31 July 2017

Review: R.E.B.E.L.S.: Sons of Brainiac by Tony Bedard, Claude St. Aubin, Scott Hanna, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2010) 

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
R.E.B.E.L.S.: Sons of Brainiac

Writer: Tony Bedard
Artists: Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna
Additional Pencils: Sergio Ariño
Additional Inks: Walden Wong
Colorists: Jose Vilarrubia, Tanya & Richard Horie
Letterer: Travis Lanham

The last volume of R.E.B.E.L.S. sees a new status quo emerge: New Rann, formerly Throneworld, has been transported into the Vega system, longtime base of operations for the Omega Men. In exchange, the people of New Rann have let Vril Dox set up a new headquarters for a new L.E.G.I.O.N. there. This pulls together a lot of the diverse threads of DC's space stories, even more when you remember (as writer Tony Bedard does) that the Vega system and the Omega Men were originally devised as backstory for the Teen Titans' Starfire, who turns up in this volume wondering what New Rann is doing where her home planet once was. And then once Starfire's sister, Queen Komand'r, and a pair of rookie Green Lanterns turn up, things really get crazy.

Poor Comet. Go find Marij'n-- she loved you.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #18 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

Which is, of course, the exact kind of situation in which Vril Dox and thus R.E.B.E.L.S. as a series excel. In the book's first story, "What Happens in Vega...", things keep on escalating until Dox pulls the perfect rabbit out of his hat. It's like a classic L.E.G.I.O.N. tale of old, done just so, with humor and action. Starfire is a welcome addition to the team, and her relationship with Captain Comet gives that character-- a favorite of mine since Jim Starlin's Mystery in Space-- some much-needed focus. I liked how he had a much more "old-fashioned" view of relationships than Starfire, which makes sense, as he came of age during the 1950s! (And I was pleased that Adam and Comet discuss Tyrone, Comet's totally awesome genetically enhanced dog from that series, though sad that he doesn't actually turn up here.) And the idea of a relationship between Komand'r and Vril Dox is delicious.

28 July 2017

My Hugo Awards 2017 Votes: Dramatic Presentation Categories

This posts covers my votes in the two Hugo categories for "Dramatic Presentations." In each category, I'll start with the story I placed the lowest and move up to the highest.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

6. Deadpool, screenplay by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, directed by Tim Miller

Well, I never would have watched this film if it wasn't for the Hugos, and I can't say I enjoyed it per se, but I am pretty sure I laughed at the jokes more often than I did in Ghostbusters; I liked the meta gags the most. On the other hand, there sure were a lot of things I had absolutely no inclination to laugh at (lots and lots), and I think that on the whole I am more sympathetic to what Ghostbusters was trying to do than what Deadpool was, even if neither accomplished enough to make me very enthusiastic.

5. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, screenplay by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, directed by Paul Feig

This was all right. Kinda funny, but not very funny. Some good gags (the Chinese delivery one had a great pay-off, and I liked Chris Hemsworth's character), but at the end it kind of drown in tedious city-destroying spectacle like too many modern sf&f films. Like, I had a good time-- the interplay between the main characters is very likable-- but I suspect I will never want to see this again.

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards

I know a lot of people raved about this film, but I didn't find it near as good as The Force Awakens. A good take on a war film in the Star Wars world, and Gareth Edwards has a great way with striking visuals and giving the effects heft, and of course there are some wonderful callbacks to the original film, but I found this lacked the emotional weight I think this wanted to have. Jyn's story felt muddled. A lot to like, but little to love.

3. Hidden Figures, screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, directed by Theodore Melfi

I enjoyed this. It's not science fiction or fantasy, but I guess the official guidelines also allow "related subjects" and I'd rather see this get the award than two 1980s franchise revivals. Even outside of that, it's a pretty good film with some strong performances and a number of great scenes, casting light on a part of the Space Race I knew nothing about despite growing up watching PBS documentaries about NASA.

2. Stranger Things Season One, created by the Duffer Brothers

Coming after Ghostbusters and Rogue One, 1980s nostalgia clearly rules the Hugos this year-- but this is an original work, not another installment in a franchise. I thought this was marvelous, a slow-burn television show that actually works, with great characters solidly based in a series of excellent performances. I loved all the kids, and the last couple episodes were especially filled with really strong emotional moments.

1. Arrival, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve

I really enjoyed this. Gorgeous music, beautiful visuals, cool concepts, and a clever twist. But a twist that's not just clever: when you realize what's going on, your entire emotional world changes. Everything just came together for the final act, with a tribute to daring for peace and cooperation, as well as a moving depiction of how we have to keep going in a world where all the certainties feel like bad ones. I need to seek out the Ted Chiang story this is based on now.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) 

6. Game of Thrones 6x05: "The Door," screenplay by David Benioff & David Weiss, directed by Jack Bender

This is the second episode of Game of Thrones I've seen, the other one being the first episode back in 2011. There's not attempt at all to tell a discrete story within this episode, so to me it just comes across as a series of scenes I can faintly discern the relations between; there's a lot of politics and a lot of plotting and a lot of making armies and a lot of having cod-period drama conversations in front of dramatic landscapes. I did pick up enough to intuit why the closing revelation was probably exciting if you'd been watching the show all along, but for the most part my ignorance was alienating.

5. Game of Thrones 6x09: "Battle of the Bastards," screenplay by David Benioff & David Weiss, directed by Miguel Sapochnik

I enjoyed this more than "The Door," partly because it told more of a distinct story (though there's some side stuff about the dragon lady, most of the episode is about a battle involving at least one bastard), and partly because I had a better idea of who some of the players were thanks to "The Door." A lot of it is right out of the epic medieval movie playbook, down to the last-minute save by a second army, but I did find myself becoming involved. My feeling, having seen these two episodes, is that Sophie Turner is a better actress than this show deserves, and Jon Snow is kind of useless as a military commander. My favorite scene, though, was the one where Gemma Whelan started flirting with the dragon lady. I'm not sure, it might actually be better than "Doctor Mysterio," but I'm using show loyalty as a tiebreaker.

4. Doctor Who 10x00: "The Return of Doctor Mysterio," screenplay by Steven Moffat, directed by Ed Bazalgette

This was Moffat's best Christmas special thus far, I thought, a fun and funny tribute to the Richard Donner Superman films. Why exactly Moffat decided to write a tribute to those thirty years later, I don't know (though as I observed above, apparently 1980s nostalgia is the Hugo finalist ticket these days), but I enjoyed it, even if I suspect the only reason it was nominated for the Hugo was by virtue of being the only episode of Doctor Who to air in 2016; Moffat has done much better work before and since.

3. Splendor & Misery by Clipping.

Well, I would not have guessed than an Afrofuturist hip-hop concept album would be a Hugo finalist, but I ended up really enjoying this, the story of an escaped slave who commandeers a spaceship from his captors but then ends up isolated in the blackness of space and time with only the ship's AI (to which he is somewhat hostile) for company. The ending kind of fizzled for me-- I wanted more of a climax plot-wise, even though we got one musically-- but up until that I enjoyed it a lot, and I still enjoyed it even with those reservations. My favorite track was "All Black," which chronicles the protagonist's adjustment (such as it is) to life alone in space. I listened to it alongside these annotations by Eden Kupermintz, which explained both the story (I always struggle to follow the plots of concept albums; five years on and I still have only a vague notion of what The Hazards of Love is about) and the very dense references to sf (Delany, Le Guin, Butler, and Star Trek: The Next Generation all get mentions, among others, and Kupermintz points out a lot of Cordwainer Smith parallels, too) and to other music, including Clipping.'s own oeuvre. I then went back and watched the three music videos for the album; my favorite was "True Believer"-- like the best music videos, it elevates the music, in this case with a simple but arresting image.

2. The Expanse 1x10: "Leviathan Wakes," screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, directed by Terry McDonough

I really enjoy The Expanse, a space opera that manages to be character-driven and interestingly political at the same time, while putting some hard sf concepts up on the small screen. Though there have been some even better episodes in the second season, the first season's finale was its strongest story, taking what had been two separate plotlines and suddenly jamming together to explosive and emotional effect.

1. Black Mirror 3x04: "San Junipero," screenplay by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris

This is the first episode I've ever seen of Black Mirror, but it's an anthology series, so that doesn't matter a whole lot. I loved this, an emotional (yes I teared up) tale of two women finding love in the 1980s in improbable circumstances, with some intriguing sfnal ideas. It actually kind of reminded me of Banana, but science fiction. Which is, well, a good thing.

Overall Thoughts

If you let me be grumpy for a moment, the long-form Dramatic Presentation category shows what's wrong with contemporary sf on the big screen: 50% 1980s nostalgia, overlapping with 50% franchise installments. The most original thing on offer is Arrival, an adaptation of a twenty-year-old short story. Though probably if I look back it's never been much better than this, and I did really enjoy what I ranked #1-3. My guess is that Arrival will smash this category.

As for short form, I again really enjoyed by #1-3, though I'm mildly annoyed that "Return of Doctor Mysterio" got nominated solely on the basis of being a Doctor Who episode; I mean, I love Doctor Who, but let's not be blindly partisan here. I have no sense of what will win this year, but a Game of Thrones episode did win short form in both 2013 and 2014. I'm curious to see how this category looks next year, with multiple excellent episodes of Doctor Who to nominate, plus The Expanse's even better second season, and the forthcoming first season of Star Trek: Discovery.

27 July 2017

Review: The Begum's Millions by Jules Verne

Hardcover, 261 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1879)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
The Begum's Millions by Jules Verne

Two wealthy guys start two competing utopian cities; war ensues. The one run by a maniacal supervillain intent on building weapons of mass destruction ends up wiping itself out. I appreciate that Verne is trying to do something more interesting here than his usual travelogues, but it's not actually very interesting. No characterization, mediocre plot.

26 July 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LXIX: Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 2

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2015)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2017
Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 2

Writing by Jeff Parker, Scott Lobdell, Dan Jurgens, Brian Buccellato, and Simon Oliver
Art by Evan "Doc" Shaner, Yishan Li, Alvaro Martinez & Raul Fernandez, Phil Winslade, and John McCrea
Colors by Jordie Bellaire, Dave McCaig, Chris Sotomayor, Lovern Kindzierski, and John Kalisz
Letters by Saida Temofonte, Corey Breen, and Rob Leigh

This is the last of the Convergence books where the heroes comes from the era of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The previous books covered Earth-1 and Earth-2; this one gives us a wide range of multiple Earths, with the heroes (and villains) of Earth-3, Earth-4, Earth-S, and Earth-X(2). Plus it contains a story about the Booster Golds of both the pre- and post-Flashpoint Earth-0.
Who doesn't like superheroes who like being superheroes?
from Convergence: Shazam! #2 (script by Jeff Parker, art by Evan "Doc" Shaner)

Like all of these Convergence volumes, some are better than others. The very best, though-- and perhaps the best of all the Convergence tales I've read so far-- is the cover story, about the Marvel Family of Earth-S. It's somewhat interesting that early 2015 saw DC publish two different Captain Marvel stories in multiversal events, and in cases of both The Multiversity and Convergence, the Captain Marvel story was hailed as one of the very best ones. Like Grant Morrison's Captain Marvel story, Jeff Parker and Evan "Doc" Shaner's is a total delight, with tons of goofy concepts given a good light. Unlike some of DC's attempts to work with Captain Marvel, these tales embrace it for what it is, and are all the better for it. Shaner's art is amazing, Jordie Bellaire's coloring is beautiful, and the plot twists are excellent (I loved the reveal of who was behind it all). Plus, who could fail to like the Marvel Family versus a flotilla of steampunk air-ships? If DC had any sense, they'd have put Parker and Shaner on an Earth-5/Thunderworld ongoing series featuring the Captain Marvel characters. I know they are working on Future Quest together now, and I'm sure it's good, but it can't be as good as that would be.

Someday I'll read the Booster Gold series that leads up to this and actually know what is being referred to by the pre-Flashpoint Booster.
from Convergence: Booster Gold #1 (script by Dan Jurgens, art by Alvaro Martinez & Raul Fernandez)

The best of the rest is the Booster Gold story, which shows some of what the pre-Flashpoint Booster Gold has been up to since the events of The World of Flashpoint and Futures End, and has him meeting the New 52 Booster Gold, who hasn't come as far character-wise as his counterpart. I enjoyed this story a lot even if I didn't understand it; more Booster Gold is always a good thing, especially when you build in some tender Ted Kord moments. Does the story of Booster Gold go on anywhere from here, though?

Ted knows how to prioritize.
from Convergence: Blue Beetle #2 (script by Scott Lobdell, art by Yishan Li)

The other stories are meh, not really doing enough to make you care about them, even if you're predisposed to like the characters, as I am with the Earth-4 Blue Beetle (not to be confused with the Zero Hour-era Earth-1 Blue Beetle who appears in the Booster Gold story, and in the next volume too).

Next Week: The Justice League International, Catwoman, Superboy, Green Arrow and Green Arrow, and the Suicide Squad battle for their lives in Convergence: Zero Hour, Book 1!

25 July 2017

Hugos 2017: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Trade paperback, 431 pages
Published 2016

Acquired May 2017
Read June 2017
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Like another Hugo finalist I read this year, Every Heart a Doorway, this book plays with common genre conventions in interesting ways. The novel begins with two kids, one of whom could be the protagonist of a YA fantasy novel (she's a weirdo and a witch), the other who could be the protagonist of a YA sci-fi novel (he's a weirdo and tech genius). They become... not fast friends, exactly... but the only solace the other has in a very hostile and isolating world. The novel covers their youth, their junior high years, and then skips ahead about a decade to when the witch has recently graduate from magic school and the tech genius is working with an Elon Musk-esque visionary.

The beginning of the book is great: it very much does feel like the collision of the openings of two different YA novels. It's also very funny; Anders writes well, and is conceptually inventive, and draws her main characters and their insecurities very sharply. With the jump ahead, and the emergence of the actual plot, the novel (like Every Heart, actually) loses something: if I were to keep talking about genre, it starts to feel a bit "new adult" and not always in a good way. There are also some oddities of writing, in that certain key parts of the book are sort of glossed over, in a way not consistent with the deep interiority Anders gave the characters at the beginning of the novel. It kind of felt to me like this part of the novel had actually been written earlier, or revised less, than the first sections.

Still, I did enjoy it in the end. There's definitely a message, but it's one that works in how it reconciles the two genres and promises a future for a world that seems like it doesn't deserve one. Twenty-five pages from the end I was wondering how it was gong to tie up satisfactorily, but it definitely did, and cleverly at that.

In Two Weeks: A very weird space battle saga in Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit!

24 July 2017

Review: R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Son and the Stars by Tony Bedard, Claude St. Aubin, Andy Clarke, Scott Hanna, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010) 

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Son and the Stars

Writer: Tony Bedard
Artists: Claude St. Aubin, Andy Clarke, Scott Hanna, Geraldo Borges
Colorist: Jose Vilarrubia
Letterers: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham

R.E.B.E.L.S. is back on form with its third volume. Bedard is great at action, great at keeping the story moving, and great at weaving in old continuity without being distracting. In this volume, the series is affected by the DC crossover Blackest Night, but it's not a distraction: the massive outbreak of space zombies forces both Vril Dox and his enemy Starro the Conqueror to reformulate their plans. Plus, it allows for some tie-ins to the original L.E.G.I.O.N. run, as long-serving L.E.G.I.O.N.naire Stealth, mother of Vril Dox's child, is now dead and thus a Black Lantern. Before you know it, Lyrl Dox has a Starro spore... and Vril Dox has become a Yellow Lantern? I never knew I wanted that until I got it.

Sinestro has got nothing on Vril Dox when it comes to being an asshole.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #11 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

This is a little more action-driven than previous R.E.B.E.L.S. installments, but Bedard and his artistic collaborators keep the action interesting by varying it, and by keeping a lot of focus on characters and their relationships: Dox and his son, Dox and Stealth, and so on. It's nice that some DC space heroes left "homeless" by the cancellation of Jim Starlin's space stories (Captain Comet and Adam Strange) have a home here now, but it does mean the R.E.B.E.L.S. team is getting a bit crowded, and indeed, Bedard seems to realize this, as Strata and Garv depart in this volume, but still, Ciji the Durlan and Strata's friend Bounder still feel very underdeveloped: what motivates them? Still, this is the big action finale, not exactly the spot for character ruminations, and it's good at what it does, and the end promises a new set-up going forward.

Using first-person narration in the action-heavy issues is a good tactic, too.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #14 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

21 July 2017

My Hugo Awards 2017 Votes: Short Fiction Categories

My votes for the 2017 Hugo Awards were due last week; over the next few weeks, I'll be going over what I voted in all the various categories (at least, those ones where I did vote). First up is the various short fiction categories. In each category, I'll start with the story I placed the lowest and move up to the highest. I'll provide links when the stories are freely and legally available on-line.

Best Short Story

7. "An Unimaginable Light" by John C. Wright
“To utter certain types of truth is a micro-aggression. It creates a hostile environment we humans find uncomfortable.”
I thought I had a bead on what this story was at first: using Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to explore how difficult the concept of "harm" actual is to parse in human reactions, even if (as the above quotation shows) it's being written by someone who cares more about agenda than storytelling, and who doesn't try to understand the viewpoints of his opponents. But then in the last few pages it piled on some bizarre, meaningless, incomprehensible twist, and I was like, "Nope, not even misguidedly interesting, just poorly written."

6. "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander
This is my story, not his. It belongs to me and is mine alone. I will sing it from the last withered tree on the last star–blasted planet when entropy has wound down all the worlds and all the wheres, and nothing is left but faded candy wrappers.
This isn't really a story, it's a revenge fantasy: a man kills a woman, but it turns out the woman is some kind of immortal angelic cosmic force, and so she destroys him utterly. I find it weird that the beginning of the story sets itself as rectifying some kind of literary injustice, where heroes and  villains (usually male) get names everyone knows, and victims (usually women) get loving descriptions of their suffering and no names or stories anyone remembers, because our narrator has no name and no story, and is clearly just a fantasy, leaving real victims as anonymous as ever. The story doesn't really fulfill its own mandate.

5. No Award

One criterion I've been using for No Award is considering even if I don't like a thing, to what extent does it make sense to me that someone else would like a thing? So, for example, I didn't get much out of "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers," but I can see how someone else would, so it goes above No Award. But the two worst short stories on the ballot were both things I feel like I would be hard-pressed to understand why someone else likes it. (Even though, intellectually, I know they must, or they wouldn't be on the ballot.) 

4. "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" by Alyssa Wong
In my grief, I’d nearly forgotten about my sister, and in my absence, my apocalypse had shifted course without me.
The second of the two finalists by Alyssa Wong I read (see "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" below, under Best Novelette), this didn't do much for me, either. A pair of sisters have the power to manipulate the weather and the timelines; when one (who is trans) dies, the other works to change things to save her, but can never get it to work out. Better than the other Wong story, but mostly unmoving. Nice moments here and there in detailing the relationships, and once again, good imagery but it didn't touch me, and the affect of this was clearly supposed to be emotional.

3. "The City Born Great" by N. K. Jemisin
And just to add insult to injury? I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God. Port Authority makes it honorary New York, motherfucker; you just got Jerseyed.
I didn't love this story itself, which was a little too straightforward plotwise, but I loved the concepts it played with. The narrator discovers he's going to be the living embodiment of a city: when cities reach a certain level of complexity, they come to life. The narrator compares it to increasing mass-- a weight on the world, like how a black hole works-- but it made me think of ant colonies and brain cells and flocks of birds and other systems where irreducible complexity emerges from individually simple interactions. The narrator's enemy at one point is a monster made of policemen, which was a potent metaphor for how we try to impose order on complexity we don't like, so that control becomes easier, all James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State-style. (The way the police monster is dispatched is thus particularly apt.) I wish I liked this story more, because I loved Jemisin's concepts.

2. "That Game We Played During the War" by Carrie Vaughn
“The point,” Valk said [...], “is to fight little wars without hurting anyone.”

And there was silence then, because yes, they all had stories.
At first I found it difficult to decide between this and the next story, because they were both pretty good executions of potentially fascinating premises, both of which I just wanted something a little bit more. This story is set after the conclusion of a war between two nations, one where everyone is telepathic and one where everyone is not. A man and a woman who were on opposite sides of the war but forged a friendship in two different prisons (each had a turn as prisoner and as warder) resume a chess game-- a chess game complicated by the fact that the one always know what the other is planning. There are a lot of neat moments, particularly as the chess game draws the attention of those in the hospital where the telepath is recuperating. The last couple scenes is where it really sings.

1. "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El-Mohtar
“Falling’s easy—it's keeping still that’s hard.”
Two women, both seeming riffs on fairy tale protagonists, meet. One is cursed to keep moving, wearing out magic iron boots to rid her abusive husband of a curse. The other is cursed to immobility, staying on top of a glass mountain because she's so attractive men can't control themselves around her, awaiting the suitor who climbs to the top and wins her hand. The women are both damaged and private, and slowly open up to each other across the course of the story. A little inevitable in what happens (you can probably guess it just from my description), but I like how it shows we can internalize that which oppresses us, and it's beautifully written. At first I though it and "The Game We Played" were pretty much on par, but this story lingered with me in a way the others did not, so the more time I passed, the more certain I was of its placing.

Best Novelette

7. Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex by Stix Hiscock
     A last shriek of pleasure, and my glowing nipples suddenly began to discharge, shooting hot beams of light out from between my fingers and tongue. Blast after blast of energy went bouncing around the room, the crowd roaring even as they scrambled to dodge my sizzling nipple ejaculations.
This is neither a good piece of erotica, nor a good piece of parody erotica (there are times it seems to want to be funny, such as the above, but it doesn't land often enough to be interesting), nor even so bad that it becomes amusing. I do know why this novelette was nominated, but I don't know why it exists to begin with.

6. No Award

I feel pretty comfortable saying that if Alien Stripper won a Hugo, I'd be embarrassed as a voter, which seems like a good criterion for which to rank something below No Award.

5. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
     The kingdom is your setting. You are its light.
I could never really figure out how the magic system in this story worked, which is based around magical gems, royalty called Jewels, and faithful servants called lapidaries. The way the magic flowed between these two types of people and the gems remained obscure, which meant the whole story remained obscure, as it meant I could never fully comprehend the relationship of the two principal characters.

4. "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong
This town is just a field of bodies to use as he pleases.
An okay fantasy story about a boy with the power to reanimate dead objects, set in an alternate version of the Old West. The description of the desert is evocative, as is the occasional encounter with the living dead, but this story never really came to life for me (heh heh) for reasons I can't really pin my fingers on. Things seemed to tie up a little too neatly at the end, in ways I found a little too cliché. The emotional relationships the story hinges on never really mattered.

3. "The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan
Sometimes I believe it’s the airport itself, and Sipson, both the kind of non-places that keep you addicted to transience, the restless half-life of the perpetual traveller who never goes anywhere.

The idea of settling for anything too concrete begins to seem like death, so you settle for nothing.
An employee at the hotel where the crew of the second manned Mars mission is staying before they head off into space has the opportunity to reflect on her life, especially her relationship with her mother (who is having health problems) and her father (who she never knew). The sfnal elements are pretty minor: the Mars mission is just a backdrop for her story, and I didn't find a very compelling thematic or metaphorical resonance either. Okay for what it is, but it's not trying to do very much within the genre of science fiction.

2. "Touring with the Alien" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
“Your unconscious . . . it’s unreliable. You can’t control it. It can lead you wrong.”

“That’s absurd,” he said. “It’s not some outside entity; it’s you. It’s your conscious mind that’s the slave master, always worrying about control. Your unconscious only wants to preserve you.”
A women with a commercial driver's license and security clearance ends up taking an unusual cargo from Washington, D.C. to points west: an alien visitor to Earth and its human interpreter. The aliens in question lack conscious thought but are still immensely intelligent. It's a little slow to start, but it's in the complications of consciousness that the story really comes to life: Gilman has constructed genuinely alien aliens here, but ones that feel entirely plausible at the same time, and she links them adroitly into the dilemmas that all us humans face, while resisting easy answers. Cool concepts, competently executed.

1. "The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon
(Grandma Harken thought of herself as an old lady, because she was one. That she was tougher than tree roots and barbed wire did not matter. You did not steal an old lady's tomatoes. It was rude, and also, she would destroy you.)
This was the very last thing I read for the Hugos, and as I hadn't enjoyed the last few prose works before it ("An Unimaginable Light," Penric and the Shaman, Death's End, Ninefox Gambit), I was beginning to worry I'd burnt out on Hugo reading. Well it wasn't me, it was them, because I loved this. An old lady in a magical version of the American West aims to catch whoever is stealing her prize tomatoes, and ends up discovering more than she expects. A tale with a strong sense of both voice and place, meticulously told down to the smallest detail, both real and imagined. Far and away the best of the novelettes.

Best Novella

6. Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
“He is very patient. Well, he would have to be, wouldn’t he, to work his art in a medium that takes more than a man's lifetime to complete.”
I never got into this story. Partially, there's a lot of backstory to absorb at the beginning, as this is the second is a series, and Bujold isn't very new reader friendly; it took a lot of (confusing) time for me to work out the relationship between Penric and his demon. Partially, the mechanics of magic in this world are very complicated, which might be useful if you're writing a series, but I felt like I was drowning in technical detail sometimes. Unfortunately, the plot is really based in such magical minutiae more than anything else. And partially, the characters just didn't ever grab me. I'm not sure why I am supposed to care about Penric based on this story in itself. He didn't really face any interesting challenges or do anything particularly noteworthy.

5. A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
     Aqib felt now as he had all throughout childhood: that everyone was moving deftly within norms long established, confidently speaking in terms already defined, but that no one had remembered to clue in poor little Aqib.
This started very strongly, with a romance between two men, one a minor royal from a homophobic vaguely Arabic culture, the other a legionnaire in a somewhat more open vaguely Roman visiting society. Wilson's writing is evocative, both culturally and characterfully, and the romance is very sweet, very convincing, and very real. After the first third, though, I started to lose the thread of it all and got confused as it became very jumpy. I think I worked it all out by the end, but my emotional investment had been damaged too much to recover. It's possible this is my fault, not the story's (I was a little distracted while reading parts of it), but that's the reaction I had and it's too late to change it.

4. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle
What was indifference compared to malice?
Like the next story on this list, The Ballad of Black Tom is a rewriting of an H. P. Lovecraft story from the perspective of an Other, in this case a black man from Harlem. I guess there's a bit of a Moment right now? I enjoyed the first half of the story a lot, despite that a number of the details remained frustratingly obscure (and I don't think they were meant to, though maybe I wasn't reading carefully enough, as I did read most of it on a plane). Tommy himself, the world he comes from, and the world he enters into are all sketched out very compellingly, and I liked the contrast of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the horror of being black in a racist world. The second half of the book I found less interesting, though the climax was pretty strong. Perhaps, like Dream-Quest, if I'd read Lovecraft's original I'd've been more into it, but I still enjoyed it.

3. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
     “Our world has no sweep, no scale,” Carter said. “No dark poetry. We can't get to the stars, and even the moon is hundreds of thousands of miles away. There is no meaning to any of it.”
     “Do stars have to mean anything?”
In an alternate world, a world that is a dream of our world, a middle-aged professor at a women's college goes on a quest to find a runaway student, one who's run off with a man with the intention of getting into our world, and whose flight endangers the stability of the college. There are some bits of this that are quite good, as Johnson is an evocative writer, and I really liked how the end came together, but even for a journey narrative, there's a big chunk of the middle that is very free of incident. I may have gotten more out of it if I'd read the Lovecraft which it is reworking, but I still enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, just not enough to rank it highest.

2. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
     “Going back” had two distinct meanings at the school, depending on how it was said. [...] The duality of the phrase was like the duality of the doors: they changed lives, and they destroyed them, all with the same, simple invitation. Come through, and see.
If this book had been as good as its premise, it would have been amazing; it might have got the top spot. The book is about a boarding school for kids who have traveled to fantasy worlds through portals (think Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz, the Pevensies in Narnia) and returned home and are having trouble adjusting. The first third of the novel is just a delight, as Nancy (our protagonist) settles into the school and meets the other characters, and we as readers learn how this milieu work. There are a lot of nice touches, such as what happens when fairies abduct a girl to fairly land, but that "girl" turns out to be a trans boy assigned female at birth. But one-third of the way through, the plot turns up, and it's a murder mystery, and the book turns a bit wobbly: some details didn't quite line up, some information is belabored, and I didn't buy the actions of the headmaster. (It felt like the book needed another edit.) It was still enjoyable, and I zipped through it because I couldn't put it down, but I wanted the whole book to be as good as the bit before the plot began. A somewhat mundane story with a compelling premise. I'd read more books with this premise, though (and they are coming).

1. This Census-Taker by China Miéville
“This”–he tapped the broad gauge tube–“a shotgun. It spreads possibilities.”
This inscrutable novella is about the son of a man who makes magic keys, and whose father may have killed his mother, but no one knows for sure-- not the authorities, who only have his word for it, and not the narrator, who thought he may have seen his father dying or someone else entirely. The novella chronicles the time before and after the murder, with occasional glimpses of the present day, where the narrator is writing the whole incident up in the second of three books he owns. The first is facts, which everyone can read but few will. The second is stories, written for readers even though they might not come. The third is secrets, which only he is supposed to read but others might. As maybe you can tell from what I've said so far, the book is partially about truths and how we capture them-- the kid is fascinated by creatures in bottles as a kid, because it makes him imagine an entirely contained world, and of course the census-taker who comes to the village is all about the capturing of (a form of) truth. Anyway, there are significant aspects of this book I did not comprehend, and I did not expect it to end where it did, but I greatly enjoyed reading it.

Overall Thoughts

I was probably more frustrated with Short Story and Novelette than any other Hugo categories (of those I voted in; I skipped many). There was one great short story, and everything else ranged from pretty good to No Award-- contrast that with there being four great novels, or three great graphic stories. There was one great novelette, too, but two I really bounced off of (plus the one I No Awarded). I don't know what the deal here is exactly. Just that people's tastes differ from mine? I note that almost all the finalists come from free-to-read web magazines (or "emags" as the L.A. Times crossword calls them), which makes me feel like availability might give these otherwise mediocre stories boosts.

On the other hand, the novellas were a fascinating bunch. Though I had some kind of reservation about each one, I felt #1-3 were all really good stories, and really different from each other, and all very inventive. And #4-5 both had some great writing, too. I may not like everything it produces, but the Tor.com novellas program (responsible for Jewel and Her Lapidary, Taste of Honey, Ballad of Black Tom, Dream-Quest, and Every Heart) is clearly very strong. And most of them are just $2.99 on Kindle!

I have no sense what will win any of these categories, except I feel pretty confident in "Tomato Thief." And if push came to shove, I'd guess short story will be either "Seasons of Glass" or "The Game We Played." But all I can tell you about novella is that it won't be This Census-Taker.

20 July 2017

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Trade paperback, 374 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2008)
Borrowed from my wife
Read August 2016
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The last book I taught in my course on postapocalyptic literature was The Hunger Games. Of course, my class of 20-somethings had almost all read it before, or at least seen the film, and felt like they understood it, particularly as a work of dystopian fiction, and were skeptical that the apocalypse was a significant part of the novel. But I felt like there's something in the fact that in the 2010s, we think that what young adults really need to read is about the end of the world.

Like with Y: The Last Man, I ended up discussing it in the context of the "state of nature." A lot of postapocalyptic fiction, as Claire P. Curtis argues, features a return to this state, where society is free to start over again from the ground up, with new rules. We often view the state of nature as being about the "survival of the fittest": it's every man for himself. And indeed, that's exactly what we see in the Hunger Games, a struggle to survive where only one can win.

But if you look more closely at The Hunger Games, it doesn't suggest that the apocalypse leads to the survival of the fittest, to a terrible world where everyone looks out for number one. The Hunger Games are created by human beings. "Survival of the fittest" isn't a natural ethos, it's imposed on human beings by a small subset. The natural inclination of human beings, we are shown multiple times throughout the novel, is actually to cooperate with one another. It's only when a powerful force compels them that they fight with one another. The idea that there can only be one survivor isn't actually part of the state of nature; it's a human imposition.

That's how The Hunger Games participates in the genre of postapocalyptic literature. It takes place after the apocalypse, but reveals that when the apocalypse returns us to the state of nature, people don't turn on each other, but tend to cooperate. What is passed off as the "state of nature" is actually a tool of the elites designed to oppress us. Nature is about cooperation, but those in power don't want us to know that and work to make sure we fight for resources that everyone could share. Like in a lot of science fiction, of course, the future is really a commentary on the world we live in, too. In a weird way, it's sort of optimistic. Human beings really are good-- we just have to break out of the artificially imposed system as Katniss and Peeta do at the novel's end in order to see it.

19 July 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LXVIII: Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 1

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2015)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 1

Writers: Justin Gray, Len Wein, Dan Abnett, Jerry Ordway, and Paul Levitz
Art: Claude St-Aubin & Sean Parsons, Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz, Tom Derenick & Trevor Scott, Ben Caldwell, June Brigman & Ron Richardson, Jim Fern/Roy Wagner & Joe Rubinstein/Wayne Faucher/José Marzán Jr., and Shannon Wheeler
Color: Lovern Kindzierski, Chris Sotomayor & Felix Serrano, Monica Kubina, Veronica Gandini, and Paul Mounts
Lettering: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham, Dave Sharpe, Rob Leigh, and Tom Napolitno

I'm assuming that what divides the "Crisis" volumes of Convergence from the "Infinite Earths" volumes is that though the characters in all the "Crisis" volumes are plucked from Earth-1, they come from the other pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Earths in the "Infinite Earths" volumes. All five stories in this volume are about characters from Earth-2, as the Earth-2 Metropolis was one of the cities scooped up by Telos for his series of battles outside time and space. Power Girl, Robin, and the Huntress represent Earth-2 Metropolis against Moscow from Red Son, the Justice Society of America and the Seven Soldiers of Victory fight the Weaponers of Qward (the first alien planet we've seen on Telos... and not just an alien planet, as Qward was in the antimatter universe pre-Crisis), and Infinity Inc. fights, um, Jonah Hex but he's from the future and has a flying saucer for some reason.

Hippolyta Hall: always badass.
from Convergence: Infinity Inc. #1 (script by Jerry Ordway, art by Ben Caldwell)

The mechanics and rules of Telos's tournament are still vague and inconsistent, and the set-up of Convergence itself is contrived. Like in the previous volume, Len Wein tries to explain why the characters in his story are in a particular city, but he doesn't do so well: Robin and the Huntress are summoned to a JSA meeting in Metropolis to deal with the red skies of the Crisis, but as they point out, JSA HQ is actually located in New York City! No one in the story explains why the JSA HQ is suddenly in Metropolis, and I'm not sure things are better for flagging it up. The whole book probably could have just used Earth-2 New York, actually, and it would have been less awkward. (Wikipedia informs me Infinity Inc. was based in Los Angeles, so it makes as much sense for them to be in any of these cities. Their story doesn't explain why they're not in LA.)

Actually, let's talk about Wein's story, because his having characters comment on things is out in full force here: the Huntress spends the whole story advocating violence against the Red Son Superman while Robin takes a more diplomatic tack, and then at the end, she's like, "Geeze, I don't know I was so violent. I'm not like that." So why did Wein write it that way to begin with? It actually didn't seem particularly over-the-top to me, so I feel like the story would have got away with it if Wein hadn't lampshaded it. At least there's some nice, moody Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz art, which is always a treat, and well-suited to the Red Son Moscow scenes especially.

Aw, Communist Dictator Superman is so misunderstood.
from Convergence: Detective Comics #1 (script by Len Wein, art by Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz)

This was a so-so volume on the whole, with the Power Girl and Infinity Inc. stories being pretty meh, and the Seven Soldiers of Victory one being flagrantly uninteresting. I did really like the Justice Society of America story, though; it was actually kind of touching to see these oldsters go into battle one last time, knowing it could be the last, and then walk off into the sunset at the end. I haven't read very much JSA stuff, but I always enjoy it when I do-- that sense of legacy is one of the best parts of DC, and in this legacy-free "New 52" era, Convergence allows for a little touch of it once again.

Why doesn't DC bring back the proper JSA, anyway?
from Convergence: Justice Society of America #2 (script by Dan Abnett, art by Tom Derenick & Trevor Scott)
Next Week: Captain Marvel, the Blue Beetle, the Crime Syndicate, Booster Gold, and the Freedom Fighters battle for their lives in Convergence: Infinite Earths, Book 2!

18 July 2017

Hugos 2017: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Trade paperback, 367 pages
Published 2017 (originally 2016)

Acquired May 2017
Read June 2017
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

After largely bouncing off A Long Journey to a Small, Angry Planet, I didn't expect much out of this book, and I spent the beginning of it pretty down on the whole thing. It's less a sequel to the first book than a side story: of the two main characters of this one, one was a main character in Long Journey in a vastly different form, and the other was a character so peripheral I didn't even remember her. But halfway through the book I realized I was starting to become emotionally invested with the journeys of the two main characters, both of whom are outcasts who have to find their place in the world. The horrific but loving journey of Jane/Pepper particularly worked for me, and by the end I knew I had totally bought into the whole thing, because I was getting misty-eyed. So I'm glad I read the sequel despite my original impression of the series, and I guess I'll even be continuing onto book 3 now!

This Friday: I begin tallying up my rankings within each Hugo category, beginning with the short fiction categories!

Next Week: A book I actually know nothing about before reading it, Charlie Jane Anders's All the Birds in the Sky!

17 July 2017

Review: R.E.B.E.L.S.: Strange Companions by Tony Bedard, Andy Clarke, Claude St. Aubin, Scott Hanna, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2009) 

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
R.E.B.E.L.S.: Strange Companions

Writer: Tony Bedard
Pencillers: Andy Clarke, Claude St. Aubin, Karl Moline, Derec Donovan, Kalman Andrasofszky
Inkers: Andy Clarke, Scott Hanna, Mark Pennington, Derec Donovan, Kalman Andrasofszky
Colorist: Jose Vilarrubia
Letterers: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham

I didn't like this as much as volume 1 of R.E.B.E.L.S., I suspect mostly just because it collects less. The Coming of Starro contained six issues that functioned as a near-complete story, though they were obviously setting up for something bigger, but Strange Companions collects three issues of the regular series plus an annual that lays out backstory for Starro the Conqueror and some of his minions.

I don't know how this would all read to a L.E.G.I.O.N./R.E.B.E.L.S. novice, but as an experienced reader, I dug both the continuity and the humorous take on it.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #8 (art by Andy Clarke)

What's here is good, though. Vril Dox tries to recruit the strange Gil'dishpan (last seen in Invasion! invading the Earth) to his side against Starro, only to run afoul of their xenophobia. He also goes after his son Lyrl, last seen as the villain in the previous R.E.B.E.L.S. series, but now a harmless teenager. (I was glad to see that writer Tony Bedard ignored the idea Tom Peyer introduced in his run on R.E.B.E.L.S., that after Stealth raped Dox and bore his son they fell in love-- their relationship here is referred to in purely biological terms.) Meanwhile, the Omega Men are recruited by one of their old enemies, the Psions, and Dox adds Captain Comet and Adam Strange to his team. A nice, big space adventure is unfolding; it's just that three issues means it doesn't get to unfold very much.

The highlight of this book so far is the big, weird team Dox has assembled:
Smiling Kanjar Ro is so amazing.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. #9 (art by Claude St. Aubin & Scott Hanna)

That's Garv and Strata (silicon-based ex-L.E.G.I.O.N. cops) and their son Rocky; Wildstar (a Native American from outer space transformed into an energy being); Ciji (a shapeshifting Durlan in the form of a Khund child); Bounder (ex-L.E.G.I.O.N. cop who can transform into a stone ball); Amon Hakk (a Khund bounty hunter considered a failure by his people for his time in L.E.G.I.O.N. as a R.E.C.R.U.I.T.); Kanjar Ro (former alien dictator and long-time foe of the Justice League); Dox himself (son of Superman foe Brainiac); Captain Comet (evolutionary throw-forward from Earth who was once head of L.E.G.I.O.N. himself as well as an independent P.I. on Hardcore Station); and Adam Strange (human protector of the planet New Rann). Not pictured is the former Dominator Fleet Admiral of the Xylon Expanse, who has rededicated the R.E.B.E.L.S. as his caste. It's a mismatched group of misfits, which is exactly the sort of groups I like reading space adventure comics about. Hopefully Tony Bedard can manage the sprawling cast size!

I dunno why I find it creepy... but I really do.
from R.E.B.E.L.S. Annual #1 (art by Kalman Andrasofszky)

The annual featuring the backstory of Starro and his minions was decent. There are some quite complicated backstories for minions who I suspect won't amount to much; what was nice was finally understanding how the humanoid Starro in R.E.B.E.L.S. relates to the giant starfish form we've seen menace the Justice League time and again. The giant starfish versions creep me out a lot. I'm a little disappointed they're not the "real" Starro. Supposedly star conquerors have attacked the Earth three times before; I wonder which specific Starro stories Bedard is counting in continuity? The references are very vague. The only one I've read is the Grant Morrison JLA story where the Justice League needs help from Dream of the Endless to defeat Starro.

14 July 2017

Paying for the Aliens

I would have been about fourteen when I started "working"-- I became a babysitter for my neighbors. I was a freshman in high school; the two kids were, I think, five and six at the time. They had a full-time babysitter, but she wanted to go home about an hour before their mother got off work, so I filled in that gap, and I also worked longer days in the summer.

Babysitting well-behaved, imaginative kids is a kind of work that doesn't really feel like work. I read them the first four Harry Potter books aloud, completely with a panoply of voices. (By the time of book five, they were capable of reading them themselves.) Nothing reveals a pacing problem like reading a book aloud a chapter per day to a preschooler. I showed them episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek; as far as I know they still watch both. I watched Fox Kids along with them, which is how I got into television triumphs like Beast Wars: Transformers, Digimon, Power Rangers in Space, and Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog.

The best part of the job, though, was the aliens. "The aliens" was a long-form improvisatory story I told them, which much have lasted for years. Its original basis was a group of K'nex guys like these:

Plus some spinning plastic fairies, which I'm pretty sure were these:

Between them, these were the males and females of an alien species invading the Earth. There was also a purple plastic dragon; he was named "Pyre, Dragon of Dare," which was the name of the dragon in Mystic Knights. The dragon could be summoned to aid them, but he was not always a willing servant. The aliens had a base, which was something one of my charges had built out of K'nex. It span around, and it may have just been an adapted merry-go-round now that I think about it:

Spinning generated an impenetrable shield around the base.

The basic set-up, as I recall, was that the aliens (I don't think they had a name per se, but I feel like they came from "the Dominion") wanted to invade the Earth, so they set up a forward based to scout it out while the main fleet was on its way. So they would come under attack by native humans, usually played by LEGO figures (the aliens were very big). There were two spinning fairies; one was an empress, who stayed with the mothership after it deposited the aliens, while the other was her daughter, who joined the scouting force. The colors of the aliens corresponded to their jobs-- I think I cribbed from Star Trek, so the Gold Commander was in charge, with Blue Scientists and Red Guards and Engineers working under him. (There were more than one of each color, though.) Some of them had names (I seem to recall there was a little Blue Scientist named Oscarnarsius!), but many did not. I think there were even romances.

The story evolved in fits and starts, based on toys the kids acquired and/or built, things we/I watched on television or read, and just random ideas that popped into our heads. Like, they got a LEGO rock monster:

...and so the aliens fought a rock monster, who eventually was revealed to be under mind control, and so he joined the team under the name "Rocky." Over time, the aliens became more sympathetic in their objectives. They still wanted to invade the Earth, but in the meantime they had to protect it from other threats. Most formidable of all were the living flying bricks known as "the biots" (since I had just read Rendezvous with Rama):
This isn't actually them, but it's close. They were 1x2 in size, but they did have flip-open lids and interlocking pegs.

The biots were so dangerous that in one traumatic "episode" they actually managed to smash through the shield and destroy the alien base, putting our heroes on the run. The biots could stack and form large cubes that were invincible. Thankfully, our heroes could rebuild the base's remnants into a more-formidable spaceship. Characters lives, characters died-- things got pretty epic. As the tv we watched changed, so too the plotlines. When Beast Machines: Transformers came along, an encounter with a mystical circuit gave the aliens the ability to transform into "techno-organic" birds by saying "I am transformed!" The birds were actually Klingon and Romulan MicroMachines from my collection with bird-like designs, like so:
...or so:

Rocky, though, gained the ability to transform into a flying battleship of awesome proportions, I guess because he was in touch with his spiritual side, or maybe because one of them got this for Christmas:

I'm pretty sure that around this time they also ended up in the distant past, and eventually got to cause the Big Bang itself. Like I said, things got pretty epic, and the original goal of invading the Earth was long forgotten. Like a lot of adventure narratives always trying to outdo themselves, I think I eventually lost control of it all as it stopped being possible to go bigger. I even attempted a "soft reboot" where they went back to the core premise of running the invasion base, but no one's heart was in it.

Like I said, this went on for years, and though it was certainly derivative, it was always inventive. People who pay attention to my tastes in entertainment will see lots of resonances: long-form-but-reasonably-episodic stories about groups of people in/from space doing epic things (i.e., Star Trek, Legion of Super-Heroes, Farscape). And somehow I got paid to do it, which seems like a racket in retrospect.

I also learned how to use a gas stove doing that job, without burning down their house, so there's that too.

#456: What have you done to earn money?