Building Worlds with Cello Strings: A Review of Unwoman’s Circling

August 25, 2014

circlingThe new album from cellist/singer/songwriter, Unwoman, was released late last month. I got it a few weeks early for backing the Kickstarter, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since the download showed up in my inbox. A few months earlier I wrote a piece plugging the album’s Kickstarter campaign. I had a lot to say about the qualities that make Unwoman (Erica Mulkey) a quintessential steampunk artist, transcending the purely aesthetic trappings of the genre.

The things I wrote about Unwoman then (anachronisms juxtaposed with the DIY ethos of the digital music landscape) continue to apply to her latest record, Circling. However, something I was trying to do in that piece was to define steampunk music in a way that was distinct from, yet consistent with, steampunk literature. Ironically, after many repeat listenings of Circling, I am struck by how much of the power of Unwoman’s music can be located in her talent for storytelling.

Ok, maybe storytelling isn’t exactly the right word – it implies a beginning, middle, and end, flowing along something resembling a linear narrative. As the album title suggests, Unwoman is rarely interested in the resolution, but instead focuses on characters caught in those tantalizing circles of uncertainty.

Take, for example, the hypnotically baroque “I could have killed the king.” The song takes the point of view of a would be assassin, who instead of murdering the king, has become his mistress. The lyrics take the form of the protagonist’s internal struggle to reconcile the promise of a life of leisure with her compromised values: “but our hope that this kingdom / could have been all of ours seems a delusion / and to be a royal concubine may be my best option / he covers me with kisses, tells me what a lucky girl I am / to use my only power to destroy / or to be power’s toy.”

In contrast to Unwoman’s previous record, The Fires I started, which was characterized by abrupt percussive anthems, the compositions on Circling tend towards winding melodies that rise and fall, echoing the protagonists’ indecisive and often paradoxical dilemmas. The result is a tangible sense not only of character, but also setting and atmosphere. So rather than storytelling, let’s call it world building, not a perfect description of what Unwoman does, but I think it captures much of the effect. No matter how finite the space of the song, we get glimpses and suggestions of the larger world its subjects inhabit, and we are compelled to continue building on those glimpses long after each track has ended.

Unwoman seems to play with this idea herself in the lyrics of “In Pinks and Golds.” The song describes a performer locked in a metaphorical dance with a member of her audience, repeating it night after night. The performer, lonely in her sea of admirers, is trapped by her addiction to the spotlight, and her infatuation with the one audience member who does not lavish her with gifts and praise.

She addresses him in the song: “you know the stories behind my words / you know the stories behind my cues,” the lyrics themselves acknowledge that their words only describe a snapshot of the story contained within, and encourage the listener to search for the rest.

Sometimes only the slightest hint of a setting or a theme within a lyric is enough to imbue the compositions with the suggestion of a vivid fictional world. “Long, Long, Shadows,” evokes a bleakly beautiful landscape of a land of “sunlight” “echoes” and “regrets.” The only way I can describe it is as the theme song to my favorite western that’s never been made.

This quality of rich visual and emotional world building can be found in most of the songs on this record, to greater or lesser degrees, and explains why it stands up so well to many, many listenings. it’s one of the things Unwoman does best, but its far from the only thing she does well.

Another standout track that takes an altogether different approach is “Specimen.” This song, a scathing and personal critique of the male gaze, is more explicitly subversive than many of the tracks. Rather than using fictional characters, Unwoman addresses the audience directly, using taxidermy as a metaphor for the casual objectification of women in society. In a departure from the meandering aesthetic of the record, “Specimen” is written with a direct and incisive lyrical style that channels Eve Libertine of Crass, in all of its indignant glory.

You can download this record, and all of Unwoman’s others, here, but be warned, you won’t listen to much else once you do.

Some Not-Too Subtle Praise for The Bunker

June 25, 2014

bunker           My praise for Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari’s new Oni series, The Bunker is a bit overdue, but in another sense its right on time: Fialkov is poised to storm onto the creator owned scene in a big way. In addition to The Bunker he has another Oni series, The Life After, and a dynamite mini, The Devilers, both debuting in the next couple of months. Fialkov is an exciting writer whose stories are rich, complex, and character driven, and his enthusiasm for the medium clearly comes across in everything he writes. If you have been paying attention to the comic blogs lately, there’s been a lot of promotion for his upcoming series, but the question is why wait? He’s been writing one of the best creator-owned stories out there for the last six months!

So, what’s it all about? The Bunker exists in the intersection of a few different sub-genres, its an ensemble drama, a time-travel story, a political thriller, but the trope it leans on most heavily is the “would you kill Hitler?” moral quandary. It’s the Dead Zone conceit, the notion that if you could see some awful future coming, would you be willing to take drastic measures to prevent it, even if they might not be seen as heroic at the time?

The way this plays out in The Bunker is that a group of friends go into the woods to leave a time capsule for their future selves to reminisce about when they get back together years later. They discover that their future selves have beaten them to it, leaving personal letters and a trove of future media clippings, warning them of the dangerous future in which they are all intricately implicated. The trouble is that their personal letters all reveal different motivations and attitudes towards the impending events. To make matters worse, its their varied ambitions – political, social, scientific, etc. – that lead to their undoing. The characters are well drawn (in terms of Fialkov’s characterization and Infurnari’s expressive and moody illustrations). Our allegiances and sympathies are divided and constantly being reevaluated, and because of the asymmetric nature of the information from the future, the protagonists find themselves stuck in a deadly psychological against one another, as well as their future selves.

Where this story differs from other versions of the “would you kill Hitler?” trope, or any of the travel-to-the-past-to-change-the-future stories, is that there is no real single villain – at least not in the present timeline. Instead, each character has the potential within themselves to be the hero or the villain. Furthermore, the series does not pretend that the fate of the future rests on a single event, a notion obviously absurd in our globalized political and economic landscape, defined by rapidly blurring lines between business and government interests. Instead it presets a chaotic future in which dozens of mechanisms interact to bring about changes with devastating effects.

Its a dizzyingly frightening outlook, but one that’s speaks very bluntly on the state of current world affairs. Fialkov and Infurnari are four issues (one collected volume – out in August if your keeping track) into this world and its already more dense and involving than most series manage to become over the course of an entire run. I don’t expect things to slow down either- which is both terrifying and exciting. I’m in for the long haul, and I bet you will be too.

Fiction Review: Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority

June 8, 2014

authorityAuthority: Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

by Jeff Vandermeer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I’ve got a riddle for you: how is an office building like a sentient wilderness inhabited by psychotropic fungi and organic architecture? As odd as it sounds, that’s more or less the question that Jeff Vandermeer takes on in Authority, the second book in his Southern Reach trilogy.

Authority is the story of a bureaucrat who goes by the pseudonym Control. He was recently appointed as head of the Southern Reach, following the fate of the 12th expedition to Area X (the aforementioned wilderness) as chronicled in Annihilation. Control finds himself with the kafkaesque task of uncovering the truth about Area X, while significant and vital information, essential to his investigation, is systematically concealed from him by the powers that be.

Set mostly in the office headquarters of the Southern Reach, safely removed from threatening landscape of Annihilation, Authority at first appears to be an abrupt departure. Yet what’s remarkable about this book is how seamlessly and consistently Vandermeer manages to translate the same themes across wildly disparate settings, eerily echoing the way that the mysteries of Area X may be slowly and insidiously breaching the boundaries believed to contain them.

Like Annihilation, Authority is a book about a search for meaning and order, both feature characters whose obsessions with solving the external mysteries that surround them are reflections/deflections of their personal and internal uncertainties. As with my review of Annihilation, I’ll refrain from sifting through examples in the novel, because that would be to rob the reader of the surreal pleasures of reading them in context. Instead I turn again to a passage from the text that elegantly summarizes the dis-ease of the narrative:


“…institutions, even individual departments in governments, were the concrete embodiments of not just ideas or opinions but also of attitudes and emotions. Like hate or empathy, statements such as “immigrants need to learn English or they’re not really citizens” or “all mental patients deserve our respect.” That in the workings of, for example, an agency, you could, with effort, discover not just the abstract thought behind it but the concrete emotions. The Southern Reach had been set up to investigate (and contain) Area X, and yet despite all the signs and symbols of that mission – all of the talk and files and briefs and analysis – some other emotion or attitude also existed within the agency. It frustrated him that he could not quite put his finger on it, as if he needed another sense, or a sensitivity, that he lacked.”


Control’s self-assigned moniker, which he appropriately lapses in and out of use of during the novel, is a layered metaphor for his relationship to the Southern Reach. Control’s outward expression of power is undermined at every turn by the reality that the agency exists as its own entity, with its own underlying logic, separate from and irreconcilable with his own.

While this novel answers many of its predecessor’s questions with mysteries even more vast and ominous, it provides a thematic closure hinted at in its title. The “Authority,” introduced thematically, but also literally, in Annihilation through the desperate hypnotic suggestions of the psychologist comes into focus in the second novel. It’s becoming clear that the titles of the Southern Reach novels can be read as the stops on a journey, both for the characters and the readers. “Annihilation” suggests the need to shed our preconceived notions, a letting go of expectations; only when freed from these inhibitions can we actively confront “Authority”, in all of its political, scientific, and theological connotations. This reading, of course leaves us with a pervasive feeling of discomfort as we prepare to face “acceptance,” the final stage of the trilogy.

The Movement is Dead… Long Live The Movement!

May 12, 2014

movement 12

This past week saw the death of one of the last genuinely unique and imaginative titles in new DC universe. I’m referring to Gail Simone’s The Movement, which I’ve raved about here and here. Why this series never found an audience is beyond me, and I’m not really interested in speculating about the reasons for its demise, but I do want to point out a few things that will (hopefully) become its legacy.

The Movement was about a rag-tag group of super powered teenagers who took it upon themselves to look out for the downtrodden and disaffected who inhabit the tweens, a neglected slum of Coral City. Contained within each character in the series was a unique story of self-discovery, a coming-to-terms, to varying degrees, with their personal angst towards the different metaphorical cards they’d been handed, but more importantly, with their responsibility towards each other and their community.

An therein lies the real triumph of Simone’s book: proof that in this contemporary comic book landscape a series that tackles “adult” themes like police corruption, abuse, violence, and sex, need not be an exercise in misery and nihilism, but can still uplift and inspire. Simone understands that complex and nuanced themes are more valuable than gritty violence and “realism.” In fact, if a mainstream comic every approaces “realism” (and I’d argue that The Movement does), it’s because of this nuance and not its unflinching depiction of crime and violence.

Take Captain Meers, a police officer whose unofficial role as liaison to Movement team leader, Virtue, immediately reminds us of Commissioner Gordon’s role in the Batman universe. He could easily have been written that way, instead he is continuously challenged for his complicit role in a corrupt system of law enforcement, and his unwillingness to recognize gray areas amidst the black and white of the law. As he learns to empathize with and trust Virtue, she too learns to open up.

I also think about Burden – a character apparently possessed by a demon whose spotlight story in the penultimate issue, for all its hyperbolic trappings, is still a perfect meditation on the way that social repression can lead to violent oppression and self-demonization. Then there’s the uncomfortable confrontation between The Movement and Batgirl. Few authors would be so comfortable using one of their books to challenge the value system of another of their characters.

The members of The Movement share their ups and downs, are occasionally at each other’s throats, and often make mistakes. But in the end, they fall back on their community, they make each other better and they catch each other when they fall.

There’s a moment earlier in the series when Virtue makes it very clear to Meers that she is not a superhero. This comes full circle in the final issue (spoilers!). At one point, Meers asks Virtue what the Movement’s goal was. She admits to a dream in which The Movement and the Justice League stand together in a near-utopian fantasy. It’s jarring and unexpected given the themes of the comic, and Meers doesn’t hesitate to remind her that “The Justice people… you’re never going to change enough to fit in with them. Without missing a beat, Virtue replies: “Oh, I know. That was never the plan. But sooner or later Captain… They’re going to have to change to fit in with us.” It’s hard not to read those lines as Simone’s own sentiments, and they make the book’s premature demise all the more bittersweet. Still, just because The Movement is at its end, there’s no reason we should give up on this dream so soon.

Steampunk Files #8: Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

April 14, 2014

steampunkSteampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant

Candlewick Press


I’ve read my share of steampunk anthologies, not all of them, but I’ve read more collections devoted to steampunk than any other specific SF niche. I may be wrong, but based on the essential reading lists I’ve seen floating around, this particular collection from Candlewick Press, published back in 2011, seems to get overlooked. It’s a shame, because it may be the most accessible and thoroughly pleasurable read out of the whole pack.

The content has a decided young adult orientation, which is unique from other anthologies, such as the three volumes edited by the Ann and Jeff Vandermeer and published by Tachyon Press, which bring a very “literary” sensibility to the subject matter. That’s not to say that the stories contained in this volume lack depth or literary merit, just that, on the whole, they feel less conscious of their own relationship to the genre, and exist more freely as vehicles for their respective narratives.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to read stories by authors who I am less likely to run into because they are mainly active in the YA market, like Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, and Holly Black, alongside authors who I have long admired, but never read in a steampunk context, like Cory Doctorow, and the anthology’s co-editor, Kelly Link.

Back in the first paragraph I wrote that this anthology was one of the most accessible steampunk collections I’ve read. By that I meant that it conforms pretty neatly with what newcomers to steampunk prose would probably associate with the genre: clockwork automatons, airships, and steam engines abound, mostly in the context of a rollicking adventure or a whimsical fancy. In spite of their comfortable familiarity, these stories do not equate genre with generic. A sense of wonder and possibility runs through each narrative, but also an empowering subversion that is often meatier than their brassy veneer initially lets on.

Libba Bray’s “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” tells the story of Adelaide Jones, a woman of the law embedded with a band of outlaws who use a fanciful “enigma apparatus” to manipulate time and rob trains. The wild west setting has a romance to it that appeals to the core idea of the steampunk fantasy, but the choices the characters face give it a relevance that extends beyond aesthetics. Adelaide faces a conflict between her duty to the Pinkerton Agency that employs her, and her new-found sisterhood with the Glory Girls, providing a meaty moral conflict that lends a strong resonance to the human drama of the story.

Less romantic is “Clockwork Fagin,” Cory Doctorow’s story set in an orphanage characterized by all means of Dickensian inequality and abuse. In this tale, the pitiful children overthrow their oppressive master and use their own ingenuity to create an autonomous steampunk utopia. In addition to its anarchic inclinations, the story makes use of hard computer science as a plot device, something relatively unique and refreshing in a genre where the “science” often involves aetherial energy sources, hollow earth theories, or inexplicable AI’s.

Throughout the collection authors continue to explore fresh settings for steampunk’s familiar literary constructs. Kelly Link’s “The Summer People” and Dylan Horrock’s “Steam Girl” each employ steampunk concepts in a modern setting as ways for their respective teenage protagonists to combat social exclusion and abusive parents, while M.T. Anderson’s “The Oracle Engine” constructs a steampunk tragedy set in Ancient Rome.

Also appreciated, are the two short comics included: Shawn Cheng’s “Seven Days Besot by Demons,” and Kathleen Jennings’ “Finishing School.” These comics are quite different from one another, but they both represent a stylistic maturity within the medium that should satisfy the steampunk and comic book enthusiast alike.

Being a YA anthology, the stories are light on (but not devoid of) “mature” content like sex and violence. that could be a deal breaker depending on your preferences, but if you’re like me, then mature storytelling is more important than mature content. If you fall into the latter camp, I would enthusiastically recommend this anthology for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the genre.


Click here to read more steampunk reviews and essays!

A Belated Review of Sovereign #1

April 1, 2014

sovereign 1Sovereign #1

Writer: Chris Roberson

Artist: Paul Mayberry

Image Comics


A few weeks ago Image Comics released Sovereign #1, a new sword and sorcery ongoing from the creative team of Chris Roberson and Paul Mayberry. It might just be my perception, but it feels a little like this release got lost somewhere in the shuffle between recent Image successes like Zero and Sex Criminals and the media around forthcoming series by the likes of Warren Ellis and Kieron Gillen, among others. I hope I’m wrong, and that everyone is ranting and raving about this series in all the places I’m not looking, but just in case it isn’t, I want to draw some attention to it because, in a lot of ways, it’s exactly the comic I want to read.

I enjoy genre fiction in all its incarnations, but when it comes to epic fantasy, I find I can be a bit of stickler, and unlike my relationship with sci-fi and horror, I’ve never felt too tied to the traditional canon of epic fantasy works. It’s been a while since I’ve given much thought to the works of Tolkien, for example. The genre too often comes off as reductive when the imaginary worlds it depicts should be rich, complex, and ambiguous. It’s also not uncommon for the standard tropes (elves, ogres, dwarves, dragons, etc.) to read as awkward stereotypes or caricatures of the cultures and traditions from which they are derived.

Sovereign gives us something else, though. Roberson’s invented world drops the reader in a landscape that is in the process of adapting to recent profound changes. Its historical setting would most closely resemble that of the late 16th century, yet it carefully avoids a direct analog. In this story, a once independent people, the Khend are now ruled by an outside kingdom, the Horse Lords. Rather than a clear-cut story of oppression, it is about the struggle that both sides face as they learn to adapt to the new status quo. On the fringes of this great change, are a mystical religious order fighting to maintain their values and beliefs in the face of the new order. And in yet another narrative thread, a ship approaches from across the sea bearing missionaries and a scholar whose arrival, we can infer, brings with it the potential to unsettle whatever delicate balance has been preserved thus far.

Good epic fantasy should be both sprawling and intimate, exploring broad cultural and historical themes through the experiences of well-rounded, relatable characters. Sovereign #1 uses most of its panels to let us into the worlds of its various protagonists, whether it is the cocky Horse Lord, forced to reconcile his relationship to the Khendish hunters with his position in the ruling class, or the scholar, whose rationalism casts him as an outsider in relation to his pious countrymen.

While prose fiction provides utterly overwhelming options when it comes to epic fantasy, comics have much less to offer. This is strange because the ongoing comic book format is uniquely suited for the type of world building and long form plots that this genre loves. Roberson isn’t afraid to play with textual elements, including fictional quotations and long-form prose exposition, freeing up the panels, and the art to tell the story, not the history.

Of course, I don’t want to leave out the fun stuff: a funeral rite goes bad, ending in a good old fashion undead horde! and let’s not forget about the zombie shark!? If any of the above sounds appealing, you may want to see if your local comic shop has any copies left. I want this book to have a long and epic life.

Fiction Review: Submitting to Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

March 9, 2014

untitledAnnihilation: Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

by Jeff Vandermeer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


I don’t review a lot of prose fiction on this site, mainly because I’m usually about a year behind the genre publishing world, if not more (and that pile just keeps building). But every once in a while I am compelled to pick up a novel, and read it, as soon as it comes out. Ever since I first heard about it nearly two years ago, I’ve known that Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy) would be one of those books.

I was first turned on to Jeff Vandermeer’s writing through his fan-favorite Ambergris cycle, and ever since that series concluded with 2009’s Finch, I’ve been hungry for his next uniquely weird creation. Before reading this novel it’s important to understand that despite all of the anticipation, buzz, and excitement from various media channels surrounding the release, it’s impossible to prepare oneself for Annihilation. The promotional copy reads as follows:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

As book descriptions go, I can’t fault this one for being inaccurate: the backstory is succinct and easy to follow; the characters are few, and as vague, yet layered, as their titles suggest; the biologist and her mission do indeed serve as our main point of reference; and the mysteries the expedition encounters are as engrossing and shocking as the summary promises. However, as with Area X itself, there is an intangible quality that truly defines this novel, and it cannot be described so much as it must be experienced.

Despite my better judgment, I’ll take another shot at describing the contents of the novel: it is a psychological thriller, wrapped in a sci-fi adventure, swaddled with existential horror. I indulge myself in this ultimately futile attempt to define Annihilation in order to emphasize that, at its core, the story is driven by its psychological drama.

Within that narrative, information, or more accurately, the control of information, is a central theme. The truth about Area X is concealed from the members of the expedition, information about the volunteers, including their names, is concealed from one another, and it is immediately clear that the members do not have equal information, or similar instructions.

But the control of information also defines the structure of the novel. The biologist speaks directly to us in the past tense, but from how far in the future is unclear. What does she already know of the mysteries she is about to experience? How are we meant to understand her vague suggestions about the world and its landscapes? It’s at the intersection of these uncertainties that the story assimilates us into its world. Take this early passage for example:

“At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but depositing this underground part of it inland. I saw this in vast and intricate detail as we all stood there, and, looking back, I mark it as the first irrational thought I had once we had reached our destination.”

At first, the biologist is preoccupied with her psychological state compared with those of the other expedition members. She is fixated on the idea that she sees this unexplainable structure as a “tower” while the others are content to think of it as a tunnel. This is significant to the unfolding drama because we know that part of each member’s task is to monitor the psychological stability of the others.

In an attempt to rationalize her own thought process in relation to those of the others, she ultimately concedes her own irrationality. In her role as the narrator, the biologist is inherently unstable for reasons that are obvious from this excerpt, but she will also be objectively more stable than any other character, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book. What is remarkable about the above passage, however, is the way that Vandermeer uses this dynamic of stability/instability to eerily foreshadow the more sinister aspects of Area X, along with the fact that this place may be a more worthy psychological foe than any of her companions, even though these revelations haven’t yet come to pass in the course of the narrative.

Given that the title of the book is Annihilation, we probably knew things wouldn’t end well for our protagonists, but after this passage we realize we’ve signed on to experience the descent into psychological crisis of our only stable reference point. But it’s too late, by this point the narrative has us in its snare too.

I could go on to analyze many more passages for the chilling layers of existential and psychological horror, and the way they channel the essence of a landscape that by its own nature should defy description, but after some consideration I decided that depriving readers of coming to these experiences on their own would be unfair and wasteful. Instead I’m going to wrap-up with one more very brief quote from the novel which, devoid of context, is safe and spoiler free:

“…and yet even so, somewhere in the heart of me I had begun to believe there was no place I would rather be than in Area X.”

There is a point for the reader too, at which we become so immersed and fascinated by this strange wilderness that we no longer hope to follow the biologist to safety, but want to dig deeper with her into its mysterious core, perhaps even rooting for it to win in some perverse and irrational way. Fortunately for us, the accelerated publishing schedule for the Southern Reach Trilogy means we only have a few short months before we can return in May.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 446 other followers

%d bloggers like this: