31 July 2018

Review: Transformers: Titans Return by John Barber, James Roberts, Livio Ramondelli, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 118 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 2016)
Acquired January 2018

Read February 2018
Transformers: Titans Return

Written by Mairghread Scott, James Roberts, and John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli and Priscilla Tramontano
Colors by Livio Ramondelli and Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long and Chris Mowry

In this volume, recent events in the title formerly known as Robots in Disguise have repercussions for the whole Transformers galaxy, as an ancient Prime returns, reanimating Titans with him. This is more of the kind of Transformers stuff I haven't really cared for: ancient cosmic evils, big robot fights, blah blah blah.

The events of Titans Return connect to all three Transformers ongoings (the subtitle-less Transformers, More than Meets the Eye, and Till All Are One), but it is structured differently than previous Transformers crossovers. While Dark Cybertron and Combiner Wars had a unified story that alternated between the two titles involved in the crossover, Titans Return has a kick-off issue that involves all three series, then a two-issue Transformers story, and then a two-issue More than Meets the Eye one. This is good, because it lets each series maintain its own unique identity.

Sentinel Prime starts out on Cybertron, fighting Ironhide's new police force seen in Till All Are One, Volume 1, as well as Windblade and Starscream. There's some Windblade-Starscream banter, and both Tankors turn up-- it's not much of a role for TAAO, but it does allow for some reflection on how far Cybertron has already come, as Sentinel Prime views with disgust the achievements that Windblade and company have made in reintegrating postwar Cybertron. It does get a bit too technobabbly. (Relative spark temperatures are a significant plot point, and I would contend that this should never be the case.)

I do kind of like that Sentinel Prime's alt-mode is a gigantic, bad-ass space train with cannons. I mean, why not?
from Transformers: Titans Return #1 (script by Mairghread Scott, James Roberts, & John Barber; art by Livio Ramondelli)

From there, Sentinel makes it to Earth, where the by-now normal John Barber tediousness happens. I enjoyed this guy's character driven writing at first, but since the move to Earth, it has almost disappeared. And geeze, if Garrison Blackrock and Marissa Faireborn never appeared in this comic again, I don't think I'd even notice. But now there are G.I. Joes for some reason?

30 July 2018

Hugos 1953: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Trade paperback, 250 pages
Published 1999 (originally 1952)
Acquired August 2017
Read September 2017
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

While voting in the 2017 Hugo Awards, I became cognizant of how many past Hugo winners I actually haven't read. And so I resolved that whenever I vote in the Hugos, I will pick up one old winner of Best Novel that I haven't read before. (This means that I will finish in 2053 if everything goes to plan! And that doesn't even count the Retro Hugos. Um...) My first stop is thus the first book to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, back in 1953, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man.

The first third or so of the novel is definitely the best part: how do you commit murder in a society where telepaths comprise a significant portion of the population? Bester has fun both devising a society with a high prevalence of telepathy and showing a criminal mind work out ways to subvert this. It's enjoyable stuff, sort of like those Asimov puzzle stories, but Bester's writing has got more of a hard edge to it, doing some interesting stuff with narrative style and slang and future culture.

After the murder happens, focus switches to the telepathic detective trying to bring the murderer in, and this is pretty good, though not as good as what went before. The final part, though, where it all pulls together, is pretty so-so, with too much psychobabble and a very predictable Freudian twist, plus some weird sex stuff. Still, the first two-thirds of the novel is highly enjoyable, and I'm going to read Bester's The Stars My Destination in short order based on my enjoyment of this undertaking.

27 July 2018

My 2018 Hugo Awards Ballot: Visual Categories

I recently finished going through all the materials for the 2018 Hugo Awards; here are the ballots I submitted to Worldcon 76 San Jose, with commentary, in the two Hugo categories for "Dramatic Presentations" and the "Best Graphic Story" category (i.e., comic books). I'll start with the story I ranked the lowest and move upwards. Links are to longer reviews when I have written such a thing, or where the story is freely and legally available on the Internet. (Note that if you're reading this before August 22, not all of those reviews will actually be live yet.)

Best Graphic Story

7. Monstress: The Blood, script by Marjorie M. Liu, art by Sana Takeda

There are definitely things to like and love about Monstress, but I find the mythological backstory largely impenetrable. Or maybe I just don't want to put the work into penetrating it, but that seems almost as damning. The book is utterly gorgeous though, and it's populated by amazing characters, fascinatingly dark concepts, and a deep sense of history and culture. I just wished I cared about the overarching story Liu and Takeda are telling more than I do; based on the first volume, Monstress could be amazing, but based on the second it isn't quite.

6. Bitch Planet: President Bitch, script by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Valentine De Landro with Taki Soma

Sometimes you can jump into the middle of an ongoing comic series; sometimes you're clearly not meant to. This was one of the latter times. President Bitch collects issues #6-10 of Bitch Planet, a series about a prison planet for women in a dystopian future where women can be jailed for "noncompliance" at the drop of a hat. The book makes no attempt to introduce characters and concepts for people who haven't read book one, and I found myself struggling to follow along, but enjoying it when I could figure it out. There's some sharp satire here, and Valentine De Landro (who I knew from a poor fill-in on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) is an excellent artist, with a good sense of page design. Ranking this versus Monstress was tough. Both seem like series that aren't quite delivering on their potential, but I gave Bitch Planet the benefit of the doubt since it's more likely the problem was mine in not reading the first volume.

5. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris

This is an excellent book, a really absorbing masterwork, so good it's hard to believe it's Emil Ferris's first graphic novel. Karen is a pre-teen girl growing up in 1960s Chicago, and as the title indicates, her favorite thing is monsters-- she's obsessed with schlocky horror comics and movies. At the same time she has to navigate being a pariah at her Catholic school, she also must survive racism, deal with her mother's cancer, and investigate the murder of her glamorous German neighbor. The book is amazingly drawn, all done in ballpoint pen on looseleaf; you're reading Karen's journal's account of the events of the story. There's a lot of collage/montage, with Ferris's artwork blending the realistic with the fantastic, and the use of color is astonishing at times. Who knew pen could be so beautiful? A prolonged series of flashbacks to the Holocaust are captivating. I have little idea where this honking enormous book is going (the second half is due this fall, I believe), but I really want to know. My main issue with it is that I'm 99% certain it's not actually science fiction or fantasy! All of the fantastic elements thus far are pretty clearly Karen's imagination. How much should that influence my rankings? But I definitely enjoyed it more than Monstress or Bitch Planet, and that's enough for me to give it the edge over them for now, despite its lack of clear sfnal content.

4. No Award

I really struggle with when to deploy "No Award"; however it seems pretty clear that a work that's not actually science fiction or fantasy shouldn't win a Hugo Award (at least not in this category). That said, I'd still rather My Favorite Thing Is Monsters win than Monstress or Bitch Planet, so that bumps them down below No Award as well, which feels a bit mean, but oh well.

3. Saga, Volume Seven, art by Fiona Staples, script by Brian K. Vaughan

Last year I read the first six volumes of Saga basically in one go, so it's a little weird to just read one volume by itself; I had to do a lot of mental re-orienting on its expansive cast of characters. Anyway, I don't think this is the best volume of Saga, but it's still good. (Volume six had more thematic depth, for example.) Sometimes I think Brian K. Vaughan is over-reliant on shock deaths to the extent that they cease to shock, but then at other times I am genuinely shocked, so there you go. It's good stuff with some nice twists outside of the deaths: surprising things are done to/by Marko, Alana, and Sir Robot here. I do wonder what kind of long-term plan there could possible be-- how can our heroes find peace if the galaxy cannot?-- but I'm here for the ride as long as it lasts. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters and this are probably about equally ranked, so I'm giving the edge to Saga since it's actually sf.

2. Paper Girls 3, script by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang

Last year, I resolved a mental tie between two Vaughan comics by going with the familiar and choosing Saga, but this year I'm going the other way around. Like I said above, volume seven wasn't the best volume of Saga (even though it was still good), but volume 3 very much is the best volume of Paper Girls, and that seems worth rewarding as the comic hits its stride.

1. Black Bolt: Hard Time, script by Saldin Ahmed, art by Christian Ward with Frazer Irving

I was dreading reading this, because Marvel's push of the Inhumans is the least interesting thing about Marvel by a long shot, and Black Bolt is the King of the Inhumans. But it turns out that if you take the King of the Inhumans and put him into space prison, allow him to speak, and team him up with the Absorbing Man, a hood from Brooklyn who used to fight Thor, he suddenly becomes enormously interesting! Well, interesting enough to hang an enjoyable story off, anyway. This is fun and well-done, a prison break narrative featuring superheroes and -villains; in addition to Blackagar Boltagon and Carl "Crusher" Creel the Absorbing Man, there's an old alien man (apparently a Hulk villain), a kid with many eyes, and a Skrull pirate who refuses to shapeshift because she likes herself the way she is. Christian Ward's art is sometimes a little difficult to follow, but usually incredible, handling conversation and surreal space torture with equal aplomb. The best issue is the one where Black Bolt and Creel are trapped in a room together as the air runs out, and Creel reveals that amidst his superpowers, he has an all-too-human tragic backstory-- but also hopes and dreams. Funny and touching. All this plus Lockjaw! My Favorite Things Is Monsters is probably actually the better comic, but this one is clearly sf, giving it the edge for me. Who knew I could be made to care about an Inhuman? I think this is one of those ongoings that gets cancelled after twelve issues, so one more collection will see the series off; I'll have to check it out from the library.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

7. Blade Runner 2049, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve

I rewatched Blade Runner in the afternoon one day (on the big screen at the Tampa Theatre!) and then watched 2049 the same evening (at home). I'm not a Blade Runner fanboy, but 2049 doesn't really hold up by comparison. Some beautiful shots, but I was surprised that the sequel left LA... three different times! And the shots of LA itself felt too expansive compared to Ridley Scott's crowded original. The original is so urban and so confined. The actual plot of the film was too straightforward, too long, too societal, and too unambiguous. Deckard is a rapist stone-cold killer in the original who ends up being saved by the "villain" at the climax; there's little like that here. A sequel doesn't have to be like the original, of course, but it ought to be enough like it to justify making it a sequel to begin with, and based on my wife's reaction, I don't think you'd get much out of it on its own, either. Villeneuve did a way better job with Arrival last year.

6. No Award

It's just like, c'mon man, I'd be embarrassed if Blade Runner 2049 won. It's not a very good movie, and I'm surprised it's on the ballot. 

5. Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, directed by Patty Jenkins

I gave this one a miss in theatres after Man of Steel and the promotion for Batman v Superman convinced me that DC's attempt at a "cinematic universe" was not for me, but finally watched it once it was nominated for the Hugos. I found it a pretty typical 2010s superhero film, with the occasional flash of brilliance, such as Diana's charge across No Man's Land, or the gas attack on the Belgian village. On the other hand, I didn't find the "romance" particularly convincing, even by the standards of this genre. The action sometimes felt weightless, and having watched Superman: The Movie (1978) just a week prior, I found myself wishing modern blockbusters were less visually grim. Gal Gadot was excellent.

4. Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson

This is one of two films on this list I saw in theatres, before it became a Hugo finalist. I came out uncertain as to what I thought, and given I haven't rewatched it, that means I still don't know what I think. It seemed to me that The Last Jedi was trying to be three different movies that weren't integrated with one another in a coherent fashion, and often important things happened abruptly. I liked Rey's story, and what was done with Snoke and Kylo Ren, and there were some cool battles, but Finn's emotional throughline was poorly handled, I think. I don't know, rating this versus Wonder Woman is tough-- I feel like Wonder Woman is generic, whereas The Last Jedi tried to play with the genre but didn't have good enough handle on it to pull that off. So which is more worthy? I guess I'll give the edge to ambition.

3. Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, directed by Taika Waititi

I have been a devoted fan of the Thor films since seeing the first one in theatres; I know it's popular to hate on Thor: The Dark World, but I dig it too-- surely its ending battle is the best one in any Marvel film, because it understands the silliness of it all. Well, I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok as well, which has silliness in spades. It does kind of have that vibe of when a new writer takes over an ongoing comic series and suddenly everything from the previous run is disposed of without ceremony, and when it gets away with that, it works, but there are parts where it jars. (I didn't like seeing the Warriors Three go down like mooks, for example.) But I always enjoy Thor's love-hate relationship with Loki, which this handles well, and there's a lot of fun to be had, especially when Thor takes up with a band of ineffectual revolutionaries. Also it might be the only Marvel movie with a good score?

2. The Shape of Water, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro

I'm really torn between this and Get Out; as things in award categories so often are, they're hard to compare-- a horror film with sf elements vs. a dark historical fantasy. One wants you to be afraid, the other wants you to feel something; one is very much naturalistic, one is lush and vivid and colorful. I ended up giving the edge to Get Out because sometimes Shape of Water was a bit too simplistic. Like, one guy is racist and homophobic in the space of fifteen seconds. He's bad. I get it. But on the whole, it's a great film, with excellent performances and some real beautiful imagery; del Toro really relishes the early 1960s setting. Ask me again after the deadline and I might be wishing I'd ranked this first.

1. Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele

Get Out pretty much consumed the humanities academic facebooksphere when it came out, but despite having some sense of what it was about, I was off base enough that the film was still quite enjoyable. A lot of people I've talked to have been surprised that it's a Hugo nominee, given that it's horror. But of course, texts can belong to many genres at once, and in the case of Get Out, the sf element is integral to the horror: I was really impressed with how once you realize what's going on, almost every oddity throughout the film, big and small, suddenly makes a great deal of sense. Also Jordan Peele understands that there's nothing so serious it won't be improved by jokes.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

6. The Good Place, Chapter 13: "Michael's Gambit," written and directed by Michael Schur

I can intuit that this episode is significant, possibly even mind-blowing, to the ongoing story of The Good Place if you've been watching it all along. However, I have not been, and so I was like, "Oh, interesting." Outside of that, I'm not sure this episode had a lot going for it, though; the idea that four friends in heaven have to decide which two of them have to go to hell ought to have been more funny or more dramatic. Or both.

5. Doctor Who 11x00: "Twice Upon a Time," written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay

I am, to be honest, somewhat baffled that the 2017 Christmas special was the only Doctor Who episode to make it onto the ballot this year; I can think of several episodes from series 10 that were better than this, including "Extremis" (which I myself nominated) and "The Pilot" and "Thin Ice" and "Oxygen" and the series finale. "Twice Upon a Time" is mildly diverting, but squanders a potentially interesting premise (a meeting between the first and twelfth Doctors as each is on the verge of regeneration). The final speech shows that not even Peter Capaldi and Rachel Talalay can save yet another long speech from the pen of Steven Moffat; I wish the regenerations could be less of spectacles than they have become.

4. The Good Place, Chapter 19: "The Trolley Problem," written by Josh Siegel & Dylan Morgan, directed by Dean Holland

This episode was more comprehensible as a standalone story, but more importantly, it had better jokes than chapter 13 of The Good Place, mostly those revolving around the ways Ted Danson's character makes two others continuously reenact the famous philosophical quandary of the trolley problem in a real-seeming simulation, complete with fake people who have real feelings, in real time. On the other hand, there were a surprising number of comic bits that fell flat for me, given the talent involved (series co-creator Michael Schur is also the co-creator of Parks and Recreation, which you all know I have been enjoying watching). Anyway, this was okay, and so was "Twice Upon a Time," and I feel like my inclination to rank it fourth is more about sticking it to "Twice Upon a Time" than appreciating "The Trolley Problem" on its own merits.

3. "The Deep" by Clipping.

I don't listen to hip-hop, but between this song and last year's album Splendor & Misery, I appreciate the artistry of Clipping. when I hear it. This song is about an underwater race made up of the children of pregnant African women thrown off slave ships; in the near future, they discover the surface world when corporations come looking for oil. (The underwater civilization is apparently from the work of a 1990s electronica duo.) Only five minutes long, which makes it hard to rank high, but it packs a punch.

2. Black Mirror 4x01: "USS Callister," written by Charlie Brooker & William Bridges, directed by Toby Haynes

This is the second episode I've seen of Black Mirror, after last year's Hugo finalist "San Junipero." This wasn't as good as that, but I still really enjoyed it. It seems like it's going one way, but then there's a clever swerve about twenty minutes in, and it suddenly becomes a different story. It seems at first like it's going to critique Star Trek tropes, but it actually almost reaffirms them. Horrifying at times, good jokes at others, with some neat details and twists I didn't anticipate.

1. Star Trek: Discovery 1x07: "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," written by Aron Eli Coleite & Jesse Alexander, directed by David M. Barrett

I actually nominated this, my favorite episode of Discovery's first season, and a poster child for what the series does at its best: rework the tropes of Star Trek for people who have seen them plenty, plus throw in some heartwarming emotional moments. (Read my review of the whole first season linked above if you want more details.) I couldn't decide if I liked this or "USS Callister" more, but it would be really nice for Star Trek to win a Hugo again, so I used that as my arbitrary tiebreaker; it last won in 1995 for the Next Generation finale "All Good Things..."

Overall Thoughts

Best Graphic Story continues to be a strong category; my placement of "No Award" is a bit misleading. Any of my top three I'd happily see win. I also understand why people like Monstress and Bitch Planet even if these particular volumes didn't do it for me, and it wouldn't bother me if they won either, despite where I ranked them! I suspect my ranking of Black Bolt first will be in a definite minority (I mean, I'm as surprised as anyone); my guess is either Saga or Monstress for the win.

I also found the long-form Dramatic Presentations better than last year's. Thankfully there's a lot less 1980s nostalgia this year. A whole two non-franchise films! Three legitimately strong films, and I know Last Jedi and Wonder Woman have their fans, too. Last year it was pretty obvious to me that Arrival would crush it, but this year things are less clear. A sizeable minority love Get Out, but I suspect it's not to everyone's taste; it definitely won't be The Last Jedi; Ragnarok is not particularly serious. That leaves Wonder Woman or Shape of Water, I suspect. (But who knows. Maybe with the way instant preference voting works, Ragnarok will be everyone's second choice and thus win it?)

Short form was kind of weird: the Discovery episode and "USS Callister" seem kind of obvious as finalists, but two episodes of a sitcom? A (admittedly good) hip-hop track? A mediocre Doctor Who episode? Given the wealth of quality science fiction and fantasy on tv today, these are really the best six? No The Expanse or Legion or The Handmaid's Tale? (I suspect the issue is that with serialized shows, there's no one episode that draws a lot of nominations.) This category will definitely be won by "USS Callister," but I couldn't even begin to guess how the ranking will break down after that.

26 July 2018

Review: Glaucus by Charles Kingsley

Hardcover, 245 pages
Published 1899 (originally 1855)
Acquired and read June 2017
Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore
by Charles Kingsley
When a few more years are past, Buckland and Sedgwick [...] and the group of brave men who accompanied and followed them, will be looked back to as moral benefactors of their race; and almost as martyrs, also, when it is remembered how much misunderstanding, obloquy, and plausible folly they had to endure from well-meaning fanatics [...] who tried (as is the fashion in such cases) to make a hollow compromise between fact and the Bible, by twisting facts just enough to make them fit the fancied meaning of the Bible, and the Bible just enough to make it fit the fancied meaning of the facts. But there were a few who would have no compromise; who laboured on with a noble recklessness, determined to speak the thing which they had seen, and neither more nor less, sure that God could take better care than they of His own everlasting truth. (13-4)
Glaucus is in theory a natural history text, detailing the amazing life-forms to be found on the English coast, complete with illustrations in both color and black and white. What I found more interesting, though, was Kingsley's discourse about the moral benefits of natural history itself, which probably takes up a third of the book. Kingsley's novel Two Years Ago (1857: vol. i and ii), which was published just two years after this, is pretty clearly a fictionalized version of the line of thinking he began in this book. For Kingsley, the vision of the naturalist is morally superior: it gives him more beauty to see in the world, it lets him glimpse the work of God, it gets him out of the home and saves him from indolence. (It was a review of Two Years Ago where, of course, the term "muscular Christianity" debuted.) According to Kingsley, "A frightful majority of our middle-class young men are growing up effeminate, empty of all knowledge but what tends directly to the making of a fortune" (50), and "What is wanted in these cases is a methodic and scientific habit of mind; and a class of objects on which to exercise that habit" (51).

Even just a small snapshot of the virtues Kingsley ascribes to the naturalist is somewhat ridiculous: he is gentle, courteous, brave, patient, reverent, full of wonder, scrupulous, not hasty, not lazy, not melancholy, not proud and much much more. (To be honest, this sounds like the Scout Law, which makes sense, as I'd bet you could draw a line from muscular Christianity in the mid-Victorian period to Scouting for Boys in the early twentieth century.) Partially these virtues come from the way of seeing you must cultivate in order to perceive the natural world accurately in its minute glories, and partially they come from the physical activities you will have to undertake in your explorations. Recurrent throughout the text-- as indicated in my epigraph above-- is the idea that the true naturalist is a man of God, and a true man of God is a naturalist.

Kingsley is a lively and engaging writer, and his descriptions of natural historical work make me want to become a "muscular Christian" myself. I did sort of zone out whenever he started describing crustaceans or whatever, but his take on the moral virtues of natural history is compelling and fascinating, and will definitely inform my next read of Two Years Ago.

25 July 2018

Hugos 2018: Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Hardcover, 477 pages
Published 2017

Borrowed from my wife
Read June 2018
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

I found Akata Warrior more enjoyable and better put together than Akata Witch. Whereas Akata Witch felt like a series of incidents loosely strung together with a climax tacked on, Akata Warrior had drive and focus: incidents led to each other in a pretty clear and straightforward way. Sunny needs to help her brother, which leads to a punishment, which leads to a vision, and so on. I also think her character had a more clear throughline as well, in terms of (much like in the Binti books) finding her place in a society she doesn't quite fit into thanks to both time spent away from it and physical uniqueness and special abilities.

There's a lot of nice moments and good character touches here. I liked the expanded focus on Sunny's relationships with her family (who felt very one-dimensional in Akata Witch), especially her brother, who runs afoul of confraternity at university and ends up being partially initiated into the world of the magical Leopard People as a result. I also enjoyed the flying giant rat, the strange language of the book Sunny attempts to read, the tangled relationships among the kids, and more. After the first book, I was skeptical about the second, but I would definitely read a third.

24 July 2018

Review: Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume 1 by Mairghread Scott and Sara Pitre-Durocher

Comic PDF eBook, 90 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 2016)
Acquired and read January 2018
Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume 1

Written by Mairghread Scott
Art by Sara Pitre-Durocher
Colors by Priscilla Tramontano and Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

Technically, Till All Are One is the continuation of Windblade, but it's as much a continuation of Robots in Disguise back in the days when it was still called Robots in Disguise: how will a postwar Cybertron stay united? (Hence the title.) Especially given that it's not just Autobots and Decepticons and NAILs coming together, but waves of immigration from the newly found Cybertronian colonies.

Maybe the only good use of a Combiner in IDW.
from Transformers: Till All Are One #4

So Windblade is a focal character, but so are Ironhide, Starscream, Rattrap, Chromia, and for this volume, the Combaticons, who I kept confusing with the Constructicons. Plus the two Tankors, of course. Starscream has a dirty secret the Combaticons are desperate to expose... but so does Windblade, and Starscream knows it. I have to say, the weak link of the series is Starscream himself: how does he hold onto power, since he seems pretty much universally reviled on Cybetron? I mean, I like the smarmy way Scott writes his interactions with Windblade and company, but he has to be nice to someone, right?

Also I've kind of never been into the hallucinatory Bumblebee thing, though that's on John Barber, not Mairghread Scott.
from Transformers: Till All Are One #2

As a comic, it's miles better than the book formerly known as Robots in Disguise, but not as good as More than Meets the Eye. I feel like this book assumes I love this cast of characters more than I do. I like Windblade, but what does she want these days? To help her people, but although she was introduced as a Cityspeaker, this is almost forgotten now in favor of her political role on the Council of Worlds. On the other hand, I'm warming up to Ironhide, and once I figured out who the Combaticons were, I started to warm up to them, guys trying to figure out how they fit into a new, complicated world.

I'm kind of fascinated by the two Tankors. "Fat Tankor" on the left is designed as a killing machine... but was apparently a NAIL during the war? While "Tall Tankor" on the right was introduced in All Hail Megatron attempting to dump a nuclear bomb on humanity, but in later books has been portrayed as a decent Decepticon. Hurray for peace? But how exactly did they become friends. And now roommates? And what kind of day job does a Tankor have anyway?
from Transformers: Till All Are One #2

A decent book that hasn't quite come to life for me yet... but then it's only been four issues so far...

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... Titans Return!

23 July 2018

Review: Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson

Farewell Leicester Square! Torchwood says Goodbye Piccadilly in my most recent audio review for USF.

Trade paperback, 463 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1937)

Acquired and read September 2016
Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson

I decided to read this book after rereading The Brontës Went to Woolworths, as it is the only other one of Rachel Ferguson's books to have received a modern reprinting. The back flap of my Persephone Books edition says, "her second [novel], The Brontes went to Woolworths (1931), is her best-known; but the most interesting is ALAS, POOR LADY (1937), which was 'fuelled by her mordant social observation' (ODNB)." I disagree. The Brontës Went to Woolworths was delightfully inventive and engrossing; Alas, Poor Lady is a bit of a slog. The novel reminds me of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks or the like, those early-twentieth-century novels about the decline of a middle-class family. It's more limited in scope, however, covering just a single generation from birth to death-- a generation entirely of women (bar one son, who dies young), who find themselves trained into uselessness by the social conventions of their time, but largely unable to marry. I wanted to like it, and it had its moments, but it just never grabbed me on the whole, maybe because there were so many daughters, and I found it difficult to distinguish them from one another. Maybe also because I've read enough proto-feminist Victorian and Edwardian novels with similar takes that much of Ferguson's social critique was old hat. The first fifty pages, where we get insight into the basic setup of the family, and the last fifty pages or so, chronicling one of the daughters' time spent governessing, were the best parts. The intervening 350-ish pages got fairly monotonous. Disappointing, given how much I liked The Brontës.

20 July 2018

Star Trek at the Hugo Awards

Over the next three weeks, I'll be going over my votes in the various categories of Hugo Awards for this year. One of the finalists in Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) is an episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," which is the first installment of Star Trek to be a Hugo finalist since 2010. If it won, it would be the first Star Trek episode to win since 1995.

I'm not sure it has a real chance (can sf fandom's mixed reaction to Dicovery compete with its love of Black Mirror?), but it caused me to journey back in time and take a look at how often Star Trek has competed for and/or won a Hugo Award.

Before Star Trek (1958-66)

First, a little context. Though the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (i.e., usually a film or tv episode, though plays and albums and such have been finalists as well) was first awarded in 1958, its early years were pretty rocky. In some years (1964 and 1966) the category just didn't exist; World Science Fiction Convention organizing committees have the latitude to cancel any category where the nominations are paltry in number. In other years pre-Star Trek, the category was won by No Award; Hugo voters thought it was better for nothing to win the award in 1963 than for Night of the Eagle to win it.

In 1965, the last award year before Star Trek was a Hugo finalist, there were just two finalists, instead of the usual five: Dr. Strangelove and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. (Strangelove won, of course.) I bring all this up to show what minimal options there were for quality sf on screen before Star Trek arrived on the scene.

The Heyday of the Original Series (1967-71)

Everything changed when, in 1967, Star Trek was first eligible for the Hugo Award. Even though only fourteen Star Trek stories were broadcast in 1966, three of them were finalists, which is an excellent success rate. They were "The Naked Time," "The Corbomite Maneuver," and "The Menagerie" (the whole two-parter as one). It's sort of an odd bunch: I don't think anyone now would look back on any of these as classics. The first half of Star Trek's first season is good, but not great, but had I been a Hugo voter in 1967, I'd've nominated "Balance of Terror," one of Star Trek's all-time bests. The category was won by "The Menagerie," also beating out the film adaptations of Fantastic Voyage and Fahrenheit 451. I do think that of the three, that's the one I'd go with, and it definitely demonstrates fans' preference for mythology-bending episodes.

The real dominance of Star Trek came in 1968, when all five finalists were episodes of Star Trek: "The City on the Edge of Forever," "Amok Time," "Mirror, Mirror," "The Doomsday Machine," and "The Trouble with Tribbles."* These are all excellent episodes; the second half of season 1 and the first half of season 2 really is one of Star Trek's best periods. The only quibble I would make is that I think "The Devil in the Dark" deserves to be in there, perhaps instead of "Amok Time." The category was of course won by "City on the Edge."

In addition, the transcript of the Hugo Awards ceremony for 1968 indicates that Gene Roddenberry was present, and the organizing committee gave him a special plaque inscribed "for producing Star Trek." So you can see what an effect Star Trek was having on sf fandom in the 1960s!

Star Trek's domination ended quickly, however. Late season 2 was when the rot set in, and not a single episode of Star Trek ended up on the ballot for 1969. I would have nominated "A Piece of the Action" (i.e., the gangster one) myself, but then, I'm weird. The finalists that year were 2001: A Space Odyssey, Charly, The Prisoner: "Fall Out," Rosemary's Baby, and Yellow Submarine. Of course 2001 won. Hard to argue with that. Nothing was a finalist in 1970, either, the year infamously won by news coverage of the Apollo 11 landing.

And with Star Trek gone, the category settled into its previous rut, with No Award beating out all five finalists in 1971, and again in 1977.

Star Trek on Film (1980-87)

Unsurprisingly, no episode of the short-lived 1973-74 cartoon was a Hugo finalist. But in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered in theatres, beginning a consistent run of Star Trek films making the Hugo ballot that would last until 2010 with two exceptions. However, none of these films ever won.

The Motion Picture lost out to Alien in 1980, though it did come in above The Muppet Movie (which it did not occur to me to categorize as sf) and The Black Hole (which came in below No Award). This seems justifiable to me.

The Wrath of Khan came in second to Blade Runner in 1983, which again, seems justifiable. It did beat E.T., The Dark Crystal, and first Mad Max film.

The Search for Spock came in third place to 2010: The Year We Make Contact in 1985, which is a goddamn travesty if you ask me. 2010 is a poor film with a couple good parts; Search for Spock is a decent movie, with a couple excellent parts. (I think its problem is that it climaxes early; stealing the Enterprise is clearly the best part of the film, meaning everything after that kind of drags.) It wasn't a very good year for sf on film, actually, with the other finalists being Ghostbusters, Dune, and The Last Starfighter. I probably would have voted for Ghostbusters.

In 1987, Star Trek again lost to the Alien franchise, when The Voyage Home came in second to Aliens. I would vote for Voyage Home, personally, but I can see it.

The Heyday of The Next Generation (1988-95)

In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted; in 1988, television Star Trek returned to the Hugo ballot. Alas, however, the best TNG could do was "Encounter at Farpoint." Even though it's not very good, I don't think I can disagree that "Farpoint" is the best TNG episode of 1987; the first season is mostly shit. "Farpoint" came in third, losing to The Princess Bride. Not exactly inconceivable.

In 1989, The Final Frontier became the first Star Trek film to fail to make the ballot. Well, duh. (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? went on to win.) 1989 is a rare pre-2001 Worldcon from which nominating data still exists. That year, it took at least 58 nominations to make it onto the ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation. The TNG episode "Elementary, Dear Data" received 15; if The Final Frontier received any, it was below 12 and therefore the threshold for being listed in the detailed breakdown. The Land Before Time got more nominations than either!

Things returned to normal in 1992, when The Undiscovered Country made the ballot. It, however, came in third, losing out to Terminator 2 and The Beauty and the Beast. Ouch.

The Next Generation made the ballot again in 1993, when the classic episode "The Inner Light" not only was a finalist, but won the category, giving Star Trek its first win in twenty-five years. Nice! The other finalists from that year are pretty dreadful, though (they include Batman Returns and Alien 3), so there you go. (Did you know? I've actually never seen "Inner Light"! But people say it's a good one.)

And then in 1995, Star Trek had multiple finalists for the first time since 1968, when both the TNG series finale, "All Good Things...", and the first TNG film, Generations, made the ballot. "All Good Things" won, garnering Star Trek its fourth win-- and, not to give the game away, final win to date. Another deserved victory; I'd definitely give it to "All Good Things" over The Mask or Stargate.

Always the Tawi'Yan, Never the Groom (1996-2002)

After that, Star Trek continued to rack up finalist positions for a little while. In 1996, "The Visitor" was the first episode of Deep Space Nine to make the ballot, though it lost to an episode of Babylon 5.

In 1997, Star Trek once again garnered a double ballot appearance, with First Contact and Deep Space Nine: "Trials and Tribble-ations." They came in second and third, respectively, but were beat out by another episode of Bablyon 5. And, in fact, they could not have both made the ballot if J. Michael Straczynski had not declined nomination for three other episodes of Babylon 5 that met the nomination threshold that year!

As a side note, a Hugo Award actually appeared on the show in 1998. In the 1953-set DS9 episode "Far Beyond the Stars," the one of the episode's various sf writer characters walks by carrying a Hugo Award in his hands:

Memory Alpha indicates the award wasn't actually one of the ones won by Star Trek. It was one of two won by production illustrator Rick Sternbach, back in 1977 and 1978, for Best Professional Artist. Given the first Hugo Awards were given in 1953, the character must have won that very year. The appearance of the award itself is anachronistic; the award's appearance fluctuated throughout its first few decades, and in 1953 it actually looked like this, not as sleek as the design that was eventually adopted.

Somewhat bafflingly, Insurrection made the ballot in 1999, maybe just out of sheer inertia. It came in last, losing to The Truman Show, Dark City, Pleasantville, and another damn Babylon 5 episode. I'd definitely give it to Truman Show too.

Star Trek: Voyager went off the air in 2001. It is the only live-action Star Trek series to never be a Hugo finalist.

The Split (2003-06)

Contrary to the situation in the 1960s, by the 2000s, we were flooded with quality sf on screen. With that in mind, in 2003, Worldcon split the Best Dramatic Presentation award into two separate categories, "long form" and "short form." The cut-off is ninety minutes, which lets two-part episodes be nominated as one under short form, but places films and entire seasons of television programs under long form.

Perhaps because of this, Star Trek completely unjustifiably made the ballot in 2003, with two episodes of Enterprise, "Carbon Creek" and "A Night in Sickbay." "Carbon Creek" is decent, if not award-worthy, but "Night in Sickbay" is dreadful, one of the worst hours of Star Trek ever produced. They came in third and fifth respectively, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Conversations with Dead People" deservedly winning.

Star Trek was also eligible in long form that year, but Nemesis failed to make the ballot by a wide margin; the minimum required was 130 nominations, and Nemesis received only 43. It did, however, get more nominations than Signs or Solaris, both of which are much better films. (The Two Towers won.)

Enterprise never made the ballot again, which is a shame, because the show actually got good at that point. (Notoriously, 2004 was the year the short form category was won by a three-minute clip of Andy Serkis and Gollum accepting the MTV Movie Award for Best Animated Performance. But if you look at the other four finalists from that year, it actually is the best thing on the ballot. I probably would have voted for No Award.)

State of Decay (2006-17)

Once Enterprise went off the air in 2005, there was no Star Trek eligible to be a Hugo finalist until J. J. Abrams's 2009 Star Trek film.

Or was there? Controversially, in 2008, a Star Trek fanfilm made the final ballot. The episode "World Enough and Time" of New Voyages garnered 48 nominations. I haven't seen it, I'm told it really is good, but every episode of New Voyages (later rebranded Phase II) I have seen has been execrable. That's more nominations than episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Pushing Daisies, Lost, and Stargate SG-1. I seem to recall a lot of people being mad about this, thinking it not right that a fanfilm should be Hugo finalist, but upon doing some Googling, maybe I'm confusing it with the fact that "World Enough and Time" was also a Nebula finalist. Unlike the Hugos, the Nebula rules specify finalists must be professionally produced, and that's clearly untrue of a fan film.

In any case, "World Enough and Time" came in last. Doctor Who: "Blink" was on the ballot that year, so there really was no question what would win.

In 2010, Abrams's Star Trek was the last Star Trek film to land on the Hugo ballot. It came in fourth, losing to Moon, District 9, and Up, but beating Avatar. That seems entirely reasonable.

That was it for Star Trek until this year. Star Trek Into Darkness didn't make the ballot in 2014 (138 nominations were required; it got 88), and neither did Star Trek Beyond in 2017 (240 nominations required; it received 113). That latter is a shame, at least; I'd've ranked Beyond above some of the actual finalists, like the Ghostbusters reboot, Deadpool, and Rogue One.

The Future (2018-??)

Like I said, I don't expect Discovery to win this year, even though I ranked it first myself. I'm pretty sure it will be Black Mirror's "USS Callister." I don't know if a hypothetical fourth reboot film will get back on the ballot, either.

In some ways, though, Star Trek is a victim of its own success. Before Star Trek, there was often not enough sf on screen to even merit giving an award for it. Since Star Trek (and, admittedly, Star Wars), we've been flooded with sf on screen. Mediocre Star Trek films used to make the ballot regularly; now even good ones can't push their way in. It's a good problem to have as an sf fan, but a sad one as Star Trek fan.

* This couldn't happen these days. In part as a reaction to the dominance of Doctor Who (which claimed three of five finalist slots in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013), in 2017 a new rule went into effect: "No author, or group of authors, or dramatic presentation series, can have more than two finalists in any one category."

1977 would be the last time any Hugo category was won by No Award until 2015 (when No Award was used to counter the effects of slating). According to Kevin Standlee, "There has been speculation that Star Wars [A New Hope], which had just premiered and would go on to win the 1978 Hugo Award, had had such an effect upon the voters that they rejected all of the 1977 Hugo Award finalists by comparison, even though Star Wars was not eligible for the 1977 Awards."

19 July 2018

Review: The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 213 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1900-01)
Acquired August 2014

Read June 2018
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells
'One might go to the moon.'
     'And when one got there! What would you find?'
     'We should see – ! Oh! Consider the new knowledge!'
     'Is there air there?'
     'There may be.'
     I shook my head. 'It's a fine idea,' I said, 'but it strikes me as a large order all the same.' (29)
Longtime readers know I wrote a dissertation, now a nascent book project, about scientists in Victorian literature. As it stands, the book already features several H. G. Wells novels: The War of the Worlds (1897), The War in the Air (1908), and Ann Veronica (1909). But Wells wrote a veritable cornucopia of novels about scientists that I am slowly working my way through (cf., The Island of Doctor Moreau [1896], The Invisible Man [1897], The Food of the Gods [1904], Marriage [1912]), and my journey has most recently brought me to The First Men in the Moon.

This is the most significant of Wells's scientific romances that somehow I somehow did not read as a child, one of the prototypical lunar exploration stories. I think you see in it the transition from the earlier, macabre Wells to the later, more comic Wells. This doesn't have the darkness and urgency of Wells's 1890s scientific romances; its opening has more in common with the comic worlds of Food of the Gods, War in the Air, and The History of Mr Polly (1910), even if darkness and complexity rears its head as the story progresses.

The transformation of tone really works. The book begins with an unlikely pairing, Cavor and Bedford. As the above passage demonstrates, Cavor is a bit too abstracted for his own good, but Bedford, our narrator, is a bit too commercial for his. There's a lot of comic interplay as two very different men try to communicate with each other. Cavor doesn't care about the practical implications of antigravity at all, while Bedford can only imagine how to get rich off it; Cavor has never read Shakespeare because he only reads scientific papers, while Bedford never has because he only reads mass-produced trash like Tit-Bits. (Big Finish dramatizes this interplay very delightfully in their adaptation of the novel featuring Nigel Planer and Gethin Anthony. Their voices undoubtedly influenced the way I read Cavor and Bedford's dialogue.)

Once they go into space, things get darker, as they try to work out how to communicate with an alien species, to what turns out to be little benefit to humankind. It's one of those dark Wellsian satires, but perhaps not his best-- along this line, I think, say, The Sleeper Awakes (1910) is a better work. Still, the ending is a great one, perhaps Wells's most pessimistic... including the novels he wrote where the world is destroyed by nuclear war! The novel has some things to say about scientific knowledge, and why we pursue it, but it's not exactly flattering. Cavor himself is a typical abstracted scientist. I say "typical" but I feel like Wells was actually inventing, or at least perfecting, the type here. It's not all funny, given the unanticipated-but-perhaps-anticipatable consequences of Cavor's actions turn out to be quite dire. That's science and scientists for you, I suppose.

(My Penguin Classics edition has an introduction by science fiction writer China Miéville. It's excellent,* contextualizing the novel in the lunar exploration genre, in Wells's life and work, and in the genre of sf more broadly. I really liked what Miéville had to say about sf, perhaps because it is very similar to what I have to say about it, that there's a doubling effect. Sf is both metaphorical and literal:
the unreal will always be read metaphorically – what is the human mind but an engine to metaphorize and process metaphors intended and found? – but […] there is also pleasure in its literalism. […] [T]he enjoyment […] depends on the specific uncanny/estranging impact of literalizing the impossible: simply, it is a great, weird idea. Weirdness is good to think with, and it is also its own end. (xviii)
I use Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" when discussing this aspect of sf because it does this very well. It's both a metaphor-- it's about a man who can't communicate with his wife-- and a literal weirdness-- it's about the idea that space is so strange you need to cut off your sensations with machines in order to survive it. Miéville has given me some nice language to describe my phenomenon. Anyway, like the best introductions, Miéville's reveals a deeper understanding of the work in question, and I highly recommend it even as a standalone piece of writing.)

* Except for one error: when comparing The First Men in the Moon to the similar, earlier book A Plunge into Space, Miéville says Plunge was by Eric Cromie and published in 1880 (xiv), when in fact it was by Robert Cromie and published in 1890.

18 July 2018

Hugos 2018: No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 215 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 2010-16)

Acquired April 2018
Read June 2018
No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This was a delightful, charming book, a collection of blog posts Ursula Le Guin wrote from 2010 to 2016. Unlike in last year's Words Are My Matter, there's little about science fiction here; most of them concern life, especially growing old, and also Le Guin's cat. Maybe I'm just biased to like anything she writes, but there's a quiet wisdom here, about growing old, about nature, about capitalism, about storytelling, about cats. We get glimpses of her home life and glimpses of her youth and glimpses of her working process. One of my favorites was about an alumni survey Le Guin received from Harvard on the eve of her 60th reunion, and she demonstrates a sharp sense of humor when it comes to the inane assumptions the survey makes. But many others were also good, like why she doesn't interfere when her cat kills mice, and her thoughts on not receiving awards.

Like the best writers of wisdom, Le Guin is able to link small moments to big ideas. I enjoyed almost every essay in some way, and I can see myself returning to this book to savor individual pieces of it in the future. Not just the world of science fiction, but the whole world is the poorer for having lost her.

17 July 2018

Review: Transformers, Volume 10 by John Barber, Andrew Griffith, Livio Ramondelli, Priscilla Tramontano, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2016)
Acquired and read January 2018
Transformers, Volume 10

Written by John Barber
Art by Andrew Griffith, Casey W. Coller, Livio Ramondelli, and Priscilla Tramontano
Additional Inks by Jamie Snell
Colors by Josh Burcham, John-Paul Bove, Josh Perez, Joana Lafuente, and Livio Ramondelli
Letters by Tom B. Long and Chris Mowry

In this volume (which has "All Hail Optimus" on the cover, but not the title page, but finally does drop "The" from the title page even though it disappeared from the cover with volume 7), Optimus Prime essentially annexes the Earth in order to protect it from Galvatron, bringing it into the Cybertronian Council of Worlds that was established in Windblade: Distant Stars.

This could be interesting. People wonder if Optimus is doing the right thing, or if he's turning into a conqueror like the Primes of old; Camiens, on the other hand, wonder if Optimus is really a Prime after all, given that he no longer bears the Matrix.

At no point in reading a Transformers comic have I ever thought, Thank God they added yet another combiner.
from Transformers vol. 2 #53 (art by Priscilla Tramontano)

But what happens? Does the story examine this stuff? Instead, Optimus stands around in a desert a lot, reacts to what the humans are doing, and the whole thing ends with (what feels like) the one millionth fight with Galvatron, who in his brief run as this series's principal villain, has already been around too long. Plus it just feels like Barber is shifting gears to set up for the next storyline (Titans Return), even though this one never actually took off!

That's right, Prowl. Do nothing. Nothing at all.
from Transformers vol. 2 #50 (art by Andrew Griffith)

At the beginning I was worried that Prowl was going to be in it, but thank God it just turns out to be a one-issue cameo.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... Windblade learns that there are lot of challenges to be overcome Till All Are One!

16 July 2018

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A very different image of Victorian London to the one below: I review yet another adaptation of The War of the Worlds, The Coming of the Martians!

Hardcover, 469 pages
Published 194? (originally 1859)
Acquired November 2016
Read August 2017
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I have a Ph.D. in literature with a focus on the Victorian era, but I could count the number of Dickens novels I've read on one hand. This seems to me somewhat criminal. Part of the problem is that no one assigns Dickens in courses if they can help it because he's so long (I think across four years of combined M.A. and Ph.D. coursework, I read two Dickens novels for classes), and partially my own academic interests don't often intersect with the kinds of things Dickens wrote about (the closest he gets to a "scientist novel" is The Pickwick Papers). I once complained about this to my advisor, and he told me that when he was in graduate school, he read a Dickens novel every summer and winter break until he'd read them all. So I didn't do that, but when I finished graduate school, I decided that I'd read one I hadn't read before every summer. Partially this was spurred on by my great-uncle giving me a set of Walter J. Black "classic editions" of several Dickens novels. I decided to work my way down the list of his novels on LibraryThing, which sorts by popularity: it seems more important that I have read Great Expectations than that I have read Barnaby Rudge. Great Expectations is his most owned novel (according to LT, anyway), but I've read it before, and so my journey starts with his second-most famous, A Tale of Two Cities.

I must admit that I found this a bit of a struggle. It opens great, of course. I imagine there's not a Dickens novel that doesn't open great; he knew how to set a scene. Mysterious riders in the night, cryptic messages, well-observed humor about people taking public transit. I was totally into it.

But then things jump ahead and after a fun trial sequence, the narrative energy just fizzles. At this point, I seriously had no idea what the book was supposed to be about. Dickens novels can take in a broad sweep (I really like Our Mutual Friend, which doesn't meaningfully have a main character), but I could not tell what was supposed to be driving my interest in this one. It was just a lot of people... doing stuff. Like, what are they all trying to accomplish? What am I rooting for? I had no clue. Who cares which one of these people marries whom? Do they have life goals? How does this all tie together? I was very disappointed, and the middle of the book was a huge struggle. (Our Mutual Friend might be diffuse, but there's a precipitating event that touches everyone, directly or indirectly, and you also know what each character is trying to accomplish and how they relate to the other characters.)

Once the action moves to revolutionary Paris for the climax, it did pick up. I loved Miss Pross's bravery in standing up to Madame Defarge, and the last chapter itself is both moving and chilling. But man, what a slog to get there. Maybe it's partially my own fault (I read it somewhat piecemeal at a very busy point in my life), but if it wasn't for Hard Times, this would be my least favorite Dickens novel thus far. Hopefully when I tackle David Copperfield next summer, it's better than this.