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Friday Five: 5 Terrific Techy Ladies in Sci-Fi

Brave New GirlsThis week's guest is Mary Fan, co-editor of the brand new Brave New Girls. The anthology collects science fiction stories featuring "brainy young women who use their smarts to save the day". That is to say: it not only brings readers a whole pack of awesome role models, but they're also clever stories featuring brains over brawn.

All proceeds from Brave New Girls are being donated to a scholarship fund set up by the Society of Women Engineers, so buy with confidence - you're not just reading about bright futures, you're helping make them. With no further ado, we'll hand over to Mary...


It’s no secret that there aren’t a lot of women in science and tech, both in the real world and in fiction. Which is a shame, really. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem around this issue—are techy women not depicted in sci-fi because they’re rare in real life, or are they rare in real life because girls don’t see themselves depicted in those roles and therefore don’t pursue those careers? The fact is, pop culture is a powerful influencer, especially on girls and teenagers. And the scary thing is, your career is dictated by decisions you make as an impressionable kid (think about it… the college major you pick at age 19 determines whether or not you’ll become a research scientist).

While there are plenty of ladies in sci-fi, they’re usually not put in the science and tech-based roles. The scientists, hackers, engineers, etc. are usually guys. But every so often, you’ll stumble upon a character that makes you go, “Yes! More of her, please!” Here are five brainy sci-fi ladies who use their smarts to save the day:

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Friday Five: 5 Jaunty Jolts of Joe R. Lansdale

Paradise Sky_A very specific Friday Five this week, to celebrate the release of Paradise Sky, the new Western from Joe Lansdale. Lansdale is the author of everything from the bizarro horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep to the apocalyptic creepiness of The Drive-In to the steampunk hijinks of Zeppelins West to the rural noir of The Thicket to the long-running Hap and Leonard mysteries.

He is a personal favourite not only for his versatility, but for the incredible quality. Whatever Lansdale's writing, be it fun or somber, humorous or horrific, it is always a delight to read.

So... where to start? Or, if you've nibbled on a bit of Lansdale's writing, what to try next? Below, five of my favourites, all from different genres...

Savage Season (1990)

Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are one of the best detective duos in fiction, full stop. Imagine Sherlock and Watson, except without money, education, superhuman talents, a medical degree or any sense of Victorian dignity. So, really, don't imagine them at all. Hap and Leonard are both washed out West Texans ... general do-gooders, with day jobs that range from working at a deck chair factory to dubious 'security' gigs.

Hap thinks of himself as an ex-hippie pacifist (he's not, really) and Leonard is 100% pure hardness (except for his love of vanilla cookies) - as you'd need to be as a gay black man in rural Texas. Savage Season not only introduces the duo, but is an excellent example of one of their classic darkly comedic adventures, with betrayal, skulduggery, sleazebags and... a rather powerful emotional core.

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Friday Five: 5 Great Steampunk Writings that Aren't Actually Steampunk

This week's Friday Five host is Andrew Kane, co-creator, producer, writer, and voice actor for Rude Alchemy: serial radio theatre-style podcasts melding history, mystery, horror, and comedy available for free on iTunes, Stitcher, and He has written plays for children and adults including The Resurrectionists (developed by 1812 Productions) and Little Red (developed by Montgomery Theater). He plays guitar and sings in the roots-punk band Old Town Wake.

He is also, judging by the list that follows, a man of impeccable taste...

In the land of speculative fiction, steampunk has blossomed from spunky upstart to sub-genre titan. Steampunk and its lesser-appreciated nieces and nephews cyberpunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, nanopunk, etc. have stirred the imagination of millions worldwide, spawning blogs packed with colorful stories, tumblr accounts dripping with gorgeous fan art, and conventions teeming with velocipede-riding, mustache-twirling, hoople-skirt wearing true believers. People, steampunk has its own World’s Fair.

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Friday Five: 5 Sharks on the Silver Screen

SharkpunkThis week's Friday Five is from Jonathan Green, with a selection of films you can really get your teeth into... And on the subject of fanged terrors of the deep, Sharkpunk! is out now from Snowbooks. You can find this massive new anthology on sale directly from the publishers or from your favourite bookstore.

There's a signing at Forbidden Planet this weekend, and, even if you can't make it, you can reserve your scrawled-upon copy now.

I’ve always had a fascination for sharks – a morbid fascination, I suppose – ever since I watched Jaws, late one night, unknown to my parents, on a small black and white TV with really poor reception, in my bedroom. Nonetheless, the suspense and the shocks still hit home – despite the sadly lacking home cinema experience – so much so that when I was snorkelling off the Whitsunday Islands in Australia, swimming from our boat to the nearest island, I convinced myself that a Great White must be within only a few metres of me. That thought alone, that out in the ocean I was trespassing on Jaws’ turf, as it were, was enough to set my heart racing. And I loved it!

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Friday Five: 5 Goodies from Gutenberg

Were-wolfI'm a Project Gutenberg addict. I mean, I have a real problem. As Anne can testify, I'll spend hours just going through the 'recent uploads' section, admiring the latest text conversions of 19th century French botanical diaries.

I've listed five of my favourite recent finds - some are fun, some are genuinely great, some are flat-out bizarre. Please share your own Gutenberg discoveries in the comments, the more the merrier!

The Were-Wolf by Clemence Housman (1896)

Cleverly titled in a way that, if you were actually searching for werewolf stories, you'd never find it. I searched this out when compiling that list of Lovecraft's recommendations, and it is a treat. A short, Weird fantasy, based in a vaguely Scandinavian setting. The 'were-wolf' isn't quite the figure that you'd expect, and the ultimate conflict: a literal race against time, is genuinely harrowing. Plus, there are foxy (wolfy?) illustrations by Laurence Housman. (Read it here.)

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Friday Five: 5 Literary Looks at Las Vegas

I've never been to Las Vegas, which I feel is some sort of failing as a man, an American and a consumer of pop culture. Television and cinema both tell me that I've missed out on a lot of character-building. Alas. Someday.

That said, I've always been fascinated by its portrayal in literature. This is especially true for genre fiction, which perfects suits the essence of Vegas: a place where anything can happen.

Here are five of the many books that explore the possibilities:

Cover_bigChoke Hold

I suspect Vegas literature is dominated by three things: the Mafia, gambling and prostitution. All of which we'll cover off below. But there's a distant - and compelling - fourth in boxing. Christa Faust's Choke Hold (2011) is an even more contemporary interpretation of the literature of blood sport, set in the fast-paced and brutal world of Mixed Martial Arts. 

Choke Holis the second mystery (Hard Case Crime, no less) featuring Angel Dare. In the first, Money Shot, Angel uncovers a murderous plot set in the adult film industry. In Choke Hold, Faust isn't sparing with the metaphoric comparison: she paints MMA is a world just as lurid, crippling, destructive and compellingly, pruriently visceral as porn. It is the retail - and slaughter - of highly-specialised human bodies for entertainment purposes. And, naturally, the perfect setting for violent crime. Faust's Vegas - a hub for both the sex and violence industries - as the crossroads: a place where people go to make bargains, to sell themselves, and, ultimately, leave in a tragedy.

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Friday Five: 5 Podcasts for Fantasy Fans

This week's guest is Christian Madera, co-creator of The Once And Future Nerd. The long-running serial features three high school kids - Billy, Jen and Nelson - who find themselves swept into the fantasy kingdom of Iorden. With all the benefits and challenges (mostly the latter) that entails...

[The episodes are about 20-25 minutes each, which is eerily perfect for my morning commute, and I'm having a blast listening to them.]

We asked Christian to recommend a few of his favourite podcasts, and he's obliged rather spectacularly... 

The Adventure Zone Flat_14The Adventure Zone

Elevator Pitch: Three very funny podcasters play a D&D campaign with their Dad.

Review: The Brothers McElroy have spent years honing their comedic banter game on their tongue-in-cheek advice show My Brother, My Brother, and Me. For whatever reason, that show, while slick, funny, and well-done, never captured my attention. But the added Fantasy bent of their Dungeons and Dragons spin-off was the hook I needed to fall in love with their unique style. In The Adventure Zone, Travis and Justin McElroy, and their Dad (himself a broadcasting veteran and geek before it was cool) play through a D&D 5E campaign, with Griffin McElroy taking the role of DM.

They begin with the default quest in the 5E player's handbook, but the campaign soon branches off into a surprisingly fascinating world of Griffin's devising. The snarky asides remain enjoyable throughout, but what really makes the show for me is Griffin's morbidly hilarious combat commentary and smartly specific character work as various ridiculous NPCs. And of course the constant delight the players take in annoying their DM. The first episode is a bit mechanics-heavy, as you might expect, but stick it out through the first battle and you'll be glad you did.

SFW-ness: Curse words and drug references, but it never feels gratuitous

Find it at: or search "Adventure Zone" on iTunes

If you love this, try: My Brother My Brother and Me or Sawbones for more McElroy family banter, Party Roll or Drunks & Dragons for further comedic RPG action

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Friday Five: 5 Next Generation Netflix Defenders

Today is officially Daredevil Day - yes, officially. The UN has issued a… thing ('edict'? doesn't sound very UNish, does it? And 'proclamation' sounds like something Regina would issue in Once Upon A Time). Let's start over.

So the UN has declared Friday 10th April 2015 to be Daredevil Day in honour of the launch of the first Marvel Netflix series.

And, while obviously you're all off watching all thirteen episodes back to back, when you're done, here's a subject for you to consider. After Daredevil comes Jessica Jones, then Luke Cage, then Iron Fist before they all get together to be The Defenders. But what then?

Who else should Marvel Studios bring into the Netflix fold to be part of the more street level part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Here are five (well, technically seven) suggestions...

Cloak and Dagger

CloakLet's just get the fact that the name/concept connection is outrageously forced out of the way first so we can focus on how great the pairing was from its very first appearance. Tammy and Tyrone are runaway teenagers who made it to New York only to fall victim to a mob plan to test new designer drugs on the youth that have fallen through the cracks. Most of the victims die, but Tammy and Tyrone emerge from the tests changed.

Tammy's light daggers are formidable weapons, and also the only thing able to keep the darkness that Tyrone is able to channel 'fed' - unless he lets it consume life energy. His darkness also allows him to teleport and to consign enemies to a dark dimension. Their origin is one of the grimmest in the Marvel canon, and even allows for some typical Marvel angst - Tyrone is tortured by the fact that Tammy is forced to stay with him to prevent his darkness feeding on innocents, even though she could, in theory, return to a normal life. 

Appearing initially in Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, Cloak and Dagger had their own limited series, a well-regarded meeting with the New Mutants, and went on to an unfortunately sporadic career in the Marvel U. An attempt to retcon their origin to make them mutants when mutants were The Big Thing is probably, hopefully gone by the wayside, and it's past time that they got the kind of attention that a TV series would give them. 

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Friday Five: 5 Excellently Epic Fantasy Comics

Joe the BarbarianI've been known to moan - a lot - that epic fantasy doesn't seem to translate well into comic book format. I'm not wholly sure why. Different storytelling structures, perhaps? (Your theories in the comments, please.)

But all my moaning and theorising aside, there are some great ones. Here are five comics that succeeded in putting the fantasy into four-colour fun (Or vice versa.)

As always, please share your favourites in the comments - the more the merrier!

Red Sonja

Gail Simone's Red Sonja (2013+) is my undisputed favourite, and, frankly, the inspiration for this post. Dynamite, of all publishers,  seem to be leading the charge on progressive comics (great piece on that from The Cultural Gutter), and Red Sonja is a perfect fusion of the pulpy past and modern-day sensibilities. That is to say, she's got a chainmail bikini and agency.

But over and above Gail Simone (and Walter Geovani's) surprising success in turning a pin-up into a feminist icon, Red Sonja is also a brilliant fantasy adventure. The first volume, Queen of the Plagues, is a strong start - an epic that involves an evil army, flashbacks to Sonja's gladiatorial past and a mysterious 'anti-Sonja' villain. The structure will be familiar to contemporary fantasy readers, with two timelines rushing towards the same conclusions, and revelations in one being explained in the other.

Red Sonja

However, the second volume, The Art of Blood and Fire, is where ;Red Sonja really hits its stride: telling a fantasy story that feels like it could only work as a comic - highly visual, cunningly serialised, episodic, but with a triumphant conclusion. Sonja is sent on a - essentially - scavenger hunt, finding a half dozen great 'artists' for a dying emperor. Each task has its own difficulties: some are physically challenging, some are tests of cunning, others surprisingly intimate and emotionally draining. And, in the background, the clock is ticking.

Red Sonja one of the best fantasy stories of 2014, in any format, and my personal gold standard for fantasy comics.

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Friday Five: Discworld's 5 Best Supporting Characters

Graeme Neill is a journalist who has been blogging his complete Discworld read at the brilliantly named Pratchett Job. He can also be found tweeting geek ephemera @gnei11. With no further ado, here's Graeme and five of his friends...

Feet-of-clay-2The warmth of tributes to Terry Pratchett’s passing - from Neil Gaiman’s sadness at the death of a friend to Nick Harkaway’s exploration of his comedic chops - showed just how loved he was. Broadly ignored by critics and awards, Pratchett was content to write deeply intelligent, complex and hilarious novels that sold and were adored in their millions. I’m sure he coped.

I loved Pratchett as a teen before stupidly putting him to one side for ‘Grown Up’ books. For the past six months I have been making up for my teenage idiocy by reading the Discworld from the start and writing about each book in publication order here. Because Pratchett was the line that links my childhood reading with what I love as an adult. It was time I started looking at that.

There is a myriad of things to love about Discworld but among the best is how it feels like a real place. Even his supporting characters are written with a care and attention that demonstrates his strength as a writer. By way of tribute to Pratchett and his Discworld, I want to put the spotlight on my favourite background players.

1. Cheery Littlebottom

First on the list is easy. It’s CSI: Ankh-Morpork. Cheery is a dwarven forensic expert first seen in Feet of Clay, a character we quickly learn is a woman. Female dwarves have beards and adhere to masculine cultural rules. Sex is, well, confusing. Cheery’s exploration of her femininity, experimenting with heels, make-up and jewellery, could be played for quite offensive laughs.

Pratchett is much better than that. Why Feet of Clay is an amazing book, one of his best, is that it’s about acts of rebellion, from the golem who cannot cope with gaining its own agency and murders as a result, to Vimes, Captain of the City Watch, who refuses to let his butler shave him. Through Cheery looking to break the gender roles dictated to her and the emotional and societal difficulties she faces in doing so, Pratchett humanises the golem’s own struggle and makes the book that much more complex and better as a consequence.

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