29 March 2019

"the harmonious voice of all science fiction": The St. Xavier High School Science Fiction Club, 2004-????

Like most hairbrained things I did in high school, I think the Science Fiction Club can be blamed on Chris.

I don't know how or why he came up with it, only that he did. It was our sophomore year. We would meet weekly to watch or otherwise discuss science fiction. Us being us, I think we put more work into the organizational structure than anything else. According to our Constitution (written by Chris and revised by our friend James):
We the fans of science fiction declare in one voice, not a voice of Star Trek, Star Wars, or Babylon 5, but the harmonious voice of all science fiction, that this document shall bring order to chaos, provide an open forum for all of science fiction, and secure the Blessings of the future to ourselves and our school, and thus do ordain and establish this Constitution of the Science Fiction Club.
Additionally, according to Article V, Section 2: "Membership as well as suffrage cannot be denied due to grade level, science fiction preferences, or political preferences. Membership and suffrage is a right of all students of St. Xavier High School."

Other clubs had presidents; presidents were boring. We would have a Lord Chancellor. Other clubs had vice presidents; vice presidents were boring. We would have a Vice Chancellor. Other clubs had treasurers; treasurers were boring. We would have a Minister of the Purse. Other clubs had secretaries; secretaries were boring. We would have a Minister of Information.

Though then we ran into the problem that our core friend group ran five deep, and we had only come up with four positions. Well, why not an ominously titled organization with a vague remit so that we could enact secret powers? Hence, we had a Minister of Internal Affairs.

Our executive committee equivalent was called "Starfleet Command."

I don't know how I ended up Lord Chancellor, because no one would ever want me to run anything, especially not at age 15. Chris was Vice Chancellor (I think he wanted the real power, but to avoid scrutiny.) The Lord Chancellor ran for election and appointed his Starfleet Command, but we always worked hard to suppress any opposition, so that the same five of us filled the same positions for all three years.

Soon executive departments were proliferating (I think this is what other people would call ad hoc committees). According to my executive orders (still saved on an external hard drive!), we had a Party Commission, a Book Commission, a Commission on Patches and Shirts, a Bureau of Web Affairs, a National Interests Authority, and a Department of Organization and Rules. Somewhat astoundingly, in retrospect, I wasn't part of that last one.

(According to the public document, the NIA "[a]ssist[ed] in the smooth functioning of the Science Fiction Club by providing cross-departmental coordination," but according to a secret document, it "defend[ed] the Science Fiction Club from outside forces and protects its well-being. Also provides for a militia." The DOR had the secret task of "[f]urther[ing] Starfleet Command’s control of the Science Fiction Club by creating slowdown procedures and extensive paperwork to stifle unwanted resolutions"!)

((I'm not sure why this was needed at all, because the constitution itself was pretty un-democratic. The Lord Chancellor got to decide if issues submitted by members were major or minor; minor issues got voted on by the whole club directly with a simple majority, but major issues needed first majority approval by Starfleet Command, and then two-thirds approval by the membership. So I could basically kill any unwanted motion by declaring it major. Starfleet Command was appointed by me, so it's not likely they'd go against my wishes!))

Most of the time we'd watch random movies. That's where I first saw Stargate, Gattaca, the John Hurt 1984, and Blade Runner, for example. Sometime we'd do theme months: for a Cyborg Month, we watched one installment of Remembrance of the Daleks a week and then an episode of another show featuring a cyborg (e.g., "The Best of Both Worlds"). My senior year, I was responsible for driving home my brother and his friend Kurt and the German exchange student living with Kurt; Kurt was a participant. I remember Kurt making fun of the Daleks during episode one of Remembrance... and him excitingly explaining to Georg how awesome the Special Weapons Dalek when we were driving home after watching episode four.

We had a Time Travel Month, and every year we did an Anime Month. (That was to appease the club's anime-lovers; without that sort of designated slot, I think they would have pushed for us to watch anime all the time.) I complained a lot at the time, but given it was my introduction to Patlabor, I probably shouldn't.

Some of the best stuff was not movies, though. We had a Klingon Month. Weeks one and two we watched Star Trek VI, but week three we did Federation vs. Klingons capture the flag, and then week four we did a Klingon feast. I made bloodwine by mixing red koolaid with red Jello. I think someone else made bloodworm pie with gummy worms. We played the Star Trek: The Next Generation VCR Board Game and Star Trek Monopoly. We borrowed buzzers from the Quiz Team to do a Star Wars trivia match (using cards from Star Wars Trivial Pursuit), and I was made quizmaster, because everyone knew I would win if I played.

We occasionally did "literary bonanzas" where people read bits of books aloud. I don't remember specifically, but I am sure James probably read a political treatise part of 1984; it's exactly what he would do. I remember reading all of Italo Calvino's tremendous "The Light Years," which took a lot longer than I expected (I think 30 minutes!) but seemed to go over well.

I have some pretty good memories of those days.

It's because of Science Fiction Club that I ended up making Doctor Who audio dramas for fun, and from there Star Trek and Star Wars and original sf ones. One of those Star Trek audio dramas provided the kernel for (and shares a title with) my Star Trek novel, A Choice of Catastrophes.

It did persist beyond the five of us. I don't know exactly how long, but Chris once went back and talked to a group of club members, none of whom had ever actually known us, just knew our names from the founding documents, and approached us with awe and respect. (Like the Thermians in Galaxy Quest, at least according to Chris's telling.)

I went back once myself; they were watching Red vs. Blue. It was dreadfully unfunny. Like all once-great institutions, it had decayed into a shadow of its former self. I don't know if it still exists, though it seems unlikely to me.

I don't know if my friends did, but I always listed the SFC on my extracurriculars when applying to college. At a scholarship interview at Xavier University, an admissions official asked me, "...but why Lord Chancellor?"

"Because it's cooler than a president."

#417: What role do school clubs and teams play in your life?

28 March 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Sir Willoughby Patterne (The Egoist, 1879)

Trade paperback, 606 pages
Published 1978 (originally 1879)

Acquired January 2019
ead February 2019
The Egoist by George Meredith
'The world has faults; glaciers have crevices, mountains have chasms; but is not the effect of the whole sublime? Not to admire the mountain and the glacier because they can be cruel, seems to me . . . And the world is beautiful.'
     'The world of nature, yes. The world of men?'
     'My love, I suspect you to be thinking of the world of ballrooms.'
     'I am thinking of the world that contains real and great generosity, true heroism. We see it round us.'
     'We read of it. The world of the romance writer!'
     'No: the living world. I am sure it is our duty to love it. I am sure we weaken ourselves if we do not.' (100)
This book was recommended to me by a graduate student I met at NAVSA; when I told him about my project on Victorian scientist novels, he asked if I had read The Egoist. I had not. I had actually never read any George Meredith, as far as I know. Now that I have read it, George Meredith strikes me as one of those Victorian novelists we are probably better off not reading. The Egoist is supposedly about the necessity of comedy to puncture egoism-- but it strikes me as something of a bad idea to begin your supposed paean to comedy with an incredibly unfunny and overly pedantic explanation of why humor is important.

Anyway, there are moments of what I'm interested in in this overly long and tedious novel, but there are better examples. Sir Willoughby Patterne is a man of science, sort of vaguely defined-- I don't think we ever learn what kind of science he actually does even though he's in his laboratory a lot of time-- and this does affect his romantic relationships. His egoism means he always needs to get his way, is always trying to bend his fiancée to his will. Science doesn't seem to be to blame though, because even though he's in the laboratory so much, he supposedly mostly does it because science is popular; his true passion is sport (46). On the other hand, his devotion to the laboratory is more complete than that of his rivals (71), so even if it's not his passion per se, he throws himself into it.

There is an emphasis on how he sees the world; as my epigraph above indicates, he doesn't see the world the same as his fiancée Clara, because his perceptions come from science, while hers come from ballrooms and romances. The biggest consequence of his egoism seems to be that he thinks he understands himself more than he actually does understand himself. That seems a scientific problem-- the scientist has to have the ego to believe they understand the world better, and that ego is not always warranted-- but other Victorian scientist novels deal with the topic better than Meredith does. Stay away if you can.

27 March 2019

Review: Hornblower: Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 323 pages
Published 1966 (originally 1938)

Acquired May 2007 
Previously read April 2008 
Reread January 2019
Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester

When I originally read this book, as the seventh Hornblower story in chronological order, I wasn't much into it:
Honestly, I think I find Horatio a bit less interesting to read about as an accomplished captain than when he's younger. I don't know if it's due to something intrinsic to the more unsure (and less insane) character of the earlier books or just because of the fact that the earlier books were written later on and Forester sharpened his skills as he went. Certainly it does help that young Hornblower didn't spend all his time mooning over Lady Barbara, though. This book feels less like a novel and, like Hornblower and the Atropos before it, more like a series on incidents that just happen to occur in order on the same ship. It's a little harder to get into as a result, and it might be my least favorite novel in the series yet, but there's still some to enjoy, particularly Hornblower's sneaky impressment of the crews of the East India Company and his ability to be always brilliant, such as when he takes out three forts single-handedly.
This time, reading it second in publication order, I enjoyed it much more. It's a rousing return for a character one wanted to see come back, like, say, the opening of Superman II. Hornblower is on the top of his form in this book, sailing from triumph to triumph to triumph. Last time that kind of irritated me, because it seemed like he faced no real challenges, but this time I enjoyed it, partially because I hadn't read as much Hornblower recently, and partially because I knew what was coming. Ship of the Line follows one of the classic trilogy structures, the one where the second installment ends in devastating defeat for the hero. Ship of the Line is filled with successes, then, to highlight the devastation of the failure at the end, and I think foreknowledge of that-- knowing that Hornblower is going to face a reckoning-- makes reading a novel about success after success after success a lot more enjoyable. (The bit about impressing the East India sailors I had totally forgotten about, and it was once again my favorite part. Impressment is such a bizarre practice, and one of the highlights of Ship of the Line is how much it delves into it.)

I do still struggle with Hornblower's relationship with Lady Barbara. One wants Hornblower to be pure and heroic, but he's not, and I guess that's good from the standpoint of complexity. Perhaps I'm too influenced by Ioan Gruffudd's performance on screen, but's hard for me to imagine him being unfaithful. In this novel, I did kind of reach an understanding of it, though. In Russell T Davies's The Writer's Tale, he talks about how a character's strengths and flaws should really be the same thing. I saw that here. Hornblower's sense of duty makes him into a superb commander and fighting machine, but it also makes him into a man who feels obligated to stay in a loveless marriage, and also refuses to act for his own pleasure outside that marriage. But as I read deeper into the series this interpretation of Hornblower's character didn't quite hold up...

26 March 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Zero Sum Game

Mass market paperback, 336 pages
Published 2010

Acquired September 2012
Read December 2017
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game
by David Mack

April-August 2382
There's a sort of Cold War analogy implicit in the Typhon Pact: its name derives, if I remember rightly, from the Warsaw Pact, and the Typhon polities are in a sort of Cold War competition with the Khitomer ones (i.e., the Federation and the Klingons). Zero Sum Game is an espionage thriller making use of that background: the Breen have stolen the slipstream drive schematics from Starfleet, hoping to develop a fleet of slipstream vessels for the Pact, and Julian Bashir and Sarina Douglas are assigned to destroy the plans before the prototype is launched. You can imagine this happening in a Tom Clancy novel with, I dunno, cruise missile plans or something.

On one level, this is an espionage thriller, and this is the kind of thing David Mack excels at. His solo Star Trek debut was the action-packed, emotional Wildfire; he followed this up books like the intense Failsafe and the similarly intense A Time to Kill and to Heal. Though I'm sure it's actually no easier than any other kind of writing is, it seems like Mack can shoot these things off in his sleep. Julian and Sarina go undercover, blow up some trains, meet some dissidents, infiltrate some bases, shoot some baddies, fight some torturers, and eventually blow up a ton of shit in an action-packed climax. It's well done and the book moves along quite zippily, and it was ideal reading for an airplane trip.

At the same time, Captain Ezri Dax on the Aventine is playing space chicken with Breen and Romulan forces, trying to stay in position for a slipstream extraction of Julian and Sarina. This is all well and good, though I find the personalities of the non-Ezri Aventine crew to range from "present" to "still there."

On another level, this is an exploration of the Breen, a Star Trek race that our knowledge of comes from a lot of random tidbits that don't entirely add up. The way Mack sews them all together is quite ingenious, making the Breen culture an amalgam of different species, enforcing a lack of prejudice by suits that ensure the true species of any given Breen is known only to themself. Thus the inconsistent information about the Breen is explained as encounters with different species. It's a really interesting idea, a sort of warped mirror of the Federation's equality as well as a take on Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron."

Unfortunately, the novel doesn't really do anything with it, except that the suits provide a convenient way for Julian and Sarina to sneak into Breen society undetected. I can imagine a novel that uses espionage and infiltration to explore an alien society (The Romulan Way kind of does this), but Zero Sum Game isn't it. We only meet two types of Breen here: dissidents who don't like the enforced equality, and nasty bad guys. (Well, plus a kind of nice engineer, but he's pretty pointless.) What is life like in Breen society? We have no sense of it, there's no real worldbuilding at all, and that seems like a shame and a huge missed opportunity. There's a scene where Julian and Douglas hang out in a market for hours, but we're told all they see is "mundane interactions." Given how different kinds of "markets" (say) an American shopping mall and a South African flea market are, to gloss over this is one of many missed opportunities when it comes to exploring Breen culture.

Especially as this concept makes the Breen more Federation-esque than you might expect, but in a different way. Seeing a "true believer" of the Breen way of life could have really expanded our understanding of their society. The non-dissident Breen are filled with hate for the Federation, but imagine them as more rueful over the Federation's misguided attempts at "equality." Also you might argue that Breen culture would appeal to Julian Bashir; one of Julian's throughlines in the novel (about which I'll say more in a moment) is that Sarina is a rare person who he feels like he fits with. Thus it seems to me there's potential in a Breen-style society for Julian, where one is judged on accomplishments, not background, as was true for Bashir up until he was revealed as genetically engineered. Would the "masking" of the Breen be a release for someone like him? I hope that future Destiny-era novels do more with the Breen culture Mack set up here, because it's a great idea with a lot of potential.

Finally, the character throughline of Julian didn't work for me. The narrative keeps telling us he's in love with Sarina, but it's not really shown. I felt like there was a missed opportunity in the action scenes to show Julian and Sarina as matched and compatible, as the only people able to keep up with each other, which would sell the reader on what Julian keeps saying about how Sarina is the only person operating on his level. Instead it seems like Julian just follows Sarina around and acts aghast at her decisions a lot, interrupted by occasional scenes where they flirt and/or have sex. Having them be on the same page for most of the novel would also make Sarina's decision to abandon the Breen dissidents more shocking; as it is, Julian comes across as naïve for being surprised by it given Sarina's attitudes throughout the novel. The novel is clearly setting up a long-term fall of some sort for Julian, though, and I'm interested in seeing where things go from here.

So, overall I would say this was a highly enjoyable thriller-- but it felt like it could have been a highly enjoyable thriller and an exploration of an alien culture and a stronger exploration of Julian Bashir himself.

Continuity Notes:
  • It turns out Ro Laren is in command of Deep Space 9 now, which seems to have potential. I wonder how it will be handled going forward.
Other Notes:
  • I didn't really care for the scene of Ezri and Julian arguing. Seemed improbably immature, especially when Julian storms off.
  • This book also highlights a problem in the Destiny era that dates back to A Time for War, A Time for Peace and Articles of the Federation: I really do think 24th-century Federation politics were better left off screen most of the time. They're just so mundane and contemporary. On the other hand, I do like President Bacco and love Esperanza Piñiero, so who knows.

25 March 2019

Review: Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Trade paperback, 208 pages
Published 2018

Borrowed from my wife
Read November 2018
Binti: The Night Masquerade
by Nnedi Okorafor

The first two Binti books didn't do a ton for me, but there seemed little reason not to read the third given it's only 200 pages and my wife already owned it. I actually think this was my least favorite Binti book yet, with the most muddled emotional throughline, an overly meandering plot, and too much happenstance. If you described these books to me, I would anticipate loving them, but for whatever reason, they just failed to grab me. Learning to appreciate diversity both in the world and in the self at space school seems like a great premise, but the books never adequately sell their protagonist. I do think it was a mistake to not have a book about Binti actually at space school; her return to school here rings hollow because we've never actually seen her there! There should have been a story between Binti and Home, and then Home and The Night Masquerade should have been a single, more focused book.

22 March 2019

Oh my!

This happened to me some time ago, but back then I didn't blog about actual life events a whole lot; I recounted the story to someone a couple weeks ago, and it seems worth recounting here for posterity.

Back in 2014, when I was still a graduate student at UConn, George Takei was announced as coming to campus.

Of course, like any Star Trek fan I have an appreciation for George Takei. Captain Sulu, "oh my!", and so on. But I have a particular appreciation for George Takei because mine and Michael's first Star Trek book was Myriad Universe: The Tears of Eridanus. Set in an alternate reality where the Andorians dominate the Federation instead of humanity, it focuses on Captain Hikaru Sulu, captain of the largely Andorian crew of the Kumari, sent on a rescue mission to save his daughter on a desert planet. I wrote the Hikaru chapters, and I really enjoyed writing them. I think this Sulu is fundamentally the same as the Prime universe Sulu: a fundamentally inquisitive, personable man capable of steel when the situation calls for. I drew on how Sulu was an astrophysicist in the second pilot to make him a scientist, here struggling in the more militaristic environment of this universe.

Takei was appearing, I think, as part of his promotion of Allegiance, his musical that would debut on Broadway about a year later; the talk was co-sponsored by the Asian-American Studies Institute, the director of whom was on English faculty, and I knew, just knew that there had to be a dinner. There's always a dinner in academia.

I wanted in on that dinner.

After much hemming and hawing and I finally decided I would approach the professor, who I had taken one class with, and who was (I thought) friendly enough with me. I begged her to let me in somehow.

Thankfully, she acceded, with the condition that I would have to earn my keep by helping her. She was on crutches, so I would be her dogsbody, transporting her to and from the event, and doing any needed fetching and carrying. Of course I agreed.

The dinner wasn't one of those things where it's a speaker and six university types at the local Chinese place; it was a whole room of tables, with UConn catering. I was not at George Takei's table-- such an honor was reserved for the UConn president and provost and their like. (The provost, an Asian-American nerd himself, was the most human I ever saw him.) I had a copy of Tears with me, which I had made out to him, and I had wanted to give it to him at the dinner, but the whole time he was chatting up a storm and I couldn't work up the nerve to interrupt. He was doing a signing after his talk, so I figured I just give it to him then.

(Incidentally, the whole of UConn's Undergraduate Student Government executive was there, apparently having been invited as a matter of course. Was such courtesy extended to the Graduate Student Senate executive, of which I was then a member? At UConn in 2014, you don't even have to ask. I did get to chat with the president briefly... she failed to recognize me in any way shape or form even though we had had several interactions over the past couple years. Say what you will about our ruthless provost, but he knew to smile as he slipped in the knife.)

After his talk, I stood in the autograph line. This turned out to be quite long and I was quite a ways toward the end. Eventually it was declared that beyond a certain point no one was going to get to talk to him. Thankfully, the woman managing this was someone I had sat next to and explained my backstory to during dinner, so she let me stay in line. As the very last person in line, I was able to present George Takei with my autograph, telling him I had written a novel of Captain Sulu. He graciously accepted it and said some kind words, I think.

And that was it! I sometimes wonder what happened to that book. I doubt he read it. I read somewhere that some celebrities auction off stuff fans give them and donate the money to charity. Has some random fan gotten a copy of Tears of Eridanus with my inscription to George Takei? Or is the book in a pride of place on his bookshelf, as THE definitive Sulu novel?

#646: What famous person would you like to visit your school?

21 March 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Doctor Antomarchi, Psychiatrist (The Rose and the Key, 1871)

Hardcover, 395 pages
Published 2007 (originally 1871)

Borrowed from the library
ead February 2019
The Rose and the Key by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
"You can't explain, or deny it—I am to infer that," persisted Antomarchi; "you can't."
     "I can't—can I?—I can't—oh! what is it?—I feel so strangely." She shook her ears as if a fly was humming at them, and lifted her pretty fingers towards her temple vaguely. (344-45)
This incredibly dull novel focuses on a young woman who is wrongfully committed to a mental asylum (as the Victorians were always worried about); I read it as part of my project on Victorian scientists, curious about Doctor Antomarchi, the overseer of the asylum. Antomarchi might write some of the best papers in scientific journals (179), but he doesn't do much science-y stuff on the page. Mostly he's a malevolent mesmerist, as in the above passage, where he won't let our young hero say that she's not really suicidal, thanks to the malign power of his gaze. The actual asylum part is interesting, but it's just the last hundred pages or so in a four-hundred-page novel. Nothing that interesting happens prior to that; just people dancing and arguing. Not worth it at all.

(The introduction to my Valancourt edition is weird, spending dozens of pages telling you about Irish political history before it even gets to the novel. Establish a context for me to care before you begin going on about this! I tuned out long before she made any kind of claims about why knowing Irish political history would enhance my interpretation of the novel.)

20 March 2019

Review: Hornblower: Beat to Quarters by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 324 pages
Published 1966 (originally 1937)

Acquired May 2007 
Previously read March 2008 
Reread January 2019
Beat to Quarters by C. S. Forester

I originally read the Horatio Hornblower novels about a decade ago now, but since I didn't own the last three novels at the time, I didn't finish the series. Now I've sat down to read those last three, but I decided I ought to reread the first several. Only, last time I read them in internal chronological order, so to switch it up, this time I decided to do publication order.

Thus we start here, with what is certainly the best of the Hornblower novels, and is probably a better entry point than the first book chronologically if you're a Hornblower novice. (If you've already seen the tv show, though, go ahead and start with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.) Beat to Quarters is an astounding achievement in naval fiction. Most of the novels are good, but this one is something else. It's taut, focused, and tense. You completely inhabit the world and the way of thinking of the Royal Navy. You don't know what a lot of the words mean, but you love it anyway, because they feel true. It's a harsh world, but it's another world, and it's hard to judge by our own standards. I suspect there are a lot of sf fans who are also Hornblower fans, because they scratch very similar itches: the depiction of an alternate world related to our own, but also a focus on intellect and cleverness. Hornblower is a problem-solver like one of those Golden Age sf heroes.

The book is very well constructed. Hornblower is sent to make overtures of alliance to El Supremo, a Spanish rebel on the Pacific coast of South America, because Spain is ally to Bonaparte. He captures with ease a Spanish ship of the line and turns it over to El Supremo-- and then when he goes to report in to the local British authorities, learns that before he had even done this, Spain had broken off its alliance with France, and is now allied with Britain. And so he has to go back to sea to capture the ship back from El Supremo. It's a beautifully done reversal; when Hornblower captures the Natividad so easily you almost think the author has rigged things in his favor, but recapturing it is a much more difficult prospect. The reversal is simultaneously sort of tragic and hilarious. The final battle with Natividad is amazing, gripping; it goes on for chapters but never gets old. You feel every gust of wind, every broadside, as the crew of the Lydia must fight to reclaim the Natividad with all they've got. A lot of the Hornblower novels are good, and they're all worth your time, but Forester perfected the character here, to be honest.

In my original review, I wrote:
The sixth Hornblower book chronologically, this was actually the first written, which results in some rather bizarre discontinuities as you might expect. Oh, bits of Hornblower's history don't match up-- he's probably never served with Bush before, and Bush certainly wasn't first mate on his first command as depicted in Hornblower and the Hotspur-- but Hornblower's character is a little off as well. This man's need for emotional detachment comes across as almost insane at times, though the death of Hornblower's children at the end of the previous installment sort of explains that. If you squint a bit. [...] Surprisingly, the romance with Lady Barbara was even almost palatable here, thanks to our ability to get Hornblower's inner thoughts regarding it. (I think it would be better in writing order, where we wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet Maria first.)
Indeed, if you read it in publication sequence, it's clear that Bush hasn't served with Hornblower before. Part of the trajectory of the novel is Bush coming to like and respect this odd captain. (And, somewhere by the end of the second book, you realize Hornblower has come to like and respect Bush in his own way.) You don't find Hornblower's character to be off-- because this is Hornblower's character. Everything else was a later imposition. Hornblower might be almost insane, but Beat to Quarters makes it clear that such detachment is required to be successful on a mission like this, the sole outpost of British authority on the far side of the world. I was right about the romance with Lady Barbara; with Maria but an intellectual abstraction, I could enjoy the Hornblower/Barbara romance, though Hornblower's infidelity is the one thing I never quite came to terms with. (I'll discuss that more in my reviews of the later books.)

One thing I noticed I hadn't the first time around is the narrator. It's a close third-person perspective, but not a limited one, as the narrator occasionally tells us things that other characters are thinking, or that Hornblower doesn't realize about his own self. The narrator is clearly from the time of publication, as he occasionally breaks in with acknowledged anachronisms (like, he says the word "globetrotter" didn't exist yet, but if it did, it would be how Hornblower would think of Lady Barbara), something that stuck out to me because as far as I noticed, Forester never used such a device in the rest of the series.

19 March 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Watching the Clock

Mass market paperback, 498 pages
Published 2011

Acquired September 2012
Read November 2017
Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock
by Christopher L. Bennett

2381-82 (Stardate 58188.4 (a Tuesday) to 59155.0 (a Friday)), plus myriad other time periods too copious to mention
These days, the way New Frontier was populated with popular Next Generation guest stars in order to establish its legitimacy as a literary spin-off of the screen franchise seems positively naïve: here we have a novel based around two characters whose total screentime can be collected in a four-minute video. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical going in, but Department of Temporal Investigations turned out to be a fun premise. The joy of it is in the way that Bennett approaches the DTI as a long-running cop show, about well-meaning but tired civil servants just trying to do their best in a universe that doesn't appreciate them.

It's the small details that make the book work: I liked the joke about how DTI agents are tired of time jokes (the one in the opening chapter was delightful); I liked how uptime temporal agents are higher authorities, basically like when the FBI turns up in a police procedural; I liked the idea that after major disasters, the DTI has more work both because of people trying to change history and because of tourists/researchers coming back to see it; I liked the little digest history of the DTI, where when Starfleet gets time travel, they're all "neat! let's explore time too! what could go wrong!" and the DTI is formed because the government is like, "You keep almost wiping out recorded history. STOP IT." I liked the portrayal of Dulmur and Lucsly. Bennett stated his intention was to turn their very colorlessness into an asset, and the book succeeded in this. I liked both of their fervent devotion to the job, and the sly humor of Lucsly, especially his final line in the penultimate chapter.

The book's strongest parts are its beginning and its ending. The opening chapter, featuring an agent who's snapped after a rough mission in the wake of Star Trek: Destiny is good fun; I loved both his rant ("Kill her, don't kill her, none of this makes a difference to the multiverse.") and Lucsly's putdown of it ("stop abusing temporal physics as an excuse to dodge responsibility for your own choices!"). The whole first chapter leads like the pilot episode of DTI tv show, because it goes straight from this (obviously the opening teaser) into a quick mystery about passenger transport that traveled through time, which has tv-style cutting between suspect interrogations. The whole thing culminates in the induction of a new member of the DTI, a potential viewpoint character. It was fun and entertaining.

Unfortunately, the whole book is not like that. It soon settles into a monotonous format of alternating present-day cases of the DTI in 2381 to 2382 with flashbacks that slowly ascend from 2364 to 2378. None of these cases are as good as the first one, which could stand on its own as a little story-- most of the flashback cases follow the format of "DTI turns up the aftereffects of a Next Generation episode; exposition is delivered to massage the details into the novel's Unified Theory of Star Trek Time Travel." It's definitely small world, and none of them are as zippily written as the introduction, sometimes getting quite belabored in their explaining of temporal theory, Star Trek continuity, or both. It's formulaic and there's not enough at stake in most of them to be interesting. Some are still entertaining, though (I liked the bit where Janeway escapes temporal justice and Lucsly quits the force), and soon a narrative begins to emerge, of the twenty-fourth century's participation in the Temporal Cold War from Enterprise.

I'm not entirely sure what I think about the novel's engagement with this. It works okay on the novel's own terms; the book lays clues about the identity of Enterprise's so called "Future Guy" in each of the flashbacks, and eventually that information pays off. But if you handed a fervent Enterprise fan this book so that they could finally get the answers Enterprise itself never yielded, I don't think they'd be satisfied, as there's absolutely no hints from Enterprise that really pay off here. The true identity and motive of "Future Guy" pay off Watching the Clock itself, not Enterprise. Plus, of course, no Enterprise characters are present to have anything to do with the comeuppance of their long-time nemesis. Maybe they should have plucked Archer out of time to punch him on the jaw or something? But it's as if a long-running mystery in the Father Brown stories was unexpectedly resolved in a Sherlock Holmes story. It jars narratively.

The ending is the other good part; the DTI, some Next Generation characters, the 29th-century Starfleet guys from "Relativity," the 31st-century temporal agents from Enterprise, and many more characters end up in snarled, tangled, temporal mess that was just completely ridiculous in a good way, taking all the goofy possibilities of Star Trek time travel and piling them atop each other to joyous excess. I didn't follow any of it (and I usually have a good head for these things), but I loved reading it. It's like Steven Moffat turned up to eleven.

Also the viewpoint newbie character gets shunted off into her own side story, which completely failed to engage me. The Axis of Time seems like a potentially interesting Big Dumb Object, but the story told with it was completely dull; I couldn't bring myself to care about cross-time artifact smuggling, or super sexy mind control space ladies.

So, a set-up that's more fun in theory than practice, but hopefully that bodes well for future installments of DTI-- I know the third installment onward are novellas, which seems like it would lend itself toward what I liked about the first chapter.

Continuity Notes:
  • You could write a list of bullet points for this novel as long as the novel itself; of course, Bennett already has.
  • That said, I caught a reference to the notorious Killing Time that he didn't annotate. On p. 205, Lucsly's Romulan counterpart kind of admits that the Romulans may have tried to eliminate the Federation from history "in some... other reality, now rendered irrelevant." (Though Bennett himself said it was less a specific reference to Killing Time and more a general reference to tie-ins about Romulans messing with history.)
  • The anecdote about the ringship Enterprise, though, was a particularly belabored continuity fix in a novel full of them. And I'm not even sure the anecdote makes much sense.
Other Notes:
  • Like S.C.E. / Corps of Engineers before it, Department of Temporal Investigations has a clunky and un-sexy subtitle. I maintain S.C.E. should have just been called Star Trek: Miracle Workers, but it's less obvious to me what Department of Temporal Investigations could have been called instead. Time Cops? Time Patrol? Time Masters?
  • I did feel at times that no female character could turn up without having their attractiveness ranked; this culminates in a scene where Dina Elfiki walks past Dulmur and Lucsly while wearing a holo-disguise, and they exchange dialogue that amounts to, "Not even a hologram can disguise dat ass." (Elfiki is apparently modeled on Sarah Shahi.) On the other hand, I think the attractiveness of exactly one male character is commented on, and he's a Deltan sex god. Who says you need visuals to have male gaze?
  • I was amused to note that even in the twenty-fourth century, ALOE is a common crossword puzzle filler word. (It's got three vowels!)
  • I think this is the first Star Trek novel to include an allusion to pubic hair.

18 March 2019

Review: The Vision by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, et al.

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2018 (contents: 2016-17)

Acquired January 2018
Read March 2018
The Vision

Writer: Tom King
Artists: Gabriel Hernandez Walta & Michael Walsh
Color Artist: Jordie Bellaire 
Letterer: Clayton Cowles

I read the first half of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's run on The Vision when it was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, and I loved it (it got my first place vote in that category... even though it came in sixth), so I knew that once a hard copy collection of the whole run was out, I would pick it up.

The Vision is a well-done comic, a meditation on both family and man's inhumanity to man told in the form of superpowered robots moving to the suburbs. Its power rests in its stark simplicity-- much like the power of its central character. Both narration and art are very matter-of-fact about violence; horrific things being related in unemotional terms. It's a solid piece of comics, really well put together, showing the power of the genre of superhero comics when you pluck at the strangeness of its edges.

15 March 2019

The Making of a Black Man: Green Lantern: Mosaic

Mosaic, the four-part Green Lantern storyline by Gerard Jones, M. D. Bright, and Romeo Tanghal (vol. 3 #14-17), was followed by Green Lantern: Mosaic, an ongoing series about Green Lantern John Stewart trying to integrate the various cities plucked out of space and deposited on Oa to form "the mosaic world." Gerard Jones continued on as writer; the series's main penciller was Cully Hamner, who I know from his work over a decade later on the new Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle book. The series lasted eighteen issues, cancelled as part of a general deck-clearing in preparation for the massive reshuffling of Green Lantern that happened with Emerald Twilight.

In an early lettercol (in issue #5), Gerard Jones says he was unhappy with how the original Mosaic story went (he agrees with a writer who calls it "deadly dull") and wanted to do something different with the premise when it became an ongoing. I don't think you'd need to read the lettercol to know that, because the transition between Green Lantern #17 and Mosaic #1 is obvious and sharp. I think it's best summed up by the aliens. The aliens inhabiting the mosaic in the original miniseries are Star Trek aliens. In the ongoing, they're Farscape aliens. Everything gets weird and dark and twisted and far less human.

Which really sums up the whole approach, because it's not just the mosaic that's changed: John Stewart is weird and dark and twisted and far less human now, too. John Stewart is a man pushed beyond endurance, trying to reconcile the dozens of conflicting peoples of the mosaic, but as the story goes to great pains to point out, that's life as a man of color. His very identity is a mosaic, one that is assembled in a rickety way but must withstand the pressure of American racism. In one sense, John is going crazy because of this sci-fi scenario he's been plunged into, but in another, the story surfaces the problems John Stewart has had all along.

It reminds me of a Vertigo series in style, but it could never be a Vertigo series because of its more "mainstream" content. In fact, I wonder if it lucked out in being born in 1992, that era where DC was publishing the comics that would become Vertigo comics when the imprint was formed in 1993. You wouldn't put this alongside The Sandman, Hellblazer, and Animal Man, it has too many ties to other superhero comics, but it's pretty much like no contemporary DC comic I've read, either. Post-Vertigo, it would have no clear place in DC's line-up, but before March 1993 divides the DC world in Vertigo and not-Vertigo, it's just one of a number of boundary-pushing comics DC published in the early 1990s. Surely, as I often say, one of the publisher's most fertile periods.

One Vertigoesque attribute is it doesn't really feel like a setup for an ongoing set of stories, more like one big story in many chapters. Jones's run was curtailed, and that shows, but I'm doubtful it's the kind of series that could run one hundred or even fifty-plus issues and still remain fresh.

That said, what's here is excellent. The opening issue is fantastic, a strange tour of the mosaic that lets you into John Stewart's mind at the same time: "This is my world... '...and welcome to it.' James Thurber." The second issue is bizarre and dark, the notorious death of Ch'p, the squirrel Green Lantern, but what made it more noteworthy to me is the way Jones and Hamner make Ch'p into something alien himself, not just a comedy alien Green Lantern.

Issue #4 is one of the series's occasional forays into life in the mosaic: the inhabitants of the American town have largely given up hope, and express their despair by watching reruns of classic television ad nauseam, not to mention days-long binge-drinking sex orgies. The issue is told from the perspective of their children who see the mosaic as an opportunity; the don't want to wallow in tv nostalgia, but to push forward into the new, no matter how dangerous. The series didn't often do this kind of thing, but it was usually worthwhile when done. Who would have thought that Green Lantern: Mosaic, of all series, could support a special Christmas issue!? Yet #9 was super-weird and super-fascinating.

The best issue is probably #5, "The Child-Man and the Great White Hero." Hal Jordan comes to confront John over how he's been handling the mosaic, and we get a great, dark insight into John and the way he thinks about Hal Jordan, about how he envies Hal's casual heroism, his whiteness. As John says to Hal, "You fight to prove your rightness, you score your total victories, and you stride out as you entered. I never score a total victory!" The book even gives Hal some casual (or perhaps more than casual) racism: he doesn't like that his old romantic interest Rose is now with John... but he can't quite vocalize why.

There is the occasional misstep; seeing John step outside the mosaic in #6 and into a more clichéd Green Lantern narrative wasn't particularly interesting. The one with the music aliens (#7) wasn't as good as it ought to have been.

The last few issues push John in an interesting direction, as we (spoiler) find out that it wasn't the mad old Guardian who brought all these cities to Oa, but John itself. Yet this idea feels squandered as one of many introduced as the series wraps up; it would have been nice for the series to have the room to actually explore it. The implications of this don't really get the time they deserve. In the final issue, John becomes a Guardian of the Universe himself, or maybe something else: "What's man in me. What's American in me. And what's black in me... I'll nurture every day... as I become a new kind of being."

Yet this would never be explored; John Stewart next appeared in Darkstars, no longer a Guardian or even a Green Lantern, recruited as the head of NEMO (the organization that supports the Darkstars), with no sign of the baggage or characterization introduced here.  

Mosaic is, like so many comic book premises, a great idea cut short by the constraints of the medium. Or, perhaps we might say, cobbled together from disparate parts in crazy ad hockery to make something worth viewing from a distance, even if each individual piece might not shine on its own. That is to say, of course, a mosaic.

12 March 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Rough Beasts of Empre

Mass market paperback, 387 pages
Published 2011

Acquired September 2012
Read November 2017
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Rough Beasts of Empire
by David R. George III

This is essentially two entirely separate novels crowbarred together, so I'm going to review each in turn, and then discuss they way they are brought together.

The first is what's promised by the series title: Rough Beasts of Empire is (chronologically) the first of eight books about the Typhon Pact, the Warsaw Pactesque Federation adversary introduced in A Singular Destiny. Basically, it's a set of alien species often opposed to the Federation banding together. With six members and eight books, there's more or less one alien race explored per book. Rough Beasts of Empire covers the Romulans, who in some previous book (Articles of the Federation, I think? it's been a while) split into two different polities, each led by a female character from Nemesis: Praetor Tal'Aura's Romulan Star Empire (which has joined the Typhon Pact) and Empress Donatra's breakaway Imperial Romulan State (which is friendly to the Federation).

The main focus of the novel is that Romulus is an empire divided, which basically no one wants: Tal'Aura and Donatra both desire to rule over a united Romulus. Many of the Star Empire's allies, particularly the Tzenkethi, would prefer to be dealing with a united nation as well. And then there's Ambassador Spock, still doing his Vulcan-Romulan reunification thing underground (literally and figuratively), who realizes that a united Romulan people makes reuniting with the Vulcans easier. So in classic Romulan tradition, we have plots and counterplots, as Tal'Aura, the Tal Shiar, Spock, Donatra, the Tzenkethi, and various Romulan families each pursue their own interests clandestinely.

It's entertaining enough. I didn't love it, but it's well done. It's hard to care about any of the Romulan characters, so really it's just Spock carrying you through the whole book. David R. George III has a pretty good grasp on Spock for the most part, as a principled man. Spock is attacked by a Reman assassin early in the book, and has the plan to turn him into the authorities, even though Spock is wanted by those same authorities, and that seemed very in character to me. There was a spot where he was overly naïve (I didn't buy that he would not foresee how his movement being legitimated could lead to long-term harm), but on the whole I enjoyed his story.

I do wish Donatra had appeared in the narrative earlier: she doesn't really become significant until near the end, and she shines then, as a principled woman trying to save her people from autocrats. On the other hand, she's distressingly passive for a head of state, especially one who's declared herself an empress! I would have liked to have seen her fighting more actively.

The Romulan plot kind of fizzles out, though. You figure out what's going on, the characters do too, and then it all plays out inevitably. There's no suspense as events draw to a close: some characters get what they want, and Spock watches it all happen. I did like how complicated it was, though. Almost no one here is an obvious black hat, and arguably the Romulan people are better off once the book is over even though the "villains" technically won!

There's a whole second book in here, though, that follows Benjamin Sisko. Now, Sisko ascended into the Bajoran wormhole at the end of Deep Space Nine to live with the Prophets, but he came back in the tenth-anniversary special Unity. Personally, I feel that after Unity, Sisko should have been quietly shunted off-stage somewhere to never play a major role in a Star Trek story again. How can you keep writing him into action-adventure stories in a way that doesn't undermine the celestial experience he would have had?

According to this novel, though, Sisko reactivated his Starfleet commission during the Borg invasion in Destiny to command the USS New York. I can kind of buy this, but everything that follows just seems wrong. Sisko is convinced that his is a life of sorrow (following on from the Prophets' warning to him in "Penumbra"): since he's returned from the wormhole, his daughter has been kidnapped, his neighbors have died, Elias Vaughn has been rendered brain-dead, and then a few chapters into this novel, his father Joseph passes away. I can just about buy that Sisko would be hurting from all this, though it's somewhat unconvincing for the novel to depend on past events only briefly described for its emotional heft. (Like, why the heck should I care about his dead neighbors?)

But what I really don't buy is what Sisko does in reaction to all this. He shuts down, leaving his siblings to manage his father's funeral while he aimless wanders the streets of New Orleans, ignoring Jake. Then he permanently reactives his commission (accepting command of the USS Robinson)... without telling Kasidy! I can only assume that when Sisko returned from the wormhole, it was another man who looked exactly like him, because this bears no relationship to the man whose adventures I saw on screen for seven years. Sisko was a builder and a doer, never a runner. Even when he suffered the greatest tragedy of his life, he did his job: through all of "Emissary" he does his best to set up Deep Space 9 to run successfully even though he has no intention of staying in command of it.

It also flies in the face of everything we've seen about Sisko as a family man. He would never ignore Jake like this; he would certainly never ignore Kasidy and his daughter like this. This is a man who lost it all and managed to put it back together. He is not so emotionally immature as to do what he does here, and the recent tragedies in his life don't make it plausible. The death of Jennifer is the defining tragedy of Sisko's life, and not even the death of his father comes close. This is the man who once said, "Running may help for a little while, but sooner or later the pain catches up with you, and the only way to get rid of it is to stand your ground and face it."

It also is just so pedestrian. Sisko should be enlightened and shit, not doubting that his experiences with the Prophets ever happened. I get that George probably wanted the prophecy from "Penumbra" to have some weight, but this was not the way to do it. I found this entire plotline frustrating to read about in the extreme.

Unrelated to all this, there's this sort of weird non-subplot about the Tzenkethi in the Sisko half of the novel. The Robinson ends us patrolling a sector of space where they sight some Tzenkethi vessels. This leads to a series of flashbacks to when Sisko fought against the Tzenkethi under the command of Leyton on the Okinawa (as mentioned in "The Adversary"). Why? Who knows because Sisko doesn't even interact with the Tzenkethi in the present day of the story; he just monitors sensor contacts from the bridge of the Robinson. It's really strange and pointless and has nothing to do with anything. It feels to me like when the initial set of Typhon Pact novels was reduced from six to four,* George was asked to jam them into his book because they weren't going to get a focus novel otherwise.

I read most of Rough Beasts on a flight; my wife sat next to me noted that the cover indicated a team-up between Sisko and Spock. "So far," I said, "their storylines have had nothing to do with each other." I think I was two-thirds of the way through at that point; the rest of the novel didn't remedy it. As close as the two plotlines come is when Spock gets a secret message to the Federation president asking for information to be passed onto Donatra, Sisko and the Robinson are assigned to do it. Why? I don't know. The president's staff tells her that Spock is the diplomatic service's expert on Romulans so that without him available, they should ask Starfleet. The head of Starfleet ends up recommending Sisko, because 1) according to a deleted scene he worked at the Federation embassy on Romulus, and 2) he met Senator Vreenak. Really!? There's no one in the whole Federation Diplomatic Corps who knows more about Romulans than that? Seems unlikely.

It's a contrived attempt to jam together what really are two completely separate stories. Take out the trip to see Donatra and the flashbacks to the Tzenkethi conflicts, and Sisko's story has nothing at all to do with the Typhon Pact in general, or the Spock/Romulus tale in particular. I also didn't really see any thematic resonance, though George tries to bring up a commonality of home at the very end. Based on the acknowledgements, it seems like George realized that with former Deep Space Nine editor Marco Palmieri gone from Simon & Schuster, the DS9 story wasn't going to advance unless he slipped it into unrelated novels.

Unfortunately, it doesn't serve it to advance it in such a weird way.

Continuity Notes:
  • There are a few small references to Diane Duane's Rihannsu novels: "High Rihan" is said to be the name of the Romulan language, some Romulan characters reference the Elements that Duane's Romulans swore by. It's subtle enough that it works: I didn't really like how Martin and Mangels' Enterprise novels gave all their Romulan characters Rihannsu-style names nothing like the screen Romulan names.
  • Amanda is said to have passed onto her son Spock a love of physical books. When the book came out, on-screen canon said she liked Alice's Adventures in Wonderland but said nothing about a love of physical books (often shown to be odd in the 23rd century)... but by the time I read it, Discovery revealed that Amanda gave Michael Burnham a physical copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
  • There's a joke about how Romulans have a lot of ancient sayings about serpents. A previous George novel, Serpents Among the Ruins, takes its title from a Romulan saying.
Other Notes:
  • Kira has become a vedek!? I know future novels will fill in more of the backstory in the four-year gap between this novel and the previous chronological DS9 novel, The Soul Key, but I find it hard to believe that George could ever make me believe in such a transformation, which is as bad a misunderstanding of Kira's character as this book is of Sisko's.
  • It also seems pretty shitty to (essentially) kill off Vaughn.
  • So who's in command of the station, then? If we're told, I missed it. But Kira's gone, and Vaughn's gone, and Ezri's gone. Even Bowers is gone. I guess that leaves Nog or Shar?
  • Sisko emotionally isolates himself from the crew of the Robinson and gets called out on it; George repeated this subplot almost precisely with Sulu's transfer in Allegiance in Exile.
  • The book's title is taken from the notes accompanying a Romulan painting. Based on the full poem (the novel's epigraph), the painter was really into William Blake.
* I'll talk more about the overall shape of the Typhon Pact series in a future review.

11 March 2019

Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Trade paperback, 974 pages
Published 2004 (originally 1849-50)
Acquired August 2018
Read October 2018
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

My annual project to read more Charles Dickens continues with David Copperfield, Dickens's fourth most popular novel (according to LibraryThing, anyway). I know many people consider it one of Dickens's best-- my Penguin Classics edition's introduction by Jeremy Tambling makes the case that it unites the "early" Dickens with the "late" Dickens-- but for me, I think it's solidly middle-tier. It's no Great Expectations or Our Mutual Friend, but neither is it as dull as Hard Times or A Tale of Two Cities.

The first quarter or so of the novel, however, surely ranks among Dickens's best writing. Young David has a horrible life, and Dickens executes it with his trademark combination of melancholy, comedy, and well-observed character. The story of David's actual birth is hilarious (I subjected a lot of people to it after reading it), but the story of David's life with his stepfather and step-aunt is depressing and hard to take, especially what ends up happening to his mother. The stuff about David at school is funny; David's attempt to leave London and find his aunt is depressing and funny all at once. His relationship with Peggotty is touching.

The effect is all aided by some nice narrative choices by Dickens. We (and I kind of blame the modernists for this) like to stereotype Victorian fiction as being very staid. But there are some bits of David Copperfield we might call "experimental," except I think Dickens was less concerned with experimenting and more concerned with just telling the story the best way possible. Though most of the story is told in the first-person past tense, every now and again the narrator (an older David; the full title is The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield the Younger) shifts into the present tense as he re-enacts a particularly vivid memory. It's a neat technique and usually very effective, isolating key moments and heightening their emotional repercussions-- because you can tell how important they still are to the narrator all those years later, so much so they he thinks of them as still happening.

After David reunites with his aunt, though, I found the energy of the novel dissipated. The last three-quarters just don't have the same drive as the first quarter. Not that it's ever bad: nothing here ever sinks as low as the tedium of the middle of A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times, and there are lots of good jokes still (I liked when David tries to get out of his apprenticeship at the law firm). But for big chunks, the stakes are vague, and I have to admit I never really cared about Uriah Heep. But every now and then you still get that flash of Dickensian brilliance, and the ending is excellent, so there you go. I might have liked it more if I'd read it more quickly, but it came along at a very busy time in my life!

08 March 2019

Review: Green Lantern: Mosaic by Gerard Jones, M. D. Bright, and Romeo Tanghal

Green Lantern: Mosaic is one of those cult classic comics runs-- I don't think it was successful in its time, and it's never been collected, but people who have read it speak highly of it, and I was sufficiently intrigued to break my rule of only picking up those space-based DC comics that do not feature Green Lantern. But before Green Lantern: Mosaic, the ongoing series, there was Mosaic, the four-part Green Lantern story. (That's not confusing at all.)

There was obviously even some set-up before this, but it works on its own well-enough; in fact, despite having been originally published in 1991, it reads like something optimized for the trade paperback era. The background is pretty easy to work out: one Guardian of the Universe, the so-called "Old Timer" (the same one who traveled America with Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen) went mad and died, but not before using his power to bring one settlement each from a number of planets to Oa, clustering them together into a sort of a "mosaic" world. While Hal Jordan cruises the universe re-establishing the Green Lantern Corps (I'm not sure why it needs re-establishment to be honest, it seems like the Corps is always being un- and re-founded), John Stewart has been assigned to watch over the settlements on Oa.

Gerard Jones seems to me to be a perennially underrated writer. I know his career is over now, but it seems to me that in the early 1990s he was putting out quality stuff on a regular basis but he never made it big like some of his contemporaries did. In addition to a redefining run on Green Lantern and various spin-offs, he also wrote or co-wrote much of Justice League Europe (issues #14-50), and he was responsible for the only Elongated Man series ever published, Europe '92. The more I read of him, the more I see what a versatile writer he was. Mosaic is not just the story of people having to learn to co-exist on an alien planet (and failing), it's a deep dive into the traumas and history of John Stewart.

The main plot of Mosaic is the conflict between the various way of thinking on the mosaic world, some of which are quite alien; the whole thing kicks off when an alien race with an irrepressible desire to expand at all costs kills a couple innocent humans. Armed conflict between the two species quickly escalates, despite the best efforts of both John Stewart and a woman named Rose Hardin. John can't come up with any solutions other than brute force: giant walls between settlements that his ring needs his force of will to maintain. But things keep getting worse. There's some pointed commentary on race, especially as humans start finding allies among the aliens-- allies in a desire to tear down the walls so that the fighting can resume.

But the real story of the book is the mind of John Stewart. Jones's script brings together a number of incidents from John's past to give us a broken man: his history as an architect, his perennial outsider status, the death of Katma Tui in Action Comics Weekly, the destruction of Xanshi in Cosmic Odyssey. Jones does a great job of uniting these disparate threads into a picture of a desperate man, suffering from tragedy (he even deftly justifies John's poor judgement in Cosmic Odyssey as a consequence of him overcompensating for the powerlessness he felt after Katma Tui died), who his whole life has tried to build structures that turned out to be more like strictures-- and now he has to try his hand at sculptures for the first time if he's going to save the planet and save himself.

I mostly knew Jones for comedy with a tinge of character in JLE and Elongated Man, and for more straightforward cosmic adventures in the other bits of his Green Lantern I'd read. Oh, and for whatever the heck Batman: Fortunate Son was meant to be. But here he shows himself to be capable of complicated psychological tragedy. I look forward to seeing where the mosaic world and John Stewart go when Jones and I return to it in the Green Lantern: Mosaic ongoing series that began eight months after this storyline came to an end.

Perhaps unjustly, I haven't said much about it here, but I enjoyed the artwork of M. D. Bright and Romeo Tanghal here. Bright was one of the, ahem, bright spots of the otherwise dismal run of Green Lantern in Action Comics Weekly, especially his out-there space adventure stuff in the story in Green Lantern Special #2 that tied up the whole storyline. He's just as good here, handling Jones's human drama and far-out space plots with equal skill. The kind of artist I wish I saw more of. As for Romeo Tanghal, the man was basically ubiquitous as an inker at DC from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, and he's never disappointed me. It's just a shame neither man really returns for the Mosaic ongoing, but hopefully its actual artists will be quality ones as well.

Mosaic originally appeared in issues #14-17 of Green Lantern vol. 3 (July-Oct. 1991). The story was written by Gerard Jones, pencilled by M. D. Bright, inked by Romeo Tanghal, colored by Anthony Tollin (#14-16) and Matt Hollingsworth (#17), lettered by Albert DeGuzman, and edited by Andy Helfer.

07 March 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Dean Winnstay, Naturalist (Alton Locke, 1850)

Trade paperback, 452 pages
Published 1983 (originally 1850)

Acquired January 2019
ead February 2019
Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography
by Charles Kingsley
'Mak a style for yoursel, laddie; ye're na mair Scots hind than ye are Lincolnshire laird: sae gang yer ain gate and leave them to gang theirs; and just mak a gran', brode, simple, Saxon style for yoursel.' (99)
Was Charles Kingsley a two-hit wonder? The more I read the more I wonder. The Water-Babies was good, and I appreciated Two Years Ago, but none of the other novels I've read by him have done much for me. Or anything really. There's fertile ground in Alton Locke, a first-person narrative of a cockney tailor's ascent to poetry and political revolution, but like Hypatia, so much of it is boring tedium where nothing happens.

He does meet a man of science, though, the Dean of a Cambridge college, who both wants to teach Locke science and to experiment on him scientifically. I like that he says, "the man of science finds every worm and beetle a microcosm in its way" (167)-- never was the project of the scientist in the scientist novel so clearly expressed; the man of science is a microcosm for science, and the novel is a microcosm of the universe. But though it might apply to scientist novels, Alton Locke is not one, and thus have little to recommend itself to me, and honestly, it has little going for it for others, too.

(I do like Kingsley's political stirrings, especially the Chartist Scot quoted above, but there's just so much other stuff that's just not interesting.)

06 March 2019

Review: Star Wars: Dark Times: A Spark Remains by Randy Stradley and Douglas Wheatley

Comic trade paperback, 118 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 2013)
Acquired October 2014

Read February 2019
Star Wars: Dark Times, Volume Seven: A Spark Remains

Script: Randy Stradley
Art: Douglas Wheatley
Colors: Dan Jackson
Lettering: Michael Heisler

This volume draws some of the threads of Dark Times together as the series comes to an end. Finally reunited with the Uhumele, Dass Jennir plots an ambush for the mysterious Darth Vader. There's even a callback to the original story in Clone Wars, Volume 9 from which Dark Times sprang.

It's fine. I liked the resolution to what was going on with the Verpine Jedi, and Wheatley's art is good, even though it's not as good as it was. Darth Vader and the Empire aren't quite the inevitable force they ought to be, but I think my biggest issue is less with something Dark Times did and more with something it didn't.

The earlier volumes, I think, were pointing at something unique, asking what it means to be a Jedi in dark times? The answer A Spark Remains gives us is that it's not all that different. Which is a good message, one supposes, but maybe too pat. I also think Bomo Greenbark and the Uhumele crew ultimately ended up squandered; after volume 3, they didn't contribute very much to the main thrust of the series any more. Greenbark was originally an ordinary guy crushed by war and spat out, and I liked that. But here's, he's just another guy on the ship. I wish his character had ended up being as important to the series as Jennir's, which is what the earlier volumes had implied would be the case.

All in all, I enjoyed Dark Times. It's no Knights of the Old Republic or Legacy, but it is a valuable reminder of the kind of interesting smaller-scale side stories about "ordinary" people in the Star Wars universe that Dark Horse was good at.

05 March 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era Prelude: Rise Like Lions

Mass market paperback, 400 pages
Published 2011

Acquired February 2017
Read October 2017
Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions
by David Mack

"Mirror, Mirror" is good fun, but I never really warmed to the Mirror Universe episodes of Deep Space Nine. "Crossover" is decent and I will admit to enjoying the inanity of "The Emperor's New Cloak," but outside of that, they tend to range from dull to inexplicable (i.e., "Resurrection"). Deep Space Nine shifted too far from the core premise of the Mirror Universe, I think, which is pretty simple: Our Heroes Are Evil. "Crossover" got this but it overcomplicated things to get there, with an elaborate backstory about the fallen Terran Empire and the Klingon/Cardassian Alliance, blah blah blah. Who cares? I just want to see women with bare midriffs, Vulcans with beards, and liberal use of the agony booth. Diane Duane got this when she wrote Dark Mirror: it's deliciously, delightfully dark. But the set-up of the DS9 MU episodes positions most of Our Heroes as good guys for some reason? And makes the Klingons and Cardassians-- the "bad guys" of our universe-- the bad guys there too! Like, why? And then the whole century of Actual History kind of misses the point. I don't need a convincing explanation, I need Evil Federation.

The Deep Space Nine Mirror Universe thus falls into an uncanny valley: not ridiculous enough to enjoy, but too ridiculous to take seriously. On screen, it kind of muddles through thanks to the fact that the actors are clearly enjoying playing these broad versions of themselves, but lacking a Mirror Universe where Our Heroes Are Evil, what we mostly seem to actually get is Our Heroes Are Dumb Thugs.

All of this is to say that I have been tepid on prose takes on the DS9 MU, and initially planned to not read Rise Like Lions at all even though I liked David Mack's previous Mirror Universe novel, The Sorrows of Empire, okay, but then I found out it tied into the Destiny Era novels somehow, and so here I am. This novel picks up from, well, everything: all the 24th-century stories in the three S&S Mirror Universe anthologies are brought together, along with the masterplan introduced in Sorrows of Empire. So we have mirror O'Brien, mirror Keiko, mirror Dukat, mirror Damar, mirror Worf, mirror Picard, mirror Troi, mirror Klag, mirror Kes, mirror Neelix (because you demanded it!), mirror Calhoun, mirror Jellico, and so many more, surely a cast of thousands if there ever was one.

The problem is that I just don't care about any of them. Minus the liveliness of an actor's performance, most of them are just selfish people doing dumb things. The ones who are supposed to have ruled galactic empires do not convince, coming across as squabbling, short-sighted idiots. The book has so many characters that none of them have any kind of dramatic arc; the book ping-pongs between all these different people, giving each a chapter every now and again, but like the other Star Trek historical epics I've read recently, it often seems like the focus is misplaced. Like, Damar commits genocide against the Vulcans and this is relayed to us in introspective narration about past events! Meanwhile I'm reading about yet another argument between Klingons.

Once you get the lay of the book, it all unfolds pretty predictably: the Klingons and the Cardassians squabble among themselves, and the new Memory Omega-backed Terran Resistance picks up the pieces. (Memory Omega's super-tech removes a lot of suspense.) I found there weren't really any surprises, and there wasn't really any reason to care about these people. How awful people learn to run a democratic society is a potentially interesting question, but all that happens off-stage too.

Somehow, I guess, this will end up factoring into the Prime Universe, but I can't say I'm excited to find out how.

Continuity Notes:
  • The end hints at more Mirror Universe stories to come involving the Dominion, but this was the last volume of what had evolved into a five-book series.
  • There's some stuff that picks up from the end of the last two Deep Space Nine relaunch novels, Fearful Symmetry and The Soul Key. It turns out I really don't remember what happened in them.
Other Notes:
  • I know it's not Mack's fault, but why doesn't mirror Tuvok have a beard? This is just further proof of how much Deep Space Nine misjudged the Mirror Universe. Even the producers of Enterprise got that one right.
  • I'm sure he's shown up in other tie-ins before, but it was a little surprising to me when the mirror Dukat showed up. The show never did him. I wonder why? Marc Alaimo as Dukat as an Actual Good Guy would have been delicious (though I have my doubts that the show would have gone that way).
  • There's a chapter called "Peaceable Kingdom"; as soon as I saw that I recognized it as the title of a Dayton Ward novel and thought, "Well it must be a song by Rush then." I was right.