31 May 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part XII: Manhunter: Forgotten

Comic trade paperback, 189 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2008-09)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2017
Manhunter: Forgotten

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artist: Michael Gaydos
Additional Artists: Carlos Magno, Dennis Calero, Fernando Blanco, Brad Walker, & Livesay
Colorists: Jose Villarrubia, Dennis Calero
Letterers: Sal Cipriano, Travis Lanham

In my first review of the series, I compared Manhunter to Alias. Well, for the final volume of Manhunter, the art is by none other than Michael Gaydos, the principal artist of Alias. But far from making Manhunter feel derivative, hiring Gaydos reveals the differences between Manhunter and Alias... though sort of in a bad way. What I mean by this is that superhero action doesn't really play to Gaydos's strengths as an artist, and Manhunter is much more action-packed than Alias ever was.

Gaydos drawing what Gaydos draws best: people having conversations. I would argue that he's one of few comics artists who can draw someone in a bra and not sexualize it.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #32 (art by Michael Gaydos)

In this volume, Kate ends up in El Paso when she hears about a lot of women going missing. To my immense pleasure, this means she ends up encountering Blue Beetle and La Dama! I was going to complain that Andreyko gets things slightly wrong in having Jaime's suit speak in English, but I think I'm slightly out of sequence here, so maybe this reflects events to come in future issues of Blue Beetle I haven't read yet. Jaime doesn't play a big role in the story, though, which sees Kate encounter the Birds of Prey and the Suicide Squad as she battles the evils of medical experimentation. It's a decent story, displaying Kate's stick-to-itivness and no-bullshit attitude, as she refuses to accept platitudes and non-explanations, and the way she handles things in the end nicely melds her two roles.

30 May 2017

Hugos 2017: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Trade paperback, 448 pages
Published 2017 (originally 2016)

Acquired and read May 2017
Terra Ignota, Book I: Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer

I feel like it's been a long time since I was reading a book so much for the world in which it took place-- maybe Hyperion? Ada Palmer is a professor of history, and has spun a fascinating world, a future where the speed of travel means that nation-states based on geography became meaningless, religious wars led to the outlawing of organized religion, and public performance of gender has become taboo. Every couple chapters brings a new and interesting insight, and Palmer works in her exposition by having her narrator address the audience he imagines will read the book five hundred years hence, who might not know all the details of his time, allowing those of us four hundred years behind him some needed clarifications as well.

The book has a dizzying array of characters and a complicated plot, which sometimes made it hard going to me. Even once I got to the end, I wasn't really sure what the focus of the book was supposed to have been: the last chapter drops in some pretty dramatic revelations, but they feel immensely distant to what the rest of the book has been about, even though it was about many things (a kid with miraculous powers, a break-in with unclear motivation, a global power grab). And I found the narrator a little hard to get hold of. I know this is deliberate, and details are slowly dolled out about him, but I still don't know what motivates him. He seems to do a lot of different things, but what does he want to do, and what does he think about what he does do? I know less than I feel I ought to after 400-plus pages.

That said, these feel like quibbles because I really did enjoy the experience of reading it so much. Palmer is imaginative, and her ideas compelling; this world feels both plausible and alien, and given that history is plausible and alien, this seems exactly right. I particularly liked the characters of Carlyle Foster and the Major; I hope we see more of them in the book II that is necessary to finish off the story of this one.

This is the first of the finalists for the Hugo Award for Best Novel I've read; I'll be curious to see how the others stack up to this one. There are ways in which it will be hard to beat!

Next Week: The beginning of a cross-time saga in The Three-Body Problem!

29 May 2017

Review: Time, Unincorporated, Vol. 2 edited by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?

Trade paperback, 365 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 1978-2010)

Acquired August 2012
Read August 2016
Time, Unincorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives, Vol. 2: Writings on the Classic Series
edited by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?

First off, I want to discuss some weird editorial choices, not all of which are necessarily the fault of this book and its editors. The first is the awful subtitle, Writings on the Classic Series. The book was announced under the title Classic Series Cornucopia (which is perhaps worse), while the running head thinks it's called Writings About the Classic Series (which is miscapitalized) and the foreword calls it Backwards In Time. The second is that the foreword promises at least four more volumes of Time, Unincorporated: one on the new series, one on "the universe of Doctor Who (including non-televised versions of Doctor Who)," one culled exclusively from the fanzine Time-Space Visualizer, and one from Matrix. Only the first of these actually appeared, curtailing Time, Unincorporated at three volumes. The problem this causes is that no essays from TSV or Matrix appear in this volume-- but, for some reason, there are around a dozen essays original to this volume, which hardly feels like a "best of." It's a shame these were included instead of TSV/Matrix essays, given that volumes four and onwards are MIA.*

Now: the book itself. It was pretty good. It wasn't great, but I can't think of any essays that were outright bad (with one exception), and many were great. I think it's kind of borderline to call the website The Doctor Who Ratings Guide a "fanzine," but I appreciated that the book had many contributions from Mike Morris, probably my favorite contributor to the DWRG back in the days when I pored over it nonstop. My favorite was probably "10 Official Writer's Guidelines for the Pertwee Era," which gently mocks the Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks era of the show. (I was sad they didn't have Morris's essay on Season 21, though, or very many contributions from Rob Matthews, another DWRG regular. The season reviews both did were usually excellent.)

Other highlights include Dave Rolinson's "Is Who Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", a surprisingly literate and theory-informed feminist take on the show; Gian-Luca Di Rocco's "Is the Doctor a Pacifist?" (no, of course not); Matthew Kilburn's examination of authorship in television in "Was There a Hinchcliffe era?" (not to mention Dave Rolinson's in "Authorship in the John Nathan-Turner Era"); Graeme Burk's "Miss Wright," which explains of why Barbara Wright is the best companion and inspired me to rewatch The Edge of Destruction; Colin and Anthony Wilson's "Occam's Daleks," a surprisingly compelling take on Dalek history (we didn't need another one but I liked it anyway!); and the essay in four parts, "Ghost Light: Four Views" by Kate Orman, Steven Caldwell, Nathan Bottomley, and Dallas Jones, is an excellent dissection of an excellent story, especially its biological, literary, and historical allusions.

As someone for whom the 1980s are largely a peak period of Doctor Who (minus Seasons 22 and 24), I was glad to see that the essays throughout the volume were largely celebratory. I mean, I think Season 17 is largely bunk, but many folks think the same about Season 19, so why not celebrate everything instead of slagging it? But the early John Nathan-Turner stories, in particular, come in for some due appreciation, not to mention that there's an essay celebrating The Trial of a Time Lord, though I wish Emily Monagahn's "Greater Than the Sum of its Parts" could just come out and say Mindwarp is excellent because it is. On the other hand, it's hard for me to disagree with Mike Morris's slagging of Season 22 in "Untrue Grit"! It really is a nadir of the program.

I don't know if Scott Clarke's six-part "The Key to a Time Lord" is the worst essay in the book, but it's definitely weak, and because it stretches out across the whole book (it's arranged as interludes between the different sections), you have to keep reading it again and again. Did you know that characterization is a key element of Doctor Who? By gum. It comes from Enlightenment, a 'zine edited by one of this book's co-editors that is probably over-represented in its pages; the other co-editor edits the DWRG, explaining that site's high representation here. Indeed, one last editorial complaint would be that in addition to overrepresenting their pet projects, the editors overrepresent themselves. It seems to me to involve a little chutzpah to pick your own work for a "best of" volume, but both Burk and Smith? have multiple pieces in here.

That said, there's probably no better tribute that halfway through reading this book, like I said, I rewatched The Edge of Destruction, and that upon finishing it, I decided I needed to own more classic Who on DVD-- there are so many gaps in my collection, and this book shows just how good the show is. I want to own it all, but for now, I'm glad I've finally got The Ambassadors of Death on DVD.

* Not that any of the new essays are bad; some of them are among the better essays in the book! But with so much fanzine material I'll never be able to access, I'm sad to miss the opportunity to read more of it.

26 May 2017

Jury-Rigged: My First Car

My first car was a 1990 Toyota Corolla. I bought it with my own money, I guess. (Like I know that money came out of an account in my name, but I'm not exactly sure how that money got in that account, because it predated me having a job or anything. A lifetime's worth of gifts, I think.) I paid $2,000 for it-- my dad arranged for it to be bought off a coworker, actually a year before I was even eligible for a learner's permit, and so it sat in the yard for a year. This would have been in about the year 2000.

I know the acquisition of one's first car is supposed to be an American milestone, especially for boys, but I can't get very worked up about cars. Plus, at the time, I was terrified of driving, and was perfectly happy for my parents to continue to chauffeur me around.  (They were not perfectly happy to do so. My mom wanted me to get my driver's license more than I did.) Still, being able to stay out until 2am at will is a pretty liberating experience for any teenager, even if your main use of the privilege is to watch Babylon 5 and/or play RPGs until late at night.

The car had a good run. Mostly my memories of it now concern all the things that went wrong with it over the years. And thus my memories of it mostly concern the weird ways my father would figure out to repair it on the cheap.

This is not my car. But it's close.

The car had a sun-roof, which was awesome. The sun-roof was very difficult to get to close in such a way that it would actually seal shut, which was less awesome. So basically I could never open the sun-roof for the entire time I owned the car; in fact, I think it only got opened when friends would just poke the button to find out what it did. For some reason the paint on the sun-roof started rusting faster than the paint on the rest of the car, and my dad gave me a spray can of light blue paint to touch it up. Well, the light blue spray paint was not very close to the light blue of the car, so it resulted in a patchy looking sun-roof still. We dealt with this by just painting the entire sun roof, so it was at least internally consistent, and I drove around with a sun-roof of a different color for the rest of the time I owned that car.

Once a friend and I went downtown to see the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. We parked on a bad side street, and foolishly left a bunch of stuff in the backseat. Someone smashed in one of the little triangle windows in the back. My father cut a piece of plexiglass on his bandsaw, and we fitted it into position. No one was smashing though that again. Despite there being a bunch of stuff in the back, the only thing they took was a bag of Funyuns.

Once a bracket on the bottom of the car that held the exhaust pipe in place rusted through, meaning now the pipe was rattling like crazy. My father didn't have a bracket, but he did have a spring. So he wrapped one end of the spring around the pipe and pulled it tight, latching the other end to a random bit of the undercarriage, the tension on the spring meaning the pipe didn't have room it needed to rattle any more.

Once I ran into a deer while driving at night, and the left headlight was pushed backwards into the car by two inches. Whatever had held it in place was now gone, so my dad cut a two-inch block of wood and wedged it in there to stop it from sliding around.

Once all my coolant leaked out and the engine overheated and all sorts of alarms went off and I drove it all the way home anyway. I was later told that this was not a thing I should have done.

I sold that thing in 2008 for $1000 when I got my first full-time job and thus enough money to afford a newer car. I always wondered what the next owner thought whenever he did repairs and saw what my father had made of it. I presume it's not out there in the world anymore, but who knows, it was made of stern stuff.

25 May 2017

Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

I was going to try to make some kind of link between Tess Durbeyfield and River Song, but being women is pretty much all they have in common. I guess they both die? Anyway, I have a review up of series two of The Diary of River Song.

Trade paperback, 518 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1891)

Previously read January and February 2010
Acquired June 2014

Reread October 2014
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

As I skim back through my old lesson plans to write up my most recent reread of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which took place in the context of teaching it, I'm impressed by the number of significant ideas and themes I took note of: evolution, history, women's roles, rape and sexual coercion, truth and selfhood, hidden psychology, and social forces are the ones I noted down-- of course there are many others, too. There's a lot going on in this novel, and you could write papers (or blog posts and blog posts; this is my third) and papers on it and only scratch the surface.

What always impresses about Hardy is his ability to link the cultural to the psychological. (I guess this is really what naturalism is all about, and he was probably its foremost British practitioner.) We perfectly understand the sometimes poor choices that Tess makes, both on the level of the cultural forces operating on her (Victorian society of course had a lot of expectations for the way women should act, which didn't always accord with what they encountered in the real world), and on the level of individual psychology (Tess always has a perfectly good reason to do what she does-- and somehow so does Angel and even Alec!). My students and I came up with the idea of "active passivity" to sum up Tess: she seems to never do anything... but not doing something often requires enormous force of will on her part. She puts so much work into not reacting so that she can fulfill what society expects of her. She's a victim of herself and her circumstances, in a way that really only a Victorian novel can depict.

24 May 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part XI: Blue Beetle: Reach for the Stars

Comic trade paperback, 166 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2017
Blue Beetle: Reach for the Stars

Writers: John Rogers, J. Torres, Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Rafael Albuquerque, David Baldeon, Freddie Williams II
Inkers: Rafael Albuquerque, Steve Bird, Dan Davis
Colorist: Guy Major 
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Pat Brosseau

Yesssss. Blue Beetle is still the quintessential teen superhero book, as John Rogers shows all lesser writers how to balance character, humor, superheroics, and teen angst. Road Trip ended on a cliffhanger, with Blue Beetle making first contact with the alien Reach, responsible for the creation of his mysterious scarab; Reach for the Stars follows that up with a series of standalone one-issue stories, as Jaime tries to convince others that the Reach isn't what it seems. I wish more writers followed Rogers's approach: his done-in-ones are perfect at balancing individual story and character beats with the ongoing plots and narratives of the series, meaning that this slim volume feels like it does more than many fatter comic collections.

The book features a lot of tie-ins to the larger DC universe, with appearances by Guy Gardner and Ultra-Humanite, Superman and Livewire, Traci 13 (the Architects did keep their promise in Architecture & Mortality and fold her into the post-52 universe), Bruce Wayne/Batman, Lobo and the Teen Titans, and Giganta (not sure how her operating as a mercenary here fits with her being a professor at Ivy University in The All New Atom, but maybe I'll find out). These are well-done crowd-pleasers: who doesn't like Paco and Brenda quibbling over the belly shirts all the female members of the Titans wear?

Batman might knock Guy out in one punch, but Jaime's mother doesn't even need one.
from Blue Beetle vol. 8 #14 (script by John Rogers, art by Rafael Albuquerque)

But where John Rogers and his collaborators always excel are the moments of character. A real highlight is a story where Jaime must stop a storm-creating supervillain from devastating a coastal Mexican community. His suit lets him know how many life-signs are active in the community, leading to this devastating page:

23 May 2017

Hugos 2017 [Prelude]: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Quick cross-link: my review of the Doctor Who spin-off The New Counter Measures: Series One was posted to USF today.

Trade paperback, 498 pages
Published 2015

Acquired and read May 2017
The Broken Earth, Book One: The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin

Like last week's Saga, Book One, I'm reading this not because it's nominated for the 2017 Hugos (in fact, it won the 2016 Hugo for Best Novel), but because a follow-up volume in the same series is nominated. A lot of this year's Hugo nominees are later volumes in series, which leaves me with a lot to read!

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn coins a corollary to Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction" (62). The Broken Earth is definitely an embodiment of that idea. Taking place on a world with a dangerously active geology (volcanic eruptions potent enough to cause a "fifth season," i.e., a winter of more than six months, occur every couple centuries, meaning no civilization lasts very long) and where orogenes (think earthbenders from Avatar) are both feared and needed for their power to manipulate Father Earth, Jemisin takes these seemingly fantastic premises and follows them through to their logical conclusions. The worldbuilding is the real strength of this novel-- from language to culture, the Stillness (the ironic name of the continent) feels like a real place, with a politics and history and racial dynamics all its own. There's so much packed in here, so many cool but also dark ideas about how orogenes would be perceived, and how society would evolve to protect itself from the threat of fifth seasons.

It's beautifully told, too, an elevated style that sometimes gets oddly casual, but Jemisin pulls it off. The book follows three parallel narratives, the journeys of three different orogenes, each reacting to titanic events. Jemisin's handling of language is her handling of character, and also her handling of cruelty: in many ways, the apocalyptic world of The Fifth Season is just our own, in all the worse ways. Sometimes, though I got a little lost in the style, having to reread significant passages for comprehension a little too much, and I was a little frustrated that The Fifth Season doesn't stand alone in any sense. The Broken Earth is definitely not multiple stories in a series, but one big story; the end of the book doesn't resolve anything, but introduces more complications. Still, I am excited to read book two, The Obelisk Gate, in a few weeks, and the end portends much.

Next Week: The most rational of futures discovers a miracle in Too Like the Lightning!

22 May 2017

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Trade paperback, 302 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2010)

Acquired January 2017
Read March 2017
Among Others by Jo Walton

I've been telling everyone about this book since I started reading it, and I don't normally promote books like that. But if you like genre fiction and if you had a childhood love of reading and if you ever felt like an outsider, I think you will love this book, a fantasy novel about a science fiction lover set in 1979-80. A really truthful book about loss, the pains of growing up, love, the Welsh countryside, and reading-- with fairies thrown in! Walton's conception of magic is really compelling, and the narrative voice is excellent. A lot packed into this: I'd love to teach it someday, actually!

19 May 2017

Russell T Davies: Still Television's Greatest Writer (Cucumber and Banana)

Obviously everyone can have different opinions about things, and I respect that. I think Thor 2 is the cinematic triumph of the age and you do not; you think Blake's 7 is well written, and I do not. So what? Tastes differ. One opinion I can never understand, though, is that Russell T Davies is not a great writer, nor even a good writer. His five-year run on Doctor Who (2005-10) is probably unparalleled for quality in the show's history, and that is a fact.

I will always be thankful for Doctor Who for introducing me to him as a writer. I went from Doctor Who to Davies's two television programmes featuring future Doctor Whos: Christopher Eccleston in The Second Coming (2003) and David Tennant in Casanova (2005), and then from there to his trailblazing LGBT work in Queer as Folk (1999-2000) and Bob & Rose (2001). I actually haven't gone further back than that, but someday I'm sure I'll watch The Grand (1997-98), Revelations (1994-95), Century Falls (1993), and Dark Season (1991). What I love about Davies is his ability to write characters, the way he writes people who feel completely and totally like they are real people, people who you love not despite their faults, nor even for their faults, but for the complete and total package of which their faults are an inseparable component. I know a lot of people didn't come around on Rose's mom Jackie until late in series 2 of Doctor Who with "Love & Monsters," but I enjoyed her from the very beginning of her first appearance in "Rose" when she demands Rose go to the council for compensation because she both felt very real to me and was very funny.

Bob & Rose is probably my favorite thing he's written. It's about a gay man who falls in love with a woman, and two things stick out at me about it-- one that is that I always tear up at the end of episode 4, when Penelope Wilton chains herself to a bus along with an entire crowd of demonstrators, and the other is that there's a character who makes a series of inarguably morally wrong decisions, and yet you completely understand her and even sympathize with her, like when a friend of yours does something boneheaded yet you love him anything.

Cucumber and Banana (both 2015) were Davies's return to mimetic television (i.e., not sci-fi/fantasy) following his runs on Doctor Who and its various spin-offs. If Queer as Folk, written when Davies was a young gay man, was about the experience of being young and gay, then Cucumber, written when Davies was a middle-aged gay man, is about the experience of being middle-aged and gay. Cucumber starts with a couple, Henry and Lance, who end up separating after an argument, and both wondering if they've wasted their lives with each other. Henry moves in with a bunch of twenty-somethings, pursuing something he will never let himself have, while Lance ends up going after a co-worker who insists he's straight, but keeps giving signals that he's interested in something more.

It's a weird show, to be honest, and it might be my least favorite thing that Davies has written. Which is not to say it's not well-written: it's as chockful of Davies's trademark attention to characterization and moments of humor as ever, and it actually has some genuinely great montages. But there are times it feels very aimless, and Henry is hard guy to like. I understood him, but I wasn't always rooting for him. Or rather, the things I was rooting for him to do were things I had no interest in him doing. The end of the show brought things into perspective, though, and I'd be curious to see how the revelations of the last conversation Henry has would impact my rewatching of the show-- while at the same time it feels like the Davies show I'm least likely to actually want to rewatch.

But still, some parts of it are so impressive: Henry's inadvertent creation of a "porn empire" that he both loves and despises, especially because of his discomfort about how the newest generation does not experience discomfort over being gay; or the part where Henry gets out of sex by inadvertently pretending he's just delaying sex to make the other guy want it more; or the sixth episode which is almost impossible to discuss if you're trying to be vaguely spoiler free (and I am); or a bit in episode 7 where three of the main characters drive around trying to triangulate the location of a Welshman based on distances given on Grindr, but end up trapped in a car in the middle of a rainstorm and sharing deeper parts of themselves for the first time ever (well, except for Dean, because there is no deepness to Dean).

Cucumber was accompanied by Banana an eight-episode anthology series whose episodes alternate with those of Cucumber (i.e., you watch Cucumber episode 1, then Banana episode 1, then Cucumber 2, then Banana 2, and so on). The main character of each episode of Banana is a side character of some varying level of importance in Cucumber. The main character of episode 1, for example is a main character in all of Cucumber, while the main character of episode 5 appears in only a single scene of Cucumber, and the main character of episode 4 hasn't even appeared in Cucumber at the time you see her in Banana. Davies himself writes episodes 1, 2, and 8, while the other ones are all by new, young, queer writers.

Like any anthology, Banana is highly variable, but when it's good, it's good. Davies's writing, for obvious reasons, tends to focus on white gay men, but Banana runs the whole gamut-- anything that involves queer relationships is essentially fair game. So we have stories about lesbians living with a romantic partner for the first time, and about a trans woman who has a well-meaning family she can't quite connect with post-transition, and about a gay guy who goes to the big city for university and disapproves of his best friend from back home's impending wedding, and about a woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder who can't have anything nice because she always fantasizes about things going wrong.

My favorites were 2, 4, and 6, but they're all good, and they're greater than the sum of their parts. Like one of the best things about Banana is that even though each episode of it stands alone (episode 4, the one about the trans woman, is well worth watching, for example), its diversity as a whole is one of its strengths. There is no single relationship narrative, or even queer romance narrative, and Banana captures so many different facets of human existence in eight 25-minute chunks. Watching it in alternation with Cucumber is fun, because when background characters have had an episode of Banana to themselves, their reappearances in Cucumber carry hidden depths. The fact that Davies used his current cachet to promote new queer voices seems amazingly admirable, too: I was particularly impressed with the work of Charlie Covell, who wrote episodes 4 and 6 and starred in episode 6. Hopefully she goes far as a writer and an actor, because she deserves too.

Oh, and the ending of episode 8 is just delightfully, darkly humorous. My wife and I were like, "Did they really???" And they did.

Cucumber was good, but it's definitely over-- when you get to the end, you know it's said everything it wanted to say. Banana, though... there deserves to be more Banana in the world, and hopefully some way is found to make it happen.

Bonus Link Section
I found the following particularly insightful when watching the show / writing this:
Each AV Club review has spoilers for the episode in question, and the Radio Times interview has big spoilers for the first five episodes specifically, so read cautiously if you're going to watch the shows. The overall reviews are pretty safe.

18 May 2017

Review: Bombing the People by Thomas Hippler

Hardcover, 285 pages
Published 2013
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939
by Thomas Hippler

I came to this book looking for a discussion of bombing civilian populations during air war and the ethics thereof. As its subtitle indicates, Bombing the People is really about the thinking of one particular air-power strategist, the Italian general Giulio Douhet. Douhet was an advocate for total war, and Hippler provides a comprehensive intellectual history of his thought-- if I recall correctly, many of the works Hippler examines had previously not been translated into English, leading to misrepresenation of Douhet's actual belief. Douhet's intellectual evolution is actually kind of fascinating and worth recounting in full.

Hippler argues that early on, Douhet actually considered the bombing of civilians unconscionable;  during World War I, he advocated for a World State that would abolish war. As someone who reads a lot of science fiction from 1880-1915, I find this a very familiar dream: H. G. Wells wanted this to happen, but so did many other proto-sf writers, like George Griffith and Louis Tracy, and Hippler reports that Douhet actually cites Wells. But Douhet went from seeing military forces as the only legitimate targets of aerial bombing in 1911 to call for strategic bombing of urban centers in 1915. How did this happen?

It's actually a pretty compelling chain of logic. Relationships between nations are essentially anarchic; if you want there to be civilization between states, not just within them, you need international police and international courts. Only such an organization could successfully ban war. Thus, a nation that carries out war anyway is not an enemy nation, but a criminal nation, and we believe that criminals must be punished for their misdeeds, partly to discourage other criminals from carrying out misdeeds. So if war is unjust, and we want to stop war, we actually need aerial bombing as a punitive measure, because there's no other way to effectively punish a state for its misdeeds. If the leadership is responsible, the people will eventually rise up and change the leadership, ending the war, and thus leaders will be discouraged from starting wars. If you attack the enemy's population center from their air and break their will, there will actually be fewer casualties than in a long, drawn-out war. It's an amazing argument, I think, and one that recognizes that all civilization is fundamentally based on violence; the last bit even presages ways that President Truman allegedly rationalized using the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. But that makes sense, if you keep in mind that in the 1910s, all-out air war was perceived as being as apocalyptic as nuclear war would be in the 1950s.

Douehet actually wrote his own future-war novel in 1919, Come finì la grande Guerra, where he got to put some of his ideas into practice. I must seek it out. Thanks to Hippler for covering in detail this important strategic thinker, tangling with in reality the same ideas I see pored over in fiction from the same era.

17 May 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part X: The All New Atom: Future/Past

Comic trade paperback, 127 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2017
The All New Atom: Future/Past

Writer: Gail Simone
Pencils: Mike Norton, Eddy Barrows
Inks: Andy Owens, Trevor Scott
Letters: Pat Brosseau, Travis Lanham
Colors: Alex Bleyaert

Like the previous volume, Future/Past doesn't deliver on the potential that I see in the "all new" Atom, Ryan Choi. What makes him interesting is his academic background (okay, maybe as a college instructor I'm a little biased there) and the setting of Ivy Town, a place where so much mad science has been practiced that "normal" is a meaningless term. And I liked the cast of characters Gail Simone and John Byrne set up in volume one, Ryan's eccentric fellow professors who all play poker together.

This guy's research credentials had better be amazing, given how awful a teacher he is. Here I am slaving away in adjunct-land, and this awful guy has a tenure-track position at an Ivy!
from The All New Atom #7 (art by Mike Norton & Andy Owens)

The first story collected here, "The Man Who Swallowed Eternity," promises time-travel shenanigans, but is really depressingly straightforward. Ryan is told by a Linear Man* to turn in a guy if he asks Ryan for help, the guy appears and Ryan doesn't turn him in, the Linear Man comes back and Ryan persuades him to not kill the guy anyway. That's it, but somehow it takes two issues to play out. The fact that the Linear Man sends cowboys after Ryan, or that Ryan and the fugitive end up in a dystopian future Ivy Town, are just irrelevant side-shows. Neat ideas in this story, but nothing neat is done with them.

That said, Mike Norton does good, slick, action-filled artwork. Wish he was the primary artist for the series...
from The All New Atom #7 (art by Mike Norton & Andy Owens)

The second story, "Jia," feels like a misstep for the book at this stage: a girl Ryan loved from afar asks him to come back to Hong Kong to help deal with an abusive husband, who used to bully Ryan... only she neglected to mention that the husband is already dead but still angry! Ryan's bullied-nerd background is dull and stereotypical, and Jia's portrayal as a woman being fought over by two men is pretty surprising coming from the writer who coined the term "Women in Refrigerators," especially given the last twist in the story. The three-issue detour back to Hong Kong is mistimed for a book that's barely done much with its actual setting thus far. Let's see more of Ivy Town! Most of the book's recurring cast doesn't even appear in this volume, unfortunately. Establish your world, then take a break from it.

...as opposed to Eddy Barrows, who is terrible at drawing Asian faces. (Or maybe just faces.)
from The All New Atom #10 (art by Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott)

So far The All New Atom isn't really delivering on its potential. Hopefully this happens in the third volume... because we're running out of volumes, as it only lasted four!

Next Week: Blue Beetle has to Reach for the Stars!

* Since when are the Linear Men murderous jerks, anyway?

16 May 2017

Hugos 2017 [Prelude]: Saga, Book One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Comic hardcover, 504 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 2012-14)

Acquired December 2014
Read April 2017
Saga, Book One

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Lettering+Design: Fonografiks

For years now I've been claiming I was going to vote in the Hugos, the fan award for the best in science fiction and fantasy. I'm almost never up-to-date in the field, and the Hugos seem like a fun way to find out what's at the top these days. Plus, you get to make lists! Ever year I find some kind of excuse: too busy, too many racists in the finalists, and so on. But this year, I resolved I would finally do it. I'll be chronicling my Hugo journey here on this blog, as I try to read all the finalists for Best Novel, Best Graphic Story, Best Related Work, Best Short Story, Best Novella, and Best Novelette prior to the July 15th deadline.

Saga, Book One isn't a finalist for the Hugos this year, but Volume 6 is, which gives me the impetus to finally read Book One, which collects Volumes 1-3, and which I've had for a few years now. I've heard Saga compared to an adult version of Star Wars, and it really is in a way that few space operas are. Like, you could call Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse "adult" versions of Star Wars, but they're not really-- they're too "grounded." Star Wars isn't really science fiction (in some senses of sf, anyway), it's space fantasy: it's got ghosts and magic and bizarre, implausible aliens. Saga has these in spades: its aliens are humans with animal parts, or maybe even just animals, and its robots look like humans with tvs for heads, and one of the main characters is a ghost, and there's a cat who says "LYING" whenever it hears someone lie. But it's adult: there's swearing and viscera and sex and all the gory details of pregnancy and prostitution.

Yet it's not the immature kind of "adult": the sex and violence and so one give the story weight and heft, and elevate it into something fully itself. Saga may remind you of Star Wars or Romeo and Juliet or Battlestar Galactica in some ways, but it's not trying to be any of them. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have created something really unique, with star-crossed romance (the main characters are from the opposite sides of a deadly war), pathos (there's a bit with Lying Cat that was just heart-wrenching), and the right amount of kookiness (the main characters bond over a cheap paperback romance novel that turns out to have a deeper meaning).

Despite the darkness of it, it's beautiful: Fiona Staples I don't think had done much before Saga, but as in Y: The Last Man, Brian Vaughan has found the perfect artistic collaborator for the story he's telling. Horrifying creatures, human emotion, forbidding vistas, beautiful emptiness, all are rendered perfectly by Staples. A lot of depth comes from the narration, which hits the balance between corniness and insight, and is hand-written by Staples herself, the perfect finishing touch. Everything about the book is beautifully done, down to the page and font design by Fonografiks. (The deluxe hardcover has a very in-depth making-of feature, which I really enjoyed. Both Vaughan and Staples have fascinating processes.)

The sprawling story (seriously, there's not just our main characters, and their daughter, but also the parents of one of them, and a ghost, and the bounty hunter chasing them and his companions, and a robot prince, and a pair of investigative journalists, and probably others I'm forgetting) moves in genuinely inventive and surprising ways across in first eighteen issues, and I finished it eager to see where it would go next.

Next Week: Visiting a Broken Earth, in N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season!

15 May 2017

Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Before we begin, I want to point out that my last-ever review of The Avengers: The Lost Episodes has gone up at Unreality SF. I've really enjoyed this series, and I will miss it. A beautifully written, performed, and produced slice of the 1960s here in the 2010s. Like I said in this review, it captured everything I enjoyed about the old black-and-white 30-minute Danger Mans back in the day.

Hardcover, 990 pages
Published 1994 (contents: 1841-1994)

Acquired March 2008
Read March 2017
The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF
edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

A thousand-page anthology devoted to a subgenre feels like an argument to me. A shorter book would claim to be nothing more than a sampling, while even a thousand-page book devoted to whole genre of science fiction couldn't rightly claim comprehensiveness. But with one thousand pages and over sixty stories from a single subgenre, The Ascent of Wonder can claim to be defining that subgenre's entire form and purpose. Unfortunately, it gets off to a rough start: I found the introductions (there are three!) by Gregory Benford and Kathryn Cramer more befuddling than illuminating, but I keyed in on a passage from David Hartwell's introduction: "Hard sf is about the beauty of truth. It is a metaphorical or symbolic representation of the wonder at the perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery" (30). I don't know that I entirely agree, but it's an intriguing formulation that explains why Hartwell and Cramer picked the stories they did for this anthology.

Judging by the stories included here, Hartwell and Cramer's definition of hard sf is a lot more capacious than my own. I love Cordwainer Smith, and "No, No, Not Rogov!" is indeed about the "perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery," but the inclusion of stories like this make me think that definition isn't specific enough-- I don't think Smith cares about science except as a source of beautiful imagery and fantastic ideas, and if sf is to be "hard" I feel like it needs something more than that. It's not that Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" or Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" or Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" are bad stories, or even stories uninterested in science, but it's that they're not invested in following the implications of actual science in a way that, say, Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" is-- a story that despite its flaws (or maybe because of them) epitomized the hard sf ethos of logic over all else. There are times I found myself wishing Hartwell and Cramer had included some kind of counterpoint story: if "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin (a story that has clones in it, but no science behind them) or "The Very Slow Time Machine" by Ian Watson (which has a neat concept at its heart, but not as far as I can tell, one from actual science) or "The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told" by Arthur C. Clarke (which is an unfunny joke about unfunny jokes) are all hard sf, then what isn't? Show me the other side of the subgenre so I can see its edges more clearly.

That said, with over 150 years of stories to pick from, Cramer and Hartwell assembled an excellent collection of stories, and despite some dubious enclosures, I do feel I understand the parameters and possibilities of hard sf more than I did before reading. Some were by authors I knew and loved already: James Blish's "Beep" has a clever and interesting conceit that would make Steven Moffat's head spin. Donald Kingsbury's "To Bring in the Steel" was a surprising tale of a Paris Hilton-esque media floozy discovering a new side of herself on an asteroid mine; after enjoying Psychohistorical Crisis so much, I ought to seek out more of his work. "Waterclap" was an interesting Isaac Asimov story I hadn't read before, but let down by the fact that Asimov can imagine a moon colony and an underwater colony, but can't imagine a woman having any role in either outside of childbearing... in 1970! Le Guin's "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" wasn't a story, but had neat enough ideas (about ant language!) to succeed regardless. And I'm always happy to reread James Blish's "Surface Tension," which is in my sci-fi top five. David Brin's "What Continues, What Fails..." shows science fiction at its best as well, combining future reproduction with black hole physics to deliver a testimony for the human need to reproduce and leave a mark on the universe. (I did appreciate that unlike most anthologists, they included the contextual material with Rudyard Kipling's "With the Night Mail," though I wish they hadn't dumped it all at the end, after the actual story.)

There was the occasional outright bad one: Rudy Rucker's "Message Found in a Copy of Flatland" was sort of a non-story, not doing anything that Flatland didn't do itself; I got the feeling that it was in the book because being a novel, Flatland itself couldn't be. And James P. Hogan's "Making Light" is an unfunny joke stretched out way too long with dubious claims to be science fiction, much less hard sf. I think it's only in here because Hogan didn't write much short fiction, so Cramer and Hartwell had limited options (his novel Inherit the Stars is probably one of the best examples of the subgenre).

I was kind of a sucker for stories involving academia, I guess for obvious reasons. "Davy Jones' Ambassador" by Raymond Z. Gallun was surprisingly interesting, a tale of a professor (who's married to a dean) chasing a giant leviathan. I particularly loved Katherine Maclean's "The Snowball Effect," a rare sociological hard sf tale about a sociology department head defending his program against budget cuts by an overeager administrator by accidentally transforming a local knitting club into a global power. Michael F. Flynn's "Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum" was surprisingly moving tale of a physics professor hunting ghosts as he destroys his academic career.

This review just scratches the surface of the good stuff contained within. (I want to read more Bob Shaw and Gordon R. Dickson now, for example, and I was very glad to see H. G. Wells's "The Land Ironclads" in this context.) Presumably no anthology is perfect, but I suspect this one comes closer than most: it's probably a better sf anthology than any I've read outside of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame series. I discovered a lot of new stories, developed a new appreciation for a subgenre I've thought little about, and have some new authors to look up.

12 May 2017

Remembering As I Go: First and Last Days

I turned in my last set of final grades at the University of Connecticut this week. I'm leaving after nine years there-- I don't think I've done anything for nine years before in my whole life. These two classes marked my nineteenth and twentieth at that institution. People keep saying "goodbye" to me, but I'm actually not going anywhere for a little bit; we won't move until July, and I have an article I need to write, and I work better on campus than my couch, so I'll still keep coming to campus even though my official reasons to be there are slowly fading away.

I guess it feels appropriate to fade away instead of disappearing in a clean break, because as I nostalgically think back to my arrival at UConn in August 2008, it's much more of a fading in than a sudden arrival. What surprises me is how much I don't remember of my coming to UConn, just bits and fragments of what was surely at the time a hugely momentous change. I'm sure I could comb back through facebook and my old LiveJournal(!) to remind myself, but there's so much at this moment that's just vagueness. What was my first week of teaching like? My first graduate seminar? My first encounters with all the people who became some of the closest friends I ever made?

I remember the party the English Department held for incoming graduate students, in the backyard of the graduate director's house. Mostly I remember having a conversation with an M.A. student a year ahead of me about Stanislaw Lem. A year later, he wasn't readmitted to the Ph.D. and he left. I think that was the only conversation we ever had.

I remember the next day, a Friday, where all the new graduate students were oriented on how to be graduate students. The only thing I remember from that day was talking to one of my fellow new students about his living situation-- he had a weird roommate he'd only just met the night before who did nothing other than play videogames. He was sure it was going to be fine. When I talked to him on Monday, he'd broken the lease and moved out.

I remember the week-long orientation for new teaching assistants, the first of eight I would attend. (The other seven would be on staff, though.) I remember feeling pretty good and pretty set about teaching my own class for the first time the following week-- until Wednesday, when we spent all day at the library learning about information literacy. It was terrible, all the worst parts of my B.S. in high school education distilled into discussions of scaffolding and psychological development. At the end of the day, we were given time in a computer lab to write assignment prompts incorporating information literacy, and that was when I realized I couldn't write an assignment prompt incorporating information literacy because I had no idea how to write an assignment prompt of any sort, and I couldn't write an assignment prompt because I had no idea what my course was going to be about, and I couldn't design my course because I hadn't written a syllabus and schedule, and I couldn't write a syllabus and schedule because three days into orientation, I had absolutely no idea about what was expected of us.

I remember taking Chaucer as my first graduate seminar, with no idea that "medieval studies" was, like, its own thing with its own hardcore devotees, and here was me coming in, having not even remembered/realized that all the readings with be in a different language.

I remember assigning my students to read the first chapter of John Berger's Ways of Seeing because it was one of the only things in the Freshman English textbook I'd ever read before. Nine years later, I still teach it almost every semester that I do what is now called "First-Year Writing," and I suspect I will continue to do so. I remember assigning Susan Bordo's "Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body" later that semester, and the overjoyed reaction of the bro in class-- finally, someone talking about the visual expectations placed on men!

I remember that our research methods class, on how to be a graduate student, met late afternoon on Thursdays, and how all of us harrowed first-year graduate students would adjourn from the class straight to the bar afterwards.

I remember that one of the assignments I gave in my Freshman English class was this weird, cobbled together thing of texts about "journeys" I liked: a quarter of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a story from Ursula K. Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness, and Lost in Translation. A woman in class said, "I didn't really get all the sci-fi stuff in Four Ways to Forgiveness at first and then I remembered Zenon, Girl of the 21st Century and I got it and I was fine."

I remember the weird trajectory of my teaching methods class, which began with one professor who had her baby prematurely and so got merged with another class taught by a professor with a very different affect and approach, one maybe not altogether suited to first-year teachers. A group of students from my section started secretly drinking mimosas in the class. There was one graduate student who bought donuts for the whole class every week. One week our new professor was gone for a conference, but he tapped another professor to sub for us, and class devolved into a bitching session. The next week, our normal professor came back and was completely on the defensive about the way he taught our class, as we'd been ratted out by the substitute. He became my advisor in the end, and the "snitch" professor a good friend of mine. (The pregnant professor ended up on my committee.)

I remember not going to the graduate student Halloween party because I became incapacitated by indecision over putting a costume together. I ate half the Skyline dip I'd assembled myself that night. The next day, however, I went with a group of other graduate students on the first of many pilgrimages to the Mohegan Sun Casino breakfast buffet.

I remember wearing a Santa hat to the final I was required to give, as inappropriate as it was for a writing class. "Santa T.A.," said one of my students-- I'm pretty sure the same one who had started calling me "T.A. Steve" in class.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, friendships began to emerge and evolve, as did my last relationship with the department as a whole. That stuff I don't really remember, I'm sort of surprised to realize, I just know that as of a year or two later, it just was and it continued to grow.

It's all coming to end now. I think if I'd left a year or two ago, I'd be more sad about it. But of that cohort of friends I made over my first two years in the program, I'm the only one left-- everyone else I like has already got their jobs and moved on to different places. Now when I eat lunch in the graduate student lounge (which they thankfully still let me do) and attempt the crossword, I'm surrounded by people who are all doing what I was doing 3-8 years ago. I feel like a relic of a bygone age, constantly sounding like a grandfather who goes, "BACK IN MY DAY..." When I leave, it won't feel like leaving, because my UConn already left me.

11 May 2017

Review: Hartmann the Anarchist by E. Douglas Fawcett

In August 2015, with a pile of over 165 unreviewed books, some of which I'd read as far back as December 2012, I began "Backlog Thursdays," picking out a book from that massive pile to finally review, starting with Richard Meier & Partners. Now my pile of unreviewed books is down to a mere 50, and while in 2015, I often struggled to have a book review up in time for "New Book Mondays," I've been so prolific a reader over the past year that now my buffer for Mondays extends out to May 2018! With last week's review of The Wasp Factory, all the books left in my to-review pile are academic books, by which I mean books I read for the purposes of teaching or scholarship. To rebalance things somewhat, I'm retiring Backlog Thursdays in favor of "Academic Thursdays": from now on, on Thursdays I'll review a book I read for the purposes of teaching or scholarship, alternating between books I've read recently and books from before August 2015. Hopefully I'll clear out that backlog yet! I begin with a book of dubious literary merit from the Victorian era,

Hardcover, 214 pages
Published 1975 (originally 1893)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City
by E. Douglas Fawcett
illustrated by Fred T. Jane

1893 was a dangerous year to be in London. There were at least four novels that I know of where revolutionaries destroyed significant chunks of London with air-ships as their weapons: George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution, Mr. Dick's James Ingleton, W. Graham Moffat and John White's What's the World Coming To?, and this book, E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist.

Set in 1920, Hartmann is told from the perspective of Stanley, a socialist who favors a peaceful transition of British society-- unlike many of his friends and associates in the movement, who call for violence as the only means of truly creating reform. Stanley begins hearing rumors that Rudolf Hartmann, an anarchist and engineer believed killed in 1910 after an abortive attempt to assassinate the German Crown Prince, is actually alive and has successfully solved the problem of heavier-than-air flight. Stanley ends up entangled with one of Hartmann's associates, a bomber named Burnett, and on the run from the police, only to be saved by Hartmann himself, via his aeronëf, the Attila. Hartmann, assisted by a German named Schwartz, begins laying waste to London with dynamite, burning down half the city including several major landmarks, but Stanley discovers that Hartmann's bombing killed his own mother and passes that information back to Hartmann, who in his grief and guilt, destroys the Attila. However, the destruction still paves the way for reform and modernization, the country rebuilding better than it was before and finally addressing the problems of the labor movement.

A lot of the revolutionary science fiction of the 1890s struggles with whether or not violence in the name of social change is justified. In Hartmann the Anarchist, Stanley-- and the reader-- are left repulsed at Hartmann's indiscriminate violence. Those of you who want violence, the novel seems to say, this is terrible future you are imagining. But Hartmann can escape the terrible nature of revolutionary change through the air-ship: because of his distance, it is easier for him to view the deaths he causes as theoretical necessities. Hartmann's training as an engineer gives him both physical and emotional distance from violence. Stanley's narration ends up decrying Hartmann for his perspective once Hartmann's mother dies: "You felt not for the thousands sacrificed for a theory; feel now for the report of your plans wrecked beyond the hope of repair. Feel, too, for a loved mother, the sole creature you ever cared for, but whom your reckless and futile savagery has immolated!" (210)

But Hartmann the Anarchist can have its revolutionary cake and eat it too. As in so many of the future-war and -revolution stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I observe what you might call "the Independence Day effect": part of the pleasure of this tale is seeing familiar landmarks destroyed. (Complete, in this case, with illustrations from Fred T. Jane of Jane's Fighting Ships fame.) The reader is mean to be horrified at the human cost, but delight in the pleasures of destruction as well.* Moreover, Hartmann's destructive reign leads to the exact reforms Stanley believed needed to come through gradual evolution. After the destruction of the Attila, Stanley informs the reader, "You know… how order was once more completely reestablished, how the wreckage of that fell twenty-four hours was slowly replaced by modern buildings, how gradually the Empire recovered from the shock, and how dominant henceforth became the great problems of labour" (213). In the fashion of what James Scott would call "authoritarian high modernism," even the architecture must be knocked down in order to be built up again, and destruction having been wrought, reform can follow. Conveniently, though, Hartmann the Anarchist lets the socialist displace the blame for the "necessary" violence onto other parties.

* Wells, of course, would subvert this pleasure in The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air.

10 May 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part IX: Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2017
Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colorist: Patricia Mulvihill
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

This quirky volume unites a number of has-been DC characters: Infectious Lass of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, Anthro the First Boy, Captain Fear the pirate, Doctor 13 the Ghost Breaker, Traci 13 his sorceress daughter, I... Vampire!, Genius Jones who can answer any question if you pay him a dime, the ghost of Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart, and Julius the talking Nazi gorilla of the Primate Patrol. What brings them together is that, after Infinite Crisis, all of them are going to be deleted from continuity by the writers of 52, as they clean up the DC universe and streamline out some of its weirdness or forgotten components.

And they never appeared in an adventure again.
from Tales of the Unexpected vol. 2 #8

I don't mean this metaphorically, I mean this literally. This book is about Doctor 13 and company fighting Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, and Greg Rucka.

09 May 2017

Review: The Transformers: Dark Cybertron, Volume 2 by John Barber, James Roberts, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2014)
Acquired March 2015
Read May 2017
The Transformers: Dark Cybertron, Volume 2

Written by: John Barber and James Roberts
Art by: James Raiz, Atilio Rojo, Livio Ramondelli, Andrew Griffith, Alex Milne, Brendan Cahill, Brian Shearer, and Phil Jimenez
Colors by: Josh Perez and Livio Ramondelli
Letters by: Tom B. Long


This reminds me of nothing so much as DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths (see here and here for my takes on that story): a giant crossover premised on a universal threat that dwarfs investment in or by any particular character, which shifts in such a way that it feels like its vamping to fill up space. After volume 1 spent way too long on the Necrotitan threatening Iacon, the evil zombie city robot is destroyed in this volume, then everyone stands around for a while, then Shockwave reveals his real plan of merging the universe's time and space into a single point. It reminded me a whole lot of the lurching plotting of Crisis, where the Anti-Monitor would be doing one thing, then a different thing, then no thing, then traveling back in time to undo time itself! Only as skilled as they are, John Barber and James Roberts are no Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. And I mean that in the kindest of ways: Wolfman and Pérez could never do the stuff that Barber and Roberts do in the Transformers ongoings, but similarly, Barber and Roberts's skills don't lend themselves to omniversal destruction-style storytelling.

A girl!?!
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #26 (art by James Raiz)

When Dark Cybertron does shine, it's in the character moments, though sometimes these are crushed under the weight of the story, and I'm more interested for what implications these character moments will have in More than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise than for what's done with them here. Despite having twelve issues to play with, too many of Dark Cybertron's story arcs move too quickly; what happens with Bumblebee and Megatron, for example, feels underdeveloped, as does Orion Pax's decision to reclaim the mantle of Optimus Prime. On the other hand, I look forward to seeing what happens to Megatron and Rodimus and Prowl based on events here.

EVERYTHING YOU KNEW REALLY IS WRONG!
from The Transformers: Dark Cybertron Finale (art by Phil Jimenez, Brendan Cahill, and Brian Shearer)
Next Week: After a whole seven months (I started writing these up last October!), I'm all caught up on my Transformers comics reviews-- I'm still reading volume 6 of More than Meets the Eye-- so it's time to cycle onwards to a new "reading project." In this case, my attempt to read all of the finalists for the 2017 Hugo Awards!

08 May 2017

Review: On the Government of the Living by Michel Foucault

Hardcover, 365 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1980)

Acquired September 2014
Read May 2017
On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1979-1980
by Michel Foucault

At the beginning of this series of lectures (God, I hope I'm revered enough a professor someday for my lectures to be recorded, transcribed, and published, though mine will have many more Doctor Who jokes than Foucault's), Foucault promises something that I thought would be very interesting. He tells the story of Septimius Severus, a Roman emperor who ostensibly presided in an audience hall whose ceiling was painted with the stars in the sky at the moment of his birth. This is because, Foucault, asserts, there is an intrinsic relationship between power and knowledge: "it would [...] be very difficult to find an example of a power that is exercised without being accompanied, one way or another, by a manifestation of truth" (4). Not necessarily utilitarian knowledge (because surely astrology does not make Severus a better emperor), but just that power requires "a ritual of manifestation of the truth" (6). To me this sounded fascinating: one of my recurrent interests is the way scientific knowledge is deployed to justify violence, and there seems to be a connection there in that so often (in fiction at least) it matters less that actual science has been utilized, and more that someone has said that science is at work.

It seems a potent idea (for example, Roger Green discusses alethurgy, Foucault's term for the way we make something true, in the context of President Trump), but as I feel often happens with Foucault, the book I imagined based on his stated project is nowhere near as interesting as the one I got. Which, to be fair, could be my fault and not his, but On the Government of the Living mostly consists of detailed readings of Oedipus Rex and early Christian practices of repentance. These were not interesting to me at all. Near the end of the lecture series he gets to the idea that the way Christianity requires one to know oneself in order to repent is a precondition for power: "the need to drag interiority from itself, to bring it out in order to display it in a relationship of exteriority and obedience" (308). But this insight comes at the end of three hundred pages of monotony, and it was too little, too late.

(Also: never trust an academic who says they have "limited" their critical apparatus to the necessities, as the general editors of this series claim (xv). Most of the twelve lectures here have at least sixty end notes, some as many as ninety, drowning the text in incomprehensible detail. One shudders to think what the unlimited critical apparatus looks like!)

05 May 2017

Review: The Children's Crusade by Neil Gaiman et al.

Last year, I read DC's long-time-coming collection of the 1990s Vertigo crossover The Children's Crusade. At the time, I remarked that it actually made me more likely to want to pick up the original issues, not less, as the collection replaced the middle five of the seven issues with newly written content, to provide a smoother reading experience. So what was the original like, if it seemingly necessitated such a reworking?

The answer is that it's actually not that bad. I mean, these stories don't cohere tremendously, or seem to have much of a point, but I'd argue that's no different from many of DC's 1990s annual crossovers, like Eclipso: The Darkness Within, Armageddon 2001, or Bloodlines. Though, I suppose DC hasn't collected any of those, so maybe that tells us something. In my comments here I'll focus on the issues not collected in Free Country collection, as I covered the bookends pretty well in my original review.

In first bookend, The Children's Crusade #1, we learn that children are disappearing, spirited away to a mysterious realm known as Free Country, and that five special children are being targeted next: the children principal characters in five Vertigo ongoings of the early 1990s (Suzy from Black Orchid, Maxine from Animal Man, Tefé from Swamp Thing, Dorothy from Doom Patrol, and Tim from The Books of Magic). Edwin and Charles, the dead boy detectives, set out to find and protect these five children. You might expect that these stories would be pretty formulaic, with an agent of Free Country coming and taking each character in turn, but they're actually reasonably distinct from each other.

The Black Orchid story, for example, inserts an agent of Free Country into the history of the series, showing that the mini-Black Orchid known as Suzy has actually met Junkin Buckley repeatedly before, and that he was responsible for some of her decisions (unbeknownst to the readers at the time). Then he returns for Suzy one last time, recruiting her to Free Country. On the other hand, the Animal Man story is mostly part of the ongoing events of that series (somewhat confusingly; there are lots of characters who are never clearly introduced to the new reader), but at the very end, when Maxine ends up in a tight spot, Jack Rabbit convinces her to escape with him to Free Country. (And to leave a clone of herself behind, an occurrence that would be expanded upon in The Children's Crusade #2. I don't know if this ended up playing into the events of the Animal Man ongoing.)

At this point, I figured each annual would end with a child recruited into Free Country, ready to play their part in the big crossover, so I was surprised when in the Swamp Thing tale, Tefé goes to Free Country on page 8, and most of the issue (they're all about 58 pages long) concerns her adventures in Free Country with Maxine, and ends with her leaving Free Country, clearing up a point that confused me in the Free Country collection. The way Free Country is depicted here doesn't really line up with what we see in the bookends, but then again, much of it seems to be an illusion created for the benefit of Tefé and Maxine.

The Doom Patrol story is a lot like the Swamp Thing one, showing both Dorothy's recruitment and the events that drive her back home, only of all of these, this one made the least sense to someone not reading the relevant ongoing. Like, why does Dorothy normally hang out with feral children who live in the woods?

Finally, the Books of Magic story shakes things up again, but in a way that's baffling: it has two parallel stories, one about Tim being kidnapped into a mystery realm by a mystery assassin, none of which is ever explained, and one about the Free Country agent sent to recruit him wandering London, which was actually pretty cute. I guess maybe the kidnap plot is a set-up for something that happens in Tim's ongoing series? But I don't even get how he escapes, he just does.

In my review of the collected edition, I complained that in the middle chapter, the dead boy detectives just pointlessly turn up too late to help Maxine and that's about it, but in the original it's actually worse. Their quest having been set up in the first bookend, they don't even appear in the first two middle chapters-- then in the third, they claim they got to both recruitments a moment too late even though we never saw them. It's a little goofy, and of course they fail to accomplish anything in the chapters in which they do appear-- but such, I suppose, is the very nature of the crossover, whose design requires they can't make it to Free Country until the final issue. Amusingly, we see Tim travel into Free Country in both the Books of Magic issue and in The Children's Crusade #2, and the dead boy detectives are shown to be there in the second instance, when they clearly weren't in the first!

The final part isn't really rendered any more enjoyable by reading the middle issues. Some parts of it make more sense because we've seen them dramatized, but other ones make less sense, because the collection fleshed them out. It's still kind of a disappointment, because the dead boy detectives are set up as the main characters, yet Tim Hunter saves the day-- and it's still a disappointment even if you focus on Tim because he doesn't actually do anything, he saves it by accident! Still, Gaiman and his co-writers on the final issue provide some good jokes at least. Actually, they're probably the best part.

So, overall, this is a weird story, and not one I can particularly recommend-- you probably really are better off reading the Free Country collection with its new middle chapter. The original issues are much more part of their ongoing series than they are parts of The Children's Crusade, as they almost all read just fine without the bookends, but not vice versa.

The Children's Crusade originally appeared in The Children's Crusade #1-2, Black Orchid Annual #1, Animal Man Annual vol. 1 #1, Swamp Thing Annual vol. 2 #7, Doom Patrol Annual #2, and Arcana: The Books of Magic Annual #1 (Dec. 1993–Jan. 1994). The story was written by Neil Gaiman, Dick Foreman, Jamie Delano, Nancy A. Collins, Rachel Pollack, John Ney Rieber, and Alisa Kwitney. It was illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mike Barreiro, Gary Amaro, Jason Minor, Charlie Adlard, Phillip Hester, Bruce McCorkindale, Russell Braun, Tom Sutton, Rafael Kayanan, Mark Buckingham, Dennis Cramer, Kim DeMulder, Mark Wheatley, Peter Gross, and Peter Snejbjerg. Colors were provided by Daniel Vozzo, George Freeman, Tatjana Wood, and Suart Chaifetz, and the issues were lettered by John Costanza, Clem Robins, Tim Harkins, John Workman, and Richard Starkings. The crossover was edited by Stuart Moore, Tom Peyer, and Tom Stathis.