The Editor’s Rant: Issue #17

by Michael D. Pederson

 

The end of summer has been pretty good for me this year. Getting the first new issue of Nth Zine out felt amazing. And I’ve been hearing some very positive feedback on the new format. It all made me realize just how much I had been missing zining. Ah, it’s good to be back.

I’d like to start off by pointing out a new feature in this issue. Last month, Alan Welch offered up his art portfolio to me and told me I could use whatever I liked. Well, it’s tough to match pre-existing art to new stories so I decided to add an Art Gallery to the online version of the zine. You’ll get to see some of Alan’s incredible blend of digital and traditional art in an upcoming issue. This issue, we’ve decided to finally give our long-suffering staff artist, J. Andrew World, his day in the sun.

One thing I neglected to mention in last issue’s Rant… Back in August a little group I’m involved with won the bid to host next year’s North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. I will be co-chairing with Warren Buff.

The convention will be held August 5–8, 2010 in Raleigh’s brand new convention center. We’ll also be making use of the new downtown Marriott and the newly remodeled Sheraton, both right across the street from the convention center.

We’ve chosen the name ReConStruction to reflect our desires to build stronger connections between Southern fandom and, well, everyone else. Our Guests of Honor will be: Eric Flint–Writer, Brad Foster–Artist, Juanita Coulson–Fan, and Toni Weisskopf–Toastmaster. With Eric as one of our GoHs, we will (of course) be hosting a 1632 track of programming that is already generating a lot of interest.

This is my first time on staff for any kind of national-level convention, and it’s been a wild ride so far. Yes, I’ll be chairing RavenCon in April and then ReConStruction in August, just four months apart. But you know what they say… Whatever doesn’t kill us leaves us in a quivering pile of goo for someone else to clean up.

(The contents of this Rant may seem confusing now that I’ve done away with Nth Zine and converted all the old issues to the Nth Degree format. My apologies. MDP, Sept. 2014.)

 

Con Review: Dragon*Con 2009

DragonCon09by Marian McBrine

 

Dragon*Con 2009
September 4–7, 2009
Atlanta, Georgia
http://www.dragoncon.org/

I attended Dragon*Con, in Atlanta, Georgia, from September 4th to 7th, 2009. Dragon*Con is one of the largest media-focused conventions in the country, with an estimated attendance of 30,000. While the convention is media heavy, with many top-tier media guests—this year including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart and Kate Mulgrew—they also have several other tracks incorporating many aspects of fandom, and including a strong literary track. The convention featured a full weekend of writing workshops taught by writers Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston. There were numerous other writer guests, with Charlaine Harris and Sherrilyn Kenyon attracting particularly large audiences and autograph lines.

Although Dragon*Con is a large convention, they choose not to host their events in a convention center; rather, they use all available event space in the four official convention hotels. Although there are several main events, their diverse tracks are generally located in one specific area of one hotel. Thus, while this is a very large convention, if you are primarily interested in one of the smaller tracks, it may feel like a smaller convention to you. At least until you attempt to go to a different track or event, and have to make your way through a crowd of thousands to get there. Dragon*Con is a very challenging convention logistically, and sometimes it’s almost impossible to get from one end of the convention to the other in a reasonable amount of time. Luckily, Dragon*ConTV broadcasts many of the con’s main events, which you can enjoy in the comfort of your room rather than having to fight your way to the end of a line just to wait a few hours in the hope of getting a seat.

Dragon*Con is often called Mardi Gras for geeks, and definitely, one of the main attractions at Dragon*Con is people watching. Every night in each of the main hotels, but particularly the Mariott, the lobby/bar areas were filled with throngs of people taking and posing for pictures. Costumes were from all aspects of fandom, including comic book heroes, video game characters, literary figures, “ren fest” outfits and TV/movie characters. Costuming is so important to this convention that Dragon*Con has at least one costume contest every night. The definite “trend” for costuming this year was Steampunk, and that genre had a large showing in the Dragon*Con parade, which takes place Saturday morning on the downtown streets of Atlanta.

In sum, while I don’t necessarily recommend Dragon*Con to a beginning con goer, and while it can be very trying at times and logistically challenging, this convention absolutely has something for everyone, and I think everyone should try this convention at least once.

 

Con Review: Necronomicon ’09

Layout 1by Chris A. Jackson

 

Necronomicon ‘09
October 23–25, 2009
St. Petersburg, Florida
http://www.stonehill.org/necmain.htm

I have attended Necronomicon as a guest, dealer and fan for several years, and had the opportunity once again this year. Necro is, by most standards, a small convention; about 1000 attendees, including guests. For a convention this size, it offers a lot with the focus on science fiction, fantasy and horror. It has grown in recent years, and has changed venue twice, from a very small but funky little hotel just off I-75, to the ultra-modern tower of the downtown Tampa Hayatt Regency, and finally to the smaller but much friendlier venue it currently inhabits, the downtown Hilton in St. Petersburg, Florida.

This year’s Guests of Honor were authors Catherine Asaro, Patricia Briggs and Richard Lee Byers.

The con has the usual attractions of dealer room, art show, videogame room, and three rooms for table-top and card gaming, but Necronomicon also offers much that you do not find at many larger conventions. Along the impressive “Author’s Alley” you can pick up signed copies of books from the author guests, and the discussion panels are wide ranging and are manned by a surprising array of experts in whatever field you are interested in. By experts, I mean true scientists, engineers, physicians, authors, artists, game designers and costumers. It’s really something special when you can sit down and talk about the future of space flight with a genuine NASA engineer, or the possibility of human cloning, genetic manipulation and cyborgs with PhD geneticists, biologists, and neuroscientists who are really working in the field. There also are “how to” panels on everything from creating your next convention costume to submitting a manuscript to a publisher. And where else can you ask authors if they are really as screwed-up as their writing suggests?

There is always a costume contest at Necro, and this year’s was quite spectacular. This year’s theme for the convention was Arkham Asylum, from Batman fame, and the costumes were wide ranging and very imaginative, though there were a good number of zombies and anime characters as well. Following the award ceremony, the costumers get together for an all-out bash—Necronomi-prom—and dance to the wee hours of the morning, which put a hold on the LARPing for at least a few hours.

The convention charities are Kids & Canines, a Hillsborough County Schools Program that uses “At-Risk” students to train assistance dogs for the disabled, and The Francis House, a day respite center for people infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Money was raised for the charities through a flea market and raffle.

In summation, Necro is a small but surprisingly diverse and, dare I use the word, “intelligent” convention; well organized, well staffed, friendly and fun. Who could ask for more?

 

Music Review: The Akashic Mysteries

Layout 1by Michael D. Pederson

 

The Akashic Mysteries
The Akashic Mysteries

The Akashic Mysteries were musical guests at ConCarolinas this year. Unfortunately, I missed their concert but they gave me a copy of their self-titled album which, of course, sat in my car for a couple of months (music needs to be properly aged) before I got around to listening to it.

The Akashic Mysteries are a trio based out of Knoxville, Tennessee. The group consists of R. G. Hubbard II on bass and keyboards; Tony Karnowski on drums; and Sean O’Connell on electric and acoustic mandolin, saxophone, harmonica and melodica.

The group descibes themselves as “experimental jazz fusion” but there’s a lot more going on here than those three words would suggest. Jazz fusion makes me think more of artists like Stanley Clarke or Chick Corea, whereas Akashic Mysteries seem to have as much in common with Rush as they do with Miles Davis. Meaning, they can rock just as hard as they can groove.

Their music (all instrumentals) and song titles both suggest a strong Lovecraftian influence that’s felt throughout the album. The opening and closing tracks, “Sphere I” and “Sphere II,” are upbeat, swirling, almost danceable rock tracks that would not sound out of place on any classic prog rock album and serve to bookend the more experimental (sometimes eerie) tracks that make up the rest of the album. “At the Top of the Stairs” uses an atonal jazz piano, backed by the sound of a rolling movie projector and occassional drums, to create just over two minutes of dark horror-movie feel before breaking into a Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds-type of centerpiece and then descending back into the gloom before ending. The rest of the album is equally amazing in its blending of styles and moods—from the goth rock beat of “Incantation for Shades” to the Italian-flavored mandolin of “Omerta,” The Akashic Mysteries is an album that is hard to get bored with.

I definitely recommend you look this one up. They’re not currently available on iTunes but they do have both MySpace and Facebook pages.

 

Movie Review: Surrogates

Layout 1by Lucy Arnold

 

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

One thing that would be cool about the events of the movie Surrogates coming true is that I would have sent my surrogate to endure that too-long eighty-eight minutes instead of me. Meanwhile, I could have engaged in any number of meaningful activities, including but not limited to sock drawer reorganization and fingernail clipping. But, alas, here we are in 2009 with our paltry attempts at surrogates in Second Life and World of Warcraft

And on that note, if you can manage to keep your brain tied up in the social message of Surrogates, you might be okay. It does, in fact, offer an intriguing take on computer avatars and how our identities are constructed online. In one of the first scenes, it is revealed that a hot chick surrogate is actually being operated by a fat man. Speaking as a long-time MMORPG fan, I can attest to the reality of this sort of gender-swapping. I really liked how the movie asked me to challenge my thinking about online worlds. When I’m interacting with a hot female night elf druid in WoW, intellectually I know that that the odds are 10:1 that she’s a man in real life. But how often do I interact with online women as though they are women and online men as though they are men? And what difference would it make anyway? Since WoW introduced their new voice technology for grouping, I’ve been surprised many times by the type of voice I hear once the group is formed, often a players’ voice has nothing in common with the virtual avatar, whether they are men playing female toons or adolescent boys playing football player-sized avatars. For surfacing these kinds of questions, I was initially captivated with the film. The movie challenges the audience with these sorts of questions: how does the prospect of perfection impact our identities? How are gender and sexuality construed online? To what extent is “living” online just escapism? Who are you when you can be anything?

Unfortunately, the movie does not take even one of these questions and pursue it. Instead, Surrogates quickly devolves into another in a long line of “science-as-monster” fiction, warning against scientific progress because it will only come at the expense of man’s essential “humanity.” Whatever, whatever. This movie is a missed opportunity in that it could have been a really interesting exploration of the anesthetization of human beings in an online world but instead decides to paint the world with unrealistic swatches of “good” and “evil.”

The result is that we get The Matrix Lite. It’s got the same sort of beautiful perfection versus people who haven’t shaved or applied make-up (though with fewer dowdy sweaters). It also suffers from the same hero complex, with the fate of the world resting on one person; think everything that was wrong with The Matrix’s sequels and you’ll kind of get the picture.

Before this review comes off sounding overly critical, there were a few moments that I really enjoyed. I liked the overweight system operator who refuses to use an Avatar. I connected for long moments at a time with Bruce Willis’s actual human being, forced out into the world when his avatar is destroyed. Willis is nothing if not good at playing the slightly-perplexed-but-good-hearted-everyman. And Ving Rhames was fabulous.

The two chase scenes were both well shot and effectively showed off the advantages of police avatars versus plain old human beings. But for me, the movie lost its focus during the first chase; with lingering shots on the fearful expression of the human being chased by Willis’s avatar, I felt my sympathy conflicted. I was hopeful that this was a conscious move on the part of the filmmakers who planned to complicate the story, but this hope did not pan out. Rather than complicating the moral message of the story, the filmmakers led us a wild goose chase of a plot, winding up where we all could have predicted we were going from the beginning but figured it would be too obvious.

I wanted to like Surrogates substantially more than I actually liked it in the end. Too many missed opportunities for my taste.

 

Book Review: Hydrogen Steel

hydrogensteelby Michael D. Pederson

 

Hydrogen Steel
K. A. Bedford
Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 367 pp.

Hydrogen Steel, from Canada’s Edge Publishing, is a great example of science fiction mystery done right. Right away we’re introduced to the main character, Suzette McGee, a homicide detective turned private investigator. I have to assume that the name “McGee” is Bedford’s tip-of-the-hat to John McDonald’s classic Travis McGee series. And just like McDonald’s McGee, anyone that crosses paths with Zette (friend or foe) tends to end up worse for wear.

There’s no slow build here, Bedford starts the ball rolling right away. McGee receives a call from an android who’s been accused of murder and wants her to help prove his innocence. Oh yeah, and he knows a secret that McGee has never told anyone—she too is an android. McGee’s client is killed before she can meet him, and her house is broken into and burned down by another android that looks exactly like Zette McGee. The assaults on our hero never slow down as she pursues leads across human-occupied space looking for answers to a mystery that brings her up against her own past and into a war between rival AIs with super-human abilities. At a few points the action seems to be too big and it feels like our heroes are being pulled along by a plot that is rushing to a climax. But overall this is an exciting mystery where the puzzles and threats continue to escalate and, in the end, delivers a solid conclusion that’s layered with serious, thought-provoking science fiction concepts.

 

Book Review: The Kept Secret

KeptSecretby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Kept Secret
Stan Wilczek Jr.
Gateway Press, 308 pp.

I’m generally a pretty harsh critic when it comes to the world of vanity press. In the time that I’ve been writing book reviews (ten years), I’ve only favorably reviewed two self-published books. This brings the count to three.

The Kept Secret is set three years after 9/11. The premise is that Al Qaeda followed their attacks on New York and D.C with a tunnel bombing in Boston and a nationwide hepatitis epidemic in 2004. All while planning a larger bombing. I’m pretty sure it was the sensitive subject matter and not the quality of writing that kept this from being picked up by any major publishers. Wilczek builds off of the post-9/11 fears to create a suspenseful and intriguing story that moves quickly and incorporates some clever cold war conspiracies into our modern-day political climate.

 

View From Nowhere: Food

worldonplateAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

A classic thought experiment is: If extraterrestrials observed Earthlings what would they think? For openers, an outside observer would note intense variety, but there are universals. The universal we’ll be observing this month? Food.

With thousands of cultures comes an amazing diversity based on varying food sources, economic necessities, geographical demands and differing aesthetics.

Food is health. Food is economics. Food is art and to some extent, be it a businessman’s steak dinner, an exotic spread of complex sushi, or the classic Chinese banquet, food even indicates our social status among fellow humans.

Food has multiple meanings. In some cultures, notably parts of China, a standard greeting is not “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” Out of politeness, we offer guests food, whether they need it or not. As the classic big band, scat singer Cab Calloway sang in the 1940s, “Everyone eats when they come to my house.”

Yet despite the use of food as hospitality, not all cultures appreciate the same cuisine. Some cultures enjoy heads, intestines, brains and organ meats while other cultures don’t even eat meat. Sometimes there’s an underlying logic to these choices. For instance, while most humans find insects unpalatable, in most places insects would not make a good food source. The calories required to catch an insect usually outweigh the calories gained from eating one. However, in situations where insects can be harvested in a manner that results in a net-gain of calories rather than a loss, they often become a desired food source. Accordingly, ants and locusts that can be caught easily in large numbers are eaten much more commonly than other insects.

What one culture finds delightful, another finds bizarre. The other day I visited a museum with a friend, a Karen hill tribesman who came from Burma after fleeing conflict and spending his teenage years as a refugee in Thailand. The displays of traditional Iroquois life reminded him of home. “Hey Pete, have you ever eaten curried bear meat?” he asked as he described cooking curries over an open fire. “It makes you warm.”

Although a widespread and varied cooking technique, I was surprised to learn that currying a food not only flavors but also preserves it, thus making currying invaluable in the tropics of Asia and the Caribbean.

Not only are we aware of differing approaches to food among cultures, at times we as a species seem to revel in them. From cable TV shows that present eating exotic foods as a perverse form of entertainment, to countless ethnic slurs from multiple cultures involving the cuisine and diet of their “weird” neighbors, the food preferences of others often strike us as bizarre.

Browsing through authentic Chinese cookbooks from Asia can be an odd experience for a Westerner. With the flip of a page one turns from an image of a dream meal only to stumble on a photo of stewed chicken feet. There’s rarely much logic to our internalized food preferences and even when there is it is often knowingly flawed. I’m reminded of my father’s visit to Taiwan. “I could never eat chicken feet,” he announced one day. When asked for a reason he said, “I used to raise chickens. I’ve seen where they walk.”

I remember years ago telling a Taiwanese friend that Americans did not normally eat squid or jellyfish. “Why not?” she said with a straight face. “Don’t they like seafood?” To the Taiwanese squid is not just a normal part of their diet, but a common beach food is squid on a stick, barbecued and smeared with sesame seeds and eaten like a lollipop with tentacles spread upwards like a bouquet of miniature flowers.

Commonly we combine our food with our ideas of entertainment. Recently I attended a presentation where Chinese college students described their home provinces, including cuisine. My favorite was “dao xiao mian,” a dish from Shanxi whose English name varies but is often referred to as handshaved noodles. The chef quickly shreds strips from a large ball of dough into boiling water. The varying textures of the irregularly shaped noodles adds to the flavor. Elaborate presentation have become part of the hand-shaved noodle dining experience. Presented was a photo of a chef who shredded the noodles from a platform fastened on top of his head while riding a unicycle in front of the diners.

Amidst the decadence and artistic experimentation of mid-war Weimar Germany, even starvation became art. One restaurant featured “performances” by a “hunger artist” who sat in a sealed glass booth chain-smoking in his underwear while a midget periodically announced the length of time since the “artist” had last eaten. Patrons would tap their glasses in appreciation while consuming a traditional dish of raw pork and onion drizzled with boiling lard.

From Disney-themed birthday cakes to the latest McDonald’s third-pounder to traditional hot dogs and apple pie to biker-themed barbecue restaurants, the commodification and consumption of food is also an expression of an idealized cultural image. It’s no coincidence that if you want to be accepted in Vietnamese society you should learn to eat fertilized duck eggs or by Koreans to appreciate kimchi. These dishes mark them in their own eyes as distinctly different from people who don’t eat them.

What conclusions might an alien make on human food culture? We’re astonishingly flexible yet rigid upon forming conclusions. As a species we’ll eat almost anything consumable yet as splintered cultural groups we’re quite finicky and judgmental of those groups that do not share our preferences. We attach great social importance to the forms that simple biological necessities take. Surely, they could not avoid seeing us as an amazingly complex banquet.

 

The Gallery: J. Andrew World

 

Welcome to the opening night for our brand new art gallery. Waiters with appetizer trays and cocktails will be passing amongst you shortly. Please help yourselves… For the first installment of a new feature that we’re adding to show off the works of our contributing artists we had no choice but to start with Nth Degree’s very own staff artist, J. Andrew World. Andy’s remarkable illustrations have been gracing our pages since the second issue (June 2002). In addition to working on Nth Degree, Andy has done quite a bit of illustrating in and around the world of fandom. He’s done graphic design work and illustrations for RavenCon, Capclave, and Genericon; illustrated album covers for Eyeballman Records and The Funny Music Project; developed The Seen, a soon-to-be-released webcomic; and has illustrated two children’s books. Here’s a small sampling of his work…