31 December 2015

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Stolen Submarine by George Griffith

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published 1904
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Stolen Submarine: A Tale of the Russo-Japanese War
by George Griffith

Here I am, I'm George Griffith, and I'm reading the newspaper. In it I learn that war is brewing between Japan and Russia. "Great!" I cry. "This gives me a flimsy pretext upon which to hang my most recent recycling of my favorite plot: advanced military technology used to terrorize the world by a band of renegades!" Yup, it's his sixth stab at this exact same storyline.

Despite the fact that he ought to be an old pro at it by this point, the narrative seems to escape Griffith's control. There are foster brothers, each of whom is part of a pair of biological brothers, plus a pair of sisters (one good, one manipulative), and also a pair of twins. There's also a pirate queen, a Russian spy/princess who decides to break out on her own, tired of working for the government, and as always, there's nothing as sexy to George Griffith as a woman with the power of bloody destruction at her fingertips. (I wonder what he thought of Zalma, which ripped him off but perfected the form.)

The gist of it is that an experimental French submarine is stole by its crew, as they're secretly working for a British industrialist; they then re-steal it from him and sell it to the Russians. To defend the Japanese, a British inventor  makes both a submarine and an air-ship and uses them on behalf of Japan, and since he's British, his submarine is of course more awesome.

As always, the mild-mannered British inventor, Mark in this case, turns out to be very good at killing people as he rains death on Russia from the air: "Who am I, after all, that I should wield the thunderbolts of Jove, and fling death and destruction from the skies on those helpless people down yonder? Still, I promised you—and it’s got to be done. Anyhow, this is mercy compared with what happened at Blagowestchensk,* and the most merciful way of waging war is, after all, the most merciless." So, once again typically for Griffith, bloody massacres are okay for reasons of both utilitarianism and just that everyone else does it, though there is the fascinating realization that the most clinical ways of killing are the most barbaric. Also, like in so many Griffith novels, aerial violence is the threat that will prevent all future warfare: "This must be the last war fought on land or sea or in the air, and that is why I refuse to tell even his Majesty himself the secret of the motive power which has given me […] the command of the air."

The book ends with a submarine-vs.-submarine duel where Mark kills everyone, but at least he feels bad about it.

* The 1900 massacre of 5000-8000 Chinese civilians by Russian troops.

30 December 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXXVI: Countdown to Final Crisis: 38...37...36...35...34...33...32...31...30...29...28...27...26...

Comic trade paperback, 294 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007) 

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2015
Countdown to Final Crisis: 38...37...36...35...34...33...32...31...30...29...28...27...26...

Writers: Paul Dini, Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, Adam Beechen, Tony Bedard, Sean McKeever
Story Consultant: Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Jesus Saiz, David Lopez, Mike Norton, Jim Calafiore, Manuel Garcia, Carlos Magno, Al Barrionuevo
Inkers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Don Hillsman, Rod Ramos, Jack Purcell, Mark McKenna, Jay Leisten, Art Thibert
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, Ken Lopez, Travis Lanham
Colorists: Tom Chu, Alex Bleyaert, Pete Pantazis, Rod Reis

Forget anything nice I said about Volume One, because as soon as you have time to think about it, Countdown to Final Crisis is terrible. In this volume:
  • Jimmy Olsen learns that his powers only activate when he's in danger for the fourth or fifth time.
  • Mary Marvel acts like a spoiled brat; upon learning she's gone evil, Zatanna's reaction is to shrug her shoulders and do nothing about it.
  • All sorts of terrible and uninteresting and incomprehensible stuff happens revolving around whether or not Jason Todd is evil, whether or not the Monitors are evil, whether or not you can tell the Monitors apart, whether or not anyone cares abut Monarch (stop trying to make Monarch happen, DC), whether or not Donna Troy has a personality, whether or not anyone has ever cared about Lord Havok and the Extremists, and it's just painful and dull through and through.
  • Mary Marvel is duped by Klarion the Witch-Boy like a rank amateur. Grant Morrison reinvents a character for you, DC, and the only thing you can think to do with him is put him in Countdown!?
  • The story ties into The Battle for Blüdhaven, I can only assume because God hates us. (Jack Kirby's Buddy Blank of OMAC fame is living under Blüdhaven.)
  • Karate Kid is sick for some reason. 
  • Jimmy Olsen and a bug-woman fall in love with each other, seemingly just because she's hot. No one ever explains what she might see in him.
I'll admit I did kind of like Supergirl and Stargirl trying to get into Black Canary's bachelorette party.

At least we're halfway through!

Next Week: We take a break from the countdown to find out what Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters are up to in Brave New World!

29 December 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Six, Part II: Hollow Men by Una McCormack

More moral compromise over at Unreality SF this week, with my review of the first audio drama to STAR SIR JOHN HURT AS THE WAR DOCTOR. Yes, things are exciting.

Acquired June 2005
Previously read August 2005 
Reread December 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Hollow Men
by Una McCormack

So my second book for Season Six is Una McCormack's Hollow Men, the first of these novels to be written well after the series was over-- six years after in this case-- which means it "fits" very well, coming in between "In the Pale Moonlight" and "His Way," building on some aspects of the former, and setting up some of the latter.

As I rewatch Deep Space Nine, I've been reading the reviews by Zach Handlen at The A.V. Club; Handlen is an intelligent, thoughtful tv critic, and one thing he occasionally brings up is that the series never brings up what Sisko and Garak did together. It doesn't even hint at it. Which he likes, because it lets you imagine that they're each living with it in their own way.

So, I was a little trepidatious as a I reread Hollow Men, wondering if it really made sense to follow up on "In the Pale Moonlight." In this story, Sisko and Garak travel to Earth together for a conference on how the war will be conducted now that the Romulans have joined in. McCormack writes Garak like she was born to do it, and that's the real highlight of this novel. Garak on Earth is an utter delight, from his continual sighing at people's obsession with Shakespeare to his utter disbelief that Starfleet permits antiwar protests. Garak might be fighting with the Federation, but McCormack never lets you forget that this is because he believes in the Cardassian way of life, and wants to preserve it. Living on Deep Space 9 hasn't made him go soft. Andrew Robinson's voice sings off the page with every line.

I'm not are sure about Sisko's throughline, I think because his emotional doubts resolve a tad too easily. I do like that he keeps seeking punishment for what he did, and no one will give it to him (a nice foreshadowing of what we learn about Ross in Season Seven). His conversations with his father, his sister, Garak, and his old friend-turned-peace-activist Tomas Rodier are all handled quite well. But the resolution he reaches at the end is a little too trite to ring true in the context of "In the Pale Moonlight," and I wish McCormack had left him more unsettled.

McCormack has a handle on all the characters, except that I thought they were a little too snippy with each other sometimes; all those years watching Blake's 7 bleeding in, I suppose. But in the meantime, Kira, Odo, Quark, and Bashir are up to some hijinks on the station, and though these foreshadow some turns the series will take in Season Seven, they also fill in some emotional gaps, such as Odo and Kira processing the hurt of the Occupation arc enough for Odo to believe in a relationship. Bashir struggling with playing spy games after learning about Section 31 in "Inquisition" and putting aside Secret Agent for Vic Fontaine is a nice touch.

This is my second time reading it, and I'm not entirely sure what Section 31 was up to in the Rodier plot, but I enjoyed it. Hollow Men is a novel about people finding their moral limits, and Rodier's were much further along than Sisko's-- though not, as we are reminded, anywhere near as far as Garak's. This is a book about compromised people, and what happens when they reach those limits, and how complicated the world turns out to be.

Like a lot of gaps in media franchises, I'm not entirely convinced this one needed to be filled by a tie-in story. But don't let that fool you: this is a great book, and worth reading. Would it be that all continuity gaps could be filled this well. The prose sings much more than in your usual Star Trek novel; McCormack is the best writer of the seven I've read so far, except for maybe Steven Barnes. There's a real style to this, and I enjoyed almost every word of it, and McCormack never fails to make these characters and their world real.

Continuity Notes:
  • Cretak appears here, "before" her first appearance in Season Seven, which is kind of nice. I like Cretak.
  • Ben Sisko also gets to see his dad for the second time this year, and of course he'll be back on Earth just a couple months after this too! We also finally meet Ben's sister Judith, briefly mentioned in "Past Tense" and "Homefront," but never seen on screen. She's established to be a concert musician, which I think is meant to explain why we never see her when Ben comes to Earth; she's always on tour! (Retcon why Ben looks forward to seeing her but not his father on his visit to Earth in "Past Tense," though.)
Next Week: We take a break from Deep Space Nine reviews, despite being so close to the end of the series (because I'm all caught up on the ones I've read), and begin my next reading project: Bond, James Bond!

28 December 2015

Review: Star Trek: Cast No Shadow by James Swallow

Mass market paperback, 360 pages
Published 2011

Acquired June 2012
Read December 2015
Star Trek: Cast No Shadow
by James Swallow

Cast No Shadow is about a secret mission into Klingon space to stop a war, set seven years after The Undiscovered Country, and featuring Valeris (from that film) and Elias Vaughn (from the Deep Space Nine relaunch novels), with Spock and Sulu in minor supporting roles. I've never read a Tom Clancy novel, but I've seen Hunt for Red October, and I can recognize that this is a Star Trek take on Clancy, down to the attention to technical and political details; Swallow fills in a lot of the gaps in Star Trek's loose approach to worldbuilding by drawing on the old FASA sourcebooks, which just seems tonally right.

The book is a decent, well-executed example of its genre. Vaughn starts out as a desk analyst, and ends up deeper and deeper as the situation escalates, and I enjoyed that, and Swallow's attention to detail serves him well. But the character stakes aren't quite strong enough (though I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this is true to Clancy novels). Vaughn feels like he's along for the ride, and though that's accurate to his position and status, I didn't have a sense of what this adventure meant for him. Meanwhile, I really liked Swallow's handling of Valeris at first, but ended up feeling that he'd taken a potentially fascinating character-- a counterpart to Spock who decided that because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, peace was not the answer-- and flattened her into a simple victim of childhood trauma.

24 December 2015

Review: The Doings of Raffles Haw by A. Conan Doyle

Tomorrow's Christmas, so I shan't be updating. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Hardcover, 147 pages
Published 1982 (originally: 1891)
Acquired October 2012
Read January 2013
The Doings of Raffles Haw by A. Conan Doyle

Raffles Haw is a scientist (his name may have inspired that of A. J. Raffles, the gentleman thief created by E. W. Hornung, Doyle's brother-in-law) who has amassed a fortune and intends to use it to better the world. So of course I'm interested here, given my tracing of the scientist character in Victorian literature, but there's not much to interest me in Raffles. Most scientist characters have their epistemology realized in the form of vision: they see the world differently than non-scientists, not even metaphorically, but literally.

Raffles, however, does not see differently, and the root of this lies in the fact that he's a chemist: he says at one point, "Chemistry is to a large extent an empirical science, and the chance experiment may lead to greater results than could, with our present data, be derived from the closest study or the keenest reasoning" (94). Raffles does not see, he does.

It's also just dull. Basically the premise of the book is that Raffles shows off all the inventions he will use to change the world for, like, a hundred pages (he has, gasp, an electric elevator!), but then he's persuaded not to do it because helping people out of their problems destroys their self-reliance: a local villager has his roof blown off in a storm, and back in the day he could have fixed it himself, but since becoming accustomed to Raffles's assistance, all he is able to do is send off letters and wring his hands helplessly. So don't help poor people; the status quo is all: "he dimly saw that vast problems faced him in which he might make errors which all his money could not repair. The way of Providence was the straight way. Yet he, a half-blind creature, must needs push in and strive to alter and correct it. Would he be a benefactor? Might he not rather prove to be the greatest malefactor that the world had seen?" (130). Raffles's problem, then, turns out to be that he does not see, that he only experiments: but experimenting with society is much more dangerous than experimenting with chemicals.

I have my philosophical objections to this conclusion: how can the solution to making the world a better place possibly be leaving it as we found it? Especially given that the world's problems don't descend from Providence, they're problems that we made with the way we built society. But it also makes for a boring book. He does resolve that perhaps he can help out people in slums because their situation "was the result of artificial conditions, and it might well be healed by artificial means" (131). But then he hears that the love of his life is engaged to another man, and (spoiler alert) the shock kills him (even though it's all just a misunderstanding). The end. So it all turns out to have been pretty pointless.

23 December 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXXV: Countdown to Final Crisis: 51...50...49...48...47...46...45...44...43...42...41...40...39...

A little belated, but up at USF I've got a review of the Doctor Who: Short Trips Monthly reading Foreshadowing, featuring my favorites, the Eighth Doctor and Charley.

Comic trade paperback, 295 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007) 

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2015
Countdown to Final Crisis: 51...50...49...48...47...46...45...44...43...42...41...40...39...*

Writers: Paul Dini, Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray, Tony Bedard, Adam Beechen, Sean McKeever
Story Consultant: Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Jesus Saiz, Jim Calfiore, Carlos Magno, David Lopez, Tom Derenick, Manual Garcia, Dennis Calero
Inkers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Dennis Calero, Mark McKenna, Jay Leisten, Don Hillsman, Alvaro Lopez, Andre Pepoy, Jack Purcell, John Stanisci
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Pat Brosseau, Jared K. Fletcher, Rob Leigh, Phil Balsman, Ken Lopez
Colorists: Tom Chu, Rod Reis, Guy Major, Pete Pantazis

And so begins the long run to Final Crisis, with the beginning of a miniseries disowned seemingly by everyone involved. In retrospect, this had pretty much nothing at all to do with Final Crisis, or less than nothing, even. But it begins with us following a number of parallel plotlines: two of the Rogues on the run for murdering (or not murdering, it's very unclear) Bart Allen, the fourth (I think) Flash; Jason Todd and Donna Troy being recruited to scour the multiverse (recently revealed to exist, or perhaps re-exist, in 52); Holly Robinson, friend of Catwoman (and former Catwoman herself) joining the Amazons along with a reformed Harley Quinn; Jimmy Olsen investigating the deaths of the New Gods; Darkseid is playing with action figures; and Karate Kid and Una (who used to be Duo Damsel who used to be Triplicate Girl) of the Legion of Super-Heroes traveling the 21st century in search of... something.

Despite also being a weekly series of 52 issues, this is pretty different from 52 in one key way. While each issue of 52 corresponded to a week, this series has no such chronological restriction; each issue covers a short span of time, and is pretty much picked up right after in the next one. This gives Countdown to Final Crisis a certain energy that actually made it a pretty enjoyable read, as each issue is a series of crazy events that throws you right into the next issue's series of crazy events, with no time to reflect on what's going on.

Which is good, because what's going on doesn't always make a lot of sense. Countdown weaves in and out of some other comics (most notably, I think, The Lightning Saga, Amazons Attack, and the death of Bart Allen), none of which I've actually read. Sometimes you can follow it, but sometimes you can't at all-- though I gather from reading on-line that the links to The Lightning Saga with Karate Kid were incoherent even to people who'd read both. Why is Karate Kid on a quest? How did he get sick? None of these things that seem like they are important to this story are actually explained in it; I finally figured it out by reading the character description in volume two!

And then there are the incoherences within the series, like the fact that none of the writers and artists seem to be on the same page about many of the details of the Rogue plotline, where things such as their powers, appearances, and plight fluctuate between each issue collected here. And I think Jimmy Olsen does the same thing essentially three times!

But it's all so fast, the book almost gets away with it... for now. I'll admit I had fun reading this, and didn't think it was quite as bad as the world made it out to be.

Yes, that's damning with faint praise.

Next Week: More counting down in the second volume of Countdown to Final Crisis!

* The cover, and much of the Internet, claims that this book is called Countdown to Final Crisis, Volume One, but if I've learned anything from graduate school, it's how to read a title page, and this is clearly what the title page says, as cumbersome as it might be!

22 December 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Six, Part I: Far Beyond the Stars by Steven Barnes

Reread October 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Far Beyond the Stars
by Steven Barnes

Far Beyond the Stars is pretty unique. In the era where Pocket Books did Star Trek episode novelizations, typically the only episodes to receive them were multi-parters (so usually finales/premieres): Unification, Descent, The Search, Caretaker. The only real exception to this were TOS crossovers; Relics, Flashback, and Trials and Tribble-ations are the only 45-minutes episodes to be novelized (plus the Voyager episode that tied into Pocket's own Day of Honor crossover).

Except for "Far Beyond the Stars." This is, of course, one of the greatest, most heart-breaking Star Trek episodes, and as Keith R.A. DeCandido's excellent writeup points out, even sixteen years later, it's sadly still relevant in an era where a man of color is rarely a dramatic lead in genre television. Despite the episode's quality, I have to wonder why this book exists: DS9 produced many excellent hours of television, and it's not like John Ordover called up anyone when the scripts for "In the Pale Moonlight" or "Duet" crossed his desk.

But I'm glad it does. Steven Barnes's novel was actually my original exposure to this story. Watching DS9 in its original run in the late 1990s, "Far Beyond the Stars" was one of those episodes I just happened to miss, and in those days, there wasn't much you could do about that; I didn't see it until sometime after it hit DVD in late 2003. The book caught my eye in the bookstore because of that awesome retro cover, and I purchased it on a whim, and loved it. I loved it so much that when I finally saw the episode on DVD, I was almost disappointed.

To get 45 minutes out to 262 pages, Barnes adds a whole subplot about Benny Russell's childhood, essentially a miniature bildungsroman. Once Sisko is subsumed into his vision, the book shuffles back and forth between Benny coming of age in 1940 and his attempts to publish "Deep Space Nine" in 1953. Perhaps oddly, the 1940 plot probably takes up more of the book. In it, Benny goes on a school trip to the 1939 New York World's Fair, where he encounters an Orb of the Prophets that crashed-landed in Africa centuries ago, which gives him visions: most notably, visions of lottery numbers, and of actions people will take. Eventually these subside-- until the preacher in 1953 reactivates them-- but in the meantime, Benny gets into fights, makes a windfall, falls in love, and experiences loss. It's a typical coming-of-age narrative in some senses, and I can see why I liked it so much at age 13, even if it didn't quite grip me as much now.

There are a couple of potent scenes here, one of which is Benny's realization upon leaving the World's Fair that, as constructed at the fair, the future only contains white people. I have a friend who studies World's Fairs, actually, and one thing she's told me about is the idea that people building fairs often discussed them in terms of literally constructing the future in the present day. As a middle-class, cis, white, straight male, I've never not seen myself in the future, while here people have gone to great effort to build a future that doesn't contain anyone like Benny Russell. But at the same time he's still captivated by it. Despite the absence of people like him, it's still a world he wants to live in, all glimmering geometric shapes.

One of the most powerful sequences is when 1940 Benny returns to the exhibition hall where he saw the Orb, and he sees all the Bennys who preceded him, all the way back into the mists of prehistory in Africa, and all the Bennys who will follow him, including:
a string of Bennys who were dedicated to service, each in a more advanced and enlightened world. A Benny who lived to see a Negro president. A Benny--
     God! This was the Twenty-first century!
In the Obama era, this line takes on an additional overtone which gave me chills, because it only adds to the message that Benny receives in this vision: things will get better. Never as fast or as well as we would like, not in this era of police shootings and the prison-industrial complex, but they can improve. We can build a future that does include people who look like Benny Russell, and Star Trek is part of that.

Barnes doesn't add as much to the 1953 sequences, and to be honest, they're not quite as powerful as their television counterpart, lacking Avery Brooks's spell-binding performance. That's the part of the episode that I didn't appreciate back when I watched that DVD in 2003 as much as I do now, though what's always gotten to me in both the screen and prose versions is the scene where Benny is beaten by the Dukat and Weyoun cops for no real reason. How awful an indictment of our society it is that things like that still happen over sixty years after this scene takes place. We may be inching into the Star Trek future, but we have a long way to go.

Continuity Note:
Barnes adds a scene where Kira returns from Bajor with word from Shakaar and the Council of Ministers that the Federation will not be allowed to carry out mining operations on the surface of Bajor vital to the war effort . It's the only real addition to the frame story, though it doesn't quite fit with Kira's trip to see Shakaar a few episodes later in "His Way"; no one in that episode acts like Kira has already recently spent a few days on Bajor with Shakaar!

Other Note:
There's a scene in the 1953 segment where Benny reflects back on his worries about the first time he visited the Incredible Tales office, because it would mean editor Douglas Pabst would find out he was a Negro:
[W]hat if Pabst didn't believe he had actually written the stories? Or what if he decided that he didn't actually want to publish stories written by a Negro? Or what if...
     What if...
     And here, there was a part of him that had to laugh. After all, wasn't science fiction the game of "what if"? Wasn't that one of the three primary postulates which motivated the entire field? They were, in order, "what if," "if only," and "if this goes on." [...]
     And ultimately, he was able to turn the same tools back on his fear:
     What if Douglas Pabst only cares about the quality of a story, not about the color of its writer?
     If only you could find one ally, one man in this world willing to take a chance on you, maybe some of those dreams storming between your ears since that summer [of 1940] would have a chance to reach the wider world.
     If this goes on, you'll be too afraid to take any chances at all. This is the time to go for it!
These three "primary postulates" actually come from Isaac Asimov's typology of science fiction, which I covered here a month or so ago. It doesn't really have any implication for the scene to know this, I don't think (after all, Benny's Stage Three-C rumination is hardly dystopian!), but I felt smart that I did. They get reprised near the end of the novel, as Benny goes into the Incredible Tales office for the meeting that will be the breaking of him.

Next Week: Season Six draws to a close with more tough times for Sisko in Hollow Men!

21 December 2015

Review: Ways of Seeing by John Berger et al.

Trade paperback, 166 pages
Published 1977 (originally 1972)
Acquired August 2006
Reread April 2015
Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis

I've taught this book in my college writing course for freshmen a lot, often chapters out of it, but this semester and last, I decided to go for an all-Berger semester: the book has four prose chapters (there are also three chapters consisting only of images), and I assign four paper projects, so I just based one paper assignment on each chapter, pairing each chapter with an essay by another author on the same topic (e.g., I paired chapter one, about museums, with excerpts from André Malraux's Museum without Walls). I don't know that anyone comes away from the course loving John Berger, but he's a useful author in that context: polemical and wide-ranging, he allows me to give a set of assignments that clearly have common themes, but aren't too repetitive. He also is a good model for academic writing, in how he exposes and reads the details of something to build an argument, one with actual implications. But man, chapter 5 (the one on property in paintings and The Ambassadors) is like, impossible to teach; I've yet to come up with a writing assignment based on it that just doesn't vex my students to no end. Next semester I'll be teaching a different course, but when I come back to freshman writing, I'm sure I'll be coming back to Ways of Seeing, and I'll have to try something different there.

18 December 2015

It's Star Wars Day!, or Ranking the Star Wars Films from Worst to Best

You may have heard that a Star Wars film is coming out today. (Well, it came out yesterday, now that midnight showings have crept backwards to 8pm the previous day!) I have friends who have already seen it... which is why I've set my computer to block facebook, Reddit, and the TrekBBS until after I see it (this coming Monday or Tuesday). I'm not taking any chances on spoilers with this one. Though if you want spoilers, these are the ones to read ("To prevent plot points from being leaked, each scene in The Force Awakens was completely improvised").

I've been waiting for this film ever since... 1995, probably, when some older guy in my Boy Scout troop told me that the plots for the sequel trilogy were all given away if you read the books, and it was about the resurrection of the Emperor. In retrospect, I think he mistook the references in Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy to the Dark Empire comics as being to the events of a sequel trilogy yet to be made whose events would slot in there. I guess he didn't read the comics, just the novels.

courtesy BevReview.com
yes, that's a web site, apparently
Now, it's like it's 1999 all over again: my wife and I went Christmas shopping yesterday, and we couldn't walk into a store without being confronted by a massive display of Star Wars merchandise. It is kind of overwhelming, though 1) I anticipate finding BB-8 to be the greatest character in the history of cinema, I just know it, and 2) it made me nostalgic for the massive merchandising blitz that accompanied The Phantom Menace, down to the 24 collectible Pepsi cans.

So to celebrate, I'll be ranking the Star Wars films from worst to best. And for lack of a better metric, by this I mean, "How Much Do I Want To Rewatch It?"

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Do you know that I have never seen this? Like, I've watched clips of it, all of them awful, but I've never actually seen the whole thing. So it must come in last place, because on a scale of "How Much Do I Want To Rewatch It?", it gets negative infinity because it's impossible to rewatch something you've never actually watched. So there, and I bet you feel very illuminated by this whole discussion already.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Look, I know, but it was released in theaters, which gives it more of a claim than the Holiday Special. Anyway, this is arguably better than some of the later installments on this list, but it is literally impossible for me to imagine myself ever wanting to watch this again. Like, everyone who's actually watched it says that The Clone Wars is good stuff, but you won't know it from watching Anakin walk up a cliff in a walker and exchanging "banter" with a snotty kid. I just can't think of a reason I'd want to see this a second time because it's totally nonessential; at least the worst prequels contribute to the story.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Okay, this is not the best of the prequels. Why do people say that? Did they watch it? Or did they just watch the "Rise of Darth Vader" movie they'd constructed in their head which is way better? I've seen this movie twice (thrice if you count the time I watched it riffed), the least of any Star Wars movie, and I never want to see it again, not really. Like, literally everything about this movie is terrible right from its astonishingly tension-free opening space battle all the way to its astonishingly tension-free final lightsaber duel. Two best friends are trying to kill each other, and you don't care at all as they zip around on lava surfboards. Characters you don't care about fly between planets you don't know what they are for arbitrary reasons up until the whole thing ends for some reason. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor has clearly given up trying, Ian McDiarmid has lost all his acting talent, I have no idea who Bail Organa is, and Natalie Portman is given nothing better to do than say things like, "Anakin, gosh, sometimes when you murder children, it makes me want to have sex with you slightly less. Please don't. Oh, you're going to anyway? That's all right then."

Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Yes, this one isn't that great, either. But it does have some things going for it, namely that Jango Fett is pretty cool, and I like the idea of his murder-kid. Kamino is probably the last interesting environment devised for a Star Wars film. I really like the air-speeder chase on Coruscant, and the wacky silent space bomb things. (Ben Burtt really kicks it out of the park on sound design in both cases.) Watto reappears with an awesome hat. And the film even triggers latent nostalgic feelings of appreciation for Jar-Jar Binks. On the downside, the arena battle is dullsville, all of the jokes are terrible, the CGI Yoda is awful, and Hayden "I Hate Sand" Christensen is in it, and you're meant to take his creepy stalking thing as some kind of serious romance. Plus Natalie Portman leads him on in kind of a weird way. "Anakin, gosh, I just like you as a totally non-sexual friend; I'm going to wear my sexiest black leather outfit to dinner tonight. That's just one of the weird things we do on my planet, like how we elect children to run the planetary government."

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984) and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)
Surprise! Yes, it's more made-for-TV movies, but one of the things I am looking forward to about being a father (someday) is have excuses to rewatch these things. They're fun. Who doesn't love the Ewoks? In the first one, they don't speak English ("Basic"), and there's a narrator who kind of acts like the whole thing is a nature documentary; in the second one, suddenly Wicket speaks English. Okay, I guess. Even more suddenly, while the whole first movie is about rescuing this girl's family, the second one literally kills them all off in the first five minutes. It's so brazen you have to admire it, I think, and yes I own a copy of these on DVD, while I've never gotten around to buying Revenge of the Sith.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Clearly the best prequel film. I used to hate it too, you know, but at some point, I realized it was actually pretty good. Here are some reasons: Liam Neeson is in it. (Really, Qui-Gon is everything a Jedi character should be.) Ian McDiarmid is awesome in both his roles. Palpatine's plan is delightfully complicated, meaning that no matter what our heroes do, he still wins. The Trade Federation guys are awesome. Ewan McGregor is still trying. BRIAN BLESSED is in it. Natalie Portman is actually given something interesting to do: she's still a badass warrior queen. "Duel of the Fates" is great music, and it underscores the only good lightsaber battle in the prequels. The Naboo design aesthetic is pretty great, especially that N-1 fighter. Jake Lloyd is better than Hayden Christensen. The lady who plays Shmi is actually pretty good. I mean, it's not all roses: yes, Jar-Jar Binks is kind of terrible, and yes, the final space battle is awful, and yes, midi-chlorians are dumb, and yes, the podrace is too long. But just listen to McDiarmid smarm up his every line.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
This is where it gets tough, as basically all of the classic trilogy are triumphs of cinema. Return of the Jedi is the weakest of them, but in the sense that Jon Pertwee is the worst Doctor: really, they're all awesome. (Up until I was about fourteen, Episode VI was my favorite one. Then I decided to be "serious" because I was in high school and to like Episode V better. This is also the brief, terrible period of my life where I decided Batman was better than Superman.) Like all the good Star Wars movies, it's just fun from start to finish: strangling Jabba, breaking into the shield generator (I love heist-ish things), every Luke scene with Vader and the Emperor, Lando flying the Falcon, Wedge being a badass, the Emperor's totally evil plan and the Rebels' totally nuts response to it. And yes, I have never had a problem with the Ewoks. Indeed, every time I relisten to my Episode VI soundtrack, I get mad that George Lucas not only expunged the "yub nub" song from the film, he expunged it from the ostensibly "complete" soundtrack to boot!

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
You already know why this one is good, because if you're like every other human being on the planet, you put this one at the top of your list. Well, your list is wrong, but all your reasoning is right, and we don't need to rehearse it again here.

Star Wars (1977)
It's the first, and it's the greatest, and there's still no Star Wars film I'd rather watch more. (Once I got over my high school seriousness phase and realized fun > serious any day.) This is what a space adventure film should be like. A wacky group of disparate personalities forced by circumstances to work together to save the universe. What could not be infinitely enjoyable about that? This is an action-adventure film that does everything right from start to finish, from that amazing overhead shot of the attacking Star Destroyer to the rousing strains of the medal ceremony. (Indeed, my wife and I used the music of that scene when we processed into our wedding reception.) It's got the best score of all the Star Wars films, the best hijinks, and the trench run is still one of the tensest scenes in all cinema. Plus Alec Guinness is in it. I don't know how George Lucas lost it in the subsequent twenty years, but he sure as hell had it here.

If you've really been paying attention, though, you'll realize there's a problem here. Removing the non-"Episode" films and giving them approximate scores, we get this chart:

I guess what I'm saying is that I hope Episode VII bucks this trend.

17 December 2015

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Three Days' Terror by J. S. Fletcher

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published 1927 (originally 1901)
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Three Days' Terror by J. S. Fletcher

This novel was originally published in 1901, but the edition in the Eaton Collection is a 1927 republication that's obviously undergone some updating, as there's a ship named after the German president from 1919 to 1925... but on the other hand, the English characters are very friendly to the Germans given how recent the Great War is, making me think it pretty unlikely there was that much updating.

This book starts out kind of all right at best. Terrorists approach the British government, demanding funds to build a better world. Their threats and justifications feel very George Griffith, actually: "We are lovers of peace, and of brotherhood, and of the human family, and our earnest desire is for the welfare and prosperity of all men. But we know, being acquainted with this world’s history, that it is in the blood and tears of the few that the happiness of the many must find its foundation. Many will suffer that many more may enjoy." This is contrasted with the opinions of an old socialist revolutionary, though, who says violence is not the answer: "It is by enlightenment, not by force, that society must be reshaped. We build, and unbuild, and build again, and each building excels the other." Unlike with Griffith, it's clear where Fletcher wants you to side.

The government doesn't accede to the threats, of course, and a chemical bomb causes a significant chuck of London centered on Trafalgar Square to simply disappear. People panic, and in the end the government surrenders. The book turns all weird at this point: the protagonists are kidnapped by De Reineville, a mysterious French scientist who is actually a servant (or member) of an ancient telepathic gestalt! But the gestalt is undone surprisingly easily when a German ship accidentally collides with De Reineville’s yacht, then the Germans bombard the mysterious island, and basically just win right then.

Ostensibly the protagonist is Henry Graham, a foppish rising politician, but the novel suddenly becomes awesome exactly three-quarters of the way through, when the best friend of Graham's love interest takes over the novel. Like, literally: not only does she avoid taking De Reineville's poison when no one else does and not only does she start telling German naval captains what to do, but the novel goes from being in the third person omniscient to the first person from her perspective. Her opinion on Graham sums up the tone of the shift: “he [Graham] is not exactly the sort of person one would turn to for guidance if one were suddenly placed in a deep intellectual hole.” She's like one of those bossy women from a P. G. Wodehouse novel that Wooster is in danger of marrying, and it's so much fun. I don't know why Fletcher did this-- perhaps he was getting as bored as I was-- but it's amazing that he did. If the whole novel had been written this way, I'm convinced it would be a classic.

Of course, London is rebuilt, and unlike in some of these kind of novels, apparently exactly the same as it was before; those who want violent change are very much in the wrong here. The novel ends with some ridiculous praise of the resoluteness of the British people and the British Empire:
For here, where London the Marvelous was for a brief moment crushed and staggered, in the heart of the world—here, where the four lions crouch at the feet of the hero of the sea—within the circle of a released carrier-pigeon’s first flight, all the strength and power of the Empire is comprised. From within that circle, as by invisible wires, go the bonds of Empire—ever widening, ever being strengthened. This is life—to hear the world’s wild heart beating close to your ear, to feel its fierce, keen, but always purposeful pulsation throbbing beneath your touch. Are these streets, stretching away from you as the spokes of a wheel stretch away from the hub, commonplace of aspect and dingy of color? But they are the haunts of the moles who go on scraping persistently and patiently until they have fashioned a kingdom and thrown out high towers above it. This is the very prospective of Empire and Government—when you gaze along yonder street your glance goes past the historic buildings which flank it to things and scenes far beyond, to wide stretches of continent, to lonely islands, to little scraps of land where the national flag floats undaunted. Heart of the world!—there is not a stone about it, new or old, that does not cry out its pæan of praise to the life that throbs and palpitates about it.

16 December 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #9: Project Crisis!, Part XXXIV: 52 [novelization]

Trade paperback, 359 pages
Published 2007

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2015
52 by Greg Cox

Prose and comics are two mediums that have very different strengths, and nowhere is that more evident than here. One of the things that made 52 so successful was its very investment in the comics model of long-form serialized storytelling: it told a single story in 52 parts, adding up to over a 1,000 pages of comics. Though obviously you could in theory reproduce this in other mediums (prose, television, &c.), I don't think it would play to their strengths, at least not as those mediums are produced in contemporary America.

So while a novel version of 52 could in theory work, I suppose, this novel version never could. The whole point of the story was its hugeness, its sprawl, its peeking into every corner of the DC universe/multiverse. That just cannot happen in a 359-page novel. Cox is hampered by trying to simulate the very format of the original comics; while in his later novelization of Countdown to Final Crisis, he can just lop out whole subplots, here he emulates the original comics in having 52 chapters, one for each week. This means at least some part of each issue has to make it into the book, which makes it much more difficult to cut the story down. Countdown focuses on just a couple of the subplots in great detail; the novel of 52 hits most of the subplots at a very superficial level.

The result is a book that would probably be mildly interested if you hadn't read 52 as a comic, but is thoroughly uninteresting if you have. I'm sure Greg Cox did his best with the hand he was dealt, but in this format, I just don't see a way this project could have ever succeeded.

(Also I'm pretty sure there's just one flat-out error: the Nightwing who meets Batwoman in Gotham is Dick Grayson here, but I'm pretty sure that in the comics he's meant to be the undead fellow former Robin Jason Todd impersonating Dick.)

Next Week: Time to begin a countdown... a Countdown to Final Crisis!

15 December 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Five: Day of Honor: Honor Bound by Diana G. Gallagher

Reread September 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #11: Day of Honor: Honor Bound
by Diana G. Gallagher
illustrated by Gordon Purcell

It took me all of an afternoon (as long as it takes my wife to make tacos) to read the 11th DS9 young adult novel, Day of Honor: Honor Bound. Season 5 has slim pickings when it comes to book-length fiction: it's this, Vengeance by Dafydd ab Hugh, the main story of The Captain's Table: The Mist by Smith and Rusch, and the Rebels trilogy by ab Hugh. I remember none of these fondly, to say the least. Maybe I should have reread Marvel's Telepathy War crossover instead? But this is what I opted for.

It's an okay book: Alexander is having difficulty living on Earth with his grandparents, and Worf swings by to celebrate the Day of Honor with him because Alexander has been getting into trouble at school. This is the third time Worf's experienced some excitement on the Day of Honor, and the second time we've seen Alexander go through it, too.

As an adult, the existence of DS9 YA novels baffles me; despite the presence of two child characters in the main/recurring cast, it's probably the least child-friendly of all the Star Treks. It ended one book after this one, and I kind of wonder if tying into the Day of Honor crossover was a way of bolstering sales in a dying line by appealing to the collectors/completists. (It obviously worked on me; though I have many of the TNG and TOS YA novels, this is the only DS9 one I own.) It's even weirder that this one stars a character who had never appeared on DS9 when this book was written, though (I assume by total coincidence) he finally did appear the month this book came out. More on that later.

Alexander's difficulties come down to a fear of his own strength, and problems controlling his anger; Worf tells the story of the soccer player he killed (from Season 4's "Let He Who Is Without Sin"), which is a nice tie-in. Basically Alexander keeps on throwing fights with bullies, but this only encourages his bullies. Worf has to both help him manage his anger (through Klingon techniques he's avoided his entire life, like mok'bara) and defeat his bullies... honorably. This book won't win any medals for sophisticated prose (the opening line is, "Alexander Rozhenko was one-quarter human, three-quarters Klingon and totally furious!") or dialogue (at one point, one of Alexander's bullies says, "I'm so flabbergasted, I don't know what to say"), or indeed, characterization. We're told of Alexander's tendency to become savage, but we never really feel it.

Still, it's a decent way to spend an hour, and peeks into an aspect of Worf that DS9 neglected for Worf's first two years. There is a really nice conversation between Worf and Alexander about honor, and the hard choices Worf has had to make in its name over the years, including when not to fight.

My favorite bit was when Worf told a girl at Alexander's school that Alexander snarled at her because he was into her. Would have loved to have seen Michael Dorn play that one on screen! Also Alexander's school's librarian makes googly eyes at Worf, which is just delightful.

Continuity Notes:
  • As far as I could tell, Alexander's age is never given. He's seven chronologically, but looks more like 12-14 in Gordon Purcell's illustrations, as do his bullying classmates. This is fortuitously consistent with what "Sons and Daughters" will imply about Klingon aging.
  • It's set sometime early during Season 5, before hostilities with the Klingons come to an end, and before the uniform change in "The Rapture." I'd suggest after "Nor the Battle to the Strong," since one of the kids at Alexander's school had an uncle killed in the Klingon conflict, and that seemed to be the hottest the war got; most of the time it's more subdued.
  • Worf references a Master from Boreth, Lourn. To my surprise, he's a character from Diane Carey's novelization of "Way of the Warrior".
  • Zefram Cochrane wrote a book called The Potential of Warp Propulsion; Alexander's school library has a first edition. There's a typo in it hand-corrected and initialed, allegedly by Cochrane, but it's probably a fake. A pre-WWIII publication?
  • Kids of the 24th century watch "holoflicks"; the ones at Alexander's school are excited about a new Ferengi comedy.
  • Obviously Diana G. Gallagher couldn't have known, but it's a bit of an awkward fit with "Sons and Daughters," which I coincidentally watched just before writing this review. In that episode, Alexander says, "you haven't tried to see me or talk to me in five years"; this book takes place approximately a year prior. Of course, that line is bad on its own terms because, 1) "Sons and Daughters" is set less than three years after Generations, when Worf sent Alexander back to Earth, and 2) that's completely terrible and implausible! I can kind of accept that Worf rarely visits-- he's not a great dad-- but to never even talk to his son over subspace for five years, or even three!? Impossible, Worf's mother would kill him.
  • More difficult, though is Alexander's decision at the novel's end that he doesn't have to choose "to be a diplomat or a Klingon warrior or a Starfleet officer or something else entirely. Right now, he just wanted to be a kid." He seems to reach something of a peace here, both with the elements of his Klingon heritage and with his father. It's possible that his utilization of Klingon ritual and technique here sends him down the path that leads him to joining the Klingon Defense Force, but his anger at his father in "Sons and Daughters" would still come out of nowhere. On the other hand, Worf going through so much to help Alexander stay in human school here would make his anger at Alexander's joining the KDF very understandable!

Other Notes:
  • Supposedly this book takes place in Russia, in a settlement called Mirnee Doleena, near Bobruisk. You wouldn't know it by the names of the characters: Bernard Umbaya, Kim Ho, Jeremy Sullivan, Suzanne Milton, Howard Chupek, Ms. Marconi, Mr. Houseman, Mrs. Miyashi, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Santiago. There is a Ms. Petrovna. I get that the future is multicultural, but really? (Also Worf goes to a briefing at Starfleet Headquarters at the same time Alexander is in school; it must be a very early morning briefing!)
  • Despite appearing on the cover, the Defiant is nowhere near this book. Worf seems to take a commercial flight to Earth.
Next Week: Sisko learns how much the past sucks in Far Beyond the Stars!

14 December 2015

Review: In The Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker

Over at Unreality SF, join me in celebrating 200 Doctor Who audio dramas by Big Finish with the release of the strangely-titled "Locum Doctors" trilogy.

Acquired December 2014
Read December 2015
In The Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1]
by Eugene Thacker

This book came to my attention after it was featured on a strong pair of linked episodes of two excellent WNYC podcasts I listen to, Radiolab and On the Media. (It also inspired True Detective, a show I have never seen.) Eugene Thacker's monograph explores the way horror fiction confronts the unknowable as a source of terror, taking in texts that include black metal, James Blish's The Devil's Day, M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, an episode of The Outer Limits, and an anonymous Internet poem.

Thacker writes in an accessible style for a philosopher, and the best part of the book is definitely the introduction, that lays out the difference between what Thacker calls the World (the world-for-us, that which we experience as human beings), the Earth (the world-in-itself, what we do not know but are constantly seeking, especially through science), and the Planet (the world-without-us, the impersonal and horrific part of the universe that we cannot access, that which is not defined by human experience). In The Dust of This Planet essentially traces various manifestations of the Planet/world-without-us across these various texts, arguing that they reveal "the horror of philosophy: the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility - the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language" (2).

The introduction, alas, is the best part of the book. The rest consists of twenty mini-essays on various topics and texts; with seven pages per essay (and many essays covering multiple texts), I found that Thacker could not probe very deeply into any one subject, and that it felt like he was mostly identify engagements with the idea of the world-without-us in horror fiction again and again, without clearly articulating what each new idea brought to the concept. I guess I expected more from this based on what I had read/heard about it beforehand, but little about the book surprised or excited me. Still, if I bump into the other two volumes of the trilogy, I'll probably pick them up and give them a read.

11 December 2015

End-of-Semester Teaching Reflections

The top Google Image result for "clip art teaching" is just what this blog entry needs for a little bit of visual flair, thinks the blogger with satisfaction.
I always mean to post more about teaching on this blog, and I always forget to; I should do it more often, as it's an easy source of content. (I do, after all, teach twice per week if even I do absolutely nothing else!) (Yes, committee, I am totally working on my dissertation. Totally.)

This week was the last week of the semester here. My students had rough drafts of their fourth papers due on Tuesday, and so I spent all day Wednesday and all Thursday morning reading them so that I could do one-on-one conferences with my students Thursday afternoon and all day Friday. It's kind of tiring and time-consuming, and so I only do one-on-ones for their first and final papers. I like doing them for the first papers to clearly set the grounding for the course, and I like doing them for the last papers in order to tie things off at the end. It gives me a chance to touch base with each and every student before they go, which I prefer to them all filing out of the classroom on the last day.

I was pretty happy with how this semester went; for the first time in a long while, I was assigned the same course two semesters in a row, which meant that for the first time in a long while I could teach the same syllabus two semesters in a row. As a result, I had a feel for the trajectory of the course I haven't had a long while, and the assignments and readings were pretty refined. Though I could, of course, always refine them more. I think I'd like to take another stab at this syllabus, but not next semester: I'm teaching a new prep for the fourth time in five semesters! But it's a course I'm looking forward to, so that's fun. More on that come the spring, I'm sure.

Meanwhile, individual conferences always remind me of what I like about teaching: I work with a lot of bright, young people, and they have great ideas and interesting perspectives. Working with them is about building on that and using that, giving them new perspectives and helping them reconsider old ones. I love it when we end up tossing ideas back and forth, and they end up considering something they haven't considered before, and it hasn't come from me: it's all them. (At least I hope it's not all coming from me.)

Of course, I also had two PLAGIARISTS in this batch of papers, but what can you do?

Something I wish: as a teacher, you receive student evaluations of teaching at the end of every semester. But there are times I think there ought to be teacher evaluations of students, i.e., narrative write-ups of what your students are like apart from the grades they receive in your course. Because the fact they might have written a sloppy draft or gotten a B- is just the smallest fraction of who they are, yet the channels you're given as a teacher allow for so little. I had a great semester this semester, and I want my students to know that they were a big part of it, and that I think so much more of them than a B- or a D or even an A implies.

10 December 2015

Review: Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine by Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez

Hardcover, 464 pages
Published 1985
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine
by Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez

Morantz-Sanchez's monograph traces feminine involvement in medicine in America, from the colonial period onwards. I had a vague memory of this book being interesting, but not very useful/relevant to my own interests, but upon rifling through my notes, I find I took five pages of them! So I must have got something out of it, and it seems a shame that I've largely forgotten that fact in the three(!) years it's taken me to get around to writing this review.

Essentially, Morantz-Sanchez looks at the supposed feminine virtues and the medical ones throughout history. Depending on how both medicine and femininity are constructed, sometimes these are in alignment, sometimes they are divergent, sometimes they correspond in limited ways, i.e., perhaps women are perceived as not having the detachment necessary to be doctors, but because of their sympathy they can be nurses. If a woman is expected to be a moral guardian, she ought not to sully her hands by being a physical one. But this didn't stop many women, of course, and by the end of the nineteenth century, 4-5% of physicians were women, and they had their own dedicated medical programs. She argues that women made better doctors in some senses in the nineteenth century: they were more sensitive to women's rights, they were less prone to lumping people together in categories (e.g., "the poor"), they were more attentive than men after delivery in childbirth cases.

But the rise of scientific medicine drove women out: one of the arguments for women physicians was that they took a holistic and emotional approach, but the particularizing gaze of scientific medicine had no room for that. And then, as nursing rose as a profession, the perception was that women in medicine ought to be nurses-- even though the nurses actually came from a different social class than the physicians had. Women did find a space in public health in the early twentieth century, though; its focus on home life left it as an area where women could claim greater authority than men. This also gave women strong authority in the closely related eugenics movement, and unsurprisingly, imposing rationality on the social environment was often just disguised racism; I don't think Morantz-Sanchez flinched from pointing out the moral lapses of women's involvement in American medicine.

Then, in the 1930s-50s, college-educated women increasingly opted for marriage over professions, and the growing ambivalence to women-only institutions made it hard for women to find a space to do medical training. But-- thanks to capitalism, in the late twentieth century, most professions recouped the women who had left the work force. I thought this was amusing, apparently, as Morantz-Sanchez specifically denies that feminism played a significant role in the shift back to professional women.

So, apparently, in its discussion of morality and science, a book more relevant to my interests than I thought, though perhaps more useful as general background than something to cite in my dissertation.

09 December 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XIX: Robin: Year One

Comic trade paperback, 199 pages
Published 2002 (contents: 2001)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2015
Robin: Year One

Writers: Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty
Pencillers: Javier Pulido, Marcos Martin
Inker: Robert Campanella
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Sean Konot

Year Three, August - Year Four, January
Having read Batgirl: Year One since finishing this, but before writing this review, it's impossible for me not to see Robin: Year One as a dry run for the later comics by (mostly) the same creative team. Batgirl: Year One is fun, bold, and matches the personality of its protagonist extraordinarily well; Robin: Year One feels as though it is striving toward these things, but not quite reaching them. Which is perhaps unfair to Robin: Year One, but I thought it was a fine comic, while Batgirl: Year One was a perfect one. I have some sense of what being Robin means to Dick Grayson after reading this, but not as much as what Batgirl: Year One gives me of Barbara and Batgirl.

Next Week: That's it for Batman for now (don't worry, he'll be back in a few months). Now, we plunge back into the world of CRISES, specifically in this case, Final Crisis. But first, a recap of recent events in the DCU with the novelization of 52!

08 December 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Four: The 34th Rule by Armin Shimerman and David George with Eric Stillwell

Reread June 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #23: The 34th Rule
by Armin Shimerman and David George with Eric Stillwell

In terms of "fitting in," The 34th Rule has a big advantage over previous novels I've read for this project-- instead of being written during its broadcast season, it was actually written much later. In this case, the book was released during Season 7, so the Deep Space Nine of this era was very much a known quantity. The 34th Rule fits comfortably between "Bar Association" and "Body Parts"; I didn't notice any real irregularities. Indeed, the book fills a minor gap in the show's continuity, depicting how the Orb of Wisdom got from Zek's possession in "Prophet Motive" to Bajor's in "In the Cards."

This is really a book of two parts. The first is Quark's imprisonment at the hands of the Bajorans. In classic David R. George III (note, however, that he is listed on the title page only as "David George") fashion, this plot line takes a long time to build up, but once it gets going, it's quite brutal, and of course Armin Shimerman and George have a strong grasp on the characters of Quark and Rom. I would have really liked to have seen the characters receive dramatic material this powerful more often on screen-- even the best "Ferengi episodes" like "Bar Association" still have comic turns that this book just does not.

But the real protagonist is, surprisingly, Sisko. Quark is not really changed by the experiences of The 34th Rule. He's been through a rough time to be sure, and he's learned that Zek is even smarter than he can imagine, and he's had some of his assumptions about the fundamental prejudices of hew-mons confirmed, but he's still basically Quark. But the most interesting thing about the novel is Sisko's character arc of learning about his own prejudice, and trying to move past it. The book's highlight scene is definitely the one where Ben and Jake discuss prejudice while watching Jackie Robinson play baseball in the holosuite, and again, it's a scene that would have been really great to have seen on screen.

What also surprised me in this reread is the extent to which some characters are not changed: Kira moves a little, but barely so, and she's pretty awful to Quark before that, so it's hard to see her shift as very big. There's also a very awkward scene where after Quark has been brutally tortured, Bashir is cracking jokes about his appearance. It's intentionally awkward. I can imagine that if it was on screen, it would have been funny-- Quark's injuries are often played for laughs-- but seeing it from Quark's interiority is not funny. It's actually quite a damning indictment of some of our main characters. Both Kira and Bashir come across quite unsympathetically when you're looking at things entirely from Quark's perspective.

Continuity Points:
  • Sirsy is introduced as Shakaar's aide; she will reappear in that role in the relaunch novels.
  • Similarly, the USS New York is mentioned, and Sisko evidently commands it in some later novels. (I still haven't read beyond... Losing the Peace, I think.)
  • On one hand, the book can't have any of the Federation characters change their hearts and stop being jerks to the Ferengi simply because of its chronological placement-- they act the same way to Quark in Seasons 5 through 7 as they did before. But it's not a bug, it's a feature: it would be unrealistic for any of them to experience cathartic, large shifts in behavior. And you can imagine everyone's experiences here informing their behavior in the last scene of "Body Parts."
  • When the Prophets Cried is a Bajoran religious text about how the Orbs came to Bajor, much read by Kira (and also read by Sisko). This is probably our most sustained and detailed knowledge of any Bajoran religious text. It's nice to have one that's not just a plot-catalyzing spooky prophecy. The only other ones I think we have are Akorem's poems, but I don't think they're canonical.

Other Notes:
  • Has Zek ever been smarter than he is here? This is probably the only time he ever does something in-story that would validate the idea that he controls a vast financial empire.
  • No, seriously, the stuff in Gallitep is brutal. Man, I would love to see Max Grodénchik do some of this.
  • I find it odd that Nog only comes up tangentially here. As a Ferengi in Starfleet, what does he think of the Federation's actions here? Even just a chapter from his perspective would have been nice. Wouldn't he have called his dad up?

Next Week: Worf checks up on his son in Honor Bound!

07 December 2015

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant isn't my only review of a story of revolution and rebellion this week, because three of the four tales on Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor, Volume One are just that. Check out my review!

Hardcover, 399 pages
Published 2015
Acquired October 2015
Read December 2015
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

I'm facebook friends with the editor of this book, otherwise it probably would have passed me by. But the more I read, the more obsessed I became, the more I wanted to own it because it deals with a question I am increasingly becoming interested in: to reword Audre Lord, can you use master's tools to tear down master's house? The Traitor Baru Cormorant is about an empire that absorbs other cultures, and what you do when you're one of the absorbed; young Baru Cormorant elects to be the best possible member of the Empire of the Mask she can be, to amass all the power that is possible so that she can use that power to free her people.

I wanted to love this book, and I would say I merely liked it a lot, which is unfair, as it is very good. Part of the problem is one of perspective: I feel like there are times where we are told that Baru is a certain way, rather than feel it ourselves, but part of this problem is by design, I think, as Baru does not always have much access to her own feelings. It's an amibitious novel, taking in Baru's early childhood, as her "native" way of life is dismantled through foreign education; her posting as Imperial Accountant to the distant province of Aurdwynn (like her homeland, a nation absorbed into the Masquerade), where she begins to trace a rebellion in the ledgers; and what comes after that, which I'm loathe to give away because part of the joy of this book was that it didn't quite follow the path that I had imagined. Baru is climbing toward power, yes, but not always in the way you might anticipate.

This is a book about the tools of empire: of politics, and economics, and culture. The functioning of the Masquerade is where the book always rang the most true-- the Masquerade is cunning, and it pulls apart the cultures of those it encounters. But it doesn't quite chew them up and spit them out; rather, those cultures adapt to the Masquerade in the ways that they can, some of which the Masquerade approves of, some of which it suppresses, and some of which it tolerates out of necessity. It is evil, but it is not Evil. This is the kind of sophisticated empire that operates in the real world, not the fantasy version of millions of orcs/stormtroopers/demons/clones marching across the landscape. Though it has a military, its tools are more varied than that.

The sense of history is always strong here, too, almost too strong as I sometimes got lost. But these nations aren't monolithic; they're all made up of different cultures and different ethnic groups and different races, and different characters have different attitudes to those histories. All of these things impact the attitudes and events of the present.

I liked the characters a lot, too; these are sharply drawn people in the midst of all this politicking. It would surprise no one who knows me that my favorite from Muire Lo, the assistant to the Imperial Accountant, an efficient, thoughtful, long-suffering informant. But he is one of many who move through this complicated world.

The end-- not to give too much away, I hope-- is painful, as it reshapes much of what you have seen before and it brings Baru's character into a sharper focus. Seriously, it's painful. I'm pretty sure there's a sequel coming, and I really want to read it, but part of me wishes there wasn't because what an ending this would be if there wasn't.

Empire is terrifying.

04 December 2015

Jekyll and Hyde via Arthur

This week I was writing a review of a scholarly book that mentioned The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and what happened is what always happens when I think of that book: I got a song from the PBS children's show Arthur stuck in my head. Just the chorus, which goes
But this time I actually looked up the song, and was reminded of its full lyrical greatness, which I now present to you:

I am sure Robert Louis Stevenson would be proud.
I don't have the time or energy to write something better this week, so watch this, because it's all you're getting out of me.