in the audience at the Globe Theater for the premieres of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello and knew for a fact that Shakespeare didn’t write them. As for Balthazar’s beautiful daughter Rebecca, she is without doubt the brains behind the new American government.

    1632 was published sixteen years ago. Since then Flint and his collaborators have created an entire Ring of Fire industry, with numerous threads, sequels, and anthologies of short stories. I look forward to getting started on them and learning the further adventures of Gretchen, Balthazar, Rebecca and the other citizens of the United States—Thuringia branch. I hope they will continue to remind us how America is a force for good in the world.

    Michael Isenberg is senior editor of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a novel about the American character. And hospital gowns. Check it out on Amazon.com.