23 November 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXVII: The Dream Hunters

Comic hardcover, 126 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2008-09)
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2012
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters

Original words by Neil Gaiman
Graphicplay and art by P. Craig Russell
Coloring by Lovern Kindzierski
Lettering by Todd Klein

I expected to love The Dream Hunters, P. Craig Russell's comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano's The Dream Hunters. After all, the original was excellent, and Russell's last adaptation of a Gaiman prose original, Murder Mysteries, had also been excellent. But The Dream Hunters somehow, despite typically strong artwork from Russell, never takes off. Perhaps it's that after Amano's amazing imagery, even P. Craig Russell pales in comparison? This isn't bad, but it's not sufficiently better or different than the original to justify its own existence, sadly. But maybe I went in with too-high expectations-- it's had to imagine what a work as good as The Dream Hunters original and Murder Mysteries combined would have been like.

21 November 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXVI: The Brave and the Bold: The Book of Destiny

Comic trade paperback, 156 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
The Brave and the Bold: The Book of Destiny

Writer: Mark Waid
Pencillers: George Pérez, Jerry Ordway
Inkers: Bob Wiacek, Scott Koblish
Colorist: Tom Smith
Letterer: Rob Leigh

The connections to The Sandman are even more tenuous in the second volume of The Brave and the Bold than in the first, though this is a direct sequel to The Lords of Luck. The Challengers of the Unknown spend much of the book puzzling over the Book of Destiny, but Destiny of the Endless does not actually appear.

What we get are a number of superhero teamups, as usual: Power Girl and Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Doom Patrol, Superman and the Silent Knight, and so on. They're good, but there's a spark in The Lords of Luck that's not quite present here. Is it that the connections between the stories here feel a little more forced? The Lords of Luck managed to balance the needs of done-in-one stories with an overall arc, whereas The Book of Destiny feels like a series of one-shots jammed together with an arbitrary villain. The fact that although the Challengers are the focus, they never really pop as characters (all I could remember was that "Red" was the redhead and June was the woman), which undermines the story somewhat, especially the final issue.

Still, if you focus on the individual stories and the artwork (George Pérez is joined in this volume by the almost-as-good Jerry Ordway), you have here a fun set of superhero stories. I might not ever know why what's-his-face was travelling through time and space, but I got to watch the Boy Commandos team up with the Blackhawks, and that's good enough for me.

20 November 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXV: God Save the Queen

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2007
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
God Save the Queen

Written by Mike Carey
Painted by John Bolton
Lettering by Todd Klein

When I remarked to my wife (who has not read any of The Sandman, but has patiently listened to me gab about it for over two years now) that the faerie elements of The Sandman had never been among my favorite, she said that must be true, for she'd never heard me mention them at all. And it was then that I realized how little I cared for Titania, Auberon, and the rest. Gaiman's original jaunt into this realm (the one with Shakespeare) hadn't done much for me, World Fantasy Award nonwithstanding, and neither had its various reapperances. I like Nualla, but it's her separation from Faerie that keeps her interesting, and if I like Cluracan, it's mostly because of a vague feeling that I ought to like characters like him.

So it turns out that not even Mike Carey and John Bolton, who previously came together for the excellent Sandman spin-off The Furies, can make Faerie very interesting. Though there's some good artwork here, the Faerie politics are a big fat load of "who cares?" I don't care if Titania or Mab rules Faerie, and the climax is a big load of nonsense. There's some okay stuff about a teenage girl acting out, and Bolton's art is good when it's not being exploitative, but for this story to be interesting would have required more than the 96 pages it was given; everything has to be sped through too fast to be interesting. The best part, as in so many Sandman spin-offs, is the brief jaunt into the Dreaming, not the actual story.

16 November 2012

Review: Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman

Acquired October 2011
Read September 2012
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical
by Robert Shearman

I should have known that a book of love stories by Rob Shearman would be depressing. These are very depressing.

But that's okay. It's the kind of pain that lets you know you're still alive, and you feel joy for feeling it, and maybe you even laugh inappropriately. The stories are bizarre and macabre and imaginative and quite frequently gross, but they always work. Even when a story about a woman having the world's most awkward affair is for some reason also about running over a strange and hideous creature in the middle of the night. Or especially.

I think my favorite was the one about the people who literally gave other people their hearts when they fell in love. Or maybe the one where it turns out they can measure exactly how much you love someone. Or the one where a woman is haunted by her ghost cat her entire life.

The one where Satan tries to make it as a novelist wasn't my favorite, but it was still good.

14 November 2012

Review: Campaign: An Adventure In Time And Space by Jim Mortimore

PDF eBook, 360 pages
Published 2008 (originally 2000)

Read July 2012
Campaign: An Adventure In Time And Space
by Jim Mortimore

This was not the book it was meant to be, which was already a kind of weird adventure for the original and best TARDIS team (the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan) featuring Alexander the Great. Rather's it's a meditation on that TARDIS team... and the universe. Time is coming unraveled after a trip to Alexander's era, and who the Doctor's companions are keeps on shifting. Barbara is dead... or is Ian?

Big Finish's Companion Chronicles have reignited my love for the first few seasons of Doctor Who, when the show really could go anywhere and do anything. If they had done original tie-in novels back then, and allowed them to be as inventive as the parent show, one would imagine they'd come out something like this: it's like a literary version of The Edge of Destruction mashed with The Aztecs. And about as amazing as that sounds. The ideas are inventive, the prose is clever, and even though it takes place in a multitude of alternate realities, Mortimore gets the voices and personalities of the original TARDIS team completely perfect. You feel them as real people (an approach I'm not convinced a lot of post-1964 TARDIS teams could even support); the only other work to handle them with such deftness being, I suspect, Daniel O'Mahony's "Nothing at the End of the Lane" in Short Trips and Side Steps.

The ending's a bit nonsensical, and the essays at the end are far too long, but I suppose you can't have everything. Is this the best Doctor Who novel ever? Probably not, but it's the best one I've read in a long time.

12 November 2012

Review: Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2004 (originally 1863)

Read July 2012
by John Stuart Mill

I didn't expect to like this very much. To my surprise, following on from Bentham's An Introduction to the Priciples of Morals and Legislation, I am liking Victorian philosophy. And while I admired Bentham's work, I loved Mill's. Is the Victorian period the last point where philosophers write things they expect laymen to read and enjoy reading? I don't know enough to answer that question, actually, but Mill certainly writes in such a way. I found myself fairly well-convinced by utilitarianism as an ethical and moral approach.

Much of Utilitarianism is an attempt to justify and execute a "scientific" approach to morals. From reading A System of Logic later, I would learn that this is about induction and deduction for Mill, but though he mentions them here, I don't think they're a key part of his argument. Rather, he clarifies what utilitarianism actually is, and attempt to reclaim it against charges of being centered on immediate physical pleasures, proposing that the quality of pleasure is more important to the greatest-happiness principle than the quantity. I don't know how true it is, but I want it to be true, and I think that this observation is even more true now than in 1863: "In a world in which there is so much to interest, so much to enjoy, and so much also to correct and improve, every one who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable..."

Of course the supposed danger of "rational" systems of morality is coldness, as Mill points out: "It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that it chills their moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate." But as always, he's got a comeback at the ready: "this is a complaint not against utilitarianism, but against having any standard of morality at all"! And when you might complain that he's breaking happiness down into a bunch of smaller things that aren't happiness (the Victorians were really into the idea that science was about breaking things into smaller things), he shoots back, "Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete whole." Oh yeah, I guess it is. Let's all try to increase everyone's happiness!

What's less convincing is the last chapter, which is almost 40% of the book. Mill works really hard to show that utilitarianism doesn't have to be unjust, and though I want him to be right, I'm not sure that he's right for these reasons.

07 November 2012

Review: Mumbai Noir edited by Altaf Tyrewala

Trade paperback, 279 pages
Published 2012
Acquired April 2012

Read July 2012
Mumbai Noir
edited by Altaf Tyrewala

It's been a while since I read Mumbai Noir, so I don't have the level of specific memories that an anthology review probably needs, but I remember being frustrated by a number of the stories-- but now all that stick out to me are the ones that I liked. I was more taken by the idea of a set of noir stories set in India before I realized that it is part of a series of books set in different cities that Akashic Books essentially churns out, but it still is set in a part of the world that I honestly don't read much about.  Devashish Makhija's "By Two" is the one that I remember the most clearly, about a pair of twins, one of which hides a deadly secret.  Editor Tyrewala's "The Watchman" also left an overall positive impression, about a watchman at a housing development who knows a death is coming, as did Namita Devidayal's "The Egg," about a woman in a vegetarian housing situation who just can't take it anymore.

Perhaps most intriguing was Ahmed Bunglowala's "Nagpada Blues," one of the few outright detective stories in the book. Apparently the detective (one Shorty Gomes) is from other fiction Bunglowala has published; I'll have to check it out.

Most of the weak stories have flitted away, as I said, but Kalpish Ratna's "At Leopold Café" was the most disappointing, in that it had an interesting premise, flitting between the 19th century and the present, reflecting on the changes, but I was completely unable to make sense of it.

05 November 2012

Review: Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot by Philip Henry Gosse

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2012 (originally 1857)

Read July 2012
Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot
by Philip Henry Gosse

Omphalos is famous for being the book that said God put fossils on the Earth to test our faith. It turns out to have a hypothesis not quite that bad, and I was intrigued and surprised to find myself enjoying it somewhat, as long as I skipped over the bits where Gosse describes a bunch of plants in exhausting detail.

The argument he devises is actually very compelling, if you buy his two initial premises: 1) all matter must be created ex nihilo at some point and 2) species are all unique, i.e. they cannot transmutate into one another. He also says everyone accepts that all life is circular: an adult has a baby grows up into an adult has a baby...

If you buy those two premises (which are nuts for us, but acceptable for a Victorian, even if already outside the scientific mainstream pre-Darwin), then it logically follows that all species must have popped into existence in such a way that implies past existence. When God magically creates a tree, you would be unable to discern it from a tree that had grown out of a seed. Simply analogize this to a planetary level, and you get the fact that though the Earth seems to be millions of years old, if its existence is circular, then it had to pop into existence at some point in the cycle, which would imply previous existence even if it was untrue. And all other things being equal, if you accept the Earth magically popping into existence, you may as well go with the Biblical account, of course.

All very well reasoned from completely wrong premises. It reminds me of that statement in Doctor Who that logic merely allows one to be wrong with authority. Philip Henry Gosse had authority in spades; the book's second and third chapters are actually a very good explanation of cutting-edge geological and natural historical thought. Shame that his apparently prodigious intellect was wasted so much; the book ruined him, and probably his relationship with his son, too.

Still almost a good read, though; I bet that as long as Evenings at the Microscope, or Researches among the Minuter Organs and Forms of Animal Life avoids the cod-evolutionary theory, it is pretty good.

02 November 2012

Review: Mission to Minerva by James P. Hogan

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2005
Acquired June 2012

Read July 2012
Mission to Minerva
by James P. Hogan

I loved Inherit the Stars but haven't been loving its sequels; one of my problems has been that the original novel sets up this great image of humanity clinging on beyond all hope and managing to survive when they home planet of Minerva is destroyed, the survivors riding it out on Minerva's moon as it is flung into orbit of Earth. The later novels have ignored this image, focusing on the Ganymeans, who were really only in Inherit the Stars to explain how humanity could both originate on Minerva and also share characteristics with other Earth animals. When they did focus on it, they undermined it; we've been told since that the Ganymeans scooped up the Minervans and deposited them on Earth, which is nowhere near as cool.

I was excited, then, to see that the last book in the Minervan series, Mission to Minerva would return us to that original, captivating piece of mythology. Charlie and Koriel, and all that.

Well, I should have expected that Mission to Minerva would just be the most recent disappointing sequel, the worst book in the series in fact. The first half of the book is spent working out Hogan's own hard scientific ideas for time travel, which could perhaps be possible to someone who hasn't read decades of sf that takes both time travel and alternate universes as a part of the landscape.

Hogan could maybe get away with this if it was interesting... but it's not. Not remotely. The first book made scientific problem-solving accessible and exciting; this one makes it into dull gibberish.  Here's a key moment in the novel:
"Standing waves." She turned her head back and focused on him. "Defining a structure distributed through a volume of space. That's the way to halt a test object! It propagates as a longitudinal M-wave function. If we project an interference function to create a standing wave in resonance with the normal transverse solution, it will lock into the target universe. It would force the object to materialize there."
But of course! How could I not have figured it out myself? It was obvious!

Once the characters do travel back in time to Minerva, the book doesn't really get any better. Even the original breakdown of Minervan relations turns out to go back to Jevlenese crazies-- can't humans ever do anything terrible for themselves? It doesn't help that Hogan is unable to write villainous characters without making them one-note and brutish. Complex politics are certainly not his forte.  Also, there's not even a sign of Charlie and Koriel!

When I read Entoverse, I complained about Hogan's reactionary politics. I should have counted my blessings; Mission to Minerva has characters explaining how a new glorious age is going to come into existence ad nauseam. When he shows this instead of telling it, it almost works: the book's closing image of Earthers, Jevlenese, Ganymeans, and Minervans united in a common cause is almost uplifting. But that's one moment in an overlong novel.

Inherit the Stars will always remain a favorite novel of mine. But the only one of the sequels that has even been vaguely worth my time is Giants' Star; this is definitely a case where I should have quite while I was ahead.

01 November 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: October 2012

I slowed down my exam reading this month to revise an article I'm trying to place (it's about air-ships!), so it's a little lower than normal, but not too bad.

Pick of the month: Objectivity by Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison. This is the best academic work I've read in a long time. Genuinely insightful about a very difficult topic, but also immediately and obviously useful. I can't wait to tangle with some of its implications.

All books read:
1. The Dead Boy Detectives by Jill Thompson
2. The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
3. Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
4. The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin
5. JSA: Mixed Signals by Geoff Johns and Keith Champagne
6. Objectivity by Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison
7. The Brave and the Bold: The Lords of Luck by Mark Waid
8. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
9. God Save the Queen by Mike Carey
10. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord
11. Tancred; or, The New Crusade by the Earl of Beaconsfield
12. Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
13. Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot by Peter Garratt
14. The Brave and the Bold: The Book of Destiny by Mark Waid
15. The Obverse Quarterly, Book Three: The Diamond Lens and Other Stories by Fitz-James O’Brien

All books acquired:
1. Objectivity by Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison
2. Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
4. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
5. In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu
6. The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury
7. Zoe: The History of Two Lives by Geraldine Jewsbury
8. The Doings of Raffles Haw by A. Conan Doyle
9. Star Trek: Titan: Fallen Gods by Michael A. Martin
10. Star Trek: The Rings of Time by Greg Cox
11. Two on a Tower: A Romance by Thomas Hardy
12. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
13. The Obverse Quarterly: Year Two, Book Two: Lady Stardust edited by Art Critic Panda

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 453

Review: The Two Worlds: Two Giants Novels by James P. Hogan

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 1981-91)
Acquired June 2012

Read July 2012
The Two Worlds: Two Giants Novels
by James P. Hogan

This book collects the third and fourth Minervan novels, Giants' Star and Entoverse; I already read and reviewed Giants' Star as part of The Minervan Experiment, so I'm just going to review Entoverse here.

Like Inherit the Stars before it, Entoverse sets up a scientific problem for its characters to solve. Like all of Hogan's attempts to recreate the dynamics of that original story, The Two Worlds fails at it because its premise is at once too obvious and too impossible. The answer to why many Jevlenese are radical militarists (which I felt was sufficiently answered by them being, well, people) turns out to be that the Jevlenese computer, JEVEX, is so complicated that it's actually a universe on the inside, whose properties have given arise to emergent life whose consciousnesses sometimes leaps out of the computer and into the brains of the Jevlenese, and these folks are unable to deal with their new reality.

Oh, of course. It's not exactly the elegant simplicity of Minerva in the first novel, is it?

At the same time the problem seems so bizarre, it's also super-obvious, because Hogan crosscuts the narrative between attempts to solve the mystery on Jevlen and what's going on inside the Entoverse, so the reader quickly figures it out, and spends the whole book waiting for the characters to catch up.  The Entoverse is a great idea, but it feels like an awkward graft on the Minervan novels, which haven't really dealt with this kind of science before. I like these books for their secret history of humanity!

Though this book does give plenty of that-- it's just stupid. Apparently all the terrible people of Earth history are Entoverse-escaped Jevlenese. There's also a lot of ranting by the main characters that the Ganymeans really messed up in assuming that humans were like them, since humans are intrinsically selfish and violent, and the best political systems channel this rather than ignore it. This has two problems: 1) I don't buy it and 2) the novel itself has told us that the worst humans are Jevelenese!

There's also yet another love interest for Hunt; at least this one has a vocation beyond "Hunt's girlfriend," but she barely contributes to the plot, and is pretty stupid for a supposedly experienced journalist.

I was pleased to note that my supposition that Hogan had read Kuhn was proved correct; there are two very explicit references in Entoverse.