17 August 2018

Review: Transformers: Lost Light: Dissolution by James Roberts, Jack Lawrence, et al.

As I worked my way through my digital More than Meets the Eye trades (mostly from Humble Bundle), I began to be convinced that 1) this was the best ongoing comic book there was, and 2) I didn't want it to be my fault if it was cancelled. Well, in a sense it already was cancelled, because after Revolution, it was relaunched as Lost Light, but the point stands. So I started subscribing to it in floppy format with August 2017's issue #9, hunting down the first eight issues as well. If it was cancelled, it wasn't going to be my fault. (As it turns out, by the point I finally got to reading Lost Light #1 in April 2018, it was announced that the series would be cancelled with September 2018's issue #25. Oh well.)

Lost Light picks up shortly after volume 10 of More than Meets the Eye, where various members of the Lost Light crew were stranded on the Necroworld after a ferocious battle with the Decepticon Justice Division... and then the planet exploded. Well, it turns out that the planet did not explode, but was instead shunted into an alternate universe, one created during the time travel shenanigans of volume 7. In this timeline, there is no Megatron, meaning that the Great War never happened... but instead the totalitarian Functionist Council eventually overthrew the Senate, turning Cybertron into an isolationist dystopia. "Team Rodimus" teleports to Cybertron only to find they're in this alternate world, and of course things go south quickly once they arrive.

A big part of the story resolves around Rung's apparent uselessness. Because no one know what Rung's alternate mode is for, he's an ideological thorn in the side of Functionists, who preach that every Cybertronian has one purpose and one purpose only. When Team Rodimus arrives on Cybertron, the Functionist Council claims they've finally figured out what Rung is for. To be honest, I didn't always follow this stuff, but the whole thing climaxes with a giant-sized Rung battling a moon, so I think it's pretty valid to say it worked for the awesomeness, and that's all I really require.

The real heart of the story in the Functionist universe is Megatron, still attempting to live up to his vow of pacifism, but now trapped in the horrors of a universe where he didn't start a war. At the end of the story, Megatron stays behind to lead the resistance against the Functionists. Megatron doesn't want to, though, showing the extent to which his time on the Lost Light really has changed him. He tells his friend Terminus, "If I stayed behind-- if I went back on my word-- I wouldn't be the person you think I am. And the person you think I am... that's the person I want to be." Terminus is someone Megatron hasn't seen since before the war, someone who never knew Megatron the monster. Terminus tricks Megatron into staying behind on the Functionist Cybertron; when Terminus claims Team Rodimus purposefully left Megatron behind, saying "They've given you a second chance," Megatron replies, "They'd already done that."

I was a Megatron-skeptic when he was introduced to More than Meets the Eye back in volume 6, but Dissolution shows how well he'd integrated himself into the series. I got chills with the line above, and in an earlier sequence, where Megatron expounds his new Autobot philosophy: "The opposite of Functionism isn't lack of Functionism. The opposite of Functionism is choice. It's about doing what you want-- regardless of what you were born to do, or what you're told to do, or what society expects you to do. No one can decide how to live your life except you." The second-last page, with Megatron lecturing to his new followers, is charming ("Peace through empathy."); the final page, where it seems like this might be the one reality where Megatron and Orion Pax can be friends, is heart-warming.

This was a satisfying end to the Megatron story. If he had ended up acquitted for his crimes because of a technicality like he'd originally planned, that would have beggared belief. But as told here, he genuinely comes around to the Autobot philosophy, and then is given an opportunity to put it into action. But I also like the tragedy that several of the Lost Light crew, in particular Rodimus and Ultra Magnus, end the storyline convinced Megatron never really did change, and was playing them the entire time. (Rodimus because of his own ego; Ultra Magnus because he can't stand ambiguity.) What was done with Megatron in season 2 of More than Meets the Eye and Dissolution shows the validity of IDW's approach to the Transformers universe. These are the stories you could only tell outside of the usual straightjacket of Autobots-versus-Decepticons, and they're all the better for it.

There's also a couple side plots about what's happening on Necroworld, which is mostly 1) the introduction of a new character, Anode, on whom I am currently agnostic, and 2) the deteriorating relationship Cyclonus and Tailgate. All the feels about the latter, of course; I look forward to seeing where both storylines go, as they're clearly more about setting up concepts for the run of Lost Light now that it's tied off some of the biggest plots of season 2 of More than Meets the Eye.

Next Tuesday: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... Windblade must fight evil giant robot zombies Till All Are One!

Dissolution originally appeared in issues #1-7 of Transformers: Lost Light (Dec. 2016–June 2017). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Jack Lawrence, inked by John Wycough (#7), colored by Joana Lafuente (#1-7) and John-Paul Bove (#1), lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by Carlos Guzman.

16 August 2018

Review: A Plunge into Space by Robert Cromie

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published 1976 (originally 1891)
Borrowed from the library

Read June 2018
A Plunge into Space by Robert Cromie
Alas! that it is always thus with the brilliant, god-like science begotten of organic life. The touch of a baby's finger, the falling weight of a hair, and it bites the dust before the demon wrath of inorganic force. (238-9)
It's hard to read this book and not conclude that H. G. Wells was inspired by it when he wrote The First Men in the Moon (1900-01): a wacky, abstracted scientist builds a sphere-shaped spaceship because he's figured out something about gravity, and uses it to travel to another world where he interacts with the inhabitants, and the whole story ends with the spaceship destroyed (as the above quotation refers to). But apparently Wells's Moon story was not inspired by Cromie's Mars one. In any case, as always, Wells's is the much better book, and as always, Cromie blandly operates in the subgenre that Wells questions the assumptions of.

The plot of A Plunge into Space is pretty straightforward. Henry Barnett works out the secret of gravity; his explorer pal Alexander MacGregor recruits a group of people to go on a mission to Mars with them, consisting of a financier, a literary man, an artist, a politician, and a reporter. They go there and spend the middle of the book learning a lot of boring stuff about the supposed utopian society of Mars (Cromie clearly thought that attempts to restructure the Earth's political system were doomed to failure); also one of the group's members falls in love with a Martian woman. Then they go home, but the Martian woman story away so she has to be jettisoned into space so the oxygen doesn't run out. Her lover is so overcome by grief that he destroys the ship, killing Barnett.

This makes the whole thing sound more exciting than it is. I liked Cromie's future-war novel, The Next Crusade (1896), a decent amount because it had actual character stories, but A Plunge into Space is characteristic of mediocre early sf, filled with flat characters (each member of the expedition has exactly one personality trait corresponding to their occupation; the financier is greedy, the politician is self-aggrandizing, and so on) and boring descriptions of a boring utopia. Whether Wells read Plunge or not, his reworking of it was vastly superior and much more delightful. Thank God he came along and upset the genre to its everlasting betterment. Plunge is an interesting historical curiosity but little more; it didn't even give me very much new material for thinking about scientists in Victorian literature.

15 August 2018

Hugos 2018 [Prelude]: Paper Girls 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2016)
Acquired October 2017 

Read June 2018
Paper Girls 2

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

Some comics read quickly because nothing happens in them. Paper Girls moves quickly, but because Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang construct the whole thing as non-stop action, each scene efficiently moving you into the next. Nothing feels wasted or padded; this comic just propels you along. You have no desire to linger because you always have to see what's next.

Paper Girls is clever and well put together. I wish I remembered the characters better (it's been a year since I read volume 1) as they'd kind of blended in my mind, but this volume does have a nice focus on Erin, as the girls travel from 1988 to 2016 and meet Erin's older self, now forty years old. It's an interesting balance of being able to follow what's happening to the girls, but the wider context of what's happening still being pretty obscure. I wish it felt like the girls were learning something; right now it seems like there's a simple action story and a big time travel story, but they don't quite go together.

There are some good jokes and some great character moments. Some bits will make you go all soft inside. I've like Cliff Chiang since his Green Arrow and Black Canary days, and this is some of his best work, slick and stylish and full of character. But as well put together as it is, I wish it lasted longer.

14 August 2018

Review: Revolution: Transformers by John Barber, Mairghread Scott, James Roberts, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n. pag.
Published 2017 (contents: 2015-16)
Acquired January 2018

Read April 2018
Revolution: Transformers

Written by John Barber, Mairghread Scott, Nick Roche and James Roberts
Art by Andrew Griffith, Naoto Tsushima, Alex Milne, Corin Howell, Kotteri, Josh Burcham
Colors by Thomas Deer, Joana Lafuente
Letters by Gilberto Lazcano, Tom B. Long, Chris Mowry

This volume collects three Transformers-focused Revolution tie-ins, as well as the Transformers Holiday Special. Since I already reviewed the latter on its own (wish I'd known it was collected here before buying it!), I'll just be reviewing the Revolution tie-ins.

Basically, each of the Transformers ongoings gets a story that takes place during Revolution, expanding on some story details and crossing over with one of the non-Transformers titles. The subtitle-less series formerly known as Robots in Disguise tells a story about Tundercracker and Marissa Faireborn battling Dire Wraiths (from Rom); Till All Are One features Windblade on a journey to the Microverse (from Micronauts); and More than Meets the Eye has the Scavengers teaming up with a G.I. Joe member and encountering a lone Dire Wraith.

Has any IDW artist outside of E. J. Su been good at both humans and robots?
from Revolution: Transformers #1 (script by John Barber, art by Andrew Griffith)

They're, uh, they're okay, I guess. The Transformers one confirmed that I am tired of John Barber's take on Thundercracker, the Decepticon-gone-native-who-has-a-dog-and-wants-to-write-screenplays-and-apparently-is-crushing-on-Marissa-Faireborn. What could have been an interesting character has Flanderized into a one-note joke.

The Till All Are One one is pretty flimsy. Windblade is summoned to Earth to communicate with Metroplex (explaining why she's there in the main Revolution story), she does so, she journeys into Microspace where she meets some people, she goes home. I think this set up something about the Micronauts or Rom in the main Revolution story, but by the time I read this, I'd forgotten most of what happened when I read Revolution. The story is pretty detached from the setting and ideas that actually drive Till All Are One, aside from Windblade herself. I guess it does point toward some growing discontent from Windblade with Optimus's leadership.

I'm down with anything that makes fun of M.A.S.K. Like, why are they even called that? They don't wear masks, or anything, their power is driving cars.
from Revolution: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #1 (script by Nick Roche & James Roberts, art by Alex Milne)

Finally, the More than Meets the Eye one doesn't have any of the Lost Light crew (how could it, they died six months ago when their planet blew up?), instead focusing on the Scavengers who come to Earth so one of their members can go on an Internet date. It's a pisstake of the whole concept of Revolution (one of the characters keeps chanting about "the Brand"); the best bits are MP3, the world's worst G.I. Joe member, and the two Scavengers pretending to be members of M.A.S.K. It's not James Roberts and Nick Roche's best work, but I enjoyed it well enough and laughed several times. Which makes it the best part of Revolution. (Which is damning with faint praise.)

Crankcase accurately summarizes the plot of Revolution.
from Revolution: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #1 (script by Nick Roche & James Roberts, art by Alex Milne)
This Friday: Meanwhile, in space... we return to the Lost Light!

13 August 2018

Review: Ghost in the Shell: After The Long Goodbye by Masaki Yamada

I have a review up at USF (as always): Camille Corduri introduces Jackie Tyler to the Doctor Who Short Trips in "The Siege of Big Ben"!

Hardcover, 196 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2004)

Acquired September 2016
Read October 2016
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: After The Long Goodbye
by Masaki Yamada

While recovering from surgery, I took the time finally watch the most recent incarnation of the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell, Arise, as well as the new movie it leads into, the creatively titled Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. When I realized The New Movie's final scene echoed the opening scene of the original Ghost in the Shell film, I rewatched that, and that caused me to finally pick up this novel, which bridges the original Ghost in the Shell with its sequel, Innocence.

It was odd reading Masaki Yamada's After The Long Goodbye. Normally my rubric for character in tie-in novels is the extent to which I can imagine the actors speaking the dialogue, but I watch Ghost in the Shell subtitled, which means it's difficult for me to imagine Akio Ōtsuka as Batou speaking any of the translated-into-English lines here. That said, I think Yamada captured Batou's essence: Batou is usually silent and competent, but here we get access to his internal monologue, and it turns out that silence and competence is backed by intelligence and rumination and an increasing need to feel love. Mostly this book is about Batou trying to get his kidnapped basset hound back; like almost all incarnations of Ghost in the Shell, I didn't entirely understand the conspiracy aspects of the plot but I enjoyed it regardless for the characters and the concepts. (The reason the dogs are kidnapped is a really neat sci-fi idea.) This prose extension of Ghost in the Shell fits perfectly into the universe of the anime, and has me looking forward to rewatching Innocence with this new background in mind to complete my Ghost in the Shell journey.

(The insight provided by the afterword, a conversation between Yamada and Mamoru Oshii, writer/director of the first two Ghost in the Shell films, was a nice bonus.)

Two Years Later Addendum: I actually never did get around to rewatching Innocence. Oops.

10 August 2018

My 2018 Hugo Awards Ballot: Book Categories

This final post covers my votes in the three of the Hugo categories for book-length works: novels, YA fiction, and nonfiction. If I did a full review of a work, I'll link to that here. I only did that if I owned the book: I didn't do it for anything I read an e-version of from the Hugo voters packet, or borrowed from the library.

Best Novel 

7. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Based on what I've read of both authors, I don't think even the best John Scalzi novel could surpass the worst N. K. Jemisin novel. Scalzi's character work, world building, and prose style are all basically nonexistent-- whereas Jemisin's are astounding. So even though I didn't like The Stone Sky a whole lot, I'm quite comfortable placing The Collapsing Empire below it, as it's clearly not the best John Scalzi novel.

6. No Award

If The Stone Sky won, I would chalk it up to differing tastes and move on, even if I don't particularly think it should win. But if John Scalzi wins another Hugo, and wins it for this, I will be deeply embarrassed at the taste of the Hugo voters, so below No Award it is.

5. The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

I was nowhere near as into this as I was the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy; it did not have The Fifth Season's emotional power. And I still really liked The Obelisk Gate. But I found this installment more tedious than anything else, alas, with too much focus on aspects of the story that the book wasn't able to make me care for. I suspect Jemisin will win again, but if so, it will be in spite of my vote.

4. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This book has an excellent elevator pitch-- locked-room murder mystery with clones in space!-- and whenever I describe it to someone, they get pretty excited. The actual book, though, isn't as good as its premise. The Stone Sky might be a better book, to be honest, but I am legitimately worried that Jemisin will be the first person to score three Hugo Awards for Best Novel in a row for a book I don't think really deserves it, so I'm ranking Six Wakes higher. Is that unnecessarily negative reasoning?

3. Provenance by Ann Leckie

I thought this book was basically fine. Ancillary Justice was a thrill; Leckie's first novel outside the Ancillary trilogy isn't bad, but isn't anything special either. It's probably pretty comparable to Six Wakes in that it starts strong, but doesn't maintain that, but it holds together to a greater degree than Six Wakes, and I was pretty uninterested in Six Wakes by the time it wound down, but this maintained my interest.

2. Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I was surprised how much I ended up enjoying Raven Stratagem, given I ranked the book to which it is a sequel sixth on my 2017 Hugo ballot! But whether the book was better or I just adapted to the wacky math-based space opera antics of the Machineries of Empire series, I ended up enjoying this a lot. If the ending had felt less anticlimatic, I'd've ranked it above New York 2140, but I still would be happy to see this win.

1. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This isn't a great novel, I don't think, but I did really enjoy it, and though near-future isn't my usual kind of sf, the book does do the kind of things I like my sf to do, which is to say it's full of neat ideas about "another world" while revealing truths about the world we live in. It's clearly the best of the finalists this year.

Best Related Work

6. Crash Override: How GamerGate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight against Online Hate by Zoë Quinn

The first half of this book is a memoir: Zoë Quinn was the woman at the heart of the so-called Gamergate controversy, who for the crime of cheating on her boyfriend was subjected to an Internet harassment campaign supposedly concerned with ethics in games journalism. There's some background on Quinn, on her relationship, on the actual incident, and on the follow-up-- it basically destroyed her life and relationships for years. At times, it's surprisingly light on detail, because Quinn has little desire to relive it, and because she doesn't want to feed the trolls. The second half is a more general discussion of Internet harassment and her efforts to combat it; I had known the outline of Gamergate itself, but I did not know about Crash Override, Quinn's anti-harassment support organization. The book is mildly interesting, but not great. Quinn's treatment of events in which she herself was involved lacks emotional weight, and there are times I found the insights banal. The real deciding factor in my ranking, though, is that it's just not that relevant to science fiction and fantasy, and so ends up at the bottom of by ballot. (I think this might be inconsistent with the position I adopt toward No Time to Spare below, but oh well.)

5. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal

This book is a collection of essays about Octavia Butler, mostly in the form of letters to her. It's okay. I'm sure the letters were all deeply, individually meaningful to write, but reading a number of them becomes a bit samey, as not many of them are imbued with lots of specifics. I also have a suspicion that the number of them that revolve so much around the election of President Trump will age badly. Or maybe that's more of a hope, though it does indicate to me that I need to read Butler's Parables books. Anyway, I did enjoy several of the essays (I had a slight bias toward the academic ones, perhaps unsurprisingly), but on the whole I didn't find this book essential, and don't feel I learned a whole lot about Butler from it.

4. A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison: An Exploration with Extensive Interviews by Nat Segaloff

Two coincidences influenced my reading of this book. The first is that Harlan Ellison died about three weeks before I began reading it, making me aware of how little I'd read of his work (the only complete book being the I, Robot screenplay). The second is that a week before I began it, I was perusing the archives of the Science Fiction Research Association Newsletter, where I found this comment by Bob Collins in a 1988 issue: "In the case of especially prickly authors like Harlan, the price of an 'authorized' critical biography may well be the total compromise of the critic's integrity." Now, A Lit Fuse specifically disavows being critical or a biography; it's more like an autobiography, as Segaloff primarily strings together a number of interviews he's done with Ellison into a narrative of sorts, and doesn't really do a lot to render other perspectives on Ellison, or have any kind of objective stance. Segaloff is clearly a big admirer of Ellison, and his faults are usually rendered in an admiring way, too. Which is fine, I guess, but this book as a result, this is definitely more a book for the Ellison devotee than the general sf fan. All that said (and there's many more quibbles one could make; I thought the depiction of the incident where Ellison allegedly grabbed Connie Willis's breast was particularly poor), even though I had more interest in the Octavia Butler book going in than this book, I was still pretty much entertained throughout. Ellison knows how to tell a story, and even if many of them aren't true, or put him in an inaccurately flattering light, I enjoyed reading the book. It's not a great book, and possibly not even a good one, but it is interesting enough.

3. Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Liz Bourke

This volume collects short pieces by Liz Bourke, (mostly) book reviews that were (mostly) previously published on-line, (mostly) at Tor.com. They're very short, usually 2-3 pages long. Bourke is an okay reviewer. Several were really interesting and made me want to read the books in question, and I scribbled down some titles on my "To buy" list. Sometimes, though, I finished the review without a strong sense of why she had liked or disliked it. I think there were only two reviews of books that I had read already: Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (2013) and Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015). The latter of these was one of my favorite pieces in the book; a strongly worded negative review that made me reevaluate my take on the book, even though I really liked it myself.* (It's also the only book by a male author she reviews.) On the other hand, there's a long section where Bourke mostly reviews epic fantasy and/or sword-and-sorcery, genres that hold little appeal for me. It's clearly in the middle tier of this year's related works, but I struggled to rank it versus A Lit Fuse. There are things I definitely found more enjoyable about Lit Fuse, but I ended up deciding that Lit Fuse is not the best Ellison biography that could be written, but this is inherently the best collection of Bourke's reviews that could exist, so it succeeds at what it aims to do more.

2. No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

In a sense, this book's connection to science fiction is tenuous-- Le Guin talks about it very little-- but I enjoyed almost every minute of it, and we'll never see Le Guin's like again. So even if this book isn't about sf, sf brought me to Le Guin, and that's a related enough "Related Work" for me.

1. Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid

Related works can be trickier to compare to each other than works in, say, the prose fiction categories; what No Time to Spare and Iain M. Banks are trying to do is very different. This book is an academic monograph covering the entire sf corpus of Iain Banks-- a man whose work I have read distressingly little of (just The Bridge, The Wasp Factory, and The State of the Art). Despite that, I could tell that this was a strong piece of literary criticism, providing a couple threads that pull you across Banks's work; Kincaid emphasizes the Culture as a society, Banks's experiments with form, and Banks's anti-great man reworking of the space opera genre, among other things. It made me even more distressed at how little Banks I have read. I might have enjoyed No Time to Spare more, but I feel like this is more what this category should be about, and the kind of thing I would like to encourage. Though maybe I'm just biased as a monograph-writing academic myself. (Also, there was a citation of Bill Hardesty, an undergraduate professor of mine partially responsible for my graduate school career, so that was nice.)

Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo)

6. The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

This isn't a bad book (none of these are bad books), it's just very much not my thing. All the other YA finalists take place in magical worlds of sort, whereas this book is very much grounded in our world with a single, somewhat small, fantasy element. The main character is anorexic, but the more he starves himself, the more superpowers he gains. Most of the story is about teen love and self-image, and it's well done, but it's just not want I want out of YA fiction. (Incidentally, it is one of two books on the YA ballot to feature queer, nerdy, culturally Jewish redheads falling in love with their school's biggest jock.)

5. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Fundamentally, I enjoyed this book, but am not sure I would rank it highly in the stakes for an award. Which is to say, I enjoyed it as a cozy return to a familiar world, but am not sure we should be handing out awards to cozy returns to familiar worlds.

4. Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

I struggled ranking this versus La Belle Sauvage. Both were good, even very good, but neither quite knocked my socks off. In the end, I decided to reward innovation over familiarity. Okorafor might be working with familiar tropes, but she has done interesting things by placing them in a (to me) unfamiliar world, while Pullman has really done no such thing, as charming as a return to Lyra's Oxford is.

3. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

This isn't a perfect book, but it is a really charming, well executed portal-quest fantasy. I can imagine reading this aloud to my child someday, and I'd happily see it win, even though I feel like the author's short prose fiction is stronger-- but maybe being as good as "The Tomato Thief" is an impossibly high standard.

2. A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

What one wants out of award-winners is always tricky, of course. I feel like in a genre-based award, one wants some level of innovation in the genre, or at least perfection of it. Though I enjoyed all the books ranked lower than this one, I can't claim any of them did that. Like, I liked them, and they did do interesting things, but they're all familiar in their own ways. A Skinful of Shadows, on the other hand, is captivating and clever, and the kind of thing that I feel ought to be winning awards.

1. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Of course, one of the best YA books turns out to be one of the ones I didn't buy. In Other Lands starts out funny, with a snotty kid moving into a fantasy land. Like Summer in Orcus, the book consciously riffs on the genre's conventions, with the main character one who has read portal fantasies and thus having some ideas of what he's in for, only he doesn't want to be a "child soldier" or to solve conflicts with battle; he wants to be a diplomat. Elliot, age 13, falls in love with a beautiful elf woman from a matriarchal society, and also ends up falling in with Luke, who Elliot thinks of as a jock; Luke is the scion of a noble family in the Borderlands, and basically the coolest kid in school, the antithesis to everything Elliot stands for, but Elliot needs his help to woo Serene. All three of them are students at a training camp dedicated to defending the Borderlands from real-world incursion, where students can train as soldiers or diplomats, who are in theory of equal status, but really it's all about the soldiers. There are a lot of jokes (an early sequence where Serene can't understand why humans find topless women scandalous is a particular highlight). The book also critiques many of the conventions of the YA fantasy genre, through Elliot's determination to find another way. At one point, he also self-identifies with Eustace in Narnia, which of course won him over to me. If the book was like this all the way through, I'd probably be ranking it second or third here, on par with Summer in Orcus, which does (as I said) similar work. But it's also deeply emotional, especially in a sequence about halfway through. The book covers five years, with a different over-arching issue each year; in one, the Borderlands actually go to war! One summer, Elliot is at a party at Luke's family's house, and the emotions are painfully real depictions of what it's like to be fifteen and lonely and uncertain about your place in the world. As soon as I read that bit, I knew the book would get my top spot as long as it stuck the landing. It did. The whole novel is apparently a prequel to a short story in Kelly Link's anthology Monstrous Affections (I was telling my wife about the book and she went, "This all sounds familiar!"), so I'll have to seek that out once I've made it through all my Hugo reading.

Overall Thoughts

Last year, I wrote, "I'd be pleased if anything in my top four won in Best Novel." I could not write such a sentence this year. Indeed, if my top choice for this year, New York 2140, had been on last year's ballot, it would not have even cracked that top four! A good book, but not a great one-- as a top six of the year in science fiction and fantasy, this set left something to be desired, alas. Oh well, I suppose these things happen.

On the other hand, the very first WSFS Award for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo), soon to be the Lodestar Award probably, is a smashing success, with two excellent books and four good ones. In Other Lands was certainly the best work I read for the Hugos in any category, and A Skinful of Shadows was probably the second book. Either one, I would give Best Novel to over what I did give it to. A diverse array of interesting reads, the only thing I didn't like is that none of them were science fiction, they were all fantasy. I like fantasy, of course, but I read very little YASF, I think because there is very little YASF, and it would have been nice to see the genre get a look in. (I nominated an sf book myself, M. T. Anderson's Landscape with Invisible Hand.)

I struggle to know what will win in any of these categories. I suspect it will be Jemisin for the threepeat in Best Novel, but only because no other finalist sticks out that much. I bet Le Guin gets it two years in a row for No Time to Spare; fandom does love Le Guin. (Iain M. Banks is too academic, I suspect.) I have no sense of what Worldcon fandom's YA preferences are, so I find that category very hard to judge. Maybe nostalgia will give it to Pullman, but Okorafor and Kingfisher are very popular in fandom as well, and perhaps the obvious quality of In Other Lands will clinch it. My only real guess here is that it won't be Art of Starving.

* That said, I do find it weird that the original blog post has been updated to acknowledge that Dickinson is not a straight cis man, but the review as reprinted in Sleeping with Monsters still calls him that.

09 August 2018

Review: The Science of Empire by Zaheer Baber

Hardcover, 298 pages
Published 1996
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2017
The Science of Empire: Scientific Knowledge, Civilization, and Colonial Rule in India
by Zaheer Baber

Baber's monograph does a thing some not very good academic writers do (I see my students do it a lot, which seems like a mean thing to say, but to be fair I often do it myself in a first draft): there's a lot of information front-loaded, and then at the end he tells you what to make of it all. So for a long time you're bored, then he gets you really interested just in time to stop. The book's organization is kind of weird: 100 pages of what pre-colonial Indian science was like, then a 30-page history of the British takeover of India, then 100 pages of how the British used science in India. It feels like three different books, because Baber never unites the two halves until his 10-page conclusion. Like, what kind of point he's trying to make by juxtaposing pre-colonial Indian science and colonial British science is never established as he tells you these things; the chapters are mostly unargumentative recitations of historical fact. I was not convinced that we needed a hundred pages of pre-colonial science to buttress whatever point Baber was trying to make; on the other hand, there's very little about what the Indians did with the science the British brought.

The last ten pages were great, though. This could have been an excellent article, instead it's a dull book.

08 August 2018

Hugos 2018: Provenance by Ann Leckie

Trade paperback, 441 pages
Published 2017

Acquired April 2018
Read June 2018
Provenance by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie won the Hugo, the Nebula, and basically the everything for Ancillary Justice-- her very first novel. Provenance is her first book since the Ancillary trilogy concluded. The first was amazing, an excellent, gripping, clever novel. The second was low-energy and disappointing. I haven't yet got around to the third. Provenance takes place in the same universe as the Ancillary books, but is entirely unrelated.

In terms of quality, Provenance is somewhere between the first and second Ancillary books. It's about a young woman who comes up with a desperate plan to curry favor with her mother, breaking someone out of jail to get him to help her locate artifacts he stole. It feels a little generic YA at times: I liked Ingray, but she is brave and clever and nice and resourceful, and is on the verge of tears a little too often. (The back cover calls her "power-driven" but this is completely untrue.) The beginning is quite good, as you figure out what Ingray is up to, and she keeps being thwarted in her desires; no sooner do you figure out her plan than it is completely upset by a new revelation, one that made me actually say "uh oh" aloud.

But after that I felt the book tapered off. About halfway through, Ingray's original goal just kind of dissolves and the books feels like it's treading water for a while with incidental details before it finally gets going again... but then it's moving in a completely different direction, and a new plotline with only tenuous links to the first. This is exciting, but not as interesting as what the book's beginning promised, I think. It's never bad, but it feels generic in a way that Ancillary Justice did not, which had strong attention to cultural detail and a cool sf hook with the ancillaries. Provenance doesn't have a cool sf hook; the technologies here are all pretty bog-standard stuff you've seen in other sf. A good adventure book, but I had hoped for more from the author of Ancillary Justice.

07 August 2018

Review: Revolution by John Barber & Cullen Bunn and Fico Ossio

Comic PDF eBook, n. pag.
Published 2017 (contents: 2016)
Acquired January 2018

Read March 2018

Written by John Barber & Cullen Bunn
Art by Fico Ossio
Colors by Sebastian Cheng
Letters by Tom B. Long

I believe I previously compared IDW's Dark Cybertron crossover to Crisis on Infinite Earths, but Revolution is the real Crisis on Infinite Earths analogue. Cosmic threat, disparate groups of heroes, big status quo changes. Revolution crosses Transformers over with a set of Hasbro-properties-turned-IDW-comics, some preexisting, some made into comics for this event: G.I. Joe, Rom, M.A.S.K., Micronauts, Action Man. I think that's all of them. When I first read Crisis, I had only a dim notion of the world in which it took place; I was a DC comics neophyte. That's not too dissimilar from my reading of Revolution-- I know IDW's Transformers very well at this point, but G.I. Joe only from previous Transformers crossovers, Action Man from the tragically truncated Saturday morning cartoon of 2000 to 2001, and the rest not at all-- yet Crisis worked for me while Revolution didn't.

You always know a character is The Girl One because they have a romantic history with half the male team members.
from Revolution #1

Part of this is intellectual and unfair. Crisis draws on its participants', well, conceptual weight. Historical weight? I dunno. You might not have actually read a Blue Beetle comic, but you know that Blue Beetle has a decades-long preexisting history when he turns up. You might not have read an Earth-3 story before, but you know that the Justice League has been there many times. And this even bleeds over into worlds newly established for Crisis, like Earth-6. But here, Rom and M.A.S.K. and Micronauts and Action Man... it's just like, why should I care? They were basically made up for this story, so seeing them in danger here has no effect. They have fifty days worth of history, not fifty years.

Literally no one else was worried about this, dude.
from Revolution #4

Related to this... these concepts don't seem all that good? Fifty years of evolution mean that every DC character to appear in Crisis had been refined and honed over the years. They were all good ideas... to some extent at least. But like M.A.S.K. is like Knight Rider times five or something? And Action Man is a man who is good at action? And the Micronauts are just small folks? Except they come from a universe where everything is small, so they're not really small in a meaningful way. Like, Transformers started out dumb, and still kind of is, but thirty years have allowed it to accrue some good concepts and ideas. I can't say the same for any of the other concepts here.

I do like how Soundwave seems to believe polite apologies make up for genocide. (This does seem to work for Transformers, judging by Megatron.)
from Revolution #5

Which leads me to my next point... Cullen Bunn and John Barber's story doesn't work on its own terms, either. It's a jumble of characters no one gives you a reason to care about. Like, M.A.S.K. supposedly has a moral dilemma when they realize Transformers are sapient, but their characterization is so flimsy, and the reasons so nonexistent, that you can't get interested in this dilemma. But if you don't care about that, all you've got left is people in super-cars... which is not interesting, and doesn't play to the strengths of the comics medium. Exactly who was doing what when with a magic space rock was another thing I could never really discern. Say what you will about the Anti-Monitor (and I have), but he provides Crisis with a focal point. Revolution is murky. What's at stake? I dunno.

If only I cared about you or your morality, Scarlett.
from Revolution #2

Fico Ossio is an above-average artist when it comes to drawing figures for IDW, but I found his panel-to-panel storytelling unclear at times.

Oh, gee, a character I don't care about has switched from one team I didn't care about to another team I don't care about! (I actually didn't even recognize her until the Transformers wiki clued me in.)
from Revolution #1

I shudder to think how this is going to negatively impact the IDW Transformers line, which has already (outside of More than Meets the Eye) been moving in a direction I don't care for. It has definitely solidified my plan to not pick up Optimus Prime. When the regular series resume, it'll be Lost Light and Till All Are One for me, and that's it.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... it is still a time for Revolution!

06 August 2018

Review: Star Trek: Discovery: Fear Itself by James Swallow

Trade paperback, 292 pages
Published 2018

Acquired June 2018
Read August 2018
Star Trek: Discovery: Fear Itself
by James Swallow

Prequels are the thing of Star Trek: Discovery novels-- there will be no Discovery in Discovery. This one gives us some backstory for Lieutenant Saru, probably my favorite character in the main cast. Not backstory in the sense of showing his origins (I believe one of the upcoming Short Treks will do this), but it's an adventure for the USS Shenzhou set about two years before the Battle of the Binary Stars, showcasing Saru during his time as a junior science officer.

The actual story is kind of like, eh, whatever. I didn't really care about what happened to the Peliars or the Gorlans. Not that it was poorly done per se, but it did seem to run afoul of "Planet Zog" syndrome (from Doctor Who): a lot of people with strange alien names that were hard to grab onto at characters. Though I'm making it sound worse than it was, as they and their society did have their moments.

Anyway, the real highlight of the book is the thought and care it puts into its central character, Saru. Saru is, of course, a coward, but justifiably so in his own mind, and Swallow does a great job of keeping us inside Saru's mind throughout the novel. He's fearful, of course, but Swallow marries this with a sense of determination and obstinacy that the character also possesses, along with the occasional plausible instance of recklessness. I liked that Saru's most un-fearful moments came when he was able to empathize with someone else's fear, and then help them move beyond it. It's not something we've seen on screen, but it makes perfect sense with the screen portrayal of the character thus far.

Saru also gets thrust into command of a boarding party, and flounders at first but eventually shows some aptitude for it, culminating in a decent speech that I could see and hear Doug Jones performing (coinciding with his arc in chapter 2 of Discovery's first season). Additionally, there's a great scene that gives insight into Saru without him being present, where Michael Burnham explores his quarters, and starts to see the universe from his perspective. And finally, the novel's last chapter, where Saru and Captain Georgiou reflect on what he's learned from the experience, was very effective in showing Saru's slow growth, as well as Georgiou's strengths as a commanding officer. I felt Swallow had a better handle on the Burnham/Saru rivalry and Georgiou's tolerance of it than David Mack did in Desperate Hours, where it came across as unprofessional.

Overall, another solid Discovery novel. Between these three books and the 2018 Star Trek Annual, we're racking up backstories for the crew at a fair clip. Sylvia Tilly is next, and with Una McCormack writing, I can't wait!

(Fun bonuses: 1) the cover is the best in the series thus far, with the background making it look less like a generic stock photo, and 2) the writing on the cover is embossed! I don't know the last time a Star Trek book did that. It made me nostalgic for the 1990s when it happened all the time.)