28 June 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part III: Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume Two

Comic trade paperback, 199 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1965-68)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2013
Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume Two

Writers: Gardner Fox, John Broome, Mike Friedrich
Artists: Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams, Sid Greene

I liked the first volume of Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups all right... the second one is much less successful. Can we all promise to never speak again of the two John Broome stories here that make use of Doiby Dickles? Ugh. Other than that, there's a couple good Flash stories here (Fox and Infantino are pretty dependable) and some so-so stories about the Atoms of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Not much else of interest, except for that beautiful Murphy Anderson art of the ever-lovely Black Canary.

26 June 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part II: Crisis on Multiple Earths

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2002 (contents: 1963-66)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2013
Crisis on Multiple Earths

Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciller: Mike Sekowsky
Inkers: Bernard Sachs, Sid Greene 
Letterers: Gaspar Saladino, Milton Snapinn, Joe Letterese

With the door between Earths-One and -Two having been opened by the Flash, not only did characters start crossing between Earths, but whole groups of them-- the annual team-up of the Justice League and the Justice Society quickly becoming a staple of the comics of the 1960s and 1970s.

There's a lot of fun to be had, of course, and Gardner Fox has it, though two teams of six-plus characters means that the characterization often has to be put on the back burner to the punching and the shouting and the improbable twists. Why do villains who can transmute elements need to rob banks? Fox never stops getting creative with the characters' powers and abilities, though-- there are some great, odd fight scenes here.  "Crisis on Earth-One!" and "Crisis on Earth-Two!" are pretty typical team-up stories once you subtract the alternate Earth element.

"Crisis on Earth-Three!" introduces the first alternate Earth that did not derive from a previous comic book: Earth-Three, the home of the evil Crime Syndicate of America, evil versions of the Justice League. It's a weird story-- Power Ring's power ring is so powerful as to beggar belief. At first he uses it to put vibrational energies into the Crime Syndicate so that when they touch someone and say a certain word, they'll be vibrated into Earth-Three. I can just about buy that. But then he rigs things so that when the Justice Society says that they've won a fight, they'll be vibrated away.  What the--!? If it can do something so powerful and specific, then surely it can do all things! How can you ever beat someone with a power ring? I did like the idea put forth in this story, though, that one's home Earth is intrinsically biased towards one. Thus, a fight between the Justice League and the Crime Syndicate will be won by the League on Earth-One and the Syndicate on Earth-Three-- it can only be neutral on Earth-Two!

"Earth-- without a Justice League!" introduces some interesting ideas that it doesn't quite play through. The evil Earth-One version of Johnny Thunder (the first time we've seen the exact same person on both Earths, actually) uses Johnny's Thunderbolt to rid history of the Justice League, creating a new Earth which he dubs Earth-A. Unfortunately, the implications aren't really thought through, as Johnny has to tell his gang that the Justice League doesn't exist anymore... but surely they would have never even heard of it? The idea of Earth-A isn't really explored, though, as all Johnny does in this new timeline is rob banks. Then, when the Justice Society crosses over to Earth-A, Johnny has the Thunderbolt substitute his crooks in the past for the Justice League members, turning them into replacement Justice League members... the evil Lawless League. But how does this actually work? We see one thug get hit by the lightning bolt that gave Barry Allen his Flash powers, and another surrounded by atomic energy becoming the Atom, but Superman's powers derive from him being a Kryptonian-- there's no place you could substitute a human for him to make that human into Superman!  Similar problems exist for the Martian Manhunter, the Green Lantern, and (worst of all!) Batman. An attractive idea, perhaps, but sheer nonsense as executed.

The last story, "Crisis between Earth-One and Earth-Two!" is perhaps the most barmy one yet. In addition to people randomly popping between Earths, the Spectre discovers that Earth-One and Earth-Two are going to crash into each other. This is no mean feat, given that Earth-One and Earth-Two actually exist in the same physical space, but vibrate at different rates. One could take this as symbolic... only the Spectre grows to enormous physical size to hold the Earths apart! And then, the Anti-Matter Man begins walking down the Spectre to one of the Earths! I guess it could all still be symbolic-- the Atom mentions that all of the events are happening in "warp space," not physical space. Anti-Matter Man is actually a great "villain"-- a silent, eerie explorer from the anti-matter universe (which I suppose is the same universe that the Anti-Monitor and the Weaponers of Qward come from) who doesn't know (or maybe doesn't care) that stepping foot on a planet of matter will cause massive destruction. (He can walk on the Spectre because the Spectre isn't made of matter, but it's not really explained how the Justice League and Justice Society fight him without exploding.) This story gets pretty nuts, but so much so that I felt I had to like it.

24 June 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part I: Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 223 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 1961-68)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2013
Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume One

Writers: Gardner Fox, John Broome
Pencillers: Murphy Anderson, Dick Dillin, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane
Inkers: Murphy Anderson, Joe Giella, Sid Greene 
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino

Having finished Birds of Prey, it's time to move on to my next comics-reading project: Project Crisis!, which is a journey through the spine of the DC Universe, its various "crisis" crossovers. Starting with the old "crises on multiple Earths," I'll then move on to Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis. There's a lot there, and much of it is well-regarded for what it did, not how it did it, so I'm curious to see what I'll think of it all.

Before all those big, multiverse-shattering mega-events, though, comes the stories collected in Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume One. Here we have nine single-issue stories, most of which are about superheroes crossing the dimensional boundaries between Earth-One and Earth-Two. These stories aren't exactly the most sophisticated by modern standards, but there's a certain thrill to them-- Gardner Fox correctly identifies, I think, that the idea of there being multiple Earths is just fun, and working your way through all its various permutations is guaranteed to be interesting.

"Flash of Two Worlds!" of course introduced all this parallel-Earth malarkey to DC, and is justly famous, but I also enjoyed "Double Danger on Earth!", where Jay Garrick crosses from Earth-Two to Earth-One in pursuit of a vital meteorite that was destroyed on his world but might still exist on Barry Allen's, or "Invader from the Dark Dimension!", where strange creatures from a dimension outside of both Earths, made up of pure darkness, menace our heroes. Fox never really repeats his old triumphs, continually aiming to do something new and unusual.

The only story here not written by Gardner Fox is "Secret Origin of the Guardians!", John Broome's somewhat overcomplicated tale of the two Green Lanterns meeting one another. It lacks the energy that Fox brings to his stories-- not to mention that delightful Carmine Infantino art that features in all the Flash stories.

Interestingly, there are also a couple stories here that don't feature trans-dimensional team-ups, but team-ups isolated to Earth-Two.  "Solomon Grundy Goes on a Rampage!" and "Perils of the Psycho-Pirate!" feature Doctor Fate, Hourman, and the Earth-Two Green Lantern in somewhat typical superhero team-ups, while "Mastermind of Menaces!" does the same for Starman and the Black Canary. Then there's one last story, "The Hour Hourman Died!" which has no team-up element at all, but it's called a "bonus feature," so I guess that's okay. Most of these stories are fine, but lack the certain frisson that comes from the parallel-Earth setup. "The Hour Hourman Died!" is pretty neat, though-- a clever concept.

21 June 2013

Review: Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Trade paperback, 721 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 1864-66)
Acquired and read September 2012
by Wilkie Collins

With some five (I think) characters named Allan Armadale, this isn't the world's most straightforward novel. But then, what Wilkie Collins novel is? It's a solid, middleground Collins effort: this is no The Woman in White or The Moonstone, but at least it's not Heart and Science, either. Rather, this sits comfortably alongside No Name as a compelling mystery/thriller. It's got its odd elements-- the dream, the use of marriage laws, the ending-- but Lydia Gwilt is probably second only to Count Fosco in the pantheon of Collins villains (I'm always fascinated by how the Victorians depict female villainy), and I must admit to a sympathy for poor, put-upon Ozias Midwinter.

19 June 2013

Review: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin

PDF eBook, 281 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1973-96)
Read June 2013
The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, Volume One: Where on Earth

This volume collects Ursula Le Guin's personal favorites from amongst her realistic short stories, though "realistic" is a little broadly defined, as it includes not only ordinary literary realism, but but stories set in her made-up Central European country of Orsinia and some with sf or fantasy elements, and at least one that is overt fantasy. Delightfully, all of them were new to me (I suspect that if I'd read Volume Two, that would have been different).

I was surprised by how much I liked the Orisinian tales: "Brothers and Sisters," which opens the book, was probably my favorite story in the book, an observant tale of two groups of siblings in a (I think) late-nineteenth-century mining town, all of them trying to figure out growing up and their places in the world. For all that it takes place in a made-up country, it felt very real. "A Week in the Country" and "Unlocking Air" were also quite good, and I absolutely loved "The Diary of the Rose," an sf tale set in a country that seems a lot like Orsinia, about a doctor in a mental hospital assigned to "cure" a patient whose only disease is disagreeing with the state. Heart-wrenching, ultimately.

"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," about a girl who survives a plane crash and is adopted by a coyote, was another strong installment, justly oft-praised.  "Sleepwalkers," which is about a group of people at an Oregon coastal hotel, was also really quite good; it's a group of characters who are all watching each other, and you jump from perspective to perspective, and see how no observation is ever right, even if some are much closer than others.  "Hand, Cup, Shell" has a similar feeling, as a graduate student interviews the wife of a deceased education professor for her supervisor's book, and ends up involved in his family for a day.

I wanted to like "The Water Is Wide," about a widowed brother who is committed, and the only person who cares for him is his widowed sister, but despite a strong start it got weird, and not in a good way.  "Horse Camp," about a group of characters at a riding camp, wasn't really about enough to work, and I didn't get the point of "Ether, OR," about an Oregon town that moves around, though it certainly had its moments.  The only stuff that didn't really work at all were the short, more observational stories, like "The Lost Children," "Texts" (what a great idea, though), or "The Direction of the Road."

Overall, it's every bit as good as I'd expected a collection of Le Guin's best short stories would be. I must seek out the second volume at some point.

17 June 2013

Review: The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe

Trade paperback, 429 pages
Published 1976 (contents: 1833-49)
Acquired April 2012
Read September 2012
The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe
edited by Harold Beaver

This book collects all of Edgar Allan Poe's short fiction that could be reasonably dubbed "science fiction"-- and perhaps some of it, unreasonably dubbed. It's an odd, difficult collection; one suspects that Poe's influence on modern sf comes not via his actual sf, but the material he wrote that we now would dub "horror"; surely "The Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Tell-Tale Heart" has inspired more sf than "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" or "Some Words with a Mummy."

Still, this is an important and interesting set of stories. You really can see Poe working through what he thinks the genre we now call "science fiction" is: fantastic extrapolation, but with scientific rigor or at least claims to rigor. This especially comes through in the stories that were intended to be hoaxes, such as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," which tries really hard to convince you it's about a man who really did go to the moon.

To my surprise, I ended up liking some of the really weird stuff, like the dialogues between dead(?) spirits, "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" and "The Colloquy of Monos and Una."  "Some Words with a Mummy" was good fun, and there were creepy moments in "The System of Dr Tarr and Prof. Fether."

What the heck is up with "Eureka," though? A more brave mind than mind will have to try to untangle that.

14 June 2013

A Visit to Earthsea, Part III: The Farthest Shore

Mass market paperback, 197 pages
Published 1980 (originally 1972)
Acquired August 2008
Read September 2012
The Farthest Shore
by Ursula K. Le Guin

I liked Arren, the young protagonist of this Earthsea book, a lot, as he learns to mature, and the Raft People are completely awesome. Still, this seems the weakest of the first three Earthsea books, a pale retread of A Wizard of Earthsea in some ways. In fact, one wonders why this book's antagonist  isn't a callback to the first one, given the echoes. As with the first book, the dark climax is the best part.

12 June 2013

A Visit to Earthsea, Part II: The Tombs of Atuan

Mass market paperback, 146 pages
Published 1975 (originally 1971)
Acquired July 2008
Read September 2012
The Tombs of Atuan
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Earthsea novel doesn't focus on Ged, but Tenar, a young girl who is supposedly the reincarnation of an ancient priestess. It's darker and more confined than the first book, or indeed, any Le Guin book I can remember, but I liked it for that. Some aspects seemed a little underdramatized, but it was pretty much on par with the first book on the whole. Good, but lacking a spark of greatness.

10 June 2013

A Visit to Earthsea, Part I: A Wizard of Earthsea

Mass market paperback, 198 pages
Published 2004 (originally 1968)
Acquired November 2007
Read September 2012
A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Considering my love of Le Guin's sf, which I first encountered back in 2003 or so, it baffles understanding that it took me nine years to get around to reading her fantasy. But here it is. It is simpler than her sf is, very much a bildungsroman of a very uncomplicated sort, I think. That doesn't stop it from being good, but one ends up suspecting that the Le Guin who gave us The Left Hand of Darkness could have given us something a little more striking than this. We don't get into Ged's head the extent to which we do other Le Guin protagonists.

All that said, Earthsea is of course an awesome and well-delineated environment, and the dark climax of the novel is fantastic.

07 June 2013

Review: The Essays of “George Eliot”: Complete: Collected and Arranged, with an Introduction on Her “Analysis of Motives” by Nathan Sheppard

Kindle eBook, 288 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1852-68)
Read May 2013
The Essays of “George Eliot”: Complete: Collected and Arranged, with an Introduction on Her “Analysis of Motives” by Nathan Sheppard

Nathan Sheppard's anthology collects ten essays by George Eliot, which mostly seem to come from early in her career, pulled out of the literary magazines. The best of these is probably "The Natural History of German Life," which can be seen as a manifesto for the way Eliot approached social ills; traces of it have been noted by many critics in Middlemarch, amongst other novels. She argues that observation is of utmost importance, but also that is a difficult, fraught process, especially when it comes to human beings: Eliot says that if we could see what image of the working classes was meant "by many who theorize on those bodies… we should find that they indicate almost as small an amount of concrete knowledge-- that they are as far from representing the complex facts summed up in the collective term" as someone whose rides a train sometimes is able to represent the complexities of railroads. The danger of sociology when it comes to reforming society is that it is not able to see people with the complexity that they possess.

Eliot does not suggest, however, that all observation is impossible, or even that observation's imperfection ultimately makes it unusable. She believes that statistics can be useful in solving social problems, but appeals made on their basis "require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity," which art-- such as the novel-- alone can provide; this is why "the unreality of their representations is a grave evil." What Eliot ends up suggesting here is an alliance between the novel and science. The distance of science can be combined with the closeness of the novel to make truly useful observations, for a true understanding of character will "check our theories, and direct us in their application." The novelist’s knowledge of character is necessary to all society.

But people are so complex that the more we investigate, "the more thoroughly we shall be convinced that a universal social policy has no validity except on paper, and can never be carried into successful practice." People are not particles; their movements cannot be reproduced by a set of physical laws that apply universally.

If observation is flawed, and if no theory can ever be universal, what are we left to work with in creating a better society? Eliot suggests that wise social policy will be based "on the natural history of social bodies," but if one cannot even know one’s neighbors or even one’s self (as many of her novels suggest) then how can such social policy be put into practice? In her essay, Eliot suggests that W. H. Riehl responds appropriately: he is "able and willing to do justice to the elements of fact and reason in every shade of opinion and every form of effort" even when the larger picture is not immediately apparent. Eliot suggests that when we ally sympathy with observation, we can do good, and even if we have misunderstood the situation, our good can be good enough anyway.

All of this feels like a rebuttal to Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences by George Henry Lewes, her husband, which posits that we can know people well enough to create a social theory that will generate a utopia. Eliot, I would argue, is skeptical of all this.

Of the other essays here, I particularly enjoyed "Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming," where Eliot skewers a particularly bad example of a particular sort of preacher, and "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," where she skewers several particularly bad examples of a particular sort of novel. Apparently, I like my Eliot being mean (and she does do a great putdown), but I like her even more thoughtful, and this book showcases her at her thoughtful best.

There's an overly lengthy essay by Sheppard about Eliot's characterization, and of course I agree with his statement that "if the analysis of human motives be her forte and her art, she stands first, and it is very doubtful whether any artist in fiction is entitled to stand second." But I'll save my full thoughts in that direction for my reviews of her novels.

05 June 2013

Review: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens

Trade paperback, 801 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1836-37)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2012
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club
by Charles Dickens

This book just isn't funny. It is on rare occasions, but on the whole, it's not. In a book of 801 pages, though "rare occasions" is not often enough. There were moments I really liked it-- Pickwick's supposed ancient artifact, Pickwick's stay in prison-- but on the whole I was reading quickly to try to end it quickly.

I may have to give it another shake someday, though. I was forced to read it quickly because it was exam reading, and maybe reading at a more leisurely pace, I would have appreciated it more.

03 June 2013

Review: A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation by John Stuart Mill

Hardcover, 622 pages
Published 1970 (originally 1843)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2012
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation
by John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is a smart man. Maybe even too smart, as this book reveals, with its 622 pages on the workings of science. Mill traces how science can go from observations to inductions to deductions.  It's solid, if exhausting, work, never missing a step, concept, or idea along the way. I find it interesting the way that Mill splits out the act of observation from logic, saying that it precedes reasoning. A useful warning, I think, for those of us who might want to think that all scientific acts are logical ones.

His dedication to the human and the ethical in all this is the most striking; he hopes science will show us that men and women are not all that different, and he argues that many generalizations about man and society assume that human nature never changes-- an argument that would later be one of the bases of On Liberty.

I used a lot of judicious skimming to get through this book quickly (I was reading it for my qualifying exams), but when I read some of the prose aloud to explain its tortured quality to comrades, I realized it wasn't tortured at all. Despite some difficult, theoretical subject matter, Mill writes attractively. Who else could make logic sound so beautiful?

01 June 2013

Reading Roundup Wrapup: May 2013

Pick of the month: The Ring Goes East by J. R. R. Tolkien. A hard month to make this call: I read a lot of good books.  Both The Ring Goes East and The War of the Ring were seriously contenders, but ultimately I gave the nod to this one because of the awesomeness of Frodo, Sam, and Faramir. Who would have though that a book about slogging through a swamp could be so good? Other favorites, though, included Birds of Prey: Trouble in Mind, Superman: Miracle Monday, and Iris: Abroad (probably my favorite Iris Wildthyme anthology thus far).

All books read:
1. Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle by Gail Simone and Marc Andreyko
2. Birds of Prey, Volume 1: Trouble in Mind by Duane Swierczynski
3. Superman: Miracle Monday by Elliot S. Maggin
4. Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly
5. The Ring Goes East: Being the Fourth Book of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
6. Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume One by Gardner Fox with John Broome
7. Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Mark Tyler Nobleman
8. The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future by Nathaniel Beverley Tucker
9. Enter Wildthyme by Paul Magrs
10. A, A′ [A, A Prime] by Moto Hagio
11. Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville
12. The War of the Ring: Being the Fifth Book of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
13. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Volume Ten: War by John Jackson Miller
14. The Essays of “George Eliot”: Complete: Collected and Arranged, with an Introduction on Her “Analysis of Motives” by Nathan Sheppard
15. Iris: Abroad edited by Paul Magrs and Stuart Douglas
16. Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups, Volume Two by Gardner Fox and John Broome with Mike Friedrich

All books acquired:
1. Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women by Carol Dyhouse
2. Star Wars: Knight Errant, Volume Three: Escape by John Jackson Miller
3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Volume Ten: War by John Jackson Miller
4. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception by Michel Foucault
5. The Jack Kirby Omnibus, Volume Two: Starring the Super Powers by Jack Kirby with Joe Simon, Dennis O’Neil, Martin Pasko, Steve Sherman, Michael Fleisher, Joey Calvieri, Bob Rozakis, and Paul Kupperberg
6. Time & Space Visualiser: The story and history of Doctor Who as data visualisations by Paul Smith
7. Star Wars: Adventures: Chewbacca and the Slavers of the Shadowlands by Chris Cerasi

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 512