26 June 2017

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Trade paperback, 317 pages
Published 2013 (originally 2012)

Acquired December 2015
Read September 2016
Redshirts by John Scalzi

This book has some great concepts. I mean, the fundamental metafictional premise doesn't feel terribly new to me, but Scalzi puts some interesting spins on it: there are permutations of the basic ideas that I had not seen before, and Scalzi clearly had fun with exploring the logic of the underlying ideas. That was what I really enjoyed, and I even laughed a couple times.

But the characters aren't really characters. They're just flat interchangeable cutouts who speak entirely in quips, like they've just walked off the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a Marvel superhero film. As a result, it's impossible to become emotionally attached to any of them. It's like Scalzi wrote the book as a film script, not a novel, assuming actors would give the characters the distinct personalities they lack on the page. It's especially egregious because there's supposed to be a contrast between the ways the characters act normally and how they act under the control of the Narrative, but they're so generically written normally, the contrast only exists because some characters say it exists. It makes the whole book a somewhat dull read.

Also: I'm not sure Scalzi actually knows what the word "extra" means.

23 June 2017

Steve and Hayley Watch Farscape: Season 1, Episodes 9-12

1x09: “DNA Mad Scientist”

  • HAYLEY: I don’t even know where to start with this episode. It raises so many things that are problematic to me.
  • STEVE: Such as? (I mean, I think I can guess some.)
  • H: Well, the episode starts in media res with the crew being tested by a scientist (with some awesomely creepy imagery of him taking samples from their eyes with a needle). The point of this, it turns out, is to use genetic data to pinpoint their homeworlds. Which just raises the question - do D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel not know the locations of their own homeworlds? Just how difficult is space navigation, anyway? (Actually, if it’s that difficult, maybe that is why the Uncharted Territories, which are so populated with spacefaring races, are still uncharted.)
  • S: Yeah, the logistics of this didn’t make a ton of sense to me. I get that because they did the starburst in the premiere (and one more since that we’ve seen), they might not know their location anymore, because the starburst seems unguided. But surely they know-- or could find out-- how to get from Hyneria to Luxor to wherever Zhaan comes from. Like once you know the one, the others should follow if they’re all in “charted” territories. But then they also mention that the mad scientist guy’s routes would help them avoid Peacekeepers, which doesn’t really seem related to its function as a genetic database.
  • H: The next thing that bothered me-- for completely different reasons-- was that when the scientist (his name is NamTar) said that the price for his map was one of Pilot’s arms, D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel just went ahead and chopped his arm off! Whereas the genetic database seems like sloppy writing or plotting, this (I thought) was actually very good writing. We’re reminded that these characters are aliens and don’t always have the same values as humans do.
  • S: Yeah, Pilot says that he serves Moya, and Moya serves the crew, and though he says this in the context of explaining to Crichton why he doesn’t take offense at losing a limb(!), it also is clearly the attitude that most of the characters take toward Pilot. He’s less than a person, more a very smart piece of equipment.
  • H: I also wonder if Zhaan would have reacted the same way before “That Old Black Magic.” It seems far less compassionate than she usually is, and more in line with the evil-unleashed-Zhaan glimpsed in the previous episode.
  • S: Maybe. But I don’t think this could build on nothing-- there’s definitely a preexisting attitude toward Pilot(s) that it’s tapping into. It actually kind of reminds me of how droids are treated in Star Wars: they’re obviously intelligent, but they’re disposable. I guess because Pilot is organic and can feel pain it becomes more unsettling than if Luke needed C-3PO’s arm for something. Crichton (as an outsider) and Aeryn (as someone who’s starting to see how she was a disposable piece of equipment) are the only people with the standpoint to empathize with Pilot.
  • H: We also learn a little more about Pilot and Moya’s relationship-- turns out I was wrong, the symbiosis is not an obligate one (meaning neither individual can survive without the other one), because Pilot said that he made a decision to join with the Leviathan.
  • S: Though in next week’s episode (to cheat a little bit), we do learn that Pilot has some kind of sensory nerves that extend through Moya, so it seems like removing him would be difficult now that the bonding has happened.
  • H: But we also learn that Moya could probably survive without him (if not the other way around), because she could prevent him from obtaining nutrients.
  • S: To keep on topic, Pilot’s attitude in this one is really fascinating-- he objects when the crew come for his arm, but then tells Crichton he has no ill will, but then makes some very barbed comments later in the episode when it’s revealed that the crew did it all for nothing. But it doesn’t come across as inconsistent, so much as a value system we’re not used to. Pilot will always serve, but he doesn’t have to like it. (I’d be really curious to see what he was like when Moya was still a Peacekeeper ship.) Lani Tupu does great stuff as the voice of Pilot.
  • H: So while Rygel, D’Argo, and Zhaan fight over which planet they’re going to go to using the map, NamTar injects Aeryn with Pilot’s DNA, which starts to convert her into a Pilot. Then it’s revealed that NamTar himself has taken bits and pieces of other species’ DNA, giving himself all the best traits. Which… let’s just say, as an evolutionary biologist, I rather object to how this is depicted.
  • S: I’d say it’s entirely consistent with what I’ve learned about evolutionary biology from Star Trek and Doctor Who. Peri got turned into a bird once:
    I assume that scientist and NamTar went to the same graduate program.
  • H: Even if you suspend disbelief on the science, it raises questions about the extent of genetic engineering on sentient races in this part of the galaxy. If it’s that easy, there should be armies of soldiers with ridiculous unstoppable powers. Er, traits.
  • S: Putting aside worldbuilding and scientific concerns--
  • H: What other kinds of concerns are there?!
  • S: Story! I didn’t find that this whole subplot did much for me. It was more goofy than interesting, and I admired their attempt to get pathos out of Aeryn’s forced mutation, but I didn’t think it really worked. The heart of this episode was the stuff on the ship with the Zhaan/Rygel/D’Argo dispute about where Moya would go, even if the logistics of that don’t make much sense as we discussed.
  • H: I thought their fights/arguments were interesting. Each of them very clearly would put their own interests above the group’s.
  • S: But is good at rationalizing it, like how D’Argo claims he would help Rygel by raising an army if they went to Luxor first.
  • H: Yeah, and he really seems to have convinced himself that’s really what he would do, even if to us--
  • S: --and Rygel--
  • H: --it seems quite unlikely that he would be able to actually pull that off.
  • S: On Star Trek you only get this kind of character conflict if alien mind control is at work, even on the shows ostensibly built around being less “nice,” like Deep Space Nine. But on Farscape it feels plausible and real that they are at odds sometimes, and I think the show manages to do it without you losing sympathy for the characters.
  • H: The very last scene underscores that nicely. D’Argo goes to Pilot, and there’s a nicely layered interaction where D’Argo doesn’t apologize (in fact, he says that given the choice again, he would act exactly the same way), but Pilot basically accepts his apology anyway. Then D’Argo shows Pilot the musical instrument he’s been crafting, and Pilot is the first one to hear him play it.
  • S: Yeah, that was nice. Almost makes up for lopping Pilot’s arm off. (Not really.)

1x10: “They’ve Got a Secret”

  • STEVE: This one really was the bottle episode I thought “Exodus from Genesis” was going to be. All set on Moya, no actors other than the main cast (and Rygel’s barely in it), and only a tiny bit of new stuff in terms of Moya’s internal layout-- the main enemy is just lots of DRDs!
  • HAYLEY: They had to build a lot of new DRDs though.
  • S: I think there was some tv magic going on there.
  • H: Very likely. And most of them were never seen moving.
  • S: Anyway, this one came together kind of oddly, I thought. It seems like something is infecting the crew; meanwhile, thanks to trauma from an inadvertent spacewalk, D’Argo thinks Zhaan is his wife, Crichton his brother-in-law, and Rygel his son.
  • H: That stretched my suspension of disbelief-- that he would have hallucinations that intense, but essentially no physical effects of his exposure to the vacuum of space. (Even if the interactions with Rygel were pretty funny.)
  • S: Alien physiology! I liked the stuff with D’Argo, though I was unsure about it at first. Good comedy, and then later some good, character-building surprises about D’Argo’s secret (as hinted at in “Back and Back and Back to the Future”).
  • H: There were some good scenes there, when Zhaan and Crichton played into the roles of D’Argo’s family members. My only real objection that when he showed the picture of his wife and son at the end, Jothee looks really super creepy. Like his head is weird and too big. But overall I agree that those were the best scenes of the episode.
  • S: But on the other hand, I thought the damaged-Moya subplot moved really slowly, biding time for its ending revelation, with lots of conversations about how no one knew anything.
  • H: Yeah, and lots of wandering around corridors aimlessly. I thought they could have done a better job at uncovering that there is not, in fact, an infection, but a biological response from Moya herself. They don’t quite come right out and say it, but it seems like her immune system has identified the crew as a threat, and is actively working to neutralize that threat.
  • S: Yeah, there’s some kind of rushed explanation at the very end about Moya needing to get through the critical phase of her pregnancy first.
  • H: It would have helped the pacing to have the crew somehow work out that it was her immune system first, before they knew the reason why. I don’t think that would have detracted from the surprise reveal of her fetus.
  • S: That’s a good idea.
  • H: And-- okay, I know you’re shocked-- but I have some questions about the exact biology of Leviathan reproduction here.
  • S: Oh no.
  • H: Because it definitely seems like she wasn’t pregnant before, but there is no other Leviathan present to mate with. The Peacekeeper shield was somehow preventing her from becoming pregnant, so here’s my theory-- Leviathans can store sperm (like many animals), and the Peacekeeper shield had blocked off her access to that sperm, from some prior mating. (Though I haven’t quite worked out why some of it would then be blown out into space, along with D’Argo. Nor can I explain how fertilization, implantation, and growth of the baby happened so quickly.)
  • S: Isn’t the material they find the same as Moya?
  • H: Oh, right, I forgot about that. Which means… she’s actually hermaphroditic, like an earthworm? Like I said, questions. It also seems to be the same thing that they take for a “virus,” so… okay, I actually have no idea how Moya got pregnant. Nor what it was that the Peacekeepers were blocking in order to prevent it.
  • S: I guess I was assuming… what’s it called... “parthenogenesis.” Not that I know anything about it.
  • H: That’s an excellent hypothesis. And seems like it would be an advantageous trait to have if you tend to travel light-years away from members of your own species.
  • S: Anyway, my guess is that this is one of those episodes that’s more important for what it sets up than what it does itself.
  • H: Obviously I’ve only been thinking about the reveal at the end. Even if, admittedly, I spend more time thinking about what it means for alien biology than what it means for where the story’s going!

1x11: “Till the Blood Runs Clear”

  • HAYLEY: I rather enjoyed this episode. After John and Aeryn conduct a test flight of John’s shuttle near a star with solar activity-- nearly recreating the conditions of the wormhole that sent Crichton to this part of the galaxy-- they have to land on a desert planet to seek repairs to the shuttle. On the planet, the mechanic Furlow handles the repairs. Then Aeryn and John run into two bounty hunters looking for D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel in order to collect the bounty offered by Crais.
  • STEVE: I’m kind of surprised you say you “rather enjoyed” it. I didn’t not like it, but it had the feeling of one of the earlier episodes to me-- some nice moments here and there, but when I think about it as a whole I’m somewhat underwhelmed. What did you like about it?
  • H: I just found it fun. John putting on his “alpha male” act with the bounty hunters is ridiculous, and funny. But really what probably made me love it was Magda Szubanski’s performance as Furlow.
  • S: Heh, yeah, Furlow was great. A cigar-chomping, will-fix-your-ship-but-when-she-damn-well-pleases space mechanic. Crichton said he’d come and see her in five years… but the show won’t last that long! Boo, because I’d like to see her again.
  • H: I don’t think this episode contributed to the overall story arc or even to the character development of the crew (apart from, perhaps, the scene where D’Argo attacks Crichton). But I thought it was a good, enjoyable one-off. Why were you underwhelmed?
  • S: That D’Argo scene actually seems kind of important! Hopefully it means he won’t always suggest leaving Crichton behind when he gets into trouble. (And indeed, we see that’s the case in “Rhapsody in Blue.”) I liked the accord they reached a lot--
  • H: I do too. I like that the show acknowledges that these two people would not be immediate friends, but they reach a level of respect with each other.
  • S: I also like the way D’Argo almost over-commits to it right away, because in the fight at the end he won’t leave Crichton behind even when Crichton asks him too. But anyway, I think it’s because though the alien bounty hunters were funny, there wasn’t much of a sense of threat to the episode. It sort of feels like they went to the planet (which is called “Dam-Ba-Da,” apparently!), did some stuff, and then left. But the more I think about it, the more bits I liked there are, like Aeryn’s brief dealing with blindness.
  • H: There’s also a nice bit where Crichton and Aeryn discuss the offer that Crais left for her on the beacon-thingy that contained the message about the bounty on the prisoners-- that she would be forgiven and welcomed back if she abandoned Crichton and returned with the others.
  • S: Yeah, I also liked that bit. Plus there’s a part where Crichton meets an alien and mistakes his name for “Worf”!
  • H: Ha! In the closing scene, Furlow drives a hard bargain with Crichton-- the cost of altering Crais’s message (throwing the bounty hunters off their trail) and fixing the shuttle is for him to leave behind the data from the test flight-- data that could help him get back home. And Furlow does that thing she does with her eyes when she’s talking and the cigar in her mouth, and have I mentioned how much I really love Furlow? It seems unusual to me to cast that sort of character as female.
  • S: I agree. The Farscape wiki says Furlow was scripted as male, which is probably what makes her work so well.
  • H: I wondered as much.
  • S: So, I guess I did enjoy this one then.
  • H: Good.

1x12: “Rhapsody in Blue”

  • STEVE: After everyone on Moya has sex dreams (Zhaan: “I am unimpressed by your masculine memories.”), the ship arrives at a colony of Zhaan’s people who want her to teach them enough self-control so they can be evil without being insane. So in theory we end up learning a lot about Zhaan, but I actually felt like she was a side character in her own episode.
  • HAYLEY: That’s a good point. We do learn a lot more about Delvians in general-- particularly the priests who “train for purity”-- and that maybe helps put some things about Zhaan in perspective. But I would agree that we don’t really learn much about her as a person, except for learning what specific crime landed her in prison: the murder of her lover, Bitaal.
  • S: She wasn’t really driving the plot with her choices, Crichton was; it was him who had to overcome something to help her, and him who reminded her of who she truly was. Plus anyway I found the story of this one hard to invest in.
  • H: There was a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo that was somewhat tricky to follow. The funny thing is, if I had watched this show as a high schooler, I think I would have loved this episode.
  • S: Heh.
  • H: I would have totally bought into the esoteric spiritual stuff and how Delvian “unity” basically takes you to another plane of existence. But as an adult, it doesn’t really do a lot for me.
  • S: I don’t think this was as bad as some space religions, but space religion is difficult to pull off. I just found the whole struggle a little too abstract-- like what does it even mean to be manically evil but not insane? Tahleen seemed even more nuts after bonding with Zhaan.
  • H: She did mention that she hadn’t gotten enough of Zhaan’s knowledge, but yeah. The plot resolution also depends on Tahleen’s followers having a sudden change of heart, which is rather convenient.
  • S: Oh yeah. “We want to bring a bloody revolution to our homeworld, but doing something mean to this one person, that’s too far!”
  • H: It takes away some of the agency of the main characters in solving the problem.
  • S: Yeah, there’s potentially something interesting with the crew of Moya fighting their fears, but then it’s all over.
  • H: They definitely could have explored Aeryn’s fears of being untrained and incompetent more. D’Argo’s fear is for the safety of his son (of course)-- and poor Rygel, always the butt of the jokes! His deepest fear is being even tinier than he really is. He’s really sensitive about his size, apparently. I was ambivalent about John’s false memories about his girlfriend, but one thing I did appreciate about that was how similar his girlfriend looked to Gilina in “PK Tech Girl.” In retrospect, it makes me feel more sympathetic for how quickly he fell for Gilina.
  • S: Hm, interesting point. I guess Crichton has a type? According to the wiki, the same actress played the girlfriend as the Delvian priestess making John see her, which I did not realize while watching.
  • H: Going back to Zhaan, I did like when she told John that she trusts him. I also hope that the fact they’ve now experienced “unity” with each other is followed up on, like how can that not affect how John sees Zhaan? But I doubt it will, which is probably okay; and John doesn’t seem to really remember much of the experience, anyway.
  • S: That reminded me: it was a little weird how the events of this one weren’t tied into “That Old Black Magic” at all. In that episode, Zhaan complains she’s lost the control she spent years building… and here it happens all over again?
  • H: True, and in “Old Black Magic,” she said that it would be very difficult to suppress the evil inside her and regain control. But now that John’s helped her regain control in this one, does that resolve the earlier issue as well?
  • S: Something minor I did really like: I dig the Delvian makeup. They do a good job making their faces have a subtly alien shape with just lines and color for the most part. (As opposed to Star Trek-style plastic foreheads/noses/ears/all of the above.)
  • H: I appreciate the individual variation we see in the Delvians, also. They all look like distinct individuals, with variation in things like how much gold is in their skin. I was a tiny bit surprised that not all Delvians are bald. Do you think Zhaan was born that way, or does she shave her head every morning?
  • S: She probably uses a depilating slug.
All screencaps courtesy FarscapeCaps.com.

22 June 2017

Review: Y: The Last Man: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Paul Chadwick, and José Marzán, Jr.

Comic trade paperback, 167 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2003-04)

Acquired June 2016
Read August 2016
Y: The Last Man: One Small Step

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Paul Chadwick
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Pamela Rambo
Letterer: Clem Robins

In her excellent book, Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: "We'll Not Go Home Again", Claire P. Curtis defines postapocalyptic fiction as "any account that takes up how humans start over after the end of life on earth as we understand it" (5). Apocalyptic fiction depicts the end, but postapocalyptic fiction foregrounds what comes after the end; she argues that it's a combination of apocalyptic fiction and the pioneer novel, in that it "take[s] the social criticism inherent in the apocalyptic text and the utopian impulse of the pioneer novel and outline[s] an origin story ironically appropriate for our time when the frontier is absent and the possibility of catastrophe seems imminent. [...] End of the world accounts serve multiple purposes. They are both didactic and cathartic. They provide both the voyeuristic satisfaction of terrible violence and the Robinson Crusoe excitement of starting over again" (6).

from Y: The Last Man #11 (art by Pia Guerra & Jose Marzan, Jr.)

We can't tell stories of people living spare lives on the frontier because there is no frontier anymore; this is arguably the same impulse that gives us The Walking Dead, for example. I taught both Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead in the same summer course on the apocalypse. And indeed, Y: The Last Man provides the "Robinson Crusoe excitement of starting over": we see in this volume how the women left after the "gendercide" have to do things like fill the gap left when popular entertainment is all gone, or how they even have women who fake being men with facial hair in order to provide sexual experiences to straight women.

21 June 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #13: Spider-Man: The Lizard Sanction

Hardcover, 333 pages
Published 1995

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2017
Spider-Man: The Lizard Sanction
by Diane Duane
illustrations by Darick Robertson & Scott Koblish

If you'd asked me to guess which Marvel superhero Diane Duane would be asked to write for, I'd've guessed the Fantastic Four, whose fantastic cosmic adventures seem like a good fit for the style of writing Duane demonstrated in Star Trek novels like The Wounded Sky, or in some of the more cosmic Young Wizards books. But when reading The Lizard Sanction I grokked why Duane is a good fit for Spider-Man (other than her love for New York City, where this book doesn't take place): it's because she believes in niceness so damn much. Like, in one of her Star Trek novels (Dark Mirror) she even posits that morality levels are fundamental factors of different universes! So of course she's a good fit for Spider-Man, because not only is Peter Parker nice (the best parts of this book are probably when he goes to visit the family of the Lizard in both his identities, I mean how often do people think of the family members of supervillains unless one of them is about to descend into supervillainy themselves?), but everyone is nice. He bumps into cops and investigators, and they're all, "how can we help?" This wasn't a gripping novel (I had a hard time investing in the plot), but it was a diverting one, and its sort of casually optimistic tone was its best part.

Next Week: Back to DC's never-ending stream of crises, beginning with The Multiversity!

20 June 2017

Hugos 2017: Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin

Before we get started: I have a review up of Big Finish's most recent Torchwood special, the prequel story Torchwood One: Before the Fall, at Unreality SF.

Hardcover, 316 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 1997-2016)

Acquired and read May 2017
Words Are My Matter: Writing About Life and Books, 2000-2016
with A Journal of a Writer's Week
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This volume collects various bits and bobs of Ursula K. Le Guin's nonfiction writing from the last sixteen years, divided into four different sections: talks and essays of various sorts, introductions to republications of books, book reviews, and a journal from a week Le Guin spent at a rural writer's retreat.

The speeches and other essays are good, if an odd and inconsistent miscellany, ranging from two quick pages on Le Guin's experience getting an abortion before Roe v. Wade, to six pages about invented languages in fiction, to seven pages about genre fiction, to fifteen pages about the architect of the house she grew up in. What you get out of these will probably depend on your interest in the topics: I found that fifteen pages about an architect was more than I cared to read, for example, but loved Le Guin's various thoughts on genre. She's not a big fan of literary writers who borrow from speculative fiction at the same time they condescend about it, and this parody of their discourse was probably one of my favorite bits of the book:
my book Searoad [...] makes ironic use of some realist tropes—but of course I don't write Re-Fi [...]. Realism is for lazy-minded, semi-educated people whose atrophied imagination allows them only the most limited and conventional subject matter. Re-Fi is a repetitive genre written by unimaginative hacks who rely on mere mimesis. If they had any self-respect they'd be writing memoir, but they're too lazy to fact-check. Of course I never read Re-Fi. But the kids keep bringing home these garish realistic novels and talking about them, so I know that it's an incredibly narrow genre, completely centered on one species, full of worn-out clichés and predictable situations—the quest for the father, mother-bashing, obsessive male lust, dysfunctional suburban families, etc., etc. All it's good for is being made into mass-market movies.
The forewords, on the other hand, were tough going at times; if I've learned anything from reading this book and Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats, it's that forewords stand on their own somewhat awkwardly, being designed to prime you to read a book you're not actually about to read. Some were interesting enough that I marked the books down to check out later, but I was relieved when I made it through them all.

The book reviews, though, made the whole book worth it. Le Guin is an incisive and intelligent reviewer, and I'd read one or two of these in The Guardian on-line, but most of them were new to me. Le Guin is skilled at identifying what kind of genre a work is operating in, and using that to say something interesting about the book. A good review should not only give you a sense of the work, but it should also say something that goes beyond the book-- without going so far beyond the book as to leave it behind-- and Le Guin achieves all that in these excellent little bits of criticism. She left me with a number of books I wanted to read because she made them sound good, ones she made me know I did not want to read, and ones I wanted to read because it sounded like they failed in interesting ways.

The journal was cute if somewhat insubstantial; despite being "of a writer's week" it's less about writing and more about bits of nature Le Guin notices at the retreat. I did like her observations about the trails at the retreat, and the behavior of rabbits.

Next Week: Relationships and drama and alien encounters on A Long Journey to a Small, Angry Planet!

19 June 2017

Review: Star Trek Cats by Jenny Parks

Hardcover, 63 pages
Published 2017

Acquired and read June 2017
Star Trek Cats by Jenny Parks

Obviously I expected to like this book because I requested a review copy of it from LibraryThing, but I didn't expect to love it, but love it I did. Parks's illustrations of scenes from the original Star Trek with cats substituting for the actors is beyond charming; almost every page contained a new delight. Who wouldn't love cat Scotty in a Jefferies tube, cat Sulu batting at the sparkles of the transporter beam, cat Spock and cat Kirk watching their ancestor the sabre-tooth tiger in the Guardian of Forever, an Andorian cat, cat Spock and cat Kirk fighting on Vulcan with lirpas (complete with torn uniform shirt for cat Kirk), cat Spock nerve-pinching guards on Eminiar, cat Kirk fighting the Gorn, and so many other delights, including cat Uhura squeeing over a tribble? Parks's cat counterparts for each crewmember is perfect-- if Kirk or Spock or Scotty or McCoy was a cat, this is what they would look like.

One quibble: an early page has a picture of the Enterprise with the opening narration as a caption... but it uses "where no one has gone before," which isn't how it went in the original Star Trek. But surely in the context of this book, it ought to be "where no cat has gone before"!

If you want a taste of what it's like, Parks's website has a panoply of pop culture cats, including many Marvel characters. She has a real talent for matching faces: take her Peter Capaldi cat for example. Spot on!

16 June 2017

The Short Speculative Fiction Corpus of Manjula Padmanabhan [Update]

After reading her award-winning science fiction play Harvest (1997), I got interested in the Indian writer Manjula Padmanabhan. Padmanabhan is a great writer of diverse genres (sf, literary fiction, autobiography, children's and YA, cartoons), but though Harvest has garnered a ton of attention from postcolonial academics, the rest of her science fiction has largely gone ignored or unnoticed. She has written two sf novels, Escape (2009) and The Island of Lost Girls (2015), but also a number of pieces of short fiction with speculative elements.

I did my bit to rectify this by publishing an article about some of Padmanabhan's short sf in the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literature, "The Body, the Bomb, and the Domestication of the Technologies of Global Capitalism in the Postcolonial Science Fiction of Manjula Padmanabhan" (vol. 3, no. 2, Fall 2015), though who knows if anyone has ever or will ever read it. My article primarily concerns two great stories: "Gandhi-Toxin" (1997), where an evil multinational biocorp uses Gandhi's genes to create a mosquito-born pacifism toxin, and "2099" (1999), about a man who travels from 2017 to 2099 and discovers that even though India has colonized Mars, the problems of the future are even worse than those of today. Both stories explore how India might take the technologies that exploit it in the neocolonial era and "domesticate" them for its own use.

To do my part in furthering word of Padmanabhan's short sf, the article includes an appendix of her complete works. Imagine my embarrassment when, in a recent read of her collection Hot Death, Cold Soup (1996), I discovered I had somehow missed several of them when compiling my list! So, to rectify my sin, I present here a corrected and expanded version of

The Short Speculative Fiction Corpus of Manjula Padmanabhan in Order of Original Publication


Title Original Publication Collected in
A Government of India Undertaking 1984 (in Imprint Magazine 24.1 as "A Government of India Undertaking...", with illustrations by Padmanabhan) Hot Death, Cold Soup
Three Virgins
Sharing Air 1984 (in the New Delhi Sunday Express) Kleptomania
Unfaithful Servants 1987 (in Namasté: The ITC Hotels Magazine, with illustrations by Padmanabhan) Hot Death, Cold Soup
Stolen Hours 1996 (in Hot Death, Cold Soup)
The Annexe 1996 (in Hot Death, Cold Soup)
Gandhi-Toxin 1997 (in New Internationalist 293 as "Essence of Gandhi," with illustrations by Padmanabhan) Kleptomania
2099 1999 (in Outlook 213 as "India 2099," with illustrations by Jayachandran Nanu) revised and expanded for Kleptomania
Feast 2008 (in Tehelka 6.1, with illustrations by Neelakash Kshetrimayum) Three Virgins
The Other Woman 2012 (in Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, ed. Anil Menon and Vandana Singh) Three Virgins
Exile 2013 (in Three Virgins)
Cool 2014 (in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, ed. Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar, and Anita Roy) N/A
The Blooming
(with Kirsty Murray)
2014 (in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean) N/A

When the periodical of original publication has an e-version, I provided the link above. Padmanabhan's short fiction has been reprinted in three collections so far:
  • Hot Death, Cold Soup: Twelve Short Stories (Kali for Women, 1996; Garnet, 1997)
  • Kleptomania: Ten Stories (Penguin, 2004)
  • Three Virgins and Other Stories (Zubaan, 2013)
Hopefully this is of use to someone out there in the world. I'll try to update it as I make more discoveries.

Updated 20 June 2017 with slight extra detail on "Unfaithful Servants." Namasté is a hotel magazine that does (or did) an annual short story issue. The illustration can be seen in The Namasté Book of Indian Short Stories, Volume II (UBS Publishers, 1997).

15 June 2017

Review: The Partisan Leader by Nathaniel Beverly Tucker

Hardcover, 392 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1836)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2013
The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future
by Nathaniel Beverly Tucker

My reading of nineteenth-century future-war fiction brought me to this, one of the earliest examples of the genre, from 1836, a rare American instance, this one about the growing "disunion" between North and South. C. Hugh Holman's introduction to my University of North Carolina Press reprint is pretty informative, and much more interesting than the book itself, which at 392 pages is dull and long. It's basically a Walter Scott imitation by someone who's nowhere near as good as Walter Scott, but it just happens to be set in the future. Probably a milestone in the history of science fiction, except I suspect it's one of those books that no one in its era actually read. Definitely one of those books that's more interesting for its place in history than for your actual reading experience.

14 June 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part XIV: The All New Atom: The Hunt For Ray Palmer!

Comic trade paperback, 126 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2017
The All New Atom: The Hunt For Ray Palmer!

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Mike Norton
Inkers: Dan Green, Trevor Scott
Letterers: Pat Brosseau, Travis Lanham, John J. Hill
Colorist: Alex Bleyaert
Bonus story writer: Roger Stern

This volume isn't great, but it's finally beginning to feel like Gail Simone and her artistic collaborators are getting a hold on the premise and character of The All New Atom. In this volume, Ryan Choi is recruited to find his predecessor, first by one of Ray Palmer's enemies, and then by the Challengers from Beyond from Countdown to Final Crisis. The inventive, fanciful ideas are in full force, as Ryan encounters a race of tiny aliens, half of whom consider the Atom a god and half a demon, then travels into a simulation of the afterlife where he meets the Ted Kord Blue Beetle, then helps prevent a giant monster attack on Ivy Town, then stops an evil alien using 1960s music to control the town.

But I can't help feeling that though this book has good jokes (the Ray Palmer impersonator in the tiny village is great), it's completely unfocused and not in a good way. Like, the whole fake afterlife thing is largely tossed off and irrelevant, even if it does give us Ryan kicking a jetpack-wearing Hitler in the face:
Related to this: Ryan declares that reality itself has jumped the shark.
from The All New Atom #14 (script by Gail Simone, art by Mike Norton & Trevor Scott)

I mean, one issue ends with the Challengers finding a message written in blood from Ray Palmer:

13 June 2017

Hugos 2017: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

Trade paperback, 410 pages
Published 2016

Acquired and read May 2017
The Broken Earth, Book Two: The Obelisk Gate
by N. K. Jemisin

While the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, followed three parallel stories that turned out to be linked, The Obelisk Gate follows two. At first it seems like there's going to be three, but the third narrative only has two chapters. One plotline follows the protagonist of the first volume, Essun, while the other shows us what her daughter, Nassun, has been doing during the events of both The Fifth Season and this book. (The stories move at different rates, but each ends at the same time, I think.) Just as the multiple narratives of The Fifth Season recontextualized each other, Nassun's story provides extra detail on Essun as a mother, deepening her character in ways not exactly sympathetic, but always comprehensible.

I enjoyed this both more and less than The Fifth Season. The Fifth Season was marginally unsatisfying because its main narrative didn't really come to any kind of climax, it felt like it just stopped. The Obelisk Gate definitely has a climax, that delivers on the levels of emotion, plot, character, and backstory-- it's very satisfying. On the other hand, up until that climax, Essun's plotline felt very aimless, as she slowly integrated into her newly adopted comm, but didn't seem to have much of a driving motivation, and her old mentor very slowly doled out exposition. The climax, though, made a lot of this work for me retrospectively. I did very much enjoy Nassun's plotline, though, even if it was clearly subordinate to Essun's (the three plots in The Fifth Season felt more evenly balanced).

Still, on the whole this is an enjoyable read. Jemisin writes great prose, depicts nuanced characters, deals with complicated issues of power and violence, and continues to expand an interesting world. I'm glad Hugo voting led me to The Broken Earth, and I look forward to reading The Stone Sky later this year to see how it all comes to an end.

Next Week: Thoughts from Ursula K. Le Guin on matters of writing and life in Words Are My Matter!

12 June 2017

Review: Hot Death, Cold Soup by Manjula Padmanabhan

Hefty update, as I've been negligent. Reviews of Big Finish's "Mel Returns" trilogy (A Life of Crime, Fiesta of the Damned, Maker of Demons), series 13 of Jago & Litefoot, and the four-in-one Doctor Who release The Memory Bank and other stories are all up at USF. If you only read one, read the last one; I tried harder because so did the story!

Trade paperback, 241 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1984-96)

Acquired February 2015
Read April 2017
Hot Death, Cold Soup: Twelve Short Stories
by Manjula Padmanabhan

I got into Manjula Padmanabhan as part of a project on Indian science fiction (I eventually published an article about her in an academic journal). Her most famous work is the horrific dystopian play Harvest, but I was really won over by her short fiction. It's been collected in three different volumes, of which this is the earliest, the other two being Kleptomania: Ten Stories (2004) and Three Virgins and Other Stories (2013).

Hot Death, Cold Soup collects, as the subtitle implies, twelve short stories, both previously published stories from 1984 to 1995, and a set of unpublished ones written over the same time period. The most famous of these is probably "A Government of India Undertaking," one of the science fiction ones: a desperate narrator discovers the government bureaucracy that controls reincarnation and tries to figure out who she needs to bribe to get out of her current life and into a much better one-- an amusing idea with a nice final scene.

I feel like much of Padmanabhan's non-sf is driven by an sfnal impulse, to take a single idea and follow its permutations and implications through to their ultimate conclusion, such as the title story, about a white American widow of an Indian man who's determined to commit sati, or "The Calligrapher's Tale" (probably my favorite in this book), about a wealthy young man who hires a highly skilled calligrapher to write out erotica for him, or "Teaser," about a sexual harasser who finally accomplishes his greatest goal.

Padmanabhan is skilled at capturing human pettiness and balancing it with the meaningful and the profound: I enjoyed, for example, "Mrs Ganapathy's Modest Triump," about a woman trying to marry off her unconventional daughter, and "The Copper-tailed Skink," about a white English biology professor doing field work in India who's struggling with a different culture with different customs. One of my other favorites was "Stains," which concerns a black American woman engaged to an Indian man, and the cultural differences she considers irreconcilable-- the "stains" of the title are  menstrual blood she leaves on the sheets, to which her future mother-in-law reacts quite strongly.

I guess as I write that I realize that a number of these stories deal with cultural clash, which Padmanabhan handles in an interesting and provocative way, as someone who's spent her own life passing between India and Britain. Like her other volumes, highly recommended.

09 June 2017

Steve and Hayley Watch Farscape: Season 1, Episodes 5-8

1x05: “Back and Back and Back to the Future”

  • HAYLEY: Five episodes in, and I’ve yet to be wowed. This one was meh. It could have worked, maybe, if the actress who played Matala didn’t lay it on so thick. And I didn’t like her outfit.
  • STEVE: Yeah, I’ve enjoyed every episode up until now more than I didn’t, but that one was dumb. Both the alien actors were making weird performance choices-- Verell sometimes. Pronounced. Every. Word. As. Its. Own. Sentence.
  • H: So Crichton kept experiencing flashes of the future, but could make different decisions that affected the outcome, à la Groundhog’s Day. Is it weird that what I’m mostly bothered about is that he didn’t end up not breaking Zhaan’s glass mask in the final timeline?
  • S: I don’t even get why he broke it on purpose in the last iteration! Stargate SG-1 did this episode much better. (“Window of Opportunity”)
  • H: I don’t have strong memories of that one, but they also did an episode featuring the effects of a black hole, and that one was definitely way better too.
  • S: Oh, yeah, “A Matter of Time,” where time is slowing down in the SGC due to relativistic effects. Why is the black hole green in this story anyway?
  • H: Good question. Maybe it’s like entropy in ’80s Doctor Who.
  • S: Anyway, the time stuff was about the only interesting thing in this episode, but that didn’t even really add up. I felt like the rules of how Crichton’s flash-forwards worked kept changing-- first they were these sepia-tinted spurts, then they were short jumps, then they seemed to extend naturally from the present moment until he looped back to the beginning. And why were there all the flash-forwards with the weird sex stuff anyway? That was never followed up on except as an incitement to make D’Argo jealous of John.
  • H: Because Matala was supposed to be sexy, I guess? There weren’t even very good character moments in this episode, which have saved previous episodes with mediocre plots. We do get some new information about D’Argo’s past, but all we really learn is that he has secrets. And he doesn’t want to talk about them.
  • S: I actually don’t remember what reason he gave for being on board Moya in the premiere, which sort of undercut the revelation that it was false-- it would have been nice to have that reiterated here.
  • H: Killing his commanding officer, maybe? I don’t want to google it in case of spoilers.
  • S: The Farscape wiki says that’s right. But yeah, this one was almost entirely devoid of little character moments, which had been the saving grace of every episode thus far. Oh, returning to the subject of Matala, why did she attack Aeryn in such a way that revealed her true nature?
  • H: That was incredibly stupid of her!
  • S: And then she left her alive!
  • H: So much for remaining undercover.

1x06: “Thank God It’s Friday… Again”

  • STEVE: Earlier I complained that Moya is always breaking down, but why is D’Argo always coming under the influence of strange things? The wristband in “Throne for a Loss,” the sexy space spy lady in “Back to the Future,” and this episode again almost entirely features a D’Argo under mind control.
  • HAYLEY: Do we ever get an explanation for the Luxan “hyper-rage” he’s experiencing at the beginning of the episode?
  • S: Oh, right! No we don’t, but yeah-- D’Argo is out of his right mind two different ways in one episode! I guess this bugs me because I feel like D’Argo is maybe the main character who’s been fleshed out the least. He’s the Worfesque warrior alien. We know more about everyone else on Moya.
  • H: That’s a good point. But I enjoyed the plot of this one. It’s just as simple (and maybe cliche) as some of the other episode plots so far, but this time I bought into it. Crichton had to largely act alone after D’Argo and Zhaan were under mind control (although why he didn’t communicate with Aeryn to bring her into the loop is kind of a major plot hole), and his actions carried weight-- he had to not only rescue his shipmates, but the entire enslaved race of this planet.
  • S: Meh. This wasn’t as bad as the previous one, but it was otherwise one of the worst ones yet, I thought. You work out what’s going on pretty quick, and then it seems like nothing happens. Why does Crichton hang out on the planet for two days not doing anything? Why doesn’t he take thirty seconds to call Aeryn? Even the alien freedom fighters seem aimless-- there’s a whole day between when they tell Crichton they want something from him and when they tell him what it is, and I don’t know why.
  • H: True-- and they didn’t have a very good plan. Their entire plan was, “Fly away on your ship and find someone who can help us.” And then Crichton still didn’t call the ship.
  • S: And when Aeryn got there, he still didn’t tell her what was going on for no reason I could comprehend. As you pointed out when we were watching, he spent more time not explaining than an explanation would have taken.
  • H: Maybe I’ve just come to expect gaping plot holes in Farscape episodes. But here’s the thing that bothers me. If this is the region of space that the Peacekeepers call “The Uncharted Territories,” why is the planet they get the main source of their weapons fuel from located here?
  • S: Is it the main source? Or just a source?
  • H: The way Aeryn was talking at the end made it sound like the main source, but I guess that’s not necessarily the case.
  • S: But yeah, and in last week’s we see two different alien races known to D’Argo. Not very “uncharted.”
  • H: That at least had an explanation (if not a very convincing one)-- they had to go into deep space to test the black hole weapon they had.
  • S: True. What I did like about this one was the B-plot. The scene where Aeryn and Pilot open up to each other was nicely done, and followed up on what you highlighted in “Exodus from Genesis.” Poor Pilot has to work so hard to seem all-knowing! And no one even appreciates it.
  • H: I did like that, and I liked Aeryn’s comment at the end, that it felt nice to fix something using her mind rather than through force.
  • S: Yeah.
  • H: We did get one tiny glimpse into the real D’Argo at the end as well, when he talks to Zhaan about the two futures he’d envisioned as a child.
  • S: That scene was also very good, and provided some much-needed perspective on D’Argo.
  • H: I liked the regret that D’Argo had-- seemingly both for not being able to stay on the planet where he’d been happy, but also for the falseness that that happiness had been.
  • S: Yeah, Zhaan’s point that D’Argo couldn’t find that happiness, but had to build it was a good counter to his sadness.
  • H: So once again, we have a mediocre plot rescued by a couple of good character moments.
  • S: And, to be fair, any episode whose resolution depends on Rygel emitting a stream of explosive piss can’t be all bad.
  • H: Groan.
  • S: That was so good!
  • H: That was so bad!

    1x07: “PK Tech Girl”

    • HAYLEY: In this episode, the crew comes across a famed, missing Peacekeeper vessel. Onboard, they find a Peacekeeper named Gilina-- not from the original crew of the ship, but from one of Crais’s scouting vessels. A race of scavengers had attacked and killed her crewmates, leaving her the only survivor.
    • STEVE: What I really liked about this one is how everyone has such varied reactions to both the ship and to Gilina. Crichton wants to trust her, D’Argo just wants to know what she can do for them, Aeryn sees a reflection of herself which I think leads to both empathy and distrust. I think it’s a really good example of how to write an ensemble cast: drop something interesting into their world, and explore the different ways they all handle it.
    • H: Aeryn’s response to Gilina is the most interesting. She initially lashes out-- strongly-- making a show of her strength and distaste for her: for her position as a lowly tech, for her loyalty to the Peacekeepers (which, of course, Aeryn envies). This says much more about her than about Gilina.
    • S: We also get Aeryn’s reaction to the ship itself: at the beginning, John is kind of sneery about how inhospitable it is, and the whole idea of being raised on a ship, but then at the end, he realizes that going aboard the derelict carrier was (for Aeryn) like walking through corpses in his dad’s house. I thought that was a really good scene, and showed us stuff about both characters. I was a little less enamored with the revelation that Aeryn was sexually attracted to Crichton, as it was a bit ham-fisted the way she decided to admit it.
    • H: And I don’t completely buy it, either, based on Aeryn’s initial reactions to meeting him (although she does say that she makes a point to suppress those kinds of feelings, especially for an inferior species). I also wasn’t terribly impressed at the scenes that drove Crichton and Gilina’s romance-- I did like that he first fell for their shared interest in astrophysics, but after that, there were too many scenes where something just happened to make them fall into one another or stand with their bodies pressed together. It kind of made it seem like Crichton was falling for the very first alien female who showed an interest in him. (Wait, it’s not even the first one, is it? He kinda had a thing for the woman in “I, E.T.,” too. Is he going to fall for all the ladies?)
    • S: I didn’t have a problem with their romance-- I thought it was very well done, actually. Like, I didn’t feel we were supposed to take this as some True Love thing, but that it was exactly what you described. Gilina is the first human-like female who’s been nice to him; Crichton is the first person Gilina has seen in who knows how long; they both like space and being nice to people; they’re both attractive. Boom!
    • H: It is rather adorable. And I appreciate that Gilina isn’t attractive in a particularly sexy way-- she’s quite normal, very girl-next-door, and I think that’s right for this plot.
    • S: Meanwhile, Rygel remembers being tortured, D’Argo has to learn how to bluff when he has a weapon-less spaceship, and Zhaan provides moral support. (Do you think Catholic priests tell former prisoners to find the corpse of their prison wardens to achieve catharsis?) This episode had something interesting for everyone to do, even though I don’t think the aliens were as imposing as the script indicated they should be. They were kind of like goofy goblins from one of those 1980s Henson fantasy films.
    • H: Rygel’s B-plot was very good, I thought. His experience on the ship was so different from everyone else’s-- while they’re ransacking parts of the ship to rebuild a shield to fight for survival, he’s fighting his own personal demons.
    • S: Yeah, it did feel a little disconnected, but I enjoyed it. It adds to my point above about how each character has their own distinct but meaningful reaction to the events of the episode.
    • H: Plus, when he finally achieves catharsis, it’s a good scene. “No matter what you did to me, I'll always remember one thing: You lose!”
    • S: Overall, I thought this was the best episode thus far. While in earlier episode we had sort of dull stories with nice character moments, in this one the characters were the story.
    • H: I can agree with that.

      1x08: “That Old Black Magic”

      • STEVE: At first I was like, this is a Star Trek episode: a godlike alien forces the crew to fight for his own amusement. (Specifically, in this case, Crichton is forced to fight Crais, who makes his first appearance since the premiere.) Plus the alien feeds on EMOTION. But then as I kept watching, I was like, no, it’s even worse… it’s a Blake’s 7 episode!
      • HAYLEY: I know only enough about Blake’s 7 to know that that is not a good thing.
      • S: On Blake’s 7 the crew is a good of space revolutionaries being chased by, well, “an insane military commander” to coin a phrase, and there’s an episode where godlike aliens notice this and force the main character to fight the evil commander for their own amusement. Like 90% of Blake’s 7 episodes, it’s not very good. And neither was this.
      • H: See, I actually thought the cheesy setup was saved by the fact that both Crichton’s and Zhaan’s actions seemed to have lasting, permanent implications. This was the first real time since the premiere that we’ve had hints of ongoing plot arcs.
      • S: Yeah, I thought that was a clever, unexpected move, as was the fact that the alien wizard thing’s plan turned out to be more complicated than it seemed… but that’s all the last 10 minutes of a 45-minute story which in the meantime has a lot of scenes of this “wacky” guy who is no John DeLancie.
      • H: There are quite a lot of scenes of Crichton and Crais just running around his weird maze of rooms, or of Crichton arguing with Maldis.
      • S: Or with Crais. “Let’s not fight!” “Let’s fight anyway!” “Let’s not!” “Let’s!”
      • H: Meanwhile, the suspicious red alien priest trains Zhaan to be needlessly cruel to innocent animals. I really thought he was going to make her kill that two-headed bird. I’m glad it didn’t end up going there-- I don’t know that I could forgive that!-- but she does end up imposing pain on Rygel, which is also not that great.
      • S: See, I was expecting a revelation that the priest guy was going to be evil, maybe even another incarnation of Maldis. At first he’s like, “No one can stand against Maldis, it’s impossible!” and being very timid. Then one scene later he’s all, “You must do this, Zhaan, to bring down Maldis!” and being very bossy. I was thinking he was making her do terrible things so he could feed off the emotions, but no, it was just a poorly written change of heart.
      • H: Those last ten minutes though. I was impressed that it wasn’t just “hey we beat the space monster-of-the-week, let’s move on.” No-- Crichton had been manipulated into actually attempting to kill Crais, and he grapples with the realization that the consequences of his actions mean that Crais will definitely not stop hunting him now. Meanwhile, Crais kills his lieutenant because she’s the only one who knows he received orders to stop his pursuit-- I was so shocked when he just snapped her neck that I audibly gasped.
      • S: Heh, you jumped too! I didn’t see that coming; in fact when she appeared at the beginning of the episode (she was in the premiere) I was like, “Ah they’re creating a recurring character.” Nope!
      • H: And Zhaan has somehow unleashed the evil that was buried inside her-- and she’s not so sure it can be easily unburied. I thought this was an interesting turn for her character, and it fits with the glimpse of badass-ness that we got in “Throne for a Loss.”
      • S: It’s interesting that it seems like she got religion in prison.
      • H: She mentioned before that she became a priest in prison. I forget which episode.
      • S: Yeah, it was alluded to (I am also not sure when), but got fleshed out here some.
      • H: Is it still as bad as a Blake’s 7 episode?
      • S: Well, I didn’t fall asleep during it, which I’m pretty sure I did during “Duel,” but I do feel like the whole pseudo-magic alien set-up is a little more Star Trekky than Farscape. Sort of weird to aver that only eight episodes in, but it does feel tonally off. (One thing I did like: Aeryn’s eye-roll whenever D’Argo indicated he believed in magic. It felt perfect for both characters, and Claudia Black is great at disdain.)
      All screencaps courtesy FarscapeCaps.com.

      08 June 2017

      Review: The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson

      Hardcover, 251 pages
      Published 1925 (originally 1885)
      Borrowed from the library
      Read July 2016
      The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson
      Written in collaboration with Mrs. Stevenson
           "Do you then propose, dear boy, that we should turn detectives?" inquired Challoner.
           "Do I propose it? No sir," cried Somerset. "It is reason, destiny, the plain face of the world, that commands and imposes it. Here all our merits tell; our manners, habit of the world, powers of conversation, vast stores of unconnected knowledge, all that we are and have builds up the character of the complete detective. It is, in short, the only profession for a gentleman." (8)
      Three purposeless gentlemen of the kind one encounters in Victorian novels decide to become detectives: this turns out to be a flimsy pretext upon which to hang a series of short stories by the Stevensons. Each of the fellows goes on an adventure, and within his adventure, someone usually tells him a story, so this gives you an overall frame story, then three of what we might call sub-frame stories, and then three more embedded tales. The stories are diverse, but definitely depict a late-Victorian fascination with racial mixing (as in "The Story of the Fair Cuban") and Mormons (as in "The Story of the Destroying Angel"; just two years later, A. Conan Doyle would do almost the same thing in A Study in Scarlet). And it all comes together in a tale of terrorism-- which I think Stevenson might have been a little ahead in his time on, since most of the examples I can recall of terrorism literature are from the 1890s.

      I liked the basic conceit of this book, but unfortunately the detectives are pretty dull and so are most of the adventures they get into. The embedded narratives are sometimes better ("The Story of the Destroying Angel" is tense) and sometimes worse. I did especially like Zero, the evil dynamiter, who uses a lot of the justifications I recognize as traditional, like you may call me indiscriminate, but war is indiscriminate! Or this speech: "We agree that humanity is the object, the glorious triumph of humanity; and being pledged to labour for that end, and face to face with the banded opposition of kings, parliaments, churches, and members of the force, who am I—who are we, dear sir—to affect a nicety about the tools employed?" (143-44) The Stevensons keeps Zero comic, which elevates him over similar characters from other books. I mean, he's obviously an out-and-out villain in an over-the-top fashion, but you have to love a guy who says the government is evil for using "hirelings," whereas terrorist groups nobly and generously provide their members with stipends (147). Completely different, of course! He's a scientist, but a shitty one (dynamiting is difficult because chemicals are as fickle as women!), and he's told off in the end: "You are ignorant of anything but science, which I can never regard as being truly knowledge; I, sir, have studied life" (236).

      There's also some stuff about a prince in disguise? That stuff was so boring my eyes glazed right over it all. So, not exactly a great book or even a good one, but it had some good jokes and some okay insight into the cultural brew of the 1880s.

      07 June 2017

      Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part XIII: Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer

      Comic trade paperback, 158 pages
      Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08)
      Borrowed from the library
      Read March 2017
      Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer

      Writers: Ron Marz, Sean McKeever, Peter Johnson, Matt Cherniss, Brian Augustyn, Alan Burnett, Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
      Pencillers: Angel Unzueta, Jamal Igle, Kelley Jones, Eric Battle, Greg Tocchini, Travel Foreman, Kalman Andrasofszky, Jeremy Haun, David Hahn, David Baldeón
      Inkers: Oliver Nome, Richard Friend, Saleem Crawford, Trevor Scott, Rob Hunter, Kelley Jones, Derek Fridolfs, Vicente Cifuentes, Jonathan Glapion, Jesse Delperdang, Paul Neary, Lorenzo Ruggiero, Kalman Andrasofszky, Norm Rapmund, Álvaro López, Rick Ketcham, David Hahn, Steve Bird
      Colorists: Allen Passalaqua, John Kalisz, Mark Chiarello, Art Lyon, Rod Reis, Pete Pantazis, Kanila Tripp
      Letterers: John J. Hill, Steve Wands, Travis Lanham

      I read this because I thought that it would tie-in to The All New Atom in some way. I still assume it does, because the next volume of The All New Atom is called The Hunt For Ray Palmer!, but "all-new Atom" Ryan Choi does not put in an appearance here. Instead, this volume follows the so-called "Challengers from Beyond" from Countdown to Final Crisis, expanding on their multiverse-hopping search for the original Atom, Ray Palmer, covered in volumes two and three of that series. Honestly, though I know it would have inflated that series to five volumes, and no one out there wanted more of Countdown to Final Crisis, DC should have included these issues with those ones somehow, because they don't stand on their own in any way.

      I will never ever care about Monarch, DC, no matter how hard you try.
      from Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer: Wildstorm #1 (script by Ron Marz, art by Angel Unzueta and Oliver Nome & Richard Friend & Saleem Crawford & Trevor Scott)

      The various issues collected here mostly show visits by the Challengers from Beyond to different worlds in the multiverse while they look for Ray Palmer, giving us extra adventures that went unseen in the main Countdown to Final Crisis series. As such, there's no real set-up (just a text page to recap salient points from the main series) and no resolution beyond an ad for Countdown to Final Crisis, Volume Three. And some parts are just confusing; for example, the Jokester from Earth-Three joins the Challengers at the end of one issue, but is nowhere to be seen in the next; that's because Countdown #30-22* took place between these two issues, and the Jokester died in #29, but there's no indication whatsoever of that here. And obviously I read Countdown to Final Crisis, but so long ago that I didn't remember this. C'mon, DC, at least try to make your collections readable. (Thanks to Cosmic Teams for being the only people on the whole Internet invested enough in Countdown to write an issue-by-issue timeline for it. Most of The Search for Ray Palmer occurs between issues #22 and 21 of Countdown, so during the middle of volume three.)