27 February 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks

Acquired May 2008
Read September 2017
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Blood Harvest
by Terrance Dicks

The first couple hundred pages of Blood Harvest are hugely enjoyable: Doctor Who does 1920s noir detective fiction. The "Doc" and Ace run a speakeasy in Chicago at the height of Capone's power. There are gunfights galore, Ace shoots people, and occasionally the book is narrated in the first-person by a macho private eye. Like some of the most fun Doctor Who stories, it's a delightful combination of our series and some other genre, and of course Terrance Dicks is always effortlessly readable. In the meanwhile, Bernice is on the vampire planet from State of Decay in E-Space, teaming up with Romana to fight vampires. This isn't terribly well done, but there's not enough of it to be annoying. (Except that Dicks makes it annoyingly easy to get in and out of E-Space.)

It all falls apart in the end, though. I had thought vampires were somehow involved in the Chicago plot: it seems perfect for Prohibition-era Chicago, with maybe a vampire gang running a blood-smuggling operation with vampire speakeasies. However, the plots don't really connect that well: it turns out that a yawnworthy evil from the dawn of time is at work in both Chicago and E-Space, and he's been dispatched by a cabal of evil Time Lords, so all of a sudden the book shifts gears and we're not doing a State of Decay retread, but a The Five Doctors one for some reason. The dull bits of The Five Doctors, that is, the ones that were just there to justify why Jon Pertwee might be arguing with Patrick Troughton. So Blood Harvest switches from complete pleasure to thundering bore and then just putters out. Meh.

Romana and Bernice are both ill-served by this book, but I guess that's what we might expect of the man whose ideal female companion was Jo Grant.

Next Week: A trip back in time: the fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan deal with the fall-out of this story in Goth Opera!

26 February 2018

Review: Threshold: The Hunted by Keith Giffen, Tom Raney, Phil Winslade, Scott Kolins, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2013)

Acquired December 2016
Read January 2017
Threshold, Volume 1: The Hunted

Writer: Keith Giffen
Artists: Tom Raney, Phil Winslade, Scott Kolins, Andrei Bressan, Timothy Green II, Joseph Silver
Colorists: David Curiel, Andrew Dalhouse, John Kalisz, Chris Sotomayor
Letterers: Dave Sharpe, Dezi Sienty

Threshold was DC's first attempt at a "New 52"-era space-based ongoing comic, and The Hunted is its first and last volume. Threshold is the creation of Keith Giffen, co-creator of two 1980s space-based DC ongoings, The Omega Men and L.E.G.I.O.N. I don't know why it's called Threshold, but The Hunted is like the Hunger Games in space, sort of: it's a reality television series in Lady Styx's domain of Tolerance where political undesirables are forcibly enrolled. They have bounties placed on their heads, and are then let loose in Tolerance, and anyone who kills them gets the prize money. Anyone can take a shot, but popular groups of professionals have evolved. The longer you avoid being killed, the higher your bounty goes; L.E.G.I.O.N.'s Stealth appears as a long-time survivor of the games. The main character is Jediah Caul. Caul is a Green Lantern who sells out a trio of other "spectrum warriors" (purple, blue, and yellow) to The Hunted, but when they escape the game, Styx's people replace them with Caul.

Caul's not a very nice guy, and we watch him try to survive as he encounters 21st-century reworkings of a lot of old-school DC space characters, like Space Ranger and Tommy Tomorrow and Captain Carrot and Star Hawkins and the Star Rovers. Plus characters like the Blue Beetle show up, too. This was what made the book difficult for me: there was a lot to keep track of, and given that these characters were mostly created in the 1950s, most of them were generic white dudes. It seemed like there were too many for Keith Giffen to keep track of, too, as ideas and characters would be set up that went nowhere, or popped up sporadically.

Captain Carrot is about the worst partner one could have.
from Threshold #2 (art by Tom Raney)

I just could never get into the book as much as I would have liked. Too many characters, a premise that came across as both thin and overegged, a main character I never really enaged with, and too much sub-Firefly future slang that reminded me of the kind of thing Kris Straub parodied in Starslip. That's not to say it was bad: I liked Captain K'rot, and the whole Brainiac subplot was kind of interesting, but at times it was a slog that didn't seem to be going anywhere.

That said, there were two things I enjoyed. The first is the Star Hawkins backups, ten-page strips about what Tolerance's worst P.I. and his robot secretary (who has the mind of his ex-wife) are up to while Caul's on the run. They have some legit laugh-out-loud parts:
With friends like this, who needs enemies?
from Threshold #6 (art by Timothy Green II & Joseph Silver)

The other was the last issue, where Giffen provides a meta-commentary on the whole series by cancelling The Hunted. Blue Beetle even shows up to complain he didn't have anything to do with anything:
Between writing this review and making this scan is when I began reading Blue Beetle, so now I feel even more sorry/annoyed about his treatment here.
from Threshold #8 (art by Tom Raney)

And a spin-off is proposed, disposed of on the second-last page, a new spin-off is proposed and disposed of on the same page!

What is that font used in the last two captions, and why does the world consider a sci-fi font? DC and IDW both use it on their sci-fi titles pretty consistently.
from Threshold #8 (art by Tom Raney)

The sheer brazenness of the last issue made it hugely enjoyable, especially the way Giffen dovetails the last Star Hawkins backup into the main story, but I think if the best part of your comics series is the issue where you complain about being cancelled, you kinda had a problem from the very beginning.

23 February 2018

My Car Is Not Clean, Though: On Advice

My father has several pieces of advice he trots out on occasion. One is to keep your car clean, so that when things aren't going well, you can say to yourself, "Well, at least my car's clean."

This e-mail exchange between my father and his children from a few years back probably sums them all up:

SUBJECT: dad says
TO: Catherine, Andy, Steve

it's time to check your tire pressure.

FROM: Steve
TO: Dad, Catherine, Andy

I kinda think I want a daily "dad says" e-mail with life tips.

"dad says at least your car is clean"

"dad says that you can just clear your air filter with a pressure washer"

"dad says make a little extra money by opening a coffee bar"

"dad says just throw strikes"

TO: Steve, Catherine, Andy

I was thinking the same thing!
Kind of a daily advice thing!
That could be so helpful to you guys! Straighten you out!
Someday, it could even turn into a syndicated column or something!

interestingly, I washed my car yesterday, and sent mom a text, "well, at least my car is clean"
somebody at work complimented me on the conclusion of a big important project, on Thursday. I said, "i just try to throw strikes"

(I like that my father-- like me-- doesn't take himself too seriously, and sometimes purposefully self-parodizes.)

"Just throw strikes" is one he trots out a lot, and is obviously derived from baseball. He also occasionally tells us to "reach back for something extra" when attempting something difficult (I think he told me both these things before my dissertation defense), which is also a baseball one.

When I decided to write this blog post, I called my dad and asked if there was some kind of origin to the phrases-- I had a vague memory of some story he'd told me as a kid that involved one or both of them. He said, not that he could remember, they were just things people in baseball said, I told him he wasn't much help, and then he started asking me how my home improvement projects were going. (Slowly. There are still a lot of things in boxes in here.)

But once we were done talking he called me back like five minutes later, and he said, "Do you know what 'just throw strikes' means?"

"Does it mean something beyond the obvious?"

"It means don't overthink it. Don't throw fancy balls or anything, just focus on landing each pitch in the strike zone. Don't worry about what's outside your control and get the job done."

I guess I had always thought it meant just strike the guy out, but it's a little different to that. Keep going, don't overthink it. Like many kids, I probably went through a phase where I thought the things my father said were dumb, but I do see its useful wisdom as an adult.

In that way it's similar to a piece of advice my dissertation director used a lot, from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1836):
"[L]et him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light, and prays vehemently that the dawn may ripen into day, lay this other precept well to heart, which to me was of invaluable service: 'Do the Duty which lies nearest thee,' which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second Duty will already have become clearer."
Or put slightly simpler (as I usually remember it): "Do the duty that lies nearest to you, and your next duty will become apparent." That is, when you're overwhelmed by the tasks you have to perform, and don't know what you should be doing, do the thing you know needs doing now, and then worry about the next thing. I've never actually read Sartor Resartus, but I always remember this line from Tom Recchio, and it has-- like "just throw strikes"-- helped carry me through some moments where I've been overwhelmed by what I have to do.

(At the Nineteenth Century Studies Association conference in 2017 I was on a panel with someone presenting on Sartor Resartus, and I told her about my advisor's use of it, and she said really the whole book is satire and not meant to be taken earnestly as my advisor was doing. Oh well.)

#76: What's the best advice you’ve gotten?

22 February 2018

Review: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

I have a review up at Unreality SF, of the first of last year's trilogy of two-in-one Doctor Who stories, Alien Heart and Dalek Soul.

Trade paperback, 432 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1872-73)
Acquired October 2012
Read December 2012
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy wrote three "scientist novels"; this was the first, preceding Two on a Tower and The Woodlanders. It's also the only one of the three not to play a significant part in my book about Victorian scientists in fiction, because I think Hardy has less to say about Henry Knight as a scientist than he does Two on a Tower's Swithin or The Woodlanders's Fitzpiers.

Partially, this is because Henry Knight is not actually a scientist. The book was published in 1872-73, before the term "scientist" really took off (it wasn't used in fiction, for example, until Hardy himself described Swithin as a scientist in 1882), but even if the term had been in common use, you wouldn't call Knight one. Knight is the enthusiast of science from the age before professionalism, not even a "man of science" but an intellectual man of the upper classes who has many enthusiasisms, including science; for example, he keeps an aquarium (129), and once the narrator calls him a geologist. (More on that later.) But by occupation he is a barrister (not that he actually does any law), and he is also a writer of essays and reviews.

So there might not be an actual scientist in this "scientist novel," but the novel demonstrates-- as both Hardy in particular and the Victorians in general so often do in writing about scientists-- an interest in perceptions and how they are formed. Right from the start, the narrator refuses to describe the novel's heroine, Elfride Swancourt: "It might vulgarise her, and rob her of some of the sweetness which the stolen glimpses only that will for the present be taken may serve to heighten" (7-8). So right from the first page we see the observing someone intensely, with detail and thoroughness, will rob the observer of insight and truth into that person.

Henry Knight is valorized by his friend Stephen Smith for his insight, but we the readers occasionally see that Knight's perceptions are not all that. Thankfully, Knight himself seems to be aware of this, which is more than you can expect of many unaware people; Knight tells Stephen, "All I know about women, or men either, is a mass of generalities. I plod along, and occasionally lift my eyes and skim the weltering surface of mankind lying between me and the horizon, as a crow might; no more" (131). Knight compares himself to a crow, but I wonder if a scientist (man of science) might not be the better comparison. Darwin published The Descent of Man just a year before A Pair of Blue Eyes came out,* and what did Darwin-- or any scientist-- do other than come up with generalities to apply over a wide variety of particular cases based on the occasional skimming? Darwin could not possibly observe all life, and neither can Knight, and so must induct generalities based on what he has seen.

That said, Knight is not aware of his own lack of awareness to the extent he claims to be. (A common problem of the unaware, I might argue.) When Knight misjudges Elfride, the narrator chides, "the essayist's experience of the nature of young women was far less extensive than his abstract knowledge of them led himself and others to believe. He could pack them into sentences like a workman, but empirically was nowhere" (173). We even see an extract from Knight's diary later on, where he attempts to generalize from a single anecdote about Elfride to a general conception of women (176), though it's unclear to me to what extent we're meant to buy Knight's understanding of Elfride as correct. But he is definitely a would-be scientist, categorizing and generalizing what he observes into systems.

Elfride's mother posits, though, that people without such systems actually are better observers; she claims that a
'companionless state will give us, as it does everybody, an extraordinary power in reading the faces of our fellow creatures [...]. I always am a listener [...] – not to the narratives told by my neighbours' tongues, but by their faces – the advantage of which is, that whether I am in Row, Boulevard, Rialto, or Prado, they all speak the same language. I may have acquired some skill in this practice through having been an ugly lonely woman for so many years, with nobody to give me information; a thing you will not consider strange when the parallel is borne in mind, – how truly people who have no clocks will tell the time of day.' (138)
Elfride's father chimes in at this point, suggesting that labouring men learn, because they lack fancy tools, to tell the time or weather much better than those that do have them. So Henry Knight's system of skimming and inducting may allow him to devise useful generalities, but the uneducated man (or woman) observes more deeply and more closely because he has no other option. Mrs. Swancourt almost comes across as a proto-Sherlock Holmes in her ability to extrapolate from the observed's minute particulars. Deduction, not induction. (I think; I always get them confused.)

Of course, I could spend all day teasing out the relationship between sight and knowledge in A Pair of Blue Eyes (how perfect is the observation that "Stephen fell in love with Elfride by looking at her: Knight by ceasing to do so" (188)), but I want to turn to the novel's most famous scene, the one that created the word "cliff-hanger" when A Pair of Blue Eyes was originally serialized in Tinsley's Magazine. Knight is literally hanging from a seaside cliff by his hands, which Hardy describes in evolutionary terms; Knight is said to hold on "with a dogged determination to make the most of his every jot of endurance" (212), and as he observes the cliffside, we're told it is antagonistic to all "strugglers for life" (213), as there is not even a blade of grass or insect upon it, "strugglers for life" recalling the term "struggle for existence" popularized by Malthus and reluctantly adopted by Darwin in On the Origin of Species.

Knight's mind goes blank, and he cannot think of his future or his past. Yet he accesses the past anyway-- not his personal past, but his evolutionary past:
opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within his reach of vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now. (213)
In a sense, this is astounding. Hardy is one of the first writers of fiction, I would argue, to tap into the new way of seeing that the discoveries of the nineteenth century had to offer. His treatment of scale here reminds me of that of H. G. Wells, except that Wells was using it in science fiction. (Some have argued that Hardy is an sf writer, including Brian Aldiss, and I see what they're getting at, but I feel like it broadens the term to the point of uselessness.) Hardy, like Wells, sees in the million-year timescale of life on Earth, a towering insignificance. Knight might have millions of years on the trilobite, but he's just as liable to die in this cliffside, and just as unable to see anything. Hardy himself would revisit the idea of cosmic insignificance in Two on a Tower, there demonstrated by the vastness of space, but here it comes from the vastness of time.

Well, kind of. There's only one thing within his field of vision, but Knight turns out to have more scientific training than I gave him credit for earlier: "Knight was a geologist; and such is the supremacy of habit over occasion, as a pioneer of thoughts of men, that at this dreadful juncture his mind found time to take in, by a momentous sweep, the varied scenes that had had their day between this creature's epoch and his own" (214). So all of a sudden he sees the span of history extending backward from him: primitive cavemen, mastodons, iguanodons, flying reptiles, "fishy beings of lower development," all the way to the trilobite. And then his thoughts rebound to the present and his burgeoning relationship with Elfride.

From here, his thoughts seem to alternate between pondering on his perilous situation and on his hopes with Elfride. Does he love her? Will he survive? These two questions merge into one by the end of his ordeal, I would argue: "he thought – he could not help thinking – that his death would be a deliberate loss to earth of good material; that such an experiment in killing might have been practised upon some less developed life" (217). In this way the cosmic becomes the personal; he will demonstrate his fitness to belong to the evolutionary chain he observed in his mind's eye by surviving and thus (probably) reproducing. If he does not die, then he will be the next part of the chain.

He does survive, because of Elfride, who removes her clothes and fashions them into a rope to pull him up off the cliff. In the midst of this, he manages to ogle her in her undergarments: "There is nothing like a thorough drenching for reducing the protruberances of clothes, but Elfride's seemed to cling to her like a glove" (218). So there we have "the male gaze," which is yet another way of seeing the world, and one Hardy is also often attentive to in his writing. But could he have held on, or she risked so much to save him, without the sexual pull between them? Their love and their sexual desire ends up proving his evolutionary fitness. (Well, kind of. Because this is a Thomas Hardy novel the relationship of course does not end well.)

So Knight's scientific perspective, slight though it might be, ends up being his salvation when it merges with his sexual desire. He defies his understanding of his own cosmic insignificance to find a reason to survive, and in doing so, cements his feelings toward Elfride. There's a lot more you could say about this scene, and I think I've gone on enough, but it's a tremendous example of the way the scientific discoveries of the Victorian era reshaped our perceptions and thoughts. Hardy was one of the first to capture that, and one of the best.

* Can we read anything into the fact that Hardy wrote a novel where a woman chooses between male suitors just a year after Darwin argues humanity was unique among the animals because men choose women instead of the other way around?

20 February 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Revelation by Paul Cornell

Acquired March 2010
Read May 2017
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Timewyrm: Revelation
by Paul Cornell

The last Timewyrm novel is not only the best of the Timewyrm novels, but one of the best Doctor Who books full stop: Paul Cornell's debut is a thoughtful examination of the characters of the Doctor and Ace, especially the way the Doctor is sometimes forced to sacrifice those around him, a theme Russell T Davies would draw from throughout his television tenure, especially in "The Parting of the Ways" and "Journey's End." There's so so much going on in this book-- for a lesser writer, a sentient church would be the whole point of their novel, but for Cornell it's just one of many elements-- which means it captures in prose what the television programme was doing before it was cancelled. This is the novelistic equivalent of overloaded, ideas-and-character-driven stories like Ghost-Light, Remembrance of the Daleks, Survival, and The Curse of Fenric, and yet it's undeniably a novel; there's no attempt to structure this story like it could have been broadcast on tv, thank God. Cornell captures the voices of the seventh Doctor and Ace with perfection, the other characters feel like real people caught up in extraordinary events (another harbinger of the RTD era), and the climax especially is a thing of beauty. I didn't always understand what was going on, but I didn't mind.

Next Week: The Doctor and Ace encounter vampires plotting a Blood Harvest!

19 February 2018

Review: The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

Three more reviews of Big Finish audio dramas up at Unreality SF: their version of Hamlet, plus two Doctor Who: Short Trips, "The Young Lions" and "Twilight's End."

Mass market paperback, 709 pages
Published 1998 (originally 1997)

Acquired January 2011
Read February 2017
The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

I would have never guessed that a Dan Simmons Hyperion novel could be so boring. Once Father-Captain de Soya exits the plot about the third of the way in, there's no character and no idea left in this book that I really care about-- once again, too much time is spent on dull travelogue, with this book adding cod-philosophy for good measure, and also resurrecting bunches of characters from the first two books only to undermine what we learned about them there. I don't even get what Simmons could have been thinking. I should have listened and ended with book 2, or maybe even book 1.

16 February 2018

Two Ways to Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)

I doubt the world needs another commemoration of Ursula K. Le Guin, but I feel compelled to add my two cents for the writer who, along with Stanislaw Lem, is my joint favorite author of science fiction.

not actually the edition I read
(but it has the best cover)
I first read Le Guin in high school, when we were assigned The Dispossessed in AP Literature. I was amazed to be reading a piece of science fiction for class, but I didn't particularly love the novel, I don't think. Certainly I didn't rush out and start buying other books by Le Guin. I do still remember being impressed by my teacher's lesson on the book one day, where he demonstrated how the structure of the book reflected its themes. My embrace of Le Guin's science fiction would have to wait another year.

I roomed with the same person my entire college career, my high school friend James. James and we got along quite well, but there were times his idiosyncrasies could drive a man mad: watching Simon Schama's The History of Britain as he fell asleep every night, his belief that a grown man should neither wear shorts nor use an umbrella, the way he would tear up little pieces of paper into progressively smaller pieces, his weird dual way of wanting to be nice but also not caring if he caused offense. I kind of make him sound terrible with this list, but I really enjoyed rooming with James, and he was a great friend. (We've sort of drifted apart since; he's in Canada now and almost a Jesuit priest.)

But every now and again he would just drive me around the bend, and I don't remember what the specific cause was anymore, but he did so some weekend night in spring 2004, near the end of our freshman year. I have a vague memory he was going on about Independence Day, but who knows. I took off without even saying a word (I being as nonconfrontational as he) and wandered around Miami's campus in the middle of the night.

Miami has a gorgeous campus that enables wandering, but there's only so many times you can go by the swan pond, and so I ended up in King Library at ten at night. I wandered into the leisure reading room, where I spotted The Left Hand of Darkness. I thought, "The Dispossessed was all right," picked it up, settled down into a chair, and began reading. I was there until the library closed, which got me about halfway through the novel.

Many words have been spilt on gender in The Left Hand of Darkness, and I'm sure they're all true. (My favorite I've seen of late was on WNYC's On the Media.) But what really sticks with me is the friendship between Genly Ai (visitor to Gethen from the Ekumen) and Estraven (a native Gethenian). Genly does not understand Estraven, but the two end up thrown together by the novel's events, and by Estraven's sense of duty.

artwork from the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Left Hand
What always sticks in my mind is their desperate eighty-day sled trip across a barren wasteland. Le Guin is a master of description, of character, and of society, and these all combine in this sequence where you feel how hard this is, both physically and emotionally. To me, it's one of the most affecting sequences in literature, up there with Hetty Sorell's own mad dash through the wilderness in Adam Bede.

I didn't finish the book that night, but I did check it out and wrap it up soon thereafter. From there I tracked down the rest of the Hainish novels, and from November 2005 to January 2007 I read the entire sequence in order of internal chronology, rereading The Dispossessed and Left Hand, and reading the rest for the first time. Aside from Left Hand, my favorite is Four Ways to Forgiveness, a moving take on discrimination and decolonization in a science-fiction told in one of my favorite formats, that of a linked story cycle. And in the long run, I went on to read Earthsea and many other books by her-- and yet I have many more to read.

(I could talk a lot about her. I did a project on The Word for World Is Forest in an English ed class in college; I read The Left Hand of Darkness again in one of my first pedagogy classes, in complicated circumstances that meant even the professor was kind of baffled; I loved Le Guin's reviews collected in Words Are My Matter; and I admire her fervent defense of the genre of science fiction. But that's enough for now.)

Le Guin's focus on what some call "anthropological sf" means she created other worlds in her writing, not just our world with advanced technology. But these other worlds still are our world; she is a master at the doubling effect that makes science fiction my favorite and the best genre.
What is the use trying to describe the flowing of a river at any one moment, and then at the next moment, and then at the next, and the next, and the next? You wear out. You say: There is a great river, and it flows through this land, and we have named it History. (Four Ways to Forgiveness, p. 108)
Ursula K. Le Guin has flowed through me, has shaped my way of thinking about the world ever since she saved me on a dark and lonely night. Just like the river History, she will keep flowing through this land.

15 February 2018

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: A Monster Calls (2011)

Trade paperback, 205 pages
Published 2013 (originally 2011)
Acquired November 2016

Read March 2017
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd
Illustrations by Jim Kay

This is a very good book, but I found myself unable to make much of it in the context of my young adult literature class. Like Holes, it's not exactly YA, maybe more middle grade. The back cover says, "Age 12 and up." Plus it has pictures!

Unlike Holes, its indeterminate status didn't really lead anywhere interesting. (This is what I get for assigning books I haven't actually read!) Back when I discussed Holes, I cited Roberta Seelinger Trites, who says that "[t]he chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature from children's literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read [...] much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his environment, usually represented by family and home" (2-3). Well, that's pretty much A Monster Calls to a T. There's some stuff about bullying, blah blah blah, but mostly the book's about Conor's inability to accept his mother's impending death and to get along with his grandmother. Along the way, we see some fantastically moody illustrations by Jim Kay, and get some nicely postmodern stories about storytelling, but really this is a middle-grade book through and through, and thus a poor fit for my course, even as an outlier. (I did get a couple excellent papers about its use of fantasy, though.)

13 February 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson

Acquired March 2010
Read February 2017
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Timewyrm: Apocalypse
by Nigel Robinson

The third Timewyrm novel is the worst yet. While Genesys was shitty, Apocalypse is just boring, filled with non-characters doing uninteresting things, one of those books you can't even remember what you didn't like about it because your main memory of reading it is your eyes gliding over the pages as you hoped it came to an end soon. Generic and tedious.

Next Week: The final confrontation with the Timewyrm: Revelation!

12 February 2018

Review: Endymion by Dan Simmons

I have two brief reviews of two end-of-the-year Doctor Who: Short Trips up at USF: "O Tannenbaum" and "Landbound."

Mass market paperback, 563 pages
Published 1996 (originally 1995)

Acquired December 2008
Read January 2017
Endymion by Dan Simmons

This follow-up to the Hyperion novels is strange: a travelogue that almost completely lacks any kind of narrative urgency. Raul Endymion, the child prophet Aenea (daughter of two characters from the original books), and A. Bettik (a minor character from the original books) travel via raft through portals taking them from world to world. The book starts well, but once the journey begins, the story quickly becomes dull and repetitive because there is no story, nothing at stake for these characters.

I was far more interested in the Jesuit priest pursuing them, a military commander conflicted between his duty and his morality, as he stumbles upon a conspiracy in the church. Simmons does such a good job with him that you want him to capture Aenea and company, and his plotline also has characters with actual personalities and more tension and complication. It's a weird imbalance.

09 February 2018

Review: Spanner's Galaxy by Nicola Cuti and Tom Mandrake

Spanner's Galaxy was a six-issue comic miniseries* from the mid-1980s, one of DC Comics's most creatively fertile periods (when Dick Giordano was executive editor). Spanner's Galaxy isn't a DC-universe- or multiverse-set tale, but a standalone sci-fi adventure. Like so many of these 1970s and '80s space comics I've been reading recently, it is of course in the mold of Star Wars, more than most: Polaris "Poli" Spanner is a young farmboy from a backwater planet who dream of bigger things. In his childhood, his father takes him on a trip to a market planet, and he makes friends with a street urchin, Andromeda "Andi" Jones, and he also meets Baka, the galaxy's most dreaded bounty hunter.

As Spanner grows up, he joins the Kaborian Knights. The Kaborians are unicorn aliens, and Spanner is the first human member. Kaborian Knights can "castle": you telepathically reach out and swap locations with another (willing) person. They also wield a sci-fi blade called the shek, which you can throw like a boomerang or use to deflect laser blasts. The first issue chronicles all this, skims over a few weeks/months/years of adventures Spanner has as a travelling knight, and ends with Spanner wanted for reasons unknown, on the run from both Baka (now a police officer) and another policeman, Harris, as well as a new guild of bounty hunters led by Andi.

Its Star Wars influence is obvious, but it's also well-done comics, and castling is a great way to not waste any time between installments. Tom Mandrake has a classic heroic illustration style, especially in the earlier issues, and Nicola Cuti uses a very comics framing device: overlapping narrations from an off-panel interrogation. Spanner is telling his story to 10-A (whom he calls "Tenna"), who has been telepathically connected to him and other participants in the story. So mostly the narration is dialogue between Spanner and Tenna, but occasionally other characters interject or are asked to give their testimony, but you only see them in the "past"; you never see the time of the frame, just "hear" it (until issue #5).

It's less one big story than I imagined it would be when I started the second issue. Issues #2-5 each tell their own standalone adventure story featuring Spanner on the run. In #2, he rescues an alien princess; in #3, he visits a remote sociological outpost; and so on. Baka, Harris, and Andi usually show up around the end of each issue, and then Spanner castles or otherwise escapes. In #2, Spanner makes the acquaintance of "Gadj," a diminutive alien gadgeteer. Gadgeteers have an innate understanding of technology, and can build anything, even if they don't understand the underlying principles. Gadj himself speaks with a Southern drawl, and is small enough to tuck into Spanner's coat when he castles.

The stories are of varying quality (I enjoyed #2, with the alien princess; I thought it kind of stupid how many people in #4 died to protect Spanner for dubious reasons), but overall they provide a fun tour across a very Star Warsesque galaxy. Hence the title I guess. Andi, alas, ends up pretty underutilized; she seems badass in #1, but during the pursuit, she comes across as Spanner's least effectual pursuer. (On the other hand, when Spanner meets his sister in #5, he's disguised, and there's more than one comment about how attractive she finds him. Um, more Star Wars influences, I guess?)

Also there's a nice touch in that instead of a lettercol, every issue (except #6) contains a short story, each in the first person. #1 and #2 are "by" Spanner; #1 is from his farm life, while #2 is from his training on Kabor. #3 is a tale by Andromeda, from her childhood. #4 is by a member of the Star Rangers, who has a gadgeteer that is probably Gadj. #5 is by Harris, talking about his last bounty before he went straight. (That Harris was a bounty hunter before he became a cop is dropped in at the last minute and doesn't really ring true to the character presented in the first four issues; I suspect it was added late to set up something done in #6.)

At the end of #5, Spanner is captured by Baka and company, and we catch up to the interrogation, and then Spanner and Gadj are thrown in prison. #6 picks up several months later, and reveals why Spanner was framed. To be honest, this didn't really work for me; it piles on a lot of revelations in a short time, none of which were foreshadowed very well. Spanner has an extra-special power gem in his shek with unheard-of capabilities, and Baka's whole reason for going after Spanner revolves around a character introduced in this very issue, which is underwhelming. Plus there's like a triple-bluff about something? It all gets quite convoluted. Plus plus Andi is even more marginalized.

Still it was a fun ride while it lasted. Of these 1970/80s DC sci-fi comics I've been reading (IronWolf, Star Hunters, Starfire), it's definitely the best. #6 ends with a hook for a sequel series, and I would read it if it existed, but that was it for Spanner's Galaxy.

Spanner's Galaxy was originally published in six issues (Dec. 1984–May 1985). The story was written by Nicola Cuti; drawn by Tom Mandrake; lettered by John Costanza (#1-2), Bob Lappan (#3-4), Ben Oda (#5), and Carrie Spiegle (#6); colored by Tom Ziuko; and edited by Alan Gold.

* Or possibly a maxi-series, as proclaimed on the cover of #3 for some reason. Six issues doesn't seem very "maxi." All the other covers say "mini-series."

08 February 2018

Review: The Order of Things by Michel Foucault

Trade paperback, 387 pages
Published 1994 (originally 1966)
Acquired July 2013
Read December 2014
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
by Michel Foucault

I think this might be Foucault's Foucaultest book (that I've read), which is to say he just kind of goes, "What is science?" and freewheels from there; it's a lot less focused than some of his other  work like The Birth of the Clinic or Discipline and Punish, and less readable as a result. I find it easiest to work with Foucault on the level of individual parts, so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't address any "big picture" issues except as they come up in random points of individual interest: (this approach is perhaps ironic given that The Order of Things is in part about our tendency to break complicated things into parts at least in part)
  • Foucault says (I think) that the study of language had to take something that really functions in terms of relationships and break it down into objects in order to make analysis possible: "it was a matter of dividing nature up by means of a constant table of identities and differences for which language provided a primary, approximative, and rectifiable grid" (296). That is to say, such an activity is artificial when it comes to complicated, living things, but necessary regardless if one is to analyze them.
  • Related to this, he also argues that one has to fix everything in place and imagine its transformation... at the same time: "The solidity, without gaps, of a network of species and genera, and the series of events that have blurred that network, both belong, at the same level, to the epistemological  foundation that made a body of knowledge like natural history possible [...]. They are not two ways of perceiving nature, radically opposed [...]; they are two simultaneous requirements in the archaeological network that defines the knowledge of nature [...]. [T]hese two requirements are complementary" (150). I think here that Foucault demonstrates are more nuanced understanding of the classificatory vision of science than many others who would study science (or demean/caricature it).
  • One of Foucault's conclusions from all this is that the big change in science in the nineteenth century (my period of special study) is that way that fixed classifications were merged with evolution-based explanations: "the analysis of production, as the new project of the 'political economy', has as its essential role the analysis of the relation between value and prices; the concepts of organisms and organic structure, the methods of comparative anatomy – in short, all the themes of the 'biology' – explain how structures observable in individuals can have validity as general characters for genera, families, sub-kingdoms; and lastly, in order to unify the formal arrangements of a language (its ability to establish prepositions) and the meaning belonging to words, 'philology' would no longer study the representative functions of discourse, but a totality of morphological constants subject to a history. Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist" (207). Phew. Previously science looked at what things were like (classification), but the new sciences of the nineteenth century didn't replace the old ones, but supplemented them by looking at the same objects (words, life, money) from a new angle: by asking how things came to be arranged the way they were. So, weirdly, biology is more interested in history than natural history is.
  • This leads to a further change in ways of thinking, in that classification itself is changed: "the link between one organic structure and another can no longer, in fact, be the identity of one or several elements (a relation in which visibility no longer plays a role) and of the functions they perform; moreover, if these organic structures happen to be adjacent to one another, on account of a particularly high density of analogies, it is not because they occcupy proximate places within an area of classification; it is because they have both been formed at the same time, and the one immediately after the other in the emergence of the successions" (218). Right, so I know the most about biology because my wife is a biologist, and I know that organisms get reclassified  on the genetic tree all the time because DNA and such can reveal the evolutionary logic underlying the classification, and now we prioritize that over the visual understanding of resemblances that gave rise to the original tree of life to begin with. (Probably you could analogize this to the reclassification of planetary sciences that dislodged Pluto from its place in the pantheon, but someone else can pursue that if they want.)
  • Foucault is (probably predictably) interested in those moments where consciousness must work to analyze itself, and this is reflected in his particular definition of the "human sciences": "a 'human science' exists, not wherever man is in question, but wherever there is analysis [...] of norms, rules, and signifying totalities which unveil to consciousness the conditions of its forms and contents. To speak of 'sciences of man' in any other case is simply an abuse of language" (364-65). Strongly worded, perhaps, but I take his point, which is that if you're not dealing with consciousness studying consciousness (or unconsciousness), what sets it apart from consciousness studying anything?
Yikes, that's some complicated stuff, or at least some complicated sentences; The Order of Things is definitely one of those Foucault books where one comes away thinking that surely there must have been a more comprehensible way to say it than was said by Foucault (and his translator) because the ideas are there, but man if digging through that syntax isn't a form of archaeology all its own.

06 February 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Exodus by Terrance Dicks

Speaking of evil alternate universes, UNIT fight that and more in Encounters, which I've reviewed (as always) for USF.

Acquired and read October 2016
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Timewyrm: Exodus
by Terrance Dicks

Given the lack of quality both in Timewyrm: Genesys and in Terrance Dicks's later writing, I wasn't expecting much out of this... but it turns out that in 1991, Uncle Terrance could still write a cracking Doctor Who adventure like none other. He gloms right onto what makes the seventh Doctor and Ace work, and sends them through a fun adventure: Doctor Who on television probably could never have done the Nazis during its original run, but this takes a lot of those classic tropes of the Doctor infiltrating and bamboozling an occupying force, and inserts them right into the Third Reich. The whole thing is just a blast, as this is the Doctor at his most cunning and also his most clownish, pulling one over on the ultimate bad guys, but also being fairly direct about what makes Nazis the ultimate bad guys. I wouldn't have thought that making Hitler the pawns of two different aliens would work, but Dicks pulls it off, and with style. Trad, but with just enough rad to delight, basically the most you could want out of any New Adventure not written by any of the actual "rad" authors.

Next Week: The Timewyrm returns to bedevil the Doctor and Ace, with an Apocalypse!

05 February 2018

Review: The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Trade paperback, 517 pages
Published 1990

Acquired June 2006
Previously read July 2007
Reread January 2017
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Rereading Hyperion to teach it motivated me to read the rest of the quartet-- for the second book, this was a reread, whereas I'd never got around to reading books 3-4. The Fall of Hyperion, I think is a good book or even a great one, but not the book I thought I was going to read next when I finished Hyperion. The end of Hyperion is amazing because it brings all the different emotional journeys of the pilgrims together and unifies them into one and gives them catharsis; I expected Fall would pick up from that, but I actually felt like it tossed the pilgrims aside. The group is torn apart, and the pilgrims' actions feel largely incidental to the (very complicated) proceedings. The giant conspiracy and big concepts underpinning Fall are good, but they move the focus to CEO Gladstone and the new Keats cybrid, who weren't even characters in the first book. It's a good brink-of-war sf thriller with some clever twists (some too clever for me), but without meaningful roles for the pilgrims it doesn't really succeed as a follow-up to Hyperion.

02 February 2018

Through DC's Time Warp: Doomsday Tales and Other Things

Working through DC's science fiction comics of the 1970s as I've been doing, I'm starting to come away with an impression of a publisher desperately trying to cash in on a wider cultural science fiction craze with no idea how. Over the past few months I've read IronWolf (lasted three issues), DC Super-Stars of Space (four issues), Star Hunters (eight issues), and Starfire (eight issues). Now I'm on to Time Warp, an anthology title... that lasted a whole five. DC sure kept trying to make these space comics work though, and in particular, editor Joe Orlando and associate editor Jack C. Harris did: they were behind Star Hunters, Starfire, and Time Warp.

Time Warp is different from some of these other efforts: instead of an ongoing science-fiction adventure, it was an anthology book. Each double-length issue included eight tales by an array of writers and artists. The book's cover line "Doomsday Tales and Other Things" gives you some idea of the focus; there were a lot of apocalyptic and postapocalyptic stories, especially in the first couple issues.

A tragedy I've grown used to in reading these Bronze Age sci-fi comics is the oblivious letter page in the final issue: the final letter page that doesn't know it's the final letter page. Jack C. Harris natters on about the next issue in #5, but there was no next issue, as Time Warp lasted only five issues (except for a one-issue 2013 revival). Reading it, it's not hard to see why. The lettercols speak of wanting to tap into the Star Trek/Star Wars-era zeitgeist... but in execution, these stories hearken back DC's horror comics of the early 1970s like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, which Orlando himself edited if I recall correctly.

It's basically sub-Twilight Zone stuff: lots of "twist" endings, and lots of stories where people are converted into horrific monsters. You've read much better science fiction, and in prose and on tv by 1979, the genre had evolved beyond this. Time Warp feels like it comes out of the pulps of the 1950s more than anything else, and hardly any of the stories here still stick with you.

What does work is the art-- much like in those early-decade horror comics. Give Steve Ditko a race of one-eyed alien monsters, and he will draw the hell out of them. Give Dick Giordano an underground society of sexy women, and he will draw the hell out of them. Give basically anyone spaceships and space monsters, and they will draw the hell out of them. There's some real inventive, impressive work here, starting with Michael Wm. Kaluta's sort-of-techno-fetish covers, and running all the way through the interiors. So probably a misguided experiment (I just kept wishing for real science fiction stories, not horror stories with sf trappings), but one that yielded some entertainment regardless.

Time Warp vol. 1 was originally published in five issues (Oct./Nov. 1979June/July 1980). The stories were written by Denny O'Neil, Michael Fleisher, George Kashdan, Mike W. Barr, Jack C. Harris, Bob Rozakis, Paul Levitz, Wyatt Gwyon, J. M. DeMatteis, Bill Kelly, Arnold Drake, Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, Bob Haney, Scott Edelman, David Allikas, Paul Kupperberg, Sheldon Mayer, Mimai Kin, and Elliot S. Maggin. They were pencilled by Rich Buckler, Steve Ditko, Dick Giordano, Tom Sutton, Jerry Grandenetti, Don Newton, Jim Aparo, Howard Chaykin, Gil Kane, Joe Orlando, Romeo Tanghal, Ed Barreto, Madz Castrillo, Fred Carillo, Mike Nasser, Joel Magpayo, Ernesto Patricio, Dick Ayres, Edgar Bercasio, Vic Catan, Charles Nicholas, Trevor Von Eeden, and Jerry Bingham, and they were inked by Dick Giordano, Steve Ditko, Tom Sutton, Jerry Grandenetti, Dan Adkins, Jim Aparo, Howard Chaykin, Gil Kane, Joe Orlando, John Celardo, Dave Simons, Madz Castrillo, Steve Mitchell, Fred Carillo, Mike Nasser, Joel Magpayo, Ernesto Patricio, Jimmy Janes, Edgar Bercasio, Vic Catan, Armondo Gil, Carl Potts, and John Celardo. Colors were provided by Gene D'Angelo, Adrienne Roy, Jerry Serpe, Tatjana Wood, and Bob Le Rose, and the issues were lettered by Ben Oda, Milton Snapinn, Todd Klein, Shelly Leferman, Esphidy Mahilum, and Albert De Guzman. The series was edited by Joe Orlando; his managing editor was Jack C. Harris.

01 February 2018

Reading Roundup Wrapup: January 2018

Pick of the month: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 10 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al. Am I becoming predictable? This is the fourth volume of this series I've given this coveted award to. The only other author to receive it this many times is Neil Gaiman, and the only series to beat it is Doctor Who, with nine wins. But it really is the best ongoing comic I can remember reading in a long time... though this is its final volume!

All books read:
1. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Seize the Fire by Michael A. Martin
2. The Transformers, Volume 9 by John Barber
3. The Mighty Thor, Vol. 5 by Walter Simonson
4. Doctor Who: The Three Little Sontarans by Justin Richards
5. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Paths of Disharmony by Dayton Ward
6. Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 10 by James Roberts
7. Transformers, Volume 10 by John Barber
8. Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume 1 by Mairghread Scott

My reading month started off pretty zippily, but then I started reading a giant sf anthology, and those things are always struggles for me. (Oh man, all tie-ins... gotta reform...)

All books acquired:
1. Before Einstein: The Fourth Dimension in Fin-de-Siècle Literature and Culture by Elizabeth L. Throesch
2. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
3. The Vision by Tom King
4. Transformers vs. G.I. Joe: The Quintessential Collection by Tom Scioli & John Barber

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 655 (down 2)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 19 (down 6)