Woohoo! Three months of books read recaps in a row! It’s almost like I’ve committed to something!

Apparently my reward to myself for doing this has been to buy a craptonne more books, so new additions to Mt. TBR this month include: Malka Older’s Infomocracy, Cassandra Khaw’s A Song for Quiet, Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200, Jennifer Lynch’s The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Ted Chiang’s Life and Other Stories (a.k.a. Arrival), and Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority and Acceptance.

Starfinder Core Rulebook

I will confess I don’t keep up much with tabletop release news, so imagine my prescient delight a few weeks back when, the day after turning in my science fantasy manuscript to my agent, I read about Paizo’s new project: Starfinder, a.k.a. “D&D in space”. Obviously, I had to buy it because, full disclosure: I 100% love science fantasy—like, real, balls-to-the-wall, magic-spells-in-space science fantasy—and think it is totally under-done. One can only hope Starfinder does for science fantasy both what it’s grandfather, Dungeons & Dragons, did for medieval fantasy and its distant cousin, Vampire: the Masquerade, did for brooding vampire antiheroes hanging out in bars feeling sorry for themselves.

Starfinder is set in the same solar system as Pathfinder—albeit in some nebulously defined future—and the familiar ol’ stalwarts of elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are still in play across the galaxy. They take a backseat, however, to the new “alien” species, such as the lizard-warrior vesk and the insectoid shirren. As with its predecessors, the aliens in Starfinder are basically generic genre archetypes (the lizard people and bug people are joined by rat people, androids, the Ye Olde Empire space monks, and the sexy antennae people), and I will admit I’m not as “into” them as I am the whole elves-in-space deal. I suppose they add some market difference between, say, Starfinder and Warhammer 40k,1 although so does the ethos and setting—Pathfinder is definitely not grimdark—and I kinda wish Paizo had leaned on that rather than adding in a new handful of kinda meh species.

That’s a fairly mild quibble, however, and all-in-all, I look forward to future exercises in throwing my money at additional game supplements and, maybe, even managing to play a campaign or two.

Huck Walker, The Griefing

Something that’s been sitting on my “currently reading (honest)” pile for far too long, this is an absolute brick of a self-published book I bought mostly because I kept seeing it in local bookstores and was curious. The Griefing is basically an Australian monsters-versus-zombies apocalypse tale, of the scientists-meddle-in-what-man-should-not variety, and it has some cool ideas. Unfortunately it takes a little bit too long to get to them; at 300-400 pages this would’ve been a tight, inventive read. At 700-plus… it could do with a little trim.

Hilary Rodham Clinton, What Happened

So I bought the audiobook of this, mostly because I wanted to hear Clinton tell her story in her own voice, and all I can say is… wow. Just… wow.

Like, I suspect, most left-leaning/progressive types, prior to listening to What Happened I would’ve described myself as a “qualified Clinton supporter”. That is, I saw her as a competent, center-right, party-machine Democrat who would’ve made a good president. I thought I was largely immune to media “Clintonitis” and conspiracy mongering, and yet it still apparently hadn’t occurred to me to wonder exactly how much of that “qualified” adjective was what I actually knew about Clinton and her policies and how much of it was influenced the weird haze of negative media that surrounds her.

After listening to Clinton talk about herself, however, I am fully ready to cop to my previous prejudices and remove the “qualified”. Clinton is competent, yes, and she knows how to work both big- and small-p politics. But she’s also, I think, far more progressive—particularly socially progressive—than she’s ever given credit for, especially on issues impacting women and families, particularly poor women and families, who are often people of color. Clinton is definitely a second wave white feminist, yes, but she also uses the word “intersectionality”, as well as describes eloquently what it means and the sorts of policies she was developing as part of her presidential platform would’ve sought to use this sort of analysis to deliver tangible social and economic benefits to the communities who needed them most. She also prolifically thanks and extols the virtues of people who’ve assisted her over the years, particularly in her presidential campaign, the majority of whom are women. (And intentionally so: Clinton outright says she wanted to hire a campaign team that was both “at least half women” as well as being ethnically and racially diverse.)

In What Happened, Clinton talks length about sexism and misogyny (including the difference between the two), racism, and classism, and about recognizing her own privilege and how she’s sought to use it to address what she sees as social wrongs. She’s well aware most people don’t know how the Washington sausage is made, and she takes time to explain it, as well as the policy compromises both she and her husband have taken in the past, including who forced them and why, whether she would make the same choices again, and what systemic reforms she would like to see to ensure they don’t happen in the future (she is very, very vocal about campaign finance reform, for example). Clinton is very much a perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good pragmatist, and she has no time for hypocritical ideologues who talk tough game in public and sell out in private, particularly on issues she considers sacrosanct, like reproductive rights. If you’re thinking “that sounds like a Bernie dis” then yes, it absolutely is, and Clinton makes no bones about it (although she also praises Sanders where she thinks its due).

Clinton is also, despite reports to the contrary, very hard on herself. She outright says at multiple points she feels she failed the American people in her presidential loss—another thing she makes no bones about is her opinion Trump is dangerous to both America and the world—and talks at length about the things she felt she did wrong and how she thinks she could’ve done better. The fact she does all this while at the same time explaining the extent of electoral tampering, foreign interference, media nonsense, and outright sabotage she experienced shows, I think, that she takes too much blame on herself. And yet she even admits this, showing more self-awareness than every single one of her critics rolled together.

For a lot of women, then, I suspect listening to Clinton—who is obviously and simultaneously both the smartest person in the room and also the most deeply aware of her own failings, thanks in no small part to other people constantly pointing them out—will be like listening to an echo of their own internal monologues. And that is an incredibly powerful thing.

Overall, What Happened is a beautiful combination of hardcore political wonk, reflections on girl-/woman-/motherhood, nation-state level espionage and intrigue, fashion and lifestyle travelogue, rallying cry against sexism, and 2016 election postmortem. It’s also a tantalizing glimpse at what should’ve been and, hopefully, inspiration for generations to come. Absolutely essential. ⭐

Amanda Holohan, Unwanted

I can’t even remember where I picked this up—post-apocalyptic dystopian YA isn’t my usual bag—but I read all in a single evening, so it must’ve been gripping!

The set-up for the story is a familiar one, even for someone who doesn’t read a lot of this sort of thing: The Last City On Erth [sic] has been stratified into castes, with Our Heroine being one of the recent top graduate “Dreads”, a.k.a. warriors trained to kill the monsters/aliens who destroyed the rest of humanity. From the outset it’s pretty obvious the world is Not What It Seems, and the ontological mystery of what, exactly, was going on drove me through the rest of the novel. I admit I saw some parts of the payoff coming from a mile away (ref. the true purpose of the creepy a.f. “Stork” caste) but others were off-the-wall and, honestly, pretty cool. I won’t give them all away but, needless to say, this is a fun read and there are definitely worse ways to spend a lazy Wednesday.

Warhammer 40,000 (8th Edition)

Of all the Standard Nerd Hobbies, Warhammer was the only one I never got into as a kid. This was a deliberate choice, but it wasn’t anything about Warhammer per se; it’s just I already had tabletop RPGs, Magic: the Gathering, videogames, SFF novels, comics, being a giant weaboo, and art, and there are only so many hours in the day and so much money in the pocket. I had to draw A Line somewhere, and that line ended up being Warhammer. I had friends and exes who played, but the artist in me in particular knew I’d never be happy “just” casually pursing the hobby. No, I’d be there throwing thousands at models and paints and making giant battle scenes and, honestly, I had exams to pass and Werewolf: the Apocalypse modules to write so… Sorry, Warhammer. You’re off the team.

I still used to always stop outside the Games Workshop, though. Just to look at the models on display and think, Maybe, one day…

Cut to late October, 2017, and my revived science fantasy kick: re-playing WildStar2 and reading Starfinder (for which, see above). So I figured, what the hey. Time to bite that bullet, and go check out the granddaddy of the genre.

“Time to catch up on the new rules, huh?” says the clerk at the Friendly Local Nerd Store when I go to buy what seems to be the core rulebook.

“Ah, no. Honestly, I’m just reading it for the articles,” I tell him, which is true. If anything, I have even less free time than I did as a kid, and the chances of me starting actual wargaming as an adult are even lower than they were then. But having no intention whatsoever to actually play a game has never stopped me from buying RPG sourcebooks before. So why should this be different?

Luckily for me, there’s plenty of articles/lore to read: the whole first half of the book, in fact (the back half is the actual mechanics of play), and, okay. The fact that this game apparently came out of England in the late 1980s? Oh yes, it totally did: 40k has the same vibe as seminal British grimdark institution 2000 AD, particularly 1980s-era Judge Dredd, and has that subliminal current of joking-but-not-really unease over things like the cold war, American hyper-militarism, and Thatcherist authoritarianism. The fact that, like Dredd and his more mainstream comics cohort, 40k has apparently been re-appropriated unironically by “mainstream” (read: American) pop culture3 is no more surprising that it was in any of the other areas it happened. Although I suspect the fact Games Workshop still operates out of the UK means 40k’s ironic nudge-nudge-wink-wink nature has managed to survive a bit better than some of its peers.4

And that? That’s a really pretentious way of saying that—despite common perception—this game does not take itself seriously. At all. In fact, basically just read every part of this book out in an exaggerated Christian Bale Batman voice while trying to suppress laughter. That’s 40k.

None of that is to say the aesthetics of its GRIM DARKNESS aren’t stunning; they are. Everything about this book is beautiful, from its physical presence to its luscious artwork to the intricately staged model photographs to (always my favorite part) the breakdowns of details like weapons and factional heraldry. But the GRIM DARK look is basically just that; an aesthetic. And, yes, while the underlying setting is undeniably bleak—the book is told from the perspective of the human Imperium, where dehumanization is the norm as per its state-mandated religion—the focus on army-level combat and large set-piece artwork keeps the player/reader at enough of a remove from any actual thematic heavy lifting. In other words, if asked by a Concerned Parent as to whether 40k would be appropriate for, say, their 13-year-old kids, my general answer would be, “Yeah, sure.”

(Where this breaks down? When people forget to be “in on it” where “it” is, spoiler alert, that humanity are the bad guys.5 Given the usual state of intellectual rigor in nerd communities, I suspect a lot of people are not, in fact, “in on it” which… sigh. Go figure.)

Anyway. Tl;dr, I… actually really like the 40k universe a lot more than I thought it would. It’s kind of that Exact Right Mix between silly, ((I mean, the main faction of “face” Space Marines are a freakin’ paint pun.)) tongue-in-cheek GRIM DARK, gothic aesthetics, good ol’ fashioned ultra-violence, and color-coded-pop-culture-astrology-style factionalism.6 Minor quibbles are the fact that, apparently, no one other than Anglo Europeans exist in the 41st millennium—though props at least to Games Workshop for including some women in its photos of people playing the game—and that so much freakin’ time is spent on the Imperium in general and Space Marines in particular who are, let’s face it, the least interesting parts of the setting by far.

That being said, there is, apparently, a 40k RPG supplement line focused on the Forces of Chaos which, hm. Sounds right up my alley. I wonder if our Local Gaming Store has it in stock…

Next up: Put on your pirate hat, because it’s time to visit Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Mocklore!

  1. Or Starfinder and Shadowrun, for that matter. []
  2. A seriously, seriously underrated MMO. It kinda came out at a bad time and more-or-less flopped, but it’s fun and silly and nowadays F2P, and I 100% recommend everyone go check it out. []
  3. coughStarCraftcough []
  4. coughsuperhero comicscough []
  5. Why pick on humanity, specifically? Because the lore makes it pretty clear that the current state of ossification, militant theocracy, and anti-intellectual fascism in the Imperium is basically responsible for the galaxy being the shithole it is. Daemons do as daemons do, but a lot of their ability to enter the galaxy relies on the suffering caused internally within the Imperium. Meanwhile, the Imperium’s irrational xenophobia stops it from teaming up with the Aeldari, T’au, or even Orks against actual existential threats like the Tyranids and Forces of Chaos. Moreover, there’s nothing “inevitable” or “natural” about humanity being shits; they could be better, but choose not to be. Hence, a Villain is You. []
  6. Which House of Space Marine are You? Take This Quiz to Find Out! []