Monday, May 20, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/17/19

This week I have three books that I bought -- all things I used to own before my 2011 flood, and felt like reading again. All of them are mildly out of print, I think, but that doesn't mean as much these days: most books are accessible, with Internet-aided book searches and ebooks and all that rot, to anyone who knows about them and wants them enough.

It's a goddamn utopia, isn't it?

Anyway, I'm going to list these books in order from most obscure to least, partially because that's the way they're already stacked.

Creatures of Light and Darkness -- Roger Zelazny's most obscure novel, in the Avon paperback with the Amber-style Ron Walotsky cover. The hardcover is almost nonexistent, due to some confusion as to which Zelazny book was supposed to be pulped back in 1969, right after Creatures was printed (hint: the plan wasn't to pulp the brand-new one). But it would be pretty darn obscure anyway: it's a quirky, weird, self-indulgent book. Or at least I remember it that way: it's as old as I am and I haven't read it in probably three decades. It is far-future SF of the kind that wraps back around to fantasy, except wrapped around five or six times for good measure and told sideways.

Speaking of far-future SF that wraps around to fantasy (and things told sideways), I also have Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun. This is not the fifth book of the four-book "Book of the New Sun" series, but a separate novel that follows that series. And I got this for the obvious reason: I'm re-reading "Book of the New Sun" right now, and thought I might want to keep going. I'm not currently planning to dive into the related Books of the Long and Short Sun, but who knows?

And last is also from Gene Wolfe, and similarly related: Castle of Days. This is a sort-of omnibus of the early story collection Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (with the stories arranged to line up to various holidays during a year), Castle of the Otter (a small book of essays about Book of the New Sun) and "Castle of Days" (a larger collection of more miscellaneous essays). I'm definitely going to read the Otter essays, and probably the miscellaneous ones -- I'm a sucker for novelists' occasional nonfiction anyway.

Finally: Yes, I did start Book of the New Sun because Wolfe died recently: it was a damn shame and a huge loss to literature, but, at the very least, a death can remind us of someone important and the great work they did. If it does that, we can at least keep their memory and work alive. Or maybe we just tell ourselves that, so we feel less horrified by the thought that we, too, will die, sooner than we would like.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/10/19

This week I have two books: both came in the mail from the fine folks at Night Shade Books.

Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends is a new reprint anthology edited by Paula Guran. It's a nice big book, over 400 pages and twenty-seven stories, and the focus is loose enough to be interesting but not restrictive. (I've seen books like this that are all Greek myths, or all Aesop's fables, and that means a reader can often guess where a story is going from the first page.) This officially hit stores on My 7th, which means you should be able to find it wherever you prefer to buy books. Included are stories by Nisi Shawl, Catherynne M. Valente, Sofia Samatar, Rachel Swirsky, M. Rickert, Rachel Pollack, Elizabeth Hand, and Yoon Ha Lee, as old as Tanith Lee's "The Gorgon" from 1982 and as new as Tansy Rayner Roberts's "How to Survive an Epic Journey" from 2017.

And for something completely different, Night Shade also just published Neal Asher's The Warship, the second book in the "Rise of the Jain" space-opera series. It follows The Soldier in that series, and doesn't say how long the series is. (Though my experience of Asher is that all of his books basically stand alone -- he does the same kind of thing each time, but you can jump in with any book, and they're all fun modern space adventure with lots of action.) I haven't read Asher in a while, but what I read of his stuff was all good: if you ever wished Iain Banks would cut out the convoluted plots and just concentrate on things blowing up, you'll like Asher. This is also set in his common Polity universe, for returning Asher readers.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

Whether or not the USA is an imperial power is a contentious question: it depends on your politics, your definition of "imperial," and probably who the President is at the moment. But the question of whether the US is an actual empire -- you know, with extra-territorial possessions that it conquered in wars and that are not incorporated into the country itself -- should be simpler, right?

And the answer is...Yes, actually.

Doug Mack explores that surprising answer in his recent book The Not-Quite States of America, a travelogue of all of the places that are attached to the USA but not actually part of it in the pure sense. He visited the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, all of which are full of people subject to the laws and taxes of the US and none of which actually have any representation in making those laws and taxes. [1]

Hey, I seem to remember that was a really big deal in some war the US fought. Guess it's less important when we're applying it to others.

My snark aside, the territories [2] are interesting places with quirky relationships to the USA, and all of them are conquered territory, either from the turn of the 20th century or from WWII -- which, clearly, is the cause of those quirky, complicated relationships. (Big powers tend to want to hold onto things they've acquired: that's how they became, and stay, big powers.) And they tend to raise those big questions, about what it means to be an American, and who qualifies. Most of the folks in all of these territories have skin darker than one end of the US political spectrum prefers, for example, and so, even if they consider themselves Americans (and they don't, always, entirely, consistently), would tend to be excluded by those contentious gents in the bright red caps for that reason.

Mack avoids those kind of questions, possibly for reasons of timing: Not-Quite States was published in 2017, and it's not entirely clear when the journeys he chronicles here actually took place. (Travel writing takes a lot of time and money -- I didn't see any indication that these pieces first appeared as individual articles, though they certainly could have, and that's usually my assumption with a travel book like this.) Instead, he's doing the core travel-writer thing: go to this place to talk to the people there, see the sights, wander around, and try to understand it as best he can in a short period of time.

Each of those places is distinct and individual, but their concerns rhyme -- they all have those deep questions about whether they want to stay in their current relationship with the USA, get closer, or break away entirely. The details are different: the don't have the same options, for one thing. And they're all poorer than the US average, more likely to join the military, and a few other similarities.

Mack is a pleasant tour guide through these territories: he does focus the book on himself and his quest to understand the territories, but he's standing in for the reader in that. (No one will read Not-Quite States unless they do care about learning about these quirky US possessions and want to think about how they relate to the larger polity.) He made what seem to be good contacts in all of these places, had some intriguing conversations, learned some interesting things, and wrote about them all in a graceful way. Not-Quite States does what a travel book should do, and does it well; I enjoyed reading it.

[1] And, in many cases, it's even more complicated than that: courts have ruled that some laws don't apply to the territories at all, and Congress can rule all of them pretty much by fiat if it really wanted to.

[2] Puerto Rico and the NMI are officially Commonwealths, which, again, is a more complicated way of defining essentially the same thing.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/27/19

Two books came in the mail this week, and I'm going to hit them in order of size of physical book (descending), because that's they way they're stacked right at this second. And that means about as much as you think it does.

First up is a new novel by one of my favorite nutty SF writers, Rudy Rucker. Million Mile Road Trip is not just a brand new Rucker SF novel -- coming on May 7th from Night Shade, which I keep forgetting is part of Skyhorse now -- but the lead-off of a big Rucker reprinting project, which is possibly even better.

So: Million Mile is another odd, probably math-inspired Rucker story, in which three teens open a transdimensional gateway to Mappyworld, an endless plain divided into basin-like worlds by ridges, and of course go on a road trip there in an old station wagon to save the world from carnivorous flying saucers.

And: Night Shade is also reprinting nine earlier Rucker novels at the same time, from classics like The Sex Sphere and White Light and Spacetime Donuts to books I missed the first time around like Turing & Burroughs and Jim and the Flims. Unless you are vastly more of a Rucker-head than I am, some of this will be new to you, and I hope you have fun with it. (I see that I haven't reviewed any of Rucker's novels here -- the only Rucker book I've covered was his autobiography, Nested Scrolls.)

The other book I have is a reprint anthology called, with a certain swagger in its step, The Unicorn Anthology. I suspect there may have been more than one, but this one is edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, and includes 16 stories from such luminaries as Jane Yolen, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Carrie Vaughn, Karen Joy Fowler, Nancy Springer, Patricia A. McKillip, and Garth Nix. It's a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications, and you can get it right now if you want.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: week of 4/20/19

Two books this week -- one that came in the mail, one that I bought. And they'll run in that order, as usual.

In the mail I got 5 Worlds: The Red Maze, third in the middle-grade graphic novel series by Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. (The first two write, the rest do the art -- I covered the second book, The Cobalt Prince, last year and I still don't know the breakdown of work any more than that.)  This one is coming May 7th in hardcover from Random House Books for Young Readers, and it looks like just as much fun as the last one.

The book I bought is Brandon Graham's early sex comic Pillow Fight. (As opposed to Brandon Graham's early sex comic Perverts of the Unknown, which I still have not seen. I think that category includes just those two things, plus a random scene in the first volume of Multiple Warheads.) Graham has a fun line and a good way with puns and a loose storytelling sensibility. And he doesn't have all that many comics out, so I'm getting around to his more disreputable stuff sooner than one might expect. (Or maybe not: I can be pretty disreputable myself, I suppose.)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/13/19

One book this week -- a book of illustrated stories coming in October from Norton.

It's called The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes, it's by Landis Blair, and it's more than a little influenced by Edward Gorey.

(Tangent: why is that a big deal? Well, our artistic culture seems to be just fine with the thousandth genre entry -- write a book about a stableboy who turns out to be the lost prince and see if every review uses the same comparison -- but comes down hard on the second. To my mind, that's backward: the second creator is still trailblazing, turning one person's specific style into something closer to a genre, and making room for more work in that genre. I complained about this a lot when Elizabeth Willey's novels were coming out, since she was the only person who tried to do Amberesque novels other than Roger Zelazny. And I expect Landis Blair will be my new example for the same argument.)

So Envious Siblings has eight stories, all told in rhyming verse underneath full-page illustrations in precise pen-and-ink with more than a little crosshatching, all about nasty and/or tormented young people in scenes that tend to look more Victorian than modern.

I haven't done more than scan it, so I can't say how well Blair's writing handles this style. His art looks nice, carefully posed in that way that implies action but looks static. And I'm always in favor of more grisly dark humor. So I want to like this, and I'm happy to see it has quotes from Emil Ferris and Eddie Campbell. If you've been a bit out of sorts since Gorey died, you'll want to at least glance at Envious Siblings when it hits stores this fall.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Perdy, Vol. 1 by Kickily

Genres are quirky things -- especially the small ones. I'm pretty sure "French Western comics" is a pretty small genre, but it's hard to say, as a purely Anglophone reader an ocean away.

I have seen a stream of things in that genre, though -- first the Blueberry comics by Charlier and Moebius, which I read in the '90s but were mostly older than that. then some other random things, and most recently Perdy, Vol. 1 by an entity credited as Kickily. [1] And they all have seemed to fall into a basically coherent genre. It's a comics version of Sergio Leone movies more than anything -- not just influenced by the American cinematic Western, but specifically influenced by the late, decadent, European burst of "the American cinematic Western." They definitely have nothing to do with the thin American genre of Western comics, which were another one of those vaguely superhero-esque brand extensions from the Big Two and are now quite thoroughly dead.

Then again, French adventure comics tend to have a distinctive tone or style to begin with: more fatalistic than their American equivalents, depicting worlds in which horrible, irrevocable things happen...and are not afterward wished or retconned out of existence. French comics, from what I've seen, play fair with their audiences: they say clearly "this is real, this story matters, and what happens in it will have consequences."

I appreciate that, as a reader who likes stories and not just narrative shards. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to read Perdy.

(Among the others: it's unabashedly about sex and violence but centered on a woman no longer young, never terribly attractive, built very sturdily, and possessed of the bullheaded will and drive usually reserved for men in popular fiction. Perdy herself is a great obnoxious character, and that came through even before I read the book.)

Perdy is a woman of middle years -- call her somewhere in her forties, since she has a grown daughter. She's been in prison for fifteen years as the story opens, and is just getting released for her unspecified but clearly violent crimes. She has nothing but the rags of her prison garb: not even shoes. But we readers can see immediately that this will not be much impediment to her: Perdy is the kind of person you either quickly get out of the way of or get bowled over by.

There's something cartoony about Perdy, but it's the fun, narrative-enhancing kind of cartoony. A story always moves forward with someone like Perdy in it, and so this one does: she goes to retrieve her gear from the place she hid it, and then sets out to get back to the work of her life: robbing banks.

(Well, and causing trouble, but that's more of a hobby -- the kind of thing she can and does do nearly every moment of every day. She's also quite fond of very vigorous sex, entirely on her own terms, which is also nice to see in a woman like Perdy who is almost entirely not constructed for the male gaze.)

Along the way, she comes back in contact with someone from her old life, though I won't spoil that surprise. There's another female character here who is nearly as overwhelming as Perdy, in her own more conventionally feminine way, though I have to admit the men mostly do not acquit themselves well in the company of either woman. It's understandable: they're clearly overmatched, and know it.

As the Vol. 1 might imply, this is not a complete story. The second book is promised for this fall, though, and what we have here has most of the shape of a story -- there's no ending, but it's a satisfying story that tells us a lot about these people and their world and runs us through a series of entertaining and amusing scenes. I'm cautiously optimistic that we won't be looking for the ending in a Vol. 12 some years down the road...but that's always the danger.

For now, though, this is a fine beginning and a great central character. Perdy kicks ass in several ways, and it's fun to watch her doing it.

[1] A desultory Internet search leads me to believe that Kickily is a male human being. I can't prove this, so take it as you will. Every entity on the Internet can be assumed to be a dog unless you have compelling evidence otherwise.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Quote of the Week: Yes, I Know

"The most characteristic aspect of most any blog is a first few enthusiastic posts, followed by a large gap and a post explaining why the person hasn't posted, and a public intention to post again -- usually followed by silence."
 - Kevin Young, Bunk, p.114

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them by Stanley Bing

I may have found the most 2006 book ever. (And I hope someone won't be saying the identical thing about 2019 a decade from now, though I wouldn't bet against it.)

2006, of course, was the height of the last big American boom, driven by the last big delusional Republican American president -- and, at the time, we thought those both were heights that would never be bettered. (Insert hollow laugh here.)

And the mostly humorous business writer "Stanley Bing" -- he has some other name, which I could probably find without too much trouble, under which he has lived a real career as an actual mid-level corporate manager -- summed up all of the highlights of that era in his book 100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them.

This is indeed a list of 100 jobs, alphabetically, each with a pseudo-scientific and mostly humorous mathematical formula to determine just how bullshit each of them is. Up front is an introduction explaining the formula and the project, but the bulk of the book is running through those hundred jobs and describing what they do in breezy tones, starting (obviously) with pay and running through the skills required, duties, famous folks with that job, how the reader can get into it, and so on.

Bullshit isn't the same as easy, of course. A job can have long, grueling hours and still be entirely bullshit. But there's an essential lack of honesty and centeredness that characterizes the true bullshit job, and many people aspire to that state of not-caring and want to find a way to skate by everything serious and weighty.

Bing begins with Advertising Executive and runs through Yoga Franchiser before hitting #100 with, in the best business-book fashion, You. Because every business book is always about You: how you can win friends and influence people, or move the cheese, or lean in, or whatever piece of bullshit advice that particular writer thinks will sound plausible to you so he can make a fortune.

Bing knows this, and lays on the smarm at the end, with not only the final job being whatever the hell it is You do, but adding a short conclusion entirely on "Transforming your job into a bullshit job," which is of course what we all clearly aspired to in 2006.

Obviously, 100 Bullshit Jobs is a massive exercise in bullshit itself -- that's the point. Any of the jobs listed here can be bullshit, and so can a whole lot of other jobs. (Our current President, for example, is showing that you can make any job a bullshit job -- I hope Bing is proud.) Any job can also not be bullshit: like a crime, making a job bullshit requires motive, means and opportunity -- you have to have the chance to make that job bullshit, and you have to want to do it.

If you do have that desire, know that Bing's book is out there as a roadmap. The world is slightly less friendly to bullshit jobs after the last financial crash than it was in 2006 -- I have a vague, probably-bullshit-theory itself that this has been the case for every crash, and that bullshit builds up afterwards in the fat periods -- but there's still plenty of it out there, and 2006 is close enough to 2019 that the models here still mostly work.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

This book was a bestseller and reviewed/talked about a lot -- so there's a very good chance you're not hearing about it for the first time from me. In fact, this paperback edition is already a year old itself.

More importantly, Stephens-Davidowitz's central point -- that there are now large datasets, mostly around Internet usage, which can be used by social scientists and other researchers to get closer to the truth about what people really think and feel about taboo or contentious subjects -- might be news in a lot of circles, but not to anyone who's been paying attention for the last decade or so.

(Admittedly, a lot of people don't pay attention. People are the worst, as we can also learn from this book.)

So. We have the usual punchy, expansive title: Everybody Lies. And the equally usual descriptive subtitle that claims even more territory: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. So far, so much like a million other non-fiction bestsellers and would-be bestsellers since bookselling became a regular racket. We expect a quick, punchy read that makes big claims in a lot of areas, backs up at least some of them at least some of the time, and gives us a few facts which we can use to sound smart at a cocktail party or on the Internet.

Everybody Lies is a bit better than that, actually, but it follows that model pretty closely. Again, if you're in any data-driven field, it won't particularly shocking. (In Chapter 6, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Stephens-Davidowitz spends several pages explaining what A/B tests are -- I, and I hope every other marketing person currently in existence, have been doing A/B tests for probably a decade now. Not as often or as rigorously as I might like, true, but it's not a new concept for that many people, I hope.)

Stephens-Davidowitz (can I call him SSD from here, for short?) starts off with sex, because he is not at all stupid. He doesn't really note that one of the great precursors of this book are the occasional posts by the data scientists of (of all places) PornHub, delving into questions like whether porn viewing dips on Super Bowl Sunday and what the most popular kinds of entertainment are in different nations. But who ever wants to emphasize that other people have been doing the same thing, in more depth and sometimes better?

SSD was a data scientist for Google, and it seems that the best data he has to work with is still mostly from Google, so that informs what he's been looking at and researching. (Admittedly, I expect Google would be the best Internet data anyone could have to work with in most cases, given their size and ubiquity.) I do wonder what a similar book by a Facebook expert would say -- SSD is mostly looking at individual behavior and attitudes, as seen by searches, and a Facebook-centric (or even just social-media-focused) project would be much more about social maps, how ideas spread, which ideas spread, and the contagiousness of various things. [1]

Everybody Lies starts out with sex and racism -- it is a book by an American, for Americans, after all -- and then moves on to less immediately juicy topics and then to general issues raised by the existence of these tools and research techniques, as it tries to cover everything a general reader might want to know about Big Data and its uses.

I don't want to be flippant, because SSD has a fairly rigorous academic background, and he's clearly brought that to his data-science work and the original research that underpins a lot of this book. A lot of what he's doing here is simplifying complex data-analysis concepts to explain them to a mass audience -- but that's what a mass audience needs. Everybody Lies does a good job of summarizing both what we can know about (mostly American) mass culture and attitudes from Internet data, and at examining some particular examples of that data.

I personally would like a book with even more charts and detail, but that's me. This is probably more chart-heavy than the average reader wants to begin with.

[1] That book might exist -- let me know if anyone out there has read or seen it.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Not Reviewing the Mail

I don't know if you are as annoyed with my stream of "I said I'd do this thing, so here I am to say I have nothing to say" posts as I am, but I'm trying to stop them.

So I'm explicitly saying what might have been implicit: I'm only going to do the things I semi-jokingly refer to as "obligatory" posts when I actually have something to say about the thing the post is supposedly about.

e.g.: when I don't have any new books to write about any given week, I will not have a Reviewing the Mail post.

Inference beyond that point is left to the reader.

Have a nice day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

Some novels are about story, a narrative that moves forward and goes from Point A to Point B. Those kind of books can range from the most relentless chase thrillers to discursive books like Dickens's and across several dozen other variations. Frankly, that's what most people would think of as "a novel" to begin with.

Steve Erickson doesn't play that game.

Shadowbahn is not his least narrative novel -- I think that's still Amnesiascope -- but it's not a story of things that happen in a certain order. It's a collection of things that did happen, or are happening, or that no one can stop happening, or that we wish happened, or dream that they didn't happen. It's the kind of book that reviewers call a meditation or a fantasia or other fanciful terms: a book loosely about things rather than telling the story of them.

In this case, it's rock 'n roll, Elvis, the Beatles, American music in general, the late twentieth century, and, looming over all of that like some Tolkienian Shadow, 9/11. Erickson will not tell us clearly what the one has to do with the other: he's not a writer to draw straight, crisp lines.

So let me sketch some of the things that happen, or appear, in Shadowbahn. They will be in no particular order.

  • Off Highway 44 in the South Dakota badlands, in what seems to be 2021, two matching blocky skyscrapers appear mysteriously. Those two matching blocky skyscrapers, the ones violently destroyed twenty years before.
  • Parker and Zima, twentysomething white brother and teen black sister, are driving cross-country, from one side of their family to another, when this happens. Their car is soon the only place in the country where music still plays.
    • That music seems to come from Zima herself, and may be entirely from the massive number of playlists compiled by their obsessive father.
      • That father, who never appears on-stage in Shadowbahn, is pretty obviously a 
      • version or self-insert for Erickson.
      • He, and Parker/Zima, have appeared in Erickson's novels before, notably in These Dreams of You.
  • Jesse Garon Presley wakes up near the top of one of those towers, somewhere in his middle years -- not young, but not as old as a man born in 1935 should be. He is alone there.
    • His twin brother died at birth. We are to presume something has shifted the universe so that we got this Presley rather than another, and probably all of the other changes we see. 
    • Presley had a minor career as a male model and hanger-on in Warhol's Factory, then increasingly became obsessed by his dead/non-existent twin, symbolized by one 45 by that twin.
    • This Presley cannot sing at all.
    • He knows -- and many people around him know -- that he was supposed to die, that the world they live in is the wrong one, and that it is Presley's fault.
    • Rock 'n roll basically died out by the early '60s. The Beatles were never famous. We may presume that American popular music either was locked into sever-duller iterations of The Great American Songbook [1] or that music stopped being a serious cultural influence at all, as we choose. The latter seems more likely, given the silence in the Parker/Zima sections. 
The narrative bounces from Parker/Zima to Presley and back, looping around that car trip, Presley in the tower, and Presley in the '60s and '70s. Again, Erickson is not telling a story here. Maybe he's constructing a mosaic, or painting a picture, of an America without something central and foundational -- showing us a society shattered at its center, broken and jagged with pain in the broken places. That's Shadowbahn.

As always, Erickson writes compellingly. He's a masterful prose stylist, with sentences that sing and characters that appear full-formed immediately. This book is structured into single-page pseudo-chapters (or vignettes), each one with a "title" that is often just the first words of the first sentence, rolling up into several large sections that mostly focus on either Parker/Zima or Presley.

Most readers don't want a novel like Shadowbahn. That's fine. But one sign I have that we don't live in a broken, shattered world -- maybe one of the few, these days -- is that Erickson is out there, writing novels like this.

[1] Amusingly, this could connect to another one of my obsessions: the Fallout video game series. Those are set in a world without rock 'n roll, a world devastated by a massive nuclear war in the late 21st century, a world crueler and nastier than our own. Shadowbahn, if you squint, could almost be a prequel to those games.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Quote of the Week

He doesn't like police, and on the relatively rare occasion that he crosses paths with them, he has come to realize -- with a stumble into that old mischief maker called greater maturity -- that he talks himself into trouble. He almost got into it with the cop at the border a few hours back, before downshifting into deference, when the officer stared at him long and hard before waving him into West Texas. Parker's father was the same when he was younger, with no respect for any authority that was arbitrary, naively figuring that if he was in the right, he was untouchable. "You need to get over that notion," he later informed his son.
 - Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, p.82

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

The thing about the end of the world is that worlds end every day. And not just in the teenage-drama sense, either: every death is the end of the world for at least one person. Usually more than that.

So Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" series continues in The Labyrinth Index, the ninth novel, even though its world -- at least as much as the series started out as a secret history -- has definitely ended. The Lovecraftian Singularity is continuing, with an avatar of Nyarlathotep as the Prime Minister of the UK and other players assembling around the world.

But humans are still around and mostly unchanged -- the PM in particular has a soft spot for them, though perhaps primarily because he wants masses to worship him -- and so human stories go on, after the end of what used to be their world.

Mhari Murphy is arguably not a human anymore, but she looks like one, so let's give her the benefit of the doubt. She's a vampire, which is to say the carrier of a nasty but beneficial supernatural parasite: as long as she keeps it fed through a blood-link with other minds it can eat, it won't eat her mind. She's also, because of that fairly recent state and a history with the Laundry, now the Baroness Karnstein, a member of the House of Lords, and head of that house's Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs -- which is to say she's responsible for ensuring the rest of Britain's useful vampires continue to be fed from the blood of unfortunate others so that they can continue to do the work the PM and Laundry need them to do.

(If you're lost -- and you easily could well be with the ninth book in even a loose, mostly new-reader-friendly series like this one -- you could see what I wrote about the previous book, The Delirium Brief, and from there follow links further back for as much more depth as you feel inclined to chase.)

But Mhari is about to get a more difficult job, from that creepy, vastly-less-human PM. You see, the UK's traditional closest ally has been acting strange and distant recently -- even more so than usual. The PM thinks that country has been captured by its own Laundry-style agency, which has thrown in its lot with a much nastier and more dangerous Elder God than himself.

(Those comparatives of "dangerous" and "nasty" here are being used in a way pretty far beyond human norms, I admit.)

And so Mhari has to assemble a team quickly, entirely from a list that PM gives her, infiltrate a foreign country as secretly as possible, so she can find and extract the missing President of the USA. Although, when her team arrives in the States, they find that no American can even remember that they ever had a President....

The Laundry series has always had a whistling-past-the-graveyard appeal, but that's been sharpening with the last couple of books, as the real world has itself gone traipsing through some more boring graveyards. Stross's twisted mirror of our own world has become even more shattered as we've all seen just how horrible, stupid and dysfunctional our governments really can be. And it's culminated here: where the Deep State is not only a real thing, but actually in the thrall of the dread lord Cthulhu.

Labryinth Index will be a slightly odd read for most Americans, since it's inherently about the USA from an outside viewpoint. That viewpoint is generally admiring -- well, as much as you can admire your friend who has become captured by a Cthulhu death-cult -- but it is definitely distanced, and the America in Labyrinth Index is a foreign land not just for Mhari and her band of oddball agents, but for the few beleaguered Americans who remember what a President was.

I wouldn't start the series with this book: they generally stand alone, but too much has gone before, and we're deep into the apocalypse at this point. But it's a great series, full of compelling voices, written straight down the middle of that dark no-man's-land among SF, fantasy, and horror. If any of the above sounds intriguing, find yourself a copy of The Atrocity Archives and start there.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/9/19

To get it out of the way first: nope. No new books, and I haven't managed to finish the one book I'm slowly reading. (Kevin Young's big, interesting Bunk.)

I did, though, finish up two book-review posts, which will roll out over over the next couple of weeks. So content will still be scattered, but maybe slightly less so.

I do need to figure out a time and place to read: that's what I'm missing in my life right now. And the many shelves of books behind me are mocking me for it.

It'll happen eventually. If it doesn't happen right now, while I have one son about to graduate college, another about to graduate high school, and I'm figuring out a very different new job...well, that's not surprising, is it?

Monday, March 04, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/2/19

The drought has lifted, at least for this week; I have two brand-new books to tell you about. Both are trade paperbacks from the fine folks at Tachyon Publications.

First up is The Last Tsar's Dragons by Jane Yolen and  Adam Stemple, a short novel of historical fantasy. (Yes Tsar Nicholas, yes the Russian Revolution, yes actual fire-breathing dragons.) It's coming on June 19th, and I wonder how much Game of Thrones backstory contributed to the idea -- I can see a reaction like "you think that's an evil king? I could name five worse examples from Russia alone" possibly sparking the idea. Anyway: it looks interesting, and it starts with a compelling, grumpy voice -- always a plus for me.

Available now from Tachyon is The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, a collection of twenty stories originally published between 2003 and 2017. (I suspect it collects the expensive small-press hardcovers Two Worlds and in Between and Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, but the copy doesn't quite say that.) Kiernan writes fine, creepy stories, which tend to appear in expensive limited editions, so it's nice to have a big book of her work widely available like this. I hope it lands in a lot of libraries, in particular.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/23/19

This is how it starts, you know. A blog -- or any kind of ongoing content hole, a comic strip or syndicated column or what-have-you -- first misses an installment. Then it starts repurposing old content on the way to turning into a zombie version of itself, if there's any money in it, or just petering out, if there isn't.

Yes, I did miss last week! Completely forgot about it. There were no books then to jog my mind.

No books this week, either, and I've been "reading" the same book for three weeks now without actually, y'know, actually picking it up and opening it.


Well, I typed several long paragraphs about the various permutations of my work life...but, considering I lost the best job of my life ten years ago (and got left outside of SF and book publishing evermore, apparently) over one word I typed here...well, I think it would be better to be discreet. I'll just say Stuff Has Been Interesting.

I have been commuting much less, working from home much more, and that's meant that my formerly dedicated time for reading (an hour on the train each way each weekday) is basically gone. I should still have that time in my day, but, somehow, I don't end up using it to read.

This is where I insist that I will get back to reading...and that might even be true.

Anyway, there may be more content here one of these days. I do have four posts about books half written -- and two of those are genre novels of one kind or another. They'll probably land of these days.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/9/19

Really, there will be more content here eventually. But I got back from a big trip late last night, and if there are any book-shaped packages in the house, I haven't managed to find them yet.

So I'm pretty sure there are no new books from this past week...but I will reserve the right to revise that opinion if new evidence comes to light.

I do now have three books I've read to write about -- again, that's way down from my pace from 2018, but they're all "real" books (not comics-format), if that makes it sound more impressive. That may happen this week, if I get energetic. We'll all have to see.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Read in January 2019

I ended a Book-A-Day run with the end of 2018 -- 433 books (a lot of them comics, admittedly) in 365 days. So it's no surprise that I'm working at, somewhat reduced pace since then. But this...this is frankly embarrassing.

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (1/9)

Charles Stross, The Labyrinth Index (1/18)

Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn (1/31)

I'd like to promise that I'll do better in February but, well...who knows? We'll all see.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/26/19

Still nothing, I'm afraid. Low-content mode will continue for a while -- probably another couple of weeks, at least, since I've got some travel coming up.

But I've gone into low-content mode and come back multiple times in the history of this blog, so I expect I will be back, eventually, for the four or five people who are still out there. See you then.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/19/19

Nothing to report this week. No publicity books, no library books, no purchased books.

I mean, I've got three big bookcases directly behind me filled with books I haven't read -- about twenty shelves worth, call it 60 linear feet -- but they're not new. If this dearth of new books goes on, I might need to reconfigure this standard post -- maybe take a picture of a shelf and explain why I thought I wanted to read those books?

Anyway, nothing this time. And I haven't made any changes yet. Watch this space...maybe something will happen.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is the first book I read in 2019, after the end of my Book-a-Day run for 2018. And it took me until the 9th to get through a short book made up of short, quick-read chapters -- as I expected, the reading backlash hit hard.

(My hope, going forward, is to read one substantial book a week, a novel or similar-length non-fiction work, and to mix in comics around that as I can. We'll have to see if that happens.)

Gaiman is a excellent writer to read when you're not sure what you want to read...or if you actually want to read anything at all. His prose here, as always, is crisp and slightly wry, with sentences like potato chips -- it's always easier to just keep going on and read the next one. He's a writer whose depths can be missed by the unwary: each word is chosen precisely, and there's always an attitude and a viewpoint embedded in those words for readers who pay attention -- but, on the surface, he's telling a story cleanly and quickly, about larger-than-life characters and their quirky exploits.

Norse Mythology was his new book for 2017; I read it in the trade paperback edition that came out a year later. (The longer I'm out of the fiction publishing business, the longer I seem to wait to read things -- if I can't get bound galleys before publication, I guess, I'll wait until the next edition in a similar format.)

I'm calling it "Fantasy" for my tags, here, but it's more accurately myth -- these are stories that we think people took seriously, and believed in at least on some metaphoric level, which is not the same as a clearly fictional work of fantasy. But all of Norse myth that we have available has been through a number of ferocious filters of Christianity and time and a long oral tradition, so it is closer to literature than religious text to begin with -- as if all we had of Greek myth were half of Ovid -- and Gaiman's work here is to retell those stories, as purely and cleanly as he can, in modern language for the people who like Neil Gaiman books.

Gaiman has an introduction up front where he admits that his first encounter with this world was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which is probably common for a lot of his generation. (I think I first met Thor, Odin and Loki in the back of Edith Hamilton; I didn't read superhero comics much as a kid. But I'm also a decade or so younger than Gaiman.) His version, though, is directly from the original sources, the Elder and Younger Eddas, with the stories pulled out into individual named chapters.

As Gaiman notes in his introduction, we have lost most of this mythology: we know a lot of names and some representative stories, but that's about it. The core of the mythology seems to still be extant, the accounts of the beginning and ending of the world, but it's difficult to say if Odin and Thor and Loki really were the most important gods in the pantheon, or if they're just the ones whose stories happened to be most prominent in those two Eddas.

But that's what Gaiman has to work with, and he does it well, beginning with the first giant Ymir and the creation or discovery of the nine worlds and continuing to Ragnarok, the end of this set of things. (Not of all things: this is a cynical-destruction universe, in which a small piece makes it out of the total destruction to see the next cycle. You can call that optimism, if you like.)

Gaiman's tone, particularly in the initial chapter where he introduces the gods, can seem like he's talking to children, but I don't think that's his intention. Gaiman is aiming for a storyteller voice, one that is informative and teaching, but not necessarily teaching an audience that is new to the stories. It may be more colloquial than readers of Edith Hamilton or Bulfinch expect, but this is a new retelling for a new age: every age gets the eternal stories told again in its own words.

As usual, Gaiman's words are good ones, and his stories are told sturdily. These are things he cares about and is interested in and wants to do right. It is not a novel. But fans of Gaiman's fiction will probably find much to like here as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #381: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Yes, I did maneuver so that this would be the very last book of Book-A-Day -- what better than something called Exit Strategy?

This is the fourth and last book of Martha Wells's "The Murderbot Diaries," a series of excellent novellas in book form that have already won her one Hugo. All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, and Rogue Protocol were the previous books. A follow-up novel is promised, and I expect there will be a one-volume edition of The Murderbot Diaries in late 2019 or 2020 as well. But don't wait for either of those things: this is a great series of compelling page-turners narrated by a uniquely enticing voice.

That's Murderbot itself: a rogue SecUnit in a vaguely cyberpunky medium-future FTL-equipped setting. The larger human-inhabited universe seems to include areas with functional governments, but out on the Corporate Rim, where Murderbot has spent its career, everything is run by competing companies -- sometimes more-or-less decently, often very badly. What oversight there seems to be is provided by insurance companies and security outfits, and is entirely based on payments today and the prospect of being around to collect further payments later.

Which brings us to GrayCris, which has been doing some very nefarious deeds that Murderbot has been uncovering -- partially without wanting to -- for three books now. Murderbot was under contract to GrayCris and at the scene of a massacre: it went back there in Artificial Condition to find out why, and whether it hacked its governor module before or after that massacre. Along the way, it's accumulated a lot of data on GrayCris activities, mostly involving secretly collecting interdicted alien artifacts, the release of which would trash GrayCris's relationships with all of its counterparties and possibly even bring the company down. (Remember: this is an all-corporate environment: there are no "laws" as such to violate, only negotiated agreements among large profit-seeking entities.)

GrayCris, though, won't go quietly. Murderbot realizes that they have kidnapped Dr. Mensah -- head of the survey team it saved back in All Systems Red to start the whole thing -- and that they're trying to find Murderbot, too. Murderbot, through some combination of growing emotional attachment to specific humans, a sense of righteousness, and a faulty risk assessment module, decides to go to the station where Mensah is being held. And, of course, it gets caught up in an attempt to break her out.

As I said, a further Murderbot novel is promised, but that's as far as I'll go with spoilers.

Murderbot is a wonderful, deep character, and its voice is true and conflicted and immediately gripping. The Murderbot Diaries aren't about what it is to be human -- Wells is telling stories here, not making a sermon -- but Murderbot is a fascinating person, unique in its universe, trying to figure out where it fits in and what it can do with its life. (Besides watching The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon over and over again.) These are great books from one of our best SFF writers, and it's great to see not just how strong they are, but how much the SFF readership has grabbed onto them and celebrated them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #380: Royalboiler by Brandon Graham

This is not a comic. It's an art book by a cartoonist, featuring covers (from his own books and guest covers for others' comics), sketchbook pages, odd single-page comics from in-house Image newsletters, convention posters, a T-shirt design or two, some logos for porn companies and stars, a little bit of movie concept art, and other assorted stuff that Brandon Graham has created in the twentyish years of his comics career.

Royalboiler is an oversized paperback with full-bleed art most of the time -- it's a great size and format for an art book, and really makes the covers (here presented without logos) show up well. That does mean, though, that text is minimal and mostly restricted to some captions on pages where they can be accommodated. The captions are also all in Graham's lettering font -- I can't say if they're all hand-lettered or not; does anyone actually still do that? -- so they look like they're part of the underlying art if you don't slow down and pay attention.

But the point of an art book is to slow down and pay attention, so I don't consider that a problem.

There is minimal text here, again: just enough to say what this piece of art is, maybe who worked on it with Graham or what year it was done. But there is enough, from those captions and a few semi-autobiographical strips and some collages of photos and artwork from conventions, to piece together a bit of Graham's life, or at least the parts of his life that he wants to present in his art in public.

So it starts out with covers from King City and Multiple Warheads and then goes into some of his odder, earlier, obscurer, or more collaborative projects -- Prophet and Perverts of the Unknown and October Yen and so on, and then into lots of art for conventions and covers for other comics. After that comes the Comic Lovers strip for Image Plus, other odd pieces about comics, and so on.

There's a lot in here -- the book has no page numbers, but informed sources claim it's 248 pages, and that seems about right. That's almost 250 big pages full of interesting art by a quirky creator -- the one thing I would note is that his cover/sketch work is often less dense than his story pages, so there aren't as many buried jokes or puns in Royalboiler as there are in his narrative comics. Or, maybe, they're buried even more deeply, so I missed them....

Monday, January 14, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #379: Emma by Kaoru Mori (5 hardcover 2-in-1 volumes)

Is it damning with faint praise to say of a painter that you love her brushstrokes but aren't crazy about her paintings? I hope not, because I'm about to say that about Kaoru Mori's first major manga series Emma.

Emma originally ran for 72 chapters -- 52 of the main story, and a follow-up 20 side-story chapters -- in Japan's Beam magazine from 2002 through 2008. It was collected into ten volumes, with the side-stories taking up the last three, then the volumes were translated into English. At some point, there were hardcovers, each collecting two of the smaller paperback tankobon volumes. And that's what I just read: 72 serial chapters, 10 paperbacks, or five hardcovers. (Links to Volumes One, Two, Three, Four and Five)

It's set in the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era in England, starting in what seems to be the late 1890s and continuing for a few years past Victoria's death in 1901. (There are no actual dates in the series, but Mori does contrast Victorian and Edwardian clothing styles in her afterwords without a whole lot of explanation...I don't think she believes that everything changed poof! all at once. It is also difficult to judge how much time is passing, since even the old characters are mostly drawn with young faces.) The central character is Emma, a young woman of uncertain parentage and no actual last name, initially working as the maid-of-all-work in the London home of retired governess Kelly Stowner.

Emma meets and falls in love with William Jones, scion of a rich and rising merchant family, who also loves her. But there are the usual impediments: their respective positions in life, William's engagement to the daughter of a Viscount, his stern father, blah blah blah and so on.

Reader, of course they get married in the end. We all know that. So I won't pretend otherwise.

My problem is that the problems in their way are neither fish nor fowl. I'd be happy with a Dickensian drama with melodramatic problems solved in melodramatic ways -- if one party were kidnapped to America by characters who look a lot like 19th century Jewish stereotypes, for example, and the other party had to chase her there and save her from durance vile -- and I'd also be happy with a more serious, sedate story of manners and closely examined social mores of the time. Emma is neither of those. This story instead throws in a couple of melodramatic moments for no clear reason (like that abduction by racist stereotypes), but generally steers a sedate course without actually closely examining the actual standards of the society it concerns.

Emma, frankly, is a caricature of circa-1900 English society as seen through the lens of circa-2002 Japanese society: the aspects that resonate with Mori and her audience are emphasized, and the ones that would be inconvenient to this story are ignored or changed or misunderstood.

Some of my major issues with Emma:
  • the narrative seems to have never even heard of a "breach of promise" suit
  • a "former governess" lives in what would be an expensive London townhouse, perhaps because she became a governess as something to do after her husband died
  • in general, money may exist, but the lack of it does not seem to harm or motivate a single person in the world
  • an honest-to-God kidnapping happens and is never mentioned afterward
  • the entire race of the "the Irish" seem not to exist in this world, or at least to have no connection to domestic service
  • it's yet another comic series whose narrative is apparently driven primarily by what the artist wanted to draw, and not any actual story purpose
  • fans of the series, and possibly even its creator, seem to be mostly interested in "stories about maids" and details of their clothing, rather than any actual story points

This is not an exhaustive list.

On the other hand, Emma looks gorgeous, and the character interaction on a scene-by-scene level is true and engaging. I might not always believe that all of Mori's characters actually are British people born in the 19th century, but they're interesting, distinct people no matter how ahistorical they may be. Their interactions are realistic, and if Emma had not insisted on its historicity, it could all be taken as the ways these people in this society interact.

I expect most readers won't care about any of that. It's a nice love story, sweet and totally innocent, as befitting the time-period. (Though there is quite a bit of female nudity in Emma, both of an older married woman and of a high-class prostitute, so it's not appropriate for anyone looking for absolute purity of the Christian Dominionist strain.) And, again, I'm quite happy with ahistorical melodramatic stories -- or solidly historical melodramatic stories, for that matter -- but if something pretends to be serious and grounded, it should actually be so, and not just pretend to it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/12

My regular comics shop had one of those post-holiday sales right around the New Year, and , well, how could I resist? So I bought the following books, which arrived in the mail exactly a week ago from the moment you're reading this. (Well, maybe a couple of hours before or after -- don't take me too literally.)

Nexus Omnibus, Vol. 7 and Vol. 8 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude -- Hey, remember how I read the first half of Nexus last year? Well, if I manage to get motivated, I'll do the second half sometime this year. There may be some small miniseries after these omnibus collections, though -- I need to investigate before I dive in.

Grendel Tales Omnibus, Vol. 1 by a whole bunch of people mostly not including Matt Wagner -- This is the first of two books collecting the various stories about Wagner's Grendel universe by other hands, mostly in the '90s. As I recall, those were mostly good stories, though full of the usual darkness of that universe, and I just re-read all of the Wagner Grendel material, so this is an obvious next step.

Beanworld, Vol. 4: Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l by Larry Marder -- Now this may have been a mistake. I've read the first omnibus, which collects the first two volumes, and Vol. 3.5, which stands sort-of on its own, but Vol. 3 is out of print, and I think this one is, too. And I swear that I couldn't find any listings for the now-upcoming Omnibus, Vol. 2 the last time I looked, but it's there now -- coming in July. So this may sit quietly until I get the second omnibus once it's published, and then go away.

Elric: The Balance Lost, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 by Chris Roberson, Francesco Biagini, and Stephen Downer -- these were quite attractively priced, and I just read the first volume, so why not?

Descender, Vol. 6 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen -- I believe this actually ends this story, though I vaguely remember that the creators are doing a somewhat related follow-up as well. (Very vaguely, as I recall --I'd need to check, but I thought it was fantasy rather than SF.) I've read and liked the first five collections: this is a good space opera in comics form.

Berlin: City of Light is the final volume of the trilogy by Jason Lutes, completing the story he's been working on for over twenty years. (I reviewed the middle book for ComicMix more than a decade ago -- that's how long it's been.)

And last is Perdy, a Western from France by a creator called Kickliy. It's gotten interesting reviews: the main character is a woman who looks as rough and range-worn as the usual male heroes in Westerns, and has the sexual and criminal appetite of many of those heroes as well.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #378: Bacchus by Eddie Campbell (2 Vols.)

Bacchus was Eddie Campbell's first taste of comics success, his "American-style comic book" about idiosyncratic versions of the Greek gods, in an idiom occasionally congruent with crime and/or superhero stories but often just focused on the joys of storytelling, camaraderie, and the pleasures of the vine (and, somewhat more darkly, the things one might do while under the influence of that vine).

He made stories about the aged god Bacchus and the rest of his milieu for more than a decade, starting in the spring of 1987 as a regular comic from the British publisher Harrier and eventually built his own minor self-publishing empire (out of the front room of his house in Australia, as he put it), with a Bacchus comic mixing reprints of the early stories with the new end of the saga, ending in 2001 after sixty issues.

And then, a decade and a half later, Top Shelf collected all of those stories -- which had previously been collected into ten storyline-focused books from Campbell's own Eddie Campbell Comics -- into two big fat books to match the design of their earlier Alec: "The Years Have Pants". Each volume collects five of those earlier volumes, and the two books end up almost exactly the same length, as if it were all planned that way from the beginning. (As far as I can tell, Campbell hasn't done any recent tinkering: these stories were finalized for the Eddie Campbell Comics volumes, and they're going to stay in that final form from now on.)

This is one of the great quirky comics of its era, maybe of any era. The way it swings back and forth from nearly-farcical action to languid retold mythology to occasional moments of stark drama to actually farcical action is distinct and wonderful: whatever kind of comics you like, Bacchus has a moment that will delight you. And if you like comics in general, Bacchus has hundreds of those moments.

Bacchus, Volume One has most of the more overtly "American-style" stories, starting with Immortality Isn't Forever, a crime-drama set in the nonspecific American city preferred by Scotsmen who haven't made it across the pond yet and with a plot set in motion explicitly by the mythological underpinnings. (Bacchus is still pissed at "Joe Theseus" for abandoning Ariadne all those years ago, even though he never would have met her if Joe didn't abandon her.) Immortality starts the standard whipsaw plotting, jumping back and forth from all-out action, mostly with Joe and the Eyeball Kid (more on him later), to quieter moments of Bacchus, and occasionally others, retelling myths with his own spin on them. As the series went on, those two modes got more separated, landing in different storylines, but they were both there from the beginning.

The rest of Volume One mostly bounces between those modes -- The Gods of Business is more all-out action, bringing Hermes into the mix, Doing the Islands With Bacchus is a long series of retold myths with a light frame story of Bacchus and companions wandering the Greek isles and causing trouble with those they meet, and Eyeball Kid: One Man Show is an even bigger-scale action series with the Eyeball Kid and Hermes fighting again for other characters' amusement.

(The Eyeball Kid, by the way, is a twenty-eyed grandchild of Argus -- he of the hundred eyes -- who was Hera's lover and revenged her death at the hands of her husband Zeus by killing the old man and stealing his power. He's also the only straightforward, non-conflicted, centered main character, undercut by also being wackily random and prone to malapropisms.)

Volume One ends with the epic Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, which connects the Bacchus-plot of Islands with the Joe-and-Hermes-and-Eyeball plot of Show in Sicily. It also brings in a couple of Haphaestus-created magical/mechanical eyeballs which will be important for several later stories -- by this point, Joe and Bacchus and the Kid are all missing eyes.

During that first half of Bacchus, Campbell was the originator and central creator but not always working solo. Appropriately for these "American-style" comics, some of the superhero stuff was art-assisted by or just drawn by Ed Hillyer, and much of the mythological stuff was co-written with Wes Kublick, until the two had a falling-out over plot points.

That separation of the two modes continued at the beginning of of Bacchus, Volume Two: 1001 Nights of Bacchus is another group-of-retold-stories roundelay, set in a pub in England where the patrons can drink past closing time if they tell stories that keep Bacchus awake. The superhero material comes roaring back in the next two stories, Hermes Versus the Eyeball Kid and The Picture of Doreen Grey, which close out that strand of the overall story. And then the focus turns back to Bacchus as the focus first of that pub seceding from England in King Bacchus and then his subsequent incarceration for related crimes in Banged Up, the final Bacchus story.

It changed a little towards the end -- Bacchus got a new girlfriend, Collage, and even a baby -- but he was a remarkably passive title character for most of the run of his comic. Bacchus talked a lot, but he never did much. Things would happen with him around -- bacchanals are spurred by his mere presence, and license flourishes when the god of wine is near -- but Bacchus himself would mostly sit and drink and talk. That's a very unlikely thing for the hero of an "American-style" comic, but Campbell made it work for more than a decade, stringing out his own takes on actual mythology and superhero-style "mythology," plus the kitchen sink of every other kind of storytelling he felt like tackling at the moment.

To all of that he brought a scratchy, expressive line -- perfect for the banged-up faces of his multi-thousand-year-old main characters, and adaptable enough to shift to suit many modes of storytelling that he explored along the way -- and a seemingly bottomless enthusiasm for both story and wine. Bacchus is a great comic of myth and modernity, of the things people get up to when their inhibitions and tongues are loosened, and of the trouble they all can get into.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #377: Scout and Scout: War Shaman by Tim Truman

These aren't books, exactly. The first two-thirds of Tim Truman's mid-80s Scout series was reprinted in two trade paperbacks by Dynamite, a little over a decade ago, and I reviewed them a couple of years ago.

That's not what I read this time.

Truman recently kickstarted the long-delayed third Scout book, Marauder, and I backed it, since I'm another one of those people who have been waiting since 1989 for it to appear. (No complaints: I spent many of those years in publishing myself, and know just what can stop an idea from turning into a finished book -- there are millions of ways for a book to die and only a handful for it to thrive.)

As part of that project, Truman provided digital collections of the two original series -- covers and story pages, without most of the original backup stories, ads, and whatever other editorial matter was in those comics. [1]

That's what I read: the stories from Scout and Scout: War Shaman. Not the comics themselves, but the biggest pieces of those comics. And not books, because this world isn't good enough to have all four of those pieces as actual books. But Truman organized it as four volumes, and that's what it would be, in that better world where they all were published as books. So that's how I'll think of it, and write about it.

I'll illustrate it with some appropriate covers -- the Dynamite books for the first two volumes, and the covers of the first issues reprinted there for the last piece of Scout and for the shorter War Shaman series. And I'll hope that Marauder is enough of a success to turn all of those other things into real books, again or for the first time.

A man can dream, can't he?

Scout is set in a dystopian then-near-future world: the far-flung future of 1999, as seen from a deeply Reaganite 1986. Emmanuel Santana is a young Army Ranger deserter, of the Apache people, and he's been having apocalyptic visions. A spirit guide called the Gahn comes to him and tells him that the mythic "Four Monsters" of his people's folklore are alive and in charge of what's left of America -- and it's his job to kill them all. I went into some more details of the worldbuilding in that 2015 post: go there for more details.

The important thing is that the Gahn is real and what he says is true. Scout is both SF and fantasy: there are supernatural monsters that prey on mankind, there are wild talents that some people have, and there are giant bipedal mechs for war. (It's also of the strain of SF that saw the Warsaw Pact as being more stable and economically sound than they really were: in Santana's world, the US collapsed more comprehensively than the USSR did in ours, under pressure from an expanding communist bloc.) Death is real and common, the US has all gone to rack and ruin, and what leadership is left to the US is corrupt or confused or just wrong -- and barely democratic, even at the beginning of the series.

Scout was Santana's code-name as a Ranger: I don't have the expertise to judge if that's a thing that Army Rangers actually had or have. But this was the '80s, and a comic needed to follow the superhero model as closely as it could to succeed: the title had to be the short, punchy, semi-superhero version of the main character's name. (Badger, Nexus, Grimjack, Zot!).

The first Scout series started with the "Four Monsters" storyline, in which Santana killed those monsters, who all also happened to be powerful men closely connected to the corrupt Houston-based US government. That led to a certain amount of turmoil, to Santana being wanted as an outlaw, and to the second storyline, in which the followers of a secondary character in "Four Monsters" took over NORAD as part of a Biblical-slash-Tolkienian apocalypse by fire foreseen by their literally visionary leader. Santana was drawn into that conflict as well, and solved it in a violent way.

Santana is at the center of all of the Scout stories, but he's not the mover of the stories. He would much rather live quietly somewhere, but there's nowhere quiet to live. He's a wanted man from before the series starts, and forces much greater than him keep intersecting with his life or deliberately dragging him back in.

The third major storyline in Scout, which doesn't have an overall title as far as I know and has never been collected in a physical book, starts with Santana being captured by the government and tossed in a psychiatric facility. (They don't give him a show trial and stand him up to be shot because...well, there's no in-story reason, so the reader is left to  make up her own mind about forgetfulness and bureaucratic inefficiencies and plain incompetence.) His path intersects with that of Monday the Eliminator, whose back-up stories prior to that point are not included in this package. (My guess is that Monday's world was originally separate from Santana's until Truman had a better idea.) Monday brought a conspiracy-theory sense of history to Scout that doesn't entirely gel with everything else Truman had already thrown into the mix -- if were his editor, way back when, I would have suggested leaning into more mythology, either Apache or other Native tribes or even European interlopers.

Anyway, Santana teams up with Monday, breaks out of the asylum, and heads to a very SFnal conclusion to the first series, which has a lot of strong points but is mildly unsatisfying in the same ways as a lot of other SFnal Sword-of-Damocles endings.

In the real world, there were two short miniseries following the end of Scout -- New America and Swords of Texas -- which covered the next ten years of the timeline and extended the stories of various secondary characters. Those books have never been reprinted, and I think they were mostly by other people, so they probably never will be, unless Scout gets inexplicably popular.

War Shaman picks up Santana's story that decade later, in the early twenty-teens. The crapsack USA of the first series has been through a devastating civil war and essentially torn itself apart: there seems to be no government over large swaths of the country, Mad Max-style. One remnant faction from the civil war, led by Santana's old Ranger compatriot/one-time lover/nemesis/ally Rosa Winter, has survived and is now expanding more violently than the reader is likely to be comfortable with. Santana spent that time getting married, having two young sons, and seeing his wife die of an environmental cancer. He still wants to live quietly, away from the world, but the world finds his quiet hideaway, and he's back on the road looking for another quiet place -- supposedly, though he does get caught up in a lot of trouble that he could have avoided if he kept his head down and didn't try to fix things.

But this time he's responsible for those two boys: Tahzey and Victorio. They're about five and three: old enough to run and hide, but that's about it. And Victorio has the same kind of visionary powers as the religious leader in "Mount Fire" did, which attracts those religious lunatics. And Santana has plenty of specific enemies left. And this is a dangerous landscape to begin with, full of bandits and raiders and would-be despots. It will not end well for Santana.

At the time, Truman promised that the Scout saga would run for four major comics series -- the original Scout, War Shaman, Marauder, and Blue Leader. Other things intervened, and Truman is only now working on Marauder, now that the real world has overrun his fictional timeline. But SF is never prediction anyway: every world is a potential world, and not being true doesn't change that potential.

Emmanuel Santana's world is a vivid one, anchored in the Southwestern deserts and in Truman's faithful, careful evocation of Apache folklore. Santana himself is a great character, and is surrounded by many others -- most of them drawn more broadly than he is, but all still real people in a dangerous, dark, real world. Scout is one of the great comics dystopias of the '80s, along the better-known American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin, and it deserves wider recognition. Maybe Marauder will make that happen.

[1] I owned copies of all of these comics before a flood in 2011 destroyed every floppy comic I did own. So I can't now check the digital collections against the originals. But I do have memories -- and the cover blurbs for some back-up features -- to tell me there was some other stuff in those comics.