27 May 2022

The Pool Is Open

When Hayley and I were house-hunting here in Florida, she was adamant we needed a pool. What would be the benefit of living in Florida if you didn't have a pool?

I've struggled a little bit with pool maintenance this year. Basically it's that I fall out of my routine on shocking the pool, either because I forget to add the stuff, or I forget to go to the pool store to get more of it. This has meant battling a couple infestations of yellow algae. This meant that at the point where the weather became optimal for swimming, you wouldn't want to swim in it. (I did get it under control briefly, but when we got in, Hayley grumbled it was too cold, and then the algae bounced back.)

But since the semester ended two weeks ago, I've been able to get things back on track, with regular administering of shock, the addition of some "Stop Yellow," regular vacuuming of the pool, and regular cleaning of the filter. It seemed all good last weekend, but then the weather prohibited us from swimming!

This Tuesday, though, I jumped in after mowing the lawn, and it was 85℉ and glorious. Exactly what I needed after pushing around a lawnmower in 90℉+ heat.

And so Wednesday, before dinner, we finally got in as a family for the first time this summer. The bottom is clean, the water is clear, the kids were having a blast.

One of the real benefits of summer is that we can dip in whenever we like; a quick morning swim before lunch has been one of the features of our summers. If we ever move away from here, this is one thing about Florida I will definitely miss.

The pool is open!

25 May 2022

Land of the Blind (From Stockbridge to Segonus: A Doctor Who Magazine Comics Marathon, Part 23)

Land of the Blind: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine
by Warwick Scott Gray, Lee Sullivan, Gareth Roberts, Martin Geraghty, Dan Abnett, et al.

Collection published: 2018
Contents originally published: 1993-95
Acquired: December 2018
Read: January 2022

I think at the time, this surely must have been an abrupt transition. From the dangerous and moody seventh Doctor in #211, straight into the fourth Doctor and Romana gadding about in #212. Ace and Bernice are gone without a word; the strip of course has had to write out TV companions before (i.e., Peri) but usually at least says something about it. We get nothing like that this time. For me, though, it reads a little less abruptly because of where I included The Age of Chaos, which caps off the VNA era with The Last Word and eases us into the "past Doctor" stuff with Under Pressure and The Age of Chaos itself; plus, in publication order, Bringer of Darkness opens this volume, which is sort of a second Doctor story in a seventh Doctor style, giving another transitional point.

Unfortunately, the backmatter doesn't include anything from Gary Russell, who was strip editor at the time, and thus the one responsible for the sudden, unprecedented change in the DWM comics format. No longer is the strip one ongoing story; it's now a nostalgia tour. Thankfully, Gareth Roberts does explain a bit in his notes on The Lunar Strangers: there was no longer a television programme to follow, and so the mag became a celebration of Doctor Who's history, driven in part by the VHS range, which randomly dipped into the show's history, "So he was going to follow a similarly randomised pattern in DWM." I'm not sure this would have been my choice, but it has a good logic behind it.

First, it makes sense to uncouple from the NAs: why should one range of tie-ins be beholden to another, when the other clearly doesn't care about this one? Had the strip kept following the books, Ace would have had to disappear again around the time of #223, and then two new companions would have appeared out of nowhere in #227. But if you're going to uncouple, it makes sense to do so in a strong, distinctive way: continuing to do seventh Doctor adventures, just without Benny and "Spacefleet" Ace I think would have raised questions as to why the strip wasn't consistent with the NAs (a range the mag promoted every month with the preludes!) if it was featuring the same characters. Going into the show's past gives a clear reason for the strip to be unconnected to the novels, even if I don't like the loss of the strip's ongoing nature.

from Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special 1993
Bringer of Darkness, from Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special 1993
written by Warwick Gray, art by Martin Geraghty
This is a neat little story, very effectively done. We begin our "past Doctor" adventures with the second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria, and the story follows on from The Evil of the Daleks in having the Doctor investigate if he really did kill off all the Daleks or if he needs to finish the job, and in examining Victoria's emotional reactions to the Daleks, who killed her father; Victoria narrates the story in retrospect from some time shortly after she leaves the TARDIS. Add the dark, moody art of Martin Geraghty, and it all works rather well: a story with some darkness, but also some emotional depth, and it does a neat job of foreshadowing the NAs in a plausible, interesting way. (This came out during Emperor of the Daleks!, so arguably at the height of DWM's VNA era.)
from Doctor Who Magazine #212
Victims, from Doctor Who Magazine #212-14 (May-July 1994)
story by Dan Abnett, art by Colin Andrew, letters by Enid Orc
The fourth Doctor and second Romana investigate murders on a world known for its high fashion. The best part of this is the repartee between the Doctor and Romana; Abnett captures season 17 perfectly in that regard. No, strike that; the best part is the joke about the Doctor trying on Colin Baker's coat, which made me laugh out loud. The story is a bit darker than a real season 17 story, which works; what works less well is that it's kind of a mystery... but it has exactly one suspect, who turns out to have done it. I felt like it fizzled out by the end despite a strong start. Colin Andrew does a reasonable Tom Baker, but his Lalla Ward likeness is very inconsistent; if you're going to go for this retro/nostalgia approach, though, I think you need artists who are good at likenesses.
from Doctor Who Magazine #215
The Lunar Strangers, from Doctor Who Magazine #215-17 (Aug.-Sept. 1994)
script by Gareth Roberts, art by Martin Geraghty, letters by Elitta Fell
The very first page of this one is genius, stuff only the DWM comic could do: cows in spacesuits on the moon. Nothing else here quite lives up to that. The evil space cows' evil plan didn't strike me as wholly plausible, even by the standards of reading about the plans of evil space cows, and I didn't buy the human base administrator's actions either; it turns out she's been pretending, but 1) a good fake-out needs to be plausible, and 2) if she was suspicious, she could have just locked up the evil space cows and every subsequent problem would have been avoided! Gareth Roberts does capture the voices of the fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough well, though, and Martin Geraghty draws a good evil space cow, even if I struggled to distinguish the two.
from Doctor Who Magazine #218
Food for Thought, from Doctor Who Magazine #218-20 (Oct.-Dec. 1994)
script by Nick Briggs, art by Colin Andrew, letters by Elitta Fell and Warwick Gray
In his notes, Nicholas Briggs says this wasn't his first comic strip, but it was his last. We can be thankful for this, I guess, because it feels like a first attempt, full of awkward, confusing transitions and unclear action, though perhaps a good artist could have saved the script somewhat. At least Briggs correctly notes that the characterization for Polly is downright awful.
Change of Mind, from Doctor Who Magazine #221-23 (Jan.-Mar. 1995)
story by Kate Orman, art by Barrie Mitchell, letters by Warwick Gray and Elitta Fell
This third Doctor and Liz Shaw story is, I believe, Kate Orman's only comics work, though I gather one of the characters here recurs from her novels. She has a good handle on Liz; the throughline of the Doctor trying to figure out why Liz left (this is set some time later) works very well. It has some good set pieces, such as where the Doctor and Liz use a sit-in to distract the villain, and the climax. Unfortunately, there are two mysterious men in long coats, and as Orman herself points out, some sequences are hard to follow the action of.
from Doctor Who Magazine #223
This leads me on to a different point: there are three different writers in this volume who were new to comics (essentially, as far as I can tell) in Roberts, Briggs, and Orman; contrast this against Dan Abnett, by this point highly experienced, and Warwick Scott Gray, gradually amassing a body of quality DWM work. For most of its run, the strip has been written by experienced comics writers from outside the Doctor Who world, but that's been slowly changing since the late 1980s. We've seen fan writers with little comics experience come aboard before, of course (e.g., Paul Cornell, Marc Platt), but this is the first volume where I've read a couple strips and thought to myself that the writers were clearly inexperienced comics writers. Orman mentions making mistakes of the medium: but addressing this kind of mistake the exact thing an editor ought to have been on top of! My inference would be that, say, John Freeman and Richard Starkings knew how to nurture a new comics writer in a way that Gary Russell does not. Which, if you've read any of Gary Russell's comics work, is entirely to be expected.
from Doctor Who Magazine #225
Land of the Blind, from Doctor Who Magazine #224-26 (Apr.-June 1995)
story by W. Scott Gray, art by Lee Sullivan, letters by Elitta Fell
Thankfully, the volume closes out as strongly as it opens, with another well put together second Doctor story (this time with Jamie and Zoe) from Scott Gray, now paired with Lee Sullivan. This is a clever, inventive story about a city cut off from the outside universe, with some neat turns, good villains, and one really good joke. You could have stuck this in the Dave Gibbons era and no one would have batted an eye: not crazy ambitious, but the exact kind of thing the strip ought to be doing. I breezed through it in the best of ways.
Stray Observations:
  • Surely the story should have been called Fashion Victims. It's so obvious it boggles my mind that it's not.
  • After a pretty substantial run on the writing roster, Dan Abnett finally exits the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip. It's not his final Doctor Who work; he also wrote a couple Big Finish audio dramas and the Christmas novel The Silent Stars Go by. He has also been a pretty prolific writer in American comics. My favorite comics work by him is the excellent Legion Lost, but he's also the kind of writer who will reliably churn out tie-in issues to crappy "events," so I've actually read quite a lot by him, with things like Flashpoint and Convergence. Oh, and he also invented something called "Guardians of the Galaxy"!
  • Enid Orc has got to be a pseudonym, yes? But for who...
  • I always like to imagine what my hypothetical knows-Doctor Who-only-from-the-comics reader is thinking. In this volume, it's "Who the heck are Romana, Tegan, and Turlough? Where are Sharon and Gus?"
  • It is not clear to me what comics Nicholas Briggs has written other than Food for Thought; not Doctor Who ones at any rate. You may have heard of him, though, for going on to voice the Daleks on tv, and for writing a couple Big Finish audio dramas. (I have 79 releases written or co-written by him, according to iTunes!)
  • A hard-bitten space freighter captain going, "I ain't waitin' up here to get what's due! I don't care what the hell's goin' on down there! We're goin' in now, or we'll frazz the atmosphere!" (about which another character thinks "...hell's going on down there...") is surely one of the most Nick Briggs pieces of dialogue to ever Nick Briggs. I'm sure he put his heart and soul into it.
  • How do they decide who gets cover credit on these collections, anyway? Poor Colin Andrew contributes to more strips than anyone else in this volume (he draws six of them) but is shut out by Scott Gray (writes four), Lee Sullivan (draws three), Gareth Roberts (draws three), Martin Geraghty (draws four), and Dan Abnett (writes three). Well, I'm sure it's about who is famous, either to comicdom at large, or to Who fans, but it does seem unfair.

This post is the twenty-third in a series about the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and Marvel UK. The next installment covers Ground Zero. Previous installments are listed below:

  1. The Iron Legion
  2. Dragon's Claw 
  3. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume One
  4. The Tides of Time
  5. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Two
  6. Voyager
  7. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Three
  8. The World Shapers
  9. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Four
  10. The Age of Chaos
  11. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Five
  12. A Cold Day in Hell!
  13. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 1)
  14. Nemesis of the Daleks
  15. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 2)
  16. The Good Soldier
  17. The Incomplete Death's Head
  18. Evening's Empire
  19. The Daleks
  20. Emperor of the Daleks
  21. The Sleeze Brothers File
  22. The Age of Chaos

23 May 2022

Doctor Who: Old Friends by Jody Houser, Roberta Ingranata, and Rachael Stott

 Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor: Old Friends

Collection published: 2019
Contents published: 2019
Read: January 2022

Writer: Jody Houser
Artists: Roberta Ingranata, Rachael Stott
Colorists: Erica Eren Angiolini, Tracy Bailey
Color Assistants: Viviana Spinelli, Aaron Daly & Sari Chankhamma
Letterers: Richard Starkings & Sarah Jacobs, John Roshell & Jimmy Betancourt

There's a good idea at the heart of this volume: the Doctor runs into the Corsair, an old Time Lord friend she learned died back in "The Doctor's Wife." How do you handle a situation like this? Unfortunately, I felt that that aspect of the story was barely present; I only really got what the story was going for in its last issue. If the Doctor had talked about this with her companions, it could have been highlighted more, but much like on screen, Houser's version of the fam are interchangeable recipients of exposition. There's just nothing very characterful here. What do they all make of meeting another Time Lord at last, so different from the one they know so well? Who knows. Probably this is how Chris Chibnall would handle it on screen, as in, just as dully. Not terrible, but it's a disappointment for our first real glimpse of the Corsair.

I read an issue of Titan's Doctor Who comic every day (except when I have hard-copy comics to read). Next up in sequence: The Thirteenth Doctor: Time Out of Mind

20 May 2022

Star Trek Adventures: Playing "Biological Clock"

With the conclusion of our "opening arc," my Star Trek Adventures campaign reached its first standalone episode. Way back when I pitched the game to my players, I said that you could have a whole session go by without any combat... but at some point (during episode 3, I think) one of my players pointed out that there always seemed to be some combat!

So I resolved to pick for our first standalone an episode that could emphasize this Star Trekky quality. Reviews I'd read, on both Continuing Missions and Reddit, emphasized that "Biological Clock" from the These Are the Voyages mission compilation was a good one for that classic Star Trek feel: a science focus, a moral dilemma, the possibility of the whole thing going without combat. So that was what I decided would be our first regular, standalone episode.

Episode 6: "Biological Clock"

(art by Scarecrovv on DeviantArt)
(based on a scenario by Fred Love)

Planning the Mission

So the issue I always face with prewritten STA modules is that they assume your player characters are the senior staff on a Federation starship. So how do I make my lower-decks characters the principle movers of the plot?

As written "Biological Clock" has the hero starship picking up strange tetryon readings from the planet Optera IV and arriving to investigate; they then discover unusual life-forms on the planet, alien insects that are apparently native to subspace, and probably intelligent. Ultimately, it turns out that a species called the Kavians has trapped the "Opterans" in normal space in order to harvest them for energy, not knowing that they are sentient; later, the Kavians turn up to, so the players have to stop them.

I decided to tweak things: the episode would open with the Ayrton wrapping up a week-long survey mission to Optera IV. The mission would be conducted by beaming teams down all over the planet, and having them "camp" in little bases, consisting of a mobile "sensor suite," a micro-transporter with limited range, and tents. The Ayrton would be in a low, slow mapping orbit, meaning it would be in contact only four hours out of every twenty. If a player had asked, I would have said there were relay satellites, but that they often glitched... however, no one ever did! Instead of the locations being scattered all over the planet, they would be mostly within a single river valley, which I drew out on my mat. (I meant to take a picture of this for this post, but forgot.)

the river valley on Optera IV
So the characters would be planetside, out of contact with the ship, when the tetryon readings first appeared, and would have to solve everything on their own, without the ship. Eventually, when it made sense, time- or plot-wise, I would reveal that the Ayrton was actually missing.

Other than this, I didn't make many alterations to the scenario as written, finding it to be a well-written science mystery. There were just two other tweaks I made. I did add a bit to the episode's "teaser": my players' nemesis is their shift supervisor, Lieutenant j.g. Jefferson. In the opening scene, Jefferson contacts them and tells them that they need to get two noncom geologists also in their survey party to beam back to the ship. My thought was that they could either accomplish this, obtaining an early success, or that if they failed, they would have the geologists available throughout the mission as supporting characters.

My other change was a small mechanical tweak, but is, I think, worth mentioning. In the scene Programming the Universal Translator, the characters need to adapt the universal translator to work with the unusual Opteran language (it combines sound, gesture, light, and tetryon radiation). This is given in the mission as written as two Extended Tasks: first encoding the language into the translator, then building a device that lets the characters manipulate tetryons in order to "speak." But Extended Tasks only work if there is some kind of restriction placed on them: they are basically impossible to fail, because they are something you get several rolls to complete. To make them meaningful, there needs to be some way to fail (a lot of time, this is done by applying some kind of time restriction), but as written, there is none.

the players encounter a captive Opteran
(art from These Are The Voyages)
So I made the first one just into a regular Task, with a single, high-stakes roll (Difficulty 4). The second one, I said they were adapting a transporter component... but if that they tweaked it too much, it would burn out. Their micro-transporter only had four pads, so this would drop them down to being able to beam only three people at a time if they were successful on the first go, and even fewer if it took them more than one Extended Task. I also decided to make it more interesting by stipulating that though one person could roll for the Task each time (the engineer player), they could only be helped once by any given player, the idea being that each person was helping the engineer with a different aspect of the process. I've embedded my rewritten directions below in case it's useful to anyone:

I wanted a break from the big arc of the first five episodes, so the links here were light. I made sure to seed a mention of the Kavians in episode 5, and also had the Kavians here mention the Haradin from that episode. The Ayrton was drawn to Optera IV by weird subspace readings they thought could be the signals they'd been investigating, but it turned out was not. And at the end of the episode, they learned the Ayrton had been trapped in a subspace pocked that sent them to a Micro-verse where they battled the ferocious Nano-Warriors for weeks, setting up something for episode 7.

Last note on prep. All the missions in the TATV compilation have bespoke artwork for them. One of the pieces for "Biological Clock" wouldn't work for how I changed things (it depicts the player ship encountering the Opterans in space, trying to flee the planet), but the other two would. I decided to set up my Kindle Fire in front of the GM screen, facing the players, to let them see the images while they were playing. But this meant I needed more images! Fantastically, I discovered that a user on DeviantArt named Scarecrovv had made a whole set of images for this mission. Many were of things not visualized in the mission book, including the Kavians. So I used those, too plus a photo of a river valley I found.

Kavian mole-machine
(art by Scarecrovv on DeviantArt)

Playing the Mission

For this mission, I had three players that had been with me from the beginning:

  • Hayley as Liana Carver, human science officer
  • Cari as Jor Lena, Bajoran security officer
  • Andy as Gurg bim Vurg, Tellarite medical officer

I also had two new players join the group:

  • Céline as Seleya, Vulcan engineer
  • Keith as Vivik, Arkarian pilot

I try to balance who is in command, but also didn't want to put a new player in command their first time out, so Jor Lena ended up in command. This made some nice tension: Jor is a bit of a "weapons first" player, but the mission very much calls for the opposite of that! Cari failed to get the two geologists in the teaser to beam back up as required, which kind of worked out for the players, as they came in very handy. They were older and more experienced than the players, but as they weren't officers, preferred to stay out of trouble. I gave them penchant for geology puns, and the players seemed to enjoy them; I will have to see if there is a future mission they can be worked into.

Kavian engineer
(art by Scarecrovv on DeviantArt)
Overall, the players did a good job. In previous missions, I have failed to convince them to split the party, but I did finally get them to do it here; Jor, Seleya, and Vivik went to investigate power readings in the forest (meeting a trapped adult Opteran) while Carver and Gurg went to a mountaintop with a strong tetryon readings (finding a baby Opteran). We were able to cut back and forth between the two groups, they could share information, and it gave everyone something to do. Hopefully we can keep doing this in future missions. The first couple acts are supposed to have the players not just figure out that the Opterans are intelligent, but also piece together their life-cycle; the latter I was a bit worried about, but they got it without nudging from me at all! It helped that Hayley actually is a biologist, and thus knew the significance of many of the clues; like when the Opterans shed their exoskeletons, she knew they would grow wings. (On the other hand, she quibbled with some of the terms the mission ascribed to the life-cycle.)

The players liked splitting up so much, they did it once when I didn't ask; while Carver, Gurg, and the two geologists beamed into a cave, Jor and Vivik returned to the forest to keep an eye on the molting Opterans, and Seleya stayed at base camp to operate the transporter. This let me do some fun stuff with Threat; I trapped the players in a forcefield bubble, and then—when they decided there was no rush to get out—I used more of it to trap the Opterans in one.

They seemed to have fun with the universal translator challenge I described above; they absolutely crushed it, racking up four breakthroughs in just three of the allotted five attempts. Clearly I need to make my Extended Tasks harder!

the Kavian commander, Shamra Kaladok
(art by Scarecrovv on DeviantArt)
The key turning point in the episode is when the Kavians arrive: the players need to convince them that the Opterans are sentient, to stop harvesting them, and to deactivate the polaron field that prevents the Opterans from returning to the subspace realm that is their home. I let the players handle this how they wanted; they ended up getting Kavians and Opterans to communicate with each other, and then brokering a deal on how the Opterans could voluntarily supply the Kavians with energy. They then had to convince the Kavian leader... and they got 8 successes on a Difficulty 4 Task!

The last scene of the episode is the players deactivating the polaron field. Because they had the Kavians on side, this ought to be easy... but I still had a lot of threat, so I spent 2 to create the Complication that the Kavian leader's subordinates turned against him. The players had to rescue him, and then figure out a way to get into the mantle facility and deactivate the polaron field, as their own transporter didn't have the range. They ended up beaming themselves into the Kavian transporter room and using their transporter.

I wanted to pile on the Threat here and make the climax tense... but the players succeeded at too much too fast, not really giving me the time to do this! They got four breakthroughs in just two attempts. I should have spent more of it earlier, both to make the Extended Task of shutting down the polaron field harder, and to have the Kavians break into the transporter room, so that the players' ability to beam out would be jeopardized. I am getting better about spending my Threat, but I still struggle to do it.

the subspace pocket the Ayrton was trapped in
(art from These Are the Voyages)
Still, overall my players reported enjoying the episode, and so did I. Hayley said she found roleplaying easier in STA than she ever had in D&D, because your character has more options in terms of what they can do in a scene, and so the characterization comes through in the actions you take. I enjoy that aspect of it a lot. Keith and Céline seemed to enjoy it too, and they have stuck around for episode 7...

Beyond the Rim of the Starlight:

18 May 2022

Listening to James Bond at the BBC (Part V: The Man with the Golden Gun)

Whenever I read a James Bond novel, I follow it up (in this order):

  1. any film adaptations
  2. any radio/audio adaptations
  3. any comic adaptations

Thus, I have slowly worked my way through the BBC's radio adaptations of the novels, produced by Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres since 2008; I wrote up the first four (in my order, not the release order, which is wonky) back in 2017,  and then another four in 2019. Since then, one more has been released, of the very last Bond novel, so I am doing a quick write-up here to complete my thoughts on the series.

(I don't know if there are more to come. Each of the three remaining novels seems to have some kind of disqualifying mark. I think Casino Royale's rights are more complicated than other novels; The Spy Who Loved Me has very little James Bond in it; and the BBC already did You Only Live Twice, albeit back in the 1990s with Michael Jayston. That would just leave the various short stories of For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy & The Living Daylights. Some of them would make pretty bad radio, I think, but you could do some good stuff with "For Your Eyes Only," "Risico," and "Octopussy," at least.)

I don't love these as much as others seem to, mostly because lead actor Toby Stephens just seems to be "there" as Bond and little else. There's no charm, no danger, to his performance.

The Man with the Golden Gun by Archie Scottney (2020)

This is, thus, like most of them, okay. I like the actors who play M and Felix, even if I don't like Bond, and this has good parts for both. Lisa Dillon, who plays the "Bond girl" in most of these, is in it, but plays a different character, somewhat to its detriment; I didn't think Moira Quirk quite hit the right note. The big problems of the audio, though, are mostly the big problems of the book: Bond's brainwashing is resolved too easily, Bond has no real reason to not kill Scaramanga as soon as he meets him, and Scaramanga is a bit of low-rate villain. The novel does has a good action climax, but that gets truncated and becomes less effective on audio for obvious reasons.

16 May 2022

Doctor Who: Hidden Human History by Jody Houser, Roberta Ingranata, and Rachael Stott

  Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor: Hidden Human History

Collection published: 2019
Contents published: 2019
Read: January 2022

Writer: Jody Houser
Artists: Roberta Ingranata, Rachael Stott
Colorist: Erica Eren Angiolini
Color Assistant: Viviana Spinelli
Letterers: Sarah Jacobs and John Roshell

This volume perfectly evokes the screen adventures of the thirteenth Doctor. Unfortunately, for me, that is damning with faint praise. The story is mostly the Doctor wandering around, seemingly rarely actually doing anything with any sense of urgency, following by three companions who altogether have the narrative function of a single person, until the story comes to an end without any kind of climax. It might have worked as a two-parter, but unfortunately it runs four issues. I much prefer Scott Gray's approach to thirteenth Doctor comics over in DWM (which is to tell the same kind of Doctor Who stories he always does, but with different characters in them).

I read an issue of Titan's Doctor Who comic every day (except when I have hard-copy comics to read). Next up in sequence: The Thirteenth Doctor: Old Friends

13 May 2022

Reading L. Frank Baum's Sky Island Aloud to My Son

 Sky Island: Being the Further Exciting Adventures of Trot and Cap'n Bill after Their Visit to the Sea Fairies
by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by John R. Neill

After we finished The Sea Fairies, my son was keen that Trot and Cap'n Bill should get to Oz. I did tell him that would happen someday, but also that we would first read Sky Island, where that did not happen... but what would happen is that they would meet a couple familiar characters, specifically Button-Bright and Polychrome, both of whom originated in The Road to Oz. He remembers Button-Bright if I go "don't know," his refrain in that novel (he's aged up a bit here), and we had actually just re-encountered Polychrome in Tik-Tok of Oz (which is out of publication order but I think worked well here).

Originally published: 1912
Acquired: February 2017
Previously read: March 2017
Read aloud: January–March 2022

This is one of my favorite of Baum's fantasies, and it held up for me on a reread. It has a good role for Cap'n Bill, Button-Bright shows some real ingenuity, and Trot gets a great starring role in the last few chapters especially. It basically fixes everything I didn't like about The Sea Fairies. On the other hand, I'm not sure it maintained my three-year-old son's interest; it has a more complex plot than most of your Baum journey novels, and I don't think he was terrible interested in, say, whether Ghip-Ghisizzle should rule the Blue Country. We had a bit of a slowdown in the middle of the book; we started it right at the end of January, but there was a period where he very rarely wanted to read it, and so we didn't wrap up until early March.

That said, he did ask some good questions (I drew him a map to explain how the fog bank dividing Sky Island worked when we wanted to know why they didn't just go around it), and he always got a kick out of the doggerel of the talking blue parrot that barks like a dog; he also had a big reaction to when the elephant-shaped handle of Button-Bright's magic umbrella transforms into a real elephant.

The villain of Sky Island, the Boolooroo, punishes people by "patching" them: he cuts two people in half (no Blueskin can die until they are exactly six hundred years old and pass through the Arch of Phinis) and then stitches half of one to half of the other, creating two hybrids. This kind of thing is horrifying if you think about it as an adult, but just vaguely amusing to a toddler. Anyway, one day at dinner a week or so after we finished the book, he suggested that he could combine two different candies by "patching" them into one! Not a connection I expected him to make, but I was charmed.

Sky Island is rife was interesting worldbuilding, and tantalizing hints about things that are never explained, such as the Arch of Phinis, or the fog bank. I'm a bit surprised that none of the modern-day writers of Oz fan stuff, who have picked over so much of the minutiae of the original Baum novels and explained and expanded it, have (as far as I know) gone back to Sky Island and found out how it is fairing. Trot is technically, after all, still its queen! Seems like an obvious sequel hook. (EDIT: Apparently there is a short story in the 1983 issue of Oziana where Trot uses the Magic Belt to go back.)

(Incidentally, Trot must have read at least some of the Oz books because she knows about the country, but apparently Road to Oz was not one of them because she doesn't know who Button-Bright is.)

11 May 2022

The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 5

The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 5
edited by Neil Clarke

After enjoying volume 4 of this series so much, I decided to collect past and future volumes as well. I get a lot of exposure to contemporary short sf&f by voting in the Hugos, but those have a fantasy tilt of late, and I find Clarke's selections more to my taste; of the 28 stories collected here, there is just ones that overlaps with the 18 short fiction Hugo finalists for the same period! I decided to read a story over lunch every day that I worked on campus, but I was less than diligent about this, and then also took a break to catch up on my Doctor Who Magazine back issues, so this volume ended up being stretched out in my reading from October 2020 to January 2022! As a result, my memory of some of the volume's early stories is a little murky.

Collection published: 2020
Contents published: 2019
Acquired: October 2020
Read: January 2022

"Best of"s are always a mixed bag, and I found many of the volume's earlier stories not to my taste, especially Cixin Liu's "Moonlight," which treats as novel the kind of time-travel shenanigans any 21st-century sf reader/viewer is well used to at this point. But I soon got into it, and there was definitely enough to like here to justify the volume. Highlights included:
  • Marie Vibbert's "Knit Three, Save Four" (from F&SF) is a cute story where knitting saves a spaceship from disintegrating.
  • Tobias S. Buckell's "By the Warmth of Their Calculus" (from Mission Critical) is a bit vague in my memory now... but I do remember trying to figure out if he had written more stories in this milieu, so I must have liked it.
  • Alastair Reynolds's "Permafrost" (from Tor.com) is a great, clever, involving time travel story about people who are projecting their minds back in time to head off a disaster. It's a Tor.com novella, which I like to complain about a lot, but it doesn't fit their usual style/ethos at all, thankfully. I guess they do publish unique stuff, it just doesn't make the Hugo ballot when they do.
  • Tegan Moore's "The Work of Wolves" (from Asimov's) was my absolute favorite story from the volume, a cool story of an augmented search-and-rescue dog that really captures the canine perspective, and has a great, clever ending. I don't think I'd ever read anything from Moore before, but I hope to read more.
  • A Que's "Song Xiuyun" (from Clarkesworld) was a neat story. (Again, I don't remember it much anymore, but I do remember recommending it to someone!)

There were lots of other decent ones, and even things I disliked were most just not to my taste I think; only one other than Cixin Liu's flat-out annoyed me, and that was "On the Shores of Ligeia" by Carolyn Ives Gilman, which had a sort of leap/turn in it that I found utterly implausible, and sunk what had been up until that point a decent tale. I look forward to the pandemic-delayed volume 6, and I hope I can get through it more quickly!

09 May 2022

Doctor Who: A New Beginning by Jody Houser, Rachael Stott, et al.

  Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor: A New Beginning

Collection published: 2019
Contents published: 2018-19
Read: December 2021

Writer: Jody Houser
Artists: Rachael Stott, Giorgia Sposito, Valeria Favoccia
Colorist: Erica Eren Angiolini
Color Assistant: Viviana Spinelli
Flatters: Sara Michielli, Andrea Moretto, Adele Matera
Letterers: Sarah Jacobs and John Roshell

This is the first proper installment in Titan's Thirteenth Doctor series, with a four-issue adventure for the Doctor, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan. Rachael Stott does great art, of course, but beyond that I found it pretty forgettable; it explains the mystery of the time portal in The Road to the Thirteenth Doctor, but I wasn't too fussed about that despite the ad in the back of this one trumpeting that I can pick up that story to discover the first appearance of Perkins. It is impossible for me to imagine someone finishing this story and wanting to do that, and if they did, all they would find there was a hand emerging from a time portal!

I read an issue of Titan's Doctor Who comic every day (except when I have hard-copy comics to read). Next up in sequence: The Thirteenth Doctor: Hidden Human History

04 May 2022

The Coming of the Biocrat: Jack London's The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel by Jack London
"Did you notice how he began like a lamb—Everhard, I mean, and how quickly he became a roaring lion? He has a splendidly disciplined mind. He would have made a good scientist if his energies had been directed that way." (23)

Originally published: 1908
Acquired: June 2021
Read: July 2021

I knew Jack London wrote a "yellow peril" invasion novel; I had not known that he also wrote a piece of revolutionary science fiction until I was reading Geoffrey Harpham's 1975 essay "Jack London and the Tradition of Superman Socialism." Harpham uses the term "superman socialist" to describe the protagonist of The Iron Heel, Ernest Everhard. According to Harpham, the superman socialist “[m]erg[ed] the vision of Just Society with the idea of the romantic hero” (23). The superman socialist has “scientific, factual bases for his sense of superiority” (24), but he “renounces Nietzschean amorality in favor of the proper use of genius in struggling for a better social order” (25). The superman socialist knows his violence is justified because a better world emerges, no matter who dies to create it; Harpham argues that superman socialism uses the same rhetoric as the forces it opposed, calling it “a barbaric American Kiplingism in which the fit survived and the unfit perished, to nobody’s regret—a view which lent itself to a sanction not only of superman socialism, but of empire and militarism as well” (26). I found the concept very useful in writing about Victorian sf novels featuring Darwinism; it seemed to me that the superman socialist was another form of what I call, drawing on Robert Lifton, the biocrat. But I used the concept so much I really felt I ought to go read The Iron Heel for myself!

I read this before H. G. Wells's two "biocratic" novels, Anticipations and A Modern Utopia, simply because I got ahold of it first, but am writing it up afterwards, which is eminently appropriate, not just because it was published later, but because Anticipations was a direct influence on London. In Anticipations, Wells coined the term "People of the Abyss" to refer to what he considered the lowest classes, those who didn't even labor. London actually used the term as the title of a 1903 memoir he wrote about life in London's East End, and he recycles the term here as well. The form of this book feels a bit Wellsian, too, in that it's told in the form of a book manuscript from the future, one written in the mid-20th century, but not published until the 27th, and it includes footnotes from a 27th-century annotator making clear the 20th-century cultural context to a 27th-century audience. Though actually I don't think Wells wrote one of those "found future manuscript" books until The Shape of Things to Come, which was almost three decades later. (The World Set Free seems like a future history book, but this isn't made explicit, and it also comes after Iron Heel.) It is a format others were using around this time; Henry Lazarus's The English Revolution of the Twentieth Century and Frank Attfield Fawkes's Marmaduke, Emperor of Europe are the two that stick out to me. Did London read these? Maybe he read something like them, or maybe he invented his own take on the idea out of whole cloth. The idea of us reading future annotations aimed at an imaginary future audience is clever, and a neat innovation of London, who in explaining what the 20th century takes for granted, makes it clear what the 27th century does not take for granted.

The whole book is thus supposedly by Avis Everhard, the wife of Ernest Everhard, one of the key participants in a failed socialist uprising; it gives Ernest's life and the uprising from her perspective. There's some neat stuff here, especially Avis's slow radicalization and her as a deep cover agent. But much of the later sections of the novel are told at a remove, so we don't actually live the events along with her, but just hear them summarized in retrospect. As a book, it's basically fine, but it does give good insight into a particular kind of early 20th-century socialist thinking, one that I am attempting to surface (albeit in Britain) in my own project. Ernest is a man who believes that only violence can reject capitalism and bring about socialism, and as Harpham says, the main characters seem to be as disgusted by the lower classes they are supposedly helping as they are by the upper classes they are in opposition to. The "superman socialist" decides who lives and who dies, and if you die in the cause of socialism, the death is justified: "It would have meant […] great loss of life, but no revolutionist hesitates at such things" (220). As my epigraph above highlights, Everhard is not—unlike how Lifton defines the biocrat, and unlike the Samurai of Wells's two utopias—a man of science or medicine, but London is keen to highlight that he thinks like a scientist, but sees with even more clarity, and this is what gives him the moral authority that he needs to commit violence.