24 July 2017

Review: R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Son and the Stars by Tony Bedard, Claude St. Aubin, Andy Clarke, Scott Hanna, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010) 

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Son and the Stars

Writer: Tony Bedard
Artists: Claude St. Aubin, Andy Clarke, Scott Hanna, Geraldo Borges
Colorist: Jose Vilarrubia
Letterers: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham

R.E.B.E.L.S. is back on form with its third volume. Bedard is great at action, great at keeping the story moving, and great at weaving in old continuity without being distracting. In this volume, the series is affected by the DC crossover Blackest Night, but it's not a distraction: the massive outbreak of space zombies forces both Vril Dox and his enemy Starro the Conqueror to reformulate their plans. Plus, it allows for some tie-ins to the original L.E.G.I.O.N. run, as long-serving L.E.G.I.O.N.naire Stealth, mother of Vril Dox's child, is now dead and thus a Black Lantern. Before you know it, Lyrl Dox has a Starro spore... and Vril Dox has become a Yellow Lantern? I never knew I wanted that until I got it.

Sinestro has got nothing on Vril Dox when it comes to being an asshole.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #11 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

This is a little more action-driven than previous R.E.B.E.L.S. installments, but Bedard and his artistic collaborators keep the action interesting by varying it, and by keeping a lot of focus on characters and their relationships: Dox and his son, Dox and Stealth, and so on. It's nice that some DC space heroes left "homeless" by the cancellation of Jim Starlin's space stories (Captain Comet and Adam Strange) have a home here now, but it does mean the R.E.B.E.L.S. team is getting a bit crowded, and indeed, Bedard seems to realize this, as Strata and Garv depart in this volume, but still, Ciji the Durlan and Strata's friend Bounder still feel very underdeveloped: what motivates them? Still, this is the big action finale, not exactly the spot for character ruminations, and it's good at what it does, and the end promises a new set-up going forward.

Using first-person narration in the action-heavy issues is a good tactic, too.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #14 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

21 July 2017

My Hugo Awards 2017 Votes: Short Fiction Categories

My votes for the 2017 Hugo Awards were due last week; over the next few weeks, I'll be going over what I voted in all the various categories (at least, those ones where I did vote). First up is the various short fiction categories. In each category, I'll start with the story I placed the lowest and move up to the highest. I'll provide links when the stories are freely and legally available on-line.

Best Short Story


7. "An Unimaginable Light" by John C. Wright
“To utter certain types of truth is a micro-aggression. It creates a hostile environment we humans find uncomfortable.”
I thought I had a bead on what this story was at first: using Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to explore how difficult the concept of "harm" actual is to parse in human reactions, even if (as the above quotation shows) it's being written by someone who cares more about agenda than storytelling, and who doesn't try to understand the viewpoints of his opponents. But then in the last few pages it piled on some bizarre, meaningless, incomprehensible twist, and I was like, "Nope, not even misguidedly interesting, just poorly written."

6. "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander
This is my story, not his. It belongs to me and is mine alone. I will sing it from the last withered tree on the last star–blasted planet when entropy has wound down all the worlds and all the wheres, and nothing is left but faded candy wrappers.
This isn't really a story, it's a revenge fantasy: a man kills a woman, but it turns out the woman is some kind of immortal angelic cosmic force, and so she destroys him utterly. I find it weird that the beginning of the story sets itself as rectifying some kind of literary injustice, where heroes and  villains (usually male) get names everyone knows, and victims (usually women) get loving descriptions of their suffering and no names or stories anyone remembers, because our narrator has no name and no story, and is clearly just a fantasy, leaving real victims as anonymous as ever. The story doesn't really fulfill its own mandate.

5. No Award

One criterion I've been using for No Award is considering even if I don't like a thing, to what extent does it make sense to me that someone else would like a thing? So, for example, I didn't get much out of "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers," but I can see how someone else would, so it goes above No Award. But the two worst short stories on the ballot were both things I feel like I would be hard-pressed to understand why someone else likes it. (Even though, intellectually, I know they must, or they wouldn't be on the ballot.) 

4. "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" by Alyssa Wong
In my grief, I’d nearly forgotten about my sister, and in my absence, my apocalypse had shifted course without me.
The second of the two finalists by Alyssa Wong I read (see "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" below, under Best Novelette), this didn't do much for me, either. A pair of sisters have the power to manipulate the weather and the timelines; when one (who is trans) dies, the other works to change things to save her, but can never get it to work out. Better than the other Wong story, but mostly unmoving. Nice moments here and there in detailing the relationships, and once again, good imagery but it didn't touch me, and the affect of this was clearly supposed to be emotional.

3. "The City Born Great" by N. K. Jemisin
And just to add insult to injury? I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God. Port Authority makes it honorary New York, motherfucker; you just got Jerseyed.
I didn't love this story itself, which was a little too straightforward plotwise, but I loved the concepts it played with. The narrator discovers he's going to be the living embodiment of a city: when cities reach a certain level of complexity, they come to life. The narrator compares it to increasing mass-- a weight on the world, like how a black hole works-- but it made me think of ant colonies and brain cells and flocks of birds and other systems where irreducible complexity emerges from individually simple interactions. The narrator's enemy at one point is a monster made of policemen, which was a potent metaphor for how we try to impose order on complexity we don't like, so that control becomes easier, all James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State-style. (The way the police monster is dispatched is thus particularly apt.) I wish I liked this story more, because I loved Jemisin's concepts.

2. "That Game We Played During the War" by Carrie Vaughn
“The point,” Valk said [...], “is to fight little wars without hurting anyone.”

And there was silence then, because yes, they all had stories.
At first I found it difficult to decide between this and the next story, because they were both pretty good executions of potentially fascinating premises, both of which I just wanted something a little bit more. This story is set after the conclusion of a war between two nations, one where everyone is telepathic and one where everyone is not. A man and a woman who were on opposite sides of the war but forged a friendship in two different prisons (each had a turn as prisoner and as warder) resume a chess game-- a chess game complicated by the fact that the one always know what the other is planning. There are a lot of neat moments, particularly as the chess game draws the attention of those in the hospital where the telepath is recuperating. The last couple scenes is where it really sings.

1. "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El-Mohtar
“Falling’s easy—it's keeping still that’s hard.”
Two women, both seeming riffs on fairy tale protagonists, meet. One is cursed to keep moving, wearing out magic iron boots to rid her abusive husband of a curse. The other is cursed to immobility, staying on top of a glass mountain because she's so attractive men can't control themselves around her, awaiting the suitor who climbs to the top and wins her hand. The women are both damaged and private, and slowly open up to each other across the course of the story. A little inevitable in what happens (you can probably guess it just from my description), but I like how it shows we can internalize that which oppresses us, and it's beautifully written. At first I though it and "The Game We Played" were pretty much on par, but this story lingered with me in a way the others did not, so the more time I passed, the more certain I was of its placing.

Best Novelette


7. Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex by Stix Hiscock
     A last shriek of pleasure, and my glowing nipples suddenly began to discharge, shooting hot beams of light out from between my fingers and tongue. Blast after blast of energy went bouncing around the room, the crowd roaring even as they scrambled to dodge my sizzling nipple ejaculations.
This is neither a good piece of erotica, nor a good piece of parody erotica (there are times it seems to want to be funny, such as the above, but it doesn't land often enough to be interesting), nor even so bad that it becomes amusing. I do know why this novelette was nominated, but I don't know why it exists to begin with.

6. No Award

I feel pretty comfortable saying that if Alien Stripper won a Hugo, I'd be embarrassed as a voter, which seems like a good criterion for which to rank something below No Award.

5. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
     The kingdom is your setting. You are its light.
I could never really figure out how the magic system in this story worked, which is based around magical gems, royalty called Jewels, and faithful servants called lapidaries. The way the magic flowed between these two types of people and the gems remained obscure, which meant the whole story remained obscure, as it meant I could never fully comprehend the relationship of the two principal characters.

4. "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong
This town is just a field of bodies to use as he pleases.
An okay fantasy story about a boy with the power to reanimate dead objects, set in an alternate version of the Old West. The description of the desert is evocative, as is the occasional encounter with the living dead, but this story never really came to life for me (heh heh) for reasons I can't really pin my fingers on. Things seemed to tie up a little too neatly at the end, in ways I found a little too cliché. The emotional relationships the story hinges on never really mattered.

3. "The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan
Sometimes I believe it’s the airport itself, and Sipson, both the kind of non-places that keep you addicted to transience, the restless half-life of the perpetual traveller who never goes anywhere.

The idea of settling for anything too concrete begins to seem like death, so you settle for nothing.
An employee at the hotel where the crew of the second manned Mars mission is staying before they head off into space has the opportunity to reflect on her life, especially her relationship with her mother (who is having health problems) and her father (who she never knew). The sfnal elements are pretty minor: the Mars mission is just a backdrop for her story, and I didn't find a very compelling thematic or metaphorical resonance either. Okay for what it is, but it's not trying to do very much within the genre of science fiction.

2. "Touring with the Alien" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
“Your unconscious . . . it’s unreliable. You can’t control it. It can lead you wrong.”

“That’s absurd,” he said. “It’s not some outside entity; it’s you. It’s your conscious mind that’s the slave master, always worrying about control. Your unconscious only wants to preserve you.”
A women with a commercial driver's license and security clearance ends up taking an unusual cargo from Washington, D.C. to points west: an alien visitor to Earth and its human interpreter. The aliens in question lack conscious thought but are still immensely intelligent. It's a little slow to start, but it's in the complications of consciousness that the story really comes to life: Gilman has constructed genuinely alien aliens here, but ones that feel entirely plausible at the same time, and she links them adroitly into the dilemmas that all us humans face, while resisting easy answers. Cool concepts, competently executed.

1. "The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon
(Grandma Harken thought of herself as an old lady, because she was one. That she was tougher than tree roots and barbed wire did not matter. You did not steal an old lady's tomatoes. It was rude, and also, she would destroy you.)
This was the very last thing I read for the Hugos, and as I hadn't enjoyed the last few prose works before it ("An Unimaginable Light," Penric and the Shama, Death's End, Ninefox Gambit), I was beginning to worry I'd burnt out on Hugo reading. Well it wasn't me, it was them, because I loved this. An old lady in a magical version of the American West aims to catch whoever is stealing her prize tomatoes, and ends up discovering more than she expects. A tale with a strong sense of both voice and place, meticulously told down to the smallest detail, both real and imagined. Far and away the best of the novelettes.

Best Novella


6. Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
“He is very patient. Well, he would have to be, wouldn’t he, to work his art in a medium that takes more than a man's lifetime to complete.”
I never got into this story. Partially, there's a lot of backstory to absorb at the beginning, as this is the second is a series, and Bujold isn't very new reader friendly; it took a lot of (confusing) time for me to work out the relationship between Penric and his demon. Partially, the mechanics of magic in this world are very complicated, which might be useful if you're writing a series, but I felt like I was drowning in technical detail sometimes. Unfortunately, the plot is really based in such magical minutiae more than anything else. And partially, the characters just didn't ever grab me. I'm not sure why I am supposed to care about Penric based on this story in itself. He didn't really face any interesting challenges or do anything particularly noteworthy.

5. A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
     Aqib felt now as he had all throughout childhood: that everyone was moving deftly within norms long established, confidently speaking in terms already defined, but that no one had remembered to clue in poor little Aqib.
This started very strongly, with a romance between two men, one a minor royal from a homophobic vaguely Arabic culture, the other a legionnaire in a somewhat more open vaguely Roman visiting society. Wilson's writing is evocative, both culturally and characterfully, and the romance is very sweet, very convincing, and very real. After the first third, though, I started to lose the thread of it all and got confused as it became very jumpy. I think I worked it all out by the end, but my emotional investment had been damaged too much to recover. It's possible this is my fault, not the story's (I was a little distracted while reading parts of it), but that's the reaction I had and it's too late to change it.

4. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle
What was indifference compared to malice?
Like the next story on this list, The Ballad of Black Tom is a rewriting of an H. P. Lovecraft story from the perspective of an Other, in this case a black man from Harlem. I guess there's a bit of a Moment right now? I enjoyed the first half of the story a lot, despite that a number of the details remained frustratingly obscure (and I don't think they were meant to, though maybe I wasn't reading carefully enough, as I did read most of it on a plane). Tommy himself, the world he comes from, and the world he enters into are all sketched out very compellingly, and I liked the contrast of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the horror of being black in a racist world. The second half of the book I found less interesting, though the climax was pretty strong. Perhaps, like Dream-Quest, if I'd read Lovecraft's original I'd've been more into it, but I still enjoyed it.

3. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
     “Our world has no sweep, no scale,” Carter said. “No dark poetry. We can't get to the stars, and even the moon is hundreds of thousands of miles away. There is no meaning to any of it.”
     “Do stars have to mean anything?”
In an alternate world, a world that is a dream of our world, a middle-aged professor at a women's college goes on a quest to find a runaway student, one who's run off with a man with the intention of getting into our world, and whose flight endangers the stability of the college. There are some bits of this that are quite good, as Johnson is an evocative writer, and I really liked how the end came together, but even for a journey narrative, there's a big chunk of the middle that is very free of incident. I may have gotten more out of it if I'd read the Lovecraft which it is reworking, but I still enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, just not enough to rank it highest.

2. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
     “Going back” had two distinct meanings at the school, depending on how it was said. [...] The duality of the phrase was like the duality of the doors: they changed lives, and they destroyed them, all with the same, simple invitation. Come through, and see.
If this book had been as good as its premise, it would have been amazing; it might have got the top spot. The book is about a boarding school for kids who have traveled to fantasy worlds through portals (think Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz, the Pevensies in Narnia) and returned home and are having trouble adjusting. The first third of the novel is just a delight, as Nancy (our protagonist) settles into the school and meets the other characters, and we as readers learn how this milieu work. There are a lot of nice touches, such as what happens when fairies abduct a girl to fairly land, but that "girl" turns out to be a trans boy assigned female at birth. But one-third of the way through, the plot turns up, and it's a murder mystery, and the book turns a bit wobbly: some details didn't quite line up, some information is belabored, and I didn't buy the actions of the headmaster. (It felt like the book needed another edit.) It was still enjoyable, and I zipped through it because I couldn't put it down, but I wanted the whole book to be as good as the bit before the plot began. A somewhat mundane story with a compelling premise. I'd read more books with this premise, though (and they are coming).

1. This Census-Taker by China Miéville
“This”–he tapped the broad gauge tube–“a shotgun. It spreads possibilities.”
This inscrutable novella is about the son of a man who makes magic keys, and whose father may have killed his mother, but no one knows for sure-- not the authorities, who only have his word for it, and not the narrator, who thought he may have seen his father dying or someone else entirely. The novella chronicles the time before and after the murder, with occasional glimpses of the present day, where the narrator is writing the whole incident up in the second of three books he owns. The first is facts, which everyone can read but few will. The second is stories, written for readers even though they might not come. The third is secrets, which only he is supposed to read but others might. As maybe you can tell from what I've said so far, the book is partially about truths and how we capture them-- the kid is fascinated by creatures in bottles as a kid, because it makes him imagine an entirely contained world, and of course the census-taker who comes to the village is all about the capturing of (a form of) truth. Anyway, there are significant aspects of this book I did not comprehend, and I did not expect it to end where it did, but I greatly enjoyed reading it.

Overall Thoughts


I was probably more frustrated with Short Story and Novelette than any other Hugo categories (of those I voted in; I skipped many). There was one great short story, and everything else ranged from pretty good to No Award-- contrast that with there being four great novels, or three great graphic stories. There was one great novelette, too, but two I really bounced off of (plus the one I No Awarded). I don't know what the deal here is exactly. Just that people's tastes differ from mine? I note that almost all the finalists come from free-to-read web magazines (or "emags" as the L.A. Times crossword calls them), which makes me feel like availability might give these otherwise mediocre stories boosts.

On the other hand, the novellas were a fascinating bunch. Though I had some kind of reservation about each one, I felt #1-3 were all really good stories, and really different from each other, and all very inventive. And #4-5 both had some great writing, too. I may not like everything it produces, but the Tor.com novellas program (responsible for Jewel and Her Lapidary, Taste of Honey, Ballad of Black Tom, Dream-Quest, and Every Heart) is clearly very strong. And most of them are just $2.99 on Kindle!

I have no sense what will win any of these categories, except I feel pretty confident in "Tomato Thief." And if push came to shove, I'd guess short story will be either "Seasons of Glass" or "The Game We Played." But all I can tell you about novella is that it won't be This Census-Taker.

20 July 2017

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Trade paperback, 374 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2008)
Borrowed from my wife
Read August 2016
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The last book I taught in my course on postapocalyptic literature was The Hunger Games. Of course, my class of 20-somethings had almost all read it before, or at least seen the film, and felt like they understood it, particularly as a work of dystopian fiction, and were skeptical that the apocalypse was a significant part of the novel. But I felt like there's something in the fact that in the 2010s, we think that what young adults really need to read is about the end of the world.

Like with Y: The Last Man, I ended up discussing it in the context of the "state of nature." A lot of postapocalyptic fiction, as Claire P. Curtis argues, features a return to this state, where society is free to start over again from the ground up, with new rules. We often view the state of nature as being about the "survival of the fittest": it's every man for himself. And indeed, that's exactly what we see in the Hunger Games, a struggle to survive where only one can win.

But if you look more closely at The Hunger Games, it doesn't suggest that the apocalypse leads to the survival of the fittest, to a terrible world where everyone looks out for number one. The Hunger Games are created by human beings. "Survival of the fittest" isn't a natural ethos, it's imposed on human beings by a small subset. The natural inclination of human beings, we are shown multiple times throughout the novel, is actually to cooperate with one another. It's only when a powerful force compels them that they fight with one another. The idea that there can only be one survivor isn't actually part of the state of nature; it's a human imposition.

That's how The Hunger Games participates in the genre of postapocalyptic literature. It takes place after the apocalypse, but reveals that when the apocalypse returns us to the state of nature, people don't turn on each other, but tend to cooperate. What is passed off as the "state of nature" is actually a tool of the elites designed to oppress us. Nature is about cooperation, but those in power don't want us to know that and work to make sure we fight for resources that everyone could share. Like in a lot of science fiction, of course, the future is really a commentary on the world we live in, too. In a weird way, it's sort of optimistic. Human beings really are good-- we just have to break out of the artificially imposed system as Katniss and Peeta do at the novel's end in order to see it.

19 July 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LXVIII: Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 1

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2015)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 1

Writers: Justin Gray, Len Wein, Dan Abnett, Jerry Ordway, and Paul Levitz
Art: Claude St-Aubin & Sean Parsons, Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz, Tom Derenick & Trevor Scott, Ben Caldwell, June Brigman & Ron Richardson, Jim Fern/Roy Wagner & Joe Rubinstein/Wayne Faucher/José Marzán Jr., and Shannon Wheeler
Color: Lovern Kindzierski, Chris Sotomayor & Felix Serrano, Monica Kubina, Veronica Gandini, and Paul Mounts
Lettering: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham, Dave Sharpe, Rob Leigh, and Tom Napolitno

I'm assuming that what divides the "Crisis" volumes of Convergence from the "Infinite Earths" volumes is that though the characters in all are plucked from Earth-1 in the "Crisis" volumes they come from the other pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Earths in the "Infinite Earths" volumes. All five stories in this volume are about characters from Earth-2, as the Earth-2 Metropolis was one of the cities scooped up by Telos for his series of battles outside time and space. Power Girl, Robin, and the Huntress represent Earth-2 Metropolis against Moscow from Red Son, the Justice Society of America and the Seven Soldiers of Victory fight the Weaponers of Qward (the first alien planet we've seen on Telos... and not just an alien planet, as Qward was in the antimatter universe pre-Crisis), and Infinity Inc. fights, um, Jonah Hex but he's from the future and has a flying saucer for some reason.

Hippolyta Hall: always badass.
from Convergence: Infinity Inc. #1 (script by Jerry Ordway, art by Ben Caldwell)

The mechanics and rules of Telos's tournament are still vague and inconsistent, and the set-up of Convergence itself is contrived. Like in the previous volume, Len Wein tries to explain why the characters in his story are in a particular city, but he doesn't do so well: Robin and the Huntress are summoned to a JSA meeting in Metropolis to deal with the red skies of the Crisis, but as they point out, JSA HQ is actually located in New York City! No one in the story explains why the JSA HQ is suddenly in Metropolis, and I'm not sure things are better for flagging it up. The whole book probably could have just used Earth-2 New York, actually, and it would have been less awkward. (Wikipedia informs me Infinity Inc. was based in Los Angeles, so it makes as much sense for them to be in any of these cities. Their story doesn't explain why they're not in LA.)

Actually, let's talk about Wein's story, because his having characters comment on things is out in full force here: the Huntress spends the whole story advocating violence against the Red Son Superman while Robin takes a more diplomatic tack, and then at the end, she's like, "Geeze, I don't know I was so violent. I'm not like that." So why did Wein write it that way to begin with? It actually didn't seem particularly over-the-top to me, so I feel like the story would have got away with it if Wein hadn't lampshaded it. At least there's some nice, moody Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz art, which is always a treat, and well-suited to the Red Son Moscow scenes especially.

Aw, Communist Dictator Superman is so misunderstood.
from Convergence: Detective Comics #1 (script by Len Wein, art by Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz)

This was a so-so volume on the whole, with the Power Girl and Infinity Inc. stories being pretty meh, and the Seven Soldiers of Victory one being flagrantly uninteresting. I did really like the Justice Society of America story, though; it was actually kind of touching to see these oldsters go into battle one last time, knowing it could be the last, and then walk off into the sunset at the end. I haven't read very much JSA stuff, but I always enjoy it when I do-- that sense of legacy is one of the best parts of DC, and in this legacy-free "New 52" era, Convergence allows for a little touch of it once again.

Why doesn't DC bring back the proper JSA, anyway?
from Convergence: Justice Society of America #2 (script by Dan Abnett, art by Tom Derenick & Trevor Scott)
Next Week: Captain Marvel, the Blue Beetle, the Crime Syndicate, Booster Gold, and the Freedom Fighters battle for their lives in Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 2!

18 July 2017

Hugos 2017: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Trade paperback, 367 pages
Published 2017 (originally 2016)

Acquired May 2017
Read June 2017
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

After largely bouncing off A Long Journey to a Small, Angry Planet, I didn't expect much out of this book, and I spent the beginning of it pretty down on the whole thing. It's less a sequel to the first book than a side story: of the two main characters of this one, one was a main character in Long Journey in a vastly different form, and the other was a character so peripheral I didn't even remember her. But halfway through the book I realized I was starting to become emotionally invested with the journeys of the two main characters, both of whom are outcasts who have to find their place in the world. The horrific but loving journey of Jane/Pepper particularly worked for me, and by the end I knew I had totally bought into the whole thing, because I was getting misty-eyed. So I'm glad I read the sequel despite my original impression of the series, and I guess I'll even be continuing onto book 3 now!

This Friday: I begin tallying up my rankings within each Hugo category, beginning with the short fiction categories!

Next Week: A book I actually know nothing about before reading it, Charlie Jane Anders's All the Birds in the Sky!

17 July 2017

Review: R.E.B.E.L.S.: Strange Companions by Tony Bedard, Andy Clarke, Claude St. Aubin, Scott Hanna, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2009) 

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
R.E.B.E.L.S.: Strange Companions

Writer: Tony Bedard
Pencillers: Andy Clarke, Claude St. Aubin, Karl Moline, Derec Donovan, Kalman Andrasofszky
Inkers: Andy Clarke, Scott Hanna, Mark Pennington, Derec Donovan, Kalman Andrasofszky
Colorist: Jose Vilarrubia
Letterers: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham

I didn't like this as much as volume 1 of R.E.B.E.L.S., I suspect mostly just because it collects less. The Coming of Starro contained six issues that functioned as a near-complete story, though they were obviously setting up for something bigger, but Strange Companions collects three issues of the regular series plus an annual that lays out backstory for Starro the Conqueror and some of his minions.

I don't know how this would all read to a L.E.G.I.O.N./R.E.B.E.L.S. novice, but as an experienced reader, I dug both the continuity and the humorous take on it.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #8 (art by Andy Clarke)

What's here is good, though. Vril Dox tries to recruit the strange Gil'dishpan (last seen in Invasion! invading the Earth) to his side against Starro, only to run afoul of their xenophobia. He also goes after his son Lyrl, last seen as the villain in the previous R.E.B.E.L.S. series, but now a harmless teenager. (I was glad to see that writer Tony Bedard ignored the idea Tom Peyer introduced in his run on R.E.B.E.L.S., that after Stealth raped Dox and bore his son they fell in love-- their relationship here is referred to in purely biological terms.) Meanwhile, the Omega Men are recruited by one of their old enemies, the Psions, and Dox adds Captain Comet and Adam Strange to his team. A nice, big space adventure is unfolding; it's just that three issues means it doesn't get to unfold very much.

The highlight of this book so far is the big, weird team Dox has assembled:
Smiling Kanjar Ro is so amazing.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #9 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

That's Garv and Strata (silicon-based ex-L.E.G.I.O.N. cops) and their son Rocky; Wildstar (a Native American from outer space transformed into an energy being); Ciji (a shapeshifting Durlan in the form of a Khund child); Bounder (ex-L.E.G.I.O.N. cop who can transform into a stone ball); Amon Hakk (a Khund bounty hunter considered a failure by his people for his time in L.E.G.I.O.N. as a R.E.C.R.U.I.T.); Kanjar Ro (former alien dictator and long-time foe of the Justice League); Dox himself (son of Superman foe Brainiac); Captain Comet (evolutionary throw-forward from Earth who was once head of L.E.G.I.O.N. himself as well as an independent P.I. on Hardcore Station); and Adam Strange (human protector of the planet New Rann). Not pictured is the former Dominator Fleet Admiral of the Xylon Expanse, who has rededicated the R.E.B.E.L.S. as his caste. It's a mismatched group of misfits, which is exactly the sort of groups I like reading space adventure comics about. Hopefully Tony Bedard can manage the sprawling cast size!

I dunno why I find it creepy... but I really do.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. Annual #1 (art by Kalman Andrasofszky)

The annual featuring the backstory of Starro and his minions was decent. There are some quite complicated backstories for minions who I suspect won't amount to much; what was nice was finally understanding how the humanoid Starro in R.E.B.E.L.S. relates to the giant starfish form we've seen menace the Justice League time and again. The giant starfish versions creep me out a lot. I'm a little disappointed they're not the "real" Starro. Supposedly star conquerors have attacked the Earth three times before; I wonder which specific Starro stories Bedard is counting in continuity? The references are very vague. The only one I've read is the Grant Morrison JLA story where the Justice League needs help from Dream of the Endless to defeat Starro.

14 July 2017

Paying for the Aliens

I would have been about fourteen when I started "working"-- I became a babysitter for my neighbors. I was a freshman in high school; the two kids were, I think, five and six at the time. They had a full-time babysitter, but she wanted to go home about an hour before their mother got off work, so I filled in that gap, and I also worked longer days in the summer.

Babysitting well-behaved, imaginative kids is a kind of work that doesn't really feel like work. I read them the first four Harry Potter books aloud, completely with a panoply of voices. (By the time of book five, they were capable of reading them themselves.) Nothing reveals a pacing problem like reading a book aloud a chapter per day to a preschooler. I showed them episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek; as far as I know they still watch both. I watched Fox Kids along with them, which is how I got into television triumphs like Beast Wars: Transformers, Digimon, Power Rangers in Space, and Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog.

The best part of the job, though, was the aliens. "The aliens" was a long-form improvisatory story I told them, which much have lasted for years. Its original basis was a group of K'nex guys like these:

Plus some spinning plastic fairies, which I'm pretty sure were these:

Between them, these were the males and females of an alien species invading the Earth. There was also a purple plastic dragon; he was named "Pyre, Dragon of Dare," which was the name of the dragon in Mystic Knights. The dragon could be summoned to aid them, but he was not always a willing servant. The aliens had a base, which was something one of my charges had built out of K'nex. It span around, and it may have just been an adapted merry-go-round now that I think about it:

Spinning generated an impenetrable shield around the base.

The basic set-up, as I recall, was that the aliens (I don't think they had a name per se, but I feel like they came from "the Dominion") wanted to invade the Earth, so they set up a forward based to scout it out while the main fleet was on its way. So they would come under attack by native humans, usually played by LEGO figures (the aliens were very big). There were two spinning fairies; one was an empress, who stayed with the mothership after it deposited the aliens, while the other was her daughter, who joined the scouting force. The colors of the aliens corresponded to their jobs-- I think I cribbed from Star Trek, so the Gold Commander was in charge, with Blue Scientists and Red Guards and Engineers working under him. (There were more than one of each color, though.) Some of them had names (I seem to recall there was a little Blue Scientist named Oscarnarsius!), but many did not. I think there were even romances.

The story evolved in fits and starts, based on toys the kids acquired and/or built, things we/I watched on television or read, and just random ideas that popped into our heads. Like, they got a LEGO rock monster:

...and so the aliens fought a rock monster, who eventually was revealed to be under mind control, and so he joined the team under the name "Rocky." Over time, the aliens became more sympathetic in their objectives. They still wanted to invade the Earth, but in the meantime they had to protect it from other threats. Most formidable of all were the living flying bricks known as "the biots" (since I had just read Rendezvous with Rama):
This isn't actually them, but it's close. They were 1x2 in size, but they did have flip-open lids and interlocking pegs.

The biots were so dangerous that in one traumatic "episode" they actually managed to smash through the shield and destroy the alien base, putting our heroes on the run. The biots could stack and form large cubes that were invincible. Thankfully, our heroes could rebuild the base's remnants into a more-formidable spaceship. Characters lives, characters died-- things got pretty epic. As the tv we watched changed, so too the plotlines. When Beast Machines: Transformers came along, an encounter with a mystical circuit gave the aliens the ability to transform into "techno-organic" birds by saying "I am transformed!" The birds were actually Klingon and Romulan MicroMachines from my collection with bird-like designs, like so:
...or so:

Rocky, though, gained the ability to transform into a flying battleship of awesome proportions, I guess because he was in touch with his spiritual side, or maybe because one of them got this for Christmas:

I'm pretty sure that around this time they also ended up in the distant past, and eventually got to cause the Big Bang itself. Like I said, things got pretty epic, and the original goal of invading the Earth was long forgotten. Like a lot of adventure narratives always trying to outdo themselves, I think I eventually lost control of it all as it stopped being possible to go bigger. I even attempted a "soft reboot" where they went back to the core premise of running the invasion base, but no one's heart was in it.

Like I said, this went on for years, and though it was certainly derivative, it was always inventive. People who pay attention to my tastes in entertainment will see lots of resonances: long-form-but-reasonably-episodic stories about groups of people in/from space doing epic things (i.e., Star Trek, Legion of Super-Heroes, Farscape). And somehow I got paid to do it, which seems like a racket in retrospect.

I also learned how to use a gas stove doing that job, without burning down their house, so there's that too.

#456: What have you done to earn money?

13 July 2017

Review: Mizora by Mary E. Bradley Lane

Hardcover, 147 pages
Published 1999 (originally 1880-81)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2013
Mizora: A World of Women
by Mary E. Bradley Lane

This is one of the earliest female utopian stories. Like a lot of utopian stories, there's no kind of plot or anything, more a tour of things the author thinks is interesting about the world they've created. (When and why did we readers turn on this at a literary form? Clearly people in the nineteenth century ate this kind of stuff up.) Interestingly, contrasted with the way some strands of feminism approach science in the present day, this feminist utopia is founded on science; even the cooking is done by chemists, who don't smell or stir their food, just measure it quantifiably. The women of Mizora have majestic, imaginative brains, observing the secrets of Nature and adopting them for their own use. They work as Nature does, they claim, and science is impartial-- it helps anyone willing to work. Not a place I'd want to live, even if I was a woman (the women were vengeful and cruel toward the men when they took over back in the past... and now there are none), I suspect, but a very fascinating book, a way into how scientific thinking was perceived in 1880s America.

12 July 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LXVII: Convergence: Crisis, Book 2

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2015)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Convergence: Crisis, Book 2

Writers: Larry Hama, Len Wein, Fabian Nicieza, Marv Wolfman, and Dan Abnett
Art: Joshua Middleton, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Banning, Kelley Jones, ChrisCross, Nicola Scott & Marc Deering, and Federico Dallocchio
Color: Joshua Middleton, Tanya & Richard Horie, Michelle Madsen, Jeromy Cox, and Veronica Gandini
Lettering: Sal Cipriano, Tom Napolitano, Rob Leigh, and Carlos M. Mangual

This volume of Convergence mostly concerns more pre-Crisis Earth-1 heroes, none of them being characters I particularly care about. Well, with the exception of the greatest DC character of them all, Elongated Man.

The continuity doesn't always add up, and I suspect that the format for Convergence sometimes works against the ideas here. For example, the Wonder Woman of this era was (as far as I know) pretty undistinctive; my guess is that they wanted the 1968-73 powerless version of the character, but since all these characters come from the time of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, that version of the character was long gone and can only be approximated. It does seem a bit contrived that there's a point where all the characters from the first two volumes of this series would be chilling in Gotham. Most of the writers don't even bother to explain it, but when Len Wein does explain it in the Swamp Thing story, it's even more out of place, because he explains that Swamp Thing came to Gotham to ask Batman about the mysterious red skies, meaning these characters weren't just plucked out of time near the original Crisis, but during it-- yet no one other than Swamp Thing brings this up. There are also a lot of differences on how the interurban conflicts start; in some stories people are told who to fight, in some they are teleported to the fight, and in some they just fly to another city and start breaking stuff. For a series that's by design only going to appeal to continuity nerds, there's a weird lack of continuity.

Hang on, does this mean all the cities are going to get put back? Otherwise how could these characters go on to participate in Crisis on Infinite Earths?
from Convergence: Swamp Thing #1 (script by Len Wein, art by Kelley Jones)

Also isn't it kind of weird that in nine stories about something bad happening to Gotham, Batman never does anything of significance? The most he gets up to is having a lunch date with the Flash.

No one draws pretty people (of either gender) quite like Nicola Scott.
from Convergence: New Teen Titans #1 (script by Marv Wolfman, art by Nicola Scott & Marc Deering)

Nothing here is as good as the Legion or Green Lantern stories from book 1. Kelley Jones on Swamp Thing is of course a match made in heaven, and the return of Len Wein to the character he originated is nice too, but the story itself (Swamp Thing vs. vampires) is merely okay. If I had any nostalgia for the New Teen Titans, I'm sure it'd be nice to see Marv Wolfman write for them one last time, but I don't, and so it's not, though Nicola Scott's heroic stylings are a good artistic fit for Wolfman's classic scripting. I feel like she hasn't been up to much post-Birds of Prey, so it's good to see her here. I did like how Dan Abnett wrong-footed me in the Flash story with a seeming anachronistic reference by Barry Allen to the Speed Force.

Maybe the reason this story didn't do it for me is the creepy facial expressions.
from Convergence: Justice League of America #1 (script by Fabian Nicieza, art by ChrisCross)

I wanted to be more excited by the Justice League Detroit tale. Ralph and Sue Dibny have been favorite characters of mine ever since Justice League Europe, but this is only an okay showing for them-- probably because Fabian Nicieza is an okay writer on his best days. There's nothing wrong with it, and it tries to have heart concerning a Justice League team for whom very few people are nostalgic, but this story ultimately didn't do much for me, leaning a little bit too hard on the perception that this version of the League was made up of losers. Just tell a good tale about them, don't tell a story about how you're telling a good tale about them, it comes across as defensive and undermines your point.

Next Week: Power Girl, the Huntress, the Justice Society of America, Infinity Inc., and the Seven Soldiers of Victory battle for their lives in Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 1!

11 July 2017

Hugos 2017 [Prelude]: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Trade paperback, 512 pages
Published 2015 (originally 2008)

Acquired May 2017
Read June 2017
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

It took me longer to get into this book than it did the first Remembrance of Earth's Past novel-- no character here was ever as arresting as Ye Wenjie in The Three-Body Problem. What really carries you through the first two-thirds or so are the ideas: how would Earth react to an inevitable alien invasion centuries in the future, especially if Earth has entered a period of technological stagnation thanks to alien intervention, and if the aliens can monitor almost all electronic communications? The book answers these questions in a variety of ways, most of them interesting: I liked, for example, the Wallfacer Project, where certain men are granted the power to do anything necessary for Earth's defense, without explanation.

As one of them (Luo Ji, an astronomer and sociologist who seems to know very little about either astronomy or sociology) finds out, this can be a curse and a blessing. You can't not be a Wallfacer (because people will assume everything you do is part of the plan, including saying you have no plan) but you can also do whatever you want (because people will assume everything you do is part of the plan, though eventually they will get suspicious if you just buy a lot of fine wine). The social implications about how to plan a mass evacuation and such are also pretty interesting, and the various Wallfacer plans for Earth defense pretty epic. Unfortunately, Luo Ji isn't a great character, and outside of him, there are so many other characters that I struggled to keep track of them all. There's especially this weird, long subplot about a really weird romance Luo Ji has that had some pretty questionable aspects.

The last third of the novel, which jumps ahead two centuries (several main characters use suspended animation) really picks up, especially once the first alien probe arrives, and I found myself engrossed once more. There are multiple events that made perfect sense that I did not see coming, and the idea of the "dark forest" and the way it is used by Luo Ji is pretty interesting and clever. Not as good as The Three-Body Problem, but it contains the scientific and social inventiveness of the best epic hard sf.

Excitingly, this is the last Hugo "prelude" book I have to read: everything from here on out will be a finalist! Finally, my rankings will come together. (This is being posted on July 11, four days before the Hugo deadline, but I actually wrote it on June 10.) Five books to go!

Next Week: Now that the Wayfarer has arrived, it's time to settle into A Closed and Common Orbit!