31 July 2019

Hugos 2019: Saga, Book Three by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Comic hardcover, 464 pages
Published 2019 (contents: 2016-18)

Acquired and read June 2019
Saga, Book Three

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Lettering+Design: Fonografiks

Book Three of Saga continues the space epic, as Marko, Alana, Hazel, and their companions spend time on a doomed comet, on an abortion planet, and a water world. As always, Vaughan and Staples's work is propulsive, never immobile. One issue leads into the next into the next; one situation's resolution sets up the next problem. I found that this one was brought down mildly by some commentary on current events that was a little too direct and obvious for good sf (apparently in a magical space universe, people discuss trans identities and abortion rights the exact same way as in the 2010s U.S.), but the twists and turns of the characters are good. The themes that came to the fore in this volume were the appropriate use of force-- something Marko has really struggled with all along, and is brought to a beautiful climax here-- and the responsibilities of family-- there's some good contrast between Alana and Marko's approach to their child(ren?) and Prince Robot's. There are some real sad moments, and some real uplifting ones, and some disturbing moments. I'm sad that the series is going on an extended hiatus after this, because I want it to keep going now!

This deluxe edition has some nice stuff from Vaughan and Staples about the genesis of the series, which goes back to a universe he imagined in math class as a kid. And of course I loved Fonografiks's discussion of what typeface to use for the logo!

30 July 2019

Review: Doctor Who: Toy Soldiers by Paul Leonard

Acquired May 2008
Read February 2019
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Toy Soldiers
by Paul Leonard

This was better than I expected based on the book's reputation, but not particularly good. The Doctor and his companions investigate children disappearing in post-Great War Europe, and of course it's aliens fighting an interminable war who need recruits. Nice atmosphere, and Chris and Roz got a lot of interesting stuff to do, but Benny was wasted, and the story went to some pretty banal places.

Next Week: The return of the Sontarans in Shakedown!

29 July 2019

Review: Star Trek: Burden of Knowledge by Scott & David Tipton, Federica Manfredi, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010)
Acquired November 2012
Read March 2019
Star Trek: Burden of Knowledge

Written by Scott & David Tipton
Art by Federica Manfredi
Ink Assist by Nicola Zanni and Riccardo Sisti
Colors by Andrea Priorini and Arianna Florean
Color Assist by Chiara Cinabro
Letters by Neil Uyetake, Chris Mowry, and Robbie Robbins

I am all for Star Trek stories that eschew Big Crises and Continuity Reminders and just get on with telling proper stories featuring characters I like from the television. Unfortunately, Scott and David Tipton aren't particularly suited to this kind of thing. Across all the Star Trek stories they've done for IDW, they just seem to have an inability to do interesting done-in-one stories, and this is a whole book of them. You can tell a complex story in 20-page comics, but they cannot. So many of these were so easily resolved, I expected twists that there was something more going on, but it never came. Fun to see the classic characters here (they do have a good sense of voice), but little to this book beyond that.

26 July 2019

The Rise and Fall of Paradise City: LEGO in the Basement

When my brother Andy and I were kids, we had a lot of LEGO. Andy was always better at building than I, but I was the storyteller. Together, we came up with elaborate stories about the residents of Paradise City. I recently found a trove of photographs of Paradise City on an external hard drive, because apparently at age 14 I built a web site to chronicle its adventures and happenings.

This is the best photo of the overall city I could find. (Apparently the photos were taken with a literal potato.) Basically half of the basement was given over to the LEGO city. The train took citizens of Paradise over to the neighboring town of Muddville, which I think was where we let my dad build stuff. Here's another angle:

That table in the background is now mine and Hayley's dining room table! It has been with the Mollmanns since my late grandfather was a boy, I think. The web files I found indicate we had a lot of backstory for every aspect of the city; that sphere in the bottom left of the photo (a Megabloks piece, I think) was an "agridome and power plant":

Paradise City was a hopping town, with a roller coaster...

...a cycle rental...

...a garbage dump...

...a rescue operations center ("RES-Q: Rescue Everything Squad Q")...

...a church (St. Bob's)...

...a drawbridge...

...a very forbidding looking jail ("Mt. Jailus")...

...and even a spaceport!

I seem to recall that the necessity of tying our Space LEGO into the story meant the city was constantly being invaded by aliens. But this also gave us an excuse to blow up the town and rebuild everything whenever we got bored of a particular configuration.

My web site indicates we had histories and personalities for tons of town residents: the owner of the junkyard, the mayor (a Civil War vet, apparently), a guy called the Infomaniac (a character from the LEGO computer game) who had a Q&A newspaper column, and so on. Every police officer was named "Bob."

The best set of developments, though, usually came from my mother. For example, my brother once put window washers on the tall tower in the center of the city. They had a little platform hanging on a string. One day we woke up and one of the strings had disconnected, the window washers were hanging on for dear life, and news helicopters were in position to record the whole thing.

Or another time, we woke up to a shark in the water and a swimmer cut in half and a panicked crowd on the beaches.

The only one my hard drive includes pictures of is when a bunch of protestors sat on the train line and the train ran them all over:

My mother has a macabre imagination, I guess.

Also the town was periodically invaded by Cat Kong.

#159: What things did you create when you were a child?

24 July 2019

Hugos 2019: Monstress: Haven by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Comic trade paperback, 161 pages
Published 2018 (contents: 2018)
Acquired April 2019

Read May 2019
Monstress, Volume Three: Haven

Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda 
Lettering & Design: Rus Wooton

I wrote a lukewarm review of volume two of Monstress but I think I was trying to convince myself I liked it more than I actually did; there's a reason that when I filled out my ballot for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story I placed it last. So I decided to stop picking up its volumes at that point-- however when volume three also became a finalist, I decided I might as well keep my set going. Anyway, I get that people like this but I just do not. Sana Takeda's art is marvelous and gorgeous, but Marjorie Liu's writing has largely lost me by this point. I just don't care about Meika or her backstory or her mom or her backstory or her captive god or its backstory. It's all a bit too unrelentingly grim and humorless. The sparks of light come from the innocent fox Arcanic, Kippa, and her attempts to make the world a better place, and the cat spymaster, Ren Mormorian, and his attempts to do right by his various allegiances but also by Kippa. However, there was much less of the two of them in this volume than in previous ones, and hence it suffered for it. I'm done with the series. (Unless, of course, it ends up on the Hugo ballot again!)

23 July 2019

Review: Doctor Who: Zamper by Gareth Roberts

Acquired May 2008
Read November 2018
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Zamper
by Gareth Roberts

Surely the worst crime a Doctor Who story can commit is to be boring; a premise that allows for any time, place, or genre should never result in tedium. Alas, Zamper is one of the most boring New Adventures I've read, a mediocre runaround with a morally dubious climax. Gareth Roberts can do better.

Next Week: Mysterious teddy bears and war to the death in Toy Soldiers!

22 July 2019

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Mass market paperback, 502 pages
Published 2015 (originally 2014)

Acquired December 2017
Read February 2019
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

I liked this book, but I expected to love it. Which is maybe unfair to it, and thus why I didn't love it. Maia is the outcast son of the emperor, from a failed marriage, who surprisingly becomes emperor after an assassination. A fundamentally decent and forward-thinking person suddenly thrust into a court that doesn't reward either, he has to figure out how to rule effectively and fairly. I love the idea, and Maia is an excellently drawn character, but it moves a little ponderously at times, and there are way too many characters, with way too many difficult names, and even constant consultation of the appendix wasn't very helpful. (When the assassin is revealed, I didn't remember who he was, which undercut the impact of that moment.)

I really like the recent trend in speculative fiction toward thoughtful contemplation of political and imperial power; we see this in, for example, Machineries of Empire (2016-18), The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015), and Ancillary Justice (2013), among others. Golbin Emperor fits into this trend, but what it does differently-- which I really appreciate-- is come at it from a fundamentally optimistic perspective. Most of the foregoing are pretty bleak, and only posit change through violence. But Goblin Emperor is optimistic without compromising the realism.

19 July 2019

Who Is Leslie Knope?

Hayley and I were watching Farscape together, but once we moved, we fell behind on our recaps, and knew we needed to pause and watch a different show; we ended up picking Parks and Recreation, because it was on Netflix, and seemed like a good show to watch while folding laundry.  We started in February 2018 and finally wrapped up the series last week. Overall, I really enjoyed Parks and Rec as a sitcom, and though I felt the show floundered a little bit once Leslie became a city councilor (I did not enjoy the merger or recall storylines), the three-year jump for the final season pumped some new energy into it; especially the second half of the season, once Leslie and Ron stopped being at cross purposes, which was success after success after success. The finale itself was very enjoyable (I'm sappy like that), and I enjoyed a lot of the characters' fates, particularly Jerry's.

I'm not here to review the show as a whole, though, or the final season, or even just the final episode; I just have one thing I want to comment on.

During the recall plotline, where Leslie had made yet another mistake and alienated her constituents, it dawned on me. Leslie is a terrible politician. She's not good with groups of people, she's bad at telling people want they want to hear, and she usually gives people what they need, not what they want.

On the other hand, Leslie is an amazing bureaucrat. She's great with people one-on-one (in and out of government), she's good at filling out forms and writing proposal documents, and she usually gives people what they need, not what they want. But, I thought, the show has set up this idea that Leslie wants a political career, so giving that up would mean failure. Even if the writer recognized the distinction I was making, it was hard for me to imagine them making Leslie give up on her dream.

But then at the end of the penultimate season, there's a whole subplot about how Leslie is legendary in the National Park Service for a proposal she once put together, and she's approached by them to run their Midwest province. However, it meant moving to Chicago, and I knew the show would ultimately have to abandon this thread in favor of Leslie continuing to eke out a political career in a town that despises her.

But but they figured out (somewhat implausibly, but whatever) how to have Leslie take the NPS job and stay in Pawnee, and in the whole final season, Leslie is her great bureaucratic self, while Ben suddenly moves into a political plotline. And while I would have told you that Ben is a good bureaucrat, too, the transition into politician makes sense for him, given both his backstory and character growth.* Then, as we vault even further into the future in the finale, Leslie moves up in the world of the Department of the Interior, embracing her true self. 

Or so I thought. Because then later in the finale, Leslie is approached to run for governor of Indiana by the DNC. Which rang untrue to me. Do anonymous mid-level federal bureaucrats really make good gubernatorial candidates? I'm doubtful. It just did not seem likely to me, on a political or personal level.  Leslie is a great bureaucrat, and bureaucrats can be great. Let her be one!

Two Side Comments
  • Parks and Rec has an astoundingly deep bench of quality recurring characters, from Perd Hapley to Jean-Ralphio Saperstein to Joan Callamezzo to Kyle the guy who get shoeshines to Shauna Mulwae-Tweep to Ethel Beavers to Jennifer Barkley to Orin to Brandi Maxxxx to Crazy Ira and the Douche to Ken Hotate to Other Ron to Ginuwine(!) to Marcia and Marshall Langman. I can't think of a live-action show with so many except for Deep Space Nine. And they managed to squeeze them all in to the final season despite how short it was, some in really delightful ways. (Brandi Maxxxx's final appearance was fantastic.)
  • Just before the finale, Hayley and I rewatched the pilot. Wow. The characters are totally different. And not in a "they grew over time." But in a "the writers retconned them" way." Season one Leslie is pathetic. But there's no way season seven Leslie ever was that pathetic. But at no point did I notice a discontinuity-- it was done slowly and subtly as everyone refined their approach. What really struck me, though, is that I don't think season one Leslie is written hugely differently. The change is mostly in other components of the medium: performance, hair and makeup, cutting style, even sound design. (Also, season one Ron is weird; he ends the pilot going on about basketball, and he has huge sports posters on his wall. I cannot imagine this of even season two Ron. Also also in the pilot, they acknowledged the documentary set-up, which largely vanished as the show went on.)
  • Also Craig is great.

* Some commenters on the AV Club from the time the ep aired were skeptical Ben would get elected as a Democrat in Indiana... but what we didn't know when that episode aired is that 2017 would be the year of the Blue Wave. There weren't any actual Democratic gains in Indiana that year, but some were close enough I can buy Ben winning. He's definitely got a history of fiscal conservatism!

17 July 2019

Hugos 2019: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Trade paperback, 431 pages
Published 2018

Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is an alternate history novel, where an asteroid hits the east coast of the United States in the 1950s, destroying Washington, D.C., and also damaging the global climate sufficiently that Earth will become uninhabitable, necessitating an acceleration of the space program so that humanity can survive through colonization. It's told in the first person from the perspective of a female "computer" (think Hidden Figures) who is married to an engineer on the space program. Elma York was a WASP pilot during World War II, and now wants to be an astronaut; the book chronicles her work for the space program as she tries to get this desire taken seriously, contending with the sexism of the era, widespread denial of the problem, her own racism, and her mental health issues.

It's a great book, definitely the best of the five Hugo finalists I've read so far this year. Kowal pulls you in with an intense opening, with Elma and her husband in the Poconos during the meteorite impact, destruction everywhere around them. It's a slow book, but in a good way-- it's very deliberate, bringing you into this world and Elma, and her struggles both internal and external. (I've seen complaints that Elma is always right, and the men she's up against are always evil sexists, but these feel like people projecting their own biases onto the book in a way that causes them to ignore its nuance. Elma is often flawed, especially as regards race, even after it's been pointed out to her, and we learn a lot about the psychology of her antagonists, in a way that makes us sympathize with them, too.) The end has some great moments, too, as she begins to realize her ambitions, and I'm always a sucker for stories where highly trained professionals work together to solve problems.

It's the first book of a duology, and I'll definitely be picking up the second half once my Hugo reading is over and done with.

16 July 2019

Review: Doctor Who: Human Nature by Paul Cornell

This week, I've rotated back to my ongoing reading of selected New Doctor Who Adventures I happen to own, beginning with arguably the greatest VNA of them all:

Trade paperback, 272 pages
Published 2015 (originally 1995)

Previously read January 2004
Acquired April 2018
Reread July 2018
Doctor Who: Human Nature: The History Collection Edition
by Paul Cornell

This is my fourth time experiencing Human Nature, each time in a different medium. The first time was way back in 2004, during the Wilderness Years, when Human Nature was one of the out-of-print novels that BBCi selected for its ebook program. In those pre-Kindle days, I would have read the whole thing on my dorm room computer screen. Then, in 2007, I actually got to watch the story, when an adaptation starring David Tennant was broadcast to the nation. About ten years after that, I listened to the audiobook of the novel, read by Lisa Bowerman (who plays companion Bernice Summerfield on audio) when I reviewed it for Unreality SF. Now, I've actually read in in print for the first time, albeit via the 2015 reprint from BBC Books, not its original 1995 Virgin publication.

I had ambitions of writing an in-depth thematic overview and got about 3,000 words into it before events caught up to me. Hopefully I'll come back to it someday, but somewhere else-- I think I could get it published in some kind of pop-culture general-audience critical venue. So I'll be short here: this is almost certainly the best Doctor Who novel that has been or will be written, with the most depth and nuance and themes, far more than a tie-in work even deserves, honestly-- but then again, it's Doctor Who, and it deserves everything we can give it.

Random Notes:
  • This book mentions Ellerycorp as a far-future giant corporation. Jason Haigh-Ellery is the entrepreneur who owns, among other companies, Big Finish Productions. Presumably Ellerycorp is a far-future descendant of Big Finish.
  • H. G. Wells is referenced; a suffragette uses him as a touchstone for the concept of free love. 
  • The Doctor's human persona, Smith, has memories from a mixture of the Doctor's companions over the years. There's a montage of them on pp. 92-3, most of which I can't identify, but I'm pretty sure the first one is a post-coital Ian and Barbara during The Romans.
  • Steven Moffat is in this book; he's a Scotsman who criticizes Sylvester McCoy's accent for being unrealistic.

Next Week: The Doctor, Benny, Chris, and Roz investigate a planet that builds death... Zamper!

15 July 2019

Review: The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions by Penny Simkin

Trade paperback, 393 pages
Published 2013 (original ed.: 1989)

Borrowed from a friend
Read July 2018
The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions
by Penny Simkin, P.T.

I read this about a month before my wife went into labor. It throws a lot of information at you, and I don't know that reading it straight through without, say, taking notes was particularly valuable. A lot of time is spent explaining certain holds and massages that by the time my wife was in labor, I had completely forgotten. But I guess the fundamental message is valuable: you should listen to the mother, and she should listen to her body, and avoid unnecessary interventions. We had a doula at the birth, for which I am immensely grateful, as she had internalized all this stuff, while a 400-page book is not the easiest referent in the middle of labor.

12 July 2019

Listening to James Bond at the BBC (Part II)

My books Bondathon has been pretty comprehensive. Whenever I read a James Bond book, I then watch the corresponding film(s). And then, if it exists, I listen to the BBC Radio drama. (And then, if it exists, I read the comic book!) A couple years ago, I wrote up my thoughts on the first four BBC radio dramas in chronological order; since then I've listened to four more: the next two in chronological sequence, Thunderball and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, plus I circled back and listened to the Moonraker and Live and Let Die adaptations, which were both released a couple years after I read the relevant books.

Overall Thoughts

I continue to be baffled by the production order of these stories. Why do faithful adaptations, but go from On Her Majesty's Secret Service (book 11) to Diamonds are Forever (book 4) to Thunderball (book 9) to Moonraker (book 3) to Live and Let Die (book 2)? This interview with director Martin Jarvis suggests he sometimes imagines the audios as having their own order: he says Thunderball follows Diamonds because the health clinic visit that opens Thunderball is Bond recuperating after the beating he takes in Diamonds. This is consistent with the fact that at the end of OHMSS, M mentions he has a case for Bond coming up involving diamonds in Sierra Leone, which is the premise of Diamonds. The opening of Moonraker links up with the end of Thunderball, and Bond knows more about nuclear weapons in Moonraker than in Thunderball, so it clearly does not take place in book order.

But this can't always be the case. Dr. No, which was made first, opens with a reference to From Russia, with Love, which was produced third. Live and Let Die has Bond still using the Beretta, which Q replaced in Dr. No. In OHMSS, they are hunting down Blofeld and SPECTRE, who have never been mentioned before if you're in production order. The worst implication of the switch is that it totally undermines the ending of OHMSS if, after Tracy dies, Bond goes on a random adventure about diamond smugglers-- never mentioning his dead wife at all!

The weakest part of this series is that, alas, the more I listen to them, the less I like Toby Stephens as James Bond. He might be a good actor (I don't really remember him from any of the things I've seen him in), but he's not a good James Bond. His flirtations are just flat-- I felt he really botched it in the scenes with Domino in Thunderball, for example, no sexiness at all. It's not all his fault, because part of what I don't like is the first-person present-tense narration he has to perform during action sequences, which is usually ridiculous sounding. Although, I'm not convinced he has to deliver it as a grunt. On the other hand, as you'll see below, I felt the Moonraker and OHMSS adaptations really played to his strengths.

But the real highlight of this series is Martin Jarvis "as the voice of Ian Fleming"; the veteran actor and director provides the third-person narration, and he is excellent at providing atmosphere and character and suspense with his voice-. So much so that I often imagine his voice when reading long narrative passages in the actual books, just as I typically imagine Sean Connery for Bond's dialogue, and Judi Dench for M's. Yes, I know it doesn't all quite go together.

I am also coming around to Julian Sands as Q. He plays it very differently to how Peter Capaldi did in Dr. No, but I like the image of Q-- very different to the films-- as a breathless upper-class enthusiast of all things technological. I like it.

Thunderball by Archie Scottney (2016)

This book ends up not playing too well on audio, at least not as adapted by Archie Scottney. Thunderball is one of the more investigatory Bond audios, but Scottney's script cuts out most of the legwork that Bond goes through. Plus, underwater battle sequences don't really play to the strength of the medium, especially when Bond has to narrate all his action to himself. The romance with Domino is substantially cut down, too-- there's no sexy scene where Bond sucks venom out of her toe (or whatever it was precisely). Instead in one scene, she calls him and asks if he wants to go swimming; the next scene, they're post-coital. Meh. Dialogue is the strength of audio; let me hear him seducing her!

I liked Josh Stamberg as Felix Leiter in Diamonds are Forever, but found him much less effective here; the 1950s crime film accent worked for Diamonds, but sticks out as a sore thumb in this story. It might be authentic for Emilio Largo (Tom Conti) to have a thick Italian accent, but I found it distracting; he seemed more an accent than a character, and thus his confrontations with Bond (especially when they play cards together) lacked any sizzle. On the other hand, I thought Janet Montgomery did a great job as Domino. Charming, flirtatious, dangerous, but vulnerable-- she could be a screen Bond girl to look at her, too. Shame she has to flirt with Toby Stephens.

Moonraker by Archie Scottney (2018)

Moonraker didn't come out until 2018, which means that I couldn't have listened to it back when I read the novel in 2015, so I plugged it in after Thunderball... which ended up restoring my faith in this whole undertaking, as Moonraker is the most enjoyable of these yet. Partially that's down the book, which is much more focused than other Bond novels: it all takes place in England, and only in a couple locations, and there's much more of an espionage focus than an action one. First Bond helps M expose Sir Hugo Drax as a card cheat, then Bond goes undercover at Sir Hugo's Moonraker project, a missile defense system. The fact that this is the only Bond novel where Bond sleeps with no one makes a virtue of Stephens's lack of charm; he flirts with Gala Brand, but she's not interested in flirting back. But also there's very little (maybe no) first-person narration from Bond, and much more third-person narration from Jarvis.

That all sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really is very good. Stephens is on point. Samuel West makes a great obnoxiously smug Sir Hugo Drax (the bit where he explains his life story is excellent), and all the scenes the two share really work. Katherine Kingsley is fantastic as Gala Brand, competent enough to do some dangerous stuff herself, but still needing to be saved by Bond as things escalate. The action sequences are intense, especially, when Bond and Brand almost drown, and their escape from Drax at the climax. Sound design was really on point, too; there were some chilling bits, especially the launch of the Moonraker rocket. It was just full of nice touches: John Baddely plays Winston Churchill (prime minister at the time, playing up some of the period elements), some key sequences are done as BBC Radio broadcasts. The whole thing feels alternately tense and charming. If they ever do Casino Royale, I think it will also be a good one.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Archie Scottney (2014)

Like Moonraker, this story plays more to the strengths of the format and of the casting. Stephens has good rapport with Lisa Dillon as Tracy; it's perfectly plausible that they would fall for each other in this version. The infiltration of Blofeld's clinic is well done. Again, sneaking into a place by pretending to be someone else is good for audio in a way that action sequences are not. But even the action sequences are strong here. Bond skiing down the Alp just sounds great, and I liked the way the score by Mark Holden and Michael Lopez incorporates "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" because the sequence is set on Christmas Eve. One of the things I like about the book is how much Fleming makes you feel Bond's physical struggle, and that's conveyed well in this story.

I didn't even mind Toby Stephens. Joanna Lumley plays Irma Bunt-- given she was one of Bunt's victims in the film, this is a nice touch, and she does a great job. Overall, it's in my top three of the seven of these I've listened to so far.

My main quibble is with the wedding at the end. The film had Moneypenny, Q, and M all there, which doesn't happen in the book. Here, they don't turn up to the wedding itself, but they do all appear afterwards, as Bond, Tracy, and Tracy's father are celebrating before the newlyweds leave on their honeymoon. It's a bit too sentimental, and smacks more of the films rather than the novels on which these stories are supposedly based, where there is no Q, and Bond's relationships with M and Moneypenny are much cooler.

Live and Let Die by Archie Scottney (2019)

Really, I think these adaptations mostly live and die on the source material. Not entirely (Thunderball was a much better novel than radio play), but the weak novels always seem to become weak radio plays. My memories of Live and Let Die's novel aren't that it's terrible, but they aren't the most fond, either, and what works in prose-- the tense train ride to Florida, the methodical staking out of Harlem fried chicken joints, the desperate dragging through shark-filled waters-- is weak material on audio. Add to that a story replete with Americans, and thus BBC Radio American accents, and it alternates between boring and excruciating. (Weirdly, it was apparently recorded in America, and many of the actors actually are American. They still sound off; not sure what's up with that. Trying to hard to do period accents?)

I thought casting an African-American as Solitaire was an interesting move, though perhaps wasted on radio; I didn't realize the actress was black until I looked her up later. It makes Mr. Big a little less of a racialized villain (no longer is he a black man threatening "our" white women), and it adds a charge to when a hotel owner is skeptical of Bond's cover story that he and Solitaire are married. And Rutina Wesley did a good job with what is surely one of the more boring women Bond falls for.

Quarrel previously appeared (and died) in the adaptation of Dr. No, there played by Clarke Peters, but this time out he's played by Ron Cephas Jones.

To Be Continued...

That's it for the Ayres/Jarvis BBC Bond adaptations for now; they have recorded eight, and I have heard all eight. Live and Let Die actually makes Toby Stephens the most prolific actor to have played Bond, beating out Roger Moore's seven appearances in the role. Shame I don't like him more, but I think I am getting used to him.

But that's not the end of what the BBC has had to do with James Bond, as I shall explore in the months (or years) to come...

10 July 2019

Hugos 2019: Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 138 pages
Published 2018

Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon

This is the third year in a row with a collection of Ursula Le Guin nonfiction on the Hugo Award for Best Related Work ballot, her late-life strategy of collecting and organizing her work in action. It's a slim volume, and reads even faster than you'd think from its size; it's a set of transcripts of radio interviews she did, one on fiction, one on nonfiction, one on poetry. While I guess I'm glad it exists, and it contains a number of Le Guin's usual insights (it was nice to hear her on, for example animal poetry, or conflict in fiction, or the use of tense and voice) it all feels a bit pointless. Mostly Naimon asks Le Guin about things she'd said and done elsewhere (as one does, I suppose), and you kind of get the feeling you'd be better off reading those other things that are being discussed to get the real insights. Like, the nonfiction interview is mostly about her 2016 collection Words Are My Matter, and I felt like I didn't learn anything I didn't learn better from reading the actual book. Valuable for the Le Guin completist (and I am one!), but hard to recommend to a more casual fan.

09 July 2019

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 10 by Cary Bates, Dave Cockrum, et al.

Comic hardcover, 230 pages
Published 2000 (contents: 1971-74)
Acquired December 2015
Read February 2019
Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 10

Writers: E. Nelson Bridwell, Cary Bates
Pencillers: Ross Andru, George Tuska, Dave Cockrum
Inkers: Mike Esposito, George Tuska, Vincent Colletta, Murphy Anderson, Dave Cockrum, Mike Grell
Letterers: Joe Letterese, Ben Oda

In my jumping back and forth across the history of the original Legion, I now come to this, one of its periods of revitalization and rebirth. It sets the stage for volume 11-13, which I've already read, and found enjoyable, if inconsistent. They were clearly trying to hook in some new readers, because the volume opens with stylish new costumes being floated, as well as a map of Legion HQ and a brief recap of the origins of the Legion.

I just love the 1960s-college-girl vibe of Saturn Girl's second outfit here.
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #403 (script by E. Nelson Bridwell, art by Ross Andru & Mike Esposito)

The new costumes are mostly fun. Sent in by fans, some would end up actually being used in the stories, like Duo Damsel's. Actually, there's one story (see below) where all the characters are in their new clothes, but these don't last-- most revert to their old outfits or get new new ones when Dave Cockrum takes over as regular artist. Others I wish had been used; Saturn Girl's winter outfit is a delightful alternative to her usual one-piece swimsuit, and I dig Shrinking Violet's very 1960s one. (Cockrum also debuts the new, Star Trek-influenced design for the Legion cruiser that would stick for the rest of the classic Legion's run.)

These are both pretty bad. The point where Projectra's top cuts off is awkward looking, and is Shadow Lass's even a costume? Plus gratuitous upskirt, way to go guys.
from Superboy vol. 1 #183 (script by Cary Bates, art by George Tuska & Vincent Colletta)

Most of the rest of the stories here are pretty generic Legion pablum. You've read worse (they've gotten out of their be-assholes-to-each-other-for-no-reason-other-than-to-drive-the-story-forwards phase), but you've also read better (Cary Bates writes most of them, and I don't think he was as interested in delving into the mythology as Jim Shooter was or Paul Levitz would, though he does use a pleasing amount of old villains instead of coming up with new, forgettable ones like many Legion writers).

This shows off what became Projectra's permanent outfit. Its cohesion always seemed a little... improbable to me, especially in battle, but I guess her power is illusion-casting.
from Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #199 (script by Cary Bates, art by Dave Cockrum)

Next Week: Back to Doctor Who-- the Doctor tries to get in touch with his Human Nature!

08 July 2019

Review: The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Hardcover, 205 pages
Published 2016

Acquired December 2018
Read January 2019
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

I liked the idea of this book-- surrealist artwork come to life in a Paris where World War II and the Nazi occupation continued into the 1950s-- more than I enjoyed reading it. I'm not sure why. I really liked how the other Miéville novella I've read was told, even when I didn't know what was going on, but this one never grabbed me, even among the great imagery. Maybe you need to be more up on Surrealism than I am?

I did really like the afterword (it had a good, spooky nineteenth-century sf vibe, though then it would have been a foreword), and the climax of the book was clever, pitting Surrealist art against fascist. It is perfectly suited to be a novella; this is the kind of idea that wouldn't work as a novel or a short story, I suspect. Miéville explores a number of twists and turns of the central concept, but it doesn't outstay its welcome.

05 July 2019

The Most I Could Do

When I was in grad school, I was heavily involved in graduate student government. I spent a year as senator for the English graduate students, two years on the Graduate Student Senate Executive Committee as Parliamentarian, one year as a senator again, and then one final year as Vice President. The responsibilities of the VP were running meetings and chairing the Student Life Committee, which had a very vague remit of essentially dealing with all the stuff that the other standing committees did not.

I came in as Vice President at a pretty fraught time. The year prior, the administration had unilaterally changed the health insurance for graduate assistants. We had been on a great plan, basically identical to the state employees plan, but administrative factors caused the administration to get rid of our plan and put us on the student plan (mostly for undergraduates who didn't have insurance from their parents), but offered subsidies. This plan offered fewer benefits than the old plan, was more expensive for GAs, and was administered by an utterly incompetent corporation, Bailey Agencies. But when the new plan was presented to the outgoing Executive Committee, the presentation highlighted all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks, which only slowly emerged as GAs dug into the plan details and began using it.*

So this is what I came into, and what I spent most of my time as VP dealing with-- meeting with administrators, surveying GAs. Parallel to my efforts in the GSS, this is when the UConn graduate employee unionization effort exploded. It wasn't just this (we had seen a number of fee hikes over the past few years, including a substantive one to build a new gym that something like 98% of surveyed graduate students were against, but flat stipends), but it was one of the major contributing factors.

Things got worse as the school year rolled along. When the spring semester came, and GAs began filing taxes, it was discovered that the university subsidy counted as income, and therefore had to be reported on your taxes. This meant that if you were on the family plan, which the university subsidized at $10,000, you had to pay taxes on your $20,000 of actual income as if you made $30,000 of income.

To me what was particularly irritating was that UConn's administration seemed entirely uninterested in the actual effects that this policy change was having on the lives of actual people. Members of HR continued to smile and insist it was a better plan even when presented with evidence that this was demonstrably untrue; one particularly loathsome HR employee, Lori Vivian, kept rattling on about "total compensation packages," insisting GAs were just blinkered because they didn't appreciate how much money they got in the form of tuition wavers even as they struggled to make ends meet.

The new plan wasn't even achieving its goal of being cheaper for the university, so in January, the Dean of the Graduate School came to us to tell us it was getting even worse, and asking us to pick the way in which was getting even worse. To his credit, he had about as much power as we did in all this, and this visit was because he wanted to do us the courtesy of keeping us in the loop, unlike other administrators. The GSS rejected the choices as a false binary, a tactic of making it look like we consented to what was happening; the resolution ended with a statement that "that the Graduate Student Senate finds the recognition by the University administration of the right of graduate assistants to collectively bargain with the University as the only viable recourse for negotiating the terms of graduate assistants’ employment and for ensuring the well-being of graduate assistants, the Graduate School, and the University of Connecticut."

Nothing else was working, nor would it work. The thing that continually stymied me in my every effort to do something was that no one was obligated to do anything. No one had to listen to graduate students, because graduate students had no power.

The point where things really got bad was when the tax thing became apparent. Because UConn reported its subsidy of our health insurance as a scholarship, refunds were going down by about $650. But no one could tell me why. Eventually we managed to figure out it was because the new plan did not count as "employer-provided" even though it was provided by our employer... but no one could tell me what that meant. UConn's tax and compliance accountant didn't answer my e-mails, but thankfully the Dean of the Graduate School eventually got me into a meeting with him and a number of other relevant administrators.

That meeting was horrifying in how abstractly it treated the lives of real human beings. The guy from the Comptroller's office provided his explanation of why GAs were losing this money... and clearly considered it all good, and the meeting over.

I was like... "Wait... but what are we actually doing? Now that we know why this is happening, how are we using this information?" And the answer was basically that we were not. Lori Vivian from HR just apologized and said, "We didn't know." Which just infuriated me even more. It was her job to know! (It still baffles me that she has a job. Thanks to her poorly implemented health insurance change, GAs unionized, and UConn surely lost much more money due to that than it ever even could gained from downgrading our benefits.)

After that meeting, I went and spoke at the next Board of Trustees meeting, during the open comment session. This is how my speech ended:
I recently attended a meeting on this topic with the Dean of Graduate School, the Director of Student Health Services, the Controller, and representatives from Human Resources. The purpose of this meeting was not to fix the problem, but simply to explain it. It was explained to me that UConn was legally in the right, and everyone said they were very sorry and expressed surprise that this had happened. Legally, I am sure UConn is sound—ethically, I am not so sure. When a GA loses $600 or $1,500 or more for the privilege of having worse health insurance, UConn has done something wrong. When no one informs GAs in advance that they will lose this money, either because they didn’t know or because they forgot, UConn has done something wrong. When a roomful of administrators throw up their hands and says there’s nothing to be done about this, UConn has done something wrong.
I don't think this did any good but at that point it felt like all I could do.

I turned out to be a frustrating and unenjoyable year to be Vice President; I had just wanted to make jokes while chairing meetings.

#619: When have you spoken out about something you felt had to change?

* The new plan was so bad that the some GAs opted instead to go on the state-subsidized Medicaid plan for low-income families. The owner of Bailey Agencies, John Scott, was a state senator and corrupt as hell, so he introduced a bill in the state legislature to make it illegal for people to go on Medicaid if they were students!

03 July 2019

Hugos 2019: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trade paperback, 287 pages
Published 2018

Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
The Sixth World, Book One: Trail of Lightning
by Rebecca Roanhorse

I enjoyed this book at first, but as it went on, I cared less and less. But I don't think it's the book's fault. It's essentially urban fantasy except there are no cities because it takes place on a reservation. It has all the other trappings, though: badass woman with attitude who wears leather fighting monsters, a will-they-won't-they love interest. Anyway, all this is to say that urban fantasy is a genre that just doesn't interest me, no matter how well written, and we can't blame Rebecca Roanhorse for that, but by the time I got to the end, I was bored.

02 July 2019

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 7 by Jim Shooter, Curt Swan, George Klein, et al.

Comic hardcover, 238 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1967-68)
Acquired June 2015
Read August 2018
Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 7

Writer and Layouts: Jim Shooter
Pencillers: Curt Swan, Jim Mooney, Pete Costanza
Inkers: George Klein, Jim Mooney, Pete Costanza, Sheldon Moldoff
Letterers: Milton Snapinn, Shelly Leferman, Morris Waldinger, Gaspar Saladino, Ray Holloway

For the 1960s Legion, this is actually pretty decent. You can see that Shooter is a fan, and it has a positive effect on his writing, in that he's interested in who the Legionnaires are as characters. This volume often delves into their backgrounds, with home planets and parents putting in appearances.

What, characterization, in a Legion comic? Too bad it will have no impact on the story.
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #362 (art by Pete Costanza)

We also get milestones like the first appearance of the Dominators; I was amused to notice they're introduced just like Star Trek's Cardassians, in that a never-before-mentioned war with them is just coming to an end. Pretty tough war if our heroes devoted to the United Planets literally have nothing to do with it. Jerks!

Of course you don't think he's so bad, you've never even heard of these guys before!
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #361 (art by Jim Mooney)

I mean, a lot of it is still silly and/or dumb. There's a story where they Legionnaires travel to another dimension as a shortcut to escort a peace mission (a technology never mentioned before or since) and get attacked by descendants of Lee Harvey Oswald, Brutus, Cassius, and John Wilkes Booth who have been given superpowers and altered to resemble their ancestors. Why is this considered a good plan by the bad guys? Who knows. Also 30th-century education must be pretty impressive, given the Legionnaires recognize all four historical assassins at a glance. Actually, flipping back through the book, a lot of the plots are silly and/or dumb. I could go the rest of my life without another Legion of Super-Pets story.

This doesn't really relate to anything I discuss in my review; I just thought it had some badass writing for Shadow Lass with good art to match.
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #365 (art by Curt Swan & George Klein)

Also the Miracle Machine turns up for the first time, which shows up to wrap up an adventure, a never-before-mentioned piece of technology with the amazing power of doing literally anything! At least the Legion finally get their new, better HQ.

Next Week: Jumping ahead-- new costumes in Archives, Volume 10!

01 July 2019

Reading Roundup Wrapup: June 2019

Pick of the month: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. In theory I read a lot of good books this month, because I read a lot of Hugo finalists... but mostly I worked my way through the YA and graphic story lists this month, both of which I am finding underwhelming this year. But two I did really like, and both were contenders for my personal "honor": the graphic novel On a Sunbeam and the novelette The Only Harmless Great Thing. I gave the edge to On a Sunbeam because I liked its ending slightly better than Great Thing's, but that seems kinda arbitrary.

All books read:
1. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
2. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
3. Black Panther: Long Live the King by Nnedi Okorafor & Aaron Covington
4. Star Trek: Convergence by Michael Jan Friedman with Howard Weinstein
5. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
6. The Undefeated by Una McCormack
7. Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber
8. Doctor Who: Shakedown: The Monster Collection Edition by Terrance Dicks
9. Empty Space by Michael Jan Friedman
10. Saga, Book Three by Brian K. Vaughan
11. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
12. The James Bond Omnibus, Volume 001 by Henry Gammidge with Anthony Hern and Peter O’Donnell
13. Star Trek vs. Transformers by John Barber & Mike Johnson
14. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Raise the Dawn by David R. George III
15. Cibola Burn: Book Four of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey
16. The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
17. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

All books acquired:
1. Saga, Book Three by Brian K. Vaughan
2. The James Bond Omnibus, Volume 001 by Henry Gammidge with Anthony Hern and Peter O’Donnell
3. Superman: Our Worlds at War by Jeph Loeb, Joe Casey, Mark Schultz, Joe Kelly, Peter David, Phil Jimenez, and Todd Dezago
4. Star Trek vs. Transformers by John Barber & Mike Johnson
5. Superman: Return to Krypton by Joe Casey, Geoff Johns, Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb, and Mark Schultz
6. Cibola Burn: Book Four of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey
7. Star Trek: First Contact by John Vornholt
8. Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Books remaining on "to be read" list: 649 (down 3)
Books remaining on "to review" list: 5 (down 6)