28 September 2018

A Blog about Nothing

Today's the time of the month where I supposedly blog about my life, drawing from the New York Times's "650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing." Usually I set RANDOM.ORG to 1 to 650, take the output, and go. Sometimes I respin when I don't get one I liked right away. I'm not sure how many times I've already respun here tonight, but I think I've been sitting here for thirty minutes, jumping from #414: How Have You Handled Being the ‘New Kid’? to #23: Does Your Life Leave You Enough Time to Relax? to #389: What’s the Most Challenging Assignment You’ve Ever Had? to #154: What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?

Some of what I hit makes me think, "No way!", some makes me think, "That could be interesting, but not now," some makes me think, "Too heavy for me to handle briefly in an evening before I begin to catch up on grading." (So far, I'm further behind than I was yesterday.) The point of spinning the randomizer on those NYT prompts was as a way of eliciting stories about my childhood, but very few of them seem to be causing that to happen, and when I try to think of things that happened in my childhood without them, my mind goes blank, or I start to wonder if anyone wants to hear stories of campouts I went on in the Boy Scouts. (One time it was really cold!)

Or I wonder if I'll just end up giving my opinion about something, and I'm skeptical anyone wants to know my opinion about most things.

It's almost my son's two-month birthday. (Should I use his name on this blog? Does he have a right to be unchronicled by Google? I have a friend who keeps the very existence of his children a secret from facebook. Not even a picture. Should I be doing that? Should I just call him DS or LO?) I don't know how old your child has to be for your parent blog to be viable, but it seems to me that two months isn't it.

Mostly what he does now is eat, sleep, and cry. He used to poop a lot, but these days that seems to happen every three or four days! There's not a whole of times he's doing none of these things, and when he does, I'm at work. 6pm to 10pm are reserved for crying and sometimes eating. I have gotten reasonably good at calming a baby, but every now and again he just goes for it and is completely inconsolable. You can't reason with a baby. I mean, often you can't reason with people, but you certainly can't reason with an entity that I am pretty sure doesn't really understand the concept of other people yet. (Am I right about this?)

(Hayley just asked me what I was writing about; I told her "nothing." Hence, a title.)

A lot of the time he will only sleep on a person's chest, which isn't very efficient. His lack of enthusiasm for efficiency makes me suspicious as to how many Mollmann genes he ended up with.

It's funny, though, the things you rate as an accomplishment when a baby does them. Two times in the middle of the night he's managed to go from sleeping on his back to his front. One time during "tummy time" we watched him flip himself onto his back. He garnered a lot of praise for this, though I'm not sure he really understood what he was doing or how, even if he did like the results.

Work is working. I lucked out this semester. Because of the baby, I asked for my lighter semester to be in the fall, so I only have three classes, but across all three sections, I just have 42 students, which could easily fit into two! I think they're going reasonably well, but I still pore over random people on Rate My Professor and wonder how you end up one of those teachers who has dozens upon dozens five-star ratings.

It's raining now. It rains a lot in Tampa. People ask me if I like it in Tampa. I think I do, but I don't think I could ever love it here. But man do I not look forward to my eventual return to the job market.

These are the thoughts I have on a Thursday night. You know, sometime I look at my old LiveJournal, and I think to myself, Jesus Christ, how mundane, how boring, how trivial, how insensitive. I don't know when I acquired emotional intelligence, but I don't think I had it yet at age 22. (THE READER: You still don't!) Blogging is, like all long-form things on the web, basically dead, but it strikes me how most of the blogs that linger on are so... polished. Here I am, I review books on a schedule. Every academic I know seems to start up a blog to ensure they have two avenues for publishing research no one will read. Most of the other blogs I read are about comic books. Back in the early days of blogging, it was personal and weird. That's what surprised me the most about my old LiveJournal, the things I'd sometimes say to a bunch of strangers in the middle of the night! Now if I express my feelings, they have to be carefully packaged into a piece of creative nonfiction, a little miniature essay to post an attractive link to on facebook, part of a carefully thematized sequence. I don't miss the quiz results, and I don't miss me chronicling the minutia of going to class every day, but there was something about the old Internet that we lost along the way, and it wasn't just the capital "I."

27 September 2018

Review: Useful Knowledge by Alan Rauch

Hardcover, 292 pages
Published 2001
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2018
Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect
by Alan Rauch

I like this book, but it feels like two separate projects. The first chapter is about the ways knowledge was disseminated in the early nineteenth century: encyclopedias, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and educational texts for children. Rauch demonstrates how British society became interested in the acquisition of knowledge, but also how there was some pushback against it-- Coleridge was outraged by how miscellaneous encyclopedias were. There was no system! Anything could be next to anything based on the whims of the alphabet!

The other five chapters examine the depictions of knowledge in five different nineteenth-century novels (not all Victorian, despite the subtitle): Jane Loudon's The Mummy!, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, Charles Kingsely's Alton Locke, and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. I don't think a strong connection is forged between the first chapter and the other ones; I don't see how encyclopedism (for example) influences my understanding of The Mummy! (for example). What I also find a little frustrating is that the concept of "knowledge" is kind of diffuse-- most of the time, Rauch seems to use it to basically mean "science," but sometimes it's more broad, and so much so that it's hard to trace a strong trajectory through the book. I do think the analysis of The Mummy! takes the book a little too seriously at times, but on the other hand, I really enjoyed the analysis of Alton Locke. I haven't read it myself, but I do love a good discussion of Kingsley, religion, and science, and Rauch brings out the correspondences that Kinglsey saw between the transformation of species and spiritual transformation. I haven't read The Professor, but Rauch made it sound like something I ought to read, which is always a good thing, too.

26 September 2018

Review: Bernice Summerfield: Secret Histories edited by Mark Clapham

Another review up at Unreality SF: the Fifth First Doctor (I think that's right) returns in The First Doctor Adventures, Volume Two!

Hardcover, 175 pages
Published 2009
Acquired July 2015
Read September 2018
Bernice Summerfield XIII: Secret Histories
edited by Mark Clapham

2009's Bernice Summerfield book is another anthology, with a frame story that fleshes out what Benny was doing between deciding to confront Braxiatel at the end of Secret Origins and being captured by a giant robot in Dead and Buried.  On a dig, Benny discovers a collection of sentient skulls at the site of a war crime, and ends up telling them stories to pass the time. The stories cover a wide range of her life, but there are essentially three or four clusters: a few from her youth, before she had her graduate degree; a couple from the heyday of the Braxiatel Collection, when it was her and Adrian and Jason; a couple from her freelance on-the-run-from-Brax years; and then a number following on from the end of Secret Origins, as Benny and company plan their next move against Braxiatel and in the meantime have some wacky adventures.

I like the diversity on offer here. It's nice to see a young, inexperienced Benny alongside an older, but more carefree Collection-era Benny alongside her present-day status quo. And Mark Clapham's frame story is suitably atmospheric, additionally raising the kind of issues that work well with Benny as a character: dealing with the consequences of history and memory. But though Bernice Summerfield usually thrives in the anthology format (during the Big Finish era, the weaker books have almost always been the novels), Secret Histories isn't among the best of them. It's hard for me to put my finger on it, but I just felt like a lot of the stories here were weirdly plotted, not really coming to climaxes even when they had a solid foundation.

For example, there's a set of stories built around a common incident, where a mysterious machine shunts Benny, Adrian, and Peter back in time: Benny ends up in 1914 England, where she once again encounters Mycroft Holmes and John Watson; Adrian lands in World War I-era France; and Peter ends up in a vaguely Victorian freakshow. Each of the stories is evocatively written, with a great concept. But each one just kind of stops: in Jim Smith's "A Gallery of Pigeons," Mycroft deduces a time-travel mystery but it's more of intellectual interest than dramatic; in Eddie Robson's "The Firing Squad," a pair of alien time travelers (who I think are meant to be pre-existing characters?) tell Adrian what was going on; and in Mark Michalowksi's "The Illuminated Man"... I don't really know what happened at the end. Each story seems quite good until the disappointing endings, though, which is all the more frustrating. Smith is good at the retro-Sherlockiana, Robson does a great job with Adrian's character in an unusual situation, and Michalowski likewise has a good handle on the adolescent Peter.

So it's not like it's a bad book or a waste of time. Benny is a great character, and it's nice to hear from Collection characters like Adrian who have had their roles diminished with season 9's format change, such as in Cody Schell's "You Shouldn't Have," where Adrian and Benny crash-land on a planet where it's the height of masculinity to wear flowers. I also really enjoyed Lance Parkin's "Young Benny" tale, "A Game of Soldiers," a brutal and effective story of Benny reluctantly having to play a role in the Dalek Wars when she's accidentally drafted. And Nick Wallace's "Turn the Light On" is creepy and disorienting.

I did find that the resolution to the frame story followed the same pattern as many of the individual stories, in that it ended disappointingly as well: Benny makes a sort of nonsense technobabble deduction to wrap it all up, which undercuts the emotional potential that had been built up in the until-then effective scenes of her interactions with the skulls. It's not the worst Bernice Summerfield anthology (that's either The Dead Man Diaries or Missing Adventures), but it is underwhelming given the quality this range often provides.

25 September 2018

Review: Doctor Who: The Emperor Dalek's New Clothes by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 36 pages
Published 2016

Acquired February 2017
Read March 2017
Doctor Who: The Emperor Dalek's New Clothes
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

In 2014, BBC Books reissued 2013's 12 Doctors, 12 Stories as a box set of novellas; in 2016, they did the same thing with 2015's Time Lord Fairy Tales short stories. So, like I did with 12 Doctors, 12 Stories, I am going to read one of them a month, beginning with The Emperor Dalek's New Clothes, which is actually the last one published, being added for this box set release.

It's cute, I guess? The Time Lord Fairy Tales are half the length of the 12 Doctors, 12 Stories novellas, and they're all written by Justin Richards, instead of luminaries of British children's fiction. This one reads how you would imagine a fairy tale written by Terry Nation would read: plucky rebel fighters with goofy space names fighting a Dalek occupation force. The ending didn't go how I expected, to the benefit of what had been a very predictable story. If that's what Richards set out to do, he accomplished it perfectly. It is neat to see Daleks rendered in David Wardle's woodcut-style illustrations, though he depicts the sessile Emperor Dalek from "The Parting of the Ways," which doesn't line up with the mobile one described in the text.

Next Week: The Keys of Marinus crossed with Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday!

24 September 2018

Review: Double Dutch by Sharon M. Draper

I have two new reviews of Doctor Who audio dramas up at Unreality SF: the fifth Doctor and UNIT in The Helliax Rift and the sixth Doctor and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Iron Bright.

Trade paperback, 183 pages
Published 2004 (originally 2002)

Acquired December 2014
Read December 2016
Double Dutch by Sharon M. Draper

This is another Cincinnati-set book, part of my goal to read all the novels set in my hometown. Double Dutch is by Sharon M. Draper, a Cincinnati-area high school teacher; the book's main characters are eighth graders on a local Double Dutch team. Their dream is to qualify for the state competition and then compete in nationals in a year where the national competition is being held in Cincinnati. There's not a lot of local color to be honest: quick mentions of things like the Cincinnati Post are basically it.

Other than that, it's an okay book. Some of the characters are fun, the central dilemmas (a girl who's managed to make it to the eighth grade without being able to read, and a boy whose dad has abandoned him) are interesting, but some of the dialogue is very awkward and a couple of the happenings are incredibly contrived, even melodramatic. The resolution to the bullying subplot grates the most. It is aimed at middle-schoolers, though, so I'm not exactly its target audience.

21 September 2018

Reading Roundup Year in Review, 2017/18

With the end of August, a new school year begins and so too does a year in my reading tracking list, which means it's time for me to take stock.

Though I have many other accomplishments in the past year to be proud of, my amount of reading is not one of them. Last year, I set a record for most books read in a single year; this year I set a record for least. Not riding the bus and starting a new job will do that to you, I guess. Since 2003, my per-month average has been 12.8; in a full seven months this year, I fell below that, reading only 10.1 books per month. We'll see what next year brings!

What kinds of books did I read this year? Here's a chart: (I only broke out series/authors if I read more than one of that series/author)

Doctor Who 15 1.3 12.4%
Star Trek 10 0.8 8.3%
Media Tie-In Subtotal 25 2.1 20.7%

The Expanse 3 0.3 2.5%
H. G. Wells1 3 0.3 2.5%
Other SF&F 35 2.9 28.9%
General SF&F Subtotal 41 3.4 33.9%

The Transformers 20 1.7 16.5%
Legion of Super-Heroes 2 0.2 1.7%
Other DCU Comics20.21.7%
Marvel Comics30.32.5%
Calvin and Hobbes30.32.5%
Brian K. Vaughan 3 0.3 2.5%
Other Comics 6 0.5 5.0%
Comics Subtotal 39 3.3 32.2%

James Bond by Ian Fleming 2 0.2 1.7%
Victorian Literature 1 0.1 0.8%
Other Literature 4 0.3 3.3%
General Literature Subtotal 7 0.6 5.8%

Other Nonfiction2 9 0.8 7.4%

1. This actually includes both science fiction and literature by Wells, but I can't be bothered to separate them back out for the purposes of this report.
2. Nonfiction connected to a particular series or author (e.g., Calvin and Hobbes or H. G. Wells) is included in that series or author's count.

Last year I read over 85 comic books; this year, fewer than 40. Adding in 45 comic books would put me right back in the average range, so a big part of my decrease is that fact that since moving, I haven't resumed my ILL-based comics reading. I am pretty disappointed to realize how little non-genre fiction I am reading these days. Can I blame the Hugos?

As always, I picked the best book of each month as a "Pick of the Month." I fed all twelve of these into Preference Revealer, so here they are ranked from twelfth-best to best:

12. Leviathan Wakes: Book One of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey
11. Otherworld Barbara Vol. 1 by Moto Hagio
10. Black Bolt: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed
9. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book by Bill Watterson
8. The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Walta Hernandez
7. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris
6. Terra Ignota, Book III: The Will to Battle: A Narrative of Events of the year 2454 by Ada Palmer
5. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
4. No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
3. Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 10 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.
2. "The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary by Kate Colquhoun

And the "Pick of the Year":
1. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

I'm somewhat skeptical of how this list shook out, to be honest, but In Other Lands is definitely the best book I read all year. The full list of "Picks" going back to 2009 is here.

Lastly, here's my usual graph of my reading trends over time:

I hope I can improve some aspects of this next year... but I am very doubtful!

You can compare this to previous years if you're interested: 2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17. (I didn't do ones for 2010/11 and 2013/14.)

20 September 2018

Review: Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

Trade paperback, 500 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1801)
Acquired and read December 2017
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
'How my eyes have been blinded by her artifice! This last stroke was rather too bold, and has opened them effectually, and now I see a thousand things that escaped me before.' (181)
Like The Romance of the Forest, I read this because I was told I might find some female proto-scientists in it; I found less science and less enjoyment in it than Romance of the Forest. The book sort of meanders an uninteresting protagonist through the Pride and Prejudiceesque but slightly more scandalous society of the early nineteenth century. Not much seems to happen, and it does so quite slowly.

19 September 2018

Review: Bernice Summerfield: The Vampire Curse by Mags L. Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip Purser-Hallard

Recently, I've been catching up on my Bernice Summerfield audio dramas over at Unreality SF; as aficionados will know, those are part of a multi-media narrative that also incorporates prose stories, and I'll be reviewing the prose installments here over the next few weeks.

Hardcover, 218 pages
Published 2008
Acquired June 2013
Read August 2018
Bernice Summerfield XII: The Vampire Curse
by Mags L. Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip Purser-Hallard

The Vampire Curse covers three different encounters with vampires across Bernice Summerfield's lifetime. (She also battle vampires in the New Adventures in Blood Harvest, which would go between the first and second stories in this volume.) The first, Mags Halliday's "The Badblood Diaries," is set during her postgraduate years, before she met the Doctor. She goes on an archaeological expedition which is (of course) attacked by vampires. The whole story is told in the form of a column she's publishing about her adventures, which somewhat strained my credulity, as she's very open about some things I'm not entirely convinced one would reveal to a broad audience. However, Halliday is great at capturing Benny's voice; we've heard a lot of it thanks to the use of her diary throughout her history, and I could easily imagine Lisa Bowerman reading the lines. It's filled with little observations of people that sketch in character very quickly and very well, and also feel very Young Benny. The plot, on the other hand, was a bit too straightforward. I enjoyed the experience of reading it, but when it finished I was surprised that was all that had happened.

The second, "Possum Kingdom" by Kelly Hale, actually takes place during Benny's travels with the seventh Doctor, and he even puts in a brief (unnamed, of course) appearance on pp. 98-99. (I'd guess it goes somewhere between Set Piece and Original Sin.) Benny joins a group of time-traveling tourists in order to help track down an ancient, vampiric evil. I didn't entirely understand what was going on, as the story isn't told in order, but I enjoyed Hale's descriptions of Texas. The best part of the story, though, is the time tourism agency; the tour is about vampires, and so there are lots of good jokes about this, like the guy they meet outside Dracula's castle who matter-of-factly claims his uncle came back as a vampire to help with the kids, and the visit to the Edward and Bella Reenactment Society in Forks, Washington. I think it's the most complicated story in the volume, but also the shortest.

The last story, Philip Purser-Hallard's "Predating the Predators," is the best one. Set during series 9 of the audio dramas (probably between The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel and The Diet of Worms), the story is about an academic conference on vampires where the keynote speaker is a vampire. It's told as a collection of documents (shades of Dracula, there), mostly excerpts from the diary of a Jesuit priest and letters from a physics graduate student to his sister. It's funny and clever, as Purser-Hallard explores the sfnal implications of vampires on other planets to good effect. Benny's role isn't terribly huge, but it is significant, and also clever and funny. I really enjoyed reading it.

The whole collection is worth reading even if it is a little uneven. This doesn't reach the heights of some previous Bernice Summerfield three-in-one books like Nobody's Children or Old Friends, but it still shows off the strengths of the format. It's a shame that this would be its last use; from here on out, all the Benny books will be short-story anthologies or novels, nothing in between.

18 September 2018

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

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014)
Acquired November 2016
Read August 2018
The Transformers: Primacy

Story by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille
Art by Livio Ramondelli 
Lettering by Tom B. Long

I was surprised at how much I liked Monstrosity. Similarly, I was surprised at how much I did not like Primacy. I didn't dislike it; I just didn't find much particularly likeable about it. While the first two parts of this trilogy, Autocracy and Monstrosity, captured some of that prequel energy, making you excited to see those raw, early moments in Transformers history, Primacy feels too much like the kind of Transformers stories you've seen a million times. Megatron has an evil plan, Optimus Prime angsts about something but wins anyway, rinse, repeat. This is set millions of years before the majority of IDW's work, but would slot into it just fine, which is disappointing. A prequel should capture something different about an ongoing story, but Primacy is too much of the same old thing.

Here it was the interaction of naturally occurring gears, levers and pulleys that miraculously brought forth sentient beings.
from The Transformers: Primacy #1
Next Week: Until I start in on the final stretch of Lost Light, I'm all caught up on IDW's Transformers, so I'm rotating to a different reading project: tea time tales for time tots, the Time Lord Fairy Tales!

17 September 2018

Review: Secret History of Ireland: Invasions by C. Thomas Smith

Acquired December 2017
Read June 2018
Secret History of Ireland; "Invasions"
by C. Thomas Smith

There's no soft-pedaling it; this book is terrible. You can see that from the incompetently formatted title onwards. It's self-published, I think, and the author for some reason thinks the subtitle goes in quotation marks and is connected to the main title with a semicolon. The book purports to be a retelling of Irish history, drawing on mythology. The issue is that the author has decided to be funny, only the author is not funny. Here's a bit from a page at random:
Did Téthur take a nasty fall, break a bone, get wounded? A wound that in those ancient times turned septic fast leading to a painful death. Or was Téthur ridding to within an inch of his life by eighteen young women who had bugger all to do of an evening and had yet to invent Ann Summers? Anything is possible. Though I should mention here that as a student of history, I don't know if I buy the whole idea of death by sex. For one thing, these stories have been passed down to us by monks, so sex, if the cause, would have been mentioned many times and in increasingly vulgar detail. And, sexual aids for women have existed for quite some time. [LONG DIGRESSION ABOUT SEX TOYS OMITTED] It is also possible that he ate a bad oyster or choked to death on a hazelnut with no one to offer the Heimlich manoeuvre as they were too busy diddling themselves stupid. You pay your money and you take your chance. (22-3)
The whole book is like that, unfortunately, just a long, unfunny, poorly written synopsis of Irish prehistory. The only good thing I can say about the book is that it made me want to read about these stories in the hand of a competent author. I got the book as a present, and I can only conclude the gift giver was the author in disguise, or the gift giver completely lacks the ability to discern good from bad.

The book has 100 numbered pages, but the actual "novel" runs only 79 of them. That's still about 74 too many.

14 September 2018

I Discuss "A Piece of the Action"

Inexplicably, I am a guest on this week's episode of Enterprising Individuals, a podcast that dissects one episode of Star Trek with each release. I picked my favorite episode of the original, "A Piece of the Action," but the discussion ranges pretty widely, as host Aaron Coker indicates in his blurb:
Dr. Steven Mollmann joins the show this week to talk about a classic episode of Star Trek: the Original Series that sees our heroes trade their phasers for tommyguns and their uniforms for zoot suits! When the Enterprise arrives at Sigma Iotia II, they discover that cultural contamination by the USS Horizon has altered the primitive society, and “gangsters” vie for control of the planet. Now Kirk and crew must prevent an all-out gang war before Oxmyx and Krako can rub them out!

Humor in Trek is always welcome and on this episode, we talk about some of Trek’s funniest moments and why it’s necessary to occasionally pop the bubble of ostentation. We also discuss how Sigma Iotia is the Galaxy Quest of planets, the vagaries of the Prime Directive, the way humor humanizes your favorite characters, Trek’s history of employing comedy actors, and the granular detail of 23rd century books about the 1920s.

We also cover dating Victorian-style, the origins of the “scientist”, how “mood” spelled backwards is “doom”, a planet of Rick and Morty names, adding boob jokes to Heart of Darkness, Milton Berle’s lost “serious” role, Dixieland Mark Ruffalo, and we commiserate over not being allowed to watch “bad” stuff as kids! Take that, Mom and Dad!
You can listen to it here! Take a listen if you want to be subjected to what one of my students once called "a very unique voice."

13 September 2018

Review: Love and Mr Lewisham by H. G. Wells

I have another Torchwood review up at Unreality SF (I have been really on top of this recently), one of the prequel story Torchwood One: Machines, featuring the long-anticipated return of WOTAN from 1966's Doctor Who: The War Machines. Oh wait.

Trade paperback, 229 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1899-1900)
Acquired June 2018

Read July 2018
Love and Mr Lewisham by H. G. Wells
'Natural Selection – it follows . . . this way is happiness . . . must be. There can be no other.'
     He sighed 'To last a lifetime, that is.
     'And yet – it is almost as if Life had played me a trick – promised so much – given so little! . . .
     'No! One must not look at it in that way! That will not do! That will not do.' (207)
This is the earliest (I think) of Wells's umpteen novels about scientists and marriage; it would be followed by Ann Veronica (1909) and Marriage [duh] (1911-12). Like a lot of Wells's literary novels, it tracks Wells's own life fairly well in some regards: George Edgar Lewisham is a science student trying to rise through the social classes and also maintain a marriage and also advance the cause of socialism. He also teaches, and he falls in love with a student's cousin, Ethel, and has to figure out how to balance the needs of a spouse with those of career. Also he's got a classmate who might be more his intellectual match than Ethel, and is clearly in love with him. So, similar ground to both Ann Veronica and Marriage (like the Traffords in Marriage, the Lewishams struggle even more because of the artificial requirements society places on them, like the need to by certain kinds of nice things and so on).

Wells will never be the world's most moving writer. He's good at depicting the interiority of aspiration in conflict with the exteriority of the social world, but it's always more of an intellectual feeling, as opposed to how Thomas Hardy or George Eliot can hit you in the gut with similar subject matter. But it is a pleasant read, and there's some black humour, and some familiar problems to anyone who's ever gone on the job market, and some real-feeling awkwardness of early married life. Lewisham is a scientist (or he would be one, anyway), and there's this weird subplot about Ethel's involvement in faking séances, though Wells kind of sews this all together with pointing out that there are different kinds of cheating, and different kinds of belief.

An interesting book, I thought it was less good and polished than Wells's later literary fiction, but it's still heart-rending in its own way. My quotation above comes from the final chapter, where Lewisham realizes that he and Ethel are having a baby, and thus his scientific and political career aspirations will probably go unfulfilled. I don't know what to make of it, and I like that I don't know. Lewisham is desperately trying to convince himself that it's a good thing to have a child, even though it appears nowhere in his "Schema," but even as he keeps repeating to himself that the coming child means "the end of empty dreams" (208), you can tell he doesn't believe it, and that he will miss those dreams. He tears up his Schema and thus his past self-- and something dies in him in that moment, and that's where the book ends. Lewisham has reproductive success, but nothing else. Evolution is the thing he studies, but its methods (i.e., reproduction) will foreclose his ability to study it, and destroy the other kinds of success he had valued. But at the same time, you (probably) want him to have a child because it's what so many of us value! So Lewisham's values conflict with yours even as you empathize with him, and they conflict with the world he seeks to change, but he never can. It's a quietly tragic end to a genial book.

11 September 2018

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

As always, a quick note. My journey through Big Finish's Bernice Summerfield stories continues apace, with the beginning of their most epic story, Resurrecting the Past!

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2013)
Acquired November 2016
Read August 2018
The Transformers: Monstrosity

Story by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille
Art by Livio Ramondelli 
Lettering by Tom B. Long

Autocracy, the book to which this is a sequel, was the very first IDW Transformers comic I ever read. Monstrosity picks up right where Autocracy ends, with the beginning of the millions-year-long Autobot/Decepticon war underway. I found Autocracy a little difficult to follow, but over two years later, I've read another fifty-one(!) volumes of IDW Transformers comics... so you might say I have a bit more understanding and context now.

I like that Young Prowl had nowhere near the confidence of his older self. He's so panicky!
from The Transformers: Monstrosity #8

Monstrosity might take place at the beginning of the continuity, but it actually is nice to read it later on, because I can see the seeds for much of what's followed. Monstrosity shows the great exodus of nonaligned Transformers from Cybetrons (those who would be called "NAILs" when they returned in More than Meets the Eye, Volume 1); one key character is Dai Atlas, leader of the Circle of Light (the group the Lost Light was seeking until More than Meets the Eye, Volume 5); and we see the beginning of Cyberton's ecological devastation (discussed in Infiltration and All Hail Megatron, among others).

The smug asshole Dai Atlas is portrayed as here kind of makes me glad Star Saber killed him.
from The Transformers: Monstrosity #4

The story deals with various kinds of monstrosity: the Dinobots (called "Dynobots" here because they aren't dinosaurs yet) have alt modes that threaten to overwhelm them, there's a monster buried under the surface of Cybertron, the people of Cybetron themselves begin to turn ugly, and Megatron continues his transformation from principled zealot to genocidal maniac.

What a guy!
from The Transformers: Monstrosity #2

When reading a synopsis ahead of time, I was skeptical of these parts all fitting together (particularly the Dinobots), but to my surprise, they did. I particularly liked the sense of tragedy to the whole thing. Optimus Prime might be Cybetron's greatest hero, and the first Prime to carry the Matrix in many centuries (millennia?), but that's not enough to save his planet or his people. With crushing inevitability, everything falls apart. In addition, Megatron is pretty badass here, tearing up Junkion (the Planet of Junk) to reclaim leadership of the Decepticons, and willing to do whatever it takes to depose the Autobots and lay claim to control of Cybertron.

Okay, he is kind of awesome.
from The Transformers: Monstrosity #7

Though sometimes his action scenes are hard to follow as they occasionally are, and the art's murkiness makes identifying characters difficult, Livio Ramondelli has really defined this period of Cybetronian history. His art is good at capturing the era's mythic nature and its violence. Overall, this was an enjoyable read, an appropriate story to finally experience as IDW's Transformers universe winds itself down.

Next Week: The final piece of backstory, in Primacy!

10 September 2018

Review: 42 Miles by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer and Elaine Clayton

If there's anything I like about Big Finish, other than Charley Pollard, it's that I'll occasionally pick up an adaptation of a tv programme I've actually never seen and end up enjoying it. Such is the case with Callan, which comes across to me as a less glamorous Danger Man, or a lot like series one of The Avengers (the UK tv programme, not the Marvel comic). So, read my review of Callan, Volume One at Unreality SF.

Hardcover, 73 pages
Published 2008

Acquired October 2016
Read October 2017
42 Miles by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
illustrated by Elaine Clayton

A book of children's poetry about a kid with divorced parents (one of whom lives in an urban downtown, the other of whom lives on a farm), with mixed-media scrapbook-style illustrations, is not really my thing. But it's set in the Cincinnati area, so here I am. It's okay. Distressingly little local color (it's not even clear what direction the protagonist's father's farm is from the city), so no points on that front. I think it mentioned Cincinnati chili, which is the bare minimum, but now I can't find it. As a book, it's not great either. I did like that the protagonist's parents have been divorced as long as she can remember, so it's not a blindsided-by-divorce book or a my-parents'-breakup-was-my-fault book, but rather a how-do-I-live-two-lives book. However, the reconciliation between her two "selves" comes very suddenly and seems unearned. I don't think it's up to much as poetry, either, and the illustrations were just kind of there.

07 September 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: Results and Final Thoughts

Unlike last year, I was able to watch the livestream of the Hugo ceremony on YouTube as it went out. The ceremony was 8 to 10pm on a Sunday night... California time! Which meant I was watching it from 11pm to 1am. Thankfully I had a week to go before the semester started. I really enjoyed getting to watch the livestream. The ceremony isn't super-elaborate (at least this year, most of the finalists were read out by the MC himself), but it is really charming to watch the people come up and accept these awards. It's so obvious that most of them are but fellow fans, and receiving a Hugo is a mind-blowing experience for them... even if they've done it before! Lynne M. Thomas was bawling as she came up to receive the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form), even though she had already received the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine earlier that night with composure.

Also it was pretty awesome that they got Felicia Day in to present the first-ever Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book. I also really enjoyed Professor Palmer's speech about the Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

I guess because of how excited some people are to win, it does make me a little grumpy when finalists not only don't show up, but don't even send a proxy to accept the award for them. Like, I guess it doesn't surprise me that Major Hollywood Directors don't show up, but the lack of turnout in some less A-list categories is grumble inducing.

So what did I think of the results? Just some brief thoughts here:

Category What Won Where I Ranked It What I Ranked #1 Where It Placed
Best Related Work No Time to Spare
2nd Iain M. Banks 4th
This marks Ursula Le Guin's second year in a row winning Best Related Work, and it is obviously as bittersweet as reading the book itself was. I'm glad to see it win, and I'm not surprised that the very academic Iain M. Banks landed down in fourth. I also predicted Le Guin would win, so I'm smug that I'm right. I am pretty surprised that Zoë Quinn's Gamergate book, Crash Override, placed in second (she actually got more first-place votes than Le Guin, but Le Guin won thanks to the instant run-off voting), though; I just didn't see it as being that relevant to sf or that good.

I did see the Worldcon 75 restaurant guide in the longlist, down in 10th. Thank God it didn't make the ballot. Do try to be serious, people.

Best Graphic Story Monstress: The Blood 7th Black Bolt: Hard Time 4th
This seems to be a category, judging by last year and this, where I and the typical Hugo voter are not much in accord. I placed Monstress at the bottom of my ballot, below No Award, but it won first place, and according to the vote breakdown, had a pretty strong lead throughout all rounds of voting. I did, however, predict this, claiming either Monstress or Saga (which placed second) would win, and I knew that I would be in a minority for ranking Black Bolt first.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) Wonder Woman 5th Get Out 2nd
Again, very much not my choice, but also not a very surprising win; I said this category would be won by Wonder Woman or The Shape of Water. The latter placed fifth, though, which perhaps shows how much I actually know!

In this category, I'm more interested in the longlist; The Expanse Season Two, which I nominated, came in twelfth in nominations, so it was pretty far from landing on the ballot. Other items of interest to me on the longlist include Logan (7th),  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (9th), The Good Place Season One (10th), The Handmaid's Tale (11th), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (15th). I am pretty baffled that Blade Runner 2049 beat all of them onto the ballot, to be honest, but it was not beloved by voters, and landed pretty decisively in last place.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) The Good Place: "The Trolley Problem"
4th Star Trek: Discovery: "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad"
Wow, I did not see this coming! Who knew The Good Place had so many fans among Hugo voters? I knew Discovery wouldn't fare well (too divisive), but I also said, "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." It turns out I should have said "before that," because "USS Callister" ended up in second, not first.

Again, the longlist is interesting. I nominated two Expanse episodes myself, one of which was in eighth, the other of which didn't land in the top fifteen, while another Expanse episode was just off the ballot in seventh. Serialized shows lead to diffused nominations when it comes to single episodes. I am still surprised "Twice Upon a Time" was the Doctor Who story to make the ballot (I nominated "Extremis," and also "Thin Ice" was in 13th). Also, a Star Trek fanfilm somehow garnered enough nominations to land in tenth. Bah.

Best Short Story "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™" 1st "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™" 1st
This is the only category this year where my first place choice accorded with that of the Hugo voters. And my last place choice did, too! But I did not see this coming. So obviously I'm happy. Rebecca Roanhorse also took away the Campbell Award for Best New Writer; as she came up to the podium, I predicted that she would do a land acknowledgement before her acceptance speech, and I was correct.

Best Novelette "The Secret Life of Bots" 6th "Extracurricular Activities" 4th
So, I didn't rate this story very much (I briefly considered placing it below No Award!), but I found Suzanne Palmer's acceptance speech utterly charming. She recounted a dream that she would topple off the stage and accidentally impale an sf luminary with her Hugo rocket! So after watching her speech, I was quite pleased she won, as it obviously meant so much to her. This was kind of a weak category in my opinion, so I can't really get worked up over the placement of "Extracurricular Activities."

Best Novella All Systems Red 2nd "And Then There Were (N-One)" 2nd
I know this outcome accords pretty well with my own choices, but it's probably the one I'm the most disappointed about, because I so wanted "(N-One)" to win! At least River of Teeth, which was the worst thing I read this year, ranked last.

Best Young Adult Book Akata Warrior 4th In Other Lands 3rd
This was a strong category, so I was still pleased with this outcome. My main surprise is that La Belle Sauvage placed dead last-- I thought mediocre comebacks by once great authors were the kind of things Hugo voters ate up! Even I ranked La Belle Sauvage above The Art of Starving, but the electorate as a whole did the opposite.

Best Novel The Stone Sky 5th New York 2140 6th
Wow, ouch, I was totally out of sync on this one too. At least Scalzi didn't win it! (He did come in second, though.) Still, the first two Broken Earth books are achievements even if I didn't much like the third, and Jemisin is now the first person to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row (and one of only three people ever to win it three times). I was glad she made it to the ceremony (I don't think she did when she won the last two years), because she gave an excellent speech about what was at stake for her and for the way people argue over what the genre ought to be.

Like last year, I No Awarded Best Series because I don't believe the category should exist,* and like last year, it was won by Lois McMaster Bujold, this time for her "World of the Five Gods" series. I thought she would win again. But who will win next year now that she's out of the picture? I was surprised by how much File 770 won Best Fanzine; it had the most decisive victory in the entire competition, all this for a site where some guy aggregates news and purposefully incites fan drama. But I guess I do read it pretty regularly, and I don't most of the other finalists, so there you go, I'm part of the problem.

Each year's Hugo competition is organized by a different group, as each one is done by whoever wins the bid to host that year's Worldcon. With that in mind, I did, on a mechanical level, find voting in this year's awards much less better than last year's. Worldcon 75 had a terrific piece of voting software; Worldcon 76's was less user-friendly (I found re-ranking cumbersome). The information on the website was often slow to update, if at all; I'm not sure if the Hugos page was ever updated to reveal the location of the ceremony livestream, for example. The real difference in quality was the "voter's packet"-- Worldcon 75's packet was a thing of beauty, so well-organized and clear and transparent. Jo Van Ekeren, who assembled 75's packet, left behind a list of suggestions for subsequent packets. A huge of number of her innovations were not implemented again this year: file properties were not set properly on the e-copies, files were not named consistently, separate packets were not created for different file types, and so on. I know Nicholas Whyte, who administered the 2017 Hugos, will administer the 2019 ones as well; hopefully he brings Jo back on board, because she was sorely missed.

I again enjoyed the experience of reading to vote in the Hugos, though I wish the quality of the works read had been a bit better, like last year. That Lodestar Award, though! Fatherhood might eat up my free time, but I really hope I can do it again next year. Once you do something three times, it becomes a tradition, and then you have to keep doing it.

* Other categories I No Awarded out of principle were both Best Editor categories (because editing is too invisible to be successfully rewarded in a popular fan award), Best Semiprozine (because what the hell is a semiprozine), and both Best Artist categories (because the difference between fan and professional artists is poorly delineated). I support efforts to reform or remove these categories, though I cannot vote as I am not an attending member of WSFS. Specifically, I think Best Editor (Short Form), and Best Semiprozine should be replaced by Best Anthology/Collection and Best Magazine.

06 September 2018

Review: The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

Trade paperback, 397 pages
Published 2009 (originally 1791)
Acquired and read December 2017
The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe
'It is the first proof of a superior mind to liberate itself from prejudices of country, or of education.' (222)
I read this because it was suggested to me that in the works of Ann Radcliffe and Maria Edgeworth I might find those female scientists I often claim did not exist in fiction until the 1880s. Well, I don't think they're to be found in this Gothic novel, either. Adeline may be educated in what we now call sciences, and even in clear thinking, but she is by no means a scientist, or even a (wo)man of science, and her clear thinking isn't linked to any kind of scientific training.

Outside of the science stuff, I didn't find much to enjoy here. Some mildly atmospheric bits, but man much of the rest of it is tedious. Hurry up Victorian realism, make novels palatable.

05 September 2018

Hugos 2018: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Trade paperback, 415 pages
Published 2017

Acquired May 2018
Read July 2018
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

For my Hugo reading, I automatically purchase all the Best Novel finalists in hard copy, and then pick and choose in the other categories. (Anything I don't purchase myself, I can get from the voter packet and/or the library.) A Skinful of Shadows, finalist for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo), was an automatic buy for me, based on how much I liked Hardinge's last novel, The Lie Tree, and I sat down to read it literally knowing nothing about it, not even reading the back cover.

I guess for this reason it's hard for me to want to tell you anything about it here. Like The Lie Tree, Skinful of Shadows is a dark historical fantasy novel, with a unique magical conceit at its heart, that Hardinge explores all the permutations of. The novel twists and turns a lot, in a good way; I think a lesser author would have extracted two hundred pages out of any one of the things that makes up this novel, but Hardinge keeps things going, with lots of revelations and upheavals of the kind that make you say something aloud. Beautifully written, neat ideas, intriguing plot, and sharp character work. At the time I write this, I have two more finalists for Best Young Adult Book to read, but if either of them surpass this, I'll be quite amazed. (And happy, I guess, to read so many quality novels.)

Addendum: One of them did! And it was indeed amazing.

04 September 2018

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

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2018 (contents: 2017)
Acquired and read August 2018
Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume Three

Written by Mairghread Scott
Art by Sara Pitre-Duroche
Colors by Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

With Windlbade seemingly dead, Till All Are One moves its focus to Starscream. Till All Are One has a large cast of characters, as I guess befits a series about the reunification of a planet and a society, but it does make it hard for everyone to get their due. Most of those characters put only in small appearances in this volume, leading to its best but unfortunately also its last installment.

This volume collects five issues. The first two focus exclusively on Starscream, who continues his machinations but also continues to feel kind of bad about it. It builds on Starscream's long history of development in IDW, from usurping Megatron in All Hail Megatron and Dark Prelude to becoming Cybertron's postwar civilian leader in Robots in Disguise and Windblade.

Previously I haven't really enjoyed the appearance of the hallucinatory Bumblebee in Starscream's head, but this volume intimates that Bumblebee's not a hallucination, but a manifestation of Bumblebee's actual spark, as Bumblebee was revealed to be alive trapped within a microsingularity in Transformers Annual 2017. (Which I didn't read, so thanks Transformers wiki!) Anyway, here he works more for me, not just because he's "real," but also because Starscream actually does develop thanks to his intervention... in his own way, at least. There's some nice stuff as Starscream does a good thing for selfish reasons (liberating Chromia), but also some outright awful stuff (playing the feelings of the Combaticons against each other, who turn out to be pretty cute even if I can't remember who they all are).

Starscream, why you gotta screw with the romantic fantasies of remorseless Decepticon killing machines?
from Transformers: Till All Are One #10

The next two issues reintroduce Windblade into the mix, as she battle some ancient Transformer evil in her mind (introduced in volume two, but I've already forgotten the details) and Starscream actually comes to her aid. Windblade ends up coming to his aid, however, and makes an important decision about how she's going to stop compromising herself all the time.

It actually gets genuinely touching, as Windblade realizes that Starscream has been continuously molded to meet the expectations of others ever since his creation. Starscream was constructed cold as one of many Seekers and has always been rebuilding his body in search of a true self he cannot find ever since. Windblade finds the traces of all those who have touched Starscream over the years on his spark, and forges him a model of his true self. It's a great, earned moment, that pays off four years of development for Windblade and at least eight for Starscream! It was here that I felt Till All Are One maximized its previously latent potential.

Go true Starscream!
from Transformers: Till All Are One #12

The final issue focuses on Windblade, as she competes with Starscream and Elita One for the position of civilian leader of Cybertron. It does a good job building on the previous issue to show Windblade's new perspective in action, and how it will help her help the people of Cybertron as they reunite and rebuild. I'm a little sad Till All Are One ended here, right as it hit its stride, but I'm also kind of glad it did, because it ends on a moment of hope and optimism for postwar Cybertron.

I'm down with any Transformers comic that makes a joke out of a remorseless Decepticon killing machine's preference for girly drinks.
from Transformers: Till All Are One Annual 2017

Since I'm not reading any IDW series other than Lost Light anymore, this is basically the last I'll see of the planet before the universe is rebooted/destroyed/whatevered in Unicron, and it's a tremendously fitting end for the beleaguered planet and its people in what surely must be the best version of the Transformers continuity there is.

Next Week: I'm actually all caught up on my Transformers comics (with the exception of the last span of issues of Lost Light, which I'll be reading as single issues, not books), so I'm going to go back and plug in some gaps. It was the beginning of the Great War, a time of... Monstrosity!

03 September 2018

Reading Roundup Wrapup: August 2018

Pick of the month: The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer. Even when I don't quite get it, Professor Palmer's Terra Ignota is compellingly readable. It's definitely not so much a series and much more one long novel in four long parts, so I look forward to seeing how it all winds down with the last installment in 2019.

All books read:
1. Star Trek: Discovery: Fear Itself by James Swallow
2. Transformers: Salvation by John Barber
3. Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 7 by Jim Shooter
4. Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume Three by Mairghread Scott
5. Terra Ignota, Book III: The Will to Battle: A Narrative of Events of the year 2454 by Ada Palmer
6. The Butcher of Anderson Station: A Story of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey
7. Bernice Summerfield XII: The Vampire Curse by Mags L Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip Purser-Hallard
8. The Transformers: Monstrosity by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille
9. The Transformers: Primacy by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille
10. Caliban’s War: Book Two of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey
11. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
12. Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue by Bill Watterson
13. The Forever Machine by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley

All books acquired:
1. The Forever Machine by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley
2. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 7: Tempest by Yoshidi Tanaka
3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 658 (down 1)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 15 (up 3)

It turns out that watching a newborn is nice for reading, but hard for reviewing. It's easier to read with a sleeping baby on your lap than it is to blog. (Though I am writing this with a sleeping baby on my lap!)

In other news: I have a reviews of Big Finish's most recent Paul McGann epic, The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 2, and of the series 10 Bernice Summerfield finale, Secret Origins, up at Unreality SF.