23 October 2018

Review: Doctor Who: The Gingerbread Trap by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 36 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read August 2017
Doctor Who: The Gingerbread Trap
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

The Krillitanes from "School Reunion" fit surprisingly well into "Hansel and Gretel": instead of eating them, the "witch" feeds the kids food cooked in Krillitane oil (chips, but they don't know it because it's medieval Europe) so that they can fix its spaceship. Once you realize that, nothing here will surprise you, but it's cute enough, and less of an awkward/random fit than, say, vampires and Cinderella.

Next Week: A tale as old as time... Helana and the Beast!

22 October 2018

Review: The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer

Trade paperback, 432 pages
Published 2018 (originally 2017)

Acquired July 2018
Read August 2018
Terra Ignota, Book III: The Will to Battle: A Narrative of Events of the year 2454
by Ada Palmer

The Terra Ignota books are odd. Great world-building, and in the case of this one, absolutely compelling reading. But if you asked me what happened that occupied over 400 pages, I would be hard-pressed to explain. A lot of people talk to each other about things, and it often feels like minor events are given lots of coverage, and important events happen offscreen, only by implication. Like, this one is about the world preparing for war in light of the revelations at the end of book III, and I loved the scenes of the world council meeting and debating the issues, complete with lots of juicy procedural detail. And then there are the 2454 Olympics at the end, which leads into some great developments. The role of the Utopians in the war is fascinating and excellent, and the end of the book is tragic and leaves you waiting for the next one so much. (Which is delayed. After three installments in two years, there's a two-year gap between the third and fourth installment. Understandable reasons, though.)

But what actually happens in the middle? Lots of people talk about J. E. D. D. Mason, people talk about other things... and... uh? I don't really know, which makes me wonder if the book really had to be this long! Plus there are so many characters, and Palmer just throws you back into their world-- I had forgotten who a lot of them were in the eight months since I read Seven Surrenders. Thankfully a lot less time is spent on Madame and her brothel, which really dragged down Seven Surrenders.

Still. What a great book. Utterly unlike any science fiction I've read in a long time, and with some great moral questions at its center, and Palmer has a way with deploying unexpected developments that seem completely natural in retrospect. I'm eager to see where this story goes in book IV, and how it can possibly be pulled together. Sticking the landing on this one will certainly be an incredible feat.

19 October 2018

You Can't Go There for the First Time Again

Big Finish recently announced series 6 of its ongoing The Diary of River Song range. Like previous installments of their River Song range, it features River encountering an element from classic Doctor Who. This one has her becoming involved in the background to events we saw on screen; its four stories will include prequels to The Web of Fear (1968) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). Previous ones have seen her meet the eighth, seventh, sixth, and fourth Doctors, as well as four different Masters.

I myself have beaten the drum against Big Finish's overreliance on continuity elements from the old show. At my other Internet home as an audio reviewer for Unreality SF, I am constantly complaining about Big Finish stories that bring back enemies or characters from old stories in ways that seem gratuitous or pointless. The last few months have seen WOTAN from The War Machines (1966) in Torchwood, Ogrons from Day of the Daleks (1972) in The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, the Kandyman from The Happiness Patrol (1988) in the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, and the Yeti and the Great Intelligence from The Abominable Snowmen (1967) in The New Counter-Measures. Except for the last one, it's hard for me to imagine who these combinations are supposed to appeal to, as they seem to combine mass appeal new series concepts with mediocre original series villains.

I even keep a Google Doc charting what classic Doctor Who stories have Big Finish sequels. Of 146 stories that are not themselves sequels, 87 of them had had some kind of follow-up from Big Finish. That's 60%. This gets even worse when you drill down to specific eras; of 26 non-sequel stories broadcast 1973-78, fully 22 of them have had BF follow-ups. 85%!

I'm not necessarily opposed to this, but the fact is that much of this stuff is mediocre. WOTAN is the weakest part of Torchwood One: Machines, the return of the Kandyman was largely botched, and the Yeti story is probably the worst Counter-Measures story Big Finish have ever done. The Ogron story does have some spark, I admit, though it's not as good as it could be.

Now I myself am no stranger to continuity-heavy tie-in fiction. Those familiar with my brief, unlamented career as a professional writer of fiction will know that it began with a story entirely designed to reconcile an inconsistency between one tie-in novel and another, when no such explanation was needed. I have two defenses. One is that I think the story takes this apparent inconsistency and builds a real story on it. (In theory at least. Probably not in execution.) And the other is that there is no way I would write that story now if someone lost all sanity and asked me to write a Star Trek e-book.

I was skimming the Twitter feed of John Dorney the other day; Dorney writes about one-third of Big Finish's output these days, and is responsible for writing the forthcoming River Song prequel to Web of Fear. Someone commented that they felt the River Song range was unoriginal, even by Big Finish's standards, and they had a little bit of back-and-forth about it. Here's what I see as the key bit:

I mean, sure, he's right about Wide Sargassa Sea and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But Torchwood One: Machines: The Law Machines, Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 2: Planet of the Ogrons, Doctor Who: Ravenous 1: Sweet Salvation, and The New Counter-Measures: Series 2: Time of the Intelligence are hardly in the same league, are they?

Big Finish isn't exactly producing bold literary rewritings of classics of British literature that play with our accepted ideas of canon and gender and race. They're plays where the Doctor bumps into an alien robot who looks like Bertie Bassett. And most of the time, they're less interesting than the originals. Dorney's right that sequels don't preclude originality; some of Big Finish's best stories are sequels. But stories like Omega, Davros, and Master, that tear apart their eponymous characters to see what make them work, are few and far between. Most Big Finish sequels give you the same thing you already saw before, only ground down slightly by a sense you've seen it all before. Because you have.

In his history of sf, Trillion Year Spree, there's a bit where Brian Aldiss argues that originality is necessary to science fiction. I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but he essentially says that a sequel to Dune could be just as good as Dune in every way, but it still wouldn't be as good, because in Dune, Frank Herbert created a world, and in the sequels he only returned to one. There is an aspect that a sequel can just never have.

It seems a bit disingenuous to claim that he can't see the line between the fourth Doctor, Leela, and K9, and the fourth Doctor, Leela, K9, and the Daleks. The former group can go anywhere, can tell any kind of story. The latter group is locked into a much smaller possible range of stories. And possibly all kinds of crazy and interesting things could be done with them, but I've heard enough Big Finish to know that what comes out of my headphones when I plug in my iPod isn't going to be written by Tom Stoppard.

16 October 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Cinderella and the Magic Box by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 37 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read June 2017
Doctor Who: Cinderella and the Magic Box
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

This is probably the straightest of these Doctor Who fairy tale adaptations yet: it's really just Cinderella as usual, with the eleventh Doctor in the fairy godmother role, plus some vampires and a peace treaty. Not the most interesting of these little tales.

Next Week: Magic sliced fried potatoes (a.k.a. chips) in The Gingerbread Trap!

15 October 2018

Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Trade paperback, 384 pages
Published 2017

Acquired November 2017
Read December 2017
Terra Ignota, Book II: Seven Surrenders
by Ada Palmer

I really loved book I of Terra Ignota, Too Like the Lightning, and ranked it first on my ballot for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Had Seven Surrenders landed on the ballot for 2018, though, I don't think I would have ranked it so high. The joy of Too Like the Lightning was in the world it built, but the way Seven Surrenders develops swerves away from that aspect of TLTL. Palmer's semi-utopian future has "Hives" instead of nations as we understand them, voluntary associations, because in an era of instantaneous global transportation, who can enforce the borders of a traditional nation-state? But instead of focusing on the societies, Seven Surrenders doubles down on the people. A lot of the novel revolves around the political, sexual, and political/sexual intrigues of the Hive leaders... and I just really don't care about this at all. I kept losing track of who did what to whom, and I wasn't incentivized to spend the time to care. I feel like Palmer is creating a commentary here-- our societal aspirations will founder on the personal desires of the powerful-- but though the focus on personal lives might be justified, that doesn't make it interesting.

The answers to the mysteries set up in TLTL are mostly interesting and satisfying, and the book's end promises an interesting set-up for book III. I will read The Will to Battle, but hopefully it's more in tune with what I enjoyed about book I.

12 October 2018

The Perils of Professionalization: The Tone-Deafness of NAVSA

As this post goes up, I'm driving to the second day of NAVSA 2018 in St. Petersburg, the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association. It's my first time attending NAVSA, and my first year as a member of the organization in several years.

I was a member of NAVSA for a few years in graduate school, though eventually I stopped applying because I was rejected pretty consistently; I think three times in a row. I'd like to think I am pretty good at writing conference abstracts, and never have I been rejected so consistently by a conference. I remember attending my first meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in graduate school, and during the banquet the president came over to where all the grad students were sitting and asked us what SFRA could do for graduate students. I told him that just by accepting graduate students (most of my friends were consistently rejected, too), SFRA was doing more for me than, say, NAVSA. Eventually I stopped re-upping my membership.

The thing that really irritated me, though, was NAVSA 2013. A pretty common thing for academic organizations to do these days is to "professionalize" graduate students, which is a fancy way of saying that they try to give them tips on how to successfully navigate an increasingly terrible job market for humanities Ph.D.s, and so NAVSA 2013 was preceded by a professionalization workshop.

For some reason, that year's meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association was held in Venice. The conference was June 3rd through 6th; the professionalization workshop was May 27th through 31st, plus June 7th.

It cost $800!

On top of whatever it costs to fly from North America to Venice (humanities Ph.D. students get very little travel funding), NAVSA was expecting them to pay almost a thousand dollars in order to hear tips on jobs they probably weren't going to get. I found that completely flabbergasting and completely unconscionable. It would have been a whole month's rent for me at the time.

The cynic in me suspected the whole thing was to allow the workshop organizers and lecturers the luxury of extending their Venetian vacation. Nice work if you can get it.

Fast forward to 2018; NAVSA is still doing "professionalization workshops," though this year they do not involve a five-day beach vacation, at least. This year's conference is preceded by a two-thirds-day session and followed by a half-day one, covering the material of the Venice workshop in about one-fifth of the time. As a result, it costs not $800, but $60.

The workshop, however, is staffed by volunteers, so what does that $60 go to?

Apparently, one boxed lunch and a coffee break! I get that conference venues charge ridiculous amounts of money for their food, but $60 for a shitty cashew chicken wrap served with (I assume) a bag of chips and a can of soda? Really? That's the best you could do for a bunch of graduate students who are probably paying for all of this out of pocket? The conference is in downtown St. Petersburg; any one of those students could walk out the doors of the Hilton and just buy a lunch and a coffee literally anywhere and pay less than $60.

It's ridiculous that it should cost this much in general (at some conferences, $60 will get you a goddamn banquet), but it's completely tone-deaf to charge this to underfunded, underpaid, and underemployed graduate students. Like, give this to them for free and let them walk to McDonald's at lunchtime. Or pack some granola bars. These people will not get jobs. You do not need to charge them $60 for that privilege.

I complained about this to a colleague, and she pointed out that the whole idea of "professionalization" was essentially bogus anyway. Because the real problem is not insufficiently "professional" Ph.D.s (though I have seen some pretty poor cover letters), but the dwindling number of full-time Ph.D.-level academic positions, and the persistence of Ph.D.-granting programs in producing graduates for whom jobs do not exist.

According to its web page, my own alma mater produced fifteen Ph.D.s last year. Also, according to its web site, eight of them landed full-time jobs. Two of those were tenure-track. My program is one that trumpets its placement rate, too. That they produce a 50% excess of Ph.D.s is the problem, not "professionalization," and NAVSA is exploiting those desperate students' economic precarity with its continued stream of workshops.

09 October 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Little Rose Riding Hood by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 36 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read May 2017
Doctor Who: Little Rose Riding Hood
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

If these stories really are Time Lord fairy tales, it seems to me that this one raises some existential issues: how can there be a fairy tale on Gallifrey that clearly features Rose Tyler and the ninth Doctor? (plus a Zygon and, of course, Bad Wolf) If the Doctor had remembered this one during the tv programme (as he did some others during "Night Terrors"), I feel like some confusing things would have resulted. The po-faced TARDIS wiki, of course, just categorizes this story's Rose as "Rose (Little Rose Riding Hood)," with scarcely a mention of who the character actually is. Richards does do a good job capturing the voice of Christopher Eccleston.

Next Week: Night and day it's Cinderella and the Magic Box!

08 October 2018

Review: "The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton by Kate Colquhoun

Hardcover, 303 pages
Published 2006 (originally 2003)

Acquired April 2009
Read November 2017
"The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary
by Kate Colquhoun

This was a fascinating biography of Joseph Paxton, who began as a working-class gardener on a country estate and ended up designing the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition and serving as Member for Parliament. Kate Colquhoun has little to say about Joseph Paxton's origins, because the details are sketchy, but once he's older, he apprentices at the Horticultural Society, and then he is hired as head gardener by William Cavendish, Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Paxton was an intelligent, enthusiastic man whose enthusiasms fed into a positive feedback loop with the Duke. Basically, anything Paxton wanted to do with the estate, the Duke would pay for. They amassed a huge collection of orchids, racing others to cultivate and flower species new to England. Paxton got the first Victoria regia (a giant water lily several meters wide) to flower, and was also the first person to cultivate a banana in England. The bananas we eat today are the Cavendish bananas, named after Paxton's patron.

Paxton taught himself architecture to build new glasshouses for the Duke's collection, and he put in a proposal for the building to house the Great Exhibition. This thrust him into the national spotlight, and soon he was designing public parks, on the boards of railway corporations, standing for Parliament, creating a daily newspaper edited by Charles Dickens, and organizing relief efforts in the Crimea! Colquhoun's account of his rise is a fascinating look at a fascinating life, and she peppers the book with little human details ably, especially the stories of Paxton and the Duke's appreciation for each other and for plant life. Their enthusiasm for rare plants is infectious even through the printed page. I loved her accounts of Victoria's two visits to the Duke's estate, one as a young princess, one with Albert in tow. The Duke of Wellington thought Paxton's gardeners so well organized that he said Paxton would have made a good general!

Arguably, the Victorian period was the first time we really became conscious that we were moving into the future, and Paxton was one of the people trying to design that future. "The Busiest Man in England" is a great story in itself, and also filled with connections to other stories of the nineteenth century: I was pleased to see, for example, that Jane Loudon (author of The Mummy!: A Story of the Twenty-Second Century) got a couple mentions, and Paxton's life brought him into contact with Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Tenniel, and many other familiar names. A nice personal story from my favorite period of history.

05 October 2018

From Hawkworld to Hawkworld: Thanagar to Earth

DC's 1989 Hawkworld miniseries (a.k.a. Hawkworld vol. 1) was followed by an ongoing series that ran from 1990 to 1993 (a.k.a. Hawkworld vol. 2). The original mini was written and pencilled by Timothy Truman, with inks by Enriqué Alcatena; Truman stepped back for this series, co-writing its first nine issues and pencilling its last three. All thirty-two of its issues (plus its three annuals) were written by John Ostrander, who I know best as a consistent presence in Dark Horse's Star Wars comics (scripting Clone Wars, Legacy, Agent of the Empire, and Dawn of the Jedi, among many others).

The Hawkworld mini was an origin story for Katar Hol, one that didn't actually see him assume the role or title of Hawkman, as the story was set entirely on Thanagar. It ended with a set-up for the series to come: the treasonous Commander Byth had escaped with a shape-shifting drug to a small blue planet. In the Hawkworld ongoing, Katar and his new partner, Shayera Thal, are sent to that small blue planet (i.e., Earth, duh) to track down Byth, but also help the Thanagarian ambassador to Earth repair relations between Earth and Thanagar. (During the ten years that elapsed during the middle of the mini, when Katar was in exile, Thanagar was among the alien planets that banded together to attack the Earth in Invasion!)

I think the ending of the mini put the ongoing in a difficult bind. Truman's conclusion to the mini promises a trip to Earth, yes, but the mini also did a great job establishing Thanagar as a place with a story of its own to tell. A decadent aristocracy, an oppressed underclass imported from conquered planets, an increasingly brutal police force, the first rumblings of a resistance movement. The ongoing needs to not just send Katar and Shayera to Earth, but also to keep them on Thanagar, if it's really going to deliver on all the potential of the mini's conclusion.

Ostrander and Truman actually manage to balance this really well. Of course, Katar and Shayera travel to Earth, take up residence in Chicago, and become known as superheroes. But though they bring Thanagarian artifacts for a museum exhibit, that's not the only form of cultural exchange; Katar finds himself entranced with American liberal, democratic values, seeing them as a solution to the problems plaguing Thanagar. The "Hawkworld" of the original's title obviously referred to Thanagar, but the ongoing justifies the move to Earth by expanding the meaning of the word. It's a world where the strong prey on the weak, and Katar and Shayera soon realize that despite the values it holds, Earth can be one of those too.

The series overall does a good job of balancing ongoing adventures on Earth with those back on Thanagar, as the characters make a number of trips back and forth for various reasons. We continue to see the free medical clinic Katar funds on Thanagar, and the Thanagarian government gets more and more worried about a potential rebellion, which eventually culminates in the Escape from Thanagar! storyline in issues #21-25.

Though Ostrander is one of those writers who excels at comic book plotting (each individual issue has a real story to it; each issue adds up to a bigger story, too), the main characters themselves are the real highlight of Hawkworld. Katar is a man of principle trying to make up for past mistakes, but often too much of an idealist to act quickly. Shayera is young and sure of herself, and quickly forms fierce loyalties. I liked both characters, but I loved Shayera. I'm glad that Ostrander (and Mike Gold, editor on issues #1-25) acknowledged that the series was not called Hawkman by keeping the focus on both characters pretty much equally. I'm disappointed to know that when Hawkworld was cancelled, it was replaced in short order by a series called Hawkman, which I assume means a reduced for for Shayera.

The art is strong, too. Truman's good of course (though his art style is more conventional here than the painterly one from vol. 1), but the majority of the series is by Graham Nolan, who both pencilled and inked issues #1-4, 6, 14-19, and 21, and also pencilled most other issues with various fill-in inkers. He's one of those artists I struggle to speak to, because he doesn't have a flashy style: he just competently does his thing, month in and month out. The storytelling is always clear. Jan Duursema steps in to pencil issues #27-29. Her work her is okay but sometimes unclear, but her and Ostrander would go on to be long-time collaborators, especially on Star Wars comics, where she is great. I'm pretty sure this is the first time they ever worked together.

There are a lot of highlights to the series. I'm glad the Byth plotline wasn't overextended. I appreciate the series's embeddedness in real social issues (typical of Mike Gold's editorial work: see Mike Grell's Green Arrow run, which he also edited). I liked the use of the original Carter Hall Hawkman to occasionally invoke the mythos of the JSA. I liked that what could have been grim often had a nice sense of humor and a lightness of touch. I liked the ties into the bigger DC universe, including recurring appearances from Weng Chen, formerly Blackhawks's "Chop-Chop" (another Gold-edited title). I liked the large cast around the Hawks: in addition to Weng, there's the Thanagarian ambassador to Earth, various staff and donors to the Chicago museum, a young black woman and her son who move in with the Hawks, the Hawks' PR man, a couple reporters, and several cops. Things like this help keep the series grounded and real.

It's not all good. The original Hawkworld was agnostic on when it took place-- it could have all been a leadp-in to the Silver Age Hawkman's first appearance in The Brave and the Bold vol. 1 #34 (Feb./Mar. 1961), just like how Batman: Year One established a new, modern origin for Batman, but set it many years in the past. But the ongoing firmly establishes that Katar and Shayera visit Earth in the "present" of the DC universe, "wiping out" all the adventures of the Silver Age Hawkman from 1961 to 1989. I think this was the right call: it's hard to imagine how the ideas introduced by Truman in the mini could have been as relevant if the ongoing had established that the Hawks first came to Earth fifteen years prior. Like, I want to see Katar discover the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and begin rethinking his entire way of life, and I want to see him funding his insurrection back home.

But it definitely does create some problems, which cause tons of people to write into the lettercols, and worse, the story itself has to answer them. I don't mind a little bit of retconning, but at times, too much space and energy is given over to them. Like, no retcon will be completely elegant; I feel like Ostrander should have tossed something out that kind of worked overall (as he did in Hawkworld Annual #1) and ignored the details. Not all of them add up: it always felt kind of lame how it was established that Katar's dad had had a secret trip to Earth, and nothing can explain away why the Golden Age Hawkman is named Carter Hall with a wife named Shiera, while the new Hawkman in a complete coincidence is named Katar Hol with a partner named Shayera.

However, people couldn't accept the retcon in all its details and kept writing in with objections to the retcon, and little extra details kept being doled out to fix those objections, and at a certain point, my reaction is, Stop poking at it, you're making it worse. At least, though, Ostrander usually does a good job of making the retcons relevant to the story, rather than having them just to have them. (Escape from Thanagar! makes up a whole extra Hawkman to plug a gap between from 1986 to 1989, but also has this extra Hawkman turn up to murder Shayera.)

The comic also begins to lose its way near the end, which I suspect is due to the fact that Archie Goodwin replaced Mike Gold as editor, and probably brought with him a new set of priorities. Escape from Thanagar! is a great story, and probably the highlight of the whole run, but it definitely wraps up a number of ongoing plots too quickly, and once it's over, a number of recurring side characters vanish. There's also a costume change around this time I didn't really care for.

The whole Hawkworld series wraps up with the six-part Flight's End (#27-32), which starts off well: the idea that the U.S. won't accept refugees, and that someone is stirring up racial animus while denying they're doing so is disappointingly topical for 2018 even though it was published in 1992. But then the story lurches into, like, dirty, punky 1990s stuff. I don't have a word for the aesthetic, but it was everywhere in early 1990s comics (it also ruined Alpha Flight, well, except that Alpha Flight was already ruined): lots of bad guys who look like KISS and are very "eXtreme"!

It transitions the comic from social relevance into something pretending to be edgy but really only banal, and it doesn't bode well for when I eventually pick up the successor series, the retooled Hawkman. I read Hawkworld because of my interest in DC's space-based comics, but the tail end of Hawkworld is clearly pulling back from those space elements that made Hawkworld interesting to me in the first place, and I suspect the title change will unfortunately cement that. (I don't have much of a sense what Hawkman vol. 3 is like. You can find a lot of write-ups on the Internet about the Hawkworld ongoing, but Hawkman vol. 3 is usually only mentioned for the bare fact of its existence.)

Still, the late 1980s and early 1990s were one of DC's most creatively fertile periods, and Hawkworld is a shining example of the kind of unusual, interesting work the publisher was able to do in that era.

Previous Overviews of 1980s/90s Space-Based DC Ongoings:

04 October 2018

Review: Eugenic Feminism by Asha Nadkarni

Hardcover, 264 pages
Published 2014
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2018
Eugenic Feminism: Reproductive Nationalism in the United States and India
by Asha Nadkarni

I found the idea of this book really intriguing: Nadkarni traces the relationship between feminism and eugenics across the twentieth century in the literature of the U.S. and in India. Many prominent feminists were eugenicists in both countries, and I imagine that the potential for seeing how scientific concepts influenced human rights discourse would be quite strong. Unfortunately, I don't think the book ever really coheres into a strong narrative. It's more a series of observations on various aspects of women, eugenics, and literature, but I was never convinced of the idea that there was a "eugenic feminism" strand running through literature in either country. Like, the discussion of Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve has potential, but I never saw the eugenics in it. The strongest part of the book was the discussion of Katherine Mayo's book Mother India (1927), which seemed to fuse feminist rhetoric and anti-immigrant rhetoric to argue in favor of American isolationism.