Sleeps With Monsters: Mass Effect and the Normalisation of the Woman Hero

Let’s get something out of the way before we start. The Mass Effect franchise ending? IT DOES NOT EXIST AND WE SHALL NEVER SPEAK OF IT AGAIN. Somewhere in an alternate universe, Garrus and Tali are having cocktails on a beach, while Jack teaches junior biotics how to swear, is all I’m saying.*

*Other people like Chuck Wendig and Brit Mandelo have had things to say about Bioware’s failure to stick the dismount of an otherwise brilliantly-written RPG series. So let’s leave it there.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is how — provided one plays as Commander Jane rather than Commander John — the Mass Effect series normalises the idea of the Woman Hero.

[I was an archaeologist. I know what I]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Journey to Planet JoCo: “Redshirt”

Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.

Today John reveals Jonathan’s new song, “Redshirt (the theme from the novel Redshirts)”! Inspired, as the title says, by John Scalzi’s newest novel Redshirts, which is out next week, June 5th.

Below, John talks to Jonathan about  “Redshirt.” Audio, chat transcript, Scalzi-style karaoke, Jonathan Coulton being badass on Brooklyn streets, and shenanigans included.

To reiterate one final time: Every morning for the past two weeks, John has talked to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth — and possibly out of his depth — about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? Check out the index to see. It’s a hell of a tracklist!

[Read more]

Series: Journey to Planet JoCo

Fiction Affliction: June Releases in Fantasy

Thieves and assassins, plots and intrigue—it must be fantasy just in time for summer. Twelve new titles release in June, including sophomore series books from Erin Hunter (Seekers: Return to the Wild); Douglas Hulick (Tales of the Kin); Lee Roland (Earth Witches); N.K. Jemisin (Dreamblood); and James Maxey (Dragon Apocalypse).

Fiction Affliction details releases in science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and “genre-benders.” Keep track of them all here.

[Read about June releases in fantasy.]

On Our Radar: Captain America’s Real Missing Avengers Scene

Many of us were sad not to see the reunion between Captain America and Peggy that was deleted in The Avengers. While the DVD and Blu-Ray release is promising us all the goodness that we missed out on, here’s another possibility to keep you going in the interim — a time traveling (friendly) alien showed up before the battle and hand-delivered a letter from Cap to Peggy in the past. At least she knew that he was sorry for missing their date. We’re just gonna go sob in the corner for a while.

(Via so comic.)


Stubby the Rocket is the Tor.com mascot. Stubby signs all of its letters with a ♦. (That means “rocket kisses.”)

The Great Alan Moore Reread: A Small Killing

Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 31th installment.

Now this is something special. A European-style graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Oscar Zarate that looks like something that would be heralded as an astonishingly fresh work of comic book narrative if it debuted at the MoCCA Festival or the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival in 2012. But it’s a book that’s over 20 years old.

A Small Killing, 96 pages of pain and (self) punishment, trapped in vibrant colors.

[Read more]

Series: The Great Alan Moore Reread

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: They’re Acting Like A Bunch of Us!

Here’s a combination that’s emblematic of the whole Buffyverse: a fresh grave and SAT prep. Giles is grilling Buffy. It seems like just minutes ago she was taking make-up exams for her junior year material, but now they’re waiting on a disposable vamp who, predictably, shows, growls, attacks and then goes poof. School and slayage, business as usual on the Hellmouth.

[Read more]

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tor.com

Men in Black Was Once the Coolest Thing

It’s all too easy to forget how funny science fiction can be when given the chance.

That’s partly because science fiction is often used to convey deep and thoughtful analysis on humanity and the world we occupy, but additionally there is simply less outright science fiction comedy. Perhaps it’s also because sci-fi comedy can easily descend into pure parody and cease to be funny at all. The second Men in Black film made that vital error, and we’re all understandably nervous about part III. But while it’s not the greatest science fiction comedy film ever created (that award goes to Galaxy Quest, hands down) when Men in Black was first released, it was the only game in town. And people loved it.

[Did you ever flashy thing me?]

Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 9: “Blackwater”

Wow.

Tonight on a stellar episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Stannis and his fleet got the worst sort of welcome at King’s Landing. In an episode written by George R.R. Martin and directed by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) you can bet there was a ton of epic violence. Really epic. Still, the only thing worse than being cooked alive by wildfire is being locked in a room with a drunk Cersei.

Warning: Episode reviews contain episode and book spoilers. If you want to remain spoiler-free, follow Leigh Butler’s read of ASOIaF. Tor.com is not liable for your further enjoyment of the series if later books get spoiled in the comments.

[Read more]

Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones

A Read of The Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles Wizard and Glass, Susan, Chapter 4: “Long After Moonset”

“Cast your nets, wanderers! Try me with your questions, and let the contest begin.”

—Blaine the Mono, to Roland and the Ka-Tet, at the end of The Waste Lands

Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time. If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here.

When we last left the flashback ka-tet of Roland, Cuthbert, and Alain, they appeared to be in Mejis, far from Gilead, and traveling under assumed names. Roland, aka Will Dearborn, had met Susan Delgado on the road late at night as she returned to the village after being proven “onest” by the witch Rhea, and the two had fallen into immediate hormonal infatuation.

[Read more]

Series: A Read of The Dark Tower

Journey to Planet JoCo: Artificial Heart

Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.

Every morning at 9 AM from now to May 29, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth — and possibly out of his depth — about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!

Today John talks to Jon about John’s new album Artificial Heart. Audio and the chat transcript are below.

[Read more]

Series: Journey to Planet JoCo

Morning Roundup: Dragon Capsule Docks, Thor to Play Texas Hold ‘Em

The big news from the last few days includes the revelation that Thor’s next nemesis will be none other than Mads Mikkelsen; famous for playing Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Will Thor have to play poker against this guy?

The other big news is that the private space flight company SpaceX docked with the International Space Station on Friday. The rest of your offsite links aren’t quite as historic

Highlights include:

  1. More news on the Dragon capsule
  2. Things that look like the TARDIS
  3. Sookie’s end is coming…

[Read more]

3 Quick Ways to Introduce Yourself to the Work of Harlan Ellison

Today is the 78th birthday of speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison. Known to even the most casual fans of the field of SF, Ellison is a giant figure, with a reputation for being as original, eccentric, and explosive as his writing. With Hugos, Nebulas, Screenwriters Guild Awards and so forth coming out of his ears, Ellison has racked up more accomplishments than most writers in any field will ever come close to achieving.

But maybe you’re a newcomer to the world of SF and you’re not quite sure where Harlan Ellison fits in. Perhaps you’re more familiar with the reputation than the work. How should you approach the oeuvre of Ellison without being overwhelmed? Today, on his birthday, I’d like to give Ellison newcomers three different ways to approach his work, which will instantly help you to understand his importance, and probably turn you into a fan.

[Read more]

Journey To Planet JoCo: “Want You Gone”

Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.

Every morning at 9 AM from now to May 29, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth — and possibly out of his depth — about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!

Today John talks to Jon about “Want You Gone.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.

[Read more]

Series: Journey to Planet JoCo

Journey to Planet JoCo: “I Crush Everything”

Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.

Every morning at 9 AM from now to May 29, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth — and possibly out of his depth — about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!

Today John talks to Jon about “I Crush Everything.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.

[Read more]

Series: Journey to Planet JoCo

Picking Up After Intergalactic Daytrippers: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Most stories of alien-human first contact are founded on the underlying assumption that aliens will actually find the human race interesting enough to engage with. In the worst case (very popular in the largely moribund, overblown genre that is American SF “blockbuster” action film these days), that engagement is military in nature — the aliens in these scenarios having apparently decided that blowing us up is worth expending materiel on before they get on with the rest of their nefarious plans for Earth. In the best case, the aliens are friendly and free communication results in good for everyone, thanks to “courageous and dedicated spacemen,” as Ursula K. Le Guin says in her introduction to the new edition of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.

This assumption is automatically paired with another: that the aliens can communicate at all with humans in a mutually comprehensible fashion. But what if, as Stanislaw Lem imagines in his masterpiece Solaris, the alien beings (or being) is so far removed from human experience as to render any attempts at communication meaningless? Or what if the aliens simply come and go, without even so much as noticing us?

[Read more]

Such is the scenario in the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic. Several years have passed since “The Visit,” when aliens (deduced from certain calculations as having originated somewhere in the region of Deneb) landed briefly on six sites across the Earth, and just as quickly moved on again. The visitation sites, or “zones,” are strange, blasted landscapes, filled with dangerous, invisible traps — “graviconcentrates” or “bug traps” that crush the unwary, and “grinders” that wring out their hapless victims like a wet rag — and with peculiar artifacts and treasures that are worth a lot of money to the right buyer. But the towns near the zones have become blighted — corpses reanimate from time to time, and the children of those who spend much time in the zones suffer terrible mutations.

While many would like to attribute a purpose to the aliens whose visit created the zones, at least one scientist doesn’t see it that way. He posits that the aliens are akin to a group of daytrippers who, after stopping for a picnic, have left a pile of refuse by the side of the road: “an oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about.” Humans, he argues, have no more comprehension of the alien detritus than a bird or a rabbit would of an empty food tin. 

When we first meet our main anti-hero Red Schuhart, he’s a laboratory assistant at the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures in Harmont, a town that seems to be somewhere in an industrial area of North America, and which is right next to a zone. The IIEC has been established to study the zones, and as a sideline to his day job with them, Red is a “stalker,” a man who has learned how to navigate the zone and bring back its treasures for sale on the black market. 

To be a stalker is to be a criminal; it seems at first as if Red might be able to work legitimately with the IIEC, but after a trip into the zone with his scientist friend Kirill goes bad, Red soon finds himself in the classic position of the career criminal who is always hoping for the big score, the rich strike that will allow him quit and to take care of his wife Guta and his mutant daughter known as the Monkey. There is a legend amongst the stalkers of a “Golden Sphere,” an artifact within the zone that will grant any wish — and one day, whether Red wants to or not, he’s going to have to go looking for it. And the wish he brings to it may even surprise him.

The Strugatskys’ novel had a contorted and convoluted publishing history in the Soviet era, described in detail by Boris Strugatsky in his afterword. The authors struggled less with government censorship in the traditional sense as with an institutional objection to “coarse” language, anything deemed to reflect “crude, observable, and brutal reality.” The resulting text was, to say the least, deeply unsatisfying; this new edition, translated by Olena Bormashenko is fully restored to the authors’ original text. I’ve read one other translation, by Antonina W. Bouis, and while I admit the original Russian is beyond me, the new translation seems to convey the original’s spirit more accurately. The language is more original, the phrasings and word choices less awkward.

Roadside Picnic is famous not only in its own right, of course, but also as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. It’s one one of those polarizing movies — either you fall asleep out of sheer boredom half an hour in, or you’re mesmerized for the entire 163 minutes, start to finish, and find yourself obsessed with its bad-dream imagery and Slavic existentialism for ages afterward. It’s an iconic film and cannot help but loom large over the novel that inspired it — so much so that the cover of Roadside Picnic is one of the unforgettable images from the film — its three main characters standing in a room lit with a cold white light and filled with humps of white sand.

But Roadside Picnic is a rather different animal from Stalker. Tarkovsky only hinted at the zone’s dangers and wonders through suggestion, the reactions of his actors, and meticulous, vivid cinematography. We see the Stalker throwing metal nuts down a path to determine the safest way, just was Red does in Roadside Picnic, but Tarkovsky never quite spells out what he’s looking for or trying to avoid. We just know from his expression and the way he talks to the Writer and the Scientist that it must be very bad indeed. The science fiction is more explicit in Roadside Picnic — the nuts, it turns out, reveal the locations of the “bug traps” — though the sense of dread is no less.

Still, even though Stalker and Roadside Picnic go about their stories in different ways — the former an epic tone-poem of human desire and strife, the latter something more like a heist novel — they both circle around a powerful metaphysical longing, a yearning to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. The Room of Stalker and the Golden Sphere of Roadside Picnic offer a kind of hope, a vain one perhaps, that Red Schuhart’s final, desperate plea might one day be answered — and suggest that this hope is what continues to propel the human race forward, against the universe’s indifference:

Look into my soul, I know — everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want — because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his — HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!


Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX, and falls into the “obsessed” camp re: Stalker. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

You Should Run Your Next Fantasy Game in The World of Darkness

The World of Darkness is largely famous for the game Vampire: The Masquerade, but I think that is just the tip of the iceberg, a mere glimmer of potential. White Wolf, the company who publishes the World of Darkness, rebooted the setting to be more open ended and cogent, as well as more mathematically feasible — there were persistent statistical anomalies in the so-called “Old World of Darkness” that the “New World of Darkness” fixed. The company tried new paradigms of RPG publishing, pushing both core products and a range of limited series, allowing small ideas room to flourish without requiring that they continue in a “publish or perish” fashion. A really nice idea…but all this is beside the point. Despite the fact that the World of Darkness is ostensibly a modern setting populated with an urban horror edge, I think the framework of the system is great when adapted to running a fantasy game. I use the World of Darkness’ Storytelling System as the mechanics for my fantasy roleplaying campaign, and you should too.

[Read why]

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: Fourth Season Overview

Star Trek: The Next Generation Fourth Season
Original air dates: September 1990 – June 1991
Executive Producer: Gene Roddenberry
Co-Executive Producers: Rick Berman & Michael Piller

Captain’s Log: The early part of the fourth season seemed to be embracing the theme embodied by the title of the season’s second episode: “Family.” In that episode alone, we are introduced to Picard’s brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, Worf’s human parents, and Crusher’s dead husband/Wes’s father in holographic form. That’s followed by Data’s brother and father (“Brothers“), Yar’s sister (“Legacy“), Worf’s son (“Reunion“), Riker’s wife and son (sorta-kinda, “Future Imperfect“), and O’Brien’s fiancée-then-wife (“Data’s Day“), plus episodes dealing with fatherhood (“Suddenly Human“), the crew as family (“Remember Me“), and the departure of a member of that family (“Final Mission“).

[…we are family…]

Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

A Read of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings, Part 20

Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.

Today’s entry is Part 20 of A Clash of Kings, in which we cover Chapters 42 (“Davos”) and 43 (“Jon”).

Previous entries are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual chapters covered and for the chapters previous to them. As for the comments, The Powers That Be at Tor.com have very kindly set up a forum thread for spoilery comments. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.

And now, the post!

[With Hecate]

Series: A Read of Ice and Fire