27 April 2017

Review: Voices Prophesying War by I. F. Clarke

Hardcover, 268 pages
Published 1992 (first edition: 1966)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars, 1763-3749
by I. F. Clarke

Voices Prophesying War is the classic study of future-war fiction. It technically begins in 1763, but I. F. Clarke's study really kicks off with 1871 and The Battle of Dorking, and the book's real focus is the period from 1880 to 1914, where future war fiction was immensely popular. Clarke traces its interaction with science and with politics, and these three chapters are the real heart of the book. Clarke's reading is wide and deep, and if it wasn't for him, I don't think contemporary literary critics would look at this body of work as its own distinctive genre, with its own features and projects. I found the post-Great War sections of the book less interesting, but then I would.

26 April 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part VII: Manhunter: Unleashed

My review of Torchwood: Outbreak, the first Big Finish Torchwood story to reunite the main cast, is up at Unreality SF.

Comic trade paperback, 174 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2006-07)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2017
Manhunter: Unleashed

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Pencillers: Javier Pina, Fernando Blanco, Brad Walker, Diego Olmos, Cafu
Inkers: Robin Riggs, Fernando Blanco, Art Thibert
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman, Nick J. Napolitano, Ken Lopez

This volume puts the new set-up that debuted in volume 3 of Manhunter on hold: Kate successfully defends Doctor Psycho, creating the connection that she (and Director Bones) want with the Secret Society of Super Villains, but this doesn't actually go anywhere in this volume because Wonder Woman turns up, asking Kate to be her defense attorney when she's up before a grand jury for possible indictment for the murder of Maxwell Lord back in The OMAC Project. Even though is neither Kate-as-Manhunter-kills-the-villains-the-law-can't-touch now Kate-must-put-her-instincts-aside-and-defend-villains, I was on board at first: there's some fun legal wrangling, Wonder Woman's regalness is a great contrast to Kate's earthiness, and Ted "Blue Beetle" Kord even puts in an appearance despite being dead.

The pleasure Kate takes in both of her jobs is one of the defining/interesting aspects of her character.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #27 (art by Javier Pina & Fernando Blanco and Robin Riggs)

But by the end of the book, things didn't quite land. Kate avoids an indictment for Wonder Woman, but it mostly feels like Checkmate did the actual work. In the meantime, Kate's supporting cast have gone on some adventures (Cameron and Dylan face an old supervillain; Mark avoids more mystical summons) that don't really integrate well with the rest of the book.

I mean, it's a comic book, but his iron jaw is still pretty dumb, especially for the more "grounded" tone of this book.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #29 (art by Javier Pina, Brad Walker, & Fernando Blanco and Robin Riggs)

The human elements of Manhunter are always solid, but Andreyko struggles to integrate them with compelling superheroics. The villains Kate fights often feel like filler, and Unleashed continues that trend. Once again, great premise, middling execution.

Or there's the sort-of silly and overhyped Manhunter/Wonder Woman fight, which turns out (unsurprisingly) to be a training session, despite Andreyko trying to fool you into thinking it's about Kate's lethal methods or something.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #26 (art by Javier Pina & Robin Riggs)
Next Week: Forget the old Blue Beetle-- the new one goes on a Road Trip!

25 April 2017

Review: The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 5 by John Barber, Livio Ramondelli, Andrew Griffith, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2013)
Acquired March 2015
Read April 2017
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 5

Written by John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli, Atilio Rojo, Dheeraj Verma, and Andrew Griffith
Colors by Livio Ramondelli, Priscilla Tramontano, and Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long, Chris Mowry, and Shawn Lee

This volume is sort of a mixed bag-- there's clearly a lot of set-up going on here for the imminent Dark Cybetron crossover. While in More than Meets the Eye, that was seemingly all done in a bonus text story at the back (and one throwaway comment in the final issue), a lot of what's here are stories about the secret agenda that Shockwave's been running in the background for almost the entire duration of Robots in Disguise. We get a flashback tale that integrates some of the revelations about Shockwave from More than Meets the Eye with the backstory shown in Autocracy (appropriately drawn by Autocracy's artist, Livio Ramondelli), yet another tale of Orion Pax and company chasing Shockwave's mentor Jhiaxus but failing to accomplish anything, and a two-part story that parallels Shockwave and Soundwave fighting in the present with their relationship in the past.

This stuff is okay. Some of it feels belabored and stretched out: Shockwave and Soundwave's fight, for example, was never particularly interesting. I did really like the insight I got into Soundwave's relationship with his cassette servants; probably the best bit of the whole two issues is where we see their first meeting. Soundwave has the power to basically hear all things, which leaves him overwhelmed, but the Cybertronians who will become his cassettes reach out to him and teach him how to filter his perceptions to make them manageable. It adds a bit of pathos to a Decepticon character I hadn't really thought about before. (I still don't get why his cassettes are cassettes, though.) Other aspects of the flashbacks, though, were informative, but not entertaining, more like reading the Transformers wiki than a story-- as always, Barber seems to be sewing up a lot of continuity details for the faithful.

And then they all became evil.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #22 (art by Livio Ramondelli)

Orion Pax chasing but not getting Jhiaxus is becoming dull, but I suppose this formula will come to an end with Dark Cybetron. It was fun to see a Beast Wars character make a significant contribution to the story in the form of Waspinator. Those are the Transformers stories I'm nostalgic for!

24 April 2017

Review: The Surprising Effects of Sympathy by David Marshall

Hardcover, 286 pages
Published 1988
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley
by David Marshall

This is one of those academic books that has a very broad-sounding supertitle that seduces one, when one should pay more attention to the details of the subtitle. David Marshall is interested in the relationship between theatre, spectacle, and sympathy in the works of a number of French writers-- in very specific detail. So I, who have an interest in the relationship between sympathy and sight, found little of interest here because I don't really care about Marivaux, Diderot, and Rousseau. Some of his claims about the dangers these writers saw in sympathy are interesting ("The danger […] is finally not that we might not believe other people, but that we might not believe in them" [134]), but he restricts himself to close reading most of the time. And of course I have tons of interest in Frankentein, but his reading of Frankenstein in light of Shelley's interest in Rousseau seemed to close off the text rather than open it up-- I felt like it didn't offer much to someone who wasn't already interested in Rousseau. I want to read other people's takes on sympathy in Frankenstein, and this book did not provide me with what I was looking for.

21 April 2017

The Best Student Work and the Problem of Limited Resources

Right now, in the between-real-employments phase of my academic career, I'm working part-time (i.e., adjuncting) in the department where I received my Ph.D. In the fall, I taught two first-year writing courses; this spring I taught one writing course and one 3000-level literature class. (Undergraduate classes here go from 1000 to 4999, so this makes it junior-level in theory.)

That class is winding down now (only one more week of classes to go), which is causing me to think about the assessment I'm using. I do weekly-ish reading quizzes (there's a 50% chance of a quiz on any given day, so it averages out to one per week), a 3-page paper due during the semester, a 6-page paper due at the end, a midterm, and a final.

I'm not convinced these are very good or very appropriate levels of assessment. When it comes to encouraging reading on a regular basis, I think short responses are more appropriate to the kind of work I want my students to be doing than quizzes. When it comes to synthesizing their knowledge of the class, I think longer writing is better than multiple exams.

But I have forty students, and so pedagogy must compromise with efficiency. It is simply easier to grade 40 four-question quizzes per week than it is to read and respond to 40 1.5-page writings. It is simply easier to assign nine pages of writing than to assign more (8-12 is the range for a 3000-level ENGL class, so you can tell at least I'm doing more than the bare minimum). And exams are the best way I know to figure out if all forty of my students got something out of the class when usually there's not time or space for each one of them to say something substantive every day. I just don't have the time, space, and money to obtain the best student work.

Last fall, there was a minor brouhaha on the department listserv because out of 22 winners of our university's funded undergraduate research prize, only three were from non-STEM fields. Two of those three were indeed from English, however. Undergraduates apply for these awards as first-semester juniors, which means you have to be basically ready to have a research proposal by the end of sophomore year.

Well, how likely is that if even once you get to junior-level, you're one of forty students in your English class? I had some large English classes as an undergraduate... but I don't think I was ever in a class of forty in a 300-level course. As an instructor, I have absolutely no incentive to encourage research projects, as it just increases my workload in what is already a large course; my six-page paper requires no research beyond sources read in class.

Furthermore, as an adjunct I have even less incentive to mentor a student so that they can carry out research. I'm not going up for tenure here, ever; I have no possible motivation other than, well, collegiality. But collegiality is not rewarded when you're a part-timer.

So when all this was going back and forth on our department listserv, my thought was, If this department wants engaged undergraduates who carry out research projects, they need to not be  stuffing forty of them into junior-level classes taught by adjuncts. And I get that there are real financial exigencies that make this necessary, just as there are practical concerns for me that override my pedagogical ideals. But if this is what we put into our department, we should not be surprised at the students who come out of it. Our department is very reliant on adjunct teaching, moreso than other departments of similar sizes, so I have heard. Our tenure-track faculty do not teach 1000-level courses by and large.

Finally, a faculty member (former department head) pointed out something similar: "It seems to me that the faculty might have more impact on this process if we were more regularly willing to teach the sorts of courses that our sophomore majors are likely to take--for instance, the 2000-level and 3000-level literary surveys. It is my impression [...] that our beginning majors are hungry for serious mentoring from our tenured and tenure-track faculty. It is also my impression that faculty do not often volunteer for such courses"

The conversation continued, but no one ever addressed that component of it. If you want the best student work, you have to put in the best quality of teaching. Our current model, for a variety of reasons, doesn't make that happen.

20 April 2017

Review: Dubliners by James Joyce

Trade paperback, 317 pages
Published 1993 (originally 1914)

Previously read April 2005
Acquired June 2014

Reread November 2014
Dubliners by James Joyce

At the end of my course on British literature 1890-1950, I polled my students on the best and worst of the readings they had done. I lost those notes, unfortunately, but I did write down one of them for posterity: "Dubliners cut across all the necessary themes literature may demand. It helped me understand life better." She's not wrong.

I first read "The Dead" as a high school senior, and liked it so much that it inspired me to pick up all of Dubliners in college, and of course I had to reread it to teach it. On each iteration, I like it more, and I understand it more. The whole book is excellent, but "The Dead" is a masterpiece, and you could probably argue that Joyce singlehandedly changed the direction of the short story in English. So much that's meaningful comes together in "The Dead": it's all about connection, imagining the other, projecting desire, recognizing the self, and experiencing epiphany. It's sort of uplifting and sad at the same time. Joyce captures humanity as it is in a way few others do. I look forward to reading Dubliners again and again. Hopefully it will allow me too to understand life better.

19 April 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part VI: The All New Atom: My Life in Miniature

Comic trade paperback, 160 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2017
The All New Atom: My Life in Miniature

Writer: Gail Simone
Pencils: John Byrne, Eddy Barrows
Inks: Trevor Scott
Letters: Travis Lanham
Colors: Alex Bleyaert

At the end of Identity Crisis, Atom Ray Palmer vanished-- and given what had happened to him, it's hard to complain. The All New Atom follows the adventures of Ryan Choi, a young Ph.D. from Hong Kong who takes Palmer's place at Ivy University, Ivy Town, as a professor of nuclear physics. Choi was a correspondent of the Atom from a young age, and of course doesn't just take Palmer's place in the laboratory/classroom, but soon finds himself stepping into the role of the Atom.

The basic premise of this book is excellent. As an academic, I like that the book is not only set in a college town, but uses that-- Choi's best friend is another professor, and Choi is supported technologically by a group of professors who get together to play poker and complain about things. The Dean is a key character in the book. (That said, apparently the Dean of this university hires professors without campus visits!) I especially like the idea that years of wacky happenings have totally rewritten the laws of physics within Ivy Town:
It seems like someone should be doing more about the witch-burnings than they are.
from The All New Atom #4 (art by Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott)

Also there are some good academic jokes:
This is like when my union local asked me to sign a petition supporting more STEM funding. I was like, "Where I'm standing from it seems like STEM has more than enough funding. How about some Humanties love?" I didn't try to murder anyone over it, though. Also I don't think the composition of reality was at stake.
from The All New Atom #6 (art by Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott)

Plus John Byrne pencils most of the book, and you can almost never beat Byrne on a superhero book. Clear storytelling, good facial expressions, bold action:
Surely a car would be a faster way to travel?
Well, maybe not given the roads in some college towns.
from The All New Atom #2 (art by John Byrne & Trevor Scott)

I also liked Simone's device of placing quotations (mostly from scientists, real and fictional) juxtaposed with the dialogue, a nice comics-dependent device.

Unfortunately, the book's actually story remained too muddled for me to get into it. What exactly was at stake in the weird war between cancer and tiny people? What did the Dean and a serial killer have to do with it all? Why was there all of a sudden a threat to the President that was resolved just as quickly? Why would the Dean call in the father of a professor he's worried about-- and how on Earth could the father of a professor make him go home? I just never really got the relationships between a lot of what was going on throughout most of the book, making for a confusing and disappointing reading experience. Hopefully future volumes deliver on the strong premise of this series.

Next Week: Manhunter is back, and ready to be Unleashed!

18 April 2017

Review: The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 5 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2013)
Acquired March 2015
Read March 2017
The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 5

Written by James Roberts
Pencils by Alex Milne and James Raiz
Inks by Brian Shearer, Alex Milne, and James Raiz
Colors by Josh Burcham

Color Assist by John-Paul Bove and Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

No actual tears this time, though I did feel my eyes misting up at one point.

I read a review that described volume 5 as the perfect jumping-off point for More than Meets the Eye, and though I haven't read what comes after yet (before we get to volume 6, there's a crossover with Robots in Disguise, Dark Cybertron), I can see why. Most of volume 5 is given over to "Remain in Light," a story about the Lost Light making it to Luna-1, the lost moon of Cybertron, and what they find there draws together a number of the ongoing character and plot threads of the series: Rodimus's often misguided brashness, Ultra Magnus's love of the rules, Ratchet's lack of confidence in his own abilities, Skids's inability to remember large chunks of his own past, the mysterious "legislator" robots from way back in volume 1, Tailgate learning about the importance of semicolons, the missing Circle of Light on Theophany, Fortress Maximus's postwar aimlessness, and so on. It's not quite as good as volume 4 (but it seems unlikely to me that anything could be), but it is a solid tying up on the main ideas of this series-- yet at the same time it sets up revelations for future issues.

Admit your love, Cyclonus!
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #17 (art by Alex Milne)

The emotional core of this volume was Tailgate. Tailgate has been a wannabe and and outsider this entire series. He woke up from a four-million year deactivation in volume 1, having missed not only the Great War, but even its political context, and volume 4 revealed that he wasn't the bomb disposal expert and potential Ark-1 crewmember he had claimed to be, but a waste disposal expert who was supposed to prepare the Ark but not crew it. Tailgate is obviously in love with Cyclonus, who's from the same time period as Tailgate, but lived through that four million years, much of it as (if I understand correctly) a resident of the Dead Universe and sort of a zombie(?). Tailgate is excited to be on the Lost Light because he finally belongs somewhere doing something, but Cyclonus would rather be nowhere at all. He hates everyone else, and he hates himself, and he hates Tailgate for trying to get him to open up. Yet sometimes they bond (in one of the previous volumes, they sang songs of ancient Cybertron together).

17 April 2017

Review: Top 10, Book 2 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon

Doctor Who is a strange old thing; Doctor Who spin-offs sometimes even moreso. Today, I attempt to decode the long-delayed second series of Charlotte Pollard with the help of a Lance Parkin quote I had to dig up off the Internet Archive over at Unreality SF.

And now, on to the main course:

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2002 (contents: 2000-01) 

Acquired and read August 2016
Top 10: Collected Edition, Book 2

Writer: Alan Moore
Finishing Artist: Gene Ha
Layout Artist: Zander Cannon
Coloring: Alex Sinclair
Lettering: Todd Klein

This book wraps up the original twelve-issue Top 10 series by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon, and it's just as good as the first volume. My favorite part was probably what happened in the battle between the ultra-mice infecting Dust Devil's mother's apartment and the atom cats brought in by an exterminator: I laughed so hard when it was revealed their battles had triggered an multiversal crisis.

It's not all jokes, though. There's a surprisingly moving issue about a hyperspatial traffic accident that results in a collision between a tourist from Rigel and a piece in a gigantic galactic game. The two are fused together and slowly die while a couple cops can't do anything but watch.

Life is a game, but that doesn't mean it's not important: cosmic truth from a giant space chessman. Also swearing, though I'm not sure why it has to be bleeped out in a series that also deals with pedophilia and prostitution.
from Top 10 #8

The various plot threads from Book 1 are pulled together pretty comprehensively here, as we discover what links many seemingly disparate events together, and Top 10 shows their stuff in a couple devastating battles. I enjoyed the ongoing subplot about Shock-Headed Pete's racism against robots, though I guess it's easy to laugh about racism in this kind of context, where it's devoid of repercussions.

Totally dig whenever Alan Moore mocks the over-the-top nature of classic comics.
from Top 10 #12

I was a little on the fence for the first couple issues of Top 10, like I said, but once I reached the end of Book 2, I knew I wanted to keep up with the series through all its future incarnations: prequel The Forty-Niners, sequels Beyond the Farthest Precinct and Top 10: Season Two, and spin-off Smax. I like these characters and this concept, and I want to see what else can be done with them.

14 April 2017

My Radioactive Childhood

Something recently reminded me of the fact that I grew up a nine-minute drive (fewer than three miles as the crow flies) from a nuclear material processing facility.

On top of Mount Rumpke...
courtesy Brandon C on Flickr
I do delight in telling people that I grew up about five minutes away (also fewer than three miles) away from Mount Rumpke, the highest point in Hamilton County-- and the sixth-highest garbage dump in the United States. When I was in the fifth grade, there was a landslide that exposed 15 acres of waste. The gas released into the atmosphere could be smelled from miles around. We had to have indoor recess for a week, because of how bad it was. Later that year, a lightning strike caused the dump to catch on fire. It burned for six days.

Anyway, three miles in the other direction (I grew up in a nice neighborhood I swear) lies the Feed Materials Production Center (Fernald site), a facility for converting uranium ore into metal, for use in nuclear weapons. Its various plants came on-line 1951-54; by 1989 it was essentially closed because demand for refined uranium had declined substantially with the winding down of the Cold War.

Though I think it was technically known the plant was there, it operated until the 1980s in relative secrecy. But in 1981, wells near Fernald were discovered to be contaminated, which was not disclosed to the public until 1984, local residents initiated a class-action lawsuit. In the interim, residents had drank from those wells. In 1986, two storage units vented when they oughtn't, and another cracked. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, "from 1952-1989, 470,000 kilograms of uranium dust and 160,000 curies of radon-222 were released into the atmosphere, while 90,000 kilograms of uranium were released into surface water." Energy Department officials told the plant to continue production without regard for environmental laws.

the Fernald employee newsletter
Public outcry was exacerbated by the way the plant covered up its activities. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported
In 1955, Angelo Gallina was severely burned by uranium-laced acid when he tried to clear a clogged chute with a sledgehammer. Rather than being hospitalized he was treated for two weeks at the plant's first aid station. During his recovery, he was escorted to the plant to shuffle paper so that the management would not have to report a lost work time accident.
Later, the paper discovered that researchers had a secret laboratory to conduct radiation experiments using the body parts of deceased employees and private citizens.

We didn't move to that house until 1990, and most of my memories of the controversy come from later, around 1994-96, when there was a lot of controversy surrounding FERMCO, the contractor hired to clean up the production site. (I think they were spending wastefully and also keeping things from the government.)

My mother use to make jokes about Fernald and its effects on us. In 2013, a University of Cincinnati study found a higher rate of cancer among former Fernald employees than the general population, but participants in the Fernald (Resident) Medical Monitoring Program (open to anyone who lived within five miles of the plant from 1952 to 1984, so not us) actually reported lower than average death and cancer rates than the general population.

It's a nature preserve now. I've never been.