31 December 2019

Review: Doctor Who: Revolutions of Terror by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014)
Acquired September 2018
Read November 2019
Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor, Vol 1: Revolutions of Terror

Writer: Nick Abadzis
Artist: Elena Casagrande with Michele Pasta
Colorist: Arianna Florean with Claudia Sg, Rabiola Ienne, Valentina Cuomo, Azzurra Florean
Letters: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt

A couple years ago, I read through all of IDW's Doctor Who comics thanks to a Humble Bundle. In 2014, Titan took over the Doctor Who comics license from IDW, and in 2018, they put together their own Humble Bundle of a bunch of their earlier stuff. So here I am, reading it all. Unlike IDW, which usually just published an ongoing featuring the current Doctor and TARDIS team, Titan publishes multiple ongoings, plus miniseries, featuring the current Doctor and past ones. Rather than read this all in chronological order, though, I'm sticking to publication order to get the most out of Titan's crossovers.

from Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor #2
(art by Elena Casagrande)
So it all launches with this, Revolutions of Terror, featuring the tenth Doctor and a new companion, the American would-be art student Gabby Gonzalez. This collection contains two stories; the first, "Revolutions of Terror," is a very effective pastiche of a Russell T Davies new-companion episode (e.g., "Rose," "Smith and Jones"), telling the story of alien parasites in New York City on the Day of the Dead from the perspective of Gabby and her family. Nick Abadzis's writing is decent, but the real star is Elena Casagrande's artwork, which really brings the whole family and their environment and the Doctor and the monsters to life. This was a fun, nostalgic tie-in: you won't be bowled over by this, but if you enjoyed Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009, you'll probably like this take on it. I found the rules of the parasites overly fiddly (I think Russell himself could have handled it more elegantly), but otherwise, it was on point.

The second story, "The Arts in Space," was less effective. Clearly also pastiching an RTD genre, the throw-the-companion-into-the-crazy-future one (e.g., "The End of the World," "Gridlock"), but I got lost amidst all the stuff about block transfer computation, and the actions of the villain didn't ring true emotionally. I did really love the bits drawn to look like Gabby's own drawings, as she writes about her journeys to her friend Cindy. But otherwise, I struggled with this one. It's just two issues compared to "Revolutions"'s four, so maybe Abadzis's stories need more time to breathe.

Elena Casagrande used to do a lot of fill-in work on IDW's Star Trek titles, often hired to imitate the work of David Messina, so I was really gratified to see her get to soar in her own style here.

30 December 2019

Review: Discworld: Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Mass market paperback, 420 pages
Published 2013 (originally 1993)

Borrowed from my wife
Read August 2019
Men at Arms: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

The U.S. Harper edition of the first City Watch novel gave away something important on its back cover; this one does in its cover image, I reckon, letting me put some clues together more quickly than I reckon Pratchett intended. But it's hard to not look at the front cover!

Despite that, this was another enjoyable book. The Night Watch is expanding, and for affirmative action reasons, that means nonhumans are being recruited: dwarves, trolls, werewolves. Meanwhile, Captain Vimes is getting married and will have to step down as head of the Watch (it's too plebeian a position for one about to join the patrician classes).

It's funny, but it's also touching. There's a lot of good jokes about trolls, but also an unexpected death. There's also some pointed stuff about the seductive power of violence. I think this was less focused plot-wise than Guards! Guards! but also more honed character- and theme-wise; Pratchett was converging toward what he really wanted to do with this series, step by step.

27 December 2019

Bring Back Firefly (No, Please Don't)

I was running an errand the other day when the announcer lady on our local NPR station (WUSF) had to read a sponsorship during All Things Considered. Apparently, it was sponsored by the revival of Mad about You... on Spectrum Originals!?

One. This show did not need to come back. Two. There doesn't need to be a special streaming service from Spectrum.

Are there hordes of people signing up for Spectrum because they want to see what the Mad about You characters are up to twenty years on? It seems unlikely that people pick their cable on the basis of streaming programming, and even if they did... Mad about You doesn't exactly have the draw of The Mandalorian, does it?

I was at a holiday party a couple weeks ago, just after the debut of Disney Plus. Was I, I was asked many times, watching The Mandalorian.

No, I said, I'm over it.

Over what?

Over serialized streaming versions of things I liked when I was a kid. As far as I can tell they're all that exist. Revivals, continuations, sequels, prequels, adaptations. The Mandalorian, His Dark Materials, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Veronica Mars, Anne with an "E", The Magic School Bus, Animaniacs, Watchmen, Carmen Sandiego, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Girl Meets World, Battlestar Galactica, apparently twenty-seven different Marvel streaming shows for Disney Plus, and, of course, Star Trek.

And then you add on the revivals of things I could have been into but wasn't: Voltron, Samurai Jack, DuckTales, Queer Eye, Twin Peaks, Riverdale, The Tick, Gilmore Girls, Charmed, Roswell, Lost in Space, The X-Files, The Dark Crystal, Young Justice, The Clone Wars, Dune, Gremlins, Lizze McGuire...

Some of these are reboots, of course, but so many of them are revivals: shows that pick up years later with the same characters.

Why!? Well, obviously, nostalgia. And obviously it works. I couldn't move for people asking me about The Mandalorian. And obviously it works on me. There are exactly two tv shows I'm able to keep up with on a regular basis these days: Doctor Who and Star Trek, and the second of those is entirely a nostalgia-driven revival of something I liked when I was a kid... and is only about to get moreso, with the imminent release of Picard. What has Picard been up to since he last sailed into the unknown in 2003's Nemesis? I'm ready to find out, of course. So I might be opposed to this kind of thing in principle, but get the right show in practice, and I'll sign up for your dumb proprietary streaming service and watch it. The number of people I know who complain about the proliferation of unnecessary streaming services... and then turned around and picked up Disney Plus seems to indicate everyone has their weakness.

Why I don't I like these things? I guess it comes down to a feeling that, well, the moment has passed. I really, really liked Veronica Mars. But even by season two, it was clear the format was strained... and if you revive it twelve years later, is it even really the same show? Part of the enjoyment of the original was that it was about a high school girl who dared to investigate murders in her drama-ridden social circle... is a show about a 30-something P.I. the same show, even if it fills my desire to find out what happened to its main character When She Grew Up?* (I just read this spoiler-ridden article which makes it clear: no, it never can be.)

This was driven home when I posted a similar complaint on facebook a couple months ago. People popped up in the comments with what shows they wanted revived. The Middleman, Firefly, Community, Malcolm in the Middle (I think this is actually happening now), GargoylesDead Like Me... Some of these, sure, whatever... but Firefly? C'mon, Joss Whedon, you had your chance, it didn't work, you had another chance with a whole movie, IT'S OVER. I can't even imagine that a Firefly revival would be very good. Everyone's seventeen years older and fatter (except for Morena Baccarin, who doesn't age), and what that show was trying to do is now done all over the place all the time. And could it even be as good as the show all the Browncoats have been imagining in their heads all this time? Of course not. The same friend is the one who suggested Community, though, so obviously his judgement is suspect.

I think these revivals also annoy me because there's less room for something dynamic and interesting. Adaptations can put very new spins on old material: the world would be a lesser place without, say, Battlestar Galactica. But revivals are by their nature backward-looking. This isn't reinventing an old story for a new age, but prolonging an old story in spite of a new age.

You might say, Steve, just don't watch these shows if they don't interest you. And, sure, yeah, I will probably never watch The Mandalorian or WandaVision, and I will certainly never watch Mad about You. But I think a lot about this thing that a friend of mine said:

Like, yes, I can not watch them... but even the few I do watch suck my personal bandwidth away from other, more original things-- and worse, culturally, I feel like our bandwidth is sucked up by them. If everyone is talking about Baby Yoda and the Skeksis, how will I know about what new original shows exist? How will they even get made?

All of this is to say: they can bring back Wonderfalls. That's a show cut down in its prime that utterly deserves five more seasons of brilliance.

But that's it. No more. Especially not Mad about You; maybe I just hallucinated Lisa Peakes saying that, and we're all safe.

#297: What old television shows would you bring back?

* Alternate title for this post, but I decided it didn't quite work: "A long time ago we used to be viewers, but I haven't watched you lately at all."

26 December 2019

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Acquired December 2016
Previously read May 2017
Reread November 2019
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I used to say Ancillary Justice was the best sf novel of the last five years... until I realized it was over six years old. Oh well. But as soon as I was assigned an sf creative writing course, I knew this would be the novel I would teach. I really like the way it handles worldbuilding, and the way it makes something new of old sf tropes. For example, in an essay on John Scalzi's Whatever, Leckie points out that the idea of an evil empire reusing corpses of conquered people as soldiers is an sf staple... but the story of Justice of Toren is an interesting twist, because once "liberated," her body doesn't have any desire to go back to who she was, because she doesn't remember being that person. She is Justice of Toren.

I also like the way she handles exposition. We talked about Jo Walton's concept of "incluing" a lot in my class; Leckie argues in an essay of her own that the infodump has its place, and sometime it is better to tell than show. On the one hand, the first few pages of Ancillary Justice throw a lot of stuff at you, to my students' consternation. What's a Radchaai? A segment? How can the narrator be a "piece of equipment"? On the other hand, come chapter 2, we get some clear-cut explanations: "Nineteen years, three months, and one week before [...], I was a troop carrier orbiting the planet Shis'urna" (9). And then the narrator just spells out a lot of stuff for us. What's a troop carrier? What's Shis'urna? How do the ships communicate? All just told, because we need to know.

But she keeps dropping in little details she doesn't entirely explains; at one point, she mention "gates" and I asked my students what this meant. To my surprise none of them knew! Leckie is, of course, banking that you have enough previous knowledge of sf to know that one from context. But it's also not important on p. 9, and when it becomes important (when Justice of Toren enters gate space on p. 217), the narrator just tells us what a gate is and how it works. The notorious gender stuff is largely done through incluing, on the other hand, maybe meant to indicate just how much it's second (or first?) nature to our viewpoint characters. I also really liked the quick switching of viewpoints in ch. 2 to explore how the ancillaries work, though this requires some effort from the reader (as Walton discusses in her examination of incluing); if you don't pay close attention, you'll be more confused, not more elucidated by the time this part is over. Leckie is really good at this kind of thing. (Except when it comes to the structure of the Radchaai military vessels, which confused my students, and confused me when I tried to explain it; I had to pull up a chart from the Internet to get it all straight.)

It's always been interesting to me that the story's play with gender-- which got all of the press when it came out-- is actually sort of irrelevant. Compare The Left Hand of Darkness, which is largely about Genly Ai's discomfort with the unusual form of gender he encounters on Gethen. But you could delete the lack of gender in Radchaai civilization from Ancillary Justice, and in terms of plot and character, I think it would basically be the same novel. The "Big Idea" of the novel is about colonization and the ways other cultures are absorbed and assimilated and disposed of.

We did explore how readers react to the lack of explicit gender information on the characters. Most, like myself, filled in information based on guesswork and, to be honest, stereotypes. I imagined Awn as female (because she seems young and innocent), Skaaiat as male (because she is a bit of a "player" with Awn), Dariet as male (because she's in a position of authority and commanding), Isaaia as female (because she's snobby and reads as "bitchy"). On the other hand, I always perceive Seivarden as female even though we're explicitly told he's male! I think it's because of the snobbishness? I'm not sure. Most of my students did similiar categoriztion; others had different reasons. One said she liked imagining all of Anaander Mianaai's bodies as female just because women evil overlords are so rare in science fiction. Some students didn't categorize at all: one just took all the female pronouns at face value and thought of everyone as a woman. I said I wished I could do the same, but some things were too ingrained and you can't entirely control your imagination.

So why is this aspect of the novel there? This is what I demanded my students tell me, but there are a couple reasons I had in mind. One is that the Radchaai can't be entirely about the Big Idea, because then they become one-note. All the tea stuff, though fun, creates a parallel to the British Empire, reinforcing the imperialist critique running through the novel. The gender system is largely orthogonal to the issues of colonialism and classism in the novel, thus making the Radchaai a more complex, fleshed out society. Utterly evil in some senses, but highly progessive in others.

The second is that it does reinforce the novel's themes. In a large part, this is a novel about judging people not by who they are, but by how they act. Anaander Mianaai misjudges Justice of Toren; Seivarden misjudges Breq; Breq misjudges Seivarden; the Radch misjudges entire civilizations. It's about how you need to take the action that is most good, not the action that is expected. The reader doesn't make these misjudgements because the reader doesn't have Radchaai classism culturally ingrained. But the reader does make a whole different series of misjudgements because they have an entirely different system of gender culturally ingrained. To read Ancillary Justice successfully, you have to learn to overcome your own preconceptions about how the world works-- just as the characters did.

(Oddly, this did expose to me that the character who most learns the central lesson of the novel isn't the protagonist; Breq occasionally misjudges, but usually reserves judgement until she sees people act. Breq already knows all this. It's Seivarden who learnes this lesson, and Seivarden who thus changes the most across the course of the novel. Which is probably why Seivarden is my favorite character in the trilogy.)

24 December 2019

Review: Doctor Who: The Novel of the Film by Gary Russell

Acquired September 2019
Read October 2019
Doctor Who by Gary Russell

I've finished reading the seventh Doctor New Adventures I own, but I have several eighth Doctor books I've never read, and those were the spiritual and literal successors to the NAs, so I'm going to do those next. Before I begin, though, I picked up a book I've always been curious about but have never read: the novelization of the 1996 tv movie starring Paul McGann. It's often called "Doctor Who: The Novel of the Film" (including on the spine), but the title page clearly gives the title as just "Doctor Who," a move that I'm sure has led to absolutely no confusion.

It's by Gary Russell, so it's as workmanlike as you'd expect. Russell fleshes out a lot of background bits. Some work (the prologue with the seventh Doctor is nice, and he almost makes the ending work), but some fall flat (there are bits of the film that are just there to look cool, but fall apart if you think about them, and I would argue that explaining them just makes it worse). I think its biggest problem is that the film succeeds in two areas: visual style and Paul McGann's performance. But those are largely uncaptured on the page; the cool moments don't come across, and the Doctor fades into the background without McGann's charisma.

But hey, if you want a 200-page diversion about the best Doctor, it will do nicely, and I suspect it works well as a transition between the NAs and the EDAs. I guess I'll find out when I read Vampire Science! (Of course, as soon as I track this down used, it's announced that they're re-releasing it as a Target novel with added material. Bah.)

Next Week: The tenth Doctor returns in Revolutions of Terror, as I begin to explore Titan's Doctor Who comics!

23 December 2019

Review: Once Upon a Parsec edited by David Gullen

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2019

Acquired October 2019
Read December 2019
Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales
edited by David Gullen

This science fiction anthology has a fairy tale them: some of the stories are in the form of fairy tales, others are about the telling of tales. Some are both! The title uses the word "alien" but sometimes it means humans on alien planets-- though many others are alien creatures on alien worlds with no acknowledged connections to humanity at all. Like any anthology outside of a really good "best of," the stories are hit and miss; I found the ones that just were fairy tales (but for alien cultures) to be on the weaker side, often too weird and inscrutable-- or too straightforward. The ones more about the telling of tales were usually better, in my opinion, going beyond the frame to say something about why we tell fairy tales.

Along those lines, it's probably bad for the book that one of its best stories is its first, "The Little People" by Una McCormack. It's about human settlers on a distant world, alternating between a second-person narrative about the child of settlers telling themselves the story of colonization and the third-person narrative of the actual colonization. Like all sf, it reflects back on our own world... in this case, quite damningly... but it is (as always for Una) beautifully told. I also liked Liz Williams's "Starfish," which takes as its subject the difficulty of doing something like translating a story from an alien culture to a human one.

That said, Chris Beckett's "The Land of Grunts and Squeaks" was a very good example of what you can do with a "straight" alien fairy tale. It's a tale from the culture of insect species that's in telepathic communion, and it's about a curse: the curse of having that taken away! "Children were left alone with fears which no one else could see. Lovers could no longer feel each other's love. A woman would look at her life's companion and think, 'I'm sorry about those angry feelings I had earlier on. I truly love you with all my heart', but her friend would have no idea she'd had that thought. Tender caresses lost their meaning, becoming no more than one skin touching another." Imagine such a terrible world! It works because it communicates an alien value system and sensibility at the same time it tells a pretty simple story; the weaker examples just tell a system but don't communicate a worldview. Other good stories of this type included "The Tale of Suyenye the Wise, the Ay, and the People of the Shining Land" by Gaie Sebold and "Pale Sister" by Jaine Fenn. There were, perhaps, a few too many like these, though, and after a while, the book got a little monotonous. I want to say that the best stories were up front, but maybe it's just that I got used to most of the themes contained within.

20 December 2019

Review: The Great Ten by Tony Bedard, Scott McDaniel, and Andy Owens

I've long had a thing for non-American superhero teams. There's just something about seeing the inherently American sensibilities of the superhero genre filtered through another culture's ideologies. (Even if it's often for an American publisher, by an American writer!) Did you know that the first two comic books I ever collected were Alpha Flight (Canada's premier superhero team) and Justice League Europe?

So as soon as it was announced, I wanted to read The Great Ten, a miniseries chronicling China's superhero team. It is a testament to the very long list of uncollected comic books I want to buy that I am now finally reading it, almost exactly a decade after it began release.

The Great Ten was created by Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones, and originally appeared in 52. They then appeared here and there before finally getting their own series written by Tony Bedard and drawn by Scott McDaniel (whose work on Green Arrow was so-so). The Great Ten are not "superheroes" technically, but "super-functionaries"-- government bureaucrats with powers. Each member of the Great Ten gets their own spotlight issue... except that if look at the covers, you'll see that the numbering goes "6 of 10"... "7 of 10"... "8 of 9"... "9 of 9"... Whoops. One assumes that the sales just weren't there to support a ten-issue miniseries. Bedard deals with this by having issue #9 focus on two of them, and justifies that choice by putting them in a relationship.

The problem with The Great Ten is that it's serving too many masters. As set up by Bedard, each issue has to do three things: 1) give a flashback origin story for its focal character, 2) give its focal character an adventure in the present day, and 3) advance an ongoing storyline about the old gods returning to China to destroy communism. I think you could do two of these things in an issue, but not three; they jockey for space. We do get potted biographies of each of the Great Ten... but their present-day adventures are rarely character-ful, and we barely get to see how the members of the team interact with each other-- surely one of the primary joys of team books! (And Bedard should know, as someone who did a good job on three different team books I've read: R.E.B.E.L.S., the post-Simone Birds of Prey, and the Legion of Super-Heroes threeboot. Though, on the other hand, he also co-wrote Team 7.)

Sometimes the overarching story gets crowded out by the characters. It feels like the initial attack of the gods goes on for five or six issues, but nothing actually happens. The political turns that come later in the story are confusing and rushed. (Part of the issue might be that McDaniel's politicians all look the same.)

On the other hand, the characters often get short shrift because they can't play key roles in issues that don't focus on them. Celestial Archer defects to help the gods in #2, but switches back basically off-panel. Many of the characters get neat stuff to do in their own focal issues, but there's no room for them to do anything but stand there in the other ones, like Accomplished Perfect Physician, Thundermind (here given a Clark/Lois-esque relationship with a fellow teacher), and Ghost Fox Killer.* Others have backstories that could be interesting, but there's no room for the characters to do much in the present, so they don't leave much of an impression: the Immortal Man-in-Darkness, Seven Deadly Brothers, and Shaolin Robot. I wonder if the book would have been better off a series of done-in-one stories balancing origin flashbacks with present-day escapades.

This is, I think, Morrison and Jones's fault, not Bedard's, but the gender make-up of the team is pretty bad, with just two out of the Great Ten being women. This is exacerbated by Mother of Champion's power being super-reproduction! Whenever there's a crisis, she has sex with a man, and gives birth to twenty-five superpowered babies that age ten years every day: a quickly formed, disposable fighting force. Um, wow. It's actually kind of interesting, perhaps, but squicky given the history of weird pregnancies in superhero comics and sci-fi in general... and c'mon, 20% women and half of their power is reproducing!

I actually didn't mind Scott McDaniel's art. I have often struggled with his faces in the past, but found them mostly improved here, and he has a good sense of storytelling. Maybe he had more time on this book than he did, say, Countdown: Arena?

The final issue, despite its rushed nature, is kind of neat, in that we get substantive interactions between two different characters, Socialist Red Guardsman and Mother of Champions, and a bit of an emotional arc. Plus there's a very unconventional ending. I don't know if it passes the smell test, but Bedard is clearly trying to imagine how a different country would treat superpowers, and the final issue in particular hinges on the rejection of American-style individualism in favor of communalism in a way that's hard to imagine of a more traditional DC book.

I liked that, and kind of wished the book had done more of it. But also, as a non-Chinese person reading a book entirely by non-Chinese people, I wondered how much The Great Ten was really capturing Chinese values, and how much of it was caricature. (DC would later hire a Chinese-American writer for its next China-focused superhero story, New Super-Man, which I hope to read someday.)

Frustratingly, though I don't think The Great Ten quite worked on its own, it's a very good piece of set-up. I think you could run years of adventures off the hooks Bedard came up with for this volume! But because of the book's (probable) poor sales, those were never to be.

The Great Ten was originally published in nine issues (Jan.-Sept. 2010). The story was written by Tony Bedard, pencilled by Scott McDaniel, inked by Andy Owens, colored by the Hories, lettered by Steve Wands, and edited by Michael Siglain.

* A ghost that kills foxes? A ghost fox that kills? A killer of ghost foxes?

19 December 2019

Review: Shadows Beneath by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler

Hardcover, 366 pages
Published 2014
Acquired October 2019
Read December 2019
Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology
edited by Peter Ahlstrom

When I was teaching my science fiction creative writing class this fall, I found myself skimming the transcripts of the podcast Writing Excuses for writing exercises to do in class, or just insights. I still haven't really listened to the podcast, but I found it interesting enough to see if they'd done a textbook: there's definitely a market for a good sf writing textbook as far as I can tell. They haven't exactly, but they have published this, and I was intrigued enough to pick up Shadows Beneath.

Shadows Beneath contains one short story apiece by each of the podcast's four co-hosts. In addition to all the stories, though, each is usually accompanied by:
  • transcripts of brainstorming sessions (from Writing Excuses episodes)
  • early drafts
  • transcripts of critique group sessions (also from WX episodes)
  • "Track Changes" versions between the first full draft and the final draft
  • essays about the process of writing the stories
It's great stuff. It made me wish I had assigned this as a textbook, and if I ever get to teach the class again, I might just. The strength of the book is that it lets you see experienced writers get at some of the more ineffable parts of the writing process. How do you go from an idea to a story? How do you decide what's important in the revision process? It made me think we ought to have spent more time on brainstorming and revision in class.

It's also of benefit that these are just four very solid stories. Of Kowal, I expected that on the basis of other work I've read by her, but I'd never read anything by Brandon Sanderson or Dan Wells before, and the only thing by Howard Tayler I've ever read (Schlock Mercenary) is awful.

Kowal's "A Fire in the Heavens" is neat, but hard to discuss without spoiling what I think ought to remain unspoiled. But suffice it to say, it's a good example of a "first contact" story. The revision is really neat: there's a lot of small alterations that improve the story (things like having the main characters pick a port from a map, rather than just blunder into the closest one), but also a big chunk added into the middle of the story (that it's impossible to imagine not being there, but it worked pretty good without it).

Wells's "I.E.Demon" was my favorite, a fun story about a group of soldiers in Afghanistan who discover that their new I.E.D.-neutralizing device actually runs off demonology... when it malfunctions. Quick and breezy and delightful in the way it thinks through the implications of it all. The revisions are useful, too: there's an abandoned first draft that takes way too long to get to the point, demonstrating how important it is to get a short story to its crisis point quickly. (It also shows the importance of voice, going from third to first person.)

Tayler's "An Honest Death" was pretty good, though I found the ending a little rushed. A company making immortality drugs finds itself being shook down by Death! The story's told from the perspective of the CEO's security guy, as he tries to figure out if that's really what's going on. Like "I.E.Demon," it has strong use of voice and character; I believed in this guy. The concept is neat, even if it took me a couple reads to get the ending. Again, the revisions were instructive.

Sanderson's "Sixth of the Dusk" was my least favorite; I more admired it than enjoyed it, though that might have just been the headspace I was in. Reading the revisions substantially improved my opinion of it, however, as it was interesting to see how Sanderson made the piece much more thematically rich through revision with just a few alterations to most of the story-- and completely redid the ending to bring things full circle in a much more compelling way. The alien biology concepts were really cool.

Incidentally, I think you can classify all four stories here as science fiction, even if they seem fantasy-ish in some ways. There's no magic in "A Fire in the Heavens"; it just takes place on another world with different astronomical principles. "I.E.Demon" has a demon in it, yes, but beyond that it functions like one of those old sf "problem stories" proceeding from the premise that demons are real; a competent man has to be clever to get out of a dangerous situation. "An Honest Death"'s ending makes it clear that we're not looking at Death Death per se, but a more sfnal take on the idea. And thought "Sixth of the Dusk" apparently takes place in Sanderson's Cosmere fantasy universe, on its own, it seems to be science fiction: everything can be explained by weird alien biology and extraterrestrial technology.

And the title is aptly chosen. It's a phrase from Sanderson's story, but it applies fairly literally and also metaphorically to all four. There's literally dangerous things below the surface in the stories by Wells (the demon), Tayler (Death), and Sanderson (sea creatures), and all four stories are about something that was simple but turns out to be much more complicated.

But the title also describes the book's insight into the writing process: as per the cover, we normally just see the poised little boat on the surface, sailing perfectly, and miss the shadows beneath: the false starts, the bad ideas, the arguments, the self-doubt. I've published over 150,000 words of fiction, but I still felt like I learned something from reading this book about how writers write, and I suspect you will too.

18 December 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #617-20: Superfiction, Part 2

"Rather, Rinse, Repeat" / "Four on the Floor, Break Stuff" / "Prestidigitation Nation" / "Martyr Party People"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #617-20 (Aug.-Nov. 2003)

Writer: Joe Casey
Artists: Charlie Adlard and Derec Aucoin

Colors: Tanya & Rich Horie
Assoc. Editors: Tom Palmer jr and Lysa Hawkins
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Now that Superman is an avowed pacifist (except when punching General Zod, I guess) Casey can't write a series of issues of where big bad guys punch their way into Metropolis, and Superman has to punch them back out again (not that he ever really did, anyway). So the last few issues of Casey's run on Adventures of Superman have to be more inventive in the kind of threats they pose, so that Superman can be more inventive in the kind of solutions he comes up with. (Good thing, I suppose, that Doomsday didn't pop by to menace the city during this phase.)

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #618 (art by Charlie Adlard)
This chunk of Superfiction consists of two two-issue stories. The first one (#617-18) is about two encyclopedia salespeople who come to Metropolis, hawking the Encyclopedia Universal. Their previous attempts to get people to buy it haven't gone well; we get a montage of flashbacks of them traveling around the world, talking to different leaders. Then, more flashbacks of them traveling even further afield, which poke fun at DC Comics itself: the Guardians on Oa ("What year is this...?" moans one), the ruling council of Thanagar ("Which reality is this...?"), and the Legion of Super-Heroes ("What is this? Some sort of delinquent youth center...?"). Their attempt to sell it to Perry White renders him comatose, so Superman tackles them, only to fall afoul of their nigh-omnipotent powers himself... and realize that they're a guise for his old foe Mxyzptlk.

Wait, what? I have no idea how Superman put that together. Like, okay, they've got lots of powers and like to be annoying... but surely if you're a superhero, that's the kind of person you meet on the regular? If there was some kind of other clue, I missed it completely.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #618 (art by Charlie Adlard)
The sibling salespeople fight back by removing Earth's gravity, so we get some high-concept sci-fi as Superman needs to figure out a way to hold the Earth together while he takes care of the villains; with the help of the Atom and the JLA, he places a miniature white dwarf star in the Earth's core! So that's cool.

But that's eighteen pages of the second issue; in the last three pages, he just buys a set of encyclopedias after all, Mxyzptlk makes a speech about how they're going to be more evil these days ("you'll know what we're capable of. [...] No more games. No more saying our name backwards to get rid of us. We're in the mood to be a real super-villain... and next time, we won't hit the reset button."), and then that's it, it's over. I mean, it's slightly clever action, but it's still one big action sequence, and one that's heavily dependent on made-up super-science. The first issue sets them up as fun villains with a weird plan, but once it's revealed that they're not really salespeople, just Mxyzptlk in disguise, it all kind of fizzles out.

It's fun enough, though, like I said. There's a sub-plot about a S.T.A.R. Labs spaceship in Earth orbit; for some reason, it's staffed by people who Charlie Adlard draws with uniforms like the Imperial Navy's in Star Wars for some reason. (In a brief aside in #617, they help Superman defeat "the ghost of a dead parallel Earth [...] invad[ing] our galaxy!") There's also a bit in #618 where it's finally explained where the Persuader got his powers from in #610:
DOLORIS: I know! Let's do a ret-con!
DALE: Oh, excellent! [...] What should we do...? So many inconsistencies to choose from...! [...] Does the name "Cole Parker" ring a bell? He was a social anarchist who attacked the Daily Planet and got thrown into Stryker's Island... while he was inside, he hooked up with a mysterious stranger who used his powers to transform Parker into the Persuader. Who was that mysterious stranger...?
DOLORIS: Don't tell me, he was us...?
DALE: He is now. Kinda wraps thing up neat and tidy, eh?
from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #620
(art by Derec Aucoin)
I admire the sheer brazenness of it. One imagines Casey had plans for the mysterious stranger, but decided to never follow them up, and tied off the dangling thread with the most lampshaded of retcons!

The other two issues are about a new candidate for president, set to oppose Luthor in the upcoming election. He's known only as "the Candidate," his campaign promises are vague: "We can achieve." Later he says, "America is ready for change! Well, guess what, America...? I am change!" Reading in 2019, it's impossible not to see something of Obama's 2008 "hope and change" in him and some of Trump's 2016 populist rhetoric as well. Coastal elite Lois Lane sniffs about how people tailgate at the Candidate's rallies. The Candidate-- like Obama and Trump after him-- shows disdain for the press, preferring to speak directly to the people. He's the big hero who will single-handedly save America. But of course, Casey was just extrapolating from what was already happening in 2003: "Show biz politics. Perfect for modern voters. They don't have to think..."

The Candidate won't give interviews; when Lois and Clark bicker over who should get the assignment to obtain one, Perry White gives it to both of them: "You two engage in the strangest foreplay..." What follows is pretty fun, as the two compete; Clark promises no superpowers, but is hampered by his need to keep flying over the world taking care of random crises. Lois, in the meanwhile, dons a catsuit to do some infiltration. Previously in Casey's run, the status quo of Lois and Clark hasn't been in flux. Not because of his writing, but because of what was happening in the other titles: for a while they were separated as Lois traveled the world; later, Clark was suspended from the Daily Planet. But here they are, together, and both reporters, and it's great stuff, showing their competitive streak, and their love for each other. Derec Aucoin is great at this stuff by now; their love comes through even in their body language.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #619
(art by Derec Aucoin)
While Superman is distracted by a "cannibal planet" that eats the sun's heat, dooming the Earth, an alien assassin attacks the Candidate, only for Lois to intervene and save him. The Candidate is not pleased: "...martyrdom is the final act of political legend, social action through social trauma... The object of government is to prey on the ignorance of the masses... They want it simple...heroes who will die for them...and now it's all gone...who'd vote for me now...?" It's a weird ending to a weird issue, almost an anticlimax, but I enjoyed it anyway.

I think there must have been some kind of directive from editorial that even if Superman was a pacifist, there had to be some big action anyway, because every issue here has a big sequence, even if it's not plot-related. #617 has the dead parallel Earth, like I said; #618 the dwarf star business; #619 has a few panels where we see Superman in Cairo defeating Osiris, god of the dead, because "Superman is the personification of life"; and in #620, there's Superman's big fight with the cannibal planet (though we eventually learn the alien bounty hunter brought it in as a distraction!). These are usually careful to maintain Superman's pacifism, so he's never punching these enemies to death, but I guess you can't sell a Superman comic where people just talk it out.

I would like to see Casey try to write one, though.


17 December 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: The Collectors

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014

Acquired December 2017
Read July 2019
Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: The Collectors
by Christopher L. Bennett

May 2384
I had a mixed reaction to the first two Temporal Investigations books, which had some good ideas and were sometimes fun, but often got bogged down in continuity references that crowded out story. The third installment sees a format change, to novella, which makes it more focused and story-driven, plus we're all out of episodes to explain away, so Bennett has to come up with a plot that builds on Star Trek time travel, but isn't beholden to any previous story.

The result is delightful. Dulmur and Lucsly are inducting a new artifact into the DTI's vault when Agent Jen Noi (a contemporary of Enterprise's Daniels) pops up to claim it for the 31st century instead. Soon, Dulmur and Lucsly are being whisked away to an alternate 31st century, and then even further afield. It's just fun, and surprisingly given its length, it feels big. There's lots of great stuff here: Jena Noi using time technology in hand-to-hand combat, megastructures of the kind we rarely see in Star Trek, the awesome scale (and kind-of logic) of the Collectors' plan, the Borg T. rex(!), the way Garcia and Ranjea rewrite their own histories but don't even notice, Lucsly's reaction to being in the future being to keep his eyes closed so he can't contaminate the timeline, the TIA's method for beating the Collectors (a lot like Mudd's technique in "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," actually). Sometimes Bennett's writing can get bogged down and clunky, but that's not true here; this book zips along, playful and entertaining.

It's not all roses; I was little annoyed the 24th-century agents trying to track down Dulmur and Lucsly have no real effect on the story, and the bit where Dulmur and Lucsly solve their personal issues by noting how the Collectors' problems parallel their own and give a speech about it is a bit on the nose. But fundamentally I really enjoyed this, and I look forward to reading future DTI e-novellas. Given how often I feel like Destiny-era novels take to long to get to the point, maybe all Star Trek books should be novellas?

Continuity Notes:
  • I did wonder if I was being silly, pausing Cold Equations to read this, but in the end I'm glad I did, because 1) I wasn't enjoying Cold Equations very much whereas I did very much enjoy this, and 2) there are a few small but meaningful references to the Breen plot from Silent Weapons.
  • There's a bit about how there was a brief, abandoned fashion for holo-communicators. At the time it was written, it was referring to the Deep Space Nine episodes "For the Uniform" and "Doctor Bashir, I Presume," but these days you can pretend it's a reference to their use in the 2250s in Discovery (although, the tech is said to be clunky, which isn't true of the Discovery version).
  • I liked that Rom as Grand Nagus is making the Ferengi more conscious of the perils of time travel; given his experiences in "Little Green Men," it makes sense!
Other Notes:
  • I continue to like how the 31st-century time agents are to the DTI as the FBI is to local police.
  • A couple characters' rants feel too much like Bennett's own rants, and it threw me out of the story: the one about advanced technology the Federation ignores, and the one about how people confuse different alien species with the Preservers.
  • It's a Christopher Bennett book, so people are constantly commenting on how attractive the women are.
  • Some foreshadowing here-- what is the Body Electric?

16 December 2019

Review: Discworld: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Mass market paperback, 355 pages
Published 2001 (originally 1989)

Borrowed from my wife
Read August 2019
Guards! Guards!: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

I recently organized my wife's books for her, which made me cognizant of the number of books she owned that I would like to read, but haven't. So I have begun a sporadic project to do so, beginning with the Discworld novels in general, and the City Watch subseries in particular, since multiple people who know my tastes well have told me these would be my favorites.

Well, there are some forty Discworld novels to read after this, so it will be a long time before I know if they actually are my favorites, but I did really enjoy this. It's one of those books were you keep laughing aloud-- and keep pausing your reading to explain the jokes to whoever's around you, who in my case was my wife, which meant she suffered through hearing about jokes she'd already read! Carrot Ironfoundersson is a human biologically, but a dwarf culturally, and is sent to Ankh-Morpork to make something of himself after a lifetime in the dwarf mines. But he's also a bit dim, a bit literal, and bit earnest, meaning the fact that the Night Watch spends its time avoiding work is kind of lost on him. One of my favorite gags was when he's told all he has to do is walk around the streets saying, "It's Twelve O'clock and All's Well." Carrot asks what if it's not all well, and he's told, "You bloody well find another street"! (I was also a big fan of all the jokes about the incompetent secret conspiracy.)

So I laughed a lot as Carrot's new way of doing things gradually infects the other members of the Watch, especially its alcoholic captain, Samuel Vimes, and before they know it, they're actually investigating crimes. It occasionally gets serious, which I appreciate; there's a small subplot about xenophobia, which feels more relevant in 2019 than it did in 1989, I suspect, and is a theme Pratchett will return to in future City Watch novels, especially Jingo. This might be the funniest of the City Watch novels, actually, because as time goes on, Pratchett tones down the comedy and amps up the social commentary. The funniest, perhaps, but not the best.

(If you have the 2000s U.S. Harper edition, don't read the back cover, as it gives away what would have been a clever twist from around the three-quarters mark. Unforgivable!)

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

Ahlstrom, Peter, editor. Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology. Dragonsteel, 2014.
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.
Sanderson, Brandon, et al., hosts. Writing Excuses. 2008-present, writingexcuses.com.

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.