15 April 2024

Apocalypse Still by Leah Nicole Whitcomb

Apocalypse Still: Stories by Leah Nicole Whitcomb

Apocalypse Still is a thin collection of short stories (141 pages according to my Kindle), mostly kinds of fantasy or sf set in our present day or the near future—like it'll be our world, but there are vampire or zombies or something, or someone is part-alien or has superpowers. A lot of the times, this is clearly meant to be read in a metaphorical register, like a person denying the existence of zombie plague even when they have it and are spreading it themselves is meant to be a metaphor for COVID. This is author Leah Nicole Whitcomb's debut book; I won it for free from LibraryThing's EarlyReviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

Collection published: 2024
Contents originally published: 2023-24
Acquired: March 2024
Read: April 2024

In her influences at the end, Leah Nicole Whitcomb names one sff author (Octavia Butler) but three ones that we more associate with "literary" fiction, and this tracks with how the book itself feels: one-quarter sff, three-quarters literature. There's a bit from an essay by China Miéville that I think about a lot, possibly too much, where he discusses how metaphors and literalism work in science fiction, and the difference between how sff writers approach it and how non-sff writers approach it: 
When 'mainstream' writers dip their toes into the fantastic, they often do so with the anxiety of seriousness, keen to stress that their inventions are really 'about' other, meaningful things....
     By contrast, those firmly within the fantastic tradition know that the unreal will always be read metaphorically – what is the human mind but an engine to metaphorize and process metaphors intended and found? – but that there is also pleasure in its literalism. In Swift, for example, Gulliver's journey to Brobdingnag... clearly casts a remorseless light on Swift's own society; it also, however, features a sword fight with a giant wasp, a passage the enjoyment of which depends on the specific uncanny/estranging impact of literalizing the impossible: simply, it is a great, weird idea. Weirdness is good to think with, and is also its own end.
Elsewhere in the same essay, Miéville talks about how one of the pleasures of sff is its "technique of rationalized (rather than free-for-all) alienation from the everyday." Whitcomb's work feels to me like it approaches its "weird ideas" as metaphors and not as literal things. There's a lot of stuff here clearly meant to reflect back onto the society in which we live... but we don't get much of that other pleasure of sff, the "uncanny/estranging impact of literalizing the impossible." For me, it's experiencing both of those registers at once that makes the genre so enjoyable, but there's not much "rationalized alienation" here. Too many of the stories end with their impossible occurrence; it's the reveal or the twist or the sting. But this means that the story doesn't get to explore the impossible thing, to pursue its implications and its consequences, and it's doing that—giving the reader a world structured around an impossible idea—which allows a science fiction or fantasy story to make its unreal thing seem real. Without that, it's only metaphor.

With a couple exceptions (more on them later), I wouldn't say any of these are bad stories, but for the most part, they aren't what I want from and enjoy in my science fiction and fantasy. The title story, "Apocalypse Still," is the zombie one I mentioned earlier, and it's fine. "Superhuman" is another that ends with what makes the story interesting, instead of beginning with it. "Antenna" has a character discovering her secret, weird heritage, but again ends with her making the interesting decision about it. I did like a lot about "Race Play," which feels like a dark take on Kindred, about a black woman and white man who fall in love in 2015 but realize they are reincarnations of a slave and slave owner, but it has a totally unnecessary second part.

The two I didn't like were "Entangled," which is a sort of plotless revenge story, and "The Town of Los Valles," which is about a black family who gets kicked out of an Airbnb, but gets invited to a friendlier community, and there's no plot or conflict after that point, it's just twenty pages of them having a nice vacation! I kept waiting for a reveal that never happened.

These stories all do the one thing Miéville identifies—they are metaphors for racism and homophobia and misogyny in our world—but they don't do the other, they don't make you imagine other worlds. They're not badly written for the most part, but they feel like they come from outside the genre rather than within it.

12 April 2024

In the Market: Being on an Academic Hiring Committee

Every year since I landed in my current position, my department has hired at least one new assistant teaching professor of academic writing; every year we take in more students, so every year we need more faculty to deliver those course. The year I was hired, the committee was entirely tenure-track faculty but over the years, the role of ATPs has grown, from a token one to being the entirety of the committee. Things seemed to work their way down the department in terms of seniority. Last year my friend Cari asked me if I was going to do it, as I was the most senior ATP who hadn't, but she would do it for a second time if I wouldn't. I dithered, and so she not only ended up on the search, but chairing it! So I was definitely on the hook this year, and I was even made search committee chair.

giving a job talk is stressful
If you want to buy me a beer, I am happy to tell you all kinds of things about the hiring process, but for here I want to restrict myself to three things that I learned.

A Strong Cover Letter Is Important. Obviously I knew this intellectually, but going through the pile of applications made me incredibly grateful for the strong mentoring I got in graduate school. For me personally, what I was looking for was a clear specific articulation of how the candidate approached the teaching of writing. I wanted two things: a sense of an overall approach or philosophy, and a sense of a concrete applications of this, like an assignment or a classroom activity. This is a teaching-focused job, so though knowing about your scholarship/service is good, it's not the main thing we care about... but anyone can say they love teaching, and lots of people have lots of experience, so seeing your approach to it in a meaningful way is hugely important.

You Really Want the Finalists to Succeed. Obviously candidates are emotionally invested in their own success, but I didn't realize how much I would be rooting for every candidate. In previous searches, I have seen candidates bomb a talk, and intellectually, I knew that they must have done well up until that point, but this time, I felt how much I wanted these people to succeed. You had a hundred applicants, you brought in two or three or four—you brought in these people because they were the best, because they impressed you the most, and you want the rest of your department to see how good they are, what a good job you and your committee did on the search. Though in some ways it would make your life easier if one candidate came in and said something racist (now the choice is obvious!), you really do want to be in the bind of having multiple really good candidates. (If any of my candidates are reading this: none of you bombed the job talk. I mean it.)

It Feels Very Satisfying to Be on a Search. You can do a lot of "service" in higher ed that ultimately feels pointless, committees that accomplish nothing by incompetence, apathy, or design. So a search committee is a very satisfying undertaking! By the end of the process, there is someone in your department who was not going to be there without you, and that person is very good at what they do and will make a noticeable difference. Your department is demonstrably better than it was before you did what you did! How often does that happen? And if nothing else, there's a person who without you wouldn't have gotten a job.

A lot of people complain about searches, and I can definitely imagine ways in which they might be terrible (bad politics, bad colleagues, bad candidates), but none of them applied to us. I very much enjoyed the process, and though I don't know that I would do it again next year, and nor would I be in a rush to chair again, I would happily do it again in the future, knowing there's a positive addition I could make.

10 April 2024

Marvel Action: Chillers by Jeremy Whitley, Bill Underwood, et al. / The Death of Doctor Strange: Bloodstone by Tini Howard and Ig Guara

from Marvel Action: Chillers #2
(art by Bill Underwood)
I cap off my run of Elsa Bloodstone comics with two one-off stories that are part of larger events, but read pretty much fine on their own. First, Marvel Action: Chillers #2 has a frame story about Riri Williams (I think she is the girl Iron Man?) and Doctor Strange investigating... something, I already forget. What really matters is that they come across evidence of a magical battle between Elsa Bloodstone and werewolves—one of whom is Captain America! The bulk of the story is a flashback to that battle.

In this story, Elsa is a teenage monster hunter, not the full-grown woman we've seen elsewhere, but otherwise she's recognizably the same character, perhaps a bit less over-the-top violent than she was in, say, Nextwave (see entry #3 below). (It would be hard not to be, admittedly.) She's a bit of an eager beaver, keen to team up with Captain America. Overall, it's a pretty simple story: she fights Captain America, figures out what's wrong with him, the two work together to defeat the werewolves, the end. But once you subtract the frame, there are only about fifteen pages to work with, so how complicated can it get? 

I know Jeremy Whitley's writing from IDW's My Little Pony comics, which is generally solid, and Bill Underwood is new-to-me as an artist but someone I'd like to see more of. Fun enough, and does exactly what it says on the tin, as Elsa might say. Had anyone putting together the Bloodstone & the Legion of Monsters trade (see #1 below) thought about updating its contents for its 2022 rerelease, it would have fit well in there, sans frame.

from The Death of Doctor Strange: Bloodstone #1
So too would have The Death of Doctor Strange: Bloodstone #1. Part of the problem with reading through Elsa Bloodstone comics is that many significant things have happened to the character in comics where she is not the main character. Sure, I was happy to read Nextwave, where she's part of an ensemble cast, or Monsters Unleashed! (see #5 below), where she was a secondary lead for part of the run. But if you look at her entry on the Marvel Chronology Project, you will see that she pops up all over the place: four issues of Wolverine vol. 2, then four issues of Fearless Defenders, two issues of Avengers World, three issues of A-Force, three issues of Doctor Strange: Damnation, two issues of Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider, and so on. Did I really want to pick up a bunch of storylines where Elsa was a mere side character? I decided no. But this does mean that things get imparted about her that I didn't get to read. Most significantly... she got a brother? Her mom was pregnant at the end of the original Bloodstone miniseries (see #2 below), but Cullen Bloodstone is a fully grown man, part monster, so not the same guy. Actually, digging into the MCP further, he mostly appears in Avengers Arena and Avengers Undercover, but not actually very many stories that also feature Elsa! So even if I had read all of those stories, Cullen still might have been a surprise to me.

Anyway, this story has Elsa and Cullen living together in Bloodstone Manor, which in this story seems to be outside London, not in Boston, on a night where monsters are running amok because Doctor Strange is dead, negating many of the spells he used to keep the monsters tied up. What Elsa and Cullen soon discover is that they are not the only Bloodstone children, there's also Lyra, a child Ulysses had ten thousand years ago, before he became immortal, and she's been in suspended animation since. The three siblings must learn to work together and tame their own demons, literal and metaphorical. (Cullen turns into a deadly monster when he's not careful.)

from The Death of Doctor Strange: Bloodstone #1
The result here is a very solid piece of comics from writer Tini Howard and artist Ig Guara, both creators whose past work (on Death's Head and The Omega Men respectively) I have enjoyed in the past. Howard, in particular, knows how to balance the inherent goofiness of superhero-adjacent comics with strong character work. I hope to keep reading more by her. Guara does some good action (and this story has a lot of that) and also is strong enough with faces to carry the conversations in the art. I feel reasonably certain that like most event comics, The Death of Doctor Strange was probably pointless (I am sure he got better), but also like many event comics, some of the tie-ins are interesting enough on their own. I wonder if any future writers will do anything with the set-up this story ends with, because it's a good one for Elsa and her weird family.

"Little Red Fighting Hood" originally appeared in issue #2 of Marvel Action: Chillers (Oct. 2020). The story was written by Jeremy Whitley, illustrated by Gretel Lusky and Bill Underwood, colored by Nahael Ruiz and Heather Breckel, lettered by Valeria Lopez, and edited by Elizabeth Brei. 

The Death of Doctor Strange: Bloodstone was originally published in one issue (Mar. 2022). The story was written by Tini Howard, illustrated by Ig Guara, colored by Dijjo Lima, lettered by Joe Caramagna, and edited by Tom Groneman. It was reprinted in The Death of Doctor Strange Companion (2022).

This is the penultimate post in a series about Elsa Bloodstone. The next installment covers Elsa Bloodstone: Bequest. Previous installments are listed below:

  1. Bloodstone & the Legion of Monsters (1975-2012)
  2. Bloodstone (2001-06) 
  3. Nextwave, Agents of H.A.T.E. (2006-07)
  4. Marvel Zombies: Battleworld (2006-15)
  5. Monsters Unleashed! (2017-18)

08 April 2024

The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 7

The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 7
edited by Neil Clarke

I have come to look forward to Neil Clarke's Best Science Fiction of the Year volumes, the only (I think) best-of anthology going to cover all of the sf genre and nothing but the sf genre. I like getting a sense of the best of the genre has to offer, especially from the not free-to-read magazines, which often get a lot less attention online, and the original anthologies, which rarely cross my radar. I pepper the stories from them in among my other reading; this year that meant it took me about six months to get through the thirty-one stories collected in this volume. If I had a complaint, it would simply be that the pandemic has put the series behind and it still hasn't caught up: volume 7 came out in 2023 but collects stories originally published in 2021.

Collection published: 2023
Contents published: 2021
Acquired: September 2023
Read: October 2023–March 2024

As always, there's a lot to like here even when every story isn't exactly to my taste, and I appreciate the anthology introducing me to writers I haven't (as far as I remember, anyway) previously experienced. My favorite in this volume was the very first story, "Muallim" by Ray Nayler, which I previously wrote up here, a neat story about the uses to which a remote Asian village puts a UN educational robot that the its benefactors didn't quite intend. But that doesn't mean it was all downhill from there or anything. Other highlights included:
  • "Proof by Induction" by José Pablo Iriarte. This was a 2022 Hugo finalist, so I had read it before, but it's a neat story about digital consciousness uploading and what some of the implications of that might be.
  • "The Pizza Boy" by Meg Elison. A neat tale about a pizza delivery boy... in space! Where he works is a war zone, and the lengths he has to go to to gather ingredients are often illegal. Fun but serious at the same time, which is how I like my fiction.
  • "I'm Waiting for You" by Kim Bo-young. Complicated story about a man taking a relativistic flight so that he can line up with one being taken by his fiancée, so they will keep their ages consistent at their wedding, only then his flight is delayed, so she has to adjust, so then he has to adjust, and it all gets quite convoluted and sad.
  • "Hānai" by Gregory Norman Bossert. Aliens come to Hawaii to track down a woman who allegedly committed an enormous anthropological crime. Well observed character work and strong prose, neat exploration of a variety of cultural differences.
  • "The Equations of the Dead" by An Owomoyela. A kid in a criminal organization is supposed to eliminate someone he's fallen in love with... and then ends up getting in way over his head, in a story involving mind uploads.
  • "Complete Exhaustion of the Organism" by Rich Larson. I didn't totally know what was happening here but I very much enjoyed it anyway. Two people are on some kind of walk, trying to get away from some kind of weird society, but are followed by a child who comes back no matter how often they abandon it.
  • "Bots of the Lost Ark" by Suzanne Palmer. Like "Proof by Induction," this was a reread, but I find Palmer's Bot 9 stories incredibly charming and well written, so I was happy to reread it. A little robot is the only hope of a massive spaceship that finds itself out of control, its human crew incapacitated, in what is possible hostile territory.

Those are just a few that stick out to on skimming back over the table of contents, but there are a number of other worthwhile stories here. There were only a couple that I did not enjoy; there were several stories included from an anthology called Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future, and these I found missed more than they hit, the kind of near-future futurism that dates too quickly because it's too timely; only three years later, I didn't feel like the authors had called it correctly. One of them was my least favorite story in the book, Ken Liu's "Jaunt," which was less a story and more like worldbuilding and background for a story. (It's a bit hermit crabby, actually.) But I have previously established on this blog that Ken Liu works for me much less often than he seems to work for other people.

Some of this content you can get online, of course (I have linked to them above when so), but the benefit of the volume is to get all of it in one place. Hopefully this series catches up soon!

05 April 2024

Hugos 2024: The Finalists

The drama from the 2023 Hugo Awards will probably continue for some time, but the 2024 Hugo Award finalists have been announced—so it's time for me to get my books and start reading! Last weekend, I ordered all my books, and I have until approximately mid-July to get it all done. I'm estimating that's 7,751 pages of reading to complete in 103 days, so a pace of 75.3 pages per day is what I will need. Fairly doable, I think, but we'll see!

Before I begins, some thoughts on some different categories: (I'm not going to do every category, just ones I have opinions about based on the finalists.)

Best Novel

  • The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty (Harper Voyager, Harper Voyager UK)
  • The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera (Tordotcom)
  • Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh (Tordotcom, Orbit UK)
  • Starter Villain by John Scalzi (Tor, Tor UK)
  • Translation State by Ann Leckie (Orbit US, Orbit UK)
  • Witch King by Martha Wells (Tordotcom)

I think this is the most interesting Best Novel finalist list I've seen in some years, in that it contains three novels I literally know nothing about! I've never heard of Adventures of Amina or Saint of Bright Doors, and all I know about Some Desperate Glory is that I recognize the title. The last couple years have felt kind of stale, in my opinion, so it will be nice to have some totally new-to-me authors.

Translation State is Leckie's fifth novel in the Imperial Radch milieu, but I haven't got to it yet, so it's good to have the motivation. I know of Martha Wells, of course, but I didn't even know she had a non-Murderbot novel (fantasy, I'm assuming) out last year, so that will be interesting.

Starter Villain I will be skipping under my "you are allowed to skip books that there is absolutely no chance you will enjoy" rule. Scalzi does snarky would-be supervillain? Please don't.

Best Novella

  • “Life Does Not Allow Us to Meet”, He Xi / 人生不相见, 何夕, translated by Alex Woodend (Adventures in Space: New Short stories by Chinese & English Science Fiction Writers)
  • Mammoths at the Gates by Nghi Vo (Tordotcom)
  • The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older (Tordotcom) 
  • Rose/House by Arkady Martine (Subterranean) 
  • “Seeds of Mercury”, Wang Jinkang / 水星播种, 王晋康, translated by Alex Woodend (Adventures in Space: New Short stories by Chinese & English Science Fiction Writers)
  • Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher (Tor, Titan UK)

This is also a pretty interesting Best Novella list. Only two Tordotcom novellas, plus one Tor novella! (Wouldn't want to confuse those things.) I didn't know it was possible. Two of the six are Chinese translations; I guess some Chinese Worldcon members from last year exercised their nominating rights. I'm interested in seeing what new thing Arkady Martine has come up with.

Best Graphic Story or Comic

  • Bea Wolf, written by Zach Weinersmith, art by Boulet (First Second)
  • Saga, Vol. 11 written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
  • Shubeik Lubeik, Deena Mohamed (Pantheon); as Your Wish Is My Command (Granta)
  • 三体漫画:第一部 / The Three Body Problem, Part One, adapted from the novels by 刘慈欣 (Liu Cixin), written by 蔡劲 (Cai Jin),戈闻頔 (Ge Wendi), and 薄暮 (Bo Mu), art by 草祭九日东 (Caojijiuridong) (Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House) 
  • The Witches of World War II written by Paul Cornell, art by Valeria Burzo (TKO Studios LLC)
  • Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Phil Jimenez, Gene Ha and Nicola Scott (DC Comics)

I often groan at the Best Graphic Story finalists (last year's Cyberpunk 2077 tie-in being a case in point), but this one looks interesting, with the usual Saga nomination, plus a few things I haven't heard of (Bea Wolf, Your Wish Is My Command), something from the usually dependable Paul Cornell, and a Wonder Woman comic with a top-notch creative team.

I don't see any evidence that there's an English translation of The Three Body Problem adaptation, so I may be giving it a miss.

Best Related Work

  • All These Worlds: Reviews & Essays by Niall Harrison (Briardene Books)
  • 中国科幻口述史, 第二卷, 第三卷,(Chinese Science Fiction: An Oral History, vols 2 and 3) ed. 杨枫 / Yang Feng (8-Light Minutes Culture & Chengdu Time Press)
  • A City on Mars by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith (Penguin Press; Particular Books)
  • The Culture: The Drawings, by Iain M. Banks (Orbit)
  • 雨果X访谈 (Discover X), presented by 王雅婷 (Tina Wong)
  • A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller, by Maureen Kincaid Speller, edited by Nina Allan (Luna Press Publishing)

Last year, volume one of Chinese Science Fiction: A History was a finalist, and it was not translated, so I am wondering if that will be true again this year. Discover X is a professional podcast, I think? The other finalists look solid and the exact kind of thing I like to see in this category: two collections of sf criticism, an art book by the late Iain M. Banks, and a nonfiction book about colonizing Mars. Thankfully no Twitter threads or conventions.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  • Barbie, screenplay by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, directed by Greta Gerwig (Warner Bros. Studios)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, screenplay by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein and Michael Gilio, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Paramount Pictures)
  • Nimona, screenplay by Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor, directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (Annapurna Animations) 
  • Poor Things, screenplay by Tony McNamara, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (Element Pictures)
  • Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham, directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson (Columbia Pictures / Marvel Entertainment / Avi Arad Productions / Lord Miller / Pascal Pictures / Sony Pictures Animation)
  • 流浪地球2 / The Wandering Earth II, based on the novel by 刘慈欣 Liu Cixin, screenplay by 杨治学 Yang Zhixue, 郭帆 / Frant Gwo, 龚格尔 Gong Geer, and 叶濡畅 Ye Ruchang, script consultant 王红卫 Wang Hongwei, directed by 郭帆 / Frant Gwo (中影创意(北京)电影有限公司 / CFC Pictures Ltd, 郭帆(北京)影业有限公司 / G!Film (Beijing) Studio Co. Ltd, 北京登峰国际文化传播有限公司 / Beijing Dengfeng International Culture Communication Co, Ltd, 中国电影股份有限公司 / China Film Co. Ltd)

I was assuming Dune, Part Two would be on the list, but then I remembered that only came out this year. My wife really liked Nimona, so I'm looking forward to seeing it, and though I haven't actually done anything to watch it up until now, I am curious about Barbie. I really enjoyed the first Spider-Verse movie, so am glad to have a reason to see the second. Poor Things doesn't sound good but I guess I will give it a shot.

Despite the title, The Wandering Earth II is a prequel to the first Wandering Earth movie; they're based on a novel by Cixin Liu. Hopefully it stands alone, and hopefully it has an English release.

Thankfully, no complete seasons on the ballot!

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  • Doctor Who: “The Giggle”, written by Russell T. Davies, directed by Chanya Button (Bad Wolf with BBC Studios for The BBC and Disney Branded Television)
  • Loki: “Glorious Purpose”, screenplay by Eric Martin, Michael Waldron and Katharyn Blair, directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Marvel / Disney+)
  • The Last of Us: “Long, Long Time”, written by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, directed by Peter Hoar (Naughty Dog / Sony Pictures)
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: “Those Old Scientists”, written by Kathryn Lyn and Bill Wolkoff, directed by Jonathan Frakes (CBS / Paramount+)
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: “Subspace Rhapsody”, written by Dana Horgan and Bill Wolkoff, directed by Dermott Downs (CBS / Paramount+)
  • Doctor Who: “Wild Blue Yonder”, written by Russell T. Davies, directed by Tom Kingsley (Bad Wolf with BBC Studios for The BBC and Disney Branded Television)

I nominated "Those Old Scientists" and "Wild Blue Yonder," so am happy to see both on the ballot; I am not surprised that "Those Old Scientists" and "Subspace Rhapsody" made it, as they are the exact kind of things Hugo voters love. But confession time... I am way behind on Strange New Worlds (I cheated and watched (some of) "Those Old Scientists" out of order), so I will need to watch nine SNW episodes in addition to the finalists in order to get the context!

Only one MCU thing this year across both sets of Dramatic Presentation finalists! Maybe our long national nightmare really is coming to an end.

Best Game or Interactive Work

  • Alan Wake 2, developed by Remedy Entertainment, published by Epic Games 
  • Baldur’s Gate 3, produced by Larian Studios
  • Chants of Sennaar, developed by Rundisc, published by Focus Entertainment
  • DREDGE, developed by Black Salt Games, published by Team17
  • The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, produced by Nintendo
  • Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, developed by Respawn Entertainment, published by Electronic Arts

I don't care about videogames, but my wife and kid play Tears of the Kingdom, so I might actually vote for it.

Lodestar Award for Best YA Book

  • Abeni’s Song by P. Djèlí Clark (Starscape)
  • Liberty’s Daughter by Naomi Kritzer (Fairwood Press)
  • Promises Stronger than Darkness by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Teen)
  • The Sinister Booksellers of Bath by Garth Nix (Katherine Tegen Books, Gollancz and Allen & Unwin)
  • To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose (Del Rey)
  • Unraveller by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan Children’s Books; eligible due to 2023 U.S. publication by Amulet)

Always happy to have an excuse to read more Frances Hardinge. Again, it's a stronger set of finalists than we've had in recent years, with only one being a sequel to a previous finalist. (Promises, which is the one I will skip, not having enjoyed the first book in the sequence at all.) I like Kritzer, Clark has done some good work, I've never read any Garth Nix even though he's kind of a big deal, and I've never even heard of Blackgoose. So Promises aside, I'm very into this set of books.

Overall, I think it's the strongest Hugo ballot we've seen in a few years... at least, that's how I feel before reading it!

03 April 2024

Who Is the Black Panther? by Reginald Hudlin, John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, et al.

While there have been some long gaps between Black Panther runs, that was not true once Christopher Preist's came to an end. Less than two years after Black Panther vol. 3 #62, Marvel debuted a new Black Panther title with Reginald Hudlin as writer. The opening story arc, Who Is the Black Panther?, carefully reintroduced the character and his setting, evidently aimed at a readership who had not previously read any Black Panther comics or only had a vague awareness of the character.

from Black Panther vol. 4 #1
Honestly, it is a bit jarring to read this coming off of Priest's run. While in Priest's run, Wakanda was a major, active force in international geopolitics, here the NSA doesn't even know that Wakanda is anything other than a "primitive" African nation. I get that a bit of a soft reset is often needed when comic titles start over, but it's made particularly jarring here by the fact that the person who delivers all of the exposition about Wakanda is Everett K. Ross, a character introduced by Priest! How can you carry over him but not the fact that Wakanda prominently annexed part of Canada and was involved in an international war with Atlantis and the United States? (Maybe a lot of time has passed? Everett K. Ross seems to be drawn about two decades older here!)

These aren't the only changes Hudlin introduces to the Black Panther mythos. This story retells how Ulysses Klaw killed T'Challa's father, the previous Black Panther, but now instead of it happening in Wakanda when Klaw stumbles in, here it happens at an international summit. (This is clearly the inspiration for T'Chaka's death in Captain America: Civil War.) It also seems that Queen Raimonda was around T'Challa's entire life; as McGregor told it, she would have been back in South Africa for some of the events Hudlin places her at here. T'Challa also suddenly has an uncle we've never seen before, who in fact acted as Black Panther when T'Challa was a child. Where was this guy during, say, all the trouble with Killmonger?

from Black Panther vol. 4 #6
The biggest change is probably the introduction of Shuri, Black Panther's sister. Since I knew the character from the movies, I've long been wondering when and how would she be introduced. Would she have been sent overseas for her own protection and brought back home? Would she be a long-lost half-sister that T'Challa suddenly learned about? Would she suddenly be added to the cast as if she had been there all along? The last one is the approach that Hudlin opts for. In some of the flashbacks this story shows us, Shuri is present at key moments in T'Challa's past, including when T'Challa ascended to the throne.

That said, of course the test of a retcon isn't how much the new continuity is different from the old, but how good the story is being told with it is. We don't get a lot of Shuri here, but what we do get is solid and interesting, as she tries to prove herself in a world that doesn't have a lot of space for her to do so, and I look forward to seeing what Hudlin does with her during the rest of his run. As for the rest of the changes, I am agnostic on them, and I will have to see how they continue to play out.

Okay, that was a lot on the continuity... what of the actual story? Well, it's okay. The first few issues alternate between exposition about Wakanda and the Klaw going around recruiting a team of villains to invaded Wakanda, along with the help of the neighboring country of Niganda. Ultimately, the problem is that the pacing seems off, there's about four issues of recruiting and two issues of invasion, meaning it seems a bit too simple and easy to fend off, and that many aspects of the story seeded in the first four parts ultimately don't really bear fruit. Why do we need to see all this stuff about recruiting the Black Knight when he barely does anything? Why all this stuff about the Radioactive Man's girlfriend when as soon as she gets to Wakanda she dies? (And grossly the male characters' reaction to her death is "at least we got to cop a feel!") Why spend so much time on the American military sending a force of cyborg zombies to "help" when all they do is show up and then T'Challa tells them to leave?

from Black Panther vol. 4 #3
Because of the structure of the story, we don't get a huge sense of Black Panther/T'Challa as a person; like in Priest's run, we mostly see him from the outside, if at all. However, in Priest's run, we often got a sense of his intelligence and canniness this way; that's not true here, where like in McGregor's run, Black Panther is often on the back foot up until he's not. Still, I'm not strongly judging here; this arc clearly had a purpose of introducing the setting and characters to an unfamiliar audience (and tweaking them for a familiar one), and there are thirty-five more issues of this series to come! Ongoing comics can't play too much of a long game, or the pleasures are eternally deferred (e.g., Marc Andreyko's Manhunter), but if we are in for the long run, I will grant you some slack to see how it turns out.

The art for this opening arc is by the famous John Romita Jr., and I think it is actually my first experience of his work.* I can't claim to be a fan of all of his people, especially their blocky noses, but his art has a strong dynamism and power that really carries you from the action on a panel-to-panel basis, so the more action there is, the better it works. The real artistic standout, though, is Dean White on colors. White's vibrant brights and lights, in particular, and strong contrasts really capture the energy and optimism of Wakanda in a world of darkness. I don't know if "JRJR" keeps contributing to this series, and I don't have a strong opinion either way, but I hope Dean White does.

from Black Panther vol. 4 #7
After the opening arc of Black Panther vol. 4 comes a single-issue story, part of the "House of M" crossover. I never read this crossover, but I think it involves an alternate timeline where Magneto rules the world? In this story, Black Panther and Storm rule Africa together, independent of Magneto, but Magneto begins to fear their power and tries to kill T'Challa; meanwhile, T'Challa recruits allies and makes his play. Probably if one read the rest of "House of M" one would care more, but parts of it were decently put together, though it seemed to me we saw more of Magneto and Quicksilver than we did of Black Panther. I did think Trevor Hairsine had some nice detailed pencil work that suited the tone of the story well.

Who Is the Black Panther? originally appeared in issues #1-6 of Black Panther vol. 4 (Apr.-Sept. 2005). The story was written by Reginald Hudlin, penciled by John Romita Jr., inked by Klaus Janson, colored by Dean White, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos (#1-2) and Randy Gentile (#3-6), and edited by Axel Alonso.

"Soul Power in the House of M" originally appeared in issue #7 of Black Panther vol. 4 (Oct. 2005). The story was written by Reginald Hudlin, penciled by Trevor Hairsine, inked by John Dell, colored Dean White, lettered by Randy Gentile, and edited by Axel Alonso.

* Actually, it looks like I have read exactly two DC books where he contributed a small amount of art, Detective Comics vol. 1 #1027 and Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 8 #9 (both 2020), but I have no particular memory of his contributions.


02 April 2024

Reading Roundup Wrapup: March 2024

Pick of the month: American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956 edited by Gary K. Wolfe. This Library of America anthology contained four novels: The Space Merchants, More Than Human, The Long Tomorrow, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Only one would I say I didn't really enjoy (More Than Human), but of the other three, two were pretty good, and The Long Tomorrow was excellent. Library of America's hit rate with its sf collections has been fairly strong.

All books read:

  1. Marvel-Verse: Black Panther (part 1/part 2) by Jerry Bingham et al.
  2. The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  3. The Magical Mimics in Oz by Jack Snow, illustrated by Frank Kramer
  4. The White Dragon: Collected comic strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Martin Geraghty, Scott Gray, Russ Leach, Jacqueline Rayner, and David A Roach
  5. American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956: The Space Merchants / More Than Human / The Long Tomorrow / The Shrinking Man edited by Gary K. Wolfe
  6. Doctor Who: Short Trips #24: The Quality Of Leadership edited by Keith R A DeCandido
  7. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Long Mirage by David R. George III
  8. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: I, the Constable by Paula M. Block & Terry J. Erdmann
  9. The Blackhawk Archives, Volume 1 by Chuck Cuidera, Dick French, et al.
  10. Star Trek: Prey, Book 1: Hell’s Heart by John Jackson Miller
  11. Star Trek: Prey, Book 2: The Jackal’s Trick by John Jackson Miller
  12. The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 7 edited by Neil Clarke 

Numerically, it's a pretty average month, but in terms of pages read I did quite well, finishing two long books that I'd been working on for a long time (two months on #2, six months on #12) and reading another book that contained four full novels (#5).

All books acquired:

  1. The Blackhawk Archives, Volume 1 by Chuck Cuidera, Dick French, et al.
  2. The White Dragon: Collected comic strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Martin Geraghty, Scott Gray, Russ Leach, Jacqueline Rayner, and David A Roach
  3. Showcase Presents Blackhawk, Volume One by Dick Dillin, Charles Cuidera, et al.
  4. Blackhawk by William Rotsler
  5. Valuable Humans in Transit and Other Stories by qntm
  6. Apocalypse Still: Stories by Leah Nicole Whitcomb
  7. Popular Writers of Today, Volume Nine: Aldiss Unbound: The Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss by Richard Mathews
  8. Popular Writers of Today, Volume Thirteen: Worlds Beyond the World: The Fantastic Vision of William Morris by Richard Mathews
  9. Popular Writers of Today, Volume Nineteen: The Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess by Richard Mathews

Currently reading:

  • Apocalypse Still: Stories by Leah Nicole Whitcomb
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Gamma: Original Sin by David R. George III 

Up next in my rotations:

  1. The Pelican History of England: 3. English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066-1307) by Doris Mary Stenton 
  2. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi 
  3. The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
  4. Star Trek: Prey, Book 3: The Hall of Heroes by John Jackson Miller

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 661 (down 2)


01 April 2024

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, Part 5: Cetaganda

Cetaganda: A Vorkosigan Adventure by Lois McMaster Bujold

In my custom Vorkosigan saga order, this is the fifth book, taking us back to the "present day" of Miles after a two-book flashback to the era of his mother.

Published: 1996
Acquired and read: December 2023

As the first Miles book following on from the events of The Vor Game, it is honestly a bit of a disappointment. Of the five books I've read so far, it's the first that doesn't feel like it moves the story forward in some kind of way, the first to not really tell me anything about its central character I don't already know. Miles and Ivan go to the planet Cetaganda, and of course find themselves embroiled in political subterfuge, plus also investigating a murder. It's fun enough, but I didn't feel like it had a strong thematic or character spine undergirding it, nothing was holding it together other than the political plot—and honestly I don't really care about the political disposition of Cetaganda, even if it does hypothetically mean war with Barryar.

So far, the Vorkosigan books are often at their best when considering cultural clashes, but I got little sense of that in this book even though it ought to be rife with it; in the rigid, ossified, stratified society of Cetaganda, one might think Miles could see a mirror to his own society. (And indeed, the cover implies such an image.) But I did not see such a thing really presented in the actual book.

Of course, it's a Vorkosigan book by Bujold, so it has good action, fun jokes, nice moments of characterization, and all comes together well. But it's the first book in the series that has felt disposable, that hasn't felt like a story that needed to be told. One knows she could do more.

Every five months I read a book in the Vorkosigan saga. Next up in sequence: Ethan of Athos

29 March 2024

Science Fiction and the Hermit Crab

In my immortality Honors class (which is probably due a post of its own, but at this point, I'll just wait until the semester is over), the students read "Lena" last week, which is a short story by Sam "qntm" Hughes that's written in the form of a Wikipedia article. As I prepared to teach it, this got me thinking: was there a term for stories, especially science fiction stories, told in nonnarrative forms? I could think of a couple examples right off the top of my head other than Lena; one was Isaac Asimov's thiotimoline stories, which are written in the form of peer-reviewed chemistry articles, another was Yoon Ha Lee's "Entropy War," which is written in the form of rules for a dice game. Some people love this form: Hughes uses it a lot, actually, so does Lee; among its most famous practitioners is surely Stanislaw Lem, who wrote a number of works of fiction in the form of introductions or reviews for books that did not exist!

I posted on r/PrintSF and r/AskLiteraryStudies asking if anyone else knew a term for these kind of tales; the latter was a dud, but the denizens of PrintSF (my favorite subreddit) came up with a bunch of examples and a couple suggestions for terms.

"Epistolary fiction" was suggested, and as a Victorianist, I am of course very aware of epistolary fiction, but what strikes me about all the examples I came up with is that it's a narrative told through a nonnarrative form. I have long had a fascination with what you might call the "non-novel novel," such as Nabokov's Pale Fire, a novel in the form of a poem with annotations and other critical apparatus. Epistolary fiction uses narrative forms, like letters and diaries, for the most part. (I once tried to do this myself. I began a book in the form of an episode guide to a fictional 1980s BBC science fiction show; my writing group seemed largely baffled but were game for it.)

There's also the term the "false document" story, which is one I'm not very familiar with, to be honest, and I'm trying to track down its precise origin and meaning. I think "false document" probably includes both epistolary fiction and what I'm trying to capture here.

The term I really liked, and had not heard before, so thanks to the PrintSF poster who suggested it, was "hermit crab fiction." If you Google "hermit crab fiction," the top hit is a locked Medium post by Dan Brotzel, but I was able to find it on the Wayback Machine. He defines them as "stories made from found verbal structures such as a shopping list or board game rules or FAQs or even a penalty charge notice," but he's not the originator of the term, which largely seems to be one used by creative writers, not literary critics. He doesn't really explain the term, but I assumed it was something like a story disguising itself by looking like something else.

But through him I was able to trace its origin, which actually comes out of creative nonfiction. Specifically, the term "hermit crab essay" was coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their textbook Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2005*). They define it as a form of lyric essay that "appropriates other forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its carapace—material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it" (111). So in its original concept, the "hermit crab" metaphor was about emotional vulnerability, something of importance to creative nonfiction, I assume, but not necessarily other genres of writing.

The emphasis on nonnarrative form isn't there in this original definition, as they say the "shells" may come "from fiction and poetry, but they also don't hesitate to armor themselves in more mundane structures, such as the descriptions in a mail-order catalog or entries in a checkbook register" (111). So if you're talking about nonfiction, a fictional form is a transformation. As the term has caught on later, though, in its use by fiction writers, it mostly seems to be about nonnarrative forms, as I said above.

They end their section on the hermit crab with this:

Think in terms of transformation. The word itself means to move across forms, to be changed. Think of the hermit crab and his soft, exposed abdomen. Think of the experiences you have that are too raw, too dangerous to write about. What if you found the right shell, the right armor? How could you be transformed? (113)

There's a big emphasis on emotional expression and protection from this transformation. To move back into science fiction, where I started, there's clearly something different at work. "Lena" and the thiotimoline stories and "Entropy War" are not about emotional vulnerability. Indeed, you might argue they're almost about the opposite. There are a lot of these hermit crab sf stories; just while writing this blog post I thought about three more I hadn't before!

I can't find any evidence of previous work on nonnarative forms in sf (which isn't to say it doesn't exist, as I haven't looked very much yet), so it seems to me something worth thinking about and theorizing further.

* At least, 2005 is the copyright date given on my library's first edition copy. The catalog entry, however, includes 2004 in the call number, and some people on the Internet claim it came out in 2003, so who knows when it was actually released.

27 March 2024

Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration by Ytasha L. Womack

Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration
by Ytasha L. Womack

I was doing some citation-checking for the academic journal I work for, and one of the essays I was editing cited Ytasha L. Womack's book Afrofuturism; looking her up led me to discover she had recently written this coffee-table book about Black Panther. Given my current project to read through Black Panther comics, it seemed like the kind of thing I ought to read, and so I requested my local library purchase a copy.

Originally published: 2023
Read: February 2024

Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration is divided into seven chapters. Not counting backmatter, the book runs about 160 pages, and it reads quickly, as it is profusely illustrated; I got through it in one day. The first chapter is the longest, a fifty-page history of the comics character from Lee and Kirby through McGregor and Priest up to Hudlin and Coates. Chapters two through six each take an aspect of the character and his world and contextualize it in African culture, African-American history, and Afrofuturism, exploring concepts such as black panthers, African religion, utopia, warrior women, and so on.

It's neat but I often wanted more depth. Even at fifty pages, the history of the character just skims the surface. The other chapters are much shorter, and I often found myself thinking there had to be more to say about, for example, Black Panther and actual African religion, than we were getting here. But perhaps then this wouldn't be the book that it is—I am a hardcore comics fan and a literary scholar, and I don't think this book is aimed at either of those small audiences, much less both of them!

As a comics fan, I found some aspects of the books a little frustrating; references to specific issues don't always give dates, and there are, for example, six different issues called Black Panther #6, so clarification is pretty important. Sometimes comics are cited by story arc titles, which isn't very precise.  At one point the book says Reginald Hudlin wrote Shuri, but he did not; he wrote Black Panther vol. 5, which starred Shuri. At another, a page of art clearly from 1991's Black Panther: Panther's Prey #2 is mislabeled as being from 1966's Fantastic Four #52. Imagine mistaking Jack Kirby for Dwayne Turner! Most consistently and most annoyingly, there is a lot of beautiful cover art included throughout the volume, but this goes uncredited more often than not.

I do feel like I'm nitpicking a bit here. This book, after all, is probably not really for me, who has read (thus far) every Black Panther comic published from 1966 to 2006, but for someone who has seen the films and wants to know more about where the character came from. I think Womack's book is particularly valuable in its positioning of the character in the history of Afrofuturism and similar movements; there's a lot of good details here about the genre, and a lot of directions an interested reader could go if they wanted to know more. I found the discussion of "protopia" particularly valuable. And the book contains a lot of beautiful illustrations, both from the comics, and from the wider social world that the book seeks to illuminate. Just know that if you're an intense fan and/or an academic, there might not be as much here as you might hope for.