Review: Joe McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time

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Check out some new, thoughtful scifi on the outer rim.

Review: Joe McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time

By David Simms

Tor Books 272pp
TPB/Kindle editions
ISBN-10: 076539281X
ISBN-13: 978-0765392817

The deepest parts of space. The places where soldiers are sent to die, to wither, to watch their own souls fold in on themselves from the despair of lives tossed away by a civilization that has closed its mind off from a forgotten war. This is the place where they have sent Ensign Ronaldo Aldo, a newbie from the academy, where he can live with the awful sin he has committed.

Joe McDermott has penned a tale that is difficult to categorize. True, it has some of the tenants of classic space opera and hard science fiction, but The Fortress at the End of Time shuns both labels in its story, for the most part. Sure, drama exists and those who live on the dilapidated station fight through horrid conditions, both literally and with themselves, but the true conflicts comes from a deeper place. Though marketed as “hard” the science does not overwhelm and takes a backseat to the characters. What can readers expect? Existential scifi applies, yet the inward journey here delves more into the psychology of the young ensign and the dead end, both physically and metaphorically.

McDermott spins a different sort of story that is a confessional, conversational in manner, and a far cry from the typical action-filled military science fiction it has been lumped in with. The prose pours from the ensign’s voice as if he has been resigned to his fate and nearly sings his own dirge. What results is a mostly easy read, one with pages flowing and thoughts cracking. Continue reading…

The Story Doctor is (In):Thakrar’s “The Mango Tree”

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The Story Doctor is back to tell us why The Mango Tree’s magic works so very well on us.

The Story Doctor is (In):Thakrar’s “The Mango Tree”

by James Patrick Kelly

I’m wondering how many of you paused in your reading “The Mango Tree” to look up some of the Hindi words. Did you know that a sadhu is an ascetic holy man? That the nakshatdras are the lunar zodiac of Vedic Astrology? Perhaps you stumbled over this sentence?

Whether it was a nightly cup of warm turmeric doodh for inflammation, a regimen of ashwagandha and pranayama breathing for depression, or sweetened coriander paste taken internally for excessive menstrual bleeding, Baa and Dadaji always had a prescription ready to dole out.

For those of us who are spice-challenged and can barely tell the difference between salt and pepper, envisioning turmeric (a herbaceous plant of the ginger family) or coriander (also known as cilantro) might have been challenge enough. But doodh? A tea beverage. Ashwagandha? A powerful herb in Ayurvedic healing. Pranayama? Breath control.

I bring this up not to criticize but rather to point out how Shveta has finessed what might have been a problem for her readers. Because I never once felt compelled to look up any of the Hindi phrases she sprinkles throughout her story. Sure, I knew some of the words, but there were many others that were new to me. Nevertheless, I read along without a stop, caught up by the skillful telling. Does that make me a lazy reader?

Nope! Continue reading…

Game Review: Have You Met My New Birdie? He’s a Lawyer by Rachael Acks

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Rachael is back again to amuse us all with zir adventures. This time we assigned zir the game Aviary Attorney (to continue the theme we started with Hatoful Boyfriend) and giggled behind our hands. Check out Rachael’s take and then, in the spirit of MZ, try out this fun game.

Game Review: Have You Met My New Birdie? He’s a Lawyer

by Rachael Acks

Paris is on the brink of revolution—when is it not—and there’s been a murder most fowl. A hapless society kitten stands accused with blood on her paws. And the right bird for the job is… not available, so it looks like you’ll be defending her instead. Good luck.

You might just be playing Aviary Attorney.

Like the game Hatoful Boyfriend, you could describe Aviary Attorney as “game type X, but with birds.” Dating game with birds, meet Ace Attorney with birds. And wolves, and foxes, and various felines, and a rabbit as the world’s worst prosecutor—he’s got no killer instinct, you know. There’s significantly less pudding in Aviary Attorney than Hatoful Boyfriend, with all that empty space filled by an array of puns, political class jokes, and plays on French language.

But boy, does it get dark. Crying over my fictional pigeon boyfriend did not even prepare me for the journey Aviary Attorney took me on. Maybe I should have known, considering the setting is a fictional 1848 Paris that stands on the brink of explosive mob violence, and the main character JayJay Falcon is an attorney who defends those accused of murder. In the first chapter, you defend a cat accused of gutting a frog over her father’s business interests. In the second, it’s a fox who’s accused of attempting to assassinate the king—an extremely dumb penguin who would be endearing if he weren’t so infuriatingly privileged that it makes you want to haul out Madame Guillotine yourself—and accidentally murdered his guard captain instead. And in the third chapter? The bird shit hits the fan. You’re assigned to track down a mysterious arms dealer who supplies the revolutionaries. You’ll end up only wishing it was that simple.

That all sounds really serious, right? And it is. When you’re looking at the spooky backgrounds of the crypts under Paris and spying on a lioness casually talking about torturing someone? Boy is it. But it’s also sublimely ridiculous.

Lasting Fiction Review: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl by Karen Bovenmyer

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Lasting Fiction Review: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl

by Karen Bovenmyer

Lasting fiction, or books on the New York Times bestseller with staying power, teach the reader specialist knowledge they would have not otherwise have access too. This issue, I’d like to take a close look at Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and Campbell Memorial awards. Named one of the best novels of the year by Time, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and the American Library Association, this book builds a clear vision in visceral strokes, well rendered characters, and asks those questions science fiction most wishes to explore.

Bacigalupi majored in Asian studies and traveled extensively in southeast Asia. After a close encounter with SARS in Bangkok trapped him in the sweltering city for days waiting for a flight out, he was inspired to explore those confined and hopeless feelings through fiction. He returned to Thailand specifically to research The Windup Girl, and the sense that this author truly understands Thai culture, politics, and society is evident throughout this novel. Continue reading…

Interview: Finder’s Carla Speed McNeil by Adam Gallardo

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Interview: Finder’s Carla Speed McNeil

by Adam Gallardo

Described as “aboriginal science fiction” when it was first released in 1996, Finder is the brain child of cartoonist Carla Speed McNeil. The comic is set in a world which may be our own in the far future, or it may be something else entirely. Regardless, the landscape is vast enough to encompass all manner of stories and a large cast of characters. The series has long been recognized as one of the best ongoing comics currently being published and has won several awards, including an Eisner, two Ignatz, and the Russ Manning Manning Award. In addition, the book has received praise from a number of comics luminaries including Jeff Smith, and Warren Ellis who calls the series “completely fascinating.”

Finder was self-published by McNeil’s own Lightspeed Press for thirty-eight issues before moving to a web-only comic. Eventually, Dark Horse Comics began publishing new material as well as collecting all the previous issues. The publisher is currently serializing the latest Finder story in their monthly anthology, Dark Horse Presents.

McNeil was gracious enough to let me email questions to her. The body of our discussions follows. Continue reading…

Movie Review: There Is No “I” in Lazer Team by Rachael Acks

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Author Rachael Acks once again inflicts movies of unknown quality on zirself, much to our delight.

Movie Review: There Is No “I” in Lazer Team

by Rachael Acks

Lazer Team is the first feature length, theatrical release film by Rooster Teeth. Whether that company name rings any alien invasion klaxons depends on if you’re in the part of the nerdosphere that adores their Halo-related Red vs. Blue series, American anime RWBY, or various Let’s Plays and video game-related streaming video. Rooster Teeth has a loyal and active fanbase which contributed significantly to the production of Lazer Team to the tune of almost $2.5 million on an IndieGoGo crowd funding project.

I’ve given various Rooster Teeth products a try and found that I’m definitely not the target audience—my dudebro quotient is probably on par with the average quiche—but hey, they made a movie? I like movies. I mention all of this as fair warning that while I did my level best to watch this movie with an open mind, I walked into the extremely guy-heavy theater with a sneaking suspicion that I might not be the target audience for this one either. Continue reading…

Lasting Fiction: China Miéville’s The City and the City by Karen Bovenmyer

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Lasting fiction teaches the reader something, demands hyper reality, and is populated with realistic and believable characters.  

Lasting Fiction: China Miéville’s
The City and the City

by Karen Bovenmyer

China Miéville fulfills my MFA professor Liz Hand’s observation that bestselling and award-winning fiction “teaches” the reader. Miéville, in addition to being a lifelong native of London, studied anthropology in Zimbabwe and Egypt. His Ph.D. in International Relations was earned in 2005 with the publication of Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law: He’s a socialist who has run for office. I mention these points because they’re all relevant to The City and the City, an intensely realized and vivid setting that explores two cities existing in the same place at the same time—with layers and levels on top of and interwoven between each other. As a Londoner, Miéville is intimate with the socio-cultural atmosphere of cities, as a traveler in Europe and Africa, he encountered first-hand how different and yet similar these can be. In The City and the City, we see two cities of mixed peoples with distinct cultures interlaced. We might guess Miéville has noticed similar interlacing in the very real cities of his experience and internalized these observations. It is said “write what you know” and in Miéville’s masterful hands the reader can share Miéville’s experience. Continue reading…

A New Hope by Rachael Acks

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FYI: SPOILER ALERT! Rachael returns to review Star Wars: The Force Awakens for us–and also make me cry, but that could be my residual feels from watching the film. I hope you enjoy Rachael’s nuanced review–it gave me a lot more to think about than my impulse “WOO HOO YAY SO HAPPY” reaction and the fact that I, like most kids in the 1970s, could do nothing for the entire weekend before Christmas except ask my mom over and over if we could go and see it again. –Karen Bovenmyer, Nonfiction Editor

A New Hope

by Rachael Acks

Great news, everyone—Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t suck! In fact, it’s pretty damn fun. This is a difficult movie to review objectively because the prequel trilogy was just so soul-destroyingly bad. They set the bar so low that the new film just had to not spit in our collective popcorn to pass with flying colors. But not only was there no Bantha saliva in my snacks, I came out of the theater feeling excited and hopeful for the next film.

In The Force Awakens, the Empire, which is now run by Gollum (actually named Snoke, played by Andy Serkis) has (sort of?) been replaced by the First Order. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith Lord with both daddy and impulse-control issues, leads the First Order in the hunt for Luke Skywalker. The Resistance, which is kind of the Republic but somehow not and is basically a rebranded Rebel Alliance, is also looking for Luke. General Leia Organa (I will never get tired of typing that) sends her best pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to the planet Jakku. There he picks up a Storm Trooper named Finn (John Boyega) who wants to escape the civilian-murdering life. Finn allies with Rey (Daisy Ridley) to get Poe’s droid, BB-8—who is impossibly even more adorable than R2-D2—to the Resistance. They escape Jakku in the Millennium Falcon, inevitably reunite the old girl with Han and Chewie, and the film rolls on from there, with spaceship battles, lightsabers, and an even bigger planet-destroying weapon because apparently the Empire—sorry, the First Order—only has one idea.

The Force Awakens is at its best when it trusts in its feelings and lets go of the original trilogy long enough to be its own story. The cast is excellent. The actors from the original trilogy—Fisher, Ford, Mayhew and the little you get to see of Mark Hamill—are everything you could have hoped. Leia and Han bicker like an old married couple and deftly invite us into their unfortunately no-longer-private heartbreak. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac as Rey, Finn, and Poe make an even more compelling trio than Luke, Leia, and Han did. Driver plays a convincing villain who is terrifying because he’s anything but suave and in control; he’s flailing for legitimacy and about to go the full Caligula, though with (I fervently hope) less incest and more lightsaber. BB-8 represents the droid contingent solidly, taking a place as one of the most empathetic characters in the movie. The cast plays in a colorful world that’s chock full of practical effects, puppets, and background actors in full creature makeup rather than the eye-gouging CGI that characterized episodes I-III.

It’s when the plot and the slavish devotion to the original trilogy get in the way of these larger-than-life characters that The Force Awakens hits the rocks. This film is tied strongly to episodes IV, V, and VI, and that’s both blessing and curse. When you see the little details, like the shot of Finn going down into the gun well of the Millennium Falcon and you can feel the echo of Luke doing the same? It’s wonderful. When the Empire’s plan to rule the galaxy is literally the same fucking plan that they had in the last three movies, it’s a lot less charming. I can only surmise that there’s some engineer living in Emperor Gollum’s closet, whose only function is to pop out and say yes sir, but what about an even bigger laser that can blow up a whole galaxy? What about time itself? And then presumably J. J. Abrams pulls off his mask and reveals he was Russell T. Davies all along.

There are also some profound issues during the second act, when the movie attempts to pull all the disparate plot elements together for the third act climactic battle. Rey runs off not because it meets any kind of narrative logic, but because she needs to be alone in order for the next plot point to occur. The Death Star Supreme With Extra Cheese destroys several planets we’ve never heard of for…reasons, presumably. And these planets are conveniently located in such a place that the heroes can witness the destruction because. Uh. Other reasons.

These plot issues and the regurgitation of the original trilogy into a new film fill me with concern more than hope. J. J. Abrams’s previous science fiction effort, the new Star Trek, had many of the same problems in its first installment. I came out hoping that it would make a clean break and come into its own in the next film, Star Trek Into Darkness. I’m sure if you’ve seen that movie, you’re shaking your head, or possibly throwing something across the room. So while I have hope for Episode VIII and its strong cast, I’m also worried.

What struck me the hardest in The Force Awakens, though, were the casting decisions. The Force Awakens gives us General Leia Organa (still not tired of typing that), and Rey as the obvious inheritor of the Jedi tradition. But women also undeniably exist in secondary spaces, not as slaves and eye candy, but presented as if they belong there of course. Captain Phasma runs her division without needing boob armor, thank you very much. A female X-wing pilot, Jess Testor, exists and doesn’t die, but is seen celebrating with the rest of her squadron later. Finn, a man of color, has the best character arc in the film and exemplifies the quality of loyalty. Poe, played by a Latino, is the best pilot of the Resistance. These details may seem small, but they aren’t. The galaxy far, far away is bigger than ever before, and more welcoming. On the way out of my viewing of the movie, I saw one little girl dressed as Princess Leia, and another as Rey.

And that’s the real reason I came out of this movie feeling hope.

Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. In addition to a steampunk mystery novella series, she’s had short stories in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more. She’s also written six episodes for Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bikes, drinks tea, and twirls her ever so dapper mustache) with her two furry little bastards. For more information, see her website ( or watch her tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.

Hatoful Boyfriend Is the Greatest Pigeon Dating Sim in the History of Human and/or Bird Existence by Sunil Patel

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Sunil, Mur, and I share an ongoing “editorial e-chat” and I’ve been hearing about my fellow Associate Editor’s deep enjoyment of this video game for quite a while. As you might imagine, working with Mur and Sunil is a blast (our non-editorial squeeing over the fun and uplifting things in our lives is as enjoyable as our Mothership Zeta work) and I’m glad he agreed to share how much he loves Hatoful Boyfriend with you. Thanks, Sunil! –Karen Bovenmyer, Nonfiction Associate Editor

Hatoful Boyfriend Is the Greatest Pigeon Dating Sim in the History of Human and/or Bird Existence

by Sunil Patel

Imagine you’re a teenage Japanese girl.

This may be easier for some of you than it is for others.

Imagine it’s your first day at a new school. Imagine you’re excited for everything the coming year holds for you, from track meets and student council to cultural festivals and summer jobs.

Now imagine everyone but you is a bird. A literal bird. A fantail pigeon. A rock dove. A chukar partridge. A button quail.

Which bird will steal your heart? Library bird? Sports bird? Best friend bird? Can you, a human girl, find true romance with a bird?


You may think I am describing the stupidest thing ever, but Hatoful Boyfriend is the most fun I’ve had playing a video game in a long time. It’s not a game in the traditional sense but a visual novel you navigate with your choices, which determine which of the multiple endings you get. And because each iteration of the game takes only half an hour, you’ll want to play over and over, making different choices as you pursue a different romantic interest.

Continue reading…