31 January 2014

Review: The Last War: A World Set Free by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 166 pages
Published 2001 (originally 1914)

Acquired October 2013
Read January 2014
The Last War: A World Set Free
by H. G. Wells

This is a kind of retro-future history, giving the great sweep of events leading to the Last World War (a nuclear one), the collapse of society, and the creation of a scientifically-organized utopia. It dips in and out of indviduals' perspectives in a way that's kind of neat: this inventor here, this soldier there, this king somewhere. Bits of it are interesting; the last segment, as the utopia gets put together is not. Wells's earlier novels of apocalypse-becoming-utopia (The War in the Air and The Sleeper Awakes) were much more circumspect about the details of the utopia, and I think that was the better move.

Folks will tell you that Wells was the first to depict nuclear bombs in fiction. He got it wrong (not sure if that's because he was wrong or contemporary science was), using the idea of the half life pretty strongly:
What the earlier twentieth-century chemists called its half period was seventeen days; that is to say, it poured outpouring half of the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days' emission was a half of that first period's outpouring, and so on. As with all radio-active substances this Carolinum, though every seventeen days its power is halved, though constantly it diminishes towards the imperceptible, is never entirely exhausted, and to this day the battle-fields and bomb-fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter and so centres of inconvenient rays.... (59-60)
How cool is that (from a fictional perspective)-- bombs that go on forever in ever-diminishing amounts. It's a frightening, but fascinating image.

(For some reason this Bison Frontiers of the Imagination edition retitles The World Set Free to The Last War: A World Set Free. Ugh. Why? Who knows, because there's no editorial matter other than Greg Bear's introduction, which specifically rejects the retitling in a footnote.)

29 January 2014

Review: The New Machiavelli by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 470 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1911)

Acquired October 2013
Read January 2014
The New Machiavelli
by H. G. Wells

The first section of this book is great. Dick Remington's anecdotes of his childhood veer between humorous and insightful; I loved hearing both about his father's excesses and the first time he realized selfishness existed in the world. Also the tales of him building cities on the floor of his home were fantastic. One suspects that H. G. Wells would have loved Lego.

The book is never quite that interesting again, but it's never bad, either. Dick's political career is all right, and the depiction of him getting married and falling in love (in that order) are pretty insightful depictions of human psychology; you can see why some people thought that Wells was the next Thomas Hardy. Unfortunately, one gets the feeling that Wells was also obsessed with being right, and this book was basically one long "proof" of why he was right and everyone should have listened to him. Still, interesting enough.

(I was very disappointed in John S. Partington's endnotes in my Penguin Classic edition. Partington is long on facts and short on meaning; he'll give you the date of publication of any book mentioned in the text, and the lifespan of its author, but he never gives you any information that would help your understanding of the novel. Who cares when George Henry Lewes was born and died-- tell me why Wells might want to quote The Biographical History of Philsophy as his epigraph!)

27 January 2014

Review: The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 252 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1910)

Acquired October 2013
Read December 2013
The Sleeper Awakes
by H. G. Wells

Is there any early sf subgenre where H. G. Wells doesn't wake up one day and think, "Well, I could do that better?" What The War of the Worlds did for the invasion narrative and The War in the Air for the revolution, The Sleeper Awakes does for the utopian sleeper story-- those peculiar stories where a fellow from the fin de siècle falls asleep and wakes up in far future, like Looking Backward or News from Nowhere (or, much less famously, Looking Within). Wells has actually thought about this would actually be like: there's no guided tour that shows the sleeper what the new world is like in precise detail, because people lie to him, people have their own agendas or biases, because people just take aspects of their own society for granted and don't even think to explain them. Also he even explains how the sleeper could sleep so long without, you know, just dying, and why people would want to keep him alive! It's this thinking-through of generic assumptions that makes Wells the first true science fiction writer, not to mention one of the best.

In that hallmark of good sf, much of what Graham (our sleeper) learns isn't through exposition, but through unfamiliar details. Years before Heinlein's door dilated, Graham runs into a collapsible wall! He watches television and deduces aspects of the future from it. And instead of being a utopia he encounters, it's a dystopia-- but when revolution comes, it's not a tidy one that replaces the ugly society with the beautiful. Wells is too good for that, too.

24 January 2014

Review: Charles Dickens' Christmas Ghost Stories

Mass market paperback, 293 pages
Published 1994 (contents: 1836-66)

Acquired May 2012
Read January 2014
Charles Dickens' Christmas Ghost Stories
selected by Peter Haining

"But it is perfectly reasonable, we can conceive, to believe in Caesar, and not believe in the ghost of Caesar."

This collection contains all of Charles Dickens's ghost stories with Christmas connections-- they are all set (or at least published) then. The most famous of these is, quite justly, "A Christmas Carol"; though I've seen many adaptations many times (especially the Muppet one), this was first reading of the story in over a decade. Well, it's quite brilliant. I was amused to note that a couple jokes I'd assumed were Muppet additions were in the original, such as the charity man's mistaking Scrooge saying he'd be put down for "Nothing" as him wanting to remain anonymous, or Mrs. Crachit's list of Scrooge's negative attributes during Bob's toast. I was also amused to note that Dickens digresses from the story to have Scrooge uncharacteristically complain about attempts to close public houses on Sunday, one of Dickens's own hobby-horses. That bit did yield a nice quote from the Ghost of Christmas Present, though: "There are some upon this earth of yours... who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us" (86).

Of the other stories, "The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain" and "The Signal Man" are the best. The former concerns a chemist who spreads a plague of people becoming emotionless, so of course I love it, but it is a creepy look at what a society without sympathy would be like (and it also suggests that we already are one). The latter is a short, creepy ghost story of the best sort.  "The Rapping Spirits" isn't a real ghost story, but it was still hilarious. I found the inclusion of the overlong and unfunny "The Haunted House" somewhat suspect, however (not set at Christmas, and there are no ghosts!).

I think I might try to read this book aloud next Christmas season (if my wife will tolerate it); it seems like the kind of book where that would work well.

22 January 2014

Review: Kitty Foyle by Christopher Foyle

Hardcover, 340 pages
Published 1939

Acquired October 2008
Read December 2013
Kitty Foyle
by Christopher Morley

Many years ago, I was delighted and charmed by Morley's Parnassus on Wheels, so when I saw another Morley novel, I grabbed it right off. Kitty Foyle tells the tale of its eponymous narrator, a lower-middle-class Philadelphia girl growing up between the wars, especially her love affair with a member of the Philadelphia gentry. It's good fun, though I never quite warmed to the romance to the extent that Morley wanted me to, I think. Still, there's a lot of great lines and insights, especially when Kitty is still growing up-- one of those books where you annoy people around you by constantly reading bits aloud.

It gets surprisingly racy at times, or at least I think it does; I'm not familiar enough with 1930s literature to really be sure. All I know is that if Frances Hodgson Burnett had been writing this a decade earlier, Kitty would have been "secretly married" before she had sex, and Kitty doesn't do that-- but the novel's 1940 film adaptation apparently does, which I guess gives you a barometer of its relative raciness.

20 January 2014

Review: Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women by Carol Dyhouse

Trade paperback, 314 pages
Published 2013

Acquired May 2013
Read January 2014
Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women
by Carol Dyhouse

Dyhouse covers the popular "moral panics" that accompany the shifting roles of young women ("women") in British society, from the "New Woman" up to the present day, discussing how there is always some kinda outrage accompanying new rights or roles, always some kinda ill effect that people claim will come if women are allowed to do what they want. It's a good history, and she highlights great examples of the absurd-- yet common-- things people will say about women who dare to have a job, have consensual sex, or go out drinking, even in the 2000s.

I do wish the book had a stronger argument or narrative; there are times where it feels like a series of anecdotes. There's one bubbling under the surface, I think, that comes out in a couple places, about how moral panic can be used as an excuse to display the activities you're "panicking" about ("Oh, look at all these young women in their skimpy, sexual outfits! Just look at them!"). I wish this (or something else) had been brought out more consistently, so that the book cohered a little bit more and said a little bit more. There were also times I felt that Dyhouse lost herself in retelling the same "scandalous" stories she was decrying people for retelling. And then the last chapter kinda sputters out, ending with "Well, we still need feminism because the earning gap isn't closed yet." Yes, but... why here? Other than being about women, it doesn't really fit with the focus of the rest of the book.

17 January 2014

Review: Time & Space Visualiser by Paul Smith

Oversized paperback, 118 pages
Published 2013

Acquired May 2013
Read December 2013
Time & Space Visualiser: The story and history of Doctor Who as data visualisations
by Paul Smith

Paul Smith's third book is his first serious one, a series of "data visualisations" about the making of Doctor Who. Some are too complicated to glean information from (such as a chart of common story endings used in the modern series), but some are really quite informative, such as most commonly visited planets, most commonly visited locations on Earth, or (my favorite) how many weeks prior to transmission each 1960s episode was filmed. I'd known they use to cut it close, but this visualisation really highlighted how much so! It's an interesting way to reconceptualize information you know, or learn something new.

15 January 2014

Review: Not-Radio Times Dr Who Special by Paul Smith

Oversized paperback, 35 pages
Published 2013

Acquired March 2013
Read December 2013
Not-Radio Times Dr Who Special
by Paul Smith

Paul Smith's second pastiche recreates the 1973 Radio Times 10th anniversary special for the 50th anniversary-- only it's written as if there never was any Doctor Who prior to 2005, so it's celebrating the "8th anniversary" instead. It mixes genuine tributes to the companions with muddled "facts" and episode synopses. I'm not familiar with the original in this case, but I enjoyed it regardless, particularly some of the brilliant artwork accompanying the companion tributes (especially the one for Rose). Some of the jokes wear thin, but the "make your own Dalek" feature skewering "Asylum of the Daleks" is worth the price of entry alone.

13 January 2014

Review: Doctor Who: The Wonderful Book 1965 by Paul Smith

Oversized paperback, 53 pages
Published 2011

Acquired January 2012
Read December 2013
Doctor Who: The Wonderful Book 1965
by Paul Smith

This fan-made book pastiches the Brilliant Books of Doctor Who, positing that such a thing existed for the first series back in 1964. It's good fun, with a guide to every story and the same mix of nonfiction and in-universe content. Only much of the "nonfiction" is made up-- such as every interview! These are good fun, such as William Russell talking about how he gets on with the ladies, or William Hartnell declaring his favorite story was The Keys of Marinus because he got two weeks off in the middle to go to Spain. There's also a worked-out geography for Marinus, which is actually kind of awesome, and the listed facts for each actor include their "first episode off"! I enjoyed "Tlotoxl's Portents!" a lot, which mixes real clues about the second season with fake ones, in a perfect aping of the same feature in the Brilliant Books or the Annuals/Storybooks. It's a brilliant recreation of a brilliant book for a brilliant era.

09 January 2014

Review: Demos: A Story of English Socialism by George Gissing

Trade paperback, 480 pages
Published 2011 (originally 1886)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2013
Demos: A Story of English Socialism
by George Gissing

This book is about a rabble-rousing, working-class socialist who suddenly comes into money and thus gets the opportunity to put his dream socialist utopia into effect. However, money and power corrupt and he begins a slow moral decline. Like a lot of Victorian novels, it starts slowly, but it all turns out to have been necessary-- having established his players, Gissing can then upset them to great effect. As the socialist's marriage disintegrates, it's a very perceptive depiction of the complications of marital discord. Though the husband is very definitely at fault, Gissing shows how each partner's action inform the others, and you remain strangely sympathetic with the main character. It's a potent look at how snobbery can undo all of us. Or rather it would be, if Gissing's classism didn't occasionally rear its head, telling you that the problem isn't money, but when uncultured folks get hold of money. Ugh. As if rich people aren't capable of being vain and cruel.

The riot at the ending is a brutal tour de force (the title gives you some sense of where it is all going, as demos is Greek for "people," but is meant to evoke "demon") and the climax is perfect. This is followed by an utterly implausible and awful marriage match being presented as natural and fitting because of course a good intra-class marriage will fix everything, but I guess not even great writers can escape convention as much as we might like them to.

07 January 2014

Review: The Two Jasons by Dave Stone

Hardcover, 216 pages
Published 2007

Acquired July 2013
Read December 2013
Bernice Summerfield #9: The Two Jasons
by Dave Stone

This is the first Bernice Summerfield novel in a couple years, and it's the first in a long while to really have anything to do with the ongoing story. While something has happened to Jason Kane in The End of the World (I don't know what, having not listened to it yet), two of his duplicates from A Life Worth Living are in troubles of their own. The story alternates between the plight of these duplicates and a recounting of various memories, especially Jason's first meeting with one Bernice Summerfield. It's probably the best Dave Stone prose work I've read thus far-- it's focused, serious, meaningful. This sounds like damning with faint praise, but this really is heads-and-shoulders the best work from Stone that I've read. Stone created Jason, and he's among the best for writing him. Whatever happens to Jason in The End of the World, this sets it up nicely by showing Jason at his very best.

06 January 2014

Review: Nobody’s Children by Kate Orman, Jonathan Blum & Philip Purser-Hallard

Hardcover, 314 pages
Published 2007

Acquired June 2013
Read December 2013
Bernice Summerfield X: Nobody's Children
by Kate Orman, Jonathan Blum & Philip Purser-Hallard

Each Bernice Summerfield triple-novella seems to improve on the last: this one is three sequential tales that form one large story, but it would never work quite the same as one novel, as each has its own individual story and own point-of-view. The story here picks up right from the audio dramas The Judas Gift and Freedom of Information, with Bernice trying to sort through the aftermath of the Draconian-Mim War and the disposition of a number of Mim "war orphans" who more than one side claim jurisdiction over.

One novella gives us a first-person Mim perspective while Benny is on a Mim planet, another a third-person perspective while Benny visits Draconia, and the last gives us the first-person perspectives of every but Benny during negotiations on the Braxiatel Collection. I don't think the story told here could have worked any other way: each story adds layers of culture, of character, of plot brought by its new perspective and new writer. Finally, the Mim feel like a real civilization and not just an off-stage threat, and new complications are added to the Draconians as well. It's a great political thriller, but also a great personal story, too; this is about political motivations and people's motivations, winning wars and winning yourself.

03 January 2014

Review: The Golden Age: A Different Look at a Different Era by James Robinson and Paul Martin Smith

Comic trade paperback, 200 pages
Published 1995 (contents: 1993-94)
Acquired October 2013
Read December 2013
The Golden Age: A Different Look at a Different Era

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Paul Martin Smith
Color Artist: Richard Ory
Letterer: John Costanza

Despite the fact that this story is labeled "Elseworlds," I'm not sure why it wouldn't work as a prequel to the DC universe as seen in Robinson's Starman series; in fact, it has a number of elements in common with it. This follows DC's World War II superheroes as they adapt back to life post-war, in a world that seems to be leaving them behind. Like the best of superhero stories, it thus becomes universal, telling a story about how anyone would adjust to life in what the 1950s brought. With a sprawling cast that's sometimes hard to keep straight, it feels big, and the conspiracy at the story's heart unravels audaciously.

Paul Martin Smith's artwork is good, but Richard Ory's colors bring them to life; this book wouldn't be half so good without the additional subtleties and tones they deliver.

02 January 2014

Reading Roundup Wrapup: December 2013

Pick of the month: The Starman Omnibus, Volume Six by James Robinson. This was a somewhat tricky month to choose-- I really enjoyed The Secret AgentNobody's Children, Demos, and Time & Space Visualiser-- but once I recalled how I felt at the emotional climax of Starman, there really wasn't another option.

All books read:
1. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad
2. The Starman Omnibus, Volume Six by James Robinson with David S. Goyer
3. House of Mystery: Room & Boredom by Matthew Sturges & Bill Willingham
4. Bernice Summerfield X: Nobody’s Children by Kate Orman, Jonathan Blum & Philip Purser-Hallard
5. House of Mystery: Love Stories for Dead People by Matthew Sturges with Bill Willingham
6. Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go by by Dan Abnett
7. Bernice Summerfield #9: The Two Jasons by Dave Stone
8. House of Mystery: The Space Between by Matthew Sturges with Bill Willingham and Chris Roberson
9. The Shade by James Robinson
10. The Golden Age: A Different Look at a Different Era by James Robinson
11. Doctor Who: The Wonderful Book 1965 by Paul Smith
12. Not-Radio Times Dr Who Special edited by Paul Smith
13. Demos: A Story of English Socialism by George Gissing
14. Time & Space Visualiser: The story and history of Doctor Who as data visualisations by Paul Smith
15. The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells
16. Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley

All books acquired:
1. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
2. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
3. Adam Bede by George Eliot
4. Star Trek: Stellar Cartography: Selections from the Federation Astronomy Library by Larry Nemecek
5. Prize Fight: The Race and Rivalry to be the First in Science by Morton A. Meyers
6. Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
7. Animal Man: Origin of the Species by Grant Morrison
8. Adventures With the Wife in Space: Living with Doctor Who by Neil Perryman with Sue Perryman
9. The Iron Legion: Collected Comics from the Pages of Doctor Who Weekly by Pat Mills & John Wagner with Steve Moore
10. Dragon’s Claw: Collected Comics from the Pages of Doctor Who: A Marvel Monthly by Steve Moore and Steve Parkhouse
11. Collected Seventh Doctor Comic Strips, Volume 2: Nemesis of the Daleks: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Richard Alan, Steve Alan, John Freeman, Paul Cornell, Dan Abnett, John Tomlinson, Simon Furman, Simon Jowett, Mike Collins & Tom Robins, Andrew Donkin & Graham S Brand, Ian Rimmer, and Steve Moore
12. Collected Eleventh Doctor Comic Strips, Volume 1: The Child of Time: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Jonathan Morris
13. Demon Knights, Volume 1: Seven Against the Dark by Paul Cornell
14. Demon Knights, Volume 2: The Avalon Trap by Paul Cornell
15. Sword of Sorcery, Volume 1: Amethyst by Christy Marx, Tony Bedard, and Marc Andreyko

#1-3 are desk copies for next semester's course. #6 and #8-12 were Christmas presents.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 519

Review: The Shade by James Robinson

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2011-12)
Acquired October 2013
Read December 2013
The Shade

Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Cully Hamner, Javier Pulido, Frazer Irving, Darwyn Cooke, J. Bone, Jill Thompson, Gene Ha
Colorists: Dave McCaig, Hilary Sycamore, Frazer Irving, Dave Stewart, Trish Mulvihill, Art Lyon
Letterer: Todd Klein

After ten years away, James Robinson returns to Opal City and his greatest "creation"-- now clearly(?) set within the confines of the "New 52." Mikaal Thomas is Starman (again), and the series references the events of Cry for Justice but studiously avoids doing anything to indicate that superpowered beings existed in America prior to Superman. But it doesn't say they didn't, either, so you can interpret this story as taking place in the New 52 or the old continuity just fine. Now there's a masterclass. Anyway, speaking of Cry for Justice, I think it's awesome how all the cover blurbs basically boil down to "Maybe James Robinson still is a good writer."

Anyway, this is indeed pretty good. I think the post-reform Shade loses some of his spark, but Robinson otherwise delivers with a globe-trotting adventure, and that's what's cool here: we get to see Australia, Spain, and London, among other places, and I especially liked Robinson's invented superheroes of Spain, as well as the way this story draws into a perfect conclusion. The bits of backstory Robinson sprinkles in also work very well, as did his "Times Past" back in the Starman days.

The biggest kudos must go to Robinson's artistic collaborators. Darwyn Cooke, Jill Thompson, and Gene Ha each do a single issue, and each is great, of course, but Cully Hamner, Javier Pulido, and Frazer Irving each tackle a third of the main story, each taking a distinctive slice. Pulido takes the three issues in Spain, and his art is the definite highlight of the book, with thin lines, wonderful character design, and some cool layouts. Frazer Irving's use of lighting and color in the final part is perfect for a story so much about darkness and light, too. I wasn't familiar with the work of these three before, but I hope to see more in the future.

01 January 2014

Review: The Starman Omnibus, Volume Six by James Robinson with David S. Goyer

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2000-10)
Acquired January 2011
Read December 2013
The Starman Omnibus, Volume Six

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Peter Snejbjerg
Colorist: Gregory Wright
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Co-Story on "1951": David S. Goyer
Additional Artists: Paul Smith, Russ Heath, Fernando Dagnino & Bill Sienkiewicz
Additional Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Additional Letterer: John J. Hill

Typing out the list of credits, one immediately notices that this is the most artistically consistent volume of Starman thus far. I liked Tony Harris, but there's something to be said for a unified artistic vision-- only three fill-ins! Peter Snejbjerg is on fine form, too; now that he's inking himself, his artwork looks utterly magnificent. There's a real darkness to it that's utterly perfect for Opal City and the story's climax.

And what a climax. I've said it before, but the thing that will always make the "comic book" superior to the "graphic novel" is its ability to weave a number of number of smaller stories into one huge one. It's the reason why Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House were okay but Brief Lives and The Kindly Ones are magnificent; they build on what has gone before. So too does this volume, as almost all of the various heroes we've seen throughout the series come together against the worst threat that Opal City has ever seen-- apparently the Shade gone evil. It's absolutely perfect in every way. I initially felt a little disappointed that at times Jack seems like a bystander in his own story, but emotionally, he's always the center of this, especially that heartrending, amazing climax. What a way to go.

The "1951" story that follows this up is necessary, but less effective; I felt that learning who the Starman of 1951 had been would have been better if it had been the same person all along, not one person most of time and another for just a month. But seeing the young, distraught Ted Knight is touching and fitting.

Starman has been an interesting journey, with highs and lows. You can see its creators grow across it-- compare Robinson's deft plotting here to the jumpiness of Volume One-- and its characters, too. It has the occasional misstep, but it's a rewarding read through and through.