31 October 2018

Review: Bernice Summerfield: Present Danger edited by Eddie Robson

Reviewing a book tied into some audio dramas reminds me that I actually haven't cross-linked my audio reviews here of late; there have been three. "Flight into Hull!", a Doctor Who: Short Trip read by Camille Corduri, features Jackie Tyler and the "metacrisis" Doctor. The Root of All Rage is the second Star Trek: Prometheus audiobook, presenting the German 50th-anniversay special. And Jeremiah Bourne in Time is a new, original concept from Big Finish about a teenager travelling between contemporary and Edwardian London. (Quoth my editor when I submitted the last review: "'famous magistrate and infamous nudist' is a hell of a character description, I need to listen to these." Indeed he does and so do you.)

Hardcover, 208 pages
Published 2010
Acquired August 2015
Read October 2018
Bernice Summerfield XIV: Present Danger
edited by Eddie Robson

Present Danger fills in the gap between the audio dramas Resurrecting the Past and Escaping the Future. Partially it serves to just move characters into position (in Resurrecting, Benny and Hass are on Earth, but when Escaping opens, Benny is travelling through time to fight the Deindum with a restored time ring, while Hass is a Deindum prisoner on Maximediras), and partially it serves to dramatize the Deindum War more completely, since it's mostly off-stage in Escaping, but of great importance.

So, it's kind of like Life During Wartime, but it doesn't work quite as well. Life During Wartime felt like a novel by many hands, showing the progression of the Bernice Summerfield range's cast of characters during the months (and months?) of Fifth Axis occupation. Present Danger is more spotty-- it often feels like things that ought to have been dramatized are skipped over in favor of things that are less important. Like, there's no story about how Bev manages to take control back of the Braxiatel Collection, which ought to be a key character point, and the refugees crowding the Collection is referenced in Escaping, but that's dramatized here in only a very cursory way. It would have been nice to see this in Present Danger; instead, the most we get for Bev is a story by Niall Boyce, "The Empire Variations," where she witnesses a time travel adventure Benny has by seeing how works of art in the Collection change as history does. It's a neat conceit, but if the book was going to tell just one Bev story, it doesn't seem like this is the one.

This goes for a number of stories. Like, I enjoyed a lot of them, but they often seemed like sidebars to the Deindum War. It's neat to have a sequel to Battlefield in Jim Smith's "Excalibur of Mars," but should working Brigadier Bambera in really have been a priority of this collection? There are a few too many Benny-on-strange-adventures stories that are tenuously incorporated on the basis of Benny scouring time for weapons to use against the Deindum. That said, Jonathan Blum's "The End Times" is a great Benny-and-Peter tale in the way that only Jon Blum can do, and I was unexpectedly delighted by the return of the tax assessor from Venus Mantrap in Mark Clapham's "In the Ledgers of Madness," where a group of reclusive monks keep their books in an ancient, dangerous language so that anyone who tries to audit them will go mad.

The book's best stories are those that deal with the Deindum War and the characters more concretely. "Winging It" by Lance Parkin focuses on Braxiatel figuring out how to fight the Deindum through time, and it's a clever time war story that I really enjoyed. Kate Orman's "Don't Do Something, Just Sit There" of course is a winner, with Benny trying to protect an indigenous population as Earth and the Deindum duke it out. Simon Guerrier gives us some Doggles and Adrian in "Six Impossible Things," a potent combination given their history; there wasn't just the space for this reckoning in the audio dramas, so I'm glad to read it here. (Is Doggles the worst? Yes.)

LM Myles's "The Better Part of Valour," Oli Smith's "Digital Dreams," and editor Eddie Robson's Hass-focused interludes were among the other highlights. But if this collection was meant to make us feel the immensity of Deindum threat in preparation for Escaping the Future, it didn't quite accomplish that as well as it ought to have.

30 October 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Helana and the Beast by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 37 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read August 2017
Doctor Who: Helana and the Beast
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

The quality of these "Time Lord Fairy Tales" seems to vary pretty heavily to me, but they're probably really all about the same. I mean, they are all by the same guy and pretty much doing the same thing. I found this "Beauty and the Beast" riff one of the weaker efforts, a pretty ho-hum take on the original that makes Helana even less of an agent than Beauty was in the original story, basically just chilling out until the twelfth Doctor saves her and the Beast. But then she marries the Beast for some reason?

Next Week: Everyone's favorite aliens in Andiba and the Four Slitheen!

29 October 2018

Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Hardcover, 377 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)
Borrowed from a friend
Read December 2016
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I was moved to read this book by a review by Marah Gubar in Public Books. It's a very good review, so I recommend you read it if you're at all interested in this book, which is about a young Victorian girl named Faith whose father is a natural philosopher and minister caught up in a scandal of faking nephilim fossils. To avoid the effects of the scandal, the minister takes his household to a remote island, where he will ostensibly consult on matters archaeological. The beginning of the novel is fine, nothing special, but Hardinge needs this space to get all the pieces into position. When Faith's father dies and Faith discovers the eponymous lie tree, suddenly things kick into gear, and the book becomes compellingly readable. Faith takes desperate measures to locate her father's killer, and to protect the mendacity tree, which can reveal truths to those who sow lies. It's dark and beautiful and compelling; I stayed up late to finish it, and I was rewarded with every page.

Gubar covers the book's approach to science fairly well, which would normally be my go-to in a review, so I'll hit up a couple things. One thing that struck me was Faith's realization near the end of the book: "Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies." No one is the stereotype of their social role; everyone engages in their own small acts of defiance and selfhood. That's probably one of the biggest lessons Faith learns here, but it's a hard lesson to learn. It's also one of the biggest strengths of the book-- these are all complicated characters, with multiple motives jockeying for supremacy. No one is one-note.

Secondly, as Gubar says of the mendacity tree, "The sudden intrusion of this apparently fantastic element into a meticulously realistic historical fiction is profoundly destabilizing." She's right: it's the only fantastic element in an otherwise historical novel. But the mendacity tree worked for me, as it did for her. In addition to what she argues about it, I felt that the mendacity tree actually seemed very scientific in a sense. Faith has to tell lies in order to get truth out of the tree, so that the more truth she possesses, the more falsehoods exist in her social sphere. It has a very First Law of Thermodynamics feel to it: truth can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed. Increasing truth in one part of the system means it must be decreased in another. It's a very striking idea, and Hardinge weaves the mendacity tree right into the historical substance of her novel in a way that is utterly convincing.

One quibble: the word scientist is used a lot in this book, and I understand why, since it's what we're used to. But in the 1860s, when the book is set, natural philosopher or man of science would have been much more prevalent terms. Did you know Darwin never used the word scientist in his correspondence? And a Victorian minister, I think, would be even less likely to call himself a scientist than Darwin!

26 October 2018

Two New Publications: The First Female Scientist, Air-Ships, and More!

I literally had two pieces of writing come out in two days this week, even though I completed both of them back in 2017 at completely different times.

One is a peer-reviewed article in the Wilkie Collins Journal, part of a special issue called "The Heart and Science of Wilkie Collins and his Contemporaries." My contribution is about Wilkie Collins's novel Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time (1882-83). The novel's big but previously largely unheralded claim to fame (or so I assert) is that its main antagonist is the first female scientist in British literature.

I'm very happy with this article. It has its roots in a seminar paper I wrote in a Philosophy of Science graduate seminar back in 2011; this was revised to fit into my dissertation at some point, and then last summer, revised to come back out of it. I thought it would be an easy gig, but I basically had to rewrite the whole piece from the ground up to make it work. (One of my dissertation committee wrote a comment on that section of my diss that they found it unconvincing; I remember bristling at the time, but when I reread it last summer, I realized I agreed.) But I'm glad I did, as it's a much stronger piece, and hopefully I can fold it back into the book project, now a piece with a much clearer argument and a much more compelling interpretation of the novel.

The article is called "The Female Amateur Science and the Sense for Conduct in Heart and Science: Blind to Matter and Morals," but the most recent issue of the Wilkie Collins Journal is always password restricted to members of the Wilkie Collins Society, so you'll have to wait until another one is out to read it if you're not a member.

Here's the first two paragraphs, though:
The real nineteenth century was replete with women of science. From Mary Anning, the legendary fossil finder, to Hertha Marks Ayrton, the suffragist and electrical engineer, the role of women in the actual science of nineteenth-century Britain was substantial, and it has been well chronicled by many. However, fictional women of science are much thinner on the ground. While the man of science recurred through the novels of writers such as Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thomas Hardy from the 1850s onward, it was not until the 1890s that the literary woman of science made much of a mark, and then she was almost always a villain. The least evil of them is probably the amateur geologist Grace Waring in Kathleen ‘Iota’ Mannington Caffyn’s 1894 novel A Yellow Aster. Grace is one half of a science-obsessed married couple more interested in geology than parenting, and her emotional negligence causes her daughter to grow up incapable of love. Most of the women of science in 1890s literature were villains in scientific romances: George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff, or The Syren of the Skies (1895), T. Mullett Ellis’s Zalma (1896), and L. T. Meade’s The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1898) all have female terrorists with scientific training for antagonists. Susan Hroneck suggests that these novels ‘lack the means to conceptualize the woman scientist […] [T]he woman scientist is not linked with science’s fantastic future, but instead the villainous women of history and myth’ (par. 2). It is not until 1909, in H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica, that there is a non-villainous female scientist character of significance.

The earliest fictional woman of science is Mrs. Maria Gallilee in Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time (1882–83). Mrs. Gallilee is a self-educated scientific amateur, and an active participant in the scientific social scene of the 1880s. She is capable of performing dissections, and is well-versed on a range of scientific topics, from dinosaur dung to atmospheric explosions, from the theory of acoustics to protoplasm and the origins of life. Within the London scientific community, she is regarded highly both for her scientific opinions and her well-appointed scientific soirees. Much of the critical discussion of science in Heart and Science tends to focus on the novel’s vivisectionist, Dr. Nathan Benjulia—perhaps naturally, since Collins wrote the novel for the express purpose of condemning vivisection. Critics primarily discuss the novel’s female characters as Benjulia’s (potential) victims. But Benjulia usually lurks at the margins of the novel, while Mrs. Gallilee is its primary villain: its main plot, after all, is about Mrs. Gallilee’s attempts to obtain the inheritance of her niece, Miss Carmina Graywell, in order to help pay off her own debts.
I've previously explored some of the thinking that led to the article in posts on this blog:
I'll possibly write more about the writing process on this one at some point, as I think I learned something from doing it. It's probably the most comprehensive revision I've ever done of a piece of academic writing!

    One day later, I received word that The Companion to Victorian Popular Fiction was out. My contribution to this was much smaller; the book has 300+ entries on various aspects of Victorian popular fiction, and I wrote the one on George Griffith, who wrote a number of a future-war novels featuring both air-ships and sexy women with untold destructive capacity in the 1890s and 1900s. It's about half a page, but I think it came out nice. I use the space to sum up Griffith, but also kind of try to push for a bigger significance for him in the development of early science fiction. We'll see if anyone cares. (Weirdly, I'm sharing space with someone I knew from the Star Trek books bulletin boards of the 2000s, but now we're both Victorianists.)

    25 October 2018

    Review: The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade

    Kindle eBook, n.pag.
    Published 2006 (originally 1898)
    Read October 2018
    The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
    He brought out his microscope, which I saw, to my delight, was of the latest design, and I set to work at once, while he watched me with evident interest. At last the crucial moment came, and I bent over the instrument and adjusted the focus on my preparation. My suspicions were only too well confirmed by which I had extracted what I saw.
    I previously read an excerpt from The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings in The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories, but the whole thing is on Project Gutenberg. Brotherhood is actually very similar to Sorceress: a scientific man keeps running into the dastardly plans of a scientific woman taking London by storm, a woman both beautiful and vaguely occult. Brotherhood was serialized (in The Strand), but it's somewhere between a Charles Dickens novel and a Sherlock Holmes story. It's not one big story like a Dickens serial, but it's not a string of standalones like Doyle's Holmes stories.

    Rather, Norman Head (who studied physiology at Cambridge, but never qualified, and now does it out of sheer love) has a different encounter with some agent of Madame Koluchy's in each story. Sometimes he wins, sometime Koluchy wins, and the stories gradually chart their battle. It's like one of those tv series where the same bad guy is behind every plot, and sometime the situation changes, but mostly it remains static until the season finale.

    The stories are decent, if not great. Meade over-depends on characters giving long backstory dumps to one another, which sucks the tension out of some tales, but other I enjoyed. Most stories have some kind of scientific conceit at their heart, making them borderline science fiction or maybe technothrillers-- people killed with new disease strains, or burglars using pendulums, or a temperature-triggered explosive, or x-rays used as a weapon. (The book has a co-writing credit for Robert Eustance; Janis Dawson's introduction to Sorceress says this is Robert Eustace Barton, who provided Meade with medical/scientific information while she wrote the stories herself [19].)

    Madame Koluchy herself is kind of the best part. She's barely in the stories, usually working through agents, but that makes her all the more captivating. She's supposedly a scientist, and she does indeed invent things, but this is mostly what we're told about her. When we are actually shown her, her effect is more occult; she pulls people into her orbit with her beauty, and grants them what they desire if they help her advance the power of the Brotherhood of the Seven Kings. Boring old Norman Head (and his lawyer friend) are hardly worthy adversaries; Head used to be a member of the Brotherhood and in love with Koluchy, but it's hard to imagine this. A version of this with more Madame Koluchy, and more consistently intriguing and varied plots, would be a good book, but as it is, we have a pedestrian one with occasional flashes of interest.

    23 October 2018

    Review: Doctor Who: The Gingerbread Trap by Justin Richards

    Hardcover, 36 pages
    Published 2016 (originally 2015)

    Acquired February 2017
    Read August 2017
    Doctor Who: The Gingerbread Trap
    by Justin Richards
    illustrated by David Wardle

    The Krillitanes from "School Reunion" fit surprisingly well into "Hansel and Gretel": instead of eating them, the "witch" feeds the kids food cooked in Krillitane oil (chips, but they don't know it because it's medieval Europe) so that they can fix its spaceship. Once you realize that, nothing here will surprise you, but it's cute enough, and less of an awkward/random fit than, say, vampires and Cinderella.

    Next Week: A tale as old as time... Helana and the Beast!

    22 October 2018

    Review: The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer

    Trade paperback, 432 pages
    Published 2018 (originally 2017)

    Acquired July 2018
    Read August 2018
    Terra Ignota, Book III: The Will to Battle: A Narrative of Events of the year 2454
    by Ada Palmer

    The Terra Ignota books are odd. Great world-building, and in the case of this one, absolutely compelling reading. But if you asked me what happened that occupied over 400 pages, I would be hard-pressed to explain. A lot of people talk to each other about things, and it often feels like minor events are given lots of coverage, and important events happen offscreen, only by implication. Like, this one is about the world preparing for war in light of the revelations at the end of book III, and I loved the scenes of the world council meeting and debating the issues, complete with lots of juicy procedural detail. And then there are the 2454 Olympics at the end, which leads into some great developments. The role of the Utopians in the war is fascinating and excellent, and the end of the book is tragic and leaves you waiting for the next one so much. (Which is delayed. After three installments in two years, there's a two-year gap between the third and fourth installment. Understandable reasons, though.)

    But what actually happens in the middle? Lots of people talk about J. E. D. D. Mason, people talk about other things... and... uh? I don't really know, which makes me wonder if the book really had to be this long! Plus there are so many characters, and Palmer just throws you back into their world-- I had forgotten who a lot of them were in the eight months since I read Seven Surrenders. Thankfully a lot less time is spent on Madame and her brothel, which really dragged down Seven Surrenders.

    Still. What a great book. Utterly unlike any science fiction I've read in a long time, and with some great moral questions at its center, and Palmer has a way with deploying unexpected developments that seem completely natural in retrospect. I'm eager to see where this story goes in book IV, and how it can possibly be pulled together. Sticking the landing on this one will certainly be an incredible feat.

    19 October 2018

    You Can't Go There for the First Time Again

    Big Finish recently announced series 6 of its ongoing The Diary of River Song range. Like previous installments of their River Song range, it features River encountering an element from classic Doctor Who. This one has her becoming involved in the background to events we saw on screen; its four stories will include prequels to The Web of Fear (1968) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). Previous ones have seen her meet the eighth, seventh, sixth, fifth, and fourth Doctors, as well as four different Masters.

    I myself have beaten the drum against Big Finish's overreliance on continuity elements from the old show. At my other Internet home as an audio reviewer for Unreality SF, I am constantly complaining about Big Finish stories that bring back enemies or characters from old stories in ways that seem gratuitous or pointless. The last few months have seen WOTAN from The War Machines (1966) in Torchwood, Ogrons from Day of the Daleks (1972) in The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, the Kandyman from The Happiness Patrol (1988) in the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, and the Yeti and the Great Intelligence from The Abominable Snowmen (1967) in The New Counter-Measures. Except for the last one, it's hard for me to imagine who these combinations are supposed to appeal to, as they seem to combine mass appeal new series concepts with mediocre original series villains.

    I even keep a Google Doc charting what classic Doctor Who stories have Big Finish sequels. Of 146 stories that are not themselves sequels, 87 of them had had some kind of follow-up from Big Finish. That's 60%. This gets even worse when you drill down to specific eras; of 26 non-sequel stories broadcast 1973-78, fully 22 of them have had BF follow-ups. 85%!

    I'm not necessarily opposed to this, but the fact is that much of this stuff is mediocre. WOTAN is the weakest part of Torchwood One: Machines, the return of the Kandyman was largely botched, and the Yeti story is probably the worst Counter-Measures story Big Finish have ever done. The Ogron story does have some spark, I admit, though it's not as good as it could be.

    Now I myself am no stranger to continuity-heavy tie-in fiction. Those familiar with my brief, unlamented career as a professional writer of fiction will know that it began with a story entirely designed to reconcile an inconsistency between one tie-in novel and another, when no such explanation was needed. I have two defenses. One is that I think the story takes this apparent inconsistency and builds a real story on it. (In theory at least. Probably not in execution.) And the other is that there is no way I would write that story now if someone lost all sanity and asked me to write a Star Trek e-book.

    I was skimming the Twitter feed of John Dorney the other day; Dorney writes about one-third of Big Finish's output these days, and is responsible for writing the forthcoming River Song prequel to Web of Fear. Someone commented that they felt the River Song range was unoriginal, even by Big Finish's standards, and they had a little bit of back-and-forth about it. Here's what I see as the key bit:

    I mean, sure, he's right about Wide Sargassa Sea and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But Torchwood One: Machines: The Law Machines, Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 2: Planet of the Ogrons, Doctor Who: Ravenous 1: Sweet Salvation, and The New Counter-Measures: Series 2: Time of the Intelligence are hardly in the same league, are they?

    Big Finish isn't exactly producing bold literary rewritings of classics of British literature that play with our accepted ideas of canon and gender and race. They're plays where the Doctor bumps into an alien robot who looks like Bertie Bassett. And most of the time, they're less interesting than the originals. Dorney's right that sequels don't preclude originality; some of Big Finish's best stories are sequels. But stories like Omega, Davros, and Master, that tear apart their eponymous characters to see what make them work, are few and far between. Most Big Finish sequels give you the same thing you already saw before, only ground down slightly by a sense you've seen it all before. Because you have.

    In his history of sf, Trillion Year Spree, there's a bit where Brian Aldiss argues that originality is necessary to science fiction. I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but he essentially says that a sequel to Dune could be just as good as Dune in every way, but it still wouldn't be as good, because in Dune, Frank Herbert created a world, and in the sequels he only returned to one. There is an aspect that a sequel can just never have.

    It seems a bit disingenuous for Dorney to claim that he can't see the line between the fourth Doctor, Leela, and K9, and the fourth Doctor, Leela, K9, and the Daleks. The former group can go anywhere, can tell any kind of story. The latter group is locked into a much smaller possible range of stories. And possibly all kinds of crazy and interesting things could be done with them, but I've heard enough Big Finish to know that what comes out of my headphones when I plug in my iPod isn't going to be written by Tom Stoppard.

    16 October 2018

    Review: Doctor Who: Cinderella and the Magic Box by Justin Richards

    Hardcover, 37 pages
    Published 2016 (originally 2015)

    Acquired February 2017
    Read June 2017
    Doctor Who: Cinderella and the Magic Box
    by Justin Richards
    illustrated by David Wardle

    This is probably the straightest of these Doctor Who fairy tale adaptations yet: it's really just Cinderella as usual, with the eleventh Doctor in the fairy godmother role, plus some vampires and a peace treaty. Not the most interesting of these little tales.

    Next Week: Magic sliced fried potatoes (a.k.a. chips) in The Gingerbread Trap!

    15 October 2018

    Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

    Trade paperback, 384 pages
    Published 2017

    Acquired November 2017
    Read December 2017
    Terra Ignota, Book II: Seven Surrenders
    by Ada Palmer

    I really loved book I of Terra Ignota, Too Like the Lightning, and ranked it first on my ballot for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Had Seven Surrenders landed on the ballot for 2018, though, I don't think I would have ranked it so high. The joy of Too Like the Lightning was in the world it built, but the way Seven Surrenders develops swerves away from that aspect of TLTL. Palmer's semi-utopian future has "Hives" instead of nations as we understand them, voluntary associations, because in an era of instantaneous global transportation, who can enforce the borders of a traditional nation-state? But instead of focusing on the societies, Seven Surrenders doubles down on the people. A lot of the novel revolves around the political, sexual, and political/sexual intrigues of the Hive leaders... and I just really don't care about this at all. I kept losing track of who did what to whom, and I wasn't incentivized to spend the time to care. I feel like Palmer is creating a commentary here-- our societal aspirations will founder on the personal desires of the powerful-- but though the focus on personal lives might be justified, that doesn't make it interesting.

    The answers to the mysteries set up in TLTL are mostly interesting and satisfying, and the book's end promises an interesting set-up for book III. I will read The Will to Battle, but hopefully it's more in tune with what I enjoyed about book I.

    12 October 2018

    The Perils of Professionalization: The Tone-Deafness of NAVSA

    As this post goes up, I'm driving to the second day of NAVSA 2018 in St. Petersburg, the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association. It's my first time attending NAVSA, and my first year as a member of the organization in several years.

    I was a member of NAVSA for a few years in graduate school, though eventually I stopped applying because I was rejected pretty consistently; I think three times in a row. I'd like to think I am pretty good at writing conference abstracts, and never have I been rejected so consistently by a conference. I remember attending my first meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in graduate school, and during the banquet the president came over to where all the grad students were sitting and asked us what SFRA could do for graduate students. I told him that just by accepting graduate students (most of my friends were consistently rejected, too), SFRA was doing more for me than, say, NAVSA. Eventually I stopped re-upping my membership.

    The thing that really irritated me, though, was NAVSA 2013. A pretty common thing for academic organizations to do these days is to "professionalize" graduate students, which is a fancy way of saying that they try to give them tips on how to successfully navigate an increasingly terrible job market for humanities Ph.D.s, and so NAVSA 2013 was preceded by a professionalization workshop.

    For some reason, that year's meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association was held in Venice. The conference was June 3rd through 6th; the professionalization workshop was May 27th through 31st, plus June 7th.

    It cost $800!

    On top of whatever it costs to fly from North America to Venice (humanities Ph.D. students get very little travel funding), NAVSA was expecting them to pay almost a thousand dollars in order to hear tips on jobs they probably weren't going to get. I found that completely flabbergasting and completely unconscionable. It would have been a whole month's rent for me at the time.

    The cynic in me suspected the whole thing was to allow the workshop organizers and lecturers the luxury of extending their Venetian vacation. Nice work if you can get it.

    Fast forward to 2018; NAVSA is still doing "professionalization workshops," though this year they do not involve a five-day beach vacation, at least. This year's conference is preceded by a two-thirds-day session and followed by a half-day one, covering the material of the Venice workshop in about one-fifth of the time. As a result, it costs not $800, but $60.

    The workshop, however, is staffed by volunteers, so what does that $60 go to?

    Apparently, one boxed lunch and a coffee break! I get that conference venues charge ridiculous amounts of money for their food, but $60 for a shitty cashew chicken wrap served with (I assume) a bag of chips and a can of soda? Really? That's the best you could do for a bunch of graduate students who are probably paying for all of this out of pocket? The conference is in downtown St. Petersburg; any one of those students could walk out the doors of the Hilton and just buy a lunch and a coffee literally anywhere and pay less than $60.

    It's ridiculous that it should cost this much in general (at some conferences, $60 will get you a goddamn banquet), but it's completely tone-deaf to charge this to underfunded, underpaid, and underemployed graduate students. Like, give this to them for free and let them walk to McDonald's at lunchtime. Or pack some granola bars. These people will not get jobs. You do not need to charge them $60 for that privilege.

    I complained about this to a colleague, and she pointed out that the whole idea of "professionalization" was essentially bogus anyway. Because the real problem is not insufficiently "professional" Ph.D.s (though I have seen some pretty poor cover letters), but the dwindling number of full-time Ph.D.-level academic positions, and the persistence of Ph.D.-granting programs in producing graduates for whom jobs do not exist.

    According to its web page, my own alma mater produced fifteen Ph.D.s last year. Also, according to its web site, eight of them landed full-time jobs. Two of those were tenure-track. My program is one that trumpets its placement rate, too. That they produce a 50% excess of Ph.D.s is the problem, not "professionalization," and NAVSA is exploiting those desperate students' economic precarity with its continued stream of workshops.

    09 October 2018

    Review: Doctor Who: Little Rose Riding Hood by Justin Richards

    Hardcover, 36 pages
    Published 2016 (originally 2015)

    Acquired February 2017
    Read May 2017
    Doctor Who: Little Rose Riding Hood
    by Justin Richards
    illustrated by David Wardle

    If these stories really are Time Lord fairy tales, it seems to me that this one raises some existential issues: how can there be a fairy tale on Gallifrey that clearly features Rose Tyler and the ninth Doctor? (plus a Zygon and, of course, Bad Wolf) If the Doctor had remembered this one during the tv programme (as he did some others during "Night Terrors"), I feel like some confusing things would have resulted. The po-faced TARDIS wiki, of course, just categorizes this story's Rose as "Rose (Little Rose Riding Hood)," with scarcely a mention of who the character actually is. Richards does do a good job capturing the voice of Christopher Eccleston.

    Next Week: Night and day it's Cinderella and the Magic Box!

    08 October 2018

    Review: "The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton by Kate Colquhoun

    Hardcover, 303 pages
    Published 2006 (originally 2003)

    Acquired April 2009
    Read November 2017
    "The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary
    by Kate Colquhoun

    This was a fascinating biography of Joseph Paxton, who began as a working-class gardener on a country estate and ended up designing the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition and serving as Member for Parliament. Kate Colquhoun has little to say about Joseph Paxton's origins, because the details are sketchy, but once he's older, he apprentices at the Horticultural Society, and then he is hired as head gardener by William Cavendish, Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Paxton was an intelligent, enthusiastic man whose enthusiasms fed into a positive feedback loop with the Duke. Basically, anything Paxton wanted to do with the estate, the Duke would pay for. They amassed a huge collection of orchids, racing others to cultivate and flower species new to England. Paxton got the first Victoria regia (a giant water lily several meters wide) to flower, and was also the first person to cultivate a banana in England. The bananas we eat today are the Cavendish bananas, named after Paxton's patron.

    Paxton taught himself architecture to build new glasshouses for the Duke's collection, and he put in a proposal for the building to house the Great Exhibition. This thrust him into the national spotlight, and soon he was designing public parks, on the boards of railway corporations, standing for Parliament, creating a daily newspaper edited by Charles Dickens, and organizing relief efforts in the Crimea! Colquhoun's account of his rise is a fascinating look at a fascinating life, and she peppers the book with little human details ably, especially the stories of Paxton and the Duke's appreciation for each other and for plant life. Their enthusiasm for rare plants is infectious even through the printed page. I loved her accounts of Victoria's two visits to the Duke's estate, one as a young princess, one with Albert in tow. The Duke of Wellington thought Paxton's gardeners so well organized that he said Paxton would have made a good general!

    Arguably, the Victorian period was the first time we really became conscious that we were moving into the future, and Paxton was one of the people trying to design that future. "The Busiest Man in England" is a great story in itself, and also filled with connections to other stories of the nineteenth century: I was pleased to see, for example, that Jane Loudon (author of The Mummy!: A Story of the Twenty-Second Century) got a couple mentions, and Paxton's life brought him into contact with Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Tenniel, and many other familiar names. A nice personal story from my favorite period of history.

    05 October 2018

    From Hawkworld to Hawkworld: Thanagar to Earth

    DC's 1989 Hawkworld miniseries (a.k.a. Hawkworld vol. 1) was followed by an ongoing series that ran from 1990 to 1993 (a.k.a. Hawkworld vol. 2). The original mini was written and pencilled by Timothy Truman, with inks by Enriqué Alcatena; Truman stepped back for this series, co-writing its first nine issues and pencilling its last three. All thirty-two of its issues (plus its three annuals) were written by John Ostrander, who I know best as a consistent presence in Dark Horse's Star Wars comics (scripting Clone Wars, Legacy, Agent of the Empire, and Dawn of the Jedi, among many others).

    The Hawkworld mini was an origin story for Katar Hol, one that didn't actually see him assume the role or title of Hawkman, as the story was set entirely on Thanagar. It ended with a set-up for the series to come: the treasonous Commander Byth had escaped with a shape-shifting drug to a small blue planet. In the Hawkworld ongoing, Katar and his new partner, Shayera Thal, are sent to that small blue planet (i.e., Earth, duh) to track down Byth, but also help the Thanagarian ambassador to Earth repair relations between Earth and Thanagar. (During the ten years that elapsed during the middle of the mini, when Katar was in exile, Thanagar was among the alien planets that banded together to attack the Earth in Invasion!)

    I think the ending of the mini put the ongoing in a difficult bind. Truman's conclusion to the mini promises a trip to Earth, yes, but the mini also did a great job establishing Thanagar as a place with a story of its own to tell. A decadent aristocracy, an oppressed underclass imported from conquered planets, an increasingly brutal police force, the first rumblings of a resistance movement. The ongoing needs to not just send Katar and Shayera to Earth, but also to keep them on Thanagar, if it's really going to deliver on all the potential of the mini's conclusion.

    Ostrander and Truman actually manage to balance this really well. Of course, Katar and Shayera travel to Earth, take up residence in Chicago, and become known as superheroes. But though they bring Thanagarian artifacts for a museum exhibit, that's not the only form of cultural exchange; Katar finds himself entranced with American liberal, democratic values, seeing them as a solution to the problems plaguing Thanagar. The "Hawkworld" of the original's title obviously referred to Thanagar, but the ongoing justifies the move to Earth by expanding the meaning of the word. It's a world where the strong prey on the weak, and Katar and Shayera soon realize that despite the values it holds, Earth can be one of those too.

    The series overall does a good job of balancing ongoing adventures on Earth with those back on Thanagar, as the characters make a number of trips back and forth for various reasons. We continue to see the free medical clinic Katar funds on Thanagar, and the Thanagarian government gets more and more worried about a potential rebellion, which eventually culminates in the Escape from Thanagar! storyline in issues #21-25.

    Though Ostrander is one of those writers who excels at comic book plotting (each individual issue has a real story to it; each issue adds up to a bigger story, too), the main characters themselves are the real highlight of Hawkworld. Katar is a man of principle trying to make up for past mistakes, but often too much of an idealist to act quickly. Shayera is young and sure of herself, and quickly forms fierce loyalties. I liked both characters, but I loved Shayera. I'm glad that Ostrander (and Mike Gold, editor on issues #1-25) acknowledged that the series was not called Hawkman by keeping the focus on both characters pretty much equally. I'm disappointed to know that when Hawkworld was cancelled, it was replaced in short order by a series called Hawkman, which I assume means a reduced role for Shayera.

    The art is strong, too. Truman's good of course (though his art style is more conventional here than the painterly one from vol. 1), but the majority of the series is by Graham Nolan, who both pencilled and inked issues #1-4, 6, 14-19, and 21, and also pencilled most other issues with various fill-in inkers. He's one of those artists I struggle to speak to, because he doesn't have a flashy style: he just competently does his thing, month in and month out. The storytelling is always clear. Jan Duursema steps in to pencil issues #27-29. Her work her is okay but sometimes unclear, but her and Ostrander would go on to be long-time collaborators, especially on Star Wars comics, where she is great. I'm pretty sure this is the first time they ever worked together.

    There are a lot of highlights to the series. I'm glad the Byth plotline wasn't overextended. I appreciate the series's embeddedness in real social issues (typical of Mike Gold's editorial work: see Mike Grell's Green Arrow run, which he also edited). I liked the use of the original Carter Hall Hawkman to occasionally invoke the mythos of the JSA. I liked that what could have been grim often had a nice sense of humor and a lightness of touch. I liked the ties into the bigger DC universe, including recurring appearances from Weng Chen, formerly Blackhawks's "Chop-Chop" (another Gold-edited title). I liked the large cast around the Hawks: in addition to Weng, there's the Thanagarian ambassador to Earth, various staff and donors to the Chicago museum, a young black woman and her son who move in with the Hawks, the Hawks' PR man, a couple reporters, and several cops. Things like this help keep the series grounded and real.

    It's not all good. The original Hawkworld was agnostic on when it took place-- it could have all been a lead-in to the Silver Age Hawkman's first appearance in The Brave and the Bold vol. 1 #34 (Feb./Mar. 1961), just like how Batman: Year One established a new, modern origin for Batman, but set it many years in the past. But the ongoing firmly establishes that Katar and Shayera visit Earth in the "present" of the DC universe, "wiping out" all the adventures of the Silver Age Hawkman from 1961 to 1989. I think this was the right call: it's hard to imagine how the ideas introduced by Truman in the mini could have been as relevant if the ongoing had established that the Hawks first came to Earth fifteen years prior. Like, I want to see Katar discover the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and begin rethinking his entire way of life, and I want to see him funding his insurrection back home.

    But it definitely does create some problems, which cause tons of people to write into the lettercols, and worse, the story itself has to answer them. I don't mind a little bit of retconning, but at times, too much space and energy is given over to them. Like, no retcon will be completely elegant; I feel like Ostrander should have tossed something out that kind of worked overall (as he did in Hawkworld Annual #1) and ignored the details. Not all of them add up: it always felt kind of lame how it was established that Katar's dad had had a secret trip to Earth, and nothing can explain away why the Golden Age Hawkman is named Carter Hall with a wife named Shiera, while the new Hawkman in a complete coincidence is named Katar Hol with a partner named Shayera.

    However, people couldn't accept the retcon in all its details and kept writing in with objections to the retcon, and little extra details kept being doled out to fix those objections, and at a certain point, my reaction is, Stop poking at it, you're making it worse. At least, though, Ostrander usually does a good job of making the retcons relevant to the story, rather than having them just to have them. (Escape from Thanagar! makes up a whole extra Hawkman to plug a gap between from 1986 to 1989, but also has this extra Hawkman turn up to murder Shayera.)

    The comic also begins to lose its way near the end, which I suspect is due to the fact that Archie Goodwin replaced Mike Gold as editor, and probably brought with him a new set of priorities. Escape from Thanagar! is a great story, and probably the highlight of the whole run, but it definitely wraps up a number of ongoing plots too quickly, and once it's over, a number of recurring side characters vanish. There's also a costume change around this time I didn't really care for.

    The whole Hawkworld series wraps up with the six-part Flight's End (#27-32), which starts off well: the idea that the U.S. won't accept refugees, and that someone is stirring up racial animus while denying they're doing so is disappointingly topical for 2018 even though it was published in 1992. But then the story lurches into, like, dirty, punky 1990s stuff. I don't have a word for the aesthetic, but it was everywhere in early 1990s comics (it also ruined Alpha Flight, well, except that Alpha Flight was already ruined): lots of bad guys who look like KISS and are very "eXtreme"!

    It transitions the comic from social relevance into something pretending to be edgy but really only banal, and it doesn't bode well for when I eventually pick up the successor series, the retooled Hawkman. I read Hawkworld because of my interest in DC's space-based comics, but the tail end of Hawkworld is clearly pulling back from those space elements that made Hawkworld interesting to me in the first place, and I suspect the title change will unfortunately cement that. (I don't have much of a sense what Hawkman vol. 3 is like. You can find a lot of write-ups on the Internet about the Hawkworld ongoing, but Hawkman vol. 3 is usually only mentioned for the bare fact of its existence.)

    Still, the late 1980s and early 1990s were one of DC's most creatively fertile periods, and Hawkworld is a shining example of the kind of unusual, interesting work the publisher was able to do in that era.

    Previous Overviews of 1980s/90s Space-Based DC Ongoings:

    04 October 2018

    Review: Eugenic Feminism by Asha Nadkarni

    Hardcover, 264 pages
    Published 2014
    Borrowed from the library
    Read September 2018
    Eugenic Feminism: Reproductive Nationalism in the United States and India
    by Asha Nadkarni

    I found the idea of this book really intriguing: Nadkarni traces the relationship between feminism and eugenics across the twentieth century in the literature of the U.S. and in India. Many prominent feminists were eugenicists in both countries, and I imagine that the potential for seeing how scientific concepts influenced human rights discourse would be quite strong. Unfortunately, I don't think the book ever really coheres into a strong narrative. It's more a series of observations on various aspects of women, eugenics, and literature, but I was never convinced of the idea that there was a "eugenic feminism" strand running through literature in either country. Like, the discussion of Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve has potential, but I never saw the eugenics in it. The strongest part of the book was the discussion of Katherine Mayo's book Mother India (1927), which seemed to fuse feminist rhetoric and anti-immigrant rhetoric to argue in favor of American isolationism.

    02 October 2018

    Review: Doctor Who: Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomdsay by Justin Richards

    Hardcover, 36 pages
    Published 2016 (originally 2015)

    Acquired February 2017
    Read April 2017
    Doctor Who: Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday
    by Justin Richards
    illustrated by David Wardle

    This is one of the fairy tales that inspired this whole set: in "Night Terrors," the Doctor tells a kid, "When I was your age, about, ooo, a thousand years ago, I loved a good bedtime story. 'The Three Little Sontarans.' 'The Emperor Dalek's New Clothes.' 'Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday,' eh? All the classics." That last one being a reference to not just "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," but also the stageplay Doctor Who and the Daleks: Seven Keys to Doomsday. This book is kind of like Seven Keys to Doomsday or maybe more the 1964 serial The Keys of Marinus, in that the activation keys to a deadly weapon have been hidden across a planet. However, even considering this is a 36-page fairy tale, the way Snow White recovers them feels a little too easy to be convincing.

    Bizarrely, four years before he wrote this, Justin Richards wrote a completely different story with the same title, for Doctor Who: The Official Annual 2012. More here.

    Next Week: My, what big teeth you have: Little Rose Riding Hood!

    01 October 2018

    Reading Roundup Wrapup: September 2018

    Pick of the month: Ms. Marvel Omnibus, Vol. 1 by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, Jacob Wyatt, Elmo Bondoc, et al. It's a short reading month for me, but I still feel comfortable picking this. The best ongoing superhero comic on the stands.

    All books read:
    1. Bernice Summerfield XIII: Secret Histories edited by Marc Clapham
    2. Ms. Marvel Omnibus, Vol. 1 by G. Willow Wilson, with Mark Waid and Dan Slott & Christos Gage
    3. Cosmic Odyssey: The Deluxe Edition by Jim Starlin
    4. Eugenic Feminism: Reproductive Nationalism in the United States and India by Asha Nadkarni
    5. The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990 edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery with Karen Joy Fowler

    I was slowed down by the fact that I am currently reading a DICKENS NOVEL, but hopefully I can pick up the pace some next month. Not an auspicious beginning to my reading year!

    All books acquired:
    1. Cosmic Odyssey: The Deluxe Edition by Jim Starlin

    Books remaining on "To be read" list: 656 (down 2)
    Books remaining on "To review" list: 8 (down 7)