19 January 2018

Review: Starfire by Mike Vosburg, Vince Colletta, Elliot S! Maggin, et al.

Four years before the Teen Titan Starfire debuted, and almost forty years before she got her own series, there was a very different DC series called Starfire. A take on the sword-and-sorcery comics then popular, it billed itself as "sword-and-science": it was set on another planet, and in a world not with magic, but one that had been conquered by aliens and partially regressed into barbarism after an era of great scientific achievement.

In this era, humans are the subjects of the Mygorg, a brutish alien race; the main character, Starfire, began her life as a human slave of the Mygorg, but when she's about to turn eighteen, she realizes she's going to become their sex slave! She runs away, and is rescued by a priest who helps train her in the ways of combat. They fall in love, he dies, and she vows to destroy the Mygorg forever. So she sets off with a band of adventurers seeking the people and resources to do exactly that.

Starfire was one of very few female-led DC superhero-adjacent titles in the 1970s (were the other just Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and Supergirl?), but more importantly it was probably the first comic to feature an Asian protagonist.* Well, sort of-- since Starfire is set on an alien planet nothing to do with Earth, she can't be from China or Cambodia, but we are told, "her mother was white, and the father yellow," artist Mike Vosburg draws her with East Asian facial features, and the colorists depict her skin tone as slightly different from all the white characters (though she has blue eyes). Though I suspect it was done to make her a little more "exotic" and thus sexy, it was a surprising moment of diversity for the comics of the 1970s.

If you look at the credits at the bottom of this entry, you'll see that even though Starfire had a consistent penciller, the series accrued four writers and three editors in eight issues. The series is kind of jerked around and never really takes off as a result. David Michelinie creates the baseline in his original two issues: the first gives Starfire's backstory, climaxing in a surprisingly brutal scene where she beheads the Mygorg who killed her lover and would have taken her as a "bride." Then in #2, he establishes the formula: Starfire and her band (the only named member of which is Thrumdahg) come to a place, fight some Mygorg, and advance onwards. In this story, they acquire a map with the location of the fabled "Lightning Lords" on it, humans with advanced weapons that will help Starfire's band win their battles, thus setting up a quest behind the formula.

Michelinie stops it from being too straightforward, though; Starfire's eagerness for a fight in #2 disrupts a manor whose human lord has an uneasy truce with the Mygorg, for example, culminating in the accidental death of the manor lord's young son. So Starfire's quest will be tinged with a need for understanding complexity, and an undercurrent of tragedy.

The next three issues are the work of Elliot Maggin, who basically reproduces Michelinie's issue #2 formula. He keeps adding new members to Starfire's band, including the mute Thump and the poet Moonwatcher. Beginning with Thrumdahg back in #2, though, there's this consistent thing that the members of Starfire's band all think she really needs some loving, and so she's always fending off unwanted advances. Thump is the only exception to this. It's a weird, unpleasant choice, even in the context of a comic that began with its protagonist almost being forced into a life of sexual slavery. Like, why do I want to read about a band of would-be rapists? Still, Maggin's first two issues are solid adventure tales, each setting up its own interesting situation and then resolving it in the course of a single issue.

In issue #5, though, things begin to change, as Starfire meets the Lightning Lords at last in what's the first part of a three-part story by two different writers. The premise of the series begins to warp: while in the first five issues, it was sword-and-science, no sorcery needed, #6 introduces an out-and-out sorceress with magical powers!

The attempts to retool the series also become pretty brazen. In #6, while camping outside the lair of the Lightning Lords, who live in the middle of a mountainous wilderness, Starfire runs off in the middle of the night and comes back in a new costume. Which she allegedly picked up at a marketplace? Like why is there a human marketplace in the middle of nowhere selling sexy costumes for adventuresses?

This new costume lasts one whole issue, as in #7, Starfire is charging through a doorway and her costume gets caught on a nail and falls off, meaning she has to run around in a bra and short pants. I shit you not. Vosburg doesn't even draw the nail; in one panel, Starfire's shirt is ripping, and in the next she observes, "Looks like I lost my modesty to a rusty nail! Nothing ever comes free in this world!" Like, what does that even mean? And then she never mentions it again, apparently content to wear what is essentially a chainmail bikini. (I actually did like her original outfit, a sort of asymmetrical Seven of Nine-esque jumpsuit.)

Also, in #7, new new writer Steve Englehart must have also disliked the fact that the majority of Starfire's band were rapists, because he kills off all the supporting characters except for Thump and Moonwatcher in a teleporter accident! Like, a supercomputer tries to beam a group of them out of danger, but it doesn't know human biology, and they all die except Moonwatcher (the least rapey of the ones who weren't Thump; he seemed to want to charm Starfire into sleeping with him). Starfire also becomes a bystander in her own story in this storyline, as it turns out Thump is a genius computer programmer, and he makes a lot of decisions while Starfire just yells and fights a lot.

#8 introduces a new new direction, bringing back the order of priests Starfire's lover from #1 belonged to. The book promises there are more issues to come, but they never happened; I'm not sure why. The DC Implosion that killed Star Hunters was over a year away. Well, I mean I guess I know why, because this book's writer and premise were constantly shifting, and each change made it worse, not better. (Creator David Michelinie did slip Starfire into a one-panel cameo in Star Hunters #7 as another avatar of the same multiversal force as Star Hunters's lead character. But that was Star Hunters's last issue too!)

The one consistently good part of the book was the artwork of Mike Vosburg and Vince Colletta. They do great fantasy stuff, especially with Starfire herself: thick lines that really show off her beauty and her power. Too bad the writing couldn't consistently match what they were capable of.

Starfire vol. 1 was originally published in eight issues (Aug./Sept. 1976–Oct./Nov. 1977). The series was written by David Michelinie (#1-2), Elliot S! Maggin (#3-5), Steve Englehart (#6-7), and Tom DeFalco (#8); pencilled by Mike Vosburg; inked by Robert Smith (#1) and Vince Colletta (#2-8); colored by Liz Berube (#2); and edited by Joe Orlando (#1-4), Jack C. Harris (#5-7), and Denny O'Neil (#8).

* Karate Kid received an ongoing series in Mar./Apr. 1976, and he's half-Japanese, but that's a retcon, and I'm not sure when it was established.

18 January 2018

Review: The Beetle by Richard Marsh

Trade paperback, 354 pages
Published 2004 (originally 1897)
Acquired November 2012
Read January 2013
The Beetle by Richard Marsh

It's been five years since I read The Beetle (this review is a tad belated), and I feel like I need to reread it to assess it. But I also feel like that would be the case even if I had just read it. It is a strange book, a weird window into Victorian exoticism and eroticism. It is not surprising, however, that while it originally outsold its contemporary supernatural thriller Dracula, Dracula has persisted while The Beetle has not. Both are very Victorian, but The Beetle is perhaps particularly Victorian. The kind of racialized and sexualized Other that haunts this novel no longer haunts us, or at least not in this way. The book is almost impossible to describe, though; when I find myself wanting to recommend it to someone (and that takes a very particular kind of someone), all I can really do is just shove it into their hands because anything I can say would be inadequate.

16 January 2018

Return to Oz: The Royal Book of Oz by Ruth Plumly Thompson

Trade paperback, 312 pages
Published 2001 (originally 1921)

Acquired December 2009
Read December 2016
The Royal Book of Oz: In which the Scarecrow goes to search for his family tree and discovers that he is the Long Lost Emperor of the Silver Island, and how he was rescued and brought back to Oz by Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion
 by L. Frank Baum
enlarged and edited by Ruth Plumly Thompson
illustrated by John R. Neill

This is the first Oz book written by someone who wasn't L. Frank Baum (don't believe the cover and title page, they lie). It's not terrible, but it's not very good, either. The Scarecrow goes off to find his family tree and ends up in an underground kingdom of racist caricatures-- even leaving aside the racist caricatures, it's not very interesting. Like, one would hope for the Scarecrow to do some clever stuff and grapple with the ruling of a country (and maybe Thompson could even remember that the Scarecrow has previously been a ruler), but mostly he just whines a lot and the story goes in circles.

Meanwhile, Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion go looking for him and end up in some weird places and meet some weird characters: I liked Sir Hokus of Pokes, the Arthurian knight who wandered into Oz, in particular. As a sort of outcast, he's the kind of character who paradoxically fits right into the the Oz novels.

Next Week: Eric Shanower shows us some new corners of fairyland, as he takes us on some Adventures in Oz!

15 January 2018

Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Survivors by Jean Lorrah

Mass market paperback, 253 pages
Published 1989

Reread December 2016
Star Trek: The Next Generation #4: Survivors
by Jean Lorrah

You know, I've never seen "Legacy," the episode of The Next Generation where Tasha Yar's sister turns up, and we learn about the long-dead Tasha's backstory in more detail. Yet I have read Survivors, a TNG novel written during the first season (published during the second) that tells us about Tasha's childhood and early Starfleet career in great detail. In a bit of "head-canon," I suspect that even if I had seen "Legacy," I would still prefer this as the "true" backstory of Tasha Yar. Lorrah depicts the ideal Yar, the one TNG never actually gave us: a damaged woman from a damaged world, and thus someone who believes in the idealism of the Federation even more than those raised within it. The characterization of Tasha and also Data are really the book's strong points: I think Lorrah gets Data better than the show writers did at this point. (I really liked the touch that his rattling off of synonyms was a purposeful affectation.) You can see why Pocket commissioned Lorrah to write a Data-focused "giant novel" in Metamorphosis, because he just jumps off the page here, a perfect mixture of superintelligence and emotional inexperience. There's a lot else I could praise or say about this book, but suffice it to say that it's the best kind of tie-in fiction-- a story we couldn't have gotten on screen, but fitting in perfectly with the ones we did.

12 January 2018

Review: Star Hunters by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, Rich Buckler, et al.

In addition to reprinting old material, DC Super-Stars was also a venue for launching new series. One of these was Star Hunters, which had its first (double-length) installment in Super-Stars before spinning off into its own series. Published 1977 to 1978, it was definitely riding the same space opera zeitgest that gave us IronWolf and Star Wars; the text feature in Super-Stars #16 explains that writer David Michelinie was inspired by Space: 1999 and Star Trek when he first pitched the concept in 1975, though it wasn't accepted until 1976, and the first part went on sale in June 1977, almost exactly one month after Star Wars appeared on screen, though the text feature doesn't mention Star Wars at all despite some obvious similarities.

The text page sort of waffles about whether it is a team book or not: Micheline pitched it as a team book called The Survivors because team books did better in the market at the time, but the text piece indicates that as ideas coalesced, it became a solo book: Donovan Flint, Starhunter. Obviously things changed between when the text piece was finalized and when the cover to Super-Stars #16 was printed! I'd say the book itself waffles about this. Donovan Flint is definitely the main character, but he's one of a group of adventurers on a spaceship together, and the title highlights all of them, yet the story rarely does.

Premise

The basic premise of the book is that the mysterious and nefarious Corporation infects a group of varied people with particular skills with a deadly illness that means they will die if they set foot on Earth. In exchange for the cure, the Star Hunters will have to travel into space on the C.S.V. Sunrider, to recover the second half of an alien artifact that contains the location of an ancient alien race that seeded life on Earth and other planets.

It's sort of a contrived premise, I feel. The death sentence aspect makes the nefarious nature of the Corporation too obvious from the beginning, and it's never adequately explained why they have to go to such lengths, why they can't  just pay some people to go find it instead, and get more loyalty that way. It's also a premise that's never really developed. You might think that finding the second half would be a challenge (otherwise why go to such lengths?), but the Star Hunters just go straight to the planet where the first half was and find the second half in the same cave! By the end of the second issue! (Star Hunters #1, that is.) From there the story swerves massively, with first some battles against terrorists, and then Donovan is killed and resurrected and becomes a messiah dedicated to taking down the Corporation with an army at his back all in time for a massive battle over Earth in Star Hunters #7, which turned out to be the final issue, even though the lettercol in #7 promises more to come with a new creative team.*

Obviously you can have series where the seeming premise turns out to not be the actual premise, but Michelinie doesn't really pull it off here, as the book rockets through both the old and the new premise unbelievably fast. Why is Donovan a space messiah? How does he recruit a resistance army with basically one speech? Someone was clearly watching Star Wars, but I don't think he was learning the right lessons. (Though, after Star Hunters, Michelinie wrote nineteen issues of Marvel's Star Wars comic from 1981 to 1983.)

I would say the book was influenced by Blake's 7 too: when the original Sunrider is destroyed, the crew find a mysterious advanced warship that they take for their own, completely with an obliging supercomputer in a box. It's basically the Liberator with ORAC/ZEN aboard. C'mon, it has to be a Blake's 7 rip-off! A band of rebels in an awesome but enigmatic spaceship fighting to liberate a dystopian Earth! Except, you know, Blake's 7 didn't premiere in the UK until January 1978, several months after the first installment of Star Hunters. And the lines of influence wouldn't make any sense going the other way, either. Convergent evolution, I guess. Like I said, something was in the air in the 1970s!

Characters

Donovan Flint is the main character: an Irish space rogue who spouts lines like, "'Twould seem someone's had a bit much o' the grape t'night" and "All right, bucko, ye've had yer fun." (See him front and center on the cover of issue #1 to the right.) He's a little obnoxious in a fun way-- brash and over-the-top, but the writer clearly knows it. Well, at first, because any enjoyment you might get from his antics is ruined by the way he acts toward...

Darcy Vale is originally set up as the leader of the Star Hunters and the captain of the Sunrider, even though Flint is clearly the main character. (She's in the foreground of the cover of #2 to the left; that's her best cover appearance, since she's usually unconscious or in the far background on the others.) Flint is condescending and obnoxious to her; in Super-Stars #16 he makes a pass, but she rejects it, and he thinks, "she was rather pretty-- in a computerish sort o' way..." Once she's placed in command, he constantly disregards her orders, and condescends to her, calling her "girly" even though she's a highly trained scientist who the Corporation recognizes for her leadership skills. I liked her a lot: attractive and intelligent and standoffish. But it all goes downhill because after Donovan dies and comes back to life, she's like, "Oh maybe you should be in command" and his sexism is validated. Like, why do I want to read about an obnoxious boor who turns out to be right?

Mindy Yano, the Sunrider's computer technician and electrician, seems to be the model of the ideal female character, meek and timid, and consistently left behind on the ship. She initially gets to show her stuff in Super-Stars #16, but she fades into the background after that, only becoming important when the crew realizes she has a spy device implanted in her, so they isolate her from the rest of the crew and you never hear from her again!

Some Other Guys also are part of the crew, but honestly I could never remember who they were because they were subsumed under the book's increasing focus on ALL DONOVAN FLINT ALL THE TIME.

Final Thoughts

Despite my initial misgivings about the premise, I think I would have enjoyed Star Hunters had it continued to be like the second half of the first issue, where the whole crew works together to overcome a crisis with their wits and ingenuity. But as the book goes on, everyone who's not Donovan Flint ceases to be important (I don't know why they didn't just go with Starhunter as the title, given that), and the book becomes increasingly battle-driven too. Making Donovan a space messiah didn't help, either-- the god-like "Entity" who reanimates him feels completely grafted on, ill-fitting with the tone of the rest of the book.

Michelinie's writing is okay; he's prone to melodrama in his captions, much like Denny O'Neil. Don Newton, the original artist, is pretty good (though he sometimes draws women's faces a bit weird); of Newton's various replacements, I thought Larry Hama was not great, Mike Nasser was strong, and Rich Buckler was decent. Inker Bob Layton is the only artistic contributor to work on more than half the series, and I suspect he brings some continuity to the rotating pencillers. Sometimes his lines are a bit too thick, but that might be down to technical limitations of the 1970s. (Layton is also credited with helping plot issue #7... one of two he actually didn't ink! I wonder what's going on there.)

If it had continued, Gerry Conway would have taken over as writer (with Rich Buckler and Tom Sutton continuing on art); I really liked Gerry Conway's work on Crisis on Multiple Earths, and I wonder what he could have done here, since Star Hunters seems suited to his talents (weird sci-fi stuff, space-time epics, large casts). Maybe he could have redeemed it, but we'll never know.

Star Hunters originally appeared in DC Super-Stars #16 (Sept./Oct. 1977) and Star Hunters #1-7 (Oct./Nov. 1977–Oct./Nov. 1978). The series was written by David Michelinie (S-S #16/SH #1-7) with plot assist by Bob Layton (#7); pencilled by Don Newton (S-S #16/SH #1), Larry Hama (#2), Mike Nasser (#3), and Rich Buckler (#4-7); inked by Bob Layton (S-S #16/SH #1-5) and Tom Sutton (#6-7); colored by Liz Berube (#1), Tatjana Wood (#2-3), and Jerry Serpe (#4-7); lettered by Ben Oda (#2), Shelly Leferman (#4, 7), Jean Simek (#5), and Milt Snapinn (#6); and edited by Joe Orlando (S-S #16/SH #1-6) and Allen Milgrom (#7).

* Star Hunters was a victim of the legendary "DC Implosion," when inflation and recession hit DC Comics hard, resulting in widespread lay-offs (including of Star Hunters editor Al Milgrom) and the cancellation of sixty-five ongoing series.

11 January 2018

Voice and Genre in Young New Adult Literature: Maybe Someday (2014)

Trade paperback, 370 pages
Published 2014
Acquired November 2016

Read April 2017
Maybe Someday by Colleen Hoover

When I teach classes based around genres of fiction, I like to bring in an edge case, to test the limits of the genre and make more clear what it does and does not do. So for my young adult literature class, I wanted to assign a work of "new adult" fiction, a genre which might not even exist, in that it seems to be more of a marketing category that publishers are trying to make happen than an actual thing readers go looking for. (Genres are, in part, marketing categories, of course, but they also need to be something readers recognize.)

New adult fiction is basically supposed to be like YA fiction, but the main characters are 18+; the idea is that it's for all those "new adults" who are reading YA fiction. (Something like 55% of readers of YA are actually adults, which I think puts a sort of monkey wrench into any attempt to define YA via its audience.) The New York Times says new adult can "feature slightly older characters and significantly more sex, explicitly detailed." Molly Wetta puts it more kindly: "These novels aim to bring the emotionally-intense story lines and fast-paced plotting of young adult fiction to stories that focus on a new range of experiences in life beyond the teenage years. Hallmarks of New Adult fiction include first-person narration, dramatic, soap-opera like plots, and characters with 'issues' ranging from history of abuse, anger management issues, and troubled family lives."

Though my problem was that I'd never actually read a single work of new adult fiction, so I was kind of stabbing in the dark when I picked one. Mostly I had the impression that Colleen Hoover was the reigning queen of it, and so I went with one of her more popular books. Well, I did not like it and my students did not like it. It's melodramatic, and the main characters are obnoxious and unpleasant in their infidelity. I don't agree with all of her perspective (Harry Potter sure does not transcend genre labels; it is incredibly generic), but Lauren Sarner gets at part of what I don't like: "It implies that the books act as training wheels between Young Adult and Adult. For the New Adult books that are particularly childish, the label implies that they are a step above Young Adult—which is insulting to the Young Adult books that are far superior." The characters in this book, my students and I largely agreed, were not as mature as those in YA novels like The Outsiders, Holes, Two Boys Kissing, and Ms. Marvel. Nor was the storytelling as mature as those novels.

That said, I think Maybe Someday illuminates some truths about our approach to YA. My students had praised The Outsiders for being "descriptive," not "prescriptive": it supposedly depicts what being a teenager is, not what it ought to be according to adults. And many had critiqued Forever... for its didacticism. Supposedly we value a lack of value judgments in YA. Yet in Maybe Someday, we all-- including myself-- were chock-full of value judgments for the characters. Ponyboy almost kills a dude, we're like, "Don't judge! Accept!" Cute singer-songwriter goes too far in flirting, and we're all, "Whoa now, that crosses a line! You're a terrible person!" I'm not exactly sure what this indicates, but it does seem to show that what we think we want from our fiction (real people) is not what we actually want (aspirational people).

Or maybe it just indicates Colleen Hoover is a vastly inferior writer to S. E. Hinton.

(In theory this should be the end of this sequence of posts, but I've skipped over a couple books from my YA class because I can't find my copies! So sooner or later, I'll be circling back to cover the ones I've skipped.)

09 January 2018

Doctor Who at Christmas: Twelve Doctors of Christmas

Hardcover, 318 pages
Published 2016

Acquired and read December 2017
Doctor Who: Twelve Doctors of Christmas
by Jacqueline Rayner, Colin Brake, Richard Dungworth, Mike Tucker, Gary Russell, and Scott Handcock

This set of twelve Doctor Who Christmas tales, a worthy successor to the old Big Finish Christmas Short Trips collections, was my Doctor Who Christmas read for the season, though it slipped in a little late (I think I finished it up December 30th). With twelve Doctor and twelve days of Christmas, things lined up quite nicely.

The stories are an odd assortment, which is kind of always true of these Doctor Who Christmas anthologies. Some are genuinely Christmassy; others just happen to be set on Christmas, but are pretty much standard Doctor Who runarounds. The most Christmassy is definitely the first, Jacqueline Rayner's "All I Want for Christmas," where the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki end up in a perfect 1963 Christmas: it beautifully captures the wistfulness and nostalgia of Christmas, of a yearning for a time that's slipped away. Rayner has always demonstrated a sympathy for the first Doctor era, and Ian and Barbara are exceptionally written here. I also really enjoyed Rayner's other story, "The Christmas Inversion," where the third Doctor, Jo Grant, and Mike Yates pick up a distress call from the future and end up in the middle of the events of "The Christmas Invasion"; it's as hilarious as "All I Want" is touching. Jackie Tyler meets the third Doctor! Brilliant.

Many of the others are fine, but not particularly noteworthy, and sometimes the Christmas links are tenuous at best. I didn't really get the point of Richard Dungworth's "Three Wise Men," where the fourth Doctor meets the Apollo astronauts (nothing happens), and Gary Russell's "Fairy Tale of New New York," where the sixth Doctor and Mel meet the Catkind, seemed to have potential, but there's no plot. I did enjoy "Ghost of Christmas Past by Scott Handcock," where a Time War-era eighth Doctor is trapped in the minute before Christmas and ends up finding a mysterious message in the TARDIS. (It is a little weird from a continuity standpoint, though; it's consistent with the Big Finish stories in giving the Doctor a great-grandson named Alex, but given what happened to Alex in To the Death, it's hard to believe the Doctor would find comfort in thinking about him!)

Sort of weirdly, the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth Doctor tales all feature the Doctor teaming up with kids. I wonder why that approach was taken up for three of the four new series Doctors? Each would probably work on its own, or even in a different sequence, but since the stories come back-to-back-to-back, it's a bit repetitive. ("Loose Wire" by Richard Dungworth, the story for the tenth, was the best of them, because Dungworth captures the Doctor exceptionally well here.)

There are a lot of unexpected continuity nuggets, with the Catkind of New Earth, the Master, the Meddling Monk, Rose's red bicycle, the Slitheen, Jackie Tyler, and the Wire (from "The Idiot's Lantern") all popping up-- plus one really unexpected but fun reference in the last story. Even in the weaker stories, the Doctor's voice(s) is well captured, and the whole package is great looking; the cover looks gorgeous in person, and there's a full-page color illustration for each story. This is one of those anthologies whose theme makes it greater than the sum of its parts. Read it on a cold winter night under thick blankets and time travel to your own Christmases past and future.

Next Week: Back to Oz, to discover the debut of a new Royal Historian in The Royal Book of Oz!

08 January 2018

Review: Ambiguity Machines & Other Stories by Vandana Singh

PDF eBook, 320 pages
Published 2018 (contents: 2007-18)
Acquired and read December 2017
Ambiguity Machines & Other Stories by Vandana Singh

I've been a fan of Vandana Singh since I read The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories and met her at the Science Fiction Research Association 2015 conference, so I was excited to acquire an advance review copy of this, her second collection of short fiction, covering works released (mostly) after the publication of her first. A second novel is always a tricky thing; I'm wondering if a second short story collection can be even more so.

I enjoyed the first collection for its thoughtfulness and its sense of play, but I'm used to Singh's voice now, and at times I felt that Ambiguity Machines & Other Stories wasn't giving me much that I hadn't got out of the first. Singh has a recurrent interest in how (what one of her characters in TWWTSWP&OS called) "inner space" and "outer space" need to be accessed at the same time. As a result, there are a lot of ruminative stories about people in outer space here, people's ordinary lives paired with extraordinary journeys through time and space. On top of that, AM&OS adds an interest in the environment-- as is common in contemporary sf, a lot of these tales take place after some kind of ecological disaster or environmental collapse, though sometimes they're about one being forestalled. I'll be honest, occasionally it started to all blend together.

But when Singh hits, she really does sing. I really enjoyed "Peripeteia," about a physics academic who, after her lover leaves her, starts to worry that Occam's Razor might not be true, and maybe all of physics is just an ad hoc alien construction. "Are you Sannata3159?", about a man working for a pittance in a meat factory in a stratified future society, is a really dark story, more like what I would expect of Manjula Padmanabhan (it's sort of Harvestesque), but blackly good. "Sailing the Antarsa," about a lone space explorer who discovers there's always a new unknown to know, was a nice and uplifting counterpart to that one. I liked the knitting together of the stories of ordinary people during a fantastic event in "Cry of the Kharchal."

The second-best story in the volume is the last (and the only one not previously published): "Requiem," about a graduate student who goes to Alaska (in a time of environmental collapse) to collect the belongings of her recently deceased beloved aunt. A strong take on grief, with some intriguing ideas under the surface. The best story in the volume is the title story, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," three stories about nameless characters encountering machines that may or may not exists, each one on its own an insightful, melancholy tale, but in combination, greater than the sum of their parts. Which is true for many machines, many stories, and many collections, including this one.

05 January 2018

My Father vs. The High-Tech Spectacle

I never really played violent video games as a kid (except for Wolfenstein 3D: Spear of Destiny, but it's hard for me to count that), but I have been thinking about violence in video games of late because of an essay I taught in my academic writing class this fall, "Peacescripts?", the conclusion to Elana Gomel's Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject. In it, she discusses those who have the impulse to restrict violent narratives: "If we do not talk about horror, it will disappear. If we do not see it, it will go away. If we do not show it, our children will grow up innocent and peaceful. [...] Violence is a disease we catch through the eyes mesmerized by the high-tech spectacle of extermination" (204). Later, she asks, "If children are corrupted by horror comics and violent television shows, does it mean that left to their own devices, they will grow up nurturing and cooperative?" (204).

Gomel says this was a popular view in the 1960s and 1970s, but it definitely lasted until the 1980s, because it was seemingly my father's point of view. We were perennially frustrated as children about what works of television and film we could not access because they were "inappropriate." In the first grade, I suspected I was the only child in America who had not seen Home Alone, and I suffered for it. As an adult, I feel like the only thirty-something in America who never really watched The Simpsons, because during its formative years and mine, I was banned from watching it. (We didn't have cable, otherwise I suspect there would have been a lot more I couldn't watch.)

"Inappropriateness" was always a little vague, but my feeling it is that it was more about sexuality and crudeness than violence. The Simpsons, I think, promoted poor family values. When we were actively watching movies, my father usually skipped through the sex scenes. I never saw the full Castle Anthrax scene ("And after the spanking, the oral sex!") in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

When we were watching films as a family and a sex scene unexpectedly came on, we would be sent out of the room until it was over. (I think this happened with The Cider House Rules, for example.) Except my father had a bad habit of hitting PAUSE on the VCR remote rather than STOP, meaning that in some cases, the nudity, rather than being banished, was held in place!

I don't remember exactly when I was allowed to break out of this. Perhaps I'm still not allowed. I do remember being seventeen and having friends over, and we watched one of the Alien films in the basement. After my friends left, my father asked what it was rated; I told him "R" and he told me I should have asked permission. I argued that we were all old enough at 17-plus, but was informed that in his house, his rules went.

There was one exception to all this, which was Seinfeld. I don't think I've ever seen my father watch another American sitcom, but if Seinfeld was on, he would drop everything. We could pick up two different FOX affiliates (I think) that aired it in syndication simultaneously, but about ten seconds off from each other. When the first one went to commercial, he would flip over to the other one and watch the last ten seconds of the act over again. Despite Seinfeld's horrendous gamut of inappropriateness (I will always remember the one where George becomes a genius through sexual abstention), we could still watch it with him because he could never bring himself to turn it off, which was the only full-proof way to stop us from watching it.

I did finally see the full Monty Python and the Holy Grail: when we watched it in high school English class in high school during a unit on Arthurian myths. My father had higher standards for inappropriateness than Catholic schoolteachers.

#317: Do you play violent video games?

04 January 2018

Review: Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Read October 2013
Acquired November 2013
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
by James C. Scott

I don't know how I found this book. I wish I remember where I saw it cited, in such a way that I was inspired to read it, because it's one of those books that's affected my thinking-- not just as a scholar, but as a person. Like the best works of nonfiction, it gave me a powerful concept that provided not only answers but new questions. If you pay attention to these kinds of things, you'll know that I'm interested in what it means to "see like a scientist" (a wording I adopted after reading this book) in Victorian literature: I study how scientists are literally depicted as seeing the world differently than other people. Key examples include Swithin St. Cleeve of Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower (1882), who can see the horrific depths of space but not that the love of the woman standing in the room with him; Tertius Lydate of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72), who can see cellular arrangements but is blind to social ones; and Tom Thurnall of Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago (1857), who knows everything about a person he observes but the goodness below the surface.

Yet there was this subset of Victorian scientist novels from the 1890s featuring future war. Or perhaps this subset of Victorian future was novels from the 1890s featuring scientists. And somehow there was a relationship between science, revolution, apocalypse, and utopia, and it wasn't just that you need a scientist to invent the air-ship that you're going to use to bomb your enemies into oblivion (though it helps). Don't get me wrong, I had some ideas of my own about how the scientist serves as an authorizing figure, but Scott's monograph was helpful in articulating them. Scott's whole deal is that the state maps things, makes models, and sometimes even goes up in an airplane to look at them, because doing this makes those things legible: "[b]y virtue of its great distance, an aerial view resolved what might have seemed ground-level confusion into an apparent vaster order and symmetry" (58).

So that's why these 1890s proto-sci-fi novels are all about air-ships, because they allow the protagonists to see the world in a distanced way, which makes it easier for them to use their weapons to remake the world. They have the perspective that Scott calls "Authoritarian High Modernism," which consists of three things: "aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society" (88), "a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life" and "unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs" (88-9), and a "civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans" (89). All of these things converge in the 1890s air-ship novel, where would-be revolutionaries use air-ships to bombard the world into submission, thereby creating a utopia.

I should add that Scott's book is called "Seeing Like a State," but in Victorian fiction it's usually would-be states that are the authoritarian high modernists. Though most of Scott's work focuses on authoritarian high modernism as a tool of contemporary statecraft, he does cite one revolutionary group that derived its authority from a detached, scientific perspective: during the early days of the Russian Revolution, Lenin considered the "vanguard party" of the Revolution "an executive elite whose grasp of history and dialectical materialism allows it to devise the correct 'war aims' of the class struggle. Its authority is based on its scientific intelligence" (151). Revolutionaries and statists of the twentieth century share authoritarian high modernism, as do those on the right and the left.

I said earlier that air-ships are in these novels I study because they "allow the protagonists to see the world in a distanced way," which enables remaking it. But causality when it comes to technology and epistemology is rarely one-way, so maybe the reason these novels are all about remaking the world is because the air-ship had been invented (in fiction, if not fact). It's important to point that for Scott, distance is often a metaphor: looking at a map is a form of distance. So it is too in these turn-of-the-century novels, because sometimes you have an air-ship, but sometimes you just have a sociologist, who views society from a distance by turning it into tables of data and equations, not (necessarily) maps. Scientific sight gives you both Authoritarian High Modernism's "aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society" and "a sweeping, rational engineering for all aspects of social life." I guess the air-ship and its dynamite cannons is what makes society unable to resist you.

But seriously this plot was everywhere in the 1890s: Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890), Mr. Dick's James Ingleton (1893), E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist (1893), George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution (1893), T. Mullett Ellis's Zalma (1895), Louis Tracy's The Final War (1897), Simon Newcomb's His Wisdom the Defender (1900). You couldn't move for all the authoritarian high modernists in early sf; Scott's real ones had plenty of fictional antecedents. A common them of these novels is destroying the world in order to save it, causing massive violence to the old society in order to build a new one from scratch, and reading Scott turns up real analogues to even this; he recounts how the architect Le Corbusier "warned against the temptations to reform.… Instead, he insisted, we must take a 'blank piece of paper,' a 'clean tablecloth,' and start new calculations from zero" (117). Of course, the clean break required to reshape a national or global society is much larger than that required to prevent urban traffic congestion by several orders of magnitude, and it requires violence.

It hasn't just helped my scholarship, though; it's enhanced my perception of the world we live in. I have a beauracrat's heart; I love rules that make things systematized and legible. But Scott's book serves as a reminder that the categories were made for man, not man for the categories. We need to be wary of what mapping hides, and of what knowledges are discarded because they don't seem objective enough to us, and of what things will be destroyed because we don't perceive them. (As a college professor, you might imagine I particularly contemplate this when undergoing the depressing task of reading my evaluations at the end of the semester.)