Friday, March 01, 2024

How Not to Get Into Heaven by Ben Zaehringer

I end up saying this a lot: I enjoy good gag-a-day cartoons, but there's not a whole lot to say about a collection of them.

Ben Zaehringer has been doing the webcomic Berkeley Mews for a few years now: I can't find any specific dates, but let's say close to a decade at the low end. (I think the strip is named after the Kinks song rather than the London street directly, but either one would be pretty random.)

There have been two collections of the strip: Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood was first, in 2019. Two years later, Zaehringer compiled How Not to Get into Heaven, and Andrews McMeel published it.

Like the first book, it's a collection of the strip, which is almost entirely one-offs - there is a stretch of five strips at the end about S.A.N.T.A., which I will not spoil. It's is very slightly shorter than the first book, with 121 strips - my guess, since the strips are not dated, is that it's a weekly, and so that's a bit more than two years.

Zaehringer draws rounded, cartoony bald people - usually purple-colored - who are sarcastic and counterproductive and get caught up in the usual cartoony silly versions of almost-normal situations. As the title implies, there's a decent number about heaven, though Berkeley is not quite as death-focused as some of Zaehringer's webcomics contemporaries.

Now, I'm not saying there's no death: this is a modern webcomic, so it's mildly dark and moderately twisted at its most family-friendly, but Zaheringer leans more into wordplay and funny ideas than the pure funny nihilism of some other strips. Berkeley is a strip you could show your grandmother, if she was particularly hip.

From the website, I think the strip is still running, and it's been another two years, so I have hopes of a third collection sometime soon. Funny stuff is good to have around, and Berkeley Mews is funny, so I hope it continues and flourishes.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Story of Sex by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn

You might say, "that's a mighty big topic to cover in one l'il 200-page book, now, isn't it, pardner?" (If you weren't pretending to be a cowboy, you might use different phrasing, admittedly.) And it's a fair question.

The Story of Sex aims to cover, well, the history of sexuality of the human race, starting about two million years ago with Homo habilis, then running through all of human history to conclude with a four-page look at a possible sexual future for the rest of the 21st century. All that fits into a hundred and eighty-three pages of comics - including full-page title cards for the dozen chapters - though there is a text foreword and several pieces of textual backmatter on specific topics as well.

Now, those pages have long captions in the panels, and generally seven or eight panels to a page, so if we apply the usual "picture = 1k words" rubric generously - and it does us no harm to be generous - we end up with the equivalent of a fairly hefty book. But, I have to admit, it does seem to be a semi-random walk through various topics related to sexuality than a single integrated story.

Philippe Brenot has the credentials to write this book: he's an anthropologist, director of the Sexology Department of Paris Descartes University, and author of a number of other books on sex and sex history, which seem (before this one) to have mostly stayed in French and not been translated over to my side of the Atlantic. He's also a psychiatrist, and there is a define strain of psychiatric thinking in Story of Sex - not overly Freudian; he's more modern than that - which the discerning reader will notice and take into account.

It opens well, though the section on Homo habilis and other early hominids is the place I most felt the lack of a list of references. I probably would never seriously check them out, but I like having them there to skim, and the lack makes me wonder if it's due to assumptions about the audience or if the book were drafted without references to begin with.

The following chapters are fun but scattershot: I expect that we have little or no documentary evidence about the everyday sex lives of regular people in antiquity, so instead we get a series of mythology and some gossip about Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, including an extensive bit on Cleopatra.

Next comes a Middle Ages chapter that covers a thousand years in less than twenty pages. And I suppose I should be clear about the cultural focus on Story of Sex: this is a European book, about European civilization. The ancients are included the same way they were for 19th century schoolboys: they obviously led to our civilization, the best and most special and most important one ever. Brenot gives examples from various parts of Europe once we hit the Middle Ages, but it's clear this is a France-centric narrative. On the other hand, if you were going to pick one European country to be the exemplar for sex, it would have to be France, wouldn't it?

To be blunter, the sex lives of people in Japan and China and Kenya and Uruguay and Easter Island and India are quietly left out, to focus on the origins of the Christian world of mostly Northern Europe. Italy doesn't get much mention after the Romans depart, except for some moments in Casanova's story and various Popes denouncing things, and Spain is entirely absent. There's a secondary focus on England and the broader English-speaking world, so it won't feel foreign to US or British readers, but it's very much organized around the specific bits of the history of sex that led to modern French people.

The last few chapters are based on, as far as I can tell, more solid, knowable research, and are consequently full of facts and details. Brenot, since he's writing about sex and is actually in favor of it, uses a framework of talking about individual rights and expression versus societal repression, and obviously comes down on the side of the individual. It's a reasonable story, given the whole sweep of history, though he may make it more central than some readers are willing to credit.

There are also a few points in Story of Sex when I wished for more social history - Brenot is good at what the kings and nobles were doing (or who they were doing), since those things were recorded at the time. There's less about what the everyday sex life and rhythms of marriage and child-bearing were for middle or working-class people once we hit the medieval world - he doesn't even mention the two-sleep system of medieval times, which was clearly really important to a lot of people's sex-lives for hundreds of years.

Still, this is a two-hundred page book for a mass audience in comics form. I might quibble, but Brenot got quite a lot into this package, and in the main I think he chose the right material.

The art is fun and energetic, from Laetitia Coryn, whose work I haven't seen before - and a quick Google didn't show anything else of hers that has been translated. (Though she does seem to script her own books most of the time, in the French manner - I wonder what she writes about, when she writes her own material?) Coryn has to draw a lot of people nude or semi-nude or physically engaged, and she does it well - she has great body language and her people are engagingly emotional and open.

Really, you're not going to find any other comics history of sex out there, are you? Good thing this one is pretty definitive and a fun read, too.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

I have to start with the hard facts: Douglas Adams died, of a sudden heart attack, more than twenty years ago, when he was five years younger than I am now. I've read all of his books, but long ago - mostly when they came out, or soon afterward.

For example, my copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a first printing US hardcover from 1987, which means I spent the whole $14.95 on it when I was a poor college student. I haven't read it since then, but I did recently read a 2016 comics series about Dirk, which I suppose is what sent me back to the original.

I've always thought that the Dirk books are the ones that mostly clearly show the Dr. Who influence on Adams - they're circling books, full of seemingly-random ideas that join up later in the story, and are amusing in a light-adventure way rather than being filled with clear jokes like the Hitchhiker stories. There's no "Doctor" character to put it all right, of course, and - especially in this first book - Dirk himself in no way fills that role, despite what some might expect.

The comics series makes Dirk much more central and active. In this book, he's mentioned fairly early, but doesn't appear until the book is more than half over, and is basically a secondary character in his own novel.

Our main character is Richard MacDuff, a computer whiz for the British computer start-up WayForward Technologies, who we meet at a long, boring dinner at the fictional St. Cedd's College at Cambridge, listening to a very long recitation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kublai Khan."

This is a clue: in our world, "Kublai Khan" is short, with Coleridge famously interrupted when writing it by the mysterious "person from Porlock."

But the narrative runs through other things even before getting to Richard: starting with a mysterious tower in a mysterious landscape mysteriously exploding, and then moving on to an Electric Monk wandering about somewhere else, doing its job of believing in things so that people don't have to.

Later, there's a thread following Richard's boss, Gordon Way, the usual self-obsessed tech mogul, who comes to an unpleasant end.

And, of course, there are eventually both ghosts and time travel, and a certain amount of saving the world that has to be done. Not to mention Richard, absent-minded as only a boffin in a story by a British writer can be, needs to repair his relationship with his girlfriend Susan, who he completely ignored to go the boring St. Cedd's dinner.

As I understand it, the Dr. Who influence comes about because it was two different Dr. Who stories - Adams wrote for the show in the late '70s, and re-used ideas from one broadcast serial, City of Death, and the famously strike-cancelled serial Shada in this novel. Adams, it has to be said, was frightfully efficient with ideas: if he had one he liked, he used it as many times as he could, like an old lady bringing an ancient tea-bag out of her purse to dunk in yet another cup of hot water.

Dirk Gently is a good SFF adventure story, with Adams' characteristic light touch and a lot of quirky details. It led to one more novel and an aborted third; at this point all hopes for more - either for a longer Dirk series, or for more random light SFF adventure stories somewhat like this one - were dashed long ago. Adams never liked writing, so it's something of a miracle we got as much as we did out of him, but, despite being somewhat built from pre-existing parts, this is one of the best, and most novel-shaped, things he ever did.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Michael T. Gilbert's The Complete Wraith!

Sometimes there's a creator whose work you like, and you keep checking to see if they have anything new, and they just don't. For a decade or two. You're pretty sure they're still out there, and you hope they're doing something fun and interesting. You may have the secret hope, most famously centered around J.D. Salinger, that the creator is just piling up lots of Good Stuff, kept unpublished for idiosyncratic reasons, and you will eventually get to see all of that on some glorious future day.

Michael T. Gilbert is one of those, for me. I liked his Mr. Monster stories both in the '80s, with goofy, near-parody humor/horror style, and in the '90s, when he retooled in a more serious mode for an "Origins" series. And I gather he's had some random Mr. Monster stories since then, but nothing regular. I keep hoping there will be a book, since I mostly read books these days, but that seems unlikely. (I gather most of Gilbert's comics work for the last two decades has been scripting Disney comics for European publishers - nice work if you can get it, but apparently completely unseen in his own homeland.)

But I did just see Michael T. Gilbert's The Complete Wraith!, which collects the major work he did before Mr. Monster, in the late '70s. And I'll take what I can get.

Wraith is an anthropomorphic version of Will Eisner's The Spirit, created as such to be a feature in the all-anthropomorphic anthology series Quack! in 1976. Quack! had six issues, with eight Wraith stories, over the next two years, and there was one more Wraith story in a 1982 solo Gilbert comic - add in a new comics introduction featuring Mr. Monster, some explanatory text-and-photo pieces between the stories, and extensive story notes from Gilbert, and you have this book. It's designed well, and showcases what does seem to be the entirely complete Wraith: it's a model of what a book like this should be.

On the story side, Gilbert is very clearly aping Eisner, in story structure, twists, ironic reversals, and even cast. That's not a bad model, since Eisner's Spirit was a lot more ambitious than it might look, and Gilbert is always entertaining here, even if not all of the stories make full use of the Eisnerian materials.

Gilbert was already experimenting with washes and Craftint and other texture and background effects that I can't really describe adequately - I'm no artist, or a serious scholar of comics art. But his pages, even at the very beginning of this book, were carefully constructed, from panel layout to art tools to textures, and towards the middle of the book, it begins to look pretty much the same as Gilbert's mature Mr. Monster style. (And, aside from the first story, which is pretty thin, the storytelling holds up as well, too - they're short kicker stories about a dog adventurer in an Eisnerian world, admittedly, but they do good work within that tight structure.)

This is a fun '70s exercise, collecting energetic work from a then-young creator working out some of his influences and seeing how different kinds of stories can work on paper for him. It's not a lost classic, and the tone is pretty different from both Mr. Monster eras, for anyone looking for more of that. Oh, and he gets testy if you call him "Wrath," which I expect a lot of readers did. With that in mind, this is a lot of fun, presented in a well-made package.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Charly Bliss

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

This week I have a poppy, happy-sounding song that lists all sorts of normal everyday things:

Staring at cars, selling your art
Feeling so sure you're waking up tomorrow
A better son or a daughter
Drunk walking home
Making the choice to be completely alone

And then matter-of-factly stating that they're obviously going to go away:

It's gonna break my heart to see it blown to bits

This is Blown to Bits by Charly Bliss. It never says why things will be blown to bits, or even how - the premise of the song is that they will, all of them, real soon now.

Does it make it eerier when I point out this is a 2019 song?

It's probably a quarter-life crisis song, about "what happens next in my life?" But it doesn't have to be. It's stronger if you don't think of it that way. Because every song is what it can mean to you, right now, when you hear it.

And this is a big one, a song called Blown to Bits. It can take all that weight, if you want it to.

And it broke all of our hearts to see it blown to bits.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Quote of the Week: God's Daisy-Chain

The head of the house, Mrs Lavender Botts, has a distressing habit of writing books and talking a good deal about them. Her works were not novels. I am a broadminded man and can tolerate female novelists, but Mrs Botts gave English literature a bad name by turning out those unpleasant whimsical things to which women of her type are so addicted. My Chums the Pixies was one of her titles, How to Talk to the Flowers another, and Many of My Best Friends Are Field Mice a third. The rumor had got about that she was contemplating a fourth volume on the subject of elves.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "Joy Bells for Walter," p.153 in A Few Quick Ones

Friday, February 23, 2024

McCay by Thierry Smolderen and Jean-Philippe Bramanti

I don't know why creators - people who make up their own ideas out of their own heads and often are indignant at the idea that those ideas came from somewhere else (Schenectady, for example) - are also the ones who often tell stories that are entirely "here's the real, secret reason behind this other creator's biggest work!" 

It might just be that I'm talking about different people, which is always the risk: "creators" is a big bucket, and they don't think anywhere near alike. But you would think that a class of people who are often annoyed by the "where do you get your ideas?" question would be somewhat more reticent to spin complex tales of "here's how this guy got his ideas." You would think, but you would be wrong, because it happens a lot.

McCay is a secret history of Winsor McCay, the pioneering American cartoonist and animator, by the French team of Thierry Smolderen (script) and Jean-Philippe Bramanti (art). As far as I can tell, this two-hundred-page story was originally a four-volume series, starting in the late Nineties, then collected in a single French edition sometime in the Teens and finally translated by Edward Gauvin for this very handsome oversized single-volume English edition in 2017.

It starts in 1889, with McCay an art student in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and skips forward through his life, ending with a coda in 1914. The back cover copy gives the sketch - in 1889, McCay met "Silas the anarchist" and "Professor Hinton, the renowned British mathematician and fourth-dimensional specialist" and what they taught him, and events they sparked, will play out, mostly twenty years later.

This is a thriller, so it's mostly about chasing murderers through the fourth dimension and very little about being a working cartoonist in the dawn of the modern era. I found that faintly disappointing: the world has a lot of thrillers and many fewer good books about the life of creative people. But the point of criticism is to talk about what a thing is, and not what it could have been.

Smolderen weaves a lot of details of McCay's life into the narrative - I gather that the original publications had extensive notes about how McCay actually knew Houdini and Hearst and all the others, and how these fictional events could have fit into what's known of his life - and keeps it from being just a thriller. It's not quite as philosophical as I think he wanted it to be, but it is a relatively thoughtful and nuanced thriller.

And Bramanti delivers his art in a moody, usually dark style - I think all watercolors, all painted - which occasionally made it difficult for me to tell which character was which (but that may be a Me Issue). It's visually impressive, and also looks nothing like McCay's own detailed linework, which is doubly interesting.

I was hoping for something deeper than "stopping the fourth dimensional murderer!" but the world, and other people's fictions, do not follow our hopes. McCay is well-constructed and moodily beautiful and full of strong moments; it's a neat book for anyone who knows who Winsor McCay is and is willing to read a moderately outrĂ© story based on his life.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

A Fade of Light by Nate Fakes

I low-key love that this is a book about the author's former stepfather. We all have so many important people in our lives over the years, and only a few of them are the big, "official" ones. Doing a book all about one of the "others" helps reclaim that larger world, helps remind us all we live in a big conglomeration of people, and that others are always affecting us and we them.

But it has to be low-key because it's not a happy book at its core: the title gives that away. A Fade of Light is about who Ron Malish was, and how he lost being that person to a rare form of dementia.

That sounds more reassuring than it might be: there are a lot of forms of dementia, and a lot of them are depressingly common. I've seen stats that half of all seniors die "with a dementia diagnosis" - not necessarily the cause of death, but in the mix by the end.

Nate Fakes wanted to tell Ron's story - or, more specifically, the story of what Ron meant to him, since that's the story that was his to tell. Ron came into his life in middle school, the way any step-parent does: first dating Fakes's mother, then marrying her a couple of years later. And Fakes makes it clear that Ron was at least somewhat annoying, as any new step-parent would be: trying hard, a little too hard, with a big personality and a crowd-pleasing manner, one of those people who can talk to anyone and usually does. (My own father was a slicker, more lawyerly version of the same type.)

Fakes, as he presents it here, had a little resentment, but mostly appreciation - Ron was a big personality, he dragged Fakes out to do fun things, and he was quirky and specific in mostly interesting ways. Most of Fade is about their relationship - Fakes growing up, wanting to become an artist, while Ron circles jobs of his own, with his obsession for self-improvement and make-it-big thinking.

Fakes handles that long central section well, balancing memoir-ish looks at this own life with his interactions with Ron as he grew up, moved away (and back), went to college, chased jobs - all of those things. Fakes never stoops to telling, but he shows how important people in our lives work: they support us, help us, surround us, as we go through whatever it is we're going through. We appreciate them, and they appreciate us.

But then, as Fakes signposted on the first pages, Ron got a dementia diagnosis a few years ago - it was something of a surprise, but Ron was more erratic and forgetful for a while before that, so it was clear something was the matter with him. It turned out to be Pick's Disease, an incurable form of frontotemporal dementia - Ron now lives in a care unit, and Fakes shows, by the end of Fade, that he's forgotten nearly everything.

Fakes draws this in a cartoonier style than the reader might expect for a "serious" memoir like this - but that's his style, that's how he draws. His people have big eyes and are shown larger and more central in panels than many similar "this sad thing" memoirs. Again, that's what makes Fade of Light specific and particular - this is who Fakes became, in part because he knew and was supported by Ron. He can tell this story this way because of everything that happened to him, and the art style and structure are baked into all of that.

This is a sad book, inevitably, but it's a celebration in its sad way. We can remember who people were and what they meant to us, even when they're gone. Or maybe I mean that we have to do that, that we have to hold onto the moments of happiness and celebrate them, even in the context of inevitable sadness.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A Few Quick Ones by P.G. Wodehouse

I'm reading P.G. Wodehouse books three or four times a year these days - they all read quickly, he was a master of effortless funny prose, and he wrote about a hundred of the things over his long career - so I'm mostly keeping these notes short and focused. If you're looking for a "why read Wodehouse" in the first place, either just re-read the last sentence or dive into what I've written about him in the past.

A Few Quick Ones is a 1959 short-story collection, gathering ten pieces that originally appeared in magazines over the previous decade. It's got most of his major series, at least the ones that appear in short form in that phase of his career: Mr. Mulliner, the Oldest Member, Ukridge, one Jeeves story, and a whole bunch of random Drones Club habituĂ©s.

All the stories are short and breezy, basically one set of complications that gets worked out in a traditional, humorous way. The whole thing takes up only just a bit more than two hundred pages.

I do recommend it, as I do nearly all of Wodehouse. But, if you're looking to start on his shorter stories, I'd suggest going to Lord Emsworth and Others first, which has the sublime "The Crime Wave at Blandings" in it, or possibly Carry On, Jeeves, the first of that series.

And, to keep this from being too short, let me end with a quote, to give you a sense of what Wodehouse could do when he got up to it:

It was a large, uncouth dog, in its physique and deportment not unlike the hound of the Baskervilles, though of course not covered with phosphorous, and it seemed to be cross about something. Its air was that of a dog which has discovered plots against its person, and it appeared to be under the impression that in Augustus it had found one of the ringleaders, for the menace in its manner, as it now advanced on him, was unmistakable.

That's from "The Right Approach," pages 62-63 in this edition. If it sounds amusing to you, Wodehouse will likely suit.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Fungirl by Elizabeth Pich

It shouldn't be surprising when we get cringe comedy from a woman - we're more than a decade past Bridesmaids, after all - but it feels like one of those doors that keeps having to be kicked open, that the audience tends to forget women can be just as messy and weird and horrible as men. Today, I have a book that kicks that door open, rips it off its hinges, chops it up for firewood, burns it down, dances on the ashes, and then falls over, awkwardly, to get bruised and covered with schmutz.

Fungirl is, to use the idiom of my youth, cringe to the max, a collection of strips that I think originally appeared in zines or anthologies or online or (waves hands wildly) somewhere and then were collected into this big book in 2021. It's by Elizabeth Pich, also known as half of the team behind the webcomic War and Peas - the art style here is very similar to War, whatever that means.

Fungirl herself - she has no other name here - is the blank-faced woman on the cover. She's young, probably in her mid-twenties - the familiar "old enough to know better and young enough not to do so." She's bisexual, vaguely self-deluding, hugely impulsive, and lacking in any social graces - a cringe comedy protagonist, to be short.

She lives with a roommate, Becky, who used to be her girlfriend, for maximum awkwardness potential. Becky has a steady boyfriend, Peter, who is one of those quiet, feminist, unassuming men who work well in comedy about loud, abrasive, thoughtless women.

Fungirl is already obsessed with sex, so to get the "death" part of the cringe-comedy yin/yang, she gets a job at a mortuary, where she is no more appropriate, low-key, or unassuming than she is in any other facet of her life.

This is a collection of stories, more or less - Pich doesn't use titles here, though she does have vignette-style "photo" pages in between stories - all coming from the core premise of Fungirl: she's a hot mess who causes problems but is loveable enough to always be forgiven. It's all comedy, so it tends to circle back: nothing much changes in Fungirl's life or relationships, except to facilitate the next gag or set up this particular story.

Fungirl is wild and manic and uncontrolled, and she's a hoot to read about. I see there are a few shorter, later books about her, so I wonder if the (very small, very tentative) personal growth we see in her at the end of this book will continue. I'm ambivalent about that: a character like this can't change too much and stay the same character, but on the other hand it's all the same joke if she doesn't change. Either way, I want to see what Pich does next: she's fearless and funny and draws in a neat crisp cartoony style that makes the boobs and blood and flailing limbs all that much sillier.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Basia Bulat

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

This week I don't have a fancy introduction, or some quirky connection - just a great song by a great singer-songwriter that I've been listening to for a decade and wish that more people knew about. It's one of those songs that starts relatively quiet and contained and just gets big before the end - owns its space, takes it over, filling your ears and telling its story.

This is Tall Tall Shadow by Basia Bulat. It's about what you can get away from, and what you can't.

You can’t run away
When the shadow is yours

There's something reminiscent of the '60s in the song for me - that feeling of size and importance, Bulat's clear crisp voice, the chorus behind her at the climax, the keyboards that open the song and provide most of the backing, the tick-tock drum beat that opens out to the big orchestration for the second half of the song.

I don't know who she's singing to: it could be herself, or someone specific, you, or me, or all of us. 

No, there is no lie that you can live in
Tear it apart
Your own confession
Made in the dark

In the end, it's a song about how you can't fool yourself, no matter how hard you try. That's a lesson so many of us need to keep learning, need to keep hearing. And this is a glorious, ringing, triumphant way of hearing and believing it.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Quote of the Week, Supplemental: Should You Choose to Accept It

The Law of Man is bounded by the limits of the Oikumene. Good and evil, however, are ideas which encompass the universe; unluckily, beyond the Pale there are few to ensure the triumph of good over evil. 

Actually the triumph consists of two processes: first evil must be extinguished, then good must be introduced to fill the gap. It is impossible that a man should be equally efficacious in both functions. Good and evil, in spite of a traditional fallacy, are not polarities, nor mirror images, nor is one merely the absence of the other. In order to minimize confusion, your work will be the destruction of evil men.

 - from a letter giving instructions to a young man setting out on a career of vengeance, Jack Vance, The Star King (p.28 in The Demon Princes, Vol. 1 omnibus)

Quote of the Week: Dealing with Clients

Yes, the humans had wanted to come down here and poke around. I had let Iris and Tarik secure their environmental suits and get out to look at the hatch, but made Ratthi stay at the controls. It was hard keeping him in there because he really likes to walk around on planets and he is also great at finding dangerous shit. The original planetary survey data that still existed was corrupted and incomplete, but so far the colonists hadn't said anything about dangerous flora or fauna. Which meant I assumed there was some because humans have a bad habit of assuming if they know a thing, all the other humans in he vicinity know it, too. Either that or they believe none of the other humans know anything that they don't know. It's either one or the other and both are potentially catastrophic and really fucking annoying.

 - Martha Wells, System Collapse, p.67

Friday, February 16, 2024

Random Illustrated Facts by Mike Lowery

I have found the Platonic ideal of the cash-wrap impulse-buy book. What title could possibly be better, or more comprehensive of the category, than Random Illustrated Facts?

Even better, this is exactly what it claims to be, and it's actually longer and more detailed than it needed to be - about two hundred pages, divided into five sections on History, Animals, Food/Drink, Science, and Everyday Things, sometimes with one big fact on a page and sometimes featuring multiple related facts per page.

All the lettering is hand-drawn, in a charmingly appealing style that changes size as it goes, by author Mike Lowery. And obviously all of the art is also drawn by Lowery; that's kinda the point of the book. In his introduction, he talks about how his habit of keeping sketchbooks changed over the years, as he started talking small notebooks everywhere and then drawing weird facts as he learned them. So, if I'm reading it right, this book is far more organic than I assumed: it's a curated selection of the random pages Lowery made over the course of several years, about things that interested him at odd moments about odd things.

All that is much more random than I assumed, of course, and it thus makes the book that much better. Lowery's energetic illustrative style, full of curlicues and dot eyes and exaggerated expressions, is equally amusing and inventive - I saw his stuff for the first time a couple of months ago with One Star Wonders, and I'm now low-key looking for more.

Look: what you have here are 1) Random, 2) Illustrated, 3) Facts. Just like it says on the tin. How can you go wrong?

(One minor consumer note: I read this in a digital form in my library's Hoopla app. On a few scattered pages, it appeared that some elements were missing on the page - maybe because of a layering error in composition? Here's an example, from what I think is page 18.)

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Star King by Jack Vance

Revenge is one of the oldest and most dependable plots, sure to bring the reader around quickly to the hero's side. It's a familiar lever in all sorts of more-or-less adventure fiction, whatever the setting or genre: just establish that your character is, for example, looking for the six-fingered man that killed his father, and the creator is golden.

Jack Vance built a five-book series out of revenge - I'm pretty sure I could, given time and thought, work up a substantially longer list of other Vance books also using a revenge theme, so I'm being descriptive rather than exclusive here - which he published between the mid-Sixties and 1981. The first book was 1964's The Star King, which I just re-read for the first time in a couple of decades.

The series is organized around the five targets of revenge. Some years ago, five Demon Princes - call them pirates, ganglords, something like that - combined forces to destroy the peaceful settlement of Mount Pleasant. Kirth Gersen, then a young child, was one of the few survivors, along with his grandfather, and was raised by that grandfather as a weapon to eventually seek out and destroy those five "Demon Princes." One of them is at the center of each of the book of the series: the first is Attel Malagate (the Woe).

The universe is medium-future, the human-settled Oikumene of much of this phase of Vance's career - about fifteen hundred years on, with hundreds or thousands of settled planets, sorted into the "Pale" of civilization, where planetary governments maintain order, and the wider "Beyond," where the only law is power. As typical for Vance, it's a big, complicated background: there are a few pan-system organizations, such as the Interworld Police Coordination Company (IPCC), but they have limited power and reach. Planets and their people can be very different from each other, and the levels of technology can also vary a lot.

Gersen is about thirty now; he's the equivalent of Batman at the beginning of his career - did all of the training, ready to start the actual mission. But the Demon Princes are secretive and hidden, creatures of the Beyond - more names to frighten children with than specific people with known routines and habits. They definitely exist, and still wreak havoc, but the Beyond is a vast area of space including hundreds of worlds and no law, so just finding even one of them is a trick.

But Gersen runs into the path of Malagate by accident, while stopping at a traveler's tavern that is the only building on Smade's Planet. A locator named Lugo Teehalt is also in the tavern, and strikes up a conversation with Gersen: Teehalt has learned his mission was funded by Malagate, and he's worried about what that will mean.

Malagate's goons arrive, and take Teehalt away to kill him. Because of their confusion, Gersen ends up with Teehalt's spacecraft instead of his (identical) own - but also has the recording filament of a paradisiacal planet that Teehalt discovered and that Malagate covets.

So Gersen sets out to use that lure to find Malagate and kill him - it won't be that simple, but when is a good revenge story ever simple? There are four more books in the series, so the reader can assume he succeeds.

This is prime-period Vance, so the joys of reading it are deep. He'd already started adding in-universe quotes to the beginnings of his chapters, to comment on the action or deepen the world-building, and there are some excellent examples here, such as this bit from Chapter 6, ostensibly from Men of the Oikume by Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII:

There are those who, like the author, ensconce themselves on a thunderous crag of omniscience, and with protestations of humility which are either unconvincing or totally absent, assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries. Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch.

Vance's dialogue is equally assured and amusing: wry, layered, ironic, thoughtful, and specific to the characters. He was easily the best and most distinctive prose stylist, as well as the most sophisticated in his outlook, of all the SF writers of his era, and his books still provide deep enjoyment.