31 August 2015

Review: Fort Freak: A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel edited by George R.R. Martin

Meanwhile, at Unreality SF... I review the last adventure of the sixth Doctor in The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure!

Mass market paperback, 563 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2011)
Acquired June 2012
Read August 2015
Fort Freak: A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel
edited by George R.R. Martin, assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass

I've never read a volume of Wild Cards before, and this is the twenty-first, an installment of a shared-universe anthology series that's been running since 1987, on and off. This volume is a "mosaic novel," which means it's a number of short stories and novellas woven together around a central plot; some stories you get in one part, some in three, and one in 18! It's a storytelling format I haven't seen much, but have enjoyed when the Bernice Summerfield books have tried it.

Well, I don't know if the other Wild Cards tales are any good, but I didn't like it here. The problem is that this is 563 pages of small print, but I was never invested in the story, making it a very long slog. I don't know which of these characters have appeared in earlier volumes, but even if they had, this book ought to have made me care about them more. The real spine of the book is "The Rat Race" by Cherie Priest, about a cop investigating a cold case, and I just could not have cared less about him or whether he succeeded. There are a lot of characters in this strand whose relationships the reader is never really sold on, and they need to be-- the ending totally depends on you being invested in two of them, a newspaper editor and a squid priest. There was another strand, "Faith" by John Jos. Miller, that was supposed to make you care about the squid priest, but all it did for me was layer on flashbacks full of confusing details.

Various other stories also intersect with this ongoing story, like "Snake Up Above" by David Anthony Durham (and a number of other stories; this strand is the only one with separate titles for each installment) about a snake kid who ends up witnessing a crime relevant to Priest's tale, and "...And All the Sinners Saints" by Victor Milán and Ty Franck, about his public defender and what he's doing in the meantime. Oh, and "Sanctuary" by Mary Anne Mohanraj, which seems to have little substance beyond extolling the sexy, sexy virtues of m/f/f threesomes. (Speaking of which, the book is surprisingly male gaze-y given it's co-edited by a woman; women are always being leered at, but the reverse barely ever happens.) I liked "Snake Up Above" at first, but the more it tied into the "main" plot of Fort Freak, the less it interested me. There just didn't seem to be anything at stake for the reader. I don't know if the writers were assuming I bought into the characters because I'd theoretically read earlier volumes, but it seems a bad assumption for a book that prints "GEORGE R.R. MARTIN" on the cover in giant letters, obviously hoping to lure in casual purchasers who have watched Game of Thrones on HBO and probably haven't read the preceding twenty(!) books. If these characters haven't appeared before, or if this was supposed to be written to engage a new reader, then it failed to succeed regardless.

There are also a few stories that aren't spread out, but just occur in big lumps at various points. I found these a little weird, as their uninterrupted nature means they feel important, as one plot comes to the forefront for a tenth of the book. But they're actually the least relevant to the ongoing plots. The first is assistant editor Melinda M. Snodgrass's "The Rook," about a rookie cop who barely appears in the rest of the book. I think this story poisoned the well for me, as it portrays most of the cops at Fort Freak as insular, corrupt, selfish jerks-- the guys who in theory are starring in the whole book. Its rookie protagonist is also kind of a jerk himself, and watching a jerk try to ingratiate himself with jerks doesn't really do much for me. It's made worse by the afterschool special ending, where after the rookie does one clever thing, everyone accepts him and all is forgiven.

Even more spuriously connected to the rest of Fort Freak is "More!" by Paul Cornell, about an aspiring British actress trying to make it in New York City. Cornell's story is in the first person, unusually for the book ("The Rook" is the only other story to be so), and it has an engaging voice and a sort of farcical plot-- in a good way. I didn't love it, but I did like it, and it was probably the best part of the book. Which makes the fact it had nothing to do with it telling, I suppose. I also enjoyed the also-largely-irrelevant "The Straight Man" by Kevin Andrew Murphy, which was a pretty decent police procedural tale; would it be that more of the book had been like these two. Definitely my first Wild Cards book... almost certainly my last...

28 August 2015

The War of the Worlds and Faithfulness

Martin Johnson, who's done a lot of sound design for Big Finish and Bafflegab, is producing an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds that he's funding through Kickstarter. I've pledged my support, as it looks like an interesting project (and you should too).

Inside: sex tips and future-war fiction
I was happy to see Johnson correctly refer to the novel as being written in 1897; it was first published as a book in 1898, which means a lot of people refer to it as an 1898 novel, but in reality, it was serialized in 1897, in Pearson's Magazine in the UK, and in Cosmopolitan in the US (yes, Cosmo).

But as someone who occasionally dabbles in adaptation theory, there is some fascinating rhetoric used in the project description:
This groundbreaking novel became an instant success placing fear into the hearts of children and adults the world over. In the 118 years since the novel was first serialized in Pearson's Magazine there have been numerous adaptations of Wells' original story in all kinds of media. Seven films, various radio dramas, graphic novels, television series and sequels or parallel stories all derived from the original text in some form.

The only issue with all of these adaptations is one of faithfulness to Wells' original story. Changes have included the tone and feel of the story, the geographical location, the Victorian time period in which the action is set, the fighting machine design, etc.

None of these adaptations have been truly faithful to H. G. Wells' original story; This is where we come in...
Faithfulness is kind of a weird thing. What is a faithful adaptation of The War of the Worlds? Wells's original intention was to tell a story about aliens tearing up the countryside of his readers. The book was not about an alternate history, or an assault on a distant, historical landscape. The book was about what would happen if aliens attacked you the reader, about how the imperial relationships of the reader's world would be rendered if transplanted to the context of aliens from Mars. For me, that's the essence of The War of the Worlds, that's what makes the story what it is: when the narrator's hiding in a ruined house, it could be your house.

So it's natural, then, that adaptations of The War of the Worlds are set in the present day; I would argue that Steven Spielberg was being incredibly faithful in his 2005 adaptation when he transplanted the story to contemporary New Jersey. That's what The War of the Worlds is all about. There are things about that movie that do not work, but the period transformation is not one of them. And why do we want our adaptations to meticulously maintain the original, where there still is an original? If I want to experience Martians invading Victorian Britain,* I can just read the book!

Dear Warwick,
Thanks for your illustrations.
They sucked.
Love, H. G.
I do wonder about the point of emphasizing the design of the Martian fighting-machines for two reason. The first is that if they're referring to Warwick Goble's illustrations from the serial in Pearson's, Wells actually didn't like them! There's actually an explicit dissing of them in the (illustration-free) 1898 novel version:
I recall particularly the illustration of one of the first pamphlets to give a consecutive account of the war. The artist had evidently made a hasty study of one of the fighting-machines, and there his knowledge ended. He presented them as tilted, stiff tripods, without either flexibility or subtlety, and with an altogether misleading monotony of effect. The pamphlet containing these renderings had a considerable vogue, and I mention them here simply to warn the reader against the impression they may have created. They were no more like the Martians I saw in action than a Dutch doll is like a human being. To my mind, the pamphlet would have been much better without them.
The second reason is that this is an audio drama. No one will see any tripods!

But Johnson is right that original-period adaptations of The War of the Worlds are rarely undertaken (the biggest exceptions I know of are a comic by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli and a terrible movie by Pendragon), and I look forward to hearing how they handle the transformation to audio, as The War of the Worlds is a book without much dialogue and with a lot of narration. There is this real creepy feel of loneliness and desperation in the second half of the novel that I have rarely seen adapted successfully. And I have full trust in Lisa Bowerman's directing prowess, after hearing her tackle the fantastic in the Victorian era time and again in Jago & Litefoot. So I've backed it, and I look forward to hearing it.

The Coming of the Disco Beats
Also: this Kickstarter taught me that thanks to his goofy musical version of The War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne has a trademark on the title "The War of the Worlds" in the UK, so this adaptation has to be called The Coming of the Martians. How bizarre.

* One should note, however, that the book actually takes place in the future, so if it's after January 1901, which it probably is, the book isn't Victorian, either.

27 August 2015

Review: Evolution & Ethics by Thomas Henry Huxley

Hardcover, 131 pages
Published 2009 (originally 1893)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Evolution & Ethics by Thomas Henry Huxley

Some Victorians were really into the idea of a society run along evolutionary lines, and this is easy to criticize-- especially if that Victorian is Herbert Spencer-- but Thomas Henry Huxley laid out a more nuanced than most. To Huxley's credit is that though he wants science applied to human life (laid out more fully in his earlier essay "Science & Culture"), he doesn't appeal to "nature" as some kind of obvious model for human behavior. Rather he recognizes that things are more complicated than that; for example, in his declaration that "the 'points' of a good or bad citizen are really far harder to discern than those of a puppy or a short-horn calf" (23). And unlike Francis Galton, he doesn't believe in getting rid of the "unfit," because all humans have been unfit at some point! Huxley says that the very idea that humanity is evolving to perfection is a misleading illusion; even though evolution by natural selection is not teleological, a lot of people-- including actual evolutionary biologists!-- seem to often forget that and assume some kind of endgame. (Just today, actually, I was listening to an excellent Radiolab episode about an organism that challenges our typical teleological thinking in evolution.) Huxley's essay provides a nice warning against the legitimately dangerous kinds of eugenics thinking that would come in the early 20th century. It's no wonder that his student, H. G. Wells, published a number of novels that resisted evolutionary ethical justifications, most notably The War of the Worlds; it's also quite a shame that more people didn't listen to Huxley, and instead listened to hateful people like Galton.

26 August 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part IV: Batman: Prey

Comic trade paperback, 252 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1992-2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2014
Batman: Prey

Writer: Doug Moench
Penciller: Paul Gulacy
Inkers: Terry Austin, Jimmy Palmiotti
Letterers: John Costanza, Kurt Hathaway
Colorists: Steve Oliff, James Sinclair

Year One, November - Year Two, November
This edition of Prey collects two stories; the first, "Prey" (duh), follows on pretty well from Matt Wagner's two Dark Moon Rising stories even though they were released later; Batman and the Monster Men ends with Hugo Strange becoming a television psychologist, and that's exactly what he's doing here, and even though nothing "Prey" indicates they've battled before, nothing indicates they haven't, either. "Prey" is a solid early days of Batman story, capitalizing on Batman's early inexperience, and giving him an effective villain in the person of Strange, who actually in working psychologically here, unlike in The Monster Men. My favorite bit is something you could only pull off in the comics medium; Strange is frequently seen talking a blond women in his apartment, but it's very late in the game that you learn she's only a mannequin. Only in comics would a mannequin be indistinguishable from an very complacent person.

The second story is "Terror," which is set about a year later, when Batman's rogues gallery was much more developed. (It takes place between Batman: Year Two: Fear the Reaper and Absolute Batman: Dark Victory, which are coming up later in this readthrough.) Both Scarecrow and Catwoman play key roles in the story. Unfortunately, it feels much less focused than its predecessor, and Strange is shockingly eliminated about halfway through. Effective as a "twist," and the repeated image of his corpse is haunting, but I kept on expecting him to come back to life somehow and set this story back on the path it seemed to begin on. A waste of a good villain if nothing else.

Next Week: Batman battles the Joker for the first time in The Man Who Laughs!

25 August 2015

Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation² by Scott & David Tipton, J. K. Woodward, et al.

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Acquired January 2014
Read October 2014
Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation²

Written by Scott & David Tipton with Tony Lee
Art by J. K. Woodward
Additional Art by Gordon Purcell and The Sharp Bros.
Letters by Shawn Lee, Robbie Robbins, and Tom B. Long

This should be great. This is not great. This is eight issues of people talking about things, thinking about things. Imagine all of the awesome things that could happen in a crossover between Doctor Who and Star Trek. Well, none of them happen here. The variant covers are way more interesting than any of the actions in this weirdly aimless, meandering, suspence-less comics. Some plot threads are just abandoned, while others are tied up in the most trite and obvious ways possible. Characters' facial expression vary from inappropriate to nonexistent. I bought the deluxe hardcover of this book, anticipating it despite the negative reviews. I should have listened, and I should not have wasted my money.

In Two Weeks: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory begin a new era when they visit the Crystal Palace in The Hypothetical Gentleman!

24 August 2015

Review: The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

Another five months, another review of a Big Finish trilogy an unreasonably long amount of time after it came out released at Unreality SF. Check out my take on the return of Peri after the events of The Trial of a Time Lord in The Widow's Assassin, Masters of Earth, and The Rani Elite. Rereading it, I can't believe I didn't mention that really, Peri should have just stayed dead in that one! Or that Mindwarp is Colin Baker's best television story.

Trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2002-08)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2015
The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

Seeing that I was presenting on short Indian science fiction at the Science Fiction Research Association, it seemed I ought to read the short Indian science fiction written by the conference's guest of honor. I was glad I did-- Vandana Singh is a very different writer to Manjula Padmanabhan (one might glibly say that Padamanabhan's work is all about getting out of India, while Singh's is about getting back), but also a very good one. This volume collects all Singh's published short sf as of 2008, most of which I would classify as falling on the literary end of things, some even being more stories about science fiction than actual science fiction. Anyway, it's thoughtful, inventive stuff: the title story, for example, sees a man's wife transform into a planet, to the extent that her residents colonize him!

I particularly liked "Infinities," about an obsessed mathematician; "Hunger," about a dinner party gone bad through the small cruelties all of us commit every day in our need to get by; and "Three Tales from Sky River," an inventive set of folklore from another planet in another time. My favorite story in the book, though, was "The Tetrahedron," where a giant tetrahedron just appears in a city street one day, and its protagonist must try to figure out what it's doing and why it captivates her so much. No one else understands her interest, and I felt this sentence not only summed up the story, but also the book as a whole, and was just a lesson worth remembering: "outer space, inner space, both had unknown topologies. You couldn't overlook one at the expense of the other."

21 August 2015

Colm Meaney and Other Famous Actors in Play for Tomorrow

In addition to my dissertation research, I've been reading a lot about the BBC in the 1980s for a creative writing project I'm working on. That research led me to a video, which I'll share in lieu of writing something more involved, since I am pressed for time this week!

In my meanderings, I discovered Play for Tomorrow, a spin-off of the programme Play for Today. Play for Today, as you probably already know, was a BBC drama anthology which ran from 1970 to 1984, back when British people used to call one-off television programmes "plays" and not, say, TV movies. Play for Tomorrow, as you might guess from its slightly too cute title, was a science fiction spin-off that ran for six weeks in early 1982.

One episode of Play for Tomorrow was "Easter 2016," about a student uprising in Ireland in the far future, starring, among others, a young Colm Meaney (Star Trek's Chief O'Brien), a young Kenneth Branagh (in what I think was his second television role), and a middle-aged Bill Nighy. Meaney is maybe a little old to be playing a university student, but I think he kind of gets away with it thanks to his round face.

Anyway, the whole thing is up on YouTube, though you do have to slog through a five-minute opening scene about university politics regarding name badges:

If you're too lazy or too bored to do that, this 2.5-minute scene gives you both Branagh and Meaney; in fact, they're sparring with one another! (Branagh plays the ambitious role of "Student.")

This was definitely not something I expected to discover. They did some weird and wonderful stuff on the BBC back in the day. (Still do, I guess.)

20 August 2015

Review: Visual and Other Pleasures by Laura Mulvey

Hardcover, 232 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1970-2009)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Visual and Other Pleasures by Laura Mulvey

I read this book for my exams, and I seem to have misplaced my notes, so this review is going to be necessarily slight. It was suggested to me because my research project is about vision, about how the way we see translates into the way we think, and Mulvey of course has a lot to say about how we look, especially in her famous "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Its justly oft-cited, but I found little that was of help to my own project in it, and even less in the other essays in the book. Oh well, these things happen, and it's not a fault of the book!

19 August 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part III: Batman and the Mad Monk

Comic trade paperback, 144 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2014
Dark Moon Rising: Batman and the Mad Monk

Story and Art: Matt Wagner
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh

Year One, November
I found the second volume of Dark Moon Rising less successful than the first; despite Wagner's visual flourish, things felt muddled, and not in a good way-- the book often seemed like it was lurching from subplot to subplot. And though I like the idea of seeing Batman's first confrontation with the "supernatural," I don't think Wagner exploited it as much as he might have.

Next Week: Hugo Strange returns in Prey!

18 August 2015

Review: Doctor Who: As Time Goes By by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Matthew Dow Smith

Comic PDF eBook, 90 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 2012)
Acquired May 2014
Read October 2014
Doctor Who II, Volume 4: As Time Goes By

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Matthew Dow Smith
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff
Lettering by Shawn Lee

Joshua Hale Fialkov takes over the writing duties on IDW's Doctor Who comic from Tony Lee for one volume, wherein the Doctor, Amy, and Rory land in Casablanca in 1941, and you might find much of what happens somewhat familiar... only I don't remember Bogart meeting any Silurians. This is pretty fun at first, especially thanks to the always-dependable Matthew Dow Smith on art, but I found that as the plot went on it got more complicated, and not in a good way, and thus the resolution came across as curiously cursory. Good, but not great-- admittedly, the best out of the four volumes of Doctor Who II (as the title page of this trade calls it).

Next Week: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory discover that resistance really is futile in Assimilation²!

17 August 2015

Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Mass market paperback, 150 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2011)
Acquired January 2015
Read July 2015
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Maybe it's a sign of aging (I turned, gasp, thirty last month), but I've been thinking recently about how much of our culture's stories are about youth. So many of our stories are about young people doing young things, like falling in love, getting married, and so on-- especially in these days of the YA explosion. But being young occupies a surprisingly small part of your life; you're in high school much less than you'll encounter stories about being in high school. (It was the Up series that drove this home to me, oddly enough; many more of its installments are about "growing old" than "being young.")

So perhaps I was primed to read this novel (novella, probably). The first third or so is about all that youthful stuff: going to school, making friends, dating. It's pretty good. Though these are stories you've heard before, Julian Barnes has got the touch to make them work. From A History of the World in 10½ Chapters onwards, I've always been impressed with how he writes; Arthur & George, I often say, is one of those rare books to be both well-written and well-plotted.

But the bulk of The Sense of an Ending is not about youth. It's about what you do when you've done everything, when you've gotten married, gotten divorced, raised your kids, worked your job, settled down. When you start to look back and remember what your life was like and think about who you really are. Not much happens in this book in absolute terms, but Barnes captures the constant stream of thoughts that move through our minds and turns them into the drama they really are. What's at stake is both self-perception and the understanding of others, and it's almost unsurprising how this seems to turn into a thriller as it goes on. Even when I'd worked it all out, I was still wrong and there was more to learn. Growing old can be gripping, and it can be gripping reading.

14 August 2015

The Reverend Charles Kingsley, Victorian Sexter

I've been spending the last couple weeks learning about the Reverend Charles Kingsley, a mid-Victorian author of mid-level repute. He's a pretty interesting fellow, more than I'd given him credit for before beginning these investigations. (I'm writing about his "scientist novel" Two Years Ago in my dissertation, and I'm trying to do some intellectual contextualization.)

The Reader of the Sacred Books
Kingsley is perhaps most famous these days for his children's novel The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1863), about the adventures of a dead chimney sweep who transforms into a water sprite. (Doctor Who fans will know it as one of the three Sacred Books of the Earth culture of the year 2,000,000, along with Moby-Dick and U.K. Habitats of the Canadian Goose by H. M. Stationery Office.) The Water-Babies is an odd book to modern sensibilities, but it's noteworthy for being heavily involved in the evolutionary discoveries of its time; there are jokes about the the Hippocampus Controversy (in the form of "the great hippopotamus test"), and the scientist character Professor Ptthmllnsprts (Put Them All in Spirits, not Pull Them All Apart, as I used to somehow believe) is based on both creepy old Richard Owen and young firebrand Thomas Henry Huxley.

But, as the first half of my title indicates, Kingsley was a reverend, and a very devout man, too. He was the big instigator of what came to be called "muscular Christianity": the belief that a pious man ought to be healthy, muscular, and rugged. Don't just sit around reading about the world, get out in it and explore! Conquer the Crimea, defeat cholera epidemics, and catalog the wonders of the shore! (Eventually his ideas spread to America, where they led to the existence of the YMCA, so without Kingsley I may have never learned how to swim.)

Science is cool, kids--
it has volcanoes!
In an era we often stereotype as being all about science-vs.-religion, Kingsley had a much more sophisticated position. Darwin actually sent him a copy of the Origin upon publication, and Kingsley was an enthusiastic reader of it (Darwin actually quoted Kingsley's praise in the second edition). He wrote a number of science books, mostly for children, such as Madam How and Lady Why (1868-69), whose preface suggests that all good Christians are men of science, and all good men of science are Christians: "God’s Book, which is the Universe, and the reading of God’s Book, which is Science, can do you nothing but good, and teach you nothing but truth and wisdom. God did not put this wondrous world about your young souls to tempt or to mislead them" (xii). You can detect in that passage, I think, a little bit of disdain about the ideas of Philip Henry Gosse, the fellow who supposedly-but-not-quite-actually said that God put fossils of ancient organisms on the Earth to test our faith.

Kingsley actually wrote to Darwin to suggest that fauns, satyrs, elves, and dwarves were probably the missing links between man and animal: "That they should have died out, by simple natural selection, before the superior white race, you & I can easily understand." (Darwin's response is of the uh-huh-how-very-interesting variety, though he can't avoid being racist in a typical Victorian fashion: "In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.")

In addition to all his religious and scientific writing, however, Kingsley was also the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University from 1860 to 1869, where he was very popular with undergraduates but very unpopular with other faculty. I have the sense that Kingsley's historical credentials were dubious at best; he was slated for not doing very much original research, and he was also really into the "Great Man" version of history. But he seems to have been an excellent storyteller, so put him up at a podium and get him to lecture about Roman Britain, and you get something really quite enjoyable.

Not that kind of "positive," Grumpy Cat
courtesy Leigh Ann's Blog
Kingsley viewed his history professorship as part of his religious mission; he was afraid of the increasing influence of Auguste Comte's positivism (a sort of scientific study of history) in English universities, which he feared would lead historians to neglect the human in favor of inflexible and not altogether accurate scientific laws. Indeed, his inaugural lecture, "The Limits of Exact Science as Applied to History," was on this very important topic: "For young sciences, like young men, have their time of wonder, hope, imagination, and of passion too, and haste, and bigotry. Dazzled, and that pardonably, by the beauty of the few laws they may have discovered, they are too apt to erect them into gods, and to explain by them all matters in heaven and earth" (315). He was blasted for his lack of understanding of Comte, which eventually led to him reading twelve volumes of Comte in preparation for his final 1869 lecture, about how Carlyle was way more awesome than Comte. This is no small feat-- even fans of Comte thought that he was a terrible writer!

For all the unpopularity this approach yielded amongst Cambridge's other faculty (William Whewell was kind of a dick to him, apparently), it did what Kingsley wanted it to do: there's a letter from a student to Kingsley that says, "Your whole series last term, and especially the grand concluding one on Comte, have made an expression just at the moment it was needed […and] put into the minds of many young men the same living belief in a living God" (qtd. in Klaver 602). And such was his reputation that during his time at Cambridge, Kingsley was also engaged as private history tutor to the Prince of Wales-- later King Edward VII.

Kingsley was also really into sanitary reform, but let me tell you, that is not easy to be interested in, or to say much interesting about.

get a look at those sex maniacs
(within the bounds of marriage)
courtesy Charles Kingsley:
The 20th Century Heritage
My favorite thing I've learned about Kingsley, however, to finally come to the second half of my title, is that he was really into dirty letters! He wrote his wife Fanny sexy letters, complete with smutty illustrations! It doesn't exactly fit your stereotype of a clergyman, especially a Victorian one, but hey, having sexy times within marriage is in fact your Christian duty-- perhaps even moreso if you're a muscular Christian! It's nice to know the Victorians were people too, you know, and not the uptight prudes it's easy to stereotype them as.

Chitty, Susan. The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. New York: Mason/Charter, 1975.
Kingsley, Charles. "The Limits of Exact Science as Applied to History." 1860. The Roman and the Teuton: A Series of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge. London: Macmillan, 1891. 307-43.
---. Preface. Madam How and Lady Why, or First Lessons in Earth Lore for Children. 1870. New York: Macmillan, 1893. vii-xv.
Klaver, J. M. I. The Apostle of the Flesh: A Critical Life of Charles Kingsley. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
Wright, C. J. "'My darling baby': Charles Kingsley's Letters to His Wife." British Library Journal 1984: 147-57.

13 August 2015

Review: Invasion! by Keith Giffen, Bill Mantlo, Todd McFarlane, Bart Sears et al.

Comic trade paperback, 256 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 1988)

Acquired and read June 2015

Plot and Breakdowns: Keith Giffen
Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Todd McFarlane, Keith Giffen, Bart Sears
Inks: P. Craig Russell, Al Gordon, Joe Rubinstein, Todd McFarlane, Tom Christopher, Dick Giordano, Pablo Marcos
Letters: Gaspar, Agustin Mas, John Costanza
Colors: Carl Gafford, Gene D'Angelo

I don't blog about it much because they're not technically books, but I've been reading through DC's uncollected space-based superhero comics. I bought and read Invasion! because it essentially bridges the gap between The Omega Men (1983-86) and L.E.G.I.O.N. (1989-94). A number of the Omega Men are killed off to prove the situation is serious in that way I despise, while a couple of the characters who would star in L.E.G.I.O.N. are introduced.

The basic premise of Invasion! is that a number of alien races, led by the Dominators (primarily appearing in Legion of Super-Heroes) ally to invade the Earth. It's a neat idea, though as someone who just Omega Men, it was odd to see the Psions, the Citadel, and the Warlords of Okaara all on the same side; the Psions and the Citadel are devoted enemies, and Okaara is where most of the Omega Men trained to fight the Citadel! But it's actually realistic; these aren't races of "good" and "evil," they're just political groups whose interests usually conflict but happen to align in this particular instance.

Anyway, I bet this was really cool to read as it came out. Invasion! consists of three 80-page chapters, each of which ends with a game-changer that I'm sure played out in all the ongoings coming out in between. Collected here, though, it often feels superficial; there's no real point-of-view character except for some of the folks captured on the alien Starlag... and they're not in the main action for most of the story! You can see how this would have worked in monthly format though; the main series provides the scale-- exposition is very effectively provided by newspapers television news coverage-- while the ongoings show how these global events play out on a local scale.

Weirdly, though, even key events within the title are given short shrift. The change in allegiance of the Daxamites is a big deal, yet none of them ever display distinct personalities. As far as I can tell, none of them even have names! (Though L.E.G.I.O.N. '90 would establish one of them to be the father of future Legionnaire Lar Gand.)

The space heroes-- my whole reason for being here-- have surprisingly little to do. The Omega Men are ciphers, and don't really convince as the characters written by Roger Slifer and Todd Klein. The characters who would go on to star in L.E.G.I.O.N., on the other hand, contribute little and are easily forgotten; you could read L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 #1 without ever having read Invasion! easily. Oddly, the new characters who get the most setup are the Blasters... whose series lasted exactly one issue.

The hodgepodge of artists here doesn't help. Todd McFarlane was supposed to pencil the whole thing, but he disappears about halfway through, replaced at first by Keith Giffen and then by Bart Sears; meanwhile, an army of inkers goes to work. The art is for the most part undistinguished, sometimes confusing, sometimes very good. It could have been worse, and the big crossover kind of calls for a certain genericness of style, but I suspect that everyone involved has done better works elsewhere.

I was amused to discover the presence of old-school Justice League mascot Snapper Carr. I was even more amused to see him develop teleportation powers, as I'd only just read Final Crisis Companion, featuring a teleporting Snapper Carr. The DC universe, it connects in odd and unexpected ways sometimes.

12 August 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part II: Batman and the Monster Men

Comic trade paperback, 144 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2006)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2014
Dark Moon Rising: Batman and the Monster Men

Story and Art: Matt Wagner
Colors: Dave Stewart

Year One, November
This story squeezes between the last few pages of Batman: Year One, along with a few other tales we'll be reading soon. Batman goes up against the deranged psychologist Dr. Hugo Strange-- a psychologist who for some reason spends his time carrying out genetic experiments. In the meantime, Bruce Wayne may have found true love with one Julie Madison. The story here is pretty straightforward, but it's all worth it for Matt Wagner's distinctive art. More cartoony than what David Mazzucchelli does in Batman: Year One, but still quite good. This won't set your world on fire, but it's a worthy addition to the "Year One" milieu.

Next Week: Batman fights the supernatural for the first time in Batman and the Mad Monk!

11 August 2015

Review: Doctor Who: It Came From Outer Space by Tony Lee, Matthew Dow Smith, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 138 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 2011)
Acquired May 2014
Read September 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 3: It Came From Outer Space

Written by Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, and Dan McDaid
Art by Josh Adams, Matthew Dow Smith, Paul Grist, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, and Dan McDaid
Colors by Rachelle Rosenberg, Charlie Kirchoff, Mitch Gerads, Kyle Latino, and Dan McDaid (with Deborah McCumiskey)
Lettering by Shawn Lee and Neil Uyetake

Tony Lee managed to surprise me with the first few pages of this collection, with the prologue to "Space Squid," a cute little montage of adventures with the new TARDIS crew: the eleventh Doctor, Amy, Rory, and Kevin the Robotic Tyrannosaurus. But then it becomes a tedious space station runaround, made worse by Lee's decision to name all the station crew after cast members from Castle, guaranteeing you get knocked out of the story every 2-3 pages. I liked Josh Adams's artwork in the prologue, but in the story itself, it's stiff and overly posed, like he's traced too many reference photos that don't quite fit the circumstances of the story.

Next is "Body Snatched" with the ever-reliable Matthew Dow Smith on art. Seriously, this guy is good, and if any artist gets carried over to Titan's Doctor Who comics, it had better be him. The story itself should be fun-- the Doctor and Amy switch bodies-- but of course it's more a television premise, where you'd get to see Matt Smith play Amy and Karen Gillan play the Doctor, and so it feels squandered here, and the plot that surrounds this is unnecessarily convoluted.

The rest of the book is a set of shorts, which are on the whole entertaining. Lee and Paul Grist's "Silent Knight," a textless story where the Doctor teams up with Santa, is fun. Joshua Hale Fialkov and Blair Shedd's "Run, Doctor, Run," where the Doctor lands on an Escher-like world (though not Castrovalva-like) is gorgeous to look at and fun enough for its length. Matthew Dow Smith (on writing and not art) and Mitch Gerads provide "Down to Earth," a decent tale with gorgeous art of the Doctor and an alien hiding on Earth. Finally, Doctor Who Magazine stalwart Dan McDaid crosses the pond for "Tuesday," a zany alien invasion story framed by a letter from Amy to her mum. McDaid gets these characters, in both writing and art; I'd love to see a full Doctor Who comic series by him.

Next Week: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, the fundamental things apply, As Time Goes By!

10 August 2015

Review: The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh

P.S. My review of the Doctor Who audio drama Damaged Goods, sort of by Russell T Davies, is up at Unreality SF. You should read it, the story is very good and I was pretty happy with the review too. It is actually tough to be unremittingly positive, but it is rewarding to pull it off!

Finally, Mondays will be the day that I just stay on top of what I've recently read. Which hopefully I will actually do!

Hardcover, 311 pages
Published 1997 (originally 1995)

Borrowed from the library
Read July 2015
The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery
by Amitav Ghosh

I've been working on a project regarding Indian science fiction recently. The amount of Indian sf written in English is staggeringly small, and perhaps the two most frequently cited members of the genre are Manjula Padmanabhan's Harvest and Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome. In one sense, The Calcutta Chromosome's claim to sfness is very small; there's a frame story set in the future that features an advanced computer, but most of the novel is set in the year of publication (1995) without any fantastic technology, and much of that is taken up with characters telling each other about historical events.

On the other hand, The Calcutta Chromosome is more sfnal than most sf; it's all about science and how we understand it and how it works. The whole central conflict of the novel is one of science vs. "counterscience," two distinct ways of seeing the world that stand in opposition to one another, but also feed off one another to survive. Like a lot of reviewers (apparently), I'm left a little bewildered by the ending, but I think I liked it on the whole, and I think what Ghosh was trying to do with the uncertainty makes sense.

I was surprised what an engaging book this was. This sounds mean to say, but a lot of literary fiction-- and Ghosh is primarily a literary writer even if this is a genre work-- is not fun to read. But The Calcutta Chromosome is; Ghosh makes one character telling another character about a Victorian scientist for chapters on end absolutely delightful! I also really liked the way that this book jumped from narrative thread to narrative thread. There are a lot of them, but the way the story unfolds both backwards and forwards (and maybe even sideways) is done with great skill, and keeps the reader moving along at a fair clip. A fascinating book.

07 August 2015

Arcane Technology in Arcane Museuems

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting two Connecticut museums:* the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum and the Vintage Radio and Communications Technology Museum of Connecticut, both in Windsor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what I ended up focusing on at both was our relationship with technology.

Tobacco spearing in Hadley, MA
courtesy the Hampshire Gazette
Tobacco farming is-- to me, anyway-- surprisingly low-tech. It is not an industry that has mechanized in any substantial way; a lot of the work still has to be done by hand. Tobacco is hand-picked and hand-sewn, the issue being that it's too fragile for machines to be any help in the process; the tobacco just ends up bruised. One of the things that happens is the tobacco gets "speared." Pieces of wood are run through stalks so that they can be hung up to dry.

One piece of equipment the Tobacco Museum had was a mechanical spearer, essentially, from the early 20th century. I think it was spring-loaded; the basic idea was that you'd hang a set of tobacco stalks on it, and then it would launch a spear through them with enough force to drive through half a dozen stalks at once. (I looked in vain for a picture of such a machine on-line, but was undoubtedly limited by my own knowledge of good search terms!) According to our excellent guide, it never worked, which is why one now sits rusty in the barn of the Tobacco Museum. The spear was launched with such force that if everything was lined up right and it did hit the stalks, it broke them apart.

I really like the image this conjured up in my mind, of the Victorian inventor (yes, I know, wrong period) spending his life chasing the concept of the Mechanical Tobacco Spearer, forever being stymied, but knowing, like any good Taylorite, that there has to be a way to make this ages-old process more efficient, ultimately sinking his life savings into something that never works. Sort of like a Thomas Hardy novel, except he gets trampled by the inevitability of mechanical progress.

old radio at the VRCM
courtesy New England Travels
Obviously technology was everywhere at the Vintage Radio Museum (not only did we get to see a Tesla coil up close, but we got to see our tour guide stick his hand in the electrical discharge), but what struck me there was the aesthetics of vintage radio equipment. Unlike the present day, where technology very much has its own aesthetic, old radios tried to blend in with everything else. The desktop computer I am composing this on is a big screen next to a big ugly tower. Even technology that tries to look nice doesn't try to look like anything other than technology. But vintage radio disguised itself; all that wood paneling is there to make it look like all the other wood objects in your living room.

One, I recall, had fake drawers on it even, to make it look like a cabinet. Another functioned secondarily as a drinks cabinet, with a gin dispenser on top and room for glasses. I guess the radios carried over this approach from the phonograph, which also worked very hard to blend in with the furniture and cabinetry. Somewhere along the line, this changed, and plastic and metal came to dominate, changing what we think of as "technology." Now, other objects try to imitate the aesthetics of technology!

Though probably my favorite things to see were 1) the actual telephone switchboard, which (like most things in the Museum) you could play with, 2) the refrigerator with in-built radio so mom can listen to the radio even in the kitchen, and 3) the vintage radio recording studio, complete with coconuts, among other objects, for Foley effects! It makes me want to make audio drama again. (Apparently American Experience used the studio to record parts of its episode on the Orson Welles The War of the Worlds; I'll have to check that out!)

* This is part of an ongoing effort by my friends and I to investigate Connecticut's complement of "arcane museums"; previous destinations include the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, and the Pez Visitor Center in Orange.

06 August 2015

Review: Richard Meier & Partners: White is the Light by Philip Jodido

On Thursdays from now on, I'll be trying to tackle my massive backlog of unreviewed books, which goes back to December 2012! I'll be prioritizing books without very many reviews on LibraryThing because, why not? Oddly enough, that leads me to reviewing a book I just read, since it has 38 copies on the site but no reviews:

Trade paperback, 96 pages
Published 2012

Acquired January 2015
Read July 2015
Richard Meier & Partners: White is the Light
by Philip Jodido

Over winter break this year, I traveled to the greater Los Angeles area on a trip that was a combination of business (doing research in the Eaton Collection at the University of California, Riverside) and pleasure (seeing my sister who lives in Costa Mesa). One weekend where my sister was otherwise engaged, I spent in the Getty Center, an incredible (and free!) art museum. What I loved was not just the works of art contained in the museum, but the museum as a work of art. Designed by Richard Meier, the museum is white, full of light, and constructed out of a number of straight lines. It looks like it comes straight out of a utopian future, and indeed, its entrance hall (pictured on the cover of Jodido's book) was used as part of Starfleet Command in Star Trek Into Darkness. I spent a lot of time just walking around looking at the buildings themselves, and I even went on an architecture tour (me and a bunch of old ladies).

Therefore I spent some time scouring the museum bookstore, looking for a good book on Richard Meier, ideally with a lot of pictures, and I found this gorgeous little volume from Taschen. Philip Jodido provides a nine-page overview of Meier's life and career, and then writeups on 21 different buildings, each with a page or two of text, and 2-4 pages of high-quality photographs. It's exactly what I wanted out of a book on Meier: there are a lot of amazing buildings to pore over, and I appreciated the insight into his process. Meier's works, from a 1965 Connecticut house to the 1998 domed San Jose City Hall, from 1978 Arp Museum in Germany to the 1996 Jubilee Church in Rome, share a consistent design aesthetic without ever feeling repetitive. The book is filled with great photographs (the majority are by Scott Frances and Ezra Stoller) that really show off the majesty of Meier's vision. I'd love to visit more of these places and just walk through them, but for now this book is the best substitute I've got.

05 August 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part I: Batman: Year One: Deluxe Edition

So, rather than run three "Faster than a DC Bullet" entries in one week periodically, instead I'll be running one every single (when else?) Wednesday until I catch up. Which won't be for a long, long time, I suspect. Today marks the start of a new project for me: "Project Gotham," a journey through the early days of Batman in chronological order (or as near as I can manage), beginning with, of course,

Comic hardcover, 96 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1986-87)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2014
Batman: Year One: Deluxe Edition

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Colorist: Richmond Lewis
Letterer: Todd Klein

Year One, January - December
Since the Crisis on Infinite Earths, many a writer has gone back to Batman's early days and worked and reworked them, building up an improbably crammed timeline. That all began here, and it's easy to see why Batman: Year One has so many imitators. It works. This is Batman stripped down to his essential core-- one man in the night against the forces of crime. I've previously reviewed it at length, and rereading that review at length, I don't think I have much to add to it, other than that the contribution of David Mazzucchelli cannot be understated. I know people (including him, I believe) like to dismiss his contributions to the superhero genre in favor of stuff like City of Glass, but this is really really good. Mazzucchelli has a beautiful simplicity of style, and an economy of storytelling. Sometime I think artists interpret "gritty" as adding a lot of grimy details, but for Mazzucchelli it's about going to the basics to make you feel it like you're there. This is one of those cases where the oversized pages of the "deluxe edition" are definitely worth it.

Next Week: Batman faces his first supervillain in Batman and the Monster Men!

04 August 2015

Review: Doctor Who: When Worlds Collide by Tony Lee, Matthew Dow Smith, & Mark Buckingham

Before we get started, I should note that my review of the Doctor Who audio drama The Highest Science is now up at Unreality SF.

Okay, so like I said yesterday, on Tuesdays from here out, I'll be reviewing books in what I call my "reading projects"; books I read on some kind of regular schedule. First up is the series of Doctor Who comics from IDW that I read issue-by-issue over breakfast from June to December 2014. I've already reviewed some of them, but I left off with The Ripper; next up is:

Comic PDF eBook, 90 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 2011)
Acquired May 2014
Read September 2014
Doctor Who: When Worlds Collide

Written by Tony Lee
Art by Mark Buckingham & Matthew Dow Smith
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff
Lettering by Neil Uyetake, Chris Mowry & Shawn Lee

There are two stories here, curiously undifferentiated in the collection. The first, only an issue long, has the Doctor, Amy, and Rory playing soccer with Anglo-Saxons, and it is not as fun as that description ought to imply.

The rest of the volume is made of what I can only assume is the title story. It's one of those tales where time zones get all mashed together, and to be honest, I find those tedious if they have no more substance than that-- Doctor Who long ago passed the point where temporal juxtaposition was innately interesting. Thankfully, this one does have a little bit of something to offer, mainly an army of temporal duplicates of the TARDIS crew, Sontarans on flying carpets, and a robotic dinosaur named Kevin. Also, Matthew Dow Smith's artwork, which is one of the real high points of IDW's Doctor Who stories over all. When Worlds Collide isn't great, but it's an above-average adventure for the range.

Next Week: The Doctor, Amy, Rory, and Kevin return in... It Came From Outer Space!

03 August 2015

Reading Roundup Wrapup: July 2015

There are to be some changes around here! Instead of blogging on my usual M-W-F schedule, and kind of doing things in themed chunks (i.e., last week I did three Bernice Summerfield New Adventures, the week before that I did three New Jedi Order stories, and so on), I'm going to try to blog every day, and to work simultaneously to clear out my backlog of 177 unreviewed books and stay on top of the books I read as I read them. To this end, I'll be restructuring a bit, reading themed books on certain days:
  • Mondays: These will be the days I review books I've read most recently.
  • Tuesdays: I'll review books that I read as part of my various "reading projects," such as my working through of all IDW's Doctor Who collections, or all the James Bond 007 novels, or whatever.
  • Wednesdays: "Faster than a DC Bullet" will continue as long as I continue to check graphic novels out of the library. Batman is up next!
  • Thursdays: On Thursdays, I'll focus on clearing out my backlog, prioritizing books without many reviews on LibraryThing (because why not).
  • Fridays: I'll witter on about something else-- my current research project(s), my teaching, my comic books, or whatever strikes my fancy.
But first, there's a roundup to be had...

Pick of the month: The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh. I read this because when I went to the Science Fiction Research Association and presented on Manula Padmanabhan's story story "Gandhi-Toxin," the first question I got asked was would I draw any parallels between the mosquitoes in her postcolonial science fiction story to the mosquitoes in Ghosh's postcolonial science fiction story. I deferred the question, and then made sure to read The Calcutta Chromosome on my next vacation.

All books read:
1. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Force Heretic III: Reunion by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
2. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
3. The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh
4. Doctor Who Magazine: Special Edition #40: The Art of Doctor Who edited by Marcus Hearn
5. Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor: The Ripple Effect by Malorie Blackman
6. Erimem: The Last Pharaoh by Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett
7. Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge by Geoff Johns
8. Richard Meier & Partners: White is the Light by Philip Jodidio
9. Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! by Matthew Sturges

All books acquired:
1. Bernice Summerfield XIII: Secret Histories edited by Mark Clapham
2. David Copperfield: The Author's Personal Prompt Copy by Charles Dickens
3. The Merritt Parkway: The Road That Shaped a Region by Laurie Heiss & Jill Smyth
4. Gothic Science Fiction, 1818 to the Present by Sian MacArthur

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 606

See you tomorrow for a review of Doctor Who: When Worlds Collide!