05 February 2016

Dissertating!

I still intend to blog about the end of Deep Space Nine, and now I have intentions of blogging about The Expanse, which you and everyone else who watches space opera should watch, but I'm spent. A complete draft of my dissertation is due in five days (four, once you read this), and I haven't got the wherewithal to write anything else tonight.

The obligatory PhD Comic.
So, based on something I wrote on facebook, here is a list of things I wish my dissertation committee would stop pointing out:
  1. Sentences that are really three or four sentences held together by overly generous use of em-dashes, colons, and semicolons.
  2. Words I just completely made up because I don't know what the right word is.
  3. Pronouns that don't have referents.
  4. Places where I assume the reader knows as much about Victorian philosophy of science as I do.
  5. That halfway through a chapter I forgot a key term and substituted a different, less precise word.
  6. The fact that my explanation of the fact that the gardening guidebook Dorothea Brooke reads in Middlemarch was written by James Loudon, husband to Jane Webb Loudon, author of the early science fiction novel The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century probably belongs in a end note because it had literally nothing to do with my argument.
  7. Places where my meaning is completely unclear if you can't read my mind. Like, why don't you just know what I mean!? You're smart people, work it out for yourselves!
Things would just go a lot quicker if people would stop pointing out when I do a bad job!

04 February 2016

Review: When the World Screamed & Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Trade paperback, 233 pages
Published 1990 (contents: 1926-29)
Acquired September 2014
Read October 2014
Professor Challenger Adventures, Volume II: When the World Screamed & Other Stories
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

There are a lot of editions of various combinations of the Professor Challenger stories, but this 1990 edition from Chronicle Books collects all the ones that weren't in the Penguin Classics version of The Lost World and Other Thrilling Tales, which is exactly what I needed. (As far as I can tell, there are no scholarly editions of the later Challenger stories.) I read them in publication order, not the random order they're printed in here, so that's the order I'll tackle them in.

The Land of Mist is the last Challenger novel. Amusingly, it begins with a disavowal of all previous Challenger stories (or maybe just The Poison Belt: "The great Professor Challenger has been-- very improperly and imperfectly-- used in fiction. A daring author placed him in impossible and romantic situations in order to see how he would react to them." Challenger brought a libel action against the perpetrator, but exactly who that perpetrator might be doesn't make a whole lot of sense, as both previous Challenger tales were supposedly written by the reporter Edward Malone (Land of Mist is in the third person), who here is on sufficiently good terms with Challenger as to be marrying his daughter!

But all that's sort of to the side, as The Land of Mist is just a terrible story. Written ten years after The Poison Belt-- an interregnum in which the Great War transpired-- the book is largely driven by Doyle's spiritualist beliefs, and it's less about Challenger than the most tediously dull and sanctimonious spiritualists you ever met. There might be some others who are fakes, but these ones, honest guv, they're the real deal. You can tell this because they're poor and virtuous. This goes on for almost 200 pages, and Doyle even includes an appendix citing his sources because it's all true. The only thing worse than plunging Challenger into this mess would be using Sherlock Holmes, so I guess we can be thankful that Doyle still had some sense and never went that far.

The other two tales are short stories, "When the World Screamed" and "The Disintegration Machine." (One of them mentions that Mrs. Challenger is alive, and she was dead in The Land of Mist, so I think Doyle retconned his retcon!) These are both pretty dull sf stories Isaac Asimov would call Stage Two, technology dominant; they'd fit right into an American sf magazine from the Golden Age, in that both focus on explicating some kind of technological idea (the Earth screams when you drill into it, you can disintegrate and reintegrate people) without actually telling a story around it or doing anything interesting at all.

Next Week: Fifty years after The Lost World, the world has changed and it's a Dinosaur Summer!

03 February 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XLI: Countdown to Final Crisis: 12...11...10...09...08...07...06...05...04...03...02...01...00...

Comic trade paperback, 271 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2008) 

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2015
Countdown to Final Crisis: 12...11...10...09...08...07...06...05...04...03...02...01...00...

Writers: Paul Dini, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Adam Beechen, Sean McKeever
Story Consultant: Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Jesus Saiz, Tom Derenick, Mike Norton, Scott Kolins, Carlos Magno, Jim Starlin, Jamal Igle, Freddie Williams II
Inkers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Scott Kolins, Freddie Williams II, Mark McKenna, Wayne Faucher, Rod Ramos, Keith Champagne
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Travis Lanham, Steve Wands
Colorist: Pete Pantazis

Do you remember when Earth-51 was destroyed in volume three of Countdown to Final Crisis? Well, apparently none of the writers or characters in volume four do, because here it's destroyed all over again! I think because the account of its destruction in volume three was inconsistent with that of its destruction in Final Crisis, they rolled the events back and did it all over again to make it match up with the account that was given in Final Crisis. Sloppy plotting at its finest!

Other things that don't matter:
  • Harley Quinn and Holly Robinson are given superpowers by the Amazonian gods. No one cares!
  • Mary Marvel is arbitrarily given her powers back. Then she loses them. Then she turns evil again. Then she's fine. What is the point of all this? I have absolutely no idea. This character has essentially been brainwashed off-and-on for 52 issues. What on Earth could even be interesting about that? We haven't learned a thing about Mary as a character. No one cares!
  • Various members of the Legion of Super-Heroes are killed off. No one cares!
  • The cover of issue #4 is a close-up on Mary Marvel's giant boobs. No one cares!
  • Darkseid and Orion have a final showdown. Again. No one cares!
  • The Challengers from Beyond (that utterly dull group of characters including Jason Todd, Donna Troy, and some others I don't even remember) tell the Monitors that they'll be monitoring them. You can expect this to literally never be followed up on despite the fact that it really ought to impact Final Crisis because... No one cares!
Really, the only joy you can take in Countdown to Final Crisis at this point is mocking it. It's astounding that talented people like Paul Dini, Keith Giffen, and Jim Starlin got together and produced 1,159 pages of sheer worthlessness. But at least it was always fast-paced, I guess?

Next Week: More stuff no one could ever care about! Lord Havok and the Extremists!

02 February 2016

Review: Doctor Who: K9 and Company by Terence Dudley

Acquired and read December 2015
The Companions of Doctor Who: K9 and Company
by Terence Dudley

This past Christmas's Doctor Who book gets even less festive. K9 and Company novelizes the first and only episode of the television programme of the same name, "A Girl's Best Friend." It takes place in the week prior to Christmas, climaxing on the winter solstice; there are a couple of vaguely Christmassy events happening-- kids home from school, soirees to attend-- but otherwise few Christmas trappings. (K9 does sing a carol. In the show it's "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," but here it's "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," though we only get the first line. I wonder if John Leeson did more of the song when he recorded the audiobook?)

All that said, it's utterly dull for the most part. Sarah Jane is vaguely concerned something is going on, and looks into it, but doesn't discover much, again and again. There are also a lot of boring conversations between K9 and Sarah's aunt's ward, Brendan, a pretty misconceived 1980s geek character. The only good part is the lead-up to the climax, a nighttime chase scene across the countryside. Otherwise there's not much to recommend here, and we can all remain grateful it remained a one-off special (the titles are especially charmingly terrible), though at least the pairing of Sarah Jane and K9 was maintained into the new series.

Next Week: Time to finally finish up Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, beginning with Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand!

01 February 2016

Reading Roundup Wrapup: January 2016

Pick of the month: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Peter Krämer. My full review should appear in a couple weeks, but this was a zippy, intelligent reading of an excellent film, and it left me eager to read more books in the BFI Film Classics series. That said, I'd also have to give nods to Batman: The Cult and book 2 of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, both of which were also excellent reads.

All books read:
1. 33⅓: They Might Be Giants’ Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer
2. Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Two: Shield of Lies by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
3. Nightwing: Year One by Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon
4. Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition by Alan Moore with Brian Bolland
5. Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast by Jim Starlin
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Peter Krämer
7. Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Three: Tyrant’s Test by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
8. Unflattening by Nick Sousanis
9. Batman: The Cult by Jim Starlin
10. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Two: 1987-1989 by Bill Watterson
11. The Many Deaths of the Batman by John Byrne
12. DC Comics Classics Library: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Marv Wolfman with George Pérez

All books acquired:
1. These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson
2. Helix by Eric Brown
3. Redshirts by John Scalzi
4. Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction edited by Ian Whates

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 628 (up 7)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 128 (down 6)

29 January 2016

It's Been a Kingsley Kind of Week

I get the man on the brain, I guess. This Wednesday, I was teaching Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy" (among other pieces on the difference between oral and written language) in my book history course, and I wanted to read something aloud to my students, then get them to read the same passage, so we could talk about the differences. I meant to grab a Calvino collection on my way out the door, but I forgot, so I was limited to whatever I could find on my office bookshelf. Eventually I settled on The Water-Babies, remembering its great passage about how no one seeing a water-baby is not the same as water-babies not existing. It culminates with
Did not learned men, too, hold, till within the last twenty-five years, that a flying dragon was an impossible monster? And do we not now know that there are hundreds of them found fossil up and down the world? People call them Pterodactyles: but that is only because they are ashamed to call them flying dragons, after denying so long that flying dragons could exist.
"And still the lobster held on!"
The Water-Babies is meant to be a bedtime story of sorts, so it's written in a storytelling style, including (in this passage) objections from the listener:
     "But surely if there were water-babies, somebody would have caught one at least?"
     Well. How do you know that somebody has not?
     "But they would have put it into spirits, or into the Illustrated News, or perhaps cut it into two halves, poor dear little thing, and sent one to Professor Owen, and one to Professor Huxley, to see what they would each say about it."
I had forgotten that until I selected the section, but it worked well with Ong's point that much written communication mimics the style of oral communication. (He uses some of Aquinas's theology as an example, so this was a little less heady.)

And of course I like this book, it has Owen and Huxley jokes.

That morning, I had been cleaning up a dissertation chapter that includes a discussion of Kingsley's Two Years Ago, though I hadn't actually gotten to that part of it yet, but I guess I had him on the brain, though I didn't make that connection until Thursday. Thursday I actually did work on the Kingsley part of the chapter, and one of the larger changes I made (aside from deleting, because I sort of belabor my points in this chapter) was to replace where I had cited someone else's take on The Water-Babies with my own analysis of a little story: in this case, the tale of Professor Ptthmllnsprts, who cannot see a water-baby even when it is right in front of him because he thinks like a materialist man of science, and does not allow mythology to influence him. In revenge, a fairy curses him to believe in everything, including that the moon is made of cheese, and his scientific career ends in embarrasment.

Ptthmllnsprts (whose name is now added to my spell-check but I can now spell without checking) is probably based on Huxley. Owen claimed humans were distinguished from apes by the hippocampus minor, but Huxley demonstrated that apes also has hippocampus majors. In The Water-Babies, Ptthmllnsprts's big claim to fame is demonstrating that both humans and apes have the "hippopotamus major" in their brains:
But if a hippopotamus major is ever discovered in one single ape's brain, nothing will save your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-greater-greatest-grandmother from having been an ape too. No, my dear little man; always remember that the one true, certain, final, and all-important difference between you and an ape is, that you have a hippopotamus major in your brain, and it has none; and that, therefore, to discover one in its brain will be a very wrong and dangerous thing, at which every one will be very much shocked, as we may suppose they were at the professor.
But if Ptthmllnsprts is a pisstake on Huxley, he's an affectionate one, as Kingsley and Huxley were as friendly as a Christian minister and the man who coined the term "agnostic" could be. I was disappointed he wasn't based on Owen's side in the debate, as Owen has always looked to me like he eats the souls of children to sustain his life-force:

I'm not sure my students appreciated Kingsley per se, but the content wasn't really the point of the thing, and some of them did laugh at the bit about pterodactyls, though since I gave them no context,  I think they were a bit thrown about the whole 25-years-ago-they-were-discovered thing. I don't know why I always come back around to Kingsley these days!

28 January 2016

Review: The Lost World and Other Thrilling Tales by Arthur Conan Doyle

Trade paperback, 349 pages
Published 2001 (contents: 1910-13)
Acquired and read August 2014
The Lost World and Other Thrilling Tales
by Arthur Conan Doyle

I felt like I should reread The Lost World, having last read it as a child-- assuming I did read it and not some Great Illustrated Classics edition-- given it dealt with a scientist character just after the Victorian era. This book seems like it should be exciting, but it felt like one of the duller Jules Verne translations to me: Doyle mostly just wants to prove he did his research. Challenger himself is always entertaining; the minutiae of entering an inaccessible plateau less so. This is one of those books I wanted to like more than I dead, though I suppose we must give it credit for being an early example of the literary dinosaur.

This volume contains three other stories. The first is the short Challenger novel The Poison Belt, which feels like Doyle's take on The Purple Cloud, In the Days of the Comet, or other similar turn-of-the-century apocalypses. Basically everyone except Challenger and his pals are killed by toxic gases (luckily, Challenger deduces their existence just before the Earth encounters some)... but then it turns out they were all just asleep. Admittedly, some cities do burn down, and humanity resolves to be better as it rebuilds, but it still feels an awful cop-out. It's nowhere near as good as the tales it's aping.

Finally there are two non-Challenger sf tales by Doyle, of which I have no memory, except that one involves an airplane. Take that as you will.

Next Week: Professor Challenger returns in When the World Screamed & Other Stories!

27 January 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XL: The Death of the New Gods

Comic trade paperback, 246 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08) 

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2015
The Death of the New Gods

Writer and penciller: Jim Starlin 
Inkers: Matt Banning, Art Thibert, Mark McKenna
Colorist: Jeromy Cox
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, Travis Lanham, Randy Gentile, Steve Wands

Whether this book should even exist is pretty debatable: it's supposed to tie into Final Crisis, but like most Final Crisis tie-ins, it would ultimately do so in a way not very consistent with that book. To wit: all the New Gods die here, in front of Superman, but no one seems to know about this when Final Crisis rolls around.

The book has bigger crimes, though, and those are that it takes Jack Kirby's amazing cosmic epic and crams it into a procedural. The Death of the New Gods should be an operatic tragedy... instead it's a murder mystery? It's a weird misjudging of genre that transforms something mythic into something ordinary. These characters don't feel like gods, but squabbling aliens from any number of mid-range science fiction television shows. Plus, it's not even a good mystery; ten minutes after reading it, and I couldn't have explained to you what had happened exactly, and the revelation of the "villain" is beyond silly. Jack Kirby knew characters had to be reinvented to keep them vital, but this was not the way to reinvent the New Gods-- and I'm surprised that after his runs on cosmic titles for both Marvel and DC, Jim Starlin couldn't do better than this.

Next Week: We reach zero, both issue-wise and quality-wise, in the final volume of Countdown to Final Crisis!

26 January 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Nightshade by Mark Gatiss

Acquired and read December 2014
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Nightshade
by Mark Gatiss

This is the fourth year in a row I've read a Christmas-themed Doctor Who book at Christmas, but this one's Christmas ties are perhaps tenuous at best. It does take place in the days leading up to Christmas 1968, but that's about it-- though I suppose you the alien presence who feeds on nostalgia here has some prime pickings thanks to Christmas.

It's a very morose and moody book, for reasons not entirely clear; the Doctor is in a snit at the opening, for example, but nothing ever explains why he's so down and focused on the past. The book is very ambling, too; it's one of those Doctor Who novels where it feels like it takes the TARDIS crew at least a quarter of its length to find and interact with the main plot, which is happening to completely different people in a completely different location. And there are a lot of gruesome deaths, but I don't think Gatiss effectively uses them to ratchet up the tension.

There are a lot of good ideas here (not all of them Gatiss's), but they don't really add up to anything interesting. I found this book pretty dull and frustrating in large parts, and I was pretty unexcited when it was announced Big Finish was including it in its line of audio adaptations of novels.

Next Week: Bring us some figgy pudding, K9! Christmas is a great time for human sacrifice in K9 and Company!

25 January 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Before the Storm by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

Mass market paperback, 309 pages
Published 1996

Acquired June 2010
Reread December 2015
Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book One: Before the Storm
by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

When I was a kid, I used to devour the Bantam Star Wars novels again and again. I owned most of them (my favorites were the X-Wing novels by Stackpole and Allston), and what ones I didn't own, I would check out from the library multiple times (like Crispin's Han Solo Trilogy). Thus I know I must not have liked The Black Fleet Crisis, as I only owned Book Two, and I am pretty sure I only checked Books One and Three out of the library once. But there's a contingent of posters on TheForce.Net's forums who consider these books the height of the Bantam era, and their comments began to wear on my mind and, starting to wonder if maybe I would like them more at 25 than I did at 11, I kept an eye out for used copies of Books One and Two with intentions of rereading the whole set.

So here I am at 30 finally reading them, and let me tell you, it's a little weird: this is the first "Legends" Star Wars fiction I've read since seeing The Force Awakens. Nothing in this book actually happened, even more than things normally don't actually happen in Star Wars. I kept comparing the choices Kube-McDowell and other Expanded Universe writers made in building up their post-Return of the Jedi universe to that of J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan in Episode VII. The most notable point of congruence is Luke's hermitage: in Episode VII, we learn that Luke has been living as a hermit for years. Here, in Before the Storm, Luke begins to withdraw from the world, starting to wonder if inaction is preferable to action, if Yoda and Obi-Wan didn't withdraw from the galaxy not to hide their powers, but because the longer a Jedi is in the world, the more it asks of him what he cannot give. I mean, maybe this is true... but how boring and how un-Luke-ish. The Luke of this book is a distant, cold, withdrawn figure, prone to using ostentatious illusions on the people who are supposedly his close friends, and that's not something I want to read about. Contrary to the stance Kube-McDowell takes here, Luke should be passionate, idealistic, and above all, active. I get that Kube-McDowell is trying to grow the character, but I think this neglects what makes him appealing. To be fair, I think most Expanded Universe writers who aren't Matt Stover neglected this. This move didn't bother me in The Force Awakens, but that's because there Luke is no longer the protagonist, he's the Obi-Wan figure to Rey's protagonist: this Luke is supposedly a protagonist, and no Star Wars novel should have a wannabe-hermit as a protagonist!

Only a week before I read Before the Storm, I read Cast No Shadow, which I recognized as a Star Trek take on Tom Clancy; The Black Fleet Crisis is very much a Star Wars take on Tom Clancy, full of military logistics and political details. Kube-McDowell has really thought out the way the New Republic might actually work, which I think is why the TFN readers like this book-- that's the kind of storytelling they're all into. But these details don't mean anything if they don't support a good story, and in this volume at least, they do not. Much of the book focuses on Leia's attempts to negotiate with the xenophoic Yevetha, and Leia is written as horrendously foolish. I get that Leia is an idealist, but as of when this book is set, she's been President of the New Republic for five years, and in politics for around eighteen; she wouldn't be this naive, nor could she have gotten this far ignoring the counsel of her trusted advisors as she repeatedly does here. It's poor writing to contrive a political crisis, and it makes the whole plot about the Yevetha and the Black Fleet fall flat. I did like the depiction of Han Solo, the ex-smuggler and ex-general, now stay-at-home dad. Han doesn't come across as put-upon or anything ridiculous like that; he's a former scoundrel doing his best to raise a family. The bit where his general's commission is briefly reactivated really worked, too. (And thank goodness that Kube-McDowell dispensed with the nonsense of earlier EU writers in having the Solos pack their children to be raised by strangers on distant worlds!)

The one thing I did like here was Lando. Despite his awesomeness, Lando rarely got good parts in EU novels, but this one puts that to rights-- and Kube-McDowell does understand what makes Lando tick, unlike Luke and Leia. I enjoyed almost everything Lando did, from breaking into a top-secret office just to ask for a challenge, to "stealing" R2-D2 and C-3PO from the Jedi Temple and his reflection that being trustworthy makes it easier to be a con man than ever! Him, Lobot (!), and the droids forming a little team trying to figure out the mysterious ghost ship that is the Teljkon vagabond is the best part of this book.