29 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXVIII: Nightwing: Year One

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2005)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
Nightwing: Year One

Writers: Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon
Penciller: Scott McDaniel
Inker: Andy Owens
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Phil Balsman

Year Eleven, March
Nightwing: Year One is the last of the Beatty/Dixon-written "Year One" collaborations, both in my reading order and in terms of publication. This one expands on events only briefly chronicled in Batman: Second Chances to show how Dick Grayson decided to become Nightwing. It opens with Dick coming to Batman's aid in a battle with Clayface, but later than Batman would like, owing to Dick's duties with the Teen Titans.

They argue, and Batman ends up firing Dick-- this doesn't replace the firing depicted in Second Chances, though, as Dick declares he's been fired before, and the timeline of Dick's life in the front of the book includes the Second Chances firing in its events. So apparently much of Nightwing: Year One takes place during the single issue in Second Chances where Dick is fired and Batman first meets Jason Todd; the book as a whole overlaps with Second Chances a lot, as we don't see how Batman meets Jason or selects him as the new Robin, but we do see some of his training. In the meantime, Dick goes back to his old circus and gets a job there and meets Deadman, but the call of crimefighting pulls him, and building on a conversation he had with Superman, he decides to go into action again as his own man: Nightwing.

This book isn't terrible by any means, but it didn't really work for me. There are three main reasons, I think. The first is that Bruce Wayne is just an absolute asshole here. In Second Chances, he "fired" Dick because he was worried for Dick's safety. Here, he does it because Dick can't live up to the impossible standards he imposes on him, refusing to allow Dick defeating criminals with the Teen Titans to excuse him from working with Batman. I feel like you could write these two men drifting apart as they both grow older without making one of them as an arbitrary jerk, but I suppose no one ever hired Chuck Dixon to write a comic book with subtlety in its characterization.

from Nightwing vol. 2 #101

The second issue I have is the book's last few chapters, which do retcon some of Second Chances out of existence specifically, the "ONE YEAR AGO" issue where Dick first meets Jason. Here, Bruce manipulates Dick into participating in Jason's "Gauntlet," his final test to be a full-time Robin, where the two of them are meant to team up to save Alfred from Two-Face (although Two-Face is actually Alfred in disguise). Things go awry, but the two succeed in saving the day without the help of a sedated Batman. It's a fun adventure on its own merits, but it's a weirdly Batman-centric choice for the climax of a volume about Dick Grayson becoming his own man. I'd rather have seen him fighting his own villain(s), far away from the whole Batman clan.

Lastly, there's the art. I've never liked the team of Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens, not since they were Judd Winick's artists on Green Arrow, and I don't like them here. I think it's their way with faces, which just look weird and indistinct to me.

Clark Kent pretending to like hockey is pretty amusing.
from Nightwing vol. 2 #102

This is a likable book. Dixon is always good at writing action. The appearance of Deadman is fun (if a little pointless), and I liked Dick's talk with Superman. Alfred's final gift to Dick is pretty nice, and makes perfect sense. I wanted to like the flirting between Dick and Barbara more, but I don't think McDaniel and Owens made their body language work, and Barbara felt weirdly subordinate to Batman in his secret plans-- she's usually much more off on her own in my experience. Overall, Nightwing: Year One is fun, but kind of misjudged.

Oh, that Dick Grayson. What a charmer.
from Nightwing vol. 2 #104

Incidentally, this is the last "flashback" tale in my readthrough, I believe; all subsequent stories will take place in their era of publication.

Next Week: The Joker is back, which is bad news for the Gordon family in The Killing Joke!

28 June 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Beast of Babylon by Charlie Higson

Meanwhile in the Doctor Who world, read my reviews of two recent Jago & Litefoot releases over at USF: Series Ten and The Haunting.

Mass market paperback, 83 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read September 2015
Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor: The Beast of Babylon
by Charlie Higson

One of the great boons of the 50th anniversary is that it gave us some of the first ninth Doctor fiction since 2005: an audio, a comic book, and this novella. This takes place during "Rose," in what must be a gap of around a century between when the Doctor leaves Rose and pops back for her, traveling alone in the meantime but searching for someone to share his travels with now that he's moving away from the horrors of the Time War. Higson captures the voice of the ninth Doctor well, and the relationship he builds up with potential companion Ali is also very interesting. A nice little story, horrifying in parts.

Next Week: The tenth Doctor and Martha Jones investigate The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage!

27 June 2016

Revolutionary Reading: An Examination of the Legion of Super-Heroes Threeboot, Part I: Teenage Revolution

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2004-05) 

Acquired February 2016
Read May 2016
Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Barry Kitson
Additional Pencils: Leonard Kirk, Dave Gibbons, Scott Iwahashi
Inkers: Art Thibert, Mick Gray, Barry Kitson, James Pascoe, Drew Geraci, Scott Iwahashi
Colorists: Chris Blythe, Paul Mounts, Dave McCaig
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Jared K. Fletcher, Pat Brosseau, Rob Leigh

This is the new Legion of Super-Heroes. In the past, the Legion of Super-Heroes was a group of teenage superheroes from the future. This version, the third since the group was introduced in Adventure Comics #247 back in 1954, is something more: they are revolutionaries. They don't want to beat up bad guys (or they don't only want to beat up bad guys), they want to beat up the system itself. There are seventeen Legionnaires on the "core" team-- but they are only the vanguard of 75,000-member youth movement from dozens of planets across the galaxy.

from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

The idea of superheroes as revolutionaries isn't a new one. I would argue that it goes back the genre's ur-text, Action Comics #1 in 1938. Superman in that first story doesn't fight Lex Luthor: he fights war profiteers. And in later stories he tackles other aspects of the United States' economy and social structure, like slumlords and people fixing college football games and unsafe driving conditions. (Okay, and a leaking dam.) This doesn't last, as in Action Comics #13 it starts off about a taxi driver protection racket, but ends up being about the Ultra-Humanite, introducing the first superhero to his first supervillain.

But the idea that the superhero is a revolutionary figure recurs throughout the genre's history, and various creators take it on in various ways: Dennis O'Neill and Neal Adams in Green Lantern/Green Arrow (1970-72), Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in The Authority (1999-2000), Joe Kelly in Action Comics #775: "What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, & The American Way?" (2001), Mark Millar in Superman: Red Son (2003), and Paul Pope in Batman: Year 100 and Other Tales (1998-2006). Alan Moore has taken on the idea repeatedly in his comics work, including in Miracleman (1982-89), Watchmen (1986-87), and V for Vendetta (1982-89). More on him later, though. I wouldn't suggest that revolution is the only project of the superhero genre (Amazing Fantasy #15, the debut of Spider-Man, captures a whole different part of it), but it is an important part of it.

If you know anything about the comics I listed, it's that they're excellent, but mostly dark, bloody, and dour. Teenage Revolution shows that a revolutionary superhero comic does not have to be like that. The Legion is bright and fun, rebelling against a future that's forgotten how to enjoy itself, where people communicate only via screens (even when in the same room), everyone goes outside completely bundled up, and children's locations are monitored at all times for their safety.

from Teen Titans/Legion Special #1 (art by Barry Kitson)

The teens in the Legion stand for a brighter, more exciting time, and they access this through-- in a sort of metatextual twist that's never really explained-- comic books published by DC Comics. They have spinner racks in Legion HQ:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

...quiz each other on their DC Comics trivia:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #6 (art by Barry Kitson & Art Thibert)

...and even use them as a guide to what "dates" used to be like:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #3 (art by Barry Kitson & Art Thibert)

The superheroes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are a key part of the inspirations of the Legionnaires, as is reflected in their code names:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

But the parameters of the Legion's conflict with the wider society of the United Planets is often defined vaguely. The Legion doesn't want kids (or "underagers," as they are called) to have their locations monitored, but other than that, what are they fighting for? And how are they fighting for it? The comic skirts around these issues, not always willing to show the violence that comes with revolution. Often throughout the series, an external threat ends up diverting the Legion's attention, and their violence is directed against that.

How revolutionaries articulate violence against their own society is a key question in stories of revolution, I think. In his book From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (2010), Peter Y. Paik argues that most would-be revolutionaries, and fiction about revolutionaries, flinches from these issues. But Paik praises Alan Moore's works (Miracleman, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta are all discussed) as being among those that examine this difficulty thoroughly. Revolutionary change requires violence, he says, but the moral cost is too high to bear, but "The grievous price of achieving utopia thus ceases to be terrible once Homo sapiens reaches the stage at which it feels free to shrug off as unduly burdensome the moral reservations entailed by the sacrifices that have been committed for the sake of advancing the progress of history."

How does one become able to "shrug"? How do you reach the point where you can say, "Killing all these people was okay because it advanced the progress of history"? Paik's analysis of Watchmen shows how the superhero Ozymandias is one such shrugger.

For the most part, Mark Waid and Barry Kitson's Legion of Super-Heroes avoids these issues. Things rarely get violent between them and the United Planets. (The first panel above refers to one such moment, where the Science Police tried to bulldoze Legion HQ. But the Legion's followers surrounded it and stopped it from happening with their bodies, and no one was hurt: there were no sacrifices.) I'll talk about one such moment when I get to the third volume.

But for now, the very first issue actually has one of the series' most protracted engagements with the idea of revolutionary violence. In this issue, the Legion is summoned to the planet Lallor, which is outside the United Planets, but allied to it. The Legion has been organizing underagers on Lallor into a political majority. It's a little unclear to me exactly what the backstory is. At one point, the leader of the Legion, Cosmic Boy, describes it as an "armed adult rebellion," implying the adults are rebelling against the underagers, but here, a dying Lallor underager tells Invisible Kid:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

...implying that the adults were in control. Either way, there's some kind of armed conflict between the adults on Lallor and the Legion-affiliated underagers. Because the alliance between the United Planets and the government of Lallor, the U.P. government asks the Legion not to intervene against the Lallor government.

The Legionnaires, of course, ignore this edict. They justify their intervention-- they shrug-- in terms of preventing a larger outbreak of violence. Cosmic Boy argues that a number of planets are edging toward war:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

...and in a war, it's the young who will fight it on behalf of their elders. That it's the young who pay for decisions made by adults in which they have no say is a recurrent social criticism raised by the Legionnaires throughout the series. Here, the Legion engages in violence to prevent the larger violence of a full-scale war, knowing that the young, the disenfranchised will pay the most if there is one.

The United Planets' dithering is often portrayed as the biggest threat to peace. Because the United Planets is so big and so socially conservative, it is not quick to act. Because the Legion exists outside the government, they can act quickly and decisively to cut situations off before they escalate into larger outbreaks of violence. Thus, Cosmic Boy authorizes Legion involvement on Lallor.

from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

But this is a rare moment in the series. The youth movement that is the Legion of Super-Heroes never has direct, violent confrontations with the social order of the United Planets, something that's hard to imagine would be the case if this comic had been written ten years later, after Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Most of the time, the Legion doesn't have to shrug at all, and it feels like some of the potential of this version of the Legion has been left on the table as a result.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like about the "threeboot" Legion, but this essay is focused on one particular aspect, not leaving me with much room to mention how much I liked Barry Kitson's clean art, the pervasive feeling of optimism, the clever sci-fi ideas, and especially the character of Dream Girl, who is definitely my favorite in this incarnation. Like the best reboots, Waid and Kitson's take is at least as interesting as what it's replacing, and the differences are interesting enough to justify the undertaking.

24 June 2016

How Now Pink Cow?: The Origins of Red Cream Soda

One of the things you learn when you move to a different region of the country is that many things you took for granted as being part of The Way Things Are turn out to be only The Way Things Are In The Place That You're From. Like, I was in my mid-twenties when I discovered what people from Cincinnati usually call "gym shoes" are in the rest of America called "tennis shoes" or "sneakers." Or, for example, my wife is really fascinated by how folks here in New England don't eat as many Jell-O-based foods as we do in the Midwest. Some regionalisms become points of cultural pride (we Cincinnatians love to talk about our distinctive chili, of course), but I suspect many more pass unnoticed because you never think about them until they're gone.

Something I only realized in the past couple years is that red cream soda is a regionalism. In Ohio, Barq's doesn't just sell root beer, but also "red creme soda." And Big Red was a staple of my high school years visits to White Castle. (There are other red cream sodas, apparently, but those are the big two for me, anyway.) Red cream soda ostensibly has nothing to do with any red fruit flavors, unlike some other red pops (like the strawberry-flavored Cherikee Red of Scranton, Pennsylvania). Information seems to be scant, but a Texas Monthly article on Big Red claims that despite its (infamous) bubblegum flavor, "the flavor is actually a combination of lemon and orange oils, topped off by a dollop of pure vanilla for a creamy aftertaste." And what we know about the origin of Barq's Red Creme Soda would also seem to indicate it contains neither bubblegum nor fruit, though I don't think it tastes like non-red cream soda.

But red cream soda is not a thing you can buy here in New England. Discovering this sent me on two quests: one, to bring some red cream soda back to New England with me, and two, to discover the origin of this regional foodway.

(My research largely consisted of Googling, so you're going to get what you pay for here. Maybe an more in-depth investigation awaits in my future. See below for sources.)

As far as my second quest goes, I learned Barq's is one of the oldest root beers in America, though not the oldest, and for a long time it didn't even call itself a "root beer," because a competing company had the term trademarked. (Later, the federal government banned caffeine in root beer, so Barq's removed "root beer" from its name again. You can read all sorts of fascinating things about the history of Barq's at the blog of Todd Nelson, most of which isn't relevant to my purposes here.) Edward Charles Edmond Barq, who had won a gold medal for his orange soda at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, started out in New Orleans, but by 1897 was set up in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Barq's biological son eventually took over his business, but Barq also had an adopted son, and Barq sold or gave him a production facility back in New Orleans. The adoptive son, Jesse Robinson, ended up with his own Barq's company, which had exclusive rights to the Barq's name and formula in all of Louisiana.

Most of what you can find about the history of Barq's focuses on the root beer, but eventually I discovered the origin of their red creme soda, and it shows that red cream soda has even closer ties to Cincinnati than I thought. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, in 1937, three men from Cincinnati purchased a Barq's franchise and begin bottling root beer and creme soda locally. It was one of these men, Richard Tuttle, who had the idea to add red color to Barq's previously amber-colored creme soda. The resulting red creme soda was so popular that the parent company back in Biloxi adopted the same change. (Tuttle experimented with a bunch of other colors, too, but I guess red was the only one that lasted.) The New Orleans Barq's company adopted it, too, where the pop went under the name of just "Barq's Red Drink."

Big Red, which started in Waco, Texas, claims to be the original red cream soda, however, beginning life in 1937 (the same year Tuttle started his franchise), as the Sun Tang Red Cream Soda, before becoming Sun Tang Big Red Cream Soda, and then just Big Red. Supposedly the name changes came about because one of the company execs heard his golf caddies calling it "Big Red"; read here for the whole story. Though in high school we would always get four Big Reds and a Crave Case at White Castle, I find that Barq's Red Creme Soda has more of my allegiance-- perhaps I was subconsciously picking up on its Cincinnati origins?

John Ruch claims Big Red started life as "Big Green," but red turned out to be the more popular color-- but I can't find any mention of that on the Internet except at his blog. He also claims that red cream soda is actually not a cream soda; the designation is just used to make the suspiciously fruit free "red pop" have some kind of legitimacy.

I also learned that in Canada, almost all cream soda is red cream soda, to the extent that "cream soda" is understood to be red by default. Not sure how that ties in to everything else here.

I can conclude on something I do know for sure, having also achieved the goal of my first quest. If you have red cream soda, you can make a "pink cow," which is just a root beer float (i.e., a "brown cow") but with red cream soda.

This is the one I made myself Tuesday night. It was definitely delicious.

Works Cited
Billman, Rebecca. "Barq co-founder dies: Richard S. Tuttle Sr. added dye to soda to create red pop." Cincinnati Enquirer. 13 Jan. 2000. Web. <http://enquirer.com/editions/2000/01/13/loc_barq_co-founder_dies.html>.
Nelson, Todd. "Barq's Root Beet." Recycled and Recounted. 16 Oct. 2015. Web. <http://recycledandrecounted.blogspot.com/2015/10/barqs-root-beer.html>.
Ruch, John. "Red Soda." Stupid Question (TM) Archives. 27 Mar. 2008. Web. <http://stupidquestionarchives.blogspot.com/2008/03/red-soda.html>.

23 June 2016

Review: Sixty Lights by Gail Jones

Trade paperback, 249 pages
Published 2005 (originally 2004)
Acquired October 2013
Read January 2015
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones

This work of neo-Victorian fiction is about the life of a girl who becomes a woman and becomes a photographer. It gets a little bit too cute at times-- our protagonist anticipating movies is one thing, but I rolled my eyes when she said something designed to be a pre-echo of Walter Benjamin. It's a transparent way of making your protagonist special. Anyway, this wasn't really bad (I liked it more than the similar Afterimage, which I read around the same time), but it never grabbed hold of me emotionally.

22 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXVII: Huntress: Year One

Comic trade paperback, 143 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2008)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2015
Huntress: Year One

Writer: Ivory Madison
Penciller: Cliff Richards
Inkers: Art Thibert, Norm Rapmund, Rebecca Buchman
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

Year Eleven, February
Retcons are a weird thing, but they're a constant of the superhero comic book world. Helena Bertinelli was introduced as the Huntress in the 1989-90 ongoing series The Huntress, a dark, sort of moody noir series that stood on its own, though she did meet Batman once and was also a member of the Justice League International's American branch (since she lived in New York City). She faded away, but in 1992, Chuck Dixon brought her back for a two-issue story in Detective Comics, and then a key role in Robin III: Cry of the Huntress (1992-93), and finally her own miniseries (1994). Each of these tweaked her origin a little bit: soon she was from Gotham, not New York, and the exact details of how her family had been murdered fluctuated with each new story. Her origin got a wholesale retelling in 2000 with Batman/Huntress: Cry for Blood (the only one of these I haven't actually read), and then another one in 2008 with this series, Huntress: Year One.

As you read new versions, it's sometimes hard to judge them on their own merits. The original Huntress series by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton isn't perfect, but it is distinctive, with dark, moody artwork and a heroine who's not always attractive, physically or elsewise. Though later takes on the Huntress would be darker and more violent, and though the plots of the ongoing sometimes got silly, there's a real sense of the series trying something not because it's tried and true, but because it's new and distinctive. The 1990s would take "dark and gritty" in bad directions sometimes, but I enjoyed what The Huntress seemed to be striving towards, even if it didn't always hit it.

I guess this explains why Batman doesn't like the Huntress.
from Huntress: Year One #5 (art by Cliff Richards and Norm Rapmund & Rebecca Buchman)

So, my problems with Huntress: Year One aren't really its own fault. Its Huntress is a different character than the one created by Cavalieri and Staton, and she has a somewhat different history. I'm not sure what I think of her being raised in Sicily, or having a lost love: I liked the damaged, lonely warrior of the original series that didn't have anyone to support her. But the story Madison Ivory and Cliff Richards tell here is not bad, just different, and on its own merits, it's pretty good-- if nothing exceptional.

Instead of the gritty urban vigilante aspects of the character, this really focuses on mafia princess components, as Helena untangles a conspiracy to deprive her of her inheritance, and much worse, that runs from Sicily to the Vatican to Gotham, and leads to her meeting Batman, Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Catwoman, among others. Like a lot of conspiracy stories, some of it went over my head, and there's a lot of characters to keep track of, but Ivory keeps things pretty interesting, and I enjoyed the clean linework of Cliff Richards, Art Thibert, and Norm Rapmund, especially their regal, statuesque Helena.

Here's a weird fact: people would write into the letter column of the Cavalieri/Staton Huntress complaining Helena was too ugly. As a result, the editor asked people to write in about whether they thought that mattered! But I'm pretty sure Staton didn't intend Helena to be unattractive; that was just the way he drew everybody. Anyway, seems unlikely anyone wrote in complaining about that this time out.
from Huntress: Year One #2 (art by Cliff Richards and Art Thibert)

But I just couldn't shake the versions I'd read before from my head. Usually, I feel like I'm better at this. Oh, well.

Next Week: It's Year One again again as Nightwing makes his debut on the Gotham stage!

21 June 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Spore by Alex Scarrow

Mass market paperback, 67 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read August 2015
Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: Spore
by Alex Scarrow

Despite the fact that he originated in a very different style of television, Big Finish and BBC Books both wasted no time forcing the eighth Doctor into the mold of classic Doctor Who: BBC Books' Eighth Doctor Adventures felt of a piece with the Virgin New Adventures, while Big Finish locked him into the same 4x25 format as the classic Doctors, despite him never having appeared in such a format on telly! The eighth Doctor, after all, originally appeared in a 90-minute telemovie of the week. One could imagine an alternate world where Fox commissioned a series of them, the eighth Doctor periodically appearing on American television screens for a standalone adventure, like how The Librarian was originally. If that had happened, I think you'd have ended up with stories very much like Spore: the Doctor turns up in contemporary America, discovers something odd is going on, befriends a local woman, and puts a stop to it. Slight, like a lot of these novellas, but an intriguing glimpse of a version of Doctor Who that never was.

Next Week: A missing adventure for the ninth Doctor in The Beast of Babylon!

20 June 2016

Review: Lemistry edited by Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska

Trade paperback, 292 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1959-2011)

Acquired June 2012
Read April 2016
Lemistry: A Celebration of the Work of Stanisław Lem
edited by Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska

When I picked this book up, I thought it was a collection of essays about Stanisław Lem with a couple Lem stories thrown in. It turns out to mostly be works of fiction assembled in tribute to Lem. This genre of anthology is always a bit tricky, I think-- I remember not being a very big fan of Foundation's Friends, for example, which was written in tribute to Isaac Asimov, and the fiction in the Ursula K. Le Guin tribute 80! was its weakest part. The problem here is that Lem is in my Top Five science fiction authors and that the contributors here, well, aren't. So when they attempt direct pastiche of Lem, they come up short, and when they try to do something more oblique, you wonder what it has to do with Lem at all.

The book begins, however, with three stories by Lem-- for all of them, this is their first appearance in English. The best of them is definitely "The Lilo," about a man who starts to wonder if he's been placed in virtual reality without his consent or knowledge, and wants his psychiatrist to help him out of this dilemma, but the psychiatrist can't... or won't. Like a lot of Lem stories, this takes a strange premise to its logical conclusion with perfection.

The pastiche of the other authors is at its most direct with Ian Watson's "The Tale of Trurl and the Great TanGent," a tale of Trurl and Klapaucius of The Cyberiad fame. It's okay. It feels more random and arbitrary than the actual Cyberiad tales that I remember, like Watson doesn't quite grasp what makes those stories work so well. I was surprised that this was the only story to reuse Lem characters directly: there are no tales of (say) Pirx the Pilot or Ijon Tichy here, no return to (thankfully, I suppose) Solaris.

Some just seem to be about robots with little else that makes them obviously Lemmian, like Toby Litt's "The Melancholy." Annie Clarkson's "Toby" is about a man who married a robot woman contemplating adopting a robot boy: I'm not sure what it has to do with Lem, though I did find the central conceit pretty interesting. It just kind of fizzles out at the end, though, after an interesting start. "Terracotta Robot" by Adam Marek is just kind of baffling, about a guy, his son, a newly married woman, and her husband all on a sightseeing tour of an ancient robot factory. The guy keeps hitting on the newly married woman even though it's her honeymoon. It's more like a piece of literary fiction that has a robot in it for no explicable reason. Take the robot out and put it in a different book, and I probably would have liked it a lot; as it is, I was baffled.

Others, and these ones felt more Lemmian, play with concepts of reality. "The 5-Sigma Certainty" by Trevor Hoyle is about a journalist who interviews Philip K. Dick, who tells him that Lem isn't a real person but a Communist committee. (This is a thing that Dick actually believed.) The journalist decides to go to Poland to investigate for himself. I liked the story at first, but in the end, it didn't seem to have much to say; there's a punchline of sorts, but it doesn't justify the buildup. The best along these lines is "Stanlemian" by Wojciech Orliński, about people who gamble in a virtual reality simulation of pre-9/11 New York City. The title is mean to be in opposition to "phildickian": whereas phildickian describes situations where reality is difficult to determine, stanlemian is used to describe situations where the problem has been solved. The premise of the story is that everything goes when it comes to getting money out of the simulation back into the real world, and so the protagonist is a guy hired on behalf of a gambler to extract the money from the simulation without running afoul of the gambler's crooked girlfriend. Great ideas that develop some stuff Lem played with, especially in Summa Technologiae, but in directions I don't think Lem would or could have gone, which is surely what you want out of this kind of volume, but it rarely achieves.

Some of the stories ape the way Lem would play with genre: "'Every Little Helps' by Frank Cottrell Boyce, reviewed by Stanisław Lem," for example, is Boyce writing as though he's Lem reviewing a nonexistent story by Boyce. I like the idea, but the execution is not very compelling: you're basically just reading a synopsis of a story that seems somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough.

It's one of these, though, that's the best story in the whole book: "The Apocrypha of Lem by Dan Tukagawa, J. B. Krupsky, and Aaron Orvits, reviewed by Jacek Dukaj" reviews a book about the novels written by three different computer simulations of Lem. One was programmed with the conditions of Lem's life, one was programmed with Lem's DNA and brain scans, and one is but one of millions of people simulated in a construct of twentieth-century Europe as a whole. Dukaj is playful and inventive in the best Lem tradition; this is like the best parts of Imaginary Magnitude, but playing with Lem himself. For example, he points out that one might want one's Lem simulation to write more Lem books (naturally), but Lem decided he had said all he wanted to: "the more faithful their postLem was to the original, the less likely it was that he would write anything new." The different postLems end up suing each other for copyright over their works, and the review attacks the idea the biological Lem is the best instantiation of Lem, anyway: "Where does the certainty that Stanisław Lem, born 12th September 1921 and deceased 27th March 2006 in Krakow, is such an ideal model of Lemness, come from? Simply because he was reflected in a biological form and not in a digital one? But that is pure racism!" All the works of all the postLems together will give you the data you need to isolate who Lem really was, and why should it happen to be the one that was a physical human being? It's a very fun little thought experiment.

And then there are the ones that have no obvious reason to be here, like Brian Aldiss's "Less Than Kin, More Than Kind," which feels like he just sent the editors a story he hadn't been able to get published anywhere else.

The book ends with a few nonfiction pieces. The best was "Stanisław Lem - Who's He?" by Andy Sawyer. I didn't expect to like this, since I thought I knew already, but Sawyer provides a nice overview of Lem's fiction and its major themes, and I especially liked his consideration of Lem's place within the genre of science fiction itself, given Lem's disdain for the genre.

The book has its highlights, but it really does illustrate the peril of its own project: Lem is too good at what he does for most others to be able to touch him. The few good stories show it can be done, but most of what's here reveals what an immense achievement it was to write and think like Stanisław Lem.

17 June 2016

Alert New London!: The Lost Names of the Backroads of Rural Ohio

I recently had cause to be driving around the backroads of Butler and Hamilton Counties, Ohio, right on the Indiana border, in this area:

It's a pretty undeveloped area, lots of farmland and tiny little towns that consist of one stop light and three stores. It was a nice, sunny day, so it was a good drive, made especially so because I got to drive past one of my favorite roads, Alert New London Road. It's not important enough for Google Maps to label at the zoom level I was using when I took this screenshot, but you can see it there. It's the road that connects the towns of Alert and Shandon. I like it because it sounds like an order: "Alert New London! The Indians are coming!"

I must not be the only person who thinks it's a good name, as there's apparently a Columbus, Ohio, dream-pop band called Alert New London.

The road's name's origins are pretty mundane, however. A lot of roads in this region (and I can't imagine this is an uncommon thing nationwide) are simply named for the two places they connect: Alert New London Rd., Cincinnati Brookville Rd., Okeana Drewersburg Rd., Hamilton Scipio Rd., Peoria Reily Rd., Reily Millville Rd., and so on.

This may seem like a boring naming scheme, but I will tell you as someone whose belief in his own sense of geography sometimes outstrips his actual abilities, these naming schemes sure could help you in the pre-smartphone era when you were driving around lost in the backroads of Butler County. I remember coming upon Oxford Middletown Road in the middle of the night and arbitrarily picking which way to turn on it, figuring that a 50% chance of ending up where I wanted to be (Oxford) was better than the minuscule chance I'd had up until that point.

A lot of these roads are the only remaining signs of the existence of the places they once connected. Scipio is a sort of nonplace on the Ohio-Indiana border, for example, one of those places Wikipedia calls an unincorporated community, and there's nothing to indicate any real town-ness other than that houses cluster there. As far as I can tell (admittedly just from an evening's electronic research), according to the book Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio, Scipio was destroyed in 1884 by a tornado:
Now all that remains of Scipio is its name on roads and cemeteries, little bits of history that have escaped overwriting but lost their context.

Like I said above, Alert New London Road connects Alert to the town of Shandon, but as you might guess if you've been following me so far, Shandon used to be called New London. In fact, Shandon is ostensibly the Butler Community to have had the most names, having also been known as Paddy's Run, Vaughan's Crossing, Glendower, Cambria, and Bagdad. The locals, who were Welsh, wanted the post office to be called New London, but the postmaster general called it Paddy's Run after a local stream, but the locals found being called "Paddies" offensive. Hence all the fluctuations as they tried to settle on something everyone could accept. (At one point the citizens boycotted the post office to get their way.) Things were apparently finally stabilized in 1906, when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names issued the following ruling:
It seems they had a lot of options to rule out.

Now, I've known of New London, Ohio, for at least twelve years, but looking at the map today, the first time doing so after eight years of being a Connecticut resident, what immediately jumped out at me was the juxtaposition of New London and New Haven, which are of course both major cities in Connecticut. Northern Ohio was originally the "Western Reserve" of Connecticut: could my adoptive state have also influenced the southwest corner of my birth state?

The answer is mixed. New Haven, Ohio, an unincorporated community now surrounded by the Miami Whitewater Forest, a county park, was definitely named in honor of Connecticut. It was founded in 1815 by Joab Comstock, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, and the first frame house was built in 1826. By 1894, it had a population of 200; now its population is almost 600. Comstock apparently liked founding villages, because he had also founded nearby Crosby in 1801, which was named after his wife's maiden name. New Haven's location was picked because it was at the intersection of the Cincinnati-New Baltimore highway and the Hammond-Lawrenceburg road. I guess those last three places were much more important in 1815 than they are in 2016, because I don't think there's much to be got out of being at their intersection today.

The appearance of a New London, Ohio, in 1803, twelve years prior to the founding of New Haven, Ohio, seems to be a complete coincidence. Even though the two Ohio towns, some four miles apart, both share names with prominent Connecticut cities, some fifty miles apart, I can find no indication that the naming of New London, Ohio, has anything to do with New London, Connecticut. The settlers of New London, Ohio, were predominantly from Wales (hence one of its many names, Glendower), and though I don't know why the Welsh might have wanted to name a city after London, England, I feel they had even less reason to name one after New London, Connecticut.

The influence of Connecticut on the parts of Ohio outside of the old Western Reserve seems to have been pretty limited after all. So the very supposition that launched me on this investigation turns out to have no basis in reality, though I have learned a lot about the area of Ohio I once called home. Seriously, now I want to drive back up to Shandon and look at its Old Welsh Cemetery!

16 June 2016

Review: Summa Technologiae by Stanisław Lem

Trade paperback, 409 pages
Published 2013 (originally 1964)
Acquired December 2014
Read March 2015
Electronic Mediations, Volume 40: Summa Technologiae
by Stanisław Lem

I was very excited to read this new translation of a previously untranslated Lem philosophical treatise on technology. There's the occasional side comment that I found thoughtful, but I got really bogged down in this on the whole. I know many smart people have praised it, but I came to dread picking it up everyday and slogging through a few more pages. I guess I like Lem more when he expresses his complicated ideas through fiction, especially fiction with a lighter touch. Probably my favorite of his observations was this comment from near the end of the book:
     What is therefore possible? Almost everything, with just one exception. Having conspired in advance, people could decide one day, many thousands of years from now, "Enough! Let things be the way they are now; let them remain like this forever. Let us not change, seek, or discover anything new, since things cannot be better than they are now, and even if they could, we do not want it."
     Even though I have outlined many unlikely things in this book, this one seems to me to be the most unlikely of them all.