29 January 2016

It's Been a Kingsley Kind of Week

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

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

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

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

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

28 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 January 2016

Doctor Who at Christmas: Nightshade

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

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

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

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

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

25 January 2016

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

Mass market paperback, 309 pages
Published 1996

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

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

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

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

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

22 January 2016

"Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?": Moonraker

"Star Wars? Never heard of it."
Alongside my reading of the James Bond novels, I've been coaxing my wife into watching the film adaptations with me. She'd never seen one before; I've see all of the Brosnan and Craig ones, and a smattering of Connery and Moore ones. Because the film release order bears no relationship to the novel publication order, it's an odd way to do it: so far we've gone from Daniel Craig in 2006, back to Roger Moore in 1973, forward to Moore in 1979. Once I read Diamonds Are Forever, we'll move back to Sean Connery in 1971.

Moonraker, I'd seen bits of before as a kid, all from the climax, but never the majority of it. It was nuts. Like, it's just one bizarre thing after another: one of those movies that's so inexplicable it passes beyond terrible into the realms of amazing because you just want to see what happens next.

Like, Bond is tootling around Venice on a gondola, and the bad guys go after him in a motor boat, knocking his gondolier off. Not to fear: he reveals a secret control panel, activating the gondola's hidden motor. A gondola chase through the canals of Venice ensues, which includes a scene where the bad guys crash through a gondola carrying a pair of tourists indulging in some intense makeouts. Their gondola breaks in half, and they don't even notice. This is all well and good-- until the chase sequence abruptly ends with Bond's gondola turning into a hovercraft that starts driving on the street, complete with comic reactions by passersby (including... a pigeon).

Cool is driving a motorized hover-gondola through Venice and acting like it's NBD.

Or: basically everything involving Jaws, the seven-foot man with metal teeth, but especially the moment where after he somehow drives a cable car so fast it crashes through the receiving station, he is helped out of the rubble by a short woman with pigtails and dorky glasses-- and the two instantly fall in love to the famous love music from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. She accompanies him for the rest of the film, including the jaunt into space. (Let's not even get into Hugo Drax's plan, especially its total nonjustification.) The movie is a riot, because nothing about it makes sense.

"Here's to us!"

Moonraker is (as I said) the only Bond novel where Bond doesn't have sex. Of course the movie changes this: Bond has sex with Corinne Dafour, Drax's pilot, to get information; Manuela, his contact in Rio, to pass the time; and I think three times with Holly Goodhead, the CIA agent who he reluctantly teams up with for... I'm not sure why.

Sex in Moonraker is weird. It's perfunctory and dull. I watched Spectre last month, and Daniel Craig's sex scenes are... well, sexy. Obviously James Bond likes casual sex, but in Spectre you can see why him and these women decide to have sex; there's real sexual tension between him and Monica Bellucci's character.

This picture is probably overselling the sex quotient.
I guess it didn't help that I found Lois Chiles's acting really flat and monotonous.

Nothing about the sex scenes in Moonraker is sexy. Basically Bond's like: "Let's do it." The ladies are like: "Meh." Then he kisses them and BOOM! They're waking up naked next to one each other. It's weirdly bland, a total lack of erotic charge. Nothing in these movies reveals why these women might want to have sex with him, other than maybe that he's there and they're bored. The Daniel Craig movies make this work; the Roger Moore ones haven't. I'll be curious to see what I think going forward.

Corinne Cléry has a little chemistry with Moore, but the whole love scene really makes no sense.
"Don't steal from my boss. Oh never mind, let's do it."

Other Notes:
  • I didn't recognize Bernard Lee as M at first; I only realized it was him when I read the opening credits. He was looking very old; apparently this was his final performance as M.
  • On the other hand, this was our first time seeing Q, since he's in neither Casino Royale nor Live and Let Die. He doesn't really make much of an impression in this one.
  • They really took nothing from the actual novel, beyond the names "Hugo Drax" and "Moonraker," and Drax being in business, and the Moonraker being a thing vaguely involving launches. I guess Bond being placed in the Moonraker launch chamber is inspired by the novel. The Bond girl's name doesn't even carry over!
  • In the book, M and Drax play bridge together at the same club. The film transposes this to Frederick Gray, the Minister of Defense (who apparently appeared in six Bond films).
  • Lois Maxwell as Miss Monneypenny was 52 when this movie came out. I mean, good on them for not firing her the moment she turned 40, like you might expect (she's the same age as Roger Moore, actually), but the flirtatious vibe isn't quite there. 
  • The alien musical sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is used on a keypad at one point.
Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Moonraker
  3. Live and Let Die 

21 January 2016

Review: The New Republic by W. H. Mallock

Hardcover, 237 pages
Published 1950 (originally 1877)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
The New Republic, or Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in an English Country House
by W. H. Mallock

This book is about a group of intellectuals staying in a country house, talking about... stuff. You know, like it says in the title: "culture, faith, and philosophy." The intellectuals are all thinly veiled versions of actual Victorian intellectuals, and I read it because some of them are based on men of science: according to J. Max Patrick's introduction, Tyndall, Huxley, Ruskin, and a generic materialist are all present. W. H. Mallock himself was again pessimism, and against Positivism, which he saw as superstition. (Positivism, you may or may not recall, being in part an ostensibly scientific approach to history.)

Thus it's a book not likely to interest the average reader of the 2010s, but if you know your Victorian intellectuals (and I do), there's some fun stuff: Stockton (the Tyndall stand-in) telling people you need to know atomic theory to really appreciate the Alps, Storks (the Huxley stand-in) eyeing everyone like they're a butterfly he's going to pin, Herbert (the Ruskin stand-in) declaring that all scientists should bury themselves. It's a fun enough glimpse at a moment in time, and how science-- especially science's claim to moral authority-- was understood by at least one writer.

20 January 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXXIX: Countdown to Final Crisis: 25...24...23...22...21...20...19...18...17...16...15...14...13...

My wife and I spent December and January rewatching the E-Space trilogy, a classic 1980-81 run of Doctor Who stories. Not exactly coincidentally, I have a review up at Unreality SF of Big Finish's audio sequel, the New E-Space Trilogy. It was interesting to experience the two trilogies in close proximity: it diminished my enjoyment of some of the audio stories, and enhanced that of others! (Something I forgot to mention in my review: I like how 35 years after it was mentioned for the first and last time in State of Decay, Jonathan Morris finally provided an explanation for what "The Wasting" was in The Entropy Plague!)

Comic trade paperback, 294 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08) 

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2015
Countdown to Final Crisis: 25...24...23...22...21...20...19...18...17...16...15...14...13...

Writers: Paul Dini, Adam Beechen, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Tony Bedard, Sean McKeever
Story Consultant: Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Ron Lim, Tom Derenick, Carlos Magno, Jamal Igle, Howard Porter, Jesus Saiz, Scott Kolins, Pete Woods
Inkers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Scott Kolins, Pete Woods, John Stanisci, Wayne Faucher, Rod Ramos, Mark McKenna, Art Thibert
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Rob Leigh, Ken Lopez, Jared K. Fletcher, Steve Wands
Colorists: Pete Pantazis, Tom Chu

Because I got horrendously behind, I've been writing this stretch of reviews (from July 2015's 52 Omnibus to March 2016's Final Crisis: Revelations) without reference to the actual books, months after I read them. (Ten months in this case!) I'm finding that many of the details of Countdown to Final Crisis have faded into oblivion, even when I read synopses of the stories in the Grand Comics Database, I kind of wonder if these events really happened in something I read. All I really remember is a massive sense of disappointment and futility. But here are a couple notes:
  • Superboy-Prime, now Superman-Prime, is in it. That pretty much never works to the advantage of a story, as he is a worse villain than even Monarch and Mongul.
  • Pied Piper having to drag around the Trickster's body is actually kind of effective. Of course, it might have been emotionally devastating if these two had been written in a way at all interesting prior to this.
  • The cover to issue #18 (by Karl Kerschl) is actually, genuinely great.
  • Earth-51 is destroyed and everyone on it dies. You should remember this, because the writers didn't.
  • Jesus Christ, who gives a crap about Monarch? Armageddon 2001 was seventeen years ago, DC. Let it go.

Next Week: There came a time when the New Gods died! It was in a trade paperback called The Death of the New Gods!

19 January 2016

Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 310 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1955)
Acquired September 2015
Read October 2015
Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Moonraker is distinguished by being the only James Bond (apparently) where Bond neither has sex nor leaves England. I don't really have much to say about the former, but the latter is kind of fascinating; this book gives us a glimpse of what Bond is like between missions. It's clear he really only comes to life when traveling abroad for Her Majesty's Government; when he's in England, he's trapped, a caged animal forced to act civilized to fit in with everyone else, and hating it. Fleming's depiction of Bond as a barbarian disguised as a member of the British elite is my favorite part of these novels, and Moonraker gives us some new angles on it by never leaving England.

The opening of the novel is another high-stakes card game, where Bond helps M out with a man cheating at bridge; I'm learning that no one can make a card game feel high stakes quite as well as Fleming! The latter part of the book, where Bond helps foil a plot by the same man, isn't quite as interesting, though there's a very tense car chase sequence. Gala Brand has probably been the best "Bond girl" so far, a competent professional who has her own life, though I can't help but feel the narrator sneers at her a bit for being a woman.

Casino Royale has clearly been the best of these books so far, but it's also quite interesting how little they resemble the formula I know from the films. Do they ever get there, or is that formula entirely an invention of the big screen? I guess I'll find out as I continue to read.

Next Week: I'm all caught up on my James Bond novels, so it's time to catch up on something else: Doctor Who and Christmas!

18 January 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Mass market paperback, 435 pages
Published 2015 (originally 2011)

Borrowed from my wife
Read December 2015
The Martian by Andy Weir

I cross-post reviews from this blog on LibraryThing, where some 483 people have already reviewed The Martian, and so you don't need me to say if it's good or not, or if you should read it or not; you've already decided that, or you've decided you don't care. So instead you're going to get a semi-random pile of observations.

I probably wouldn't have read this (I am rubbish at picking up recent books [i.e., books published since the year 1900] if they aren't Star Trek books), but my wife bought it when she found it its protagonist was (like her) a botanist and insisted that I read it. Plus I wanted to see the film, so I figured I'd read it beforehand, because as much adaptation theory as I've read, I might intellectually believe that books and films are just different things in different media, but somewhere within my heart does lurk a book snob who watches movies and complains about all the things they changed. Anyway, it took me so long to read it despite my solid intentions of doing so that the movie's theatrical run has ended, so I guess I'm renting it from the library, which is a little bit of a shame, as I have made a point of seeing all the recent space movies that aren't about space battles (i.e., Moon, Gravity, and Interstellar), as it's a genre whose existence I'd like to see continue, and now I won't be supporting it financially.

That Mark Watney has a graduate degree in botany actually seems inaccurate: his specialty is in cultivating plants, which no botanist I've met does-- plus there's a joke about how everyone in his Masters program just wanted to grow weed, which really does not track with my experience. Perhaps a degree in horticulture would have made more sense? Watney is also a mechanical engineer, and clearly not only by training, but by temperament. My father is a mechanical engineer, and Watney reminds me of him: he looks at problems and he sees solutions, he tries and tries again and again to fix things himself, and he takes real pleasure in his abilities to come up with unconventional solutions. This line especially made me think of him: "I am smiling a great smile. The smile of a man who fucked with his car and didn't break it." Except I'm not sure I've ever heard my father say the f-word.

The Martian is, in a way, real Golden Age science fiction: what Asimov would call Stage Two, technology dominant. This is one of those stories where the whole point is seeing someone science his way out of a scientific problem, but instead of being a short story like most Golden Age sf, it's a whole novel-- but despite what conventional wisdom might have told us, it never wears out its welcome, and is usually quite fun. Seeing Watney move from problem to problem to problem has a thrill all its own, and I was impressed with how Weir kept me engaged throughout. Yes, the characters are thin (at least two of them seem to have had no more thought put into them than being "the girl one"!), but they're not the point. It's fun to see him figure out how to jury-rig a probe for communication, or triangulate his way out of a dust storm, or build a trailer.

Indeed, when Weir stretches out into something other than problem-solving is when the book fumbles a little; I found the moral about humans reaching out to help each other a little hollow given that the money, man-hours, and resources put into saving Mark Watney probably could have saved dozens or hundreds of other lives right here on Earth. The only thing I genuinely and completely didn't like was when Weir shifted into a third-person perspective for Mark, like when the airlock blew off the Hab. It jarred with the first-person perspective used for most of his scenes. Less bothersome was the somewhat transparent Hand of the Author at times; Mark is in communication with Earth exactly the right amount to make the plot work, and then he's on his own to stop the drama from flattening.

Upon finishing the novel, I looked up Andy Weir and not only discovered that does he write Doctor Who fanfiction about President Romana (why aren't you employing him, Big Finish?), but also realized that he was behind Casey and Andy, a mediocre 2002-08 webcomic that I never read consistently, but did occasionally dip into (because Weir is friends with David Morgan-Mar, creator of the excellent Irregular Webcomic!). And now he's made it big with a bestselling novel turned into a Ridley Scott film. It took him years to become an overnight success. It's a weird old world sometimes. (If you want to read about how The Martian made the transition from postings on Weir's cheap-ass website to blockbuster film, check out this highly informative podcast interview; it even has a full-text transcript, which allows it to overcome one of the things I hate about podcasts, which is that it takes me way longer to listen to something than to read it.)

15 January 2016

Star Wars: Ewok Celebration!

I listen to a lot of soundtrack music; indeed, it constitutes the majority of the music on my iPod. I don't like reading or writing to music with lyrics, so it gets a lot of play as I work. You might not be surprised to learn that much of the music comes from Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who; I'm an assiduous collector of soundtracks for all three franchises.

Thus it's been a perennial source of aggravation to listen to my 2004 "Collector's Edition" of the soundtrack for Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and have to hear "Victory Celebration." As you know, one of the alterations of George Lucas's 1997 "Special Editions" was to augment the ending of Return of the Jedi cutting away from the celebrations on Endor to show celebrations on Coruscant, Bespin, and Tatooine. (In 2004, Naboo would be added, as well.) To match the new sequences, John Williams recorded a new musical cue, "Victory Celebration," replacing the original "Ewok Celebration," which you might know better as the "Yub Nub" song.

I love the "Yub Nub" song.


Seriously, it's just fun. Even if it wasn't, "Victory Celebration" is a pretty uninspired piece of music on its own merits.

What really grates is that the editions of the original trilogy soundtracks are the two-disc Collector's Editions, supposedly complete! Yet "Ewok Celebration" is nowhere to be heard, not even as an alternate track thrown on the end. Every time I listen to the Return of the Jedi soundtrack, or "Victory Celebration" comes up in shuffle, I just get mad that George Lucas's historical revisionism has to extend to the soundtracks of the films, pretending that music composed by John Williams doesn't even exist. I've considered buying the original 1983 CD release of the Episode VI used off Amazon soundtrack just so I could rip off that precious, precious final track. (Oh, and get ahold of "Lapti Nek," the song performed in Jabba's Palace that in the Special Edition was replaced with the awful, awful "Jedi Rocks.") Don't get me wrong, the Collector's Editions are otherwise fabulous, containing every minute of music from the original trilogy, but this omission has grated at me for years.

Until now.

Last week, Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection was released in three formats: CD, vinyl, and digital, containing the soundtracks to the first six Star Wars films. The CD versions of the original trilogy were sourced from the Collector's Editions, but the vinyl versions were the original 1970s/80s vinyl releases-- and, for some reason, the digital versions were sourced from the vinyl. From before Lucas's revisionism took hold. I have no idea why, but score!

You can now download "Ewok Celebration and Finale" for 99 cents! You can bet that I did it the same morning it was released, added it my iTunes Star Wars playlist in the place of "Victory Celebration," and listened to it straight away. Of course, it sounds amazing in its proper position. (And I'm happy to have "Lapti Nek" too.) Unsurprisingly, the little popularity bars on Amazon indicate "Ewok Celebration" is by far the album's most downloaded track.

Now that's a victory worth celebrating.

14 January 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Sack of London by the Highland Host: A Romance of the Period, Narrated by Jingo Jones, M.P.

Hardcover, 336 pages
Published 1900
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Sack of London by the Highland Host: A Romance of the Period, Narrated by Jingo Jones, M.P.

This book is about a group of Highlanders who attack London because of an unflattering stereotypical cartoon published in Punch; I read the novel two days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which made the premise much less farcical than its pseudonymous author intended, I'm sure. I think the book is intended to be funny, but I didn't find it to be so, and judging by the one contemporary review I dug up, neither did readers of the time, so I guess we can't blame that on cultural difference.

There's lot of Scottish “comedy” at first, with long, lengthy arguments and invasion planning and such, but then it turns quite serious when the Highlanders dynamite much of London: suddenly it’s death and fire and panic. The book justifies the Highlanders' violence by the fact that they work really hard to minimize casualties, carrying out rescue operations right away. And the book also argues this tragedy will all lead to a better, stronger Britain: with London’s importance reduced, everyone else’s will increase

So, then in what was a comedy and then was a terrorism novel, all of a sudden you get very detailed political reform ideas about the military, Irish self-government, criminal sentencing, poor laws, pensions, homeless, asylums, liquor taxes, endowments of the Churches of England and Scotland, university education and technical institutions, hereditary pensions, business tax rates, very specific payment rates for Old Age Pension Fund, the Houses of Lords and Commons, Free Trade, and the Boer Wars. It's about as exciting as it sounds.

But then the Royal Navy turns up, the ringleaders of the rebellion are killed, and everything goes back to the way it was. Weird and sort of inexplicable on the whole. Everett Bleiler suggest that the writer actually was an M.P.; maybe if you were in Parliament/from Scotland in the 1890s, you'd be amused/interested, but I know I wasn't.

I did dig up the actual 17 January 1900 Punch cartoon that inspired the book:
Yeah, I don't get it either. Highlanders really like oatmeal, I guess?

13 January 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXXVIII: Countdown: Arena

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 2008)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2015
Countdown: Arena

Writer: Keith Champagne
Penciller: Scott McDaniel
Inker: Andy Owens
Colorist: Guy Major
Letterers: Nick J. Napolitano, John J. Hill

On paper, this seems like it could be a good book: the heroes of various worlds in the multiverse are gathered together to fight it out. Like, Communist Superman from Red Son battles two other alternate Supermen to find out which one is best. But Monarch is in this, and he is terrible, and so is the whole book. Poorly characterized nonentities hit each other and "banter" in the trademark detail-free, ugly drawing style of Scott McDaniel. Save your money, save yourself, never read this book, it has literally no redeeming value. I can't think of a single thing I enjoyed about it; it's pointless and stupid. Thankfully time seems to be dulling my memories of it.

Next Week: Back to the main event in volume 3 of Countdown to Final Crisis!

12 January 2016

Review: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 280 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1954)
Acquired April 2015
Read May 2015
Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

It's fascinating how low-key many of these early James bond novels are. Unlike the thrill-a-minute rides that are the films, Live and Let Die is much more about surveillance and suspense: Bond and his American counterpart Felix Leiter spend the beginning of this book eating fried chicken in Harlem as they get the lowdown on a criminal mastermind; then Bond and his newest girl, Solitaire, ride a train. Things do get violent in both cases, but it's a far cry from the chases and explosions you see on screen.

My two main takeaways from reading this book were 1) I really wanted to eat some fried chicken and 2) the final action sequence, where Bond and Solitaire are dragged by a boat through shark-filled waters, is hugely intense. Fleming knows how to write some action.

Next Week: More card games! No sex! Moonraker!

11 January 2016

Review: Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan

My most recent audio drama review is up at USF, on a "Big Finish Classics" adaptation of a book very near and dear to my heart: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Find out what I thought!

Trade paperback, 416 pages
Published 2003  (originally 1994)
Acquired July 2014
Read December 2015
Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan

The latest installment of my intermittent quest to read novels set in my hometown of Cincinnati, the "Queen City" of the title. Of the ones I've read so far, this is definitely the most Cincinnati, down to the Roebling Suspension Bridge being featured on the back cover, and passages praising the beauty of Union Terminal. Part of my reason for reading novels set in my hometown was to access what I imagine people who live in New York City or Los Angeles experience all the time when consuming media, a feeling of familiarity. I will admit to a certain frisson when reading that the protagonist, Verity, grew up in Miamisburg (40 miles up the Great Miami from where I grew up), or travels to Lockland (where I worked for a year). Cincinnati also has a depth of history that renders it well-suited for Goonan's project here; near its end, the novel becomes about history and how we remember things, which is apt for a city some accuse of being too obsessed with its past. (It's hard for me to imagine that conservative Cincinnati could ever become the fourth city in America to vote to undergo nanotech enhancement, though; fifty-fourth seems more likely.)

I liked the protagonist, but aside from those aspects, much of this novel was frustratingly obscure. I'm not sure I really grasped what was going on except in the broadest of strokes, and I wasn't really encouraged to put the effort into figuring it out. Goonan clearly has a way with words, but that way is often confusing. There are three other books in this series, but this one was not engaging enough to incline me to read them given that the action moves away from Cincinnati.

08 January 2016

Star Wars: From the Continuing Adventures of Rey and Finn

So I saw Star Wars, but I'm sure you knew that already. I'm not going to review it, because who needs that-- maybe when Episode VIII comes out, I'll revise my rankings.

What I am going to say is that I really liked the new characters: Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8. They're all made for me: Rey was amazing and is justly getting a lot of praise; Finn is an ordinary guy who decides to do the right thing (eventually); with that haircut and jacket, Poe Dameron looks like he walked right out of the the 1970s, which is perfect; and BB-8 is the cutest. They all feel like Star Wars characters without being overly derivative of what's gone before. And, I think, that as a group they'll work well together and with the preexisting characters.

What disappoints me, as a result, is that I suspect we're not going to spend any more time with them until Episode VIII comes out. Back in the day, Marvel Comics filled the void between Episodes IV and V with all sorts of comics featuring Luke, Leia, and Han on wacky space adventures. Plus there was Alan Dean Foster's novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye and the altogether weird children's picture book The Maverick Moon. Many of these stories... aren't great, but they are more adventures with our favorite space heroes, and in the years since, more and more adventures have filled in the times in and around the original trilogy.

But tie-ins don't work that way anymore, at least not with Star Wars. Disney released very little before The Force Awakens that gave anything about it away; apparently the closest the official "Journey to The Force Awakens" comic series got to the film it was ostensibly tying into was having Luke Skywalker meet Poe Dameron's parents when he was an infant (infant Poe doesn't even appear!). Now, I'm sure before long we'll have prequel series like: Han and Leia: The Parenting Years and Admiral Hux: The Evil Academy Years and Old Guy Who Died at the Beginning: The Beard-Growing Years and Poe Dameron: The Sexiest Secret Agent/Pilot Years, but what I suspect we won't get are any stories taking place after the movie we just saw, because they would come before the next one, and clearly Disney's approach is not to give away the game like that.

Until Episode VIII shows us exactly what happens when Luke finally says something, there's no room for adventures featuring Rey, Finn, Chewbacca, and BB-8 tearing around the galaxy getting up to hijinks on the Millennium Falcon, occasionally running into Poe Dameron and getting missions from General Leia and being chastised for their recklessness by Admiral Ackbar. I liked these characters a lot, and I want more adventures with them-- lots more-- but I suspect I'll be waiting a long time to see them.
These guys deserve adventures!
fan art by Ron Chan on Tumblr

07 January 2016

Review: The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture by Susan R. Bordo

Hardcover, 145 pages
Published 1987
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture
by Susan R. Bordo

Susan Bordo's essay "Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body" is a mainstay of the composition program I teach in, as well as my own teaching, so I was excited to finally get a chance to read something else by her-- especially about my favorite of subjects, science. But this slim book was less than I expected: more focused on Descartes specifically, and one particular work by him at that, and drawing a lot (as I recall, it's been a while) on the tools of psychoanalytic criticism, which I don't find particularly interesting. Still, Bordo's keen insight still digs out some good nuggets, especially (as you might expect) about the gender dynamics in play in our conceptions of objectivity and subjectivity, and how what we think of as just being is was of course constructed by culture.

06 January 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXXVII: Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters: Brave New World

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2015
Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters: Brave New World

Story by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Renato Arlem
Letters by Rob Leigh
Colors by Alex Bleyaert and Rob Schwager

God exists, and He hates me. How do I know this? He permitted the existence of a second volume of Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. (Actually, he permitted the existence of still more, but in His mercy He left those ones uncollected.) Only the sheer deep-rootedness of my completist instincts can explain why I read this: given that I'd read the previous volume and that it takes place during Countdown to Final Crisis, I felt compelled to read it, but now that I've typed that it out, it seems a wholly inadequate explanation for why I inflicted this on myself. Perhaps I, like God, hate me.

This is like the first volume, but worse if you can imagine it. Nothing that any character does in here mean anything; I want to give Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti the benefit of the doubt, but this reads like sheer hackwork, comics vomited out to fulfill some kind of contractual obligation. (Is DC required to publish stories featuring the characters/concepts they inherited from Quality Comics? Surely nothing else could explain their insistence of releasing terrible comic after terrible comic featuring them.) One imagines they wrote each issue in mere minutes, never edited a word, and then laughed as they cashed their paychecks. (2007-08 was a good time for them and shit writing, given they were also partly responsible for Countdown to Final Crisis.) As a fan of what I've read of Christopher Priest's run on The Ray, I'm glad he's not alive so he didn't have to witness their utter ineptitude in handling the characters he poured so much brilliance into.

The only person more guilty than the writers of this comic is its artist. Seriously, Renato Arlem's art is irredeemably bad and completely terrible. A heavy user of Photoshop, characters usually don't move from panel to panel, and images are reused in different contexts despite inappropriate poses and facial expressions, and what the dialogue and narration indicate ought to be happening is often wholly undepicted in the artwork. That anyone has ever hired him to "draw" anything boggles my mind. I can only assume that since 50% of his drawings are reused, he costs 50% of other artists. (Caleb Mozzocco has said much the same at me, but at length, and with pictures.)

Don't be like me. Don't make my mistake. Don't turn on God. Don't read this book!

Next Week: It can get worse! Countdown: Arena!

05 January 2016

Review: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Over at Unreality SF, I've got a review up of Series Nine of Jago & Litefoot, which came out back in April I think! So much Big Finish product, so little time! There have been two J&L releases since then, geeze.

Mass market paperback, 213 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1953)
Acquired November 2014
Read December 2014
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I've long been attracted to the Penguin editions of the James Bond novels, longingly gazing at their delightful retro covers by Richie Fahey. I've seen a random assortment of the films (though I only became dedicated enough to go to the theatres regularly when Daniel Craig took over), but never read the books, and in the end, I decided to work my way through them, reading one volume every four months.

Casino Royale is an interesting book. I was surprised how interesting Fleming could make a game of baccarat, and I was surprised at how low-key most of the novel is. In contrast to the Bond films, where it's one death-defying escape after another, most of this book is spent with Bond sizing up the opposition; all that really happens in the first half is that someone tries to kill Bond and fails due to their own incompetence!

As a portrait of masculinity, it's fascinating. The body, face, and clothing of Bond's love interest Vesper Lynd is described in precise detail (and Fleming is actually quite good at this sort of thing), and I soon realized that it wasn't just women that were described this way, but four things: women, meals, technical devices (including cars), and Bond's physical opponents. Nothing else is worthy of concentrated attention, but these things are worth lavish detail that delineate them with utter precision. Sex, women, gadgets, violence-- what else does a man need?

The last couple chapters of the book, where James and Vesper live together while they recuperate and fall in love, and Bond knows something is wrong but won't let himself admit it, is surprisingly effective, as is the sudden emotional turn Bond makes when he discovers Vesper's secret: "Their love and his grief were relegated to the boxroom of his mind. Later, perhaps, they would be dragged out, dispassionately examined, and then bitterly thrust back with other sentimental baggage he would rather forget." James Bond may want to love, but if he is to do his job, he cannot afford to let himself do so.

Next Week: James Bond hits the United States and eats lots of fried chicken in Live and Let Die!

04 January 2016

Reading Roundup Wrapup: December 2015

Happy New Year! I'm pleased to say I wrapped up my 2015 with a pretty productive month of reading, if nothing else.

Pick of the month: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. This was the obvious choice this month; much of what I read this month was decent, but nothing else had the intelligence and insight of this!

All books read:
1. The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
2. In The Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1] by Eugene Thacker
3. Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor: Lights Out by Holly Black
4. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Hollow Men by Una McCormack
5. Huntress: Year One by Ivory Madison
6. The Companions of Doctor Who: K9 and Company by Terence Dudley
7. Star Trek: Cast No Shadow by James Swallow
8. Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan
9. The Martian by Andy Weir
10. Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book One: Before the Storm by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

All books acquired:
1. The Companions of Doctor Who: K9 and Company by Terence Dudley
2. The Annotated Sandman, Volume Four: The Sandman #57-75 by Neil Gaiman, edited by Leslie S. Klinger
3. Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 10 by Cary Bates with E. Nelson Bridwell
4. Formerly Known as the Justice League by Keith Giffen & J. M. DeMatteis
5. Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
6. The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2OO1: A Space Odyssey by Piers Bizony
7. Conversation Pieces, Volume 18: Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh
8. Conversation Pieces, Volume 23: Distances by Vandana Singh
9. Collected Twelfth Doctor Comic Strips, Volume 1: The Eye of Torment: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Scott Gray with Michael Collins and Jacqueline Rayner
10. The Mighty Thor, Vol. 1 by Walter Simonson
11. The Mighty Thor, Vol. 2 by Walter Simonson
12. The Mighty Thor, Vol. 3 by Walter Simonson
13. The Mighty Thor, Vol. 4 by Walter Simonson
14. The Mighty Thor, Vol. 5 by Walter Simonson
15. He Laughed with His Other Mouths: A Pals in Peril Tale by M. T. Anderson

#5-14 were, you guessed it, Christmas presents. So much to read-- and more presents to come, probably!

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 621 (up 1)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 134 (no net change)