30 November 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part XXIII: Soul Crisis

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2013-14)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Birds of Prey, Volume 5: Soul Crisis

Writer: Christy Marx
Pencillers: Romano Molenaar, Daniel Sampere, Travis Moore, Robson Rocha
Inkers: Jonathan Glapion, Vicente Cifuentes, Jordi Tarragona, Oclair Albert, Marc Deering, Julio Ferreira
Breakdowns: Scott McDaniel
Colorist: Chris Sotomayor
Letterers: Dezi Sienty, Carlos M. Mangual, Taylor Esposito, Travis Lanham

Let's step back and talk about the Birds of Prey. The original incarnation of the Birds of Prey, in the post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint continuity, was in a large part based on history. Barbara "Oracle" Gordon, Dinah "Black Canary" Laurel Lance, and (eventually) Helena "Huntress" Bertinelli were all characters with long histories in the DC Universe. Barbara had been Batgirl, was shot and paralyzed, resurfaced as Oracle, and had relationships with characters like Batman and Nightwing. Dinah was the daughter of a superhero from the 1940s, a former member of the Justice League, and had been involved in a long-term relationship with Oliver "Green Arrow" Queen that had recently ended. Helena was a more recent character, but had still built up a history as a character on the fringes of the Batman world, which included a brief sexual encounter with Nightwing. The team first came into existence in Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey #1, from 1996, but Black Canary first met Oracle and Huntress in Black Canary vol. 2 #10, from 1993. These characters had history with each other, which shaped their personalities, interactions, and stories.

The post-Flashpoint version of the team has none of this. Now, I don't deny that a reboot may have been necessary, but it definitely impacted the Birds of Prey negatively. Over thirty issues of their adventures later, and I don't have a feel for these characters beyond single lines: Dinah is mopey and lacks confidence, Batgirl is similarly always on the edge of a breakdown, Strix is silent, and Condor is just kind of there. Why do these characters hang out with each other? What's their purpose? I don't have a feeling for why Dinah and Barbara might be friends in this new universe, for example. The lack of history is part of the problem, but not all of it: thirty issues is plenty of time to have built up a new history, but this book hasn't done that. At least, not a compelling one. Birds of Prey is a book without a reason to exist, as far as I can tell, a grim, dull action comic book about dreary one-note characters that occasionally has to tie in with storylines going on in Batman or Detective Comics.

Fast friends, apparently.
from Birds of Prey vol. 3 #27 (art by Daniel Sampere & Robson Rocha, Jonathan Glapion, and Scott McDaniel)

New writer Christy Marx attempts to deal with some of the issues I've raised above in this, the book's final volume. The book opens with another flashback tale, this one to "Six Year Ago," laying out the backstory that Black Canary dearly lacks in the New 52 universe. I already talked about this in my review of Team 7: Fight Fire with Fire, but I don't really care for this version of Dinah. It's nice to have some of this stuff spelled out, but more because it ticks off continuity boxes than because it actually informs my understanding of the character of Dinah Lance nee Drake. Like, now we know how she got martial arts training and was recruited by Lynch as a government agent, which is good. It's still not, I maintain, as interesting or generative as her old backstory, but I guess that's water under the bridge at this point. (At least, until Rebirth comes along.)

29 November 2016

Review: The Transformers: Infiltration by Simon Furman and E. J. Su

Comic PDF eBook, 152 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06)
Acquired and read October 2016
The Transformers: Infiltration

Written by Simon Furman
Art by E. J. Su
Colors by John Rauch with Josh Burcham, Aaron Myers, Simon Bork, Mark Englert, Runder Raj, and Kevin Senft
Letters by Robbie Robbins and Tom B. Long

Though it takes place between The Transformers Spotlight and All Hail Megatron, I actually read this IDW Transformers comic much later, because the Humble Bundle it was included in didn't come out until October 2016; by the time I read this I'd already read All Hail Megatron, For All Mankind, Last Stand of the Wreckers, and Infestation. It's a shame I didn't read it earlier, because it's really quite good, probably the best part of the IDW Transformers continuity I'd read up to this point, except for Last Stand.

Simon Furman has written for The Transformers since the 1980s, but this is, I'm pretty sure, his first time writing for them from the beginning, getting to design his own Transformers universe from the ground up. I see two different inspirations here: "Man of Iron," the first UK Transformers story, and "Rose," the first episode of Russell T Davies's Doctor Who. Like "Rose," Infiltration introduces us to the extraordinary through the eyes of the ordinary, starting with human beings in their world, whose normal lives are disrupted by something they've never seen before. Like "Man of Iron," Infiltration depicts the Transformers as strange, mysterious beings, emphasizing their size and their otherness. There are a lot of scenes with silent, mysterious Decepticon jets flying overhead and destroying things, just like in "Man of Iron." A Transformer does speak to the human protagonists in the first issue, but only in the form of a holomatter avatar; the humans don't talk to a robot as as a robot until the very end of the second issue.

I mean, I think RTD would write such a speech better, but I can imagine him writing such a speech.
from The Transformers: Infiltration #2

But it's not all mystery and scares; Furman does a good job of slowly initiating the human characters, Verity, Hunter, and Jimmy, to the Transformers world. They meet Ratchet, the Autobots' medic, then they go to the Autobot base and meet a few more Transformers, then they end up helping Ratchet and Bumblebee investigate a mysterious, abandoned Decepticon base. Optimus Prime doesn't show up until the very last page. The Decepticons are frightening, Megatron especially because of how Verity encounters him: he's so large and so focused that she's beneath his notice, an insect he shouldn't even waste time with. This is probably the best portrayal I've seen of Megatron outside Beast Wars/Beast Machines.

This scene gave me shivers, no joke.
from The Transformers: Infiltration #5

Compare this to the ridiculous way Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio introduced the original Transformers line-up, by having twenty-nine different characters just say their names and give personality-based one-liners, and this is loads more interesting and sophisticated. We don't know a lot of the Transformers characters by the end of this, but the ones we do know we know very well. E. J. Su's artwork is strong, too, able to handle both the legion of robot characters and the few human ones with equal dexterity. Transformers comics can look very posed at time, but Su is great at keeping things natural and (forgive the word choice) organic.

I love that Ratchet's avatar always has the same overly upbeat smile no matter what he's saying.
from The Transformers vol. 1 #0

This book came out a year before the first Michael Bay Transformers film, and it seems to me that it accomplished what that film tried to do much better. Though, unlike a film, this isn't a self-contained story but a set-up for more adventures: Furman plants many seeds for what is to come, but I'm especially intrigued by the Decepticon infiltration protocol. I like the way he's given new life to the "robots in disguise" concept by making it so that both the Autobots and the Decepticons are limited by rules of engagement that mean they must do their work on Earth in secret, and that Earth is but one of many worlds where they are in conflict across the galaxy. It's a clever reinvention of the basics of the Transformers concepts-- different, but also the same, hitting the right balance between nostalgia and reinvention. There's stuff here to please new and old Transformers fans alike.

Next Week: We jump ahead, to when The Transformers leave Earth, amidst Devastation!

28 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Time Traveller by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie

Here now: the end of an era! (in blogging) But first: my last two reviews of series two Torchwood audios, Broken and Made You Look.

Acquired September 2016
Read October 2016
The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveller
by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie

At last, my long Wellsian journey comes to an end. After reading two different pieces of autobiography by H. G. Wells (the Experiment and the Postscript), as well as myriad other pieces touching on his life, I wanted to read something that integrated them all into a coherent whole. I picked this particular Wells biography because it was the most recent of the two recommended by Patrick Parrinder in his 2005 introduction to the Penguin Classics editions of Wells's novels.

For the first half of the book, I got exactly what I wanted out of it. As I've commented before, Wells gave short shrift to his own emotional life in the Experiment, and though he filled in some of the blanks in the Postscript, I often struggled to contextualize them. Here, you get his personal history laid out alongside his sexual history, you can see what he was thinking at the same time he was feeling. Plus, of course, the MacKenzies are a bit more honest and forthright than he was about himself: Wells's autobiography barely mentions his battle to reshape the Fabian Society that occupies a number of pages here, and they also had access to what others wrote about Wells, so we can get a fuller picture of his friendships with people like George Bernard Shaw and George Gissing and Margaret Sanger and Joseph Conrad. (Conrad once called Wells "O Realist of the Fantastic!" [141], which is probably as apt a description for Wells as there could be.) On the other hand, Shaw's wife gives a very damning account of the funeral of Wells's second wife Catherine/Jane-- and really hates on the Wells-penned eulogy that he reprinted in The Book of Catherine Wells.

I do think the MacKenzie's literary criticism is a little simplistic at times-- they complain that in When the Sleeper Wakes, "Wells seems unsure whether to approve or disapprove of his projection, whether he is writing a utopia or an anti-utopia" (151), whereas in my mind, that's not a bug, it's a feature! In When the Sleeper Wakes, Wells took apart the utopian sleeper novel and exposed the falsity of its conceits. They also occasionally mention the meeting with the artilleryman in The War of the Worlds in such a way that makes me think they believe he's depicted as a positive figure, whereas it's pretty clear to me that Wells is mocking that figure's terrible plan for reinventing the world. Ditto when they call the ending of Ann Veronica "the escapist's daydream fulfilled" (249): I think the ending is much more nuanced and downbeat than that. Neither Ann Veronica nor Capes fulfills their original dreams! On the other hand, I should say these quibbles aside, they do a good job of contextualizing Wells's literary work in both his personal life and the development of his intellect.

It's also nice to get confirmation that Wells was, objectively, a Big Deal. He of course felt so, but the MacKenzies point out that President Franklin Roosevelt wrote Wells a letter complimenting him on his autobiography. He really was an important cultural figure in the early twentieth century, and for reasons other than his science fiction. It's curious to note how little of the book those materials occupy. When you're just over a quarter of the way through this, he's already written all of the works we remember him for now in 2016! But he did a lot after then, and that was what made him famous in his time, even if at the same time, Hugo Gernsback was championing him as a genre forerunner in Amazing. The MacKenzies sprinkle in a lot of comments from other writers, like the Conrad one above, or T. S. Eliot (who liked The First Men in the Moon), or there was a bit about Ford Madox Ford I really liked: when he "found himself in the front line during the First World War, he noted he had been so conditioned to modern warfare by reading the novels of Wells that when he actually experienced it he felt apathetic and resigned" (392). Wells, the MacKenzies argue, was sometimes too good a prophet. (They also bring up that the inventor of the atomic bomb knew how bad it would be because he'd read Wells's fiction.)

Wells's arguments get a bit ridiculous at times. There's more than one account here of him sending off nasty letters to someone who wrote a bad review of one of his books, though apparently he was so charming, folks usually forgave him in the end. He even sued the BBC for claiming someone else had invented the tank. When George Orwell wrote his famous takedown job "Wells, Hitler and the World State," which included the claim that Wells thought science was the solution to all humanity's problems, Wells wrote to Orwell: "I don't say that at all. Read my early works, you shit" (431). There's no indication here that those two made up.

I found the latter part of the book unsatisfying, however. Not much is said of Rebecca West, even though she bore Wells a fourth child. Even less is said of Moura Budberg, who dominated Wells's later emotional life according to the man himself in the Postscript. Eventually I figured out the reason why when reading the book's epilogue: even though this is a 1987 revised edition of a 1973 book, apparently not very many revisions were done to account for details not revealed until the Postscript was published in 1984. This is a little annoying: why bring out a new edition at all if you're not going to do the work that it would imply? It may have been only three years since the Experiment, but it had been over ten since Gordon Ray's H. G. Wells & Rebecca West, which they dismiss as "a curious volume" (450), yet fail to substantively incorporate the revelations of. I should say they do provide a strong account of Wells's own post-Experiment life, something Wells was unable to do himself, for obvious reasons.

A book of two halves, it leaves me wishing I'd disregarded Parrinder's recommendations and sought out a more recent biography that could have incorporated the past thirty years of scholarship on Wells's life. (I can't blame the MacKenzies for it, but it would be nice to read one that could incorporate the discoveries of McDonald and Dronfield's biography of Budberg.) Well, maybe someday, but not now. This is the twelfth Wells or Wells-adjacent book I've read in the past four months, and I'm afraid I need some time off from the man!

25 November 2016

DC's 2011 Weird Worlds Revival: A Brief Foray into Space

Weird Worlds was a science fiction anthology title published by DC Comics from 1972 to 1974; it lasted ten issues. Its big claim to fame was IronWolf, a sword-and-planet epic that I will read someday. The title was revived in 2011 as a six-issue miniseries. The format was a little different here, with three stories running across all six issues, advancing ten pages at a time per issue. I picked it up as part of my ongoing reading of all DC's space-based titles, as one of the features, Kevin Maguire's "Tanga," is set in space. (So is the Lobo feature, I suppose, but my space-based interests largely exclude both Green Lantern and Lobo.) A collected edition was solicited, but never released; there was however a follow-up series, My Greatest Adventure, which I should read next month.

I like the idea of the series; the inclusion of Lobo presumably allowed DC to float a couple riskier premises in Garbage Man and Tanga, who were completely new characters. There are some pacing oddities, however, which make me think that these were originally meant to come out 20 pages at a time, or just that contemporary comics writers just don't know how to do 10-page stories.

Lobo (written by Kevin VanHook, art by Jerry Ordway, colors by Pete Pantazis, letters by Jared K. Fletcher)

A little bit of Lobo goes a long way for me. I've enjoyed him as a guest character in other stories, or when he's used sparingly. Like, I enjoyed his original stories in The Omega Men, and he was surprisingly fun in L.E.G.I.O.N. But by the time R.E.B.E.L.S. rolled around, I was tired of him. Yet in the 2000/10s, Mark Waid and Tony Bedard made good use of him in The Brave and the Bold and R.E.B.E.L.S. revivals, respectively-- because in both series he was an amusing addition, not a focus.

This is the first story I've read where Lobo is actually the main character, and it confirmed my suspicions. He just doesn't work as a main character. He's invincible and dumb; the effective humor in L.E.G.I.O.N./R.E.B.E.L.S. and The Brave and the Bold came from pairing him with characters like Vril Dox and Supergirl, who need to work with and manage him. But an invincible brawler is not much fun to watch on his own. Lobo has something he wants to do, which is kill a guy and collect some money, and despite some obstacles placed in his path and a very slight twist, pretty much just accomplishes it as is. Depressingly straightforward and tension-free.

Garbage Man (story and pencils by Aaron Lopresti, inks by Matt Ryan, colors by Dave McCaig, letters by Jared K. Fletcher)

This is one of two stories I've read this month both written and illustrated by Aaron Lopresti (the other was a Parasite story in The New 52 Villains Omnibus, review forthcoming in February), and in both I've been decently impressed. A lot of comics artists struggle as writers, but Lopresti does a great job of achieving a unified tone and vision for Garbage Man-- a creature created via an unholy unison of human consciousness with, well, garbage. There's some good stuff here.

Unfortunately, a couple things about it don't quite click. There's a plot set up with Batman that goes nowhere as Batman actually never meets Garbage Man (maybe he will finally turn up in My Greatest Adventure). The book is a bit choppy (though maybe I should be viewing it as six ten-page stories and not one sixty-page story). But the worst part is that it all feels a bit old hat: I've never actually read Swamp Thing, but all the am-I-a-man-or-a-monster stuff is so familiar anyway. He even trudges around in the swamp a lot! I'd've liked to have seen Lopresti's obvious talents be funneled into something more original. Or just have him write Swamp Thing, I guess.

Tanga (story and art by Kevin Maguire, colors by Rosemary Cheetham, letters by Jared K. Fletcher)

Tanga is a purple alien in space, flying around, looking for a good time, and getting into a lot of trouble but don't worry, she has the superpowers to handle it. Maguire is always so good with facial expressions; I get a lot of enjoyment just seeing him draw people talking because of how well he does it. I wish this felt a little less aimless-- Tanga is attacked by a random spaceship, she destroys it easily (it's automated), and it never comes up again in favor of a story about her protecting the dimwitted inhabitants of an alien world from an onslaught of monsters.

I wish this one had more of a hook, because I enjoyed it a lot, but not as much as I wanted to. Tanga just wants to have fun. This isn't quite enough to hang a serious story, and the story isn't funny enough for it to be a humorous one. Plus some jokes went on a little too long, like her attempts to drink the local alcohol on the planet she visits. But overall this is fun. I've read a number of comics drawn by Maguire, but I don't think I've ever seen him write before, and he's pretty good at it, so I look forward to seeing him wrap this up in My Greatest Adventure.

23 November 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part XXII: The Cruelest Cut

Another pair of USF Torchwood reviews, featuring my two favorite recurring characters: PC Andy in Ghost Mission and Suzie Costello in Moving Target.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2013-14)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Birds of Prey, Volume 4: The Cruelest Cut

Writers: Christy Marx, James Tynion IV
Artists: Romano Molenaar, Jonathan Glapion, Vicente Cifuentes, Julio Ferreira, Scott McDaniel, Graham Nolan, Miguel Sepulveda, Robson Rocha, Sandu Florea, Oclair Albert
Colorists: Chris Sotomayor, Rain Beredo
Letterers: Taylor Esposito, Dave Sharpe, Travis Lanham

This volume of Birds of Prey sees a new writer and the beginnings of a new direction, opening with a story about yet another team member leaving. This is the third volume in a row to feature a departure of an original team member; the lack of a stable dynamic is getting annoying. What's even more annoying is that it's completely terrible: Ev Starling, who has been a mainstay of this version of the team since Day One (her and Dinah were the original members), turns out to be a criminal working for Mr. Freeze. Like, lol, what? The last volume had hinted at some kind of conflict between Starling and Dinah-- but based on Starling secretly working for the government, not a criminal! It comes out of nowhere, removes the most fun presence on the team (at this point, Batgirl is pretty dour, Dinah is way too much into self-doubt, and Strix is silent), and is completely out of character.

Surely an incredibly implausible con, too, yeah? Starling had to help Black Canary fight crime for months or years so that some day she could be in position to help Mr. Freeze recover his freezing technology from the Court of Owls? Lucky for her that a Talon joined the team! Also does she really have to be such a jerk about it? Show some remorse!
from Birds of Prey vol. 3 #20 (script by Christy Marx, art by Romano Molenaar & Jonathan Glapion)

This is followed by a story where another ex-Talon (apparently the star of another DC book, one called Talon) shows up to fight Strix. I wish I had ever read Court of Owls or even gave a shit about Talons, because Birds of Prey is super-invested in them for some reason. This story isn't complete within Birds of Prey, but continues into an issue of Talon, which is included here. Kudos to DC for including that issue, but they really should have just included the first eight pages, because the rest of it is the most boring nonsense about our angsty hero going to Santa Prisca to fight Bane while his wife rots in a Court of Owls prison. Blah blah blah, who cares.

22 November 2016

Review: The Transformers Spotlight by Simon Furman, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 132 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)
Acquired August 2014
Read June 2016
The Transformers Spotlight

Written by Simon Furman
Art by Nick Roche, MD Bright, Rob Ruffolo, Robby Musso
Colors by Josh Burcham, John Rauch, Liam Shalloo, Rob Ruffolo, Kieran Dats
Letters by Robbie Robbins, Neil Uyetake

Some reading orders for IDW's Transformers continuity place this before Infiltration, the story actually published first by IDW. I suppose this is because it supplies backstory, but I didn't find the Spotlight volume a very satisfactory read on its own, at a point where the only IDW volume I'd read was Autocracy. These are pretty generic stories of robots that don't really say much of interest. Shockwave is very logical, did you know? The Nightbeat story is a noir pastiche, but really gets lost in foreshadowing... something, vaguely. The Hot Rod and Sixshot stories I don't even remember at this point. I wanted to like the Ultra Magnus tale, because I like the idea of Ultra Magnus (I like any character who really likes rules, because I really like rules), but nothing in it grabbed me, and I'm still not entirely sure what it means to enforce the Tyrest Accords.

Still, don't mess with this guy.
from The Transformers Spotlight: Ultra Magnus (art by Robby Musso)

If you're reading IDW's Transformers stuff in order, Infiltration makes a much better introduction to the series's original set-up.

Next Week: The Transformers come to Earth... or are they already among us? Find out, in Infiltration!

21 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

After something of a hiatus, I'm back at it reviewing audio dramas for USF. First up are two recent Torchwood releases, The Victorian Age and Zone 10.

Trade paperback, 341 pages
Published 2016 (originally 1914)

Acquired October 2016
Read November 2016
A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

I thought that A Very Dangerous Woman would be my last book related to a woman in H. G. Wells's life, but when reading Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady in a Persephone Books edition, I realized that Amber Reeves, a young socialist with whom Wells had an affair and a child, had written a novel also republished by Persephone Books, so I decided to extend my Wells journey (now in its six month) with one more book. I said when I read Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier that I felt guilty only reading her work because of Wells, so I was amused when Samantha Ellis's introduction to this book began, "I wish I had not found A Lady and Her Husband via HG Wells" (v).

A Lady and Her Husband opens with a young woman telling her mother she decided to get married, and I thought this book was going to follow her and be one of those late Victorian/early twentieth century novels about a young woman boxed in by her social limitations, much like the other two Persephone Books I've read. But actually this book is all about the young woman's mother, who for a couple different reasons decides to get more involved in the running of her husband's business. She's not a feminist... but she soon finds herself morphing into one, now that she's allowed to move outside the tiny box she's been confined inside her adult life, and starts seeing the disconnect between the morality Victorian women were supposed to safeguard and the morality that actually went on in the world. It's an incisive book-- similar to a few others I could name, but with more original insight.

Reeves is really good on character. Not quite as good as George Eliot or Thomas Hardy (well duh), but she doesn't present any one-sided caricatures. Even when the husband of the title does completely awful stuff, you get why he does it and why it seems rational from his perspective. On the whole, a surprisingly good book. The daughter's socialism verges into the Wellsian at time, but otherwise (like with Return of the Soldier and The Book of Catherine Wells), this book reveals a side to one of Wells's women that's completely unlike him. Thankfully.

Next Week: My anniversary celebrations of H. G. Wells finally end when I read his biography! Time to find out how truthfully he's been representing himself.

18 November 2016

Paddy Kingsland, Electronic Music Pioneer

As I am wont to do, I've been thinking about Paddy Kingsland recently. Kingsland is probably my favorite composer of the classic era of Doctor Who, a member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that gave us the scores to serials such as Full Circle, Mawdryn Undead, and (best of all) Logopolis. He also did the music for the radio and television versions of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I love it all, from the melancholic death theme for the fourth Doctor, to this groovy bit:

Interestingly enough, Kingsland recorded a few albums of stock music back in the 1980s that are still used to this day, on shows such as Spongebob Squarepants! I wonder how much money he makes off that-- if any. As far as I can tell, no one's ever asked him about Spongebob in an interview. At least, not in any interview that I can locate on-line.

Kingsland in 1974. He was employed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from 1970 to 1981, though he still contributed to Doctor Who afterwards.
courtesy The White Files
Kingsland did much of his work on the Moog and other synthesizers; he released an album called Moogerama even. I am really fascinated by this era of electronic music. Though in the 1960s, the Radiophonic Workshop did groundbreaking things with tape splicing, by the 1980s, synthesizers had come in, and they were writing music that took advantage of its abilities. The doom-laden score of Logopolis is hard to imagine any other way-- as is K-9's jaunty theme from Full Circle.

When searching to see if Kingsland ever talked about his Spongebob work, I found a number of interviews, and I want to combine some of them here to create a sort of mini-oral history.
When you’re doing music to order, if somebody says ‘I’ve got this pay, it’s very, very sinister, uneasy atmosphere, something awful is just about to happen’; you can almost hear the music before you start. If somebody says ‘I’ve got this wonderful project, we’re asking five musicians to make any kind of music they like, you can do anything you want, you can hire an orchestra you can do it on a banjo, you can do it on synthesisers, electronics, lampshades, anything you like and we’re going to pay you for it’; what usually happens is you just kind of go into a daze and you find yourself unable to produce anything. Whereas if somebody says ‘I need this and I need it by Thursday, that’s something that allows you to work and it makes you work. [source]

The synthesisers were a great labour saving device but when they first came in, they were kind of research tools, in a way. You had to plug everything up and make the sounds yourself. But, later, presets made sounds for you and all you had to do was push the button and you got the sound. That was unfortunate because everybody started sounding the same. I don’t mean at the Workshop necessarily, I mean generally speaking. People were buying synthesisers at home and using them at schools. [source]

"Moogerama" was a library album produced by Syd Dale for his company Amphonic Music, which is still around today. Again we recorded session players at Lansdowne studios and I wrote out parts for them including the synth parts. It was more of a conventional library album featuring synth than an electronic music project. [source]

The KPM albums [the library albums, such as the ones used on Spongebob] are still in use, I am happy to say and most of them feature conventional musicians recorded either in my studio or elsewhere. [source]
If you search his name on YouTube, there's a ton of stuff from his various albums-- many of which have only ever been released on vinyl. It's really diverse stuff, most of it not really like the morose mood stuff I'm used to from Doctor Who, more like his K-9 or chase themes. You have this jaunty little adventure tune:

And this even more upbeat one:

On the other hand, you have this piece which sounds like the opening to a 1980s sitcom:

Though I really like this piece, which is very wistful:

Some of his work is actually on iTunes and Amazon Digital Music; I need to check it out.

17 November 2016

Review: The Spectre of Utopia by Matthew Beaumont

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the Fin de Siècle
by Matthew Beaumont

Beaumont's thesis is that utopias aren't really imagined as real places, either in time or space, but they're just ghosts of the present. In fact, utopias can only be good if they are are imagined-- otherwise they become malignant. He sees both an inability to enact real change (12) and a collective conviction of imminent change (29) that gives birth to these narratives of the future where everything has already changed. It's impossible for us to imagine what comes between 1887 and 2000 in the subtitle of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, for example, but that's where the real action of the novel is. Much of his book is about Bellamy's novel, which makes sense given how influential it was, but it's almost too much; sometimes I wanted him to broaden his outward a bit more. But he does touch on 1890s feminist utopianism, Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (he says Wilde has just dressed up capitalist progressive platitudes in wittier language), and H. G. Wells (specifically The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and When the Sleeper Wakes), and presents provocative readings of them.

Some of the book reminded me about Peter Paik's excellent From Utopia to Apocalypse: we find it impossible to really imagine ourselves doing what needs to be done to change things. Either we skip over the intervening time, or we imagine a vague "progress" will handle it for us, or we let a natural disaster do the work for us. A book to come back to, and a strong development of strands begun in Beaumont's Utopia Ltd., even though I read them the wrong way round!

16 November 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part XXI: A Clash of Daggers

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2016
Birds of Prey, Volume 3: A Clash of Daggers

Writers: Duane Swierczynski, Gail Simone
Artists: Romano Molenaar, Vicente Cifuentes, Admira Wijaya, Daniel Sampere, Juan Jose Ryp
Letterers: Dezi Sienty, Dave Sharpe
Colorist: Chris Sotomayor

A Clash of Daggers opens with a standalone tale about Batgirl, Jim Gordon, Catwoman, and a leftover Talon from the Night of the Owls. It's a neat, character-driven story, where Batgirl, Catwoman, and the Talon, later given the name Strix, all have to learn to trust one another, making leaps of faith for their various own reasons: Catwoman allows herself to be arrested to delay the police so that Batgirl can take Strix in and help her reacclimate from being a tool of the Court of Owls.

But it's okay for Batgirl to be a roommate to a girl who's never known anything but killing?
from Batgirl Annual vol. 4 #1 (script by Gail Simone, art by Admira Wijaya & Daniel Sampere)

The next story must take place before that one, because the Birds, Batgirl included, are still recovering from Poison Ivy's toxin in Your Kiss Might Kill. Katana's sword is stolen by the Dagger clan, and the Birds accompany her to Japan to steal it back; they also bump into Condor, a sort of clumsy oaf of a superhero. Though the details of the Dagger plot kind of escaped me, this is one of Duane Swierczynski's better Birds of Prey tales: the girls work together as a team, Condor is fun, the banter is good, and Romano Molenaar and Vicentue Cifuentes turn in the best art the book has had in a long while.

No, it's okay, pick on Condor.
from Birds of Prey vol. 3 #14 (script by Duane Swierczynski, art by Romano Molenaar & Vicente Cifuentes)

The last story sees Strix joining the Birds as a replacement for the departed Katana as they track down a terrorist arms dealer. I don't really care for the subplot about Dinah's malfunctioning powers, but other than that this is a decent, solid tale-- not quite as good as the previous one, but still entertaining enough. It's amazing how much good a consistent art team goes, making the characters feel like real people. It's pretty action-heavy, though, so I hope what comes next can draw out the character dynamics of this constantly fluctuating team a little bit more clearly: I like Dinah, Batgirl, Ev Starling, and Condor, and am prepared to like Strix, but I don't think these birds have yet been allowed to soar.

I couldn't decide if I wanted to do the top half of the page (for some good Starling banter) or the bottom half of the page (for some good Black Canary/Condor banter), so I ended up not cropping it at all.
from Birds of Prey vol. 3 #16 (script by Duane Swierczynski, art by Romano Molenaar & Vicente Cifuentes)

Next Week: A new writer takes over when the Birds of Prey face The Cruelest Cut!

15 November 2016

Review: The Transformers: Autocracy by Chris Metzen, Flint Dille, and Livio Ramondelli

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2012 (contents: 2012)
Acquired August 2014
Read June 2016
The Transformers: Autocracy

Story by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille
Art by Livio Ramondelli 
Letters by Robbie Robbins, Shawn Lee, and Chris Mowry

This is the chronologically earliest story in the IDW Transformers Humble Bundle, taking place millions of years in the past, before the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons took off-- because there had only just become such a thing as Autobots (Cybertronian cops) and Decepticons (resistance fighters). Orion Pax-- the future Optimus Prime-- is a young but passionate cop trying to defend a system that he knows isn't entirely pure, but does believe is the best hope for peace. But Megatron believes that the system can't be saved from within; only by burning it down, can something more just come into existence. But both have to contend with Zeta Prime, embodiment of the old order who will hold onto his power by any means necessary.

Megatron: "NO. JUSTICE!"
from The Transformers: Autocracy #7

It's the moments between these two characters, where they debate the right course of action, and where you see how they could have been colleagues in different circumstances, where this comic really shines. It's not sophisticated stuff, but it's brimming with potential. On the other hand, while Livio Ramondelli's art is good at light and gloom and drama, I found the action sequences incredibly difficult to follow much of the time, and most of the Autobots-- as is almost always the case in the comics-- blended together as interchangeable robots. I did really like the depiction of Hot Rod as a beleaguered leader of an oppressed community, on no side but that of his people's. This is possibly the first time Hot Rod has ever been interesting to me.

Occupy Cybertron.
from The Transformers: Autocracy #11

Of course, Megatron goes all tinpot dictator himself, and Orion discovers the long-lost Matrix and becomes Optimus Prime, and the story loses some of its nuance. But this is more interesting than I expected a Transformers comic to be, and hopefully future IDW stories build on its foundations.

Next Week: More backstory, in The Transformers Spotlight!

14 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth

Hardcover, 209 pages
Published 2010 (originally 1903-04)

Acquired March 2016
Read September 2016
The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth
by H. G. Wells
In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who, though they dislike it extremely, are very properly called ‘Scientists’. They dislike that word so much that from the columns of Nature, which was from the first their distinctive and characteristic paper, it is as carefully excluded as if it were – that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in the country. But the Great Public and its Press know better, and ‘Scientists’ they are, and when they emerge to any sort of publicity, ‘distinguished scientists’ and ‘eminent scientists’ and ‘well-known scientists’ is the very least we call them. (1)
I found the first third of this novel hugely entertaining, mostly because of quotations like the above. The ways we stereotype scientists have scarcely changed at all in the past 112 years, and most of the jokes Wells makes about them, from their tendency to over-focus on the mundane to their inclination to produce incomprehensible graphs to their desire to eat free food at conferences, still hold true. At first, The Food of the Gods is about a pair of scientists, a chemist named Bensington and a physiologist named Redwood, who invent herakleophorbia a.k.a. boomfood a.k.a. the Food of the Gods, which causes organisms undergoing growth to grow without end: so soon there are giant chickens and giant babies, and once boomfood gets loose in the ecosystem, giant vines and giant wasps.

The last two-thirds of the novel explore different facets of the emerging world of Giants, but I found this material considerably less entertaining than what had gone before. The Food of the Gods is a very different kind of science fiction than Wells was writing in the 1890s, far less about horrific effect and predicting a terrible end for humankind, and more about comedy and a vague hope of a better world. But on the other hand, this is the first Wells story I can think of where he begins with a technological invention and traces it forward, seeing how it would change society. His earlier sf works tend to just jump forward to a realized future (The Time Machine) or to have the invention be a one-off with no social impact (The Invisible Man). Depicting the emergence of a realized future society is a new move for him. Though in this case it's a world ruled by giants, which I suspect is more fanciful than most.

There's also a joke about how much Frederic Harrison loved Comte. I feel proud that I got it. I wonder how many modern readers do?

Next Week: One last Wells woman-- this time for real. I learn about Amber Reeves from her novel, A Lady and Her Husband!

11 November 2016

The 72nd-Best of One Hundred Possible Worlds

For the past couple weeks I've been obsessing over statistics and possible outcomes-- for obvious reasons. Donald Trump is the President of the United States, an outcome that some people attributed a 1% chance to. Now, I am a statistical novice (stats was my least favorite high school math class, except for geometry), but I do like numbers. Put something into an Excel spreadsheet, and I am fascinated

I've been reading FiveThirtyEight since this fall; I know it's been around since 2008, and I discovered it in 2012 (my wife: "he doesn't say it, but I'm pretty sure this guy's a Bayesian"), but it was the utter mess of the Republican primary, and the fact that I felt more invested in the Democratic primary than I had been, that shifted me into being a regular reader of the site. Yet Nate Silver was as wrong as many others, predicting a Clinton win that turned out to be mistaken.

As opposed to Nate Silver, Scott Adams predicted a Trump landslide win. So Scott Adams was clearly right and Nate Silver was clearly wrong.

Or was he? Nate Silver's final forecast was that Clinton had a 71% chance of being elected president. He wasn't predicting a Clinton win; he was predicting that if there are 100 possible president elections, Clinton wins 71 of them. Was he wrong? We could be residing in one of the 29 other worlds. How would we know? How is it possible to know that?

Scott Adams may have said Trump would win-- but he said that Trump would win in a landslide. I'm not exactly sure how big is a landslide is, but I am pretty sure that slightly losing the popular vote isn't one. Also, not to get too ad hominem here, but Silver's prediction was based on polling, and you could have faith in it based on past success-- Adams's claim to fame is writing the comic strip Dilbert. I enjoy the bits where they belittle Asok the intern as much as the next guy, but it hardly requires intellectual rigor. My instincts tell me that despite appearances, Silver was more right than Adams.

The thing that bothers me is that there's no way to be sure. To my eyes, it looks like the final popular vote margin was within the "80% chance of falling in range" section on the final FiveThirtyEight prediction. And, you know, if Silver believed an event he predicted as having 71% probability, that would mean he would be wrong about three of every ten times. This is the third presidential election Silver's predicted, and 71% * 3 = 2. So it seems he was due to get it wrong. I guess if he calls the next seven elections wrong, we'll have more room to doubt him.

It seems very possible to me that Nate Silver wasn't wrong in any meaningful sense. But who knows-- we could be living in one of those 29 other worlds, or we could be living in one of 99 worlds that Trump won. Or maybe the guy who said Clinton had a 99% chance of winning was right, and we're in the one world where Trump won. It seems unlikely... but surely that's what the very meaning of "unlikely" implies, that it can happen.

I'm just waiting for the Nate Silver Plan.*
So I guess this is what bothers me about statistics. We don't just say events will or won't transpire; we assign them probabilities, but we have no way of testing that those probabilities were right. We can only say that the event did or did not transpire. We're a long way off from psychohistory.

Presidential elections just aren't repeatable in the same way as many events we assign probabilities to. In All-Star Superman, Superman has a machine in the Fortress of Solitude where he can create virtual worlds to find out what they would be like. (He does it to find out what a world without Superman would be like.) But short of having one hundred of those on hand, and setting each one to run through November 8, 2016 again, we have no way of verifying these predictions.

Though, maybe, we're in one of those simulations. After all, what are the odds?

* Alternate caption: I guess Trump is just the Mule of Nate Silver's psychohistorical predictions.

10 November 2016

Review: New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox

Hardcover, 362 pages
Published 2008
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction
edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox

If I've counted right, this book collects twenty-three essays about "political science fiction." If that sounds like a broad thing to you, as isn't nearly all science fiction political the moment it imagines a different social world, then think of it as being about politics in science fiction. Of course, like any book of this type, some are good, and some are not good. Of the twenty-one essays, there are ten I recorded no notes for, which is its own sort of indictment. But here are some things of note I did record:
  • I liked Lisa Yaszek's "Not Lost in Space: Revising the Politics of Cold War Womanhood in Judith Merril's Science Fiction," especially for its discussion of the link between apocalypse and the peaceful/rational future.
  • Darko Suvin is always thought-provoking, and though his essay has the cumbersome title of "Of Starship Troopers and Refuseniks: War and Militarism in U.S. Science Fiction, Part I (1945-1974: Fordism)," his points about the way the military dominates technoscience and technoscience dominates the military, and how this plays out in science fiction, are well-taken. I also liked his argument that both Ursula K. Le Guin and Joe Haldeman refuse the "linear time of progress" (135).
  • Doug Davis's "Science Fiction Narratives of Mass Destruction and the Politics of National Security" argues that even anti-war sf relies on some of the same assumptions as militarism.
The book also reminded me, as often happens but I haven't yet acted upon, that I should read Iain M. Banks's Culture novels and China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels.

09 November 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part XX: Team 7: Fight Fire with Fire

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2016
Team 7, Volume 1: Fight Fire with Fire

Writers: Justin Jordan, Tony Bedard
Artists: Jesús Merino, Julius Gopez, Pascal Alixe, Marlo Alquiza, Gui Balbi, Juan Castro, Ron Frenz, Drew Geraci, Scott Hanna, Rob Hunter, José Marzan Jr., Norm Rapmund, Cliff Richards, Jimbo Salgado
Colorists: Nathan Eyring, Nei Ruffino
Letterers: Carlos M. Mangual, Pat Brosseau, Taylor Esposito, Rob Leigh

I picked this up because it covers some of the backstory of the New 52 version of Black Canary, and was released alongside volumes 2 and 3 of the New 52 Birds of Prey. The first and only volume of Team 7 is set five years in the past relative to them, and chronicles Dinah Drake's membership on the U.S. government special ops team known as Team 7. If you're looking to pick up this volume for backstory on Dinah, what you get here is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I liked the glimpses we get of between Dinah and her boyfriend Kurt Lance, especially in the first couple issues, where they go on a few missions together. They have a fun, playful banter, and the convince as a pair who like to both work and play together. Unfortunately, as the team assembles, the focus goes off their relationship, to the extent that it is revealed in an offhand comment from a teammate that they got married between issues.

In fact, the banter between Kurt and Dinah is probably the only good banter Justin Jordan writes. The rest of the dialogue is so generic.
from Team 7 vol. 2 #0 (script by Justin Jordan, art by Jesús Merino with Norm Rapmund & Rob Hunter)

An ongoing thread of Birds of Prey has been that Dinah is wanted for the murder of Kurt, which happened three years prior. Here, he dies five years ago in the heat of battle, when the team pours all its energy into Dinah's canary cry, and Kurt is among those killed in the blast. I can see why she would feel guilty, but there's no logical way she could have ended up wanted for murder based on what happened here. Plus, from a storytelling perspective, the death of Kurt just doesn't have the weight it needs to be effective, their relationship being too underdeveloped and the moment itself being too tossed off.

08 November 2016

Review: The Transformers: Regeneration One, volume I by Simon Furman, Andrew Wildman, and Stephen Baskerville

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Acquired August 2014
Read May 2016
The Transformers: Regeneration One, volume I

Writer: Simon Furman
Penciler: Andrew Wildman
Inker: Stephen Baskerville
Colorist: John-Paul Bove
Letterer: Chris Mowry

This is sort of an odd jump. The last volume of The Transformers Classics in the IDW Humble Bundle went up to issue #50 of the Marvel run; this begins with issue #80.5. It's been thirty issues since I left off, and in the interim, peace has been declared, Optimus Prime has grown old and depressed, and the Decepticons are plotting their return to power.

Now, I don't know what Simon Furman's run on the original Transformers comic was like, but this feels much more like a comic of the 2010s than one of the 1980s, with its bloated, decompressed storyline, and unrelenting grimness. Say what you will about Marvel's Transformers comics (and I have), but under Bob Budianksy, at least, they were always fun. This story here-- where we learn, among other things, that the population of Earth is dead, including most of the human cast of the 1980s comic-- doesn't really capture the spirit of the tales it's supposedly a follow-up to. I'm not opposed to darkness in Transformers; some of the IDW stuff I've read so far gets quite dark, but this is darkness without nuance or interest, the sort of adolescent grimness you get if you watch the first two seasons of Torchwood.

Let's take the nicest nice guy of all the Autobots and put him in PERPETUAL LIVING TORMENT.
from The Transformers: Regeneration One #83

I admit that I'm probably not the target audience for this (I've never read a Simon Furman Transformers comic before, though on the other hand, I do love Kup), but I didn't find much to enjoy here.

Next Week: That's the end of the G1 continuity (that I own), so we go back to the beginning, back to the era when Cybertron was under the control of an Autocracy!

07 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia's Most Seductive Spy

Hardcover, 400 pages
Published 2015
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia's Most Seductive Spy
by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield

In the Postscript to his autobiography, H. G. Wells discusses when his long-running affair with the Baroness Moura Budberg (1891-1974) should have come on an end. He had met Moura in Russia, while visiting the writer Maxim Gorky. Many years later, she and he were lovers, and he had proposed marriage after the death of his second wife-- which she rejected. She also refused to come back to Russia with him, saying it was impossible but refusing to elaborate. When Wells went to Russia, with his son Gip instead, Wells was chatting with Gorky and his interpreter. Wells said something about how Moura couldn't be there, and the interpreter said it was a shame, because Wells had just missed her-- she'd been by the previous week. And, indeed, had been in Russia multiple times in recent years.

It's a sort of lurching moment: Wells's world drops away from him. The woman he was in love with enough to propose marriage to (and remember, Wells slept with lots of women) had been systematically lying to him for years. Wells can't take it, especially when she can't or won't explain, and he tries to break up with her. Except that every time she comes back into his life, he accepts her again. The end of the Postscript is a sporadically updated diary from the last decade of Wells's life, and Moura keeps on returning, and despite it all, Wells takes her back, and she was with him until the end of his life.

H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorky, and Moura Budberg in 1920
from mourabudberg.com
Wells died not knowing the whole truth of Moura Budberg, but I did a little research upon finishing the Postscript and discovered that she was a Russian spy, and that in 2015, there'd been a biography of her published, collating previously unaccessible letters and archives. It's a fascinating read.

Moura wasn't a spy in the James Bond sense-- she didn't go on undercover missions in foreign countries for the Kremlin. Rather, she was a popular social presence, and that was occasionally mined for the advantage of various parties with whom she needed to curry favor. Through her first husband's family, she had ties to the Germanophile Russian community; after the Bolshevik Revolution, she threw tons of parties for them and funneled information she acquired back to the Russian government. This is the kind of spying she did for most of her life.

Her life is pretty fascinating. She was a member of the upper classes, but managed to survive the rise of Communism by being useful to the new government-- not just through spying, as she became the lover of Alexander Kerensky, leader of the provisional Russian revolutionary government. McDonald and Dronfield paint a bleak and terrifying picture of revolutionary Russia, showing just how dangerous and desolate it was, as well as how politically fraught, as various political factions moved to consolidate power. Moura was both spied on by the Cheka (the counter-counterrevolutionary police) and spied for them.

Moura c. 1930
from Bibelots London
Moura had connections to the U.K. from her youth, and fell in with Bruce Lockhart, the unofficial British ambassador in Russia. (The U.K. recalled its embassy staff because it couldn't be seen to officially endorse Bolshevism, but it dearly needed Russia on its side against Germany, so Lockhart was sent to do what he could unofficially.) The two became lovers (even though both were married), just another of Moura's significant lovers, which would go on to include Wells and Gorky.*

McDonald and Dronfield cover all the extant facts about Moura, weaving them together into a compelling narrative that goes from the Revolutionary days (1916-19 get a whole 280 pages to themselves in a 340-page narrative), to the mysterious death of her husband, from her time spent selling Russian treasures abroad to obtain funds for the Soviet government to her second marriage (one of convenience, to an Estonian baron), from her time working for the BBC's propaganda department during World War II to her postwar career as a screenwriter and script doctor for Alexander Korda. There is a lot of information packed into here, extensively endnoted. I didn't always always read the endnotes, but they show that McDonald and Dronfield worked hard to sift through the many disparate accounts of Moura's life. (Moura being one of the most unreliable sources of all, given her propensity for storytelling.) Many of the endnotes are devoted to criticizing the previous biography of Moura, by Nina Berberova.

Once I adjusted to the density of the book (I always find biographies slow going, but in a sort of good way), I found the book incredibly interesting-- but I don't know that I understand Moura as a person. Perhaps no one can, given how prone she was to exaggeration, and how much she kept secret. What did she think of her time spying? The key moment, it seems to me, is almost completely skipped over, I assume because we just don't know anything about it. Suddenly she is spying on the Germanophiles for the Soviet government. But how was she recruited, and did she feel bad about the deceit this entailed? Moura never said, and neither did anyone else, so we have no way of knowing. There were similar moments like this throughout the book. At one point the authors speculate that she may have had a role in the death of her first husband... but there's no way we can ever really know, just as we will never know what role she played in the death of Gorky and its aftermath.

Moura in 1971
from Wikipedia
Moura kept so much of herself hidden-- except from Lockhart, for whom she threw a lavish Russian Orthodox funeral that no one else attended-- that even when we know what she did, it's difficult to know what she thought and felt of it. But that's a problem beyond McDonald and Dronfield's capacity to solve, I suspect, and not a dint on this well-researched tome.

Next Week: A detour back into Wells's fiction, as I partake of The Food of the Gods!

* That isn't it for Moura's relations to famous folk: her niece/adopted daughter was the grandmother of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the U.K. from 2010 to 2015.