13 December 2019

The MICE Quotient in the Science Fiction Creative Writing Classroom

I've been teaching a science fiction creative writing class this semester, and it's definitely testing the limits of my pedagogy: I have a formula and structure for teaching both academic writing and literature at this point, but I've never really thought about how to teach the writing of stories before. What do you actually do in class? Beats me.

I used a textbook to guide me and give structure to the class, but I ended up not liking it very much. What I did find myself doing was googling around and coming up with writings by working sf authors and using them as the basis for lessons. If I got to teach this class again, I would probably make my own "textbook" by assembling them into a course packet or something, and in the future, I'll probably spend a blog post detailing the ones I found most interesting and helpful.

Tayler, Sanderson, and Kowal
from Medusa's Library
One thing I found myself doing a lot was skimming the transcripts of the podcast Writing Excuses for ideas. A weekly podcast now in its fourteenth season, Writing Excuses is co-hosted by Brandon Sanderson (my sister's favorite fantasy writer), Mary Robinette Kowal (author of this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel winner), Dan Wells (who I had never previously heard of), and Howard Tayler (creator of Schlock Mercenary, one of the most unfunny and uninteresting webcomics I have ever read; regardless, it was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story five times). Each episode is a twenty-minute discussion of a topic and includes a book recommendation and a writing prompt; I pinched from those writing prompts a lot.

I became curious if they had published a textbook or something similar. Amazon brought me to Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, a collection of four short stories by the four co-hosts. What makes it interesting, though, is that in addition to the finished short stories, it also includes transcripts of brainstorming sessions (originally aired as Writing Excuses episodes), early drafts, transcripts of workshop sessions, "Track Changes" comparisons between drafts, and essays about the writing process. I'll review it in a future blog post; what I want to focus on now is a concept I learned from reading the transcripts.

from Mary Robinette Kowal's site

The MICE Quotient

The "MICE Quotient" is a coinage of Orson Scott Card, from his book Characters & Viewpoint, which I haven't read, so I can only give you my take on other people's takes. The web site for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas has a particularly useful breakdown. Basically, Card claims all stories balance four factors, but are primarily one of the four types:
  • MILIEU: Stories of place and environment. This is a story that focuses on a setting; it begins when the character enters the setting, and ends when they leave, and a large part of the interest for the reader is in the setting. A lot of portal fantasies are milieu stories: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

    Out of my own recent reading, I would say the 1900 novel Stringtown on the Pike: A Novel of Northernmost Kentucky is a milieu story; though it obviously includes the three other factors, the purpose of the story is (as indicated by the title) to introduce the reader a particular place at a particular time: Florence, Kentucky, during and after the Civil War.
  • IDEA: Stories of problems that have to be solved. A lot of mysteries fall into this category; so do those (mostly now perceived as old-style, I suspect) sf stories where someone has to cleverly science their way out of a science dilemma in a scientifically plausible way.

    Of what I've read recently, I actually think a lot of the Hornblower stories would qualify: Lord Hornblower, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies (among others, I'm sure) all have parts where Hornblower is thrust into a tricky situation, and reasons his way out of it: how does he take down a group of mutineers without force? how does he survive a duel when he's really a quite awful shot? how can he stop a group of French loyalists from freeing Napoleon with just his wits? Hornblower's character, though fascinating, only exists as a vehicle for the idea stories.
  • CHARACTER: Probably self-explanatory: stories where the focus is on the characters (as opposed to the other ones on this list, where the characters are just there to get you to the milieu, idea, or event). In a character story, the character needs to (though they might not succeed in) changing something about themselves.

    Probably the easiest to find examples of in my own reading, especially in highbrown sf and literary fiction: Ancillary Justice, Kowal's own Lady Astronaut books, Heinlein's Double Star, the Murderbot Diaries, are all examples of character stories.
  • EVENT: These are more plot-driven stories. An event happens, and the characters have to react to it. The way the Gunn Center site puts it is pretty clear: "Although events happen in every story, the world in an Event Story is out of whack. It is out of order; unbalanced. An Event Story is about the struggle to re-establish the old order or to create a new one."

    I actually just finished a really good example of an event story: The Walking Dead. The series begins with the world going out of whack (a zombie outbreak); it ends when the situation is resolved, and a new, stable society is establishes, largely zombie-free.
The thing that makes the MICE Quotient useful is that it makes you aware that stories are a contract with your reader. The beginning of the story signals what kind of story it is, and the end of the story has to fulfill that promise. You can't have a story that begins with a murder mystery and ends with the protagonist fixing her relationship with her mother; you've swapped an idea story for a character story there. The two can co-exist, of course, but you can't break the promise you made when you opened your story with a dead body.

a nesting mouse
photo by Brianna Gaskill, from SCOPE 10K

Nesting MICE

Mary Robinette Kowal has built on Card's basic idea. (I think this is her addition, anyway.) I can't find a succinct write-up of it on her own site, but the blogger Wendy Barron wrote up her notes from attending a workshop run by Kowal. The idea is that, especially in short fiction, the different factors nest within each other, and operate kind of like HTML codes, on a FILO system: "first in, last out."

So say you want to write a murder mystery where the detective also has a strained relationship with her mother. If you open with the dead body, you've begun an idea story: <i>. Then, later, you introduce the relationship issue: <c>. That means that the very last thing you must do is resolve the idea story, so you must resolve the character story first: </c></i>. On the other hand, if you want the detective's relationship to be the focus, but also to have a murder mystery, you need to begin with a character problem and end with a resolution to it, with the murder mystery being introduced second and resolved first: <c><i></i></c>. What you can't do is open with the character crisis and end with the solution to the mystery, because then the story you promised your reader ends but things keep on going: <c><i></c></i>.

The nesting can get complicated if you want. Barron's write-up gives the example of The Wizard of Oz (the film, not the novel), which I've paraphrased for you:
  • <c> Dorothy is dissatisfied with home.
    • <e> Dorothy runs away.
      • <m> Dorothy ends up in Oz.
        • <i> Dorothy needs to find a route home.
        • </i> Dorothy is told how the Ruby Slippers work.
      • </m> Dorothy leaves Oz.
    •  </e> Dorothy returns home.
  • </c> Dorothy accepts there's no place like home.
In my ALL CAPS bit, you could expand: there are lots of <i>s and <e>s nested within there: how will they convince the Wizard is an idea story, with how will they kill the Wicked Witch of the West? another <i> within that one, and within that, the event story of Dorothy being captured by the Wicked Witch! And once the convincing-the-Wizard <i> is closed out by Toto's inadvertent discovery, a new <e> is soon opened up by his balloon accidentally flying away.

Though I think the FILO nest definitely applies to the outermost code, I'm not entirely convinced it has to all the way down: it seems to me that in a novel, you could introduce a character sub-story, introduce an idea sub-story, then resolve the character sub-story, then resolve the idea sub-story, as long as the whole set was nested in something else. But despite the Wizard of Oz example, Kowal is mostly focusing on short fiction.

Using the MICE Quotient

So, after I paused reading Shadows Beneath to figure all that out (the book mentions the MICE Quotient a couple times, but doesn't explain it), I thought, "Well, that's neat... but is it true?" Which is to say, lots of people will give you formulas and ideas about writing, but no matter how neat they sounds, they're totally useless if they don't lead to you writing better stories.

I read Shadows Beneath over Thanksgiving break, and the week we came back, I was meeting with my creative writing students one-on-one to discuss their final stories. They had all previously submitted rough drafts, which had been workshopped by the class; now, they were meeting with me to discuss their revised drafts in anticipation of submitting final drafts the following week.

On my first day of conferences, I found myself explaining the MICE Quotient three different times because it allowed me to name structural problems that were working against my students. I think I would have known something was wrong with out it, but the MICE Quotient was very helpful for labeling what it was quickly and easily. I'll give some examples, kept vague for my students' sake.

For the rough draft, one had turned in the opening of a story about a guy isolated by himself, a person apparently full of self-loathing. Then, something happens that break that isolation, and he has a problem to solve. The story ended when he solved the problem. But the ending didn't satisfy, because the character issues hadn't really wrapped up; essentially he'd begun a character story, but ended an event one: <c><e></e>. So my suggestion wasn't a whole-scale rewrite, but another scene or scenes that wrapped up the issues of isolation the first few pages had focused on.

Another had written a story that opened with a dramatic murder, and then jumped forward several years to explore the effects on the victim's daughter. She wanted to know if the murderers had to come back. (There had been mixed opinions on this during the workshops.) My argument was that if the story opened with the murder, then yes, they ought to, because the opening would lead us to expect an event story. But if the story opened with the daughter several years later, then we would know it was a character story about the way this was affecting her life. She opted, in the interests of time, to go with the character story, as telling the event story would take more words and thus more time... and after all, it was almost finals week. I kinda feel like this is a shame, because I really liked how she wrote the opening, but I guess that's the kind of thing you gotta do in writing.

Another student had fundamentally written an idea story, about an inventor trying to get an invention to work, but the response to it had been muted: there wasn't a strong "hook" to get the reader involved; the "stakes" were abstract as we were often just told that people out there were suffering. The class had suggested adding another character that we actually met who was experiencing the problem themselves. In my conference, I suggested this new character should go in the first scene to make the stakes clear: but the MICE Quotient led me to realize that the story then couldn't end with the main character finally getting the technology to work, but with the side character's problem being resolved: <c><i><e></e></i></c> is probably how you would diagram out the resulting final draft, though I would argue that it's fundamentally an idea story, so I don't know if I made the right suggestion there or not.

So, I think on the whole, the MICE Quotient was a surprisingly useful concept for working with short fiction, and if I ever teach creative writing again, I will have to make use of it more than dropping it on some students during individual conferences. For starters, I will need to track down the actual place where Orson Scott Card actually writes about it himself, instead of relying on other people's interpretations!

Works Cited

Barrron, Wendy. "Short Fiction, MICE Quotient, and Nesting Codes." Wendy Barron Editorial Services, 3 Feb. 2015, www.wendybarron.com/2015/02/short-fiction-mice-quotient-and-nesting-codes.
"FILO." TechTerms: The Tech Terms Computer Dictionary, Sharpened Productions, 7 Aug. 2014, techterms.com/definition/filo.
Glassman, Sara. "Writing Excuses Retreat Recap." Medusa's Library, 6 Oct. 2014, medusaslibrary.com/2014/10/06/writing-excuses-retreat-recap.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. "I Am 49 Today! Have a Story and My Process as a Party Favor." Mary Robinette Kowal, 8 Feb. 2018, maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/i-am-47-today-2.
"The MICE Quotient." Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, University of Kansas, 27 Sept. 2016, www.sfcenter.ku.edu/Workshop-stuff/MICE-Quotient.htm.
Richter, Ruthann. "Stanford Researcher's Easy Solution to Problem of Drug Testing in Mice." SCOPE 10K, Stanford Medicine, 30 Mar. 2012, scopeblog.stanford.edu/2012/03/30/stanford-researchers-easy-solution-to-problem-of-drug-testing-in-mice.

11 December 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman Supplement: The Harvest

"Seeds" / The Harvest, Parts One–Three and Conclusion

Action Comics vol. 1 #801-05 (May-Sept. 2003)

Writer: Joe Kelly
Pencillers: Tom Raney, Tom Derenick, and Pascual Ferry

Inkers: Walden Wong, Bob Petrecca & Norm Rapmund, and Cam Smith
Guest Artist: Jason Pearson
Colorists: Gina Going and Guy Major
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer jr
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Up until now I've only read the other Super titles when they directly crossed over with Adventures of Superman. However, since I was already planning on reading two storylines guest starring Traci Thirteen, Lost Hearts and Supergirls (Action #806-08), I decided it made sense to read the storyline she appeared in between those two, The Harvest, in Action Comics. Plus I really liked the look of the covers. So I took a side-step away from Joe Casey to see what the other Joe was up to...

from Action Comics vol. 1 #801
(art by Tom Raney & Walden Wong)
The first issue, "Seeds" (Action #801), is a prologue about people all across the United States spontaneously becoming metahumans. Superman has to deal with people suddenly gaining powers they can't control. It's an okay story: I liked that the plot of the issue turned on Superman inspiring a scared kid to live up to Superman's legacy, and use his seemingly monstrous powers for good.

At the end of the issue, it's discovered that this was a targeted attack. Less than a month later is when "The Harvest, Part One" (Action #802) picks up, with the discovery that the perennial DC "rogue nation" of Bialya is at fault. (The Hollow Men story in Adventures #614-16 takes place during these weeks, and Superman reminds President Luthor about its events here. Not sure about this editorial choice to have the storylines overlap: surely so many Americans getting superpowers undermines the excitement of finding a community where everyone has superpowers!) Superman goes to Bialya to investigate, but discovers that General Zod, the Pokolistani general, has devastated the nation already.

A solution to the crisis of rampant superpowers is devised: Superman and Zod purposefully work together to turn the sun red to neutralize all the superpowers until the mutations can be reversed. At first people think Zod died and Superman lived, but it turns out that Zod surgically altered himself to look like Superman and switched places with him, so now Zod is the only powered metahuman, and he conquers the world.

Honestly, it's all a bit much. There's probably a good story to be told about Superman dealing with an outbreak of superpowers; this isn't it. There's probably a good story to be told about Superman purposefully turning Earth's sun red; this isn't it. It's one of those stories that moves too quickly to actually engage with anything. The events here should be hugely consequential, but are anything but. It's spectacle without substance.

from Action Comics vol. 1 #803 (art by Pascual Ferry & Cam Smith)
The main thing it accomplishes is to establish a relationship between the Pokolistani Zod and the Kryptonian Zod, but why do I care if this version of Zod is just a snarling monster, with none of the awesome severity of the film version. And it didn't matter in the end, anyway. Nine months after this storyline ended, a new, properly Kryptonian General Zod was introduced in For Tomorrow. And then just eighteen months after that storyline ended, a new new properly Kryptonian General Zod was introduced in Last Son. (DC keeps trying to translate the import of Terence Stamp to the comics page and largely failing; almost all of the comics takes on Zod have been damp squibs.)

Oh, and if Superman is a pacifist now, as per Adventures #616, there's no evidence of it here, as he reacts in anger to finding out about Bialya's involvement, and punches his way to victory over Zod!

As for Traci Thirteen? She has two small cameos, just establishing the she's moved from D.C. to Metropolis in order to set up Supergirls. She looks weird, which I thought was a thing penciller Pascaul Ferry was doing on purpose, but then when Lois Lane turns up in "The Harvest: Conclusion" (Action #805), she also looks weird, because Ferry apparently just doesn't know how to draw bangs. So reading it turned out not to be a particularly worthwhile endeavor. Oh well, such is life as a fan of shared-universe comics.


10 December 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Silent Weapons

Mass market paperback, 340 pages
Published 2012

Acquired June 2017
Read July 2019
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations, Book II: Silent Weapons
by David Mack

March 2384
There's something to be said for defying expectations. Fiction can't always go the way you predict, otherwise you might as well not bother to read the actual stories. After The Persistence of Memory, I predicted the next book would dive into Data's new quest indicated at the end of book I, to resurrect Lal, and that some of the backstory from Immortal Coil would come into play.

Instead, we get a political thriller that feels only very tenuously linked to the first book. Sure, the villains are using Soong-type android, but it verges on maguffin; this book doesn't really explore any ideas of artificial life. Sure, Data is back... but he spends half the book locked up in jail, and we get, I think, just two scenes written from his perspective. Why bring him back and then do almost nothing with him?

If you're going to defy expectations, the defiance has to be worth it. It has to in some way be better than what your reader expected. Unfortunately, Silent Weapons is pretty boring. Yes, technically, the political future of the Typhon Pact and the Khitomer Accords is at stake... but that was true two books ago, and three books ago, and four books ago. The Enterprise crew spends a lot of time investigating, but the questions are so murky, it's hard to care about the answers. It just feels like they go around in circles getting nowhere for a long time before things even vaguely begin to clear. Add to that that Mack's Breen characters feel like they run straight into Russell Davies's planet Zog problem, where you have a bunch of people with weird names and no personalities. (The contrast to how Brinkmanship gave personalities to a bunch of Tzenkethi with equally weird names is sharp.)

The big event, such as it is, is the death of Esperanza Piñiero, President Bacco's chief of staff introduced back in A Time for War, A Time for Peace. I always liked her, especially when written by Keith DeCandido, and was bummed to see her turned into cannon fodder to prove the situation was serious. So far this trilogy is two for two on bumping off significant women characters. Who will buy it in book III?

I guess it's just weird, because in the Acknowledgments, Mack thanks Jeffrey Lang for writing Immortal Coil because "[m]any of this trilogy's coolest ideas either originated in that book, or else would not have been possible without it to build upon," but there aren't really any cool ideas here, Mack's or Lang's. Maybe this book is setting up some interesting stuff to come in The Body Electric, but as it is, it feels like a pointless political sidestep away from the core idea of the trilogy.

Continuity Notes:
  • I assume that the thing the whole big plot turns out to be about at the end is a reference back to Rise Like Lions? I barely remember Rise Like Lions at this point.
  • There are references back to the Typhon Pact's dastardly plots from Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn... but not Brinkmanship. Brinkmanship came out a month before Persistence of Memory, but given David Mack had to write a whole trilogy and Una McCormack a single novel, I assume books I and II, at least, were finished significantly before Brinkmanship was. This would also account for why Glinn Dygan feels out of character, not as serious as the earnest young man we saw in Brinkmanship.
  • The short account of La Forge's recent career, including new position as second officer, makes it clear that no such book as Indistinguishable from Magic ever took place, as does La Forge's continued relationship with totally non-entity Tamala Harstad. (No one's ever even bothered to write her a Memory Beta entry in over eight years.)
  • Starfleet officers have photo IDs they can flash. Who knew? Memory Alpha tells me they were seen on screen just twice, in "Mudd's Passion" and The Voyage Home.
Other Notes:
  • It's neat that Chen gets to command the Enterprise and face down the Gorn... but odd that this scene doesn't draw at all on Chen's expertise with alien cultures. These books always say she's a contact specialist, but does she ever do it?
  • Whenever this book moves to discussing Rene, it feels as though as it is written by someone whose entire understanding of children comes only from reading a developmental psychology textbook.
  • There's a weird three-scene subplot about Crusher thinking of leaving the Enterprise that is so underdeveloped I'm not sure why it's even there.

09 December 2019

Hugos 1956: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Trade paperback, 208 pages
Published 2013 (originally 1956)
Acquired and read August 2019
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

I was surprised how much I liked this book. It's a relatively simple and predictable plot: Lorenzo Smythe is an actor hired to impersonate a politician at a key political moment. Only thing is, the politician is pro-Martian, and Smythe is racist against Martians. Plus, things kind of spiral out of control, and the impersonation keeps going on longer and longer...

I was rarely surprised by what happened, but often surprised by how much I felt it regardless. This is a story of a man coming to understand what it means to be a good person, to stand for something bigger than the self. It's actually quite moving in parts, and dreadfully earnest, but earnest in the sense that you want people like this to be out there. But it's also not naïve (there are no Pollyannas here), and even if the set-up is contrived, Heinlein imbues it with enough procedural and character detail to make it work. For example, I liked the idea of the Farleyfile, but also the way in which it ultimately let Lorenzo down made sense.

I've read Heinlein before, of course, but everything I've read previously came from his imperial phase (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers) or from his twilight era (Friday). I've never read anything from his early career before, when he was making his name as a solid, successful writer, but Double Star makes me want to read more of his early stuff. This is solidly successful sf; I zipped through the whole book in about an evening, and I enjoyed every word of it.

06 December 2019

Preparing for Star Trek: Picard

My mom was here a couple months ago, and we were talking Star Trek: Picard; I mentioned that Seven of Nine was going to be in it.

"Who's Seven of Nine?" asked my wife.

Whaaaat! But it was true, Hayley had no idea who Seven of Nine was. And then I realized that she had only seen one episode of Voyager; when we marathoned Deep Space Nine, I slotted "Caretaker" in chronologically to give her a sense of what the Maquis arc was all for. That was literally it.

And then I realized that Seven of Nine wasn't the only returning character who would be meaningless to her. I remain flabbergasted that they are actually getting Jonathan Del Arco back as Hugh. So I worked up a plan: essential pre-Picard viewing.

All of this would have to be guesswork based on the trailers and other pre-publictiy. Next Generation-wise, we would clearly need to watch "I, Borg" and "Descent" to give context for Hugh. But "Descent" doesn't make sense if you don't know the lore of, well, Lore. So onwards and backwards. For Voyager, we needed a sequence of key Seven episodes; basically the ones relating to her backstory. But I also wanted to get one in that dealt with her just as a character, not as a backstory.

So here's what we did:
  • TNG 1x13: "Datalore"
  • TNG 4x03: "Brothers"
  • TNG 5x23: "I Borg"
  • TNG 6x26: "Descent"
  • TNG 7x01: "Descent, Part I"
  • VGR 3x26: "Scorpion"
  • VGR 4x01: "Scorpion, Part II"
  • VGR 4x02: "The Gift"
  • VGR 4x06: "The Raven"
  • VGR 5x15/16: "Dark Frontier"
  • VGR 5x22: "Someone to Watch Over Me"
It wasn't perfect. Partway through a Voyager episode, she asked me how Picard was de-assimilated if everyone was insisting it was so impossible, and I realized that she'd never actually seen "The Best of Both Worlds," just First Contact. And then during "Dark Frontier," she asked how the Federation first encountered the Borg anyway, which made me think "Q Who" might have been of use. But by this point I was getting Borged out.

But I enjoyed it. Do you know, I'd never actually seen "Brothers"? TNG is the one Star Trek I've never watched systematically, so there are still a large number of random episodes I've never watched. (I watched the original and early DS9 on DVD; all the shows from DS9 Season 5 onward and Voyager as they aired.) And I know I saw "I Borg" after "Descent," and "Datalore" much later still, so I'd never seen these eps in their proper contexts.

Brent Spiner is great as Lore (and Noonien Soong). Greater than the scripts, to be honest; I think he plays the character more ambiguously than he is on the page, with an honest affection for Data. The actual stories he's in range from dumb to sort of pointless. Like, "Datalore" requires a lot of improbable leaps to work (the crew is not very smart), and "Brothers" isn't even a story; Data diverts the Enterprise, Soong dies, and they leave, the end. And like a lot of TNG two-parters, "Descent" sets up a lot of stuff it never really pays off because the two halves were written months apart; part I keeps asking if Picard is willing to put the Federation's survival ahead of his ethics... a dilemma never even mentioned in part I; in part I, Troi tells Data that he'd still be Data even if he was experiencing negative emotions... in part II, Lore can press a button and turn Data evil! And c'mon, Hugh doesn't even see La Forge again! And Spiner barely gets to do his Lore thing.

"I Borg" is the clear best of the lot, a great character piece for for a lot of the ensemble-- La Forge, Crusher, Guinan, and Picard all shine here. Del Arco is incredibly likable as Hugh. A good Star Trekkian piece of self-examination; how do we confront our own biases?

The Voyager episodes were interesting to watch, in that except for catching a few random ones on late at night during college, I've literally never seen a Voyager episode since the show went off the air. These episodes are now an astounding twenty years old!

They hold up. Voyager is an immensely inconsistent series, but "Scorpion" is probably as good as it got. Great action, great stakes/suspense. Surely the only episode to make a meaningful conflict between Chakotay and Janeway-- they both believe they are doing the right thing. Both the Borg and Species 8472 feel like real threats. And to go straight from "Descent" (1993) to "Scorpion" (1997) is a huge step up in quality of production in just four years. In terms of interior design, Voyager comes to life in a way the Enterprise-D just simulates. (Voyager was the first Star Trek show I watched regularly, and rewatching it, I realized that when I imagine the interior of a 24th-century Starfleet ship, I am always imagining Voyager.)

On the other hand, "Dark Frontier" is kind of dumb-- while "Scorpion" found a plausible way for Voyager to go up against the Borg and emerge intact, "Dark Frontier" can't do so again without defanging them. It's a pleasing blockbuster action film, but ultimately hollow. It's neat to see Seven's pre-Borg childhood, but the depth that was in, say, "The Gift" and "The Raven" is lacking.

I was glad I picked "Someone to Watch Over Me." Though it was more Doctor-focused than Seven-focused as I remembered, it's an episode that puts two of the three best actors on the show together, and makes something incredibly cute with them. How could you not love this, surely one of the best scenes in all Star Trek:

Jeri Ryan is excellent as Seven, something I didn't really appreciate when these episodes aired originally, determined to hate the character for her "sex sells" quotient.

We did note some continuity errors watching all these episodes back to back. According to Janeway in "The Gift,"
It took some digging through the Federation database, but I managed to find a single entry in the records of Deep Space 4. Her parents were unconventional. They fancied themselves explorers, but wanted nothing to do with Starfleet or the Federation. Their names were last recorded at a remote outpost in the Omega Sector. They refused to file a flight plan. Apparently, they aimed their small ship toward the Delta Quadrant and were never heard from again.
And then in "The Raven," Janeway says,
If you'd like to know more about your parents, there's information in the Federation database. [...] It seems they were fairly well known for being unconventional and for some rather unique scientific theories.
But in "Dark Frontier" (which also reveals that Tuvok and Seven somehow downloaded the logs of Seven's parents' ship off screen during "The Raven"), Seven's father says (in flashback),
The Federation Council on Exobiology has given us final approval. Starfleet's still concerned about security issues but they've agreed not to stand in our way. We've said our goodbyes, and we're ready to start chasing our theories about the Borg.
And her mother says,
We have deviated from our flight plan, crossed the Neutral Zone, disobeyed a direct order to return. Our colleagues obviously think we are insane. We have burned our bridges, Magnus.
They've gone from random explorers with no flight plans to people with "unconventional" but unspecified theories to Borg hunters with Starfleet-sanctioned flight plans and official endorsements from Federation organizations!

I don't think this is all a problem per se. I'm sure you can finesse it all if you want to, and this is just what tv does; as episodes need specific things to be true, they become true. One of the things that does work about "Dark Frontier" is the story of Seven's crazy, reckless parents, though it doesn't quite have the sense of trauma it originally did in "The Raven."

Anyway, this all kind of re-sparked my enthusiasm for tv Star Trek. I know it's all there on Netflix (and, one supposes, CBS All Access) but aside from rewatching DS9 with Hayley a couple years ago, I haven't watched much old Star Trek in a long time. We've gone on to watch some random episodes of the original, Next Generation, and Voyager since.

I'm excited to see what roles Seven and Hugh play in Picard (and the idea of them meeting seems quite neat!), and interested to see how right I got it. It'll probably turn out that I ought to have shown Hayley "Shades of Grey" and "The Disease"!

04 December 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #612-16: Superfiction, Part 1

"Authorized" / "Valentine's Day Sale" / "Truths Told in Super-Secret" / "The Living Double of a Single Fiction" / "Three Camera Shoot"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #612-16 (Mar.-July 2003)

Writer: Joe Casey
Layouts: Derec Aucoin

Finishes: Derec Aucoin, Jose Marzan, and John Stanisci
Colors: Tanya & Richard Horie
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Back in my kick-off post for this sequence, I claimed that Joe Casey's run on Adventures had never really been collected. I later discovered that wasn't true: issues #610 and 612-23 were collected in two volumes under the umbrella title Superman: Superfiction in 2012... albeit only in French. So that's neat, but as a result, I'll be using "Superfiction" as my own umbrella title for the final set of issues of the Casey run.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #612
(art by Derec Aucoin)
With the exception of #613, #612-16 make up one large storyline. (Fun fact: Action Comics #801 takes place between Adventures #613 and 614, but as it is part of a five-part storyline itself, I'll be covering it there next week, slightly out of chronological order.) This storyline begins with "Authorized" (#612) where Clark goes to meet Ben Conrad, a Nebraskan journalist who inspired his own reporting. Conrad has retired from journalism to write a novel called Champion of the Oppressed, about a superhero who fights for ordinary people. Only, it turns out, this superhero has somehow come to life and is flying around wreaking havoc.

"Champion of the Oppressed" was, of course, the title of the original Superman story in Action Comics #1, and Ben Conrad's superhero is a riff on that original Superman, both visually and narratively; Adventures #612 recreates several beats of that original story, as the faux-Superman frees a woman from death row. As has been building in recent Adventures stories, there's an explicit critique of the direction of the 2000s Superman here; Ben Conrad says, "I'll tell ya... the more I researched Superman, the more I felt... I don't know. He's a bit too civilized, isn't he...? All that power... and look at how he uses it... wrestling with aliens and taking meetings on the moon doesn't exactly speak to the common man. He's just a bit detached for me."

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #612
(art by Derec Aucoin)
It's a neat story. I like the riffs on Action #1, still one of the best, most vital Superman stories, and I like how artist Derec Aucoin and colorists Tanya & Rich Horie depict the visual clash between the two different Supermen. As he fades away, the "Champion" tells the real Superman, "Just... don't let these ideals... be forgotten... it's up to you... all of you... to keep up the fight..."; Superman says, "What you represent... is not inconsequential." It's a sad scene, well done. The story hints at something bigger, though, a group of mysterious black-and-white people called "the Hollow Men" incapacitating superheroes.

In "Truths Told in Super-Secret" (#614), Superman discovers a city of super-people hidden in a tesseract in Ohio, isolated since 1955, and still believing in the virtues of the Golden Age of Superheroes. But as he does, so do the Hollow Men, moving on from neutralizing the Ray and the Elongated Man, to attack a whole city of superheroes. "The Living Double of a Single Fiction" and "Three Camera Shoot" (#615-16) chronicle Superman's fight against these beings, who turn out to be from Ben Conrad's first novel. Superman defeats them in mental battle, giving Ben a chance to rewrite the ending of the story so that the Hollow Men neutralize themselves.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #616
(art by Derec Aucoin)
I found it anticlimactic. It's full of good concepts, but it feels like the story doesn't do much with them. Heroville is cool... but Superman discovers that it exists, gets an explanation, and that's it. The Hollow Men are neat, but the final conflict with them more peters out than anything else; Superman just acts very determined, and that does it. I think Casey is going for thematic depth here, with the Hollow Men as homogeneity against the color of Superman and his friends... but what does that mean? I'm not sure.

And, obviously, you can't tease me with just a couple panels of Elongated Man. DC's greatest detective deserves more than that!

#616 does contain a big moment that Casey's been building toward since at least #608, and surely earlier: Superman's declaration that he's a pacifist. I'm not sure what I think of it. It's an interesting reaction to the violence of the Champion: if he won't use violence to impose his ideals, he won't use violence at all. It promises some interesting storytelling to come: what kind of stories do you tell about a pacifist Superman? Interestingly, in-story, it's not a big moment-- it's a tossed-off comment by Superman while strategizing how to defeat the Hollow Men. (And it's massively belied by the actions Superman will undertake in the subsequent The Harvest storyline in Action Comics.)

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #613
(art by Derec Aucoin & Jose Marzan & John Stanisci)
The other story, "Valentine's Day Sale" (#613), is a cute Lois adventure where she discovers Flunky Flashman is marketing Superman's image and takes him down without Superman's help. I like Aucoin's art on this title in general, but felt this story called for a lighter touch than he could provide-- and besides, the way he draws Lois in this one is a tad skeevy. There are some nice callbacks to Superman: The Movie, though one wonders why there isn't a comics version of Superman and Lois's first date this story could riff on instead.


03 December 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: The Persistence of Memory

Mass market paperback, 385 pages
Published 2012

Acquired April 2017
Read July 2019
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations, Book I: The Persistence of Memory
by David Mack

January 2384
First off, let me say it's nice to read an adventure for the Enterprise that has nothing to do with space politics. Though not every Destiny-era story I've read so far has been political, all of the Enterprise ones have: Paths of Disharmony, The Struggle Within, Plagues of Night, Brinkmanship (and, earlier on, Losing the Peace). But even though space politics influence the story (the Breen are involved), the focus of the story is elsewhere, at long last.

Persistence of Memory is the first book of a trilogy, and it's also a novella-length frame around a novel-length flashback. I'll discuss the flashback first. Part Two, "Noonien," is in the first person and the present tense (both are unusual in Star Trek fiction, let alone together) following Data's creator, Noonien Soong, from the moment of his apparent death in "Brothers" up until the present. In a sense, it's there for a very long exposition dump; we find out how Soong might have seemed to die but did not, what he's been up to in the interim, how B-4 from Nemesis fits in with what Next Generation itself told us about Soong's android prototypes, what he thinks of the events of the novel Immortal Coil, and so on.

But in another sense, it's a great portrait of an unusual mind, a man obsessed with himself and his legacy. Mack wisely doesn't give him a tragic or overwrought backstory to explain why he is this way; he just get on with telling us who Soong is. We see how he plans quite elaborately, again and again, his tendency to devise long complicated routes to his goals often preventing him from actually reaching those goals. He's never emotionally fulfilled in one sense, and in another, he clearly finds fulfillment in the plan, not entirely the achievements. But he hates those moments where he realizes someone out there might know more than him. I really enjoyed all of this, and read it very quickly. It also lays a good groundwork for the "return" of Data, though I don't have much to say about that event itself, since we haven't seen much of it. I will weigh in on this once future novels have done something (or failed to) with Data.

The framing novella, though, feels like David Mack on autopilot, something it flags up itself a couple times by mentioning other stories where he's done the same things as here. There's a super-secret away mission without backup gone horribly wrong (i.e., A Time to Kill and Failsafe), and the Enterprise takes refuge in a gas giant (i.e., "Starship Down" and Wildfire). The characters feel very flat; compare Brinkmanship where the narrative makes the Enterprise's mission personal to Crusher even without a clear personal hook-- here there is one for many of the crew, especially La Forge, but it never feels personal. I'm not really into fast-paced intense action sequences in prose when there's no emotional stakes, and Persistence of Memory was no exception. I've read its like before, and I imagine I'll read it again.

The frame would be competent, but not bad, if it wasn't for one thing: the death of the Enterprise's security chief, Jasminder Choudhury. There are two problems with it. The first is that it is a borderline ridiculous repetitive thing to have happen to Worf, who has been married twice, and had his wife die both times. Now he's in a third committed long-term relationship (though not a marriage), and she dies too. Like, really? Come on, come up with a new idea. Books II and III will have to work very hard to convince me that this is not as clear-cut an example of fridging as you can have. I had to stop reading the book and explain to my wife how bad it was, so much did I roll my eyes.

The second problem is that I just don't care about Jasminder Choudhury. While ongoing Treklit concepts like New Frontier and the Deep Space Nine relaunch were filled with likable characters I cared about, post-Nemesis TNG fiction has struggled to build up any interesting original characters, either using them inconsistently (e.g., Leybenzon, Kadohata) or rarely using them interestingly (e.g., T'Lana, Chen). Choudury was in the latter group; the only book I can even remember her making an impression in was The Struggle Within. Her characterization within this book and most others was very generic, and I don't really have any sense of how she related to most of the other characters; the book says Picard feels "profound sadness" at her death, but you don't believe it. I just didn't care, while surely against the whole point of killing her is to make me feel something. (Brinkmanship made me care much more about anonymous Vennette farmers who didn't even die!)

Continuity Notes:
  • Jeffrey Lang's Immortal Coil is very heavily referenced. I don't think I've read it since it came out in February 2002. (If I ever reread it, it was before August 2003, when my reading records begin.) Mack provides a lot of recaps and summary, but it's kind of a complicated book with a lot going on.
  • I was surprised that (unless I missed it) in among all the sewing up of Soong continuity, there were no references to Arik Soong, Noonien's ancestor from Enterprise who supposedly inspired a family turn to cybernetics.
  • There's a mention of the Grigari, who I really liked in Federation and the Millennium trilogy.
Other Notes:
  • "[A]s Picard had begun the paternal duty of reading his boy to sleep, he had been impressed with his scion's growing vocabulary and seemingly insatiable appetite for narratives. By the time he cracked open the sixth tome of the evening's recitation, he began to question whether it would be unethical to let Crusher use a mild hypospray to hasten the boy's descent into slumber." Judging by the overwrought wording of this passage (e.g., "scion, "narratives," "tome"), little René isn't the only one showing off his vocabulary.
  • There's a scene from the perspective of Aneta Šmrhová, Enterprise tactical officer, that establishes in three years, she's never really done anything interesting. I'm always kind of disappointed when the novels imply that absent a television program, our heroes don't go on twenty-six-plus wacky adventures per year.

02 December 2019

Reading Roundup Wrapup: November 2019

Pick of the month: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. Though I did enjoy Pullman's most recent return to the world of His Dark Materials, this is one of those months where my selection says more about the paucity of options than their quality. One book I read (and selected) before, one book that was awful, and three mediocre tie-in comics don't give you a lot of other options.

All books read:
1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
2. Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor, Vol 1: Revolutions of Terror by Nick Abadzis
3. Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol 1: After Life by Al Ewing & Rob Williams
4. Stringtown On the Pike: A Tale of Northernmost Kentucky by John Uri Lloyd
5. Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor, Vol 1: Terrorformer by Robbie Morrison
6. The Book of Dust, Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

All books acquired:
1. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 10: Sunset by Yoshiki Tanaka

Books remaining on "to be read" list: 651 (no change)
Books remaining on "to review" list: 14 (up 5)

29 November 2019

Black Friday, Black November

For many years I ran a strictly disciplined daily schedule here at Science's Less Accurate Grandmother. A few months ago, I allowed myself to miss a Friday-- and as I should have predicted, that opened the floodgates. Once I allowed one exception to my self-imposed rules, then I was making exception upon exception. Today is the first Friday I've made a post on since 18 October, over a month ago!

Such, one supposes, is parenthood. I think the second year is proving to be easier in some ways, but more time-consuming in others. I feel like I can actually communicate with him now, so meeting his needs is easier--but now he seems to have so many more needs! Recently he learned the word "up!", so he is always telling me and Hayley what to do with him. "Up!" can mean "I want to be on the couch" or "Nurse me" or "Put me in a cardboard box" or "I need help with this step" or "I want to be carried" or "Get me out of this high chair."

I also think-- maybe Hayley would disagree-- that we are more equitable about splitting childcare duties. The older he gets, the more they can be split equitably. (Or maybe I'm kidding myself, and they always could have been split evenly, and now I actually do it more. Or maybe I still don't do it! There's certainly not much I can contribute to that late-night nursing.) He's less directly dependent on mom for reassurance and care, and more willing to play for long periods with daddy. (Though there are still times only momma will do.) But this means my me-time on the weekends has to be spent lesson planning and grading and preventing the house from sinking into total ruin, not stockpiling blog entries or reviewing audio dramas.

It's been a taxing couple months outside of work and parenting, too. Hayley got into a car crash; she was fine, the car is basically fine, but needs some work, and co-ordinating with the other guy's insurance (he was at fault) has dragged on and on. Our credit card was cloned, and someone ran up $800 at local restaurants before we realized, and that has dragged on and on too. Our hot water heater was full of dirt, and resisting my many attempts to clean it, sending little black specks into our tub. That one my father helped me finally lick, several months after the first occurrence. One day, I woke up and discovered our pool had gone down several inches overnight. That, at least, I was able to quickly diagnose and fix. (The pressure relief valve on the pump had cracked.) Our cat Oracle has turned out to have hyperthyroidism, so that's yet another thing, but at least we know why she's been vomiting so much, and hopefully that can be rectified now.

So I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving (spent in the usual rural retreat will the Mollmanns), and more I will hopefully be thankful for in future, if everything shakes out okay. Perhaps most of all, I will be thankful for the coming of winter break.

Because, you know, I will finally be able to get a lot of work done.

27 November 2019

Joe Casey Joe Kelly's Adventures of Superman #611: Lost Hearts

Lost Hearts: "Lost" / "Heartbroken" / "Giving In" / "Heart Song"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #611 (Feb. 2003)
DC Comics Presents: Superman vol. 2 #2 (Jan. 2011), reprinting Action Comics vol. 1 #798, Superman vol. 2 #189, Superman: The Man of Steel #133 (Feb. 2003) 

Writers: Geoff Johns and Joe Kelly
Pencils: Pascual Ferry, Dwayne Turner, and Tom Derenick
Inks: Keith Champagne, Pascual Ferry, Kevin Conrad, Norm Rapmund, Walden Wong, Bob Petrecca, Sandu Florea, and Cam Smith 

Colors: Tanya and Rich Horie, Guy Major, and Moose Baumann
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

#611 is the third and final fill-in during Joe Casey's run on Adventures of Superman. Unlike #591 and 607, where my philosophy was that I would read them if I could get them at no extra cost and skip them if I could not, I intended to get #611 from the beginning. It's the second installment of the Lost Hearts crossover, but in this four-part story, Joe Kelly (regular writer of Action Comics) takes over Adventures. But I was intrigued by what I knew of its more personal focus, by its evocative covers, by the fact someone had bothered to reprint it (in DC Comics Presents: Superman vol. 2), and by the fact that it introduced Traci Thirteen, a character I came to love during the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle run.

from Superman: The Man of Steel #133
(script by Geoff Johns, art by Tom Derenick and
Norm Rapmund, Walden Wong, Bob Petrecca, & Sandu Florea)
Lana Lang, Clark Kent's childhood sweetheart and the vice president's wife, runs away to Hell's Heart, the worst neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and Clark goes after her. There, amid the growing cold of late year, he discovers rampant drug addiction, homelessness, sexual exploitation, and (of course) strange alien parasites. Clark finds his values tested; this is a place and a situation where he can't be Superman... but is Clark strong enough?

It has its moments, but something about it didn't quite click. Maybe it's that I'm always kind of wary of Superman comics getting too close to "real social issues"; maybe it's that the emotional throughline for Clark felt a bit muddled. Maybe it's that I'm not convinced of the need for a subplot about an exploitative photo shoot of Lana. It feels like the story kind of meanders to a conclusion more than it has an actual plot.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #611
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Dwayne Turner & Kevin Conrad)
But I enjoyed a lot of it. Traci Thirteen is a fun character, you can see why she came back, even if she's not quite the same character as later. (She seems older and more detached than she was in Blue Beetle. I don't remember her having an iguana familiar in any other stories, and I don't think her dad can possibly be Doctor 13, as Architecture & Mortality would establish.) Some of the stuff about Superman coming to help Hell's Heart is, well, heart-warming, and fits in well with what Casey has been doing in Adventures.

from Action Comics vol. 1 #798
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Pascual Ferry and
Keith Champagne & Cam Smith)
It's nice to have a Superman titles crossover that's about, well, Superman-- not about big fights and Events.


26 November 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Brinkmanship

Mass market paperback, 334 pages
Published 2012

Acquired November 2012
Read July 2019
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship
by Una McCormack

November 2383
Brinkmanship rounds out the eight-book Typhon Pact saga, though the Pact itself will obviously continue to cast a shadow over galactic events. It could feel like an odd coda after Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn pulled all the previous threads together (I suspect it reads weirdly in the context of The Khitomer Accords Saga omnibus), but it's the best of all these books, and so a good stopping point.

There is no better writer of Star Trek tie-ins than Una McCormack. One of the things that makes her so good is her careful consideration of point-of-view; this book is told from three perspectives, those of Ezri Dax, Beverly Crusher, and Neta Efheny (a Cardassian spy on Ab-Tzenketh). The choice of viewpoint characters isn't incidental, or just done for reasons of plot, as it often is in tie-in fiction, but suffuses the entire book. In both Ezri and Crusher, we get principled women whose principles keep getting broken on the rocks of realpolitik. Both are healers (kind of), and have an earnest belief in what the Federation does; both have made hard choices in their day but refuse to believe that values have to be abandoned in order to be saved.

I liked this depiction of Ezri. I often struggle to connect the character the Destiny-era novels call "Ezri" with the one from television; Brinkmanship threads that needle by showing how Ezri's occasionally foolish compassion informs her command style. The Aventine doesn't get much action here, but we get to watch Ezri do her level best to prevent a war in the usual Star Trek tradition. She's tested by her discovery of what one of her friends from the Academy has become in this dark new era, and that works as a stand-in for what Starfleet and the Federation as a whole have been through. I liked the Aventine's solution to the stand-off, which manages to be humanitarian and manipulative at the same time.

Crusher was an unexpected choice for viewpoint character of the Enterprise-E thread; she's often an observer, not a mover. But this is what makes her work as a main character. As Picard points out, he already knows how to play this game, but Crusher still has her ideals. I liked her interactions with various participants in the negotiations, especially Madame Ilka, the Ferengi ambassador (I hope we get to see her again). Crusher ends up playing essentially no plot-relevant role, but that's not a bug, it's a feature. Like Ezri, she learns what it's like to balance ideals with realpolitik. This book, incidentally, is probably the first to make me feel like Crusher and Picard are actually married, with nice little details of their relationship (such as how they work a room at a reception), though to be honest, I think it would have worked just as well with them as friends.

The remaining third was the best one, about an undercover Cardassian on Ab-Tzenketh. It's got great touches, such as how she recognizes that one of her associates is also a spy, but for the Federation, and how that spy works out that she's a Cardassian. Efenhy is a patriot, but adrift in the less regimented post-Dominion Cardassian society, she finds solace in the strictly regimented Tzenkethi society. This was an excellent spy thriller, as Efenhy makes a number of awful but entirely comprehensible choices-- but one potentially really empowering one.

I also really appreciated the insight we got into Tzenkethi society; this is the one Typhon Pact book to really deliver on the series premise and explore an alien society, doing the kind of thing that I think Zero Sum Game aimed for but missed by using infiltration, as well as by using a pair of Tzenkethi cops.

I'm not sure this series really accomplished its aims on the whole, but this novel did, demonstrating (like Struggle Within) the worth of the concept was there, even if the execution was often lacking.

Continuity Notes:
  • Glinn Dygan, a minor protagonist here, originally appeared in Plagues of Night; I kind of suspect he was created by McCormack for Brinkmanship and seeded back into the earlier novels.
  • There's weirdly little direct references to the earlier Typhon Pact books; the whole time the Federation is trying to defend their skepticism toward the Tzenkethi to the Venette, I kept expecting someone to mention the time the Typhon Pact powers conspired to, I dunno, blow up Deep Space 9!? That might make a little caution justified on the part of the Federation.
Other Notes:
  • This is really the only book other than The Struggle Within to take the idea (from A Singular Destiny) of an expanded Khitomer Accord seriously; we get to see what it's like for the Federation, Cardassians, and Ferengi to all work together in common cause, something unimaginable a decade prior. (And still pretty difficult to pull off!)
  • Picard might not be a viewpoint character, but McCormack writes him some good Patrick Stewart speeches anyway.
  • The excerpts from the output of the Venette syndics are touching, and effective in making you fear for this never-before-mentioned race.
  • I think one chapter of this book gave Sam Bowers more personality than all previous Aventine-focused novels put together.

25 November 2019

Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Acquired July 2012
Read August 2019
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I was a little worried about this book going in. I didn't have good memories of the film, where I felt the first half was rushed and the second half repeated the first film over again. Plus, I've recently read a lot of contemporary YA that had the same style the Hunger Games books do (first-person present-tense narration) and really bounced off most of them.

Well, I needn't have worried. The movie's first half is actually the novel's first two-thirds, as Katniss tries to navigate her new post-game life, balancing her personal needs with the needs of everyone around her. In the films, it's hard to care about the character I could only ever remember as not-Peeta, but in the books you see her struggle over Gale much more clearly because you're always in her thoughts, so even though Gale isn't actually there very much, you see her thinking about him. There are a lot of nice bits that didn't make it into the films, like Katniss and Peeta watching footage of Haymitch's games. The other tributes in the Quarter Quell feel more like real people, too.

The actual Hunger Game doesn't feel repetitive, either, mostly because Katniss's mindset is completely different. In the first book, it was mostly about keeping herself alive. Here, it's about keeping Peeta alive, and working with a team. Back when I read The Hunger Games, I argued that the point of the novel was to reveal that cooperation is our natural way of being, but oppressors disrupt that: "'Survival of the fittest' isn't a natural ethos, it's imposed on human beings by a small subset. The natural inclination of human beings, we are shown multiple times throughout the novel, is actually to cooperate with one another. It's only when a powerful force compels them that they fight with one another." The thing is, I'm not sure that Katniss really learned that lesson. She wants to look out for Peeta, but is bad at doing it; she is really bad at imagining that other people could possibly be looking out for her, and why. Catching Fire is about how far she has to go to learn about cooperation, because the Capitol has done such a good job of forcing its subjects to prioritize survival of the self above all other considerations. During the Games, she is constantly learning that other people want to help her, and underestimating them anyway. I look forward to seeing how Collins develops this in the final book; I saw the third film but not the fourth, so I don't know how it all ends.

Also: I kind of feel like Peeta is a wet blanket in the movies. In the books, his steadfastness quickly made him into my favorite character. I'm Team Peeta all the way. Not in the sense that I want Katniss to be with him romantically (she should pick whoever she wants), but in the sense that he is clearly a stand-up guy that deserves happiness.

20 November 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #610: "Small Perceptions"

"Small Perceptions"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #610 (Jan. 2003)

Writer: Joe Casey
Art: Derec Aucoin

Colors: Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Here we are in the last-ever one-issue gap between Super titles crossovers of Joe Casey's run, because we're almost to the last Super titles crossover of his run. Between Ending Battle and Lost Hearts, we get "Small Perceptions," a story about what Superman means to the common man, foregrounding a theme that's run throughout Casey's run.

Lex Luthor has created a "Cosmic Defense Initiative," an alliance with other nations against space (to prevent something like another Imperiex War from happening); Clark has been laid off from the Daily Planet, I guess because of something that happened in one of the other Super titles; Perry has hired him anyway to go undercover in a mine to find proof that there's illegal mining going, mining that can be linked back to Luthor.

The story focuses on the day-to-day of Clark's time undercover at the mine. Superman comes up though; one of Clark's co-workers says of Luthor's CDI, "at least he's lookin' out for regular Americans... [...] ...you know a guy like Superman ain't here to look after guys like us. He's too busy fightin' giant robots and other freaks in dumb outfits to come around dives like this... guess he thinks he's got his priorities." There are obvious parallels between Luthor and President Trump; one of the less obvious and more prescient ones is how Luthor is seen as being more in touch with the needs of ordinary Americans than the "coastal elites" despite that Luthor himself is one of those elites! The man goes on to complain that Superman's violence probably hurts as many ordinary people as it protects. It's not explicitly referenced, but in the wake of Ending Battle, this critique stings. Superman didn't prevent anything in that story; all that violence wouldn't have happened without him. It causes some clearly genuine soul-searching on Clark/Superman's part.

The cover means that you won't be surprised when there's a cave-in. Clark saves his co-worker, the same one from before-- but that co-worker saves most of the miners himself. This then inspires Superman to look at some of his outstanding mail; he flies to Guatemala to comfort a kid who wrote him about his mother dying, and who has just died when he arrives: "<Did you know... I'm an orphan, too? But I'm not alone... I was never alone... the entire human planet took me in as her own. The human race became my family.>" He comforts the kid, but as Superman flies away, it's the superhero who thanks the orphan.

Derec Aucoin pencils and inks; I think as his collaboration with Casey has gone on (he first worked on #590, and became the title's regular artist with #608), the styles of the writing and the art have increasingly converged. In #599, I felt Aucoin was a little too dark, but I didn't feel that here, I think because Aucoin has lightened and Casey's standalone issues have gotten weightier. Aucoin works on all but three remaining issues of Adventures.

It's a quiet issue; the espionage stuff is beside the point and never resolved. If Clark busts open a conspiracy, we don't see it here. Instead, we can see that something is changing inside him. In issue #616, we'll learn he's made a big decision; I think in retrospect, this is the moment where he actually makes it. I enjoyed it when I originally read it, but felt like it kind of fizzled out; on rereading it to write out this review, having finished out Casey's run, I can see better how it plays its role in the whole trajectory of Superman's changing ethos, and it's much more enjoyable as a result.