2017. It was the year where the wild west of indie science fiction, building on the momentum of previous years, surpassed the traditional publishers. It was the year when Marvel Comics collapsed, shuttering comics shops in its fall. It was the year when Disney divided Star Wars enthusiasts. When passion project games scored big and loot boxes tumbled Electronic Arts’ stocks. And amid these highs, lows, and controversies, a host of writers and artists brought forth a cornucopia of excellent stories, games, movies, and more. Come join the Castalia House bloggers as we discuss the standouts of 2017.
Jon Mollison: Every year selecting a “Best Short Story” gets harder and harder. Multiple modern-style short magazines coming out on a regular basis like Cirsova and StoryHack and Astounding Frontiers, to say nothing of the host of great collections such as MAGA 2020, Tales of the Once and Future King, and (to toot my horn, but it includes some stellar works by other authors,) Paragons. And yet, the best author working in the medium today remains Schuyler Hernstrom. His “The Last American”, featured in the fifth issue of Cirsova, hit all the right notes. By turns brash and touching, it is a kitchen-sink adventure complete with astronauts, wild-haired barbarians, lizard men, and oh, so much more. Despite his over-the-top setting and anything-goes style, Hernstrom manages those all-important character touches that breathe real life into far flung futures populated by wild-haired barbarian. It’s a standout, even in such crowded company.
Rawle Nyanzi: Morningwood: Everybody Loves Large Chests Vol. 1. I’ll be honest — I bought this book because of the title and the babe on the cover. I was expecting a romantic comedy of some sort, but what I got was one of the most original takes on fantasy I have ever seen. It was my first introduction to the LitRPG genre, and the video-gamey aspects actually mesh well with the story since all the numbers are shown to have real-world effects. It should be noted that the setting is not treated as a fictional video game in-story, so the game-like aspects truly create a sense of the alien and fantastic.
Jon: Nick Cole and Jason Anspach brought the hot new girl to the literary prom this year with Galaxy’s Edge. Everybody that reads this series becomes and enthusiastic fan of it. As I loved their earlier works, I was late to the party. The marketing strategy of “Star Wars, forked”, coming in the midst of a general desire to turn away from that IP was a turn off, as was the notion of starting a multi-volume epic. Man, was I wrong to wait. Galaxy’s Edge: Legionnaire was the best book produced in 2017, and 2017 was a great year for novels. It’s been a while since I’ve read a mil-SF novel with such engaging characters, such direct relevance to our own modern conflicts, and that left me wanting more of the same. The action moves at a ripping pace as the characters move from frying pan to fire and back again with just enough moments of quiet reflection to keep the reader from burning out on adrenaline. Legionnaire also manages to capture the fun of a Galaxy spanning Space Opera despite the fact that most of the action takes place on one backwaters planet on the fringes of civilization – a neat trick and one of just many that I’m not exactly sure how Anspach and Cole pulled off. All I know is that they did pull it off, and now I’m ready for the robe and bucket that is the standard garb of the Galaxy’s Edge cult, because the first book was so good, I’m one of THEM now.
Nathan: Like Jon said, 2017 was an excellent year for science fiction novels, with such stiff competition for readers’ attention as Richard Fox’s Iron Dragoons, Brian Niemeier’s The Ophian Rising, Vaughn Heppner’s A.I. Wars, and Jay Allan’s Blood on the Stars. For my pick, I’ll go to the other breakout series of 2017, Mark Wandrey’s and Chris Kennedy’s the Four Horsemen Cycle, for Cartwright’s Cavaliers. After graduating from high school, Jim Cartwright is too fat and slow to join the family interstellar mercenary company. After his mom bankrupts the company and steals any stipend he might receive, Jim has to go to work reviving the family business, with nothing more than a company of museum pieces and a squad of crusty old sergeants. If he can pull himself together under the tutelage of his NCOs and rise to the challenge, that is. If he can shake a lifetime of failure. Wandrey combines the spirit of Heinlein’s juveniles with Ringo’s military science fiction action and a touch of anime giant robot madness–just a touch–to create a rousing coming of age story peppered with love, railgun fire, and other distractions. At the same time, Cartwright’s Cavaliers provides the deep world-building and intrigue to anchor the entire Four Horsemen Cycle–a playground in which the best indie and traditional mil-sf writers have flocked to play in.
Jon: The tail end of 2017 brought with it a surprise entrant for Best Video Game. When I started writing my own works in earnest this year, time constraints required that video games be placed on the shelf. My children have no such constraint, and the sheer delight and frustration they expressed at the helm of Cuphead lead me to take a spin at the controls. This game deserves all of the hype. The play is smooth, the challenges real – but not overwhelming – and the art and sound are truly engaging. Even for players who are not enamored of the platformer genre, and for those of us who can feel the effects of age on our fast-twitch reactions, Cuphead manages to provide both suspense and laughs. And so for the first time in a long time, the whole family gathered around the computer to play and cheer each other on. Even the family matriarch, a non-gamer if ever there was one, couldn’t resist joining in on the fun. When a game can capture the attention of both grognard and normie, you know you’re dealing with something special. Cuphead deserves all the praise it has received and even more.
Anthony: Finding Paradise, from Freebird Games is the sequel to one of my favorite games ever, so my expectations are high. While it never reaches To the Moon’s highs it’s still a moving and philosophically fascinating story with a great high concept sci-fi premise. Finding Paradise is an excellent game (or more accurately, really, interactive novel). The story moves slowly at first but the payoff is more than worth it. It’s funny, sometimes hilarious, it’s moving, it’s clever, and it tackles bold philosophical questions with intelligence and great humanity. Kan Gao really does do it again, and I give Finding Paradise my highest recommendation.
Jon: Hey there, hardcore tabletop types, my name is Jon, and I’m a busy family man. Your 2,000 counter Star Fleet games frighten and confuse me. I’ve got 45 minutes to play, and have to make room at the table for a 4-year old and a 17-year old. Both girls. Thanks to those challenges, I managed to find a neat little gem of a game called Rally Run. It’s a quick and dirty Euro game that combines the backstabbing of a Diplomacy with the cognitive memory demands of a, well…of a Memory. You drive a little wooden car through a 5 by 5 grid of tiles, only revealing each tile as you enter, and flipping the road side back down once you leave. If your tile is a dead-end, you’ll have to spend a turn switching two face-down tiles to make any progress. The result is a slow starting game that turns into a vicious cycle of move-block-and try to remember where the tile you need is. While the game works as a 2-player game, it shines when 4 players sit down. Trying to balance the need for moving forward while blocking your foes while remembering which tile went where is enough to drive a player crazy. Rally Run might be short, cheap, and designed for children, but that doesn’t stop it from being a lot of fun to play.
Jon: Unlike the written word, where the struggle is selecting the best from a pile of excellent works, when it comes to cinema the challenge is finding the least bad of a lot of terrible choices. Dunkirk was a strong contender, but Nolan’s tricks have become so self-evident that they sucked me out of the narrative on a regular basis. Logan broke new ground in the superhero genre by trying to be dark and edgy and mature, but took the coward’s route when it came to checking all the right Hollywood boxes. Which leaves Kong: Skull Island as the last man standing. It’s not a film without problems – this is the Current Year, after all – but it’s also a film that embraced the pulp ethos and provided a pulse-pounding adventure in an alien land with a decent jolt of heroism and just a touch of romance. Many critics complained that the leads (Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson) were bland cutouts, which completely misses the fact that the lead is a twenty story gorilla that beats the holy living blazes out of fifty attack helicopters. It’s dumb, over the top fun that embraces its role and succeeds despite my low expectations. It’s not much of a movie of the year, but until somebody cleans the modern Augean Stables that we call Hollywood, it is as good as we can expect.
Nathan: Japan’s love letter to American superhero comics continues in My Hero Academia season 2. There is no rest for Izuku “Deku” Midoriya and his classmates at U. A. Academy, the leading high school for superheroes in Japan. On the heels of a villainous invasion of the school, Deku and friends are thrust into the yearly tournament, their one and only chance to impress the superheroes who will take them on as interns. Afterwards, Deku comes face to face with the cost of being a hero, and the hidden battles that scarred his mentor, All-Might, the Superman of his world. Deku grows into his strength this season, shedding some of his fanboyish nerdiness for confidence while keeping his underdog charm. The rest of his class gets a chance to shine, as My Hero Academia mixes in schoolroom comedy tropes in with the superhero action. While there is a dark edge to the hidden events and the villains, My Hero Academia takes heroism as a serious and admirable goal to attain. Gone are the hypocrisies and cynicism that fills modern comics. The dub is polished, shouty but serviceable. It is a shame that Funimation continues to play their decade-long editing games, shaving seconds from the show that may depict the female characters as anything other than unflappable American-style Action Grrls. But if you are missing Big Heroes, are tired of Hydra Captain America and similar subversions, and can’t wait for the next Incredibles, check out Japan’s school for gifted youngsters.
Anthony: Your Name directed by Makoto Shinkai. It has an incredibly ambitious premise that seamlessly switches genres several times but holds together thanks to Shinkai’s near flawless direction. The premise behind “Your Name” is rife with landmines. A teenage girl named Mitsuha living in the Japanese countryside makes a wish that she will be able to live as a Japanese boy from the city. One day, with no explanation, she finds that she has switched bodies with a teenage boy named Taki, and Taki has switched places with her…and then after a few days of this they switch back. This occurs periodically, with seemingly nothing in particular precipitating the change. Then after that…well…that’s what I don’t want to spoil. Your Name is astonishingly traditional in its take on the roles of the sexes, acknowledging that there are differences and then moving on with the story. It (mercifully) gets its “OMG different genitals!!!!!” jokes out of the way quickly then moves on without dwelling on the idea. The story surprised me in ways I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised before, and was utterly engrossing. The romance was touching, of course, as it must be if this movie is to be any good. The final scene of the movie is one of my all-time favorites.
Nathan: 2017 was a tumultuous year, with the highs of Batman: Metal and Mister Miracle, lows such as Dynamite’s The Shadow and IDW’s G. I. Joe, and the continued decline of the industry’s sucking chest wound, Marvel. Obscured by the endless march of controversy, European comics continued to fill the English-speaking market. And 2017 saw the release of landmark classics into English, many for the first time, including the final volume of Valerian and Laureline, The Time Opener, and an expanded edition of The Obscure Cities: Samaris. But it is Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese who takes this year’s crown, with Corto Maltese: In Siberia. After an intoxicatingly fantastic encounter with a fortune teller in Venice, wandering sailor Corto Maltese is hired “by the Red Lanterns—a Chinese secret society made up entirely of women—to find an armored train laden with gold that belonged to the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II.” But to get the treasure, he must play the Great Game, unable to trust his companions, including Rasputin and Shanghai Lil, as English, American, Mongolian, Chinese, and White Russian forces try to be the first to reach and recover the gold. Hailed as the father of literary comics, Pratt mixes myth, poem, and history together to create a literate and cultured examination of his characters’ motives and treacheries alongside the action of a great train robbery. The art utilizes the stark contrast of black against white, giving the work a gravity to match its erudition.
Jon: If you’re a historical wargamer, and you aren’t already listening to “Wargames to Go“, then you are missing out. Host Mark Johnson is pretty much the Dan Carlin of wargames. He provides long and engaging analyses and discussion of historical chapters from a hex-and-counter wargamer’s point of view. His podcast slips into the perfect median between funny and dry, and the one between friendly and impersonal. He regularly selects a topic – currently the French and Indian War – and delves into it with gusto. A fan of all wargames, his detailed reviews and commentary and his general preference for shorter games, means that he can discuss a huge number of hex and counter wargames that deal with his current topic. He rounds out each hour-plus long episode with interviews with game designers, and then discusses books and films specifically watched to help gain a feel for his current subject. The result is a fascinating cross sectional look at the chosen chapter of history that dives far deeper and makes connections far broader than your typical wargame podcast.
Nathan: Science fiction enthusiasts need to check out Sci-Fi Bridge, the mailing list of mailing lists by science fiction writers Jason Aspach, Rhett Bruno, and Chris Porteau. I’ll let the site speak for itself: “One day we came up with the idea to bring together Sci-Fi authors from every background — traditionally published and independent writers, as well as bestselling and emerging authors. Our mission: to bring readers quality content from the genre they all love directly to their inbox. Every week, subscribers to the Sci-Fi Bridge newsletter will receive an email spotlighting deals and new releases from carefully selected Sci-Fi authors. We hope to bring you new works from your favorite authors and help you discover new ones.” By participating in its monthly book giveaway and contest, readers can sign up for Sci-Fi Bridge and participating authors’ mailing lists–and guaranteeing at least four free books. Sci-Fi Bridge is an excellent way to follow favorite authors, find new favorites, and keep track of new releases, sales, and exclusives–such as the novella “Galaxy’s Edge: Tin Man.”