Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 147 (6/30) -- The God Engines by John Scalzi

Everybody knows that, in any field of creative endeavor, if you want to be taken seriously you have to go Dark. Sure, the audiences always prefer the fluffy stuff -- the stories with happy endings, adventurous settings, and danger in measured amounts -- but the critics reserve their best praises for the stories of hopelessness and pain, the ones where everything is going to go to hell no matter what anyone does. So every creative person goes Dark at least once -- hell, even fantasy's resident lord of the bad pun, Piers Anthony, dug up that singularly unpleasant story "In the Barn" thirty-some years ago, as if knowing he'd be needed as a horrible example eventually.

The God Engines is John Scalzi -- SF's current master of the optimistic, can-do spirit, Hugo and Campbell Award winner, and relentless blogger -- Going Dark. And it's very, very Dark indeed.

God Engines is either fantasy in light SFnal dress or a story with essentially SFnal underpinnings that are never explained in those terms -- each reader can choose which way to consider it, depending on which stories she likes best. (I've seen too many people say about border cases, "This is fantasy, and I know that because I hate fantasy!" to be dogmatic on either side.) It's set in a starfaring civilization that could be in our distant future but doesn't need to be -- there are many planets inhabited by human beings, and, as far as we see, no other similar sapient races around.

There is, or was, a superior sapient race, or group, though -- the gods. Scalzi never stops to explain all of the details -- this is a novella, and telling the story is more important than detailed backstory [1] -- but there were once, thousands of years ago, a lot of gods of around the same, limited power level, and now there is one god with a large empire, a few scattered smaller gods outside that empire (fighting with each other and the Big God), and a number of captured gods bound into the service of the Big God. (Scalzi never names any of the gods -- the one that rules the empire is referred to as "our lord" by his human worshippers, and of course he intends the echo of current usage there.)

The captured gods serve as power supplies for "our lord's" starships, where they are bound and controlled but not always cowed. The particular god of most importance in God Engines is the one powering the starship Righteous, commanded by Captain Ean Tephe. (He has a name, or once had one, but it's the usual too-long-to-pronounce alien name, and it's alluded to but never enters the narrative.) The god engine of the Righteous has not lost all hope; he still schemes and rebels and has fugitive worshippers, out in the empire. (The gods, in Scalzi's conception, follow the usual scientific-fantasy model: each individual worshipper gives a god a certain quantum of power, thus the gods with the most worshippers have the most power. Scalzi adds some further details about the quality of those worshippers, but it's still essentially a numbers game.)

Captain Tephe has to keep his god engine running, and to do the usual job of a captain -- work around his drunken and broken political officer priest, wrestle with his feelings for the currently fashionable Ship's Whores (Scalzi doesn't call them this, but it's what they are), and so forth. It's a hard and lonely life, being a captain -- you know the drill. Tephe certainly does.

But then, as often happens in a story like this, Tephe learns that things are worse that he knew, and is chosen for a dangerous mission. Things get worse from there, of course -- Scalzi is going Full Dark here, pulling out all the stops to show that he can be as bleak and depressing as anyone -- and the story ends as a Dark story must. Tephe is the center of God Engines, and his actions do motivate most of its plot, but he's almost entirely an agent of greater powers, lied to and manipulated and jerked around by beings that even he calls gods. He's not precisely on rails during the course of The God Engines -- he could have done things differently that changed the outcome -- but, to continue the video-game metaphor, those changes would likely only have led to nasty alternative deaths.

Given Scalzi's clearly stated antipathy to authoritarian organized religion, one could easily work up a allegorical reading of God Engines -- but it strikes me as more of a traditional SF thought experiment (what if starships used gods for power?), so I think a reading of that kind would be a mistake. In the end, God Engines doesn't have any clear moral, other than, perhaps "sucks to be you." Or maybe "stay far away when gods are fighting." It's a short and well-told story, but it does have the airless nastiness of so many "serious" SF novellas of the past couple of decades, which makes it less enjoyable than most of Scalzi's fiction. I hope he's gotten Dark out of his system now -- at least for a while.

[1] I can think of half-a-dozen writers who should have this phrase tattooed on the inside of their eyeballs.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Jaymay - One May Die So Lonely
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 146 (6/29) -- Powers: Secret Identity by Bendis and Oeming

The Powers series continues to get flabbier and flabbier, more and more obvious, and to drift ever further away from everything that made it interesting and special in this eleventh collection -- see my extended lament about volume ten from a couple of months ago for the details of what was good about Powers, once upon a time.

Even the writer -- Brian Michael Bendis, as always, though now finding time for Powers in between writing giant crossovers for the "real" superheroes for the big companies -- doesn't seem to believe in his story, having a villain at one point tell the hero, Christian Walker, "you're as old as the world and now you're an intergalactic space cowboy." And that's exactly right -- and exactly what's wrong with Powers. It started off as the story of two cops, trying to do a good job in a world of superheroes. By this point, they're both superpowered, and the fact that neither of them are very good cops anymore -- which should be the core of the series -- keeps getting pushed aside for more eyeball kicks and punch-fests.

Powers has become a generic superhero comic, with slightly more violence and sex, and the characters who once were interesting are now parodies of themselves. Bendis amps up the violence level to cartoonish in this volume, like a junkie increasing the dosage again and again in a useless attempt to get a new rush, and it works with Powers about as well as it works with heroin.

All in all, I think I'm done here. There's a twelfth volume out, but I'll just leaf through that at a store, if anything. There's no reason at all to read Powers now -- it's just the same thing that Bendis is doing in his other books, and those have the advantage of being about the "real" characters -- the ones the fans care about instinctively.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Vague Angels - The Vague Angels of Vagary
via FoxyTunes

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 145 (6/28) -- Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs

Seth muses in his introduction to Gentleman Jim as to why Briggs never has gotten the recognition Seth knows he deserves as a pioneer of the graphic novel, and comes down on the fact that Briggs's work has nearly always been published for younger readers. That's certainly part of it, but Briggs's usual tone of light whimsy -- no bad thing, I hasten to add, especially when it enlivens a book that otherwise could be deadly, like When the Wind Blows -- has at least as much to do with it. It's not exactly that Briggs's book are read by kids, in other words, as the fact that they so often look like they should be for kids, even when they weren't intended that way.

Gentleman Jim, for example, was originally published for adults -- and has been reprinted recently by Drawn & Quarterly, also for adults -- but Briggs's characters are as loosely formed (in their mental conceptions of themselves and their doughy, soft physical appearance) as his famous snowman, and the things that happen to them have a fabulist feel, almost like a cautionary tale or some other moralistic story told to children.

Jim, the "hero" of this story, is a middle-aged dreamer, a direct descendant of Walter Mitty, who cleans a London public toilet but wants to do something more adventurous. In the typical Mitty way, Jim doesn't particularly care what more adventurous thing he does, as long as he can do the things he likes to read about in books. But where Mitty is used by James Thurber to satirize that dreamy impulse -- and set it in contrast with Mitty's hard-headed wife -- Briggs has matched Jim with an equally dreamy wife, Hilda. Gentleman Jim sees Jim working his way through several unrealistic fantasies -- gorgeously painted by Briggs along the way; his art is lovely and the primary appeal of Gentleman Jim -- which sink him deeper and deeper into trouble in the real world. But Jim's innocence is impregnable; he ends the book as sweet and untouched as he began it, no matter what has happened or will happen to him.

Gentleman Jim is the story of a man who's unhappy in the most mild, lightweight way possible, and who is also completely unshakable in his sweetness, so the reader can't expect him to change or learn much of anything. It's lovely to look at, particularly Brigg's humorously detailed looks at Jim's fantasies, but readers who like characters that interact with the real world will find themselves disappointed.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/26

Just like every week, I got mail this week, and now I'm going to tell you about it. I haven't read either of these books yet, but I can tell that they're both just spiffy and that a significant fraction of you would love one or the other (or both!) of them.

First up is George Mann's steampunk mystery The Affinity Bridge -- now in a more affordable trade paperback edition, published by Tor on April 27th -- purely because it's the book whose cover I could find online. George is a great guy, and this is a mystery novel set in a clanking 1901 London that even has an airship on the cover -- how can you not love it?

The other book this time out is Beth Bernobich's debut novel Passion Play. Tor will publish Passion Play as a hardcover in October, so it's a little early for the cover art to be all over the web. (I tried to scan it from the galley, but there's a prominent "contact me for more information" sticker with the publicist's e-mail address and phone number, and I don't think I should be spreading that across the Internets.) This is a secondary world fantasy, with back cover copy that hints heavily at sex without actually saying anything gauche (it's all "every pleasure has a price" and "the other half of her heart" and "intrigue, seduction, and treachery"), treading -- as far as I can tell -- in the sexy fantasy footsteps of Jacqueline Carey, among others. It also features a fantasy kingdom named Melnek, which may or may not be on the continent of the Lower East Side. If you like your fantasy to come with heaving bosoms -- and why wouldn't you? -- it looks like Passion Play would be a great read.
Listening to: B. Fleischmann - 24.12.
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Locus Award Winners for 2010

Locus magazine has announced the winners of their annual reader poll for the best SFF of the year, in the usual large array of categories. I don't agree with all of their voters' choices -- in several cases, a better-known thing has come out ahead of something that is clearly (in my mind) stronger -- but that's how polls work. In any case, it's a fine list of good stuff from the genre last year, and an interesting reading list:

Best SF Novel: Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor)

Best Fantasy Novel: The City & The City, China MiƩville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)

Best First Novel: The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

Best Young Adult Book: Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)

Best Novella: The Women of Nell Gwynne's, Kage Baker (Subterranean)

Best Novelette: ‘‘By Moonlight’’, Peter S. Beagle (We Never Talk About My Brother)

Best Short Story: ‘‘An Invocation of Incuriosity’’, Neil Gaiman (Songs of the Dying Earth)

Best Anthology: The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Eos; HarperCollins Australia)

Best Collection: The Best of Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe (Tor); as The Very Best of Gene Wolfe (PS)

Best Non-Fiction Book/Art Book: Cheek by Jowl, Ursula K. Le Guin (Aqueduct)

Best Artist: Michael Whelan

Best Editor: Ellen Datlow

Best Magazine: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Best Book Publisher: Tor

(I've reviewed both The City & The City and Leviathan, but I was more impressed with one than the other. I still haven't gathered up the intestinal fortitude to read The Windup Girl, though I see Baciagalupi has at least one other dreary near-future novel out as well. And I hope I'll be able to read The Women of Nell Gwynne's without shelling out for a pricey limited hardcover.)

[via Locus, of course]

Book-A-Day 2010 # 144 (6/27) -- The Book Shopper by Murray Browne

The Book Shopper is a short, slight, harmless book by a guy who has read a lot of books in his day but doesn't think all that deeply about them -- or, at least, doesn't do so here. It's very loosely organized around the idea of "book shopping" -- or, rather, by the fact that Browne himself is a "book shopper." (Which, as far as I can tell, just means that he likes to browse in bookstores, which practically every serious reader does.)

I don't want to come down too hard on this book, which is pleasant and undemanding, but Browne shows no real evidence of having thought deeply about the books he's read, or of having made interesting connections among them, or of doing anything else that would make his musings on books of interest to anyone other than himself and his immediate family. He writes here about the books that just about every middlebrow reader knows: Annie Proulx and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mary Karr and Jim Harrison, Richard Ford's Independence Day and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. And what Browne has to say about those books can mostly be boiled down to: wow, they're good novels.

I'll admit that I've hit the point in my life where I feel like an 18th century grump, and look askance at people who read only novels, so I'm probably harder on Browne's middlebrow tastes than he deserves. But he's read the same books as a hundred thousand book-club members, and has no great insights about them. The Book Shopper is actually only very slightly about actually shopping for books -- about poking through bookstores and finding interesting things -- and Browne isn't particularly compelling about either the hunt or the results. There is a large shelf of books about books that are much more interesting than this one.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 143 (6/26) -- Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Being young is all about having things happen for the first time, about finding yourself in places you don't expect, with people you don't know well, having experiences you hope will turn you into the person you want to be or give you something to remember fondly. Similarly, for a creator, a first major work is a chance to try out all of the elements you want to work with, and figure out ways to make them all work together.

Lost at Sea was Bryan Lee (Scott Pilgrim) O'Malley's first graphic novel, drawn when he was 24, almost a decade ago. And his main character is Raleigh, an eighteen-year-old Canadian girl driving back from Northern California with three kids from her school that she barely knows, after a visit to her divorced father. She's also deeply upset about something, and intent on telling her story to us -- but even more intent on telling it right, so we'll have to wait to get all of the details as Raleigh wants to tell them to us.

Lost at Sea is more writerly and feels much more controlled than the Scott Pilgrim books; O'Malley had to get through Raleigh's story, and the careful way she tells it, to get to the seemingly more anarchic and random story of a slightly older slacker. Raleigh has a lot of narration, and talks to her traveling companions, but doesn't get to any of the important, central issues for a long time. The back cover copy of this new edition -- republished earlier this year, presumably because the Scott Pilgrim movie is reminding readers (like me) about all things O'Malleyesque -- even gives away something Raleigh doesn't mention until two-thirds of the way through the book.

But Raleigh is an eighteen-year-old girl who likes boys --- one boy in particular, actually -- and whose parents divorced a few years back. And she's riding north, back home, with three people who know each other well and her only slightly. That's enough background for her story: what's important is that it is her story, and that O'Malley was close enough to adolescence himself to get into Raleigh's head and show her in all her complexity -- cool and dorky, quiet and talkative, confused and sure of herself, all at the same time.

Lost at Sea is quieter, and more conventional, in the end, than the Scott Pilgrim books, and it doesn't have their gleeful shredding of consensus reality. But it's a fine first book, and one that shows that O'Malley has plenty of moods that don't fit into even the capacious, colorful world of Mr. Pilgrim.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, June 25, 2010

Movie Log: Mid-June, 2010

It's been a hectic month, and I've gotten behind on writing about the movies I've seen. (Not even counting things I watched again, like Meatballs -- with my two sons, last Saturday, since they hadn't previously known that it just doesn't matter. Or the MST3k version of Zombie Nightmare, since I've never tried to "review" RiffTrax/MST3K, and don't want to start now.) So, just like a few weeks ago, here's a quick round-up of everything I've seen in roughly the past three weeks.

Someone recommended F for Fake -- an odd documentary directed by Orson Wells, clearly using bits and pieces of several failed projects, in the mid '70s -- in a comment here on one of my other Movie Log posts. (Probably that Richard Gere movie about Clifford Irving, who faked the Howard Hughes diaries. Aha! It was called The Hoax, and both someone anonymous and Alexx Kay mentioned F For Fake.)

F For Fake is partly the story of Clifford Irving, and partly the story of a famous art forger named Elmyr de Hory -- but mostly the story of Wells talking about fraud, and fakery, and stage magic, and whatever else he can spin out to knit together the reels of film he has, while at the same time keeping anyone from suing him. Wells is getting older here, and larger, but he's still Orson Wells at this point, and not the shadow of himself he became later -- he commands the attention of the camera, and knows instinctively how to keep that attention. So if F For Fake doesn't actually go anywhere, or explain much of anything, or give any solid basis to its half-hinted insinuations and veiled suggestions, it's fascinating as it circles the fakeries of de Hory and Irving, and lets the two of them speak at length.

Somewhere -- I forget, now, exactly where -- my sons saw a preview of Dragonball: Evolution, and so we had to get that movie and watch it. (It was our Saturday movie two weeks ago, as I recall.) It deviates pretty seriously from the Akira Toriyama original, not least in the Caucasian-ization of Son Goku, and the opening does raise the specter of a lot of tedious Oh-my-life-in-highschool-is-so-horrible bumf which (thankfully!) disappears quickly, but it's not a bad wire-fu movie in the end. Because, let's face it, the only reason to want to see Dragonball: Evolution would be for the fight scenes. I was happy enough to watch those fight scenes, once they started coming more quickly, and they were all just fine for me. (Others may have higher standards in wire-fu; my serious watching in this area was twenty years ago, so I'm out of step with the current state of the art.) If nothing else, I didn't think it was nearly as horrible as it's generally considered -- oh, sure, it's a generic comic-book movie (in a Japanese rather than an American idiom), but it revels in its material without ever laughing at itself or doing anything utterly stupid.

On the other hand, Mary and Max is a clay-animated movie that's really not for kids. (They'd probably be bored with it, anyway.) Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) is an Australian pre-teen in the '70s with a dingy, unhappy life -- drunken mother, distant father, unfriendly schoolmates, etc. -- who decides to write to a random New Yorker for a reason sufficient to motivate the plot, and so does. The random man she connects with is Max Jerry Horovitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman using a schmaltz-dripping accent and more than a little hesitancy), whom the audience recognizes pretty quickly is a borderline functional adult with Asperger's Syndrome. (Which he duly is diagnosed with, later in the movie, once that becomes recognized.) They write letters back and forth to each other, in the usual two-damaged-types-heal-each-other fashion, though not without problems along the way. It's also a very, very heavily narrated movie; the voice of Barry Humphries is talking nearly every second that Mary and Max doesn't have the voice of Collette or Hoffman reading one of their letters, leaving little time for silence or any other voices.) It's a great movie to look at, though, even if it is all in shades of gray and black -- but the talking could have been dialed down more than a little. In an odd way, it ends up being the non-neurotypical version of 84, Charing Cross Road.

The Wife is a huge fan of costume dramas, and particularly those with happy endings, so there was no chance that we would not see The Young Victoria. I enjoyed it well enough for what it was, though Rupert Friend (here as Albert, the minor German princeling Queen Vicky marries) still doesn't seem to be working hard enough in anything I see him in. The movie is what it is: this year's slab of romantic history, tricked out to give work to a small army of hairdressers, costume experts, topiary designers, minor British actors, and the rest of the UK film industry. There's one of these every year or so, and I'm sure I'll end up seeing them all. As always, our heroes are positioned firmly on the side of what seems to our era as very, very mild liberalism, of the "well, maybe the lower classes shouldn't just be forced to die in the streets, at least, not always" school. Emily Blunt does the obligatory "I am the Queen" act, though I didn't believe her hair was in period for more than a second. If you don't get enough of this kind of thing from PBS on Sunday nights, here's another dose.

As long as there's an England -- and it has a functioning film industry -- there will be a steady stream of uplifting movies based at least vaguely on real events, like Billy Elliott, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, and The Full Monty. One minor entry in that genre was 2000's Greenfingers, with Clive Owen as a jailbird redeemed by the healing power of the soil. It could have been more cleverly done, or less obviously, and Helen Mirren is just about wasted as Georgina Woodhouse, the kind of gardening expert who wears huge hats and who I'm morally certain is based on someone specific. But it's an agreeable way to spend about a hundred minutes, and now I should be able to keep it separate in my head from Saving Grace (the other British growing-things comedy from about the same time), since I've seen them both.
Listening to: The Indelicates - Savages
via FoxyTunes

Choosing an E-Book Reader

There are a lot of book-reading devices around now, with a bewildering array of benefits and drawbacks. It would really be great if there were a single place to go and compare all of those devices to each other -- or, even better, to just look at the ones that you're particularly interested in.

Luckily, a certain very forward-thinking and customer-friendly publishing company has created just such a thing -- and it's now up at E-reader Resource. So, if you're thinking of jumping into e-books, there's now an easier way to start doing your research.

What company is that? Why...Wiley, of course. Who else?

Too Epic for Words

The only movie I really want to see this summer -- Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, of course -- has an Avatar Creator, as part of the huge pile of time-wasting stuff that every self-respecting movie website must have these days.

And so I made myself, in the style of Bryan Lee O'Malley. If I were a twentysomething Toronto hipster, that's exactly what I'd look like.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 142 (6/25) -- Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is such an engaging, compulsively readable writer than I forget about his knives until the moment after he slams one home. And, if you know anything at all about McEwan, you know that there's always a knife; a McEwan hero can no more emerge triumphant and happy at the end of one of his novels than a fish can fly to the moon. Solar is not as inevitable a tragedy as his last novel, the short and near-perfect On Chesil Beach (which I reviewed here, three years ago), nor is it as relentlessly negative as his early books like The Child in Time or The Comfort of Strangers. But it's still a McEwan novel, and that implies dreadful things for his hero.

This time, that hero is Michael Beard, a middle-aged physicist coasting on one burst of brilliance from his youth that brought him fame, fortune, and a Nobel Prize. Solar opens with Beard in the dying days of his fifth marriage in 2000; Beard has cobbled together an income from various corporate boards and institutes and editorships and speaking engagements, none of which require much more of him than his name and an occasional day of his time. McEwan intends Solar to be more light-hearted and humorous than his usual fare, and he signposts this partially through Beard's physicality -- the physicist remarks over and over again about his corpulence and his failed attempts to get himself into shape -- and partially through Beard's appetite for women. But, even though one of the motors of Solar is Beard's relentless womanizing -- he's had eleven affairs in the few years of his current marriage, and, as McEwan presents him, is always on the lookout for new conquests -- his point of view, in the usual coldly detached McEwanesque limited third, never comments physically on the women passing by, or engages in direct sexual thoughts. McEwan has declared that Michael Beard is a man who has a lot of affairs -- in the way that, one begins to assume, McEwan believes the hero of an English comic novel must -- but feels that is sufficient to establish the point, and so glosses over the actual sex.

It's fascinating to find that there's something -- after all of these years, and all of the novels flaying bare every aspect of human unpleasantness and bad behavior -- that McEwan flinches away from writing about, and to find that it's so central to normal life as happy, healthy sex.

So Solar begins with Beard, whom we only later learn is one of the great Lotharios of the world of physical science, obsessing over the single affair of his fifth wife, Patrice. (We do learn, quickly, that all of those four previous marriages broke up due to Beard's own affairs, but, at this point, we're assuming it's the usual English novel treatment -- of course well-off and intelligent people have affairs, since they all do in novels like this.) Patrice has been carrying on with the transparently Mellors-esque Tarpin, a local builder who has done a lot of work on their magnificent, gorgeous (and deliberately childless) home. Stated that baldly, it looks much less real and nuanced than McEwan has actually made it, but, still -- the fat intellectual's wife is carrying on with a burly plebeian, once again.

Beard's obsession with his wife and her infidelity leads to a bad act of his own -- as it always does, with McEwan heroes -- the consequences of which will be delayed until a Job-like pile of woes at the very end of Solar. For this novel, in the end, is the story of how all of Michael Beard's bad habits, lazinesses, cut corners, and ignored chances come back to him, and how, at the age of sixty, he is utterly unprepared to deal with the consequences of what he's done. It's divided into three roughly equal parts, set in 2000, 2005, and 2009, in which Beard sinks deeper and deeper into his habits -- which don't appear all that bad, or that damaging, along the way -- until everything comes back to him in a whirlwind at the end.

Solar isn't as comic as McEwan seems to think it is; he's been calling it a comic novel, but it's not particularly funny, and only light by comparison with his other works. It's also been called satirical, but if there's a single exaggeration in its milieu -- aside from the artificial photosynthesis project Beard launches, which has no equivalent in our world -- I missed it; in fact, Solar has fewer outrageous global warming deniers than the real world, and the ones in Solar are relatively sane and reasonable. Satire, to be effective, does need to go further than reality, and I didn't see much evidence that Solar did so.

But it is entertaining, and an engrossing look at a man as blindered and limited as the rest of us. It's also within a stone's throw of science fiction, which encourages those of us who want to see SF as literature, and vice versa. I doubt Solar will be remembered as one of McEwan's major novels a century from now, but it's a fine novel of man and science this year, which is plenty good enough.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Phosphorescent - The Mermaid Parade
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week: Organization

"And now that he had entered upon the final active stages of his life, he was beginning to understand that, barring accidents, life did not change. He had been deluded. He had always assumed that a time would come in adulthood, a kind of plateau, when he would have learned all the tricks of managing, of simply being. All mail and e-mails answered, all papers in order, books alphabetically on the shelves, clothes and shoes in good repair in the wardrobes, and all his stuff where he could find it, with the past, including its letters and photographs, sorted into boxes and files, his private life settled and serene, accommodation and finances likewise. In all these years this settlement, the calm plateau, had never appeared, and yet he had continued to assume, without reflecting on the matter, that it was just around the next turn, when he would exert himself and reach it, that moment when his life became clear and his mind free, when his grown-up existence could properly begin. But not long after Catriona's birth, about the time he met Darlene, he thought he saw it for the first time: on the day he died he would be wearing unmatching socks, there would be unanswered e-mails, and in the hovel he called home there would still be shirts missing cuff buttons, a malfunctioning light in the hall, and unpaid bills, uncleared attics, dead flies, friends waiting for a reply, and lovers he had not owned up to. Oblivion, the last word in organization, would be his only consolation."
- Ian McEwan, Solar, pp.228-229
Listening to: Mieka Pauley - When I Get My
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Buy Some Stuff!

So the economy is teetering on the brink of disaster -- housing sales plummeted last month, as the credit expired, and unemployment is still high and sentiment low. (I'm only talking about the US here; your Euro types have even more trouble with your PIIGS and their insolvencies, and the rest of the world, I'm sure, has its own individual list of woes.) The only thing that can save us all is to spend money.

To help you do your part to save the world economy, here are some baubles and bangles that you might consider acquiring:

Amazon dropped the price of its flagship Kindle book-reading device earlier this week, in the wake of Barnes & Noble doing the same thing with their Nook device. (I'd link to Nook, but B&N doesn't have a kickback scheme that bloggers like me can use, so fooey on them.) You can get a Kindle for only $189 now, and Amazon claims a library of over 600,000 books (and I believe that doesn't even count the free classics and other stuff you can stick on a Kindle) to read on it.

But, you ask, what if I insist on reading old fashioned ink-on-paper, the way God and Gutenberg intended? Then Amazon can still help you out, as long as you're willing to trust their omniscence in gathering what "everyone will be reading this summer" into a Summer Reading Store. Can you afford to be reading a book different from the one all of your friends are? Surely not.

But let's say that you don't like reading books at all -- it's too old-fashioned and 19th century. You want something zippy and modern, something that's entirely digital. Well, Amazon now has a cellphone store called Amazon Wireless where you can get all the fancy new gadgets you'd ever want. (Unless, that is, you want an iPhone, which I haven't been able to find there. Guess those two pushy behemoths Amazon and Apple don't play well together.)

Here, have a banner:

But the most important thing to remember -- whether or not you follow my links, or buy anything from Amazon (ha! as if anyone could avoid buying from Amazon! it's futile!) -- is that the entire world economy is counting on you to spend lots of money to keep itself going. Remember, there are bankers at Goldman Sachs who will only get seven-digit bonuses this year!

Carnegie Goes to the Graveyard

The prestigious Carnegie Medal -- given annually to the writer of "an outstanding book for children" in the UK in memory of the industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie -- has been awarded to Neil Gaiman for The Graveyard Book. Graveyard previously won the Newbery Medal, which is the rough American equivalent of the Carnegie, and is the first book to get both awards.

Congratulations to Gaiman for another well-deserved award; Graveyard really is a damn good book. (As I said some time ago, in one of the very few times I've reviewed a book before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon.)

[seen via Locus Online]

Book-A-Day 2010 # 141 (6/24) -- Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

Some skills transfer easily, some can be worked into new forms, and some just don't translate at all. Writing for comics is usually somewhere in that middle range -- it can lead without much trouble into screenwriting (particularly if the writer has worked extensively in corporate comics, and is used to random diktats and bizarre requirements), but has a much bumpier path moving into pure prose, where every word has to count and there are no collaborators to carry their share of the load.

I suspect this is getting worse, as comics have turned against captions and descriptions of all kinds over the past decade. When Neil Gaiman lept from comics to novels with Neverwhere, over a decade ago, he'd been writing a very heavily narrated comic for a number of years (and, of course, had co-written one novel and done a large pile of journalism as well), and so was used to writing descriptions that would be read as part of the final work. But today's writers produce almost entirely dialogue -- their descriptions are purely for the artists, and so can be as long or short, as convoluted or straightforward, as tedious or exciting as they feel like. That part of their work is essentially an internal memorandum, like an IBM white paper, and has only a tenuous relationship to an entertainment product.

Peter & Max is a novel by a modern comics writer, and, inevitably, the dialogue is the best part of it. Bill Willingham is used to putting word into his characters' mouths, and skilled at moving them through a sequence of scenes, but the words he uses to describe them are clunkier, workmanlike rather than inspired. His plot is not terribly exciting, either -- he mostly alternates present-day chapters with those in the past to disguise the fact that he doesn't have a whole lot of story to tell on either side, and the story he is telling runs entirely along predictable lines.

See, on the world-sized Germany Fable world -- the one a majority of the characters in the Fables comics series seem to have come from, unfortunately -- there was a family of itinerant musicians, the Pipers. They had two sons, Peter and Max. And Peter and Max enacted a very familiar story -- Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Cain and Abel. Peter, our hero, was younger and nicer and more skilled, but Max was more cunning and devious and nasty. And so, while the forces of The Adversary conquered that world, and everything went to hell anyway, Max attempted to take his revenge on his brother for all the perceived slights only a literarily deranged older brother could conjure up. And then, many hundreds of years later, Max found his way to our world to try for that revenge again -- with vastly greater powers and cruelty.

But the reader knows that Peter -- and his love, Bo Peep -- will survive the historical chapters, and make their way to our world, so there's less tension there than there should be. And the reader also can't seriously believe that Max will succeed in killing Peter in the modern timeline, and then use his massive evil powers to wreak havoc on the world, making the tension not much higher in that half of the book. And so all of Willingham's lovingly described squalor and violence and nastiness become just something to be endured, just more pages to turn before we get to the happy ending.

(Max is also a cartoon of evil, practically wringing his hands in glee as to how nasty he is. Willingham never honestly gets into his head, or sufficiently motivates him -- he's jealous of his brother, but that's a slim thing to hang hundreds of years of capital-e Evil Monomania on.)

Peter & Max is an entirely serviceable fantasy novel, my complaints aside. Peter is a somewhat thin character himself, but he's a solid hero, and well worth reading about. And Willingham's dialogue is very good -- his people come alive not in their own heads, but as they talk to each other. And the Fables concept still has power and wonder. But the Fables world isn't unique and special enough to carry it at this point; Willingham would have been better off telling a story much less tied to the main series -- no Bigby, no Adversary, maybe no Fabletown. He has a gigantic concept to work with, and it's disappointing to see him come back again and again to the same narrow piece of it. In a million worlds of stories, I find it hard to believe Peter & Max was the most vital one to tell!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Indelicates - Jerusalem
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 140 (6/23) -- The Lost Colony, Book 3: Last Rights by Grady Klein

Doing an honest and fair review of Book Three when you haven't even seen the first two is nearly impossible, so I'm not going to claim any vast insights into Grady Klein's "Lost Colony" series. In fact, I'm only moderately sure that I completely understand the shape of the plot and the details of the premise, so this is likely to be a quick, desultory overview.

"The Lost Colony" takes place on an hidden island in the Megabuk River, somewhere in the American South before 1860. It doesn't feel particularly historical, though -- there's no references to events or people or even place names anyone would recognize. This may be more an idea of the antebellum South than a place meant to be entirely real. On this island, a colony of oddballs and misfits -- mostly escaped slaves -- have lived in peace with the local fauna, which are hostile to the whites in the surrounding countryside. Of particular interest is a creature generally called a rock bug -- or a rock spirit -- which may be sapient, or magical, or highly advanced, or everything all at once. Into this bucolic demi-paradise came change, as it always does -- in this case, it was the arrival of a white man, Alexander Snodgrass, and his wife Olympia, about a decade ago. As usual, Alexander acts as a governor for the island -- as far as I can tell, purely because he is the only white man there.

The series apparently focuses mostly on the Snodgrasses' young daughter, Bertha (Birdy), whom -- the reader learns in this book -- is special because she was born on the island. She's a spunky kid, but that's about the extent of her characterization in this volume -- she's spunky and determined, but adults talk around and over her continuously, mostly so the reader will understand the things she doesn't.

This volume sees another white character -- Reverend Buck Swagger, whose name signposts him too precisely, and whose cologne and fabulous hair are even worse -- arrive to cause more trouble. He was Olympia's beau before she married Alexander, and has other connections to several other characters. But this book is mostly piling up the complications and signposting the conflict, stopping just before the actual conflict happens.

At least in this book, The Lost Colony is slightly too twee and oblique for me -- though a lot of that is due to Klein's clean colors over irregular black lines, which look a bit like Jeff Smith translated into Flash animation. His characters are all highly caricatured, which helps to distinguish them, but works against the more serious parts of his plot. But I do have to admit that this is a big slice of middle, and that I'm not familiar with the beginning and haven't yet seen the end -- so, again, I won't be too judgemental or dogmatic about it. It's interesting-looking, certainly, and Klein's story is not much like anything else I've seen in comics recently, so I'd rather encourage more work like this, even if I'm not entirely sure if I like it.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Mountain Goats - Source Decay
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 139 (6/22) -- Doctor Gorpon by Marc Hansen

It must be a sad and dispiriting thing to be one of the forgotten wild men of comics. Marc Hansen was one of the grand oddballs of the '80s and early '90s, carrying most of the Now Comics company on his back with his fever dreams of suburban hysteria and bizarrely naked power fantasies, all drawn in an energetically detailed and deformed style that owed more to Big Daddy Roth than to anything in comics proper (though there's some influence from the wilder reaches of Mad Magazine and the I-can-do-anything spirit of the first wave of undergrounds). His Ralph Snart Adventures was one of the top sellers of the indy scene, a book with unlikely appeal for both jocks and art-nerds.

But then Now imploded -- repeatedly, as far as I can tell from this distance -- and Hansen's career turned out to be far less portable than one would have though (for whatever reason). He's been mostly silent for the decade and a half since then, another example of the artist who retroactively turned out to have been of a moment in time.

I came across this collection of his Doctor Gorpon mini-series -- published by Malibu in 1992-1994, though the pages are dated 1991 -- recently, in a trade paperback published by the 2004 incarnation of Now. I remembered liking Hansen's stuff, but wasn't sure how much of that enjoyment was due to my own youth and love of the bizarre. (I'm harder to please now; that happens to a lot of us as we get older and more familiar with the usual tricks.)

Hansen's work always had more energy than sense, throwing a pulpy plot momentum on top of equally pulpy (though frequently deranged) characters and scenarios, and Gorpon is no exception. The main character is a musclebound, possibly insane and definitely monomaniacal monster hunter, obsessed with popping the heads off rampaging creatures and tossing those heads into his Pit of Paranormal Ooze. The characters scream their lines most of the time -- though those lines are often also very long and convoluted -- and the violence is tempered primarily by Hansen's overcomplicated drawing style and reflexive massive deformity. (If everything is bizarrely disgusting, then a few popped heads don't matter that much.)

The plot is craziness on toast, with Gorpon facing off against mutated chocolate bunnies, a discarded minion, a fanatical chief of police, and several other weird monsters. The whole thing has the feeling of having been created by (or perhaps for) overstimulated preteen boys, without a moment of quiet or reflection. But that's the whole point of Hansen's work, so I really can't complain.

Doctor Gorpon is crazy and juvenile and utterly goofy in all of the best ways; its particular verve and obsessions are very much those of the early '90s -- that time of ultraviolent heroes covered in pouches, giant guns, and poorly-drawn feet -- but it's still as much wacked-out fun now as it ever was. You need a very particular mindset to enjoy Hansen's work, but that mindset has never been rare in the comics world, so he could easily find his way back into popularity with similar insanity tomorrow.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Indelicates - Savages
via FoxyTunes

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 138 (6/21) -- Goats: Showcase Showdown by Jonathan Rosenberg

Goats is a weird, complicated webcomic that actually isn't all that hard to get into -- just drop back a year or two and start reading, and it'll all start becoming clear before long. Cartoonist Jonathan Rosenberg has the knack of keeping a large cast visually distinctive and making their relationships quickly clear -- it seems like a small thing, but it's rare enough in any kind of serialized comics, let alone the wild and anarchic world of webcomics. It's especially impressive when you stop to think about the details of his world, and realize how deeply askew it is: the motor of the central plot is that his two ostensible lead characters (programmers/drunkards Jon and Phillip) stole a spaceship from two grey aliens, took it to the center of the universe to meet God, whom they tricked into transforming into a lamp chop -- and then they ate him.

That was the first major oddball plot twist, to be followed by a murderous cyborg goldfish; a Satanist chicken; the chicken's evil, nihilistic chick; a corporate Hell based on the Mayan afterlife; a talking broccoli-man barista; the inevitable infinite monkeys that write the plot for the universe; and Imaginary Reese Witherspoon. If Douglas Adams was a generation younger and started out in comics rather than radio, Goats is the kind of thing he might have created. (Though it looks like Rosenberg has a vastly better work ethic than Adams ever did; Adams never would have been able to put out anything creative on a regular basis the way Rosenberg has with Goats.)

This particular book is the third collection of Goats from Del Rey, after Infinite Typewriters and The Corndog Imperative (both of which I reviewed, more or less), and it's billed as "Book Three of the Infinite Pendergast Cycle." My impression -- formed mostly by knowing that Del Rey had bought three Goats collections from Rosenberg and by a contemplation of the nearly mystical power of the number three in SF/Fantasy publishing -- had been that Showcase Showdown would provide an ending to the current story, but that was incorrect. This book begins in the middle and ends in the middle; there are people racing around (or hanging out in a bar) trying to save the universe from a programming bug that will unravel it in 2012 (or actively trying to conquer/destroy everything ahead of that deadline), but none of them are fully successful by the end of Showcase Showdown.

Goats is a quirky, dark, completely sui generis strip, and, purely because of that, I'd love to see it be even more popular and successful. It's a webcomic telling a long-form story that isn't in traditional comics-page form, and it's neither about gamers nor confused twenty-somethings. Goats is a high-powered vacuum cleaner, sucking out the quirkier and more disreputable parts of popular culture and then bolting the resulting odds and ends together into a loose, shambling agglomeration that works much better -- and is much more carefully constructed -- than it at first appears. Not only is there nothing else quite like it, it's difficult to even define the space of things that might be like it. To be blunt, Goats is wicked awesome, and I want to see more books to finish up the "Infinite Pendergast Cycle" and either usher in or prevent the end of the world. (Either way is fine with me, as long as Rosenberg tells the story.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Simian Ghost - Star Reciever
via FoxyTunes

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/19

Every week, the crack staff of Antick Musings -- which consists of me, myself and I -- receive literally ones of packages arriving from far-flung corners of the globe (though mostly from midtown Manhattan, where Big Publishing lives), sent in hopes that the crack staff (same as before) will read and review the books contained therein. Now, even if there were three of me -- and there aren't, last I checked -- I doubt I'd be able to read everything I saw. But what I can do is tell you all about those books as they come in, and that's where "Reviewing the Mail" steps in.

The following is a list of the books that came in the mail last week. I haven't read any of them yet. But I do have them right here in front of me, so let's see what I can figure out about them, in the hopes that you'll find something that you'll consider colossally amazing. (Which, of course, may be very, very different from what I would find colossally amazing.)

I'll give pride of place to a big book by a big author that I've read intermittently, because I know I won't get to this one. (It violates my Prime Directive for fiction: I refuse, on principle, to read any book that murders me or my family.) David Weber's Out of the Dark is the first in a new series, in which an alien race arrives and conquers Earth with ease, leaving half the human race dead. (See that part? That's what I object to in a book.) But the inevitable human resistance -- a book like this is always about the dogged, under-equipped group of rag-tag rebels who thumb their noses at the alien oppressors and who will manage, after two movies or six books, to find the terribly unlikely Huge Weakness of the aliens and exploit it to emerge triumphant -- is not quite as rag-tag as they might otherwise be, since they have new allies. Yes, the vampires are coming out of hiding. So the elevator pitch for Out of the Dark is "Aliens Vs. Vampires," and I expect a lot of people will want to read that. You'll all get your chance in October, when Tor will publish Out of the Dark in hardcover.

To switch gears entirely, I also have three books related to The Last Airbender, the movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan based on the TV cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. (As you might have noticed, there was a small art-house movie that used the title Avatar earlier this year, so Shyamalan and his backers presumably dropped the first word from their title to reduce confusion.) All three of these books are being published as paperbacks by Del Rey, all of them will be out in full distribution by tomorrow, and all of them are comics of one kind or another:
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender, Vol. 1 adapts the first episode of the TV series into "cine-manga" format (using art, not always in screen format, from the show to tell the story). It was originally published by TokyoPop in 2006, and, if there are any credits as to who actually did the work to put this story into book form (choosing and placing the art, designing the pages, adapting the script, etc.), I wasn't able to find them. The TV show was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko -- I can tell you that much. (The book doesn't even say who wrote that particular episode -- though, luckily, Del Rey is a book publisher, rather than a comics publisher, so they don't add insult to injury by having the usual comics-publisher page of corporate suits cluttering up the front matter for no good reason.)
  • The Last Airbender, on the other hand, directly adapts the new movie into comics form, and it does have credits: the story is by Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus, and the art is by Joon Choi.
  • And last is The Last Airbender: Prequel: Zuko's Story, which also was written by Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus, with art by Nina Matsumoto (who also writes and draws the series Yokaiden for Del Rey). As the title baldly states, it's a prequel to the movie's story, focusing on the young antagonist Zuko.
Blood Song is the first in a new urban fantasy series by Cat Adams -- an open pen-name for the established and bestselling writing team C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who presumably wanted a shorter byline and didn't mind sharing -- about a half-vampire bodyguard in a world where supernatural creatures live openly. Tor published this in trade paperback on June 8th, and I hope all the Internet complainers who make snide comments about standard Urban Fantasy covers -- leather outfits, tramp stamps, heavy weaponry, and backsides all compulsory -- will note the subdued but spooky cover on this book and be compelled to read and love it.

I really should have read Brandon Sanderson before now -- I've known and been friendly with both his editor and his agent for close to twenty years now, and both of them (not to mention other people, economically unconnected with Sanderson's success) have burbled to me about how good he is at the epic fantasy thing -- but his books are just So Darn Big that it's always been easier to use them to scare off highwaymen or hurl at small animals instead. I have another opportunity now, since he's launching a new series of secondary-world doorstops with The Way of Kings, which clocks in at 1007 pages in bound-galley form. [1] Way of Kings is coming from Tor in August as a major hardcover, and those of you who prefer thousand-page bricks should be really, really happy.

The Office of Shadow is the second novel by Matthew Sturges (also known as a comics writer, working with Bill Willingham on Jack of Fables and House of Mystery), following Midwinter, to which it is a sequel. I haven't read the first book, but this one looks like a variation on the Cold War spy thriller, with the two warring powers being the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Faerie. Pyr published Office of Shadow in trade paperback last week; you should be able to find it right now wherever it is you prefer to buy books.

Also coming from Pyr -- in hardcover, on July 6th -- is Ian McDonald's new novel The Dervish House. It's another one of his aggressively global futures -- he's one of the few writers to think seriously about what the future would look like in other parts of the world, like India in River of Gods or Brasil in Brasyl -- set almost two decades from now in Istanbul. I'll fully admit that I need to read more McDonald -- every book of his I've gotten to is thoughtful, compelling, and deeply interesting -- so this will go onto my pile, and I will have the full intention of reading it (or maybe Desolation Road) Real Soon Now.

And last for this week is a webcomic collection from Del Rey: Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn by series creator Meredith Gran. I'll admit that I've only read bits of Octopus Pie so far -- it's the kind of series where you have to get to know the characters and their relationships to get the most out of it -- but I'm looking forward to diving into the book and finally getting a good handle on it. This book collects the first two years of the series, so there can be no better way to get into it. There Are No Stars in Brooklyn officially publishes tomorrow, so I suspect it will already be everywhere, if you want it right away.

[1] I know there are people who prefer long books, but I'm usually not one of them -- I have so many books I want to read, that I begrudge the extra time any of them take, since that time could be used to read two or three other books.
Listening to: Nicole Atkins & The Black Sea - Heavy Boots
via FoxyTunes