01 September 2015

Reading Roundup Wrapup: August 2015

So far this new rotation thing seems to be working out! Maybe I will clear out my backlog of unreviewed books someday.

Pick of the month: Genius Loci by Ben Aaronovitch. This was a tough one, because both this book and volume one of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes were excellent. But I ended up siding with this book because of how new it felt-- whereas as good as Calvin and Hobbes is, I've read it before! Aaronovitch manages to capture of a lot of different facets of what it's like to enter into adulthood, combined with some compelling worldbuilding. No small achievement.

All books read:
1. Fort Freak: A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel edited by George R.R. Martin with Melinda M. Snodgrass
2. Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: Spore by Alex Scarrow
3. Bernice Summerfield #8: Genius Loci by Ben Aaronovitch
4. Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance by Joe Casey
5. Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
6. Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink by Eric Wallace
7. Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape by Ivan Branon
8. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book One: 1985-1987 by Bill Watterson

All books acquired:
1. Bernice Summerfield #8: Genius Loci by Ben Aaronovitch
2. Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings by George Eliot
3. Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume 1: Hostile World by Paul Levitz with Walter Simonson
4. Bernice Summerfield XIV: Present Danger edited by Eddie Robson
5. Bernice Summerfield: The Weather On Versimmon by Matthew Griffiths
6. Everyone's Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
7. Superman: Return of Doomsday by James Robinson with Steve Lyons, Dan Didio & Philip Tan, and Jeff Lemire
8. Wonder Woman by George Pérez Omnibus by George Pérez and Len Wein with Greg Potter
9. Collected Seventh Doctor Comic Strips, Volume 3: The Good Soldier: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Andrew Cartmel, Dan Abnett, Gary Russell, Paul Cornell, and John Freeman
10. Collected Eleventh Doctor Comic Strips, Volume 4: The Blood of Azrael: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Scott Gray

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 611
Books remaining on "To review" list: 164

31 August 2015

Review: Fort Freak: A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel edited by George R.R. Martin

Meanwhile, at Unreality SF... I review the last adventure of the sixth Doctor in The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure!

Mass market paperback, 563 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2011)
Acquired June 2012
Read August 2015
Fort Freak: A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel
edited by George R.R. Martin, assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass

I've never read a volume of Wild Cards before, and this is the twenty-first, an installment of a shared-universe anthology series that's been running since 1987, on and off. This volume is a "mosaic novel," which means it's a number of short stories and novellas woven together around a central plot; some stories you get in one part, some in three, and one in 18! It's a storytelling format I haven't seen much, but have enjoyed when the Bernice Summerfield books have tried it.

Well, I don't know if the other Wild Cards tales are any good, but I didn't like it here. The problem is that this is 563 pages of small print, but I was never invested in the story, making it a very long slog. I don't know which of these characters have appeared in earlier volumes, but even if they had, this book ought to have made me care about them more. The real spine of the book is "The Rat Race" by Cherie Priest, about a cop investigating a cold case, and I just could not have cared less about him or whether he succeeded. There are a lot of characters in this strand whose relationships the reader is never really sold on, and they need to be-- the ending totally depends on you being invested in two of them, a newspaper editor and a squid priest. There was another strand, "Faith" by John Jos. Miller, that was supposed to make you care about the squid priest, but all it did for me was layer on flashbacks full of confusing details.

Various other stories also intersect with this ongoing story, like "Snake Up Above" by David Anthony Durham (and a number of other stories; this strand is the only one with separate titles for each installment) about a snake kid who ends up witnessing a crime relevant to Priest's tale, and "...And All the Sinners Saints" by Victor Milán and Ty Franck, about his public defender and what he's doing in the meantime. Oh, and "Sanctuary" by Mary Anne Mohanraj, which seems to have little substance beyond extolling the sexy, sexy virtues of m/f/f threesomes. (Speaking of which, the book is surprisingly male gaze-y given its co-edited by a woman; women are always being leered, but the reverse barely ever happens.) I liked "Snake Up Above" at first, but the more it tied into the "main" plot of Fort Freak, the less it interested me. There just didn't seem to be anything at stake for the reader. I don't know if the writers were assuming I bought into the characters because I'd theoretically read earlier volumes, but it seems a bad assumption for a book that prints "GEORGE R.R. MARTIN" on the cover in giant letters, obviously hoping to lure in casual purchasers who have watched Game of Thrones on HBO and probably haven't read the preceding twenty(!) books. If these characters haven't appeared before, or if this was supposed to be written to engage a new reader, then it failed to succeed regardless.

There are also a few stories that aren't spread out, but just occur in big lumps at various points. I found these a little weird, as their uninterrupted nature means they feel important, as one plot comes to the forefront for a tenth of the book. But they're actually the least relevant to the ongoing plots. The first is assistant editor Melinda M. Snodgrass's "The Rook," about a rookie cop who barely appears in the rest of the book. I think this story poisoned the well for me, as it portrays most of the cops at Fort Freak as insular, corrupt, selfish jerks-- the guys who in theory are starring in the whole book. Its rookie protagonist is also kind of a jerk himself, and watching a jerk try to ingratiate himself with jerks doesn't really do much for me. It's made worse by the afterschool special ending, where after the rookie does one clever thing, everyone accepts him and all is forgiven.

Even more spuriously connected to the rest of Fort Freak is "More!" by Paul Cornell, about an aspiring British actress trying to make it in New York City. Cornell's story is in the first person, unusually for the book ("The Rook" is the only other story to be so), and it has an engaging voice and a sort of farcical plot-- in a good way. I didn't love it, but I did like it, and it was probably the best part of the book. Which makes the fact it had nothing to do with it telling, I suppose. I also enjoyed the also-largely-irrelevant "The Straight Man" by Kevin Andrew Murphy, which was a pretty decent police procedural tale; would it be that more of the book had been like these two. Definitely my first Wild Cards book... almost certainly my last...

28 August 2015

The War of the Worlds and Faithfulness

Martin Johnson, who's done a lot of sound design for Big Finish and Bafflegab, is producing an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds that he's funding through Kickstarter. I've pledged my support, as it looks like an interesting project (and you should too).

Inside: sex tips and future-war fiction
I was happy to see Johnson correctly refer to the novel as being written in 1897; it was first published as a book in 1898, which means a lot of people refer to it as an 1898 novel, but in reality, it was serialized in 1897, in Pearson's Magazine in the UK, and in Cosmopolitan in the US (yes, Cosmo).

But as someone who occasionally dabbles in adaptation theory, there is some fascinating rhetoric used in the project description:
This groundbreaking novel became an instant success placing fear into the hearts of children and adults the world over. In the 118 years since the novel was first serialized in Pearson's Magazine there have been numerous adaptations of Wells' original story in all kinds of media. Seven films, various radio dramas, graphic novels, television series and sequels or parallel stories all derived from the original text in some form.

The only issue with all of these adaptations is one of faithfulness to Wells' original story. Changes have included the tone and feel of the story, the geographical location, the Victorian time period in which the action is set, the fighting machine design, etc.

None of these adaptations have been truly faithful to H. G. Wells' original story; This is where we come in...
Faithfulness is kind of a weird thing. What is a faithful adaptation of The War of the Worlds? Wells's original intention was to tell a story about aliens tearing up the countryside of his readers. The book was not about an alternate history, or an assault on a distant, historical landscape. The book was about what would happen if aliens attacked you the reader, about how the imperial relationships of the reader's world would be rendered if transplanted to the context of aliens from Mars. For me, that's the essence of The War of the Worlds, that's what makes the story what it is: when the narrator's hiding in a ruined house, it could be your house.

So it's natural, then, that adaptations of The War of the Worlds are set in the present day; I would argue that Steven Spielberg was being incredibly faithful in his 2005 adaptation when he transplanted the story to contemporary New Jersey. That's what The War of the Worlds is all about. There are things about that movie that do not work, but the period transformation is not one of them. And why do we want our adaptations to meticulously maintain the original, where there still is an original? If I want to experience Martians invading Victorian Britain,* I can just read the book!

Dear Warwick,
Thanks for your illustrations.
They sucked.
Love, H. G.
I do wonder about the point of emphasizing the design of the Martian fighting-machines for two reason. The first is that if they're referring to Warwick Goble's illustrations from the serial in Pearson's, Wells actually didn't like them! There's actually an explicit dissing of them in the (illustration-free) 1898 novel version:
I recall particularly the illustration of one of the first pamphlets to give a consecutive account of the war. The artist had evidently made a hasty study of one of the fighting-machines, and there his knowledge ended. He presented them as tilted, stiff tripods, without either flexibility or subtlety, and with an altogether misleading monotony of effect. The pamphlet containing these renderings had a considerable vogue, and I mention them here simply to warn the reader against the impression they may have created. They were no more like the Martians I saw in action than a Dutch doll is like a human being. To my mind, the pamphlet would have been much better without them.
The second reason is that this is an audio drama. No one will see any tripods!

But Johnson is right that original-period adaptations of The War of the Worlds are rarely undertaken (the biggest exceptions I know of are a comic by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli and a terrible movie by Pendragon), and I look forward to hearing how they handle the transformation to audio, as The War of the Worlds is a book without much dialogue and with a lot of narration. There is this real creepy feel of loneliness and desperation in the second half of the novel that I have rarely seen adapted successfully. And I have full trust in Lisa Bowerman's directing prowess, after hearing her tackle the fantastic in the Victorian era time and again in Jago & Litefoot. So I've backed it, and I look forward to hearing it.

The Coming of the Disco Beats
Also: this Kickstarter taught me that thanks to his goofy musical version of The War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne has a trademark on the title "The War of the Worlds" in the UK, so this adaptation has to be called The Coming of the Martians. How bizarre.

* One should note, however, that the book actually takes place in the future, so if it's after January 1901, which it probably is, the book isn't Victorian, either.

27 August 2015

Review: Evolution & Ethics by Thomas Henry Huxley

Hardcover, 131 pages
Published 2009 (originally 1893)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Evolution & Ethics by Thomas Henry Huxley

Some Victorians were really into the idea of a society run along evolutionary lines, and this is easy to criticize-- especially if that Victorian is Herbert Spencer-- but Thomas Henry Huxley laid out a more nuanced than most. To Huxley's credit is that though he wants science applied to human life (laid out more fully in his earlier essay "Science & Culture"), he doesn't appeal to "nature" as some kind of obvious model for human behavior. Rather he recognizes that things are more complicated than that; for example, in his declaration that "the 'points' of a good or bad citizen are really far harder to discern than those of a puppy or a short-horn calf" (23). And unlike Francis Galton, he doesn't believe in getting rid of the "unfit," because all humans have been unfit at some point! Huxley says that the very idea that humanity is evolving to perfection is a misleading illusion; even though evolution by natural selection is not teleological, a lot of people-- including actual evolutionary biologists!-- seem to often forget that and assume some kind of endgame. (Just today, actually, I was listening to an excellent Radiolab episode about an organism that challenges our typical teleological thinking in evolution.) Huxley's essay provides a nice warning against the legitimately dangerous kinds of eugenics thinking that would come in the early 20th century. It's no wonder that his student, H. G. Wells, published a number of novels that resisted evolutionary ethical justifications, most notably The War of the Worlds; it's also quite a shame that more people didn't listen to Huxley, and instead listened to hateful people like Galton.

26 August 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part IV: Batman: Prey

Comic trade paperback, 252 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1992-2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2014
Batman: Prey

Writer: Doug Moench
Penciller: Paul Gulacy
Inkers: Terry Austin, Jimmy Palmiotti
Letterers: John Costanza, Kurt Hathaway
Colorists: Steve Oliff, James Sinclair

Year One, November - Year Two, November
This edition of Prey collects two stories; the first, "Prey" (duh), follows on pretty well from Matt Wagner's two Dark Moon Rising stories even though they were released later; Batman and the Monster Men ends with Hugo Strange becoming a television psychologist, and that's exactly what he's doing here, and even though nothing "Prey" indicates they've battled before, nothing indicates they haven't, either. "Prey" is a solid early days of Batman story, capitalizing on Batman's early inexperience, and giving him an effective villain in the person of Strange, who actually in working psychologically here, unlike in The Monster Men. My favorite bit is something you could only pull off in the comics medium; Strange is frequently seen talking a blond women in his apartment, but it's very late in the game that you learn she's only a mannequin. Only in comics would a mannequin be indistinguishable from an very complacent person.

The second story is "Terror," which is set about a year later, when Batman's rogues gallery was much more developed. (It takes place between Batman: Year Two: Fear the Reaper and Absolute Batman: Dark Victory, which are coming up later in this readthrough.) Both Scarecrow and Catwoman play key roles in the story. Unfortunately, it feels much less focused than its predecessor, and Strange is shockingly eliminated about halfway through. Effective as a "twist," and the repeated image of his corpse is haunting, but I kept on expecting him to come back to life somehow and set this story back on the path it seemed to begin on. A waste of a good villain if nothing else.

Next Week: Batman battles the Joker for the first time in The Man Who Laughs!

25 August 2015

Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation² by Scott & David Tipton, J. K. Woodward, et al.

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Acquired January 2014
Read October 2014
Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation²

Written by Scott & David Tipton with Tony Lee
Art by J. K. Woodward
Additional Art by Gordon Purcell and The Sharp Bros.
Letters by Shawn Lee, Robbie Robbins, and Tom B. Long

This should be great. This is not great. This is eight issues of people talking about things, thinking about things. Imagine all of the awesome things that could happen in a crossover between Doctor Who and Star Trek. Well, none of them happen here. The variant covers are way more interesting than any of the actions in this weirdly aimless, meandering, suspence-less comics. Some plot threads are just abandoned, while others are tied up in the most trite and obvious ways possible. Characters' facial expression vary from inappropriate to nonexistent. I bought the deluxe hardcover of this book, anticipating it despite the negative reviews. I should have listened, and I should not have wasted my money.

In Two Weeks: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory begin a new era when they visit the Crystal Palace in The Hypothetical Gentleman!

24 August 2015

Review: The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

Another five months, another review of a Big Finish trilogy an unreasonably long amount of time after it came out released at Unreality SF. Check out my take on the return of Peri after the events of The Trial of a Time Lord in The Widow's Assassin, Masters of Earth, and The Rani Elite. Rereading it, I can't believe I didn't mention that really, Peri should have just stayed dead in that one! Or that Mindwarp is Colin Baker's best television story.

Trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2002-08)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2015
The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

Seeing that I was presenting on short Indian science fiction at the Science Fiction Research Association, it seemed I ought to read the short Indian science fiction written by the conference's guest of honor. I was glad I did-- Vandana Singh is a very different writer to Manjula Padmanabhan (one might glibly say that Padamanabhan's work is all about getting out of India, while Singh's is about getting back), but also a very good one. This volume collects all Singh's published short sf as of 2008, most of which I would classify as falling on the literary end of things, some even being more stories about science fiction than actual science fiction. Anyway, it's thoughtful, inventive stuff: the title story, for example, sees a man's wife transform into a planet, to the extent that her residents colonize him!

I particularly liked "Infinities," about an obsessed mathematician; "Hunger," about a dinner party gone bad through the small cruelties all of us commit every day in our need to get by; and "Three Tales from Sky River," an inventive set of folklore from another planet in another time. My favorite story in the book, though, was "The Tetrahedron," where a giant tetrahedron just appears in a city street one day, and its protagonist must try to figure out what it's doing and why it captivates her so much. No one else understands her interest, and I felt this sentence not only summed up the story, but also the book as a whole, and was just a lesson worth remembering: "outer space, inner space, both had unknown topologies. You couldn't overlook one at the expense of the other."

21 August 2015

Colm Meaney and Other Famous Actors in Play for Tomorrow

In addition to my dissertation research, I've been reading a lot about the BBC in the 1980s for a creative writing project I'm working on. That research led me to a video, which I'll share in lieu of writing something more involved, since I am pressed for time this week!

In my meanderings, I discovered Play for Tomorrow, a spin-off of the programme Play for Today. Play for Today, as you probably already know, was a BBC drama anthology which ran from 1970 to 1984, back when British people used to call one-off television programmes "plays" and not, say, TV movies. Play for Tomorrow, as you might guess from its slightly too cute title, was a science fiction spin-off that ran for six weeks in early 1982.

One episode of Play for Tomorrow was "Easter 2016," about a student uprising in Ireland in the far future, starring, among others, a young Colm Meaney (Star Trek's Chief O'Brien), a young Kenneth Branagh (in what I think was his second television role), and a middle-aged Bill Nighy. Meaney is maybe a little old to be playing a university student, but I think he kind of gets away with it thanks to his round face.

Anyway, the whole thing is up on YouTube, though you do have to slog through a five-minute opening scene about university politics regarding name badges:

If you're too lazy or too bored to do that, this 2.5-minute scene gives you both Branagh and Meaney; in fact, they're sparring with one another! (Branagh plays the ambitious role of "Student.")

This was definitely not something I expected to discover. They did some weird and wonderful stuff on the BBC back in the day. (Still do, I guess.)

20 August 2015

Review: Visual and Other Pleasures by Laura Mulvey

Hardcover, 232 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1970-2009)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Visual and Other Pleasures by Laura Mulvey

I read this book for my exams, and I seem to have misplaced my notes, so this review is going to be necessarily slight. It was suggested to me because my research project is about vision, about how the way we see translates into the way we think, and Mulvey of course has a lot to say about how we look, especially in her famous "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Its justly oft-cited, but I found little that was of help to my own project in it, and even less in the other essays in the book. Oh well, these things happen, and it's not a fault of the book!

19 August 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part III: Batman and the Mad Monk

Comic trade paperback, 144 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2014
Dark Moon Rising: Batman and the Mad Monk

Story and Art: Matt Wagner
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh

Year One, November
I found the second volume of Dark Moon Rising less successful than the first; despite Wagner's visual flourish, things felt muddled, and not in a good way-- the book often seemed like it was lurching from subplot to subplot. And though I like the idea of seeing Batman's first confrontation with the "supernatural," I don't think Wagner exploited it as much as he might have.

Next Week: Hugo Strange returns in Prey!